Curated by Alejandra Seeber

Art After Lacan
Francois Regnault

Alejandra Seeber

Hirst Red Nose Day

Author’s Bio

translated by Barbara P. Fulks and Jorge Jauregui

The question is addressed in the singular, “art,” and the response is easy. I would like to depart from the response in order to return to the question. In a strange though simple passage of Jacques Lacan’s Seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis,[1] we read: “When I give you a formula such as ‘The desire of man is the desire of the Other,” it is a gnomic formula, although Freud didn’t seek to present it as such. But he does so from time to time without doing it on purpose. Thus I once quoted a very short formula which brought together the respective mechanisms of hysteria, obsessional neurosis and paranoia with three forms of sublimation, art, religion and science. At another point he relates paranoia to scientific discourse.[2] These clues will help us to articulate in all its generality the formula in which we will in the end order the function of sublimation with reference to the Thing.

This Thing is accessible in very elementary examples, which are almost of the type of the classic philosophical demonstration, including a blackboard and a piece of chalk. I referred last time to the schematic example of the vase so as to allow you to grasp where the Thing is situated in the rapport that places man in the mediating function between the real and the signifier. This Thing, all forms of which created by man belong to the sphere of sublimation, this Thing will always be represented by emptiness, precisely because it cannot be represented by anything else—or, more exactly, because it can only be represented by something else. But in every form of sublimation emptiness is determinative.

I will point out right away three different ways according to which art, religion and the discourse of science turn out to be related to that; I will point this out by means of three formulas that I don’t say I will retain in the end, when we have completed our journey together.

All art is characterized by a certain mode of organization around this emptiness. I don’t believe this to be a vain formula, in spite of its generality, in guiding those who are interested in explaining the problems of art; and I believe I have the means of illustrating that to you in a variety of striking ways.

Religion in all its forms consists of avoiding this emptiness. We can illustrate that in forcing the note of Freudian analysis for the good reason that Freud emphasized the obsessional traits of religious behavior. Yet although the whole ceremonial phase of the body of religious practices, in effect, enters into this framework, we can hardly be fully satisfied with this formula. A phrase like “respecting this emptiness” perhaps goes further. In any case, the emptiness remains in the center, and that is precisely why sublimation is involved.

As for our third term, the discourse of science, to the extent that it finds its origin in our tradition in the discourse of wisdom or of philosophy, the term Freud uses in connection with paranoia and its rapport to psychic reality—Unglauben—finds its full meaning there.”

It is almost too beautiful.  A definition of art, of religion and of science taken from emptiness, as in the writings of the Taoist philosophers.  There is an almost forced correspondence between these figures of the spirit, in the Hegelian sense, and the workings of the unconscious in clinical structures. In the beginning is the hole. Then, around the hole:


We could learn this by heart, on the condition that we not forget the context in which this categorization is found: in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, in the chapter Lacan himself entitled “Marginal comments” (3 February 1960). In “La science et la vérité”, at the beginning of Seminar XIII, L’objet de la psychanalyse, while foreclosure is still ascribed to science, repression is no longer correlated to art but to magic, and religion is attributed to the category of denial, not of displacement.[3]

We shouldn’t linger on this difficulty—after all, art and religion are not always distant from each other. Moreover, after five years, Lacan could have changed his point of view. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that “La science et la vérité” defined the function of a procedure related to truth as cause, while The Ethics defined a procedure in relation to the Thing.

Let’s return to art, which organizes the hole. What is this hole? What is this void? It represents the Thing (das Ding). What is the Thing?

Freud says, according to Lacan, that “the first and most immediate goal of the test of reality is not to find in a real perception an object which corresponds to the one which the subject represents to himself at that moment, but to find it again.”

As for Lacan “that object will be there when in the end all conditions have been fulfilled—it is, of course, clear that what is supposed to be found cannot be found again. It is in its nature that the object as such is lost. It will never be found again.”

Let us say that the object, which will never be refound, is the Thing.

The world of our experience, the Freudian world, assumes that it is this object, das Ding, as the absolute Other of the subject, that one is supposed to find again.[4]

 We assert that this experience is seminal in the Freudian field, and that it characterizes the subject, its object and its desire.

This object has never been lost, although it must be refound. This object is not even spoken. It slides between words and things, in the illusion that words correspond to things, a constant illusion contradicted by misunderstanding and yet endlessly reappearing. The Thing is thus situated “between the real and the signifier.” We will return to this formula.

The sliding between signi-fiers, this revelation that Lacan owes to Saussure, logically involves two apparently incompatible situations:

This Thing will always be represented by emptiness, precisely because it cannot be represented by anything else—or more exactly, because it cannot but be represented by something else.[5]

 First situation: the void represents the Thing: we are on the side of logic, of the real.

Second situation: An Other thing represents the Thing: we are on the side of representation, of art.

In the first situation, we are dealing with philosophical or theological variations, such as the empty set, or creation ex nihilo (developed in the same Seminar). From the point of view of the signifying chain, the missing signifier will move the chain, the zero in the series of numbers. From the point of view of topology, this will be the hole.

In the second situation, a hole is made in the real by the name, especially the Name-of-the-Father. First the name: “Nomination is the only thing that positively makes a hole.”[6] And then the signifier: “By reducing the unconscious to the symbolic, that is to what of the signifier which makes a hole…”  “The signifier of which ultimately there is no other definition but the hole. The signifier makes a hole.”  “The unconscious is the real. I measure my words if I say: the real inasmuch as it is a hole.”[7]

And then, the Name-of-the Father:

The Jews have well explained what is that they call the Father. They position Him somewhere in the hole, at a spot unfathomable for us. I am what I am, that is the hole.[8]

 All the same, let’s be cautious:  “Nobody knows what this hole is.”[9] The more we talk about it, the more it is shrouded.

It resembles the mouth, “the image of the corporeal hole,” the blind spot, even death. “Death won’t even conceal it since we don’t know what death is.”[10]

And finally, why not the Mother, as Jacques-Alain Miller points out:

…the real Other, inscribed in the symbolic under the signifier of the primal object, the first exterior to the subject, which bears in Freud the name of das Ding.[11]

 Let’s confine our quest to art and search for the meaning in Lacan’s statement: “art is characterized by a certain mode of organization around emptiness.” We have the metaphor of the potter, molding a vase around emptiness. We perceive it in the most trivial, compelling example: “in everyday life the essence of a mustard pot lies in the fact that it appears as an empty mustard pot.”[12]

But then, applied to art, the question is: where are we going to find this void around which it is organized? The vase may be empty, but is the temple empty? Is the statue empty? Las Meninas? Is a Beethoven symphony empty? What about Don Quixote and Joyce’s Ulysses? This is the precise question.

Is there a system in Lacan which particularizes these tropes of emptiness—showing in each instance how what we call art is organized around a void?

Or should we exclude what does not fit in such an organization from the ensemble of the arts?

And first of all, what authority do the void and the Thing confer to psychoanalysis to speak about art?


We know the reversal performed by Lacan through the Freudian perspective: psychoanalysis does not apply to works of art. The clearest statement is found in “Jeunesse de Gide.”[13] Lacan dismisses the idea that Jean Delay’s book on Gide “has even for an instant resembled what the analytical world calls a work of applied psychoanalysis.” He rejects what this absurd assessment conveys of the confusion that reigns in this field. “Psychoanalysis is not applied except as treatment, to a speaking and listening subject.” One does not psychoanalyze mutes or the deaf or the dead!

In another statement Lacan is equally unambiguous, this time in regard to Marguerite Duras:

the only advantage that the psychoanalyst has the right to draw from his position, were this then to be recognized as such, is to recall with Freud that in his work the artist always precedes him, and that he does not have to play the psychologist where the artist paves the way for him.[14]

 Of course Freud always asserted psychoanalysis’ inadequacy to decipher the mystery of works of art:

Since artistic talent and capacity are intimately connected with sublimation we must admit that the nature of the artistic function is also inaccessible to us along psycho-analytic lines.[15]

 And Freud tends to refer these mysteries to the laws of biology or to accidents of birth. Psychoanalysis can, however, disclose some of the creative process and a lot of the artist’s psychology. Freud himself does it with Leonardo da Vinci. Accordingly, Lacan will not apply psychoanalysis to art, nor to the artist. But he will apply art to psychoanalysis, positing that since the artist precedes the psychologist, his/her art should advance psychoanalytic theory.

As has often been pointed out in the Freudian field, the procedure is not always easy to grasp. To begin with, we must not defer too much to art, nor should we bow and scrape before the artist. Lacan courteously shows respect, pays tribute, as in his “Homage to Marguerite Duras…” He also refers to our century as dominated by “the genius of Samuel Beckett.” Likewise, Shakespeare, Claudel, Genet, Sophocles, Racine inspire his enthusiasm: “This text, Hamlet, is to fall head over heels for, it’s amazing, unimaginable.”[16] Gide merits an entire essay, Joyce almost a whole Seminar.[17]

But this praise does not prevent the possibility of a clinical diagnosis of the author, of his subjective position, if only by allusion.

Lacan’s “Jeunesse de Gide” inspired by Jean Delay’s book  is not concerned at all with the work itself, but rather with the position of the subject vis-à-vis literature and desire. The article is an investigation “of the relationship of a man to literature,” as he says, and as his subtitle indicates (“…or the letter and its desire”), or of general relationships perceived from a particular standpoint, the case of Gide. Also, he maintains “an objective neutrality” in respect to Proust’s stance against Sainte-Beuve, namely whether the life of the author explains his work or not. Proust, as we know, contrasts the superficial self, which interests only the bad critic, to the profound self, to which we owe the work. Lacan wants to displace Sainte-Beuve’s predicate “from critique to literary condition.” Thus Gide himself supplies the material for his novels in his diaries.

If art organizes the work around the hole, proceeding through repression, one can conceive that psychoanalysis applied according to Freud attempts to highlight a return of the repressed in the work or in the artist. Freud tried to do this in regard to Leonardo da Vinci. We need to scrutinize the mechanisms of sublimation in order to discover, behind La Gioconda’s cryptic smile, not only a key to childhood memories, but also to masculine homosexuality, perversion, sadomasochism, orality, etc. In this case, everything conforming to a particular trait of the artist may become in turn a theoretical development of an analytical concept. And a simple quarter turn of the ideational apparatus used allows us to change the elements of applied psychoanalysis into elements of theoretical psychoanalysis. This involves the following consequence: often, with Freud, what at first appears to be a lucubration on the author subsequently evolves into the development of a concept. This is notably true with regard to Moses, to Leonardo da Vinci, to Michelangelo or Goethe, none of whom can benefit from a cure.

We cannot say that the Lacanian design is to perceive what the artist or the work represses, but rather, the work and the artist must perceive what theory still misapprehends. The work runs counter to its eventual presumptions, and the analytic theorist receives art’s message in an inverse form.

Thus, Holbein’s The Ambassadors, with the skull’s anamorphosis, demonstrates the phallus and the gaze, rather than the painter’s fantasy. Sophocles’s Antigone reveals the meaning of between two deaths. Hamlet is a construction of our desire, and of the phallus in it; Claudel’s trilogy addresses desire in the modern world. We must even say that The Ambassadors and Las Meninas show what painting is, while Sophocles and Claudel define ancient and modern tragedy respectively. The theory of the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, notably the drive, cannot avoid knowing what a painting is; the ethics of psychoanalysis cannot ignore the tragic. Art, then, is not just about decoration, illustration. In truth, it organizes. We know that Lacan’s question about science is: “What sort of science includes psychoanalysis?”[18] Couldn’t we also say, instead of what is a psychoanalysis that includes art, what is an art that includes psychoanalysis?

Conversely, Lacan was right to say that Hamlet is not a clinical case, that he is neither an hysteric nor an obsessional neurotic (or he is rather both),[19] but this doesn’t keep Lacan from applying all sorts of statements using Hamlet as support. So it is true that the same trait which is particular to a clinical case can be translated into a general characteristic of the concept.  The title “Joyce le symptôme[20] is an example.

The same art which organizes psychoanalysis also organizes the hole in the Thing. How does it proceed?


One might imagine a Lacanian Fine Arts system and run through each one of the arts in order to understand Lacan’s point of view on each type. But with what system should we proceed?

Without being completely arbitrary, I could take as a standard Hegel’s Aesthetics, an authoritative reference for Lacan. The Western tradition has perfected several systems of this sort, the last great philosophical system being surely that of Hegel. It is thus interesting to ask what remains of such a system confronted with the criterion of the hole?

mfg3 Alejandra Seeber

This is one way of getting at Lacan’s eventual anti-philosophy. Hegel obviously does not start with the hole, but in spirit represented in a sensible form:

The beautiful of art unfolds itself in the several arts and in their creations into a world of actualized beauty.  The content of this world is the beautiful, and the true beautiful is spiritual being in concrete shape, the Ideal, the absolute mind, and the truth itself.[21]

 The unfolding of the concept of art will proceed from the exterior of the sensible in order to ascend to interiorized sensibility. The following are, briefly, the stages of this dialectic.

The first of the particular arts is architecture. Its task consist in so manipulating external inorganic nature that, as an external world conformable to art, it becomes cognate to spirit. Its material is matter itself in its immediate externality as a mechanical heavy mass, and its forms remain those of inorganic nature. In this material and in these forms the Ideal, as concrete spirituality, cannot be realized. Hence the reality presented in them remains opposed to the Idea, because it is something external not penetrated by the idea only in abstract relation to it. The fundamental type of the art of building is the symbolic form of art.

Note this reference to the temple:

By architecture the inorganic external world has been purified, set in order symmetrically, and made akin to the spirit, and the god’s temple stands there ready. Into this temple the god enters himself as the lightning-flash of individuality, striking and permeating the inert mass, and the infinite form of spirit itself concentrates and gives shape to something corporeal. This is the task of sculpture.

Then there is a less external relationship between this god and the form in which it appears:

In so far as in sculpture the spiritual inner life, at which architecture can only hint, makes itself at home in the sensuous shape and its external material, and in so far as these two sides are so mutually formed that neither preponderates, sculpture acquires the classical art-form as its fundamental type.

If architecture characterizes the symbolic phase of art, Hegel thinks that sculpture is intrinsically classical as ideal, while in the third form of art, called romantic, the divine is still interiorized and manifests itself in the particular:

…has to show itself particularized in itself and appropriate to subjective inwardness. Material for this is afforded by colour, musical sound and finally sound as the indication of inner intuitions and ideas. As modes of realizing the content in question by means of these materials we have painting, music and poetry. They acquire their type from the romantic form of art on whose form of configuration they are adapted to impress themselves in the most appropriate manner. The sensuous medium appears as particularized in itself and posited throughout as ideal.

But it’s a subjective visibility:

The first art, standing next to sculpture, is painting. It uses as material for its content, and its content configuration, visibility as such, in so far as this is particularized, i.e. developed into colour. This quality of visibility inherently subjectivized and posited as ideal, and the making visible which belong to painting, have their differences in a more ideal way, i.e. in the particular colours, and they free art from the complete sensuous spatiality of material things by being restricted to the dimensions of a plane surface.


Music treats the sensuous as ideal, and does so by negating and idealizing into the individual isolation of a single point, the indifferent externality of space, whose complete semblance is accepted and imitated by painting. The single point, qua such a negativity (excluding space) is in itself a concrete and active process of positive negation within the attributes of matter, in the shape of a motion and tremor of the material body within itself and in its relation to itself. Such an inchoate ideality of matter, which appears no longer as under the form of space, but as temporal ideality, is sound, the sensuous set down as negated, with its abstract visibility converted into audibility, inasmuch as sound liberates the ideal content from its immersion in matter.


As regards to the third and most spiritual mode of representation of the romantic art-type, we must look for it in poetry. Its characteristic peculiarity lies in the power with which it subjects to the mind and to its ideas the sensuous element from which music and painting began to liberate art. The merely negative point up to which music had developed now makes its appearance as the completely concrete point, which is mind, the self-conscious individual, producing out of itself the infinite space of its ideas, unites it with the temporal character of sound. Yet this sensuous element is in poetry separated from the content of consciousness. Poetry is the universal art of the mind which has become free in its own nature, and which is not tied to find its realization in external sensuous matter, but expatiates exclusively in the inner space and inner time of the ideas and feelings.

In poetry, Hegel will introduce successively epic poetry, lyric poetry and dramatic poetry which includes theater, but not the novel. This hierarchy articulates, connects, deduces architecture, symbolic art, sculpture, classical art, then painting, music and poetry, and all the romantic arts.

We must say that, except for perhaps les vrais cinglés de cinéma (the French title of Jerry Lewis’ Hollywood or Bust), this organic system of academic specializations still haunts the communal representation of the arts. And in spite of all our denials, it is not true that we advocate equality between painting and cuisine (as some gourmets suggest), or haute couture (as some in France would pretend), or flower arranging (as practiced by the Japanese). For while there is an ethics of psychoanalysis, according to Lacan, there is no aesthetics of psychoanalysis.

However, before addressing the most important question posed in the arts from this point of view which is that of the articulation of the visible and the audible (to paraphrase Joyce’s Stephen in his meditation on the Dublin shore) or painting and literature, I will mention some similarities, perhaps not coincidental, between Hegel and Lacan.

There is a Lacanian theory on painting and some theoretical considerations and even an entire article on literature. There is not, to my knowledge, any theory of architecture, sculpture, or music. Lacan says only, I don’t remember where, that architecture and music have an eminent place and are even supreme arts because of their relationship to mathematics. Hegel remarks:

Like architecture, music has in itself, as an antithesis to feeling and inwardness, a relation of quantity conformable to the mathematical intellect; it also has its basis a fixed conformity to law on the part of the notes and their combination and succession.

As for the temple, for Hegel, because art derives from religion, at the center is what he calls god, or the divine. This is a point of view close to Lacan’s:

To put it briefly, primitive architecture can be defined as something organized around emptiness. That is also the authentic impression that the forms of a cathedral like Saint Mark’s give us, and it is the true meaning of all architecture. Then subsequently, for economic reasons, one is satisfied with painting images of that architecture, one learns to paint architecture on the walls of architecture; and painting, too, is first of all something that is organized around emptiness. Since it is a matter of finding once more the sacred emptiness of architecture in the less marked medium of painting, the attempt is made to create something that resembles it more and more closely, that is to say, perspective is discovered.[22]

 From this, we could obviously infer elements for a theory on sculpture in which the starting point would be pottery, and then proceed to elevate the statue to the dignity of the Thing. There is nothing comparable, however, to Freud’s analysis of Michelangelo’s Moses.

I don’t know of any allusion made by Lacan regarding music. We must admit that the subject “psychoanalysis and music” never inspired any great writing, in spite of Theodor Reik’s treatment of Gustav Mahler. We search in vain for the equivalent in music of Freud’s Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, or Lacan’s Seminars on painting and theater.

In truth, the authors who have risked this subject have either discussed poetry put to music by composers (such as Reik’s work on Mahler’s symphony Resurrection) or have strayed into psychological or phenomenological considerations on the internal meaning and the conscience of the times. We could say that the analytical ear hears the signifier, not the sounds and the chords, and that there is a double voice, one that speaks and one that sings.[23] Maybe music is of no use in psychoanalysis.[24] This is what I would conclude from the apparent silence of Lacan on the question. Unlike Freud, who acknowledged his deaf ear for music, Lacan, in the 1950s and 60s, frequently attended concerts in theaters of the Domaine musical where the music of Boulez, Berio and Stockhausen was performed under the auspices of Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud.

We are left with painting and poetry, as though art after Lacan were divided according to these two categories.


One is tempted here to radically separate painting and literature and to assign painting to the gaze and literature to the letter.

One could even maintain that in the definition of art given at the beginning of this essay, which proceeds from the Thing, there is no reason to include poetry, let alone prose. Art should only concern architecture, sculpture, and painting. Poetry would be consigned to the signifier. Accordingly there wouldn’t be a system of the arts in Lacan. Nor is there in Hegel any such system in a hierarchical and dialectical sense.

The question is more complex than it seems. First we have Lacan’s radical assertion that

Cogitation remains muddled in the imaginary, which is rooted in the body. Literature bears witness, be it philosophical or artistic, or literary—besides, they do not differ one from the other.[25]

 And then Lacan shows Joyce stuck in what he calls the sphere and the cross, meaning beyond the world and theology, in the Borromean knot. Lacan also unhesitatingly applies the theory of the Thing, or the void (and later the Borromean knot) to literature, particularly to the phenomenon of Courtly Love.

“Courtly love as anamorphosis,” is Jacques-Alain Miller’s apt title of a chapter of The Ethics of Psychoanalysis in which, starting from the theory of the Thing, Lacan states that “the poetry of courtly love, in effect, tends to locate in the place of the Thing certain discontents of the culture.”[26] The creation of poetry consists in posing, according to the mode of sublimation proper to art, an object I would call bewitching, a cruel partner. This is the demanding Lady of the Knights or Dante’s earthly but inaccessible Beatrice, who actually functions as the anamorphic skull, stages the performance, and assumes the function of the Thing.

We see the Thing in prehistoric cave painting, in Holbein’s work, in Courtly Love, and consequently in both poetry and prose. Now we should periodize the arts.

From the moment when perspective was discovered in painting, a form of architecture appears that adopts the perspectivism of painting. Palladio’s art, for example, makes this very obvious. Go and see Palladio’s theater in Vicenze, a little masterpiece of its kind that is in any case instructive and exemplary. Neoclassical architecture submits itself to the laws of perspective, plays with them, and makes them its own. That is, it places them inside of something that was done in painting in order to find once again the emptiness of primitive architecture.

From that point on one is entangled in a knot which seems to flee increasingly from the meaning of this emptiness.  And I believe that the Baroque return to the play of forms, to all manner of devices, including anamorphosis, is an effort to restore the true meaning of artistic inquiry; artists use the discovery of the property of lines to make something emerge that is precisely there where one has lost one’s bearings or, strictly speaking, nowhere.[27]

 If we wanted to be schematic, the history of the arts in Lacan would be characterized by a double scansion: the arts of the void and then the arts of anamorphosis.

First the vase. Second the skull.

The vase defines primitive art. The skull, art contemporary with science. It would be interesting to analyze abstract art using this idea.[28]

But anamorphosis, in other words a hollowing out of pictorial or literary space, does not exclude the void and may in fact be registered as such. This is what Lacan calls the vacuole in Courtly Love.

Here we see functioning in the pure state the authority of that place the instinct aims for in sublimation. That is to say, that what man demands, what he cannot help but demand, is to be deprived of something real. And one of you, in explaining to me what I am trying to show in das Ding, referred to it neatly as the vacuole.

Where, in effect, is the vacuole created for us?  It is at the center of the signifiers(…)[29]

 As it turns out then, the void has a symbolic as well as spatial function in the order of the real, and art uses the imaginary to organize the real symbolically.

But why, beyond the functional definition of art given at the beginning, did Lacan, throughout his teaching, regularly return to Renaissance painting,  or rather painting from the quattrocento to Velasquez, rather than to any other period? And why poetry rather than prose, and, in poetry, why the theater rather than the poem?

If we take an inventory, Seminars VII, XI, and XIII devote rather lengthy passages to painters such as Holbein and Velasquez. The most frequently mentioned poets are Sophocles, Plautus, Shakespeare, Molière, Racine, Claudel, and Genet. Some of them receive extensive attention in the Seminars, whereas the novel gets nothing (if we except the courtly homage to Marguerite Duras and the essay on Gide). I’ve already stated that the Seminar devoted to Joyce deals with his position vis-à-vis writing and the letter rather than with the contents of Joyce’s body of work. Moreover, Lacan praises Freud in this regard:

Because one cannot come to a close when analyzing a bouquet, Freud, after all, only wrote articles on the subject, and strictly speaking, aside from Dostoïevski, he did not analyze the novel. He only made a curt allusion to Ibsen. He refrained himself![30]

 There seems to be an exception to this inventory, but it really isn’t one. “The Purloined Letter” by Edgar Allan Poe is not a novel but a short story, a structural story that Lacan used to begin his Écrits. This is a singular story in that it positions the letter in the place of the void, of the Thing.

To conclude, let’s suggest some hypotheses about these Lacanian choices.

First, painting. Italian Renaissance painting (also that of Holbein and Velasquez), characterized by perspective, combines a general theory of the gaze (pertaining to the register of the object of psychoanalysis, since the gaze is one of the four objects causing desire), thus of the blind side, with the subject of science, its negation, its projection toward the infinite—and the reference to projected space, which commands the topology of the unconscious.

In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis Lacan asks “what is a painting?,” a question that intersects the history of painting, rather than “what is painting?,” a philosophical or historical question. History, the truth, is an obstacle to the question, according to a Lacanian formula. Often, for him, “everything is always there,” just never in the same place, or if so, never in the same way. The charting of painting is structural, not historical. It isn’t organized diachronically except by its structure, which is as timeless as the unconscious.

Also with painting or space we are on the side of the objet a rather than that of the signifier. On the slope of the cause of desire. If we pass on to the side of the signifier, we run into what is written, the letter being as we remember “the essentially localized structure of the signifier.” [31]  The purloined letter provides the rules of the game. We apply Poe’s story to the theory of the signifier.

But then, why did Lacan prefer to address the theater rather than the novel? And what do the exceptions of Gide and Joyce mean? Gide and Proust, significantly quoted in Seminar III,[32] are writers who treat their own lives as material for their work, which is typical of modern literature. Joyce is the exception as we shall see.

Let’s return to theater. Lacan was quite clear in the sessions devoted to Hamlet. Theater personifies the Discourse of the Other, either in the form of character or because the actor enunciates the Discourse of an other, the author. Representation, he says, makes real the fact that truth is presented in the form of fiction. In Hamlet, the theater within the theater makes the theme of truth as fiction evident.

The great plays are, at the same time, a presentation of the Discourse of the Other, an organization around desire (Hamlet), an encounter of the limits between Eros and madness (Oedipus, Antigone), a mark of the phallus (Genet’s Le Balcon), an analysis of sacrifice, of desire, of tragedy (Claudel’s trilogy), a definition of the point de capiton (Racine’s Athalie), a match between the small other and the Ideal I (Molière’s Amphitryon), etc. It would be erroneous to conclude that these plays address a central theme in Lacan’s Seminars.[33]

To a certain extent, each of these great plays deals with themes that are privileged in each of the other plays. Tragedy, comedy, the phallus, desire, etc. are found in each one of these constructions, in these fictions of the discourse of the Other functioning as truth.

Besides, as Lacan says, the players lend not only their bodies, that is their imaginary, but also their “unconscious”[34] to the Discourse of the Other. The signifier is articulated around a specific real which is the value of the theater, and it will always serve as verification for the analyst.


We are left with Joyce. Lacan, who regretted not having had him in analysis, concluded his teaching with him. Joyce interested Lacan early on and he was the last great artist of whom Lacan spoke.

First, Joyce leaves the signifier in order to go to the side of the letter. “

The letter is, radically speaking, an effect of discourse. What happens in Joyce’s work? The signifier stuffs the signified. What you hear is the signifier. The signified is the effect of the signifier. It is because the signifiers fit together, combine, and concertina—read Finnegans Wake—that something is produced by way of meaning (comme signifié) that may seem enigmatic, but is clearly what is closest to what we analysts, thanks to analytic discourse, have to read—slips of the tongue (lapsus).[35]

 Consequently, a body of work which from Ulysses to Finnegans Wake is entirely committed to slips of the tongue, to writing, is revealed as the analytical exercise by which Joyce the author keeps at bay something akin to psychosis. We’ve left the field of interpretation, of the signifier, for the workings of the letter, of writing.

In the continuous progression of his art, this word (which turns him into a symptom), is a word he writes, he breaks, he dismantles. Reading him, from his first critical essays, then A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and finally Finnegans Wake, one can hardly overlook the fact that a certain rapport to the word (parole) is forced upon him, so that he ends up smashing, dissolving language itself, dismantling it, since all phonetic identity is gone.[36]

 Only with Joyce do we leave art, the issue which organizes the hole, in order to have only the equivalent of an analysis, a series of knots undone and retied. The hole is foreclosed.

Does this departure from art put an end to literature?

This was Joyce’s desire according to Lacan. Was it conversely Lacan’s desire according to Joyce?

Joyce did enjoy (joui) the writing of Finnegans Wake, one could feel it. Now, the fact of it being published baffles me since it overrides literature.

To wake it up attests his intent to put an end to it.[37]

This article originally appeared in lacanian ink 19, Fall 2001. Images in this article courtesy of the artist.


[1] Lacan, Jacques, The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton, 1992, pp. 129-30.
[2] We find, for instance, that in Totem and Taboo, chapter 2, “Taboo and Emotional Ambivalence,” in fine, Freud argues: “The neuroses exhibit on the one hand striking and far-reaching points of agreement with those great social institutions, art, religion and philosophy.  But on the other hand they seem like distortions of them.  It might be maintained that a case of hysteria is a caricature of a work of art, that an obsessional neurosis is a caricature of religion and that a paranoic delusion is a caricature of a philosophical system.”  One is not dealing with science, but the difference with philosophy is not here forcibly pertinent (relevant).  Philosophy and science would have in common a certain systematization, or the spirit of system.  We know Freud’s expression in a letter to Ferenczi from October 6, 1910: “I have succeeded where the paranoiac fails.”
[3] Lacan, J., “La science et la vérité,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966.  First lecture of Le séminaire, Livre XIII: L’objet de la psychanalyse, 1965-1966, unpublished.
[4] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton, 1992, p. 52.
[5] ibid p. 130.
[6] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre XXII: R.S.I., 1974-1975,” in Ornicar?5, 1975, p. 55.
[7] ibid p. 50.
[8] ibid p. 54.
[9] ibid p. 41.
[10] For the body and the blind spot, see “Le séminaire XXIII: Le shinthome,” in Ornicar? 8, 1977.  For death see note 9.
[11] Jacques-Alain Miller’s “Commentary on the graphs,” in Jacques Lacan’s Écrits: A Selection , NY: Norton, 1977, p. 333.
[12] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, p. 120.
[13] Lacan, J., “La jeunesse de Gide ou la lettre du désir,” in Écrits, Paris: Seuil, 1966.
[14] Lacan, J., “Homage to Marguerite Duras, on Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein,” in Duras by Duras, San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1987.
[15] Freud, Sigmund, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood, S.E. XI, London: The Hogarth Press, 1986, p. 136.
[16] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre VI: Le désir et son interpretation, 1958-1959,” in Ornicar? 24, p. 23.
[17] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre XXIII: Le sinthome, 1975-1976,” in Ornicar? 6-11, especially the sessions of 11/18/1975 and 01/20/1976, in Joyce avec Lacan (see note 20).
[18] Lacan, J., Le séminaire, Livre XI: Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, 1964, Paris: Seuil, 1973, backcover.
[19] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre VI: Le désir et son interpretation, 1958-1959,” in Ornicar? 25, p. 25.
[20] “Joyce le symptôme I et II,” in Joyce avec Lacan, edited by Jacques Aubert, Paris: Bibl. Des Analytica, Navarin, 1987.
[21] Hegel, G.W.F., Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Oxford University Press, 1998.
[22] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton, 1992, pp. 135-6.
[23] In a conference on phonetics, at Ivry in 1988, Jacques-Alain Miller observed that “the voice as objet a does not belong to the register of sound.” “Jacques Lacan et la voix,” in Quarto 54, June 1994.
[24] A cartel accompanied by two musicians convince us (all the five members of the cartel) that the apologue of the prisoners is not without force if applied to the composition of certain pieces. Indeed, a structural approach rather than a compositional one might demonstrate a procedural identity between the chain, the knot, etc. and the temporal organization of a piece of music. This would avoid facile allegory which would run aground if one were looking for the sexual function of the dominant seventh, or castration in syncopation, for example.
[25] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre XXII: R.S.I., 1974-1975,” in Ornicar?5, 1975, p. 37.
[26] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton, 1992, p. 150.
[27] ibid p. 136.
[28] Gérard Wajcman examines Lacan’s treatment of modern art.  See his L’objet du siècle, Paris: Verdier, 1998.
[29] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton, 1992, p. 150.
[30] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre XXII: R.S.I., 1974-1975,” in Ornicar?7, 1975, p. 15.
[31] Lacan, J., “The agency of the letter in the unconscious or reason since Freud,” in Écrits: A Selection, NY: Norton, 1977, p. 153.
[32] Lacan., J., The Seminar, Book I: Freud’s Writings on Technique, 1953-1954, NY: Norton, 1988.
[33] Hamlet: Le séminaire, Livre VI, “Le désir et son interprétation, 1958-1959,” in Ornicar? 24 to 27; Oedipus and Antigone, as well as Claudel’s trilogy: The Seminar, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, NY: Norton; Genet’s Le Balcon: Le séminaire, Livre V: Les formations de l’inconscient, 1957-1958, Paris: Seuil; Racine’s Athalie: The Seminar, Book III: The Psychoses, 1955-1956, chapter XXI, NY: Norton; Molière’s Amphitryon: The Seminar, Book II: The Ego in Freud’s Theory and in the Techniques of Psychoanalysis, 1954-1955, chapter XXI, NY: Norton.  Also the preface to Wedekind’s play, L’Éveil du printemps, Paris: Gallimard, 1974.
[34] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire, Livre VI: Le désir et son interpretation, 1958-1959,” in Ornicar? 25, p. 18.
[35] Lacan, J., The Seminar, Book XX: On feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: Encore, 1972-1973, NY: Norton, 1998, chapter III.
[36] Lacan, J., “Le séminaire XXIII: Le shinthome,” in Ornicar? 8, 1977.
[37] “Joyce le symptôme II,” in Joyce avec Lacan, p. 36.


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