The Kiss of the Panther-Woman. Cat People

The Absolute Feminine-Animal Other



With the help of the 1942 film by Tourneur, “Cat People”, the author hypothesizes, from a Lacanian and zooanthropological perspective (which thinks of animals as an addition to the human animal and as an opportunity to question some aspects of the human animal), that both the feminine position and the real presence of the animal offer themselves to the subject as absolute Other; this is determined by the fact that both relate to it in the order of the real and constitute an opening to it. An “ethics of the uncanny” is thus formulated, which praises the need to maintain an absolute otherness in the life of human beings. Feminine jouissance, beyond the phallus, is seen in relation to the disruption of the captivated animal (Heidegger, Agamben) and to the ecstatic practice, which share the surrender to the condition of Hilflosigkeit. The access to this condition entails the experience of mourning of the Thing.


It is evident that I will not speak of animals from an ethological or biological point of view, nor will I attempt to trace distinctions or similarities between human and non-human animals, or to identify their “specificities”, indeed the anthropological machine has already spoken too much, and has been deconstructed in an extraordinary way by Derrida. I will instead speak as a psychoanalyst, with an eye to animal studies – we could say perhaps from a zooanthropological perspective, which thinks of  animals (their real presence) and of the relationship with them, as something constituting an addition to human animals, and as an opportunity to question some aspects of the human. Having said this, I do not believe that any living being, human or non-human, should or can be put at the service of someone, however “noble” the purposes may be; on the contrary, I perceive an obligation to protect, by any means, the living species that are less able to protect themselves, on the part of those who are. As a psychoanalyst I perceive the need to maintain a dimension of absolute otherness in our human lives, and I would like to speak in praise of a sort of ethics of the uncanny, all the more necessary in the light of a contemporaneity that is increasingly oriented toward the exclusion of differences, with the dramatic consequences we are familiar with. The theme of animality and that of femininity lend themselves well to this purpose.

I would like to begin with a film, a good starting point because it combines animality and the feminine, although in this instance what we have is a human/animal, literally both human and animal, a being that undergoes a metamorphosis from human to animal and vice versa. There is a significant literary, filmic, popular tradition, that revolves around not only men/wolves (werewolves) but also men/cats, tigers, etc., (were-panthers in this case). The animals in question are certainly not meek, and I will try to hypothesize the reason for this. Cat people is a 1942 film by Jacques Tourneur, a masterpiece of the horror-noir genre and not only. Irina, the protagonist of the film, a descendant of a family of were-panthers, turns into her Other animal when she experiences feelings, so naturally when she falls in love or when she hates. (See the swimming pool scene). This is obviously a problem, because while making love she turns into a panther and kills the unfortunate man (it’s beyond herself!) and then turns back into a woman. Irina does not control her transformation, and for this reason she is no witch; indeed popular belief claims that witches can transform themselves into a cat or feline intentionally, according to their own desires or needs. Irina instead undergoes this transformation, she suffers it (in the Greek sense of pathos, which is to undergo, suffer – English words that derive from the Greek pathos are, ‘empathy’, ‘compassion’ etc.) it is beyond her. Precisely this element well represents the Lacanian concept of not whole.


1) Not-wholly there


In Seminar XX Lacan hypotheses the existence of a feminine jouissance that is supplementary to the phallic one, of those subjects who place themselves, from the point of view of the unconscious, in a feminine position, (see the formulas of sexuation), experienced beyond biological sex. The fact that it is a supplementary jouissance underlines its non-complementarity with the phallic one, and in general the dissymmetry between the sexes, which Lacan translates into the formula “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship”. A paradoxical formula because what takes place between man and woman is precisely the sexual relationship as such, i.e. the contact between sexual organs. But, Lacan tells us, the jouissance (phallic, naturally) of the body of the Other is not the sign of love, which, reframed more radically, means that sexual intercourse is basically masturbatory jouissance, idiotic (Greek etymology: lacking, private). Phallic jouissance, until that moment the only one possible, becomes the encumbrance that does not allow the relationship with the Other to take place. The abused aphorism – “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship” – is in fact a decisive blow to the myth of the loving oneness that Freud takes from Plato’s Symposium making it the mythical inspirer of Beyond the pleasure principle, the text in which he illustrates the disturbing paradox that links Eros and Thanatos. Lacan, who in the Seminary VIII had already derided the myth told by Aristophanes (the comedian, not by chance) in the Symposium, in Seminar XX irretrievably shatters the model of complementarity of love. The achievement of oneness as an end to which love by definition tends, is an illusion. The encounter between man and woman not only is not harmonious, symmetrical, but is marked by a non-encounter, by the non-relationship between the sexes. Following Freud, oneness achieved in love is an imaginary myth, or it takes the form of repetition. The polemic with the International Psychoanalytical Association is evident with respect to a supposedly mature, genital love acquired through “natural” development. According to Lacan, instead of harmonious love, there is a wall dividing man and woman, termed l’a-mur. No matter what biological sex, what Lacan focuses on is the heterosexual couple as a couple that practices difference, and this may also be a biologically homosexual couple. The same is true for the contrary. Position and biological sex do not necessarily coincide. In the context of this difference, man, despite this illusion, will never be able to merge, become one, with the feminine eteros. According to Lacan, the phallic register is the one that counts against the Oedipal triad and it represents the radical attempt to de-psychologize psychoanalysis. The phallus acts operationally as a signifier even when it is not there, we could say precisely because it is not there. For man it is a matter of identifying with the symbolic phallus to exercise a sufficient masculine function. As for women, according to both Lacan and Freud, things are more complex. Already in the Seminar XVIII Lacan had begun to differentiate the feminine position from the position of the hysteric (“the hysteric is not woman”), and finally, in the Seminar XX, he states the existence of a feminine jouissance. The apparent paradox of Encore (anticipated to a certain degree in the two previous seminars) consists in claiming that the wall against which love breaks is the same that simulates it and tries to disguise its unattainability, that is to say the phallus. Precisely what is necessary to interpret all the variations of the play (Lacan 1998) performed by human beings, even and above all the one of love, now for Lacan prevents sexual intercourse, that is, encounter. If the phallus is a third term, it is not however a medium (Di Ciaccia 2013). For love to occur, it is not enough to “enjoy” (indeed “the jouissance of the body of the Other is not a sign of love”), unless one is content with a simulacrum of love, like the one illustrated by Freud in Contributions to the Psychology of Love, in which women remain in the shadow of the mother’s ghost, divided between ideal and fetish, that is more important than woman herself. On the one hand we have the idealized and untouchable mother-Madonna, on the other the erotized and despised woman-dirne. “The act of love, is the polymorphous perversion of the male. In the case of the speaking being, there is nothing more assured, more coherent, more strict as far as Freudian discourse is concerned”. There is no relationship, therefore, but only jouissance of the body in the register of the phallus, solitary jouissance, unable to reach the Other. This is the true revolution of Lacan’s thought: phallic jouissance, up to this moment the only one possible, because it is marked by the law of the father, leads nowhere but to a jouissance of the organ, not even to that of its bearer, Lacan ads, “even when a he puts it inside a she who is supposedly desolate not to be the carrier herself” and who therefore claims it, taking it as best she can. On the man’s side it is possible to enter into relation only with the objet petit a, which, in the form of a phantom, is in place of the Other. On woman’s side things are more complex. Contrary to the male position, inscribed in the coordinates of the structure, a universal one, the feminine position can be articulated only individually, and there will be as many position as there are women. “Woman does not exist” the other abused and historically misunderstood Lacanian enunciation, means that woman exists in the unconscious only quoad matrem, that is, where man places her and where she “assumes her function in the sexual relation as mother”. Taking this to a more radical stance, the feminine Other is always addressed by man on the side of the maternal phantom (of the objet petit a) and is therefore unreachable as such. The alternative would be to put at risk what human civilization rests upon, symbolic order itself. In the formulas of sexuation the matheme of Woman (La femme) is a barred La. It is not possible to write the subject woman because in the unconscious Woman does not exist, only Mother exists. Because of a curious paradox, since mother is such in the register of the phallus, that is, on the part of man, whereas woman is mother, that is in the sexual non-relationship, she is reduced to being a man. Lacan states: “(…) it is only from where the dear woman is whole (toute), from the place from which man sees her, that the dear woman can have an unconscious” (Lacan 1998), which “helps her exist only as mother”.  Woman’s unconscious, therefore, is where she offers herself to the man who takes her wholly, wholly there, wholly referable to the phallic law. It is precisely this that does not satisfy Lacan, and that leads him to the formulation – anticipated by the drastic shift in perspective in the Seminar X – of a hypothesis in the Seminary XX that resumes and restates the Freudian question: “What does a woman want?” What is her jouissance? Woman is not only Mother, there is something in her that escapes phallic signification. And it cannot be Woman but only women because what makes her not-whole, not all there, cannot be given in a universal and general form, it and can exist only as something particular. A mother as such can only be Mother, inscribed as a phantom in the structure, a universal one. Woman is women, each one unique in her own way. There is something in woman and in her jouissance that exceeds her (as happens to Irina) and that does not fall into the solutions provided by the phallic register, and that therefore is not satisfied in the child as a substitute for the phallus – the desired solution according to Freud. Indeed for Freud to become woman means to become mother; the daring premises of his texts on female sexuality (Freud 1931, Freud 1933) and the discovery of the dark continent are resolved in this way, with a rejection of the feminine, which will culminate in his Analysis Terminable and Interminable, the work in which Freud states the impossibility of going beyond that rock wall all therapies run into, castration anxiety, of taking a first step in the direction of the subjectification of the feminine. If woman in Lacan is not mother, she is not even the hysteric who chooses to become phallus for her man in the most varied forms, all known and recognizable: a lover to show off, a muse, an inspirer, a devotee. Or a woman who in order to exist must continually rekindle the desire of the Other, of man, without being able to “enjoy” herself, rendering him hollow so as to not come into contact with her own lack. Or continuously embarking on the search for the perfect Other, the phallic Other that is never up to par. Or who treats her man like a child, like a phallus. According to Lacan Woman can only be women, also when entering into relation with the phallic function, because the fact that she does not wholly enter into relationship with it (not-whole) does not mean that she does not at all, but that there is a jouissance (of the body) that is beyond the phallus. Even Don Giovanni cannot but conquer women “one by one”, which points to the rather sinister perverse cataloguing in which the Other disappears behind seriality, despite his way of proceeding one by one. Every woman possesses a detail, a trait that sparks desire and that will turn her (for man) into an objet petit a, a cause of desire, but otherness as such is another thing (Thing). The Other will always retain something of the first Other, of the Freudian das Ding, and for this reason it will be sought and shunned, again and again, desired insomuch as it is inaccessible, at least on the male part. Feminine jouissance, in its noticeable articulation, creates a relationship between the feminine ‘one by one’ and the Other without the Other, the barred Other as the carrier of a non-guarantee, truly absolute, in a bond that is made and undone and that, in its contingency, can cease to be written, sometimes. This jouissance is that of mystics. In this register of non-sexual jouissance but of body, open to infinity, beyond the structure, women are placed on the divide between the symbolic and the real. What can be said (and written) is merged with the impossible (with the Real), with that for which there are no words and that, however, occurs, despite language, or through language, depending on the point of view. The mystical, ecstatic opening is fully oriented toward the outside, toward the Real.



2) The captivated animal and ecstasy


The Real is not what is tamed, known, which accompanies and shapes our daily life, indeed it is precisely the opposite. The Real is not reality, it is that which of reality is foreign, unknown, disquieting, which insinuates itself in the Heimliche. The Real is not, therefore, what habitually surrounds us, that contributes to making the spaces and places in which we move familiar, domestic, which makes it possible for us to immediately recognize them. On the contrary, it is the Unheimlich element of reality, the rest that is not included in daily life. Already in his Project (1895) Freud speaks of the Thing (das Ding), that is, the foreign, non-assimilable element, Fremde, of reality. Later, in a complex and arduous essay (The Uncanny, Freud 1920), coeval with Beyond the pleasure principle, he conceives of the Unheimliche as that which, within this extraneousness, contains a nucleus of deep and hidden familiarity. In going back to the Thing (Lacan 1997) and making it pivotal in his system of thought, Lacan likens it to the primordial real that always “suffers from the signifier”, and therefore can only present itself to us as a hole, as emptiness. Otherwise said, as an object always (and forever) lost. Its nature, for Lacan, is that of extimité: although it is excluded from language, it can only be thought by means of language. It is what is most foreign to us, yet it is intimate and desired. Language separates us from the real and of the real it cannot say everything. However, if the real cannot be said entirely (because what can be said is not-whole), this does not prevent it from being without effects. The real of Irina (her Other jouissance) escapes her, but has a devastating effect on her human self. Here we encounter the divide between real and symbolic, to which women and their jouissance are closer, in their utter openness. When Heidegger (Heidegger 2001), in line with the a metaphysical tradition that aims to identify the “specificity” of what is human (and naturally its superiority), compared to other species, defines the animal as being “poor in world” he uses the term captivation. This mode places the animal in a condition of total absorption towards the disinhibitor (eg. food) but prevents it from “encountering it as such”, which means animals cannot be “world-forming”, which is what characterizes humans. Captivation is thus constituted by a mode of being on the basis of which “the animal fundamentally lacks the possibility of entering into relation”. Here we are dealing with the epitome of the human as “world-forming”, drawn to order, catalogue, dominate. As Agamben (2003) notes in his reading of Heidegger, “it is precisely because this possibility – apprehending as something that to which it relates – is withheld from it that the animal can be so utterly taken by something else”. In disclosure the entity is not revealed, it is not disclosed, although it not even closed, “captivation stands outside this possibility”. It does not constitute the mode of a true relation, of a having-to-do-with, which renders the animal poor in world; at the same time it is, also, an extreme openness which does not, however, reveal the disinhibitor as an entity. Thus the entity is for the animal open but not unconcealed, open but inaccessible. The captivation that disrupts the animal in its every fiber acts, for us humans, as a paradigm that is the opposite of the exercise of sovereign power of the life of individuals, according to Agamben, of the illusory exercise of phallic mastery, according to the perspective of psychoanalysis.

The image that Derrida gives us of the hedgehog rolled up in a ball on the highway is unforgettable. I must say that also my cats, on some occasions, render the idea very well. I will highlight the fact – should there be any need – that our perspective on animals will always be marred by our being human animals and therefore will be anthropocentric – at best we will be aware of this, unless we too want to run into the risk of going in search of what we have in common (human animals and non-human ones) and what makes us different, in order to exercise a more or less explicit supremacy. It is true that keeping in mind that humans share a good percentage of their DNA with species such as fruit flies and corals does no harm, though it might make us uncomfortable, and this was clear to Freud himself, a fervent Darwinian. We know almost nothing about these beings and it will probably continue to be like this. However, like Derrida’s cat, that with its mere presence led him to question shame – of whom, of what? My own, of the cat, of shame itself? – and to move into territories where awareness and knowledge become unsuited weapons, animals challenge us, if we allow them to, on capital issues that have to do, by definition, with the feminine articulated as Hilflosighkeit, passivity, the ability of not being able, as assumption of one’s castration, renunciation of mastery, vacillation. The same as when during treatment we really step beyond structure, and language becomes a stutter. We will never know if an animal is captivated but it seems that its presence is able to raise, in us humans, a question about a condition that Heidegger called captivation, in which the animal does not open itself, as does Dasein, in a world, yet it is nevertheless ecstatically (my italics) draws outside of itself in an exposure which disrupts it in its every fiber . There is something in the jouissance of women, in their jouissance beyond the phallus, which disrupts them, Lacan says in Seminar XX, and of which they know nothing except that it occurs. The mind can falter and become ek-static under certain conditions and certain propensities that push us beyond a threshold. It takes an apparent courage that is none other than not being able to live otherwise. (Raparelli 2018) In what way? I will try to explain it.


3) Mourning the Thing


I have the impression that some subjects have privileged access to the Real, they are somehow experts, professionals in this. That they have the (sublime) privilege of seeing the world, the entity, before any possible attribution of meaning or disclosure, where it is still unsaturated, foreign, indeed, real. They abandon themselves to it, “let it happen to them” at the risk of being overwhelmed, but it seems that they cannot do otherwise. Psychotics, experts not of reality but certainly of the real, devote a lot of effort to building a sort of alien domesticity around themselves, in the self-healing forms of delirium, which are all but domestic and familiar for the so-called sane. There are, however, other conditions (which are not related to either a diagnostic frame or to its absence, indeed I call them conditions) in which access to the real seems to me to be privileged. Conditions in which the contact with the unassimilated, with the extraneous, with what insinuates itself in the Heimliche are almost the norm. This “extreme proximity” (to use the words of Agamben) becomes an equally extreme form of knowledge, acquired in unusual ways. I believe that some subjects have the ability to experience the real with a sharpness that I would say is immediate, keeping in mind all the semantic ambiguity of the term. It clearly refers to a mystical quality that orients the relationship with the real that originates in the attempt to reabsorb the object, and whose matrix can only reside in Thanatos (Cimino 2015). As if the barrier of language were less permeable than the Real, making it possible to entertain a more fluid relationship with it. In this exposure  – which is necessity, one cannot act otherwise – the real is the site of a radical openness that allows a basic, original access. Some conditions seem to be characterized by the possibility of experiencing an ecstatic receptive passivity, which allows one to see things that others do not see. This is the aspect that I intend to emphasize here. This derelict life suffers the real, both in the sense of suffering it, of undergoing it, and in the sense of bearing its trace, the imprint of that which is unassimilable, of the original Fremde. The psychotic does not give in, does not accept the fact that he/she is not able to recover the object that has always been lost, that is, accept that he/she will be able to find only another different one (an Ersatz), and because of this seeks it indefinitely. He/she continually acts out the impossible attempts to annul the abysmal distance from the object, because its presence is literally vital. The Thing is not dead, words have not killed it nor has the jouissance bound to it. But to what extent has is died for each one of us?

In the essay “On Transience” (1915b) Freud addresses the impossibility of the process of mourning as the cause of the feeling of transience, which affects the protagonist of the essay whom we know to be Rilke. This paradigm works if we consider the mourning of Rilke (or rather, his non-mourning) as the refusal of a definitive renunciation of the primary object (“that door is closed!”) and of the imaginary union that supports the “illusion of eternity”. What he refuses to do is, in fact, to shift the bond towards a barred Other, which is inconsistent, and offers no fictitious yet consolatory guarantees. The refusal to renounce is accompanied by a painful but not subjectivized awareness of one’s own limit (of one’s own death), which translates into the feeling of transience. The real of the limit/death is constantly present, not distanced enough. I believe that Rilke suffered from precisely this feeling of “transience”, despite his knowledge of language. The inability to exercise that essential act of “feigning not to know” (of the limit), exposes him fully to the world. It is not difficult to identify here the work of the death drive which, by its very nature, tends towards the elimination of all tension and discontinuity. Despite the deviations imposed by Eros, the quality rooted in the “magnet” orienting everything works more or less silently, in some subjects (such as Rilke, or Antigone) more clearly, it would seem. “Death exists” Freud writes in the essay, against the more watered-down interpretations, and it is to this real evidence that Rilke should submit, mourn the end of the illusion of eternity. Yet this total exposure to the real, at the mercy of a necessity, of “not being able to live otherwise” opens up to – too much, we could say – hidden and unsuspected recesses of the human condition, which in the case of Rilke are all too evident. But poets, it is known, are in a privileged position.

I consider the real as being constituted by the non-human animal (we should not think only of our kittens or pet dogs, but also of mice, panthers, and why not ?, also of spiders and grasshoppers; let’s think of Kafka’s fish, and of the axolotl of Cortázar) necessary for us human animals to build a form of life that bears a compassionate and open gaze on the world, a gaze that is perhaps the only truly human gaze. This extreme openness that is not revealing allows some subjects an absolute (ab-solutum) contact with the world, although these subjects are, in a certain sense, exiled from the world. I do not know if they are world-forming, to quote Heidegger, but they are open to it in a condition of radical passivity that renders them able to resonate in a similar way to the essential disruption of the animal in its Umwelt. We could say that exposed life suffers from the Real, both in the sense of suffering it, of undergoing it, and in the sense of bearing its traces. The brutal exposition to that Real which is by definition irremediably extraneous, alien, untamed, devoid of meaning, not unconcealed – not inscribed in the symbolic – is something that everyone, from time to time, experiences, albeit fleetingly. Its original core is naturally attributable to the condition of Hilflosigkeit. And if for some existences this trace entails, on one side, the experience of horror and desperation without end, brought on by a radically alien world, or by transience, on the other side there resides that openness that comes before any possibility of saying and that places those who experience it in a position of ek-static, centrifugal, openness.

An acquaintance of mine, not really a patient, his identity always in an unstable balance, endowed with an extra amount of precariousness compared to so-called sane people, which makes all the difference, recounted the following experience. He was wondering aimlessly through the streets of a foreign city, as a true flâneur, which he is, constantly undecided between the desire to find a certain familiarity and the wish to lose it, when he experienced an event which was certainly not new for him. While entering a semi-peripheral neighbourhood, where more languages can be heard along with the already foreign one of the place, (it was obviously a multi-ethnic neighbourhood), one of those places that can be commonly found in many of our contemporary metropolises, he suddenly experienced what psychiatrists would call a fleeting and violent episode of derealisation. The curious and remarkable aspect is that together with the experience of disorientation, unreality and anguished Unheimliche, he also experienced a condition of absolute joy, exaltation and freedom, as if he had touched something for a moment or seen something that is not always available to be perceived. Something provided with a character of exceptionality and essentiality, he added later, while describing what immediately appeared to me as the other side of the Unheimliche, that of an ecstatic openness to the world. In this extreme point, necessarily close to the Thing, the Real is caught for a moment, both on the side of horror, of absolute and alien extraneousness, and in that – no doubt less frequented – of immaculate sharpness that precedes any domestication, or its failure.


The perception of this state  – I say perception because there is nothing “extrasensory” in it – is extreme, radical, it comes before anything that may be said, and before any removal or denial may occur. This is precisely the other side – dangerously and inevitably contiguous to it – of the death drive. In that no-man’s land, beyond the call to reunite with the Thing, beyond nostalgia and the attempt to continue indefinitely in oneness, in a territory to be explored, the possibility to grasp the bare Real opens up, and, albeit for one moment, to sustain it. I believe that the possibility of attuning to the basic coordinate of the human being that is ecstasy, entails a radical opening towards the outside, towards a subjectivized desire of life devoid of guarantees, as weak as it is powerful, transient by definition. In other words, by assuming an actively passive position, with an exercise that allows borders to become fluid, in the form of an extreme openness between oneself and the world. Elvio Fachinelli (1989) pointed in this direction: that of an exit from oneself, from one’s proper identity (a very ambiguous term, especially for psychoanalysts), that is well defined, in order to assume a centrifugal, ek-static position. It is necessary to give up – as far as possible – our defences, renounce our “compact” identity, an operation that transcends the de-subjectivisation required of the analyst to exercise his/her function, in favour of a form of abandonment which allows to be penetrated by the Other. If, instead of exercising control over this uncanny, it were possible to enhance this sort of receptive passivity that allows us to see things we usually cannot see, this would be the beginning of an emancipation from the ethics of domination and oppression, in which someone is always subjected, made slave, and in which someone is always master, in favour of an ethic of exposed life, marked by a bare and compassionate gaze, which looks at the other and at his/her existence, a derelict and open one, an “unconcealed” one. The Freudian uncanny would thus become the germinating source of the new.


4) Pure love and mysticism


Women occupy a position which is that of the Radical Other: bearer of all the disorienting force of those who arrive Derrida, Roudinesco (2001), of those who do not cross a threshold, who are not located in any place that is more identifiable than another, equally identifiable, but remain suspended and extraneous, inassimilable, who involve us in the infinite balancing of love, of the encounter with the Other that takes place in contingency, which must be invented moment by moment. It is precisely this unstable balance that seems to effectively put women in the condition of experiencing and becoming the object of true or pure love (Le Brun 2002), of that something which is an addition through which it is possible to make up for the lack of sexual intercourse. It would be naive to mistake this for a romantic idea. The supplement that makes woman produces her elusiveness, that something of her which embarrasses, which is uncanny because it cannot be set in the context of the oedipal (phallic) law.  Woman can be only the multiplicity of women. There is something more in the jouissance of  woman that goes beyond structure and that makes her exposed to what is limitless. That additional jouissance does not pertain to the one, it escapes, nor is it satisfied in the child as a substitute of the phallus. It renders woman radically Other in the eyes of man and of herself, exposed to a real that exceeds the signifier. This step goes well beyond the Lacanian renunciation of the imaginary phallus – that, with all the aporias of the situation, is recognized as being responsible for the claim that “there is no such thing as a sexual relationship” –  and beyond the illusion of power and mastery it represents. Already this passage that necessarily entails the loss of the coordinates orienting us and therefore the consequent experiences of impotence – precisely Hilflosigkeit – must certainly not be underestimated. Lacan, in fact, not only declared the need to go beyond the rock wall that, according to Freud, every analysis is destined to come up against, (the rejection of femininity), but envisages it as a fundamental indicator of the conclusion of therapy, and as the purpose of this therapy. Giving up the aspiration to an imaginary pseudo-virility and submitting to the laws of castration, are according to Lacan, unlike Freud, not only possible but also necessary and indispensable in order to find a position in the world. It is precisely virility that involves the relationship with the limit marked by castration. Without castration there would not even be the jouissance of the organ, which is not, however, what makes up the relationship. Lacan had already gone as far as saying that “woman lacks nothing” in Seminar X (Lacan 2014), distancing himself from Freud, for whom the feminine position is marked by lack. A lack that always returns as a phantom in the most varied forms, it will suffice to look around: the woman that must be saved, or moulded, the woman to despise, sometimes the woman that must be killed. One becomes a woman, and this is not easy, indeed to Freud it seems impossible, one can only become mother, and acquire the object in the register of the phallus in which it acts as a substitute of the missing organ. In Lacan we witness a radical shift: castration, and the anxiety connected to it, are no longer inscribed in the register of Oedipus and prohibition, but in the body itself and in its mechanism; we are no longer dealing with the phallus, but with the real of the male penis which undergoes detumescence following sexual intercourse. It is precisely here that the anxiety originates, and all the imaginary countermeasures aimed at keeping it at bay. Man must camouflage his real deficiency, while woman does not have to, because she “lacks nothing”. The importance attributed to structure is already here very much diminished; in the place of the imaginary body and its perfection we have the miseries of the real body, of which the penis’s detumescence is well representative. The praise of femininity begins here, at this point of Lacan’s work, in the illustration of the advantages of a feminine position, here linked to woman’s anatomy. The relevant aspect of this shift in perspective is the hypothesis that there is a place of femininity that is not immediately inscribed in the laws governing structure, but that is a place of suspension, open to the unforeseeable. As opposed to an all, in the context of which woman does not escape, does not exceed, where she is again all for the man and for herself, we have a place of jouissance articulated in a feminine mode, which is not universalizable, as opposed to the phallic one which is normative, the same for everyone, already written. A jouissance that is Other, of which we cannot say anything, Lacan tells us, and not even woman knows anything about it, she simple experiences it when it occurs. Exactly like Irina. This statements, on the one hand, seems to constitute an injunction to leave experience bare and open, untamed, outside the coordinates that would frame it so as to render it an object of knowledge – even those of language. On the other, it denounces all the limits of language, which is unable to say the sexual relationship – all it can speak of are its simulacra, that is, where it does not exist. “Women don’t know what they’re saying” (Lacan 1998), not because they are fools, but because Lacan, with his propensity for boutades, which in this case must be taken literally, claims that there are no words to say what women should say (their jouissance, the Other jouissance). The “one by one” does not dispose of preformed signifiers which would allow it to be said, unlike Woman, which implies the signifier in the capital W (phallic, the same as language that pertains to the phallic order), which because of this can be said, but does not exist because she is not-whole, she is (utterly) Other. Saying Woman does not grasp her, it “defames” her (“Lacan is here playing on words: “on la dit femme” and “on la diffâme”), because there is a supplement. What women should say is entirely of the order of the real. To erode pieces of the real, find the words in that precise moment. This position of openness is configured as a “mystical” position, insomuch as it is an absolute being exposed to the Other as, Lacan says, one of the faces of God. In the writings of mystics such as Margherita Porete, Hadewijch of Antwerp, Angela da Foligno, the theme of subjective experience is used to speak of the relationship with God. We cannot say what happens but we can say when it happens, the moment it happens, Lacan ads. Yet these women and others, and even some men, for instance Catherina da Siena, Julian of Norwich, Giovanni della Croce, were able to speak of their ecstatic experiences in a very effective way, and of their conception of mysticism. Perhaps in a non-systematic way, that cannot be categorized, but in an effective one. In Explication Des Maximes Des Saints Fénelon attempted to render “pure love” intelligible, explainable, the type of love theologians could not conceive or justify, that characterizes the mystical dimension in its practise of abandonment to God, to the point of non-being. Fénelon’s text was condemned by a papal bull in 1699 which meant it was excluded from theological contexts  only to reappear in others. It is no surprise that the ecclesiastical institution wanted to scotomize an uncomfortable, subversive theme, which escapes the dispositifs of power and only secondly a philosophical categorization (assuming that these are not the same thing). A theme that is by definition linked to singularity, and which exceeds that form of extreme mastery that is knowledge. Mystical experience and the knowledge connected to it have more to do with that captivation in which a subject is taken and by which it is disrupted, in an absolute bond with an entity, beyond any expectation or attempt of mastery. Why not think of this condition in terms of pure immanence, of passivity, without it being a form of degradation? The feminine position exceeds the laws that guarantee structure, with all the risks involved. Its atopia (so close to the real) is an extreme vacillation and a tyche for the ecstatic exit from oneself. Even that “gem nestled in the human” which is the bare animal life (Agamben 2003) of the human, as we can think of it, appears to us as a limit point in which being experiences pure abandonment, the ability of not being able, close to that absolute disorientation that is the condition of Hilflosigkeit.


5) The Drive of The Real


The feminine not whole is generally associated with madness, with destruction. The film is no exception: here the Other (feminine) jouissance, what escapes Irina (more than this…) is beastly (in a Derridean sense), homicidal. This articulation is also very effective in order to illustrate the mechanism that explains why men kill women: what we have no grip on, (because it is not-all inscribed in the symbolic), can only be eliminated in the real. The protagonist of the film limits herself to shifting her attention from Irina to the more reassuring but less exciting Alice, which is also a typical mechanism. Indeed the couple Alice/Irina very much embodies the Freudian one mother/Dirne. In it we also find the theme of the other woman, namely the phallic (hysterical) side of femininity. In my practice I have found that many men, in their lust for domination, are potential stalkers, even when they do not act it out. The phallic dimension requires, to various degrees that depend on the relationship with one’s castration, control, mastery, a sense of belonging. In the film we find something that is well known relating to not whole: Lol, Antigone, if you like, Medea, Irina, have in store a tragic end, and it is not hygienic to remain in their company. The non-whole is articulated (and liquidated) essentially as amour fou (Adèle H), or as madness tout-court (Lol). Which leads us towards a commonplace, not entirely gratuitous, however, as proximity to the real is a risk, evidently. The other hypothesis regarding the feminine non-whole, love that kills, depicted in the film, is, from my point of view, that of an ecstatic opening. The feminine position is open to the absolute Other and to itself insomuch as it is the absolute Other. Other is absolute by definition, because it cannot be known prior to the experience and even then it will never be truly known. It is not only Other from words, it has in itself, structurally, the dimension of extraneousness that subjects tend to domesticate, render similar, familiar. If the signifier Other retains its reach, it is absolute. Of the Thing, absolute Other, there is always a trace, as we have seen. From another point of view, we can say that Irina’s animal being is pure drive, love and homicidal hate. Freud spoke of ambivalence to indicate the double affective tension of love/hate that imbues all investment in objects and that emerges in all its power in the work performed by mourning. Hatred is more ancient than love (Freud 1915a), it goes back to the original introduction of a foreign element that is therefore hated (“spat out”), an operation that inaugurates the construction of the subject (Freud 1925) and, paradoxically, its ability to recognize otherness. What, therefore, institutes this recognition is rejection (the Freudian no) that corresponds to the non-assimilable element of the subjective drive that is therefore placed outside us: no!  Even in love the relationship with the object retains this original and irreducible nucleus of rejection. Hate for what is extraneous constitutes an attempt to expel something that is ours, precisely the exceeding element of the drive, an operation that is by definition destined to fail, and thus to be continuously repeated. This is the underlying mechanism of racism, of fundamentalism, and of any form, more or less macroscopic, of hatred of the Other motivated by its diversity. The more difficult it is for the subject to recognize that the stranger is (in) him or herself, the more powerful the tendency to reject any form of diversity, which ultimately becomes paranoia, a condition in which the idea of an uncontaminated and untainted Ego is mirrored by an idea of Other viewed as the bearer of all evils and impurities. This would explain the choice to locate this exceeding element of the drive in “fierce” animals (were-panthers, etc.): they simply – from the point of view of imagination – lend themselves well to carry out this operation effectively, and for this reason they are classified as “fierce” by us humans. The presence of a certain degree of subjective assumption of that exceeding element that one cannot eliminate may lead to the emergence of a sense of guilt, maybe only as the sign of the work performed by the drive; or it can introduce, from another perspective, the possibility of sustaining the real.


Transl. by Emma C. Gainsworth.




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Freud, S.:

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Raparelli, F. (2018) “Not Being Able to Live Otherwise. Kafka, the Animal, the Artist”, in Vestigia, Journal of International Network of Psychoterapeutic Practice, Vol 1(2), Summer 2018.


Published by I.S.A.P. - ISSN 2284-1059