“The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining?” With this gentle rebuff of the Socratic decree, coupled with a mystifying question, British psychoanalyst and literary critic Adam Phillips begins his latest book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, published last year by Hamish Hamilton, UK. As Phillips goes on to show, not only is such a project worth undertaking, but it is also precisely what most of us are doing for the majority of our lives. The bulk of “our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living,” Phillips explains, “the lives we are missing out, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.”
The notion of a “secret life of grudges” ought to have a special resonance with writers and readers, who are, in one way or the other, more invested in conjuring up other lives and living vicariously through them, than living the life that is their own. In fact, the tussle between living and writing has an august and longstanding history. At the height of his eminence, Henry James, living in exile in London, was asked to dine out almost every evening, as biographers have concluded after going through his diaries and notebooks. It is a miracle that James managed to sustain a steady flow of masterpieces until his death. Marcel Proust, more pragmatically, enjoyed a full social life in his youth and then retreated from the beau monde to complete his magnum opus. In our times, readers and writers have to summon up the Herculean resolve of not logging on to social media or attending literary festivals, books launches and readings in order to get on with their respective callings. But the life of the mind, which is more often than not made up of desires, fantasies and projections, is, always was and will be, continually pitted against—and inevitably, get clumsily entangled with—the life that is available to us in the real world. In the end, Phillips tells us, “we…learn to live somewhere between the lives we have and the lives we would like.”
Simple as it sounds, this statement, for Phillips, is not a foregone conclusion but rather the preamble to exploring what it means to be frustrated, satisfied, to get away with, not get, or get out of, something—be it a relationship, a situation or an object. Typically, he leads the reader into a labyrinth of literary references, drawing heavily on Shakespeare, and making each of his examples remarkably credible, if not relevant, to the lives of lesser mortals. It is a narrative style, charged by an eclectic mix of psycho-literary analysis, that the readers of his earlier books—notably of On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (1993), On Flirtation: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Uncommitted Life (1994) and Going Sane (2005)—will be familiar with. There may be sweeping generalizations, abrupt leaps of thought, and flawed logic in his narratives, but never a dull moment.
In Missing Out, for instance, after discussing the opening scene of King Lear, where Lear fails to extract from his favourite daughter, Cordelia, a rapturous promise of love, Phillips concludes that “the frustrator” (Cordelia) is “more morally interesting” that the frustrated (Lear). Cordelia could have chosen a happier predicament for herself by complying with her father’s demand, but then that would have made her miserable—ironically, honesty does not preempt tragedy, as she learns at immense personal cost at the end of the play. The demand for love, as Phillips tells us, be it the love between children and parents or between siblings or lovers, is almost always an expression of doubt about love. As for romantic love, it is only after getting the object of desire that people often realize that “getting together is a lot more work, and is never exactly what [they were] hoping for”. For that matter, it may be easy to get out of a relationship one feels was not working, but often impossible to tell what exactly one got out of. “When I get out of a relationship,” Phillips explains, cunningly switching to the first-person to get as close to his addressees as possible, “I act as if I know what would happen if I don’t do this.” In reality, he clarifies, “I am talking about an experience that I haven’t in fact had. I can never know what would have happened if I had stayed in the relationship, I can only imagine it.” It is not as if Phillips always tells us something we do not know or isn’t evident to us once articulated; rather, he makes us aware of those aspects of our personalities, those truths about our lives, we have, wittingly or otherwise, repressed.
Phillips’s approach, which has been criticized as being far too outdated for a psychoanalyst and far too unsound for a literary critic, is valuable precisely for its unstable quality. Inhabiting that grey zone which takes the reader both beyond the “romance of the cure” and the certitudes of literary theory, Phillips goes on to show how redundant these individual disciplines are if practiced in isolation. In the end, what he gives us is not just a better understanding of the world but rather a richer insight into how the world understands us. It is only in the twining of fiction and psychoanalysis, two tools of interpretation that shaped the morality of the 20th century, we can become more empowered readers—who are able to conquer “the phobia of self-knowledge” which, according to Phillips, is the biggest phobia of all.
This fortnightly column, which will appear on Mondays, will talk about readers, writers and publishers of the past, present and future.