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The Purloined Phallus

Nihil sapientiae odiosius acumine nimio.”
 (“Nothing is more hateful to wisdom than excessive cleverness.”)

– Petrarch, “De Remediis utriusque Fortunae”, misattributed to Seneca in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter"

In a previous incarnation as a literature major, I had to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for a class. I snidely suggested that the title referred to Conrad’s writing itself, which served to put the reader into the protagonist’s confused mind (and a viewing of Apocalypse Now didn’t help).

“The Purloined Letter” (1844), the final installment of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin trilogy of short stories, does something similar. It is a long, torturous description of the theft and re-theft of a letter of national importance, but the reader is told nothing about the letter beyond the fact that it exists. And that, too, seems unlikely once they read psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s interpretation.

Jacques Lacan, in a rare moment of lucidity.

The first psychoanalytic reading of the work was Marie Bonaparte’s Life and Work of Edgar Allan Poe (1949), published a century after Poe’s death. A close associate of Sigmund Freud, Bonaparte felt the titular letter signifies the maternal penis (the belief that the mother is castrated), the fireplace in Minister’s hotel room the female genitals, and the mutilated letter’s hanging on the fireplace the (brief, unfortunate) fulfillment of a fantasy. The Minister and Dupin are in an Oedipal father-son relationship, and the gold Dupin gets represents the restored phallus: they both signify power. So far, so Freudian.

Lacan’s twist on signification is that the maternal penis is not a part of the anatomy at all. It is a sign of absence and otherness, a constituted lack that never existed. The phallus thus signifies the impossibility to find a final meaning: it is the signifier of all signifiers. The child wishes to be the phallus for the mother; the characters in the story wish to possess the letter. The constant movement of the letter implies that nobody can possess the phallus permanently. Their signification of this empty signifier (temporarily) empowers them and causes a narrative.

To explain this, Lacan uses the analogy of three ostriches, each of which represents a register. The Real, with its “head in the sand” (as Lacan has it), is blind to the significance of what the Imaginary possesses. The Imaginary sees that it is not seen, and is lulled into a false sense of security over what it possesses. The Symbolic takes in the situation, sees that the Imaginary is powerless – and takes what it possesses.

According to Lacan, the story consists of two scenes, both with a character in each of the three registers. The first, in the palace, has the first royal personage (commonly interpreted as the King) oblivious to the letter (the Real), the second royal personage (likewise, the Queen) hiding it in plain sight (the Imaginary) and the Minister swapping it for another letter (the Symbolic) – which the Queen notices but cannot prevent or draw attention to. The second scene, in the Minister’s hotel room, has the police tearing apart the room in a futile attempt to find the letter in its expected hiding places (the Real), the Minister hiding it in plain sight (the Imaginary), and Dupin replacing it with a lookalike (the Symbolic). The story ends here – or does it?

Lacan opines that the Minister is left in the position of the Real as he doesn’t know he no longer possesses the letter. Dupin is supremely confident he has solved the case ­– and is thus the Imaginary. This leaves a third party to take on the Symbolic ­– the psychoanalyst.

However, this idea can be taken to its logical extreme. Unbeknownst to Dupin (who is now the Real), the psychoanalyst “gets” the meaning of the letter and becomes the Imaginary. This leaves the student of psychoanalysis in the now unenviable position of the Symbolic – because the meaning is hidden a little too well for them to grasp. (The unconscious is structured as a language.)

The entire story is in direct speech – “we are spared none of the details” – except, surprisingly, the description and content of the letter, which are mentioned but never revealed. The Prefect “[gives] a minute account of the internal, and especially of the external, appearance of the missing document.” This creates space for faux-intellectual digressions into a schoolboy’s habit of outwitting his opponents at marbles by guessing their trains of thought (analogous to Dupin’s method of retrieving the letter) and the comparative thought processes of mathematicians (the Real) and poets (the Symbolic). Dupin’s parting shot to the Minister refers to the Greek myth of twins Atreus and Thyestes who betray each other through purloined letters, leading the French linguist Jean-Claude Milner to propose that Dupin and the Minister (“D–”) are brothers. (The unnamed narrator mentions that the Minister has a brother, and that “both have attained reputation in letters.”)

Dupin is not a professional detective. In the first two stories, it is not curiosity but amusement that drives him to take on a case; in this one, it is personal revenge (the Minister “did [him] an evil turn” in Vienna). This may have contributed to Lacan’s belief that the possessor of the letter passes through a phase of femininity determined by the signifier: “The letter must end up where it should be, at the place of castration, when it forces its holder to occupy the place of woman, a place where what is veiled-unveiled is a hole, a non-being.” Is it a coincidence that the word “purloined” contains the word “loin”, a point that seems to have escaped Lacan in translation?

The letter causes the story by being “concealed by its very gaudy exhibition, that is to say by the very fact that it was, like all signifiers, ‘a little too self-evident’.” Whoever gets their hands on the letter is guaranteed to lose it – and by 'it' I don’t just mean the letter. Lacan holds that “the signifier’s displacement determines subjects’ acts, destiny, refusals, blindnesses, success, and fate…” This flurry of activity – of history repeating itself – lends the story a structure; the plot is thus driven by what Poe refers to elsewhere as “the human thirst for self-torture”, or repetition compulsion avant la lettre. It might be this thirst that led Lacan and Jacques Derrida and countless others to revisit “The Purloined Letter”, each convinced their predecessors were wrong, none shedding any further light on the matter – a thousand words into this piece I still have no idea what I’m talking about.

“The Purloined Letter” is thus as much an anti-detective story as Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is an anti-novel: it inundates the reader with seemingly unnecessary details, and refuses to give any explanation for the story’s occurrence, let alone a meaning. Perhaps the story works best as proof that Art doesn’t need to have a point or deal with an issue – or, in more Lacanian terms, that Art (and criticism of it) has no meaning other than what people put into it, just as the characters have no identity apart from their possession of the letter. We can let Barbara Johnson have the final word:

“…all of these texts are characterized by an unusually high degree of apparent digressiveness, to the point of making the reader wonder whether there is really any true subject matter there at all. It is as though any attempt to follow the path of the purloined letter is automatically purloined from itself. Which is, as we shall see, just what the letter has always already been saying.”

Conrad would approve.


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