- Using Lacan, Reading Fiction
James Mellard's book does what its title promises to do: it provides model readings of three canonical texts—The Scarlet Letter, "The Beast in the Jungle," and To the Lighthouse —that use the psychoanalytic theories of Jacques Lacan as an interpretive tool; these readings show how the texts illustrate Lacanian concepts. The book and its methodology are eminently pragmatic; a detailed, comprehensive, and basic long introduction sets the stage for a step-by-step demonstration of how Lacanian theory may be applied to literary texts. The "How-to" tone may irritate or unsettle readers who are looking for new insights about Lacan and reading, but it may also prove consoling to those who are trying to get enough of a foothold to begin the serious study of Lacan: the book makes Lacan accessible to the neophyte, and may be useful for graduate students. Nevertheless, to "use" Lacan is not necessarily the most instructive thing to do with him. The book demonstrates a thorough and accurate understanding of Lacanian theory, but its style, methodology, and preoccupations seem not to have been influenced by it. There is little reading of Lacan's texts themselves. The author admits this in his first sentences, where he says that his goal is "to 'use' theoretical structures for the reading of specific sometimes recalcitrant, always concrete pieces of literature (ix)." Ironically, a Lacanian theoretical practice seems extrinsic to the author's experience as a reader and writer. To paraphrase is not to enter into dialogue, and thus not to risk the stability of one's own discourse; this book is not adventurous, and that is both its flaw and one of its virtues.
Mellard's book is part of a third stage of Lacanian criticism, and provides a succinct and clear overview of what has gone before it. The author [End Page 212] engages with the work of major critics in a way that summarizes them and then suggests positions from which to question them. The book may serve as a helpful starting point for perplexed readers who want to begin the study of the relationship between Lacan's theory and the practice of literary criticism, as long as those readers do not allow their perplexity, or their dread of it, to keep them from reading Lacan's own writing for themselves.