Showing in Disguise: The Subject's Perspective

Anuradha Bhattacharyya


Showing in Disguise: The Subject's Perspective


I teach you the meaning and the function of the action of speech, in as much as that is the element of interpretation. (I, p.274)

From the desire to write to the desire to interpret I would like to draw a track. I hope the following assertions are worth the effort to systematize the Lacanian approach to works of fiction.

When people study literary and cultural objects, they want to know what they mean and thus the aim of any new methodology of literary criticism is to help produce interpretations which are plausible as well as new.

Lacan has isolated the concept of meaning as the true aim of a psychoanalytic quest. Abiding by the same desire to interpret fictional works, I would avoid reference to any psychoanalytic concept and define the word meaning in humbler, more mundane terms. To find a meaning of a fiction is to try to find out what the art piece shows about the 'author'.

1. How to choose a text which would lend itself to a psychoanalytic investigation.

One should go for a classic. By classic I mean one which has universal relevance. By that I mean it should be appealing to the majority of its readers. To start with, one can go for a work by a Nobel Laureate, to be sure that his texts must have substance. Take for instance Albert Camus. He won the Nobel Prize for "The Plague." But he has also written other novels which are equally enjoyed by his readers. For instance his first book, the Outsider. It has a wide readership. We have to find out why it is so appealing. That is very crucial. Because Freud's most important findings are related to things that are common to all human beings — even though he might have made these general conclusions by the study of mental patients.

One should avoid books that have stereotypical romance or thrillers. There is a special branch of study for the criticism of popular literature. These books are also appealing because of its surprise twists and turns but these are not fresh investigations of the human nature, like serious writers do. By serious writers, I do not mean only prize winners. There are many authors of fiction who have gained the status of a major author of their times but who have written on mediocre down-to-earth subjects, with no sign of ingenuity. But they have written on the homely subjects with a kind of passion which have touched people's hearts. Say, for instance, in Jane Austin or Anita Desai. A book like "Cry, the Peacock" is on the subject of belief in astrology, which is in itself the cause of its predictions coming true. But still, the triggering factor has been a death. So the instinct to murder, or some such thing can be found in the depth of the novel.

Authors who have suffered negative criticisms such as D.H. Lawrence or Salman Rushdie are those who have exposed too much of their inner selves. In fact, their works can actually lend themselves to a psychoanalytic criticism, much too readily and perhaps actually have nothing concealed. Still, a book like "Women in Love" has what we would call a "proliferation of language" which is both irritating and transfixing and so that language reveals everything in disguise. Actually, these authors may be struggling against the limits of the signifier to tell something unconventional. So there is something in the works of such 'serious authors' that only my method of psychoanalytic investigation can reveal.

As for poetry, it has to be addressed in a group, in bunches, that is taking the poetry of an author all at once. At least one has to take the poetry of one author around the same time of his poetic career. In fact, that is what critics usually do. No poem in isolation can reveal the whole truth — that is what the author is expressing. So one has to take up a 'series' of poems by the same author. Critics have been able to trace similarities and/or dialogues between one author and another of the same time, or found out that one author has replied to a previous author in his poems but a psychoanalytic quest is not about finding such things. Still this method is dependent on findings of this kind before it can find that which it is looking for in the poems. So a review of literature on the text/s is essential. This is to detect the 'acquired symbols' of the author. After that one can detect the 'natural symbolization process' with the same symbols.

Plays fall in the same category as the novels. Only the text is necessary for psychoanalysis, because that is the real product of the 'author'. Staging and direction and theatrical stuff are all secondary. They are also things which depend on others — actors and so on. Such as in the play Endgame the colour of the scene is described as 'gray'. It says, "in a gray light" and that is very difficult to represent on stage. And the fact that the playwright has written such a word in the stage directions is significant to the psychoanalytic critic. But that does not necessarily mean it is that very 'symbol' which we are looking for.

Paintings are first of all a technique of representation, either learnt or invented by a painter. But paintings with a subject matter are generally representatives of their creator's personality, interests or message. After photography was invented, painting became an art of inner representation, carrying a subject to convey. It is this group of paintings which fall in the category of fiction. It is no more a question of accuracy in the art of depiction of some real object like still life or the landscapes. But psychoanalytic criticism is again possible only in a series of paintings. Like the treatment with poetry, paintings have to be appreciated, first for their technical skills and after that some deep meaning can be recovered. We have to also realize that there are paintings which do not involve skill but actually serve as an individual's passion. So there is something psychological about being a painter.

It is beyond the scope of my methodology to analyze the highly skilled arts like sculpture or mural art which have a technical tradition that usually limits the scope of their subjects. I can only add that a sudden break from the traditional conventions is what psychoanalysis addresses.

2. Every text has a title.

What is so special about a title? The mode and significance of titles have changed with the change in the lyrical traditions. So these transitions in style and the art of signification are all collective. What has never changed is the author's intentionality in entitling his works. The art of giving a title to a piece of work is entirely conscious. The author chooses, exercises his will in giving a title to his work. For instance, "The Magic Mountain" is not entitled according to the theme or the chief constructs or the era in which the 'story' takes place. The title refers to a unique environment where 'things' which do not find expression on the plains, get revealed. The author, Thomas Mann's own comments on this novel is simply that he was exposed to such an 'attractive' environment for a short duration and he thought of writing a short story on it which turned out to become so long. Not only that, this book was left unfinished and untouched for six years, after which he finished it. A psychoanalytic investigation is not supposed to rely on this history to be able to analyze the text. But the word 'magic' in the title is very significant. The 'magic' of it all is what the author intentionally draws our attention by the title. And we need not look for the magic any more. So that is very special about the title.

In contrast, we can read the Outsider as a direct hit on the theme of the novel. There are two memorable scenes. The protagonist murders a person and at the end of the novel, the priest says things to him which resounds in his ears until his death. The inner drama of the murder scene is in contrast with the voice/words of the priest. One may ask, who the outsider is. Obviously, it is the unconscious of the protagonist. So again the title draws our attention to a special meaning. But any critic can tell that the scene of the murder, its narration holds the key to the meaning of the story. Any critic can tell that the protagonist's inner self is the outsider for him. Particularly, because the theme is associated with existentialist theories, one can read it as an illustration of the existentialist crisis — that situations show character. But if we examine the text closely, we shall see what makes him an outsider to his self — the others. We can thus, find something new in this text if we can follow Lacan's delineation of the function of the Other, which shapes oneself and the function of the real self which exposes itself in rare experiences.

A text having a name as its title may not be very revealing. What can Emma mean? But Emma's perspective means a lot in the narration of the novel. Then Jane Austin is said to have first chosen "Eleanor and Maryanne" as the title of her novel "Sense and Sensibility". Here we meet a special feature of the literary products that is editing. Editing is either done by another person, or by oneself a short while after finishing the novel. A psychoanalytic critic can see no difference between the original and the edited versions. 'Sense' stands for something that is in Eleanor and sensibility stands for something in Maryanne. That is cleared in the text. The emphasis is so strong that it cannot escape attention, even if the title had been different. A Lacanian critic is one who has understood the tricks of language, that it can mislead and it can also bring one round to having got some knowledge. In this novel, the emphasis on Eleanor=sense is a key to a definition of sense in its author's terms. The definition as found in the text is so vast and at the same time so particular that it cannot be summed up in a sentence or a dictionary entry. It involves a total experience and therefore that knowledge which is not transcribable in words. Hence the urge is felt for the creation of a fiction/novel.

I believe that the title can never meet the psychoanalyst's target. That is, authors can never voluntarily expose their subjective reality. The intentionality of an author is subverted by the text. It is not that the intentions of the author are successful in hiding anything. A disguise or a camouflage is always ruptured. D.H. Lawrence showed great insight into the function of writing when he said that if we try to nail down a text, the text walks away with the nail. But titles are the first cues to the disguises.

3. The literary conventions are acquired.

A piece of literature has to be recognized as a piece of literature and not as a diary or autobiography or a letter or a passionate harangue about something. It has to have some unity; the Aristotelian measures are still relevant. To make one's writings recognized as creative writings an author deliberates over his subject in great detail and almost reshapes his original stuff in such a way that layers and layers of other materials cover up the real matter.

We have to scan or filter all the acquired conventions. Almost eighty per cent of the matter is gleaned in this process. Basically, all the disguises are removed in this way. The advantage of a later critic is that previous critics have already worked out the similarities and acquisitions of the present author from his literary predecessors. So a review of literature on this text is a big help and quickly sums up the borrowings. What remains to be done is to attack with a question mark those items that appear to be loosely knitted or that do not fit the fabric agreeably. One is sure to find a subjective meaning in those subjects which seem to be associated arbitrarily and cannot be explained away as necessary to the theme. In fact, I think this is why psychoanalytic work on Shakespeare is very popular.

Even within the borrowed symbols, there is a possibility of finding a meaning different from traditional meanings. Because techniques and themes are borrowed from the society and era in which one lives. The author intentionally chooses a current theme. But a psychoanalyst's quest is why at all does he feel like writing. So where can we find the cause of writing a fiction if not in the fiction itself? Authors are usually tight-lipped on the question of their implications. Mostly they say that you read their books and find out their meanings. This is because the whole of the books are their implications proper. The 'continual metonymy' in question is the whole book.

For instance, in Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, which is in the realist tradition, there are hardly any ill-fitted juxtapositions. The serf becomes a merchant as was common in those times and the landed gentry lose their land because of their frivolousness. But this revelation is diffused with a silent comment on the equality between the serf and the aristocrats, making the accident of their birth the true injustice in their difference. Character definitions are blurred in the simple progress of the drama of the The Cherry Orchard.

In Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, one is very likely to go on searching for similarities in plays such as Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstein are Dead because of the technique of showing the back-stage scenes. But in Six Characters the thought that extreme passion cannot be shown on stage also underlines the fact that authors tend to expose their own passions in their creative writings. In this play, one thing that struck me as strange is the stepdaughter's attitude to the father. In her, the loss of the real/biological father is instantaneously substituted by the stepfather's presence. So from the day she discovered him, he has become the only one to blame for her fate. He takes up the position of the name-of-the-father in the Lacanian terms. That is, the daughter now sees him as the Law-giver in her family and the biological father's share in her history is totally ignored by the daughter. That means psychoanalytically, there is only the need for 'someone' to take the 'position' or the 'function' of the father 'symbolically'. So even while the step-daughter did live with a father throughout her growing years, the hatred which had grown in her due to her poor destiny, suddenly got a target other than her real father, who was in fact the original target. So her outburst is greater because she feels more justified in hating 'this' man rather than hating the dead man.

Therefore, a psychoanalytic critic has to find out in what way a known literary convention is appropriated/exploited by an author to render a special message in the text. My contention is that the distortion or redefining of a literary convention is not intentional. The choice of the tradition is intentional but its application is not to the letter because unintentional elements interfere with the process. In the play, Marat/Sade I have shown how the concept of the Theatre of Cruelty has been distorted by its author but still the play is claimed to be a member of that group of plays. So what I have found out is an unconscious process of making new combinations.

4. We have to look for the subjective reality of the author which is lying disguised in the conventional language of the text.

According to my theory, no one would feel like writing a fiction unless one is pushing or beating against a repressive force. So first of all a certain pathology is involved in the creative activity. But this is not the same as a symptom. A symptom is a compromise between a drive and its repressive forces and is read as such. But in a text certain subjective items are not compromised at all. There is a kernel of thought which is exposed as a result of uncompromising resistance to the repressive force. A pathological symptom, something which reaches the status of being pitiable, is an involuntary combination of two opposing forces, where none of these forces are 'recognized' by the individual/sufferer. But an author does recognize the 'repressive forces' inside as well as outside him. So the text is not a symptom. It is a deliberation. But here, the author recognizes only one of the two opposing forces. What he does not recognize or rather, cannot formulate is his real self. Hermann Hesse wrote in his essay on The Brothers Karamazov that "no great prophet and poet has the power fully to interpret his own vision". A critic has to uncover the unrecognized self of the author.

So the text is not a symptom but a deliberate framing of a fiction by the author to show something — that is unknown to him — and it naturally comes out in disguise. So it is different from letters, essays and so forth. For again, in letters it is more likely that the author is conscious of everything he has to say.

We have to differentiate between symptomising an event within a story, linguistic treatment of words and psychoanalysis. Although psychoanalysis involves working through the linguistic structures, the method of de-symbolization varies from text to text. A linguist either breaks up signifiers into their component parts or analyses a word epistemologically. But a psychoanalyst analyses the use of a word or a set of words serially and in association with the other words used in one particular text. The context, therefore, defines the specific meaning of the word(s). I have found that a word has a special resonance for the author. An author invests a subjective meaning in a word or a few words, which is different from all its conventional connotations. This is what I think Lacan means by 'natural symbolization', though I also think that he says that an object can also function as a symbol of some special meaning for the author.

So, although an author borrows symbols from things around him, these symbols are invested with a new meaning as soon as the author puts them in a new context, that of his text. This is because the author is trying to express an inner experience, a subjective reality which does not lend itself to the usual ways of expression. Or we can say that an author expresses something unconventional, something that has no special word to represent it. So a used word is reused to mean that subjective experience. The quest for this special usage is the task of psychoanalysis.

We can take the example of the word "intelligence" in Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment." The word is used in the dialogues of Luzhin, a selfish person. The thoughts associated with 'intelligence' or 'intelligent' are narcissistic in origin. Not only that, the failure of 'intelligence' to produce any good or to bring any change is amply demonstrated in the fates of both Luzhin and the protagonist, Raskolnikov. So the word 'intelligence' indicates an absence of moral judgement, that cultural restraint which composes the Lacanian Other. And finally, it means simply a lack of insight into the unconscious. So despite his dislike for Luzhin, Raskolnikov espouses the theory of 'reason' or 'intelligence' which is basically narcissism and then gets consumed by the Other. According to my theory, this is neither the triumph of narcissism, nor that of the Other, though that is what the author intentionally shows with the help of the word 'intelligence'. What the author shows but does not know that he shows is the triumph of that subjective reality which drives Raskolnikov to risk giving himself away before the inquisitor. I think it is his invocatory drive.

In this way we can isolate words in a text which mean something illustrated within the texture of the fiction but which no word can truly reproduce. Truth emerges in continual metonymy. As the word appears two-three times in certain contexts, it begins to appear unrelated to the context unless it means something specific within the context. What should necessarily be avoided is the dictionary meaning of the word. Critics tend to revise the meaning which emerges from the context by referring the problematic words in the dictionary. I am saying that going back to the dictionary is like being unfaithful to the author. The author is not saying the same thing that the dictionary says. He is redefining a word then and there so the meaning of the word should be found in the text itself.

5. The use of historical data:

I think historical data lend themselves to the author according to the theme he chooses. For instance, in Brecht's Galileo or Mother Courage, historical events have been reproduced in the stories. But Brecht has given a new interpretation of these events. This is intentional, because Brecht has socialism in mind. He did want to show how honest or courageous people are humiliated and exploited by those in power. But beyond that theme, Brecht reveals a kind of materialism peculiar to all his works. This tendency to dramatize the themes of utility is basically a subjective reality of the author. He uses historical themes and somewhat banalizes them with the mention of mundane realities. He shows common sense in his characters by showing them as dependent on material reality. This exposes his anal drive. I think this is peculiar in Brecht, and a different author would have found different means of treating both Galileo and socialism.

So, the use of historical stories is no guard against the particular meaning which a piece of creativity may expose about the author.

6. The act of defiance.

The activity of fantasizing is itself a kind of defiance of social norms. Fantasizing is a powerful means of escape from direct confrontation with what one dislikes. It is also a journey into the unknown. The question may be addressed in this way: What is the meaning of the images which are conjured up in fantasies? Where do they come from? And what brings them in that combination in which they appear to an individual? Freud had addressed daydreaming in terms of the tendency to wish-fulfillment. He mentioned wishes for love, fame and wealth. But he also restricted his field to the wishes of unemployed, unskilled and perhaps lazy individuals who wanted quick success. Freud openly admitted that he had no explanation for those works of art which use myths and historical facts.

Instead Freud worked on myths a few years later in Totem and Taboo. The book illustrates the Oedipal triangle in every myth. And in every taboo the Law of the ancestor — symbolized in the totem — is given substance. Now, an appropriation of either Judeo-Christian or Asian or Islamic mythological elements by a modern author can either reinforce a belief or try to break it.

We can address the taboo of virginity in "Tess of the D'erberville." A psychoanalytic reading of the story would be thus: Tess values her virginity and hates the man who robed her of it. She finds a lover who expresses no desire for sex until marriage. But Tess knows that virginity is valued (in terms of sin and guilt) by the society as well, so she confesses of her having lost her virginity to her lover. She exposes her 'guilt' not only by writing a letter — which can be analyzed as having misdirected — but also by talking of it on her first night after marriage. Her lover/husband, Clark realizes in his unconscious that Tess is not his Tess, the one he thought she was, so he dreams that she is dead (there is a sleep walking scene in which Clark carries Tess to a grave saying she is dead). Why is she not the same innocent Tess? Because, part of her libido is invested in her sense of hatred for Alex, the man who had seduced her. So the author's understanding of a seduced woman's psychology is not merely religious. Her apparently religious guilt is actually a real guilt — the death wish for Alex which she continues to have; in other words she is guilty of not being able to 'forget' Alex.

Alex by way of seduction also makes her incapable of sexual integrity. She cannot have a unified sense of intercourse with another man. Half of her self is drained away in the sense of hatred (not death instinct but a death wish for him) for Alex, which remains unfulfilled until she kills him. Only after killing Alex she is liberated from her unconscious, to become faithful to Clark. Some of the ingredients in the plot regarding Clark are part of the author's real meaning. This involves the purposeful device of keeping Clark faithful to Tess even after abandoning her. It is noteworthy that when Tess is hanged as a murderer, Clark remains symbolically faithful to Tess by marrying her sister. So the author's main aim is to maintain that Clark would 'love' Tess despite what is destined for her. I feel that there is no pathos in the punishment which Tess receives in the hands of law — the death sentence for murdering Alex. It is according to norms as well as a formal ending to a story.

The pathetic aspect is in the plight of Tess when she is sexually divided, for the concept of virginity involves a total sexual commitment to the man who could overcome her resistances and penetrate her. But Tess's sexuality is divided so the author destines her to remain divided until she kills one of her 'lovers'. Otherwise why should Clark's reappearance be postponed until Tess can murder Alex? And why should she be shown united with Clark before the police find her? The message of the story would have been incomplete if the cops had simply arrested Tess at the end. The role of 'the hero' in defying the norms and accepting Tess as 'innocent' is where the special meaning of the fiction lies.

So an author can defy social norms even while apparently remaining faithful to most of the norms. Secondly, an author defies these norms (unconsciously) even if he continues to believe in the goodness of the norms. The second point is the unconscious part of the author as we have seen in the case of Tess.

It is possible for powerful fictions to transform and redefine existing norms but my methodology is not about finding out what social upheavals have been effected by continual production of texts by authors who have opposed or questioned existing practices. My methodology is psychoanalytic and that means it addresses a text as a reflection of its author's Unconscious not how the text has been received except that it has been found continually relevant.