Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage”: The Evolution of a Theory

by Shuli Barzilai

November 1, 2004


The essay traces the theoretical shifts in Lacan's thinking about the formation of the subject through reflexive recognition. It also examines the publication history of "The Mirror Stage" and the major resources - including experimental psychology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, and theology - on which Lacan drew in developing his influential theory. In re-orienting the psychoanalytic focus toward the fraternal (specular) function, Lacan's writings not only displace the Freudian concept of Oedipal conflict with the father as the turning point in the constitution of human subjectivity but also challenge the inclination of other theorists such as Melanie Klein to place the mother at the center of the child's world.


“History Is Not the Past”

Lacan’s Critique of Ferenczi  

Shuli Barzilai

In the ten-year interval between the composition of Les complexes familiaux and "Le stade du miroir," Lacan's thinking about physical causality and temporality changed greatly. He turned from a primarily genetic view that assumed a series of developmental stages and increasingly took into account the revision of the past from the vantage point of the present. Chronological or unidirectional progression gave way to the notion of Nachtr”glichkeit, a term usually translated as "deferred action" or "retroaction" (aprËs coup).1 This shift entailed the abandonment of his three-stage model of subjectivity.

By 1953, Lacan openly disparaged the "mythology of instinctual maturation" that other writers had "built out of selections from the works of Freud" (Šcrits, 263 / 54). As indicated in Chapter 2, instead of a series of more or less sequential complexes (weaning--intrusion--the Oedipus complex), a dialectical structure (identification/alienation), which is set in motion by the confrontation with the specular image, becomes a constitutive feature of the subject's inner world and relation to outer reality. This subject would be no more than a "living marionette" were it not, as Lacan stipulated in "The Direction of the Treatment" (1958), that "language allows him to regard himself as the scene-shifter, or even the director of the entire imaginary capture" (Šcrits, 637 / 272). Thus, the second complex (now exclusively called the "mirror stage" and the third complex continue to be elaborated in his writings, whereas the first complex--and the predominant imago of the maternal breast--virtually disappears. In this chapter I explore some implications of Lacan's reconceptualization of the clockwork that regulates mental life.2 


In the introductory remarks to "The Signification of the Phallus" (1958), a lecture originally delivered at the Max-Planck Institute in Munich and subsequently published in Šcrits, Lacan allows himself a moment of self-congratulation. Looking back briefly on his achievements, he notes that he was the first to rescue (reprendre is his word) Freud's concept of Nachtr”glichkeit from the neglect into which it had fallen in psychoanalytic circles: "[I]t should be known that they [these terms] were unheard of at that time" (685 / 281). Lacan again underscores his retrieval of this concept during his seminar on The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (1964): "When I said, at the beginning of these talks--I do not seek, I find, I meant that, in Freud's field, one has only to bend down and pick up what is to be found. The real implication of the nachtr”glich, for example, has been ignored, though it was there all the time and had only to be picked up" (Seminar XI, 197 / 216).

In echoing Christ's promissory injunction "Seek, and ye shall find," Lacan unhesitatingly distinguishes his rediscovery of the truth first revealed by Freud from those who have followed in Freud's path with a lesser degree of vision. The allusion to the Sermon on the Mount may also be intended to recall--and Lacan is often most invested where he is most allusive--the response that Christ's sayings elicited: "[T]he people were astonished at his doctrine. For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Matt. 7:7, 28-29). Priority is bound up here with the authority of a teaching, with its preeminence over that of other scribes or scribblers. Lacan's claim to have found "the real implication of the nachtr”glich" is part of the larger claim that would establish him as the foremost follower of Freud.

But the issue of priority has other ramifications of Lacan. As will be seen, it extends beyond the dialectics of conflict between fraternal counterparts for recognition and mastery. It also encompasses more than the competitive (Oedipal) tension between father and son, however well defended or concealed by the son's protestations of fidelity. At the furthest verge where indebtedness is (or is not) acknowledged, there emerges an anxiety about origins with a maternal presence at its core.

These several concerns notwithstanding, Lacan's critique of those who ignored what "was there all the time" is also based on historical grounds. Although Karl Abraham, S·ndor Ferenczi, Carl Jung, and others chose to focus on the developmental suggestions in Freud's work, the idea of deferred action recurs throughout his writings. In a letter dated 6 December 1896, he tells Wilhelm Fliess: "I am working on the assumption, that our psychical mechanism has come about by a process of stratification: the material present in the shape of memory traces is from time to time subjected to a rearrangement in accordance with fresh circumstances--is, as it were, retranscribed" (Freud, Origins, 173). Freud himself never formulated a definitive and summary theory of Nachtr”glichkeit. However, in this early passage as in later ones, the Freudian conception entails the operation of the subject's current experiences on past events and impressions. Memory traces may be given new meaning as a result of maturation, or of specific situations in the present. As Jean Laplanche and J.-B. Pontalis observe, "Psycho-analysis is often rebuked for its alleged reduction of all human actions and desires to the level of the infantile past. . . . In actuality Freud has pointed out from the beginning that the subject revises past events at a later date (nachtr”glich), and it is this revision which invests them with significance" (112).

This idea of "rearrangement" or retranscription of the past has numerous implications, both clinical and theoretical, in Freud's writings. For instance, he analyzes the dream that resulted in the outbreak of neurosis in the "Wolf Man" case (1918) as a reconstruction of the primal scene. Paradoxically, the first event (witnessed at age one and a half) became the second event's traumatic cause (at age four) only after the later one had taken place (SE, 17: 7-122). And, in his famous description of mental life, Freud compares the psyche to the city of Rome, in which all the buildings ever built are still standing on the same site, layer upon layer: "On the Piazza of the Pantheon we should find not only the Pantheon of to-day, as it was bequeathed to us by Hadrian, but, on the same site, the original edifice erected by Agrippa; indeed, the same piece of ground would be supporting the church of Santa Maria sopra Minevera and the ancient temple over which it was built" (SE, 21:70). Even though this analogy seems to draw on a notion of a fixed and stable stratification, Freud's archaeological metaphor is also a dynamic one. Deferred action does not rule out psychical causality and development but, rather, posits a reverse dynamic. It assumes an ongoing readjustment of the causal relations among past events and impressions, as if the ancient layers of Rome were periodically reshuffled.

The mythic Janus could also be invoked as a metaphoric analogue for this aspect of mental functioning. The double-faced Janus was the god of doorways: "of public gates (jani) through which all roads passed, and of private doors." The two faces of Janus (Janus bifrons) enabled him to watch over the exterior and the interior of houses, exits and entrances, departures from and returns to the city. He looked ahead even as he looked back. As scholars have noted, Janus is also unique in being an exclusively "Italic god or, more precisely, Roman" and cannot be found in the mythologies of other peoples (Guirand and Pierre, 200). It therefore seems hardly surprising that Freud (whose fascination with Italy and especially with Rome lasted a lifetime) added a Janus head to his collection of antiquities very early in his career. "The ancient gods still exist," he wrote to Fliess in 1899, "for I have bought one or two lately, among them a stone Janus, who looks down on me with his two faces in very superior fashion" (Origins, 286).3 The antiquities that Freud took great pleasure in collecting, as Peter Gay suggests in Freud, Jews and Other Germans, "both freed him from his work and brought him back to it" (43). If it may be further allowed that these purchases occasionally had a direct bearing on his psychoanalytic interests, 4 the importance of the stone Janus for Freud lay in its reification of the duality of mind-time.

The concept of Nachtr”glichkeit became a central tenet in Lacan's teachings. In the yearlong seminar published as Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-1954, Lacan distinguishes between "reliving"--"that the subject remembers something as truly belonging to him, as having truly been lived through ... is not what is essential" --and "reconstructing" the past: "What is essential is reconstruction." Moreover, he insists that the distinction is not his own invention. Freud must be credited with giving precedence to the retroactive mode over the seeming chronometric certitude of reliving. Lacan repeatedly invokes the authority of the founding father in order to revoke the notion of psychical stages: "[W]e have the most explicit indication in Freud's writings. ... it is less a matter of remembering [i.e., reliving] than of rewriting history"; and again, "I tell you what there is in Freud. ... He never abandoned something which can only be put in the way I've found of saying it--rewriting history" (Seminar I, 20 / 14). There is a polemical point to this insistence. Lacan's acknowledgement of Freud's discovery implicitly inveighs against those theorists who (contra Freud, in his view) promote developmental models.

In "Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis" (1953), the manifesto more familiarly known as the "Rome Discourse," Lacan reiterates: "The point is that for Freud it is not a question of biological memory"; rather, it is "a question of recollection, that is, of history, balancing the scales, in which conjectures about the past are balanced against promises of the future." History, then, is to biological memory as culturally determined complexes are to instincts. Another word to note here is "conjectures." Shortly afterward, Lacan cites the "meanders of the research pursued by Freud into the case of the Wolf Man," giving particular emphasis to the highly conjectural status that the patient's childhood recollection of a primal scene takes on in Freud's analysis: "Freud demands a total objectification of proof so long as it is a question of dating the primal scene, but he no more than presupposes all the resubjectifications of the event that seem to him to be necessary to explain its effects at each turning-point where the subject restructures himself ... nachtr”glich, at a later date [aprËs coup]" (Šcrits, 256 / 48). It is the significance attached to the recollected experience--for example, witnessing an act of parental intercourse--in the present, and not the presumed reality of this scene in the past, that may assist in reorienting the subject's relations to reality.

But already in the "Rome Discourse," crucial differences begin to emerge between Freud's concept of Nachtr”glichkeit and Lacan's. As developed by Freud, the concept has pertinence only in the field of sexual feelings. He consistently restricts the notion of deferred action to sexual causes or the awakening of sexual excitations in the individual. "Although it does not usually happen in psychical life," Freud writes in his Project for a Scientific Psychology (1895), "that a memory arouses an affect which it did not give rise to as an experience, this is nevertheless something quite usual in the case of a sexual idea, precisely because the retardation of puberty is a general characteristic of the organization. Every adolescent individual has memory-traces which can only be understood with the emergence of sexual feelings" (SE, I: 356). The example of the Wolf Man is only one case in point. Freud also correlates his patient Emma's symptom, her "compulsion of not being able to go into shops alone," with two episodes from her past: "a memory from the time when she was twelve years old (shortly after puberty)" that activated a second, repressed memory of a scene when she was "a child of eight ... and the shopkeeper had grabbed at her genitals through her clothes" (SE, I: 353-54). The memory of age twelve endows the event experienced at age eight with pathogenic force and, retroactively, generates the current symptom: "If we ask ourselves what may be the cause of this interpolated pathological process, only one presents itself--the sexual release. ... Here we have the case of a memory arousing an affect [of fright] which it did not arouse as an experience, because in the meantime the change in puberty had made possible a different understanding of what was remembered" (I: 356). As is further evident in Freud's clinical accounts, not every sexual experience is subject to this process. Specific traumatic events (such as a primal scene, or a shopkeeper's assault) give rise to the repression on which a later event may operate in a deferred fashion. "It is not lived experience in general that undergoes a deferred revision," as Laplanche and Pontalis explain, "but, specifically, whatever it has been impossible in the first instance to incorporate fully into a meaningful context" (112).

In the course of refuting the supporters of evolutionary stages, Lacan once again cites the authoritative demonstration of deferred action in Freud's "History of an Infantile Neurosis": "The case of the Wolf Man shows us well enough the disdain in which he holds the constituted order of the libidinal stages" (Šcrits, 264 / 54-55). However, Lacan simultaneously begins to alter the Freudian theory with his characteristic revisionism--that is, without overtly indicating that what he offers is a radical rearticulation of that theory.

First, he does not limit retranscription, or the workings of later states on earlier ones, to traumatic events. Thus, "to say of psychoanalysis or of history" that they both are "sciences of the particular, does not mean ... that their ultimate value is reducible to the brute aspect of the trauma" (260-61 / 51). Second, not only sexual life but every lived experience is inscribed in a nonlinear yet time-bound dimension that determines its assimilation by and effects on the subject: "[T]he instinctual stages, when they are being lived, are already organized in subjectivity. ... the anal stage is no less purely historical when it is actually experienced than when it is reconstituted in thought." The young child who registers the "heroic chronicle of the training of his sphincters" already engages in an act of historicization. For the training of bodily functions takes place in an intersubjective realm marked by the resources of the symbolic order. Therefore, 

seeing it [the anal stage] as a mere stage in some instinctual maturation leads even the best minds straight off the track, to the point that there is seen in it the reproduction in ontogenesis of a stage ... to be looked for among threadworms, even jellyfish. ... Why, then, not look for the image of the ego in the shrimp, under the pretext that both acquire a new carapace after shedding the old? (262 / 52-53) 

The irony of this rhetorical question underscores Lacan's revisionary proposition that human subjects live nachtr”glich perpetually, not extraordinarily. Malcolm Bowie most lucidly summarizes this difference between Freud's view of temporality and Lacan's expansionist version: "The principle of Nachtr”glichkeit, on the basis of which Freud had scanned and interconnected the widely separated epochs of the individual patient's emotional history, now reappears inside every moment of human time" (Lacan, 189). So Lacan does not merely find what he seeks but--as if finders indeed were keepers--appropriates and transforms it.

Third, and not least, for Freud deferred action primarily encompasses two temporal stations, the past and the present. Lacan takes three into account. He introduces an anticipatory dimension into the psychoanalytic process as "a question of recollection ... in which conjectures about the past are balanced against promises of the future" and, even more emphatically, as having "for its goal only ... the realization by the subject of his history in his relation to a future" (Šcrits, 256 / 48, 302 / 88). In Lacan's usage, however, the future does not simply mean--as "promises" and "realization" might be taken to suggest--better or brighter things to come. Present time, as well as recollected time or history, "implies all sorts of presences," including "[i]n Heideggerian language ... types of recollection [that] constitute the subject as gewesed--that is to say, as being the one who thus has been" (Šcrits, 255 / 47).

Lacan redefines the temporal condition of subjectivity in a sense that may therefore be specified, after Heidegger's Sein und Zeit (1927), as "futural." "By the term 'futural,'" Heidegger writes, "we do not here have in view a 'now' which has not yet become 'actual' and which sometime will be for the first time. We have in view the coming [Kunft] in which Dasein, in its own-most potentiality-for-Being, comes towards itself. The content of this future does not comprise the simple tense of what-will-be but, rather, the more complex yet delimited ("always only") future perfect of what-will-have-been: 

[A]nticipation itself is possible only in so far as Dasein, as being, is always coming towards itself. ... Only in so far as Dasein is as an "I-am-as-having-been," can Dasein come towards itself futurally in such a way that it comes back. As authentically futural, Dasein is authentically as "having been". ... Only so far as it is futural can Dasein be authentically as having been. The character of "having been" arises, in a certain way, from the future. (Heidegger, 373) 

By way of analogy, Lacan transposes these philosophical formulae into a psycho-political drama: "the drama in which the original myths of the City State are produced before its assembled citizens." From such historical material--as from the recollections of dream material--"a nation today learns to read the symbols of a destiny on the march" (Šcrits, 255 / 47). Rome, ancient and modern, as well as the Third Reich, might be equally on Lacan's mind in his "Discourse" of 1953. The future of a nation, like that of a person, inexorably marches toward the point where it catches up with its past. Interpolated into Freudian Nachtr”glichkeit, Heideggerian Gewesenheit (having been) and Zu-Kunft (future as coming towards)5 exchange the full panoply of human possibilities for a more restricted range of maneuvers. "The meaning of Dasein's Being," as Heidegger distinctly puts it in Sein und Zeit, "is not something free-floating" (372).

Four months after presenting his report to the Rome Congress, Lacan returns to the concept of deferred action in his seminar on Freud's psychoanalytic technique. Echoing the metaphor of multiple city layers, his reconfigurations serve to link the subject's discourse to "a score with several registers," "several longitudinal strata," and, most significant, "a stream of parallel words" (Seminar I, 30 / 22). Not only has the theoretical focus shifted from the orderly procession of phases to the overlapping of mind-time. The practice of psychoanalysis, as conducted by exegetes proficient in the arts of recuperation, could henceforth be called an "archae-logogical" investigation. For Lacan also increasingly insists on the indispensability of logos or the symbolic register for the "whole organization of certainties, beliefs, of coordinates, of references"--in brief, for the "ideational system" explored in the analytic experience (31 / 23).

The notion of oral history thus takes on a special meaning closely intertwined with the temporality of the subject. Language enables the convergence of retroversion and anticipation effects in which "truth" or "full speech" (terms that become conflated in Lacan's text) sometimes emerges. The complete position statement excerpted above reads: "Analysis can have for its goal only the advent of a true speech and the realization by the subject of his history in his relation to a future" (Šcrits, 302 / 88). It is only through "the speech addressed to the other," through the dimension of interlocution, that the assumption of the past and future might takes place. "I might as well be categorical," Lacan says--and so he is: 

[I]t is not a question of reality, but of truth, because the effect of full speech is to reorder past contingencies by conferring on them the sense of necessities to come, such as they are constituted by the little freedom through which the subject makes them present. (256 / 48) 


Previously, however, Lacan still tended to envisage a life cycle whose progress could be tracked and precisely relived. His discussion of the three complexes of early childhood is largely, although not exclusively, developmental. Moreover, as I have shown, Lacan grants not only chronological but formative priority to the weaning complex and the ensuing "primordial ambivalence" toward the imago of the maternal breast. According to Les complexes familiaux, the process of weaning provokes conflicting attitudes in the infant that regulate all subsequent stages of development: "[P]rimordial ambivalence will resolve itself [se rČsoudra] in psychic differentiations on an increasingly sophisticated and irreversible level" (27 /14; emphasis added).

To borrow a literary distinction, Lacan initially reads for the story and not for the plot.6 He reads forward more often than not. The complications of Nachtr”glichkeit, of rewriting the past from a present perspective, are not yet foregrounded in Lacan's thought. His classification of the family complexes draws on and reinforces the evolutionary arguments proposed in such influential works as Abraham's "Study of the Development of the Libido" (1924). Abraham surveys the three main phases of libidinal organization (oral, anal-sadistic, and genital), as well as the child's evolving ambivalent attitudes during each phase (see, e.g., 452-53, 496), within an overall framework that corresponds to Lacan's sequence of three complexes and dialectical differentiations in 1938.

By contrast, among the captions of the first session of his 1953-54 seminar are "Confusion in Analysis" and "History is Not the Past." To be confused is to equate the subject's history with a developmental story. Lacan presents a short survey of the so-called "development" of the individual--"the stages of the evolution of the human mind"--in traditional psychoanalysis (Seminar I, 146 / 127). While he criticizes both Abraham and Ferenczi for introducing "falsely evolutionary notions" into Freudian theory, Ferenczi's role receives particularly negative notice: "Ferenczi is the one who started to put the famous stages into everyone's heads." Soon after, he castigates the conception of evolutionary stages as follows: "These ideas bring with them their power of confusion and disseminate their poison." Even though several psychoanalysts could be held accountable for promoting such ideas, Lacan reserves his severest criticism for Ferenczi's 1913 article on "Stages in the Development of the Sense of Reality": "Similarly, when some chap writes something truly stupid, it's not because no one reads it that it doesn't have consequences, Because, without having read it, everyone repeats it. Some inanities circulate like that" (146 / 127).

Evidently, the stakes of this debate are very high. The issues may be focused by asking what might be involved conceptually and politically--also personally, that is to say--for Lacan behind the notion of rewriting, rather than reliving, the past? Why does his advocacy of Nachtr”glichkeit seem at times to overstep the bounds of polemical decorum?

In the same passage accusing Ferenczi of disseminating "poison," Lacan excuses Freud, still in the early stages of his own theoretical development, for relying on Ferenczi's "very poor" 1913 article and thereby beginning an unfortunate psychoanalytic trend. According to Lacan, Freud extricated himself as best he could from the embarrassment caused by his disciple and, in time, came to the correct conclusion that "development is far from being that transparent." Lacan's own position--a position he claims to be consonant with the more fully considered views of Freud--emphasizes structures as opposed to stages: "It is a question, rather, of elucidating structural mechanisms, which are at work in our analytic experience." Such elucidation can only be attained aprËs coup, by working back from the present moment and never losing sight of the tentative aspect of this exploration. The past is a place to which full access is never possible. "Retroactively, one may clarify what happens in children," Lacan explains to the clinicians in his audience, but only "in a hypothetical and more or less verifiable manner" (Seminar I, 147 / 127-28).

If my earlier literary analogy is recalled, a crucial difference now emerges. The story line that the reader extrapolates from a literary text usually provides the factual, chronological basis for the plot; that is, although all the textual "facts" are fiction, within the narrative framework certain events, circumstances, relations, et cetera, have the status of incontrovertible facts. By contrast, as Lacan conceives it, the narrative produced in the analytic situation is always a web of fictions. For the enabling uses of therapeutic treatment, the psychoanalyst extracts suspect, unstable, or, in a word, shifty accounts of the subject's experience. Lacan sums up his viewpoint in a single statement: "What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming" (Šcrits, 300 / 86).

Lacan's convoluted sentence is mimetic. Rapid alterations of verb tense both reflect the structural complexity of mind-time and challenge the notion of an autonomous and stable identity based on the reliving of past events. In "The Subversion of the Subject" (1960), Lacan recaptures this psychical-syntactic structure via the image of "rear view" mirroring: "In this 'rear view' (rČtrovisČe), all that the subject can be certain of is the anticipated image coming to meet him that he catches of himself in his mirror" (Šcrits, 808 / 306). The futural ("anticipated") image that comes up from behind in the rearview mirror renders into spatial terms the paradoxical compression of discrete temporal states that constitute human subjectivity. Lacan situates the I (which is largely a function of the eye) in the future of a far from perfect tense.

Samuel Weber aptly describes this condition as "the inconclusive futurity of what will-always-already-have-been [Immer-schon-gewesen-sein-wird]" (9).There is no bedrock, no fixed and unalterable substratum of the past; rather, the incremental layers of the psyche are ever-changing. Lacan elaborates a staging of the subject because (as he reiterated in 1964) "the very originality of psycho-analysis lies in the fact that it does not centre psychological ontogenesis on supposed stages" (Seminar XI, 61 / 63). Hence the act of retrospection is continually submitted to reinspection and retranscription--or, so it should be when the real work of psychoanalysis gets under way.

I would like to pause for some qualifications in this account of Lacan's intellectual progress. To describe his straightforward movement from a genetic (developmental) to a structural (deferred action) position might satisfy the commentator's storytelling and ordering inclinations. Such satisfaction is not so easily wrested from Lacan's texts. And yet it also oversimplifies the path he actually followed. While the exposition of successive stages does provide a conceptual scaffolding for Les complexes familiaux, Lacan occasionally formulates a more intricate view of subjectivity in his essay: 

The contents of this [maternal] imago are produced by feelings specific to infancy. ... They do represent themselves there, however, in the mental structures that shape, as we have said, subsequent psychic experiences. They will be reevoked [Ils seront rČČvoquČs] through association when these [experiences] occur, but inseparably from the objective contents that they [the archaic contents] will have informed [ils auront informČs]. (CF, 28 / 14; trans. modified) 

This passage encapsulates the to-ing and fro-ing of psychical activity. Initially, Lacan seems to reaffirm ("avons-nous dit") an incremental process. Old contents give shape to new forms. His last sentence, however, reverses ("will be revoked") the linear development described in the preceding one, until its final clause partly reinstates ("will have informed") the sequential order just abandoned. These complications exemplify at the level of syntax the phenomenon of retranscription more fully articulated in his later work.

During the 1950s, Lacan further integrated the idea of deferred action into his theory of subjectivity. It is likely that the post-World War II years accelerated the erosion of the Cartesian conception of a stable and centered self-consciousness. He pointedly opens his 1949 essay on the mirror stage with a declaration of opposition to "any philosophy issuing from the Cogito." It is also likely that the continual and close study of Freud's texts deepened his understanding of the relevance of Nachtr”glichkeit for his own work. Be that as it may, the importance of this concept cannot alone explain Lacan's vituperative attack on Ferenczi's 1913 article. The question of who was actually responsible for promoting the psychoanalytic doctrine of stages remains debatable. Gay observes, for instance, that Abraham's papers on libido development "served to redirect Freud's own thinking," and thus had far-reaching consequences for the history of psychoanalysis (Freud: A Life, 182). Similarly, John Forrester endorses the plausibility of the claim that "Abraham was the theoretical mainstay of this line of development of psychoanalytic theory" (363 n. 135). Nevertheless, Lacan insists on Ferenczi as the principal perpetrator. In imputing to Ferenczi's theories the dissemination of a poison, Lacan goes beyond direct disparagement--"very poor," "truly stupid," "and inane"--to convey a sense of invidious, possibly deadly contamination. I therefore want to propose another explanation for this surcharge of criticism.

Thirteen years after the essay on "Stages in the Development of the Sense of Reality," Ferenczi published a follow-up paper entitled "The Problem of Acceptance of Unpleasant Ideas--Advances in Knowledge of the Sense of Reality" (1926). This essay was soon translated into English and reprinted in his Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of Psycho-Analysis (1927). Its central thesis anticipates the correlation developed in Les complexes familiaux between the weaning complex and the emergence of ambivalence. That is, a dozen years or so before Lacan, Ferenczi identified a dialectical process of mental adaptation whose inception he attributed to the infant's responses to the mother.

Drawing on Freud's recently published "Die Verneinung" ("Negation" [1925], in SE, 19: 235-39), Ferenczi argues that the defensive procedure termed "negation" constitutes for the infant "a transition-phase between ignoring and accepting reality" ("Problem of Acceptance," 367). An unpleasant or painful reality need no longer be completely ignored. It can be affirmed "as a negation" by the nascent ego. Ferenczi likens the opposition between acceptance and rejection of reality to "the positive and negative currents in an electrically inactive body"; Verneinung de-neutralizes these currents and prompts mental activity. These responses, in turn, enable advances in infantile mental life: "[W]e can in all seriousness assume that the mutual binding of attracting and repelling forces in a process of mental energy at work in every compromise-formation and in every objective observation" (372).

Ferenczi thus posits a binary configuration in very early childhood the precipitates a dialectical chain of reactions. Ambivalence is a first stepping-stone on the way toward the recognition of external reality. Among the ambivalent objects in the environment to which the infant soon attaches a special and separate significance is the maternal breast. The attitude toward this object constitutes the core of his theoretical innovation: 

When after long waiting and screaming the mother's breast is regained, this no longer has the effect of an indifferent thing which is always there when it is wanted, so that its existence does not need to be recognized; it has become an object of love and hate. ... In any case it certainly becomes at the same time, although no doubt very obscurely, the subject of a "concrete idea." (370-71) 

At the origin of the dialectical dynamics through which thought processes emerge is the mother-child relationship. Ferenczi extrapolates from Freud's essay on negation what is not in the text--except, perhaps, as a form of negation: "The first and immediate aim ... of reality-testing," according to Freud, "is, not to find an object in real perception ... but to refind such an object, to convince oneself that it is still there" (SE, 19: 237-38). Freud does not specify or name the object sought. The infant ego inhabits a rarefied and abstract landscape, tentatively "sampl[ing] the external stimuli" and then withdrawing into itself again. Even when Freud's formulations seem very close to identifying a maternal presence, the mother is nonetheless absent: "[A] precondition for the setting up of reality-testing is that objects shall have been lost which once brought real satisfaction" (19: 238). Yet the mother features among the first and possibly most famous examples of negation in the essay: "'You ask who this person in the dream can be. It's not my mother.' We emend this to: 'So it is his mother'" (19: 235).

Rhetorically, the psychoanalyst identifies an irony. The patient's pronouncement--"It's not my mother"--means the opposite of what it says. In context, I propose, there is a double irony. Freud's meditation on the genesis of intellectual activity omits the infantile ego's capacity to perceive and, then, re-present the maternal object. The image of the breast is negated (rather than repressed) by repeated circumlocutions that recall its presence without accepting it as such: "[T]he ego took things into itself or expelled them from itself" (19: 239). To highlight this irony--the essay on negation replicates the concept it defines--is to take up the critical position of the one who knows: "So it is his mother."

But Ferenczi abstains from assuming this position vis-ý-vis Freud. The question is: how is it possible for him to affirm what Freud has implicitly discounted without adopting an oppositional stance? Ferenczi does so quite simply by asserting, without any intentional irony, that Freud means what he (that is, Ferenczi) says. Ferenczi insists that his own contribution is no more than the supplementary notion7 of an ambivalence elicited by the mother as a precondition of ideational organization. He claims merely to underscore what Freud has already discovered. "When Freud tells us," Ferenczi interprets, "that a human being ... observes his environment by 'feeling after,' 'handling' and 'tasting' little samples of it, he clearly takes a baby's procedure when it misses and feels after its mother's breast as the prototype for all subsequent thought-processes"; and therefore, his interlocutor need only bring out the function of ambivalence: "We are only tempted to add further that the ambivalence indicated above ... is an absolutely necessary condition for the coming into existence of a concrete idea" ("Problem of Acceptance," 370-71; emphasis added).

To read Ferenczi's 1926 essay, with its frequent tributes to Freud, after reading Lacan elicits the strange sensation of recognition of the unfamiliar. Ferenczi defers to "Freud's discovery"--those are his words--even as he sets out to range beyond it: "Following in his footsteps, I shall attempt once more to deal with the problem of the sense of reality in the light of his discovery" (373, 367). It is not only the content of what he says but also his defensive mode of saying it that anticipates Lacan's first and future readings of Freud. Both theorists present some of their most unorthodox expansions of (in effect, departures from) psychoanalysis as if they were Freud's own tacit ideas and therefore acceptable or already accepted for years. "Like almost every innovation," Ferenczi begins his essay "Further Development of an Active Therapy" (1921), "'activity' on closer inspection is found to be an old acquaintance. ... We are dealing here ... with the formulation of a conception and of a technical _expression for something which, even if unexpressed, has always de facto been in use" (198). Among the imponderables of such statements is to what extent Ferenczi and Lacan themselves were confounded by or aware of their rhetorical strategies of defense while advancing their revisionary positions.  


If Lacan knew Ferenczi's essay on "The Problem of Acceptance of Unpleasant Ideas," and it is not implausible to assume he did, it may have generated its own problem of acceptance. Acknowledgement was often enough difficult for Lacan. Even though he borrowed liberally, he could be stinting in his distribution of credit.8 But the motive in this instance, I want to propose, was neither a lack of generosity or intellectual probity on his part nor the result of an academic (French) style that allowed a more liberal appropriation of ideas than current scholarship approves. Rather, Lacan's diatribe against Ferenczi suggests that "history" is at stake in two senses. First, as already discussed here, it is a question of how to conceive and approach the past in psychoanalysis. Second, it involves a problematic of origins and priority.

The issue of priority is a particularly complicated one in the case of Ferenczi. He occupied a position in the early psychoanalytic movement into which Lacan eventually would catapult himself. As Lacan told his audience in a seminar session held several weeks after his (displaced, in my view) attack on the 1913 article, 

Ferenczi was to some extent considered, up to 1930, to be the enfant terrible of psychoanalysis. In relation to the analytic group in general, he remained a freewheeler ["il gardait une grande libertČ d'allure"]. His way of raising questions showed no concern for couching itself in a manner which was, at that time, already orthodox. (Seminar I, 233 / 208) 

Ferenczi emerges in such passages as a composite figure of precursor and semblable: the one-who-came-before who is also the one-like-me. It was not only in his alluringly maverick theories that he demonstrated an intuition that foreshadowed Lacan's understanding of dialectical mental functioning. Ferenczi's "active therapy" and other innovative techniques were, in some respects, forerunners of the variable-length sessions with which Lacan was to experiment. Ferenczi also raised a central question concerning analytic technique that Lacan himself, as will be seen, fully appreciated--namely, "whether the doctor is in the position to further the treatment by his own behaviour in relation to the patient" ("Further Development of an Active Therapy," 215). While Ferenczi's inventiveness and flexibility in response to his patients' needs enabled him to develop different methods over the years, his answer to this question remained fundamentally, unequivocally affirmative.9 Moreover, Lacan was only too well aware, as his comments on the "enfant terrible of psychoanalysis" indicate, of another point of resemblance between himself and Ferenczi. The bitter warring over Lacan's "short sessions" in the 1950s and 1960s paralleled the reactions that Ferenczi's therapeutic activities aroused in the 1920s.10

Briefly to review this earlier outbreak of controversy: in 1924 Ferenczi and Rank published a book entitled The Development of Psychoanalysis, which was soon (along with The Trauma of Birth) strenuously disputed. Book title notwithstanding, their joint venture did not offer an account of the origins of psychoanalytic thought and how it evolved. Instead, the 1924 title may be glossed by a position statement from Ferenczi's 1928 essay on "The Elasticity of Psycho-Analytic Technique": "Analysis should be regarded as a process of fluid development unfolding itself before our eyes rather than as a structure with a design pre-imposed upon it by an architect" (90). Freud is, of course, the unnamed architect whose design is in imminent danger of congealing. Moreover, the word Entwicklungsziele--"development," or, more accurately, "developmental aims"--in the German title of the book implies goals to be achieved rather than those already gained (BŰkay, 16). Drawing on clinical experience, Ferenczi and Rank outlined a set of flexible practices aimed at speeding up the treatment. Broadly defined by Michael Balint, active therapy required "abandoning the sympathetic passive objectivity [of the analyst] by responding to something in the patient in a specific way." These energetic interventions were intended to produce, according to Balint (who was in training analysis with Ferenczi), " a considerable increase of tension," leading to a breakthrough for the patient (124-25).

Active therapy not only modified the so-called "passive" techniques that had acquired a sanctity for many practitioners by the 1920s. It also tended to curtail the prolonged dwelling on childhood memories integral to Freud's theory and method. Freud was nonetheless inclined at first to welcome the proposals of Rank and Ferenczi, who showed him their work in progress: "The fresh daredevil initiative of your joint draft is really gratifying" (Freud to Rank, letter dated 8 September 1922; quoted in Gay, Freud: A Life, 472). However, under the influence of criticism from the heresy-hunters in his inner circle, Freud gradually became far less tolerant and benevolent. In a letter circulated among the "Committee" after the publication of The Development of Psychoanalysis in early 1924, Freud began to withdraw his approval and gave vent to "certain misgivings": "There are certainly many dangers attaching to this departure from our 'classical technique' as Ferenczi called it in Vienna. ... Ferenczi's 'active therapy' is a risky temptation for ambitious beginners, and there is hardly any way of preventing them from making such experiments" (quoted in Jones, 3: 63). From the vantage point of hindsight, Freud's apprehension about the example of active therapy presages such risk-taking ventures as Lacan's "short" or variably punctuated sessions and the institutional schisms provoked a generation later.

In sum, Ferenczi provided a many-faceted model for Lacan. It is therefore necessary to read beyond Lacan's categorical, and sometimes contradictory, assertions about Ferenczi and balance them against each other. Thus he compliments--and devotes his first footnote in the "Rome Discourse to--Ferenczi's visionary essay on "Confusion of Tongues Between Adults and the Child" (1933).11 Of this essay, Lacan says in 1953: "[P]sychoanalysts who are also mothers, even those who give our loftiest deliberations a matriarchal air, are not exempt from that confusion of tongues by which Ferenczi designated the law of the relationship between the child and the adult" (Šcrits, 243 / 36).12 In his 1958 lecture on "The Direction of the Treatment," he further praises Ferenczi for posing "the question of the analyst's being ... very early in the history of analysis" and thereby introducing "the problem of analytic action" almost fifty years before in an essay entitled "Introjection and Transference" (1909). According to Lacan, the essay "anticipated by a long way all the themes later developed about this topic" (Šcrits, 613 / 250). Clearly, he appreciates Ferenczi's risk-taking methods and intellectual enterprise. He likes him whom he is like. However, he also charges him with expounding a doctrine of developmental stages for which Ferenczi was not solely responsible, while ignoring or "forgetting" to mention his insight into the cognitive gains of ambivalence--an insight that predates Lacan's thesis about the dialectical structure of human thought. 


Precursors provoke, on occasion, severe criticism, or silence on Lacan's part. Ferenczi's second (1926) essay on reality compounds the provocation. It not only analyzes the effects of infantile ambivalence but also, and perhaps even more disturbingly for Lacan, foregrounds the role of the mother. In this view, Lacan's quarrel with Ferenczi was triggered by an anxiety concerning genesis--with the powerful maternal imago at its core--that is not commensurate with an anxiety of influence. Harold Bloom portrays the anxiety of influence primarily as a manifestation of the Oedipal conflicts arising between paternal precursors and their disciples: "Battle between strong equals, father and son as might opposites" (11). Such a scenario may well describe the complexity of Lacan's interpretive stance toward Freud. As Bloom remarks, Lacan conceives his project as the "completing link" of Freud's work: the French son attempts "to persuade himself (and us) that the precursor's Word would be worn out if not redeemed as a newly fulfilled and enlarged Word" (67).

Yet a more archaic type of anxiety is also evident in Lacan's writings. The maternal imago of the weaning complex that generates both ambivalence and castration anxiety, according to his 1938 essay, is eliminated or marginalized in his subsequent formulations. The oscillation between identification/alienation that characterizes the mirror stage replaces the acceptance/refusal of weaning. For Lacan, a maternal presence no longer activates a dialectical tension that inaugurates the "coming-into-being" (le devenir) of the subject. Rather, the specular encounter, the recognition of the "imago of one's own body," takes on that decisive role (Šcrits, 94, 95 / 2, 3). Furthermore, Lacan now adopts Freud's position, as opposed to Rank's, that anxiety owing to "separation from the womb at birth" goes into effect only retroactively, nachtr”glich, after "this idea of a loss has become connected with male genitals" and the castration complex has been established in relation to the father (SE, 19: 144). Therefore, when FranÁoise Dolto, Lacan's colleague and an eminent children's clinician in her own right, raises an objection to this retroactive view during his seminar of 1964: 

I don't see how, in describing the formation of intelligence up to the age of three or four, one can do without stages. I think that as far as ... the phantasies of the castration veil are concerned, and also the threats of mutilation, one needs to refer to the stages, 

Lacan immediately responds by dismissing the notion of developmental stages and then reaffirming the Freudian explanation for the retroactive effect of castration anxiety: 

The description of the stages ... must not be referred to some natural process of pseudo-maturation, which always remains opaque. The stages are organized around the fear of castration. ... The fear of castration is like a thread that perforates all the stages of development. It orients the relations that are anterior to its actual appearance--weaning, toilet training, etc. (Seminar XI, 62 / 64) 

In such passages and others, Lacan disengages himself completely from his initial hypotheses concerning the effects of the maternal imago.

Nevertheless, even though the mother's inaugural role is elided in these later formulations, she continues to cause disturbances. The anxiety of genesis predates concerns with influence defined as a strictly Oedipal preoccupation. In the chapter entitled "Completion and Antithesis," Bloom twice quotes Kierkegaard's injunction: "he who is willing to work gives birth to his own father" (56, 73). That wishful thought may now be emended to read: "he who is willing to work gives birth to himself." Genesis is what Lacan's critique of Ferenczi is about.

1 On the difficult of translating the German word nachtr”glich and the inadequacy of the terminology used in English, see Bowie, Lacan, 180-81.

2 My discussion of Lacan's theory of time and the subject is particularly indebted to conversations with William J. Richardson and the closing paragraphs of his essay "Lacan and the Subject of Psychoanalysis."

3 Ken Frieden notes a resemblance between Freud and the figure of Janus: as a dream interpreter, Freud himself was "two-faced, divided between orientations toward the past and toward the future." While continually looking back "for causes of mental events," he also inspired in his patients the "creation of new meanings" (9).

4 In Tribute to Freud, the American poet H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) recalls Freud's showing her the Pallas Athena in his art collection: "'This is my favorite' he said. ... It was a little bronze statue, helmeted, clothed to the foot in carved robe with the upper incised chiton or peplum. One hand was extended as if holding a staff or rod. 'She is perfect,' he said, 'only she has lost her spear.'" Perhaps the word "only" may also signify here "because": "because she has lost her spear"? The collector's item images the notion of genital deficiency, the lack or "always already" castrated condition of female sexuality. The statue is consonant with Freudian (and Lacanian) theory in yet another sense. H.D. adds that when Freud said, "she is perfect," his words suggested to her that "the little rbonze image was a perfect symbol, made in man's image ... born without human or even without divine mother, sprung full-armed from the head of her father, our-father, Zeus" (68-70).

5 John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson explain their translation of Zu-kunft as follows: "Without the hyphen, 'Zukunft' is the ordinary word for 'the future'; with the hyphen, Heidegger evidently wishes to call attention to its kinship with the _expression 'zukommen auf ...' (to come towards ...' or 'to come up to ...') and its derivation from 'zu' ('to' or 'towards') and 'kommen' ('come'). Hence our hendiadys" (Heidegger, 372-73 n. 3).

6 The term "story" here designates the narrated events in their chronological or sequential order; "plot," the actual disposition of this narrative content in the work. In the plot the events are not necessarily presented in sequence but, rather, from a perspective that rearranges them. The formalist critic Boris Tomashevsky similarly distinguishes between the story as "the action itself" and the plot as "how the reader learns of the action" (67). I am suggesting here an analogy between two views of psychical temporality (developmental stages vs. deferred action) and two basic aspects of narrative fiction (story vs. plot).

7 In the section of Of Grammatology entitled " ... That Dangerous Supplement ...," Derrida discusses the two significations of the concept of the supplement: on the one hand, a dispensable or optional addition ("it is a surplus") and, on the other, a necessary replacement or completion that fills a gap ("its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness"). Following Derrida's "logic of supplementarity," I propose that the second of these two significations replaces the first in Ferenczi's text as what is apparently optional "intervenes or insinuates itself in-the-place-of" (see Of Grammatology, 144-45).

8 See, e.g., Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co., 268, 278, 414, and Borch-Jacobsen, 46-47, 248.

9 For an analysis of three main periods in Ferenczi's conception of therapeutic technique from a Lacanian perspective, see Soler.

10 For a discussion of Ferenczi's differences with Freud that is heavily weighted against Ferenczi, see Jones, 3: 46-81. For alternative accounts of the issues and politics involved, see Balint, 124-26, 149-53; Gay, Freud: A Life, 578-86; Lieberman, 193-95; Roazen 363-71.

11 From a contemporary perspective Ferenczi's insights into the responses of young children to sexual abuse and violence are not only illuminating but all too verifiable. However, in 1932 Freud argued that the essay (which overturned his seduction theory by contending that sexual traumas often resulted from factual rather than fantasized experience) would harm Ferenczi's professional reputation and attempted to dissuade him from presenting it at the International Congress in Wiesbaden. Ferenczi nevertheless read the paper, published it, and bore the consequences. For a varied range of descriptions, see Gay, Freud: A Life, 583-84; Jones ("it would be scandalous to read such a paper before a psychoanalytic congress" [3: 173]); Roazen, 368; and This ("Traum n'est pas Traum: le rÍve ... Ferenczi s'isole pour protČger sa libertČ de pensČe" [73]).

12 Melanie Klein is the likely target of Lacan's comment. Neither her clinical intuition nor her investigations into the mother's role in childhood development prevented strife within her own family. In a series of debates held at the British Psychoanalytic Society during the early 1940s, "Melitta Schmideberg, a child analyst, engaged in unseemly public controversy with the pioneering child analyst, Melanie Klein, who was her mother" (Gay, Freud: A Life, 466). These attacks may have engendered Klein's later idea of the infant's "primitive envy" of the feeding breast and all that the mother supposedly withholds: "Some infants obviously have great difficulty in overcoming such grievances" (Klein, "Study of Envy," 213-14). The public rancor displayed by mother and daughter apparently also led to Lacan's sideswipe in the context of his reference to the confusion of tongues.

On Chimpanzees and Children in the Looking-Glass

Wallon’s Mirror Experiments and Lacan’s Theory of Reflexive Recognition  

Shuli Barzilai

This offspring was begot without a Mother. 
Charles de Montesquieu, Epigraph to The Spirit of Laws 
 To live without mirrors is to live without the self. 
Margaret Atwood, "Marrying the Hangman" 

The publication history of "The Mirror Stage" is a curious and convoluted one. It involves a dramatic reversal of fortunes for Lacan: from loss to recovery and restitution, from near oblivion to worldwide renown. I therefore begin with a narrative of beginnings that is also a tale of two difficulties: the commonplace difficulty of beginning, of starting out and making one's own mark and the difficulty, peculiar to "The Mirror Stage," of finding out where the beginning began.1 From the description of these professionally and textually obscure origins (sections I-II), I turn to the work of Henri Wallon, a major resource for Lacan's theory of the onset of subjectivity through reflexive recognition (sections III-VII). Even though more or less sequentially presented, these several points of origin are closely intertwined. 


In the summer of 1936, Lacan presented a paper entitled "Le stade du miroir" at the fourteenth International Psychoanalytical Congress held at Marienbad under the chairmanship of Ernest Jones.2 It was his debut address at a congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA). During Lacan's presentation, an incident took place that, in retrospect, presaged his troubled relations with that governing organization. Ten minutes into the address, Lacan was cut off by Jones. At the chairman's behest, the unknown delegate from France did not complete his lecture. It was possibly Lacan's initiatory experience of what would become the controversial hallmark of his own analytic technique--that is, a very short session.

Ten years later, in "Propos sur la causalitČ psychique" (Remarks on Psychic Causality), Lacan gave a highly ironic account of this incident just before discussing his theory of the mirror stage. This prefatory account, which includes an exact notation of the moment he was interrupted--"au quatriËme top de la dixiËme minute"--recurred thirty years after the event, in 1966, with the inclusion of his "Remarks" in Šcrits (184-85). Evidently, Jones's intervention still continued to reverberate. The immediate result, however, was that the "original" essay never appeared in print. Although it is indexed under the English title, "The Looking-Glass Phase," in the report published in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis of January 1937, all there is under the entry is the title itself, with no text or abstract.3 Lacan publicly accounted for this empty entry many years later. In a footnote to "Of Our Antecedents," an introduction to the early works collected in Šcrits, Lacan writes that he "neglected to deliver" his text for publication in the congress proceedings. He neglected or forgot little else connected with the Marienbad affair. The same footnote also gives the exact place and date (31 July 1936) of his own lecture's aborted delivery and reaffirms that the mirror stage constitutes, in Lacan's view, the "pivot" of his contribution to the psychoanalytic field (Šcrits, 67 n. 1).

The inaugural version of Lacan's famous essay thus has the distinction of not being delivered on two separate occasions. Twice diverted from its destination, it did nonetheless arrive. It appeared in 1938 and the late 1940s in installments that are not only temporally but theoretically distinct from one another. A comparison of the "Le complexe de l'instrustion" section of Les complexes familiaux with Lacan's later texts on the mirror stage brings out the evolution in his thinking. As indicated in the preceding chapters, these alterations include: the reduction from three family complexes to a two-phase theory of specular and Oedipal identifications; the shift from a primarily genetic (developmental) emphasis to a structural (deferred action) view of psychical temporality; and the recasting of the maternal role. Thus elaborating the mirror stage as "an ontological structure of the human world" (Šcrits, 94 / 2), Lacan departs from both his own earlier positions and established psychoanalytic theory.

After Les complexes familiaux appeared in volume 8 of the EncyclopČdie franÁaise, World War II and the German occupation of France intervened. Lacan did not publish any new work until 1945. Thirteen years following the memorable intervention at Marienbad, Lacan presented an uninterrupted communication at the sixteenth International Psychoanalytical Congress in Zurich on 17 July 1949. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I" was published in the October-December 1949 issue of the Revue franÁaise de psychanalyse and subsequently reprinted in Šcrits. In addition to "The Mirror Stage" essay itself, Lacan provided summaries of his theory in three papers written during this period: "Remarks on Psychic Causality" (1946), "Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis" (1948), and "Some Reflections on the Ego" (1953).

However, the conceptual changes introduced after 1945 did not prevent Lacan from drawing a close connection between the pre- and postwar versions of his essay. In "Remarks on Psychic Causality," just before summarizing the concept of specular recognition ("l'assomption triomphante de l'image"), he directs the reader to his encyclopedia article. "I did not give my paper to the congress proceedings," Lacan explains, "and you may find the essential in a few lines in my article on the family that appeared in 1938" (Šcrits 185). The cue-word in this context is "essential": it signals not merely that the unpublished lecture of 1936 has been preserved but also that the content remains unchanged. No significant disparities exist between what "appeared in 1938" and what Lacan is about to present in 1946. The final state of "The Mirror Stage" was already present in the past. 


It is no longer necessary to seek the "essential" in the pages of the EncyclopČdie. In recent years the convoluted publication history of "Le stade du miroir" has taken another surprising turn. Elisabeth Roudinesco, historian of the French psychoanalytic movement and biographer of Lacan, has recovered the lost lecture in the archives of FranÁoise Dolto. Six weeks before the Marienbad conference, Lacan presented his "Looking-Glass" paper at a meeting of the SociČtČ Psychanalytique de Paris (SPP). Dolto, a clinician specializing in children, took careful and copious notes on that occasion. According to Roudinesco, the archival notes dated 16 June 1936 corroborate Lacan's claim that the discussion of the mirror stage in 1938 reiterates the main ideas of his unpublished paper (Esquisse, 159). So the entry in the official conference records need not stay empty. Dolto's notes on the Paris lecture could be used to fill in the blank under the title, "The Looking-Glass Phase," in the IPA proceedings.

It is to these proceedings that Jacques-Alain Miller refers in the annotated bibliography compiled under his supervision: 

Le stade du miroir.

Produit pour la premiËre fois au XIVe CongrËs psychanalytique international tenu ý Marienbad du 2 au 8 aošt 1936 sous la prČsidence d'Ernest Jones. ... Cf. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. 18, part. I, janvier 1937, p. 78, o˜ cette communication est inscrite sous la rubrique 'The Looking-glass Phase.' (Šcrits, 917)

A similar directive appears in the "Bibliographical note" attached to Alan Sheridan's translation of Šcrits. Unlike the French edition, however, the translator's note refers to both an "earlier version" delivered at Marienbad in 1936 and a "much revised later version" presented in 1949. "The present translation is of the later version," Sheridan writes (xiii). In Miller's "RepËres bibliographiques," however, there is no mention of "earlier," "later," or "much revised" versions of the essay. Two separate entries are given: the first points to the interrupted August 1936 lecture and the January 1937 congress report, and the second to the 1949 lecture and publication. Since the first entry directs the reader to a nonexistent text, Miller's referral may well, as Jane Gallop remarks, be "not just ambiguous, but ironic" (Reading Lacan, 75).

The entry for the 1936 essay in Šcrits produces or, rather, collaborates in the production of yet another ambiguity. It begins with the words "Produit pour la premiËre fois au XIV CongrËs ..." (917). "Produced for the first time": in an age of mechanical reproduction, the phrase implies a series of reprints of the same work. Lacan does not revise or "return" to his own texts. He only repeats them. The bibliographer's formulation is comparable to the final sentiments expressed on the back cover of the 1984 edition of Les complexes familiaux: "One does not know what to admire more--the mastery of the whole, or that it did not present an obstacle to that which was to follow [qu'elle n'ait pas fait obstacle ý ce qui devait suivre]." There is no impediment, no contradiction (among the synonyms for the French obstacle listed in Le Grand Robert is contrariČtČ [6:86]) between the work of 1938 and the rest of Lacan's teaching. Unlike the alarming hauteur (and humility) of Walt Whitman's: "Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself," the back-cover text provides this reassurance: Lacan could do no worse than repeat himself.

But to exclude the diachronic dimension of Lacan's work would seem to counterman his own instructions. Lacan thus cautions his eager readers in 1966: "?It happens that our students delude themselves into finding 'already there' ['dČjý lý'] in our writings that to which our teaching has since brought us. Is it not enough that what is there has not barred the way [ce qui est lý n'en ait pas barrČ le chemin]?" (Šcrits, 67). He apparently resists the implication of an already-thereness, of a synecdochic reading of his writings that makes every part correspond with or adequate to the whole. There is a progression in the path he has pursued. And yet the back-cover panegyric--"One does not know what to admire more..."--does not get it entirely wrong. Lacan himself, in spite of his criticism of overzealous seekers, claims to find in Freud's texts an appeal to something that may be termed "always there" (toujours lý): namely, the Name or Interdiction (nom-non) of the Father. The symbolic father designates an invariant, unconscious feature of the social group or community that elevates human subjects above mere brute, instinctual existence and simultaneously subjugates them to its signifying structures. Lacan's writings would transmit the universal law of the signifier discovered by Freud. Such a teaching, however, cannot be subject to the time-bound procession of "earlier" and "later" variants. Its meaning value is supra- or hyperlogical and not chronological.

In keeping with this domain of law and truth, Lacan concludes "Of Our Antecedents" with the acknowledgment that he finds himself placing the early texts now collected in Šcrits in a "future anterior": "they will have preceded our insertion of the unconscious into language [ils auront dČvancČ notre insertion de l'inconscient dans le langage]" (71). He implants a future construction in the past tense to express a time that is already in the future, even when viewed through the prism of the past. His conclusion does not repeat the diachronic indication given in the rhetorical question ("Is it not enough that what is there has not barred the way?") posed earlier in "Of Our Antecedents," but rather controverts it. What emerges, then, from a reading of Lacan's several directives to his readers is the impasse of an ambiguity: is this work to be viewed in the incremental sense of "that to which our teaching has since brought us"? or, on the contrary, as that which is "always already there"?

Put another way, the retranscriptive movement that invests past events with later significations (in a word, Nachtr”glichkeit) may be no less central to the temporality of Lacan's teaching than to his teaching about the temporality of the subject. Although the discussion of the intrusion complex in 1938 diverges in certain basic respects from "The Mirror Stage" of 1949, Lacan tends to gloss over these differences when speaking of his fully developed theory. His mention of "the essential ... in [his] article on the family" encourages the reader to consider the concept of reciprocal reflexivity first expounded in the 1930s, aprËs coup, from the perspective of the subsequent meanings it acquires. Analogously, the use of the future perfect to present his early work in "Of Our Antecedents" achieves, or strives after a retrospective/anticipatory effect.

Lacan's inclination to rewrite his intellectual history ("it is less a matter of remembering than of rewriting history" [Seminar I, 20 / 14]) parallels another type of self-fashioning: the rupture he effected between his family ties--the devoutly Catholic and middle-bourgeois milieu of vinegar merchants into which he was born--and the socially upscale and avant-gardiste identity he forged for himself. He was intent on, and largely succeeded in, becoming "a grand bourgeois, a son of no one" (Roudinesco, Esquisse, 312). Lacan's reticence about his past, particularly his childhood and familial ancestry, contrasts with Freud's many autobiographical reminiscences and anecdotes. (There is nothing, for instance, comparable to the confessional mode of The Interpretation of Dreams in Lacan's writings.) This reticence may be traced to the tension between the need for a beginning, a point of departure that requires antecedents, and the need to cut one's self off from one's origins. The crux is: how can one begin to be without origins? If, in Freud's celebrated formulation, there is "one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable--a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown" (SE, 4: 111), for Lacan, the navel is a mark or image or reminder of what is too well known: the umbilical connection that cancels the dream of beginning entirely anew.

It is in keeping with this trend toward self-fashioning that Lacan, baptized Jacques-Marie Šmile, eventually discarded two of his first names. Like his father Charles-Marie Alfred, his brother Marc-Marie, as well as other relatives, he bore the name of the Holy Mother, who was venerated as the "protective saint" of the family vinegar trade (Roudinesco, Esquisse, 23). Šmile is, moreover, almost identical to the first of his mother's Christian names: Šmilie Philippine Marie. The emergence of "Jacques Lacan" seems to have required, quite literally, an effacement of the names-of-the-mother. The correlative to this revisionary erasure in Lacan's later theory of ego formation is the absence of the mother's face in the mirror. 


To recall for a third and last time the bibliographic note that begins "Produit pour la premiËre fois au XIV CongrËs ...," I would now propose that the "first time" mentioned in this note is as difficult to read as the entry blank, the communication meticulously but invisibly "inscribed" on page 78 of the International Journal of Psychoanalysis ("Cf.... Vol. 18, part. 1, janvier 1937") in an additional sense. The first presentation--the lecture that Jones interrupted at Marienbad turns out actually to be the second--after the SPP meeting that Dolto attended in Paris--or, by another count, even more belated. If Wallon's research on the mirror experiences of children and animals is included among the antecedents of Lacan's theory of the mirror stage, the question of beginnings and succession returns in a different guise. So our horizon of origins keeps changing.

Lacan became acquainted with Wallon, a fellow member of the SociČtČ de Psychiatrie, in the early 1930s. During this period, he read Wallon's book-length monograph, which cites and develops the studies of Charlotte B¸hler, Charles Darwin, Paul Guillaume, Elsa K–hler, and W.T. Preyer. Wallon's work first appeared in the Journal de Psychologie, November-December 1931, and was soon after reprinted in Les origins du caractËre chez l'enfant (The Origins of the Infant's Character) (1933). When Wallon was put in charge of volume 8 of the EncyclopČdie franÁaise, on La vie mentale (Mental Life), he commissioned the article that came to be called "La Famille" from the young psychiatrist Lacan (Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co., 142-43). For the 1938 account of the mirror stage and throughout its later permutations, Lacan draws on the extensive data and observations gathered in Wallon's Les origins.

In "Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis," Lacan briefly acknowledges his debt to "Wallon's remarkable work" (18), a debt that remains otherwise unmentioned in his writings. Disclosing "a certain forgetfulness or a curious lapsus," Lacan consistently "skips over" Wallon, as Bertrand Ogilvie puts in (113 n. 1). Wallon is most noticeably absent from the 1949 essay on the mirror stage. Lacan also neglects to mention Wallon in "Some Reflections on the Ego," where he recapitulates his theory of the mirror stage for the British Psycho-Analytical Society: "I introduced the concept. ... I returned to the subject two years ago. ... The theory I there advanced, which I submitted long ago to the French psychologists," and so forth (14). Furthermore, when he presents his "antecedents" in Šcrits, Wallon's name is not among those singled out for recognition. Instead, Lacan speaks of his "invention" of the ideas of the moi and mirror stage (67). Whether the mirror stage is universally formative of the I-function or not, it would certainly seem to have been so in the case of Lacan.

However, a different perspective can be brought to bear on the scandal surrounding this silence. Lacan's recourse to Wallon is revisionary and, at times, antithetical. In this respect, it resembles his much-vaunted "return" to Freud. As I shall presently show, Lacan not only appropriates and assimilates but also transforms Wallon's observations to such an extent that, like the White Knight in Lewis Carroll's looking-glass world, he can proclaim, "It is my own invention" without egregious prevarication. Nonetheless, the discrepancy in Lacan's treatment of Freud and of Wallon raises the question: why this flagrant omission of Wallon's contribution? Why does Wallon only once receive due credit from Lacan, whereas reiterated tributes to Freud fully acknowledge the doctrine from which Lacan departs?

One motive for trumpeting certain influences while muting others may derive from the difference between the arenas of Oedipal and specular rivalry. Proclamations of fidelity to the Freudian discovery, amid often transgressive commentary, may be read as a defense against or cover-up for what (theoretically) Lacan understands very well: aggressivity in psychoanalysis. Viewed thus, Lacan's praise of Freud is also a preemptive strike. Frequent homage accompanies a revisionary reading that, at times, completely repudiates Freud's theories and, at others, makes them anticipate those of Lacan. He wants Freud--dead or alive--no longer behind him. He would put his precursor in the place of a follower.

Wallon occupies a different relational arena. In the strict chronological sense, Wallon (born 1879) belonged to the preceding generation: "But in his innovative position in the field of psychology, he was closer to Jacques Lacan ... twenty years his junior" (Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co., 66). Like Rank (born 1884) and Ferenczi (born 1873), Wallon is a specular counterpart to Lacan. The adversarial relation with the (br)other, the fight for "pure prestige," in Alexandre KojËve's well-known phrase (7), mandates that only one survive and prosper. This type of struggle leads to a "slaying" of the fraternal rival rather than of the father. So while Lacan tends to present his own work as (a tribute to) Freud's, he presents Wallon's work as his own; that is, he translates himself into Freud, but translates Wallon into himself.

To characterize this rivalrous ratio in other terms, Wallon is the Red Knight to Lacan's White Knight. In contradistinction to the deadly seriousness of the dialectics of Master and Slave, and to the tragic outcome of the competition between Cain and Abel, Lewis Carroll offers a satiric version of the drama of fraternal feuding. Carroll's crimson-clad knight arrives first on the scene and, "brandishing a great club," claims proprietary rights over the startled Alice: "'You're my prisoner!' the Knight cried, as he tumbled off his horse." The pure display of the ego flourishes and, intermittently, falls under the banner of its aggression. The White Knight arrives next and confronts the Red Knight with an inverted symmetry: "He drew up at Alice's side, and tumbled off his horse just as the Red Knight had done; then he got on again, and the two Knights sat and looked at each other for some time without speaking."4 On this rarefied imaginary plane, words are marginalized, hardly matter. The moment of recognition-cum-possession is what is fought for. "'She's my prisoner, you know!' the Red Knight said at last" (Carroll, 294).

Alice is an excuse for and not an actual cause of conflict. Carroll constructs a parody of epic warriors locked in mortal combat over an illusory trophy-object. In RenČ Girard's lexicon (as in Lacan's), Alice is an object of "mimetic desire": "By making one man's desire into a replica of another man's desire, [mimetism] inevitably leads to rivalry; and rivalry in turn transforms desire into violence" (169). Both Girard's dictum--"the subject desires the object because the rival desires it"--and Lacan's--"the desire of man is the desire of the Other"--derive from the KojËvian notion of aggression as an outcome of mimesis (Girard, 145; Lacan, Seminar XI, 105 / 115). "Desire is human," according to KojËve, "only if the one desires ... the Desire of the other" (6).5 In the exchange of blows between the knights, whose self-absorption completely defeats whatever gallantry their chivalric code defends, Alice represents no more than a function of their narcissistic and imitated desires. After the inconclusive battle is over ("'It was a glorious victory, wasn't it?' said the White Knight ..."), the Red Knight mounts and gallops off. Even though the White Knight has appeared belatedly in the field of contest, he vaunts his possessive claim: "I came and rescued her!" He continues his journey for some distance with the looking-glass girl in tow.

In what follows I propose to explore the analogical relations between Wallon's ideas about the mirror-image and Lacan's. By means of this ideational dialogue, I shall try to present not only the singularity of Lacan's theory about the encounter with the specular image and its ramifications but also why and how this theory produces a specular effect. 


In the chapter of Les origins entitled "The Body Proper and Its Exteroceptive Image," Wallon introduces a zoo of creatures to demonstrate, first, the disparity between animal and human modes of cognition and, second, the series of intricate stages in which consciousness of reflexive reciprocity develops in the child. A dog or a cat or a bird can perceive the mirror image, but only the human infant, although still motorically uncoordinated, can grasp the reciprocal relation between the self and its reflection. Wallon cites the striking instance of a drake (un canard de Turquie) that acquired the habit, his partner being dead, of peering into a reflecting windowpane. "Without doubt his own reflection," Wallon writes, "could more or less fill in the void left by the absence of his companion" (218-19).6 The drake found consolation only because it was unable to identify the image; that is, it did not see itself but rather an extension of its entourage in the glass. The animal, as opposed to the human infant, cannot grasp the relation between the virtual image seen in the mirror and the reality outside.

Wallon's text on mirror behavior vividly exemplifies the differences in the mental capacities among animal species, as well as among children at various developmental stages. Similarly, Lacan contrasts the behavior of the child and the chimp in his 1949 essay: "The child, at an age when he is for a time, however short, outdone by the chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence, can nevertheless already recognize as such his own image in a mirror" (Šcrits, 93 / 1; see also 112 / 18 and 185). The motoric advantage of the animal is offset by the spark of early human intelligence. Like Wallon, Lacan also mentions the experiments of Elsa K–hler and other psychologists who published their observations in the 1930s. In further keeping with these empirical arguments, Lacan repeatedly refers to the Leonard Harrison Matthews's study of ovulation in pigeons and Remy Chauvin's research on migratory locusts (Šcrits, 95-96 / 3, 189-91; "Some Reflections," 14). Their studies demonstrate that visual stimulation links mental and physical processes in these animals; even seeing the reflected image of members of the same species can produce a physiological change. Matthews's experiments especially support the preeminence accorded the visual in Lacanian theory by proving that, for ovulation to occur in a female pigeon, either the sight of other (male or female) pigeons, or a mirror image of herself alone is sufficient.7

It is very odd, as David Macey points out, that Lacan with his "reputation for militant anti-biologism" should thus repeatedly invoke experimental psychology, ethology, and biology (99). But he had already done so earlier. Despite the polemical emphasis on culturally determined complexes as opposed to instinctual factors throughout Les Complexes familiaux, Lacan had unhesitatingly recalled the "material base" of the complex in order to substantiate his idea of the enduring influence of separation from the maternal body (sevrage). "The organic connection," he contends in his encyclopedia essay, "accounts for the fact that the maternal imago possesses the very depths of the psyche" (32 / 15). Because the mirror stage now replaces the nursing dyad and weaning as the governing structure of the psyche, it is not unexpected to find Lacan's anti-biologism once again suspended.

Among other ideas specified in Wallon's work that resonate in Lacan's is the linkage between the child's acquisition of a unified body image and a preliminary understanding of symbolic representation. According to Wallon, the human infant, whose direct vision is limited to a partial body image ("only certain fragments and never assembled"), accedes to a coherent image of the "total body" through the mediation of the mirror (227). Simple though this unification of the self in space may appear to adults, it implies a cognitive subordination of "the givens of immediate experience to pure representation." The mirror experience is thus also the "prelude to symbolic activity," enabling a transition from partial, sensorial perceptions to what Wallon calls the "symbolic function" (230-31).

Wallon's detailed observations clearly established a conceptual paradigm for Lacan's understanding of the mirror stage. Yet Lacan decisively parts company with Wallon--and this departure is arguably the core of his theoretical innovation--on two points: the status of the mirror and the identity of the specular image. 


What is the phenomenological status of the mirror? Is it a real or metaphorical reflector? In Wallon's numerous descriptions of attitudes before the looking glass--be it those of dogs, monkeys, infants in their cradles, or a little girl admiring the straw hat on her head--a real mirror is involved. Wallon placed a literal reflector before his subjects, as did the several researchers whose data are cited in the pages of Les origines. Lacan has a more complicated mirror in mind. It may (but need not) be a real one. Lacan does not rule out the perceiving subject's actual reduplication; yet the mirror is also a metaphor, and, as he remarks in another connection, "it is not a metaphor to say so" (Šcrits, 528 / 175).

In Lacan's theory, the mirror stage or phase functions as a figurative designation for two temporal modalities: first, a sudden moment or flash of recognition--the "jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child"--in which assimilation to the image of the counterpart (sibling, playmate, or actual reflection) takes place; and second, a state of identification/alienation involving the other--"the mirror disposition"--that constitutes a permanent structure of the psyche (Šcrits, 94, 95 / 2, 3). These modalities are implicated in each other but can nevertheless be elaborated separately. Whereas the first phase coincides with early childhood, the second characterizes a psychical tug-of-war, a dialectical tension ranging over the life span of the subject. The first specifies a moment of genesis in which the ego begins its formation. In this respect, Lacan adheres to Freud's supposition in the essay "On Narcissism: An Introduction" that "a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist in the individual from the start; the ego has to be developed" (SE, 14: 77). The second phase entails an ongoing narcissistic, imaginary relationship based on aggressive alienation/erotic attraction between the ego and the other.

This second phase in particular bears the mark of another major influence on Lacan's thought. As Miller recapitulated in a 1989 interview (eight years after the death of Lacan, his father-in-law): "Lacan reorganized the Freudian discovery from a point of view that was foreign to [Freud], the mirror-stage ... which comes from Henri Wallon for its empirical basis and from Hegel revised by KojËve for its theory" (quoted in Borch-Jacobsen, 249 n. 11). Lacan's familiarity with Hegelian philosophy and, especially, with KojËve's influential commentary on The Phenomenology of Spirit is evident in Les complexes familiaux and his later writings. KojËve began what was to become a legendary six-year series of lectures on Hegel at the Šcole des Hautes Študes in 1933. Lacan was among the Parisian avant-gardists (including George Bataille, AndrČ Breton, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Raymond Queneau, and many others) who attended these lectures and discovered the key terms of Hegel's phenomenology via KojËve's teaching (Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co., 134-35, 140; see also Borch-Jacobsen, 4-5; Casey and Woody, 76-77; and Macey, 57-58, 95-98).

"Hegel speculated," Lacan writes in Les complexes familiaux, "that the individual who does not fight to be recognized outside the family group will never attain autonomy before death" (34/16). The dark, agonistic aspect of the mirror stage (which cancels or mitigates the jubilation it brings) derives from a Hegelian-KojËvian version of the encounter between the subject and the other as a fight for "pure prestige," a life-and-death struggle for recognition on which independent self-consciousness is predicated. More needs to be said about this influence; but, for the purposes of the present comparison, it is noteworthy that Lacan transforms the real mirror that confronted Wallon's experimental subjects into a metaphor for a metapsychological concept of human genesis.8

To trace further this skein of similarities and dissimilarities, D.W. Winnicott, in his "Mirror-Role of Mother and Family in Child Development" (1967), discloses an interest in the constitution of selfhood analogous to Lacan's. At the very outset of this essay, Winnicott acknowledges Lacan's influential ideas on "the mirror in each individual's ego development" (130), and, in his concluding statements, he also makes quite clear the metaphoric status of the mirror, a status that is implicitly (but not consistently) upheld in Lacan's writings. Thus, although it is possible to "include in all this [reflecting activity] the actual mirrors that exist in the house," Winnicott still insists, "[i]t should be understood ... that the actual mirror has significance mainly in its figurative sense" (138). For Winnicott, too, a real mirror is not prerequisite for the maturational process of mirroring to ensue. In opting for a figural approach, Winnicott is closer to Lacan's views than Lacan is to Wallon's.

Yet whose face appears as the mirror? What body forms or attitudes can function in reflexive relation to the perceiver? Winnicott designates a range of individual forms and even entire familial attitudes: "[W]hen a family is intact ... each child derives benefit from being able to see himself or herself in the attitude of the individual members or in the attitudes of the family as a whole." But, as his essay title suggests, he gives precedence to the mother's role. Under normal circumstances, her responsiveness to the child ("giving back to the baby the baby's own self") confers a positive experience of formation (138). Winnicott thus draws on Lacan's mirror-stage theory but also indicates where his own stance differs. As he notes in his mirror-role essay, "Lacan does not think of the mirror in terms of the mother's face in the way that I wish to do" (130). The mirror remains a metaphorical concept. However, in the terminological alteration from "stage" (stade) to "role," an abstract setting becomes an actual habitation: a familial setting in which the mother's face serves as primary reflector for the young child.9

This distinction carries over into the rhetoric that Lacan and Winnicott use to conceptualize what occurs during the analytic situation. Winnicott, in his 1967 essay and throughout his work, develops an analogy between the infant-mother and the analysand-analyst relationships.10 That is, in exploring what analysts actually do, the "holding" environment they provide for those under their care, Winnicott alludes to aspects of maternal care. Psychotherapy, according to Winnicott, "is a complex derivative of the face that reflects what is there to be seen": "I like to think of my work this way, and to think that if I do this well enough the patient will find his or her own self" (137-38). Doing it "well enough" casts the analyst in the mirror-role of the mother. Lacan, too, in his "Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power" (1958) and other writings, draws analogies between the "metaphor of the mirror" and the analyst's task; however, he typically evokes the "smooth surface [surface unie] that the analyst presents to the patient" (Šcrits, 589 / 229). Lacan stresses the element of "abnegation," or self-imposed absence--"an impassive face and sealed lips"--instead of the resilient, affective reciprocity suggested in Winnicott's recourse to the mirror analogy. Whereas Lacan describes the analyst as bringing to the session "what in bridge is called the dummy (le mort)" (589 / 229), Winnicott envisages the mommy (la mËre) in the analysis.

The connections sketched here (Wallon-Lacan-Winnicott) constitute a line of disrupted continuities in more ways than one. Whereas mimetic rivalry arguably determines Lacan's relations with Wallon, Winnicott does not engage Lacan either as a precursor (paternal) or as a contemporary (fraternal) adversary. Rather, after forthrightly acknowledging Lacan's influence, Winnicott moves on and proposes an alternative mode of understanding the child's formation. Furthermore, given Lacan's sustained reticence about Wallon and the general obscurity of the latter's work outside of France (Les origines has not been translated into English), it is unlikely that Winnicott was directly acquainted with Wallon's research. And yet despite the distance between Wallon's literal and Winnicott's figural notions about the mirror, their views converge in two respects that differ from Lacan's formulations.

The first can be compared to the divergent inflections of rising and falling tones. Wallon evokes the child's triumph at the resolution of the mirror "ordeal" (Čpreuve), and Winnicott the potential for growth and self-enrichment as a result of maternal mirroring. By contrast, Lacan describes a short-lived moment of jubilation. A sense of radical, unalterable alienation pervades his account. He envisions the ego whose formation is precipitated by the visual image of the counterpart in terms of a negativity derived from KojËve's reading of Hegel: "The dialectic which supports our experience ... obliges us to understand the ego as being constituted from top to bottom within the movement of progressive alienation in which self-consciousness is constituted in Hegel's phenomenology" (Šcrits, 374; trans. quoted in Macey, 97-98). Both Michael Eigen, in a comparison of Winnicott and Lacan, and Roudinesco, in a more recent comparison of Wallon and Lacan, comment on the negativistic aspect of the Lacanian vision (Eigen, 421-22; Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co., 143). Significant though this aspect may well be, I would propose that the second point of divergence discussed below is the more fundamental to Lacan's conception of subject formation. It enables or seems to enable an exorcism of the powerful maternal presence. 


Where the question "Who's in the mirror?" is concerned, Lacan provides a Hegelian-based determination. Unlike Wallon, for whom the identity of the triggering image is indifferent, and most unlike Winnicott, for whom the image is usually--and preferably--an average devoted ("good-enough") mother, Lacan posits the conjunction between the ego and its antagonist-double as a necessary precondition for the moment of recognition. The self sees the self-same image in the dialectical encounter. A sharp contrast is content as well as in tone thus sets apart Lacan's theoretical formulations.

In particular, Wallon's text about the origins of the child's character becomes an origin that is also a point of new beginning (or departure) for Lacan's definition of the specular image. According to Wallon, the reflected body of the perceiving subject need not be the one to activate the mental integration of model and image. Other bodies may serve the same purpose. Wallon gives the example of a little boy, still in an intermediate stage of development, who smiles at his own and his father's images in the mirror but turns in surprise upon hearing his father's voice behind him. The child has not as yet grasped the connection between the reflection and the real presence of the father (223). In Wallon's analysis, the difficulty seems to lie in a spatial realism that prevents the child from linking the actual figure with the virtual one. The pre-mirror-stage child does not yet understand that the two bodies located at two points in space--the tactile body here and the visual body there--constitute only one body. The child attributes an independent reality to each object or person occupying a different space (225). 

Yet after the child has grasped the distinction between reality and its symbols or representations, a ludic element can enter into these relations. If asked, "Where is Mommy?" a post-mirror-stage child may point to let her image in the mirror and then turn toward her laughing. The child now plays with the duality. "Slyly, he pretends to grant preponderance to the image," Wallon writes, "precisely because he has just clearly recognized its unreality and purely symbolic character" (232).

For Wallon, then, the essential factor is the recognition of spatial values, or, more precisely, the coordination of what was perceived as two bodies in two distinct places. The child's behavior suddenly demonstrates a comprehension of the reciprocity between model and image. The realization of their subordinate rather than independent relation is the turning point. Wallon does devote separate sections in his work to children's specular relations with others ("L'enfant devant l'image speculaire d'autrui") and with their own bodies ("L'enfant devant sa propre image speculaire"); and he also discusses the different mental operations involved in withdrawing reality from the images of other bodies and from the self-image. More crucial, however, than the identity of the person seen in the mirror is the elimination of the schism between the felt "me" and the visual "me."

In "The Child's Relations with Others" (1960), Maurice Merleau-Ponty comments on the Lacanian extension of the ideas found in Les origines

In reading Wallon one often has the feeling that in acquiring the specular image it is a question of a labor of understanding, of a synthesis of certain visual perceptions with certain introceptive perceptions. For psychoanalysts the visual is not simply one type of sensibility among others. ... With the visual experience of the self, there is ... the advent of a new mode of relatedness to self. ... The sensory functions themselves are thus redefined in proportion to the contribution they can make to the existence of the subject and the structures they can offer for the development of that existence. (137-38) 

For Lacan, Merleau-Ponty suggests, the perceptual synthesis achieved during the mirror stage is a first stepping-stone in a far more complicated process of maturation. This process involves unconscious as well as conscious mental activities. Moreover, as I have already indicated, the identity of the specular image is not an indifferent one. The reflected body belongs neither to the mother nor to any adult caretaker. On the contrary, Lacan's formulations repeatedly underscore the ego's captivation by its own image: "[T]he mirror-image would seem to be the threshold of the visible world, if we go by the mirror disposition that the imago of one's own body presents in hallucinations or dreams" (Šcrits, 95 / 3). This emphasis recurs in his work during this period. He speaks of the "autonomy of the image of the body proper in the psyche" and of the infant's jubilant interest in "his own image in a mirror" (Šcrits, 185; "Some Reflections," 14). The figure in the glass is none other than the counterpart of the self.

Adopting the stance of an objective or external focus, Lacan describes an observer's reaction to this drama of reflexive identification: "[O]ne is all the more impressed when one realizes" (and I take the impersonal "one" as a sign of special investment on his part) "that this behavior occurs either in a babe in arms or in a child who is holding himself upright by one of those contrivances to help one to learn to walk without serious falls" ("Some Reflections," 15). At this juncture, then, the question of the subject--"Which dreamed it?" to borrow Carroll's looking-glass conundrum--might arise: how can one see what the child sees without putting one's self in the frame? Lacan's description conjures the child before the mirror in such a way that the presence of other persons is minimalized ("arms") or eliminated ("holding himself"). Likewise, in "The Mirror Stage," he renders the mother or caretaker a virtually invisible factor: 

Unable as yet to walk, or even to stand up, and held tightly as he [the child] is by some support, human or artificial (what, in France, we call a "trotte-bČbČ", he nevertheless overcomes, in a flutter of jubilant activity, the obstructions of his support and, fixing his attitude in a slightly leaning-forward position, in order to hold it in his gaze, brings back an instantaneous aspect of the image. (Šcrits, 94 / 1-2) 

Thus the hand that proverbially rocks the cradle and, more ominously, rules the world is whisked away. What remains is some contraption--a baby walker or a pair of disembodied arms--holding the infant. Lacan makes it abundantly clear that the image in the mirror is not the mother's. He reiterates this cardinal point in "Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis": it is the "imago of one's own body" (Šcrits, 120 / 25; also 95 / 3). Even when an adult holds the infant before the mirror, Lacan asserts that the crucial formative identification occurs only between the self and its semblable. If such repetition may be considered a symptom (or a symbol), then Lacan's evocations of an infant overcoming the actual obstruction of various supporting agents, however literally intended, acquire an added resonance. His insistence brings me, at the risk of a certain implausibility, to offer the following interpretation: in the small world of the infantile ego striving to surmount its supports, the venerable injunction "Thou shalt have no other images before me" has a revisionary, projecting meaning. The ego (moi) receives a message from the big Other (le grand Autre) that originally emanated from itself.

Some commentators, however, refuse to allow the radical absence of the mother in the mirror-stage theory. Hence there is a tendency to reintroduce her. Mario Rendon, for example, cites Lacan's 1949 essay as a source for the observation that "the image of the self is originally constructed around the perceived image of the mother" (350). Elizabeth Grosz writes of the "(m)other/mirror-image" (32), making the mother integral to the Lacanian concept of reflexive identification. These readings fail to grasp both the literal meaning of the mirror stage and its doctrinal significance. As described in Les complexes familiaux, the intrusion complex already entails a scene of ego formation through the mirroring of the child's own body. From the very outset, Lacan thus posits a psychical mechanism--"narcissistic intrusion" as he calls it--that requires "the subject's recognition of his image in a mirror" (CF, 45 / 18, 42 / 17). 


Critical differences notwithstanding, Lacan and Wallon both maintain that the unity of the specular image, the total bodily form, or gestalt, is an indispensable part of the maturation process. According to Lacan, "[w]hat the subject welcomes in [the image] is its inherent mental unity; ... what he applauds in it is the triumph of its integrative power" (CF, 18 / 44; emphasis added). Lacan's statement here does provide grounds for finding that which is to come already there (dČjý lý), anticipating his later formulation of the mirror stage as a drama involving self-reflection and self-integration: a perception of one's-own-body and of one's-whole-body.

Lacan singled out both of these factors in 1948: "What I have called the mirror stage is interesting in that it manifests the affective dynamism by which the subject originally identifies himself with the visual Gestalt of his own body: in relation to the still very profound lack of coordination of his own motility, it represents an ideal unity, a salutary imago" (Šcrits, 113 / 18-19). Appropriately enough, "ideal [that is, unreal or imaginary] unity" is endowed by a reflected totality. The celebratory sense of the I is a function of the formal constellation of parts in the mirror. The term "affective dynamism" in this passage should be glossed by the "triumphant jubilation" frequently associated with the child's identification of the image: "[W]hat demonstrates [sic] the phenomenon of recognition, which involves subjectivity, are the signs of triumphant jubilation and playful discovery that characterize, from the sixth month, the child's encounter with his image in the mirror" (Šcrits, 112 / 18). For Lacan (as for Wallon), the behavioral evidence for the child's momentous insight is a joyous kind of playfulness.

The question arises: why joy? Why indeed does recognition of the specular other initially bring with it such jubilation? It is after all also accompanied, in Lacan's agonistic view, by an inevitable estrangement, or "assumption of an armour of an alienating identity" (Šcrits, 94 / 7). Lacan accounts for the child's joyful antics before the mirror as follows: the good gestalt equips the child with a unitary mental image. This image ("the total form of the body") allows some compensation for the malaise ("the fragmented body-image") that persists in the psyche after the prematurity and discordances of birth. Hence he calls the totality glimpsed in the glass "orthepaedic" (94 / 7). The specular counterpart puts Humpty Dumpty together again, however temporarily and phantasmatically.

One source of the widespread appeal of the mirror-stage theory, I therefore suggest, derives from this account of human genesis that, painful and fraught with psychical dangers (fantasies of fragmentation, acute narcissism, alienation) though it might be, takes place without mediation: sans mother and sans father. To a largely secular and skeptical readership, Lacan's mirror stage presents a new myth of genesis. It is a powerful creation myth whose passion and investment is overlaid by the dignity that an abstract and "scientific" terminology confers upon conjecture.11 Unlike the myth of the goddess Athena (Freud's favorite artifact in his large collection) who sprang forth from Zeus's forehead, in Lacanian theory, the function of the I does not emerge as a result of any parental intervention. The birth of the ego takes place in and through the looking glass. In Lacan's view, the mirror is the mother of the ego. But the mother is not in the mirror.

In effect, "The Mirror Stage" as theory and text marks another complex moment of separation for Lacan. First and foremost, identification with the semblable, or self-same, prepares the way for identification with the figure of the father. Reflexive recognition displaces the Oedipal conflict as the linchpin or turning point in the constitution of the subject. Next, in orienting the psychoanalytic focus toward the fraternal (and, only secondarily, the paternal) function, Lacan furthers the challenge, only summarily presented in his essay on the family, to the growing influence of Melanie Klein and the inclination since the 1930s to view the mother as the center of the child's world. As Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester observe, "[T]he Lacanian scheme guaranteed that psychoanalysis was removed from the ambiguously ewige mutterliche, or eternally maternal, tendencies that British Kleinian and other object-relations theories were encouraging" (462). With these two revisionary moments, Lacan could be said to put himself in place of the (Freudian) father and the (Kleinian) mother. Thus Lacan (re)constitutes himself. The mirror stage of the late 1940s represents his emergence as an embattled but full-fledged contender for theoretical preeminence in the Freudian field.

Briefly to pursue these speculations, critics and historians such as Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Wilfried Ver Eecke, Ogilvie, and Roudinesco have traced the mirror stage to numerous sources. The theory presents a stunning synthesis of several strands of thought in psychoanalysis, philosophy, and experimental psychology. Although Lacan would cast aside most precursors or supports, these same neglected ones merely wait to be recalled. They seem to impose, or at least contribute to, the alienation that curtails Lacan's jubilant assumption of his own invention. He thus tells the truth when he says that the sense of fragmentation is never fully overcome, even in those pleasurable moments in which an image of totality is glimpsed. His famous theory is itself a kind of body-in-pieces, a dream composed of diverse concepts. The vision of the self-constituted individual, or what might be called "the good-enough gestalt" indeed turns out to be a mirage. Humpty Dumpty, the seemingly complacent but ever-fragile ego (hommelette in Lacan's wordplay)12, is what the idea of the mirror stage defends against.

1 My discussion is mainly indebted to Jane Gallop's "Where to Begin?"(Reading Lacan, 74-92) for its overall approach and to Roudinesco's biographical work on Lacan for its extensive archival information.

2 On the atmosphere at the Marienbad congress, the conflicts between Anna Freudians and Kleinians, and Lacan's general reception, see Roudinesco, Esquisse, 151-61.

3 Gallop gives an acute analysis of this blind entry in Reading Lacan (74-76).

4 HČlËne Cixous writes of Through the Looking-Glass: "[O]ne is immediately tempted ... to take the whole adventure for a figurative representation of the imaginary construction of self, the ego, through reflexive identification" (238).

5 The single, disparaging reference to Lacan in Girard's Violence and the Sacred (1972) is thus quite off the mark: "Lacan, too, failed to discover [the mimetic nature of desire], forced as he was by his linguistic fetishism to reinforce the more rigid ... aspects of Freudian theory" (185). Nevertheless, Girard's idea of the mimetic rival differs from Lacan's mirror-stage rival in two basic respects. First, Girard defines mimetic rivalry as a kind of antidialectic, an interminable oscillation that does not lead to any synthesis or progress: "the situation affords no stability of any sort, no synthetic resolution" (154). Second, he subsumes the Oedipus complex under the category of mimetism, stressing the structurally identical positions occupied by the father-brother in relation to the subject (see, e.g., 145). In Girard's view, viable distinctions cannot be made between "primary" and "secondary" identifications and, correlatively, between the two types (fraternal and paternal) of rivalry.

6 Excerpts from Wallon's text are given in my translation.

7 For further discussion of the significance of Matthews's and Chauvin's research for Lacanian theory, see Ver Eecke, 115-16.

8 Roudinesco also notes that "a transition was ... effected from the description of a concrete experiment to the elaboration of a doctrine" (Jacques Lacan & Co., 143). However, her analysis of this transition does not take into account the differences between Wallon's literal and Lacan's primarily metaphoric concepts of the mirror.

9 In another connection, Gerald Fogel makes the similar point that Winnicott's work "creates not a theory, but an antitheory": "Theories ordinarily explain, but Winnicott is more interested in grasping or describing the nature of personal experience, not its causes or its components. Almost everything he deals with refers to a relational or existential process" (207).

10 On Winnicott's subtle deployment of this analogy in four additional papers published between 1941 and 1971, see First, "Mothering, Hate, and Winnicott."

11 Lacan refers to psychoanalysis as a "conjectural science" on several occasions; see, e.g., Šcrits, 472, 863.

12 See "From Love to the Libido" in Seminar XI: "Whenever the membranes of the egg in which the foetus emerges on its way to becoming a new-born are broken, imagine for a moment ... that one can do it with an egg as easily as with a man, namely the hommelette" (qu'on peut faire avec un oeuf aussi bien qu'un homme, ý savoir l'hommelette) (179 / 197). The passage echoes James Joyce's play on words in Finnegan's Wake (1939): "Mon foie, you wish to ave some homelette, yes, lady! Good mein leber! Your hegg he must break himself" (59). In addition to Joyce's pun, Lacan could also be alluding to one of Freud's favorite French truisms for the need to discuss openly "the facts of normal or abnormal sexual life." As he writes in the case of Dora (1905): "No one can undertake the treatment of a case of hysteria until he is convinced of the impossibility of avoiding the mention of sexual subjects. ... The right attitude is 'pour faire une omelette il faut cesser des oeufs'" (SE, 7:49; see also Freud's letter to Fliess [6 August 1899] in Complete Letters, 365). For Lacan, the connection between the hommelette and the facts of origin--that is, the procreative agency of the parents--seems to be again the telling and difficult one.


Topographies of Conflict

The Machia in the Mirror Stage  

Shuli Barzilai

The idea of a dual relationship with a conflict at its core is a constant feature of Lacan's ways of formulating the human experience throughout his long and active career. Without a struggle between opposing attitudes, without an ambivalence generating dialectical structures of mental organization, Lacan cannot conceptualize the advent of the subject. But while a formative conflict remains central to his theoretical concerns, fundamental changes occur in his conception of its participants as well as in the modes he uses to describe it.1

To recapitulate the trajectory of the participants, in Les complexes familiaux, Lacan charts three stages of childhood development that predicate a dialectical engagement with three different imagos: the weaning complex engages the maternal imago, the intrusion complex the fraternal, and the Oedipus complex the paternal. The primordial ambivalence or "basic tension" provoked during weaning persists and presides over all later stages of psychical differentiation (27 / 14). Thus, while seeming to uphold the Freudian view that "a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist in the individual from the start" (SE, 14: 77), from the very outset and despite the changes to follow, Lacan does not adopt the paradigm of Oedipal rivalry as the primary arena of confrontation in which the ego is constituted. The infant's first ambivalent object (which causes, and becomes the target of, contradictory feelings) is the imago of the maternal breast.

In the series of essays written approximately ten years later, Lacan rearticulates not the dynamic process but, rather, the dyadic basis of this conflicted relation. It is the initial encounter with the counterpart--be it sibling, or playmate, or actual mirror image--that activates the subject's oscillation between fusional identification and aggressive alienation. Perceived in a sudden moment of jubilant reflexivity, the "imago of one's own body" soon takes on the role of provoking-depriving agent formerly consigned to the maternal imago: "[T]his captation by the imago of the human form ... dominates the entire dialectic of the child's behaviour" (Šcrits, 95 /3, 113 / 19). In "Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis," "The Mirror Stage," and other writings, the concept of specular "captation" does not denote merely a scene of self-idolatry or narcissism. The self is also the agent of its own production as radically other.

Nevertheless, with the installation of the mirror apparatus as the primary source of conflict and competition, the mother does not entirely disappear from Lacan's theory of the process of ego formation. Traces of her presence or what he calls the "humoral residues of the maternal organism" (Šcrits, 96 / 4), need to be overcome through identification with the form of body totality: the gestalt given at the mirror stage. Although the infant is "still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursling dependence," the moment of self-assumption mediated through this unitary form is said to raise him above the maternal element and to reverse, if only "in a mirage," the images of the body-in-pieces, of fragmented corporeality that derive from a "real specific prematurity of birth" (95 / 2, 96 / 4). Lacan continues in "The Mirror Stage," as he had done in his earlier work, to attribute a profound psychical importance to these inauspicious physical beginnings. However, the fact that the human infant is dispatched into the world in an adamic state of unpreparedness, lacking the anatomical self-sufficiency of an infant chimpanzee, is not the only material concern of his later writings. Formerly, verbal resonances had linked Lacan's idea of the paradisal "prenatal habitat" with Rank's (see Chapter 2), whereas now the analogies between intrauterine existence and utopian states no longer hold for him. The "very essence of Anxiety," Lacan argues invoking the figure of the mother as prima materia, as formless substance, "entails a constant danger of sliding back again into the chao from which [the infant] started" ("Some Reflections," 15). "To the Urbild of this [specular] formation, alienating as it is ... corresponds a peculiar satisfaction deriving from the integration of an original organic disarray," he similarly proposes in his essay on "Aggressivity" (Šcrits, 116 / 21). Metntal "integration" is an effect of the visual image or form (Urbild); "organic disarray," of the maternal body. The child's journey is from the chaos of beginning and darkly dwelling in the mother to the let-there-be-light of the mirror stage.

Together with these attempts to reformulate the functions of the mother and the mirror, Lacan's conception of how the subject comes into being takes another turn. Rhetorically, as I shall endeavor to show, this transformation involves a "genre shift." Whereas in Les complexes familiaux, Lacan delineates the child's continuous growth within a generally realistic configuration of familial relations, a descriptive mode whose generic literary affiliation is a psychological realism, in "The Mirror Stage," he gives an account of human consciousness that, in several respects, bears a marked resemblance to allegory. In other words, while still engaged in formulating a model for the ambivalent relations that structure the psyche, Lacan moves to a different level of description. His late 1940s presentation of the mirror stage, although not complete allegorical in format, has recourse to distinctive allegorical procedures. Lacan thereby departs--sets out and also diverges--from another psychoanalytic precedent. Given Freud's marked predilection for myths to instantiate as well as provide the terminology for some of his foundational concepts, it does not seem random that Lacan's "return to Freud" should proceed via the retelling of ancient tales.

In section I of this chapter, I discuss an aspect of the Hegelian-KojËvian dialectics, the deadly fight for "pure prestige" between self-conscious individuals, as a paradigm for one type of conflict elaborated by Lacan. In section II, I explore the parallelisms between Lacan's concept of intrapsychic conflict and the Christian psychomachia; and in section III, his renarrativization of "classical psychoanalysis" (a term coined by Ferenczi in another connection)2 as embodied in the myths of Narcissus and Oedipus. However, these various lines of argument--philosophical, theological, and psychoanalytic--which, for the purposes of my analysis, will be considered as separate and distinct are, in fact, complexly interwoven in Lacan's own synthesizing formulations. 

As indicated in Chapter 4, in spite of an early and sustained emphasis on cultural (symbolic) factors, Lacan does not hesitate to use biological data in order to reinforce the roles of visual imprinting and the body-image. His empirical resources include Elsa K–hler's observations on patterns of mimicry among children, Remy Chauvin's study of migratory locusts, and Leonard Harrison Matthews's research on the ovulation of pigeons (see Šcrits, 93 / 1, 95-96, 189-91).3 These data are clearly intended to accord the prestige of a scientific register to a quasi-mythic rebirth that takes place before a mirror: "Unable as yet to walk, or even to stand up, and held tightly as [the infant] is by some support, ... he nevertheless overcomes, in a flutter of jubilant activity, the obstructions of his support and, fixing his attitude in a slightly leaning-forward position, in order to hold it in his gaze, brings back an instantaneous aspect of the image" (93 / 1-2). This early childhood event, however remarkable or startling (saisissant), might appear to be arbitrarily singled out and privileged in Lacan's writings. For instance, the moment when an infant suddenly flips over from stomach to back without assistance and then repeats this action in reverse, whether or not emitting a triumphant gurgle that appears to be self-directed as much as directed at the (alarmed) caretaker, could also be accounted a primary occasion for the constitution of that infant subjectivity.4 The mirror stage would not have the singular importance that it undoubtedly possesses for Lacanian theory, and for postmodern discourses on the subject, without some additional level or levels of signification.

For Lacan, the cognitive drama of the mirror stage indeed provides an exemplum of a broader relational experience: "This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage," he writes, "would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form" (Šcrits, 94 / 2; emphasis added). How a subject comes into being also enacts the ways of being a subject in the world. Lacan's just-so story of the formation of the I--one day an infant arrives in front of a mirror and instantaneously grasps the contingent relations between this body right here and its image over there--serves as the highly particularized foundation for a universal structure of human existence. Lacan explicates that structure through its exhibition by two concrete entities (a child and a mirror) and the situations (recognition-identification-alienation-aggression) he composes around them.

Thus the conceptualization of the mirror stage has correspondences with a literary tradition familiar from the world of Greek and Roman allegory to, say, the psychological allegory of Kafka's "Metamorphosis" and "The Hunger Artist." As Northrop Frye explains, allegory is "a contrapuntal technique": "A writer is being allegorical whenever it is clear that he is saying 'by this I also (allos) mean that'" (90). The elements of ancient mysteries, for example, often conjoin or are brought into correspondence with something else for the purpose of making them less perplexing and more widely acceptable. Walter Burkert illustrates these proceedings in his discussion of nature allegory in pre-Hellenistic times: "[M]ysteries easily offered themselves to allegorizing in terms of nature, and it was not only officious outsiders who indulged in the method but often the insiders themselves." These insiders, "priests and priestesses" who apparently wanted to account for what they were doing, found it "no problem to recognize Mother Earth in Demeter, and Persephone consequently became grain"; moreover, "if golden ears of grain are buried with the dead, allegory seems to turn into faith" (Burkert, 80-81). That is, in addition to the specific mythic event or detail plausibly described in terms of its physica ratio, these ritual practices and narratives may invite, and even seem to require, a further level of metaphysical explanation: "[W]hatever elements of pagan mysteries show up are modified by the filter of a religious system" (67). With varying degrees of explicitness, allegorical or potentially allegorical components in Greco-Roman and Christian interpretations entail such an ulterior intention. The allegorist seeks a revelatory or supratemporal dimension: "The Christian interpreter of the Bible and the Stoic interpreter of Homer both want to discover their versions of the truth" (Rollinson, 19).

Likewise, Lacan, in reconceiving his theory more than a decade after he introduced it at Marienbad (1936) and in Les complexes familaux (1938), would expound "the light it sheds"--his turning to a rhetoric of revelation is consonant with the genre shift--on "psychical realities, however, heterogeneous": "I think it worthwhile to bring it again to your attention ..." (Šcrits, 93 / 1, 95 / 3). But, while the idea of the specular encounter between child and counterpart remains constant, it has evolved during the ten-year interim into a way of presenting a supervalent model or meta-narrative of the human world. Although the later work extends the "essential" preserved in the earlier work on the family, the two installments of Lacan's theory of the mirror stage are not coextensive (185).

In a quite different context, Jacques Derrida makes a comparable claim about the allegorical purpose (or, he might say, pretension) of Lacan's seminar on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter" (in Šcrits, 11-61). The Derridean critique, succinctly stated, is that by "reading 'The Purloined Letter' as an allegory of the signifier, Lacan ... has made the 'signifier' into the story's truth" (Johnson, 232).5 The details of this famous debate and the numerous responses it has produced do not require rehearsal here. More pertinent to this discussion, the truth--"as revealed in psychoanalytic experience"--that Laan reshapes in his 1949 essay could be distinguished from his 1956 seminar on Poe's story as follows: what takes place in the case of "The Mirror Stage" is the practice of allegorical composition. Lacan constructs an allegorical text of his own rather than an allegorical interpretation or extraction of meaning from the text written by another author.6 The "light" or truth purveyed by his text is not purloined from another.

The validity of this distinction is, however, problematic. As already seen, the intrusion complex of 1938 (which evolves out of the weaning complex and relationship to the maternal image) is not the same as the "startling spectacle" celebrated in 1949. Lacan silently, even surreptitiously--insofar as he neglects to mention basic differences and debts--"returns" to his own pre-texts on the mirror experience as well as to Wallon's Les origines du caractËre chez l'enfant and other sources. "The Mirror Stage" as an act of allegorical composition cannot be strictly delimited or separated from these acts of interpretive appropriation. Yet a different perspective on the same proceedings would be to point out that, in attempting to track the transformations of the mirror-stage theory, I engage in allegorical (or confrontational) interpretation of Lacan's allegorical composition; in other words, as Frye reminds us, "all commentary is allegorical interpretation" (89). But even with these various frames of reference in view, the commentator does not necessarily lack or lose conviction.

In Lacan's later formulations about the mirror stage, the allegorical mode asserts itself in two immediate ways. First, the child who sees the semblable is not just any child or a typical child but also a type of psychical structure. The figure of the child incarnates the Lacanian concept of the ego (moi). The mirror-image itself is also a metaphor for a relational position. It is a depository for the dialectical irresolutions of the imaginary order. Both the actual infant and the virtual one thus take on the quality of conceptual paradigms. If, as Lacan contends, the "mirror stage is a drama," then its dramatis personae embody abstract ideas (Šcrits, 97 / 4). Second, one of the designations of the French stade is "stadium"--a place set aside for competitive events and defensive exercises. Battle is a basic pattern of allegory. This pattern, as Angus Fletcher writes in his study of genre, probably dates in Western literature from Hesiod's gigantomachia, in which titanic adversaries fight for mastery of the world (151). However, whether the stakes be control over the whole world, or only over the little world of man, a deadly clash characterizes the meeting of the rivals. Two competing forces vie for complete victory.

The life-and-death struggle between personified abstractions such as "virtue" and "vice," or any pair of symmetrically inverted concepts, may be read as a figural means to conjure up the dual topographies of human aggression: the "internal conflictual tension" that swiftly develops in "aggressive competitiveness" in the social environment (Šcrits, 113 / 19). Correspondingly, the discordance between the child and the specular counterpart serves as a concrete realization of the aggressive tendencies found in both interhuman relations and intrapsychical operations of individuated egos. Speaking from clinical experience, Lacan offers a symbolic equivalent of the psyche's geographical agitation: "[T]he formation of the I is symbolized in dreams by a fortress, or a stadium--its inner arena and enclosure, surrounded by marshes and rubbish-tips, dividing it into two opposed fields of contest" (97 / 5). Rather than a single-centered arena as might be supposed, the narcissistic structure of selfhood generates, as it were, two war zones: the Umwelt, or outer world, and the Innenwelt, or inner world.

The intersubjective dimension of this configuration primarily derives from Hegel's idea of a "trial by death" between opposing forces. As noted in Chapter 4, Lacan's familiarity with the work of Hegel, and particularly with The Phenomenology of Spirit, was mediated by KojËve's lectures at the Šcole des Hautes-Študes in the 1930s. According to KojËve, the Hegelian notion of self-realization and identity--"the why or the how of the birth of the word 'I,' and consequently of self-consciousness"--stresses a struggle with a socially constituted other (3). In order to "attain autonomy before death," Lacan writes in 1938, reiterating the KojËvian reading of Hegel, the individual must be prepared to "fight to be recognized outside the family group" (CF, 35 / 16). In "The Mirror Stage" and related essays, Lacan's description of the specular encounter also draws on a Hegelian-KojËvian conception: "It is this moment that decisively tips the whole of human knowledge into mediatization through the desire of the other" (Šcrits, 98 / 5). When speaking of "the desire of the other," Lacan intentionally recalls KojËve's dictum: "Human Desire must be directed toward another Desire" (5). The rival whose desire enables consciousness to come into "Being-for-itself," and to acquire its independent value, is found in the outer world. Thus "man can appear on earth only within a herd," KojËve asserts; and, "the human reality can only be social" (6). The autonomous I is constructed through its adversarial relations. For "its essential being," Hegel writes, "is present to it in the form of an 'other,' [and] it is outside of itself and must rid itself of its self-externality." By this account, it takes two to make one. As KojËve paradoxically puts it, "this object, i.e., the I, is absolute mediation, and its essential constituent-element is abiding autonomy" (Hegel, 113; KojËve, 15).

Taking up the terms of Hegel's phenomenology as transmitted through KojËve's teaching, Lacan begins to submit them to further revision. Prior to any social or cultural mediation, the human subject is riven, split, or barred by a psychical phenomenon predicated on reflexive recognition. Reciprocal reflexivity enables intersubjectivity. In Lacan's formulation, "This moment in which the mirror-stage comes to an end inaugurates, by the identification with the imago of the counterpart ... the dialectic that will henceforth link the I to socially elaborated situations" (Šcrits, 98 / 5). The "moment" in this key statement, just like the titular term stade, is poised between two temporal modalities.

In the one instance, to speak of the "moment" seems to imply a chronological succession--stade as evolutionary stage, a movement from the imaginary, dyadically enclosed situation in which the ego is held in thrall by its double to the symbolic, socially interactive state of desired desires. As the mirror moment "comes to an end," in Lacan's stop-watch phrase, the next phase of differentiation begins. The alienating image within moves out, as it were; the other is projected and thereafter found in the external world. This developmental viewpoint restricts the text to a literal, nonallegorical level of meaning, and its "genre" or rhetorical mode to that of a psychological essay. In the other instance, the word "moment" suggests a trans- or atemporal structure of the psyche--stade as stadium. There is no getting beyond the imaginary human experience until death. To the extent that the mirror stage exemplifies a universal mental mechanism, the "moment" is a metaphor for a systemic formation that defies the categories of succession. Moreover, not only temporal (before/after) but spatial (inside/outside) polarities are suspended. The other is neither strictly in-here nor out-there. Despite the apparent opposition of the Innenwelt and the Umwelt, a continual interplay goes on between them. (Hence the spatial dispositions of our adversaries are not always easily determined.) The structural viewpoint also entails a different rhetorical register. Lacan translates a psychical situation into a physical spectacle, a condition of what was formerly called the "soul" into an allegorical configuration of the child and mirror.

Even though what Lacan means by the "moment in which the mirror-stage comes to an end" remains ambiguous, his modification of the KojËvian tenet of social relations as prerequisite for autonomous self-consciousness ("man can appear on earth only within a herd") is explicit and clear. In Lacan's view, "the structural effect of identification with the rival is not self-evident"; rather, it is conceivable only "if the way is prepared for it by a primary identification that structures the subject as a rival with himself" (Šcrits, 117 / 22). Just as we are constrained to put down one foot after another, so the self-reflexive dimension of rivalry must predate the discovery of the rival other in the outer world. Yet while seeming to reassert a classifiable set of evolutionary stages, the same statement may be read, and was probably intended to be read, otherwise.

Lacan conceives the mirror stage not as a proleptic encounter, or figure of things to come, but rather as a figure of speech. The fight for recognition and ascendancy between rival entities is a correlated level of meaning of the child's encounter with the counterpart.7 The relationship between these confrontational "moments" is one of correspondence and not of chronological sequence. (This structural distinction is analogous to the difference between a double-decker bus and a two-car bus in which the hind part trails after the front.) Lacan himself expressly describes "[t]he notion of aggressivity as a correlative tension of the narcissistic structure in the coming-into-being (devenir) of the subject" (Šcrits, 116 / 22; emphasis added.) The child before the mirror provides a figural representation (or ground deck) for another doctrinal interest and abstract idea. The analytic discursive mode and empirical evidence brought to bear on "The Mirror Stage" of 1949 should not be allowed to obscure Lacan's invitation to regard the description of how the ego is constructed as a vehicle for conveying that structure itself. 


No less important for Lacan's conception of subjectivity, although a less familiar or expected resource than the Hegelian-Kojevian dialectics, is his assimilation of the tropes of Christian theology into his writings. In describing the self's relation to the specular image, Lacan implements a rhetorical as well as a structural synthesis of Christian thought about the motions of the typical soul. The question that arises at this point thus concerns not only the location of conflict bus also its locution: what do certain verbal configurations in the Lacanian text imply about the topological relations of the ego and its adversaries?

But before turning to this question, I would recall a key trope that suggests a purposive intermingling of religious and secular allusions in Lacan's writings--"the passion of the signifier": 

[I]t is Freud's discovery that gives to the signifier/signified opposition the full extent of its implications: namely, that he signifier has an active function in determining certain effects in which the signifiable appears as submitting to its mark, by becoming through that passion the signified.

This passion of the signifier now becomes a new dimension of the human condition in that it is not only man who speaks, but that in man and through man it speaks (Áa parle), that his nature is woven by effects in which is to be found the structure of language, of which he becomes the material. (Šcrits, 688-89 / 284) 

In this passage from "The Signification of the Phallus" (1958), the terminology of Saussurian linguistics becomes complexly bound up with a world of Christian reference. Placed in a religious context, the word "passion" (derived from the Latin passio, meaning suffering) refers to Christ's suffering, especially during the days before his crucifixion, for the redemption of humanity. Thus the possessive "of"-genitive in the phrase "passion of Christ" unambiguously designates the one who suffered: Christ who spoke for and in defense of humanity through his suffering. In the excerpt just quoted, Lacan does not simply alter the semantic principle ("Christ") through substitution ("signifier") but also revises the syntactical functioning of the genitive. Bearing in mind his often unconventional use of prepositions,,8 the du in "la passion du signifiant" may be read as "by means of" or "from" rather than as "belonging to" or "pertaining to." This passion derives from the signifier, which inflicts it on something or someone else.9

The same phrase recurs in Lacan's definition of the singular factor that distinguishes the human collectivity in "its fullest possible dimension"--namely, "the subject insofar as he suffers from the signifier. It is in this passion of the signifier that the critical point emerges" (Seminar VII, 172 / 143). This reference even more explicitly points to a metonymic reversal: a new coinage that replaces an old one by overturning its established semantic valence. Lacan takes the figure of the suffering savior out of its context and invests it with an antithetical meaning. The passion that derives from the signifier is not modeled after the pattern by which Logos descends from a divine realm for the salvation of humankind. It holds out no such redemptive hope for the language user. Rather, Lacan repeatedly evokes the signifying chain in its constraining and subjugating effects. The signifier does not speak "in man and through man" with the passion of Christ. The Lacanian "subject" is a trope--an irony, to be precise--because the speaking being is always subjected to and by the enclosure of speech. The I is the hostage rather than the keeper of the Word: "Periphrasis, hyperbaton, ellipsis, suspension, anticipation, retraction, negation, digression, irony. ... Can one really see these as mere figures of speech when it is the figures themselves that are the active principle of the rhetoric of the discourse that the analysand in fact utters?" (Šcrits, 521 / 169). With a single turn of phrase--"the passion of the signifier," Lacan simultaneously hybridizes Christian and Saussurian terminology and summarizes the existential predicament whereby individual autonomy is continually deferred by its dependency on language and speech.

Similarly enmeshing diverse realms of discourse, Lacan's meditation on the mirror stage, one of the landmarks of postmodern theory, may be considered a late variant of Prudentius's early Christian Psychomachia. The two texts comprise a part of the same analogical-rhetorical system. As C. S. Lewis remarks in a perspicacious footnote in The Allegory of Love (1936), an "obvious parallel" to the Christian allegory of the soul in conflict is "modern psycho-analysis and its shadowy personages such as the 'censor'. ...[I]t might be argued that the application of psychological terms at all to the unconscious is itself a species of allegory" (61 n. 1). It might also be helpful to underscore that the sources of allegory in classical Western literature are theological as well as philosophical and literary. Allegory narratives not only appear, for example, in the dialogues of Plato and in the Golden Ass of Lucius Apuleius, but also were part of the Neoplatonic elaboration of mystery cults in which divinities, ritual, and the details of myth received some kind of allegorizing interpretation: "Following Plutarch, many Platonic writers invoked the mysteries for confirmation of the basic tenets of their philosophy, for illustration, or for the addition of a religious dimension to the exercises of philosophical dialectic" (Burkert, 85). The allegorical treatment of the mysteries as possessing a spiritual value (which is both hidden and revealed in the myths themselves and in related rituals) established a dynamic and diversified generic pattern. Accordingly, the typological method of scriptural interpretation uses events and persons in the Hebrew Bible as prophetic "types" or figures of events and persons in the Christian Scriptures. Every passage in the Bible, Saint Augustine writes, "asserts nothing except the catholic fatih as it pertains to things past, future, and present"; and therefore, "whatever appears in the divine Word that does not literally pertain to virtuous behavior or to the truth of faith you must take to be figurative" (On Christian Doctrine, 88).

In the Psychomachia (ca. C.E. 405), Prudentius syncretizes two Greco-Roman traditions--the epic theme of heroic warfare and religious allegory--with Church doctrine by relocating the battle within the individual.10 Transported from an exteriority to an interiority, the battlefield as the locus of allegorical action becomes, as Fletcher summarily puts it, "psychologized" (151). Highly influential throughout the Middle Ages, Prudentius's Psychomachia was assimilated into the cultures of Christianity. Of course, despite the pious Catholic environment in which Lacan was raised, he might not have read it. What I am suggesting is that the tropes of the Christian soul-struggle are interwoven with the other discourses of conflict in his writings. Lacan's analysis of the tensions that govern the psyche succeeds in articulating the old battle with the double, the bellum intestinum or divided will described as "the root of all allegory" (Lewis, 68), 11 in new ways that partially, and perhaps unintentionally, demonstrate his complex indebtedness to Christian sources.

First and most elementary, a basic aspect of human experience links the poet's religious epic with the apostate's psychoanalytic essay. Different generic forms notwithstanding, both writers envision a scene of interiorized conflict. As early as 1938. in the section of Les complexes familiaux devoted to the mirror stage, Lacan proposes: "Even though two partners are on stage, their communication reveals not a conflict between two persons but a conflict within each subject" (37 / 16; emphasis added). Analogously, images of inner strife frame the opening and closing lines of Prudentius's allegory: "[T]here is disorder among our thoughts and rebellion arises within us, ... the strife of our evil passions vexes the spirit"; "We know that in the darkness of our heart conflicting affections fight hard in successive combats"; and "Light and darkness with their opposing spirits are at war, and our two-fold being inspires powers at variance with each other" (ll. 7-8, 893-94, 908-9). The Psychomachia primarily consists of vividly realized scenes of intrapsychic battle between twinned rivals. The central insight of the poem--"non simplex natura hominis" (l. 904)--thus has its actualization in the narrative device of doubling. Every positive egoic aspect (Virtue) contains its negative or alterity (Vice). Just as the identity of light emerges against darkness, so these polarities are inseparable from each other.

This doubling constitutes a second point of analogy between poem and essay. In the killing fields of the Psychomachia, bitter adversaries gather together in inverted symmetry: Faith and Worship-of-the-Old-Gods are followed by Chastity and Lust the Sodomite, Long-Suffering and Wrath, Lowliness and Pride, Soberness and Indulgence, and so forth. In "The Mirror Stage," the warring parties are no longer invoked as Spirit and Flesh, or Virtue and Vice. Rather, Lacan names them the Ego and the Double: "[W]e observe the role of the mirror apparatus in the appearances of the double" (Šcrits, 95 / 3). Now duplication usually entails sameness. However, what binds these two psychical entities in their mirrored relationship, as it does, say, Soberness and Indulgence, is an inversion. Lacan insists on the diametric opposition between the carbon copy (image) and the original (subject): 

[T]he total form of the body by which the subject anticipates in a mirage the maturation of his power is given to him only as Gestalt, that is to say, in an exteriority in which this form ... appears to him above all in a contrasting size (un relief de stature) that fixes it and in a symmetry that inverts it, in contrast with the turbulent movements that the subject feels are animating him. (Šcrits, 94-95 / 2; emphasis added) 

Imagine an enlarged photograph of one's self awakening to life. The duplicate becomes a replicant, a monster wanting to be master. The mirror image--or, condensed into a word, the "mirage"--is not only whole and nonhuman as opposed to fragmented, turbulent, and human; it is an "exteriority," an outside that is also inside. The ego experiences a perpetual rift that is modeled on the child's dual relations with its specular counterpart. Thus, the mirror stage presages (the genetic view) or, alternatively, presents (the structural view) through dramatic exemplification "a certain level of rupture ... between man's organization and his Umwelt," that is, between inwardly lived and external realities (111 / 17). However, the child's assumption of the image also anticipates or, alternatively, enacts the ego's capacity to be self-different, to live at variance within the stadium--or fortress--symbols of its dreams. By visibly incarnating an alterity, "a symmetry that inverts," the semblable shatters the very unity (the gestalt) it offers to the gaze of the jubilant beholder. What is held out is also, alas, withheld.

The simultaneity of fatal aggression and attraction, of desirous intent to destroy, constitutes a third major point of analogy. In the Psychomachia, the life-and-death struggle between two combatants is predicated upon a hatred that often approaches its opposite. Prudentius portrays successive martial confrontations in which an erotics of destructiveness comes to the fore. Thus Faith arrives in seductive disarray to engage her idolatrous rival: 

Faith first takes the field ..., her rough dress disordered, her shoulders bare, her hair untrimmed, her arm exposed; for the sudden glow of ambition, burning to enter fresh contests, takes no thought to gird on arms or armour, but trusting in a stout heart and unprotected limbs challenges the hazards of furious warfare. ... Lo, Worship-of-the-Old-Gods ventures to match her strength against Faith's challenge and strike at her. But she, rising higher, smites her foe's head down ... lays in the dust that mouth. ... The throat is choked and the scant breath confined by the stopping of its passage, and long gasps make a hard and agonizing death. (ll. 21-35) 

In comparable oneiric scenes of ferocious violence, bodies embrace on another and sink into combat. The division of the soul is envisioned here as a nightmare of consummation-in-death. The intermingling between making love and making war that apparently unintentionally marks the Psychomachia's rhetorical machinery tends to undermine the hostilities it stages. Does Chastity ("Pudicitia"), for instance, secretly love the harlot Lust ("Libido"), into whose throat she thrusts her sword? It is, as Jon Whitman aptly points out, "a rather lusty thing for modest Chastity to do": "one of the illuminating failures of the Psychomachia is the constant anomaly between the behavior of a personification and its very meaning" (85, 90).

Like Prudentius, Lacan repeatedly evokes the libidinal dynamics attending the aggressive relationships of "the slave ... with the despot" and, in a parallel phrase, of "the seduced with the seducer." However, the correlation between these characters-in-conflict and their antithetical activities is not a failure of Lacan's vision but, rather, a complication. There is neither confusion nor inadvertence in his discussion of the captivation (captation)--in both senses of subjugation and of seduction--that the mirror stage imposes on the perceiving subject: "this erotic relation, in which the human individual fixes upon himself an image that alienates him from himself" (Šcrits, 113 / 19). In such dialectical formulations, the ego defines itself against the specular image, with which it also merges.

The continuities just drawn between the allegorical procedures of Prudentius and Lacan do not cancel the fundamental discontinuities in their subject matter. One major disparity between the Psychomachia and "The Mirror Stage" is the marked presence, in the former, of an ethical-didactic dimension in the foreground of the action. The Psychomachia "participates in universal-salvation history" and, pragmatically, is meant "to aid in the salvation of its Christian audience" (Smith, 4). In Prudentius's text, there is warfare and worship; in Lacan's, only warfare. Nor does it unequivocally emerge from Lacan's writings that the aims of psychoanalysis are, and should be, curative. The "passion of the signifier," as we have seen, is not a trope to salve the soul.

Another difference lies in the perception of the psyche, the "life" or "soul," whose typical state is characterized by machia, a "fight." Prudentius belongs to a long tradition of Western thought for which the idea of an essential self or identity is above all a given reality. The diverse applications of allegory found in mystery religions, classical philosophic writings, and scriptural exegesis nonetheless have something in common. Their ontological presupposition is "I am"--and the investigation proceeds from there. For Prudentius, the major questions are therefore epistemological and ethical: what is the nature (good or evil?) of the soul? The author of the Psychomachia does not ask "Am I?" but rather "What or who am I?" Although the Christian soul may be riven between warring internal tendencies, its being qua being is not called into question.

For Lacan, the basic question is "Am I?" and it has, in a sense, already been answered. The "I" is an optical effect, a mir(or-im)age, a trick done with mirrors. In short and rapid order, Lacan speaks of: "an ontological structure of the human world" inseparable from "paranoiac knowledge"; "phantoms that dominate" the functions of the go; and the "lure of spatial identifications" and the "succession of phantasies" that determine mental orientations (Šcrits, 94-97 / 2-4). So while his presentation of intrapsychic conflict resembles that of Prudentius in some strategic respects, the battleground greatly differs. The terrain of the Christian psychomachia is a substantial, albeit sinful, individual soul. The I formed in and through the specular encounter is not just illusory but radically unstable, split, divided, ex-centric to itself. The Lacanian subject does not possess a unitary soul composed of warring but (e)mendable parts. Yet, by virtue of being differentially placed in relation to other subjects in the symbolic universe, this subject exists: "existence is here synonymous," as Slavoj Zizek cogently puts it, "with symbolization, integration into the symbolic order--only what is symbolized fully 'exists'" (136). Such existence requires the qualification of quotation marks or reinscription as ex-sistence to convey the situation of the subject not only as located or locked in the imaginary dimension of phantoms and fantasies but also as constituted in and captured by the symbolic ("cette prise du symbolique").12 Thus "the insistence of the signifying chain," Lacan writes at the outset of his seminar on "The Purloined Letter," is "a correlate of the ex-sistence (or: eccentric place)" of the human organism (Šcrits, 11 / 28).

In sum, Lacan imports specific features of the "fight for mansoul" into his theory, while discarding or ignoring others. The interest and irony lie in the ways in which he contravenes the secularism of Freud, a militant secularism raised to the level of dogma, by drawing on rhetoric and imagery from the religious domain. In so doing, Lacan effects a synthesis between the Hegelian phenomenology that posits conflicted intersubjective relations--"the social reality," in KojËve's phrase--as paramount to subject formation and the theological outlook that envisions the psyche as an instrasubjective battlefield. I would pause here to observe that by integrating these two viewpoints, Lacan elaborates a virilocal image of self and social functioning in which aggression immediately accompanies identificatory bonding, in which hostility rather than connection is normative. He envisions human individuals and groups primarily as sites of division and strife. The tension between violent and cohesive forces often modulates in his writings into an all-pervading situation of aggression. This inclination to put the emphasis on negative social interaction, on splitting, on passion as suffering inflicted on the speaking subject may further explain why he found KojËve's reading of Hegel and other (male) cultural correlates, such as the Christian concept of the soul at war, so congenial to his own way of thinking about human realities. 


Nevertheless, war alone is not enough. The psychoanalytic categories of "libido" and "eros" also become conjoined with the "aggressivity" of the specular encounter. Upon grasping the reciprocal relations with the visual image, the child's ecstatic behavior "discloses a libidinal dynamism" (Šcrits, 94 / 2). Similarly, when Lacan presented the mirror-stage theory to the British Psycho-Analytical Society, he specified "an essential libidinal relationship with the body-image": "[T]he child seems to be in endless ecstasy when it sees that movements in the mirror correspond to its own movements" ("Some Reflections," 14). The notion of "endless ecstasy" may be understood to imply that the model for this experience is the figure of Narcissus trapped in the pool of his own reflection. Lacan does not, however, view the child's captivation by the reflected image as wholly negative. It is not frequently enough noted that the imaginary is alloyed with benefits in his thought.13 Lacan envisions the infant before the mirror in a situation of discovery, exploring the relations between "this virtual complex and the reality it reduplicates" (Šcrits, 93 / 1).

Contrastively, the traditional Narcissus refuses the attachments of social or objectal bonds. His rejection of the love of many women, including the nymph Echo (or, in another version, his lover Ameinius), brings upon him the retribution of the gods. In an Olympian display of justice, they turn his favorite entertainment into a deadly containment. Distracted and consumed by love for his own image, the beautiful youth pines away in (ec)static and stagnant self-contemplation. The cautionary moral is that too much looking into mirrors, too much erotic self-fascination, or what Lacan might call the repudiation of intersubjectivity, can congeal into intrasubjectivity. In brief, the subject can get stuck in the imaginary.

But Lacanian theory conceded--in fact, insists--that the narcissistic dimension of ego formation also includes a different trajectory. The new Narcissus enters into society and acquires knowledge of the outer reality via the looking glass. The child's ludic activities before the mirror are "rounded off by attempts to explore the things seen in the mirror and the nearby objects they reflect" ("Some Reflections," 14). Far from closing down or narrowing the outer world, far from representing an impasse, the mirror apparatus opens up new paths for experiencing both "the child's own body, and the persons and things around him." The child begins to perceive and react to objects or persons in the environment as separate and apart. According to Lacan, the mirror stage therefore can, and often does, lead from the "specular I" to the "social I" (Šcrits, 93 / 1, 98 / 5). Thus reconceived, the story of Narcissus need not end in calamity but rather in comedy--that is, with the hero's integration into the community and cultural milieu. The narcissistic structure of selfhood enables the libidinal normalization of the subject. Under these circumstances, the question of the proper name arises. Is the subject of this narrative still to be called "Narcissus"?

These remarks are intended to prepare for what is arguably one of the most innovative passages in Lacan's articulation of the mirror mechanism: 

There is a sort of structural crossroads [carrefour] here to which we must accommodate our thinking if we are to understand the nature of aggressivity in man and its relation with the formalism of his ego and its objects. It is in this erotic relation, in which the human individual fixes upon himself an image that alienates him from himself, that are to be found the energy and the form on which this organization of the passions that he will call his ego is based. (Šcrits, 113 / 19) 

The crucial word is "crossroads." Where is the subject introduced to desire? At a crossroads, Lacan answers. In the Sophoclean tragedy of Oedipus, the crossroads is a meeting place where two destinies diverge: the father marked for death; the son, for a brief reprieve. What happens at the crossroads is a fatal act, a point after which there is no turning back. Metaphorically transposed, this juncture occurs in Shakespeare's Hamlet when the prince of Denmark suspends his sword and fails to kill the king at prayer; or, alternatively, it occurs when he fails to hold back his sword and kills the king's importunate adviser. Shakespeare, grand master of ambiguities, locates the "crossroads" in so indeterminate a place (was it the act of omission, the act of commission, or did it happen elsewhere?) that only in retrospect does it become evident that the tragic hero has passed it. However, be it Sophocles's or Shakespeare's or Freud's rendition of the tale, one narrative component remains invariable. A father and his son confront each other. The French carrefour, sometimes known in English dialect as a "four-cross-road," thus seems more accurately to denote this point of intersection: the two roads taken after the confrontation are not the same as the two roads traveled before.

Using the term "crossroads" as a metaphor for a transitional stage, like a frontier or a threshold, Lacan exhorts us to alter our thinking ("nous devons accommoder notre pensČe") about it. New accommodations are indeed required in several respects. First, Lacan displaces or relocates the "crossroads" from the Oedipal phase to an anterior structural, if not temporal, moment in the subject's life-journey. In a manner of speaking, the place and the time of the encounter have changed. Second, in this restaging of the fight for "pure prestige," it is not only the setting that changes: the brother, and not the father, turns up at the crossroads. Instead of a paternal representative of the law and societal custom, this turning point involves a less-than-harmonious identification with a semblable, as in: "The child who strikes another says that he has been struck" (Šcrits, 113 / 19). Lacan imagines the future king of Thebes encountering what might be termed a "similiar"; he meets a stranger who is uncannily familiar. Third, the figure of the adversary is not the sole change in central casting. If you are what you meet, then Narcissus rather than Oedipus comes to the crossroads.

Viewed metacritically, Lacan's exegesis freely borrows and superimposes motifs from the classical myths of Narcissus and of Oedipus. To paraphrase the formula of Philo, the fictions that Freud adopted and imported into the clinic become the "handmaid" to a different philosophy.14 Lacan constructs a composite scenario of the confrontation that brings about the formation of the I. He again advocates a "return to our crossroads" in his seminar of 1955-56 and explains what such a return would entail: "Desire is at first sight [au premier abord] understood as an essentially imaginary relation. Setting out from here, we set about cataloguing instincts, their equivalences and interconnections" (Seminar III, 222 / 197). If the first contact that elicits desire belongs to the encounter with the specular image, neither the maternal imago (of the weaning complex) nor the paternal imago (of the Oedipus complex) is the individual's primary object of erotic fascination. By introducing the crossroads, a metaphor for radical transition, into the static enclosure of the imaginary dyad, Lacan refuses the restrictions of fictional boundaries (Narcissus's story as distinct from Oedipus's) and of orthodox psychoanalytic terminology. In his inventive rendition, two textural-psychical situations become condensed into one. The question is: what does he gain from this condensation or isomorphic graphing of the one narrative onto the other?

In thus mixing stories and metaphors, Lacan presents a conception of human conflicts and desires that profoundly differs from Freud's theory. Specifically, by deploying the word "crossroads" to mark the inaugural moment of "misrecognition" (mČconnaissance) when the infant suddenly assumes an image, Lacan announces his second reorganization of the Oedipus complex. Following Les complexes familiaux, the 1949 essay on the mirror stage is foremost among the places, in a manner of speaking, where Lacan deliberately crosses the father of psychoanalysis and goes his own way. Again in "Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis," Lacan enacts the "aggressive competitiveness" he describes by defining the resolution of the Oedipus complex as an "identificatory reshaping of the subject": the basis for further egoic maturation is "a primary identification which structures the subject as rival of himself." I take up this concept of primary identification and its linkage to the subject's "capture" by the specular [br]other in the next two chapters.) In sum, identification with the father situates the subject in relation to the laws, prohibitions, and exchanges that comprise the symbolic order only if and after the encounter with a reflected rivalrous image has taken place: "[T]he Oedipal identification is that by which the subject transcends the aggressivity that is constitutive of the primary subjective individuation" (Šcrits, 117 / 22-23; emphasis added).

Whereas previously the paternal imago occupied a tertiary position in Lacan's view--after the maternal and fraternal imagos had done their developmental work--it now becomes secondary. But this transposition of the Oedipus complex into a belated, subordinate position only supplies further evidence of an ineluctable generational conflict. In the very act of second placing or preempting the Oedipus complex, Lacan corroborates the validity of the Freudian insight. He cannot help but reinforce his psychoanalytic patrimony.

Mixing stories in a manner studied from Lacan, I want therefore to conclude this chapter by proposing that the son's feet are already tied at the very moment when he seems to overcome the "obstructions of his support." He must stumble even as he surmounts the blocking agents that impede him. The attempt to upstage the Oedipal father (and the powerful author of Totem and Taboo) by means of the mirror stage demonstrates the paramount significance of the paternal function in the regulation of human affairs. Hence Shakespeare's Hamlet may well provide a more perfect dramatic example of the Freudian theory than Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. The Oedipal father is indeed a ghost. Even when one has situated one's self before or beyond the figure of the father, one hears his footsteps stalking close at hand. Even when contemplating one's own reflection in a pool, one is haunted by his voice welling up from below. 

1 This chapter benefited greatly from stimulating discussions with Zephyra Porat and Daniel Boyarin

2 In the "Index" to Ferenczi's Further Contributions to the Theory and Technique of Psycho-Analysis, two separate listings appear for analytic technique: "Technique (active) and "Technique (classical)." As this division implies, Ferenczi defines the "classical" approach in terms of its passivity. For example, "psycho-analysis, as we employ it to-day, is a procedure whose most prominent characteristic is passivity. We ask the patient to allow himself to be guided uncritically by his 'ideas.' ... The doctor should not fix his attention rigidly on any particular intention ... but should also yield himself passively to the play of his phantasy with the patient's ideas" ("Further Development of an Active Therapy," 199). Ferenczi possibly intended the term "classical" to be complimentary or, at least, inoffensive; but it was, in effect, counterposed to the term "innovation," as well as to "activity" --and so Freud understood it. Ferenczi's correlation of classical technique with the analyst's rule-bound, silent, unresponsive behavior during treatment elicited this equivocal, even irritated response from Freud: "The work [Ferenczi and Rank's The Development of Psychoanalysis] has, in my judgment, the fault that it is incomplete, i.e., it does not work out the changes in technique ... but only sketches them. There are certainly dangers involves in this deviation from our 'classical technique' as Ferenczi dubbed it in Vienna, but this is not to say that they cannot be avoided" (Freud to Committee, letter dated January 1924; Rank Collection, Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Columbia University).

3 References to Chauvin's and Matthews's experiments also appear in "Remarks on Psychical Causality," 189-91, and "Some Reflections on the Ego," 14. For further discussion, see Chapter 4, 78.

4 I want to thank my student Navah Moshkowitz for sharing her responses to her daughter's first independent flip-flop. For an analysis of the onset and persistence of maternal separation anxiety in a folkloric context, see my "Reading 'Snow White': The Mother's Story."

5 See Derrida, "Le Facteur de la vČritČ" "The Postman or Factor of Truth", in The Post Card; see also "The Purveyor of Truth," in Muller and Richardson, Purloined Poe, for an abbreviated version of this essay. For an insightful discussion of the Lacanian reading of "The Purloined Letter" as "no less than an allegory of psychoanalysis," see Felman, "On Reading Poetry" (esp. 147-48).

6 On the differences between compositional allegory and interpretive allegory, see Whitman, 3-8 and 263-68 (Appendix II).

7 Contra the "vertical" conception of allegorical narratives as a providing a kind of baseline for interpretation, Maureen Quilligan argues for a "horizontal" or progressive view: "it would be more precise to say ... that allegory works horizontally rather than vertically, so that meaning accretes serially, interconnecting and criss-crossing the verbal surface long before one can accurately speak of moving to another level 'beyond' the literal" (28). However, it seems to me that whether one conceives the meaning of allegorical compositions as residing in vertically or horizontally organized space, the description remains a figurative convenience, a manner of speaking about the complex interplay between spoken and unspoken, articulated and unarticulated components of the work. The two metaphors of movement (up/down and back/forth) both serve as supplementary rather than strictly opposite views of the interpretive process.

8 Bowie notes that Lacan "savours the ambiguity of prepositions ... and plays relentlessly upon the alternative meanings of ý and de"; and Dennis Porter similarly remarks, in his "Translator's Note" to Seminar VII, that "one of the most difficult words to translate turned out to be 'de'" (Bowie, "Jacques Lacan," 144; Porter, viii).

9 My reading coincides with Muller and Richardson's explication of the word "passion" in these paragraphs as designating "the submission of man, as signifiable, to the laws of language that structure the unconscious _expression of desire" (Ouvrir, 164).

10 Cf. Macklin Smith: "It seems to me that no 'synthesis' occurs precisely because the poet cannot conceive his culture apart from his God, that his cultural orientation is exclusively Christian" (5; see also 105, 108).

11 Whitman offers an alternative view: "[W]hile the divided will may be one of the necessary conditions for the personification of the soul, it is clear that something beyond this division is necessary. ... The forces of the personality need not only to be divided, but to be fully abstracted, removed to their own level of discourse, and capable of diverging from their strict definitions" (31).

12 This notion of existence may be aligned with the opening statement of Bruce Fink's Lacanian Subject: "Unlike most poststructuralists, who seek to deconstruct and dispel the very notion of the human subject, Lacan the psychoanalyst finds the concept of subjectivity indispensable and explores what it means to be a subject" (xi). For existence in the opposite sense as "the impossible-real kernel resisting symbolization," see Zizek, 136-37.

13 To cite an exception, see Cynthia Chase's subtle discussion of the ways in which "Lacan's writing inscribes ... the necessity of a specular moment in the process of signification, and the necessity of its recurrence" (990).

14 Prior to Freud's adoption of the term "narcissism," its first clinical usage appeared in the work of Havelock Ellis in 1898, and its introduction into psychoanalytic circles apparently took place in a paper presented by Isidor Sadger at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1908. For further discussion of the evolution and applications of narcissism in psychoanalysis, see Pulver, 321-24.


To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Shuli Barzilai "Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage”: The Evolution of a Theory". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: June 4, 2004, Published: November 1, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Shuli Barzilai