I’ve been reading Adam Phillips again. I know, I know, I go on about him a lot, but believe me, he is just a brilliant essayist and one who never fails, with his lucid, accessible and yet always original viewpoint, to make me pause and think. I’ve been enjoying his most recent book Going Sane. It’s far more natural for us to think about, and to define, madness, Phillips, says, whilst sanity becomes an implied condition, the ever-shifting terrain where madness is not, the self-evident ‘natural’ state which is, of course, nothing of the kind. Phillips deftly shows us how sanity is used as a kind of lobbying device to persuade people to do certain things, an idealized state of being that we never really reach, and sometimes a two-dimensional cartoon-ish frame of mind from which all the pithy challenges and the violent emotions of being human have been carefully excluded.
One of the most intriguing sections – probably because I wasn’t expecting to become so interested in it – concerns our culture’s current worship of money as an unfortunate mental aberration. Phillips begins with a very good quote from Maynard Keynes: ‘When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance’ he wrote in 1932, ‘there will be great changes in the code of morals. We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles that have hag-ridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful human qualities into the position of the highest virtues. We shall be able to afford to dare to assess the money-motive at its true value.’ Now I became very interested at this point, because I think that it’s the capitalist culture that’s undermining the arts in this country. If we only ever appreciate and support ventures that make money, then naturally the arts are going to sink down to the bottom of the list. One of the great virtues of art is to say things people particularly do not want to hear, and who, pray, is going to pay money for that? Similarly the capitalist culture is making a mockery of education, because running schools like businesses means that so-called ‘hard’ subjects like physics, maths and foreign languages simply get dropped from the curriculum so that schools can maintain their pretty meaningless grade averages and their places on league tables. It’s all very dangerous to my mind, as it blinds us to the real value (non-monetary) that art and education can deliver, if we let them.
But Adam Phillips says it much better than I could: ‘When wealth is not being blatantly celebrated as it is in the money-cult we now live in, it is usually described as an object of desire that has waylaid us from a better course in life. The desire for money in this account becomes the desire that sabotages, that betrays all the other, better, desires; that makes them look both old-fashioned and unrealistic.’ I cheered at this point, because I’m regularly accused of being naïve in my opinions on money, which usually subscribe to the cliché that money cannot make you happy, and that once you have sufficient on which to live (I’ll never say that poverty is anything other than ghastly and humiliating, and having money worries is a sordid, thankless way to exist), then it’s time for the real business of living to begin. Yes businesses need to make money to keep the economy ticking over, and only a healthy economy provides the support and services necessary to protect its population, but can we honestly say that’s the situation we live in? Looking around my own culture, I see a lot of waste and inefficiency and confusion; lots of money, yes, unimaginable quantities of money circulating, but little to be proud of to show for it. Oddly, the higher the average standard of living rises, the less we seem to trust ourselves. The need for money plays so acutely on people’s longing for security, and yet if you have two arms, two legs and a brain, if you’re in reasonable health with a certain quantity of common sense then surely there will be work you can do? What kind of a society have we created for ourselves if we all doubt so damagingly our capacity to find a place for our fundamental, let alone our individual, skills?
But I think that’s why the concept of money is so powerful; it plays on our deepest insecurities. Our fear of not being equal to others, of not being valuable or worth anything, our uncertainty that we can survive and remain autonomous. Phillips goes on to say that: ‘The love of money is especially good at exposing the insanity of human desires. Its exorbitance, its carelessness, its brutality, its short-sightedness; the guilt that makes it so aggressive, and the aggression that can make it so un-negotiable; all are revealed.’ Because the desire for money is not actually a desire for anything specific (it only provides the capacity to satisfy some desires if we choose to), it lays out before us the sheer ugliness of desire when it remains untamed and undirected. One way of staying sane, Phillips suggests, has traditionally been to consider what money can’t buy. And that’s why I often find that bookish folk are the ones who are least ready to succumb to the lure of lucre. To enter the world of books and stories and become absorbed into it, you have to be interested in the elusive quality of life that comes from considering how best to live it. The arts don’t make any money because they tell us that there are no quick and easy solutions to the business of living, nothing you can buy over the counter to cure you of life. Instead they invite us to consider our interpersonal relationships, our precarious sense of selfhood, our hopes and fantasies and fears. They suggest that existing is a challenging struggle, full of set backs and uncertainties that can only be survived by the quality of input we ourselves mindfully attempt to bring to it. They ask us to take a good, hard look at ourselves and at the world we’ve created. No wonder the commercial world detests the arts! What they each hold dear stands in direct conflict. But if you’re asking me to pick which perspective holds the sane, rational, accurate depiction of how to create a rich life, then my money’s on the arts every time.