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The Other and the One: Psychoanalysis, Reading, the Symposium

 Originally Appeared in: Yale French Studies: 55/56 | Published: 1978

Why sidetrack an inquiry directed at the points of intersection between psychoanalysis and literary theory by making it pass through a reading of Plato’s Symposium? 

The response must come from more than one angle: 

-Psychoanalysis, as a theory and practice, grasps in the processes of desire the mechanism that determines the structure of subjectivity. From Freud’s discovery that the dream articulates a Wunsch and his development of a therapeutic practice that treats the neurotic symptom as the product of unconscious desire to Lacan’s general theory of the “subversion of the subject” and the “dialectic of desire,” psychoanalysis has forged a discourse on desire. The Symposium elaborates the idealist theory of love and desire with such refinement and so thoroughly that it becomes an integral part of idealism’s understanding of itself as a philosophical search for the truth and of its practice as an educational process with specific social aims. Forcing an encounter between these two discourses on desire, an encounter already broached in several of Lacan’s texts, promises to uncover the antagonism, or the complicity, between psychoanalysis and idealism. 

-It is not possible, in my view, to import psychoanalysis directly into the problematics of literary analysis; literary theory itself is today in the midst of a struggle against its own subservience to a philosophical tradition that it has never thoroughly questioned. An indispensable benchmark here, of course, is the deconstruction of metaphysics as practiced by Jacques Derrida. The project of systematically taking apart the conceptual edifice of Western philosophy and the presuppositions on which it is built cannot be ignored by any literary analysis once we recognize that aesthetics and criticism, since Plato and Aristotle, have been accomplices of the “metaphysics of presence.” Derrida has radically shifted the terrain of literature’s relation to philosophy. On the one hand, deconstruction treats the philosophical discourse as a text, a signifying production to be read with an eye to its metaphoricity, its stratifications, and the economy of its contradictions. And, on the other hand, in marking philosophy’s repression of the concepts and effects of writing, Derrida has allowed the violence of literary writing to disturb the serenity and security of philosophical reflection. In “La double seance,” for example, a reading of Mallarme subverts the Platonic conception of speech, mimesis, and truth. The bearing that psychoanalysis may have on reading literary texts cannot be assessed without asking how it inscribes a reading of philosophy within its own theoretical discourse.

-The Symposium is itself situated between philosophy and literature. As a philosophical text, it presents the idealist discourse on desire as it emerges and takes shape through a series of speeches that culminates with Socrates’ account of love and philosophy. At the same time the Symposium stages this philosophical discussion, giving it the form of drama among its participants, including the drama of their desires and jealousies. Moreover, this drama is filtered through the editing and paraphrase of a narrator, Apollodorus, who did not witness it and whose stake in its outcome is determined perhaps as much by his own love for Socrates as by his philosophical interest. Plato, then, does not simply write a philosophical discourse; he writes the fragmented narrative of a drama in which the course of a philosophical reflection is already interwoven with the paths of desire. 

The task of unravelling the knot that binds psychoanalysis to the theoretical practice of reading texts, whether “philosophical” or “literary,” has become all the more urgent with the publication of Derrida’s “Le facteur de la verite.” Derrida not only tries to identify the ways in which Lacanian psychoanalysis is yet controlled by the metaphysics of presence but also draws as sharply as possible the divergence between Lacan’s theory and several key motifs of grammatology. Louis Althusser, in an essay designed to make some preliminary connections between Marxism and the work of Freud and Lacan, treats Lacan’s borrowing from philosophy in an analogous but more apologetic way, seeing them as the sign of the embattled political and institutional context in which Lacan works….

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