Lacanian Psychoanalytic Explorations of Love within Christianity and Islam
This essay introduces a number of Lacanian psychoanalytic coordinates for understanding love within Christian and Islamic perspectives. It attempts to locate a dialogue between Christian and Islamic discourses on love as that which exists beyond possessions. The central premise of this work is to argue for a notion of love that is linked to trauma and certainty. It explores the narrative of love as gaze within the narrative of Orpheus and Eurydice as a foundation for reading Biblical and Quranic scripture.
Loving Beyond Possessions
I want to begin with the following claim: love – defined as a “wish to be loved” (Lacan, 1977, p. 253) – today confronts two opposing threats: relinquishment and foreclosure. The first threat concerns the relinquishment of love paradoxically through the giving up of any ‘fall’ accompanying the union of lovers. To relinquish love is to desire to possess the other or to iron out love’s depth by transforming the experience into a consistent and predictable encounter. Though the subject is equipped with the possibility of falling in love, he nonetheless succumbs to the temptation to love without risk, to love without pain, or to love without anxiety (see Zizek, 2015 & Badiou, 2012). The lover goes on to desire ‘happiness’ or ‘his other half,’ the latter of which is only an indication that he desires to be made ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ through the technique of his love. The lover therefore gives what he believes himself to have (e.g., money, ability, good looks, charm, knowledge, wisdom, experiences, and so on) to somebody he hopes actually wants it.
There persists for him a subtle awareness of the inadequacies of his approach, and, as he ever confronts the limits of the logic of possession and consistency, his emotional life becomes thoroughly permeated by anxiety. This first failure in love is linked to a fundamental deception. It is by losing possession of the loved one as an object that the lover provisionally protects himself from acute feelings which reveal to him the following trauma: he did not truly have the loved one from the very beginning. This makes his feelings of loss intensely charged. It is by losing the loved one as an object and by passing through the concomitant feelings of mourning and sorrow that the subject renews his primordial deception. All the more he tricks himself into believing that at one time he truly possessed her. It is by going through this emotional turmoil repeatedly that he can convince himself of actually having something to lose. But to actually lose somebody or something is to lose the very foundation upon which those feelings of loss could ever be sustained in the first place. The deeper threat to love today is the loss of the ability to lose itself, it is the foreclosure of the very possibility of losing love itself.
There are new lessons that we might gather from the ancient narrative of love in the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus’s musical gift was related to his ability to persuade others. Perhaps he once used this gift to entice Eurydice, though she soon became the object cause of another man’s desire. Aristaeus, a shepherd, was so captivated by her that he chased her throughout the forest in an attempt to grasp her. Of course, she fled from his hunt, stepped onto a snake, and then died. Now, in sorrow because of his apparent loss, Orpheus turned again to the use of his talents to convince the gods to allow him to retrieve her from the underworld. It was so alluring that all of the objects and beings of the world around him, all of nature itself, were touched by the sweet sounds of his suffering. Eurydice, like all of nature, becomes implicated in his elaborate phantasy: what he desires is to possess her, to produce her as an extension of himself, to procure her as his phallus.
We should recognize in this an important point made by Lacan and his followers: “woman is a symptom of man” (Lacan, 1975). We should not naively assume that Lacan’s statement is ‘anti-feminist’ or, worse, anti-woman. Rather, it implies that man sees in the woman not only the cause of his desire but also the possibility to fleetingly conceal his foundational and persisting trauma. Woman becomes for him the phallic substitute for his castration anxiety. Pierre-Gilles Gueguen (2012) explains that “[a] woman turns herself into a symptom for a man as she incarnates for the man the phallus that the mother lacks and which for the man denies maternal castration. Thus, woman serves as a screen in man’s relation to castration, and that is why she is a symptom.” The woman is a symptom for man because she functions to quell the unbearable anxiety of castration and lack.
However, we should not simply presume that woman ‘plugs up’ the lack since it is more accurate to claim that she produces in him the very possibility of lack — that is, of desire — even while she introduces an unbearable make-shift solution to the anxiety arising therefrom. Does this not explain why men in 1990s television sitcoms always used to exclaim: ‘women, you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them!’ This is the definition of a symptom: something you can’t live with or without, a problem which was produced through man’s very attempt to solve another underlying problem. Yet, what if the underlying problem is necessary while the symptomatic problem is pathological? One aim of psychoanalysis is to identify with the problem of castration anxiety and in so doing to overcome the pathological symptom; or, rather, the aim is identification with the sinthome.
The legend of Orpheus and Eurydice demonstrates very well how man’s phallic gaze denies the lack in the maternal Other. When Orpheus moved the world with his beautiful sorrow, he also subjected that world to the masculine process of phantasy laid out by Lacan in his graph of sexuation. Love can only exist for Orpheus by keeping Eurydice within his sight, and it is threatened by relinquishment the moment she disappears or dies. Her fall into the underworld could have been the impetus for a purer form of love which possibly endures beyond the fall, and yet it was the moment of his return to a trauma and desperation. The urgency of his plea demonstrates also the truth of his trauma. Bernard Seynhaeve (2019) wrote that “[t]his ‘urgency’ is the traumatic moment when, for a subject, the signifying chain [consistency, image, ego, body] has been broken” . Orpheus thereby reduces his love encounter to a moment of haste: rather than retroactively determining the conditions of love within the trauma of a disunion, he erroneously traces it through the logic of possession, consistency, visibility, and communicability.
Orpheus’s plea came in the form of an urgent demand made as an appeal to the Gods. He received the following response in the form of a proviso: ‘go to the underworld and retrieve her, but be patient, do not look back at her until you have left the underworld (otherwise you will lose her for all of eternity).’ We might claim that this was an attempt on behalf of the gods to frustrate Orpheus’ urgent demand. There is an urgent push toward truth at the level of the drive, and yet this truth can never be captured by the signifier. Orpheus’s holophrastic music, his lalangue, pushed him toward certainty – but it was a certainty coupled by the urgency of his demand to once again possess Eurydice. Seynhaeve (2019) writes that “there is always urgency, there is always something that pushes, that urges, that presses and that is beyond transference, even if one takes one’s time or lets it drag on. […] We run after the truth, says Lacan; […] but truth cannot be caught by the signifier” . The patience of time, what I am tempted to qualify using the neologism ‘passience’ – a threading together of patience, passion, and jouissance – introduces distance from an urgency of the drives, while nonetheless remaining outside of the signifier’s capture.
There was within the underworld of Orpheus’s passion, before making his final exit with Eurydice on hand, a moment during which he perceived a deception on behalf of the gods. Indeed, he believed for that moment that he was the victim of an elaborate trick: it was not truly her who followed him, but rather a ghost – a semblance. At this point we should be willing to risk a radical interpretation: it was not, as we often presume, in this moment of haste, when he looked back to verify her presence, that he lost her forever. Rather, we should accept from the beginning that she was never there except as semblance. He thus witnessed the truth: the truth is that which slips away from our grasp. It is by insisting that he suddenly lost her that he renewed the fundamental phantasy of the woman’s existence. Lacan taught us that “the woman does not exist” (Lacan, 1999
: 16), and this was as unsettling a truth as one could possibly imagine for men and women alike. Is it not the case that the gods were here revealing this startling truth to Orpheus? They demonstrated that which Orpheus was still not willing to accept: that love exists always in some relationship to an incomprehensible and foundational moment of loss.
This argument was also made in antiquity. Phaedrus, in Plato’s Symposium (2020), made use of numerous examples to bolster his argument that love is intimately connected with loss. Although Alcestis was willing to die for her husband, it is not true that Orpheus had the same courage for Eurydice. In fact, Phaedrus implied that Orpheus exhibited cowardly love while Eurydice exhibited courageous love. Ancient Greek philosophy therefore demonstrates – before any of the later adaptations – that not only did the Gods intend to deceive Orpheus in order to show him the truth (it is a case of what Lacan named “the lying truth”), but that Orpheus, as a coward, was up against a woman who, as is often the case in love, was much more courageous than he. Isn’t this also how we should read the story of the prophet of Islam when he discovered the angel Gabriel? Shocked by the first revelation, he raced home, often stumbling, until he approached his wife Khadijah. Khadijah reassured and offered confirmation of his visions, bolstering the certainty of the initial delusion.
Orpheus chased Eurydice and retrieved her from the underworld only to convince himself that he never lost her in the first place. The claim that I am trying to make is not at all the following banal and popular one: that love cannot exist without the fall into the underworld. I am also not trying to claim that love can only exist if one is willing and prepared to risk a fall into the underworld. Finally, I do not intend to make the claim that one should be wary of the temptation to conflate gaze/image and love. My claim is much more radical: love exists as the very truth of the fall, since what is most fallen in love is the possibility of love itself. I would add only that in love there is an extra ingredient: an attitude of fidelity and courage vis-à-vis this fall, which insists upon moving through, accepting, and sharing the primordial trauma (see Badiou on ‘fidelity’, 2012).
This is also a lesson we could take from the recent debates regarding the wearing of a scarf by Muslim women outside of Islamic cultures. Indeed, the debates have been particular fierce in French secular societies (such as France and the Canadian French-speaking province of Quebec). Is it not the case that the foreclosure of the scarf by secular extremists only renews a culture which privileges the urgency of the phallic gaze so as to symptomatically ‘make women exist?’ The rejection of the scarf is an attempt to renew the pathological deception that women actually exist by re-inscribing her within the phallic gaze (and thereby reducing her once again to her visibility). We should read closely the Quran on this question. Surah Al-Ahzab (The Qur’an, 2019, 33:53) reads as follows: “[a]nd when you ask [your wives] for something, ask them from behind a partition [curtain]. That is purer for your hearts and their hearts.” Perhaps the most interesting way to read this is not as a moral axiom (as both fanatic literalists and fanatic secularists read it) but rather as an ontological statement: one cannot possess woman through the phallic gaze because all authentic relationships with woman require man to pass through the paradoxical acceptance of not-having, of what Lacan calls ‘minus-phi’ or ‘minus-the-phallus.’ Once again, god reveals the heart only through a curtain or image. The function of the image is not to conceal but rather to conceal the fact of there being nothing at all to conceal.
Slavoj Zizek and Alenka Zupancic (2017) have discussed the role of the ‘fig leaves’ in the early account of Adam in the garden. Genesis 3:7 reads: “[t]hen the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves” (Bible, 1998, 3:7). There were debates concerning the illustration of ‘belly buttons’ in early biblical paintings. If Adam has a ‘belly button’ then does it not imply that he was biologically born to a biological father who preceded him? The debates were resolved by simply extending the fig leaf from the genitals toward the belly button. There is within Islamic scripture already an answer to this Christian riddle: the Quran is very clear that God does not have any biological son, he is not a biological father; he can only be understood as a ‘metaphorical’ father. The father operates as a metaphor and not principally as person who resembles the image or body of our own fathers. In Surah al-Badarah (2:116) there is a rectification against some misleading Christian beliefs: since God is understood as beyond gender, and since father indicates that God is ‘male’; the Quran states clearly that God is not a ‘man.’ The way forward is to presume that “son of” indicates a metaphorical process rather than a biological one.
The curtain of man’s phantasy shrouds woman in deceptive ways. Woman’s clothing is therefore an extension of man’s innate phantasies. We might repurpose Marshall McLuhan’s theses about the extensions of man by claiming that woman’s clothing is a symptomatic extension of man’s phantasy: her skin. It is an extension of her visibility. It is not that this spiritual phantasmatic dimension somehow exists independent of the material reality. It is not as if man could just avoid the phantasy of woman’s existence and therefore return to some more primordial and real encounter outside of the image. This is perhaps another way to read Hegel’s controversial claim that “the spirit is a bone,” since, within spiritual traditions phantasy is precisely what is most real about reality. The curtain of man’s phantasy shrouds woman in deceptive projections of beautification, thereby rendering her inexistent. The old testament teaches that the first woman was clothed by flesh itself after being made from the first man’s rib. The King James translation reads: “this is the bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman because she was taken out of Man” (Bible, 1998, 2:23). The awareness of flesh as curtain or partition is what is most at stake in any relationship with woman, so much so that, in love, we cannot get beyond it. Once again we should repurpose Marshall McLuhan’s theses of the extensions of man: it is not only that clothing is the extension of skin, but also, rather, that skin is revealed as the first clothing. When we claim that the spirit is a bone, we also mean to suggest that man cannot but fall in love with woman as his phantasy, he cannot but dress her up via his phallic rib/bone. In other words, we cannot but find within the relationship to woman a certain trauma since there is no way to authentically access her outside of the phallic orbit without succumbing to this trauma.
Perhaps the most contentious technique for revealing woman as inexistent is by way of the scarf. The obstacle of the curtain actively constructs (rather than negates) the sexual relationship. Women are therefore not simply concealed and oppressed within Islamic culture; indeed, those feminists who proclaim that the scarf is an instrument of oppression miss an important point. It is by removing the partition that the real trauma occurs. If woman were exposed as radically inexistent, we confront a level of anxiety that is perhaps too much for Western men to bear. The American neo-liberal obsession with ‘free choice,’ ‘free speech,’ and ‘control of one’s own body,’ unfortunately misses the fundamental deception of the unconscious: it is precisely when one believes oneself to be free that one all the more finds oneself determined by symbolic and real forces that urgently push us into a symptomatic whirlwind. It is by asserting the existence of ‘the woman’ as an authentic identity and object of love that she becomes more easily objectified, possessed, and rendered more consistent with capitalist-patriarchal society. It is only by disrupting the phallic gaze by way of exposing the curtain itself that the fundamental trauma which gives rise to patriarchal society can be explored. This is precisely what the scarf does: it reveals woman for what she effectively is: a silhouette, who, because of her inexistence, exists all the more dynamically within the imaginary.
A common assumption is that Western secular societies are therefore more sexually permissive and therefore more lustful than various Islamic cultures. Yet, is it not precisely through the awareness of the curtain of one’s phantasy that one can paradoxically grasp woman all the more and therefore eroticize the sexual relationship? Despite most claims to the contrary, Islam is among the most sexually progressive of the world’s religions. Abu Dharr once claimed that the prophet stated (in Hadith, The Book of Zakat, 12:66): “[i]n sexual intercourse for any one of you there is a reward.” Some replied to him with a question: “when any one of us fulfils his desire, will he have a reward?” The prophet replied: “Do you not see that if he were to do it in a haram [sinful] manner, he would be punished for that? So, if he does it in a halal manner, he will be rewarded.” Islam makes sexual pleasure an obligation between husbands and wives while nonetheless affirming a certain fidelity in love which endures beyond and despite the trauma – precisely as a push of the trauma itself.
The problem for Orpheus was that he insisted upon the removal of the curtain as obstacle in order to return to the image of Eurydice. He also did not realize that there is an intimate connection of love with primordial suffering. The goal is not to look beyond the image of the loved one in order to arrive at a more authentic underlying reality but rather to find what within the image is already a response to a primordial trauma. Love is the name we might use for the transmission and sharing of a space of suffering/loss precisely through the curtain, partition, or image. Or, in other words, love requires an aesthetics of suffering. Bracha L. Ettinger (2017) has developed her entire post-Lacanian theory around this basic idea. She wrote that “[There exists] a deep capacity to join in love and in suffering, in sorrow and in joy, in compassion. Freud talked on the affect and effect of […] uncanny anxiety. I argue that human affects like compassion and awe are just as uncanny and as primary as this anxiety .
Ettinger was discussing not just the anxiety of lack or castration but also and more essentially the traumatic anxiety of compassion, the latter of which is no doubt more foundational than castration anxiety. Since passion implies endurance through suffering, and not, as the contemporary naïve interpretation puts it ‘joy’ or ‘happiness;’ the prefix ‘com-‘ adds to this a zone of paradoxical union. Within Lacanian psychoanalysis this primordial substratum of enjoyable suffering is referred to as ‘jouissance.’ Love is not isolated from suffering but is that which necessitates or pushes the subject toward some delusional certainty; indeed, it pushes the subject toward his own invention as subject. This is its passience: the endurance of jouissance through the beauty of an unshakable conviction. Thus, the ‘passion of the Christ,’ or the other ‘passion narratives,’ document not ‘happiness’ or ‘joy’ – it is not that Christ was pursuing his love of a skilled trade or hobby – but rather suffering as the outcome of a fundamental and unshakable religious conviction.
My claim is that delusional certainty in love can offer the traumatized subject a mode of stabilization. Love is indeed among the healthiest of delusions for subjects who increasingly report traumas to their psychoanalysts. Whereas the traditional subject suffered from doubt within the ‘prison-house of language,’ by being torn from either end by signifiers (since the subject is “represented [to a signifier] for another signifier”; (Lacan, 1977, p. 207), today’s subjects suffer not from doubt but rather from certainty. Subjects today suffer from the loss of this very subjective space within the symbolic. The symbolic exists as a frightening apparition within the real. The old subject of doubt forever questioned his love relationship (e.g., “is she the right woman for me?,” “is marriage a prison?”), but today’s subject asks a question in relation to certainty (e.g., “she is definitely not the right person for me” or “she is perfect!”). Today’s subject of love seems torn not between signifiers as an expression of love but rather finds himself in oscillation between one of two positions: “if I have any doubt about her, then she isn’t the right one” and/or “I have no doubts about it, she is the one for me!”
The subjective suffering by way of certainty causes problems at the level of the Other: today’s subjects are certain, and their problem is that the Other is not certain too. On the one hand, this seems like a fundamental displacement of responsibility. For example, the old joke about the man who visited his psychoanalyst because he thought he was a grain of corn about to be eaten by a giant chicken demonstrates the fact that his cure missed the following displacement, “I know I am no longer a grain of corn, but the chicken doesn’t know it!” Things are much more troubling here. The traumatized subject requires not this simple level of displacement but rather a more delicate procedure of bringing the Other into existence narcissistically through a certainty. It is not that the chicken doesn’t know it but rather that the chicken does not yet exist for the subject. This shift from problems of doubt toward problems of certainty can be demonstrated quite well in American gender theory. If gender anxiety was once defined by the gendered subject as an uncertainty over his or her gender identity (e.g., “what does it mean to be a woman?”), and this, precisely, is what caused ‘gender trouble,’ then today the situation of trans* people demonstrates another modality of suffering: “I am certain about my gender identity but other people are not certain about it, and this is my fundamental problem” (see Rousselle, 2019b).
One way to read Bracha L. Ettinger’s post-Lacanian “matrixial” theory (1994) is to claim that it is possible to share the delusion of one’s certainty in love despite an inadequacy in paternal or phallic signification. When the foundation for love has been eradicated, all that remains is for an increase in the scope of one’s certainty. Against Alain Badiou’s claim that “love is communism for two” (Badiou, 2012), love is also the sharing of delusional certainty against the trauma of the real. This is why Ettinger’s interpretation of the Orpheus/Eurydice legend is a nice corrective to the interpretations propounded by popular culture (such as in the film Black Orpheus). Ettinger places Eurydice within the phallic gaze of the masculine subject. Judith Butler summarizes her position:
Eurydice is, as we know, already lost, already gone, already dead, and yet, at the moment in which our gaze apprehends her, she is there, there for the instant in which she is there. And the gaze by which she is apprehended is the gaze through which she is banished. Our gaze pushes her back to death, since we are prohibited from looking, and we know that by looking, we will lose her. And we will not lose her for the first time, but we will lose her again, and it will be by virtue of our own gaze that she will be lost to us, and that she will, as a result, be apprehensible only as loss. So, it is not just that she is lost, and we discover her again to be lost, but that in the very act of seeing, we lose. (Butler, 2004, p. 95-6).
This lesson of Eurydice is also the hidden truth revealed in plain sight within the fundamental message of Christianity. Whereas Judaism locates an ascension in the figure of Moses (the ‘at-least-one’ to have the courage to ascend the mountain), Christianity locates an image/body in the figure of Jesus who, through God’s own humiliation, descends from heaven. Through ascension the image of man connects with the symbolic God as revealed via the tablets of the law (thus, there is a rejection of the image in favor of God’s prohibitions). But through descension, the Symbolic God connects with the image of man as revealed in the figure of Christ. There is a disavowal of the symbolic God through the worship of Christ. This couple of Symbolic-Imaginary and Imaginary-Symbolic form the basis of the Judeo-Christian legacy and each in their own way form a defence against the primordial trauma of the real. They safeguard against the possibility of psychosis by introducing neurotic or perverse structural configurations.
The message of love in Christianity is therefore that God distanced himself from himself through the image of Jesus. Jesus is therefore not an essentially symbolic name but is rather essentially an image, body, or consistency (Zizek, 2012, p. 169). It is in this precise sense that love consists of an ontological gap within being. Christian love is not essentially about having or possessing an object, and neither is it about the image covering over a fundamental ‘being’ which must be exposed in its raw material form. Rather, Christianity demonstrates that man, like God, is fundamentally incomplete, that he embodies what Lacan called a “lack-of-being.” Christianity gives body to something in this world that has already fallen, that has already experienced a certain trauma, by gradually increasing the scope of that body so as to allow it to endure in time via the holy spirit (e.g., the holy spirit is another name for community or body of believers). We might claim that the holy spirit occurs as a consequence of Jesus’s militant and delusional conviction and by those who are prepared to love with certainty against the trauma of being itself.
The truth of Jesus, which is the revelation of divinity, occurs not only after Jesus experiences epistemological doubt while upon the cross (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”) but also and more fundamentally when the body of Jesus was placed inside of a tomb. It was when placed in the tomb that he vanished. Truth was revealed through the disappearance or subtraction of the visible and sensible. This was also Rhiannon Graybill’s (2018) position in a wonderful essay titled “Caves of the Hebrew Bible: A Speleology”. Why shouldn’t we presume that the cave is the place not of the simple Platonic topology whereby there is an outside and an inside, but rather as a Klein bottle: the place where God turns in upon himself in order to give birth to something else, the place where death intrudes into life, and the place where transcendence emerges from immanence.
St. Ignatius of Loyola was probably deceived when he instructed his fellow Christians, the Jesuits, to produce their own ‘lack-of-being’ through the following spiritual exercises:
[C]hastise the flesh, that is, giving it sensible pain, which is given by wearing haircloth or cords or iron chains next to the flesh, by scourging or wounding oneself, and by other kinds of austerity. […] What appears most suitable and most secure with regard to penance is that the pain should be sensible in the flesh and not enter within the bones, so that it give pain and not illness. For this it appears to be more suitable to scourge oneself with thin cords, which give pain exteriorly, rather than in another way which would cause notable illness within (St. Ignatius of Loyola, 1914, p. 32).
From this, it is clear why Zizek (2003) has claimed that Christianity is perverse at its core. But this nonetheless misses a crucial point. St. Ignatius could not have known that this masochistic gesture only demonstrates that the subject enjoys too much his various productions of suffering. The infliction of loss and trauma upon the body is only a strategy to avoid the acceptance of primordial loss. Put another way, if the loss was not yet produced for the subject, then what becomes forsaken in the production of loss is loss itself. Any effort to produce the lost loss only further deceives the Christian subject into the fallacious belief that there was already something to lose. Thus, the Jesuits presume that the body pre-exists its trauma, when, it seems to me that the body is one possible beautiful consequence of trauma. The secret of Christian love – one not accepted by many Christians – is found in the urgency of ‘death drive.’ Jesus, in the King James Bible, says: “[m]ost assuredly, I say unto you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain” (John 12-17). We could interpret this as the necessity of death for pushing the subject to endure as a certainty in life.
The problem of the Jesuits is that they give themselves the impression of ‘having’ by pounding away and removing the body’s flesh. This misses Christ’s essential lesson: his body was not there from the beginning, it was given form through the certainty of his community of believers: “[f]or when two or three [are] gathered in my name, there I am with them” (Matthew 18:20). He does not pre-exist the two or three but is retroactively created as a certainty through the cut of any two. Christ knew perfectly well that the presumption of a pre-existing body, a “one,” prematurely sutures the field of spiritual thinking. This was also the point made in the 1950s by Lacan’s most faithful disciples, Jacques-Alain Miller, Yves Duroux, and others, when they began to work forward on their theory of “suture.” Their work focused on a strange cocktail of Lacanian insights into Gottleb Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic in order to demonstrate that the “one” is only possible by first positing two. Put another way, every “one” has within itself already a fundamental scission, as Alain Badiou has put it, and this scission exposes the body to its real dimension of ‘cut.’ Yet, paradoxically, this ‘cut’ is also what gives rise to the body of Christ. Therefore, those who follow St. Ignatius of Loyola on this point deceptively decide to affirm a logic of ‘having’ the ‘one’ through the removal of the body: but the body is something we ‘have’ only in the sense of a ‘hole’ or ‘void’ which can never be sutured. As one Lacanian put it: “[we] have a body, but a body inscribed with trauma outside of meaning, a hole at the center of being which is surrounded by an image, and with this image, he makes a world” (Adler, 2018, p. 1). Whether Orpheus or the Jesuits, the spiritual practices are similar: the production of a loss in order to convince oneself of ‘having.’
Jacques-Alain Miller demonstrates one of many modalities of love at our disposal:
[T]o 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. Love feminises. That’s why love is always a bit comical in a man (Miller, 2013).
Giving one’s lack is no more a call to sadism (e.g., striking the flesh as they do in certain Shia sects or in the early Jesuit order) than it is a call to masochism (e.g., producing anxiety or lack in the Other). Accepting responsibility for one’s lack, as well as for the lack in the Other, is not at all the same as producing a lack which is lacking. This is why Miller claimed that one has to “assume your lack,” since he presumes that the lack has already been installed (and not that the subject has opted for the psychotic solution whereby ‘lack itself is lacking’). Though Christianity demonstrates that love consists of various techniques of humiliation and degradation of the subject – revealing an underlying femininity – this is not in of itself a reason to presume that it is inherently perverse. My attempt is to rescue Christianity from the perverse reading and to subject it to an Islamic reading, or, put differently, my attempt is to find within Christianity the zero level psychotic moment whereby lack was installed as a perverse solution within psychotic structure.
Christian love interrupts the phantasmatic support of masculine subjectivity by revealing the inherent and apriori destitution of the subject upon which any object-relation or object-possession might occur. In a sense, then, Jesus did not die for our sins but rather he revealed that he was already dead and that he could only be accessed through the intermediary of the image and the body. Put another way, the word sin, which is revealed in the Hebrew as hata or in the Greek is related to an error or a missing of the mark, such that the death for sins is rather the convergence of two errors which are universal and primordial. At the same time, there is in Christian love the perverse operation of disavowal with respect to love. There is the following key difference between the meta-ethical cornerstones of Christianity and Islam: Christianity often resurrects its status as a universal discourse by way of the second great commandment to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’ (this is a love of difference in order to secure the universal phantasy), thereby revealing a certain logic of disavowal (e.g., ‘we respect differences and yet at the same time we wish to offer the one and only truth concerning love’), and Islam often proclaims with certainty that love exists not essentially by respecting differences but rather by coming to common terms with the other religions of the book (e.g., an ethical maxim from the third Surah, ayah 64; Qur’an: 64).
Certainty of belief is secured in Islam precisely by removing from within itself any atheism or non-belief. This removal of the primordial error is akin to the foreclosure of lack. Yet, the problem of the lack-of-belief is central to the three Abrahamic religions, and each, in their own way, has to contend with it even while depending upon it, essentially, for the establishment of their religious doctrine. For example, chronologically speaking, Judaism permits atheism after the symbolic God of the tablet substitutes itself for imaginary idolatry: one can be an atheist after one has already been a Jew. For example, there is the story of Peter Lipton who was “[a] self-confessed ‘religious atheist,’ [who was] fully engaged with his religious culture, taking his family to synagogue on Saturdays and teaching children at the Sabbath school. He did not think it was necessary to believe in God to recognize the value of religion in providing the individual with a moral compass” (Rabbi Dow Marmur, 2018). However, for Christians, atheism or non-belief is inscribed precisely within the middle of the discourse’s chronology: there is, within the believer’s heart, a moment of the fall into the ‘dark night of the soul,’ so that, finally, a resurrected belief might occur. Descartes’ radical doubt exists, like Christ’s doubt upon the cross, precisely as a stage in the movement of spiritual renewal and reinvigoration. Thus, Zizek and others (e.g., G. K. Chesterton) have argued that there is a moment within the Christian narrative where God himself – through Jesus – became an atheist.
Where does Islam stand on the problem of atheism and non-belief? We often read that Atheism is blasphemous within Islam and that it results in death. Yet, atheism is considered impossible within Islam because we are all already hardwired with belief, thus, it is impossible to be truly atheist. One might be atheist at the conscious level without recognizing the symbolic determinations of God at the unconscious level. Thus, I repeat Max Stirner’s (2020) curious passage to Ludwig Feuerbach’s humanism: ‘our atheists are the most pious people!’ They don’t know what they know all too well, they don’t believe at all what they believe! In any case, there is within Islam the following curious contradiction: on the one hand, one is permitted to be an atheist, chronologically speaking, before one has become a Muslim; yet, on the other hand, there is the claim that one is already born hard-wired with belief; this is why Muslims prefer to use the word ‘revert’ rather than ‘convert.’ How are we to reconcile these two ostensibly contradictory claims?
We have here an example of the Hegelian logic of ‘positing the presuppositions,’ whereby our past belief is installed as always already there from the perspective of the future – and, as it were, we cannot do otherwise than to claim that we have always believed but that we have strayed from that belief (e.g., moved away from the ‘straight path’). This is demonstrated most obviously in the Islamic emphasis on ‘judgment day’ (Yawm ad-Din) since, as Slavoj Zizek (via Hegel) has argued: “essence posits its own presuppositions” (Zizek, 2008, p. 260). According to many Muslims, there is a day of judgment at the end of it all — like Hegel’s owl of minerva. Does this not imply that at the end there shall be belief which shall retroactively assume a detraction from inherent belief since the beginning? This love of fate, or, these retroactive determinations of faith, as an element of a technique messianism, is installed already at the level of casual Arabic language in the expression “InshaAllah.” The idea of leaving everything to God’s will implies that the future will determine the past, and not, as we might expect, that we resign ourselves to our futures and can therefore just await the coming judgment. It is often supplemented with the following Arabic idiom: “put your faith in God but always tie your camel.” This means that we are nonetheless responsible for the determinations which will retroactively constitute our faith. Incidentally, this implies that we are even more responsible than those who naively believe in ‘free will.’ Those who naively believe in free will take responsibility only to discredit it in others: if I am free to produce my own destiny then the other, who does not come out so well in the end, must be responsible for his horrible judgment. Islam demonstrates that ‘free will’ produces an unknowing determination so that we do not know what determines us: we believe ourselves to be free but we are not at all acting freely. Islam therefore moves in an altogether different direction: we align ourselves with the ‘straight path’ of the divine determinations which compel us, and the difficulty is to not act as though we are free. This is the most difficult responsibility that a human can work through today: to not stray into the crooked path of an ideology of freedom.
In Islam we find movements of certainty in belief that occur not as a defence against the real but rather as its extension into a body of truth. Whereas Judaism offers a symbolic God of the tablets (installing the prohibitions that we have come to associate with the Lacanian name-of-the-father), Christianity offers an imaginary God of the body; finally, Islam offers a real God whose ‘extimacy’ is described very well in Surah Qaf (Qur’an 2019, 50:16): “And we have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and We are closer to him than his jugular vein.” This is a God who absolutely resists the image and so pushes toward a Lacanian logic of sinthome. The sinthome – unlike the ‘symptom’ – is a jouissance which calls out to nobody, likewise within Islam there is nothing which God demands from us, and yet, at the same time, we cannot help but always be in touch with God. Within Islam we find the only religion which fully demonstrates God’s unique mode of jouissance: thus, one has only to identify with this radical void of God’s enjoyment, with the void which pushes the subject and compels him not toward the image of the body but rather toward a singular mode of organization: writing. Surah Al-Qalam (Qur’an, 2019, 68:1 & 68:2) reads: “By the pen and what they inscribe; you are not, by the favor of your Lord, a madman.” At the moment of writing we are able to organize God’s jouissance and to therefore find within ourselves a mode of jouissance organization, against madness.
There is some truth therefore to the popular wisdom that love should never be conflated with any imaginary sense of ownership. When the loved one is reduced to an object, she becomes a mere prop within the domain of man’s phantasy. Since the modus operandi of the ego is ‘possession’ and ‘consistency,’ the love of ownership via the phallic gaze is always ego-love. Wherever this love prevails there is evidence of the axiom that “it is one’s own ego that one loves in love” (Lacan, 1988, p. 142). This logic was explored most forcefully in Lacan’s 19th seminar Encore, where the masculine subject is ‘sexuated’ (castrated) by a phallic signifier. Subsequently, his only recourse is to relate to the object cause of his desire, the woman, as semblance via the phantasmatic circuit. Yet, any ostensibly possessed object also inadequately conceals the fact of subjective destitution. Indeed, this is one way to interpret the famous Lacanian ‘matheme of phantasy’ ($<>a): the castrated subject, $, engages with the object cause of his desire through the axis of his own phantasy. However, does this moment of sexuation not align itself most clearly with the Judeo-Christian legacy? The Islamic legacy aligns itself most clearly with the time of the not-all: in some sense, the discourse of Islam does not impart as its truth castration anxiety but rather the installation of oneself as objet petit a; there does not exist a single Muslim subject who is not submitted to this anxiety and who therefore contributes to the shared body of Islamic doctrine, the Sunnah.
Masculine love always has this phantasmatic trajectory because love is what makes up for the lack of having itself. Yet, we should not be naïve in presuming that we can escape this logic. We could read this statement on love in relation to the sexual: love is what makes up for the lack of a sexual relationship, but sex should not be read literally as physical copulation or as the union of two beings brought together into one. Quite the opposite: love is nothing more than the name we give to the phantasy of union through sexual copulation. Sex refers to primordial ontological incompleteness, or, in other words, the lack-of-being as well as the lack-of-the-Other. Sex is the hole that exists within any knowledge, within any pattern or consistency, and within any logic of having or possession. Put differently, sex is that which interrupts and intervenes as an obstacle to meaning itself (Zupancic, 2012). Alenka Zupancic writes:
[S]ex is above all a concept that formulates a persisting contradiction of reality. And […] this contradiction is involved in the very structuring of […] being. In this sense, sex is of ontological significance: not as an ultimate reality, but as an inherent twist, or stumbling block, of reality (Zupancic, 2017, p. 3).
Sex is the real ontological stratum which remains forever inexpressible within language and image. Sex is the problem for which love offers a potential solution, and yet, at the same time, love is founded upon the ontological rupture of sex. This is why Lacan was able to claim that love is “outside-sex” (horsexe), since it provides the distance through which one might tolerate the profound anxiety of the lack of a sexual relationship. The Lacanian corrective is best expressed in the following way: “one cannot love except by becoming a non-haver, even if one has” (Lacan, 2015, p. 358). To love is to give what you do not have, since to locate oneself where one already is, within the real of sex – within the fundamental impossibility of a direct and unmediated relationship – is also to articulate an affirmative love. Lacan was intensely suspicious of love and hate (the two are intertwined in terms of libidinal investments into object-relations) but he nonetheless opened up a space for affirmative love.
We can now discern two fundamental positions on love from Lacan: first, love is to give what one doesn’t have (… to somebody who doesn’t want it), and; second, love is what makes up for the lack of a sexual relationship. The first axiom is often associated with the earlier Lacanian teachings of the 1950s-1960s while the second is associated with the “late Lacan” period of the 1970s. Lacan’s position on love did not change but new clinical realities emerged: whereas the former seems to affirm a courageous style of love, the latter cautions against love’s symptomatic dimension. Indeed, to be a ‘non-haver’ in love seems to be a courageous attitude against the temptation of love’s relinquishment, and to love as a way of compensating for lack seem cowardly vis-à-vis the hole of sex. However, is it not possible to also turn these positions around: to be a ‘non-haver’ in love is all the more to conceal the hole of sex (via the nothing) and to love so as to make up for lack is also courageously to love in spite of the primordial trauma of sex. Once again the Klein bottle can give us an orientation: just as sex is related to the lack-in-being so too love is related to the imaginary substitution of this lack of being; yet, if we move the other way in the Klein bottle, then love can also bring us to the lack-in-being and produce the possibility of an impossible and unsatisfiable sexuality. This impossible sexuality is important for the proliferation of desire, and yet, today, when sexual union seems the easiest of possibilities for most of the neoliberal world, only love can reintroduce it as an obstacle. Courtly love is no longer a deception aimed at making sex appear possible precisely by making it impossible by will, it is, rather, the condition through which the impossibility of sex becomes installed by the certainty of a love which endures.
While being a non-haver in love seems to imply a position outside of the comforts of the ego, it could also imply an all the more deceptive forfeiture of love: it is to give the nothing itself as an object, which, in other words, renders not-having into another possession or object. In this modality, love, when issued as a demand to an Other, consists of the demand for the nothing as object. This is perhaps among the cleverest ways to cloak castration: by affirming it openly. There is hence an obscene hidden violence inflicted by the lover who wishes for his loved one to give him the love he so demands but also to do so as a free choice. The loved one is expected to love without any apparent demand to have even done so from the lover. Those who are disinterested in matters concerning love may very well be all the more passionately attached to loves demands. The irony is that those who seem most disinterested in love may very well be those who love with the most intensity, those who demand love even more than others. We can imagine the following scenario: a ‘bad’ guy refuses to pay for lunch, refuses to give flowers or compliments, or to give his attention, and simply waits for his lover to give him the love in spite of it all. In this way, the ‘bad’ guy can be sure of the authenticity of his lover’s gestures. Love is always best tested through the establishment of a zone of nothingness.
This is one of the many reasons that the psychoanalytic work of Jacques-Alain Miller is so important today. Miller returns to the early Lacanian topic of love and its relationship with ‘the nothing’ as object. He writes that love is “a paradoxical demand for the gift of nothing. This obviously presupposes that we give this nothing a certain consistency. This is really what Lacan did by calling it ‘the nothing’ and by making this nothing precisely the object that responds to the demand for this or that […] the nothing is the object functioning in the demand for love” (Jacques-Alain Miller, 2018, p. 36-8). To be a ‘non-haver’ in love can therefore also mean that one is situated within the domain of ego-love by way of the logic of consistency. When we affix the definite article to ‘nothing’ we render it into an imaginary object: the nothing is an object which stands in for the real thing, as a shield against any encounter with the traumatic void.
Hence, even in our effort to overcome the logic of possession and consistency in love we seem to reintroduce it through the back door. Not only do we reintroduce it, but we do so in an even more deceptive way. This explains why Lacan claimed that the anorexic eats ‘the nothing’: the nothing is a shield against a much more traumatic encounter with jouissance which would completely erase the subject. The nothing as object is exemplified through the apparent rejection of food, it offers protection from the asphyxiated Otherness of the food-objects which would erase the subject’s lack-in-being. The paradox is that the subject feels too connected to the food objects. The anorexic simply eats the nothing as a defence against the trauma of a lack of lack. The nothing is the anorexic’s symptomatic solution to the problem of the intensity of his primary social bond: by rejecting food he or she opens up a space for subjectivity as such, for desire, and, indeed, for a love without asphyxiation.
In his first seminar, Lacan (1988, p. 276-7) stated that: “[t]here is in fact in the gift of love only something given ‘for nothing,’ and which can only be ‘nothing.’ In other words, it is only provided that a subject gives something freely, that he gives all that he lacks, that the primitive gift […] is established [so that he] makes the sacrifice beyond what he has. […] I beg you to consider that if we suppose that a subject has apprehended all possible possessions, all riches, all of that which can be the height of what one may have, then a gift coming from such a subject would literally have no value as a sign of love.” This supposition is an important one for the following reason: we discover that a man who gives all of what he has in love therefore leaves no room for the woman to desire him. This is why the second part of Lacan’s statement is important: ‘love is giving what one doesn’t have … to somebody who doesn’t want it.’ This is the mark of man’s crucial failure in love: perhaps to be a ‘non-haver’ in love does not mean that we should give ‘the nothing,’ but rather it might imply that even when we think we are giving nothing in love we are perhaps all the more giving something.
As the American comedian Jerry Seinfeld once put it: ‘nothing is still something!’
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Duane Rousselle is a Lacanian psychoanalyst and American Sociologist who has published numerous books including Gender, Sexuality and Subjectivity: A Lacanian Perspective on Language, Identity and Queer Theory (London: Routledge, 2020), Jacques Lacan & American Sociology: Be Wary of the Image (London: Palgrave, 2019), Lacanian Realism: Political and Clinical Psychoanalysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), and Post-Anarchism: A Reader (London: Pluto Press, 2012).
February 4, 2021