by Jacqueline Hamrit

July 16, 2008


In this paper, I show that Derrida is indebted to psychoanalysis as the Freudian concept of Nachträglichkeit (translated into English by Jones as 'deferred action) is central to Derridean concepts, such as 'Différance'. To do so, I first define the notion of Nachträglichkeit through its etymologies, its appearances in Freud's texts, its translations, and its relationship with the issue of trauma. In a second part, I study the role played by the notion in Derrida's concepts by referring to two essays written by Derrida, i.e. "Freud and the Scene of Writing", published first in 1966 and then in Writing and Difference in 1967, and "Différance", published in 1968. In a third part, I apply the notion to a literary text which deals with psychopathology, namely Nabokov's novel, Lolita which is about a case of sexual perversion - paedophilia.


The question I will be concerned with here, namely Derrida and psychoanalysis, has already been raised by Geoffroy Bennington during the symposium which took place at the International Centre of Cerisy-la-Salle in France and whose title was “Depuis Lacan” [“Since Lacan”]. Bennington’s article which was published as part of the Proceedings of the Symposium was entitled “Circanalyse (la chose même)” [“Circanalyse (the thing itself)”]. It starts with the following questions about Derrida:

What will he have taken from psychoanalysis? (What is he indebted to psychoanalysis for?)
What will he have given psychoanalysis? (What is psychoanalysis indebted to him for?)
What will he have returned to psychoanalysis? (Are they quits to each other?)
What will he have returned to psychoanalysis? (In what situation will he have left it?)1

It will therefore be necessary to wonder about Derrida’s debt to psychoanalysis but also about what he has given it.

I will study, for my part, in this paper the relations between the thoughts of Freud and Derrida through the Freudian concept of Nachträglichkeit which I keep in German not out of stylishness nor to establish a schibboleth but for a problem of translation which I will develop further on. I would like to quote, at this stage of my point, a central sentence of the preface added by René Major to his book published in 2001 and entitled Lacan avec Derrida [Lacan with Derrida]. This sentence states:

The Freudian concept of Nachträglichkeit, “l’après-coup” [deferred action], which brings into question the metaphysical concept of self-presence is essential to the thought of Derrida about the trace, deferral, differance.2

I will ask myself the following questions:

  • First, what is Nachträglichkeit? To answer, I will rely on the two volumes the Revue Française de Psychanalyse has dedicated to it, namely Book 61 in 1997 and Book 70 in 2006. The 1997 issue is entitled “Après l’analyse” [After analysis] but it includes a set of three articles dealing with the notion of “après-coup” which is the established translation in French of Nachträglichkeit. As for the 2006 issue, its title is clearly announced. It is “L’après-coup”. I will also refer, besides these two publications, to Jean Laplanche‘s book also published in 2006 and whose title is Problématiques VI; L’après-coup.
  • The second question I will raise is about Derrida’s debt towards this Freudian concept. To what extent does this concept announce, precede, find an echo in the thought of Derrida about différance and writing? I will mainly rely on two texts by Derrida, the first being the lecture delivered at l’Institut de Psychanalyse in March 1966, first published in Tel Quel in 1966, then in L’Ecriture et la difference[Writing and Difference] in 1967 and whose title is ‘Freud et la scène d’écriture’ [‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’] The second text I will analyse is the lecture delivered on January 27, 1968 at the Société française de Philosophie, entitled ‘la différance’.
  • In a third part, I will ask myself how the various notions involved in the concept of Nachträglichkeit can clarify the reading of a literary text dealing with psychopathology, namely Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, in which a case of sexual perversion –paedophilia- is staged.

I would like to start with a historical report on the concept of Nachträglichkeit , such as it appeared in Freud’s texts. According to Laplanche, Lacan is the one who discovered the concept in Freud and thus focused our attention on one of the essential points of the thought of Freud. Lacan, indeed, in the ‘Report of Rome’ (September 1953) published in the Ecrits, picks out the word nachträglich in the ‘Wolfman’. He keeps it in German and in italics, in its adverbial form, the substantive being of course Nachträglichkeit . He also suggests a translation, namely après coup which he admits to be ‘weak’ in a footnote added on the same page. Lacan considers that the après coup is what enables the subject to restructure and give meaning to the past. The word will be taken up by Laplanche and Pontalis in 1964 in Les Fantasmes originaires then in 1967 in Le Vocabulaire de la Psychanalyse [Vocabulary of Psychoanalysis] which contains a complete article on the après-coup. Now Laplanche, in his 2006 book, looks more carefully into the etymology, definitions and translations of the word. He considers that the starting point of the word nachträglich is the verb tragen which means ’bear’ or ‘carry’ or ‘wear’, then the verb nachträgen in which the prefix nach which means ‘afterwards’, ‘backwards’, the three meanings of nachträgen being (i)‘move or carry backwards’, (ii) ‘add’, (iii) bear grudge. As for the English translation, it raises a problem as there have been some confusions. According to Laplanche, Strachley, the editor of the Standard Edition, has missed the concept as he has not translated all the occurrences in the same manner. Moreover, the translation enforced by Jones, namely “deferred action”, has been misspelled in Le Vocabulaire de la Psychanalyse. It appears spelled “differed action”. This is an interesting mistake as the verbs “defer” and “differ” are the two verbs which will be used to translate the two meanings of Derrida’s differance. Now Laplanche maintains that the English translation reduces the meaning of Nachträglichkeit as it restricts it to what means in English “subsequently”, “later”, “belatedly”. We will see later how and why Laplanche and Derrida diverge on the questions of the translation of the term.

But when and where does the concept appear? According to Laplanche, it appears for the first time in Freud in 1894 about the case of Elizabeth von R. Elizabeth is a home nurse whose affects are as if they were stored, prevented from expressing themselves. There is, Laplanche says, something which is stored, which cannot be released, and which is released only subsequently when the treatment is over. It is on that occasion that Freud uses for the first time the expression nachträgliche Erledigung that Laplanche translates into French by liquidation après coup [“deferred elimination”]. The underlying idea is that of an overcharge of energy which must be discharged through a mourning work carried out thanks to memory. Then the word reappears, Laplanche says, in 1895, in the Project for a Scientific Psychology sent to Fliess. He describes secondary consciousness as consciousness which comes afterwards. Strachley translates it by “subsequently”. Although the word appears later in the correspondence between Fliess and Freud, it is mainly in two case studies that it gets its present status. It is Emma’s case and that of the Wolfman.

In the Project for a Scientific Psychology, published in 1895, Freud relates the case of one of her patients, Emma, in these words:

Emma is subject at the present time to a compulsion of not being able to go to shops alone. As a reason for this, [she produced] a memory from the time when she was twelve years old (shortly after puberty). She went into a shop to buy something, saw the two shop-assistants (one of whom she can remember) laughing together, and ran away in some kind of affect of fright. In connection with this, she was led to recall that the two of them were laughing at her clothes and that one of them had pleased her sexually. . .

Further investigation now revealed a second memory, which she denies having had in mind at the moment of Scene 1. Nor is there anything to prove this. On two occasions when she was a child of eight she had gone into a small shop to buy some sweets, and the shopkeeper had grabbed her at her genitals through her clothes. In spite of the first experience she had gone there a second time; after the second time she stopped away. She now reproached herself for having gone there the second time, as though she had wanted in that way to provoke the assault.3

Freud sums up the situation, saying there are indeed two scenes, Scene 1 being the one with the shop assistant, Scene 2 the one with the shopkeeper, a connecting link between the two scenes being laughter. The other common point is that the girl was alone. Then Freud goes on writing:

Together with the shopkeeper she remembered his grabbing through her clothes; but since then she had reached puberty. The memory aroused what it was certainly not able to be at the time, a sexual release, which was transformed into anxiety. With this anxiety, she was afraid that the shop-assistants might repeat the assault, and she ran away.4

And Freud concludes with a sentence Derrida will also quote in ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’ He writes:

Now this is typical of repression in hysteria. We invariably find that a memory is repressed which has only become a trauma by deferred action. The cause of this state of things is the retardation of puberty as compared with the rest of the individual’s development.5

Thus, it is the memory which turns into traumatism as it arouses an affect which had not been prompted by the incident. Moreover the puberty did make possible a new understanding of the recollected facts.

How does Laplanche comment these words? He points out the presence of what he calls “une théorie du trauma en deux temps.”6 [a theory of trauma in two times] He also underlines the fact that when Freud says the memory becomes a trauma by deferred action, it is the only passage of the text where the word nachträglich is used. For something to happen by a deferred action, a connection between the two scenes is necessary. Scene 2, when Emma is eight, is premature: the child is not mature to receive a sexual excitation. Scene 1, when she is thirteen, awakens the remembrance of Scene 2 which is reactivated. The biological maturation gives the child the ability to understand what has happened. We also notice that Freud numbers the scenes in the reverse order of chronological time as his temporal landmark is that of the treatment.

When the term of nachträglich reappears in ‘the Wolfman,’ it is also associated to the notion of traumatism and the presence of two or even three scenes. First, there is the primitive scene (when he is one year and a half), then the dream (on Christmas Eve when he is four) and the time of therapy. The first “deferred action” (he is four) corresponds to the understanding and the elaboration of the primitive scene. The second “deferred action”(when he is twenty-four) occurs when he puts his experience into words. When one and a half, the child received an impression to which he could not react sufficiently. When four, he lived the scene again and when twenty-four, he became conscious. Laplanche insists on the fact that, according to Freud’s theory on trauma, neuroses are not due to important and shocking events. For Freud, trauma requires two periods to exist and is inseparable from the notion of ‘deferred action’.

Temporality and causality are at the centre of the debate about the après-coup which is defined by Laplanche and Pontalis in Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse [Vocabulary of psychoanalysis] as follows: “experiences, mnesic traces are subsequently reshaped (remaniées) through new experiences and the access to another degree of development. They can gain at the same time a new meaning and a psychic efficiency.”7 The key term is here “reshaped” (remaniées); the subject “reshapes” (remanie) past events. There would be, moreover, a double movement in the après-coup, a regressive movement from T0 to T1 then T2 (to take up Freud’s number system) and a progressive movement involved in the après-coup (the nach in nachträglich). What comes afterwards gives meaning to what happened beforehand. Now, Jean Cournut, in 1997, pointed out something important. He declared: “To have an effect of the après-coup, there must be a subject who recognizes it, accepts or refuses it, but signs the conquest of meaning. Who announces it, who names it, who makes an account of it?”8

That precision is underlying in the conclusions drawn by Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Laplanche from their reflexions on the après-coup. Lyotard and Laplanche agree on three themes connected to the après-coup: the presence of a message, the translation and the relationship between Adult and Child. Lyotard actually wrote in 1989 in La Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse an article entitled « Emma ». He considers that the shop-keeper addresses Emma as if she were a woman. He puts the child immediately in a position of a “you” in an interlocution she ignores and in the position of a woman in a sexual division she ignores.9 And Lyotard adds: “In the shop-keeper’s gesture, all this is being ‘said’. And, Emma, as pure affectivity, cannot hear it and answer it. The shop-keeper’s affect is addressed to Emma and referenced on her. . . but Emma’s affectivity ignores the destination and reference.” 10As for Laplanche, he takes up the notion of a message and suggests that the understanding of the après-coup is that of an ‘enigmatic message’, enigmatic for he says “messages between adult and child are necessarily so.” 11Lyotard and Laplanche disagree however on how the message is integrated. For Lyotard, it is untranslatable, whereas, for Laplanche, it needs translating (il est à-traduire) That message proposed to the child by the adult shall be the object of attempted translations by the addressee, but there will always remain a part of secrecy which will never be totally revealed. What is at stake is therefore childhood. Now, this is also at the centre of the problematic of the novel I intend to study since Lolita deals with the attraction of a middle-aged man for a young preadolescent girl. But before moving to the novel, I would like to look into the meaning taken by Nachträglichkeit in Derrida who quotes the word in a lecture devoted to Freud in 1966.

The lecture entitled ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’ will be at the origin of our reflection on the part played by Nachträglichkeit in the thought of Derrida. Derrida, in this text, wonders about certain Freudian concepts which he advises to use only in quotation marks as, he says, “all these concepts, without exception, belong to the history of metaphysics, that is, to the system of logo centric repression which was organized in order to exclude or to lower (to put outside or below), the body of the written trace. . .”12 We must therefore, according to Derrida, deconstruct those concepts, subvert and divert them and discover what, in psychoanalysis, is beyond metaphysical closure. Now, Derrida adds further on:

Let us note in passing that the concepts of Nachträglichkeit and Verspätung, concepts which govern the whole of Freud’s thought and determine all his other concepts, are already present and named in the Project. The irreducibility of the ‘effect of deferral’ (à-retardement)– such, no doubt, is Freud’s discovery.13

Derrida delivered that lecture and quoted the concept of Nachträglichkeit in 1966. He does not mention Lacan nor Laplanche and Pontalis but he takes up in Freud an idea which is at work in the elaboration of his thought which mainly took place in the sixties. Now, Derrida gives this word meanings and translations which it might be interesting to specify presently. The word Verspätung is the first to appear in the lecture. It is presented in parentheses and in italics, preceded by its translation in quotation marks, namely retardement (delaying). In the next paragraph, the quotation including the two leading concepts of Freudian thought, namely Nachträglichkeit and Verspätung appears. The two concepts are named side by side and involve the notion of à-retardement (effect of deferral), a notion printed between inverted commas as if it were a created concept, a neologism, or at least a new way of considering the concept. Then the two translations of nachträglich appear in the following sentence which I am first giving in French: “Tout commence par la reproduction. Toujours déjà, c’est-à-dire dépôts d’un sens qui n’a jamais été présent, dont le présent signifié est toujours reconstituté à retardement, nachträglich, après coup, supplémentairement : nachträglich veut dire aussi supplémentaire. » 14 We observe the quotation marks are no longer used for the expression “à-retardement” and nachträglich is first translated by “après coup”, then by “supplémentairement”. Derrida therefore insists on the second meaning of Nachträglichkeit and the notion of supplementation He thus resorts to the two sides of the concept which means ‘additional’, ‘added’ when an adjective and ‘subsequently’ when an adverb. We notice that Derrida, unlike Laplanche, underlines the notion of supplementation.

The two terms Nachträglichkeit and Verspätung reappear again side by side in Freud’s conclusion on Emma’s case in a sentence which was translated differently by the French translator of Freud’s works – Anne Berman – and by Derrida.

Anne Berman indeed writes:

Nous ne manquons jamais de découvrir qu’un souvenir refoulé ne s’est transformé qu’après coup en traumatisme. La raison de cet état de choses se trouve dans l’époque tardive de la puberté par comparaison avec le reste de l’évolution de des individus.15

James Strachey was to translate Freud’s sentence from German into English as follows:

We invariably find that a memory is repressed which has only become a trauma by deferred action. The cause of this state of things is the retardation of puberty as compared with the rest of the individual’s development.16

As for Derrida, he proposes the following translation:

On découvre dans tous les cas qu’un souvenir est refoulé, qui ne se transforme en trauma qu’à retardement (nur nachträglich). La cause en est le retardement (Verspätung) de la puberté par rapport à l’ensemble du développement de l’individu.17

Anne Berman proposes the term ‘après coup’ for nachträglich written in French and in italics without mentioning the German term. Moreover, she does not pick up the word ‘Verspätung’. Derrida translates nachträglich and Verspätung by ‘retardement’ (Strachey proposes ‘deferred action’ and ‘retardation’, Alan Bass was to translate ‘retardement’ by ‘’after the event’ and ‘retardation’ when the word appears in this sentence,18 but by ‘deferral’ or ’delaying’ elsewhere in his text). As for Derrida, we notice that he translates the two words by the same French word ‘retardement’. This may seem regrettable from the strict point of view of translation but, by doing so, Derrida proves his interest for the central notion of retardation or delaying which involves the idea of a process.

Now, Laplanche, in his work on the après-coup, regrets that Freud remains captive of an “eventually mechanistic [conception] of temporal process” 19 which would reveal itself through deferred action but strictly in accordance, Laplanche says, with the ‘arrow of time’. We can understand Laplanche’s disappointment who, for his part, insists on the zigzag present in the to and fro movement involved in the après-coup, its progressive and regressive movements. Derrida, as for him, does not limit his conception of time to the arrow of time. In the preface he wrote in 1995 for Serge Margel’s work, Derrida is interested in the time Margel tries to define and which would be “a time before the time”, a prechronological time, an anachronical time. 20Derrida’s conception of time indeed leaves room to Nachträglichkeit as he puts into question the concept of presence. As early as the preface to the lecture on ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’, Derrida questions himself on the notion of presence and self-presence and looks subsequently into the opposition between the conscious and the unconscious in Freud, showing how Freud subverts it. According to Derrida, there does not exist in Freud an unconscious which would be situated in a precise place and would belong to a definite time, an unconscious which would have to be retranscribed in another place and another time (the conscious). There is no ‘pure and simple’ presence to take up Derrida’s expression. The past is contained in the present. And Derrida concludes with this sentence which strikes by its peremptory character:

That the present in general is not primal but, rather, reconstituted, that it is not the absolute, wholly living form which constitutes experience, that there is no purity of the living present – such is the theme, formidable for metaphysics, which Freud, in a conceptual scheme unequal to the thing itself, would have us pursue.21

But if Derrida insists on the fact that in Freud there is an apprehension of time which is characterized by belatedness and that there is consequently no pure and simple present, why does he entitle his lecture ‘Freud and the Scene of Writing’? It is because Derrida has mentioned in the preface that deconstruction, such as he had taken it up in the essays published first in 1965 and 1966 and then in De la Grammatologie [grammatology] in 1967, was an interrogation on the analysis of a historical repression and suppression of writing. Now, according to Derrida, Freud had also looked into the question of writing, notably in a 1925 text whose title is “Note on the Mystic Writing-Pad” in which he attempted to represent the functioning of the psyche through the image of writing. Derrida considers Freud solved at last in the 1925 text the questions he had asked himself in the Project. Freud had in fact wondered how to reproduce metaphorically perception and above all memory. Now, it is a writing machine, the Wunderblock (the Mystic Writing-Pad) which was to project the totality of the psychic apparatus. That writing machine is indeed able to meet the double requirement necessary to the retranscription of memory. The apparatus must be able to secure both the permanence of the trace and the virginity of the receiving substance. We need a device which, like memory, keeps (traces) and receives (new excitations).Such examples as a sheet of paper or a slate are not suitable as a sheet keeps but is soon saturated and a slate which can recover its virginity when wiped off, does not keep traces. Now the Mystic Writing-Pad is an apparatus which keeps indefinitely and presents an always virgin surface. It is, in fact, a device constituted of a slab of wax covered with a transparent sheet made of two layers: a transparent celluloid sheet (used as a protection) and a sheet of thin translucent waxed paper. They are fixed on the slab on its upper side, whereas its lower side is free. The lower side is in contact with the slab of wax. To write, one uses a pointed stilus with which one scratches the surface and which forms grooves. These produce the written substance. To wipe off, one lifts the transparent sheet and the contact is interrupted. The traces remain but they are visible only in a certain lighting. The Mystic Pad becomes virgin again That apparatus therefore shows that writing unfolds in a discontinuous time. It also shows how traces are formed. One can wipe them off as in memory but they subsist.

All these considerations will open the way to Derrida’s concepts of architrace and differance, which are, Derrida writes, “neither Freudian nor Heideggerian” 22as “the Freudian concept of trace must be radicalized and extracted from the metaphysics of presence which still retains it.”23 For Derrida, “An unerasable trace is not a trace, it is a full presence.”24

Now, what puts in question the full presence is the notion of deferred time as, Derrida says, “It is the delay (retard) which is at the beginning.”25 But he then explains what he means by’delay’ (retard): “The word ‘delay’ must be taken to mean something other than a relation between two ‘presents’; and the following model must be avoided: what was to happen (should have happened) in a (prior) present A, occurs only in a present B.”26 Derrida refers there to one of his previous texts published in 1961, the Introduction to The Origin of Geometry by Husserl where he was already writing “Delay (retard) is here the philosophical absolute.”27 Now this consciousness of delay unquestionably reappears in the concept of differance which was to be the subject of a lecture delivered in 1968 and whose title was “La differance.”

Derrida begins that lecture saying he is going to speak of a letter, of the letter ‘a’ as he intends to write ‘différance’ with an ‘a’, this ‘a’ which is both inaudible and at the origin of a sort of bad misspelling. Then, he adds that differance comes from the French verb ‘différer’ which has two meanings; the first refers to the determining notions of Nachträglichkeit , namely, time and deferral. Indeed, ‘différer’ (to defer) is “to postpone, to take into account, to keep the account of time and of the forces in an operation which involves an economical calculation, a detour, a deferral, a delay, a reserve. . . “28 The other meaning concerns the act of differing, the creation of differences. Now, Derrida admits that the two meanings of differance are to be found in Freud. He also recognizes that the notion of Nachträglichkeit has enabled him to unfold a philosophy of the future and not of the past, dialectics or synthesis. He writes: “This structure of deferral (Nachträglichkeit) forbids us . . . to consider temporalisation (temporisation) as a simple dialectical complication of the living present , an original and unceasing synthesis (constantly returned to itself, assembled on itself, assembling ) of retentional traces and protentional openings.” Deferral does not therefore correspond to a resignification, as with Freud, or a restructuration as in Lacan, or a reshaping as in Laplanche. Deferral does not assemble meaning: it is adding, supplementing meaning. That is what Derrida will try to explain in La Dissémination [Dissemination] when he writes: “The reading or writing supplement must be rigorously prescribed, but by the necessities of a game, by the logic of a play, signs to which the system of all textual powers must be accorded and attuned.”29

Such is how Derrida’s thought becomes singular. Another way he had to move away from psychoanalysis was to resort, even more than Freud, to literature This would, in a certain way, justify, if need be, our study of a literary text, namely Lolita.

I now move to the third part of my paper where I would like to test the preceding views on Nachträglichkeit . Indeed, can we use that concept to light up the narrative of Lolita? Let me remind you that the novel tells the story of a middle-aged man who falls in love with a young preadolescent American girl, aged twelve, Dolores Haze, nicknamed Lolita. To approach Lolita, Humbert marries her mother Charlotte Haze who dies in an accident few months after the wedding. Humbert leaves then to fetch Lolita in the camp where she is on holidays. They become lovers and do a long trip across the United States. However Lolita runs away with a playwright, Clare Quilty, who is also a paedophile. Her new lover abandons her but Lolita does not join back Humbert. After long years in search of Quilty, Humbert finds him and kills him. He dies a few weeks later in prison.

It is definitely the story of a sexual deviation. The novel appears as the confession written by the protagonist Humbert when he is in jail and expecting his trial. He tells us the story of his life, his passion for Lolita and his text appears as an attempt to justify his criminal deeds. One of the reasons he puts forward to explain his attraction for very young girls is the relationship he had with his first love Annabel when he was thirteen and Annabel about his age. Would there have been a trauma? That is what Humbert seems to imply when he writes:

I leaf again and again through these miserable memories, and keep asking myself, was it then, in the glitter of that remote summer, that the rift in my life began; or was my excessive desire for that child only the first evidence of an inherent singularity?30

One has in mind however how Laplanche insists on the fact that the Freudian theory of traumatism supposes the existence of two events as it is the memory of the first scene which produces the deferred traumatism. Now, in Lolita, we are confronted with two scenes and even three. The first scene corresponds to the interrupted first sexual experience of Humbert who relates it as follows:

I was on my knees, and on the point of possessing my darling [Annabel] when two bearded bathers, the old man of the sea and his brother, came out of the sea with exclamations of ribald encouragement, and four months later she died of typhus in Corfu.31

The second episode is still more striking as it stages Lolita’s first appearance. Whereas Humbert has just looked over Charlotte Haze’s room free for hire, he follows his landlady in the garden where Lolita is. He writes:

I was still walking behind Mrs Haze through the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of greenery. . . and then, without the least warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses. It was the same child – the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. . . The twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished. . . Everything between the two events was but a series of gropings and blunders, and false rudiments of joy. Everything they shared made one of them. 32

We find here again two scenes, a memory and a connecting link between the two visions. The portrait of Lolita shows that Humbert’s eyes see beyond what he can see, in a time of recognition. Humbert remembers his childhood love, Annabel, and his vision is divided, split between past and present, superimposing in a repeated time the images of the present nymphet and those of the teenager of his past. The description might correspond therefore to a first après-coup.

A second one seems to take place when Humbert, in jail, looks back to his past and in a flash of lucidity cries out

I loved you. I was a pentapod monster, but I loved you. I was despicable and brutal, and turpid, and everything, mais je t’aimais, je t’aimais! And there were times when I knew how you felt, and it was hell to know it, my little one. Lolita girl, brave Dolly Schiller.33

To analyse that passage as one of the cathartic episodes of the novel where the protagonist becomes aware of his acts and is redeemed by his remorse would simplify the diegetic schema and underestimate the criminal gesture. The whole thing is indeed more complex as the author insists on the ethical dimension of the novel. It is actually a narrative on evil and psychic cruelty. The protagonist’s brutality is apparent on many occasions. Humbert indeed relates the threats he uttered against Lolita, his blackmails, his means of intimidation, his manipulations, his psychological violence. We learn that Lolita was merely sobbing as an answer. So, whatever he might say afterwards, Humbert was a monster.

The question which arises now is: to what extent is Humbert responsible for his acts? By presenting his attraction as the effect of an attachment to his first love, doesn’t he seek an ‘alibi’? I am here alluding to Derrida’s following words: “psychoanalysis would be . . . the sole possible approach, and without alibi, of all the possible translations between the cruelties of suffering ‘for pleasure’, of making one suffer or of letting one suffer. . . 34 As for Humbert, his alibi is present in his denial and his bad faith. He claims to condemn his criminal acts towards Lolita but he tries to gain the esteem and the complicity of the reader through laughter and the poetry of his style. There is a split between character and reader and he plays on the two registers. The best example proving that he is always trying to vindicate himself is to be found in the way he enumerates the laws concerning the age when a girl becomes a woman. For him, evil is relative since he writes: “. . it was all a question of attitude”35 But there sometimes occurs that the protagonist experiences his truth as a subject. For example, when Lolita reveals the name of his lover Quilty, he cries out: “I, too, had known it, without knowing it, all along.”36 This flash of recognition, this revelation shows to what extent Humbert was eventually free of his choices and decisions. In fact, he always describes the course of his life as a route which constantly forks and re-forks. The forking symbolizes the choice which is set free from determinisms and which opens up to the unexpectedness of the event. Humbert was conscious of his criminal tendencies and it was possible for him to free himself from them. My intention here is not to restore the omnipotence of a governing and sovereign consciousness as if Freud had never shaken its certainties. The point here is to restore the value of freedom which lies in the possibility of making a decision. Jean-Luc Nancy declares in L’Expérience de la liberté [The experience of freedom]: “Freedom is for good and evil. Its decision, if it is on the decision that freedom happens or arises to itself, is therefore a decision between good and evil.”37 Consequently, the subject is free to choose thanks to his/her knowledge of things at stake. Nancy adds that there exists a genuine decision, a genuine freedom. Derrida, for his part, is less categorical, as, according to him, only the ordeal of undecidability allows to make a free and just decision. Derrida writes in Force de loi [Force of Law] :”the undecidable is not merely the oscillation or the tension between two decisions. . . A decision that would not go through the test and ordeal of the undecidable would not be a free decision.”38Through the allusion to the undecidable and its resulting ordeal, Derrida integrates the part of obscure powers which underlie reason as he reminded us in L’Ecriture et la difference [Writing and Difference] how, for Kierkegaard, “The Instant of Decision is Madness.” 39

It would seem Nabokov too praises freedom. But how did he stage the ordeal of undecidability? I will answer: with a supplement, the post face he wrote one year after Lolita was published in 1955 where he specifies his intention as a writer. We find again the second meaning of Nachträglichkeit and its notion of the supplement. In fact, both Laplanche and Derrida brought out the value of what is called nachtrag, that is to say the addenda, the addition, the complement, the supplement. Whereas Laplanche mentions that the Nachtragsband of an edition is the volume that comes afterwards, a volume of adjunctions, 40 Derrida notes that Nachtrag also has a precise meaning in the realm of letters: appendix, codicil, postscript. Thus Nabokov adds in 1956 a post face to his novel where he complicates the scene (I am here taking up Derrida’s expression on the play of the post face) of the ethical debate. Actually, the novel without the post face had already put the reader in a double bind as the reader experiences at the same time a feeling of empathy thanks to the beauty of the text and a feeling of rejection towards the perversity of the character. Now, by adding that post face, Nabokov makes the interpretation of the novel even more undecidable since he expresses two contradictory judgements. On one hand, he stresses the ethical dimension of the novel in the fictitious preface signed by the fictional editor John Ray who considers that the text provides a moral lesson by showing what must not be done. But, on the other hand, Nabokov refutes that argument in the post face in a plea against any didactic literature. Consequently, the text resists any fixed and definitive conclusion. The novel results in a transformation of the reader who has to pass through a period of indecision before ending up in a real ethical choice and in a conscious and critical stand towards evil. The reader therefore also experiences deferral as meaning and decision occurs after a certain time, belatedly.

1 Geoffroy Bennington, « Circanalyse (la chose même), » Depuis Lacan, dir. Patrick Guyomard and René Major (Paris : Aubier, 2000) 270. [My translation]

2 René Major, « Oublier la psychanalyse, » Lacan avec Derrida : Analyse désistencielle. (Paris : Flammarion, 2001)VI [My translation]

3 Sigmund Freud, Project for a Scientific Psychology I(1895), in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (Volume 1[1886-1899] London: The Hogarth Press, 1966) 353-54.

4 Freud 354.

5 Freud  356.

6 Jean Laplanche, Problématiques VI ; L’après-coup (Paris :PUF, 2006) 49.

7 Jean Laplanche and J.B. Pontalis, Vocabulaire de la Psychanalyse, dir. Daniel Lagache 1967 (Paris : PUF, 1990)33. (My translation)

8 Jean Cournut, « De l’après-coup, » Revue Française de Psychanalyse 4 (Tome LXI, 1997) 1244. (My translation)

9 Jean-François Lyotard, « Emma, » La Nouvelle Revue de Psychanalyse Number 39 (Spring 1989) 67 (My translation).

10 Lyotard 69.(My translation)

11 Laplanche 167.(My translation)

12 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Diffrence, trans. Alan Bass (London and New York : Routledge, 1978) 247-48.

13 Derrida 255.

14 Jacques Derrida, L’Ecriture et la différence (Paris :Seuil, 1967) 314. Alan Bass translates the sentence as follows : « Everything begins with reproduction. Always already: repositories of a meaning which was never present, whose signified presence is always reconstituted by deferral, nachträglich, belatedly, supplementarily:for the nachträglich also means supplementary. (266)

15 Sigmund Freud, La Naissance de la psychanalyse, trans. Anne Berman  (Paris : PUF, 1956) 366.

16 Sigmund Freud, Project for a Scientific Psychology 356.

17 Derrida 317-18.

18 Derrida Writing and Difference 269.

19 Laplanche 168. (My translation)

20 Jacques Derrida, « Avances, » Le Tombeau du dieu artisan by Serge Margel Paris : Les Edtions de Minuit, 1995) 23.

21 Derrida Writing and Difference  266.

22 Derrida Writing and Difference 248.

23 Derrida Writing and Difference 289.

24 Derrida Writing and Difference 289.

25 Derrida Writing and Difference 255.

26 Derrida Writing and Difference 427.

27 Jacques Derrida, « Introduction, » L’Origine de la géométrie by Edmund Husserl (Paris :PUF, 1962) 170. (My translation) I am using Alan Bass’s translation of the word ‘retard’ but one should be conscious that for a French person, this word is immediately associated with the expression ‘être en retard’, that is ‘to be late’. So the idea of ‘belatedness’ could also be underlying..

28 Jacques Derrida, « La différance, » Marges de la philosophie (Paris : Editions de Minuit, 1972) 8. (My translation)

29 Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (London : The Athlone Press, 1981) 64.

30 Vladimir Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita , 1955 (New York : Vintage Books, 1970) 13.

31 Nabokov 13.

32 Nabokov 39-40.

33 Nabokov 284-85.

34 Jacques Derrida, Etats d’âme de la psychanalyse (Paris : Galilée, 2000) 88. (My translation)

35 Nabokov 18-19.

36 Nabokov 272.

37 Jean-Luc Nancy, L’Expérience de la liberté (Paris : Galilée, 1988) 174. (My translation)

38 Jacques Derrida « Force of Law, » Acts of Religion (New York and London: Routledge, 2002) 252.

39 Derrida Writing and Difference 36.

40 Laplanche 122.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Jacqueline Hamrit "Nachträglichkeit". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: February 20, 2008, Published: July 16, 2008. Copyright © 2008 Jacqueline Hamrit