"Bad Breath": Gerald Vizenor's Lacanian fable

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Date: Fall 1999
From: Studies in Short Fiction(Vol. 36, Issue 4)
Publisher: Studies in Short Fiction
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,884 words

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Gerald Vizenor, suggests Louis Owens, is both the most traditional and the least traditional of the Native American authors writing today (Owens, "Ecstatic" 143). An enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa tribe from the White Earth Reservation, Vizenor has distinguished himself as a satirist. Not only has he made use of this traditional tribal teaching technique, he has incorporated a wealth of traditional story types--family stories, priest stories, and stories drawn from anishinaabe myth--into his fictions. Vizenor especially remembers two story types told by his uncle: "stories of magic and faith healing and how things just mysteriously happened, how people appeared and disappeared;" and "stories of resolution of tensions and the play between the colonists--and I would include the government and the Church--and Indians" (Bruchac 302). Perhaps more than any other contemporary American Indian writer, Vizenor makes use of the trickster story. While tricksters manifest themselves in a variety of guises in traditional orature of virtually every American Indian tribe, Vizenor's departure from traditionalism is nowhere more evident than in his definition of the trickster. Rather than defining the trickster in terms of his greedy, lustful, lazy, and amoral character, Vizenor defines the trickster in terms of his function. Recognizing his role in constellating change in rulebound traditional cultures, Vizenor describes the trickster as a "comic holotrope and a sign in a language game," a "semiotic being in discourse" (Vizenor, "Trickster" 187, 189).

In his fictions, Vizenor aims for nothing less than a change in the American image of the Indian as a savage on the verge of extinction, an image, that has dominated American literature since The Last of the Mohicans. It would seem that Vizenor's goal is consonant with the theoretical writings of Jacques Lacan, for what Vizenor is attempting is to free the signifier from its Sausseurian bond to the signified. As Vizenor himself states, Lacan "liberates the signifier; the comic holotrope in trickster narratives. Lacan warns not to `cling to the illusion that the signifier answers to the function of representing the signified, or better, that the signifier has to answer for its existence in the name of any signification whatever'" ("Trickster"189). (1) Constructed through a network of relationships in the process of continual negotiation, according to Lacan, neither language nor subjectivity can ever be fixed.

In his short story "Bad Breath," Vizenor offers his readers, among other things, a Lacanian fable. On one level, he depicts the creation of the subjectivity of Mildred Fairchild, beginning precisely where Lacanian subjectivity always begins--with separation of the child from the mother. In the mirror stage posited by Lacan, which may occur at any time between six and eighteen months, a young child develops a sense of his or her own wholeness. The idea of the self subsumes previous perceptions of an assortment of unrelated body parts and functions, reflecting the wholeness of the subject just as a mirror does (Campbell and Slethaug 593). This new unity, however, is predicated upon a loss--the loss of the original unity with...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A90990563