Jacques Lacan has had an enormous influence on psychoanalytic thinking and literary criticism both in Europe and in the United States. His concepts of the “mirror stage” by which the child comes to grapple with a consciousness of his own identity, and of the unconscious (which Lacan tied closely to the human being’s ability to construct a language of his thoughts) continue to fascinate intellectuals across several continents. Part of the fascination, however, results from the hard work of trying to piece together a system out of Lacan’s recondite articles. He wrote papers, not books, and his writing was often in response to a changing and sometimes contradictory notion of the unconscious. As Elisabeth Roudinesco rightly points out in Jacques Lacan: Outline of a Life, History of a System of Thought, the Lacan of 1930 or 1940—let alone of 1970 or 1980—is not the same thinker, even though he claimed a continuity in his thinking that was largely spurious, if tantalizing to his followers.
It is one of the great merits of Roudinesco’s biography that it explores the inconsistencies not only in Lacan’s thinking but also in his life. He never bothered to square the way he lived with the principles he enunciated as teacher, writer, and psychoanalyst. In his later career, he could espouse the leftism of striking students while maintaining a thoroughly bourgeois existence. He always believed that he was extending Sigmund Freud’s thought, even as his major concepts upended Freud and upset the Freudian establishment. Lacan’s thinking often suited his convenience. For example, he pioneered the idea of the short psychoanalytical session—some lasting less than ten minutes. He claimed that his abrupt cessation of his meetings with patients helped them to focus on precisely the problems that troubled them. Yet even his most devout followers did not dare to treat their patients so cavalierly, and orthodox psychoanalysts treated Lacan as a renegade and charlatan.
Yet Lacan seems to have had an extraordinary ear—to put it the way his students did. He heard things in analytic sessions that escaped the attention of more traditional therapists. His students were so enamored of his analytical power that when he became deaf they considered his silences another innovation in his therapeutic technique. Lacan’s messianic quality—the idea that he was bringing new intellectual life to Freudianism—ensured his status as a cult figure. Unlike most psychoanalysts, Lacan wanted to do more than treat patients or to write up cases. He wanted to bridge the gap between psychoanalysis and philosophy and between psychoanalysis and modern literature.
A voracious reader, Lacan seemed to feed off most of the great minds of his century. He puzzled over James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939) for months, delighting in the novel’s wordplay. Lacan saw in language not merely a vehicle of human expression but rather the medium that made human expression and consciousness possible. Language was not a tool of human beings; it was language that made thinking possible. In this respect, he was much influenced by anthropologists such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, a modern founder of structuralism. From Lévi-Strauss, Lacan took skill in exploring how human cultures learn to speak their values. Lévi-Strauss and Lacan’s work led directly to Michel Foucault, who saw that he could treat history in terms of the vocabulary that cultures create in establishing the institutions of society.
Perhaps because he was isolated from orthodox Freudians, Lacan was always seeking allies elsewhere. He met with Carl Jung, Freud’s chief rival. He befriended Martin Heidegger, Germany’s greatest philosopher. He encountered Joyce in Paris. In each case, Lacan borrowed ideas and reshaped them as his own. Intellectually, his ambition was boundless, and he was criticized for not adequately giving credit to his influences. He was dismayed that friends such as Lévi-Strauss were not, in turn, influenced by him. Indeed, there is little evidence that Lacan’s intellectual peers read him. His impact would not be felt until the 1970’s and 1980’s, when his writings were collected and writers such as Louis Althusser began to speak of a Lacanian body of thought.
Lacan had charisma, however, even before he was a force in French intellectual life. Although he continued the life of a bourgeois and nominal...
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