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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Darwin's Worms

Adam Phillips

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To purchase Darwin's Worms

Title: Darwin's Worms
Author: Adam Phillips
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1999
Length: 135 pages
Availability: Darwin's Worms - US
Darwin's Worms - UK
  • On Life Stories and Death Stories

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly interesting small study of Darwin and Freud

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 16/12/1999 Jenny Diski
The Guardian A- 6/11/1999 Nicholas Lezard
Harper's . 2/2001 Arthur Krystal
The Independent A 30/11/1999 Lisa Appignanesi
London Review of Books A 11/11/1999 Frank Kermode
The LA Times . 9/4/2000 Michael S. Roth
New Statesman B+ 14/2/2000 Michael Brearley
The NY Times Book Rev. . 28/5/2000 Steven Marcus
Raritan . Spring/2000 Robert Coles
The Spectator . 15/1/2000 Cressida Connolly
The Sunday Times . 7/11/1999 Anthony Storr

  Review Consensus:

  Positive, though a variety of criticisms about style and content.

  From the Reviews:
  • "His immensely elegant, enjoyable, yet oddly proselytising essay suggests that the reality of death without redemption is only dismal if we fight it with antagonistic fantasies of perfectibility, progress and self-knowledge." - Jenny Diski, Daily Telegraph

  • "Darwin's Worms is a slim volume, and so might be mistaken for a slight one; but it isn't. It might even be the best book he has written yet. What Phillips is doing is monumental: he is helping us, via the agency of Freud, to learn to cope with death and loss, both of ourselves and of our consoling myths." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Darwin's Worms reads like an elegy. What gives it particular force is the vivid sense that in arguing pleasure out of transience, Phillips is arguing with himself." - Lisa Appignanesi, The Independent

  • "He weaves the counsel of these sages together with much art, for it is part of his plan to make the contemplation of death an enjoyable, even a sublime, experience. (...) This brave and subtle essay is a declaration of faith in the naturalist notion that we find that happiness here or nowhere, and will not find it here if we carry on being so wrong about death." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books

  • "Phillips writes not merely to praise these thinkers but to creatively bury them, so that their themes of loss and death reemerge with clarity and relevance. (...) (A) small gem of a book." - Michael S. Roth, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Adam Phillips's Darwin's Worms is engaging, clever, full of surprises. Connections are made that force us to think. (...) But I find certain aspects of his thinking harder to admire. Phillips writes with enviable panache; but sometimes he takes paradoxes and contradictions rather too much in his stride. He seems to lack the careful attention to detail that he professes to admire in Darwin." - Michael Brearley, New Statesman

  • "(S)ermonettes for both the old and new millenniums. (...) The last section of the book, "Epilogue," is, surprisingly, a complete bust. I am at a loss to explain why Phillips undertook it, but it is mostly mere writing, spinning words out, reformulations of previous reformulations." - Steven Marcus, The New York Times Book Review

  • "This is a book about life and the acceptance of death in a secular age. Like everything Adam Phillips has written it is dense, clever, discursive, by turns brilliant and maddening. It raises as many questions -- more, probably -- as it answers." - Cressida Connolly, The Spectator

  • "Although Darwin is ultimately the more important, Phillips is justified in finding affinities between these two remarkable innovators. This short, pithy book, like Phillips's previous writings, deserves close attention and rereading if its valuable insights are to be fully appreciated." - Anthony Storr, 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:

       In Darwin's Worms Adam Phillips examines two of the most influential thinkers of the modern age, Darwin and Freud. He focusses on their stories (i.e. theories) and looks specifically at how they themselves dealt with the implications and consequences. Phillips believes that in both their cases the focus was on death: the "drift towards extinction" for species central to Darwin, and the individuals pursuit of his own happiness and death for Freud. Each of their stories/theories -- so Phillips -- "is a death story that uniquely illuminates the life story"
       From this starting point Phillips makes an interesting case, focussing on biography to explain his point. Some of it might seem something of a stretch. So Darwin's worms themselves:

Work and digestion -- and the links between them -- were to dominate Darwin's life. For the idea of work as digestion, and digestion as the body's forced and unforced labour, Darwin turned to the worms.
       But Phillips makes an interesting case for his idea. And Darwin certainly was interested in worms. Phillips' interpretation may not fully convince, but it is fairly fun to follow.
       In the section of Freud Phillips focusses on Freud's difficulties with biography. He wasn't a big fan of the genre, but Phillips argues that he protests too much. And for Phillips:
Freud's early ambivalence about knowing and being known is essential to the consequent history of psychoanalysis.
       Burning all his early letters, and later vociferously opposing suggestions that he be the subject of a biography ("Anyone who writes a biography is committed to lies, concealments, hypocrisy, flattery ..."), Freud obviously did have issues here. And Phillips ties that in with Freud's own life/death-story. Phillips writes
Everything living is in fact struggling to die. But Freud is not merely saying that living creatures inevitably die; he is suggesting that death is an object of desire.
       Again: Phillips' ideas may not convince, but they are interesting ideas to entertain, and Phillips presents them fairly well. A short book, it can certainly be recommended to those interested in Darwin, Freud, and life or death stories.

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Reviews: Other books by Adam Phillips under review: Other books about Freud under review: Other books by and about Darwin and Darwinism 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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