The Telegraph
Friday , November 9 , 2012
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Happiness and its discontents

Missing out By Adam Phillips, Hamish Hamilton, Rs 699

Two books, of roughly the same weight and feel in one’s hands, relieved the trauma of inadequately deodorized underarms in the Metro this summer — Geoff Dyer’s Zona and Adam Phillips’s Missing Out. Both of them have alluring subtitles — “A Book about a Film about a Journey to a Room” and “In Praise of the Unlived Life” respectively. Both are written by attractively uncategorizable, middle-aged Englishmen who manage to sound refreshingly young without being vain. Dyer has written, among other things, on photography, war, D.H. Lawrence, jazz, and John Berger — and on having lots and lots of sex (coke-driven sex, straight anal sex, sex near a burning ghat in Varanasi, sex at the Biennale in Venice). But Zona is a bravura ramble through just one great film: Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The giddying range of Phillips’s writing is best sampled, not by what the books are about (if they are ‘about’ anything at all, in that blurby sense of the word), but by their titles: On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored; On Flirtation; Monogamy; Darwin’s Worms; Houdini’s Box; and, my favourite, Going Sane.

Reading both books feels like engaging in a conversation with their writers; each is a voice in a room — talking, but listening too. Listening, for Phillips, is not only a profession (he is a psychotherapist), but also a “fundamental form of kindness”. As general editor of the new Penguin Freud translations, Phillips sees the founder of his craft as “always torn between being a lover of conversation and a lover of being right”. Dyer listens, one imagines, because he often seems to have nothing else to do. Getting away with doing nothing at all is at the core of his commitment to the life of writing. Both are inveterate and self-professed day-dreamers, slipping dreamily across the boundaries between disciplines, genres and modes of writing, reading, talking and listening, fascinated by the transgressiveness of boredom and of wasting time. Yet, Zona is Dyer’s 13th book (if I have counted right), and Missing Out Phillips’s 17th. So, each is a driven, prolific, immensely learned writer and thinker in whose work the unpredictable free-fantasia form takes on an intellectual rigour of its own, eluding paraphrase and landing unfailingly on the right side of cleverness.

I came across Phillips for the first time as an undergraduate, when I had to read Burke’s treatise on the Sublime, which he has edited. Phillips was introduced there as a child psychotherapist attached to a London hospital. Then I heard him lecture, realized that he had gone from the NHS to private practice, and did adults too. What neurosis, I wondered, could I acquire so that I might go and lie for those magic fifty minutes on his Notting Hill couch? But I knew he would catch me out. He came across as relentlessly canny, though he says in a recent interview that the acid test when meeting analysts is to ask, “Are they kind, are they intelligent, are they funny?” I sensed that Phillips was all three when I came across Monogamy a few years later. It is a book of aphorisms — little keys to a vista of forbidden doors in the Bluebeard’s Castle of happy conjugality. “Two’s company but three’s a couple” immediately comes to mind today in the absence of the book.

Then, sometime in the late Nineties, I went to see The Turn of the Screw, Benjamin Britten’s operatic version of Henry James’s novella about two angelic-looking and bottomlessly sinister children (not having a bottom, Freud would say, is no guarantee of innocence), and found among the programme notes a brief essay by Phillips called “The Cost of Curiosity”. “Perhaps what is best for the children is not always what is good for them?” the essay gently wonders, “We think we know what children need from adults — nurture, protection, instruction — but what do adults need from children? This is the question that organizes, and terrorizes, the opera.”

This use of a work of art that combines literature, music and drama to say something unsettling, and unsettlingly pleasurable, about the complexity of being human is the way an Adam Phillips conversation usually unfolds, in his books as well as in the essays he writes for that old friend of Hampstead and Tavistock psychoanalysis, The London Review of Books (“Bored with Sex?” and “Secrets” can be accessed online without subscription). The texture of Phillips’s writing is densely allusive, while his prose sinuously follows the loops and shocks of working through an idea or observation without ever losing, and loosening, the thread of lucidity. There are no concessions made to the difficulty of what is being thought through. But there is no jargon either — remarkable in a writer who works the grey zone between two cant- driven disciplines, psychoanalysis and literary criticism. This marginality to disciplines, discourses and institutions that are necessarily ambivalent about their own authority is what Phillips and Dyer — both students of English — also have in common, formed to some extent by the essays-and-conversation mix of openness and rigour in the Oxford tutorial system.

For Phillips, psychoanalysis is most true to itself (and to its founder’s anxieties) when it looks beyond the “romance of cure” and the goal of self-knowledge to ponder its own redundancy as a science, opening itself up, instead, to a freer association with the therapeutic powers of literature and the other arts (including the arts of conversation). Missing Out spins out its elegies to our unlived lives — the lives that we could have lived, but did not, and which haunt us like the ghostly doubles of the lives we do live — through close readings of King Lear, Othello, Thoreau’s Walden, Larkin’s “This Be the Verse”, Greene’s The End of the Affair and the OED. Apart from psychoanalytic theorists like Wilfred Bion and, of course, Freud (whose works are read more as literature and philosophy than theory or science), Phillips’s conversations are with philosophers and critics like Stanley Cavell and Barbara Everett.

Yet, the purpose of the book is doggedly practical. How can complicated modern people confront both their need, and their inability, to be happy — indeed, their embarrassment with happiness? Or, from another, more interesting, direction, how can they manage (and occasionally communicate to others) their “commitment to their own unhappiness”? Is not the “the wish to frustrate ourselves” the most ironic, and the most modern, of our wishes? So, how can we be happy without disappointing ourselves and boring others?