Lacan: after 30 years, a body of work that lives on (07.12.2011)
Lacan: after 30 years, a body of work that lives on
The famous French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan put his stamp on the French and international intellectual landscape of a whole era, in both the clinical and theoretical fields.
Thirty years after his death, the reinventor of Freudianism still arouses as much interest and causes us to reflect on his innovative concepts and the wide range of his thinking; for indeed, getting to know Lacan is a very long journey. Students from all over the world flock to Paris, a centre of psychoanalysis. They come particularly to the Université de Paris 8, where the spread of Lacanian psychoanalysis contributes to his worldwide influence.
The work of Jacques Lacan was a key episode in the history of psychoanalysis and in the history of thought. Proof of this can be seen in the tidal wave of publications, conferences, lectures, symposia and tributes to which the intellectuals of Paris (but also of Bordeaux, Nantes, Strasbourg, New York and Tel Aviv) have been invited for the 2011 autumn season, in commemoration of the death of the great French analyst and the successor to Sigmund Freud.
Jacques Lacan is still being written about. But who was he? First and foremost a great psychiatrist, who brought the patient’s words and personal history back into the core of a medical discpline that had until then been all-powerful. As the young head of a clinic caring mainly for patients suffering from psychosis, he had written on the high walls of the Saint-Anne hospital these strange words “N’est pas fou qui veut” – Not everybody can be mad.
Jacques-Marie Emile Lacan was born in Paris on 13 April 1901, into a conservative Catholic family. At the Collège Stanislas he studied Latin and Greek and took a great interest in philosophy, especially in Spinoza and Hegel. In touch with the scientists and writers of his time, he chose medicine and followed the teaching of Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, about whom he said in 1966 that he had been his only master in psychiatry. The doctoral thesis he presented in 1932 partly reflects the influence of the Surrealists he associated with, including Salvador Dali, André Breton, Jacques Prévert, Paul Eluard and Tristan Tzara. In June the same year, he underwent psychoanalysis with Rudolph Lowenstein at the French Society for Psychoanalysis.
Jacques Lacan was an original from the outset. Everything about him – his speech, his action and his appearance – were distinctive: excessive, immoderate, non-conformist and provocative, not to mention his dandyish and seductive side… Famous for his cigars, his bow ties, his extravagant manner and delivery, he was certainly the prince of ambiguity. As his son-in-law, psychoanalyst and philosopher Jacques-Alain Miller, says: “N’est pas Lacan qui veut” – Not everybody can be Lacan. A collector of paintings, including Gustave Courbet’s famous The Origin of the World, he also loved to invent words, play with and distort them. Researchers have listed 759 such words resulting from his quest for the neologism.
In 1936, he gave his famous lecture on the Mirror Phase in Marienbad (Czechoslovakia). In Paris he moved in literary and artistic circles. In the 1950s, he leant heavily on Structuralism and Linguistics and became close to Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss and Roman Jakobson. “The unconscious is structured like a language,” he said. A language that has its rules, its syntax and its own intrinsic characteristics. This sentence, which introduced a new reading of Freud’s teaching, by using the tools of linguistics, became central to his theoretical development. In using the term “structure”, it reflects Lacan’s structuralist approach and shows that psychoanalysis is related to the act of speaking, that it is an experience of speech.
In 1953, he introduced concepts that were to become fundamental to his work, the three orders: the Real, the Symbolic and the Imaginary. He represented the intricate relationship of these three functions by the Borromean Knot.
Intellectual circles devoted a genuine cult to him, drinking in his words every Wednesday at the Seminar he held from 1953 to 1979, at the Saint-Anne Hospital, then at the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Sorbonne. It is well known that Lacan did not write, he spoke. In his legendary practice at 5 rue de Lille in Paris, he held short or variable-length consultations.
If so very many people (neurotics, depressives, psychotics and others) found in the analyses he provided, and in his teaching, factors that could help them along the road to a better psychological harmony and acceptance of life, then that is what matters most.
At the age of 63, Jacques Lacan founded his own school: the Ecole Freudienne de Psychanalyse (EFP). The publication of his Ecrits, in 1966, brought him further renown: he was now among the leading figures of structuralism and his name was cited alongside those of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault.
A few years later, he made his son-in-law, Jacques-Alain Miller, the husband of Judith Lacan, his legatee: Miller was to publish written versions of all his oral teachings. He and his wife have devoted their lives to the intellectual legacy of Jacques Lacan, whose interviews are being published in 2011: Seminar XIX and I’m Speaking to the Walls.
The aura of the “Master” continues to spread. What is he still handing down to us? A fundamental intellectual approach that brought about the liberation of speech and behaviour, giving rise to all kinds of emancipation. But also several dazzling aphorisms: Style is the man, Desire is the desire of the other, or There is no sexual relationship. By taking psychoanalysis away from biology and psychology, Lacan made it possible to speak of desire and sexuality in a different way. Human sexuality, in his view, is not a matter of organs but of words.
Paris remains a centre of psychoanalysis. The Université de Paris 8, the successor to the Centre Expérimental de Vincennes, whose department of psychoanalysis was created by Jacques Lacan, takes in students from all over the world. The Masters in Research that it offers helps to disseminate Lacanian psychoanalysis, a knowledge specifically related to French culture, and thus contributes to its influence across the world.
Jacques Lacan died on 9 September 1981, at the age of 80. He used to say that psychoanalysis can only be passed on by being reinvented. Lacan, one of the last “maîtres à penser” or intellectual authorities of the French intelligentsia, did not hide his way of doing things and never asked people to do as he did. That is the condition of passing things on. On his deathbed, he uttered three words: “I am obstinate”.