BY Kasper König AND Adam Phillips in Opinion | 09 JAN 19
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Issue 200

Adam Phillips on Enthusiasm

‘The acid test of anyone’s enthusiasm is just how boring it is’

BY Kasper König AND Adam Phillips in Opinion | 09 JAN 19

We recognize what it is to be enthusiastic about someone or something but what would it be to be enthusiastic about enthusiasm? What would you be enthusing about? The question is pertinent not merely because the history and usage of the word ‘enthusiasm’ is so revealing, but because the whole notion of enthusiasm confronts us with the complications we may feel about commitment and celebration, and indeed passion. (We only call passion enthusiasm when it is unconvincing.) Enthusiasm can be wonderful, but it need not be.

It would be easy, and sometimes true, to say that enthusiasm can be a self-cure for self-doubt (a fear of being critical, a fear of one’s intelligence); or that it can be a kind of unconscious mockery and contempt (a protesting too much); or just a way of privileging the enthusiast over their enthusiasm. (It is part of one’s own vanity, the 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt remarked, to believe that one’s friends are geniuses.) In our enthusiasm, the will to be passionate might be doing the work of the imagination and concealing a bafflement, or an uncertainty, or even a loss of appetite and lack of interest. A lot of so-called manic behaviour, for example, seems like determined, simulated enthusiasm. And if we were psychiatrists – which, fortunately, we are mostly not – we would be wondering where the underlying depression is and what it is about.

Kasper König, Look Back and Laugh, 2018, specially commissioned for frieze’s 200th issue. Courtesy: Kasper König

So, when it comes to enthusiasm there is always a question of authenticity: is the object worthy of such enthusiasm and, if so, why? (What are the criteria in play?) And what does the enthusiast want to do for himself and us – and, indeed, the object that is celebrated – by being enthusiastic about it? (Who is being reassured, and what about? And, if he wasn’t enthusiastic, what might he be?) Enthusiasm can only work – like stand-up comedy – when it inspires confidence (when there are no false notes, or not too many). If someone, for example, were to describe themselves as enthusiastic about sex, rather than, say, about a particular person and what they did, it would make us wonder what exactly the enthusiasm was about and whether enthusiasm was really the right word. (And when ‘enthusiasm’ seems like the wrong word, it is worth wondering why.) It is, that is to say, always striking when someone’s enthusiasm misfires; when far from being contagious and inspiring, it degenerates into what sounds like determined self-justification or obsession. We don’t think of alcoholics as enthusiastic about alcohol, but the line between addiction and enthusiasm may not always be clear. (Enthusiasm, like addiction, can be a way of narrowing one’s mind, of insulating oneself.) And this is why the history of the word ‘enthusiasm’ seems telling. And why the acid test of anyone’s enthusiasm is just how boring it is.

‘Enthusiasm’, now, suggests a keenness, an eagerness to celebrate and promote. But its stronger original meaning was a term of accusation, suspicion and condemnation. In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson defined enthusiasm as: ‘A vain belief of private revelation; a vain confidence of divine favour or communication.’ An enthusiast – in Johnson’s description, ‘One who vainly imagines a private revelation; one who has a vain confidence of his intercourse with God’ – was a term of abuse, from the 17th century, for the most extreme Protestant dissenters. Enthusiasm, as Johnson’s definition makes abundantly clear – the word ‘vain’ is reiterated; the word ‘intercourse’ is used pointedly – was associated with the megalomanic delusions of those who, inappropriately, believed themselves to be directly chosen and inspired by God. Those who were speaking what they took to be the absolute truth, on God’s behalf. They were claiming an authority they could not have. An enthusiast was by definition dogmatic and right, and beyond contention. Our suspicions about enthusiasm today, such as they are – and it would surely be a shame to be unduly enthusiastic about our suspicion of enthusiasm – may be haunted by this initial terror, with which we are all-too-familiar; our terror of those who need to be believed. Our terror of those who make excessive claims for themselves. ‘Madness’, the 20th-century psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott once remarked, ‘is the need to be believed.’

We may want to be enthusiastic about our enthusiasm – about the wish to celebrate, raise and encourage. We may not want to be seen as killjoys. But the question still might be: what kind of conversation, if any, does the enthusiast invite? 

Main Image: Kasper König, Look Back and Laugh, 2018, specially commissioned for the 200th issue of frieze. Courtesy: Kasper König

Kasper König is a curator based in Berlin, Germany. In 1977, he co-founded Skulptur Projekte Münster, Germany, of which he is also artistic director.

Adam Phillips is a psychotherapist, writer and visiting professor in the English department at York University, UK. His most recent book is In Writing (2016).