Hermia’s Desire

The audience at September’s meeting of the Association for Psychoanalytic Thought took part in a true clash of fundamental ideological positions on empathy: philosophical and psychoanalytical.

Heidi Maibom, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati and editor of the recent book Morality and Empathy, delivered a paper examining Hermia’s relationship with her father, Egeus, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in terms of empathy regarding her desire to marry Lysander against her father’s wishes.

A professor of Shakespeare from NKU offered another source of desire in the play, “They are all at one point or another on drugs thanks to Puck’s potions.”

John Hall, former director of the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute and respondent to Maibom’s paper added, “and the drugs can just be seen as allowing them free expression of their unconscious desires.”

“You see, you don’t think the unconscious, the unconscious thinks you,” explained a critical cultural theorist from UC, trying to force the speaker’s logic against the limits of the Cartesan cogito, to the “Thing-that-thinks.”

“I don’t know what that means,” was Maibom’s honest reply.

We’re reminded that Freud’s great contribution to Western thought was not the invention of Psychoanalysis, but the discovery of the unconscious. The discovery is one of Copernican proportions, a radical de-centering of the human subject from the place of the ego to the place of the unconscious. As Lacan writes in “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire”: “This is what the subject is missing in thinking he is exhaustively accounted for by his cogito– he is missing what is unthinkable about him” (E 304).  Philosophy rarely takes us into this territory, that which is unthinkable about us, which is the realm of psychoanalysis.

In Lacanian terms, Hermia’s desire is not for Lysander, but for a lost object, a lack that is always already unattainable. Lysander is a substitutionary object, the objet petit a, an object Hermia hopes will fill that lack. The sexual relationship, according to Lacan, is impossible because the partner is always a substitutionary object of desire. We are forever looking for the satisfaction of our desire in something that can never fill the Real lack in ourselves. Therefore, if Hermia’s conscious wish to be with Lysander is fulfilled, it cannot assure her happiness. Lysander is just an objet petit a in what may become a lengthy chain of objet petit a, b, c… Desire is always for a void that moves away from us as we chase it. As soon as we think we have it in our grasp, what we desire changes coordinates.

Maibom’s paper prompted some interesting responses by the clinicians in the audience, who took the conversation in the direction of the role of empathy in the transference and the limits of empathy in one’s relationship with a patient or client. It’s this sort of clinical evidence that is missing from most interimplication of psychoanalytic theory and cultural production. This meeting of the Association for Psychoanalytic Thought brought together theory, praxis, and culture in a way that created fruitful dialogue between clinicians, academics, and critical cultural theorists. Dialogue of this sort informs the work of those of us doing cultural critique through a psychoanalytic lens and helps to ground the work in the findings of clinical practice.

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