This is the second of the lectures I received from the internet about Lacan, by Tom Davis at Birmingham University. Visit his site at 

Together with the Lacan (1) document, it forms excellent background for the study of 'Nights at the Circus' and other postmodern texts.

Lacan Lecture 2:



1. Overview

Briefly, what I'm going to do in this lecture is this.

Lacan is known as the French Freud. This summarises rather well what he did, which is to translate Freud into French. It's a very very free translation.

At the centre of Freud are two things: eros, sexuality, and the story of Oedipus. So first I will remind you of Freud's story of eros and Oedipus, to set the scene; then I will show how Lacan radically reread this Freudian story, all the time vehemently asserting his complete fidelity to Freud. No wonder he got kicked out of the Pyschoanalytic Association.

Next I will then explain two main ways of using Lacan for reading literature, with recommended examples of the theory in action. Then I will show you a Lacanian analysis of the Ode to a Nightingale. I will then come back to the subject of deconstruction, and finally do a Lacanian analysis of a poem about a blackbird.

2. Oedipus

In order to begin with Lacan, we must begin with Freud. I will remind you of Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex, and this time go into it a little more deeply. Then I will give you Lacan's version of Freud's theory.

The Greek story of Oedipus is a tragedy: a man without knowing it kills his father and marries his mother. He is punished terribly for this double sin. Freud's theory is, you will remember, that what Oedipus did to his father and to his mother is what we all secretly desire to do.

Here is an image of Oedipus, who has just killed his father but not yet fallen in love with his mother, facing a monster with the head of a beautiful woman and the body of a lion. The monster asks him a riddle, and will kill him if he gets the wrong answer. This is for Freud and for Lacan the essential metaphor for psychoanalysis.

So. Here is Freud's view of Eros and Oedipus.

3. Freud

3.1 Freud and Eros

The child is borne into desire. For Freud, you remember, sexual desire is primary: eros is the motivating factor that makes the whole psychic machinery work. At the beginning of life, in the oral stage, the child is in a state of sexual bliss: at the mother's breast, receiving nourishment, in a sexual relationship not only with his mother but, he thinks, with the whole world. There is a primary at-one-ness with the universe, it's sometimes called the oceanic feeling, that is connected with nourishment and connected with sex.

3.2 Freud and Oedipus

As he grows older, he is weaned away from that bliss. Eventually he enters into what Freud calls the genital stage: he becomes aware of his own penis. He becomes aware too, perhaps in the bath with his sister, that little girls don't have penises. He concludes, unlikely as it may seem, that she has been castrated. By Daddy. This is because, in his secret heart, what he wants to do is to get back into that primal blissful state with the mother, that sexual union. But he can't because by now he has noticed that he has a father, who prevents him: who is already in a sexual relationship with the mother, who stands in between him and his desire, threateningly. The father, for Freud, is one who says 'no': this 'no' enters deeply into the mind of the child and becomes his super-ego: roughly, his conscience.

The 'no' is like a knife, cutting him off from his mother; and he fears that if ever his guilty desires become known, a real knife will castrate him. So he wishes to sleep with his mother, but can't, and because he can't he wishes to kill his father. This is his deepest, most guilty wish, the wish that cannot be expressed. This guilty wish is repressed deep inside us, and since it is repressed, it governs our actions, surfacing in displaced or symbolic forms throughout our lives. This is the Oedipus complex. 'Complex', incidentally, simply means 'pattern'. A recurrent pattern of behaviour.

Now, you'll notice that the child is male. There is a very obvious gap in this story: the gap is female. Don't ask me what female version of Oedipus little girls are supposed to go through: I don't know. Freud (who was maybe the clearest, the most brilliantly lucid, of all the great theorists) is not clear about this.

So many people find two problems with this story. One is that it is sexist: male centred. The other is that it is sexual: as if the secret centre of all we are is our sexuality, and only that. In rereading Freud's Oedipus story, Lacan addresses, and, many would say, solves those two problems.

4. Lacan and Desire

OK: now for Lacan. First, his version of Eros: desire. In French, désir.

For Lacan as for Freud, the child is born into desire. Desire, désir, is what makes the psychic machine work. But for Lacan this desire is more than sexual, though it is also sexual. To explain that I need to explain one of Lacan's key concepts: the real, la réelle.

4.1 We cannot experience the world directly.

The crucial point is this: we cannot experience the world directly. All we can experience is a mental event. I touch the table, or see a friend, and think I am experiencing the table or the friend directly. This is not true. I see or feel some phenomena, and interpret them, and what I experience is the interpretation: friend, table. That is the only way I can know the world. I can't get behind the interpretation to experience the world direct, raw, unmediated.

The interpretations, that are all I can know of the world, are made up of two things: language, and images that I have previously experienced: previous interpretations. They are not real. They are mental events.

Here I am in a lecture room, and I am perceiving a lecture room, but that's an interpretation. My cat would not perceive a lecture room, if she were here now. Neither would a Martian or a tribal man plucked from the Amazon rainforest. I know it's a lecture room because I recognise it, and I do this by comparing it with a database of images inside my head. The second step is to define it, and I can do this because I have a collection of definitions, in fact a kind of dictionary, also inside my head. This dictionary is called language. These two things, images and language, make up all of my experience of everything. Experience = images + language.

4.2 Experience = images + language.

I experience language as being more or less controlled and precise, and the images as being rather dreamy: undefined. I experience language as somehow secondary, artificial, and the images as somehow primary, or basic.

Both language and images, says Lacan, are false. All these mental events that I perceive are approximations, makeshifts. Remember how inadequate language is for describing the world? If you compare the words 'lecture room' -- hear them, just the words, 'lecture room' -- with what seems to be going on here, the difference is pathetic. And the database of images that I have with which I compare this image-experience with others feels very shadowy and shifting. Both, says Lacan, are not real. They are false.

4.3 the real

We cannot perceive raw reality. Whatever raw reality is like, and I cannot possibly imagine what it might be like, I know it doesn't have lecture rooms in it. Lacan calls this raw reality 'la réelle': the real.

4.4 desire

Now, Lacan says that though we cannot know the real, la réelle, in any way whatsoever, we have an obscure sense of it, of its plenitude, its incredible fullness and richness. We want it.

Desire, for Lacan, comes out of the imbalance between what we perceive, language and images, and what actually is: la réelle. This enormous discrepancy is the primary fact of our mental life, like a constant imbalance or vertigo. This, not eros, not sexual desire, is the main thing that motivates everything, for Lacan.

It is impossible to satisfy this desire, because we cannot know what we want. The real is utterly unknowable. Everything gets in the way: all the mental events that make up our false view of the world. We can't even really long for what we long for; we are fundamentally confused.

So this longing is displaced: we long for everything else instead. Sex and food and consumer objects, trying to fill the void of desire. But we are not satisfied by any of these things, because as soon as the desire is fulfilled it vanishes, becomes, strangely, unsatisfactory: no, I think, that's not it, that's not what I wanted. Soon another desire arises: maybe that's it, maybe, maybe, and so I long for that instead. Until it too is satiated and falls away. And so on for ever.

Of course if we could somehow actually encounter the real, without any conceptualisation coming in between, it might be blissful, or it might be actually terrifying. It would be like meeting God, face to face.

So this is how Lacan translates Freud into French: the sexual eros becomes the more abstract désir.

How then does he translate Oedipus? In Freud, it's a conflict, located in sexuality, between mother and father. In Lacan, it is a conflict, located in désir, between the two things that we use to make up the world: images (associated with the mother) and language (associated with the father). And the cause of the conflict is the fact that we are born too soon.

5. Lacan and Oedipus: the child.

5.1 we are born too soon

It is generally admitted that human beings come into the world too early. Some say it's because of our big brains. Big brains need big heads, and if we stayed in the womb any longer these big heads would, like Alice, grow too big, and wouldn't be able to get down the birth canal. We are all prematurely born: most animals emerge from the womb with considerable functionality, able to feed, to walk, to be independent to some degree of their mothers. Humans emerge helpless, completely dependent on their mothers: as if, for months after birth, they are still in the womb, still part of the mother's body.

5.2 the child has no categories

In the beginning, the child (of either sex: note this) has no language, and no images, and so knows no concepts or distinctions. There is no difference felt between child and environment, and in particular between the child and the source of nourishment, the bottle or the breast. The world has no categories for the young child: it is not divided. It is as if the baby is still in the womb. The sense of self in the child is absolutely synonymous with and completely identified with his or her universe.

We adults are not like that: we all have a very clear and constantly maintained distinction between the sense of "I" and the rest of the world. The world begins immediately at the outside of our skin, and goes on for ever, containing millions upon millions of separate things, that are none of them us. Cats and cows and chairs and cheese and all those other myriad things the world is so full of. For the child, the world is full of only one thing; there is no boundary at the skin. The self and the others are one.

This experience, for the child, resembles the richness of the real. It is not the same, but it is like it, and therefore satisfying.

But simultaneously there are phenomena that keep happening that contradict this, because the child isn't in fact in the womb: it is aware of unpleasure, and pleasure: of pain and hunger and the food not being there. Strange objects move independently, noises, faces, but we can't yet call them faces, or objects, or noises, because we have no language, and we can't identify them, because we have no images to compare them with: so none of this can be felt as separate from the self. (Lacan was not aware of the work on inherited images that I talked about in the Dreams lectures). To make this separation, the first thing that we have to do is to make a distinction between the self and the world: to aquire a self-image. Lacan summarises the process in a symbolic event: the mirror phase, le stade du miroir.

6. Lacan and Oedipus: the mother

6.1 The mirror phase / le stade du miroir

If you show a baby a mirror--the baby has to be about six months old--it will usually do two things, both strange. No other animal does either of these things. One is, it will recognise that the image presented is an image of itself. It will not, like a cat does, think there is another animal there: it will know that the mirror shows the self. Secondly, it will laugh. There is pleasure in this realisation, this revelation of the self.

Lacan says that when the child sees him or herself in the mirror, that's me, the child thinks; that is this. So 'me' is at once here, safely inside the skin, as always, and also there, outside the skin, in the glass reflection. And there 'me' is seen as others see it: is objectified. With this comes the realisation that there is an inside and outside, that 'I' exist objectively to others; 'I' am now only another being, and no longer everything.

6.2 je est un autre

With that comes another realisation: that is what I'm like. I now have a way of imagining myself, an image to live by: an image of me. This is the primary image, against which I can compare all other images I see, that are either me nor not me. I am about to build up my image stock, my kit for making sense of the world. I am entering into the world of images. Lacan calls this the imaginary world: the imaginaire.

6.3 the imaginary / l'imaginaire

The most important images are those that I use to make up my self-image. This self-image is false. It is made up of things that are not me. An image, not a reality. This self-image builds in the child's mind, seems more and more real, as the child sees more and more images: it sees other children, pictures, adults, glimpses of parts of its own body (now identified as 'mine', part of 'me'), and so it builds up a self-image out of these broken fragments. These alien entities.

It makes a sort of 'me' out of that which is not me. Frankenstein, who made a badly made monster out of the parts of corpses, who in trying to create a human created precisely the opposite, did what the child does. Lacan, always a sucker for puns, calls this new being, that the child thinks is self, an hommelette: a little man, made out of broken eggs.

6.4 the hommelette

So the hommelette is made out of fragmentary images, of bits and pieces. But there is another essential ingredient of the hommelette: the motivating force, désir.

Remember, the world we are born into is full of desire, of unsatisfiable desire. When we are born we are surrounded by this desire, which was always already there. People expect things of us, want things of us, try to make us what we are not. Surrounded by this desire, we make ourselves out of the expectations of others. Out of what others want us to be.

Which others? Well, at this stage, the mother. She, like all beings, is full of desire, but her desire is misplaced from its real object, like all desire, and finds expression in longing for this and that, and this and that. So a major component of the landscape into which we are born is the mother's desire, le désir de la mere. But the child cannot satisfy that desire, because nothing can satisfy it. And we desire from her: we desire the oneness that the child had at the breast, in the womb; but this too is not it, not the real, and so cannot be satisfied.

This botched concept of self, this monster, the hommelette, made of illusion and desire, surrounds the child like a hard skin: it is me, the child feels: it protects me, it keeps me safe. But actually it is not me at all, but a constriction of me, a hard awkward clumsy approximation, made up of what my mother wants of me, of tangled half-understood images and suppositions. It prevents me from being free and happy.

So for Lacan the primary environment of the child, as it enters into the imaginaire, the world of images, is the mother's desire: le désir de la mère.

6.5 the desire of/for the mother / le désir de la mère

This seems a long way from Freud. But what Lacan does, remember, is to translate Freud into French. In French le désir de la mère is ambiguous: it means both the mother's desire, and the desire for the mother. And, as in English, desire can mean sexual desire, or a more general want.

So Freud's sexual desire by the child for the mother, a desire to return to the bliss at the breast, which for Freud is a sexual act as literal as the incestuous love of Oedipus for his mother/wife, is located by Lacan in a more general landscape of loss and desire. The mother's unfulfillable desire for the child, and the child's unfulfillable desire for the mother. All loosely located in the dreamy unreliable landscape of the imaginaire. There they are, the child and the mother, in union, joined at the breast, negotiating desire, dreaming together.

7. Lacan and Oedipus: the father

7.1 the symbolic

This mutual desire is disrupted, as in Freud, by the father. As in Freud, there is a castration. But in French. Le désir de la mère is suppressed by what Lacan calls le nom du père, the name of the father, and the new landscape is not the imaginary, but the symbolic: la symbolique. The child enters into language. I will explain.

It is language, remember, that names the world into existence, that creates all the categories by which we separate the world into manageable chunks: cats and cows and chairs and cheese and so on and on. When we enter this hard masculine world of language the dreamy world of the mother, l'imaginaire, is suppressed. So you can say there are three layers: at the bottom, deeply and unutterably suppressed, is desire itself: desire for the real. On top of that is l'imaginaire, and le désir de la mère. And on top of that, suppressing it, is language, the voice of the father: la symbolique.

Once the child has acquired language and realised the multiplicity of things then the original sense of oneness with the mother, and the even deeper desire for the real, is lost. No, not exactly lost: they become unconscious, because they are outside language. Once we begin to think in language, it's hard to imagine what it is not to have it: it is unspeakable. It is unconscious. So we have not only lost something wonderful, something important, but also we don't know, we can't possibly know, what it is that we have lost, because we can't express it in language, because it is not in language: it is, exactly that which language is not. L'imaginaire can surface in dreams and fictions, but desire itself, desire for the real, is deeply deeply hidden.

7.2 le nom du père

So this is how Oedipus gets translated into French. Lacan imagines that language comes with the child's increasing awareness of the father, which cuts him or her off from dreamy bliss. Specifically it is the voice of the father, who becomes the conscience: who says 'no'. For Lacan the entry into language, the entry into separateness, that splits up the world and deprives us forever, is a castration, a cut that separates, and it is associated with the father. He says this in a pun: it is le nom du père.

This is twice a pun. Once, blasphemously, on the end of the Lord's prayer (in the name of the father); twice, in that the word 'nom' in French, meaning name, is identical in sound with the word 'non', meaning 'no'. So in le nom du père you have all those meanings: the god-like father names the world by saying no. it is the non du père that suppresses the désir de la mere, puts it into the unconscious: we are cut off from it, for ever.

With language we enter into a new world: the left brain, organised, articulated world of language: the symbolique. We as it were turn towards the father. This says Lacan, is a perversion, a père-version.

And here, for Lacan, is the root of suffering. In each of us there is an absence that we cannot, by definition, think about, because we cannot name it. At the moment of the creation of the ego, the self, an absence is created. It is an absence as big as everything, because it is caused by the removal of a sense of unity with everything. But that removal created 'me', gave birth to my sense of self, so 'I' can't get back to it, because to do so 'I' would cease to exist. And so what I want, I can't have. What I do is to try and fill this gap up with things, with all of the things that I might think I am hungry for, like food and toys and books and cars and houses and computers, and all the other goods, that seem so good, in anticipation, but, when attained, seem to do no good at all, because the absence is not filled.

8. Truth and consequences

So let me now point out some consequences of this Lacanian map of the world, so oddly similar to Freud, and yet so competely different.

First, sex is decentered from the centre of all things. It is a deeper desire, which includes all desire, that drives us on.

Second, the hero of the Oedipus story is no longer a little boy. It is not a gendered story.

Thirdly, more than this, one of the ways you can read Lacan's reading of Oedipus is to say that it is a critique of patriarchy. Lacan was deeply suspicious of repressive masculine authority, of any way of using language to tie down knowledge, to repress freedom. He called it père-version, remember. He also called it le discours de l'université.

Men traditionally in this culture see women as illogical, dreamy; women see men as excessively rational, oppressive. Lacan says that both these ways of being, the symbolique and the imaginaire, are there in all of us; and he appears to value the imaginaire over the symbolique.

So you could say that Lacan's translation of Freud into French has the effect of answering the two main criticisms of Freud: his sexualism, and his sexism.

9 Two ways to use Lacan

So: having negotiated all that, how on earth can we apply it to literary criticism?

As I see it, there are two ways. You can try to imitate Lacan, or you can try to use Lacan. The first of these, I will call the method of free association; the second, I will call the method of hidden history.

9.1 Free association

"Take a leaf out of my book: don't imitate me"

If you want to take the first course, you should read this article, by Maud Ellmann, on Chaucer's The Book of the Duchess, entitled "Blanche". This completely subverts the discourse of the University, which is relegated to ironic footnotes: it is a poem, an elegant, somewhat imaginary, mediation on woman. The main point of her essay, as I read it, is the beauty of its own writing: it is literary criticism, not as interpretation, but as another work of art: it is playful, artful, beautiful. It is a game.

It's very difficult to do that game in this lecture, because I am very much speaking with the discourse of rationalism (the discourse of the university) here. If you want to see what it's like, read the article.

The other method, the method of hidden history, is more amenable to the tone of voice I'm using now. It is a way of using literature to find out about ourselves.

9.2 hidden history

When the patient comes to see the analyst, in order to help his or her suffering the analyst takes nothing said for granted. Everything is read against the grain, in opposition to the voice of the conscious mind. That is because the conscious mind is concealing the truth that causes the suffering.

Similarly no historian or economist or political scientist will take the word of the ruling class in any society, the official propaganda that disguises the truth: they will attempt to read beneath that, to get at the concealed truth. In its most general form, this method of hidden history is like that: you read the text to get at the secret behind it, its unconscious contents, revealed in gaps or absences or slips or, as it were, the dreams of the text. To find out what the text doesn't want you to know. This method, which I began to describe to you in the last lecture, is called deconstruction.

Now, you can do this in more specifically psychoanalytic terms: you can look in the text for a history of the way we see the world. One of the main exponents of this method is Catherine Belsey, and if you wish to learn it, a good place to start, in my view, is in her article, "The romantic construction of the unconscious".

In it she says this: that what Lacan tells us is that the self is a construct: it is, you might say, part of ideology. It is not natural or outside history or culture.

She says that since this 'self' is cultural, it can be studied, and the best place to study it is in literature: if it has a history, then that history is textual, because literary texts are, as Freud knew, in a powerful way like the dreams of the culture: they can be read, and interpreted. So in this article she offers a reading of some of the most dreamlike works of literature, the poems of the romantic poets. Her reading of these is Lacanian, in that she sees them as a dialogue between the imaginaire and the symbolique. How? Well, it is better that you should read the article and find out; but what I will do is to attempt a reading of The Ode to a Nightingale using the same kind of analysis that Kate Belsey uses, to show you how it can be done.

10 The nightingale: desire and dissolution

Let us look at Keats's poem.

10. 1 the poem

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk.
'Tis not through envy of thy happy lot
But being too happy in thy happiness
That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees
In some melodious plot
Of beechen green, and shadows numberless
Singest of summer with full-throated ease.

Darkling I listen; and for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Called him soft names in many a musèd rhyme
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain-
To thy high requiem become a sod


.10.2 the interpretation

This poem, as FR Leavis was the first to point out in a famous essay, has two movements. One is towards a fantastic world, of mythology, sensory pleasure, music, sensation, ecstasy. The geography of this world is hard to catch, because it is not of this world; the nightingale has no physical location and doesn't behave much like a bird because the whole of this part of the poem has exactly that categorylessness, that feeling of outside language, that we now know to associate with the Lacanian imaginaire; longed for, not describable, inexact, infinitely seductive, with the enormous power of something remembered and yet not remembered: something repressed. It is the unconscious.

Beneath this longing there is a deeper longing, a climactic desire, but one that loses itself instantly in paradox. Now more than ever seems it rich to ... die. This deeper longing has a catch: the 'I' that wants it, remember, cannot possibly get back to it, because it can only exist when 'I' do not, since it is beyond categories, and 'I' is a category. This would be a death, but so seductive, to cease, no more longing, no pain, a pouring forth of self into plenitude just like the nightingale's pouring forth of self into song. But at the end of the last stanza quoted the paradox hits, and so does realism: it is impossible, death is death.

That is a Lacanian reading of the Ode to a Nightingale.

This method of reading, as I said, is most commonly known as deconstruction.

11 deconstruction again

What I have just shown you is Lacanian deconstruction; there are others, and there is no time to go into all of that here. I hope you have got from this a beginning, so that if you see the word deconstruction in some literary criticism you will know what it means and have some idea how to do it.

It means to look behind the text, and against the grain of the text. You can use Althusser, or Lacan, as in the above examples; if you look at my Lacan reading list you will find many more ways of doing it.

If you follow this path, there is a benefit. One of the things that it does, is that it gives great meaning to being in an English Department. I will explain.

Most students choose to study literature because they like it, and this is very nice. I like it too. But they find that they are asked to read long difficult books that they may not like. George Eliot, for instance. If their only motivation is in liking literature, and they are asked to read something they don't like, then that feeling of vertigo, of contradiction, sets in. It saps their motivation, and they waste this precious three years, and regret it, very very much, after the three years is over. Whereas this way of reading has this to say for it is this: it makes the reading of English in the English Department a very important activity; it restores to it some of the centrality that it had in the golden days of the founding fathers of literary studies: Eliot, Leavis, IA Richards, William Empson.

What it does is to put the full meaning of the word 'criticism' back into literary criticism. If those founding fathers knew that the main method of teaching of literary studies in schools and often in Universities is to teach students to appreciate texts selected as good by their elders and betters, they would rotate in their honoured graves: they did not name the subject literary appreciation, they called it literary criticism, and they meant what they said.

Of course, deconstruction isn't easy. It is often very difficult. A saying from George Eliot comes to mind: love does not make things easy: it makes you choose that which is difficult.

Finally, I will return to the quotation that I gave you at the beginning of this lecture series.

12 The blackbird again

A man and a woman
Are one
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.


How do we interpret it? I would suggest that it is beyond interpretation, because the two people in it are free. They are in control of language, rather than being controlled by it. For them language is renegotiated, and therefore, for a moment, reality is renegotiated too. They are free. This moment is expressed not in words but by a blackbird's song, that cuts through categories and creates oneness: inexpressible. The delicate, utterly precious, moment of unity that they have together, a recapturing of bliss, is constructed in privacy, because they have privatised language and made it their own. The meaning is locked in the poem, in the moment, between the lovers, and what we readers are given, from our exclusion from their private meaning, is a jewel, a method, a way of being, that we can use in our own lives exactly however we like.