The world and society being what they are, omnipresent and all-encompassing, they are the default leaders of our lives. Engraved on the subway walls at 42nd and Sixth in New York City are the words of C G Jung: 'Nature must not win the game, but she cannot lose.' About a century ago while Jung was preparing a lecture tour in America, his companion said, 'Don't they realize we are bringing them the plague?' His companion was the star of Phillips's book, Sigmund Freud.
A child psychoanalyst and literary critic, Phillips probes deeply into the human malaise; if you say, What malaise?, this book is not for you. He comes up with the odd remark often, such as, We travel to protect ourselves from the possibility of arriving, or The quest for knowledge would seem to be about dispelling desire: "Tell me who you desire and I will tell you who you are." What humanity as a whole apparently desires however is of a magnitude infinitely greater. On the front page of today's New York Times, seed money of $500,000 is being offered to study what it would take to send humans to another star, a challenge so daunting the study alone could take a hundred years, at which time we will all be dead.
On Balance was my vacation book this year, a kind of ballast against the euphoria, but it would not be the kind of thing I'd want on my private island; I'd want something like a mixture of Zen and Christianity, music above all, and a bottle of wine. I'd leave the great Chinese poets at their rest. May I add how startled I was to read on page 286 how insufficient are all the helps and glories of human civilization, never fully adequate to our needs and desires. "Human nature, without divine redemption, is a disillusionment that cannot be borne." In writing about W H Auden, Phillips says that unredeemed human nature had become unbearable to him. He is not alone in this assessment.
You may also wish to read the fairly positive review in the current New York Review of Books, and may I point out the admiring comment of Judith Shulevitz in her review of All About Love in the August 14 New York Times Book Review: she calls Phillips "an accomplished aphorist who hovers over the pages like an interrupting angel." Lastly, Phillips has a place in the Joys of Secularism, an anthology just published and reviewed by James Wood in the current New Yorker.