In Seminar XX, often called “Encore” or “On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge,” Lacan makes two very controversial statements. I think it is essential for anyone claiming to use Lacanian Psychoanalytical Criticism as their methodology to at least believe that they have understood what he meant by them. The first is “la femme n’existe pas“ (‘the woman does not exist’ or perhaps ‘there is no such thing as the woman’). I’m not going to deal with that one right now, partially because I have not made my mind up as to how I want to read it, I have not read any interpretations that I feel fully explain it and, most importantly, I am still playing with what implications it has in my fictional writing.
The second is ‘Il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel‘ (‘there is no sexual relationship‘). 1
This one I do believe I have a grasp on, and there is more agreement by commentators and critics as to what he meant. That being said, I’m not sure I am in complete agreement with him on this, although my disagreement might come down to semantics.
But this is Lacan. Lacan is French. Ergo he has a genetic predisposition to say things that sound outrageous just to piss you off and get you thinking. Don’t let him goad you. There is some sense to this.
Fantasies, Lacan says, serve an important function as the screen that separates desire from the drive. 2 In the Lacanian sense, desire can never be satisfied, because all our desires are sublimations of our one desire for the Thing. Some say the Thing (a Freudian concept) is the perfect contentment of a child in its mother’s womb. Some have more existential theories about what this longing aims at. But whatever it is, it is not only impossible to achieve, but impossible even to name, and so we aim our desire at more achievable goals, money, status, lovers, etc. However, because when we get the things or people we desire, they never seem quite enough, desire is always left partially unsatisfied. The drive is a rather evil thing. The drive is delighted by this constant wanting without getting. 3
It is, in a way, our inner sadist. It feeds on our onward, forever searching and never finding the object of our desire. It is our own personal, portable schadenfreude.
Fantasy is what we create to hide the ugliness of the drive from ourselves. Fantasies are the WHAT of what we think up to desire. They keep us from noticing we don’t get it. And when we don’t, they serve as an explanation for why we failed. They keep us from looking into the awful heart of the drive.
I think I’ve seen the drive at work: both in literature and closer to home. John Wilmot, 2md Earl of Rochester, famously depicted in the play “The Libertine” and made into a film with the same name, directed by Lawrence Dunmore and starring Johnny Depp is, in my view, a portrait of a man who has run out of fantasies and has come face to face with his drive. There is an almost undead quality to the way he pursues pleasure and clearly gets no pleasure from it. He cannot stop himself from pursuing pleasure, but has no illusions that they will ever satisfy him even for a moment. He doesn’t fool himself or romanticize his pursuit and conquest of sexual partners. There is no eroticism in his acts. He stops finding joy even in excess itself. He literally fucks himself to death, and he can’t help it. I’ve always thought that John Wilmot served as a very good example of why fantasies are important, regardless of how much they might fall short in the end. Their absence is to be condemned to a living hell. “The Age of Desire” is a short story in Clive Barker’s “Books of Blood, Volume 4” anthology which chronicles the eventual death by lust of a young man who has been the victim of a libido-raising drug trial gone wrong. 4
I’ve met a few people in whom I think I’ve recognized the absence of any fantasies to shield them from the drive. They’re not happy people. They’re not even disillusioned people. But more to the point, I have felt its awful glee gnawing at my sinews. That’s why I write – stories keep it at bay.
Thank god for fantasies, huh? Well, yes and no. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina opens with this line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” 5 In a way our fantasies are like Tolstoy’s unhappy family.
There are two problems with our fantasies. One is that they are fantasies and the other is that they are heartbreakingly unique to us. Certainly we can meet people we share similar fantasies with, but they are never either exactly the same, nor are they ever an exact opposite that might fit. As an example, it is often commonly thought that sadists and masochists must be a match made in heaven. But the old joke of the sadists who refuses to beat the masochist when he is begged to do so is truer than anyone wants to admit and worse. As Gilles Deleuze’s rich reading and critique of “Venus in Furs” reveals, masochists and sadists have fundamentally different and non-intersecting sexual desires. 6
So, when Lacan talks about there being ‘no sexual relationship’ he doesn’t mean that we don’t have sexual relationships with each other. What he means is that the fantasies, the narratives of the desires we bring to each other, can never be absolutely aligned. It’s simply not possible. Of course there can be momentary experiences of mutual pleasure, but our inner fantasies are not running along the same rail. They may be running parallel, and that might be fine, but in the long run, any couple who swears to having a unanimity of fantasy is fooling themselves. At least one party is pretending to possess or be gratified by fantasy they do not have, and what is keeping them together is either love (with its attendant sacrifices) or lies.
The phenomena of living in a society where one’s intimate sexual fantasies are discussed and traded so openly and in which it appears intolerable that anyone’s sexual desires should go unmet, is that the expectation of alignment and unanimity has become an imperative. I suspect that a great many men and women feel under great pressure to show an agreement of sexual fantasy that may very well not be there. And even when a couple both agree that a) she likes to tie up her lover and b) he likes to be tied up, this is only an alignment in the very broadest sense. The emotional and psychosexual underpinnings of those predilections may very well be miles apart. As Zizek writes in his essay on fantasy,”in contacts with another human being, one can never be sure when and in what way one will touch and disturb someone’s fantasy.” 7
For this reason, although I am deeply opposed to censorship of any kind, I can’t help thinking that keeping the details of one’s fantasies to oneself, outside a love-bond, is probably a good idea. I’m not advocating a return to the Victorian era with all its repression and shame. There is a third way which acknowledges that individuals are entitled to have whatever sexual fantasies they like, they should indulge in them and enjoy them in privacy, but they should not feel entitled to burden everyone they meet with the specific details of them and demand approval.
The availability of explicit porn allows people to believe they can ‘show’ each other their fantasies in some pursuit of the perfect partner. However, one interesting result of this is that a lot of people seem to have a cognitive disconnect regarding their gaze, as evidenced by this rather funny conversation I recently had with a man.
“Don’t you appreciate the visual aesthetics of a good hog-tie?” he asked.
“Um, not really,” I replied.
“I just can’t believe you can’t see how fucking beautiful this is,” he says, showing me a picture of a woman hogtied, artfully positioned on a red velvet settee. She is white, with dark hair, wearing a leather corset, stockings, fuck me pumps and a lot of white rope.
“I just don’t find her attractive. It doesn’t make me want to fuck her.”
“You’re not supposed to want to fuck her. You’re supposed to want to be her.”
“She doesn’t look anything like me.”
“Can’t you picture you instead of her there, on the couch?”
“No. This is not a picture of me hogtied on a couch. It’s a picture of someone else hogtied on a couch.”
“But look at those knots. Aren’t they lovely?”
“If I’m supposed to want to be her, how would I see the knots?”
“You wouldn’t. But you can appreciate them, can’t you?”
He’s getting frustrated. I can tell. “Jesus, you’re supposed to look at this and want to be in her position. You’re supposed to want me to want you like that.”
“You said ‘You’re supposed to’. Who says I’m supposed to?”
“Jeeze. For fuck sakes. I don’t know. People who like kink.”
“The kinky powers that be?”
“That explains everything.”
“I have a bad reaction to authority.”
“You’re not a real submissive, are you?”
Admittedly, it was slightly fictionalized to enhance its comic value, but I’m conveying the essence of it. This man simply could not understand why I could not ‘stand in his shoes’ and see and appreciate his object of desire, his projected fantasy. Of course, if I could have, I’d be much more interested in tying him up and fucking him than letting him hogtie me.
However, here is where I think Lacan is too pessimistic. Yes, there may be no absolute alignment in a ‘sexual relationship,’ but there could be mutual regard. What I mean by this is that, had I known the man I was talking to better, had I cared for him, I still would not have found the view arousing from where he was standing, but I might have been aroused by his arousal. Had he known me well enough to convince me that not any hogtied woman would do, and that, as he looked at the picture, he imagined me as the hogtied object of his desire, I might have been gratified to be the object of that desire, even if I couldn’t project myself into the photograph. I could perhaps know that he was projecting me there. But having no particular affection for each other, why would I care what turns him on or what he wants? He wants the thing in the picture. He isn’t even standing in a bar looking at me with a twinkle in his eye. We’re negotiating desires over a digital image of a complete stranger.
I think there can be a sexual relationship that involves an acknowledgment of the impossibility of our absolute alignments but the sincere appreciation for the desires of the other. It won’t be a perfect match and it might involve some trade-offs, but at least it would be a compromise to someone who seemed worth compromising for. And if some accord could not be reached, at least there would be some genuine distress at the absence of it.
- Lacan, J. (1988). On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973. (B. Fink, Trans., J. Miller, Ed.).(p.45) New York: W.W. Norton & Company. ↩
- Zizek, S. (1999). The Seven Veils of Fantasy. In D. Nobus (Ed.), Key Concepts in Lacanian Psychoanalysis (pp. 190–232). New York: Other Press. ↩
- Evans, D. (1997). An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (p. 47). New York: Routledge. ↩
- Barker, C. (1987. Age of Desire. In Books of Blood Vols 4-6. Orion Publishing Group, Limited. ↩
- Tolstoy, L. (2010). Anna Karenina. New York: Random House. ↩
- Deleuze, G. (1991). Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty. New York: Zone Books. ↩
- Zizek, S. (1999). The Seven Veils of Fantasy. In D. Nobus (Ed.), Key Concepts in Lacanian Psychoanalysis (p. 209). New York: Other Press. ↩