Why does a Letter always arrive at its Destination?
Slavoj Zizek

Author's Bio

Why, indeed? Why could it not — sometimes, at least — also fail to reach it?1 Far from attesting a refined theoretical sensitivity, this Derridean reaction to the famous closing statement of Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’ ”2 rather exhibits what we could call a primordial response of common sense: what if a letter does not reach its desti­nation? Isn't it always possible for a letter to go astray?3 If, however, the Lacanian theory insists categori­cally that a letter always arrives at its destination, it is not because of an unshakable belief in teleology, in the power of a mes­sage to reach its pre-ordained goal: Lacan’s exposition of the way a letter arrives at its destination lays bare the very mechanism of teleological illusion. In other words, the very reproach that a letter can also miss its des­tination misses its own destination — specially when we have the limit-case of a letter without addressee, of what is called in German Flaschenpost, a message in a bottle thrown in the sea from an island after a shipwreck. This case displays in its purest and clearest how a letter reaches its true desti­nation the moment it is delivered — its true addressee is not the empirical other who may re­ceive it or not, but the big Other, the Symbolic Order itself, which receives it the moment the letter is put into circula­tion, i.e., the moment the sender externalizes his message, delivers it to the Other, the moment the Other takes cog­nizance of the letter, and thus disburdens the sender of re­sponsibility for it.4 How then, specifically, does a letter ar­rive at its destination? How should we conceive this thesis of Lacan which usually serves as a crowning piece of evi­dence for his alleged logocentrism? The proposition a letter always arrives at its destination is far from being univocal: it offers itself to a series of possible readings,5 which could be ordered by means of a reference to the triad Imaginary — Symbolic — Real.

I. Imaginary mis/recognition

In a first approach, a letter which always arrives at its des­tination points at the logic of recognition/misrecognition (reconnaissance/méconnaissance) elaborated in detail by Louis Althusser and his followers (e.g. Michel Pêcheux)6: the logic by means of which one mis/recognizes oneself as the addressee of ideological interpellation. This illusion consti­tutive of the ideological order could be succinctly rendered by paraphrasing a formula of Barbara Johnson: “A letter always arrives at its destination since its destination is wherever it arrives.”7 Its underlying mechanism was elabo­rated by Pêcheux apropos of jokes of the type: “Daddy was born in Manchester, Mummy in Bristol, and I in London: strange that the three of us should have met!8 In short, if we look at the process backwards, from its contingent result, the fact that events took precisely this turn could not but appear as uncanny, concealing some fateful meaning — as if some mysterious hand took care that the letter arrived at its destination, i.e., that my father and my mother met . . .. What we have here is, however, more than a shallow joke, as it is attested to by contemporary physics, where we en­counter precisely the same mechanism under the name of the anthropocentric principle: life emerged on Earth due to numerous contingencies which created the appropriate conditions (if, for example, in Earth’s primeval time the composition of soil and air differ just a slight percentage, no life would be possible). So, when physicists reconstruct the process culminating in the ap­pearance of intelligent living beings on Earth, they either presuppose that the universe was created in order to render possible the formation of intelligent beings (the strong version of the overtly teleological anthropocentric principle), or accept a circular methodological rule imposing such hypotheses about the primeval state of the universe as to enable us to deduce further development towards the con­ditions for the emergence of life (the weak anthropocentric principle).

The same logic is also at work in the well-known accident from the Arabian Nights: the hero, lost in the desert, quite by chance enters a cave. There he finds three old wise men, awakened by his entry, who say to him: “Finally you have arrived! We have been waiting for you for the last three hundred years” — as if, behind the contingencies of his life, there was a hidden hand of Fate which directed him towards the cave in the desert. This illusion is produced by a kind of short circuit between a place in the Symbolic network and the contingent element which occupies it. Whosoever finds himself at this place is the addressee, since the addressee is not defined by his positive qualities, but by the very contingent fact of finding himself at this place. Although the religious idea of predestination seems to be the very exemplar of the delusive short circuit, it simultane­ously intimates a foreboding of radical contingency: if God decided in advance who will be saved and who will be damned, then my salvation or perdition do not depend on my determinate qualities and acts, but on the place in which — independently of my qualities, that is to say: totally by chance, in so far

as I am concerned — I find myself within the network of God’s plan. This contingency manifests it­self in a paradoxical inversion: I am not damned because I act sinfully, trespassing His Commandments, I act sinfully because I am damned . . .. This way we can easily imagine God easing His mind when some big sinner commits his crime: “Finally you did it! I have been waiting for it for all your miserable life!”

To convince oneself of how this problematic bears on psychoanalysis, one has only to re­member the crucial role of contingent encounters in trigger­ing a traumatic crack-up of our psychic balance: overhearing a passing remark by a friend, witnessing a small unpleasant scene, can awaken long-forgotten memories and shat­ter our daily life. As Lacan put it, the unconscious trauma repeats itself by means of some small, contingent reality. Fate in psychoanalysis always asserts itself through such contingent encounters, giving rise to a question: “What if I should miss that remark? What if I had taken another route and avoided that scene?” Such questions are of course de­ceitful, since a letter always arrives at its destination: it waits for its moment with patience — if not this, then an­other contingent little bit of reality will sooner or later find itself at this place that awaits it and fire off the trauma. Ultimately, this is what Lacan called “the arbitrariness of the signi­fier.”9

To refer to the terms of speech act theory, the illusion proper to the process of interpellation consists in the over­looking of its performative dimension: when I recognize myself as the addressee of the call of the ideological big Other (Nation, Democracy, Party, God . . .), when this call arrives at its destination in me, I automatically misrec­ognize that it is this very act of recognition which makes me what I have recognized myself as — I do not recognize my­self in it because I am its addressee — I become its addressee the moment I recognize myself in it. This is the reason why a letter always reaches its addressee: because he becomes its addressee when he is reached. The Derridean reproach that a letter can also miss its addressee is, therefore beside the point: it makes sense only in so far as I presup­pose that I can be its addressee before the letter reaches me. In other words, it presupposes the traditional teleological trajectory with a preordained goal. Translated into the terms of the joke about my father from Manchester, my mother from Bristol and me from London, the Derridean proposi­tion that a letter can also go astray and miss its destination discloses a typical obsessional apprehension of what would happen if my father and mother did not come across each other — all would have gone wrong; I would not exist . . .. Far from implying any kind of teleological circle, a letter always arrives at its destination exposes the very mecha­nism which brings about the amazement of Why me? Why was I chosen? and thus sets in motion the search for a hid­den Fate that regulates my path.

II. Symbolic Circuit

On the Symbolic level, a letter always arrives at its destina­tion condenses an entire chain of propositions: (a family in the Wittgensteinian sense) “the sender always receives from the receiver his own message in reverse form;” “the frame itself is always being framed by its content;” “the repressed always returns;” “we cannot escape the Symbolic debt, it always has to be settled,” which are all ultimately variations on the same basic motive of “there is no metalanguage.” Let us begin by explaining the im­possibility of metalanguage, apropos of the Hegelian figure of Beautiful Soul deploring the wicked ways of the world from the position of an innocent, impassive victim. The Beautiful Soul pretends to speak a pure metalanguage, exempted from the corruption of the world, thereby con­cealing the way its own moan and groan partakes actively in the cor­ruption it denounces. In his “Intervention on Transference,”10 Lacan relies on the dialectic of the Beautiful Soul to designate the falsity of the hysterical subjective position: Dora, the famous Freud’s analysand, complains of being reduced to a pure object in a play of intersubjective exchanges (her father is allegedly offering her to Herr K. as if in compensation for his own flirt with Frau K.), i.e., she presents this exchange as an objective state of things in the face of which she is utterly helpless. Freud’s answer is that the function of this stance of a pas­sive victim of cruel circumstances is just to conceal her complicity and collusion — the square of the intersubjec­tive exchanges can only sustain itself in so far as Dora as­sumes actively her role of victim, of an object of exchange. In other words, in so far as she finds libidinal satisfaction in it, in so far as this very renunciation procures for her a kind of perverse surplus enjoyment. An hysteric continually complains of how he cannot adapt himself to the reality of cruel manipulation, and the psychoanalytic answer to it is not “give up your empty dreams, life is cruel, accept it as it is” but quite on the contrary “your moan and groan is false since, within it, you are only too well-adapted to the reality of manipulation and exploitation.” By playing a role of helpless victim, the hysteric assumes the subjective po­sition which enables him “to blackmail emotionally his en­virons,” as we could put it in today’s jargon.11

This answer in which the Beautiful Soul is confronted with how it actually partakes in the wicked ways of the world, closes the circuit of communication: in which the sub­ject-sender receives from the addressee his own message in its true form, the true meaning of his moan and groan. In other words, the letter that the subject put into cir­culation arrives at its destination which was from the very beginning the sender himself. The letter arrives at its destination when the subject is finally forced to assume the true consequences of his activity. This is how Lacan in the early fifties interpreted the Hegelian dictum about the ra­tionality of the real, “What is rational is actual and what is actual is rational,”12 the true meaning of the subject’s words or deeds — their reason — is disclosed by their ac­tual consequences, so the subject has no right to shrink back from them and say, But I didn't mean it. In this sense we may say that Hitchcock’s Rope is an inherently Hegelian film: the homosexual couple strangles their best friend to win recognition from professor Caddell, who preaches the right of Supermen to dispose of the useless and weak. When Caddell is confronted with the verbatim realization of his doctrine, when he gets back from the Other his own message in its inverted true form, i.e., when the true dimension of his own letter — teaching — reaches its proper addressee, namely himself, he is shaken and shrinks back from the conse­quence of his words, unprepared to recognize in them his own truth. Lacan defines hero as the subject who (unlike Caddell and like Œdipus, for example) fully assumes the consequences of his act. Unlike the rest of us who endeavor to realize our desire without paying the price for it: revolu­tionaries who want Revolution without revolution (its bloody reverse), the hero does not step aside when the arrow that he shot makes its full circle and flies back at him. Hitchcock’s benevolent sadist playing with the spectator takes into account precisely this half-way na­ture of our desiring: he makes the spectator shrink back by confronting him with the full consequence of the realization of his desire — “you want this evil person killed? OK, you will have it with all the nauseous details you wanted to pass over in silence.” In short Hitchcock’s sadism cor­responds exactly to the super ego’s malevolent neutrality. He is nothing but a neutral purveyor of truth, giving us only what we wanted, but including in the package the part of it we prefer to ignore.

This reversal of the subject’s message is its repressed, therefore the impossibility of metalanguage is linked to the return of the repressed. “There is no meta­language,” in so far as the speaking subject is always al­ready spoken, in so far as he cannot master the effects of what he is saying, that is he always says more than he intended to say. This surplus of what is effectively said over the intention-of-meaning puts into words the repressed content — the repressed returns.13 What are the symptoms — returns of the repressed — if not such slips of the tongue by means of which the letter arrives at its destination, and the Other returns the subject to his own message in its true form? If instead of saying Thereby I proclaim the session open, I say, Thereby I proclaim the session closed, do I not get in the most literal sense, my own message back in its true, inverted form? What could the Derridean motive that a letter can also miss its destination mean here?

That the repressed can also not return, yet by claiming this, we entangle ourselves in a naive substantiated notion of the unconscious as a positive entity, ontologically preceding its returns, symptoms as compromise-formations, a no­tion competently called in question by Derrida himself.14 Here, we can only repeat after Lacan: there is no repres­sion previous to the return of the repressed. The repressed con­tent does not precede its return in symptoms; there is no way to conceive it in its purity, undistorted by compromises that characterize symptom formation.15

This brings us to the third variation, that of the frame al­ways being framed by part of its content. This formula16 is crucial in so far as it enables us to oppose the logic of the signifier to hermeneutics. The aim of the hermeneutical endeavor is to render visible the contours of a frame, that precisely by staying invisible, by eluding the subject’s grasp, predetermine its field of vi­sion. What we can and cannot see is al­ways given to us through a historically mediated frame of preconceits. There is of course nothing pejorative in the use of the term preconceit here: its status is transcendental, it organizes our experience into a meaningful totality. True, it involves an irreducible limitation of our vision, but this finitude is in itself ontologically constitutive: the world is open to us only within radical finitude. At this level, the impossibility of metalanguage equals the impossibility of a neutral point of view enabling us to see things objectively and impartially. There is no view that is not framed by a historically determined horizon of pre-under­standing. Today for example we can ruthlessly exploit nature, only because nature itself is disclosed to us within a horizon that gives it to be seen as raw material at our dis­posal, in contrast to the Greek or Medieval notion of na­ture. The Lacanian logic of the signifier supplements this hermeneutical thesis with an unheard of inversion: the horizon of meaning is always linked, as if by a kind of umbilical cord, to a point within the field disclosed by it. The frame of our view is already framed — re-marked — by a part of its content. We can easily recognize here the topology of the Mœbius band, where, as in a kind of abyssal inversion, the envelope itself is encased by its interior.17

The best way to exemplify this inversion is through the dialectic of view and gaze: in what I see, there is always a point where I see nothing, which makes no sense, i.e., which functions as a stain — this is the point from which the picture returns the gaze, looks back at me. A letter arrives at its destination precisely in this point of the picture. Here I encounter myself, my own ob­jective correlative; I am inscribed in the picture. This ontic umbilical cord of the ontological hori­zon is unthinkable for the entire philosophical tra­dition including Heidegger. Therein lies the resort of the uncanny power of psychoanalytic interpretation. The sub­ject pursues his everyday life within its closed horizon of meaning: safe in his distance towards the world of objects, assured of their meaning or insignificance, all of a sudden the psychoanalyst pinpoints some tiny detail of no seeming significance whatsoever to the subject, a stain in which the subject sees nothing — a small compulsive gesture or tick, a slip of the tongue — and says, “You see, this detail is a knot which condenses all you had to forget so that you can swim in your everyday cer­tainty; it frames the very frame which confers meaning on your life; it structures the horizon within which things make sense to you; if we unknot it, you will lose the ground under your very feet!” This is an experience somewhat like the one rendered in the old Oriental formula: “Thou art that!” Your entire fate is decided in this idiotic detail! Or, if we keep ourselves to a more formal level of the set theory, among the elements of a given set, there is always One which overdeterminates the specific weight and color of the set as such; among the species of a genus, there is always One which overdeterminates the very universality of the genus. Apropos of the relationship of different kinds of production within its articulated totality, Marx wrote:


In all forms of society there is one specific kind of production which predominates over the rest, whose relations thus as­sign rank and influence to the others. It is a general illumi­nation which bathes all the other colors and modifies their particularity. It is a particular ether which determinates the specific gravity of every being which has materialized within it.18

Don't these propositions amount to the fact that the very frame of production, its totality, is always framed by a part of its content, one specific kind of pro­duction?

The encounter with “Thou art that!” is, of course, experi­enced as encounter with the knot which condenses one’s fate. This brings us to the last variation on the theme a let­ter always arrives at its destination: one can never escape one’s fate, or to replace this rather obscurantist formulation with a more appropriate psychoanalytic one, the symbolic debt has to be remunerated. This letter which arrives at its destination is also a letter of request for outstanding debts; what namely propels a letter on its symbolic circuit is al­ways some outstanding debt. This dimension of fate is at work in the very formal structure of Poe’s Purloined Letter: is it not something distinctly fateful in the way the subject’s self-experience is determined by the simple mechanical shift of position within the intersubjec­tive triad of the three glances — the first which sees nothing; the second which sees that the first sees nothing and de­ludes itself as to the secrecy of what it hides; the third which sees that the two first glances leave what should be hidden exposed to whomever would seize it? The Minister’s fate for example, is it sealed not because of his per­sonal miscalculation or oversight, but because of the simple shift of his position from the third to the second glance in the repetition of the initial triad which causes his structural blind­ness? Here, we encounter again the mechanism of imagi­nary mis/recognition: participants in the play automat­ically perceive Fate as something that pertains to the let­ter as such in its immediate materiality — “This letter is damned, whosoever comes into possession of it is brought to ruin!” What they misrecognize is that the curse is not in the letter as such, but in the intersubjective network organized around it.

To avoid repeating the played-out analysis of Poe’s story, let us address a formally similar case, that of the classic Bette Davis melodrama Now, Voyager, the story of Charlotte Vale, a frustrated spinster, the ugly duckling of the family, who is pushed into a ner­vous breakdown by her domineering mother, a rich widow.19 Under the guidance of the benevolent Dr. Jacquith, she is cured to emerge as a poised and beautiful woman; following his advice, she decides to see life and takes a trip to South America. There she has an affair with a charming married man. He is however unable to leave his family for her, because his daughter is on the brink of madness. Charlotte returns home alone. Soon afterwards she falls into a depression and is hospitalized again; in the mental asylum, she encounters the daughter of her lover who im­mediately develops a traumatic dependence on her. Dr. Jacquith informs Charlotte that her lover’s wife died re­cently, so that they are now free to marry. Yet he is quick to add that this marriage would be an unbearable shock for the daughter — Charlotte is her only support, standing between her and the final slip into madness. Charlotte decides to sacrifice her love and to dedicate her life to mothering the unfortunate child. At the end of the film her lover asks her for her hand; she promises him just deep friend­ship, refusing his offer with the phrase “Why reach for the moon, when we can have the stars?” — one of the purest and therefore most efficient nonsenses in the history of cin­ema.

When her lover shows Charlotte a picture of his family, her attention is drawn to a girl sitting aside and staring sadly into the camera. This figure arouses her immediate compassion, and Charlotte wants to know all about her — why? She identifies with her because she recognizes in her, her own position, that of the neglected ugly duckling. When, at the film’s end, Charlotte sacrifices her love life for the poor girl’s rescue, she does it out of an abstract sense of duty. The point is rather that she conceives the girl’s present situation where her very survival depends on Charlotte, as the exact repetition of her own situation years ago, when she was at her mother’s mercy. Therein consists the structural homology between this film and The Purloined Letter. In the course of the story the same inter­subjective network is repeated, with the subjects shifting to different positions. In both cases an omnipotent mother holds in her hands the daughter’s fate, with the only differ­ence that in the first scene it was an evil mother driving the daughter near madness, while in the second scene a good mother is given a chance to redeem herself by pulling the daughter from the brink. The film displays poetic finesse by conferring a double role on Dr. Jacquith: the same person who, in the first scene, sets free Eve, opening up to her the perspective of an unchained sexual life, appears in the second scene as the bearer of prohibition who prevents her marriage by reminding her of her debt. Here, we have the compulsion to repeat (Wieder-holungszwang) in its purest: Eve cannot afford marriage since she must honor her debt. Finally, when she seems freed from the night­mare, fate — the Other — confronts her with the price of this freedom, by putting her into a situation where she her­self can destroy the young girl’s life. If Eve were not to sacri­fice herself, she would be persecuted by the demons of the past. Her happy marital life would be spoiled forever by the memory of the unfortunate child in the asylum paying the price, a remainder of how she betrayed her own past. In other words, Eve does not sacrifice herself for the other’s happiness: by sacrificing herself, she honors the debt to herself. When she finds herself face to face with a bro­ken girl who can be saved only by means of her sacrifice, we could again say that a letter arrives at its destina­tion.20

Within this dimension of the outstanding debt, the role of the letter is assumed by an object that circulates among the subjects. Its very circulation brings out a closed intersubjective community. Such is the function of the Hitchcockian object: not the decried MacGuffin but the tiny piece of the Real which keeps the story in motion through being out of place (stolen and so forth), i.e., the ring in Shadow of a Doubt, the cigarette lighter in Strangers on a Train, even the child in The Man Who Knew Too Much, who circulates between the two couples. The story ends the moment this object arrives at its destination, returns to its rightful owner: the moment Guy gets back the lighter — the last shot of Strangers on a Train where the lighter falls out of dead Bruno’s unclasped hand, and the mo­ment the abducted child returns to the American couple — in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

This object gives material existence to the lack in the Other, to the constitutive inconsistency of the Symbolic order. Claude Lévi-Strauss pointed out how the very fact of exchange attests a certain structural flaw, an imbal­ance that pertains to the Symbolic, which is why the Lacanian mathème for this object is S(A), the signifier of the barred Other. The supreme exemplar of such an object is the ring from Richard Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen, the gigantic drama of the unbalanced Symbolic exchange. The story opens with Alberich stealing the ring from the Rhine maidens. Thus it becomes the source of a curse for its possessors; it ends when the ring is thrown back into the Rhine to its rightful owners. The gods, however, pay for this re-establishment of the balance with their twilight, since their very existence was founded upon an unsettled debt.

The Imaginary and Symbolic dimensions of a letter always reaching its destination are thus in their very opposition closely connected: the first is defined by the Imaginary mis/recognition — a letter arrives at its destination in so far as I recognize myself as its addressee, in so far as I find myself in it — whereas the second comprises the concealed truth that emerges in the blind-spots and flaws of the Imaginary circle. Let us just recall the so-called applied psychoanalysis, the standard psychoanalytic interpreta­tion of works of art: this procedure always finds it­self. The propositions on Œdipus complex, on sublimation, are again and again confirmed since the search moves in an Imaginary closed circle and finds only what one is al­ready looking for, what in a sense one already has in the network of its theoretical preconceits. A letter traversing the Symbolic circuit arrives at its destination when we experience the utmost futility of the procedure, its failure to sustain the inherent logic of its object. The way a letter arrives at its destination within the Symbolic circuit therefore implies the structure of a slip, of success through failure. It reaches us without us knowing it. In Agatha Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? the young hero and his girlfriend find a mortally wounded man on the links, who seconds before his death, raises his head and says “Why didn’t they ask Evans?” They set out to investigate the murder and, long afterwards, when the dead man’s mysterious phrase is completely forgotten, they concern themselves with the somewhat peculiar circumstances of the certification of a dying country gentleman’s will. The rela­tives called a witness a distant neighbor, instead of using the servant Evans who was present in the house. “Why didn't they ask Evans?” Instantaneously the hero and girlfriend realize that their question reproduces verba­tim the phrase of the man who died on the links. Therein lies the clue for his murder. What we have here is an exemplary case of how a letter arrives at its destination: when, in a totally contingent way, it finds its proper place.

III. The Real Encounter

The motive of fate has brought us to the very brink of the third level, that of the Real. Here a letter always arrives at its destination equals meeting one’s fate — “we will all die” —. Already a common pre-theoretical sensi­tivity enables us to detect the ominous undertone that issues from a letter always arrives at its desti­nation: the only letter that nobody can evade, the letter which has each of us as its infallible addressee, is death. We can say that we live only in so far as a certain letter — the letter containing our death-warrant — still wanders around, looking for us. Let us recall the ill-famed poetic statement of the Iranian president Ali Hamnei about the sentence of death of Salman Rushdie: nothing can stop his execution, the bullet is al­ready on its way — sooner or later it will hit its mark. Such is the fate of all and everyone of us, the bullet with our name on it is already shot. Derrida himself emphasizes the lethal di­mension of writing. Every trace is condemned to its efface­ment. Needless to draw our attention to the fundamental ambiguity of the very word — end: aim and annihilation — the consummation of the letter’s circuit equals its con­sumption. The crucial point not to be missed here is that the Imaginary, the Symbolic and the Real dimensions of a letter always arrives at its destination are not external to each other: at the end of the Imaginary as well as the Symbolic itineraries, we encounter the Real. As it was demonstrated by Lacan regarding Freud’s dream of Irma’s injection, the dual mirror relationship culminates in the horrifying confrontation with the abyss of the Real, exem­plified by the flesh of Irma’s throat,

The flesh one never sees, the foundation of things, the other side of the head, of the face, the secretory glands par excellence, the flesh from which everything exudes, at the very heart of the mystery, the flesh in as much as it is suffering, is formless, in as much as its form in itself is something which provokes anxiety.21

The fascinating image of a double is therefore ultimately nothing but a mask of horror, its delusive front: when we encounter ourselves, we encounter death. The same horror emerges with the fulfillment of the Symbolic destiny as attested by Œdipus at Colonnus, when, after consum­mating the circuit and remunerating all his debts, he found himself reduced to a kind of soap bubble burst asunder — a scrap of the Real, the leftover of a formless slime without any support in the Symbolic order. Œdipus realized his destiny “to that final point which is nothing more than something strictly identical to a striking down, a tearing apart, a laceration of himself — he is no longer anything at all. And it is at that moment that he says the phrase — Am I made in the hour when I cease to be?”22

The unpaid symbolic debt is therefore in a way constitutive of our symbolic existence which is a compromise-formation, the delaying of an encounter. In Max Ophuls’s melodrama Letter From An Unknown Woman this link connecting the Symbolic circuit with the encounter of the Real is perfectly exemplified. At the very beggining of the film “a letter arrives at its destination,” confronting the hero with the disavowed truth: what was for him a series of unconnected, ephemeral love affairs, which he only vaguely remembers, destroyed a woman’s life. He as­sumes responsibility for this through a suicidal gesture: by deciding not to escape and to attend the duel he is cer­tain to lose.

However, as indicated in the above-quoted Lacanian reading of the dream of Irma’s injection, the Real is not only death but also life: not only the pale, frozen, lifeless immobility, but also “the flesh from which everything ex­udes,” the life substance in its mucous palpitation. In other words, the Freudian duality of life and death drives is not a symbolic opposition, but a tension inherent to the pre-symbolic Real. As Lacan points out repeatedly, the very notion of life is alien to the Symbolic order. The name of this life substance that proves a traumatic shock for the Symbolic universe is enjoyment. The ultimate variation on the theme of a letter that always arrives at its destination would be: “you never can get rid of the stain of enjoyment” — the very gesture of re­nunciation to enjoyment produces inevitably a surplus en­joyment that Lacan writes down as the object small a. Examples offer themselves in abundance: from the ascetic who can never be sure he does not repudiate all worldly goods because of the ostentatious and vain satisfaction pro­cured by this very act of sacrifice; to the “sense of fulfil­ment” that overflows us when we submit to the totalitarian appeal “Enough of decadent enjoyment! It is time for sac­rifice and renunciation!” This dialectic of enjoyment and surplus enjoyment — the fact that there is no enjoyment preceding the excess of surplus en­joyment; enjoyment itself is a kind of surplus produced by renunciation — perhaps gives a clue for the so-called primal masochism.23



Such a reading, however, leads beyond Lacan’s “Seminar on The Purloined Letter,” which stays within the confines of the structuralist problematic of a senseless, mechanical Symbolic order, regulating the subject’s innermost self-ex­perience. From the perspective of the last years of Lacan’s teaching, the letter which circulates among the subjects in Poe’s story, determining their position in the intersubjective network, is no longer the materialized agency of the signifier, but rather, an object in the strict sense of material­ized enjoyment — the stain, the uncanny excess that the subjects snatch away from each other, forgetful of how its very possession will mark them with a passive stance that bears witness to the confrontation with the ob­ject-cause of desire. What ultimately interrupts the continu­ous flow of words, what hinders the smooth running of the Symbolic circuit, is the traumatic presence of the Real. When the words suddenly stay out, we have to look not for the Imaginary resistances, but for the object that came too close.

1. Jacques Derrida, “The Purveyor of Truth” The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

2. Jacques Lacan, “Seminar on The Purloined Letter,” in The Purloined Poe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

3. Since this recourse to common sense takes place more often than one might suspect, systematically even, within the deconstruction, one is tempted to put forward the thesis that the very fundamental gesture of deconstruction is in a radical sense common sensical. There is, namely, an unmistakable ring of common sense in the deconstructivist insistence upon the impossibility to establish a clear-cut difference between empirical and transcendental, outside and inside, representation and presence, writing and voice . . ., in its impulsive demonstration of how the Outside always-already smears over the Inside, of how writing is constitutive of voice, and so forth — as if deconstructivism is ultimately wrapping up common sensical insights into an intricate jargon. Therein consists perhaps one of the hitherto overlooked reasons for its unforeseen success in the USA, the land of common sense par excellence.

4. What is crucial here is the difference between the letter’s Symbolic circuit and its itinerary in what we call reality: a letter always arrives at its destination on the Symbolic level, whereas in reality, it can of course fail to reach it. This difference is strictly homologous to that established by Lacan apropos of the two possible readings of the phrase “You are the one that will follow me” (Jacques Lacan, Le séminaire, livre III: Les psychoses, Paris: Editions du Seuil 1981,

p. 315-319):

— read as a statement ascertaining a positive state of things, it can of course be falsified if it proves inaccurate, i.e., if you do not follow me;

— read as a bestowal of a symbolic mandate, designation, i.e., as the establishment of a pact giving birth to a new intersubjective relation, it cannot simply be falsified by your factual behavior: you remain “the-one-that-will-follow-me” even if, in reality, you do not do it — in this case, you simply do not live up to your symbolic title which nevertheless determines your place in the symbolic network. In other words, read in this second sense, the determination “the-one-that-will-follow-me” functions as a “rigid designator” in the Kripkeian sense: it remains true “in all possible worlds,” ir­respective of your factual behavior.

5. As to these readings, cf. Barbara Johnson’s “The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida” in The Purloined Poe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

6. Michel Pêcheux, Language, Semantics and Ideology, London: MacMillan, 1982.

7. Barbara Johnson, op. cit., p. 248.

8. Michel Pêcheux, op. cit., p. 107.

9. An exemplary case of such a mis/recognition is found in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Letter to Three Wives where each of the three wives on a Sunday trip recognizes herself as ad­dressee of the letter sent to them by the local femme fatale announcing to them that she has run away with one of their hus­bands: the letter stirs up the trauma of each of them, each of them becomes aware of the failure of her marriage.

10. Jacques Lacan, “Intervention on Transference” in In Dora’s Case, ed. by Charles Bernheimer and Claire Cahan, London: Virago Press, 1985.

11. As to the paradoxes of the “Beautiful Soul,” Slavoj Zizek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso 1989, p. 215-217.

12. G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1942, p. 8.

13. Therein consist the elementary Hegelian procedure; Hegel demonstrates the “non-truth” of some proposition not by comparing it with the thing as it is “in itself” and thus ascertaining the proposition’s inaccuracy, but by comparing the proposition with itself, i.e., with its own process of enunciation: by comparing the intended meaning of the proposition with what the subject effectively said. This discord is the very impetus of the dialectical process, as it is attested already at the beginning of the Phenomenology of Spirit where the “sense certainty” is refuted by means of a reference to the universal dimension contained in its own act of enuncia­tion.

14. Jacques Derrida, “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” in Writing and Difference, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978, where it is demonstrated by a rigorous analysis how it is not possible to differentiate in a clear-cut way between “primary” and “secondary” processes: the “primary” process (subjected to the logic of the uncon­scious: condensations, displacements, and so forth) is always al­ready re-marked by the “secondary” process that charac­terizes the system of consciousness/preconscious.

15. Stricto sensu, there is a subjective position within which a letter does not arrive at its destination, within which the repressed does not return in the shape of symptoms, within which the subject does not receive from the Other his own message in its true form: that of a psychotic. A letter ar­rives at its destination only with the subject entering the circuit of communication, i.e., capable of assuming the di­alectical relationship towards the Other qua locus of truth. However, according to Lacan’s famous formula of the psy­chotic foreclosure “what was foreclosed from the Symbolic returns in the Real,” even in psychosis the letter does ulti­mately reach the subject, namely in the form of psychotic “answers of the Real” (hallucinations and so forth).

16. Elaborated in Jacques Derrida, La vérité en peinture, Paris: Flammarion, 1978.

17. As for this topology, cf. Jacques-Alain Miller, “Théorie de lalangue,” in Ornicar? 1, Paris, 1975

18. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, London: Penguin Books, 1972, p. 107.

19. We rely here on the perspicacious analysis by Elizabeth Cowie, “Fantasia,” in m/f 9, London, 1984.

20. There is, however, another side to this story: Charlotte’s act of renunciation can also be read as an attempt to elude the inherent impossibility of the sexual relationship by positing an external hindrance to it, thus preserving the il­lusion that without this hindrance she would be able to enjoy it fully. In short, the trick is here the same as that of the “courtly love”: “A very refined manner to supplant the absence of the sexual relationship by feigning that it is us who put the obstacle in its way.” (Jacques Lacan, Le sémi­naire, livre XX: Encore, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1975, p. 65)

21. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988, p. 154-155.

22. Op. cit., p. 226.

23. In other words, if we subtract from enjoyment its sur­plus, we are left with nothing at all; the closest scientific analogy to it is perhaps the notion of photon in physics. When physicists refer to the mass of a particle, they usually refer to its mass when it is at rest. Any mass other than a rest mass is called relativistic mass; since the mass of a particle increases with velocity, a particle can have any number of relativistic masses — the size of its relativistic mass depends upon its velocity. The total mass is thus composed of the rest mass plus the surplus added by the velocity of its movement. The paradox of photons is, how­ever, that they do not have any rest mass: their rest mass equals zero. Photon is thus an object which exists only as a surplus, as an acceleration due to its velocity; in a way, it is “without substance” — if we subtract the relativistic mass that depends upon its velocity, i.e., if we “quiet it down” and attempt to seize it in its state of rest, “as it really is,” it dissolves itself. And it is the same with the “object small a” qua surplus-enjoyment: it exists only in its distorted state (visually, for example, only in so far as it is viewed from aside, anamorphically extended or contracted) — if we view it “straight,” “as it really is,” there is nothing to see.




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