|tags:||Philosophy & Critical Theory|
IN HIS FIRST FEW BOOKS (he now has 16 under his belt), Adam Phillips set himself the unenviable task of justifying his existence over and over. As a practicing psychoanalyst writing for a general audience, Phillips is constantly in a kind of compare-and-despair position: “Psychoanalysis does not need any more abstruse or sentimental abstractions — any new paradigms or radical revisions,” he insisted in his book Promises, Promises (2001), “it just needs more good sentences.”
If Phillips has lately grown out of the habit of convincing us that his intellectual project is worthwhile, and that the parallels between psychoanalysis and belletristic essay writing are legitimate and thought-provoking, he will never tire of finding similarities between them. In his latest book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, he has decided that looking into our fantasies about what we are not doing with our lives is a worthwhile project. It is typical of Phillips that this quickly becomes a complicated and ennobling endeavor, for he is essentially interested in how self-knowledge can lead to self-enrichment. He wants us to live better lives, in other words, and advocates for psychoanalysis — and for reading — as a tool for making them so.
But Phillips, underneath his surface smoothness and kindness, is an anxious writer. This is not to say he lacks courage or confidence, for he has plenty of both. He has an elegant prose style too, with a talent for turning a phrase, a knack for epigrams. Yet he is anxious in the sense of always being eager for something to happen, for his reader to be persuaded of something. Take the first sentence of the prologue to his new book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life: “The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining?” Here, in miniature, is Phillips’s endless allusiveness as well as his evasiveness, his playful announcement of his subject (“the unexamined life”) combined with a phrase (“the unlived life”) bound to give the reader pause while propelling him toward the next sentence. The anxiety is present in that “surely” — why does Phillips need to embellish the well-known Socratic motto with an adverbial scaffold? — and it is there again in the way the sentence seesaws on that “but.” Even on the level of syntax, Phillips is manipulating us, forcing us to think about what an “unlived life” might be or mean, and whether such a thing might be worth examining.
To use a technique that Phillips often employs — etymology as explanation — the derivation of the word “anxious” dates from the early 17th century; its root is the Latin anxius, from the verb angere, “to choke.” Phillips is always twisting, testing, pushing down on things — not to choke them to death, but to press them into submission. Moving on to the next few sentences of the book’s prologue:
It seems a strange question until one realizes how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, ar...