Review by Randy Rosenthal
The basis of morality is built around what we cannot do. Thou shall not. Thus the moral narrative of our life has been designed around what is forbidden. It’s a narrative that tells us we want to do forbidden things. We want to do things that are dangerous, to ourselves and others, and so we need to be kept from doing them. That’s why there are laws and rules given by some arbitrary authority figure—the government, the church, our parents. As children we’re taught to obey these authorities, to submit to things we may not necessarily agree with. And this submission eventually causes us to feel resentment, because it gives us the sense that we’re forbidden from doing what we really want to do. It causes us to suspect that what is forbidden keeps us from becoming who we really are, and that there are pleasures we are being denied.
What psychoanalyst Adam Phillips adds to this conversation is that there are unforbidden pleasures, the permitted pleasures that are often overlooked when we focus on the pleasures that are forbidden.
Adam Phillips is perhaps the most aphoristic author writing today. He might be the most aphoristic writer since Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzsche. And so it’s fitting that Phillips focuses on the ideas of Wilde and Nietzsche in his newest book, Unforbidden Pleasures. Like his literary ancestors, Phillips’s writing is as provocative as it is quotable: “We make sense of our lives in order to be free not to have to make sense,” he wrote in a previous book, Missing Out, in which he argued that it is the unexamined life that is worth living. We shouldn’t examine our life in order to make sure we’re getting everything we possible can out of it. Animals live without goals or meaning. Only humans search for the meaning of life. Only humans need a reason to live. We have to life for something. But in Forbidden Pleasures Phillips asks, “Why does living involve living for?” And his answer is because we have our moral narrative all wrong.
Phillips starts the book with Wilde’s quip that the problem with socialism was that it took up too many evenings. This reminds us “there may always be things we care about more than the things we care about most,” and that “whatever we permit ourselves we are forbidding ourselves something else.” Building from here, Phillips puts a thorn in the foot of the moralist by saying we take pleasure in denying ourselves pleasure. If this weren’t true, we would not so easily follow the rules. Obedience itself gives us pleasure—it is one of the unforbidden pleasures. An unforbidden pleasure is a pleasure “that gives us something by forbidding us something else—something often of alternate value.” Self-criticism is another, because “what begins as obedience ends as self-criticism.”
We’re allowed to indulge in these pleasures because they keep us from indulging in forbidden pleasures. Unforbidden pleasures do not cause guilt. “When we do forbidden things,” Phillips writes, “we often have to give an account of ourselves to ourselves and to others; when we do unforbidden things nothing, apparently, needs to be said.” And so these unforbidden pleasures of obedience and self-criticism are allowed to develop, eventually becoming so strong they determine our personality, by drawing a line between what we may do and what we may want to do. In other words, we define ourselves by what we do not do. These unforbidden pleasures have kept us from experimenting with forbidden pleasures, pushing what we may really desire (or think we desire) down into the deep dark hiding places of our mind. And this suppression creates the knotty kind of complexes that psychoanalysts like Phillips aim to untangle. (As he wrote in Missing Out, “The aim of psychoanalysis is not to cure people but to show them that there is nothing wrong with them.”)
But there are many unforbidden pleasures that are healthy and harmless. In fact, most pleasures are unforbidden. Reading, thinking, eating, listening to music, conversing with friends, talking a walk through the woods, being kind, these are all great pleasures. Yet perhaps because they are unforbidden, we feel they’re not good enough:
If one of my greatest pleasures in life is my morning coffee, am I, in some sense, a rather pathetic person, too starkly, as people used to say, bourgeois? If being as kind as possible gives me the life I want, am I some kind of weakling, merely part of what Nietzsche called a ‘slave religion’? If I prefer friendship, or political activism, to sexual relationships or sexual encounters, am I just inhibited?
We feel these simple pleasures are somehow lacking because the moral narrative of our life has been designed around forbidden pleasures—the narrative that tells us we want to do forbidden things. Yet Phillips thinks that unforbidden pleasures have something more to tell us about pleasure than the forbidden ones. By refocusing our concept of morality on these unforbidden pleasures, Phillips argues, we can drastically alter our lives to be more interesting, and indeed more pleasurable.
How exactly this is to be done is vague, but that doesn’t matter—like most of Phillips’s books, Unforbidden Pleasures is a fun and thought-provoking read. And it will provide you with some witty aphorisms to quote at dinner parties.