The Hand That Extends: Lacan on Love, Transference, Plato’s Symposium, Essay 14 of #52essays2017

Lacan portrait.I first encountered the work of Jacques Lacan in my first year of grad school; I can think of no other theorist who more painfully highlighted my inadequacies by the impenetrability of their words. And the late nineties were not exactly a time in literary circles for transparency, if ever there was one. Derrida was still alive and well and guest lecturing at NYU and elsewhere–I was there! I even went to his office hours and spoke with him for about two minutes. Very nervous and about as far from the rigor of his thinking as a striving academic could be. But Derrida another Jacques, is beside the point today. Today it is Lacan, and specifically my newfound interest and dare I say love for him that will occupy this little essay.
My dear friend and companion in visual impairment, Dr. Caroline Kasnakian, has been telling me about Après-Coup, a psychoanalytic association in NYC dedicated to the teachings of Freud and Lacan, for several years, but it was the writing of a story–a twisted little psychological horror piece (still under construction) that provoked me to go with her to one of their lectures last week.

Caroline Kasnakian chez Lacan.The lecture, delivered by Après-Coup’s founder Paola Mieli, was “On the Subject and Transference,” and this provoked me to pick up and begin again to read Lacan, tentatively and with much trepedation.

If you’ve no experience reading the works of this famously oblique psychoanalyst, I should start by saying that most of what you will read by him are transcriptions of his seminars delivered in Paris from 1953 to 1981. There is no doubt that Lacan does not make for beach reading, but at least in the earlier lectures, his brilliant, playful voice shines through and can make reading them, especially as I do, out loud, quite enjoyable. As a tiny sample, I offer the following quote, taken from the opening lecture of Lacan’s Seminar VIII: Transference (1960-61):

“The hand that extends toward the fruit, the rose, or the log that suddenly bursts into flames – its gesture of reaching, drawing close, or stirring up is closely related to the ripening of the fruit, the beauty of the flower, and the blazing of the log. If, in the movement of reaching, drawing, or stirring, the hand goes far enough toward the object that another hand comes out of the fruit, flower, or log and extends toward your hand – and at that moment your hand freezes in the closed plenitude of the fruit, in the open plenitude of the flower, or in the explosion of a log which bursts into flames – then what is produced is love.”

Because this lecture is on transference (and because it’s Lacan), I think we can be fairly certain that we are not to understand this beautiful little passage as being primarily (or at all) about romantic love. And because this metaphor struck me so forcefully that I continued reading this difficult text to the very end, I take the metaphor to be about the intellectual hand that extends–Lacan’s voice that comes through the pages of the lecture so charmingly–as a reward for extending my hand towards the fruit and the flower and the fire.

Plato's Symposium, painting by Anselm Feuerbach, 1869.

It turned out that this was the perfect seminar with which I should reacquaint myself with Lacan because it begins with a reading of Plato’s Symposium, the odd   and rather sexy Philosophical dialogue that I know about as well as any book because I’ve taught it many times. How can you not adore the lighthearted sketch of Socrates and his buds drinking and flirting, their speeches on love interrupted by the dramatic entrance of the ultimate lover boy Alcibiades and his pack of rowdy revelers? For more on Alcibiades and his apparently truthful account of his romance with Socrates, I refer you to Lacan, who makes much of this interruption, with which so many commentators through the centuries have struggled in vain to comprehend.

Another ancient perplexity is that Agathon, the tragic poet and host of this particular soiree, gives a speech on love, which is funny and quite dismissed by Socrates as fluff, while Aristophanes, the comic playwright, gives one that is quite touching even if it contains some clowning around. Aristophanes, the comic and I should add bawdy playwright  ought not even to be at the symposium with Socrates nor allowed to speak so eloquently because he was no fan of Socrates–he rips Socrates a new one in The Clouds, which may have contributed to the trial and execution of Socrates. However, Aristophanes is there and Plato allows him a charming speech on love and desire, providing an explanation for the lack we all sometimes feel: the jealous gods split us from our other half…

While Agathon, from the opening pages of The Symposium, provides Socrates with ample fodder for teasing correctives:

“‘How splendid it would be, Agathon, if wisdom was the sort of thing that could flow from the fuller to the emptier of us when we touch each other, like water, which flows through a piece of wool from a fuller cup to an emptier one. If wisdom is really like that, I regard it as a great privilege to share your couch. I expect to be filled up from your rich supply of fine wisdom. My wisdom is surely inferior – or rather, questionable in its significance, like a dream – but yours is brilliant and has great potential for growth. Look at the way it has blazed out so fiercely while you’re still young…” (The Symposium)

In parting, dear reader, I admit all I’ve done this time is, at best, to take your hand around the fruit and the flower and the fire. Perhaps this is all one can expect from these weekly essays. In any case, Lacan assures me that going around and around or by some sleight of hand is the only way to see truth:

“Here I am merely repeating once more the merry-go-round of truth on which we have been spinning since the beginning of this Seminar. …It is, of course, characteristic of truths to never show themselves completely. In short, truths are solids that are perfidiously opaque. They don’t even have, it seems, the property we are able to produce in certain solids, that of transparency – they do not show us their front and back edges at the same time. You have to circumnavigate them [en faire le tour], and even do a little conjuring [le tour de passe-passe].”
*This is essay 14 of #52essays2017. Read #13 “Origins of Sludge” here*

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