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James Joyce and the Problem of Psychoanalysis (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 44, Number 4, Summer 2007
pp. 820-824 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0024

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Luke Thurston’s book came at the right moment, just before Jacques Lacan’s famous seminar on Joyce was published in book form, a publication that had been ardently expected and that would reopen the debate on Joyce’s role for Lacan.1 In Lacan’s Séminaire, the debate is given a better critical apparatus because of the contributions of Jacques Aubert, who appends his own 1976 talk given in Lacan’s seminar and a few pages of useful annotations (171–98), and those of Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan’s son-in-law and literary executor, who, in a gesture that is quite exceptional, adds to Lacan’s own seminar some fifty pages of personal comments and theoretical developments (199–247). The systematic discussion of Joyce’s works by France’s leading psychoanalyst was the object of an entire conference that took place in Dublin during and after Bloomsday 2005.

Thurston is well equipped to survey the Joyce-Lacan connection, since he is knowledgeable both in the fields of psychoanalytic theory and English literature, a double competence that is often sadly absent in many post-Lacanians; in other words, he is equally at ease with Sigmund Freud and the historical Freudians as with Giorgio Agamben, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, and other luminaries of theory, and he knows his Shakespeare very well. Three years ago, he edited an excellent collection on the later Lacan that shows a deep familiarity with the wiles and knots of the 1970s seminars.2 Besides, he is consistently witty in a non-Žižekian way; that is, he avoids the anecdotal use of jokes or films as simple illustrations of Lacanian categories. He uses film and popular culture quite often, however, as when he begins his book with a wonderful prologue exploiting the coincidence of Joyce’s date of birth with what is known as “Groundhog Day.” Moving quickly between Friedrich Nietzsche and the Hollywood comedy Groundhog Day, Thurston parallels Joyce with the character played by Bill Murray, a man who cannot escape from the endless repetition of the same day.3 Echoes of Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Klossowski, and Frank Kermode launch a pyrotechnical display of subtle erudition announcing the entry of Lacan on page 10, a psychoanalyst originally coupled with Saint Bonaventura. Having taken into account today’s seeming closure of the Joycean field in a glut of redundant and repetitive commentaries, Thurston poses the crucial question of whether a psychoanalytic method revived by Lacan can offer new insights. I would say that he forces us to answer “yes,” insofar as he suggests that there is a lot to lose in not opening Lacan’s apparently absurdist or opaque disquisitions on Borromean knots, literary symptom, and Joyce.4 That Lacan’s theories about Joyce are useful to psychoanalysts, no one will doubt, but his relevance to the Joyce field has been contested.

Thurston begins his demonstration by beginning at the beginning, that is, with Dubliners. Arguing that it is time to go beyond the dichotomy of either purely theoretical approaches or historical scholarship, he shows concretely how Joyce’s works themselves always engage with some kind of theory or other. In Dubliners, “An Encounter” is a privileged site because the story allows Thurston to show that one needs a theory of fantasy to make sense of the “encounter” between the boys and the pervert—such an encounter is always an encounter with the reader (26). He adds to this Lacan’s distorted memory of an encounter with Joyce: Lacan once said that he had met Joyce when he was seventeen, which would place the fatidic “encounter” in 1918, which, as we know, is impossible as Joyce only arrived to Paris a few years later (162). As many commentators have noted, this may stem from Lacan’s insistence on the fact that he, too, was “a young man” when he got in touch with Joyce in the flesh (this recalls the famously mythical meeting between an “older” Yeats and a younger Joyce who could do nothing to help). Joyce would have been named by Lacan before he was encountered—a recurrent pun in the Seminar XXIII, and in the later written version is the French...

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