The Problem of the Gaze: Lacan’s Psychoanalysis Constructs in Zuleika Dobson

Zuleika Dobson is the picturesque femme fatale of Max Beerbohm’s 1911 satire – one that of course delights in the attention of men. In Edwardian Oxford the tales of her beauty speed across the University in true fairytale fashion, the male-dominated campus all falling prey to her charm and lucky genealogy. Zuleika has become accustomed to being the object of desire; many men show their clear eagerness for her, but she doesn’t return their sentiments because of her wanting for someone more respectable: a man who has absolutely no interest in her. Though “Zuleika had never given her heart, strong in her were the desire and the need that it should be given. Whithersoever she had fared, she had seen nothing but youths fatuously prostrate to her – not one upright figure which she could respect” (7). Instead, “‘she devotes her life entirely to good works’” (8), until she meets the Duke of Dorset, a dandy of immaculate proportion that “had never felt, as she had, the desire to love” (9). To love another would be to be emancipated by the lifestyle of a dandy, and the Duke was horrified to realize his own desire for Zuleika in return. When the Duke and Zuleika love each other, it is never at the same time. The two lovers are in a constant state of what Jacques Lacan calls paradoxical, enigmatic desire based on mutual need and demand for love. They are fulfilling their mutual needs to have the Other, but are unable to approbate the other’s gaze and thus it is because they ignore each other, that they love each other. Their desire occupies the gap between need and demand, and the Duke and Zuleika are consequently connected in eternal desire.

Lacan had said that love “is giving what you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it.” Meaning that there is an asymmetry in love and there is this way in which one person is seeing something in another that the other person doesn’t even possess, or they don’t feel as though they possess, and the other is doing the same thing simultaneously. It would seem that there is a relationship to the Other that cannot be articulated in an utterly conscious or symbolizable way. It would seem that there is a relationship to the Other that cannot be articulated in an utterly conscious/symbolizable way. There are any number of positive, conscious reasons why we could love someone, but fundamentally there is an unconscious dimension of our love for other people that we can’t symbolize. On page 9, the Duke begins a long thought process of all the things that make him what he is, insisting that all those things did not have the room for Zuleika’s addition. He says, “Different from Zuleika, he cared for his wardrobe and his toilet−table not as a means to making others admire him the more, but merely as a means through which he could intensify, a ritual in which to express and realize, his own idolatry.” There seems to be more in the person that is being loved that that person is unable to see in themselves. Lacan said there is no relationship in what the loved one possesses and what the loving one lacks, and “the subject desires from the point of view of another whereby the object of someone’s desire is an object desired by another one – it is desirable because someone desires it (“Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis” #2). Lacan said that love is an enigma. The Duke and Zuleika have both raised the other to the dignity of the thing – in which, they are finding themselves in love or desiring a person they have turned into an object; an ideal. The objective dimension of the thing is the allure that ensnares them; it is enigmatic, but because it is an idea and ideas must be abstract it cannot be fully captured by words or representation (1169). The Duke and Zuleika are both aware of the other’s gaze, “Nor was the Duke unconscious, as he seemed to be, of her scrutiny. Though he kept his head averse, he knew that always her eyes were watching him…. [He] could not blind himself, try as he would. And he knew that he was in love” (9). But the moment the Duke surrenders to her gaze and declares his love for Zuleika, her love for him dies. Her desire was fulfilled, so her desire faded. However, her need and her demand for his love still stands.

Lacan’s concept of desire is always referring to unconscious desire because it is that which forms the central concern. Need is a biological instinct where the subject depends on the Other to satisfy it – in order to get the Other’s help, need must be articulated in demand. The presence of the Other not only ensures the satisfaction of the “need” – it also represents the Other’s love. Just as the pearls on the Duke’s jacket represent the changing dynamic of their love, “he was too much concerned with his own perfection ever to think of admiring anyone else” (9).  The Duke’s dandyism, in the beginning of the novel, stole away his overwhelming interest in Zuleika, and without really knowing, “he was vaguely conscious of some strange phenomenon somewhere between them and his eyes… [He] did not at once realize what it was that he saw” (11). His gaze upon her and hers upon him had already changed the dynamic, whether they were aware of it or not. Demand acquires a double function: it articulates “need” and acts as a demand for love even after need is satisfied, since the Other cannot provide the unconditional love that the subject seeks. Unlike need, which can be satisfied, desire is insatiable and eternal. The attainment of desire does not consist in being fulfilled, but more in the reproduction of it. Objet petit a stands for the unattainable object of desire, or the “object cause of desire” (1158). The a is for the Other or autre, taken from Lacan’s own thoughts of otherness and Sigmund Freud’s “object.” Objet petit a is the object of desire we seek in the Other. It is the leftover; the remnants left behind by the introduction of the Symbolic in the Real. It is a surplus of meaning or jouissance that is always produced when one signifier attempts to represent the subject for all other signifiers, which Lacan explains in his Four Discourses, the first being “Discourse of the Master.” The truth about desire is somehow present in discourse, although discourse is never able to articulate the entire truth about desire. Whenever discourse attempts to articulate desire, there is always a leftover or surplus. Desire is the surplus, leftover that is produced by the articulation of need in demand, and it “begins to take shape in the margin in which demand becomes separated from need” (“The Signification of the Phallus”). This is shown particularly in Part I of the novel where Zuleika described her want to be in love, but not wanted excessively, and then she met the Duke and “she was in a trance of sheer happiness. At last, she thought, her hope was fulfilled —” (9).

Metonymy is the signifying chain in which ultimate meaning (or desire) is always deferred (1182). The signifier as metaphor is critical to us as it functions as an enigma or question that we try to answer or solve. Lacan doesn’t think that the unconscious resides inside each of us, he recognizes that the unconscious, because of its relationship to language, is therefore not simply interior. The unconscious is located inside each of us, and in the other at the same time; Lacan refers to the unconscious as the “extimate.” This is why we are unable to see that place from which the other sees, because it is in the unconscious of both you and the Other. The unconscious is structured like a language; because we desire, we are in effect split by language (1170). We are split by the phallus as a signifying function – it assumes a “no”, which is the forbidden object: thus, desire is produced 1182). If a couple in love is unable to clearly see the subject of their desire, therefore making it impossible to ever imagine that “blind spot” in their vision, how is it that Zuleika can be both in love with the Duke, and not, and then in love again? Perhaps perspective on the Other changes, but not its status. “…But lo! When he remembered, everything took on a new aspect. He was in love” (12). This is explicitly described in Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis wherein he states that the desire one feels is the desire of the Other. Thus, desire is the object of another’s desire, and that is also desire for recognition.

Another of Lacan’s fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis is the desire for something else. Since you can’t desire what you already have, the object of desire is continually deferred; this is why desire is a metonymy. Before the Duke drowns himself, his and Zuleika’s love is one that is constantly changing – as the Duke loves her, she does not love him, but needs and demands for his love.  The Duke is always desiring for Zuleika to love him, while she is wishing that he would stop loving her, so that she could love him – they are both wanting something else, because they cannot desire for a thing that they already have. Zuleika says, “I didn’t dream that you were in love with me,” to the Duke in an effort to tell him what she really wants (17). The gaze of the Other overwhelms Zuleika and the Duke – they want to love each other, but instead of fulfilling mutual desires in doing so, they must remain eternally in a cycle of unrequited love and desire.

Works Cited

Beerbohm, Max. Zuleika Dobson. Heinemann. Copyright 1911. Sept 2016. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Edition. W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright 2010. 1169-1180. Sept 2015. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar: Book VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. Translation by Dennis Porter. 291-311. W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright 1959-60. Nov 2016. Web.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar: Book VIII, Transference. Translation by Cormac
Gallagher. W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright 1960-61. Nov 2016. Web.

Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar: Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. Translation by Alan Sheridan. Copyright 1994. W. W. Norton & Company. Nov 2016. Web.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Signification of the Phallus.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd Edition. W. W. Norton & Company. Copyright 2010. 1181-1189. Nov 2016. Print.


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