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Wallace Stevens, Poetry, and France

Juliette Utard
Bart Eeckhout
Lisa Goldfarb

Part Four. Stevens and French Thought

Stevens’ Reality and Imagination through a Lacanian Lens

Axel Nesme

Texte intégral

1The impetus behind this chapter lies in the subtitle of Stevens’ The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination. To a reader familiar with the real-symbolic-imaginary ternary at the center of Lacanian theory, such a title raises the question of what connections may exist between the notions explored by Stevens in his essays and their seeming equivalents in Jacques Lacan’s writings. In the following remarks, I will therefore focus on Stevens’ poetic theory, not as it may be inferred from the poems themselves, but from the opening essay of The Necessary Angel, where the central concepts of imagination, reality, and nobility provide an interesting counterpoint to, and occasional intersections with, the three categories that are the cornerstones of Lacanian theory.

  • 1 A reproduction of Marsh’s painting may be found online at (...)

2In “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” Stevens takes his reader through a gallery of increasingly real, though variously noble, riders, ranging from Plato’s allegory of the soul to Andrea del Verrocchio’s statue of Colleoni, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Clark Mills’s statue of Andrew Jackson, and Reginald Marsh’s carnivalesque painting Wooden Horses.1 Stevens argues that, although these art works are variously distant from us in time, the balance they strike between reality and imagination determines our ability to relate to them, to give them currency in our system of aesthetic values. In other words, beyond the opposite realms of reality and imagination, Stevens posits the existence of a sphere defined primarily by modes of relationality and connectedness. Thus, after stating that Verrocchio “does in fact […] relate us” to Plato’s time, Stevens locates him “on the edge of the world in which we live today” (CPP, 646; emphases added). In the continuum of modern and contemporary history, Verrocchio stands for differentiality and relatedness in that he performs the symbolic function of “strengthen [ing] the relationship” (CPP, 646) between the time preceding his pupil Leonardo’s and our own.

3But Verrocchio’s statue of Bartolommeo Colleoni also corresponds to a certain image in the field of representation, an image in the sense that the imagination pictures Colleoni under certain features, and also in the sense that he is a mirror image of what we see of ourselves in him: “he established a form of such nobility that it has never ceased to magnify us in our own eyes.” Some of the defining features of such nobility are its permanence and power, which expresses itself in how the man holds himself erect to the eye of the imagination, never “dropping the bridle of the powerful horse from its hand,” and “never relaxing the attitude of a warrior” (CPP, 646). We understand, of course, that Stevens does not entirely embrace the “passion of rhetoric” (CPP, 647) that has resulted, in the case of this statue, in an imbalance between reality and imagination too much in favor of the latter. The passage is nonetheless indicative of the fact that Stevens’ conception of “indomitable” nobility involves defining what, in strictly Freudian terms, functions as an ideal ego, the glorified self-reflection and the alienating image in which the subject apprehends himself as his own imaginary other. Within the same paragraph, Verrocchio thus alternately performs a symbolic and an imaginary function in the Lacanian sense of these terms, both as the signifier around which historical periods interrelate, and as the ideal reflection, defined by a predictable set of characteristics suggestive of power and permanence, into which the viewer projects himself.

4Stevens then goes on to discuss Clark Mills’s statue of Andrew Jackson on Lafayette Square in Washington, in which he finds a perfect example of the workings of Coleridgean associative fancy. Stevens argues that only documentary self-knowledge is to be gained from observing this statue, that is, an insight into “ourselves as we were” (CPP, 648): the work is a mere historical projection of a certain moment in the history of the American “mind”; it lacks imagination, and its “eloquence” rings hollow because, as conventional art, it is equally out of touch with reality.

5The Lacanian categories of the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary once again come into play in Stevens’ discussion of a work that the poet contrasts with the shallow eloquence of Mills’s Andrew Jackson, namely Reginald Marsh’s Wooden Horses. The terms in which Stevens describes this work show that the extent to which a painting is “not without imagination” and “wholly favorable to what is real” cannot be ascertained based on purely objective criteria, but is contingent on how the viewer positions himself vis-à-vis the scene that this “picture of ribald and hilarious reality” stages, and does so based on coordinates that are entirely dictated to him by the painting itself (CPP, 649). Of particular interest is how Stevens’ prose rendition of the painting relates to the scene that it actually depicts:

The horse in the center of the picture, painted yellow, has two riders, one a man, dressed in a carnival costume, who is seated in the saddle, the other a blonde, who is seated well up the horse’s neck. The man has his arms under the girl’s arms. He holds himself stiffly in order to keep his cigar out of the girl’s hair.
CPP, 649

6In the painting itself, however, it is quite difficult to tell whether the man’s stiff attitude stems from a gentlemanly concern with the lady’s hair, or simply expresses proprietary pride in the beautiful woman he is holding on to. Although Stevens does not entertain the latter hypothesis, this may nonetheless explain why, after pointing out that “Still farther behind, there is another girl. One does not see much more of her than her head. Her lips are painted bright red,” he adds, “It seems that it would be better if someone were to hold her on her horse” (CPP, 649). In other words, in this picture of “ribald” merrymaking, Stevens finds his own place, corresponding to the man with the cigar’s absent counterpart, perhaps in order to make up not just for the imbalance between reality and imagination, but also between the number of men and women involved in this carnival scene. What makes the reality of the painting, as it turns out, is the real of Stevens’ own unacknowledged desire as it imaginarily projects itself unto Marsh’s canvas to the point of grossly misreading the man’s self-satisfied, if not mildly supercilious, facial expression and general attitude as expressing chivalrous motives toward the woman with whom he is riding. The rider’s position is ambiguous enough to suggest that, in this particular painting at least, Marsh has placed the debatable “beauty of innuendoes” far above the “beauty of inflections” (CPP, 75).

7In the later Lacan’s theory, the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary are conceptualized as intertwined Borromean knots. Likewise, in Stevens’ ekphrasis, the imaginary and the symbolic intersect, since, on the symbolic level, the subject’s position is defined differentially as that of the invisible Other, who only exists as such in relation to the male character placed more or less in the middle of the picture, framed by the heads of the two women on either side of him. In order for this symbolic operation to take place, however, an imaginary prerequisite involving the element of temporal anticipation needs to be met, namely Stevens’ ascription of a conscious, and “noble,” purpose to the man, who allegedly adopted his attitude on the wooden horse “in order to keep his cigar out of the girl’s hair” (CPP, 649).

  • 2 J. Lacan, Écrits, p. 637. All translations from Lacan’s Écrits are my own.

8 As I have suggested, Stevens’ text is primarily a vivid illustration of the gap between the poet’s definition of reality and the Lacanian concept of the real pointing to a deficit in symbolization. This is indeed where the third knot of the real combines with those of the symbolic and the imaginary, since what Stevens reads as “a picture wholly favorable to what is real” is a picture where indeed the Dionysian reality of sex is conveyed in no uncertain terms, but which elicits a commentary that, all the while acknowledging this fact if not reveling in it, remains markedly discreet as to the viewer’s own identification with the impersonal “someone” whose presence the picture silently—but all the more insistently—calls for because all the gazes it contains are directed away from the onlooker. In this passage, Marsh’s painting is approached through the screen of a seduction fantasy, where the only pair of eyes that are seen look elsewhere (the second girl “has her eyes on the man’s arms”) and where, of course, no voice can be heard. And yet, judging by Stevens’ remark that “it would be better if someone were to hold her on her horse,” it is as if the third girl whose mouth is highlighted (her “lips are painted bright red”) had actually summoned the speaker to take his place in the scene, and had done so all the more imperiously because this silent commanding voice is nowhere to be heard (CPP, 649). In Lacanian terms, the real is thus filtered through the symbolic sieve of fantasy, involving both the gaze and the voice as objects enlisted in order not only to veil the lack in the Other, but also tentatively to unriddle the enigma of the Other’s desire, and to sustain the subject “at the level of his vanishing desire” [au niveau de son désir évanouissant].2

  • 3 N. Braunstein, La Jouissance, un concept lacanien, p. 103 (my translation).
  • 4 P. Julien, Le Retour à Freud de Jacques Lacan, p. 109.

9To the extent that fantasy is a scenario that stages desire, it is both a defense that veils castration and a safeguard against enjoyment located beyond the pleasure principle. As a Lacanian commentator puts it, “desire misrecognizes itself in an imaginary formation, namely fantasy, which stages the longing for jouissance and which ultimately is nothing more than another barrier against jouissance.”3 We understand, therefore, why Stevens quotes Benedetto Croce’s pronouncement that “Poetic genius chooses a straight path in which passion is calmed and calm is passionate” (CPP, 652). It also becomes clear why he ultimately defines the “nature of poetry” as “an interdependence of the imagination and reality as equals” (CPP, 659), then as a “violence from within that protects us from a violence without” (CPP, 665). The common thread that runs through these various aphorisms is that poetry as Stevens theorizes it—which may be different from Stevens’ poetry as it writes itself— is expected to perform a homeostatic regulatory function that falls directly within the purview of the pleasure principle as theorized by Freud in his metapsychological writings. In other words, poetry is a regulating device that seeks “not balances / That we achieve but balances that happen, // As a man and woman meet and love forthwith” (CPP, 334). As this familiar quote from “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” indicates, its fundamental fantasy is one of sexual complementarity, and its ethics is that of the sovereign good where the other’s good is that which I wish unto myself—an ethics based, in other words, on an imaginary definition of the other’s good as a reflection of my own, as Philippe Julien has argued.4

  • 5 S. Freud, “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” p. 393.

10Yet in Stevens’ writings, as in Freud’s, the other in question is not a monolithic concept. As Freud suggested early on in his Entwurf, the Nebenmensch complex (the complex of the Other-as-my neighbor) is split into a satisfying object in the subject’s own image, and a more distant object that may be alternatively hostile or helpful. Beyond the reassuring other in whom I recognize my own image, there is the impenetrable Thing, something whose “perceptual complexes,” Freud writes, are “new and non-comparable.”5 “Thus,” Freud goes on to say,

  • 6 Ibid., p. 393-394.

the complex of a fellow creature falls into two portions. One of these gives the impression of being a constant structure and remains as a coherent “thing”; while the other can be understood by the activity of memory—that is, can be traced back to information about the subject’s own body.6

  • 7 J. Lacan, Le Séminaire. Livre VII, p. 142.

11That inhuman Other, which Lacan defines as “that which of the primordial real […] suffers from the signifier” [ce qui, du réel primordial, […] pâtit du signifiant],7 is precisely what falls outside the realm of “reality” insofar as, in the hands of “realists of the imagination,” it may be reduced to a set of specular relations. And it comes as no surprise that, much as the Nebenmensch (or fellow-creature) complex is split, according to Freud, the same splitting may be observed in Stevens’ writings as well.

12Thus, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” also describes poetry’s circumvention of the void of the Freudian Thing as the “going round // And round and round, the merely going round, / Until merely going round is a final good” (CPP, 350). Thus also, in “The Idea of Order at Key West,” the pun on “keener sounds,” where the signifiers Key-nurse are briefly discernible, conveys how nurturing motherhood is only the obverse of the “cry,” “Inhuman, of the veritable ocean” (CPP, 106, 105). Thus, finally, even in the pages from The Necessary Angel that I am commenting upon, this Thing as the locus of primordial enjoyment against which the screen of fantasy is erected appears in the paradoxical guise of life itself. We may find this paradox easier to grasp if we remember Stevens’ statement that, in the light of the imagination, “what is dead” is apt to live “with an intensity beyond any experience of life” (CPP, 657), thereby implying that the imagination has the power to bestow its radiance upon death itself, and thus reach into the territory of the sublime where death is both the radical other threatening annihilation and the mother of beauty, i.e., the ex-nihilo out of which poems are generated.

13It is significant, in this respect, that Stevens defines life’s sovereignty as a power to persuade and command so absolute as to deny the possibility of human agency and free will: “the all-commanding subject-matter of poetry,” Stevens writes, “is life, the never-ceasing source. But it is not a social obligation. One does not love and go back to one’s ancient mother as a social obligation. One goes back out of a suasion not to be denied” (CPP, 660). Life as “the never-ceasing source” means constant rejuvenation; but as “one’s ancient mother,” it is also reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s evocation of death as the “old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside” in the final lines of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” Such a duality is reflective of the split at the heart of the Nebenmensch complex, which explains why the terms Stevens chooses to voice his rejection of what social or moral obligation some of his contemporaries might have felt poetry ought to honor, do not simply indicate conservatism masquerading as apoliticism. They derive instead from the intuition that writing involves positing that mythic/archaic Other, the ab-solute unconditionality of whose demands requires ab-straction, not just in the philosophical or painterly senses of the word, but because the subject must abstract them from the requirements of a given social context or set of circumstances calling for this or that ethical choice. Thus, when he writes that “No politician can command the imagination” (CPP, 660), Stevens implies that the imagination cannot be tied down by any moral and social strictures precisely because it is already bound to heed the commanding voice of the “never-ceasing source,” and that only by answering this call located in the Other may a poet come into his own voice, as Dante did when be became “the voice of the Middle Ages but not through fulfilling any social obligation” (CPP, 660).

14 In putting forward the seemingly aporetic argument that evading social obligation is itself a binding obligation of a higher order, Stevens draws a line between what he calls the “categorical exactions” that proponents of poetry’s social role would place upon him (CPP, 660) and an injunction that comes closer to the Kantian categorical imperative. He thus does adopt a political stance of sorts, at least if we understand “political” along the lines of Antigone’s decision not to honor the statutes of the city because she is answerable to higher laws. This usage of the term acknowledges that what poetry transacts with is the inhuman antithesis of the socius as that imaginary other with whom I can associate, form ties, and function within a group united around the same ego ideal by means of the mechanism of identification with a single feature discussed by Freud in Group Psychology and Ego Analysis.

15Even as it provides us with supreme fictions that sustain us, and indeed while seemingly promoting imaginary identification—as does the idea of “major man” as “an heroic part […] of the commonal” (CPP, 336)—Stevens’ essay thus suggests that poetry may also venture into a space outside the imaginary bounds of human society and sociability, those limits beyond which the beauty of Sophocles’ tragic character shines as she straddles that threshold between physical death and symbolic erasure that Stevens later on in his career designated with his final hypothesis that “the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined. The great pond, / The plain sense of it, without reflections […]” (CPP, 428).

  • 8 S. Freud, op. cit., p. 393.

16The above remarks on the non-specular, inhuman Other are compatible with Stevens’ statement that the poet “fulfills himself only as he sees his imagination become the light in the minds of others” and that “His role, in short, is to help people to live their lives” (CPP, 660-661). Indeed, in Freud’s discussion of the Spaltung within the Nebenmensch complex, there is no inconsistency between these two positions, since Freud defines this primordial Other as “the subject’s first satisfying object (and also his first hostile object) as well as his sole assisting force.”8

17After examining the hypothesis that the Freudian Thing is the theoretical locus where the Lacanian real and Stevens’ “reality” briefly overlap in the guise of this mythical a posteriori construct that can only be inferred retroactively from the symbolic order, I now want to explore a possible parallel between the currency that, according to Lacanian theory, allows the symbolic order to function intersubjectively and Stevens’ idea of nobility as a shared value that, once circulated between reader and writer, makes them part of the same community. Such an idea is implicit, after all, in Stevens’ observation that “The fact that [nobility] is there is what makes it possible to invite to the reading and writing of poetry men of intelligence and desire for life” (CPP, 664).

18“The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” we remember, begins with a quote from a text that has lost most of its value as a symbolic currency, namely Plato’s allegory of the soul in the Phaedrus. In the wake of this quote, Stevens offers his own allegory of the specific reading experience entailed by our temporary identification with the charioteer, followed by the realization that this is just another instance of Plato’s “gorgeous nonsense,” whereupon, like the soul in Plato’s own words, we “droop in our flight and at last settle on the solid ground.” In the brief timespan between the incipit and the conclusion that the “figure becomes antiquated and rustic,” Plato’s noble allegory has become a mere parody of itself (CPP, 643). The result of Stevens’ exposing the text as unintentionally prophetic of its own demise is that it has lost its seductive power in our eyes, or, as Stevens repeats no less than four times, that we can no longer “yield ourselves” to it (CPP, 644).

19This preamble might suggest that we will no longer be dealing much with allegories of the soul in the rest of the text, nor indeed with the soul itself, now that we “remember,” as Stevens points out, “that the soul no longer exists” (CPP, 643). Yet I would argue that, much as the essay opens and closes with the motif of nobility, it is also framed by two such allegories, although only the first one is explicitly acknowledged as such. I would argue, furthermore, that the wording of Stevens’ discussion of nobility in the final pages of “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” may shed a somewhat unexpected light on the reading scene staged in the introduction, with its quick, bathetic transition from soaring to drooping, from aroused anticipation to thwarted desire, from noble flight to ignoble antiquatedness and rusticity; and its ultimate realization that, as in a love encounter where the performance has fallen short of expectations, there is, after such a collapse, little left that we may want to “yield ourselves to” (CPP, 644).

20More precisely, my argument is that what is at stake in both these allegories is “The Signification of the Phallus,” the key concept in Lacan’s theory of the genesis of subjectivity within the symbolic order. I will begin by briefly outlining some key features of Lacan’s essay before moving on to a mythological illustration that Lacan himself adduces in order to define the function of this signifier in the economy of human desire. I then hope to show that some of the main motifs of the myth in question play out in the closing paragraphs of Stevens’ essay.

  • 9 J. Lacan, Écrits, p. 688.

21 According to Lacan, the signification of the phallus is to be understood in connection with the subject’s inscription within the signifying order and the specific obliteration that this entails. In the genesis of subjectivity, there is an initial stage when the subject’s being is merely signifiable. As soon as the signifiable suffers what Lacan calls “the passion of the signifier” [la passion du signifiant],9 it becomes latent. What is produced instead is a signified that falls short of naming the subject’s true being. In the same logic, the subject’s initial demand addressed to the primal Other is at first an unconditional demand for love that becomes alienated from itself from the moment that it is translated into a request for specific objects capable of satisfying individual needs.

22The phallus is the signifier of the initial Aufhebung undergone by the subject’s signifiable being, a role it is predestined to assume because it always appears under a veil. Lacan provides a clarification that we will need to bear in mind when we return to Stevens’ text:

That is why the demon of Aιδως (Scham) arises at the very moment when, in the ancient mysteries, the phallus is unveiled (see the famous painting in the Villa di Pompei). It then becomes the bar that, at the hands of this demon, strikes the signified, marking it as the bastard offspring of its signifying concatenation.

  • 10 Ibid., p. 692.

[C’est pourquoi le démon de l’Aιδως (Scham) surgit dans le moment même où dans le mystère antique, le phallus est dévoilé (cf. la peinture célèbre de la Villa de Pompéi). Il devient alors la barre qui par la main de ce démon frappe le signifié, le marquant comme la progéniture bâtarde de sa concaténation signifiante.]10

  • 11 Ibid.
  • 12 J. Lacan, Le Séminaire. Livre XX, p. 101.

23Within the intersubjective economy, the phallus is primarily located in the Other: it is the signifier of the desire of the Other, an Other who is him-/her-self separated from his/her signifiable being by the signifier that designates it. In love (non-) relationships, the subject and the Other are neither subjects of sexual need nor objects of unconditional love. They are, to each other, the object that causes desire insofar as what reality they have in each other’s eyes—reality, not truth—is a function of the phallic signifier to which they relate either in terms of being or of having what the Other desires. The fact that relations between the sexes revolve around the question of being or having the phallic signifier, Lacan argues, is the reason behind all the play-acting, the masquerading, the comedy even, that they entail, whether one seeks to appear to be that which one does not have, but which the Other desires, or one overstates one’s possession of something that one fears one might be deprived of, and gives it as the signifier of the Other’s unconditional demand for love. As “the sign of the latency with which all that is signifiable is struck” [le signe de la latence dont est frappé tout signifiable],11 the phallus thus represents the structural disjunction between demand and desire, and the impossible coincidence of desires captured by Lacan in his somewhat idiosyncratic version of the typical love letter: “I am asking you to deny me that which I am offering you, because that’s not it” [Je te demande de refuser ce que je t’offre parce que ce n’est pas ça].12

  • 13 J. Lacan, Écrits, p. 692.
  • 14 A reproduction of Jacopo Zucchi’s painting may be found online at (...)

24In Seminar VIII, Lacan thankfully clarifies the passage from “The Signification of the Phallus” where he refers to “the latency with which all that is signifiable is struck, when it is raised (aufgehoben) to the function of signifier” [la latence dont est frappé tout signifiant, dès lors qu’il est élevé (aufgehoben) à la fonction de signifiant].13 In Seminar VIII, Lacan discusses a minor Renaissance painting entitled Psiche sorprende Amore,14 which, he tells his audience, he happened to notice while visiting the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

  • 15 J. Lacan, Le Séminaire. Livre VIII, p. 267 (all translations from book VIII of Lacan’s Seminar are (...)
  • 16 Ibid.

25According to Lacan, Apuleius’ story of Amor and Psyche is primarily about “the relationship between the soul and desire” [les rapports de l’âme et du désir].15 The stroke of genius of the Italian painter Jacopo Zucchi lies in his having singled out the “primordial and originating”16 moment when Eros is about to disappear, which Lacan connects with the concept of aphanisis (meaning “disappearance”) introduced by Ernest Jones. According to Jones, the castration complex is about the fear of the disappearance of desire. Lacan begs to differ: what is really at work within the castration complex, he argues, is a

signifying mechanism that […] in most instances does not cause the subject to fear aphanisis, but on the contrary to take refuge in it, to stick his desire in his pocket. […] [Indeed, ] it is more precious than desire itself to preserve its symbol, which is the phallus.

  • 17 Ibid., p. 271.

[mécanisme signifiant qui […] pousse dans la plupart des cas le sujet, non pas du tout à craindre l’aphanisis, mais au contraire à s’y réfugier, à mettre son désir dans sa poche. […] [Car] il est plus précieux que le désir lui-même, d’en garder le symbole, qui est le phallus].17

  • 18 Ibid., p. 272.
  • 19 Ibid.
  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 Ibid.
  • 22 J. Lacan, Écrits, p. 50.

26 Lacan points out that in Zucchi’s painting, the flowers emphatically placed in front of Eros’ organ are overabundant precisely because there is nothing behind; or, to quote Stevens’ own words referring to the notion of nobility, the flowers make the god’s male attributes “conspicuously absent” (CPP, 664). Thus, “What Psyche,” i.e., the soul, “is making ready to cut off has already disappeared in front of her” [Ce que la Psyché est là sur le point de trancher est disparu déjà devant elle].18 This, according to Lacan, highlights the fact that our “psychical organization” is “ill-adapted to the reality of sexual desire” in that “the organ is only brought forward and approached inasmuch as it is turned into a signifier, and in order to be transformed into a signifier, it is cut off” [la réalité du désir sexuel à quoi n’est pas adaptée […] l’organisation psychique […]. Car l’organe n’est apporté et abordé que transformé en signifiant, et pour être transformé en signifiant, il est tranché].19 Indeed, the place of the phallic signifier “is at that juncture where significance, in the Other, disappears” [au point où, dans l’Autre, disparaît la signifiance],20 meaning that its locus is that void created when that which in the subject was signifiable became signified. It is precisely because the phallus designates that “point where, in the Other, the signifier vanishes” [au point où, dans l’Autre, disparaît la signifiance], i.e., where the signifier of the subject’s entire truth is found to be “lacking” [manquant],21 that it manifests itself as veiled, absent, or as the mere shadow of itself—which is why in Lacan’s own algebra the symbol, which represents it, is preceded by the minus sign. This, Lacan argues, explains why the body of Eros in Zucchi’s painting is a strange combination of the child-like and of those overly muscular, almost flabby human bodies in some of Michelangelo’s paintings. This is also why the same signifier lurks behind the elongated and distorted shape that turns out to be a human skull in the anamorphosis of Holbein’s Ambassadors that Lacan comments upon in Seminar XI with reference to what he calls elsewhere the “caput mortuum of the signifier” [Ce caput mortuum du significant].22

27My contention is that the signification of that nobility which Stevens characterizes as the defining feature of the imagination, that “dominant X” to whose power his entire oeuvre pays homage (CPP, 257), may coincide with what Lacan calls the signification of the phallus. In other words, Stevensian nobility itself is the phallic signifier as it appears in the guise of Zucchi’s Eros. As Stevens himself puts it in what sounds like a pastiche of Diotima’s speech in Plato’s Symposium,

Nothing could be more evasive and inaccessible. Nothing distorts itself and seeks disguise more quickly. There is a shame of disclosing it and in its definite presentations a horror of it. But there it is.
CPP, 664

28What defines the phallic signifier is its structural atopia, since the only place where it belongs is also the place where, as in Zucchi’s painting, it is found to be missing. Stevens’ own rendering of this atopia may be found in his statement that “A poet’s words are of things that do not exist without the words” as well as in his definition of poetry as a “revelation in words” (CPP, 663), i.e., an unveiling of something that has no prior existence. Stevens also translates this atopia in temporal terms when he writes that “It is hard to think of a thing more out of time than nobility,” and again visually when he confines it to an “obscure existence” (CPP, 665, 664). This condition, according to Lacan, is a structural necessity for the sign of the latency of what is signifiable that also makes it an object of religious reverence, as in the old Dionysian cults, as well as the embodiment of what is desirable; in Stevens’ own words, “There is no element that poets have sought after, more curiously and more piously […]” (CPP, 664).

29Finally, as the paradoxical signifier of the lack of a signifier capable of naming the subject’s very being, this condition resists definition. Here is Stevens again:

If it is defined, it will be fixed and it must not be fixed. As in the case of an external thing, nobility resolves itself into an enormous number of vibrations, movements, changes. To fix it is to put an end to it.
CPP, 664

30One can speculate endlessly as to whether Stevens was aware that the etymology of the verb “fix” is the Latin figere, meaning to fasten, to pierce. It is even more uncertain if he was also familiar with one of the more obscure definitions of “to fix,” meaning to castrate, to spay. This, in any event, takes us back to the story of Eros and Psyche, the soul first allegorized by Plato in the passage Stevens quoted at the outset of the essay, and who now returns in the unlikely guise of the poet himself, who, after defining poetry as a “revelation in words,” prefaces his own lifting of the veil that covers nobility as force with the announcement: “Let me show it to you unfixed” (CPP, 663, 664).


1 A reproduction of Marsh’s painting may be found online at

2 J. Lacan, Écrits, p. 637. All translations from Lacan’s Écrits are my own.

3 N. Braunstein, La Jouissance, un concept lacanien, p. 103 (my translation).

4 P. Julien, Le Retour à Freud de Jacques Lacan, p. 109.

5 S. Freud, “Project for a Scientific Psychology,” p. 393.

6 Ibid., p. 393-394.

7 J. Lacan, Le Séminaire. Livre VII, p. 142.

8 S. Freud, op. cit., p. 393.

9 J. Lacan, Écrits, p. 688.

10 Ibid., p. 692.

11 Ibid.

12 J. Lacan, Le Séminaire. Livre XX, p. 101.

13 J. Lacan, Écrits, p. 692.

14 A reproduction of Jacopo Zucchi’s painting may be found online at

15 J. Lacan, Le Séminaire. Livre VIII, p. 267 (all translations from book VIII of Lacan’s Seminar are my own).

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid., p. 271.

18 Ibid., p. 272.

19 Ibid.

20 Ibid.

21 Ibid.

22 J. Lacan, Écrits, p. 50.


Professor of American Literature at Université Lumière Lyon 2, specializes in 20th-century American poetry. He edited two volumes of articles on Elizabeth Bishop. He has published two articles on Wallace Stevens in The Wallace Stevens Journal and is also the author of L’Autre sans visage: lectures de l’élégie américaine, a book-length study on American elegies from Dickinson to Stevens, published by Honoré Champion in 2012.

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