The following story, first told by Lacan in 1960, is exemplary of what he said about love. I will call it the story of the fruit and the flame. It goes like this:

Imagine you see in front of you a beautiful flower, or a ripe fruit. You reach out your hand to grab it. But at the moment you do, the flower, or the fruit, bursts into flames. In its place you see another hand appear, reaching back towards your own. (Seminar VIII, p.52; p.179).

In this story is condensed all the things that interested Lacan about love. The themes we can pull from it fuelled his commentary on the subject over fifty years of his work:

– The suddenness, imminence or surprise that marks the appearance of love. Reflected here in the bursting into flames of the flower or fruit we reach for, love is presented as a mysterious and extraordinary Event, arising as if from nothing.

– The relation of beauty to satisfaction. The flower or the fruit could be taken to represent the object of beauty, and their anticipated taste or scent satisfaction. This opens the way to Lacan’s distinction between the object of desire and the object of the drive.

– How in love the reach exceeds the grasp. Just as the flame bursts forth the moment we reach for the object, whatever medium we use (words, images, or music) our representation of the loved object always seems to fall short of the experience of love itself.

– The narcissistic dimension of love. In place of the fruit or the flower, another hand appears, a mirror of our own. The poetic beauty of the story allows for many interpretations, and commentators seem to disagree on Lacan’s intention here. Fink believes the hand coming to reach our own shows the reciprocity of love (Fink, Lacan on Love, p.44), while Leader stresses the fundamental asymmetry in the story, that your own hand is not reaching out for the other hand but for the object (‘Lacan’s Myths’, in The Cambridge Companion to Lacan, p.45).

In this article we will look not just at what Lacan had to say about love, but at the way he said it. This is because love, as Lacan recognises, is difficult to express. We sense that love is somehow different – a feeling stronger than other emotions, perhaps strongest. And yet it is also somehow less defined. Its strength does not lend it definition – love remains chimerical, alchemical.

Lacan’s pronouncements on love – as we see in the story above – share this indefinite quality. They index an impossibility of representation, an emptiness in the place of something that might be shown or said. We find this expressed in different ways throughout his work:

– “Love is a pebble laughing in the sun” (Écrits, 508; Seminar III, p.226)

– “Loving is to give what one does not have” (repeated across Lacan’s work, starting from Seminar V, 7th May, 1958)

– “Love is nothing more than a saying, qua happening. A happening without any smudges” (Seminar XXI, 11th June, 1973)

I. Speaking, Writing, Making Love

How then do we communicate love? Lacan was interested in three ways: speaking, writing, and making love.

In Seminar XIX in 1972 Lacan insists that one cannot speak about love “except in an imbecilic or abject manner” (Seminar XIX, The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst, 3rd February, 1972). There is a fundamental tension, he believes, between speech and love, and if we take him seriously on this point it should lead us to question any advice that encourages us to declare love in the form ‘I love you’.

Yet almost immediately Lacan adds a twist – the same tension does not exist between love and the letter, that is, between love and writing. “That one cannot then speak about love, but that one can write about it, ought to strike you”, he tells his audience in 1972 (Seminar XIX, The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst, 3rd February, 1972).

But why is the ‘love letter’, as it were, more powerful than the act of declaring love through speech? Lacan’s idea is that the letter has a materiality that speech lacks, a fact that fascinated Lacan in his reading of Poe’s The Purloined Letter (Écrits, 11). In this story, a letter is passed between the characters of the drama and has effects without any of them opening it to read what it says. Lacan took this literally. Even if speech implies a subject of language, the letter shows how someone can be subject to it. Such are the “strange shapes” Lacan refers to when he says “The best thing in this curious surge that is called love is the letter, it is the letter that can take on strange shapes”. (Seminar XIX, The Knowledge of the Psychoanalyst, 3rd February, 1972).

But if we cannot communicate love in speech, we might nonetheless use speech to make love, to create it. Later that same year, talking about the situation of a psychoanalysis, Lacan says that “it is in speaking that one makes love” (Seminar XIX, 4th May, 1972). This leads us to think of the transference, the prime example of the creation of love ex nihilo. But, as the early psychoanalysts discovered through bitter experience, this is not always a successful creation. “I have to tell you, for my own part”, bemoans Lacan, “that I don’t know any example of it. And nevertheless I tried!” (Seminar XIX, 4th May, 1972).

In the situation of the transference an odd thing happens: we speak about love, but cannot communicate anything about it. And yet nonetheless through talking about it alone we make it happen. This brings us back to one of the cryptic remarks Lacan makes about love that we started with: “Love is nothing more than a saying, qua happening. A happening without any smudges.” (Seminar XXI, 11th June, 1973). This direct ‘happening’ of love might remind us of the description given in one of the best recent works of love, Badiou’s In Praise of Love. It is an Event – something without precedent, something that emerges as if from nothing, but is nonetheless imminent and urgent.

II. Loving is to give what one does not have

And so we come to Lacan’s most well-known aphorism on love: ‘loving is to give what one does not have’. How?

Although Lacan first introduces this formula in Seminar V (see sessions of 29th January, 23rd April, and 7th May 1958), his most thorough elaboration of it comes in Seminar VIII on transference in 1960-61. From Plato’s Symposium – which we will return to later – he pulls another story, this time about the birth of Love, apparently told nowhere else in the texts of Antiquity (Fink, Lacan on Love, p.179):

Love (Eros) is the son of Poros and Penia.

– Penia, the mother, stands for poverty, or even destitution (read: lack, in Lacanian terms). She is an orphan. She is also, Plato tells us, aporia, meaning that she is without resources.

– Poros, the father, stands for the exact opposite of aporia – resourcefulness, cleverness, as Lacan translates it. Poros himself is the son of Metis, which in turn Lacan translates as ingenuity.

The story goes that the two of them are at the birthday party of Aphrodite. Penia does not actually enter the party, but instead she waits outside, and when Poros becomes drunk and falls asleep she takes advantage. Two things immediately stand out in this story:

1. The date of Love’s conception is the same as the birthday of Aphrodite. This is why Lacan says that “Love will always have some obscure relationship with beauty” (Seminar VIII, 18th January 1961).

2. Love will inherit a mixture of his parents’ characteristics.

But what in Seminar VIII especially piques Lacan’s interest is that Poros, the man, is the one desired and Penia, the woman, the desirer. She instigates the drunken copulation which leads to the birth of Love.

“This is what is in question here”, Lacan says “because the poor Penia, by definition, by structure has properly speaking nothing to give, except her constitutive lack, aporia” (Seminar VIII, 18th January, 1961). She gives her lack, what she does not have. And for Lacan this is the essence of loving – the key to love, to being able to love, is to accept one’s lack:

“One cannot love except by becoming a non-haver, even if one has” (Seminar VIII, 7th June, 1961).

How do we connect this ancient story to Lacan’s psychoanalytic theory? In Lacanian terminology, the story demonstrates the move from the imaginary phallus (the presumed object of the mother’s desire) to the symbolic phallus (the phallus as a plus or minus in symbolic relations). The castration complex, on Lacan’s reading, involves nothing more than the assumption of lack. ‘Loving is to give what one does not have’ means to offer or locate your castration in an other.

Lacan expresses this neatly in Seminar X:

“For it is with this lack that he loves. It is not for nothing that for years I have been repeating to you that love is to give what one does not have. This is even the principle of the castration complex: in order to have the phallus, in order to be able to make use of it, it is necessary precisely not to be it.” (Seminar X, 16th January, 1963).

This is not so abstract. We can think of the countless stories – from Titanic to Beauty and the Beast – where love arises on condition of a materialised lack on the part of the protagonist. The moral of the story for Lacan is that “Poverty alone, Penia, can conceive Love”. Love hangs on nothing, as it were:

“There is no support for love… as I have told you: to give one’s love, is very precisely and essentially to give as such nothing of what one has, because it is precisely in so far as one does not have it that there is question of love.”
(Seminar V, 7th May, 1958).

It is sustained by a something which is nothing. We start to get a sense of why Lacan felt the need to turn to poetry and storytelling to convey the nature of love.

But in order to produce love, the way this lack is manifested is crucial. It should be presented not as a deficiency (the man is a loser, hopeless and pathetic) but as a ‘positivised’ lack – a loss or limitation that is used to one’s advantage; something missing that has produced – as if from nothing – something gained.

III. … To someone who does not want it

But in Seminar XII Lacan adds an extra twist to his formula for love: ‘Loving is to give what one does not have… to someone who does not want it’ (Seminar XII, 23rd June, 1965).

To understand this we have to look at how Lacan distinguished love from desire, a distinction which Lacan brings to the fore in his reading of The Symposium. Returning to this text in Seminar XII, Lacan comments on how in this drama Socrates replies to Alcibiades’ love not with a reciprocated love, but by reflecting his own desire back to him. We will come back to this shortly, but for now we can note that these two terms – love and desire – are nonetheless “two words of love… with contrary accents… [which] fall under the key of the same definition” (Seminar XII, 23rd June, 1965). The parallels to the situation of the transference in psychoanalysis are obvious.

Lacan’s idea is that loving involves accurately representing someone’s lack, rather than simply returning their love to them. Ultimately, we do not want our lack reflected back to us – we would much prefer to receive love in return – but as the experience of mourning shows us, the successful ability to represent the other’s lack is a condition for love:

“What we give in love, is essentially what we do not have and, when what we do not have returns to us, there is undoubtedly a regression and at the same time a revelation of the way in which we have failed the person (manque a la personne) in representing his lack.” (Seminar X, 30th January, 1963).

IV. Is love narcissistic?

To answer this question we have to go back to Freud and situate Lacan’s ideas about love in the lineage that runs between the two thinkers. Freud’s idea is that there are two forms of libidinal relation.

On one side, narcissism, or ‘ego-libido’. While Lacan believes there is no such thing as primary narcissism, in his mirror stage theory we find the idea of a primitive libidinal relation to, or investment in, the image as a way to redress the corporeal insufficiency that accompanies the prematurity of birth in human beings. The mirror stage provides a route to maturation and mastery of one’s body, but on the other hand a captivation or enslavement to the image, a false equation between this image and the ‘I’, the sense of self. This imaginary fascination Freud terms verliebtheit. In his early seminars Lacan is categorical that this is a form of love that is nothing more than imaginary fascination (Seminar I, p.132 and p.180).

On the other side we have ‘object-libido’, in the guise of what has been translated by Stratchey as ‘anaclitic’ love. Freud’s German term is anlehnungstypus, denoting a leaning on, or relationship of dependency with, the object. “One loves the woman who feeds and the man who protects”, as Lacan characterises it in Seminar I (p.132).

Freud felt the need to introduce this split between ego-libido and object-libido in the context of the theory of narcissism. The consequence is that love is more than simply an outward extension of narcissism, more than just the libido projected outwards. This is exactly what he criticises Jung for in the debates around 1912-1914 (a critique Lacan discusses at length in chapter IX of Seminar I), from which the paper ‘On Narcissism’ emerged).

Yet throughout his work Lacan is categorical that love has far less to do with object-libido and more to do with narcissism. “If one knows how to read Freud”, he says in 1968, “what is opposed to narcissism, what is called object libido has nothing to do with love since love is narcissism and the two are opposed: narcissistic-libido and object-libido” (Seminar XV, 10th January, 1968). Indeed, a constant theme throughout Lacan’s work is to criticise analysts of his time who talk about love in the same breath as they talk about genital libido, or the strangely-named ‘genital oblativity’ (Seminar XVI, 7th May, 1969).

If there is a dependency involved in love – the anlehnungstypus – it is insofar as the loved object has the capability to sanction or validate our relation to our own image rather than any organic need they can fulfil through their care or nurturing. This is a view clearly very far from that of certain evolutionary psychologists, who look in love for a measure of the suitability of the object to satisfy the propagation of the wider species. For Lacan, “the object introduces itself only insofar as it is perpetually interchangeable with the love that the subject has for its own image” (Seminar I, p.98).

Lacan has an interesting argument as proof for this: the relation of mourning to melancholia. Again, he takes as his starting point another distinction introduced by Freud, this time in the paper of the same name from 1917. In mourning, our relation is to the i(a), the image of the other; in melancholia it is to the object a. The i(a) indexes the narcissistic relation by denoting the relationship to our own image. This is why in mourning at the same time as losing the loved one we lose an investment in our own body or body-image. Not wanting to be seen by others, neglecting to eat, losing interest in physical activities, lack of personal hygiene and even behaviour destructive to the body (binge eating, drinking, self-harm, etc) are all hallmarks of this disturbance of the image in mourning. By contrast, in melancholia what is at stake is the object a – the shadow of this object that has fallen upon the ego (Seminar X, 3rd July, 1963).

But as if to temper this danger there is an interesting twist in the mirror stage theory, introduced in Seminar VII. Not only is it the case, Lacan says, that the mirror gives the subject mastery over his or her previously-fragmented body, but it also has a secondary function as a barrier to keep the object inaccessible. The mirror, he says, “fulfils another role, a role as limit. It is that which cannot be crossed. And the only organisation in which it participates is that of the inaccessibility of the object” (Seminar VII, p.151).

Whether this is an actual mirror or the function of the mirror in the image of the other does not matter. Because on the one hand, in its very artificiality the mirror offers a way to establish a difference, a space other than the strict and immediate correspondence of the imaginary. On the other, an intermediary in the form of another person can function to sooth the rivalry spurred by the dual-imaginary relation. Anyone who has worked in an environment where two rivals in similar positions vie for dominance will recognise how eagerly both will reach out to their colleagues for allies. Rather than seeing this as simply as the building of powerbases, are they not also ways to assuage the caustic rivalry the mirror relation generates?

V. Is love imaginary…?

So is love just a purely imaginary phenomena for Lacan? Even as late as Seminar XX he suggests that it is. He tells a story about his friend Picasso whose pet parrot would nibble at the lapels of the artist’s jacket. This is love, Lacan says. The parrot loves Picasso, and his clothes, but not as some kind of proxy for Picasso but as Picasso. “This parrot was in effect in love with what is essential to man, namely, his attire” (Seminar XX, 21st November, 1972). Picasso was inseparable from his image no less than his art was inseparable from its image. For the parrot, the clothes therefore make the man, and love by extension is simply an imaginary phenomenon, “love in its essence is narcissistic” (ibid).

The idea that love, like all imaginary relations, hinges on a semblance is not a new one for Lacan. It is reason that on the L-Schema (Écrits, 53) the imaginary relation is depicted as running from a – a’, from one other to its identical other. And it is also why here in Seminar XX Lacan says not that love is addressed to a semblance but from a semblance (Seminar XX, 20th March, 1973).

But the behaviour of Picasso’s parrot raises the question – what is the function of clothes in the love relation? Why not just get naked in front of your partner? Lacan’s idea here is that clothes perform the function of enveloping object a as the object-cause of desire:

“It is only by the clothing, by the clothing of the self image that has enveloped the object-cause of desire that there is most often sustained… the objectal relationship. This affinity of small a to this envelope is… one of these major connections that has been advanced by psychoanalysis” (Seminar XX, 20th March, 1973.)

VI. … Or is it symbolic?

But let’s think back to the story of Poros and Penia, and the birth of Love. This isn’t a story about imaginary captivation – we saw how there is a heavy symbolic element here, as represented by the two characters’ different statuses (one poor and destitute, the other successful and resourceful).

Lacan does not dismiss the importance of the symbolic register for love in his work. Indeed, right at the start of his Seminar he explains why for love to arise it must have a place in the symbolic: “[Love’s] aim is not satisfaction, but being. That is why one can only speak of love where the symbolic relation as such exists” (Seminar I, p.276). What is loved in the other person is something beyond their image or physical attributes:

“The person who aspires to be loved is not at all satisfied, as is well known, with being loved for his attributes. He demands to be loved as far as the complete subversion of the subject into a particularity can go…. to love is to love a being beyond what he or she appears to be” (Seminar I, p.276).

Falling in love therefore requires a confluence of forces from both the imaginary and symbolic registers (Seminar I, p.217). This is likely why weddings are traditionally seen as the perfect place for a guest who is single to find love, and why it is sensible for anyone in a relationship to have some kind of observance for symbolic protocols like buying flowers, remembering anniversaries, and so forth. As Lacan advises, we have to “distinguish love as an imaginary passion from the active gift which it constitutes on the symbolic plane” (Seminar I, p.276, my italics).

That said, a condition of love is that these symbolic relations be subverted. Love entails what Lacan calls a “veritable subduction of the symbolic” (Seminar I, p.142). We should hear in this term ‘subduction’ its geological resonance – the pushing of one tectonic plate under another in the force their collision. This produces a disturbance of symbolic relations, exactly what Lacan highlighted in the story of the unlikely coupling of Poros and Penia.

VII. Hate as “inflicted love”

In fact, without the bulwark of symbolic relations, love can turn easily to hate. Just as we saw Lacan present love as sitting at the junction of the symbolic and the imaginary, he locates hate between the imaginary and the real (Seminar I, 271). So we have a situation something like this:

Love and Hate

Hate comes from a kind of infatuation with the image, which Lacan refers to with Freud’s German term verliebtheit:

“Without speech inasmuch as it affirms being, all there is Verliebtheit, imaginary fascination, but there is no love. There is inflicted love, but not the active gift of love” (Seminar I, p.277).

This description of hate as an “inflicted love” is intended to make us recognise the closeness between the two. If love is a fundamentally imaginary phenomena (Seminar I, p.142) but requires a symbolic sanction in order to appear, hate is not the opposite of love but rather an extension of it into the real.

There is a fundamental ambivalence to love, and Lacan sticks to this idea right the way through his work. The poetry with which he describes it gives us some sense of how seriously he took it. In Seminar XX for instance he captures their fusion in the term hainamoration, a portmanteau of enamouré (to be in love with) and haine (to hate) (Seminar XX, 20th March, 1973). Similarly, in the Écrits we find the comparison to an unstable atom. Lacan describes their proximity as an “Unpredictable quanta by which the love/hate atom glistens in the vicinity of the Thing from which man emerges through a cry” (Écrits, 787).

VIII. Love from nothing – demand, desire, love

Can we situate love on the side of demand or on the side of desire? And how do we get from one to the other? Given these are terms Lacan gives his own meaning to, let’s explain them and their relation to love in five steps.

1. The first thing to say about demand is that it is not a demand for an object – it is a demand for love, demonstrated by the presence or absence of the other person (Écrits, 579).

2. Demand reduces everything to a proof of love. You can make a ‘demand’ for an object, and that object may satisfy a need, but there is nonetheless a residue that is left over in the demand. This residue is the demand for love. “In this way, demand annuls (aufhebt) the particularity of everything that can be granted, by transmuting it into a proof of love” (Écrits, 691)

3. Desire enters demand as a Trojan horse. This means we can never see a demand as simply a demand. There is never a ‘pure’ demand as such, we are always in what Lacan calls a “double position”, a half-way point between need and desire (Seminar V, 21st May, 1958). This is why Lacan says in the Écrits that “desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second, the very phenomenon of their splitting (Spaltung)” (Écrits, 691).

4. What this means is that ‘desire’ doesn’t look for something tangible – either a lover or a thing – but something intangible, a gap between need and demand. Lacan says in Seminar VIII, for example, that all demand is a demand for love insofar as it is a demand to be heard. But it doesn’t matter for what you are heard – desire means that you are heard “for nothing” (Seminar VIII, 7th June, 1961).

5. But this intangible quality – for which desire is the search – is not your own, it is the other person’s. What is really important is not that the other person can satisfy your demand by actually giving you the thing that you want, but that they can give you the thing that they themselves do not have. This is why in Seminar VIII Lacan says that the key factor in desire is not the thing you want, but “the desirer in the Other”, and that “the demand for love is nothing other than to desire the Other as desirer. (Seminar VIII, 7th June, 1961). What you demand is for the other person to show his or her desire, his or her lack. This lack is the source of love. And this is how we get to the idea that loving is to give what one does not have.

IX. Why we love one person rather than another

But this process does not explain what makes us fall in love with one person rather than another. Even if love is conditional on uncovering a desire in the other, there must be something about the one we love that they have and others don’t. Freud calls this liebesbedingung, the condition for love.

One of Freud’s patients had a very precise condition. He was attracted to women who had what he described as a “shine on the nose” – in German, “Glanz auf der nase” – a signifier which Freud links to the English term ‘glance’ with which the man was familiar from his English upbringing (SE XXI, 152). Yet Freud notes this ‘shine’ was not apparent to others – what the man perceived and what was perceptible were two different things. We are long familiar with the old cliché that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but psychoanalysis tells us to take this very seriously. These kinds of particularities would completely escapes the notice of the neurosciences or evolutionary psychology precisely because they are conditions singular to each subject. This ‘shine’ would also provide Lacan a clue to what he would later call object a – an object without a spectral representation but which is nonetheless vital in establishing sexual attraction (amongst other things).

As Lacan reads Freud, what we look for in our object is not just their own lack, but what is lacking from our world. “Love creates its object from what is lacking in reality” he writes in the Écrits, while “desire stops at the curtain behind which this lack is figured by reality” (Écrits, 439). In love we strive to find in our object what Freud labelled an ‘identity of perception’ (SE V, 566). Even if – as in the case of Freud’s patient – this perception is not identifiable by anyone else, it represents for us and only us the conditions under which the experience of satisfaction undergoes a ceaseless quest for repetition; our attempt is to find and re-find in the object the thing believe we originally had, but lost.

X. Love, transference, and The Symposium

In the early 1960s Lacan turns to the transference as a model of love. There are many points in his work where he argues the two are equivalent (see for example Seminar I, p.182 and Seminar XI, p.123) but it is in Seminar VIII that the topic receives special focus. His approach is unique. Despite there being no shortage of texts on the transference written by analysts of that time, rather than critically engaging with those Lacan turns instead to an Ancient Greek text, Plato’s The Symposium.

The symposium in question is less a philosophical debate than a kind of semi-drunken, semi-hungover party in which each of the guests has to give a speech about Love. Of the eight guests the main characters for Lacan are Alcibiades and Socrates. Alcibiades is a handsome, charismatic war hero; Socrates an ugly old man. Lacan’s interest alights on the drunken late entrance of Alcibiades who, when he bursts in and takes a place next to Socrates, announces to everyone – in graphic terms – the troubles he went to when he was younger to get Socrates to fuck him (Seminar VIII, p.24). The other guests have spoken, it’s near the end of the Symposium. This scene appears out of place compared to the rest of the dialogue, which has led other commentators to dismiss it, but for Lacan this is where things really start. So why does Plato have this scene happen in the dialogue at all? Lacan’s wager is that, after all the highfalutin speeches of love that precede this moment, Plato adds the dramatic entrance of Alcibiades in order to illustrate something more particular about the character of love.

Alcibiades’ behaviour is, for Lacan, “an attempt to make Socrates lose control, to show some emotional turmoil, and yield to direct corporal come-ons” (Seminar VIII, p.24). Alcibiades loves Socrates, but Lacan notes how Socrates holds back from rising to Alcibiades’ solicitations or declarations of love. Instead, Lacan says both in Seminar VIII and Seminar XXII that Socrates shows how, behind this love, is a desire on Alcibiades’ part directed towards the host, Agathon (Seminar XII, 23rd June, 1965). In doing so, Socrates responds to Alcibiades’ not with a reciprocated love, but to love with desire. He answers Alcibiades’ love with a lack, denoted on the one hand by the lack of knowledge he professes of the nature of love, and on the other the metonymic deferral to Agathon.

This is perhaps one way to read Lacan’s well-known formula of transference as the subject-supposed-to-know (or supposed-of-knowledge): not as a person – the analyst, or Socrates – but a placeholder for a knowledge, a signification, or an object that is yet to come. Socrates’ lack of knowledge is presented as a desire not for knowledge but for Alcibiades to hear his own desire. And it is in this that we can detect the obvious parallels to how Lacan believed the analyst should work in the transference situation.

XI. The character of love in the subjective structures

Before we give a brief summary of the character of love for different subjective structures, let’s start with what Freud says about it, in a surprising aside buried in the Leonardo case study (SE XI, p.87), and repeated again in the analysis of the ‘female homosexual’ (SE XVIII, p.170). Our sexuality, he says, is not about our choice of object (whether we are a man who loves a woman, a man who loves a man, or a woman who loves a woman) but about the quality or character of the love involved. This is a crucial comment and its implications are profound. It forces us to pivot our ideas about love away from sex, gender, or the other attributes of the object, and towards the different ways in which love can be expressed.

a. Love in obsession

Firstly, the obsessional. In Seminar IX Lacan says that for the obsessional love is equated with possession. This possession is a taking literally of the term ‘object’. But it can go so far as to lead to the destruction of that object. “The obsessional punishes well because he loves well”, Lacan believes, which accounts for the common coincidence often noted between obsession and sadistic treatment (Seminar IX, 2nd May, 1962). The obsessional’s dilemma is that having himself treated punishment (in whatever form) as a sign of love he cannot unstitch the two in his own relation to his loved ones.

b. Love in perversion

Importantly however, this is not perversion, and Lacan is clear that we should distinguish the two. What characterises perversion, on Lacan’s definition, is not that a particular sexual practice is used to elicit the sign of love, but that it is the only kind of enjoyment which can maintain the illusion that the phallus, as signifier of desire and sexuation, exists (Seminar IX, 2nd May, 1962). The essential problem for the perverse subject is that he or she is stuck in a contradictory attitude to castration. Rather than accept and register a lack (in whatever form this would take), they turn to an object or fetish that would enable them to believe this lack simply does not exist. This is the mechanism of disavowal that Freud says characterises perversion (SE XXI, p.153).

c. Love in hysteria

On the side of hysteria, one thing that psychoanalysis has always stressed since the days of Dora and Anno O, is that where the hysterical subject cannot speak the body provides a voice. Where there is a deadlock in a love relationship – some kind of unsaid problem or quiet discontent – this will be expressed through the body instead of being expressed directly. In Seminar XX, Encore, Lacan refers to this as l’amur, another portmanteau, this time of ‘wall’ and ‘love’: “L’amur is what appears in bizarre signs on the body…. It is from there that there comes the encore, the en-corps [from within the body].” (Seminar XX, 21st November, 1972.). We might recognise this in our everyday experience. The sign that a relationship is about to break up is often not found in something couples talk about directly, but will instead appear as some kind of minor physical complaint – a sudden illness, a loss of appetite, or a problem with some area of the body.

d. Love in psychosis

Finally, on the question of love in psychosis, Lacan characterises this as conditioned by a pure demand, in which the response from the other to the psychotic’s demand has been taken literally. Without the proper functioning of the symbolic in cases of psychosis, there is no margin for desire. This produces a direct translation from the object supplied to satisfy demand to what is taken as the sign of love. Food, for example, is not taken as symbolic of the gift of love as we saw in neurosis, but as something that will always and strictly mean oral satisfaction. There is no room for the displacements and slippages that desire allows, and which open the way for a kind of autonomy or particularity of love. The only way out of this bind for the psychotic is, Lacan believes, to “alienate that body part which is the source of pleasure… either his body as support of the ego or a body part as a support of the possibility of jouissance” (Seminar IX, 2nd May 1962). Unfortunately, given the experience of psychosis is so often characterised by the feeling that something is alien or xenopathic about one’s own body, this is the very move which can trigger a psychotic break.

XII. Love and sex

We could not end our exploration of what Lacan says about love without commenting on its relation to sex.

Men and women are different in this respect, Lacan believes, but he understands them not as sexed beings, deterministically destined to behave in accordance with their physical attributes, but again as positions relative to a signifier of sexuality or desire, which he labels the ‘phallus’. Without restating what we have already explored elsewhere on this site, the position of woman is one in which there is a difference between what he or she will love in the object and what they will desire in them. If she is a woman, she will love a man only insofar as he is castrated. Lacan’s idea is therefore contrary to the common misperception that women like men who exhibit strength and virility. This may signal sexual attraction, but it is not love; love looks for the mark of castration, which Lacan calls the phallus, and which is completely different from the penis (Seminar VI, 7th January, 1959).

On the character of love from the position of man, Lacan’s idea in the Écrits is also that what the man loves in his partner is her ability to give what she does not have, but that nonetheless there will be what he calls a “residual divergence” to another woman who signifies the phallus as mark of desire, either as a virgin or a prostitute. He calls this a “centrifugal tendency” that makes the repression of desire and the intolerance of impotence all the greater those for those on the side of man than those on the side of woman (Écrits, 695).

To address directly the question of sex: we have to differentiate love and sex at the level of the drive and the object. Sex is not about the object but the drive. In his dramatically-named 1912 paper ‘On the Universal Tendency to Debasement in the Sphere of Love’ – written about male sexual relations – Freud makes the equally dramatic statement that “Anyone who is to be really free and happy in love must have surmounted his respect for women and have to come terms with the idea of incest with his mother or sister” (SE XI, p.186).

Quite aside from anything else, there seems here to be a tacit equation between love and sex. But Freud says it is instead the drive rather than the object we should turn our attention to. He notes the fact that we can be thwarted in achieving satisfaction both when we don’t get total freedom to enjoy the object (in marriage, for example), and when we do. This leads him to contrast the satisfaction we get from sex with the satisfaction the alcoholic gets from drink:

“Has one ever heard of the drinker being obliged constantly to change his drink because he soon grows tired of keeping to the same one?… Does one ever hear of a drinker who needs to go to a country where wine is dearer or drinking is prohibited, so that by introducing obstacles he can reinforce the dwindling satisfaction that he obtains? On the contrary, the relation of the drinker to his drink is the model of a happy marriage” (SE XI, p.188).

So why the difference with sex? “It is my belief”, Freud says, “that, however strange it may sound, we must reckon with the possibility that something in the nature of the sexual drive itself is unfavourable to the realisation of complete satisfaction” (SE XI, p.188-189). This is a sentiment Lacan echoes in the opening lines of ‘The Signification of the Phallus’ (Écrits, 685).

Why is this so? What we think of as a ‘sex drive’ is actually just a series of component drives. Lacan’s brilliant description of this can be found in Seminar XI, where he presents an image of the drives as a montage, a machine with “a dynamo connected up to a gas tap, a peacock’s feather emerges, and tickets the belly of a pretty woman, who is just lying there looking beautiful” (Seminar XI, p.169).

Lacan’s idea of love is therefore very different from the analysts of his time, who saw it as the culmination of the sexual drives under the form of genital maturation. If sex is a strange cobbling together of erratic drives under the form of the body, love is the exact opposite – the product of something left over from this process, something which does not quite fit.

Conclusion: Love as an Ethical Event

This description of love as the result of something which does not quite fit runs through the whole of Lacan’s work, and accounts for his use of the vivid and bizarre imagery we have shown him use to describe it.

One of the best books on love in recent years, Alain Badiou’s In Praise of Love presents love in exactly this mould. We are constantly told that finding love is about finding a ‘match’, rather than ‘what does not quite fit’. The rise of online dating sites and apps like and eharmony reflect this conception that finding love involves a series of calculations that each individual makes in assessing a partner. These are performed by filling out questionnaires where the suitability of one person to another is generated algorithmically as a percentage match rate.

This idea of matching and harmony has a long pedigree – in The Symposium we see Eryximachus comparing love to the principle of harmony in music, and Aristophanes likening it to two halves of the same body yearning to be re-matched. But if Lacan’s most famous pronouncement on the matter – that loving is to give what one does not have – has a meaning, it is that love has nothing to do with the attributes of another individual. It is closer to what Badiou calls an Event, which emerges as if from nothing to change everything. This is why Lacan believes that “[Psycho]analysis has brought a very important change of perspective on love, by placing it at the centre of ethical experience” (Seminar VII, p.8).

By Owen Hewitson,

An earlier version of this article was originally delivered as ‘The Fruit and the Flame – Lacan on Love’ to the School of the Freudian Letter, Cyprus, May 2015.


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