Anna Karenina: Specular Moments in the Lover’s Discourse

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Anna Karenina: Specular Moments in the Lover’s Discourse

A. Introduction

The notion of a ‘specular moment’ is a metaphoric reading of Jacques Lacan’s description of the ‘mirror stage’ in the development of the child. According to Lacan, the child sometime between six and eighteen months recognizes himself in a mirror, and perceives in the mirror image before him a totality, and anticipates a sense of identity and wholeness of the self through this specular Other. The child derives its value and it gains its identity through this external, reflected image by imagining to coincide with it. “Whereas it [the child] experienced itself as a shapeless mass, it now gains a sense of wholeness, an ideal completeness, and this without effort. This gratifying experience of a mirror image is a metaphorical parallel of an unbroken union between inner and outer, a perfect control that assures immediate satisfaction of desire” (Wright, 108). This is a moment of idilic communication and reciprocity between the child and its mirror image. “Here signifier and signified are as harmonious as they are in Saussure’s sign” (Eagleton, p. 166). By observing its mirror image imitating the motion it dictates, the infant discovers and asserts its powers of manipulation. Ragland-Sullivan notes that Lacan’s mirror stage must be understood as a “metaphor for the vision of harmony of a subject essentially in discord” (27). Lacan’s mirror stage involves numerous phases, the first of which is the ‘specular moment’.
In this paper I would like to draw a metaphoric parallel between Lacan’s child in the specular moment of the mirror stage and instances in the discourse of the amorous subject, in Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, where the subject, in search of some truth, experiences moments of total recognition and perception of that truth. Another metaphorical reading of the specular moment that we will apply in the reading of this novel is that it is a depiction of the subject’s unrelenting desire to find the perfect sign that leads to understanding the meaning of his or her existence, or the lover’s place in the amorous relationship. It is an instance when the subject imagines that this desire has been attained.
To identify the specular moments in the novel should be a simple undertaking. What may reveal more about the general aesthetics of the novel is to observe how the author motivates them, and to investigate the place of the linguistic sign in the specular moment. I believe, and I hope to show in this paper, that the specular moments in the discourse of the lover in Tostoy’s novel are in fact unique experiences in that they are phenomenal experiences beyond the reach of language, and yet they beg to become the subject of discourse. The characters’ use of signs informs their psychological self-constitution. It is this structure of the characters’ self through language that suggests turning to the psychoanalist Jacque Lacan for theoretical nuancing. The charaters’ need to manipulate the world around them through language can be most clearly delineated with reference to Lacan’s theory on the mirror stage.
Amorous intersubjectivity in the phenomenal world can only be established through discourse. However, discourse is always constrained by the rules of language. For this reason language in the specular moment is often absent; it fails to act as an adequate vehicle for communicating the sublimity of what is an untranslatable presence, a presence that cannot be objectified in language (in the signifier). When language is present it assumes a function quite different from that established by Saussure; here language “offers the possibility to say something quite other than what it says” (Lacan, 113). Through the discourse of the characters in the novel, Tolstoy often questions the validity of the desire for self-expression through precise representation; in other words, for the transparent rendition of experience in language. “Whether he seeks to prove his love, or to discover if the other loves him, the amorous subject,” says Barthes, “has no system of sure signs at his disposal” (214). Therefore, an analysis of the use of language by the amorous subject should also consider its rejection. In this study of the amorous intersubjectivity in Anna Karenina, we agree with Barthes’s understanding that the discourse of the lover is essentially a soliloquy. Sydney Schultze notes that in the novel “people can never really achieve total communication with one another, even when they are bound by a common passion or by marriage” (134). This may explain why it is impossible for Tolstoy’s characters to communicate their feelings to each other. The discourse of the lover is always directed at his ego, its understanding by the beloved is immaterial.

B. Constitution of the Amorous ‘I’

In Tolstoy’s novel, the lover’s entry into amorous discourse is marked as a moment of idyllic exchange and reciprocity between the subject and the beloved. Although each member of the love dyad in this specular moment is constantly bombarded by a profusion of verbal and non-verbal (and sometimes incomplete) messages, the lover’s identification of the intended signified is quite complete, and is reached effortlessly. The ‘truth’, or ‘validity’ of the message is unquestionable; there is no possibility for misinterpretation in the specular moment.
The role of the narrator’s voice here is also quite unique. Through language he attempts to communicate a moment of idyllic amorous discourse to a reader who is absent from that moment. The narrator in Anna Karenina frequently accomplishes this by assuming the amorous subjectivity of one of the characters in the discourse. Thus, the being (I) of the narrator describing the specular moment is one who has taken residence in the being of an amorous interlocutor, and he may switch from one character to another in the course of the narration. In this type of narration the narrator seems to be temporarily ‘attached’ to the character, merging with the character’s special position and his ideological and psychological systems (Uspensky, 58). We know from Tolstoy’s later writings on art that in his esthetics the activity of art includes precisely this necessity for an idyllic transference of feelings from author to reader. In What is Art he writes: “And it is upon this capacity of man to receive another man’s expression of feelings and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based” (50). Later in the same chapter he writes, “Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them” (51).
How this happens, Tolstoy doesn’t tell us. For those with unperverted tastes, this just happens naturally. The narrative event in Tolstoy’s aesthetics takes place as an idyllic relationship. There is unity, or specular identity in the character-author-reader relationship; the feelings of the author are reflected onto the being of the reader. This is also an aesthetic representation of the idyllic union of signifier and signified, the source and its reflection (in Lacan’s mirror stage).
Keeping in mind that the specular moment in Lacan’s theory occurs at the beginning of the mirror stage, we can now draw a parallel between this moment and moments in the discourse when the communicants in the novel are beginning to define the nature of their amorous relationship. In the Anna-Vronsky relationship the first occurrence of this takes place in Chapter 18 of Part I, when the two meet at the train station. This is how the narrator introduces the scene: “S privychnym taktom svetskogo cheloveka, po odnomu vzgliadu na vneshnost’ etoj damy, Vronskii opredelil ee prinadlezhnost’ k vysshemu svetu.” And what attracts Vronsky to Anna at this moment is not her beauty but “potomu, chto v vyrazhenii milovidnogo lica, kogda ona proshla mimo ego, bylo chto-to osobenno laskovoe i nezhnoe.” We are introduced here to the beginning of a lovers’ discourse that takes place immediately before the first verbal interchange between Anna and Vronsky. The lover’s discourse here is devoid of language, and yet is quite effective in facilitating amorous contact between the participants. In this activity it is not only language that can participate, but the entire being of the subjects as well. Amorous expression can be manifested not only through speech but in the entire organism (Zinkin, 77). In conveying Vronsky’s first notice of Anna, the narrator constructs the narration through Vronsky’s subjective viewpoint. In doing so, Anna becomes external to the narrator (Uspensky, 91). Anna’s first notice of Vronsky is also described externally, through the subjective viewpoint of Vronsky’s consciousness:
Blestiashchie, kazavshiesia temnymi ot gustikh resnic, serye glaza druzheliubno, vnimatel’no ostanovilis’ na ego lice, kak budto ona priznavala ego… V etom korotkom vzgliade Vronskii uspel zametit’ sderzhannuiu ozhivlennost’, kotoraia igrala v ee lice i porkhala mezhdu blestiashchimi glazami i chut’ zametnoi ulybkoi, izgibavsheiu ee rumianye guby. Kak budto izbytok chego-to tak perepolnial ee sushchestvo, chto mimo ee voli vyrazhalsia to v bleske vzgliada, to v ulybke. Ona potushila umyshlenno svet v glazakh, no on svetilsia protiv ee voli v chu’ zametnoj ulybke. (Part I, Chapter 18)

AuthorGeorge Mitrevski
2018-08-21T17:23:08+00:00 June 19th, 2007|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 54|0 Comments