Shel Silverstein’s The Missing Piece: A Lacanian Reading
The children’s book The Missing Piece, first published in March 1976, has just been reissued in a thirtieth anniversary edition. In it, author/illustrator Shel Silverstein succeeds in creating a system of relations between beings where the Lacanian structure of desire is presented without gender, but at the same time references a division between beings that resembles gender. As I’ll show below, the book seems to be the perfect primer for children on the gender theories of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981).
Like the Lacanian subject, Silverstein’s pie-missing-a-slice character It is consumed with the desire to fill the lack created by some pre-existing castration. A castration It is aware of, yet does not, nor most likely cannot, explain. It is propelled by this felt need. The book begins:
It was missing a piece
And it was not happy
So it set off in search
of its missing piece
And as it rolled
It sang this song –
"Oh I'm looking for my missin' piece
I'm looking for my missin' piece.
Hi-dee-ho, here I go,
Lookin' for my missin' piece."
In the first encounter It has with a pie shaped “missing piece,” It immediately deploys the rhetoric of the demanding “possessor” subject. Without asking any questions or even stopping to see if the piece fits, It sings “I've found my missin' piece." To which the pie-slice immediately objects:
"Wait a minute" said the piece
"Before you go greasing your knees
and fleecing your bees..."
"I am not your missing piece.
I am nobody's piece.
I am my own piece.
and even if I was
somebody's missing piece,
I don't think I'd be yours!"
After the initial rejection by the first piece, It realizes that finding the object of one’s desire will not fill the lack. Instead, It must also ensure that the object of desire wants this attention--is playing the role of the objectified being. Realizing this, a later encounter is different:
"Hi!" It said.
"Hi!" said the piece
"Are you anybody else's missing piece?"
"Not that I know of."
"Well, maybe you want to be your own piece?"
"I can be someone's and still be my own."
"Well, Maybe you don't want to be mine."
"Maybe I do!"
"Maybe we won't fit..."
It fit perfectly
At last! At last!
As Kaja Silverman writes in her text The Subject of Semiotics, “one could say of the Lacanian subject that it is almost entirely defined by lack” (151). She continues, in a discussion of the assumptions fundamental to Lacan’s argument, that the origin of “the human subject derives from an original whole which was divided in half, and that its’ existence is dominated by the desire to recover its’ missing complement.” This missing compliment is often referred to as the phallus, which is simply defined as the object of desire. Appropriations of Lacan by scholars such as Elizabeth Grosz identify the fundamental exchange of the phallus as occurring between a man who desires to posses the phallus and a woman who desires that she be possessed as the phallus. Silverstein’s children’s book manages to depict each of these components clearly without gender-based references. For Silverstein’s It, the lack is taken as a given; lack is a preexisting condition that stimulates desire, demand, and action and gender plays no part in this condition—except to socially interpolate people into various roles.
Of course, Lacan’s formulation is not perfect. When we recognize ourselves as the object of desire, it is also accompanied by our recognition of the other as a split self, someone else experiencing lack (someone who could not complete another being)—this would be like patching an inner tube with a patch that has a hole. Perhaps this is why in Shel Silverstein’s second book about the missing piece, The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, the impossibility of the other to create a whole is finally accepted when the lack is not filled but instead denied an existence. Instead of singing a happy song and trying to find a compliment to itself, the missing piece eventually takes the advice to roll itself into a whole on its own. If there is no lack, there is no desire, and the whole can therefore exist.
For further study:
Grosz, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. New York: Routledge. 1998.
Silverman, Kaja. The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford U P, 1983.
Slverstein, Shel. The Missing Piece. New York: HarperCollins, 1976.
See also the website Lacan dot com .
Nate Garrelts is Assistant Professor of English at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.