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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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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