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I am translating the book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life by Adam Phillips.
It has this passage:

But what might we find ourselves doing if not getting it was the project, not the problem? Not, of course, promising with jokes, which seems to persuade us that there is an 'it' to get, but more promising with works of art.

What does "promising with" mean here?

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    I would interpret the word to mean "offering" or "suggesting" in this context.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 17 at 14:45
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    [This is] not [very] promising with jokes ... but [is] more promising with works of art.
    – Tinfoil Hat
    Jan 17 at 15:43
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As an English or Irish translator, I feel your pain.

It seems like the author is using the two 'promising with's' to create a comparison between the two. Exactly the way he does in the previous sentence.

But what might we find ourselves doing if not getting it was the project, not the problem?

So for me, the translation might read like this:

Not, of course, using jokes, which seems to persuade us that there is an 'it' to get, but more like works of art.

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But what might we find ourselves doing if not getting it was the project, not the problem?

Phillips's question here posits that perhaps there are some cognitive activities where the goal is to stay with ambiguity, uncertainty, or a lack of finality. The project or undertaking of such activities is not getting it, i.e., remaining in a state that lacks rational certainty. Such an approach would be:

Not, of course, promising with jokes, which seems to persuade us that there is an 'it' to get, but more promising with works of art.

With jokes, not getting it would be non-ideal. A joke has a point that we need to understand. Otherwise the joke has failed: either the listener feels stupid for not getting the joke, or the teller feels stupid for the joke's not landing. Even explaining the joke so that the listener "gets it" typically makes the joke not funny at all. So this approach of remaining in a state of non-finality would not be promising if the project is a joke.

However, works of art are the sort of project where not being certain about what's going on, and therefore enjoying the ambiguity as enriching the work of art, is precisely the point. If a question like "but what does this poem mean?" can be answered straightforwardly with a right and complete answer, it's probably not a very good poem. If what the poem means always eludes our grasp, such that the poem is evocative but does not definitively resolve to a single meaning, it's a more promising poem.

This is also true for creating works of art, not just for interpreting them. Good artists express themselves in such a way that even they cannot fully explain the "meaning" of their artwork. Alternatively, an artwork created with a single, specific message in mind that the audience is supposed to readily understand is more propaganda than art.

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I am translating a book

To be able to do that, you need context, yet you have not given us any context. What is the author discussing?

With has a few meanings - the most probable are

promising by using or in conjunction with jokes, which seems to persuade us that there is an 'it' to get, but more promising by using or in conjunction with works of art.

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  • I got the meaning with the rewrite of the sentence you have done ... the book is missing out by Adam Philips. The context of that part is about the getting it. It refers to joke, saying, poem or even adults words by children. After reading your answer now I understand that when getting it is not the problem, but the project (like a work of art which is there no to get it easily) then with using a joke as an example the above situation is not that much promising ... thanks for your answer
    – Mey
    Jan 17 at 14:49

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