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Caché, The Hole, and In the Mood for Love: inaugurating post-human structures of desire

The Hole
In the Mood for Love

Do you know what people did in the old days, when people still had secrets?
– 2046
A secret always makes you tremble.
– J. Derrida

The Hole, In the Mood for Love, and Caché are cinematic examples of the limits of postmodern styles of representation and anticipations of what lies between, or beyond, the limits of postmodernity. This between or beyond, what I can only name as the post-human, is a coming to terms with the absolute negativity of the human condition by acknowledging the fundamental lack that structures both our existence and being as creatures of paradox. That the human condition is absolutely negative may not necessarily appear evident — but let us assume that it is; to say that these films acknowledge the fundamental lack that structures our existential and ontological situation as a situation of creaturely paradox may seem even less evident than our first proposition, but let us also assume that it is so. By allowing these propositions to constitute truth in our analysis of these films I hope it will reveal that — far from not achieving any kind of “logic” or “conclusion” or “closure” — the films offer us the paradigm of the postmodern structure of desire and each of the films traces new structures of desire.

The three films will be linked together on the level of desire and the notion the of “the hole.” The analysis will be arranged in this order: desire-hole / hole-desire, to examine each film’s approach to desire and the hole, and the logic that each film reaches as its conclusion regarding the approach. At the level of outcome (i.e. love or hate) the films’ truths diverge. In this divergence what emerges, we wager, being is opened up to the procedure to truth. In the comparison between the three films, the structure of post-human desire becomes visible.

Since we live in a universe “without secrets” (Baudrillard) we have to imitate, invent, or simulate them in order to “make sense” of the silence of the Body’s arousal[1] and the fact that violence is mute.[2] It is in fact this silence, this absence that is infinite: silence is the gap, or hole, or lack, or space, or stain that allows discourse to approach infinity and thus set a limit to the Real, a limit for desire to approach and be turned away from / towards its Object,[3] or for drive to exceed the limit.[4]

Post-human desire uses the postmodern axiom “there is no meaning / truth” as its ground; a true posthuman paradigm has yet to be articulated as its structures are only now becoming visible,[5] whereas postmodern desire recognizes that desire is fundamentally structured around the impossible impossibility of an absence (e.g. “there’s no such thing as No”). Furthermore, postmodernism recognizes the “hole” (or “stain” in the case of Caché) created by absence is caused by a trauma in experience.  However, postmodernism recognizes this only through negation, by not trying to cover up the hole, by leaving the stain and doing nothing about it.[6]

The trauma that is the cause of absence is a rupture in the Symbolic Order, a breakdown of the exchanges supposed to be “guaranteed” by the Big Other and the failure of fantasy (i.e. symbolic-fiction) to constitute a relationship between the Imaginary (i.e. Object/s) and the Real (i.e. Thing/s). When the totality of one’s Being-in-the-world is skewered by an Event, postmodernism recognizes this as the limit; in fact, it might be said that post-modernism is obsessed with these limits only in order to continuously (re)create a limit and surpass or “transgress” it — widening the holes, adding more blemish to stain.

Postmodernism holds onto the cynical belief of its own confidence in being able to discern its own desire as apart (as operating apart) from the socially operative system of drives in which the postmodern subject is immersed and subject to; it denies the limitation of itself as an implied tautology: “there is no truth” is itself a truth that negates itself, etc. Even postmodern modes of irony end up resembling this cynicism because instead of the subject’s desire being authentic (i.e. not symbolic fiction) all desires become symbolic fiction, structured by Force-Relations (which are socio-historically determined, or determine what constitutes socio-historicity, or both, or neither depending on the “flavour of the month”).[7] The fundamental truth post-modernism asserts is that “the best mask for a thing is the thing itself”[8] and this is the aspect of postmodernity that most often is overlooked, which has also, if obliquely, inaugurated the post-human.

The post-human mode of desire does away with all of post-modernity’s questions of whether the hole that desire is structured around is symbolic fiction, or not; whether the subject of desire is an object of ideology, or not; whether or not subjects determine force-relations – or force-relations determine subjects. Post-humanity does not care for such questions. In either case, the result is the same: the codification of the elements / Objects of the Symbolic Order, approved (or disapproved) by the Big Other. Another way to articulate this codification might be: the determination of necessity; “necessity” being always-already a dumb contingency, while also being always already socio-historically determined, which means that certain Objects in different socio-historical time-periods, across different geo-political boundaries will appear as “necessities” — more “necessary” than others – while the pursuit for Things is the driving force behind the desire for necessity. The post-human is primarily concerned with desire, not only as it dis / appears but as it is registered as desire as such. Whereas post-modernity is concerned with “transgressing the boundaries” (with the always mysterious “beyond” of any limit) — post-humanity concerns itself with the limit itself and all that it contains, or with establishing a limit,[9] in order to examine, but not go beyond the limit once it is established.[10]

The (post-human) subject being discussed is caught in a symbolic network, or several symbolic networks that pre-exist him. For example: language, history, anatomy, etc. — or the Real of raw, non-filtered experience — all determine the subject, but they do not completely determine him … all the time, at least. This is to say, in some cases the subject’s determination by the Real is inconsistent, cannot come to either coherence or completion because the discourse around any area of the Real is structured around an absence.[11] At the heart of every set is Zero or Void, but this does not mean that all sets are “equal:” the concept of “transfinite numbers” means that there are some infinities which are greater than others because they contain a higher order of “Zero-Void Elements,” or properties that traverse every other set — yet only leave traces of themselves, appear as subtractions (from the situation). Postmodernism recognizes Zero as the only transfinite element, allowing for the processes of equalization and simulation to take place; the post-human cares only for the form Zero takes as value — even the minimal value approaching Zero or the maximal value approaching Infinity or some value between the two.[12]

I agree with Andrew Gibson, in Towards A Postmodern Theory of Narrative, when he says that “narratives [are] sets of signifying practices” (69, my italics) — if the word “sets” is understood in terms of (Lacanian) “set theory.” I believe that Caché (Haneke), The Hole (Tsai), and In the Mood for Love (Wai) comprise a set, a certain ordering of elements with certain properties in common. Each (film) is an element with its own properties — and so are subsets of the larger set, whose name is “Trauma.”[13] The structure of trauma is the structure of “Being”[14] and “Event,”[15] in which the “Subject” experiences a “rupture” in the discourse he forms around the elements that order his reality (i.e. his approach to / defense from the Real) — the order that provides the elements, organizes and constitutes his Imaginary defenses (symbolically formulated as fantasy) against the necessary and excessive but concentrated remainder of the Real of Jouissance.

This trace takes the form of a subtraction (absence or hole: The Hole, IMFL) or an unbearable “addition” (stain: Caché). All of the films are about the approach to the hole / stain that the Real leaves in / on the subject. The former two articulate object-causes of Love – whereas Caché spells out, letter by letter, the erotics of Hate.

Desire is the transformation of drive for the Real of satisfaction into drive for the desire of the Real of Jouissance. Jouissance satisfies needs beyond need: Desire as the approach to jouissance is what the three films are reflections of. Bataille remarks that “the desire for ecstasy can’t exclude method” (Bataille, 1998, 29) and I would say that each film presents a certain order of desire, an “inaugural” (Gibson, 87) order, to be sure, that uses (similarly to Potter’s “camera lyric”) “a realism of particulars … giving primacy to the visible” (ibid, 81). However — I would even go so far as to say that each film, in its own way is in opposition to Gibson’s claim that

No description of the world has a privileged [‘mirroring’] relation to reality … That description [‘classic realist text’] cannot finally escape a Baudrillardian indictment as implying a ‘theory of truth and secrecy’ to which ‘the notion of ideology still belongs’ (75-6).

The basis for my disagreement with Gibson has to do with the fact of closure: that things can be counted as one and objects can link different things together into an order called a set. Now, if this is true, we see that sets can reflect one another if they are of the same Symbolic Order: a closed, yet indeterminate constellation of Signifiers. They may contain identical “transfinite numbers.” Transfinite numbers may be understood as signifiers that are always registered as having some value regardless of the set they are in; this is not to say that the value of the transfinite element(s) will have the same value from one set to another but that these elements are registered as value, in the form of value as such, which allows for the possibility of an operation to take place (e.g. 1+1=2; or a comparison between works’; or a translation from one language to another).

It is this absence, this hole, this secret, this stain that creates value for discourse. Discourse tries to fill in or wash away that which makes it valuable – what photographs try to capture — what philosophy tries to systemize in order to form patterns of recognition — what only fiction can represent: the arousal of the phallus-signifier that penetrates being with an excess and vanishes with a trace only to be recorded as an event in retrospect (i.e. advent and event). In a sense the event is predictable in many ways and can actually precede the advent of itself, as prophecy or Utopian fantasy; however, and this is where Truth becomes a factor, the forcing of a pre-fabricated, simulated, directly asserted (truth-)Event onto the “advent-ousness” of Being can only end in disaster, i.e. Caché; Majid’s suicide is an extreme gesture that accomplishes very little, if not nothing at all. The reverse of this is not believing in the Truth of an event that offers a procedure to Truth: The Hole, which leads to failure – death as the Final Fantasy of desire. Or, a kind of “syntheses” of the two where neither disaster nor failure is produced but a kind of partial success is achieved: In the Mood for Love’s character’s “genitals cannot be imagined (and, therefore, cannot be Real)!”

The notion of limit can be addressed through The Hole: just as every man’s penis can go this far but no further — infinity (dis)appears just beyond this. When the man puts his leg through the hole in the floor — this is the most pregnant scene in the film. It is pure parody but dead serious in its psychoanalytic implication: the moment he registers pain in the Real, he encounters the limit of his desire. He is willing to go this far (i.e. to the experience of the sensation of physical pain — more specifically being stuck) in order to be a part of the lady downstairs’ apartment (her Symbolic Order). New elements make new parts, A-part: to be her phallus-signifier (objet a), the event that ruptures her being, the discourse that fills her hole (read: not some silly napkin talking to Nobody on the phone), the thing that dances with her that’s not a fire extinguisher, the one he embraces (or wants to embrace) that’s not also a fire extinguisher (one may here ask: what is the point of all the fire extinguishers because it’s always raining? even in the fantasy scene!? Answer: insistence of the Big Other), the one for the other being the thing that falls on them that isn’t the rain (or garbage), the cat he feeds that never hides, the plumber she can call to fix her leak.

The Hole can only be understood as a “narrative” in the most rudimentary sense: it represents exactly how the conditions of post-modern ideology, as constructed by post-modern discourse, provide the ground for structures of post-human desire to emerge. The title is too naïve and too obvious to really be effective as irony: it is, I would say, the Zero level of post-modernity. This is to say, and this will be returned to later, it is not actually a Value of Zero, but the minimal Value that approaches Zero. The Hole is about a hole — quite simply — but also about what fills this (W)Hole: namely, Fantasy. Fantasy is a symbolic structure whose referent is an object-cause (of desire). Grace Chang’s songs, and Tsai’s filming of them, represent not just what the characters desire but how they are supposed to desire:[16] they are the impossible Objects of the character’s symbolically constituted desire, yet subjectively determined in terms of “choice.” The rest of the movie represents the elements of the (deteriorating) Symbolic Order — no longer guaranteed by any Other: Things, in terms of causes of desire are, certainly, determined by the BO but, in The Hole’s representation, the BO’s objective indifference and non-involvement in those causes actually, in some ways at least, prevents and obstructs the characters from their desire for each other (each being the cause of the other’s desire for the other, who has a connection or resemblance to the One, that is, the Object).

The man puking down the hole and the woman spraying bug spray up into the man’s apartment indicate that we are witnessing a “closed” symbolic order: an order outside the Big Other’s gaze, an order in which it is the other’s gaze that determines and guarantees a lawful (or unlawful) exchange between subjects of signifiers (i.e. the Man, the Woman, the Hole). The masturbation scene with the woman, the man embracing the fire extinguisher, the woman’s (hopeless) determination to “fix” the hole, the man’s friendship with “me-me the cat,” are all examples of either characters cause(s) of desire. In the woman’s case, the paper towel represents a piece of the Order that arouses her desire for another; her determination to “fix” the hole is her approach to that other.

For the man, puking down the hole is an involuntary ejaculation — the pure spontaneous (premature!?) excess of joy (from a night of drinking!) and the remainder it produces (that goes down the hole): this marks and is a parody of the “remainder” like quality of sexual contact without the intermediary of desire-fantasy.[17] His friend, the cat, represents the effect of the wound that The Hole of post-modernity opens up. This effect being a kind of tenderness[18] around the blood-stained inconsistencies and forced closures of (post)modern modes of hyper-communication: where the representation of the Real passes beyond — transgresses — representation and duplicates all the signs of the code of the Real itself. It goes so far beyond what is necessary that it supersedes the Real of the Subject – deepening the already wide and asymmetrical split (between I and Other) that constitutes subjectivity proper. The man is thoroughly exposed to us in the scenes when he is calling to the cat — feeding it when it comes; the scene where the cat does not appear is the breakdown of his precious, because closed, symbolic order with his friend the cat. His hammering the hole when the woman succumbs to the disease is the breakdown of that relationship: the breakdown of their already dysfunctional (defunct, postmodern) symbolic order.

What happens to the woman — even if the disease is a purely functional literary device — is symptomatic of what happens to those without any real wounds, to those living at the Zero level of post-modernity. One crawls underneath all the layers of “tissue paper” — into the emptiness of one’s “Egyptomania”[19] in despair of ever communicating all the elements of one’s desire and the order one arranges them in; this elemental order being what leads one to that particular hole (e.g. old man’s bean sauce).

These characters are reacting to the situation of post-modernity in a strictly post-human fashion. They really take no notice of the Voice’s warnings of the disease contained within the water that is nearly indestructible: once the hole is opened up, it creates a (de)centre of gravity of which the Man and the Woman are satellites. Their reaction is neither banal nor extra-ordinary – it simply never manifests on the level of the material or symbolic: it stays imaginary and the image of the two plays itself out as it is. The first fantasy, Calypso, has the woman dancing in the elevator in a bright sequined dress; we slowly pan in, past the broken mailboxes — and there she is. It is important to note that although the scene is highly stylized it does not eliminate the remainder of the Real — it simply focuses in on the Objective surplus of Calypso. The woman dancing in the elevator is representative of the phallus not as penis, possession of man or of the father but her thing — the MOther’s thing: the phallus as the square root of negative One.[20] This is the case if the elevator represents the (artificial in)vagina(tion),[21] if the woman dancing represents the phallus (that is, the presence of an aroused desire) — which she does because the desire she arouses, especially after just the first fifteen minutes of The Hole, is our, the Spectator’s desire. In the Real the Phallus is always, as Badiou formulates the formulation of Being and the retrospective structuring of the Event, “the-One-that-is-Not.” The “phallus” is first “the one,” the limit point of an encounter in a situation with the Real-of-Jouissance, with the Jouissance-of-the-Real. In this way, and in this way alone does it resemble the obscenity of the erect male organ insofar as it ineluctably-inevitably becomes what it always already was: the-one-that-is-Not (meaning: the phallus is not inexhaustible, even if infinite; the penis does, after all, have an aperture of its own). This is why the phallic parodies within The Hole — as suggested by the “Final Fantasy” of the movie — point to the absurdity of so-called “Real” sex.

If The Hole suggests that “Real” sex, and its phallic-symbol simulations are absurd — In the Mood for Love suggests “Real” sex is impossible without the absurdity of the simulations supposedly based on “it.” In the Mood for Love is excessively baroque in its representation of post-modern desire: it is constantly showing the signs of the Things one desires (e.g. all the shots of people’s midsections, especially the woman’s posterior) and pretending that there is an Object behind them (e.g. “fusion”). There is an excess of limits. In fact, the film promises nothing except what the title suggests; these characters are certainly-constantly in the mood for love, forever in a state of desire because the Thing that would cause desire is restrained not just by the Big Other in the form of gossip but their own constitution as ethical subjects. There are only exceptions and no (real) rules. That the Big Other in this film is really indifferent to “transgressions” of the “sacred law” of marriage is obvious (e.g. the woman’s boss, the man’s sleazy friend); however, the characters adherence to this code of values allows their relationship to achieve the level of transgression on the purely symbolic level: they fuse when he publishes their first story. She is not credited with authorship, which adds to the secrecy of their transgression and furthers our point that the phallus is Woman’s possession insofar as she authorizes its status as “the-One” and remains, carries on even after it becomes “the-one-that-is-Not” – her desire for More(!) after the One has been exhausted. By Recognizing the Limit they Enter a Path unto Infinity — a path which they neither follow to its “end” nor really even attempt to go beyond.

The position each character takes is post-human in the sense that they, not without sorrow nor joy, submit to “laws” that Nobody cares about: this is not just a “passion for rules” (Baudrillard) but a sacrifice and response to the system that is indifferent to its own rules — the two operate without any aim, or goal; their affinity for each other cannot be located in the register of instinct (necessity, pathology) or of drive (morality, sociality) alone.

The woman’s position in the office, inside her boss’s private office, gives her a perspective on adultery from an interior male perspective (she is “trans-gendered” in a weird way) — yet she is also confronted with another perspective on married life: “couples should spend time together” says her elderly neighbour. This points to the point already made about the BO’s indifference to its own laws and the rules that emerge in order to “aestheticize” transgressions and desublimate desire for (Impossible-Logical) Objects into drive for (Attainable-Substitutional-Causal) Things — or part-objects.[22] This relates to the social boundaries in place and the surplus necessity of secrets in a world without them. This is the postmodern codification of transgression — the terminal point of “God is dead” where nothing is permissible because not prohibited and therefore diminished in terms of the Thing’s ability to summon forth the phallus in the presence of desire’s Object.

The man, whispering his secret to the hole in the tree, shows his fidelity to idealism, to resisting certain temptations — he does after all admit, “I’m so bad!” Secrets establish closed symbolic orders within the overarching “Other’s discourse.” Just like being wounded by the Other (as in The Hole: the hole kind of “just appears,” or like the way an erection can “just suddenly dis / appear”), is something that is impossible to completely articulate to the other who has the exact same wound as us – but inverted. The point is made: for the man, the hole appears in the floor; for the woman the ceiling. The inverted wound is also the difference between the sexes and the various ways in which they form discourse around the Real trauma of sexual differentiation.

That one necessarily needs an other — is the fundamental axiom of desire: even if that other is a screen, this is all it takes, whether it be the digital screen of pornography that hides (the) Sex(ual relationship) or the screen of the female that hides Woman. If one were to be in direct contact with Woman, or the Other, this connection would — theoretically — be the end of human desire as we know it. It would function as a meta-language with internal consistency and internal completeness and would completely bypass the need for mediation (the phallus-signifier) as such because there would be no “hole” — it would already be “whole” in and of itself. But, then, this would not be the phallus as constituted by desire and fantasy but a phallic symbol that does not desire because it is always erect, which cannot be aroused or afflated because it cannot be deflated.[23]

Their “rehearsals” and the writing of their story are astoundingly Gestalt. The transference that passes between the two is uncanny. Uncanny in the sense of a virtual doubling (“I don’t know what your husband / wife would order … he / she has the exact same purse / tie”) that results in the barred image of desire’s object. Or, to be more precise: the logical conclusion of desire’s reason. The film embraces the possibility that there is no such thing as a sexual relationship. Ring images in the film … but bound to what? Certainly not tradition, or their spouses: bound to the absence of the other-husband / wife, and of the sexual relationship. Instead we have the symbolic relationship as the Two establish a closed system that is under the gaze of an indifferent BO. In order to have a symbolic relationship, a connection between two objects, between two sets of properties: the Real All Beyond Representation must be excluded from the signifying exchanges, except in the form of speechlessness.

When she cries after their “rehearsals” this is an example of the Symbolic’s power (i.e. of language, representation, substitution) to have effects (to cause, and produce affects) in the register of the Real: when and where language turns into incoherent sounds the body makes.[24] Just because language posits “the-One” — though it always turns out to be “the-one-that-is-Not” — this sometimes does not prevent it from appearing to be, and producing all the effects of the Real in the Real via the symbolic: this is to say, to paraphrase Anne Carson, that “in love, to the lover, the signs of truth in the gestures of the beloved become truth itself.”[25]

“When did it start?” Here may be inscribed the difference between logic and reason. Logic aims at a conclusion or cause: the beginning or end, despite being posited as such, does not actually exist. Every logical beginning or end that attempts to assert finality or initiation is essentially an empty set. Reason aims at consistency: the indefinite extension of sensible elements … the paradox is that “consistency” cannot be obtained from an infinite set — at some point indefiniteness must be suspended so that the elements within can be arranged one by one. Logic and reason aim at, and always miss, one another.[26] I disagree with the statement there is no desire in the film In the Mood for Love. Instances where Eros appears, and appears naked, are when she is at the Neighbours’ door just looking for a chat; when they are first talking about their liking of martial arts serials; when he is eating his dumpling alone: desire satisfied because substituted and desire deferred because only partially attained. Here we see desire in its poverty, lack, and want — but also in abundance: a reaching out that grasps … something(?).

As viewers of Caché we cannot deny our involvement in Georges’ predicament — as Georges does with Majid: this is the whole point of Haneke withholding the answer to the question of “who is sending the tapes?” It is implied on another, subtler level when Pierrot returns home by his own volition after admitting that he had also disappeared by his own volition (a little like the boy who cried “wolf!”). Not that we know whom, or that we are sending Georges the tapes (which is as unlikely as Georges sending himself those tapes) — but that we are not uninvolved in their production. The influence and presence of History in Caché is stronger than in either of the other two films, and plays itself out on the “micro-level” insofar as Georges represents one of the “deux frères” — except he is Cain wearing the mask of Abel. This seems to go against what I have already said, but perhaps not: Is Majid, then, wearing the mask of Cain while being Abel? Or is there always already no difference between “Noble” and “Savage?” To Majid, Georges appears as what he is — to others outside that system, others who happen to catch glimpses of the “real” Georges: its appearance is denied (we shall return to this later).

His position within the symbolic order allows him to effectively be one while appearing as the other. This explains, somewhat, Georges’ inability to acknowledge Majid’s death as an event — to dismiss it as simulation — because acknowledging this would effectively destroy the discourse that Georges has erected in order to defend himself against the scene of Majid being taken away as a boy; the advent of which he undoubtedly caused (although not entirely because his parents also colluded with Georges by believing his lies, his simulations, to be true, to be of the order of the Real).

By refusing to acknowledge Majid’s suicide — which is Majid trying to offer Georges the gift of death (Derrida) by sacrificing his own life, Majid carving a hole in his own throat for Georges to descend and whisper his secret into — Georges refuses to complete this exchange by not changing his own position. Majid’s act goes from one of heroism (if Georges only would say openly and honestly why he doesn’t trust his wife, why he is so angry — what’s on his mind) to one of absurdity. Majid essentially commits “philosophical suicide”[27] in order to prove, to Georges, that he is not sending the tapes — Georges turns the truth of Majid’s act into a convoluted and complex sophistry that can only exacerbate the situation.[28] “Exacerbate” here does not mean, necessarily, a subtraction — in fact, if Georges were to subtract certain elements of his excessive and unnecessary defenses,[29] which are imposed by the symbolic order but also freely chosen by him, he might be able to change. Instead of going “beyond the limit” Georges stays within it.

In Caché the “hole” opened up comes from a moment (but also a history) of intense violence — resulting in death / orgasm: in the sense of orgasm, Caché‘s “hole” appears as a stain that must be erased with discourse.[30] Georges refuses to acknowledge the Real of the event (of his lies / of Majid’s suicide) – and prefers to stay in simulation. Even after Majid KILLS HIMSELF, Georges still thinks it’s a game – that “this is just what HE wants.” Georges is the one who “plays games” in the sense that he has been seduced by the surface abyss of his own simulation: he still cannot escape — even after Majid’s suicide — the simulation of his own paranoid fantasy turned outwards, “He Hates Me!”

Georges is in the Master’s position — he is the protagonist. Everybody is so interested in him — his mother: “what’s wrong?”; his wife: “why won’t you tell me!?”; Majid’s son: “why are you so angry?”; and, finally, Majid: “why do you act like we are strangers?” The secret and the hole are Baudrillardian “artificial invaginations.” The person sending the tapes is never revealed: this absence signifies George’s attitude of non-involvement with the events of which HE IS A PART and his non-inclusion of information.[31]

Georges, the Master (in terms of class as well) does not know his desire — he sees it “performed” for him. All the lower class characters treat Georges with a respect he does not return. For example Majid’s suicide, his encounter with the bicycling black man, and when Pierrot is returned, the Woman who returns him is obviously from a lower class: her entire performance is to satisfy the master by politely refusing to enter the house of the master as she shows deference to Anne (also like the black man bicycling). Georges is the Absolute master in both of these senses and in the sense that it is his desire that prompts Majid’s suicide — although Georges himself would probably deny that this was his desire. It is his desire insofar as the master only knows his desire in terms of the slave’s performance; the performance that the slave performs based on the signs of the master’s enjoyment. Thus Majid’s suicide presents Georges with das Ding.

The whole film (Caché) moves towards the moment of the stain: the film up to this point anticipates the blood spatter on the wall — the film after that point is trying to escape but only ends up returning to the originary moment (the exact nature of which is left ambiguous on purpose). The moment it returns us to, however, is not Majid cutting his throat but the final moments of the film, which recalls the Deux frères poster above Georges as he exits the theatre after witnessing Majid’s suicide: when Pierrot and Majid’s son are talking. The question is: will these two resolve their fathers’ enmity (thus bringing the cycle of hatred and violence to a bloody conclusion)? Or will they carry on their cultural and paternal antagonism and let the sequence of (surplus) repression continue to inaugurate episodes of “repressive desublimation”[32] (e.g. Majid’s suicide)?

The film returns us to this question and gives no answers. Georges tells his wife about Majid’s suicide he says “it’s no joke.” Later on, after elaborating exactly what lies he told his parents about Majid when they were children, he says of Majid’s suicide: “What kind of sick joke is that? I’ll be accused of murder. Then he would have gotten what he wanted.” Even after Georges has witnessed Majid commit suicide — he still thinks it’s a “game.” The tape of Georges threatening Majid that was sent to Georges boss signifies: “look at what the exterior of this gentleman hides” — here is the complete contradiction of Rousseau’s “noble-savage.”[33] George’s civilized, dignified exterior masks a pathological monstrosity: he fears everything and doesn’t trust anyone – not even his own wife, when he doesn’t share his “hunch” with her. The hunch which, in the final analysis – I believe to be proven wrong, but not proven “who”

We may say that George’s case is the exact opposite of either of the situations in The Hole or IMFL, insofar as he refuses to acknowledge his own participation in the advent of Majid’s suicide: he knows the discourse of the event but refuses to acknowledge its importance — refuses to allow it to come to the surface and penetrate his being. Instead he keeps secrets from everyone who trusts him, and this also reflects a kind of fascist hatred of women that Georges transfers onto the other (i.e. Majid and his son; the black guy on the bike), which Georges shows signs of.[34] Georges wears two masks: the Noble and the Savage. When his boss sees the tape of him threatening Majid and Georges aggression is visible — it is the boss who destroys it: this implies that Georges aggression is not merely pathological but symptomatic. Which is to say that Georges does not simply (not) act for purely subjective (‘pathological’) motives but, also, for motives which have been symbolically inscribed by the Big Other – implied by the fact that it is the ‘boss’ who covers up Georges irrational threats, the ‘boss’ who erases the stain.

The Hole embraces the event in fantasy, but the part when he is smoking and she is on the balcony — both are pretending not to see the other when the other is looking — is the impossibility of the fantasy ever becoming Real; the end of the film is anticipated in the third fantasy sequence when she dances with the fire extinguisher and is kicked out of the room. It is the woman’s death that is represented in her ejaculation from the room. In the Mood for Love’s characters start with the simulation and slowly build to a symbolic fusion (i.e. writing stories together) that never makes it to the Real. These two films show that Love’s power is on the symbolic level — Caché, on the other hand, shows us the disturbing and post-human truth of fundamentalism: that it is only the Erotics of Hate, in terms of extreme acts (like Majid’s suicide) that can immediately affect the Real — that such acts are still always already a wager that can either become an event for truth, or a simulation leading to betrayal thus leading to disaster.

Whereas post-modernity represents desire on the level of “subjective destitution”[35] the post-human uses that position to articulate possible structures that desire may take in such situations; The Hole follows the Imaginary trajectory of desire, which constitutes the image of fusion between inverted images of the traumatic hole-in-being that is the event; IMFL directly confronts the necessity of simulated secrets in the absence of any Real secrets;[36] and, finally, Caché indicts us to place ourselves in the Master’s position,[37] whose desire is continuously played out yet never allowed to come to completion because unacknowledged as the site of a potential event for the procedure to truth.[38]

Another formulation I would like to add which is not unrelated to the idea of the post-human is between the masculine and feminine gaze. Caché and IMFL exemplify the difference between the two. In Caché — it is Georges who has the masculine gaze and it is every other character (especially his wife), who is seeking to penetrate his “depth,” that has the feminine. George sticks to surfaces; the others are looking for depth. Much differently, the difference between the masculine and feminine gaze appears in IMFL most starkly in 2046: the flashback to IMFL when they are riding home in the car together, he is leaning on her shoulder, sleeping while she looks tiredly ahead. The male gaze is at rest here: he is asleep; the female gaze — her gaze — is wide open and so is ours insofar as we read this scene for some type of “deeper” meaning.

The Hole, unfortunately, cannot really be fit into this formulation as it is more about diverting the gaze from the real into fantasy; however, I think that Sally Potter’s YES illustrates this point —especially when the husband and wife are fighting at the dinner table: the husband just wants the same surface to re-appear, the wife wants their relationship to have the depth it used to have. She is more postmodern as she goes “beyond the limits” and has an affair with a man from a very different Symbolic Order (the man cheats but with a familiar element, his wife’s friend) … Finally, the difference between IMFL and 2046 is on the level of the difference between postmodern and post-human: 2046 breaks all the rules IMFL sets up and sticks to. Or between the “masculine” / “feminine” gaze: 2046 throws all the surfaces that IMFL restrains in our face – how postmodern!

The three films show us three sites – it is up to us to inscribe the event onto the being of our experience of this media; the post-modern desire for “beyond the limit” is being replaced by the post-human desire for a “beyond within the limit” (e.g. the coast-line of Britain) – a beyond-that-is-Not. The three films “plead guilty”[39] to being pathological, to being socio-historically determined, and for not being able to transcend the limitations of unlimited universes of simulation: it is this plea that opens up a path away from post-modernity’s aporias’ — that is not a return to a Lost Object (e.g. Medievalism, Romanticism, etc.) or simply the pursuit of an impossible Utopian Fantasy (e.g. Fascism, Totalitarianism, etc.). These films are attempts to inaugurate, or, in the case of Caché, merely articulate a few of the patterns that the desire of the post-human will take: for love or for hate. The Gift of Death will be given whether the world wills it or no.[40]

The question, now, is: After postmodernism, after everything has been fused — Heaven and Hell, Noble and Savage, etc. — and transgressed (e.g. quantum mechanics is the smallest level of “anything goes” according to the postmodern New Age Obscurantist), what remains? What is left? What is right? It is not easy — it may well prove impossible — to accept this gift. And there is also no way to refuse. Welcome to the Real of Post-Humanity.

[1] Arousal only appears in response to desire in the form of the phallus.

[2] Violence, whether “natural,” as in natural disaster, or intentional, as in de-liberate or re-strained never speaks for itself.

[3] I.e. the Thing being the Limit behind which the Object dis / appears upon being found.

[4] Drive, while reaching its goal, misses its aim: exacerbation.

[5] For another glimpse of the post-human, Michel Houellebecq’s novels, Whatever, The Elementary Particles, Platform, and Possibility of an Island are paragon examples of the post-human in the form of literature; I am thinking particularly of Platform, after the main character’s love-object-cause (i.e. Valerie) has been killed by Islamic terrorists: his slow descent into ennui. The destruction of her life means that he still longs for a lost object.

[6] This is an example of transgression at its purest and most postmodern sense: not necessarily Evil but not recognizable as Good either (similar to Bartleby’s mastery of the master, which inaugurates something else altogether). This kind of transgression is useful and subversive – but not evil in the sense that Georges (Caché) is evil. One is also here reminded of Yeats’ notions of “radical innocence,” “the best lacking all conviction,” and “the worst being full of passionate intensity” as examples of (inaugurating) the structures of postmodern desire.

[7] This is a variation of a part of Zizek’s essay, Quantum Physics with Lacan.

[8] Zizek, Parallax View. Cambridge: MIT, 2006. He says that a South American leader escaped death in a riot by wearing an “uncanny” disguise; his disguise was a mask of himself – which all the rioters were wearing at the time (28).

[9] Even if this “limit” is “cynical” or “imitated” or “ironic” or “mediated” or “parodic” or “represented” or “satirical” or “simulated,” etc., ad infinitum.

[10] An example of this style of desire is evident in OULIPO’s methods of composition according to arbitrarily established, yet rigorously undertaken, axioms.

[11] Here it is the reverse of Potter’s “there’s no such thing as no” becomes operative, in the sense: If only there were such a thing as no.” Meaning, among other things: If only there were the phallus as square root of negative one.

[12] Zero: City of God, The Hole, and Rosetta represent the Real of urban life). Infinity: Caché and Yes represent the Simulations of high society. Somewhere between Zero-Infinity: C.R.A.Z.Y., In the Mood for Love, and Short Cuts represent the urban Real that is only desirable through Simulation; in the case of C.R.A.Z..Y. the simulation is in sexual difference and preference, whereas in Short Cuts the Real-zero of sex, at least between Chris Penn and Jennifer Jason Leigh, is desired through the simulation-infinite of phone sex fantasies!).

[13] Comay, Rebecca. “Introduction.” Lost in the Archives. Ed. Rebecca Comay. Toronto: Alphabet City, 2002. Comay writes that “the archive…confounds every beginning and every rule.… This is traumatic. Traumatic not in some vague, trendy way (a whiff of melancholy here, some blurry photos there) but in a technical Freudian sense – trauma defined essentially as the slippage or non-synchronicity of experience” (14). Postmodern trauma is vague and trendy; post-human trauma is sustained, e.g. The Hole: man banging on the floor with his hammer; IMFL: woman at the door, looking for a chat or the man eating his dumpling alone; Caché: the ending scene of Pierrot and Majid’s son.

[14] Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum, 2005.”What has to be declared is that the one, which is not, solely exists as operation. In other words: there is no one, only the count as one” (24, italics Badiou’s).

[15] Ibid. ” … only an interpretive intervention can declare that an event is presented in a situation; as the arrival in being of non-being, the arrival amidst the visible of the invisible … an event is not (does not coincide with) an evental site. It ‘mobilizes’ the elements of its site, but it adds its own presentation to the mix” (181-2, italics Badiou’s).

[16] Zizek, S. The Plague of Fantasies. New York: Verso, 1997.

[17] Or, another formulation that focuses on the transgressive nature of the non-mediation of drive: pure-drive forever drifts towards evermore, indeterminable satisfactions – never finding a limit that cannot be transgressed.

[18] “Tenderness” in three senses: 1) as in “love me tender …” 2) as in the area around a wound indicates a vulnerability and “tenderness” to the touch and 3) as in “legal tender.” Here I conjecture that postmodernism uses the aesthetics of gentleness, the ethics of the artificial invagination, whereas post-human aesthetics are of tenderness, which involves actual wounds caused by Real trauma. City of God, C.R.A.Z.Y., Short Cuts, and Yes are postmodern; the other films discussed in this essay, aside from Kill Bill, are post-human.

[19] Santner, E. Psychotheology of Everyday Life. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2001. “ … even the ancient Egyptians suffered a form of “Egyptomania”” (7).

[20] Lacan, Jacques. “The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire.” Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Trans. Bruce Fink with Heloise Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: Norton, 2002. See page 694.

[21] Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans: Sheila Faria Glaser. Michigan: Michigan UP, 1994. “Each mark, each trace, each scar left on the body is like an artificial invagination … the few natural orifices to which one usually attaches sex and sexual activities are nothing next to all the possible wounds … to which a body can open itself, no longer through nature, but through artifice, through the simulacrum, through the accident … nothing next to the exchange of all the signs and wounds of which the body is capable. The savages knew how to use the whole body to this end, in tattooing, torture, initiation – sexuality was only one of the possible metaphors of symbolic exchange, neither the most significant, nor the most prestigious, as it has become for us in its obsessional and realistic reference, thanks to its organic and functional character (including in orgasm)” (114-115).

[22] This point is more evident in Caché, Majid’s suicide being an example of desublimation proper; however, in IMFL the woman desublimates her desire by having a child while the man goes onto other substitute objects, i.e. whispering secrets into tree-holes on mountains.

[23] Beckett, Proust. Trans: Samuel Beckett. New York: Grove, 1931. “The man with a good memory does not remember anything because he does not forget” (17). “Re-membering” as in “making-whole” out of what has been “dis-membered,” or cut off, or subtracted from the Whole (i.e. The Hole and IMFL) or what has been forcibly added (even if in the form of negation or simulation) to the Hole (i.e. Caché). See also Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History” in his Theses on the Philosophy of History; and also O-ren Ishi (Lucy Lu) from Kill Bill when she says: “swords never get tired.”

[24] The pun also resembles this kind of encounter with the Real; there is really no relation to what is being said or meant, there really is nothing funny about them: yet they can still produce laughter by playing on different registers of experience, blurring the line between Being and Meaning.

[25] Carson, Anne. Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1986. “… a sensation of serious truth accompanies the lover’s vision of himself. There is something uniquely convincing about the perceptions that occur to you when you are in love. They seem truer than other perceptions, and more truly your own, won from reality at personal cost. Greatest certainty is felt about the beloved as necessary complement to you” (36, italics Carson’s).

[26] Creation myths typify this statement. At the end of a chain of reason, the logic used to arrive there is absent; or there is no cause for a causal object. If one begins with a logical object, the series of reasons (theoretically) extends to infinity. One way to resolve the Yin-Yang (Logic) and Genesis (Reason) accounts of the universe is as follows: Yin-Yang is the prime and ultimate state that Genesis gives body to. If one is subtracted from the other, the result is bodiless (fusion without bodies) or without end (bodies without fusion). IMFL shows us desire, its Logic and its Reasons.

[27] Camus, A. Myth of Sisyphus. Trans: Justin O’Brien. New York: Vintage, 1955. If “life is not worth living” Camus recommends “philosophical suicide.” This is a gutsy, risky wager, which in the case of Caché – does not pay off.

[28] E.g. Georges taking sleeping pills, which are also neatly within a folded box and hidden.

[29] Sebald, W. G., Austerlitz. Trans. Bell, Anthea.Toronto: Vintage, 2002. On the discourse of defence, this novel is instructive: “the whole insanity of fortification and siegecraft was clearly revealed in the taking of Antwerp, said Austerlitz, the only conclusion anyone drew from it, incredibly, was that the defences surrounding the city must be rebuilt even more strongly than before, and moved further out” (17). Georges retreat from the real can be seen as this kind of “insanity.”

[30] You may have seen “anti-racist” posters around the campus that have the image of a black boot against a pink background, with the caption: “Racism We’re Going to Stomp You Out” – an incredibly fascist iconography.

[31] Which is an allegory for the French massacre of Arabs in the sixties; the film “Deux Frerès” that Georges sees and is unaffected by proves that fantasies cannot co-exist.

[32] Marcuse, H. Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud. Toronto: Saunders, 1966.

“ … the release of sexuality within the dominion of these institutions [governed by the performance principle] …[this process] explodes suppressed sexuality; the libido continues to bear the mark of suppression and manifests itself in the hideous forms so well known in the history of civilization; in the sadistic and masochistic orgies of desperate masses, of “society elites,” of starved bands of mercenaries, of prison and concentration-camp guards. Such release of sexuality provides a periodically necessary outlet for unbearable frustration; it strengthens rather that weakens the roots of instinctual constraint; consequently, it has been used time and again as a prop for suppressive regimes” (202).

[33] I might even go farther and say that the jouissance of the noble-savage is guilty-pleasure: pleasure derived from the feeling of guilt, guilt from pleasure.

[34] Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies Vol. 1. Trans: Stephen Conway. Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1987. I do not actually intend to cite this work but there is a connection between Georges mistrust of his wife, his attachment to surfaces, and Fascist Germany’s “aestheticized politics.”

[35] Lacan. Four Fundamental Concepts and Feminine Sexuality. I am at a loss for a page reference at the moment. Also known as the “analyst’s position.” However, I actually think that Rosetta is a much better example of the destitute subject who is in a position to, if given the opportunity, cause an event.

[36] That is, when the BO no longer cares about deviations of individuals in the Symbolic Order.

[37] Georges and his family are economically superior – that is, superior in the Real – to either of the other two couples.

[38] Majid’s suicide could be a captioning point in the procedure to truth, like the hole in The Hole, or the story in, In the Mood for Love.

[39] Bataille, G. Literature and Evil. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Calder & Boyars, 1973.

[40] Blake, William. “Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Newly Revised Ed. Ed. David V. Erdman. Comm: Harold Bloom. New York: Anchor, 1988. Blake’s work actually reads: “I have also: the Bible of Hell: which the world shall have whether they will or no.”


on lacan’s formula of sexuation

HE is at a number approaching zero looking up; SHE, at a number approaching infinity looking down. their gazes meet at the terminal point where there is no sexual relationship. (il n’y a pas de rapport sexuel, lacan).

Blake Beyond Context, Blake Contra Romanticism: Giving the Gift of Death by Affirming the Negativity of Fusion in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

[click here to read the poem and see blake’s illustrations.]

We are in a new, and without a doubt insoluble, position in relation to prior forms of nihilism: Romanticism is its first great manifestation: it, along with Enlightenment’s Revolution, corresponds to the destruction of the order of appearances.”

– Baudrillard

With this ring, I thee own.

– Joyce

The Romantic era is marked by the advent of ideas and innovations – unprecedented – such as the American and French Revolutions, the discourse on liberty and feminism, and new industrial modes of production. The zeitgeist of revolution greatly influenced the discourse on liberty and feminism. The advent of industrial culture reshaped the (architectural and conceptual) space in which society dwelt, and the ways in which people thought of themselves and their relationships to other individuals and to nature in general.

The event of Romanticism, like the event of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is a retrospective construction, inscribed onto the period from 1789-1832 that attempts to introduce a rupture in the epistemology and ontology of Enlightenment Rationality. I will try to illustrate the relation between the anti-enlightenment attitude and the trajectory of thought that I see manifest in Blake’s religious materialism. Both of which will come to be understood as a kind of iconoplasticity: a restructuring of humanity’s being via the event. Blake’s representation of moral and sexual being in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, provides examples of how the events of his time impacted his own writing.

Indeed, The Marriage goes even further in its radicalism in that it is not only contrary to Enlightenment ideals – it is also against three discourses normally associated with Romanticism: Rousseau’s noble-savage; Burke’s discourse on the Sublime; and the fluctuating politico-theological discourse of Swedenborgianism, Deism, and a challenge to the Divine Right of Kings. Blake applies the surfaces, by using

the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite that was hid,[1] (MHH 39)

of various discourses to the surface that his own epoch appears as: he de-names, sometimes by naming directly the system he is familiar with (Bible, Milton, Shakespeare, Swedenborg, etc.), and re-images those names as figures that appear in his work. There is not a total rejection of anything in The Marriage: only the depths from the works of the past are retained, then compressed into a new surface.

Blake’s works, especially The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, constitute a pure event insofar as their significance – like that of the French Revolution – can only be comprehended in retrospect (and, it may even be said that, the significance of the French Revolution is still being determined despite the French Revolution having vanished more than two centuries ago); it is radically different from other poetry / prose contemporary with it (for example, Coleridge or Wordsworth’s; but not, for example, Sade’s), in both content and form, if not (subversive) spirit. Blake achieves, if not unity, a semblance of unity between poetry and prose, the image and the word, and perhaps, if the title is any indication, between Heaven and Hell.

To establish The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as a pure event, Blake’s own words suffice: “I have also The Bible of Hell, which the world shall have whether they will or no” (MHH 44); the world, obviously, was not willing at the time. What is interesting about this passage, and what qualifies it is as a statement proclaiming The Marriage as a pure event, is “the world shall have [it] whether they will or no.”

The French Revolution (and other events in the history of humanity, such as The Holocaust and 9/11) is also like The Bible of Hell in the sense that it forces itself upon the world – then vanishes. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell speaks of the Romantic era’s situation, attitudes, and institutions of knowledge and power, but its significance also extends beyond those constructions. Blake sets himself against tradition by miniaturizing, i.e. parodying and satirizing, established rhetorical positions on several concepts (of which “desire,” “Evil / Hell,” “Good / Heaven,” and “woman” will be discussed in this paper), and then reverses the content of those positions to critique them. The Marriage is parody in the sense that Blake was virtually unread in his time, that is to say, he (intentionally) falls far short of the real thing (the real thing being Swedenborg [who was quite well read or who was read quite well], in particular), and satire in the sense that it exaggerates the stupidity of “conventional” morality, politics, and its “virtues.” The Marriage shows Blake’s sensitivity to and reaction against the absolute division between body and mind, desire and reason, man and woman, evil and good: restraints placed upon the desire of individuals and women in the name of Enlightened Reason. He draws analogies between physical architecture and mental space: “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion” (MHH 36). This passage requires close reading to link it to all of the subjects I have proposed; the subjects of the sentence are prisons (body, violence) and brothels (soul, desire), which are institutions for men, and women – prisons being usually built to detain criminal men, brothels for women. The action and preposition of the sentence, “are built with . . . of Law / Religion” suggests artifice; ‘stones’ may be a biblical reference (John 8:7), and ‘bricks’ perhaps refers to Freemasonry (although this connection is, at best, obscure). (Bricks and stones do have a significance in the larger body of Blake’s work[2].) Finally, Law and Religion, of which brothels and prisons are built, suggest that it is the search that produces the object – or, another way to put it: prisoners and prostitutes do not precede prisons and brothels, it is prisons and brothels that are constructed first, mentally, and then architecturally; the Law, by naming what is criminal, produces criminals; Religion (and to a large extent: morality), by condemning sensuality / sexuality in Woman, while also revering Woman as Mother, produces brothels and prostitutes (the paradox being that Woman cannot function as Mother without sex[3]) (TRP 78,87).

The most interesting opposition that Blake proposes is that

one portion of being is the Prolific, the other, the Devouring . . . they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence. / Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two (MHH 40).

Does this opposition extend to the other oppositions I have proposed (image / text, poetry / prose), and that Blake articulates (Heaven / Hell, Attraction / Repulsion, Reason / Energy, Love / Hate, Good / Evil, and Body / Soul)? Blake writes that “Without Contraries there is no progression . . . [they] are necessary to Human existence” (MHH 34). So, if the opposition between any two poles is necessary for human existence, and the attempt to reconcile the two is to seek to destroy existence, and religion is the attempt to reconcile the two – then what exactly is Blake attempting to do in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by blending thematic and formal opposites (poetry / prose, image / word)?

One distinction that can be made between Blake’s works and those of Religion is that Blake attempts a symbolic reconciliation between opposites, whereas Religion seeks to actualize their unity. Indeed, marriage is a religious institution that attempts to unify, by subordinating woman to man (TRP 75), the most Real (in the Lacanian[4] sense) of opposites: Man and Woman.

Now, it is not that man and woman are actually opposites, but there is difference between them, the difference being sexual differentiation; the difference between the two is what creates the opposition, which can never be fully resolved. Blake does not attempt to resolve this opposition, but he does say, “The nakedness of woman is the work of God” and “Let man wear the fell of the lion, woman the fleece of the sheep” (MHH 36). These two fragments, from The Proverbs of Hell, challenge the conventional notions of the Romantic construction of the sexes insofar as the male and masculinity are equated with Reason (not energy, wrath), the female and femininity with Passion (not passivity, submission).

The nakedness of woman, an image overtly associated with temptation and sin, is the direct creation of God; insofar as her nakedness leads to energetic desire it is evil, a product of Hell – but the work of God. The association between man being clothed in the ‘fell of the lion’ and woman in the ‘fleece of the sheep’ is also contrary to the standard constructions, the lion being associated, elsewhere in Blake, with wrath and the “wisdom of God” (MHH 36): an energetic, active trait – therefore, evil. Woman, wearing the fleece of the sheep, seems to suggest passivity, which would be equated with Reason and Good (MHH 34). However, it is important to notice that the imperative verb tense ‘let man / woman wear’ also implies that there is something underneath both; that beneath the fell of the lion is man and beneath the fleece of the sheep is woman – and the nakedness of woman is the work of God. If we concatenate this ‘logic’ to its conclusion, the opposite would be true of man: the nakedness of man is the work of Satan. This, if true, would be contrary to the normal construction of man and masculinity.

The equation Blake offers on the sexes may help to explain his virtually non-existent contemporary audience. There is also the problem of Blake’s juxtaposition of the image / word and poetry / prose: the structure of The Marriage is, at best eccentric, practically unreadable as a whole. Yet this may also be the point of Blake’s project: that each section of The Marriage can only be read in part, that any attempt to impose structural unity on the work ultimately fails. This would, I imagine, put many readers off reading Blake’s work, especially if Wordsworth is correct in his assumption that most readers in the Romantic period responded most favourably to kitsch novels and poetry, with clearly delineated structures and unnecessary artifice[5] (266).

It is not that there is no structure in The Marriage – there is. However, the parts do not constitute ‘the whole’ because each part – each image, each fragment of poetry and prose – is a whole of its own. The images correspond to the work not just as illustrations of the actions and events, but as distinct works on their own. For example, The fragments of poetry, The Argument and The Proverbs of Hell, seem reserved for Blake to offer his prophecies of a coming apocalypse. The Argument contains two repeated ambiguous figures: “the perilous path” and “the just man,” which are book-ended by “Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burdened air; / Hungry clouds swag on the deep” (MHH 33). In addition, a temporality is established: “Once,” “Then,” and “Now” (MHH 33). It is the journey of the “just man” along “perilous paths,” all while ‘Rintrah roars & shakes his fires’ from the beginning to the end.

If the fragments of poetry are Blake’s prophecies, the fragments of prose are his critiques of contemporary society and its beliefs. In particular, A Memorable Fancy, in which he asks his reader to “Now hear a plain fact: Swedenborg has not written one new truth. Now hear another: he has written all the old falsehoods” (MHH 43). This fragment, although applied directly to Swedenborg, summarizes Blake’s view on the neo-mystical traditions in general – including, but not limited to, Deism, which held no small amount of influence on thinkers such as Rousseau.[6] In theory, Blake anticipates Hegelian and Marxist notions of mental and economic structures, the Nietzschean notion of the “Eternal Return of the Same,” and Wagner’s “total Art-work.”

The most important aspect of William Blake (1757-1827) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is the way he combines the consistency of narrative with the finality of the image. It is presented in a simple manner: none of what is to be found in Coleridge, Keats, or Wordsworth. However, in defense of Keats, I will conjecture that if he managed to live to Blake’s age, he would have made manifest a fidelity to the truth-event[7] at the same intensity as Blake; although the apposite point may be made of Keats’ “provisional” use of such terms as “negative capability”[8] – but this term does not appear anywhere in his poetry, nor as a preface, nor as an elaborated theory: Keats’ shows fidelity to his fancy, and this is manifest in his works. Also, notions such as “no identity” combined with “negative capability” amount to what may be termed “negation of negation” – which is not the same as affirmation.

Stylistically, Blake’s presentation is closest to what is found in Shelley and Byron: much closer are the plastic artists Francisco Goya and William Hogarth. Goya is a contemporary of Blake’s, and recent scholarship has pointed to the affinity between the two– though whether they had known of each other’s work is unknown and somewhat irrelevant: Blake is articulating what The Sleep of Reason dreams of, the nightmare vision of human desire without consciousness. Hogarth is a predecessor of Blake’s – and Blake would have, most probably definitely, known The Four Stages of Cruelty, which, like Goya’s Los Caprichos, is a narrative sequence of images and / or surfaces. This style of representation, this manipulation of images – which Blake takes to its extreme by directly alluding to, re-naming, and obscuring elements of the symbolic order[9] – establishes a series of conclusions that affirm the negativity of reality rather than negate that negativity with a sequence of indeterminacy that never culminates in a logical conclusion but forever builds a chain of reason.

The critical difference between these two notions is that the series of conclusions are potential sites for an event[10], whereas the chains of reason “breed reptiles of the mind” or only yield betrayal, simulation, and disaster. The piece of visual art of Blake’s that I wish to compare to Goya and Hogarth, however, is not in The Marriage: it is The Ghost of a Flea (1819-1820), composed later on in Blake’s life. I believe that the figure that appears in this piece is the “Voice of the Devil,” the ambivalent and elusive speaker in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Goya-Hogarth-Blake form an interesting triangle here: if we look at it temporally, Hogarth comes first, then Blake, then Goya. We start with the “Reward,” move on to the “Marriage,” and then come to “Sleep.” This order seems to be strangely in reverse: that the reward of cruelty – the final result of reason’s slumber – should be posited first; that the fusion of Heaven and Hell is intermediate between the two has a double significance. Temporally, it is the cruel intention of a forced marriage that precedes the dreams of reason. Phenomenologically, it is the sleep of reason that forces opposites to unite resulting in the betrayals, disasters, and simulations of the period: Rousseau’s “noble-savage” is the prime example.

Figure 1 The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, ca. 1796-1797[11]

Figure 2 The Reward of Cruelty, ca. 1751[12]

Figure 3 The Ghost of a Flea, ca.1819–20[13]

The three portraits are, as already mentioned, placed in sequences arranged by their creators; each represents a conclusion: the borders of the frame are identical to the first and last letter of Blake’s Marriage. The unified importance of each picture lies in the position of the gaze: each figure presents us with a different subject – whose gaze is not on us. In Goya’s painting, the gaze is “inverted” – that is, looking at nothing, while we are looking at him, while his nightmares phantasmatically manifest around him. In Hogarth’s, the gaze is centred on the cadaver subject to medical experimentation and the gaze of all present in the scene; the cadaver’s gaze is vacant, staring beyond us, its audience, with the indifferent acceptance of a ritual death. Blake’s drawing, a barely humanoid looking figure, has his gaze fixed on (in?) a bowl while standing on an empty stage: he too takes no notice of us. I would like to propose that The Ghost of a Flea is the thing that reaps the Reward of Cruelty once the nightmares of reason manifest themselves. Each image within Blake’s Marriage affirms that the Sleep of Reason inaugurates the Four Stages of Cruelty, resulting in The Reward of Cruelty – whose ultimate (ironic) triumph is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The Marriage is broad enough to encompass most – if not all – of the concerns that constituted events for people living at the time (or that we retroactively inscribe on them, which is also profoundly violent: a kind of crude universalism[14]). These concerns, that we will concern ourselves with, are the emergent notions of Rousseau’s “noble-savage,” the “inner-voice,”[15] Burke’s “beautiful and sublime” aesthetic categories, Enlightenment categories of knowledge and its manifest ideology, mystical and religious institutions influenced by Deism, and the ritual bondage that constituted the ritual of marriage (for both the man and the woman, though, it is true, in asymmetrical modalities, the famous indeterminacy of the slave / master dialectic) that certain people were reacting to – that has not changed significantly even to this day. (Although, of course, there have been “reasonable advances” in the way it is practiced – but not in the way it may be thought as a potential site for a truth-event.)

The title alone addresses all of these concerns if we read “The Marriage” as the event of a union of man and woman (much like today); this is also a definite article, which places it in the register of Real, as something beyond words but also as something that can only be related to in words. Clarification: The ‘beyond-language’ of the event, the appearance of the Real, is related to a traumatic[16] encounter: the Primal Scene, seeing the uncanny double or Das Ding, the French Revolution, an orgasm, or violence. We relate to the Real, our involvement in the Real, our being in the Real only through the intervention of language – or more specifically voice, and this is the meaning of “Rintrah roars” and “The Voice of the Devil.” Marriage as a union between man and woman, if they are really dialectically opposed – not merely different modes of coding the same thing (i.e., the human), translated into the proper nouns, place-names, objects: “of Heaven and Hell.” Let us first assume that they are “dialectically opposed” – which means they compose a “thesis” an “anti-thesis,” that they result in “synthesis.” Can this be the meaning of Blake’s “Contrariety?”[17] That somehow, contradictorily or paradoxically, Heaven and Hell can fuse?

The other alternative, that they are merely different, removes the dynamic of the dialectic and introduces a relationship of complementarity, in which each term is not part of a higher unity but a unity unto itself (IR 211). The “of” that precedes “of Heaven” is indicative of this, as “of” is not only an article, but a particle; this seems to further implicate that it is a piece of heaven being married to the whole of Hell, comparable to “The Messiah” who “formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss” (MHH 35). There is also a paradox lurking in the title that will sensitize our entire reading of Blake’s piece: The first is the obvious personification and implicit sexuation of the two terms; the second, related to the first, is the absurdity of such an event occurring between such entities as heaven and hell: as opposed to people – who may, on occasion, feel like they really want to be married – Heaven and Hell, if they are constituted as diametrically opposed opposites, would never consent to such a union. Finally, insofar as marriage is a ceremony or ritual, it is also aesthetic: it is based on the aesthetics of death, of religion that forgets “all deities reside in the human breast,” of the brutal and perverted “politics of fusion”[18].

The violence[19] in Blake comes from its excess and limitations: there is no lack of conclusion in The Marriage – there being seventy (70) proverbs. The importance of the proverb, in relation to poetry, is its utterance in speech, as our speaker notes “the sayings used in a nation mark its character.” This recalls the “roaring” of Rintrah, and the Voice of the Devil, and both are to be identified as surfaces that Blake is manipulating to underscore the seeming permanence of the written mark imitating the transience of the voice; here, we have the word operating in the same phenomenonological register as voice insofar as the “conclusions” made by the sequence of the proverbs mimic the way voice disappears as its meaning is registered: each conclusion is not final, it is succeeded by another, and then another. It is this continuous flow of conclusive finalities that makes Blake’s work so complex that it presents a rupture in the very being it represents to its reader; it is this rupture where meaning is inscribed. The work is severely limited, however, when it comes to establishing reasonable links between its assertions. There are precious few subjunctive clauses: they are mostly indicative, imperative, or declarative – hardly ever demonstrative. Blake declares the truth of his writings: Coleridge and Wordsworth bicker over an aesthetic, elaborate / establish each his own “theory,” which neither manages to maintain fidelity to because they are both simulations of truth – and are thus betrayed – and are thus led to disaster.[20] Blake does not elaborate a theory of aesthetics (in the body of The Marriage at least): he represents his aesthetic, his views on politics, religion, and sexuality in the work.

Blake does not discount the exterior, but he privileges the interior as possessing the depths of evil, the will to sacrifice, the orgiastic drive to murder, the suicidal drive to save, the courage to take responsibility for one’s own sins and to forgive the sins of the other[21]; he reads the surface of nature as the depths of the human spirit. Passages like: “’Here,’ said I, ‘is your lot … a number of monkeys, baboons, & all of that species, chaind by the middle, grinning and snatching at one another, but withheld by the shortness of their chains. However, I saw that they …’” (MHH 42). This passage is not “sublime” because it does not express the “highest point of the low.[22]” It tries to directly depict the low, without caring, with a violence that is indifferent and sovereign – it declares and indicates what Blake has seen, it is not posed as a subjunctive demonstration of reality. This is how Blake sees the reality of the violence of the event of the French Revolution. The negativity of “The Terror” is imperatively affirmed in Blake’s entire piece, and this is most clear in The Proverbs of Hell: for example, “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” (MHH 38).

I have tried to show that Blake is against any kind of unity, synthesis, or blending of opposites into one another: he is strictly one to take a stance, he is on one side and not the other. Of all the critical reading of Blake, I am most inclined to agree with Bataille and Ruskin[23]; I agree with Frye’s structural analysis of Blake’s works, but disagree with his final analysis that Blake is trying to achieve some kind of vague, utopian notion of fusion[24] – such as many of Blake’s most fervent interpreters attempt to do.

I hope I have illustrated, at least, the way I do not read Blake. I do not see Blake as attempting some kind of larger synthesis of moral good or evil. By not reading Blake in this way, it was my intention also to show how certain trends in our own time (obsession with the archive and historicism, trying to fuse an abstract object with a material thing [as is the case with Woman and women], or trying to maintain an absolute distance between a surface and its depth) reflect these crucial misreadings of works like Blake’s Marriage. Blake is actively engaging in radical nihilism by affirming the negative.

[1] Blake, William. “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Newly Revised Ed. Ed. David V. Erdman. Commentary: Harold Bloom. New York: Anchor, 1988. (MHH)

[2] Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1949. (FS). For the significance see pages 224 and 364; here, the only things that concern us about bricks and stones is their lifelessness.

[3] Jarvis, Robin. The Romantic Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature, 1789-1830. London: Pearson, 2004. (TRP). Sex is taboo as Jarvis cites A New and Appropriate System of Education for the Labouring People (London, 1806) as an example of female education: “fortifying their minds against those vices to which they are more particularly exposed – to guard them against seduction … the utmost horror of a state of female prostitution” (78) and “female education should concentrate on how best to please and serve men. In addition, women’s unequal responsibility for the legitimacy of offspring (and thus secure the transmission of property) put a premium on chastity” (87).

[4] Zizek, Slavoj. The Parallax View. Cambridge: MIT, 2006. (PV). Zizek defines the real as “the primordial fact is not Silence (waiting to be broken by the divine word) but Noise, the confused murmur of the Real in which there is not yet any distinction between figure and ground” (154). This definition, while true to the Lacanian sense, emphasizes the Real, in relationship to the seeming incoherency of Blake’s vision.

[5] Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads, with Pastoral and Other Poems.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period. Vol. D 8th ed. Ed. Jack Stillinger and Deirdre Lynch. New York: Norton, 2006. 263-74. (PLB).

[6] McCalman, Iain, gen. ed. An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age: British Culture 1776-1832. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. (OCRA). A curious passage that relates to the “crude universalism” of Deism: “an eclectic way to designate a variety of beliefs of a minimalist and universal kind to which all denominations and all humankind could supposedly subscribe” (480). This is an example of what I think Blake is against; Blake’s purpose is for heterogeneity.

[7] Badiou, Alan. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum, 2005. (BE). A brief definition of fidelity and its relation to the event: “There is no more an angelic herald of the event than there is a hero. … [the] sole foundation [of the event] lies in a discipline of time, which controls from beginning to end the consequences of the introduction into circulation of the paradoxical multiple, and which at any moment knows how to discern its connection to chance. I will call this organized control of time fidelity” (211). Related to our purpose is Badiou’s notion of “the angelic,” “discipline,” and “chance.”

[8] Keats, John. “Letters.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Romantic Period. Vol. D 8th ed. Ed. Jack Stillinger and Deirdre Lynch. New York: Norton, 2006. 941-55. (L) These specific instances can be found on pages 942 and 947.

[9] Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. Trans. Bruce Fink with Heloise Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: Norton, 2002. (E). In his seminar on Poe’s The Purloined Letter, Lacan says of the Symbolic “that imaginary effects … are related to the symbolic chain that binds and orients them … that it is the symbolic order which is constitutive for the subject … in a story the major determination the subject receives from the itinerary of a signifier” (6-7).

[10] BE. Badiou claims “that only an interpretive intervention can declare that an event is presented in a situation; as the arrival in being of non-being, the arrival amidst the visible of the invisible” (180).

[11] Francisco José de Goya (Spanish, 1746-1828), The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. (Caprichos, no. 43: El sueño de la razon produce monstruos.), 1796-1797. Etching and aquatint. First edition, 1799. Plate dimensions 213 x 150 mm. (this digital image has been cropped within platemark). Harris no. 78, Delteil no. 80. Accession no. 1946.D1.40.43. Gift of George W. Davison (B.A. Wesleyan 1892), 1946. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0f/Goya_-_Caprichos_%2843%29_-_Sleep_of_Reason.jpg

[12] William Hogarth. The Four Stages of Cruelty Plate IV, The Reward of Cruelty. 1751 (reprinted c. 1822) Etching and engraving. The Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Cruelty4.JPG

[13] William Blake (British, 1757–1827). Tempera heightened with gold leaf on mahogany panel; 8 7/16 x 6 3/8 in. (21.4 x 16.2 cm). Tate; bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 194. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/74/William_Blake_002.jpg

[14] Zizek, Slavoj. The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters. New York: Verso, 1996. (IR). Zizek says, ‘against historicism,’ that it is impossible to have a “complete description of a particular phenomenon” but that this impossibility is “the very place of the inscription of universality into the Particular. A particular social phenomenon can never be completely ‘contextualized’, reduced to a set of sociohistorical circumstances – such a particularization would presuppose the crudest universalism: namely, the presumption that we its agents, can speak from a neutral-universal place of pure meta-language exempt from any specific context” (214).

[15] Hogan, Colman. The Actual Murder with Words’: A Discussion of Violence in the Enlightenment, Romanticism … and After. Diss. U Toronto, 1998. (AMW). Hogan argues that in reaction to the “[exteriority of the Enlightenment] Rousseau … produces an inner ‘primitive’ as an image of an interior otherworldly-ness, an innate freedom” (120). And this is similar to what Blake is articulating as not the “sublime” but the “sub” – the depths of the human soul that are manifest not only in Nature’s atrocities but – all too humanly – in mankind who far exceeds the cruelty of The Tyger.

[16] Comay, Rebecca. “Introduction.” Lost in the Archives. Ed. Rebecca Comay. Toronto: Alphabet City, 2002. (LA). Comay writes that “the archive … confounds every beginning and every rule … This is traumatic. Traumatic not in some vague, trendy way (a whiff of melancholy here, some blurry photos there) but in a technical Freudian sense – trauma defined essentially as the slippage or non-synchronicity of experience” (14). Blake advent, and the event that Blake became as “slippage” or “non-synchronicity of experience.”

[17] Miller, Dan. “Contrary Revelation: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Studies in Romanticism 24 (1985): 491-509. (CR). I disagree with the “contrariety” thesis, when Miller explains that it “is an escapable opposition, yet more than two equal opposites in direct confrontation” (502). I would agree with the second part, as contraries generate force and are never actually visible as themselves – but the first part seems to go against the singular stance that Blake maintains throughout his art: that contrariety is “inescapable.”

[18] Comay, Rebecca. “Hegel and the Terror.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 103 (2004): 375-95. (HT). Comay writes that “the sacramental substitution of people for king immediately closes the space it opens up – lack is perversely, simultaneously acknowledged and disavowed – and can be understood as the prototype for every politics of fusion” (475). This is to say that Blake recognizes this pattern of the exchange of power, the collusion of opposites and tries to expose the hypocrisy of those who use play both sides. And, on the theme of retrospective legibility, says, in a somewhat different but not unrelated manner: “Kant’s critical venture phenomenologically succeeds the revolution that it chronologically, of course anticipates only insofar as his text becomes legible only retroactively through the event that in institutionalizing the incessant short circuit of freedom and cruelty puts the project of modernity to its most extreme trial” (392). This is not unlike the event of Blake, who is only legible after his advent.

[19] Bataille, Georges. Literature and Evil. Trans. Alastair Hamilton. London: Calder & Boyars, 1973. (LE). Most interesting is Bataille’s consideration of literature in general: “literature is not innocent. It is guilty and should admit itself so … Literature had to plead guilty” (ii). He goes on to describe Blake’s writing as “indifferent,” “sovereign,” “violent,” “excessive,” and “joyful” which I am apt to agree with as it separates Blake from how he is normally interpreted, as offering “syntheses.”

[20] Badiou, Alan. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. Trans. Peter Hallward. New York: Verso, 2001. (EUE). Badiou defines betrayal, disaster, and simulation as “the three figures of evil” (72-87)

[21] Derrida, JacquesThe Gift of Death. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1992. (GD). Derrida compares the death of Socrates as representing an “orgiastic” quality and the death of Jesus as representing a “redemptive” quality. He introduces the notion of “responsibility” and says that the ability of Jesus’ death to be redemptive, the orgiastic Real of his execution must be repressed and sublimated. The opposite is true of Socrates’ death: it is orgiastic because the meaning of death as redemption is suppressed. This is what I believe that Blake’s “Bible of Hell” is: The Gift of Death – that takes responsibility for its utterances which verge on the orgiastic or redemptive, depending on how one reads The Marriage.

[22] Lacan, Jacques. On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York: Norton, 1998. (FS). Here I am using Lacan’s definition of the sublime: “Discourses always aim at the least stupidity, at sublime stupidity, for “sublime” means the highest point of what lies below” (13). This is exactly what Blake is not trying to do: set up a discourse. He is presenting a method, no doubt, but he embraces stupidity and the depths beneath the limit rather than try to limit them.

[23] Ruskin, John. “The Eagle’s Nest.” The Literary Criticism of John Ruskin. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Anchor, 1965. (EN). Thirty-five years after Blake’s death (1792) Ruskin registers Blake in the following terms: “You must have nearly all heard of, many must have seen, the singular paintings … The impression that his drawings once made is fast … his poems have much more than merit; they are written with absolute sincerity, with infinite tenderness … the words of a great and wise mind, disturbed, but not deceived, by its sickness” (173).

[24] FS. “The work of art suggests something beyond itself most obviously when it is most complete in itself …” (418). I would disagree with this and say, after Badiou, that the work of art can only be seen as beyond if completeness is subtracted from the way it represents itself, as Blake’s Marriage seems to do.

smerdyakov, a dialogue

[a friend just finished doestoevsky’s the brothers karamozov. i had read it before her, and she asked about one of the characters, smerdyakov karamazov. her questions got me thinking, and that’s what this post is about. her text is italicized, mine is not.]


now that i’ve finished, i am most preoccupied with smerdyakov.

does he do it to curry favor with ivan? because he doesn’t like being a social inferior, yet he perfects the art of acting like one? because his birth was the result of an evil act? because of his mother? because he hates his father? because of some ideas he has or ivan has?

he is presented at a distance throughout the novel, and he ultimately gets away with the murder, even though is guilt is proclaimed by those who really know. everyone else suffers, but his suffering, if it indeed happens or happened, is removed from view.

alyosha doesn’t seem interested in saving him. unlike everyone else, even the father, smerdyakov is presented as an entirely hopeless case, starting from when he killed cats as a child.


these are great questions. i can only offer partial answers, as it has been awhile since i read the novel.

Smerdyakov is the forgotten Karamazov. i think his relationship to Gregory and Marfa is telling in many ways; more so with Greg. the testimony Greg gives is as honest as any of the characters, simply because Greg isn’t really smart enough to lie about anything. both Greg and Marfa treat Smerdyakov like a son, albeit an unwanted one. Greg’s testimony also protects Smerdyakov, perhaps unconsciously.

throughout the novel, smerdyakov acts as a mediator (between father Karamazov and Dmitri, between Fyodor Karamazov. and Grushenka, between Dmitri and Grushenka, etc.) and, at the end, martyrs himself, comparable to Christ. as a servant, as a mediator, we might say that this role ends when everyone is convinced that Dmitri seems guilty beyond reproof; with nothing to mediate, what is left for smerdyakov?

i think he does try to curry favour with Ivan and his suicide is the final acting out of this; his suicide is to prove that he is not intellectually, morally, or socially inferior to any of the characters. it is interesting that you note Alyosha doesn’t seem interested in saving him; this is perhaps where we might actually think of smerdyakov as superior to all the Brothers Karamazov: in killing Fyodor Karamozov, smerdyakov liberates all of the brothers from the Freudian / Lacanian “primal father.” however, this liberation is seen as something, if not horrendous, disavowed by all of the brothers. especially because it illuminates the dark passion of Dmitri and Ivan, they both wanted to kill Fyodor K, but is was smerdyakov who wanted it even more and took the opportunity when it presented itself. perhaps the motivation for the murder was to bring him closer to Ivan and get rid of Dmitri … however, the murder achieved almost the exact opposite; not only did the murder alienate I further from smerdyakov, it brought all the brothers together against smerdyakov in solidarity. quite ironic!

the distance smerdyakov is treated with is a curious fact of the narrative. i can only speculate about why Dostoevsky would portray it as such; perhaps we can look to “crime and punishment” for what the suffering of smerdyakov might be like in the form of Raskolnikov’s sufferings. we know that S. is at least as smart as any of the Karamazovs’, so it would make sense that he would not be without guilt over killing the man he believed to be his father.

his birth … ? i’m not sure how to read that. we know that Fyodor K probably raped a girl who was somewhat “touched” … maybe this added to the shame of his always-already guilty existence. smerdyakov’s use of make up may be symbolic of trying to cover up the fact of his “evil nature,” as his manners and style of dress are.

also, we know that smerdyakov is a great cook. and what is cooking, exactly? it is a form of “alchemy” – taking the base substances of nutrition and turning them into delicious tasting foodstuffs. this seems to be his one talent; we never see him enjoying his own cooking, although even Fyodor K compliments him on it. again, without anyone to appreciate his great talent, what is left to him? the master / slave dialectic comes to an end with the death of Fyodor K and with Ivan knowing about smerdyakov’s guilt; outside the position of slave, smerdyakov loses the ability to perform the master’s desire. the position of master seems to be unbearable to S; this happens near the end when Ivan and S. literally switch places. smerdyakov becomes the master and Ivan becomes the slave. smerdyakov sees Ivan totally helpless, making demands of him “to confess!” – but that is as unthinkable to smerdyakov as it is for Ivan to treat smerdyakov as an equal (which i think that Ivan knows he is, but cannot bring himself to admit).

these answers are feeble, at best. i’ll have to give the novel another read with your questions in mind.


one more thing: the grand inquisitor. in opposition to Ivan’s parable, “men do not want heavenly bread, they want regular, earthly bread …” smerdyakov seems to actually want the heavenly bread in the form of Ivan’s approval. when smerdyakov takes Ivan’s words more seriously than Ivan himself does (“they will eat each other like reptiles …”), this seems to indicate that smerdyakov is the remainder of what Ivan can only speak.


yes, and smerdyakov is a cook who feeds the father, so that’s another link to this concept.


i liked your thoughts below. i considered smerdyakov’s relationship to Greg and Marfa too. in the trial where dmitri’s defender says that fyodor was not a real father to dmitri, so there was no parricide, this is another link to smerdyakov’s situation, where smerdyakov kills the one who is his real father but clearly not an acknowledged father, so again, not really parricide. Gregory acts as a father to the 4 sons, thus dmitri’s shame over injuring him. Yet Greg is more the father of smerdyakov than the father of the other 3. And while Greg ostensibly doesn’t like smerdyakov, Greg wrongly incriminates Dmitri (thereby defending his “own son” smerdyakov) by testifying about the door being open.

there’s an early scene where smerdyakov is strumming a guitar and singing to a woman; this is a key scene, where smerdyakov calls himself a man without a father. smerdyakov is observed by Alyosha secretly, and Alyosha is only revealed when he sneezes. Here Aloysha proves to be less “open and honest” than he is everywhere else. smerdyakov confesses sadness/anger over his birth and servitude; he states he could theoretically go to Moscow and open a restaurant to escape his circumstances, but i think he knows he will never do that. he’s a little fatalistic. he shams helplessness, but then he does the deed that the others resist. yet, even when he has the stolen money, he doesn’t make any move toward this “freedom”.

another question: does his sham fit turn into a real illness, or is it all a sham? it does turn into a real illness, i think.


the sham fit … it’s a tough call. on the one hand, he “predicts” it; but, on the other, he does take a nasty tumble down the stairs. my answer, as you may anticipate, is that it is simulation; neither real nor fake, but more real than, more fake than … i totally forgot about the part where he’s playing guitar. the stolen money we might liken to ‘earthly bread.’

all of your observations ring true on my side.

Courtly Love and Psychoanalysis in Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess

… therapy is a course in resignation: a great deal will be gained if we succeed in “transforming your hysterical misery into everyday unhappiness,” which is the usual lot of mankind.” – Marcuse

The Book of the Duchess, one of Chaucer’s minor (but not un-famous) poems, is a courtly love tale that is extremely favourable to psychoanalytic readings. The beloved in courtly love, and the analyst in psychoanalysis, are master signifiers, in whose absence nothing is possible. Two characters, the Man in Black and the Dreamer have a relationship in the poem that closely resembles the relationship between a (psycho)analyst and an analysand. The Man in Black’s symptom, contained within his narrative, is a high anxiety lack over the loss of his beloved White; she is his master, he is her slave: her absence / death is a typical insurmountable obstacle that separates them, or, rather, him form her. Far from destroying his love for her, her death, if anything, increases his desire. Desire here is meant in two senses; firstly in the sense of the standard dictionary definition as noun and verb (e.g. my desire is … / I desire that …) and in the sense that it denotes lack of what is desired on the part of the desirer.

At the very outset of the poem, the Narrator articulates his symptom as “purely for defaute of slep … / I have felynge in nothyng” (l. 5-11). This contrasts with the symptoms of Alcyone and the Man in Black, because their symptom is not indifference or insensitivity – but a radical involvement with, a hypersensitivity to, their joys and sorrows; they both resent the fact “that I was wrought / bore!” (l. 90 / 1301) after losing their beloved. These anxieties are parallel to the Narrator’s lassitude from lack of sleep; the Narrator turns to literature to relieve his lack of sleep and feeling, Alcyone turns to prayer and dream to learn that her beloved, Seys, is dead, and the Man in Black turns to the Dreamer to recount his loss of White.

Between the dream, dreamer, and dreamed are lines of force: the push and pull of desire, what conjoins / separates the desirer from the desired. Following these lines of force, the shape of a triangle becomes visible: the “i” Narrator of the poem as a whole, the dreamer who represents that “i” in the dream, and the Man in Black, the main figure of what the dreamer dreams of. It is White’s death, her permanent absence, that forever separates the Man in Black from her: it is the role of the Dreamer, as interlocutor, as analyst that allows the Man in Black to symbolise, that is, partially realize White’s presence through recounting the tale and the grief that accompanies it.

This triangle mirrors the triangle between the Narrator, his lack of sleep, and the work he reads (Ovid’s Metamorphoses) that puts him to sleep. The story of Seys and Alcyone is structurally similar to the Man in Black’s situation relative to White. Both of these triangles signify the content of the problem of absence, caused by death, within the tradition of courtly love; the poem itself and the dream therein are attempts to reach a solution with regards to the triangular problem of separation anxiety / jealousy: lover, beloved, obstacle / separation.

The solution that the poem and dram seem to suggest is profoundly psychoanalytical; the “I”, Alcyone, and the Man in Black all sisplay symptoms, However, “I’s” symptom is much different from either Alcyone’s or the Man in Black’s: “I” seems to suffer, not from being in a state of sorrow (like Alcyone and the Man in Black) but from an incapacity to feel either joy or sorrow, in addition to not being able to sleep. Alcyone and the Man in Black face a similar problem insofar as what they desire is absent from them, like the Narrator is from feeling joy or sorrow.

The solution to the Narrator’s sleep disorder is reading; Alcyone’s is dreaming; the Man in Black’s is telling the Dreamer his story. The primary problem of the poem, however, is left unresolved at the end: “This was my sweven; now hit ys doon ” (l. 1334); that is, the problem of the Narrator’s indifference towards joy or sorrow is left ambiguous. He does seem to learn that the joy of (courtly) love is essentially “sweet-bitter”; the inversion of the term indicates the temporal order of desire that (courtly) love’s sweetness comes first (the joy of fusion with the beloved object’s presence) and is followed by bitterness (the mindless despair of being obstructed / separated from the beloved object: its absence).

Two passages from Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet will help in understanding the paradoxical nature of desire and love: “All human desire is poised on an axis of paradox, absence and presence its poles, love and hate its motive energies” (11) and “A space must be maintained or desire ends” (26). What Carson’s insight adds is precisely the paradox that faces the Narrator, Allcyone, and the Man in Black; that, because of separation from the object desired (its lack, its death) the object is desired through the hatred of absence. This hatred is the anxiety of the slave in the absence of the master.

The Man in Black, his status as White’s slave, is obvious when he says, “hit were beter serve hir for noght / Than with another to be wel” (l. 844-5). WhenWhite, at first, says “Nay” (l. 1243) she effectively reduces the Man in Black to a state of total devotion – a necessary condition before she gives the Man in Black “the noble yifte of hir mercy” (l. 1270). Of particular interest here is the negation that leads to the affirmation of White’s “mercy” described as a gift; just as the Narrator offers gifts to the gods, like Alcyone and her acts of prayer, the Man in Black offers his story to the Dreamer in exchange for the Dreamer’s capacity to interlocute.

During the exchange between the Man in Black and the Dreamer, the Man in Black asserts “thow nost what thow /menest; / I have lost more than thou wenest” (l. 1137-8). He is dissatisfied with the Dreamer’s interlocution when the Dreamer offers only absurd commentaries; however, the Dreamer’s strategy, as an analyst is to get the analysand to go on, which the Man in Black does. It is because “we analysts deal with slaves who think they are masters” (Lacan, 2002, 242)) and that

the subject is precisely the one we encourage, not to say it all, as we tell him in order to charm him – one cannot say it all – but rather to utter stupidities … it is with these stupidities that we do analysis (Lacan, 1998, 22).

It is the Dreamer’s seemingly shallow reading of the Man in Black’s story that leads the Man in Black to take the position of master, while remaining White’s slave; as far as he is still White’s servant, he does not occupy the position of master even in relation to the Dreamer because the Dreamer authorizes the Man in Black’s story, insofar as the Dreamer is also the Narrator of the poem. The Dreamer, like White, negates the seriousness of the Man in Black’s problem with a deflating aloofness:

What los ys that? quod I thoo; / “Nyl she not love yow? Ys hyt soo? / Or have ye oght doon amys, / That she hath left yow? Ys hyt this? / Gor Goddes love, telle me al (l. 1139-43).

Here the dreamer is not only comical but is also displaying a critical indifference to the Man in Black’s tale; perhaps also the indifference identified as his symptom as well …

Another point to add regarding courtly love is that

[courtly love] is a highly refined way of making up for the absence of the sexual relationship, by feigning that we are the ones who erect an obstacle thereto … it is rooted in the discourse of loyalty, of fidelity to the person. In the final analysis, the “person” always has to do with the master’s discourse (Lacan, 1998, 69).

Alcyone and the Man in Black are both trying to make up for the absence of, if not the sexual relationship then, their beloved’s presence. They both show loyalty and fidelity to their masters, even after they have died, although their desire (in terms of what they lack) undergoes a profound shift from being pleasurable joy (i.e. love) to melancholy and sadness (i.e. hatred). in the continual absence of their masters. It is only through the negative that either retains any sense of the lost beloved object, and, indeed, the only way that either can retain any connection to the lost object at all. In the absence of the master as a signifier that does not lack there is no other possibility for the slave except desire dept alive out of hatred of absence; the Dreamer (analyst) poses as a substitute master in order for the subject to symbolize the loss of the beloved object: in his story, the Man in Black recalls his love by symbolizing her. This parallels Alcyone’s prayer (to a master signifier, which results in a dream of her beloved Seys and also the poem as a whole, if the effort of reading the poem is an attempt to understand how the Narrator overcame (or did not overcome) his original symptom. In my analysis, neither Alcyone, the Man in Black, or the Narrator overcome their symptoms completely, although some progress is made in each case: Alcione sees her beloved again, the Man in Black asserts himself gaining a limited subjectivity apart from White, and the Narrator goes to sleep and has a dream. But does the Narrator regain his feeling?

The answer to this question is ambiguous, because we have the dream as it is written, which would imply an effort … but on the other hand, the last line of the poem suggests that the indifference has persisted. He does, however, display compassion for the Man in Black’s sorrows (l. 1310) … What I have tried to show is that the exchange between the Dreamer and the Man in Black resembles what happens in psychoanalysis as a practice of healing; that desire, especially in the form of courtly love, is paradoxically an object-cause in both negative and positive ways; that for love to be possible, even a post-humous love, a master must be available to make a subject out of the lover; and that the structure of the triangle is essential to understanding desire as it functions in this poem.