"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, September 9, 2016

Lying on the Couch of Unknowing: Apophatic Psychoanalysis (I)

I recently came across Adam Phillips, a literary scholar in England who is also a practicing psychoanalyst, the two disciplines being very often intertwined in his many books.

I picked up a copy of his recent book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life and have read it with great interest. As I will show in the coming series, there is a very great deal here that could be of benefit to Christians in their spiritual life; and there is a good bit of material here that could be "methodologically" useful to the practice of theology.

The publisher tells us the following about this book:
A transformative book about the lives we wish we had and what they can teach us about who we are. 
All of us lead two parallel lives: the one we are actively living, and the one we feel we should have had or might yet have. As hard as we try to exist in the moment, the unlived life is an inescapable presence, a shadow at our heels. And this itself can become the story of our lives: an elegy to unmet needs and sacrificed desires. We become haunted by the myth of our own potential, of what we have in ourselves to be or to do. And this can make of our lives a perpetual game of falling short.
But what happens if we remove the idea of failure from the equation? With his flair for graceful paradox, the acclaimed psychoanalyst Adam Phillips suggests that if we accept frustration as a way of outlining what we really want, satisfaction suddenly becomes possible. To crave a life without frustration is to crave a life without the potential to identify and accomplish our desires.
In Missing Out, an elegant, compassionate, and absorbing book, Phillips draws deeply on his own clinical experience as well as on the works of Shakespeare and Freud, of D. W. Winnicott and William James, to suggest that frustration, not getting it, and getting away with it are all chapters in our unlived lives―and may be essential to the one fully lived.
It is the sort of book one needs to re-read not only because of Phillips' rather diffuse and somewhat undisciplined style (were I his editor, the book would have been tightened up considerably and therefore likely reduced in length by about a third), but also because of a series of very challenging theses he advances. I will say more about those in the coming days as I continue to reflect on this deeply challenging book whose importance for Christians, I hope to show, is considerable, notwithstanding the fact the author evidences no interest in theology and in fact clearly indicates at one point he does not understand what it is.
The overall, if likely unintentional, thrust of Phillips' book very strongly reminds me of another recent study: David Henderson's Apophatic Elements in the Theory and Practice of Psychoanalysis: Pseudo-Dionysius and C.G. Jung. I shall say more about the "apophatic" proposals of Phillips in the coming days.

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