In an interview that was published in Bomb magazine a couple of years ago, a journalist admitted to Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst and writer, that though he loved Phillips’s many books and essays, he could “never actually remember anything” that he read in them. Phillips was delighted. “That’s the reading experience I’ve always loved. Certainly, when people say to me, as they often have done, ‘I can’t remember anything afterward,’ I think, Great, that’s the point!”

There is something strange and exciting about hearing a writer say this. But it’s particularly surprising coming from one whose mode is often so pithy. One book, “Monogamy,” was made up entirely of aphorisms, and though aphorisms are meant to be carried around once the book is put down, much like that journalist I’ve managed to remember only one: “A couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime. Sex is often the closest they can get.”

“Missing Out,” Phillips’s 17th book, is his most poetic, paradoxical, repetitive and punning yet; he doesn’t argue in a linear fashion but nestles ideas within ideas, like Russian dolls. The result feels less like a clean literary feat than the underground rumblings that produce literature.

What’s at stake throughout these essays is how we understand the “lives we could be leading but for some reason are not.” Phillips’s clinical practice (he sees patients four days a week and writes on Wednesdays) has shown him that “we live as if we know more about the experiences we don’t have than the experiences we do have.” He refers to these parallel or shadow lives as our “unlived lives,” and says that many of us “spend a great deal of our lived lives trying to find and give the reason” that “they were not possible. And what was not possible all too easily becomes the story of our lives.”

It’s hard not to find this embarrassingly familiar: the unloved lovers, the unsucceeded successes. We’re so sure of what our unlived lives would have been like that we feel guilty for not living them — for not living up to our potential. But “where did we get our picture of this potential from?” Phillips asks. We live in an age in which many of us no longer feel rooted in traditional systems of belief; we know we are nothing special — “on a par with ants and daffodils” — and so seek our satisfaction in the perpetual present of consumer capitalism, in which “knowing ourselves” means “simply knowing what we want to have.”

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Many books of pop psychology or pop philosophy try to contend straightforwardly with what ails our age; Alain de Botton’s wonderful “How to Think More About Sex” comes to mind, an example of an intelligent person helpfully untying some of the knots that bind us. But whereas de Botton invented a modern fictional couple and gave them all our troubles with sex, Phillips looks to Shakespeare, whose psychological portraits are bracingly ­contemporary.

Credit Illustration by Jason Greenberg

Phillips attends first to King Lear, who blames the frustration of his imagined satisfactions not on himself but on others — namely, his daughter Cordelia, who refuses to profess her love for him in exchange for her inheritance. Lear’s tragic flaw is that he knows what he wants all too well. Yet our presumed certainties are but a “delusion of omniscience,” Phillips says; like tyrannical little Lears, we believe we know what will satisfy us, yet these satisfactions are a static picture — they’re not fluid reality. “People become real to us by frustrating us,” he warns. “If they don’t frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy.”

Our delusions of omniscience play a role in our ideas of not only what we want but also what we want to escape. He uses a relationship as an example. We want to get out because we know what it would be like if we stayed. Yet how can we know for sure? Looking to theater and literature, Phillips says, “there is no more fundamental picture of the human subject than as a creature trying to get out of something” — but that “something” is, at root, our “ineluctable human nature.”

The questions that interest him most — “Why is it so difficult to enjoy not getting it?” “Is there someone ordering us around in our minds to try to get it?” — are purposefully broad, because the content of the “it” is less important than the form of the question. “It” is whatever “it” means to the reader at the moment: a raise, a joke, a girlfriend, a poem. As it happens, the idea of “getting away with it” involves two “it”s: first, the object of desire; and second, not paying the penalty. “Getting away with it” is a contemporary expression yet a fundamentally conservative impulse. The cheater remains “pro law and order,” because for someone to get away with something, the laws must remain in place, the cheater darting beyond its sights, unpunished by authority or his own guilt. I’m reminded of those characters we’ve seen much of lately, in the dramas of the financial crisis, searching for loopholes to slip through, as if external punishment were the only penalty that mattered.

Phillips continued in that Bomb interview to express his hope for “a world in which there is less art and better relationships. . . . The only game in town is improving the quality of people’s relationships. Everything is about group life, and there’s no life without group life.” This seems indicative of how he wants his essays to function: less like art-objects (beautiful, stable things to be contemplated at a distance) than a training ground for how we might relate differently to the world and one another through how we relate to the text. Modeling relations in a safe environment is what many therapies do; it’s fascinating to see it work in a book.

One wonders if we should not be trying to “get” these essays at all, but rather let our single-mindedness about what we want from them — a perfect solution to our frustrations? — loosen amid the paradoxes Phillips presents. That’s good practice for learning to do things with other people (and our desires) besides trying to “get” them. Although we’ve been educated to want to get it, there are forgotten pleasures in not getting it, as when we were infants and didn’t get the point of what the adults were saying: “Living as if missing the point — having the courage of one’s naïvety — could also be a point.”

At the end of the collection, Phillips discusses the relationship among theater, madness and the mad characters on stage. “When the mad are offered another audience” — in the arena of theater, that audience is us — “it is like their being offered another kind of hope,” the sort of hope that comes when people can “talk at length in their own way, be listened to and, if need be, killed, and yet not really die.”

With Phillips, we feel our wished-for satisfactions (our madness?) listened to and killed, and yet not really die. And he offers us another kind of hope too — not the consumerist one, that all our dreams may come true, but the hope that our frustrations might lead us out of the fantasy world in our minds and into an engagement with what is. After all, “the only satisfactions available are the satisfactions of reality, which are themselves frustrating.”


In Praise of the Unlived Life

By Adam Phillips

203 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

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