What are we talking about when we talk of anxiety?

“How are you feeling?, or even the simple ‘How are you?”- are greetings clothed in an inquiry – curiousity about the other – but also an invitation to speak. We offer the same invitation to patients. ‘Say whatever it is that comes into your mind, don’t censor what you say’. We don’t mention feelings – but we do convey curiousity. ‘I want to hear what comes out of your mouth’. This is how an analysis begins, and proceeds.

And while what we hear is unpredictable, the terminology, at least in the initial stages, is often less so. Employing signifiers endorsed by the culture, patients tend to capture their complaints by using two words-depression and anxiety.

One of the quirks of psychoanalytic practice is to doubt what these, and other words of complaint, go to. “We take you at your word, but we don’t assume we know what you mean. Tell us more”. And in the telling, it is this word anxiety that is among the most ubiquitous and opaque. The equivocity is clear in the dictionary definition. Anxiety is framed in the murky arena of feeling-it is, a ’feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome’. As past months have shown, life is riven with uncertain outcomes. Certainty is the realm of psychosis.

Which is not to say that unchecked uncertainty is sane or desirable. Doubt is the scientific method – but only until a breakthrough, rather than breakdown, occurs. To persist, as for instance, obsessionals do, with relentless hand-wringing and fence-sitting, is to find in ambivalence the self-sabotaging satisfaction Lacan called jouissance. This is the realm of fantasy, one that, in the case of anxiety, brings painful results. But is it the scourge some describe, a malaise that must, at all costs, be expunged? Given anxiety’s prevalence, this is an important clinical matter, one about which, Lacan, in particular, has much to say.

So, how does psychoanalysis understand anxiety? Is it treatable and even a good idea to try and eliminate it? Most modalities agree a certain amount of anxiety is unavoidable. This is anxiety as response to stress, or threat, what Freud called automatic anxiety, often thought of as fight or flight. The problem is not, however, with this mode of anxiety, but the anxiety that arises without an apparent imminent threat. Freud thought of this as signal or neurotic anxiety-the sort he believed was generated by the ego responding to a perceived, but not necessarily real, danger.

What we know from the clinic is that people feel and talk about anxiety as an apparently unwelcome intruder. The symptoms – ranging from discomfort, to insomnia and panic – are invaders, usual mysterious in their origin and intention. While the suffering is highly personal and singular – in one’s being, body and mind, it is disowned, an alien presence. Patients come to analysis asking to be purged of their anxiety in the way a believer might ask to be relieved of evil spirits. But the word illness, deriving from Middle English ill, has its origins in the Old Norse term illr, which means bad, not evil. This is significant and brings anxiety closer to home. It implies that patients disclaiming a connection to their anxiety, point to a clinical and etymological impasse.

Why? Because anxiety, as Lacan tells us, is the only affect that does not lie. From an analytic point of view, anxiety is the nodal point of subjectivity, a thorny but crucial element in deciphering a way out of mental anguish. Interesting use of language – as anguish is the term Lacan uses to translate the English anxiety. And by anxiety, he understands something different to what is mostly meant by the term. I am going to explore these differences, and how their unusual, at times quirky, trajectories, impact a psychoanalysis.

While anxiety has long been prominent in the clinic; both in what patients say they suffer from, and in the way analysts conceive their suffering, and how it might be treated, it is not a discrete illness; it’s present in all neurotic structures. For Lacan, it is the radical danger the subject attempts to avoid at all costs. Like Freud, he saw it as central, often at the heart of other conditions -from phobias to fetishism (S4, 23). So deplorable is anxiety that even a phobia is preferable (S4, 345); a phobia at least replaces anxiety. Which raises the question: what is it about anxiety that is so unnerving that we want to disown it?

It is a question that goes to the heart of an analytic, specifically, Lacanian, approach to treatment, where, what we’re concerned with is desire, that is: What do you-the subject seeking relief from suffering-want?

Speak and in the speaking you will say something about your desire. This question implies an object, something or someone, the subject wants to have, understand or approach. Patients find this question difficult to pin down, but mostly produce words to explore it. What makes anxiety so terrifying is that it’s not clear what it, the anxiety, is aiming at – what is it that anxiety wants?

The question arises because anxiety, like the depression Freud describes in Mourning and Melancholia, doesn’t appear focused on a particular object. The melancholic, Freud famously says, does not know what he or she has lost: it is one of the two differences between mourning and melancholia. It is the same with anxiety. Patients can describe their physical symptoms, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, a sense of dread, but not their source. This makes it disturbing to experience. In the reverse of the way that diagnosis can reassure, anxiety is not anchored anywhere. It revolves around an absence, unlike fear (which is focused on an object and thus may be symbolically worked-through) (S4, 243–6).

Such elusiveness has led to the idea that neurotic anxiety does not have an object-which is to say-there is no point to it – it is just random, inexplicable suffering. This is not how Lacan sees it. For him, anxiety is not without an object, nor is it simply biological in the way that, for instance, a virus might be. Anxiety does have an object, that is, a direction, through which a drive, or want, seeks its aim. The difference – and reason for opacity – is the inability of anxiety’s object to be symbolized in the way that other objects can. This is implicit in how patients complain of anxiety, without being able to say what it is.

In the clinic, then, we are presented with people who doubtless suffer, citing as their persecutor, anxiety, a signifier that seems to hang – rootless – in the ether.

As analysts, however, we don’t take that suffering as able to be explained by the word anxiety alone-nor do we see it as the source of the problem. What we do is try to weigh what might be going on with the patient at the level of their desire, and by desire we mean unconscious desire. We do this because, as odd as it may seem, anxiety, which is universally seen as a barrier to enjoyment, is, in fact, a way of sustaining desire.

And desire is what enables us to choose life over death-an engine, you might say, to act, and by acting, avail ourselves of what is possible, rather than dwell in the maze-like corridors of fantasy. Anxiety tends to paralyze the subject – like depression it encourages relentless, circular “thinking” that’s not thinking at all, but churning. Desire can be a remedy for this when –as is the case with anxiety – the object of desire is missing. Desire becomes something easier to bear than anxiety (S8, 430).

Where does this pervasive anxiety come from? While the tenor of my remarks is to locate it within the subject, and this is nearly always the case, it can arise from another, just animals transmit it in a herd. If anxiety is a signal, Lacan says in seminar 8, it can come from another’ (S8, 427). And we have seen this, as the real threat posed by Covid-19 (Freud’s automatic anxiety), has overflowed to an amorphous mass hysteria, (Freud’s signal anxiety). In terms of treatment, part of the problem is the notion anxiety has no object-that is-it’s not aiming at anything.

This idea comes in part from Freud distinguishing fear (which is focused on a specific object) from anxiety (which is not). Lacan, as we know, went further –arguing not just that anxiety has an object, but that it is an affect, not an emotion. And not just any affect, but the only affect beyond doubt. In other words, anxiety, unlike emotion, doesn’t deceive. This is interesting, first, for the irony that the phenomena patients blame for their unease is in fact, singularly reliable. And second, we can’t help but wonder why anxiety, if it is such a bell-weather, a key to unlock the neurotic puzzle, is so deeply resented?

Lacan has much to say about this aversion to anxiety and the failure to see in its doubt, a pointer to a cure. At a simple level, he draws attention to Freud’s symptom as an effort to bind anxiety (as with obsessional rituals) -pointing out that the presence of anxiety is evidence that the symptom has failed in its task. This, for Lacan, is an opportunity. Rather than aiming to lower anxiety as a way to restore the equilibrium of the ego, he argues for it to be fostered in small doses. It is a measure that can be put to work to unbind the symptoms, a step that is similar to bringing the subject into contact with what Lacan calls the Real, that is, what is not able to be symbolized).

What this demonstrates is how anxiety can elucidate the distinction between the desire of the subject and the jouissance of the symptom. Anxiety, therefore, is not a symptom to be eliminated with pharmacology, but a power the analyst can use. There is much more that can be said about this. But first, we need to, as Lacan did, consider the text in which Freud attempted to tackle anxiety, Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety.

Freud’s theory is not reducible to this text. I will come to this but want to make the point that, where Freud began – with anxiety as a failure to discharge libido – is where Lacan will finish. His anxiety is that which exists in the interior of the body-when the body is overcome with phallic jouissance, (Lacan, 1974–5: s. of 17 December 1974).

But he did not arrive at this formulation right away. The early Lacan, pre-war, relates anxiety primarily to the threat of fragmentation with which the subject is confronted in the mirror stage. He links anxiety with the fear of being engulfed by the devouring mother.

This theme remains an important aspect of his account, marking an apparent difference between him and Freud: whereas Freud posits a cause of anxiety as separation from the mother, Lacan argues it’s precisely the lack of such separation, which induces anxiety.

After 1953 Lacan links anxiety to the Real, a traumatic element, which resists symbolisation, and hence lacks mediation. This Real is ‘the essential object which isn’t an object any longer, but something faced with which all words cease, all categories fail, (S2, 164). It is the object of anxiety ‘par excellence’. As well as linking anxiety with the Real, Lacan also locates it in the imaginary and contrasts it with guilt, which he situates in the symbolic. One thing is constant – ‘anxiety, he says, is always connected with loss, with … something the patient can’t face without vertigo’

If you have seen the Hitchcock film of the same name, you will know what vertigo is, a terror that renders the subject paralyzed. This is an impact of anxiety. Interesting that Lacan both contrasts it with guilt, which he places in the Symbolic register, unlike anxiety, which is in the Imaginary (Lacan has three register, Symbolic, Imaginary and Real). He also takes into account loss, which he emphasizes is always a factor. Let’s look at these two considerations, guilt and loss, which Freud carefully studied as well, and which go to crucial elements in the theory of psychoanalysis.

Lacan is clear that guilt should neither be ignored, nor should the analyst seek to persuade the analysand that she is not really guilty. If the patient feels guilt, acts in a way to indicate unconscious guilt or designs to be punished and lose what is precious, then its because she is guilty: But of what? Guilt is not irrational from the Lacanian perspective, but refers to something Real ethically. Analysis tries find what this infraction refers to. Of what is the analysand guilty? She can be perplexed by guilt, yet can’t see she’s done anything wrong. Interestingly, scrutinising actions in the present does little to alleviate guilt and self-punishing actions, as events in the present are occasions for satisfying guilt, not cause of it.

A standard understanding of guilt assumes we experience guilt when we have desires or act contrary to moral law. A woman feels guilty because she has fantasies of killing her boss contrary to moral teaching by which she was raised. If she could get rid of these thoughts she would no longer experience guilt. In a simple reading of Freud, the superego is the moral agency irrationally commanding obedience to moral prohibitions, producing guilt even when we merely think contrary thoughts. Analysis would then consist in coming to recognize the irrationality of this superego. Nothing could be more contrary than Lacan’s reading of guilt and the superego. “From an analytic point of view, the only thing one can be guilty of is having given ground relative to one’s desire” (Ethics , S. 7, 319).

The superego then is not an agent of prohibition, but an imperative to enjoy. The superego is not in the voices of guilt or self-punishing actions unconsciously engaged in; rather, in the compulsion to enjoy. According to Lacan obedience to the super-egoic command to enjoy is not the violation of a rule, but rather a betrayal of desire. The more I obey the imperative to enjoy, the more guilty I feel and the more ferocious and commanding superego becomes.

For Lacan the solution is: do not give way on your desire! – tricky because it is easy to confuse desire with jouissance, as we see jouissance as the object of our desire. We need to see that desire is unconscious desire – something we discover within ourselves. It is this that leads to Lacan’s ethical claim via Freud’s dictum: Wo Es war, soll Ich werden: Where the unconscious (desire) was, there I should come to be. Lacan’s claim is that the only way to escape the guilt that indicates the betrayal of desire is to take responsibility for it, come to be the subject of desire.

It is only through the work of coming to know and enact unconscious desire via free association, that one can escape the crushing guilt that accompanies the command to enjoy. The self-lacerating thoughts and self-punishing actions that accompany this command are, paradoxically perhaps, where one should look to discover desire. If this proves difficult it is because we push these things away. It is further complicated by the fact that, while these things unfold in the present and appear to pertain to what’s going on, they are repetitions of the past.

The symptom without guilt leads to an identification with the symptom. But guilt can’t be avoided unless the jouissance is extracted. One’s duty is to renounce it. That puts duty and responsibility on the same side. Identification with the symptom is a notion that evolves in Le sinthome. In the preceding seminar, R.S.I., (‘74), it’s defined according to Freud – where the symptom is a drive-satisfaction-the symptom is the way each one has of enjoying the unconscious.

Anxiety is, as Lacan says, always linked to loss. Not necessarily an actual or measurable loss, but an anticipated loss , one that can be seen as a reaction to the possibility of castration. It may not be a fear of losing the object but rather losing the object’s love. Loss of love here stands in for something that is missing-playing the same part in hysteria as threat of castration does in phobia and fear of the superego does in obsession. It is an example of how symptoms are formed to avoid anxiety, as with Freud’s case of Little Hans. Hans would have been saved from anxiety by the castrating intervention of the real father, but this doesn’t happen; the father fails to intervene and Hans develops phobia as a substitute-it’s not separation from mother which prompts anxiety but failure to separate (S4, 319). Castration, far from being a source of anxiety, is what prevents it.

Thus Lacan’s insistence that anxiety involves an object, his objet a, and arises when something appears in the place of this object. That something is the desire of the Other, a desire that the subject for whom the object cause of desire fails to arise, is terrifyingly enigmatic. What does the other want (of me)? Objet a is therefore the unattainable object of desire. The “a” is “autre” (other in French), and the neurotic’s fantasy is entirely situated in the locus of this Other –it is the object a that he makes himself into which succeeds in defending him against anxiety precisely because it is a disguise, pastiche, a hairpiece : Lacan.

If you think of Freud’s story of the beautiful butcher’s wife. she is fond of caviar, only she doesn’t want any because it will give too much pleasure to her husband, the only thing she’s interested in is her husband fancying the negligible amount, the nothing, she keeps in reserve. This applies to all neurotics – the object a functioning in their fantasy, which serves as a defence against anxiety, is also, contrary to appearances, the bait with which they hold onto the Other. What is actually functioning in the neurotic at the level of object a – what lies behind the fallacious use of the object in a neurotic’s fantasy – is how she has been able to transport the function of the a into the Other: ie, demand. We will come back to this. But first…

There is a thread left loose here, and it is how to think about affect and emotion. The general meaning of affect is underlying emotion or mood. In Freud’s work, it stands in opposition to ‘idea’. Affects are thus emotional states in general, able to be separated from ideas, hence the theory of ‘strangulated’ affect (where an inhibition or holding onto emotion finds its way into a symptom) as happened with early hysterics. In this conception, getting better meant verbalising trauma, separating it by giving it a symbolic form.

For Lacan, though, the opposition between affective and intellectual is invalid. Treatment for him is based on the symbolic order, which transcends opposition between affect and intellect. Lacan implies a focus on not just any affect but the one in which analysis is most interested: anxiety. This is a move away from theories of classification in favour of discovering under what conditions, and to what extent, the analyst can bear the patient’s anxiety-a distinctly different orientation to what’s most prevalent today.

Lacan gets to this position, in part via Freud’s essay on the Unconscious, where the non-existence of emotion, feelings or affects in the unconscious is demonstrated. The text does not say there are no affects, but rather seeks to show that there are no affects that are repressed affects. All the affect does is to affect. Anxiety affects the subject, Lacan argued, and it does so by an effect on the unconscious. The unconscious is effected by a signifier-one that comes from the discourse of the Other-and can irrupt in an unexpected way when the subject speaks.

A good example is the lapsus-which might be thought of as a place that reflects, or thinks away, from the ego. It points to a gap in the chain of discourse-in other words -what is repressed is merely what returns. Freud’s in the Unconscious aims to show that there are no affects, only thoughts, in the unconscious. So that while anxiety is something the subject suffers and feels, he or she is affected in act, a response that arrives accompanied by anticipation crammed, the analyst, Roberto Harari says, with feeling-and it is this that stops the subject from working according to his or her desire.

Conceptually, the result is that neither what Lacan calls the ‘smoochy-woochy’ associated with affect (S1, 55), nor intellectualizing are relevant, (S1, 274). What is pertinent is how both ‘affective smoochy-woochy’ and intellectualization can be resistances, that is, imaginary lures of the ego. Affect, as we have said, means that the subject’s affected by his relation with the Other-with affects being signals, not signifiers.

There is another term in Lacan, related to, but distinct from, ‘affect’, ‘passion’. Lacan speaks of three fundamental passions’: love, hate and ignorance (S1, 271). These are not Imaginary phenomena, but located at the junctions between the three registers. Here the Imaginary can’t be understood as a unified whole, but something organised around an absence, which makes the image of the body cohere. This is connected to anxiety, according to Harari, and gives the concept of bodily unity a different character t0 the usual account of Lacan concept of the Mirror Stage.

Think about seeing one’s reflection in the mirror, which is meant to be comforting but can suddenly seem odd. It is what Freud calls the Uncanny and arises, Lacan argues, when lack is lacking. This is Lacan’s formula – anxiety as lack of a lack; absence preventing anxiety. It clarifies the difference between what for Lacan is an orientating point of analysis, desire, and its opposite, jouissance. In S. X, he makes the point by speaking of anxiety as a knife separating desire and jouissance, but only if it is held in the right hands.

The right hands-we can suppose, are those acquainted with erotology, not psychology. Erotology isn’t sexology since it supposes no sexual adjustment but rather,, by taking into account desire, focuses on speech-meaning that the subject is simply an effect of the signifier . The focus on desire is because, as there are no unconscious affects, as Freud argues in his essay on the Unconscious, which means affects drift, there is no way to work with them in the unconscious.

As stated, emotion here is not synonymous with affect, since what is repressed is not the affect, but the signifiers that bind them. And an affect is not repressed – it is unfastened, drifts, so that it can be displaced but not repressed. What is repressed are the signifiers that moor it; think of anger, for instance – it is what happens when the little pegs won’t fit in the little holes, when at the level of the Other, of the signifier, of faith, bona fides, the game, Lacan says, isn’t being played.

So, because analysis proceeds in this way, through discourse, not the brain, ‘behaviour’, or ‘cognition’, Lacan sees no need to preface his discussion of anxiety as affect with a general theory of affects, to go into categories. Since ‘erotology’, which is what he says analysis is, is oriented around the notion of desire, and desire is structured as a question, desire can therefore be directly connected with anxiety.

Anxiety, as we have said, is a support to desire And in the clinic this emerges in the question, connected to the subject’s relation to the signifier-it manifests as Che vuoi – ‘What do you want?’ As in the formula of fantasy ($&a), it is a matter of a subject in relation to an object; in this case, the object cause of desire, object a. Anxiety appears when something arises in the place of this object cause of desire. It arises when the subject is confronted by the desire of the Other and doesn’t know what object he is for that desire.

Imagine, says Lacan, that I am in a room with a giant female praying mantis 3 metres tall; and that I myself am wearing the mask of an animal, a horned being, half-man, half-animal, and I do not know exactly what animal I am. It’s not hard to imagine that I would not be at ease-the female mantis may misconstrue my identity. The crucial question is the relationship between the desire of the Other and the identity of the subject. Imagine, Lacan says, the female mantis sees you as prey, or worse: a male mantis, which is always eaten during copulation:this reflects the structural uncertainty subjects endure in relation to the enigmatic intentions of the other.

You can see the dilemma-desire is the thing we suppose the Other desires, which is to say, the thing the Other lacks. In commenting on the way desire repeats and insists via transference and the signifier, Lacan verifies that desire is fundamentally a desire for recognition. It is less a question of what we desire as much as a wish to be recognised. This dependence on the other for recognition is responsible for structuring, not only our desires, but even drives. Desire, which is alienated in the other’s desire, structures the drives (Ecrits, 343).

So firstly our desire is a desire for recognition. But secondly, it is desire for what we believe the other desires. We can understand this ‘other’ in two ways: first, as indicated with a lower case o, the other person, our counterpart, our semblable; and second, as the Other with a capital O, a more ‘otherly’ other. This big Other might be another person or the assumed virtues, morals and ideals of culture.

We never fully know exactly what the Other desires, or why she desires it, or in what way we might be implicated. For the subject, desire is thus a constant process of questioning what the Other wants. Lacan sums this up: “The object of man’s desire is essentially an object desired by someone else. One object can become equivalent to another, owing to the effect produced by this intermediary, in making it possible for objects to be exchanged and compared. This process tends to diminish the special significance of any one particular object, but at the same time it brings into view the existence of objects without number” (Lacan, ‘Some Reflections on the Ego’.

As a consequence of striving for recognition from the Other, we can never ‘simply’ desire. Our desire is not something innate inside us-or even our own – we find a path to our desire and our own recognition by asking the question of what the Other wants.

This, however, does not simply mean we just identify with the Other and automatically take whatever they desire as ours. It is not always clear what the Other wants. When we call our desires our own what we really mean is we’ve succeeded in seeking out the gaps in the desire of the Other, carving out a space for ourselves:(Ecrits, 628). Freud found desire in dreams, Lacan finds it in the other. ‘Desire, Lacan says, ‘is what manifests in the interval demand excavates just shy of itself.’ This happens in as much as the subject, as he speaks, ‘articulating his signifying chain’, brings to light ‘his lack of being, manque a etre.’

In order to become a subject, the infant must first identify the mother’s desire, and then pick a position in response to it. In evolving his own desire he has to ascertain what the Other wants, and find a place in respect of this unfathomable query. Lacan makes the question of what the (m)Other desires a kind of rite of passage for the infant. The answer he or she will give provides the subject a place from where he or she can answer the same question-what do I desire?

Later in life this question might be echoed in an analysis as the patient asks himself what the analyst wants of him. Lacan gives particular name to the presumed object of the (m)other’s desire, to what she lacks: it is the phallus. He means by this a signifier of desire, a kind of permanent marker of fundamental lack, a signifier that there is something missing from the (m)Other.

The phallus however, isn’t the object of desire, as it remains veiled and enigmatic. Rather it’s an indicator that points to the fact that there is something beyond the (m)Other that she does not have. This realisation of the mother’s lack or desire is the crucial turning point in the development of subjectivity: “Clinical work shows us” Lacan says, “that the test constituted by the Other’s desire is decisive, not in the sense that the subject learns by it whether or not he has a real phallus, but in the sense he learns that his mother does not have one.” The mother, in other words, must evince a lack.

This moment in a subject’s experience is needed for castration to take effect. It seals the conjunction of desire, insofar as the phallic signifier is its mark, (Ecrits, 693). It is only the fact that it is veiled that makes it such a potent a signifier for desire-why? Because by being veiled it suggests both that there is something there, and whatever it is, it is not clear.

Hysterics arouse desire by making others believe the true object of desire lies beyond the veil (S. V). The hysteric uses the veil to stimulate desire, they know that if the veil’s removed desire is extinguished. The lack signified by the phallus Lacan says, “is beyond anything which can represent it. It is only ever represented as a reflection on a veil” (S. II, p.223).

The phallus is nothing more than a signifier of the metonymic nature of desire. Lacan shows how a penis can never be equivalent to the phallus because, once castrated, it can’t be located back in the imaginary body.

Lacan’s best known statement regarding difference between need, demand and desire comes in ‘The Signification of the Phallus’ in Ecrits: “… Desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor demand for love, but the difference that results from subtraction of the first from the second, the very phenomenon of their splitting”. In other words, desire is produced where a demand goes further than demanding what is needed.

In S. V, he presents desire as sitting in the no-man’s-land between need and the way it is articulated in demand: “[Desire] is produced in the margin which exists between the demand for the satisfaction of need and the demand for love” (S. V, 11.06.58., p.4). In other words, you express your needs in the form of a demand, but in making that demand something of the need is left out or left over. Lacan calls this a residue or a margin and it is what becomes desire. It is unconditional in that it outstrips the other’s ability to respond to the demand with a yes or no.

The raw material of desire is therefore a transformed need, changed through its articulation in a demand, reshaped to the point where it’s not a question of getting your need satisfied any more: “In this way, demand annuls the particularity of everything that can be granted.’ It does it ‘by transmuting it into a proof of love, and the very satisfactions demand obtains from need are debased to the point of being no more than the crushing brought on by the demand for love (Ecrits, 690-692).

The important thing here is to distinguish desire from demand. Desire is not demand, even though it is often difficult to tell the two apart because desire uses demand as its vehicle: “Although it always shows through in demand, desire is beyond demand” (Ecrits, 634).

While it uses demand as its vehicle, desire can’t be satisfied by anything given in response to demand: this is illustrated, Lacan says, in a joke Freud relates in Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious. The point is how desire differs from both demand (what you ask for) and need (what you can’t do without):

“An impoverished man,” Freud says, borrowed 25 florins from a prosperous acquaintance. The same day his benefactor met him in a restaurant with a plate of salmon mayonnaise: “What? You borrow money from me and then order salmon mayonnaise? Is that what you’ve used my money for?” “I don’t understand you”, replied the poor man; “if I haven’t any money I can’t eat salmon mayonnaise, and if I have some money I mustn’t eat salmon mayonnaise. Well, then, when am I to eat salmon mayonnaise?” (SE VIII, 49-50).

[The joke shows]… the relationship between the signifier and desire, and the fact that desire has been subverted, been made ambiguous, by its passage through the paths of the signifier. It is striking that in clothing the naked, one could say that, if the demand were something to be sustained, why not clothe the naked man or woman in Christian Dior? “The same goes for feeding the hungry, why not let them get drunk?” (S. V). Desire is like a ‘perverted’ form of need. The poor man obviously needs food, but his hunger can obviously be satisfied by something less than an elaborate meal. So we find desire in what ‘pushes beyond’ need in the very expression of a demand.

This takes us back to lack, and the lack that, first Freud found necessary to conceptualize as castration. For Freud psychoanalysis runs aground upon the rock of castration anxiety – the reluctance to give up what he called a libidinal satisfaction, Lacan’s jouissance. But for Lacan the impasse was differently configured: What the neurotic shrinks from isn’t castration but something positive – ie-turning his castration into what the Other lacks, the guarantee of the function of the Other.

This Other that steals away in the indeterminate echo of significations. And an analysis brings him to this point. At the end of the day castration is the moment of interpreting castration. It can come to be signalled by minus phi, castration anxiety, in it’s relation to the Other. Anxiety’s linked to anything that might appear at the place of –phi. And this place is called, Lacan says in S. X, that is, home. To explain more, Lacan goes to Freud’s paper on Uncanny.

The uncanny is something strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. It may describe incidents, where an everyday object or act is experienced in an unsettling, alienating, or taboo way. For Freud, the uncanny’s mixture of the familiar and eerie confronts the subject with their own unconscious, repressed impulses. For Lacan the uncanny places us “in the field where we do not know how to distinguish bad and good, pleasure from displeasure,” resulting, he says, in an irreducible anxiety – gesturing to the Real.

By contrasting the German unheimlich (uncanny, but literally unhomely) with heimlich (whose etemology is “concealed, hidden, in secret”), he proposes that taboo often yields an aura of horror, even disgust. This occurs as the taboo gives rise to an assumption that that which is hidden must be a threat, especially it’s sexual. The Uncanny then is what unconsciously reminds us of the forbidden and thus repressed.

In Freudian terms, such uncanny elements are perceived as threatening by a super-ego ridden with oedipal guilt – as it fears symbolic castration by punishment. Thus, the items and individuals we project our repressed impulses on to become an uncanny threat, uncanny monsters, akin to fairy-tale devils, which can become scapegoats we blame for our suffering.

Guy de Maupassant, in his story “Le Horla”, (Outsider) describes a man who suddenly may see his own back in the mirror. His back is there, but deprived of the gaze of the subject. It appears as a strange object, a place where we don’t know how to distinguish bad and good, pleasure and displeasure. This is the signal of anxiety: a signal of the Real, irreducible to any signifier. Hitchcock was a master of of Unheimlich; he used simple, everyday objects that suddenly become terrifying.

This is anxiety. And for Lacan, it is a useful tool, one that allows patients to explore and elaborate their true desire. As he says, the true object sought by the neurotic is a demand that he want to be asked of him. He wants to be begged. The only thing is he doesn’t want is to pay the price, as he doesn’t want to give anything. Lacan says that if only he chooses to give something, all will be well. What you’ve got to teach neurotics is to give this thing he doesn’t imagine – nothing – ie – his anxiety. The neurotic won’t give up his anxiety. He begins by giving part of his symptom – but this is a game by which he makes an appeal to demand – he wants you to ask something of him.

Anxiety isn’t the signal of a lack, but a failing of the support lack provides. Going back to Freud, it’s not longing for the breast, but its imminence, which provokes anxiety. It isn’t about loss of object, but its presence.

I have drawn on Roberto Harari’s Lacan’s Seminar on Anxiety: An Introduction, Other Press, New York, 2001, as a useful source in preparing this article.