On Reading Poetry

Auszüge aus Shoshana Felman, "On Reading Poetry: Reflections on the Limits and Possibilities of Psychoanalytical Approaches", in: The Purloined Poe, Lacan, Derrida & Psychoanalytical Reading, John p. Müller and William J. Richardson (Hg.), London 1988, S. 133ff.

"There are two scenes," remarks Lacan, "the first of which we shall straightway designate the primal scene, … since the second may be considered its repetition in the very sense we are considering today" (Lacan 1972b, 41). The "primal scene" takes place in the Queens boudoir: it is the theft of the letter from the Queen by the Minister; the second scene—its repetition—is the theft of the letter from the Minister by Dupin, in the Minister's hotel.
What constitutes repetition for Lacan, however, is not the mere thematic resemblance of the double theft, but the whole structural situation in which the repeated theft takes place: in each case, the theft is the outcome of an intersubjective relationship between three terms; in the first scene, the three participants are the King, the Queen, and the Minister; in the second, the three participants are the police, the Minister and Dupin. In much the same way as Dupin takes the place of the Minister in the first scene (the place of the letter's robber), the Minister in the second scene takes the place of the Queen in the first (the dispossessed possessor of the letter); whereas the police, for whom the letter remains invisible, take the place formerly occupied by the King. The two scenes thus mirror each other, in that they dramatize the repeated exchange of "three glances, borne by three subjects, incarnated each time by different characters". What is repeated, in other words, is not a psychological act committed as a function of the individual psychological act committed as a function of the individual psychology of the character, but three functional positions in a structure that, determining three different viewpoints, embody three different relations to the act of seeing—of seeing, specifically, the purloined letter.
Lacan's analysis can be schematized in the accompanying figures  
Not seeing


Seeing that the other
does not see


the letter

Blindness of the law


Looking at the others look
looking atoneself in
the others eyes

Locus of subsitution

REALists imbecility
Empirical glance

IMAGINARY delusion
Specular glance

Dual perspective

SYMBOLIC perspective

triangular perspective
"What interests us today," insists Lacan, is the manner in which the subjects relay on each other in their displacement during the intersubjective repetition. We shall see that their displacement is determined by the place which a pure signifier—the purloined letter—comes to occupy in their trio. And that is what will confirm for us its status as repetition automatism.  
The purloined letter, in other words, becomes itself—through its insistence in the structure—a symbol or a signifier of the unconscious, to the extent that it "is destined … to signify the annulment of what it signifies" (63) —the necessity of its own repression, of the repression of its message: "It is not only the meaning but the text of the message which would be dangerous to place in circulation." (56). But in much the same way as the repressed returns in the symptom, which is its repetitive symbolic substitute, the purloined letter ceaselessly returns in the tale—as a signifier of the repressed—through its repetitive displacements and replacements.
"This is indeed what happens in the repetition compulsion", says Lacan (60). Unconscious desire, once repressed, survives in displaced symbolic media that govern the subject's life and actions without his ever being aware of their meaning or of the repetitive pattern they structure.
In what sense, then, does the second scene in Poe's tale, while repeating the first scene, nonetheless differ from it? In the sense, precisely, that the second scene, through the repetition, allows for an understanding, for an analysis of the first. This analysis through repetition is to become, in Lacan’s ingenious reading, no less than an allegory of psychoanalysis. The intervention of the Dupin, who restores the letter to the Queen, is thus compared, in Lacan's interpretation, to the intervention of the analyst, who rids the patient of the symptom. The analyst's effectiveness, however, does not spring from his intellectual strength but—insists Lacan—from his position in the (repetitive) structure. By virtue of occupying the third position—that is the locus of the unconscious of the subject as a place of substitution of letter for letter (of signifier for signifier)—the analyst, through transference, allows at once for a repetition of the trauma, and for a symbolic substitution, and thus effects the drama's denouement.