Episode 75: Lacan & Derrida Criticize Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”

On Jacques Lacan's "Seminar on 'The Purloined Letter'" (1956), Jacques Derrida's "The Purveyor of Truth" (1975), and other essays in the collection The Purloined Poe: Lacan, Derrida, and Psychoanalytic Reading.

How should philosophers approach literature? Lacan read Edgar Allen Poe's story about a sleuth who outthinks a devious Minister as an illustration of his model of the psyche, and why we persist in self-destructive patterns: we are driven by "the symbolic order," which tells us our place. The letter, which in the story is an embarrassing but unspecified message to the Queen that has been stolen by the Minister and used to blackmail her, is for Lacan a symbol for the power of the signifier, which dictates the roles of the various characters in the story, as first one then another is pushed into a passive, vulnerable state by gaining possession of it, driven by the logic that moves the letter inexorably back to its "rightful place."

Derrida thought this reading not only imposed a bunch of psychobabble onto the story, but demonstrated that Lacan just didn't know how to read a text. Per Derrida's deconstruction, you have to look at not only the themes the author presents, but at the technical aspects of the work and how they betray the author to serve up a different message. Lacan thinks he's getting at the meaning of the text, but Derrida disavows the whole picture whereby such a meaning, or truth, can be revealed in this way.

As both essays are tremendously obscure, who the hell knows if Derrida's assessment of Lacan even gets Lacan right, and the other authors in the collection have different takes on whose interpretation holds water, whether the Jacques are really more similar than they admit, and about how weird it is to be pouring criticism onto criticism of criticism. Mark, Seth, and Dylan do their best to wade through this morass and eke out a bit more understanding of Lacan (building on ep. 74), Derrida's view of language (see ep. 51), and how not to read a text. Read more about the topic and get the book.

End song: "Came Round" by Mark Linsenmayer, from 2010. Read about it.

Please go to partiallyexaminedlife.com/donate to help support our efforts. A recurring gift will gain you all the benefits of PEL Citizenship. Thanks!


  1. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    Metaphysics of the Purloined Letter in-itself:

    Amazing how Poe summarized the metaphysical difference between science and art in the Purloined Letter, between the pedantic intellectual who believes in logic alone as truth, and the artist (poet in Poe’s terms) who out-thinks the scientist pragmatically by thinking about how the other thinks, coming up with a broader integration of reality. This phenomenon alone could found an entire philosophy, and has of course spawned many.

    Lacanian epistemology:

    Then there is Lacan with his contribution. What is truth and how is it manifest repetitively in the story of human being, and being human? Lacan uses the Purloined Letter to reveal the three-fold movement (the fourth represented by the Letter) underlying Freud’s Repetition Compulsion in contrast to Freud’s positied death instinct.

    1) The King/Master Discourse. The King I take to be no less than the Master [from Lacan’s four Discourses as (see Fink’s Lacanian Subject)–a conscious use of Hegel’s Master-Slave position]. The master’s discourse is necessary for alienation, to become a subject, therefore it holds privileged place among the discouses. The master is not a man but a signifirer. It is that which must be obeyed at all times, not because of reason [but because I said so, Dad], as it is a nonsensical signififier [should there be such a thing], but because it says so. The Master is S1, while the slave is S2 [see Fink]. The slave comes to learn knowledge (as production) yet the master is not concerned with knowledge, only its growing power [His desire].

    2) The Queen/University Discourse. The queen I understand to occupy the position of the University Discourse: as Lacan has said “for centuries knowldege has been pursuced as a defence against truth.” Lacan describes the University Discourse a reinforcing, legitimating and rationalizing the Master’s will. Mere knowledge from the University does not try to come to grips with the Real, but as an encyclopaedic endeavor to exhaust a field of investigation (map the human genome, categorize all locations in the brain, get the Dewey decimal system locked down for all anal librarians).

    3) Dupin/Hysteric’s Discourse. The hysteric demands that the master show themselves properly and produce something worthy of knowledge. The hysteric is between conscious and the unconscious, thus they desire the conflictural or contradictory. Knowledge remains inaccessible to the master. For Lacan, science proper represents the hysteric’s discourse.The hysteric pushes the master to admit their knowledge is lacking, that their reasoning is incomoplete, to admit to the unknown objet a. For the hysteric, the truth is objet a, the Real, not the study of purely measurable symbolic conditions.

    4) Purloined Letter (metaphor of life) /Analyst Discourse. The analyst plays the part of the pure desiring subject (desirousness itself) and interrogates the subject in their decision to bring a fissure between the conscious and unconscious, to cough up a new master signifier. A master signifier is a dead end [hello Master, I am your Slave]. The analyst must bring the master signifier into relation wiht other signifiers. Finally the subject/analaysand works through each new false master signifier until the speaking subject recognizes that ther is an Other agent that speaks through them.

    The Purloined letter is the “truth” on which each person projects their signifier, much as child projects on parent, and analysand (client) projects on the analyst, and we project on the “letters” in our own lives which become the objects of our desire.

    The master of the text (his metaphysical version of “reality”) due to respect for difference. In Derrida’s world you are also text, and I, and Lacan. as well as literal texts. I find it ironic that such a master of reading the original text in all of its richness (exegesis) as Derrida, would not identify his own failure to read the “text” of Lacan, i.e. his purpose in interpreting “The Purloined Letter, ” as primarily a reflection of his view of psychoanalysis at work in the world.

    Derrida can not resist opportunities to deconstruct poor victims who become valid catapults for his philosophy, and Lacan is low hanging fruit, since he defers philosophical issues of his psychoanalytic stance to philosophers (i.e. Badiou and Zizek) Perhaps Lacan’s best move was to have never responded to Derrida’s criticisms (as if one could).

    On the PEL episode there was discussion about speech versus writing as to which is primary. The key for Derrida seems to be to take terms which have become privileged over time (speech versus text in this case) and point out the equally valid necessary differences. Derrida would have focused on the value of speech if text had been privileged over time (especially philosophically).

    Where Derrida shines in his deconstruction of Lacan, is in the vulnerability of Lacan, and often of psychoanalytic (scientific, philosophic, etc.) theory to apply apriori their theory of reality in the face of possible alternatives, not respecting difference in the universe.

    The power of Derrida’s use of text to best approach “truth” in the world: deconstruction based on the metaphysical basis of difference between signifiers (as well explained on the PEL episode), actually also provides the most powerful approach to Literary Criticism in general, in how to best approach literature from a philosophical position: Derrida’s deconstruction, but not so rigidly as in this case of his use of Lacan to catapult his own position.

    Thanks again for all of you engaging in an engaging expression of the process of philosophy, the interpersonal interaction regarding the most significant concepts of life (What is Philosophy) which you consistently reflect in your episodes. There is no greater power regarding expertise in various disciplines in life, than the strength to just express what the issues are, rather than having to be the ultimate authority. That is your strength and value compared to the Fully Examined Life. I know there are easier kinds of philosophers/psychoanalysts to work with, but I’m fairly sure there is an equal reduction in significance.–Thanks, Wayne.

  2. Supastaru says

    I recently discovered PEL and have been listening to you guys on every walk, bike ride or car ride. Your podcast is extremely good (I will donate 😉 ).

    There’s this one little thing that really bothers me and it wouldn’t be hard to improve: could you work on your (foreign languages) pronunciation? It’s really off-putting at times. Especially in the French episodes.

    I’m not asking that you guys learn French. But there’s this great website http://www.forvo.com where you can quickly look up (almost) any pronounciation and try to imitate it, even if imperfectly.

    • Glen says

      Am I the only one who does not give a shit about pronunciations? This same comment pops up all over the place and I can’t bring myself to care about the issue whatsoever. There is no issue. So what if someone butchers a pronunciation? I’d like someone to explain to me cogently, and have a reason better than “it annoys ME” or something to that effect, why pronunciation is a comment-worthy topic. I can see making a word sound like another that means something completely different being a problem, but that’s about it.

      I am not aiming at you in particular, I am just genuinely curious as to what irks some people enough about something that to my mind is absolutely peripheral to anything important.

      • Kostas Protopapadakis says

        I know it’s over half a year later, but I feel this is important. As someone who’s name is butchered all the time by Anglos and as a Canadian who speaks French, I speak from experience in saying that when you mispronounce something it’s just plain rude. It shows laziness and lack of respect for others, I know that I certainly would never waste my time talking to someone who doesn’t even have enough respect for me to learn my name, and I see no reason why these thinkers and the words they use should be treated any differently. Few things are more hurtful and insulting then when someone looks at my ID and just calls me Mr. P. And if you don’t think being respectful to others is important Glen then you need to get your priorities straight. Plus it’s also confusing to us French speakers who are working from the original source text to figure out what you guys are talking about when you mispronounce the words. So please try and improve pronunciation.

        Otherwise I really do love the podcast.

        • Marc says

          I have to agree with Glen. Your argument is: It’s rude, lazy, hurtful, insulting, and disrespectful to mispronounce someone’s name. Perhaps to you, but when someone mispronounces my name, I simply do not feel this way, and it does not bother me in the least. My name is not my identity; it is a mere label that derives its meaning to me though who I am–which nobody could possibly know in advance. Now, if someone does not pronounce your name correctly, and you are obviously upset by this, and you ask the person to pronounce it to your liking, and the person purposely mispronounces it again, then this is a different matter entirely.

  3. Joshua says

    Did Seth change his recording equipment? He didn’t sound so sad this week. Does Mark sound Clint Eastwoody when sick?

    Could not follow a single thing, sorry =(

    • Glen says

      Here’s another one: am I the only one who doesn’t think Seth sounds sad?

      I am partial because apparently am one of those people with faces that look perpetually angry/sad and have to deal with people constantly bringing it up, which, unfortunately, does make me angry.

  4. dmf says

    I’m glad that you guys stuck with this line of thought as it started to pull together many of the previous threads of the metaphysics of Presence, human-being, and hermeneutics, I think we got off track a while back with a very analytic reading of Nietzsche on truth/knowing/power but now I think there is a better sense of how after Nietzsche Derrida is both a close reader and a radical reader worth considering (if not following) and where the more recent continental philosophers like Malabou and Bernard Stiegler are coming from and working towards: http://www.sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1229931

  5. dmf says

    ML, I like your Wittgensteinian/pragmatist take that how (to what effect/affect) a text works is what it ‘means’ but surely such effects aren’t limited/fixed by an author’s intentions/reflections/justifications (author-ity) are they, what about reader-responses?
    ps Deleuze gets into the ways in which conditions are related to events, not unlike the discussion of math/probabilities in this episode.

  6. Daniel T. says

    I’m about 3/4 of the way through the podcast, and I have to admit that much of the jargon and ideas are way beyond my experience. However, there is one thing I thought of that seems relevant and hasn’t been covered yet. The letter seems to be a signifier without any signified.

    The “idea” of the letter is irrelevant, the actors in the story are not fretting simply because it is a letter, yet the content of the letter also seems to be irrelevant. Despite the fact that *we* don’t know what is in the letter, everybody in the story must know *exactly* what is in the letter, otherwise it would be impossible to find. In other words, the Queen seems to have no problem telling everybody what the content of the letter contains, maybe even the King knows the information, so that means the content of the letter also has no power.

    It seems to me, that the mere fact that the letter *is* a signifier is what makes it important, not what the letter signifies. As such, if I understand the argument, I am firmly in the camp of Lacan.

    • Profile photo of Seth Paskin says

      I”m pretty sure we discussed that point: that the people in the story know what’s in the letter and I think I had a response trying to justify Lacan’s interpretation as well. When the letter = signifier and the content = signified, it doesn’t matter what the content is, what matters is how the letter determines the actions and positions of the different characters when they possess or don’t possess the letter. Of course there is some signified, otherwise the characters would have no motivation but the fact that it could be any number of things shows that it is how the letter acts as signifier that matters.

      • Daniel T. says

        My point was missed. Yes, I remember the comments about “The signified could be any number of things.” You guys even listed a few possible things, but with all the suggestions made, the *information* would be enough to give someone power over the Queen even without the letter. If the information contained in the letter was of that nature, the Queen would not be able to describe the letter well enough to allow anybody to find it.

        What I’m saying is that the information contained in the letter was so innocuous that it had no power over the Queen. It couldn’t be something like sedition or an affair (the primary examples given.)

        You say above, “Of course there is some signified…” but I’m saying that the actions of the individuals involved shows that it isn’t just the case that the reader hasn’t been made privy to the signified. There can be no signified at all.

      • Profile photo of Tammy says

        I read an article, Seth, and thought of a comment you made (and another person NOT discussing Lucan re a different topic) at the end of the podcast re [paraphrasing] “not buying into the whole psycho dynamic…” reading or something of that nature.

        Tim Kreider sums his article “The Power of ‘I Don’t Know'”:

        “My least favorite parts of my own writing, the ones that make me cringe to reread, are the parts where I catch myself trying to smush the unwieldy mess of real life into some neatly-shaped conclusion, the sort of thesis statement you were obliged to tack on to essays in high school or the Joycean epiphanies that are de rigueur in apprentice fiction — whenever, in other words, I try to sound like I know what I’m talking about. Real life, in my experience, is not rife with epiphanies, let alone lessons; what little we learn tends to come exactly too late, gets contradicted by the next blunder, or is immediately forgotten and has to be learned all over again. More and more, the only things that seem to me worth writing about are the ones I don’t understand. Sometimes the most honest and helpful thing a writer can do is to acknowledge that some problems are insoluble, that life is hard and there aren’t going to be any answers, that he’s just as screwed-up and clueless as the rest of us. Or I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.”


  7. Profile photo of Jonas Johansson says

    I think one of the things Poe is doing with “The purloined letter” is showing how
    the “McGuffin” device works by way of example. I used to think Alfred Hitchcock invented
    the term but i saw in Wikipedia he only popularized it. I don’t know if Poe had
    an equivalent concept formulated for himself, but he might very well have, considering
    that he seemed to be quite theoretical about his own writing. I think the MCGuffin
    concept was mentioned (by Mark?) in both this, and interestingly also in the other Lacan episode.

    We usually consider fiction to be more interesting the better the McGuffin is “disguised”,
    or rather the fact that it is a McGuffin is disguised. (Let’s say that is the case at least)
    This because if we feel that the characters really recognize the importance of the McGuffin –
    that they make an investment in the reality of it – then we get more immersed in the story.
    For example in many spy stories the McGuffin is some kind of gadget some organisation is trying
    to steal where it is obvious that the technincal jargon that is used to explain how the gadget
    works is bs. On the other hand in stories by writers like LeCarré and Graham Greene things are a little more subtle.

    Perhaps it is helpful to introduce some more terminology to separate McGuffins from their
    counterparts in real life. Suppose i bring a box to work that looks like it might contain some sort of cake.
    My co-workers might wonder when I’m going to share the cake with them, but at the end of the day i say
    “The cake is a lie” and open an empty box. This sort of object we could call a “Cake”. So a Cake is something that works as a McGuffin in real life. A third term is the “McMuffin” A McMuffin is a McGuffin that is a Cake inside the fiction, ie something that the readers and perhaps some but not all of the characters know is empty of content. For example in Graham Greene’s “Our man in Havana” the spy stationed in Havana uses technical drawings of vacuum cleaners pretending that it is some secret weapon, to make it seem that he is doing something useful.

    The point of the McMuffin then is this: where we become dissapointed in fiction when we realise that the
    McGuffin doesn’t have the reality it is supposed to have, if the McGuffin is a Cake it has the same significance inside and outside the story; nothing. So, by having the McGuffin be a Cake Poe is doing the same thing that the minister is doing on another level: He is disguising the McGuffin by making the fact that it is a Cake obvious.

    One of the points poststructuralist thought makes, i think, is that this kind of mechanism isn’t a pathological case, not a failure of communication, but the way communication really works.

  8. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    MacGuffin sub-tropes: (from tvtropes)
    Accidentally Broke the MacGuffin: When someone breaks the MacGuffin when he needed it.
    Artifact of Attraction: If the object itself is inherently irresistible.
    Clingy MacGuffin: Inversion of this trope — its most important attribute is that the person who has it wants to be rid of it.
    Dismantled MacGuffin: The MacGuffin is split into several parts and hidden in different places. Plot coupons are most often this type of MacGuffin.
    Egg MacGuffin: A MacGuffin that is an egg.
    Free Sample Plot Coupon: The first MacGuffin is given or found with zero effort, compared to subsequent ones.
    Going to See the Elephant: Taking a trip with no serious purpose. The reason for the trip may be a MacGuffin or may not.
    Hostage for MacGuffin: The heroes have the MacGuffin. The Villain has a hostage and wants the MacGuffin. Trade ya?
    I’m Dying, Please Take My MacGuffin: A character has the MacGuffin. (S)he dies after giving the MacGuffin to another character (usually the heroes) and asking them to take care of it.
    Just Eat the MacGuffin: The MacGuffin is a lot more trouble than it is worth, and may as well just be destroyed.
    Living MacGuffin: A living being, free (or at least in no danger), who serves as the MacGuffin.
    A MacGuffin Full of Money: The MacGuffin is simply a large amount of cash.
    MacGuffin Delivery Service: The good guys get the MacGuffin just in time for the bad guys to steal it from them. Bad guys win! (Temporarily.)
    MacGuffin Escort Mission: The good guys get the MacGuffin early on. The rest of the story is about them transporting it somewhere else without losing it.
    MacGuffin Girl: The MacGuffin is transformed into a living being (usually a girl).
    MacGuffin Guardian: The monster that guards the MacGuffin.
    MacGuffin Location: The MacGuffin isn’t a thing or a person, it’s a place.
    MacGuffin Melee: When multiple groups searching for the MacGuffin find it at the same time and a fight breaks out.
    MacGuffin Title: The MacGuffin is right there in the title of the work.
    Memento MacGuffin: A MacGuffin that holds sentimental value to one or more characters.
    Mineral MacGuffin: A gem, a jewel, or a rock of some type that holds great power; in spite of the name, may or may not be an actual MacGuffin.
    Mock Guffin: A MacGuffin that turns out to be worthless.
    No MacGuffin, No Winner: Neither side has the MacGuffin in the end. It’s been destroyed, lost, or discovered to be fake.
    Pirate Booty: Older than the Briefcase Full of Money, and even more likely to be stolen.
    Plot Coupon: A common manifestation in video games, an item that the player must acquire to advance the plot, but serves no other gameplay purpose.
    The President’s Daughter: The MacGuffin is a living person, and is in danger, held captive or being actively hunted. Contrast with Living MacGuffin.
    Ransacked Room: What the bad guys do when they suspect the good guys already have the MacGuffin. May also include ransacked luggage, tearing up the grounds, or even destroying a room or building.
    Sound Stone: The MacGuffin is a sound rather than a thing, or a thing that must be used to produce the sound.
    Stolen MacGuffin Reveal: The MacGuffin was actually a fake, or stolen before the thief got it.
    Timeline-Altering MacGuffin: An otherwise unimportant item from the future that, if left in the past during time travel, will have serious consequences.

    P.S.–perhaps Philosophy itself is a MacGuffin that keeps us busy, instead of living the life of our character in this Play.

    • Profile photo of Gary Chapin says

      I genuine feel that way sometimes. Chasing some obscure point in “Radical Empiricism” does — in the dark of the night — feel like looking for a letter with no contents.

  9. heather says

    Really enjoyed this, my first episode. I have gone back and listened to more and look forward to hearing the rest. If you ever consider another literary analysis like this one, I would love to hear you guys discuss “The Turn of the Screw”. Just something that crossed my mind during the discussion of literary analysis and the author’s intent. Thanks for the brain bend, guys.

  10. Profile photo of Tammy says

    I’ve just started listening and pretty excited about this discussion. I love that you fellas are transparent and it’s so welcomed!

    • dmf says

      it’s a good one not in part because it was a pleasure to hear them get into playing out/with the inner workings of the texts and not so much looking in from the outside trying to make sense of Lacan/Derrida/Poe in terms of what they knew before the reading.

      • Profile photo of Tammy says

        I’ve attempted to listen without interruptions (not very successfully). I’m briefly familiar with the persons of the said podcast (not the texts). However, “sign, signifier, and angle” caught my attention as did “symbolic order creates our actions.” My apologies for my inability to identify which of the podcasters said what but I think it was Dylan and Seth.

        That said, I’m explicating a poem by Dylan Thomas “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” and it could just be information overload here to say anything with substance re the podcast. Thus far, I am not particularly fond of Lucan’s psychoanalysis and if I am not mistaken, he was influenced by Freud’s work and has a Catholic background. I AM fond of Derrida and hoping to read more of his work over the summer (thanks for introducing his work to me).

        All this to say, at present I think the discussion re symbolic order and getting as close to real discussed in the podcast brought to my mind what Dan Pink discusses in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us” where he discusses the symbolic meaning of asymptote is mastery. Pink states, “An asymptote (in this case, a horizontal asymptote) is a straight line that a curve approaches but never quite reaches” (126). I think that is an appropriate symbol for our human experience and there is way too much psychology read into peoples motivation that taken out of context can do much damage to a human person.

        Moreover, certainly we touch on Paul Cezanne work and artistic expression or is it impressions?

        I do believe our human mind is a fragile part of our humanity that if not respected can hurt a person’s individuality and personhood. I’m becoming more cautious with the growing use of psychology being used starting in our elementary schools and /both American culture at large in an attempt to find an underling mean of a persons intentionality and/or what it means to be of a healthy mind and balance in an ever changing culture because to technics.

        Anyway, once again I thank the PEL crew for fleshing out hard and intense texts and topics. I’m learning a lot and you’ve given me much to think and reflect on re my own beliefs and work.


  11. Profile photo of Tammy says

    An after thought: To me philosophy like an artist touches on human emotions when words fail to explicate the specifics of a concept or human speech acts as a “symbolic order of our actions” and/both signifier of the unconscious when attempting to conceptualize our human experience.

    At present I think part of the beauty of being human is our ability and desire to find meaning in the profane (meaning everyday routines duties in life), which I consider in a sense sacred; our failures, mistakes, triumphs, etc. Nothing overt, just showing up for whatever life’s journey presents on our path for a day.

    Thus, similar to Deleuze’s description of singularities and Derrida’s definition of différance, Jeff Beck has been on my mind (again) as being in relationship with himself utilizing his skill as a technique to express the inexpressible to another. He has control of his skill, rather than his skill having control of him. It seems to me, a virtuoso is, open to the challenge of difference and repetition–another apt song played by Beck called Sleep Walk is part of life’s gift as we discover who we are, where our place is, finding meaning without forcing an interpretation of our human experience as we awaken, mature and age. I think Lucan forces an interpretation and believe it is unjust (but I could be way off with him).

    In the end, I think we end up writing our own stories rather than giving another the power to interpret and write a forced story; making use less than human. I have no idea if this makes sense but this podcast has me thinking a lot.

    • dmf says

      you might enjoy Julia Kristeva’s earlier work on semiotics.
      I think with Lacan one has to understand both structuralism and Hegel, neither of which leads to narrative psychology, nor to ego psychology.
      along the lines of your Jeff Beck references you also should check out Hubert Dreyfus on expertise, see his webpage @ Berkeley, happy hunting!

      • dmf says

        Lacan trades in lack while Deleuze trades in excesses/multiplicities, the debate over where Derrida falls on this spectrum is endless, which he might find to be fitting…

        • dmf says

          that’s an interesting one (especially in this online context) but was pointing more to the works on ethical comportment/expertise and agency, I was merely hoping that in those suggestions there might be something that fit in with your own searchings/work, ok?

          • Profile photo of Tammy says

            I’m not trying to be dense here. What I’m questioning is your comment “along the lines of your Jeff Beck references you also should check out Hubert Dreyfus on expertise, see his webpage @ Berkeley, happy hunting!”– is the link I found(posted) the link you are speaking about?

            I’m rather tired of hunting. Anyway, the link that I asked you about – it’s this an argument for intuition rather than mechanical speech and acts re IT? Similar to Jonathan Haidts work?

            Don’t take this the wrong way but you seem like a riddle.

          • Profile photo of Tammy says

            dmf: I’m listening to http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2012/05/branka-arsic-memorial-life-thoreau-and-benjamin-on-nature-in-mourning/.

            This is really neat! However, I don’t know if it’s helping my poem explication! I think my focus is dispersed in too many reads, podcasts, etc. I can’t pull it back in. Plus Jeff Beck is stuck in my head and to further muddy the water a friend who I consider a master music guru offered The Zombies “Odyssey and Oracles.” Music usually gets me out of a writer’s block.

            Sorry if I come across as self absorbed. I guess I’m saying thank you.

          • Profile photo of Tammy says

            dmf – Would you want to give me some feedback in the D&R group thread I started about my thesis statement?

          • dmf says

            hi tammy, if i can be of some use i would be glad to lend a hand, where is the thread located?

          • dmf says

            is that a pel thread? I’m not a citizen, but if you want to share your thesis statement here I will add what I can

          • Profile photo of Tammy says

            (I hope this isn’t spamming PEL)

            I think I can post this topic for ANY feedback because it blends with what Deleuze is saying in D&R. Feedback is most welcomed!

            Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” utilizes symbolism, juxtaposition, and difference. I believe Thomas by evoking our human emotions is inviting the reader to transcendence and rise above our own human subjectivity for a new perspective about what life is all about.

            I have the song “Free as a Bird” (Go figure!) stuck in my head when attempting to explicate DT’s meaning.(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMDm5gEdLpA).

            However, I feel that’s what this poem is invoking, one must pass through the valley of death to reach life (freedom). And, freedom has a price which involves natural laws allowing the unitive (relational) to be on equal ground (actually and virtual are one) and balance in our shared human experience.

            This is what I have so far, and again any input is appreciated.

            (Wayne: thanks for hanging with me through this – I’m grateful for you sharing your own thoughts. Phil: You being an artist would love any thoughts you could share.)

            This is what I have so far:


            “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas: Symbolism Invoking Subjectivity and Emotion Transcending Linear Time

            [Thesis statement]

            Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” takes the form of a villanelle, which is a nineteen–line poem, structured in six stanzas, relying heavily on difference in word play and repetition. This poetry analysis, will argue that Thomas’ choice to utilize words side-by-side (juxtaposition) is symbolism pointing beyond time and space, providing an entrance for the freedom allowing human emotions as a natural part of our experience of life to deal with death and begin our life’s journey.

            See total writer’s block. Do you think this is a good thesis statement?


  12. dmf says

    Tammy, I guess I don’t see transcendence but radical-immanence/vitalism in both the poem and the works of D&G, so it might help if you could flesh-out a bit how the reader and the text interact (or does the text do all the work?), Deleuze was influenced by CGJung and there may be something there in his Book of the Dead ideas about the role of the death of the ego and a “transcendent” function at work in our lives.
    see what you think of:

  13. Profile photo of Tammy says

    Thanks, dmf. It is interesting you don’t see “transcendence” and I think I revised that part. I will check the source you have posted and thank you for your feedback.

    I have a few articles re Jung but do not know much about him. Coincidently, I’ve been thinking of Jung recently. I had the strangest dream two years ago this summer after I lost my job due to funding cuts and decided to return for my bachelor’s in RS. I will never forget it – strange you mention.
    Anyway, I think I’m progressing slowly, sporadically, ponderingly…who really knows what I’m doing.

    Rivised since I last spoke with you:

    [Title]“Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas: Symbolism Evoking Memory and Emotion, Transcending Linear Time to Redefine Meaning and New Life

    “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas takes the form of villanelle, which is a nineteen–line poem, structured in six stanzas, relying heavily on difference in word play and repetition. This poetry analysis, will argue that Thomas’ choice to utilize words side-by-side (juxtaposition) is symbolism pointing beyond time and space, providing an entrance for freedom, engaging human emotions as a natural part of our life experience.

    According to The Academy of American Poets when poets choses villanelle verse form, the listener should not by intimidate by the rigid rhyme scheme—it is an illusion. The form only appears rigidly fixed, yet, in actuality provides an entrance for fluidity and movement by evoking and facing past memories, “During the Renaissance, the villanelle, and villancico (from the Italian villano, or peasant) were Italian and Spanish dance-songs.” This literary technique utilized in poems “spoke of simple, often pastoral, or rustic themes,” where the listener, like a dancer, must learn improvisation by letting go of the past memories for the actual and virtual to become one. Villanelle form it is a type of strange poetics, an invitation to dance with Dylan Thomas by facing the past and/or death, inviting a listener to find new meaning in life and begin to live anew (Academy of American Poets).

    The main voice in the poem carries a tone of an implied attitude, speaking in an unshakable voice to what we all must face; death and the messiness that life entails. Dylan Thomas starts his poem with strength of character and begins, “Do not go gentle into that good night. / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (lines 1-3).


    Brown, Terence. “The Irish Dylan Thomas: Versions and Influences.” Irish Studies Review 17.1 (2009): 45-54. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Apr. 2013

    Daniggelis, Paul Dean. “Deaths and Entrances.” Bronte Studies 32.2 (2007): 138-144. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

    Steloff, Frances. “Dylan Thomas.” Journal Of Modern Literature 4.4 (1975): 864. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Apr. 2013.

    • dmf says

      may be well beyond whatever project you have at hand but the questions/matters of altered-states of consciousness and rhythms/cycles are very much at play in the works of thinkers like D&G, do you know the 60’s movement of theopoetics?

    • Profile photo of Will Yate says

      Hi Tammy,

      I happened to reread “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” recently, for the first time in many years, and it seemed to me very different from what I had remembered. I had remembered it as a very Sturm und Drang bit of fist-shaking in the face of death, but returning to it a few weeks ago, I was surprised to find a very different message. Each stanza seems to be about men not wanting to die—not, as I had thought, out of an existential defiance of finitude or whatever, but instead because they had been failures in life, and finally realized that terrible fact on the threshold of the grave.

      So the message then seems to be much less romantic and rather sad and pathetic: some don’t want to die because they lived life without their words “forking any lightning”; others because their frail deeds might have “danced,” but did not; others because, though they thought they had “sung the sun,” find out at the end that they had merely “grieved” it; and others because they see at the end how they could have blazed and rejoiced, but did not.

      So now it seems to me less an heroic defiance of death, and more a sad, but perhaps somewhat pedestrian, observation that people often reach the end of life, discover they had not really lived, and get a futile last-minute urge to try to take it all back and start over again.

      It seems then not much of a compliment to compare his father to such men in the final stanza—a stanza which I also find odd because the plea for some sort of recognition from the father (“Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray”) strikes me as an utter non-sequitur given the subject of the poem up to that point.

  14. Profile photo of Tammy says

    No doubt, it is beyond the paper at hand, which I tend to do to myself.

    Years ago in a bookstore came across Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be.” Reflecting have no idea how I understood it (who knows if I did). Have most of Thomas Merton’s books and have yet to finish reading “Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists” by Kay Larson. All this to say, is this the 60s theopoetics movement you mention?

    I’m tired of searching. I think I’m going to give searching up, perhaps, be an Enactivist. I don’t really know. I do think “Defenestration” was intense.

      • Profile photo of Tammy says

        I cannot figure you out. Could you answer my questions on if I’m moving in the right direction before posting another link so I have clarity?

        I said, ” Years ago in a bookstore came across Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be.” Reflecting have no idea how I understood it (who knows if I did). Have most of Thomas Merton’s books and have yet to finish reading “Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists” by Kay Larson. All this to say, is this the 60s theopoetics movement you mention?”

        Can you answer my question, please?

        • dmf says

          they are among the sources/fellow seekers but not in the movement per-say, which was a handful of folks mostly following the work of St.RHopper whose work on poetry and experience was outlined in the linked essay.

  15. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    A good verbal reading in DT’s own voice is at http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15377

    A short summary of my resonance with Dylan Thomas on this poem:

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
    [My resonance with him is that he is pissed-Nietzschean moment ]

    Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
    Because their words had forked no lightning they
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    [They lived passive lives]

    Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
    Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
    [Even Good men should rage]

    Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
    And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    [Even if you have raged on the way, it didn’t work]

    Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
    Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
    [In the face of death, especially rage]

    And you, my father, there on the sad height,
    Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
    Do not go gentle into that good night.
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
    [Even you father, who cursed me, I now bless you to rage into the dying of the light]

    That is my resonance.

    So what is the purpose of a father, of rage? To reach out and hurt someone? Maybe it is to reach out and protect everyone, even your own father who used the rage of violence, not the rage of protection, against you.

    • Profile photo of Will Yate says

      Hi Wayne,

      I read the poem very differently than you do, but with your Lacanian mindset you immediately latched onto something that never even occurred to me: might the “father” be metaphorical? I had always assumed it was written hospital-bedside, and that it was quite literally to his dying father. Do we have any biographical info on this?

      • Profile photo of Tammy says

        Will – I think DT’s dad served in WWII. DT was influenced by John Donne’s poetry who was not only concerned about death but immortality through rebirth.

        Will – add on, I think you’re right DT would not like to be read as a neo romantic.

        Source:Daniggelis, Paul Dean. “Deaths and Entrances.” Bronte Studies 32.2 (2007): 138-144. Academic Search Complete. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.

  16. Profile photo of Tammy says

    Reading what you have written, Wayne and Will. I’m thinking and thank you. Your feedback is appreciated.

  17. Profile photo of Tammy says

    This is the heart of how I feel as a female writer attempting to explicate eroticism used by poets—it’s a faux pas. Female sexuality more times than not is frowned upon as if it is abnormal. Frankly, I find it difficult to “flesh-out” a poets meaning without suppressing female human sexuality, which is there in Thomas’ poetry.

    The way I see it (at present), things happen (good and bad), but I refuse to downplay the good and dwell in the past. I think it’s good to remember the past and learn from an experience. Anyone who loves is opening himself or herself to vulnerability of being rejected or authentically loved. The more I dig into Dylan Thomas the more I see strength to fight the good fight for love and life.


    (On a side: dfm, I do thank you for your thoughts [which I asked for] on DT. Not to be crass, but you seem so down on the goodness of our human ability to love. If I have mistaken your tone throughout this thread, please accept my apologies.)

    • dmf says

      hi there, not sure where you find my tone hereabouts and while we have wandered far and wide this was a comment thread reflecting on the complex Poe/Lacan/Derrida which is a mirror-darkly to say the least, not sure how one works through these writers to come to the sort of alchemy that would produce the good/authentic.

  18. Profile photo of Tammy says

    I think I was more attempting to comment on this podcast by utilizing symbolism (which blend with poetry).

    I had said, “An asymptote (in this case, a horizontal asymptote) is a straight line that a curve approaches but never quite reaches” (126). I think that is an appropriate symbol for our human experience…”

    I’m probably a bit overwhelmed by all the links and getting off task. Thanks.

      • Profile photo of Tammy says

        I don’t know if I’m an academic so much, dmf. However, I do learn a lot from you and others. Rather confused why you threw in LW?

        Anyway, no worries, beside LW I believe said this type of communication can mislead ( face-to-face) is needed.

  19. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says

    From http://www.openculture.com/2012/08/dylan_thomas_recites_do_not_go_gentle_into_that_good_night_and_other_poems.html:

    When Dylan Thomas was a little boy his father would read Shakespeare to him at bedtime. The boy loved the sound of the words, even if he was too young to understand the meaning. His father, David John Thomas, taught English at a grammar school in southern Wales but wanted to be a poet. He was bitterly disappointed with his station in life.

    Many years later when the father lay on his deathbed, Dylan Thomas wrote a poem that captures the profound sense of empathy he felt for the dying old man. The poem, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” was written in 1951, only two years before the poet’s own untimely death at the age of 39. Despite the impossibility of escaping death, the anguished son implores his father to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

    • dmf says

      “But man’s helplessness remains and along with it his longing for his father, and the gods. The gods retain their threefold task: they must exorcise the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them”

    • Profile photo of Tammy says

      Wayne: Nice reply. See how DT uses wordplay and juxtaposition in the first stanza? Life and death are a natural part of life – a rhythmic dance.

      Do not go gentle into that good night,
      Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
      Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

      Line 1 last word is “night” and line three last word is “light” – I think Thomas is soothing his father that rage is a norm and death is an entrance to life –Line 2 “close to day”

      Jeez this is intense, and I do see empathy and love for his father. I love this poem.

    • Profile photo of Tammy says

      It’s flow time, and I would like to utilize the link you shared Wayne in a PP along with the poem explication. I would also like to give you credit with your permission. http://www.openculture.com/2012/08/dylan_thomas_recites_do_not_go_gentle_into_that_good_night_and_other_poems.html)

      Thank you all very much. For me I spend hours reading and rereading thinkers thought, just sitting here, silently thinking until my writer’s block dissipates.

      Thank you everyone for the support! Writing has been somewhat of a challenge thought-out my life, but I love to write.

      Thanks again for everyone’s thoughts and help.

  20. Profile photo of Tammy says

    Hi, Adam. Re “Thanks, Tammy! Very interesting stuff. I bet you would like to read Part II of my book, it goes in depth on many areas in the philosophy of physics. For instance, I describe why I disagree strongly with the Copenhagen interpretation of QM.”

    I’ve book marked and perhaps will have the time (this is my hope) to add to my summer reads list.

    Last year researched Philippe Goldin’s work from the Department of Psychology, Stanford University (Source: Emotion, Vol 10(1), Feb, 2010. pp. 83-91).

    Michael Dieciuc’s philosophical work “The Mystical Mind: The Philosophical and Psychological Significance of Mystical Experiences.” (Source: International Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Society; 2011, Vol. 1 Issue 2, p149-158, 10p) seems to blend with Goldin’s work (minus the scientific cognitive neurology specialization)

    I don’t know if this is along the lines of your work but if is, that may give me a better understanding of your premise. Let me know.

    • Profile photo of Tammy says

      This reply belongs in the “The Fates Unwind Infinity (Mar-Apr ’13)” — sorry ’bout that!

  21. Örkki says

    In my humble opinion this was not one of your best episodes. As a student of “analytic philosophy”, I gained almost nothing from the discussion. And what’s even worse I didn’t get the sense that I should be bothered by this, i.e. I didn’t feel that any interesting questions were asked, or solid arguments analyzed. Sometimes incomprehension results from the fact that an idea is radical or novel – was this the case here? I have my doubts.

    There were glimpses of worthy topics like the short discussion of meaning holism. But has Derrida managed to say anything on these issues that has not been argued more forcefully, clearly or ingeniously by philosophers like Quine, Sellars or Wittgenstein?

    In contrast to this episode I did like the one on Lacan’s psychology. Although I’m not sure whether that was because of Lacan’s ideas or your stimulating discussion.

  22. Profile photo of Wayne Schroeder says


    It must be frustrating for you with interest in analytic philosophy and some of the current focus on continental philosophy because it is like two different domains. My experience has been to just wait and the tide turns over time. I’m sure it was the stimulating discussion that made the Lacan podcast on psychology likable :)


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