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Synopsis of Jean Reboul, ‘Sarrasine, ou la castration personifiée’

[‘Sarrasine, or Castration Personified’]

CpA 7.5:91–96

Reboul’s text appears with Jacques Nassif’s Le fantasme dans ‘On bat un enfant’ (CpA 7.4) under the rubric ‘Sur le fantasme’ [On fantasy]. The text is a reading of Honoré de Balzac’s novella, ‘Sarrasine’, first published in 1830.1 Reboul notes that three lines by Georges Bataille put him on the trail of ‘Sarrasine’.2 The essay is a poetically written interpretation of Balzac’s text from a Lacanian perspective.

‘Sarrasine’ is a text in two parts, and Reboul’s text is a commentary. The first half of Balzac’s story takes place at a ball in Paris at the house of the wealthy de Lanty family. It is around midnight, and Balzac’s narrator is seated by a window, with the luxuriant warmth of the ball on the one side, and ‘spectral trees’ outside on the other. His feeling of ‘dissociation’, as if he is ‘between life and death’, will be clarified by ‘the progressive unveiling of the situation’ (CpA 7.5:92). A guest of the narrator’s is struck by the appearance of a strange old man, who, in stark contrast to the party, ‘evokes the image of a vampire, ghoul and artificial man’. His movements are heavy, and, as Balzac describes them, have ‘the stupid indecision that characterises the gestures of a paralytic’ (Balzac). The guest asks to be told the story of this man.

In the second part of Balzac’s text, we hear about a young sculptor, Ernest-Jean Sarrasine. It is the mid-eighteenth century. Sarrasine begins life as the only child of a wealthy prosecutor. An unruly child, he is sent to a Jesuit school, where ‘he only wanted to study in a way that pleased him, and often rebelled and remained sometimes for hours on end deep in vague meditations, occupied at times in looking at his friends when they were playing, and at other times imagining to himself the heroes of Homer’.3 He becomes a sculptor, apprenticed to the famous Bouchardon, who becomes his mentor. Beset by ‘furious moods’, he works away morning and night, removed from all other human contact, ‘in profound ignorance of the facts of life’.4 In 1758 makes a visit to Rome as part of his education. One evening he visits the theatre, where he is entranced by the ‘ideal beauty’ of one particular singer, Zambinella.

Zambinella revealed to him those exquisite proportions of the female being that are so passionately desired, combined together in a really living and subtle way, and of which a sculptor is, at the same time, the severest and most impassioned judge. The mouth was expressive, the eyes full of love, and the complexion of a dazzling whiteness. And one must combine with these details, which would have delighted a painter, all the wonders of the Venuses revered and rendered by the chisels of the Greeks. The artist could not stop admiring the inimitable elegance with which the arms were attached to the bust, the magnificent curve of the next, the gracefully drawn lines of the eyebrows, of the nose, and then the perfect oval of the fact, the purity of its clear outline, and the effect of the thick curved eyelashes, which ended in large voluptuous eyelids. It was more than a woman, it was a masterpiece!5

Reboul notes that the vision portrays a corps morcelé, or ‘fragmented body’.6 Up until that point, Sarrasine had ‘lived amongst deceiving mirrors’ which never offered themselves to him, fragmented ex-voto statues ‘dedicated to the exquisite ruins of a disarticulated Eros’ (CpA 7.5:94), beholden to the idea of an ‘impossible object’ that would unite these fragments. All of his works were abortive ‘restorations’, attempts to gather up the multiple pieces of a childlike ‘Fort!’ into the ‘Da!’ of a human totality.7. What he sees on the stage is something unbelievable: ‘a complete woman’ [une femme entière]. ‘Out of a partial and metonymic desire of the object, he bonds with the specular image of a structured being, and projected into this other little imaginary, he constitutes himself at the same instant that the other finally appears to him as constituted’ (94).

Sarrasine falls in love with Zambinella and courts her, but she is strangely reluctant to engage with him. Then one evening he is invited to see Zambinella, but she still repels his advances. ‘You are French, and your feelings will pass’, she says. ‘You would not love me as I would like to be loved’. In response to his further imprecations, Zambinella then exclaims: ‘I detest men perhaps more than I hate women. I need to take refuge in friendship. The world is a desert for me. I am a cursed creature, condemned to understand happiness, to feel it, to desire it, and, like so many others, forced to see it flee from me all the time […] If I were to tell you one thing, you would push me away from you in horror’.8 Sarrasine says that nothing could frighten him. Then Zambinella says, ‘what if I were not a woman?’ At first Sarrasine obstinately misrecognises the situation. With some friends, he resolves to abduct Zambinella. When the night comes, he enters the palace where she has an appointment to sing. She arrives on the stage and Sarrasine is struck by the oddity that she appears to be dressed like a man. He asks an audience member why Zambinella is dressed in this way. ‘You’re joking’, the man replies, ‘Where do you come from? Has a woman ever mounted the stage in the theatres of Rome? Don’t you know by what kind of creatures the roles of women are performed in the Papal State?’9 The word castrato is not pronounced, but Sarrasine’s mistake finally dawns upon him when he abducts the singer. He explodes in fury: ‘You are nothing. If you were a man or a woman, I would kill you!’ According to Reboul, what he says next ‘shows the profundity of his identification and the anxiety tied to the fantasies he has reactivated’ (95): ‘You have brought me down to your level. To love and be loved are from now on words without any meaning for me, as they are for you. I shall constantly think of that imaginary woman, when I see a real woman’.10

In effect, Sarrasine encounters a double manifestation of castration: he is returned to the status of the ‘barred subject’, faced with ‘the signifier that comes from the other’ (95). ‘Real castration here rejoins the imaginary lack of the maternal phallus’. Zambinella is in a position where she/he has to hide from society, because her very form exposes the world to the loss of the phallus, and proclaims a ‘being-for-castration’ that supervenes on ‘being-for-death’. Zambinella is ‘castration personified’. Sarrasine, meanwhile, is the bearer of ‘an uncertain penis’. Having avoided the test of symbolic castration, he ends up encountering lack and castration ‘in the real’ [dans le réel] (96). His narcissism fragments before a ‘profaned mirror’. He cannot re-appropriate himself as a desiring being, and now, insofar as the imaginary other literally does not have the phallus, he becomes permanently ‘excluded’ from possessing a ‘specular other’. ‘For him, there are no more women, nothing but mutilated men’. Hence the shadowy, vampiric apparition at the ball at the beginning of the story. ‘Castration and death, the fatal cycle is closed’ (96).

By encountering castration in the real in the story, we are returned to the underlying symbolic lack implied in the ‘Chè vuoi?’ (‘What do you want from me?’) of the primal encounter with the Other.11 ‘Man does not know exactly what he wants and the question can only remain the question of the question, that of lack, of the impossible, the lost object, and its eternally inadequate substitutes’ (96).

Roland Barthes said he was inspired to write S/Z, his structuralist analysis of Balzac’s ‘Sarrasine’, after reading Reboul’s essay in the Cahiers.12


English translation:


Selected secondary sources:

  • Balzac, Honoré., ‘Sarrasine’. Revue de Paris, 21/28 November, 1830. ‘Sarrasine’, trans. David Carter. London: Hesperus, 2007.
  • Barthes, Roland, S/Z. Paris: Seuil, 1973. S/Z, trans. Richard Miller. Oxford: Blackwell, 1974.
  • Bataille, Georges. Le bleu du ciel Paris: Pauvert, 1957. Blue of Noon, trans. Harry Matthews. London: Marion Boyars, 1979.
  • Citron, Pierre. ‘Interprétation de Sarrasine’, A.B. 1972.
  • Lacan, Jacques. ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience’ in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink, in collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.
  • ---, ‘Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis’ in Écrits
  • ---, ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious’ in Écrits


1. First published in the Revue de Paris (21 and 28 November, 1830). Reboul notes that Balzac wrote the text a year after the death of his father. In 1831, it was republished in Balzac’s Romans et Contes philosophiques, vol. 2. In 1835, it was reprinted as the third novella in volume 2 of Balzac’s Scènes de la vie parisienne. In 1844, Balzac reclassified the latter volume, including ‘Sarrasine’, as volume 10 of his series La Comédie Humaine.

2. In the ‘Avant-propos’ of >Le Bleu du ciel [Blue of Noon], Bataille describes ‘Sarrasine’ as one of the ‘summits’ of La Comédie Humaine, and as a text that, along with Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, and Proust’s Recherche du temps perdu, has ‘marked our culture’.

3. ‘Sarrasine’, 20.

4. ‘Sarrasine’, 23; CpA 7.5:93

5. ‘Sarrasine’, 25.

6. In his discussion of the fantasies of the corps morcelé in ‘Aggressiveness in Psychoanalysis’ (1948), Lacan says that such ‘phantasmagorias crop up constantly in dreams, especially when analysis appears to reflect of the backdrop of the most archaic fixations’ (E, 105). Cf. also ‘The Mirror Stage’, E, 97.

7. A reference to Freud’s account of the child’s ‘fort-da’ game in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (SE 18: 14-16).

8. ‘Sarrasine’, 36; 94

9. ‘Sarrasine’, 40; 95.

10. ‘Sarrasine’, 43; 95

11. On the phrase ‘Chè vuoi’, see Lacan, ‘The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire’ (E, 815).

12. ‘The text I have chosen (Why? All I know is that for some time I have wanted to make a complete analysis of a short text and that the Balzac story was brought to my attention by an article by Jean Reboul, who in turn is supposed to have been inspired by Georges Bataille’s reference; and thus I was caught up in this “series” whose scope I was to discover by means of the text itself) is Balzac’s “Sarrasine”’, S/Z, trans. Richard Miller, 16.