This famous Lacanian aphorism comes in seminar 12 in his reflection on the infatuation of Alcibiades with Socrates, depicted in Plato’s Symposium. Frustrated by the latter’s unwillingness to return his affections, he explains how “for nothing is more important to me than that I become the best possible; and I believe that, as far as I am concerned, there is no one more competent than you to be a fellow helper to me in this”. Only for Socrates to respond by questioning the ‘impossible beauty’ which Alcibiades perceived in his teacher:
And when he heard this, he said very ironically, and exactly as he is, and in his usual fashion, ‘Really, my dear Alcibiades, you’re no sucker if what you say about me is really true and there is some power in me through which you could become better. You must see, you know, an impossible beauty in me, a beauty very different from the fairness of form in yourself. So if, in observing my beauty, you are trying to get a share in it and to exchange beauty for beauty, you are intending to get far the better deal. For you are trying to acquire the truth of beautiful things in exchange for the seeming and opinion of beautiful things; and you really have in mind to exchange “gold for bronze.” But, blessed one, do consider better: without your being aware of it—I may be nothing. Thought, you know, begins to have keen eyesight when the sight of the eyes starts to decline from its peak; and you are still far from that.
This is the agalma, “the hidden treasure which turns an ordinary thing into a radiant prize”. Lacan’s concept builds on Klein’s notion of the partial object, detaching it from the latent teleology which contrasts this stunted splitting with an integrated ego; instead as Žižek puts it, objet petit a “is not what we desire, what we are after, but, rather, that which sets our desire in motion, in the sense of the formal frame which confers consistency on our desire … a set of phantasmic features which, when they are encountered in a positive object, make us desire this object”. As he continues on pg 53 of The Plague of Fantasies,
In a slightly different way, the same mechanism regulates the subject’s falling in love: the automatism of love is set in motion when some contingent, ultimately indifferent, (libidinal) object finds itself occupying a pre-given fantasy place.
The point of returning to this story in the Symposium is that Alcibiades sees in Socrates something which he lacks; the possibility to realise a potential in himself which he yearns for yet remains utterly dependent on his teacher to enable him to do this. There was something he expected from Socrates which he was unwilling to give, in spite of Alcibiades offering him everything he had: “Now I am in this state: I believe it is very foolish not to gratify you in this or anything else of mine—my wealth or my friends—that you need”. This unwillingness was experienced as a perverse, even cruel, refusal to enter into the intimate relation which Alcibiades craved:
So I was alone with him alone, men; and I believed he would converse with me at once in just the way a lover would converse with his beloved in isolation, and I rejoiced. But exactly nothing of the sort happened; but just as he used to do, he would converse with me; and having spent the day with me he would take his leave.
This withdrawal without rejection leaves Alcibiades experiencing Socrates as a “truly daemonic and amazing being”, as he lies next to him with physical proximity belying the ontological chasm between them. But as we saw in the extract above Socrates called into question how Alcibiades had imputed to him a “power in me which you could become better”, suggesting that “I may be nothing”. He was in Plato’s telling, aware of the fixation through which Alcibiades has attached himself to him; imagining in Socrates the means to fill a void which he barely recognised in himself instead seeing it as an external condition to enable a fuller realisation of his inner coherence. In this sense argues Lacan in seminar X, the subject loves through a lack:
the fact is that there is always another coordinate, the one on which I put the accent in connection with the analytic intervention of Socrates, namely specifically in the case where I evoke a love present in the real, and that we can understand nothing about transference if we do not know that it is also the
consequence of that love, that it is in connection with this present love – and analysts should remember it during analyses – of a love which is present in different ways, but that at least they should remember it, when it is there visible, that it is in function of what we could call this real love that there is established what is the central question of transference, namely the one the
subject poses concerning the agalma, namely what he is lacking. For it is with this lack that he loves. It is not for nothing that for years I have been repeating to you that love is to give what one does not have. This is even the principle of the castration complex: in order to have the phallus, in order to be able to make use of it, it is necessary precisely not to be it.
If I understand correctly the point here is that the generic trauma, entailed by the entry into the symbolic order, takes concrete form as the nascent subject’s desire is set into motion by a series of partial objects. The sense of loss, separation, withdrawal of what could make us whole, whether violently stolen by an antagonist or tantalisingly out of reach in an otherwise amenable lifeworld, accumulates over time in the parameters of our fantasy: fantasy tells me what I am to my others and what I yearn for, however inarticulately, from them. I’d like to understand how this sits with Klein’s approach because it seems Lacan denies the possibility of healing which comes from the depressive position. We remain wounded as a necessary condition of becoming symbolising subjects in a world that withdraws behind our symbolisation.
I found Bruno Moroncini’s analysis below helpful for understanding Lacan’s even more gnomic remarks in seminar 12 (pg 165 is where the infamous aphorism is offered):
Alcibiades doesn’t need masters to teach him how to run the state, gather riches or persuade the people: this, as his history shows, he knows instinctively, in this he is led by desire. What he wants to know, rather, is what this desire guiding him, acting inside him beyond his own self, actually is; Alcibiades’ question is: I want, but what is it I want? And is what I want what I really want? The paradox, or one might say the tragedy, of l’homme du désir is precisely this: he desires, but lacks knowledge of his desire. And an even greater paradox is that he asks the other, as if his desiring, his wanting what he really wants, didn’t depend on him but on the desire and the will of the other. And Lacan’s thesis: not only does every ‘what do I want?’ turn into a ‘what do you want?’ addressed to the other for the person who utters it, but the ‘what do I want?’ is in turn the inversion of a message that, unwittingly or not, the other addresses to us. The mere presence of the other, indeed, summons us, draws us in. The other is a question that keeps us hanging in the balance that puts us in crisis: what do you want? What’s the object of your will? What is your desire? An excruciating agonizing position we get away from by resorting, fully unconsciously, to an imaginary solution: it seems to us, in fact, that if he is asking us this means that he knows, indeed that he is the only one who knows. In other words, we send that ‘what do you want?’ he summons us with back to him with return receipt, hoping that by the end of this correspondence we will be given a single, clear and univocal answer: «Yes, this is what you are».
In this sense Alcibiades sees in Socrates the answer to a question he could not articulate, if only he could be enticed to enter into the intimacy in which a question could be posed and an answer given. The tragedy is that Alcibiades has objectified Socrates as the repository of the agalma; a real intersubjectivity would preclude exactly the quality which made him such a ‘radiant prize’ in the first place. The object-cause of the fixation precludes its realisation in intersubjective intimacy by destroying the conditions in which desire was set into motion in the first place. I’m more optimistic than Lacan about the possibility of an intersubjective intimacy (indeed I’m aware real Lacanians would cringe at the register of optimism/pessimism here). If I understand Moroncini’s explanation correctly, this notion is itself a destructive fantasy which obscures the struggle for recognition necessarily in play when each expects “the object to suddenly come to life, to turn, as if by miracle, from what you desire into what desires you”:
Thus the love relationship remains asymmetrical, from subject to object; except that, in Hegel’s words, this is not known as such by the subject, who can rather revel in the illusion of having achieved a total equality of itself with the other and vice versa. The result of love, at this point, can only be what had already been foreseen by Hegel-Kojève with regard to the figure of recognition: a real fight to the death. And even if one does not wish to reach the catastrophic theses of a Sartre, who thought that the relationship with the other must necessarily lead to sado-masochism, it would still be difficult to deny that in the balance sheet of love the bottom line is always in the red, that the woes, to abandon the metaphor, outnumber the joys. And the reason for this is precisely this constituent asymmetry of love, which implies that the more the lover asks the other to admit him/her as the privileged object of his/her love, the more the message is returned reversed: the other denies himself. A situation that can lead to a break-up, unless a third party intervenes to break the perverse spiral of the mirror-like illusion.