Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life

My highlights and notes from Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips.

While there are some amazing passages in this book, such as the one on love, “To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration that you didn’t know you had…” (continued below), I found this book to be a rather difficult read at times. I didn’t find his heavy use of Shakespeare as the main references for the human condition to be the best way to articulate his points. Although I wonder if, to one who appreciates and knows the stories that were referenced, this aspect may be a positive. To me it seemed to be more of a hurdle that I had to overcome to decipher the true message.

At times he also seemed to propose a notion without fully realizing the concept. The earlier chapters seemed rather poignant, but as the book went on the messages began to fall flat. About half way through this book I would have given it 4 out of 5 stars. By the end I decided on 3 out of 5.


On Frustration

So it is worth wondering what the need to be special prevents us seeing about ourselves – other, that is, than the unfailing transience of our lives; what the need to be special stops us from being. This, essentially, is the question psychoanalysis was invented to address: what kind of pleasures can sustain a creature that is nothing special?


What is absent and felt to be essential is not, of course, a modern or a secular preoccupation; wanting is what we do to survive, and we want only what isn’t there (and it is, indeed, the challenges to our wanting by other people, the clash of our desires with the desires of others, that make us who we are).


In Freud’s story our possibilities for satisfaction depend upon our capacity for frustration; if we can’t let ourselves feel our frustration – and, surprisingly, this is a surprisingly difficult thing to do – we can’t get a sense of what it is we might be wanting, and missing, of what might really give us pleasure (greed is despair about pleasure). Describing how our wanting works, and works against us – how all our wanting has a history – Freud shows us that frustration is at once both the source of our pleasure and the inspiration for our unlived lives.


The right choice is the one that makes us lose interest in the alternatives; but we can never know beforehand which the right choice will be. We never know if one frustration will lead to another.


The more we frustrate ourselves in wanting something, the more we value our desire for it. But Freud is also saying that it is only in states of frustration that we can begin to imagine – to elaborate, to envision – our desire. Though Freud is telling us something here about the pleasures of asceticism, this is not a counsel of renunciation; he is recommending frustration as the essential preparation for desire, as the precondition for its flourishing, and for the possibility of there being some satisfaction. When we are frustrated, the unlived life is always beckoning; the unlived life of gratified desire returns as a possibility. Waiting too long poisons desire, but waiting too little pre-empts it; the imagining is in the waiting. In consciously contrived instant gratification, neither desire nor the object of desire is sufficiently imagined. Wanting takes time; partly because it takes some time to get over the resistances to wanting, and partly because we are often unconscious of what it is that we do want. But the worst thing we can be frustrated of is frustration itself; to be deprived of frustration is to be deprived of the possibilities of satisfaction. If we are not, say, to use sex to get rid of sex, if we are not to abolish our pleasure by the too slick seeking of it, we will need to recover, or even to refine, our frustration. We will have to resist our wanting being stolen from us before we have realized it. So before our satisfaction, it is our frustration we need to turn to.


(frustration is optimistic in the sense that it believes that what is wanted is available, so we might talk about frustration as a form of faith). When you feel frustrated you are, like Lear, the authority on what you want. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be a tyrant and you wouldn’t be in a rage.


‘The cause of tragedy,’ Stanley Cavell writes in his great essay on King Lear, ‘The Avoidance of Love’, ‘is that we would rather murder the world than permit it to expose us to change’ (Disowning Knowledge).


Without frustration there can be no satisfaction. Frustration that is unrecognized, unrepresented, cannot be met or even acknowledged; addiction is always an addiction to frustration (addiction is unformulated frustration, frustration too simply met).


There is, though, one ineluctable fact, one experience that is integral to our development, something that is structural to human relations right from their very beginning; and that is, that if someone can satisfy you they can frustrate you. Only someone who gives you satisfaction can give you frustration.


To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration that you didn’t know you had (of one’s formative frustrations, and of one’s attempted self-cures for them); you wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there. And what is renewed in that experience is an intensity of frustration, and an intensity of satisfaction. It is as if, oddly, you were waiting for someone but you didn’t know who they were until they arrived. Whether or not you were aware that there was something missing in your life, you will be when you meet the person you want. What psychoanalysis will add to this love story is that the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams; that you have dreamed them up before you met them; not out of nothing – nothing comes of nothing – but out of prior experience, both real and wished for. You recognize them with such certainty because you already, in a certain sense, know them; and because you have quite literally been expecting them, you feel as though you have known them for ever, and yet, at the same time, they are quite foreign to you. They are familiar foreign bodies. But one thing is very noticeable in this basic story; that however much you have been wanting and hoping and dreaming of meeting the person of your dreams, it is only when you meet them that you will start missing them. It seems that the presence of an object is required to make its absence felt (or to make the absence of something felt). A kind of longing may have preceded their arrival, but you have to meet in order to feel the full force of your frustration in their absence.


Perhaps what these psychoanalytic stories suggest, at its most minimal, is that there are (at least) four kinds of frustration: the frustration of being deprived of something that has never existed; the frustration of being deprived of something one has never had (whether or not it exists); the frustration of being deprived of something one has had; and, finally, the frustration of being deprived of something one once had.


There is a world of difference between erotic and romantic daydream and actually getting together with someone; getting together is a lot more work, and is never exactly what one was hoping for. So there are three consecutive frustrations: the frustration of need, the frustration of fantasized satisfaction not working, and the frustration of satisfaction in the real world being at odds with the wished-for, fantasized satisfaction. Three frustrations, three disturbances, and two disillusionments. It is, what has been called in a different context, a cumulative trauma; the cumulative trauma of desire. And this is when it works.


Thought is what makes frustration bearable, and frustration makes thought possible. Thinking modifies frustration, rather than evading it, by being a means by which we can go from feeling frustrated to figuring out what to do about it, and doing it; what Freud called ‘trial action in thought – and what we might call imagination leading to real action in reality. The ability to think, Bion says, will ‘bridge the gulf of frustration between the moment when a want is felt and the moment when action appropriate to satisfying the want culminates in its satisfaction’. And the ability to think also means, and depends upon, the ability to have a conversation. It is, we should note, a gulf between wanting and actually doing something about it; thinking is the link, the bridge, and not an end in itself, as it is when it becomes a bolt-hole of daydream. And the choice, we should also notice, is, in Bion’s language, between evading frustration and modifying it. If thinking is the way to modify it, then attacking one’s capacity to think would be an evasion; failures of imagination would be the unwillingness to bear with frustration.


But the quest for satisfaction begins and ends with a frustration; it is prompted by frustration, by the dawning of need, and it ends with the frustration of never getting exactly what one wanted.


Perhaps we are permanently enraged, taking revenge on ourselves for not being sufficient for ourselves, and taking revenge on others for never giving us quite what we want. And yet for Bion it is the evading of frustration that is catastrophic. Evasion of frustration, he continues, ‘involves the assumption of omniscience as a substitute for learning from experience by aid of thoughts and thinking’. If you can’t bear frustration, can’t bear the dependence on and involvement of others that satisfaction entails, you have to precipitate yourself into a state of already having and knowing everything (the theological form it takes is, does God need His creation, and if so, how can He be a god if He is in need?). The self-cure for frustration is omniscience, the delusion of omniscience (there must be a figure somewhere who is exempt from frustration, and this is God; we need to be able to imagine someone who doesn’t have to feel frustration). Learning from experience means finding ways of making your need compatible with living in the world. Bion thinks we do this by thinking our needs through, observing what the world is like, and trying them out. Finding your place in the world means finding or making a place where your needs work for you.


Psychoanalysis tells us that we can understand satisfaction only by understanding frustration, and that we are prone to find frustration unbearable. In this picture, frustration may be the thing that we are least able to let ourselves feel; and by not being able to feel it, to think it, or not being able to feel it or think it enough, we obscure our satisfactions.


We frustrate ourselves by what we do to our frustration; we use our frustration to deceive ourselves. We are, at least for Freud and Bion, frustrated of frustration; we empty it out, we evade it. We even avoid it by turning it into a pleasure, or fob ourselves off with pleasures that are knowingly unsatisfying; there is, Freud tells us, a wish to frustrate ourselves that is as strong as any wish we have. But if frustration becomes our pleasure, we are further than ever from satisfaction. Our frustration would seem to be our commonest experience; and yet Freud and Bion show us both how and why there is nothing more opaque about ourselves than our frustrations. That if it is our first nature to need, it is our second nature to obscure our frustration; that we don’t want to really think or speak because we don’t want to know the nature of, know the experience of, our fundamental frustrations. We prefer our satisfactions without their requisite frustrations. But if it is frustration we hate, it must be satisfaction that we hate even more, because it is only from our sense of frustration that we get a clue about the possibilities of satisfaction. In this sense it is not desire that is the problem but the frustration it discloses. You can’t have a desire without an inspiring sense of lack.


In the psychoanalytic story, if we don’t feel frustration we don’t need reality; if we don’t feel frustration we don’t discover whether we have the wherewithal to deal with reality. People become real to us by frustrating us; if they don’t frustrate us they are merely figures of fantasy. The story says something like: if other people frustrate us the right amount, they become real to us, that is, people with whom we can exchange something; if they frustrate us too much, they become too real, that is, persecutory, people we have to do harm to; if they frustrate us too little, they become idealized, imaginary characters, the people of our wishes; if they frustrate us too much, they become demonized, the people of our nightmares. And these, we might say, are two ways of murdering the world: making it impotent or making it unreal. If this was quantifiable we would say that the good life proposed by psychoanalysis is one in which there is just the right amount of frustration. It is, however, rather like Lear’s kingdom, not quantifiable. But it seems as though it is all the wrong kinds of frustration that make our lives what they are; that so much depends on what each of us makes of the too much and the too little we get.


On Not Getting It

“But how then can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them? Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along?”
—Frank O’Hara, ‘Personism: A Manifesto’


It is worth remembering that in what is called growing up, not getting it precedes getting it. Our frustration comes before, is the precondition for, our satisfaction. Not getting it precedes getting it; it links us to our losses; and might make us wonder what the early, all-too-literal experiences of not getting it might have been like. Those moments when we did not know that there was an ‘it’ to get, and so were not not getting it, but doing something else. When getting it was not about knowing what we want, because knowing was not something we were able to do.


The familiar, and indeed salient, example Malan gives is of anger. ‘If a child is consistently punished for the expression of anger,’ he continues,

he will begin to get anxious when angry and will learn ways to avoid its expression. Let’s say that passivity and withdrawal become the child’s strategies of choice for avoiding the experience and expression of anger (and its feared consequences). Eventually, he may retreat to this so automatically that even he is unaware of feeling angry inside. The defences come to replace the feeling itself and can result in character pathology (e.g., passive aggressive or avoidant personality disorders), affecting all future relationships.

This, one could say, is a story of the genesis of someone not getting it, of a person over time not recognizing their feelings; they experience themselves as withdrawn or passive or blank when they are in fact angry; and so, by the same token, making it impossible for the other person to recognize what they are feeling – I experience you as a shy person when you are in fact someone who desires me or loathes me. Not getting it is here conceived of as an essential, self-protective project; the consequence of it – of this evolving solution to disruptive feeling – is an estrangement from what Malan calls an ’emotional core.’ Real feeling is replaced by defences against it, and the defences come to seem to be what one is really feeling (all these stories depend on there being feelings that can be identified as real). Not getting it here means not getting emotional contact and exchange between people, but becomes an intricate system of unassuaging evasions. One is doubly left out, from one’s so-called emotional core and from other people; unpaid on both sides. This is clearly a recognizable and dismaying picture; and it works round a simple idea: the idea of replacement. Feelings, desires, beliefs, thoughts and actions can be literally replaced, put in the place of, substituted for and sacrificed to, the defences against them. I am cross: it threatens to spoil the relationship I depend on: I make myself, I turn myself, into a nice, kind, gentle person. In this psychic alchemy, this magical act, this disappearing act, I reappear as acceptable to others, and therefore to myself (that is the logical order here). And what happens to the anger? It comes out as what are called ‘symptoms’, prevailing forms of unease. Symptoms, in this sense, are obscured communications.

[…] The child is taken to be good at recognizing (the parents’ needs), but deprived of sufficiently good experiences of being recognized. The child is the unrecognized recognizer. If you want, as Freud suggests, to re-create, to recover, your relationship with your parents, it is always going to be a quest for selective recognition. You will be attentive to the needs of the other person, and they will see in you only what they want to see. You must sacrifice being recognized for recognizing. Your project, so to speak, is to fit in with what the other wants you to be (or what you imagine they want you to be); but there are aspects of yourself that are always threatening to break the bonds you need. We are accomplices struggling to become collaborators – at least in this picture. We make ourselves out of the demands others make of us, and out of whatever else we can use.


Is the good life one in which I get it – get, to some extent, what’s going on inside me and in others, get who I am – or one in which I don’t need to, one in which the examined life is unliveable?


In this predicament it is not the object but the keeping of the object that is paramount, as though knowing someone was a way of having them in safekeeping. When knowledge of oneself and other people is complicit with such fantasies, it is a form of word-magic. As though it were possible to know oneself and others in a way that would guarantee that one would never be let down. So one paradoxical proposition we might consider is that it is only knowledge of oneself and others that makes betrayal possible.


Psychoanalysis, as a treatment, is an opportunity to recover the freedom not to know or be known, and so to find out what people might do together instead.


On Getting Away With It

“Nothing important comes with instructions.
—James Richardson, ‘Vectors 3.0’


Rules don’t make sense if it is impossible to break them, and rules are only rules if there are penalties for breaking them.


On Getting Out of It

Sometimes, perhaps more often than we realize, we live as if we know more about the experiences we don’t have than about the experiences we do have. And sometimes we need to be able to do this in order to free ourselves.


Knowing what you don’t want doesn’t mean knowing what you do want.


The risk, in a way, is that the omniscience about what one is getting out of – a relationship, a commitment, an arrangement – is matched by an omniscience about what one is getting out for. In the simple pleasure-pain calculus, one is poised between the unsatisfying object from which one must be freed and the preferred, potentially satisfying object that one seeks. The so-called knowledge one has of what will happen if one doesn’t get out is the albeit paradoxical knowledge of an uncompleted action.


When someone wants a get-out clause in a contract, or indeed in a relationship, they are allowing for the possibility that something better might turn up; they know that there might be something better, which they need to include in their calculations. Needing to formalize this possibility acknowledges, at its most minimal, that I may not have got what I most want, even if I don’t know what that is. And there is, of course, an optimism in assuming that better things may be coming down the line. If get-out clauses lack commitment, they also underwrite an openness about the future. My get-out clause, contracted publicly or reassuringly affirmed in the apparent privacy of my own mind, is my uncertainty about my own desire.


And yet, in the poetry of conjunctions that dictionary definitions provide, the phrase get out’, when it is not the starkest of imperatives, is unusually suggestive. Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary has ‘to produce: to extricate oneself’; which is itself reminiscent of Sartre’s remark apropos of Genet that ‘genius’ is the word we use for people who get themselves out of impossible situations. It may be that to produce something is to extricate oneself from something.


Like people who come for psychotherapy, who want to change by remaining the same, the adult reader, in Greene’s view, is working hard at keeping the future like the past. The child, like Greene himself, is a traveller; the adult has arrived: the narcissism of anticipation is replaced by the narcissism of settlement. The child wants to be reassured that there is an enlivening future; the adult wants to be reassured that there isn’t. The child’s desire is to get out of childhood, the adult’s desire is to get out of wanting to change.


no one can tell you that you don’t need what you claim to need, they can tell you only that you shouldn’t; just as no one can tell you that the joke that amuses you isn’t funny, they can tell you only that you shouldn’t be amused by it.


Our need for others is a kind of defeat or capitulation: the submission that turns into our most difficult admission. Freudian Man, as he was once called, can get into things – or at least get into the things that he most desires – only by trying to get out of them. The way in is through the out door; avoiding things is a way of attending to them, of keeping them in mind. Freud’s mechanisms of defence, like Bloom’s revisionary ratios, are confrontations through avoidance, the getting out of a dependence that is experienced as an indebtedness, or of a desire that is experienced as an enthrallment. Freud invites us to wonder what relationships would be like if we dropped the idea that they had anything to do with indebtedness or obligation.


On Satisfaction

Desire is inextricable – literally inconceivable, unintelligible – without an imagining of its possible satisfaction, even though states of satisfaction are peculiarly resistant to articulation. The language of satisfaction is notably impoverished, riddled with clichés and exclamations, ‘that was amazing’ and so on. But one of the strange things about satisfaction is that its anticipation precedes its realization; that it happens twice – not quite the first time as farce and the second time as tragedy – but first wishfully (in fantasy) and then in reality, if one is lucky. Satisfaction is looked forward to before it happens – we have the experience in our minds before we have the experience – and this looking forward makes all the difference to what can happen.


In other words, the satisfaction has always already happened in fantasy. So, at least unconsciously, there is nothing about which we are more certain than the nature of our satisfactions; or, to put it another way, Freud describes how much work we do to ensure that our satisfaction is no surprise. And this leaves us with a paradox, which has to take the form of a question: when you already know what satisfaction is, how can you possibly find out what it is like?

A picture of satisfaction, we might say then, at least to begin with, is a flight from wanting; a refuge from the rigours and risks of desire; a refuge, in fact, from real satisfaction.


Tragedies are dramas in which satisfactions are too exactly imagined by their heroes, and then too ruthlessly believed in and pursued


So-called tragic heroes are by definition people who don’t set off wanting something with a view to something else more satisfying turning up along the way. They are not casual or cool or freewheeling or easily distractible or waiting for something to turn up. They are, as we say, determined; overdetermined. They are intent.


How do you know what your desire is? It is that which makes you feel guilty when you betray it; not when you betray someone else, but when you betray yourself;


As if to say, it is not knowledge we really want; or, rather, knowledge is what we start ‘really’ wanting when we evade (that is, repress) our desire; knowledge is a sublimation. But the tragic hero, as Lacan intimates in his reference to Oedipus, may be precisely the one who cedes his desire by transforming it into a desire for knowledge. He gives up on what he originally wanted, and wants knowledge instead.


Is the satisfaction scene – which should perhaps be called the satisfaction set-up – a profound misleading, a misfire, a false knowing of another person? As though the way we mis-imagine someone is to imagine the satisfaction they can provide, with such certainty (and this means if they are not providing it they must be withholding it, or giving it to someone else). As though some kinds of knowledge – call them wishful fantasies of satisfaction were both the preconditions for satisfaction and a satisfaction in their own right; as though certain knowledge was the object of desire. And if this object of desire was a person, our picture of satisfaction would be of some kind of certainty in our relation to them, say, a certainty of their presence, of their availability, of their reliability, of their telling us the truth, of their fidelity; of their being, in short, knowable. The providers, we might say, of certain satisfactions.


It is important to remember, Winnicott once remarked, that all philosophers were once babies. It is also important to remember that no baby was once a philosopher. If babies had a motto it would be ‘Straight satisfy yourself.’