Bruce Fink on Lacan, Psychoanalysis and Love

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

Interview with Lacanian psychoanalyst Bruce Fink

Bruce Fink is a Lacanian psychoanalyst and a translator of Jacues Lacan. He is the author of books Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely, the Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance (1995), Lacan on Love: An Exploration of Lacan's Seminar VII, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique and many other texts.

We spoke about the aim of psychoanalysis, about love and desire in the context of Jacues Lacan, but also about the current Quarantine related to COVID-19 and the difficulties it could potentially cause or bring to the surface within the romantic relationships.

Question: First of all, thank you very much for taking the time.

After years of learning, clinical practice, and teaching, what do you think is the final and most important aim of psychoanalysis?

I was wondering about the eventual ideal outcome of psychoanalysis in a clinical setting: is knowing yourself (or attempting to do so) and achieving it (to an extent that is even possible), enough? Or would it be fair to claim that knowing yourself, understanding your pain and traumas, generally becoming more aware is just a tool, just an enabling or freeing factor? In other words, isn’t an obsessive desire to know yourself (and making it an ultimate, final goal) partly a pathology itself? Should psychoanalysis eventually just bring one to the point where he/she is free from paralyzing suffering so that she/he can finally forget about the self and dedicate oneself to something bigger than his/her pleasures or suffering? I’m referring to Adam Phillips, he writes: “Patients come because they are suffering from something. They want that suffering to be alleviated. Ideally, in the process of doing the analysis, they might find their suffering is alleviated or modified, but also they might discover there are more important things than to alleviate one’s suffering"

Bruce Fink: There are technical, theoretical ways of describing the aims of psychoanalysis, but rather than reiterate them here I would simply say that psychoanalysis seeks to help people overcome anxieties, stop engaging in repetitive behaviors that destroy their relationships at work and at home, and find ways of leading more fulfilling lives in which they feel able to pursue what they want and enjoy doing so. In answer to the question “how do we know when an analysis has gone far enough,” Lacan famously said, “when the patient is happy to be alive.” I think that’s a marvelous answer! It is often said that the goal of psychoanalysis it is for the analysand to know him- or herself better, but as I have argued at length in Against Understanding (the main paper of which is available in German), to emphasize knowing often leads to a preoccupation with the ego, not with the unconscious, and this can get in the way of actual change.

“Know thyself,” the Socratic injunction, is not psychoanalysis’ injunction.

Q: Desire and Love - first, is there a fundamental difference between them, and if yes, what is it? But most importantly, could Love and Desire exist at the same time, without one excluding or contradicting the other? (Of course, referring to Lacan and also your own vision)

As you mention in the book "Lacan on love“: "Insofar as desire is always for something we do not have, in order for desire to persist in a relationship, there must always be something we do not have, that we do not yet have, or have not yet received from our beloved. As Lacan puts it (p. 124), desire can never have or possess anything other than lack, for as soon as it possesses its object, it disappears. To give oneself body and soul to one’s beloved may then kill his or her desire; hence the difficulty and dance (à la Stendhal) around keeping the partner’s desire alive” but you also mention, that it seems to you, that one can indeed love something that one has, meaning love doesn’t need “the lack” to stay alive, so if “satisfaction buries desire” how is it possible to love and desire at the same time? Is it so, that “where they love they do not desire and where they desire they cannot love”? And does it even seem important to you: managing to love and desire at the same time?

B.F: In psychoanalysis, desire specifically refers to sexual desire (this is how Freud used the term). Love, on the other hand, is something one can feel for a great many different people—family members, friends, etc.—without necessarily desiring them sexually. One can, of course, feel both love and desire for one and the same person, but for some people love and desire almost always diverge, and for many people, they diverge after a relationship has lasted for a certain period of time, whether several months or several years. Psychoanalysis can, at times, allow the two to converge more enduringly, and it can help people deal better with situations in which they do not converge, whether in themselves or in their partners.

Q: I wonder what is your opinion about love, desire and relationships in the context of COVID-19 situation and the quarantine: I stumbled upon countless articles, stating that the divorces significantly went up in China after the quarantine (same might start to happen in Europe and the U.S) and that in general, quarantine means problems for a lot of relationships because it’s almost evolutionarily unnatural to spend the whole time with a loved one. First, do you think this is a non-exaggerated, real problem? And if yes, how would you explain that the relationships seem to be extremely sensitive to changes or hardships today?

B.F: The recent lockdown/quarantine/stay-at-home situation owing to the coronavirus generally highlighted couples’ pre-existing problems by forcing them to spend a great deal more time together than they usually would, and by depriving them of many of the social outlets they usually have with colleagues, friends and, in some cases, extramarital lovers. Social contact with others is what allows certain couples to stay together, limiting the time they spend in each other’s exclusive company. Conflicts they had striven to forget or overlook came to the fore and in certain cases lead to breakups. Other couples rediscovered each other and were able to appreciate things about their partners that they had forgotten, having spent so little time together for years (often since their children were born).

Most of us are selfish when it comes to love and few of us live up to Lacan’s definition of love it as “giving what you don’t have.” Many of us are not even willing to give what we do have! And most of us are absolutely unwilling to give what we don’t have—which is, after all the hardest thing to give! (I can’t explain what he means by that definition here, so I will merely refer you to my recent book, Lacan on Love, which I had wanted to entitle “Love is giving what you don’t have,” but the publisher found that overly obscure…)

Romantic love tends to overlook many of the differences between myself and my partner, wishing them away, as it were, wanting to believe they do not exist. A more enduring form of love, however (which need not exclude romance!), requires me to recognize and accept the myriad differences between myself and my partner, and to accept my partner “warts and all,” in other words, with all of what I consider to be his or her flaws, defects, and failings. That is a tall order, indeed!

Q: And the last question: If the ego is itself the source of the systematic deception and if it cannot be the agency for overcoming that deception, ("the truth lies elsewhere"), how can contemporary psychoanalytic practice respond to that challenge, or, better, does it take this challenge seriously in practice? How can psychoanalysis in practice be oriented at the truth of the unconscious subject, against Ego Psychologists's approach? Or would you say that psychoanalytic theory and practice have a different understanding of the ego today?

B.F: As I have written in many different books and papers, Lacan focused from the outset on the unconscious and was very critical of the kind of therapeutic work that is done by ego psychologists. Like a savvy detective, the Lacanian psychoanalyst focuses on what

doesn’t make sense—on slips of the tongue, bungled actions, dreams, and fantasies—and not on analysands’ conscious speculations about why things in their lives are happening the way they are happening. Unconscious thoughts and wishes are very often the exact opposite of conscious thoughts and wishes, and the truth is very often the exact opposite of what analysands claim it is. That is true not merely at the outset of analysis, but often for many years thereafter:

the ego almost automatically wishes to see things as they are not, the truth being so unseemly, so difficult to accept. In the best of cases, a profound transformation in the ego takes place over the course of lengthy analysis, such that denial and willful blindness become less automatic.

Edited by Anna Beria

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