Unforbidden Pleasures

Unforbidden Pleasures

by Adam Phillips

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Much has been written of the forbidden pleasures. But what of the "unforbidden" pleasures?

Unforbidden Pleasures is the singular new book from Adam Phillips, the author of Missing Out, Going Sane, and On Balance. Here, with his signature insight and erudition, Phillips takes Oscar Wilde as a springboard for a deep dive into the meanings and importance of the unforbidden, from the fall of our "first parents," Adam and Eve, to the work of the great psychoanalytic thinkers.

Forbidden pleasures, he argues, are the ones we tend to think about, yet when you look into it, it is probable that we get as much pleasure, if not more, from unforbidden pleasures than from those that are taboo. And we may have underestimated just how restricted our restrictiveness, in thrall to the forbidden and its rules, may make us. An ambitious book that speaks to the precariousness of modern life, Unforbidden Pleasures explores the philosophical, psychological, and social dynamics that govern human desire and shape our everyday reality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374712716
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/17/2016
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 959,582
File size: 276 KB

About the Author

Adam Phillips is one of the foremost psychoanalysts practicing in the world today, and a visiting professor in the English department at the University of York. He is the author of many books, including On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored and On Balance. He is also the coauthor, with the historian Barbara Taylor, of On Kindness.
Adam Phillips is one of the foremost psychoanalysts practicing in the world today, and a visiting professor in the English department at the University of York. He is the author of many books, including On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored; and On Balance. He is also coauthor, with the historian Barbara Taylor, of On Kindness.

Read an Excerpt

Unforbidden Pleasures

By Adam Phillips

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Adam Phillips
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71271-6


Laying Down the Law

We seem never to ask 'Why do you know?' or 'How do you believe?'

J. L. Austin, 'Other Minds'


When Oscar Wilde famously said that the problem with socialism was that it took up too many evenings, he was reminding us that there may always be things we care about more than the things we care about most; and that, however much we care about something, there are always other things that we want to do. That, inevitably, there is something forbidding about socialism; it may want us to give up too much. Just like any of our commitments there is much that it excludes, and much that it rejects. Whatever we permit ourselves we are forbidding ourselves something else. All our ideals for ourselves – all our aims and aspirations and beliefs – are by definition restrictive. And that is their point and their purpose. But for Wilde, in this all too ordinary fact – we can't do everything, believe everything, love and desire everyone – there is a troubling and absurd selective inattention. We may be a little too keen to make the necessary sacrifices; we may relish giving things up. Indeed, we may do what we do because of what we have to give up in order to do it.

Something is made possible – or so it seems, Wilde intimated – by making many other things impossible; or even unthinkable, inconceivable. And yet we are strangely haunted by some of the things and people we are persuaded to exclude. To forbid something is to make it unforgettable (children must not cross the road without looking; adults must not think too much about sex, or the wrong kind of sex). At its best and at its worst to forbid is to coerce attention and to guarantee interest. It is to arrange a haunting. We must always be mindful, somewhere in ourselves, of what we have been forbidden, of what we have forbidden ourselves; being out of control is the way we tend to describe our doing of these forbidden things; though it does not follow that when we do unforbidden things we are in control. It is, in fact, only because we have created forbidden things that we have created the idea of being in control. Our ideas and experiences of pleasure have been muddled by being associated with control. So when we speak of unforbidden pleasures, we should note, we no longer need the language of control, of discipline and punishment. We can forget about those particular words. This is what Wilde was referring to when he wrote, in 'The Critic as Artist' (1891), 'We teach people how to remember, we never teach them how to grow.' We may not be able to teach people how to grow, but in order to grow there are things you need to be able to forget.

It is, of course, Wilde's point that socialism interferes with sociability. And that, by implication, we can use commitment, conviction, strong belief – and, Wilde will assert, morals and purposes – to narrow our minds (and stunt our growth). As though there is always a temptation, or a desire, to forget the multifariousness of our pleasures; to simplify (and sanitize) our hedonism in the service of traditional safeties; the forgetting of pleasures being one form that the renunciation of pleasure can take (the one formalized by psychoanalysis). As though we are always laying down the law for ourselves, and the law forces our attention (tells us what we should and shouldn't be looking at, who we should and shouldn't be listening to). We are taught to remember everything except our pleasures, Wilde implied. And this is where art comes in: 'All art is immoral,' Wilde said, and so it is in art that we recover our real pleasures; we recover everything morality forces us to renounce. What Wilde called 'recognising no position as final' means not taking the forbidders too seriously; that is, not taking them on their own terms. Significant changes in manners and morals – periods of significant change in personal and cultural history – always involve the redescription of previously forbidden desires. One way or another the forbidden becomes the less forbidden, or even the unforbidden, and so provides a different kind of pleasure (we are released into enjoying previously forbidden things in different ways: released into what Kathleen Stewart calls, in Ordinary Affects, a new 'tangle of potential connections'). And some forbidden pleasures remain just that, forbidden, because our lives would be intolerable otherwise. But we should, Wilde suggested, seek out the immoral in order to see what we think and feel about it, and this is where art comes in. We need to be able to think and talk about where our real enjoyment is, and why it might be where it is. We need to find out whether we can replace what we should enjoy with what we do enjoy.

Wilde wondered why we were so impressed by, so serious about, forbidden pleasures; why, that is to say, we might want to be intimidated by morality and tantalized by pleasure, and to so relish suffering the consequences of our renunciations. If we could believe, if we could live as if, as he put it, 'Aesthetics are higher than ethics ... Even a colour-sense is more important, in the development of the individual, than a sense of right and wrong,' he believed our lives would be better. We might, for example, be able to enjoy living in a world of unpredictable consequences, or of what Bernard Williams calls 'moral luck', if we preferred aesthetics to ethics. Ethics is prophetic, Wilde implied, in a way that aesthetics need not be; it is prescriptive, it aspires to determine causes and consequences. It attempts to predict the future. By telling us what our lives should be like, morality often claims to be telling us what our lives are really like (even though we are often left feeling that we are failing to live our lives as they really are). What would our lives be like, Wilde's heroes want us to imagine, if we found the forbidden a little less forbidding; if we used the idea of forbidden pleasure to think with, rather than to stop our selves thinking (or talking)? Perhaps the whole idea of forbidden pleasure brings out the worst in us. What could our lives be like if we took seriously what Walter Pater – Wilde's erstwhile aesthetic hero – wrote in his 1866 essay on Coleridge: 'Hard and abstract moralities are yielding to a more exact estimate of the subtlety and complexity of our life.' The implication being that the subtlety and complexity of our (modern) lives are not suited to hard and abstract moralities.

What became known as the Aesthetic Movement in England in the later nineteenth century – broadly speaking, the work of Pater and Wilde and their rewriting of the work of John Ruskin, John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold and the romanticism that preceded them – we can see now as, among other things, an attempt to change an inherited vocabulary; of finding a new way of describing what we are doing and not doing by following a rule (as though we might decide what we want to inherit, and what we want to do with our inheritance: in this case the inheritance of moral vocabularies, of rules and manners, and the forms of life they intend for us, as they speak on our behalf). 'The Aesthetic Movement,' David DeLaura wrote in Hebrew and Hellene in Victorian England, was 'a serious and respectable attempt to provide fullness of life to a society increasingly aware, as Arnold put it, that the immense inherited "system of institutions, established facts, accredited dogmas, customs, rules," fails to correspond to the wants of modern life.' An attempt by these late Victorians, as Arnold was to put it in his essay 'Democracy', 'to gain a more vivid sense of their own life and activity.' If, instead of the words 'good' or 'right' (or 'sacred') we use the words 'beautiful' or 'pleasurable' or 'enlivening' – though not, for Wilde, the other late-nineteenth-century candidates 'useful' or 'profitable' – how would our lives be different? Once the power of redescription is acknowledged, words like 'true', 'good', 'right', 'sacred' – and, of course, 'forbidden' – are among the first casualties. You change the conventional absolutes by changing the conventions. Another way of saying this – a less earnest, more casually pragmatic, way – is: forget certain words and use less familiar ones instead, and see what happens. If, as Pater wrote, habit is a form of failure, we should try out new habits, different ways of speaking.


'We are punished for our refusals,' Lord Henry Wotton says in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891); 'Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us ... The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. The glancing allusion to William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) is deliberate, Wilde being a keen reader of Blake: 'He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence.' In these familiar reversals of Wilde's – 'We are punished for our refusals'; 'the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it' – we are being shown language as an area of freedom, and this freedom as a certain kind of amusement. We have been bewitched not by a picture but by a way of putting things; by certain words in a certain order. Particular ways of performing our language have held us captive (habit can be a great deadener of pleasures, forbidden and otherwise). The language that formulates the forbidden can reformulate it: 'A Truth in art,' Wilde wrote in 'The Truth of Masks' (1891), 'is that whose contradictory is also true.' Once we start having it both ways we can see how many ways there may be. This is what Wilde wants to impress upon us. We have taken as orders things better heard as suggestions; we have sought information when we might have preferred evocation, or wanted facts when impressions may have been more conducive. Any given vocabulary is a secret and not so secret moralizer of experience, at once a curse and a blessing, a form of instruction. 'Wilde,' his biographer Richard Ellmann writes, 'was a moralist, in a school where Blake, Nietzsche, and even Freud were his fellows. The object of life is not to simplify it. As our conflicting impulses coincide, as our repressed feelings vie with our expressed ones, as our solid views disclose unexpected striations, we are all secret dramatists.' Even Ellmann, perhaps unsurprisingly, has recourse to what, for Wilde, was the old vocabulary: Wilde, he says, was a moralist (Ellmann uses Wilde's 'Aesthetics are higher than ethics' as the epigraph to his chapter on Dorian Gray). But the tradition that Ellmann creates for Wilde – and in this he was preceded by Harold Bloom – is instructive. We could construe each of these very different writers, from very different cultural traditions, as saying: laying down the law, any law, is stranger and crueller than it looks; the forbidden is always a provocation, whatever else it is; and therefore we should forget certain words and try to remember other ones instead. Extricate yourself, in so far as you can, from the vocabulary that doesn't suit you, that doesn't get you the life you want. Think of the languages you prefer; think of language as a pleasure and not a penance, as a celebration and not a sacrifice. Each of these writers has their key words, their own distinctive idiom, a vocabulary by which we recognize them; and each of these writers, not incidentally, had distinctive things to say about memory; about the useful, the purposeful, the pleasurable forgetting of words.

We want to narrow our minds – we want to speak and write in particular ways – because we want to set limits to our wanting, to our sense of possibility. So it is not incidental that when Wilde came to actually write about socialism, say, in 'The Soul of Man under Socialism' (1891), he writes about many other things as well, and mostly about Art and Individualism – about Art as Individualism – and about pleasure as the point of the Art and the Individualism that he capitalizes, and capitalizes on, in this extraordinary essay ('Socialism,' Wilde remarked in conversation, 'is enjoyment'). When he writes about socialism he wants to write about what he takes it that the socialists of his day were in danger of forgetting, and what indeed they should forget about. Intimating that the socialists of his day, in their ideological fervour, had misunderstood what kind of sociability socialism might, or could, entail. Or what kinds of things people might really enjoy doing together. 'The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is,' Wilde begins his essay,

undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely anyone at all escapes.

Living for others is not the same as living with others; indeed, living for others, Wilde suggested, might sabotage pleasurable coexistence. Wilde as a classicist would know that 'sordid' – in 'that sordid necessity of living for others' – came from the Latin sordidus, 'dirty', and was associated with filth and waste matter. A sordid necessity is then at once wasteful and contaminating. Living for others, which 'scarcely anyone at all escapes', means for Wilde a range of things, from the Christian ethic of self-sacrifice, through the altruism of utilitarianism (doing whatever is conducive to the greatest happiness of the greatest number), to the more modern-sounding notion of simply being what others want us to be; these others to whom we wish to conform being specific and significant, and to some extent chosen (Nietzsche, another critic of Christian altruism, wrote in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), 'Please unlearn this "for", you creators: it is precisely your virtue that you shall do no thing for'). The phrase 'living for others' suggests that we can live on behalf of other people's desires, or that we can live in their place or in place of them, or for their benefit, or for their very survival. That we can, as it were, forget ourselves in order to remember them, those others for whom we are living. As though every life was a sacrifice to both the previous generation and to our contemporaries in some infinite regress of obligation and indebtedness (Freud, of course, would write in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930) of societies as profoundly and necessarily compromising for the individual and her desire). 'Living for others', with its myriad associations and connotations, is, we might say, integral to the moral vocabulary Wilde inherited; what do these others that we are living for forbid, and encourage? Which others are we living for, and why? If we are not living for others, what or who are we living for? Why does living involve living for? What is it about life – the then modern life – that required justification, or reasons, or foundations, or endorsements? Is it possible that we might begin to believe that there is nothing or no one to live for? And how, if at all, would we live then? These are the kinds of questions that certain ways of using the inherited vocabulary might dissuade us from asking (and that Blake, Nietzsche, Freud, Wilde and many others were asking). What have we got to do with other people? And what do we really enjoy doing with them?

In Wilde's pagan socialism no one would be compliant or servile or modest. They would be, in the very best sense, self-centred, there being no other real centre from which they could live ('For out of ourselves we can never pass,' Wilde wrote in 'The Critic as Artist', 'nor can there be in creation what in the creator was not'; the creator and creation here secularizing and parodying what Wilde took to be the increasingly outworn vocabulary of Christianity: Christianity being a language – despite, or because of, his youthful flirtation with Catholicism – he found it intermittently more difficult to speak with conviction). In Wilde's socialism the artist is exemplary, and exemplary in his disregard of what others want from him. One thing the others want from him being a certain way of talking and writing. What Wilde often referred to as 'Public Opinion' in 'The Soul of Man under Socialism' is always laying down the law; public opinion being defined by Wilde as, 'an attempt to organize the ignorance of the community, and to elevate it to the dignity of physical force'. It is the being forcefully organized that Wilde resents as much as the ignorance cultivated. 'Whenever a community or a powerful section of a community, or a government of any kind, attempts to dictate to the artist what he is to do,' he wrote,

Art either entirely vanishes, or becomes stereotyped, or degenerates into a low and ignoble form of craft. A work of art is the unique result of a unique temperament. Its beauty comes from the fact that the author is what he is. It has nothing to do with the fact that other people want what they want. Indeed, the moment that an artist takes notice of what other people want, and tries to supply the demand, he ceases to be an artist, and becomes a dull or an amusing craftsman, an honest or a dishonest tradesman. He has no further claim to be considered as an artist. Art is the most intense mode of Individualism that the world has known. I am inclined to say that it is the only real mode of Individualism that the world has known ... alone, without any reference to his neighbours, without any interference, the artist can fashion a beautiful thing; and if he does not do it solely for his own pleasure, he is not an artist at all.

This, of course, is not a fashionable view, at least not in universities, nor among socialists. It was a view, paradoxically, that would ultimately be exploited by a voracious art market. But what I am interested in here, both historically and psychologically, is what Wilde took to be the preconditions for both Art and Individualism: turning a blind eye to other people and what they want (in his wonderful poem 'The Notebooks of Robinson Crusoe', Ian Crichton Smith writes, 'Language is other people'). Wilde's artist does not ask the contemporary question, 'How can I make myself worth investing in?', but asks instead, 'What do I really want to make?' As Wilde put it further on in 'The Soul of Man under Socialism', 'A true artist takes no notice whatever of the public. The public to him are non-existent ...'; he makes art 'for his own pleasure, and has never asked the public what they wanted, has never cared to know what they wanted'. Wilde is so insistent, we might presume or conjecture, partly because he was all too aware of his own all too compromising desire to please; and of the predations of the market that were commodifying art at an unprecedented rate. The artist, for Wilde, becomes that strange, improbable creature, a law unto himself, supposedly untrammelled by the laws of others. People start to have fantasies about more private languages when the public languages don't do the trick. People start idealizing outlaws when the law is felt to be unduly excluding. The desire for freedom is the desire for new rules. And new rules mean new names for things.


Excerpted from Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips. Copyright © 2015 Adam Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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Table of Contents


1. Laying Down the Law 1
2. Tricks of Obedience 48
3. Against Self- Criticism 84
4. Unforbidden Pleasures 122
5. Life Itself 163

Coda 194

Acknowledgements 197

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