The Text of the Revenge
Olga Kirillova

Anri Sala

Author’s Bio

(The Play by Friedrich Dürrenmatt The Old Lady’s Visit: Lacanian approach)

The well-known method of ‘talking cure,’ introduced by Freud, Breuer and ‘Anna O.’, in the post-modern cultural studies is often replaced by so-called ‘textual cure’ whereby the overcoming of subject’s fundamental trauma is performed in certain textual strategies. These “chefs d’œvres sociales”, basically described in fiction, can be investigated psychoanalytically as ‘case studies’. The way of catharsis we would like to introduce is the construction of a kind of ‘literary text’ that becomes the instrument of the overcoming of the reality that caused subject’s trauma. We have already examined the variant of the ‘false catharsis’ whereby a confession shaped as a literary text is a lure for the one supposed to perform the role of the psychoanalyst, as described in the novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969) by John Fowles in the article If the French Lieutenant Never Existed, He is Worth Being Invented.[1]

Another variant of the ‘textual cure’ is the case in which a subject works out a plan that, by its paranoiac scrupulosity reminds a scenario, and puts in into practice to get off the fundamental trauma. In other words, the original text is shaped as a well-considered script. To compare with the previous example, it is not the ‘literary fiction’ but a ‘screenplay’. A bright example of this is described in a play by a Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt The Old Lady‘s Visit (1958).

The story is the following: a poor girl Claire Wäscher in her youth was deceived by her lover Alfred Ill, who refused to marry her, and exiled by resolution of the City Council out of her home town for immorality, as she had been pregnant. After being a prostitute in a brothel in Hamburg and living through her child’s death, she eventually married an Americal millionaire Zachanassian (who was Armenian by his origin). In her declining years she returns to her home town that fell into decay to make an offer of a milliard dollars in exchange for Ill’s life.

This story can make an impression of the vicissitude of reaching success, which results in paying old debts in the evening of one’s life. Nevertheless, the closer examination allows to prove that the events described in the play enter the scenario, the preparation of which made the whole of Claire Zachanassian’s life, in other words, this appears to be a ‘play in a play’.
The problem is not, as well, the destructive power of money. The main question, which the play is examining, is not the ethical but the psychoanalytical one.

Basically, Claire’s aim is not simply to buy her offender’s death. Quoting Lacan, she has precisely the aim which is the itinerary, not the thing obtained, as contrasted to the French word le but (which means ‘the aim’ as well).[2]

Let us look closer at the way in which the ‘text’ is created and the revenge is performed. The sequence of its stages made this play ‘a stunning piece of gripping literature’ as is called by the readers.[3]

The play begins with an episode in which some crazy old lady stops a train with a handbrake. She is requested either to pay the fine, or to follow the police. She makes an offer to pay a million dollars for the town’s needs instead. Only then is she recognized as the long-awaited guest, an American, who is the native of the small town of Güllen, in whose honour the crowd at the station is gathered.

This situation seems to be natural from the first sight: an old millionaire must be eccentric. Eccentricity, in general, is a good mask for many of the Lady’s actions. This trait of character allows to meangle her innocent chattery about, for instance, artificial limbs after numerous car accidents with that having the substantial meaning, such as, for instance, a tomb she brought with her.

The scene of arrival is the principal one in the whole logic of the play. ‘This express train never stops at this station. Why did you stop it?’ the Lady is asked. ‘Because I always stop trains with a handbrake’[4] is her answer.

The main point is that both the way of return and her phrase are not random, as they were planned long ago. When the young girl felt cold and sick in the goods train from Güllen, she had already known her way back. This is confirmed by her words, ‘When the roofs of the shed showed up in the windows of the last truck, all covered with ice, I swore that I will return one day.’ [5]

This was the key moment of conception (when her script was conceived). Henceforth, as the split inside the subject became visible, the natural being became impossible for Claire. The principle of the artificial, or ‘textual’ being, instead, came into play. Hereby, Claire obtained the right to re-create the new world that suddenly became inverted. The final aim of the re-creation was the moment of the revenge, as the moment of her trauma in the past required the symmetrical one in the future. Not until she matched up every component of her scenario, did she start its production.

This is why the Lady’s key phrase is: ‘The future has finally come’ . In fact, ever since her banishment, all her rich and adventurous life was nothing but preparation to the brief period of time that entered the play. This is fair enough even for the most scaring events in her life. For instance, Claire used the brothel, to which the town condemned her, to ‘learn the skill’ of increasing her sexual power that enabled her to catch a millionaire.

The Lady rejects the Güllen’s officials’ smoothed recollections of her past, as they are expecting the financial aid from her. She wants to get herself as close as possible to the state of mind she had in the day of her banishment forty years ago.

Nevertheless, she does not at all resist her romantic recollections, which may seem illogical. She includes in her ‘program in Güllen’ a walk together with Alfred in the woods where they met before to make love. Nothing in their amorous nostalgic murmuring implies their real terms until the following ‘trial scene’.

Claire seems to revive the feelings of her youth by attending places arousing her ‘nostalgic’ recollections. Nevertheless, the moment of the trauma is logically approaching. But when the trauma occurred to her in reality, what is revealed in her conscious reconstruction of the situation is her own aggression. In other words, the temporal structure is such that the moment of the trauma was the temporal gap. She possesses now the element of the chain lacking before that allows her to avoid the trauma.

Hereby we face the phenomenon of unsignified woman. As Lacan pointed out, woman as such resists signification. It is important to add that a woman can obtain a signifier only from a man: first, her father, and, second, her husband. To be more precise, this is the same signifier that is simply passed from the older man (the wife’s father) to the younger one (the husband) along the male line. This can be regarded as a free re-interpretation of the signifying theory of the primitive family by Claude Levi-Strauss . A woman, whose symbolic status is not supported by the Name of the Father, is excluded totally from this signifying process.

Nevertheless, this type of the unsignified woman is much more likely to get the status of so-called ‘phallic woman’. This status is obtained through the identification with the phallic signifier (the Transcendental One). In the Fowles‘ novel this is total fiction, false ‘absolute phallic signifier’, the mythical seducer, so-called ‘French Lieutenant’ existing nowhere. In contrast, Claire does not identify with the man who caused her trauma as a bearer of phallic power.

This function is performed by the late millionaire Zachanassian, her first husband, who transferred his identity passing to her his knowledge of life, financial power, skills of sexual enjoyment, and so on. This identity became the ‘spine’ of her personality and the kernel of her actions. Claire mentions him as ‘the only real man worth marrying him’ . Even after his death, she provides special ‘meditations’ to join his identity, for example, listening to the Armenian folk music and so on. In terms of signification, when the initial social signifier is lacking, what is attained finally is the signifier-plus.

Furthermore, another Claire’s obsession is the constant change of husbands. Even when already in Güllen, she quit the one whom she came with (the seventh one) and immediately married a young film star whom she divorced the day after. She did it merely to fulfill her dream to get married in the principal church of Güllen.

This can be explained by the fact that this exactly moment of the church marriage is the basis of her trauma. This trauma was substantially caused by its unattainability that made the church marriage her impossible objet a. As she had no dowry, the man she was in love with preferred a marriage to a merchant’s daughter, regarding Claire just as a plaything.

To summarize, the key notion in Claire’s self-treatment method is locus. These are the train, the woods, the hay-loft, the church, and, finally, the hall of ceremony turned into a courtroom. This happens accordingly to the principle of seriation by Giles Deleuze. This principle includes the repetition of a certain model whereby a small but significant variation, for example, change of the stages, is inevitable.

Finally, she reduces to ashes the hay-loft in which she used to make love with Alfred Ill in the time of youth. The Lady burns down the locus of her mortal jouissance. This is the apotheosis of her strategy of resignification of places.

Another part of her strategy is the resignification of people, who were the personages of her tragedy.

The core of the ‘script’ is the Lady’s proposition. For the adequate catharsis of her trial scene, she rigs a trial in the reception hall, during the official dinner in her honour.

The Lady involves in her reclaim for justice those who contributed directly to the accusation of hers, in other words, those involved in the field of the trauma. Nevertheless, their roles are totally inverted being a negative of the previous ones. They are humiliated and deformed by her, as substituting for Alfred Ill.

She enjoys the inversion of roles having made twenty years ago her steward out of the former judge of Güllen who sentenced her to the exile. It is him, forty years after, who claims for juctice in her favour and finally pleads Alfred Ill guilty.

These are two perjurers suborned by Ill forty years ago, who feel the emotional catharsis telling their story instead of her. For a bottle of alcohol they testified that they both slept with Claire, so that her baby cannot be Ill‘s. Though they tried to hide from the Lady in different parts of the world, they were caught by her servants and both blinded and castrated. The symbolically Oedipal sense of this act of cruelty is evident. As they played the role of ‘substitute lovers‘ in court, they received the punishment destined for Ill.

In fact, the Lady does not act herself so much. Being a director of her performance, she creates a ‘stage’ where other characters perform.

This is, in brief, the first act of the play. The second one, in contrast, includes no decisive steps on the Lady’s side. The question is whether she planned to succeed in getting her own way at once, or expected the negative reaction.
The Lady suspends the whole situation, and doing no more steps, but, as one of the characters of the play says, ‘sitting on her balcony and just waiting’ .

Meanwhile, the notion of the perspective comes into play. The existential perspective of the townsdwellers, which had been blocked before, suddenly opens up for them. This mental process goes on independently of their will. While they ethically recoil from the Lady’s offer, nevertheless, it opens up new horizons for them. Ill, who is a petty merchant, is terrified by the fact that townspeople start to live in credit, which ranges from the purchase of the new shoes to the reconstruction of the building of the City Council.
Buying things is the mark of the consuming subject’s existence. This is his ergo sum, to compare with Cartesian cogito and Freudian desidero, referring to the chapters 3 and 12 of FFC . In other words they are, against their will, brought back to life of which they used to consider themselves to have been expelled. No matter that the price is one’s own death.

Consequently, the play ends up with Ill’s execution. However, there is no hint about what happened to Claire immediately afterwards.
Undoubtedly, the only possible answer: she died straight after then.

She built the skyscrapper of the plot of her revenge on the gaping hole of her trauma, namely, a Void. Though the foundation pit is always dug for a basement, the abyss of hatred in this case results in tragedy. As Ill saved his identity in the collision with Claire by expelling her out of his life, she lost the hers, and hence her life became the struggle for identity. She regarded her revenge as a means to return the unity of her personality, to overcome the split in the subject. ‘My life turned out to be the Hell’ says Alfred and obtains an answer: ‘I turned out to be the Hell myself, Alfred’.

After the scheme of the circuit of the drive described by Lacan in the chapter 14 of FFC, the aim is reached in the point of the return of the death drive.

The fulfillment of Desire results in death, after Lacan. The Lady has nothing to live on any more.

The case described in Dürrenmatt’s Visit shows the catharsis through the inverted repetition. This repetition should be called the negative of the traumatic situation.

The above study is one of the variants of what we called the ‘textual catharsis’. The main components and significant stages of this phenomenon are exemplified by a literary text. It is important to notice, parenthetically, that the number of its variations is infinite and every particular situation that can be referred to as psychoanalytical is different. To be continued.


[1] Available at https://www.lacan.com/olgakf.htm

[2] Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans.A.Sheridan, (London: Vintage, 1998). Ch.15.

[3] The Visit: details. Available at https://www.uk.bol.com/is-bin/INTERSHOP.enfinity/eCS/Store/gb/-/GBP/BOL_AffiliateMap-Old?ecaction=boldlprdview&referrer=bfa00288799446167433186&PrdId=

[4] Dürrenmatt, Freidrich, The Visit, trans. Jonathan Cape, p.9.

[5] The Visit, p.85.

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