a lacanian interpretation of sartre’s ‘erostratus’ (1939)

Read Jean Paul Sartre’s short story Erostratus, written the year after his famous NauseaHERE.

Salvador Dali – “Temple of Diana at Ephesus” (1942).

Jordan Alexander Hill on the story from a psychoanalytical perspective:

Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Erostratus” may be the shortest story in The Wall, yet it serves as a fitting psychoanalytic case-study. “Erostratus” tells the story of Paul Hilbert, a lonely man plagued by insecurity and sexual impotency, who attempts and ultimately fails to commit a heinous crime. Shortly into the story, it becomes clear that the crime is mostly an attempt to escape his mediocrity through an act of powerful self-assertion. We will look at this story not only through a traditional psychoanalytic lens, but also by applying important Lacanian principles. Sartre, who developed his own “existential” brand of psychoanalysis, surely wrote “Erostratus” to support certain phenomenological and ethical themes from Being and Nothingness—we’ll look at some of these perspectives. However, in many ways, we arrive at the deepest understanding of Hilbert and his motivations by bringing Lacanian theories into the discussion. In this paper, we first locate the basic existential and psychoanalytic themes that underpin “Erostratus”, in addition to looking at Lacan’s “mirror phase” and how this relates to Hilbert’s social development. “Erostratus” is essentially a story about narcissism, alienation, otherness, and desire. Lacan’s psychic structures—particularly the imaginary and symbolic orders—will give us a sense of where these emotions come from, how they affect our protagonist, and how they function in the larger narrative.

Like in many “existential” works, our protagonist is a bland working class guy with a routine existence and a mundane job. He has no friends to speak of and is a self-professed “anti-humanist”. As Hilbert’s impatience with his situation grows, he decides he must make a statement that will prove his anti-humanism and secure his name in the history books—he will murder six random people on a busy street in Paris. Hilbert is deeply moved by the ancient Greek story of “Erostratus,” which tells of a man who burned down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus to immortalize himself. What strikes him is that while nobody knows the name of the man who built the temple of Artemis, everyone remembers Erostratus, the man who destroyed it. The rest of the story follows Hilbert’s metamorphosis, as the day of his crime draws nearer. In what follows, Hilbert buys a gun and carries it around in public, becoming sexually aroused by the possibilities, and the power he now possesses. He becomes more and more obsessed with this power and even visits a prostitute, commanding her to walk around naked at gunpoint (he does this several times, each time ejaculating in his pants). As the day of his crime draws nearer, Hilbert spends his life savings on expensive meals and prostitutes, and even mails letters of his murderous intent to 102 famous French writers. Yet, in the end, Hilbert is incapable of following through. He winds up shooting only one man, a “big man”, and has a frantic meltdown in the street afterward. The story ends in a café lavatory, as Hilbert gives himself up to the police.

Let us first take a look at some of the elements that make up the “existential” composure of the story. Hilbert’s act of mailing letters to famous writers before committing his crime shows a deep insecurity over the potential legacy he wishes to leave. Hilbert must have others verify and be witness to his crime for the weight of his actions to seem real to him. In existential thought, this is an offense known as “being-for-others” (we’ll return to this later when we discuss Lacan). Hilbert no longer lives in a world where his actions and choices hold any real weight or significance. This lack of self-determination plunges Hilbert into a kind of moral nihilism, which only exacerbates his problems. Another significant element to note is the rise in power Hilbert feels as he buys a gun and brings it around with him wherever he goes. The angst or dread that follows—often described in existential circles as being a kind of “excitement or fear over the possibility of one’s own freedom”—is an important aspect of Hilbert’s condition. Furthermore, one would not have to use queer theory, nor is it beyond any stretch of the imagination, to assert that Sartre uses the gun here as a phallic symbol. For Hilbert, happiness truly is a warm gun, as the gun symbolizes the power he has always lacked socially and sexually. The fact that Hilbert makes prostitutes walk around naked at gun point, without letting them touch or look at him, is another teller. This voyeuristic behavior, according to Sartre, is a mechanism by which the individual avoids his or her own subjectivity—shirking responsibility—in order to live through the imagined subjectivity of another (Sartre, 1953, 244). Hilbert, it turns out, suffers in large part from a staggering lack of being (this “lack of being” doesn’t stem from any shortage of self-consciousness, but rather from a case of what I’ll call “mistaken identity,” in a Lacanian sense).

Hilbert’s crime, we come to find out, is not motivated by material gain or political ideology. What, then, is it motivated by? To start, let’s look at our protagonist’s own self-identification: Hilbert believes his crime is motivated by his “anti-humanism”. In the letter, he congratulates the famous authors for being humanists, for loving men. “You have humanism in your blood…” Hilbert writes, “You are delighted when your neighbor takes a cup from the table because there is a way of taking it which is strictly human… less supple, less rapid than that of a monkey”. He goes on to sarcastically praise the authors for relieving and consoling the masses. “People throw themselves greedily at your books… they think of a great love, which you bring them and that makes up for many things, for being ugly, for being cowardly, for being cuckolded, for not getting a raise on the first of January”. These sound like Hilbert’s own problems.

Later in the letter, Hilbert explains his own hatred of humanity. “I cannot love them… what attracts you to them disgusts me… men chewing slowly, all the while keeping an eye on everything, the left hand leafing through an economic review. Is it my fault I prefer to watch the sea-lions feeding?”. Given this, it would be a mistake to equate Hilbert’s anti-humanism to misanthropy. The word “misanthrope” is normally an intellectual self-label, which is defined by a general disgust with the thoughtlessness or lack of social awareness perceived in others. As Moliere notes in his Les Misanthrope: “I detest all men; Some because they are wicked and do evil, Others because they tolerate the wicked” (Moliere, I.i.). Hilbert, on the other hand, is not a misanthrope; he is a self-reflective watcher, a voyeur. And his anti-humanism—his “all-too-humanness” as he puts it it—seems to involve the hatred of those physical and emotional qualities which he observes in others, and which he himself cannot experience. Hilbert’s condition is strikingly similar to Sartre’s analysis of the poet Baudelaire. “For most of us,” Sartre contends, “it is enough to see the tree or house; we forget ourselves” (Sartre, 1950, 22). Baudelaire, however, “was the man who never forgot himself” (Sartre, 1950, 22). Hilbert, likewise, is too self-conscious to experience normal human emotions. He does not simply see things; but sees himself seeing things. As such, he has lost the unselfconscious grace and naturalness he so despises in others.

This deep self-consciousness, this narcissism, is something that alienates Hilbert, and makes normal communication with others almost impossible. If we asked Lacan, he would probably point us to the mirror phase and the imaginary order, which are both significant in Hilbert’s case. The mirror phase refers to a period in psychosexual development, when “the child for the first time becomes aware, through seeing its image in the mirror” (Homer 24). For Lacan, this marks the emergence of the ego, as the child realizes it can control the movements of this new image. This should not be confused with the advent of “selfhood,” but rather it is a moment of profound alienation, where we actually mistake this new mirror-image for our “self” (Homer 25).

Read more of this article HERE (and read the actual story HERE).

was salinger too pure for this world?

By JOYCE MAYNARD in the New York Times, September 14, 2013

“As the mother of a daughter myself, I would say that a man who treats those offering up their love and trust as expendable is lesser himself for having done so.”

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Image: Eleni Kalorkoti

In the 50 years since J.D. Salinger removed himself from the public eye and stopped publishing, he has been viewed — more accurately, worshiped — as the human embodiment of purity, a welcome antidote to phoniness. To many, he was a kind of god.

Now comes the word — though not really news, to some — that over the years when he was cherishing his privacy, Salinger was also carrying on relationships with young women 15, and in my case, 35 years younger than he.

“Salinger,” a new documentary film touches — though politely — on the story of just five of these young women (most under 20 when he sought them out), but the pattern was wider: letters I’ve received over the 15 years since I broke the unwritten rule and spoke of my own experiences with the man revealed to me that there were more than a dozen. In at least one case, Salinger was corresponding with one teenage girl while sharing his home with another: me.

Like many of the others involved, I was a young person in possession of particular vulnerabilities as well as strengths — a story that began with my family, not Salinger, and inspired me to seek out an Ivy League education with the dream of becoming a writer. Nine months after I arrived at Yale, having published a story that attracted Salinger’s attention, I received a letter from him. Then many more.

I was 18 when he wrote to me in the irresistible voice of Holden Caulfield, though he was 53 at the time. Within months I left school to live with Salinger; gave up my scholarship; severed relationships with friends; disconnected from my family; forswore all books, music, food and ideas not condoned by him. At the time, I believed I’d be with Jerry Salinger forever.

His was a seduction played out with words and ideas, not lovemaking, but to the young girl reading those words — as with a few million other readers — there could have been no more powerful allure.

Salinger wasn’t simply brilliant, funny, wise; he burrowed into one’s brain, seeming to understand things nobody else ever had. His expressions of admiration (“I couldn’t have created a character I love more than you”) were intoxicating. His dismissal and contempt, when they came, were devastating.

I was 19 when he put two $50 bills in my hand and sent me away. Years after he dismissed me, his voice stayed in my head, offering opinions on everything he loved and all that he condemned. This was true even though, on his list of the condemned, was my own self.

This was not made easier by Salinger’s unwritten edict on secrecy: if Salinger wrote you a letter, you must never say you received it. If he broke your heart you must never mention it happened. To do anything else constituted more than the violation of the privacy of a great writer; it was proof of one’s own reprobate soul, the exploitation (a word with which I’ve grown familiar over the years) of a man so much purer than the false and shallow world around him, an artist who wanted only to be left alone.

To a stunning degree, for a period of over half a century, Salinger managed to convince a significant portion of the reading population that his words and actions should be exempt from scrutiny for the simple reason that he wrote those nine stories, and “The Catcher in the Rye.” And because he said so.

Now the story well known to me is known to the world, though there are voices raised up still, decrying the violation of Salinger’s legendary privacy. But while this recent burst of disclosure might seem to demystify the man (or call his role as sage into question), a troubling phenomenon has surfaced along with the news.

It is the quiet acceptance, apparently alive and well in our culture, of the notion that genius justifies cruel or abusive treatment of those who serve the artist and his art. Richard Schickel, writing of Salinger’s activities, expresses the view that despite the disclosures about Salinger’s pursuit of young women he lived “a ‘normal’ life.”

“He liked pretty young girls. Stop the presses,” writes the film critic (and father of daughters) David Edelstein. The implication being, what’s the fuss?

One of these girls, 14 when Salinger first pursued her long ago, described him in terms usually reserved for deities, and spoke of feeling privileged to have served as inspiration and muse to a great writer — though she also reports that he severed their relationship the day after their one and only sexual encounter.

Some will argue that you can’t have it both ways: how can a woman say she is fully in charge of her body and her destiny, and then call herself a victim when, having given a man her heart of her own volition, he crushes it? How can a consensual relationship, as Salinger’s unquestionably were, constitute a form of abuse?

But we are talking about what happens when people in positions of power — mentors, priests, employers or simply those assigned an elevated status — use their power to lure much younger people into sexual and (in the case of Salinger) emotional relationships. Most typically, those who do this are men. And when they are done with the person they’ve drawn toward them, it can take that person years or decades to recover.

Continue reading this New York Times article HERE.