Something that Wasn’t There
Lili Owen Rowlands
- A Father: Puzzle by Sibylle Lacan, translated by Adrian Nathan West
MIT, 92 pp, £20.00, July, ISBN 978 0 262 03931 4
In 1949, when Sibylle Lacan and her older brother, Thibaut, were around nine and ten, Thibaut remembers travelling home from a visit to the Jardin d’Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne and seeing a car stop at a crossing. The children recognised the driver as their father, Jacques Lacan; they ran towards him, calling out. He caught sight of them, then started up the engine and drove away. Sibylle and Thibaut didn’t know what to think – and who were the woman sitting beside their father and the little girl on the back seat?
In Sibylle’s recollection, their father – she refers to him simply as ‘Lacan’ – would appear in his overcoat, a ‘silhouette in the doorway’, at the family apartment on rue Jadin, where he would come to lunch once a week with Sibylle and Thibaut – ‘the little ones’ – along with their big sister, Caroline, and their mother, Marie-Louise, known as ‘Malou’. He took the children on holiday to Brittany, Saint-Tropez, Italy and to his country house at Guitrancourt; he bought them ‘superb’ birthday presents, even if he probably didn’t choose them himself. ‘We knew we had a father but apparently a father was something that wasn’t there,’ Sibylle writes. His absence went unremarked on: she first learned that her parents had divorced from gossip, and it wasn’t until she was 17 that she discovered she had a half-sister, Judith (the little girl from the car), who was somehow only eight months younger than her.
In 1938, when Malou was pregnant with Thibaut, Lacan met with the actress Sylvia Bataille at the Café de Flore. Attractive and bohemian, and having recently separated from her husband, Georges Bataille, Sylvia soon became Lacan’s lover. Although Malou knew of her husband’s infidelities, on a weekend in February 1940 not spent scuttling between Sylvia and the Val-de-Grâce military hospital, where he was stationed, Lacan and his wife conceived their third child. According to Sibylle’s more lugubrious interpretation of her conception, this was ‘a meeting in the country between husband and wife, even though everything had already ended’, making her ‘the fruit of despair’. Sometime around Sibylle’s birth in November 1940, Lacan ‘elatedly’ announced to Malou that Sylvia too was expecting his child. Judith was born in July 1941 and, by the end of the year, Lacan and Malou were divorced at her request. As the civil code didn’t allow illegitimate children to take their father’s name, Judith was given the surname Bataille, whereas Sibylle got to keep the name but not the father. ‘And that,’ Sibylle writes in her memoir, ‘is what this is all about.’
A Father was first published in French in 1994, when Sibylle was 53. It is Sibylle’s account of ‘everything significant, everything intense – be it tragic or comic – that occurred’ between her and Lacan. In a note to the reader, with a nod to the autofictional novels that had proliferated in France since the 1980s, Sibylle promises ‘not an ounce of fiction’, no juicy embellishment, only what she has ‘let rise to the surface of my memory’. Her method is a kind of ‘blind’ automatic remembering, a written free association, resulting in 36 ‘bursts’ of text – some just a sentence long, others a few paragraphs – arranged according to an undisclosed, non-chronological logic into this slim volume, a memoir that is also, as its subtitle discloses, a ‘puzzle’.
But Sibylle does begin at the beginning: her childhood memories, her father’s infrequent visits, come early in the book and appear almost dreamlike. Thibaut nearly fell to his death during a visit to a castle in Brittany, but was saved when Lacan grabbed hold of his clothes at the last second – ‘a miracle!’ Lacan would treat Sibylle to extravagant dinners – her first taste of oysters and lobster and meringue glacée. Her memories sharpen when her barely there father turns out to be someone else’s. On the girls’ first meeting, Judith is so beguiling that Sibylle is thrown into a jealous anguish: ‘She was so pleasant, so perfect, and I so awkward and bungling. She was all sociability and poise, I was the Peasant of the Danube. She had a womanly air, I still looked like a child … I was overwhelmed, ashamed. Moreover, she was studying philosophy and I was only studying languages.’ She was mortified to learn that Judith also went to the Sorbonne, that she had probably known who Sibylle was, had passed her in the courtyard, pretending not to recognise her. Sibylle was boyish, with a turned-up nose, short mousey hair and a brow often fixed in a furrow. She was ‘cute’, but Judith was beautiful, inheriting Lacan’s dark hair, which she wore long and held in place with an Alice band. When the girls holidayed together with their father in Italy, Judith relayed stories of her many admirers in the philosophy department, stories that Lacan seemed to take pride in hearing. At a village fête in Saint-Tropez, Sibylle watched as he and Judith danced together ‘like two lovers’. In the eyes of their father, Judith ‘was Queen’. It didn’t help that in his consulting room at 5 rue de Lille there were no photographs of ‘the Lacan children’ – indeed, no photos at all – except for one of Judith as a young girl, ‘presiding over the fireplace’ in a neat sweater and skirt.
Sibylle’s prose is compressed and controlled. Mercifully, she has none of her father’s opacity, and deploys almost none of his conceptual vocabulary. But with her discovery of his double life there is a perceptible weakening of what Lacan the analyst would call ‘the paternal imago’, as the portrait of the absent father contorts into the portrait of an abject one. Around this time, aged 21, Sibylle suddenly fell ill and when after several months her condition had failed to improve, overcome by a constant and ‘immense fatigue’, Malou sought Lacan’s advice, arranging for him to stop by the apartment. On the day of their appointment, Sibylle waited for her father on the balcony overlooking the rue Jadin, but time passed and he didn’t arrive. Eventually, she saw him emerge from a brothel along the street ‘frequented by people with “class”’. She was enraged: ‘How dare he fuck a woman on rue Jadin, steps away from the home of his children and his ex-wife?’
To those familiar with Lacan’s work, it may come as no surprise that he could be vexing and cocksure – a womaniser. But what A Father does reveal is Lacan’s avarice and his tendency to treat those of a lower social class – he referred to them as ‘subalterns’ – with contempt. He was rude to waiters and would send his housekeeper, Paquita, into a frenzy: ‘a spinning top, first twirling this way, then that, to keep up with her employer’s painful demands’. Sibylle once saw him ask some passers-by to lift his car out of an especially tight parking spot: ‘He made not the slightest gesture to help, instead standing to the side and giving orders.’
Lacan reneged on his promise to Malou that he would make up for Sylvia’s pregnancy ‘a hundred times over’; after their divorce, his maintenance payments barely covered the children’s schooling. Malou’s brother, a surgeon, took her on as his anaesthetist even though she had no qualifications – she had to stop when regulations were introduced. She ended up subsisting on alimony alone; the family ‘lived with the strictest economy’. As Lacan grew richer (and his sessions shorter), Malou’s allowance ‘remained flat’, increasing only when Sibylle took matters into her own hands and requested more on her mother’s behalf. With age, ‘his irrational attachment to money grew more pronounced,’ and in 1980, when Sibylle asked her father to pay for an operation she urgently needed but could not afford, he responded with a brusque ‘no’.
Sibylle usually sided with her mother, and Lacan was convinced that the mysterious illness afflicting his daughter, the ‘unbearable foggy feeling’ that prevented her doing anything other than sleep, was rooted in an unhealthy attachment to Malou. He encouraged Sibylle to take up a job translating at the French embassy in Moscow – an enforced separation from the mother that would, in the Oedipal schema, have been cleaved by the presence of a father. But when she returned after a year, in 1964, she was still in a ‘dreadful state’ and her Russian had barely improved. It was ‘always the same weariness, that foggy sensation, the same absence of emotion’. Unable to work or study, she perplexed every doctor she visited. Eventually, Lacan suggested psychoanalysis. God knows what took him so long. He found her an analyst, Madame A., but the métro ride to her office only exhausted Sibylle more, so he found her another, Madame P., ‘a gentle and well-meaning woman’ with whom she worked productively over the course of several years. Until, that is, she becomes ‘convinced’ that Madame P. is her father’s mistress. Several months later, a friend of Sibylle’s informed her of what all psychoanalytic Paris apparently already knew: her analyst was sleeping with her father.
The irony will escape no one: the theorist who was so taken up with the father was a pretty bad one himself. All the same, there is a residue of tenderness between Sibylle and Lacan, and it shows through in a story otherwise blotted by indignities. Their dinners were ‘special moments’ which Sibylle delighted in: it was then that she most felt ‘a person in [her] own right’, sustained by his attention. He was ‘loving, “respectful”’. He occasionally remembered that a father was supposed to be fretful, proprietorial, urging her to let him know she had arrived home safely and asking the names of her boyfriends: ‘I hope you’re not going to tell me you’re marrying some imbecile!’ He ruled in Sibylle’s favour when Thibaut and Caroline teased her, and when she had to undergo an emergency oophorectomy at 29, Lacan was the only one who could calm her fears of infertility, kneeling at the foot of her bed ‘immobile, pensive, eyes closed’. Was he praying?
On 30 May 1973 Caroline, Sibylle’s older sister, died – killed by a drunk driver when crossing the road at night in Juan-les-Pins on the Côte d’Azur. At the funeral, when Malou broke down, Lacan took her hand as ‘tears clouded his face.’ It was the second time Sibylle had seen her father cry; the first had been when he learned that his good friend Maurice Merleau-Ponty had died. Seeing her parents anguished yet united in this way troubled Sibylle: it suddenly seemed ‘in a way’ that Caroline was their only child. Only Caroline had both a mother and a father in her early years. She was Malou’s favourite, and when she was born Lacan had affectionately given her a middle name, ‘Image’, a reference to ‘Le Stade du miroir’, the lecture he had been writing around the time of her conception in 1935. As with Judith, Sibylle felt she didn’t measure up: Caroline ‘became a woman very early on’; she inherited Malou’s striking looks and possessed a seemingly effortless intelligence. Despite their parents’ separation, Caroline appeared to ‘have emerged unharmed’ – very much not the case for Sibylle.
This, it seems to me, is what the memoir is all about: the difficulty Sibylle has in breaking with a self defined by her father’s absence. Magisterial and unkind as Lacan could be, his name doesn’t weigh too heavily on her – it wasn’t until she was 21 that she was asked whether she was ‘the daughter of’. Her feelings of inadequacy, her dislike of herself, come instead from his departure: ‘My father lived his life, his work; and to us, our own lives seemed like an accident in his story, something from the past that he couldn’t simply ignore.’ Lacan’s world was one of thinking, of ‘fully formed’ women, of dinners sitting beneath Courbet’s L’Origine du monde, of drives in the country with Heidegger, a life Sibylle glimpsed but could never fully enter. In her thirties, she discovered written proof: ‘When I was at Le Select, an old acquaintance – a young man who has since become a psychoanalyst himself – saw me and came over. He had interesting news to tell me. “Do you know,” he said, “that in his Who’s Who listing, your father has only one daughter, Judith?”’
In the weeks before Lacan’s death in September 1981, Sibylle’s estrangement from the other ‘official’ family reached its climax. In August she had received a phone call from Lacan’s assistant. Lacan had been unwell for some time: would Sibylle – who hadn’t spoken to him since he refused to fund her operation the previous year – like to visit later that month? The meeting was cancelled when Lacan was rushed into hospital ‘to run some tests’. No one told Sibylle which hospital, or how gravely ill he was, so she flew to Vienna for work. On 9 September she took a call from Thibaut telling her that their father was going to die that night and she should rush back to Paris – but there were no flights until the following morning. By the time she landed the next day, he had died – the cause was colon cancer, which he had refused to treat. Sibylle was furious that she hadn’t been summoned earlier, and about once more being treated as ‘an inferior being’. She found the funeral more troubling still. Organised by Judith and her husband, Jacques-Alain Miller, Lacan’s editor and disciple, it was a private affair for ‘intimate friends’ – mostly acolytes of l’École de la Cause freudienne – with Thibaut and Sibylle cast as ‘undesirables’. ‘The postmortem appropriation of Lacan, of our father, had begun.’
For a decade after his death, the Bataille-Millers (Sylvia, Judith, Jacques-Alain) fought bitterly with the Blondin-Lacans (Malou, Thibaut, Sibylle and Caroline’s children) over Lacan’s enormous estate. The greater part of his assets, as well as the control of posthumous publication of his works, had gone to Sylvia and her family, though Sibylle did get the famous grey sofa, which she sold at auction for 98,000 francs. As the legal battles drew to a close in 1991, Judith published a photobiography of her father, Album Jacques Lacan. It has one photo of Caroline as a baby, but none of Malou, Thibaut or Sibylle. In the introduction Judith notes that photos she had asked for had been refused. At the end of the book, there is a picture of the mantlepiece in Lacan’s consulting room with the solitary portrait of Judith. The first fragment of A Father was written around the same time, in August 1991, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to read the memoir as a self-portrait intended for that mantlepiece. ‘Why,’ Sibylle asks herself, ‘do I feel the need to speak of my father now … affirmation of my heritage, snobbery … or a vindication of the Blondin-Lacan clan against the Bataille-Millers?’ Although her tone is never angry, it does feel like an attempt to make clear once and for all who actually was who.
Yet Sibylle offers something less assured than a full rewriting of the family drama, since she sways between the desire to shame Lacan-as-father and an equally strong wish to attach herself to his name. The book ‘ends’ when she visits Lacan’s grave, a few years after his death, and presses her forehead into his headstone to enact a ‘reconciliation of bodies … of souls’. This gesture apparently ‘worked’ and in that moment she was – she says – finally able to claim him as her father. But this resolution is rapidly undone by the three passages of epilogue that follow. The first is a record of a dream in which Lacan recovered from his illness and allowed himself and Sibylle to love each other; the second is an enigmatic diary entry about his funeral; the third is a reflection on her despair at reading a gruesome passage in Elisabeth Roudinesco’s biography that describes his death. This stammering conclusion, along with Sibylle’s fragmented, incomplete memoir more generally (there is little mention of the lovers who helped her recover from her bouts of depression, or of her work as a translator), convey her lack of confidence in organising her own life into a story.
In November 2013, at the age of 72, Sibylle killed herself. As she had promised her family as a young girl, she never married, nor did she have children. She suffered for most of her life with an illness that was sometimes thought imaginary and sometimes misdiagnosed – ‘melancholia’, one doctor said, ‘neurasthenia’, Lacan thought – but which today might be called chronic fatigue syndrome. Analysis couldn’t pull her out of the ‘hell’ of her pain and ‘the idea of suicide’ had haunted her since she was a teenager. When she was tired, writing helped to ‘fix the days’, to ‘trap the words before they fled’, to prove her existence on ‘pages scribbled over without concern for their beauty’. In 2000, she began to experience vulvodynia, an unexplained pain of the vulva, plunging her into an even deeper depression. That same year, she published a second memoir, Points de suspension, meaning ‘ellipsis’, devoted, this time, to her mother. In one passage, she describes her joy at visiting her publisher’s offices and seeing hundreds of copies of A Father arranged in piles: ‘How to translate the peculiar happiness of that day? Had I never before experienced the elation that precedes a meeting with a lover? Had I never before felt overjoyed? And yet, that day it’s different. My happiness depends on no one else.’