The Mirror Stage

Jacques Lacan and biography.

Jacques Lacan
By Elisabeth Roudinesco
Translated by Barbara Bray
; 574 pages; $36.95

The suspicion about psychoanalysts that is currently fashionable creates an interesting dilemma for their biographers. The biographer of a great analyst is always tempted to prove something, to second-guess the dubious reader. Since psychoanalysis as a treatment is itself about the possibility and, indeed, the value of biographical truth–psychoanalysis as the biography that is supposed to improve the biography–we are likely to want something specific from this callow new genre. We want to know whether these people should have been trusted, and why and if we should go on trusting their so-called followers. In other words, biographies of psychoanalysts make us wonder what it is that makes a person trustworthy to us, and what, if anything, this has to do with the significance we give to their lives.

By the conventional standards of psychoanalytic orthodoxy, Jacques Lacan (1900-1981) was a heretic. His notoriety was based on his shortening of the psychoanalytic session–sometimes to five minutes. His fame was based on his radical revisions of Freud and his insistence on the ways in which language and sexuality disrupt a life. Toward the end of his life, historian of psychoanalysis Elisabeth Roudinesco tells us, Lacan “usually saw his tailor, his pedicurist, and his barber while conducting his analyses.” So what?

There is a tension in any biography between what the subject wanted to be–who he or she was always wanting to become–and what the biographer wants the subject to be. In this sober, incisive, and riveting book, a well-documented history rather than a novelistic evocation of the man himself, Roudinesco cannot conceal her dismay that Lacan was not better behaved, more temperate in his appetites, less baroque in his provocations. She wants him to be more poignant and less boastful.

It was, of course, about excesses–of desire, of meaning, of emptiness–that Lacan wrote so eloquently. For Lacan, a person was by definition in excess of himself. He believed there was something fundamentally unintelligible about the vagaries of a life. But Roudinesco neither takes pleasure in nor makes intriguing sense of the fact that Lacan’s theories “denounced the omnipotence of the ego in general, though he himself asserted the supremacy of his own.” Lacan’s writings are clearly, among other things, the confessions of a self-justifying megalomaniac–unusual in itself, because such people don’t tend to explain themselves. But by the same token these are also the most inexhaustibly interesting and stylish psychoanalytic writings since Freud’s. The Lacan characterized in this book as flamboyantly voracious for the Freudian triumvirate of women, money, and power is, as Roudinesco suggests, a Balzacian hero: a triumph of appetite over class. This is a story of a man with an amazing talent for finding what and whom he needed to make himself what he wanted to be, the greatest analyst since Freud.

A s always, from the evidence available, there is no obvious reason why this particular family should have produced that particular psychoanalyst. Lacan’s father owned a very successful vinegar distillery; the family were respectable bourgeois Roman Catholics. Lacan’s adored youngest brother became a priest, and his sister spent most of her married life in Indochina–so clearly some distance was needed from what was otherwise a typical French family of a certain type. Very early, as one might have expected, Lacan wanted to be top of the class, though in fact he wasn’t an especially talented boy. He had a precocious intellectual curiosity. He tended to read, as Roudinesco remarks, rather than play Cowboys and Indians with the other boys.

Of course, Lacan’s life here is being read retrospectively, partly through the prism of his writings, whereas he was living it prospectively (we have to remember, given that Lacan’s work was the theorizing of life stories, that he himself never knew what was going to happen next). If one of the dominant motifs of Lacan’s early life is his contempt for his father, as it is in this account, then it can seem virtually inevitable that his early work was about the terrible cultural consequences of the “weakening of the father imago” (there were no strong fathers anymore), and that much of his later work should be obsessed by what he called “the-name-of-the-father” and the symbolic significance of the phallus. But psychoanalysis–and Lacan was particularly shrewd about this–has always been essentially a critique of straightforwardly casual accounts of how people become who they are. Indeed, what distinguishes psychoanalysis is that it can show us the ways in which a life is not merely the effect of its causes (biology, parents, etc.).

As Lacan progresses through psychiatry, World War II (as a doctor in France), surrealism, psychoanalysis, structuralism–Lacan’s life was apparently a magnet for everything intellectually interesting happening in France: He was, for example, Picasso’s personal doctor–he seems to have had a knack for finding useful fathers. His friendships with the likes of writer and critic Georges Bataille, philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and linguist Roman Jakobson were formative in ways that he either fails to note or misleadingly acknowledges. Here Roudinesco is rather limitingly censorious, wanting Lacan to pay his debts rather than being amazed by what he could make of what he found in the work of these remarkable people. Lacan was apparently always dismayed by how little his mentors were influenced by him. In this book, it is Lacan’s craving for recognition–his almost demonic hunger to be unforgettable–that drives him; and that, every so often, is gently pathologized by Roudinesco.

Roudinesco alludes to many mistresses, though always discreetly, in the abstract. Lacan’s private life, however, was really a tale of two families. A first marriage, in his 20s, to Malou, the sister of a close friend, with whom he has three children; and then a second marriage to Sylvie, Bataille’s ex-wife, with whom he has his adored daughter and acolyte Judith. The children of the first marriage are told nothing of the second marriage until they are young adults. So Lacan leads a bizarre double life. One of the most chilling scenes in the book is when Lacan, Sylvie, and Judith stop at a traffic light in Paris and see two of Lacan’s other children. They approach the car, and Lacan drives off. Confronted with some of the most callous follies of this extraordinary life, the “so what?” question becomes more and more pressing.

“An act always misunderstands itself,” Lacan wrote. Indeed, all Lacan’s writing is an elaborate meditation on the ways in which–and the structures by which–we can never be transparent to ourselves. Lacan’s life was a struggle against the institutionalization of knowledge, and he flourished by creating havoc, both publicly (in a famous break with the International Psychoanalytic Institute) and privately (among some of his colleagues). He wanted psychoanalysis to be a science of self-deception, a proof against the old pieties. It would be strange to wish that he were more lovable, or honest, or familiar. His life is exemplary in the modern sense, not as a picture of virtue, or even as a struggle to live out some kind of personal truth, but rather as a question: How complicated can we allow people to be before we stop trusting them?