Friday, September 03, 2004

Nuisance Value

Arts & Letters Daily is always a mixed bag -- sometimes obnoxious, sometimes helpful, on rare occasions illuminating -- but every so often, it pays off with a cleverly crafted piece that one could never have discovered on one's own. In this case, it's an essay in The Threepenny Review by Adam Phillips, editor of the marvelous new Penguin edition of Freud's works.

In "Nuisance Value," Phillips uses the idea of a nuisance to show off -- to ride an eclectic mix of some of the twentieth century's most interesting thinkers. He begins and ends with Richard Rorty, but in between, his meditation manages to spark clever readings of Freud, Orwell, and even the pediatrician D. W. Winnicott. Mostly, however, is Phillips's own thoughtful, meandering exploration of what it means to be a nuisance, or for something to be a nuisance to one. A typical Phillips sentence reads:

If nuisance is need insufficiently transformed—the bad art of wanting—if nuisance, like many repetitions, is the sign of something thwarted or blocked or stalled, then it would be worth wondering what would have to happen for someone to never need to be a nuisance, or, perhaps more interestingly, for them never to experience someone or something else as a nuisance.

But whenever this kind of talk gets to be -- well, a nuisance -- Phillips's writing becomes refreshingly concrete, without losing any of its provocative force:

The beggar who makes a profitable nuisance of himself is Orwell's representative modern person. In this exchange, the beggar gives the nuisance he has made, of himself, for money. It is as though a nuisance is the most minimal thing one can make of oneself. The starkest gift. At the raw end of the spectrum there is being a nuisance; at the cooked end there is being a nuisance without seeming to be one. Criminals, Orwell seems to imply in the book, are the people we punish for being a nuisance; artists are the people we reward for being a nuisance; successful businessmen are criminals disguised as artists.

In short, a fun read on a somewhat drab day.

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