Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” and “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”
Few modern thinkers claim to know what’s best for everyone, but many weigh in on what’s strictly forbidden. Sigmund Freud most famously underscored how those things declared off-limits were always magnets for desire. People never bother to prohibit things they don’t want, he insisted, and the deepest taboos are expressions of our most intense longings. The idea of repression was the cornerstone of Freud’s psychoanalytic edifice. Investigating that which is most firmly repressed leads to understandings of what really drives a person.
Adam Phillips is a practicing psychoanalyst, but in his latest book, “Unforbidden Pleasures,” he means to guide us away from Freud’s focus on dark places of prohibition and toward a receptiveness to the ways we take pleasure in the people and things around us. “To forbid something is to make it unforgettable . . . to coerce attention and to guarantee interest,” Phillips writes. Instead of requiring people to remember what they must never do, what if one instead helped them develop capacities to do the things that bring them satisfaction? Following Oscar Wilde, Phillips encourages his readers to explore new habits and possibilities without worrying too much about violating rules, or even being consistent with ourselves. “Once we start having it both ways we can see how many ways there may be.”
This sunny approach opposes Freud’s pessimism about our conflicted and violent desires that fight against one another and against the world. It is also far removed from American psychology’s recent notions that happiness is gained by learning to feel better about ourselves and the way things are. Phillips wants us not necessarily to be more satisfied with the status quo but to be more open to the changes already in the air around us. He quotes the great American philosopher Stanley Cavell, who writes that we “want the world and want it to change.”
Psychoanalysis traditionally “involves talking about what we must not do, with a view to reconsidering whether or not we should do it.” But from Phillips’s perspective, following the rules is overrated.
When we can give up our rules and our wounds, we are in the territory of the unforbidden. Here we no longer talk about those things we wouldn’t dream of doing while longing to do them. Phillips would have us attend more to what we are already doing to find joy and comfort, without imagining ourselves as other, better human beings. “Promoting unforbidden pleasures,” Phillips suggests, “means finding new kinds of heroes and heroines (or dispensing with them).” Maybe our ordinary pleasures — our conversations, our friendships, our work and play — can sustain us without imagining them against a range of prohibited delights.
Phillips has, one might say, confidence in the ordinary. That’s why he is so taken with Hans Monderman’s experiment in some Dutch neighborhoods to remove traffic lights and replace them with traffic circles. The “counter-intuitive traffic engineer” saw a sharp decline in accidents when drivers no longer had stop and go signals telling them what to do and instead had to use their own judgment in shared social spaces. Monderman compared this to an ice skating rink on which the skaters figure out how to keep moving without colliding with one another.
As opposed to Garret Hardin’s famous “tragedy of the commons,” we might call this a comedy of the commons — or at least a romance of the common. Phillips loves the traffic engineer’s everyday example of liberation from authority. We move through the traffic circles of our lives without red lights or cops to tell us what we must not do. We get along well enough to keep circulating by deftly following rules of a game. There are unforbidden pleasures in the games we know how to play without referees.
Phillips wants us to see that we get stuck in a sorrowful dynamic of obedience and transgression when we assume that our deepest desires are for the most forbidden fruit. “The tyranny of the forbidden is not that it forbids, but that it tells us what we want — to do the forbidden thing. The unforbidden gives no orders,” he writes.
Phillips is part of a British psychoanalytic tradition that urges us toward a less tragic view of life than the one implied by Freud’s model of conflicting desires in league with tantalizing prohibitions. That model only promotes the wisdom of disillusionment and the resignation to dissatisfaction. Phillips argues that the idea that you can’t ever get what you really want has distracted us from the pleasures at hand — the joys of absorption, of accepting an invitation to play a game, of proceeding into the traffic circle. Rather than confronting moral rules that inspire both longing and fear, Phillips asks us to imagine a “life in which pleasure and terror were no longer inextricable.”
The rule of the forbidden exposes our faults because we want what we aren’t supposed to want. In the territory of the unforbidden, though, there is less self-criticism and guilt. Phillips believes that there are opportunities to travel beyond the contemporary cul de sacs of cynicism and nihilism.
It is a real pleasure to glide through philosophy, literature and psychoanalysis with Adam Phillips. Through his fine essays, one finds oneself paying attention to things that repay reflection without demanding allegiance to a new set of principles. You don’t have to read a rulebook about ice rinks before you strap on your skates; you don’t have to calculate your speed in advance. But as you learn to navigate alongside others, there are real pleasures to be found in the gliding. As Emerson said, “We all live amid surfaces, and the true art is to skate well on them.”
By Adam Phillips
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 198 pp. $25