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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Beast in the Nursery

Adam Phillips

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To purchase The Beast in the Nursery

Title: The Beast in the Nursery
Author: Adam Phillips
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1998
Length: 155 pages
Availability: The Beast in the Nursery - US
The Beast in the Nursery - UK
  • On Curiosity and Other Appetites
  • Portions of this book were previously published elsewhere, including in the London Review of Books

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting ideas, reasonably well presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 26/2/1998 Richard Webster
Intl. J. of Psychotherapy . 11/1998 Kirsty Hall
Intl. J. of Psychotherapy . 11/1998 Sue Gerhardt
New Statesman A- 23/1/1998 Nicholas Tucker
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 22/2/1998 Stephen Greenblatt
Salon . 11/2/1998 David Futrelle
The Spectator A 28/2/1998 Lucy Hughes-Hallett
Sunday Telegraph . 14/2/1998 Rosemary Dinnage
The Sunday Times . 18/4/1999 Phil Baker

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus. Most mention his distinctive style. Most think he writes very well (if not always clearly). Lots of differences of opinion regarding his psychoanalytic claims.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Read as the autobiographical meditation of a father who has become enchanted by his own young daughter and is almost embarrassed by the delight that she occasions, The Beast in the Nursery is touching and, for fleeting moments at least, beautiful. Read, as it is intended to be, as a serious commentary on psychoanalysis, it is an extraordinary feat of intellectual self-deception." - Richard Webster, The Guardian

  • "It is written in a very distinctive and alluring style. (...) Unlike many writers, Phillips' style is hard to separate from content. Indeed, his neo-Winnicottian style with its deliberate paradoxes and questions makes it difficult to grasp what is really being said. (...) Enjoy The Beast in the Nursery but do not necessarily expect to 'learn'." - Kirsty Hall, International Journal of Psychotherapy

  • "He seems to fear that clarity will destroy emotional resonance. As a result, his writing is deliberately pitched on the edge of ambiguity, as if his readers would lose interest if he made himself clear. (...) In the end, despite the many illuminating and enjoyable moments offered by this book, I feel that this lack of engagement reduces his writing to doodles in the margins of psychoanalysis, rather than a major contribution to it." - Sue Gerhardt, International Journal of Psychotherapy

  • "Phillips always gives the impression that he is ruling nothing out. He has only to make a statement to qualify it immediately. Readers must decide whether this sometimes amounts to a paradox too far. Certainly the dialogue Phillips has with himself shows little sign of permanent resolution; you feel that were he to rewrite this book a year later he might come to some quite different conclusions. Fortunately this book has enough startling insights and moments of unsettling brilliance to make it well worth reading." - Nicholas Tucker, New Statesman

  • "To look again at the world with the child's wide eyes, to recover curiosity in its full intensity, is, in Phillips's account, the consummation devoutly to be wished. (...) But there is a problem that haunts this lively and intelligent book, a problem with which Phillips repeatedly grapples but that he cannot resolve: psychoanalysis is an integral part of the culture that kills, or radically diminishes, the curiosity that its practitioners hope to enhance." - Stephen Greenblatt, The New York Times Book Review

  • "As always, Phillips prefers not to be too direct. (...) Phillips' own writings are prime examples of what we can achieve if we put aside, at least for a moment, the overly sensible -- and set out to discover what really moves us." - David Futrelle, Salon

  • "His writing is aphoristic and off-hand. Several of his most provocative arguments are put forward in parenthetical asides. One of his themes in this book is the eloquence of inarticulacy, the way in which a difficulty getting the words out signals an abundance of feeling, but he himself gets the words out so fluently and with such aplomb that he is able to pack complex ideas into phrases neat and sparkling enough to tempt any reader to take them up." - Lucy Hughes-Hallett, The Spectator

  • "But what is The Beast in the Nursery about? More or less everything: life, death, appetite, humiliation, absurdity, determinism, dreams, tantalisation, stories, denials, satisfactions. Parts of the book have already appeared in journals and lectures, and the literary method is loose and free-associative." - Rosemary Dinnage, Sunday Telegraph

  • "He is never too clinical, nor does he overplay his theoretical hand, preferring to keep things abstract and general. The result is that psychoanalytic ideas are allowed to have a romantic grandeur, even to take on a kind of uncannily poetic quality." - Phil Baker, The Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Beast in the Nursery consists of four pieces (and an introduction), separate but connected essays. In them Adam Phillips considers a variety of theories about aspects of growing up, of how one's view of the world is changed by the disappointments and vagaries of the world and how we can and perhaps should adapt to that. From infants' appetites, dominating their world, to the confusing step of acquiring language and learning to use it and deal with and its shortcomings, Phillips looks at how we are forced to change our perceptions and the various consequences of this.
       Phillips' favourites -- Freud, especially, but also Winnicott, and Darwin -- are the main figures here, as Phillips gives examples of how others have thought about these issues. The chapters focus on "Interest" (another word for curiosity here), on language, on hinting, and on "Just Rage", though, as usual, Phillips strays far (and readily). Phillips offers a blend of theory and examples, and considers a variety of approaches. Phillips has his own, strong point of view on these matters, but he allows that there are few absolutes. He suggests why he believes in a certain view, while acknowledging the uncertainty that remains.
       Of particular interest is the chapter on language, focussing on what it means to verbalize -- both the benefits and the loss that it entails, and "the uneasy marriage of word and desire". Phillips writes that "language is the cure for infancy", but he usefully addresses the consequences and true significance of this step, and how children deal with it.
       The Beast in the Nursery is a fairly interesting, small book. It is both breezy and dense -- short, but with a great deal compressed into its pages. Phillips' style is not always as clear as one might like. He is prone to grand statements, without adequate explanations for his many individual claims. Overall, however, he presents his arguments fairly well. The focus of the book is fairly soft, occasionally shifting, which can be frustrating. And it is pyschology-talk (psychotherapeutic, mainly), which won't be to everyone's taste.

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Reviews: Other books by Adam Phillips under review:

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About the Author:

       Adam Phillips is the author of numerous books and frequent articles. He used to be a child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital, London.

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