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.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in