Acceptance Adam Phillips Contingent Self-Esteem Control Creation Existential knots Experiential avoidance Frustration Hope Life maps Narrative Identity Structure Worry

Tyrannical Narratives

Why is it that Pastor Rick Warren’s (2002) book The Purpose-Driven Life is the bestselling hardcover non-fiction book in history, apart from the Bible? In a similar vein, but from a different background, Viktor Frankl’s (1962) Man’s Search for Meaning continues to sell strongly to this day. Perhaps because books like this remind us of our aching desire to shape our lives to trajectories that seem consequential (to us, and thus to our tribe, our culture) evaluated on how fulfilled we feel with our lot.

We are story-telling creatures, and our stories need to contain some narrative arc, some cognitive structure, some “meaning”.  The psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that “it is through narrative that we create and recreate selfhood, self is a product of our telling and not some essence to be delved for in the recesses of subjectivity.”

Our sense of meaning and purpose, our values and motivations are based on the narratives we tell about ourselves and our world. Charles Taylor tells us that stories about self and society are how humans construct the “horizons of meaning” which then form the critical background for social relations and life choices. Narratives always represent a kind of movement in moral space. They are our way of constructing coherence and continuity in our lives.

The most important stories that we tell, retell, and reframe are the ones that we do not generally recognise as stories at all. We could call these “metanarratives.” These master stories are the stuff of ideologies, religions, nationalisms, and cultures. We do not recognise them as “stories” in the sense of events unfolding in a temporal frame but rather tend to take them as an unarticulated background, the taken-for-granted “truth” of the way things really are.

What is striking about these metanarratives is how closely their plots parallel and mimic the Christian chronicle. Just below the surface, we find the common threads of a secularized theology: a fall or awakening into sin, the redemptive quest, conversion and transformation, temptations to backslide, persevering in salvation, and an expectant hope for final happiness and fulfillment. 

Tim Smith writes in his book Moral Believing Animals: “So deep did Christianity’s wagon wheels wear into the ground of Western culture and consciousness, that nearly every secular wagon that has followed—no matter how determined to travel a different road—has found it nearly impossible not to ride in the same tracks of the faith of old. Such is the power of moral order in deeply forming culture and story.”

What interests me in all of this is what we do when certain narratives and life-rules (often stated as small chains of narrative) start to dominate our lives in ways that cause us suffering. Here’s a narrative that dominates mine: if I am not writing everyday and publishing frequently then my life is worth naught. I might still be caring for others, and myself, learning and developing as a human being, enjoying many of the pleasures of being alive and conscious, but if this narrative is not being adhered to, even slightly, it’s all over. 

I call this a ruthless and totalitarian narrative, a tyrannical narrative, because there is no space in it for slippage or imperfection. You may not share my specific totalitarian narrative, but I bet you’ve got some version of this which you follow. Whatever its focus, it is a narratives driven by a burning desire that will only settle for complete satisfaction, and it often chooses to do this in a life sphere where complete satisfaction is unattainable. Which to be fair, is pretty much every sphere of life.

“The perfectionist,” which is perhaps another name for someone ruled by ruthless and totalitarian narratives “is always an ever-failing god, never merely a struggling animal,” writes Adam Phillips in On Balance, hinting here at the implicit narcissism of our striving. Perfection is when the satisfaction demanded by our narratives is achieved; perfection is when there is no gap between desire and consummation. The only problem with desire is that it involves frustration; and frustration, whatever else it is, is an acknowledgement of incapacity. 

So rather than the ruthless and totalitarian narratives, what we ultimately need is a capacity for incapacity, for being animals (Great Apes) rather than gods.

But how satisfying is this as a narrative? Not especially. Non-human animals lack narratives, which is why we denigrate them, and feel superior to them. And yet, they are satisfied more often than us living as they do without the pressures of narrative: no future goals to complete, no past failures to mourn. Incomplete satisfaction is our human animal fate, but this is not a project that is going to sell self-development books or make us feel any more at peace with our aspirations.

Adam Phillips Poetry Koan Poetry Koan (By Heart) Success

Poetry Koan #11: Writing by Philip Larkin


Quarterly, is it, writing reproaches me:
‘Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of attention and good looks,
You could get them still by writing a few books.’

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don’t keep it upstairs.
By now they’ve a publisher, good friends, and a wife:
Clearly writing has something to do with life

—In fact, they’ve a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can’t get writing carefree with all you desire,
And however you bank your scrawl, the writing you save
Won’t in the end make you less of a slave to it.

I listen to my writing singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.


Writing and keeping count (of money, ideas, goods and services) emerged at the same time in our history: about 5,000 years ago. Both were a response to information overload, rather than as a means for sharing stories, ideas, hopes and dreams with other human beings.

While we still lived in small hunter-gatherer communities of no more than a hundred people, these needs could be met verbally. Just as this morning I might not necessarily sit down to write this if a tribe of human apes were amenable to chewing on and digesting the utterances I presented to them. Twitter is now our haphazard, etiolated shadow of this paleolithic social ideal. Once, my ideas, stories, and beliefs would be added to the collective mythos, just as foodstuffs I’d found or hunted would be shared by the tribe. But with complex communities and the need to communicate with others separate from us in time and space, writing as we know it came about.

“It is telling that the first recorded name in history [Kushim] belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, presenting to us one of the first pieces of writing we know of: a receipt acknowledging that 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months.

This was 5,000 years ago. The information, as you can see in the photograph of this example of proto-writing, was imprinted onto a clay tablet in what is now known as partial script. Partial script would not allow you to write anything resembling poetry or an essay. To do this, we would have to wait for “full script” (cuneiform) to evolve, which today we might recognise as something akin to the writing you’re reading here.

How did we get to the position where we would find our writing “reproaching us”? Perhaps for not publishing, and so failing to adequately meet that primal need that we share with all our hominid ancestors: to have our thoughts and feelings heard and acknowledged (i.e. read)?

Larkin would seem to be suggest that our writing has become a kind of stand-in or a place-holder for privation or our own deficiencies. In this we find ourselves forever falling short of the fantasy of abundance and sufficiency, and so we console ourselves with this proxy of prosperity. “Writing is pure potentiality,” Neil Roberts reminds us in his essay “Philip Larkin and The Importance of Elsewhere”, “as long as you hold on to it, your existence is underwritten by the elsewhere of where your work has yet to be published.”

We indulge in the fantasy that achievements in this field (writing, but any human activity might be substituted here) will result in being rewarded with those things we yearn for. As great apes what we crave most intensely are communal rewards: recognition, social validation, as well as stimulating and loving allies (friends, romantic partners). But also reliable channels through which we can be heard (read) and acknowledged, channels such as books, journals, or newspapers that help us to disseminate our own response to being alive.

Last weekend, walking near Ivinghoe Beacon, trying to memorise this poem, my mind a little super-silver-hazy, it attempted to speak back to Larkin’s poetic downers with a non-deprivatory rejoinder: “Yeah, but why sweat it? Isn’t writing just moving stuff (abstractions) around? We writers are no more than data-mongers really, no more special or important than literate dung beetles.”

It continued to lecture me:

“Wikipedia is the perfect paradigm for this. Nobody -neither prince, pauper, nor university professor- gets their own byline. As one of the top five websites on the internet, it is nothing more (but who would want more?) than a written repository of all that we know. Maybe “fine” writing, as in “fine dining”, is just somebody taking that repository and others like it, and serving it up to us in ways that are aesthetically appealing, thus gaining extra kudos by doing so.

But the ingredients don’t change, and so maybe we should learn to drop some of the consummate, ego-driven significance we attach to this activity? Just as with the relation of food to excrement, all the data we possess about ourselves and our world flows through our minds, spills out of our mouths/pens/keyboards, and is then swilled around in books, on screens, in songs, treatises, and poems. And just like food or excrement, this existential bounty is fed into other mouths, digested by other systems and released back into the world to fertilise and thus keep on feeding other entities? Which is all good and fine, but nothing to write home about.”

“Like Karl Marx,” writes the critic James Booth, “poets are alert to the distinction between life as an end in itself, and life abstracted to a medium of exchange: the paradoxically inhuman resource of writing. Writing may be necessary, but only those sad people who have no real life to speak of live in terms of writing. As Schopenhauer put it: ‘Writing is human happiness in abstracto, consequently he who is no longer capable of happiness in concreto sets his whole heart on writing. It is clear, surely, where Larkin, the poet of ‘living’, must stand on this issue.”

But is it clear? Learning the poem by heart, I am forced to pay particular attention to the three things out of many thousands of things that Larkin could have chosen to mindfully, expansively dwell on in the provincial town where he and we find ourselves situated at the end of the poem:

I listen to my writing singing. It’s like looking down
From long french windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

Why slums, the canal, and churches? All three perhaps have some relation to writing. Slums are symbols of deprivation. Canals carry and disseminate those things we need to live and prosper such as water, food, and information. Churches contain some of our most ardently held belief systems: the foundational rules and regulations upon which our Western culture is based. They are ornate architecturally, as well as liturgically, but why mad? Perhaps because the crepuscular interior of churches is derived to some extent from the irrational penumbra that emanates from us when we kneel down to pray to our invisible sky gods.

But no less “mad” than literary festivals where we go to worship or pay homage to our information-disseminators. There are no festivals celebrating builders, or people who sell cooked and flavoured corn on street corners. But we celebrate writers. And for this reason, for those who feel compelled to write, we also open ourselves to frustration when we are engaged in an activity where the symbolic stakes have been set so high. Hence also the peculiar, almost intimate disappointment of finding ourselves the celebrant but never the celebrated, the bridgegroom never the bride.

Larkin uses the word “sad” to describe this state of affairs, but another word for this, even if opening ourselves to accusations of hyperbole, might be “tragic”. Adam Phillips in his essay “On Frustration” begins with the assertion that:

“Tragedies are stories about people not getting what they want, but not all stories about people not getting what they want seem tragic. In comedies people get something of what they want, but in tragedies people often discover that their wanting doesn’t work, and as the story unfolds they get less and less of what they thought they wanted. Indeed, both what they want and how they go about wanting it wreaks havoc and ultimately destroys the so-called tragic hero and, of course, his enemies and accomplices. Whether it is called ambition, the quest for love, or the search for truth, tragedies expose, to put it as simply as possible, what the unhappy ending of wanting something looks like…. Tragic heroes are failed pragmatists. Their ends are unrealistic and their means are impractical.”

Phillips is very good on how this state affairs might hold within it the plangent sadness that Larkin so exquisitely captures at the end of this poem:

“Lives are tragic not merely when people can’t have everything they want but when their wanting mutilates them; when what they want entails an unbearable loss.”

One gets the sense, which is often the case with Larkin, that his frustrations have “mutilated” him to some degree, that there is “an unbearable loss” which he, and perhaps we who identify with the poem, don’t entirely understand. Perhaps this is because “it is extremely difficult to feel one’s frustration, to locate, however approximately, what it might be that one is frustrated by or about”. To dwell on or in our frustrations as Larkin does in “Writing” is to often come across to others as carping or infantile. Which perhaps hints at the developmental challenge we all face with regard to writing, money, sex, or whatever else it is that frustrates us.

Phillips as ever, turns to literature (King Lear) and Freud (‘Formulations on the Two Principles of Psychic Functioning’) to make sense of this.

In Freud’s 1911 essay, he presents an image of the psyche in a state of equilibrium which then becomes “disrupted” by the urgent demands of inner needs which unsettle and disturb us. The infant, aware of its hunger, fantasises that which might satisfy its hunger. She discovers however, when the wished for meal is eaten -the book or article written and published- that it is often only an approximation of what she dreamt up in her fantasy. It is this disillusionment though which leads us to making a somewhat uneasy peace with reality, which some would say denotes psychological maturity. Freud called this state of affairs The Reality Principle.

Phillips singles out three consecutive frustrations that lead potentially to The Reality Principle: “the frustration of need, the frustration of fantasised satisfaction not working, and the frustration of satisfaction in the real world being at odds with the wished-for, fantasised satisfaction. Three frustrations, three disturbances, and two disillusionments. It is, what has been called in a different context, a cumulative trauma; the cumulative trauma of desire. And this is when it works.”

Intensely sad? Yes, and whether “intensely” so or not probably depends on all sorts of other factors. But it is also “intensely real”. ““And reality matters,” argues Phillips, “because it is the only thing that can satisfy us. We are tempted, initially, to be self-satisfying creatures, to live in a fantasy world, to live in our minds, but the only satisfactions available are the satisfactions of reality, which are themselves frustrating; but only in the sense that they are disparate from, not in accord with, our wished-for satisfactions (the most satisfying pleasures are the surprising ones, the ones that can’t be engineered).”

Phillips then says something which I think curmedgeonly Larkin would have loved him for writing. I certainly love him for writing this, for the validating balm of his response when applied to all our frustrated, not-getting-what-we-want petulance: “How could we ever be anything other than permanently enraged?”

This also points to why Larkin poetry will continue to be read, regardless of the “unwoke” reputation that has now been assigned to him. Larkin’s poetry will persist because he resists in this poem and others the standard narrative of the twentieth century, and of my profession too, which is that you can change yourself from the inside out and vice-versa if only you make the right kind of effort to do so.

Larkin was once asked if he might have been happier, to which he answered: “Yes, but not without being somebody else.” One senses that the intense sadness he experiences at the end of the poem is not however going to result in him establishing a fundamentally different relationship to his writing or himself, but that rather he has decided to throw in his lot with the Freudian reality principle, and so take his chances with “common unhappiness” rather than “hysterical misery”: pragmatically, regretfully, maybe even a little tragically, but with open eyes.


Oh, and by the way, just in case you’re not a Larkin aficionado, Phillip Larkin never wrote a poem called Writing. He did however write a poem called Money. But as I am not as frustrated by the symbolic fiction of money as I am by writing (Harari: “There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, or writing, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”) I altered a couple of words to make it more applicable to my own frustrations. I don’t think if Larkin were he here today, he would have terribly minded, do you?

Adam Phillips Addiction Enid Blyton Escape

The Magic Faraway Tree

I am an Enid Blyton baby. I don’t know if children read Enid Blyton these days, their parents having perhaps seen the less than hagiographic biopics (Enid, with Helena Bonham Carter: an especially acidulous Blyton). Or maybe they’ve read the “nightmare mother” exposés online [1]. But for me, Noddy and Big Ears, The Secret Seven, Famous Five, and perhaps above all The Magic Faraway Tree shaped the contours of my childhood.

The Faraway Tree series, published very early on in her writing career (1939), is about a magic tree inspired by the Norse mythology that had fascinated Blyton as a child. The idea of the Yggdrasil tree, placed at the center of the cosmos and rising through a number of worlds, is found in northern Eurasia and forms part of the shamanic lore shared by many peoples of this region. This seems to be a very ancient conception, perhaps based on the Pole Star, the centre of the heavens, and the image of an omphalic tree in Scandinavian myth. Among Siberian shamans, a cardinal tree, often thought to be an Ash, may also be used as a ladder to ascend the heavens.

According to Blyton’s daughter Gillian, the inspiration for the magic tree came one day when she was trying to create a new story “and suddenly she was walking in the enchanted wood and found the tree. In her imagination she climbed up through the branches and met Moon-Face, Silky, the Saucepan Man and the rest of the characters. She had all she needed.” As in the Wishing-Chair series, these fantasy books typically involve children being transported into a magical world in which they meet fairies, goblins, elves, pixies and other mythological creatures.

But instead of the dragon Níðhöggr or the stags Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór, Blyton populates her mythical tree with a hodge-podge of oddballs who her child characters (stand-ins for the children readers) visit whenever they like. There’s Moon-Face, a man (?) possibly afflicted with neurofibromatosis or Proteus Syndrome. Think Joseph Merrick, aka The Elephant Man. Moon-Face’s rotund face is never referred to as an oddity though, rather it serves as an identity marker. His house inside the tree is also round and filled with curved furniture. Two other larger than life roomies accompany the children on their adventures: The Saucepan Man and Mr Whatzisname. The Saucepan Man is covered with pots and pans, and perhaps for this reason is partially deaf. He lives with Mr Whatzisname, who cannot remember his own name (!?) although Wikipedia informs me that “during a particular story at the Land of Secrets, Mr. Watzisname discovers that his name is ‘Kollamoolitumarellipawkyrollo’. This is forgotten by the end of the story (even by the man himself) and he goes back to being Mr. Watzisname.”

There is also Silky The Fairy, who seems to identify as female, and perhaps for that reason, isn’t supplied with any salient characteristics, existing instead as a somewhat bland, almost sexless Barbie doll cipher. Anti-social elements pique the plot via The Angry Pixie, who lives in a house with a tiny window and has a habit of throwing cold water, or any liquid, at hand over people who dare to peep inside. Also Dame Washalot, who spends her time washing her clothes and throwing the dirty wash-water down the tree. If she has no clothes to wash, Washalot washes the dirty laundry of other people and even the leaves of the tree.

What is it about the Faraway Tree series, I have often wondered, that struck me so forcibly as a child, so that returning to the books now more than 40 years after a I first read them, I am still completely bowled over and enchanted by the adventures they contain?

I think it’s the promise of escape to alternate worlds. Books for a child, or for the inner child, are an objective correlative of this kind of escape. No doubt cannabis and other intoxicants and dissociatives work this way too. Re-reading these books, it is clear that the children go on a series of “trips” whenever they climb the tree, as we do whenever we vape cannabis flowers or eat magic mushrooms.

Reading these books now, I recognise how archetypally escapist they are, and also how as a child, I mainly read to escape. To escape the constant bickering of my parents, and other anxiety-provoking dynamics of family life, to escape boredom and the constraints of this particular conscious Self growing up in that particular culture at that time. I still read to escape, to some degree, although for this reason I am puzzled by the fact that I am not especially interested in the outskirts of escapist literature: fantasy and science fiction. Maybe because I don’t find the linguistic texture of these books as satisfying as a broadly-speaking “realist” literary novel. Or maybe because I do still like to be tethered in some way, rooted (like the Magic Tree in Enid Blyton’s book itself)  in this world, even whilst exploring alternate/escapist realities. Which is perhaps why I fear trying psychedelics, even whilst feeling comfortable with cannabis; I still fear the hallucinatory power of LSD or psilocybin. Maybe I don’t really want escape in that way, maybe what I want is just a different way of seeing and being in this world, let’s call it The Enlightenment Model, where the essence of reality is perceived and understood with regard to its depths and riches in ways that we don’t normally have access to.

“The founding and fading myth of Adam and Eve is a great escape story,” Adam Phillips reminds us, taking us, as all good psychoanalysts must, to the mythical foundations of the stories we tell ourselves both as individuals, as well as a culture. “[It’s] the story of a failed breakout,” he goes on to suggest. “Transgression is the attempt to find out exactly what it is that is impossible to escape from. In seeking forbidden knowledge about God’s creation they discovered just what there was to fear about God. The biblical story dramatizes, whatever else it does, the link in our minds between curiosity and release –how our ideas of freedom depend upon our finding out what we have to fear. We find out what the world is like by testing it, by testing ourselves against it.”

Later, he writes in this, one of my favourite Phillips’ books, Houdini’s Box:

“Addicts –to work and money, to drink and drugs, to political ideology and fundamentalist religion –are the heroes and anti-heroes, the spirits of the age, because they (we) enact and dramatize our dilemmas about freedom and memory. About what kind of freedom is possible, and about how this is bound up with what any given society (any education) persuades us is worth getting away from; or, indeed, worth abolishing so that it is no longer there, apparently, to affront us. If we happen to live in a society that prefers artists to drug-dealers, then either we won’t think of good art as escapist, or we will have more or less tacitly agreed that whatever the art in question has released us from is unacceptable. That the lives we want depend upon avoiding, say, poverty, or ugliness, or guilt, or complexity, or frivolousness, and so on. Our negative ideals –what we are not supposed to desire, to like or to be like –are the materials from which we make our positive ideals. Our values are born out of perceived threat.

I like this idea a lot. It feel it’s something I’d like to think more about, maybe by reading a later book of his, Unforbidden Pleasures, which I think he explores this notion in greater depth.

The escapist myth of this Faraway Tree, is that its very highest branches poke through the clouds via holes, maybe a metre across in diameter. Every few days, as if on a neverending carousel, a new world with unique aspects special to it, comes to rest above these holes. One can climb up the branch, and then onwards via a ladder through the hole and beyond into an entirely new setting where all the strictures of our lives are upended. These Lands might be classified into spaces that are either facsimiles of childhood anxieties or panaceas of a sort.

Take the Land of Topsy Turvy where everybody walks on their hands and everything is upside down. Or The Land of Dreams which works more like a Bunuel film, or a Dali painting: distorting or manipulating reality in weird and woozy ways. And also in anxiety-provoking ways as often the characters get stuck in these lands, as when the Sandman throws sand in the children’s eyes to make them sleep. And yet, like all good (children’s) literature, these lands, as fantastical as they seem at first,  mirror in some essential way our earthbound dimension. For don’t we all crave for things to remain the same (especially if they’re enjoyable), but fear their fixity if they’re not? As in the Land of Tempers where everyone rages and fumes on a Trump-like scale. This might be a dramatic excursion for those visiting, but if  losing your temper means you will have to stay in this land forever, as it seems Orange 45 (as Greg Proops calls him) has had to do, the Land of Tempers might quickly become a kind of hell realm, where the only anxiolytic comes in the form of raging against Jews, and Trans people, and immigrants, and the media.

Then there are those lands that are therapeutic, useful, and seem to work as some kind of panacea, including The Land of Spells, inhabited by witches and wizards, and The Land of Magic Medicines which the children visit when their mother is ill to buy her medicine.

My favourite Lands as a child (no surprise there) were those of pure wish-fulfilment: The Land of Do-As-You-Please, The Land of Toys, The Land of Goodies, and The Land of Presents. Last night, a little stoned on Durban Poison, and very much enjoying a Tea Pigs Redbush/Honeybush cuppa with soya milk that drank like condensed milk at times, I snuggled in bed with Max and read the second Magic Faraway Tree book, marvelling at the twists and turns that Blyton orchestrates, ultra-prolific potboiler of a writer that she was, her plot twists often worthy of a Netflix series, always keeping you reading on and turning the next page.

There is something at once deeply sensual and restrained about her writing, which often comes out in her descriptions of food. Take this description of Google Buns for example [2]:

“The buns were most peculiar. They each had a very large currant in the middle, and this was filled with sherbert. So when you got to the currant and bit it the sherbert frothed out and filled your mouth with fine bubbles that tasted delicious.”

Currants, sherbert, froth? Yuck, but also enticing. Here’s a description of another Blyton delicacy I dreamed of tasting when I read these books as a child: Pop Biscuits.

“As soon as you bit them they went pop! And you suddenly found your mouth filled with new honey from the middle of the biscuits.”

Or how about a Toffee Shock: “A Toffee Shock gets bigger and bigger as you suck it, instead of smaller and smaller – and when it is so big that there is hardly any room for it in your mouth it suddenly explodes – and goes to nothing.”

Gathering together a larder of Blyton delicacies for this essay, I am struck by how all of them involve a kind of surprise in eating, perhaps the child’s surprise in discovering a taste experience for the first time: like the ultra-salty deliciousness of a piece of anchovy sitting in the milky gloop of mozzarella on one’s pizza, or jam filling in a donut. But also the surprise of non-food related experiences: one’s first kiss, or other early sexual experiences for example. Also the surprise of a plot-twist itself,  a word used in an electrifying and unanticipated way – a linguistic hallmark of all good writing, I think.

Barbara Stoney describes Blyton’s descriptions of food in a story called ‘Mother! Mother!’ as being “more reminiscent of an orgy in an Edwardian emporium than a modern child’s idea of a good ‘blow-out’. Enid Blyton writes of tongues, ham, pies, lemonade and ginger-beer. This is not just food, it is archetypal feasting, the author’s longing for the palmy days of her own childhood.”

Michael Woods also tries to deconstruct the psychosocial ingredients of Blyton’s formula: superior social status, the absence of anything that smacks of the work-a-day world, the high fantasy level, and a strong animal interest.

“For most adults who write children’s books, once the communication barrier has been largely overcome, the main problem is to write what children want to read and yet remain intellectually honest to themselves in presenting the world as it really is. For Enid Blyton it seems unlikely that any such dilemma raised its head; she was a child, she thought as a child, and she wrote as a child; of course the craft of an extremely competent adult writer is there, but the basic feeling is essentially pre-adolescent. Piaget has shown us that children tend to make moral judgement purely in terms of good and bad and that it is only with the advent of adolescence that the individual is able to accept different levels of goodness and to judge the actions of others according to the circumstances. Enid Blyton has no moral dilemmas and her books satisfy children because they present things clearly in black and white with no confusing intermediate shades of grey.”

There is something in this that I need to think about in relation to cannabis. It is captured well in this Liesl Mueller poem too:


Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles
and pulls you back into childhood

and you are passing a crumbling mansion
completely hidden behind old willows

or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks
and giant firs standing hip to hip,

you know again that behind that wall,
under the uncut hair of the willows

something secret is going on,
so marvelous and dangerous

that if you crawled through and saw,
you would die, or be happy forever.

This “something secret going on,/so marvelous and dangerous//that if you crawled through and saw,/you would die, or be happy forever” energises the motivation for psychoactive substances, poetry being one of these substances. It is not just about turning away from the humdrum everyday into something strange and magical and enchanting, where trees (and plants) present opportunities to explore entirely new worlds, or worlds that function as simple but potent thought experiments. A more sophisticated version of this, albeit more high-tech is HBO’s Westworld television series.

Rather than physically travelling to strange and iconoclastic worlds though, some of us choose to read: novels, short stories, or poems saturated with dense dream-logic. All taking us in unforseen ways to somewhere different, or someplace other than our everyday conscious experience.

[1]  “The truth is, Enid Blyton was ­arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind and without a trace of maternal instinct,” writes Imogen Blyton of her mother. “As a child, I viewed her as a rather strict authority. As an adult, I did not hate her. I pitied her.”

[2] Yes, this is 1943, and yes that’s what she called them. A lot of Blyton’s writing has been “cleaned up” and bowdlerised, but Google Buns remain untouched.

Adam Phillips Fritz Perls Gardening Guilt Procrastination

The Forbidden Guilt of Unfinished Projects & Unforbidden Pleasures

If the winter had been colder, I would feel less guilty, but it has not been cold.

In fact, it’s been so freakishly temperate, that many a day, I could have stepped out into the garden quite comfortably with nothing more than a t-shirt, a fleece, some trackie bottoms, crocs (navy blue, so almost permissible, I hope?), and a thick pair of socks on my feet.

There have been previous winters where I’ve suffered in a noble but excruciating fashion with chillblains in my fingers and toes, after digging in the dirt with only a light cotton gardening glove on my hands, nothing but wellies on my feet for warmth and padding. This winter is not one of those.

Guilt is a social emotion, a sense of having failed some kind of moral order. Martin Buber talks about three spheres of guilt in his essay “Guilt and Guilt Feelings”: civil guilt, existential-religious guilt, and psychological guilt. The guilt I feel towards the garden, as well as writing, I think falls into the second category.

Perhaps because, in my mind, bringing a garden into being stands as a kind of covenant between me and some of the 300 thousand species of multicellular eukaryote (plants) known to be currently co-existing with us on the planet. A covenant, not that dissimilar to the Noahic or Mosaic covenants (the former to protect, the latter to cherish and nurture). A covenant struck between Man and his Judeo-Christian sky-deity.  Also the more familial and familiar secular versions of this: parents and children, dogs and their owners, clients and therapists.

In all of these spheres, a seed has been planted, cultivatory energies unleashed, and so perhaps to abandon the project as it begins to grow might be seen as a form of neglectful oversight, or in the worlds of Lady Bracknell, just plain carelessness.

Not that this should matter, you might argue to readers of the blogosphere where the “product” you’re consuming is just one of 70 sextillion (70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) grains of data-based sand lying on Google’s abysmally vast text-beach. But it matters to me.

Guilt is not necessarily assuaged by reminding ourselves of the polarised demands on our energies. Time spent in the garden, writing about the garden, and more or less every other pursuit in my life has been heavily truncated since the arrival of Max, as every puppy or non-puppy parent would no doubt acknowledge.

If I were a better organized parent, I’m sure I could probably do a bit of everything (parenting, gardening, writing, socialising) in moderation, and so continue to keep all those generative plates spinning, but I am not especially well-organised, so I tend to either binge on one extra-curricular activity to the detriment of all the others, or hand-wringingly bemoan the whole lot of them being swept aside by kibble, odiferous calves hooves, and the demanding timetable of daily walks, grooming, and general beady-eyed monitoring.

Or maybe it’s more complicated than this I-Don’t-Know-How-He-Fails-To-Do-It dynamic sketched out above. Perhaps a more congruent way of exploring this kind of guilt, or any kind of guilt we might have, is to think in terms of a dialectic Adam Phillips explores in his recent book-length koan, Unforbidden Pleasures: an attempt to redescribe and rethink the show-stopping or show-stealing forbidden pleasures of sex, drugs, and rock and roll – or whatever floats your boat in that sphere- in order to help us focus with more gratitude and joy on our unforbidden pleasures like gardening or blogging.

The unforbidden, as you well know, usually falls into a diminished category: “a merely a forlorn consolation for the middle-aged”. But what would it mean to become more mindful and curious, Phillips wonders, about “our largely unarticulated experiences of unforbidden pleasures, in all their extraordinary variety”?

“The aim of development may be to become as dependent as possible, not as transgressive as possible,” he suggests. Particularly if transgression always sets us up for a kind of “tragedy”, which is “what happens when we let the forbidden narrow our minds. The idea of pleasures that are not somehow painful – that are not cures or compensations or alibis for pain – has become literally inconceivable, so wedded are we to our perpetual dismay.”

One of the ways I am wedded to perpetual, guilty dismay, is in the way I compulsively seek the forbidden, and then abandon it as soon as it settles via habit or unrestricted repetition into the unforbidden.

Do you do this too?

For example: I might turn to the pursuit of gardening to satisfy a need for forbidden pleasure (transgressively carrying out unremunerative work when everyone else is slaving away at desks for their daily dolour/dollar). But as soon as this starts to feel permissible and legitimate (gardening in the morning, seeing clients in the afternoon), a new contender for the forbidden must be found in the way that a certain kind of man might at some point in his marriage require a mistress in order to make up for the unforbidden pleasures of having a wife.

In my case: I start writing a blog about gardening. And when that mistress also becomes as unceremoniously unexciting as the wife I’ve given her up for, i.e. just another “forlorn consolation”, I then move on to another project. And as I go along in this back and forth pull between unforbidden safety and certainty and forbidden excitement and stimulation, results in the ever-increasing likelihood of a series of fractured, unfinished and incomplete endeavours. You might not be surprised to discover that I have a number of writing projects that fit this modus operandi.

The only problem is that unfinished business doesn’t seem to be particularly good for our psyches. Compare our feelings towards artists who manage to complete a major piece of work before they die (two recent examples: Bowie’s Black Star and Oliver Sacks’s On The Move), compared to those who don’t (Dickens’ Drood, DFW’s The Pale King, Jeff Buckley’s Sketches For My Sweetheart The Drunk).

Or think of poor Edward Casaubon, the fusty academic who in George Eliot’s Middlemarch is higgledy-piggledy enmeshed in the research and writing of his lifelong project The Key To All Mythologies. We, as readers, know straight away that Casaubon is a man who has lost all rhyme or reason (the bon-cause?) in terms of the functional completion of his work. But it takes his new wife, Dorothea a little bit of time to catch up with us:

“And now she pictured to herself the days, and months, and years which she must spend in sorting what might be called shattered mummies, and fragments of a tradition which was itself a mosaic wrought from crushed ruins—sorting them as food for a theory which was already withered in the birth like an elfin child….[His] was a method of interpretation which was not tested by the necessity of forming anything which had sharper collisions than an elaborate notion of Gog and Magog: it was as free from interruption as a plan for threading the stars together.”

You don’t get more unfinished than that, do you? To understand why Casaubon’s unfinished business feels so piercingly painful to Dorothea (shattered mummies, crushed ruins, aborted infants, cosmological confusion), we need to understand why unfinished projects weight so heavily on all of us.

In thinking about the forlorn dissonance of any incomplete work of art, it might also help to think about matters as diverse as the irritating ditty playing in my head at the moment on repeat (Right Said Fred’s “No One On Earth), as well as how waiters without pads to write on, remember long and complicated food orders, but just as quickly forget them as soon as the order has been filled.

In 1947, Fritz Perls, the aggressively zany founder of Gestalt therapy, popularized the idea of a self-regulating experiential cycle that maintains the internal equilibrium of each individual by seeking to complete itself. He called this the Cycle of Experience, and we can use the idea to track the writing of this blog post:

  1. The organism (me) at rest: sitting in the summerhouse working my way through a packet of Fox’s Ginger Creams.
  2. The disturbing factor: this may be external (noticing how untended and unloved the garden is looking), and/or internal (thinking about the last time I updated LLFOG)
  3. The creation of an image: me spending a few hours each day getting back into the gardening groove, as well as gestating some ideas on what to write about next
  4. Behavioural activation with the teleological image in mind: such as making a list of what needs doing in the garden, or scribbling down a few thoughts on the unforbidden/unfinished in a notebook
  5. A decrease of psychic and physiological tension as the activities carried out mark for the organism a reboot of the incompleted task
  6. And finally, hopefully: the return of organismic balance as a section of the garden gets tidied, or this blog post finally gets written. Only for the whole cycle to then start all over again.

Twenty years previously, Bluma Zeigarnik, a student in Berlin, had noticed how waiters in a Venetian restaurant were able to remember complex orders while they were being filled, but forgot them as soon as they were completed. Her realisation (which Perls must have mined for his Cycle) was that until we complete a task we’ve set out to do, we experience an internal tension that rattles around in the psyche with a teleological clatter until we finally take heed and actualize our need to complete.

Similarly with my Right Said Fred earworm: one way to get the 15-30 second snippet off the inner-turntable, would be to sing the whole song all the way through, in order to “complete it”, and so remove the mind’s need for one more ruminative, how-does-it-go spin.

And this is ultimately why, on another sunny, almost-spring-like day, having completed the next few paragraphs, even with the realisation that there is much more to be said on this topic, I will put down the laptop and step back into the garden, trowel in hand to once again take care of the unforbidden.

Unforbidden tidying, unforbidden weeding, unforbidden decluttering of a space which reflects back to me just how cluttered my own forbidden internal realm sometimes is. Yet in sticking with these unforbidden projects, until the experiential Cycles in which they lie are good-enough complete, something good is being done.

How could it not be good, as we carefully if somewhat laboriously tend to our unforbidden tasks? Attempting to knit together techne and telos, aspiration and conduct, all the while hoping that some of the “organismic balance” that we crave and need, that delicious sigh of job-done, game-over relief, is finally restored.