Lacan on Love: An Exploration of Lacan’s Seminar VIII, Transference

Bruce Fink. Polity Press, 2016. 253 pages. $24.95.

By Doug Phillips

Once more unto the breach, my friend tells me, once more, this despite last summer’s debacle when he suggested to his then-soulmate that they take things a step further, and she in reply told him that things weren’t working, that she in fact would be leaving, that it wasn’t him of course but her, a deflection he had long been wise to because the one before her, the one whose name even now he can’t bring himself to mention, told him years ago the same thing, that things weren’t working, that it wasn’t him but her, that she was leaving, a terminus in retrospect as dishonest as it was disturbing though he didn’t know then what he knows now, that it was indeed him after all, and, what’s more, it had always been him, his propensity to cling too much to bear for the women who walked out, and now, he’s afraid, for the one walking in, unto the breach, the breach of his psyche, once more. 

If she were a psychotherapist then maybe she might have an easier time of it, my friend tells me, but she isn’t, and so is doomed, like the rest, to take her leave. 

And soon.  

The mind’s breach may be a sinkhole into which others sometimes blindly step, but it’s also, for the psychotherapist and her patient, a potential portal of discovery, a way into why and how it is we love as we do. Possible answers to such a quest abound of course, far more numerous in fact than Browning could have counted, and plumbless perhaps as the deep blue. But none of this has deterred Bruce Fink, himself a psychoanalyst, and a Lacanian one at that, from making a smart go of it in his superb Lacan on Love: An Exploration of Lacan’s Seminar VIII, Transference—a book delightfully more rangy and Eros-laden than its tightly corseted subtitle would suggest.

To be sure, Seminar VIII is, according to Fink, “Lacan’s most sustained treatment of love from the symbolic perspective” as well as “perhaps, the easiest to grasp” of the three psychic registers through which—theorized Lacan—we experience ourselves, the world, and our relationships with others. Fink therefore frames his reflections on Lacan (and love) in a way that will be most accessible to his audience, who, if they know anything about the man already, know he’s a bear to read. But Seminar VIII is by no means the sole focus of Fink’s book, nor Lacan the only player. That is, Fink explores the experience of love as much through Freud as he does Lacan (Fink’s bibliography lists 23 works by Freud, 22 by Lacan), which makes sense given that one must go through Freud to get to Lacan. And while Fink gives serious weight throughout to the symbolic—“an order characterized by language and structure” (i.e. “love triangles”)—he also considers in depth, if not in equal measure, those other two registers of the Lacanian triad: the imaginary (whereby we pursue “someone who is a perfect likeness, mirror image, or reflection of ourselves”) and the real (whereby we are “captivated by another person the way one is when one falls in love at first sight”). 

All of this, though, Fink offers with a word of warning: “There is, in my view, no singular theory of love to be found in Freud’s work or in Lacan’s work: there are only multiple attempts to grapple with it at different points in their theoretical development.” And this grappling is for good reason, adds Fink. “Not only is love the mainspring of psychoanalytic work,” he writes, “it also turns out to be the number one source of complaints addressed to analysts, therapists, and counselors of every ilk today.” In other words, as the writer Donald Barthelme once put it, “There are only individual egos, crazy for love.” The psychoanalyst’s project, then, for Lacan and Fink anyway, is to get someone like my friend to love without once more mucking it up. And this entails not only discovering a breach in the mind’s armor that reveals a deeper truth, say, about my friend’s desire, but a breaching of those mind-forged manacles that might keep any of us imprisoned in the past, repeating ad infinitum a previous loss or trauma. Little suicides, we might call these repetitions.  

Or perhaps what’s killing us is our own self-regard, the narcissism that keeps us from loving anyone quite so well as ourselves. Or maybe it’s our tendency toward self-sabotage, those times when, inexplicably, we put a hair into our own soup or a turd into the punchbowl. As for my friend, were he a character from the film Wedding Crashers (2005), he might be called a “stage-5 clinger,” one whose “object-choice” in matters of romantic relationships is “anaclitic” (anaclisis = “leaning up against, propped up by”), the clinical designation for those who pursue, consciously or un-, partners who “will provide them with many of the same satisfactions they received as children from their mothers.” It’s one of several different manifestations of the symbolic order, writes Fink, in which relationships like that of my friend are fueled—however destructively—by the presence of a third, be it an actual rival (with whom we compete for our beloved’s affection) or a fantasy figure of some kind, the long gone ideal, say, of our earliest caretaker. In short, the symbolic is the realm of love triangles, a kind of Bermuda into which my friend and his latest squeeze find themselves lost, one by way of psychic necessity, the other through cosmic misfortune. 

Psychoanalysis, then, functions as an intervention, a rescue mission as it were, and “transference” a kind of airlift from the dangerous waters of repetition: “Transference love works to disrupt that repetition, making something new possible where there had previously been just a repetition of the same old story.” Should, however, the spell of the triangle be broken at last for my friend, there is still no promise of future happiness for him. That is, the Oedipal Complex may be less important to his self-understanding than recognizing, as Oedipus does, “how dreadful the truth can be when there’s no help in truth.” For this reason the philosopher Simon Critchley has characterized psychoanalysis as an “impossible profession”— “it’s impossible,” he says, “to bear the truth that finding out about yourself is not going to make you feel better.”

Given the mysteries behind why and how we love as we do it must be something of a miracle for two people ever to love one another in ways that actually and mutually gratify their myriad needs and demands and desires. The more likely scenario, says Lacan, is that this has never happened, nor will it. Ever. In his words, at once blunt and mystifying and absolute, “there is no sexual relationship.” Which is to say the notion of two souls becoming one, as Aristophanes proposes in Plato’s Symposium (one of the principle subjects of Lacan’s Seminar VIII), is a tale told by two love-struck idiots, signifying nothing but their own fantasy for an impossible union. 

And then there is the dark side to love. As when, writes Fink, “Lacan suggests that what we often most object to or cannot bear in our partner is what our partner enjoys or gets off on.” That time, recall, when you took up bowling only to be roundly denounced for having wedged apart, if slightly, the whole two-halves-make-one-Soulmate-ideal upon which your relationship unsteadily rests. In response to said infraction your partner pounced, plurally. And the long eeeeeee of that diving we was as shrill as a Stuka before strafing: “Weeeeeee don’t bowl!”

But don’t let any of this depress you. Nor should you despair.  

On the subject of suicide—which, said Lacan, love is a form of—the philosopher E.M. Cioran thought it would be “inelegant to abandon a world which has so willingly put itself at the service of our melancholy.” 

Might we say the same about love? That to abandon it would be inelegant? 

Where after all would our melancholy be without it? 

Doug Phillips teaches English and American Literature at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He earned his degrees at the University of Alabama and the University of Alabama-Birmingham. The University of Alabama is home of the Alpha of Alabama Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.