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Tuesday Book: Darwin and Freud confront the secular world

Darwin's Worms by Adam Phillips (Faber & Faber, pounds 7.99)
ADAM PHILLIPS thinks with his pen, the way few writers can. He is both suggestive and precise. As with Montaigne, his art is the rare one of the essay. And he thinks about what matters to us as sentient beings in a changing world. The fact that he is a psychotherapist whose writing is inflected by another great essayist - Freud - is not altogether incidental; but his Freud is so subtly a part of his thinking that he can tease him into question. He is free to roam and adventure. We come away exhilarated, if not altogether able to write the school report (or review), with its conclusion securely in place.

In this new, slim volume, the adventure is a double one. Not only does Phillips dare to put Darwin (whose star is at its zenith) and Freud (some would say the late and hardly lamented) side by side; he also dares to confront suffering, death and transience in a secular world.

For Phillips, Darwin and Freud are the great iconoclasts. They rob us of the possibility of redemption to situate us squarely in nature: a careless nature, ceaselessly fertile but to no discernible end. For both, death is the irrevocable end to the plot of life.

Darwin may think of species, Freud of individuals, but Darwin's nature and Freud's human nature are both spheres of war: a bewildering terrain of struggle and pain. For both, their discoveries came against the grain. They had to suffer the conclusions to which their observations led them.

The consolations Darwin and Freud fashioned out of the debris of nature is Phillips's subject. He interrogates them both for their "redescriptions of happiness", the satisfactions they somehow managed to wrest from a world without preordained progress where ideals of absolute knowledge and pure goodness are just so many blind spots. He wants to understand why, as reporters back from the daunting new world of countless extinctions and continuous change, they weren't simply struck dumb by grief.

In a sense, Phillips locates the answers by giving us a Freudian reading of Darwin and a Darwinian reading of Freud. In November 1837, the month in which he finished revising the diary of his momentous voyage on the Beagle, Darwin read the fourth in a series of papers to the Geological Society. Its subject was the formation of mould by earthworms. It was in these lowly worms, whose ceaseless labours transformed the land, that Darwin found solace from the killing fields he observed.

He rejoiced in the worms' prodigious work of digestion: though it was simply undertaken to survive, it had the contingent benefit of preserving the archeological past, and preparing the ground for the growth of seedlings. These silent toilers created a hospitable world. Is it too much of a leap to see in Darwin's humble worms a metaphor for Phillips's view of the work of the psychoanalyst, who digests words in order to turn up lost objects and prepare the ground for growth?

When Phillips turns to Freud, it is death that is his (and life's) organising principle; that, and the paradoxical antipathy to biography of a man whose invention - psychoanalysis - would seem to be its close kin. By meditating on Freud's unruly death instinct - which arose out of his observation that patients so often seemed to act against their own best interests - Phillips leads us to confront the possibility that the stereotype of self-knowledge through analysis is a fiction that Freud himself ironically subverted.

Biography, in its insistence on coherence, denies the riddle of life, which may be that we are simply creatures who want to die in our own fashion. Finding pleasure in transience, becoming "good losers", prepares us for that.

Freud and Darwin both found their best inspiration in the traces of what had not yet altogether disappeared: the fossil record, the half-remembered dream or memory. It may not be much, Phillips seems to be saying, but it brings interest and gives heft to our inevitable dying.

Darwin's Worms reads like an elegy. What gives it particular force is the vivid sense that in arguing pleasure out of transience, Phillips is arguing with himself. In that struggle (which is also the conflictual world Darwin and Freud inhabit) lies part of the life of these brilliant essays. Like Montaigne's, they offer clues on how we may wisely live and wisely die.

The writer's family memoir, `Losing the Dead', is published by Chatto