Complicated Detours

Frank Kermode

  • Darwin's Worms by Adam Phillips
    Faber, 148 pp, £7.99, November 1999, ISBN 0 571 20003 6

William Sherlock’s Practical Discourse concerning Death, published in 1689 and known familiarly as Sherlock on Death, was a bestseller in its day and long after. Dr Johnson commended Sherlock’s style as ‘very elegant’. There was a long tradition of ‘how to’ books about dying, and, as his fuller title suggests, Sherlock was offering a modern approach to the problem. I thought of Sherlock when reading this brief new book by Adam Phillips, which might well be entitled Phillips on Death, and could justly be described as very elegant.

Like Sherlock, Phillips thinks something should be done about death. We need to start thinking about it in a wholly different way, and with the help of Darwin and Freud he can get us started. He weaves the counsel of these sages together with much art, for it is part of his plan to make the contemplation of death an enjoyable, even a sublime, experience.

At the lowest practical level, Phillips advises us to regard death as a satisfactory as well as an inevitable terminus, and to stop wanting it to be other than it is, either by supposing it isn’t the end or by regarding it as something for which in one way or another we should live; as if lives were the material of fictions dependent on that end. He is keenly pro-life, and quotes, ultimately with approval, what John Cage said in response to a complaint that there was too much suffering in the world – namely, that on the contrary there was just the right amount. This is theodicy with God left out, or replaced by Nature. The argument here is that Darwin and Freud so redescribed nature that we ought to be able to forget the old regrets about transience and accept an ephemeral existence, suffering and all, as a source of joy.

For Freud, the neurotic’s project (and ‘neurotic is his jargon for an ordinary person’) is to have ‘the right amount of suffering’; they provide it themselves by feeling inescapable guilt on account of repressed desires. For Darwin, existence is a losing struggle against scarcity and extinction. But in the end these wise men tell us to be glad about this situation, to value existence though haunted by a knowledge of loss. They make life more bearable by redescribing its conditions, finding the sublime in the impermanent, and condemning as an enemy of life the very idea of immortality. Phillips wants as much as anything to acknowledge, even more fully and subtly than Freud himself did, the true force of that belated fiction, the death instinct, and to accept death as an ‘organising principle’.

This is to make the book more preachy than it is, but it does have a homiletic aspect, masked by the subtlety and force of the prose. Phillips has always liked to offer readers the chance to watch him thinking things over in his own stylish and epigrammatic way, and can often surprise them by making original a perception they know not to be as new as it sounds. Why do we expend so much of ourselves on lamentation, on whining about our condition? ‘After all, nothing else in nature seems so grief-stricken, or impressed by its own dismay.’ This is well said, the last phrase new and memorable, though the point is really the one Whitman made in more homely terms by contrasting people with animals, not one of which ‘is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth’. Here it sounds new partly because it is freshly, elegantly expressed, more because we are uncomfortable without some dismay and find it a strain to do without it. As Phillips puts it, we have ‘misconstrued our needs’.

His sages will help us to think of death as the exemplary fact, ‘the fact that lures us into fictions’ which we should not need since, rightly considered, the fact, unadorned, simply makes life intelligible. Darwin and Freud make death count in a new way by keeping it secular and finding a wholly secular, this-world language for it. We can be more than half in love with easeful death; correct thinking makes it an object of desire.

The chapter on Darwin concentrates on his studies, early and late, of the earthworm, his celebration of the incessant labour of the millions of creatures who make the earth inhabitable, ‘contingently hospitable’, by sustaining its fertility. This is the stuff of a new kind of epic, in which the gods and heroes have been levelled with worms: ‘Darwin,’ says Phillips, ‘wants to justify the ways of worms to Man.’ His delight in the worm is like that of an anthropologist discovering a new tribe.

Worms make possible the agricultural efforts of humanity. Through the bodies of worms the earth is reborn again and again. What difference would it make to our lives if we were to think seriously about worms? Darwin hints that we should have to revise our assumptions of hierarchy, our relation to God as well as to the worm, and we might be tempted to reconsider ideas of political and social order that reflect those assumptions. We should have to think again about our natural status, about how lucky we are that nature is ‘contingently hospitable’, even though there is nothing contingent about our inevitable extinction. What we have, and as it is the only thing to be glad of we should be glad of it, is the kind of life that the inevitability of extinction makes possible. As Wordsworth remarked, quite in the Phillips mode, we are called on to exercise our skill in living not while situated in some utopia

But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us – the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all.

That very world is the world of the contingently hospitable, and also of the earthworm, to whom, presumably, it is also hospitable in the same mode.

The second of Phillips’s this-worldly arguments concerns Freud but it starts out not from Oedipus but from Freud’s distaste for biography. He destroyed his early notes, years of work, in order, he said, to frustrate future biographers. He wanted to be enigmatic, the Sphinx not Oedipus. Moreover, he believed that biographers get everything wrong. He wanted to watch them going astray as they tackled his life without a hope of telling the truth about it, though the destruction of the papers suggests that he silently feared they might, with the aid of such evidence, get closer than he would like.

Above all, he wanted to be the sole possessor of his life story, of the secret truth about how he came to be what he was. No one else but the subject can tell that story and only the teller should have the right to tamper with it, which is something everybody does. In any case the truth cannot be told except obliquely, as on the couch, and biographers are not in the business of obliquity.

What tampers most successfully with the truth, by spoiling or stopping the story, is the death instinct – ‘that part of ourselves that determinedly wishes not to know’. Biography, for Freud, was ‘a monument to the belief that lives were there to be known and understood, rather than endlessly redescribed’. Phillips redescribes the death instinct, contesting Freud’s too nihilistic account of it. He describes it as an agent of happiness. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud observed that in earlier times it was as easy as it was necessary to die; but we now have to reach death by what he calls ‘complicated detours’, denying that it is the simple aim and end of life, wanting it to be coherent with the idiosyncratic story one tells of one’s history. It is in this sense that death is, to the unconscious, an object of desire.

Here there seem to be two distinct historical perspectives, one very long-term, reaching back to a primitive desire on the part of the animate to relapse into a primal inanimateness, the other quite short and requiring the invention of myths to explain what consciousness fears, even thinks unfair: survival beyond the conditions of survival imposed by nature. ‘Inexplicable thy justice seems,’ complains Milton’s Adam, still in the ‘delicious garden’ he must shortly leave, still not knowing what death means. But he says he would not fear insensibility: ‘how glad would [I] lay me down/As in my mother’s lap’ – a curious remark, since he is imagined to have had neither mother nor childhood, not at all an apt analysand. What he dreads is ‘deathless pain’, ‘a living death’.

Milton’s Adam is worth mentioning here as evidence that a strong pre-Freudian imagination could present a version of the death-wish while inhabiting, for the moment, a garden offering total, licit, sensuous pleasure, about to be lost for the sake of inexplicable justice, for the sake of a legalistic contract ostensibly drawn up by God but really by the guilt that necessitates all the complicated detours of our stories about life and death.

These include the stories of loss told by Freud and Darwin, stories made necessary by fossils, worms and coral, and by the denial of primitive desires. Death makes us sad, but maybe this sadness is, as Phillips suggests, merely a bad old habit, arising out of a refusal to live in the world as it is. His sages offer ways of breaking the habit, so we have the machinery to do so. And we are directed to the famous passage in Beyond the Pleasure Principle about the baby’s game of Fort-Da. By inventing a game he manages to get pleasure from having renounced his protest against the departure of his mother. Without the mother’s departure there would have been no game, no new pleasure. The child is not finding a substitute but an alternative. There is a difficult parallel in the process of mourning, which gives us an experience of transience with which we normally learn to deal. These absences give us pleasure, like the baby’s, and also allow us to practise for our own absence.

To write about that absence without writing about despair, ‘without the refuge of optimism’, without assuming that transience is intolerable, was what Darwin and Freud contrived to do. Phillips is forced to the philosophical conclusion that for them and also for him the only world that is possible must be the best of all possible worlds – Leibniz’s conclusion, though arrived at by another route. Leibniz made up the word ‘theodicy’ from the Greek words for ‘god’ and ‘justice’, and the point of this book is that we have no legitimate concern with either.

So this, in the end, is not even a modified theodicy: it is a Darwinian/Freudian naturalism. It belongs to a world in which reason, on the one hand, establishes the facts of natural transience and, on the other, urges us to believe that human conduct is motivated by desires and privations about which we tell ourselves lifetimes of lies. They deny us our happiness. This brave and subtle essay is a declaration of faith in the naturalist notion that we find that happiness here or nowhere, and will not find it here if we carry on being so wrong about death. We are left with the serious question whether this distinguished essay could, like Sherlock’s, be called a practical discourse.