Cover: In Praise of Forgiveness by Massimo Recalcati


To Luciana Sica, to her strength

In Praise of Forgiveness

Massimo Recalcati
Translated by Alice Kilgarriff



I would like to thank my friend and editor Raffaello Cortina for having believed in me over these last few years, and Maria Egidi with whom I share a great deal of my working life and who, over ten years of working together, has supported me with patience, affection and happiness. Federica Manzon and Lucrezia Lerro for their friendship and for having read and commented upon the narrative parts of the book, giving me invaluable advice. My thanks also to Mauro Grimoldi for having listened to me discuss this book since its conception during our morning runs through Parco Sempione and elsewhere. Last but not least, Enzo Bianchi for his silent presence in me.

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was the constant impact of something very close and intimate, yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant – in a word, real.

C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed


The psychoanalyst hears the woes that accompany love lives on a daily basis: emotional isolation, sexual inhibitions and symptoms, the compulsive quest for relationships that fail to satisfy, the ensuing disappointment, the initial ecstasy of falling in love, infidelity, boredom, jealousy, a decline in desire, separation, abuse, the inability to love, the difficulty of finding the right man or woman. And yet today’s trials and tribulations of love seem to be different from those of the past. Sexual freedom and female emancipation, to cite just two of the most relevant phenomena of the last few decades, have upset a certain stereotype of amorous suffering. The desperate Platonism of those who, faced with a frustrating reality, cultivate their inhibited passions in secret has given way to a diffuse disinhibition and the multiplication of sexual and loving experiences in an entirely liberated way. Everything seems to be consumed far more quickly, without moral censure or obstacles. Criticism of any institutionalization of bonds between the sexes seems to have become the politically correct norm, whilst the collective cult of a love without ties is an illusion that has generated nothing more than will-o’-the-wisps. The invocation of absolute freedom and the intolerance shown to any form of bond that implies responsibility have led to a new master. We no longer have the master who carries the stick of prohibition, but one who demands an enjoyment that is always New and that consequently experiences a long-term relationship as a gas chamber killing off the mysterious fascination of desire. One father dies and another takes his place: the time of mourning is maniacally rejected as unnecessarily sad and extravagant. Rather than painfully processing the loss of a beloved object, it is preferable to replace it as quickly as possible, conforming to the dominant logic that governs the capitalist discourse: if an object no longer works, you mustn’t feel nostalgic about it! Exchange it for an upgraded model!

At a time in which everything seems to respond to the perverse siren song of the New, this book aims to be a song dedicated to love that resists and that persists in its vindication of the bond with what does not pass, with what is able to stand the test of time, with what cannot be consumed. It does not deal with those infatuations that burn out without a trace in just one night. It delves into that love that lasts a lifetime, that leaves its mark, that does not want to die, that disproves Freud’s cynical belief that love and desire are destined to lie apart because the existence of one (love) necessarily excludes that of the other (sexual desire).1 It looks at that love in which desire grows and does not fade with the passing of time because with it the horizons of the lovers’ bodies, and the world itself, are erotically expanded. That love in which the ecstasy of the encounter insists on repeating itself, on wanting the other again, on staying faithful to itself, in which the headiness is not diluted but gives meaning to time, rendering it eternal. This is a love animated by what the poet Paul Éluard, once cited by Jacques Lacan, defines ‘le dur désir du durer’ [‘the firm desire to endure’].2

This book asks what happens to these bonds when one person cheats on the other, when one falls short of the promise made, living another emotional experience mired in secret and deceit. What happens to those loving relationships crushed by the trauma of betrayal and abandonment? What happens when the person who has cheated then asks for forgiveness? What if they ask to be loved once more, despite having decreed that it was not like it used to be, and want everything to go back to how it was before? Is forgiveness truly possible in these cases? Or must we limit ourselves to repeating the Freudian sentence according to which all love is a narcissistic dream, a promise that does not exist, a love that never lasts ‘forever’, there being no love for the Other that is not love for ourselves? Must we spit on love, making fun of lovers in their efforts to make love last?

Freud’s analysis, developed in his ‘Contributions to the Psychology of Love’,3 is only interested in describing the neurotic version of love. His theory on the gulf between sexual desire and love that leads human beings to split the object of their erotic enjoyment from that of their love has often been misunderstood, as if reconciling the level of the body’s sexual enjoyment with that of love as a gift of oneself to the Other were a structural impossibility. We must be clear: if psychoanalytic treatment deals with this (neurotic) split between sexual enjoyment and loving tenderness towards the Other, this does not mean that such a split is the structural cipher of love. What is the point of psychoanalysis if not precisely to make bonds possible that allow loving desire towards the Other to converge with the erotic enjoyment of the body? Isn’t this one of the most relevant issues at stake? We know it from experience: love in which loving desire is not in any way split from sexual enjoyment but grows exponentially alongside erotic passion for the body of the Other does exist. This was what led Lacan to define love as the only possibility of allowing desire to converge with enjoyment without any neurotic disassociation.4

This book does not delve into the pathology of the split between desire and enjoyment, but examines an aspect of love that is as important as it is strangely sidelined by psychoanalysis: forgiveness. It treats forgiveness as one of the most noble and difficult tests awaiting lovers.

The work of forgiveness is always preceded by the trauma of betrayal and abandonment. The loved object vanishes, it is transfigured, it moves away. We know that all trauma, in a single seismic movement, affects the very meaning of the world and our existence in it. It is not just the loved object that is missing, but the very order of the world smashed to pieces by that loss, becoming unrecognizable and descending into pure non-sense.

How can the ashes of this retreat by the other be inhabited without destroying everything? How is it possible to resist betraying the promise? Much like the work of mourning, the work of forgiveness requires extra time in order to be carried out. Sometimes this hits a wall that can be impossible to overcome, that of loss of trust in the word of the Other. Forgiveness can then become impossible precisely because of love. This is one of the theories posited in this book: the failure of forgiveness is no less important than a successful work of forgiveness. Various patients talk about an irreversible collapse of their trust in the Other that can never be fixed. Who can blame them? In these cases too, the subject finds themselves facing the wall of impossibility: they cannot forgive, they cannot forgive the wound left by the deceit because to forgive would mean to forget, to not want to know, to pretend nothing had happened, to not face up to all the consequences that the traumatic truth of betrayal and abandonment have unleashed. At other times, the work of forgiveness challenges the unforgivable and saves love by resisting the temptation of revenge. This is its mysterious joy: the one that allows for a brand-new beginning, an absolute new beginning.

No love, not even that which exists within the promise to last ‘forever’, is safe from the risk of ending, because every human love always implies absolute exposure to the Other, and never excludes the possibility of its retraction and disappearance. In all of those situations in which the traumatic impact of betrayal has brought love to its knees, is it truly possible that the work of forgiveness can restore life to that which seemed to be irremediably dead? This is the real question at the heart of this book.


  1. 1. See Sigmund Freud, ‘Contributions to the Psychology of Love’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. XI (1910): Five Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Leonardo da Vinci and Other Works, Vintage, London 2001, pp. 163–90.
  2. 2. Paul Éluard, ‘Le dur désir du durer’ [‘The Firm Desire to Endure’], in Last Love Poetry, Black Widow Press, Boston 2006.
  3. 3. See Freud, ‘Contributions to the Psychology of Love’.
  4. 4. ‘Only love allows enjoyment to condescend to desire’ (Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book X: Anxiety, Polity, Cambridge 2014, p. 179).