The Purloined Letter
Edgar Alan Poe
A structuralist reading
Foucaultian Reading
Lacan's interpretation
Derrida's interpretation

Barbara Johnson

"The Frame of Refernece: Poe, Lacan, Derrida" (Muller & Richardson, 213¡V51)

Background: (reference)

  • B. Johnson the second-generation American Deconstructionist. (The first generation in Yale U: Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, Joseph Hillis Miller, Harold Bloom.)
  • On "Billy Budd"

"The Frame of Reference"

Main Argument: (250) In his critique of Lacan, Derrida "repeats" what Lacan did (by adding new ideas to the text) and ignore Lacan's style (as Lacan ignores Poe's frame of reference. "The frame is thus framed again by part of its content; the sender again receives his own message backward from the receiver."

Main Issues and Questions: 1. What does "purloined" letter mean for you after we learn from so many interpretations?
2. What are the differences between Lacan's (or psychoanalysis') triangular model and Derrida's double reading? How does Barbara Johnson combine the two?
3. What is 'frame of reference'? What does it mean traditionally and for deconstructionist? What does the fold-in of frame mean? Can it happen in our own reading of a text?

The Purloined Prerace: How to present a text too extensive to quote in its entirety: "paraphrase and quotation."

Round Robbin (a letter sent among members of a group, often with comments added by each person in turn.)

-- The story quotes extensively the two accounts of searching for (and getting) the letter, but not only "paraphrase" the letter. (216)
-- The letter as a signifier and Lacan's allegory of the signifier (pp. 217-18)

1. What Lacan puts into the letter:

While asserting that the letter's meaning is lacking, Lacan, according to Derrida, makes this lack into the meaning of the letter.  .  . .Derrida asserts that what Lacan means by that lack is the truth of lack-as-castration-as-truth.  
2. What Lacan leaves out of the text.

Lacan ignores the story's position in "Dupin Trilogy."

Barbara Johnson's Criticism of Derrida -- p. 218

Odd Couples --pre-textual crimes

-- What Derrida does to Lacan is similar to what Dupin does to Minister D: revenge against a pre-textual crime. (pp. 219-20)
-- Derrida against the Oedipal triangle for two reasons:

1) The structure cannot be reduced to a triangle; to do so is to eliminate the role of the narrator.
2) The story is "traversed by an uncanny capacity for doubling and subdiving."
3) Triangularity presupposes the possibility of a successful dialectical mediation and harmonious normalization, or Aufhebung, of desire.

BJ's critique:
1) The narrator and Dupin -- a pair, not mediated by a third term; --> BJ: their potential rivalry over the same object.
2) Lacan's model for (inter-)subjectivity is quadrangular. .
3) [p. 223] What is the relation between a divided unity and a duality;
4) If the doubles are forever redividing or multiplying, the number 2 does not apply.

5) Lacan never used the word "phallus" in the Seminar, but he later does use the word "castrated." So the difference lies in how the word gets interpreted by the two.--> BJ Derrida derives the equation from the following factors:

a. The letter belongs to the Queen as a subjstitute for the phallus she does not have;
b. the position of the letter in the Minister's apartment;
c. the letter is singular;
d. "a letter always arrives at its destination." (225)

BJ's critique:

1) Lacan is ambiguous. (With his use of a series of reversals) --> Derrida argues, in effect, not against Lacan's text but against Lacan's power.

The Frame of Reference

1. Lacan ignores the frame --the two stories preceding the story.
2. Derrida's explanation of frame (230) -- a. certain definite borders; b. "a scene of writing whose boundaries crumble off into an abyss."

BJ's critique: -->
1. Lacan's comprehension --
"invent[s] a 'new geometry' by means of the logic of knots"
2. Derrida cannot avoid turning a signifier to the signified of the text.

BJ's explanation: (232) 1. The textual signifier's resistance to being totally transformed into a signified; 2. The actual writings.

-- "If Dupin's signing with a quotation. . . is for Derrida a sign that "this remnant is still literature," does this not indicate that "literature" has become not the signifier but the signified in the story?"(233) --> The paradox of the parergonal logic: "the frame is always being framed by part of its contents." e.g. the slippage between the signifier and the signified.

BJ's intertextual reading: (pp. 235- ) --> the allusion to Atreus' son --> the fold-in of the frame of reference.

3. Derrida uses the same logic of rectification and correction against Lacan he sees in Lacan.
4. Between recognition and interpretation-- Derrida, too, is recognizing rather than reading. "The frame of reference allows the analyst to frame the author of the text he is reading for practices whose locus is simultaneously beyong the letter of the text and behind the vision of its reader." (240).

A Pli for Unconscious

1. The letter is undivided because it is empty of contents.
2. lack as a hole--"instead of a whodunit we get a whodonut, a story with a hole in it."
3. phallus re-interpreted--love, the gift of what one does not have. The phallus is "the privileged signifier that mark where logos is joined together with the advent of desire."
4. Derrida's remarks .. "a profound insight into [psychoanalysis'] very essense": that is, it repeatedly visits the primal scnee which leads to the strauma of interpretation. (245)


The Purloined Poe.  Eds.  John P.Muller and William J. Richardson.  Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1988.