A probing exploration of the full meaning of sanity, conducted by British psychoanalyst and prolific author Phillips (Promises, Promises: Essays on Poetry and Psychoanalysis, 2002, etc.).
Although sanity is a word “with virtually no scientific credibility,” he writes in his preface, “it has become a necessary term.” Explaining what it is necessary for is the task Phillips sets for himself in this erudite work. Musing aloud, dipping and diving into literary and psychiatric sources, he investigates his subject from all angles. In part one, he looks at how sanity has been defined and used by writers including Shakespeare, Lamb, Dickens and Orwell; how it has been treated by various psychoanalysts, especially Melanie Klein and her followers; and how it has been largely overlooked in the sciences. Madness, it seems, is a far more alluring subject and has received far more attention. In part two, the author struggles with the elusive nature of sanity by looking at its natural absence in two periods of life, infancy and adolescence, and then by viewing it through the prism of childhood autism, schizophrenia and depression. What these three mental conditions reveal, Phillips contends, is that a sane person is intelligible about his/her wants; lives within some consensus of shared desires, meanings and forms of exchange; and possesses an appropriate self-regard. Rather surprisingly, he ends this section by turning to a discussion of what happens to our ideas about sanity when money plays a role. In part three, Phillips spells out what sanity could usefully be. Distinguishing between the superficially sane and the deeply sane, he describes both what it would be like to be deeply sane and what that might involve in terms of doing, feeling and wanting. It is, in essence, a recipe for being a human being.
Challenges the reader to reconsider the taken-for-granted notion that sanity is just another word for mental health.