Southwell's "A Vale of Tears : A Psychoanalysis of Form

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Date: Mar. 2001
Publisher: University of Manitoba, Mosaic
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,125 words

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Putting psychoanalytic conceptions of self-transformation through speech in dialogue with early modern devotional techniques of spiritualizing the physical, this essay asks how Robert Southwell's poem "A Vale of Tears" constitutes a work of mourning.

Contemporary psychoanalytic discussions of subject formation attribute immense importance to processes of mourning. This concern with mourning in the work of post-Lacanian theorists, most notably Judith Butler and Julia Kristeva, is not simply a reflection on how one negotiates loss throughout one's life but more primarily how the subject is itself constituted by mourning: formed, that is, by and through loss. From this perspective, mourning is not simply something the subject engages in when confronted with abandonment; but, rather, the subject is itself an effect of loss-the product of a series of renunciations and compromise formations. For Lacan and his recent reformulaters, a primordial loss of an egoless sense of unity and fullness-the loss, in other words, of a past that could never have been present as such--is the condition of possibility for the emergence of a subject who is able to take itself as an object of its own thought. In order for self-consciousness to emerge, according to Lacan, a divisio n (or Spaltung) between the emergent ego and the idealized mirror image with which the ego identifies, but which it subsequently fails to adequately incorporate, must take place. The ego's failure to incorporate the imago of this ideal ego results from the disjunction between the infant's actual motor incapacity, its real lack of bodily integrity, and the totality of the wholly integral self that it desires to emulate. To this extent, consciousness is structured by a disjointure, or gap, between the ego and its specular, imaginary Other that is set up within the self as both the condition and the effect of language. Self alienation, then, is the very basis of subjectivity--the ground of identity itself: "The only homogenous function of consciousness is the imaginary capture of the ego by its mirror reflection and the function of misrecognition which remains attached to it" (Ecrits 32). This formulation of the self as conditioned by self-difference, by an enabling emptiness or gap, has profound implications fo r the meaning and motivations of art and religion.

Indeed, Lacan states unequivocally, "In spite of [the formulation's] generality," at its heart, "religion [. . .] consists of avoiding this emptiness" (Ethics 130). Aesthetic and spiritual practices are, at bottom, modes of renegotiating identity, strategies of mourning aimed at confronting divided-ness while living out imaginatively the sense of self-unity that the subject is constitutionally deprived of. As Kristeva puts it, symbolic language possesses therapeutic efficacy insofar as it "imposes itself as a means of countervailing the loss of Other and of meaning: a means more powerful than any other because more autonomous, [...] it fills the [...]psychic need to confront separation, emptiness, death" (Black Sun 129-30). Lacan provides a more specific view of the therapeutic efficacy of symbolic language when he claims that the process of psychotherapy operates by enabling...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A72412236