The word “carrion” rings a bell when you are French. That is precisely what happened while I was listening to the London Society of the NLS Online Reading[i] of Jacques Lacan’s Seminar XVII[ii], Chapter 12, by Despina Andropoulou. Introducing the event, Roger Litten points out that instead of achieving a full comprehension of the Seminar, as we may have expected when reaching the chapter second last, we were liable to feel more lost than ever. But we should “trust the residual questions,” he says. As far as I am concerned, the most intriguing among those, in this lesson of 10th June 1970, is the matter of the carrion and the dog! No need for Lacan to say more about the carrion, as the word itself evokes resonances which were bound to be in the mind of everyone in his audience at the time.
“A Carrion”[iii] (“Une charogne”) is the title of a very famous poem by Charles Baudelaire, one of the most striking in “The Flowers of Evil”. This volume of poems was considered utterly scandalous when it was published in 1857. Baudelaire was prosecuted for offending public morals. However, the theme of “A carrion” is a classical one, and it goes back to Ronsard and even further back to Horace. To express the idea in a prosaic way, the poet is addressing his beloved, roughly in these terms: although you are young and “queen of graces”, a time will come when you get old and when you die. You will be just like this carrion we passed by, while my poem will still be remembered a long time ahead. It ends with these lines: “Then, oh my beauty, tell the vermin (…) / That I kept the form and the divine essence / Of my putrefied love!” And so he did, by means of art. We may notice, as a parentheses, that although the tense of the verb is not the past future, the idea of retroaction (“après-coup”) is there all the same. What makes the difference, let us say with Ronsard, is the vivid and magnificent description of a horrible “object”. Baudelaire combines striking images with formal perfection in this verse.
Having psychoanalytical references in mind, we may point out that “A carrion” evokes the complete initial list of partial objects, as presented by Freud in “Drives and Their Vicissitudes”, and highlighted by Lacan in Seminar XI[iv] as objects small a – that is to say the four objects linked to the body. “The number of which is fairly short,”[v] says Lacan, speaking of the drives that take their origin in a rim and which turn around the void of object small a in their circuit.
A summary and an announcement of what follows are found in the two lines: “And give back a hundred fold to the great Nature / All that she had assembled there”. The unraveled drives are taken in a kind of turmoil, life and death drives being split apart.
It starts with the gaze. First, comes a verb: “we saw”, then the adjective “beautiful”. I don’t make here the distinction between “gaze”, “vision” and “image”, since what is at stake is not real life but a textual material that summons the gaze on the reader’s side. “Star of my eyes”, “sun of my nature” and “queen of graces” refer to the woman’s looks, while “the magnificent carcass” and “bloom like a flower” mark the beauty of the carrion itself. It may happen that the gaze is summoned just with one verb: “we saw”, “watched”, “look”, “looking out.” Furthermore, Baudelaire describes the whole scene as a “sketch”, then a “canvas,” which may remind us that he was a well-known art critic as well.
The occurrences relating to the gaze are the more numerous; next comes the voice. But they are all mingled in the poem, they don’t follow any order of appearance, no more than they obey any succession according to a supposed development in the life of the child. The voice is related to the sounds of the insects that have started to deal with the dead body: “the flies buzzed”, “a crackle” is heard, it’s all making “a strange music.” Only once we find the verb “tell”, but it holds a very special function, as I have already pointed out.
As for the oral object, there is the “morsel” the dog is waiting for, as well as “poisons”. Then the vermin that will “devour you with kisses”, Baudelaire predicts. Cooking the dead body like meat, is mentioned in a matter of fact way, in one of the translations: “to cook it medium rare” (“afin de la cuire à point”).
The anal object may be traced too. Besides the “carrion” itself, we find “putrefaction”, “putrid”, “like a thick liquid”, “filth” – and “my putrefied love,” which are the very last words of the poem.
It is hard to say if the “horrible infection” (once translated “this horrid stench” – which is less specific in French) belongs to the anal field or to the field of smell. Likewise with “putrefaction” and “putrid”, which seem to straddle both. On the other hand, “exhalations” and “stink” are quite to the point! The smell is an insistent theme in Baudelaire’s work, which resonates with Lacan introducing it as another object, in addition to the four classically listed ones. He is on the way of extending the list to all kinds of objects, including artificially made ones, the endless products of sublimation, and finally speech itself as a cause of jouissance.[vi] Thus we can read in Seminar XVII: “… speech can very well play the role of carrion”[i] – and Lacan clearly places the latter as an object small a, half a page before. This is the case when there is some “manipulation” of speech, which is not properly located in a discourse.
Despina Andropoulou points out the difference between a human corpse, which is inscribed in the Symbolic, and a carrion, which is not. A man’s body, alive or dead, is mortified by the signifier: it is one of the two functions of the signifier.[vii]
On the contrary, the poem emphasizes the paradox that the dead body of an animal is utterly living, bursting, swarming with life. The previous quotations highlight this, as well as the place of movement and action all along. There are numerous occurrences, such as: “legs splayed,” “opened its paunch,” “came out black battalions,” “all this receded, swelled like a wave,” “soared,” “inflated by a vague breath,” “running”, “…swirls and shakes / With a rhythmic motion.” Moreover, there are two direct references to life: “these live rags” and “living and multiplying.” The latter does not only speak of life, but of breeding. Going backwards, the first lines depict “a lascivious woman.” Not only the living woman is foreseen as a carrion to be, but the carrion carries the vision of a woman engaged in unbridled sexual activity, and even giving birth.
There are many occurrences of Death as well, such as the “carrion” itself, “putrefaction”, “give back to Nature”, “carcass”, ” body”, “skeleton”, “bones”, “vermin”. Death, as we know, is the most powerful among master signifiers.[viii] No wonder that some of the terms belong to both fields of life and death, the master signifier S1 being in some cases in the closest vicinity with object small a, as Lacan points out.[ix]
Life and death are intertwined, while the shape of the body is on the way of being abolished (“The shapes faded into a mere dream”), except for the form of the poem, that takes over in order to keep “the form and the divine essence” of the poet’s “putrefied love.”
What about the dog, which intrigued us so much during the Seminar? It is in the poem too, lurking and waiting for its turn: “Behinds the rocks, a wary she-dog (…) / Looking out for the moment she could take back / The morsel she had ripped (…)”
As for its position in discourse, it is to be continued…
[i] London Society of the New Lacanian School, Seminar XVII Online Reading, Chapter 12, 28th June 2020. Chair: Roger Litten. Speaker: Despina Andropoulou. Recording available online: https://www.londonsociety-nls.org.uk/index.php?file=Programme/2020/20-04-13_reading-lacans-seminar.html
[ii] Lacan, J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, Book XVII, translated by Russell Grigg, New York, London, W.W. Norton & Company.
[iii] Baudelaire, C., “Une charogne”, Les fleurs du mal, Oeuvres complètes, Paris, Gallimard, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, 1961, p. 29-31. It has been translated “Carrion”, “A carrion”, “A carcass” and “The carcass”. Several translations are available online on Fleursdumal.org and https://lyricstranslate.com/en/une-charogne-carrion.html
[iv] Lacan, J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Book XI, translated by Alan Sheridan, New York, London, W.W. Norton & Company, Chapter 14, pp. 174-186.
[v] Lacan, J., op. cit., p.180.
[vi] Miller, J.-A., Paradigms of Jouissance, Transl. Janet Haney, Psychoanalytical Notebooks, Issue 34, December 2019. I am referring to Paradigm 5: “Discoursive Jouissance” (pp. 43-62), which encompasses Seminars XVI and XVII, as well as “Radiophonie”.
[vii] The other function of the signifier is to produce surplus jouissance (plus-de-jouir) by marking the body via the unary trait. Lacan, J., Seminar XVII, op. cit., p. 167. “Speech can very easily play the role of carrion”.
[viii] Lacan, J., Seminar XVII, op. cit., p. 170.
[ix] Lacan, J., Seminar XVII, op. cit., pp. 166-67. The vicinity of S1 and object small a is shown in statu nascendi by Rosine Lefort, in the treatment of a 13 month-old child. Lefort R. et R., Naissance de l’Autre, Paris, Seuil, 1980, p. 35. Rosine Lefort in collaboration with Robert Lefort, “Birth of the Other“, translated by Marc Du Ry, Lindsay Watson and Leonardo Rodriguez, University of Illinois Press.
Image credit: Les Fleurs du mal, Une Charogne – IV, MUNCH Edvard, 1896, lithography, Munch Museum, Norway.