July 20, 2020

Philip Larkin was once asked whether, living in Hull rather than within the ambit of literary London, he ever felt too removed from the centre of things. “Oh no,” he replied. “I very much feel the need to be on the periphery of things.” Missing out was, for Larkin, an essential part of the creative life. While other writers record the overwhelming intensity of felt experience, his poems tend to dwell on the careers he isn’t pursuing, the money he hasn’t accumulated, and — in his ode “To My Wife” — the people he has chosen not to spend his life with. When the same interviewer asked, “Do you feel you could have had a much happier life?” the answer came back: “Not without being someone else.”

That line doesn’t feature in Andrew H Miller’s new work of literary criticism, On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives, though “To My Wife” is quoted in full, as is “I Remember, I Remember”, a detailed reminiscence of all the things Larkin didn’t get up to in his childhood. Larkin’s most ruthlessly unsentimental poem on this subject, however, is “Dockery and Son”, which meditates on the difference between one life path and another before concluding that, actually, it doesn’t really matter, because our choices are determined by deep-lying psychological habits and in any case we’ll all be dead before long:

Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.

Faced with Larkin’s nihilism, Miller politely suggests that it maybe isn’t the whole picture. While Larkin writes as though “we’re defined by loss,” Miller tells us, “I’d like to think that something is sometimes gained.” He also manages to look on the bright side of Virginia Woolf, concentrating on the “happy, even delicious” moments in her prose rather than the intimations of mental illness and despair. Although the book, very sensibly, does not try to live up to its self-help-y jacket blurb — “On Not Being Someone Else offers the balm that when we confront our imaginary selves, we discover who we are” — it is written in a gently soothing tone, and for the most part Miller finds poets and novelists to be consoling, helpful company rather than stunningly original or dazzlingly subversive.

The preface to this concise and thoughtful book is a study in self-deprecation: Miller warns us that he doesn’t “really argue for many theses”, he just wants to point out a distinctive theme of modern literature: the exploration of the road not taken – to cite the most famous example, and perhaps the best-known American poem of the 20th century. It is, Miller persuasively argues, a constant preoccupation of the last 200 years, from David Copperfield’s disappointed brooding to the acronyms which have recently entered the language. “Ah – YOLO plus FOMO,” says one of Miller’s colleagues when told about the book.

But Miller has another argument to make, and an ambitious one: that contemplating the lives we didn’t lead can help us “to find meaning”. Or at least, help us feel that way: poems and stories, he writes, “create with special power the experience of verging on meaning: something important is being said, but what isn’t clear.”

A possible rejoinder is that if you don’t know what’s being said, then you can hardly know whether it’s important or a complete waste of time. All the same, there is a kind of communication which is beyond language: as Felix Mendelssohn once remarked, the emotions expressed by music are not too vague for words, but too precise. Words themselves, as Miller’s many well-chosen examples show, can point towards the unsayable. Virginia Woolf, on his reading, balances the beauty of the present moment with the restless yearning for something more.

In his search for “meaning” in literary texts, Miller follows in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, who predicted in 1880 that poetry would replace religion. Arnold supported such a change, on the grounds that poetry had some of the practical functions of Christianity — “to interpret life for us, to console us, to sustain us” — but none of the supposed disadvantages, like dogmas which might have to be defended against criticism from scientists and historians. The drawback to Arnold’s scheme, and perhaps the reason that his prediction has not come to pass, is that dogmas actually respond to a need: they are answers to unavoidable questions. Poetry, by contrast, offers few if any answers – it cannot even deal with Larkin’s question of what the point of it all is.

Miller’s book may be overly idealistic about poetry, but he does not have his head in the clouds. If recent centuries have seen a growing fascination with unled lives, he observes, the main reason is market capitalism, “an economic system that isolates us and urges us to calculate opportunities and maximize their effects.” Although Miller does not explicitly link liberal capitalism with liberal social policy, he does note that many recent changes, from the legalisation of abortion to what he chooses to call “the increased visibility of transgender people”, have also reinforced the sense that life consists in a series of choices.

Much has been written since 2016 about Western liberalism and the high price we have paid for it as a society in the breakdown of communities and traditions. Less often discussed are its effects on the individual imagination. Liberalism has freed the self to create its own identity: as a justice of the US Supreme Court once declared, “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” But unless you happen to be G. W. F. Hegel this is an impossibly heavy burden, and we have had to displace it by making up ersatz identities — hence the popularity of video games, social media and vicarious living through celebrities.

Cinema also deals in fantasy, but has sometimes found ways of deflating it. The dominant theme of mid-period Woody Allen films is that the characters who try to break into a world of wealth, celebrity and romantic drama end up as hollow men, while the real heroes turn out to be those who take life as it comes and do their best to help the people around them. An earlier example is It’s A Wonderful Life, to which Miller devotes a short chapter. It is a film of lost possibilities: George Bailey watches his friends escape to lives of excitement and adventure while he remains stuck in his small town. And yet, the film suggests in its unforgettable last half-hour, it is Bailey’s life which was the true adventure, if we could only see it.

Art and literature can help reconcile us to only having one life to live, but they cannot provide the meaning of that life. One sign of this is how easily even the profoundest works of art get turned into brands. Frost’s “Road Not Taken” has become quite a money-spinner, being used in advertisements for cars, insurance, chewing gum and the jobs website Monster.com (“Find The Job You Deserve”). Transcendence, one feels, should be a little harder to sell.