The Sins of the Fathers

By Ronjaunee ChatterjeeJune 1, 2014

Lacan by Élisabeth Roudinesco

IF A STANDARD biography arranges a life into digestible arcs of story — makes a life readable, as it were — we know from the outset that Élisabeth Roudinesco’s memoir of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan will be very different. She wraps her cryptic denial of biography’s generic conventions in the words of her subject: “Lacan maintained that biography is always secondary with respect to the meaning of an oeuvre.” But there is also the undeniable factor of her own preeminence as a psychoanalyst and theorist in France. Roudinesco is a scholar whose mother was an early psychoanalyst, who grew up in and around the world of Lacan, and whose resulting intimacy with the French philosophical elite allows her to deftly weave in and out of Lacan’s life and thought as an insider, a method that nevertheless strikes the reader as somewhat defamiliarizing.

But there is another caveat to the spirit of traditional biography that hangs over Roudinesco’s work, and that is psychoanalysis itself. Psychoanalysis introduces a rupture into the already difficult project of understanding an intellectual life, because psychoanalysis does not understand the mind as something that can, in the biographical mode, make sense. Psychoanalysis is concerned, first and foremost, with the unconscious: the motor of our being that is simultaneously a form of nonbeing, something inhuman and uncanny. Additionally, psychoanalysis does not typically aim at the greater integration of an individual with itself, but only at a kind of truth — something that often emerges in the very undoing of a subject’s understanding of herself. So what Lacan: In Spite of Everything offers, if not a coherent biography in the conventional sense, is an evocative and illuminating rendering of Lacan’s lived and intellectual experiences, rendered both through the presences and absences of his personal archive.

Psychoanalysis has earned the moniker of the “talking cure” in mainstream culture, but curing is not really its aim. The practice is ultimately more about the fissures that disrupt any search for meaning, because, as Lacan maintained, the unconscious speaks precisely through these gaps and fissures. It is therefore of a system of thought that listens more to what is left out of various attempts to fix meaning — whether that attempt takes place through discourse, representation, or human consciousness. In doing so, it crucially resists a certain modern ideological tendency to see individual lives as normalized and rationalized under a limiting rubric.

So it’s perhaps reasonable to begin considering Lacan’s biography not in himself, but rather through the intellectual milieu wherein his ideas about selfhood would begin to foment. When Sigmund Freud, for lack of a better word, “stumbled” upon the unconscious in turn-of-the-century Vienna, he was embedded within a growing climate of distrust on the Continent with Enlightenment ideas of reason and progress. While maintaining a foothold in both biology and science (Freud began his career as a neurologist), he nevertheless set the stage for the displacement of the human psyche from its roots in self-knowledge to its uncertain place within the structure of language. Freud’s inventiveness as a thinker included mobilizing literature (for instance, Goethe, Hamlet, and, most famously, Greek tragedy in the form of Oedipus), anthropology, and religion (though he largely thought of himself as secular) in his writings to give shape to psychoanalysis beyond the confines of the clinic. It is perhaps fitting that Lacan, the psychoanalyst who hailed a “return to Freud,” never actually met Freud himself. When Lacan encountered Freud’s papers and translated his article on paranoia in 1922, Freud was alive and well. Yet it is only the trace of a life within Freud’s thought that came to matter to Lacan when he not only took up Freud’s line of thinking but also formalized and integrated it into an intellectual system. Lacan’s reception of Freud remains as crucial background to Roudinesco’s work, which inevitably has to confront the empty center of the “father”: the life that is missing but that nevertheless constitutes the origin point of psychoanalysis.

Lacan: In Spite of Everything was originally published in French in 2011 (as Lacan, envers et contre tout) on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Lacan’s death. (He passed away in 1981 from colon cancer.) It appeared contemporaneously with Jacques-Alain Miller’s Vie de Lacan, Lacan’s student by way of the Marxist Louis Althusser. Miller was Lacan’s primary editor (he edited and transcribed Lacan’s seminars, which are collected in various volumes, notably the 1966 Écrits) and, eventually, son-in-law, while Roudinesco was a member of the École Freudienne de Paris (established by Lacan) and France’s most recognized historian of psychoanalysis. Both Roudinesco and Miller share the task of appraising the singular legacy of Lacanian psychoanalysis, since no other inheritor of Freud has been so thoroughly embraced by the literary and philosophical intelligentsia, and, arguably, so vilified by those outside of it.

From both of their accounts, for instance, we learn that Lacan’s numerous intellectual peers in the heyday of French psychoanalysis included philosophers and iconoclasts like Georges Bataille, André Breton, Michel Foucault, and the aforementioned Althusser, rather than the ego-psychologists and psychiatrists in the medical field whom Roudinesco, in her book, swiftly and effectively discredits. The book leaves little doubt, as a result, that Lacan fundamentally altered the shape of French intellectual history and culture, to the point that every Continental thinker since the 1960s — including many of those with whom Roudinesco also has close relationships, most notably Jacques Derrida — has been forced to reckon with psychoanalysis, and often with the figure of Lacan himself. Conservative but antiestablishment, vain, dandyish, and prone to angry outbursts, Lacan and the paradoxes of his personal life, with all its color and somewhat unsavory flourish, come into focus in both of these memoirs. But while Miller is the scribe, Roudinesco is the gatekeeper. Deeply sympathetic not only to the man, but also to the edifice he built around psychoanalysis in post–World War II France, Roudinesco claims her latest work speaks from the inside of a “non-deposited archive,” offering “a Lacan of the margins, the edges, the literal, carried away by his mania for neologisms.”

Roudinesco’s short text largely validates this statement, though not for the benefit of readers who may be unfamiliar with the complex history of 20th-century France and the birth of its intelligentsia. Before this biography, she had already written a meticulous, scholarly engagement with Lacan’s work and the intellectual landscape he entered into and irrevocably altered: Jacques Lacan & Co. The “Co.” is not insignificant: I take Roudinesco’s larger point in her oeuvre to be that understanding the originality of Lacanian thought — its almost fanatical concern with structure, the frustrating prose littered with neologisms, and the emphasis on the Law over and above all psychic processes — requires appreciating the institutional climate of his work and its engagement with the thought of others, most of whom go unacknowledged. 

For instance, Lacan’s most recognized contribution to psychoanalysis is perhaps the notion of the “mirror stage,” developed in the 1930s. This is a foundational concept in which a child recognizes his or her image in a mirror as whole, though it is ultimately a unity that is specular and imaginary. For Lacan this becomes less of an evolutionary “stage” of infancy and more of a structural fact of subjectivity — our sense of individuality doesn’t emerge from ourselves but rather is produced, Lacan believed, by a complicated representational system that only lets us see ourselves from the outside. The subject is thus fundamentally “split,” always locating an illusion of its own wholeness elsewhere. Roudinesco helpfully reminds us that Lacan owes much of his terminology of the mirror stage to the French psychologist and Hegelian Henri Wallon, who based his observations of a similar process on primates. “Always quick to erase the original archive,” she notes, “Lacan neglected to cite his source. Subsequently, he always suppressed Wallon’s name and presented himself as the inventor of the term.”

Roudinesco discusses this incident early on in the text, and it remains somewhat paradigmatic, not only of Lacan’s intellectual development, but also of Roudinesco’s project itself, which moves along with the current of Lacan’s textual and historical interventions. Those seeking basic explanations of Lacanian concepts and any new archival revelations will not necessarily find either here; Roudinesco dispels of the latter in her chapter “The Archive,” and often allows her own reflections to get “carried away” by the whimsicality of neologisms and the literary references Lacan is known for. (She compares Lacan’s life, for example, to a “Balzacian destiny.”) What we have instead is an unfolding of two intersecting theaters in the book: that of the seminar and that of the family. This is appropriate, because these remain the most important physical and symbolic sites for Lacanian psychoanalysis. The first refers to Lacan’s own seminar (meetings that began in 1953, held weekly and then annually at the École Normale Supérieure and, later, the Place du Panthéon) in which “he regarded himself as a Socratic master” yet “left none of his listeners indifferent.” But the seminar also refers to the philosopher Alexandre Kojève’s lectures on Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit in the ’30s that Lacan attended along with a host of other influential thinkers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Raymond Aron, Bataille, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. These lectures were to leave a profound mark on the development of an entire generation of French philosophical thought. Both seminars therefore ground Roudinesco’s exploration of Lacanian psychoanalysis, which she shows as developing over the years as a kind of ongoing “event” fundamentally colored by orality and the freedom it can offer: slips of the tongue; puns; the energy of voice and speech. 

The family, Roudinesco makes clear, is the arche or origin point for the rise of psychoanalysis itself, as well as the vexed terrain for Lacan’s deconstruction of certain fundamental tenets of Western culture (i.e., romantic love and bourgeois patriarchy), not to mention his philandering. This is the subject of some of the book’s clearest chapters, which move chronologically but are ultimately self-contained: “Love, Woman” and “Antigone.” The latter provides the momentum for her text on several levels: Lacan’s formidable essay on Sophocles’ Antigone is where Roudinesco draws the title phrase of her work (“envers et contre tout”). The title points to a form of feminine radicalism — emblematized by the “inhuman” Antigone — that was to become the main topic of Lacan’s late writings. This chapter of Roudinesco’s text also fully discloses Lacan’s apparent fascination with the cultish rituals of death and dying, specifically forms of funeral rites, which constitute the launching point of Sophocles’ play. This sense of personal vulnerability — to death and oblivion — contrasts with a certain image of Lacan as autocratic master. Yet this is what Roudinesco is best at doing: allowing paradoxes to exist, without making attempts to resolve them. 

But death, whether of the individual or a collective, also allows Roudinesco to make a secondary claim: that “Lacan, as we have said, inscribed the caesura of Auschwitz as a founding element in any renewal of psychoanalysis.” The orthodoxy and somewhat well-dispersed anti-Semitism of 20th-century French society is well worth bearing in mind here. Though France remains the spiritual center of psychoanalysis, Freud himself — a Viennese Jew — observed in a letter to Carl Jung that “it has always been hard to import things into France.” Any kind of deeply felt nostalgia for a lost French past (the past of the Resistance and left-wing philosophy) is thus shot through, importantly so, with the specter of an outside question — in this case, specifically, the “Jewish Question.” But as Roudinesco suggests in her work, this has always been the strength of psychoanalysis, and Lacan’s reformulation of it in particular (which he felt had had to do justice to the 20th century’s defining atrocities): to take charge of the unspeakable.

Lacan: In Spite of Everything speaks to a culture far removed from the one that gave rise to the flourishing of psychoanalysis in the ’50s and ’60s. It is therefore not surprising that Roudinesco’s tone in this book is often one of disdain toward the contemporary moment. This book reiterates many of her concerns from previous writings, as well as recent interviews, over our current “depressive society” and its strong tendencies toward reactionary thought and lassitude. These are traits that together make up a climate that proves resistant (in her estimation) to fostering the towering intellectuals of the past. But psychoanalysis from Freud onward has always taken shape and been defined through resistance: resistance from within scientific and medical discourse, resistance against the establishment and cultural narrowness, and resistance to its own volatility. If anything, it may be one of the best discourses available to address the “disarray” of the present and the uncertainty of the future, since, despite Lacanian psychoanalysis’s investment in the depths of our inhumanity, what concerned Lacan most was not how to die, but how to live.


Ronjaunee Chatterjee is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at UCLA.

LARB Contributor

Ronjaunee Chatterjee’s first book, Feminine Singularity: The Politics of Subjectivity in Nineteenth-Century Literature, is forthcoming in July 2022 with Stanford University Press. She is also the editor of the Norton Critical Middlemarch (expected 2023). Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Inquiry, ASAP Journal, differences, and other venues. She lives in Montreal where she teaches courses in feminist, queer, and critical race theory, as well as courses in the 19th century, at Concordia University.


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