Missing Out: In Praise Of The Unlived Life, By Adam Phillips

Are you getting enough? Probably not: you're human. Frustration and disappointment track our path through life.

Christina Patterson
Thursday 14 June 2012 15:41

"The unexamined life," says the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips, dismissing Socrates, "is surely worth living". The question, he says, in the prologue to Missing Out, is "is the unlived life worth examining?" Since the subtitle of the book is "In Praise of the Unlived Life", it's a fair bet that the answer is "yes". So, over 168 pages of quite widely spaced text (the last 30 in the book are an "appendix" on a related, but different subject), it proves. We all "learn to live", he asserts, "somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like". We are "stalked" by our choices and "haunted by the myth of our potential". For "modern people", he says, "the good life is a life filled to the full".

If he was a different kind of writer – the kind that isn't published in hardback with pen-and-ink drawings on classy cream covers – he might use this statement of the "modern" condition as the starting point for a discussion on how you might start to get the things you want. But since he is what he has always been, a realist who brings a forensic, philosophical and sometimes poetic gaze to the human psyche, he decides to focus on the exact opposite. What we need isn't satisfaction, but frustration.

Frustration, he says, in a chapter devoted to the subject, is "something we crave false solutions to, something that lures us into the more radical self-deceptions". He doesn't just state it; he shows it. Drawing on King Lear, and a reading of the play by the critic Stanley Cavell, he sets out to demonstrate that frustration that isn't recognised can't be met. This, it turns out, is a variation of the Freudian view about hunger and desire. "A capacity for tolerating frustration," he concludes, quoting the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, "enables the psyche to develop thought." And thought, he says, is "what makes frustration bearable".

It's all interesting stuff, and peppered with the kind of insights that make you scrawl "yes!" in the margins on almost every page. What it isn't is an easy read. When Phillips quotes the poet John Ashbery in his next chapter, "On Not Getting It", you can't help feeling that the poet he'd quote would be Ashbery: brilliant and tantalising and elusive. Sometimes you feel, as you feel on reading Ashbery, that you're just getting a grip on something that's slipping away. Sometimes you feel that the points he's making are more ingenious than true.

At other times he makes a point you feel is so important you end up writing your "yeses" in capital letters. When he says that "getting it", in the sense of understanding something, or being in on something, "can itself be an avoidance", and that it might be important to "unlearn the supposed need to be the kind of people" who "always get the joke whether or not they find it funny", you find yourself thinking about social media, and irony, and in-crowds, and babble.

In the end, this clever, and sometimes frustrating, book is about what you can't and shouldn't want to get. You can't, it argues, "get" other people, because no one can be fully understood and neither, of course, can you. You can't get certainty, however much you want it, and Othello shows us what can happen if you try. You can't get instant satisfaction, because you can't control people, or the world. "If babies had a motto," says Phillips, quoting Brabantio in Othello, it would be "'Straight satisfy yourself.'" But we, he doesn't quite say, but it's the main point of his book, aren't babies.

"When Ashbery was asked in an interview," says Phillips, "why his poetry was so difficult he replied that when you talk to other people they eventually lose interest but that when you talk to yourself people want to listen in." I'm not sure you could compare Phillips's prose with Ashbery's poetry, and particularly this example of it. But what you do feel, when you've finished Missing Out, is that you've just heard, above the babble, snippets of a conversation that offered glimpses of the real, true, messy and never knowable human heart.

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