Above the Consulting-Room

John Sturrock

  • Le Séminaire, Vol VIII by Jacques Lacan
    Seuil, 464 pp, frs 190.00, March 1991, ISBN 2 02 012502 1
  • Le Séminaire, Vol XVII by Jacques Lacan
    Seuil, 251 pp, frs 140.00, March 1991, ISBN 2 02 013044 0
  • Lacan by Malcolm Bowie
    Fontana, 256 pp, £5.99, February 1991, ISBN 0 00 686076 1
  • Return to Freud: Jacques Lacan’s Dislocation of Psychoanalysis by Samuel Weber
    Cambridge, 184 pp, £30.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 521 37410 3

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.

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