Lacanian Review Online: WHAT’SUPWAP?Psychoanalytic Institute of the Child – UPJL


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11th March 2021

6th Study-Day of the Psychoanalytic Institute of the Child
13th March 2021

The Origins of Modesty

Morgane Léger

Can we speak of an emergence of modesty in a subject? Where does modesty have its origin?

In Seminar “RSI”, Jacques Lacan evokes a film brought  by Jenny Aubry which  illustrates the concept of the mirror stage. He is interested in the gesture of the child which facing the mirror passes his hand in front of the “phallus, or perhaps its absence,” [1] a gesture which produces an elision. “There is something here whose link is somehow primordial in relation to what will later be called modesty, but which it would be excessive to mention at the so-called "mirror" stage. [2]

Lacan already evokes this gesture, a prelude to modesty, in his seminar Anxiety: “If there is something that concretises this reference to the non-specularizable dimension that I pointed up last year, that it’s this little girls’s gesture, her hand quickly passing over the gamma of the junction where her belly meets her thighs, like a moment of giddiness faces with what she sees."[3] Modesty as a veil placed on the phallus or its absence, finds its origin in this giddiness and this movement of elision which makes a hole in the jubilatory image of the mirror.

A few months later, the child begins to experience an affect different from that of jubilation. Around two and a half, three years old, s/he becomes sensitive to the gaze of the Other, to his presence, to a remark he might make. The child may blush, show embarrassment, want to hide. The phallic lure begins to take shape.

This new affect seems to be concomitant with the emergence of articulated language and with the use of the “I”. The child begins to experience “the dimension of shame” as “the hole from which the master signifier arises” [5]. By creating the neologism of “(h)ontology” [6], Lacan indicates to us that being and shame do not go one without the other. If shame is first – fundamental shame of being – modesty thus comes second, to corporise shame by localising it on the phallus, which will then have to be veiled.  

Romans distinguished between modesty of body (pudor) and modesty of feeling (pudicitia). Pudor and pudicitia are related to each other. Modesty is not only modesty of the body, a veil that hides the phallus at the same time as it phallicizes the body. Modesty also concerns speech: its efficiency leads the subject to not say everything that comes to mind.  It is at the same time an effect of repression and also a semblant adopted by the society, a semblant by which the subject accepts or not to be duped.

Contrary to the contemporary superegoic push-to-say, which Jacques-Alain Miller underlined with the term “complex of saying it all” [7], modesty is situated on the side of well-saying, taking into account the fact that there is no relation between the two sexes which could be said. Modesty is a veil over a real impossible to say.

Working in a crèche, I witnessed the embarrassment of a three-year-old girl. Having recently become the older sister of a baby who was breastfed by her mother, this little girl was playing on the section with a baby she was discreetly pretending to breastfeed. A childcare worker said to her: "I saw you breastfeeding your baby”. The little girl immediately stops playing and goes into hiding. The adult's statement produces shame by revealing the secret place that this little girl was beginning to develop in order to go through the questions about sex, the birth of a baby, maternal desire…

In his seminar Desire and its Interpretation, Lacan returns to the constitution of the subject of the unconscious as correlative to the distinction between the "I" [je] of the statement and the "I" of the enunciation. The subject puts to the test [the dimension of not wanting to know anything about it] against the backdrop of the idea that the Other knows all about his thoughts, since at the outset his thoughts are, by their very nature and structure, this Other’s discourse. The discovery that the Other knows nothing about his thoughts, which is factually true, inaugurates the pathway by which the subject develops the opposite requirement that lies within the unsaid. From there, he will have to find the difficult path by which he must implement the unsaid in his being, going so far as to become the sort of being with which we deal – namely, a subject who has the dimension of the unconscious”. [8]

These three logical times overlap in the young child: 1) the child has the idea that the Other knows everything about his or her thoughts. 2) Contingency leads the child to discover that this is not the case and that the Other ignores the content of his or her thoughts. It is there that the first unspoken words, “lies” and precious secrets will emerge. We are at the beginning of modesty. 3) By that which Lacan calls a difficult trick, the young child will have to make the unsaid, the secret space, pass onto the unconscious. This is the stage where the distinction is made between the  "I" of the statement and the "I" of the unconscious, that is, the advent of repression and the establishment of modesty.

Lacan indicates in this session: “The object is something that props the subject up at the precise moment at which the subject has to face, as it were, his existence. The object, is something that props him up in his existence in the most radical sense – namely, in the sense in which he exists in language. […] for what is propped up by this object is precisely what the subjects cannot reveal even to himself."[9]

Can we hypothesize that the small objects with which the young child around the age of three or four secretly fills his or her pockets are an attempt for him to support his being in what is most intimate to him or her?

The beginnings of modesty are in the child the secret and the hiding place, but also the choice of small objects, precious for the child, sometimes judged incongruous by the adult: these are so many ways, for the young child, to build little by little his private space which will pass later on onto the unconscious. It is up to the adult to acknowledge this space, by respecting the child's intimacy and not devaluing the precious dimension of this little veiled nothing.


Translated by Peggy Papada

Originally published in on February 9th, 2021.

1 Lacan, J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XXII, RSI, lesson of 11th March, 1975, unpublished.2 Ibid.

3 Lacan J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book X, Anxiety, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Adrian R. Price, Polity, Cambridge, 2014, p. 202.
4 Lacan J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. R. Grigg, Norton, NY, London, 2007, p. 189.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., p. 180.
7 Miller, J-A. "Vous avez dit bizarre ?", Quarto, n°78, February 2003, p. 11.
8 Lacan J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VI, Desire and its Interpretation, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Adrian R. Price, Polity, Cambridge, 2019, pp. 83-84.
9 Ibid., pp. 84-85.

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