QOTD (2012-06-09)

From Adam Phillips, “Promises, Promises,” in his essay collection of the same name:

If we talk about promises now, as I think we should when we talk about psychoanalysis and literature, then we are talking about hopes and wishes, about what we are wanting from our relationship with these two objects in the cultural field. It is a question of relationships, but perhaps it also points to the drawback of making ‘relationships’ the primary category. I think we should make our primary category something like moral aims, or preferred worlds, what Stanley Cavell refers to… after Emerson, as ‘moral perfectionism’, which he defines as ‘some idea of being true to oneself’, but which ‘happily consents to democracy’. Our description of our relationships—which entails our description of what it is not to have one, what a good one is, and so on—depends on our moral aims, on the kind of selves and worlds we are consciously and unconsciously committed to fashioning. There can be no democracy without the notion of relationship as somehow central, but the idea of being true to oneself may involve redescribing the idea of relationship so radically that it may sometimes be barely recognizable…. Democracy thrives by valuing rival and complementary interpretation. It is not equally clear what being true to oneself thrives by, or whether it could ever be subject to generalization or, indeed, formulation. Our relationship to ourselves must be inextricable from our relationship with others; but in what sense does one have a ‘relationship’ with oneself, or with a book, or with its author, or with a tradition? In other words, is there sufficient resemblance between these objects to make ‘relationship’ the right, or rather the illuminating, word?

What we actually do—or find ourselves doing—in the presence of a book or an analyst could not be more different, from one point of view. The implication of Literature and Psychoanalysis is that we must be using them for distinguishably different things. But how we use them depends on what I am calling here our ‘moral aims’, our conscious and unconscious moral projects about whose very consequences we can have so little knowledge. What or who we seek to be influenced by—to be changed by—depends on the kinds of selves (and worlds) we want to make and the kinds of culture in which we happen to live.

I have a sense that Phillips here is making a rather Forsterian point, and I think a line of Forster’s speaks to some of his rhetorical questions: “The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves.”

I first read that line right at the beginning of this academic year, just before I discovered Forster proper and started on this year’s emotional, intellectual, and ethical course, defined by personal relationships, books, and—yes—psychoanalysis. It seems, too, a fitting way to end—and today, after much writer’s block, I started finally to find the words to talk about what it means to end one era, and to allow another to begin. Here comes summer, and with it a lot of processing.

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