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Seminar on "The Purloined Letter" Author(s): Jacques Lacan and Jeffrey Mehlman Source: Yale French Studies, No.y : Yale Universit y Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2929623 . Accessed: 20/03/2011 22:57 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates y our acce p tance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp . JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the p ublisher re g ardin g an y further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=yale . . Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. Yale University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Yale French Studies. http://www.jstor.org " id="pdf-obj-0-2" src="pdf-obj-0-2.jpg">

Seminar on "The Purloined Letter" Author(s): Jacques Lacan and Jeffrey Mehlman Source: Yale French Studies, No. 48, French Freud: Structural Studies in Psychoanalysis (1972), pp. 39-72 Published by: Yale University Press

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Seminar on "The Purloined Letter" Author(s): Jacques Lacan and Jeffrey Mehlman Source: Yale French Studies, No.y : Yale Universit y Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2929623 . Accessed: 20/03/2011 22:57 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates y our acce p tance of JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use, available at . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp . JSTOR's Terms and Conditions of Use provides, in part, that unless you have obtained prior permission, you may not download an entire issue of a journal or multiple copies of articles, and you may use content in the JSTOR archive only for your personal, non-commercial use. Please contact the p ublisher re g ardin g an y further use of this work. Publisher contact information may be obtained at . http://www.jstor.org/action/showPublisher?publisherCode=yale . . Each copy of any part of a JSTOR transmission must contain the same copyright notice that appears on the screen or printed page of such transmission. JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org. Yale University Press is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Yale French Studies. http://www.jstor.org " id="pdf-obj-0-55" src="pdf-obj-0-55.jpg">

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Jacques Lacan

in orderto determinethe "proper"one(s). For betteror worse,in Englishwe

have (necessarily)chosen to normalizethe use

of prepositions.We have thus

occasionallybeen obliged to charta course throughLacan's labyrinthrather

than reproducethat labyrinth whole. There has no

doubtbeen a concomitant

loss (in syntacticalrichness) and gain (in clarity). The notes we have added to the text (signed -Ed) are, on the whole, explanationsof allusionsor clarificationsof particularlyoblique points.

This text was originallywritten in 1956 and-along with an introductory postface-is the openingtext of the Ecrits.

-J. M.

Und wennes uns gluckt, Und wenn es sich schickt, So sind es Gedanken.

Our inquiryhas led us to the point of recognizingthat the repetition automatism(Wiederholungszwang) finds its basis in what we have called the insistenceof the signifyingchain. 1 We have elaboratedthat notionitself as a correlateof the ex-sistence(or: eccentricplace) in whichwe mustnecessarily locate the subjectof the unconsciousif we are to takeFreud's discoveryseriously. 2 As is known,it is in therealm of experienceinaugurated by psychoanalysisthat we may grasp along what imaginarylines the humanorganism, in the most intimatereces- ses of its being,manifests its capturein a symbolicdimension. I The lesson of this seminar is intendedto maintain that these imaginaryincidences, far fromrepresenting the essence of our expe- rience, reveal only what in it remains inconsistentunless they are relatedto the symbolicchain whichbinds and orientsthem.

  • 1 The translationof repetitionautomatism-rather than compulsion-is indicativeof Lacan's speculativeeffort to reinterpretFreudian "overdetermina- tion" in termsof the laws of probability.(Chance is automaton,a "cause not revealed to human thought,"in Aristotle'sPhysics.) Whence the importance assumed by the Minister'spassion for gamblinglater in Lacan's analysis. Cf. Ecrits,pp. 41-61).-Ed.

  • 2 Cf. Heidegger,Vom Wesen dar Wahrheit.Freedom, in this essay, is perceivedas an "ex-posure."Dasein ex-sists,stands out "into the disclosure of what is." It is Dasein's "ex-sistentin-sistence" which preserves the disclo- sure of beings.-Ed.

  • 3 For the meaningsLacan attributesto the termsimaginary and symbolic, see entriesfrom the Vocabulairede la Psychanalyse(Laplanche and Pontalis) reproducedbelow.-Ed.


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We realize,of course,the importance of theseimaginary impregna- tions (Prdgung)in those partializationsof the symbolicalternative whichgive the symbolicchain its appearance. But we maintainthat it is the specificlaw of thatchain whichgoverns those psychoanalytic effectsthat are decisivefor the subject: such as foreclosure(Verwer- fung),repression (Verdrdngung), denial (Verneinung)itself-specifying with appropriateemphasis that these effectsfollow so faithfullythe displacement(Entstellung) of the signifierthat imaginaryfactors, despite theirinertia, figure only as shadows and reflectionsin the


But this emphasiswould be lavishedin vain, if it served,in your opinion, only to abstract a general type from phenomena whose particularityin our work would remain the essentialthing for you, and whose originalarrangement could be brokenup only artificially. Whichis whywe have decided to illustratefor you todaythe truth which may be drawn fromthat momentin Freud's thoughtunder study-namely,that it is the symbolicorder which is constitutivefor the subject-by demonstratingin a storythe decisiveorientation which the subjectreceives from the itineraryof a signifier. I It is that truth,let us note, which makes the very existenceof fictionpossible. And in that case, a fable is as appropriateas any othernarrative for bringing it to light-at therisk of havingthe fable's coherenceput to the testin the process.Aside fromthat reservation, a fictivetale even has the advantageof manifestingsymbolic neces- sity more purely to the extentthat we may believe its conception arbitrary. Which is why,without seeking any further,we have chosen our example fromthe very storyin which the dialectic of the game of

even or odd-from whose study we have but


occurs.6 It is, no doubt, no accident that this tale revealed itself

  • 4 For thenotion of foreclosure,the defencemechanism specific to psychosis, see entryfrom the Vocabulairebelow.

  • 5 For the notionof the signifier(and its relationto the Freudian"memory trace,")see previousessay.-Ed.

  • 6 Lacan's analysisof the guessinggame in Poe's tale entailsdemonstrating the insufficiencyof an imaginaryidentification with the opponentas opposed to the symbolicprocess of an identificationwith his "reasoning."See Ecrits, p. 59.-Ed.


Jacques Lacan

propitiousto pursuinga course of inquirywhich had already found supportin it. As you know, we are talkingabout the tale which Baudelaire translatedunder the title: La lettrevolge. At firstreading, we may distinguisha drama,its narration,and the conditionsof thatnarration. We see quickly enough, moreover,that these componentsare

necessaryand that they could not whoevercomposed them. The narration,in fact, doubles

have escaped the intentionsof

the drama with a commentary

withoutwhich no mise en scene would be possible. Let us say that the action would remain,properly speaking, invisible from the pit- aside from the fact that the dialogue would be expresslyand by dramaticnecessity devoid of whatevermeaning it might have for an audience: -in otherwords, nothing of thedrama could be grasped, neitherseen nor heard, without,dare we say, the twilightingwhich the narration,in each scene, casts on the point of view that one of the actorshad while performingit.

There are two scenes, the firstof which we shall straightway

designatethe primalscene, and second may be consideredits

by no means inadvertently, since the repetitionin the very sense we are

consideringtoday. The primal scene is thus performed,we are told, in the royal boudoir,so thatwe suspectthat the personof the highestrank, called the "exaltedpersonage," who is alone therewhen she receivesa letter, is the Queen. This feelingis confirmedby the embarrassmentinto which she is plungedby the entryof the otherexalted personage,of whom we have already been told prior to this account that the

knowledgehe mighthave of the letterin question would jeopardize for the lady nothingless than her honor and safety.Any doubt that

he is in factthe King is promptlydissipated in the courseof the scene

whichbegins with the entryof the MinisterD ...

At that moment,in

fact, the Queen can do no betterthan to play on the King's inat-

tentivenessby leaving the letteron the table "face down, address


does not,however, escape the Minister'slynx eye, nor

does he fail to notice the Queen's distressand thus to fathomher


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secret. From then on everythingtranspires like clockwork.After dealing in his customarymanner with the business of the day, the Minister draws from is pocket a letter similar in appearance to the one in his view,and, havingpretended to read it, he places it next to the other.A bit more conversationto amuse the royal company, whereupon,without flinching once, he seizes the embarrassingletter, makingoff with it, as the Queen, on whomnone of his maneuverhas been lost,remains unable to intervenefor fear of attractingthe atten- tionof her royalspouse, close at her side at thatvery moment.

Everythingmight then have transpiredunseen by a hypothetical spectatorof an operationin whichnobody falters, and whose quotient is thatthe Ministerhas filchedfrom the Queen her letterand that-an even more importantresult than the first-theQueen knows that he now has it, and by no means innocently.

A remainderthat no analystwill neglect,trained as he is to retain whateveris significant,without always knowingwhat to do with it:

the letter,abandoned by the Minister,and which the Queen's hand is now freeto roll into a ball.

Second scene: in the Minister'soffice. It is in his hotel,and we know-from the accountthe Prefectof police has givenDupin, whose specificgenius for solvingenigmas Poe introduceshere forthe second time-that the police, returningthere as soon as the Minister'shabit- ual, nightlyabsences allow them to, have searchedthe hotel and its surroundingsfrom top to bottomfor the last eighteenmonths. In vain, -although everyonecan deduce fromthe situationthat the Minister keeps the letterwithin reach.

Dupin calls on the Minister.The latterreceives him with studied nonchalance,affecting in his conversationromantic ennui. Meanwhile Dupin, whom this pretensedoes not deceive, his eyes protectedby greenglasses, proceeds to inspectthe premises. When his glancecatches a rathercrumpled piece of paper-apparentlythrust carelessly in a division of an ugly pasteboard card-rack,hanging gaudily fromthe middle of the mantelpiece-he already knows that he's found what he's lookingfor. His convictionis re-enforcedby thevery details which


Jacques Lacan

seem to contradictthe descriptionhe has of the stolenletter, with the

exceptionof the format,which remainsthe same.

Whereuponhe has but to withdraw,after "forgetting" his snuff-box

on the table,in orderto returnthe following day to reclaimit-armed

with a facsimileof the letterin its presentstate. As an incidentin

the street,prepared for the propermoment, draws theMinister to the

window,Dupin in turnseizes the opportunityto snatchthe letter while

substitutingthe imitation,and has only to maintainthe appearances

of a normal exit.

Here as well all has transpired,if not withoutnoise, at least with-

out all commotion.The quotientof the operationis thatthe Minister

no longer has the letter,but, far fromsuspecting that Dupin is the

culpritwho has ravishedit fromhim, knows nothing of it. Moreover,

what he is leftwith is farfrom insignificant for what follows. We shall

returnto what broughtDupin to inscribea messageon his counterfeit

letter.Whatever the case, the Minister,when he triesto make use of

it, will be able to read these words,written so thathe may recognize

Dupin's hand: Un

" desseinsi funeste/ S'il n'est digne d'Atreeest


digne de Thyeste," whose source, Dupin tells us, is Crebillon's


Need we emphasize the similarityof these two sequence? Yes,

forthe resemblance we have in mindis not a simplecollection of traits

chosen only in orderto delete theirdifference. And it

would not be

enough to retainthose common traits at the expenseof the othersfor

the slightesttruth to result.It is ratherthe intersubjectivityin which

the two actionsare motivatedthat we wish to bringinto relief,as well

as the threeterms through which it structuresthem. 8

The special statusof these termsresults from their corresponding

simultaneouslyto thethree logical moments through which the decision

7 "So infamousa

scheme,/ If not worthyof Atreus,is worthyof

Thyestes."The linesfrom Atreus's monologue in ActV, SceneV ofCrdbillon's

playrefer to his plan to avengehimself by servinghis brotherthe blood of

thelatter's own son to drink.-Ed.

  • 8 This intersubjective

setting which coordinates three terms is plainlythe

Oedipalsituation. The illusorysecurity of theinitial dyad (King and Queenin

thefirst sequence) will be shatteredbe theintroduction

of a thirdterm.-Ed.


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is precipitatedand the three places it assigns to the sujects among

whom it constitutesa choice.


decision is reached in a glance's time. 9 For the maneuvers

whichfollow, however stealthily they prolong it, add nothingto that

glance,nor does the deferringof the deed in the second scene break

the unityof thatmoment.

This glance presupposestwo others,which it embracesin its vision

of the breach leftin theirfallacious complementarity, anticipating in

it the occasion for larceny affordedby that exposure. Thus three

moments,structuring three glances, borne by threesubjects, incarnated

each timeby differentcharacters.

The firstis a glance thatsees nothing:the King and the police.

The second, a glance which sees that the firstsees nothingand

deludes itselfas to

the secrecyof what it hides: the Queen, thenthe


The third sees that the firsttwo glances leave what should be

hiddenexposed to whomeverwould seize it: the Minister,and finally


In order to grasp in its unitythe intersubjectivecomplex thus

described,we would willinglyseek a model in the techniquelegend-

arilyattributed to the ostrichattempting to shielditself from danger;

for that techniquemight ultimately be qualifiedas political,divided

as it hereis amongthree partners: the second believingitself invisible

because the firsthas its head stuckin the ground,and all the while

lettingthe third calmly pluck its rear; we need only enrich its

proverbialdenomination by a letter,producing la politique de l'au-

truiche,for the ostrichitself to take on forevera new meaning.10

Given the intersubjectivemodulus of the repetitiveaction, it

remainsto recognizein it a repetitionautomatism in the sense that

interestsus in Freud's text.

The pluralityof subjects,of course,can be no objectionfor those

who are long accustomed to the perspectivessummarized by our

  • 9 The necessaryreference here may be found in "Le Temps logique et l'Assertionde la certitudeanticipee," Ecrits, p. 197.


politique de l'autruichecondenses ostrich (autruche), other people

(autrui),and (the politicsof) Austria(Autriche).-Ed.



formula: the unconsciousis the discourse of the Other. 11 And we

will not recallnow what the notionof the immixtureof subjects,

recentlyintroduced in ourre-analysis of the dream of Irma's injection,

adds to the discussion.

Whatinterests us todayis themanner in whichthe subjects relay

each otherin theirdisplacement during the intersubjective


We shall see thattheir displacement is determinedby the place

whicha puresignifer-the purloined letter-comes to occupyin their

trio.And thatis what will confirmfor us its statusas repetition


It does not,however, seem excessive, before pursuing this line of

inquiry,to ask whetherthe thrust of thetale and theinterest we bring

to it-to the extentthat they coincide-do not lie elsewhere.

May we viewas simplya rationalization(in ourgruff jargon) the

factthat the story is toldto us as a policemystery?

In truth,we shouldbe rightin judgingthat fact highly dubious as

soonas we notethat everything

which warrants such mystery concern-

ing a crimeor offense-itsnature and motives,instruments and

execution;the procedure used to discoverthe author, and themeans

employedto convicthim-is carefullyeliminated here at the start

of each episode.

The act of deceitis, in fact,from the beginning as clearlyknown

as the intriguesof the culpritand theireffects on his victim.The

problem,as exposedto us, is limitedto thesearch for and restitution

of the objectof thatdeceit, and it seemsrather intentional that the

solutionis alreadyobtained when it is explainedto us. Is thathow

we are keptin suspense?Whatever credit we mayaccord the conven-

tionsof a genrefor provoking a specificinterest in the reader,we

shouldnot forgetthat "the Dupin tale,"this the secondto appear,

is a prototype, and thateven if the genre were established in thefirst,

it is stilla littleearly for the author to playon a convention.


  • 11 Such would be the crux of the Oedipus complex: the assumptionof a

desire which is originallyanother's, and which,in its displacements,is per- petuallyother than "itself."-Ed.

  • 12 The first"Dupin tale" was "The Murdersin the Rue Morgue."- Ed.


Yale FrenchStudies

It would,however, be equallyexcessive to reducethe whole thing

to a fable whose moral would be that in orderto shield from

inquisitiveeyes one of thosecorrespondences whose secrecy is some-

timesnecessary to conjugalpeace, it sufficesto leave the crucial letters

lyingabout on one'stable, even though the meaningful side be turned

facedown. For thatwould be a hoax which,for out part,we would

neverrecommend anyone try, lest he be gravelydisappointed in

his hopes.

Mightthere then be no mysteryother than, concerning the Prefect,

an incompetenceissuing in failure-wereit not perhaps,concerning

Dupin,a certaindissonance we hesitateto acknowledgebetween, on

theone hand,the admittedly penetrating, though, in theirgenerality,

notalways quite relevant remarks with which he introducesus to his

methodand, on theother, the manner in whichhe in factintervenes.

Werewe to pursuethis sense of mystificationa bit furtherwe

mightsoon beginto wonderwhether, from that initial scene which

onlythe rankof theprotagonists saves fromvaudeville, to thefall

intoridicule which seems to awaitthe Minister at theend, it is not

thisimpression that everyone is beingduped which makes for our


And we wouldbe all the moreinclined to thinkso in thatwe

wouldrecognize in thatsurmise, along with those of you who read

us, thedefinition we oncegave in passingof the modem hero, "whom

ludicrousexploits exalt in circumstances of utterconfusion." 13

But are we ourselvesnot takenin by the imposingpresence of

theamateur detective, prototype of a latter-dayswashbuckler, as yet

safefrom the insipidity of our contemporarysuperman?

A trick ...sufficient

for us to discernin thistale, on thecontrary,

so perfecta verisimilitude

that it maybe said thattruth here reveals

its fictivearrangement.

For suchindeed is the directionin whichthe principlesof that

verisimilitude lead us. Enteringinto its strategy, we indeedperceive a

new dramawe maycall complementaryto the first, in so faras the

13 Cf. "Fonctionet champde la parole et du langage"in Ecrits.Translated by A. Wilden,The Language of the Self (Baltimore,1968).



latterwas whatis termeda playwithout words whereas the interest

of thesecond plays on theproperties of speech.14

If it is indeedclear that each of thetwo scenes of thereal drama

is narratedin the courseof a differentdialogue, it is onlythrough

accessto thosenotions set forth in ourteaching that one may recognize

thatit is notthus simply to augmentthe charm of theexposition, but

thatthe dialoguesthemselves, in theopposite use theymake of the

powersof speech,take on a tensionwhich makes of thema different

drama,one whichour vocabularywill distinguishfrom the firstas

persistingin thesymbolic order.

The firstdialogue-between the Prefectof policeand Dupin-is

playedas betweena deafman and one whohears. That is, it presents

the real complexityof whatis ordinarilysimplified, with the most

confusedresults, in thenotion of communication.

This exampledemonstrates indeed how an act of communication

maygive the impression at whichtheorists too oftenstop: ofallowing

in its transmissionbut a singlemeaning, as thoughthe highly signifi-


into which he who understandsintegrates it, could,

becauseunperceived by himwho does notunderstand, be considered


It remainsthat if only the dialogue'smeaning as a reportis

retained,its verisimilitude

may appearto dependon a guaranteeof

exactitude.But heredialogue may be morefertile than seems, if we

demonstrate its tactics: as shallbe seenby focusing on therecounting

of ourfirst scene.

For the double and even triplesubjective filter through which

thatscene comes to us: a narrationby Dupin'sfriend and associate

(henceforthto be called the generalnarrator of the story)-ofthe

accountby whichthe Prefect reveals to Dupin-thereport the Queen

gave him of it, is not merelythe consequenceof a fortuitous


If indeedthe extremity to whichthe originalnarrator is reduced

precludesher altering any of theevents, it wouldbe wrongto believe

14 The completeunderstanding of what followspresupposes a rereadingof the shortand easily available text of "The PurloinedLetter."


Yale French Studies

that the Prefectis empoweredto lend her his voice in this case only

by thatlack of imaginationon whichhe has, dare we say, the patent.

The factthat the messageis thusretransmitted assures us of what

may by no means be takenfor granted: thatit belongsto the dimen-

sion of language.

Those who are here know our remarkson the subject,specifically

thoseillustrated by the countercase of the so-calledlanguage of bees:

in which a linguist15 can see only a simple signalingof the location

of objects, in other words: only an imaginaryfunction more dif-

ferentiatedthan others.

We emphasizethat such a formof communicationis not absent in

man, howeverevanescent a naturallygiven object may be for him,

split as it is in its submissionto symbols.

Somethingequivalent may no doubt be graspedin the communion

establishedbetween two personsin theirhatred of a commonobject:

except that the meetingis possible only over a single object, defined

by those traitsin the individualeach of the two resist.

But such communicationis not transmissiblein symbolicform.

It may be

maintainedonly in the relationwith the object. In such a

manner it

may bring togetheran indefinitenumber of subjects in

a common "ideal": the communicationof one subject with another

withinthe crowd thus constitutedwill nonethelessremain irreducibly

mediatedby an ineffablerelation. 16

This digressionis not only a recollectionof principlesdistantly

addressed to those who impute to us a neglectof non-verbalcom-

munication: in determiningthe scope of what speech repeats, it

preparesthe questionof what symptomsrepeat.

Thus the indirecttelling sifts out the linguisticdimension, and the

general narrator,by duplicatingit, "hypothetically"adds nothingto

it. But its role in the second dialogue is entirelydifferent.


Cf. Emile Benveniste,"Communication animale et langage humain,"

Diogene, No. 1, and our addressin Rome, Ecrits,p. 178.


For the notion of ego ideal, see Freud, Group Psychologyand the

Analysisof the Ego.-Ed.



For thelatter will be opposedto thefirst like those poles we have

distinguishedelsewhere in languageand whichare opposedlike word

to speech.

Whichis to

say thata transitionis made herefrom the domain

of exactitudeto theregister of truth.Now thatregister, we darethink

we needn'tcome back to this,is situatedentirely elsewhere, strictly

speakingat thevery foundation of intersubjectivity. It is locatedthere

wherethe subjectcan graspnothing but the verysubjectivity



an Otheras absolute.We shallbe satisfiedhere to indicate

its place by evokingthe dialogue which seems to us to meritits at-

tributionas a Jewishjoke by thatstate of privationthrough which

the relationof signifierto speech appearsin the entreatywhich

bringsthe dialogueto a close: "Whyare you lyingto me?" one

charactershouts breathlessly. "Yes, whydo you lie to me saying

you'regoing to Cracowso I shouldbelieve you're going to Lemberg,

whenin realityyou are goingto Cracow?"17

We mightbe promptedto ask a similarquestion by thetorrent of

logicalimpasses, eristic enigmas, paradoxes and evenjests presented

to us as an introductionto Dupin's method if thefact that they were

confidedto us by a would-bedisciple did not endowthem with a

newdimension through that act of delegation.Such is theunmistak-

able magicof legacies: thewitness's fidelity is thecowl which blinds

and lays to restall criticismof his testimony.

Whatcould be moreconvincing, moreover, than the gestureof

layingone's cards face up on the table? So muchso thatwe are

momentarilypersuaded that the magicianhas in factdemonstrated,

as he promised,how his trickwas performed, whereas he has only

17 Freud commentson this joke in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious,New York, 1960,p. 115: "But the more serioussubstance of the

joke is what determinesthe truth


it the truthif we describethings as they

are withouttroubling to considerhow our hearer will understandwhat we

say? ...

I thinkthat jokes of thatkind are sufficientlydifferent from the restto

be given a special position: What they are attackingis not a person or an

institutionbut the certaintyof our knowledgeitself, one of our speculative possessions."Lacan's textmay be regardedas a commentaryon Freud's state- ment,an examinationof the corrosiveeffect of the demands of an inter- subjectivecommunicative situation on any naive notionof "truth."-Ed.


Yale FrenchStudies

renewedit in stillpurer form: at whichpoint we fathomthe measure

of the supremacyof the signifierin the subject.

Such is Dupin's maneuverwhen he startswith the storyof the

childprodigy who takesin all his friendsat thegame of evenand

odd withhis trickof identifyingwith the opponent, concerning which

we have neverthelessshown that it cannotreach the firstlevel of

theoreticalelaboration, namely: intersubjective

alternation, without

immediatelystumbling on thebuttress of its recurrence. 18

We are all thesame treated-so much smoke in our eyes-to the

namesof La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyere,Machiavelli and Campanella,

whoserenown, by thistime, would seem but futile when confronted

withthe child's prowess.

Followedby Chamfort, whose maxim that "it is a safewager that

everypublic idea, everyaccepted convention is foolish,since it suits

thegreatest number," will no doubtsatisfy all who thinkthey escape

its law, thatis, precisely,the greatestnumber. That Dupin accuses

the Frenchof deceptionfor applying the wordanalysis to algebra

will hardlythreaten our pridesince, moreover, the freeingof that

termfor other uses oughtby no meansto provokea psychoanalyst

to interveneand claimhis rights.And therehe goesmaking philolog-

ical remarkswhich should positively delight any loversof Latin:

whenhe recallswithout deigning to say any more that"ambitus

doesn'tmean ambition, religio, religion, homines honesti, honest men,"

whoamong you would not take pleasure in remembering .what those


wordsmean to anyonefamiliar with Cicero and Lucretius.No doubt

Poe is havinga good time ....

But a suspicionoccurs to us: mightnot thisparade of erudition

be destinedto revealto us thekey words of our drama?Is not the

magicianrepeating his trickbefore our eyes,without deceiving us

thistime about divulginghis secret,but pressinghis wagerto the

  • 18 Cf. Ecrits,p. 58. "But what will happen at the followingstep (of the

game) when the opponent,realizing that I am sufficientlyclever to follow

him in his move,will show his own clevernessby realizingthat it is by playing

the fool that he has the best chance to deceive me? From then on my

reasoning is

oscillation "


invalidated,since it can only be repeated in an indefinite



pointof reallyexplaining it to us withoutus seeinga thing.That

wouldbe thesummit of theillusionist's art: throughone ofhis fictive

creationsto trulydelude us.

And is it not such effectswhich justify our referring,


malice,to a numberof imaginaryheroes as real characters?

As well,when we are open to hearingthe way in whichMartin

Heideggerdiscloses to us in theword aletheia the play of truth,we

rediscovera secretto whichtruth has alwaysinitiated her lovers, and

throughwhich they learn that it is in hidingthat she offersherself

to themmost truly.

Thus evenif Dupin's commentsdid not defyus so blatantlyto

believein them,we shouldstill have to make thatattempt against

theopposite temptation.

Let us trackdown [depistons] his footprints there where they elude

[depiste]us. 19 And firstof all in thecriticism by whichhe explains

thePrefect's lack of success. We alreadysaw it surfacein thosefurtive

gibesthe Prefect, in the firstconversation,

failed to heed,seeing in

themonly a pretextfor hilarity. That it is,as Dupininsinuates, because

a problemis too simple,indeed too evident,that it may appear

obscure,will neverhave any morebearing for him than a vigorous

rub of therib cage.

Everythingis arrangedto inducein us a senseof thecharacter's

imbecility. Which is powerfullyarticulated by the factthat he and

his confederates never conceive of anythingbeyond what an ordinary

roguemight imagine for hiding an object-thatis, preciselythe all

too well knownseries of extraordinaryhiding places: whichare

promptlycatalogued for us, fromhidden desk drawsto removable

tabletops, from the detachable cushions of chairsto theirhollowed

out legs,from the reverse side of mirrorsto the"thickness" of book


19 We should like to presentagain to M. Benvenistethe questionof the

antitheticalsense of (primalor other)words afterthe magisterialrectification

he broughtto the erroneousphilological path on which Freud engaged it

(cf. La Psychanalyse,vol. 1, pp. 5-16). For we thinkthat the problemremains

intact once the instanceof the signifierhas been evolved. Bloch and

Wartburgdate at 1875 the firstappearance of the


meaning of the verb

de'pisterin the seconduse we make of it in our sentence.


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Afterwhich, a momentof derisionat the Prefect'serror in de-

ducingthat because the Minister is a poet,he is notfar from being

mad, an error,it is argued,which would consist, but thisis hardly

negligible,simply in a falsedistribution

of themiddle term, since it

is farfrom following from the fact that all madmenare poets.

Yes indeed.But we ourselvesare leftin thedark as to thepoet's

superiorityin theart of concealment-evenif he be a mathematician

to boot-since our pursuitis suddenlythwarted, dragged as we are

into a thicketof bad argumentsdirected against the reasoningof


who never,so faras I know,showed such devotion

to theirformulae as to identifythem with reason itself. At least,let

us testifythat unlike what seems to be Poe's experience,it occasional-

ly befallsus-with our friendRiguet, whose presencehere is a

guaranteethat our incursionsinto combinatory

analysis are notlead-

ingus astray-tohazard such serious deviations (virtual blasphemies,

accordingto Poe) as to cast intodoubt that '4x2 plus px is perhaps

not absolutelyequal to q," withoutever-here we give the lie to

Poe-having had to fendoff any unexpectedattack.

Is not so muchintelligence being exercised then simply to divert

our ownfrom what had beenindicated earlier as given,namely, that

thepolice have lookedeverywhere: which we wereto understand-

vis-a-visthe area in whichthe police, not withoutreason, assumed

the lettermight be found-interms of a (no doubttheoretical) ex-

haustionof space,but concerningwhich the tale's piquancy depends

on our acceptingit literally:the divisionof the entirevolume into

numbered"compartments," which was the principlegoverning the

operation,being presented to us as so precisethat "the fiftiethpart

of a line,"it is said,could not escape the probing of theinvestigators.

Have we not thenthe rightto ask how it happenedthat the letter

was notfound anywhere, or ratherto observethat all we have been

toldof a morefar-ranging

conception of concealment does not explain,

in all rigor,that the letter escaped detection, since the area combed

did in factcontain it, as Dupin'sdiscovery eventually proves.



Must a letterthen, of all objects,be endowedwith the property

of nullibiety: to use a termwhich the thesaurusknown as Roget

picksup fromthe semiotic utopia of BishopWilkins? -0

It is evident("a littletoo self-evident")21that between letter and

place existrelations for which no Frenchword has quitethe extension

of theEnglish adjective: odd. Bizarre,by whichBaudelaire regularly

translatesit, is onlyapproximate. Let us saythat these relations are ...

singuliers,for they are the veryones maintainedwith place by the


You realize,of course,that our intention is notto turnthem into

"subtle"relations, nor is our aim to confuseletter with spirit, even

if we receivethe former by pneumaticdispatch, and thatwe readily

admitthat one kills whereas the other quickens, insofar as thesignifier

-you perhaps begin to understand-materializes

the agency of

death. 1 But if it is firstof all on themateriality of thesignifier that

we have insisted,that materiality is odd [singulire]in manyways,

thefirst of which is notto admitpartition. Cut a letterin smallpieces,

and it remainsthe letter it is-and thisin a completelydifferent



would account for which the dormant vitalism in-

formingits notionof thewhole. 23

Languagedelivers its judgment to whomeverknows how to hear it:

throughthe usage of the articleas partitiveparticle. It is therethat

spirit-ifspirit be livingmeaning-appears, no less oddly,as more

availablefor quantification

than its letter.To beginwith meaning it-

self,which bears our saying:a speechrich with meaning ["plein de


The very one to which JorgeLuis Borges,in workswhich harmonize

so well with the phylumof our subject,has accorded an importancewhich

othershave reducedto its properproportions. Cf. Les Temps modernes,June-

July1955, pp. 2135-36and Oct. 1955,pp. 574-75.


Underlinedby the author.


The referenceis to the "death instinct,"whose "death,"we shouldnote,

lies entirelyin its diacriticalopposition to the "life" of a naive vitalismor

naturalism.As such, it may be comparedwith the logical

momentin Ldvi-

Strauss'sthought whereby "nature" exceeds, supplements, and symbolizesitself:

the prohibitionof incest.-Ed.


This is so truethat philosophers, in thosehackneyed examples with which

they argue on the basis of the single and the multiple,will not use to the

same purposea simplesheet of whitepaper rippedin the middleand a broken

circle,indeed a shatteredvase, not to mentiona cut worm.


Yale FrenchStudies


just as we recognizea measureof intention["de Pin-

tention"]in an act, or deplorethat there is no more love ["plus

d'amour"];or storeup hatred["de la haine"]and expenddevotion

["du devouement"], and so muchinfatuation ["tant d'infatuation"]


easilyreconciled to the factthat there will alwaysbe ass ["de la

cuisse"]for sale and brawling["du rififi"]among men.

Butas forthe letter-be it takenas typographical

character, epistle,

or whatmakes a man of letters-wewill say thatwhat is said is to

be understoodto the letter[a la lettre],that a letter[une lettre]awaits

you at thepost office,or even thatyou are acquaintedwith letters

[que vous avez des lettres]-neverthat thereis letter[de la lettre]

anywhere,whatever the context,even to designateoverdue mail.

For thesignifier is a unitin its veryuniqueness, being by nature

symbolonly of an absence.Which is whywe cannotsay of the

purloinedletter that, like otherobjects, it mustbe or not be in a

particularplace but thatunlike them it

will be and not be whereit

is, whereverit goes.24

Let us, in fact,look moreclosely at whathappens to thepolice.

We are sparednothing concerning the procedures used in searching

the area submittedto theirinvestigation: from the divisionof that

space into compartments from which the slightestbulk could not

escape detection,to needlesprobing upholstery, and, in the impos-

sibilityof soundingwood witha tap, to a microscopeexposing the

wasteof any drillingat the surfaceof its hollow,indeed the infini-

tesimalgaping of theslightest abyss. As thenetwork tightens to the

pointthat, not satisfiedwith shaking the pages of books,the police

taketo countingthem, do we not see space itselfshed its leaveslike

a letter?

But the detectiveshave so immutablea notionof the real that

theyfail to noticethat their search tends to transformit into its

24 Cf. Saussure,Cours de linguistiquegenerale, Paris, 1969, p.

166: "The

precedingamounts to sayingthat in languagethere are only differences. Even

more: a differencepresupposes in generalpositive terms between which it is

established,but in languagethere are onlydifferences without positive terms."-




object.A traitby whichthey would be able to distinguishthat object

fromall others.

This wouldno doubtbe too muchto ask them,not becauseof

theirlack of insightbut ratherbecause of ours.For theirimbecility

is neitherof theindividual nor thecorporative variety; its sourceis

subjective.It is the realist'simbecility, which does not pause to

observethat nothing, however deep in thebowels of theearth a hand

mayseek to ensconceit, will ever be hiddenthere, since another hand

can alwaysretrieve it, and thatwhat is hiddenis neverbut whatis

missingfrom its place, as the call slip putsit whenspeaking of a

volumelost in a library.And evenif the book be on an adjacent

shelfor in thenext slot, it wouldbe hiddenthere, however visibly

it mayappear. For it can literallybe said thatsomething is missing

fromits place only of whatcan changeit: thesymbolic. For thereal,

whateverupheaval we subjectit to, is alwaysin its place; it carries

it gluedto its heel,ignorant of whatmight exile it fromit.

And, to returnto our cops,who tookthe letterfrom the place

whereit was hidden,how couldthey have seizedthe letter? In what

theyturned between their fingers what did theyhold but what did not

answerto theirdescription. "A letter,a litter":in Joyce'scircle, they

playedon thehomophony of thetwo words in English. 25 Nor does

theseeming bit of refusethe police are nowhandling reveal its other

naturefor being but half torn. A different

seal on a stampof another

color,the markof a differenthandwriting in the superscriptionare

herethe most inviolable modes of concealment. And if theystop at

thereverse side of the letter,on which,as is known,the recipient's

addresswas writtenin thatperiod, it is becausethe letterhas for

themno otherside butits reverse.

Whatindeed might they find on its observe?Its message,as is

oftensaid to our cyberneticjoy?


But does it notoccur to us that

thismessage has alreadyreached its recipientand has evenbeen left

withher, since the insignificant

scrap of papernow representsit no

less well thanthe original note.

  • 25 Cf. Our ExaminationRound his Factificationfor Incaminationof Work

in Progress,Shakespeare & Co., 12 rue de I'Oddon,Paris, 1929.


Yale FrenchStudies

If we could admitthat a letterhas completedits destinyafter

fulfillingits function,the ceremonyof returningletters would be a

less commonclose to theextinction of thefires of love'sfeasts. The

signifieris notfunctional. And themobilization of theelegant society

whosefrolics we are followingwould as wellhave no meaningif the

letteritself were content with having one. For it wouldhardly be


adequatemeans of keepingit secretto informa squad of cops of its


We mighteven admitthat the letter has an entirelydifferent (if

no moreurgent) meaning for the Queen than the one understoodby

theMinister. The sequenceof eventswould not be noticeablyaffected,

noteven if it werestrictly incomprehensible to an uninformedreader.

For it is certainlynot so for everybody,since, as the Prefect

pompouslyassures us, to everyone'sderision, "the disclosureof the

documentto a thirdperson, who shall be nameless,"(that name which

leaps to theeye like the pig's tail twixtthe teeth of old Ubu) "would

bringin questionthe honor of a personageof mostexalted station,

indeedthat the honorand peace of theillustrious personage are so


In thatcase, it is notonly the meaning but the text of themessage

whichit wouldbe dangerousto place in circulation, and all themore

so to theextent that it mightappear harmless, since the risks of an

indiscretionunintentionally committed by one of the letter'sholders

wouldthus be increased.

Nothingthen can redeemthe police's position, and nothingwould

be changedby improvingtheir "culture." Scripta manent: in vain

wouldthey learn from a de luxe-editionhumanism the proverbial les-

son whichverba volant concludes. May it but please heaventhat

writingsremain, as is ratherthe case withspoken words: forthe

indelibledebt of thelatter impregnates our actswith its transferences.

Writingsscatter to thewinds blank checks in an insanecharge. 26

And werethey not such flyingleaves, there would be no purloined

letters. 27

26 The originalsentence presents an exemplarydifficulty

in translation:

"Les dcritsemportent au ventles traitesen blancd'une cavalerie folle." The



But whatof it? For a purloinedletter to exist,we may ask, to

whomdoes a letterbelong? We stresseda momentago the oddity

implicitin returninga letter to himwho had butrecently given wing

to its burningpledge. And we generallydeem unbecoming such pre-

maturepublications as the one by whichthe Chevalierd'1Ton put

severalof his correspondents in a ratherpitiful position.

Mighta letteron whichthe sender retains certain rights then not

quitebelong to theperson to whomit is addressed?or mightit be

thatthe latterwas neverthe real receiver?

Let's takea look: we shallfind illumination

in whatat firstseems

to obscurematters: the fact that the tale leavesus in virtuallytotal

ignoranceof the sender,no less thanof the contents,of the letter.

We are toldonly that the Minister immediately recognized the hand-

writingof the addressand onlyincidentally,

in a discussionof the

Minister'scamouflage, is it said thatthe original seal borethe ducal

armsof theS


family.As forthe letter's bearing, we knowonly the

dangersit entailsshould it come intothe handsof a specificthird

party,and thatits possessionhas allowedthe Minister to "wield,to

a verydangerous extent, for political purposes," the power it assures

him over the interestedparty. But all thistells us nothingof the

messageit conveys.

Love letteror conspiratorial letter, letter of betrayalor letterof

mission,letter of summonsor letterof distress,we are assuredof

but one thing:the Queen must not bring it to theknowledge of her

lordand master.

Now theseterms, far from bearing the nuanceof discreditthey

have in bourgeoiscomedy, take on a certainprominence through

allusionto her sovereign,to whomshe is boundby pledgeof faith,

blank (bank) drafts(or transfers)are not deliveredto theirrightful recipients

(the sense of de cavalerie,de complaisance).That is:

in analysis,one finds

absurd symbolicdebts being paid to the "wrong"persons. At the same time,

the mad, drivenquality of the paymentis latentin traite,which mightalso

referto the day's trip of an insane cavalry.In our translation,we have dis-

placed the "switch-word"-joiningthe financialand equestrianseries-from

traiteto charge.-Ed.

  • 27 Flyingleaves (also fly-sheets) and purloinedletters-feuilles volantes and

lettresvolees-employ differentmeanings of the same wordin French.-Ed.


Yale FrenchStudies

and doublyso, sinceher role as spousedoes not relieveher of her

dutiesas subject,but rather elevates her to theguardianship of what

royaltyaccording to law incarnatesof power: and whichis called


Fromthen on, to whatevervicissitudes the Queen maychoose to

subjectthe letter,it remainsthat the letter is the symbolof a pact,

and that,even should the recipient not assume the pact, the existence

of theletter situates her in a symbolicchain foreign to theone which

constitutesher faith. This incompatibilityis proven by thefact that

the possessionof the letteris impossibleto bringforward publicly

as legitimate, and thatin orderto havethat possession respected, the

Queen can invokebut herright to privacy,whose privilege is based

on the honorthat possession violates.

For she whoincarnates the figure of graceand sovereigntycannot

welcomeeven a privatecommunication without power being con-

cerned,and she cannotavail herselfof secrecyin relationto the

sovereignwithout becoming clandestine.

Fromthen on, theresponsibility of the author of theletter takes

secondplace to thatof its holder: for the offenseto majestyis

compoundedby hightreason.

We say: theholder and not thepossessor. For it becomesclear

thatthe addressee's proprietorship of the letter may be no less debat-

able thanthat of anyoneelse intowhose hands it comes,for nothing

concerningthe existence of theletter can returnto good orderwithout

theperson whose prerogatives it infringes upon having to pronounce

judgmenton it.

All of this,however, does not implythat because the letter's

secrecyis indefensible,

the betrayal of thatsecret would in anysense

be honorable.The honestihomines, decent people, will not get off so

easily.There is morethan one religio,and

it is not slatedfor to-

morrowthat sacred ties shall cease to rendus in two.As forambitus:

a detour,we see, is not alwaysinspired by ambition.For if we are

takingone here,by no meansis it stolen(the word is apt),since, to

lay our cards on the table,we have borrowedBaudelaire's title in

orderto stressnot, as is incorrectlyclaimed, the conventional nature



of thesignifier, but rather its priorityin relationto thesignified. 2- It

remains,nevertheless, that Baudelaire, despite his devotion,betrayed

Poe by translatingas "la lettrevolee" (the stolenletter) his title:

thepurloined letter, a

titlecontaining a wordrare enough for us to

findit easierto defineits etymologythan its usage.

To purloin,says the Oxford dictionary,

is an Anglo-Frenchword,

thatis: composedof the prefixpur-, found in purpose,purchase,

purport,and of the Old French word: loing, loigner,longi. We re-

cognizein thefirst element the Latin pro-, as opposedto ante,in so

faras it presupposesa rearin frontof whichit is borne,possibly as

its warrant,indeed even as its pledge(whereas ante goes forthto

confrontwhat it encounters). As forthe second, an old Frenchword:

loigner,a verbattributing

place au loing(or, stillin

use, longe),it

does not meanau loin (faroff), but au longde (alongside);it is a

questionthen of puttingaside, or, to invokea familiarexpression

whichplays on thetwo meanings: mettre a gauche(to put to theleft;

to put amiss).

Thus we are confirmedin our detourby the veryobject which

drawsus on intoit: forwe are quite simplydealing with a letter

whichhas ben divertedfrom its path; one whosecourse has been

prolonged(etymologically, the word of thetitle), or, to revertto the

languageof thepost office,a letterin sufferance. 29

Here then,simple and odd,as we are toldon thevery first page,

reducedto its simplestexpression, is the singularityof the letter,

whichas the titleindicates, is the truesubject of the tale: sinceit

can be diverted,it musthave a coursewhich is properto it: the

traitby whichits incidenceas signifieris affirmed. For we have

learnedto conceiveof thesignifier as sustainingitself only in a dis-

placementcomparable to thatfound in electricnews strips or in the

rotatingmemories of our machines-that-think-like men,this because

  • 28 See our discussionof Levi-Strauss'sstatement-"the signifier precedes and


determinesthe signified"-inthe previousessay.-Ed.


We revivethis archaism (for the French: lettreen souffrance).The

is a letterheld up in the course of delivery.In French,of course,en

francemeans in a state of sufferingas well.-Ed.



Yale FrenchStudies

of thealternating

operation which is itsprinciple, requiring it to leave

its place,even though it returnsto it by a circularpath. 30

This is indeedwhat happens in therepetition automatism. What

Freudteaches us in thetext we are commentingon is thatthe subject

mustpass throughthe channels of the symbolic, but what is illustrated

hereis moregripping still: it is notonly the subject, but the subjects,

graspedin theirintersubjectivity,

who line up, in otherwords our

ostriches,to whomwe herereturn, and who,more docile than sheep,

modeltheir very being on themoment of thesignifying

chain which


If whatFreud discovered and rediscoverswith a perpetuallyin-

creasingsense of shockhas a meaning,it is thatthe displacement of

thesignifier determines the subjects in theiracts, in theirdestiny, in

theirrefusals, in theirblindnesses, in theirend and in theirfate, their

innategifts and social acquisitionsnotwithstanding,

without regard

forcharacter or sex,and that,willingly or not,everything

that might

be consideredthe stuffof psychology, kit and caboodle,will follow

thepath of thesignifier.

Here we are,in fact,yet again at thecrossroads at whichwe had

leftour dramaand its roundwith the question of theway in which

the subjectsreplace each otherin it. Our fableis so constructedas

to show thatit is the letterand its diversionwhich governs their

entriesand roles.If it be "in sufferance,"

they shall endure the pain.

Should theypass beneathits shadow,they become its reflection.

Fallingin possessionof the letter-admirable ambiguity of language-

its meaningpossesses them.

So we are shownby thehero of thedrama in therepetition of the

verysituation which his daringbrought to a head,a firsttime, to his

triumph. If he nowsuccumbs to it,it is becausehe has shiftedto the

secondposition in the triadin whichhe was initiallythird, as well

as the thief-andthis by virtueof the objectof his theft.

30 See Ecrits,p. 59:

". . .

it is not unthinkablethat a moderncomputer, by

discoveringthe sentencewhich modulateswithout his knowingit and over

a long periodof timethe choices of a subject,would win beyondany normal

proportionat the game of even and

odd " ...



For ifit is, nowas before,a questionof protectingthe letter from

inquisitiveeyes, he can do nothingbut employthe same technique

he himselfhas alreadyfoiled: leave it in the open? And we may

properlydoubt that he knowswhat he is thusdoing, when we see

himimmediately captivated by a dual relationshipin whichwe find

all thetraits of a mimeticlure or of an animalfeigning death, and,

trappedin the typicallyimaginary situation of seeingthat he is not

seen,misconstrue the real situationin whichhe is seennot seeing. 31

And whatdoes he fail to see?

Preciselythe symbolicsituation

whichhe himselfwas so well able to see, and in whichhe is now

seen seeinghimself not beingseen.

The Ministeracts as a man who realizesthat the police's search

is his own defence,since we are toldhe allowsthem total access by

his absences: he nonethelessfails to recognizethat outside of that

searchhe is no longerdefended.

This is the veryautruicherie whose artisanhe was, if we may

allow our monsterto proliferate,

but it cannotbe by sheerstupidity

thathe now comesto be its dupe.32

For in playingthe part of theone whohides, he is obligedto don

the role of the Queen, and

even the attributesof femininityand

shadow,so propitiousto the act of concealing

Not thatwe are reducingthe hoary couple of Yin and Yang to

the elementaryopposition of darkand light.For its preciseuse in-

volveswhat is blindingin a flashof light,no lessthan the shimmering

shadowsexploit in ordernot to lose theirprey.

Here signand being,marvelously asunder, reveal which is vic-

toriouswhen they come intoconflict. A man man enoughto defy


the pointof scorna lady'sfearsome ire undergoesto the point

of metamorphosis

the curseof the signhe has dispossessedher of.

For thissign is indeedthat of woman,in so faras she invests

her verybeing therein, founding it outsidethe law, whichsubsumes



See Vocabulaireentry on the imaginarybelow.

Autruicheriecondenses, in addition to the previous terms,deception

(tricherie).Do we not findin Lacan's proliferating"monster" something of the

protonpseudos, the "firstlie" of Freud's 1895 Project: the persistentillusion

whichseems to structurethe mentallife of the patient?-Ed.


Yale FrenchStudies



in a positionof signifier,

nay, of fetish. 33

In orderto be worthyof thepower of thatsign she has butto remain

immobilein its shadow,thus finding, moreover, like theQueen, that

simulationof masteryin inactivitythat the Minister's"lynx eye"

alone was able to penetrate.

This stolensign-here then is man in its possession:sinister in

thatsuch possession may be sustainedonly through the honor it defies,

cursedin callinghim who sustainsit to punishmentor crime,each

of whichshatters his vassalageto theLaw.

There must be in this sign a singularnoli me tangerefor its pos-

session,like the Socratic sting ray, to benumbits man to thepoint of

makinghim fall into what appears clearly in his case to be a state

of idleness.34

For in noting,as thenarrator does as earlyas thefirst dialogue,

thatwith the letter'suse its powerdisappears, we perceivethat this

remark,strictly speaking, concerns precisely its use forends of power

-and at thesame time that such a use is obligatoryfor the Minister.

To be unableto rid himselfof it, theMinister indeed must not

knowwhat else to do withthe letter. For thatuse placeshim in so

totala dependenceon theletter as such,that in thelong run it no

longerinvolves the letter at all.

We meanthat for that use trulyto involvethe letter, the Minister,

who,after all, wouldbe so authorizedby his serviceto his master

the King,might present to the Queen respectful admonitions, even

werehe to assuretheir sequel by appropriateprecautions,-or initiate

an actionagainst the author of theletter, concerning whom, the fact

thathe remainsoutside the story's focus reveals the extent to which

  • 33 The fetish,as replacementfor the missing maternal phallus, at once masks

and revealsthe scandal of sexual difference. As such it is the analyticobject

par excellence.The femaletemptation to exhibitionism, understood as a desire

to be the (maternal)phallus, is thus tantamountto beinga fetish.-Ed.


See Plato's Meno:

"Socrates,. . .

at thismoment I feelyou are exercising

magic and witchcraftupon me and positivelylaying me underyour spell until

I am just a mass of helplessness.If I may be flippant,I thinkthat not only

in outward appearance but in other respectsas well you are like the flat

stingray thatone meetsin the sea. Wheneveranyone comes into contactwith

it, it numbshim, and thatis the sortof thingyou are doingto me now "- ...




it is not guiltand blamewhich are in questionhere, but ratherthat

signof contradictionand scandalconstituted

by the letter, in thesense

in whichthe Gospel says that it mustcome regardless of theanguish

of whomeverserves as its bearer,-oreven submitthe letteras ev-

alone concernsus; it sufficesfor us to knowthat the way in which

he willhave it issuein a StarChamber for the Queen or theMinister's


We willnot know why the Minister does not resort to anyof these

uses,and it is fittingthat we don't,since the effectof thisnon-use

alone concernsus; it sufficesfor us to knowthat the way in which

theletter was acquiredwould pose no obstacleto any of them.

For it is clear thatif the use of the letter,independent of its

meaning,is obligatoryfor the Minister,its use forends of power

can onlybe potential,since it cannotbecome actual without vanish-

ing in theprocess,-but in thatcase theletter exists as a meansof

poweronly through the final assignations of the pure signifier, namely:

byprolonging its diversion, making it reachwhomever it mayconcern

througha supplementarytransfer, that is, by an additionalact of

treasonwhose effects the letter's gravity makes it difficultto predict,

-or indeedby destroyingthe letter, the only sure means, as Dupin

divulgesat the start,of beingrid of whatis destinedby natureto

signifythe annulmentof whatit signifies.

The ascendancywhich the Minister derives from the situationis

thusnot a functionof theletter, but, whether he knowsit or not,of

the role it constitutesfor him. And the Prefect'sremarks indeed

presenthim as someone"who dares all things,"which is commented

upon significantly: "those unbecoming as well as thosebecoming a

man,"words whose pungency escapes Baudelaire when he translates:

"ce qui est indigned'un hommeaussi bienque ce qui est dignede

lui" (thoseunbecoming a man as well as thosebecoming him). For

in its originalform, the appraisalis far moreappropriate to what

mightconcern a woman.

This allowsus to see theimaginary import of thecharacter, that

is, thenarcissistic relation in whichthe Minister is engaged,this time,

no doubt,without knowing it. It is indicatedas well as earlyas the


Yale FrenchStudies

secondpage of the Englishtext by one of the narrator'sremarks,

whoseform is worthsavoring: the Minister'sascendancy, we are

told, "would dependupon the robber'sknowledge of the loser's

knowledgeof therobber." Words whose importance the author under-

scoresby havingDupin repeatthem literally after the narration of

the scene of the theftof the letter.Here again we may say that

Baudelaireis imprecisein his languagein havingone ask, theother

confirm,in these words: "Le voleur


(Does the robber

know?),then: "Le voleursait "


(therobber knows). What? "que

la personnevolee connaltson voleur"(that the loser knowshis


For whatmatters to therobber is not onlythat the said person

knowswho robbedher, but ratherwith what kind of a robbershe

is dealing; forshe believeshim capableof anything,which should


understoodas her havingconferred upon him the positionthat

no one is in factcapable of assuming,since it is imaginary, that of


In truth,it is a positionof absoluteweakness, but not forthe

personof whomwe are expectedto believeso. The proofis notonly

thatthe Queen daresto call thepolice. For she is onlyconforming

to herdisplacement to thenext slot in thearrangement

of theinitial

triadin trustingto thevery blindness required to occupythat place:

"No moresagacious agent could, I suppose,"Dupin notesironically,

"be desiredor evenimagined." No, if she has takenthat step, it is

less outof being"driven to despair,"as

we are told,than in assuming

the chargeof an impatiencebest imputed to a specularmirage.

For theMinister is keptquite busy confining himself to theidle-

nesswhich is presentlyhis lot. The Minister,in pointof fact,is not

altogethermad. 35

That'sa remarkmade by thePrefect, whose every

wordis gold: it

is truethat the gold of his wordsflows only for

Dupin and willcontinue to flowto theamount of thefifty thousand

francsworth it willcost him by the metal standard of the day, though

  • 35 Baudelairetranslates Poe's "altogethera fool" as "absolumentfou." In

optingfor Baudelaire,Lacan is enabled to allude to the realm of psychosis.-



Jacques Lacan

not withoutleaving him a marginof profit.The Ministerthen is not

altogethermad in his insanestagnation, and thatis whyhe will behave

accordingto the mode of neurosis.Like the man who withdrewto an

island to forget,what? he forgot,-so the Minister,through not

makinguse of the letter,comes to forgetit. As is expressedby the

persistenceof his conduct.But the letter,no more than the neurotic's

unconscious,does not forgethim. It forgetshim so little that it

transformshim more and more in the image of her who offeredit to

his capture,so that he now will surrenderit, followingher example,

to a similarcapture.

The featuresof that transformationare noted, and in a formso

characteristicin theirapparent gratuitousness that theymight validly

be compared to the returnof the repressed.

Thus we firstlearn thatthe Ministerin turnhas turnedthe letter

over, not, of course, as in the Queen's hasty gesture,but, more as-

siduously,as one turnsa garmentinside out. So he must procede,

accordingto the methodsof the day for foldingand sealing a letter,

in orderto freethe virginspace on whichto inscribea new address.36

That address becomes his own. Whetherit be in his hand or

another,it will appear in an extremelydelicate femininescript, and,

the seal changingfrom the red of passion to the black of its mirrors,

he will imprinthis stamp upon it. This oddity of a lettermarked

with the recipient'sstamp is all the more strikingin its conception,

since,though forcefully articulated in the text,it is not even mentioned

by Dupin in the discussionhe devotes to the identificationof the


Whetherthat omission be intentionalor involuntary,it will sur-

prise in the economyof a work whose meticulousrigor is evident.

But in eithercase it is significantthat the letterwhich the Minister,in

36 We felt obliged to demonstratethe procedureto an audience with a

letterfrom the period concerningM. de Chateaubriandand his search for a

secretary.We were amused to findthat M. de

firstversion of his recentlyrestored memoirs in

Chateaubriandcompleted the

the verymonth of November

1841 in whichthe purloined letter appeared in Chamber'sJournal. Mi<