Lacan’s personality: the sordid details

Stuart Schneiderman is unique for having been an American who was psychoanalyzed by Lacan and trained at his institute in Paris. On the occasion of Lacan’s death, he wrote a book called Jacques Lacan: The Death of an Intellectual Hero. This is the one book about Lacan I’d recommend to someone that doesn’t already have a masochistic desire to read about Lacan. It’s in plain English, gives a great explanation of the “attitude” that makes Lacanians different, and has lots of sordid details about the drama surrounding Lacan.

Schneiderman says

Perhaps it is symptomatic that a grasp of Lacan’s theory is best attained in conjunction with a sense of the man himself…[pages later] And I would even suggest that the imperfections of the man, his eccentricity, were precisely what showed people that he had some grasp of truth.

Perhaps it’s even more symptomatic that Stuart Schneiderman renounced psychoanalysis, wrote a book about it called The Last Psychoanalyst (which I haven’t read), and now works as an “executive life coach.” This is his blog. The author of a neat reference book called An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis, Dylan Evans, has also recanted, and he now pursues evolutionary psychology (pdf).

Even in the early 1980s, writing about his own analyst, Schneiderman had some critical distance:

Lacan lived for 80 tumultuous years and made a very successful career out of saying things that just about no one could understand…He seems to have gone to great lengths to prevent people from finding out what he had to say. Some have tried to justify this as a teaching device, and a good argument has been made to the effect that this is indeed psychoanalytic. Yet nothing obliges us to follow Lacan through the realm of the abstruse.

Several pages later:

The Doctor, as he was called respectfully, or the Old Man, as he was called somewhat less respectfully, did not think psychoanalysis was a respectable profession; he judged it to be a subversive and revolutionary occupation. One day at his seminar Lacan was trying to explain his impenetrable prose style: if they knew what I was saying, he offered, they would never have let me say it. This has a slightly paranoid tinge, but that does not mean he was wrong.

One of the things that’s fun about Lacanian stuff is that it’s unorthodox and combative about it. When Lacan was excommunicated from mainstream psychoanalysis, he was betrayed by a number of people he’d trained and/or psychoanalyzed, which explains some of the hostility. Those people represented “American ego psychology,” so he went out of his way to criticize it. On the other hand, he had good things to say about the way American audiences didn’t worship him so much. To Schneiderman, the “cult leader” image isn’t quite right:

Needless to say, when people began calling him a “phenomenon” and when some journalists declared in the Nouvel observateur that our age would be called the Age of Lacan, he greeted these statements with derision and contempt. This is not to say that Lacan was humble or modest in his own appraisal of his accomplishments. To have affected modesty would have been what the French call con, and no one ever accused Lacan of being con.

Sometimes being an asshole is The Right Thing:

Another example…will also show how Lacan won his reputation for being ill-mannered and somewhat daft. During the mid-seventies Lacan decided he wanted to meet the film director Roman Polanski, and he asked a friend who knew Polanski to arrange a meeting. The friend invited the director and Lacan to have dinner in an elegant Paris restaurant. Lacan and his friend arrived at the restaurant first and were engaged in what I understand to have been normal conversation. Then Polanski arrived, sweeping across the restaurant with the kind of swagger that told everyone who he was. Notorious for his amorous exploits, he was accompanied by a ravishing young woman. Lacan observed this scene, was introduced to Polanski, and then emitted a loud, pronounced, and resonant sigh, the kind that would have been difficult to ignore five tables away. The director was somewhat taken aback by the gesture. Lacan sighed again, and again, and again. One might say that this is a wonderful way to greet an exhibitionist. At the least it shows why Lacan was said to have terrible public manners…

As for Lacan’s contribution to the scene, I am saying that it would have been easier for him simply to sit by and make small talk, to spend the evening in a convivial, if empty, chat. It is easier to get along with people, to massage their egos in return for their massaging yours. This would have been normal and natural and pleasing to all involved. As I have said, this was not Lacan’s way.

Lacan’s answer to people who’d armchair diagnose him was that he was hysterical. This fits with the whole clinical ethos:

the question for the obsessional is: Am I alive or dead? The hysteric’s question is: Am I a man or a woman? If, as Lacan stated, the effect of psychoanalysis is to “hystericize” patients in the transference, then any emphasis on issues that are of particular concern to obsessionals would function as an obstacle to the treatment. Thus Lacan rejected obsessional neurosis as a model for treatment and rejected the concomitant ritualization of the analytic setting, the efforts to strengthen the fortresslike structure of the ego, and the emphasis on the intrapsychic. Lacan promoted the hysterical intersubjectivity, tampered with the time of the analytic session, and considered the ego to be the enemy.

Schneiderman describes Lacan’s clinical style:

The burden of interpreting as a regular, even a daily, activity was passed into the hands of the analysand. And as long as this activity was proceeding, which meant that the patient was offering different interpretations, Lacan let things move along at their own pace. His interpretations were limited to those occasions where the patient reached a point of certainty and conviction that caused the dialogue to stop.

Lacan as an analyst was not trying to establish any sort of communication with his patients; nor did he think it a good idea that they understand each other…By acting much of the time as if he were a creature from another planet, even another galaxy, Lacan gave the impression that he was hearing something other than what you were saying. He never put himself on the same wavelength as his analysand, but remained always at cross purposes. He never tried to find areas of agreement and accord, but scrupulously maintained a fruitful, well-tuned discord.

He has positive things to say about “short sessions” in general, but the most interesting thing is that he uses them to answer the charge that Lacanian psychoanalysis is over-intellectual:

To engage in the process, which is as ponderous and cumbersome as the word itself, you must have time, a good deal of time. Intellectualization is intimately related to procrastination. It implies a will to explain away things, to interpret them to death, to concoct an endless series of reasons telling why and wherefore and leaving the deed undone. Or else, if the deed has been done, the rationalizations declare that the ego wishes to undo it, wishes that it never happened.

Not only did Lacan not intellectualize; he did not encourage or promote the use of this defense in others. He did this in a very simple way, by never giving you the time to intellectualize. There is no way to intellectualize within the frame of the short session…

Labeling intellectualization a defense does not make all uses of the intellect suspect. Quite the contrary. Lacan encouraged the workings of the intellect, of wit, and of the characteristic that was most indicative of its workings–brevity. The mode of the intellect tends toward the aphoristic. Brevity, as we know, is the soul of wit, and equivocation is its body. Why equivocation? Because a rational explanation, any explanation that carries a meaning that can be grasped by the ego, tends to feed a self-image that does nothing to threaten the ego’s identity.

An interesting book to read alongside Schneiderman’s is Lacan: In Spite of Everything, by someone else who was there. The difference is that Roudinesco’s book was written 30 years after the fact, and she’s still a psychoanalyst. The anecdotes in the book are sometimes complementary. From Schneiderman, we learn that Lacan’s wife was Jewish and that he personally went to the Gestapo’s office and somehow obtained whatever paperwork had implicated her. From Roudinesco, we learn that Lacan spent most of the Occupation cheating on her. “Lacan felt sorry for fathers and hated mothers and families, while himself being an actor in the intra-familial humiliations he denounced.”

Schneiderman has probably the clearest exposition of Lacan’s seminar on Antigone, in which he argues for an ethics based on staying true to one’s desires. Schneiderman also insists that Lacan’s analysands weren’t all masochists, in those words. Roudinesco would find that VERY questionable:

I confess that I never really subscribed to this ethics of psychoanalysis, whose spokesman Lacan considered himself…Alas, it took the form of a commitment that led numerous practitioners from two successive generations to lose interest in subjective suffering: short sessions, silence, inflexible attitude, absence of empathy, frustrations visited on patients, ridiculous interpretations of alleged signifiers, and the use of neologisms instead of clinical discourse.

It’s awesome that even Lacan’s defenders are ambivalent about him. I think his theories are insightful but also stupid. I spent a year doing psychodynamic therapy (“psychoanalysis lite”) with someone who described herself as “Lacanian but not hardcore about it.” At one point she said there was a special circle in hell for people who write like Mari Ruti, because I sent her this quote for the lulz:

When we opt to interpret the social order as thoroughly hegemonic in the manner that is customary in the brand of Lacanian theory I have been outlining, it is easy to lose track of the fact that lacking secure ontological foundations, being ‘wounded’ by the signifier, and having no choice but to utilize the impersonal discourse of the Other are not, in the larger scheme of things, that difficult to bear.

It’s such an honest admission. Anyway, there was a lot of frustration involved like I’m not even going to write about. It was undecidable whether she was an awful therapist or a Lacanian. Are those the same thing? It was stressful. It ended in a spectacular empathic failure trainwreck. And yet it undeniably did something. I’m different, now. At the same time, it’s not outwardly obvious that I’m “less mentally ill.” The whole thing is spooky.

Buddhism and Lacan both aren’t very big on the ego. Zen and the Lacanians emphasize a kind of free spontaneity. Lacanians emphasize ambiguity and paradox, and Zen has koans. There’s some sort of psychological…something that both appeal to.