Jacques Lacan, Imperial Music Master?

by Susan Hathaway Boydston

November 18, 2011


Jacques Lacan, Imperial Music Master? In her book Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West, Jane Flax asserts that the work of Jacques Lacan is pervaded by narcissism, both textually and theoretically. To prove her thesis, Flax discusses what she determines are "four of Lacan's most important claims.” My focus is on Flax's rebuttal of the claim "that the ‘phallus’ is in no way related to or meant to signify the ‘penis.’” Her observation that how could we not associate the phallus with the penis overlooks the narcissist’s defense against acknowledging the genital penis by idealizing the fecal penis. As in the Jewish joke which Lacan cites in “Seminar on the Purloined Letter”: "Why are you lying to me?" one character shouts breathlessly. "Yes, why do you lie to me saying you're going to Cracow so I should believe you're going to Lemberg, when in reality you are going to Cracow?" (36) we may ask Lacan, Why are you lying to us by saying that the phallus is not the penis so we should believe that the phallus is the penis, when in reality the phallus is not the penis?



The imperial music master wrote a work in twenty-five volumes
about the mechanical nightingale.  It was not only long and
learned, but filled with the most difficult Chinese words, so
everyone bought it and said they read and understood it, for
otherwise they would have been considered stupid and had to
have their stomachs poked.

                                    From "The Nightingale," by Hans Christian Andersen


            Like the imperial music master who praised the mechanical bird made of sapphires, rubies, and diamonds and "declared that it was better than the real nightingale," Lacan has written volumes about the superiority of the letter, of language, to the Law of the Father.



            In her book Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and Postmodernism in the Contemporary West,Jane Flax asserts that the work of Jacques Lacan is pervaded by narcissism, both textually and theoretically.  To prove her thesis, Flax focuses on what she determines are "four of Lacan's most important claims": first, that narcissism "is an 'irreducible' aspect of human 'nature'"; second, "that language has a universal structure and always functions to split or castrate all 'subjects'"; third, "that language (the Other) operates as an independent force, and its effects on the subject have no dependence on or interaction with the child's relations with actual 'others,' especially the mother"; and fourth, "that the 'phallus' is in no way related to or meant to signify the 'penis'" (92).  My discussion will focus on Flax's rebuttal of the final claim "that the 'phallus' is in no way related to or meant to signify the 'penis'.


                  Briefly, reviewing Flax’s discussion of the first three of the four aspects of Lacan's narcissism she says that Lacan’s mirror stage demonstrates the narcissist's inability to acknowledge or tolerate dependence on an other outside the self.    She shows that the Lacanian split between the wholeness of the mirror self and the inner fragmented self is a narcissistic one: "As for any narcissist, the relation between the primary I and anyone it cannot recognize in the mirror precipitates a 'struggle to the death'" (94).  She points out that Lacan's presumption that infants are enraged by any delayed or partial gratification of their needs is in keeping with the narcissistic premise that "any failure by the other to anticipate and respond in advance is experienced as betrayal or loss" (95). 

            Flax shows how Lacan's theory of language is, from several perspectives, a narcissistic one.  He asserts that having to ask for something, having to use language, forces the infant to realize that she is not a perfect whole; she thus experiences lack.  Flax points out that in a parallel fashion, the narcissist associates having to ask for something "with the lack of perfection in the self and the giving of power to the other" (95).   Moreover, for the narcissist, the "need to ask for what one wants destroys what one receives and invalidates the other's gifts" (95).   A narcissist would rather be "split by the impersonal operation of language than by his or her dependence on an actual other" (Flax 95).     Flax claims that Lacan's assertion that language subjugates people to two external Others,  "the 'desire' of the other and the universal structure of language itself," to be based on the narcissistic belief that "no one loves someone else unless such loving gratifies one's own needs" (Flax 96).

            However, I want to focus on Flax’s discussion of the fourth of Lacan's "most important claims": "that the 'phallus' is in no way related to or meant to signify the 'penis'" (92).  She reads the 'phallus,' as most of us would, as signifying the penis:

                        Lacan's claims that the phallus exists purely upon a symbolic

                        plane, that it does not signify penis, and that any relationship

                        between signifier and signified is arbitrary are disingenuous. 

                        Would we be persuaded by Lacan if he claimed that the mother

                        lacks, say, "a mouse" or that her desire for the child is to be

                        the "waxpaper"? (Flax 104)

Yes, we do associate the phallus and the penis and to claim that the phallus does not signify the penis to most, if not all, of us is, indeed, disingenuous.  However, we all to a greater or lesser extent harbor another powerful unconscious association with the phallus, an association formed in the narcissistic stage of our development.  In the pregenital schema of our minds the phallus, according to Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, is the "fecal phallus."  And this, I think, is the unconscious association that overwhelmingly informs Lacan's theory of the phallus as universal signifier.  From a post-Oedipal, non-narcissistic perspective it does seem disingenuous for Lacan to assert that the phallus does not signify the penis; but from a pregenital, narcissistic perspective it is a deception that, according to Chasseguet-Smirgel's theory, must be maintained at all costs, even, as in Lacan's case, to the point of proposing an elaborate psychoanalytic theory, like in Andersen's fairy tale when the Emperor of China's imperial music master writes twenty-five volumes about the superiority of the mechanical nightingale over the real one.

            Before we explore any further Lacan's claim that the phallus as universal signifier is not related to or meant to signify the penis and the Lacanian phallus's relation to the "fecal phallus," let me contextualize Chasseguet-Smirgel's concept of the "fecal phallus."  By doing this I also want to show how her psychoanalytic theory of the ego ideal gives us another lens under which to view Lacanian theory, a lens which, I think, serves to clarify some of the confusion and obliqueness of Lacan's work.  In her book, The Ego Ideal, Chasseguet-Smirgel posits a narcissistic line of development beginning in infancy: "When the infant took himself as his own ideal there was no unsatisfaction, no desire, no loss, and this time remains with us as an example of perfect, unending contentment" (5).   Like Lacan in his mirror stage article, Chasseguet-Smirgel builds her developmental theory on human biological immaturity at birth and the "Freudian concept of Hilflosigkeit (the infant's early helplessness, his inability to do things for himself)" (6).  She states,

                        The violent end to which the primary state of fusion is brought by

                        this helplessness obliges the infant to recognize the 'not-me.'

                        This seems to be the crucial moment when the narcissistic

                        omnipotence that he is forced to give up is projected onto the

                        object, the infant's first ego ideal, a narcissistic omnipotence

                        from which he is henceforth divided by a gulf that he will spend

                        the rest of his life trying to bridge. (6)

            This reads very much like Lacan's theory of development; however, the most salient difference is that the object for Lacan is the infant's mirror image; whereas the object for Chasseguet-Smirgel is the mother, or caretaker.  Another, perhaps less salient, but, nevertheless, extremely important difference in the two theories is that, although both Lacan and Chasseguet-Smirgel posit a time of narcissistic omnipotence from which the infant "is henceforth divided by a gulf that he will spend the rest of his life trying to bridge," Lacan sees this event as the beginning of a "struggle to the death" between the primary I and the ideal I (self and Other).  For Lacan, "the entrance of the other into the field of the I causes the primary I to assume 'the armour of an alienating identity, which will mark with its rigid structure the subject's entire mental development.'" (Flax 94).  Chasseguet-Smirgel, on the other hand, sees this event and the quest to bridge the gulf between the primary I and what she calls the "ego ideal" as not only the basis for the "most baleful errors of the human spirit," but also "the most sublime achievements" (5).  Chasseguet-Smirgel explains:

                        The narcissism that has been wrested from the primitive ego could

                        be compared to the Platonic ideal seeking embodiment in some

                        form, with the major difference that in fact it represents a quantity

                        of energy.  But it is the existence of the Ideal which predominates

                        over the forms, which are only modest, successive versions of it.

                        It is education (allied to the child's desire to free himself from his

                        object, that is to say from his primary dependence) and the

                        Oedipus complex that push the child to become autonomous

                        through his identifications, giving to his ego ideal different forms.

                        In other words, it is directed into different ideals, thus giving form

                        (and hence limits) to his lost narcissism.  One might, therefore

                        hypothesize the existence of a transcendent ego ideal over and

                        above other temporary, and constantly revised, ideals.  (7)

            According to Chasseguet-Smirgel,

                        there is a long process of evolution from the moment when

                        a person takes himself as his own ideal to that when he makes

                        over his narcissism to his homosexual object, the father, who then

                        becomes his model or, as one might otherwise put it, till he forms

                        the project of trying to identify with him. (11)

            Under certain circumstances the child sees no reason to revise his ego ideal and remains stuck in a pre-Oedipal organizational mind set for the rest of his life.  Perverts, Chasseguet-Smirgel explains, because they are extreme cases of this phenomenon serve to highlight the conditions underwhich a person chooses to continue to idealize the pre-Oedipal object.  She points to a certain type of relationship with the mother:

                        [O]ne feature of the aetiology of the perversions that has often

                        been noted is the very frequent occurrence of an attitude of

                        seduction and complicity on the part of the mother towards her

                        child. . . .The pervert will readily say: 'I did not have to take my

                        father's place, I always had it' or will recount how his mother took

                        him into her bed whilst father slept in the dining room, or else will

                        recall scenes in which his mother undressed in front of him. . . .

                        These intense exchanges between mother and son seem to take

                        place within a closed system, a system from which the father is

                        excluded.  (12)

            Because of this, the son is deceived into thinking that he is a perfect partner for the mother and therefore has no reason to envy his father, "thus bringing to a halt his development.  His ego ideal, instead of moving on to invest the genital father and his penis remains thereafter attached to a pregenital model" (Chasseguet-Smirgel 12).  

            I suggest that it is this pregenital model that pervades Lacan's theory and texts.  As Flax says,  "[I]t is better to read Lacan's work as a description of the child who is stuck in its separation phase or the narcissistic position" (106).  Flax does not, however, go far enough in exploring the consistent distortions which Lacan uses to maintain this stance, the denial of difference in the sexes and the generations, along with the idealization of the "fecal phallus" being major dimensions of his schema.

            All boys, according to Freudian psychoanalytic theory, have the unconscious desire to be their mother's partner, no matter what the parental response is; however, the parental attitude does serve "to direct the choice of possible solutions.  In fact, the distortion of the ego ideal when not projected on to the father is accompanied by a corresponding distortion of reality and hence of the ego" (C-S 15).  For the pervert, there is a denial of the difference between the sexes, because the

                        sight of the female genital organs lacking a penis is not only

                        terrifying in as much as it confirms the possibility of castration, but

                        also because the mother's lack of a penis causes the child to

                        recognize the role of the father's penis and no longer to deny the

                        primal scene. (C-S 15)

            Related to the realization of the difference between the sexes caused by the sight of the female genital organs lacking a penis, is the realization of the difference between generations:

                        Indeed, I consider that the bed-rock of reality is not only the

                        difference between the sexes, but that which corresponds

                        absolutely to this, like the two faces of a coin: namely, the

                        difference between the generations.  The reality is not that the

                        mother has been castrated; the reality is that she has a vagina

                        that the little boy's penis cannot satisfy.  The reality is that the

                        father has prerogatives that are still only potentialities in the little

                        boy.  The denial of the mother's lack of a penis masks the denial

                        of the presence of her vagina.  If the sight of the female genital

                        organs is so 'traumatic', it is because it confronts the young male

                        with his inadequacy, because it forces him to recognize his

                        oedipal defeat. (C-S 15-16).

I argue that another disguised and idealized fecal penis is the letter in Poe's famous short story.  I look at the same two scenes that Lacan discusses in his “Seminar on the Purloined Letter”: the primal scene in the Queen's bedroom and its repetition in Minister D_____'s apartment.

            At this juncture in our discussion of Chasseguet-Smirgel's theory, let us turn to the well-known primal scene that Lacan focuses on in his "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'"  where, I think, we'll find characteristics of the pregenital narcissistic position that Chasseguet-Smirgel puts forth in her theory.  Inspector G., as you may recall, explains the scene to the narrator and Dupin:

                        "The thief," said G., " is the Minister D_____, who dares all things,

                        those unbecoming as well as those becoming a man.  The method

                        of the theft was not less ingenious than bold.  The document in

                        question -- a letter, to be frank -- had been received by the

                        personage robbed while alone in the royal boudoir.  During

                        its perusal she was suddenly interrupted by the entrance of the

                        other exalted personage from whom especially it was her wish

                        to conceal it."  (961)

The Queen tries to hide the letter in a drawer, but ends up placing it face down on a table with the address uppermost, hoping the King will not notice it.  It is at this point that Minister D_____ enters the boudoir and quickly surmises what has transpired and nonchalantly replaces the letter on the table with a similar letter of his own.  He then leaves the room with the King still oblivious and the Queen, although she has observed the theft, unable to do anything about it at that point because of the King's presence. 

            Lacan, quite correctly I think, calls this a primal scene, but what kind of primal scene is it, exactly?  In LaPlanche and Pontalis's The Language of Psychoanalysis, they define "Primal Scene" as the "[s]cene of sexual intercourse between the parents which the child observes, or infers on the basis of certain indications, and phantasies.  It is generally interpreted by the child as an act of violence on the part of the father" (335).  Poe's scene contains the bedroom (boudoir), the Mother (Queen), the Father (King), the Child observing (Minister D_____), and sexual intercourse between the King and Queen (The Queen "was suddenly interrupted by the entrance of the other exalted personage").  But this sexual intercourse is not portrayed as violent nor is it the central dynamic of the scene.  The Queen is merely interrupted by the entrance of the King, but she is violated -- you could say castrated, even -- by Minister D______  when he snatches her letter.  The King is portrayed as an ineffectual boob, oblivious to what is really going on right before his eyes.  Of course, throughout the story there is the threat of violence if the King (Lacan's "Law of the Father") finds out about the letter; however he, the Father, is duped by the Mother and the Son. 

            The letter, of course, is central to the story; Minister D______'s theft of the letter is what sets the whole story in motion.  Without this initial violent act toward the Queen, there would be no story, no mystery.  Minister D______'s  theft and the King's obliviousness to it is, I think,  an example of what Chasseguet-Smirgel describes as one of those "intense exchanges between mother and son [which] seem to take place within a closed system, a system from which the father is excluded"  (12).  Although the primal scene is not denied by Lacan or Poe, this particular primal scene privileges the power of the Son over that of the Father.  The Son does not try to wrest power from the Father, but from the Mother, the Queen, the one who possesses the letter.

            The Queen in Poe's story is the powerful pregenital phallic mother, the mother before the boy has learned the difference between the sexes, before the boy "recognizes his oedipal defeat."   And, as Lacan asserts, the letter is the phallus and it is not the penis.  However, it is the fecal penis.  This is the only penis a person can possess in the preoedipal schema of reality, the world view that the pervert and others, such as narcissists, must maintain at all costs in order to retain their privileged position with the mother and not go through what is to them the unnecessary process of maturation by identifying with the father:

                        [T]here is always the idea of magically being able not to

                        become big, but to be big immediately, thus by-passing the

                        process of maturation.  Now, the only penis one can possess

                        without going through the process of development that leads to

                        genitality is a fecal penis.  Someone with the structural nucleus

                        that I have attempted to delineate will fabricate a work that will

                        represent an idealized fecal penis that he will attempt to pass off

                        as a genital penis, or better, as superior to a genital penis.

                        (Chasseguet-Smirgel 114)

The purloined letter is the idealized fecal penis (or phallus -- for Chasseguet-Smirgel "phallus" and "penis" are interchangeable) that Lacan and Poe are trying to pass off as superior to a genital penis.  

            Lacan, in his "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter,'" unconsciously admits that the letter is the fecal phallus when he explains the structure of the three glances:

                        In order to grasp in its unity the intersubjective complex thus

                        described, we would willingly seek a model in the technique

                        legendarily attributed to the ostrich attempting to shield itself

                        from danger; for that technique might ultimately be qualified as

                        political, divided as it is here among three partners: the second

                        believing itself invisible because the first has its head stuck in the

                        ground, and all the while letting the third calmly pluck its rear

                        [emphasis mine]; we need only enrich its proverbial denomination

                        by a letter, producing la politque de l'autruiche, for the ostrich

                        itself to take on forever a new meaning. ( "Seminar" 32)

            "Letting the third calmly pluck its rear" is an interesting choice of words to explain the relationship of the second and third positions.  If, in the primal scene, the Queen is in the position of letting Minister D______ calmly pluck her rear, then she is letting him purloin the fecal phallus.  And, if we examine the second scene which Lacan says "may be considered [the primal scene's] repetition," we see even more evidence that the letter, Lacan's universal signifier, is the fecal phallus (30).  

            In the second scene, Dupin discovers the letter in Minister D______'s apartment in "a trumpery fillagree card-rack of paste-board, that hung dangling by a dirty blue ribbon, from a little brass knob just beneath the middle of the mantel-piece" (969).  This schema, with the card-rack dangling, as it does, in the middle of the fireplace, suggests a phallic symbol of some sort.   The imagery of dangling, the trumpery fillagree card-rack of paste-board, the dirty blue ribbon, the little brass knob, and the letter itself which is "much soiled and crumpled" and  "torn nearly in two, across the middle -- as if a design, in the first instance, to tear it entirely up as worthless, had been altered, or stayed, in the second" suggests that it is the fecal phallus (969).  As Chasseguet-Smirgel says:

                        [T]he creation of the magical, autonomous phallus -- the fake

                        phallus -- represents a trap into which fall those who trust to

                        appearances (the silver paper covering the chocolate, the gold

                        and crystal disguising the 'dive', the paint covering the poplar

                        wood, the 'lamb' which is dressed-up mutton or, in 'The Emperor of

                        China's Nightingale', the diamonds and the precious stones that

                        bedeck the clockwork bird, and again the silk stockings containing

                        the shit), the camouflage here playing the role of the foliage

                        masking the snare or the traps.  (128)

The trumpery fillagree card-rack made of paste-board is the silver paper, the gold and crystal, the paint, the 'lamb,' the diamonds and precious stones, and the silk stockings that camouflage the fecal phallus which is the letter. 

            The letter is doubly camouflaged by being made to look like shit: it is "much soiled and crumpled."  So the letter, which is the fecal phallus, is turned inside out and made to look like the fecal phallus.  This twist parallels the Jewish joke which Lacan recites in his "Seminar":

                        "Why are you lying to me?" one character shouts breathlessly.

                        "Yes, why do you lie to me saying you're going to Cracow so

                        I should believe you're going to Lemberg, when in reality you

                        are going to Cracow?" (36)

In the same vein, we may ask of Poe, Why do you lie to us?  Why do you lie to us by disguising the letter to look like shit to make us believe that it is really valuable, when in reality it is shit?  And we may ask of Lacan, especially when we discuss Flax's point of view, Why do you lie to us?  Why do you lie to us by saying that the phallus, the universal signifier, is not the penis to make us believe that it really is the penis, when in reality it is not the penis?            

            So, we are back to Lacan's claim "that the 'phallus' is in no way related to or meant to signify the 'penis'" (Flax 92).  Flax questions the plausibility of this claim; however, within the context of Lacan's narcissistic premise it makes sense for him to say that the phallus and the penis are unrelated because the only phallus a person can have within the pregenital narcissistic schema is the fecal phallus.   Narcissists must idealize this fecal phallus in order to defend against acknowledging the difference between the sexes and the generations and thus be "consigned to the void" (C-S 18).  In Lacan's scheme of things (and Poe's, I venture) the idealized fecal phallus is the letter.  The one who possesses the letter has the power, according to Lacan, and this power is superior to that of the Law of the Father, the King.  As Chasseguet-Smirgel says,

                        The idealization of pregenitality always corresponds to the

                        overriding need to repress and to counter-cathect the fact,

                        glimpsed at some level, that his is not 'the real thing'.  The

                        standard, in other words, nonetheless remains that of genitality

                        (and the genital father). . . . (19)

            In closing, I want to add that there are many other ways in which Chasseguet-Smirgel's theory of the ego ideal can help us understand Lacanian thought, can help us, as Flax says, "escape being drawn into and imprisoned within his texts" (91).  His use, for instance, of  "TREE" and  "LADIES" and "GENTLEMEN" to explain his formula of S/s, if looked at through Chasseguet-Smirgel's lens gives us yet another example of the pregenital, narcissistic position and the denial of the difference between the sexes.   This and other manifestations of the narcissistic premise in Lacan's work are areas I would like to explore in future papers.  

Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian.  "The Nightingale."  Hans Christian Andersen: The

            Complete Fairy Tales and Stories.  Trans. Erik Christian Haugaard.

            New York: Doubleday, 1974.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, Janine.  The Ego Ideal: A Psychoanalytic Essay on the

            Malady of the Ideal.  Trans. Paul Barrows.  New York: Norton, 1985.

Flax, Jane.  Thinking Fragments: Psychoanalysis, Feminism,  and

            Postmodernism in the Contemporary West.  Berkeley: U of California P,


Lacan, Jacques.  "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as

            Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience."  Trans. Alan Sheridan.  Ecrit:

            A Selection.  New York: Norton, 1977.

---.  "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter.'"  The Purloined Poe.  Eds. John P.

            Muller and William J. Richardson.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U P, 1982.

Poe, Edgar Allan.  "The Purloined Letter."  Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short

            Stories.  Ed. James H. Pickering.  New York: Macmillan, 1985.  960-70.





To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Susan Hathaway Boydston "Jacques Lacan, Imperial Music Master?". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available http://www.psyartjournal.com/article/show/hathaway_boydston-jacques_lacan_imperial_music_master. November 18, 2011 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: October 29, 2011, Published: November 18, 2011. Copyright © 2011 Susan Hathaway Boydston