Lacan and Writing the Erotic – Desire

I was asked by my supervisor to explain how using Lacanian psychoanalytical criticism had influenced my creative writing. I suspect the effect has been quite profound, although I am hoping at the same time that it is not too obvious in the prose.

Lacan took a number of Freudian concepts and developed them. He was also influenced by Hegel through the French scholar Kojev. Finally, the linguistic theoretician Saussure’s theory of sign and signification had a huge impact on how Lacan came to describe our relationship to language, and how we constituted our perceptions of reality.

Regardless of what you might think of the efficacy of psychoanalysis to treat mental illness, the psychosexual theories of Freud, Lacan and Zizek offer anyone who is in the business of creating characters a tool for examining their inner workings and motivations that very few other fields can offer. Their work can’t tell you how to write characters, but they prompt important and not always intuitive questions to ask. They beg us to see the complexity in humans, and therefore in characters. This is all to the good, because simple characters don’t make for interesting fiction.

When I teach narrative to undergraduates and get onto the subject of character and conflict, I always ask my students, ‘what does your character want?’ In essence all good fiction depends on a character wanting something and his or her struggle to get it. But psychoanalytical theory invites a writer to look at what desire is and just how complex ‘wanting’ is.

Desire is breathtaking in its scope and power in Freudian/Lacanian theory. I am not going to attempt to cover it all but to limit this essay to how I relate some of Lacan’s concepts to my writing as it concerns how we understand ourselves as individuals, what we desire and how we want to be desired, and how the satisfaction of desire must, by necessity, always fall short. However, even this narrow focused approach to Lacanian desire requires a bit of set-up, theoretically.

For Lacan, desire is always the desire of the Other (Four Fundamental Concepts 235). It is decentered and recursive. From the moment we learn that we are not the universe, that we individual beings, separate from the rest of the world and from others (especially our primary caregiver, usually our mother). We start to realize we are not that person’s only care; we become petitioners, asking ‘what can I be that will make you want me?’

With entry into the world of language and law and social structure, that desire to know what is desired of us evolves and broadens. The desiring other, once our mother, becomes the Other – the multiplicity of demands the world makes of us. How can I be the doctor, the father, the soldier, the ‘guy’ the world expects me to be? Of course, there is no Other to satisfy. There is no god who wants you to be a ‘doctor’ by wearing a white coat and a stethoscope around your neck and having a good bedside manner and a determination to ‘do no harm’.  This is the social construction we, as a society, have settled upon for now. Similarly, there is no absolute authority that demands that mothers should be kind and caring and love their children unconditionally, but this is the mythology we have jointly, through language, created. The sign ‘mother’ must, we feel, have behind it an ideal ‘Mother.’ So in order to match the definition of this ‘spectral Other’ we project this understanding onto our own mothers or, if we are mothers, we struggle to conform to this ideal in order identify ourselves as ‘mother’. Of course, having recognized that there is no absolute fixed definition to what a mother (perhaps, arguably, beyond the purely biological act of pumping out an offspring), we can try to force changes in our widely accepted social definitions.

Feminism has spent the last 100 years challenging the rigid, socially constructed definition of woman. And to a significant extent it has succeeded. Our understanding of what being a woman means has shifted, slowly from one definition to another. But we’ve traded one ideal for another. We are still trapped in that strange desire to accommodate some definition.

You can try to be the woman your boyfriend wants you to be, or the woman men want you to be, or the Catholic church says you should be, or the subject science determines as biologically normative, or the (liberated from masculine definitions what a woman should be) woman feminists want you to be. But to believe that you can be a woman free of any existing definition is unattainable. We are bound by language and no matter what definition you accept for the term ‘woman’, you’re accepting a definition generated by others, somewhere. You can never escape the signifying constraints of language.

And this, of course, is radically interfered with by the fact that, in the Western world, we are living through a period that valorizes the act of self-realization. We are told that we shouldn’t pander to someone else’s desire. We shouldn’t try to live up to their desires, but demand that we be desired for who we are. But who is that?

We don’t, for all a marketized society wishes us to believe, make ourselves. We define ourselves through language, the agreed-upon definitions that we feel describe us. Even if we choose to use radically alternative definitions, we’re still using definitions that are recognizable to some group or other. If we truly made ourselves, we’d be unrecognizable to anyone else.

Interpersonal relationships, as you might imagine, make this very complicated. To keep this in mind while writing erotic fiction is to reformulate the statement, “I want him or her.” Instead it becomes, “I want him/ her to want me” or “I want to be wanted by him/her.” When it comes to writing characters who desire this adds a dimension of complexity and, I feel, a richness to the dynamics at play in fictionally represented erotic attraction.

There is this inherent tension between characters who desire each other. There is always an undercover war of identities being tested and concessions being made. Unless the desire is unrequited, it’s recursive. Desire a two way street.

Meanwhile, it’s important to keep in mind that what the other wants is similarly constructed by social conventions. Your fictional boyfriend might want you to be a sweet, pert-titted woman who is always up for sex and solicitous when he’s got the flu. Or, he might want you to be independent and ballsy and a little fireball in bed. But he hasn’t pulled either of those notions of ‘woman’ out of his ass. He got it from the same social soup. Like you, he’s been ‘educated’ as to what it is proper for him to want. And he, of course, is trying to figure out what you want in a man. And your idea of what a ‘man’ is is similarly drawn from the multiplicity of definitions of what ‘a real man is’ that clutter up our world.

I won’t go on. As you can see, it’s amazing any of us stay together for long. Desire is a web of human-made mythologies.

Underneath all that desire is the sex drive. But that drive is a languageless, definitionless urge. It can be momentarily satisfied by copulating with anyone at any time. The drive doesn’t give a shit about who or where or when. It doesn’t even care what gender it fucks or which orifice to use. Nature has had to evolve ruddy great targets on viable mates – signs of biological receptivity, like massive, crimson, swollen buttocks – in order to get its attention and guide its aim. It’s a mindless, driven need to get that DNA out and hopefully into the right species as often as possible. All the rest of what we call sex is what we have constructed, through language and law and social agreement. The drive is a monstrously uncivilized urge, not at all compatible with us living in any sort of peaceful or productive accord with each other. That’s why Freud came up with the notion of the Pleasure Principle. That’s why Lacan theorizes that desire cloaks, sublimates and mitigates the ferocity of the drive.

Meanwhile, desire is also self-perpetuating. We believe our desire can be fully satisfied, but it is never fully or permanently satiated because the drive, which it is cloaking, cannot be silenced.

The moment we get what we desire, we realize that it wasn’t exactly quite what we wanted. It may be way off the mark, or hit very close to it, but it is never exactly what we want. So we aim our desire somewhere else, hoping that this time, it will be the one. But it never is.

When it comes to romantic or erotic desire, there are only two possible outcomes. Either our characters recognize the way in which the other doesn’t measure up to our fantasies, and move on to some other equally destined to fail entaglement, or…

We fall in love.

But that is another story for another day.

4 Thoughts on “Lacan and Writing the Erotic – Desire

  1. As you say, to recognise that there is an ‘other’ we have to be aware of ‘self’. This self-awareness apparently happens at an early age in us, perhaps before we are two years old. This self-awareness is surely innate, for at that age we can’t really ratiocinate; and it is the age at which so much of ‘nurture’ is implanted into us, something from which we can’t always escape later.

  2. From what I understand, this sense of self is one that doesn’t distinguish self from the world until the Mirror Stage, which involves a the act of seeing oneself as another sees you, separate from the world, hence the formation of the ‘I’ as subject, entering into the world of language where ‘I’ actually means something.

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