It sounds not only disagreeable but also paradoxical, yet it must nevertheless be said that anyone who is to be really happy in love must have surmounted his respect for women and have come to terms with the idea of incest with his mother or sister.
Sigmund Freud, “On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love,” 1912
We should perhaps conceive of pain as a field which, in the realm of existence, opens precisely onto that limit where a living being has no possibility of escape.
Isn’t something of this suggested to us by the insight of the poets in that myth of Daphne transformed into a tree under the pressure of a pain from which she cannot flee? Isn’t it true that the living being who has no possibility of escape suggests in its very form the presence of what one might call petrified pain? Doesn’t what we do in the realm of stone suggest this? To the extent that we don’t let it roll, but erect it, and make of it something fixed, isn’t there in architecture itself an actualization of pain? What happened during the period of the Baroque … would support this idea. Something was attempted then to make architecture itself aim at pleasure, to give it a form of liberation, which, in effect, made it blaze up so as to constitute a paradox in the history of masonry and of building. And that goal of pleasure gave us forms which, in a metaphorical language that in itself takes us a long way, we call “tortured.”
Jacques Lacan, Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-60.
What part of a gambler’s long-buried childhood is it that forces its way to repetition in his obsession for play? The answer may be divined without difficulty from a story by one of our younger writers. Stefan Zweig, who has incidentally devoted a study to Dostoevsky himself (1920), has included in his collection of three stories Die Verwirrung der Gefohle[Confusion of Feelings] (1927) one which he calls “Vierundzwanzig Stunden aus dem Leben einer Frau” [“Four-and-Twenty Hours in a Woman’s Life”]. This little masterpiece ostensibly sets out only to show what an irresponsible creature woman is, and to what excesses, surprising even to herself, an unexpected experience may drive her. But the story tells far more than this. If it is subjected to an analytical interpretation, it will be found to represent (without any apologetic intent) something quite different, something universally human, or rather something masculine. And such an interpretation is so extremely obvious that it cannot be resisted. It is characteristic of the nature of artistic creation that the author, who is a personal friend of mine, was able to assure me, when I asked him, that the interpretation which I put to him had been completely strange to his knowledge and intention, although some of the details woven into the narrative seemed expressly designed to give a clue to the hidden secret.
In this story, an elderly lady of distinction tells the author about an experience she has had more than twenty years earlier. She has been left a widow when still young and is the mother of two sons. who no longer need her. In her forty-second year, expecting nothing further of life, she happens, on one of her aimless journeyings, to visit the Rooms at Monte Carlo. There, among all the remarkable impressions which the place produces, she is soon fascinated by the sight of a pair of hands which seem to betray all the feeling of the unlucky gambler with terrifying sincerity and intensity. These hands belong to a handsome young man–the author, as though unintentionally, makes him of the same age as the narrator’s elder son–who, after losing everything, leaves the Rooms in the depth of despair, with the evident intention of ending his hopeless life in the Casino gardens. An inexplicable feeling of sympathy compels her to follow him and make every effort to save him. He takes her for one of the importunate women so common there and tries to shake her off; but she stays with him and finds herself obliged, in the most natural way possible, to join him in his apartment at the hotel, and finally to share his bed. After this improvised night of love, she exacts a most solemn vow from the young man, who has now apparently calmed down, that he will never play again, provides him with money for his journey home and promises to meet him at the station before the departure of his train. Now, however, she begins to feel a great tenderness for him, is ready to sacrifice all she has in order to keep him and makes up her mind to go with him instead of saying goodbye. Various mischances delay her, so that she misses the train. In her longing for the lost one she returns once more to the Rooms and there, to her horror, sees once more the hands which had first excited her sympathy: the faithless youth had gone back to his play. She reminds him of his promise, but, obsessed by his passion, he calls her a spoil-sport, tells her to go, and flings back the money with which she has tried to rescue him. She hurries away in deep mortification and learns later that she has not succeeded in saving him from suicide.
The brilliantly told, faultlessly motivated story is of course complete in itself and is certain to make a deep effect upon the reader. But analysis shows us that its invention is based fundamentally upon a wishful phantasy belonging to the period of puberty, which a number of people actually remember consciously. The phantasy embodies a boy’s wish that his mother should herself initiate him into sexual life in order to save him from the dreaded injuries caused by masturbation. (The numerous creative works that deal with the theme of redemption have the same origin.) The “vice” of masturbation is replaced by the addiction to gambling; and the emphasis laid upon the passionate activity of the hands betrays this derivation. Indeed, the passion for play is an equivalent of the old compulsion to masturbate; “playing” is the actual word used in the nursery to describe the activity of the hands upon the genitals. The irresistible nature of the temptation, the solemn resolutions, which are nevertheless invariably broken, never to do it again, the stupefying pleasure and the bad conscience which tells the subject that he is ruining himself (committing suicide)–all these elements remain unaltered in the process of substitution. It is true that Zweig’s story is told by the mother, not by the son. It must flatter the son to think: “if my mother only knew what dangers masturbation involves me in, she would certainly save me from them by allowing me to lavish all my tenderness on her own body.” The equation of the mother with a prostitute, which is made by the young man in the story, is linked up with the same phantasy. It brings the unattainable woman within easy reach. The bad conscience which accompanies the phantasy brings about the unhappy ending of the story. It is also interesting to notice how the façade given to the story by its author seeks to disguise its analytic meaning. For it is extremely questionable whether the erotic life of women is dominated by sudden and mysterious impulses. On the contrary, analysis reveals an adequate motivation for the surprising behaviour of this woman who had hitherto turned away from love. Faithful to the memory of her dead husband, she had armed herself against all similar attractions; but–and here the son’s phantasy is right–she did not, as a mother, escape her quite unconscious transference of love on to her son, and Fate was able to catch her at this undefended spot.
If the addiction to gambling, with the unsuccessful struggles to break the habit and the opportunities it affords for self-punishment, is a repetition of the compulsion to masturbate, we shall not be surprised to find that it occupied such a large space in Dostoevsky’s life. After all, we find no cases of severe neurosis in which the auto-erotic satisfaction of early childhood and of puberty has not played a part; and the relation between efforts to suppress it and fear of the father are too well known to need more than a mention.
The analysand’s demand is in fact a means of getting rid of this desire. Unconsciously, she wants to stop being unsatisfied and turns to a therapist in the hope that he will be able to heal her pain and remove the lack that torments her. The problem, however, is that in the long term this solution will not work. The analyst will never be able to give the analysand what she desires; all he can give her is desire as such. In other words, the analyst will only be able to help her to the extent that he leaves the analysand’s demand painfully unanswered. . . .
This strange therapeutic starting point of psychoanalysis has far-reaching implications for ethics. The “good” the analysand demands henceforth means a satisfaction of her desire. But since we are nothing other than our desire, since desire is our very being, our demand in fact aims at extinguishing desire, which is to say that it aims at our death. This is what Freud’s concept of the “death drive” already had its sights on. What we desire, whether we call it “well-being,” “good,” or the “highest good” is in fact, in the final analysis, nothing other than death, Lacan concludes. What an age-old and still valid tradition names the “good”—that is, something humankind is made for and at which our desire naturally aims—would really, were it to be realized, kill us. It would be pure evil. What one unconsciously demands in the psychoanalytic cure is in fact an “evil” that would destroy us, Lacan says, and one lives only by grace of the fact that one’s demand never gets fully answered. It is just as well that the “good” the analysand demandingly and desiringly searches for is an illusion. Complete satisfaction would simply be fatal.
The idea that a miser would miss his treasure most if it were lost is indeed not that certain. In fact, he already misses it. This is precisely why he is a miser: he not only denies everyone else the enjoyment of his treasure, but also himself. No matter how attached to it he is, he leaves it untouched. And if deprived of it, even he himself would not be able to say what precisely he is missing. In this sense, the miser’s treasure strikingly illustrates what Lacan defines as the “object of phantasm.” The treasure makes up the center of a scenario to which, at the most fundamental level, the miser owes his identity as miser. It indicates the level at which he no longer seems able to maintain himself as the subject (the bearer) of his narrative. For as soon as he is confronted, either consciously or unconsciously, with the fact that he does not know who he is and precisely what he seeks in his riches, he slides away into his phantasm. He sinks down into a scenario of signifiers in which he (as subject) completely forgets himself and “merges” with his beloved treasure. However, he doesn’t “really” merge with his treasure; he only merges with the scenario crystallized around that object. He merges with a signifying scenario from which the treasure remains at distance. As object of desire, the treasure is not to be reduced to one of the signifiers that constitute the miser’s life. Rather, it is located where the signifiers always fall short and, in this way, maintain the miser’s desire (or, what amounts to the same thing, the object relation he “is”). The object is to be sought at the place of the “phallus,” that is, the place where that pure (phallic, symbolic) lack is covered up by the scenario of the phantasm. Keeping everyone (including himself) from his treasure, the only experience he has of it is that of a lack. In the final analysis, his treasure coincides with that very “lack,” which is the ultimate reason why he keeps it above all away from himself.
I would like you to take into account what Alcibiades is. In any case, for the usual version, you should read in the Nine Greek Lives what Plutarch wrote about him, this to help you to take into account the stature of the personage.
I know well that this again is going to demand an effort from you. This life is described for us by Plutarch in what I would call the Alexandrian atmosphere, namely at a funny moment in history, in which all the personages seem to pass to the state of a sort of shadow. I am speaking about the moral accent of what comes to us from this epoch which involves a sort of emergence of shadows, a sort of nekuia as it is called in the Odyssey.
Plutarch’s construction, with what they contain moreover as a model, as a paradigm, for a whole moralistic tradition which followed, have this something or other which makes us think of the being of zombies: it is difficult to see blood flowing through their veins. But try to imagine from this singular career that Plutarch outlines for us, what this man must have been; this man coming here before Socrates, Socrates who elsewhere declares that he was protos erastes, the first to have loved him, Alcibiades, this Alcibiades who on the other hand is a sort of pre-Alexander, a personage no doubt whose political adventures are all marked with the sign of defiance, of extraordinary exploits, of an incapacity to situate himself or to come to a halt anywhere, and wherever he passes upsetting the situation and making victory pass from one camp to the other wherever he goes, everywhere hunted, exiled and, it must be said, because of his misdeeds.
It seems that if Athens lost the Peloponnesian War, it is in so far as it felt the need to recall Alcibiades right in the middle of hostilities to make him account for an obscure story, the one described as the mutilation of Hermes, which appears to us to be as inexplicable as it is ridiculous as we look back on it, but which surely involved fundamentally a character of profanation, of properly speaking insulting the gods.
Nor are we at all able to consider the memory of Alcibiades and his companions as settled. I mean that it is surely not without reason that the people of Athens brought him to book for it. In this sort of practice which evokes, by analogy, some sort of black Mass or other, we cannot fail to see against what kind of background of insurrection, of subversion with respect to the laws of the city, that there emerges a personage like Alcibiades. A background of rupture, of contempt for forms and for traditions, for laws, no doubt for religion itself… This is the disturbing thing that this personage carries with him. But he carries with him just as much a very singular seduction wherever he goes. And after this suit by the people of Athens, he does neither more nor less than pass over to the enemy, to Sparta, to this Sparta moreover that he Alcibiades has some responsibility in making the enemy of Athens, because, previously, he did all in his power in short, to make the peace negotiations fail.
So he goes over to Sparta and he immediately finds nothing better, nor more worthy of his memory, than to make the queen pregnant, something which everybody saw and knew about. It happens to be very well known that the king Agis has not slept with his wife for ten months for reasons which I will pass over. She has a child, and right away Alcibiades will say: in any case, it was not for the pleasure of it that I did this, it is because it seemed appropriate to my dignity to ensure that my descendants would have a throne, and in that way to honour the throne of Sparta with one of my own race. This sort of thing, as you can well imagine, may be captivating for a certain time, but it is not forgiven. And naturally as you know Alcibiades, having contributed this present and some ingenious ideas about the manner of conducting hostilities, is going to change quarters again. He can hardly fail to go to the third camp, to the Persian camp, to the one represented by the power of the king of Persia in Asia Minor, namely Tissaphernes who, Plutarch tells us, was a bitter enemy of Greece. To be frank he hates them, but he is seduced by Alcibiades.
It is from there that Alcibiades is going to set about reestablishing the fortunes of Athens. He does it in conditions whose story of course is also extremely surprising because it seems that it is really in the midst of a sort of network of double agents, of permanent betrayal, all the warnings he gives to the Athenians are immediately reported through a circuit to Sparta and to the Persians themselves who make it known to the specific person of the Athenian fleet who passed on the information; so that at the same time he in his turn comes to know, to be informed, that it is perfectly well known in the highest places that he is a traitor.
Each of these personages sorts himself out as best he can. It is certain that in the midst of all this Alcibiades redresses the fortunes of Athens. After all that, without our being able to be absolutely sure of the details, in the way that the ancient historians reported them, we must not be astonished if Alcibiades comes back to Athens with what we could call a really outstanding triumph which, despite the joy of the Athenian people, is going to be the beginning of a change of opinion.
We find ourselves in the presence of someone who cannot fail at every instant to provoke what can be called public opinion. His death is also quite a strange business. There are many obscurities about who is responsible for it; what is certain, is that it seems, that after a succession of reversals of fortune, of reversions each more astonishing than the other, (but it seems that in any case, whatever difficulties he find himself in, he is never disheartened), a sort of enormous confluence of hatreds is going to culminate in the destruction of Alcibiades by means of procedures which are those, which legend, myth say must be used against the scorpion: he is surrounded by a circle of fire from which he escapes and it is from a distance with javelins and arrows that he must be brought down.
Such is the singular career of Alcibiades. If I have shown you the level of a power, of a penetration of a very active, exceptional mind, I would say that the most outstanding trait is still the reflection which is added to it by what is described not alone as the precocious beauty of Alcibiades as a child (which we know is closely linked to the story of the type of love then reigning in Greece namely, the love of children) but this beauty preserved for a long time which meant that at a rather advanced age it makes of him someone who seduces as much by his form as by his exceptional intelligence.
Such is the personage. And we see him in a gathering which reunites in short learned, serious men (although, in this context of Greek love on which we are going to put the accent later on which already contributes a background of permanent erotism from which these discourses on love are going to emerge) we see him therefore coming to recount to everybody something which we can summarise more or less in the following terms: namely the vain efforts that he made when he was a young man, at the time Socrates loved him, to get Socrates to have sex with him.
This is developed at length with details, and in short with a considerable crudity of language. There is no doubt that he made Socrates lose control, show how disturbed he was, yield to these direct corporal invitations, to a physical approach. And this which is publicly [reported] by a drunken man no doubt, but by a drunken man the whole extent of whose remarks Plato thinks it worthwhile reporting to us—I do not know if I am making myself fully understood.
Imagine a book which might appear, I am not saying in our day, because this appears about fifty years after the scene which is reported, Plato produces it at that distance, suppose that after a certain time, to soften things a little, a personage like for example Mr. Kennedy, in a book composed for the elite, a Kennedy who would have been at the same time James Dean, comes to tell how he did his best while he was at the university to be made love to by … (let us say some kind of professor), you can choose the personage yourself. It is not absolutely necessary that he should belong to the teaching profession, because Socrates was not quite a professor. But he was all the same a rather special one. Imagine that it is somebody like Mr. Massignon and who at the same time is Henry Miller. That would produce a certain effect. It would lead to some difficulties for Jean-Jacques Pauvert who would have published this work. Let us recall this at the moment when it is a question of noting that this astonishing work has been transmitted to us throughout the centuries by the hands of what we should call in different ways different kinds of benighted friars, which means that we have without any doubt the complete text.
I happened to come across a short article by Henri Poincaré regarding the evolution of laws. You surely haven’t read it as it is out of print, something only bibliophiles can find. Émile Boutroux, who was a philosopher, raised the question whether it was unthinkable that laws themselves evolve. Poincaré, who was a mathematician, got all up in arms at the idea of such evolution, since what a scientist is seeking is precisely a law insofar as it does not evolve. It is exceedingly rare for a philosopher to be more intelligent than a mathematician, but here a philosopher just so happened to raise an important question. Why, in fact, wouldn’t laws evolve when we conceive of the world as having evolved? Poincaré inflexibly maintains that the defining characteristic of a law is that, when it is Sunday, we can know not only what will happen on Monday and Tuesday, but in addition what happened on Saturday and Friday. But it is not at all clear to me why the real would not allow for a law that changes.