Lacanian Psychoanalysis And ?Surfacing? Essay, Research Paper
Lacanian Psychoanalysis and ?Surfacing?
The theories of Jacques Lacan give explanation and intention to the narrator?s actions throughout the novel ?Surfacing?. Although Margaret Atwood may not have had any knowledge of the French psychoanalyst?s
philosophies, I feel that both were making inferences on behavior and psychology and that the two undeniably synchronize with each other. I will first identify the complex philosophies of Jacques Lacan and then
demonstrate how the narrator falls outside of Lacan?s view of society and how this leads to her demand for retreat from that society in order to become ?whole?.
Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst that derived many of his theories from Sigmund Freud. His views of the conscious and unconscious being split and a phallocentric order as the center of society evolved
from Freud?s. Lacan views our development in life as three stages or phases that one must enter into in order to become a part of society. The goal of these phases is the stabilization of signifiers. ?Signifiers?, the
elements of memory that make up the unconscious are floating around the unconscious. These ?signifiers? are held together by the phallocentric order which is realized in the stages of development. This may be
confusing, but related to the narrator it becomes clearer. The narrator was raised in a distinct situation. When she enters into society she does not have the typical experiences of that society and therefore does not
feel that she is part of it. She returns to the lake and feels she can no longer be a part of this society because the ?phallocentric order? is distorted. This is a brief explanation. First, Lacan?s formation of ?self? and
?Other? must be understood in great detail.
The first of the three phases of development is the REAL, ?Lacan’s infant starts out as something inseparable from its mother; there’s no distinction between self and other, between baby and mother (at least, from
the baby’s perspective). The baby has no sense of self or individual identity, and no sense even of its body as a coherent unified whole. There’s no distinction between it and anyone or anything else; there are only
needs and things that satisfy those needs. This is the state of “nature,” which has to be broken up in order for culture to be formed.?(Klages, 1). Lacan?s philosophies go on to say that language is always about this
loss or absence that happens when we enter into culture; you only need words when the object you want is gone. If your world were all fullness, with no absence, then you wouldn’t need language. This is the state
to which the narrator wants to return. She is deeply disturbed by the identity that has befallen her. I use the word befallen because it is this disparity, of having needs and no way to express or fulfill them, that the
narrator wants to escape from and return to the original state of ?nature?. We must understand the narrator?s position in society in order to understand why she wants to return to the REAL.
The second phase, the Imaginary, is where our sense of self is formed. It must be noted that the process of forming a self is a settlement for having left the REAL and a labor to regain that oneness, ? The fiction of
the stable, whole, unified self that we see in the mirror becomes a compensation for having lost the original oneness with the mother’s body. In short, according to Lacan, we lose our unity with the mother’s body,
the state of “nature,” in order to enter culture, but we protect ourselves from the knowledge of that loss by misperceiving ourselves as not lacking anything–as being complete unto ourselves.?(Klages, 2). The
narrator early on in life has views of society, while she is going through her scrapbook she notes, ?They were ladies, all kinds: holding up cans of cleanser, knitting, smiling, modeling toeless high heels and nylons
with dark seams and pillbox hats with veils?I did want to be those things?. She wants to fill the gap that has been left by her entrance into the Imaginary by becoming just like her mother. It will be my point to
demonstrate later that the narrator falls outside the phallocentric order formed by her entry into the third phase, the SYMBOLIC.
The symbolic is the entrance into society itself, also known as the Phallus, Other with a capital o, and the Name of the Father. Laciness? idea of a governing principal in society is very similar to Freud?s. The
structuring principle determines how we form our view of self and how others do the same.
The center has a lot of names in Lacanian theory. It’s the Other; it’s also called the PHALLUS. The Other (capital O) is a structural position in the Symbolic order. It is the place that everyone is trying to get to, to
merge with, in order to get rid of the separation between “self” and “other.” ?The Law-of-the-Father, or Name-of-the-Father, is another term for the Other, for the center of the system, the thing that governs the whole
structure–its shape and how all the elements in the system can move and form relationships. This center is also called the PHALLUS, to underline even more the patriarchal nature of the Symbolic order. The
Phallus, as center, limits the play of elements, and gives stability to the whole structure. The Phallus anchors the chains of signifiers which, in the unconscious, are just floating and unfixed, always sliding and
shifting. The Phallus stops play, so that signifiers can have some stable meaning. It is because the Phallus is the center of the Symbolic order, of language, that the term “I” designates the idea of the self (and,
additionally, why any other word has stable meaning). (Klages 1).
In Surfacing, the elements of the phallus do not give stability to the narrator?s experiences. She exists outside of the culture because of her experiences and values. First, I will define the concept of other, the law of
the father as it exists in ?Surfacing?, exemplified by the characters of David and Anna, as well as the Americans. David likes to think of himself as a liberal, almost revolutionary person. I say this based on his hatred
for the Americans, which is evident throughout the book. I quote two examples here to make this point clear. On page five when the narrator points out where the old missile silos are, he responds with the slur
?Bloody fascist pig Yanks?. This slur does two things, firstly, it marks him off as neither a fascist nor an American, and secondly, it marks him as being in opposition to both the ideology and the group of people with
which he is associating it. What is more interesting though is the narrator?s description of the way in which he says this ?as though he?s commenting on the weather.? This shows David?s lack of conviction when he
says this. Talking about the weather is notorious for being the worst kind of ?small talk?, that subject to which people turn when they cannot find anything to say. It is something people say just so that they are
speaking. By associating David?s slur, a supposed symbol of patriotism, with comments on the weather, its dry empty opposite, she successfully reduces it to something that is just said but not really meant.
Another example of this, is that found on page one hundred and thirteen, where David has another encounter with a group of Americans.
The next minute he had scrambled up and was capering on the point, shaking his clenched fist and yelling ?Pigs! Pigs!? as loud as he could. It was some Americans, going past on their way to the village, their boat
sloshing up and down in the waves, spray pluming, flags cocked fore and aft. They couldn?t hear him because of the wind and the motor, they thought he was greeting, they waved and smiled.
We know from the first example that this type of attack is something David just does and doesn?t really feel. What?s more in this example is that the Americans he is attempting to insult don?t hear him, they
misinterpret his actions and think he is greeting them. This then builds on the first example by showing that David, apart from not having any conviction in his ?hatred? of the Americans is in tacit partnership with
them. These two instances show that David merely says thing in order to mask his true self; to fool the others, for he is in fact that which he so regularly and unconvincingly give vocal protest to. What is interesting
is that immediately before his yelling ?Pigs! Pigs!? at the Americans, Anna his wife has accused him of hating women. It is thus possible to read his attack on the Americans as an attempt to convince her and the
others otherwise by projecting it onto the Americans, his usual scapegoat.
We see David?s real side when he forces Anna to take her clothes off and pose for the movie camera. David says to her ?You?ll go beside the dead bird? (p135). They saw the dead bird on page one hundred and
eighteen, and we need to turn to the narrator?s description of it in order to understand the implications of David?s treatment of Anna.
Why had they strung it up like a lynch victim, why didn?t they just throw it away like the trash? To prove they could do it, they had the power to kill. Otherwise it was valueless: beautiful from a distance but it
couldn?t be tamed or cooked or trained to talk, the only relation they could have to a thing like that was to destroy it. Food, slave or corpse, limited choices; horned and fanged heads sawed off and mounted on the
billiard room wall, stuffed fish, trophies.
By his placing of Anna next to the dead bird we learn of David?s relation to women. To him the are trophies.
?Shoot,? David said to Joe, and to Anna, ?I?ll count to ten.?
The word ?shoot? relates to both guns and cameras, which reinforces Anna as prey destined to become a trophy; destined to be strung up in celluloid ?like a lynch victim.? She like the dead bird is of no use to the
men that are ?shooting? her, other than as a trophy, as something which proves their power. She is an outsider that cannot be ?tamed, cooked or trained to talk?, the only thing she is thus good for is a trophy proving
the potency of the men.
Anna finds her place in the culture by collaborating and co-operating with the dominant order. She is controlled by the male fantasy which she aims to be. On page seven we see her devotion to this cause when she
emerges from the car in a pair of white bell-bottoms which have already picked up a smear of grease from the car. The narrator warned her to where jeans, but she refused because she believes she looks fat in
them. What this shows is her willingness to sacrifice practicality so that she will ascribe to the image men wanted to see. More evidence of this is her constant and consistent tanning. It is in fact so ordered that
the narrator describes the process as Anna?s ?sun ritual?. A ritual is however not only an act of regularity, it is also an act of devotion. Describing Anna?s tanning as a ritual thus shows her devotion to the dominant
order?s prescription of what she must be.
Probably the best example of Anna?s devoted acquiescence is to be found on page forty-one. The narrator wakes up in the morning and it is cold. She leaves the room and find?s Anna standing in front of a mirror in
only her ?sleeveless nylon nightgown and bare feet? applying her makeup. Here we once again see her sacrificing practicality in order to ensure that she fits the phallocentric picture. I say that because of the cold,
?The backs of her arms have goose pimples.? This sacrifice is reinforced when the narrator tells her that she doesn?t need it on the island, as there is no one there to see her. Anna replies that David doesn?t like to
see her without it, and in the very next breath contradicts herself saying that he doesn?t know she wears it. This self-contradiction shows how Anna has internalized the beliefs and expectations of the dominant
order. She doesn?t wear it because David doesn?t like to see her without it, if he?s never seen her without it how would he know? She wears it because she believes it is expected, she has internalized the idea that
that is what women have to do in order to please men, look good for them, and thus maintain their place in the symbolic systems. Anna escapes the problem from which the narrator suffers by herself becoming one
of the agents that force those undesirable parts of herself below the surface, she is in league with the movie camera and in collaboration with the dominant order. She sacrifices those parts of her being that cannot
be accounted for within culture so that she herself will find a place, and thus embraces her marginal and fragmented destiny. All of these things are opposite of the Real which the narrator wants to return to. It would
thus appear as if that which is submerged beneath the surface is that which David?s filming robbed Anna of; her independent natural and dangerous female nature. I call it dangerous because it falls outside of culture
and the dominant orders direct control, thus exposing the splits of the general system and threatening the dominant authority.
The Phallus and the Real are pretty similar. Both are places where things are whole, complete, full, unified, where there’s no lack. Both are places that are inaccessible to the human subject-in-language. But they
are also opposite as Klages states,?the Real is the maternal, the ground from which we spring, the nature we have to separate from in order to have culture; the Phallus is the idea of the Father, the patriarchal order
of culture, the ultimate idea of culture, the position which rules everything in the world?(1). It is this patriarchal order of culture that the narrator feels trapped by. The ?surfacing? of the narrator is the journey from the
Phallus to the real.
The narrator cannot exist in society because she does not fit those elements that compose it. The phallus or other, that is exemplified by Anna and David, is not hers. Even the basic structuring element, language,
is something she feels incapable of using. ?My throat constricts, as it learned to do when I discovered people could say words that would go into my ears meaning nothing. To be deaf and dumb would be easier.
The cards they poke at you when they want a quarter, with the hand alphabet on them. Even so you would need to learn spelling.? The first thing we notice here is her fear at not understanding what is being said to
her. Her throat constricts when she doesn?t know the meaning of the words addressed to her. This shows her mistrust of vocal language. She mistrusts it because words can be misunderstood, or as in the above
passage not understood at all. This conclusion is backed up by the second sentence in which she asserts that she would prefer to be deaf and dumb, and thus communicate without words. In sentence four though
we see that she realizes the inevitability of words, because even if she was deaf and dumb she would still need to know how to form words. This mistrust of vocal language is contrasted with her faith in interpreting
body language as we see on page two where she confidently interprets Joe?s letting go of her hand, removing his chewing gum and crossing his arms as meaning she must stop looking at him. This supports my
belief that the narrator wants to depart from the structure of language into the Real.
The reason for her mistrust of words is most clearly demonstrated when she responds to Joe?s asking her whether she loves him by saying, ?It was the language again; I couldn?t use it because it wasn?t mine. He
must have known what he meant but it was an imprecise word; the Eskimos had fifty-two names for snow because it was important to them, there ought to be as many for love?. Words are imprecise, and they are
not hers, because of this they prevent her from expressing herself accurately. Words therefore marginalise her because they exclude her from what she communicates, they always leave parts of her unsaid and
therefore create her as fragmented and misunderstood. Language therefore excludes her and forces those parts of her she cannot express below the surface into the structures of society/Phallus.
She also falls outside the symbolic system constituted by the rules of matrimony. She is divorced, and the reason for this is that she failed in her understandings of the rules. She left him, she was the ?offending
party?. Evidence of her lack of understanding of the rules is her conversation with Anna on page 44. She asks Anna how she and David manage marriage and Anna tells her that all it takes is emotional commitment
and letting go. The narrator after this believes that she failed in marriage because she didn?t know what to let go of. The narrator thus remains outside of the rules of matrimony. In her childhood she wanted to
become that image of her mother, having children and a good husband. However, her experiences with pregnancy are outside of this.
Her abortion haunts her. Her experience in the hospital was dehumanizing. She remembers the abortion as something that was forced on her, rather than something that she wanted. Her imagery is filled with
violence, and she is determined never to let this violence be done to her again. “…they shut you into a hospital, they shave the hair off you and tie your hands down and they don’t let you see, they don’t want you to
understand, they want you to believe it’s their power, not yours. They stick needles into you so you won’t hear anything, you might as well be a dead pig, your legs are up in a metal frame, they bend over you,
technicians, mechanics, butchers, students clumsy or sniggering practising on your body, they take the baby out with a fork like a pickle out of a pickle jar” (79-80). …. “Nobody must find out [about the current
pregnancy] or they will do that to me again, strap me to the death machine, emptiness machine, legs in the metal framework, secret knives. This time I won’t let them” (165). This is the practice of the phallocentric
order, the women should appear as what men want them to. Her lover forced the abortion on her. By becoming pregnant with the child and going against the Law of the Father it places her outside the phallocentric
order and she is whole again. That part of herself she lost through abortion can be raised again outside the phallocentric order that she has left. Her journey from her position in the Symbolic to the Real is now
complete and she feels whole, the goal of becoming an adult in Lacanian physchoanalysis.
Lacan?s theories of development and the structure of society explain the actions of the narrator in the novel. Her psychological breakdown is understood because she does not fit into society. By having a child and
protecting it from society she knows that it will not be taken from her. Therefore, because of the child, she is whole again and exists outside of dominant culture in the Real.