Mark O’Connell reviews Adam Phillips’s latest book:
I felt that what I was looking at represented my future. I was going to be a father. And not just any father, but the father of this blurry little personage with its lovely pea-sized head and cartoonishly reclining body. And as I was thinking about all the clustered possibilities in those rapidly subdividing cells—all the bewildering permutations of gender and appearance and personality and genetic fate—I also began to think about the possibilities that were, as of right now, in my past, and that were therefore no longer possibilities. In my vague and ineffectual way, I had always planned to live abroad; and I registered now, with a vague sense of loss that was somehow part of the joy of looking at the sonogram image, that this was no longer very likely to happen. I was thinking, too, that the period of my life in which I might legitimately spend large amounts of time on projects not strictly financially motivated had ended. Even as I was exhilarated about the life that now lay ahead of me—all the wonderfully terrifying possibilities of parenthood—I was thinking about the various people I had never quite got around to becoming (the happily itinerant academic, the journalist seeking out extraordinary stories in strange places). I was thinking about my unlived lives, and how every route taken inevitably forecloses the possibility of various others.
And so when I heard that the British psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips had a new book called Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life, I was intrigued. The idea from which Phillips’ book starts out is that the paths we don’t pursue in life are a crucial dimension of our lived experience. “Our unlived lives—the lives we live in fantasy, the wished-for lives—are often more important to us than our so-called lived lives,” he writes in his prologue. “We can’t (in both senses) imagine ourselves without them.” This is a fascinating idea, and it’s difficult to think of anyone who would be better suited to exploring it than Phillips, who is one of the literary world’s most consistently provocative explorers of fascinating ideas.