Nude Descending a Staircase

Marcel Duchamp,

Nude Descending a Staircase, detail

Reading Joan of Arc and Marguerite Porete with Jacques Lacan: Heresy, Desire, Ethics, Sublimation

Hear, if you will, the beginnings of a conversation: 


1. Joan of Arc: Question at Trial: “Do you know if you are in the grace of God?”

Joan of Arc: “If I am not, may God place me there; if I am, may God so keep me. I should be the saddest in all the world if I knew that I were not in the grace of God. But if I were in a state of sin, do you think the Voice would come to me? I would that every one could hear the Voice as I hear it. I think I was about thirteen when it came to me for the first time.” from The Trial of Joan of Arc 

2. Lacan: "...there must be a jouissance which goes beyond. That is what we call a mystic." from Encore 

3. Marguerite Porete: "Now this Soul, says Love, is so burned in Love’s fiery furnace that she has become very fire, so that she feels no fire, for in herself she is fire, through the power of Love which has changed her into the fire of Love. This fire burns of and through itself, everywhere, incessantly, without consuming any matter or being able to wish to consume it, except only from itself; for whoever feels some perception of God through matter which he sees or hears outside himself, or through some labor which he there performs of himself is not all fire; rather, there is some matter, together, with the fire.” from The Mirror of Simple Souls 

4. Lacan: "These mystical ejaculations are neither idle gossip nor mere verbiage, in fact they are the best thing you can read...Add the Ecrits of Jacques Lacan, which is of the same order." from Encore 

5. Joan of Arc: “You may well ask me some things on which I shall tell you the truth and some on which I shall not tell you. If you were well informed about me, you would wish to have me out of your hands. I have done nothing except by revelation.” from The Trial of Joan of Arc 

6. Porete: "But he who burns with this fire without seeking such matter, without having it or wanting to have it, sees all things so clearly that he values them as they must be valued. For such a Soul has no matter in her which prevents her from seeing clearly, so that she is alone in it through the power of true humility; and she is common to all through the generosity of perfect charity, and alone in God, since Perfect Love has taken possession of her.” from The Mirror of Simple Souls 

7. Lacan: "From an analytic point of view, the only thing one can be guilty of is having given ground relative to one's desire." from The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 

This monthly reading group will discuss the texts and the speech of Joan of Arc and Marguerite Porete, two prominent French medieval mystics and martyrs, in conjunction with close readings of selections from Lacan's Encore (Seminar XX) and The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (Seminar VII). We'll explore some of the ways in which Lacan’s extraordinary work on feminine sexuality and ethics is both challenged and affirmed by Porete’s and Joan’s equally extraordinary texts and testimony. Here are some of the questions we'll discuss: 

1. How do Porete’s writings and Joan of Arc's testimony both problematize and amplify

Lacan's writings on feminine sexuality and jouissance? What does their speech contribute to our understanding of a perhaps "feminine" relation to the Other, and to its symbolization? 

2. Might the allegory of the soul's progress towards God, as described and inscribed by Porete, also be considered an allegory of psychoanalysis and the analysand's progress towards the end (and ends) of Lacanian psychoanalysis? 

3. Both Marguerite Porete and Joan of Arc were accused of lesbianism and bi-sexuality; Joan of Arc's insistence on cross-dressing was an important issue in her trial. Do Lacan's writings on feminine sexuality help and/or hinder understanding these issues, especially with respect to gender and object-choice? 


4. In what ways does the profound and complex relationship with God that both Porete and Joan articulate challenge or affirm Lacan's theses regarding ethics? Might Lacan's interpretations of Antigone's tragedy also apply to Porete and Joan of Arc? 

5. Does Lacan's discussion of feminine jouissance and knowledge imply an "ethics of (feminine) sexuality" as well as of psychoanalysis? If so, how might it be manifest in the writings and acts of Porete and Joan of Arc? 


Required readings: 

The Trial of Joan of Arc, Trans. and introduced by D. Hobbins, Harvard Univ. Press, 2005. This recent edition of Joan of Arc's trial includes important introduction and commentary. Please read this edition. The entire book is recommended, but pages 1-132 and 166-203 are essential. 

The Mirror of Simple Souls, Marguerite Porete, translated and introduced by Ellen L. Babinsky, Paulist Press, 1993. Please read this edition. Selections to be announced. 

Lacan, Seminar XX, Encore, trans. Bruce Fink, Norton, 1998. 

Lacan, Seminar V11, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, trans. Dennis Porter, Ed. J.A. Miller, Norton, 1997. Readings: "The Essence of Tragedy: A Commentary on Sophocles' Antigone" and "The Tragic Dimension of Psychoanalytic Experience," Pp. 243-325. 

Faculty: Barbara Claire Freeman, PhD

Dates and Time: Our first meeting will be in September and we can meet either bi-weekly or monthly, depending on the groups' preferences. Here are the days and times we can meet: 

1) Alternate Wednesdays from 5 to 7 (or 8, if monthly), beginning October 6.) Ben Davidson's reading group meets every Wednesday in September so we would need to meet on another evening in September).

2) Alternate Thursdays evenings, from 5 to 8 if monthly, or 5 to 7 (or 6 to )8 if bi-weekly. Starting date to be determined depending upon the dates Marcelo Estrada's Seminar meets. 

3) Sunday evenings, times as above. 

We will decide on the date and time during our first meeting. Please let me know your preferences when you contact me.

Contact: Barbara Claire Freeman at

(510) 525-4470

Location: Online

Fees: Free of charge

Barbara Claire Freeman is a literary critic and professor of literature and rhetoric who has recently turned her full attention to writing poetry. She is the author of The Feminine Sublime: Gender and Excess in Women’s Fiction (UC Press), among other works of literary theory, and psychoanalytic and gender studies. Her essays have appeared in Diacritics, Yale Journal of Criticism, and Subs-Stance, among many others. She is the recipient of a Woodrow Wilson Women's Studies Research Grant and a French Government Fulbright Grant, among other awards. Formerly an Associate Professor of English and American Literature at Harvard University, she was the founder and chair of the "Psychoanalysis and Culture" monthly seminar at Harvard's Humanities Center, and is especially proud to have taught the first class in Queer Theory offered at Harvard. She currently teaches creative writing in the Rhetoric Department at UC Berkeley, and is the author of the following poetry collections: Every Day But Tuesday (Omnidawn Press, 2015), Incivilities (Counterpath Press, 2009) and two chapbooks: #343 (Chapvelope Press, 2014) and St. Ursula’s Silence (Instance Press, 2010). Selections from these collections won the Boston Review/Discovery Prize and the Campbell Corner Prize (Sarah Lawrence College).