I admit to many flaws; stupidity usually isn’t one of them. However, there’s always a first time. And here it is: a slender book called Monogamy which has left me feeling really dumb.
Not that Adam Phillips, the author, isn’t a terrific writer. He is, he is! But I’ve had to reread each page of his book at least twice to figure out (most of) what he’s getting at. What seems evident to him is so much less evident to me that it’s hard for me to follow. On the first go-round anyway.
Phillips also leaves me dumbfounded because what he seems to be saying here does appear to be the way things are, or one of the ways things are. And my life might have been quite a bit different if I had been able to think about these things in the way he does.
19. In private life the word we is a pretension, an exaggeration of the word I. We is the wished-for I, the I as a gang, the I as somebody else as well. Coupledom can be so dismaying because the other person never really joins in. Or rather, they want exactly the same thing, but from a quite different point of view.
27. At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with; at its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused.
39. If sex brought us in to the family, it is also what breaks us out of the family. In other words, people leave home when what they have got to hide — their sexuality — either has to be hidden somewhere else, or when it is best shown somewhere else.
If you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nowhere to go. Which is one of the reasons why couples sometimes want to be totally honest with each other.
40. Every marriage is a blind date that makes you wonder what the alternatives are to a blind date.
45. Rules are ways of imagining what to do. Our personal infidelity rituals — the choreography of our affairs — are the parallel texts of our ‘marriages.’ Guilt, by reminding us what we mustn’t do, shows us what we may want; it shows us our moral sense, the difference between what we want, and what we want to want. Without the possibility of a double life there is no morality.
Is all this is making you cross and headachy? It shouldn’t. Monogamy is not prescriptive. It’s not expository. As you may already have noticed, it’s a collection of short — sometimes one-sentence — observations on its subject. What the French call apercus. There are only 121 of them. Lots of white space on each page. Lots of time to roll each around in your mind. No need to hurry on to the next. (Except perhaps out of curiosity.) You can open the book anywhere. Put it down anywhere. Go back and read some of it again before you’ve got to the end.
But let’s back up. Who is Adam Phillips? If you’re not British or in the shrinkage business, you may not have heard of him. Not being in either of those two categories, I hadn’t heard of him either. Then he was interviewed about a recent book of his in The Paris Review. (The book? Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.) What I read there whetted my appetite to learn more.
Phillips is not only an author but a prominent British psychoanalyst. He studied English literature at Oxford before becoming interested in psychoanalysis. (His particular interest was in children.) After finishing his analytic training, he worked in the National Health Service for seventeen years, and from 1990 until 1997 was principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London. But when he found the Health Service’s tightening bureaucratic demands growing too restrictive, he left to open a private practice in Notting Hill. He now treats adult patients four days a week and writes every Wednesday.
As a psychoanalyst, he has been a maverick, so that he’s been called “ludic and elusive and intellectually slippery.” He also declines to defend psychoanalysis as a science or field of academic study, preferring to think of it as “a set of stories that will sustain …. our appetite for life.” He has also said that for him, “psychoanalysis has always been of a piece with the various languages of literature — a kind of practical poetry.”
As a writer, his thinking has clearly been informed by his psychoanalytic practice with children. In addition, he’s been described by The (London) Times as “the Martin Amis of British psychoanalysis” for his “brilliantly amusing and often profoundly unsettling” work; and by John Banville as “one of the finest prose stylists in the language, an Emerson of our time.”
[He’s also, as shrinks go, photogenic — if that cuts any ice with you.]
It may be that I made a mistake in beginning with Monogamy. I picked it because it was short and sounded easy. (Ha!) Here are some of the other Phillips books I might have chosen instead. [And this isn’t the whole list. There’s even a new one on Freud’s life coming out this month. His Wednesdays are apparently quite productive!]
- On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life
- On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life
- Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape
- The Beast In the Nursery: On Curiosity and Other Appetites
- On Kindness
- On Balance
- Promises, Promises: Essays on Psychoanalysis and Literature
On second thought, Monogamy was not a mistake. Perhaps it’s the masochist still lingering in my depths even after twenty-four years of (non-consecutive) shrinkage. But stupid or no, I do find the book a keeper. Here’s some more. Maybe you too will develop a taste for it.
28. There is always the taken-for-granted relationship and the precarious relationship, the comforting routine and the exciting risk. The language won’t let us mix them up. We have safety and danger, habit and passion, love and lust, attachment and desire, marriage and affairs. We are not mixed up enough. In other words, we still have bodies and souls.
58. The point about trust is that it is impossible to establish. It is a risk masquerading as a promise. The question is not do you trust your partner? But do you know what they think trust is? And how would you go about finding out? And what might make you believe them? And what would make you trust your belief?
Trust is a word we have to put too much trust in.
60. Self-betrayal is a sentimental melodrama; a deification of our own better judgement, an adoration of shame. I am always true to myself, that is the problem. Who else could I be true to?
When I say that I have let myself down, I am boasting. I am the only person I cannot avoid being faithful to. My sexual relationship with myself, in other words, is a study in monogamy.
64. It is always flattering when a married person wants to have an affair with us; though we cannot help wondering exactly what will be compared with what. In fact, we become merely a comparison, just a good or bad imitation.
To resent this would be to believe that we could ever be anything else.
65. No one gets the relationship they deserve. For some people this is a cause of unending resentment, for some people it is the source of unending desire. And for some people the most important thing is that they have found something that doesn’t end.
69. There is always someone else who would love me more, understand me better, make me feel more sexually alive. This is the best justification we have for monogamy — and infidelity.
121. Monogamy and infidelity: the difference between making a promise and being promising.
51. Serial monogamy is a question not so much of quantity as of quality; a question not of how many but of the order; of how the plot hangs together. Of what kind of person seems to be telling the story.
53. The outlaw, the femme fatale, the heretic, the double agent, the pun — infidelity gets all the action. It has the glamour of the bad secret and the good lie. It travels because it has to, because it believes in elsewhere.
So what would we have to do to make monogamy glamorous? Or rather, what would we have to stop doing?
And how do I stop quoting? [Monogamy, you see, becomes addictive.] By reminding myself you can always get your own copy. Me, I’m going on to Promises, Promises (see above). That one is essays. Essays I can do. Apercus? I’m still working on my French.