Missing Pieces I: The je ne sais quoi

Writing about mystery, the unintelligible and that for which no words can be found by Jenny Diski, Jacqueline Rose, Adam Phillips, John Lanchester, Alice Spawls and Hal Foster.

Diary: The Je Ne Sais Quoi

Jenny Diski, 15 December 2005

It’s entirely possible that, apart from a little niggle at the back of our minds – a scent or a sound we can’t quite place – the ineffable will be a thing of the past and we will be able to rub out all those old je ne sais quoi and replace them with nouns and adjectives. At which point mystery itself will be the only mystery and we’ll all feel a lot better

Smashing the Teapots: Where’s Woolf?

Jacqueline Rose, 23 January 1997

Virginia Woolf once said that biographies fail because the subject of the biography always goes missing (lost under the welter of the life). In this case, it is madness that goes missing because Woolf is never allowed to go missing from herself.

The Soul of Man under Psychoanalysis

Adam Phillips, 29 November 2001

It is the fate of the unintelligible – of that which cannot be ignored and cannot be understood – that preoccupies Eliot and Freud, among others. The mystery in life either needed a new referent, or people needed to be reminded, in no uncertain terms, of its traditional, sacred referent.

The Case of Agatha Christie

John Lanchester, 20 December 2018

For the murder to make sense, it must be true that somebody isn’t who we think they are – but who do we think they are? How do we know who is and who isn’t what they seem to be? How do the characters know? In essence, that is what detective fiction is: a mystery about which of a particular cast of characters isn’t who they say they are.

Though the most popular British detectives have nearly all been posh men, the early detectives weren’t. Almost sixty years before women were hired as police officers, the first female detectives, Mrs Paschal and Miss Gladden, were travelling the country in the pages of yellowbacks, apprehending criminals and aiding baffled policemen.

Ghosting: Dead to the World

Hal Foster, 29 July 2021

Law drops the missing person once his case is closed by return or death, but myth and literature can follow him in his absence. For Lévi-Strauss myth is a way for a culture to work over social contradictions it can’t otherwise resolve (Althusser said much the same thing about ideology), hence the variations of many ur-tales.

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