In the third section of Seminar XXIII: The Sinthome, titled by Jacques-Alain Miller “The Invention of the Real”,[1] and especially in its middle chapter, “On Sens, Sex and the Real” – itself an elaboration of ideas first set out the year before in the lecture “Joyce the Symptom”[2] – we find Lacan concerned with the question of dreams. In the first place – and this does not happen a lot in Lacan’s seminars – with one of his own dreams. In the second place, and more extensively, with Finnegans Wake as the text of Joyce’s dream. How are we to decipher and cipher these two dreams? And what can this deciphering and ciphering teach us about our approach to dreams as such?

Lacan himself dreams, the night before giving his seminar on the 16th March 1976, about an “easy way of presenting Joyce”. Joyce’s work is stimulating, he tells us, because it suggests the possibility of such a presentation. In the dream, Lacan is sharing with the audience of his seminar the way in which he judges characters (literary characters primarily, we assume, but also others) that are not his. But this dream shows Lacan – “évidement”, he says, making something evident by emptying it out – that he has no part in it, that he is, in the dream, overstepping his role. More precisely, Lacan is engaging in the dream in a kind of “psychodrama”, looking for labile links, we might presume, between Joyce, his characters and the audience of the seminar. In this way, the value of this dream is that it functions as an interpretation: this is certainly not the manner to approach Joyce’s work and to find, if this is possible, the easy way of presenting it.

But why not? Lacan provides the answer a little later. Referring specifically to Finnegans Wake now, he tells us that “the dreamer is not any one character, he is the dream itself”. What does this mean? Everybody knows that Finnegans Wake, this book of the night that is opposed to Ulysses as a book of the day, is supposed to be the recounting of a dream. The whole question, however, is who is doing the recounting? In principle, we might answer, the dream is a dream of Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker, the book’s supposedly main protagonist. But everybody also knows that this name, when reduced to its initials, and like all names in the book, undergoes a process of apparently infinite pluralisation. H.C.E. has a total of 216 different instantiations in Finnegans Wake (with the plural, not the possessive, of the book’s title also serving of course as an anticipatory index of this). It is not necessary to list these instantiations,[3] simply to say that the most important is the following: “Here Comes Everybody”. The dream, as Joyce’s dream beyond the dream of Earwicker, is also to be read as the dream of the whole of humanity. Joyce’s own comments on his work reveal that this was undoubtedly his intention. As Lacan says in “Joyce the Symptom”, Joyce “identified”[4] with the individual, with L.O.M. (another three initials), as such.

It is exactly here that Lacan locates what he very emphatically calls the “feeble-mindedness”[5] of Joyce’s symptom. The problem for Lacan is that this particular pluralisation of the subject of the dream in Finnegans Wake ineluctably falls into the clutches of a conception of the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious, Lacan goes so far as to say, constitutes a part of Joyce’s sinthome. Playing upon a pun that Joyce himself makes in Finnegans Wake, we might say that he was “yung”, but not so “easily freudened”. Or that if, as Lacan jokes in “Joyce the Symptom”, he certainly “freudened” his “fredonnement” (humming), that is, introduced layers of Freudian meaning into the resonant materiality – the motérialité – of his style, then he only did this with “repugnance”,[6] a repugnance he apparently did not share for more Jungian delusions.

And if Joyce’s dream “slides…slides…slides to Jung”, then it also “doesn’t fail – fabulously – to fall into the Vico myth that sustains Finnegans Wake”. This myth is the myth of circularity. The circularity that the Scienza Nuova discerns in the supposedly historical passage and progress from a Theocratic to a Heroic to a Human to a Providential age – and then, of course: back to the beginning; the circularity that appears in the first, late-starting sentence of Finnegans Wake as “a commodious vicus of recirculation” that links it up to the book’s otherwise literally interminable last sentence. As Lacan puts it, “how can Finnegans, this dream, be said to be finished, since already its last word cannot help but join back up with the first, the the by which it ends soliciting the riverrun by which it starts, which indicates circularity?”[7] Finally, the dream of this myth of circularity can also give way, and definitely did in Joyce, to a fascination with what Lacan designates as “things that are worse still”.[8] The spiritism of Madame Blavatsky, for instance, and the “diffuse bleed” of her belief in initiation in a world from which its possibility has been definitively exiled (JAM comments amply on this in the “Note Threaded Stitch by Stitch”[9] that accompanies Seminar XXIII).

One might perhaps object to Lacan’s verdict of an at least partial “feeble-mindedness” in Beckettian terms. In “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce”, a text included in Our Exagmination Round his Factification for Incamination of ‘Work in Progress’, a collection of essays on Finnegans Wake published in 1929, ten years before the final book was completed, Beckett argues that Joyce’s employment of Vico “removes all the stiff interexclusiveness that is often the danger in neat construction”. If “the danger is in the neatness of identifications”, he reiterates, then Joyce does not succumb to it, instead exploding all “pigeonholes”.[10] In sum, Joyce’s use of Vico is eminently ironic, and we should not thus take it too seriously.

Although Beckett raises an important point here concerning the question of Joyce’s belief in Vico’s system, a belief that it is clearly impossible to ascertain, his argument does not change the fact that the circularity of the collective unconscious at times manifests itself in Finnegans Wake in a manner that – if Lacan had not already warned us about the application of this term to Joyce – we would perhaps otherwise unhesitatingly qualify as psychotic. In the last chapter of Book III, for example, Shem and Shaun, the twin sons of Earwicker and his wife Anna Livia Plurabelle, disintegrate into their own genesis in the parental coitus. Even more strikingly, in the book’s final chapter, the sons are reabsorbed into the mother’s (both mère and mer here) bodily fluid and the mother/wife into the ocean-like semen of her father. We might also think of Stephen Dedalus’s image, in Ulysses, of the series of navelcords that link generations through the liquid-carrying canal of the umbilicus. The womb, as the German writer Heiner Müller once said, is not a one-way-street.

These references to the umbilical cord also enable us to identify the crux of Lacan’s reading of Joyce. For what Joyce misses in dreaming of the circularity of the collective unconscious is precisely the knot. Lacan could not be any clearer: “Joyce’s text is fashioned just like a Borromean knot. And what strikes me is that he’s the only one whose notice this escaped. There’s not the faintest trace in his whole life’s work of anything that looks like one. This seems to me, however, to be more a sign of authenticity.”[11]

The fact that Joyce did not notice the knot does not mean, moreover, that it is not everywhere present in his writing. Mainly, of course, in that general rectification of the lapsus of the knot that Lacan pinpoints as permitting Joyce to erect the function of a reparational Ego; but also in a vast number of particular places without which this general reparation would be inconceivable. Joyce’s “highly particular punning”,[12] for instance, which by expanding the principle of Carroll’s portmanteau words brings together in 1 new word 3 or 4 words that “through the way they are used, flake apart in sparks”,[13] losing meaning in favour of jouissance. Or his perpetual production of riddles, enigmas, which Lacan writes Ee,[14] statements (énoncé) whose enunciation it is impossible to definitively unearth. Or the framing process that fundamentally determines, according to Lacan, everything that Joyce wrote, setting up a “homonymic relationship” between the frame and the image that it only supposedly contains (“What’s that?”, someone once asked Joyce, pointing at a picture: “Cork”; “And what’s that, framing the image?”: “cork”).[15] “The signifier stuffs the signified”,[16] Lacan says of Joyce’s work in Seminar XX: Encore.

This is the easy way of presenting Joyce that Lacan was looking for, and not finding, in his own dream: the path of the knot. It is a path that divides Joyce, and his dream Finnegans Wake, in two. Between the meaning, myth and supposed progress of his own cyclical and collective (père)version of history, his escabeau, we might say; and the real – essentially unreadable and unanalysable – core, scrap, butt or odd or end (bout) of his sinthome that, as Lacan says, “doesn’t tie on to anything”. Basically, we can conclude with Lacan, Joyce “doesn’t stir any sympathy in us”,[17] his symptom concerns us “in no respect whatsoever […] stands no chance whatsoever of hooking anything of your unconscious.” But this only “proves how your own symptom, for you like everyone else, is the only thing that holds any interest for you.”[18]

Here is a radical lesson on the reading, the deciphering and ciphering, of dreams in their ultimate orientation towards an orderless and lawless real.

* A text originally written in Spanish on one of the themes – “Dream and Real” – chosen for the preparations of the Autumn International Seminar of the ELP (Escuela Lacaniana de Psicoanálisis): Psychoanalytic Practice Today. Invention and Real.

[1]Lacan, J. Seminar XXIII: The Sinthome. Cambridge, Polity, 2016, pp. 85-120. All of the following quotations from Lacan, except where otherwise indicated, are from these pages.

[2] Lacan, J. “Joyce the Symptom”. Seminar XXIII: The Sinthome. Cambridge, Polity, 2016, pp. 141-8.

[3] Although they can be found in Robinson, H. M. “Hardest Crux Ever”, en Magalaner, M. ed., A James Joyce Miscellany. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1959, pp. 197-204.

[4] Lacan, J. “Joyce the Symptom”, p. 147.

[5] Ibid., p. 148.

[6] Ibid., p. 143.

[7] Ibid., p. 148.

[8] Ibid., p.147.

[9] Miller, J.-A. “A Note Threaded by a Stitch”. Seminar XXIII: The Sinthome. Cambridge, Polity, 2016, pp. 201-6.

[10] Beckett, S., et al. “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce”. Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress. London, Faber, 1972, pp. 3-8.

[11] Lacan, J. Seminar XXIII: The Sinthome, p. 132.

[12] Lacan, J. “Joyce the Symptom”, p. 144.

[13] Idem.

[14] Lacan, J. Seminar XXIII: The Sinthome, p. 133.

[15] Ibid., p. 127.

[16] Lacan, J. Seminar XX: Encore. New York, Norton, 1998, p. 37.

[17] Lacan, J. Seminar XXIII: The Sinthome, p. 131.

[18] Lacan, J. “Joyce the Symptom”, p. 145.