Badpuppy Gay Today

Tuesday, 07 October 1997


By Adam Phillips

Book Review by Jack Nichols

MONOGAMY by Adam Phillips, New York: Pantheon Books, (Random House) 1997, hard cover, 121 pages, $17.


While gay Neo-Cons and marriage-minded militants may dream romantically of spending eternity in the arms of only one individual, Sex Panic members and many sex liberals have taken to critiquing monogamy as a relic that pointedly interferes with personal—and thence-- social happiness.

Adam Phillips, in his concise book of reflections titled Monogamy, offers ideas that speak to both groups in an unaccustomed tone, a tone that both will find provocative. Mr. Phillips, formerly the principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital in London, believes that present-day discussions about family values are, in fact, ruminations about monogamy.

In his preface he shows that, "The present controversies about family values—about marriage and the divorce rate—are really discussions about monogamy…. how people decide which are the important pleasures. What are couples for if not for pleasure? And if pleasure doesn't matter then what does? This, one could say, is the problem of monogamy."

"Certainly, to talk about monogamy is to talk about virtually everything that might matter. Honesty, murder, kindness, security, choice, revenge, desire, loyalty, lying, risk, duty, children, excitement, blame, love, promising, care, curiosity, jealousy, rights, guilt, ecstasy, morals, punishment, money, trust, envy, peace, loneliness, home, humiliation, respect, compromise, rules, continuity, secrecy, chance, understanding, betrayal, intimacy, consolation, freedom, appearances, suicide and, of course, the family."

The author explains that while monogamy is not simply about these things, we cannot help but talk about these things as well. "Monogamy," he writes, "is a kind of moral nexus, a keyhole through which we can spy on our preoccupations."

His views explain—with hard-hitting realism—what keeps people together and why, if their reasons are good, they should stay together. He zeros in on how the public accepts the monogamy it so fervently embraces without giving the matter any serious reflection.

Phillips' book—121 aphorisms—is chock full of serious reflections. Each aphorism is pithy and to the point. Each digs deep into the pockets of the debate, often showing that much public opinion hiding under the masks of varied "sacred" cults comes up short under close scrutiny.

Monogamy also points out that most people, no matter how much they love their partners, are capable of loving and desiring more than one person at a time. It may be reassuring, but it is in fact very demanding (and often cruel) to assume that only one other person can fulfill all our needs.

In matters that involve sex, society condemns sharing. Monogamy is taken for granted. It is treated as the very foundation of the family and of family values. As such, anything that is critical of monogamy causes wariness unmatched by any other topic.

The author, however, dares to go where few have trod. He offers no complex, wordy testaments and seemingly eschews taking either one side or the other in the ongoing debate between monogamists and those persons who take more than one lover.

This reluctance to be one-sided, however, is what makes Monogamy such a valuable little book. Philips allows ample room to examine why the faithful couple has such a hold on our imaginations and how they have come to be such an ideal.

The English author's photograph presents him in a light that gives his face the cast of an ancient Greek statue. In his eyes, there appears to be a sensual awareness greater than shines in persons less focussed on interpersonal contact. The titles of his previous works indicate his interest in sensuality itself: "Winnicot: On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored and On Flirtation.

Among Monogamy's many astute observations appears this on page sixty-two:

In our erotic life-- work does not work. This is its relief and its terror. It is no more possible to work at a relationship than it is to will an erection, or arrange to have a dream. In fact when you are working at it you know it has gone wrong; that something is already missing. In our erotic lives, in other words, trying is always trying too hard; we have to become lazy again about effort, because good things only come when it stops—affection, curiosity, desire, unworrying attention.

"Sexual relationships are only for the work-shy, because they do not work. They just give us more or less pleasure, more or less hope."

For some of us, says Adam Phillips, "perhaps the fortunate, or at least, the affluent—monogamy is the only serious philosophical question."

He positions his book, therefore, as "an enquiry into the word we."

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