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David Suming Sheu 100551005 Dr. Chin-yuan Hu Epistolary Literature Jan 21 2014

The Masochist Letters Writers In some epistolary literature, such as Zweigs Letter from an Unknown Woman and Barbins Letters of a Portuguese Nun, the readers meet a certain type of letters writers who write desperately, and are without the hope of being responded. Then there is a question to be asked: why do they keep writing letters, despite the fact that the letters would never be replied? Do the letters writers not realize that their waiting for the letters are futile? To answer the question, I would argue that the letters writers are masochists, and the process of repetitively writing letters is an act to fulfill the death wish. What is more, I attempt to link Lacans idea of the objet petit a with the letters writers desire. I would talk about Freuds concept of the pleasure principle first, and then move on to Lacans idea of the objet petit a and desire, to show that the letters writers desire is masochistic. Freuds notion of the fort-da game is a good start for us to link psychoanalysis with letters writing (and receiving, of course). Hence, I think talking about Freuds Beyond the Pleasure Principle is inevitable. Freud found out a little boy (who is actually his grandson) playing the fort-da game, which is a game about disappearance and return (Freud 14). This little boy, according to Freud, has a

disturbing habit, that is to take small things and then throw them away into a corner. While observing his grandson repeating this action again and again, Freud noticed that the boy made o-o-o-o sounds during the disappearance and return of the objects he (the little boy) threw away. The disappearance and return of the little objects the boy throws away could be linked to the concept of letter writing: whenever the letter writer sends the letter, the letter disappears, and the letter writer waits for the receiver to reply, that is the return of the letter. As for disappearance and return, we can see it as the presence and absence of the object. In the discussion of the fort-da game, Freud further throws another question: Whether it is the presence or the absence of the object that brings pleasure? What is more, Freud related the toy the little boy plays with to the little boys mother. To be more specific, the object is actually a compensation of the mothers showing up and going away. Instead of the presence of the object( or the mother), Freud notes that it is actually the absence that brings pleasure to the little boy: It may perhaps be said in reply that her departure had to be enacted as a necessary preliminary to her joyful return (Freud 15). In her Love Me, Love My Ombre, Elle, Gayatri Spivak makes further explanation on this notion. Spivak claims that the fort-da game is a game that cannot be finalized: Ernst received more pleasure from the fort than from the da. The un-pleasure of the fort, in other words, is, for the sake of the assurance of the pleasure of the da, more pleasing than the pleasure itselfand keeps the game forever in-complete (Spivak 30). In my concern, Spivaks idea of the fort-da game being forever in-complete is just like letter writing,

Later in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud brings up the idea of compulsive repetition. Freud links compulsive repetition with infantile sexuality, the Oedipus complex. Aforementioned, the fort-da game is a game the infant plays with itself as a compensation of its mothers absence. Well, then why does the mother disappear? We all the answer is because the mother has to get busy with the father, doing you know what. Therefore, the mothers disappearing from the infant is the very first trauma the infant faces, and playing games is one of their ways to deal the trauma. What is more, the infant is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead ofremembering it as something belonging to the past (Freud 19). Regarding the Oedipus complex, Lacan puts that the pleasure principle is a prohibition of incest, that which regulates the distance between the subject and das Ding (Evans 148). As for das Ding, in his discussion of it in his An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Dylan Evans notes that: in the context of jouissance, das Ding is the object of desire. In other words, the Thing is the lost object which needs to be continually refound. Furthermore, Evans explains that the lost object is the forbidden object of incestuous desire, the mother (Evans 205). Hence, we can see that the pleasure principle is actually a principle that prohibits the desire, a law that maintains the subject at a certain distance from the Thing. In other words, the pleasure principle is a principle of the unpleasure. On the other hand, the subject attempts to transgress the prohibition the pleasure principles imposed on his/her own enjoyment; that is, to go beyond the pleasure principle. At this point, Lacan brings in the idea of jouissance, which in Lacan words is a painful pleasure (Evans 92).

Regarding this painful aspect of jouissance, Lacan states that the attempt to break through the pleasure principle towards the Thing and to excess the jouissance is a path to death; therefore, the drive to go beyond the pleasure principle is a death wish. In his Beyond the Pleasure Principle, death wish is linked to Freuds discussion of repetition compulsion. According to Freud, the patient keeps exposing himself again and again to distressing situations. The patient repeats doing so because he has forgotten the origin of the compulsion, or we can also say, that he has forgotten the origin of his childhood trauma. Lacan redefines Freuds notion of repetition as the return of jouissance (Evans 164). To link this so-called unpleasureness to masochism, we should look into Lacans discussion of the pleasure principle and sado-masochism in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Lacan also brings out the concept of the objet petit a in this seminar. First of all, Lacan notes that the objet petit a is the eternal lacking object (Lacan 180). Lacan explains that the objet petit a is not actually the original food, but is introduced from the fact that no food will ever satisfy the oral drive. In other words, the objet petit a is a desire that will never be satisfied, and it is a presence that is at the same time an absence. Lacan uses lots of examples to illustrate this idea, and I choose to use a fable Lacan uses to clarify this present also absent concept. Lacan tells us that once upon a time, there was a competition between two painters. The first painter draws a cluster of grapes on a wall, and the grapes attract birds. The grapes were so well drawn that all the birds died on the wall because of trying to eat them. All the watchers of the

competition hailed to the first painter. Then, the watchers turned to the second painter and said to him: Unveil your work now! We want to see what is under the veil! Lacan concludes that the second painter is obviously the winner of the competition, because his painting of the veil was so real that made all the watchers curious about what was under the veil. Lacan uses this fable to exemplify the concept of the objet petit a, and tells us that objet petit a is like that piece of veil on the wall, which has absolutely nothing under it. In other words, the objet petit a is like a veil that covers the void. Another example Lacan uses to show the idea of the objet petit a is the flower that covers the males penis in paintings. Lacan says that we all want to see what the flower covers while there is actually nothing, or void, behind it. Since the objet petit a is a void that triggers the subjects desire, we may also have the question: where does such desire come from? According to Lacan, such desire comes from the demand of the Other (Lacan 180), and this is a very important concept of Lacans discussion of desire. Zizek also asks and answers the same question in The Metastases of Enjoyment: Yes, but whose desire? Not mine. What we encounter in the very core of fantasy is the relationship to the desire of the Other, to the latters opacity: the desire staged in fantasy is not mine but the desire of the other (Zizek 177). He further explains this concept and links the objet petit a to the big Others desire, and to fantasy: the subject of fantasy is the famous objet petit a (Zizek 178). In addition, Lacan proposes that the [f]antasy is the support of desire; it is not the object that is the support of desire. Furthermore, Lacan links this desire and

fantasy to sado-masochism, stating that: the subject assume[s] this role of the object is precisely what sustains the reality of the situation of what is called the sado-masochistic drive (Lacan 185). At this point, Lacan makes a different statement on sado-masochism from Freud. Whereas Freud argues that it is sadism is primary, Lacan points out that it is actually masochism that is primary, and that sadism is merely the disavowal of masochism (Lacan 186). Lacan makes this claim by discussing the function of the objet petit a and its relation to fantasy: The objet a is never found in the position of being the aim of desire. Rather, it is the foundation of an identification disavowed by the subject. Therefore, we may say that the letters writers are masochists who live in their own fantasy, and what they look forward to is a void. To be more specific, the fantasy is that the subject believes that he can get something from the Other, but the Other actually does not have such the thing to give. The a in the objet petit a comes from the word agalma, which appears in Platos Symposium. Agalma is an ancient Greek term for a pleasing gift to the gods as an offering. Lacan introduced the term in his writing on Symposium, and used it to delineate the concept of transference. Lacan states that the agalma is defined by love, and is the object of desire that ignites our desire. Relating this to the transference, the agalma is the treasure we seek in analysis, the unconscious truth we seek to know. Zizek explains this idea even clearer in The Metastases of Enjoyment: the other sees something in me and wants something from me, but I cannot give him what I don not possess- or, as Lacan puts it, there is no relationship between what the loved one possesses and what the loving one lacks.

Zizek further uses the agalma to define love: I am truly in love not when I am simply fascinated by the agalma in the other, but when I experience the other, the object of lovelacking itand my love none the less survives this loss (Zizek 103-4). Concerning the desire of the Other, I think the process of letters writers constantly writing letters (but not being replied) is just like the way desire functions. The sender actually sends the letter to the big Other, instead of the receiver. In other words, the receiver is just the objet petit a, because he or she triggers the senders desire, instead of being the desire per se. However, then, how does the letter sender keep his/her desire always on? Why does not the senders desire be extinguished? That is because, for the sender, the receiver is always absent, and the absence is the void the sender desires for. In other words, the desire should never be satisfied, so that the desire can keep bringing effect to the sender. In both Letter From an Unknown Woman and Letters of a Portuguese Nun, the female protagonists send letters to the man they believe they are deeply in love with. When we read the letters, we might feel sorry for these ladies, because they seem so insanely in love. In Letter From an Unknown Woman, the female protagonist is even quite sure that the man she writes to never really knew [her]. Since the receiver does not know who she is, how is he going to reply? Therefore, I think the female protagonist writes the letter in order not to be replied. This situation is just like the story Lacan tells us about the butcher s wife, who loves caviar but does not want to have any. Seemingly, Lacan suggests that the best way to deal with desire is to never satisfy it. In The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis Lacan states: You love mutton stew. Youre not sure you desire it.

Take the experience of the beautiful butchers wife. She loves caviar, but she doesnt want any. Thats why she desires itthe object of desire is the cause of desire, and this object that is the cause of desire is the object of the drive (Lacan 243). This also raises another question; does the letter sender desire or not desire being responded? According to Lacan, to desire and not to desire is quite the same thing: But what does not wanting to desire mean?...that not want to desire and to desire are the same thing[n]ot wanting to desire is wanting not to desire (Lacan 235). As I concern, the subject might not know at all whether he/she desires; instead, we may be sure the subject keeps asking the question: what does the Other want? what does he want? Regarding this aspect, Lacan introduces the passage of Che Vuoi : What do you want? Lacan proposes that the subject asks this question in order to lead him to know what does he himself want; asking such question is the subjects path of his own desire. However, Zizek argues that the idea of che vuoi is not simply asking the question what do you want and he points out that Lacans formula of mans desire is the desire of the Other is problematic. Zizek finds the formula problematic because he thinks that the Other is not reliable, the Other gives us nothing, and that the Others desire is enigmatic. We finally get nothing from the Other. Therefore, we may conclude that what/whom the letters writers write to is the objet petit a, which is just a veil that covers nothing. In other words, the letter is send to the symbolic order, in Lacanin terms, is where the big Other posits. The sender believes that what the Other wants is also what he/she wants, but this thinking is merely fantasy. The repetitive writing, for the writer, is a work through of his/her own

masochist desire and death wish. Will the desire ever extinguish, in my concern, the answer is no, because aforementioned, the best way to deal with desire is not to satisfy it. This process is just like what we said about the pleasure principle, that it is a (unpleasure) principle that maintains the distance between the subject from jouissance.


Works Cited Evans, Dylan. An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis. New York. Routledge. 1996. Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. New York. Norton. 1961. Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. New York. Norton. 1998. Zizek, Slavoj. The Metastases of Enjoyment: On Women and Causality. United Kingdom. Verso. 1994.