What can philosophy get out of literary criticism? We’ve had some past episodes (like this and this) where we discussed some philosophical issues brought up by a piece of fiction, but that’s different then the act of doing philosophy through literary criticism, which is supposed to reveal something about our relationship to language, to ideas, to culture. The tradition of criticism coming from Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida (and this is not to minimize the differences between them) considers not just how an author creates an effect or what themes he or she is trying to convey, but the relationship of a text or other creative work to the human psyche. Lacan in particular used literature (not uncommonly, following Freud and others) to help explain points of his psychoanalytic project. A story, like a dream, is fodder for analysis to learn about the psyche of its creator, whose characteristics will in many cases be generalizable to the rest of us. We discussed two related pieces of criticism on the evening of 4/2/13.
Lacan’s “Seminar on the Purloined Letter” from 1956 (which you can read here) analyzes the Edgar Allan Poe short story from 1845 (which you can read and listen to here or listen via iTunes U). Lacan’s point is to investigate “repetition automatism,” which was a puzzle for Freud: if all of our actions come from the libido (the pleasure principle), then why do we sometimes engage in repetitive, self-destructive behavior. Lacan’s explanation is that the unconscious is not just a bundle of drives, but is made up of symbolic strings, which participate in systems that have their own internal logic and thus motive force. In the story, the various characters take on certain roles in reaction to a letter being used to blackmail the Queen of France. The content of the letter is not divulged to the reader (is it evidence of an affair? a political plot? embarrassing fan fiction?), and so Lacan describes it as a “pure signifier” whose travel among the various characters constitutes a repetitive cycle: coming into possession of the letter pushes characters into a state of vulnerability, until at the end Lacan reveals that the supposed hero-genius of the story (who incidentally was a direct influence on the creation of Sherlock Holmes; this series of stories pretty much invented the modern detective story) has himself exposed his backside (figuratively) to the analyst, i.e. Lacan and his readers.
Jacques Derrida, in 1975, published his response to Lacan’s article as “The Purveyor of Truth.” In short, he criticized Lacan for not analyzing a text in such a way that makes use of Derrida’s deconstruction and his related claims about metaphysics and language. Even though Lacan is notoriously suspicious of traditional philosophical claims about truth (he unsurprisingly sees all such claims as expressions of psychological and social phenomena instead of their being really about what they claim to be), Derrida claims that the old fashioned “metaphysics of presence” is still alive and well in Lacan’s analysis, that Lacan depicts the act as speech as primary over writing (e.g. for Lacan, when you talk, you may let slip the contents of the unconscious, which as revealed are somehow more truly you than what you consciously think, though this is complicated; it turns out nether are “the real”), and that Lacan in analyzing the themes and content of the story and not the style of storytelling is missing the point of literary analysis. Not to mention that according to Derrida, psychoanalysis finds itself everywhere, meaning that Lacan is reading the usual hypersexualized/Oedipal triangle/castration story into Poe where this is really not warranted.
We read these articles in the collection The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading, complied in 1988 by John P. Muller and William J. Richardson. This is much preferable over chasing the abovementioned articles around on the Internet because:
1. There are supporting essays explaining specifically what Lacan is talking about and giving background on Derrida’s general project.
2. Even on the Poe story itself, there are lots of footnotes explaining where he got various ideas and other elements.
3. The Derrida essay has been mercifully abridged from some other versions, and the abridgment was Derrida-approved.
4. There’s some background on psychoanalytic reading in general, including an essay by Marie Bonaparte, a patient and student (well, “associate”) of Freud, whose more overtly sex-obsessed reading was read and criticized by Lacan.
5. There are no less than eight other essays in the volume that evaluate and expound upon the two articles we all read, including one by editor John Muller that helpfully explains Lacan’s debt to Hegel (i.e. my comment above about “logic and thus motive force” is an idea straight out of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit).
Beyond this, there’s plenty more information out there on Poe himself: it’s helpful to understand “The Purloined Letter” to at least read or listen to the first in the Dupin trilogy (the Letter being the third), “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which introduces and explains the genius of the Dupin character. I also found it helpful to look at Poe’s essay “Philosophy of Composition,” which exemplifies how Poe actually worked. In the essay, he reveals how he crafted “The Raven,” i.e. very meticulously, with seemingly sole attention to affecting the reader, not trying to make any kind of philosophical point. While this doesn’t mean that he’s not tapping into some interesting psychological phenomena, to me it was a testament to what literary analysis actually should be, i.e. understanding why a work is effective and the techniques involved rather than merely appropriating the work to one’s already existent philosophical project.