January 2013

Walter Biggins


Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips

We all feel like everyone else's life is better than our own, to the extent that we imagine those lives -- that cool party everyone (but you) has pictures of on Facebook; that impromptu lunch at the taco food truck that your friends tweeted each other about; that Alaskan cruise your richer friends went on while you worried about your mortgage -- more exactly than we observe our actual present. Our actual lives, so rich with aroma and incident and mad emotions, feel dull in comparison to the lives that we've conjured up for other people. What's worse: They feel the same way about us but we'll never know it.

This feeling of "missing out" gets acted on in weird ways. Sometimes, I bottle up my desires and frustrations, and seethe over the cool times my friends and family are having without me. Sometimes, I pity myself for not having the "courage" to live out the life I think I should be living, or beat myself up for not "finding my passion" or "living my dream" as fully as others around me appear to do.

My worst tendency, regarding the unlived life, is to go in the opposite direction, and try to cram in a bit of everything. In my prose, this comes out with the em dash. I overuse the em dash. I always have. When writing essays, I find myself wanting to make asides, little jokes I think are sly at the time, stray allusions that might illuminate a minor point, quick uppercuts at opponents unseen by my readers. I want to make my point but then -- like angels dancing drunkenly on the head of a pen nib -- to twirl minor tangents forth from my main point. It's unfair to the reader, all these forced interruptions, these half-parenthetical digressions pulling the reader away from the main road and, often, into a ditch. "Focus," I say to myself. (I'm saying it now.) "Write about the thing you're writing about." By trying to grasp everything, I often end up with nothing, and I feel that I've missed out all the more.

I hoped dearly that Adam Phillips's Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life would make sense of this frustration, and offer a useful alternative. Phillips, a psychoanalyst with a lyrical prose style and deep interest in the manifestations of desire, seemed like the ideal writer to tease out the issue of missing out. At least, I thought his book might offer perspective on how to make better use of these unmet goals, of this jealousy over lives that aren't even real. Indeed, the book's prologue lays out the concerns succinctly:

What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad. We have to be aware of what is missing in our lives -- even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available -- because we can survive only if our appetites more or less work for us. Indeed, we have to survive our appetites by making people cooperate with our wanting.

Unfortunately, that's about the last time that Missing Out is succinct, for it turns out that Phillips has the em-dash illness, too. His sentences meander, loop around themselves, and pile literary allusion upon literary allusion. Though his diction is simple and mostly free of psychoanalytic jargon, his sentences and paragraphs are rococo. He lays on his literary glosses and dependent clauses so thickly, in part, because he's trying to incorporate every stray thought he's ever had on missing out to Missing Out.

In short, he's written a meditation rather than a self-help book or a guide to understanding the condition. Phillips doesn't seem to understand the condition himself, and so the circuitous prose winds itself around the ideas, frustrated by his subject and unable to truly glimpse how it might be satisfied.

His subjects -- his case studies, if you will -- are largely literary protagonists. King Lear and Othello are his flashpoints, respectively, for "frustration" and "satisfaction." These concepts bookend the study. The Oxford English Dictionary is a major piece of apocrypha here. Phillips constantly alludes to, and summarizes the ideas of, key psychoanalysts and thinkers -- Sigmund Freud, Donald Winnicott, Wilfred Bion, Jacques Lacan. Though he's often an astute articulator of the ideas of others, Phillips's own ideas are unclear. There's an emblematic sentence:

Resolving a transference, then, means not -- in the context of a psychoanalytic treatment -- releasing the patient from seeing the analyst as though he were someone else (mother, father, siblings, etc.), which means thinking you know who they were, that there was an original knowing; or enabling the patient to displace the transference; it means releasing the patient from the project, which is partly an illusion -- a necessary illusion that makes development possible -- of knowing and being known (in Cavell's terms, to transform knowledge into acknowledgment).

Buried underneath all these parenthetical phrases, semicolons, and an unnecessary clinging to another writer's ideas is, I think, a simple point: To develop as functioning adults, we need to free ourselves of knowing exactly who we are and having others know who we are. That's perhaps a good point, though one clichéd enough to blurb every self-help paperback in your local bookstore.

Digging into Missing Out, there are stray gems. Ideas flash out about why we're so absorbed by unlived lives, by fantasies of what we could be and feel we deserve to be. "The ideal person in our minds becomes a refuge from realer exchanges with realer people." Early in the book, there's evidence of dry wit, as Phillips writes about 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 wisher-for, fantasized satisfaction. Three frustrations, three disturbances, and two disillusionments. It is, what has been called in a different context, a cumulative trauma; the cumulative trauma of desire. And this is when it works.

Beyond providing a chuckle, it offers an insight gleaned, it would seem, from Phillips's lived experience rather than a book or a play. When he talks about his case studies, which happens rarely, Phillips begins to clear away some debris and give the reader some useful truths.

It's never long, though, before he's distracted by close textual readings and citations. His readings, though often rich, don't answer any of the questions he raises. I don't mind a provocateur who doesn't have all the answers. But Missing Out doesn't seem to have fully formed its questions. What is Phillips arguing for or against? A new method of psychoanalysis? A new lens through which we can view our lives both lived and unlived? A new understanding of our needs?

Without knowing what it's asking, Missing Out can't even begin to tell us what it's offering. Its scattered insights are more often summaries of others' thinking as Phillips's own thoughts, which befits a book that hasn't clearly defined why it needs to exist. Missing Out is a book of digressions in search of a point.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374281113  
224 pages