11/12/21: _Cat People_ and the Terror of Feminine Jouissance

The meanings of the feminine in psychoanalytic theory have always been as multiplex as the vast quantity of psychoanalytic schools that have generated them. One element of the feminine nonetheless tends to broadly remain constant in psychoanalytic schools – the “feminine” is invariably figured as an alterity, an Otherness, that phallic desire is unable to completely assimilate. Freud’s bodily conception of castration anxiety, while often critiqued as being reductively misogynist, nevertheless recognizes the universality of castration, and the Real threat (in the form of a reminder) from the female body towards the male subject that “like the female subject, [he] has already been deprived of being” (Kaja Silverman, The Acoustic Mirror, 15). The (mis)recognition of a feminine lack (of the penis) thus figures itself symptomatically as a defense against the returned recognition of the absent phallic authority structuring (male) subjectivity itself. Moving from Freud to psychoanalytic theorists like Jacques Lacan and Julia Kristeva, the impermeably desired woman, as perpetual (M)other, is understood as a Symbolic position that eludes biological essentialism, and instead designates a field of subjective supplementarity. In its exploration of a kinship, and social order, menaced by the enigmatic jouissance of the woman, Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 low-budget horror classic Cat People is emblematic of the cinematic workings of the classical horror genre that produces images of excess, only to expel them from the (cinematic) world as a renunciation.

Cat People focuses on the relationship between the politely accommodating American Oliver, and the exoticized and mysterious Serbian immigrant Irena, who slowly become romantically involved and eventually married. Irena resists the temptations of affective “sins,” that are nonetheless normative through their very inevitability, such as erotic temptation and envy. Irena’s resistance is, for both the spectator and Oliver, suspiciously linked with her compulsion towards the image of the black panther and, moreso, towards the subjective myth of the cat people she claims to genetically descend from. Oliver, less violently involved with the hermeneutic decoding of Irena than, say, Mark is with Marnie from Hitchcock’s Marnie, sends Irena to a psychoanalyst, Dr. Judd, who blabbers on with stereotypical Freudian mimicry. Thus, the terror of Cat People, as Deborah Linderman rightly points out, is that the cat transformation is not symptomatic, as the devalued “endoscopic eye” (“Cinematic Abreaction,” 82) of the psychoanalyst claims, but that it is phenomenally Real. Cat People is disinterested with orthodox psychoanalytic attempts to reduce bodily effects to the realm of (repressed) Symbolic kinship, and instead posits the question: what if the “symptom” is truly a cause of a Real archaic genetic constitution that is only thought to be a phantasmatic production in the normative social order? Accordingly, Irena’s first murder following her transformation into a panther is, of course, the narcissistically duped psychoanalyst Dr. Judd himself. Nonetheless, the film’s replacement of the normative psychoanalytic question with the one described finds itself confused when it ties the genetic transformation, the involuntary becoming-cat, of Irena, to the consummation of affect. Cat People does not discard the behavioral factor of kinship, displacing psychoanalysis’ interest in the Symbolic workings of kinship to the Real of genetic influence. Still, by recapitulating to the salient effect of affect in Real transformation, Cat People merely begins to operate in the same interpretive space of psychoanalysis once again. One must remember that Irena’s “desire,” though not conscious, to give into affect is strengthened by her superego’s resistance, as shown through her refusal to acquiesce to Dr. Judd or any help offered to her, despite her obvious suffering. Also, Irena’s transformations, never directly depicted, are shown in (a) her envious stalking of Oliver’s coworker Alice and (b) when Dr. Judd attempts a countertransference, through kissing Irena, which leads to his death. So, oscillating between genetic and affective influence, Cat People never truly releases a hold on psychoanalysis, despite its representative mockery of it. This is all the more reason why, as Linderman aptly writes on, the cinema, attempting to replace psychoanalysis as a hermeneutic, instead re-places itself in the realm of the priestly function of orthodox psychoanalysis once again, “affirm[ing], as fiercely as those other exorcists it has supervened against, the cultural imperatives of exclusion” (83). The cinematic exclusion of Irena is depicted in the final scenes of Cat People, where Irena is knocked down and killed by a panther she releases from a zoo cage. After Irena is knocked down, the film shows the aftermath of the released panther first, depicting the town police finding its dead body after it is hit by a car (figure 1). Immediately following this image, when Oliver and Alice arrive to the panther section of the zoo in search of Irena, a distant image of Irena on the ground, as a nebulous black mass akin to the dead panther, is shown (figure 2). By both the metonymic succession of these images, and their imagistic similarity, Irena is, finally, excluded from the film as the the phobic object of pure jouissance, the animalistic panther itself. She does not die as Irena, the peculiar woman who is, firstly, the objet petit a of Oliver, but instead dies as her manifested death drive, what is in her more than her, the undifferentation of the human and the animal in the figure of the black panther.

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Irena’s jouissance, then, is a jouissance past the simple human capacities of desire, and is instead an inhuman pulsation thrusting her body towards an animalistic dislocation of the Symbolic world. Lacan’s primary ethical descriptions of this pure singular jouissance are clearly founded in his examination of Antigone in Seminar VII. Antigone is the embodiment of the death drive, acting upon the terrifying stain of her jouissance in her singular duty to bury her brother Polyneices; however, through the anamorphosis of this stain, Antigone’s beauty becomes the barrier between the (illusory) subject and the void of the mechanistic death drive that Antigone is possessed by. Antigone is truly the representative of a phobic object in every Symbolic Order, as she is the one who threatens the social world’s presumed Law, and thus threatens the constitution of stable subjectivity. Her jouissance is not universal and is not phallic. When reading Lacan, one musn’t forget that jouissance, while always being indicative of the dissolution of coherent identities, in its most universal form accedes to the jouissance of the (lost) phallus, associated with the aporias of the Symbolic Law. In contradistinction, Antigone’s jouissance is unlimited by the phallus, and signals the (non)presence of a jouissance unable to be discursively petrified: a feminine jouissance. To conceptualize feminine jouissance, one must begin with the Freudian differentiation between “having” and “being” the phallus, with relation to the Symbolic positions of man and woman. The male desires to be the phallus, while having the phallus, and thus desires to penetrate the female, the hole in the position of not-having the phallus. But the male’s desire to penetrate the lack of the (female) Other in order to be the phallus is founded, paradoxically, on the (female) Other being the phallus itself, as the (female) Other occupies the place of the desire of the (male) subject. From this, Lacan, going further than Freud ever could, makes the claim in Seminar X that “[woman] lacks nothing” (133), through her condition of being not-whole. The woman, then, enjoys without reference to the illusory mimesis of subjectivity with the phallus that constructs the social world. Feminine jouissance is unable to be spoken in the discourse of the Symbolic, and marks the singular (non)relation of every woman to their enjoyment, describing the non-totalizable feminine position in, through a de-inscribing from, the libidinal economy of (gendered) subjectivity.

One can connect the Symbolic terror of feminine jouissance with the shocking recognition of the Mother’s enjoyment, which signifies the retroactively constituted primordial moment that founds desire and the drive. The Imaginary stage of Lacanian psychoanalysis, as described in Lacan’s Mirror Stage, provides the subject stability through the anticipated (imagistic) coherence of self and the (M)other. Nonetheless, the stage denies “true” stability through the retroactive anxiety of falling into a corps morcelé (fragmented body), thus strengthening the imperative to secure the image as a whole. The anamorphotic security of Antigone’s image as beautiful provides the limit between knowing the feminine as the objet petit a, to be penetrated, and knowing the feminine as the terrorizing (and terroristic) materialization of an unstoppable mania. As Julia Kristeva, in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, inspects with great clarity, this antagonism is parallel to the distinction between the Mother as the impossible objet petit a in Imaginary relations and the Mother as associatively the not-I that must be “radically excluded” (2) in order to inaugurate Symbolic subjectivity. The Mother-as-abject is a production of the terrifying truth of being engulfed by the Mother’s desire, which results in the loss of subjective stability and meaning itself. Feminine jouissance, then, is, in the Symbolic Order, to be probed and known through the subject’s paranoid longing to be desired by the (M)other, as shown by Oliver’s jealousy of the obsession Irena has for the “myth,” but seemingly not for him (Oliver says to Irena in the beginning of the film that the familial cat people “myth” will, in some futurity, be subsumed as a story to be told to their grandchildren, thus enviously displacing Irena’s mythic obsession with a projected kinship narrative featuring him). But once feminine jouissance is recognized as unable to be assimilated with phallic jouissance, the woman ceases to be the objet petit a, and is instead figured as the abject (M)other that must be “radically excluded.” Irena’s jouissance, driving her through the bodily and psychic limit of the social world, terrorizing both the Symbolic and herself, reflects that, in the phallic founding of the Symbolic, “not even woman knows anything about [feminine jouissance], she simply experiences it when it occurs” (“The Kiss of the Panther-Woman,” Cristiana Cimino).

Cat People conjures Irena as, first, objet petit a, the beautiful image of enigma, then as the abject panther-woman, the bodily materialization that (Juddian) psychoanalysis disavows as being materially real. But, revitalizing the discourse of psychoanalysis by recapitulating to the question of affect, Cat People, re-figuring Irena as the objet petit a by Dr. Judd in his countertransferential kiss, doubly announces the necessity of her abjection. Which is to say that Cat People, and classical horror films more generally, views the remedial measures of psychoanalysis, even if figured as an exorcism, as too easy on the (feminine) (M)other. Exorcism (and the film’s representation of psychoanalysis) presupposes that there is a subject to be restored from the abject undifferentiation of the subject/object; the classical horror genre instead conjures up the image of a supposed fantasy that it filmically recognizes as being truly Real in every sense, and thus endorses not a traversal of fantasies, but the violent abjection of that Real phenomenal threat. Autonomy and the responsibility attached to causation is not Cat People‘s, as representative of the classical horror genre, interest: instead, violent abjection and the strengthening of the Symbolic Law is, through a filmic enjoyment of the aporias of the Symbolic.

Therefore, examining one of Cat People‘s only scenes depicting a (non)correspondence between the two central women of the film, Irena and Alice, is necessary to analyze how the film links an abject alterity with femininity. Alice is narratively figured in Cat People as the antithesis to Irena: she is blunt about her desires, and is visibly loving and caring to Oliver, and so Alice figures psychoanalytically as Oliver and the film’s transferentially projected Good Mother figure. More specifically, in the Imaginary realm, Alice is the filmic figure of the Mother that (impossibly) figures the child as her objet petit a, and provides an Imaginary stability to the child-subject who desires to be objet petit a. In the scene where Irena stalks Alice in a dark sidewalk, for a moment, the opposition between Irena/Alice can be read as dissolved, with the third term of (animal) feminine jouissance marking the distance between, and closeness of, the two women. The stalking scene features two parallel shots, the first operating in three stages, and the second operating in two stages. The first time the shot is shown, the frame depicts Alice walking to the right-exit of the frame (figure 1), followed by a linger on the wall structuring the background-limit of the sidewalk (figure 2), and then thirdly followed by Irena following Alice to the right-exit of the frame (figure 3). This is followed by two binary shots of Alice and Irena’s heels walking, providing the intradiagetic soundscape of the anxiogenic scene. Then, the first shot described is refigured by the camera, only this time with two stages instead of three. First, once again, we see Alice walking to the right-exit of the frame (figure 4), and then the camera lingers on the wall (figure 5), only this time for a longer time than in the first iteration of this shot. Irena does not arrive in a similar fashion as before, signifying, as shown in what follows when a panther growl audibly frightens Alice, Irena’s transformation into the panther. At the end of the scene, Alice is obviously unsettled by the incident as she gets on a bus for transportation to her residence, but Irena seems even more unsettled, in an obvious daze as she gets on a cab.

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As the the end of this scene refers us to, it must be said that Cat People places very little responsibility on Irena for her transformation towards destructive tendencies – she suffers from her transformation as much as anyone in the film suffers the consequences of her transformation. Thus, the stalking scene’s parallel, yet nonidentical, shots, and the conclusion of the scene, demonstrate that, while representing two very different feminine subjects, Alice and Irena’s similarity is founded on the inexplicability of feminine jouissance. In the context of the frame, the foregrounded background-limit of the bare wall, the pure materiality of a singular meaningless enjoyment, is the tertiary term that intervenes in blurring the Mother-Ideal (Alice) and the abject Mother (Irena). If “[i]t is not possible to write the subject woman because in the unconscious Woman does not exist, only Mother exists” (Ibid), the bare wall reflects both Alice and Irena’s inability to represent the Symbolically revered position of “having” the phallus, and being unable to be inscribed in the unconscious. However, in the Real position of “being” the phallus, not-lacking through being not-whole, the feminine, through an automatic feminine jouissance, is violently uninhibited by phallic authority, and, such as with Antigone, claims the authority of an immanent law beyond the Symbolic Law. This is the difference between Alice and Irena – Alice retains her status of the illusory Mother-Ideal, acceding to the phallic authority that requires abjection, while Irena, like Antigone, in her transformation that occurs beyond her self, rejects the futurity of the Symbolic and becomes-panther, driving towards annihilation.

In Cristiana Cimino’s essay “The Kiss of the Panther-Woman,” she describes, as an example of feminine jouissance, French archbishop François Fénelon’s controversial literary attempts to render a “pure love” singularly connected to an abandonment of self towards God. The ecclesiastical rejection of this exegesis is necessitated by Fénelon’s mythical challenge against “that form of extreme mastery that is [religious] knowledge” (Ibid). Thus, it is clear to see the link between Fénelon’s repudiated exhibition of a singularity in mythical experience and Cat People‘s insisted demarcation between the cat people’s mythical world of Serbia and the normative, “modern” world of America. The primeval Law of the Mother that dictates the cat people’s Serbia calls forth the conveyance of feminine jouissance that inoculates Irena, and installs itself as a foreign body in the normative American Symbolic. This mythic Law beyond the phallic Law is a category both non-totalizable and unknowable, representing a pure immanence that threatens the social order based on the transcendental Other (what Lacan calls the Big Other). Consequently, as explicated, Cat People, and the classical horror genre more broadly, repetitively basks in the filmic image of this immanent feminine jouissance, and then, ultimately rejecting the mythic singularity of transformative enjoyment, abjects the feminine, finally reproducing the excretory movements of “the main ideological project of the New World” (Linderman, 77).

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