Curated by Alejandra Seeber

Beckett After Joyce // Sinthome as Symptom
Rodney Sharkey


Psychoanalysis is about what happens when things spill out from one place to another, even to places where there would seem to be little
connection. . .  What seems to be internal is already out there in the world, and whatever is external stands to be already there deep within.[1]


Figure 1 [2]


Figure 2 [3]


Figure 4 [4]

–           –           –

Read some pages from Finnegans Wake without trying to understand anything. It reads, but as someone of my circle remarked to me, that’s because we can feel present in it the jouissance of the one who wrote it.[5]

–           –           –

such as it was, fall and fall about, to the

brindishing of his charmed life, as toastified by his cheeriubi-

cundenances, no matter whether it was chateaubottled Guiness’s

or Phoenix brewery stout it was or John Jameson and Sons or

Roob Coccola or, for the matter of that, O’Connell’s famous old

Dublin ale that he wanted like hell [6]

–           –           –

Here form is content, content is form. . . . [Joyce’s] writing is not aboutsomething; it is that something itself. . . . When the sense is dancing, the words dance . . . [t]he language is drunk. The very words are tilted and effervescent . . . we cannot hope to snare the sense which is for ever rising to the surface of the form and becoming the form itself.[7]

–           –           –

After my father’s death I had trouble psychologically. The bad years were between when I had to crawl home in 1932 and after my father’s death in 1933. I’ll tell you how it was. I was walking up Dawson Street and I felt I couldn’t go on. It was a strange experience I can’t really describe. I found I couldn’t go on moving. So I had to rush into the famous pub in Dawson Street, Davy Byrne’s. I don’t know where I was going, maybe up to Harcourt Street. So I went into the nearest pub and got a drink–just to stay still. And I felt I needed help. So I went to Geoffrey Thompson’s surgery.[8]

–           –           –

Beckett presented himself [at the Tavistock Institute] to [Wilfred Ruprecht] Bion [in 1934] with severe anxiety symptoms, which he described in his opening session: a bursting, apparently arrhythmic heart, night sweats, shudders, panic, breathlessness, and, at its most severe, total paralysis.[9]

–           –           –

I used to lie on the couch and try to go back in my past. I think it probably did help. I think it helped me perhaps to control the panic. I certainly came up with some extraordinary memories of being in the womb. Intrauterine memories. I remember feeling trapped, of being imprisoned and unable to escape, of crying to be let out but no one could hear, no one was listening. I remember being in pain but being unable to do anything about it.[10]

–           –           –


Samuel Beckett’s first extended publication, the collection of short stories More Pricks than Kicks, 1934.

–           –           –

Half-past nine. It was raining bitterly when Belacqua, keyed up to take his bearings, issued forth [from out of the public house] into the unintelligible world of Lincoln Place. But he had bought a bottle. It was like a breast in the pocket of his reefer . . . he disinclined to stand, let alone walk . . . the next thing was his hands dragged roughly down from his eyes, which he opened on the vast crimson face of an ogre.  .  . This, he thought, is the face of some person talking. It was. It was that part of a civic guard pouring abuse upon him.[11]

–           –           –

It is crucial to Lacan’s importance for literary studies that one note his rethinking of creativity (sublimation). Unlike Freud, he did not view invention as neurotic displacement for Oedipal lack. Rather, a creation can function as a supplement or a bridge built between the ‘partial drives,’ the objet a, desire, and language. Art is a way to dwell inlanguage as a subject of unconscious desire, as well as a way to adorn the void.[12]


Samuel Beckett’s first novel, Murphy, published in 1938.

–           –           –

The eponymous hero having been immolated in an accident, an acquaintance accidentally spills his ashes in a London pub.

By closing time the body, mind and soul of Murphy were freely distributed over the floor of the saloon; and before another dayspring greyened the earth had been swept away with the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit.[13]

–           –           –

The purpose of art is not to permit repression, but to pose a question that the artist him or herself has not answered or resolved.[14]

–           –           –

Le symptôme est purement ce que conditionne lalangue, mais d’une certaine façon, Joyce le porte à la puissance du langage.[15]

–           –           –

Samuel Beckett completed analysis in 1936, writing to a friend:

If the heart had not put the fear of death into me, I would be still boozing & sneering & lounging around & feeling that I was too good for anything else. It was with a specific fear & a specific complaint that I went . . . to Bion to learn the . . . symptom of a diseased condition . . . in my “pre-history,” a bubble on the puddle . . . And the fact of its [now] bubbling more fiercely than ever is perhaps . . . from the waste that splutters most, when the bath is nearly empty.[16]

–           –           –

Year later, Beckett in conversation with Martin Esslin:

“Have you something against Ireland?”

“Oh no, I’m a fervent patriot and republican.”

“Why do you live in Paris?”

“Well, you know, if I were in Dublin I would just be sitting around in a pub.”[17]

–           –            –

Samuel Beckett the RE: publican

Writing “the local”

from Pub to publication

As Beckett said: “It is reclamation work, like the draining of the Zuyder Zee.”[18]

 –           –           –

Through the word–which is already a presence made of absence –absence itself comes to be named in an original moment.[19]

–           –           –

There must be something in the signifier which resonates. It is surprising that this has been in no way apparent to the English philosophers. I call them philosophers because they are not psychoanalysts–they have a rock-solid belief that language has no effect. They imagine that there are drives and so on . . . for they don’t know what a drive is: the echo in the body of the fact that there is speech [dire]; but for this speech to resonate . . . the body must be sensitive to it.[20]

–           –           –


Figure 5 [21] 


As in much late Lacanian theory, the symptom, or “sinthome” (an earlier, archaic spelling of symptom) is represented as a diagram, a Borromean knot (see fig. 1), knotting the Real, the Symbolic, and the Imaginary (RSI), with the sinthome taking the topological form of a splice between the three rings: as such, it is both a link and supplement to the RSI topology. In this regard, the sinthome supersedes the “Name-of-the-Father” as the lynch pin (or “point de caption”) of Lacanian theory. Variously, the phallus, the Nom du père and the sinthome have served the purpose of stabilising the symbolic order, which (by the time of Lacan’s formulating of the sinthome) itself is superseded by the more comprehensive and symbiotic relationship between the three elements of the tripartite RSI topology. In SeminarXXIII and related papers, Lacan proposes that James Joyce becomes the sinthome, binding the RSI topology together and thus forestalling psychosis. In such a formulation, the sinthome regulates the domain of the imaginary (sight and feeling) and the symbolic (language) to mediate the Real, negotiating it through new configurations of experience. However, a “shattering” also occurs, by linguistic strike. In this regard, in “Joyce the Symptom,” Lacan declares:

Mais qu’il lait publié, c’est ce don’t j’esperérais, s’il était là, le convaincre qu’il voulait être Joyce le symptôme, en tant que, le symtôme, il en donne l’appareil, l’essence, l’abstraction. . . . Le symptôme est purement ce que conditionne lalangue, mais d’une certaine façon, Joyce le porte à la puissance du langage sans que pour autant rien n’en soit analyzable, c’est ce qui frappe, et littéralement interdit – au sens où l’on dit – je reste interdit. (“Joyce the Symptom, pp. 25 -27)

[I wish were he here, that I could convince him that he wanted to be Joyce the Symptom, of the symptom he has its apparatus, its essence, its abstraction. . . . The symptom is, purely, that which conditions lalangue, but in a certain way, Joyce carries the symptom to the very power of language–without, for all that, making any of it analyzable, it is what strikes and literally forbids–in the sense that one says–I am dumbfounded.]

In “carrying” his symptom to a new threshold, Joyce succeeds in dumbfounding his audience through his final novel, Finnegans Wake.

Samuel Beckett appears to negotiate an absent father through both analysis and writing. A traumatic moment in a pub is replayed as an escape from the anesthetizing effects of alcohol. In his early work, discussed here, he moves from the pub to publication. From a Lacanian perspective, in acting out his mental distress in symbolic form, Beckett is not using his symptom to challenge the symbolic order, so although he uses his symptoms creatively, he does not yet arrive at the precipice of the artist. Later, when he rejects Joycean omnipotence, he inhabits his own voice (“dwells in language”) as its own distinctive “strike.”


[1] Tony Twaites, Reading Freud: Psychoanalysis as Cultural Theory(London: Sage Publications, 2007), pp. 2-3.
[2] Shelly Brivic’s illustration of Lacan’s Borromean Knot. In Shelly Brivic, Joyce Through Lacan and Zizek: Explorations (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 15.
[3] Lacan’s Borromean Knot reproduced by the base of three pints of Guinness on a blank A4 sheet, Davy Byrne’s Pub, Dublin, June 16, 2012.
[4] John Minihan, Portrait of Samuel Beckett, Royal Court Theatre, London, 1976.
[5] Jacques Lacan, “Seminar XXIII,” 1976, Ornicar? (1976): 6-11, Jacques-Alain Miller (ed.), trans. Luke Thurston. Page numbers refer to Luke Thurston’s unpublished English translation, p. 5. Retrieved from https://www.scribd.com/doc/97204361/Seminar-of-Jacques-Lacan-Book-XXIII-Le-Sinthome
[6] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), P. 382.1-6.
[7] Samuel Beckett, “Dante … Bruno . Vico . . Joyce,” Ruby Cohn (ed.), Disjecta: Miscellaneous Writings and a Dramatic Fragment (London: John Calder 1983), p.27)
[8] James Knowlson, Samuel Beckett: Damned to Fame (London: Bloomsbury, 1996), p. 67
[9] James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 206.
[10]  James Knowlson, Damned to Fame, p. 210.
[11] Samuel Beckett, More Pricks than Kicks (London: Calder & Boyars, 1974), p. 75.
[12] Ellie Raglan-Sullivan, “Lacan’s Seminars on James Joyce: Writing as Symptom and ‘Singular Solution’” J. Vera (ed.), Compromise Formations: Current Directions in Psychoanalytic Criticism, pps. 61-85 (Ohio: Kent State University, 1989), p. 75.
[13] Samuel Beckett, Murphy (London: Picador, 1973), p. 154
[14] Ellie Raglan-Sullivan, “Singular Solution,” p. 69
[15] Jacques Lacan, “Joyce the Symptom.” Talk given on the 16th June 1975.  Text established by J-A Miller partially from the notes of Eric Laurent. Jacques-Alain Miller (ed.), Joyce Avec Lacan (Paris: Navarin éditeur, 1987), p. 27
[16] Samuel Beckett, The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 1, 1929-1940, (eds.) M. D. Fehsenfeld, L. M. Overbeck, D. Gunn, and G. Craig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), p. 259.
[17] Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist (London: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 265.
[18] Samuel Becket (1933-35 some unpublished), “Psychology Note Books,” TCD MS 10971/7, 10971/8, Manuscript Department, Trinity College Dublin Library. Quoted in Matthew Feldman, Beckett’s Books: A Cultural History of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Interwar Notes’ (London: Continuum, 2006), p. 31.
[19] Jacques Lacan, “The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis.” Ecrits: A Selection, B. Fink (ed.) trans. B. Fink, H. Fink and R. Grigg (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), p. 53.
[20] Jacques Lacan, “Seminar XXIII,” p. 4.
[21] Samuel Beckett on the set of “Eh Joe,” Berlin, 1996.
Retrieved from www.medienkunstnetz.de/artist/beckett/biography

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