The Symbolic Without the Father
Woman is one of the names-of-the-father
La Can-Can Française
A Visit to East Wallingford, Vt.
Hoboken Palace Gardens
The Broadway production of Tommy is not only a sensation it is also a smashing portrayal of a traumatic event in a child's life, an event so dramatic as to utterly shut down his senses for almost twenty years. To the casual observer the event may seem incommensurate with its effect, yet to the psychoanalytically inclined interpreter, the irruption of the child's father whom Tommy has never met, but must nevertheless know quite a bit about from his mother onto the family scene when Tommy is four years old, is guaranteed to be a significant event. And given the presence of another man in the household who has already invested his mother's bed (if not her heart), and who has no doubt already become something of a father substitute for Tommy, the scene is set for a serious libidinal conflict.
Yet classical psychoanalysis fails to explain the whole story. For the examination of strictly triangular relations leads your typical analytic account of Tommy into structural stasis. Such an account might run as follows:
A strange but not unfamiliar man appears, who struggles with and then shoots Tommy's rival (his mother's lover). Now what Oedipal son could possibly avoid identifying with someone who has carried out the deed he himself has contemplated accomplishing only in his wildest dreams? And yet, the stranger at the same time eliminates a man who has become important to Tommy's psychology a man chosen by his mother, and thus an object worthy of love as well as hateful, envious feelings the stranger positioning himself as Tommy's new rival for his mother's affections. At the very moment at which Tommy's wish for his rival's death comes true, punishment is inflicted: a new rival is instated in the family triangle.
The traumatic event Tommy's loss of sight, hearing, and speech occurs while Tommy gazes at himself in the mirror. In Lacanian psychoanalysis, mirror images are considered formative in the development of the ego, or sense of self without which a child can never learn to say "I" or speak of him- or herself as someone. Like the self-images parents give their child (by making such remarks as "that's a good girl" or "you're a model son") mirror images provide a child with ideal, global views of him- or herself which are connoted in a variety of ways by his or her parents ("that's right, Tommy, that's you!" or "isn't she a pretty little lady, my girl"). Thanks to the parents' appraisal, those images are internalized by the child, and constitute the core around which the child's whole sense of self crystallizes.
Tommy understands that to keep the family together, he must (according to his parents) sacrifice himself. Rather than give up his mother and his new father figure, he prefers to give up that precious seeing, hearing, and speaking self. He thus chooses to decathect his ego in order to continue to be loved.
Yet his former self-image maintains a certain afterglow, a residual halo of not yet lost innocence, which ever attracts Tommy to that same mirror in which he was gazing when his world exploded and his sense of self tied to that world evaporated. Tommy's mother eventually gets so frustrated with what she in some sense grasps to be Tommy's never-ending and ever-renewed morbid fascination with that former self-image (preferring, no doubt, as she approaches forty that he be more interested in her), that she picks up a chair and shatters the mirror, forcing Tommy to finally really let it go, decathect it, and invest in something new.
The process appears rather miraculous in the play's staging, as a new self-image would be unlikely to form so instantaneously after the alleviation of Tommy's fixation on the old. His mother's brutal act nevertheless puts an abrupt end to his mourning of his old self, leaving the way clear for a new crystallization.
Tommy's new self is just as replete with falsely ideal images; that is, just as much a construct based on illusion as his old self had ever been, for the ego is by its very nature a distortion, an error, and a repository of misunderstanding. The mirror images which contribute to it are always inverted images (involving a right-left reversal), and the "communication" which leads to the internalization of views of oneself held by one's parents such as "You're a model son" is, like all communication, prone to miscommunication: a son may mis/understand that appraisal in terms of "model" cars and planes, viewing himself thereafter as but a miniaturized, plastic version of the real thing, instead of a genuine son.
But whereas the ego is an illusion a construct based on error and distortion it is nevertheless a necessary illusion. And though it is of little or no value to focus on the ego in psychotherapeutic work with ordinary neurotics (Lacanian psychoanalysis offers here a harsh critique of virtually all American forms of therapy, insisting on the importance of concentrating on unconscious desire in work with neurotics), the ego must be reconstructed in the case of a psychotic break as radical as Tommy's.
Breaking utterly and completely with Tommy's evangelism at the end of the Who's 1969 vintage album, in Townshend and McAnuff's play Tommy refuses to offer up a new panacea, a new master discourse with which to explain everything, a new master signifier to which all seekers can submit themselves: the loss of self promulgated by many of the Eastern religions that were all the rage in the 1960s and facilitated by certain psychedelic drugs is not the answer to the quest. The quest goes on.
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