“Self-Absorption is Actually the Most Boring Game in Town”

World Picture Journal posted a fascinating exchange between John David Rhodes, Jane Elliott, and Adam Phillips on topics including: the vagueness of the word ‘happiness’, why trying to neuter desire in the Buddhist sort of way will lead to depression, the value of frustration, escaping self-absorption, and psychoanalysis. Thanks to loyal blog reader T.C. for sending this to me a couple months ago. Favorite parts excerpted below.


John David Rhodes: In various places in your work there’s clearly a kind of skepticism about aiming to be happy or choosing that as a kind of goal, and so, as a place to start, I wonder if happiness is the wrong word for a lot of other things we talk about—like contentment, or pleasure, or joy, equanimity—and if we might be better off calling those things by what they are and disentangling them from this larger term.

Adam Phillips: Yes. I think the risk is that it’s a kind of dead word because it does too much work, and that, in a way, it only becomes talkable about if you do precisely what you’ve described: break it down into all the things that it might involve for individual people at any given moment, otherwise it becomes so vague in a way, it becomes the sort of thing that no one would encourage anybody not to be, and yet, you don’t know what you’re doing when you’re encouraging them to be happy, exactly, because it contains a multitude of sins…

Jane Elliott: One of things I’ve been thinking about is that although there is so much of a drive for happiness, obviously, in popular discourse—that we should always be wanting the next thing—there does seem to be at the moment some kind of counter-discourse that’s about somehow attenuating or getting away from one’s desire. I’m thinking of the Oprah culture, things like meditation, and yoga. As if happiness is sort of inversely proportionate to desire. It’s maybe a bastardized understanding of Buddhism, in a way. It’s as if we can somehow stop looking for the object, then we can be happy. It’s almost as if getting out of the time of desire, where you are constantly looking to the future, is going to solve things, because you can just “be in the moment.” So I was wondering what you think of this counter-discourse. Does it seem to be doing any useful work, or is it just another way of saying the same thing?

AP: It seems to me a good thing that people want to have conversations about the problems attached to desiring. I think what can’t work is being a sort of Buddhism tourist. I don’t think one is going to be able to simply appropriate, in a sort of supermarket-y way, other world religions as a solution to these problems. But I do think—and presumably the credit crunch has something to do with this—that it’s been very weird living as though there’s no such thing as scarcity, when in fact, in a way you could think there’s only scarcity. I think that people being able to have an ironic relationship to their own desire and also be aware of the fact (or what seems to me to be a fact anyway) that we don’t want what we want, in one sense, and also that we’re always going to want something else, and that satisfaction is not the answer to life, so to speak. Partly because there isn’t an answer to life, but partly because satisfaction isn’t always the point. So I think what people should be talking about is…people should be trying to produce more eloquent, persuasive accounts about the value of frustration, not the value of satisfaction. And I think that the equation of happiness with forms of satisfaction is the problem.

JE: We were discussing earlier how when you read some of these accounts of “being in the moment,” it actually sounds like what is being described is depression. Because when I think of having no object of desire, that’s like being dead.

AP: It is. Yes.

JE: It’s a strange utopianism.

AP: Yes, I agree. There’s also a strange logic to it, as well. The question is whether the problem in desiring is the object of desire. Now, logically, you think it must be. So what you’ve got to do is remove the object of desire from the picture and then we’ll be okay. But in a way, you’re left with more of the problem. Because you can’t get around the fact that you’re a desiring creature. You may have different ways of relating to an object of desire, but you can’t, it seems to me, evacuate objects of desire. It’s all about the way in which one approaches them, or what one thinks one wants from them.

JE: In a way, the inverse of thinking that the next object will fix things is thinking that getting rid of the object will fix things.

AP: Yeah, exactly.

JDR: The object, even if it’s a mistaken object, needs to be there. There needs to be an object, because it’s what happens in the movement towards or away from it that’s important.

AP: Yeah.

AP: There’s a very interesting idea that has unsurprisingly fallen out of circulation that Ernest Jones had, which was the idea of aphanisis, which is loss of desire. His idea was—and it seems to me a good one, and it’s one that psychoanalysis for some reason has dropped—is the idea that the individual’s terror is the absence of desire, and that desire might be something like the thing that Miles Davis said—that he woke up for years and years with music in his head and then one day he didn’t. Desire might be something that we wake up every day with, but one day we might not. The question would be then whether there are desireless states that aren’t depression, or that don’t need to be pathologized as a way of managing them. Because it would seem to me that it’s as though the fundamental terror that capitalism exploits is that we might not want anything. That’s the thing that we’ve all got to talk each other out of. That we really want things; in fact we want loads of things. I think, in that—the fervor of that—happiness gets recruited.

JDR: I guess what I wonder is what is the relation among pleasure, happiness, and desire, what is in that triangulation?

AP: When you said that, what I thought was that, for me anyway, pleasure has to do with absorption, and it has do with absorption in something that is at least nominally outside oneself. And absorption is the prior thing, I presume, that’s pleasure-driven, so to speak, even though the pleasure to be derived from it may not be clear at all. And happiness may be a consequence of states of absorption, but it may not be. So it would seem to me that happiness is the thing that may or may not occur, but that as an object of desire, it’s a radically misleading one. But it may be one of the good things that happens as a consequence of states of absorption.

JE: Is absorption so frequently pleasurable because it has to do with release from consciousness?

AP: Yes. Or release from consciousness as self-preoccupation. I think the project is—and actually, I think the project of psychoanalysis really is—to free people not to have to bother to be interested in themselves. What people—some people, anyway—are suffering from is self-absorption, and it’s actually the most boring game in town. There’s nothing in it, actually. The only interesting things, it seems to me, are outside oneself. Not because one is altruistic, but just because there’s nothing to be interested in in oneself, actually. Obviously it’s related to what’s going on inside oneself, but it’s to do with the external world. Happiness, if it’s going to be useful, is related to the sort of free loss of interest in oneself.

AP: …we should just accept the intractability of this, that we are creatures who hope, that the more in despair we are, the more we will hope exorbitantly, and the more there is the potential for catastrophic disillusionment. The acid test in anything is always going to be, how people deal with catastrophic disillusionment, which we’ve all had an experience of, without taking refuge in cynicism or bitterness or vengefulness. If that’s possible, then something can happen. And usually it isn’t.

4 Responses to “Self-Absorption is Actually the Most Boring Game in Town”

  1. JC says:

    ‘Orthodoxy’, by G. K. Chesterton

  2. Lacking desire is inconceivable for me. Sure it promotes contentment but it’s something impossible to achieve. And yes, trying to lack desire in any way will only result in frustration.

  3. Kyle says:

    Removing “satisfaction” from the happiness equation is genius… brilliant re-framing in this. Thank you!

  4. Bethany says:

    This is seriously good stuff. Thank you!

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