What Is Literature? A Symptom of What Can’t Be Spoken by Sara Cordell

Andrew Marcus. Black On White, No. 13, Sumi Ink on Paper, 15" x 22", 2017. All rights reserved.

by Sara Cordell
Associate Professor of English - University of Illinois Springfield

What is a symptom? According to Ellie Ragland, a symptom “indicates the existence of something else . . . the subject as a response of the real, an object of condensed jouissance” (Essays on the Pleasures of Death 122):

[T]he symptom is living evidence of any person’s repressed—thus unconscious—truth whose material presence marks an absence of comprehension about the enigmatic aspects of one’s life. Paradoxically, Lacan taught, symptoms do not conceal the truth of the real, but speak its meaning ‘loud and clear’ at the surface of a life. (123)

Is this “speaking loud and clear” of “the truth of the real” at the surface not precisely what literature does in its function of dramatizing meaning, of simultaneously hiding and revealing something that can’t be spoken or even thought at the level of conscious understanding? Jacques Alain Miller addresses the relation between symptom and creation when he writes,

the condition of creation is that somewhere the subject knows that the Other does not exist. But why not admit that the symptom is also an act of creation, of creation of meaning? And this is what allows for its homology to the metaphor. The symptom operates in creation—hence analysts have always been tempted to psychoanalyze creators. Yet we should notice that what does operate in creation, is the symptom separated from the jouissance which it formally enveloped. Is the work of art a symptom? Why not? It is often called omen, premonitory sign. But if it is a symptom, it is a ready-made symptom, ready to capture our jouissance throughout the centuries. The symptom is jouissance as a sense joui by the subject, while the work of art gives a sense to be joui by everyone, according to the encounter. (“The Formal Envelope of the Symptom” 21)

Let me turn now to an example of a symptom represented as a work of literary of art. First I shall say a little about Kate Chopin, the work’s American author, whose dates are 1850-1904. Chopin was born Catherine O’Flaherty in St. Louis, MO to an Irish Catholic father and a French Catholic mother. When she was around nineteen, she met Oscar Chopin of Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana.  In 1870, the couple was married. In 1882 after suffering business losses that forced him to close his general store in Cloutierville, La., Oscar Chopin died of malaria. In 1884, Kate moved with her children back to her mother’s house in St. Louis, where she began her writing career. When her novel, The Awakening, was published in 1899, critics were shocked by its portrayal of a wife and mother seeking sexual and artistic independence. The reviews called it “morbid,” “unpleasant,” “unhealthy,” “sordid,” “poison.”  Following this critical response, Chopin began withholding from publication her most inflammatory works, among them “The Storm,” the story of a young wife’s sexual awakening during a brief affair. It wasn’t until 1969 that “The Storm” and other potentially controversial works by Chopin were finally published. In that same year, the Norwegian critic Per Seyersted wrote of Chopin:

She was the first woman writer in her country to accept passion as a legitimate subject for serious, outspoken fiction. Revolting against tradition and authority . . . she undertook to give the unsparing truth about woman’s submerged life.

Whether Chopin’s literary works represent a revolt “against tradition and authority,” I can’t say. What I can say, however, is that, according to Lacan, “fiction has the structure of truth.” The truth is the Real we are used to. What Real was Kate Chopin used to and how did she represent both the customary and its effect, its truth? Put another way, how does she separate the symptom from the jouissance it formally enveloped?

Kate Chopin’s short story, “The Story of an Hour,” concerns a single hour in the life of Louise Mallard, its central character. The story begins with the information that “Mrs. Mallard was afflicted with a heart trouble.” Because of this affliction, Louise’s sister Josephine and Mr. Mallard’s friend Richards gently break the news that Brently Mallard, Louise’s husband, has been killed in “a railroad disaster.” Louise weeps at once “with sudden, wild abandonment” and then goes alone to her room. The next paragraphs are marked by jouissance. The window which Mrs. Mallard faces from her arm chair is open. The “tops of trees” are “all aquiver with the new spring life.” The air is filled with the “delicious breath” of rain, “countless sparrows” can be heard “twittering in the eaves” and “patches of blue sky” show through the clouds.

Mrs. Mallard stares dully, her gaze “fixed away off yonder on one of those patches of blue sky.” “Something” she cannot name seems to be “creeping” toward her “out of the sky, reaching her through the sounds, the scents, the color that filled the air.” She begins to recognize “this thing that [is] approaching to possess her.” As if it were something material, she tries “to beat it back with her will.” Finally, the whispered words, “free, free, free” escape her lips: “She does not stop to ask if it were or were not a monstrous joy that held her. A clear and exalted perception enable[s] her to dismiss the suggestion as trivial:

There would be no one to live for her during those coming years; she would live for herself. There would be no powerful will bending hers in that blind persistence with which men and women believe they have a right to impose a private will upon a fellow-creature . . . And yet she had loved him—sometimes. Often she had not. What did it matter! What could love, the unsolved mystery, count for in face of this possession of self-assertion, which she suddenly recognized as the strongest impulse of her being!

Let us pause here to recall that Kate Chopin was herself widowed when young. There is no reason to infer from this story that she did not love her husband or only loved him sometimes. One cannot infer an artist’s life from her work or her work from her life. A work of art attests to sublimation, “the point where,” in Jacques-Alain Miller’s words, “the transference operation backtracks itself by eliminating the subject supposed to know.” In “The Story of an Hour,” I would say that this subject is represented by Louise Mallard’s sister, Josephine, who knocks on the door just as Mrs. Mallard has recognized for the first time that the strongest impulse of her being is to be free of her husband’s powerful will. That is, Louise has spoken the truth of the symptom, of the repression which has structured her life as a married woman. One hears this subject, this speaker of the Other’s discourse, this subject supposed to know, in Josephine’s words on the other side of Louise’s door: Open the door—you will make yourself ill.

Louise’s sister Josephine isn’t the only subject-supposed-to-know in the story. There is also Richards who, without waiting for confirmation that Mr. Mallard has indeed died in the railroad accident, has rushed to the Mallard home to convey, as gently as possible, the news of her husband’s death to his heart-afflicted wife. I would argue that these two “minor” characters constitute imaginary representatives of the gender mores of Chopin’s day: Women—genteel women—must be shielded from unpleasant truths like death, sex, and birth. In this sense “shielded” means not speaking truth, but instead creating symptoms which serve both to hide and reveal that something is repressed. Even when, as in Louise Mallard’s case, repression is lifted and its cause spoken, if only in a whisper, this lifting is the return of what is repressed.

Finally Louise opens the door and, carrying herself “unwittingly like a goddess of Victory”, descends the stairs. Just at that moment a latchkey is heard in the front door. A second later, Brently Mallard, who is after all not dead steps into the house. Richards tries vainly to screen Brently from Louise’s view, but his efforts are too late. Louise dies instantly of “heart disease—of joy that kills.”

What is the Real—the truth—to which Kate Chopin was accustomed? In the words of Colette Soler, “Given that the appropriate partner for jouissance is lacking, a symptom puts in place something else, a substitute, an element proper to incarnate jouissance” (“Literature as Symptom” 217). A literary work of art incarnates the jouissance of which it is a symptom, the jouissance of the Other.  Yet, is it not possible that in writing the truth regarding the structure—the sexual difference—of fiction, Kate Chopin experienced the sublimation that comes with eliminating the Other’s jouissance while creating the formal envelope of the symptom that is literature?



Works Cited

Chopin, Kate. “The Story of an Hour.” The Story and Its Writer. Edited by Ann Charters, McMillan P, 2016, pp. 128-29.

Miller, Jacques-Alain. “Reflections on the Formal Envelope of the Symptom.” Lacanian Ink, vol. 4, Fall 1991, pp. 13-21.

Ragland, Ellie. Essays on the Pleasures of Death, Routledge, 1995.

Seyersted, Per. KateChopin.org, Kate Chopin International Society. www.katechopin.org/biography. Accessed 18 April 2018

Soler, Colette.  “Literature as Symptom.” Lacan and the Subject of Language, edited by Ellie Ragland- Sullivan and Mark Bracher, Routledge, pp. 213-19.



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