Dead or Alive


On Psychoanalysis

Girl buried with a crown of ceramic flowers, Patras, Greece, ca. 300–400 B.C.E. From the Museum of Patras. Photograph by Fred Martin Kaaby, via Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

What do you have to give up in order to feel alive? To answer this question we need to have some sense of what aliveness might mean to us, of what we have to do to feel alive, and how we know when we are feeling this seemingly most obvious and ordinary thing (at its most abstract we might be wondering, as a kind of guideline, what our criteria are for feeling alive). It may seem odd to think that feeling alive is not only an issue—is something that needs to be assessed—but requires a sacrifice of sorts, or is indeed a sacrificial act; that to feel alive involves us in some kind of renunciation. It is, of course, glibly and not so glibly true that in order to feel alive one might have to give up, say, one’s habitual tactics and techniques for deadening oneself, the anaesthesias of everyday life that can seem to make it livable. At its most minimal, after all, it is not unusual for people to feel profoundly ambivalent about being fully alive to the climate of terror and delight in which we live. In order to answer this question you would, of course, need to have some sense of what aliveness means, if anything. How do you feel alive, and how do you know if you feel it?

Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian formalist literary critic, wrote in his famous essay “Art as Technique” of 1917:

Habitualization devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife and the fear of war … And art [through its defamiliarizing practices] exists that one may recover the sensation of life … The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

It is, perhaps, an ironic inevitability integral to what Shklovsky proposes that art as a process and practice of defamiliarization is now all too familiar to us. Whether or not we agree with Walter Pater’s remark that “our failure is to form habits,” when Shklovsky invokes the whole idea of recovering the sensation of life, he reminds us—and clearly we need reminding—that the sensation of life can be lost. And he implies, without making this as explicit as he might, that we also want to relinquish or even sometimes attack the sensation of life; as though, as I say, in psychoanalytic language, we are ambivalent about the sensation of life and can happily, as it were, dispense with it.

So the point of art being, as we say, “difficult” is that it resists our easy appropriation of it. We can’t use it to consolidate our prejudices, or reinforce our assumptions and presumptions. Art of any value requires the kind of attention we don’t give to the taken-for-granted, that we don’t give to all those things we think we know. Art, in this sense, unsettles and disrupts preconceptions, it waylays our anticipation, and it does this by increasing the difficulty and length of perception; art resists and sabotages our familiar habits of perception. The wish, the drive to familiarize, Shklovsky suggests, is insistent, the insistent as second nature. And the implication is that this drive to familiarize is like a drive towards death, towards the death-in-life that contemporary reality was felt by some people to be (we take note, needless to say, that this essay by a Russian critic was written in 1917).

It is entirely understandable that when Freud proposed in 1920, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, that there was a death instinct, a “destructive drive” that was continually at war in us with a life instinct, it was met with, and continues to meet with, considerable skepticism (the idea of a death “instinct” might seem like a contradiction in terms). And yet clearly—as is evident in the work of Shklovsky and Freud and many others—there was in those times and places in Europe a strong sense of the deathliness of modern life. And it is not incidental that the aesthetics of defamiliarization and the anxiety about human destructiveness has stayed with us; is, indeed, part of our sensation of life. If these are analogous to death—familiarization and destructiveness—if these inclinations are what we are up against, for whatever reason, what then is life, what is a sensation of life or a life instinct? These, after all, are matters of life and death.


Science, of course, helps us with our familiarization. By providing descriptions of so-called laws of nature, through the promotion of causality as an abiding principle, in the development of deductive and inductive logic, in its by now familiar methods of verification and falsification, our realm of familiarity—of what we can claim to know and take for granted—has increased exponentially in the last four hundred years. Indeed one definition of progress would be the extending of the empire of the familiar. And one of our more familiar forms of familiarity—or rather, one of our taken-for-granted means of familiarization—has been the art and science of generalization, of the abstraction called categorization. Though much parodied, and mocked and critiqued—by, for shorthand, let’s say Borges and Foucault—our capacity for generalization, for making links, for finding things in common between disparate phenomena, has been our supreme habit and talent; for preferring sameness to difference, abstraction to what Blake called “minute particulars.” What, as we shall see, the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls “the fascist state of mind” is the militant, paranoid imposition of sameness (on the self and on others), the terror of difference requiring its abolition. Indeed psychoanalysis, I take it, is useful as both the symptom and the cure for our will to generalization.

It is, indeed, one of the by now familiar paradoxes of psychoanalysis that the theory and clinical practice most committed to the singularity and individual history of the individual speaks only in generalities. Whether psychoanalysts speak of the unconscious, of development, of the self as either centered or decentered, of symptoms and diagnostic categories, and even of psychoanalytic technique, the always somewhat eccentric, idiosyncratic—indeed genetically unique—individual is inevitably described as an example of something apparently more or less already known; the individual is described, that is to say, in relation to a set of putative norms, the normative standards that must inevitably organize any given culture, and that operate both consciously and unconsciously on behalf of the people that comprise that culture.

In psychoanalytic writing, the individual is in a category; psychoanalytic theory doesn’t, and can’t, dispense with categories but simply tries to make them more inclusive. The people who turn up in psychoanalytic case histories or clinical vignettes may be more like characters in novels or short stories than simply allegorical characters, but they are there as representative people; even if what they represent is not quite as clear as it might seem. If the individual in psychoanalysis is not being fitted into a pre-existing description, he will simply become the pretext for a new category, adding to the stock of available psychoanalytic reality (on the whole you can’t have a diagnostic category of one). So-called human nature as it supposedly is, or supposedly should be, is the measure. And what makes the individual an individual is the ways in which she deviates from, or improvises within, or modifies the available norms of so-called human nature as we have come to describe it; how she becomes the exception that proves the rule, and also, of course, how she abides by the rules in her own particular way. It is always, to put it simply, the compliant and the non-compliant self that is being assessed. Psychoanalysis is inevitably alert, as what Barthes called “a science of the singular,” to what creates distinction in both senses—what renders someone or something distinct, somehow separated out, differentiated from the run-of-the-mill; and what impresses us as unusual, out of the ordinary, as we say. Psychoanalysis, unavoidably perhaps, strikingly draws to our attention the very different allure of the language of sameness and the language of difference, each with their different kinds of reassurance, inspiration and divisiveness.

So we might say, by way of oversimplification, that for character we go to fiction and poems and plays; for explanations of and generalizations about character we go to psychoanalysis. And in this sense—in the overriding commitment to generalization and the prediction it supposedly makes possible—psychoanalysis is no different to medicine, or indeed to many contemporary sciences. Descriptions are required that by definition do not solely fit the individual case. The individual who is broadly speaking the same as other people is the individual who is of interest to psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysts write about people who seem to speak the same language; what Freud was to call the language of symptoms; what Lacan would call the unconscious structured as a language. And in this sense psychoanalysis reflects in its theorizing, if not always in its clinical practice, a familiar everyday experience; we notice all the time how easily and often we are aware of what Lacan calls the “absolute otherness” of other people, and how often enough other people are also felt to be somehow more or less similar to oneself.

We do, after all, share a language, through our upbringing and education as members of any given culture; and yet, as Lacan suggests in writing about James Joyce, we also to some extent are able to invent the language we use, giving it our own distinct idiom, our particular rhythms and vocabularies. Everyone, in any given society, uses the same language, but slightly differently; we can improvise within the given system of the language we inherit. Language is a sometimes surprisingly flexible regime. Joyce is clearly both exemplary and representative for Lacan for how we can do new things with words; and this has something to do with aliveness. “One chooses to speak the language that one effectively speaks,” Lacan writes. “One creates a language in so far as one at every instance gives it a sense, one gives it a little nudge, without which language would not be alive.” A little nudge seems a minimal thing; choosing and creating a language seems rather grandiose in its ambitions. And notably it is the idea of aliveness that Lacan has recourse to.

We are not all, as common sense will be keen to tell us, James Joyce. But what common sense is, by the same token, reminding us is that language that is or seems alive can be, or sometimes seem, a comparative rarity; aliveness in language may be in short supply and so we may wonder what it is in ourselves that might want to deaden language; or to put it the other way around, what the fear of aliveness in language may be a fear of. And yet a nudge is not itself a grand or dramatic gesture; a nudge, we could think, might be well within most people’s range. And so, from a psychoanalytic point of view, we could surmise that there is a defense against nudging, against giving the language even a slight nudge. There is a defense against aliveness in language. And the study of literature, we might say, is always broaching this conflict between the aliveness and deathliness, or deadliness, of language.

But in Lacan’s view, language would not be alive without these nudges—without these idiosyncratic twists and turns that each of us can to some extent make. And we should note here that he writes of the aliveness of the language, not of its users, and this is stranger than it might at first seem; language, after all, is neither alive nor dead; the aliveness that it has comes from us, it is our aliveness. And this aliveness is associated for Lacan with, to some extent, and however limited and circumscribed, choosing the language one speaks, creating a language by giving it a little nudge. In this description our aliveness—and presumably our deadness—is in our language. That is one place we can both find it, and think and talk about it.

It is worth wondering, for example, what kind of aliveness and what kind of deadness we enjoy in language. We can find it there, in language, among other places. And this aliveness is somehow precarious; not to mention the fact that Lacan is using here a language he has always, as a psychoanalyst, been averse to—the language of existentialism, the idea of choosing a language. As though to talk about aliveness in language—and you could think he has been talking of nothing else in his promotion of what he calls “full speech”—has slightly undone him. There is then the language we are possessed by and that possesses us—man is the animal, Lacan writes, with his familiar melodramatic panache, captured and tortured by language—and now, in late Lacan, there is the language we can create and choose. Lacan should have said at this moment, if he wasn’t so determined to be fascinating, that we can have this both ways: we can use language and it can use us, and the point and not the problem is the contradiction. But as I say, when Lacan starts talking about aliveness in language, things begin to open up, and aliveness becomes a term of art for him.

For Lacan it is through Joyce’s unique and exceptional talent that we can see this. I want to suggest then in this essay that our aliveness—here for Lacan linked with something about individuality, or singularity, and something about language—can be peculiarly difficult for us to be fully alive to. If aliveness is an issue for us, then deadness, and all the less binary alternatives to aliveness, must also be exercising us. What aliveness and its alternatives might be may perhaps be among our abiding preoccupations, among what Borges calls our “essential perplexities.”


Describing the idea, “reduced to its essence,” that prompted his novel The Wings of the Dove, Henry James wrote in his preface to the New York edition that it was

of a young person conscious of a great capacity for life, but early stricken and doomed, condemned to die under short respite, while also enamoured of the world; aware moreover of the condemnation and passionately desiring to ‘put in’ before extinction as many of the finer vibrations as possible, and so achieve, however briefly and brokenly, the sense of having lived.

James writes of his doomed heroine’s wish to “wrest from her shrinking hour still as much of the fruit of life as possible;” of her “passionate yearning to live while she might.” If the project is to achieve “however briefly and brokenly” the sense of having lived, then this sense may be hard won and even perhaps fleeting (and if you have a fleeting or fugitive sense of having lived, how much can you trust that sense?). James’s heroine in the novel, Milly Theale, is confronted, as we are as readers, with the salient question of what it is, or might be, to have the sense of having lived. And what it would be to live fully, and in Milly Theale’s case, and not only hers, to live fully in the light and dark of forthcoming death. The question of how we would know if we had lived; of what, as it were, our criteria might be for this. What do we have to do, and to have done, what has to have happened to us, that would give us this enigmatic sense of having lived, or as having lived as fully as we might? What do we take the fruit of life to be if we want as much of it as possible, reminded as James knows we must be of the fruit Adam and Eve ate in the garden (which of course gave them less life and not more)?

There is the suggestion here that the sense of having lived, that life itself, may be a strangely elusive thing. Indeed, later in the novel, the hero, Merton Densher, reflects on this strange elusiveness of life that seems to haunt and drive the narrative: “Life, he logically opined, was what he must somehow arrange to annex and possess.” The implication here being that life might get away from him, that it can somehow escape us; that even though we are to all intents and purposes alive, we have to arrange to annex and possess life as though it is something we must colonize, or claim, or appropriate. That life has to be invaded and subjugated as though it is a foreign country, not somewhere we are already living in. Life as elsewhere, something we have to get to, or find, or seek out. But life is presented in The Wings of the Dove—a novel whose key terms everything and nothing are threaded through the book—as an obscure object of desire. The sense of having lived, and the sense of living—both of which might seem to be self-evident—are the object of James’s skepticism in this book. If we don’t know what it is to have lived, what do we know?

It would be odd to say—though, as we shall see, Freud did say it—that we also want less life, that it is our deadness that we also desire. That we also do not want to live or to have lived. Clearly both Lacan in his celebration of Joyce (and language) and James in his presentation of Milly Theale are promoting aliveness and the sense of having lived as both questions and, more optimistically, objects of desire, if not actually the object of desire. But it is of course as a question that it perplexes us—what might stop us giving language a slight nudge?—a question not answered, I think, by lack of talent. And what might stop us feeling we have lived, or are indeed living? And how do we know what this would be? Where did we get our ideas about this from?

Indeed, what the nudge of language—the choosing and creating of our language—and the sense of having lived have in common is the sense of having to satisfy what is taken to be an essential individual need; partly of making my language and my life my own, whatever that might mean. But also something that could be described as meeting a demand, as though some authoritative figure—what Lacan would call the Big Other—has said, “You must make your own language, as far as you can, you must have the sense of having lived, as far as you can.” And a moment’s reflection will show us that these particular demands, made on us and made on ourselves, when they are not inspiring may be a lot of other things; they may, for example, be puzzling, or tyrannical, or absurd. And one thing psychoanalysis can be particularly useful for is providing a language for, a way of talking about, our personal and cultural ideals; both their provenance and their history, and how and why we have come to value them as we do.

Most of us probably want to be able to use language in our own way and not merely conform to it as though it were a regime; and most of us, enough of the time, want to live, and to have lived. And yet, of course, these ideals, and ambitions, and aspirations are of their time and place; and are things only a language-using animal would be preoccupied with. We assume that animals and plants are just living and not wondering what they are doing. We may wonder when and for whom the question of whether one has lived began to be a preoccupation; and indeed when and how language as something we use and are used by became of interest (and it is of interest, as I say, to find Lacan, long a promoter of the idea that we are the victims of and victimized by language, here, in his later work, speaking up for the alternative view; as though wanting to be free of it). It is not incidental historically that both Lacan and James, in their very different ways, and from very different cultures and personal histories, are speaking up for what we have learned to call individualism (or more benignly, idiosyncrasy, or eccentricity).

The term individualism was clearly coined reactively to an earlier notion that it was possible to be a member of a society without being considered, or needing to be considered, an individual. Psychoanalysis as a modern invention can’t help but trade in ideas about individualism; about how you might begin to describe what an individual is, and about what the allure of individualism might be, and about the individual’s freedom to find loopholes in her culture’s normative demands (one of the normative demands is for the individual to be normal enough: that is, recognizable, identifiable and describable). Psychoanalysis is clearly about how the modern individual fits and doesn’t fit and misfits into their culture (the new psychoanalytic patient, one might say, is the casualty, for all sorts of reason, of his culture). In psychoanalysis the originality of the individual, his individualism, is taken for granted—each person’s appearance, character and history is, to us, significantly different and distinctive—but there is nothing original, in psychoanalytic terms, about what makes for this originality; the preconditions for each person’s originality are generic—originality is a function of uniformity and conformity. What distinguishes people from each other comes out of an apparently recognized common condition, and a recognized common constitution (sometimes called human nature, though human nature seems to take a dazzling variety of forms). We take it for granted now, in other words, that there are rules for, and criteria about, what a person is and can be in any given culture (the parameters of what it is possible for a person to be are largely set).

We may have a strong sense of the distinctiveness of each person, but it is all too easy for individuals to disappear in theory. This essay is about how some psychoanalysts have tried to hold on to something unprescribed and unprescribable about people in the unavoidably abstracted and generalizing language of psychoanalysis. And how notions of aliveness and deadness have tended to figure in some of these accounts. As though describing what aliveness might be—how, as it were, we might recognize it, what makes for aliveness—has become a peculiarly modern preoccupation. When Freud famously wrote that the individual wants to die in his own way, he was speaking of, perhaps ironically, possessive individualism.


In a comment on his paper “The Use of an Object,” Donald Winnicott writes that “in this vitally important early stage the ‘destructive’ aliveness of the individual is simply a symptom of being alive, and has nothing to do with an individual’s anger at the frustrations that belong to meeting the reality principle.” The theory that Winnicott is commenting on in his paper is of course of interest here. But for the purposes of this essay I want to point out what he is trying to get to with the phrases “vitally important,” “destructive aliveness,” and “a symptom of being alive.” It might be a sign of aliveness, he suggests, to want to try to destroy things and people, and this destructive aliveness is a symptom of being alive, being alive having its own symptoms. How do we know if the child, and later the adult, is alive? They have a destructive aliveness, in Winnicott’s view. But aliveness here, again, is not something self-evident; we go on describing what Winnicott calls the symptoms of being alive, the intelligible signs. He thinks he is doing empirical science here, simply describing in a new way something that already exists. He doesn’t say, and he wouldn’t, this is what I want aliveness to be, these for me are signs of life because this is the kind of aliveness I want, this is the kind of world I want to be alive in. He doesn’t assume too rigorously, as Freud did, that perception is distorted by wish.

How does the psychoanalytic subject as scientist do science? Wishfully, both despite and because of his psychoanalytically informed sensibility. But the question I am using Winnicott, among others, to ask is: Why would anyone be interested in aliveness; or, indeed, in whether they have lived? What is an interest in aliveness an interest in? What makes this word come into play? How has it come about that we need to know whether we are alive? And what might be the consequences of such knowledge, were we to have it? In what sense, to ask the pragmatic question, does aliveness and the knowledge of being alive, and of having lived, get us the life we want? The implication of all this is, of course, that we might be unconscious, we might be radically unaware of how dead we are and want to be. When Freud writes that protection against stimuli is more important for the individual than receptivity to stimuli, he is making us think about precisely this.

When I was taught in school that, as the critic F. R. Leavis insisted, D. H. Lawrence was on the side of life, I knew, as an adolescent, what this meant. Now I think Leavis’s formulation is inspired for all the questions it must beg. Apart, of course, from the obvious but pressing one: If you are not on the side of life, what are you on the side of? All of Winnicott’s writing is organized around the idea of aliveness—of what is supposedly on the side of life—and we need to see both what he is using the word to do, and why he might have needed to import this particular term into psychoanalysis, which had been able to do without it. Aliveness, as opposed, so to speak, to life, doesn’t, needless to say, figure in any of the available dictionaries of psychoanalysis; and in its very ordinariness it has never become a technical term in psychoanalysis, nor part of the jargon of the profession. So what does the idea of aliveness add to psychoanalysis—and so to our lives if we happen to be interested in psychoanalysis?

When, for example, Winnicott writes in The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment that “here is but little point in formulating a True Self idea except for the purpose of trying to understand the False Self, because it does no more than collect together the details of the experience of aliveness,” he is telling us that his definition of what he calls the True Self, the non-compliant self of spontaneity and desire and singularity, the self committed to play rather than adaptation or, indeed, to compliance, involves no more and no less than collecting together the details of the experience of aliveness. And these details of the experience of aliveness are everything the so-called False Self is not. This experience of aliveness—essentially in Winnicott the experience of noncompliance—is for Winnicott something essential. Without it he says there is only a sense of futility, of one’s life not being worth living.

The details of the experience of aliveness are something like a sustaining accumulation of spontaneous, uncalculated, and unrehearsed experiences that nurture a person’s sense of possibility and pleasure. They are clearly, for Winnicott, things we need to collect. So he devotes a lot of his work to understanding and describing the preconditions for the seclusion, overprotection, or even sabotage of the True Self. Aliveness, the more fully alive self, in this story is something we are duly protective of and perhaps unduly frightened of (and for). Our aliveness is assumed here to be something very vulnerable and precarious. And if our aliveness is not robust—not something we can really take for granted—then what is it? Or rather, what is it like? If the details of our experience of aliveness need to be collected—with the implication of gathered up and stored and looked after—it must be because we might forget about them, or discard them, or not take them seriously.

It seems strange that we could forget our aliveness—our being alive—and yet this is what Winnicott is inviting us to consider. We haven’t taken on, or taken in, or realized the vital significance for our ongoing lives of these experiences of aliveness. And indeed there may be an ordinary sense in which we need to keep in mind what or who does actually make us feel alive; and how unwittingly keen we might be to not feel alive, and so forget about it all. We don’t have to take it for granted that aliveness is the thing—that it is some kind of essential be-all and do-all of our lives—but we can consider it; and consider what not considering it involves us in. Aliveness may become an issue, culturally and historically, when we feel that there is so much in our private and political lives that we cannot bear to be alive to. If we have become, if we have made ourselves, great familiarizers and generalizers, we have been actively and determinedly narrowing our minds.


Freud was alert to the paradoxes of certainty; the ways in which certainty narrows the mind often in the name of truth and liberation. From a psychoanalytic point of view, what the individual is always suffering from, one way and another, is anxieties about exchange, and the dependence it inevitably entails. The problem, as Winnicott once put it, of being isolated without being insulated. Insulation, immunity, purity are the preoccupations of the self under threat. “An enquiry which proceeds like a monologue, without interruption,” Freud writes in The Future of an Illusion, his 1927 text about religion, “is not altogether free from danger. One is too easily tempted into pushing aside thoughts which threaten to break into it, and in exchange one is left with a feeling of uncertainty which in the end one tries to keep down by over-decisiveness.”

Over-decisiveness here—a simulated sense of conviction—is a version of familiarization; when I am being over-decisive I am saying to myself and others, “I know what I think and I know what I’m doing;” which the psychoanalyst can redescribe as someone in an omniscient state of mind to deny the unconscious. A monologue without interruption is a world without other people; and interruption in Shklovsky’s terms is the only cure for familiarization. What Freud is describing here as the uninterruptible monologue is an anxious and determined refusal of the complexity of one’s own mind and the minds of others. Because the obvious question here is: What is this uninterruptible monologue in the service of? What is it a self-cure for? In the terms of this essay it is a self-cure for defamiliarization, a self-cure for aliveness. Exclusionary in the service of survival, it is essentially self-starving.

In a commentary on this already quoted passage of Freud in his paper “The Fascist State of Mind”:

An enquiry which proceeds like a monologue, without interruption, is not altogether free from danger. One is too easily tempted into pushing aside thoughts which threaten to break into it, and in exchange one is left with a feeling of uncertainty which in the end one tries to keep down by over-decisiveness.

Christopher Bollas emphasizes that a person is forever haunted by what he is excluding. But this picture of impermeability—of an anxiety about violation—is what Bollas calls a “simplifying violence;” it can even be, he writes, an attempt to “recuperate from one’s own destruction of the humane parts of the self in the interests of survival.” One’s aliveness, one’s being alive, can depend on the vitalizing effect of conflict; in the wish, in a fascist state of mind, to abolish conflict, the individual kills off his aliveness. It is integral to the dynamic of the fascist state of mind, Bollas writes, to “empty the mind of all opposition.” One of the traits of what he describes as “intellectual genocide” is “categorization by aggregation”—I am calling it more simply generalization—which he refers to as “the moment when the individual is transferred to a mass in which he loses his identity. It may be ordinary, ‘Oh, but of course, she’s a Freudian.’ It may be permissible, if dicey: ‘Well, of course, she’s ill,’ or ‘Well, he is a psychopath.’ Or it may be an extreme act of lumping together: ‘He’s a Jew.’”

What we see in these examples is the diminution of difference, of singularity; the dehumanization of individuals if what we take the human to be is something beyond a certain point ungeneralizable, uncategorizable; what Bollas calls aptly the act of lumping together both devitalizes people and apparently familiarizes them. What is lost in this categorization is the individual and idiosyncratic details of aliveness; details that virtually by definition cannot be generalized or categorized. Like Lacan’s idea of the nudge given to language to make it distinctively alive, aliveness and idiosyncrasy go together. Once again it becomes a question—though its binary quality should make us suspicious—of how we tell the difference between aliveness and deadness; as though we take it that this, fundamentally, is the repertoire.

In what Bollas calls “the ordinary functioning parts of the mind,”

it is rather like a parliamentary order with instincts, memories, needs, anxieties, and object responses finding representatives in the psyche for mental processing. When under the pressure of some particularly intense drive (such as greed), or force (such as envy), or anxiety (such as the fear of mutilation) this internal world can indeed lose its parliamentary function and evolve into a less representative internal order.

The image is that in a state of emergence—greed, envy, anxiety and of course desire—a gross autocratic oversimplification of the self takes over; and the paradoxical fact is that we then deaden ourselves in order to survive; survival, that is to say, is preferred to aliveness. So aliveness, we might say—to use a more traditional, less Darwinian, vocabulary—is to do with flourishing, living our fullest life. But when survival is the project we can only do it by deadening ourselves; deathliness makes life viable. In Bollas’s terms, parliamentary democracy of conflict and conciliating and compromising rival claims is a picture of aliveness; fascism is a desperate and murderous deadening.

What then might be the preconditions for not deadening ourselves, or not needing to deaden ourselves? Clearly one of the preconditions must be, absurd as it might sound, knowing the difference between aliveness and deadness in ourselves; and having good reasons for wanting and desiring aliveness as a value, as an object of desire.

When we are talking about the sensation of life, or the sense of having lived, or collecting the details of the experience of aliveness, we are trying to give an account of something surprisingly elusive; something, consciously at least, most of us would want to celebrate and encourage despite, as it were, all the evidence to the contrary. There is on the one hand the confident assertion of where life and aliveness is—in defamiliarization, in language, in idiolect, in spontaneity, in surprise, in the life instincts—and then in counterpoint to this the question of why any of this occurs to us, or needs to be articulated. For animals, life is the living of it, the surviving of it, for the requisite time. But for us, life is sustained, or not, by words about life; life as something we can live or something we might find we are not actually living, or might turn out not to have lived. As though it may not always be exactly death we fear but the death in life we might find ourselves living or having lived. As though one could live a life that could turn out not to have been one.

When you are dying, like Milly Theale in James’s novel, you could have the sense in retrospect that you haven’t lived; but what about if you are young and not yet apparently dying but are wanting to live and to have lived, what can you do? What, if anything, is it possible to do to ensure that you are actually living? In the absence of any hard-and-fast information and advice—and in the absence of any kind of consensus (or shared criteria) about what it is to live and to have lived—all we can do, if we are interested, is ask these questions and see what, if anything, we want to do.



From On Giving Up by Adam Phillips. Forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in March 2024. 

Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst and a visiting professor in the English department at the University of York. He is the author of many books, including On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored and On Balance. He is also coauthor, with the historian Barbara Taylor, of On Kindness.