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

You only live twice

Halfway through F Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night, there is a scene between Dick Diver, an elegant psychiatrist, and a female patient, an artist, scabbed head to toe with psoriasis. “I am here as a symbol of something,” she says. “I thought perhaps you would know what it was.” Diver assures her that, no, she is sick. “Then what was it I had almost found?” “A greater sickness,” he replies. Taking up the question that his fictional colleague lacked the courage to address, the author and psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written five essays about fantasy.

In an earlier book, Going Sane, Phillips exposes sanity as an “obscure and neglected” notion; these essays rely on an obscure ideal of desirousness. Though he sets aside his initiating idea of the “unlived life” for an inquiry into fantasy-related concepts, his anatomy makes no distinction between fantasy and creative thought, and no reference to compulsion. Phillips also assumes we are the sole authors of our fantasies, which excludes from consideration anyone from a family or a culture. And he overlooks the possibility that fantasies may emanate as much from a distorted perception of self as from a lively instinctual range.

Curious omissions for a psychoanalyst to make. But Phillips wishes to have it both ways: to enjoy the gravitas conferred upon him by psychoanalytic credentials and to bounce like a literary critic; to be both the eldest and the youngest child. Plays and poems – his preferred subject matter – are not psychiatric evidence, however; they are too consciously designed. There’s a reason why free association is free and many reasons why authorial intention does matter in a psychoanalytic session.

But, after 14 books, Phillips has charmed us into slackening the house rules; he reads texts as people and, less attractively, people as texts, and it is all so elegant, so intelligent, that to point this out is to call the emperor naked. “It is worth asking”, to use a Phillipsian enchantment, what would be lost if we discovered that he had invented his role as principal child psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital.

The laws of gravitas are so inhibiting, though. “Imagine,” Phillips writes, “what would have happened to Oedipus, not to mention psychoanalysis, if he had got away with it” – this caprice would pop before flight. So, too, the idea that, before an infant uses language, “The mother gets a joke, and gets a joke that is not being told.” There is no “joke”, not even if you squint. Sometimes euphony is just plain phony. 

These essays are read most pleasurably as dramatic monologues. They tumble us, idiosyncratically, from supposition to conviction: “Certainly all of Shakespeare’s tragedies – perhaps all tragedies – are about the misfortune of finding good-enough reasons for revenge.” Via Othello, Phillips suggests, “Revenge itself is only the illusion of triumph,” adding that triumph is just “another kind of magic (all magic can ever produce is more magic)”.

But Phillips likes magic; he is the master of lexical sleight of hand. Watch him make the elephantine vagueness in the room vanish with a little pouff of a subclause, a “one could say”, an “at least in this picture”, an “at least in Freud’s view”. See him gull our credulity with the logical “if ‘X’, then ‘Y’”: “If hate is the precursor of love, then getting out of relationships is the precursor of getting into them.” Marvel as he contorts the usage of a word to produce a golden coin: “Sexual jealousy is about trying to get it when you don’t get it.”

Sometimes we’re spooked by an eerie paradox: “The way in is through the out door”; “Repression is a way of getting into something by getting out of it.” And conceptual dissonance is repeatedly alakazammed into counterpoint: “Tragedies are stories about people not getting what they want, but not all stories about people not getting what they want seem tragic.”

It is worth asking whether Phillips isn’t a bit too old for all this play on words, words, words. It’s like watching Olivier playing Prince Hamlet. In Tom Stoppard’s comedy The Real Thing, Henry, a playwright addicted to puns, confronts his teenage daughter. Love, she scoffs, is “colonisation”. Henry responds, as if to himself, “Sophistry in a phrase so neat you can’t see the loose end that would unravel it. It’s flawless but wrong . . . You can do that with words, bless ’em.” In a recent interview, Phillips was asked, “Is psychoanalysis stronger as a literary rather than medical pursuit?” He replied, “I think it’s only strong as a literary form, really.”

But poetry makes nothing happen, whereas psychoanalysis should. “Is the aim of psychoanalytic treatment to increase the person’s understanding of herself,” Phillips asks, “or to free her to desire?” Are these the only, lonely options? It is interesting to note that these aims remain antithetical.

When Phillips expresses his admiration for  Philip Larkin as “a poet acutely aware of the importance of elsewhere”, he doesn’t wonder if this might connect with Larkin’s description of sex as getting “someone else to blow your own nose for you”. Is it a related squeamishness that leads Phillips to prefer Othello’s fantasies to their embodiments? What of the lonesome tweeter? To favour fantasy-fantasy over reality-fantasy is to fantasise a great deal away.

Whenever he allows it, his gift is for elucidation. Phillips constellates his heroes’ ideas like he’s got all the stars in his pockets. But then he flips up the piano lid and tinkles out the puns. In his essay on Phillips, Stanley Cavell asked, “Why the air of paradox?’’ noting that “Psychoanalysts are well placed not to give in to an overly philosophical picture of what understanding must be.” Phillips can do a lot with words, bless ’em, but why would he want to when he could do much more

Stoppard’s character, Henry, is prone to the writer’s fantasy that a melodious phrase will redress a cosmic imbalance. The play is about “missing out”, à la Phillips, on “the real thing”, meaning love. Is Phillips unconscious of the Henry in himself? As if to address this, he says of love: ‘‘We use satisfactions to cheat us of our satisfactions.” If a cure is related to this way of talking, it is homoeopathic.

Hamish Hamilton, 224pp, £20

Talitha Stevenson’s most recent novel is “Disappear”. (Virago, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s most dangerous leader