While Jacques Lacan is widely-known for his pioneering into the depths of the psyche, he also takes a stance on poetry. Who knew?
In Lacan’s Seminar XI, he follows his first lecture (mostly a rant about being “ex-communicated”) with a lecture called “The Freudian Unconscious and Ours.” He begins with a poem by Loius Aragon titled “Contre-chant,” loosely translated as “Counterpoint.” The translation of the original French reads as follows:
In vain does your image come to meet me
And does not enter me where I am who only shows it
Turning towards me you can find
On the wall of my gaze only your dreamt-of shadow.
I am that wretch comparable with mirrors
That can reflect but cannot see
Like them my eye is empty and like them inhabited
By your absence which makes them blind.
Lacan prefaces the poem by saying that it “has no relation to what I am about to say,” which, of course, it does. The poem (surprise!) functions as a Lacanian joke, playing on the idea that our existence is punctuated with interruptions destabilizing the flow of discourse. More on that later.
The poem could be titled “The mirror’s lament,” which would shed some light on its content, and perhaps even its form. The poem laments the mirror’s task of enabling others to see themselves, but never itself (the mirror) seeing what they see. But the poem on the page actually has a similar function. Like the mirror, the poem never knows its audience. It is confined to a spoken utterance or to the page. What the poem means to you—what it reveals to you about yourself—the poem (or the mirror) will never see. It is blind.
The blindness of the mirror and the poem are a result of our own seeing. It is only because the poem or the mirror cannot see us that we are able to see ourselves. This particular poem, lamenting the plight of the mirror and itself, might be saying: “I sacrifice my own sight, so that you may see.”
But as if being blinded was not enough, the mirror is also invisible. In order to see yourself in a mirror, you actually have to look past the mirror’s surface to see your reflection. Likewise, when we hear somebody read a poem, isn’t it more often than not that we learn more about the person reading than the poem itself? In order to do this we have to look past the poem to see the person.
For Lacan, the mirror and the poem become the site of the ego-ideal. That is, a secondary point of identification by which we construct who we would like to be. Like the poem and the mirror, a kind of sacrifice must be made in order to create this ideal self. That sacrifice, or loss, (for Lacan anyway) is a condition of the entry into the symbolic order—the ability to recognize ourselves as self.
This loss is perpetually recurring in the punctuations and interruptions, what Lacan would call compulsive repetition. The sacrifice of the mirror and the poem reflect the gap in us. This particular poem laments its existence as a mirror from the perspective of the poem itself.
But all psychoanalytic babble aside, I think the French doctor has a point. Poetry is a way to better see ourselves, and one that requires a kind of sacrifice. An opening up, a vulnerability. A forfeit in order to create and maintain identity.
So read on, says the Lacanian in me. Read on and recognize the gap in yourself to better understand who you are. And lest we forget—bow down to that which recreates the lamentable mirror: poems.
Emily Schuck, Assistant Editor
foothill: a journal of poetry