Taming the beast

The Beast in the Nursery by Adam Phillips, Faber and Faber, pp. 133

ADAM PHILLIPS, CHILD PSYCHOANALYST and essayist, has a talent for titles. That the author of On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored should call his latest collection of psychoanalytic meditations The Beast in the Nursery, seems fitting. For Freud himself certainly discovered a beast lurking in every nursery and made it clear that this beast had surprising sexual propensities. Indeed, in arriving at his theory of infantile sexuality, Freud assumed that children were full of desires which were, quite literally, ‘beastly’.

His inspiration for this was the nineteenth-century biological theory which maintained that children developed by recapitulating earlier phases of animal evolution. Since very primitive organisms had no penises and used the mouth as their reproductive organ, sex was supposed originally to be a kind of ‘higher eating’. More complex organisms such as reptiles and birds, practised a form of cloacal intercourse, described by the biologist B
Ølsche as ‘anus pressed against anus’. Only with the advent of crocodiles and other saurians did animals really begin to get down to it and replace these primitive sexual modes with the penis and vagina.

If nineteenth-century recapitulation theory was correct, as Freud assumed it to be, it followed that young children would rapidly evolve through primitive animal forms of sexuality before arriving at full genital sexuality. In keeping with this hypothesis Freud postulated that all children developed through an oral and an anal stage of sexuality before becoming phallic. A failure to progress normally through these stages might result in sexual ‘perversion’. That Freud himself saw sexual perversions as a particular kind of beastliness is suggested by one of the most revealing of his many ex cathedra pronouncements: ‘Among animals,’ he wrote, ‘one can find, so to speak, in petrified form, every species of perversion of the [human] sexual organisation.’

Yet, as a more cautious thinker might have anticipated, nineteenth-century biological speculations about recapitulation proved not to be correct. Since a large part of the cathedral of psychoanalysis had actually been built on the shifting sands of these speculations it rapidly began to sink into its own foundations. Freud himself attempted to underpin his creation by stoically claiming that the twentieth-century biologists were ‘all wrong’, but the cathedral has continued to tilt ever since so that its nave must by now be pointing almost skywards.

For observers of what must count as one of the greatest intellectual disasters of the twentieth century, common-sense would seem to indicate that we should abandon Freud’s nineteenth-century folly and start again. But those who have found solace by worshipping within the cathedral have seen things rather differently. In a series of increasingly elaborate engineering projects they have attempted to salvage what has seemed to others unsalvageable.

Adam Phillips’s latest book, like his earlier ones, belongs to this modern tradition of psychoanalytic revisionism. For its sheer daring and imaginative boldness Phillips’s contribution is without rival. In it he has set out to restore Freud’s theories about children and children’s sexuality to the heart of psychoanalysis while offering only the most oblique intimation of what those theories actually are. One of the great advantages of this strategy is that he is able to turn traditional psychoanalytic doctrines almost on their head without this ever becoming obvious to his reader (or, one suspects, to Phillips himself).

One of the distinctive characteristics of classical psychoanalysis was that it reflected the profound distrust of childhood which is part of our Judaeo-Christian inheritance. So much so that, as the Harvard psychologist David McClelland once observed, ‘to hear Anna Freud speak of the criminal tendencies of the one and two-year-old is to be reminded inevitably of Calvinistic sermons on infant damnation’. There was a difference however: although the Freudian (or Kleinian) child was sadistic, sexually perverted and full of lust and rage, psychoanalysis maintained that all this was only natural. Children were therefore not to be regarded as sinful, and what Freud called their ‘ruthless egotism’ would be curbed in the course of ordinary development.

In the Beast in the Nursery Adam Phillips casually peels Freud’s positive estimation of childhood as ‘natural’ away from the profoundly negative attitude which underlies it. Astonishingly the founder of psychoanalysis is thus introduced on the first page of the book as ‘a very late Romantic’ who ‘found the passions and perplexities of the child exemplary; the child with her consuming interests, her inexhaustible questions, and her insisting body’. Much of the remainder of Adam Phillips’s book is a kind of sub-Blakean paean to ‘the child who psychoanalysis has mislaid . . . the child with an astonishing capacity for pleasure . . . with an unwilled relish of sensuous experience which often unsettles the adults who like to call it affection.’ This child, ‘who can be deranged by hope and anticipation – by an ice-cream’ and ‘who seems to have a passionate love of life’ is very real indeed. But this child has not been mislaid by psychoanalysis for the simple reason that Freud never expounded such a vision of childhood in the first place.

Read as the autobiographical meditation of a father who has become enchanted by his own young daughter and is almost embarrassed by the delight that she occasions, The Beast in the Nursery is touching, and, for fleeting moments at least, beautiful. Read, as it is intended to be, as a serious commentary on psychoanalysis, it is an extraordinary feat of intellectual self-deception.

One of the questions which arises from the book concerns the fate of the beast which is announced in its title. Where is the beast? Is it ever referred to in the book at all? Since Adam Phillips writes prose some of which is elegant but much of which yields up its meaning only with difficulty and frequently not at all, any reasonably conscientious reviewer is likely to have read each of his paragraphs at least three times before finishing the book. Yet at no point was I able to find any mention of a beast. Determined to track down the beast to its lair I submitted the title-essay to yet another reading, scanning the pages anxiously for the word. At one point I thought I had found it. But on closer inspection it proved to be only a breast. No beast was within sight. Not even the shadow of a beast was visible.

The theory of infantile sexuality has often been an embarrassment to psychoanalysis. This is not because it is untrue, which is merely an incidental inconvenience, but because it associates young children with bestial sexual desires. That one of the foremost contemporary apologists for psychoanalysis appears finally to have succeeded in banishing the beast from the nursery altogether will not endear him to his more traditional colleagues. But it will appeal to those who like their psychoanalysis tame. That Adam Phillips should have managed to do all this in a book whose title implicitly lays claim to an authentic wildness is a remarkable achievement indeed.

The Guardian, February 1998


© Richard Webster, 2002



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