A Taste of Experiential French Cuisine: ‘Plaisir’ and ‘Jouissance’

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Dave: There are two kinds of pleasure in both reading and in psychotherapy; plaisir (pleasure) and jouissance (to be defined later). ‘Pleasure’ is the general term for reading enjoyments of all sorts. But we can distinguish two levels of pleasure. I am borrowing the following set of ideas from the work of Jonathan Culler, a Professor of English at Cornell University,  when he writes of Roland Barthes, the French philosopher and linguist.

images-3On the one hand, I find a general “pleasure” in reading. I love to read, reading is fun. But there is deeper pleasure from reading, and from psychotherapy, which can be represented as euphoria, fulfillment, comfort and the rich feeling of repletion when my experience penetrates freely, that is, gets under my skin. Both versions of pleasure are available in the experience of psychotherapy.

These two kinds of pleasure are distinct from a more intense pleasure that I think of as a change-stimulating ( perturbing) therapeutic experience. The change-stimulating experience may bring feelings of affection, shock, disruption even loss, “which are proper to ecstasy…the text of pleasure is a readerly text, one we know how to read.

The text of ecstasy, jouissance, is the text that imposes a state of losing our bearings, a feeling of discomfort (sometimes to the point of boredom), unsettling the reader’s unknownhistorical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories and brings to crisis his relation with language. We read, but remain uncertain how to read the work. I think of  French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s idea, “To risk meaning nothing is the beginning of play.” This is a characterization of the rich and powerful experience of Psychotherapy, and why I react when Psychotherapy is called “talk therapy.” The term is a trivializing over-simplification .

Jouissance’ comes from the French ‘jouir’, to enjoy (take pleasure in). But it refers to pleasure of a different intensity, similar to what occurs with orgasm. We know there are some who are anorgasmic. One psychological explanation is that they fear orgasm. Why? Because orgasm is a disruption, takes them away from the reasonable, disrupts their social presence, and their image is temporarily gone. Ecstasy, orgasm is a rupture of the fabric of experience and continuity. The social identity is temporarily lost. In “The Mean Dad” series both Dana and Jacob are having the experience of jouissance.

Parallel play (mixed with irony and metaphor) opens up the possibility of ecstatic change in psychotherapy. And people, patients, clients may resist participation because of the fear of this disruption, which in the context of caring we know to be profoundly healing. “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in (Singer/Songwriter Leonard Cohen, 2002).”


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