The semblant between a man and a woman

A Guarani legend has it that many years ago an enormous serpent called Boi lived in the Iguazu river. Once a year, the Guarani people had to sacrifice a beautiful maiden by throwing her into the river. On a certain occasion, a young chief named Taroba falls in love with Naipi, the young girl destined to be sacrificed. In order to save her, he kidnaps her and they both run away along the river. The furious snake bends its back and it results in the part of the river forming the Iguazu Falls. It then transforms the young chief into a tree and Naipi’s long hair becomes the waterfall. The snake then plunges into the Garganta del Diablo[1] to watch that the lovers do not meet again. But on the days when the sun shines, the rainbow rising over the river’s waters overcomes the power of the snake Boi and brings the lovers together again and again.

1. The Phallus as Meteor

The rainbow is one of the meteors examined by Descartes in his famous Treatise. Like the thunder or the clouds, it is part of nature. By definition, says Lacan early in his Seminar III, the meteor “is that”. Nothing is hidden behind it, it is entirely in the appearance and, at the same time, its origin lies in its being named as such. One’s attempts to reach the rainbow will never succeed since, says Lacan, “the little fragments of sun that dance on the surface of the lake, like the vapour that wafts away, have nothing to do with producing the rainbow which begins at a certain angle of inclination of the sun and at a certain density of the droplets in question.”[2]

The meteor of the rainbow is part of the category of the semblant. Nature is full of semblants which are not confused with the real; hence Lacan’s statement that nobody ever believed that the rainbow was something curved and laid out that was really there. Although it is seen, it is intangible and nobody can reach its place. The category of the semblant thus becomes the conjunction between imaginary and symbolic in opposition to the real.

Men and women are the destiny of how speaking-beings are distributed by discourse. There is nothing natural about it, if understood as a biological expression. Sex is a saying, Lacan affirms; it has to do with language and in its heart is lodged the real of the impossible inscription of the sexual relationship.

Early on, and in the best Freudian way, Lacan analyses love life by punctuating its mis-encounters, its wanderings, its ravings, the fundamental misunderstanding which takes on its clothing and its semblants in the psychopathology of love life. The clinic of the “relation between the sexes” is oriented by the phallus in the game of semblants, in so far as the phallus is itself a semblant. The ‘being’ and the ‘having’ involved, in their different modalities, include the ‘seeming'[3] in the sexual relationship by the action of the phallic signifier. Theman protects his having, the woman masks the lack. Jacques-Alain Miller indicates that one must not think that being the phallus can have any other meaning than being the semblant, and that having the phallus is anything other than possessing a semblant.

Thus posed, the phallus remains articulated to the negativity of desire and castration. Being is inscribed on the side of the semblant and both are opposed to the real; at the same time, being is not opposed to seeming but it is mixed with it. The veil therefore occupies an essential place in so far as it conceals, disguises castration; the veil itself covers the nothing.

The review of the relation between the phallus and the veil is illustrated by Lacan through the commentary of Zucchi’s painting called Psiche sorprende Amore.[4] When Psyche raises the lamp over Eros to meet her nocturnal lover, whom she had never seen until then, a vase full of flowers conceals Eros’ phallus. The veil of the flowers is correlative to the phallus as signifier, and Psyche’s body appears then as the phallic image present in the painting.

However, if the relation with the partenaire remains necessarily traversed by the phallus and castration, at the level of jouissance, what place will be reserved to one and the other in the love encounter?

2. The Phallus, signifier of Jouissance

In so far as the phallus not only translates a negativity, a signifier that names castration, but also expresses a signifier tied to the positivity of jouissance, Lacan introduces new nuances.

Sexual identification does not depend on physiology, on the real situation or on believing that one does in reality belong to one’s own sex. Lacan says in Seminar XVIII that in as much as the phallus touches on the real of sexual jouissance, the woman is the phallus for a man and castrates him. And, in the same way, the man is the phallus for the woman, but she only gets the organ of the penis, and remains therefore equally castrated. He thus takes up his earlier formulations about the equivalence Girl=Phallus [5] which circulates between men and the woman’s demand for the phallus, but linking them to jouissance.

When sexual jouissance is included, women rapidly point out the equivalence between jouissance and the semblant that they become for a man. “Look for the woman”, like in a detective story, says Lacan, look for the woman and, we can add, you will find a man. Lacan indicates that the truth of a man is his woman, that which gives him his weight, the weight of his sinthome that makes it possible for him to believe in her.

The truth of a man is his woman, but this is not reciprocal in relation to women. The greater freedom that they have in respect to the semblant makes it possible that in certain cases, not all, they may give weight to a man who does not even have any. Hence the ravage as a perspective on what a man may come to be for a woman.

So we see that the Procrustean bed that a man may propose as ideal for a woman, and to which she consents in order to make herself loved and desired, has its counterpart. Women’s freedom in relation to the semblant renders a man the ideal incubus of a woman, his word thus receiving all its weight.

A man believes in a woman, she is his truth. A woman is created by a man, although not only by him, she takes his semblants, certainly borrowed. But none of this ensures that a man-woman relation can be inscribed.

To play the man is to give signs to the woman that she is it. The courtship proper to nature is situated from the beginning in the dimension of the semblant. However, unlike animal species in which the moves are strictly regulated, courtship for the speaking being can have its stumbling blocks which can sometimes contradict it with passages to the act that are not so courteous when the semblant is traversed. Lacan uses rape as an example of this. He also speaks of passion, a staged semblant, an acting-out according to Lacan, saying nothing about its subsequent effect between a man and a woman.

J.-A. Miller points out that in the sexual order it is not enough to be, it is also necessary to seem to be. This conditions not only the way in which being is introduced, through which semblants he introduces himself to the other, but also the effects that the relation with the phallic semblant has on each of them.

The man remains a slave to the semblant that sustains “every man” [6] under the regime of the phallus. The woman, on the contrary, closer to the real, “not-all” in this semblant, objects to the universal of the phallic signifier and this determines her particular treatment of the semblant. It is the conditions of jouissance that fix the woman in the position of being the truth of a man. Feminine jouissance produces an opening of the set but which at the same time closes it up. Not all in the phallus, but not outside it either.

We conclude then with a paradox of structure: the phallus as signifier of jouissance, semblant of sexual enjoyment and the very matrix of all signification, occupies the place of the impossibility to symbolize the relation between the sexes.

3. The partenaire-sinthome

The positivisation of jouissance leads Lacan, as J.-A. Miller has shown in his Course [7], to his development on the sinthome.

The modes of jouissance of speaking beings determine their distribution in sexuated positions and the nuances of the intertwinings between love, desire and jouissance. The partenaire-symptom is a way of situating the partenaire in terms of jouissance and this leads to a novel analysis of love life.

In Seminar XXIII Lacan states that for every man a woman is a sinthome. In contrast, for women it is necessary to find another name to say what a man is for a woman: he can be an affliction worse than a sinthome, even a ravage. If there is no universal sinthome for both sexes, the non-equivalence leads him to specify the sinthome in question, to capture its singularity.

This clarifies the paradox noted by Lacan “there are sexual relations but there is no rapport”. There is a relation to the sinthome: in so far as the relation with the other sex is supported by the sinthome, but there is no rapport, proportion, there is no sexual equivalence.

What makes two subjects become a couple? Jouissance itself, the jouissance of the One, given its autoerotic status, makes the lovers solitary. The body of the Other, of his or her partenaire, becomes unreachable. The man is left alone with his organ; the woman, with her jouissance. Castration provides the possibility of an encounter in the measure that the autistic jouissance becomes lost and is found again in the partenaire in the form of the object a, surplus-jouissance, a semblant no longer universal but singular. In this way, castration obliges us to find the complement of jouissance in the Other that takes part of this jouissance and gives it the signification of castration. The truth of castration is that in order to enjoy one has to pass through the Other and cede to it a part of jouissance. Thus, the object is the partenaire at the level of jouissance.

In as much as the subject is tied to a partenaire, she or he can incarnate his or her symptom, since she or he becomes the envelope of the object a. The fundamental partenaire for both sexes is finally the one who can become his or her symptom, even when for a woman a man is a ravage.

To Conclude

We can distinguish three logical times in Lacan’s teaching concerning the relation between a man and a woman, in which semblants intervene in different ways.

1) There is relation, relation between the sexes. The signifier of the phallus, in so far as it responds to the negativity of desire and is articulated to castration, is a semblant that orders the relation between the sexes.

2) There is no relation, sexual relation. The phallus as semblant, signifier of jouissance, effectively correlative to the positivity of jouissance, functions as an obstacle to sexual enjoyment. There is no inscription of the sexual relation.

3) “There are sexual relations but there is no rapport”, as Lacan says in Seminar XXIII. The sinthome allows a relation with the other sex, even if the inscription of the sexual relation is impossible. We thus move from semblants to sinthome.

In the circulation of the waters and in “the interplay of bank and waters” [8] appreciated by Tristan l’Hermite, rainbows unfold themselves in the light of day. Above them different species of butterflies fly over, populating the Iguazu Falls with a multitude of colours. Butterflies that make us dream or, as in the apologue of Chuang- tsu, turn us into a dream. And among dreams of butterflies, in the brief instant the rainbow lasts, in the contingency of this instant, Taroba and Naipi meet each other again, this time to show that a dream is never just a dream.

Translated from the Spanish by Florencia F.C. Shanahan


  1. ‘The Devil’s Throat’: an enormous cataract in the Iguazu Falls. [TN]
  2. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III, “The Psychoses”, de. By Jacques- Alain Miller. Routledge, London, 1993, p 319.
  3. In Spanish ‘parecer’: also ‘look like’, ‘resemble’. [TN] [1][4] ‘Psyche surprises Love’. In Italian in the original. [TN] [1][5] In English in the original. [TN]
  4. “Todo hombre”: also “all men”. [TN]
  5. Jacques-Alain Miller, L’orientation lacanienne, « Choses de finesse en psychanalyse », 2008/09, unpublished.
  6. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, Trans. B.Fink, p 570.