Of the Disparity in Love
Éric Laurent

Author’s Bio

Laurent read this paper at a conference that was given in Tours, September 11th, 1999.
This article was translated by Marcus A.K. Andersson.

Entering immediately into the theme of the declensions of love, I would like to note that it is an excellent idea to have chosen this theme for a series of conferences that wants to address itself to everyone who is interested in the consequences of psychoanalysis, in order to see whether psychoanalysis has something to say about the modern status of love, that is, its contemporary status.

We are in a period fecund with changes in love sayings, with a certain embarrassment that makes itself felt in literature, in the vastest forms of narrative, in cinema or the modern, dependent forms of narration, all of which fall more or less within the frame of literature. We have a sentiment of embarrassment that is marked by different symptoms. Certain of these are the multiplication or refraction of pre-established clichés about love in literature, and on occasion the literature of our times recycles these clichés in a mechanical manner while maintaining a degree of irony; one could call this point of view postmodern: we no longer believe in modernity or in a solution that can be invented – we simply no longer believe in old solutions, which gives the irony or the citational quality. At the same time, it is an obligatory citation: the difficulty of inventing new figures, and irony: one no longer believes in love stories. Hence the difficulty of escaping the ironic attitude, the “I’m not buying these love issues.” End of ideologies, and the end of love stories as well. At the same time, though, we see the inevitability of this closure.

For example, at the Venise Mostra, one sees the impact that a film like Une liaison pornographique made, in which the author contrasts the title with the fact that the audience never sees, or very rarely sees, the love making implied by the mentioned term (i.e. “pornographic”). Rather, one wants to leave a story that would be uniquely centered on sex, and, of course, one arrives at love, to the special surprise of the boy who – although he was planning to involve himself in the story exclusively by sexual satisfaction – falls into the paradox of love. It is one of the classic clinical phenomena of the obsessional subject who thinks he is keeping his guard up against love at all times but cannot stop mixing himself up in a series of difficulties. And in this respect, the psychoanalytic clinic seized these different paradoxes in other ways than the difficulties of the narration of modern love. It is for this reason that I think it is an excellent question to pose for psychoanalysis: what do you have to say about the disorder of contemporary love? Is psychoanalysis permitted to orient itself towards these questions?

It is an especially good idea to do this at Tours, because Touraine is the ideal region for asking oneself these types of questions; it was, at least, for a good century, when French literature adopted a type of discourse about love that came from Italy, that declined it otherwise. In the 16th century, then, Ronsard didn’t live too far away; Ronsard’s Les Saisons is a good example of how the difficulty of telling love stories declines itself in literature. He wrote love poetry his whole life. Put simply, the century began well, we know this: in the 16th century, people believed that it was going to be beautiful, that the epoch would clear the clouds of scholastic oppression, and then arrived Luther, and then the end of the century and diverse forms of destruction. In Ronsard’s love stories, one sees fortune, man is grateful for fortune, the taste for astrology, the impossibility of calculating a good combination between men and women, themes that occupied him until the end of his life. Touraine is thus a good region to meditate on the manner in which stories of love and great malaise were registered in the very spaces where we have traced them in literature.


But I chose to start, or as an exergue to prepare my conference for today, not with Ronsard but an excerpt from La Rouchefoucauld. Why La Rouchefoucauld, who arrived a century later? He is also an excellent French moralist and the author of a remark that greatly pleased Stendhal, according to which many people would not know what love was if they had not first read about it in love stories. On this theme – namely, love as semblance (semblant), love that is not natural, love as artifice, as convention – there is an acute sentiment of 17th century morality that at the same time refers to a very masculine perspective. To call it masculine is not self-evident. Essentially, it is not until the birth of psychoanalysis that one can say this, and only from the interior of the psychoanalytic discourse. I don’t know if there are people who teach literature at high schools and universities among you, but if there are, you know that you can read all the commentaries you would like on this phrase, and God knows that if there were a small library of them, nothing would be emphasized but the following: it is not a universal point of view, but a perspective of a century, that there is something profoundly masculine about it. And even in the great books, like Les Morales du grand siècle by Paul Benichou, or the book by Robert Mauzi on happiness in the 17th century, you don’t see the opposition between the sexes schematized concerning love.

And in particular, this is a theme that, on the other hand, French feminist authors (who are often excellent professors of letters) or Americans, in a more brutal fashion, have developed. There would be, there is in literature, a dissymmetry with regard to love that could easily support the idea that only women speak of love: this thematic of feminine literature, or the literature of women, written by women, l’écriture feminine, would be centered precisely on the systematic exploration of love, its impasses, its sufferings and it is from this exploration that the invention of a modern form of love most profoundly interrogates itself.

It is corroborated, furthermore, by the fact that Marguerite Duras, for example, made herself a durable name in the country of French literature like a sort of oracle about the forms of love and that which love can give back. We see this across the extremely varied forms of literature she wrote, because she began her career with a piece more or less derivative of the Gidean canon – a canon that profoundly marked French letters – and later entered an experimental period, concluding with a literature at the border of cliché that earned her phenomenal circulation, with her rewriting of The Lover, for example, which was reminiscent of the conversions of Phillipe Sollers, giving to formal literature all the azimuths of a slightly debauched classicism in the most recent novels he has been able to write.

This dissymmetry shows that women speak about love differently than men. But, at the same time, it would be wrong to schematize when one approaches, for example, the conceptions of happiness or love that make a given era: the Renaissance, the Classical Age, as opposed to the 17th and 18th centuries, love in the 19th, etc., and so on.

Freud, the Disparity between Sexes

Psychoanalysis must be able to help identify this disparity, which is our theme today. Because it is a point, straight away with Freud, that psychoanalysis has firmly advanced itself towards and that it has succeeded to maintain as a course, like an acquisition. The point toward which Freud advanced is that there is a profound dissymmetry between the masculine and feminine positions. Freud centered it on teachings that, from the moment when women entered in numbers into psychoanalysis, appeared doubtful for female psychoanalysts.

First, Freud emphasized that anatomy is profoundly dissymmetric. The masculine organ is evident, while the feminine organ is hidden. Freud had first formulated the castration formula by a type of imaginary evidence that is in the order of representation: one does not see what the girls have. Thus the boy’s reasoning is: if there are humans that don’t necessarily have the small appendix that I have, then I can very well lose it. And, thus, the famous regime of terror for the small boy: the menace of castration.

Freud didn’t see it right away. Even in 1909, that is to say ten years after the establishment of psychoanalysis, with little Hans, he considered that if this small five-year-old boy whom he had analyzed had a phobia, he was surely suffering from the castration complex. It was a specific case, and he didn’t generalize it any further. It was after the analysis of Hans that Freud began generalizing the complex of castration for boys as such, claiming that all boys live under castration’s regime of terror, and that there is no medium to avoid it. One can be nice, cute, speak with them about all this, being under no duress to tell them: if you don’t behave, we will cut it off, etc. Even if one uses all this rhetoric to assuage the menace, which will always be present, the child always continue to live with it.

Insofar as Freud generalized this theory, he posed himself the question: and what about girls? It was an additional ten years afterwards, in the 1920s, that he generalized a position for feminine sexuality, where he noted that the significant difference for girls is that they don’t live under the menace of castration, and that they, by consequence, have an active attitude towards the world. In the place of the threat that terrorizes the boy, they have certitude: they don’t have it, thus they must search for it. It is this that helped Freud explain the greater intellectual vivacity of girls, noting the dazed character of boys and the more awakened character of girls during adolescence; the especially lost character, always in adolescence, of boys and the more decided character on the girl’s side—this could moreover hold true for distraction as well.

This opposition creates an asymmetry in love, one side marked by the threat and anguish of castration and the other by the certitude of knowing what it wants, with just one specific threat for the girl: she needs the love of the other, the love of that other from whom she will take what she is missing. Hence the particular menace that marks feminine life: the menace of losing love. This, in effect, installs love on the side of the women in a particular position, dissymmetric with respect to that of the masculine, which is fastened to an object in the presence of anguish.

This antagonism, which positions love in a eminent place, helps us to realize – through the ages, in literature, when women were able to express themselves on these topics – the significance of love when we possess traces of it. However, this leaves a question unanswered, that which Freud formulated in the 30s: “What do women want?” The whole problem is: why did Freud construct this question, since he had apparently found a response: What do women want? –response: they want to be loved. Where, then, is the necessity to maintain an open question? The open question is: what do they want in the realization of amorous life?



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