Haunted by Kindnesses

Michael Wood

  • Going Sane by Adam Phillips
    Hamish Hamilton, 245 pp, £14.99, February 2005, ISBN 0 241 14209 1

‘It is, and is not,’ Ezra Pound wrote in a short poem called ‘Sub Mare’, ‘I am sane enough.’ What ‘is, and is not’ is the eerie landscape of the piece, a shifting underwater place; ‘sane enough’ is designed to allay but not entirely disperse our suspicions. It means the speaker is sane enough for the job in hand, which is the declaration of a set of uncertain feelings: just about sane enough, but not solidly, reliably sane; and probably not sane enough to pass any objective or official test. The chief character in Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno goes out and gets himself a certificate of sanity, hoping thereby to trump his father’s worries about his soundness of mind. The father weeps, and says: ‘Now I know you really are mad.’ Pound himself, later in life, was judged insane enough not to have to stand trial for treason (and not sane enough to be released from his hospital in Washington). For D.W. Winnicott and people who share his views, Adam Phillips writes in his new book, ‘the distinction between sanity and madness always has a question-mark over it.’

Phillips doesn’t want to get rid of the question-mark, but he thinks it helps give sanity a bad reputation, and like Pound invites us to think about what ‘sane enough’ means. He cites an American court ruling of 2003 that ordered a prisoner on death row to be ‘forcibly treated for psychosis which would make him sane enough to be executed’. We can leave aside the slight slippage in the Guardian’s wording, which Phillips is quoting and which allows us to wonder whether it’s the treatment or the psychosis that’s going to do the trick. As Phillips says, we know exactly what is meant. ‘“Sane enough to be executed” presumably means, in this context, sentient enough, responsible enough, guilty enough to experience the punishment as punishment rather than as something else.’

But what is it we know when we assume (in this case correctly) that we know what such a phrase means? There is an interesting use of ‘sane enough’ in Phillips’s earlier book The Beast in the Nursery. Here it suggests not a migration towards its opposite, or an identifiable level of awareness, but a form of stability, a fantasy about things and people remaining what they have always been:

Eager to shore up a sensible world with over-familiar objects, we are ruthlessly loyal to what we already know, to the past; or rather, to our always spurious omniscience about the past that allows us to treat it as the world we know . . . As though the past were full of recognisable objects; as though consensual reality was sane enough to keep us safe, or vice versa.

We note that what is sane enough here is reality, not a person. Phillips says something similar in the new book, when he remarks that ‘sanity keeps alive the idea of stability as a normal condition; but it also refers to whatever it is about ourselves that can weather change and transform it into new forms of reliability.’

Going Sane is about ‘just what we might lose if the word “sanity” no longer made sense to us’. ‘It is a strange irony,’ Phillips says, ‘that even though madness has terrorised us more now than ever before – or perhaps because it has – we have been unable to give persuasive accounts of what sanity might be.’ ‘If there are madnesses there should surely be sanities; and sanities that are not merely or simply the unlived lives of the supposedly sick and deranged.’

There are already several different and deeply interesting questions here. Do we know what we mean by sanity; what would we lose if we lost the use of the term; what sort of account can we give of the concept; and can we think of it as plural rather than single, the dead, monotonous opposite of multiple and fascinating madnesses? But Phillips himself doesn’t seem to think these questions are the right ones, or he isn’t convinced they are large or significant enough, since he keeps trying for different urgencies and rephrasing his concern. ‘What, in essence, is sanity?’ This is an entirely different issue, and probably not resolvable in any way that matters – precisely because of the shifting meanings of the word that Phillips is so good at spotting. ‘People have usually wondered whether Hamlet was mad, not whether he was sane.’ We start nodding our heads – but wait a minute. People can’t have wondered whether he was mad without at the same time wondering whether he was sane. To say that sanity can’t be thought of without a consideration of madness (and vice versa) is not to say, as Phillips fears it may be, that sanity is merely evacuated lunacy, the blank space left when the demons are gone. It is only to see how intimately the words are related to each other. He is right, of course, to suggest, as he does in Monogamy, that ‘we need to find a way of thinking about things that is not just a way of thinking of alternatives to them.’

‘Sanity seems to tell us very few stories about itself,’ Phillips says. True, but what if this is part of its modesty, or indeed its meaning and use? ‘Sanity . . . has never really had a vocabulary, has never made a name for itself . . . There are no films or novels that are about it, no television programmes that have much to do with it. No one is famous for their sanity.’ ‘The sane are not news . . . The sane, whoever and wherever they are, have never received the attention or concern they deserve.’ All this is true too, even if the idea of deserving attention is a bit odd, but the implication is close to the old complaint that the media never tell us about happiness, only about disasters. And indeed Phillips pretty much says this: ‘Violence in the street is more likely to stay with us, to haunt us . . . than, say, the more ordinary kindnesses of everyday life.’ The idea of being haunted by kindnesses is wonderfully attractive, but it’s hardly surprising that we’re not. Is this perhaps the problem? ‘We should be more surprised than we are that the prophets of sanity are so rare,’ he writes, ‘and that there is so little agreement about who they might be.’ How could we be surprised at all, and do we really want prophets of sanity – isn’t the very phrase an oxymoron? It’s suggestions like this one (and the prescriptive tone) that make me feel Phillips isn’t himself convinced he’s got the urgency of his theme across. Stories, vocabulary, a name, novels, films, television programmes, fame, news, attention, concern, haunting, prophets, agreement. This certainly looks like the big time, but it’s hard to see why our care for sanity would require any of these except the stories. Stories, as he says in Darwin’s Worms, about ‘the power of the contingencies we inhabit: our desire, our childhood and our chances’.

But Phillips actually wants (some of the time) definitions too, and even diagnoses: ‘Sanities should be elaborated in the way that diagnoses of pathology are; they should be contested like syndromes, debated as to their causes and constitutions and outcomes, exactly as illnesses are.’ I’d like to think this last suggestion is a sly joke, but Phillips ends his book with ‘a blueprint for contemporary sanity’, a strange and courageous mixture of wisdom, eloquence, banality, subtlety and ‘something mawkish’ – the last phrase is one Phillips uses about R.D. Laing. I agree that sanity needs to be thought about and that we should be very badly off without it; but an account is not a definition and the bulk of this book persuasively shows that thinking about sanity and talking about it are two different things, with Phillips himself playing two different roles: that of the writer who shows us how to think about this difficult subject and that of the thinker who talks a little too much about it.

After his rather long cri de coeur about the under-representation of sanity, Phillips settles into faster movements and firmer shading. He gives us a brilliant brief history of the word ‘sanity’, from Hamlet to the early 20th century (the star witnesses are Dickens, Lamb and Orwell), and then explores the sanities we may associate, or should associate, with particular forms of madness: the madness of infancy, which some of us outgrow and, in some views, many of us outgrow too well; the madness of adolescence, ‘just a face we are going through’, as John Lennon once said; the madness of love, where the only sanity would be a proper respect for our folly and an attempt not to do harm; autism; schizophrenia; depression; and our failure to find any sanity in our hunger for money (‘money gives people an appetite for appetite’). Then he arrives at his blueprint.

There is some wonderful writing here, and there are invitations to thought on every page. I shall not soon forget locations/ locutions like ‘the no man’s land between the tantrum and the grudge’ or the proposition that ‘strung out between romance and pornography it is no longer clear what men and women want to use each other for.’ I’d like to be haunted by kindnesses but I’m going to be haunted instead by Phillips’s delicate and compassionate metaphors for what autism looks like and probably feels like: ‘the child literally seems to be holding himself together through his minute, obsessive forms of attention (as if concentrating to stop oneself disintegrating)’; ‘the autistic child lives as if there is no world, no meaning, no pleasure and nothing to do except those things they have to do to stave off the terror of being alive’; ‘the child . . . has to find a way of surviving himself; of living without the person who was there before the rupture.’ Phillips adds that ‘everyone re-enacts something of this in any separation,’ and maybe no one escapes the trauma of being separated from the mother’s body. This is like ‘being forced to live before you have a life to do it in’. He doesn’t want to glamorise madness and clearly marks his distance from the ‘anti-psychiatrists of the 1960s’, but there is a difference between glamour and the sheer distressful interest of these figures who so drastically hold the mirror up to normality. It’s not that sanity seems flat after this, but that it seems a form of freedom. Phillips uses the phrase ‘in thrall’ several times, and that seems just the right note. Not being in thrall in such contexts is not a merely negative condition: it is the chance of life, whatever life means.

As the book unfolds, sanity becomes less the object of a quest and more and more an ambiguous returning fiction, like the heroine of one of those old movies about good and bad twins, usually played by a single actress. ‘Sanity presents us with the possibility that we can compose what we are’; ‘the sane person is able to make choices’; ‘sanity is nothing if not the capacity and talent for self-recognition’; ‘sanity becomes the guardian of our preferred version of ourselves’; ‘the sane can . . . get on with people.’ And then, more questionably: ‘sanity means loving oneself in exactly the right way’; ‘sanity is often bound up with a capacity and a willingness to abide by the law’; ‘to be sane now . . . might be to take too many things for granted.’ More questionably still: ‘sanity . . . has come to mean compliance and submission’; ‘sanity . . . is like a version of pastoral, an idealised state of happy hierarchies and foolproof traditions.’ And then desperately: ‘sanity meant finding ways of not knowing about all the things that might drive you insane were you to know them’; ‘sanity is a story told by survivors’; ‘there is something about sanity . . . that oppresses by impoverishing the human spirit.’

Phillips doesn’t endorse all of these views, and is strongly attacking some of them; but their proliferation is what is really interesting, and the double story is always there. In both Laing and Orwell, for example, there is the bad sanity of conformity and the good sanity of the unbowed idiosyncratic self. ‘Sanity, in 1984, is another word for consenting to one’s own oppression.’ But when Winston Smith falls asleep murmuring ‘sanity is not statistical,’ as Phillips reminds us he does, he has another sanity in mind. ‘It is an important implication of 1984,’ Phillips writes, ‘that sanity and its definitions would not be so manipulable if they could be more freely and openly considered, if there were plans and guidelines for sanity that could be compared and contrasted.’ I don’t think this is true – freedom and openness are excellent things, but they don’t prevent manipulation, and plans and guidelines are an open invitation to it – but a near relative of this thought names Phillips’s project beautifully: ‘We will have to ask, whenever sanity is invoked, what is it being used to transform or to conceal, what is the conflict it is being used to resolve?’

‘Only in the detachment of an incurable complaint, in the sanity of near death’, Nabokov writes in Pnin, would his hero be able to contemplate the death of his childhood girlfriend in Buchenwald. ‘One had to forget – because one could not live with the thought.’ This is very different from the hearty sanity of the OED definition, as quoted by Phillips: ‘Health . . . wholesomeness . . . soundness of mind’. For Laing, Phillips says, sanity ‘is an antithetical word; it is used to argue mutually exclusive positions.’ The deepest suggestion of Going Sane, in spite of its prescriptive longings, is that the word is antithetical for all of us; the twins are not going to unite, and Phillips is right to say we need to understand their alternating plots much better.

Above all, perhaps, sanity is itself a project, often coercive, sometimes enabling. ‘All prescriptions for child-rearing,’ Phillips says, ‘are, albeit tacitly, projects to produce the sane child’ – I typed ‘the same child’ first time, so you can see where my prejudices lie. ‘That is to say, very few of the modern theories of child development take the child’s sanity for granted.’ And in one finely ironic passage, where the irony is tinged only with kindness, Phillips identifies three forms of sanity that the not too delusive, not too aggressive, not too self-sacrificing child is supposed to acquire: ‘acknowledging reality’, ‘niceness’ and ‘not betraying one’s desire’.

‘Perhaps, if we speak with rigorous exactness,’ Dr Johnson famously wrote in Rasselas, ‘no human mind is in its right state . . . All power of fancy over reason is a degree of insanity.’ At some time or other, the argument goes, we are all tyrannised by ‘airy notions’, but as long as our fancy is not entirely ungovernable, its occasional dominion won’t be noticed, and so we shall not be called mad. Sanity is at once unavailable as an ideal, rickety as a psychological fact and (with luck) moderately secure as a social performance. Echoing this social emphasis, Mrs Cadwallader in Middlemarch defines sanity as calling things by the ‘same names’ as others call them by, and is instantly told by Dorothea Brooke that this consensus isn’t always right:

Mrs Cadwallader said, privately: ‘You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them by. To be sure, for younger sons and women who have no money, it is a sort of provision to go mad: they are taken care of then. But you must not run into that. I dare say you are a little bored here with our good dowager; but think what a bore you might become yourself to your fellow-creatures if you were always playing tragedy queen and taking things sublimely. Sitting alone in that library at Lowick you may fancy yourself ruling the weather; you must get a few people round you who wouldn’t believe you if you told them. That is a good lowering medicine.’

‘I never called everything by the same name that all the people about me did,’ said Dorothea, stoutly.

‘But I suppose you have found out your mistake, my dear,’ said Mrs Cadwallader, ‘and that is a proof of sanity.’

Dorothea was aware of the sting, but it did not hurt her. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I still think that the greater part of the world is mistaken about many things. Surely one may be sane and yet think so, since the greater part of the world has often had to come round from its opinion.’

Mrs Cadwallader said no more on that point to Dorothea, but to her husband she remarked: ‘It will be well for her to marry again as soon as it is proper, if one could get her among the right people.’

We have to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, Phillips is telling us, and perhaps more than a little. And sometimes we have to exert ourselves to refuse the forms of sanity on offer. ‘What is at stake in sanity,’ Phillips says, ‘is whether we can be at home in the world,’ and he is wise enough, sane enough, to know that we don’t have to succeed in this enterprise to make it worth attempting. ‘It would be sane now to work out how we have become the only animals who can’t bear themselves; and how, if at all, we might become the animals who can.’ Among the things ‘the new sane person’ needs, the person of Phillips’s unequal blueprint, is ‘a new story about kindness’, and it is the great virtue of Phillips’s writing that he has been plentifully providing such stories since 1988, when he wrote in his book on Winnicott, citing the master himself, that ‘health is much more difficult to deal with than disease.’