|Postscripts for Letters to Salonika
by Méira Cook
The narrator of Letters to Salonika selfconsciously constructs himself as lover, in the process emerging as writer, the one who inscribes within himself as discursive site, the body of the absent, silent, other. And since the letters are no longer private devotions, but in the context of the book, public declarations, he implicates the reader in this transaction, inserting him/her as third term in a lovers discourse structured as triangle.
The readers position in these love letters is one of complicity, she is the other towards whom (as much as the beloved) these let ters are addressed, and as such, the reading act is one of interroga tion As Other. I am constructed variously as confidant and interlocutor, the one both to whom and against whom the lover writes in his writing of the beloved. This paper is an attempt then, to articulate the reader as she is implicated in the writing act and it is for this reason that I have chosen the term postscripts in my title. This paper is presented as an annotation to the letters, as that which is written in response to the lovers discourse. It is also, to use Derridas metaphor of reception in The Post Card (1980), a letter itself addressed to another reader, the reader that is, of this letter.
The reader in Kroetschs Letters to Salonika occupies an ambiguous and intriguing position. She is the one to whom the lover addresses himself but she is also the Other, the third term in a triangular relation, the one in the presence of whom the lovers dis course is enacted. In the selfconscious transformation of these letters from private to public artifacts, we may even ask if it were possible to construct the lover at all except in the scopic field of the observing other, the witness in the presence of whom, love is at once artificial and articulate. She is, in short, the other woman.
Finally, in privileging the writing act in the term postscripts, I refer to the agency of the reader/lover in and of the text. Since, as Barthes maintains, the amorous subject is incapable of writing his own love story, it is the task of the reader as Other to bring to the text the resonance of the absent body.
I would like to acknowledge the enormous influence of Barthes text A Lovers Discourse on this paper. I have used his aleotoric figures and tropes extensively as strategies in my own reading of the rhetorics of desire.
All references to Barthes in this paper are from A Lovers Discourse, referred to as (LD).
* * *
PostScript to the Letter of May 27
If absence is the first premise of desire, then the love letter is the most perfect motive of its expression, because it is the form of writ ing that transforms the beloveds absence into what Barthes has called an ordeal of abandonment (13) through an episode of lan guage. Caught between two locutionsthe lover/writer addresses his beloved, absent to him as object, at the moment when she is most present to him as referent. The relationship between the fugitive other and the desiring self is best expressed by the metaphysical poets with their intricate cartographies of the bodys compass and in Letters to Salonika by the figure of the journeyer, the strange Columbus (139) who, like the Sad Phoenician of love, is simultaneously at sea and becalmed by the treacherous absence of the other.
It is always the other who leaves, so that the condition of desire is one which forces the subject into a series of awkward and necessary truces with place: Because your absence that fills this apart ment fills my mind at this hour (139). The subject who writes this line is curiously feminised in his position as the waiting lover, tak ing his place at the window with Tennysons Marianne and Homers Penelope: A man is not feminised because he is inverted but because he is in love (Barthes 14).
Yet the desiring subject is more nearly androgynous, the lover is infantile, polymorphic, an ungendered, pre-weaned child greedy for oral pleasures: Finding only that my mouth hurts for you. My lips needing your hair, the skin of your back. I bite your absence. I want . . . (139). What the lover wants is indescribablethe lost plenitude of childhood comes closest to representing what it is he has lost and seeks now to recover at the unimaginable source of the imagined body:
In seeking to transform wound into the originary place of desire, the lover would seem to be ascribing a curative quality to the act of writing, as if in writing the absence he is able to heal it. But it is the lover-as-writer who has conferred the wound in the first place, opening it to our inspection by evoking the scarred and bleeding body at the site of writing.
And it is the body of the lover, like that of his beloved, which is marked by the scar, as when, in the letter of June 21 he describes the scar he suffered whilst trying to steam himself (I was home alone that day too, 158). The time around scars, the body marked by datelines, like the letters carefully coded by month and day, is what divides the year into convenient units of waiting.
* * *
Let us look now, with the lover at Lacan for an explanation of the process by which desire like language is predicated on absence.1
What Lacan calls the imaginary register is the dimension of the image and is characterised by the relation of similitude, the concor dance apparent between the object and its image. And if, as is most often the case, the figure projected conforms to the lineaments of the psyche, then the ego must seek its own congruence in the image. Lacans symbolic register is located in the domain of the signifier and is characterised by relationships of conjunction.
The symbolic register pre-exists the subject who is defined through her entry into it and her articulated response to language and the law, the dual axes of symbolisation. The child located in the imaginary phase may best be described by an identification that is at once fusional and perversely dual. The mirror stage is that mythic moment symbolised by the first glance of the subject into the looking glasswhen she apprehends her image separate from herself and witnesses the physical fragmentation into ego and image. Presented with the apparent disintegration of the self, the infant identifies her body as other; anarchic, subversive and rebellious. Lacans mirror stage is brought about through the inter vention of the fathers law which severs the dyadic unity of mother and child. The loss of this imaginary identity with the mother (and through her, with that of the world,) the violent separation from the maternal bounty, can only be experienced as a physical expulsion from the mothers bodyas amputation or as birth.
It is here that language begins, here at the place where the subject articulates its loss, so that language first uttered by the I who has lost, must be defined and structured about an absence, an insatiable desire. Since the speaking subject comes into existence through loss and desire, loss and desire must be the orientation of all language.
The courtly lover as a condition of his waiting (for the tokens of the beloved, a ribbon, a handkerchief, a letter) for the signifier, that is, that announces her presence (like the infant in the absence of the mothers breast) hallucinates his desire. This is the lovers dis course; to proceed along a metonymic circuit of exchange in search of the one thing that can best stand in for the lost object of desire, what Lacan has called lobjet petit a. And what is this object but that which is hallucinated and destroyed again but always in effigyas fetish, as image, as letter?
* * *
PostScript to the letters of May 29 and May 30
Only one letter from you begins the lover in the letter of May 29 (LS 141) but we know that his word one belittled by the modifier only stands in for the integer, the letter x that accommodates the equationthere is no number adequate to stand in the place of the one letter that has arrived, the only one. For what is awaited, as we have discussed, is that plenitude, signalled by Lacan as jubilance, what is awaited is the festival of the others presence.
And it is the banality of the fetish that structures this fête as con tingency and language: The incident is trivial (it is always trivial) but it will attract to it whatever language I possess (Barthes 69). The lover who measures his waiting in baskets of fruit, the reader who riffles the pages of a dozen novels searching for insight, what is he enacting here but the presence in his life of the fetish-substi tute? As strawberry / as clue / as scene of desire: I have neglected for a whole day to remember the clarity of your collarbones (141).
In order to make the missing other speak, in order that is, to make absence signify, the lover creates meaningpoignant and pro foundout of almost nothing; the eggplant in the refrigerator that for all its growing smallness . . . remains powerful reminds the narrator of the colour of her eyes. The contradiction at the heart of that clause expresses the paradox of similitudethe colour of her eyes like that of the eggplantthe absent object evoked by that to which it is compared, the stand-in, the object-at-hand.
The presence of the beloved within the text is inscribed in this way, as fragment, as decoy of the inscrutable desire of the writer who fantasises by way of another, the plenitude of the Other:
The letter dated May 30 provides us with a series of these decoys, invented alibis along which desire circulates metonymi cally. This configuration is similar to that presented by Baudrillard in his concept of the Simulacrum2 where he speaks of the prolif eration of signs that reference nothing but themselves, and that over and over again. In the process of losing the real we have pro duced images of images, substitutes of substitutes, under the regime of a paradigm where the position of language within repre sentation has been erased. In this context, Kroetschs lover is attracted by a precession of simulacra that glide across the surface of the text, each one standing in for the one that precedes it, only to be discarded in favour of the one that follows: the eggplantthe colour of her eyesthe black shoes, fated like the eggplant, to be thrown outthe colour black (I may throw away black itself) Greek widowhooda grandmother slicing olivesthe widow he has become.
The lover signifies his mourninga mourning that has already occurred incidentally, at the beginning of the love affair, since all love is predicated on the premise of lossthrough a procession of fetishes that move over the surface of the text.*
* * *
On receiving five letters from his beloved, the lover kisses her photograph. They do not touch (152). What is the function of the image as fetish, the singular icon that corresponds so painstakingly to the specialty of his desire? Since the photograph as replica corresponds exactly to the image of the beloved, this is the penultimate simu lacra (beyond that is, the presence of the subject), the solution to the equation:
In the letter that follows, the lover gazes at her ass, her legs (always these dismembered body-parts, as if to look at the whole would be to gaze upon the face of Godan oblation) and sees the old woman she will become. If the eye is the organ of sexual signification, the scopic field is the play of surfaces, the text the body upon which the theatre of desire is performed.
In another poem, no less erotic because it is about the lost beloved mother, the poet on his birthday looks at a photograph of his mother when she was seventeen and imagines himself her approaching lover (CFN 210). Desire, it would seem from these let ters, is a performance of the act of seeing, the image / icon / photo by means of which we hallucinate our otherwise unrepresentable desires: Love at first sight is a hypnosis: I am fascinated by an image (Barthes 189).
What accommodates itself exactly to the desire of the lover in these poems is the fetish, constituted, as we have seen, by the absent object in the presence of the gaze. Yet the scene of love is not always visual, Barthes speaks of an aural frame, a linguistic synecdoche:
As mnemonic, the love letter is the episode of language that accompanies the amorous gift, that which like all gifts is offered as sensual exchange: you will be touching what I have touched / you will be reading what I have written.
* * *
In his continuing long poem Completed Field Notes, Robert Kroetsch dedicates the book to that reader I call Ishtar, that undiscoverable and discovered reader towards whom one, always, writes (CFN, 270). Since Ishtar is female, Kroetsch would seem to be taking the same position in his dedication, of the anxious lover writing letters to an erratic and inscrutable other. This inscription of the female in the text, not only as lover, but as reader, is immensely resonant:
The beloveds silence in the wake of his letters corresponds to the readers silence, the uninflected silence that follows any declara tion, any act of writing: If writing isnt read it stays on the page and that is silence. But writing when it is read does not go with silence (Kroetsch in Labyrinths of Voice 164).
What then is the love letter but the unread unrequited letter, the letter for which there is no adequate response but silence? The letter is in this sense, another way of mourning, by invoking absence through a scenography of writing. To speak of love is itself a jouissance, says Lacan,3 and the love letter addresses nothing less than this absence of the absent body. Insofar as writing prolongs desire, all writing is the writing of a love letter, addressed to the self, post marked return to sender.4
Because the love letter is framed as apostrophe, an I-love-you that has no propriety of tense or tone, no appropriate reply and no surcease, that has no exchange value, is offered not simply as gift or theft as debt or demandfor all these reasons, the love letter waits for only one thing: an answer. Without a reply, the love letter repli cates, and since there is no way to deplete a reading, the love letter is infinitely replicable. It is only in the presence of a reply that the love letter forecloses.
* * *
PostScript to the letter of June 16
After the plenitude and exuberance of the previous days entry, five FIVE five letters from you today (152), the lover forces us to confront the narrative of the blank page. Something has been elided, the image of the other (as fetish / as letter) has begun to fade: Like a kind of melancholy mirage, the other withdraws into infinity and I wear myself out trying to get there (Barthes 112).
The letter that we readthe fallen star, the rockis also the let ter we have been prevented from reading. Like the mirror that holds the room in its stare (LS 157) the letter reflects back to us a world made strange by the particularities of loss.
* * *
PostScript to letter of May 28
The narrator of Letters to Salonika like most of Kroetschs protag onists, constructs himself in the telling of his story. And like most of these, does not exist until told as story. Yet it is his own story that he is telling, so that the I is divided from the moment of its utterance; it is both speaking subject and subject of the sentence. The repeti tion of I in the first three sentences of this letter testifies to the sub jects anxiety with regard to his identity as an amorous subject. Constructed in the negative, as not, the barred subject can only represent himself as emptiness, he is no longer himself without her: But my actual dreams, my dreams of each night, are empty. I have learned to dream emptiness (LS 140). Simultaneous with this pre dicament, however, is the realization that not only is the subject not himself, but he is also not the other:5 I am not someone else: that is what I realize with horror (Barthes 121). Who then is the lover?
The lover is the subject who identifies himself most strongly with the one who occupies the same position as himself in the amorous structure: I am the one who has the same place I have (Barthes 129).
When we read these letters it soon becomes apparent that the place of the lover is a parenthetical space. He is the bracketed sub ject, occupying a place that signifies only insofar as it expresses the contingencies of his split position:
The lover is in all things plural. The use of the first person subject as an interrogation of the first person object, the speaking subject in dialogue with the subject of the sentence, is another way of con structing the triangle within which the love relation unfolds. It is not so much a case of the lover saying I am not myself as I am both myself and the other; as lover and poet both, the narrator of the letters enters into a complicity with the reader, where it is the beloved who is virtually de trop, someone to be discussed, a discur sive site: You were unkind, Unnatural. I search for a way to hate myself free of your absence (LS 140). What is being articulated here is nothing less than the ludicrous position of the beloved as conduit for the desire between poet/lover and reader, a four-way tension that, to some extent, displaces the authority of the triangle.6
* * *
PostScript to the letter of May 31
The lover sits alone in a storm, tirelessly rehearsing in a fever of language the effect of a wound: . . . and Im happy and desperate at the same time, and Im happy and Im desperate at the same time, and Im happy. And Im desperate (LS 143). The subject is inserted between the storm and the classical music on the radio, both of which, because they are languageless, further bracket him within the discourse of his annulment.
In this figure, it is not the other that is loved by the subject, but love: It was a beloved structure and I weep for the loss of love, not of him or her (Barthes 31). The beloved is no more than the body constructed as a pretext to a confession of love.
Confession, unlike silence, may be read as a bringing into discourse that which is hidden, through explicit articulation and accu mulated detail. More than a formulation of desire, it is a transformation of desire, what Michel Foucault calls the polymor phous incitement to discourse, a forcing of it, the body, into an inter play of pleasure and sin. Confession is a ritual of discourse in which the subject is compelled to tell in public or private, with the greatest precision, whatever is most difficult to tell. And since if desire is repressed, condemned to prohibition and silence, then to speak of it (about / through / against) the body, is also transgression.
Silence, no less than confession, is one of the many proliferations of discourse that has resulted from our privileging of the clandes tine body. In the things one declines to say or is forbidden to name, silence functions as a discursive marker that continually proposes and breaches its own limits. As such it functions in a restrictive economy of language and speech, subjugating it at the level of lan guage, controlling its free circulation in speech. The enigmatic vari able, the word it, refers here to that which above all else has to be brought into the arena of confession, the body.
The relationship between the twoconfession and silenceis never exclusive, confession is invaded by silence, silence is con structed as a resistance to speech. Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, outlines a genealogy of the body, as it is intersected by a proliferation of discourses invented in the last three centuries to speak about the body, to have it spoken about, to have it speak. Nevertheless, in all this, something still eludes us. In being con strained to lead a discursive existence, in being obliged to be trans lated into words, the body, in the end, eludes us: I am past all fantasy, past even touching my own body. Except only that I rehearse you with my remembering tongue (LS 143). So the body that has disappeared is invoked again at the moment of language. Language then stages the appearance / disappearance / reappear ance of the body as image.
In another letter, the old poet in his cups sits again in the rain and rehearses the body of his beloved:
What follows is a naming of parts, the body dismembered by the gaze, the body painstakingly recalled in the ceremony of the confes sional; hands, mouth, pubic hair. It is at last a body brought to res onance, to sound, the inarticulate acoustic body that like the rain, the storm, the classical music on the radiodoes not speak:
* * *
What we have been speaking of then, is language as a solution to the absent body. The most frequent rhetorical figures in these letters are those of redundancy and aphorism. In the first instance, lan guage gives way to the lassitude of what has already been said, in the second, language is the lure that dupes the narrative into spun usm eaning.
In the letter of June 7, the lover drives home alone late, late singing:
In this lateral movement of similitude, desire is never satisfied except as tautology: I love you because I love you / I desire you because you are desirable. The signifying system employed by the lover is a closed circuit:
Because the image and acoustic of the beloved is contained within the frequent repetition of a limited linguistic system, which the lover can neither satisfactorily articulate nor abandon, the tone is one of exhaustion, what Barthes calls langour:
The lover is compelled to believe the impossible, that one day his love because returned, will no longer be redundant:
In these letters, the errant lover remains hopelessly faithful, wandering not from love to love, but from book to book. The love letters are their own palimpsest, between the lines, a proliferation of texts, a glossary of the other book that is being written at the same time: . . . I cant remember . . . Dorf, just a few minutes ago, was sitting in a taverna in Salonika, lamenting that to love is a great fault (LS 145).* Between the letters, the poet reads books, a fasci nating travel journal, mad poems, translations that strike gaps in the world. Instead of a letter he sends a book to her mother, instead of a letter he sends (via Pound) a poem to his lover:
The other trope we spoke of, that of aphorism, functions simi larly as avoidance of meaning through rhetoric:
No longer framed as tautology, as borrowed meaning, these apho risms are (over)laden with import and originality, they signify vastly in excess of their meaning, they are dedications addressed to the reader, designed as lure: I can fall in love with a sentence spoken to me . . . (Barthes 192). It is in these episodes of language that the writer at last begins to court the true object of his desirenot the beloved, but the reader.
* * *
The lover re-experiences at this point the alienation of the other, the experience earlier alluded to, that the other speaks in another lan guage. This is occasioned quite literally in this narrative when the lover laments the transformation in her letters, English is no longer her first language:*
In speaking of the difference in their two signifying fields, in the metaphor of the maze, the lover invokes again the process by which desire is articulated as desiring a way out of and into entrapment. Language here, the opacity of a discourse that cannot be read, finally divides the lover from his image, precipitating in language what it would not be an exaggeration to call exile.
In losing their common language, the lover loses more than any thing else, the commonality of the amorous languethe substratum of all past and future transactions. Because his lover speaks now in the second person, the lover is compelled to utter without hope of reply, the particularities of his own entrapment: By meaning we mean something that means but, in the process, means its opposite(LS 166).
* * *
The solution to the amorous crisis is to flee. Yet it is the beloved who has left,* the lover who mourns her absent body in the traces of the text, mourns that is, without recourse to flight. In his construction of himself as a literary Columbus, sailing away from the place he belongs, unable to return to the old country because it has ceased to exist in his absence, the lover constructs himself as place: I am here, you are elsewhere. Place then becomes the secret trace of identity, the marker of the elusive body; he is in Winnipeg where the women wear short dresses and the men finger unseen stops, he imagines himself in the July heat of Sifnos where old women fling potfuls of golden rain into gardens, he is bound for a China without narrative, a place he can neither imagine nor recall. Conjugated variously in the past, present and future tense the lover is displaced, unhomed, relocated to that site that Derrida has called supplement.7
* * *
PostScript to the letter of June 17
What Derrida has called the supplement of the text, the surplus at the border, can be neither read nor erased. This excess or over flow, the residue of the text, the jouissance of the writing act, cannot be finally named or represented. As Lyotard would say, it is a pre dicament that occurs always too soon, too late (1988). The text that is endlessly replicable, within which meaning is never depleted, is also the text that cannot finally be read in the present tense since it is either precipitous or tardy, and since within it, within that is the hysterical region of love that it demarcates, desire is simultaneously too much and not enough:
The dislocation that the lover imagines is the consequence of his displacement in time, since the initial scene of love is always presented in the past tense, reconstituted as memory. The grammar of the lovers discourse is therefore imprecise: always elsewhere. Only in our forgetting to name it, in our repression of the text, in the sense that Nietzsche speaks of no present without forgetfulness (1989, 57), in our reading of the silences of the confessional, may we seek the effaced / dispersed / supplementary body in the places where meaning fails:
* * *
PostScript to the letter of June 5
In asking this question, the lover names himself into the code of being in love, in answering it he names himself out of all codes, all texts:
What then is love?* The answer is always framed in the negative, as not-love, as absence: Love is an absence of middles (LS 162).
Every statement about love in these letters, folds back upon itself in this way. In the end, love is this fold, alternately articulated and erased, so that the only way it can speak is to utter itself every where; dispersed, squandered, we come to believe it, believe in it, only when it denies itself as motive. It is for this reason that a poem like Sounding the Name (CFN 212) has such impact, a narrative of intense and unrequited love, it is selfconsciously framed as neg ative: (i)n this poem my mother is not dead.
The mother is not dead, the phone does not ring, the hired man does not answer it, the son does not forget to close the garden gatein this economy of denial and repression, the intensity of love and loss insists. In the absence of fulfillment, the lover refuses plen itude by resisting satisfaction, in this way only can he make desire / the lover / the mother, return: I do not remember the game, but I remember the words (LS 148). What then is love? Love in these letters, carefully measured out by date and time into discreet units of waiting; the lover is the one who waits. Love then, as postpone ment, we love in order to avoid loving: The world is ending, but the world does not end (LS 138).
* * *
PostScript to the final letter
Since the lover cannot complete his own love story, the only appro priate way to end the poem is to make the reader complicit in the lovers discourse. The letters end with a quotation in Greek from a translation in Chinese by Pound. In closing one book, the reader is obliged to open another if she wants to decipher the final coded aphorism. Once again, meaning slides across this text and into the next in an infinite metonymy of significance and desire, from you, from Pound, from the Chinese (LS 166).
From the lover, from the reader, from the writer.
I am indebted to Professor Jon Kertzer for pointing out
Kambourelis essay, A Genre in the Present Tense, and to Professor Dennis
Cooley for his editorial advice.[back]
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