“Ladies and gentlemen! We shall begin not with premises, but with an investigation. We are choosing as its object certain phenomena that are very frequent, very familiar and very little appreciated, and which have nothing to do with illnesses in so far as they can be observed in a healthy person. These are the so-called lapses of mankind.”
This is how Sigmund Freud opens one of his shorter essays written at the beginning of the 1900s in which he explores, somewhat controversially, the significance of lapses; that is, the verbal and non-verbal mistakes that we regularly make in our everyday lives. An early but seminal text in the history of modern psychology and semantics, this essay focuses on the often neglected yet fascinating features of human existence – namely those paradoxical moments of ambiguity caused by unexpected breaks in the continuity of life.
For Freud, even the slightest, ostensibly most insignificant slip or error in communication is meaningful. A person who is intending to say one thing to his beloved will accidentally state the opposite. Another person might suddenly be struck by an outbreak of hysterical laughter, while someone else will inadvertently read a different word than that which is written on the paper in front of him. For instance, on occasion, we might find ourselves automatically telling a white lie in spite of our conscious effort not to do so. Or still, as if compelled by an extraneous force, a musician will find that her fingers are drawn to the wrong note at precisely the point when she feels the most confident. The list is endless, but of one thing we are certain – all examples confront us with a surprisingly similar situation. If we pause for a moment and look closer at these peculiar phenomena, it appears that something more profound can be observed. In each of the aforementioned cases, a disruption takes place in the person’s habitual way of thinking. Our logical comportment toward the world collapses and we find ourselves temporarily at odds with ourselves, and acting, as it were, in spite of ourselves.
Perhaps, like Freud, we should not reject these curious occurrences in human behaviour until we have explored their common denominator. Lapses in language and behaviour are hardly stable objects of scientific knowledge. And while some may argue that such inconspicuous events are unworthy of attention, I suggest that we try to set aside our rational prejudices and let these logical crevices lead our thoughts elsewhere, along the poetic paths of history and literature. What is it about these small and daily “mis”-takes that causes such reluctance in us to take them seriously? Could something as fleeting and trivial as a slip of the tongue reveal to us a human predicament infinitely more unnerving than may first appear?
Turning briefly to a period in Russian history when the country bore witness to Stalin’s autocracy; the late 1920s was a time of intense oppression and enforced national and cultural unification. In an attempt to overcome the backwardness of post-revolutionary Russia, and to unite the vast country, Stalin employed a plethora of coercive measures; strengthened political bureaucratisation and centralisation, nationalisation, terror-campaigns, the Five-Year Plan, purges and brutal collectivisation. Socio-political restructurings were fast implemented by the Soviet state, leading to ever-increasingly severe restrictions and regulations on behalf of the population. By the beginning of the ’30s, music and writing were strictly censored and all cultural production, including literature, was forced to adhere to the rules of the official art movement, Socialist Realism. Revived again was the age-old Aristotelian notion of mimesis, according to which art is supposed to be a pure reflection of society in order to promote the right ideals, as well as to instruct the people how to live and consequently assist the formation of social and ideological unity.
As with every dictatorship throughout history, in order to secure total political dominance, Stalin had to ensure that there was little space for social criticism and consequently limited possibilities for contemplative thought. As a result, all competing voices were silenced and a dialogue of personalities was denied. Stalin – the central authority from which all meaning seemingly emanated – became the nucleus and personification of absolute truth. During the Soviet era, as the Russian literary theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) argued in his famous essay Discourse in the Novel, the language of officials was effectively passed off as universal and directly expressive of reality. Presented as a neutral medium as well as the anchor of certainty and objectivity, language itself became a means of homogenising the consciousness of the masses and reducing them to passive, malleable, consumers of meaning.
According to Bakhtin, language is not an autonomous given but a complex product of signifying structures based on discontinuity and difference. Echoing the Saussurean definition of the linguistic sign, Bakhtin argued against the pervading Aristotelian ideals of representation and showed how languages, words, speech-acts and readings are fundamentally dialogic. He explained that each semantic “entity” is inseparably merged with the other. To quote Bakhtin: “No living word relates to its object in a singular way: between the word and its object, between the word and the speaking subject, there exists an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme.” Hence all language is a dynamic play of interweaving and opposing forces.
Despite the fact that all questioning was forbidden under Stalinism (or perhaps because of this), literature assumed a crucial role in the arena of social and political critique. For some of the greatest Russian authors such as Andrei Bely, Yuri Olesha, Andrei Platonov and Mikhail Bulgakov, the inherent ambiguity of literary language became a unique creative resource for circumventing censorship. In the world of literature, words could be used and experienced in a non-instrumentalising manner, as pocket holes of freedom which allowed the contradictions and conflicts in society to be simultaneously revealed and concealed. In terms of their narrative voice, formal structure and ideological position, ambivalence therefore became a dominant characteristic of the novels of this period. Through humour, metaphor and irony, Soviet authors and readers arguably could inhabit the enigmatic void between word and thing without having to – or, indeed, being able to – affirm an “ultimate” message.
Rather than silencing and smoothing out the duplicity of communication, by obeying the rigid laws of Socialist Realism, numerous Russian novels from the ’20s and ’30s seemed, on the contrary, to exaggerate the intrinsic surplus of meaning in words. In the grotesque and carnivalesque worlds of the Soviet writers, hierarchies were inverted, Realism and magic merged, and common-sense logic was subtly overturned. But as regulation became increasingly strict and censorship grew stronger during the ’30s, even some of the most celebrated authors of the time were accused of ideological deviation, promoting anti-Socialist propaganda, and were banned and murdered or forced to flee the country in order to avoid imprisonment.
The lapse, for Freud, is considered to be something meaningful insofar as it highlights a disjunction within consciousness. In a slip of the tongue, for example, conscious thought is split and confronted, albeit for a second, with the presence of its unconscious source. Language suddenly ceases to be a means through which we can “accurately” comprehend and take control of reality and our reactions. Recalling Bakhtin’s thoughts on the dialogic nature of language, the lapse, unlike normative thinking and speaking, makes noticeable precisely this latent presence of the “other” – the infinite and absent meanings upon which all language is founded. In other words, it points to the obscurity of meaning which must be suppressed in our everyday communication in order to make sense of things. In much the same manner as the joke, dream or pun, however, slips demand a suspension of this reality principle, forcing us to momentarily recognise that we are not always the masters of ourselves and others. In the absurd realm of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita or Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, rational certainty crumbles and a sense of ambivalence rules. The line between word and object is refracted, depriving us of the possibility of identifying any single given truth.
The idea of an outside, an unknowable other that cannot be comprehended or grasped, has no doubt been one of the most fundamental sources, if not the most rudimentary source of fear to prevail in the western history of mankind. It is for this reason, some philosophers suggest, that the tradition of European philosophy has essentially been a violent pursuit of certainty and domination at the cost of all alterity. Why does a loss of rationality prompt us to discard a phenomenon as frivolous or dangerously deceiving? As Freud writes, “Is there anything that, in a particular case, out of all possibilities, urges me to misspeak in one particular way?”
If comprehension requires that every relation of otherness is identified and ultimately eliminated, perhaps there is something truly uncanny about the indeterminacy of lapses and literary language. Much like a metaphor or dream, a slip of the tongue makes something otherwise alien appear. Forcing us to face the illusory nature of self-possession and sovereignty, lapses and literature (when at its best) allows us to hover freely in the unknown region in between emptiness and excess.
For Maurice Blanchot, the power of literature lies in its obscurity. The writer is pulled into a realm of uncertainty by the “dread-filled desire” that colours the canvas of the writer’s life and yet compels him or her to respond to the dizzying and devastating force of fascination. Much like the paradoxical movement of language, the effects of lapses leads us into an indeterminate realm of fascination where, according to Simon Critchley, “Blindness is still vision, vision that is no longer the possibility of seeing, but the impossibility of not seeing.”