Sessions with Dr Jacques Lacan were famously short, but none I dare say as short as mine. We met professionally not as doctor and patient, but as author and editor, and over the telephone, voice to voice. Newly taken on at the TLS, I was the one appointed to give Lacan the bad news, that an article he had been commissioned to write could not be used. He had sent in an absurdly knotted French text which had been turned by a translator into a blankly unmeaning English one, and it was not thought sensible for the paper to publish something that none of its editors could understand. Lacan was incensed at knowing that he had been spiked, on what to him seemed insultingly practical grounds. He thought it was enough that his name should be on the piece for it to have to be published, I that unintelligibility was a ground for rejection, irrespective of whose unintelligibility it was. Since the disputed article was not echt-Lacan but only Lacan in translation, the argument from authorship was strong but not irresistibly so: the article did not appear.
This two-minute dialogue of the deaf was nothing much as Lacan stories go, for no one was ever more generative of good gossip than that dazzlingly rude and fissile man; but it serves to raise the question which is slow to die in the case of Lacan, of how far we should feel obliged to go in order to understand him. At the time when he was asked to write in the TLS, he was known outside France – and outside the psychoanalytical profession to which he had long stood in the relation of charismatic Other – only through the Ecrits, the large volume of his theoretical papers that had been published in 1966. With the Ecrits, the claim was that Freud had finally been brought to France, and that France would have now, as Lacan himself might have franglicised it, to faire bye-bye to a smug and superannuated Cartesianism for which the idea of an unconscious mind was a contradiction in terms. But whether they were pure Freudianism or no, the Ecrits nowhere read with the benign clarity of Freud, but rather as the work of an inordinately subtle concettist whose warped syntax and cultural presumption seemed designed to separate those who read him into the two mutually impermeable classes of worshippers and dropouts. Only later did those of us who dropped out discover that the Ecrits were Lacan at his most obstructively difficult, and that we should have paused over the title he gave to that book: writings were what it contained, not speakings, and when he wrote Lacan believed that he should complicate his prose to the point where it stands in illustration of the riddling discourse the psychoanalyst hears when he is at work.
In the consulting-room the Lacanian analyst is hired to elicit ‘the discourse of the hysteric’, which is the old Free Association by another name and the more liberating in its effects the wilder it can be brought to be, the function of the analyst being to ‘hystericise’ a patient’s discourse artificially. In the Ecrits Lacan seems to have combined the two roles and ‘hystericised’ his own discourse, crossing the method of the analyst with the madness of the patient, and giving free rein to the verbal promptings of his unconscious – so proving on the page his most celebrated dictum, that ‘the unconscious is structured like a language.’ But there is a counterfeiter at work here. Lacan was nothing if not magisterial and quite implausible when arguing as he did that we fantasise if we imagine ourselves to be masters of our own discourse because as users of language we come willy-nilly under the impersonal empire of the Signifier, which makes greater or lesser hysterics of us all. According to Lacan, once conscripted into the Symbolic Order of language we no longer function as gratifying wholes but as subjects divided, the unconscious mind being bound to have its say in collaboration with the conscious whenever we write or speak. But if the Speaking Subject can but go blindly ahead, signifying freely, the Writing Subject is in a different case, because he or she – or better, it – can go back over what has been written, to give greater order to it. To go back over it like Lacan in an opposite intention, to make it harder for others to understand, merely suggests that his discourse had proved over-lucid and insufficiently hysterical first time around. As the ventriloquist of the unconscious, Lacan is a consummate performer, but so arrogant in the demands he makes on the intelligence of his readers as to lead one to reject the rationale of what he is up to; readers of the Ecrits have habitually felt more taunted by them than taught.
It was and remains a relief to turn from the malicious complications of the written Lacan and meet with him in the spoken version, as he is contained in the volumes of his Séminaires. In these are to be found the transcripts of the annual courses of lectures which he gave in Paris from 1953 almost up until his death, in 1981. As a lecturer, Lacan drew the crowds because he entertained them, his caustic digressions, his polemics, his erudite ad-libbing, along with the assurance and wonderful energy of his psychological theorising, having made him into a star metropolitan turn. Allusive and acrobatic of mind though he still was on these oral occasions, he used them to exercise his pedagogical cure with a certain responsibility, coming back again and again to the repertoire of key axioms or concepts around which his grand theoretical design should be seen to turn, and explicating and expanding on them to the point where they make consistent and impressive sense. It is usually possible to follow Lacan and surprisingly often to enjoy him in the Séminaires, the public performer being more congenial and instructive than the oracular author of the Ecrits.
If and when the series is complete there will be 26 volumes of Séminaires, one for each year of Lacan’s psychoanalytical mission to Paris. Volumes VIII and XVII appeared in the summer of 1991 and a further volume, on the ‘Object Relation’, is due out a few months from now. This will contain the lectures that Lacan gave in 1956-7, while Volume VIII contains his 1960-1 lectures and Volume XVII those for 1969-70. So why on earth is it taking so long to publish these transcripts, why should we have had to wait thirty years and more to read what Lacan was teaching back in 1956? The rumoured reason is that the editor of the series, Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan’s son-in-law, insists on doing all the editorial work himself and since the publication of the Séminaires is only a part of his global responsibilities as the animateur of a posthumous Lacanism they are appearing at a dismal rate (eight in all are now out). There have been grumblings in Paris in the past, and again more recently, about Miller’s slowness and also about the unreliability of the texts; there are errors by all accounts in these two new volumes, some of them obvious to expert readers and of a kind to distort Lacan’s meaning. They are, however, the only versions of the lectures we shall presumably ever get and the mistakes in them the rest of us may put down as a foretaste of the long process of misreading him that lies ahead. Transcribers and editors, too, have a subconscious, so that what we are being given here may be taken as an only slightly hystericised version of what he said.
These two volumes belong to either end of the Sixties, to different times, different venues and rather different styles, the later volume being patently post-Ecrits and too close to Lacan’s elliptical manner there always to make comfortable reading. Between 1960 and 1969 the Lacan circus had had to migrate across town, from its original medical setting in the Sainte-Anne hospital, via the Ecole Normale Supérieure in the Rue d’Ulm, to a lecture-room lent by the law faculty of the Sorbonne; and Lacan the determined misfit has an amused commentary to offer on the reasons for these enforced displacements. At Sainte-Anne there had been too much intellectual horseplay – too many ‘gags’ is his way of putting it (in English) – and not enough psychiatric instruction for the managers of the hospital to put up with him any longer; the Ecole Normale Supérieure, too, had had its doubts and he finally had to leave the Rue d’Ulm because smoke from the cigarettes of his audience wafted up into the library on the floor above and annoyed the readers. So 1969 finds him lecturing in a third and this time a legal setting, and telling his hearers that the occasion was now clearly come for him to bestow on psychoanalysis its statut juridique.
In fact, L’Envers de la psychanalyse belongs to what Lacan describes as the ‘structuralist moment’ of his teaching. The title is roughly translatable as ‘The Underside of Psychoanalysis’ and refers to one of the four discourses which he distinguishes as giving structure to the psychoanalytical ‘field’: the discourses of the Hysteric, the Analyst, the University and, this is for some reason the ‘underside’, the Master. To these four discourses there correspond four elements or terms in what one might call the primal scene of Lacanism, in which a Subject desirous of some unknown Object intervenes in the Battery of Signifiers and undergoes a Splitting. Each of these terms has its ‘dominant’ discourse: the discourse of the Master belonging to the unsplit Subject, the discourse of the Hysteric to the split Subject, the discourse of the University to the Battery of Signifiers, and the discourse of the Analyst to the unknown Object of the Subject’s desire. If all this sounds like power politics it is meant to, because there is a witty and engaging topicality to Lacan’s diagrammatic exploits in this volume. These lectures were being given in the aftermath of May 1968, when the discourses of the Master and of the University had come under assault from students demanding, even if they didn’t yet know it, their ‘hystericisation’. It looks as though Lacan might have been cutting his theoretical cloth to suit the time and the place, as he distances himself acerbically from both the Masters and the University – an idea supported by the book’s cover picture, which shows Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the most chubbily photogenic of the student ultras, grinning insolently up at a helmeted riot-policeman. But this is not a posture that Lacan himself has any sympathy for. He tells his audience that he had not had to wait for 1968 to call the discourse of the University into question and that they would do better to listen to what he has to tell them concerning inter-discursive relations rather than imagine that they might escape the Symbolic Order altogether and wreak their will in the order of the Real, which for Lacan is also the order of the Impossible. He puts down the Sorbonne students with the same fluent and scathing disdain as he uses to put down the University; he is no one’s friend.
Séminaire Book VIII is a simpler and more substantive affair than Book XVII, twice the length and having to do with a single topic, the Transference, which Lacan is prepared to explore without feeling obliged to appropriate it. Psychoanalysis as we know it evolved out of an episode of transference, when Freud’s early colleague in the study of female hysteria, Josef Breuer, broke abruptly and embarrassedly off from treating by hypnosis a patient who developed an erotic attachment to him. Breuer – this is according to Freud – was unable or unwilling to understand this strange turn of events, whereas Freud took thought and concluded that Breuer’s patient had transferred onto her doctor emotions originally felt for but never expressed to someone else (her father). The aborted exchange between Dr Breuer and the pseudonymous Anna O. was thus the true matrix of psychoanalysis, of the ‘talking cure’ or ‘chimney-sweeping’ as she called it on different occasions, in which repressed emotions would be artificially brought to consciousness and in the process attached provisionally and, all being well, cathartically to a willing but impassive surrogate, the analyst.
Lacan finds a role-model for the analyst in this fraught professional situation in the figure of Socrates, as presented in the Symposium, and more than half the volume is occupied by a leisurely but unfailingly adroit commentary on this Platonic essay in érotique. One by one, Lacan analyses the interventions of all the different symposiasts, showing himself by turns scholarly, ribald and patiently exegetical on his way to an interpretation of the text that he claims – rightly, I can believe – is ‘epochal’. But it is the final intervention that is his main business, when the clownish Alcibiades arrives on the scene, late and audibly the worse for wear, to complain to the other banqueters that although he loves Socrates, Socrates does not love him, but has spurned his amorous advances with shocking coolness. To which Socrates’s answer, as given by Lacan, is that Alcibiades does not know his own mind, or rather ‘eros’, the real object of his love being Agathon, in whose house they are feasting. Socrates is thus the object of a transference, and as a proto-analyst is taken for a model by Lacan because of his characteristic profession of vacancy and of ignorance; like Socrates, the analyst ideally should affect to be nothing in himself and to know nothing beyond what he has learnt from the hysterical discourse of his misguided patient/lover. Seek, not your patient’s Good, but his eros, is the advice which Lacan impresses on his followers here, meaning I think that the Lacanian analyst should aim no higher than to make his patient aware of that irremovable manque-à-être or vital Lack that is Lacan’s name for the sad human condition. In the transference and in his refusal to reciprocate the feelings transferred onto him, the analyst exemplifies the failure of the real world to satisfy the desires of the patient, and since by Lacan’s reckoning we are all of us to some degree patients in this matter, this is not meant for our comfort. There is never any talk of a ‘cure’ in Lacan, whose teachings are if anything even more pessimistic than those of Freud: but they are delivered with such élan and verbal skittishness that it is hard to take their gloomy moral too seriously.
The Séminaire volume on the Transference would be no bad point of entry to the imbroglio of Lacan’s thought; its topic is fascinating and it is by his standards plainly written. Even so, there is everything to be said for first going to Malcolm Bowie’s ‘Modern Master’ on Lacan, for which we have had to wait almost as long as for the volumes of the Séminaìres. The wait has paid off, for this is an astonishing feat of exposition, clear, judicious and economical in argument, and written with an elegance one would not have believed possible on so intractable a subject. Having read Bowie, one can revisit Lacan buoyed up by the conviction that he is a psychoanalytical thinker absolutely worth tangling with, a genuine enlarger of the mind and not a fly-by-night showman. Lacan is here thoroughly elucidated without being made simple, the elucidator having invested his intellectual all in being equally fair to the tortuosities of his subject and the needs of his readers. Bowie does not pretend that Lacan is other than difficult, but reminds us that he can also be ‘memorably simple’ in formulating his axioms, and that difficulty is all part of the Lacanian game, a just defensible form of heuristic. He is far from approving of Lacan all along the line: he takes exception, for one thing, to Lacan’s ‘gloating, self-righteous “not-I-but-the-signifier” refrain’, which he likens to ‘the language of fundamentalism’ in seeming to impose a ‘supra-human authority’ on us as poor Speaking Subjects; and he seconds some of the arguments used by feminists against Lacan’s extravagant if obscure masculinism. But this is in the main a generous book, asking that Lacan not be shelved but congratulated for his excesses, his much deplored ‘impetuosity and grandeur’ being further testimony to an extraordinary mind.
Samuel Weber’s Return to Freud is also an introductory volume of a kind, but not very introductory and not one that should be attempted by the philosophically fragile. It is the (very good) translation of a book first published in German and addresses the question whether Lacan should be read as a theorist: that is, as someone whose ideas are sufficiently stable to survive translation into other languages – or presumably other French words – than his own. Were Lacan not a theorist, Return to Freud would itself be a nonsense, as a book written in German about a thinker writing in French, and now translated into English. But it is not a nonsense, it is a formidable work of commentary in which Weber picks up on the connections between Lacan’s thought and that of the theoretical linguists and philosophers on whom he draws eclectically: notably Saussure, Hegel, Heidegger and Husserl, the structuralist and phenomenological traditions in which Weber himself is extremely well up. Sometimes too well up, because there are sections of Return to Freud that make too few allowances for the slow of mind, who may drown in his spate of abstractions. But since Malcolm Bowie’s Lacan is much less concerned with his philosophical and more with his Freudian affiliations, Return to Freud does in its severe way add something useful.
What is raised not at all by Weber, and only rather tentatively by Bowie, is the question of whether Lacan’s remarkable metapsychology serves any practical purpose. Can it in short be used? Presumably it can, since there are Lacanian analysts in practice in France, and Lacan himself practised there for forty years. Indeed, last September, a plaque was put up on the wall of the house in the Rue de Lille in Paris where he gave his consultations, and a suitable speech was given by the French Foreign Minister no less, though whether as friend, ex-analysand or Presidential envoy I do not know. Yet to read Lacan, you might think that he had never sat with a patient in his life, because nothing resembling a case-history ever surfaces to give us the idea that his theories are at least partially anchored in what he had learnt from hearing and treating patients. Rather, he is to be found, in Bowie’s incriminatory phrase, ‘hovering high above the earthbound business of the consulting-room’. Freud was a theorist who was anxious to be thought an empiricist, setting much store in the Autobiographical Study he wrote when he thought he was dying by the ‘laborious findings’ of psychoanalysis, lest anyone should think he had not served his time in the trenches; his brilliant follower Lacan, on the other hand, was a theorist anxious to be remembered as a theorist, as a contributor not to the empirical, nor even the human, but to what he referred to as the ‘conjectural’ sciences, which are distinctive presumably for lying somewhere outside the prosaic domain of the verifiable. Perhaps we should be grateful it was so, and that Lacan chose to write in such a way as to make himself appear a literary and not a medical figure, because were we to read him as a doctor we could but worry that the experience from which he had started and which he never invokes was one of incurable human unhappiness.