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Bonjour, Monsieur Lacan
Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, translated by Barbara Bray, New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, 496 pp.
Copyright © 1999, Jean-Michel Rabaté, all rights reserved
The American version of this book was greeted with less passion and controversy than when it was published in France (where a few reviewers immediately titled it "Should one burn Lacan?") but created nevertheless a certain stir. I would like to argue that it is a very timely book, a book that is indispensable to read if one wants to understand Lacan not just as a man, but a cultural phenomenon. Here is less a collection of juicy anecdotes (although one will meet quite a number of them) than a serious and historical approach to Lacan's cultural revolution, seen not just as a phenomenon of a bygone era, but as a type of archive in the making -- an archive that has been so far suppressed -- an archive that somewhat also comprises us and the way we think. It is a very well-documented book -- Elisabeth Roudinesco has experience in the field, having devoted huge books to the history of psychoanalysis in France and more recently, having co-authored an Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis.
What are the main elements that are likely to create controversy? They have to do with the way the Lacanian legacy has become indistinguishable from his own person, which is unavoidable in such a case, as we know when thinking of Freud's own legacy. The idea proffered by some Lacanians who are afraid of this book is that discloses too many "secrets", says too many "negative" things about Lacan's private life and complicated family matters. The inference is that readers will not want to be interested in Lacan if he appears as a monster. There are indeed quite a few monstrosities one finds dotting Lacan's sinuous career, but I believe that an awareness of his genuinely tortured (if not torturing) and often distasteful personality will not detract from a balanced appreciation of his real genius. His genius did not only consist in a rewriting of Freudian theory, but also in a revision of the medical discourse of psychiatry which is full of momentous consequences for the whole spectrum of the "human sciences" -- including philosophy, linguistics, aesthetics, anthropology, and political science.
One might say that Roudinesco has chosen to reexamine the official version handed down to us by Lacan's son-in-law and literary executor of his vast estate (including the very slow publication of the famous Seminars). Roudinesco's original sources come partly from the side of Lacan's first marriage and the family of the Blondins, and Lacan's own brother, who was a Benedictine monk. She also taps from an impressive variety of analysts and philosophers whom she has known personally (her mother, Jenny Aubry, was a close friend of Lacan). On several issues, this book shows a darker side of Lacan. First, in his dealings with his first wife and three children, he appears often ruthlessly evil, as when he announced to an estranged wife who tried to keep up appearances and was pregnant with their third child that Sylvia Bataille, his then mistress and later second wife, was also pregnant at that time. Roudinesco is even more unsparing when she denounces the way in which, during the later years, Lacan allowed himself to be controlled by his own in laws and their group of manipulative friends. She believes that Lacan's last years were marked by real diseases that were never diagnosed and that a number of important political decisions such as the dissolution of his school were actually taken by Jacques-Alain Miller. This leads her to question the authenticity of some crucial texts like the notorious open letter by which Lacan announced the "dissolution" in the name of a "père-sévère" (both a "severe father" and a "persevering one").
Similarly, Roudinesco has very strong opinions on clinical issues, and explains the personal and institutional logics that led Lacan to the "variable session" and to the final practice of the "short" if not "very short" session. Besides being a historian, she is a psychoanalyst herself, and is quite clear as to what should not be allowed to pass in the name of psychoanalysis. She thus denounces less the excesses of Lacan's last years (when a lot can be blamed on the approaches of undeniable senility, and when having the privilege of being analyzed by him amounted to a status symbol) than the undiscriminating reverence of disciples who have not only imitated but also set as a model the worst aspects of their master's practice.
Roudinesco's enemies have replied by attacking the book as a weak form of novelization flawed by biographical fallacies. One may indeed find it somewhat reductive to see that Lacan's concept of the Name-of-the-Father may been suggested to him by his troubled relationship with a paternal grandfather he hated, or by the fact that the daughter of his second marriage bore the name of his wife, still married to Bataille, and not his: "There can be no doubt that one of the origins of Lacan's theory of the name-of-the-father, a key element in his teaching, lay in this imbroglio, lived through in the midst of war and destruction." (p. 163) But why not? Any biography has to read like a novel, and Lacan is indeed a picturesque character -- less by his involvement in actual historical events (his role during the second World War was neither scandalous nor very heroic) than by his ability to make history, to embody a living history by a radical rethinking of psychoanalysis. Lacan is indeed a character by Balzac, as Roudinesco claims, even if her book often reads more like a novel by Norman Mailer.
This is why this intellectual biography will especially be invaluable to an American audience: Lacan's life is retraced in all its scandalous manifestations (he led a double life almost from beginning to end, less to emulate Georges Bataille than because he seemed unable to commit himself seriously to monogamy) and intellectual excitement. The biography is rife with hundreds of exciting vignettes that retrace the intellectual climate of the times, from thirties -- with a few dense pages summing up the importance of Bataille, Kojève and Koyré -- to the fifties (with Levi-Strauss, Jakobson, Heidegger, and especially Merleau-Ponty, all personal friends of Lacan) and the seventies, with Althusser, Foucault, Derrida, the feminists, and a wonderful gallery of crazy mathematicians.
The care with which Roudinesco reconstructs the whole
"Aimée" case of the 30's and the redaction of Lacan's groundbreaking
thesis on paranoia, the patience she evinces when she unravels all the
intricacies of Lacan's life-long flirtation with philosophy (Spinoza and
Nietzsche first, then Hegel for a long time, and then Heidegger followed
by the structuralists) indicate that it is indeed time to re-read the
whole of Lacan's works and legacy in a rigorous and historical way. More
importantly, she shows in great detail how Lacan's genius consisted in
having always thought against himself -- in spite of himself, one might
say: for instance, he produces a theory of the Unconscious identified with
a Truth that speaks at a time when he was not only lying to all the women
he was engaged with but also to the International Psychoanalytic
Association as to the nature of his clinical practice. When he finally
felt that he was coming into his own and recognized for his worth, around
1953 that is, he was both intriguing to be received in Rome by Pope Pius
XII in Rome and in Paris by the top members of the French Communist Party.
One wishes that this obstinate, histrionic, perverse, arrogant, conceited
man would have been a better person, but genius is often accompanied by
such features. And a deeper frequentation of his books, friends,
mistresses, families and schools of thought provides one with a very
distinctive glimpse of a whole atmosphere bristling with intellectual
passion, of a time now almost over when it seemed that one would have to
remake the world overnight -- every night, even -- a world that, still for
us hopefully, includes the riddles of the Unconscious, of Desire, and of
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