Adam Phillips’ Prescription: Bring Up Brilliant Babies

The Beast in the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites , by Adam Phillips. Pantheon Books, 192 pages, $21.

If Freud had written a book called The Beast in the Nursery , the beast would no doubt have been sex. Adam Phillips’ beast in the nursery is language or, to put it more broadly, it’s the demand a child is faced with to do things other people do and to do those things the way other people do them. The first thing a child learns to stop doing is babbling, and, shoving off from the shores of childhood, we enter the sea of language. “The young child will be taught to speak, but he will also notice-or acknowledge through his determined disregard-that there are areas of experience, realms of feeling, that seem resistant to speech, where words might seem inappropriate or ill-suited. Areas in which, as an adult, he may find himself to be either virtually dumb or especially fluent but never exact or original (areas like sex, money, class, or privilege). From a psychoanalytic point of view, the glibness or the silence speak of baffled intensities; resistance is the sign of passion, of curiosities being tempered.”

Mr. Phillips’ target throughout this elegantly contentious book is what he calls “myths of progress, or so-called developmental achievement.” Certainly he is not opposed to children growing up and becoming adults- au contraire ; but he does find the culture’s unquestioned “commitment to adaptation” very “consoling.” More interesting to Mr. Phillips than training children to adapt and fit in is the possibility of helping someone to find the desire and capacity for something more unusual, namely the ability to move back and forth between the easy articulation of ordinary thoughts and the murkier realm of unclear, but perhaps unique, ideas. A shrink who spends his days with patients far too sick to be worried about having original ideas might argue that Mr. Phillips is writing for the elite, and that may well be the case. But some of us just can’t be told too often that there are good reasons to be different from other people.

The title chapter of this book is unusual for its tone of prescriptiveness; Mr. Phillips becomes with this book a prophet of originality. He is against the kind of therapeutic drive that aims to give people a dreary competence: “… we need to distinguish between vocabularies that are to be imitated … and vocabularies that invite transformation…. And we need to consider the preconditions-the kind of relationship-that sponsor or obstruct individual innovation.”

The first part, “The Interested Party,” is about sublimation, the unconscious device that keeps people interested in things and interested in their future. Mr. Phillips very delicately addresses the mysterious transition from childish hedonism to life as an adult. “Symbol formation, transitional phenomena, the law of the father, the Oedipus complex, the sharable sublimations of art-the message to the child is the same: There is no substitute, but you must find one; you must give something up with no guarantee that what you will get in its place will even be sufficient, let alone as good or better.” What the child gives up, among other things, Mr. Phillips quotes Freud describing in this “infamous passage” from Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality : “… a baby sinking back satiated from the breast and falling asleep with flushed cheeks and a blissful smile …” Mr. Phillips responds: “For the satisfied, speaking adult, the precursor and model for her satisfaction was a wordless state.” What we get in exchange for that “blissful smile”: words, words, words.

“A Stab at Hinting” is a section devoted to describing the differences between a hint and a demand, and the significance of that difference in psychoanalysis. (Hints are shown generally to be more helpful.) And “Just Rage” is a meditation on private morality. “Tell me what makes you enraged-what makes you feel truly diminished-and I will tell you what you believe or what you want to believe about yourself…. What, that is, you imagine you need to protect to sustain your love of life,” Mr. Phillips writes.

Mr. Phillips’ first book was a study of D.W. Winnicott, the brilliant London child psychiatrist. The short book offers powerful, concise descriptions of the most interesting, most lasting aspects of Winnicott’s fascinating work (my favorite Winnicott title: “Hate in the Countertransference”). It is a valuable work of homage, comparable to Richard Wollheim’s great study of Freud.

Mr. Phillips, who himself was working at the time as a child psychotherapist in a London hospital, next published a collection of essays called On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored and launched his career as an authority on phobias, the trouble with psychoanalysis and the composition of beautiful sentences. His epigrammatic, quotable style and his refusal to say anything ordinary was a delightful surprise; his intelligence and breadth of reading were astonishing. He quoted John Clare and Franz Kafka and Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ashbery, and he had an uncanny knack for locating Freud’s most pertinent material for his own use.

On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life was a collection of Mr. Phillips’ book reviews and miscellaneous published writings, and Terrors and Experts was his very critical analysis of psychoanalysis, specifically of the self-designation, implicitly or explicitly, by analysts as “experts” on certain human troubles. This was a strong argument by someone clearly fed up with the knowingness and the anti-intellectualism of “the psychoanalytic community.” Mr. Phillips knows as well as anyone that it is generally impossible to get a person, and especially an institution (often an orthodox one) to change by pointing out to him/it what he is/they are doing wrong, and the author is not very hopeful that his work will cause any professional improvements. Still, as criticism, the book is thrilling.

Monogamy , his next book, was an odd collection of quips and musings on the subject, amounting to just over a hundred pages, most of them half-blank. The style was the same, but there was no argument, no consecution and no power. There was an arrogance placed, like haiku, throughout the tight volume. I read it again, assuming I’d missed something.

But now I am happy to forget about what seemed like a lapse. In The Beast in the Nursery , Mr. Phillips’ authority once again rings loud and true. There is no one writing better than him about desire in all of its complexity, with all of its dark secrets and dark possibility, its necessity and compulsion and satiability.

The Beast in the Nursery is a difficult, cerebral and beautiful book, and describing it is not easy. The passionate argument that Mr. Phillips builds is his way of advocating what an artist, or a child, demonstrates naturally. As he says of children, “for whom indifference is never an option,” on the last page of his book: “They want more than they can have.” If they didn’t, they may never do what they haven’t already done.