Michael Dirda Reviews 'On Kindness,' by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, August 20, 2009


By Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 114 pp. $20

"On Kindness" is just a little over 100 pages long, but those pages are tightly packed with insights into our riven human heart.

More accurately, I should say "the human psyche," because one of the authors, Adam Phillips, is a distinguished psychoanalyst who has written about his work in scores of elegant essays collected in a dozen slender volumes, among them "Side Effects," "On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored" and "Going Sane." The other author, Barbara Taylor, is an award-winning historian whose books include "Mary Wollstonecraft and the Feminist Imagination" and "Eve and the New Jerusalem." How the pair actually worked together isn't explained, but the resulting text -- an essay in five chapters -- is seamless and a pleasure to read, though it does demand close attention.

"Most people, as they grow up now, secretly believe that kindness is a virtue of losers." But Phillips and Taylor show that kindness -- "the ability to bear the vulnerability of others, and therefore of oneself" -- is essential to our humanity. "Indeed it would be realistic to say that what we have in common is our vulnerability; it is the medium of contact between us, what we most fundamentally recognize in each other." What kindness does is "open us up to the world (and worlds) of other people in ways that we both long for and dread." I'll come back to that "dread."

In their second chapter, the authors offer a short history of kindness. According to the philosopher Seneca, the Epicureans believed that a man sought friends for purely instrumental reasons, "for the purpose of having someone to come and sit beside his bed when he is ill or come to his rescue when he is hard up or thrown into chains." But the wise man, countered this Roman Stoic, wanted friends "so that he may have someone by whose sickbed he himself may sit, or whom he may himself release when that person is held prisoner by hostile hands." In other words, kindness isn't simply some kind of duty; it is needed for our own inner fulfillment. "No one," concluded Seneca, "can live a happy life if he turns everything to his own purposes. Live for others if you want to live for yourself."

Later, Christianity emphasized the obligation of charity to others -- while viewing much of humanity as sinful and damned and sometimes promulgating a highly sectarian view of fellow feeling: "Brotherly love must embrace only brethren," declared one English bishop. In the 17th century the influential philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously concluded that life was "warre of alle against alle." Only the oft-maligned Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized that our natural impulses are good and generous toward others and that, in Phillips and Taylor's words, "the human self is no isolate but a social entity, formed through relations with others," so that "kindness is part of the fabric of human subjectivity."

Rousseau emphasized that people needed to be kind to be fully human, but Freud sexualized and darkened the whole dynamic. To a Freudian "the very thing that draws people to each other (sexual desire) also generates insupportable rivalries and antagonisms." As Phillips and Taylor neatly observe, "Whatever else it is, psychoanalysis is an account of how and why modern people are so frightened of each other." To begin with, our interior lives are battlefields. "There is not going to be any consensus inside us about what we want and what we need; there is only going to be a coexistence of competing claims, the conflict of rival pleasures." Chapters 4 and 5 of "On Kindness" then examine more closely the kindness-aggression dialectic promulgated by Freud and English psychiatrist D.D. Winnicott.

At its heart lies the mother-child relationship. As an infant grows up, he or she settles into a balancing act between kindness and ruthlessness. Children require the affection and attention of their mother to feel secure, yet for their own self-realization need to be cruel enough to break away from her. (Phillips and Taylor don't directly address the parental double-bind, which is inherently tragic: You give yourself emotionally to your children, but ultimately if they aren't able to leave home, you've failed them.) From here the authors segue into a riveting discussion of adult sexual desire and jealousy.

Sexual jealousy results from our childlike need for security. "The fundamental threat to our survival is, for want of a better way of putting it, loss of love, the threatened or actual loss of what our lives depend upon, which begins most urgently in childhood." For the strict Freudian, though, love itself is a grim business: "Other people exist for the individual only insofar as they are the means, the instruments, of his own gratification. . . . Other people are there to populate our masturbation fantasies."

Nonetheless, our libido is always balancing the tugs of love and hate. "Our sexual, sensual desire as adolescents and adults is guided by the affectionate desires of childhood. If we have sexual relations with people for whom we feel affection, it is as though, in our unconscious, so to speak, we are committing incest. So we do something that psychoanalysts call 'splitting': There are people we feel affection for, and there are people with whom we have sex, and ne'er the twain shall meet."

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