Reading Closely with Lacan in the Undergraduate Classroom

by Ian Williams Curtis

In The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Roland Barthes famously celebrated the embodiment of the reader. We not only interpret what we read, we also experience what we read in emotional and even visceral ways. As in the psychoanalytic consulting room, so too in the literature classroom, it is often the affect that accompanies interpretation that leads to insight. As teachers of literature, we have the opportunity to invite our students to recognize and reflect upon their affective and physiological responses, as well as their intellectual and contemplative experiences of reading.

I recently sought to test this proposition with a dozen or so exceptionally thoughtful and curious undergraduate students in my upper-level French literature class (conducted entirely in French) at Kenyon College. We were reading  J. M. G. Le Clézio’s short story, “La Ronde” (1982), in which two adolescent girls respond to a dare. The girls, Martine and Titi, set off on mopeds through an unspecified French city. For the most part, the narrator sticks close to Martine’s point of view, describing her thoughts, emotions, and sensations as she trails behind her friend. Yet, as the girls race through the streets, the narrative focus occasionally shifts away from Martine to a sunburnt woman with a black handbag waiting for a bus and also to a blue moving van that speeds along menacingly. In the end, these three focal points converge: Martine races past the lady at the bus stop, snatching her handbag, and, as Titi escapes on her moped, the blue moving van collides with Martine as she flees the scene of the crime.

I’d asked each of my students to write a post, before class, on our online discussion forum, considering Martine’s motivations for committing her crime, and they’d proposed numerous possible interpretations: Martine has succumbed to peer pressure; she seeks an escape from boredom; she uses theft as an act of protest; etc. One student focused on the repeated references to the blinding sun and to the “deadly gleam” (1982, 24) reflected by the handbag’s clasp, linking “La Ronde” to similar imagery in Albert Camus’s story of a gratuitous crime in The Stranger (1942). No one had trouble finding textual evidence to support their respective interpretations.

In our subsequent class meeting, I asked the students whether, given the diversity of interpretations they’d already proposed on the forum, they could arrive at some sort of group consensus, or whether they thought the text resisted any attempt to establish a motive for Martine’s crime. To facilitate this conversation, I had them work first in pairs, to discuss the narrator’s depiction of Martine’s various affective states. What are we told Martine is feeling physically and emotionally, I asked them, and is there any consistency to these descriptions of her feelings?

In the full-class discussion that followed, some students described Martine as a shy girl who experiences a great deal of anticipatory anxiety as she goes to meet Titi. Her heart starts to pound, they pointed out, because she feels she is going to “an exam, a test” (1982, 14). Other students noted, however, that she relaxes immediately, once she’s taken off on her borrowed moped. One relevant passage details the pleasurable sensations Martine experiences while “weaving between the cars” (1982, 15). Martine also briefly fantasizes that she is seated behind Titi’s brother on his big Moto Guzzi, her arms clasped around his waist as they speed down an empty street.

Other students observed that neither the pleasant bodily sensations nor the erotic fantasy last very long. Indeed, Martine experiences an abrupt return to reality and to a sensation of fear as she realizes that the street is not, in fact, empty but teaming with pedestrians and drivers, all of whom, she imagines, are watching her. Her anxiety becomes intolerable, and she pulls over, closing her eyes in an attempt to regain her calm. When she opens her eyes, the street seems empty again, and she resumes her ride—back, clearly, in the realm of fantasy.

I asked my students whether Martine seems to be in the same affective state as when she imagined she was riding behind Titi’s brother, when the street had first seemed empty. They thought not. In their group work, one student-pair had identified a passage in which “Martine feels an intoxication invade her, as if she had drunk and smoked too much” (1982, 17). This is how she feels when she resumes riding, and there are no more pleasant rocking sensations. It’s in this state of intoxicated feeling and heightened tension that Martine commits her crime and collides with the moving van.

My students had identified the anxiety described at the beginning of the story and its return when Martine is forced to pull over. They had also taken note of Martine’s experience of pleasure at the beginning of her fateful ride. And, finally, they had noticed her feelings of intoxication at the end. This final affective state seemed in some ways to parallel Martine’s pleasure (it is accompanied by the hallucinatory image of an empty street and characterized by other fantasies), and yet it seemed markedly different. What should we call Martine’s affective state as she commits her crime?

I suggested one possible response to this question by introducing my students to Juan David Nasio’s definition of Lacanian jouissance. On the subject of jouissance, Nasio evokes “the experience of feeling an intolerable tension, a mixture of intoxication and uncanniness” (1998, 38). To help them understand the distinction between pleasure and jouissance, I projected the following quotation (in French), asking one of my students to read it aloud:

Let us take the example of the child’s game. There is jouissance in that child who, surrounded by friends, climbs on a steep roof, and is intoxicated by the risk of falling. This qualifies as a challenge [défi]. He undergoes jouissance not only from challenging his friends, but from the fact of testing his own limits. Pleasure is quite different. Suppose the same child, now relaxed, is soothed by the comforting movement of a swing. He is completely relaxed and at rest. But if by swinging, he is taken suddenly by the urge to know the limit he could reach before taking the risk of falling, it is then that jouissance surges again. (1998, 38)

Nasio’s analogy falls short of a thorough and theoretically rigorous definition of jouissance. However, it provides a particularly accessible first encounter with certain insights that Lacanian theory can offer to the study of literature. It was a useful definition in this context, in that it allowed students to begin to grasp something that first struck them as an enigma or inconsistency.

I asked each student to discuss the Nasio passage with a new partner—to try to make sense of it and to give their opinion as to whether it might help us understand Martine’s crime as a form of play. My students compared Martine to the child in Nasio’s example, who, in play, can quickly go from feeling soothed to experiencing acute tension. Martine’s approach to the crime is playful, they observed, in that, for example, it involves a great deal of imagination.

My students seemed able to relate to the experience. Though I wasn’t going to ask them what kinds of risky behaviors they themselves enjoyed, I did share with them that, as a young rider with my own Moto Guzzi, I’d made a number of rather poor decisions not entirely unlike Martine’s (though not involving theft!). This admission prompted several voluntary student contributions along the same lines, which helped us to recognize in one another the existence of the urge to seek limits.

Reading and discussing Le Clézio’s representation of jouissance helped us to reflect on our own experiences of venturing (to use Freud’s term) “beyond the pleasure principle”—of transgressing the limits of “pleasure,” like the child in Nasio’s example. Later in the semester, when I asked students to write their own short stories, I was not entirely surprised to receive a good number of pastiches of “La Ronde.” Clearly, the text struck a chord and led many of them to recall or to fantasize experiences like Martine’s. The story connected with some of them, at least, both on an intellectual and a visceral level, allowing them to explore their own experience of jouissance.

Reading “La Ronde” together in this way helped us respond to a challenge posed by psychoanalyst Bruce Fink, in an essay on jouissance: “While psychoanalysts obviously have to grapple with the heterogeneity of the subject, it seems to me that many other fields in the humanities and social sciences have to come to terms with these two faces of the subject in theory building and praxis” (2004, 147; emphasis in original). As teachers of literature, we can help students better appreciate the “pleasure of the text” and also invite them to consider the ways in which such texts confront us with the more disquieting experience of jouissance—recognizing ourselves as fully embodied, affective readers rather than merely abstract linguistic subjects.


Works cited

Barthes, Roland. 1973. Le plaisir du texte. Pairs: Seuil.

Camus, Albert. 1942. L’étranger. Paris: Gallimard.

Le Clézio, J. M. G. 1982. La ronde et autres faits divers. Paris: Gallimard.

Fink, Bruce. 2004. Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Nasio, Juan-David. 1998. Five Lessons on the Psychoanalytic Theory of Jacques Lacan. Tr. David Pettigrew and François Raffoul. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *