The Beast in the Nursery

David Futrelle reviews 'The Beast in the Nursery' by Adam Phillips

Topics: Books,

“The Beast In the Nursery” is not, despite its gently lurid title, a horror story. Or perhaps it is. The beast Adam Phillips refers to is not a dastardly child-snatcher but in fact the child himself, an imperious creature who will not be ignored. The real child-snatchers in this story are Sigmund Freud and his followers. The central story of psychoanalysis is the story of the beastly child — and the story of adults putting away childish things, rejecting infantile fantasies of omnipotence, accepting their inevitable defeat in the Oedipal struggle. In many ways, Phillips notes in his new collection of essays, contemporary psychoanalysis is a profession devoted to disenchantment.

Phillips (author of “Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored” and “Monogamy”) understands all too well the dangers of narcissistic fantasy. But at the same time he wonders if, in curing us from our overactive imaginations, contemporary psychoanalysts aren’t also making life a little grayer. And so Phillips gently nudges us toward a more expansive view of human possibility — rejecting the “kitsch seriousness” of many of his colleagues and offering “two cheers for what psychoanalysts call ‘omnipotence.’”

The child, as Freud himself observed, is a “virtuoso of desire.” Like Freud, Phillips seeks a sort of inspiration in what Freud called the “sexual theories of children,” those vaguely daft hypotheses children conjure up to explain the mysterious but compelling world of adult sexuality. Unlike, say, most parents, Freud didn’t simply dismiss such theories as nonsense — kids say the darndest things! “Although they go astray in a grotesque fashion,” he wrote of children’s sexual “theories,” “each one of them contains a fragment of real truth.” Indeed, Freud went on to liken the child’s overheated imaginings to the “strokes of genius” of adults attempting to uncover the secrets of a universe.

From Freud’s observation, Phillips builds his book. Children may be narcissistic, impossible and vaguely deranged, but they have more life than the rest of us. In putting away childish things, Phillips suggests, we need to be careful not to toss away what is most valuable in life, the mad passions that animate us and make life worth living in the first place.

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As always, Phillips prefers not to be too direct. In a chapter on hinting, Phillips suggests that vague and indirect hints are more valuable than outright orders, for hints allow us more room for imagination and improvisation. In another chapter, he writes about our childhood acquisition of language — and what we lose in the process.

Like Freud in his most optimistic moments, Phillips urges us “to be suspicious of clarity and to value what catches our attention, to find the plausible always slightly absurd, and to be in awe of the passions.” Phillips’ own writings are prime examples of what we can achieve if we put aside, at least for a moment, the overly sensible — and set out to discover what really moves us.

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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