In praise of the unlived life
202pp. Hamish Hamilton. 20 [pounds sterling].
978 0 241 14387 2
In "On Not Getting It", the second chapter of his new book, Adam Phillips outlines a dialectic between understanding and the lack of it--"getting" and "not getting" it which nicely encapsulates the experience of Missing Out, if not of his writing more generally. He is forever pulling us between perplexity and recognition, playing on our anxiously competing needs to confirm and to unsettle what we already know, or think we do. Take the characteristic chiasmic inversion, towards the end of the book, of the well-worn formula that revenge is satisfying: "satisfaction may be vengeful". Our means of satisfying ourselves, in other words, may be unconscious forms of revenge against those who frustrate us (Othello/Desdemona and Iago/Othello serve here as exemplars of this scorched-earth logic whereby a person's pleasure consists above all in taking others down with them). The formulation works because, in the spirit of the uncanny as described by Freud, it seems at once shocking and obvious.
Phillips's time and interests are divided between literature and psychoanalysis. For all their differences, the seminar and consulting rooms share at least one insistent dilemma: does the teacher or analyst aim for provocation or education, to trouble or to reassure? If there is a sense that Phillips's clinical and stylistic instincts as well as literary tastes tend to the former pole, it may be...