Adam Phillips has been called “the Oliver Sacks of psychoanalysis,” and in his remarkable new book, Unforbidden Pleasures, he writes about agency and desire in an utterly transformative way. Here, Phillips discusses the tyranny of the Oedipus complex, Oscar Wilde, procrastination, and the new book with his editor, Ileene Smith.
Ileene Smith: Patti Smith said in Just Kids, “If you meet an obstacle, kick it in.” Am I correct in thinking that unforbidden pleasures are often interior, and that your point is that they don’t really require a kick, that they are low-hanging fruit, there for the taking?
Adam Phillips: I think the book is about the many ways in which forbidden pleasures have coerced our thinking and experiencing of pleasure. And one of the disarming and appealing things about unforbidden pleasures is that they are there for the taking. In a way they are pleasures without obstacles, except for or apart from the obstacle of our not having really considered their being of any major significance. So I think that part of the problem of unforbidden pleasures is their availability, their obviousness.
IS: Can you cite a few examples of unforbidden pleasures?
AP: The thing about examples is that there are too many of them. Again, this in itself might be quite revealing. Most of the pleasures of our lives, I think, are in fact unforbidden. The whole range from enjoying one’s coffee in the morning to walking outside on a sunny day. I think that there’s a huge range of unforbidden pleasures but they are partly invisible—making a list of them might almost sound banal. So I would say that most of our pleasures, most of our real enjoyments, are actually unforbidden pleasures.
IS: Where did the concept come from? Was it sparked in your consulting room?
AP: It came from a combination of things. One was in terms of the clinical work in my professional life—my interest in the tyranny of the Oedipus complex in psychoanalysis, and the tyranny therefore of the idea of forbidden incestuous desire, and the way in which my sense of psychoanalysis is that Freud discovered something extraordinary about pleasure, and in a way he partly reneged on it or abjured it so that he ended up talking really only about the formative effects of forbidden pleasure as a consequence of a kind of obsession with the father, and a kind of anxious disinterest in the relation of the mother—that whole pre-Oedipal stage of development.
So it seemed to me that the people I was seeing—I don’t really like to generalize about this—were sometimes as inhibited about unforbidden pleasures as about forbidden pleasures. One of the things I find myself doing in the therapy I do is enabling people to find out where their real enjoyment is. And being in some way surprised how difficult it is for people to discover what they really enjoy, having had so much enjoyment foisted upon them growing up. Everyone knows what they should like, what they should attend to, what they should be interested in. But it’s sometimes quite difficult to know what we are actually enjoying.
IS: Do you think the concept is generational? Would so-called millennials tend to approach unforbidden pleasures in a particular way?
AP: I find the generational question difficult to answer because I do think there are significant differences between the generations, and one of the difficulties is that it’s very hard to speak on behalf of another generation. Because for my generation and my class and group and nationality and so on, which has very much more to do with being a hippie as an adolescent, there was a very powerful sense that a) the authorities were excessively forbidding, and b) that in their forbiddingness they’d been extremely coercive and had narrowed our minds. When we were talking about free love nobody really believed that there was really free love, but lots of people did believe that they could be free to be more affectionate, more social, more communal, and more kind than we were led to believe.
IS: Where does Oscar Wilde fit in?
AP: Wilde seems to me to be two things: inexhaustibly interesting about pleasure and about how we approach forbidden pleasures. Wilde seems to intimate that our obsession with forbidden pleasure comes out of an anxiety about there being no pleasure [available to us] at all, as though we’ve got to do a lot of work to make pleasure exciting or enduring. Wilde shows us the way the forbidden both excites pleasure and shapes our interest in it. Secondarily, though, he shows us the incredible unforbidden pleasure of interesting conversation between people. In other words, he shows us that maybe our primary unforbidden pleasure is conversation, is exchange.
IS: That particular unforbidden pleasure seems to form the bedrock of your professional life. But there are also the solitary Wednesdays that you carve out of your impossibly busy schedule for writing. Would they qualify as unforbidden pleasures?
AP: Yes, I write on Wednesdays. It does feel to me like an unforbidden pleasure in the sense that I enjoy the ease of it, and the interest of it, and I enjoy the doing of it most in the sense that the writing is not the means to an end of publication or admiration, even though that really does matter for me. But the real pleasure is in the doing of it. And I think that may be another thing about some unforbidden pleasures—they’re not a means to an end. They may be means in themselves.
IS: So why do people procrastinate?
AP: I think it’s very likely that procrastination comes out of anxieties generated by the fear of pleasure. So it’s as though procrastination is the way we avoid and approach our pleasures at the same time. I think if we were less preoccupied by forbidden pleasure, which always brings with it both the fear and the pleasure and the terror of punishment, we would be less keen to procrastinate because we wouldn’t be so obsessed by avoidance, I think. So I think that there’s a sense in which by privileging the forbidden, we’ve terrorized ourselves about our pleasures.
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.
Ileene Smith is vice president and executive editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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