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Marghanita Laski


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2003).
This book is a sequel to Laski's major study Ecstasy, published almost 20 years earlier. In that book she put forward a secular explanation for those types of experience commonly called mystical. Such experiences, she found, could occur in a non-religious context and could be explained in secular psychological terms. She also found that they often had profound effects on those who had them, and in this book she looks at some of these effects and also at the stimuli ("triggers") that give rise to them. Although full-blown ecstasies are fairly uncommon (few people have more than one or two in a lifetime), minor degrees of them are much more widespread and these came to interest Laski considerably in her later years.

She starts by looking at what she calls "adamics", meaning people who wish to return to an earlier, idealized, way of life. In extreme forms the adamic experience leads to the attempt to set up communities designed to put the perceived ideals into practice; such communities always fail. Laski discusses the reasons for this failure, which she take to be inevitable. But adamic notions have influenced many social movements, particularly those inspired by left-wing ideals.

Perhaps the most important part of the book comes in the chapter on falling in love, which Laski considers not just in the romantic or sexual sense but in the wider context of being taken over by an idea or an ideal. It is notoriously impossible to argue lovers out of their obsessions, but the same is true in art and also in science, where researchers occasionally have falsified their results, not for personal gain, but in order to bolster up a favourite theory. Laski, presumably influenced here by Karl Popper's view of verification, insists that all scientific theories are provisional and "can never be accorded more than a pro-tem validity".

Not surprisingly given her atheism, she applies this argument even more strongly to religious faith. "To the believer faith is a virtue, to me a vice, and a vice because it nullifies what is to me the greatest human potential, the exercise of reason." And even though, as she acknowledges, some obsessions are useful, for without them we would have no creativity, they are best avoided. "If I were to be asked … what next change in sensibility would most benefit us all, my answer would be to distrust all fallings in love."

Another chapter looks at triggers to ecstasy, and at the lamentable modern tendency to misuse and debase them. This trend has, inevitably, accelerated in the quarter-century since she wrote: the ghastly epidemic of piped music she complains about, for example, has spread ever wider and become more inescapable. And as she also points out, continued exposure even to good music and good art is not an unalloyed blessing, for even the most effective triggers lose their impact when they become over-familiar.

This book is no substitute for her earlier study on the same theme, which I take to be a work of the first importance. She was in her middle sixties when she wrote this sequel and, as she herself remarks, one's responses to life almost always become less intense as one gets older. This is a relatively low-key piece of writing, reflective and perhaps rather elegiac (she died some eight years later). But it is not to be missed by any admirers of her writing, among whom I would certainly include myself.

28 July 2003

%T Everyday Ecstasy
%A Laski, Marghanita
%I Thames and Hudson
%C London
%D 1980
%P 160 pp
%K psychology
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