In Lacan’s psychoanalysis a person is both rich and poor. Rich because ornamental but poor for precisely the same reason.
You and I only understand ourselves through words and symbols. There is no self-definition that does not rely on these means of communication. This fact necessarily puts each of us at a distance from ourselves. Parts of language – words, clothes, institutions – are sustained through the intricate constellation of signs that gives relative meaning to each part: one part is comprehensible only through connection with another. My personal definition is possible only relative to the definitions of those around me, therefore.
The popular word alienation gets at this distance – that I perdure just because I am carried along by the meanings that compose others around me – but Lacan prefers calling this fate of the self the barred subject. My access to myself is barred because I am always taken up in the varied and changing meanings of those who not only surround me but make me. I am not, except as a reflection of the meanings of others. I am dressed, so to say, in the clothes of others.
This barred subject that I am — and you, too — begins in language even before we are born. Who I am as a baby is always already shaped by the food my mother ate, the managerial and commercial conditions that made food available, what the baby books said about child development, the smoking, drinking, or yoga that was fashionable at the time, and thus also the medical and juridical environment in which early life is fostered, cancelled, or postponed. I am always who others have wanted me to be, or not to be.
Not only am I carried along by others, these others are ensigns of the law. I am a barred subject because I only make an approach to my being through the ever-shifting meaning of others about me and the law shaping them (castration). This being is therefore always and forever closed off from me, because castrated being itself is barred to me. This law conveyed to me by others is my adornment and it is through them that I grasp my definition, but this is my poverty, too.
Some readers will be nodding knowingly. This is Lacan inaugurating postmodernism, the primary form of reflection in the humanities since the late `70’s. It is little appreciated that this account of the self is also Christian. It is captured in the Christian meditation on the dark night of the soul.
Our guide is once again the Jesuit, Erich Przywara.
Przywara directs us to Augustine’s idea that the core of each of us is secretarium tuum (AE, p. 262). Secretarium is derived from secernere and can mean secret or inner room and has links to ideas of put asunder and private papers. The linguistic sundered self – secretarium tuum — matches nicely Lacan’s idea of the barred subject.
I am not in identity with myself in the secret room. It is not the impregnable me but me barred, for the secretarium is a “mirror in an enigma,” says Augustine: I grasp my definition but only as a reflection of “an infinity of incomprehensibility,” God enacting the analogy of being (AE, p. 264).
What does this mean phenomenologically? What is it like for an enigma to offer me a reflection of myself? Przywara turns to Augustine again:
“Before they might be they are not, and when they are they are fleeting away, and when they have fled they no longer are.”
Thus, best to think of persons “just as a spoken work of art depends upon each verse, each syllable, each letter “passing away”” (AE, p. 245).
Who am I? A plaited self.
“And it is precisely the contrariety of things contending with one another (to the point of mutual extinction) that plaits them into a unity: “Beauty is composed from the opposition of the world’s contraries” (Augustine). The only appropriate posture, then, is that of “flowing with what flows” (“I confess that I endeavour to be ranked among those who, having made some progress, write and who, through writing, continue to progress” (St. Paul)” (AE, p. 265).
A posture of obedience, a humble bow to myriad value tones, links the barred subject with being, shifts each of us from not to Is. Adorned by values – refinements of gardens, machines, fashion, commerce, institutions, festivals, and liturgy – we are plaited through veneration. Ultimately, this adornment is the beauty of God: “God through whom all things, which of themselves would not exist, tend towards being. God who does not allow to perish even that which mutually destroys itself” (Augustine).
Why, ultimately, God? It is a conclusion of metaphysics. The barred subject is the psychological reality of the analogy of being. Neither self-sufficient (univocal) nor abandoned (equivocal) we are adorned by a love that draws us from nothing into being (analogy).
For a fuller account of this last sentence, please see my Post-Modern Natural Law, and towards the end of July I hope to be able to tell readers where this will be published.
Subtending this posture of veneration and the adornment that plaits us and gives the sinews of being is the metaphysics of creation:
“The flowing back-and-forth of nuptial love in encounter and response becomes transparent to the flowing back-and-forth within God himself” (AE, p. 610).
Each of us is born into this metaphysical and cosmic marriage which means we are never the present-to-self ego of Descartes or Kant or contemporary psychology. We are always ecstatic and liturgy illuminates the full significance of this. Liturgy is the most complete encounter and response because truest to our metaphysical condition. Plaited to God – the wedding of not to Is – is an ontological dark night of soul. The dark night of the barred subject is the psychological reality of the cosmic response to the mystery of love, the inner reality of which is the “night of God’s marriage on the Cross,” the “night of God’s going out into the night of the most real night of the creature” (AE, p. 612).
God’s gift of being to us always was God’s knowingly entering a marriage with the whole significance of the Cross. Thus Eric Gill captures the real meaning of plaiting: