CriticaLink | Spivak: Echo | Reading Guide for Pages 22-25

As Freud and Lacan use an approximation of the Narcissus narrative for ethical instantiation, they ignore its framing. . . .

Spivak's research into the Narcissus myth turns up the same tendency to ignore Echo as she finds in the work of Freud and Lacan. Including her own reflections on Narcissus in this survey of the field, Spivak quotes from a ten-year-old unpublished manuscript, in which she examines the punishments and rewards meted out to the character of Tiresias. The narrative frame of the Echo and Narcissus myth, with its stories of deception, rape, punishment, and reparation, comes to represent the "frame" of the history of patriarchy, colonialism, and violence within which Spivak situates her investigation of ethics.

Within this context, Narcissus represents "the construction of self as object of knowledge" (23), while Echo represents a subjectivity that lies outside the perimeter of this self-knowledge. Her exclusion, which relegates her to an apparently passive subject who can only "respond" to the voice of the empowered, self-knowing subject, actually becomes a kind of "dubious reward" insofar as the incongruence of her echoing (its différance) with the "original" utterance destabilizes the knowledge of the questioner.

Spivak moves between a close reading of Ovid's Latin and the elaboration of a concept of the bounds of self-knowledge. The ultimate limit (and the ultimate truth) of self-knowledge, she determines, is death. Within Freudian psychoanalysis, the narcissistic ego represses the fact of its mortality (along with the drives of basic human animality, mortality is a component of the id--Es in Freud's German). Looking for an alternative to this psychological model of the subject's confrontation with mortality, Spivak turns to the figure of Mary Oraon in "The Hunt," a story by the Indian writer Mahasweta Devi. Mary Oraon, like other subaltern characters in Devi's work, wields her mortality, the possibility of "not being," in an ethical challenge to the colonial system of violence and repression into which she has been born.

A discrepancy within the grammar of Ovid's tale opens a deconstructive reading of the text. The Latin conjugation of the verb "to fly" denies Ovid the possibility of having Echo exactly "echo" the final lines of Narcissus's question "why do you fly from me?" with the phrase "fly from me" in an (ironic) imperative form. The narrator has to intervene to report that Echo has said "fly from me" in order to achieve the particular tragic irony. (In the Melville translation, the line is "Why run away?"). There is a gap between what Narcissus says and what Echo "would have been able to echo". In this gap lies Echo's deconstructive power, to differ from Narcissus. Even her death is different from Narcissus's: Narcissus "remains" as the flower, still reflected in the pool. Echo, on the other hand, "remains" as a voice cut off from the body, in which form she resembles the signifier which, from the viewpoint of deconstruction, is cut off from its original referent and subjected to the play of différance.