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Lacan goes to the opera

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HAD I WRITTEN THIS article in the approved style of semiology, you would not have read this far. For semiology is an impenetrable language practised in the realms of Higher Education in Film.’ So began Kevin Brownlow’s searing attack on the jargon of film criticism which he made in an article in the New Statesman earlier this year [1980]. Those who have waited for the tidal wave of correspondence produced by Brownlow’s article to give rise to even a ripple of reference or resentment in the calm lagoons of the literary press, have waited so far in vain. Perhaps that is because the real situation is even more embarrassing than Kevin Brownlow suggested. For the terrible truth is that a good deal of structuralist writing is not only impenetrable to the layman, it is also impenetrable to the specialist. Try your hand at this for example, an extract from a seminar conducted by the French structuralist psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, now published in book form by Penguin under the title The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis:

 

That by which the subject finds the return way of the vel of alienation is the operation I called, the other day, separation. By separation, the subject finds, one might say, the weak point of the primal dyad of the signifying articulation, in so far as it is alienating in essence. It is in the interval between these two signifiers that resides the desire offered to the mapping of the subject in the experience of the discourse of the Other, of the first Other he has to deal with, let us say, by way of illustration, the mother.

 

If you found that a little opaque then you are in the good and honourable company of countless learned men and women. The situation was summed up in an advertisement for a French psychoanalytic magazine: ‘January 1980. There are thousands of people who do not understand Lacan. In 1950 there were only twenty or thirty.’ Anthony Clare was given the task of reviewing The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis in New Society. Clare scarcely understood a word of it and was not afraid to say so. As it happened his copy of the book had two chapter fives, one of them placed before chapter six and the other ingeniously placed after chapter seven. In his review Clare confessed that he had got half-way through the second chapter five before anything struck him as familiar. But then, as he said, ‘it’s that sort of book’.

 

The uninitiated might well think that ‘that sort of book’ couldn’t possibly be taken seriously by the academic community. But they would be wrong. For, as the initiated know, Jacques Lacan is taken very seriously indeed by a large number of psychoanalysts, psychologists, literary critics and sociologists not only in England, France and the USA but also in Spain, Italy, South America, Japan and probably every other country where people like to keep abreast of the latest intellectual fashions. Lacan is one of the two or three leading figures in what has been described as ‘the most significant intellectual movement of our time’ – structuralism.

 

Writing in The Observer David Lodge has lamented the fact that structuralism has been ignored by the ‘posh papers’ and that the BBC, while I they have seen fit to explain relativity to the viewing millions, have never mounted a programme on structuralism. He seems to forget that newspaper editors have their circulation figures to worry about and that the BBC has no charter alternately to bore and irritate its viewers to death. At the same time it must be said that things are very different in France. At a the beginning of the year the papers were full of the latest episode in what is called ‘le phénomène Lacan’. A banner headline was splashed across the front page of Le Monde and full-page features on Lacan appeared on all sides. Strangely, however, in all the sheaf of French press cuttings I have beside me there is no article which makes any attempt to explain Lacan’s ideas. The French press is not wholly unaware of its predicament, for one of the articles published by Le Monde is headed ‘Who will dare to say that the emperor is naked?’.

 

In his New Statesman article Kevin Brownlow related his tireless but ultimately vain search for somebody who could explain the significance of semiology to him. I have conducted a similar search in order to find somebody who could illuminate Lacan’s ideas – which are themselves partly based on semiology. I have read books, articles and commentaries. I have spoken to lecturers, professors and psychoanalysts. I have spoken to Lacan’s English translator and to an academic who is writing a book about him. All without success. As Lacan’s translator told me, ‘Lacan doesn’t intend to be easily understood … He designs his seminars so that you can’t, in fact, grasp them.’ I am by no means alone in coming to the conclusion that – to quote one psychoanalytic writer , ‘behind the smoke-screen …there is nothing of substance’.

 

It seems necessary to go further than that, however. In his brave attempt to bring structuralism to the masses through the medium of The Observer David Lodge started to try and explain in simple language what structuralism was. After a couple of faltering sentences a tone of distinct embarrassment crept in. He began to apologise and soon gave up altogether. This is by no means unusual. For if you ask any structuralist to explain the fundamental; significance of the ideas behind the movement you will find very few who are able to do so. Lacan, in other words, is only the most extreme example of a much wider problem. Take away the convoluted vocabulary and the impenetrable syntax and you are left with little or nothing – except what is perhaps the most extraordinary religious movement which history has known.

 

Though structuralism once claimed to be only a method of analysis, what it now offers is nothing less than a philosophy of life – a key by which the mysteries of human nature may be unlocked. There are two ways of defining structuralism. One is to explain what it is about, the other isto explain what it is not about. Any philosophy of human nature will inevitably leave some parts of life out of account because it considers them trivial or insignificant and one of the best tests of a philosophy is to see what these are. Since Lévi-Strauss is generally agreed to be the ‘purest’ structuralist thinker we might consider his intellectual system.

 

Lévi-Strauss describes himself as an anthropologist – a student of the nature of man. In Levi-Strauss’s anthropology, however, there is no place for any consideration of joy or grief, of love or !lust. Indeed the mere miracle of man on two legs is one for which Lévi-Strauss appears to have an infinite contempt. In his universe men and women are neither kind nor cruel, violent nor tender; they feel no religious fervour nor have they ever done so. Delivered from all contact with animality and emotions, they are passionless and pure. When so much has been subtracted from human nature there is, of course, very little left. What is left is composed mainly of language. But not language as any common language-user knows it. It is language reduced to a pure system, a system of binary oppositions and phonemic pairs, of abstract codes and symbolic logic. And when Lévi-Strauss has surveyed the whole rich realm of mythology, with its tales of passion and of pride, of children and parents, incest and worship, then all myths are reduced to this:

 

 Fx (a) : Fy (b) : : Fx (b) : Fa1 (y)

This is the formula by which Lévi-Strauss says he has ‘never ceased to be guided’ in his study of myth. Don’t ask me what it means. I don’t know. And please, whatever you do, don’t ask a structuralist. For that would be like asking a believer whether they have touched God.

Those unversed in the inner secretsof structuralism may well ask how, if this is the kind of thing it is, it can possibly be applied both to psychoanalysis and literature. Answering that mystery there come, over the university campuses in their long white coats and with their long white faces, the Ph.D.s, bearing in their hands the bound copies of their unreadable structuralist theses. Forthe most part, however, it has already been decided. It’s true that for structuralist psychoanalysts or structuralist literary critics there are certain words which cannot easily be avoided, words to which humanity has a habit of sticking – like ‘love’ or ‘desire’, or even ‘body’. But when you encounter such gross and impure words as these in structuralist writing you should by no means idly assume that they mean to the structuralist what they mean to you.

Take the word ‘phallus’ for instance. Now that may not strike you as the most homely of words. But I can guarantee that if you came across it tucked away at the end of a paragraph of Lacanian jargon, it would seem to you as familiar and reassuring as a cup of hot Horlicks. You would soon find out the error of your ways though. For as we read in Anika Lemaire’s introduction to the thought of Lacan: ‘The term “Phallus”, as used by Lacan, is not to be confused with the real, biological sex, with what is called the penis. It is an abstract signifier, which, like any symbol, goes beyond its materiality and beyond what it represents. Adopting a phrase from S. Leclaire’s “Les éléments en jeu dans une psychanalyse” we can say that: “It is a copula, a hyphen – in the evanescence of its erection – the signifier par excellence of the impossible identity.”’

It would seem reasonable to assume that people who have any regard for writing like this can have no regard for literature. The situation, however, is quite the reverse of this and structuralist critics positively worship literature. When ordinary mortals read literature they do so with the help of their head and their heart and their five senses, and the literature they read never seems any the worse for that. When structuralists read literature it would seem that they do so with what Roland Barthes calls the ‘sixth purely literary sense, the private property of producers and consumers of literature’. For the inner mysteries of literature are not vouchsafed to you or to me. They are vouchsafed only to the Elect. And if you wish to become a member of that Elect you must first show that you too are gifted with unintelligible tongues. Then in literature you will find redemption, a redemption which is unutterably good and pure, purer even than water which has itself been washed.

The fact that this has nothing to do with literature is regrettable but it cannot be avoided. For gods are not there to be savoured; they are there to be worshipped. Of course it may be true that some literature does offer a kind of redemption. But it is a redemption deeper and darker than any structuralist could imagine. When Melville had finished writing Moby Dick he wrote to Nathaniel Hawthorne, ‘I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb’. Literature is full of wicked books. They were written by writers like Shakespeare and Milton, Pope and Swift, Hardy and Lawrence. Their wickedness is nothing more or less than our humanity. Yet this is something towards which many feel more than a little distaste. Literature has sometimes offended by telling the truth and there have always been some who, rather than face their nature, have preferred to cut parts of it out.

Those who lived before Victorian times called it castration. When Walter Scott was asked to expurgate Dryden, he sent back his answer: ‘I will not castrate John Dryden, I would as soon castrate my own father, as I believe Jupiter did of yore.’ After some months Scott relented: ‘I fear, that without absolutely gelding the bard, it will be indispensable to circumcise him a little by leaving out some of the most obnoxious lines.’ The Victorians themselves called it bowdlerisation. They bowdlerised Shakespeare, they bowdlerised Swift and they even bowdlerised the Bible. We have lost the Victorian capacity for honestly expressing our disgust. We no longer bowdlerise our literature because that would seem barbarous. Instead we have invented a philosophy which does it for us. We become structuralists and we learn the latest critical technique. And it’s called (would you believe it?) ‘deconstruction’.

 

Edwyn Bevan once wrote that there was a stage in the life of St Augustine when all ‘the many colours of life seemed to him only an undesirable stain on the white radiance of eternity’. As a description of extreme Christian asceticism, that’s reasonable. As a description of structuralism it could scarcely be bettered. And indeed, although some people would say that you should not now talk of structuralism but of ‘post-structuralism’, we would, if we had any sense of our religious tradition, talk not of structuralism at all but of ‘post-Christianity’. For if anyone should ask why learned men and women believe in structuralism, there is one very simple answer. For centuries educated people believed in heaven. Now they believe in structuralism. Of course there are no angels or demons in structuralism. There is no hellfire or brimstone. But neither for that matter are these things to be found in ordinary Christianity these days. John Updike has seen fit to lament the loss: ‘Alas, we have become, in our Protestantism, more virtuous than the myths that taught us virtue; we judge them barbaric.’ Religion has indeed become a purer, more rational thing. And if your theology is even more advanced than that of Bishop Robinson, then structuralism – or post-Christianity – is the church for you; it is the church for those who are too pure to entertain the idea of God.

 

Although there are no supernatural beings in the church of post-Christianity there are, of course, many prophets and messiahs who tend to hand down from on high doctrines, which, as has been noted, are sometimes ineffably mysterious. If you look carefully you will find that post-Christianity also has Antichrists. And if you do not wish to renounce your vitality, or if you cling obstinately to your belief in the value of intuition or common sense or empiricism, or worst of all if you listen to the voice of your body rather than the voice of your mind, then perhaps you should tremble now. For you may be among them.

 

David Lodge has suggested that we all need the intellectual ‘refreshment’ that structuralism can provide. Of all the curious notions associated with structuralism, this must be the most curious. When the oasis stands up and walks into the barren desert in order to seek moisture, then on that day will the great mass of the educated public find refreshment in the philosophy of structuralism.

 

But now that structuralism has decided that we need it, what should you do if a structuralist from the local university comes knocking at your door offering to refresh you with his doctrine, or rescue you from the flesh-pots of empiricism and common sense, or simply sell you a copy of the latest structuralist magazine? Whatever you do, do not send him away. Invite him in and make him a pot of tea. Sit him down by the fireside. But not too close to the fire. For the real reason the structuralist has come knocking at your door is that his parched, dried soul is craving for the moisture of a little ordinary humanity. When he has moistened down a little, take him to the garden and let him do a good honest bit of digging and get his hands thoroughly grimed over with good honest dirt. And then – if this seems to be in order ­­– take him in your arms and embrace him, and let him go unwashed back to the clean campus of the university he came from.

 

What confusion will ensue! With what horror will his clean structuralist colleagues regard the real dirt on his hands and hear of the real honest work he has done! With what shame and embarrassment will he be covered! But, looking at his unwashed hands and feeling his body begin to ache, he may realise for the first time something of the depth of self-loathing on which his philosophy of life is founded. He may begin to see something of the fierceness of the contempt in which structuralism holds us all. Of course that is only a beginning. We cannot expect him to be redeemed overnight from sainthood into a state of reasonable sinfulness. But it is a beginning.

 

Ah, but, you say, what of your own fierce contempt for structuralism? Why is it that you rant and rail so against structuralism with such lack of love and lack of charity as a Papist has for a Protestant or a Protestant for a Papist? That is a question I have asked myself and I fear you may already have guessed the answer. If not then it is a terrible confession I have to make. I too am a structuralist, a secret structuralist.

 

And if you look around at the society in which we live and see its immense poverty, and see how we have locked away deep within us our own wealth and the wealth of our family and community relations, so that we begin to forget that such wealth even exists, then you might reasonably come to the conclusion that we are all structuralists now. For if joy and grief, cooperation and community count for nothing in the intellectual system of structuralism, then just how much do they count for in our system and the policy decisions by which we perpetuate and extend it? We have built a system of production which treats men and women with no less contempt than the philosophers of structuralism. In Jacques Lacan and Claude Lévi-Strauss we have perhaps simply got the messiahs we deserve.

 

Having got most of the wealth of life safely out of the way, which we managed to do even without the help of our structuralist philosophers, we are now no longer distracted from our true purpose, which is, with each economy of scale we make, to squander a little more real wealth and accumulate a little more material wealth, and thus pursue economic growth successfully until we are impoverished quite beyond all rescue.

 

Long before that though, if we continue in our structuralist and post-Christian world to pursue relentlessly the religious drive towards purity, we will soon reach the stage when compassion itself is a defilement and all life is in danger of being regarded as a contamination. If that should ever happen then not all the prayers offered up by the church of post-Christianity will help us. Perhaps it is time to stop and turn around before it is too late.

 

Literary Review, September 1980

 

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© Richard Webster, 2002

www.richardwebster.net

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