Larivière - The Sunland Seminars V -There Is Something Unbearable, Unthinkable, Unrepresentable at the Core of Sexual Pleasure

The Sunland Seminars V


  There Is Something Unbearable, Unthinkable, Unrepresentable at the Core of Sexual Pleasure


by Michael Larivière, Ph.D.

10 September 2005


“Sexual relations are, or should be, one of the citadels of privacy, the night place where we must be allowed to gather the splintered, harried elements of our consciousness to some kind of inviolate order and repose. It is in sexual experience that a human being alone, and two human beings in that attempt at total communication which is also communion, can discover the unique bent of their identity.”

George Steiner 




    Is it?


   Is it in sexual experience alone that a human being, whether alone or with another human being, can discover the unique bent of their identity? Is sexual experience really an attempt at total communication? Can it really be a communion? Of course not; that is wishful thinking. Sexual relations are not, ever, anything like total communication or communion: there is a wound that sexual relations cannot repair. There are questions to which sex cannot be the answer – even if, indeed, addressing these questions inevitably entails engaging in (or, in some cases, merely putting up with) one form or other of sexual experience. This wound is what Freud Called Ichspaltung, the splitting, the division, the separation, the estrangement of the subject from himself - and the impossibility for the subject of ever coinciding with his image. We all have extreme difficulty with our image. We have all had that strange experience of unexpectedly seeing our reflection in a mirror and not immediately recognizing it. Merging with one’s image always requires some doing. It is in fact impossible. One’s experience of one’s physical self and one’s perception of one’s image are two very different experiences, always. One’s representation of oneself never coincides with one’s image.


   Pascal Quignard suggests that we carry with us the ambiguity, the equivocation, the troubling obscurity of our conception. Images we find shocking remind us of what had to be done to bring us into the world. We were born out of a scene we never could witness, in which we played no part, a scene forever lost and forever fascinating. We are a species forever missing an image. It is that inaccessible image we look for behind everything we see. That is why pornography is always disappointing. What we look for in pornographic images cannot be shown: we are always looking for something that isn’t there, that is forever lost. And if the task of making a life for oneself, of “doing this life” as my friend Robert Lundquist puts it, is so difficult, it is because we have no choice but to incessantly work at trying to link that loss to the sense of possibility living depends upon. So we must ask: how can loss keep us alive?


   We must be careful here not to give in to the coercitive pieties that post-modern reflections on loss brought in their wake. My main reference here is Lacan’s 1936 essay on what he called the “mirror stage” (le stade du miroir, a concept actually created by Henri Wallon), which takes place between the ages of six and eighteen months. What takes place for the infant at that stage is not understood by Lacan merely as a phase in his development but as an “exemplary function”. Up to that moment the infant had only had dispersed, successive and mobile bodily experiences. What now happens is that he finds in the mirror the image that makes him whole, at one with himself – or so he thinks. For this unity, this whole will very soon be experienced as a fiction. This experience is one of alienation: I am that. The ego is formed only through such alienation. Its capture, as Michel de Certeau reminds us, begins with its birth. This mirror stage is said by Lacan to be exemplary because it is the matrix of an alieanating identity that will never cease repeating itself through secondary identifications. What is established at this stage is the ego as unconformable, as geologists say, i.e. forever conflicting with its own reality. In other words, what the subject henceforth begins to experience is that his so-called identity is a lie. And that he will only ever be able to assert himself through what Hegel called the “work of the negative”: I am not that. The paradox therefore is that from the moment we are given an image of our unity, of ourselves as whole, it is our very identity that becomes enigmatic. And then and there begins the narcissistic scene of an interminable conflict. As Adam Phillips reminds us, we are, in Freud’s view, forever confounded with what we are not -  and nowhere more vividly confronted than in our sexuality.


   So. Given this basic structure, is it realistic to hope discovering the “unique bent” of one’s identity in any one experience, be it sexual? I think not. Sex is not the answer: it is the enigma.


 “There are no sexual relations.”

               Jacques Lacan


       Psychoanalysis has long revealed the sexual background to all neuroses, perversions and psychoses. It has brought to light the sexual dynamics of all symptoms. Freud’s discovery is that of a force, a puissance peculiar to sexuality, a force of a very particular kind: it is indeed because there is something at the heart of sexuality that doesn’t work, it is because sexuality dysfunctions, because it is aporetic, because it never can be entirely satisfying ( however satisfying it may be: there is always something it can’t satisfy) that it has the force, the efficacy we have since Freud begun to understand in a different way. “Satisfaction”, as Adam Phillips says, “is hopeless. All the positions are unsatisfying because there is always another position. If, as Lacan insists, we are always in pursuit because we are in pursuit of something that isn’t there, then it is also that gap, that inevitable disparity between desire and its object, that Freud alerts us to, that keeps us inventive and resilient, that gives us room for our selves. That gap is their stage. And sex is the act.” (Terrors and Experts, p.87).


   So we have a paradox.


   Sex is the act through which we hope to reduce or cancel the disparity that makes it – that act – not only necessary but possible. Which is to say that sex is the act through which we hope to reduce or cancel desire.


   Desire and disparity are indissociable. But I am not sure that it is so much the disparity between desire and its object that matters most: it is, I believe, the disparity between the subject and himself. Me, myself and I are not the same. What matters is the Spaltung that estranges me from myself. That disparity is the original loss without which desire would not be. It is a vital loss: a loss without which life itself would not be possible. And sex is the act through which we celebrate it. That celebration itself is a loss: desire, time and again, is lost in pleasure. Sex is the act we accomplish to ensure that desire be momentarily annihilated. Sex is the act of losing what is originally lost. It is the sacrifice we perpetrate to ensure that even the memory of what is originally lost be lost as well.


   There is no “object” of desire: there is language. Language alienates me from my needs. Because there is language no need can be felt or experienced without being formulated. And because all my needs are originally captivated, captured, embedded in language, because they are mediated, they are, as it were, deformed, altered. As Lacan says, there are no “natural” needs. Something of my needs is inevitably lost in/with/through the language that speaks them. Something, as they say, always gets lost in translation. There is something that cannot be articulated, there is always a residue. And there is no possibility of any object, any act ever silencing what is incessantly spoken. That impossibility is what we call desire. Desire is the product, or the result, of an original loss, itself the result of an original presence: that of language. And that, really, is the reason why satisfaction is hopeless. Sexual pleasure shouldn’t be confused with the performing of a physiological function. Sexual pleasure, in the human sense of the term – I have no idea if it even exists for other animals – is made possible (and, in some cases, impossible) by language alone. It is the result of the Spaltung, of the detachment of the subject from his physiological self, itself resulting from the precession of language. Sexual pleasure is not an organic satisfaction. There is no such thing as an “organic satisfaction”. Pleasure can take place if, when and where a space for it is created: what we call erogenous zones. Sexual pleasure, like any other bodily pleasure, will only take place if the said erogenous zones as such have been created. Modalities of pleasure are potentially infinite but they are most often mapped on our bodies in rather limited numbers. Mapped by words. It begins at the crib. As you know, Freud spoke of the infant as a “polymorphous pervert”, in other words as someone capable of anything when it comes to experiencing pleasure. As Claude Levi-Strauss reminded us, what we call “education” is a slow apprenticeship in inhibition. What we are taught is to lose most of our capacities and abilities. We are indeed very early on forbidden, debarred or restricted by our loving parents. Thence follows an inner restraint on free activity, expression, or functioning, usually referred to as adaptation, conformance, aptness, good fit, adjustment, maturity, balance, und so weiter. A good synonym for all the above would be neurotic. Neurosis, it should be remembered, is always an attempt at protecting oneself against the efforts made, wittingly or unwittingly, to further alienate us. Neurosis is a shelter.


   Love is a shelter. It is the grotto where we take shelter from passion. Pascal Quignard says that every passion inevitably reaches a point of satiation that is horrifying. When that point is reached, we suddenly know that there is nothing we can do but wait.

    We wait.

    We wait, suddenly unable to do anything, in miserable contemplation.

   Either love will be born out of passion, or it won’t. Love could be defined as that which survives passion. We all must clear that difficult and frightening pass where all that was new discovers that it will be renewed no more. And this, by the way, also describes the terminating of analysis.

   When that point is reached separation becomes inevitable.


   The Latin word for separation is sexus.

   Sexus is the title of the first volume of Henry Miller’s trilogy, The Rosy Crucifixion. It is the story of a separation.

   The story of a crisis.


   The Greek word for crisis is krisis, which first designated the decisive phase in the course of an illness and which later came to mean decision. Sexual experiences are never experiences in communion; they are decisive experiences. They relegate us to our inescapable solitude. Only those who are capable of such solitude are capable of abandoning themselves to theexigencies of the unthinkable pleasure they are at the risk of experiencing. Such lovers are, like Freud’s infants, polymorphous perverts. That is their beauty, of which Stendhal says that it separates them from the community at large. Such beauty is unbearable. It defies the timorous order on which society is founded. It is beyond compare.


   Pascal Quignard writes:

   “Love is beautiful. Love is more beautiful than concupiscence. The danger love represents first in the eyes of the family circle, then of the social community doesn’t result only from the exclusive antisocial character of the relation that polarizes the two bodies that love one another in defiance of all, it originates in its beauty, which is a challenge to the whole community. Lovers are beautiful, they walk on clouds, their bodies overflow with the sap that haunts them, their eyes shine, there is something ineffably matched in them and that passes from one to the other. There is nothing that makes men and women more jealous than this bind that separates from all things (reality) and all beings (society). There exists nothing more beautiful in the world than two lovers.

   And there exists nothing more scornful.” (Vie secrete, p.461, translation mine)



    « Sigmund Freud is western culture’s laureate of unhappy love. He is our prose-poet of the heart’s endless desire to break. The heart breaks time and again and, Freud insists, it is prone to do so in the same fashion. Freud (…) put the idea of erotic repetition at the centre of his thought. He believed that we are all inclined – many of us are doomed – to repeat, and what we repeat is disaster, erotic disaster and political disaster as well. We fall in love not only with ‘sexual objects’ (as Freud charmingly calls them) but, individually and collectively, with power. Though badly in need of sane and measured authority, we swoon before the authoritarian. For most people, there is not much to be done about these sad tendencies. Through experience, Freud believed, most of us learn nothing, unless it is to repeat our own worst experiences.” 

                      Mark Edmundson


    I can only know myself as the fruit of separation: I can only know myself as sexed.

   My ego is not only uncertain,, it is separate and borrowed. It is merely the echo of the language of those who preceded me, a language acquired much in the same way I devoured the symptoms of those I contemplated as an infant.

   My ego is a false-self.


   Much in the same way, home is not home.

   It is Jane Eyre’s lesson in her declaration to Mr. Rochester, a typically Brönte declaration: “I am strangely glad to get back again to you.”

   For the place where my loved one is, wherever it is, is the place where I am at home. Where she or he is is the only place where I am at home. This, says Jane, is something that is said in her for her: “I said – or something in me said for me, and in spite of me.”


   This is love: it is in spite of myself that something in me declares itself. My home is in you.


   Six pages later, Mr. Rochester replies to Jane: “I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you – especially when you are near to me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame.”


   I love you means: you are my home.

   I love you means: in you I can acknowledge myself;

   recognize myself;

   accept myself.


     When the person I love no longer loves me, no longer wants me sexually, I am humiliated. I am horrified; the image of myself that is restored to me is grimacing, odious, loathsome, vulgar.


   Pascal Quignard tells us of the time Freud didn’t recognize himself in the train compartment mirror. He had got up to go to the toilet and came face to face with a dour looking middle-aged man who was looking at him with amazement.

   Then with terror.

   Sigmund Freud claimed to have then experienced an uncanny feeling. He realized that that man wasn’t a demon, but himself – and himself almost dead.


   It is indeed true that the internal image we have of ourselves, as our bodies grow older resembles less and less the one reflected in shop windows or in the glass of parked cars.

   The first time we see ourselves in a mirror, we find no resemblance.

   To look at one’s reflection is to expose oneself to the danger of discovering total strangeness. Of seeing not a skull, not a deceased parent: but a reflection that resembles nothing.

   A predator.


   It is only little by little that we begin believing in our resemblance. Much in the same way that we believe we are identified by the name others have given our bodies. Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote troubling pages on this issue in his essay On Certainty.

   Answering to the call of one’s name will always require a certain degree of faith.

   A strange faith that can suddenly give way to impiety.

   Sex is the act of looking for something that   is without resemblance.

   What Jacques Lacan called jouissance, as opposed to plaisir, describes the state of being totally lost in something that is without resemblance.



“…shifting erotic desire is the inspiration for shifting human identity and for the playful exercise of wit. Without sex, life would be insupportable, but without self-willed changes of identity, shifting, theatrical improvisation, life would be impossible as well. Sex is finite, the affair of an hour. But play, pure extemporization is endless…”


                         Mark Edmundson


  The infant’s erogenous capacity is as uncompromising as it is plural, its extension almost limitless (could there exist a sexually masochistic infant? I doubt it.) As adults we are rarely so fortunate (but we can indeed be sexually masochistic, if that is any consolation). We most often have to live within the rather rigid boundaries which will have contributed towards  establishing that terribly banal destiny: having to be, in this or that way, a “man” or a “woman”. Our “choice” of sexual identities (plural deliberate) is always severely disciplined by a series of assignations, allocations and summons. Even psychoanalysis believes in sexual orthodoxy.


   Sexual orthodoxy is a fallacy. Or phallacy.


   What psychoanalysis needs to do is to accept the risk of reopening the space of unknown sexual possibilities, indeed of unknown sexual necessities that “education” has taught us at best to deny and at worst to see as “perversions”. Psychoanalysis should help those who trust it to risk their way towards the improbable, i.e. towards those regions whose boundaries have not been pre-established in or by a would-be “natural order”. It should accept, for example, that “masculinity” and “femininity” do not exist as pre-determined realities but that they are each informed by tales, legends, discourses, fables, myths, complex heritages, stories that can only make gender identity a rather uncertain affair. Psychoanalysis should help us realize that dismantling an order is not necessarily creating chaos: it can also be a way of finding new equilibriums, new balances, unsuspected harmonies – learning, to use one of Nietzsche’s words – to dance. Psychoanalysis should help us explore the territories of the “proper”: not of the appropriate, the suitable, the correct, but of the authentic, the true – which never go without accidents, alterations, disfigurations, distortions. Psychoanalysis,  therefore, should ask: what is it that alters us so? Why is it that, in the end, we are only ever the sum of our alterations? Forever strangers to ourselves? It should help us understand that because we are strangers to ourselves we can only tear into others with rage and nostalgia. There again, sex is the act. And, as Edmundson says, sex being finite, only ever the affair of an hour, it can never be the answer: it can only renew the enigma, time and again confronting us with the unbearable fragility of being.



 “Is there any science fiction pornography? I mean something new, an invention by the human imagination of new sexual experience? (…) The point is crucial. Despite all the lyric and obsessed cant about the boundless varieties and dynamics of sex, the actual sum of possible gestures, consummations, and imaginings is drastically limited. (…) The mathematics of sex stop somewhere in the region of soixante-neuf; there are no transcendental series.”


                       George Steiner

    So, again, to finish, Steiner.


   The point he raises, that of sexual inventiveness, sexual creativity, is indeed crucial – but he misses it entirely: sexual inventiveness has nothing to do with numbers. It isn’t the “mathematics” of sex that matter, it is the signifiers, to use Lacan’s word, which mark out and delimit the range of our possibilities and persuade us that, were we to venture beyond the limits of the space we inhabit, we would have to face chaos. But perhaps this is not quite clear. Let me then try to explain.


   Lacan defines the unconscious as “the discourse of the Other”. What does this mean? Quite simply that what we have been referring to since Freud as the “unconscious” is the discourse, the language we have unwittingly inherited and which informs all our relations – to others, to external reality, as well as to ourselves. An infant can neither speak nor survive on its own. An infant doesn’t know what it means, for example, to be a “boy” or a “girl”, which means that he or she will have to learn as quickly as possible how to take his or her place – even if greeted with ambivalence (or even open hostility) if, for example, a girl were to be born where a boy would have been preferred, or vice versa. In other words, what we refer to as our “identity”, which is always sexual, can’t be understood as the mere development of a “nature” which should not be hindered. Our identity will be informed by what we will have been able to do with the ways in which we were addressed. What we are, in other words, is characters in the stories we invent in order not to collapse, stories we will try to make as probable, as likely, as plausible, as convincing as possible in order to ensure that they mean something not only to ourselves but to others as well.


   The price to pay, of course, for this fictional constitution both of “reality” and of our “identity” is that there will be misunderstandings, misreadings, misinterpretations. The “discourse of the Other” is the open ensemble of the effects this storytelling will have on all the characters involved. And sex is the acting out of these intermingling stories.


Dr. Larivière was born in Montreal, Canada. He moved to France in 1971 to study Philosophy and eventually earned doctoral degrees in Philosophy, Psychology, and French Literature. He has met and worked with many scholars including Derrida, Barthes, Lacan, Lyotard and Dolto. Dr. Larivière speaks (and works) in four languages: English, French, Italian and German. Currently, his practice is in France and he has lead seminars internationally in Italy, Canada, United States and Switzerland.


Dr. Larivière may be contacted at:

7A Rue Turenne, 67000 Strassbourg, FRANCE