‘Why haven’t I got any proper dresses? Why don’t you make a lady of me?’
‘Would you like that?’
‘No.’ Saying which, [Effi] ran up to her mother, threw her arms round her impetuously and kissed her.[i]
Theodor Fontane (1819–1898) was a German poet and novelist best known for his realist style and social criticism of Wilhelm II’s Prussian Empire. In 1895, Fontane wrote Effi Briest, a novel about the tragic fate of a young woman trying to live in the rigid confines of Prussian society. Given the choice between a loveless and unhappy life in the aristocracy or the social ostracism incurred as a divorcee or single older woman, late-nineteenth century Prussian society gave Effi no real choice at all.
We first meet Fontane’s heroine, Effi Briest, in the idyllic landscape of “Hohen- Cremmen” having an altogether everyday conversation with her mother. We know already that Effi doesn’t fit into this picturesque “realist” scenario because, as her mother remarks, she is overly wild and chaotic. At 17, Effi is married to a 38-year-old county commissioner named Geert. Her mother insists that he is a man of position and class and that a “clever girl” would marry him. And of course, Effi wants to be just that. What Effi gets is a loveless marriage fueled by her husband’s incessant careerism and her own feelings of boredom and being out of place in the backwater town of Kessin. Eventually, Effi has an affair with another man and her husband discovers their love letters. Disowned by her husband, her daughter, her parents, and “society,” Effi struggles to live as a divorcee and eventually collapses from grief. In the end, we find Effi where we first met her, among the idyllic sunlight and heliotropes and the orderly and blasé discourse of her parents; although, this time she is buried underneath the garden.
Effi’s last request was to have her old name on her gravestone. She felt that she “didn’t do the other one much honor” (2000, p. 217).[ii] In fact, she didn’t seem to do any of her names much honor: “lady,” “aristocrat,” “Wilhelmine,” “Landrat’s Frau,” “ostracized divorcee.” Effi was just Effi. She never was able to be anything else, though she tried; and she was alienated from her own life as a result. R.W. Fassbinder’s second title for his film Effi Briest summarizes the problem: Many, Who Have an Idea of Their Possibilities and Needs and Yet in Their Heads Accept the Reigning System through Their Deeds, Thereby Reinforce and Confirm It.[iii] On the other hand, Fontane’s Effi is a sign of the failure of the reigning system. The 26-year-old Effi doesn’t reinforce or confirm anything lying in her grave.
What causes feelings of alienation? How do we resolve them? Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discussions of alienation focused on society’s role in alienating the individual. The story goes: Your society delineates the routes of your world; its possibilities and lifestyles. The routes aren’t well-worn paths made from natural behavior, but instead, drawn lines, burdening and concealing the person’s true self. Society’s roles alienate l’homme naturel. They are his straitjacket. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan understands the root of alienation differently.[iv] He finds it in normal psychological development. From six to eighteen months, when a child has less instrumental knowledge than a chimpanzee, they nevertheless show interest in their mirror image. Instead of seeing their image and moving on, the child gestures toward their image; touches and plays with it. This important moment is the first time the child “assumes an image”; the first time she has a self. Before the child becomes a “lady,” “Frenchman,” “criminal,” etc., she is her image in the mirror (and in her parents words). Moreover, this first identification with her mirror image is the grounds of all future identifications with social images, models, values, etc. Who you are is formed by these images. The better metaphor for society is not the straitjacket but the stake on which the formless ivy grows.
So, whence alienation and how do we fix it? For Lacan, alienation is caused by the inability to live out your self-image. You see yourself as one way and yet in reality things are never so clean-cut. The fact is every image is an idealization, viz., fictional. Consider that initial mirror image. It is reversed, located in the mirror, phenomenally coherent, stable, and powerful like the child’s parents. On the other hand, the child’s direct experiences are flighty, fragmented, and largely out of his control. The child takes the image to be itself although it isn’t and so it begins its life-long journey through alien images. Likewise, the way we think about ourselves, the words we use to describe ourselves, are all cast in abstract nouns, proper names, or indexicals, all of which are signifiers of the language we inherit. Selfhood has to operate in language; yet, biological life operates in reality (in “the Real”). This irresolvable division causes feelings of alienation and estrangement. Language’s signifiers have become our straitjackets.
Returning to our second question—how do we resolve our feelings of alienation—a solution implied by what was said above is that we could possibly find a right way to signify our true selves, the right images or roles in society to live out, such that we no longer feel alienated. If Effi hadn’t been forced to marry young but lived according to her wild, poetic nature, she might have been happy.
The problem is: Lacan’s analysand doesn’t have a true image to reveal.[v] This is implied by two claims in “Mirror Stage.” First, images by their very nature can never be manifested in our actual lives. They are fictional; Gestalten. Second, the child has no self-image before finding one in the mirror (and in their parents’ words). It seems that the self is nothing separate from the signifiers the subject takes on. Ultimately, each person lives their life from one “misrecognition” to the next, adopting a self-image that is inevitably frustrated by reality only to do it again. Any selfhood that you adopt is taken from “the Other.”
A second possibility lies in discovering where otherness leaves off and something else begins. Perhaps a true self can be found behind the signifiers you take on, as their placeholder. In fact, what Lacan says in “Mirror Stage” suggests something like this. There needs to be a subject that “assumes an image”; that is transformed by their initial identification with an image, etc. There must be some agency behind the signifiers. There are two problems with this position. First, the spatial metaphor of something lying behind something else is particularly suspicious when talking about mental phenomena. Second, this notion of selfhood doesn’t do any of the work that we traditionally call on selfhood to do. An empty placeholder is not like a personality; something that has values, tendencies, history, desires, etc. Otherness might leave off after the signifiers, but what is left is not much of a self.
A final possibility for resolving feelings of alienation comes not through discovering the right signifiers or an un-alienated self, but through the refusal to search for one. We might identify our life-long dependence on (false) images and yet refuse to seek out our “true selves.” You might simply just not care. The problem with this position is that it puts you at odds with both everyday social interactions and normal psychological processes. Social interactions proceed under the assumption that the interlocutors have selves; have histories and personalities, likes and dislikes, etc. If you believe you aren’t really anybody, and the self you take on is just some mask, then your interlocutor might rightfully regard you as misleading or manipulative. Additionally, symbolization is the means by which we have any experience of the world whatsoever. The image is the threshold to the visible world. This includes experiences of yourself. Operating as if you have no self might be tantamount to having a personality disorder. What can it even mean to say that I have no self? Who or what is it, then, that doesn’t have a self? There seems to be no possibility of actually denying your selfhood and still living a mentally healthy life.
In the end, there may be no way out of constant alienation. First, the images, roles, and behaviors that we embody, because they are idealized and fictional, are always inadequate. Our lived experience never exemplifies our tidy visions of ourselves. There is no possibility of discovering a “true image” of the self. Second, if the self is a mere placeholder, then not only does it sit on a precarious use of metaphor, but it also leaves us with a self that does no real work. Finally, living a social and mentally healthy life without believing you have a true self is problematic if not impossible. Selfhood is a necessary aspect of mental life; yet, any selfhood that you adopt is taken from “the Other.” To have any self at all is to be constantly alienated.
[i] Fontane, Theodor. Effi Briest. Trans. Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.
[ii] Op. cit.
[iii] Effi Briest. Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 1974.
[iv] Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function,” in Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 2006. pp. 75-81. Print.
The picture of Lacan that I give is drawn from this early work. The lecture was given in 1949. Lacan’s later views on subjectivity are not discussed in this paper.
[v] Fink, Bruce. The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995. p 37. Print.
Thomas Morrison has an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Chicago. His main area of research is the philosophy of science, including the social sciencesand psychology. He currently lives in Lawrence, KS, where he continues to write philosophy and work on his beef stew recipe.