Hanna Waar – Does psychoanalysis teach us something about love?
Jacques-Alain Miller – A great deal, because it’s an experience whose mainspring is love. It’s a question of that automatic and more often than not unconscious love that the analysand brings to the analyst, and which is called transference. It’s a contrived love, but made of the same stuff as true love. It sheds light on its mechanism: love is addressed to the one you think knows your true truth. But love allows you to think this truth will be likeable, agreeable, when in fact it’s rather hard to bear.
H. W. – So, what is it to really love?
J.-A. M. – To really love someone is to believe that by loving them you’ll get to a truth about yourself. We love the one that harbours the response, or a response, to our question: ‘Who am I?’
H. W. – Why do some people know how to love and not others?
J.-A. M. – Some people know how to provoke love in the other person, serial lovers as it were, men and women alike. They know what buttons to push to get loved. But they don’t necessarily love, rather they play cat and mouse with their prey. To love, you have to admit your lack, and recognise that you need the other, that you miss him or her. Those that think they’re complete on their own, or want to be, don’t know how to love. And sometimes, they ascertain this painfully. They manipulate, pull strings, but of love they know neither the risk nor the delights.
H. W. – ‘Complete on their own’: only a man could think that…
J.-A. M. – Well spotted! Lacan used to say, ‘To love is to give what you haven’t got.’ Which means: to love is to recognize your lack and give it to the other, place it in the other. It’s not giving what you possess, goods and presents, it’s giving something else that you don’t possess, which goes beyond you. To do that you have to assume your lack, your ‘castration’ as Freud used to say. And that is essentially feminine. One only really loves from a feminine position. Loving feminises. That’s why love is always a bit comical in a man. But if he lets himself get intimidated by ridicule, then in actual fact he’s not very sure of his virility.
H. W. – Is loving more difficult for men then?
J.-A. M. – Oh yes! Even a man in love has flashes of pride, bursts of aggressiveness against the object of his love, because this love puts him in a position of incompleteness, of dependence. That’s why he can desire women he doesn’t love, so as to get back to the virile position he suspends when he loves. Freud called this principle the ‘debasement of love life’ in men: the split between love and sexual desire.
H. W. – And in women?
J.-A. M. – It’s less common. In most cases, there’s a doubling-up of the male partner. On one hand, he’s the man that gives them jouissance and whom they desire, but he’s also the man of love, who’s feminised, necessarily castrated. Only it’s not anatomy that’s in the driving seat: there are some women who adopt a male position. There are more and more of them. One man for love, at home; and other men for jouissance, met on the net, in the street, or on a train.
H. W. – Why ‘more and more’?
J.-A. M. – Socio-cultural stereotypes of womanliness and virility are in the process of radical transformation. Men are being invited to open up to their emotions, to love and feminise themselves; women on the contrary are undergoing a certain ‘push to masculinisation’: in the name of legal equality they’re being driven to keep saying ‘me too.’ At the same time, homosexuals are claiming the same rights and symbols as heteros, like marriage and filiation. Hence a major instability in the roles, a widespread fluidity in the theatre of love, that contrasts with the fixity of yesteryear. Love is becoming ‘liquid’, as noted by the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Everyone is being led to invent their own ‘lifestyle’, to assume their mode ofjouissance and mode of loving. Traditional scenarios are slowly becoming obsolete. Social pressure to conform hasn’t disappeared, but it’s on the wane.
H. W. – ‘Love is always reciprocal’ said Lacan. Is this still true in the current context? What does that mean?
J.-A. M. – This sentence gets repeated over and over without being understood, or it gets understood the wrong way round. It doesn’t mean that it’s enough to love someone for him to love you back. That would be absurd. It means: ‘If I love you, it’s because you’re loveable. I’m the one that loves, but you’re also mixed up in this, because there’s something in you that makes me love you. It’s reciprocal because there’s a to and fro: the love I have for you is the return effect of the cause of love that you are for me. So, you’re implicated. My love for you isn’t just my affair, it’s yours too. My love says something about you that maybe you yourself don’t know.’ This doesn’t guarantee in the least that the love of one will be responded to by the love of the other: when that happens it’s always of the order of a miracle, it’s not calculable in advance.
H. W. – We don’t find him or her by chance. Why that guy? Why that girl?
J.-A. M. – There’s what Freud called Liebesbedingung, the condition for love, the cause of desire. It’s a particular trait – or a set of traits – that have a decisive function in a person for the choice of the loved one. This totally escapes the neurosciences, because it’s unique to each person, it’s down to their singular, intimate history. Traits which are sometimes minute are at play. For instance, Freud singled out in one of his patients a cause of desire that was a shine on a woman’s nose!
H. W. – It’s hard to believe in a love founded on these trifles!
J.-A. M. – The reality of the unconscious outstrips fiction. You can’t imagine how much in human life is founded, especially where love is concerned, on little things, on pinheads, on ‘divine details’. It’s true that’s it’s above all in men that you find causes of desire like that, which are like fetishes whose presence is indispensable to spark off the love process. Tiny particularities, reminiscent of the father, the mother, a brother, a sister, someone from childhood, also play their role in women’s choice of love object. But the feminine form of love is more readily erotomaniac than fetishist: they want to be loved, and the interest, the love that’s shown them, or that they suppose in the other person, is often sine qua non for triggering their love, or at least their consent. This phenomenon lies at the base of the practice of men chatting women up.
H. W. – Do you not attribute any role to fantasies?
J.-A. M. – In women, fantasies, whether conscious or unconscious, are decisive for the position of jouissance more than for the choice of love object. And it’s the opposite for men. For example, it may happen that a woman can only achievejouissance – orgasm, let’s say – on condition that she imagines herself, during intercourse itself, being beaten, raped, or imagines that she’s another woman, or even that she’s elsewhere, absent.
H. W. – And the male fantasy?
J.-A. M. – It’s very much in evidence in love at first sight. The classic example, commented on by Lacan, is in Goethe’s novel, the sudden passion of young Werther for Charlotte, at the moment he sees her for the first time, feeding the rabble of kids around her. Here it’s the woman’s maternal quality that sparks off love. Another example, taken from my practice, is the following: a boss in his fifties is seeing applicants for a secretarial post; a young woman of twenty comes in; straight away he declares his love. He wonders what got hold of him and goes into analysis. There, he uncovers the trigger: in her he met traits that reminded him of what he had been at the age of twenty, when he went for his first job interview. In a way, he’d fallen in love with himself. In these two examples we see the two sides of love distinguished by Freud: either you love the person who protects, in this case the mother, or you love a narcissistic image of yourself.
H. W. – It sounds like we’re puppets!
J.-A. M. – No, between any man and any woman, nothing is written in advance, there’s no compass, no pre-established relationship. Their encounter isn’t programmed like it is between the spermatozoon and the ovum; it’s got nothing to do with our genes either. Men and women speak, they live in a world of discourse, that’s what’s decisive. The modalities of love are extremely sensitive to the surrounding culture. Each civilisation stands out for the way it structures the relation between the sexes. Now, it so happens that in the West, in our societies which are liberal, market and juridical, the ‘multiple’ is well on the way to dethroning the ‘one’. The ideal model of ‘great lifelong love’ is slowly losing ground faced with speed dating, speed loving, and a whole flotilla of alternative, successive, even simultaneous amorous scenarios.
H. W. – And love in the long term? In eternity?
J.-A. M. – Balzac said, ‘Any passion that isn’t eternal is hideous.’ But can the bond hold out for life within the register of passion? The more a man devotes himself to just one woman, the more she tends to take on a maternal signification for him: more sublime and untouchable than loved. Married homosexuals develop this cult of the woman best: Aragon sings his love for Elsa; as soon as she dies, it’s hello boys! And when a woman clings on to one man, she castrates him. So, the path is narrow. The best destiny of conjugal love is friendship, that’s essentially what Aristotle said.
H. W. – The problem is that men say they don’t understand what women want; and women, what men expect of them…
J.-A. M. – Yes. What objects to the Aristotelian solution is the fact that dialogue from one sex to the other is impossible, as Lacan said with a sigh. People in love are in fact condemned to go on learning the other’s language indefinitely, groping around, seeking out the keys – keys that are always revocable. Love is a labyrinth of misunderstandings whose way out doesn’t exist.
Translated by from the French by Adrian Price for NLS Messager
Jacques-Alain Miller (born 14 February 1944 Chateauroux,France) is a psychoanalyst and writer. He is one of the founder members of the École de la Cause freudienne and the World Association of Psychoanalysis which he presided from 1992 to 2002. He is the sole editor of the books of the Seminar of Jacques Lacan.