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Lacan and the Destiny of Literature: Desire, Jouissance and the Sinthome in Shakespeare, Donne, Joyce and Ashbery (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 607-610 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0049

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Nettled not a little.

(U 16.1262)

"You must think," Jacques Lacan told his seminar audience rather sheepishly in 1976, "that I am coping with Joyce comme un poisson d'une pomme" ("like a fish does with an apple" or, as we might put it less poetically, with a bicycle). This show of mock humility introduced a speaker better equipped to bite into the forbidden fruit of Joyce's work: Jacques Aubert, a young academic at the time in analysis, as luck would have it, with Dr. Lacan himself. From the outset, in other words, Lacan was careful to frame his discourse on Joyce as that of a non-expert, someone with no investment in the dubious industry still churning out books on Joyce: so much poubellication, Lacan once quipped, rhyming publication with la poubelle, the trashcan. Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan's official heir, is, therefore, being faithful to the script by insisting "there isn't any literary criticism in Lacan." The point, of course, is not that Lacan did not know what he was talking about but that the legendary mastery of the psychoanalyst would never have risked being compromised by mere critical debate.

Lacan's discourse on Joyce is thus complicated at its very beginning by a rhetorical disparagement of the critical industry it nevertheless feeds on like a hungry fish in a fruit bowl. Hence that discourse will never present itself as merely Lacanian criticism and still less as the "application" of theory to text, an error put about by naive fools with no idea of the subtlety of Lacan's insights. This rhetorical ploy duly serves as the starting-point of Ehsan Azari's book, with the fools now divided into those who use Lacanian theory to produce no more than a "psychiatric report" on Joyce and those, by contrast, guilty of "downgrad[ing]" Lacanian theory by reducing it to one or other of its various phases or aspects (1). Instead, Azari proposes a judicious balance of theoretical exegesis and literary analysis, with the latter seen as viable only for the reader who has traversed the preliminary ordeal of "pure" Lacan, the "real thing" of theory. I confess that I found Azari's frankness in setting out his aims for the opening chapters slightly disconcerting: "[T]he first theoretical part spells out what literature means and how a literary text includes and excludes human subjectivity" (3). This preposterous hyperbole, I first thought, cannot be wholly intentional; but I regret to say that it turned out to characterize the book as a whole.

The beginning chapters, at any rate, set out to give the thorough account of Lacanian theory needed to get a clear idea of "what literature means." The initial problem is that this theoretical material is no longer, in 2010, a terra incognita. It has been recently presented much more clearly by Bruce Fink, Joel Dor, and Dany Nobus, not to mention the omnipresent Slavoj Žižek. Thus, readers familiar with the contemporary industry of Lacanian theory will find nothing new in Azari and plenty of muddle, while those with no prior knowledge of Lacan will find their worst fears confirmed. The usual techno-jargon and mock-scientific rigor, as in the hapless passage on the "formula of sexuation" in chapter 2 (26), combine with shrewd insights such as this on the alienating metonymy of desire: "When the object is within reach, we do not desire it" (12). Aha!

If Žižek, that irrepressibly cheerful metaphysical gossip, could be called the Mrs. Gamp of Lacanian theory, I regret to say that Azari looks very like its Mrs. Malaprop. The frequent typographical and lexical slips—"diverts" for "differs," "axiology" for "point," and so on—and grammatical wobbles confirm one's overall sense of this as "secondmouth language" (FW 37.15), as does the consistently poor punctuation, which often ruins the sense of a phrase and which a good copy-editor ought surely to have been able to fix. Another fault that should perhaps be laid at the door of the publisher, Continuum, is the woefully inadequate index, something quite unacceptable in a book intended for a scholarly audience. But Azari's impersonation of Mrs. Malaprop is...

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