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Giles Fraser: Excess is reassuring as well as attractive

28 July 2010

THINGS are very quiet on the stock markets at the moment, and it is a tricky time for traders to make money. You can’t sail if you haven’t got any wind. In such circumstances, the wise traders who have seen it all before spend their days in the pub. That way, they don’t make what they call “boredom trades” that are frequently a mistake and often very expensive.

So it was that my friend Big K spent all day on what is already being billed as a legendary drinking binge — even by the standards of the City of London. It is said that he drank 12 bottles of red wine in one all-day session. William Blake wrote: “The road of excess leads to the Palace of Wisdom.” Well, I can assure Blake that that was not where Big K found himself at the end of the evening.

Why do I find this of note? Be­cause excess always seems to catch our attention. The journalist Lynn Barber slept with 50 men in two terms at Oxford, and it makes the papers. Do anything to excess, and you might find yourself in the Guinness World Records.

The Freudian psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has just published a fascinating study on excess, On Balance (Hamish Hamilton), where he tries to explain excess as a des­perate and very human search for limit. This need for limit is the need for a parental figure who says “No.” Exaggeration is a way of getting someone’s attention. In trans­gress-ing the normal consumption of things, we are trying to invoke the loving hand of limit that reassures us that we are genuinely cared for by another.

Professor Phillips does not avoid the connections between Christian­ity and psychoanalysis here. “If thou well observe The rule of Not too much . . .” the Archangel Michael tells Adam and Eve after the Fall in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Yes, God is limit, and that must be a part of what we mean when we call God Father.

But there is something else, too. As Professor Phillips puts it: “God is also the figure for whom we are not too much. God provides the ultimate reassurance that our lives are not too much for us, not more than we can bear.”

This is sensitive stuff, and full of insights. But there is a sting in the tail. Professor Phillips also hints that this analysis raises one big challenge for some believers: is religious fan­aticism a form of excess — an excess that, if we follow the logic, has a refusal of God as its heart? In other words, is atheism the secret heart of religious excess?

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and Director of the St Paul’s Institute.

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