The everlasting: what have we lost?

In my previous post I pointed out that one of the problems with the aftermath of the 2012 Olympics was precisely that there is an aftermath.  In other words, that the dream had to end.  Whether or not this turns out to be such a traumatic situation for many (or any) people time will tell, but I think this does touch on a more fundamental issue: loss and how different individuals cope with loss.

On the whole, human beings seem to cope badly with loss – and not only in relation to the loss of loved ones or other people who are dear to them.  Losing their job can be extremely difficult for some people – and not only for the obvious financial loss.  Moving house, especially to a completely new area, can also be very difficult.  Even leaving an abusive relationship, which to an outsider might seem to be a very positive move, can, paradoxically, be experienced as a great loss for the person making the break.  In fact, any kind of change, both positive and negative, can be experienced as a loss, and can often lead to a period of anxiety and depression.

Of course, not everyone reacts badly to loss.  Some people seem to be able to move from one relationship, one job, one location, to another without any apparent difficulty.   This might be because they are just better at hiding their feelings than others.  On the other hand, perhaps loss just doesn’t affect them in the way it can affect other people.  It could be argued that in a time of transitory relationships, short term contracts, and increasingly mobile lifestyles, those who are (seemingly) unaffected by change and loss are the lucky ones.  However, it could also be argued that confronting the pain and suffering of loss is part of what makes us human.

But what exactly is lost in the first place?   The answer may seem obvious: a loved one, a job, a house, and so on.  Psychoanalysts tend to refer to all such entities as objects, but this should not be taken in a dehumanising sense, e.g. the objectification of human beings.  Rather, it is in the grammatical sense of subject (the person experiencing the loss) and the object (what the subject has lost, be this another person or something more inanimate or abstract).   However, this begs a question: what was it about that particular ‘object’, be it a person or something more inanimate or abstract, that was so special to the individual who lost it?

Although most people like to think they are loved and cherished for who they are, it is more often the case that there was something specific about them that first drew the attention of the person they ended up in a relationship with.  In some cases it may seem blindingly ‘obvious’ (to other people that is) what that ‘something’ is, e.g. money, good looks, sexual prowess, etc.  However, it may not be so obvious at all to the individual concerned.  In fact, if you asked someone what attracted them to their partner, or to their job, their house, or some other cherished object, they may find it hard to give a precise answer.   This is particularly the case of people who are in abusive and damaging relationships, and especially when, having struggled to escape from their partners, they end up in exactly the same type of relationships with other people.

Lacan had a term for this ‘something’: the objet a.  Essentially this is a fantasised object, one that the individual believes he or she has lost, and is desperately seeking to reclaim.  So, with regards to loss, it is not the particular ‘object’, i.e. partner, friend, job, house, and so on, that the person grieves for: rather it is what that ‘object’ represented for them.  And Lacanians would argue that what it represented is the objet a, the lost, fantasised object, which is embodied in a particular individual or in a particular job, dwelling, location, or even in a philosophy or belief system.

However, the important thing about the objet a, apart from the fact that it doesn’t exist, is that it can appear anywhere.  This can help explain the previously mentioned abusive relationships that some people always seem to end up in: it’s not that they want to be with a particular individual; and neither is it that they want to be with someone who is going to abuse them.  Rather, there is something in the particular individuals who they do end up with – and even something in the abusive behaviour itself – that captivates them.

The objet a is essentially that which is missing in a person’s life, what they lack.  It is what, in their eyes, will make their lives complete, fulfilled.  It is the lost paradise, the Garden of Eden, the promise of eternal life – and it can appear in a look, a smile, the sound of a voice, a painting or photograph – or even in the Olympics.  It is what freezes life in a moment of eternity, that first time that people spend the rest of their lives desperately trying to recapture.