Subject's Desire

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Although it was introduced into French by Ignace Meyerson's inaccurate translation of the Freudian term Wunsch (wish), desire went on to become a major Lacanian concept. For Lacan as well as for Freud, desire is the subject's yearning for a fundamentally lost object. Thus for Freud, any search for an object is, in fact, an attempt to refind it. For Lacan, however, the object of desire is located prior to desire and functions as its cause.

Lacan subverted the Freudian aphorism that "a dream is the fulfillment of a wish" (Freud, 1900a, p. 121): "If Freud accepts, as the reason for a dream that seems to run counter to his thesis, the very desire to contradict him on the part of a subject whom he had tried to convince of his theory, how could he fail to accept the same reason for himself when the law he arrived at is supposed to have come to him from other people?" (Lacan,Écrits, p. 58). Moreover, in what Freud called the rebus-like structure of the dream, Lacan found support for assimilating condensation (Verdichtung ) and displacement (Verschiebung ) to the tropes of metaphor and metonymy. Thus he was able to conclude that "the unconscious is structured like a language."

Freud used dreams to derive both his first topography and a model of the psychic apparatus that defined desire as the "cathexis" of a mnemic image linked to the satisfaction of need. Thus for Freud desire is satisfied just once, and any subsequent manifestation of desire is only an impulse (Regung ) that aims to reestablish, sometimes to the point of (psychotic) hallucination, the image of an irretrievably lost object. This is the "empirical" failure of hallucinatory satisfaction that leads to thoughtwhich, Freud says, "is nothing but a substitute for a hallucinatory wish" (p. 567)and thus to voluntary activity that aims at the satisfaction of need, not desire.

Dreams, which realize desires in the quick, "backward" way, serve as an example of the psychical apparatus's primary mode of functioning, abandoned because of its inefficacy. Censorship, the guarantor of our mental health, prevents the impulses of unconscious desire from being manifested during the day. Symptoms must be considered as the realization of wholly unconscious desires. Dreams, on the other hand, express the attainment of these desires with the consent and control of the preconscious, which tilts in the end toward the desire to sleep.

On the basis of the "burning child dream" (Freud, pp. 509-511), which expressed this desire to sleep, Lacan constructed his graph of desire (Lacan, 1958-59, session of December 10, 1958). The sentence of the dreamer, "His father was dead," is situated at the lower level, that of the statement. At the upper level, that of the enunciation, Lacan placed the sentence, "He did not know it." And finally, it is between the statement and the enunciation that Lacan inserted Freud's interpretation, that is, the desire of the dreamer: "according to his wish." The sentence "He did not know it" showed the way in which the dreamer protected the paternal function, which he was deprived of by the death of the real father, and that was the origin of the dream. The desire of the dream was to throw a veil of perpetual ignorance over oedipal desire.

At the intersection of the imaginary and the symbolic, human desire is established by a loss that can be symbolized by the separation from the placenta at birth. This primal castration gives birth to the subject of an impossible enjoyment sustained by the object a. Later losses, which constitute the possible objects of human desire (the nipple, feces, the phallus), are always manifested more or less by the anxiety that indicates the reappearance of this lost primal enjoyment, that is, the lack of lack. That is why the speaking being can only "symbolize" this lack by the minus phi ( /), which is the image of the capital phi, F. Likewise, this lack can only be "imagined" in the articulation of the fantasy, =S } a, in which the barred S is the subject and the symbol } means "desire of." This is the form that is best suited to defending against the desire of the Other.

This desire "is neither the appetite for satisfaction [Need] nor the demand for love [Demand], but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second" (Lacan,Écrits, p 276). It protects the subject from the enjoyment of the Other by means of the forms that its object takes. In phobia the object is prohibited; in hysteria it is unsatisfying; and in obsession it is merely defended against. In any case, desire remains marked byand serves as a reminder ofa lost enjoyment. The object of this enjoyment, the phallus, becomes the signifier of the very lack of a signifier, and thus the signifier of castration as imposed by language. And so the object of desire is always a metonymic object, always a desire for "something else."

This Lacanian rereading remains oddly in agreement with Freud on the basis of the analogy that Lacan establishes between desire and dream, and it raises the question of the place of language in their theory. If language for Freud is a kind of superstructure linked to the life instinct, and thus an ideal to be attained, for Lacan it is also the insurmountable limit and metaphor of being.

Patrick Delaroche

See also: Fantasy; Formations of the unconscious; Graph of Desire; Wish-fulfillment; Wish/yearning.


Dor, Joël. (1997). Introduction to the reading of Lacan: The unconscious structured like a language. (Judith Feher Gurewich, Ed., in collaboration with Susan Fairfield). North-vale, NJ: J. Aronson. (Original work published 1985-1992)

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 4-5.

Lacan, Jacques. (2002).Écrits: A selection. (Bruce Fink, Trans.) New York: W. W. Norton.

. (1958-59). Le séminaire-livre VI, le désir et son interpretation, unpublished.

Sédat, Jacques (Ed). (1980). Retourà Lacan? Paris: Fayard.