The Letter or Its Traces in Discourse
Silhol, Robert, PSYART
We already know that my discourse tells who I am as a subject. And by « subject » I mean the subject of an unconscious desire. The « Letter » would then be what designs an « object, » provided we manage to read it or, rather, to analyze it, for it cannot be said to have only one signification. As I see it, one can look at this letter as the final stage of the metaphor, an effect which has now to be deciphered, for « all signs, » in the words of Michael J. Colacurcio, « are signs of something. » (1)
Such a deciphering-which I take to be different from a « reading », however personal-is not always easy, but provided one has taken the trouble-or been lucky enough-to give oneself the adequate psychoanalytic « tools ,» with prudence and patience, it can be done. (2)
But I am starting too hastily, for to bluntly state that a subject's discourse reveals his or her unconscious desire-an essential tenet of psychoanalytical thinking-may need some clarification, particularly when the discourse whose analysis is envisaged is a text. The debate is not new, and is likely to continue yet for some time, if only because one of the functions of literature-and the condition of our reading pleasure-is precisely to make us forget that we are dealing with representation. (3)
Coleridge warned us about this over two centuries ago : reading implies the « suspension » of our « disbelief , » which is a manner of saying that one of the functions of literature is to maintain an illusion of truth while fundamentally deceiving us about its very nature, for the word can never be the thing. In short, like the act of speaking, the act of reading implies the hallucinatory satisfaction that between words and things there is no void, which leads to a definition of reading as the intimate reconstruction of a meaning whose function is to make the reader forget the existence of this void, a fable to conceal it.
That the fable is not devoid of a particular meaning, of this there is no doubt, but we must realize that such a meaning differs with each subject, and this is precisely why I speak of a reconstruction by each reader (See Norman Holland and reader response). Indeed, there are two texts, or a multitude of texts : one for its author, and one for each reader. And this is where the concept of subject comes into the picture, and it is a concept that may not have been handled with sufficient epistemological care by psychoanalytical critics, I think. For we cannot speak of the particular subject psychoanalysis has in mind without insisting on the fact that it is an unconscious subject, S/. It follows that when we try to account for the actions of a literary character, however carefully observed and rendered, what must be borne in mind is that we are only dealing with a representation and not with a « subject » as defined above. A character is but a sign, and signs cannot be said to « behave » unconsciously ; only the visible part of the iceberg, they point to what is unconscious, but no more. All this is well known, or should be : outside the presence of somenone producing them, signs have no existence of their own ; they exist as the sum of individual readings produced when read by individual subjects and transmitted through the ages. Naturally, there is some agreement as to what the visible part of the iceberg signifies on its own, without this no language would be possible : « communication » rests on this minimal agreement, only then can misunderstanding occur, and the free play of interpretations take place about what the immersed part of the iceberg represents. To cut a long story short, as a « sign ,» a character cannot be moved to act according to unconscious processes, the apparent autonomy of a character is simply the representation-the reflection-of someone else's (would be) autonomy, the author of the portrait namely. (4)
It remains of course that some representations are more accurate than others. There is no denying that the portraits of Hamlet, Othello or Macbeth, to take some striking examples-but there are plenty of others, from Flaubert's Emma Bovary to Faulkner's Benjy-, testify of the accuracy which is sometimes found in literary characters, and there is no reason why we should deprive ourselves of the opportunity of studying « human nature » through these portraits. In the very end, though, the logic, or the lack of it, behind a character's behavior cannot be accounted for by an analysis of the portrait alone as if he or she were a person of flesh and blood. And this, above all, because a portrait is but an effect, the result of unconscious processes which can only be approached thanks to a careful analysis of the words that constitute the portrait. These words can uncover a far larger ground than what can ever be found through the study of a character. In short, the information we are now capable of obtaining from the analysis of the discourse which « brings to life » literary characters proves richer than the portraits themselves.
Which brings us back to a letter which would be the sign of an unconscious subject. It is of course a sign which has to be interpreted, but thanks to psychoanalysis we know how to do this, even though it is not always such an easy task.
The enterprise will consist in the construction of an hypothesis concerning the «desire » at work in the production of the text considered, and then its verification, a « verification » which will account for the coherence of the work examined, and this means the logic of its development, or the lack of such, which may thus render more intelligible what would otherwise have remained obscure. In the end, it all amounts to a simple and obvious question : « But what does it mean ? » which can be rephrased thus : «What does the letter tell us about the subject it represents ? ».
Once this is done, a second question comes to mind, which may even be more essential for the psychoanalyst. I refer to an hypothesis on the conditions of production of the very subject we have uncovered, its determinations. For indeed I take these determinations to be inscribed in the very discourse of each subject and this naturally leads to what I take to be a fundamental question : « But where does the letter come from ? »
The thesis here adumbrated is that the nature of a subject's desire is to be looked for in its history and this may really seem obvious although the difficulty of the inquiry clearly indicates how, as subjects, we are reluctant to pursue such a search. One will recognize in the enterprise a development of Lacan's « desire of the Other, » a concept he more especially dealt with in one of his last « Seminars » where he spoke of Joyce. (5)
But first, for the sake of clarity, a word about Jacques Lacan's letter or, rather, the one Edgar A.Poe reported « purloined. » This letter, in fact this enveloppe-which by the way may well be empty-which in the tale goes round from one person to another, is a perfect metaphor of what may be conceived as « unconscious desire, » that is, in Lacan's words, the desire for the phallus, the imaginary object the mother lost when she lost her veil. Stolen, purloined, that letter, in its « travels, » goes from one to the other and points at each stage to the desire of the person who momentarily holds it. Lacan's demonstration is well known, there is no need to repeat it here, it is a brilliant and rigorous essay on sexual difference, on one aspect of unconscious desire and on the notion of the phallus. We shall not be overly concerned here if the approach Lacan has chosen leads him to wish that the letter should be returned to the King in the end even though we know quite well that Poe's neurotic desire had it returned to the Lady.
Lacan's reading of the letter made explicit, we can now proceed from the generic to the particular and begin to look for a dimension of the said symbol more closely related to the destiny of an individual