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  • Laplanche, Freud, Leonardo:Sustaining Enigma
  • Jean Wyatt (bio)

In Jean Laplanche's theory of early childhood, the primal scene is an act of communication. A parental message that is enigmatic, beyond the child's grasp, constitutes both the unconscious and the subjectivity of the child. The message of the other is thus of overwhelming importance to the formation of the subject. Yet this is not a one-way communication. The child, trying to wring meaning out of a signifier that is beyond its grasp, tries to "translate" the enigmatic signifier into the terms of its own infantile belief systems. The part of Laplanche's paradigm that is important to my argument in this paper is the active part the child plays in trying out one interpretation after another, assigning multiple meanings to a message that in the end it can only partially understand. Jean Laplanche's model enables me to work through a response to the question that drives the first half of this essay: How does a child develop a desire to interpret?

However, the goal of my inquiry concerns the adult subject. I extend Laplanche's paradigm past childhood, exploring its implications for adult creativity and investigative work of various kinds. I develop a hypothesis that a child's repeated wrestling with a mother's or a father's enigmatic signifier—trying and failing to interpret the parental message, and trying again—can provide the basis for a mode of patient, extended intellectual inquiry or creative production in later life.

It is the enigma of the parent's words (or gestures) that engages the child's desire to penetrate the meaning of words and provokes her to generate interpretations—and yet more interpretations. (And Laplanche makes it clear that this encounter [End Page 183] with adult signifiers that withhold their meaning recurs throughout childhood.) In later life, then, the adult child has available to him, through long training, a model for meeting the puzzles and enigmas encountered in the course of intellectual or artistic work by experimenting with various interpretations. The challenge is to deal with the immediate problem, to be sure, but at the same time to keep the enigma open to generate fresh views of the problem, and fresh interpretations.

In the course of writing this essay, I have developed an ethic—or perhaps a work ethic—of remaining open to enigma and keeping alive its spur to multiple interpretations. I touch on the uses of enigma in many fields: artistic production (Leonardo da Vinci), psychoanalytic writing (Freud's monograph on Leonardo), and reader responses to literary texts. The other who comes bearing an enigmatic message in adult life may be a human or a cultural other (a literary text, a film, a painting). For example, when I open the inquiry to include subjects' adult responses to cultural artifacts, I use the novel Boy, Snow, Bird (2014) by Helen Oyeyemi as an example of a cultural other whose manifold enigmas may inspire responses similar to a reader's original response to a parental enigmatic signifier.

Central to my argument is the figure of Leonardo da Vinci, who is the subject of Laplanche's late essay, "Inspiration or Sublimation" (2002/2014). Leonardo (that is, the Leonardo that we know from Freud's study [1910]), which is Laplanche's source) retains from his childhood the enabling mystery of his mother's smile. His loyalty to that originary enigmatic message enables him to remain open to the enigmatic messages coming from the other in later life. He is able to use the enigma of the other—for example, the smile of Lisa del Giocondo (the model for the Mona Lisa)—to inspire a series of paintings, or "translations," to use Laplanche's term. Each interpretation (the Mona Lisa, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne, Saint John the Baptist) retains the enigmatic signifier of the smile as the heart of its message to the spectator (inspiring in turn multiple interpretations from viewers through the centuries). Leonardo enacts a creative process that keeps the spur of enigma alive in order to generate more, and still more, translations of the enigma. [End Page 184]

Of course, not every child experiences the...