By Adam Phillips
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2010 Adam Phillips
All rights reserved.
Five Short Talks on Excess
It is very stretchy.
Kay Ryan, 'The Fabric of Life'
Nothing makes people more excessive than talking about excess. We tend to become either extremely disapproving or unusually enthusiastic and excited about the most recently reported celebrity orgy, or managing director's pay rise. No one can be indifferent to binge drinking, or the amount of pornography on the internet; everyone knows someone now who has a so-called eating disorder, and everyone knows about the huge numbers of people in the world who are starving. Excess is everywhere now – excesses of wealth and of poverty, of sex and greed, of violence and of religious belief. If the twentieth century was, in the title of historian Eric Hobsbawm's book, The Age of Extremes, then the twenty-first century looks like being the Age of Excess. When people are being extreme they push things to their limits; when they are being excessive they push things beyond their limits.
I want here to explore our fear and loathing, our fascination and craving for excess in all its forms. And I want to bear in mind something very strange about excess, something best pictured perhaps by the extraordinary consumerism of Western societies, or by the religious and anti-religious fanaticism in contemporary culture; and that is that excess is contagious. Nothing makes people more excessive than talking about excess.
Like a lot of the words we use very easily, 'excess' is older than we imagine. The Oxford English Dictionary dates its earliest, most literal meaning of 'the action of going out or forth' to the fifteenth century; 'excess', in its original use, being the opposite of 'access'. And this, too, I think is something we should bear in mind: access, if you like, is the freedom to go in; excess is the freedom to go out. But when we are excessive what are we going out from?
Here, again, the dictionary can help us, and this time into more familiar territory: when we are excessive we 'depart from custom [or] reason', we 'overstep' limits, we go beyond our 'rights'; we are involved in what the dictionary calls 'extravagant violation of law, decency or morality', we are guilty of 'outrageous conduct'. When we are excessive, in whatever way, we depart from what is considered appropriate behaviour; we go out from, we abandon, the version of ourselves we are supposed to be. And where do we get our standards of appropriate behaviour, our pictures of ourselves as we are supposed to be? From the societies we grow up in. Excess, the dictionary reminds us, is not simply the violation of law, decency or morality, it is the 'extravagant violation of law, decency or morality'. So excess covers a whole gamut of experiences from exaggeration to breaking the law, from boasting to genocide. The anorexic and the suicide bomber, the attention-seeking child and the compulsive gambler, the person who has more money than he needs and the person committed to celibacy are all involved, in their different ways, in extravagant violations of law, decency or morality; even though, of course, they may not see it this way. And this, too, is important when we are thinking about excess: what is excessive to one person may be to another person just an ordinary way of life. The devoutly religious are not, in their own view, overdoing it; terrorists are not, in their view, overreacting to the injustices they feel they have suffered. Indeed, one of the ways of describing many of our personal and political and religious conflicts is that someone is trying to persuade someone else that they are being excessive: excessively cruel, excessively disrespectful, excessively unjust. So we need to remember just how much can hang on our definitions of excess. I want to consider here what might make us feel, in any given situation, that someone is being excessive; and what, when we feel people are being excessive, we want to do about it. Our knee-jerk reaction is often to want to punish them, and often excessively. And yet people usually punish each other when they don't know what else to do; which is why punishment is so often beside the point, an excited failure of imagination. Punishment is despair about the rules, not their enforcement. So it isn't just that excess is contagious, but that other people's excess permits us, or even frees us, to be excessive ourselves. Our reactions to other people's excesses – of violence, of appetite, of belief – are, as we shall see, extremely revealing. 'All truths,' the philosopher Alain Badiou writes, 'are woven from extreme consequences.' There are also truths woven from excessive consequences.
But perhaps one thing we shouldn't lose sight of is just how reassuring the whole idea of excess can be; when we are not permitted to take excess baggage on the plane it is because somebody is keeping an eye on our safety, somebody knows how much the plane can take. In other words, what is reassuring about the idea of excess – about our being able to think that someone is being excessive – is that it implies that we know our limits, that we have a sure sense of the proper way to behave, that we know what is appropriate and right. Every time we have the moralistic version of the excess experience – the righteous indignation, or rage, or grief about the transgressions of other people – we relocate ourselves, firmly and safely, within the rules, the protective walls, of our societies. In these moments we are reminded of how the world should be, and that someone who knows the rules and can enforce them is looking after us. The child who has a tantrum is trying to find out if his parents are robust, whether they can withstand his hatred and rage and frustration. In this instance excessive behaviour is an opportunity for the parents to remind themselves, or for society to remind itself, of established rules and regulations. It reassures us to see that we clearly know what the rules are because we are outraged when they are broken.
If we are so good at spotting excessive behaviour when we see it – excessive eating, excessive sex, excessive shopping, the excessive beliefs of religious fanatics – then we must know, or think we know, what just the right amount of these things is. If we can recognize greed when we see it, we must know how people should eat; if we can be appalled by the sexual excesses reported in the tabloids, we must know what kind of sex people should be having, and how often they should be having it; if we are full of righteous indignation about people we think of as 'religious fanatics', we must surely have very strong ideas about how much people should believe things, about what people should believe in and what their beliefs should drive them to do. But what is the right amount of belief? How do we know when someone's grief is excessive? Perhaps when it makes us feel something more excessive than we would like to feel?
There is an obvious irony here: many of the things that matter most to us – like love, or grief, or appetite, or violence, or political and religious belief – cannot be measured; and yet one of the things we are most alert to, one of the things we speak about with the most passionate conviction, is when we feel these things have become excessive. It is as if we have our own internal measure of these things that can't be quantified; and this internal measure is one of the most important things about us. How could we live without a sense of what is excessive? Indeed, as I have said, is it not striking how excessive we can be in our reactions to other people's excesses? Nothing makes us more excessive than excess; nothing makes us more disapproving, disgusted, punitive – not to mention fascinated, exhilarated and amazed – than other people's extravagant appetite for food, or alcohol, or money, or drugs, or violence; nothing makes us more frightened, more furious, more despairing than other people's extreme commitment to political ideals or religious beliefs. It is, one should notice, almost always other people who are being excessive in their belief, not oneself. 'One is never, in any way whatever, overwhelmed by another person's excesses,' the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once said, 'one is only and always overwhelmed because their excesses happen to coincide with your own.' From a psychoanalytic point of view other people's excesses disturb us, get us worked up, because they reveal something important to us about ourselves; about our own fears and longings. Indeed, other people's excesses might reveal to us, at its most minimal, that we are, or have become, the excessive animals; the animals for whom excessive behaviour is the rule rather than the exception (there are laws of human nature, but not for us). You only have to read the newspapers to realize that this is a plausible possibility. Our excesses may be in excess of our capacity to understand and to regulate. And if we have become the excessive animals we may have to do more than merely aspire not to be.
When Lacan suggests that we are only overwhelmed by other people's excesses because they are the same as our own he is not simply saying, for example, that our horror about drug addiction means that we are secretly tempted or prone to become drug addicts; but that drug addiction may be a picture, say, of how fearful we might be generally of our own dependence, how terrified we are of becoming enslaved to the people we need. And drug addiction can also be a picture of how tempted we are to try to become everything that the person we love needs; to become, in a way, their drug of choice. In other words, Lacan's point is that our reaction to other people's excesses is an important clue to something vital about ourselves; our reflex response to other people's excessive behaviour – the thrill of righteous indignation, the moral superiority of our disgust – is more complex and more interesting than it at first seems. If other people's excesses reveal the bigot in us, they also reveal how intriguing and subtle the bigot is. There is nothing more telling, nothing more revealing of one's own character and history and taste, than one's reaction to other people's excesses. Tell me which kinds of excess fascinate you, tell me which kinds of excess appall you, and I will tell you who you are. This would be one, excessive, way of putting it. Or one could more sensibly say: notice which excesses you are drawn to (and there is, of course, an excess of excesses to choose from now – road rage, fundamentalism, self-improvement, shopping), the ones you can't stop complaining about, the ones that make you speak out, or the ones that just give you some kind of secret, perhaps slightly embarrassing pleasure, and try to work out what about them is so compelling.
Excessive behaviour, it seems obvious to say, attracts our attention; what is perhaps less obvious is why it should do so. We are excessively interested in the excessive behaviour that interests us; and to be excessively interested is to be more interested than we would like to be. So even though it would be silly to say that our reaction to other people's excesses is the key to our nature – because there is no key to our nature – it is true to say, I think, that our reactions to other people's excesses reveal to us what our conflicts are. I don't want to be a drug addict, but I do want to be free to need someone; and I don't want to lose my life when I do need them. I don't want to be a suicide bomber, but I may want to have something in my life that is so important to me that I would risk my life for it; or I may simply want to be aggressive enough to be able to protect the people I love. Or I may even want to have the courage of my despair. The excesses of other people, and of ourselves, can make us think, rather than merely react. Indeed, something as powerful as excess might – if we can suspend our fear – allow us to have thoughts we have never had before. After all, inspiration, falling in love, conversion experiences, a sense of injustice – the most radical transformations that can occur in a life – are traditionally overwhelming, excessive experiences. Even though we often want to get over them, to get back to normal as quickly as possible. 'For the doctrine of conversion,' the Victorian classicist Benjamin Jowett wrote, 'the moralist substitutes the theory of habit.' And nothing, of course, is more excessive than a habit.
So perhaps when the poet William Blake wrote in his 'Proverbs of Hell' that 'The road of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom', he wasn't joking? We don't tend to look to anorexics or gluttons, to the extravagantly rich or the promiscuous, for wisdom; we don't think of drug addicts or mass murderers as necessarily enlightened. So perhaps Blake was being ironic; they are, after all, 'Proverbs of Hell'. Perhaps the road of excess, through the very disillusionments it produces, is a source of wisdom; that it is not the alcoholic but the recovering alcoholic who has something to tell us. Perhaps as part of growing up we need to be excessive – to try to break all the rules just to be able to find out what, if anything, the rules are made of, and why they matter. Perhaps only the road of excess can teach us when enough is enough. (And perhaps 'perhaps' – like all our cherished rhetoric of self-doubt – is one way we temper our excesses in language.) As Blake says, in another of his proverbs, 'You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.' Either certain kinds of excess are not simply good for us, but essential to our well-being; or we need to go through excessive experiences to discover what they can't do for us, to discover just how much of something we really need. But what is a Palace of Wisdom? And why would that be a good place to go to?
Enough Is Enough
When the novelist Thomas Mann was a child his father contrived an experiment to teach him and his siblings a lesson about appetite. 'Our father assured us,' Mann writes, 'that once in our lives we could eat as many cream puffs ... and cream rolls at the pastry shop as we wanted. He led us into a sweet-smelling Paradise, and let the dream become reality – and we were amazed how quickly we reached the limit of our desire, which we had believed to be infinite.' Here the road of excess does lead to the Palace of Wisdom; what the young Thomas Mann discovers, reassuringly, is that his appetite has a natural limit; in anticipation his youthful hunger may be excessive, but when it comes to it he is amazed how quickly, as he puts it, 'we reached the limit of our desire'. We only need to experiment with our greed to discover that it is only in our fantasies that we are excessive; in reality our appetite is sensible; is, as we like to say, self-regulating. We know when we have had enough.
But it is, of course, still worth wondering why, in our fantasy lives, we tend to be so excessive; why, at least in fantasy, excessive appetite and its satisfaction is so appealing to us. When the singer Neil Diamond was asked how he felt about being rich, he said, 'You can't have two lunches.' It would be a relief to believe that excess is just something we imagine; that if we were very rich, if we could eat as much as we liked, we would discover just how reasonable we really are.
You may not be able to have two lunches, but you can have one very long lunch; and children, as we know, given half a chance, can all too easily make themselves sick by eating, say, too much chocolate. Clearly we would like to believe that we are not by nature excessive creatures; that excess is a sign of something being wrong. Excessive appetite, we might say, is a symptom. And Thomas Mann gives us a clue about what it might be a symptom of in the way he tells his story. 'Our father assured us,' he wrote, 'that once in our lives we could eat as many cream puffs ... as we wanted'; but why only once? No reliable scientific experiment is performed only once. It is as though the father knew that once would be enough. Perhaps the experiment was a set-up to prove the father's authority – or perhaps Mann was suggesting in this story that there is only one thing more excessive than appetite, at least for a child, and that is his excessive belief in his father's authority. What the experiment proved was how much the children wanted to be what their father wanted them to be; it proved that they were not really greedy but well-behaved. History would prove that in Thomas Mann's Germany it was the appetite for authority that was excessive; people would do literally anything for their Fatherland, for their Führer.
We might say, then, that excessive behaviour reveals a failure of authority; that only children with weak parents are excessive. From a psychoanalytic point of view we might even say – in support of the law-and-order lobby – that when young people are being excessive they are unconsciously – without realizing it – trying to find strong, containing parents. Unruly adolescents, for example, can be thought of as needing to find out just how reliable, just how robust and impressive, the authorities really are. And even though this is an often useful account – that children are only as powerful as their parents let them be, and that there is nothing the child is more frightened of than being too powerful – there is something in this view that we need to notice. Excess, as I have argued, is contagious. We always meet one kind of excess with another. In this case an excessive belief in authority is taken to be the cure for excesses of appetite. At its crudest this translates as: greed is simply a need for authority, and the greedy need to be intimidated or blackmailed. In this cartoon the authorities say: if you curb, or even renounce, the excesses of your appetite, we will love and protect you, and even, in some religions, reward you with eternal life. But if you don't, we won't. These are desperate measures. We seem to be the only animals for whom appetite is excessive, the only animals who eat more than they need, and we have settled into this view. Most of us live now as if we are more or less reconciled to the fact that too many people are starving while too many people are eating too much. (Continues...)
Excerpted from On Balance by Adam Phillips. Copyright © 2010 Adam Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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