In the first chapter of Karen Coats’ Looking Glasses and Neverlands: Lacan, Desire, and Subjectivity in Children’s Literature, Coats endeavors to explain not only the mirror stage postulated by Jacques Lacan, but the subsequent entry of the child undergoing that process into what Coats calls the “Symbolic order” (25). The Symbolic was defined for us in class as the entrance into a conscious, rather than a merely imitative, use of language – in Lacanian theory the source of all meaning, as well as of our beliefs, customs, and the various places which any given person can assume in the social hierarchy. Once a person has found language, they have found an identity and a subjectivity; she has progressed from an attitude that says ‘I am what I am’ to one that questions ‘who am I?’ and constructs an answer to that question from language itself. Coats uses the children’s chapter-book Charlotte’s Web as a detailed allegory for that process. Initially, Wilbur doesn’t really have an identity of his own; all he has is a collection of sensory perceptions, which he gradually learns to organize so as to “’[imprint] the outside world in networks of meaning made up of images, sounds, and effects.’” (27) When the time comes that Wilbur can identify with anything, he does so with Fern, the little girl who has taken on the task of being his surrogate mother. Wilbur can perceive no real difference between his identity and Fern’s own, and so they form an “Imaginary fusionary relationship” (20). Wilbur idealizes Fern as something whole and exemplary, and so, in an illusion, tries to dissolve his own identity into hers. He has officially entered the mirror stage, or in Coats’ words “has entered the world of signifying transactions, and image has displaced being …” (19). He has not yet, however, claimed a place in the Symbolic social reality, and is still in danger of being cast in that reality as ‘food’ – unless, of course, he learns to speak for himself, or has someone else to speak for him.
That which Coats calls the “Law” or the “Name of the Father” intervenes, prohibiting Wilbur’s desire for Fern by enjoining her to sell Wilbur to Farmer Zuckerman, who locks the pig in a pen and cuts him off from direct physical contact with Fern. Wilbur tries to find a way to fit into the Symbolic order represented by the barnyard, but to no avail. Enter Charlotte, the titular spider, who, in Coats’ terminology possesses “her own version of the phallus” (29) or the power to manipulate the Symbolic order. Charlotte does so through language – she speaks fluently, writes in her web, and understands how people can be shaped and manipulated through the printed word. Fern has become a “[r]epressed representation” (21) in the Real part of Wilbur’s mind, and with Charlotte, he gains a cover for the emptiness left behind by his separation from Fern. Charlotte not only becomes a close, maternal friend to Wilbur, but also becomes his “phallic mother” (29) – one who connects him to language and teaches him how to use it, who offers Wilbur an identity as a “terrific”, “radiant”, “humble” pig which he can perform, and who convinces the rest of the world that Wilbur is, in fact, that pig. The world or “big Other” responds to Charlotte’s characterization with belief, elevating Wilbur’s material condition, sparing his life, and reinforcing his performance. In the end, when Charlotte has died and left behind her egg sac, it turns out that Wilbur has taken Charlotte’s representation of him and his relationship with her and made it part of his Real and his identity, as he takes on the task of teaching and helping Charlotte’s babies. He has become his own formulated version of Fern and Charlotte, a signifier for a mother, for compassion, and for literacy, and has claimed his place in the Symbolic.
Through Coats’ explanation, I have come to understand Lacanian theory far better than I did through Lacan himself, and I find myself cast back in time to my own childhood, to a movie that I loved and whose every detail I memorized: The Neverending Story, directed by Wolfgang Petersen and based on the book by Michael Ende. The protagonist, Bastian, undergoes a very different journey than that of Wilbur – only to arrive at the same destination of subjectivity. When the movie begins, Bastian’s mother has died, probably not too long ago: he’s still troubled by dreams in which she is alive. In Wilbur’s case, Coats explained the “Law” as a societal function, a prohibition to break up the child’s illusion of complete identification with the mother and the mother’s body and force the child into the process of assuming a separate identity. But in Bastian’s, a more primal law has intervened in his deep identification with his mother: the law of mortality itself. The ‘lack’ left by the separation of death is far more painful than any social injunction – though we do see a glimpse of the conventional “Law” in the form of Bastian’s father, who, in a breakfast conversation with his son after the dream, admonishes him to concentrate more on the world around him and to improve his grades.
Despite his father’s words of dubious support, Bastian hasn’t yet assumed much of an identity which he can use to protect himself from the pain of his mother’s death. He doesn’t seem to command much respect from anyone around him: the boys who beat him up and toss him in a dumpster cast him as a victim, his teachers cast him as a problem, and Mr. Koriander, the curmudgeonly bookstore-owner from whom Bastian obtains The Neverending Story, casts him only as a stereotypical, illiterate, juvenile annoyance. The only thing that Bastian seems to know about himself is that he loves books, particularly ones of fantasy. He desires the book titled The Neverending Story from the moment he sees it, but is prohibited by Koriander’s warning that “This book is not for you.” Significantly, Bastian disobeys this prohibition, steals the book, and begins to read in the attic of his school – fitting, since he seeks both a higher and a more secret knowledge than that offered in the math class he skips.
In The Neverending Story, the world of Fantasia is threatened by the encroachment of an all-consuming force called the Nothing, which leaves, well, nothing in its wake. As the Nothing advances, the ruler of this fantasy world, the Childlike Empress, becomes more ill and approaches death. A champion must find a cure for her illness, which will presumably stop the Nothing and save whatever is left of Fantasia.
That champion is Atreyu of the Plains People – a young boy only a little older than Bastian, with whom he immediately identifies (as indicated by the camera shots that cut back and forth between Bastian and Atreyu as the latter arrives at the Ivory Tower to receive his mission. After the initial identification with Atreyu, Bastian becomes deeply invested in his story, entering his mirror stage. Bastian’s actions through the middle part of the movie are mimetic: he cries when Atreyu mourns the loss of his horse in the Swamps of Sadness, he screams when Atreyu is frightened by the appearance of Morla the Ancient One, he eats at the same moment that Atreyu breaks his march for lunch, and he taps into his own confidence to urge Atreyu on through a magical test of will. Bastian, in a sense, becomes the champion of Fantasia. At one point, when Atreyu looks into a magical mirror, he sees Bastian’s face – a clever inversion of the process by which Bastian looks into the “mirror” of the book and sees Atreyu. Mirror stage indeed!
It also becomes clearer through the progression of the journey what Bastian is fighting. The Nothing could be taken as the persistence of Bastian’s emptiness, his failure to find substitutions for his relationship with his mother which would allow him to become a part of the Symbolic. Bastian has a choice between being and nothingness, even as Fantasia does – he must become a “desiring being” (Coats, 21). The alternative is made clear by the only visible monster of the movie, the G’Mork, who identifies desires with the imagination and with hope. He claims that he helps the “force behind the Nothing” out of admiration for its philosophy: “ … people who have no hopes are easy to control. And whoever has the control has the power!” If Bastian doesn’t choose his own place in the Symbolic, larger forces (a society, perhaps) will do so for him, and, as we have already seen with his tormentors, they’ll consult their convenience and pleasure more than his wellbeing when they do so.
The book, by contrast, becomes Bastian’s “phallic mother”, inundating him with empowering language that casts and reshapes him as a hero in Atreyu’s mold. Through reading, Bastian’s mother’s loss becomes repressed in his Real, not gone but no longer obsessing him. Bastian is enabled to look beyond grief for substitutes to cover his ‘lack’ with meaningful mentoring relationships: with Atreyu, with Falkor the Luck Dragon, with the scientist gnomes Engyhook and Urgl, with the Southern Oracle, and eventually with the Childlike Empress herself. These fantastical beings instruct Bastian through Atreyu in where to go on the stages of his quest, how to get there, and how to behave when he arrives.
By the end of the story, Bastian (though unsure and a little reluctant to the last) is entrusted with the power of language, power over the Symbolic order. It’s not good enough to form an Imaginary identification with Atreyu any longer. The Childlike Empress can only be cured and saved from the Nothing by the bestowal upon her of a new name – and Atreyu can’t do that. The Empress addresses Bastian directly from the pages: he has to come up with and call out the name, which he eventually does. He’s no longer studying or imitating the Symbolic in the book – he holds an actual place in that Symbolic, by making up and manipulating signifiers himself. Once he’s taken that place, the Empress appears to him, and grants him the power to rebuild Fantasia, to undo all of the damage and death dealt out by the Nothing, with wishes. Again, the Symbolic, coming to him from outside through language, gives him a role and something meaningful to do with it. His relationship to language allows him to travel between worlds and to take Atreyu’s place riding on Falkor’s back (a position that he never would have believed he could occupy at the beginning). The book uses words to save Bastian’s life, though it suffers its own “erasure” (Coats, 16), and in return, Bastian uses words to rebuild its world. By the end of the movie, the book has disappeared, absorbed into Bastian’s subjectivity; and Bastian has become an alternate version of the book he loves. So, claims Coats, goes it with all of the books that mean something to us as children (33) – and so the movie invites the child viewer to allow it to be absorbed into that child’s own growing subjectivity, not only by the implicit means of identification with both Bastian and Atreyu, but by the Empress’ explicit explanation to Atreyu of what the story means: “ … just as he has shared your adventures, others are sharing his.”
Below are links to the full movie, if you’re interested in watching. Be warned if you haven’t already seen it: the story is interesting, but the special effects suck like a vacuum cleaner. And the theme song will be stuck in your head for weeks, which could be good or bad, depending on whether you like 80’s pop.