Mirrors/ Lacan with Joyce/ Theory, Psychoanalysis, and Literature

Author: Beryl Schlossman (University of California, Irvine)

 “Pouvait-on s’attendre à autre chose d’emmoi: je nomme.”
[“Could one expect anything else from me/being emotional: I give names.”][1]


Jacques Lacan considered an analytic perspective on language and the effects of literature as distinctive in the context of writing. In several chapters of his seminar of 1975-1976, posthumously published under the title of Le Sinthome, Lacan explored the impact on psychoanalysis of James Joyce’s use of language. The “symptom” (or “sinthome”) raises the question of language, subjectivity, and Trinitarian theology in the context of symptomatic effects of language and the model of the subject.

I propose to pursue these questions in the contexts of Joyce’s self-portrait as Lacan inscribes its parameters in his own language, via cultural identity, urban and colonial life, and especially the structures that Lacan considers as evidence of subjectivity. In this sense, I interpret Lacan’s radical analytic operation as the cutting away of fiction, as if he had been hearing Joyce on a couch instead of reading texts. In the context of what Lacan calls “truth,” the interpretive enterprise of the sinthome leads to a view of Joyce’s names, from childhood through the transmission of an afterlife in the last lines of the Wake. This analytic project is neither a living work of analysis of a live patient nor a constructed biography of the writing subject.

The specific relation of symptom and Saint Thomas (Joyce’s “old Aquinas”) enters Lacan’s formulation of “sinthomadaquin.” Playfully or gravely, Lacan names the symptom for the prestigious and generous theologian who possibly offered indirect protection from accusations of heresy and other pitfalls of Jesuit education in Dublin in the early years of the twentieth century. But there is a more direct motive behind Lacan’s emphasis on the spelling of symptom as “sinthome”: Lacan uncovers the origin of “sinthome” in the writing of François Rabelais.[2] The latter represents a compelling combination of writing, medicine, and theology, of obscenity, censorship, and the pleasures of the body. For Lacan, the “sinthome” takes us back to Rabelais, a thinker and writer condemned for obscenity. His famous character of Gargantua is a figure of gigantic appetites and vast pleasures, moving in a world of biting satire and dazzling fiction. No one is surprised that the Sorbonne did all it could to suppress Rabelais’s writing. By comparison, Ulysses itself might have passed unnoticed through the censors’ hands.

Lacan’s reference to Rabelais launches his account, late in life, of his virtual encounter with Joyce. This encounter is less real than the one evoked in Ulysses between Bloom and Stephen—a scene that ends in distance and dreams, without details about the harsh reality of Stephen’s immediate future. The parodic sketch of father-son redemption in Nighttown is over. But the effects that Lacan seeks to anchor in his early proximity with Joyce are presented as essential to Lacan’s writing and teaching. Theology seems to help out by filling in some gaps where language produces obstacles.

On one side, then, there is Gargantua, and his ambition, within the poetic world of Rabelais’s inventive language and magnificent humor; on the other, there is the French version of “thomasdaquin” (Tommaso d’Aquino, or Thomas d’Aquin, renamed by a Francophone). Stephen Dedalus, however is quite different from either of them, and English becomes a kind of a rebus for Lacan. At a moment late in Lacan’s career, when he also read papers in English at Johns Hopkins University, Lacan looks at his own biography with the English language separating his French origins from James Joyce.

Lacan’s response to Joyce includes an emphasis on the theory of the Name of the Father as symptom.[3] In the past several decades, major theorists, psychoanalysts, and critics have explored Lacan’s response to Joyce and other writers: these include a recent essay for the Lacanian community by the analyst Colette Soler, who attempts to retrace Lacan’s steps in Le Sinthome.[4] Within the pages of Lacan’s seminar, the presence of Jacques Aubert is indicated in dialogue with Lacan.[5] Critical essays on literature, theory, and psychoanalysis include works by Robert Con Davis,[6] Juliet Flower MacCannell,[7] Ellie Ragland-Sullivan,[8] Joseph Valente,[9] Derek Attridge, [10] Luke Thurston,[11] and Jean-Michel Rabaté,[12] among others. In the years following Lacan’s seminar, Joyce was discussed in a range of major theoretical works, including several issues of Tel Quel[13] and an extended essay by Jacques Derrida.[14] Joyce’s writing strategy—his “Catholic comedy of language,” as I described it—impresses Lacan with its claims for theology and sublimation, its linguistic emphasis on names and puns, and with its extremely bleak view of the father. In Lacan’s presentation, Joyce’s work is more like melodrama or Trauerspiel than comedy, or else the comedy does not impress him. In any case, as demonstrated by the range of critical and theoretical works cited above, the impact of Lacan’s discussion of Joyce placed the encounter of psychoanalysis and literature at the forefront of critical thinking.

The Lacan seminar section on James Joyce was partially published in Joyce avec Lacan, by Jacques Aubert, with a preface by Jacques-Alain Miller, in 1987.[15] Professor Aubert wrote on Joyce’s aesthetics, taught at the University of Lyon II, and directed the French translations of Joyce for Gallimard, including the prestigious Pléïade edition. Professor Aubert called upon Lacan to address the Fifth International Symposium on James Joyce on June 16, 1975. While Lacan occasionally referred to Joyce in earlier writings, the keynote apparently motivated Lacan’s seminar theme of Joyce le sinthome. Aubert’s dialogue with Lacan in the seminar brings (Aubert’s) selections from Joyce scholarship to Lacan’s attention; in turn, Lacan’s experimental analytic interpretation of some aspects of Joyce’s life and work brings a sense of his focus on Joyce into the speculative arenas of Freudian and post-Freudian analysis. Lacan also refers frequently to mathematics and uses some variations on Borromean rings to model his construction of agency and personality.    

Derived from a medieval symbol of the trinity, apparently found in medieval French manuscripts and in the coat of arms of the House of Borromeo, configurations of three interlinked rings continue to fascinate mathematicians. The theory of R.S.I.—the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary—is explored through detailed constructions of Borromean rings that also enter into Lacan’s remarks on Joyce. The suggestive shapes of the variations on Borromean rings are presented as “possible”—that is, truly knotted together—or mistaken, in which case they do not hold together in a three-dimensional frame. In any case, the suggestive and fascinating knots or rings are not illustrations of theoretical points. Without emphasizing the theological overtones of Lacan’s agencies, the image of the Borromean rings is suggestive of theological resonances that are essential to modernist literature, specifically Flaubert’s trans-romanticism, and Proust’s response to Flaubert, as I demonstrated in The Orient of Style.[16] In the works of Flaubert that influenced Joyce as well as Proust, theological terms are transformed into literary material and theoretically strategic images, independent of authorial orientation or religious identity. As far as religious identification is concerned, Flaubert is more radically secularized than either of his disciples. As for Lacan, the impact of Catholicism on his thinking is more important than most Lacanians would care to admit—although he sees true believers (that is, pious Catholics) as impermeable to the effects of psychoanalysis. Perhaps that interesting contradiction raises yet another troubling dimension to his virtual analysis of Joyce, the self-styled outlaw of the (Irish, not Roman) Church.

Theology is in the air during this period of European literary invention and secularization, from the mid-nineteenth century through the period between the wars. I explored Joyce’s use of it in Joyce’s Catholic Comedy of Language and Objects of Desire: The Madonnas of Modernism.[17] In this context, and with the resonances of a (comparably “sordid” but not Jesuit) Catholic education echoing in his background, Lacan is intrigued by Joyce’s proclaimed use of some sentences by Aquinas in the construction of an aesthetic program. Lacan also follows Aubert’s indications in taking Joyce’s Aquinatian aesthetic as a serious reading of Thomas Aquinas—against the evidence that Joyce himself provides.

Lacan leaves the reader with a set of intriguing remarks on knots and a series of trinitarian shapes authored by two mathematicians. Certainly these materials are interesting, as are Joyce’s claims for Stephen’s suffering and redemption through theology, but the result is that Lacan proposes reading Joyce as a kind of saint who is interested only in writing. From Aquinas to Joyce and to the implicit comparison of Joyce with Lacan himself, who sees his own background as parallel to Joyce’s Catholic education, the trinity takes up more space in the “sinthome” than some readers might be able to bear.

One of the knots that Lacan draws seems to be a kind of stick figure of Christ on the cross, or perhaps that is what happens when one looks too long at symbolic figures: even the Borromean coat of arms begins to look uncanny after a reading of Le Sinthome. Are the rings rotating? Do they hold together? And why did the Borromeans put them into their very busy coat of arms in the first place, if not to demonstrate the borrowed finery and the auratic prestige of the holy trinity? Beyond theology—into the modern world of philosophy and psychoanalysis, then—Lacan’s three-ring circus of the self seems to be a model of something speculative but it reveals its traces in the encounter between doctor and patient. Did I mention that the Parisian Saint Anne Hospital is named for the mother of the Virgin Mary? It’s intriguing that from within Catholicism the taboos continue to affect the vision of the secular critic: theological traces are not seen, as if they were invisible. But that invisibility can be understood as evidence for the power of the unconscious.

Math engages the symbolic with the imaginary, whereas Lacan’s narrated observations of severely mentally ill patients at Saint-Anne underscore the impact of the real. The rings do not hold together; that is one way that Lacan alludes to illness. In this late seminar, Lacan examines the real as jouissance—in contrast to his earlier concepts of the real as a zone of impossibility and of jouissance as transgression—perhaps also in response to Joyce’s portrait of Stephen Dedalus and the enthusiasm for the fall that Joyce proclaims within Catholic as well as transgressive contexts. Lacan alludes to a libidinal economy that remains quite distinct from the aesthetic one that Joyce’s Stephen explores partly as a way to elude the crudeness and misery, the impact of the real, that his writing associates, in a certain self-congratulatory tone, with “the house of his father” and, less approvingly, with the suffering of his mother. The haunting of childhood and the distancing of men from women are both inscribed in the self-portrait, recycled in more baroque colors in Ulysses.

Happily there is another way to read Lacan’s Joyce—to enter the world of literature.[18] The poetic figures of the letter as earth and the letter as ladder (lituraterre, escabeau) that Lacan introduced into his discussions of literature are almost uncanny in their coincidence with some of the formulations that echo from the Bible to the Wake, and Lacan’s neologisms form an interesting symptom of his relation to language. Lacan looks at Joyce from the perspective of word-games, including the palindrome and especially the pun, within the fragile happiness of a slip of the tongue or an obscene remark half-spoken. Here is the space for articulating names as words and identities and things; here the writer is observed climbing the ladder of language. The transformational property of puns is at work. It includes the intrinsic blasphemy that operates in Joyce’s epiphanies to reveal bleakness and darkness rather than the fanfare of claritas or splendor. What analysis and the so-called epiphany have in common is the role of language, then, as it unfolds in time, without the obvious closure or the clarity of a message from A to B. Briefly, I would suggest that the rings highlight the role of enigma in Lacan’s conception of writing.

The challenge of reading Lacan reading Joyce, however, includes the difficulties posed by the works of both writers, and Lacan’s seminar tempts his readers with a set of programmatic statements about Joyce. The seminar seems to tune in and out of Joyce’s highly selected texts, on the one hand, and the theory of the Borromean knot, on the other. The two are related, in Lacan’s conception. It’s fair to say, based on the evidence, that very few people understand exactly what the different knots meant for Lacanian theory, but one can say that Lacan’s search for a three-dimensional modeling of the agencies in knot theory is based on a speculative intuition that yields some fascinating results. The knots helped Lacan to think about the agencies and to explore how they interact. In particular, he seemed to be interested in the possibility of getting the knot right (and thus its three dimensions remain intact) versus making a mistake, and losing the three-dimensionality of the structure. Knots, for Lacan, are like 3-D glasses. Sometimes he evokes the loss of the three dimensions in terms of psychosis. This comes up in his commentary on Joyce—and that itself is potentially productive of a new perspective.

Lacan’s apparent reliance on Jacques Aubert underscores the unusual conditions of his approach to Joyce in 1975-1976. Frequent comments by Lacan in the course of these seminar meetings indicate his impatience and perplexity with reading Joyce’s original English. The avowed limits of Lacan’s mathematical expertise pale in comparison to his sense of not being able to understand Joyce’s work in detail. These difficulties in turn lead Lacan to rely on his sense of personal destiny, parallel to Joyce’s, at least as Lacan sees it.

His lifelong exploration of psychology and psychoanalysis leads Lacan through his perspectives on language, the unconscious, and Freud to literature, and to Joyce in a particular, mirroring that appears to be intensified by the circumstances described above. The Name of the Father is at the heart of Lacan’s investigation of literature in Joyce. Lacan’s written commentaries of modern writers like Sade, Poe, Gide, or Duras are surprisingly different from his approach to Joyce: there seems to be a personal, even a mythical element at work, that is intensified by the enigmatic qualities of Joyce’s later work, in English and in the language of the Wake, as well as the enigmatic quality of literature per se, a theme in Lacan’s writing.

The title of “Le sinthome,” as explained at the beginning of Lacan’s seminar, integrates Lacan’s sense of James Joyce the biographical individual into psychoanalytic theory. This is an important move, particularly given the interpretive development that follows. Part of the challenge of Lacan’s reading of Joyce is his inclination to interpret the sense of Joyce’s life that he absorbs from canonical biography, from Jacques Aubert’s guidance, and from his own personal impressions at Shakespeare & Company. The self-portrait of the psychoanalyst as a young man—Lacan and Joyce in the mirror—is not the least of the complexities of the seminar.

The topic of “Joyce the sinthome” refers to the symptom of the artist’s use of language reflecting Thomist theology, one of Joyce’s important references, anchored, like most of his aesthetics, in his Irish Catholic background and Jesuit education. Lacan, ever a reader of historical etymological dictionaries, which he urges his listeners to emulate, uncovers the early spelling of symptom as “sinthome” and its use by Rabelais, a medical doctor and theologian as well as the greatest comic writer of—at least—the French Renaissance. Here Lacan’s comments on the foreignness of Joyce’s “lalangue”—the English language, before and throughout Finnegans Wake—pinpoint the missing part of Joyce in Lacan—comedy. The unconscious is there, but the pleasure, as Lacan reads it, or even the jouissance that Lacan attributes to Joyce (including the pun on the name of the author) seem so opaque that Lacan wonders why Joyce wished to have it published. This revealing comment indicates Lacan’s distance from whatever pleasures of reading the Wake might allow scholars to pursue through hundreds of required hours. The comment concurs with Lacan’s comments on the difficulty of reading an author for whose work one has no sympathy. This becomes very interesting later in Lacan’s seminar, when he raises the question of the possible madness of the author. Even a minimal reading of Joyce’s book of private polylingual jokes requires a native-speaker level of competence—visually and aurally—through reading out loud. Joyce’s famously avowed destruction of language might concern the English language, or all languages woven into the Wake, or even all languages, or perhaps the faculty of language itself. This is not a modest ambition, nor is it one free of a kind of megalomania that Lacan seems to notice.

Quoted by theorists and scholars, Joyce expressed repeated wishes to accomplish a kind of literary destruction, but he also claimed that everybody around him was writing the book: he wrote the Wake by integrating fragments of language gleaned from native informants within the many tesserae of lines of songs, bits of overheard speech, fragments of text, and elaborate uses of intertexts (theorized by the Russian symbolist theorists, especially Shklovsky, Bakhtin, and Jakobson). But Joyce apparently intended the many-layered quasi-secret code of the work to be rooted in English syntax: as critics have observed at least as far back as the 1930s, analyses in theoretical and textual studies depend on this condition in order to read Finnegans Wake. The quality of any given reading can be assessed on textual evidence, but not one of these readings can ever be exhaustively completed. That, of course, is the condition of any reading of a complex work of literature, but Joyce’s special circumstances in the world and his sharp sense of verbal authority led him to incorporate multi-lingual coincidences to such an extent that the result might be said to resemble Frenhofer’s painting in Balzac’s Chef d’oeuvre inconnu [The Unknown Masterpiece].[19]

The object of the painter’s depiction is somewhat obscured beneath a very beautiful multi-layered opacity. Art historians read Balzac’s novella as the launching of abstract art, so the question of the production—or transformation—of meaning remains open. Lacan’s avowed discomfort reading Joyce gives evidence for his sense of competence in apprehending works of literature and in finding answers to questions. It also underscores Joyce’s ambition to enslave his ideal reader in three hundred years of scholarship. Clearly, a casual reading of certain modernist works like Finnegans Wake is not an option. Reading Rabelais, who wrote in Renaissance French with neologisms primarily anchored in the classical languages, looks modest by comparison. This state of affairs indicates something that Lacan finds highly problematic as well as distasteful. Lacan’s own ambitions in the realm of readability or the lack of it do not seem to enter his thinking about the difficulties of reading Joyce.

But Joyce does give his readers some sets of clues, including the careful balancing of his characters’ names. The mythology of father figures is at stake in the name of Dedalus. It is also far from his family’s names, and that is important, since fiction allows Joyce to disguise biographical materials. Buck Mulligan’s avowed desire to Hellenize the island, then, cannot be attributed to Stephen Dedalus, whose attention to things Greek is limited. This raises the question of anti-Semitism in the novel, a topic that apparently is of no interest to Lacan, following the cues of Jacques Aubert. But in any case, it is not Stephen (or Joyce, the author) who calls for a Greek solution to the problems of the island.

In the beginning, then, when Rabelais brought Aquinas into the realm of literature, Lacan mentions the infusion of Greek into Renaissance French, connecting it with the wish to “hellenize” the island that Mulligan expresses at the beginning of Ulysses. This is a coincidence on the level of language, as far as Lacan is concerned, whereas the “Greekness” of Stephen Dedalus is problematized throughout the novel. Even the mythical name of Dedalus (described in A Portrait as sounding like Latin) is something like a deliberately distanced (if not far-fetched) substitute for an Irish name like “Joyce.” It is well known that generally Joyce preferred to preserve the proper names in his books, even at the real risk of lawsuit. But “Joyce” can safely reappear, in disguise or not, only within his book of the Night, the Wake of Finnegan. I would suggest that Joyce calls attention to the process of casting a pseudonym over the name of the “artist” by using the unusual name of Dedalus contrasted with other typical Irish-named characters. Dedalus, in Lacan’s sense of the name, presents the Greek or Latin that resonate suggestively in the context of Rabelais’s language and fiction. This is an interesting illustration of the unconscious impact of French cultural identity, which leads Lacan to posit a Greek connection linking him, via Rabelais, to Joyce, via Dedalus. This tempting connection is a personal one—it does not survive a closer reading of the beginning of Ulysses. But that is where the sinthome starts: Lacan’s attentiveness to Rabelais effectively posits the symbolic dimensions of outlaw writing in the contexts of theology (and its old artificers) and psychoanalysis.

I would suggest, however, that the name of Dedalus most especially recalls the (nick)name of the father—da, dad, bedad, and even, the dead, at the end of “The Dead.” The dads are old, but competitive—that is one of many problems caused by the father, and masked by the fear of the feminine. “Old artificer” is the alibi, the Greek (pseudo-Latin) Dedalus, not the rather unfortunately idle Simon Dedalus, warming his old body at the fire, smoothing his outmoded old mustache, and especially sowing disorder, poverty, and misery in the family. Stephen smiles, but it’s a bit thin. Lacan sees the old man as the father and the young man as an echo of Oscar Wilde and the wild oats, but in the end, Stephen affirms the support of an “old artificer” who is anything but his father. Only in this way will the grandiose mythology of alternative fathers stepping in to help the superior but poor young man compensate for the disastrous ruinous descent of his father’s house.

The name of Dedalus, then, is worn like a mask, among all the Irish names that populate Joyce’s world. And then there are the mask-like Jewish names of Bloom and his family, Joyce’s painfully pointed emphasis on the foreignness of Bloom’s father, and related difficult spots. The names of the Other resonate on a different level in Joyce’s use of the Phoenician materials explored by Victor Bérard in the Odyssey.[20] Joyce presents the Phoenician view as an interesting alternative to the Hellenizing impulse. The prestige of the Greek lingers in Lacan’s reading, however, perhaps in part because of Rabelais and the French Renaissance.

In opposition to Buck Mulligan and Blazes Boylan (the rhyming usurpers), the hapless but dignified Bloom is presented, the hero or rather the anti-hero. Victor Bérard make an intriguing argument for the Phoenician side of the Greeks, but a closer look to the somewhat pathetic figure of Bloom—as the circumcised, the dark horse, the outsider, the henpecked, the nurse, the upside down sleeper, masturbator, and cuckold—pours it on a little too thick for comfort with the Other. After all, Bloom has no choice but to play the Irish Jew in the pub, like Shylock at court, and Bloom has clearly paid the price for his identity, has he not? But Hellenizing—Lacan goes right by that one—possibly because the question of Bloom’s identity is an aspect of fiction? Jacques Aubert states in the seminar that he doesn’t have time to discuss the anti-Semitism of the period, and that aspect of the novel’s heroism goes without comment in Lacan’s seminar.

It’s possible that Lacan saw the question as of no importance. In contrast, a more recent work like Martin Bernal’s Black Athena explores the anti-Semitism of the period and the role of Victor Bérard against the current: in Bernal’s larger context, it is impossible to overlook the threat of “Buck Mulligan” and Hellenization.[21] Joyce’s own opinions have been argued from different perspectives, but the choice of Bérard’s view of the Phoenicians and the Odyssey shaped the role of Bloom—the colonial Jewish Dubliner as the Other. Perhaps it was less obvious that, most of all, he was intended to be different from Dedalus.

At another remove, as well, it cannot be denied that these images, knots, or graphs indicate the way Lacan thinks across disciplines, in searching for models at a discreet distance from case studies of patients and the guidance of analysts in training. All of these elements are represented in the seminar. Lacan’s engagement with Joyce may be unique in the history of theory: it continues to raise questions across disciplines as well as in the community of psychoanalysts. Its impact includes experimental models, literary and visual images, and working, living metaphors that transform disciplines.

Lacan’s seminar appeared posthumously in 2005, published (with commentary by Jacques-Alain Miller and an essay by Jacques Aubert) by Les Editions du Seuil in Paris. Most recently, in 2015, the aforementioned Lacanian analyst Colette Soler published her seminar for analysts titled Lacan, Lecteur de Joyce [Lacan, Reader of Joyce]. Lacan’s challenging texts raise the question of the importance of Freudian psychoanalytic theory in the context of Joyce’s fiction as well as encounters between language and the avant-garde of modern literature. Lacan’s connections to Joyce appear through a two-fold perspective on the speculative dimensions of psychoanalytic theory and the writing of emotion and eroticism. In other words, the traces of “life-writing,” confessional and intellectual autobiography, occur within theory even as the theorist explores theory within works of literary art, in this case, fiction—or “fiction.” I use quotation marks in consideration of Lacan’s position throughout the seminar that fiction does not exist. For me, personally, fiction exists—but Lacan reading Joyce rigorously speaking, as a psychoanalyst, claims that it does not. This is one of the most enigmatic elements of Lacan’s approach to Joyce, since it seems to disregard or at least to sidestep the dialectical presentations of language (in between truth and lying, plenitude and emptiness, or doubt and certainty) that are consistently evoked in Lacan’s earlier works. The consequences of Lacan’s rejection of the existence of fiction in Joyce may lead the reader back to the question of Catholicism, but that is mere speculation on my part.

In Joyce, the relation between language and subjectivity that shapes literature through experiences of singularity cannot overlook religion: Joyce’s perspectives on Catholicism (including its institutional impact on Irish culture, as well as theology and the impact of philosophy on theology) play a major role in his work. The sacred and the comic are intertwined: Freud’s discovery of the unconscious centers his research in psychoanalysis and the development of his praxis on areas of human experience that might have been told to a Catholic priest at confession, if at all. The talking cure, however, is not a secular alternative to confession, although it has one striking similarity to confession: it is based on talking, privately, with one other person who is in a position of authority. The latter is libidinal, political, institutional, open-ended, and potentially alarming.

Absolution—one thinks of Joyce’s notes to the effect of the ultimate practicality of the Church—is not available within the secular framework of psychoanalysis, and the aspect of analysis as interminable, observed by Freud with some sense of dismay, still remains a crisis-point for patients and analysts. The coincidence of these two areas, religion and analysis—or perhaps three area, with literature added—shapes many discussions in Freud and later psychoanalysts. These might predispose both Joyce and Lacan to an appreciation of Freud’s writings, but all the appreciation is on Lacan’s side, although Freud’s discoveries influence many works of modernist literature, beginning with dada and surrealism. Psychoanalysis was in the air, at least in Europe, and it transformed the vision of mental life and literary style. Once Joyce’s problems with his family bring him to Jung and others, whatever enthusiasm he may have had about the psychoanalytic vision of experience seemed more or less to disappear.

In contrast, Lacan’s life-work—the revival and in-depth exploration of Freud —shapes his personal encounter with Joyce’s work and the Irish Catholic experience reflected in Joyce’s writings. It is with sorrow that Lacan occasionally comments on Joyce’s abundant potshots at Freud, which revealingly occur in Wakeian attacks against a proper name that semantically coincides with the “joy” in “Joyce.” Another uncanny coincidence that Lacan mentions frequently in the seminar is nothing less than the Christian name (in French: “le prénom [first name]”) itself, linking Jacques Lacan and Jacques Aubert to each other, and to James (Joyce), the object of study to whom Aubert devoted his career. Coincidence, destiny, and punning come together in Lacan’s view of the transformative power of the name, and the transformation of a name into a noun. This is the basis of the pun, an important element in Freud’s theory of the joke and one of the themes of Lacan’s seminar. It is also, as Saussure discovered, a way of referring covertly to the sacred, to naming the gods.[22] The sacred and the comic are knotted together, and the result isn’t necessarily Borromean, but it is important for reading Irish literature, medieval and modernist. A major example in the Wake is found in the use of images and text from the illuminated Tunc page of the Book of Kells, which I explored in the appendix of Joyce’s Catholic Comedy of Language.[23] Joyce’s appropriation and interpretation of the sacred and the comic in a page of the Book of Kells is based in Irish parody, and might bear comparison with some elements of Rabelais.

Lacan’s subject—his own James Joyce—isn’t a patient or a client; he is neither cured nor buried. In that sense, Lacan’s view of Joyce isn’t entirely different from Tim Finnegan himself. The Borromean rings guarantee something not quite living and not quite literary. Real and truthful but based on an impossibly private and sustained example of enjoyment, Lacan’s difficult working through of analytic representation underlines the difficulty of confronting the ambitious questions of reading literature and psychoanalysis together.

The lively scene at the iconic Parisian bookstore of Shakespeare & Company in the early twentieth century remains culturally, aesthetically, and mythically charged. Like a character in literature, at the edge of a rhyme or a memory of a long time ago, the sense of biographical time occurs to Lacan in a kind of auratic presence that does not entirely compensate for the difficulties he experiences with Joyce’s English. The encounter takes place on virtual mirrors that show the two writers together, a long time ago. Emotively, like Lacan’s pun in my epigraph, this encounter allows Lacan to reflect on his early experiences, his “sordid” life at Catholic school, and his avant-garde experiment in Paris at Sylvia Beach’s and Adrienne Monnier’s Shakespeare & Company, where Joyce read aloud once when Lacan was present. Both of these experiences connect Lacan to Joyce. The effect recalls the magic mirror from the pages of a novel, where two characters see themselves looking back from a new space, together. This is a momentary event, not a redemption: characters’ suggestive nostalgia for lost sons and fathers, dead and living, adds a momentary powerful image to an encounter that will not last very long. But something happened at that moment. It would be hard to top the mythical qualities of this youthful memory, the famous curve of an emotion arching into a sense of language as destiny.[24]


[1] Jacques Lacan, Le Sinthome (Paris: Seuil, 2005), 31. My translation. All translations are my own except where indicated.

[2] See François Rabelais, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Garnier, 1962).

[3] Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 577-78. On the Name of the Father in sacred and comic contexts, see Beryl Schlossman, Joyce’s Catholic Comedy of Language (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).

[4] Colette Soler, Lacan, lecteur de Joyce (Paris: PUF, 2015).

[5] See Jacques Aubert, ed., Joyce avec Lacan (Paris: Navarin, 1987). It would be hard to overestimate Aubert’s influence on Lacan’s reception of Joyce, but critics tend to look the other way.

[6] Robert Con Davis, ed., Lacan and Narration: The Psychoanalytic Difference in Narrative Theory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University, 1983).

[7] Juliet F. MacCannell, Figuring Lacan: Criticism and the Unconscious (NY: Routledge, 2014).

[8] Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, “Lacan’s Seminars on James Joyce: Writing as Symptom and Singular Solution,” in Psychoanalysis and…, ed. Henry Sussman and Richard Feldstein, (New York: Routledge, 1990), 67-86; and Ragland-Sullivan and Mark Bracher, eds., Lacan and the Subject of Language (Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois, 1987).

[9] Joseph Valente, The Myth of Manliness in Irish Culture (Champagne-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), and James Joyce and the Problem of Justice: Sexual and Colonial Difference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[10] Derek Attridge, Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, 2nd edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[11] Luke Thurston, James Joyce and the Problem of Psychoanalysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

[12] Jean-Michel Rabaté, Jacques Lacan: Psychoanalysis and the Subject of Literature (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2001).

[13] See Tel Quel issues 54 (1973), 64 (1975), and 82 (1980).

[14] Jacques Derrida, Ulysse grammophone: deux mots pour Joyce (Paris: Galilée, 1987).

[15] See Aubert, Joyce avec Lacan (Paris: Navarin Editeur, 1987).

[16] See Beryl Schlossman, The Orient of Style (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1991).

[17] See Schlossman, Joyce’s Catholic Comedy, and Schlossman, Objects of Desire: The Madonnas of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

[18] See Jacques Lacan, Autres écrits (Paris: Seuil, 2006).

[19] Honoré de Balzac, Le Chef d’oeuvre inconnu (Paris: Livre de poche, 1995).

[20] Victor Bérard, Les Phéniciens et l’Odyssée (Paris: Armand Colin, 1902-03), and Les Navigations d’Ulysse (Paris: Armand Colin, 1927-29).

[21] Martin Bernal, Black Athena, vol. 1 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), 377-83.

[22] Jean Starobinski, Les Mots sous les mots (Paris: Gallimard, 1971).

[23] See Schlossman, Joyce’s Catholic Comedy, 183-191.

[24] The author gratefully acknowledges research support from the University of California, Irvine.