The Absent Letter

Elise Cavanaugh –

One thing that I found particularly interesting in Jacques Lacan’s “Seminar on ‘The Purloined Letter’” (a literary criticism which I admittedly frequently struggled to follow) was his take on the symbolism and function of the letter itself.  While reading “The Purloined Letter,” I had the same question that Lacan asks prior to addressing the letter’s symbolism: if the Parisian Police were as meticulous in their search as the Prefect boasts, and they combed every square inch of the property suspected of containing the letter, then how did they not find it?  Of course, a major flaw of theirs is ultimately revealed when Dupin criticizes them for being too mathematical, too calculated and predictable in their approach, but still, if the letter was present in the area which they searched, then they should have reasonably come across it.  In his interpretation, Lacan explicates that the signifier (the letter) is “by nature symbol only for absence… which is why we cannot say of the purloined letter that, like other objects, it must be or not be in a particular place but unlike them it will be and not be where it is, wherever it goes” (39).   If we consider the intangibility of absence, it is impossible to grasp, whether it is present in a place or not.  By nature of being, an absence is inherently not in a place in which it is – in other words, it is absent from that place.  If the letter were a symbol of absence, then wherever the physical letter is, it is also symbolically not there.  As such, the content of the letter is, to Lacan, essentially irrelevant, and instead, its place and subsequent displacement is what truly matters.  In an overview of Lacan’s reading, Muller and Richardson summarize that the letter is a “movable pivot around which revolves a shifting set of human relations” (58).  Therefore, the letter as a structure in the story functions independently of both its content and its current possessor.

Freud and Schreber

1. How should we read Schreber’s memoirs? Are these factual accounts? If so, what are the facts as presented by Schreber?  Are these experiences interpretable or hermetically sealed inside their own idiosyncratic logic? Do we regard this as an utterly alien account of a uniquely damaged psyche or do they disclose something about the nature of the self, religious/spiritual belief, power relations, sexuality, etc.?  According to what sort of interpretive scheme could we read them?

2. What do you think of Freud’s interpretation of Schreber? Do you buy it? Why or why not? Are there problems that you might point out in his psychoanalytic approach? Are there persuasive, useful aspects even if you find that the reading is problematic?

3. Freud’s extraction of a theory of the mechanism of paranoia was one of the most influential in the early clinical history of paranoia and dementia praecox (schizophrenia). What is the mechanism of paranoia as Freud understands it? How is it different from other psychopathologies in Freud’s opinion?

For some additional insight into Schreber’s life and cultural milieu, follow this link to learn a bit about his father: