How We Cope With the Real

What Lacan called “The Real” is almost the opposite of what we commonly describe as “real.” The latter is something we can see, feel, hear, smell, and/or taste. It’s an experience that makes us feel secure and grounded. The Lacanian Real, on the other hand, is inexplicable. It is defined by the fact that no modes of communication can describe it or explain it. We know it exists because it manifests as a hole in our fabric of communication. It’s like a black hole; we know it exists, not because we see a black object, but because there is an absence of light or stars. In this analogy, the stars are equivalent to “signifiers” in the Lacanian lexicon.

Suppose you step into an empty elevator and the door closes. Several seconds later, you sense something behind you, so you turn around. You see a little girl standing there. (I’ve seen a YouTube video of this prank and most people jump and scream.) Rationally speaking, there is nothing to fear since it’s just a little girl; she can’t hurt you. Such an experience is felt differently from conventional fear, like seeing a snake. You feel like all the blood drained out of you, even though there is no danger or risk of death. The terror consists strictly of your inability to explain what you are experiencing. This is the experience of the Real, or trauma.

An encounter with the Real is overwhelming and terrifying, so we add a mediating layer, like language, which Lacan called “The Symbolic.” As we grow up, we keep writing narratives to explain everything we experience. In time, this Symbolic layer becomes so extensive that accessing the Real directly becomes impossible. The only way to see its existence is to see the holes left in the Symbolic layer. We become permanently alienated from the Real.

Because each person writes her narratives differently, the holes are created in different places. This is why the same event can be exciting for one person and traumatic for another. It’s not necessarily because the latter is weaker or more cowardly. Someone who was aware of the elevator prank in advance would have an entirely different reaction to the same event. The only difference lies in the narratives in their heads.

The aim of psychoanalysis, therefore, isn’t to provide an accurate or correct narrative to the patient—there is no such thing—but to write a narrative that sufficiently fills the traumatic hole. The girl in the elevator may have materialized out of nowhere, but telling the patient that it was a prank would probably suffice to protect him from having recurring nightmares.