No one understands the unfathomable quality of desire quite like the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. In fact, desire is the central element of human subjectivity for the discipline of psychoanalysis. “We are subjects that desire things,” the inimitable Youtube theorist, Plastic Pills, concisely put it. And since we desire things outside the purview of subsistence, things like social status, sexual pleasures, and achievements, the object of desire is necessarily an exterior element—not attainable through the subject’s agency alone. While such an insight may at first seem like an innocuous aspect of human psychology, in Lacanian psychoanalysis desire constitutes a lack at the heart of the human subject. Moreover, A.J. Cronin’s little-known work, The Judas Tree, brilliantly illustrates just this fact: at its essence, desire is a monstrous, harrowing object.
We find the protagonist of Cronin’s novel, David Moray, a middle-aged retired doctor who, despite a poor upbringing as an orphan, has been graced with an early retirement and is now living comfortably in his chateau in Switzerland near the town of Melsburg. Though Moray is visibly endowed with ample wealth, good looks, a social life gravid with beautiful women who seem to take an interest in him, there is something clearly missing from this otherwise proverbial Continental paradise. The narrative then jumps back twenty years, to Scotland, the country of his birth. Moray is now a young man braving the tailend of medical school as a poor, lonely student. He very quickly meets a girl by the name of Mary Douglas, and, after a series of tender and dramatic events, they get engaged. However, in order to heal from an illness, as well as to earn money in the interim before starting a new job at a hospital near his town, Moray takes a position as the physician aboard a passenger ship bound for Calcutta. Although he and Mary are distraught by this arrangement, they feel it will be for the best and nonetheless plan to marry as soon as he returns.
Before the ship leaves the British Isles, it picks up the Holbrooks—a rich family of three whose daughter, Doris, immediately takes an interest in Moray. After much prodding on the part of Doris and her parents, as well as a handsome offer to go into business with Mr. Holbrook—a promise to make Moray rich—Doris and Moray end up together. Scotland, the job at the hospital, and Mary all fade into the backdrop of his life like an unnerving kind of dream.
While we never learn if Moray ever made it back to Scotland to grab his things, much less tell Mary he’s breaking off the engagement, we then find him back in the present, ruminating over the events that sent us readers into the past. He decides to travel back to Scotland in order to make amends to Mary—all the while we suspect an ulterior motive of personal (sexual) gratification: Maybe I’ll get back together with her… After he travels to the town he and Mary met in, Moray learns that long ago her father died and Mary left shortly after she married another man; Moray then travels to the town she moved to. However, once he arrives there he learns that she passed away a few years before. Distraught, nearly immobilized at the thought his amends is now some fruitless enterprise, that his life will be forever marred by the fact that he left such an innocent, sweet girl—moreover, that she died not knowing closure nor solace—he resigns to this new reality. Directed by a local minister, he finds his way to the gravesite where Mary is buried. Before all hope seems lost, however, as Moray is grieving over the grave of the poor, deceased Mary, he turns around to find that her daughter, Kathy, is standing there looking kindly upon him—an uncanny resemblance to her mother.
What’s truly interesting about this book is introduced only a brief time later when the narrator reveals that it is not Mary (the deceased mother) but Kathy (her daughter) to whom Moray feels a libidinal attraction for. After a drive up the country, Moray finds himself (accidentally) at the place where he and Mary had sex for the first time—where he took her virginity—and so goes on reminiscing about that day. Then, in a sudden, dramatic realization, Moray becomes crippled by the true object of his desire:
He saw it all, felt it all, lingered over it, in a bath of sentimental recollection, until, with a start of panic, an actual physical shock, he pressed his hand across his eyes
The girl in his arms was not his long-lost love [Mary]. Every sensation, every burning detail of that passionate scene he had relived not with the mother but with the daughter. It was Kathy he had held so closely in his arms, whose soft warm lips had pressed on his, who had yielded in sweet abandon.
What a crude reading of Freud might render here is an example par excellence of the all-too-familiar Oedipus Complex developed in Freud’s seminal Interpretation of Dreams (1899), and given life in A Special Type of Choice of Object Made by Men (1910). However, the much more radical reading of this scene can be introduced by Lacan—namely, his objet petit a. Zizek puts it (as) succinctly (as he can given his propensity for schizoaffective, feverish analysis) in How to Read Lacan. The objet petit a is a “tiny feature whose presence magically transubstantiates its bearer into an alien,” Zizek explains; it is the harrowing, “unfathomable X on account of which, when we confront the object of our desire, more satisfaction is provided by dancing around it than by making straight for it” (Zizek, How to Read Lacan, p. 67 & p. 77). It is the unconscious adoption of the other into an object whose desire is of paramount import, and yet whose substance is that of a void.
This action of “dancing around it” rather than grasping for the object of desire is clearly observable in Moray’s actions leading up to this traumatic fissure in his reality. We see this in his “ultaristic” gestures towards Kathy, as if Moray is trying to take on a paternal role in her life—buying the Minister of Kathy’s church a new bell, taking her shopping, wanting Kathy to come live with him, and so forth. What came off as Moray simply wanting to make amends for the “graceless and ungrateful” actions of his youth was nothing more than a neatly choreographed dance, however unconscious it is, around what was latent in the whole of his interaction with Kathy That is, his (sexual) desire—as Cronin obliquely puts it, his “love”—for Kathy, pleasantly sustained at first by his phantasmic paternal positioning.
For even when he sees Kathy for the first time, after she strolls up behind him as he’s grieving over Mary’s grave, he swears that it is Mary who stands there—his lost object of sexual desire: “He turned, raised his head, then almost collapsed. There, risen from the grave, Mary Douglas stood before him.” Mary, in the flesh, a kind of undead, sublime beauty. Of course, it’s not Mary and the fantasy is shattered as soon as it seems to arise—“Dizzily with a swimming head, he realised that it was Mary’s daughter, the mortal image of her mother”—leaving room for Moray’s melancholic affectivity to quietly sprout beneath the surface of further interaction. However, in that instant of misrecognition—perhaps an act of necrophiliac transference—there lies the object of Moray’s desire, too harrowing to confront at first: via the function of that immutable transference, he finds himself in the grips of the girl who stands before him, Kathy. Such a scene is evidence of the germ of desire dormant throughout their whole relationship. A germ, moreover, that Moray dances around without (consciously) recognizing at first.
Recall that the Lacanian subject can never be satisfied by their agency alone due to the fact that what is desirable is always exterior. Always an element that looms beyond the event horizon of satiability. Moreover, there is necessarily a void constituting every (Lacanian) subject; because we are subjects who desire the desire of the other, and the other is constituted by a void (a lack of desirable agency within), we are limp arms grasping for ionic matter, asystole in subjective import. This is why the British Lacanian scholar Dylan Evans, in his book An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, points out that when Lacan initially posited objet petit a he used the analogy of the agalma—an ancient Greek term taken from Plato’s Symposium meaning “an offering to the gods.” “Just as the agalma is a precious object hidden inside a relatively worthless box,” Evan’s begins, “so the objet petit a is the object of desire which we seek in the other.”
Later on in his work, Lacan takes this notion a step further, echoing Zizek’s point that I put forward earlier about it being easier to dance around the object of desire than to actually obtain it—there is nothing there anyhow. It is in this vein that we see the most radical logic of desire. And no surprise here, we find that logic in Zizek’s reading of Lacan. While discussing the prohibitory structure of the restraining order, Zizek argues that such an order is indicative of the subject’s endemic fear of the other’s desire. “Necessary as this measure [of the restraining order] is, there is nonetheless in it something of the defence against the traumatic Real of the other’s desire: is it not obvious that there is something dreadfully violent about openly displaying one’s passion for and to another human?” Assuredly there is.
With this in mind, it is easy to see why, when confronted by what we desire, Lacan’s objet petit a—the unnerving reality of the void—we are naturally distraught at this abyssal sight. It is “alien,” monstrous, too traumatic to be desirable. This point can be observed, too, in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, when Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) hides in the closet, peering through the blinds in a futile effort to make sense of and observe the unnerving sexual transgressions which Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) act out. In The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, Zizek urges us at once to imagine ourselves as the child watching—with no symbolic structure to make sense of the scene, only a raw Imaginary of the Real—and insists that this is a place where we are confronted by the desires we aren’t even ready to admit to ourselves; the proverbial unconscious mind through this physical Lynchian analogy. Via the coordinates of Dennis Hopper’s traumatizing portrayal of Frank, Lynch illustrates Desire as a monstrous object. So too does Cronin in The Judas Tree, for what materializes as the result of Moray’s fatal attraction to Kathy is as insidious as it is predictable for readers of Lacan. But for that you must read what Cronin so generously wrote.