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

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

The main entrance to the BBC headquarters in London
TV & Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash
    I would never quit Labour, says Liz Kendall

    I would never quit party, says Liz Kendall

    Latest on the Labour leadership contest
    Froome seals second Tour de France victory

    Never mind Pinot, it’s bubbly for Froome

    Second Tour de France victory all but sealed
    Oh really? How the 'lowest form of wit' makes people brighter and more creative

    The uses of sarcasm

    'Lowest form of wit' actually makes people brighter and more creative
    A magazine editor with no vanity, and lots of flair

    No vanity, but lots of flair

    A tribute to the magazine editor Ingrid Sischy
    Foraging: How the British rediscovered their taste for chasing after wild food

    In praise of foraging

    How the British rediscovered their taste for wild food