Unforbidden Pleasures

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9780374712716“Unforbidden Pleasures” was one of my favorite nonfiction books from ’16, which I did not have time to review. Adam Phillips is a great writer and is definitely my favorite psychoanalyst writer. Although this is far from his best (“On Flirtation” has yet to be usurped), all of his books are insightful and fun to read, and this one is no exception. Phillips has a Gladwellian talent for turning ideas around. He quotes Wilde: “A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true.” He gives his own observations the Wilde treatment and my one complaint about him is that sometimes it’s hard to understand his point, when every step he takes is eventually walked back or circled around.

In “Unforbidden Pleasures,” Phillips takes on self-criticism and restraint. The premise is self-knowledge is a kind of self-denial. Our self-criticism has become one of our greatest pleasures. From the beginning, humans exchange freedom for safety. “When we live in a state of unconscious obedience we don’t think of ourselves as being obedient, we think of ourselves as being realistic, or normal, or reasonable… The most pernicious obedience is the obedience we are unaware of.” I can’t say I’m not often confused and have to read his sentences twice. But it’s so worth it, because he writes amazing sentences like this: “Tragic heroes always underinterpret, are always emperors of one idea.” And this: “In broaching the possibility of being, in some way, against self-criticism, we have to imagine a world in which celebration is less suspect than criticism; in which the alternatives of celebration and criticism are seen as a determined narrowing of the repertoire; and in which we praise whatever we can.” Please don’t ask me to translate, as I don’t always know exactly what he means but I always really love what I think he saying.

Nicole Charbonnet

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