Eat the Book


A paper given at a 1992 SUNY-Buffalo English Department graduate student conference with the theme of Consumption.

In keeping with the theme of the conference (not to mention the proposal I submitted to it in the first place), I’ll be talking about the psychoanalysis of consumption: the oral drive, its aims and objects; the verb “to eat,” which Lacan calls “the most radical of verbs in the development of the phases of the drive;” and, as indicated in my title, some peculiar scenes involving what our program booklet might call “comestibles and potation.” However, as I thought about, and wrote about these topics, I began to find that something besides the psychoanalysis of consumption was eating me, namely the consumption of psychoanalysis and Lacanian psychoanalysis in particular. I mean the dissemination of Lacan in the academy (in our teaching, in presentations like this one, or others in which we hear our colleagues or, God forbid, ourselves asserting that the actions of the Shining Path, or the hole in the ozone layer, are answers from the real, amid polite perplexed applause in some conference room in the Royal York Hotel); I mean the construction of a Lacanian orthodoxy (possibly an oxymoron); or the well-known battles over the publication and the establishment of the texts of the seminars; and finally, the possible uses to which what Lacan called his teaching might be put.

I’ve also wondered about the sense in which the approach to his work can consume us, render us consumptive as we rheumily hack and spit our way to some form of understanding of a concept or passage only to have it ruined by some seeming contradiction rearing its ugly head on the very next page we read. This sounds bad I know. But I hope my talk today will, like the drive itself, skirl out one way and back the other, and that I’ll wind up saying something suggestive about how we might swallow Lacan.

Like any good heretic on the run from the soutanes or mitzvahs or snakehandlings of his childhood (in my case it was the Reverend Mr. Black, who compensated for his diminutive stature with a furious discourse about lakes of fire delivered in a clattering Glaswegian brogue pitched an octave or two above the tenor register), I can’t resist the occasional irreligious parodic gesture (and, of course, thereby revealing, both by my flight and my blasphemous urge, the enduring and plangent tonalities of the theological within me precisely where I seek to erase them). Nevertheless, I won’t cede my desire this time, and I’ll begin with a lesson, a lecture in the proper sense, that is, a reading from scripture.

Revelation, Chapter 10, 8-11.
8. And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth.
9. And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.
10. And I took the little book out of the angel’s hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey; and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.
11. And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.

In the Ethics Seminar, Lacan refers to this text with just the three words “eat the book.” He mentions it during a discussion of sublimation as the satisfaction of a drive without repression. He goes on to say that this image is about the incorporation of the signifier itself, and let’s take him literally when he says “incorporation:” the signifier, the word become flesh. Now isn’t that a traditional Christian image? The word become flesh is God, is Christ, and that is what Lacan says in the next sentence.

Let me back up a moment and say that when Lacan refers to something in his usual oblique manner, it’s a good idea to check the source; that’s why I gave you the lesson. So let’s look at it: “it was in my mouth sweet as honey”: that’s the satisfaction of the drive. The enjoyment is not in getting something to eat, the drive is not an instinct, it’s not a question of the satisfaction of a biological need. It’s a question of the pleasure of the mouth, yum, yum, honey, but it’s “as honey,” not honey proper; the sweetness, the enjoyment of the mouth really comes from munching on the word, on God. And then: “but as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.” The word “belly” might put us in mind of a speech from the belly, that is, “ventriloquism,” a speech that seems to come from other than where I am. Are we talking about the discourse of the unconscious? Here’s Lacan in Seminar XI: “Impediment, failure, split. In a spoken or written sentence something stumbles. Freud is attracted by these phenomena, and it is there that he seeks the unconscious.” The bitterness of the book in the belly is the constitutive fault in the subject riven by language, by the cut of the signifier.


According to Lacan’s formulation in “The Subversion of the Subject,” castration (the ascession of the human infant to the order of speech, to the Symbolic) is enacted by the cut of the signifier (an immemorial and radically particular act of speech, metaphorized in the “nom du père”—the Father’s name, or the Father’s no) which evacuates enjoyment from the body. But the evacuation is necessarily incomplete; a residue remains, disposed in a singular way on the body of each singular subject, and it is around these residual pockets of enjoyment that the drives emerge. “The Trieb,” says Lacan, “implies in itself the advent of the signifier.”

And what does the angel say? “Thou must prophesy.” It’s a maxim, a duty. You must speak to peoples, nations, tongues and kings the truth that resides bitter in your belly, even though that speech from the belly comes from other than where you take yourself to be, and even though you may not know what you are saying. At this point I might as well make a Zizekian gesture and “risk the thesis” that this image of “eating the book” suggests at least the possibility of an ethic of the drive.

But, to get back to Lacan’s account in the Ethics seminar, that’s not, it would seem, what he’s talking about. Next paragraph: “In daring to formulate a satisfaction that isn’t rewarded with a repression, the theme that is central or preeminent is, What is desire?” Now, sublimation (satisfaction of the drive without repression) is a “Triebschiksal,” an adventure, a vicissitude of the drive, but the central question at stake for Lacan is, “What is desire?” Lacan goes on to say that in every satisfaction of a need—like hunger—demand, in its status as “lynchpin” of the drive, and because it articulates itself through the signifier (remember, it’s as a result of the cut of the signifier that it’s there in the first place), demand always under- or over-shoots itself, and insists on something else. Whatever satisfaction is formulated “spreads out and conforms to that gap,” that is, the gap between what would satisfy the need (eating a donut, let’s say, preferably with oatbran) and what would satisfy the drive without repression (eating the book).

What supports this metonymy, says Lacan, this displacement which is subjected upon a drive, is desire. So now we have desire and the drive (which is always fundamentally the death drive) together, though they are often held to be radically distinct, mutually antagonistic. The drive is taken to be relentless activity, an intractable destructive quest for pure enjoyment, against which the subject must defend at all costs its desire. (One of Zizek’s exemplary figurations of the drive is the Terminator, virtually unstoppable, even beyond its own destruction, in its pursuit of Sarah Conner.) In violating the maxim of the ethic of psychoanalysis, “don’t cede your desire,” you wind up, it is said, succumbing to destruction in the drive. But, to carry on with Lacan’s account of “eating the book,” he says that the realization of one’s desire is possible only in the end, from the point of view of the last judgement, or apocalypse. “It is the trespassing of death on life that gives its dynamism to any question that attempts to find a formulation for the subject of the realization of desire… How can man, that is to say a living being, have access to knowledge of the death instinct (sic), to his own relationship with death? The answer is, by virtue of the signifier in its most radical form.” (And it is the drive that Lacan calls “the treasure of the signifier.” And: “It is in the signifier and insofar as the subject articulates a signifying chain that he comes up against the fact [i.e. the death drive] that he may disappear from the chain of what he is.”)

A couple of weeks later, in concluding his seminar, Lacan comes back to the image of eating the book. There is a price to pay for the operation of sublimation: you have to pay for this mystical operation with a pound of flesh called jouissance. This object, this good, which is sacrificed for desire—”and you will note” he says, “that that means the same thing as that desire which is lost for the good”—is precisely what religion seeks to recuperate. Religion at its best, I would say, and my sense is that for Lacan religion at its best resides in the sublimatory procedures of people like John of Patmos, “mystics,” to give them their proper name, who in their speech and writing provide powerful images like the scene of “eating the book,” and point to the laws of heaven. For Lacan, “the laws of heaven in question are the laws of desire,” and they are the ones about which we are most profoundly ignorant since they are not the laws of the phallus, as I hope to suggest in what’s coming.

(“Of him who ate the book and the mystery within it, one can, in effect, ask the question: Is he good, or is he bad? That question now seems unimportant. The important thing is not knowing whether man is good or bad in the beginning; the important thing is what will transpire once the book has been eaten.”)


No food can satisfy the oral drive except by circumventing the eternally lacking object a—called the breast in this case. So that a sublimation, as in eating the book, provides a change not in the object of the oral drive, but in its aim, its itinerary. In the interests of time, and because we’ll shortly be heading out to the restaurant to gratify the oral drive in other ways, I’ll pass over the repasts of Angela de Folignio and St Margaret Mary Allococque. You can read about them on page 188 of the Ethics Seminar. Those who have already done so will understand why it might be prudent to abstain. I want to speak about the mystics in general, their sublimations and enjoyments, and come round to the question I broached at the outset concerning the consumption of psychoanalysis.