Death, Dying, and Mysticism pp Cite as. Jacques Lacan — developed his theory of subjectivity, confronting the problem of desire as the core of existence, and arguing that no other question could help us more in our struggle to understand the question of what human nature is and how it is constructed. For Lacan, the death of the subject does not refer to biological death, but to the moment when the subject transcends the symbolic trap and experiences her or his own desire in the form of mystic experience or sublimation.
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At first its influence outside Paris was, to put it graciously, nil. Laying existentialism and structuralism on top of Freud, most therapists felt, made the squishy into pure liquid. Lacan's lousy prose only confirmed how useless it all was. Even today, American undergraduates studying abnormal psychology beware: they will hardly find Lacan so much as mentioned in their textbook, if at all. Outside psychology, however, structuralism was taking over intellectual life.
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Literary criticism, especially felt its influence. It was starting to call itself literary theory and imagining it was philosophy! Did Lacan treat the mind like a work of literature, to be interpreted through attention to its language? Hardly a bad message for those who take literature for the meaning of life, and a new kind of Freudian interpretation took hold. Lacanians got to insist that, unlike the nasty old kind, they were not just reducing books to the writer's hang-ups or to Freud's system.
They were showing people how to read. One can even apply Lacan to Dickens. What other critics were showing people, however, was no longer a system—not even Lacan's. Indirectly, Lacan helped give birth to a happy mess that his system could never comprehend. Starting with such titles as Grammatology , Jacques Derrida made the decisive step. The French philosopher took structuralism apart and found that he liked it better in pieces. Interpretation mattered so much for him that there was no escaping the text into the real.
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Can any meaning be traced through an entire language? Can any word take on fresh associations? Fine, but then what sense does it make to catalog a language—or the mind? The operative word became post-structuralism, the first "post" in a long run of fashionable Postmodernisms.
Lacan himself helped out the literary trends: his opening seminar in his collected writings analyzes "The Purloined Letter" as an example of how the mind works. Remember the letter used for blackmail in Edgar Allan Poe's short story? In the same way, Lacan argued, words take on new significance, threats, power, and desires for each person as they circulate. If some English professors in America were happy, feminists were simply overjoyed.
The Freudian father? Not even real. Just a mental construct. Jacqueline Rose and Juliet Mitchell in London saw that as cause for Marxists to re-examine how society creates gender roles for us, just as social and economic conditions create other sorts of havoc. Lacan's mirror makes a great metaphor for a world that surrounds women with mirrors and fashion photography , makes them into Madonnas and whores , and long called a still-life painting Vanitas. Art, they wrote, releases a kind of meaning that's freer than ordinary prose—a rich, meaningful babbling dominated by the dream of one's mother.
The doctrine of lack and deferral truly means something for women who feel more like male society's displaced persons than happy creatures born to nurture men. And in fact Kristeva was an exile in another sense, Bulgarian born. The b. Kristeva sounds like a typical Parisian intellectual. In her novels, women naturally watch film noir and always wear just the right outfit. The deacon of deconstruction himself, Derrida, demolished Lacan through another reading of Poe, just as he frolicked through art history in the person of Vincent van Gogh.
Be Wary of the Image
Let me look more carefully, then, at Lacan's "Seminar on the Purloined Letter. Lacan is as dense as ever, but Derrida is formidable for a different reason, one already announced in his title's virtuosity. Throughout a long essay, he finds room to play even as he sticks to a careful structure that one must also bear in mind. Quite a challenge, but worth it. After that, can I risk a quick summary?
Here goes. Lacan notes that the letter used for blackmail never changes as it circulates. Yet its significance changes constantly, depending on who holds it and who recognizes it for what it is. Lacan takes this as emblematic of how the unconscious works. In his theory, recall, the unconscious works like a language. The mind teems with desires that grow real only when translated into symbols, as in Freud's device of free association.
Jacques Lacan and the Adventure of Insight — Shoshana Felman | Harvard University Press
Like words in a language, the associations are arbitrary. As symbols of desire for the lost intimacies of infancy, the thing they signify is simply not there: it is always lacking. Similarly, the letter, despite its power, remains somehow empty, for blackmail can no longer threaten the moment someone uses it. Derrida takes on Lacan, just as he had any structuralist view of language.
Le goût de la rouille
He criticized structuralism for hoping rigorously to define meaning, as if a system like language could ever be closed and could ever have a fixed center. In the same way, Derrida deconstructs Lacan: he claims that the psychologist returns after all to a system of tidy meanings. After Lacan, psychoanalysis remains a system, with fanatical followers. Psychoanalytic readings, or so goes the standard complaint, still read a predetermined message into literary texts. Derrida agrees on both counts. Lacan finds what he wants in Poe because he pumps it into the text. This "lack" of which he speaks is post-structuralist only on the surface.
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Lacan may seem to play around, but for him lack is all too real, the essential subject of psychoanalysis. Derrida also tears into Lacan's writing. The latter's famously tendentious style is far from playful unlike Derrida's own, the philosopher tactfully neglects to say. It is a sad blockage for readers. It cannot help being insensitive to a literary work like Poe's. In fact, by creating a breakdown between meaning and form, it again calls up a tired notion of literary content.
The quaint Freudian in tweeds has returned, reading psychoanalysis into everything that moves. Lacan, Derrida argues further, commits the ultimate sin against literature: he works from the plot rather than Poe's language. Lacan finds yet another way, too, to cut off the chain of meaning on which a literary work subsists: he isolates the story from two others about Detective Dupin. Worse, Lacan isolates the mythic triangle of characters in Poe's story from the narrator.
By bursting these frames, Derrida hopes to open up all those Lacanian triangles. Lacan, in other words, imposes a frame on the story as triumphantly as a blackmailer frames the innocent victim. He is one more player in the game, trumping the previous one to assert his own mastery—much like each person in turn in "The Purloined Letter. For Lacan, context is everything. It creates desire, and so for each person, as in Poe, the letter bears profound significance: a letter always finds its address. Derrida plays on that truly memorable line. In language, literature, or psychology, meaning can never be closed off or translated once and for all, not even into other words: a letter never finds its address.
Literary critics love arguments, and I suppose they will go on until the world loses patience entirely with anything so turgid. No wonder an American moved the dispute officially to the world of literary criticism. All three essays appear along with Poe's story—and goodness knows what else—in a paperback called The Purloined Poe. Johnson's book, which was her first, also has a superb essay if longer and at least as tough on Herman Melville's Billy Budd.
Johnson deconstructs the difference between the two post-structuralists. She suggests that both men are up to the same games with the structure of words. Really, does all that much separate them?
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