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As we learn in his preamble to the review, Kierkegaard’s aesthete holds Les premiers amours in the highest esteem, thereby sharing the general acclaim with which the play was received during its 131 performances in Copenhagen over the later half of the nineteenth century. Calling it “a play without a fault,” a play “so perfect that it alone should make Scribe immortal,” we soon learn that Les premiers amours occupies a unique place in A’s own personal history as well, as a play he first watched in the presence of his own former sweetheart, his own “first love.” In the tradition of good French comedy, the plot is by every standard stupid enough: Emmeline, the only daughter of a wealthy iron-founder, is Signifier and Letter in Kierkegaard and Lacan about to be married off to the young man Rinville. Brought up on an unhealthy diet of romantic novels by her Aunt Judith, Emmeline refuses to meet him, claiming she is still in love with her childhood sweetheart, her cousin Charles whom she last saw when she was eight. Intercepting a letter that informs him where Emmeline’s heart really lies, Rinville decides to increase his chance of success by passing himself off as the long absent Charles. When Charles unexpectedly arrives home, already secretly married and with debts he hopes his uncle will pay, he agrees to join in the masquerade.
The key to the aesthete’s reading of the play—what makes it for him a “masterpiece of dramatic perfection”—lies in this final statement of Emmeline’s, which he emphatically does not take as an admission of a mistake, that is, as a sign of a change in Emmeline’s outlook. Indeed, it is against this “moralizing” narrative of ethical progress that his entire reading of the play is pitted. For A, there is “not the least thing discernible in the play to indicate that her choice of Rinville might be more reasonable than anything else she has done” (Either, 255). For A, “Emmeline’s nature is infinite nonsense, she is quite as silly at the end as in the beginning.” In A’s reading of the play, Emmeline does not marry Rinville because she suddenly realizes that she has loved him all along as the pseudo-Charles and, in so recognizing, discovers the error of her maxim, learned from their Aunt Judith in the course of their literary education, that “the first love is the true love and one only loves once.” Quite the contrary, says A. If Emmeline discovers that the real Charles is not her Charles, she soon discovers that Rinville is not her Charles either, leaving open the possibility that “a new figure will appear, who resembles Charles, and so forth” (Either, 256). Thus, far from ending, the play continues in an “infinite jest” about Emmeline, and her final speech must be understood in the following way: “Previously,” says A, “her illusion lay behind her in the past, now she will seek it in the world and in the future, for she has not renounced the romantic Charles” (Either, 257). Emmeline’s closing speech thus indicates not a change of heart but “a change of movement,” but “whether she travels forward or backward, her expedition in search of the first love is comparable to the journey one undertakes in search of health which, as someone has said, is always one station ahead” (Either, 252).
The reader will not find it hard to recognize shades of the Freudian lost object in A’s description of first love. The lost object, classically the mother for Freud, is permanently “one station ahead,” requiring not to be found 268 Penumbra but re-found—re-found, because as soon as we believe we have reached it, we immediately discover that “that’s not it!” which obliges us to begin the search anew. In the conventional reading of this Freudian narrative, the paths we trace in desire represent our attempts recover the original blissful union with this irretrievably lost first love, the mother. I scarcely need add that this attempt is notoriously hopeless, simply because no real object can ever match the mythical maternal ideal which, as psychoanalysis also reminds us, has no more actual existence than Emmeline’s Charles. The entire ensuing trajectory of the subject as a subject of desire revolves around this originally missing object that we can subsequently only approach piecemeal, through the exigency of what Lacan calls the object a—the little piece of the subject that was cut loose by castration and had to be given up in order to accede to a symbolic identity. Assuming objective form as the Unheimlich objects Lacan identifies as the voice, the gaze, the faeces and the breast, the principal feature of the object a lies in the way it continually slips from the subject’s grasp.3 The moment this infinitely desired object is reached, it immediately divests itself of its magical qualities which are transferred over onto another, now desired, object ad infinitum in what Lacan calls the “metonymy” of desire.
Psychoanalytically speaking, we are all Emmelines, “spirits of the ring”: held in thrall by some nonsensical little nullity, literally a nothing that we chase after, we obey—that is to say, fall in love with—anyone along the way who is regarded “as hav[ing] the ring in his hand” (Either, 269).
The only problem with this Freudian story, of course, is that it isn’t true.
Like Emmeline’s enchanted vision of the love she and Charles shared as eight year olds, the experience of unity with the mother never happened; it is a myth. Yet like the other famous psychoanalytic “myth” (that of the primal “father of enjoyment” from Totem and Taboo), the fact that it has no empirical reality does not mean that it has no “truth.” For psychoanalysis, which famously distinguishes between truth and knowledge, the lack of a basis in physical reality has never stopped one from claiming that something—an hysterical symptom, say—possesses truth.4 So let us take Emmeline’s motto as our starting point. On an initial reading, it appears both categorical and irrevocable: “the first love is the true love and one only loves once.” You have only one chance in your life, it seems to say, to really love someone, and the first person you love is the only one you will ever really love. Nevertheless, as we learn in the preamble in which A tells the story of his own “first love,” in practice the “first” turns out to be a rather slippery category. In his lead-up to his review of Scribe, A tells the story of how, on meeting his former sweetheart again—the same one with whom he had first attended a performance of Les premieres amours,—he finds her telling exactly the same story as Emmeline. Seeing A again after many years, his former lover “assured me that she had never loved me, but that her betrothed was her first love, and that ‘only the first love is the true love’” (Either, 242).
Signifier and Letter in Kierkegaard and Lacan For A’s former lover, the first love is apparently a qualitative category, one that allows a certain (convenient) revisionism in one’s personal history.
Such a qualitative first, however, is assuredly not what Emmeline has in mind. Nor would it make Les premieres amours in A’s estimation a play that is “infinitely comic” (Either, 253), and Emmeline’s character one of “infinite nonsense (Either, 255). From A’s former lover’s “sophistical” approach, Emmeline
would on the contrary recoil in horror. As A explains:
When a widower and a widow join fortunes, and each one brings five children along, then they still assure each other on their wedding day that this love is their first love. Emmeline in her romantic orthodoxy would look upon such a connection with aversion; it would be to her a mendacious abomination, which would be as loathsome to her as a marriage between a monk and a nun was to the Middle Ages. (Either, 252) Emmeline, by contrast, “holds fast to her proposition numerically understood” (Either, 252), which A goes on a page later to qualify in the following way: “She loves [Charles] with an objective, mathematical love” (Either, 253).
Clearly, the manner in which we understand this “mathematical” love will decide whether the wit of the Scribe’s play stands or falls for, as A puts it, Emmeline “must now acquire experience and the experience refutes her. It appears that she loves Rinville” (Either, 253). To determine whether the play is “infinitely comic, or finitely moralizing,” the validity of Emmeline’s maxim must be put to the test (Either, 253).
The irony of the play lies of course in the statement’s patent falsity, for not only does Emmeline love more than once (first Charles and then Rinville), at another level she has never loved at all: to the extent that she refuses to give up her “illusion” of Charles, Emmeline’s first love is “always one station ahead” (Either, 257). How, then, can she claim to love only once? The only meaningful answer is that Emmeline’s statement refers not to any actual or imagined loved object but to the manner, the way in which Emmeline loves.
For psychoanalysis, it is perfectly reasonable to say that one “only loves once,” even if one can rattle off a reel of past lovers, each of whom enjoyed the genuine privilege of being the “first” and “true” love. However, the Freudian first love differs markedly from A’s former sweetheart’s revisionist notion of first love, for the psychoanalytic formula holds just as true even if one has yet to find one’s “true love.” What psychoanalysis is referring to here, in other words, is an original choice, expressed by the Freudian term Neurosenwahl.
This is the choice we carry with us throughout all of our loving history that directs which “stage” our subjective drama will be performed on, whether neurotic, perverse or psychotic. In this sense, to say “one loves only once” is to say we are capable of only one desiring scenario, one fundamental fantasy that organizes the multiple encounters (real and imagined) of our love lives and which itself never changes. The fantasy is what guarantees that beyond all 270 Penumbra of their infinite variety or superficial or “small” differences, each of our lovers is at some unconscious level the Same, a partner in a specific pattern of desire that, chosen once and once only, cannot be undone.5 This should become clearer if we now look a little more closely at the ways Emmeline and Charles “love only once.” Emmeline, as we saw, is perpetually in search of the “first love” as an event that is infinitely to come. No single lover comes up to her vision of the “romantic Charles” which, the aesthete never stops reminding us, is an “illusion.” As it turns out, Charles, too, is in the grip of an illusion, insofar as he had the same “romantic training” as Emmeline. However, unlike his cousin, who is “hidden from [her]self ” as A puts it, Charles believes he can hide from others. Charles’s belief in his own powers of mystification, A tells us, “is just as fantastic as Emmeline’s illusion, and one recognizes Judith’s schooling in both (Either, 249).
Consequently, in these two eager readers of romantic novels, we find a remarkable illustration of two different ways a lover can miss the “first” love.
Eternally in search of her One, Emmeline must always begin her quest for Charles anew because each time she finds him he will fail to be “Charles.” More acquainted with the “pinch of reality,” Charles, on the other hand, has already expended his illusion and, having become “a dissolute fellow” (Either, 247), finds himself tricked into marriage by a woman more well-versed in mystification than he. Not one to admit defeat, Charles will employ any number of disguises to obtain his goal—as A puts it, “he knows that there are five or six ways whereby one can move an uncle’s heart”—and if the first is unsuccessful, he will try on another, and then another in an infinite display of confidence in his ability “not to be recognized” (Either, 248).
While both Emmeline’s and Charles’s different attempts to obtain the first love thereby inevitably fail, what is of interest is the way each of these failures generates its own unique form of infinity. From a certain perspective, it not hard to see how Emmeline’s failure corresponds to the infinity of Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the tortoise. Recall how Achilles permits the tortoise a head-start in the race only to discover he can never catch up with her since, in the time he covers the distance the tortoise has already traveled, the tortoise will have “run” farther ahead. To make up time, Achilles must then cover the new distance, by which point the tortoise will have advanced further still. Like Emmeline, who will always be either behind or ahead of “Charles,” Achilles can only “pass or leap-frog” the tortoise, as Lacan puts it in his comment on this paradox in Seminar XX (Encore, 8).
In Charles’s case, on the other hand, we enter the infinity corresponding to Zeno’s other paradox—that of the arrow in motion. The paradox here is Zeno’s proof of motion’s “impossibility”: the arrow will never “move” since it can eternally be divided into ever smaller units of measurement. If Emmeline’s first love lies forever in the future, Charles’s is always already in the past—as a married man, he has already found his “One” (Paméla). Yet, as Signifier and Letter in Kierkegaard and Lacan a master of disguise himself, he can never really be certain of the very “first” One, that is, of whether he is not still being taken in by Paméla or Rinville or indeed even by Emmeline. Like the arrow, Charles’s “count” is strictly speaking immobile—he can never get to Two because he can never agree on where the “One” really began.
In a pleasing symmetry, these two forms of failure, and the infinities they
correspondingly generate, can be aptly illustrated in the fantasies of the hysterical and obsessional subjects: