Love and its Place in Nature - Jonathan Lear

This article was first published in the Institute of Psychoanalysis "News & Events", Summer 1999.


Lear, J. (1999): "Love and its Place in Nature"

The author, Jonathan Lear, is the John U Nef Distinguished Service Professor at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Before coming to Chicago Professor Lear taught at Yale and at the University of Cambridge, where he was a fellow of Clare College; and Director of Studies in Philosophy.
A trained psychoanalyst, he is a member of the International Psychoanalytical Association and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association and the International Journal of Psychoanalysis

Each of us has this fate: we live for a while and then we die. This matters to us in ways that it does to no other creature. What is this mattering? We gesture in the direction of an answer when we say that we want our lives to have meaning. The thought that our lives might be utterly without value, trivial, of no significance to anyone around us, even to ourselves - such a thought is usually impossible to think (you are not thinking it now) and when it does occur, it is sickening. Socrates pointed out that we are the unique creatures who are able to address our lives to a fundamental question: How shall I live? Living with this question was, for him, so important that he famously claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living. It is arguable that the citizens of Athens put Socrates to death for goading them to think about what their lives meant.

One way to view Freud's contribution is to see him as showing us that we have, unbeknownst to ourselves, already attempted to answer this question. Our early unconscious fantasies are themselves an attempt to explain who we are and why our lives matter. As a result, even the 'unexamined life' has its own unconscious account of its meaning. And, therefore, the truly examined life must include a peculiar form of remembering. Though it often may not seem so, each of us is already in the midst of a life of passionate, idiosyncratic ideas. These ideas are expressed archaically, often in a bodily language, in a gagging reflex, say an aching heart, in difficulty beginning to urinate in a public toilet when one can hear the presence of others. Ideas permeate even the most basic bodily functions.

People tend not to understand how unconscious meanings extend to the tips of their fingers. In the thousands of occasions in which an analysand has come to my office for an appointment, I doubt there has been one in which the physical act of opening or closing the outer door has not been fraught with meaning. One analysand, as he entered my office for the beginning of a session, would start to close the outer door behind him, but would leave it a fraction of an inch ajar. As his hand let the door-handle go, I would see a gesture as delicate as any I have seen in ballet. The next step in the pas de deux was being turned over to me, his fingers told me to finish the job and close the door. I, of course, said nothing; but as time passed and the analysand relaxed into his analysis, he eventually became puzzled by this gesture, and here is a small selection of the meanings that began to emerge as he associated to it. He liked getting me to do something, he enjoyed the feeling of control over me, for he knew I would have to close the door. Leaving the door ajar meant that nothing he was going to say was going to be so important or private that it should not be heard by someone outside. He longed for us both to be working together on a collaborative project, and if we both closed the door together, we were a team. Because I noticed he left the door ajar that meant I was sensitive. He was scared of what might happen inside the room and wanted to know that the emergency exit was open and ready for an escape. He was afraid that I might try to rape him from behind and he wanted to be sure people outside could hear his screams. He was hoping that others might accidentally come into my office and then he would get a glimpse of what the rest of my life was like. He was hoping others would come in and he would be the object of their voyeuristic pleasure. He wanted others to know we were a couple. He wanted to be the star in a porno movie. He was teasing me, setting up a game in which he wondered whether I would ever ask him about it. He was testing my analytic resoluteness. Closing the door meant sealing his fate. Closing the door meant there was no escape from facing his own mind. And so on.

I have come to think that each of my analysands on each occasion they come into my office performs the most marvellous and idiosyncratic ballet. Their fingers leave the door handle - conveying longing or insecurity, confidence, depression, hope, despair in the infinite variations of emotional nature - and then they dance their way to the couch. Every movement of their limbs conveys a fragment of a subjective universe. For a decade, I used the same office both to see analysands and to see students in an academic setting. As you entered my office my desk was on the left surrounded by walls of books, the couch was over on the right, down at the far end of the room. As an analysand tried to make her way to the couch, the desk and books would exert a magnetic force, pulling her towards a glimpse of the rest of my life. She zigged left towards the books, zagged right to the couch, acting out her conflict in every step. She got on the couch, looked up at a crack in the ceiling and in clearing her throat brought clown the curtain on the first act. Her first words were as much the end of a performance as the beginning of a new one.

Meanwhile, when students came to see me in office hours, the couch was the one place they couldn't look; it was as though a whole corner of the room did not exist. The presence of the couch was made overwhelming by the intensity of the effort to ignore it. And yet it nevertheless exercised its pull. Let me share an anecdotal insight: During the period I used a single office for students and for analysands, it seemed that my students wanted to be my analysands and my analysands wanted to be my students.

Students would come ostensibly with a question about the last lecture, but within minutes would try to start talking to me about their personal problems - all the while 'studiously' avoiding the couch. (Of course,I would draw a boundary and would not let such conversation progress). Analysands, for their part, would start using expressions like, "my philosophy is"... or, "the logic of the situation is...", with uncanny frequency. They daydreamed about attending my lectures or about walking to the bookshelves to see what books mattered to me. What prevented them from actually going over to take a peek? As much as they were pulled in that direction, they also were held back by some force they did not understand. Why did each group want to be what it was not? What is it about the human heart that leaves it longing for what it does not have?

Authors tend to live with a fantasy of how they would like their books to be read. I would like my book, Love and Its Place in Nature, to be read as a detective novel. It is an erotic tale, and the culprit is an idea. In the movie "The seven-and-a-half percent solution", Sigmund Freud is brought together with Sherlock Holmes. This is an ingenious linking-up, for Freud is, surely the Sherlock Holmes of subjectivity. We begin with the strange case of a group of European women at the end of the 19th century throwing up, literally as well as figuratively, all over the lives that society and family carved out for them.

Anna O., Josef Breuer and Freud came collectively to shape a method in which physical throwings-up were converted into verbal throwings-up. They called this process 'catharsis'. But how could throwing up meanings be therapeutic?

This is the mystery Freud sets out to solve - the mystery of the flesh made word.


Copyright © 1999 Jonathan Lear