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).

“like me, you must suffer in rhythm”

The truth is that I can’t put down my pen: I think I’m going to have the Nausea and I feel as though I’m delaying it while writing. So I write whatever comes into my mind. Madeleine, who wants to please me, calls to me from the distance, holding up a record:

“Your record, Monsieur Antoine, the one you like, do you want to hear it for the last time?”

“Please.”

I said that out of politeness, but I don’t feel too well disposed to listen to jazz. Still, I’m going to pay attention because, as Madeleine says, I’m hearing it for the last time: it is very old, even too old for the provinces; I will look for it in vain in Paris. Madeleine goes and sets it on the gramophone, it is going to spin; in the grooves, the steel needle is going to start jumping and grinding and when the grooves will have spiralled it into the centre of the disc it will be finished and the hoarse voice singing “Some of these days” will be silent forever.

It begins. To think that there are idiots who get consolation from the fine arts. Like my Aunt Bigeois:
“Chopin’s Preludes were such a help to me when your poor uncle died.” And the concert halls overflow with humiliated, outraged people who close their eyes and try to turn their pale faces into receiving antennas. They imagine that the sounds flow into them, sweet, nourishing, and that their sufferings become music, like Werther; they think that beauty is compassionate to them. Mugs. I’d like them to tell me whether they find this music compassionate. A while ago I was certainly far from swimming in beatitudes. On the surface I was counting my money, mechanically. Underneath stagnated all those unpleasant thoughts which took the form of unformulated questions, mute astonishments and which leave me neither day nor night. Thoughts of Anny, of my wasted life. And then, still further down, Nausea, timid as dawn. But there was no music then, I was morose and calm.

All the things around me were made of the same material as I, a sort of messy suffering. The world was so ugly, outside of me, these dirty glasses on the table were so ugly, and the brown stains on the mirror and Madeleine’s apron and the friendly look of the gross lover of the patronne, the very existence of the world so ugly that I felt comfortable, at home.

Now there is this song on the saxophone. And I am ashamed. A glorious little suffering has just been born, an exemplary suffering. Four notes on the saxophone. They come and go, they seem to say: You must be like us, suffer in rhythm. All right! Naturally, I’d like to suffer that way, in rhythm, without complacence, without self-pity, with an arid purity. But is it my fault if the beer at the bottom of my glass is warm, if there are brown stains on the mirror, if I am not wanted, if the sincerest of my sufferings drags and weighs, with too much flesh and the skin too wide at the same time, like a sea elephant, with bulging eyes, damp and touching and yet so ugly? No, they certainly can’t tell me it’s compassionate—this little jewelled pain which spins around above the record and dazzles me. Not even ironic: it spins gaily, completely self-absorbed; like a scythe it has cut through the drab intimacy of the world and now it spins and all of us, Madeleine, the thick-set man, the patronne, myself, the tables, benches, the stained mirror, the glasses, all of us abandon ourselves to existence, because we were among ourselves, only among ourselves, it has taken us unawares, in the disorder, the day to day drift: I am ashamed for myself and for what exists in front of it.

It does not exist. It is even an annoyance; if I were to get up and rip this record from the table which holds it, if I were to break it in two, I wouldn’t reach it. It is beyond—always beyond something, a voice, a violin note. Through layers and layers of existence, it veils itself, thin and firm, and when you want to seize it, you find only existants, you butt against existants devoid of sense. It is behind them: I don’t even hear it, I hear sounds, vibrations in the air which unveil it. It does not exist because it has nothing superfluous: it is all the rest which in relation to it is superfluous. It is.

And I, too, wanted to be. That is all I wanted; this is the last word. At the bottom of all these attempts which seemed without bonds, I find the same desire again: to drive existence out of me, to rid the passing moments of their fat, to twist them, dry them, purify myself, harden myself, to give back at last the sharp, precise sound of a saxophone note. That could even make an apologue: there was a poor man who got in the wrong world. He existed, like other people, in a world of public parks, bistros, commercial cities and he wanted to persuade himself that he was living somewhere else, behind the canvas of paintings, with the doges of Tintoretto, with Gozzoli’s Florentines, behind the pages of books, with Fabrizio del Dongo and Julien Sorel, behind the phonograph records, with the long dry laments of jazz. And then, after making a complete fool of himself, he understood, he opened his eyes, he saw that it was a misdeal: he was in a bistro, just in front of a glass of warm beer. He stayed overwhelmed on the bench; he thought: I am a fool. And at that very moment, on the other side of existence, in this other world which you can see in the distance, but without ever approaching it, a little melody began to sing and dance: “You must be like me; you must suffer in rhythm.”

The voice sings:

Some of these days
You’ll miss me, honey

Someone must have scratched the record at that spot because it makes an odd noise. And there is something that clutches the heart: the melody is absolutely untouched by this tiny coughing of the needle on the record. It is so far—so far behind. I understand that too: the disc is scratched and is wearing out, perhaps the singer is dead; I’m going to leave, I’m going to take my train. But behind the existence which falls from one present to the other, without a past, without a future, behind these sounds which decompose from day to day, peel off and slip towards death, the melody stays the same, young and firm, like a pitiless witness.

The voice is silent. The disc scrapes a little, then stops. Delivered from a troublesome dream, the cafe ruminates, chews the cud over the pleasure of existing. The patronne’s face is flushed, she slaps the fat white cheeks of her new friend, but without succeeding in colouring them. Cheeks of a corpse. I stagnate, fall half-asleep. In fifteen minutes I will be on the train, but I don’t think about it. I think about a clean-shaven American with thick black eyebrows, suffocating with the heat, on the twenty-first floor of a New York skyscraper. The sky burns above New York, the blue of the sky is inflamed, enormous yellow flames come and lick the roofs; the Brooklyn children are going to put on bathing drawers and play under the water of a fire-hose. The dark room on the twenty-first floor cooks under a high pressure. The American with the black eyebrows sighs, gasps and the sweat rolls down his cheeks. He is sitting, in shirtsleeves, in front of his piano; he has a taste of smoke in his mouth and, vaguely, a ghost of a tune in his head. “Some of these days.” Continue reading