Talking cures have their place, but psychoanalytic theory has faded into brain science. Adam Phillips's attempt to define sanity is beside the pointby Brenda Maddox / April 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Going Sane by Adam Phillips (Hamish Hamilton, £14.99)
Adam Phillips’s favourite pronoun is “we.” He assumes an audience of like-minded people who have read the same books and who warm to generalisations such as “we don’t think of babies as sane,” and “we have become the only animals who cannot bear themselves.”
In his latest book, Going Sane, this prolific psychoanalytic populariser develops the idea that “we” need a new definition of sanity. “We can’t quite work out how our lives would be better, or even different, if we were sane.”
Whom is he talking to? Not me. Certainly not in his claim that madness is artistically fascinating, that “sanity doesn’t quite come to life for us in the same way: it has no drama.” Tell that to any admirer of Leopold Bloom, the Dublin Jew who holds Ulysses together with his humane ordinariness. And what about Jane Eyre, sitting in the windowseat at Thornfield Hall while the upper classes frolic at charades? And Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? The honest life reasonably led is as much the essence of literature as the disquiet of Hamlet or the murderousness of Raskolnikov.
Phillips’s short book is full of other ex cathedra pronouncements such as: “The search for understanding is no more and no less than a fear of freedom for the sane adult.” He is striving for a new definition of sanity that will combine a conception of the good life with an acceptance that “everyone is anxious all the time.” Greed, destructiveness and confusion must be acknowledged. His new golden rule would be: “Humiliating another person is the worst thing we ever do.” But Phillips’s call for a new concept of sanity will not rally many troops.
What “we” do need is an understanding of how the brain works. The nature of consciousness is the most exciting unsolved scientific problem of the day. How is memory stored? How does vision work? What makes dreams?
In the last 20 years of his life, the Nobel laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the double helix of DNA, shifted his curiosity from molecular biology to brain science. Crick formulated the theory that consciousness lies in the interaction of neurons—nerve cells. “To understand the brain,” he says in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, “you must understand neurons and especially how vast numbers of them act together in parallel.”