“Der Gepeinigte... aufhört zu lieben, solange er leidet... endlich mub man beginnen zu lieben, um nicht krank zu werden, und mub erkranken, wenn man... nicht lieben kann” “A person suffering organic pain and discomfort …. as long as he suffers, he ceases to love…. but in the last resort we must begin to love in order not to fall ill, and we are bound to fall ill if, in consequence of frustration, we are unable to love.”
Sigmund Freud, ²On Narcissism ; An Introduction²
Generally speaking, love is an extremely difficult subject to discuss. Why? Because love doesn’t represent just “one”. It spreads itself out in at least three different directions, namely the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real orders. Freud’s work made the distinction between the subject’s ‘need’ and ‘wish (wunsch). As for Lacan, he spent years honing the definition of ‘wish to break it down into demand and desire. But demand and desire are not the only two essential factors for the subject. Indeed, as you all know, psychoanalysis is only made possible by the concept of transference, which is a very particular type of love in itself.
It’s also vital to remember that all these different types of love coexist side by side. Sometimes it’s one particular strain of love that is more dominant, at other times it’s another type of love that holds sway, and sometimes all the different types of love are at play in equal measure. So let’s firstly start by looking again at the different versions of love.
Imaginary love is an effect produced by the subject’s narcissism, his own narcissism. Why? Because it is all about loving oneself, and loving in another person a trait that one finds in oneself, yet not recognizing it as being such, or rather you just forget that it’s the case. So, what you love in another person, that precise element that seduces, captivates, thrills and fascinates is what, since ancient times, has been identified as being a passion. And when you look at the Latin origins of the word “passio”, you discover that it means the ability to tolerate, endure, put up with or indeed to suffer.
This particular dimension of love is unmanageable. You could even perceive it as a subjective catastrophe, because, without intending to, it emphasizes the notion of the Imaginary order as being like an endless explosion that arrives on the scene and starts hoovering up everything around it. This Imaginary version of love which seems so alluringly attractive to us, so temptingly shiny, this form of love we all like that lights up our lives is nonetheless likely to come along and blow out, erase or destroy our own subjectivity. Because when the Imaginary order enters into the equation in all its explosive proliferation, it brings with it the collapse of the Symbolic order. And coupled with that, it simultaneously revives the death drive, in other words it reignites a passion for repetition aimed at destructive rage. As you all know well, some subjects never manage to free themselves from the grips of this state. They remain forever stuck in this world that can be described as nothing other than crazy. Lacan also describes this dimension of love as being a form of suicide.
So where does this love come from? How is it formed? It is connected to a return to the mirror stage in the subject’s life. But exactly what is this stage? When a subject is first born into the world, he has the initial impression of being divided up into different parts, because as a small child he doesn’t yet have an understanding of his body as being an overall whole. He just sees himself as a collection of bodily orifices positioned side by side, and all of them in their own little worlds experiencing ‘jouissance’ for their own sakes. Then comes the day when the subject stands in front of a mirror for the first time. Initially he doesn’t recognize his own reflection. And then in a flash, he has a sudden revelation when he identifies himself with the image he sees. At the start, he feels like he is identifying with a completely different person. With an ‘other’. With someone else who looks similar, when in fact he is staring at his own reflection. And this experience is what finally enables him to recognize himself as a unified whole. But there will always remain that fundamental confusion as to the difference between the subject’s self and that image of the ‘other’ in a mirror and by extension, he will mistake his ‘ego’ for the other person, not just in the mirror, but in life in general. This is why the subject likes or indeed reproaches a similar trait he shares with the ‘other’ (in everyday life) when in fact the trait is his own without him even realising that it exists. What he identifies as being positive or negative about himself is in fact no more than a trait that he has taken from the ‘other’ person (in everyday life), again without even being aware.
So this notion of the mirror is to be understood first and foremost in metaphorical terms. When we talk about the mirror it’s not just a reflective surface, like a window or looking glass. No, it’s a whole combination of factors that throw back a reflection of the self, and this includes the words spoken by a child’s mother and his entourage. The combination of all of these help build up the image in which the subject finally recognizes himself. So when you are building up a sense of self, of identity, the mixture between the ‘ego’ and the ‘other’ is an inherent part of the process. Indeed, this is what lies at the very root of normal paranoia whereby the ‘ego’ glues itself to the ‘other’, and confuses his own affairs with those of the ‘other’.
Our relationship with the imago constitutes a permanent threat, as it is takes us back to that highly sensitive starting point where it is impossible to distinguish between the ego and the ‘other’. So that lightning bolt of suddenly falling in love is nothing more than us having a flashback to that initial founding moment of self recognition through the image of the ‘other’. And that’s why this type of love drives us mad, albeit a form of madness that to some degree one considers normal. And when Lacan was demonstrating the illusory and ephemeral dimension, he was thinking in terms of this type of Imaginary love. In basic terms, it is a love of oneself without one realising it.
Symbolic love marks the cut-off point from Imaginary love. We hear a certain amount about this next form of love in the sacred texts. It is born of and modelled on God and monotheism, for Man, the fruit of his creation. The Bible for example is full of good references to this form love.
Symbolic love attempts to bring the human being to a transcendent realm that is over and above the Imaginary order. Symbolic love tries to bring us out of ourselves to a higher plane. How can this be done? There are two possible ways. One way is called the pact (unlike the contract, which is always associated more with deceit, cunning and betrayal). And this pact is the only thing capable of bringing a sacred dimension to the amorous exchange. It represents that essential notion of commitment and trust, which relies on the spoken promise. The other way of expressing or attaining symbolic love is through giving. Why? Because a gift, by definition, implies that miraculous capacity of being able to give what we don’t have ourselves. Loving someone is about giving to another person not what we already have - which doubtlessly would be quite a generous gesture in itself, but let’s face it, quite easy - no, it means going a step further and managing that feat of giving precisely what we don’t have.
So this more civilized and less brutal form of love, softened by a pact or gift, comes into being not in the same way as imaginary love. We’re not talking about being seduced by an image here, as we looked at just earlier. We’re talking about love emerging thanks to introducing the function of speech. Speech here plays the part of a third party, an outsider that takes up position in the equation as mediator between the two people who love each other. For those familiar with Lacan’s work you’ll recognize that this corresponds to what he named ‘schema L’ - L for language - where the imaginary axis representing the mirror relationship between the ‘ego’, and the ‘other’ (aa’) passes through the symbolic axis representing the relation between the subject and the ‘Other’ (S A).
This type of symbolic love therefore hinges quite simply on introducing a complex outside element, which is found through the function of speech and language.
But unfortunately you can’t just rely on speech alone to work its magic in human relationships. Speech can lead to misunderstandings, disagreement and failure to grasp information, all of which point to something impossible, something which Lacan identified as being the Real order, the Real dimension operating in the lack of relation between the sexes. And this Real element is something that will irreparably divide a couple and lie forever between them. What does this means in practice? It denotes the idea of one person in the couple aiming for a certain ideal, having certain expectations and concerns, and an outlook on life and the world which has nothing to do with what his or her partner is looking for, hoping for or expecting.
Therefore, it is impossible to genuinely ‘meet’ the other person by focusing on the similarities, what is identical between ourselves and that other person. We shouldn’t be seeking out our twin. On the contrary, a connection is only made possible by focusing on our differences, on where that person is fundamentally different to ourselves, and in doing so, leaving room for a precious ‘otherness’. In matters of love, we’re all naturally driven towards trying to create a single whole, a ‘One’ between two partners. But that is an impossible feat. The Real order is always there, lurking in the background of the relationship, and sooner or later it comes to the fore to ensure and remind us that there are two strikingly distinct people in a relationship, and that will always be the case. Our ideal notion of perfect harmony is simply unachievable. So having accepted this impossibility, how then do you then use it to your advantage as a way of creating a real connection in a relationship? What would the relationship look like? It would be a courageous form of love, that would never fall at the first little hurdle, wouldn’t pass out in the face of the first signs of disagreement. It’s a form of love that is sparked by the Real order, a direct result of the Real order, a form of love that is conditioned by the Real order, and as such ensures that two people in a couple are kept separated, faced forever with the impossibility of ever truly joining as one. So the love we are looking at here is a love defined by the fault line lying between them, that rift, that gap which both creates a distance between them and brings them together, plunging them into a shifting tide of restraint and indulgence.
Real love takes into account the unconscious aspect of two people who love each other. It sees them not as ‘people’, but as two different systems of unconscious knowledge, and therefore knowledge unbeknown to them, which connect and strike a chord with each other. So real love between two people is that resonance, that interplay of two unconscious systems of knowledge setting up an ‘inaudible’ dialogue and chiming together.
But in today’s world, plastered with a brash billboard version of love, dictated at every level by advertising and its focus on image, who is prepared to work hard at attaining such a towering level of subtlety in their relationships? Who is willing to consider this in-built notion of noncoincidence, this fundamental failure to agree when it comes to love between two people? This lack of overlap, or shared similarities, where two becomes one? Having an unconscious, by definition, means that when we speak, we don’t and can’t say everything, because there is whole part, a whole ‘dialogue’ beyond words that speech alone cannot channel. On that count, when we speak, we are only giving half of the story, we are only ‘half-speaking’. We talk about ‘speaking at cross purposes’ (quiproquo), but here you could refer to ‘speaking in halves’. Lacan, in his lesson dated 15th January 1974, page 99, described it as follows: “Love is about two people ‘half-speaking’ (mi-dire), two ‘half-speakers, without ever converging … When this is in place, then you have something exceptionally rare.” So we’re looking here at a form of love that is built on this part that neither person in a couple can articulate through speech – in other words, love is founded on a reality that is ‘half-spoken’. Who would have imagined?! That’s Lacan’s definition of love. Anyone here in the room see themselves as Lacanian when it comes to love?
And yet this previously unheard of type of love is precisely what psychoanalysis is aimed towards and seeks to access. A type of life that proves a rare opportunity to measure the discontinuous nature of the unconscious, of both one’s own unconscious as well as the other person’s unconscious within a relationship. Admittedly, our unconscious naturally pulls us towards a certain degree of solitude. But that is what makes us so unique, what makes us less able to share ourselves with others. Yet at the same time it also forces us to go towards others, to refrain from withdrawing ourselves from society, so as to meet these ‘others’, and simply accept the fact that love is not what we imagined or hoped. Love takes on multiple forms. Inevitably it has an imaginary face, but also sometimes a symbolic face, it’s rarely real, and even sometimes purely symptomatic. But does that really matter? There is no ideal for us to put on a pedestal and push for. It simply doesn’t exist. No, our job is to bring to the fore the complexity of human concerns, let them be heard, and accept them. Why? Because it is the fundamental precondition for a successful relationship.
A final word: it’s only thanks to love that we are able to change as humans. Love is what enables us to change, become more permeable, and also become more sensitive and receptive to what novelty and change can actually bring us. Freud called this type of love ‘transference’. He is not only the mainspring of psychoanalysis, but also a whole host of other things. How can we possibly learn without love? Teachers know that only too well! How can we possibly treat patients if there is no love? Psychoanalysts know that only too well too!