One person’s excess is another’s insufficiency. Some of you know that I’ve been stockpiling books against the onslaught of the ereader, and it’s a task I’ve put my back into. Having a quick tot up, I figured I had in total, counting every book I owned, even the academic ones, about 8 year’s worth of reading stored up. I then made the error of judgement that was informing my menfolk. My husband burst out laughing and my son nearly fainted with horror. I was actually thinking that I should at least round the figure up to a full decade.
But the book I’ve been reading on and off recently, Adam Phillips’ latest collection of essays, On Balance, has a fascinating series of linked essays on excess and what it means. We are, he suggests, living in a time of excess, both obsessed and horrified by binge drinking, anorexia, bankers’ bonuses, celebrities and their multiple relationships, gluttony and fundamentalist religion. Excess is contagious, and so the more we see excess around us, the more excessive our reactions become, the more we feel entitled to be excessive ourselves.
Ever rigorous, Phillips begins by asking what excess means, and proposes that it represents more than the understood ‘right’ amount of anything. This right amount is usually culturally defined, changing from society to society and forming the basis for most of the big battles in cultural history – what, for instance, we used to consider the ‘right amount’ for women to be involved in public life, or visible outside the home, has been successfully argued to be nowhere near enough for the women concerned. So already we see an important pattern evolving. That ‘right’ amount is the figure of conservatism, or to put it another way, what seems to be safe, orderly, healthy, controlled, comforting, within the regulations. But it’s often an emotional estimation as much as a rational one.
Phillips points out that when we are excessive in other people’s eyes, we are rarely overreacting or overreaching ourselves in our own. On the one hand, everyone’s internal limits and their sense of need are bound to be different, but on the other, an excessively angry reaction can indicate that similar needs that have been repressed or denied on the part of the angry person. Other people’s excesses can reveal things we’d rather not know about our own fears and longings, our regrets and frustrations. If we are appalled by a drug addict, it won’t mean that we want to take drugs too, rather, that we may be alarmed by the thought of losing our autonomy, of becoming emotionally dependent. Or we may wish, ourselves, to be someone else’s drug of choice, or we may be terrified by the thought of physical loss of control. There’s nothing more revealing about our history and tastes, Phillips suggests, than our reactions to other people’s excessive behaviour and it’s worthwhile figuring out why some of those infringements are so compelling.
But evidently, sometimes excess really is too much, and Phillips wonders what lies behind this too. What lies behind greed, he asks? And suggests that there is always actual or feared deprivation. We are greedy because we fear we might never get hold of something again, or it might be taken away from us and so we must hoard it. Or we may be greedy out of envy, because what we want doesn’t belong to us, and if we destroy it then we may finally be free of the desire for it, we might reach a point of satiation. We may be greedy because we don’t want to make choices, thus depriving ourselves of some pleasure or other, and that feels like an unwarranted punishment. All too often, though, we are greedy because we are trying to assuage one deprivation with something that is readily available but isn’t actually what we want. Comfort eating, for instance. We might really want self-esteem, or security, or love, or acknowledgement, but given that we can’t actually find them, then three cakes may do instead. Except, of course, they don’t.
Appetite, Phillips says, can be satisfied. What we have an appetite for usually comes with healthy boundaries. But greed is something else altogether, born out of a horror of deprivation and a belief that we cannot bear frustration.
So all of this made me look at my books in a new light. What is my greed for books really about? The first thing that books give me is a quieter mind. I have one of those noisy, busy minds that are thinking about three or four things at once. The only time it really calms down is when I’m reading and am focused on the story. Even writing isn’t enough to occupy my entire mind the way reading does. The second thing books give me is meaning, and that was an interesting thing to realise. I find that I have an abhorrence of meaninglessness. For instance, I hate parties, because for me nothing meaningful ever happens at them. All that small talk with people I’ll probably never meet again – who on earth would subject themselves to that? It’s not just a disinclination. I find myself overcome with existential dread at such occasions, like the vortex of lack of meaning is swallowing me up. The more meaningful an activity is, the better I like it. Plus, books themselves are often about the way that an excess has to be tamed or dealt with, or how excessive behaviour results in catastrophe or (very rarely) salvation. Stories are all about overstepped borderlines and unbearable frustrations. And perhaps, I wondered, is that why people read less than they used to, because stories ask us to consider restraint and balance in a society that more and more seeks to secure an entitlement to excess?