By Mark O’Connell
My wife, who is pregnant with our first child, had her three-month sonogram in early September. Right after the scan was finished, I had to run out of the hospital and down the street to where we’d parked our car about an hour and a quarter earlier. We’d only had enough loose change to pay for an hour’s parking, and we were in increasing danger of getting clamped. I sat in the car and waited while she signed some forms at the reception, and as the rain spilled relentlessly down on the windshield, I took my phone out of my pocket and looked at the photograph I had taken of the sonogram image just a few minutes before. It struck me as a strange and uniquely contemporary experience, to be looking at an image on a screen that depicted another image on another screen that represented my first glimpse of my first child; it was somehow, paradoxically, all the more touching for this sense of an alienating technological double remove.
I felt that what I was looking at represented my future. I was going to be a father. And not just any father, but the father of this blurry little personage with its lovely pea-sized head and cartoonishly reclining body. And as I was thinking about all the clustered possibilities in those rapidly subdividing cells—all the bewildering permutations of gender and appearance and personality and genetic fate—I also began to think about the possibilities that were, as of right now, in my past, and that were therefore no longer possibilities. In my vague and ineffectual way, I had always planned to live abroad; and I registered now, with a vague sense of loss that was somehow part of the joy of looking at the sonogram image, that this was no longer very likely to happen. I was thinking, too, that the period of my life in which I might legitimately spend large amounts of time on projects not strictly financially motivated had ended. Even as I was exhilarated about the life that now lay ahead of me—all the wonderfully terrifying possibilities of parenthood—I was thinking about the various people I had never quite got around to becoming (the happily itinerant academic, the journalist seeking out extraordinary stories in strange places). I was thinking about my unlived lives, and how every route taken inevitably forecloses the possibility of various others.
And so when I heard that the British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips had a new book called Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, I was intrigued. The idea from which Phillips’ book starts out is that the paths we don’t pursue in life are a crucial dimension of our lived experience. “Our unlived lives—the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives—are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives,” he writes in his prologue. “We can’t (in both senses) imagine ourselves without them.” This is a fascinating idea, and it’s difficult to think of anyone who would be better suited to exploring it than Phillips, who is one of the literary world’s most consistently provocative explorers of fascinating ideas.
In a sense, he has been hovering around this topic for much of his career. Psychoanalysis itself, of course, is traditionally at least as concerned with the things that don’t happen in our lives as those that do, with the shadow-world of dreams and anxieties and unmet desires. And Phillips has always been interested in the various ways, real and imagined, in which we extricate ourselves from the lives we find ourselves living. One of the oddest and most interesting of his many odd and interesting books is 2001’s Houdini’s Box: On the Arts of Escape, in which he examines evasion as one of the crucial mythologies of our cultural and psychological lives. “Every modern person,” he writes in its final pages, “has their own repertoire of elsewheres, of alternatives—the places they go to in their minds, and the ambitions they attempt to realize—to make their actual, lived lives more than bearable. Indeed the whole notion of escape—that it is possible and desirable—is like a prosthetic device of the imagination. How could we live without it?”
Missing Out seems, at first, to pick up where Houdini’s Box left off, with this idea that the life that doesn’t happen—the life, for instance, of the aforementioned wandering man of letters—is actually crucial to interpreting our experience of the one that does. “We may need to think of ourselves,” as Phillips puts it in the prologue, “as always living a double life, the one that we wish for and the one that we practice; the one that never happens and the one that keeps happening.” The implied definition here—that life is the thing that keeps happening—gives some sense of the kind of stylist Phillips is. He is casually, almost off-handedly epigrammatic; his work yields a perennial harvest of quotable phrases without ever making this aphorizing seem the point of the exercise. (“We share our lives with the people we have failed to be”; “Greed is despair about pleasure”; “Satisfaction is no more the solution to frustration than certainty is the solution to skepticism”; “If you get Othello you have no idea of what it is about.”) If you’re an underliner, in other words, have a pencil sharpener to hand when reading Adam Phillips.
But in a way that mirrors Phillips’ idea (inherited from the child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, who seems a stronger influence than Freud) that the good life is one in which there is “just the right amount of frustration,” the pleasures of his style—its studied waywardness, its cultivations of paradox and playful evasion—are inseparable from its aggravations. He seems to embark on his essays without a clear sense of what their destinations might be; he is, unmistakably, the kind of writer who finds out what he wants to say by finding himself saying it. Phillips’ books may be richly eloquent and aphoristic, but don’t look for conventionally attractive arguments—takeaways, ideas worth sharing. He’s as likely to write about Proust as he is to write about Freud or Lacan, but you’re never going to find an explanation of how Proust was a neurosurgeon, say, or an assurance that reading him can change your life. He is not, in other words, one of your modern notion-hawkers. His books tend to be basically gist-resistant, which is why their titles are always, to one degree or another, misleading. A Phillips essay is typically one in which a great many interesting ideas have been floated, but in which no solid overall structure of significance has been built.
There are moments in Missing Out, though, when Phillips’ equivocations and circumlocutions start to cancel one another out, and when you find yourself wondering what, if anything, is actually being said. In the essay “On Frustration,” for instance, he tells us that “Knowing too exactly what we want is what we do when we know what we want, or when we don’t know what we want (are, so to speak, unconscious of our wanting, and made anxious by our lack of direction).” This is too obviously a sentence that doesn’t know what it wants at all, or that doesn’t seem to want anything but to be left to its own devices. This is an extreme example of his evasive style, but his tics—always related to his habit of hedging and qualifying his statements—can be alarmingly domineering. Page 13: “Frustration is always, whatever else it is, a temptation scene.” Page 117: “Getting out … is always a missing-out, whatever else it is.” Page 134: “Literature is escapist, whatever else it is, in its incessant descriptions of people trying to release themselves from something or other.” Page 185: “Whatever else we are, we are also mad.”
I’m not just being overparticular here about a slightly irritating stylistic quirk. These sentences illustrate an interesting structural tension in Phillips’ prose between two equal and opposite forces: the resolutely aphoristic and the instinctively ambiguous. In what I think is his best book, the 1993 collection On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored, he asks whether “the artist has the courage of his perversions.” In a similar way, Phillips is an essayist who has the courage of his ambivalence, who never loses sight of the task of equivocation.
The question in Missing Out is whether those equivocations serve any obvious larger purpose. The six essays here are mostly either reformulations of the prologue’s claim about the lives that have escaped us, or extended considerations of subjects that only have tangential (or whimsical) relevance to it. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some intriguing ideas here, or a great many beautiful sentences. As is usual with Phillips, the diversions (the parenthetical assertions, the distracted definitions) are a sideshow that justifies the price of admission. There are wonderful analyses here—in both the Freudian and the critical senses—of Othello, of King Lear, and of Larkin’s poetry. Phillips breaks down the distinction between the work of the analyst and the work of the critic, and makes them seem like more or less the same job. He’s the sort of literary thinker who can extract vast amounts of significance from a single word or phrase. In “On Not Getting It,” which is, if I understand it, about the benefits of not understanding things, we get this wonderful run of sentences:
Infants and young children have to be, in a certain sense, understood by their parents; but perhaps understanding is one thing we can do with each other—something peculiarly bewitching or entrancing—but also something that can be limiting, regressive, more suited to our younger selves; that can indeed be our most culturally sanctioned defense against other kinds of experience—sexuality being the obvious case in point—that are not subject to understanding, or which understanding has nothing to do with, or is merely a distraction from. That if growing up might be a quest for one’s illegitimacy, this is because one’s illegitimacy resides in what one thinks one knows about oneself.
This gets to the heart of what I mean about the fundamental inseparability of the frustrations and pleasures of Phillips’ writing. It’s a superb passage—beautiful and surprising and, for all I know, true—but, like so much of the rest of the book, its relevance to the topic supposedly at hand is difficult to see. The subtitle of Missing Out—“In Praise of the Unlived Life”—suggests that Phillips plans to address the question of the unlived life, and that, if he were pushed to take a stance on this question, he would be broadly in favor. But, ironically and oddly appropriately, Missing Out ends up missing out on—or perhaps managing to evade—its own apparent subject. And so, while reading it, I spent a lot of time wondering about the wished-for book in praise of the unlived life, which remains frustratingly and tantalizingly unwritten.