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Daphne Merkin

Who's Sorry Now?

Frustration and regret can be good for you, according to one of the most provocative contemporary thinkers in the field of human psychology.

Unlike Edith Piaf, the French singer-songwriter whose nickname was Little Sparrow and whose most famous songs included "Non, je ne regrette rien," I've always been inordinately full of regrets. This was a habit of mind that started young—when I decided not to go to sleepaway camp one summer and then spent the next two months being bored and resentful, wishing I had taken the opportunity presented me—and has stayed with me right through the present. The might-have-dones and should-have-dones always weigh more heavily on me than the decisions I've actually made. I am convinced, in fact, that I am not living the life I was meant to live. In one alternate narrative, I've remained married to my ex-husband, whose quirks and foibles I've come to terms with and whose virtues I appreciate more, with the result that we've become each other's boon companions. In yet another of these fantasized scenarios, I have embraced academia rather than fled from it after two years of graduate school and have gone on to become an esteemed professor of English literature specializing in the Bloomsbury group, spending my days rereading Virginia Woolf. The point of these parallel lives isn't so much their feasibility, of course—had I been able to do other than I did, I probably would have—as their hovering presence, suggesting the roads not taken and where they might have led.

I have been thinking about this tendency of mine, what it says about me, and how I might "ironize" it rather than agonize over it, ever since reading Adam Phillips' new book, Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. Phillips is a British psychoanalyst, a kind of post-Freudian Freudian who specializes in taking conventional views of ourselves and the world we live in and turning them upside down, something he has done to great effect in books such as On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored, The Beast in the Nursery, and Going Sane. Phillips' style—pithy verging on the epigrammatic, erudite, and always cordial—sets him apart from other shrinks who write and, indeed, from most writers. He is spectacularly well read, given to quoting Stanley Cavell and John Ashbery along with Melanie Klein and Jacques Lacan, and is enamored of paradox; the effect is of stepping into a heady, open-ended conversation about everything from the nature of childhood discontent to what constitutes madness. At their best, Phillips' ruminations can be read as a form of recondite self-help for people who disdain the chicken-soup banalities of the genre itself; at their worst, they can become self-indulgently fanciful, as if one were listening in on a dazzling but ultimately impenetrable interior monologue...

Elle | February 27, 2013.


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