Children’s literature

Part I. Theory and critical approaches


9. Psychoanalytical criticism


Hamida Bosmajian


Jacques Lacan: the return to Freud through language


For Freud the subconscious is the irreducible radical of the psyche, its universal, whose paradox it is that nothing raised from it remains unconscious: we can only be conscious of something. Thus the unconscious is replaced by the comprehensible mental acts of the ego, be they dreams, symbolisations or linguistic utterances. As Wright points out, for Jacques Lacan ‘the dictum “the unconscious is structured like a language” ’ is borne out in that


every word indicates the absence of what it stands for, a fact that intensifies the frustration of this child of language, the unconscious, since the absence of satisfaction has not to be accepted. Language imposes a chain of words along which the ego must move while the unconscious remains in search of the object it has lost.

(Wright 1984: 111)


The unconscious as a language allows Lacan to revise Freud’s self-sufficiency of the unconscious with social interaction. How this comes about through the development of the infant and how this relates to the perception of the text as psyche - a major shift away from the author’s or reader’s psyche - has special relevance to interpreters of children’s literature.

Lacan distinguishes three stages in the infant’s development: the imaginary, the symbolic and the real. In the imaginary or mirror stage, which can happen at the age of six months, the infant receives the imago of its own body (Lacan 1977: 3). Having seen itself only as fragmentary, the infant perceives in the mirror a symbolic ‘mental permanence of the I’, but this perception prefigures alienation, for the mirror stage is a spatial illusion of totality (4), an imaginary identification with reflection. The mirror stage, which is preverbal, conveys the illusion that the image will respond to the child’s wishes, as did the mother-breast-infant identification. The symbolic stage is the stage of language, a stage that will form the subject henceforth only in and as dialogue. The implied assumption that language may have definitive authority is undermined or deconstructed by Lacan’s argument that every utterance is permeated by the unconscious in the sense that wholeness, meaning and gratification of wishes are perpetually deferred. The real, not to be confused with ‘external reality’, describes what is lacking in the symbolic - ‘it is the residue of articulation or the umbilical cord of the symbolic’ (ix-x) (translator’s note).

The literary text, then, is an image of the unconscious structured like a language. ‘The lure of all texts,’ comments Wright, ‘lies in a revelation, of things veiled coming to be unveiled, of characters who face shock at this unveiling’ (1984: 121). When this phenomenon is given utterance in the reader-interpreter’s language, meaning is inevitably deferred. In contrast to Freudian interpretation, we have here no unearthing of authorial neuroses. The Lacanian consequence for reader and text is the realisation that


the selves we see ourselves as being are as fictional [made up of language] as the stories of written fiction - limited images like those we see in mirrors when we first became conscious of our separateness - so fiction can be read in terms of the way it echoes our basic human activity of inventing ourselves and becoming conscious of the limitation of our invention. All we usually call reality is in fact fiction, and always less complete than the actual real world outside our consciousness.

(Nodelman 1992: 93-4)


Perry Nodelman discusses how Cinderella becomes a fixed subject at the end of the story rather than the multifaceted one she was. As she completes her stage of becoming, she has actually lost wholeness in her state of being (94). An analysis of Charlotte’s Web shows how Lacan’s imaginary and symbolic stage work through the ‘Miracle of the Web’ in that Wilbur perceives himself and is perceived as transformed through the ability of words to reorient desire by demonstrating ‘that things are desirable because they are signified and, therefore, significant’ in and through language (Rushdy 1991: 56). Another Lacanian interpretation applies the concept of the subject being created by disjunction and discontinuity to Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child where the mouse child, submerged to the bottom of a pond, is jubilant when it sees itself reflected in the labelless Bonzo dog food can: ‘He sees himself suddenly whole, apparently co-ordinated and in control’ (Krips 1993: 95). The directive ‘be happy’ is in The Mouse and His Child as authoritative as Charlotte’s five single-word texts in the web, in that it creates the illusion of desire fulfilled, even as desire is deferred.