"Desire is unquenchable" - an interview with Mari Ruti

You won’t find the three-house fishing community Mari Ruti was raised in marked on any map of Finland – it doesn’t have a name – but toss a dart somewhere near the Russian border and you’d be close. With her origins rooted in multidimensional poverty, the trajectory that took Ruti, a psychoanalytic critic, to the ivied walls of Harvard and into the office of Julia Kristeva would inspire in anyone questions of destiny, singularity, and the self-fashioning that her books obsess over.

Mari Ruti entered the American Academy in the 1990s, during the heyday of post-structuralism, when it was neither desirable nor possible to speak seriously about the distinctiveness of the individual spirit, let alone “the soul.” Against the gales of that theoretical climate, she has dedicated the last decade of thought to imagining a world in which loss is reinscribed as potential, one’s destiny can always be rewritten, and the fragmentary and fragile nature of existence is embraced as a bright motif in the art of living.

She is Associate Professor of Critical Theory at the University of Toronto and the author of Reinventing The Soul (2006), A World of Fragile Things (2009), and The Summons of Love (2011). Her latest book, The Singularity of Being: Lacan and the Immortal Within (2012) argues for the distinctiveness of human subjectivity against the normalizing forces of society, and suggests that our singularity connects us to the immortal. – William Fitzpatrick

BELIEVER: The Greek word for ‘soul,’ psyche, places the concept at the heart of psychoanalysis. Yet the usage of it in your first book, Reinventing The Soul, seems charged with rebellion. Was it as uncommon then as it is now for Western critics to deal seriously with the soul?

MARI RUTI: I think that the ideas in that book are not that rebellious now but they were when I started writing them in the late 1990s. I think the field has actually moved closer to where that book is now. But ten or fifteen years ago it wasn’t there yet.

When I first approached Barbara Johnson, who was my dissertation advisor at Harvard, with my topic, she tried to discourage me from doing it, which was sound advice. She was trying to look out for me. She knew that I would be going uphill and banging my head against the establishment. But I’ve always had a rebellious streak and I went for it anyway.

I can tell you the personal reason for that. I come from what I would call a place of abjection. A very difficult childhood. You could call it a lot of things: a certain kind of poverty, or dearth of things, or not-having. So basically a lack.

BLVR: Is it a lack you were aware of when you were in it?

MR: Definitely. I’m talking about the kind of awareness where you’re not sure if you’re going to have food on the table the next day. Or just feeling [coughs] – sorry, I swallowed something badly…

I think for a long time I had this urge to get out. I clawed my way out of there because it was the pit of abjection [laughs] and I knew my brain was the way out. I got all the positive reinforcement in school that I never got at home. I knew from very early on that my way out of there was intellectual achievement. So I just banked on that.

And because I’m a psychoanalytic thinker I can say there’s something pathological about that because there’s a single-tract focus on the intellect as a defense mechanism against the bad thing. But it worked in the sense that it did get me out of there. It got me to a place I really loved and made life new. So when I arrived at Harvard it was really difficult for me to deal with the post-structuralist theory that we are in every possible way disempowered, dispossessed and subject to power structures. That we’re just kind of cogs in a machine. I couldn’t take it. For personal reasons, I wanted a theory that could give me some kind of hope and way out. Reinventing The Soul was my way of talking my way out of that pit of abjection that I felt like the theory was trying to force me back into.

BLVR: You achieve this through a hopeful reinterpretation of lack. What is lack? Do you need to come from a three-house community in Finland to have it?

MR: No. Definitely not. There are two different registers of lack. When we are first born in the world we don’t understand the difference between the world and ourselves. We in some ways are the world. It’s like the world is me and I am the world. There’s no separation, so there is this sense of being the omnipotent navel of the universe. Like I’m the all-powerful world!

But as we get socialized into the larger cultural order, when we start speaking, we understand that we are just a tiny part of the world. Of course a baby is not aware of this, but there’s this devastating realization that I’m not the navel of the universe. I’m actually kind of disempowered. This is a foundational wound that we all carry within ourselves and we spend the rest of our lives trying to fill this lack in our being.

But there’s another level on top of our ontological lack and that’s probably what my childhood represents. It’s a very context-specific and not universal experience of being traumatized in various ways by our environment. I always think of it as stabbing into the same wound of the universal lack and digging deeper. You can get it from the social level if you’re, say, in a society that has a lot of racism. But it can also be on a familial level. Let’s say your parents are not there for you or you’re being abjected or abdicated on a daily level –

BLVR: – it would come from without, whereas the ontological lack comes from within.

MR: Exactly. And those people who have more of it have a much more gaping sense of being insufficient or lacking somehow. And those who grew up privileged or with a lot of love only really have to deal with the universal lack. 

The lack is the foundation of everything that is creative and innovative about human life. If the universal lack did not exist, we would have no motivation to invent or to create anything because we would be so self-contained and blissfully happy. We wouldn’t desire anything in our lives. So the very fact that we have this lack makes us reach outward into the world and look for the meaning of life.

The attempt to create new things in the world is a way of coping with the fact that you have been completely traumatized and stepped on. A lot of really creative people do have difficult pasts and come from a lot of trauma. And creative activity can be an antidote to that suffering. This is what Freud called sublimation. Sublimation can be any creative way of interacting with the world. Lacan’s definition is: raising an ordinary object to the dignity of the sublime object. So you take something like Cezanne’s apples –

BLVR: – or Proust’s madeleine.

MR: Exactly. You take something mundane and invest it with this special kind of nobility. The idea is that all of us do this with our everyday world: we revere certain objects, and we can choose between things that we really love and things that don’t really matter to us. That’s already a matter of sublimation because we’re binding our energy to something that we love.

But in the sense of artistic achievement, that’s where a lot of people get stuck because the line between pathology and creativity is very fine. It’s almost non-existent. You have this great energy at your disposal and if you can’t find a way to sublimate it into, say, a novel, then it’s likely that it’s going to come out in some pathological way. That’s why we have this popular cultural notion of a tortured artist – because really, you are tortured.

BLVR: Your book, The Summons of Love, deploys a critique of the self-help program. What was walking through the door of the self-help industry like for you?

BLVR: It was infuriating. I was so angry – I’ve rarely been so angry. The whole idea of the self-help industry is that we have these problems and that there are solutions to these problems.
WF: It implies a kind of coherence.
MR: Exactly. There’s this sense of, we can master this, we can fix this, we can gut all the problems and come to this place of peace and composure. And I’m just like, Come on!

One of the reasons I’ve been so critical of the self-help industry is because it feeds that facile understanding of how you can just make your life perfect. There’s a tension in my work: one the one hand, I want to hold on to that kernel of hope and optimism, but I don’t want to slide into a facile understanding of everything will be better.

Somebody at a conference I was attending this weekend said, I’m still unhappy, but I’m not unhappy about that. That’s my philosophy. It’s not about fixing all of our problems or about getting to a future where everything will be resolved. It’s more about being able to live in that space of conflict and ambiguity and the anxieties and tensions of life, without letting all of that complexity crush you.

BLVR: You write about desire as a “train track” and about how not dealing with things in the present can wind up hurting us down the line. Elsewhere, you describe it in more fluid terms: the “momentum of desire,” its “current,” “trajectory” and “flow.” How does desire work?

MR: Desire is unquenchable.There are momentary satisfactions of desire but it always raises its head again, you know? You achieve your goal for a while but it resurfaces.

BLVR: In other words, desire can be satisfied but the lack is never filled.

MR: You can fill it momentarily. You can have soul-scorching sex. But the point about desire is that it’s inherently unquenchable. The healthy flow of desire would be the kind of fluid, unobstructed flow where it keeps on going and is momentarily satisfied but then raises its head again. It can go in different directions. It’s plastic, it’s mutable, you can change the way you use it at various points.

BLVR: What happens when your desire fixes on one object?

MR: When your desire is overly rigid and fixed, it expresses itself pathologically. This is what Freud calls the repetition compulsion – when you’re stuck on the track and you keep finding the same mistakes over and over and you cannot find a way out of it. It’s because your desire has been too crystallized around one object, too solidified into a specific track. That’s what psychoanalysts mean by pathology – that something has fixed your desire so strongly that you cannot use it in creative ways anymore. You are bound to follow the same track even if the track is completely painful to you. So you commit the same mistakes, you get hurt in the same ways, your lover leaves you the same way again and again. But you can’t stop yourself from doing it. That’s because your desire is always at a certain level unconscious.

BLVR: But a lover leaving you is something that would come from without.

MR: But your desire would attract you to the same kinds of lovers. The idea of the repetition compulsion is that, on an unconscious level, we construct the parameters of our fate or destiny. Whenever you end up in the same painful scenario over and over again, what you are trying to do on an unconscious level is fix the situation. We don’t say consciously to ourselves, I’m going to put myself in this painful situation again. But the unconscious doesn’t have a sense of time. It forces us to repeat the same traumatic scenario until we fix the situation.

Let’s say you’re a woman and your father was cold and forbidding and you keep getting yourself into relationships with men who are cold and forbidding. You’re trying to get to a different outcome. Something in you is aware of the fact that your father was this way so you’re attracted to a guy who is going to be the same way because you think that this time it wont have the same outcome. That this guy is going to turn out to be warm and wonderful.

Through desire, the unconscious is trying to rectify the past and make its pain go away. But of course it doesn’t work that way and you’re going to get hurt the same way again unless you learn to intervene in this pattern. Developing an active relationship to the unconscious is one of the most important steps in overcoming a difficult past.

BLVR: What’s the difference between undergoing clinical psychoanalysis and attaining a PhD in psychoanalysis from Harvard?

MR: The clinical experience of psychoanalysis is about getting you to a point where you can break those patterns and, in a way, reinvent your destiny. The analyst’s job is to recondition your psychic life in such a way that you no longer respond to the world in the same way. They’re trained. They do it subtly. The difference between the analyst telling you wonderful things about yourself and your friends doing it is that the analyst is an authority figure, like your parents, so she has the power to reprogram the things you’ve learned from your parents in a way that your friends cannot. It’s actually really basic.

Say you’re in this pattern where you constantly end up with the same kind of person. After a few years of psychoanalysis, that person comes along and you’re attracted to that person – you’re totally attracted to that person – but now you have this active relationship to your desire. You say to yourself, I see what’s going on. I need to stop it right here. I have an awareness of how my desire functions. I understand that my desire is tracked to aim at specific types of objects. I see that object and I desire it. But I have this active, cognitive realization that it has gotten me into trouble in the past and I’m going to stop it right here.

Over time, the pattern that you were in no longer makes sense to you because you have this other space that has taught you to live in a certain way. It sounds mysterious, crazy, or enigmatic, but there is a very specific technique to retraining your mental makeup so that you don’t respond to the world in the same way. And when you don’t respond to the world in the same way, you no longer have the same destiny.