Lacanian Psychoanalytical Theory, Bataille and Writing Eroticism

Why Lacan

…who understands the unconscious best, the poet or the clinician? Or, to put it another way, do the aesthetic and the clinical have to speak in entirely different languages or does the poetic enter both? (Wright 1)

To use any Freudian-influenced psychoanalytic criticism as a methodological tool for a creative and critical research project on contemporary erotic fiction might seem cliché, but in the process of gathering reference materials and exemplars for this project, I found the use of Feminist Studies, Queer Theory, discourse analysis and ethnography far more prevalent. Contemporary erotica—as distinct from pornography—has not been widely studied and, as far as I can ascertain, there has been only one research by practice creative writing doctoral thesis focusing on the genre of erotica (Gillespie).

This project aims to explore the possibilities for new eroticisms, so it seemed imperative to choose a methodology that would offer three things: a schema of human experience that distinguished between inner and outer—social—experience and some form of metaphysical beyond towards which eroticism aims itself; a theory of how sexual desire is structured and functions as a part of the human experience; and a theory of the function and limitations of language.  Not only does Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism offer all of those things, but also it provides critical tools with which to examine, question and challenge our assumptions about eroticism in literature on many levels. Erotica is primarily a character rather than plot- or event-driven narrative genre and Lacanian psychoanalytic criticism places the individual inner experience at the centre of its inquiries. Therefore, it invites us to interrogate the practice of the writer, the experience and agency of the reader, and even how the fictional subject is socially constituted. Erotica is a genre mainly concerned with representations of erotic desire and its consequences and Lacanian theory compels us to ask whose desire is being addressed, what fantasmatic projections are at play and how do these desires conform to or resist hegemonic power. Indeed, the Lacanian concept of desire is so rich and complex, it might be said to offer a poetics of desire to a writer for whom this theme is central to their work. Finally, Lacan offers a compelling explanation for why eroticism is so difficult to write well and why language becomes fragile, unreliable or fails completely in moments of limit experience.

It would be easy to defend this methodological approach following the example of Lacan’s own examinations of literary works—Antigone, Hamlet, The Purloined Letter, to name a few—or for how the practice of writing might be used to position the author as analysand (James Joyce) 1. However, to employ Lacan’s ideas in this way would be either an attempt at auto-psychoanalysis or auto-criticism, both of which lack clinical or literary merit or integrity for me. I am not using Lacanian theory to analyse myself as a writer or to subject my creative writing to literary psychoanalysis. In the critical portion of this project, I’ve used it as a tool of inquiry, a way to organise and deconstruct some of our common assumptions about eroticism and erotic fiction. In the creative portion of the project, I’ve used it impressionistically, as a challenge to create more complexity and depth in the characters, conflicts and approach to using language when it comes to writing about the erotic experience. The very nature of Lacan’s work—the evolution of his theories and the many ways in which others have interpreted and applied his ideas—affords a rich, multifaceted approach to examining the four elements of Bataillean eroticism I have set out above to consider both critically and creatively.

Nevertheless, Lacanian psychoanalytical criticism has a number of drawbacks. The first is a general disdain for the value of psychoanalysis in contemporary society, especially in North America (Bailly 264). The second is that Lacan delivered many of his most important ideas orally, in French, in thirty years of seminars from 1952 until 1980 in Paris. The difficulty, density and cross-disciplinary nature of his lectures has resulted in Lacan being characterized as “a thinker whose productions are sometimes irritatingly obscure” with an “impenetrable style” (Bailly 17). Paul Verhaeghe reminds us that “Lacan’s seminars are ‘works in progress’—belonging to an oral tradition of teaching and thinking at the same time—which cannot be adequately rendered by any written transcription” (Verhaeghe Lacan’s Answer 109). As film footage of Lacan’s speech delivered to a conference in Louvain in 1976 powerfully illustrates, he was a careful, clever and dramatic speaker who used language, silence, tone and gesture to great effect (dir. Françoise Wolff,  “Jacques Lacan Parle”). While Lacan’s seminars have been transcribed and translated (some formally published and others informally distributed), even in their native French, these transcriptions lack the emphasis, gestures and pauses that convey additional meaning, emphasis or clarity to the spoken word. Those gestures and silences formed an important part of Lacan’s pedagogical and clinical approach (244) inasmuch as they prompted a frustration in the student or analysand which Lacan thought necessary to progress. For Lacan, frustration sustained the desire of analysand for either understanding or a cure and neither information nor clinical engagement could be effectively received or have lasting impact unless the subject was forced to tease out kernels of meaning for themselves (245). Consequently, the same qualities that render a Lacanian approach confusing, frustrating and lacking in closure, also make it uniquely fertile for me as a critical enquirer and a creative writer of erotic fiction. It engages and sustains my desire to explore how eroticism is currently represented in contemporary culture, how it might be subverted or evolved. While any application of Lacanian theory outside the discipline of psychoanalysis requires the taking of interpretive liberties, as Mari Ruti puts it in The Singularity of Being, Lacanian theory encourages us to “creatively intervene in symbolic systems of signification” (8). I have been encouraged.

Key Terms and Concepts

Unlike other critical approaches such as Marxism or Feminism, Lacanian psychoanalytical criticism may be less familiar to many readers. For this reason, it seems sensible to offer summaries of some of the key terms and concepts I use in the development of my arguments. Many Lacanian terms and concepts are nuanced, interdependent and open to diverse interpretations. While I’ve made an effort to take the major streams of Lacanian critical theory onboard, I have often settled on definitions and interpretations that address issues of erotic agency, fantasy, language and experience as they pertain to contemporary culture. This means that I tend to preference the interpretations of Slavoj Žižek, Lee Edelman and Mari Ruti who bring Lacanian ideas to bear on the personal, social and political, rather than the practical and clinical approach of psychoanalytical theorists and practitioners such as Bruce Fink. However, the Lacanian clinical landscape offers tremendous scope with which to examine the ways individual experience is narrativised, sublimated or metonymised and has informed my work, particularly in the area of character development. What I offer can by no means be taken as a comprehensive survey of Lacanian concepts; the scope and nature of this project doesn’t allow for that and, hopefully, doesn’t require it. What follows is the most basic of summaries to enable readers to follow my arguments, or to act as a mnemonic for those who are more familiar with a Lacanian critical approach.

Lacanian Terminology

While many of the psychoanalytical terms Lacan uses originate with Freud, he expanded and radically redefined many of them. Terms such as castration, the phallus, the Name of the Father, feminine, etc. are used metaphorically. For example, when Lacan speaks of the phallus and castration he is not referring to a real, physical penis or the severing of that organ but rather to an abstract object of desire and the gaining or loss of the imaginary power inherent in possessing it. Indeed, he emphasised that he used these terms free of their gendered origins. While I use Lacanian terminology where necessary for the sake of precision, I find that they can evoke confusion and unhelpful resonances. This is even more the case when it comes to discussing eroticism and erotic writing, where real penises and real castration might be at issue. Amalia Ziv observes that “the overdetermined relation of the phallus, as the signifier of subjectivity, to male anatomy presents a further difficulty” (Ziv 16). This is especially difficult and confusing when discussing erotic fiction where actual penises and castration might be referred to in the text. It seems to me that perhaps Lacan’s continued use of terms such as ‘phallus’ and ‘castration’ was a reflection of the great intellectual debt he felt he owed to Freud. I consider that debt better addressed in the active application of ideas rather than in the perpetuation of sexist terminology. Consequently, I make a conscious effort, where possible, to opt for more accessible, less obviously gendered language.

Lacan’s Three (or Four) Orders

Lacan proposed a topology of the human psyche—a way of explaining the different modes by which we experience our existence. These modes are described as “the three quite distinct registers that are essential registers of human reality: the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real” (Lacan Names 4) Later in his work, he added a forth register: the Sinthome (Bailly 123). Often referred to in Lacanian circles as the RSI (Real, Symbolic and Imaginary), Lacan chose to illustrate these orders and their interactions with each other using the image of a Borromean knot.

Image used with permission of Luke Thurston

Image used with permission of Luke Thurston

While it is easiest to describe these orders in relation to human development, Lacan believed that, once humans acquire language, we function in all these registers simultaneously although we are seldom conscious of doing so.

The Real

According to Lacan, we seldom experience raw reality. The moment we enter into the world of images and language, fantasy and signification mediate our experience of it. The Real is a state of undifferentiated and unmediated reality where no ordering or meaning making is possible. There is no language, no inside or outside, no self or other. In the womb and as a very new infant, there is only need and only the entity that experiences need. Beyond early infancy, the Real is only “encountered at the points where language and the grids we use to symbolize the world break down” (Fink xiii), at moments of extreme experience—trauma, shock, bliss, revelation, sublimity.  According to Bruce Fink, “[t]he real is essentially that which resists symbolization and thus resists the dialectization characteristic of the symbolic order, in which one thing can be substituted for another” (Fink 92).  Nonetheless, even as we develop into thinking, differentiating, speaking beings, the Real is always there, under the surface, hosting the throb of our aimless, relentless drives and powering the engine of jouissance (Ruti 2).

Lacan’s concept of the Real is important to this project for a number of reasons. The ecstasy or transcendent experience George Bataille describes in his work Erotism is an experience beyond sensual pleasure, beyond language, beyond meaning, beyond a sense of the self or other. I would posit that this is synonymous with Lacan’s later formulation of jouissance and its association with register of the Real. Eroticism aims itself at this state of raw experience. The Lacanian Real is associated with the death drive, which I will return to in more depth later. The Lacanian Real is also where, according to Mari Ruti, we experience our ‘singularity’: an individuality beyond the narcissistic personality of the Imaginary or the subjecthood of the Symbolic (Ruti 1-3), which seems to me to correspond with Bataille’s concept of ‘continuity’ (Bataille 15) as a self that, through transgression, loses its socio-symbolic coherence in ecstatic, traumatic transcendence.

The Imaginary

The Imaginary is the register of sensory perception and differentiation—images, sounds, and sensations all processed through a narcissistic lens. It’s where our ability to conceive of binaries originates: inside/outside, hot/cold, nice/horrible. This is the register children operate in before they fully acquire language and as they form their sense of self as an ideal ‘I’. It is in the imaginary that we go through the mirror stage, forming a sense of self that is both ‘me’ and yet not ‘me’ (Bailly 54). While the acquisition of language opens up the world of the Symbolic for us, we never leave the Imaginary behind. This has special relevance to the topic of eroticism, since so much of what is commonly represented as erotic experience involves an immersion into the sensory and the visual. And while eroticism depends heavily on symbolization, the affects that accompany and colour it have their origin in our earliest relationships, with love, need, pleasure, demand and desire, or rejection and denial. The erotic fantasies we project onto ourselves and others as the objects of desire all have their birth in the Imaginary register, as do the erotic fantasies that are commoditised and marketed to us as enviable states of erotic being. If eroticism depends on having a ‘self’ to lose, it is in the Imaginary that this fantasy of a whole self that can be lost or fragmented is first forged.

The Symbolic

The Symbolic is the order marked by our entrance into language, society and the law. It is not simply our ability to use words but to grasp that their meanings are externally imposed and determined by others—by society, by history, by law.  This is where we become subjects—selves in relation to others, relinquishing our prerogative to total self-definition in what Lacan describes as castration (Bailly 132). Moreover, entrance into the Symbolic order marks our transition from need to demand and desire. This is important to the discussion of eroticism and any examination of desire—a central theme in erotic writing.

Lacan contends that there is an erotic pleasure in the use of language itself. In speaking, in making meaning, in metaphorising. In his book The Lacanian Subject, Fink notes that “[a] certain jouissance that is ‘squeezed’ out of the body is refound in speech” and points us to James Joyce’s use of it: “When one reads Finnegan’s Wake, one has the sense of the jouissance packed in the signifier, in the Other as language” (99). Symbolisation and metaphor play an essential role in the practice of kink, where pleasure is taken in deliberately subverting normative chains of signification. This intentional subversion is not just a means to an end, but a transgressive pleasure in its own right, in its very process; there is an undeniable libidinal and defiant joy in taking signifiers such as slavery, pain, humiliation, etc. and turning them into sites of erotic pleasure. It could be argued that a great deal of BDSM practice is an attempt to transcend the Symbolic by overemphasising, subverting, caricaturising and inverting its most rigid rules.

 The Sinthome

The Sinthome—an archaic spelling of the word symptom—is a later addition to this topographical structure of the RSI. Lacan, following Freud, theorised that psychopathological symptoms are manifestations of unresolved issues or repressed traumas that bubble up between the cracks in the unconscious through dreams, slips of the tongue, and jokes. More problematically, they manifest themselves as compulsive repetitions of behaviours that are seemingly nonsensical and often self-destructive. Symptoms needed to be interpreted or decoded in order to identify the underlying wound and address it. But Lacan noted that some behaviours, while seeming to be symptomatic of underlying psychopathology, were so central to individual’s psyche as to constitute a significant part of their identity. Some major symptoms do not simply cause the subject pain, but also functioned as a central motivating factor, a reason for being, an engine of their creativity. These sinthomes are powered by a jouissance that, while perhaps anti-social, legally problematic, or even dangerous to the individual’s well-being also made his or her life worth living. Žižek notes that the “sinthome is a psychotic kernel that can neither be interpreted (as symptom) nor ‘traversed’ (as fantasy)” (Looking Awry 137).  Lacan questioned whether it was possible or ethical to attempt to relieve an analysand of their Sinthome.  According to Žižek, “Lacan’s answer (and at the same time the last Lacanian definition of the final moment of the psychoanalytic process) is to identify with the sinthome” (137).

How might fictional prose be framed in terms of Lacan’s three (or four) orders? The simple communication of ideas through language and how the meaning of that text is constructed through the Symbolic order is obvious, as is formalized narrative structure and the constraints of genre. The text itself is situated within literary and cultural entertainment economies. Similarly, the writer, reader and even the publisher have their respective roles to play as producers, purveyors and consumers of the text.

The Imaginary determines much of how both the writer and the reader visualise and internalise the narrative, relating narcissistically, emotionally to the characters and their experiences of the fictional events. Kris Pint notes that “fantasy forms a shield against the pure, unmediated enjoyment of the libidinal being, and at the same time it is a construction intended to recuperate something of that enjoyment” (Pint 37).

I would argue that the Real also plays a part in the process of engagement with a fictional text in terms of mutually acknowledged and understood absences. If sublime or limit experiences resist language in real life, the same holds true for fictional narrative accounts. The clichéd fantasy memes so common in erotic fiction might serve not only as shield, but also as universally recognized placeholders for what cannot be said. The formulaic fantasies and overused metaphors so often found in erotic fiction might function as ‘points the capiton2, pinning the cringe-worthy signifier to an experience of jouissance that both the writer and reader mutually acknowledge cannot be encapsulated in language in any accurate or satisfactory way. Even something as physically concrete as an orgasm is only poorly represented in language, and has been rendered—as critics have so often pointed out—in some of the worst examples of purple prose. But for writers and readers, sharing that lived experience and understanding of the physical and affective aspects of it, the clichéd language or the threadbare metaphor acts as an invisible ellipsis present but unprinted in an account of a climax.

While I struggle to conceive of the Sinthome as an ‘order’ like the other registers of the Lacanian RSI, as a creator of fictional characters, it becomes a very useful tool. Most compelling literary characters are possessed of—one might even say by—a Sinthome. More than just a symptom that causes a character to behave in intriguing or predictable ways, the possessor of a Sinthome will always be a tragic hero—a kind of saint, according to Lacan (Rabaté 161), pursuing an ‘idiotic’ jouissance (Žižek 128). Whether reaching back to a less psychoanalytical and more literary reading of Oedipus Rex or forward to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, Faulkner’s Joe Christmas, or Patrick Süskind’s murderous protagonist in the novel Perfume, characters possessed of a Sinthome are often deeply erotic—fascinating and horrific in equal measure. Not for their deeds or their desires, but for the awful relentlessness of their trajectories.

The Mirror Stage: The Ego, the Subject, and the Other

Lacan proposed the concept of the Mirror Stage to describe the evolution of the individual’s concept of self. Lionel Bailly quotes Lacan and then elaborates:

The function of the Mirror Stage … is to establish a relation between the organism and its reality’; this intellectual relationship of the Subject’s internal world and the external world is the beginning of consciousness of self as an object, and because of the mental process of translating the image into a concept of ‘self’, it is also the beginning of the submission of the subjective self to processes of symbolisation (Bailly 55).

 Presenting this concept as a dramatic event during which the baby sees its reflection in a mirror and recognises that image as both ‘me and yet not me’ is useful in understanding the momentous schism taking place. We take the idea of seeing ourselves as others see us for granted, but this moment is one of paradox—of self-embrace and alienation. Until that moment of recognition, we’re a disorganized collection of sensations, needs, and fragmentary glimpses of our own body parts. After, we are in possession of a fantasy image of ourselves as a whole, singular being. This is as much a constructed mirage as the reflection in the mirror. This act of identification is the start of a life-long process of self-objectification and self-assessment in relation to others.

From a writing perspective, it is also the beginning of our ability to tell the story of ourselves as if we were a character in a story told by someone else. Lacan insists that this must necessarily result in a fictional representation, because we are usually incapable of recognizing ourselves as subjects: “the ego is what a person says of him/herself; the Subject is the unrecognised self that is speaking” (59). What implications might this have for the writers, the narrators, the characters and the readers of fictional works?

Bailly explains the difference between ego and subject:

[a]t the Mirror Stage, one may think of the Subject as the part that ‘invents’ the stories about its image-self or ego, affixing to it signifiers as it acquires language: girl, blonde, pretty, likes chocolate, hates pink, good at drawing, etc.; but it also represses as many signifiers as it selects, and in doing so, tries to hide something of itself. Indeed, the Subject can only come into being when it is not thinking, because the very act of any thinking that involves its ego creates a smokescreen behind which it disappears (60).

According to Lacan, the stories we write about ourselves can never be truthful reportage, but always fictions about an idealised image of ourselves, burying or sublimating what might be destabilizing to our ego. We cannot tell the story of the person telling the story; all narrators are somewhat unreliable. If thinking interferes with one’s sense of subjecthood and a goal of psychoanalysis is to acquaint the patient with the truth of his or her subject, then I’d like to argue that one of the possible experiences of creating art, in the form of writing or immersing oneself in a destabilising fictional universe in reading might offer an imperfect, but somewhat similar environment in which to stumble upon one’s own Lacanian subject.

Frédéric Declercq observes that “Lacan does not stop emphasizing that the real of the body, for example, the somatic source of the drive, is something fundamentally alien to us subjects of the symbolic” (Declercq 238). This challenges contemporary beliefs about the way in which we ‘own’ our bodies and how our relationships with them are played out. It most specifically challenges contemporary erotic narratives of the body which focus on emancipation, agency, consent and self-definition.  Are we really writing about our physical erotic experiences or are we presenting idealised experiences of what we wish they were?

The Lacanian concepts of ego, subject and Other encourage the reconsideration of common notions of individuality, agency, private vs. public, and how we orient ourselves in relation to others and the Other, with a capital O (Lacan The Ego in Freud’s Theory 243). This Lacanian distinction between an individual other vs. the hegemonic Other (embodied in the language, law, cultural norms, and power structures of the Symbolic order) constitutes an invitation for me as a writer to seek more complexity in the interactions between characters: to whom do they address themselves when they interact with others? I will explore this further in subsequent chapters. Suffice it to say that in a contemporary culture where sexual exhibitionism—sex-blogging, erotic self-portraiture, published personal narratives of erotic experience—is encouraged as an act of emancipation and self-realization, the concept of the erotic self has weighty implications.

Accepting the fact of this limitation means, I believe, that we can go looking for ways in which the truth of the writer, the narrator, the character and the reader might seep through the seams of our telling and reading of fictional stories, much like the psychoanalytical patient’s subconscious leaks through the cracks of his discourse with an analyst: in slips of the tongue and fingers, in dreams, in repetitions, in the choice of focus and point of view, in deliberate misrepresentations and misreadings, and disproportions of emphasis.

Ways of Wanting: Instinct, Drive, Need, Desire, Fantasy and Jouissance

Lacan’s theories of human wanting are complex and fertile territory for any writer of erotic fiction interested in exploring human desire. While sexual desire is often equated in mainstream discourse as a basic human instinct that must be addressed, Lacan, like Freud, draws a clear distinction between instinct and drive. According to Lacan, instincts pertain to biological demands—hunger, thirst, sleep, evacuation, etc.—that can and must be satisfied to ensure the survival of the individual (Homer 75). Unlike instinct’s call which can be satisfied, the “drive always circles around its object but never achieves the satisfaction of reaching it” (76). Although Freud believed there were two drives—the eros and thanatos, the libidinal drive and the death drive —Lacan considered that all drives were ultimately the death drive (Ruti 22). I have found it constructive to think of the drive as propulsion or compulsion itself—the French term ‘pulsion’ being much more intuitively understood, in my view. Energy can propel or compel us in the direction of libidinal pleasure, or beyond it. It can be harnessed and directed, through fantasy and symbolisation, to many purposes: sex, work, art, or even religious ecstasy. In this way, like all energy, it can be either life-affirming or death-seeking, constructive or dangerous and often both. Like energy, it can change states—from energy to matter and back again, but it never stops being. Because what the drive and desire have in common, claimed Lacan, is that they are breeder reactors; their aim is self-perpetuation. Moreover, the purpose of the drive, as Sean Homer notes, “is simply to maintain its own repetitive compulsive movement, just as the purpose of desire is to desire” (Homer 76). Bruce Fink emphasises that desire “has no object. In its essence, desire is a constant search for something else, and there is no specifiable object that is capable of satisfying it, in other words, extinguishing it” (Fink 90). But it is fair to say that, as individuals, we have an uneasy relationship with our drive; “the real of the drives are experienced as something alien by the subject” (Declerq 238). It is in the Imaginary and the Symbolic that we begin to clothe that compulsion in narrative, where we give it a face and a name, where we invent elaborate rationales for why we follow where it leads—this is desire.

Need pertains to instinct; it is primal, aimed at the things we cannot survive without. In the womb our needs are met before we have the capacity to express them and, in developed countries, most of us have our needs quickly and fully met; rarely do we have to demand them. Primary caregivers either anticipate the need for food, drink, warmth, changing, etc. or interpret a cry of need and quickly address it. As we grow, we begin to want things that are not necessary to our survival. These demands are often a mystery to the caregiver and may very likely be a mystery to the infant as well. Bailly illustrates this nicely:

Anyone can observe the frustration of the toddler as it finds that whatever it asks for just isn’t doing the trick: milk, banana, bear, train, and even mama get rejected with increasing impatience until finally, the child gives up and settles for one of these substitutes, whimpering with unsatisfied desire (Bailly 151).

For Lacan, humans enter the social world of the Symbolic register with existential deficits: lacks that can never be addressed or healed or fulfilled. It is not entirely clear as to whether Lacan felt there were three distinct lacks, or whether they are really all the same thing, but the existential loss of the perfect state we experience in the womb; the phallus (the imaginary thing which, in infancy, pulls our mother or primary caregiver away from being constantly with us), and the objet petit a (what is lost in the translation of reality into language). Indeed it might be said that our strategies in trying to address those lacks are what constitute us as speaking, thinking, desiring beings. Desire, according to Lacan, is what we do to distract ourselves from the realization that we will never fill those primal lacks. This is why, he says, the attainment of the things, people or circumstances we desire never completely satisfies; because all our desires are a) aimed at the possible (when what we really want is impossible) b) forged in the crucible of Symbolic (in language and laws and external models of what we should want and, therefore, never truly ours) and c) always a fantasy in that they are never aimed at what is really out there, but what suits and enhances the story we tell ourselves of who we are, formulated in the mirror stage.

Lacan famously and controversially said, “man’s desire is the desire of the Other” (Lacan Four Fundamental Concepts 235). While Lacan uses this statement many times in this and other seminars, applying it to a number of scenarios, he never offers a clear explanation of what he means. Lacan’s interpreters have also disagreed in regard to exactly what it means (Fink 59, Ruti 50, Braunstein 103). What is constant is that for Lacan, desire is complex, paradoxical, unfulfillable, misaimed, and often represents what we think we ought to desire rather than any authentic desire on our part.

Indeed, part of the price for entering into the Symbolic order is in relinquishing the determination of our own desires. Fink underscores this: “Our very fantasies can be foreign to us, for they are structured by a language which is only tangentially or asymptotically our own, and they may even be someone else’s fantasies at the outset” (Fink 13). Very often what we think of as erotic is culturally determined for us—the glimpse of stocking, the oral sex, the three-way, the spanking—even if only by their questionably false but nostalgic designation as illicit and forbidden. While we continuously affirm that our erotic desires are intimately self-defining, the irony is that we are taught to want what we want as part of the baggage of our culturally determined subjecthood through culturally shared fantasies: real men want blow-jobs, real women want a gentle and attentive lover, etc.  So when it comes to the narratives of our sexual fantasies and the ones portrayed in many forms of pornography, erotic fiction and sexually explicit romance, far from being the titillating, transgressive obscenities we tell ourselves they are, they are often the implicitly sanctioned erotic desires designated as appropriate to our gender, our sexual orientation, our age, etc.

In attempting an intersection between Lacan and erotic writing, fantasy presents us with a challenge. The mainstream use of the term as unreal and escapist is often spoken of negatively. For Lacan fantasy is an important mechanism for how we keep our sanity in the face of obvious dissonance between how things are and how our societies say they should be.  In a sense fantasy teaches us how to desire and what we should desire. As Žižek explains it, “fantasy does not simply realize a desire in a hallucinatory way. Its function is rather that of a Kantian ‘transcendental schematism.’ A fantasy constitutes our desire, provides its coordinates, i.e. it literally ‘teaches us how to desire’“ (Žižek 191). Moreover, while fantasy seems to act to spare us from the depressing spectre of mundane reality or shield us from traumas we seek to avoid, it often does quite the opposite. Žižek insists that “fantasy conceals this horror, yet at the same time it creates what it purports to conceal” (190). Horror fiction is a perfect example of this; isn’t the proposition of Lovecraft’s monstrous Cthulhu more horrific that the things we experience in everyday life? And yet aren’t there aspects of it that reveal what we really dread? And doesn’t it serve as an apt metaphor for real things that both fascinate and terrify us? Fantasy allows us to confront what we fear in manageable ways. This is especially true, I think, in extreme sexual fantasies that are often seen as puzzling and self-destructive. One example—which I address in the story “On A Very Dry Afternoon in Early Summer”—of this is the puzzling prevalence of rape fantasies among women (Bivona & Critelli 10). Another is the kink practice of ‘race play’, where people transform their very real horrors of being the object of racial prejudice into erotic roleplay (Plaid).

Jouissance, concluded Lacan in his later Seminars, is something quite different from desire. Somewhat misleadingly translated as ‘enjoyment’, jouissance is a pursuit of pleasure beyond the Freudian Pleasure Principle (Rabate 27) and into a state where pleasure and pain, distress, or even danger, become a blended experience. Bruce Fink describes jouissance as “a pleasure that is excessive, leading to a sense of being overwhelmed or disgusted, yet simultaneously providing a source of fascination” (Fink xii). While we may take genuine, if ephemeral, pleasure in the pursuit of our desires, the pleasure of jouissance is always at least partly painful. It is what we want beyond reason, beyond limit, beyond the boundaries of social norms, beyond our physical or mental health, beyond our sense of ourselves as socially intelligible beings, beyond law and beyond language. While desire is firmly situated within the Symbolic order, Mari Ruti notes that jouissance is often how we experience intimations of the Real, as it  “intrudes into our lives as an unruly vortex of bodily jouissance and unintelligibility that disturbs the reassuring (yet ever-fragile) coherence of our symbolic and imaginary configurations alike” (Ruti I). While we can say what we desire and why we desire it (even if the object of our desire and our reasons for wanting it are fictional), jouissance is where language fails us. While I will address this more fully in subsequent chapters, it merits mentioning here that when someone compulsively pursues, for example, sex with multiple anonymous partners or a relationship with someone who is clearly sadistic, it is not the act one is pursuing, but some unnameable state of being attained via the experience. The specific act or behaviour—which can be spoken of—is the vehicle for ‘getting there’, but the ‘there’ itself is a state with no signifier.

The Jouissance of the Body

Of special relevance to erotic writing are Freud’s and Lacan’s theories on our strange relationship with our bodies and particularly our sexual organs. From Little Han’s ‘widdler’ (Declercq 238) to Portnoy’s ‘complaint’, the experience of raw physical arousal, of bodily jouissance, is deeply problematic for us. So problematic that we often conceive of the various organs —the sites of that arousal —as outside ourselves, having separate agency, not belonging to us or even transposed onto inanimate objects. We see it even in the most casual of remarks and erotic memes: the description, for instance, of a man being “led around by his dick”, or the stiletto shoe which does duty as a less problematic vagina. While for Freud and, later, Lacan, this schismatic phenomena is of immense psychoanalytical interest, for a writer of eroticism, it furnishes the kernel of narrative conflict that acts as the fundamental engine in many stories of eroticism. The body’s jouissance has no intelligible meaning for us. Yet we are compelled to make meaning, to invent meaning where none exists, in the face of this quotidian and yet always shocking manifestation of the Real. Although eroticism doesn’t always require concrete embodiment, our problematic relationship with our corporeality is often at the heart of the narrative of eroticism. While positivists weave puzzling analogies between women’s red lipstick and the inflamed buttocks of female bonobo monkeys, the world of erotic fiction clothes this unintelligible experience of jouissance in rococo tales of fetish and romantic obsession. It is not our comfort with our bodies that spurs on our most elaborate and stirring stories of eroticism, but the opposite. Our inability to reconcile ourselves to the ownership of that unspeakable, meaningless bodily jouissance can fire most imaginative storytelling impulses. Often this is how the symptom becomes the Sinthome, both for writers and for the characters they create.

Sublimity, Identity and the Death Drive

“Eroticism, it may be said, is assenting to life up to the point of death” is one of Bataille’s most often quoted statements. He repeatedly refers to the intersection between eroticism, violence and death in a number of his works—especially in relation to experiences of ecstasy and the sublime and in contrast to the existential loneliness and discontinuity of human reproductive existence. 3 Similarly, while Freud formulated the concept of the Death Drive to explain the often self-destructive compulsion to push past the limits of the Pleasure/Reality Principles that moderate our pleasure-seeking natures, he warned that this is not

…a question of an antithesis between an optimistic and a pessimistic theory of life. Only by the concurrent or mutually opposing action of the two primal instincts—Eros and the death instinct -, never by one or the other alone, can we explain the rich multiplicity of the phenomena of life (Strachey & Freud 243).

In his seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan essentially accuses Freud of fudging when it comes to the death drive, calling it “a creationist sublimation” (Lacan Ethics of Psychoanalysis 212), framing the drive negatively as a way of refusing to engage with the utter alterity of our demise. Subsequently, the Queer theorist Lee Edelman, has argued that the Death Drive is something to embrace, liberating the LGBT community from heterosexual hegemony, and echoing Bataille’s view of the reproducing human as trapped in the discontinuity of a state of reproductive futurism (Edelman 39), denying non-heterosexuals an identity beyond “what we do with our genitals” (47). For me and for my writing, this compulsion to go past the limits, while anti-social and even dangerous, is also life affirming.  Ruth Stein concurs, noting that “this recognition of death makes eroticism the vehicle for a vibrant, even frenzied, affirmation of life […] the erotic awareness of limits and transience, an awareness that renders life and its beauty poignant and most intense” (Stein 56).  This thing called the Death Drive doesn’t aim itself at death, although that might be an unfortunate result. This compulsion might be more helpfully conceived of as an existential defiance, a transgression and transcendence of our biological imperatives, social constrictions, and an intrinsic part of the experience of eroticism.




  1. Lacan offered close psychoanalytical readings of various works of literature to illustrate some of his most important concepts. In Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, he reads Antigone as way of revealing “the line of sight that defines desire” (Lacan Ethics 247). In Seminar VI: Desire and its Interpretation, he uses both Alice in Wonderland and Hamlet to illustrate the structure of desire. He employed a reading of Poe’s The Purloined Letter to explore Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle and the desire of the Other (Lacan Purloined 38). His last seminar, The Sinthome, is a symposium on Joyce, the man and his relationship to language, examining the limits of the Symbolic Order, jouissance, the structure of the psychotic mind and the ethically untreatable symptom.
  2. Employing the term for the stitch in upholstery that pins the covering to the base and stops the formless mass of stuffing from shifting around, Lacan used the phrase ‘point de capiton’ to describe the relationship between words (signifiers) and the concepts they refer to (signifieds) whereby the usual shifting, tenuous relationship between them is tethered or ‘stitched into place’ to provide the illusion of stability. In Seminar III: The Psychoses, Lacan offers the example in Racine’s Athaliah in Jehoiada’s line: “I fear God, dear Abner, and have no other fear”. Here fear is the point de capiton and “everything radiates out from and is organized around this signifier” (Lacan Psychoses 268). Žižek offers another example of the workings of a point de capiton: Jew becomes the master signifier, the powerful symbolic metaphor for Germany’s fear of powerlessness, economic catastrophe, moral degradation, etc. (Žižek Parallax 37). 
  3. As Mansfield notes, “Death exceeds— becoming the beyond of—the pleasure principle and the neat subjectivity that could be imagined as its structure. As we have seen in Derrida’s discussion of the relationship between Bataille and Hegel, it is in the heroic orientation toward an irrecuperable death that the idea of the sovereign arises” (Mansfield 53).

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