Lacan wrote the following sonnet after reading Alexandre Koyré’s book on Jakob Böhme, La Philosophie de Jakob Böhme (1929). The sonnet was originally written in 1929 under the title ‘Panta Rhei’ and was modified for publication in Le Phare de Neuilly (1933) as ‘Hiatus Irrationalis’ (Latin: “the gap of the irrational”). “Panta rhei” is a phrase from Heraclitus that means “everything flows”; Heraclitus was a major influence on the mystic philosophy of Böhme.
Rather that four quatrains of the typical English sonnet, it is composed of two quatrains and then a sestet (here Lacan has split this into two tercets), which is more common in French poetry and belongs properly to the Petrarchan mode. The other elements that makes it a quintessentially French sonnet are the rhyming couplets that begin the two tercets (gorge/forge & soulève/sève). Although naturally inspired by Surrealist activity at the time, the closest poet formally to this is probably Paul Éluard, a good friend of Lacan’s. The translation here is mine. I know it reads clunkily, I have only tried to provide as literal a concordance as possible.
I had great trouble translating ‘demon pensant’ (literally: ‘thinking demon’). I thought something like ‘pensive demon’ or ‘thinking demon’ would be even more unwieldy than the formulation I arrived at… I think he meant both the Greek notion of a daemon and also the demon figure who pops up frequently in Mallarmé’s poems (demon of metaphor, demon of analogy etc.). I have therefore followed translations of the Mallarmé. In Freud’s attempt to interpret the case of Christoph Haitzman, the figure of the demon personifies “the repressed unconscious instinctual life”.
The demon here is probably language itself, which Lacan saw as a parasite. I’m thinking specifically of an important passage from the seminars on Joyce, Le sinthome, delivered at much later point in his career:
La question est plutôt de savoir pourquoi est-ce qu’un homme normal, dit normal, ne s’aperçoit pas que la parole est un parasite ; que la parole est un placage ; que la parole est la forme de cancer dont l’être humain est affligé.
The question is rather of knowing why it is that a normal person, at least described as normal, does not perceive that language is a parasite ; that language is a veneer ; that language is a form of cancer by which the human being is afflicted.
In the poem, it is only when all words have perished in his throat that he is able to lose himself in the elemental flux, in harmony with the world at last. Pedestrian commentators assume that language is a benevolent force in Lacan, linking it to the useless idea of a ‘talking cure’ and crude interpretations of the much bandied-around statement “the unconscious is structured as a language”. Note Lacan chose to use the word ‘as’, ‘like’, (‘comme’), rather than ‘by’. For certain neurotics and hysterics the goal might on the contrary be to be cured of talking. As Avital Ronnel writes in The Telephone Book, “If we could communicate, we wouldn’t need to communicate”. Lacan’s work labours on the basis that communication is from the start a failure and that is why we must keep on engaging in it.
According to Paul Verhaeghe,
he starts from the assumption that communication is always a failure: moreover, that it has to be a failure, and that’s the reason why we keep on talking. If we understood each other, we would all remain silent. Luckily enough, we don’t understand each other, so we have to speak to one another. — Paul Verhaeghe, From Impossibilty to Inability: Lacan’s Theory on the Four Discourses
I particularly like the swapping around of clauses coming after “Things…” and “Forms…” in the first stanza and the final one, which brings to mind the sort of recursive, quasi-cybernetic diagram favoured by Böhme. These similarities between mystic thought and the feedback-loop will be explored at a later date on this blog.
In the mysticism of Jakob Böhme, masterfully modernised by Koyré, Lacan appears to have found a model for desire as an elemental force in human relations. Rabaté notes the similarity between the lines “it is the fire” and “It is the fire that rises again with its damned soul” from Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell. Two major images of thought from Heraclitus’ philosophy here: the fire and the stream.
Gap of the Irrational
Things, the sweat or the sap that flows in you,
Forms, born to you from the forge or from blood,
Your stream is no denser than my dream;
And, if I don’t strike you down from an unceasing desire,
I cross your water, I fall towards the shore
Where the weight of my daemon-of-thought attracts me,
Alone he collides with the solid ground on which the being raises itself,
To the blind and deaf evil, to the god deprived of sense.
But as soon as all words have perished in my throat,
Things, whether born of blood or forge,
Nature—I lose myself in elemental flux:
He who smoulders in me also lifts you up,
Forms, the sweat or the sap that flows in you,
It is the fire which makes me your immortal lover.
Choses, que coule en vous la sueur ou la sève,
Formes, que vous naissiez de la forge ou du sang,
Votre torrent n’est pas plus dense que mon rêve;
Et si je ne vous bats d’un désir incessant,
Je traverse votre eau, je tombre vers la grève
Où m’attire le poids de mon demon pensant.
Seul, il heurte au sol dur sur quoi l’être s’élève,
Au mal aveugle et sourd, au dieu privé de sens,
Mais, sitôt que tout verbe a péri dans ma gorge,
Choses, que vous naissiez du sang ou de la forge,
Nature,—je me perds au flux d’un élément:
Celui qui couve en moi, le même vous soulève,
Formes, que coule en vous la sueur ou la sève,
C’est le feu qui me fait votre immortel amant.