The great theorist of psychoanalysis Jacques Lacan envisioned desire as “caught in the rails of metonymy, eternally extending toward the desire for something else.” In the rhetorical figure of metonymy, a signifier points toward something else, some other signifier it's related to; just so, desire is constantly pointing toward the next object. It's not just that desire can't be satisfied — that when you obtain the object of desire, desire simply fastens on to a new object — but that satisfaction isn't even the goal of desire in the first place. No wonder we're so miserable.
This theme is explored by two of our most genial essayists in their new books. In "How Literature Saved My Life," David Shields distills Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" ("the greatest book ever written") to its essence: "The human animal never, ever gets what it wants; it can't." The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips begins his new book, "Missing Out" by explaining that for Freud, frustration is "the essential preparation for desire": "To be deprived of frustration is to be deprived of the possibilities of satisfaction." We must cultivate and refine our frustration, the very condition of desire itself. You can't always get what you need; you can't ever get what you want.
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Shields knows from frustration — artistic, sexual, social. All these are, for him as for Lacan, linguistic. He refers to his struggle with stuttering so often that you'd guess it shaped his relation to the written word even if he didn't make the connection himself. Shields, unable to produce words smoothly with his tongue, writes exotica like "The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead" (2008) and "Reality Hunger" (2010), his language cascading in a mash-up of quotation and observation, fiction and memoir, love and theft. The fragmentary "poetic essay" already feels like a tired gimmick, but Shields writes as if he invented it.
"How Literature" is a collection of musings on literature as a return on the structural defects of human life, essential because even as we turn to it to allay our loneliness, it refuses to lie to us: "Nothing can assuage human loneliness." These anecdotes, critical squibs and micro-essays are often slyly segued: When a meditation on Otto Preminger's 1944 film "Laura" leads into a reminiscence about a college girlfriend named Rebecca, we remember that Hitchcock made a movie of that name in 1940; in both films, the eponymous heroine has died, and her memory haunts the action. (It turns out that Laura isn't really dead, but never mind.) Shields has a knack for bringing together disparate materials — the Holocaust and Built to Spill, say — and discovering the underlying patterns that connect them. This is far from novel in the post-Grandmaster Flash era, but Shields knows which details are most enlivening. He reduces all of Kurt Vonnegut's work to the first chapter of "Slaughterhouse-Five," calls for essays by handsome male writers and essays by ugly male writers to be separately shelved in bookstores, and confuses himself with George W. Bush and Peter Parker.
There's a slight sloppiness to Shields' learning that's endearing but can be, er, frustrating. He misquotes the famous final line of Samuel Beckett's "The Unnamable" by replacing a comma with a period (a significant breach, given the precision of Beckett's rhythms, and given Shields' approbation of Isaac Babel on the force of "a period put just at the right place"). He claims that the Coen brothers' film "No Country for Old Men" "gets at something profound":
In the absence of God the Father, all bets are off. Life makes no sense. How do I function when life has been drained of meaning?
I can't tell if Shields is serious here, if he really needed the Coen brothers to formulate the central question posed by Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, to name but two. Similarly, he is forever saying things like "Reality isn't straightforward or easily accessible; it's slippery, evasive," as if this were news, rather than a premise as old as Plato that figures prominently in, most recently, postmodernism. At least he doesn't attribute it to the Wachowskis.
But you don't read David Shields for the profundity of his thought — on the contrary. You read him for the zip of his consciousness across the shallows, skimming so many surfaces that, piled on top of one another, they create the illusion of depth.
Shields doesn't list any of Freud's books in his "Fifty-five works I swear by," but what he calls his "favorite idea," that "language is all we have to connect us, and it doesn't, not quite," is essentially a Freudian one. Lacan's great insight was to see that Freud's great insight was linguistic — our very words reveal, in slips and skips, that we do not know ourselves; the only cure is more talk — and extend it to encompass the unconscious and the drives themselves.
Like Shields, Adam Phillips, a practicing psychotherapist who happens to be a terrific writer, uses literature to talk about language's relation to reality. Because Phillips has an effective framework — psychoanalysis — for his questions, his answers (more precisely, his further questions) have the force of conviction, theoretical rigor and elegance. In earlier collections like "On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored" (1993) and "On Flirtation" (1994), Phillips revealed his rangy talent for putting psychoanalysis to likable use, recounting shrewd anecdotes from therapy or applying therapeutic insights to anecdotes.
"Missing Out" is a rather more intellectual affair than "How Literature Saved My Life": Lear and Othello, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin, John Ashbery and Kafka; but also Stanley Cavell and Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman and Richard Rorty, Barbara Johnson and Slavoj Zizek and Melanie Klein. And Freud, Freud, Freud.
Which might make this exciting, witty book sound boring. It's not. In "Missing Out," Phillips' thesis is that the unlived life is worth examining. We drive ourselves crazy because:
(M)uch of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent. It is the absence of what we need that makes us think, that makes us cross and sad.
In the self-help version familiar to recovering alcoholics and addicts, "To compare is to despair."
Phillips has a story to tell about why this is so, and what we can do about it. We need to understand that we sabotage ourselves, and to understand that, we need to understand our frustration. "There is, Freud tells us, a wish to frustrate ourselves that is as strong as any wish we have." (Shields: "What was — what is — the matter with me? Do I just have a bigger self-destruct button, and like to push it harder and more incessantly than everyone else?") Phillips employs word association, puns and metonymy — the standard Freudian arsenal — to bring out the intricacies of human self-knowledge and self-occultation (the former not always to be preferred to the latter). Along the way his writing sparkles with an aphoristic sheen: children believe "that being an adult is the solution to being a child"; "no child ever recovers from not having cured his parents"; "the theatre has always been the real antipsychiatry movement."
Phillips is a very astute reader of readings — many of his most discerning constructions are arrived at after considering Cavell's reading of Shakespeare, or Bloom's of Rorty, or Zizek's of Hitchcock, or a patient's of an experience. In this way he models what this book can do for you (as Bloom's pragmatist theory of reading would ask). It's a self-help book in the best sense — one that helps you listen to the stories you tell yourself in order to live.
Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."
By Adam Phillips, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 201 pages, $25
"How Literature Saved My Life"
By David Shields, Knopf, 207 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times