On the Tolerance of Children’s Literature Criticism: A Missed Reply to David Rudd
Graduate Centre International Research Childhood, Literature, Culture, Media
University of Reading
What follows is an oblique reply to David Rudd’s recent article on ‘The Reading Critics’ of children’s literature. The reply is necessary, in so far as Karin Lesnik-Oberstein, Sue Walsh, and myself are described in this work as engaging in ‘a particularly futile form of theory war’ (Rudd 2020, 96). Although Rudd makes clear he wishes to move away from some of the more unpleasant language utilised against us, my sense is that a figuring of our work as both sterile and surpassed should expect - and, indeed, probably wants - a response. The reply is oblique because (O, boy!) we have been here before. In my assessment, when The Reading Critics and certain other children’s literature scholars meet, the result is an analysis that is interminable. This is why, for the most part, all three of us have moved on to different areas of research, although thinking about the child as construction remains at the heart of our practice. (note 1) If any reader is looking for a detailed answer to any aspect of Rudd’s commentary, I would suggest reading our previous books. (note 2)
Rather than a point by point refutation, then, I wish to stage a reading of Winnie-the-Pooh. I do this, firstly, to offer a sense of how I, as one of The Reading Critics, approach children’s literature texts. (note 3) This will, however, also allow me to introduce Rudd’s work on that text, to suggest differences between our responses, and, finally, to enable a focus on, what for me, are two of the more problematic aspects of Rudd’s scholarship: his celebration of ‘dynamic’ reading, and his account of Lacanian approaches to Children’s Literature. My interest is in working through Rudd’s celebration of an approach to Children’s Literature that is tolerant of opinions from which it diverges, and resistant to iron dualisms that create a kind of stalemate (the sense of the interminable I mentioned above). For Rudd, we should be seeking ‘hieratic and more eclectic’ approaches to theory that are ‘healthily eclectic and tolerant while avoiding calcification’ (Rudd 2020, 101, 102). Certainly, I understand this celebration of tolerance to open up some difficult questions. What, I would ask, are the limits of tolerance? Is what Rudd forwards merely a tolerance of the tolerable? Is his forgiving attitude to our work, as he mourns our passing, tolerance also? What if we object to such tolerance, or read a violence or erasure within it? More significantly, for this article, at least, I am puzzled as to how such tolerance, and the celebration of an open (non-interpretive) community, fits within the ‘broadly Lacanian framework’ that Rudd elsewhere champions (Rudd 2013, 80). It all sounds very neighbourly. Well, perhaps not, although, as we shall see, whichever way this goes, we will find ourselves in a rather dark place.
ii) […] (or the swan had Christopher Robin, I don’t know which)’
In one sense, there is much on which Rudd and I agree, above all, perhaps, his insistence on the necessity of a return to the text (although, as I will suggest in the conclusion to this article, what such a return might require is a contentious issue). The kind of return I promote is one that is attentive to the precise terms of the text, and it’s framing perspective. I should warn readers here that what follows, as I offer such a reading of the ‘INTRODUCTION’ to Winnie-the-Pooh, might strike them, uncannily, as somewhat familiar. (note 4)
If you happen to have read another book about Christopher Robin, you may remember that he once had a swan (or the swan had Christopher Robin, I don’t know which) and that he used to call this swan Pooh. That was a long time ago, and when we said good-bye, we took the name with us, as we didn’t think the swan would want it any more. Well, when Edward Bear said that he would like an exciting name all to himself, Christopher Robin said at once, without stopping to think, that he was Winnie-the-Pooh. And he was. So, as I have explained the Pooh part, I will now explain the rest of it (Milne, no page number).
To begin with, this is an ‘INTRODUCTION’ that begins with a problematisation of beginnings: it introduces ‘another book’ that precedes this ‘book’ while being an addition to it. The book is introduced through a supplement, ‘another book’, and is therefore constituted by that which it is not. It is a move I read to be repeated, in so far as the ‘another book’ is such because it is ‘about Christopher Robin’. As what the book is ‘about’ is something other than itself, and something that can be held by ‘another’, the difference required by this ‘another’ is called into question.
An appeal to the excessive can also be read in the limited knowledge claimed by the narration. Although addressing ‘you’, it must satisfy itself with the possibility, rather than certainty, of this subject’s action: ‘If you happen to have read another book about Christopher Robin, you may remember that he once had a swan […]’ [my italics]. This not-knowing could be generosity to the other, an acknowledgment of the limit of narrational power in relation to the ‘you’: how can the narration be regarded as arrogant or overbearing if it embraces chance whilst recognising the aspects of its addressee that are beyond its knowledge? This generosity might be confirmed by the claim in the brackets that ‘I don’t know which’ party had ownership. As the narration cannot settle the alternative claims, it might be suggested that the question of ownership is irrelevant. Something has been owned, however, and this requires a division. I read the brackets as marking a further division, a sectioning off of one sentence from the rest. The uncertainty as to the fact of ownership is not about a symmetrical claim. Indeed, that which is outside the brackets is not precisely repeated within them, as, for example, there is a change in article: whereas Christopher Robin owns ‘a’ swan, singular yet generic, it is ‘the’ swan, certain and differentiated, that might own Christopher Robin. To be owned is not the same as to own, it would seem, this problematising the notion that, despite ownership having occurred, the identity of the owned is unknown, and thus irrelevant. The identity of ‘a swan’ can be understood to be further questioned, as after the brackets the narration claims Christopher Robin ‘used to call this swan Pooh’. The/a swan is not the name of ‘this swan’, a name here being other than what a thing is. The subsequent clause, however, constructs the name in slightly different terms: an object that can be ‘taken’ by a ‘we’, rather than something the ‘he’ calls ‘this swan’. I do not read this simply as a move from a discrete third person narration to one that is inclusive, as the ‘we’ saying ‘goodbye’ is announced by something less than this ‘we’, this saying ‘goodbye’ being framed by the ‘we’ that is not Christopher Robin. The taking, in other words, is a joint effort, one that collapses differences, yet only in so far as it is narrated from a perspective that is not that of one of the parties involved. It is this ‘we’ that justifies the ‘taking’ of the name as ‘we didn’t think the swan would want it any more’. The certainty as to the other that can be read at one stage of this argument is not granted ‘the swan’. Early in this present analysis, the lack of knowledge on the part of the narration signified generosity towards the other, an acknowledgment of the limitations of understanding. Here, it is a lack of knowledge that allows the taking of a name. Because it is known that we were thinking that we did not know what this other was thinking, it can be divested of the object that is its name.
The appeal to the name is made more complex still with the introduction of ‘Edward Bear’, who ‘said that he would like an exciting name all to himself’. The name ‘Edward Bear’ gains is, of course, not his ‘own’, being the name the ‘he’ called ‘a swan,’ and that ‘we’ took with us, yet I read a further difficulty with the notion of ownership here: as the ‘we’ is always narrated from a position that is, in one sense, other than its own, so the saying of ‘Edward Bear’ is at one remove from a construction of reported speech. ‘Edward Bear’’s saying is not his ‘own’. This is also true for ‘Christopher Robin’, who ‘said at once, without stopping to think, that he was Winnie-the-Pooh. And he was’, the narration at this stage no longer lacking knowledge, able to claim with certainty that ‘Christopher Robin’ has not stopped to think. In one sense, what ‘Christopher Robin’ is reported to have said is a confirmation of identity: rather than the name ‘Pooh’ being simply what that real thing ‘the swan’ is called, an object that can be detached from any referent and carried away by a ‘we’, it is now what the ‘he’ ‘was’, the name as the condition of being of the ‘he’. The move is premised on a division, however, as ‘Winnie-the –Pooh’ ‘was’ something other than itself, other than the ‘he’. There is a tension, then, in excess of that between the supplementary or formative status of the name, a division through the pronoun necessary to its production.
From this brief analysis, I read a number of constitutive tensions in the ‘INTRODUCTION’ to Winnie-the-Pooh. Certain names can be understood to challenge and secure identity: ‘the’/ ‘a’/ ‘this’ ‘swan’; this ‘book’ and ‘another book’; ‘we’ and ‘Christopher Robin’; ‘he’ and ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’. There is also self-cancelling demands within the reading of the name, it being, for example: what that real, named thing ‘swan’ is called; an object, or, at least, something that can be taken; the other thing that ‘he was’. Finally, there is a conflict within appeals to not-knowing and the casual, in which the claims to carelessness and ignorance can signify generosity to the other, or a heartless justification for theft.
iii) ‘ […] playing with the conventions of language’
The last few years have seen a significant growth in published work on Winnie-the Pooh, with critics engaged a variety of approaches (post-colonial critique, post-humanism, and the history of psychoanalysis), and sometimes, as with Rudd’s own work, they can call upon more than one. (note 5). Although often insightful and productive, I share Rudd’s interest in the extent to which such interventions avoid questions of reading. Take, for example, Layla AbdelRahim’s particularly urgent and astute account: in addition to its engaged discussion of issues of politics and of naming, comparable to that offered above by this present article, there is a claim that:
even though […] the animals are (pre)created in a zoo, the similarity of the above quoted passage [the first paragraph of INTRODUCTION] with Genesis 2: 18 – 19 is striking: ‘And the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every bird of the air; and brought them to the man to see what he would call them: and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name’ (AbdelRahim, 151).
Here, I read AbdelRahim to position ‘Christopher Robin’ in terms of ‘the man’, granted ascendancy over animals, whilst the ‘endow[ing]’ narrator of Winnie-the-Pooh takes the place of ‘LORD God’. The repetition is not exact, however, as ‘Genesis’ states that ‘the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’’. It follows that the notion of a narrated God must be taken to be less than ‘striking’, despite the accompanying call for an investment in issues of language and ownership. Indeed, once the question of narration is broached, the notion of a stable repetition that is necessary to AbdelRahim’s argument becomes difficult to sustain: as narrated subject, ‘LORD God’ cannot simply be understood to repeat the position of narrator, while as quoted subject he is other than Christopher Robin, who, in the beginning of the ‘INTRODUCTION’, is afforded no such privilege. What is of concern to this account is a general theme of ownership, and as such it can address the linguistic authority of ‘the man’ and ‘LORD God’, but only in so far as it misses the language that enables and frames this as authority.
In one sense, then, David Rudd’s Reading the Child in Children’s Literature: An Heretical Approach is significant in foregrounding questions of narration in Winnie-the-Pooh in a way overtly political critics such as AbdelRahim do not. Keen to promote ‘energetics’ over ‘mechanics’, Rudd is sceptical of generalised or formulaic criticism, despairing of ‘a certain predictability in much that appears in our journals as yet another feminist, post-colonial, eco-critical or “fill the gap” reading is undertaken’ (Rudd 2013, 3). Take, for example, the work of Daphne Kuzter who shares with AbdelRahim an interest in offering a post-colonial approach to Milne’s work:
We might respond to [Kutzer’s reading of Winnie-the-Pooh as colonial text featuring a disempowered child] by arguing that Milne’s narrative technique is actually quite ingenuous in that he makes it plain that it is an adult telling these tales. Thus, in response to Kutzer’s claim that ‘Christopher Robin has been colonized by the adult narrator. He is not free to tell his own stories or to have a starring role in them’, we might ask in what sense this storybook character could be more liberated: by having the stories feature Christopher Robin more prominently, by having him narrate in the first person? Wouldn’t this, in fact, make the fictions more of a ‘soliciting….chase, or seduction,’ as [Jacqueline] Rose terms it, concealing the adult writer – [Perry] Nodelman’s ‘hidden adult’ - from the child reader? (65 -6)
I am sympathetic with the force of this argument, centring as it does on the difficulty Kutzer, or any thematically inclined critic, faces in establishing a Children’s Literature that could confidently call upon the political good. If, in one sense, this means that for Rudd’s analysis there will always be a limit to liberation, the reverse is an appeal to Winnie-the-Pooh as the most liberated of texts for children. A willingness to counter the prevailing reluctance to read the language of Winnie-the-Pooh would seem essential for this assessment, as Milne is understood to arrive at the maximization of possible liberation through ‘ingenious’ ‘narrative technique’. Indeed, the claim for the text is that ‘it is very complex, and certainly confounds any notions of language transparently telling the story’, such notions apparently being attributable to Kutzer (66).
A repeated argument within Rudd’s engagement with Winnie-the -Pooh is that this questioning account of language’s representational function can be read in the text’s problematization of names, and it is this that leads to its engagement with the opening lines of the ‘INTRODUCTION’:
Apart from the confusion of Pooh living under this other name (Sanders), he is also simply ‘Edward Bear’ at the outset, who, we are informed, adopted the name of a swan: ‘we took the name with us as we didn’t think the swan would want it any more’, playing on the standard notion of ‘taking’ someone’s name (67).
It is here, as the analysis addresses a specific textual formulation, that a commitment to attentive reading can be read to stall. In Rudd’s response, the quotation concerns ‘Edward Bear’ who ‘adopted’ the name of ‘a swan’, yet ‘Edward Bear’ is not, within the ‘INTRODUCTION’, implicated in the taking of the name: as discussed above, ‘Edward Bear’ says he would like a name ‘all to himself’ sometime after the ‘taking’ has taken place. Even if, for some reason, we were to include ‘Edward Bear’ in the ‘we’, a number of challenges remain, as this is a problematically collective ‘we’, rather than any singular subject, that ‘take[s]’, rather than ‘adopt[s]’, the name of ‘the’, not ‘a’, swan. Within the passage, the narrative perspective is not simply that of the collective ‘we’, but an ‘I’ which is a part of, yet exceeds, it. It is a subtle point, but, I would suggest, significant in so far as, for Rudd, the transparency of language is threatened only by the claimed ‘adoption’ of a name by ‘Edward Bear’, rather than the various slippages I read to problematise this narrative. Thus, in conclusion, Rudd’s analysis states that:
Without elaborating further, the point should be clear that Milne is playing with the conventions of language […] showing language’s slippage in the way that these things do not stay in place ( [...] confounding [Jacqueline] Rose’s claim about the transparency of language in Children’s literature)’ (ibid).
Within this argument there is once again a limit imposed upon on the ‘slippage’ that is being championed, the sense in which ‘these things’ [the names] do not stay in place. As this is ‘clearl[y]’ a matter of ‘Milne’ ‘playing with the conventions of language’, there can be no doubt as to what the author of Winnie-the-Pooh is doing. He is ‘playing’, and is so doing with a set of known and stabilised ‘conventions’. Play is opposed, or at least subsequent, to the conventional, it would seem. That there can be no uncertainty about this is confirmed in the way that the ‘play’ results in ‘things’ not staying in place and this amounts to ‘showing language’s slippage’. Thus, although it is claimed that Jacqueline Rose is wrong in what are taken to be her ideas concerning the transparency of language in children’s literature, there can be no doubt as to what Winnie-the-Pooh shows: the certain truth of slippage. For Rudd, this suggests that:
Rather than being the all-powerful coloniser [...] Milne (or the narrator) appears to be remarkably ‘uneasy and tentative,’ as [Barbara] Wall expresses it. For me, then, Milne seems to be troubled by this relationship, unsure as to where he stands in relation to the child and to language (ibid). (note 6)
This questioning of the relationship between Milne, the child, and language is taken to be indicative of a lack of certainty that runs counter to the operation of hierarchical control: ‘Milne (or the narrator) appears to be remarkably “uneasy and tentative”’ and ‘I would suggest that, rather than narrational control, the beginning of Milne’s text expresses the very opposite’ (66). As the text is understood to ‘express’, there is something to be expressed, that, by its very nature, must be opposed to the textual. Even with the insistence that this is merely what ‘I’ ‘suggest’, it is a claim that can be read to be at odds with the subjectivity of Milne’s ‘appearance’. The ‘suggest[ion]’ is that an extra-textual condition can be known, and that it is ‘the very opposite’ of narrational control. This is, however, still something finally that can be attributed to ‘Milne’. A loss of narrational control does not necessitate the relinquishing of the author. The author appears to be ‘‘uneasy’’, and as such, it is argued, cannot be implicated in the kind of colonial discourse critiqued by Kutzer. Crucially, the insistence here is that colonialism is derived from, and is expressed as, deliberate and unwavering control. Power can only be exercised by an ‘all powerful’ that correctly recognises itself as such. No one, it would seem, is ever hurt by confusion, self-doubt or play. This is, I would contend, a dangerous assertion, and my first appeal in response would be to a history of colonial practice as piecemeal, improvised, anxious, and confused. (note 7)
As Reading the Child is alive to methodological considerations, it has its own take on the implications of its approach to Winnie-the-Pooh:
In the above reading I have pressed for a more open-ended approach to criticism, one that does not wish to deny others, or only so when they seem to shut down interpretation and, thereby, delimit the pleasure, or energetics of reading, which is why I have suggested this more ‘heretical’ approach. Though I have adopted a broadly Lacanian framework in my own interpretations, in that I have argued that such an approach helps open up a text, I am also guided by Lacan’s attention to ‘the letter of the text’ (Fink, 2004), where meaning undoubtedly arise and multiply, but always from the ground up, rather than being imposed from above, in the process, the jouissance of a text can be released, as the censorious monologic of the symbolic is defied (Rudd, 2013, 79 – 80).
It is the ‘broad’ status of the psychoanalysis that defines the ‘heretical’ approach, this ‘open[ing] up a text’. The ‘wish’ of the reading is to overcome denial, yet despite encouraging ‘other’ readings, there is a resistance to others that ‘seem to shut down interpretation’, and to the ‘monologic of the symbolic’. There is also a requirement to pay ‘“attention to the letter of the text’”, which is understood to enable meaning to ‘arise’ without imposition or censor. Within this precise formulation, then, the preferred reading approach is one in which there is no other to the text, meaning stemming from it alone. In the first instance, the acceptance of otherness is dependent upon its lack of threat, its failure to offer resistance: an otherness that demands nothing, one that is not, in this sense, other. In the second, meaning is prior to and limited by the censorious Symbolic, yet, despite this, located at the point of ‘the letter’. (note 8) Are we, generously, to read in Rudd’s appeal to this letter a Lacanian resistance to interpretation? (note 9) Well, maybe, but Rudd’s argument seems to me at every other point to work against such a claim. I take his appeal here instead to be to attentive reading, with this understood in terms of release, defiance, multiplicity, pleasure without delimitation, liberation from the imposition of others. I do not read any engagement with the ironies that might be understood to attend such liberation. Thus, for example, although there is no acknowledgment of pleasure in repression, I take Rudd’s argument to require such repression to be enacted in order that it might be avoided, with this enabling the release of pleasure.
It is helpful, at this juncture, to turn again to the reading of Winnie-the-Pooh forwarded within Reading the Child. A connection can be clarified between the anti-colonial position that text grants Milne, and the liberalism I understand it to be promoting. Just as it is claimed that Milne cannot be authoritarian because he is tentative, playful and confused, so Rudd’s preferred reading approach must be on the side of liberation because it follows no set plan and is concerned with ‘jouissance’. The difficulty here is that, in my reading, it is precisely through such ad hoc qualities that the narration of Winnie-the-Pooh justifies the taking of a name of another. Just as the generosity of Milne as understood by Reading the Child can be understood to enact what Kutzer defines as the colonial, so to the ‘open-ended’ toleration championed in Rudd’s narrative necessitates its own repressions.
iv) ‘[…] the censorious monologic of the symbolic is defied […]’
What are we to make of Rudd’s account of Winnie-the-Pooh as a reading of Lacan? Even without the challenge of returning to the question of the Lacanian letter, a movement we will enact by way of conclusion, this can be read as an uncanny psychoanalysis; it resembles Lacan, perhaps, but only in a way that brings home a certain lack of fit. At every turn, I’m afraid, I see a problem, so I will have to limit myself to just one: jouissance.
I am happy to be corrected, but my sense of the passage above is that it figures jouissance as synonymous with pleasure. Admittedly, in the glossary supplied in Reading the Child, Rudd does write of a ‘surplus pleasure’, ‘unbearable’, and ‘heretical’, and elsewhere he describes ‘blissful, almost painful, joy’ (Rudd, 2013, 193, 47). (note 10) In the quotation above, however, the claim is that we must guard against the delimitation of pleasure, that is, the restriction on Rudd’s own ‘dynamic’ reading, and defying the ‘censorious monologic’ is surely to be taken as a repetition of this move: jouissance is a matter of abundance, freedom, and its realisation is to be encouraged.
Well, jouissance is certainly excessive, yet, as Glyn Daly states, it does not, indeed, ‘equate simply to pleasure’ (Daly, 80, 2014). Pleasure, to follow the standard Lacan line, is caught up in an economy of balance - the pleasure principle - and this requires prohibition: if everything is to achieve a state of equilibrium, a limit must be placed on pleasure. There is, it can be claimed, an illusion at work here, however, as the operation makes us think that if somehow censoriousness were to be removed, jouissance might, however dangerously, be achieved. Jouissance can thus comes to be understood as a transgression of a prohibition, and, in the economy of desire, where the ‘fundamental fantasy’ forever holds out the neurotic hope of completion, it is what we constantly and futilely seek. One upshot of this is that although ideology certainly relies on a renunciation of jouissance, we should not think of it as prior to repression. Jouissance is to be understood in terms of the limit it exceeds (see especially Lacan 1989, but see also Lacan 2018; Lacan 2006; Žižek 2008; Zupančič, 2019), it is ‘the excess of pleasure produced by “repression” itself, which is why we lose it if we abolish repression’ (Žižek 2013, 308). We must be very careful, then, in reading Rudd’s claim that ‘the jouissance of a text can be released, as the censorious monologic of the symbolic is defied.’ This is only the case if we see the release failing at the very point of success: the release occurs in so far as the act of defying takes place. It has no wholly autonomous existence beyond this. Something must be defied. There must be a limit. The oceanic sense of jouissance Rudd employs should thus be treated with caution. Censorious is required for jouissance, and its release never has the luxury of breaking free from the scene of breaking.
In relation to this, we might think about the opposition Rudd forwards between jouissance and ‘the censorious monologic of the symbolic’. Here the appeal is, I suppose, to ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’, as from this text we can indeed understand the censorious nature of the symbolic (Lacan, 2006). There is, however, in Rudd’s arguments, no sense that I can see in which jouissance returns precisely as ‘the censorious monologic of the symbolic’. For Lacan, as drive moves round its unchanging circuit, thus carving out a space of nothing that is set up retrospectively as its cause, it fails to capture a lost jouissance that was always anyway lost (Lacan, 2006; Žižek 1999; Copjec, 2015). In this very movement, however, there is, ironically, jouissance: precisely a surplus pleasure in repetition, a deathly pleasure. This, then, is part of the strangeness of jouissance. It is: achieved through fixity, from the liberation of the other; an affront to, rather a fulfilment of, meaning; excess rather than abundance.
In The Ticklish Subject, a work dedicated to refiguring Lacanian psychoanalysis in terms of a constitutive absence in the human subject, Slavoj Žižek brings together both the problem of jouissance returning as death drive and the ‘paradox of jouissance […] of das Ding which can be experienced only in a negative way – whose contours can be discerned only negatively, as the contours of an invisible void’ (Žižek 2008, 44):
Desire desperately strives to achieve jouissance, its ultimate object which forever eludes it; while drive, on the contrary, involves the opposite impossibility – not the impossibility of attaining jouissance, but the impossibility of getting rid of it. The lesson of drive is that we are condemned to jouissance: whatever we do, jouissance will stick to it; we shall never get rid of it; even in our most thorough endeavour to renounce it, it will contaminate the very effort to get rid of it (like the ascetic who perversely enjoys flagellating himself) (355).
Releasing jouissance? A comforting dream. The moment of liberation will always see a return, but rather than restricting the subject, this can suggest an awful freedom; a recognition of that part of the subject that insists, that is not subject to imaginary relations. What I am gesturing towards here is an additional, although far from final turn, in Lacan’s notion of jouissance: the nothing that escapes the symbolic, what the subject moves towards in jouissance, is also the nothing that lies strangely at the heart of the subject, a nothing that sets up an uncanny relationship to which we will return in the conclusion to this article, when we think about what Lacan has to say about neighbourliness.
This entirely cursory introduction to jouissance is not there to fill in the gaps in Rudd’s account: I am not a Lacanian, and have not interest in forwarding a ‘correct’ Lacan; even if that were so, what I write here is far too full of holes; and, in any case, we are still waiting to return to the text of Lacan. Rather it is to give some sense of what is problematic in just one aspect of Rudd’s ‘Lacanian framework’. It is a framework that can be read to miss the constitutive tensions, the impossible returns and reversals, that mark Lacanian thought, with jouissance figured simply as (sometimes painfully intense) literary pleasure, multiplicity, and meaning that it is good to set free. In what sense is such framework ‘Lacanian’?
‘[…] reading the wrong Freud to children’
It is my contention that it is the very ‘heretical’ approach - the freedom loving response that repeats the generosity that it locates in Winnie-the-Pooh - that enables the privileging of a psychoanalysis that does not have to engage, let alone work through, the tensions within, or the specifics of, certain aspects of the Lacanian project Rudd calls upon. For Rudd, I think, to adhere too closely to any particular branch of psychoanalysis would run the risk of finding itself caught in the ‘monologic of the symbolic’. In the introductory chapter on ‘Psychoanalytic Approaches to Children’s Literature’ in Modern Children’s Literature: An Introduction, for example, Rudd reads The Wind in the Willows through Bettelheim, Klein, Jung, and Lacan, supporting an idea that all approaches should be at the disposal of the liberated, ‘heretical’ reader (Rudd, 2014, 50 – 51). This is something other than what might be figured as the heretical approach (via Hegel) of Žižek to Lacan, who would sees himself as rigorously Lacanian. Instead, I take Rudd’s approach to be rooted in whim. Rudd would no doubt counter that he is just following the text, but that would suggest a text that demands to be met by a Lacanian ‘framework’ that skirts the demands of jouissance. Is Winnie-the-Pooh really such a text?
Although the ‘framework’ must be lacking, then, if it is to allow the reader to be ‘nimble’, Rudd, in the recent article for The Lion and the Unicorn, has supreme confidence in it, confidence enough to suggest to Jacqueline Rose, arguably the most significant British scholar of Lacan, how she might up her game:
What is perhaps most curious about Rose's case, though, especially given her involvement with Lacanian psychoanalysis […], is how muted is this thinker's presence in her book on children's fiction. Only once, in a footnote, is Lacan overtly named [,,,] —not even receiving an index entry—despite the fact that his concepts underpin Rose's repeated cry, ‘We have been reading the wrong Freud to children.’ (Rudd, 2000, 12–13) (note 11)
What does it mean to read a better Freud to children in this sense? We can gain greater clarity as to Rudd’s understanding through a further quotation: ‘[Karin] Lesnik-Oberstein does not follow Rose's more linguistic (Lacanian) reading of Freud but instead draws on, arguably, "the wrong Freud" of D. W. Winnicott and others’ (98). Rudd’s Lacan is linguistic, and Winnicott is concerned with object relations, and it seemingly stands to reason that reading the former is the way to go. But what if one were to read Winnicott attentively and radically? Would it be possible to read Winnicott to children in a way that worked through questions of repetition, repression, framing, difference, and the constitutive gap necessary to analysis? A psychoanalytic reading of Winnicott? Might that be something other than the wrong Freud? Likewise, however linguistic Lacan’s approach might be, is it not possible to read him in a way that works against this? I would contend, indeed, that if it is a ‘fact that his concepts underpin Rose's repeated cry’, then this is a Lacan who works against the linguistic, at least in one sense: a conceptual Lacan, where the concept is a solid foundation to something that is other than writing.
Let us turn again to Rudd’s reading of Lacan, to confirm the kind of approach that is being forwarded. Here the claim is that ‘the poor substitute’, language:
[…] drives humans, as we strive to overcome the sense of lack we experience, desiring to re-attain the Eden we think we once inhabited. Images of wholeness therefore beguile us, which is what advertising campaigns trade on (‘Buy X and you too could be like this!’) and, of course, in language we try to articulate our desires, moving from one signifier to the next, forever trying to repair our sense of incompleteness. This is what literary works temporarily proffer. For example, Anthony Browne’s Willy the Wimp (1984) ‘buys’ into just such an imaginary notion of masculinity, demonstrating how we are strung between these three separate realms of existence: Willy’s construction in the Symbolic as a ‘wimp’, as opposed to his imaginary sense of being an alpha-male, a superhero; and then his undoing in the real as he collides with a lamppost. (Rudd 2014, 47)
There are claims here that certainly might contribute to a Lacanian framework: Rudd understands that the lost sense of wholeness is illusory, there is a clear idea of the ‘metonymy of desire’, and we could also say that there is an appeal to the ‘extimate’ nature of literature. This last opens up difficulties, however. Literature is read as a ‘demonstration’, as this is what Willy the Wimp achieves. Or perhaps not: despite the italics, Willy the Wimp is, I think, the character in this sentence – it is he, rather than the text as a whole, who buys into imaginary notions. However understood, this demonstration seems to me at odds with what literary texts ‘proffer’: the move from one signifier to the next, as we forever try to repair our sense of incompleteness. Is the demonstration incomplete or temporary, in this way? Does it fail? It would seem not, and thus literature has not proffered what it should. I read here not simply ‘notions of language transparently telling the story’, but literature as a clarifying, pedagogical showing. And what is made clear is merely that we are strung between words, daydreams, and bathetic material encounters. (note 12)
I take what is introduced at this stage to be an analogical or symbolic approach to psychoanalytic reading. It is one to which Rudd has frequent recourse, not only in the appeals to ‘long white phallic hands’ and the like that pepper his work, but in the broader sense in which children’s literature texts are understood precisely to demonstrate Lacanian theory (Rudd 2008). (note 13) Despite the claim that children’s literature is ‘ineluctably haunted by the uncanny effects of language’, a Lacanian reading is one that simply recognises the ‘broadly’ Lacanian narrative in such texts, one that testifies to, rather than works through, the instability of language (119). Here we might introduce a slightly extended quotation from Jacqueline Rose, referenced in part by Rudd above: ‘this is the most […] prevalent’ reading of Freud, and ‘the form of interpretation - where one thing straightforwardly equals another – which seems to predominate in the analysis of Children’s writing […]’, but it is also ‘the “worst” of Freud’, in so far as it ‘by-passes any problem of language’ (Rose, 19).
This is not the only occasion in his Lion and the Unicorn article where Rudd offers a strangely partial quotation from Rose. It is Rudd’s contention that the central difference between Rose and ‘The Reading Critics’ is that the former is explicitly committed to a child of the real: ‘Rose can quite legitimately distinguish between "the child inside the book" and the one "outside" that "does not come so easily within its grasp"’ (Rudd 2000, 95). According to this argument, Rose, along with Jacques Derrida, has a belief in the real as opposed to construction. (note 14) To avoid confusion, then, the non-discursive child of the real is not, for Rudd, that Lacanian ‘little piece of the real’, the object a, the object cause of our desires, but something more prosaic: a referent; an ‘underlying’ reality to which interpretation responds (98). It is not, to return to Žižek’s previous formulation, that which ‘can be experienced only in a negative way – whose contours can be discerned only negatively, as the contours of an invisible void’, but the actuality of the ‘referents that are extra-discursive (literally existing outside the text)’ (Rudd, 98.). To counter this notion, we might again slightly extend a partial quotation of Rose by Rudd: ‘if children’s fiction builds an image of the child inside the book, it does so in order to secure the child who is outside the book, the one who does not come so easily within its grasp’ (Rose, 2). Rather than a non-ironic securing of the real child, I read in this a critique of the kind of argument repeatedly offered by Perry Nodelman, and (heretically?) understood by Rudd as central to the work of Jacques Derrida:
It doesn't take much reading of children's books to realize that the ‘children’ in the phrase ‘children's literature’ are not real human beings at all, but merely artificial constructs of writers; as is true of all works of literature, each children's story implies its audience; and thus each children's story reveals its author's assumptions about childhood. Rose is also right to insist on the limitations of those assumptions, and to demand our acknowledgement of them. In the often unconscious determination of writers to impose artificial ideas about childhood on their child readers, those writers do, often, fail real children—and anyone who cares for children or for children's literature should be conscious of that (Nodelman 1985, 98).
A literature of revelation. Nodelman begins with an acknowledgement of ‘artificiality’, but this allows an author’s assumptions seemingly to be secured. Likewise, and especially relevant to Rudd, from that same appeal to artificiality, the real child that artificiality fails can be secured. Without literature, I would suggest, claims to the real child become increasingly difficult. None of us, after all, dwell wholly within the real (that is what is so concerning about Nodelman’s idea that care for real children should take place in the absence, or full knowledge, of projection). That is, we might say with a certain amount of cynicism, what is so useful about literature here: it allows precisely a sense of artificiality against which the ‘real’ child can be ‘grasped’. I would, therefore, accept Rudd’s claim that we ‘only experience the real indirectly, tangentially’, (Rudd, 46) but only with the caveat that we cannot remove this tangential experience from the real.
Here I am reminded of the story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, so beloved by Lacanians. The two painters compete to establish who is the greatest artist. Zeuxis paints grapes that look so real that birds fly down to eat them, and he thinks he has won, confidently pulling aside the curtain that conceals his rivals work, only to find his fingers fastening upon…paint. The curtain is the painting. If one wishes to offer up the real, so the story goes, one can expect a degree of praise for a work that acts as a lure to nature, but far better to set up an obstacle to vision. The literary child for Rose, we might say, is a limit. Through the inadequacy identified by Nodelman and Rudd, this child enables a notion of a real beyond it. This nothing behind the painted veil, Lacanians would claim, is far from irrelevant, a necessary condition for any symbolic operation. It is a nothing, however, that cannot stand on its own. No repression without return. (note 15)
vii) A Challenge
I will close, as promised, with a return to a Lacanian text. This is from The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, as translated by Dennis Porter:
As long as it is a question of the good, there’s no problem; our own and our neighbours are of the same material. St Martin shares his cloak, and a great deal is made of it. Yet it is after all a simple question of training; material is by its very nature made to be disposed of – it belongs to the other as much as it belongs to me. We are no doubt touching a primitive requirement in the need to be satisfied there, for the beggar is naked. But perhaps over and above that need to be clothed, he was begging for something else, namely, that Saint Martin either kill him or fuck him. In any encounter, there’s a big difference in meaning between the response of philanthropy and that of love (Lacan 2007, 186). (note 16)
Let us begin with the standard response from Lacanian critics. This passage, describing the parable of St. Martin, who shares his cloak with a beggar, comes directly after a discussion of the strangeness of the Biblical injunction to ‘Love they neighbour as thyself’. Freud saw this as an impossible demand (can we really invest the love we have for ourselves and our significant others in someone we do not know?), but Lacan sees a truth in these words: we fear our neighbour, rather than love them, to be sure, but the desire we see in them, destructive to us, reveals to us our own jouissance, that is, our desire for the real object around which our desire circulates, an object that, if achieved, would rob us of the law that forms us as subjects. If we achieved jouissance, we would disappear as subjects. The end of our desire is our own destruction, and thus we have a terrible affinity with our neighbour: the jouissance I fear in my neighbour is that of the real object – the nothing – that my desire circles around – that which is me more than myself. St Martin sharing his cloak remains at the level of the pleasure principle, an exchange of goods between interested parties. These goods – beliefs, material objects – are made up of the same material, because part of the symbolic order, and an interested party can exchange one good for the other, resulting in a basic satisfaction. What the beggar perhaps also begs is something else: beneath the demand for clothing is another demand, the jouissance that cuts across the pleasure principle, entails our destruction, and is the condition of true neighbourliness.
I have no reason at all to dispute this generally accepted reading of Lacan, other than the fact that I am not a Lacanian. What interests me is what also might be read in this account of what an individual also might have said. As I am nearing the end of this article, allow me to fix on a single issue: nakedness. In Dennis Porter’s translation of Lacan, for example, ‘the beggar is naked. But perhaps over and above that need to be clothed, he was begging for something else […]’. What is ‘over and above’ nakedness has nothing to do with clothing, it is claimed, yet, in my reading, it returns as such in being ‘over and above’. The begging to be fucked or killed is an addition, after all: ‘something else’. In terms of this translation, at least, we could take issue with Marc de Kesel’s conclusion that ‘Behind the ethical reproach “I was naked and you didn’t clothe me” thus lies an underside that is polymorphously-perverse as it is impossible’ (de Kesel, 148). It is rather that, for Porter’s Lacan, this ‘underside’ is constructed as a clothing of nakedness, what is ‘over and above’ it. And it is not that nakedness shows itself fully; the idea of nakedness as final revelation or truth, the end of a process of unveiling that has entirely done with this. Rather, there is indeed ‘something else’ to it.
Nakedness, of course, always calls upon its opposite, ghosted as it is by the clothing with which it has seemingly dispensed. Nakedness cannot ever quite be itself alone. (note 17)With this in mind, I would contend that it is nakedness in this passage that constitutes the begging to be clothed, this because the beggar is not narrated as speaking: there is no initial begging to be read. It is, ironically, the ‘something else’ of the obscene supplement that constitutes the begging for the cloak. In one sense, therefore, it is not only the obscene begging that is ‘over and above’, but the straightforward economic begging for needs to be met. In terms of narrative perspective, the second begging is less the obscene ‘over and above’ of the explicit begging for clothing, than the begged yet unannounced underside of the begging to be killed or fucked. Thus, although in one sense it is clear that ‘In any encounter, there’s a big difference in meaning between the response of philanthropy and that of love’, if we return to this text, and think about narrative perspective, then this ‘encounter’ is constructed, over and again, through uncanny repetitions, the non-symbolic underside caught up in symbolic deferral. To separate the two, we have to turn away from the text.
My interest, then, is with what Jacques Derrida describes as the ‘[t]he misrecognition or the failure to take account of the literary structure of narration, the omission of the frame, of the play of signatures, and notably of its parergonal effect’ (Derrida 1988, 59). The passage discussed above, after all, and like Winnie-the-Pooh, includes a framing of speech by a third, with the beggar, for example, repeating his identity through his actions only within the perspective of the narration. In the terms Derrida uses in the debate with the early, structuralist Lacan, footnoted in Rudd’s article, the standard Lacanian reading that captures perfectly what is significant in the text does so only to ‘denude’ that text, and thus get safely to the point of danger: followers of Lacan claim that we can most clearly and radically see what is fundamentally other about us, only if we ignore the deferrals and divisions in identity at the level of narration (Derrida, 1987).
My argument, it should be clear, is not with the accuracy of the readings offered by Lacanians such as Slavoj Žižek, Joan Copjec, Marc de Kesel, and Bruce Fink. We could not want better guides to Lacanian thought; they, of course, know far more about the subject than I ever will. Like Lacan in his account of St Martin, their interested is what is and is not articulated - the obscene supplement to cosy exchanges in the symbolic - this requiring the reader to risk a move beyond the symbolic, and thus beyond specific textual formulations. (note 18)
There are powerful arguments against what I am forwarding here: I am sketching out a debate that the majority, if not all, Lacanian scholars have engaged. Thus, for example, de Kesel offers an exacting rebuke to my kind of thinking in Eros and Ethics when discussing precisely this passage (de Kesel, 307), and Žižek, in the chapter ‘Beyond Hegel’ of his masterwork Less Than Nothing, where, it seems to me, he is at his most engaged with ‘deconstructionist’ arguments against his position, what I am suggesting here is recognised, but then subject to a succession of returns that work to take the ground from under it (Žižek 2013, 480 – 504). (note 19) I will not stage these arguments here in detail: if you have not read them, they come highly recommended. Instead, I will close with a handful of statements or observations.
First, I will continue to argue for an approach to literature that, in its focus on textuality and perspective, finds itself at odds with Lacanian approaches. Second, my sense is that David Rudd might be more Lacanian than he realises. It is not, perhaps, in failing to engage the textuality of Lacan that he diverges from this school of thought. Instead, as a Lacanian, that might be considered his greatest achievement. Thirdly, I would argue that the difficulty for Rudd, again, in terms of his being a Lacanian, lies in his ‘heretical’ approach. A little orthodoxy is required, otherwise the ‘framework’ utilised cannot really be said to be owned by anyone. Lastly, my hope is that such orthodoxy would lead to a questioning of the toleration – the tolerance of the tolerable – that he sees as the future of Children’s Literature Criticism. Lacanians may disagree on the ethics of obscene begging, but none recommend staying wholly within the economy of give and take. Lacan, I would suggest, asks us to go beyond the closed economy of Children’s Literature Criticism.
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1 Sue Walsh researches the archives of the African Writers Series, Nigerian Literature, and Animal Studies; I research popular right-wing discourse, Žižekian psychoanalysis, and Critical University Studies; Karin Lesnik-Oberstein has been working on literature and mathematics, Wittgenstein, Disability Studies, and the failures of contemporary neuroscience.
2 In this regard, I would strongly recommend Lesnik-Oberstein (2008), for example.
3 I agree with Rudd that the work of Reading Critics is not unified in any slavish sense (although not for any of the reason he specifies), and thus I only speak for myself in this article.
4 A formula within which, uncannily, I read myself already to repeat what I set out to critique.
5 For recent work on Milne’s text that tends to steer away from detailed reading, see AbdelRahim (2015); Jacques (2015), Nance-Carroll, (2014) Kidd, (2011). Among the exceptions, one that has significantly not been referenced in any subsequent critical account of Milne, and that I build on in this article, is Lesnik-Oberstein (1991). The previous dearth of critical work on the novel can, I think, be attributable to the (for me) baleful influence of Crews (1963), in many ways a forerunner of Sokal (and ‘Sokal squared’), interventions that I take Rudd to regard as largely benign, or at the very least, part of a confrontation in which, as it were, there are ‘very fine people on both sides’. Here I should add that, considering Rudd’s investment in ‘Theory of Mind’ (although he rejects the term itself), the lack of engagement with Lesnik-Oberstein’s work on this is significant. See Lesnik-Oberstein (2015), Lesnik-Oberstein (2017).
6 At one stage, there is confusion as to whether it is Milne or the narrator who appears in a certain way. I read in this an uncanny repetition of the parenthesis in ‘INTRODUCTION’ to Winnie-the-Pooh.
7 See, Berry (1992), or more recently, Jorronen (2019), as two examples from a vast field. In terms of a critique of play, see Mould (2018) or Fleming (2014).
8 How can it be that the point of the letter works against the censorious? Already, perhaps, one can see the difficulties: the letter as the unreadable, as that which resists and constitutes interpretation. The demands that come with the Lacanian sense of reading, and how they can be understood to produce readings that differ from my own, will be tentatively introduced in the conclusion to this article.
9 This was the suggestion of one extraordinarily thorough anonymous reader response to an early version of this present article. This response also pointed to a tension between my reading of the appeal both to the expressive in Rudd, and his notion of meaning arising from the let In one, meaning is figured as elsewhere, in the other wholly at the point of the letter. My point would be that such appeals call upon a text removed from the difference of textuality.
10 ‘Surplus pleasure’ is precisely it, of course, but, from my reading below, I am not convinced that Rudd makes an adequate case for why this is so.
11 I would contend that many of Rudd’s misunderstandings about the child’s entry into the symbolic, and how this relates to later life, could be resolved through a reading of Rose’s chapter ‘The Imaginary’ in Rose (2000).
12 There is rarely if ever a sense in Rudd’s work of the tripartite structure as divided from within, and the counter-intuitive returns and reversals this entails. See Lacan (1992) and Lacan (1979).
13 The footnote on p. 199 of Rudd (2013) discussing the nothing of the phallic is only a limited help here, to my mind. It can be problematically read in relation to the ‘obviously’ phallic imagery of Hook’s pipe (again, p. 199), for example. And what to make of the claims concerning female sexuality? See , for example, the contention that in the wild woods of The Wind in the Willows ‘a predatory, feminine sexuality emerges, with much talk of “[h]oles, hollows, pools, pitfalls, and other black menaces”’. In what sense are ‘other black menaces’ emerging, predatory female sexuality? (Rudd (2010) I understand Rudd to see the ‘broadly Lacanian framework’ as the answer to the text. Rather than analysis, he offers diagnosis, this of the kind Shoshona Felman (1977), after Henry James, terms ‘vulgar’ psychoanalysis. I would argue that the majority of engagements with Lacan within Children’s Literature Criticism, follow this lead. See, for example, Coats (2007). This has none of the theoretical frame of Žižek’s appeal to symbolism in Žižek (2010). Such appeals, in any case, have always been for me part of what I find problematic in the work of Žižek. See Cocks (2015).
14 The real, for Rudd, as far as I can make out, is also the location of Ideological State Apparatus, and he regrets Rose not having the understanding of Marxism that would have allowed her to acknowledge this (94). Here I would, with a matter of urgency, direct Rudd’s attention to the chapter of Rose (1984), ‘Peter Pan, Language and the State: Captain Hook Goes to Eton’. This really is an extraordinary omission on Rudd’s part..
15 Yes, Rudd does write of real meanings not being behind a door (Rudd, 2014), but the real is not real meanings, and, in any case, to my mind, occasional references to recognisable Lacanian formulations point to an inability to carry through a reading, rather than moments of salvation.
16 I have chosen the English translation of Lacan by Dennis Porter, as it is widely seen as a standard translation, utilised also in the English translation of de Kesel. Crucially, in ‘returning to Lacan’, I am following here Rudd’s general recourse to English translations of French theory. It is clear that Rudd assumes his reader will be engaging theorists in English, and that the ‘nimble’ or ‘dynamic’ response he champions will be to an English text. He claims, for example, that Sue Walsh’s seeming inability to gain his own nuanced understanding of Derrida’s ‘nuanced approach’ is excusable because: ‘To be fair, Derrida’s essay was available only in French at the time Walsh’s work was published’ (Rudd 2000, 103). That Walsh is bilingual is seemingly unthinkable to Rudd. It is worth pointing out here that reading Derrida and Lacan in French and Freud in German is not a startling activity for Reading Critics. The work of our Graduate Centre at Reading has always been international, and Comparative Literature is one of our many specialisms.
It is important to stress, therefore, that to return to the original French would open up new readings, and invalidate, or at least question, those that I have offered. My reading here is precisely of the translation, in other words. If one were to offer a detailed comparative analysis, the most obvious starting point would be the lack of a ‘neighbour’ in Lacan’s account: ‘Tant qu’il s’agit du bien il n’y a pas de problème, parce que ce qu’on appelle le bien, le nôtre, et celui de l’autre, ils sont de la même étoffe’. At this point, there is none of the play of ‘le voisin’ and ‘le prochain’ that Dany Nobus reads in his account of translation and ‘Kant avec Sade’ (Nobus 2017, 130 – 133). Instead, there is a consistent construction of ‘the other’ across the passage. Even more problematic, for my reading, are the formulations around the need for nakedness: ‘Le mendiant est nu, mais peut-être au-delà de ce besoin de se vêtir mendiait-il autre chose, que saint Martin le tue, ou le baise.’ This is not, then, a question of what is ‘over and above’ needs, but that which is beyond, or further to, them: ‘au-delà de ce besoin’. In other words, we might start thinking in terms of ‘Au-delà du principe de plaisir’, rather than the precise language of clothing and nakedness familiar from 'Le séminaire sur “La Lettre volée”'. What is especially interesting to me here, and one possible direction a future reading could take, is the sense in which the translation allows us to retroactively read and refigure the original, an operation that could, for example, be approached through the dialectics of Žižek’s ‘The Limits of Hegel’.
17 This reading is drawing on Jessica Medhurst’s CIRCL PhD thesis, The Child in Charles Dodgson’s Photographs and Their Criticism: Subject, History, Body and Archive.
18 For this, see especially Copjec (1994).
19 More obvious, perhaps, is the trenchant critique in Žižek (2001) of what Žižek sees as a certain kind of theorist who praises Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, and text based criticism, while regarding the Holocaust as an evil only to be met with silence. I recognise myself in this, I have to admit, however much I would claim this also as a misrecognition on Žižek’s part.