Adam Phillips, Britain’s foremost psychoanalytic writer, dislikes the modern notion that we should all be out there fulfilling our potential, and this is the subject of his new book, “Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Instead of feeling that we should have a better life, he says, we should just live, as gratifyingly as possible, the life we have. Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for bitterness. What makes us think that we could have been a contender? Yet, in the dark of night, we do think this, and grieve that it wasn’t possible. “And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives,” Phillips writes. “Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless trauma about, the lives we were unable to live.”
He, it would seem, has little reason to mourn his life. After a period of psychoanalytic studies, and a four-year analysis, he joined the staff of Charing Cross Hospital, in London, and was the chief child psychotherapist there for almost a decade before leaving to start his own practice, now headquartered in a large, sunny, book-lined office in fashionable Notting Hill. He is a hipster. He tends to wear dark clothes and pointy boots, and his hair goes every which way. He has an accomplished and good-looking companion, Judith Clark, a costume curator. (Before Clark, he had another accomplished and good-looking companion, the feminist writer Jacqueline Rose. From these two unions, he has three children.) His politics are of the left. Among the many sins with which he taxes his psychoanalytic colleagues, one is greed. In 2003, he told Daphne Merkin, writing for the Times Magazine, that he charged anywhere from zero to about seventy-five dollars per session. He no doubt makes up the rest in royalties. At the age of fifty-eight, he has published seventeen books, not counting the seven that he has edited. He also writes frequently for The Threepenny Review and, especially, for the London Review of Books. He just keeps cranking it out.
And he says he doesn’t fuss over it. I once attended an interview that Paul Holdengräber, the director of the New York Public Library’s lecture series, held with Phillips. Holdengräber asked about his experience of writing. Phillips answered that it came easily. If, in producing a piece, he felt stuck, he just chucked it in the wastebasket. In other ways, too, he takes a relaxed, even antic, view. By now, he doesn’t feel obliged to write his books on his own. (Of his last six, three were co-authored.) Indeed, he doesn’t have to write about psychoanalysis. In 2010, with Judith Clark, he published “The Concise Dictionary of Dress,” which consists mostly of photographs of Clark’s installations at the Victoria and Albert Museum, together with aphorisms by Phillips. But, even when he’s writing alone, about psychoanalysis, he doesn’t feel that he actually has to write a book. As he has explained, he writes some essays and then, trusting that their emergence from his brain at around the same time means that they must be related, publishes them in one volume. So, while some of his books are advertised as collections of essays, that’s what many of his other books are, too. “Missing Out” is in this category. It discusses, at length, not just missing out but “King Lear” and “Othello,” and also includes the text of a lecture that he gave at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in 2011, on theatrical representations of madness. Phillips pretty much does any damn thing he pleases.
The first chapter of “Missing Out” is “On Frustration,” in praise of that emotion. Frustration makes people real to us, he says, because, in our lives, they are usually the sources of it. Indeed, frustration makes reality itself real to us. Consider love:
There is a world of difference between erotic and romantic daydream and actually getting together with someone; getting together is a lot more work, and is never exactly what one was hoping for. So there are three consecutive frustrations: the frustration of need, the frustration of fantasized satisfaction not working, and the frustration of satisfaction in the real world being at odds with the wished-for, fantasized satisfaction. . . . And this is when it works.
We can find realistic satisfactions, Phillips assures us, but, like most psychoanalytic writers, he doesn’t spend much time suggesting what those might be. His conclusions, at least at this point in the book, seem pessimistic. But psychoanalysis has never promised to make silk purses out of sows’ ears. Cotton purses, maybe.
Which takes Phillips to his second chapter, the best one: “On Not Getting It.” Here he claims that we’re better off not understanding ourselves, or others. If Phillips’s recommendation of frustration is a slap in the face to the human-potential movement, this skepticism regarding understanding goes directly against orthodox psychoanalytic wisdom. That doesn’t worry him: “Perhaps understanding is one thing we can do with each other—something peculiarly bewitching and entrancing—but also something that can be limiting, regressive.” Indeed, it may be risky. “The illusion of knowing another person creates the possibility, the freedom, of not knowing them; to be free, by not knowing them, to do something else with them”—that is, mistreat them, on the basis of our presumed understanding.
But the error Phillips addresses most feelingly is our wish to be understood. This, he says, can be “our most violent form of nostalgia,” a revival of our wish, as infants, to have our mother arrive the instant we cry out from pain or hunger. Phillips was a student of literature until he was lured into psychoanalysis by the writings of D. W. Winnicott, the revered child psychologist of mid-twentieth-century England. One of Winnicott’s main contributions to psychoanalytic thought was his idea of the “good-enough mother,” the mother who sometimes responded promptly to our needs and sometimes didn’t. The beauty of this concept was that it was so widely applicable—most people had that kind of mother—and also that it bestowed some honor on her. (Those mothers typically had other children to care for, plus dinner to cook.) I think that Phillips regards Winnicott’s good-enough mother as not just good enough but the best, because she tells us the truth: on occasion we’ll get satisfaction and on occasion we won’t. We need understanding sometimes, not every time. If we insist on getting it all the time, he asks, “how could we ever be anything other than permanently enraged?”
In Phillips’s view, the quest for understanding is not just an insult to emotional health; it is an intellectual error. “We think we know more about the experiences we don’t have”—the unlived life—“than about the experiences that we do have.” In the candyland of our imagining, there is no check on “the authority of inexperience, the conviction we gain from not having done things (after reading D. H. Lawrence as an adolescent I knew no one who knew more about the relations between men and women than myself.)” Behind such ignorance, however, are facts that we are foolish to ignore:
There is nothing we could know about ourselves or another that can solve the problem that other people actually exist, and we are utterly dependent on them. . . . There is nothing to know apart from this, and everything else we know, or claim to know, or are supposed to know, or not know, follows on from this.
So we are in existentialist territory: “L’enfer, c’est les autres.” Like Sartre and Camus, Phillips seems to believe that the life you’re living is not one you have been forced to settle for but one that you chose, or, in any case, should take responsibility for. Phillips quotes Randall Jarrell, who he has said was the main object of his literary study before he switched to psychoanalysis: “The way we miss our lives is life.”
It’s a little cold out here in the realm of non-understanding, but, as a compensation, Phillips offers us the good-enough life, including, for example, some kindness. He is unsentimental about this. People, he writes, have no discernible connection to one another. But we can give solace to those we care about by allowing them just to be, without having to explain themselves. Rilke, in a letter, made the same point: “I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.” Phillips says that kindness has gone out of fashion, that it’s now considered “a virtue of losers.” In his opinion, it should be rehabilitated.
Phillips loves Freud. He cites him again and again. But his Freud sometimes doesn’t look much like the Freud we thought we knew. He looks more like Adam Phillips. According to a recent article that Phillips wrote in The Threepenny Review, Freud was not dogmatic, he did not promulgate laws, and he did not try to represent psychoanalysis as a science. As for the widely held belief that Freud thought neuroses could be relieved by an understanding of repressed conflict, Phillips tells us that the old man didn’t really say that. On the contrary, the therapy he invented “weans people from their compulsion to understand and be understood; it is an ‘after-education’ in not getting it. . . . Freud’s work is best read as a long elegy for the intelligibility of our lives. We make sense of our lives in order to be free, not to have to make sense.”
To my knowledge, much of this is not true, but it may come to look truer. Penguin Modern Classics gave Phillips the job of supervising a new edition of Freud’s writings, the first comprehensive English translation since James Strachey’s hallowed twenty-four-volume “Standard Edition” (1953-74). A number of people have complained that Strachey’s edition was too stiff, too “scientific,” too law-giving. Phillips’s edition, in seventeen volumes (2002-06), may change that. For all the texts, he chose translators from outside psychoanalysis (from literature, philosophy, etc.). Some had never read Freud before. Phillips doesn’t know German, so he couldn’t check their work.
But most of his renovation of Freud had already been accomplished, in his own writings. In general, when he can associate a wise opinion with Freud he says it was the view of Freud. When it cannot be closely tagged to Freud, or when Phillips considers it questionable, it is the view of “psychoanalysis,” the discipline that grew, rightly and wrongly, from Freud’s teachings. Here is Phillips on how psychoanalysis must always be conjectural: “The only thing the analyst can’t afford to do . . . is to have too much of a sense that she knows what she is doing.” Believe me, the cigar-smoking Viennese neurologist lurking behind that phrase “the analyst” thought he knew what he was doing. Phillips, for all his insistence, may feel that he is on shaky ground here. His solution is to invite us to regard Freud as a philosopher. This is a smart maneuver. Freud had some ideas, and they were hugely influential for more than a century. But do we require of a philosopher that he never be wrong? This approach allows Phillips to flick off Freud’s detractors, of whom there are very many today. Their criticisms are irrelevant, he says, especially since they often rely on Freud’s failures of character—his drug use, his lying—as proof that his whole enterprise was fraudulent. (In fact, a number of highly respected scholars have challenged Freud’s most fundamental principles—forget his character. See, for example, the 1998 “Unauthorized Freud: Doubters Confront a Legend,” edited by Frederick Crews, a leader of the anti-Freudians.) Phillips adds, snappishly, that he would like to know what therapies these critics of Freud would recommend, and why. One is glad to hear him get annoyed. He is always bending over backward to be fair, and this becomes tiresome.
Phillips’s condescension to the anti-Freudians has not endeared him to them. Symmetrically, he is also unpopular with the Freudians, who feel that in his attempts to save Freud he has blurred the great man’s principles, and dishonored them. It is hard to blame them for thinking this. “When psychoanalysts spend too much time with each other,” he wrote in “Terrors and Experts” (1995), “they start believing in psychoanalysis. They begin to talk knowingly, like members of a religious cult. It is as if they have understood something. They forget, in other words, that they are only telling stories about stories.” In the same book, he said, “Psychoanalysis is only just beginning to get the kind of public scrutiny, the intelligent hostility, it needs.” Since he wrote that, psychoanalysis has met with quite a bit of hostility, from the anti-Freudians. And, although he dismisses them, he often sounds like one of them—a paradox that he probably enjoys very much. The area in which Phillips is most self-permitting is his writing style. In his early books, he was fond of droll titles: “On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored” (1993), “The Beast in the Nursery” (1998). And the book on costumes is not the only one made up of aphorisms. His 1996 “Monogamy,” much anticipated (everyone wanted to know if he was for or against), turned out to be a series of airy pensées, a few, or just one, per page. Here is the full text on page 56: “Most infidelities aren’t ugly, they just look as though they are.”
What Phillips likes best, however, is wordplay. Inversion, circumlocution, alliteration, assonance, chiasmus, paradox: there’s nothing he doesn’t go in for. “The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining?”: that’s the first sentence of “Missing Out.” Repetition is his favorite. He loves it more than Poe did. In another sentence from the book, he tells us how Darwin, by subverting religion, encouraged the human-potential movement: “Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life—the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life—the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legitimated by nothing more than the desire to live it.” That’s three “promises” and six “life/lives” in one sentence. This is amusing, maybe, but it is also rhetorical. Combined with what is often a lockstep logic, it can daze you and make you stop worrying about the truth. “The only phobia is the phobia of self-knowledge”; “Religion is about the struggle not to be God”; “The mother is as vulnerable to her need for her baby as the baby is to his need for her”—you look at such statements and you say to yourself, “That’s interesting, I’ll think about it later.” And then, when you think about it later, you realize that it’s not true. Furthermore, the repetitions are sometimes slippery. In “Missing Out,” getting it (the opposite of missing out) means one thing in one chapter and another thing in another. Thus are books constructed from essays. He can glue essays together with wordplay.
Part of the pyrotechnics is Phillips’s range of reference. In the prologue to “Missing Out”—that is, before he even gets going—he cites Darwin, Camus, William Empson, Randall Jarrell, and, of course, Freud. He is sometimes described not as a psychoanalytic writer but as a moral philosopher with a psychoanalytic base. Certain people also regard him as a literary critic. He is a visiting professor in the English department of the University of York.
Despite all this, he tends, in interviews, to avoid claiming any authority. In the conversation at the N.Y.P.L., he was asked about something he had written. He said that he didn’t have an answer: “I leave lots of stuff in that I don’t know what I think about it.” I half trust this modesty and half don’t. Phillips has repeatedly said that one of the main problems with his psychoanalytic colleagues is that their writing is so boring. This is true, and therefore you have to give him credit for writing books that are readable. (Also short—maybe two hundred pages on average.) Actually, some people find his prose, with its virtuoso wordplay, unreadable, not to speak of preening.
But while, at times, he is no doubt showing off, his linguistic antics seem to be based on admirable principles. His love of paradox is clearly the product of a hatred of cant. And a lot of the wordplay is an effort to keep things open. Part of what makes psychoanalytic writing such a chore to get through is its dogmatism, its laying down of the law—and about matters for which there is no support from evidence, let alone from common sense. Some of the older psychoanalytic literature is actually comical to read. So, if Phillips is at times annoying in his linguistic capering, that’s his answer to the gasbags of yesteryear. And if his statements of modesty sometimes sound like protesting-too-much, at least he’s protesting. He hates tyrants. As with his other abiding beliefs, he’s written a book about this, “Equals” (2002).
That habit of pushing back may be his greatest contribution to the field. Some of his recommendations seem to me just plain wrong, even perverse, such as his claim that we should stop trying to change our lives. I have never known a person who, having quit a job or initiated a divorce, felt, afterward, that he had made a mistake. But Phillips is attacking an idée réçue, and you have to thank him for it. Likewise his notion that we should give up trying to understand ourselves. It sounds crazy, but don’t we all admire people who, instead of constantly asking themselves why they’re doing such-and-such, just get on with it? I also sense in this argument of Phillips’s an objection not just to our self-delusions but to the psychoanalytic know-it-all-ism that he described in “Terrors and Experts”: the beady eye, the knowing better than you do what your thoughts are, the readiness, if you object, to say that this is just your defenses speaking. Instead, Phillips seems to believe that psychoanalysis should be not so much an inquiry as an interesting conversation. Which brings us to his view of how we should live our lives. He sees certainty, and the questioning that leads to it, as a wall separating us from the skin-to-skin relation to reality that we had as children—the colors, the textures, the tones of voices—and thus precluding discovery. Phillips treated children for years, and he seems to have learned a lot from them. (Sometimes, between the lines, I can hear him saying to himself, “What if I stuck this pencil up my nose?”) He wants us to be more childlike, in a way, almost pre-moral. He wants us to be more impressionable, curious, naïve. This is not a world-shaking philosophy of life. It is pretty modest, but, again, he tries to be modest. ♦