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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 227-252

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The Passion of Joanna Baillie:
Playwright as Martyr

Sean Carney

Joanna Baillie's dramatic corpus presents, in play after play, a series of protagonists whose self-command comes into conflict with a treacherous and misleading passion. The struggle between these capacities constitutes a theatrical spectacle anticipated by her predecessor Adam Smith in his work of stoic philosophy, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. There he writes:

[t]he man who acts according to the rules of perfect prudence, of strict justice, and of proper benevolence, may be said to be perfectly virtuous. But the most perfect knowledge of those rules will not alone enable him to act in this manner: his own passions are very apt to mislead him; sometimes to drive him and sometimes to seduce him to violate all the rules which he himself, in all his sober and cool hours, approves of. The most perfect knowledge, if it is not supported by the most perfect self-command, will not always enable him to do his duty. 1

In theory and in practice, Baillie deploys a critical vocabulary which gives every indication that her oeuvre is a series of varied responses to Smith's work. 2 This essay will explore the manner in which Baillie's plays stage Smith's ethical conflict, but it will also interrogate the investment in reason and rationality which conditions how these writers approach the concept of sympathetic passion. Baillie and Smith fashion the passions as a mechanism of social cohesion and as a form of exchange, and their agendas as conservative rationalists and products of the Enlightenment dictate that this economy of passion should operate in a rational, stable, economic manner. I will argue, by way of Lacanian notions of jouissance, that Baillie's and Smith's own observations about passion figure it as a force of antisocial desire, even as unconscious drive, and that slippages in their arguments indicate a surplus value produced in the economy of passion, one which they would like to contain and disguise, but which stubbornly and persistently escapes. [End Page 227]

As Jacques Lacan argues: "Freud shows us--and it is in this sense that he doesn't go beyond Marx--that the two terms of reason and of need are insufficient to permit an understanding of the domain involved when it is a question of human self-realization. It is in the structure itself that we come up against a certain difficulty, which is nothing less than the function of desire . . . . The problem involved is that of jouissance, because jouissance presents itself as buried at the center of a field and has the characteristics of inaccessibility, obscurity and opacity." 3 Thus, by figuring the factor of desire into Enlightenment models of human socialization, I will propose that passion itself, as it appears in Baillie's and Smith's writings, is more than mere affect--passion appears as a form of knowledge, but a knowledge not containable by a rationalist approach to understanding. Passion is most fully articulated as a form of jouissance, the irrational knowledge of the unconscious.

By positioning the unconscious in the sympathetic economies of Joanna Baillie and Adam Smith, this essay attempts to locate the resistance to symbolization and understanding present even within a system of thought which is ostensibly rational and totalizing. This resistance is also a resistance to an ideology, the ideology of "the 'modern ego', that is to say, the paranoiac subject of scientific civilization, of which a warped psychology theorizes the imaginary, at the service of free enterprise." 4 Such resistance to the narcissistic, aggressive, modern ego is a resistance to a totalizing process of modernization, a process which, as Teresa Brennan points out, is also a "social psychosis" 5 which began during the seventeenth century, was accelerated by capitalism's development, and today is known simply as postmodernity. In other words, there are moments when Baillie and Smith, in attempting to define the human subject as a self-contained, rational, centered selfhood, come up against the unsymbolizable, traumatic kernel of the real, circle...


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