Going Sane: Adam Phillips’s Mad, Sane World

London-based psychotherapist and writer Adam Phillips has been described as the “psychotherapist of the floating world”. Author of roughly 12 books including Winnicott; On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored; On Flirtation; and most recently, Intimacies with Leo Bersani, he is also the general editor of the new Penguin Modern Classics translations of Freud. In Going Sane (2005) he analyses the issues of sanity and madness in a bid to understand why it is that madness is a lot more interesting, and to sex up or reclaim “sanity” as a worthwhile ideal.

In a world that tends to romanticise madness, sanity becomes a “matter of moderation, self-control and mechanical rationality”. Whereas the mad are often seen as “in touch … with powers and forces and voices”, the sane can be pedestrian, bland and uninspiring. The mad, like Hamlet, get many of the best lines while the sane are soon forgotten and fade into obscurity. You only have to look at the world of celebrities to see that it is the Amy Winehouses or Britney Spears of this world who get the most attention, precisely because the media (and the public) are fascinated with successful people who are also flawed and have problems just like the rest of us.

There were aspects of Going Sane that I didn’t like, such as the “curious repetitiveness” described by one reviewer, the lack of a personal voice and the over-reliance on the first person plural (as in “we tend to” think this and that) which tends to assume a similarity in the way people think about things which often isn’t there. Phillips draws on a wealth of literature and other sources (the culture of Western civilisation) so it’s not fair to say that he isn’t reflecting on his own culture. It’s also not his aim in this book to draw out the different cultural influences into “mental illness” but I did wonder about how the book would be different if he considered issues of race, class, gender and culture.

There were many times in the book when I wished that Phillips would just give a practical example and ground his complex and clever ideas in a way that was more accessible. One reviewer described “Going Sane” as “too clever by far” and it was sometimes difficult to follow the paradoxical ideas around sanity and madness. But, as Phillips explains, the issues of sanity and madness are paradoxical in nature since one person’s sanity is easily identifiable by another as madness.

Phillips shows us how ambivalent we are as individuals about both madness and sanity. We want to be in touch with the energy of our infantile appetites, with their insatiable needs and aggression, but we also don’t want to be overwhelmed by our own appetites or hurt by those of others. As Gideon Lewis-Kraus points out in his review in the New York Times, “infantile madness is the inability to bear the frustration of unsatisfied desires”. Phillips also shows us how “sane sex” is a contradiction in terms. You need to be a bit “mad” (or out of control) to be swept away by lust and to give yourself over to sexual desire. (But uncontrolled sexual desire is also not very desirable.)

There are some extraordinarily good passages in the book. The section dealing with autism, schizophrenia and depression for example, which are three of the most difficult areas of current “madness” to deal with, is clear and helpful. Those suffering from autism and schizophrenia are “mad” because they can’t understand us and we can’t understand them and they are unable to form good human relationships. Depressives on the other hand lack desire, and so are unable to see how it is that they would want to continue living.

In “Sane Now”, Phillips explains the difference between “superficial” sanity and “deep” sanity:

Sanity as a supposedly superficial quality is a caricature of normalcy. This sane person, viewed as a kind of cartoon character, is thoroughly reasonable, thoughtful, considerate, and well-balanced; but he is also, by the same token, two-dimensional, soulless and uninspired, a triumph of conformism over idiosyncrasy. Sane here means so well adjusted as to have no character; so in apparent harmony with himself and others as to have no special life. For the superficially sane, sanity means a life without conflict, a life of relative peace, a life without malice or greed.”

“For the more deeply sane, whatever else sanity might be, it is a container of madness, not a denier of it. This sanity, once again in its cartoon form, often bears the wisdom that accrues from hardships endured and conflicts forborne. This sane person has felt and acknowledged but not ultimately been overwhelmed by the rigours of his nature. His sanity, such as it is, is both the cause and the consequence of not having conformed, of discovering his true nature through a refusal to comply. For the superficially sane, adaptation is their religion; for the deeply sane, adaptation is what corrupts them, and is experienced as a form of submission.”

I think that it is a brilliant distinction – between being superficially sane and being deeply sane. Obviously those of us who have been through our own troubles and have emerged, wiser, from the other side, would argue for the deeply sane alternative.

Some more quotes:

It is the capacity to be disturbed by our feelings — something that can happen to us in the making and the experience of artworks — and to be nourished and sustained by this disturbance that Winnicott is promoting.

Our modern and often realistic terrors about children’s vulnerability, about the terrible things that can be done to children, also mask our own terrors about what children can do to us. … All the modern prescriptive child-rearing literature is about how not to drive someone (the child) mad, and how not to be driven mad (by the child). Children would be very surprised, I think, to discover just how mad we think they are. And yet one of the messages we are given by writers as diverse as Wordsworth and Freud, as Blake and Dickens — and Winnicott’s account of what he calls “primitive selves” is perhaps the most compelling and contemporary example of this — is that while infants and children may be mad, it is this very madness, these “most intense feelings and … fearfully acute sensations” that are our life force. Without this first madness, without being able to sustain this emotional lifeline to our childhoods — to our most passionate selves — our lives begin to feel futile.

I think that one of the reasons that this book has been so well received is that Phillips shifts the focus from madness to sanity. As he says, “By keeping the debate so exclusively about madness, the mind doctors of the twentieth century, like the psychologists and moralists of the nineteenth century, have kept us (and themselves) in the dark about sanity”. Sanity at its most basic involves happiness and living a “good life”. This life involves contradictions, ambivalence and difficulty but it is better for having survived these. As Phillips says, “the deeply sane are rather more like tragic heroes and heroines who have survived their ordeals”.

I would still like to see more context and more examples but perhaps one of the benefits of this type of writing is that it provokes thought. When I finished Going Sane I wanted to have a discussion about how these issues work in practice. Phillips says that his goal with his books “is not to inform people, but to evoke things in them … I want the books to return you to your own thoughts”. The same could be said of good literature but perhaps that is also a cop-out which allows him to get away with being intellectual, safe in the knowledge that people will rise to the challenge of interpretation themselves.


2 Responses to Going Sane: Adam Phillips’s Mad, Sane World

  1. Litlove says:

    I like what Adam Phillips does so much that I never think to criticise him, so it was very interesting to read your review. I think your points are quite salient – he often doesn’t use examples, or if he does, he doesn’t explore their full potential. And he is very clever and very swift in his argumentation which is based on a middle-class, educated British point of view. But all of this is worth it for the good bits, I think!

  2. Pete says:

    Yes, I think I should have stated how much I admire his arguments and his clear, fluid style before making some criticisms. And I would also agree that his middle-class, educated, British point of view provides for some brilliant pieces of writing. I think the criticism is not aimed at being middle-class and educated (or British) but rather arguing for an awareness of how being just that impacts on conceptions of sanity and madness. Certainly in South Africa, you are much more likely to be labelled as “mentally ill” if you are poor and black than if you are rich and white. But I guess the rich are more likely to seek (and receive) treatment whereas the poor are more likely to be passed on to other forms of treatment (such as social work).

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