A Lacanian Interpretation of Sartre’s Erostratus (with existential commentary)

Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Erostratus” may be the shortest story in The Wall, yet it serves as a fitting psychoanalytic case-study. “Erostratus” tells the story of Paul Hilbert, a lonely man plagued by insecurity and sexual impotency, who attempts and ultimately fails to commit a heinous crime (Sartre, 1948). Shortly into the story, it becomes clear that the crime is mostly an attempt to escape his mediocrity through an act of powerful self-assertion. We will look at this story not only through a traditional psychoanalytic lens, but also by applying important Lacanian principles. Sartre, who developed his own “existential” brand of psychoanalysis, surely wrote “Erostratus” to support certain phenomenological and ethical themes from Being and Nothingness—we’ll look at some of these perspectives. However, in many ways, we arrive at the deepest understanding of Hilbert and his motivations by bringing Lacanian theories into the discussion. In this paper, we first locate the basic existential and psychoanalytic themes that underpin “Erostratus”, in addition to looking at Lacan’s “mirror phase” and how this relates to Hilbert’s social development. “Erostratus” is essentially a story about narcissism, alienation, otherness, and desire. Lacan’s psychic structures—particularly the imaginary and symbolic orders—will give us a sense of where these emotions come from, how they affect our protagonist, and how they function in the larger narrative.

Like in many “existential” works, our protagonist is a bland working class guy with a routine existence and a mundane job. He has no friends to speak of and is a self-professed “anti-humanist” (Sartre, 1948, 48). As Hilbert’s impatience with his situation grows, he decides he must make a statement that will prove his anti-humanism and secure his name in the history books—he will murder six random people on a busy street in Paris. Hilbert is deeply moved by the ancient Greek story of “Erostratus,” which tells of a man who burned down the temple of Artemis at Ephesus to immortalize himself. What strikes him is that while nobody knows the name of the man who built the temple of Artemis, everyone remembers Erostratus, the man who destroyed it. The rest of the story follows Hilbert’s metamorphosis, as the day of his crime draws nearer. In what follows, Hilbert buys a gun and carries it around in public, becoming sexually aroused by the possibilities, and the power he now possesses. He becomes more and more obsessed with this power and even visits a prostitute, commanding her to walk around naked at gunpoint (he does this several times, each time ejaculating in his pants). As the day of his crime draws nearer, Hilbert spends his life savings on expensive meals and prostitutes, and even mails letters of his murderous intent to 102 famous French writers. Yet, in the end, Hilbert is incapable of following through. He winds up shooting only one man, a “big man”, and has a frantic meltdown in the street afterward (Sartre, 1948, 54). The story ends in a café lavatory, as Hilbert gives himself up to the police.

Let us first take a look at some of the elements that make up the “existential” composure of the story. Hilbert’s act of mailing letters to famous writers before committing his crime shows a deep insecurity over the potential legacy he wishes to leave. Hilbert must have others verify and be witness to his crime for the weight of his actions to seem real to him. In existential thought, this is an offense known as “being-for-others” (we’ll return to this later when we discuss Lacan). Hilbert no longer lives in a world where his actions and choices hold any real weight or significance. This lack of self-determination plunges Hilbert into a kind of moral nihilism, which only exacerbates his problems. Another significant element to note is the rise in power Hilbert feels as he buys a gun and brings it around with him wherever he goes. The angst or dread that follows—often described in existential circles as being a kind of “excitement or fear over the possibility of one’s own freedom”—is an important aspect of Hilbert’s condition. Furthermore, one would not have to use queer theory, nor is it beyond any stretch of the imagination, to assert that Sartre uses the gun here as a phallic symbol. For Hilbert, happiness truly is a warm gun, as the gun symbolizes the power he has always lacked socially and sexually. The fact that Hilbert makes prostitutes walk around naked at gun point, without letting them touch or look at him, is another teller. This voyeuristic behavior, according to Sartre, is a mechanism by which the individual avoids his or her own subjectivity—shirking responsibility—in order to live through the imagined subjectivity of another (Sartre, 1953, 244). Hilbert, it turns out, suffers in large part from a staggering lack of being (this “lack of being” doesn’t stem from any shortage of self-consciousness, but rather from a case of what I’ll call “mistaken identity,” in a Lacanian sense).

Hilbert’s crime, we come to find out, is not motivated by material gain or political ideology. What, then, is it motivated by? To start, let’s look at our protagonist’s own self-identification: Hilbert believes his crime is motivated by his “anti-humanism”. In the letter, he congratulates the famous authors for being humanists, for loving men. “You have humanism in your blood…” Hilbert writes, “You are delighted when your neighbor takes a cup from the table because there is a way of taking it which is strictly human… less supple, less rapid than that of a monkey” (Sartre 47). He goes on to sarcastically praise the authors for relieving and consoling the masses. “People throw themselves greedily at your books… they think of a great love, which you bring them and that makes up for many things, for being ugly, for being cowardly, for being cuckolded, for not getting a raise on the first of January” (Sartre, 1948, 48). These sound like Hilbert’s own problems. Later in the letter, Hilbert explains his own hatred of humanity. “I cannot love them… what attracts you to them disgusts me… men chewing slowly, all the while keeping an eye on everything, the left hand leafing through an economic review. Is it my fault I prefer to watch the sea-lions feeding?” (Sartre, 1948, 48). Given this, it would be a mistake to equate Hilbert’s anti-humanism to misanthropy. The word “misanthrope” is normally an intellectual self-label, which is defined by a general disgust with the thoughtlessness or lack of social awareness perceived in others. As Moliere notes in his Les Misanthrope: “I detest all men; Some because they are wicked and do evil, Others because they tolerate the wicked” (Moliere, I.i.). Hilbert, on the other hand, is not a misanthrope; he is a self-reflective watcher, a voyeur. And his anti-humanism—his “all-too-humanness” as he puts it it—seems to involve the hatred of those physical and emotional qualities which he observes in others, and which he himself cannot experience (Sartre, 1948, 48). Hilbert’s condition is strikingly similar to Sartre’s analysis of the poet Baudelaire. “For most of us,” Sartre contends, “it is enough to see the tree or house; we forget ourselves” (Sartre, 1950, 22). Baudelaire, however, “was the man who never forgot himself” (Sartre, 1950, 22). Hilbert, likewise, is too self-conscious to experience normal human emotions. He does not simply see things; but sees himself seeing things. As such, he has lost the unselfconscious grace and naturalness he so despises in others.

This deep self-consciousness, this narcissism, is something that alienates Hilbert, and makes normal communication with others almost impossible. If we asked Lacan, he would probably point us to the mirror phase and the imaginary order, which are both significant in Hilbert’s case. The mirror phase refers to a period in psychosexual development, when “the child for the first time becomes aware, through seeing its image in the mirror” (Homer 24). For Lacan, this marks the emergence of the ego, as the child realizes it can control the movements of this new image. This should not be confused with the advent of “selfhood,” but rather it is a moment of profound alienation, where we actually mistake this new mirror-image for our “self” (Homer 25). According to Lacan, the mirror phase creates a rivalry between the subject and its reflection (the “ideal-I”); this same rivalry then manifests in “future relations between the subject and others” (Homer 26). The subject will then try to develop a sense of its ideal-I by relying on others for reinforcement (Sharpe, Web.). This phenomenon of loss and lack and desire for wholeness is known as the “imaginary” realm. But what does this have to do with our protagonist? Hilbert, it seems, illustrates an extended form of this basic discord. The ideal-I, since it fails to correspond to Hilbert’s existence—that is, he can never become whole with it—in turn breeds frustration, jealousy, and insecurity. Hilbert therefore secretly rejects and flees from his ideal-I—since it cannot “measure up” and isn’t being reaffirmed by other social beings (Zeurn, Web.). There are many ways that the subject attempts to deal with the lack associated with this phenomenon. In “Erostratus,” Hilbert attempts to repair this lack by turning away from others, and claiming to be an anti-humanist; this is something psychologists refer to as a cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a mechanism the mind constructs to deal with two conflicting paradigms which can potentially harm the individual’s self-esteem. In Hilbert’s case, his anti-humanism is a defense mechanism which arises from being continually unwanted by others (i.e. when the fox cannot reach the grapes, he concludes the grapes were probably sour anyways).

In Lacan’s psychoanalytic model, the “mirror” and “imaginary” stages are important keys to understanding a character like Hilbert, because they point to a specific time in the early development of the “I” where something has “gone wrong” (Zeurn 21). Of course, when we say “wrong”, we are not making some normative claim to objective truth, but simply targeting the moment in Hilbert’s development which deviates from the psychosocial norm. But there is more to our protagonist’s case than that. At the outset, we get a glimpse of Hilbert interacting with others the only way he knows how—by watching them from his seventh story window:

You really have to see men from above. [T]hey never suspected for a moment you could watch them from up there. They’re careful of their fronts, sometimes their backs, but their whole effect is calculated for spectators about five feet high… They neglect protecting their heads and shoulders… they don’t know how to fight this enemy of Humanity, the downward perspective. I leaned on the window sill and began to laugh: where was this wonderful upright stance they’re so proud of: they were crushed against the sidewalk and two long legs jumped out from under their shoulders. On a seventh floor balcony: that’s where I should have spent my whole life. (Sartre 41)

Though Hilbert claims he hates humanity: Isn’t it peculiar that he should wish to spend his entire life watching humanity from above?—from above, where he is superior; where he is untouchable; where he is God. Again we see a fleeing of the ideal-I, as Hilbert explains his strange attraction to looking down at men: “But what exactly is my superiority over men? Superiority of position, nothing more: I have placed myself above the human within me and I study it” (Sartre, 1948, 41). This is a significant piece of evidence for our case because it sets the stage for our understanding of Lacan’s next principle, which is the symbolic order.

The symbolic order, according to Lacan, is the time when the child enters into language, and learns to adhere to the rules or the order of society (Homer 43-44). “[O]nce symbols have appeared,” writes Homer, “everything will be ordered, or structured, in accordance with those symbols and the laws of the symbolic, including the unconscious and human subjectivity” (Homer 43-44). So while the ideal-I belongs to the “imaginary,” the social-I is what corresponds to the “symbolic” (Zeurn 21). But, as we discussed, Hilbert’s psyche has turned away from its ideal-I, in an attempt to reduce harmful dissonance—in fact, Hilbert has clearly spent much of his adult life, as he puts it, “above the human within”—which has interrupted a transition that is vital for healthy social behavior. John Zeurn elaborates on this point: “A critical juncture in this process—the point at which much can “go wrong”—is the transition out of the mirror stage… when the ‘specular I’ gives way to the ‘social I’ and the initial identification of the infant with her Ideal-I becomes inflected by cultural norms, conventions, and expectations” (Zeurn 21). In other words, an important part of the transition we discussed, and the subsequent relationship between the ideal-I and the social-I, is that the subject develop if not a healthy, then at least a working self-image or self-conception (Lacan 1286). Though this involves the “imaginary” and the ideal-I, it only becomes complete once the ego (a function of the imaginary) has immersed itself into the symbolic, which occurs through language and interaction with others (Homer 44). And this also marks the deviation of Hilbert’s patterns of desire from what we would consider the “norm”. Sean Homer explains: “[L]anguage [is the way] through which the desires of others are articulated and through which we are forced to articulate our own desire” (Homer 44). In this way, while Hilbert believes himself to be a man above humanity, he is really only a subject that has been molded by humanity. In fleeing from his ego, rejecting his ideal-I, and playing the part of the fixated watcher, his social-I becomes defined entirely by a “radical otherness” (Homer 44). In plain terms, while Hilbert claims to be a being above humanity, his true being (or lack of being) is defined almost solely in relation to the Other—which is fairly ironic.

Indeed, it is well known that Lacanian psychoanalysis and existential psychoanalysis do not always see eye to eye. Much of this has to do with each school’s take on the unconscious and the “self” [while existentialists spend a great deal of time on the self and downplay the impact of the unconscious, Lacan is an outspoken proponent of Freud’s notion of the unconscious, and basically denies the existence of the “existential self,” placing it instead largely on the shoulders of the symbolic[1]] (Homer 45). Nevertheless, the two systems work together quite well in this study—one locating the problem, and the other, in a sense, pathologizing it, or at least taking a normative stance on the matter. The lonely Hilbert lives in and through others, yet hides from others; this creates a very interesting psychic dynamic. Though he is overly self-conscious, this consciousness is of a “self” entirely created through the Other. Hilbert’s attitude, then, revolves around a kind of violent disgust with himself, which he misplaces in others. Much of it stems from the cognitive dissonance he experiences, but this mechanism itself seems to arise from events related to the mirror phase, and the transition from the imaginary to the symbolic order. In the end, however, we are left with one question: Is there any hope for our protagonist? When we reach the end of “Erostratus” we are left with the image of Hilbert “grasping for breath”, as he considers shooting himself with his last bullet (Sartre, 1948, 54). In the final paragraph, thinking of the man he just shot, Hilbert shows us the first signs of any kind of moral conscience or awareness: Pointing the gun at his head, Hilbert desperately wants know if he has killed the big man. He hopes, “Maybe I only wounded him…” (Sartre, 1948, 54).

English: drawing for The New York Times


Homer, Sean. Jacques Lacan. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed inPsychoanalytic Experience. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent

B. Leitch et al. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 1286. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Baudelaire. Trans. Martin Turnell. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1950. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existential Psychoanalysis. Trans. Hazel Barnes. New York: Philosophical Library, 1953. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, and Lloyd Alexander. The Wall, and Other Stories. Trans. Lloyd Alexander. New York: New Directions, 1948. Print.

Sharpe, Mathew. “Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.” Lacan, Jacques. IEOP, 7 Nov. 2002. Web. 13 Mar. 2013.

Zuern, John. “Lacan: The Mirror Stage.” CriticaLink . University of Hawaii. Web. 10 Oct.  2009.<http://www.english.hawaii.edu/criticalink/lacan/index.html&gt;.

[1] See Homer: “Lacan de-essentializes the ‘I’ and prioritizes the symbolic, the signifier, over the subject. It is the structure of language that speaks the subject and not the other way around.”

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