August 14, 2006

Appetite and fear are inextricably connected...


Appetite and fear are inextricably connected; and all creatures are endangered by the fundamental project of meeting their needs. But the human creature meets his needs, in both senses; unlike every other animal. He must meet his needs in order to survive, and over time, he will have to become acquainted, too, with what he will learn to call his needs. And what he will meet, unlike any other animal, is the exorbitance, the hubris of his appetites. Indeed the stories he will be told about his appetite – explicitly in words, and implicitly in the way his appetite is responded to by other people – is that it is, at least potentially, way in excess of any object’s capacity to satisfy. He will be told, in short, that he is by nature greedy. He will discover, whether or not this is quite his experience, that he apparently always wants more than he can have; that his appetite, the lifeline that is his nature, that is at once so intimate and so obscure to him, can in the end drive him mad. He may be sane, but his appetite is not. This is what it is to be a human being; to be, at least at the outset, too demanding.

Satisfactions are of course possible but disappointment and disillusionment are unavoidable. At best one can develop a bearable sense of one’s limitations; at worst one is driven mad. Given one’s appetite – given the ways we have inherited of describing it – one becomes realistic, or one lives in the no man’s land of the tantrum and the grudge. To talk about appetite, in other words, is to talk about whatever it is that we have to complain about.

– Adam Phillips, Going Sane, p 101-102

All the new thinking, like all the old thinking, agrees that there is something catastrophic about being a person. The catastrophe is located in various places; in our being born at all, in our being condemned to death; in our vulnerability as organisms, or in our cruel injustices as political animals; in the scarcity of our natural resources, or in our greedy depredation of them; in our Fall, or in our hubris. But all these catastrophes, one way or another, are linked to our appetites, as creatures who want, and who are driven by, what is at once necessary and missing from our lives. Our wants may be ‘constructed’ – given form by the language available in the culture – but that we want is not in doubt. It is whether our wanting has catastrophe built into it - whether our wanting is such that ruinous frustration or ruinous aggression is inevitable; or is indeed a necessity to keep wanting on the go – or whether our wanting is made unbearable only by the ways in which it is responded to, that is now in question. The language of sanity and madness provides a vocabulary for asking and answering questions about appetite.

– Adam Phillips, Going Sane, p 120-121

The sane adult is protective – and not only of children, but of himself and others – in a way that avoids covertly undermining the strengths of those who are apparently in need of protection (‘The friends of the born nurse / Are always getting worse,’ as W.H. Auden wrote). The sane adult assumes that it is possible for people to get pleasure from who they happen to be, and that part of this pleasure is bound up with versions of self-reliance that are not merely a more or less bitter denial of a need for other people. The two most dispiriting forms of modern relationship are the protection racket and the sadomasochistic contract in which, respectively, one person’s strength depends on the other person’s weakness, or one person’s pleasure depends upon the other person’s suffering. The sane person’s project is to find more appealing ways of being weak and strong; or to find alternative pleasures to the pleasures of power and of helplessness. The way most people are prone to see what they call human nature now makes even the thought of alternative forms of pleasure and excitement sound hopelessly naïve. It would be part of the sane person’s sanity to want new forms of pleasure in which neither one’s kindness nor one’s excitement are overly compromised (one emblem of this might be those gay men who experiment in coming without getting an erection). The sane person knows that being able to only be a nice person is the death of sexual excitement; and that being able to only be nasty is too isolating.

– Adam Phillips, Going Sane, p 234-235


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