Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life

Because human beings have imaginations of a certain sort, our lives are experienced alongside countless alternate realities: those mentally constructed lives lived, a panoply of ways things might have turned out otherwise. This presumably sets us apart from other animals: depictions and articulations of our unlived days, including works of imaginative literature, play a role in our existence they could not possibly play in theirs, and the attempt to puzzle out the mysterious relationship between our real and hypothetical selves seems something distinctively human.

Such complexities help keep psychoanalysts in business. For Adam Phillips, who is both an analyst and a prolific essayist and literary critic — and is thus highly attuned to the role of fictions in the lives of human beings — business is booming. Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life may be the first of Phillips’s many books explicitly devoted to this topic, but his work has in fact touched on these issues many times before. But then again, if a large proportion of Phillips’s writing over the years has been concerned, in one way or another, with the haunting conviction that one is missing out on something important, this might simply be because a great deal of human life is colored if not dominated by this concern. The feeling that one is missing an important experience might be one of the most fundamental experiences there is.

To get a sense of how prominent these themes have been in Phillips’s previous writings, we might start with the fact that the title of one of the five essays that make up Missing Out, “On Getting Away With It,” is a title that has already made an appearance in his oeuvre. Phillips’s fifteenth book, On BalanceMissing Out‘s immediate predecessor — also contained an essay called “On Getting Away With It.” And while the two essays approach their subjects from different angles and do not end up in the same place, it is clear that they are traveling over the same conceptual territory. Even some of the examples they use are similar.

So just what is Phillips trying to get at? (Or is he not trying to get at anything at all but simply trying to get away with something?) One possibility is that the second “On Getting Away With It” represents all of Phillips’s unwritten work, the thousands of versions of his essays that never got the chance to exist, precisely because they were preempted by the finalized and published versions that did. Had he written on a different day, had he sat down in a different mood, any one of his works might have come out quite differently; there is no definitive version, only the version that was lucky enough to get itself down on paper, which is treated as definitive because it is all we have. And our lives, in some way, are like this as well: each actual action and event — the public, “published” version — is only one among an incomprehensible number of possibilities, distinguished from the others only by sheer chance, by having been granted the privilege of being.

What impresses Phillips, and concerns him, is how confident we feel in our judgments about these alternative, unlived lives: we take ourselves to know what they would have been like, and in particular to know when they would have been superior to the lives we actually ended up with. “There is, clearly, a kind of knowledge borne of the absence of experience,” Phillips writes in the On Balance essay. “It often tends towards cliché and omniscience – there is no language more clichéd than the language of the omnipotent – but there is also a freedom to imagine in it.” And in Missing Out he writes, “This is my supposition: we live as if we know more about the experiences we haven’t had than about the experiences we have had.” In reference to Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse” — the poem that begins with Larkin’s famous line “They fuck you up, your mum and dad,” and ends with a couplet’s worth of advice: “Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself” — Phillips comments:

The conviction of Larkin’s narrator comes from his certainty of what will happen to us if we have children. But of course the one thing you cannot know about having children is what it is like to have children if you haven’t got them…. The risk, in a way, is that the omniscience about what one is getting out of — a relationship, a commitment, an arrangement — is matched by an omniscience about what one is getting out for.

 This belief in our own omniscience, and the role it plays in our decision making, is one of Missing Out‘s fundamental themes. The book is replete with literary references, and a great many of them are to Shakespeare’s tragedies. What interests Phillips most is the rigid and ruthless way Shakespeare’s tragic heroes have of desiring and pursuing satisfaction, and in particular revenge, and their impregnable confidence that they have fully and accurately imagined what it will be like to have their desires satisfied. 

Like Othello and Lear, we are frequently made unhappy by our confidence, by our certainty; in particular, our certainty that we know the people around us, and our certainty that what we want most from them is predictability and a kind of reassuring security. Phillips considers a scene from Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair in which the protagonist, Bendrix, who is in the process of seducing a young woman, begins to feel repelled by what he foresees as the inevitable consequences of the seduction — an act of imagination that, as Phillips observes, entirely omits the free agency and unknowable character of the other human being who is involved. “There is no suggestion that she might change his plans, that who she happens to be might impinge upon the certainties of his fantasy,” Phillips writes. Bendrix’s way of viewing the situation “seems to come out of an incontestable knowledge of himself and about Sylvia; about an experience neither of them have yet had. The question is, what might happen in the absence of such certainties?” 

We do often treat people in this way, as if they were props or preprogrammed artifacts rather than that most mysterious and unpredictable thing, the human individual. “People become real to us by frustrating us. If they don’t frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy.” But this leads Phillips to one of his beloved paradoxes, for he has already noted that “reality matters because it is the only thing that can satisfy us.” After all, we can imagine the most delicious meal in the world, but the only meal that will relieve our hunger is one that exists in the actual world, “which will at best be only an approximation of the one you wanted, but has the advantage of being one you can actually eat.” (This closely recalls Woody Allen’s formulation of the point: “I hate reality, but where else can you get a good steak dinner?”) 

Reality, then, fails by its very nature to satisfy us — that’s precisely what makes it real — yet it is the only thing that can satisfy. That, one might say, is the human predicament. The human task, then, would be to live with this knowledge, to accept that “possibility can be born only of experiment, of risk,” to learn to “start imagining desiring not without an object of desire, but without imagining too certainly the satisfactions that might accrue” It would be to accept that all life is a matter of missing out, that being excluded from a group one desired to join is in its own way a source of pleasure and meaning. (As the poet and aphorist James Richardson has written, “Each lock makes two prisons.”) It is to realize that to be a grown-up is in part to look back with painful nostalgia, to want badly to again be the child that wanted so badly to be a grown-up. It is to see that missing the meaning of a difficult text — say, a poem by John Ashbery or an essay by Adam Phillips — can be as productive as “getting it,” if not more so.

Is this, then, the secret to human happiness? It is good advice, perhaps, though Phillips, as a lover of paradoxes, would be the first to point out that in certain circumstances it might be precisely the wrong advice. At any rate, he is far too shrewd to see this as the final and conclusive answer. Indeed, it would be a grave mistake to think of him as the sort of writer who is primarily interested in finding final and conclusive answers, or to cast Missing Out as some sort of self-help book. That would be to miss the essential and deliberate difficulty of Phillips’s writing, and to ignore the fact that his project, far from being a type of self-help, is instead self-exploration — a much more unsettling process.

Thus, when an attentive reader of Phillips reaches a passage like this one  — “One of the ironies, if that is the right word, promoted by Freud and [Wilfred] Bion is that many of our satisfactions are forms of frustration. That we are radically inadequate pleasure-seekers because we are unable to countenance our frustration.… True satisfactions, real satisfactions, satisfying satisfactions — it is difficult to know what the phrase is — should be the key to our frustrations, the clue from which we can unravel the nature of the felt deprivation” — she will know, intuitively, that Phillips is not as optimistic as Freud and Bion about there being any such thing as “the key to our frustrations,” that to some degree the search for such a key can end only in — what else? — frustration. And the proximity of the word key to the word nature will remind her that in On Balance Phillips bluntly states, “There is no key to our nature,” rejecting the very idea of a magic talisman that might crack the code of the human. The belief in such a key is one of the consoling fantasies that one must abandon in the process of growing up; and one of the keys to understanding Phillips (though there is, of course, no key to understanding Phillips) is to get a feel for how the project of trying to understand human nature might still seem worth doing even in light of this fact; how, under such circumstances, the attempt might indeed seem even more necessary and compelling.

To reduce the message of Missing Out to a simple exhortation to open ourselves to the world and stop trying to force reality to conform to our predetermined notions — or indeed, to insist that the book can be reduced to any message at all — would be to violate that exhortation in the very act of expressing it. It may well be, after all, that Phillips has his own books in mind when he writes that “to get some things, to be able to give a fluent account of them, is to misrecognize their nature; to pre-empt the experience by willing the meaning, or by supposedly articulating the meaning.” We book reviewers, of course, get our timecards stamped at the Office of Fluent Accounts, and this way of thinking makes our task somewhat more difficult. But this is not a difficulty to which Phillips would object. “The wish to be understood,” he suggests, “may be our most vengeful demand.” On the evidence of this rich, compelling, and satisfyingly frustrating book, this wish may be one form of vengeance Adam Phillips has learned not to desire.