Looking for our lost other halves

I wanted to write something about couplings. 

About how sometimes two people discover each other and are so intrigued with each other’s peculiarities, they form a relationship. 

About how at other times two people become everything to each other – they form a unit, a single entity, in which there is no difference and nothing lacking.  Two become one – to the extent we can hardly call it a relationship.

About how perhaps this fusion originates with the very first coupling – the child who starts life inside the mother, literally enclosed in her, and who emerges (hopefully) into the post-natal oneness of the mother and child duo.

And about how this original coupling creates the conditions for demands and desires in later life: demands or desires for power, attention, loyalty, monogamy, a soulmate, independence; a yearning for language and speech, or for something else beyond else.

That’s what I wanted to write about.

And then I read a book called Love in a time of loneliness by Paul Verhaeghe, and everything I wanted to write was right there on page 40.  I have edited his wonderful text slightly, but it evokes exactly what I wanted to evoke, and much more poetically than I could have managed. 

He starts from that mother/child coupling:

In its original form, this all-encompassing relationship is doomed to disappear along with its exclusivity. We are left with a fundamental sense of something lacking, as well as with an insatiable desire.


Aristophanes' classic fable in Plato's Symposium describes the same desire.  According to the fable, the human being was originally always a dual figure, either a double male, or a double female, or a hermaphrodite with a double gender; each had a double back and chest, four hands, four legs and two faces on the same head, looking in opposite directions.

The story goes that this original being was so conceited and powerful that Zeus felt compelled to divide it in two. Since then, we have all spent our lives looking for our lost other halves.

The psychoanalytic version of this story is much more prosaic—instead of a mythical double creature, we start from the undifferentiated unit of the mother and child. This unit is also divided in two, which results in the creation of desire.

In this respect, a particular error of interpretation often occurs. It is thought that the child 'loses' its mother. It then goes in search of this original mother, so that every subsequent partner is compared to this original partner who satisfied every desire. This is only partially correct. What the child loses is not the mother, but the relationship with the mother as a unit, that is, the condition of preverbal symbiosis.  

Through his demand for her to be present, the child is really asking for something else, something that can apparently never be put into words. I heard this expressed most clearly by a toddler—how could it be otherwise? 'Mum, I wish you were a toadstool, then I could live in you’.

The child longs for the preverbal unity that was first broken at the time of birth, a break which must be repeated, and above all, consolidated, in and by language. The mother-and-child unit is definitively lost, because language comes between the mother and child.

Before language, there is immediacy without mediation, and the child's needs operate automatically.  Afterwards there is a gap that can never be bridged.

After the introduction of language, distance, mediation and difference follow. This applies first and foremost with regard to the other person who really has become an 'other' (the mother), but it equally applies to oneself, since this is how an identity is created that can be reflected upon in terms of language.  It is said that language is a bridge, but it is a bridge that at the same time creates the chasm it bridges, and what lies under the bridge is lost.

Language is not so much a means of communication, as it is a means of achieving identity. Through language, every person acquires a certain identity, with related rules: you are the mother of, daughter of, father of, son of. Everyone is assigned their rightful place through words. At this point we become human, leaving nature behind for good.

The rest of this dividing operation is nothing other than desire. It is also the explanation of the continually shifting nature of desire. You 'desire' something from another person, either something vague or something specific, but it is never enough, and you continue to desire, beyond this something, the other person's self, but when this other person gives himself, even that doesn't really satisfy ...

So what is it you really want?

What you really want is the sense of unity that has been lost forever, the enjoyment of the totality that once existed.