Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips asks us to cast aside our desire for the forbidden and taboo, in favor of the society-approved pleasures readily available to us. His book Unforbidden Pleasures is a wandering exploration of this topic, unfortunately muddled by high-concept jargon and featuring very little practical application. In the acknowledgements section, Phillips reveals his writing approach: much of the book’s material was presented previously in the form of university lectures. This might explain the seemingly prolific listing of twenty books in the “Also by Adam Phillips” list; perhaps many of them are recycled anthologies of his existing powerpoints. Unless you’re deeply involved psychoanalysis field—in which case you’ve perhaps read plenty of Phillips already—steer clear of this one.
Unforbidden Pleasures is thick with heavy-handed industry speak that reads like a room crowded with PhD professors talking past each other. About halfway through, Phillips explains that “you can only understand anything that matters—dreams, neurotic symptoms, literature—by overinterpreting it; by seeing it from different aspects as the product of multiple impulses.” This is a thinly veiled self-justification for the utter lack of restraint in Phillips’ psychoanalytical meandering.
For all of his lofty hypotheses, there’s shockingly little by way of practical examples. In lieu of real-world illustration, the words “forbidden,” “pleasures,” and “unforbidden” repeatedly appear several times per page. They’re used so frequently that they gradually lose oomph, so you have to stop and work to tease out what a sentence is trying to communicate. More than halfway into the book and after several sections of this behavior, Phillips is audacious enough to begin a chapter titled, wait for it: “Unforbidden Pleasures.” This is far past the point of self parody.
When Phillips does offer concrete examples, the scope is frustratingly narrow. The central theme Phillips spends the most time on is sex with one’s mother. The Oedipal complex is the central temptation he’s deemed worthy of analysis, plus occasional mentions of pedophilia. Absent are references to stealing, lying, hallucinogenics, revenge, or gluttony. Nope, Phillips is solely concerned with assassinating your father and curling up with mum in the sack. Phillips asks us to cast away the allure of the
se forbidden pleasure s in favor of the unforbidden, but the most tangible example he offers is a morning cup of coffee. Even then, he suggests that someone who derives ample satisfaction from this readily available source is perhaps pathetic.
Phillips indulges heavily in a troubling method of building his ideas. He presents a historical or literary quote, selects a single word within it, then with tunnel vision presents an extended definition of said word. What follows are various tangents built upon the foundation of that overanalyzed definition. He builds lofty statements ultimately upon something nearly arbitrary—as if a ton of meaning was secretly packed into the quotation all along, and Phillips alone has the insight to tease it out. He cites Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who states “The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Phillips presents several synonyms and definitions of “catch,” then spends several subsequent pages meandering on the premise. He uses a lot of words to manufacture a subject matter that isn’t really there, and is based upon elements arbitrary and unuseful.
Unforbidden Pleasures narrowly avoids a zero star rating due to its occasional interesting tidbits, which a more focused author could use as a springboard for meaningful explorations. Phillips explores what constitutes a true artist, one who is “exemplary in his disregard of what others want from him…in the moment an artist makes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or amusing craftsman.” Sure, this premise is interesting and ripe for debate, but there’s the catch: Phillips is just relaying a 100+ year old quotation from Oscar Wilde. Moreover, how this topic eventually connects to the taboo and unforbidden is scarcely established.
Throughout 200 pages of circuitous statements and etymological definitions stretched far past their breaking point, the author urges us to forget about sex with our mothers—as if this is an epidemic more prevalent and devastating than the opioid crisis—and instead to enjoy hot beverages. At time of writing this, I’m sipping my Saturday coffee and am quite enjoying it, in no part due to Adam Phillips, thank you very much.
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