One of the common themes of his work is the path not taken, the life not lived, and what one makes of that. Thus, e.g., his 1998 book On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life and then his more recent work, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life.
This latter book is an odd creation in some ways, and its oddness is well captured by this reviewer. Nevertheless, as I said last week, there is a great deal of wisdom in this book and its "apophatic" proposals, which I want to discuss here.
The appropriate place to begin is with Phillips flatly declaring, early in the book, that "reality matters because it is the only thing that can satisfy us" (25). This will get developed in the rest of the book's realist, anti-fantasist stance in which Phillips clearly comes out against spending time imagining what could have been--what sort of life we could have had, or worse, could yet have if we but overcome our limitations and frustrations. In this regard, as in much else in the book, Phillips puts me in mind of nothing so much as the counsel against the logismoi we find in Evagrius and the tradition following from him--the warnings against vainglory, against idle speculation, against imagining the future, or fantasizing about communion with God, and so on.
For to give ourselves over to such disordered fantasizing, to wondering after would-be satisfactions in some imaginary future, is to open ourselves to an endless frustration with our life, which is itself an enormous problem insofar as "frustration may be the thing that we are least able to let ourselves feel"(27); and again: "There is nothing more opaque about ourselves than our frustrations" (28).
Frustrations, if allowed--as Evagrius recognized long before Freud came along--to take root in our mind can become, as Phillips nicely puts it, "intractable because their satisfaction is too exactly imagined" (32) and as a result "there can only be unrealistic wanting" (33). What is the answer to this?
Here Phillips makes what I might call his "apophatic" turn, that is his turn to not knowing or, as he frequently puts it, to not "getting it," to letting go of the desire, one might say, to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. ("Omniscience... is the enemy, the saboteur, of satisfaction" .) Here he counsels and encourages us down an unexpected and unusual path: "We need...to know something about what we don't get" (33).
This, of course, immediately raises practical if not moral problems: "But how...would you teach someone to not get it?....Teaching them how not to conform without trying not to conform?" (48-49). As we teach others about the importance of not always "getting it" we need to see the benefit of doing so, asking ourselves and others: "In which area of our lives does not knowing, not getting it, give us more life rather than more deadness?" (80). In other words, rather than being despondent in our frustrations, why do we not see what we can learn from them?
Not surprisingly, Phillips does not give us many answers to his own questions. But he does repeatedly suggest that we need--in our relationships, including clinical relationships between analyst and analysand--to recognize what he calls "the unknowledges" not as bad things but as freeing things: in Phillips' conception--which is not without controversy in the psychoanalytic world--psychoanalysis is an exercise in learning how not to get it and not be bothered by that: to acquire an "understanding to the limits of understanding" and to "make sense of our lives in order to be free not to have to make sense" (63). Whether in psychoanalysis, textual analysis, or much else besides, he sides with Žižek's warning against "'the attitude of overinterpretation'" (70).
It is not hard, of course, to see Christian applications of this. It is not hard, it seems to me, for Christians with a robust mystical tradition, as one finds in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, to be capable at least of understanding this, if not putting it into practice. It is not hard, that is to say, for people of faith to recognize what they do not know and graciously to accept their not knowing and to be reconciled to their remaining in a cloud of unknowing without frustration. (Such a state, I would stress, is not an excuse for anti-intellectualism or willful obscurantism justified by some fatuous appeal to "the holy fathers" or "the Bible.") In the famous words of Newman:
Lead, kindly Light, amid th'encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene--one step enough for me.
This is nowhere more important, Phillips counsels, than sex: "When it comes to sexuality, we don't get it....It means that when it comes to sex we are not going to get it. We may have inklings about it....We can know the facts of life, but nothing else. We may, as we say, have sex, but we won't get it" (77). And again: "What psychoanalysts mostly know about sex is the strange ineffectuality of so much of their knowledge" (79).
I have to confess to finding this enormously refreshing, not only insofar as it breaks with what is often (unfairly, in my view) characterized as the Freudian--and more generally psychoanalytic--view of sex, which purports to be certain of its orthodoxies about sex and ostensibly seems to have little doubt about what it knows; but also and perhaps especially with Christians who claim to know--or certainly to talk as if they know--far more about sex than seems either possible or desirable. This is perhaps especially true of those who inflict on us their ghastly pop psychology or their unrelievedly tedious "theology of the body."
In discussions of communion with God, and communion with one's lover, there is, I would suggest, far too much talk from people with far too little to say. It is better to pass over both in silence, recognizing what we do not know, and likely will never know, and not being frustrated by that. To those always grasping, always talking, whether about God, sex, or (worse) both, I am so often and so sorely tempted to respond with Clement Atlee's famous response to the voluble and excitable Harold Laski: "A period of silence from you would be most welcome." Perhaps this desire for silence about such matters is what long ago attracted me to St. Philip Neri who famously said, when pressed for details about his inner communion with God, "secretum meum mihi."
Adam Phillips makes two further points worth dwelling on, including that the quest for certainty, the quest to overcome our frustrations as manifested in perverse fantasies, are forms of erotic hatred motivated by hostility and a desire to convert childhood traumas into adult triumphs (164): the "quest for certainty in certain areas of our lives is a quest for revenge" (146). We seek revenge for not getting it, whether getting it is a simple joke, parental attention and affection, or sex from some high-school paramour. We seek revenge in the perverse as a result of not getting it, and vainly try to content ourselves with something less than love: "Freud has exposed our avoidance of love as an avoidance of satisfaction" (168).
In the end, Phillips says, there is one final reason to return to Freud for he "invites us to wonder what relationships would be like if we dropped the idea that they had anything to do with indebtedness or obligation" (134). Again, the theological usefulness and application of this should be obvious, for we relate--or we ought to relate--to God not out of any sense of guilty obligation or dread at not paying a debt back to him. We either relate to Him out of love or we are wasting His time and ours.
If, in that relationship, we experience frustrations, then perhaps, if Phillips is on to something--and I certainly believe he is--we ought to attend to those frustrations and see what they can teach us rather than necessarily seeking to solve the frustrations. For--if Job is our guide, inter alia--it seems clear that God is not in the business of always relieving us of our frustrations at not knowing what He is up to. And that is just as it should be.