The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan.
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Jacques Lacan: inspiring and infuriating in equal measure

A new biography explores the power dynamics of psychoanalysis.

Known as an unorthodox psychoanalyst and psychiatrist, Jacques Lacan hated the thought of being misinterpreted. A brilliant speaker whose seminar hosted battles over Freud’s legacy for 25 years, Lacan rarely entered into genuine dialogue. It was only after he was persuaded to publish his academic papers and lectures outside of Freudian journals, as Écrits in 1966, selling around 200,000 copies in two volumes, that Lacan became “celebrated, attacked, hated or admired like a major thinker”.

Academic historian, literary theorist and analyst Élisabeth Roudinesco spent thirty years after Lacan’s death in 1981 considering his legacy. The third volume of her History of Psychoanalysis (1993), devoted to Lacan, forms her starting point, but Lacan: In Spite of Everything, translated by Gregory Elliott, is far shorter, attempting to expose “a secret part of [Lacan’s] life and work”. It also strives to detach Lacan from accusations that he was a Nazi, anti-Semite, Maoist, charlatan, fraudulent Freudian or domestic abuser and focus on the central tenets of his thought, particularly his obsession with language and its limitations, and his attempt to reintroduce philosophical ideas which Freud had downplayed in his exploration of irrationality.

Lacan was reluctant to archive anything, never sorting or depositing his manuscripts, notes or correspondence, and there was no record of the story he told at the 14th Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1936 about a child rejoicing at its own reflected image, the basis for his influential “mirror stage” theory about the development of self-identity – a concept which he took from psychologist Henri Wallon. Whereas there are two accessible Freud museums, in London and Vienna, the place where Lacan saw patients is closed, its original couch missing, and Lacan as a person is often strangely absent, even though Roudinesco emphasises her connections to him.

Little is known of Lacan’s childhood, with key witnesses dead, and Roudinesco records her frustration that her intellectual biography cannot be anchored upon further detail of his relationships. This issue is amplified by the centrality of the family to Lacan, who saw people being shaped by “a relationship of dependency between an environment and … specific acts of internalisation of elements of that environment” which they are too young to understand. (This also applies to school, although neither Lacan nor Roudinesco pay as much attention to that.) Rejecting both Communist calls to abolish the family and Fascist assertions of patriarchal authority, Lacan struggled to resolve the “crucible of violence, madness and neurosis”, believing it the worst structure besides any other.

Hostile to Nazism and anti-Semitism but uninvolved with the Resistance, Lacan spent the Occupation dealing with family affairs: his marriage to Marie-Louis Blondin, with whom he had three children, and his affair with sometime Surrealist author Georges Bataille’s ex-wife Sylvia, who became pregnant in 1940. Their daughter, Judith, only took Lacan’s surname in 1964, leading Lacan to theorise that the family’s role in naming individuals, which began their process of self-identification, as well as its ability to integrate wide social changes, would ensure its survival.

Lacan’s personality and ideas intertwine most effectively in a chapter in which Lacan’s trouble with monogamous relationships – concealing his liaisons from women rather than leave them – underpins his belief that love was “a kind of suicide”. It also informed his disconnection of jouissance,one of his many neologisms, referring to a (largely phallic) enjoyment of sexual orgasm, from romantic relationships. Roudinesco argues that Freud’s notorious “anatomy is destiny” did not make anatomy “untranscendable”, but states that Lacan’s “Woman does not exist” was formulated in response to both Freud and Simone de Beauvoir’s “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman”. Indeed, one of her most fascinating revelations is that de Beauvoir tried to meet Lacan as she finished The Second Sex, suggesting four meetings instead of Lacan’s proposed six months, which he declined.

Roudinesco writes intelligently on the power dynamics of psychoanalysis, and how Freud’s case studies gave voice to marginalised subjects – homosexuals and “hysterical” women – who had previously just been observed. Their voices were edited, and framed within their analysts’ concerns, but this opened a discourse, encouraging patients to write themselves in opposition to the analyst’s perspective. Lacan’s relationship with Marguerite Anzieu is given a chapter, opening with him nicknaming her “Aimée” in his doctoral thesis of 1932, and Roudinesco says that “His interest in this woman did not extend beyond illustrating his doctrine of paranoia”. The Surrealist artists and writers in Lacan’s milieu, notably Salvador Dalí and René Crevel, greeted Lacan’s book about “Aimée” as a masterpiece, particularly as her “imaginary existence full of hallucinations” inspired her to write two novels in 1930, failing to get a word published until Lacan incorporated her text into his book, never returning her manuscripts – in psychoanalysis as in Surrealism, “insane women” were always objects of fascination, but ownership of their narratives was never relinquished.

Lacan exerted considerable influence upon literature and art, with Roudinesco suggesting that the need for people to control their own life stories led to the contemporary trend for autofiction “to the extent that every novelistic work now resembles a case history”, supplanting the post-war nouveau roman, devoid of plot, subjectivity and psychology. His idea of jouissance also inspired “the (generally female) exhibition of objects from the human body,  or the minute description of real sexual acts”. Roudinesco seems ambivalent about this, although a passage about Lacan’s acquisition on Georges Bataille’s advice of Gustave Courbet’s L’Origin du monde (1866), a painting of a naked woman, legs spread, is one of her best, leading to a discussion of artist Orlan’s The Origin of War (1989). This replaced the vulva with an erect phallus, a wry response to Lacan’s focus on male pleasure and denial of “woman”, its title hinting at his emphasis on self-definition being made against an external Other, in a world where “male” and “female” have often been posited as opposites.

Lacan’s relationship with art was more positive than with politics. In reaction against the Surrealists, who tried to combine Marx and Freud, and the Popular Front of 1936, Lacan “distanced himself from the idea that the individual could adapt to reality or seek to transform it”, believing in progress but always aware that rationality could become its opposite. Both Lacan and Freud were “enlightened conservatives”, and the right-wing tendency not to accept that all human activity is infused with ideology led some analysts to believe their practice exempt from social choices. Roudinesco abhors this, with one of many polemical reflections calling for “a new psychoanalysis that is more open and attentive to contemporary malaises, misery, the new rights of minorities and the progress of science” – the aim of therapy should be to empower healthier individuals to partake in society, and Lacan must share some blame for the perception of psychoanalysis as an enemy of political commitment, even though Louis Althusser’s theories about how people are moulded by social forces drew on his “mirror stage” concept. Despite these personal and philosophical failings, Lacan continues to fascinate, and In Spite of Everything effectively conveys the reasons why Roudinesco believes his ideas will continue to invite discussion and inspire creativity.

“Lacan: In Spite of Everything” by Élisabeth Roudinesco, translated by Gregory Elliott is published by Verso

Juliet Jacques is a freelance journalist and writer who covers gender, sexuality, literature, film, art and football. Her writing can be found on her blog at and she can be contacted on Twitter @julietjacques.

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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.