Music and Psychoanalysis: The Function of Fantasy and Desire


In order to unpack the relationship between psychoanalysis, music, fantasy and desire, I will utilize Jacques Lacan’s theories and terminological delineations.

1) Lacan defines fantasy as that which “enables the subject to sustain his desire, and ‘that by which the subject sustains himself at the level of his vanishing desire."[1] Further on, he makes two important qualifications: 2a) “Fantasy is always ‘an image set to work in a signifying structure;"[2] and 2b) "any attempt to reduce fantasy to the imagination (i.e. the imaginary order) […] is a permanent misconception."[3] 3) Moreover, by defining desire in the symbolic order he writes that “whenever speech attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover, a surplus, which exceeds speech. […] Desire is not a relation to an object, but a relation to a lack”[4] 4) Finally, Slavoj Žižek’s connotes that “fantasy designates the subject’s ‘impossible’ relation to [the small other] ‘a’, to the object-cause of its desire. […] The role of fantasy [is] to give the coordinates of the subject’s desire: through fantasy, we learn how to desire.”[5] 

Combining the above four points results thus in defining fantasy as the subject’s symbolic mechanism which designates the coordinates of his desire in relation to the "other" by means of sustaining himself at the level of his growing or vanishing desire.

When entering the symbolic order, something from the imaginary order is inevitably lost. As a result, the subject is driven to fantasize as a way of coordinating and giving some stability to the anxiety of questioning what the "other" desires. In Lacan's Mirror Stage essay, he identifies two intermediary steps where the subject “turns out fantasies that proceed from a fragmented image of the body to […] an ‘orthopedic’ form of its totality—and to the finally donned armor of an alienating identity that will mark his entire mental development.”[6] This tripartite distinction between the stages of fantasy is significant as it expands upon remarks 2a) and 2b) to include not only the final symbolic expression of fantasy, but also the transitional space between the imaginary and the symbolic order (ImaginarySymbolic). Recognizing the proto-symbolic fantasies manufactured by the subject during this stage of psychic development helps us understand the “surplus which exceeds speech” from definition 3) simply as the movement from the imaginary to the symbolic (Δ ImaginarySymbolic).

With these additional considerations in mind, the revised definition of fantasy encompases the subject’s proto-symbolic and symbolic mechanism which designates the coordinates of his desire in relation to the other by means of sustaining himself at the level of his growing or vanishing desire.

Lacan clearly locates desire in the metonymic plane when he writes that “the symptom is a metaphor, whether one likes to admit it or not, just as desire is metonymy, even if man scoffs at the idea.”[7] In linguistic terms, while metaphor works by substitution, metonymy works by contiguity. Therefore, the metonymic plane on which desire is located should be associated with the metonymic signifying vector that leads to a ceaseless process of unfolding. The elementary graph of desire in Fig.1 serves to visualize the psychoanalytic differences between metonymy and metaphor. Desire is produced in the diachronic friction between the metaphoric and metonymic vectors. In the graph’s expanded form, Lacan connects this intersection with the subject’s self-constitution on the basis of the message via the other [$♢a]. Once friction is generated, desire essentially flows in the same direction as the signifying chain.

Fig.1 : Elementary cell from Lacan’s Graph of Desire, where (S–>S’ = signifying chain), (Δ–>$ = subject’s intentionality). 

Similarly, I understand music as an endless chain of signification that sets in motion a ceaseless process of unfolding within the symbolic order. When the subject, as a listener, becomes immersed in the metonymic unfolding of music, metaphoric associations emerge at the point de capiton in the rightmost intersection of the graph of desire. I am further convinced that the diachronic dimension at the point of intersection along the signifying chain can never be theorized in music, since music produces only metaphorical associations to other sounds. This interpretation leads me to assign musical fantasies the role of pulling the listening subject towards and away from the diachronic (leftmost intersection) point de capiton. Consequently, the dissolution of fantasy in the symbolic order would coincide with the attainment of a perfect and absolute signification.


[1] Dylan Evans, An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, (New York: Rutledge, 1996), 61

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 62

[4] Ibid., 38

[5] Slavoj Zizek, Looking Awry, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1991), 6

[6] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, trans. by B.Fink, (New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), 78

[7] Ibid., 439