Adam Phillips' 'Missing Out' Offers Pearls of Wisdom in a Sea of Disappointment

by Jon Morris

3 March 2014

Part Shakespearean analysis, part cultural anthropology, part literary criticism and part psychoanalysis, Missing Out is a compendium of insights and musings about our desire to be more than we are.
cover art

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life

Adam Phillips

US: Dec 2013

If Adam Phillips wrote aphorisms instead of essays, he would undoubtedly be considered one of the most brilliant and discerning thinkers of our age. In Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, there are illuminating flashes of insight on virtually every page: about frustration, about desire, about madness. In short, about topics you might expect in a work by a psychoanalyst.

One also finds thought-provoking commentary on Shakespeare’s tragedies, the novels of Graham Greene, pornography, and especially literary criticism. For Phillips, the critic plays a conservative role, that of a policeman of aesthetics. In a chapter entitled “Getting Away with It”, Phillips argues that literary criticism is essentially punishment: “if the question one can usefully ask of any work of philosophy is, what are the arguments the philosopher believes people must not be allowed to get away with, in literary studies it is clearly not the so-called arguments that are being assessed; but there are still things the critic believes that the writer should not be allowed to get away with”.

Yet, those who try to “get away with it” are hardly rebels, because “getting away with it is also conservative of the status quo in so far as it is not an attempt to change the law but to elude it”; thus, Phillips turns the focus from aesthetic concerns to political ones, and eventually concludes the chapter with a provocative statement about contemporary ethics, suggesting that getting away with it may be seen as “a morality for the disillusioned; or, rather, for those who want to believe in higher authorities, and don’t want to believe in them, at the same time”.

The best chapter in the book, and the one closest to addressing the topic promised by the book’s title (a point I will come back to) is called “On Getting Out of It”. The tone is particularly conversational as Phillips introduces what he calls “the authority of inexperience”. “I am struck,” he writes, “by how much people talk in psychoanalytic treatment about the experiences they have not had; and how authoritatively, with what passion and conviction, they talk about what they have missed out on.” Phillips identifies this tendency as a sort of logical fallacy: it is “the conviction we gain from not having done things.” By way of a personal anecdote, he says: “After reading D.H. Lawrence as an adolescent I knew no one who knew more about the relations between men and women than myself.”

Throughout the volume, literature figures prominently in Phillips’ argument that we are ontologically predisposed to believe that we are somehow missing out. “The power of reading experiences,” he writes, “is that they prefigure what might be possible.” In essence, every character becomes what Milan Kundera has called an “imaginary self”, and each one of these imaginary selves offers us, at least potentially, “knowledge of deprivation”, knowledge of what we are missing out on. So that, if for Plato literature risks making readers believe they are what they are not, Phillips contends that literature risks convincing readers they are not what they could or should be.

The need to fill this gap between who we are and who we might be is the subject of many of the pages of this work and the crux of Phillips’ analyses. Yet, at times these analyses digress. Readers familiar with Phillips know that he is not the type of psychoanalyst parodied in Hollywood comedies; but he won’t convince skeptics that psychoanalysis has evolved much or become any less reductive, either.

Cited are the usual suspects—Freud, Winnicott, Lacan—and there are too many tedious passages such as the following, where Phillips expounds on the similarities between Othello’s desire for satisfaction, for proof that Desdemona is unfaithful, and the desires of the proverbial child: “to put it as schematically as possible: from a psychoanalytic point of view, it is when the child waits that he begins to fantasize, and first begins to think he knows. In his frustration he pictures his satisfaction; he, as psychoanalysts put it, imagines the breast when he is hungry as a self-cure for the dawning knowledge that he does not control the object who can satisfy him.”

Convinced Freudians and Lacanians may not pause after reading such passages, but these sort of analogies trouble me. I should admit that I have always had to read what Phillips calls “the psychoanalytical narrative” with Coleridge’s “willing suspension of disbelief”, and passages like the one cited above test that suspension of disbelief.

Which brings me back to the ostensible topic of the book: the unlived life.

The problem with Missing Out is that Phillips does not write books; he writes wonderfully meandering essays; and as I stated earlier, his brilliance would perhaps be even better suited to that seemingly easy but in fact extremely challenging genre, the aphorism. For, if the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Missing Out never manages to become anything more than a sum of its parts. Disconnected and repetitious, the chapters in the book do not build upon one another so much as reside next to each other. So why the final section, “On Acting Madness”, is tacked on as an appendix is a bit of a mystery, since it is no more or less related than any of the other chapters.

Part Shakespearean analysis, part cultural anthropology, part literary criticism and part psychoanalysis, Missing Out is a compendium of insights and musings about our desire to be more than we are. If it fails to make any definitive conclusions, it is not because we are “not getting it”, but precisely because we are.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life


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