Introduction: Or, Just Me and My Unconscious
At the beginning of the last year that Jess and I spent together, I wrote the following poem:
I have spent seven years
Trying to memorize the contours of your body
Your textures, shapes, and spaces
With my lips and fingers
And the palms of my hand
But no matter how hard I try
I cannot hold you
Cannot kiss you
Cannot recreate you
When you are not here
I have spent seven years
Trying to memorize the sound of your voice
Pitch and timbre, intonation
Seven years spent
With the smell of your hair
And the space at the back of your neck
Trying to memorize
The way you look when you are astride me
And the taste of your sweat
To recall the way you fit within my arms
When I first get home
And the burst of your laughter when you are delighted
And I am ridiculous
But when you are gone
And I cannot bring you back
Not one part of you
I am impossible
I was surprised by the sudden shift at the end of the poem. From the recognition of how impossible it is to truly re-member Jess when she is gone, I recognize that I, too, am unrecognizable, unfamiliar, and equally impossible without her. When I wrote the poem, I did not know it would end that way. And this is the one of the beautiful things about poetry and the free associations and wordplay it inspires. Unexpected—subconscious, unconscious—things surface. The ending apocalypsed itself—and like any apocalypse (which is the Greek word for revelation), it also revealed a whole lot more. I thought I was writing about Jess but I was (also? only?) writing about myself.
Which raises the question: when we are in love, how much are we in love with the other and how much are we in love with who we ourselves are in that relationship? How much, in other words, was I in love with Jess and how much was I in love with myself-in-relationship-with-Jess?
Creating some kind of scoring metric in an effort to divide and quantify this (I was 60% in love with Jess, 40% in love with myself, or whatever), entirely misses the point. The point is to recognize that love of an other—including deeply felt, passionate, altruistic, erotic, and genuine love of an other—always contains an element of love of self. This is one component of the “primary narcissism” that Freud postulates exists “in all human beings” (see: https://www.sakkyndig.com/psykologi/artvit/freud1925.pdf; which should not be confused with pathological Narcissistic Personality Disorder of the DSM-5; see here: https://www.theravive.com/therapedia/narcissistic-personality-disorder-dsm–5-301.81-(f60.81)). Furthermore, as Julie Kristeva makes clear in her erudite and captivating Tales of Love, this “primary Narcissism” is, to one degree of significance or another, a component of being-in-love. This does not mean that our love for others is somehow contaminated, impure, or compromised. It just means that we, ourselves, are also involved with ourselves when we love others.
Reading Kristeva, while working through the grief and loss I have been experiencing after Jess left—in fact, reading Kristeva while I felt somehow stuck at an indecipherable impasse in my grief and loss—provided me with my “Aha!” moment. It came when I read that “for the lover… there is an idealizable other who returns his [sic] own ideal image” (Tales of Love, 33). Reading this, I immediately realized:
I had made Jess into an (ever more) idealized other who returned to me my ideal image of myself.
To deploy Freudian terms: Jess became the Ego Ideal who reflected my Ideal Ego.
What does this mean?
The Ego Ideal and the Ideal Ego: Or, Just Me and My Dad
According to Kristeva, “a father imagined to be loving… [is] the seed of the Ego Ideal” (Tales of Love, 374). Why is this the case? Well, according to the post-Freudians, the story goes like this: the child desires “the mother” (who isn’t necessarily the bio-mom or even someone female-identified but who is the primary caregiver and source of comfort of the child). However, the child slowly realizes that the mother is not always present for the child, when the child wants the mother to be present and, worse yet, there is someone else whom the mother desires more than the mother desires the child. This other is named “the father” (who, again, needn’t be a bio-father or even be someone male-identified but is whomever the mother desires who is not the child).
Of course, this story could be taken in an Oedipal direction (the child then wants to kill the father and marry the mother, thereby removing the object that takes the mother away from the child and, in fact, substituting themselves [the child] into the place of that object), but this needn’t be the case. Instead, the father can become the Ego Ideal—the object that the child idealizes and desires to be like because, the child imagines, becoming like that object (the Ego Ideal) would mean that the child’s desire would be satisfied. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, this raises the father (who is the Ego Ideal) to the dignity of the Thing (Lacan, The Object Relation, 8—here the term “the Thing” is Lacan’s earlier formulation of what he later refers to as the objet petit a, the unobtainable object-cause of desire). Thus, we see a symbolic elevation of an imaginary object to the dignity of the real Thing (Lacan, Anxiety, 112).
However, this is an imaginary projection that veils the emptiness of the father himself (i.e. the father really isn’t all that perfect and being like the father will not, in fact, lead to all desires being satisfied once and for all). Now the loving father (who, again, needn’t be a bio-father or male-identified), will support a child in working through this and, as a result, will help them develop the Ideal Ego. Unlike the Ego Ideal, which is always an other, the Ideal Ego is the version of our own self that we love the most and most aspire to be (see Bollas, Three Characters, 4; Bollas also notes the difference between the Ideal Ego and the Superego: the former is who the self wants to be, the latter is an internalized judging agent; although, as Žižek highlights, for many people the Ego Ideal and the Superego are two different faces of the same Big Other [How to Read Lacan, 80-81]).
But if the father is not loving, is the father is inaccessible, self-absorbed, or unkind to the child, this leads to significant problems for the child. The father remains the Ego Ideal to the extent that the father is still desired by the mother and takes the mother away from the child, but this is an Ego Ideal in a crisis which significantly affects the development of the child’s Ideal ego. As Kristeva says, “the crisis of the paternal function [leads] to a deficiency of psychic space… It is for want of paternal love that Narcissi, burdened with emptiness, are suffering… they want to be loved” (Tales of Love, 378). In this way, the Ego Ideal becomes uncertain but desperately desired.
Although the father and the paternal need not be a bio-dad or anything male-identified, I strongly identify with this story because of my own upbringing and the violence, lack of care, and abandonment I received from my bio-dad. It makes sense of me (to me), to think that I may be someone who is especially eager or desperate to find someone who will provide me with an Ego Ideal who also allows me to experience myself as my Ideal Ego. Furthermore, my distrust of men and masculinity couple with my rejection of my parents (which followed upon their rejection of me) meant that instead of looking for this Ego Ideal who gives me my Ideal Ego in a substitute father-figure, I looked for it in lovers or romantic partners. Looking back now, I would say that the three big loves of my life (of whom Jess was by far the biggest) were my big loves, in part, because this dynamic was present in those relationships (and my smaller loves were smaller loves, in part, because this dynamic was not as strong).
However, as Kristeva makes clear, whenever this dynamic is present, love contains a mutually reinforcing process of idealization and narcissism (Tales of Love, 6). How is this the case?
Idealization and Narcissism: Or, Just Me and My Boo
“Love,” Kristeva writes, “is the time and space in which “I” assumes the right to be extraordinary” (Tales of Love, 5). Thus, a particular kind of self (the Ideal Ego) is brought into existence “inasmuch as it identifies with an ideal other” (the Ego Ideal) (idem., 35; emph. added). Part of the power of this kind of love is that it is “centered on the self although drawn toward the ideal Other” and, as such, “[it] is a love that magnifies the individual as a reflection of the unapproachable other whom I love and who causes me to be” (idem., 59). Or, as she states more simply elsewhere, “the idealized Lady is the Other who idealizes me” (idem., 184). Thus, “loving implies a certain wrenching of the self for the sake of ideal identification with the loved one” and, we should immediately add, with the self we love to experience ourselves as (idem., 168).
This interaction between the Ideal Ego and the Ego Ideal—between idealization and narcissism—comforts and “strengthen[s] the defense of the narcissistic Ego” (idem., 43). For this reason, Kristeva can say that “[t]he lover is a narcissist with an object” (idem., 33; the “object,” here is the love-object, the beloved of the lover). This creates what Bollas refers to as “the narcissistic contract: I promote you as exalted; you do the same for me” (Three Characters, 3; emph. added). This drives the lover into a world of idealization, where they can “bask in the radian light of the idealized object” they find in the other and also in their own self (ibid.). Thus, in this post-Freudian perspective, you can say that, yes, there is an ”i” in “Narcissus” but there is also an “us”! I idealize you, you reflect back to me my ideal image of myself and, should that image of myself not prove adequate, I further idealize you which, then, strengthens my experience of my ideal self. Bliss.
Unfortunately, in order to arrive at this state of bliss, parts of reality must be blocked out. As Bollas goes on to say, the “denial of mental and emotional reality is the bedrock of the narcissistic defense” (Three Characters, 18). Thus, Kristeva observes, “within our loves… we are caught within an alchemy of idealization… if we have difficulty loving, it is because we have difficulty idealizing—difficulty investing our narcissism in an other who is considered to have immeasurable value, thus guaranteeing our own potentiality” (Tales of Love, 169).
Bringing this home to myself and my relationship with Jess—a relationship where our most frequent pet name for one another was “Love” (surely evidence of both affection and idealization at work!)—this dynamic becomes clear. Especially in the final year or two of our relationship, when Jess was beginning to pull away and grapple with her realization that our lives were taking us in different directions—this was precisely when I, rather than facing into that reality, began to escalate my idealization of Jess to fantastical levels. Thus, in earlier poems about Jess I may have described her in relation to beautiful or awe-inspiring experiences in nature (love older than grandparent trees, her as a glacier and I as a mountain, her as a little bird and I as an oak, and so on), in later poems I began to use the language of the divine about her (thus, a poem that begins with the line, “It’s not so much that I stopped believing in god,” concludes with a stanza that begins, “as for me I worship Jessica…”).
Kristeva refers to this escalating idealization as a process of crystallization. Quoting from Stendahl’s work On Love, she observes that:
Like the famous “tree branch stripped of its leaves by winter” that miners throw into the salt mines… and retrieve a few months later, “covered with sparkling crystallizations,” the lover concocts an image of his beloved all the more beautiful and removed from reality as his mistress has been inaccessible, frustrating, hardly allowing herself to be seen. “So long as one is not at ease with what one loves, there is crystallization entailing an imaginary solution.Tales of Love, 347.
Observing this is not in any way intended to take away from the marvelous person that Jess is. Jessica’s kindness, thoughtfulness, humour, creativity, gentleness, courage, strength, playfulness, and beauty—all of these attributes are real and exist in the domain of the real. Where I turned away from the real and engaged in increasingly exaggerated idealizations was in the context of Jessica-and-I-together and Jessica-being-in-love-with-me. I did this, not in order to lie to myself about who Jessica is, but because I did not want to relinquish who I experienced myself as being while I was with her.
When Bollas’s “narcissistic contract” can no longer be maintained, is it not usually the beloved who departs who suffers the most intensely—usually they have spent a considerable time already working through that suffering that comes with leaving prior to leaving (and this is what makes leaving possible and also part of the reason why those who leave are often able to dive wholeheartedly into new relationships much faster than those who are left)—it is the lover who is left behind who suffers not just the loss of the idealized other but also the loss of the idealized or exalted self and the question of if this self ever existed at all or was merely a fantasy.
Or, as I realized quite early in my grieving process, I felt special with Jess. After she left, I didn’t feel special anymore. In fact, I’m became increasingly filled with dread at the thought that maybe I actually never was special at all. Oh no.
The fear that this idealized self never existed is especially prominent in those who, like me, did not have a loving father and who, therefore, became uncertain as to who they “truly are.” Love provides a way of creating a secure, durable, recognizable, and desirable identity marker. If a child does not receive that in their early developmental stages, they will be prone to seeking to ground their identity in other love relationships. As Kristeva says at various times, “you love me therefore I am” and “I am to the extant that I am loved, therefore I love in order to be” and “the soul is established through loving itself in the ideal” (Tales of Love, 227, 171, and 110 respectively). With no certainty about who they actually are, or if they even are anything more than a void or a lack, the lover goes seeking reassurance of their own existence in love.
In this way, the lover becomes “lost in the other for the other,” who is the only safe place to be lost, and, in this way, love becomes the experience of “destabilizing-stabilizing identification” (Tales of Love, 4, 274). Shortly after being kicked-out by my parents, this is what I found in what I believed was my relationship with god—god the father who loved me and rejoiced in my company and who pronounced me good, god in whom I could be safely lost, who destabilized who my parents made me believe I was (i.e., a piece of shit), and who stabilized a new identity within me (i.e. I am beloved)—but this, too, was something that ultimately became unsustainable and died when my marriage dissolved.
I found it again, and perhaps most powerfully, in Jessica. Lost in and for Jess, I became distressed when she departed, in part, because I once again became lost in terms of my own understanding not only of who I was now without Jess, but also who I was the whole time. The “narcissistic contract,” that existed while we were together was gone and could now no longer function as “a screen over emptiness” (Tales of Love, 23)—the emptiness I experienced inside myself prior to being with Jess.
Love that is Stronger Than Death: Or, Just Me and My Death Drive
But it is not only an internal emptiness that is covered over by love. There are ego-drives that, according to Freud, come before what we refer to as love. One of these is the death drive which has to do with the repetition of painful or traumatic experiences and, ultimately, the seductiveness of self-destructiveness. The myth of Narcissus reminds us how love can not only cover over emptiness or lack (of self, of the Ideal Ego) but can also function as a screen over the death drive. As Kristeva notes, “Narcissus in love hides the suicidal Narcissus” (Tales of Love, 124; emph. added). After all, in the myth of Narcissus recounted by Ovid, Narcissus essentially kills himself. Seduced by his own image, captivited by his own beauty, lacking in self-awareness, he essentially starves himself to death. And that he chooses to do this suggests that part of him, likely a part he does not want to be aware of, desires this. Love in and with an idealized other becomes a way of trying to hide from this awareness or avoid fulfilling this repressed desire. But, as Kristeva says, when Narcissus realizes that the other, in the spring, is merely an image of himself, he is confronted (again) with his own emptiness and his own death drive and he suicides (idem., 376).
Thus, for those lacking a well-developed Ideal Ego, sharing a big love with an ideal other can be an effort to escape the siren call of suicide. And, in fact, this was the case for me when Jessica and I fell in love with one another and ourselves and us together. Following the dissolution of my marriage, a combination of co-occurring events brought about the total collapse of the sense of self I had painstakingly constructed for myself since the time my parents abandoned me as a teen. I had developed a sense of self with elements of an Ideal Ego that was linked to four areas: my marriage, my vocation, my few close friendships, and my spirituality. When my marriage came apart, all four of those areas of my life were also lost to me. I became a devastated stranger to myself (writing about that experience shortly after beginning to date Jess, I used the analogy of being hollowed out and feeling as though everything inside of me had been replaced by a black hole that could not be filled—surely an example of the emptiness Kristeva mentions). In many ways, this was an ego death.
As a result, the suicidal ideation that has been a persistent presence in my life became utterly relentless. This led to a few moments when ideation transitioned to action (for example, standing on the railing of the Cambie Bridge in Vancouver at 3AM with my wallet on the ledge beside me so that they could identify my body because I knew that a body hitting water from that height could become unrecognizable). However, I was able to cling to life largely because of my children and because, no matter how else I could justify my death, I could not escape the research demonstrating how children of parents who suicide are statistically significantly more likely to suicide as well.
Holding on to life did not get easier over time. I survived more or less well. My initial explosion of self-soothing via self-destructive behaviours receded after 18 months but my desire to live did not get stronger. My suicidal thoughts continued to overwhelm my mental life and, after years of this, I think I entered a borderline psychotic state. My psychosis would not have been evident to anyone else—in fact, everyone else thought that my life was improving since the binge-drinking and the reckless behaviours that accompanied it became almost entirely non-existent—but my feeling of being present in a recognizably shared world with others had shifted. It was, arguably, a form of the “quiet madness” that Darian Leader identifies in his book, What Is Madness?.
Quiet madness, Leader argues, is a carefully constructed delusional worldview that allows a psychotic person to function and experience relative peace or contentment in life. As such, and as early psychoanalysts came to realize before the rise of the psychiatric medical model, psychosis may be far more prevalent in an undiagnosed form than we realize (in an interview with The Guardian, Leader voices his belief that madness is “the rule rather than the exception”; see here: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2011/oct/02/darian-leader-psychoanalysis-madness-interview). Because it is only when some kind of catastrophic event occurs that causes the psychotic person’s carefully constructed world to collapse that we see the symptoms and consequences we associate with pathologized psychosis. Thus, Leader very cleverly distinguishes between the state of “being mad” and the disastrous experience of “going mad.” From this perspective, I was mad and, appearances notwithstanding, I was edging ever closer to going mad.
It was then that I met Jessica. After getting to know her, I said secretly to myself, we will either fall in love with each other or, in the words of Joey Comeau, I will “die so gloriously that ever having lived will seem like folly.” I was committed to this either/or decision at that time although I don’t think I ever mentioned it to anyone else until now (“Narcissus in love hides the suicidal Narcissus”). But I did fall in love with Jess and Jess fell in love with me and we shared eight wonderful years together. Yes, there were elements of idealization involved but so much of who we were and became together was beautiful and tender-hearted; delightfully surprising and good. It was only in the last year or two that Jess began to try to make sense of why she felt as though she was being pulled away, that I begin to idealize her more and more, becoming increasingly anxious and afraid, not only of losing her (the Ego Ideal) but also afraid of losing myself (experienced as the Ideal Ego).
As a formerly homeless youth lacking a loving father, I am particularly prone to this kind of anxiety and fear. As John Bowlby meticulously documents, children who have been taken away from their homes experienced heightened fear responses when they encounter anything that suggests their home might be taken away again (see Attachment and Loss, Volume II. Separation: Anxiety and Anger, 13). But anxiety, as Lacan emphasizes, “is that which deceives not (Lacan, Anxiety, 76). It becomes especially strong when we come so close to the idealized object that, on an unconscious level, we realize that it does not exist—at least not as idealized object qua idealized object (idem., 50-54, 61). Or, to use the most straight-forward language of Bowlby, we can say that anxiety arises when we go “seeking an attachment figure but [are] unable to reach him (or her)” (Attachment and Loss, Volume II. Separation: Anxiety and Anger, 95). Jess, as should be obvious by now, was the most secure attachment of my adult life (probably of all my life) and so my anxiety escalated as I remained in proximity to her while she ceased to be an attachment figure.
Of course, having documented this, I’m sure the concern of my loved ones is that I may now return to the quiet madness of obsessively dwelling on fantasies related to my own death. But I have not. I suspect that this is for at least two reasons. First, Jessica’s departure was not accompanied by the total loss of all other areas of meaning and ego-identification in my life. Fatherhood is a great joy to me—and a source of pride as well. I’m also engaged with various groups that I value. And I am much more comfortable when I am alone with myself. Second, although my understanding of my Ideal Ego became increasingly focused on my-self-with-Jessica in the last years of our relationship, I have, in fact, developed in many other ways as a person, as a man, as a dad, as a friend, as just some random guy, over the last eight years. And so it turns out that Jessica’s departure does not result in: my-self-with-Jessica being annihilated and crossed out (“
my-self-with-Jessica”). It is only the “with-Jessica” that is crossed out and my-self remains (“my-self -with-Jessica”). I am not a fiction. I am not a void. Jessica and I are no longer in love but, nevertheless, I am, I was, I will be.
And that’s pretty okay with me.
Conclusion: Or, Just Me and My Imagination
“At the root of all character disorders,” Bollas observes, “there is mental pain… each disorder is an intelligent attempt to solve an existential problem” (Bollas, Three Characters, xiii). And, as Bollas goes on to observe and as Leader would surely agree, one must be mad to think that some element of the various character disorders is not present in each one of us.
Seeking out a Freudian love-object or other who I can idealize so that I can also have my idealized self reflected back to me is, I think, one intelligent attempt to solve the existential problem of abandonment and abuse during childhood. As with all such attempts, it works until it doesn’t anymore. Because it works for longer or shorter periods of time that can be intensely pleasure and soothing in a world that otherwise feels cold-hearted and distressing, the temptation is to continually repeat this pattern. But beware! As Freud reminds us, such repetition may well be a component of the death drive. Each effort ultimately doomed to failure because, as Leader observes, “it has to pass via the mark that commemorates it” (Jouissance, 114). Love found is not the cure for lost love. It is, rather, akin to drinking in the morning in order try and cure a hangover. As any old boozer knows (and I, too, was once an old boozer), this only worsens the inevitable. It is a form of self-soothing by self-harming and self-harming by self-soothing. So, also with love found. For as long as the lover remains within this pattern, love found is simply lost love deferred. But such deferrals cannot go on endlessly or be enacted without consequences. Sadly, the consequences, when they come, often add up to more than the sum total of anticipated consequences from each individual lost love. Lost love deferred charges compound interest.
Thus, if I am to change and break this pattern, the solution is not to love anew to be to come to know a new form of love—a form of love that, in fact, might not fit my understanding of what I call love. This requires, not a desperate flight into fantasy, but the deployment of creativity, playfulness, and imagination. For, as Kristeva observes, “Imagination succeeds where the narcissist becomes hollowed out” (Tales of Love, 381). I am excited to see where this goes because, to be honest, I have no idea what lasting romantic love might be like outside of the “narcissistic contract” (wherein I idealize you, you idealize me, and in this way we fill up the emptiness we fear is all we are inside).
Thus, precisely at the moment when I feel I have turned a corner with my understanding, my grief, and my loss, precisely at the moment when I feel that perhaps I could be open to dating others again, I find myself entirely uninterested in dating. To riff one last time on Narcissus, I am full of my self becoming.
And that, too, is pretty okay with me.
Postscript: Or, Just Me
“Poetry belongs to Narcisssus,” Kristeva asserts (Tales of Love, 185). I will conclude with a poem I wrote in the first few weeks after Jessica left. When I wrote it, it felt unbearably sad. Now, within it, I see the seeds of hope.
Today I moved my sweaters
To your half of the closet
Put the kids’ shoes
Where yours used to be
I washed the last traces
Of your scent from the bedsheets
Boxed up the pot lids
You forgot beneath the stove
I tracked down the headlamp
You purchased for Iceland
When we walked on the glacier
And cuddled together
In our two-person tent
You and me and the mountains
You and me and the sea
You and me and the world
Stretched out before us
You and me and
Dan, I have been reading your blog for about 12-14 years, and I don’t think I have ever commented. While particulars of course diverge, our stories have shared a narrative arc, to a striking degree. This post is one of my favorites ever and it has made me exceedingly glad to see you coming through with a self you love and for which you have hope. I’m cheering and rooting for you.
Hi Darren, thanks so much for commenting. 12-14 years is a long time! Thanks for cheering for me!
Hi Dan, as you know, I too am a long- time reader and I often check back to see how you are travelling. I am really grateful for your thoughtful and open reflections on your pains and joys – they give me a strong sense of companionship on this complicated road of life. I’m so sorry for the loss you’ve experienced this past year but your deepening and grounded sense of self comes through very clearly. And as always your fierce love for your children is a beautiful thing! It is good to think of them growing up enfolded in that love.
A happy surprise, hearing from you, Joanna! Thanks for this note. I hope the years have been kind to you.