The cult of Lacan
THE CAREER OF JACQUES LACAN is one of the most remarkable phenomena in twentieth century intellectual history. Until 1966, when, at the age of 65, he published his Ecrits, very few people outside a small group of Parisian intellectuals were aware of his existence. Even within the psychoanalytic movement he was very much a minor figure, an eccentric psychiatrist with a taste for surrealism who had made no significant contribution to psychoanalytic theory and who was known, if he was known at all, for his stubborn refusal to conform to the therapeutic guidelines laid down by Freud.
During the 1960s, however, Lacan emerged from obscurity and began to be lionised by a number of French literary intellectuals. Although he remained virtually unrecognised by analysts outside France, his theories became immensely fashionable in university literature departments. By the 1980s Lacanian theory had become all but synonymous with psychoanalysis in countless humanities departments throughout Europe and America. In such academic departments Freud was studied, if he was studied at all, not so much because he was the originator of psychoanalysis but because he was the precursor of Lacan. Lacanian theory was regarded as the only modern and ideologically correct form of psychoanalysis and Freud was treated either as the inventor of a crude prototype or as a God who was to be revered in principle but ignored in practice. So massive was the prestige which Lacan had achieved outside the psychoanalytic movement by the time of his death in 1981 that psychoanalysts, who for a long time had continued to treat him as a marginal figure, were all but compelled to recognise his importance. For many literary intellectuals Lacan remains one of the greatest thinkers of the twentieth century. By some others the rise of Lacan is regarded as a shameful indictment of the intellectual standards which prevail in American and European universities and an affront both to science and reason.
Jacques-Marie Emile Lacan was born in 1901 to a middle-class Catholic family in Paris. A lean, emaciated and intellectually precocious child, he was brought up by his ardently Catholic mother to share her own religiosity and mysticism. As an adolescent, however, Lacan developed an interest in philosophy and a passion for Spinoza. He eventually lost his faith and ceased to be a practising Christian. His younger brother, meanwhile, embarked upon a completely different course which led him to enter a monastery, which he did finally in 1929. Curiously, though they had set off on such different paths, the two brothers would remain close. In 1953, during a period of self-exaltation after he had precipitated one of a number of splits in the French psychoanalytic movement, Lacan wrote to his brother asking if he could arrange for him to have an audience with the Pope. Lacan appears to have believed at this point that if he could simultaneously enlist the help of the Communist Party and the Roman Catholic Church, the future of his own version of psychoanalysis would be assured. Although he would eventually find himself championed, and his career transformed by France’s foremost Marxist intellectual, his meeting with the Holy Father was never to take place.
The route which took Lacan from his adolescent crisis of religious faith to his unsuccessful attempt to enlist the Pope in the cause of psychoanalysis was a complex one fraught with conflict and dissension. After he lost his faith he developed a strong interest in various manifestations of modernism including Dadaism and surrealism. At the same time, without apparently being anti-semitic, he attended meetings of the extreme right-wing organisation, Action Francaise, whose leader Charles Maurras he admired, and met on a number of occasions. In this affiliation Lacan was already showing a tendency which would characterise his actions in later years – his inclination to make anti-establishment gestures from the safety of an authoritarian movement. He also began to develop the dandyish persona by which he would be known when he had become famous, tending his appearance, cultivating numerous mistresses and squandering the money given him by his parents. It is a sympathetic commentator, Elisabeth Roudinesco (a former member of Lacan’s Ecole Freudienne), who writes that: ‘Lacan had contempt for the middle class into which he was born, and was eager to acquire wealth, distinction and celebrity. Soon he would take on princely manners, and would appear to his contemporaries as he wanted to: indifferent to his roots without having to conceal them.’
Having decided to go into medicine, Lacan trained to become a doctor. The formative episode in his medical education was the period he spent as a medical student at the special Infirmary for the Insane of the Police Prefecture during the academic year 1928-9. It was here that he fell under the influence of the eccentric psychiatrist Gaetan Gatian de Clérambault. Clérambault was a student of ‘erotomania’ and a self-proclaimed expert on the mechanics of paranoia who lived alone with the wax figurines which he used to pursue his passion for Arab draping, ‘the art and manner of pleating and folding fabrics, knotting them, causing them to fall voluptuously alongside the body, according to ancestral custom.’ As a psychiatrist he adopted a strictly organicist approach to mental illness, resisted psychiatric reform and believed in incarcerating his patients, in whose personality and welfare he showed little interest.
Although Lacan spent only a year at the special Infirmary, it would appear that he fell completely under Clérambault’s spell and adopted his ideas. Eventually Lacan would acknowledge Clérambault in his Ecrits as his ‘sole master in psychiatry’, but the influence first became visible in a 1931 article entitled ‘Structures des psychoses paranoïaques’. In this article Lacan put forward his own modified version of Clérambault’s theory of paranoia and supported the systematic internment of those deemed to be insane. He also appended to it a footnote indicating an almost slavish devotion to Clérambault. ‘This image,’ wrote Lacan, referring to a particular expression in his article, ‘is borrowed from the oral teaching of our master M.G. de Clérambault to who we are indebted for the entirety of our method and material, and to whom, to avoid plagiarism, we would be obliged to pay homage for every one of our terms.’ Clérambault, who regularly expressed the fear that his ideas were being stolen, was not appeased even by such extravagant terms. Not long after Lacan’s article was published, he broke into a meeting of the Medico-Psychological Society in a fury, threw copies of the article in Lacan’s face and publicly charged him with plagiarism.
It was around the time of the publication of this article that Lacan increasingly exposed himself to two further influences which would play a crucial role in his life. On the one hand he began to read the writings of Freud and on the other hand he made contact with the surrealists, who had themselves shown a greater interest in Freud than had been manifested by the majority of French psychiatrists. The influence of Freud was evident in Lacan’s doctoral thesis on paranoia which was published in 1932. This thesis elicited favourable comment both from Janet and from the literary and surrealist circles in which Lacan had begun to move. But it was apparently not noticed by French psychoanalysts. Nor was it considered of any particular significance by the founder of psychoanalysis; Lacan had sent Freud a copy of his thesis and received a postcard in reply acknowledging its receipt. This was the only contact which ever took place between the two men. Lacan persisted in his interest in psychoanalysis, however, and, at about the time his thesis on paranoia was published, he entered into analysis with Rudolf Loewenstein, who was then playing a significant role in the Psychoanalytic Society of Paris
France had not proved the most favourable testing-ground for Freud’s theories. In 1907 Freud wrote to Jung of the difficulties the psychoanalytic movement was having in making any headway there. He put this down to the national character, observing that ‘it has always been hard to import things into France.’ The difficulty experienced by psychoanalysis was greatly increased by the fact that it was simultaneously perceived as Teutonic and Jewish, and was thus subject both to anti-German and to anti-semitic prejudice which were strong in French intellectual circles. In September 1923 La Presse described psychoanalysis as ‘the theory of a Boche scientist’. In 1928 the view of the French Minister for Education was reported in the press: ‘I am assured that German youth is being poisoned by Freud. Freudianism is a northern phenomenon. It cannot succeed in France. Beyond the Rhine Freudianism will complete the work of dissolution begun by the war.’
It was this atmosphere of cultural chauvinism which first delayed the establishment of a French psychoanalytic movement and subsequently determined the shape which it took. When Freud’s French supporters had published a statement of intent in 1925 in the first edition of Evolution Psychiatrique they included a declaration that they would seek to explain psychoanalytic theory and technique by ‘adapting them as well as possible to the spirit of our race’. In an intellectual culture where the phrase ‘nous autres Cartesiens’ remained the watchword, this implied an attempt to resist the romanticism which was clearly present in psychoanalysis and to make it both more cerebral and more rigorous. When the Société Psychanalytique de Paris was eventually founded in 1926, a full fifteen years after the New York Association, its tacit agenda was to bring about complete cultural assimilation. Freud and psychoanalysis were to be remade in the image of French culture and made compatible both with the Cartesian spirit and with ‘le génie Latin’.
The strongest representative of French medical chauvinism within the movement was Edouard Pichon, who combined his affiliation to the SPP with membership of the right wing anti-semitic organisation, Action Française. Pichon was one of the first psychoanalysts to attempt to relate Freud’s theories to an analysis of language. He was also a champion of the distinctively French theoretical flourishes which colleagues such as René Laforgue had added to Freud’s original ideas. In this respect it is significant that, when, in 1938, Pichon described the edifice built by French analysts, he maintained that it was founded on the concepts of ‘scotomisation’, ‘captativity’, ‘oblativity’, ‘schiznoia’ and ‘la résultante vitale’. None of these terms belonged to Freud’s theoretical vocabulary. They were all invented by French analysts to express theoretical innovations which Freud had either implicitly or explicitly opposed. For Pichon, steeped as he was in cultural anti-semitism, it would seem that a particular merit of these formulations was that they signalled the existence of a version of psychoanalysis which had been effectively purged of its Jewish origins.
It was in this atmosphere that Jacques Lacan developed his own theoretical system. Given the strength of the prevailing cultural chauvinism it is perhaps not surprising that Lacan should have begun by importing into psychoanalysis concepts which had been formulated in a completely different framework and whose originator neither intended nor imagined that they would eventually be married to the theories of Freud. The theorist who inspired Lacan on this occasion was Henri Wallon. A philosopher turned psychiatrist, Wallon stood on the political left and, having eventually joined the Communist Party in 1942, would remain an adherent of Soviet orthodoxy throughout the Stalinist era.
In the 1930s Wallon wrote receptively about psychoanalysis but he never became a Freudian and instead developed theories of his own which were influenced by dialectical materialism. In 1931 he published a paper in which he attempted to give an account of what he believed was a crucial stage in the development of the individual’s sense of self. The paper began by noting the reactions of various animals to the sight of their own reflection in a mirror. Wallon went on to offer a series of deductions based on the reaction of human infants to their reflection. He maintained that children started to react to their mirror image at the age of four months. By the end of the tenth month he claimed that children actually located a part of their self in their mirror image and that they then imagined that their own body was split into fragments. The child now fell under an inner compulsion, so the argument ran, to unify its ego in space and in order to do this is was forced gradually to subordinate the data of immediate experience to pure representation. The ordeal of the mirror eventually led, according to Wallon, to the child’s entry into the symbolic stage of development.
Wallon’s argument was in many respects typical of the theorising which was engaged in by psychologists in the first half of the twentieth century. Thinly based on a number of selected and heavily interpreted observations, the argument moved almost imperceptibly from a description of real events and reactions to an account of unseen processes supposedly taking place in a mental realm not susceptible to observation. In its readiness to mix empirical observation with occult speculation, Wallon’s theories had something in common with psychoanalysis. In all other respects, however, his theory of the child’s relation to mirrors was a completely independent creation. Its content clearly had no relationship to the theories of Freud nor did Wallon himself claim that it did.
Wallon’s paper was published in Journal de Psychologie in 1931 under the title ‘Comment se développe chez l’enfant la notion de corps propre’. It might well have fallen into complete obscurity. In 1936, however, Jacques Lacan presented his first and only paper before the International Psychoanalytical Association at their fourteenth congress in Marienbad. His paper was entitled ‘Le Stade du miroir. Théorie d’un moment structurant et génétique de la constitution de la réalité, conçu en relation avec l’expérience et la doctrine psychanalytique.’ As this title implies, what Lacan undertook in his paper was the unlikely project of marrying together Wallon’s mirror theories with the ostensibly unrelated ideas of Freud. The complex, and at times impenetrable paper which resulted appears to have made little or no lasting impression on the psychoanalysts who first heard it. It was not mentioned in Ernest Jones’s brief account of the congress and received no public discussion.
Lacan, however, persisted in his unlikely project. In 1946 he gave a lecture in which he referred to the mirror theory as though it were his own without acknowledging the influence of Wallon at all. He adopted the same strategy in 1949 when he read a revised version of his mirror paper to the IPA congress in Zurich. Without explicitly claiming originality he leads his listeners by his opening words to assume that the theory in question is his own creation: ‘The conception of the mirror stage that I introduced at our last congress,’ he declares, ‘has since become more or less established in the practice of the French group.’ The argument which he goes on to develop is far from being merely an incidental fragment of his work. As Raymond Tallis has accurately written, ‘the theory of the mirror stage is regarded as the cornerstone of Lacan’s oeuvre. It has excited an enormous amount of interest among his followers and the essay he devoted to it was written and rewritten over a period of thirteen years. It appears at the head of the English translation of his major papers, and its conclusions are alluded to or presupposed in nearly all the papers which follow.’
In the paper itself Lacan follows the argument of Wallon closely, suggesting that, from about the age of six months, children are able to recognise their own image in a mirror. This act of recognition, he claims, immediately leads the child to engage in a series of gestures and to take considerable pleasure in the manner its own movements correspond to those of its mirror image. The infant is supposedly transformed by the fact that it now can conceive an image of its self:
This jubilant assumption of his specular image by the child at the infans stage, still sunk in his motor incapacity and nursing dependence, would seem to exhibit in an exemplary situation the symbolic matrix in which the I is precipitated in a primordial form, before it is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as a subject.
The passage, regarded by many Lacanians as a crucial formulation, is an interesting example of Lacan’s expository style. The dominant register is a scientific one; we are told that the ‘I’ is ‘precipitated’ as though what is being described is a chemical experiment. ‘Primordial form’ is a phrase with a similar scientific resonance although this time the field evoked is that of geology or evolutionary biology. In both cases something called the ‘I’ is referred to as though it were a solid object with physical properties which can be both transformed and described. ‘Symbolic matrix’ is another technical-sounding term which appears to refer to a particular semantic process or entity, though no clue is provided as to what this process or entity might be. When Lacan goes on to refer to the stage ‘before the “I” is objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other’ and to the power of language to restore to the I ‘its function as a subject’ he writes as if he were referring to a theory of human development which is widely understood and commonly held to be true. Yet, apart from the Hegelian or Marxist resonance of the word ‘dialectic’, no information is offered as to what this theory might be or where any exposition of it might be found. The seeming confidence and omniscience of Lacan’s formulations is likely to lead those who read them for the first time to assume that he is referring to a coherent body of knowledge with which they should be familiar, or that keys which unlock his formulations will be found elsewhere in his writings. In an effort to find such keys they may well find themselves plunging into a deep study of Lacan’s writings.
Such study can seem rewarding. For Lacan’s thought certainly does possess a complex logical pattern. Concepts which have been introduced in one place are rarely if ever clarified by references to them elsewhere in his writing. But they are continually modified and overlaid with yet more layers of complexity and ostensible significance. This is certainly true of the theory of the mirror phase itself. In the 1949 version of his paper, Lacan offers scant justification for his readiness to conflate the theories of Wallon with those of Freud. He merely makes the obscure claim that the infant’s recognition of his own image ‘discloses a libidinal dynamism, which has hitherto remained problematic.’
To this claim he adds a number of other obscure arguments which imply, amidst servile references to the work of Anna Freud, that the theory of the mirror stage in some way confirms and extends the findings of psychoanalysis. It is only in subsequent papers that the complexity of this argument begins to emerge. In the second paper which appears in the English translation of Ecrits Lacan offers an explanation of the ‘jubilation’ which he claims (without offering any evidence) is felt by the infant when it recognises its mirror image. At this point in its development, he suggests, ‘the child anticipates on the mental plane the conquest of the functional unity of his own body, which, at that stage, is still incomplete on the stage of voluntary motility.’ Lacan goes on to develop this view:
What we have there is the first captation by the image in which the first stage of the dialectic of identifications can be discerned...What I have called the mirror stage is interesting in that it manifests the affective dynamism by which the subject originally identifies himself with the visual Gestalt of his own body: in relation to the still very profound lack of co-ordination of his own motility, it represents an ideal unity, a salutary imago; it is invested with all the original distress resulting from the child’s intra-organic and relational discordance during the first six months, when he bears the signs, neurological and humoral, of a physiological natal prematuration.
As Raymond Tallis has observed the phrase ‘physiological natal prematuration’ is an odd one. Taken in the context of Lacan’s argument as whole, however, it helps to make clear that his own theoretical system is based on a biological premise in very much the same way as Freud’s was. Indeed, Lacan seems independently to be using biogenetic reasoning of the same kind which led Freud to construct his theory of infantile sexuality. For historically his argument about ‘natal prematuration’ is derived from recapitulation theory and the assumption that the evolutionary development of the infant ‘soul’ lags behind that of the body and ‘catches up’ during the early years of childhood (see Why Freud Was Wrong, Chapter10). ‘As everybody knows,’ Haeckel wrote in The Riddle of the Universe, ‘the new born infant has no consciousness. Preyer has shown that it is only developed after the child has begun to speak; for a long time it speaks of itself in the third person. In the important moment when it first pronounces the word ‘I’, when the feeling of self becomes clear, we have the beginning of self consciousness, and of the antithesis to the non-ego.’
In one sense both Wallon’s version of the mirror theory and its Lacanian derivative are little more than sophisticated elaborations of this earlier biogenetic view except that now the origin of consciousness is pushed back to a pre-linguistic level. Traces of Lacan’s biogenetic reasoning are visible when he talks about six month-old children being ‘backward in relation to the chimpanzee’ from the point of view of instrumental intelligence, and ‘catching up’ with the chimpanzee only at eleven months.
Like Freud, however, Lacan introduces his own version of developmental disjunction. Whereas Haeckel had spoken of the ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ lagging behind the body, Lacan assumes a disjunction between the physical body and the neurological capacity necessary to control this body. Furthermore he adds his own personal twist to the theory of biogenetic development. For, according to Lacan, the supposed disjunction between the child’s neurological and corporeal development is a source both of conflict and distress. It is for this reason that he speaks of ‘the original distress resulting from the child’s intra-organic and relational discordance during the first six months’ and writes, with his characteristic over-inflated and intellectually pretentious diction, of ‘a certain dehiscence at the heart of the organism, a primordial Discord betrayed by the signs of uneasiness and motor unco-ordination of the neo-natal months.’
Although the idea of such primal discord is a fiction which Lacan himself has created, he proceeds to treat it as a fundamental fact of biological development. It is in order to escape from this discord that the infant is supposedly so eager to identify with its mirror image and does so with such ‘jubilation’. Yet according to Lacan, by identifying with its mirror image, which is not really its own self, the infant escapes from primal discord into a kind of self-imposed alienation. An extraordinarily complex argument is then introduced by means of which the whole mirror ordeal becomes the basis of an Oedipal drama; the outcome of this drama in Lacanian theory is that the child ‘enters language’ in the quest for a phallus or alternatively is ‘inserted’ into language. This entry into language, which involves complex abstract and symbolic relationships with the child’s parents, the mother’s desire and the father’s phallus, is described by Lacan in quasi-mystical terms:
In the quest for the phallus the subject moves from being it to having it. It is here that is inscribed the last Spaltung [splitting] by which the subject articulates himself to the Logos...
The fact that the phallus is a signifier means that it is in the place of the Other that the subject has access to it. But since this signifier is only veiled, as ratio of the Other’s desire, it is this desire of the Other as such that the subject must recognise, that is to say, the other in so far as he is himself a subject divided by the signifying Spaltung.
It is in terms such as these, in which meaning is cloaked with terminology whose difficulty cannot ultimately disguise its vagueness, imprecision or emptiness that Lacan demonstrates, to his own satisfaction at least, the compatibility of his mirror theory with psychoanalysis in general, and Freud’s Oedipus complex in particular.
The possible objections to Lacan’s theory are so numerous that an entire book would be needed to anthologise them. One of the simplest would point to the inherent implausibility of a theory of human development in which a child’s relationship to a mirror is held to be more significant than its relationship to its parents.
More specifically this objection would point to the overwhelmingly intellectualist bias of Lacan’s theory. For Lacan seems bent on deriving the child’s entire emotional development from a relatively simple cognitive operation performed in relation to a visual image. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the theory of the mirror stage expresses the emotional distress of its creator more clearly than it represents the realities of childhood. For it seems to be the product of an alienated intellectual who hugely overvalues his own intellect and cognitive skills, and has become almost completely cut off from the world of ordinary human relationships. This intellectual can convince himself of his own normality only by elaborating a theory of childhood development which makes alienation into a norm, and subordinates complex emotions to simple cognitive acts. Lacan’s theory, on this view, is a fiction created by an intellectual in order to alleviate his own emotional predicament. It appeals to other intellectuals because it performs the same function for them. By obscuring emotional complexity and negating human vitality it helps to hide from them the depth of their own alienation, while offering the illusion that emotional integration can be achieved through intellectual effort.
A different argument has been put forward by Tallis, who points to the intrinsic absurdity of any theory which proposes an accidental basis for a fundamental aspect of human development:
One measure of the value, truth or explanatory power of a theory is its ability to predict novel facts or at least to accommodate facts that were not taken into account when the theory was originally formulated. If epistemological maturation and the formation of a world picture were dependent upon catching sight of oneself in a mirror, then the theory would predict that congenitally blind individuals would lack selfhood and be unable to enter language, society or the world at large. There is no evidence whatsoever that this implausible consequence of the theory is borne out in practice.
One other objection which might be made to Lacan’s theory is that it entirely traduces Freud’s own ideas and presents a point of view completely different from any found in classical psychoanalysis. It might be thought that this would have proved an obstacle to its acceptance. Yet in France in the 1930s, for the complex cultural and strategic reasons already discussed, the distance which Lacan had placed between himself and orthodox psychoanalysis was seen by some French intellectuals as a positive advantage. In particular he found himself championed by Edouard Pichon who intervened on his behalf when more orthodox analysts tried to block his admission to full membership of the SPP. In the view of Elisabeth Roudinesco, Lacan was the only person capable of representing the particular kind of ‘French psychoanalysis’ for which Pichon had struggled and which he feared would be defeated as a result of the war:
This ‘son’ he loved was not Jewish; he spoke the beautiful language of the genius of Latinity... in a word he was profoundly French, ancestrally attached to the soil of the country Pichon felt he was defending against the forces of barbarism ... Lacan’s doctrine is formulated in French; it is a form of Freudianism that is culturally French in its origins and its mode of integration ... Perhaps in France, for reason of the historical and political circumstances surrounding the cultural implantation of Freudianism, only a non-Jew – an atheist, but culturally a Catholic – could occupy the place of a founder analogous to Freud’s in the first Viennese Society.
Lacan’s bold decision to use the theories of Wallon in order to create an idiosyncratic French version of psychoanalysis was undoubtedly one of the factors which helped to attract influential supporters like Pichon. Lacan’s thirst for recognition was so great, however, that there was never any chance of him remaining bound by any particular intellectual marriage. He paid court to numerous bodies of theory and was endlessly susceptible to being seduced by powerful or fashionable ideologies. During the 1930s his love of Freud, surrealism and Wallon did not stop him, after being drawn to the seminars of the modernist mystic Alexandre Kojève, from engaging in a passionate affair with Hegel. Sitting alongside such intellectual luminaries as Raymond Queneau, Georges Bataille, Merleau-Ponty, Alexandre Koryé and André Breton, Lacan drank in the words of the Russian émigré whose speech had become ‘the very language of modernity, the quintessence of the intellectual vanguard.’
For many of those who attended them Kojève’s seminars were a religious experience. Bataille once wrote that in these seminars he felt suffocated, crushed, shattered, nailed to his place. From Kojève Lacan learnt not only a version of Hegel but also the techniques of seduction and intellectual enslavement with which this charismatic teacher, who defined himself as a ‘Stalinist of the strictest obedience’, enthralled and mesmerised his students.
Lacan’s susceptibility to intellectual seduction should not necessarily be construed as a sign of insincerity. In many respects his own attitude to knowledge was merely a more acute version of that shown by Freud and other ‘messianic’ intellectuals. The tragic predicament of such intellectuals is that, driven by terrifying feelings of emotional emptiness and insecurity, they mistakenly conclude that intellectual truths can be an adequate substitute for emotional warmth. Convinced that difficult or 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 and failing to grasp the poverty of the diet they have adopted through their own self-denying ordinances, they now feel impelled to share their ‘truths’ with others. Indeed they are driven by their own generosity to do so. 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. Because their own most generous impulses have become inextricably entwined with their impulse to self-denial they are unable to discriminate between generosity and cruelty and unable to understand that by compulsively sharing with others (or compelling others to share) their own chosen form of intellectual or spiritual wealth they are merely disseminating their poverty.
Lacan’s need to feed upon the stones of difficult intellectual truth was certainly not satisfied by Kojeve’s seminar or even by his encounter with the thought of Heidegger. Soon after he had published the revised, Hegelian version of his mirror theory in 1949, he was inspired by the appearance of Lévi-Strauss’s Les Structures Elémentaires de la Parenté to embark upon a study of Saussure and of structuralist linguistics. Although his early writings had shown no interest in such an approach, Lacan gradually elevated Saussure into a major prophet. Just as he had reinvented psychoanalysis in the image of Wallon and Hegel so he now reconstructed his own Lacanian version of Freud in such a way as to make it appear either that Saussure was one of the founders of psychoanalysis or at the very least that he had discovered a key by which the mysteries of Freudianism could finally be unlocked.
Strategically, Lacan’s decision to forge an alliance between his own traduced version of Freud and structuralism proved to be one of the most effective of all his intellectual manoeuvres. On the face of it there was nothing to suggest that such a move could ever be successfully completed. Saussure’s linguistics had no apparent relation to psychoanalysis. Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology was an even less likely bed-fellow. Lévi-Strauss indeed had made the incompatibility of his own approach with that of Freud abundantly clear. The whole temper of his ‘science’ was hostile to the realm of affectivity and explicitly ruled out human emotions as a proper object of scientific investigation. In his extraordinary efforts to synthesise the unsynthesisable, however, Lacan showed something of his true intellectual kinship with Freud. Frank Cioffi characterises Freud’s style of reasoning in the following terms:
Examination of Freud’s interpretations will show that he typically proceeds by beginning with whatever content his theoretical preconceptions compel him to maintain underlies the symptoms and then, by working back and forth between it and the explanandum, constructing persuasive but spurious links between them.
Lacan’s method of dealing with disparate and ostensibly incompatible theoretical systems is very similar. Starting from the assumption that there are links between various ideologies and psychoanalysis, he then elaborates complex chains of reasoning which supposedly reveal these links while actually constructing them ex nihilo. One of the great advantages to Lacan of this approach to theory-building was that it almost inevitably led to the creation of intellectual coalitions with the result that Lacan was able to attract supporters from outside the constituency of psychoanalysis. This ultimately proved indispensable to Lacan when his own idiosyncratic approach, and his increasing insistence on shortening analytic sessions to a matter of minutes (without any proportionate decrease in his fee), led to his expulsion from the International Psychoanalytic Association.
His eclecticism meant that he could draw support from both Marxists and structuralists so that he was eventually able to start a psychoanalytical association of his own which survived in spite of the mother church of psychoanalysis severing all links with it. The most important of all these coalitions was created in 1964 when 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 the latter. The article had the effect of transforming Lacan’s intellectual fortunes, converting him almost overnight from an eccentric presence on the margins of French intellectual life to a central figure.
Lacan’s project was from now on associated with the work of Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, and Foucault. Now that Lacan’s texts had received the imprimatur of French ideological Marxism, they were pored over and expounded by Althusser’s students and colleagues at the Ecole Normale Supérieure – who included such figures as Etienne Balibar, Pierre Machéry and the young Jacques Alain-Miller who would soon become Lacan’s son-in-law and his faithful lieutenant. Meanwhile Lacan’s Paris seminar gained a sudden access of prestige and became, in the words of one sympathetic 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 deepest mysteries of structuralism, felt compelled to attend.
One of the reasons that Lacan was particularly attracted by structuralism in general and Saussure’s linguistics in particular was that it appealed to his love of abstraction and formalisation. From the early 1950s onwards he had shown great interest in mathematics and topology and in the possibility of expressing psychological truths in formal diagrams or mathematical equations. A relatively early example of this preoccupation will be found in Ecrits where he presents the following ‘schema’ as part of a ‘scientific formulation’ of the ‘subject‘s relation to the Other’:
The schema shows that the dual relation between the ego and its projection o o’ (indifferently its image and that of the other) constitutes an obstacle to the advent of the subject S in the locus of its signifying determination, A. The quaternary is fundamental: ‘a quadripartite structure has, since the introduction of the unconscious, always been required in the construction of a subjective ordering...’ Why? Because to restore the imaginary relation in the structure that presents it involves a duplication of its terms: the ‘small other’ being exponentiated into ‘capital Other’, the undoing of the subject of the signifying chain coming to double the ego. The symmetry of reciprocity belongs to the imaginary register, and the position of the Third party implies that of the fourth, which is given according to the levels of the analysis, the name of ‘barred subject’, or dummy (mort).
This topological strain in Lacan’s thought went hand in hand with an interest in complex knots. Lacan became a virtuoso student – and practioner – of the Borromean knot, and used to tie and untie knots in his seminars – supposedly in an attempt to build models of the interconnections of the psyche. When he began to introduce discussions of Saussure into his work he continued this trend towards formalisation and tended to present not so much Saussure’s theories as his own personally mathematised version of them. In ‘The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious’ Lacan proclaims that the discipline of modern linguistics began ‘in the constitutive moment of an algorithm that is its foundation:
The capital ‘S’ in this putative algorithm is meant to represent the signifier, while the italicised s stands for the signified. Lacan immediately concedes, however, that this formulation does not appear anywhere in Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale. Elsewhere in his work it emerges that, contrary to mathematical conventions, the line between the two letters does not indicate proportionality. As David Macey puts it, ‘it is a bar (barre) which is resistant to signification and which causes the signifier to slide over the signified.’ Lacan himself does not hesitate to derive from this original formula a series of more complex notations. The Lacanian formula for metaphor, for example, is as follows:
S. S . 1
S’ x s
The formula is written in this way, Lacan has explained, ‘to bring out the function of the signifier “Phallus” as a sign for the “signifier’s passion”. This is what the x, habitually used to designate the variable, indicates.’ A further transformation of this metaphor is then used in order to encapsulate the Oedipus complex – or rather Lacan’s own Wallonian-Hegelian version of it:
Name of the Father . Desire of the Mother _ 0
Desire of the Mother . Signified for Subject Phallus
Commenting on this aspect of Lacan’s theoretical system, Macey makes the following observation:
Although such formulae have the allure of mathematics, their nature and function remain surprisingly vague...Although [they] appear to be equations, no element of calculation is involved; they refer to no quantitative element but merely to the operations of ‘the signifier’, with all the uncertainty implied in Lacan’s use of that term.
Given the bizarre and intellectually indefensible nature of the formulae in question Macey’s criticism is surprisingly mild. Yet in spite of many more severe strictures Lacan allotted an increasingly important role to his pseudo-algebraic formulae as time went on. Indeed, at one stage he virtually abandoned the complex and almost completely opaque rhetoric of his lectures in order to concentrate on discovering the formulae or ‘mathemes’ which he believed psychoanalytic truths could be reduced to. In 1976 Lacan’s ‘Freudian school’ held a three-day meeting on the mathemes. During this meeting, according to the account given by Sherry Turkle, mathemes were brought to bear on every conceivable subject, from James Joyce to the structure of the complex knots.
There was a matheme of perversion, a matheme of phobia, a matheme of the mytheme....Equations, ratios, arrows, diagrams of knots and Venn diagrams covered the blackboard....While some members of the audience were enthusiastic, other 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.’
The Lacan phenomenon is a bizarre one. Attempts to understand it have not been helped by the insistence of many of Lacan’s apologists that the ‘pure’ theoretical issues can be separated from Lacan’s therapeutic practice and the extraordinary manner in which he behaves towards his disciples. Such an attitude is no more defensible in the case of Lacan than it is in the case of Freud himself. Indeed, perhaps the only real resemblance between Lacan and Freud is that both played the role of prophet or messiah with extraordinary effectiveness and both attracted disciples who treated their person as sacred and their word as law. As Roudinesco has written:
Lacan’s texts were sacralised, his person was imitated; he was made into the sole founder of the French psychoanalytic movement. Subdued, an army of barons spoke like Lacan, taught like Lacan, smoked Lacan’s cigars.... If that army had been able, it would, like Lacan, have carried its head inclined to the left or had the cartilage of its ears stretched in order to have them, like his, stand out.
The kind of cultic behaviour which Roudinesco describes here does not always go hand in hand with the propagation of occult doctrines but it does tend to be associated with a credulous acceptance of dogma and a tendency to disregard observable evidence in favour of discussing hypothetical invisible entities – attitudes which were certainly much in evidence in the original psychoanalytic movement. The cultic nature of Freud’s own circle should be kept in mind when assessing the manner in which the psychoanalytic movement has developed since his death. For throughout history one of the most significant features of messianic movements has always been the way in which cults originated by prophets of unquestionable power and originality have subsequently been taken over and by what might be called ‘pseudo messiahs’. One example is provided by the manner in which Joseph Frank invested himself with the authority of the seventeenth century Jewish mystical messiah Sabbatai Sevi. A much more recent example is provided by the Moonies sect whose leader, Rev Moon, presents himself as the direct successor to Jesus, entrusted with the task of completing the mission which he left unfinished. One way of understanding the Lacan phenomenon is to consider it in relation to the classic pattern of messiah and pseudo-messiah.
One of the most remarkable features of Lacan’s teaching is the manner in which he has portrayed himself not as an innovator but as the leader of a ‘return to Freud’. Again and again he has implicitly or explicitly laid claim to a unique access to Freud’s vision, one which is denied to his ordinary followers who are frequently submitted to abuse. In The Four Fundamentals of Psychoanalysis for instance, psychoanalysts in general are referred to as ‘slag’, a term which Lacan uses, he says, in a wholly negative way. As one writer who is sympathetic to Lacan has put it, Lacan is ‘always abusing analysts. He has an enormous amount...he’s got abuse for everyone, pretty much.’ The direct abuse of analysts is compounded by the way in which Lacan arouses guilt by accusing Freud’s followers of betraying him. Ernest Glover’s views are deemed ‘cretinous’ and we are told that in the writings of psychoanalysts Freud’s concepts are distorted, debased, fragmented...’ The charge is a particularly ironic one in view of the fact that no psychoanalyst has distorted Freud’s concepts more thoroughly and incoherently than Lacan himself. Once again it might be wrong to impugn Lacan’s sincerity or to suggest that he is engaging in a consciously calculated strategy. But his remarks are characteristic of the messianic prophet; the faithful are rebuked for deserting the ways of God and falling into the ways of men. The messiah is he who has come to restore them to righteousness. It is he who will reveal again the true Freud whom others have concealed. In this way Lacan presents to his followers as the One Truth a series of doctrines which bear only a nominal resemblance to the original scriptures.
Lacan’s apologists consistently fail to point out that one of the crucial factors which made such a mystification possible before 1953, when Lacan brought about the first schism in French psychoanalysis, was the difficulty of access to Freud’s own work. With the French translation unsatisfactory and fragmentary, the only authentic source for Freud’s ideas was through the difficult German. In his seminars and in his writings Lacan constantly sought to create the impression of scholarly familiarity with the German text. The sacred terminology of Freud was thus used to authenticate Lacan’s own idiosyncratic psychology.
Perhaps the single most important factor in Lacan’s success, however, has been the extraordinary expository style which he developed over a period of some thirty years – a style which eventually became the hallmark of the Lacanian movement. In view of the obscurity and complexity of his writings it is perhaps not surprising that not only Lacan’s critics, but also some of his followers, will readily admit that they find large portions of his work unintelligible. As Lacan’s English translator, Alan Sheridan, once put it, ‘Lacan doesn’t intend to be understood...He designs his seminars so that you can’t, in fact, grasp them.’ The situation was perhaps best summed up by an advertisement for a psychoanalytic magazine which appeared in France at the height of Lacan’s fame: ‘January 1980. There are thousands of people who do not understand Lacan. In 1950 there were only twenty or thirty.’
Behind Lacan’s style there lies a conscious and deliberate rebellion against the traditional virtue of French language and thought – la clarté. The main justification usually offered for this rebellion is that the rigour and clarity usually demanded of scientific language is, by its very nature, the vehicle of repression and authoritarian ideology. This argument is far from being a trivial one. French culture is by no means unique in the way it has sometimes succumbed to the idolatrous worship of precision and rigour. The clarity which results is, as many structuralists have pointed out, potentially treacherous. Clarity becomes, as John Sturrock has put is ‘a fetish, a fine example of a cultural value masquerading as a natural one.’ What is tacitly promoted is the myth that we remain in control of a social and economic process whose human complexities, internal contradictions and injustices vanish away as reality is reduced to the hard, clear outlines demanded by conventional philosophical expression. The process by which we purport to be clarifying our relationship to the actual world thus becomes a potent act of mystification; the philosopher obscures the very reality he claims to reveal. When the problem is viewed in this perspective it is easy to understand why Lacan’s discursive style should be represented by many as a contribution to the politics of liberation. This view of Lacan’s style has been put forward on numerous occasions. It has often been allied to the claim that, in his seminars, Lacan deliberately sets out to achieve incoherence by speaking the language of the unconscious. Here, for instance, is Terry Eagleton, in his influential book, Literary Theory:
...for Lacan all discourse is, in a sense, a slip of the tongue: if the process of language is as slippery as he suggests, we can never mean precisely what we say, or say precisely what we mean. Meaning is always in some sense an approximation, a near-miss, a part failure, mixing non-sense and non-communication into sense and dialogue. We can certainly never articulate the truth in some ‘pure’ unmediated way: Lacan’s own notoriously sybilline style, a language of the unconscious all in itself, is meant to suggest that any attempt to convey a whole unblemished meaning in speech or script is a pre-Freudian illusion.
An even more enthusiastic paean to Lacan’s style has been given by Elisabeth Roudinesco in a description of the seminar Lacan held during the 1950s in the amphitheatre at Sainte-Anne:
There, over a period of ten years, he held forth in a vacillating voice, alternately faltering and thunderous, laced with sighs and hesitations. He would note down in advance what he would say, and then, in the presence of his audience, improvise like an actor from the Royal Shakespeare company who might have had Greta Garbo as diction coach and Arturo Toscanini as spiritual guide. Lacan played false because he was speaking true, as though through the rigour of a voice perpetually on the verge of cracking, he was, like some ventriloquist, effecting the resurgence of the secret mirror of the unconscious, the symptom of a mastery endlessly on the brink of collapse. A sorcerer without magic, a guru without hypnosis, a prophet without god, he fascinated his audience in an admirable language effecting, in the margins of desire, the revival of a century of enlightenment.
Lacan did not analyse; he associated. Nor did he expatiate; he produced resonances. At every session at that exercise in collective therapy, his students had the impression that the master was speaking of them and for them, in a coded message secretly addressed to them alone.
The claim that Lacan seemed to be speaking personally to his students is a particularly interesting one. A great deal of Lacan’s writing, including the paragraphs I have quoted here, is devoid of any clear meaning. In any ordinary sense of the word it is meaningless. In another sense, however, it is overburdened with meaning. For since Lacan’s terminology, undefined as it is by any common usage, can be construed in a number of subtly different ways, its very vagueness and obscurity means that it is pregnant with semantic possibilities. To readers who seek in discursive writing confirmation of their own half-formulated theories of human nature, such empty container-language is liable to appear both wise and profound. For since it can be filled with all kinds of deeply personal meanings, the illusion of intimacy which Roudinesco describes can easily be created.
For the dispassionate, unseduced onlooker, however, the obscurity of Lacan’s prose remains its most obvious feature. If the practice of obscurity were itself an effective rebellion against la clarté then it would be reasonable to regard Lacan as a major revolutionary. To adopt such a view, however, would be to allow oneself to be bewitched by words. For although ‘clarity’ and ‘obscurity’ may appear to be logical opposites, their relationship is, in ordinary usage, much more complex. When writers aspire to the precision and purity of style implied by the notion of clarity, they do not so much eliminate obscurity as renounce a vernacular or poetic richness. The language in which King Lear is written would scarcely be described as embodying clarity. Its lack of clarity – or what the Royal Society once termed ‘mathematical plainness’ – does not engender incomprehensibility. Rather it enables a denseness and richness of meaning to by carried by the poetry.
It is true that poetic writing may at times actively harness ambiguity. But ambiguity cannot be equated with depth for the simple reason that not all forms of ambiguity conceal a richness of meaning. In Lacan’s style there is a compulsive attempt to pump up an artificial sense of richness and vitality and to use a convoluted surface in order to project the illusion of depth, but real poetic wealth is never apparent. The ambiguity of Shakespeare’s poetry serves to convey something of the richness and complexity of human experience. The ambiguity of Lacan’s prose serves only to convey ambiguity.
Sometimes the carriage of his portmanteau words is paid in verbal wit – ‘je père-sévère’; more frequently they travel at the reader’s expense – ‘dis-solution’. Unable to sense intuitively the voice of his body, Lacan attempts to construct an ‘unconscious’ by disordering his intellect. The result is an alienated mechanical rhetoric in which a central emptiness of feeling is defended by a compulsive eccentricity and a deep philosophical confusion is masked by mechanical mathematical terms which tacitly claim for themselves technical precision and scientific objectivity: ‘synchronic system’, ‘differential couplings’, ‘modulatory variability’, ‘non-cylindrical anamorphosis, ‘apodosis’, ‘the primal dyad of the signifying articulation’.
It would appear that the real reason that such abstract terminology is adopted is not methodological necessity but psychological comfort. For underlying such rhetoric we may discern a cultural compulsion towards purity inherited from our religious tradition. Just as the behaviourist psychologist B.F. Skinner has argued for the introduction of a new technical language on the grounds that ordinary language is ‘obese’, so in the work of Lacan and elsewhere in structuralist writing, it would seem that ordinary language is rejected not because it is inadequate but because it is unconsciously experienced as unclean, gross, or soiled by usage. The language which many structuralist and post-structuralist writers offer us instead is not a language which any man or woman speaks, nor even a literary language, but a language which has been purged of ordinariness, a language in which the rhetoric of science is mixed with pseudo-technical neologisms and superficially spattered with a hodge-podge of personal oddity.
Beneath the obscure surface of Lacan’s prose is concealed, as we have already seen, an intellectual project whose cruel reductionism is no less extreme than that of the most severe form of rationalism. For Lacan eventually reached the conclusion that psychological truths can only properly be formulated in mathematical terms or according to the model offered by the physical sciences. ‘Scientific formulae,’ Lacan once said, ‘must be expressed in little letters’ and gave as an example ½mv.
It is in this manner that Lacan pushes psychoanalysis further along the path of abstractionism and mechanical idealism – a path which was indicated, but never unreservedly pursued by Freud himself. The Lacanian movement, in its own quest for intellectual purity, ends by disdaining to consider the evidence provided by the visible world of intimate and family relationships and everyday social behaviour. It insists instead on studying an occult reality which is supposedly located in the mind and whose structure can be represented by those mathemes, equations, algebraic formulae, Moebius strips and diagrams of Borromean knots which were regularly chalked upon the blackboard during Lacanian seminars:
As if an astronomical observatory should be made without any windows, and the astronomer should arrange the starry universe solely by pen, ink and paper, so M. Lacan, in his Observatory (and there are many like it) had no need to cast an eye on the teeming myriads of human beings around him, but could settle all their destinies on a slate, and wipe out all their tears with one dirty little bit of sponge.
The mathematical idealism which seems at times to constitute the very core of Lacanian psychoanalysis, and which is also a part of Lévi-Strauss’s approach to anthropology, is not a twentieth century innovation peculiar to French structuralists. It develops out of the tradition of thought, beginning with Plato and continued in different ways by Descartes, Newton, Leibniz and Spinoza, according to which mathematics gives true knowledge either of physical nature or of the realm of essences. Thus for Leibniz, as for many extreme rationalists, mathematics itself was taken to embody ‘certain eternal truths according to which the phenomena of nature are governed.’ Because of the influence of Descartes this tradition of mathematical idealism has been retained by twentieth century French philosophers of science as it has in no other national intellectual culture. Althusser, for example, always conceived of Marxist ‘science’ according to the model offered by mathematics, and made no secret of his repudiation of the value of external evidence or external processes of verification and disconfirmation:
Once they are truly constituted and developed [the sciences] have no need for verification from external practices to declare the knowledges they produce to be ‘true’, ie to be knowledges. No mathematician in the world waits until physics has verified a theorem to declare it proved...The truth of his theorem is a hundred per cent provided by criteria purely internal to the practice of mathematical proof, hence by the criterion of mathematical practice, ie by the forms required by existing mathematical scientificity. We can say the same for the results of every science....
Althusser’s words express well not only his own approach to science but also the epistemology of Lacanian psychoanalysis. It is ironic that Lacan’s supposedly subversive science should have at its core a perfect, almost masochistic submission to the very repressive orthodoxy which has flayed and whipped the body of Western empistemology for centuries.
It is also remarkable that a number of influential commentators have discussed Lacan’s style without even noting that the most distinctive feature of what has frequently been presented as a rhetoric of liberation is nothing other than its authoritarianism. Perhaps because of the depth of his own insecurity and his own anxiety about his intellectual worth, Lacan wields learning like a scourge, as though in an attempt to dominate those he seeks to enlighten. To readers nervous about their own powers of intellect his habit of referring to arcane, idiosyncratic or personal theories as though they were familiar orthodoxies will almost certainly intensify feelings of intellectual insecurity. Lacan’s prose is thus liable to conquer its reader by its sheer power to overawe and intimidate. The intimidatory power of his formulations is heightened by the sheer obscurity of his prose. His writings convey the impression of an unremitting miserliness with meaning, as though any meaning conveyed to the reader would be a precious substance lost to the writer.
There can be little doubt that the fear of not being at a sufficiently high intellectual level, of having missed something which ‘everyone important sees to feel is so crucial’ has played a very large role in Lacan’s success. Lacan himself – apparently quite deliberately – played upon this fear. When he appeared in a two-part television special in France in 1974, he began the programme by announcing that ‘most of his audience were surely idiots, and that he was surely in error in trying to make them understand.’ Such intellectual bullying is characteristic of Lacan’s style. In his seminars, highly intelligent people were persuaded to listen attentively to propositions which were for the most part obscure, incomprehensible and entirely without explanatory value. Some of the intellectually more confident members of Lacan’s audience objected to just this fact. Paul Ricoeur, for example, who had himself made a deep study of Freud, attended Lacan’s course during the 1960s and found himself unable to understand a word of it. Instead of remaining silent about this he recorded the fact that he found Lacan’s discourse ‘uselessly difficult and perverse in its proclivity towards suspension.’
Claude Lévi-Strauss himself, having attended Lacan’s courses, later recalled that ‘as far as what I heard went, I didn’t understand. And I found myself in the middle of an audience that seemed to understand.’ At the same time, however, he was impressed by Lacan’s personal magnetism: ‘What was striking was the kind of radiant influence emanating from both Lacan’s physical person and from his diction, his gestures. I have seen quite a few shamans functioning in exotic societies, and I rediscovered there a kind of equivalent of the shaman’s power.’
It is in this atmosphere of cultic excitement that Lacan’s ideas and his use of obscurity have proved most powerful. In an attempt to explain this, the psychoanalyst J. -B. Pontalis has written of Lacan’s facility for manipulating the love and obedience of his followers – ‘l’art d’utiliser les ressorts du transfert et de l’amour pour assurer sa position de maître.’ Even Roudinesco, from her more sympathetic point of view, has conceded that Lacan ‘could not do without public recognition, and in order to secure it he was prepared to resort to every form of seduction.’
In an article published in January 1980 in Le Monde, ‘Who will dare to say that the emperor is naked?’, the orthodox psychoanalyst Colette Chiland suggested that in order for anyone to remain objective about Lacan it was necessary to read the writings ‘cold’, without first risking submission to the seductive power of his personality as projected in his seminar. There is a sense, however, in which it has never been possible to follow Chiland’s advice. For Lacan did not publish his first book, Ecrits, until long after he had first bewitched and enslaved some of the intellectuals who attended his Paris seminar. In this way he was able to transfer a reputation built up through the charismatic aura of his personality onto his writings. Once again we encounter a conventional messianic pattern in which writings acquire value and scriptural status not through intrinsic worth but through association with the person of the messiah.
Given his own messianism, coupled with the empirical emptiness of his teachings, it is perhaps not surprising that Lacan has repeatedly encountered opposition. The Italian Marxist Sebastiano Timpanaro, the author of a book on Freud, has spoken of Lacan’s ‘charlatanry’ and ‘exhibitionism’ and concluded that ‘behind the smokescreen there is nothing of substance.’. In 1967 a former student of Lacan, Didier Anzieu, published an article in which he condemned Lacan as a danger because he kept 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.’ Anzieu’s criticism might well be placed alongside some words of Jacques Brosse, in his review of Ecrits: ‘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.’
Taken together the words of Didier Anzieu and Jacques Brosse 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. In a hymn which appears in a section of the hymn-book entitled ‘Patience and Submission’, we encounter precisely the pattern of dependence and the withholding of revelation which Anzieu describes:
My Father, it is good for me
To trust and not to trace
And wait with deep humility
For Thy revealing grace.
Lord, when Thy way is in the sea;
And strange to mortal sense,
I love Thee in the mystery,
I trust Thy providence.
I cannot see the secret things
In this my dark abode;
I may not reach with earthly wings
The heights and depths of God.
So faith and patience! Wait awhile,
Not doubting, not in fear;
For soon in heaven my Father’s smile
Shall render all things clear.
Driven by his own fierce ambition and his simultaneous need to be loved, celebrated and feared, Lacan eventually stumbled upon a way of exploiting this aspect of our cultural psychology by inventing an explanatory system which does not explain and a version of psychoanalysis which renders human nature infinitely obscure.
The unconscious aim of his ritual obscurity appears to be domination. The obscurity is a means of creating anxiety about not understanding, while at the same time preserving the mystery of Lacan’s thought and personality. To understand something is to reduce it to human proportions; to allow something to remain incomprehensible is to let it remain mystically vast and potentially dominating. At his most extreme Lacan thus projected himself not simply as a messiah, but as an inscrutable God. The young psychoanalysts who were his students frequently referred to him as ‘God the Father’ and one of his former patients, Danièle Arnoux, has even recounted how she sought out Lacan rather than enter into analysis with one of his followers on the grounds that ‘it was better to deal with God than his saints.’ While it is tempting to dismiss such talk as humorous exaggeration it is difficult to study the Lacanian movement for very long without realising that, at one level at least, it is utterly serious. For Lacan, more than any figure in the psychoanalytic movement since Freud himself, ultimately pursued his own deep sense of messianic distinction to its logical terminus until he actually assumed the persona of an omnipotent and omniscient God.
In many respects Lacan’s links with psychoanalysis are tenuous. The theories he elaborated, from a magpie-mixture of different, and sometimes incompatible intellectual ideologies, traduce Freud’s own ideas at practically every point – and do so as comprehensively as the theories of any of the ‘heretics’ Freud expelled from his church. In other respects, however – not least in his disregard for empirical evidence, his confusion of science with cultic religion, and his messianic compulsion to accumulate followers, Lacan is indeed what he claims to be – the true successor of Freud. That Lacan and Lacanianism ever achieved the status which they did in British, American and European universities in the latter part of the twentieth century, is an intellectual tragedy which Freud himself helped to bring about.
This essay was originally written in 1994 and formed part of the manuscript of Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis. For narrative reasons – namely that such a lengthy portrait of Lacan seemed out of place in an intellectual biography of Freud – it was omitted from the published version of the book.
 Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co.: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, Free Association Books, London, 1990, p. 261
 Roudinesco, p. 104
 Roudinesco, p. 105
 Roudinesco, p. 102, pp. 108-9
 Freud to Jung, 14th June 1907, p. 65
 Cited in Roudinesco, La Battaile de Cent Ans: Histoire de la psychanalyse en France. vol 1: 1885-1939, Paris 1982, pp 283, 284. See David Macey, Lacan in Contexts, Verso, 1988, pp. 26-7
 see Macey, pp. 34-7, Roudinesco, pp. 122-3
 see Roudinesco, pp. 69-71
 Raymond Tallis, Not Saussure: A Critique of Post-Saussurean Literary Theory, Macmillan, 1988, p. 133
 Ecrits, p. 2
 Ecrits, pp. 18-19
 Haeckel, The Riddle of the Universe, Watts & Co, London, 1929, p. 151
 p. 18
 Ecrits, p.18, p. 4
 Ecrits. p288
 Tallis, p.153
 Roudinesco, p. 123
 Roudinesco, p. 135
 Bataille, Oeuvres complètes, vol 6 (Paris, Gallimard, 1973) note, p. 146; quoted in Roudinesco, p. 135
 see in particular Totemism, p.
 on this period see Roudinesco, pp. 375-380
 Ecrits, p.333
 Macey, p. 136
 Preface by Lacan to Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan, RKP. 1977, p. xii
 Macey, p. 167
 Turkle, Psychoanalytic Politics
 Roudinesco, p. 103
 see my article, ‘The Cult of Lacan’, Quarto, May, 1981
 Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, p
 Sturrock, ed. Structuralism and Since, OUP
 Eagleton, Literary Theory, Blackwells, 1983, p. 169
 Roudinesco. pp. 295-6
 For an excellent discussion of this point, see Mary Midgley, Beasts and Man RKP
 I apologise. Just as E.P. Thompson, in using this same quotation from Hard Times by Charles Dickens once mistook the name of Mr Gradgrind for that of M. Althusser, so I appear to have carried the confusion further by reading it as M. Lacan. (See E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory, Merlin Press, 1978, pp. 384, 397 note
 Louis Althusser, Reading Capital,
 quoted by Roudinesco from her own interview with Ricoeur, p. 392
 quoted in Roudinesco, p.362
 Quoted by Colette Chiland, ‘Qui Osera Dire que L’empéreur est nu?’, Le Monde, January 1980
 Roudinesco, p. 390
 quoted in Sturrock, Structuralism and Since, OUP,
 Turkle, p.
 Roudinesco, pp.415-416
 Roudinesco, p. 424
© Richard Webster, 2002