On not getting it

This brief notice of Adam Phillips’s Missing Out appeared recently in the Irish Times.

Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life By Adam Phillips. Penguin, £20

“The unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining?” Thus Adam Phillips, essayist and analyst, whose books cunningly match Freudian insights to an erudite, engaging style – books with titles such as Going Sane and On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored.

Phillips’s aphoristic bag is very much the kind of dialectical switcheroo canvassed above. Missing Out, an essay on getting or not getting what we want, and the difference between the two, is full of paradoxical quips: “We get into relationships only by trying to get out of them . . . All tyrannies involve the supposedly perfect understanding of someone else’s needs.” And most thoroughly apropos: “We can be fobbed off by the satisfactions of getting it and oddly enlivened by the perplexity of not getting it.”

“Not getting it” here entails unexpected potential amid a world of familiar hurt. We seem, says Phillips, to have a more precise notion of the life we could have lived than the one we actually possess (if that’s the right verb). Whether we’re railing at our constrained lives or justifying having bailed out, we know, or think we know, too well what might have been.

And knowing is often our besetting trouble, as in the cases of Hamlet, Othello and Lear, all of whom Phillips subtly diagnoses with a morbid urge to interpretation. (Mostly subtly, at any rate, though Othello is “someone in a need-to-know situation”.)

In its latter chapters Missing Out turns into a disquisition on “getting it” in several senses, from the feeling of being excluded from a joke to the assurance that while we “have” sex we don’t really “get” it.

Phillips’s style doesn’t come without its frustrations. He’s developed a habit of hedging around his apercus with little caveats that sound canny at first and then uncertain. Nothing gets defined without a clausal nod toward “whatever else it means”, so that you start to wonder what such locutions are shying away from. I look forward to Phillips’s paradoxical, parenthetical study of all that “else”.

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