ON BALANCE by Adam Phillips


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A set of beguiling essays from British psychoanalyst Phillips (Going Sane: Maps of Happiness, 2005, etc.).

After the first “Five Short Talks on Excess,” entertaining writing holds the other selections together, composed for various British periodicals. The pieces delve into such diverse topics as why we hold fundamentalist beliefs, the ways we gladly subvert ourselves and how the work of Diane Arbus, W.G. Sebald, Daniel Mendelsohn and W.H. Auden (“Forms of Inattention”) incites our childish sense of fear and exclusion. Phillips is fascinated by how little we know or trust ourselves, quoting Freud in his ego-and-id analogy—“the not precisely ideal situation of the rider being obliged to guide the horse along the path by which it itself wants to go.” In “Excess,” the author explores how our reaction to excess in other people—gluttony, greed, sex, religion—reveals a great deal about ourselves: “Tell me which kinds of excess fascinate you, tell me which kinds of excess appall you, and I will tell you who you are.” Excess arouses in us specters of frustration, as we have to control ourselves and are frustrated by deprivation. In “On What Is Fundamental,” Phillips takes a sober look at the so-called fanatic or extremist, driven “by the logic of his desire to defend tradition…forced by the logic of his desire to defend his childhood ethos.” Ambivalent and riven by contradictions, modern man resists altering his fundamental beliefs, but might not even know what those really are, or that they might prove destructive to him. In “Negative Capabilities,” Phillips, with the help of Shakespeare’s Richard III, turns “helplessness” into a positive moral motive and explores universal experiences of perfectionism and feeling lost.

Not quite a cohesive collection, but the author provides polished ponderables for all readers.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-374-21257-5
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2010


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