The law of the mother (notes on MacLeod’s The House of Yes)

How is it possible for psychoanalysis to speak of a “law of the mother”? Could Lacan have been right? Is such a law not the law of a prohibition but the “just barely” … Real? This is at least a hypothesis.

The experiment begins with graffiti on a bathroom wall: “We are living in a house of yes”. The location of this utterance effectively erases its initial meaning—not so much the fact that it is written in a bathroom (even though the bathroom is exemplary site of the legal “no”) but that it is a public utterance. The interpellated “we” cannot be those who live in a “house of yes”.

But what is the “house of yes”? Two tropes are juxtaposed here. On the one hand the house is not an economic site if for no other reason than that to speak of a house necessarily requires the entry of a third. In politics the third takes the form of law (public/private); in literature the third usually takes the form of a narrator or some other character (in MacLeod’s work, to which we shall turn shortly, it is of course Lesly). There is no house (i.e., the institution of the family) without the entry of the third party.*

*A brief synopsis of relevant features of the play: Marty arrives home on Thanksgiving, eagerly awaited by his mother (Mrs. Pascal), twin sister (Jackie), and younger brother (Anthony). To the family’s surprise, he brings his fiancee Lesly, who threatens the health of the family and, in particular, Jackie who has always wanted her brother for herself. Jackie had recently been released from a mental hospital and Anthony has dropped out of Princeton to be with the family. Mr. Pascal so no longer with the family, we are told, either because he left them on the day of the Kennedy assassination or because he was shot by Jackie (which is presumably the reason she was institutionalized). After the assassination, Jackie and Marty had made a game of re-enacting the Kennedy assassination (hence Jackie prefers to be called Jackie O) as a sort of foreplay to their relationship. To get rid of Lesly, Jackie convinces Anthony to seduce her, but the only way he is able to do so is to reveal the nature of Marty’s past relationship with Jackie (which he himself had just discovered). Lesly sees the Kennedy re-enactment (confirming Anthony’s accusations) and confronts Marty, who begs her to take him away from the family. Mrs. Pascal insists that Lesly leave, and Anthony tries to convince Lesly to take him away instead of Marty. Sending everyone out of the room, Marty confronts Jackie, but Jackie begins the re-enactment again, only with real bullets. Marty, knowing that the gun is loaded, agrees to do it “one more time”.

But it is also the third party that redoubles the “yes” and, consequently, allows the “yes” to appear (“just barely”). As Anthony reveals, Lesly is the first guest ever to enter the house (Scene 2). But in this case it is Lesly who attempts to pronounce the prohibition. But why? Mrs. Pascal tells us:

“My husband. Precisely. I didn’t know he was my one great passion until he was gone. Until he was one my one great passion was the man I met that night at a party. My one great passion was any man I met that night at a party who could use a new adjective to describe me. I have no idea who my children belong to. All I know for sure is that Jackie and Marty belong to each other. Jackie’s hand was holding Marty’s penis when they came out of the womb. The doctors swore to me. It’s in some medical journal somewhere.” (Scene 1)

But what is this “yes”? Although Mrs. Pascal tells Lesly that “Jackie can have everything her way. She always has” (Scene 10), she never names the forbidden relationship between the siblings, even when Lesly attempts to do so: “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. / Lesly: I’m sure you do. / Mrs. Pascal: Sure? One can never be sure” (Scene 9).

The relationship is doubly mediated by the repetition of the particular fantasy of the Kennedy assassination (it makes no difference if Mr. Pascal left the family on the day of the assassination as we are told or if he was shot by Jackie as is suggested). But the relationship remains impossible despite the repetition: Jackie (O) loads the gun and Marty allows her to pull the trigger—and in that moment what is impossible becomes possible and the Real bursts through … but just barely, not in pleasure but in blood.

This play admits no staging where the mother is permitted to weep at the final curtain. The mother imposes no authority—she does not succeed in banishing Lesly from her house, for example—nor does she strictly speaking sanction the incestuous relationship (insofar as she never names it). The mother can only stand witness (a witness, however, without testimony). It is only through this witness that the Real exists … but just barely, for the “yes” remains impossible, unspoken, except in the explosion of a gunshot.

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