The mirror theory of eros: phantasmata

1. Suppose a subject becomes enamoured with another person. In that situation, we can assume in the subject’s mind a cluster of ideas, perceptions, presumptions, etc., all of which have the other person (the “love object”) as their content in some way. For example, there may be memories (“When we first met, she looked like this …”), general ascriptions of personality (“He’s a very attentive listener.”), fantasies (“Right now, she’s probably walking along down the street thinking about me…”), and so on. Let’s call this cluster of ideas the subject’s phantasma of the loved person.

It’s obvious that the phantasma is not merely a psychological state, a configuration of the mind at some given time. Several of its components have formed over time; many are in constant change. And the borders of the phantasma are fuzzy: it may be unclear of a given memory or fantasy whether it actually still belongs to the phantasm or whether it is rather unrelated. What keeps the phantasm together is something like a web of narrative connections, a relatedness of all those component ideas, a grouping around a personal story which is unfolding in the subject’s life. (We could also say: what keeps it together is the meaning which the love object has for the subject.)

2. Now in a person’s mind there are many such phantasmata. There is a phantasm that represents each of their colleagues at work, one for each of their family members, one for their cat and one for their car, and so on. As I use the term here, it simply means a collection of ideas (psychological phenomena) clustered around some personal narrative significance — and we can find many such collections. (They will also overlap and interact in many ways.) But the phantasma of a loved person will stand out as a particularly important one; so important, in fact, that it can begin to develop some interesting features on its own.

When Eros is at work, the phantasm of the loved object leads its own existence, all the more disquieting because it exerts a kind of vampirism on the subject’s other phantasms and thoughts.

Ioan P. Couliano, Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, 31.

(This passage comes from a book of Ioan Couliano’s, where he expounds a view found in Marsilio Ficino, from a commentary on Plato’s Symposium. I haven’t chosen it because of the historical pedigree, however; it’s just that it leads in a very concise way into the questions I’m interested in.)

The phantasm of the loved person invariably begins to dominate the psychology of the subject, sometimes supplanting and generally at least coloring almost every experience, however unrelated. Couliano calls it

[…] a morbid distension of its [the phantasm of the loved object’s] activity which, in its results, can be called both concentration and possession: concentration, because the subject’s entire inner life is reduced to contemplation of one phantasm only; possession, because this phantasmic monopoly is involuntary and its collateral influence over the subject’s psychosomatic condition is highly deleterious.


Couliano points to the overstretching of the phantasm in terms of the attention and will of the subject. The subject’s attention is hijacked and constantly directed to the loved person (or to something that reminds the subject of the loved person, something that the subject plans to say to the loved person, and so on). The subject’s will is hijacked as well, and their actions and behavior are, in more or less subtle ways, directed at the love object. (Even if it only is that the subject cannot stop talking about them.)

We might equally describe the overstretching in terms of narrative meaning: the web of connections that constitute the phantasm is extended — extended basically everywhere. The narrative centered around the loved person becomes all-encompassing, it infiltrates all the other narratives, and even reshapes them to some extent (putting the loved person in, for example). This meaning-controlling aspect, in addition to the attention-controlling aspect, is very important for our purposes.

3. So far, this only describes the overpowering effects of erotic attraction (which we all know), in tremendously convoluted (and antiquated) terms. Why do we care?

Because of this:

Interestingly, the love object plays a secondary role in the process of establishing the phantasm: it is only a pretext, not a real presence. The true object, omnipresent, of Eros is the phantasm, which has taken possession of the spiritual mirror.



By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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