Lacan and his Animals

While Lacan’s demeanor, and the general atmosphere in his seminars at the Sainte-Anne hospital, can be said to characterize a zoo, it is Lacan’s explicit reference to animals that will be our main interest today. Being a loving dog owner himself (naming his beloved dog Justine after the eponymous sex slave of the Marquis de Sade book), Lacan relies on the help of a variety of animals when addressing some of Freud’s most intricate psychoanalytical models. These would include: cats, dogs, birds, fish, turtles, lions, giraffes, lobsters, and many more. But what does Lacan really think about his animals? And more precisely, where does he situate animals in relation to speaking beings (i.e. humans)?

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Žižek with Cat

Do Animals Speak?

According to Lacan (1953-1954), many animals can be considered to “speak” (in a sense) when they are in pain, or call out for help when they are in need. “You have only to observe a pet to see that a being deprived of language is quite capable of making calls on you, calls to draw your attention to something which, in some sense or other, it lacks.” (p. 84). Nevertheless, Lacan insists that while animals are disposed to use the call, or in other words, to articulate a demand, they still lack access to the dimension of the signifier, and thus to the symbolic means through which human reality is constructed.

In his early paper on the Mirror Stage (1949), Lacan relegates animal-language to a correspondance between images hardwired on the level of animal instinct. In this sense, the mere encounter with the figure of an adult pigeon – even as a reflection in the mirror – can bring to the sexual maturation of a female pigeon (p. 77). In his seminar on The Psychoses (1955-1956) Lacan develops this idea and argues that, in the same way, when a female robin sees that red of the male robin’s breast, she undertakes a series of actions and behaviors that “link the bearer of this sign to its perceiver” [i.e. she goes cuckoo for her mani] (p. 167). This time Lacan adds that this kind of linguistic correspondance is not achieved on the basis of signifiers, but is based on signs and more specifically iconic signs.

In a previous post, I have argued that while signifiers engender meaning through the dynamic and differential relationships they establish with other signifiers, the sign has only one referent to which it is rigidly linked alongside any context through which it was acquired. In this sense, the sign “cat” would signify a specific cat, met on a specific rainy day, while on a sunny day the sign “cat” would not refer to the same individual cat met on that same rainy day. Or in the case of laboratory rats, pressing the level only means food when the light bulb flashes. Accordingly, we see that animal-language is very sensitive to the qualities of its signs. It can be used by animals in acquiring crucial knowledge, but this knowledge must be meticulously orchestrated in order to convey a clear message.

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“How you doin’?”

“War is War”:

A crucial distinction between a language composed of signifiers (i.e. human language) and animal-language can be found in the way we interact with out pets – especially those disposed to our use of language (some of us talk to our cats…). It was B.F. Skinner (1904–90), one of the fathers of behaviorism, which articulated something that many pet owners knew quite a long time before his experiments with boxes. That is, that animals have the capacity to learn equivalences – “bad boy!” means punishment, “good boy!” means treat. This way we can gain common grounds in our household – using signs. Nevertheless, it is exactly the fact that some equivalences convey no equivalence at all which evades the reach of animal-sign-language. This point is clearly marked out by Lacan in his seminar on Identification (1961-1962), when he argues the equation “A is A” does not represent a simple equivalence (tautology) when A is taken to be a signifier. When I teach a dog that “good boy!” means a treat, I do not have to go to great length in order to make sure that he knows that a treat is a treat (and not something else). Nevertheless, while some of us might be prosaically moved by such phrases like “war is war”, I am pretty convinced that a dog will keep his composure when faced with such a notion – taking it as a simple tautology (a treat is in fact equivalent to itself). But when I say, “war is war”, or “Lacan is Lacan”, I do not aim to convey a simple equivalence. “War is war” means that it is brutal, unfair, that people die in war. “Lacan is Lacan” means, well… more than Lacan is himself, or exactly that he is what he is, which is… (fill in the blank). While we humans – creatures of the signifier – can grasp that we can mean a lot more by saying the same, for animals, the same remains the same – repetition retains no difference (in contrast to what Deleuze would say).

This unique symbolic capacity is captured in the very human aptitude to lie by telling the truth. An ability which is perfectly depicted in a joke Freud tells about two Jewish people talking in a train station. This joke is worth being quoted at length – after which I will leave you to ruminate on the Kantian notion that dictates that one should always tell the truth.

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Hitchcock, Strangers on a Train (1951)

The Joke:

“Two Jews met in a railway carriage at a station in Galicia. ‘Where are you going?’ asked one. ‘To Cracow’, was the answer. ‘What a liar you are!’ broke out the other. ‘If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?'” (Freud, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, p. 115)

***

Autistic Sameness: Lacan with Amanda Baggs

Leo Kanner, an American psychologist, was one of the first practitioners to differentiate what we know today as “autism” from the field of childhood psychosis. Assessing a variety of characteristics in the behaviour of his autistic patients, he went on to identify two main behavioural categories – aloneness, and sameness. Aloneness is characterised by Kanner as the autistic child’s non-communicability, avoidance of eye contact, and general disinterest in others. Kanner reports that autistic children often spend the day in solitude, ignoring and excluding anything situated outside their closed-off inner world. Sameness is defined by Kanner as the autistic child’s anxious and obsessive preference for order and repetition. Kanner reports that any change in routine can lead the autistics to experience a surge of unbearable anxiety. Thus, in the aim of warding off this anxiety, the autistic child meticulously keeps the world in the same state, situating things in the same place, and in the same order they were discovered in the first place.

In today’s clinic of autism these two diagnostic categories have dissipated into what is defined as Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This “spectrum” is demarcated by two diagnostic categories, that of the low functioning and the high functioning autistic. These categories are determined in accordance to a list of behavioural and sensory criteria, accumulating into a person’s exact designation on the spectrum. Be that as it may, the Lacanian clinic of autism refuses to adopt this quantitive approach and offers a variety of qualitatively distinct diagnostic criteria for autism. Taking into account the subject’s relation to language, and accordingly, the way in which the subject utilises language in the mediation and treatment of jouissance.

Jouissance, which could be translated to English as “enjoyment” (yet it shouldn’t), is a well established Lacanian notion, complexifying Freud’s account of the libido, and his economic model in general. For the sake of our discussion today we will just view it as an excess of excitation which is rooted in the subject’s body and mediated by language. Because one of the most basic Lacanian characterisations of autistic subjectivity is a limited access to language, in the Lacanian clinic we say that autistics have a hard time regulating their jouissance. Without access to the signifier, jouissance runs wild, it has no limit, no border; invading the body from the outside, and tormenting the subject with unbearable bursts of excitation. Two strategies autistic subjects employ in order to protect themselves from such invasions of jouissance can be associated with Kanner’s account of aloneness and sameness. First, through their radical division from the outside world (aloneness), and their encapsulation in what Margaret Mahler had defined as the “autistic shell”, autistics protect themselves from the anxiety accompanying their unbridled jouissance. Autistics solely disposed to aloneness are usually diagnosed by clinicians as low functioning autistics, as they barely behave in ways which can be defined by psychologists as “adaptive”. Sameness, on the other hand, can be better discerned in the autistic use of language. Through their use of different signs they pickup from their environment – usually signs entailing a specific and constant patterns – autistics signify their world, providing it with a sense of predictability and order.

Lacan explicitly argues that autistics are “rather verbose”. That is, they are subjects of language. But, lacking access to the domain of the signifier, they are strictly disposed to the logic of sign. Now, the difference between a “sign language” and a language composed of signifiers is accounted for by Lacan, but yet again will not be deliberated today. We can simply say that there’s a big difference between the two. A difference which effects the nature and composition of the language used by autistic subjects, but more than anything, has a big effect on the capacity of language to mediate jouissance. While the signifier “quantifies” jouissance – it gives it meaning, which can be conveyed in words, and transmitted between subjects – the sign does not quantify jouissance, but can only “frame” it. Thus, we see how a language composed of signs can keep jouissance at bay, providing some solace for the autistic child, but cannot attribute transmittable meaning to his or her jouissance. In this sense, Jean-Claude Maleval argues that in autism there is an essential split between jouissance and language.

Nevertheless, there is way for autistics to use sign language in the exploration of their relation to jouissance. Through a language which “frames” jouissance, but cannot transmit it. This would be a “private language”, which “treats” jouissance, without making sense out of it; a language which provides the subject with an immediate access to jouissance, but not with its articulation. Similarly to the phenomena of synethstethia, it intersects emotional and sensory excitation, with a language composed of repetitive movements, sounds, tastes, etc. Through this language, the autistic gains a sense of mastery over jouissance, but is still disposed to a solitary state, as he or she cannot transmit this language to others.

In a very famous and moving youtube video, autistic subject and advocate, Amanda Baggs, attempts to explains her unique relation to language. Making sense of the world under her terms – “in my language” – she provides herself with an access to jouissance which seems alien to the unsuspecting eye. I suggest you spend nine minutes and watch this youtube clip. Try and view it as an utterly inventive language, through which Baggs opens a channel to her internal emotional and sensual world. Constructing a language which “frames” her jouissance, but does so at the price of cutting her from the people she loves as long as she drifts off into it.

Pain, Memory, and Commemoration

Only a week ago, in Berlin, Germany, the memory of those devastated by the gruesome and calculated extermination carried out by the Germany of National-Socialism has been commemorated. As in every international Holocaust remembrance day, I come to ponder the memory we are commemorating. For most of us have not witnessed, nor survived, nor fought against, nor died while fighting, these forces. We are witnesses of these memories only in their re-writing, in their annual repetition. I also ask myself if these memories can retain their importance for the ones who are only the descendants of the humanity of that era? If in our commemoration, we are not only able to sketch the contours of what can never be truly recollected again?

In his book, Tashach (1948), gifted writer and holocaust surviver, Yoram Kaniuk, provides us with a definite answer. He argues that even he himself, a surviver, a fighting partisan, does not remember the “horrible pain” but only “remembers that he has pained”.

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Yoram Kaniuk (Photograph by Marcel Molle)

The Wunderblock:

In his attempt to describe the mechanism of memory, Freud uses the metaphor of the Wunderblock. The Wunderblock (known in the 1980’s, in its developed version, as the “Etch A Sketch”) is an old children’s game composed of a board made of wax and a cellophane screen. The child draws on the screen with a plastic pencil leaving marks on the wax board. The Wunderblock is so “Wunder-ful” because it enables the child to pull off the screen from the wax board and make the drawing disappear. Nevertheless, when describing the Wunderblock, Freud insists that the drawings on the wax board is never fully erased, but carries a “remainder” which is indefinitely carved on the board. Freud argues that the mechanism of memory functions in the same way. The child’s etching on the cellophane screen akin to the conscious experience – constantly processing sensual stimuli. The wax board akin to the unconscious, the place where these experiences are copied and indefinitely preserved.

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While Freud’s Wunderblock metaphor seems to be quite relevant for the description of the mechanism of memory in simple organisms, and even more developed animals, Lacan argues that it is not sufficient for the description of the memory of human beings (speaking-beings). For example, it is quite evident that my cat still acts in accordance to an exact copy of her experience of “horrible pain”. She was adopted after going through the hardships of the life on the street, and thus usually reacts with an immediate attack/flight whenever she experiences the tiniest of unidentified noises or movements in her surrounding. Every time she does so, it seems she is experiencing (in a concrete and unmediated way) that “horrible pain” at the root of her traumatic past. Nevertheless, when we talk about humans, memories do not function in the same exact way. That is because for us memory is not a mater of imprinting but of converting – the conversion into a signifier. Or in other words, the conversion of the “horrible pain” to the signifier that has “pained”.

What Keeps on Not Being Written:

For each one of us, the “horrible pain” at the root of our traumatic past can only be considered in terms of an object already lost. A Thing of the real, which was not directly inscribed in the unconscious, but converted to a signifier and only then retroactively inscribed. Accordingly, when Yoram Kaniuk argues that he “remembers that he has pained”, he represents that “horrible pain” with a signifier – he instates a signifier in the place of the real Thing. A Thing which was lost, which could have never been directly inscribed, but is only inscribed through its conversion.

Therefore, the memory of the holocaust can never be the memory of the Thing itself, but only its conversion to a signifier. For us, those who did not directly experience the “horrible pain”, it is a conversion of a conversion – an inscription of an inscription. A two-fold process, which is sometimes at the risk of losing its touch with the original traumatic core. That is why the commemoration taking place in the international Holocaust remembrance day is so crucial. It represents our collective insistence to inscribe that un-inscribable trauma, to find it a place in between the signifiers – in between ourselves. This is the only way the collective traumatic experience can find its place in the course of history. Through this paradoxical attempt. For the real can be made present, only in its absence, when it is eclipsed by the signifier.

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin

* Great thanks to the brilliant teacher, Gavriel Dahan, which gave a lecture on the 24.4.2015 on which this post is based upon.

The Significance of the Phallus

What do we know of Oedipus? We know he was a tragic hero in Greek mythology. We know he unavoidably fulfilled a prophecy that brought him to kill his father and marry his mother, eventually bringing destruction to his city and family. We also know that Freud used the myth of Oedipus to convey some very deep truths about the underlying structure of the psyche.

But what do we know of Oedipus and the phallus? In Greek mythology, not much. In Freud, quite a lot. For in the Oedipus complex the phallus plays a central role in what Freud calls the “phallic stage” of psychosexual development. In this stage, children of both sexes are predisposed with questions revolving the possession of the phallus. In this stage children firstly discovers that their mother doesn’t have a phallus, raising several concerns as to their own impending or prior castration.

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Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Oedipus Rex

According to Freud, the phallus functions as the biological marker of the duality of the sexes. He equates the phallus to the actual male organ we all know as the penis, and claims that it is the actual encounter with its presence or absence that has great repercussions on the child’s psychical development.

In his reformulation of the Oedipus complex, Lacan adopts Freud’s notion of the centrality of the role of the phallus in the course of the child’s development. Nevertheless, unlike Freud, Lacan does not strictly equate the phallus to the male organ, but claims that it is in fact a signifier. More specifically, Lacan argues that the phallus is the signifier of lack – something that sticks-out, and stands-in the place of a lack in the psyche.

Drifting a bit from the original coordinates of the Oedipal myth, Lacan divides it into three instances in which the phallus is situated as the signifier of lack in the place of its three starring figures – yes, you’ve guessed it – the mother, the child and the father. Interestingly enough, each of these instances corresponds with Lacan’s account of the three registers of the psyche – the real, imaginary and symbolic.

The Real Lack of the Penis:

Lacan’s version of the Oedipal myth begins with the sudden introduction of the most initial lack in the history of the child. Let us imagine a hypothesised state (preceding the Oedipus complex) in which all of the child’s instinctual needs (hunger for example) are satisfied at the exact moment they are engendered. The Oedipus complex beings at the moment where one of these needs is not satisfied, introducing a lack where there was once constant satisfaction. According to Lacan, this primordial lack, situated on the level of the instinct, can be considered to be the first designation of the phallus in the course of child’s psychical development. Lacan names this exact manifestation of the phallus the real phallus, and situates it in the place of the mother (the figure of the mOther which takes care of the child). According to Lacan, it is the real lack of the phallus in the place of the mother which is a necessary condition for the initial division between the child and the mOther and the beginning of the Oedipus complex. It marks a gap where there was once continuity, enabling the apprehension of the interior and exterior of the psyche.

The Imaginary Lack of the Real Phallus:

Once divided, the distancing from the mother becomes a source of a great frustration for the child. As it expands, it accentuates a part in the mother which does not directly correspond with the child’s needs – a part which is not given to the child, but given to someone else. Therefore, at this stage of the Oedipus complex, the child is very much preoccupied with it, trying to retake its place as the soul object of her desire. In order to be that object for the mother, the child constructs a montage of images corresponding with whatever he deems as desirable for the mother beyond itself. Lacan would call this montage, or Gestalt, the imaginary phallus. The child then goes on to feverishly attempts to identify with the imaginary phallus, to wholly assume its image on itself. This stage in the Oedipus complex could be associated with the classical Freudian interpretation in which the child is in love with the mother, and by aggressively identifying with the father, attempts to take his place as the one receiving that part of the mother which is not given to it.

The Symbolic Lack of the Imaginary Phallus:

Nevertheless, according to Freud, one of the main points of the Oedipus complex is the prohibition of incest. Meaning, the Oedipus myth is all about fate, about a prophecy that cannot be undone. In Freud this fate is the fate of the phallus, of lack, of a part of reality which is initially cut out and can never be regained. Accordingly, in Lacan’s reinterpretation of the Oedipus complex the child’s attempts to correspond with the real lack of the phallus in the mother through his identification with the imaginary phallus inevitably fail. The realisation of this failure brings about the third and last shift in the position of the phallus in the Oedipus complex to the place of the father. The child, now situating the phallus in the place of the father (“So he’s getting what I wanted all that time… and there’s no way around it…”), realises that its narcissistic identification with the imaginary phallus is not going to cut it. Moreover, the child realises that its real phallus (weather it has one or not) cannot compensate for that as well. Accordingly, the child goes on to identify with the position of the father as the bearer of the phallusAt this stage it is not the child’s attempt to be the imaginary phallus which is at stake, but the child’s identification with the symbolic authoritative standpoint of the father as the one that has it – as the bearer of the symbolic phallus. The identification with the symbolic aspect of the phallus bestows on the child access to a dimension of psychical reality which exceeds the real lack of the organ, and its imaginary signification. This reality, according to Lacan, is symbolic reality, rooted in language and the knowledge it provides for deciphering ones sexuated position in the Oedipus complex and ones own role in society. It’s the end of this story, but the beginning of a whole new story – that of neurosis.

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To summarise briefly, Lacan argues that the phallus cannot be strictly identified with the real organ (the penis), nor with its biological role in copulation, or with its turgidity and the image of the vital flow. Rather, Lacan claims that the phallus is a shifting signifier representing lack in the three registers of psyche; A signifier whose function is to give the child access to intersubjective symbolic reality which exceeds the narcissistic fantasy of the child as the sole object of the mother’s desire, as well as the solipsistic existence of a being so complete it has never been touched by lack.

Accordingly we see that Lacan provides us with a refreshing take on Freud’s well known claim that “anatomy is destiny”. For the phallus punctures our existence weather we want it or not. It stands-in the place where lack sticks-out in the psyche, eventually prompting a destiny from which we certainly have no escape.

Demand (minus – ) Need (equals = ) Desire

 Babies and cats are spoiled and selfish creatures. That is why, whenever I am faced with my cat’s selfish narcissistic tendencies, I ask myself – “can these creatures even have the capacity to love?” Faced with this predicament, while taking into account that babies and cats are also quite silly creatures, I find myself truly doubting that they are able to comprehend such a complex concept (a concept that for some of us is even incomprehensible) like love.

This makes me a little paranoid, and so I wonder – “if these silly creatures don’t really ‘love’ me, what kind of relationship do we have? Taking into account the fact that in their limited developmental stage babies and cats have no capacity to comprehend the concept of love, what do they feel towards me?” Thinking of my cat, I come to one conclusion – what she feels is the need to be fed.

And indeed, humans (we’ll put cats in parenthesis for now) are born with a variety of organic needs which are necessary for their survival. Furthermore, because we are born way before we are developed enough (physically and mentally) to fulfil these needs on our own, we are dependent on our adult caretakers to fulfil them. This physiological fact – rooted in the baby’s helpless undeveloped (but cute) starting point – entails something very real about us humans – the fact that we are originally and necessarily dependent on the care of others.

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These others, or more precisely, these adult caretakers, are the ones who surround the child from birth and take care of his or her needs whenever they randomly spring out of somewhere. Nevertheless, as some of us know too well, it is hard to understand what exactly the baby truly needs and when. And indeed, after a terrific time in mommy’s womb – a place where all needs are immediately satisfied – in the first days in the outside world, the baby is faced with a bunch of unfulfilled needs and a group of naive humans that can’t telepathically understand what he or she whats when he or she wants it. Accordingly, in order for their needs to be satisfied, young humans must be quite resourceful in taking on themselves a new relationship with signifiers, with the language of the adult world in which they are engrossed, and to articulate – in one way or another – a demand.

And indeed, just like that, through trial and error, we see babies starting to adopt the ways of the others and communicate with them using signs, movements, and sounds. In this way the baby’s needs are transformed into a demands, as they are symbolically articulated by the child in order to be satisfied in a timely and efficient manner (“blink once if you are hungry”). It is through this early relationship with language that the organic body composed of the child’s primal instinctual needs is re-appropriated by the signifier, and is utilised in the creation of demands which are framed by signs or language.

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Jon Beinart, Toddlerpedes, 2006

Nevertheless, when the child’s need is transformed into a demand – mediated by language – a new set of worries and repercussions which are alien and external to the domain of the original physiological need arises. For when needs are directed towards the others as demands, they are not only composed of the basic physiological need, but (as some of us know too well) also come to satisfy the desire for the attention and love of the caretakers to which the demand is directed to.

Parents find very quickly that when they wake up at night to the cries of their baby (or cat) and run quickly to their room, they find them – quite timidly – just lying there not physically needing anything. But do they not need anything? Well, yes, they do not need anything speaking in a strict physiological sense – they desire something beyond need. And indeed, according to psychoanalysis, when a demand is articulated in language it always entails an additional dimension which is not included in the domain of the original need. This is the domain of the desire of the others – their affection and love; a domain which, undisputedly, reaches beyond the limited sphere of the satisfaction of the particular physiological need.

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Accordingly, Lacan insists that every demand – when it is subtracted from the original need – is in fact a demand for love.* More precisely, he claims that whenever an original need is articulated in language as a demand, we are faced with a uniquely human side effect – the formation of the demand for the attention and affection of the other to which the demand is directed.

Listen to your children and cats! Whenever a young child calls out to his mother, “I’m thirsty!”, it is possible he in fact means that he would like her to bring him his water bottle, but beyond that, it is quite possible that he also actually wants her to bring it to him – that she will give him her attention and affection by doing so. In other words, that she will see him as her object of desire.

It is therefore not surprising that one Lacanian definition of desire is: the remainder of the subtraction of the need from the demand articulating it in language. According to Lacan, desire gains it consistency from the fact that when a child articulates his need in a demand, something is left out. Something in language is not able to grasp the full scope of the child’s original need. That part of need is what, according to Lacan, is primally repressed, and in turn engenders the place of Desire.

But what is exactly the love of the other which the child desires? Lacan gives us the following answer – the desire for the love of the other is in fact the demand for the others desire (read that again). Meaning, the other’s capacity to desire – the part in the other which desires. In other words, we can say that when the child demands something from the other he also desires the part in the other which is desiring.

This initial form of desire is also manifest in our adult life, in our relationships with the ones that we love or that love us. It appears in the demand for love, not as the satisfaction of a need, but as a satisfaction of the desire for the desire of the loved one.

If we are lucky enough (and this is a discussion for another time), we find out quite early in our lives that this demand is impossible to fulfil. That is because human beings, like you and me, don’t really have a specific part in our bodies or minds which is desiring, and can be cut out and given to another person as a present. Non of us are really the practical owners of our capacity to desire. Accordingly, in the face of our lovers demand, we are left helpless – for there is no way we can truly satisfy it. There is no pleasure, nor promise, we can bestow on our lovers that can be equivalent to the thing they demand in the first place. All we can do as lovers is in actuality – lie. Providing our lovers with these accepted artificial signs that signal we really do love them; repetitively giving out indicators which simulate or even falsify our giving them what we cannot give them in the first place.

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If we are truly truthful in to our lovers we should tell them – “my heart is not really mine to give”, or “I do not want to give you promises which I know I cannot fulfil”. That is why Lacan claims that only liars can truly answer the demand of their lovers with a straight face – “my love is yours!”.

Let us briefly conclude that the very familiar indicators of love that we so gladly enjoy in our romantic comedies and novels, are exactly the ones that make us forget or ignore what makes love so singular. These indicators are beautiful lies which stimulate our desire; unattainable fantasies which aspire to fill in an ‘un-fillable’ void. We must remember that, quite on the contrary, love is exactly the acceptance of this void, the forfeit of the words that will explain and promise what is to come; it is the movement from the desire-of-a-‘thing’, to the love-of-the-‘subject’.

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Salvador Dali, Tristan and Isolde, 1944

 

* Please see Lacan, Jacques. Écrits, “The Signification of the Phallus”.