Lacan defined the symptom in several ways: as a metaphor, as “what comes from the real”, as “what does not work”, and at the end of his teaching, as a structural fact, whose need must be questioned. In 1953 (2002a) Lacan emphasized that the analytical symptom – a neurotic, perverse, or even psychotic symptom; a dream; a lapse ; and so on – it was supported by a linguistic structure, by signifiers , and by the letters that serve as a material element.
In contrast to medical symptoms, the meaning of which is determined in relation to a reference, the neurotic symptom is blocked speech wanting to be heard and deciphered . Lacan saw the metaphor mechanism at work in the symptom: when a trauma-inducing signifier is replaced by an element of the signifier chaincurrent, corrects the symptom and produces its meaning (2002b, p 158.). But interpreting its meaning is not enough. Interpretation works only by focusing on the articulation of the signifiers linked to the symptom; significant in themselves have no meaning (1995, p. 270). Still, these signifiers must be addressed to an analyst. Since the symptom is a source of self-sufficient enjoyment, the subject must know that behind the symptom there is an unknown truth and a related cause.
From 1974, with the Borromean knot with three rings, Lacan aims at the relationship between the symptom and the real (R), the symbolic (S), and the imaginary (I). The symptom became “what comes from the real” (1975, p. 185). It is marginally imaginary, while it unfolds in the symbolic.
The symptom, which is wrong, uses speech to look for meaning. If we respond to it in this register, we can cause it to develop in the imaginary. Mistaken symbolic intervention can undo the symptom’s certainties and make it recede.
Lacan does the function of the specific symptom, starting with a knot with four rings. Freud showed that the formation of symptoms is determined by psychic reality, which is organized by the Oedipus complex . Lacan called this reality “religious”, because it is based on the belief that the father castrates, although the laws of language require a renunciation of reality and an assumption of the phallus . Thus, the symptom seems to maintain a connection with the father, who supports sexual identification and enjoyment. In this node, the symptom connects the nodes of the real, symbolic, and imaginary.
Lacan also asked what would happen if there was an error in the mooring of the three rings. Such an error would be fixed in a non-Borromean manner by a fourth ring, that of the sinthome. In his study of James Joyce (2001), he used Joyce as his example of such a process.
For Lacan, the symptom is the fixed way in which the subjects enjoy their unconscious. Thus, the path that leads to Oedipal normalization, even if it is neurotic, is also clearly marked. The treatment aims not at such normalization, but at learning “what to do with the symptom” instead of enjoying it.