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Thing, Mother, Eye: Marie Cardinal’s Words to Say It

By: Ilgın Yıldız

“I can’t just speak and say nothing. That’s how we lose ourselves, the poem and I, in the hopeless attempt to write things that burn.”
Alejandra Pizarnik, Extracting the Stone of Madness

Marie Cardinal’s autobiographical novel Words to Say It recounts her seven-year journey of undergoing psychoanalysis. This classic and cherished ‘memoir’ is narrated in a hauntingly beautiful language. The narrator explains that she has reached a cul-de-sac in her life and can no longer function. She has lost control of her body and of her mind, and a relentless terror has captured her: she is immensely afraid of ‘the Thing.’ Its presence is overwhelming, enthralling, tormenting.

The Thing exists only through its myriad reflections and resists direct contact. How might the narrator touch it, ‘say it’? Only indirectly, approaching it through metaphor, sickness, pain. If she is able to ‘say it’, she will also be able to explain her illness, sanity, mother, herself. The Thing is the permanent outside as it permanently stays outside the language. The narrative’s focal point is this very conflict with the outside. “If I opened my eyes I experienced the decomposition of the outer world (…) If I closed my eyes I experienced the decomposition of the inner world, of my cells and my flesh.”i Enigmatic and familiar, relentless and ever-consuming, the Thing pulls and pushes, encompasses and exiles. The narrator’s whole progress is “oriented around the Ding as Fremde, strange and even hostile on occasion, or in any case the first outside.”ii The narrative is a remembrance, an elegy and a lamentation of the Thing which is “strange to me, although it is at the heart of me.”iii Unveiling her ‘self’—tormenting pieces of identity information stacked upon one another: daughter, wife, mother- she finds solely the Thing. “It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced. Apprehensive, desire turns aside; sickened, it rejects.”iv What to do with the ob-jest which devours and begets itself? It is disguised as her mother above all, whom she must narrate to herself. She says that the Thing was always there, since early childhood. “It made itself known every time I displeased my mother or thought I did (…) the pleasures forbidden to me by my mother were the generators of the Thing.”v It is the negative space of the practical existence, the one of forbidden desire, threatening to leak and invade it through violent and abrasive bodily and mental acts, providing surplus-enjoyment through pushing and pulling the subject.

there is nothing either objective or objectal to the abject. It is simply a frontier, a repulsive gift that the Other, having become alter ego, drops so that “I” does not disappear in it but finds, in that sublime alienation, a forfeited existence. Hence a jouissance in which the subject is swallowed up but in which the Other, in return, keeps the subject from foundering by making it repugnant. One thus understands why so many victims of the abject are its fascinated victims—if not its submissive and willing

She recalls a memory. “Doing her peepee”, she looks in the hole underneath her. The dark dirty water. She is terrified of being sucked into the hole. The Thing lives there, or rather it is the Thing itself and it is also the treacherous womb, the most dangerous place. The water in the hole is also a mirror. Looking into it, perhaps she saw her own reflection, her double. She could have been the one to save her, “an insurance against the destruction of the ego”, but alas, she isn’t an “assurance of immortality”, it is “the ghastly harbinger of death.”vii The narrator, her double, and her mother are the one and the same Thing.

The mother -the Thing, the one target of narrator- must be faced and forgiven, punished and killed. She is ruthless, tormenting, demonic. And with her detest of uncleanliness, fear of becoming poor, class values and religion, she is pitiful as well. She has lost a daughter -the narrator’s bigger sister- who died from tuberculosis (the disease was transmitted from father to daughter). She saw her baby’s dead body, the true horror of “death infecting life…”viii She blames her husband for her daughter’s death, but surely not only him. She blames herself, her other daughter, the entire, irredeemable, fallen world. It is dirty and sinful. The germs are “everywhere. Every time your father coughs, he spits up danger (…) your sister died of it.”ix After losing her daughter, she was taken hostage by grief which resulted with the couple’s divorce. During the divorce procedure, however, she learned that she was pregnant with another child: she carried a baby while grieving for another baby. And even though she didn’t have an abortion -she believed it was sinful- she did everything to lose the child naturally. The narrator suffered an immense trauma after she learned she was an unwanted child. “I didn’t trust my mother. She tried to kill me off; she failed to deliver the blow. She mustn’t have another chance.”x The attempted murder has left the narrator with a profound self-disgust. “I could not be loved, I could not please her. I could only be rejected.”xi The mother lived with the ghost of that ideal daughter. “She would be carrying her until she died (…) I would have loved to be (…) dead. Then maybe she would love me as much as she did this little girl I had never known.”xii Being ‘ideal’ is synonymous with being dead.

The narrator explains that she knew there was something seriously wrong with her mother, and that she has a hard time focusing her affection to her other daughter. She is critical, contemptuous, demeaning. She lost the daughter she loved but couldn’t get rid of the daughter she didn’t want. After the love-object disappears, reality-testing demands the libidinal energy to be withdrawn from it but is met with opposition; “people never willingly abandon a libidinal position, not even, indeed, when a substitute is already beckoning to them.”xiii But the narrator also struggles with the loss of a love-object: her mother. In her case, “the object has not actually died, but has been lost as an object of love.”xiv

Still, the narrator’s language acts freely, unabashedly as she talks about her mother. She doesn’t hide herself despite feelings of shame, as the derogatory words she uses for herself at times “is at bottom said about someone else.”xv This other person is her mother. After the object-relationship with her mother is shattered, the free libido withdrew into the ego rather than being displaced to another object, leaving ego to identify with the lost object, the object-loss transforming into ego-loss, “the conflict between the ego and the loved person into a cleavage between the critical activity of the ego and the ego as altered by identification.”xvi Her ambivalent, violent relationship with her mother reinforces a narcissistic identification with the lost-object and “the hate comes into operation.”xvii The narrator’s hatred arises after she conceives what motherhood is and could be. “The hatred didn’t flower immediately (…) I was expecting my first child. Having a child in my womb made mother revolting to me. That poor bitch.”xviii (…) “What was going to happen to her on the outside where already she had been so mistreated? Tell me mother, did you know that you were pushing her into madness?”xix After the anger and fury, the process is finalised with the object being discarded as valueless.xx The narrator as analysand follows this axis, dethroning the object. “What I now remember of my mother is having loved her (…) then having hated her, and finally having abandoned her (…) which moreover, put a stop to my analysis.”xxi And only then, she is able to recover.

The narrator’s account of the ‘eye’ hallucination marks a breakthrough in her analysis. With her left eye, she sees normally but with her right eye she sees a tube “which advances to fit gently over my socket. When it’s in place I see an eye looking at me from the other end of the tube.”xxii What she feels is an immense shame. “I suffer more shame from the eye than from all the other manifestations of my illness.”xxiii Shame is associated with the superego, formed after the resolution of the Oedipus complex. “The ego ideal is therefore the heir of the Oedipus complex (…) By setting up this ego ideal, the ego has mastered the Oedipus complex.”xxiv

The narrator associates the word ‘tube’ with ‘tunnel’ and recalls a memory of a train journey with her mother and her nanny. Her mother and nanny take her to the toilet, clean it with alcohol. Her mother says that the toilet is crawling with germs; “they had already taught me that germs were those little creatures gnawing away at my father’s lungs and which had already killed my sister. I no longer wanted to go peepee, but I was afraid to say so.”xxv While waiting, her mother looks at her with a critical eye. The dark hole underneath her, another eye, threatening to suck her inside.

In another memory, while doing her “number one”, the narrator sees her father holding “a funny black thing in front of one of his eyes, a sort of metal animal which has an eye at the end of a tube.”xxvi He is holding a camera. It is as if he has borrowed the ever-watching mother’s eye. The narrator doesn’t want her father to see her and experiences a terrible anxiety. “I go towards my father, and I strike him with all my strength (…) I want to hurt him. I want to kill him!”xxvii Her rage is met with reprimands, and she feels ashamed and guilty. Superego is a substitute for a longing for the father, and “the tension between the demands of conscience and the actual performances of the ego is experienced as a sense of guilt.”xxviii Here lie the roots of her association of being watched and feeling guilty.

The trauma of the gaze is also apparent in her recurring dream of the horseman. She finds the horseman to be seductive because he doesn’t look at her. Similarly, while making love, she feels pleasure when she isn’t watched. She admits that when her illness became more severe, she could feel pleasure only by imagining that she was coupling with a dog. “It was simple enough: the dog couldn’t judge me (…) The look of a dog could neither humiliate nor hurt me.”xxix

The eye is essentially the m/other’s eye, the void the Thing occupies. It had birthed itself long before the narrator was born, leaving her with the only choice to control a dangerous outside, marked with her inability to proceed forward from a paranoid-schizoid position to a depressive position, rendering the splitting process problematic. In such a state, “schizoid mechanisms still remain in force, though in a modified form and to a lesser degree, and early anxiety-situations are again and again experienced in the process of modification.”xxx The good and bad poles of “the preambivalent infant” for whom “there is no trace of hate in the love it has for its good objects, and no trace of love in the hate it feels for its bad objects”xxxi, for whom “affects and experiences are sharply contrasted and absolute”xxxii has disappeared. Thus, the good and bad mother are merged, a balance may be restored in the narrator’s psyche. At last the ego is cohesive, the violent forces subdued. The narrator steps on the land, after a stormy journey. She dedicates the book to “the doctor who helped me born” as the analyst is the vessel to bring her back to life, deliver her from the ever-threatening womb.


Cardinal, M, The Words to Say It, trans. Pat Goodheart, Picador, London, 1984.

Freud S, “The Uncanny”, retrieved 6 April 2015,

“Mourning and Melancholia”, trans. J Strachey et. al., The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, London, 1914–1916.

“The Ego and the Id”, Peter Gay (ed.), The Freud Reader, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1989.

Lacan, J, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960, trans. W.W. Norton & Company, Routledge, London, 1992.

Klein, M, Envy and Gratitude and Other Works 1946-1963, Vintage, 1997.

The Ego and the Good Object, 1932-1960, International Universities Press, 1991.

Kristeva, J, Powers of Horror, An Essay on Abjection, Columbia University Press, trans. Leon S. Roudiez, 1982.


M Cardinal, The Words to Say It, trans. Pat Goodheart, Picador, London, 1984, p. 29.

ii J Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960, p. 52.

iii Lacan, p. 71.

iv J Kristeva, Powers of Horror, An Essay on Abjection, p. 1.

v Cardinal, p. 107.

vi Kristeva, p. 9.

vii S Freud, “The Uncanny”, p. 9, retrieved 6 April 2015,

viii Kristeva, p. 4.

ix Cardinal, p. 43.

x ibid., p. 146.

xi p. 107.

xii p. 145.

xiii S Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia”, The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 14, p. 244.

xiv ibid., p. 245.

xv p. 248.

xvi p. 249.

xvii p. 251.

xviii Cardinal, p. 104.

xix ibid., p. 105

xx Freud, p. 251.

xxi Cardinal, p. 54.

xxii p. 109.

xxiii p. 110.

xxiv S Freud, “The Ego and the Id”, The Freud Reader, W.W. Norton & Company, p. 3999.

xxv Cardinal, p. 111.

xxvi ibid., p. 109.

xxvii p. 113.

xxviii Freud, p. 3971.

xxix ibid., p. 129.

xxx M Klein, Envy And Gratitude And Other Works 1946-1963, p. 15.

xxxi M Klein, The Ego and the Good Object, 1932-1960, p. 15

xxxii ibid.

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