Book Reviews -- Using Lacan, Reading Fiction by James M. Mellard

By Wolfreys, Julian | Style, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- Using Lacan, Reading Fiction by James M. Mellard


Wolfreys, Julian, Style


James M. Mellard. Using Lacan, Reading Fiction. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991. xviii + 244 pp. $14.95 paper.

Despite the lead given by Shoshana Felman's ground-breaking psychoanalytic-Lacanian analysis of Henry James's novella, The Turn of the Screw, the practical application on a large scale of the theories of Jacques Lacan to literary texts has not really happened. There has not been the appearance of Lacanian literary analysis as a major field in the manner of, say, the co-optation of Michel Foucault by New Historicism. This relative neglect of Lacan does nothing to suggest his importance outside the discipline of psychoanalysis as a key thinker within what is called poststructuralism.

Of course, significant post-Lacanian interpretations of particular authors have appeared, particularly those whose writings and lives have seemed to lend themselves to psychoanalytic interpretation: studies of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf spring most readily to mind. In film studies, a certain model of Lacanian thinking proved for a while to be a significant force or fashion, depending on one's perspective. However, with the exception of the occasional inclusion of Lacan in a general poststructuralist mode of interpretation and, excluding those theoretical texts that talk about theory rather than demonstrating the use of "theory" in the interpretation of literature (not that this should necessarily be perceived as a fault), there is a significant lack of a Lacanian scene, to borrow some of Lacan's own language.

This state of things may have not a little to do with the well-known obscurity, whether in French or English, of Lacan's own prose. The early suggestive leads for interpretation provided by Lacan himself, most notably in Ecrits, have not been taken very far. Worrying at how best to make Lacan's theory of the mirror stage generally. applicable to the forms and functions of a literary text soon runs out of mileage; and if this result is all that we are going to lay claim to in Lacan's discourse, we can hardly contend that he should be taken seriously in relation to literary criticism.

James M. Mellard usefully addresses all of these issues along with other significant points relating to the reading and use of Lacan in his preface and introduction to Using Lacan, Reading Fiction, as well as offering lucid, cogently reasoned performances of "applied Lacan" with carefully and clearly laid-out, systematic readings of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, Henry James's "The Beast in the Jungle," and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse.

The book is constructed in five main sections, each of which is divided into principal areas of concern. In addition to a general bibliography a specific bibliography complements each chapter. This careful breakdown with differently emphasized areas of attention is helpful for the reader, for it allows a gradual understanding of the numerous issues "in" Lacan by drawing the issues into focus in a manner most appropriate to the subject. The central three chapters deal with the literary texts and offer readings of the literary texts already mentioned. These are each arranged economically, not only so that one witnesses Mellard's understanding and mastery of Lacanian discourse, but also so that each literary text comes to shed light for the reader on key elements of Lacanian textuality; elements such as the mirror state, L'Objet Petit A, desire, jouissance, the decentering of the Subject through entry into language, the Gaze, and other important Lacanian tropes. The concluding chapter offers a reading of Woolf's To the Lighthouse, while underlabouring--to borrow a suitable term from John Locke--the theoretical ground around the notoriously difficult Lacanian concept of the Real.

This process of double reading has important pedagogical ramifications especially with regard to the teaching of undergraduates from theoretical perspectives. We comprehend Lacan through Woolf, through Hawthorne, through James. …

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