Going Sane: Maps of Happiness


Writings on madness fill entire libraries, but until now nobody has thought to engage exclusively with the idea of sanity; we define it simply as that bland and nebulous state of not being mentally ill. But what is sanity? How broad, how eccentric is its range of behavior? And how do we go about crafting a creative and fluid definition of a sane existence, one we can guide ourselves by?

Madness is always present in our lives — in the chaos of our experience as babies, the ...

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Writings on madness fill entire libraries, but until now nobody has thought to engage exclusively with the idea of sanity; we define it simply as that bland and nebulous state of not being mentally ill. But what is sanity? How broad, how eccentric is its range of behavior? And how do we go about crafting a creative and fluid definition of a sane existence, one we can guide ourselves by?

Madness is always present in our lives — in the chaos of our experience as babies, the rebellion of our adolescence, the irrational nature of our sexual appetites. In a society governed by indulgence and excess, madness is the state of mind we identify with most keenly — while it is ultimately destructive, we often credit it as the wellspring of genius, individuality, and self-expression. Sanity, on the other hand, confounds us; it lacks the false allure of madness. Hamlet, as Adam Phillips points out, is glamorous, while the eminently sane Polonius comes off as a fool. In Going Sane, Phillips redresses this historical imbalance, drawing deeply on literature and his rich experience as a clinician. He strips our lives back to essentials, focusing on how we — as human beings, as parents, as lovers, as people to whom work matters — can make space for a sane and well-balanced attitude to living.

Phillips's brilliantly incisive and aphoristic style coaxes us into meeting his ideas halfway, and making them our own. In a world saturated by tales of dysfunction and suffering, he offers a way forward that is as down-to-earth and realistic as it is uplifting and hopeful.

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Editorial Reviews

The Observer
“Bracing and provocative. Should be enough alone to make whole shelvesful of parenting guides self-destruct.”--
“Winningly articulate, enlightening but never patronising, [Adam Phillips] is a born writer…Going Sane is written with elegance and zest.”
Irish Times
“Wise and subtle. Going Sane has some superbly suggestive things to say about childhood, depression, autism and schizophrenia.”--
“Erudite and absorbing, oozes intelligence - and charm. [Phillips is] adept at making the complex comprehensible.”
“Beautifully written…clever and funny, and properly profound…A lovely addition to Phillips’ guides to living a happier life.”
Los Angeles Times
“Phillips offers a detailed description of what sanity can mean today.”
New York Times
“Phillips has made psychoanalytic thought livelier and more poetic than ever…One of [his] finest and most broadly appealing books.”
Gideon Lewis-Kraus
Like the best of his writing, Going Sane begins with abstract semantics and ends with a specific tale of how we might be better off if we used some basic words in some different ways. With each new book, Phillips has made psychoanalytic thought livelier and more poetic than ever…
— The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
In classic psychoanalytic style, Phillips strips our lives down to the fundamentals to illustrate the delicate balance between sanity and insanity. Sanity, he notes, "has never been a popular word, or indeed... a condition one might write a book about." Madness, on the other hand, is dramatic and all too visible. We have psychiatrists, neurologists and researchers dedicated to studying and treating madness, but not even a quantifiable definition of saneness. Deftly guiding readers through historical and literary uses of "sane" and "mad," Phillips, a British psychoanalyst (On Flirtation), cites Thomas Carlyle, R.D. Laing, Melanie Klein, D.W. Winnicott and Richard Dawkins, among others, to illustrate the stark absence of a definitive definition of sanity. In Hamlet, for instance, Polonius uses the word "madness" to describe Hamlet's inventiveness and eloquent intelligence: he admires Hamlet's madness. Phillips examines the presence and essence of madness in all aspects of modern life in intriguing and disturbingly frank chapters on the chaos of raising children, the turmoil of adolescence, sexual appetites and the pursuit of wealth. His arguments, both thought provoking and provocative, may affect future definitions of sanity and madness, and readers are left with a fresh awareness of what it really means to be sane. Agent, Felicity Rubinstein, U.K. (Oct. 4) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
British psychoanalyst and prolific author Phillips (On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays of the Unexamined Life) analyzes the concept of sanity in this erudite yet accessible volume. His interdisciplinary research, which relies on imaginative writings (e.g., Shakespeare) and traditional psychological theory, makes clear that a viable definition of sanity is surprisingly elusive. This concept is further developed through his exploration of how madness and "badness" coexist in contemporary society; Freudian issues are raised in the context of sexual and money madness, and modern mental illnesses and disorders (autism, schizophrenia, and depression) are also examined. Phillips concludes with an original blueprint on how a "sane" life might be constructed, including commentaries on sane parenting and dealing with conflict and personal desires. Though stronger on description and analysis than on prescriptive advice, this book is well argued and stunningly thought-provoking. Phillips has tackled a "big idea" in a sophisticated yet spirited way that should appeal to his established audience as well as to general readers new to his work. Recommended for public libraries and interdisciplinary studies collections. [See the Q&A with Phillips on p. 106.]-Antoinette Brinkman, MLS, Evansville, IN Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A probing exploration of the full meaning of sanity, conducted by British psychoanalyst and prolific author Phillips (Promises, Promises: Essays on Poetry and Psychoanalysis, 2002, etc.). Although sanity is a word "with virtually no scientific credibility," he writes in his preface, "it has become a necessary term." Explaining what it is necessary for is the task Phillips sets for himself in this erudite work. Musing aloud, dipping and diving into literary and psychiatric sources, he investigates his subject from all angles. In part one, he looks at how sanity has been defined and used by writers including Shakespeare, Lamb, Dickens and Orwell; how it has been treated by various psychoanalysts, especially Melanie Klein and her followers; and how it has been largely overlooked in the sciences. Madness, it seems, is a far more alluring subject and has received far more attention. In part two, the author struggles with the elusive nature of sanity by looking at its natural absence in two periods of life, infancy and adolescence, and then by viewing it through the prism of childhood autism, schizophrenia and depression. What these three mental conditions reveal, Phillips contends, is that a sane person is intelligible about his/her wants; lives within some consensus of shared desires, meanings and forms of exchange; and possesses an appropriate self-regard. Rather surprisingly, he ends this section by turning to a discussion of what happens to our ideas about sanity when money plays a role. In part three, Phillips spells out what sanity could usefully be. Distinguishing between the superficially sane and the deeply sane, he describes both what it would be like to be deeply sane and what thatmight involve in terms of doing, feeling and wanting. It is, in essence, a recipe for being a human being. Challenges the reader to reconsider the taken-for-granted notion that sanity is just another word for mental health.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780007155392
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/4/2005
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Adam Phillips is the author of eleven previous books, including Side Effects and Houdini's Box. He writes regularly for the New York Times, the London Review of Books, and The Observer. He lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Going Sane

Maps of Happiness
By Adam Phillips

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Adam Phillips
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0007155395

Chapter One

People wondered whether Hamlet was mad, not whether he was sane. The word itself -- derived from the Latin sanus and the French sain, and meaning originally of the body . . . "healthy, sound, not diseased" -- was not commonly used in the seventeenth century, when it first appeared. It is, indeed, used only once by Shakespeare, and perhaps unsurprisingly in Hamlet; and, also perhaps unsurprisingly, it is used by Polonius. Polonius wonders, like several other people in the play, whether Hamlet is "mad," a word used over two hundred times by Shakespeare; and used, with its cognate "madness," thirty-five times in Hamlet. The words "mad" and "madness" are bandied about in Hamlet (though not often by Hamlet himself) because they seem pertinent -- they seem to locate a problem without quite saying what the problem is. The madness resists definition -- no one is quite sure what it refers to, or indeed what Hamlet himself seems to be referring to. Characters in the play often don't understand what Hamlet is saying, but Hamlet reassures them that they do, at least, understand what they themselves are saying. "Mad," in the play, is a word for "puzzling." "Your noble son is mad," Polonius says helpfully to Gertrude and Claudius: "Mad call I it. For, to de-fine true madness, What is't but to be nothing else than mad? But let that go" (II.2.92-5). Polonius clearly has a problem about definition here; "true madness" is a strange phrase since madness is a form of dissembling. True madness, for example, could just mean acting. We might wonder whether Hamlet is pretending to wonder about the difference between selves on show in public and selves on show in private. Madness, in other words, tends to the theatrical, even when it is not good theater. Sanity tends the other way. Being mad, as Polonius suggests, can mean acting as if one were mad; being sane cannot mean acting as if one were sane.

The theatricality of madness is one clue that alerts us to the difficulties we have in imagining sanity. Hamlet's madness makes people suspicious, incites their curiosity, gets them talking. Even though it is an abstract word, madness is an abstraction we can visualize, we can picture how it performs. Sanity doesn't quite come to life for us in the same way: it has no drama. Like the "good" characters in literature, the sane don't have any memorable lines. They don't seem quite so real to us. Insofar as we can imagine them at all, they are featureless, bland, unremarkable.

What may seem striking about Hamlet to modern eyes and ears is that sanity is not invoked simply as a counter to madness, as a defining alternative. When the word turns up, it is used by Polonius to describe just how impressed he is by the inventiveness, the eloquent intelligence, of Hamlet's supposed madness.

Polonius: (aside) Though this be madness, yet there is method in't. -- Will you walk out of the air, my lord?

Hamlet: Into my grave?

Polonius: Indeed, that's out of the air. (aside) How pregnant sometimes his replies are! A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of.

Sanity, for Polonius, is a different way of speaking; madness is not worse than sanity, it just makes sanity sound dull. Madness is not opposed to sanity, it has a different method; even though method, of course, is usually associated with reason (even here Hamlet's madness is making Polonius himself more imaginative). Madness hits on things that sanity and reason can conceive of, but so "prosperously"; Hamlet's madness, though these would not be Polonius's words, is more poetic, more suggestive, more evocative, more flaunting of its verbal gifts and talents than mere sanity. Words can be delivered more or less prosperously; a happiness can be struck by madness that reason and sanity can diminish. Sanity tempers where madness excels. Both are "pregnant," promising the new life that is new words, but they deliver quite differently. It is a difference of quality but not of kind. The words of the mad are more prosperous than the words of the sane; and "prosperous" was then a more prosperous word than it is for us now, as it meant "bringing prosperity; favourable, propitious, auspicious" (Oxford English Dictionary). Prosperous words augured well for the future (even though Hamlet's prosperous words didn't, in fact, augur well for his). For Polonius, sanity and madness are two ways of being pregnant with words.

Polonius connects reason and sanity, an association that has become all too familiar to us, and suggests that compared with Hamlet's madness they are lacking in something. It is precisely what sanity may be lacking that Hamlet's madness makes Polonius wonder about (as though the mad expose the sane in the same way that the Fool exposes his Master). The replies of the mad are somehow more pregnant; the dialogue of the sane is poorer. And yet the mad make us suspicious, we can't rely on them to be telling us the truth. Whereas sanity is assumed to be morally good -- the folio has "sanctity" for "sanity" -- madness may be disreputable; and because it may be, because we can't ever be quite sure what the mad are really up to, it is. The mad don't let us take it for granted that we know where we are with them. Hamlet's madness is artful but duplicitous; Hamlet has good lines but a weak character, at least according to Polonius. Which, of course, immediately raises the question of what more there may be to a person's character than the words they speak. Polonius is so perturbed by Hamlet partly because he is so impressed by him.


Excerpted from Going Sane by Adam Phillips Copyright © 2005 by Adam Phillips.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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