Music and Psychoanalysis: The Function of Fantasy and Desire

In order to unpack the relationship between music, fantasy and desire, a recourse to Jacques  Lacan’s terminological delineations must first be worked in:

1) Dylan Evans (citing 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 mutually reinforcing 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 imaginary order] …is a permanent misconception.” 3 3) Moreover, by defining desire in the symbolic, 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.


By entering the symbolic order something imaginary is necessarily lost. Thus the subject, in the last instance, is impelled to fantasize as a way of coordinating and giving some stability to the anxiety of questioning what the other desires. In the “Mirror Stage,”Lacan 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 The importance of this tripartite distinction between the stages of fantasy is important in that it expands remarks 2a) and 2b) to include not only the final symbolic expression of fantasy, but also the in-betweenness of the imaginary and the symbolic. (Imaginary–>Symbolic also expressed as Innenwelt–>Umwelt). Acknowledgment of the proto-symbolic fantasies which the subject manufactures in this stage of psychic development, additionally allows one to understand the “surplus which exceeds speech” from definition 3) quite simply as (Δ Imaginary–>Symbolic).

With the above additions in mind, for the sake of completeness, the revised definition of fantasy would finally read as 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 should suffice in visualizing 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, at its fundamental level, I understand music to be nothing but an endless chain of signification which sets in motion a ceaseless process of unfolding within the symbolic order. Once the subject as listener is introduced into the music’s metonymic unfolding, metaphoric associations are produced 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 it always produces only metaphorical associations to other sounds. Unlike words, a retroactive punctuation is but a further illusory memory of its synchronic one. This interpretation leads one to assign musical fantasies the role of pulling the listening subject towards and away from the diachronic (leftmost intersection) point de capiton. Thus, the dissolution of fantasy in the symbolic order (music included) would coincide with the attainment of a perfect and absolute signification.