Monday, January 03, 2005

A mental health day

I decided this morning that I had to have one more day of reading novels before returning to work. Happily I found Jennifer Weiner's Little Earthquakes at the public library; I thought it was quite good but will be more interesting to people with children than without. Also finished Adam Phillips' Darwin's Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories, which was excellent (another recommendation from Ken Bruen). A taste of it: "If mortality was a flaw, or a punishment, we were always verging on humiliation. Tyrannical fantasies of our own perfectibility still lurk in even our simplest ideals, Darwin and Freud intimate, so that any ideal can become another excuse for punishment. Lives dominated by impossible ideals--complete honesty, absolute knowledge, perfect happiness, eternal love--are lives experienced as continuous failure." I also dipped into his collection Promises, Promises: Essays on Literature and Psychoanalysis. I got it because I wanted to read the essay on Leslie Farber, who I've been interested in recently, and read most of the essays that didn't have directly to do with poetry. Especially good: "On Translating a Person"; "On Eating, and Preferring Not To"; "Farber's Quibble"; "Christopher Hill's Revolution and Me"; and my favorite, "Sameness is All" (I'd read this one before, it's about cloning, but it struck me more this time round). Here is Phillips on a teenage patient of his who fantasizes about having a girlfriend who will be his clone: "The fantasy of the clone girlfriend--not exactly a rarity--was for this boy an all-purpose magical solution. A way of preempting what you do about, or with, the parts of yourself that have nothing 'in common' with an object of desire. What is of interest is that the (narcissistic) solution of creating absolute sameness--the clone--unconsciously kills desire. The fantasy of cloning a girlfriend is a fantasy of not needing a girlfriend. The exact replication of the self mrerely replicates the problem."

Phillips is a great writer, but he provokes strong feelings in me, ones that often come up when I read psychoanalytically inclined critics & that clearly themselves represent some kind of a symptom. I really admire this guy's intellect & style and yet I want to wrestle with it; I have an irritable feeling of wanting to copy-edit and wrench his thoughts into the way I'd say them. Reading his prose definitely brings out my competitive instincts, and my critical ones (he's got a few annoying mannerisms that could be helpfully eradicated--those awful locutions like "as it were" and "so to speak" and the habit of bracketing thoughts between dashes even before he's really got going on a sentence). And this is comical--I fell asleep after reading these essays and had a sort of half-waking dream where I was sure that at the end of the volume was Phillips's reprinted review of my novel Heredity! Which he has of course never seen or read. I'd be interested to hear what he would think of it, though. Don't I sound like a wretched egomaniac today? Now I must go and read another novel I think. Or perhaps do a bit of work--I must write my review of Malcolm Gladwell's new book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking; and I must finish commenting on my graduate students' papers from the fall semester; and I must... but this is defeating the purpose of my mental health day.

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