Ordinary Response to Enigma

Reflection on Merle Molofsky’s “Vin Ordinaire”

by Oren Gozlan, Psy.D, ABPP

published in the on-line journal “Moondance”, August 10, 2012

In “Vin Ordinaire” Merle Molofsky tells the story of an ordinary woman whose life is seemingly mundane, ruled by sameness. She frequents the same café, wears “good suits and sensible shoes” and even the wine she orders is called Vin Ordinaire. Like the predictable repetition of clock work she arrives again and again at the same destination.  Yet, a repeated encounter with a cook evokes longings, fears and doubt, and sets Willa’s sexuality in a search. The cook is present and titillating yet absent and withholding, giving rise to an aesthetic conflict. The ordinary facade is fractured by affect that takes hold slowly as Willa allows herself to be guided by her associations and imaginations. In the mediocrity of her experience we find the enigmatic details that open her repetition to childhood phantasies, part objects and images that merge in unpredictability. The cook, beautiful and fertile, is painfully present and agonizingly absent. Our Vin Ordinaire is besieged by the beauty of what remains hidden and uncertain. Through her aesthetic confusion over the enigmatic presence/absence of Alma, we too doubt her narcotizing ordinary presence.

Wilma becomes an enigma for the reader who is invited to the extraordinary phantasy of an ordinary woman in her struggle to make meaning of an encounter that also shakes her emotional boundaries. I imagine Merle’s café as a maternal space where the food is “good enough” but offers a sameness that feels like the rocking of a cradle.  Willa is a longing child mesmerized and frightened by the mother’s presence. The music reminds her of the kind she recalls hearing on dentist’s chair, images that weave pleasure with pain, taking in and pulling out. The cat-like mother seduces and frustrates, present and absent. What is hiding behind her skirt? Will she be punished?

Merle in this short story enacts the difficulty of encountering enigma and the paradox of imagination, which is in constant clash with reality. There is a repetition of an unremembered encounter, of unspeakable helplessness. Like the intertwining of wish and trauma in the working through of a dream, Willa’s encounters in Alma the underside of memory, the affective confusion that puts all affects in flux. It is no longer an ordinary love or hate, knowledge or mastery, but, as Meltzer reminds us, when the object is interesting to us we “wish to ascertain its authenticity, to know its depth. And at that moment we encounter the heart of its mystery, along with the severe limitations in our capacity for knowledge” ( pp.143-144).  What is it that Willa repeats and cannot remember?

Merle names the cook “Alma”  –  the Hebrew word for a young woman that also contains a mother (ma) within it. Merle’s inward gaze fluctuates from the titillating to the necrotizing; sending Willa towards and away from experience. As she opens herself up to the flux of her affects Willa deadens herself with ordinary reality: if she were to materialize the encounter with her Al/ma, what is going to be made of her? What would they speak about? Alma is simple yet grand. She is robust and full of life. Willa is gaunt, emaciated with hunger. If Alma get close, will Alma’s lust envelope her out of existence, or bring her back to life? Can they encounter each other’s otherness? As Wills swings from ideality to devaluation a pictographic image of sensuality emerges, fractured field of vision. Objects are closer than they appear but then they are made small and insignificant. No, she thinks, Alma is not interested in books; she is a woman of action. Is Alma a man or woman?

As Willa encounters the enigmatic Alma, we are led to ponder the nature of the aesthetic conflict, the impact of otherness and the capacity to experience mental pain and what precedes it: confusion, fear, helplessness, intrusion and guilt. There is a phantastical boundary, a zone that cannot be articulated in words that combines and separates Merle and Willa, the writer/subject from her narrative – a confusion that is also alienating; a union made of difference. Between boredom and exhilaration there is the ordinary dream like state, a transitory space that holds Willa and Alma, Willa and Merle, tenuously, in the moment. Through Willa’s pondering we are given a metaphor for the pulsating nature of history, that retunes in sensation, touch reaching beyond our comprehension presenting a problem of boundaries, as our memories, ideality and sensuality are suspended between knowledge and ignorance. The mind is observing its own observations while trying to flee them. Is Alma Willa’s otherness to whom she writes?

Perhaps it is writing itself that is Willa and Alma for the author; wish to encounter her enigmatic desire and an attempt to apprehend the desire – to fear it and hold it at once, through words. As the words lay on paper the phantasmic hold that grips them loosens. Characters are assigned, to test and retest boundaries. Writing itself is a Vin Ordinaire of desire, a repetition that transforms as it returns. We return again and again to the page yet our thoughts betray us, wandering away from us, becoming unrecognizable and foreign.  We cannot control what other thoughts they are going to encounter on their way, what theory is going to be made from these links and so, what theories are going to forever given up, replaced and lost. But words offer a containing response to the carelessness of our passion.

Perhaps Willa’s return like Merle’s writing is an act of repetition that is also a coming to terms with difference. Willa repeats what she cannot remember yet it is Merle’s act of writing that is a quest for gratitude; a wish for reparation that is placed in the past. Through Willa, Merle posits a metaphor for the analytic narrative as a psychic space of loss and a letting go.  Willa’s passivity is a condition for reception and conception, of coming to terms with the past and yet a willingness to open to its enigma. Through Willa’s stance we may ponder forgiveness as an ability to “be”, that is in close connection with the observer and creator and that can tolerate timelessness without collapsing into activity.

Merle’s “Vin Ordinaire” posits the work of mourning as a narration; a recounting that is never the same, that transforms moment to moment through language. Psychoanalysis as the work of letting go, a space where ties become uprooted from their saturated soil and imagined as more malleable is also a coming to terms with reparation that cannot repair.  Like Willa’s, our symbolic tie to the almighty ma (Alma) returns as hope for relationship; a blur between being and having that also structures our emotional world.  To symbolize is to open the psyche to time as an infinite struggle of letting go. And yet, analysis depends on a failure of cure and of the transference. Words fail to answer our search and yet transform our anticipation to desire through this very failure. Alma will never be comprehensible to Willa. But Willa has the courage to return to the place of missed understanding to ask “what will happen next”? Like the analytic reverie that is predicated upon a return, Merle’s narrative return contains the unknowable truth that cannot be anticipated.

Willa’s return animates the anxiety that pushes for repetition and the means of its transformation; a repetition that communicates and avoids communication. In her “ordinary” repetition that carries no intention we find a freedom to associate. But her routinized dream-like return to the café is also a return to the enigmatic other that is both present and absent, a return that carries the resistance to experience: a need for punishment, transference, repression and repetition compulsion.

Merle’s story carries the enigma inherent in narrating one’s experience, the conflation of life and death, the wish for mastery and its failure.  The analytic narrative contains this conflation of life and death: a wish for mastery that pushes the writer/ narrator to language at the same time that languages’ failure opens the space to a relation. The enigmatic nature of interpretation opens up a space between time and timelessness, certainty and confusion, passivity and activity, repeating this transit quality of sexuality. The Fort-Da of the analytic transference repeats the rhythm of primal time; the conflation of self other, the esthetic conflict in relation to the other’s body, by placing sexuality always in relation to past present and future.

Through the act of interpretation, our desire is set in constant transit in a terrain of diverse temporalities, between perceptual and conceptual.  But as it presents an enigma, analytic discourse itself becomes a defense against its own sexual difference. Analysis returns us to a helpless state. It is, in a way, a traumatic configuration that returns us to a virtual time of susceptibility, which animates as it inaugurates our fate. To acknowledge polymorphous sexuality within our own narrative would mean to invite the murkiness of infancy and its enigmatic indecipherability, where pain is mistaken for pleasure and the breast is taken for the self.

Alma’s enigmatic stance in relation to Willa’s desire is akin to the way interpretation lies between response and non-response, a space that unites the patient’s intrinsic need to de-differentiate along with a curiosity that gains impetus through the analytic relationship. What is mutative in analysis can be described as a function of repetition in language in an environment (the analytic situation) that in its differentiating yet non persecutory presence makes any thought an object for inquiry and attempts to introduce flexibility and ambiguity in an environment that is structured as stable through its temporality: it is both unpredictable and static.

Psychoanalysis commits us to an act of repetition, pushing us to look again and again in displaced, retroactive fashion, for the lost object that can never be re-found. Creating an origin through the narrative of analysis is an act of doubling that paradoxically unifies presence and absence, time and timelessness at the point of separation and difference that happens from moment to moment, the imaginary game of Fort Da. Like the dream work, the art of Fort Da is a creation of a fleeting imaginary tie between wish fulfillment and trauma of loss.  It is this imaginary tie that brings to mind Meltzer’s “apprehension of beauty” (2008) that can also be articulated as a creative link between the universal and the singular specificity of the unconscious, transcending sexuality beyond its conscious meanings.


Meltzer, D.; Williams, M.H. (1988). The Apprehension of Beauty: the role of aesthetic conflict in development, art and violence. Perthshire: Clunie Press

Dr. Oren Gozlan, C. Psych., ABPP is a registered clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Psychoanalysis with the American Board of Professional Psychology. He is the Chair of the Committee on Sexuality of the International Forum for Psychoanalytic Education. He acts as Treasurer for the American Board of Professional Psychology, Psychoanalysis in Psychology section (commencing in January 2013). Dr. Gozlan also serves as Director of Clinical Training and Professor of Psychology & Psychoanalysis at the Adler Graduate Professional School in Toronto and is also in private practice. Dr. Gozlan has published articles in the Psychoanalytic Review, International Forum of Psychoanalysis, European Journal of Psychoanalysis, and in Other/Wise, the on-line journal of the International Forum of Psychoanalytic Education. He is on the editorial board of Rodopi Press and is currently working on a book on transsexuality.

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