I have already proposed that there are lovers who stand out from the rest because we experience them as so irreplaceable that even a definitive parting of ways does not entirely banish their imprint. The reason for this is that such lovers touch what I would like to call the “bedrock” of our desire. This bedrock is the deepest kernel of our being, articulating what is most archaic, least socialized (and therefore most idiosyncratic) about us, particularly about our ways of seeking satisfaction in the world. As a consequence, whenever a lover manages to awaken this kernel, he or she almost by definition cuts into unconscious layers of our interiority that are absolutely fundamental to our being yet also a little mysterious—shrouded, as they are, in the impenetrable mists of our prehistory. More specifically, such a lover activates currents of desire that are so essential to our sense of self that we would not recognize ourselves without them.
In chapter 1 I mentioned that although we may, across the span of our lives, meet numerous people who pique our curiosity, there are usually only a few who raise our passion to a feverish pitch. Those who do are the ones who—often unintentionally and without being fully aware of their power—brush against the bedrock of our desire. They stir our desire on such a primary level that we sense that our destiny is inextricably intertwined with theirs. This is how we sometimes come to feel that certain people are “fated” for us—that we do not have a choice but to respect the thrust of our desire even when this desire gets us in trouble.
The famous French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan explains that whenever this happens, our lover comes to coincide with what Freud already called “the Thing”: the unnameable object of desire that we incessantly circle but can never attain. This Thing, in Lacan’s rendering, is a fantasy object that we imagine having lost and that we therefore spend our entire lifetimes trying to refind. It connects us to our first objects of desire (usually our parents) so that when we meet its echo in another person, we tend to feel the agitation that Plato linked to the transcendent yearnings of the soul; we tend to feel as if we were in the presence of something unfathomably valuable. Indeed, there is nothing in the world that incites our desire as forcefully as a lover who seems to reincarnate the Thing. However, because the Thing is a fantasy object rather than something that we once actually had (and then lost), we can never recover it in any decisive sense. We can only ever move toward it in an imaginary way.
Our inchoate sense of having lost the Thing makes us feel that we have been deprived of existential fullness. Arguably, this is precisely what gives rise to the human condition of lack that I talked about earlier in this book. At that point I emphasized that, contrary to what might at first appear, this primordial malaise is productive because it induces us to pursue various forms of secondary satisfaction. Lacan’s analysis of the Thing augments this insight by revealing that the trajectory of our pursuit is by no means random but consists of a very specific configuration of passion in that the shape of our desire corresponds to the shape of the loss we infer having endured. It is because the Thing for which we seek substitutes spawns a very particular nexus of fantasies that only a precious few of the objects that we chance upon manage to satisfy or engage us. We are constantly, and sometimes quite compulsively, on a lookout for the exceptional object that, we believe, can make us whole. As a consequence, we fall in love when the object we find appears to fit into, and even to seal, the void within our being; we fall in love when we (unconsciously) sense that we have discovered a little piece of the Thing. In this manner, even when we are unable to identify what it is that we are searching for—even when we cannot explain the “why” of our yearning—the Thing as an unconscious object of longing gives us the treasure map of our desire.