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The Discretion of the Purloined Letter

The discretion associated with the purloined letter provides a mode of approximation to the subtlety implied by the clinic of ordinary psychosis. In contrast to the indiscreet and the ostentatious, the purloined letter is discreet. Its discretion serves as an orientation in the epoch in which the Other does not exist.

The letter is not evident. Depending on its colour, intensity or shine it can be confused with the ordinary appearance of another, to the point of being included in supposed normality. We do not see what is evident. In other words, it does not function as exception, it is opposed to the indiscretion of the extraordinary, in order to make believe.

The use of the adjective discrete, employed by Lacan in relation to the signifier in his first teaching, indicating the discontinuity of the signifying chain made up of different and separated elements, takes on a disconcerting turn in the late teaching in order to account for the fact that beyond the relation that one signifier has with another there is the sign, which does not have a relation to another sign but rather implies the relation to one alone.

This is what the equivocation between letter and litter shows us. The letter separated from the message that it carries is litter, object, refuse. There where there is no more meaning… there is sign, real. This letter that marks the littoral between jouissance and knowledge, which Lacan called sinthome, gives account of the singularity that renders each subject unclassifiable, introducing a continuity that makes possible different forms of knotting.

The clinic of ordinary psychosis teaches us about this discreet mode of the sign, unclassifiable and singular. It is not included in any class. It is outside any universality. Little indications which could pass unperceived are situated at “the most intimate juncture of the subject´s sense of life”.[i] They correspond to the modes in which the subject knits the weave over the hole in order to avoid precipitation. As M. Bassols has put it: “Discreet events of the body, subtle plumblines of meaning in the slippage of signification, veiled phenomena of allusion, minimalist supplementations by which the subject sustains the fragile stability of psychic reality. These phenomena were there in full view but on account of their frequency they were mixed up with the landscape of normality.”[ii]

The discretion of the “purloined letter” behaves like a spare part that could be applied to the discreet signs and/or solutions of ordinary psychosis, but also to the discreet signs of femininity and those to which each analyst testifies. Inventions that would allow us – why not – to think in the same series ordinary psychosis, femininity and the pass.


(Translated by Roger Litten)

[i] Lacan, J., “On a Question Prior to any Possible Treatment of Psychosis”, in Ecrits, Norton, 2006.

[ii] Bassols, M., “In Praise of Ordinary Psychosis”, The Lacanian Review, Issue 3, 2017.