Ego’s End

John Sturrock

  • Psychoanalytic Politics by Sherry Turkle
    Burnett Books/Deutsch, 278 pp, £6.95

Sherry Turkle has written a reasonable, useful and heroically neutral book on the Lacan phenomenon: the sudden celebrity in France as maître à penser of Jacques Lacan, an elderly psychoanalyst whose writings are of a unique, some would say repellent difficulty. Venerated on the one side as the foremost agent of ideological subversion, reviled on the other as an intolerable, conceited obscurantist, Lacan is a living symbol of division between opposed temperaments, parties and generations. In order to account for his boisterous if tardy emergence into public life, Ms Turkle, who is a sociologist, recalls the remarkably unimpressive history of the psychoanalytical movement in France and Lacan’s own virulently dissident role within and without it. Sociology is not always so dramatic: she has made of Lacan an exemplary as well as a fascinating protagonist, and is both precise and comprehensive in her analysis of the radical cast of mind in contemporary Paris.

If Ms Turkle is right, Lacan is psychoanalysis for French intellectuals today, because France is a country where for various reasons the Freudian revolution did not come when it should have done. In 1939 there were only 24 analysts practising officially throughout the country; in 1945, when the Paris Psychoanalytic Society reconvened after the war, it had 11 full members, the same number exactly that it had had in 1926 when it was started. The French were too Catholic, too rationalist or too chauvinistic to take to the Freudian couch. Ms Turkle’s comparisons are all with her own country, America, and she finds this indifference strange. In a Western European perspective it seems less extraordinary.

Freud had his theory as to why the French had cut him dead, the familiar and consoling one that his ideas had not been simply ignored in France but resisted, and where there is resistance there is also, if you are a Freudian, the likelihood of a future conversion. Freud, indeed, was depressed by the cheerful reception of his ideas in North America because it proved that Americans had underestimated them, failing to see how disruptive they really were of all moral and social certainties. The stubborn Cartesians of France, on the other hand, unwilling to have their trust in the dignity and transparence of the conscious mind polluted by any invasions from the unconscious, offered the promise later on of some gratifying enantodromia, when resistance would be changed into hearty acceptance. And it is this movement, from seeming apathy to an excited endorsement of Freudianism, that is the subject of Psychoanalytic Politics. France, says Ms Turkle, suddenly has a ‘psychoanalytical culture’. (She means that Paris does, not all of France: her research was done in the convivial setting of the capital and her findings apply there. Lacanianism is profoundly metropolitan.) How was it acquired, and why was it so late in coming? Those are the main questions Ms Turkle puts to herself.

1968 is the cardinal date in her narrative, and the events of May of that year. That blissful if generally unproductive hiatus in the political life of France has been required to explain rather too much of what has happened in the country since: it is in danger of growing into the creation-myth of present-day France. But Ms Turkle uses it sensibly and entirely plausibly, for the good reason that she is writing of intellectual, not of political or social change; and May 1968 was without question a lasting incitement to French people to think differently, even if their subsequent behaviour has been cynically conservative. The ‘events’ failed to humanise the grey institutions of the state, and the attractive high spirits which had fomented them collapsed in frustration. Young people, conscious that the impulsive, oceanic politics of the street were ineffective against the authoritarianism of both Right and Left, became preoccupied instead with the atomised and intimate: with the psyche.

The prophet for this emotional moment of recoil and dejection was to hand: a prophet, moreover, who was a born polemicist, hardened by years of sectarian in-fighting against colleagues, and who loved to have intelligent disciples about him. Dr Lacan was already in his late sixties; two years before he had published his celebrated Ecrits, a collection of psychoanalytical papers which were immaculately theoretical, and idiosyncratic. Many of the papers had been written in the 1930s but this was the first the lay public had seen of them. For some the Ecrits were instantly a cult, to others they were, and remain, largely an outrage. They form a large volume of considerable obscurity. Freud here seems to have been rewritten by Mallarmé, and the majestic, authoritative clarity of the one wilfully sabotaged by the fiendish allusiveness and disordered syntax of the other. In the Ecrits – whose title emphasises that these are written, not spoken performances – Lacan writes as if he were patient as well as analyst, in a prose intended to mimic, if not actually to be, the verbal manifestations of the unconscious. His claim is that the unconscious is structured like a language – an undeniable, even tautologous claim, inasmuch as the therapist’s access to the unconscious has to be through the patient’s words – and so Ecrits has something to prove in its taste for wordplay, phonetic coincidence, and so on. It is a horribly taxing (though often rewarding) book to read, and a strangely arcane one to have founded the reputation of a psychoanalytical thinker such as Lacan.

But then to follow Lacan it is by no means obligatory to have wrestled with, or even to have opened the Ecrits. He has taught by word of mouth also, at seminars in Paris which have become glittering socio-intellectual occasions; the printed record of these is slowly appearing in the volumes called Séminaire, which are relatively easy going beside the cruelly tortuous Ecrits. To judge by Séminaire, Lacan is a brilliant, rousing teacher, inspired by vanity, as witty and provocative as he is enlightening in what is basically an extended annotation of the doctrines of Freud. For Lacan’s professional mission has been to rescue Freud from a shallow, misleadingly optimistic Freudianism – the recovery of the true Freud. In fulfilling it he has come to usurp more and more the place of the thinker he so passionately and loyally expounds. No shrinking scholiast he; the only authority whom Lacan recognises is himself, and it is this compulsive independence above all that has built for him a following in intellectual circles far wider than the psychoanalytical ones in which he had moved before 1968.

Psychoanalytical institutions are notoriously fissile, but never so fissile as when Lacan is around. He neither tolerates the authority of others, nor shares authority with others, and the biography which Ms Turkle provides itemises the regular set-tos with professional bodies which have punctuated his life. His methods are absolutely his own, and highhanded. He does not believe that psychoanalysts should need an official qualification in order to practise, but that each one should authorise himself to do so; he sees no virtue in habit-forming hour-long sessions with analysands, and will frequently allow his own clients only three or four minutes of his (legendarily expensive) time; he dismisses all talk of psychoanalysis being able to offer a ‘cure’ for mental upset as quackery – a realistic conclusion it may be, but one clearly meant in Lacan’s case to alienate him from his fellow analysts. Lacan set out to be a sore point in his profession, and he has been a very sore one. In his own career he has knowingly played out ‘the return of the repressed’, or the bringing back into the open of those muck-raising elements of the original Freudianism that he asserts were hushed up because they were destructive of cherished ideologies.

Hence his appeal to the disoriented radicals of Paris in the 1970s. The paradox of Lacan is that he is the immovably authoritarian source of anti-authoritarian ideas: a father-figure for the parricides. He is not overtly political himself but he has a strong influence on political attitudes. This influence is in fact an extension of a crucial point in Lacan’s metapsychology, a theoretical system which is briefly but unusually well summarised by Ms Turkle. For his wider following, Lacan is the man who dismantled the Ego, the traditional point of stability and self-control in the Freudian trinity of Ego, Superego and Id. In Lacan’s version of Freud, the Ego dissolves: it has, literally, no place in the topological model of the psyche. It is a convenient and therefore a contestable fiction, since the question arises: convenient for what, and for whom? The fiction is sustained by our grammar, which offers us the ‘I’ as verbal sign of the Ego. But Lacan will admit no such transcendence: for him, the ‘I’ refers to nothing, it stands for no distinct entity nor coherent, autonomous Self.

Lacan is the committed enemy of all so-called ‘Ego-psychology’, whereby psychotherapy is used to reinforce the supposed autonomy of the self and to bring about the readjustment of damaged egos to the societies they live in. Ego-psychology is conformist, and anathema to Lacanians. Lacan will not set goals for psychoanalysis at all; he is the self-conscious artist among utilitarians. His outlook is not medical, or therapeutic, but aesthetic and linguistic. It is language which binds analyst to patient, and individuals to societies. Language is the supreme social institution, and society inhabits us fully in the language we speak. Lacanianism thus offers quite a simple passage from the psychoanalytical to the social and political, or from the individual to the collective. In its popular form it authorises whatever is labile and dynamic.

So in the past decade Lacan has been pressed into service in the long-running, ever more sophistical campaign waged by the Paris intelligentsia against bourgeois individualism. It is thanks to the new arguments he has supplied, or so Ms Turkle argues, that the French Communist Party has at last made its peace with psychoanalysis: rank opportunism, naturally, in the fear of losing face with the intelligent young, but a shift facilitated by the extreme ingenuity and the scientific credentials of Lacan’s war of Ego-cide. Rapprochements of this order lead Ms Turkle to be rashly speculative at the end respecting the future of her ‘psychoanalytical culture’, whose ‘integration of theoretical depth and social resonance gives new plausibility to the idea that a psychoanalytic politics may yet reveal itself as one of our century’s most revolutionary forces.’ In this unexpectedly naive conclusion she has elided all too glibly the student-café world of political imaginings with the remote (from this book) world of political action. The ‘social resonance’ of Lacanian ideas will never be enough to create a revolution, any more than the ‘social resonance’ of Marcusian or Reichian ideas was before them. The Chiracs and Mitterrands will not be coming to the hustings with policies culled from their study of the Ecrits.

Psychoanalytic Politics is finally too dramatic: it overdoes the impact of Lacan in France. It would have seemed less unreal had it said more about his literary rather than his social resonance. Lacan himself would not like this omission. He offers himself as a hybrid of poet and scientist, a man for both cultures – hence the preciosity of the Ecrits. In his youth he was a Surrealist and a poet, and it is to Surrealism that one automatically thinks back for a French precedent to the alliance of Freudian ideas and political revolution. Ms Turkle might have looked more closely at this intriguing precedent, but she shies off literature, or uses it erratically – the shade of the irascible André Breton will wear a permanent grimace when it learns of her description of the arch-middlebrow novelist Paul Bourget as ‘a member of the surrealist circle’.

Had Ms Turkle delved deeper into French writing from between the wars she would have not been able to give the impression as she does that Freudianism was then a dead letter in France. Freud was known about in the literary world, and writers and critics made use of him. As early as 1923 François Mauriac was declaring that his generation ‘wrote under the sign of Proust and Freud’. Indeed, if Freud hadn’t been part of the common intellectual baggage, the Surrealists themselves could not have invoked his name with such assurance. It was, however, with Breton and his unstable coterie that a vulgar Freudianism first became politicised. Breton’s Freudianism was, in its celebration of the subliminal and anti-social, contradictory of Freud himself, since that great rationalist wanted to understand, not to solicit, the dangerous play of human instinct. Freud was courteous but suspicious when Breton sought to enrol him as an associate of Surrealism. His was an uncompromising scientism; he played down his competence in the interpretation of literature.

Lacan makes no such modest noises. He would be Freud and Breton both: a scientific student of the human mind and literary ringmaster. The combination is not so farfetched if, like Lacan, you make language and its production into the whole of psychoanalysis (the current preoccupation in the West with language is a factor in Lacan’s ascendancy which Ms Turkle misses out). But his theories of the psyche, like the prose style of the Ecrits, seem designed to attract literary people more than his fellow analysts. There are probably already more ‘Lacanians’ teaching literature in universities than manning the consulting-rooms. If Lacan is to revolutionise anything, it will not be the science of mind, nor the course of French politics: it will be the psychoanalytic interpretation of literature.