Jacques Lacan: An Unarchived Life – By Davis Hankins

Davis Hankins on Élisabeth Roudinesco’s Lacan

Élisabeth Roudinesco, Lacan, Verso, 2014, 224pp., $24.95
Élisabeth Roudinesco, Lacan, Verso, 2014, 224pp., $24.95

In a recent conversation with my mother, she expressed to me with slight exasperation that pondering the fate of the objects she had accumulated throughout her life baffled her. “I mean,” she asked (rhetorically), “who is going to want any of this stuff?” Similar sentiments have likely struck anyone charged with sorting the material possessions of the recently deceased. In addition to the toothbrush destined for the dumpster or the car to be sold, there are usually numerous items about which one wonders, “What are we going to do with this?”

This common experience is surely exacerbated in the cases of those with penchants for collecting. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan was one such accumulator, and an idiosyncratic one at that. Lacan was one of the most influential figures in the highly turbulent, public, contentious, and productive context of France’s intellectual life following the Second World War. France was in many respects the navel of various intellectual developments that instigated profound changes not only in the academic world but also in public life and discourse, especially in Western nations.

Lacan was a practicing psychoanalyst who initially gained notoriety in the 1930s, primarily through his work on psychosis. Even that early work, however, appealed to and influenced major cultural figures far beyond the psychiatric clinic, including surrealists such as Salvador Dalí. Broad cross-disciplinary appeal marked his work throughout his life and contributed to his proclivity to read and borrow from a diverse array of disciplines and cultural artifacts. Lacan remains an important figure far beyond the psychoanalytic field: it would be difficult to name any discipline in the humanities and social sciences that remains unaffected by his work. When his ramifying intellectual interests are coupled with psychology’s extensive evolution and fragmentation during his lifetime, legitimate questions can be raised about the field(s) to which he actually belongs.

Lacan rose to prominence in the post-war period, his influence spreading primarily through the annual seminar he held nearly every Wednesday at lunchtime for 26 years (1953-1979). He taught the first decade at the intimate setting of the Saint-Anne Hospital in Paris, where his teachings focused on systematizing and clarifying Freudian psychoanalysis. Lacan helped turn psychoanalysis away from medicine (biology and psychology) and took a more comprehensive approach to the teachings and experiences gained through psychoanalytic practice.

Most significant, especially in this first decade, was his contribution of a highly sophisticated approach to language. Language is, of course, the primary medium of clinical therapeutic practice. But for Lacan it is much more as well. Language is the midwife of human subjectivity, the substance that shapes desires and structures neuroses, and the material through which unconscious truths are spoken. He rejected the idea — particularly popular in the US — that the unconscious is a dark seething mass that an analyst discerns by interpreting one’s actions and attitudes as manifestations of self-interested tendencies and destructive impulses. Instead, the unconscious speaks, making itself heard in our words, and is visible on the very surface of our individual and social lives. The analyst does not divine the unconscious out of obscure hidden depths. To discern the unconscious, analysts simply need to know how to read.

Lacan continuously revised and extended his teachings over the course of his career. In 1964, he left the hospital context and began teaching in the university where his audience was broader and more philosophical, a shift that is also evident in the content of his teachings. After the uprising in 1968 he moved from the École normale supérieure to the law faculty of the Pantheon where the crowds grew still larger and his influence deepened, especially among leftists. From the nouveaux philosophes to the Maoists, many found in Lacan’s account of subjectivity and social bonds certain keys to understanding how and why revolutions can fail, as well as how they might not. By the late 1970s, Lacan sought the strictest formalizations for his teachings in obscure mathematical puzzles, topological knots, and logical models. He offered bizarre neologisms, made excessive use of puns, and often fell into prolonged periods of silence before his crowded audience.

Jacques Lacan, by Nemomain. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Jacques Lacan, by Nemomain.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

More so than any other, Élisabeth Roudinesco has shaped Lacan’s historical and biographical reception. Her most recent book reads like a collection of various and at times disparate materials, anecdotes, and musings that she either wanted to repeat, or that she gathered and failed to include in her two earlier and far more substantial treatments of Lacan and the history of psychoanalysis in France. At times Roudinesco’s writing resembles Lacan’s in the sense that it unfolds as a series of assertions without adequate explanations. Readers must labor to remain mindful of what may link the stories, expositions, and anecdotes together. While the book progresses roughly according to the chronology of Lacan’s career, at times it is difficult to discern why one story is told and not another. But, as with her earlier books, it is clear that Roudinesco is no hagiographer.

Lacan may be a source of fascination, to be sure, but he does not seem like someone with whom it was easy to be friends

One does not finish this book with a deep longing to have known Lacan. While he may be a source of fascination, to be sure, he does not seem like someone with whom it was easy to be friends. Roudinesco exposes his libertinism, including marital infidelities that led at one point to the simultaneous pregnancies of his wife and mistress, his violations of social trust exemplified by his tendency to borrow objects that he would refuse to return and make promises he would fail to fulfill, and his seemingly exploitative clinical operation that collected large fees from patients whom he would see only (very) briefly before calling in others from a waiting room brimming with folks eager to pay the famed analyst for treatment. Lacan’s sordid personal legacy raises interesting questions about the degree to which one should consider a figure’s biography, as Lacan says in his eleventh seminar, “as secondary to the meaning of a work.” Yes, the significance of one’s work exceeds one’s life, but then the intriguing questions concern how and why a person’s life matters for an understanding of their oeuvre.

One’s private library, for example, may be part of one’s personal archive, and yet it sheds light on the products of one’s intellectual labor. We may not have known that a particular book was important to a thinker until it is found on her shelf with evidence of repeated re-readings. Marginal notes or underlining may reveal what was important about a book to its owner. Personal letters might discuss important ideas. Such materials can change one’s understanding of a scholar’s ideas. All this is particularly pertinent to Lacan whom Roudinesco charges with an excessive tendency to suppress the sources of his ideas. Concern for Lacan’s largely unavailable personal archive is the subject of two full chapters and it becomes perhaps the most consistent thread running throughout the book.

Roudinesco works primarily as an intellectual historian. She often makes explicit the names and ideas of various figures whose lives and work Lacan inherited and used to formulate his teachings. In the process she draws our attention to another fascinating difficulty (and potential dilemma). When treating the clinic, part of the historical task is to unearth the stories of real lives and complex histories behind the doctors’ case histories. Case histories are often highly selective and partially fictive. Bound by ethical desires to avoid violating patient confidentiality, a doctor might change a name here and a detail there. Yet the residual effect can be to focus all of a case’s attention on the doctor, thereby robbing the patient of their rightful place in history.

Furthermore, the case history is usually written to validate a thesis that, if accepted, can stand apart from further reference to the case or patient. The historian who aims to put the history back into the case history can do justice to the patient or unjustly violate the patient’s desire and agreement to be treated in confidence. Such a situation clearly poses thorny ethical issues, as all parties involved — the doctor, patient, and the historian — face different interests that can easily become competing.

France’s contentious post-war intellectual climate and Lacan’s controversial character plunge any assessment of him into unavoidable difficulties and debates. Lacan’s personal and professional legacy remains disputed even today, and his notoriously opaque prose and extremely complicated ideas only intensify the differences of opinion about him. As for Freud, Marx, and so many other leading intellectuals, the worse fighting can occur among Lacan’s followers. Roudinesco is no exception, and this book advances some of her earlier polemics against other prominent Lacanians.

The focus of Roudinesco’s previous censures fell largely on Lacan’s editor, literary executor, and son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller. But this book aims more at Lacan’s other heirs, criticizing them for neglecting to make the full extent of his archive available. Much of Lacan’s library, papers, and other materials of interest to scholars — especially historians such as Roudinesco — remain unavailable. Roudinesco often makes clear her frustration with this missing archive, suggesting that her focus on intellectual history has been less a matter of preference and more of necessity. The absence of an adequate archive cripples the historian’s ability to produce a robust biography.

Looking over unpublished typescripts of his seminars and rare offprints of out-of-print articles, Roudinesco reports that Lacan once asked, “What am I going to do with all this?” The question goes beyond my mother’s: “Who is going to want all this stuff?” A person pondering the fate of his possessions worries about more than just where all the things will go. An unspoken, and even unconscious, part of this anxiety involves the posthumous interpretive control that objects like his letters, notes, and diaries offer over his own life. If someone does want this stuff, what will they think it all means? For this very reason many authors and artists famously give instructions for their unfinished work, letters, and notes to be burned after their death. For the very same reason, the inheritors of such objects decide not to follow these instructions. Like many before him, Lacan never questioned that people would be interested in his materials, but he did lament his inability to control the interpretation of his ideas and feared what they might become in the hands of others.

And for good reason since, in Lacan’s case, there is no uncertainty about the answer: Élisabeth Roudinesco. Even still, in spite of everything that remains unrecovered and fragmentary, Lacan has bequeathed to us a rich, sprawling corpus of brilliant insights into human life and the modern world. We stand grateful to Roudinesco who, in this and in her far more substantial previous efforts, has once again contributed to our ability to grasp our complicated inheritance of Lacan’s life and thought.