Monday, June 28, 2010

Darwin's Worms

Nature is, as it were, always on its own side. So when people are destructive or self-destructive, they are not acting against their own nature. They are just being natural in ways that we don't like. -- Adam Phillips, Darwin's Worms Review; 

His gift for finding the "words to say it" has become one of the hallmarks of Adam Phillips's writing. Described as a "philosopher of happiness" and a therapist who "writes as well as he doctors" Phillips has done much to bring psychoanalysis into contact with the broad spectrum of cultural life (the "larger world of words", of literature and story, as he puts it at the beginning of On Flirtation in 1994). Following his exploration of the child as a figure of life and passion in The Beast in the Nursery (1998), in Darwin's Worms Phillips travels to the opposite end of the line: suffering, loss, mortality are the key themes in this reading of Darwin's lifelong passion for the earthworm and Freud's equally longstanding distaste for the idea of biography (the pretence at a coherent and narratable life). Weaving a complex and persuasive tale around his two apparently disparate subjects, Phillips finds Darwin and Freud united in their sceptically secular attitude towards the "higher things" of this world. He suggests that both men "recycle what their cultures try to disown": the creative achievement of the lowly worm, the grief which both keeps people going and drives them to death. That paradox in turn drives this book: its sometimes unexpected interpretation of the constraints and transience of human life as a pull towards the future--and a different way of thinking about death. --Vicky Lebeau

Book Description: 

Adam Phillips has been called the 'psychotherapist of the floating world' and 'the closest thing we have to a philosopher of happiness'. In this extraordinary book he takes a look, via Freud and Darwin, at endings - at mortality, extinction and death. Darwin and Freud took God out of the big picture, leaving nothing between mankind and nature. Their ideas were met with righteous indignation. But today, whether or not we read Darwin and Freud, we speak a version of their languages. Most of us think of childhood and sexuality as sources of suffering, and we picture ourselves as animals struggling competitively for survival. Yet, as Adam Phillips argues, we are not merely trapped in a world of continuous loss. Taking as his examples Darwin's life-long fascination in lowly earthworms, and Freud's life-long antipathy to grubbing biographers, he unexpectedly finds much to celebrate. For both of these writers are interested, above all, in how destruction conserves life. They take their inspiration from fossils or from half-remembered dreams, and show how life is about what can be done with these humble remnants from the past. Darwin and Freud render aging, accident and death integral, not alien, to our sense of ourselves. They teach us the art of transience.