Marc De Kesel

Since the emergence of theory in Ancient Greece, we commonly think about desire from the perspective of its satisfaction. The lack characterizing desire is supposed to refer to an original absence of lack: to a paradise, an original purity, a non-alienated nature. 

Thus the philosophical myth dominating the West from Plato onwards. Thinking is philia of sophia, love of wisdom, desire for knowledge. The knowledge we long for is supposed to give access to the origin and ground of our very being. Enjoying wisdom is enjoying an ontological fulfillment. 

Thus also the religious myth which, together with the philosophical one, dominates our tradition. Remember Augustine’s saying ‘Inquietum est cor meum donec requiscat in te’, ‘Restless is my heart until it rests in you’.  Desire is unrest because it is not where it longs to be, because it is not enjoying the source of its being, and of being as such. 

The theory of desire elaborated by Freud and Lacan thinks desire as radical unrest – as , incurable unrest not based in any satisfying object or origin, but in itself only, in its unrest as such. Life coincides with this very unrest, it is basically unfulfilled and unfulfillable desire. A satisfied desire would imply man’s death. 

Is then, according to Freud and Lacan, satisfaction of desire possible at all? Yet it is, be it in a specific way. This is what the Lacanian concept of jouissance, enjoyment, is about. Unlike the classical theories of satisfaction, jouissance does not obey the principle of profit but the one of loss. Enjoying the ultimate object of desire, the subject does not gain but loses the object, or loses itself in it. That loss is not a loss of your vain self, allowing you to finally have access to your real being. However vain the self may be, in enjoyment, it loses itself in what is even less than vainness. It is a imaginary loss, a loss not of your real being but of the grip you have on your life – a loss in which you have no longer the impression of being a subject at all.

Enjoyment has the structure of la petite mort: a satisfaction the subject is unable to be present with. Or it has the structure of a potlatch, in which all things enjoyed are destroyed.      

Does love allow enjoyment, jouissance, in the Lacanian sense of the word? Of course, but in jouissance, the lovers do not realize the unity they longed for. Love’s jouissance is loss, loss of the self, loss not even into one another – a loss that even loses love. 

This is why the dimension of self-gift and sacrifice is inherently connected to love. The satisfaction the desire for love is after, implies the sacrifice of the desiring subject. ‘Laisse moi devenir l’ombre de ton ombre’ (‘Let me become the shadow of your shadow’), Jacques Brel sings in Ne me quitte pas. Do not leave me, and therefore, let me disappear. That disappearing is not the expression of the poet’s pain and failure, but of his very jouissance. He wants to become as nothing as a shadow’s shadow.

It is similar to Augustine’s ‘cor meum inquietus est donec resquiescat in te’. Only, in Brel’s song, the ‘te’ is defined as the shadow of a shadow, a less than nothing, a name for the radical loss – for the jouissance – love is aiming at. 

Velazquez,  Christ on the Cross , 1630

Velazquez, Christ on the Cross, 1630

   P.P. Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, 1617

   P.P. Rubens, Elevation of the Cross, 1617

Even Christian religion is not unclear in this. The domain of the divine the Christian soul longs for is supposed to be heavenly, and yet, iconographically, it is predominantly pictured full of pain, death and loss. To disappear as human, to hang dying on the cross, to suffer lethal pains is the image showing the ultimate orientation of Christian desire.    

To Lacan, the idea of resurrection is but a veil to hide the nothing which is behind it, i.e. the realm of radical loss. It is a veil hiding the realm of jouissance. 

Peter Paul Rubens’s painting of Christ’s ‘Elevation of the Cross’ in the Antwerp Cathedral has been the object of a late 17th century anamorphotic reshaping. The horizontal painting shows at first sight a mere chaos of colors and lines, but when looked at from a specific point of view, the cylindrical mirror put in the middle of that ‘table’ shows the crucified Christ of Rubens’s painting. 

To Lacan, this anamorphosis lays bare the transcendental structure of Christian love – and of desire in general. In the chaos of the world, desire is seeking its ultimate object, but that object is put on the very position that allows us to remain blind to the emptiness behind it (the hole behind the mirror in the middle of the painted table). This is the Christian image of the jouissance human desire longs for.

Anonymous,  Anamorphosis after Rubens,  Descent from  the Cross  (17th century), Bird's Eye

Anonymous, Anamorphosis after Rubens, Descent from  the Cross (17th century), Bird's Eye

Anonymous,  Anamorphosis after Rubens,  Descent from  the Cross  (17th century), Profile

Anonymous, Anamorphosis after Rubens, Descent from  the Cross (17th century), Profile