“The word is the murder of the thing” says Lacan. Even more so the written word, that is never truly “full,” always lacking the subjective context and performative power incorporated in one’s enunciative presence. Therefore, it comes with no surprise that reading Lacan’s published seminars—while being usually quite engaging—lacks a certain presence that was only available to the ones that actually attended them. For instance, contemporary readers of Lacan lose many partial allusions to French politics (in post-war Europe), remarks on intellectual contemporaries, mentions of French culture, comical gestures and insider jokes. It was only in the last Écrits conference in Pittsburg that I’ve learned, after speaking with Jean-Michel Rabaté, that Lacan’s seminars had moved from the Sainte-Anne Hospital because he and the students were being accused of smoking too much. Accordingly, when skimming through Lacan’s seminars, especially in their translation to English, one tends to engage these allusions up to a certain extent, sometimes ignoring them, hoping they are marginal enough in relation to the argument as a whole.
One of these esoteric references, that appears here and there in Lacan’s seminars, is the figure of Gribouille (pronounced ɡʁibuj). Mentioned five times in different contexts, this figure is used as a metonymy in Lacan’s chain of signifiers—as a part standing in for a whole. But for what?
For those not versed in late 19th century French folklore, Gribouille is the name of a character portrayed in George Sand’s famous children book: Histoire du véritable Gribouille (1850). The book portrays an idealized vision of nature and childhood and expresses a noble sentiment for heroism and self-sacrifice. In it Gribouille is portrayed as a gentle and naïve child that unexpectedly finds himself facing the forces of darkness. The book is split into two parts titled: “How Gribouille threw himself into the river out of fear of getting wet” and “How Gribouille threw himself into the fire out of fear of being burned.” It can be found in the Gothenburg project website including its original graphic illustrations (some of which will be presented here).
Here’s a short synopsis:
Gribouille is the youngest of seven children of two greedy and dishonest parents. He is the most disadvantaged of his siblings, being himself too gentle and docile for his parents’ liking. He is not only misunderstood and reprimanded but also beaten up for his failure to conform to the way the adults believe he should act. While his family labels him as a cowardly simpleton, the book emphasizes his common sense, diligence and sympathetic nature.
At a certain point in the story, Gribouille inadvertently releases the evil shape-shifting magician Monsieur Bourdon from his imprisonment in a tree. Monsieur Bourdon offers to adopt Gribouille and teach him his wicked ways; a suggestion that his parents accept with much enthusiasm.
The first story ends when Gribouille is rescued from Monsieur Bourdon by a good spirit that takes the shape of a beautiful woman with blue wings. This woman talks to Gribouille and persuades him to jump into the river. Which he does and thus gets swept away by the rushing water. While poor Gribouille swims fast as an arrow up the stream, he passed his parents’ house and garden, hearing his brothers and sisters mocking him and shouting with all their might: “Here goes Gribouille, who throws himself into the water out of fear of the rain.”
The second story begins when Gribouille, drifting down the river, finds himself transformed into a branch of a tree—sprouting branches and leaves—finally landing on a paradise island. On this island, Gribouille enjoys a hundred years of playful interactions with the flowers and nymphs on the island. However, on the backdrop of the idyllic island, Gribouille gets word of the corruption and cynicism that plagues his old world; a world utterly engulfed in a bloody war carried out between Monsieur Bourdon’s insect people and the birds belonging to the queen of the meadows. At the peak of this monumental battle, Gribouille is kidnapped by Monsieur Bourdon in an attempt to use him as a hostage and place him on a pyre. In a naïve attempt to save his old world, and out of the goodness of his heart, Gribouille jumps into the flames of his own volition. His death indeed saves the old world, restoring humanity to a state of fraternal happiness. Following his death, Gribouille is transformed yet again into a flower and continues to live his life among the nymphs for eternity.
The story of Gribouille is mentioned by Lacan in Seminar II, V, VI as well as his paper “The Youth of Gide, or the Letter and Desire.” However, the most profound use of the story of Gribouille can be found in Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (1964). The excerpt on Gribouille is worth being quoted at length:
Now, to reply to this hold, the subject, like Gribouille, brings the answer of the previous lack, of his own disappearance, which he situates here at the point of lack perceived in the Other. The first object he proposes for this parental desire whose object is unknown is his own loss—Can he lose me? The phantasy of one’s death, of one’s disappearance, is the first object that the subject has to bring into play in this dialectic, and he does indeed bring it into play—as we know from innumerable cases, such as in anorexia nervosa. We also know that the phantasy of one’s death is usually manipulated by the child in his love relations with his parents.
Briefly stated, this excerpt is presented as part of Lacan’s famous account of the constitutive psychic operations of alienation and separation in Seminar XI. In alienation, Lacan argues that the subject’s being ($) is invested in the Other and represented by a nonsensical signifier (S1). This operation can be associated with the way Lacan describes the child’s instinctual needs are captured by the enunciated demand in “The Signification of the Phallus.” It is through this constitutive operation that the subject’s being finds its representation in language, in an alienated form. In separation, Lacan argues that two lacks are juxtaposed: one on the side of the Other (S(Ⱥ)) and the second on the side of the subject ($). More specifically, the lack in the Other is juxtaposed with the lack of being on the side of the subject. This operation carves a place for the object cause of desire (a) to materialize in the subject’s libidinal economy. Yet again, when associating this operation with Lacan’s dialectics of need, demand and desire, it can be said to be homologous to the subtraction of need from demand that produces desire. It is the juxtaposition of the insufficiency of the demand’s articulation of the child’s need and the intrinsically insatiable demand for love that defines the place of the object cause of desire in this dialectic. It is in this sense that Lacan argues in the excerpt presented above that, in reply to the lack in the Other, the subject answers with its own lack of being.
How does Gribouille provide us with a similar answer? Or, why is Gribouille used here as an analogy to the operation of separation? The answer to these questions is already included in the titles of the two parts of Sand’s book. Both of which describe Gribouille as answering a threat with its actualization. Just like answering the lack in the Other with one’s own lack, Gribouille throws himself into the river out of fear of getting wet (as well as throws himself into the fire out of fear of being burned). This is where Sand’s noble sentiment for heroism and self-sacrifice clearly manifests: as for an answer to a universal threat, Gribouille chooses its particular actualization on himself.
This is where the analogy of Gribouille’s story provides Lacan with further explanatory depth. For Gribouille, in a way, fetishizes his lack of being by actualizing it through the phantasy of his own death. While one’s lack of being is a fundamental aspect of the subject’s structure according to Lacan, Gribouille demonstrates the infantile attitude towards this primordial lack in its imaginary manifestation in the phantasy of his own death. In this sense, this lack is answered by an imaginary object that is brought into the Oedipal dialectic as an insufficient supplement and only later substituted with its symbolic correlate—what is associated with the authoritative function of the symbolic order or the signifier of the Name-of-the-Father.
The above mentioned excerpt continues, and Lacan adds that transmuting one’s lack of being to the phantasy of one’s own death is a strategy usually implemented by anorectic subjects. This can be further understood by reading Lacan’s commentary on anorexia nervosa in Seminar IV: The Object Relation (1956-1957):
Anorexia nervosa is not a not eating, but a eating nothing… This point is essential to understand the phenomenology of anorexia nervosa. What is at stake is that the child eats nothing, which is something other than a negation of the activity [of eating]. This absence is then used to handle what he has in front of him, namely the mother on whom he depends… [It is] precisely by eating nothing… that he reverses the relationship of dependence by making himself master of the omnipotent mother, eager to make him live. From then on, it is she who depends on his desire, who is at his mercy, at the mercy of the manifestations of his whims, at the mercy of his omnipotence.
In this excerpt Lacan argues that the anorectic answer to the dependence on the omnipotent mother is eating the nothing. By doing so, an object (the object nothing) is situated in the place of the oral object, blocking the child’s dependence on the mother. The child who eats nothing—who is also the dying child—thus triggers the mother’s vulnerability, contrasting her omnipotence by revoking his dependence on her. This strategy causes a reversal of positions, it is not the mother who is omnipotent with her capacity to feed the child, it is the child who is omnipotent due to his mastery of his own death. By doing so, the child makes the mother to be a “slave” to his very whim, for she is eager to make him live. As you can see, the phantasy of one’s own death takes a very active role in the subjective economy of the anorectic. Through this phantasy the anorectic attempts to answer the universal lack on the side of the Other with a particular and imaginary lack incorporated in the phantasy of one’s own death. This subjective disposition is analogous to the one presented in Gribouille’s story. Gribouille chooses to answer the fear of wetness by jumping into the river. Correspondingly, the anorectic chooses to answer the devastating dependence on an intrinsically lacking Other with the phantasy of one’s own death. Be that as it may, another answer might be one’s own desire beyond the grasp of the mother.