Swinburne University of Technology
‘Oranges and Lemons’: Art, therapy, subjectivity
The research for this paper began with papers on writing as trace, its function as symptom and its relation to anxiety and jouissance – a form of enjoyment that is often closer to pain than pleasure (Hecq 2005). It then moved on to explore Lacan’s concept of suppléance (sometimes translated as ‘suppletion’), namely, a practice that acts as substitute and hence prevents the subject from ‘falling apart’ as may have been the case with Joyce (Lacan 2005 [1974-75]). This in turn led to an investigation of the mechanism of suppléance itself as applied to my own creative practice (Hecq 2010a, 2010b). Based on the premise that suppléance is both a device and a process, this paper continues in a similar vein. It focuses on suppléance and agency as it is deployed in the story ‘Oranges and Lemons’, which I invite the reader to read after situating it in the larger research context. I then proceed with theorising the findings sourced from the creative piece by drawing on psychoanalytical concepts.
‘Oranges and Lemons’ is the seventh chapter in Hush,a self-styled memoir of cot death which works by association, linking the real with the imagined, upsetting the conventions of autobiography within a frame delimited by global concerns. As such, Hush is a hybrid work of fiction with lyrical overtones. The book relates the key experiences that befall the main character, a writer, in the wake of the event that will change her life and the life of those around her. She enters a fog she must navigate, between action and paralysis, inspiration and grief, guilt … and the phantom, love. This, she achieves through writing.
We tell stories of our lives through the cultural scripts available to us (what Lacan calls the ‘Other’), and as writers we accept that we are mostly governed by cultural strictures about self-presentation in public. But if we are constituted through discursive practices, how can we control the stories we tell about ourselves? By focusing on the notion of ‘being lost’ and by highlighting this ‘lostness’ at a time when grief takes hold of the narrating persona, thereby turning her into a self-proclaimed fiction (Hecq 2010a), Hush as a whole scrutinises the complexities at the heart of human agency, including memory, embodiment, cultural and linguistic allegiance, as well as psychic and sexual identity. The narrative sees the mythical-psychological meet the social; and bodily in an individual woman’s struggle to survive the ‘lostness’ that defines her experience of being a migrant, a woman, a mother and a spouse in a world short of words. It then traces how this character constantly needs to re-make herself and re-configure a sense of agency through writing in a language which is not her mother tongue. The critical importance of the foreign language to this re-making is constantly flagged, for the experience of losing a child had robbed her of her native tongue. This in turn deeply affects the ways in which she nurtures the incipient selfhood of her first-born and surviving child. Thus ‘Oranges and Lemons’ re-thinks the making of the Lacanian ‘I’ in two protagonists enmeshed with each other and within the intersubjectivity of a language not their mother tongue while highlighting the Lacanian symbolic dimension at the heart of agency.
We like to think of human beings as agents of their own lives, rather than passive pawns in social games or unconscious transmitters of cultural scripts and models of identity. Consequently, we tend to read autobiographical narratives as proofs of human agency, relating actions in which people exercise free choice over the interpretation of their lives and expressing their ‘true’ selves. In fact, traditional autobiography has been read as a narrative of agency, evidence that as subjects we can live freely. However, ‘Oranges and Lemons’ demonstrates that the issue of how we claim, exercise, and narrate agency is far more complicated, for here the narrating ego is shown to feed on signifiers which are both available through the Other and made available by the other through a process of mirroring and doubling.
The reader is immersed in the protagonist’s search for a home in words as the narrative explores the relationship between loss and the act of creation. We witness the narrating persona’s attempt at defining that which specifically transmutes grief into mourning in the creative process. As I have shown elsewhere, the narrative arrives at the conclusion that writingarises out of the need to overcome the anxiety activated by loss (Hecq 2009, 2010a, 2010b). Further, it suggests that this anxiety can be overcome by breaking up prose into fragments and in turn by switching over to poetry. In fact, making full use of figures of speech seems to enhance the healing process. Hush suggests that the act of writing may be both an uninterrupted and necessary work of mourning, and more importantly, that finding a particular form suited to speaking about such loss is the key to survival.
At the core of Hush is the question of the relationship between art-making and subjectivity as well as a desire to go beyond psychoanalysis’ understanding of subjectivity. Consonant with Lacan’s theory of suppléance, three hitherto published chapters demonstrate that writing is that which enables the ego to cohere. Again, ‘Oranges and Lemons’ addresses the question of the mechanism of suppléance by contrasting the Lacanian symbolic dimension of language with the imaginary dimension of art making in order to test the conclusion reached in earlier papers, namely that suppléance arises out of the need to overcome an anxiety which veils the shadow of Das Ding, and that it counters the threat of subjective dissolution through a knotting of the imaginary and the symbolic.
‘Oranges and Lemons’, however, differs from previous work in that it illuminates the process of creation and its role in what we call agency from the inside-out by focusing on the interaction between ego, Other as well as other. Suppléance is thus shown to be brought about by the re-inscription of the body in the world of language via two different means, one being imaginary; the other symbolic. Indeed, while the mother (and narrating ego) re-claims her own ‘I’ through writing, her child does so through drawing and through identifying with the Name-of-the-Father passed on by his mother. In so doing, the narrative highlights the distinction between metaphorical process and metaphor as such. Metaphorical processes are shown to be an active and dynamic aspect of the mind as opposed to metaphor, which is the verbal and linguistic aspect of this process, bound to language and symbol formation. In other words, it suggests that what Lacan calls suppléance may be but a process of progressive re-organisation of mental functions set off by defence mechanisms. It also suggests that one dominant type of defence mechanism may determine the structural form of suppléance.
The conjunction between art and psychoanalysis is as old as psychoanalysis itself. In ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’, Freud (1937) described the practice of psychoanalysis as being closer to an art than a science. This position was highlighted by Lacan when he stated in his Rome Discourse that ‘the art of the analyst must be to suspend the subject’s certainties until their last mirages have been consumed’ (Lacan 2001: 43) so that he or she might make conscious decisions that are more in keeping with having a dynamic relationship with unconscious desire. A psychoanalyst herself, Susan Langer said that ‘the primary function of art is to objectify experience so that we can contemplate and understand it’ (Langer 1962: 90). Moreover, that art ‘serves a social function’ (Kramer 2000: 17) is the premise which underpins the project of art therapy within a psychoanalytical framework:
Thus art therapists encourage their patients to complement the unstructured and fluid play and talk of clinical sessions with aesthetic rigour, as ‘form and structure’ are here ‘equally important’, constituting as they do ‘a powerful aid in sorting out and mastering experience (Kramer 2000: 18). It might be argued that this idea is at the heart of Lacan’s concept of suppléance, which also supports the ego. However, suppléance operates at the unconscious rather than conscious level, and although it might have a socialising effect or support psychotherapy, its social function is not its raison d’être. Thus the relationship between art therapy and suppletion is but a mirage or day-dream whose structure is metaphor. Or to put it differently, the relationship between the two is a purely metaphorical one, predicated as both are on the paternal metaphor, or Name-of-the Father.
But why are some people content with just their daydreams or psychotherapies, while others are driven by the desire to practice their art in order to feel alive? This desire, argues Michel de M’Uzan, often stems from an intense experience that must be worked through again if a traumatic situation is to be resolved (M’Uzan 1977: 3-27). It is this idea which underpins the whole design of ‘Oranges and Lemons’. Art-making, including writing, is the sublimatory effort to transpose onto an Other stage the conflictual universe in which mother and child find themselves at a moment of family crisis and personal trauma.
Indeed, as ‘Oranges and Lemons’ suggests, we need to distinguish metaphorical processes from metaphor as such. Metaphorical processes are an active and dynamic aspect of the mind. Metaphor is the verbal and linguistic aspect of this process, as is, for instance Lacan’s Name-of the Father, bound as it is to language and symbol formation. This would imply an inherent process of progressive organisation of mental functions at play in the act of writing, which is inexistent in the act of drawing. This would in turn imply that metaphor is the final stage of a larger process of progressive symbolisation and differentiation of mental structures, which is inexistent in pure image-making. If this is the case, suppléance is but an elaborate defence mechanism whose organising principle is ‘the mirror stage’ (Lacan 2006 ).
The British psychoanalyst Bion hints at such an organising principle. What he calls the α-process, present in the mother and later internalised, transforms β-elements, namely, unmentalised fragments that have no connection to each other into more complex elements such as pictograms and eventually into proto-symbols or metaphors (Bion 1962). This would imply a progressive organising function of the mind whereby in the trauma of non-representation and nothingness the figuration is a binding together of a sensory whole – as is the case when suppléance is achieved through painting or dancing, for instance. Thus representational thinking would be a ‘higher level of organisation – possibly arising first out of the mirroring and doubling of mother and child.
Oranges in the mirror: creativity and subjectivity
For psychoanalysis, creativity is the flip-side of defence mechanisms. Creativity consists in the active shaping of unconscious mentation into new and surprising forms. Defence mechanisms, on the other hand, are an unconscious shaping of what is allowed to consciousness. Interestingly, the main purpose of defence mechanisms is not seeing. For Freud and the post-Freudians, the primary defence is repression, a force preventing the movement from unconscious to conscious – the unconscious is always forcing its way into consciousness and must be continually resisted. For Freud and his followers, then, creativity arises from a relaxation and reshaping of defensive structures. However, Lacan’s later writings, that is, from Seminar XVII onwards, are less clear on the topic as these suggest a radical re-thinking of the topology of the human subject that excludes the Oedipus conflict, and therefore repression (Lacan 2007 [1968-69]).
‘Oranges and Lemons’ postulates that the primary defence mechanism for writers, particularly writers who rely heavily on metaphor in their work, may be dissociation, a selective including or excluding of contents from consciousness. This is conveyed by the charting of different notions of language that highlight a disjunction between the imaginary and the symbolic. Thus the instability of pronouns in the text, the careful selection of English and foreign words, the selected literary references and the flagged deletions in the margins of the text all seem to refer to the avowed quest for ‘the navel of the world’, which is but a search for an anchoring point, of which the Greek word ‘omphalos’ is the prototype, in the symbolic world of language just as Lacan’s ‘quilting point’ is for psychoanalysis (Lacan 2006: 503). As suppléance, writing here is a selective sublimatory effort to transpose trauma onto an Other stage, just as the child repeats the mirror-stage in an elaborate process of individuation.
In ‘Oranges and Lemons’ the development from the imaginary to the symbolic is charted through different notions of language. In a rhetorical swerve that is reminiscent of ‘Glitter’ (Hecq 2010a) and ‘Alabaster’ (Hecq 2010b), English as a second language is seen as a central element in this process; it is another, broader example of the Other. The relinquishing of the mother tongue in favour of or a new allegiance to, and gradual familiarity with, English via the Mother Goose nursery rhymes is charted in terms of the relationship between mother and child as they ‘stretch out [their] necks as does old mother goose in [their] favourite book’. Interestingly, Mother Goose becomes part of the child’s sense of selfhood as he ‘breaks into song’. It is as if the different sign-system has made its mark on the child’s sense of self, by changing the focus and direction of that sense of self through sheer identification.
Similarly the mother intimates and then goes on to explain how another dimension of the symbolic order, another sign-system, was to become internalised, as she looks for clues in the Australian sky, one where letters are compared to the natural world in the second paragraph:
Thus the initially unfamiliar is seen in terms of familiarity. What we see in this chapter of Hush is that progression from the referent, the thing in the world, to the sign, the linguistic or poetic symbol of that physicality which Lacan deems the progression from the imaginary to the symbolic. Here, as the strangeness of a different language begins to affect the subject of the text, that strangeness is familiarised by the prosopopeic description of this language as a ghost pouring its heart out. It is through such linguistic systems, the Lacanian symbolic, that selfhood and identity become (re)socialised and eventually translate the world for the two protagonists.
This development into the symbolic is clear from an image in this section where the scopic field of the subject is now mitigated by the structures of language as the physical world of home, of the familiarity of food, is now described through the cultural code of the English alphabet of Mother Goose which is naturalised as it were through reference to the natural and supernatural world by way of associations conveyed throughout by the bird imagery with uncanny reference to the world of the living and the dead (angels and ghosts):
Here, language is mediating the vision of reality: the sign, or signifier has become dominant over the referent, as Lacan has noted: ‘it is the world of words which creates the world of things’ (Lacan 1968: 39). This is echoed by the constant reference to the creative process as the mother processes experience and speech into language that ‘coheres’.
Hence, the self, and the movement from ego to subject, is defined in terms of the development and increasing complexity of the Other, a process which is made familiar through using different tropes to denote ‘the navel of the world’, which for the narrating ego is also a refashioning of the Lacanian quilting point, her suppléance.
Far from repossessing some home place, or from establishing it as a frame of reference from which to map the past and present, from the very outset ‘Oranges and Lemons’ is opening up a symbolic home place anchored in the Western tradition via its epigraph to the wideness of the world, and defining subjectivity with respect to a broad culturally polyvalent sense of the Other. The seemingly constative sentences that place the child at the centre of the universe and ‘our world’ are, in fact, in need of some conceptual unpacking. The homely image of ‘our backyard’, ‘table’ and ‘kitchen’ as ‘extension of the living room’ is contrasted with the mythological force of the Greek notion of the central point of the earth (‘the earth’s omphalos’ and ‘the navel of the world’), and with the phonetic and semantic strangeness of the repeated signifier ‘omphalos’.
In fact, the omphalos is not evoked by any process of reification which equates world with stars as it is in Greek mythology, rather it is brought about by the voice of the narrating ego speaking to itself, and attempting to find its bearings in the Australian landscape, later repeating the word ‘omphalos’ like a mantra as though this foreign word could conjure up the very idea of home. However, it is the phonetic properties of the signifier as spoken by the voice, properties which dissolve in the moment of translation, which evoke the notion of centrality and home. Instead of grounding a sense of definition in home, the narrative begins this discussion of the narrating ego’s preoccupations by opening out the mother’s experience of home to the signifiers and signifieds of difference and alterity. It is as though she is revisioning the foundations of her own subjectivity through the sound of the Greek word, standing in synecdoche, for the Greek origins of Western European culture as she watches rain falling on an Australian city. It is as if she is gesturing towards the point that different cultures have different centres, and it is only through interaction and dialogue that she can be loosened from the roots of her previous identity. The imaginary empty speech of the first paragraph has been replaced with the symbolically-driven full speech of the second paragraph which sets the tone for the rest of the chapter as ‘play’ and ‘dad’ alternate in a triangular dialectic dominated by the Lacanian symbolic.
The temporal duality introduces a complexity to the text that deepens the layers of meaning of the Other, and I would further suggest that the notion of suppléance is here connected with this very broadening of selfhood that writing allows, with its focus on levels of culture which are not identical to themselves. The narrating ego works with an internal force – her symbolic peers and audience – with whom she maintains relations that bear on the very process of creation and which enable her to fend off the anxiety that besets her in the last scene of ‘Oranges and Lemons’. It is worth pointing out this is contrasted to the fact that her child’s anxiety cannot be quelled by image-making alone as this activity stops short of the symbolic.
Here, writing is not only seen as a vehicle in the search for truth of the subject, it is also constitutive of being: it is a discourse which, like that of Lacan, probes the meanings of language and subjectivity. Both discourses realise the complexity and opacity of the subject, and while realising that full knowledge is probably impossible, through their disparate but parallel hermeneutic processes, they both develop the cultural conversation of humanity, one that is only incipient in image-making.
Dominique Hecq is the author of The Book of Elsa (a novel), Magic, Mythfits and Noisy Blood (fiction), The Gaze of Silence, Good Grief and Couchgrass (poetry) as well as two short plays (One Eye Too Many, and Cakes & Pains performed in 2004). She won the Martha Richardson Medal for poetry (2006), and her poetry collection Out of Bounds was released by re.press in 2009. With Russell Grigg and Craig Smith, she co-authored Female Sexuality: The Early Psychoanalytic Controversies. She has published in the areas of literary studies, translation, creative writing and psychoanalysis. She is a Senior Lecturer in Writing at Swinburne University of Technology. DHecq@groupwise.swin.edu.au
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Vol 15 No 2 October 2011
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Kevin Brophy