The first session
In every good story about psychoanalysis, at the beginning, there is always a first session. We have a formidable account of one of them in the opening scenes of Patrice Leconte’s Le confidances trop intimes: a film that is impressively able to catch the contingent and unforeseeable dimension that lies in every encounter between a psychoanalyst and an analysand. With a thrilling soundtrack and sombre lighting, as in a thriller, the film begins with the moments immediately before the first analytic session between a woman and her new psychoanalyst. We see the protagonist, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, walking towards the apartment of the analyst with whom she has booked an appointment: a close-up of her walking shoes, the long corridor at the entrance of the building, the shuddering music. Everything seems to underline the tension of the situation. She rings the porter in order to announce herself but she is so anxious that she is unable to utter a single word. The porter realises the woman is lost and before the woman says anything (although we have the sense that she perfectly understands what is going on) she anticipates her question: “Dr. Monnier? You are searching for Dr. Monnier, right? It’s on the sixth floor, second door on the right.”
Then we see the woman taking the elevator, walking out of it, and standing in front of what we believe is Dr. Monnier’s office door. While trying to find the courage to finally ring the bell she is suddenly anticipated by the Doctor in person who opens the door and dismisses the previous patient. He seems surprised to see a woman in front of his door, and so asks her: “Do we have an appointment?” “Yes we do”— she replies—“at six o’clock.” The man appears at a loss, it does not seem he was waiting for anyone. He looks at his watch and finally lets her in. We are informed that the secretary has already gone, because “she’s off-duty”. The woman is extremely intimidated, as is common in every first session when a patient sees the analyst’s office for the first time. She looks very carefully at everything around her. The camera follows her gaze with a subjective shot, taking in every visible element of the waiting room. When the doctor welcomes her into the office, he suddenly reproaches her: “you forgot your purse” (seemingly already pointing her to a possible symptom). Then inside the office she sees a couch and a half-covered magazine on the desk where it is possible to spot part of the title: the word “analys …”. The doctor asks her “who suggested you to come to visit me?” and the usual preliminary conversation continues. What is interesting in this picture of a rather typical and ordinary first session is that every visible element confirms the expectations that anyone would have regarding an analyst’s office and the conversation that would likely take place there. But there is a trick: with the further development of the film we will come to know that in fact it was all a great misunderstanding and that every single element was deceptive. The Doctor was only a financial
analyst, the couch was there for clients to wait for their appointments, the half-covered magazine on the desk was “analyse financière
”, and the typical preliminary questions he asks her about her name, civil status, etc., are in fact those that would begin any kind of professional appointment. Every element seemed to be there to confirm her expectations, but they weren’t in fact confirming anything at all! All the visual space of the analyst’s office was already overdetermined by her transference, and what she mistakenly believed to be a confirmation of her own suppositions was in fact only an aspect of her own suggestions. Her own desire—that which would be at stake in her subsequent analytical experience—was in fact already there unrecognised from the very beginning
. We have here a typical catch implied in every logic of the beginning: the wait for the beginning to effectively begin, was in fact already part
of the beginning itself. There is never a beginning of the beginning, so to speak. Every beginning is only retroactively posed by a second moment where everything is already in motion. The beginning has always already taken place from a subsequent retroactive recognition of it. As if the beginning can be recognised only after it already taken place, and never before.
For our purposes, this small exemplary scene highlights the importance of the visual dimension: something involved in the beginning of every psychoanalytic experience.1
Transference took place even before the first session proper had started. A primary point of emergence is the visual, even before the analysand has uttered a single word and started the experience of psychoanalysis in earnest (free-association on the couch, etc.). Those magazines, couches, corridors that we see in the film and that compose the visual space of the analyst’s office are already signs (Lacan would call them signifiers) that construct a certain signification for the analysand’s unconscious.
Such a primacy of the visual is not without consequences. Usually psychoanalysis is known for the opposite: an experience deprived of any visual dimension. Images are not directly involved in the therapy, they are rather left out of the office. The “purely talkative” dimension of an analytic session (the famous definition given by Freud of psychoanalysis as a “talking cure”) is one of the very few rules that were successfully transmitted and accepted by all clinical orientations. When an analysand speaks in a session, he or she is not supposed to look at the analyst face-to-face: the latter sits behind his or her shoulders without nodding or giving any visual signs of direct approval. As Jacques-Alain Miller pointed out: “The analytic experience brings forward the dimension of the word, not the one of vision: it puts at a distance and suspends what James Joyce called the ineluctable modality of the visible” (Miller, 1996, translated for this edition). No traces are being read, no Rorschach test is being taken, not even the images of dreams are contemplated, because what matters instead is the fact that they are narrated through words in analysis.
On the other hand images cannot be completely excluded from the experience of psychoanalysis: fantasy, narcissism, the image of the fetish, visual hallucinations are all fundamental parts of it. Furthermore, images have an especially important place in the teaching of Jacques Lacan, who started his famous “return to Freud” precisely with an image: the one reflected in the mirror.
"In the beginning
was the mirror"
As Lacan himself recalls in the introduction to Écrits, it was at the Congress in Marienbad (3rd August, 1936) that his “first pivotal intervention in psychoanalytic theory took place” (Lacan, 2006a, p. 57). The occasion was his first visit to the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA) Congress in a very delicate conjuncture for the history of the institution (Roudinesco, 1997). The legacy of Freud—who at that time was already old and sick, and would die only three years after the congress—was still greatly disputed by different clinical orientations, the main ones being represented by Anna Freud and Melanie Klein (vehemently confronting each other, with Ernest Jones, president of the IPA at that time, as an intercessor in favour of the latter). Even though Lacan was theoretically much closer to Melanie Klein than to Anna Freud and her move towards Ego Psychology, he was ultimately excluded from the political and theoretical battle that occurred during the congress. His intervention was almost completely ignored and there are no signs of him being a main interlocutor in the debate. Even more humiliating, his talk was actually interrupted by Ernest Jones in the middle of a sentence. Years later he still recalled this moment:
I duly presented it at the Marienbad Congress in 1936, at least up to the point, coinciding exactly with the fourth stroke of the ten-minute mark, at which I was interrupted by Ernest Jones who was presiding over the congress. He was doing so as president of the London Psycho-Analytical Society, a position for which he was no doubt qualified by the fact that I have never encountered a single English colleague of his who didn’t have something unpleasant to say about his character. Nevertheless, the members of the Viennese group who were gathered there, like birds right before their impending migration, gave my exposé a rather warm reception. (Lacan, 2006a, pp. 150–151)
According to Elisabeth Roudinesco the “warm reception” Lacan believed he received was probably due only to a misunderstanding on his part or to the courtesy of the audience. Lacan’s intervention was not referred to in the subsequent debate and it never appeared in future reports on the congress: “to the great disciples of the Freudian era, fighting their Shakespearian battles at Marienbad, this young Frenchman was a mere
nobody” (Roudinesco, 1997, p. 114). In fact the theses developed by Lacan in 1936—even though at an early stage compared to his subsequent development—were certainly critical towards the institutional debate of the IPA:
The discussion among Loewenstein, Odier, Parcheminey, Paul Schiff, Lagache, and Marie Bonaparte was about interpreting the second topography and the idea of adaptation. Lacan was already stoutly asserting the central tenet of his future system: “Man does not adapt himself to reality; he adapts reality to himself. The ego creates a new adaptation to reality, and we try to maintain cohesion with this double” (Ibid.).
More than a theoretical hostility, it was rather a lack of understanding or even a plain distance in terms of language, sensibility and cultural background. Lacan came from a cultural and theoretical background different from the post-Freudian generation. Within an audience of strict psychoanalytical and medical training he was the only one merging his clinical research with that of his surrealist acquaintances or with the philosophical thought of his times (the attendance of Kojève’s seminar on Hegel’s Phenomenology played a crucial role in his early years).
His early attempt to renew the post-Freudian generation of the 1930s can already be seen in the topic chosen by Lacan for his talk in Marienbad. It is arguably the very first brick of a long theoretical practice lasting more than forty years. It is already possible to glimpse in the choice of such a topic the originality that characterised Lacan’s teaching throughout the following years: the imaginary constitution of the Ego in the image of a mirror
Interestingly enough, Lacan begins his intervention in the field of psychoanalysis with the study of an image.
In order to develop the concept of “mirror stage” Lacan refers to an episode frequently confirmed by any phenomenological observation of an infans
: placed in front of a mirror a still uncoordinated baby of between six and eighteen months (“outdone by the chimpanzee in instrumental intelligence”), not only recognises himself in the reflected image but also starts to develop a jubilatory and euphoric relation with it. The main source for this argument—although Lacan for some reason does not give him the credit he deserves in the text included in the Écrits3
—is the French psychologist Henri Wallon, who first underlined the need for the infans
to apprehend its “proprioceptive ego” through
an “exteroceptive image”. The observed event seems a minor one, but its theoretical consequences are difficult to underestimate. What is at stake in this familiar little anecdote is the relation of an individual with his or her own body and the way through which the autonomous perception and recognition of it emerges. In the early days after birth the body of a baby is still fused with the body of the mother. Lacan contends that the experience of recognising one’s own body does not rely on a primary symbiotic connection between a living body and a subject of apprehension. It is rather the by-product of a separation
of the two: i.e., an externalisation of the body as
image. The body is not recognised through its corporeal senses, but through its visual
properties, for it is first and foremost stuffed with visuality
rather than flesh and blood:
Between the immediate experience of things and their representation, a dissociation necessarily intervenes that detaches the qualities and the existence proper to the object from the impressions and the actions in which it is initially implicated, by attributing to the object, among other essential traits, those of exteriority. Representation is possible only at that price. The representation of the body proper insofar as it exists, necessarily satisfies that condition and can be formed only through self-exteriorisation … The whole work [of the child] therefore consists in the child’s giving himself images of himself analogous to those he can form outside himself, and which, moreover, he can form in no other way … For it is in the nature of images to belong to space (Vallon, 1949, pp. 172–173, translation for this edition).
In the moment when he or she recognised the image of himself or herself as externally reflected, a baby has not yet mastered walking or even standing. Every human animal suffers from a premature birth and from a radical biological instability: “histologically, the apparatus which in the organism plays the role of the nervous system […] is not complete at birth” (Lacan, 1991, p. 149). We are not very far from what Stephen Jay Gould called neoteny, a “retention of formerly juvenile characters by adult descendants produced by retardation of somatic development” (1977, p. 483) proved also by the fact that “human baby is much more dependent on his/her mother—and the other adults around him/her— than the baby of any other primate” (Chiesa, 2009, p. 85). The externalised image of the body plays a properly illusionary role and thus
gives the baby the impression of being able to be in total control of the movements of his or her body during a stage of biological development when he or she is not capable of that. This phenomenon should in fact be better understood with the psychoanalytic term of identification
, i.e., “the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes [assume
] an image” (Lacan, 2006a, p. 76). The image seen in a mirror, far from being purely a reflection
of something that is supposedly already there in the development of the child, should rather be understood as constitutive
, its effect being productive
and not merely passive
. Here we find one among the many paradoxes that characterise the constitutive dimension of the image: for the mirror does not mirror anything
. The impression of reflectivity is already part of the illusion according to which the portrayed image reflects something that is already there from the beginning; and what the child sees in the shape of an image is effectively part of the reality of his or her own body; while on the contrary—we know—such a body is fragmented and out of control. In other words the “mirror image” creates
, with the help of a productive illusion, a gap between what is biologically underdeveloped and what is, on the contrary, believed to be unitary and potentially under the control of the infans
. The illusion is intoxicating for the baby who, in front of the mirror, cannot but jubilate and play with the reflected image of himself or herself: such an experience creates a mental representation in dis-agreement with the child’s biological status. It is a hallucinatory deception that Lacan will call imaginary
, i.e., the register of psychoanalysis that refers to conscious reality. It is the function of the imago that establishes a relationship between an organism and its reality, its Innenwelt
and the Umwelt
Lacan is also careful to underline the temporal dialectic involved in the mirror stage—“a drama whose internal pressure pushes precipitously from insufficiency to anticipation”—from which the subject is caught in fantasies that proceed from a fragmented image of the body to the “orthopedic form of its totality” (Lacan, 2006, p. 78). The problem is that the latter will never manage to cover completely the fragmented nature of the body that will re-appear in dreams in the form of disconnected limbs or organs exoscopically represented. For the mirror stage is not something that concerns only the development of the child between six and eighteen months: it rather constitutes the core of a problem around which all the subsequent identifications and the very concept of Ego will be centred. Lacan’s main claim is that the unity of
the Ego is something that is at the same time illusionary and defective, but above all (and indeed crucially for the purposes of our discussion) visually
produced. In the register of the Imaginary there is a predominance of the visual functions.
Having established this, however, we must ask what kind of visual features are implied here? While the mirror can give the idea of an optics based on the model of reflection, this occurs only as a consequence of a misrecognition. Visual perception does not go from the eye to the mirror but rather from the mirror to the eye. The eye, unable to recognise the actual cause of its own vision, ends up per...