by Perry Meisel
Jacques Lacan. By Elisabeth Roudinesco. Translated by Barbara Bray. Illustrated. 574 pp. New York: Columbia University Press. $36.95.
A generation of yuppie avant-gardists has grown more bleary-eyed than usual from perusing – first with diligence, then with lagging attention, irritation and in some cases pure rage – the dazzling but often incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo of the flamboyant and influential French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. First published in France in 1993, Elisabeth Roudinesco's definitive biography, Jacques Lacan, is neither hagiographic nor vindictive; Ms. Roudinesco, a psychoanalyst based in Paris and the author of two previous books on the history of psychoanalysis in France, employs the wise strategy of the pre-emptive strike – she acknowledges Lacan's personal absurdity and literary extravagance while simultaneously showing why and how he matters. Although Lacan's technical shenanigans (shortening the length of the therapeutic session to a few minutes, for example, or analyzing patients in taxicabs) led to his expulsion from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1963, Ms. Roudinesco reminds us that he is now an indisputable part of the psychoanalytic firmament, the bookend to Carl Jung in the structure of psychoanalytic thought. Most of all, as Ms. Roudinesco points out, he combined a reading of Freud and a reading of philosophy that had startling consequences for psychoanalysis and philosophy alike.
Born in Paris in 1901 to a prosperous Roman Catholic family of vinegar merchants, Lacan had a temperament and demeanor that reflected the source of his ancestors' rise to position. The missing limbs and dazed faces of World War I veterans that he saw as a schoolboy made him want to be a doctor, but he had, as a teen-ager, also begun to despise his family, and, as Ms. Roudinesco puts it, dress ''like a dandy.'' As a young psychiatrist, Lacan fell under the sway of Salvador Dali and by 1931 began to synthesize psychiatry, psychoanalysis and Surrealism. The result was his medical dissertation in 1932, the case history of a provincial woman, a postal worker, who had criminally assaulted a well-known actress with a knife. Although Ms. Roudinesco characterizes as brutal his effort to impose upon his patient his own system of delusional needs (Lacan's own analysis did not begin until 1932, and his analyst, Rudolph Loewenstein, eventually pronounced him ''unanalyzable''), the case nonetheless illustrated Lacan's belief in the determination of the self by unconscious social rather than biological forces. Lacan was thrust into the limelight not only for the turn he gave to medical psychiatry, but also for the social interpretation he gave to Freud, whose work after 1920 seemed to return to the biologism of his youth. By the 1960's, Lacan's performance seminars had become major weekly events in Paris, and a published version of his work was in great demand. But he remained reluctant to publish in any systematic form, requiring considerable hand holding by his editor while he assembled his Écrits in 1966. He died in 1981.
Accounts of Lacan's ideas tend to be either too simple or too elaborate; Ms. Roudinesco takes a middle course, focusing on the insuperable gap between image and desire as the basis for Lacan's notion of the psyche. Lacan's key concept, the stade du miroir or ''mirror stage'' of human development, was first presented at the 1936 psychoanalytic association congress in Marienbad in a paper that well describes his stance. The talk was cut off in the middle by Ernest Jones, who found it too outrageous. Lacan never recovered from that trauma, and was heartbroken a quarter century later when he was expelled from the association.
Combining Freud's concepts of narcissism and the ''specular'' ego with the observation that infants are fascinated by their own image in the mirror (an observation that Lacan stole, Ms. Roudinesco suggests, from one of his teachers, Henri Wallon), Lacan rooted the origin of selfhood in the ''mirror stage'': one is the image of oneself, with which one tries, like a perpetual child, to catch up. The shocking méconnaissance or ''misrecognition'' of another in the mirror that produces the self (or the ''subject,'' as Lacan calls it) is soon complicated by the Oedipus complex, which requires that the self also conform to the social laws of patriarchy and the family. This passage from what Lacan calls the ''Imaginary'' to the ''Symbolic'' also gives people their sexual identities, which become functions of conscious and unconscious customs and images rather than of innate characteristics.
Freud's idea of the unconscious had always been incompatible with classical assumptions about the rule of reason; Lacan gave the problem a whole new slant. As Ms. Roudinesco notes, Lacan's work ''was the only corpus in the world that provided Freudianism with a genuine philosophical framework.'' The ''mirror stage'' shows that alienation is not a condition that the self can overcome, even with the best therapy, but part of what fashions it from the ground up. The only other French thinker – despite his running squabbles with Lacan – to make this kind of connection between Freud and philosophy is Jacques Derrida, the inventor of deconstruction. As he puts it in his most recent meditation on Freud, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (University of Chicago, 1996), The Other is the condition for the One. The idea of the Other that the two men share reflects the long shadow of Martin Heidegger, but Ms. Roudinesco rejects the notion that Lacan also appropriated the way the young Jean-Paul Sartre used Heidegger's vocabulary to arrive at elements of his own system. Although she returns again and again to Lacan's obsession with plagiarism throughout his career and devotes an entire chapter to rivalry with Sartre in particular, she does not compare their writings to see just how much Sartre himself questions the freedom of the self he seems to champion. Still, she raises the fascinating possibility that intellectual history, like literary history, is structured by the same ''misreadings'' that structure personality – an especially real possibility if, as the Lacanian formula has it, ''the unconscious is structured like a language.''
Lacan went even further, finding a persuasive link between Freud and Marx. ''You are the first thinker who has assumed the theoretical responsibility of giving to Freud veritable concepts worthy of him,'' Louis Althusser, the late French Communist philosopher who in the 1970's broke notably with Soviet Communism, wrote to Lacan in 1963. The esteem was mutual. ''I am quite honored,'' replied Lacan. The first night they had dinner together, they walked through the streets of Paris into the small hours of the morning, talking. Althusser's writings on psychoanalysis have now been collected in a single volume in English, Writings on Psychoanalysis: Freud and Lacan (Columbia University Press, 1997), that includes his legendary 1964 essay, ''Freud and Lacan,'' as well as two additional essays, some speeches and a selection of his correspondence with Lacan. For Althusser, the unconscious is (to put it perhaps too crudely) not unlike ideology in Marx's sense of the word – the false ideas that people have about social structures. Lacan gives social relations a place deep within the Freudian psyche, Althusser argues, and gives the psyche an active role in the perpetuation of social relations.
Lacan remains significant, then, because he provides an extraordinarily exact way of measuring our sanctimonies and our desires. This is likely why the ''structuralist'' legacy of which he is a part – the legacy of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida – is still too hot to handle. New sanctimonies have replaced older ones. Assessments of sexual identity, ethnicity and, indeed, identity itself that see all three as social fictions rather than as natural facts upset the very constituencies they were designed to address. Ms. Roudinesco captures the freshness of the intellectual world in which Lacan's developing notions were concocted, before the parochialism of his heirs rendered Lacanian thinking monolithic and humorless. Irony and dissonance are central to Lacan's achievement, even if the higher ironies of clarity never appealed to him. How to deal with an authority that asks you only to ''misread'' him remains an exasperating question. Ms. Roudinesco's biography, solidly translated by Barbara Bray, is a welcome aid to keeping him in perspective.
Originally published in The New York Times Book Review, April 13, 1997