Lacan goes to the opera

Jacques Lacan by Elisabeth Roudinesco, Polity Press, 1997, pp. 574

new statesman   
July 1997 

IN THE AUTUMN OF 1975 Jacques Lacan, the French structuralist psychoanalyst, paid a rare visit to the United States. Convinced that he was world famous, he announced on his arrival in New York that he wanted to make a private visit to the Metropolitan Opera House. 'Tell them I am Lacan,’ he said. His academic hosts were momentarily nonplussed but, knowing the perils of crossing their guest, rapidly found a solution to the problem.They phoned the director of the Metropolitan and told him that Jean-Paul Sartre wanted to visit incognito. Flattered, the director agreed at once. Having been warned not to address the philosopher by name, he received his distinguished French visitor graciously and a memorable day ensued. Lacan was delighted by his welcome.           

Later Lacan scandalised everyone during a lecture at the Massachusetts Instititute of Technology by the way he answered a question about thought put to him by Noam Chomsky. ‘We think we think with our brains,’ said Lacan. ‘But personally I think with my feet. That’s the only way I really come into contact with anything solid. I do occasionally think with my forehead, when I bang into something. But I’ve seen enough electroencephalograms to know there’s not the slightest trace of a thought in the brain.’ When he heard this, Chomsky concluded that the lecturer must be a madman. The appearance of an English translation of Elisabeth Roudinesco’s biography of Lacan affords an excellent opportunity to ponder the question of whether Chomsky, a shrewd judge of many forms of autocratic imperialism, was right about Freud’s most celebrated French follower. 

Jacques Lacan was a phenomenon of the extraordinary intellectual life of France which grew up during the late 1960s. Almost unheard of for most of his life and a virtual nonentity within the international psychoanalytic movement, he was suddenly elevated to the rank of a maître à penser at the age of 65 with the appearance of Ecrits, a large volume of his papers on psychoanalytic themes. In these writings, and throughout his career as a charismatic intellectual prophet, Lacan proclaimed himself as the leader of a ‘return to Freud’. Although Lacan’s self-proclamation as Freud’s true heir was credulously and eagerly accepted by many Parisian intellectuals, some early readers of Ecrits were puzzled. In the first place Lacan’s work apppeared to be a chaotic amalgam of the ideas of Hegel, Saussure, Lévi-Strauss and others which, while presented under the cover of psychoanalytic terminology, bore scarcely any resemblance to the original theories of Freud. In the second place (and it was this which made it difficult to pin down Lacan’s astonishing divergence from Freud) Lacan’s writings were frequently opaque to the point of incomprehensibility. Even Lacan’s own followers will often readily admit that they find large portions of his work quite unintelligible. The situation was perhaps best summed up by an advertisement for a psychoanalytic magazine which appeared in France shortly before Lacan’s death in 1981: ‘January 1980. There are thousands of people who do not understand Lacan. In 1950 there were only twenty or thirty.’ 

During his lifetime Lacan became notorious not only for the obscurity of his prose but also for the shortness of his treatment sessions. Latterly these sessions lasted between three and ten minutes with one of Lacan’s patients paying £110 for a session which lasted barely a minute and was conducted at the entrance of his apartment through a door barely ajar. Yet, although Lacan has been repeatedly denounced as an ‘intellectual terrorist’ not only by orthodox psychoanalysts, but also by some of his former students, his reputation has survived and he is introduced on the dustjacket of Elisabeth Roudinesco’s biography as ‘one of the foremost intellectuals of the century’. 

Roudinesco herself was once a member of Lacan’s inner circle and her portrait of him is a kind of embarrassed hagiography which has been imperfectly disguised as a contribution to psychoanalytic pluralism. But although in this gloomy church of a book she is able to achieve no critical perspective on the Master, sufficient light is cast by the candles she reverently sets before her subject to enable us to make out the human being behind the saintly statue. 

Jacques Lacan, even by Roudinesco’s all but doting account, was a tyrant by the time he was ten, ‘wilful and domineering, constantly asking [his parents] for food or money or presents on the grounds that he was the eldest.’ Brought up in an atmosphere of stifling religiosity, he rejected God and set out to become a psychiatrist only to fall under the influence of a series of tyrannical teachers whose vast confidence was in inverse proportion to their actual understanding of human nature. 

Lacan seems above all to have been one of those intellectuals who have become completely unhinged from their own emotional life and from ordinary human relationships. The tragic predicament of such thinkers is that, driven by terrifying feelings of insecurity and emptiness, they mistakenly conclude that intellectual truths can be an adequate substitute for emotional warmth. Craving distinction, and imagining that abstract intellectual formulations can alone fill the void they feel within them, they develop a voracious appetite for such formulations, anorexically judging their goodness by the degree of difficulty or abstraction they possess. Believing that what they have devoured is intrinsically nourishing, they are impelled to share their ‘truths’ with others. Like a starving man who compels others to eat the diet of stones he believes has saved him, they give abundantly of their poverty out of a genuine conviction that they are enriching others. 

Lacan’s own need to feed upon the stones of difficult intellectual truth was certainly not satisfied by his reading of Freud. In an intellectual culture which was both anti-German and anti-semitic, and therefore deeply suspicious of psychoanalysis, he took upon himself the project which others had started – that of creating a distinctively ‘French’ version of psychoanalysis which would reflect the Cartesian spirit and be both more rigorous and more cerebral.

 Progressively he pushed psychoanalysis upwards into a realm of almost complete philosophical abstraction, marrying it improbably with a series of ideas drawn from Jakobson, Saussure and Lévi-Strauss and declaring that the unconscious was structured like a language. This strategy proved highly effective, for it meant that psychoanalysis could be caught up in one of the most powerful of all twentieth-century intellectual currents – structuralism. In 1964, Louis Althusser, already established as a charismatic Marxist ideologist, ended a period of immersion in structuralist thought by producing an article entitled ‘Freud and Lacan’, in which he paid homage to the latter. The article had the effect of transforming Lacan’s intellectual fortunes almost overnight. 

The publication of Lacan’s Ecrits soon followed and from this point on his texts were pored over and expounded by Althusser’s students and colleagues at the Ecole Normale Supérieur. Meanwhile Lacan’s Paris seminar gained a sudden access of prestige and became, in the words of one commentator, ‘a glittering socio-intellectual occasion’ – a kind of abstruse secular mass which those who saw themselves as intellectual revolutionaries, and who wished to be initiated into the deeper mysteries, felt compelled to attend. 

The reasons why so many submitted to Lacan’s ideas are complex. In the first place Lacan’s words did contain all kinds of fractured meanings which, rotated in the kaleidoscope of structuralism, appeared both fascinating and profound. Even more important was the seductive power of Lacan’s personality, which was first projected in his seminar and then transferred to his writings. In 1967 Didier Anzieu, a former student of Lacan, condemned his teacher for keeping his students tied to an ‘unending dependence on an idol, a logic or a language, by holding out the promise of fundamental truths to be revealed but always at some further point, and only to those who continue to travel with him.’ Jacque Brosse, in his review of Ecrits, wrote this: ‘The whole, let us say so immediately – is overwhelmingly impressive, because it is impenetrable. It is above all to be feared that in the face of an obscurity this aggressive, intellectual snobs, who are masochistic by nature, will forge a success for J. Lacan without having read him.’ 

These words come close to the heart of the Lacanian phenomenon. For the urge towards self-humiliation in front of an ineffable wisdom is one of the most significant elements in our religious tradition. Mysteries have always been more powerful than explanations, and cerebral, abstract mysteries (laced intermittently if not with sex, at least with its linguistic shadow) are the most potent of all. Lacan, more than any modern intellectual, stumbled on a way of exploiting this aspect of our cultural psychology. 

The ultimate emptiness of the mysteries which Lacan expounded in his seminars, and of his entire intellectual enterprise, is perhaps best conveyed by his last major project – in which, having already reduced human psychology to a series of pseudo-algebraic linguistic equations, he set out to discover the mathematical formulae (‘mathemes’) to which he believed all human psychology could be reduced. As equations, ratios, arrows and diagrams of complex knots covered the blackboard in the three-day meeting on mathemes which took place in 1976, many members of Lacan’s audience felt guilty at understanding nothing or very little of something that, as one of them put it, ‘everyone important seems to feel is so crucial’. 

Elisabeth Roudinesco does not report this extraordinary seminar. But she does record one of the few observations of Lacan which might be regarded as an insight: ‘Psychosis is an attempt at rigour. In this sense I would say that I am psychotic. I am psychotic for the simple reason that I have always tried to be rigorous.’ 

It is tempting to accept Lacan’s own words and to find in them the definitive answer to Chomsky’s question – that the lecturer who assured his MIT audience that he thought with his feet was indeed a madman. But to put matters like this would be to foster an illusion. 

It would be better to recognise that Lacan reacted to his own personal predicament in the only way he could. Having rejected God and conceived a passionate hatred for his own family and his own origins, his life’s project became that of turning himself into a God before whose ineffable and ultimately impenetrable wisdom others would prostrate themselves. To the extent that we have done just this, it is the sanity of our intellectual culture as a whole, and not only that of Lacan, which needs to be questioned. 

New Statesman, July, 1997 

Richard Webster, 2002


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