One of the most profound yet mysterious claims of psychoanalysis is that “our desire is always the other’s desire.” Like many truths, this one flies in the face of common sense. “My desire,” I want to argue, “is my own. It involves me and only me. It is what is most private and intimate about me, and if I do not own my desires, I do not truly own myself.” And that statement would be true if I lived in the glorious isolation of the solipsist. But it is a position that falls apart the moment it is subjected to the test of real life. My desires are not my own. In some uncanny way, the desires of others — their dreams, their goals, their fantasies — lend texture and shape and color to my own.
This lesson came home to me a few years ago when I was showing a friend of mine from Japan around Montreal. I have come to the terms with the fact that I am constitutionally incapable of showing people this city without beaming with enthusiasm and pride every moment. We had just visited Notre-Dame Basilica and were walking east toward Place Jacques Cartier. I was pointing out the architectural highlights along the way and telling her that she was in for a treat when we got to the old port. She looked at me curiously, and with a teasing smile said “You act like it was you who built all of this!” I admit that, just for a moment, it slipped my mind that I hadn’t. Reflecting on her good-natured jab, it struck me as odd that this city, whose shape and mood reflects the work and plans and aspirations of thousands of people, many of whose bones are now dust, seems to me to be particularly mine, seems to belong to me in a way so undeniable that somewhere in my dream world I think that am magnanimously sharing this city with all of you who do me the compliment of living here. I think this is what Jacques Lacan meant when he said that our desire is always the desire of the other. We claim others’ desires as our own. The world that others built to suit their particular vision is the world that we know we would have built if the job had fallen to us. We desire and dream as we do because others desire and dream as they do. This insight offers, I think, an important perspective on immigration and what it can mean to say that we live “together.”
On the last day of the Olympics I sat anxiously with my brother, his girlfriend Maru, and her two sons Jorge and Juan Carlos as we waited for the Canada-USA hockey game to begin. Maru, her two sons and her daughter (also named Maru) are from Mexico and have lived in Canada for more than five years. They have availed themselves of all the educational opportunities that have been offered. They have learned French and English well enough to work with the public, and they continue to plan for better things. Maru is taking training under Canada’s Action Plan to return to the job market after a layoff, she is practicing her graphic arts, and Carlos is planning to study philosophy at Concordia. During the game, Maru was often too nervous to watch, so she sat in front of her computer screen finding the latest tally of Canadian Olympic medals. More than anyone in the room, she was intensely excited that Canada was one gold medal away from setting an Olympic record. She reminded me at least twice that this summer she would be eligible to apply for Canadian citizenship, and her children soon after. She and her children were staking their claim to Canada. Carlos said “In Mexico we like to beat the Americans in soccer, but they usually beat us. So now, we are Canadian and we will definitely beat them in hockey!” All afternoon as the game unfolded, the talk kept coming back to Canada, the medal count, how well we had done, and it became clear to me that Maru and Jorge and Carlos talked about Canada in a way that I never would. It was a pride unmixed with cynicism. Their anticipation of citizenship was the anticipation of a great gift, a transformative gift. As they spoke I could almost see my internal image of Canada changing, from a place where I live to a place where others dream of living. And when Crosby scored the goal that will take its place alongside those of Paul Henderson and Mario Lemieux I don’t know whose whoops of delight were the loudest. But we all settled back together into that happy exhaustion of relief that follows a brush with overtime terror. They had just undergone a truly “Canadian” initiation.
Perhaps it was the momentousness of the Olympics, the feeling that our experience of ourselves as Canadians was being transformed by the gaze of the world. Perhaps it is just the joy of a hockey victory, something never to be underestimated in Canada. But I had the sense that day of how much our own lives are entwined with others. It is as if my experience of being Canadian — dulled and washed out from overuse — is renewed and refreshed by listening to those for whom the word “Canada” is the promise of a future. And, apart from all the practical economic and social arguments for why immigration is a boon to a country that invites new citizens, this one resonates most powerfully for me: our country is more our own when its meanings are not just for us, but for others. It is more our own when, viewing it through the eyes of new citizens, we see unguessed dimensions that have always been there, but invisible to us. It is more our own when it is our gift to others, and their joyful acceptance of it their gift to us.