“Morality without intimidation is inconceivable.”
“Morality without intimidation is inconceivable.” Adam Phillips offers up choice nuggets like this throughout Unforbidden Pleasures, his psychoanalytically-minded book about why crossing boundaries so tantalizes us and, as the title suggests, why we derive pleasure from acts that safely avoid taboo. Phillips may call into question any belief system that “requires menace to enforce it,” but he nevertheless spends an inordinate amount of time rehashing Judeo-Christian morality and myth, fixating on the Genesis creation story for long stretches. An established Freudian, Phillips’ book also never drifts too far away from the Oedipus complex, arguing that both it and “the Fall” of Adam and Eve ultimately inform what modern humanity (at least in the Western world) perhaps unconsciously use to understand the dividing lines that we construct between the acceptable from the aberrant.
Unforbidden Pleasures is scholarly to a fault. Phillips exclusively uses the classics to prove his points, and rarely allows room for contemporary anecdote or anything else that might relate to a reader who hasn’t taken at least a few psychology or philosophy courses in their lifetime. Phillips does pair iconic thinkers or literary works together in interesting ways. The book opens with the author discussing Oscar Wilde as he relates to Friedrich Nietzsche, and he later makes the case that Freud was heavily influenced by Hamlet. In the latter pairing, he points out that Hamlet claimed that the “conscience does make cowards of us all” just as Freud would argue that our stickler of a superego acts as a limiting force within our mind to prevent us from discovering our true limits, in the name of self-preservation.
When he’s not discussing why the forbidden attracts us, Phillips offers ample room for those “unforbidden pleasures” such as obedience and self-criticism. However, he’s not overly enamored with either, as obedience can ultimately only be defined in contrast to the barred pleasures it proscribes against and self-criticism as a further means to limit ourselves. Both are often seen as virtues, when often they are actually either a path of least resistance or simply a socially acceptable indulgence from which we derive pleasure. He points out that the imperative to “love your neighbor as yourself” takes on a different hue when you consider that most people secretly hate themselves. Of course, given his Freudian background, Phillips is quick to tie everything back to our childhood perceptions of our mothers, who preceded the concept of God in our lives at the ultimate provider and arbiter whose grace was often tied to conforming our behavior to fit within the realm of the unforbidden.
Phillips’ book is at its most interesting when it points out how most taboos—with the notable exception of incest and pedophilia (though he somehow neglects to include rape)—are flexible. After all, “thou shalt not kill” gets thrown out the window in wartime or on death row. However, the lack of consideration for the layperson, which could easily have been accomplished through greater emphasis on anecdote and allegory over incessant literary reference, bogs down a book that otherwise compellingly studies why life wouldn’t be as sweet without the chance to resist forbidden fruit.