Fantasies of Understanding: Adam Phillips’s "Missing Out"

By Lisa LevyJanuary 22, 2013

Fantasies of Understanding: Adam Phillips’s "Missing Out"

Missing Out by Adam Phillips


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, 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.

What is striking about this conclusion is how wise and inevitable it seems, despite the fact that it is pure speculation. Yes, Phillips hedges a bit with his “so-called,” his “could,” and his “for some reason,” but overall he is convinced that what he calls the “unlived life” is a universal phenomenon; he is eager to explain and to codify it for us. The definition of “unlived lives” proposed above posits that everyone has them, and that they represent a significant yet undertheorized aspect of our lived lives. The passage leads to a rather ominous conclusion, though: Unlived lives are not Walter Mitty-like escapes into unreality, but longing for actual, absent things. This feels like another of Phillips’s moments of strangulation, where he forces the breath out of a topic until he leaves his reader “cross and sad.” (Or, depending on the reader, maybe satisfied: it would be irresponsible to overlook that there is also something erotic about choking as a mode of interaction, whether with words or with objects: it may be a perversion, but Phillips, as a Freudian, takes his perversions quite seriously.)

The breadth of Phillips’s literary sources in Missing Out, too, is truly breathtaking, and a little anxiety-provoking; they include poets (Marianne Moore, William Empson, John Berryman, Philip Larkin, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery); philosophers (Stanley Cavell, Isaiah Berlin, Jean-Paul Sartre, Richard Rorty); novelists (Sybille Bedford, D.H. Lawrence), literary critics (Harold Bloom, Roland Barthes, Lionel Trilling, Tony Tanner) and sociologists (Phillip Rieff, Erving Goffman). And that’s not counting the gallery of psychoanalysts, which starts with Freud and touches on every school since. This eclecticism, though not programmatic, is purposeful: Phillips sees part of his job as making new analogies for psychoanalysis and for criticism, and especially for the relationship between them. He does not have a program for living as much as a rage for it, and many of the questions he pursues in Missing Out reflect this compulsion to question and to create. Phillips is a restless reader, and he is constantly reminding us of places where literature and psychoanalytic theory overlap or illuminate each other. In one of the case histories woven into Missing Out, a patient says to Phillips, “'I am going back to my bean-field,” a paraphrase of a line from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; and the fact of the man “speaking Walden” to him signifies a bond which he had been unsure of, a “fantasy of understanding” between analyst and patient. By channeling Thoreau in therapy, his patient has somehow caught Phillips’s scent and established their common goal.

Though Missing Out might seem to pivot away from the two books immediately preceding it, On Kindness (with Barbara Taylor, 2009) and On Balance (2010), both of which attempt to account for social ills (cruelty and greed) and explore their possible remedies, by taking up our unlived lives Philllips has conflated individual and societal issues in an often productive way. It is indeed a continuation especially of the ideas in On Balance, which dwells in the same territory as Missing Out: the concepts of frustration, punishment, and satisfaction recur in both books. The repressed not only returns again and again in Phillips; but like a kid with a shiny new bike, he rides his favorite concepts around and around the neighborhood, through streets both familiar and strange. Over and over he asks the same questions, not always reaching the same conclusions: How are we defined by our desires? Frustration? Satisfaction? How do you define success? Is it the same as a good life? What is the connection between fantasy, sex, and love, and why does Phillips claim in Missing Out that every love story is a “frustration story”? What do these unlived lives tell us about the lives we are actually living? How do they intersect with our fantasies?

With its emphasis on absence, longing, wishing, all the things we do not or cannot have, Missing Out is the apotheosis of the strain in Phillips’s thinking which focuses on the complexities of wants real and imagined. In the five essays which comprise the body of the book — “On Frustration,” “On Not Getting It,” “On Getting Away With It,” “On Getting Out of It,” and “On Satisfaction” — Phillips divines the difficult puzzle of our motivations and wonders why we need unreal alternatives to our real lives in order to make them bearable.


Let’s start with frustration. Frustration implies an obstacle, a burning hoop between us and the object of our desire. But is satisfaction what we get when we jump? “What, then, is the relationship, the link, the bond, the affinity between frustration and satisfaction? How do we find ourselves fitting them together or joining them up?” They are not simple opposites, nor does one extinguish the other. The affinity is more complex: “The fact that there are frustrations seems to imply, of course, that there are satisfactions, real or otherwise. The fact of frustration has, that is to say, something reassuring about it. It suggests a future.” Here we are getting into the territory of unlived lives: frustration suggests a future because it forces us to look forward to satisfaction (or, for the unlucky or masochistic, to continued frustration), pushes us into fantasies of what might happen. What Phillips goes on to suggest is something so simple we all know it, yet it is startling to read:

There is, though, one ineluctable fact, one experience that is integral to our development, something that is structural to human relations right from their very beginning; and that is, that if someone can satisfy you they can frustrate you. Only someone who gives you satisfaction can give you frustration.

This represents Phillips’s clearest statement to date of an idea he has been working through for many years. In “On Tickling,” from his first collection, On Tickling, Kissing, and Being Bored (1993), he writes about the frustration and satisfaction a child feels while being tickled: “Does it not highlight, this delightful game, the impossibility of satisfaction and reunion, with its continual reenactment of the irresistible attraction and the inevitable repulsion of the object, in which the final satisfaction is frustration?” There is nothing more frustrating to the child than being tickled, and nothing more satisfying. Unlike sex, there is no release, just more of the same. The laughter is born of pain, but still sounds like joy.

In On Balance, Phillips writes more explicitly about sex and frustration: “But what is most striking, and begins with puberty, is how sexuality makes fantasizers of us all; and whether the fantasies are pornographic or romantic, intensely exciting or mildly distracting, they are very often excessive in the satisfactions they promise.” Excess and scarcity (Phillips often deals in polarities) are two of the central themes of On Balance, and in taking up the question of what too much or too little sex might be, Phillips runs right into this frustration/satisfaction conundrum:

When it comes to sexuality, once again, excess is the sign of the fear of scarcity, a way of keeping our spirits up. But there are, of course, drawbacks to how pleasurable, sexual and romantic fantasies can be. Because fantasy formulates the mismatch between what we want and what is there.

But doesn’t fantasy also define the terms of our sexual lives, even before we have them? Before we have actual adult sex lives, we have the fantasy of what those sex lives might be like, the unlived life, and a good part of that fantasizing involves frustration.

Yet actually becoming an adult and falling in love does not provide a cure for this youthful frustration. In Missing Out, Phillips writes, “All love stories are frustration stories. As are all stories about parents and children, which are also love stories, in Freud’s view, the formative love stories. To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration you didn’t know you had […] you wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there.” The operative word here is “seems”; especially in love stories, there are no guarantees your needs will be met, and even if they are, your frustration will dissipate or be transformed into something else. Illusions, fantasies, unlived lives are necessary for love to operate, whether it’s parental love or sexual love. The root of this might be in Phillips’s early essay On Flirtation (1994), in which he says that “‘[g]ood’ relationships become those in which people can tolerate a lot of frustration, as children, indeed, have to do (people who are good at waiting may just have nothing better to do).” As we grow up, we do get better at waiting, better at being frustrated, and maybe, better at love.

Phillips reminds us that Freud wrote “our desire is always in excess of the object’s capacity to satisfy it.” He then comments:

But why would our desire be excessive? One reason might be that our disappointment keeps us going; that we keep ourselves desiring by hoping for a satisfaction that will never come; or that we must ensure will never come. Because we are frustrated we keep on wanting.

Phillips, pace Freud, claims here that frustration is a kind of engine of desire, a furnace that keeps the unlived life of sexual fantasy going. “Our desire for love and sex is insatiable,” Phillips writes. “It’s not the problem, it’s the point.”

Frustration, Phillips writes in “Negative Capabilities,” another essay in On Balance, is a harbinger of excess, and a talisman of pathology: "Frustration always portends an excess of frustration, or calls up the very feelings we cannot bear (rage, envy, spite, abjection, and so on).” Frustration never comes in small packages; it is always too much. Thus, it spins out into unlived lives, or into pathologies. “What we call pathologies are often self-cures for frustration. The most difficult thing for the patient to articulate is his frustration; indeed, he can only begin to articulate his desire if he can spell out his frustration.” So here we see the relationship between desire, frustration, and satisfaction from a different angle: the patient can only understand his desires if he understands his frustrations.

But what happens if those desires are met, if those frustrations dissipate? Phillips cites a 1916 paper, “Those Wrecked by Success,” in which Freud speculates that neurosis is often the result of frustration, but claims that people can also become ill when a wish is satisfied. If frustration, counterintuitively, can be a state of health, what does that make satisfaction? How do we know when our lives are good, and what does success have to do with it?


From the beginning of his career, Phillips has been preoccupied with the ancient philosophical question of what constitutes a good life, and the more modern concern of how psychoanalysis might fit into one. In Missing Out he writes, “For modern people, stalked by their choices, the good life is a life lived to the full. We become obsessed, in a new way, by what is missing in our lives; and by what sabotages the pleasures that we seek.” We will find many names for these saboteurs and these absences: desire, worry, children, grief, sex, love, madness, and success, to name a few. In Missing Out Phillips proposes that our unlived lives are where these vexing issues are explored, along with some other crucial questions:

For Freud, the questions for the modern person are not just “How can I survive?” but “What makes my life worth living for?” “What are the pleasures without which I cannot live?” It is among the contentions of this book that our unlived lives — the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives — are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives, and that we can’t (in both senses) imagine ourselves without them; that they are an essential part of the ways in which we answer Freud’s questions.

Phillips often reflexively turns to Freud, as he does here, as a kind of setup man; Freud is the guy who bumps into you and mutters, “Excuse me” while his partner picks your pocket. The questions above could just as easily have been Phillips’s questions; by attributing them to Freud, they gain legitimacy and depth, but throw you off Phillips’s scent. He penetrates the crux of the unlived life, a life of wishes and fantasies, through the three Freudian questions, none of which ask about fantasies or wishes (topics Freud certainly had much to say about), but rather focus on survival, pleasure, and what makes life worthwhile. Freud’s questions should lead Phillips to a discussion of what makes life good; instead, he talks about what makes life bearable. For Phillips, these are often the same thing.

The confusion between a good life and a secret life, or an unlived life, has also recurred throughout Phillips’s work. Often it is a productive confusion, for psychoanalysis itself can be a secret life that enables people to make their outside lives better. “Indeed psychoanalysis, as described by Freud, might make us wonder why it is so difficult to imagine a life without normative life-stories,” Phillips writes in On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored:

A good life, in this context, is either the successful negotiation of a more or less preset developmental project (in which the question, Set by whom? might seem irrelevant); or it can be something that we make up as we go along, according to our wishes, in endlessly proliferating and competing versions, the unconscious, as Richard Rorty has remarked, feeding us our best lines.

This version of a good life is quite different from the one Phillips proposes in Missing Out: here, the setting is specifically psychoanalytic, and the binary pull is between the normative theories of Freudian development and the more improvisational realities of the analytic setting (or possibly that hard-to-define venue known as real life). Similarly, in Side Effects (2006), Phillips specifically questions the utopian aspect of psychoanalysis: “Psychoanalysis asks us to reconsider the unacceptable, in ourselves and in others; in our personal and cultural histories, in our desires and thoughts and feelings and beliefs. And at the same time it asks us to wonder why we should want to do this; whether it can get us the lives we would rather live.” What good is analysis if it cannot do this, if it forces us into the realm of the perverse and the forbidden, to reveal our secrets and divulge our fantasies, without the payoff of some sort of self-enrichment, the reward of some nugget of knowledge we could not excavated without the tools of the analyst? If the analyst does not give his patient if not a good, then at least a better life, is he less a pickpocket than a straight-up thief?

In On Kindness and Going Sane (2005), Phillips also imagines alternative lives — truly good lives — but they are benign fantasies. His more recent work is less skeptical about the reality of goodness. In On Kindness (2009) he contends: “People are secretly living kind lives all the time but without a language in which to express this or cultural support for it. Living according to our sympathies, we imagine, will weaken or overwhelm us; kindness is the saboteur of the successful life.” So being kind is another kind of unlived life, or secret life, mainly because it involves ideas of self-sacrifice that makes us uncomfortable or marks us as weak, too vulnerable or open to the demands of others. To be kind all the time would be to be, or to look like, a failure.

Failure and success are yet another set of terms that preoccupy Phillips. In the central essay of Missing Out, “On Getting Away With It,” he runs through several dictionary definitions and examples of the title phrase, landing on the notion that to get away with something is to succeed, but to do so in a particular fashion: by escaping punishment for breaking the rules. In a sense, then, to get away with it is to be successful; yet, Phillips asks, “In what sense does success — the successful crime as much as the successful work of art — depend on not being detected or punished?” Phillips’s equation of crime and art here, like his signature equation of psychoanalysis and essay writing, is telling. Both crime and art are potentially creative acts or destructive acts, and can be transgressive acts or just mundane ones. To evade punishment for a crime is to get away with something, as is to, say, write a persuasive essay.

Phillips has more to say about this, though: “To accomplish things with impunity is success. And we do, after all, punish works of art that are not successful; and we call that punishment, in the case of literature, literary criticism.” This might seem like cheek, yet Phillips believes it. He practices it. His art is anxious; his technique is both frustrating and satisfying. He is eager to make something happen to you, and to get away with it. Let him.


LARB Contributor

Lisa Levy writes for The BelieverThe Rumpus, and The Millions, among other publications. She blogs at and you can follow her on Twitter at @RealLiveCritic.


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