Lacan in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll’s Guide to Lacanian Psychoanalysis

The following article is meant to serve as an introduction in plain language to some basic concepts of Lacanian psychoanalysis. With that purpose in mind, I have chosen to use Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass for purposes of illustration to render Lacanian concepts clearer. The following article is not an attempt at psychoanalytic literary criticism, and Carroll’s novel should be regarded as no more than an excuse for exploring Lacan; accordingly, I would like to ask the reader to take the analysis of this novel with good humour. The reason for choosing this specific book is its accessibility—I presume most people are familiar with it from childhood. Lacan had a penchant for using overly complicated language, and, understandably, there is going to be a lot of jargon ahead, but my hope is to show that Lacanian jargon is nothing to be afraid of. Although I mainly rely on Through the Looking-Glass, I start my article by analysing the famous rabbit-hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland since I believe it is an excellent starting point for introducing the audience to Lacanian terminology.

Down the Rabbit-Hole: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass can be interpreted as journeys into the unconscious. The association between the rabbit-hole in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the unconscious is so strong in popular culture that I assume you probably have already heard of it one way or another. Since we are concerned with Lacan in this article, we should up our game and look at the rabbit-hole in a new way. Instead of looking at it as a simple metaphor for the unconscious, we could interpret it as “a gap in the Other, a site coded by the signifier’s logic even as it is covered over by the production of fantasy” (Feldstein, 1995, p. 150). The language here is admittedly convoluted, but not to worry! We will break it down and explore each part as concisely as possible. This is the most acceptable analysis of the rabbit-hole I know of in the Lacanian literature; so, I hope the payoff for deciphering it would be worthwhile for the reader. You need to know at least four things to understand what the author means by the above statement.

  • First, Lacan believed that the unconscious is intricately linked to the Other. (You should bear in mind that, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, the “Other” and the “symbolic order”—also written as the “Symbolic”—are synonymous in this particular instance; accordingly, I will use them more or less interchangeably throughout my article.) Briefly put, for the purposes of our discussion, the Symbolic can be summed up as whatever that has a structure: language, culture, law, etc. You also need to know that Lacan believed that the unconscious has a structure which is lingual in nature, which explains what Lacan meant when he famously claimed, “the unconscious is the Other’s discourse” (Lacan, 2006, p. 10). Moreover, as a structuralist, he also believed that the processes of the unconscious involve signifiers in “signifying chains.” Think of signifiers as basic units that language and the unconscious work with; they are the basic units of the symbolic order. Some signifiers are more important than others.
  • Second, Lacan believed that the Symbolic always contains a lack that can never be filled—he referred to it as the “lack in the Other.” You can think of the lack as a hole left behind by some traumatic event (for more detail on the Lacanian concept of trauma see https://psychoanalyzadnes.cz/2018/02/19/the-concept-of-trauma-in-lacanian-psychoanalysis/). Far from being entirely bad news, this lack is, in fact, what makes us human—at the very least, it is this lack that motivates and drives us on a fundamental level. The terms “gap” and “lack” are sometimes used interchangeably in the secondary literature on Lacan, but they are not exactly the same. I tend to think of gap as something universal: we all have it by virtue of being human. (It also needs to be noted that Lacan uses the word “gap” in a variety of different contexts since it can be applied to any sort of opening.) Lack is more customised and individual—you acquire it in your own way based on your personal development. Lack is highly associated with desire. Think of it this way: We all have different desires, and different things fuel our desires, because our lacks are formed uniquely. You might have heard that neurosis fuels artistic activity. Lacan would agree with this common wisdom, and his explanation would run as follows: An artist is ceaselessly trying to fill the lack that is present in their symbolic order, little knowing that the lack can never be filled, hence the endless motivation for the endless production of artworks. To put it crudely, the artist “lacks” more than the average person, and s/he is more motivated to fill his/her lack. Furthermore, no two artists produce exactly in the same way, because they have different lacks and desires.
  • Third, one way we cope with the lack in the Symbolic is by fantasising. Fantasy does not truly fill the space left behind by the lack, but it gives us the illusion that it has been filled. As Todd McGowan puts it, “The role of fantasy is to convert the subject’s traumatic experience of lack into a more acceptable experience of loss in order to produce the illusion that there is somewhere a satisfying object of desire, that there is a world of things that language obscures and hints at” (McGowan, 2013, p. 199). To go back to the example of the artist, for the purposes of our discussion, you can think of fantasising as creating a fantasy world to deal with one’s traumas. Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, and even Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass were all endeavours by their respective creators to cope with the traumas of their lives. This insight is not unique to Lacan in the psychoanalytic tradition; it has roots in Freud and his idea of “sublimation.” (Incidentally, Through the Looking-Glass is far darker than the average reader might realise. To give you a hint, traces of death can be found all over the novel. It is for a reason that, in contrast to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the story is set in winter. As the introductory poem makes clear, the happy days “[w]hen summer suns were glowing” are gone by; Alice and Lewis are “half a life asunder” and are nothing more than “older children” who are anxious that it will soon be their “bedtime.” Therefore, Lewis Carroll’s mind was dealing with serious issues when writing Through the Looking-Glass; meaning, he was literally using fantasy as a coping mechanism.)
  • Fourth, “a site coded by the signifier’s logic” refers to the act of foreclosure (Verwerfung) which is a mechanism involved in psychosis: in foreclosure, the subject not only rejects the “primordial signifier” (See Lacan, 1997, p. 150) but also does so in a way as if it never existed in the first place. The locations (“sites”) of Verwefung are different from the sites of ordinary repressions. In Verwerfung the location of coding is the symbolic order (the Other) itself (See Pluth, 2020, p. 274). Once the signifier—in Lacanian psychoanalysis, the specific signifier foreclosed in psychosis is referred to as “Name-of-the-Father”—is foreclosed, the subject has to put something in its place to close the gap opened by foreclosure. This act could lead to hallucinatory incidents. In other words, in psychosis (prompted by Verwerfung), the symbolic order itself becomes undermined, and since the Symbolic is involved in giving structure to our sense of reality, messing with it messes with our sense of reality. Based on this reading, the Wonderland can be viewed as a psychotic hallucination induced by foreclosure.

Combining all four points leads us to conclude that we can read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland as a case of deep introspection and self-analysis carried out by Alice. Lewis Carroll is just an analyst who helps Alice confront her unconscious. (Of course, in reality, the novel tells us about the psyche of its author, Lewis Carroll. But since we are analysing the novel from within the structure of the novel itself, we will assume it’s more about Alice than Lewis Carroll.)

The Space Behind the Mirror: Through the Looking-Glass

Through the Looking-Glass is another instance of confronting the unconscious for Alice. To understand why, we need to interpret the mirror which she goes through in a Lacanian way. One of Lacan’s criticisms of psychoanalysts of his day was that they did not pay enough attention to the fact that the ego misrepresents psychic reality. Despite the role the ego plays in providing us “landmarks that prove to be the surest for survival” (Lacan, 2006, p. 560), it is “a master of errors, the seat of illusions” (Lacan, 1991, p. 62), (un maître d’erreurs, le siège des illusions) and “misunderstanding is precisely its function” (Lacan, 1991, p. 63). The word Lacan uses in French is “méconnaissance.” The word typically means “ignorance” or “lack of understanding” in French, and the translator of the above quotation (John Forrester) has translated it as “misunderstanding,” but in Lacan, it means much more: it means “systematic misconstruction” or “misrecognition.” Lacan refers to the ego as a méconnaissance in the sense that it is a “refusal” (refus) (See Lacan, 1991, p. 116) and a “barrier opposed to reality” (barrage de la réalité) (See Lacan, 1991, p. 116). The ego is a lens that distorts, and “the task of psychoanalysis is to straighten out some sort of curvature of the ego” (Lacan, 2006, p. 560). That being said, Lacan acknowledges that there is no perfect lens, and any lens distorts to some degree by its nature.

The ego does not so much serve to extend our knowledge (of the world, of ourselves), then, but rather ensures our continued ignorance. Its entire purpose is to keep us in the dark about the functioning of the id and the unconscious. And it doesn’t even do a very good job of that. Given their mistaken view of the ego, it is no surprise that many psychoanalysts come to the conclusion that neuroses can be cured or at least softened by strengthening the ego, and bolstering the analysand’s sense of reality. (Pluth, 2020, p. 273)

Perhaps even worse than strengthening the subject’s ego would be structuring the analysand’s ego based on the analyst’s ego. Bruce Fink refers to such an attempt as a “narcissistic project of self-duplication” (Fink, 2004, p. 8). Lacan explicitly questions and objects to methods that put forward the notion that it is “the analyst’s ego which offers the measure of the real” (Lacan, 1991, p. 18). Instead, what the analyst ought to do is to take the position of the Other during analysis. Lacan addresses these issues in an essay entitled Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation: “Psychoanalysis and Personality Structure”. To help make his case, he relies on talking about mirrors. Explaining the details of his argument would require mental gymnastics beyond the scope of the present article; so, to save you from a big headache, let’s oversimplify Lacan’s argument and interpret the mirrors he talks about metaphorically. The image produced by a flat plane mirror is always virtual and upright. The case is different with concave mirrors; depending on the distance between the object and the mirror, the image produced by concave mirrors can be either real or virtual, and either upright or inverted. Lacan uses a combination of plane and concave mirrors to produce different images. This bizarre experiment is meant to illustrate where the analyst is supposed to be in relation to the analysand to produce the best outcome. Depending on the context, the subjects and objects involved in Lacan’s experiment should be, metaphorically speaking, replaced by the Other, analyst, and analysand. The crux of his argument is that: by occupying the place of the Other, the analyst enables the analysand to situate himself in the space “behind the mirror”—the space where he would be “confronted with what could be called the cause of the illusion” and also with “what the cause brings about” (Pluth, 2020, p. 284).

How is this all related to Lewis Carroll? Well, he is an excellent analyst who knows what it means to take the place of the Other! The introductory poems of both novels reveal that Lewis Carroll is in the novels, not outside them. The poems are parts of the novels, and the author speaks in them from a first-person point of view. However, throughout the rest of the books, he is in the position of an analyst as the Other; meaning, we do not feel his presence, even though, as the poems imply, he is present throughout both books. Lacan believed that analysts should not bring their ego “into play in the analysis,” for it is not the “yardstick” of reality (See Lacan, 1991, p. 18). Rather, occupying the position of the Other “has to do with listening, not from the position of one’s ego or personality but from the vantage point of the Other” (Fink, 2004, p. 10). Likewise, Lewis Carroll carries his analysis with utmost professionality in Lacanian fashion and is so transparent that his ego is never felt in either novel.

The remainder of the article is dedicated to analysing a couple of examples of what Alice encounters behind the mirror.

The Symbolic: Why Do Things Have Names at All?

The Symbolic is the realm of those objects, entities, and concepts that have undergone the process of symbolisation. Whatever that can be found in the Symbolic signifies something; we can think of the Symbolic as the lingual dimension. The lingual aspect of the Symbolic order makes the third chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass of special interest to us, for this chapter is overly concerned with names.

‘I don’t rejoice in insects at all,’ Alice explained, ‘because I’m rather afraid of them––at least the large kinds. But I can tell you the names of some of them.’

‘Of course they answer to their names?’ the Gnat remarked carelessly.

‘I never knew them do it.’

‘What’s the use of their having names,’ the Gnat said, ‘if they wo’n’t answer to them?’

‘No use to them,’ said Alice; ‘but it’s useful to the people that name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?’ (Carroll, 2009, p. 152)

In his seminar XXII (lesson of March 11, 1975) Lacan refers to the Bible and reminds his audience how animals were each given a name by God, saying, “The hallmark of meaning is that you name something in it.”Naming Things is one way to make sense of the Real—the Real is the realm of “Things” (yes, the first letter of the word “Thing” should be capitalised!) that have not undergone the process of symbolisation. It is the name which is given to a Thing that allows it to become part of the Symbolic. Once something enters our symbolic order, we become enabled to work with it conceptually. Think of it this way: Oxygen is all around us, but prior to its discovery by Joseph Priestley, we had no name for it. In other words, prior to the 18th century, the idea of “oxygen” did not even occur to anyone since it was not part of people’s symbolic order. The same argument goes for even abstract concepts such as “alienation,” “class struggle,” “natural selection,” or “authenticity.” We notice objects or concepts once they enter our language. Thus, according to the psychoanalytic reading of the Bible, God created the symbolic order by giving names to Things. But of course, Lacan was an atheist; he was merely analysing the Bible based on his psychoanalytic theory. We can view humans as gods who insist on making sense of the world by naming things. As Alice points out, the name we give to an insect is, of course, completely useless to the insect, butit is useful to the people that name them.

In Lacan’s seminar III, we get a clearer picture of why we name things:

It’s because man has words that he has knowledge of things. And the number of things he has knowledge of corresponds to the number of things he is able to name. (Lacan, 1997, p. 177)

If we enter the Symbolic by being named by others, Alice is right to worry about entering the wood “where things have no names” (Carroll, 2009, p. 155). Not only would nothing be perceivable in such a place—since we cannot symbolise them in any way—but also Alice herself would be in danger of losing her very identity by being wiped from the Symbolic. If her name were taken away, she would lose her very identity; however, the situation would not be any better if she were given a new name. As we are told, Alice is worried about losing her name by being given a name other than her own—and rightly so. Based on what we said, we can understand why this is worrisome to her: being given a new name is tantamount to being given a new identity!

The Real: Where Things Have No Names

The place “where things have no names” is a place beyond the symbolic order; so, understandably, when Alice dissociates the word “tree trunk” from what she sees in front of her, she does not ask, “What is it called?” or “How is it called?”; rather, bizarrely, she asks, “What does it call itself?” (Carroll, 2009, p. 156). She also does not ask the Fawn, “What are you called?” or “What is your name?”; rather, again, she asks, “What do you call yourself?” (Carroll, 2009, p. 156). This is not a common way of inquiring about something’s or someone’s name in English; so, it seems that Alice is acknowledging that she is beyond the Symbolic. One could even say that she is now dwelling in the Real—where nothing can be known about anything. Everything that Alice comes into contact with is similar to the Kantian thing-in-itself that remains beyond complete understanding.

It’s worth mentioning that as soon as Alice and the Fawn step out of the wood (the realm of the Real), the Fawn becomes alarmed:

‘I’m a Fawn!’ it cried out in a voice of delight. ‘And, dear me! you’re a human child!’ (Carroll, 2009, p. 157)

After realising that Alice is a human child, the Fawn runs away. The Fawn did not consider running away earlier, because in the wood (the Real) there was no way of knowing the symbolic meaning of a human being for the fawn; consequently, the fawn did not perceive Alice as a potential danger. It is only when they are out of the wood—when the symbolic order is re-established—that things start to make sense for Alice and the fawn.

Epilogue

In popular culture, there is perhaps nothing more strongly associated with psychoanalysis than the phenomenon of dreams. Referring to Freud’s work, Lacan writes that “a dream has the structure of a sentence” (Lacan, 2006, p. 221), and as such, it matters how dreams are told. In other words, dreams are of interest to psychoanalysts insofar as narration is concerned (see Lacan, 2006, p. 315). According to Lacan’s reading of Freud, a person’s dream is “a vector of speech”; for that reason, noticing phenomena such us forgetting and doubt play an important role in dream analysis (see Lacan, 2006, p. 315). One way of looking at this is to argue that narrating dreams tells us as much about the unconscious as narrating memories—at least insofar as certain phenomena are concerned. Narration does not distinguish between recalling real-life events and remembering dreams. Consequently, apart from The Interpretation of Dreams, those of Freud’s works that are not specifically about dreams (such as The Psychopathology of Everyday Life which was originally meant to deal with everyday waking life) can also be a guide to analysing remembering dreams. From where Lacan stands, the distinction between dreams and real-life events is blurred insofar as recollection, language, and narration are concerned. Given how much Lacanian spirit there is in Lewis Carroll, it is perhaps only appropriate that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass tend to blur the distinction between life and dream. In the same spirit, I will leave you with the final line of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: “Life, what is it but a dream?”

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Carroll, L. (2009). Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Oxford University Press.

Feldstein, R. (1995). The Phallic Gaze Of Wonderland. In R. Feldstein, B. Fink, & M. Jaanus (Eds.), Reading Seminar XI: Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. State University of New York Press.

Fink, B. (2004). Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely. University of Minnesota Press.

Lacan, J. (1991). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953–1954. W. W. Norton & Company.

Lacan, J. (1997). The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book III: The Psychoses, 1955–1956. W. W. Norton & Company.

Lacan, J. (2006). Écrits. W. W. Norton & Company.

McGowan, T. (2013). Enjoying What We Don’t Have: The Political Project of Psychoanalysis. University of Nebraska Press.

Pluth, E. (2020). Remarks on Daniel Lagache’s Presentation: “Psychoanalysis and Personality Structure.” In Reading Lacan’s Écrits: From ‘The Freudian Thing’ to “Remarks on Daniel Lagache.” Routledge.

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