Going Sane – Adam Phillips


The subject of this book excites me. I am interested in the terms ‘sanity’ and ‘insanity’ because they always seem to be very subjective and yet they hold such importance in social status. What does it mean to be sane? Is it simply the absence of a medically defined psychosis, or is it more to do with the willingness to succumb to societal norms and rules without causing major disruption to oneself or others? Perhaps to be sane is to have the ability to think rationally: to use what we have come to understand as the left side of the brain, or at least never use the right side to the exclusion of the left. Which brings me to another aspect that interests me – how does sanity relate to creativity? There are many well known cases of ‘crazy artists’ and even ‘crazy scientists’, and these are often the ones making big breakthroughs due to having unbridled imagination. Can an entirely sane person ‘think outside the box’ enough to become one of the greats in these fields?

These are the sort of questions I was hoping for an in-depth discussion of in this book, and it does attempt to deal with all of these ideas. Unfortunately for me, it just wasn’t well-structured or coherent, and that made it a big let-down.

The opening is promising, exploring the idea that a death row prisoner must be sane in order to be executed. Phillips uses this to show just how difficult it is to define what we mean by the word. But most of part one, which accounts for 85 out of 245 pages, is a restating of this problem without offering anything more in-depth. It makes repetitive references to texts such as Hamlet, but doesn’t use it to make any clear point. There are quotes from several thinkers on the topic, which in themselves are quite insightful – in fact one of the things I did get out of this book was to add the works of RD Laing to my reading list – but they are not tied together by a strong narrative and the reader is left a bit perplexed as to what argument is being made.

I did like the ideas hinted at in the chapter entitled ‘Money Mad’, though it was nothing particularly new:

‘The money motive is a kind of moral alchemy, a magical act in which the bad is made to seem good; in which what was once considered to be distasteful about people – the callous ruthlessness of their greed, say – begins to be described as morally impressive (realistic, bold, ingenious and so on).’

‘When we finally see through the accumulation of wealth as a paramount project, the most successful people in our culture will be handed over to the specialists in mental disease and the sane will be those who dared to assess the money-motive.’

The idea of a sane child was interesting too: depending on the definition you choose, all children could be born sane and it is the demands of adulthood that brings the possibility of insanity among us. But if adults went around behaving like children, they would probably not be considered sane. This implies that the concept of sanity is a combination of societal expectations and the way we deal with and learn from our experiences as they build up.

In summary, I was disappointed with this book. It seemed as though it was written as a rough stream of thoughts, with little care given to the order, structure and purpose of what was being said. When the premise was so good, this made for a frustrating read and there was little that made a lasting impression on me.

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