At his point, the function of the letter in the story is to simply position people. Jacques Lacan, in his analysis considers this structure as triangular one. In these two scenes, there are three available positions in relation to the other. The letter locates different people according to their relations to the letter. Signifier is a threat to the system. Queen knows that if she puts the letter full-view on table, King would not notice it and be curious.
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Jacques Lacan Our inquiry has led us to the point of recognizing that the repetition automatism Wiederholangszwang finds its basis in what we have called the insistence of the signifying chain. As is known, it is in the realm of experience inaugurated by psychoanalysis that we may grasp along what imaginary lines the human organism, in the most intimate recesses of its being, manifests its capture in a symbolic dimension.
The lesson of this seminar is intended to maintain that these imaginary incidences, far from representing the essence of our experience, reveal only what in it remains inconsistent unless they are related to the symbolic chain which binds and orients them. But this emphasis would be lavished in vain, if it served, in your opinion, only to abstract a general type from phenomena whose particularity in our work would remain the essential thing for you, and whose original arrangement could be broken up only artificially.
It is that truth, let us note, which makes the very existence of fiction possible. Aside from that reservation, a fictive tale even has the advantage of manifesting symbolic necessity more purely to the extent that we may believe its conception arbitrary. Which is why, without seeking any further, we have chosen our example from the very story in which the dialectic of the game of even or odd-from whose study we have but recently profited-occurs.
It is, no doubt, no accident that this tale revealed itself propitious to pursuing a course of inquiry which had already found support in it. We see quickly enough, moreover, that these components are necessary and that they could not have escaped the intentions of whoever composed them. The narration, in fact, doubles the drama with a commentary without which no mise en scene would be possible.
Let us say that the action would remain, properly speaking, invisible from the pit-aside from the fact that the dialogue would be expressly and by dramatic necessity devoid of whatever meaning it might have for an audience: in other words, nothing of the drama could be grasped, neither seen nor heard, without, dare we say, the twilighting which the narration, in each scene, casts on the point of view that one of the actors had while performing it.
There are two scenes, the first of which we shall straightway designate the primal scene, and by no means inadvertently, since the second may be considered its repetition in the very sense we are considering today. The primal scene is thus performed, we are told, in the royal boudoir, so that we suspect that the person of the highest rank, called the "exalted personage," who is alone there when she receives a letter, is the Queen.
This feeling is confirmed by the embarrassment into which she is plunged by the entry of the other exalted personage, of whom we have already been told prior to this account that the knowledge he might have of the letter in question would jeopardize for the lady nothing less than her honor and safety.
Any doubt that he is in fact the King is promptly dissipated in the course of the scene which begins with the entry of the Minister D-. From then on everything transpires like clockwork. After dealing in his customary manner with the business of the day, the Minister draws from his pocket a letter similar in appearance to the one in his view, and, having pretended to read it, he places it next to the other.
A bit more conversation to amuse the royal company, whereupon, without flinching once, he seizes the embarrassing letter, making off with it, as the Queen, on whom none of his maneuver has been lost, remains unable to intervene for fear of attracting the attention of her royal spouse, close at her side at that very moment.
Everything might then have transpired unseen by a hypothetical spectator of an operation in which nobody falters, and whose quotient is that the Minister has filched from the Queen her letter and that-an even more important result than the first-the Queen knows that he now has it, and by no means innocently. In vain-although everyone can deduce from the situation that the Minister keeps the letter within reach. Dupin calls on the Minister. The latter receives him with studied nonchalance, affecting in his conversation romantic ennui.
Meanwhile Dupin, whom this pretense does not deceive, his eyes protected by green glasses, proceeds to inspect the premises. His conviction is reinforced by the very details which seem to contradict the description he has of the stolen letter, with the exception of the format, which remains the same. Whereupon he has but to withdraw, after "forgetting" his snuffbox on the table, in order to return the following day to reclaim it-armed with a facsimile of the letter in its present state.
As an incident in the street, prepared for the proper moment, draws the Minister to the window, Dupin in turn seizes the opportunity to snatch the letter while substituting the imitation and has only to maintain the appearances of a normal exit. Here as well all has transpired, if not without noise, at least without any commotion.
The quotient of the operation is that the Minister no longer has the letter, but far from suspecting that Dupin is the culprit who has ravished it from him, knows nothing of it. Moreover, what he is left with is far from insignificant for what follows. We shall return to what brought Dupin to inscribe a message on his counterfeit letter.
Yes, for the resemblance we have in mind is not a simple collection of traits chosen only in order to delete their difference. And it would not be enough to retain those common traits at the expense of the others for the slightest truth to result. It is rather the intersubjectivity in which the two actions are motivated that we wish to bring into relief, as well as the three terms through which it structures them.
The special status of these terms results from their corresponding simultaneously to the three logical moments through which the decision is precipitated and the three places it assigns to the subjects among whom it constitutes a choice.
This glance presupposes two others, which it embraces in its vision of the breach left in their fallacious complementarity, anticipating in it the occasion for larceny afforded by that exposure.
Thus three moments, structuring three glances, borne by three subjects, incarnated each time by different characters. The first is a glance that sees nothing: the King and the police.
The second, a glance which sees that the first sees nothing and deludes itself as to the secrecy of what it hides: the Queen, then the Minister. The third sees that the first two glances leave what should be hidden exposed to whoever would seize it: the Minister, and finally Dupin.
The plurality of subjects, of course, can be no objection for those who are long accustomed to the perspectives summarized by our formula: the unconscious is the discourse of the Other. What interests us today is the manner in which the subjects relay each other in their displacement during the intersubjective repetition.
We shall see that their displacement is determined by the place which a pure signifier-the purloined letter-comes to occupy in their trio. And that is what will confirm for us its status as repetition automatism. It does not, however, seem excessive, before pursuing this line of inquiry, to ask whether the thrust of the tale and the interest we bring to it-to the extent that they coincide-do not lie elsewhere.
May we view as simply a rationalization in our gruff jargon the fact that the story is told to us as a police mystery? In truth, we should be right in judging that fact highly dubious as soon as we note that everything which warrants such mystery concerning a crime or offense-its nature and motives, instruments and execution, the procedure used to discover the author, and the means employed to convict him-is carefully eliminated here at the start of each episode.
The act of deceit is, in fact, from the beginning as clearly known as the intrigues of the culprit and their effects on his victim.
The problem, as exposed to us, is limited to the search for and restitution of the object of that deceit, and it seems rather intentional that the solution is already obtained when it is explained to us. Is that how we are kept in suspense? Whatever credit we may accord the conventions of a genre for provoking a specific interest in the reader, we should not forget that "the Dupin tale"-this the second to appear-is a prototype, and that even if the genre were established in the first, it is still a little early for the author to play on a convention.
For that would be a hoax which, for our part, we would never recommend anyone try, lest he be gravely disappointed in his hopes. Might there then be no mystery other than, concerning the Prefect, an incompetence issuing in failure-were it not perhaps, concerning Dupin, a certain dissonance we hesitate to acknowledge between, on the one hand, the admittedly penetrating though, in their generality, not always quite relevant remarks with which he introduces us to his method and, on the other, the manner in which he in fact intervenes.
Were we to pursue this sense of mystification a bit further we might soon begin to wonder whether, from that initial scene which only the rank of the protagonists saves from vaudeville, to the fall into ridicule which seems to await the Minister at the end, it is not this impression that everyone is being duped which makes for our pleasure. And we would be all the more inclined to think so in that we would recognize in that surmise, along with those of you who read us, the definition we once gave in passing of the modern hero, "whom ludicrous exploits exalt in circumstances of utter confusion.
A trick. For such indeed is the direction in which the principles of that verisimilitude lead us. Entering into its strategy, we indeed perceive a new drama we may call complementary to the first, insofar as the latter was what is termed a play without words whereas the interest of the second plays on the properties of speech.
The first dialogue-between the Prefect of Police and Dupin-is played as between a deaf man and one who hears. That is, it presents the real complexity of what is ordinarily simplified, with the most confused results, in the notion of communication.
This example demonstrates indeed how an act of communication may give the impression at which theorists too often stop: of allowing in its transmission but a single meaning, as though the highly significant commentary into which he who understands integrates it, could, because unperceived by him who does not understand, be considered null. But here dialogue may be more fertile than it seems, if we demonstrate its tactics: as shall be seen by focusing on the recounting of our first scene.
If indeed the extremity to which the original narrator is reduced precludes her altering any of the events, it would be wrong to believe that the Prefect is empowered to lend her his voice in this case only by that lack of imagination on which he has, dare we say, the patent. The fact that the message is thus retransmitted assures us of what may by no means be taken for granted: that it belongs to the dimension of language.
Those who are here know our remarks on the subject, specifically those illustrated by the countercase of the so-called language of bees: in which a linguist 4 can see only a simple signaling of the location of objects, in other words: only an imaginary function more differentiated than others. We emphasize that such a form of communication is not absent in man, however evanescent a naturally given object may be for him, split as it is in its submission to symbols.
Something equivalent may no doubt be grasped in the communion established between two persons in their hatred of a common object: except that the meeting is possible only over a single object, defined by those traits in the individual each of the two resists. But such communication is not transmissible in symbolic form. It may be maintained only in the relation with the object. In such a manner it may bring together an indefinite number of subjects in a common "ideal": the communication of one subject with another within the crowd thus constituted will nonetheless remain irreducibly mediated by an ineffable relation.
This digression is not only a recollection of principles distantly addressed to those who impute to us a neglect of nonverbal communication: in determining the scope of what speech repeats, it prepares the question of what symptoms repeat. Thus the indirect telling sifts out the linguistic dimension, and the general narrator, by duplicating it, "hypothetically" adds nothing to it. But its role in the second dialogue is entirely different.
For the latter will be opposed to the first like those poles we have distinguished elsewhere in language and which are opposed like word to speech. Which is to say that a transition is made here from the domain of exactitude to the register of truth. It is located there where the subject can grasp nothing but the very subjectivity which constitutes an Other as absolute. We shall be satisfied here to indicate its place by evoking the dialogue which seems to us to merit its attribution as a Jewish joke by that state of privation through which the relation of signifier to speech appears in the entreaty which brings the dialogue to a close: "Why are you Iying to me?
So much so that we are momentarily persuaded that the magician has in fact demonstrated, as he promised, how his trick was performed, whereas he has only renewed it in still purer form: at which point we fathom the measure of the supremacy of the signifier in the subject.
Followed by Chamfort, whose maxim that "it is a safe wager that every public idea, every accepted convention is foolish, since it suits the greatest number" will no doubt satisfy all who think they escape its law, thatis, precisely, the greatest number. No doubt Poe is having a good time But a suspicion occurs to us: Might not this parade of erudition be destined to reveal to us the key words of our drama?
Is not the magician repeating his trick before our eyes, without deceiving us this time about divulging his secret, but pressing his wager to the point of really explaining it to us without us seeing a thing? And is it not such effects which justify our referring, without malice, to a number of imaginary heroes as real characters?
As well, when we are open to hearing the way in which Martin Heidegger discloses to us in the word aletheia the play of truth, we rediscover a secret to which truth has always initiated her lovers, and through which they learn that it is in hiding that she offers herself to them most truly. We already saw it surface in those furtive gibes the Prefect, in the first conversation, failed to heed, seeing in them only a pretext for hilarity.
That it is, as Dupin insinuates, because a problem is too simple, indeed too evident, that it may appear obscure, will never have any more bearing for him than a vigorous rub of the ribcage. Which is powerfully articulated by the fact that he and his confederates never conceive of anything beyond what an ordinary rogue might imagine for hiding an object-that is, precisely the all too well known series of extraordinary hiding places: which are promptly cataloged for us, from hidden desk drawers to removable tabletops, from the detachable cushions of chairs to their hollowed-out legs, from the reverse side of mirrors to the "thickness" of book bindings.
Yes indeed. The division of the entire volume into numbered "compartments," which was the principle governing the operation, being presented to us as so precise that "the fiftieth part of a line," it is said, could not escape the probing of the investigators. Must a letter then, of all objects, be endowed with the property of nullibiety: to use a term which the thesaurus known as Roget picks up from the semiotic utopia of Bishop Wilkins?
Bizarre, by which Baudelaire regularly translates it, is only approximate. Let us say that these relations are You realize, of course, that our intention is not to turn them into "subtle" relations, nor is our aim to confuse letter with spirit, even if we receive the former by pneumatic dispatch, and that we readily admit that one kills whereas the other quickens, insofar as the signifier-you perhaps begin to understand-materializes the agency of death.
Cut a letter in small pieces, and it remains the letter it is - and this in a completely different sense than Gestalttheorie would account for with the dormant vitalism informing its notion of the whole. It is there that spirit-if spirit be living meaning-appears, no less oddly, as more available for quantification than its letter. For the signifier is a unit in its very uniqueness, being by nature symbol only of an absence.
Which is why we cannot say of the purloined letter that, like other objects, it must be or not be in a particular place but that unlike them it will be and not be where it is, wherever it goes.
Let us, in fact, look more closely at what happens to the police. We are spared nothing concerning the procedures used in searching the area submitted to their investigation: from the division of that space into compartments from which the slightest bulk could not escape detection, to needles probing upholstery, and, in the impossibility of sounding wood with a tap, to a microscope exposing the waste of any drilling at the surface of its hollow, indeed the infinitesimal gaping of the slightest abyss.
Poe’s “Purloined Letter” and Lacanian Psychoanalytical Criticism – 2
Jacques Lacan Our inquiry has led us to the point of recognizing that the repetition automatism Wiederholangszwang finds its basis in what we have called the insistence of the signifying chain. As is known, it is in the realm of experience inaugurated by psychoanalysis that we may grasp along what imaginary lines the human organism, in the most intimate recesses of its being, manifests its capture in a symbolic dimension. The lesson of this seminar is intended to maintain that these imaginary incidences, far from representing the essence of our experience, reveal only what in it remains inconsistent unless they are related to the symbolic chain which binds and orients them. But this emphasis would be lavished in vain, if it served, in your opinion, only to abstract a general type from phenomena whose particularity in our work would remain the essential thing for you, and whose original arrangement could be broken up only artificially. It is that truth, let us note, which makes the very existence of fiction possible.
Ep. 75: Lacan & Derrida Criticize Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”
PREVIEW-Episode 75: Lacan & Derrida Criticize Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”