(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)





To the Lighthouse:
the Jarring Rebus of Subjectivity


Josiane Paccaud-Huguet (Université Lumière-Lyon 2)



"'Subject and object and the nature of reality'. . . Think of a kitchen table. . . when you're not there" (TL 29): thus Andrew Ramsay defines the object of his father's quest—a doomed venture that leaves the unfortunate philosopher's battering ram floundering on the flickering shutter of the letter R. When it comes to the rebus of things, the writer, however, won’t try to have/ram his say. Instead, he will sing what Francis Ponge calls Le Parti pris des choses: a certain obstinacy, a set purpose which they seem to have of holding themselves separately. In many ways, To the Lighthouse reads like a prose poem that gives things, the semblance we live by, a unique resonance against the thing itself, the central void around which signifiers revolve like buzzing honey bees, to use one of Woolf's familiar images.

Thinking the Thing out

 It is by now commonplace to say that one of the chief concerns of modern fiction has been to reach for the substance beyond the wall of semblance which it however needed as a ledge on which to rest, in order to peer into the abyss. Woolf created one character for figuring this subject position, Rhoda in The Waves:

'Like' and 'like' and 'like'—but what is the thing that lies beyond the semblance of the thing? Now that lightning has gashed the tree and the flowering branch has fallen and Percival, by his death, has made me this gift, let me see the thing. There is a square; there is an oblong. . . . The structure is now visible; what is inchoate is here stated. (W 128)

The inchoate enclosed by geometrical lines, is precisely what tempts Rhoda's desire to make the headlong plunge, to venture into the blind spot





which makes no sign, into the realm of the thing beyond things.[1] Before doing the same in 1941, Woolf wrote novels that invite us on the shore-line, to explore the modalities of the "standing there" of things: the ways in which they con-sist, re-sist, per-sist, in-sist in the face of the ex-sistence of the thing itself.

Things consist: what etymologically differentiates things from objects is the capacity of holding themselves together, like Heidegger's famous jar, an artefact which is the meeting point of earth and sky, of the mortal with the divine. The jar is a thing in the sense of the old Danish word, first used to designate a human gathering - usually caused by some disruptive event like war.[2] Similarly Mrs Ramsay's shawl, woven round the boar's skull in the nursery, performs the function of a thing as a consistent textual surface masking the horrid skull beneath, so that the children's imagination can transform it into a bird's nest, a mountain, a garden (123). Likewise a book, a table, a house will con-sist and compose the phenomenological world of “innumerable things” which attracts Cam’s desire at the end of her journey to the lighthouse.

Things re-sist in the sense of a surface erected against the nameless and the shapeless: it is this resisting force that is defeated in "Time Passes," where "nothing said no to the thistle and the swallow, the rat and the straw" (151) in the decaying house, where the airs meet nothing to stop them but flapping hangings, creaking wood, tarnished mirrors, "as if the link that usually bound things together had been cut" (160)the sym-bolic bond snapped by Mrs Ramsay's death.

Things per-sist: they remain the same for a certain time whether we are here or notwith a bonus of endurance for the natural world which Mr Ramsay finds most outraging: "The very stone one kicks with one's foot will outlast Shakespeare" (42). The insensible fertility of nature, the fields "wide-eyed and watchful and entirely careless of what was done or thought by the beholders" (144): all betray that state of unrelated being there, closest to the Freudian sense of homeostasis.

Things in-sist in the enigmatic rebus of human subjectivity. Just as in the game of that name, an image or a letter will call up a sound pattern, then a word, then a sentence awaiting reconstruction, similarly things will speak the ciphered truth of buried affects: the refrigerator "fringed with joy" when James hears his mother's "yes," is forever inscribed in a private


[1]. "It makes no sign, it does not beckon, it does not see us. . . . It is beyond reach and yet there I venture. There I go to replenish my emptiness" (W 129).

[2]. "Se tenir en soi caractérise la cruche comme quelque chose d'autonome."(Heidegger 204) Like the Danish word, the latin causa which came to replace res in the twelfth century, originally meant "a public meeting or assembly".





hoard of signifiers, a semiotic code made up of "the wheelbarrow, the lawn-mower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling" (9).[1] The fragments of the rebus compose the metonymic ruins of some lost plenitude, like the boots, shoes, garments that litter the house in "Time Passes":

Those alone kept the human shape and in the emptiness indicated how once they were filled and animated; how once hands were busy with hooks and buttons; how once the looking-glass had held a face; had held a world hollowed out in which a figure turned, a hand flashed, a door opened.(141)

Forlorn things, from which the thing itself is missing.

The thing ex-sists: how is the jar, Heidegger asks, made to contain? By the potter's art of enclosing vacancy that can be replenished, quantified, used for offerings and sacrifices, in other words culturalised. Like the architect, the potter shapes an inner and an outer vacancy which literally outline themselves from the rim of the jar/the wall.[2] In his own reading of Heidegger, Lacan insists that in this sense the void is the very cause of human desire: it is out of no-thing that the forms we give shape tosignifiersare possible; more than this, without them we would have no idea that the thing itself lies "out there." The Thing, then, can be defined as that which is expelled by the very interference of form: it is to the semblance of things what the shapeless real is to the illusory realities we construct. The same structural condition of course applies to verbal signifiers which constitutively miss the thing itselfwords "fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low," Lily Briscoe complains (192). Like the jar they have one face for representationthe painting of the outer surfaceand one face that sounds against the central vacancy.

If we look at the plastic form of To the Lighthouse, two features stand out: its shape as a triptych, in which the brimful world of "The Window" and the painful symbolic articulation of "The Lighthouse" achieve significance only in relation to the central section where the protective shell of the


[1]. As Jacques Lacan notes, "Le commerce au long cours de la vérité ne passe plus par la pensée: chose étrange, il semble désormais que ce soit par les choses: rébus, c'est par vous que je communique, comme Freud le montre à la fin du premier paragraphe du sixième chapitre, consacré au travail du rêve. . . " (Ecrits 410).

[2]. "Nous percevons la qualité de 'contenant' du vase lorsque nous remplissons la cruche. . . . Le vide est dans le récipient ce qui contient. Le vide, ce qui dans la cruche n'est rien, voilà ce qu'est la cruche en tant qu'elle est un vase, un contenant" (199). The potter's work consists in shaping things out of the void: "C'est pour le vide, c'est en lui et à partir de lui qu'il façonne l'argile pour en faire une chose qui a forme. . . . Il le produit comme un contenant. . . . Ce qui fait du vase une chose ne réside aucunement dans la matière qui le constitue, mais dans le vide qui contient" (200).





house cracks up both from within (the mother's death) and without (the outburst of war). The jar once filled with blissful substance has broken under the weight of the shapeless real, and it remains for Lily to achieve the symbolic process of trying to hold the fragments togetheraccording to the very etymology of sym-bolum. The second feature is the linguistic criss-crossing of perspective that constructs Mrs Ramsay as both a projection/protection screen, an alibi for everybody's desires, and a hollow structure profoundly alien to what people want from her: a "dome-shaped hive" in Lily's eyes (59).

Some passages of internal focalisation take us within the hive, the place of interior exclusion that can be shared "neither with her children nor with her husband" (67), when Mrs Ramsay experiences the delightful vacuity of the jar when one is "oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others" (70). There she is, losing personality, leaning towards inanimate things to the point of feeling that "they became one" (71). Mrs Ramsay, then, is the poetic figure, the empty structure that allows Woolf to shape out those moments of "extimity" beyond the wall of semblance, aiming at stasis which is deaththe outlawed jouissance of the Thing (Lacan, Séminaire VII 122).

She is also the fusional force that may shape one moment into a perfect thing that globes itself outone of Woolf's favourite tropes for interior exclusionunder the effect of love

whose gift it was to choose out the elements of things and place them together, and so, giving them a wholeness not theirs in life, make of some scene or meeting of people ... one of those globed compacted things over which thought lingers. . . . (217)

There are two scenes of this kind in To the Lighthouse: the fusional orality of the dinner that weaves a coherent, silent, shining, immovable pattern around "the still space that lies about at the heart of things" (114). And a less conspicuous but equally significant scene when Lily and Charles play on the beach while Mrs Ramsay writes letters. Unlike Mr Ramsay, however, Lily won't say a word: she will ram something else, a little hole which she then covers with sand "by way of burying it in the perfection of the moment" (186): a thing given her that it will take years to unfold at the moment of giving the final touch to her picture: "It was like a drop of silver in which one dipped and illumined the darkness of the past" (186). One drop among the million drops that make up the substance





of the jar, of the bowl which Woolf meant to shape a later novel into, The Waves.[1]

Meanwhile it is for the jouissance of the thing, for the plenitude of the substance within the woman who touches her, that Lily longs:

What device for becoming, like waters poured into one jar, inextricably the same, one with the object one adored? ... For it was not knowledge but unity that she desired, not inscriptions on tablets, nothing that could be written in any language known to men, but intimacy itself, which is knowledge.

Nothing happened. Nothing! Nothing! (58, my emphasis)

No-thing, is literally what happens at the moment of Aristotelian tuché when human desire encounters its cause which is fusion with the lost bodya tragic outcome enacted by Rhoda's leap into the waste of waters. For those able to stand on the shore and wait, the truth may however speak again through some metonymic remains, like the "film of mother-of-pearl" shed by the waves for Lily's delight (27): a remains lingering in the signifier, while the thing itself has been abandoned to the abyss.

As for ordinary mortals, they must give up the primordial maternal Thing and be content with fragments, with partial objects only remotely related to "the clear words of truth" (140), split mirrors that are however necessary for keeping the Thing at bay.

 Object Relations

 Etymologically, an object (ob-jectum, something thrown in the way) always involves some sort of relation, whose structure has been analysed by Freud, then Lacan, in the Fort-Da game.[2] Another game, this time an activity which binds the subject to the maternal Other, in terms of want (for the missing mother), demand that necessarily falls into the nets of the signifying chain, and desire which is set into motion by the very inadequacy of the signifier to the desired thing.[3]


[1]. "I want to avoid chapters, that indeed is my achievement, if any here: a saturated, unchopped, completeness, changes of scene, of mood, of person, done without the spilling of a drop" (Diary III: 343).

[2]. See Lacan, Séminaire XI: 60: "Cette bobine, ce n'est pas la mère réduite à une petite boule par je ne sais quel jeu digne des Jivaros—c'est un petit quelque-chose du sujet qui se détache tout en étant encore bien à lui, encore retenu. C'est le lieu de dire, à l'imitation d'Aristote, que l'homme pense avec son objet. C'est avec son objet que l'enfant saute les frontières de son domaine transformé en puits et qu'il commence l'incantation. . . . A cet objet, nous donnerons ultérieurement son nom d'algèbre lacanien—le petit a."

[3]. This structure is enacted in a scene where Lily diverts Mr Ramsay's insatiable need for comfort after his motherly wife's sudden death, by praising his "colossal" boots—classic fetish objects: something to talk about with relish, ob-literating the thing he really wants, bringing "that sudden recovery of vitality and interest in ordinary human things. . ." (170).





In the early days of no-want, of imaginary plenitude, of "motherandchild in the window" in the first part of the novel, Mrs Ramsay is focalised by the converging beams of those looking at her as a "tower of strength, formidable to behold" (12), the phallic mother.[1] What is worthy of note is that at this stage the text builds her into a figure of the Other's desire, in two ways: desire from the Other, the one whose benevolent eye/I creates "drawing-room and kitchen, setting them all aglow" (89); and desire for the Other on the part of those gravitating around her. What matters is that in both directions, desire for/from the primordial object is mediated by bodily functions, according to the four modes of object relations identified by psychoanalysisoral (the breast), scopic (the gaze), anal (the excrement) and aural (the voice)involving partial objects whose characteristic is that they retain a little something of the subject from which they detach themselves.[2] 

There are numerous examples of such object relations in "The Window".[3] The scopic dominant governs relations in the trio Charles Tansley/Lily Briscoe/William Bankes: Charles indulges in a fantasy of seeing himself walking "gowned and hooded in a procession" on graduation day, under Mrs Ramsay's admiring eyes (17); Lily looks along William's beam, adding her own ray toward the beloved vision in the window (56). The oral dominant unites Carmichaela "creature gorged with existence" (192, my emphasis)and Mrs Ramsay as they both feast their eyes on the dish of fruit (105); while the bœuf en daube fills William Bankes with recognition for her/from her. The voice (the object of secondary orality) plays an important part in the network of relations woven around Mrs Ramsay: it is through her mother's voice that Cam passes from the stage of a nondescript thing, to that of a signifier in the Other's discourse:


[1]. The mere sight of the all-powerful mother has a literally disarming effect on male members: as she walks past a man whose arm has been cut off by a reaping machine, another man digging in a drain lets his arm fall at the sight of her beauty (120).

[2]. "For each individual, a particular part object (related to breast, excrement, the gaze or the voice) will be localised in those objects petit a to which one's desires will be attached. But regardless of what that object is or to what bodily function (oral, anal, visual, aural) it relates, the feeling desired through possession of any object will be rooted in the primal, maternal jouissance, that feeling that refers to the ecstatic sense of unity which preceded an infant's knowledge of separation from the mother" (Mellard, 153).

[3]. Psychoanalysis differentiates the thing in the real from the function of the object in the imaginary. For Lacan, "l'objet spécifie les directions, les points d'attrait de l'homme dans son ouvert, dans son monde, pour autant que l'intéresse l'objet en tant qu'il est plus ou moins son image, plus ou moins son reflet" (Lacan, Séminaire VII: 133).





She was off like a bird, bullet, or arrow, impelled by what desire, who could say?. . . But when Mrs Ramsay called 'Cam!' a second time, the projectile dropped in mid-career, and Cam came lagging back, pulling a leaf by the way, to her mother. (61-62)

Last but not least, a bout of story-telling unites the guests into a concert of voices "in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral" (113) at the end of the dinner scene.    

Stories also belong to the paradigm of vocal objects, of the pretty fictions set up as screens against the spectral: in another significant scene where Rose plays among her mother's jewels (anal substitutes) and chooses a necklace for her mother, Mrs Ramsay delights in telling the story of the rooks trying to choose which tree to settle on:

"Look!" she said laughing. They were actually fighting. Joseph and Mary were fighting. Anyhow they all went up again and the air was shoved aside by their black wings and cut into exquisite scimitar shapes. (88)

The rooks 'culturalised' into Joseph and Mary (the Christian denegative answer to the enigma of femininity), Mrs Ramsay's stories, Rose scrabbling among the jewel-box to decorate her mother's body: these are variants illustrating in the imaginary the 'willing suspension of disbelief' (S.T. Coleridge) that creates a smokescreen of "exquisite shapes" against the shapeless and the nameless.

"The window," then, is structured by the world of infantile fantasy[1] whose satisfaction is rooted in the primordial jouissance in either of the four modes of object relations: what matters is that these partial objects provide the general structure of adult human relations. Anything that will satisfy the drive to see, to hear, to possess, to absorb, will become a point of interest and fixation whose function is to stop the gap of absence, thus responding temporarily to the demands of the ego. William Bankes' work, Charles Tansley's dissertation, the kitchen table on which Mr Ramsay keeps his eyes fixed (169), his absorption in works of literature, come as those devices thrown on the path toward the thing itself, ob-jects that stop the gap in the real.[2] Or, in another register, Minta will take lovers to stop


[1]. Fantasy has always governed the works of human imagination, but Lacan was the first theoretician who formalised it, foregrounding the notion of the lack of object: the structure of fantasy (written as $ <> a) relates a barred subject to an "objet a" which is a substitute for that which we fundamentally lack because we speak. As Anthony Wilden notes, Lacan's novelty with respect to traditional philosophical discourse, is that it defines object relations in terms of lack: "the most essential part of the object relation has been ignored: the notion of the lack of object" (Wilden 186).

[2]. During the journey to the lighthouse Mr Ramsay's absorption betrays the function of his beloved books as stopgap objects: "But he was absorbed in it, so that when he looked up, as he did now for an instant, it was not to see anything, it was to pin down some thought more exactly" (205, my emphasis).





the hole in her body correlative to the loss of her grandmother’s brooch: that Paul Rayley's stick should be planted on the very spot of the loss, that Lily should recoil at him feeding "on the treasure of the house, greedingly, disgustingly" (190), is significant of the inadequacy of sexual relations to stop that gap.

The function of "stop-gap objects" is to provide a deceptive sense of order and symmetry, to cover the "awkward space" that spoils human life as well as Lily's picture. The text establishes a tell-tale relation between Charles' work, and what the budding artist plans to do about her picture:

He had his work. . . . She remembered, all of a sudden as if she had found a treasure, that she too had her work. In a flash she saw her picture, and thought, Yes, I shall put the tree further in the middle; then I shall avoid the awkward space. . . .
What damned rot they all talk, thought Charles Tansley, laying down his spoon precisely in the middle of his plate.

She took up the salt-cellar and put it down again on a flower in the pattern in the table-cloth, so as to remind herself to move the tree. (93)

One's work, then, is like the things placed in the middle (the tree, the spoon) whose function is to ob-struct the central void, the Thing missing from the picture. I would suggest at this point that the salt-cellar works as a microcosmic figure of the thing/object central to this particular novel, which I have so far overlooked: the Lighthouse.

A thing or an object? A thing that ex-sists and consists out there on the waste of waters, certainly. The beam of light, the unmediated gaze of the thing, alien to human relations, insists in "Time passes": the stroke traces its pattern on the carpet, gliding gently with its "stealthy, loving, aimless caress" (151). It comes from the locus of a jouissance outlawed by Mr Ramsay's no to his son, condensed in the signifier stroke, later to be recovered in fragments by Lily's brush-strokes. A metaphorical substitute for the motherit "was so much her, yet so little her" (72)the beam is the vehicle of unspeakable bliss in another moment of touch/tuché, of fading of the subject: as Mrs Ramsay looks out to meet "this thing, the long steady stroke, . . . her stroke" (70), she ecstatically becomes the thing she looks at. But simultaneously the human dimension of the look is lost"It seemed to her like her eyes meeting her eyes" (71),[1] engulfed by the inhuman gaze of the Thing.


[1]. "Dans notre rapport aux choses, tel qu'il est constitué par la voie de la vision, et ordonné dans les figures de la représentation, quelque chose glisse, passe, se transmet d'étage en étage, pour y être à quelque degré éludé—c'est ça qui s'appelle le regard" (Lacan, Séminaire XI, 70).





The human journey for the rest of the company may be summed up by the object lesson taught the Ramsay children, that "nothing was simply one thing" (200). Cam is made to occupy the Victorian "feminine" position in days when gender positions were still fixed according to biological sex: she leaves to her father the charge of reading the compassthe charge of the cause of her desire—, which enables her to wander at leisure under the surface, or to let her imagination return among the "innumerable things" on the island which is the mother's land (219).

James passes from attraction for the thing itself, the mother, to the realm of the symbol which necessitates a cut between then and now, as desire revolves around its object:

The Lighthouse was then a silvery, misty-looking tower with a yellow eye that opened suddenly and softly in the evening. Now-
James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. (200)

The dimension of time settles for James at the moment when the tower which is no longer a mythical object but which bears traces of human occupation, is barred with black and white. The lines and creases on the rocks, that foreshadow the line Lily draws across her picture, signify the ban placed on the phallic object, the condition for James to be ushered into the realm of secondary identifications"It confirmed some obscure feeling, about his character" (200).

The hoary, distant tower, remotely associated with the phoneme [dz] (the refrigerator "fringed with joy") metaphorically becomes the master signifier in James's life: he will become a judge (where the same phoneme is heard twice), devote his energy to fighting all forms of injustice, rather than the old man reading next to him on the boat.[1] The primordial hatred for the father has been sublimated, diverted from its primary aimalthough James knows that "she alone spoke the truth" (202). The lighthouse becomes the empty signifier enclosing the vacancy of the jar[2] 


[1]. "It was not him, that old man reading, whom he wanted to kill, but it was the thing that descended on him—without his knowing it perhaps: that fierce sudden black-winged harpy, with its talons and its beak all cold and hard, that struck and struck at you. . ." (198).

[2]. See Jean-Pierre Winter: "Les sublimations sont là parce qu'il y a la Chose, parce que le système signifiant gravite autour de la Chose." Quoting Lacan, he adds that "C'est dans ce lieu que les sublimations sont projetées. C'est parce que la Chose, Das Ding, est dans ce lieu, où est mis en cause tout ce qui peut être" (289).





that sets human desire on its metonymic course toward the ordinary objects of human action: a figure of the Lacanian phallusthe mark of lackwhich determines the modalities of the common human journey after the fading of the primordial object.[1]

Another question remains: why should Lily not go to the Lighthouse? What is it that takes place in her particular mode of sublimation, the artistic, whereby according to the famous Lacanian formula the object is "raised to the dignity of the thing"?

"Love that never attempts to clutch its object"

 Lacan's first example of the object raised to the dignity of the thing comes from the tradition of courtly love, a discursive organisation that places the love object, the lady, in the position of the inaccessible Thing"un objet affolant . . . un partenaire inhumain" (Lacan, Séminaire VII 180) whose inaccessibility functions as a bar placed on the destructive logic of desire. To the Lighthouse devotes much more narrative space and time to the constitution of this signifying artefact, than to, say, Paul and Minta's love affair. Even though Lily plays at wanting her share in the "disaster" inherent in the logic of desire, she also recoils at seeing Minta in the "fangs of love" (108)which to Lily is actually not what most women want at bottom.[2] There may be another kind of love, "distilled and filtered," therefore chemically sublimated: as she looks at William Bankes looking at Mrs Ramsay, she sees that

it was love. . . distilled and filtered; love that never attempted to clutch its object; but, like the love which mathematicians bear their symbols, or poets their phrases, was meant to be spread over the world and become part of the human gain. (54-55)

It is in this sense that I would read the love story in To the Lighthouse. What is it that happens when an ordinary object takes the proportions of the thing itself? Lacan tells how, during a visit paid to Jacques Prévert in the South of France, he was struck by a series of matchboxes whose


[1]. As Sophie Marret observes, "le roman vise à ériger un signifiant vide à la place de l'objet cause du désir, trop présent" (220).

[2]. "If you asked nine people out of ten they would say they wanted nothing but this; while the women, judging from her own experiences, would all the time be feeling, 'This is not what we want'; there is nothing more tedious, puerile and inhumane than love; yet it is also beautiful and necessary" (111).





artistic arrangement foregrounded the thingness of the matchbox.[1] Prévert had placed the exactly identical boxes in a line, each box being slightly more open that the previous one, thus gradually revealing the empty space enclosed.[2] Similarly, Lacan notes, Heidegger's jar assumes a signifying function because its form introduces a void and the possibility of filling that void—therefore a differential relation.[3] Like the matchbox it manifests the interior extimity of the thing, inaccessible because cut off from/by representation, by a form that will always be something else than the no-thing it encloses

In other words, it is the recognition of the ex-sistence of the interior extimity of the thing causing human desire, that makes sublimation possible.[4] Lily desires to be at one with the thing "like waters poured into a jar," but it is the central void bracketed by Mr Ramsay's empty arms that becomes the cause of her desire to tackle the problem in her picture:

One wanted. . . to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, it's a miracle, it's an ecstasy. The problem might be solved after all. Ah, but what had happened? Some wave of white went over the window pane. The air must have stirred some flounce in the room. Her heart leapt at her and seized her and tortured her.

'Mrs Ramsay! Mrs Ramsay!' she cried, feeling the old horror come back—to want, to want and not to have. (217)


[1]. "Cette Chose, dont toutes les formes créées par l'homme sont du registre de la sublimation, sera toujours représentée par un vide, précisément en ceci. . . qu'elle ne peut être représentée par autre chose. . . Tout art se caractérise par un certain mode d'organisation autour de ce vide" (Lacan, Séminaire VII, 155).

[2]. "Le choc, la nouveauté de l'effet réalisé par ce rassemblement de boîtes d'allumettes videsce point est essentielétait de faire apparaître ceci, auquel nous nous arrêtons peut-être trop peu, c'est qu'une boîte d'allumettes n'est pas du tout simplement un objet, mais qu'elle peut, sous la forme. . . où elle était proposée dans sa multiplicité vraiment imposante, être une Chose. . . avec sa cohérence d'être,. . . sa choséité de boîte d'allumettes. Le collectionneur trouvait ainsi sa raison dans ce mode d'appréhension portant moins sur la boîte d'allumettes que sur cette Chose qui subsiste dans une boîte d'allumettes. Quoi qu'on fasse, on ne trouve pas ça dans n'importe quel objet" (Lacan, Séminaire VII, 136).

[3]. "Ce rien de particulier qui le caractérise dans sa fonction signifiante est bien dans sa forme incarnée ce qui caractérise le vase comme tel. C'est bien le vide qu'il crée, introduisant par là-même la perspective de le remplir. Le vide et le plein sont par le vase introduits dans un monde qui, de lui-même, ne connaît rien de tel. C'est à partir de ce signifiant façonné qu'est le vase, que le vide et le plein entrent comme tels dans le monde, ni plus ni moins, et avec le même sens" (Lacan, Séminaire VII, 145).

[4]. "La Chose dont il est question là, cernée par les pulsions, et vidée par la jouissance, en tant qu'elle est là, qu'elle est ce vide central, est ce qui va permettre la sublimation" (Winter 281).





The table is "a fleeting miracle", not an object for fixation. And the missing core will have to work its way into the picture.

What, then, is it that happens when the creator elaborates a form, a semblance that simultaneously encloses and bans the Thing itself? How can the waters in the jar become "that jar on the nerves, the thing itself before it had been made anything?" (208)—an emotion in the body simultaneously barred and presentified by some signifier? "If one thought of her beauty," Lily muses, "one must remember the quivering thing, the living thing. . . and work it into the picture" (36) until it becomes "a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses" (185). In other words, how is the forbidden jouissance allowed to produce living traces in the pictorial/literary text—instead of Rhoda's leap into the core. Last but not least, how does Lily's creative journey come to reflect the reader's own?

It first involves a confrontation with what lies beyond the ordinary objects of human worship:

Here she was again. . . stepping back to look at it, drawn out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable enemy of hers—this other thing, this truth, this reality, which suddenly laid hands on her, emerged stark at the back of appearances and commanded her attention. . . It was an exacting form of intercourse, anyhow. Other worshipful objects were content with worship; men, women, God, all let one kneel prostrate; but this form, were it only the shape of a white lamp-shade looming on a wicker-table. . . . (172)

Gliding between and beyond things like Mrs Ramsay in her moments of fading, Lily finds herself "standing up to the lips in some substance" in which she seems "to move and float and sink" (207), taking the risk of the hollow of the wave. She paints in the silent emptiness, to a rhythm dictated to her, at the beck and call of the Other's desire: at this moment, Mrs Ramsay is no longer "the fountain of energy pouring erect a column of spray" (44), the imaginary phallus she used to be in "The Window." Her absence has opened a gap through which the fountain now spurts from within, over the glaring white surface of the canvas. Lily finds herself merging and creating too, "bringing together that and this" (175) until the thing itself appears and vanishes in the void that organises the whole pattern:

Ghost, air, nothingness, a thing you could play with easily and safely at any time of day or night, she had been that, and then suddenly she put her hand out and wrung the heart thus. Suddenly. . . the whole wave and





whisper of the garden became like curves and arabesques flourishing round a centre of complete emptiness. (193)

Painting is no longer the gap-filler it used to be in the days of playing at painting: it is now a mediating process between the Other and the subject, a gap-opener, a criss-crossing of forms gravitating around the missing core. Like Mrs Ramsay's stocking, the reddish-brown hairy mixture "with its criss-cross of steel needles at the mouth of it" (33), it performs the symbolic gesture of enclosing vacancy. A gesture that requires distance and "relations between the masses," instead of fusional in-difference—"so much depends upon distance" (206).

Thus the picture on the canvas has been transformed into a resting surface for the eye that both conceals and reveals the radical absence that appeals to human desire.[1] Lily now sees in it no more than "an attempt at something" (224): a form that is/isn't the thing itself, whereby the Other is both barred and glimpsed at the core of the object, itself raised to the dignity of the thing: Lily has had her vision, she can draw a line "there, in the centre," where she wanted a tree in order not to break the unity of the whole (224).[2]

Why does Lily not care about what happens to her picture? Because it is the process of painting, rather than the subsitute object, that matters here. One may wonder, however, if this is enough for the object to be raised to the dignity of the thing: what is the difference between "an attempt at something," and the art object, the mark left by that attempt, valued through human generations? Is the black erasure on the canvas/page enough for the object to persist as a work of art? Evidently, no: something is required, that not only reveals the ghost of the thing, but that also transforms it into a figure that remains, a spectrum, a shining resonance from the dome-shaped hive. Nothing happened when Lily wanted intimacy in the jar, but this:

For days there hung about her as, after a dream some subtle change is felt in the person one has dreamt of, more vividly than anything she said, the sound of murmuring and, as she sat in the wicker arm-chair in the drawing-room she wore, to Lily's eyes, an august shape; the shape of a dome. (59)


[1]. "Ce que nous cherchons dans l'illusion est quelque chose où l'illusion elle-même se transcende en quelque sorte, se détruit, en montrant qu'elle n'est là qu'en tant que signifiante" (Lacan, Séminaire VII, 163).

[2]. As Sophie Marret notes, "le trait vient à la place du vide de l'objet manquant. . . l'art tend à la fois à récupérer l'objet et à en faire le deuil, à le récupérer comme manquant" (225).





The reader of To the Lighthouse can overhear resonances from the buzzing dome in one of Mrs Ramsay's moments of sinking, when words without discursive moorings shape themselves into uncanny, alluring patterns:

And she waited a little, and slowly those words they had said at dinner, "the China rose is all abloom and buzzing with the honey bee," began washing from side to side of her mind rhythmically, and as they washed, words, like little shade lights, one red, one blue, one yellow, lit up in the dark of her mind, and seemed leaving their perches up there to fly across and across, or to cry out and to be echoed. (127)

Unlike a matchbox or a jar, but rather like a Chinese bronze, words have the capacity of sounding in silence, of producing a little something more than plain meaning—all for the reader's enjoyment.

The literary object, the letter, may also sound against the central core since it is of the nature of the signifier to have one face for semblance, and one looking towards the pure "substance jouissante" in which the writer’s pen dips.[1] It is in this sense that a writer's singular style bears the imprint of the intimate intercourse with the thing itself. As Francis Ponge reminds his readers, the gift of poets consists in erecting monuments with the secretion of the mollusk-tongue[2] which is both speech and body: but how can the fleeting miracle happen in fictional prose, how can the jar on the nerves be transposed into a living thing?

My tentative answer would be, whenever the word is made to jar in the composition of the whole, whenever it resists the general order of semblance, thus producing a symptom in the literal sense of something always falling in the same place. Lily's sense of things repeating themselves and thus giving out vibrations, comes as a definition of the symptom that would perhaps have made Lacan himself pale with envy, "one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations" (214). But it would be misleading to believe that the parti pris of words may voice itself without a


[1]. See J.A. Miller, "Une lettre est un message; c'est aussi un objet. . . le destin de la lettre se disjoint de la fonction du signifiant; le destinataire de l'une n'est pas celui de l'autre. Qu'est-ce donc que nous appelons une lettre comme telle? Un signe, mais que définit non son effet de signifié, mais sa nature d'objet. . . . Ce que le signe écrit emporte d'une jouissance toujours prélevée sur l'envoyeur" (10).

[2]. In "Notes pour un coquillage," Ponge praises Bach, Rameau, Malherbe, Horace, Mallarmé, for their gift for the only true secretion of man, speech: ". . . leur monument est fait de la véritable sécrétion commune du mollusque homme, de la chose la plus proportionnée et la plus conditionnée à son corps, et cependant la plus différente de sa forme que l'on puisse concevoir: je veux dire la parole" (77).





face for semblance: the void can sing only if a bronze surface is struck, and the composition of poetic prose certainly does not consist in reifying the word by withdrawing it from the circuit of the symbolic order.[1] 

My concluding remarks would be that Virginia Woolf worked this insight into The Waves whose original vision came to her as she finished To the Lighthouse which itself reads to a large extent like a jarring rebus allowing the remote truth to speak through things. It is in The Waves that Woolf attempts to do the same with words, that she comes nearer to the "little language" that jars in the flow of the well-made sentence: the drop and the ring become her two master tropes in a text that attempts to forge in words some perfect experience, the thing itself.

 Works cited:

 Heidegger, Martin. Essais et Conférences. Paris: Gallimard, 1958.

Lacan, Jacques. Ecrits. Paris: Seuil, 1966.

———. Séminaire XI. Les Quatre Concepts Fondamentaux de la Psychanalyse. Paris: Seuil, Le Champ Freudien, 1973.

———. Séminaire VII. L'Ethique de la Psychanalyse. Paris: Seuil, Le Champ Freudien, 1986 (in particular the chapter "L'objet et la chose", pp. 121-137).

Marret, Sophie. "Deuil et vision dans To the Lighthouse", QWERTY 5, Presses Universitaires de Pau (1995) 215-227.

Mellard, James. Using Lacan, Reading Fiction. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Miller, Jacques-Alain. Préface de Joyce avec Lacan. Ed. Jacques Aubert. Paris: Navarin, 1987.

Ponge, Francis. Le Parti Pris des Choses. Paris: Gallimard, 1942.

Rancière, Jacques. "Sartre, Rimbaud et quelques autres". Barca! Poésie et Politique 11 (1998) 7-16.

Rivoire, Michèle. "The Waves: le spectre de la Chose", Les Cahiers Forell n°5, "Autour de Virginia Woolf". Université de Poitiers (Janvier 1996) 113-125.

Wilden, Anthony. Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis. Jacques Lacan. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1968.

Winter, Jean-Pierre. Les Errants de la Chair. Etudes sur l'hystérie. Paris: Calmann Lévy, 1999.


[1]. See Jacques Rancière: "Parler est interpréter et donner à interpréter. La séparation de la transitivité littéraire et de l'intransitivité poétique relève d'une linguistique imaginaire. Il n'y a pas des mots-signes et des mots choses. Il y a l'immense poème latent des choses, des formes, des pensées éparses, qui appelle les poèmes nouveaux du savoir" (16).





Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. Hammersmith: Flamingo, 1997.

———. The Waves. London: Flamingo, 1995.

———. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. A.O. Bell. Vol.3. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982.





(réf. Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines hors série. Montpellier : Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1999)