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TEXT AND SUB-TEXT: REFLECTIONS ON THE LITERARY EXPLORATION OF TABOO EXPERIENCE

Martin Swales

F rom Sigmund Freud to René Girard commentators on the cultural placement of the taboo ('cultural' understood in senses that embrace the mythological, the ritualistic and the literary) have drawn attention to all-important mechanisms of exchange and displacement.1 There can be no taboo without a threshold; a site of complex psychic placements and negotiations which house (without simply domesticating) and which contain (without ultimately earthing) powerful currents and cross-currents within the human psyche. At the level of ritual, of sacrificial enactment, a person or experience or place is taboo by virtue of being at one and the same time holy and defiled, sacred and foul, sublime and debasing. Transfiguration and transgression are, then, closely linked. The commerce of psychic energies invested in the sacrificial victim is one of both overlapping (the taboo self stands for us) and separation (it is, precisely, not us; it replaces and displaces us). Hence, we both acknowledge and disavow it, moving constantly between perceptions of otherness, radical alterity (on the one hand) and complicity, empathy, identity on the other. Our confrontation with the taboo realm is one that is charged both positively and negatively; and, as so often, there is a current that conjoins positive and negative poles.

The dizzying economy of psychic ambivalence finds eloquent expression in language -- one thinks of Lacan's stress on the volatile interplay of substance and lack, of things acknowledged and exorcised, incarnated and banished in language.2 Lacan's view of language is particularly suggestive if one applies it to the

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