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.