Wake-up call

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, by Adam Phillips, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20, 224 pages

A measure of intelligence in animals is the ability to forego immediate satisfaction in favour of a larger goal in the future. Apes and crows are particularly clever in this regard, though of course none of them can trump Homo sapiens. And yet, as the psychoanalyst and writer Adam Phillips explains in his latest book, we humans all too often tamper with our potential by pursuing the chimerical prizes of our daydreams.

In Missing Out Phillips scrutinises the mechanisms of our imaginations, suggesting that in our fantasy lives we incubate the worst parts of ourselves. In this predominant mode of existing, we have strange ways of dealing with our needs. We defuse potentially enriching frustrations with ideal solutions or “self-cures” because we can’t stand to be in a state of wanting. In so doing, we sacrifice true satisfaction in favour of imagined decoys. Other people alert us to this by frustrating us and in this respect frustration – the not getting of things – is morally improving.

For Phillips, our imagined lives are marked by a sense of omnipotence. In visualising our wishes coming true we stampede over the facts, in the firm knowledge that happiness is both achievable and absent. This is the source of our ambition: we desire to be elsewhere, new and improved, today being never enough.

Psychoanalysis has always examined literature for symptoms and Phillips, following Freud and Lacan, puts the analyst’s instinct for literary criticism to impressive use by focusing on Shakespeare. He explores how Lear, with his tyrannical neediness, is frustrated by Cordelia, and how Othello is doomed by the groundless certainty of what will satisfy him. The tragic hero illustrates the dangers of treating fantasy life as plausible, of confusing an idle daydream with a strategy meeting.

By the unlived life, Phillips means not that of a wayward imagination but one grounded in reality and matured by frustration. The alternative is to be a thwarted tyrant, a tragic go-getter who is always demanding to know this and to have that. Phillips asks whether “the will to understand – our second nature, as it were – [is] sometimes a distraction from something more valuable, or even more pleasurable”. Here the not getting means not understanding, a gesture to critiques of post-Enlightenment thought that resonates with Keats’s notion of “negative capability”. In the poet’s words, this is the state “of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”.

To a psychoanalyst our diction can be a barometer of our unconscious wants, and so Phillips enjoys working with the multiple senses of common words to uncover what we’re really after when we use them. As a result, the book is riddled with double-meaning. It takes concentration to unravel a deceptively simple sentence in which “to get” might mean “to acquire”, “to understand”, or, as in Othello, “to sire a child”. Phillips, after all, is arguing for the merits of frustration and his prose tests our trained appetite for easy comprehension. He wonders about an infant’s sensibility, “when we did not know that there was an ‘it’ to get, and so were not getting it, but doing something else. When getting it was not about knowing what we want, because knowing was not something we were able to do.”

Phillips’s writing occasionally has a Lewis Carroll quality, as though the smoking caterpillar has taken a genuine interest in our psychic well-being. Missing Out, like the Alice stories, is a study of the misfit, an exploration of how we are wedged in the often absurd gap between fantasy and reality. Either we are too big for life or it is too small for us, and Phillips understands the look in our eyes as we nibble hopefully at the next mushroom.

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