Lacanian Review Online: The Fire of Poetic Language

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LRO – COVID-19 2020 #67
23rd April


Solitude of Bodies
Marie-Hélène Brousse


I told you that it is only poetry that allows interpretation
and that is why, in my technique, I can hardly reach what it holds ––
Jacques Lacan[1]


The confinement that currently rules our lives makes manifest the solitude of the ones-all-alone. I permit myself to write this expression invented by Jacques-Alain Miller. Like all words, “solitude” – whose etymology is solus, alone, isolated – does not escape the Moebian structure of discourse: “the one who is alone in the herd” turns back into “the only one marked as singular”; it is solitude seen from the angle offered by the swarm, an ambiguity that makes meaning explode, freeing each parlêtre from the signifying chain and thus separating each S1 from all possible S2. Exit the power of the metaphor that provides meaning.

The isolation of bodies, the distance currently being put between the speaking bodies, which is what confinement implies, achieves a radical approach to the expression “speaking body.” These make it possible to clarify a notion from the last Lacan which is rather difficult to define. Certainly, the means offered by technology allow, indeed encourage, the use of a dense network of exchanges of virtual words, a reservoir of images and proliferating messages. It’s no longer a matter of bodies that speak, but speech without a body. It is clear that this is better than nothing, since, it comes precisely to the place of the nothingness of solitude and it is also clear that a clinic is in the process of being inventing. But…

How shall we approach the solitude realised by confinement via the notion of the “speaking body” and not by that of “subjected to language [a-sujettis]? I don’t think it can be done directly by theory.

Little Freudian Detour

It is universally known, and we take it as a matter of course, that a person who is tormented by organic pain and discomfort gives up his interest in the things of the external world, in so far as they do not concern his suffering. Closer observation teaches us that he also withdraws libidinal interest from his love-objects: so long as he suffers, he ceases to love. The commonplace nature of this fact is no reason why we should be deterred from translating it into terms of the libido theory. We should then say: the sick man withdraws his libidinal cathexes back upon his own ego, and sends them out again when he recovers. “Concentrated is his soul”, says Wilhelm Busch of the poet suffering from toothache, “in his molar’s narrow hole.”[2]

We find a poet, and this time he turns up with his body in the form of his tooth. I’m not sure, however, that I agree with Freud and Wilhelm Busch. He is in pain, but who says he stops loving? The more he would have (pain), the less he would be (in love)? If we take the poets seriously, they are, rather, specialists in the association of love with pain. It is therefore not on the side of narcissism that one should orient oneself in order to get one’s bearings. It is neither the ego nor the ego-ideal. The poet mentioned by Freud may be all alone with his toothache, but our bodies are in solitary confinement precisely to stop the spread of the disease: we are all alone in order not to get sick.

Poetry as Orientation of Psychoanalysis

Jacques-Alain Miller titled his 2002-2003 course “Un effort de poésie.” He ended the first session with the following question: “Why does psychoanalysis tend to become prosaic?” As soon as you do prose, you become prosaic. He therefore proposed poetry as an alternative, to “rekindle” in psychoanalysis “if I may say so, the fire of poetic language.” Let us follow this orientation en-corps.

The Disciplines of the Double Meaning

Poetry? Is it not Lacan who, in the seminar of 15 March 1977,[3] combines poetry and psychoanalysis by stating: “Psychoanalysis falls just in relation to what the signifier is, something very special, which has effects of meaning. So it would be enough for me to connote the S2, not as being the second in time, but as having a double meaning, in order for the S1 to take its place correctly […] In this regard, psychoanalysis is no more of a scam than poetry itself. Poetry is based precisely on this ambiguity of which I speak, and which I qualify as double meaning.” The very title of the seminar, L’insu que sait de l’une-bévue s’aile a mourre, is an act of interpretation by what he calls here double meaning. He opposes meaning to signification,[4] and resolutely opts, with regard to analytical interpretation, for signification. He concludes by saying that it is imaginatively symbolic. Later he goes on to say that poetry “when it misses (meaning) has only one signification”, that it is “a pure knot of one word with another […] How can the poet achieve this feat, how can the poet make meaning be absent? Signification is not what people believe. It’s an empty word.” Let us therefore propose that the emptiness of meaning releases a fullness of signification. Lacan concludes by opposing love, which is only a signification, to desire, which produces a meaning, which orients.

He also offers advice: “I told you it is only poetry that allows interpretation.” These elements shed light on Jacques-Alain Miller’s developments on the speaking body.[5] The speaking body is not the subject. They are not in opposition, but each comes from a different field. Perhaps it should even be distinguished from the term “parlêtre” which still evokes “lack-of-being” rather than flesh, repetition rather than (body) event. The speaking body in the practice of psychoanalysis is therefore to be distinguished from i(a) as from I(A), both of which are linked to the knotting of the imaginary and the symbolic. It is also to be distinguished from the organism, with which science deals regarding its different organs, because the real of science is not the real of psychoanalysis. The speaking body is pure signification, emptied of meaning and full of real, as defined in the Lacanian orientation by opposing it to all realities. “The real, I would say, is the mystery of the speaking body, it is the mystery of the unconscious.”[6] It happens that this real separates itself from the image as it does from the signifier. Is this the subjective experience that is offered to us in confinement?

A Little Bit of a Journey with Poets

What do the poets write about solitude? Poetry approaches this “double meaning” through writing.

Straightaway a poem comes to mind: “Solitude”, by Marc-Antoine Girard de Saint-Amant. Translated into English by Katherine Philips, it was set to music by Henry Purcell. Then another poem, an ode by Théophile de Viau, with the same title.

Let’s take the epoch into account because there is no poetry without discourse between parlêtres. Why did this historical period so distant from ours, the 17th century – 1621 for Théophile de Viau, 1629 for Saint-Amant – make solitude a fundamental theme of poetry?

The epoch was troubled, chaotic and politically marked by the precariousness of the powers that be: there were wars of religion, heresies, intense exchanges between Italy and France. In Italy there were materialist, hedonist, and Epicurean movements. This Paduan materialism made a return to Lucretia since the years 1583-1585. Other intense exchanges took place between France and the Netherlands. Everywhere there was constant confrontation between materialism and religious movements. It was therefore, to use Lacan’s formula, a period marked by a “crisis of truth”[7] – which also operated in knowledge. This is when the subject of science emerged from a succession of advances punctuated by the names of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler. The printing press generalised the distribution of knowledge.

All these innovations collided with established religions. The “hairesis,” which in ancient times designated the “garden of Epicurus”, turned into its opposite, and, with the progressive definition of the dogmas of Christianity, heresy became the name of all opinions that were opposed to a received orthodoxy. Jacques-Alain Miller, always in the vanguard, recently launched a living movement in the Lacanian orientation based on this concept of heresy. Our time has points in common with that of Saint-Amant and Théophile de Viau.[8]

What was the name given to heresy in the period in which they lived? “Libertinism.” It is an ethical solution which unfailingly leads the man of pleasure towards the powers of darkness. Their writings are doubly heretical. Their poems free themselves from meaning by signification. They also turn their backs on the moral, i.e. sexual, orthodoxy that was in force. They practice, in their writings as in their lives, the “double meaning.” Poetry is therefore clearly a celebration of the absence of sexual rapport. It is only necessary to read Théophile de Viau’s 23rd Sonnet for written proof.

In an intervention, Jacques-Alain Miller underlines that “There is no better indicator of the absence of sexual relation in the real than the imaginary profusion of the body as it devotes itself to being given and being taken.” He adds that the Baroque aims at regulating the soul through the vision of the body, here enjoying itself, in “a degree zero of meaning”.[9] This degree zero of meaning is the consequence of the absence of any possible union between the soul and the body. Solitude is redoubled: no rapport between the partners, each person a prisoner of his enjoying body, no rapport between the body of each and his soul. A wall [un mur], the a-wall [a-mur], confines them. Poetry is located on this edge, between meaning and signification, between the decipherable unconscious and the real unconscious. This is this border on which the two variations on solitude shed light.

The two poems begin as follows:

Dans ce val solitaire et sombre
Le cerf qui brame au bruit de l’eau,
Penchant ses yeux dans un ruisseau,
S’amuse à regarder son ombre.

In this dark and lonely valley,
The stag who roars at the water’s sound

Glances down into a stream,
And delights in glimpsing his shadow. –– Théophile de Viau

O que j’ayme la solitude!
Que ces lieux sacrez à la Nuit,
Esloignez du monde et du bruit,
Plaisent à mon inquiétude ! … 

O! Solitude, my sweetest choice
Places devoted to the night,
Remote from tumult, and from noise,
How you my restless thoughts delight!

––Saint-Amant,[10] trans. Katherine Philips

Solitude is the body enjoying itself in nature: “darkness and shadow” [sombre et ombre], “Night and worry.” This jouissance clings to the silence of words, and to the presence of words reduced to pure sound. The jouissance stripped of language is present in “noise”, which is all that remains of language when it is connected to signification.

How do these poems end?

Les vents, qui ne se peuvent taire,
Ne peuvent écouter aussi,
Et ce que nous ferons ici
Leur est un inconnu mystère

The winds that know not how to be quiet
Know not how to listen either,

And what we are going to do here
Is to them an unknown mystery. –– Théophile de Viau

O que j’ayme la Solitude!
C’est l’Element des bons esprits,
C’est par elle que j’ay compris
L’Art d’Apollon sans nulle estude:
Je l’ayme pour l’amour de toy,
Connoissant que ton humeur l’ayme,
Mais quand je pense bien à moy,
Je la hay pour la raison même ;
Car elle pourroit me ravir
L’heur de te voir, et de te servir. 

O! how I Solitude adore,
That element of noblest wit,
Where I have learnt Apollo's lore,
Without the pains to study it:
For thy sake I in love am grown
With what thy fancy does pursue;
But when I think upon my own,
I hate it for that reason too.
Because it needs must hinder me
From seeing, and from serving thee.
–– Saint-Amant, trans. Katherine Philips

Théophile de Viau encounters jouissance in the form of a mystery against the background of the silence of our inhuman partner: nature. Nature personifies a double impossibility – she neither speaks nor listens. It is therefore at this point that the real of the non-rapport can arise, if we follow Lacan’s indication. Saint-Amant, on the other hand, stumbles on an hateloving, because this loved other can, in turn, choose to wall herself up in her own solitude.

Poetry shows that the axiom “There is no sexual rapport” is the hidden meaning of all solitude. Which is how it illuminates psychoanalysis.

Let us add by way of conclusion, following Jacques-Alain Miller, that solitude can also, as one of the names of jouissance of the speaking body, become an escabeau that confinement forces us to climb. This is evidenced by the multitude of testimonial texts in which everyone endeavours to name the subjective effects of this unprecedented experience, a nightmare from which one cannot wake up, a waking nightmare. He opposes the real of the non-rapport to the unconscious that our dreams produce in an endless metaphorical ciphering. There are many testimonies of Analysts of the School that show how the end of their experience as analysands is effected by a drying up of meaning and the emergence of a new signification. I am thinking, for example, of the testimony of Laurent Dupont: “C, A, C”, three letters which, to be sounded, become “it’s enough” [c’est assez], thus offering an example of the emergence of a “double meaning”, that is to say of a separation between the prosaic meaning and poetic signification.

The solitude we experience, however limited, reveals the importance of our “embraces”. It tears us away from the marked spaces of discourse. It demands from the analyst a new ethics, an ethics of signification, an ethics of the speaking body. The torching of the social bond by the virus gives rise to a solitude whose signification is the embrace.


Translated by Janet Haney and John Haney



[1] Jacques Lacan, L’insu que sait de l’une-bévue s’aile à mourre, lesson of 10 May 1977, unpublished.
[2] Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction” (1914), SE 14, p. 82.
[3] Jacques Lacan, Séminaire “Livre XXIV, 1976-1977, L’insu que sait de l’une-bévue s’aile a mourre”, lesson of 15 March 1977, unpublished. Some lessons from this seminar have been published in Ornicar ?, Nos. 12-13 to 17-18.
[4] Quite a few years ago, Jacques-Alain Miller dedicated a landmark seminar to elucidating the difference between meaning and signification.
[5] Jacques-Alain Miller, “The Unconscious and the Speaking Body”, trans. A.R. Price, Hurly-Burly, No. 12, 2015, pp. 119-132.
[6] Jacques Lacan, Encore, On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX (1972-1973), ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 1998), p. 131.
[7] Jacques Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg, Norton, New York/London, 2007, Ch. 8, “From Myth to Structure”, p. 120 et seq.
[8] Théophile de Viau, Après m’avoir fait tant mourir, NRF, Paris, 2002, p. 95.

Je songeais que Phyllis des enfers revenue,
Belle comme elle était à la clarté du jour,

Voulait que son fantôme encor fît l’amour
Et que comme Ixion j’embrassasse une nue. 

Son ombre dans mon lit se glissa toute nue
Et me dit : cher Tircis, me voici de retour,
Je n’ai fait qu’embellir en ce triste séjour
Où depuis ton départ le sort m’a retenue.

 Je viens pour rebaiser le plus beau des Amants,
Je viens pour remourir dans tes embrassements.
Alors quand cette idole eut abusé ma flamme,

Elle me dit : Adieu, je m’en vais chez les morts,
Comme tu t’es vanté d’avoir foutu mon corps,
Tu te pourras vanter d’avoir foutu mon âme.

I dreamed that Phyllis from the underworld had returned
As beautiful as ever she was in light of day

Wishing that her ghost would make love again
And that I, like Ixion, would embrace her nudity.

Her naked shade slipped into my bed
And said: dear Tircis, see, I have returned,
I have only grown lovelier during my sad stay
Where since your departure, fate kept me.
I have come to kiss again the loveliest of my lovers,
I have come to die again in your embraces.
And when this idol had taken advantage of my desire

She said to me: Farewell, I go back to be with the dead,
And just as you boasted of having fucked my body

You will now be able to boast of having fucked my soul.       
Trans. JH

[9] Jacques-Alain Miller, op. cit., pp. 121-2.
[10] Saint-Amant, Œuvres (1629), tome 1, Paris, Librairie Marcel Didier, 1971, pp. 33-48.

Photo Credit: Sayam U Chowdhury 
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