Virgil W. Brower



Element & Herb: Lacan’s Backhanded Pauls

In “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” one finds a critical remark on the shortcoming of the horizontal linearity that Ferdinand de Saussure associates with the chain of discourse. It is on this note that Jacques Lacan moves into a discussion of poetry. The Saussurian horizontality assumes the mode of writing rather than speaking—Westerners do not write vertically, but horizontally—and this is a remnant of discourse’s one direction in time. On his way to verticality, Lacan wonders if, perhaps, Saussure did not listen to enough poetry. (2) For one has to listen to poetry, 

for a polyphony to be heard and for it to become clear that all discourse is aligned along the several staves of a musical score.

Indeed, there is no signifying chain that does not sustain—as if attached to the punctuation of each of its units—all attested contexts that are, so to speak, “vertically” linked to that point. (3)
Breaking with the unilateral and the monophonic has something to do with the verticality of a poem. This is a mode by which we are to understand the “incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier.”

Most significant is the example Lacan gives for this shortcoming of horizontal diachronics. The horizontal fixation “applies only in the direction in which it is oriented in time” by which “the time of ‘Peter hits Paul’ is reversed when the terms are inverted.” (5) A horizontality deprived of poetry allows always already that ‘Peter hits Paul.’ Paul’s response—which need not, necessarily, be considered as a kind of revenge or ressentiment—could never come about in such a system unless that time be rewritten and restated; a crime of revisionist history. Yet! Lacan insinuates that parting ways with such a horizontal understanding to a vertical one of poetry opens the possibility for ‘Peter hits Paul’ to somehow speak as to a complex way by which Paul hits back, yet, Peter never ‘gets hit,’ since a vertical synchronicity demands no simplistic inversion to a ‘Paul hits Peter.’

Lacan’s discussion continues into a paragraph of associations regarding Saussure’s famous tree; ranging from the Hebrew Bible’s tree of knowledge, to the cross of the New Testament, to the letter ‘Y’, and the image of a tree struck by lightning. This is followed by four lines of poetry by Paul Valéry: 
No! says the Tree, it says No! in the scintillating
Of its superb head
Which the storm treats universally
As it does a blade of grass. (6) 
But translation does not do justice to the stream of Lacan’s discussion. The key to the enigmatic Section I (The Meaning of the Letter) in this essay is that, here, Valéry’s lines rhyme, which one only hears in the French: 
Non! Dit l’Arbre, il dit: Non! Dans l’étincellement
De sa tête sup
Que la tempête traite univers
Comme elle fait une
herbe. (7)
Throughout the essay, Lacan does not speak, directly, of rhyme. Yet the culmination of his critique of the horizontal and his alternative suggestion of poetry as a way to the vertical is not simply a poem, but a poem with rhyming end sounds. It is the ‘–ellement’ and ‘–erbe’ of Valéry that coalesce Lacan’s enthymeme. Regardless that the word ‘rhyme’ lays unsaid, when Lacan says ‘poem’ throughout “The Instance of the Letter,” we can discern that its referent, Valéry, is at the same time the signified, rhyme.

(2) Lacan amends this comment in 1966 after learning of Saussure’s study of Saturnine verse and Cicero.
(3) Jacques Lacan, “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Part I, in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 146.
(4) Ibid., 145.
(5) Ibid., 146. 
(6) Quoted in Lacan, ibid.
(7) Quoted in Lacan, Écrits 1(Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1966), 261; emphasis added. 


Virgil "Bill" Brower lives in Chicago, IL.

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