Desire as Metonymy

“Desire is shaped like a metonymy.” I had read this several times over the years, a quote attributed to Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst.  I had attempted to understand this cognitively. However, it wasn’t until earlier today that the full implications of his statement dawned on me experientially.

Lacan’s is a psychology of desire. His desire is not necessarily the pulsating, sexual desire that the word commonly denotes. Lacan’s desire originates in relationship with the mother, and can be understood to have the same nature and texture as is associated with Jung’s eros – a passion for life, for objects, for existence. For example,  Lacan talks about the desire of the therapist for his clients as an important ingredient in the healing process. The therapist has to have a genuine and deep desire to be of help to the patient – a desire for patient’s wellness. He states that it is the desire of the therapist for the patients wellbeing which eventually allows for the healing. Since it is the lack of desire for wellness and even for life that brings patients into consultation rooms, the desire of the therapist for the patient has to exceed the desire of the patient.

We now come to defining the concept of metonymy. Wikipedia defines metonymy as :

Metonymy (play /mɪˈtɒnɪmi/ mi-tonn-ə-mee)[1] is a figure of speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept.

For example : “A set of wheels” may be used as a metonym for a car, or “hot legs” to denote a sexy woman. In these examples, in the mind, a part is used to create/recall an image of the whole.

Lacan maintains that it is the law of the father – the taboos, inhibitions and prohibitions on an incestuous mother child relationship – that is invoked in all separations we encounter in life. Whereas the mother stands for unity, symbiosis, all beginings, the father symbolises divisions, separations, all endings. And he states that thru this Law, which he calls the Name of the Father or the Law of the Father, thought, and language arises.  As a consequence of the Law, the child is initiated into a sacred order that is larger than itself, larger than the mother and larger than the father as well. The order of the civilized world, of morals, and ethics.

Since the child submits to this higher order, the prohibition, the Law, or the “No!” teaches the child to accede not to the desired object, but to the desire of the desired.  This means that the child will hopefully learn not to desire the objects in of themselves, but what the objects represents. We do not desire the religious figures, gods, teachers, but we learn to submit to objects of their desires.  Hence the child submits to all that is held dear by the desired object – to the teachings of religion, to the ethical and moral values upheld in the name of god, and  to the teachings of his teachers.  And by submitting to these desires of the desired, civilization and culture evolves. The child learns the way of the civilized word, and grows from it. This desire of the desired is but a metonymy. It is a part that is unconsciously inspired by the love held for the desired object.

I had understood these two concepts only cognitively. I had understood, also, that Lacan’s desire, shaped like a metonymy, enables the adult child to fall in love with a person who has something, a part that resembles his mother. A smile, the hair, the color of eyes, etc remind him unconsciously of his mother, which creates a feeling of connection, and love, and therefore submission.

My grandfather was a writer. He wrote almost incessantly. Not epics, not novels, not materials that became world class, but he wrote, nevertheless. Like Athena, who had sprung from the forehead of Zeus, I was extremely attached to him. It hadn’t occured to me until now, but as I look back today, I realise all my life I have been unconsciosuly attracted – in whatever ways that may be – to people who had the gift of writing !

 In late 90s and early 80s, during my High School and UnderGrad years my life had felt as if it was lodged between a rock and a hard place. There were few role models, and fewer things that brought me happiness. My soul was weary and tired, but also filled with the ambition and the hopes and dreams of promises of tomorrows.  In this dark period of my life, came a few random beacons of light that allowed for some illumination in an otherwise desolate existance. It wasn’t until much much later, decades later, that I realised their significance in my life. And it is now, with my education in psychology, I realise how my life has been shaped by these chance encounters with total strangers.

Earlier today my english professor from my ungraduate class, located me on the internet, and contacted me. I had attended his class for two semesters, for less than a year. In addition to this, we had presented a few Radio Programs since we were both DJs at a local radio station. During the course of scripting the show, we had spent a few hours together. That was all the time we had had – once a week class over 2 semesters – about 24 hours of contact time, and a few more hours at the Radio Station. My conscious mind had not registered the significance of this association until this email after close to 30 years or so. He had remembered me, and the email was filled with the same familiarity, and affection as he had held for me 30 years ago. I realised that all these years I had carried him in my unconscious as an attachment figure, even though the knowledge of such attachment had well been disguised from me by the protective defenses.  My eyes filled up with tears when I read his affectionate email, and thru that misting of my eyes, was forced into introspection. What had he meant? Why hadn’t I figured out, and what impact had he had on my life ?

All that is fodder for internal reflection, but I realised that my love of language seemed to have been shaped by separations. Not just this separation, but thru two other significant separations over a period of time. At the time, I simply wrote to expel the noxious and toxic affects. In so many ways then, my writing was his (and those of other two) gift to me.

I love writing. And it was easy to trace how that love for writing had unconsciously developed over the years, after he had left the college to pursue a career elsewhere. The word metonymy arose in my mind….and I understood how I, because I had held deep attachment bonds – I had submitted to the desire of the desired. In my writings, was embedded the mechanism of metonymy….my writings somehow, in the unconscious, connected me to these three people who I cared for, and lost. They had all represented language and writing, they had all been extremely good writers and the double effect – separation and the metonym – had propelled me forward in the world of wordsymbols, of letters and language. Andre Green would say that my creativity was a repetitive attempt to win the lost object back, it was a psychic defense arising against the premonition, and the experience of loss of a deep attachment bond.

So just like the certain color of eyes, certain length of hair, certain element of a smile may take a person back to their mother, just like the term “set of wheels” takes a person unconsciously back to the car that he desires, in the same way, my written work took me unconsciously back to these three attachment figures in my life. It had been my way of staying connected with them.

What if I hadn’t connected to these random strangers?  Or what if these figures had not separated from me? Would I still be able to write as well? We will never know, but I doubt it. And so, I have to admit that loss begets thoughts. It begets language. And thoughts and language, in cohort with emotions, lead to wisdom. So loss begets wisdom.  And sometimes loss [of attachment figures] is necessary in the path of growth. I am reminded of Judith Viorst’s book on the subject : Necessary Losses.

I hope I remember this lesson, and not remain stuck, but use all losses as an opportunity to deepen, to grow, to become wiser.

I would like to close this story with a musical clip from Alabama that has been very inspirational in lives that it has touched – Angels Amongst Us

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