According to Plato, in Greek mythology humans originally had four arms, four legs, and a head with two faces. Fearful that such humans would become too powerful for the gods to control, Zeus split humans into two halves, each with two arms and two legs and one face.
This myth, we might suggest, continues to resonate in contemporary culture, in sayings such as ‘my better half’, ‘my other half’, and the idea of ‘looking someone to complete me’. This quest to find one’s other half drives many industries, such as those that market gifts on Valentines Day, self-help books that claim to tell us how to find our perfect partner, and perhaps even, we might argue, in professional guidance on the topic of attachment parenting.
In the clinic, the quest to find ‘true love’ sits at the heart of many of the issues that patients present with. Spurned lovers, those unlucky in love, and lovers who experience dissatisfaction in their relationship all, in their own ways, speak about the belief that their lives would be happier if they could find a partner who completes them.
In contrast to these many and varying evocations of the Greek myth as recounted by Plato, Lacan’s account of sexuation insists that there is no sexual relation. By this he did not mean that people do not have sexual intercourse. Rather, his claim refers to the understanding of subjectivity that he elaborated throughout his work.
By Lacan’s account, we are all searching for something that exists only in fantasy: a sense of oneness with another person (first with our primary attachment figure, and then later with others whom we come to love). Lacan suggests that such a sense of oneness can only exist in fantasy, and that in reality we are always divided, both from ourselves (i.e., our unconscious) and from others.
Pink Herrings takes up Lacan’s argument about the sexual non-relationship and applies it to six of Freud’s cases, examining how Freud’s analysands, in their fantasies, sought ways to overcome the sexual non-relationship through the ways in which they deciphered the sexuated positions of their parents, and from which they chose a position that could allow them to believe that they could overcome the sexual non-relationship.
In so doing, the book maps out a clinic of sexuation that provides another avenue through which to undertake analytic work. Importantly, the book does not set out to prove that all who believe in the idea of ‘true love’ are dupes of romantic narratives harking back to Greek mythology. Rather, the book demonstrates how fantasies of unity with another are an important part of how we come to be as people, even if some fantasies are more adaptive than others.
The book thus proposes not that we should instruct our analysands as how to ‘move beyond’ their fantasies. Rather, Pink Herrings suggests that there is considerable scope for working with fantasies of oneness in ways that allow our analysands to identify the patterns that shape their interactions with others, and with themselves.
Damien W. Riggs is an Associate Professor in social work at Flinders University and an Australian Research Council Future Fellow. He is the author of over 150 publications in the fields of gender/sexuality studies and mental health. He also works in private practice as a Lacanian psychotherapist. His book Pink Herrings: Fantasy, Object Choice, and Sexuation is published this week by Karnac Books.