Darwin's Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories

Darwin's Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories

by Adam Phillips


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Adam Phillips has been called "the psychotherapist of the floating world" and "the closest thing we have to a philosopher of happiness." His style is epigrammatic; his intelligence, electric. His new book, Darwin's Worms, uses the biographical details of Darwin's and Freud's lives to examine endings-suffering, mortality, extinction, and death. Both Freud and Darwin were interested in how destruction conserves life. They took their inspiration from fossils or from half-remembered dreams. Each told a story that has altered our perception of our lives. For Darwin, Phillips explains, "the story to tell was how species can drift towards extinction; for Freud, the story was how the individual tended to, and tended towards his own death." In each case, it is a death story that uniquely illuminates the life story.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465056767
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 02/06/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 4.90(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.50(d)
Lexile: 1220L (what's this?)

About the Author

Adam Phillips has been called "the closest thing we have to a philosopher of happiness." Formerly Principal Child Psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London, Phillips is the author of such works as Winnicott; On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored; Monogamy; On Flirtation; Terror and Experts; Darwin's Worms; Promises, Promises; and Houdini's Box.

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John Cage tells the story somewhere of going to a concert of music composed by a friend of his. The composer had also written the programme notes for the music in which he said, among other things, that he hoped his music might go some way to diminishing the suffering in the world. After the concert his friend asked him what he thought of the event and Cage answered, 'I loved the music but I hated the programme notes.' 'But don't you think there's too much suffering in the world?' the friend asked, obviously put out. 'No,' Cage replied, 'I think there's just the right amount.'

    Everyone is shocked by how much suffering there is in the world, as if we really believe there could, or should, be much less. Indeed, talking about justice or scientific progress are both ways of talking about potentially avoidable suffering. We need to believe that someone can intervene in our suffering and make a noticeable difference. If this unavoidable fact of the excess of unhappiness in the world could once provoke a loss of religious faith — how could a God worth worshipping allow so much misery, indeed victimize his own son? — it now tends to create a more helpless kind of dismay. After all, in a secular world who can we blame but ourselves, or nature? Religious despair has turned, that is to say, into political despair. God can no longer redeem us, and political process cannot sufficiently protect, or even represent, the people and things we most value; global capitalism can make democracy seem amateur, while the only potent religions are fundamentalist in intent.

    From a politicalpoint of view — one that takes economics, and therefore exploitation, seriously — Cage's story is horrifying. It seems to expose the callousness, the heartlessness, of smart Zen: Cage as merely compulsively idiosyncratic, doing his shock therapy on his friends. And yet for some people who believe in something they often call nature, usually without a capital letter — people like Darwin and Freud and their followers — there is a sense in which there is just the right amount of suffering in the world, even though there is still too much. Both these writers are obsessed, in one way or another, by the kinds of suffering that, in their view, no living creature can escape. To be alive, they tell us, let alone conscious, is to be subject to certain unavoidable pressures, is to be ineluctably involved in conflict. And they both seem to want us to believe that while political systems may modify our suffering, they can never significantly diminish it. To be in nature — and now there is nowhere else to be — demands, they imply, a more realistic acknowledgement of the limits of politics, of what we can do to improve our condition. Ostensibly sceptical about political action, they seem to encourage a politics organized around, essentially mindful of, what in their view politics cannot change. Even though for their critics — and often for themselves as critics of their own work, as secret sharers of their own words — their writings are, whatever else they are, politics by other means. When they warn us of the dangers of our own utopian (or redemptive) longings, they also offer us their own preferred worlds. In their descriptions of human nature, they want to give us a sense of realistic possibility.

    'Nature,' Raymond Williams wrote, 'is perhaps the most complex word in the language.' It is used to justify both politics of diverse persuasions and the apolitical. It becomes the repository at once for everything deemed to be essential about ourselves and for everything considered to be most troubling; our foundation that is also our antagonist. In this conceptual muddle — that is the legacy of a theological world view — nature can seem to be at once the problem and the solution. If in the old world the drama was between God and nature, with 'Man' (as we were then called) as the middle-man, completing or failing to complete the triangle, then we can see Darwin and Freud as among the people involved in taking God out of the picture, leaving us with nothing between us and nature. If there is nothing outside nature, it becomes nonsensical to talk of nature, and especially human nature, as being divided against itself. Nature is, as it were, always on its own side. So when people are destructive, or self-destructive, they are not acting against their own nature, they are just being natural in ways we don't like. Instead of talking about the natural and the unnatural — or even nature and culture — we can talk about the parts of nature we prefer and why we prefer them.

    But with the advent of secular science, to say something was natural became a rhetorical (though not always less truthful) way of saying that something was inescapably important, and that we had no choice in the matter: that nature effectively set some kind of limit to what we might think of as politics (our attempts to change the world by acknowledging, and conciliating where possible, rival claims). If it is 'natural' for people to be competitive and avoid pain and death; if it is 'natural' for children to be brought up by two parents of the opposite sex; if it is 'natural' for us to understand ourselves and others — then this is where certain kinds of discussion stop, and we must bear our fate. Nature replaces consensus or law or duty as our guide. Nature dictates what is worth talking about. It seems most persuasive, in other words, to appear to be speaking on nature's behalf. As though at the end of the day nature tells us what to do.

    Darwin and Freud as naturalists — as great natural history writers — radically changed our sense of what was worth talking about, and therefore our ways of talking. After reading their work people couldn't help but be suspicious about what they themselves believed, and how they had come to their beliefs. Darwin and Freud made it very difficult for us not to use a certain kind of vocabulary when we refer to ourselves; words like sexuality, competition, childhood, the past, became compulsory in our self-descriptions. And they made us wonder, by the same token, what people who are writing about nature and human nature are actually writing about; whether, that is to say, we can tell the descriptions from the prescriptions.

    Their work was scandalous because it disfigured people's cherished ideals, and so compelled people to revise their hopes for themselves. Havoc was played with people's priorities, but always with the implicit assumption that such redescriptions could change people for the better; that if we ditched redemption, say, or dreams of perfect happiness or complete knowledge, or took our histories more to heart, we might be more happily in this world rather than any other one. But this involved, on the one hand, simply taking for granted that certain kinds of suffering were just part of life, built in to what it is to be a human being; and, on the other hand, wondering in new ways why transience had always been so daunting. Their stories about suffering, that is to say, were stories about our relationship to change. They wanted to convert us to the beauty of ephemera.

Because of the Oedipus complex, Freud's mythic account of human origins and development, desire is what ensures our survival, while at the same time being fundamentally forbidden (we depend on our parents, but they are experienced as 'belonging' to each other, and therefore as also taboo). So from a psychoanalytic point of view it is the neurotic's project — 'neurotic' being Freud's scientific jargon for an ordinary person — to ensure that he has the right amount of suffering, because he is unconsciously guilty about his natural, i.e. unavoidable, desires, and therefore requires punishment (crime without punishment means the world falling apart). And the individual suffers more simply just because she desires, and desire entails conflict and frustration. In Darwin's view, to be in nature — not, that is to say, divinely endowed: not believing there is anywhere else to be — is to be in a war dominated by scarcity of resources and potential extinction. Conflict, and therefore anguish and unease, are integral to their sense of what life is like.

    Both writers describe our bodily lives — and for both a life is synonymous with a body — as astonishingly adaptive and resilient, but also excessively vulnerable, prone to many deaths, and shadowed by the reality of death. Notably obsessed by what Frank Kermode called 'a sense of an ending', they are preoccupied by remains, by evidence of and from the past. Masters of retrospect, they distrust prophecy; they insist that the present never catches up with the past, and that the past tells us nothing reliable about the future.

    For Darwin the primal struggle to survive and reproduce obviously entails avoiding that terminal disappearance called extinction (extinction being the death of the species and so the death of deaths). Darwin is haunted by irredeemable loss. 'Domestic varieties (of animals),' he writes, in a sentence that would have been resonant for Freud, 'when turned wild, must return to something near the type of the original wild stock, or become altogether extinct.' The curious emphasis here of his italics makes it sound like an order, just as the phrase 'altogether extinct' (like being a bit pregnant) has the nonsense of fear in it. It is starkly either/or: adapt or die; and the adaptation itself, even if successful, involves suffering the loss of previously successful adaptations.

    'The individual,' Freud wrote in one of his last notes, just months before his death, 'perishes from his internal conflicts, the species perishes in its struggle with the external world to which it is no longer adapted.' If his reflections on the species are patently Darwinian — and perhaps the 'species' is also the Jews whose fate so much preoccupied him towards the end of his life — his sense of the individual's end is distinctively his own. Freud's wish — understandable if only in terms of his fleeing from the Nazis to 'die in freedom' in London — is that the individual die from within: that his death should not be inflicted from outside, that the internal world should hold sway over the external world. For Darwin the struggle was to survive in order to reproduce and thereby sustain the continuity of the species. For Freud the struggle, as we shall see, was to satisfy oneself, and essential to this satisfaction was to die in one's own way: from inside, as it were. There was the unavoidable suffering of conflict; but there was the pleasure of 'dying in one's own fashion', something, Freud asserts, that we might even suffer in order to be able to do.

Freud at his most fantastically speculative proposed, late in his work, that there was a death instinct. The death instinct — that, Freud writes, 'represents the greatest obstacle to civilization' — is, like Freud himself, not overly impressed by civilization. Because our lives are driven by the wish for satisfaction, they are a chronicle of losses; but they are also driven, Freud maintains, by a peculiarly destructive part of ourselves, by the wish to die. And yet this fictional death instinct — something of an artist itself — seems to want a particular, personalized death for us. For Freud, as for Darwin, there is not just the right amount of suffering in any conventionally moral sense of right: for who could ever condone suffering? But there is a necessary amount. Our instincts, at once the source of our suffering and of our satisfaction, ensure the survival of the species and the death of the individual.

    The amount of suffering in the world is not something added on; it is integral to the world, of a piece with our life in nature. This is one of the things that Freud and Darwin take for granted. But it is one thing not to believe in redemption — in saving graces, or supernatural solutions — and quite another not to believe in justice. So the question that haunts their writing is: how does one take justice seriously if one takes nature seriously? Neither Darwin nor Freud is politically polemical in his writing, and they are both, as I have said, sceptical about political solutions to the problems they saw in life (and neither man took kindly to his ideas being taken out of what he decided was their appropriate context). They were, in their own terms, scientists not social reformers; and science could seem like a legitimate refuge from politics and the other more apparently sordid forms of investment that made up the world they worked in. If science is for us one of the forms political life can take — by definition, a vested interest — we have to try to remember that Darwin and Freud thought of themselves as trying to tell the truth about nature, and nature was what the truth was about. One could only understand human life by understanding its place in nature. And the three truths they took for granted about 'Man' were: that Man is an animal, that he must adapt sufficiently to his environment or he will die, and that he dies conclusively. They both declared, in different ways, the death of immortality. After the death of God it is transience that takes up our time. Nature is careless with 'her' creations. She is endlessly fertile, but to no discernible end. One couldn't, that is to say, believe in Nature in the way that one could believe in God. To talk about justice now would be to talk, one way or another, about adaptation; about the ways in which we want to get on with all the natural phenomena that make up our environment (the history of psychoanalysis comes down to a debate about the nature of adaptation). Whatever it is now that sustains life — and it is stories about what keeps life going (in both senses) that Darwin and Freud keep telling us — does not seem to care about its quality. Suffering is only a problem for us.

    And yet to think of Darwin or Freud as pessimists is too crudely reassuring. They are only pessimists compared to certain previous forms of optimism (the belief in redemption, or progress, or the perfectibility of Man). We are not merely trapped in what they call nature: we are also released into it. The despair, the horror and the disillusionments they suffer in their discoveries and their inventions make them seek their own new-fashioned consolations and satisfactions. We read them, that is to say, for their redescriptions of happiness; for what they find to celebrate. In Darwin's lifelong interest in earthworms, and in Freud's lifelong antipathy to biography, we can find what they found to praise. And it was bound up, as we shall see, with the place they gave to death, and therefore to transience, in our lives. In their notes from underground they are not seeking stays against time. They are unseduced by monuments.

    'The brilliance of the earth is the brilliance of every paradise,' Wallace Stevens wrote; and one can only write the poems of the earth, as Darwin and Freud did, if one is happily convinced that there is nowhere else to go. When transience is not merely an occasion for mourning, we will have inherited the earth. And it was at inheriting the earth — making sense of our lives as bound by mortality not seduced by transcendence, by after-lives — that they both worked so prodigiously. They want to teach us to let time pass. But inheriting the secular earth required a sense of history, not merely leaps and bounds of faith. It required forms of knowledge and methods of enquiry that didn't need to exalt themselves, as though they were alternative religions. Clearly the new languages of Darwin and Freud have been immensely influential. Their versions of nature — that is to say, their versions of what we are really like — have had a pervasive influence. A lot of people now think of childhood and sexuality as the sources of their suffering, just as many people tend to think of themselves as virtual animals struggling competitively for survival. What we inherit from the past is now a cultural obsession; and the nature of inheritance itself informs our most compelling fictions. Whether or not we read Darwin and Freud, they read us; we speak a version of their languages. We can't easily forget what they wanted to persuade us was true. Their stories are still difficult to get round. And they were both preoccupied, throughout their writing lives, by the ends of life, in both senses: its purpose, and the place of death, and even of extinction, in the ways we live — by death as the exemplary fact, the fact that lures us into fictions.

    For Darwin the story to tell was how species can drift towards extinction; for Freud, as we shall see, the story was of how the individual tended to, and tended towards, his own happiness and his own death. In each case it is a death story that uniquely illuminates the life story; indeed, that makes it intelligible. What makes creatures die is deemed to be a key to how they live (as if you can only start telling the story when you know what is driving it to its conclusion). Whether any given species was aiming to avoid extinction in order to reproduce, or whether any individual was driven to die in her own way as some kind of consummate satisfaction, the pragmatic implication was clear. If death was at once final and unavoidable, it was also a kind of positive or negative ideal; it was either what we most desired, or what, for the time being, had to be avoided at all costs. For both Darwin and Freud, in other words, death was an organizing principle; as though people were the animals that were haunted by their own and other people's absences (birthdays remind us that we were once inconceivable). Modern lives, unconsoled by religious belief, could be consumed by the experience of loss.

    So what else could a life be now but a grief-stricken project, a desperate attempt to make grief itself somehow redemptive, a source of secular wisdom? Now that all modern therapies are forms of bereavement counselling, it is important that we don't lose our sense of the larger history of our grief. It was not life after death that Darwin and Freud speculated about, but life with death: its personal and trans-generational history. 'We demand,' Ruth Anna Putnam writes, 'that our image of the world be hospitable to our most urgent interests.' It is the consequence, if not always the intention, of both Darwin's and Freud's writing to make our lives hospitable to the passing of time and the inevitability of death, and yet to sustain an image of the world as a place of interest, a place to love.

Redemption — being saved from something or other — has been such an addictive idea because there must always be a question, somewhere in our minds, about what we might gain from descriptions and experiences of loss. And the fact of our own death, of course, is always going to be a paradoxical kind of loss (at once ours and not ours). But the enigma of loss — looked at from the individual's and, as it were, from nature's point of view — was what haunted Darwin and Freud. As though we can't stop speaking the language of regret; as though our lives are trailed by disappointment and grief, and this in itself is a mystery. After all, nothing else in nature seems quite so grief-stricken, or impressed by its own dismay. And it was, unsurprisingly, in our experiences of loss that we might feel most abandoned in a world without God; radically inconsolable in such a starkly natural world, the bearers of a gloom apparently unshared by any other creatures. How could it be possible that we were only natural creatures, but that nature was felt to be insufficient for our needs? Either nature must be in some (old-fashioned) sense evil, or we have misconstrued our needs.

    Darwin and Freud showed us the ways in which it was misleading to think of nature as being on our side. Not because nature was base or sinful, but because nature didn't take sides, only we did. Nature, in this new version, was neither for us nor against us, because nature (unlike God, or the gods) was not that kind of thing. Some of us may flourish, but there was nothing now that could promise, or underwrite, or predict, a successful life. Indeed, what it was that made a life good, what it was about our lives that we should value, had become bewildering. The traditional aims of survival and happiness, redescribed by Darwin and Freud, were now to be pursued in a natural setting. And nature seemed to have laws but not intentions, or a sense of responsibility; it seemed to go its own unruly, sometimes discernibly law-bound, way despite us (if nature was gendered as a mother, she was difficult to entrust ourselves to; and if we could love a mother like this, what kind of creatures were we?). And though we were evidently simply parts of nature — nature through and through — what nature seemed to be like could be quite at odds with what or who we thought we were like.

    Nature, apparently organized but not designed, did not have what we could call a mind of its own, something akin to human intelligence. Nor does nature have a project for us; it cannot tell us what to do, only we can. It doesn't bear us in mind because it doesn't have a mind ('One is inclined to say that the intention that man should be happy has no part in the plan of creation,' Freud writes, knowing that there is no plan and no creation). And what we called our minds were natural products, of a piece with our bodies. So we couldn't try to be more or less natural — closer to nature, or keeping our distance from it — because we were of nature. It was not like a place we could leave, but only, perhaps, a place we could find out more about. As though we might be more at home in nature once we realized what kind of home it was (or, indeed, whether home was the right word for these particular living conditions). This, at least, is the implicit hope in what Darwin and Freud have to tell us: that what we are living in — what we cannot help but live with — can be made more than bearable by their descriptions of it. Whether we are 'survival machines' (in Richard Dawkins' phrase), or 'desiring machines' (in Deleuze and Guattari's phrase), or not like machines at all, it's worth construing what we are like; it's worth going on with the analogies. If, once, we could think of ourselves as (sinful) animals aspiring to be more God-like, now we can wonder what, as animals without sin (though more than capable of doing harm), we might aspire to.

    Darwin and Freud, as we shall see, are notably sceptical about what was once called the 'perfectibility' of Man. Indeed, for both of them we are the animals who seem to suffer, above all, from our ideals. Indeed, it is part of the moral gist of their work not merely that we use our ideals to deny, to over-protect ourselves from, reality; but that these ideals — of redemption, of cure, of progress, of absolute knowledge, of pure goodness — are refuges that stop us living in the world as it is and finding out what it is like, and therefore what we could be like in it. Darwin and Freud, that is to say, give us their versions of reality — that they call nature, and by implication human nature — in order to persuade us to reconsider our hopes for ourselves.

    We have been looking, they suggest, in the wrong place, for the wrong things; spellbound by ideas of progress and self-knowledge only to discover not that, as we already knew, such things were difficult and demanding, but that they quite literally did not exist, and didn't give us the kinds of lives we wanted. That we have been hunting for unicorns when our energies might have been better spent. That the one pleasure we have denied ourselves is the pleasure of reality (what Freud called the 'reality principle' wasn't merely — or solely — the enemy of pleasure, but its guarantor). And if we are to take Darwin and Freud seriously as writers, we have to acknowledge the ways in which reality was a viable term for them: that they used the word to do something. Because, as a concept, it was a synonym for nature, it was rarely ironized by them. Reality referred to what we were diminished by refusing to acknowledge.

    Pursuing his 'enquiry concerning happiness' in Civilization and its Discontents, Freud writes of

the three sources from which our suffering comes: the superior power of nature, the feebleness of our own bodies and the inadequacies of the regulations which adjust the mutual relationships of human beings in the family, the state and society. In regard to the first two sources, our judgement cannot hesitate long. It forces us to acknowledge those sources of suffering and to submit to the inevitable. We shall never completely master nature; and our bodily organism, itself a part of that nature, will always remain a transient structure with a limited capacity for adaptation and achievement. This recognition does not have a paralysing effect. On the contrary, it points the direction for our activity. If we cannot remove all suffering, we can remove some, and we can mitigate some: the experience of many thousands of years has convinced us of that.

    It is such acknowledgements, not their disavowal, that point us in the right direction; it is the realities of nature that are our best source of inspiration. Nature becomes another word for what is actually possible. And psychoanalysis for Freud was to help us distinguish — as does politics — the inevitable from the chosen. To recognize how adept we can be at stunting our energies.

    By the end of the nineteenth century finding out what people were like entailed finding out through scientific methods — in all their surprisingly various forms — what nature was like. For increasing numbers of people 'Man's' relationship with God and with justice was subsumed by this project. Darwin and Freud thought of themselves as discovering the facts about nature and human nature. They were not, in their view, providing scientific foundations for their political convictions, but what would be, by definition, the foundations of any political system. For Darwin the nature his science had revealed was a 'war' that he described as a process of natural selection. Freud's nature was a war between his mythical life instinct and death instinct. Freud's common word for the fundamental nature of human nature was 'instinct' (or the drives, or the 'id'). And he writes about the workings of instinct in human beings, as opposed to other animals, as especially obscure. When he writes about nature explicitly, he stresses that 'she' will never be completely mastered by 'Man'; and he tends to describe her as awesome and vengeful ('With these forces nature rises up against us, magnificent, cruel, implacable.'). Since we ourselves are natural — made of nature's forces — Freud, like Darwin, can't seem to get away from an absurd image of 'Man' as the animal who is always trying to master what he has always already been mastered by.

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