A Concordance: Lacan’s Function and Field of Speech and Language and T.S. Eliot's Waste Land

by Robert Silhol

May 28, 2004


This essay explores the convergence of Lacan and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Beginning with consideration of the discontinuous structure of the poem and a critique of formal analysis, the essay argues for the separation of reading and analytic interpretation. The structure of The Waste Land is that of the dream, and we must take unconscious desire into account to understand it. We can then move from the poem to a Lacanian model of literary representation that may be modified or criticized.

Concluding the 1966 published version of his 'Discours de Rome' (1953), 'FUNCTION AND FIELD OF SPEECH AND LANGUAGE,' Lacan quotes several lines from the Upanishads (5.1), and it may be interesting to note that it was almost exactly in the same fashion that T.S. Eliot had concluded his Waste Land, about three decades earlier (1922).1 

Was this no more, on the part of Lacan, than a fashionable way to end his paper'a mere rhetorical 'flourish' (Muller and Richardson, 95), at a time, the Fifties, when the literary world in France knew, or at least had heard of , Eliot's great poem? 

On the other hand, I cannot help thinking that this curious coincidence is more meaningful than it seems. That Lacan somewhat knew Eliot's works can perhaps be attested by the fact that his paper, earlier on, also quotes four lines from 'The Hollow Men',' a nice phrase indeed for anyone discussing 'empty speech'!  

Two reasons incite me to insist on the importance of such a convergence. In the first place, Lacan's choice of Eliot's poem amounts to a positive critical judgment and is a way to inscribe aesthetics into history, highlighting as it does the new poetic form Eliot, in the footsteps of James, Proust and the Surrealists, had more or less inaugurated in 1922'alongside with Joyce. I take this to have been a way of implying that henceforth, since 1900 and Freud, literary interpretation'and I mean interpretation, analysis, not reading, which is something each of us does as he or she 'pleases''literary analysis, then, could no longer be carried out as if psychoanalysis had not existed. 

The second reason concerns Lacan's difficult style and thought. For quotations, indeed, here from the Upanishads, elsewhere from other sources, 2  often prove a good way into an author's 'meaning'. In the case of 'Function and Field'' which is a text of great importance'a discours programme, in fact--, the concordance mentioned has incited me to look once more into the page where the quotation from the Upanishads can be found. The last page of Lacan's long paper, it can be taken as a poetic conclusion and holds, as we shall see, interesting information. 


The Waste Land, then. Let me start with an obvious comment: the poem, at first, strikes us as discontinuous or even chaotic; on this, most readers and critics agree. 

Indeed, Eliot's work appears as a broken uneven sequence, made up of disconnected fragments, and it is hardly surprising that descriptions of admirers and scornful commentators'when the work was not yet accepted by all'rang remarkably alike: a 'cross-word puzzle of ['] spurious algebra' for Wyndham Lewis, who did not like it, it was 'a sort of inspired mathematics' for Pound, who held it on the baptismal font. In 1932, in The Saturday Review of Literature, Paul Elmer Moore heralded Eliot as 'a lyric poet of chaos', while The Times Literary Supplement of September 28, thirty years later, by its polite embarrassment, clearly pointed to the difficulty of describing Eliot's poem in recognized terms: 'There is no general agreement about what kind of poem The Waste Land is.' 

One clever way of begging the question is of course to see the text in terms of sentiment. However disconnected in appearance, The Waste Land is then described as 'a succession of connected states of feeling or 'emotions'.' 3  If at times we find it difficult to 'follow the argument,' and if 'no critic can provide [the readers] with a magic thread to take them through the labyrinth,' it is simply because the 'connections are not connections of logic, but connections of feeling.' 4  And indeed it is not badly put. Except that we are left with the essential question on the nature of this connection between feelings, and still do not see why it takes a disorganized text to render feelings or the connections between them. Here was, no doubt, an intuition which could have been rich in consequences, but instead of leading to further developments, it occurred as a conclusion, as if the problem set by Eliot's poem could suffer no solution, no answer, really; the significance of its strange new form being, without appeal, referred to the mysterious area of human emotions. 'Oh, do not ask 'What is it'' ?  

To this question'but with some delay'modern criticism replied by developing an interest in forms, or rather, and more precisely, the historical forces at work in the production of art and poetry at the turn of the Twentieth Century eventually produced such an interest some decades later. Until then, until the Fifties, approximately, it seems we had been under the illusion that literature was an accurate representation of reality and that its proper domain was precisely our relationship to the world, that is to say emotions. This seemed all the more so since one of the main criteria of the excellence of a literary work, for the critics, resided in the exactitude with which feelings were depicted, literature being considered as an inexhaustible source of information for the student of human behavior. (No doubt, 'human behavior' had not always been the main concern of the art critic or of the critic of poetry, those were more generally preoccupied with the ideal standards of perfection, more metaphysically or even 'religiously' inclined--the 'sacred' dimension of art--, but it cannot be said that an interest in 'emotions' had altogether been absent from their quest.) And suddenly, all this'the interest in human behavior and also the idealist stance'was changed! Critical emphasis was laid on form rather than on content, and one tended to pay more attention to the former than to the latter.  

Such a shift was no doubt a sound one, if only because it contained the implied warning that the accuracy of literature'a servile transcription of appearances'could no longer be taken literally. Behind it there lay the hope that the reflection on form would lead to a fuller understanding of the literary object. The dichotomy between form and content was not abandoned, but a device was introduced, a theoretical instrument, whose function it was to set aside reality as it was immediately perceived and to enhance the act of representation (form), in the implication that its analysis would reveal what was concealed behind appearances, thus helping us to discover reality as something more complex and richer than what appeared to the naked eye. The inquiry into form, then, could be conceived as a worthwhile detour, which could eventually lead to content again, to meaning, the literary work being envisaged as a succession of strata and no longer as a mere surface. 

Of those strata, however, of the new depths suspected, nothing was ever said; the investigation into form which was to lead back to human emotions never got there; no sooner had the intuition of a mystery beyond the 'surface' resulted in a new critical attitude than the mystery became suspect and, as such, forgotten. The progress towards more objectivity, more logic, more rationality led to a stalemate.  

To the psychoanalyst, today, such a failure, which amounts to an omission, is not devoid of meaning. That formal analysis is a necessary part of the task of the critic, no one will dispute, but the enterprise cannot be considered as an end in itself. For forms are signs also, and tell us something about the determinations at work in their production. 

These determinations can lead us to the 'subject' of the work of art. Obviously, this is a very difficult concept, and we must distinguish the individual subject'the 'soul' of the producer as psychoanalysis has defined it'and a collective subject'an object for the socio-historian--, but what is common to both is that the production process escapes conscious control. And here psychoanalytic theory can be of help, suggesting, for instance and to begin with, that an exclusive concern with form also has the function of a screen. Indeed, not to consider forms as signs does amount to a denial, yes, to an unconscious desire not to know, and we can sum up what is being repressed in the enterprise as meaning or pleasure, unconscious desire in a word. At most, what can be discerned in the discourse of the 'literary' critic are traces of what has been repressed, and in the end the original question remains: 'What is it'? 

Is literature once so reliable, then, no longer to be trusted, and what is the literary anthropologist to do, thus deprived of his material and left with considerations on form alone? 

For the question is still with us, it seems, waiting for an answer. 

At this point, I trust no one will be surprised if I say that I see only one course of action open: start with the words, start with discourse, which is a way of taking seriously the intuition about 'feelings' and their 'mystery' mentioned by the most perceptive critics. But we shall see it is also a way of refusing the critics' abrupt dismissal of a search into the mystery. The implied hypothesis is of course that the mystery is borne by the words themselves and that the reason for such a strange architecture as that of Eliot's Waste Land is given by the architecture itself. Thus are we embarking on an inquiry into language, as the final stage of this analysis will show.  

And indeed, it is such an inquiry that the very form of Eliot's poem encourages, an encouragement which is also to be found in the arts of the time, for the brokenness was not entirely new when Eliot started writing. The worlds of painting and music, not to mention the cinema with Eisenstein, had given rise to new forms. The collages of Braque and Picasso, the striking structure of The Rites of Spring, such disorganization of material, necessarily had an historical significance. Accepting to see forms as 'representations' of a 'collective' subject is of course a way of giving some meaning to the disorganization, which appeared with The Waste Land and even a few years before (the specific details of the realization depending on an 'individual' subject). To which can now be added that with literature the problem is even simpler since language constitutes its prime material, an entity we happen to know quite well.  

A 'medley' of various short poems worked into one, a mosaic of impressions, memories and quotations, The Waste Land has no apparent coherence and we are at a loss to decide what 'it means.' And at this point, luckily, it dawns on us that this lack of meaning'in the plain, usual sense'is precisely the very meaning of the poem. This is what I meant when I wrote that The Waste Land encouraged an inquiry on 'form.' For one way or another no rebus is devoid of sense; as Eliot reportedly often explained: 'It means what it says.' Simply, we must make sure we are looking at it in the proper fashion. What is the proper way is another matter, but to know that it exists opens new horizons to us.  

Here, we must not confuse reading with analysis. In a way, what The Waste Land is also telling us is that there is no 'proper way' of reading it. We know this: reading is but a construction of meaning by each reading subject (Norman Holland). Beyond the elementary recognition of given signs'letters or ideograms, words, sentences--, when we read, we each project our own meaning into these signs: such is the polysemic quality of language. And the less directive the surface guideline'narrative or descriptive--, the freer the construction of meaning(s). The Waste Land fully demonstrates this point: it is for each individual reader to decide what the meaning will be; from which it follows that whatever re-connecting of the disconnected parts takes place'if it does'is to be ascribed to the reader and not to the text, whose 'surface' therefore remains disconnected. 

So much for reading, and from what precedes it becomes obvious that reading and analysis are two completely different experiences. For this is where the unconscious desire of the analyst has to be taken into account and' 'discounted.' For, naturally, the object under analysis has to have been read or heard in the first place. It is at the price of such a 'dis-counting' that one will be a psychoanalytic critic and not simply a reader.  

Because we are confronted with two different processes, two different objects in fact, the text as I read it and the text as what was produced by an author--which is not the same thing--, we cannot speak of 'meaning' as if it were One. And another dimension of the notion of meaning has also to be taken into consideration: I alluded to this when I said that language could no longer be considered as ' a mere surface.' No longer restricted to the amount of information sent'the 'message' as it can be received--, the text comes to point to the unconscious relationship which must have existed between the producer and his discourse. In the same way as all our behavior has a significance, so have the words and sentences that we speak or write: such is our symbolical dimension. In short, when I speak or write I say more than I consciously think, and the unconscious nature of my discourse'by definition not the result of a conscious decision'may cause me to reveal what I might have preferred to leave unsaid or, better, may cause me to reveal something I do not readily accept as my own. All this is well known today, as is the analogy between the structure of the dream and the structure of language. 

But in 1922, this was so new, so revolutionary, that the author of a poem which proclaimed such a truth'however implicitly'may have vaguely apprehended he had 'spoken too much.' 

With The Waste Land--and 'Gerontion, ' and 'Prufrock' in a lesser manner--, there appeared in English poetry a new form characterized by its apparent lack of logic. Poetry, it is true, as it is the mode of _expression nearest to man's innermost feelings, has always functioned in this way, therefore not inclined to be concerned with narration or description. But some form of relationship with reality, with the 'surface,' had always been maintained, whereas The Waste Land reveals an attitude that is radically new. 5  

Thus can be explained Eliot's decision to provide a guide-line for his work and also the trouble he took to name such sources as might help to 'elucidate the difficulties of the poem' for 'any who think such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble.' A pattern was found'after the various parts of the poem had been written--, and thanks to the Grail Legend and to 'vegetation ceremonies' the work acquired some unity. The maze of the poem could then be approached and a dramatic progression was somewhat found in the quest it was illustrating. We have to recognize that with the Fifth Part and the theme of the 'Chapel Perilous' a 'manifest' meaning becomes distinguishable. To lead us through the labyrinth of this final stage of the Quest, here is an Ariadne's thread and the 'vegetation goddess.' With less obscurity than in the preceding Parts, the poem begins to assume some dramatic and thematic coherence. 'Quest,' here, is what will give significance to the whole mystery. At last, the isolated incomprehensible fragments seem to fall into place and design a coherent pattern out of which the difficulties that faced the reader so far adequately symbolize the ordeal the quester has to go through before reaching his goal. Thus does the conclusion stand in a clear opposition to the obscurity that has prevailed so far. Thus is justified beyond expectation the dislocation of the first four Parts: it enhances structurally the achievement of the quester. 6  But what this achievement is we shall never know.  

Perhaps one sees what contradiction is implied here: to write a 'broken,' silent poem''It is what is indirect, allusive that counts; it is the dislocation,''but at the same time try to provide a guideline and a rewarding ending for the readers of the dislocated poem.  

Writing about the necessity for the modern poet to be difficult, Eliot explained that 'the poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary language into meaning.' ('The Metaphysical Poets,' Selected Essays, London: Faber, 289) An Ars Poetica for our time, this certainly is good advice. 

This seems, however, to have been a rule too difficult to follow. For it implied the acceptance that one's poem could be devoid of meaning as the notion had been understood so far, the acceptance that his poem mainly consisted in words whose meaning was not what it seemed at first. In a way, Eliot wasn't doing his poem justice. For wasn't the wish to provide his readers with a guideline--on second thoughts'an unconscious way to lead them astray in making them believe that meaning was within reach? It amounted to a confusion between conscious discourse and meaning, a confusion we find when the dream as experience is mistaken for its meaning, a meaning that can only be adumbrated through a painstaking analysis. 

Fortunately, the poem is here to set things right: it is here to be read, that is, I repeat, experienced. 'To dislocate ['] language into its meaning,' this is precisely what psychoanalysis does, and, as we saw, it is not the same enterprise as reading or writing. 'Dislocated,' the discourse of the modern poet reveals in its own fashion the structure of language: a mask, a fa'ade, and unconscious desire. As in the dream or the slip of the tongue, the architect is always hidden, making sure, behind the scenes, that the unspeakable is spoken'but in a form which cannot be (directly) understood. In The Waste Land, there is only a frail mask, for the Grail legend is a very thin fa'ade indeed. In The Waste Land, it is the primary process that speaks, and it is not in its nature to be easily deciphered. In the end, the Grail legend and the fertility myths, the painful march towards salvation or purity no more than provide a rationalization for a 'meaning' which remains secret. 'Salvation,' 'sacrifice,' 'purification,' are words which still have to be analyzed.  

Already, in sending his poem to Ezra Pound for criticism and correction, Eliot was adding to what original dislocation it already had. Accepting to see his text amputated was a good way to produce a broken up poem. In a way, by asking for Pound's advice and emendation, he was unconsciously proceeding to its amputation himself. The final product, like a message with some of its passages left out, would be nicely cryptic. That he should have chosen Pound, il miglior fabbro, as agent for the operation is far from meaningless, no doubt; this also could be analyzed. 

Perhaps do we have now a slightly better understanding of the way The Waste Land was conceived and written. Built like a collage, with allusions to Shakespeare and the Bible, reminiscences of Baudelaire, Dante and Verlaine, quotations from Webster, Shakespeare, Spenser, Marvel, Goldsmith and others, the 'method,' which may have been devised to say that words are only as good as those who read them, safely provided the poet with a mask at the same time: a screen. In this profusion of quotations and allusions, I see a defense of a psychological nature. What better way to hide oneself and one's innermost feelings than to clothe them with the words of others, words that are part of a cultural heritage and which have at once the import of a deep personal statement and the impersonality wherein to conceal this?

What is symbolically staged in the writing of The Waste Land, what actually took place in its production, was an escape from scrutiny'hard luck for Dr. Leavis! The poem, among other things, is the result of a desire for secrecy. This is how I interpret the obscure nature of Eliot's poem, the way it 'resists' meaning: the result of unconscious forces, an irrepressible compulsion to speak, but the necessity also that what is said shall remain secret. Two contrary forces'let me repeat this'thus obtained satisfaction in the writing of the poem: the urge, the drive to speak, and the impossibility not to remain silent. We recognize the structure of the dream, and we have learnt it is also the structure of language whose role is to carry information while at the same time concealing what we can call the subject's unconscious desire. Eliot's poem is made of this tension between utterance and silence. What The Waste Land offers us is a discourse whose function is to remain unintelligible. Part of the riddle thus becomes clearer. Not only do we realize that the meaning of the poem is not to be sought on the 'surface' 7  of its words and phrases, but this discovery is in itself one of the meanings of The Waste Land. Already, this is a first explanation for the brokenness of Eliot's poem. Its simplest and most obvious meaning, once one has turned the picture the other way round, lies in this unconscious 'refusal' to say something. A refusal, that is, that the forces responsible for the choice of this particular discourse, and responsible for the tension, also, should come to light. Not that communication is absent from the poem; as in the dream, it confronts us with a 'meaning,' and with an emotion, simply; we do not know what is being signified and what the reason for our emotion is. So that before even studying the details of the writing, before looking at its texture'words, images and phrases--, its general organization'disorganization'enables us to sense this tension at the primitive level of its conception: the structure of The Waste Land is that of the dream.  

In this perspective, 'The Notes On The Waste Land' which accompany the poem proper must be considered as part of the poem itself, something like an 'afterthought, something like the denial in 'The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock':  

'That is not what I mean at all.

That is not it, at all.' 

Meant to help the reader, these learned notes bring to mind the rationalizations one is so naturally inclined to produce when it comes to explaining one of our dreams without the necessary analytic precautions. It amounts to taking for the dream itself what the dream used for its construction in its undertaking to secretly express desire'day's remnants'and this is not the dream. For as we know, and Freud sufficiently warned us about this, dreaming'those secret movements of the 'soul'--always precedes the words with which, later on, we will try to describe what 'happened' during sleep and is of course an experience not readily accessible to consciousness, a memory only. The literary allusions and quotations which make up part of The Waste Land enabled the poet to preserve his secret, the Notes provided the reader with a 'guide-line' that would lead him or her safely away from where unconscious desire might have been discerned. In a way, this was to make us dream'And it is of course the task of literature'and of language: the creation of a necessary 'space' for hallucination and pleasure.  

Perhaps are we beginning to understand how untenable the position of the 'critic' of The Waste Land is? Here is a text about which one cannot communicate anything but what crosses one's mind, since the only available statement of an objective nature about Eliot's poem is simply that it is made of fragments of past literary works. And then, is that so simple? Some readers and critics do not like to tell what crosses their minds -but who does- ?, besides the obvious fact that we don't always know with precision what we have just felt or imagined. And then what about those who will remain silent in front of the silence of the poem, who will accept its mystery as an invitation to muteness, and refuse to see something, anything, in it? 

There remained the invitation to scholarly criticism, a neat way to remain silent also while saying a lot of possibly interesting things. It is true that the solution of the rebus may lie in a secret 'connection' which would unite all those various quotations and allusions, but beyond some thematic relationships, such a hidden connection has not been brought to light. So that the dilemma remains: either one refuses to look at the Notes and glosses, and the poem cannot be 'understood,' or one follows the hints of the glosses, and it is not the poem that one reads. As if, apparently, between an embarrassed or stubborn silence and the talkative silence of misplaced erudition, there were no alternative.  

The answer, of course, lies in the objection, made by some'those who preferred silence--, that an enjoyment of the poem could be arrived at without the help of the glosses which accompany The Waste Land, and it is difficult to disagree with them although it does not seem possible to totally disregard the cultural factor when dealing with the act of reading. But they admitted there existed the danger of reducing the poem to a mere riddle for scholars, 8  and, respecting as it were the 'silence' of the unconscious subject, they were pointing the way and treating poetry as an experience and not as a source of immediate knowledge. 

But there were those--the rest of the literary establishment'who could not bring themselves to accept that poetry wasn't concerned with 'knowledge' and 'meaning' and felt they had a role to play at reconnecting the fragments of the puzzling mosaic. Eliot, of course, with his Notes and glosses was inviting them to go on with their search. This, we must remember, was 1922. So themes were traced out, quotations and allusions duly recognized, and thanks to a myriad of scholarly commentaries The Waste Land was so enriched at to become a possible memorial of western culture in its English version. Thus was obscured the novelty of Eliot's poem and missed the 'meaning' of its particular form which consisted in stressing the importance of experience, pleasure, desire.  

We must accept this discrepancy between art and criticism: meaning is not where we think it is. Only by taking unconscious desire into consideration can we hope to arrive at an understanding of what literature has to tell us. 

In the end, in spite of its new revolutionary form, The Waste Land remains a piece of writing, un 'crit, and as such cannot be asked 'to tell the truth' directly. 9  The truth of the (unconscious) subject, I mean. As we saw, the theme of the Quest was an attempt to give coherence to the isolated, incomprehensible fragments. But although it is true it makes the reading of the poem easier, it has nothing to say about the subject and its truth. I have already mentioned the necessary unawareness of the writer. We find such unawareness, for instance, in Eliot's declaration that the end of the Quest 'justifies' the whole poem. In his letter to Bertrand Russell of October 15, 1923, indeed, he says he is glad Russell has liked The Waste Land 'and especially Part V which in [his] opinion is not the best part, but the only part that justifies the whole, at all.' 10  For if the advocation of acceptance and renunciation does give some 'meaning' to the poem, one can also argue that it might nevertheless leave some of the readers'who enjoyed the poem'unsatisfied. This theme of the end of the Quest, consciously chosen, leaves too much unexplained. But mostly, as I have already pointed out, isn't it highly contradictory to try and give meaning to a piece of writing whose 'form' precisely signifies a poem 'is' and doesn't have to 'mean'. 11  For as we saw, the very form of The Waste Land does oppose experience and signification. In an attempt to do away with the brokenness of his poem'and naturally we are here dealing with unconscious processes--, Eliot proceeded to what we can call, borrowing the term from Freud, a 'secondary revision.' 12  This is what we usually do when we write, and I have already used the word 'rationalization.' Once again, this is a good demonstration that we always say more than we think or that we do not say what we think we are saying. The organizing principle of The Waste Land, the architect of the poem'for those who are interested in meaning--, is not to be sought on the level of intention. The chosen pattern'the Grail Legend'is simply a metaphor, which by definition has no direct intelligibility and remains to be analyzed when meaning is discussed. 13  

The controlling, the ordering, this is where part of the fantasy lies: and it is a testimony of Eliot's illusion. Clearly, it corresponds to a wish to organize chaos, and it does point to a desire for coherence in life. But such ordering cannot be carried out with our attention restricted to what is conscious only.  

Which brings us back to the 'primary process.' Indeed, in spite of all the traditional rational man'uvres Eliot'in his time'could not avoid displaying, there is much in his poem that proclaims the prominence of unconscious forces. Not a deliberate experiment in automatic writing, 'He do the police in different voices, ' as the poem was first named, nevertheless strongly suggests submission to a production process that escapes the control of consciousness. 14  

Admittedly, Eliot had no good word to say for 'the cultivation of automatic writing as the model of literary composition,' and we know he went as far as writing that he suspected 'automatic writing' to 'spring from a shallower source' (William Blake,' Selected Essays, 319); but at least the process is not unknown to him, and in spite of his restrictions we may construe the admission that it can sometimes lead to interesting results, as for instance in the metaphysical conceit which develops 'by rapid association of thought.' (Selected Essays, 282) 15 

Chaotic like a dream, disrupted, The Waste Land signifies with its particular form. Its brokenness demonstrates the quasi absence of a traditional 'fa'ade.' As a new art form, Eliot's poem is of considerable historical importance. As the author of the poem himself wrote: 'Any radical change in poetic form is likely to be the symptom of some very much deeper change in society and in the individual.' ('The Auditory Imagination') 


Perhaps do we understand better, now, Lacan's choice of a passage from T.S.Eliot's poem, a passage which was quoting from the Upanishads what the 'Thunder' had to say. 

No doubt, the Thunder does not say the same thing to Eliot and to Lacan, but what seems to matter for both authors is the presence of a voice. In fact, Lacan simply uses the word 'voice' and the phrase 'voice of the Thunder' to illustrate, in poetic fashion, one of the points he has just made in his long and important paper. An interpretation which is not too difficult to make is that he chose to borrow a few lines from Eliot's great poem in order to stress the paramount importance of language in humans. And in his stride, of course, he also gives us a psychoanalytic reading of the concept of 'voice.' Imagining for his readers, or rather his hearers (at the time they were young psychoanalysts), a Socratic dialogue, he insists once more on the idea of language as law, the law to which humans are submitted. 

The psychoanalytic experience has discovered in man the imperative of the Word [i.e., verbe] as the law that has formed him in its image. For not only is speech what is given us in order that we speak, express ourselves, but it is also our own name. True, Lacan does not embark on his theory of the 'name of the father' in his conclusion, but I feel confident that this is how we can understand his insistence on the gift of speech. Yes, the first thing I was given, even before I could speak, and of course before I could realize I had received such a 'gift', was my name. And this is quite simply the archetype of language as a linguist sees it. For the operation by which a child is given a name is not different in structure from the operation by which an object is named: thus do the words 'imperative' and 'speech' (le verbe) make sense. 

Obviously, between the two operations, there is a difference, and only in the case of the infant receiving a name is it a clear determination. But the structure in both cases is the same and this is no doubt what Lacan wanted us to understand: humans give names'to things, to the world around them, and'to their children. In the end, the fact that a child receives the gift of language, that is to say inherits a particular idiom, is also a determination, a law. That parental desire is not so obviously present in the vocabulary or in the rules we learn as children as it is in our name does not imply there is no determination here. Let me repeat this: the structure is the same, and it is the structure of representation. Thus it is a 'voice,' la parole, which makes us 'subjects.' This voice is the voice of parents, needless to say, or at least voices in our close environment when we are infants, but more generally it is the voice men and women use to name objects out there, the language they use to represent the world, this world from which they are irremediably separated.  

When he borrows 'control thyself' from Eliot'which supposedly is the first teaching of the Thunder-- 16 , Lacan does not seem to have austerity or mortification in mind, and he does not seem to be thinking of charity in its traditional sense either when he repeats 'give', in the same way as he is not particularly considering sympathy when he writes 'have compassion''though this is possibly a virtue one might expect of a psychoanalyst. 17  No, in this occurrence, he places the debate elsewhere, and it becomes a philosophical debate: what he is intent on demonstrating is simply the power of speech. La parole as determination, and though this may well have its origin in a preoccupation with the 'Name of the Father, ' it has much wider implications. As I have just pointed out, we are here confronted with a fundamental structure: received by humans at birth, speech, more generally, demonstrates our ability to represent (and that this goes beyond verbal language is obvious).  

'for it is through [par voie]this gift that reality [toute r'alit'] came to man and by his making use of

it [par son acte continu'] that he maintains it.  

This is what Lacan reads in what the Thunder has to say, his interpretation'and this is where he repeats 'le texte sacr' voulant dire' three times--, for it is what the sacred text means, in his view, that he would like his hearers to understand too.  

'men are recognizable by the fact that they speak [se reconnaissent par le don de la parole]

And 'Devas' and 'Asuras'--who in the poem, with men, listen to the voice of the Thunder--, are just human creations, creations of language, gods and demons who proceed from men's capacity to represent or symbolize. 

And at this point, still bearing the structure of representation in mind, we remember Freud's story about his grand child playing with his reel. For the only sound -word?- which is uttered by Prajap'ti, the god of Thunder, in The Waste Land and in 'Function and Field'' alike, is 'Da.' I know this leads to 'Damyata, Datta' and 'Dayadhvam, ' control, give, sympathize, but I also notice that Lacan takes great care to treat the three verbs as responses to or interpretations of the original 'da.' Indeed, we recognize the sound: this is what Freud's grandson was repeating, fort and da, and this verbal operation is a perfect example of what a linguistic signifier is! Which of course Freud did not let go by unnoticed. And as we do not want to confuse psychoanalysis and linguistics, I shall simply add that this is a perfect example of what representation is. Once more, we come across the structure we have already met: the structure of language. 

Suddenly, then, it all seems quite clear: humans represent, that is to say replace with signs the world from which they are separated, 


subject / / object, 

replace it, that is, in hallucinating, or, to use a formula, which will carry less desperation, in pretending they are not really that separated from it. Already, Freud had said that the dream had the structure of a sentence. Lacan adds: 'the unconscious is structured like a language.' And it is true that when I dream I represent. Naturally, such representation is but an hallucination, but it has the structure of speech: from the world out there to a representation of it. For whether we illustrate both operations thus:  

sign/                            /referent 








(Saussure) 18 


a single structure stands out, which applies equally to the dream and to language.  

But I must be more specific. The dream, this is well known, is not intelligible, not directly intelligible, and the rules which allow 'communication' (even though such communication most of the time holds a considerable portion of misunderstanding) do not apply in its case. And yet, when we realize that, in spite of the necessary adequation of words and things, words are not the things they represent, we end up with the structure mentioned above, a structure commanded by the central separation between the subject and the world: barre, b'ance. Thus is the difficult concept of 'unconscious' liable to receive a satisfactory illustration (representation of representation): what is unconscious in me is not structured differently from what is latent in my discourse. Again, this is well known: whatever our precautions, when we speak, there is a lot that remains unsaid, 'parole vide, parole pleine.' 

All this, Lacan must also have read in The Waste Land. What the poet obscurely expressed in 1922, the psychoanalyst analyzed some thirty years later. Splitting, displacement, the metaphor, such were some of the ideas discussed by psychoanalysis, and the knowledge we gained from the discussion has enabled us to form a new conception of the subject'no longer to be confused with the agent. If we do not know who we are'with precision'at least we know who we are not, and it is a beginning. The Waste Land also was a beginning, the first historical manifestation in poetry of what Freud had found in dreams and Saussure in language. For Eliot was at least faintly 19  aware that his poem spoke of the solitude, the separatedness of the 'subject.' The difficult problem of subject and object, he had found in Bradley's works, as a philosophical student; both the modern poet and the philosopher are confronted with man's inescapable seclusion: 

My external sensations are not less private to myself than my thoughts or my feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it ['] In brief regarded as an experience which appears in a soul, the whole world for each is peculiar and private to that soul. (Bradley, Appearance and Reality, 336, italics mine) 

Emphasizing the uniqueness and the solitude of each human being, Bradley defines the nature of objectivity along the lines of phenomenology.  

To phenomenology, Lacan will add the reflection on form and on language. This is also to be found in The Waste Land expressed metaphorically, but ready for us to interpret. Indeed, the very form of Eliot's poem is telling us how it could be ' heard.' 20  And this leads to the spoken word, that is to say to language. In 'The Metaphysical Poets, ' Eliot wrote:  

The poets in question [']were [']engaged in the task of trying to find the verbal equivalent for

states of mind and feeling. (Selected Essays, 289) 

This is precisely what language is: an equivalent, a representation. The Waste Land defines poetry as language in its essence: this is Lacan's parole.  

Thus are some of the most mysterious of Lacan's poetic formulations liable to be given a plausible interpretation thanks to what we may assume his understanding of The Waste Land was. We have already seen the unconscious 'structured like a language,' we can add: the subject as 'an effect' of the signifier (although here, instead of 'signifier,' I think Lacan could have said: ' parole and/or desire of the Other'), (20) and 'language as the condition of the unconscious.' As for the central idea of his demonstration, that is to say that man is subject to the law of speech, I hope it is now clear. Naturally, I shall never know what these words meant precisely for the subject who produced them'as is often the case with 'poetic' discourse--, but they do enable me to build a model which makes sense, a model which permits me to answer various questions of a psychological, linguistic or even philosophical nature. In a word, the system described seems very coherent. Which does not mean that it cannot be criticized, improved or, more modestly, developed. 21 


  1. 'Fonction et champ de la parole et du langage en psychanalyse,' Ecrits. (Paris: Seuil, 1966).

    The Waste Land and other poems (London: Faber and Faber, twelfth impression, 1952), and: The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, edit. by Valerie Eliot (London: Faber, 1971). (Back to Main Text)

1 bis. John P. Muller and William J. Richardson, Lacan and Language, (New York: International Universities

Press, 1982). 

  1. Lacan's essay on Edgar A. Poe is well known; his s'minaires on Shakespeare's Hamlet can also be mentioned. (Back to Main Text)
  1. A.J. Wilks, A Critical Commentary on T.S.Eliot's The Waste Land. (London: Macmillan, 1971), p.67. (Back to Main Text)
  1. Helen Gardner, 'The Waste Land,' (Manchester University Press, 1972), p.19.(Back to Main Text)
  1. There had been other examples in history of such a radicality, and for example Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan,' but they were isolated examples. (Back to Main Text)
  1. Conceived after most of the poem had been written, the theme of the quest may nevertheless help to make of The Waste Land a story of renunciation or a tale of redemption, and it also defines Eliot's work as different from a piece of Surrealist writing, but it is no help when it comes to accounting for the richness and complexity of the poem. (Back to Main Text)
  1. I use 'surface' for lack of a better word, but it is misleading since the notions of inside and outside cannot be applied to language: unconscious desire'Freud's unconscious thoughts'is built into language and cannot be dissociated from it; all we can do is look for 'traces' or 'signs' of these 'thoughts.' (Back to Main Text)
  1. 'One of the greatest dangers in reading The Waste Land [is] that of resting in a delighted sense of discovered meaning because we have recognized an allusion.' (Helen Williams, T.S.Eliot: The Waste Land .[ London: Arnold, 1973]), p. 51. (Back to Main Text)
  1. 'But 'in spite of' is not appropriate, since it is the reader's attitude which will determine whether this 'crit can be given some meaning, and his decision will be a consequence of the new form heralded by the poem.  (Back to Main Text)

10. See, B.C. Southan, A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S.Eliot (London: Faber, 3rd edit. 1977), p.90. (Back to Main Text)

11. The reference is to Archibald Mc Leish's poem 'A poem must not mean, but be.'  (Back to Main Text)

12. See: 'It is hardly rash to assume that the unintelligibility of the dream's content as it exists in the memory

has led to its being recast in a form designed to make sense of the situation. That situation, however, is in the

process deprived of its original meaning and put to extraneous uses. But ['] it is a common thing for the

conscious thought-activity of a second psychical system to misunderstand the content of a

dream in this way, and this misunderstanding must be regarded as one of the factors in determining the

final form assumed by dreams.' (S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, Standard Edition V, 243) Chapter

VI of the same volume is devoted to Secondary revision, 488-508.   (Back to Main Text)

13. This is what 'fa'ades' are for. What Eliot wrote about Joyce's Ulysses perfectly applies to The Waste Land,

though not in the way one may think: 'It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a

significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.' (The Dial,

Nov. 1923)  (Back to Main Text)

  1. On automatic writing, Eliot has commented: 'I know for instance, that some forms of ill-health, debility or anemia, may (if other circumstances are favorable) produce an efflux of poetry in a way approaching the condition of automatic writing ['] What one writes in this way may succeed in standing the examination of a more normal state of mind.' (in Wilks, A Critical Commentary, op. cit., p. 85.),  and again, when writing about Les Pens'es of Pascal, in 1931: 

'['] it is a commonplace that some forms of illness are

extremely favorable, not only to religious illumination, but to artistic and literary composition. A piece of

writing meditated, apparently without progress, for months or years, may suddenly take shape and word; and

in this sate long passages may be produced which require little or no retouch. I have no good word to say

for the cultivation of automatic writing as the model of literary composition; I doubt whether these

moments can be cultivated by the writer; but he to whom this happens assuredly has the sensation of being a

vehicle rather than a maker. ' (Selected Essays (1932), [London: Faber, 1951], p. 405) (Back to Main Text)

  1. A verification, which remains to be carried out fully, would show how the mechanism of free association'

the primary process'directed the composition of Eliot's poem, at least partly; which would be a way, of

course, of providing the various 'broken' parts with and a new and different 'unity.'  (Back to Main Text)

  1. Whereas Eliot had not quoted what 'the Thunder' was saying in the same order as in the Upanishads Lacan respected that order.  (Back to Main Text)
  1. No doubt, except that genuine 'analytic' sympathy may imply clear-sightedness, prudence, and the refusal to limit itself to a compassion that would simply consist in suffering with the patient. (Back to Main Text)
  1. Lacan chose to invert the terms of the Saussure's 'formula', with Signifier on top and signified below; this is well known. (Back to Main Text)
  1. 'Faintly,' because even though Eliot may have had the intuition he was breaking new ground, it is far from certain that he felt from the onset the historical importance of his poem. See: (Back to Main Text)
It is hardly too much to say that Eliot himself, at first, did not regard The Waste Land as a great poem,

but was gradually persuaded that it might be, perhaps was. (T.S. Matthews, Great Tom, Notes towards

the Definition of T.S. Eliot [London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974], 73.)  

  1. But in this instance he obviously had sexual difference and the 'phallus' in mind. (Back to Main Text)
  1. On Eliot and language, see: Harry T. Antrim, T.S.Eliot's conception of Language (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1971); and also Hugh Kenner, The Invisible Poet: T.S.Eliot, (rpt.) (London: Methuen, 1965). (Back to Main Text)

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Robert Silhol "A Concordance: Lacan’s Function and Field of Speech and Language and T.S. Eliot's Waste Land ". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/silhol-a_concordance_lacans_function_and_field_. May 24, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: May 5, 2004, Published: May 28, 2004. Copyright © 2004 Robert Silhol