Born on 13 April 1901, Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was the first child of Charles Marie Alfred Lacan and Émilie Philippine Marie Baudry. Alfred Lacan was the Paris sales representative of a large provincial firm. The family lived in comfortable conditions in the Boulevard du Beaumarchais before moving to the Montparnasse area where Jacques entered the prestigious Catholic school, the Collège Stanislas.
An outstanding pupil, he excelled in religious studies and Latin. As a teenager, Jacques Lacan developed a passion for philosophy, adorning the walls of his bedroom with a plan of the structure of Spinoza’s Ethics
, a text which would always remain dear to him and which he would quote at the start of his doctoral dissertation in medicine.
The Surrealist Movement
Lacan took up the study of medicine in 1920 and specialized in psychiatry from 1926. During this period, he was active in the busy Parisian world of the writers, artists and intellectuals who made up the Surrealist movement. He frequented Adrienne Monnier’s bookshop on the Left Bank, along with the likes of André Gide and Paul Claudel and, at the age of seventeen, met James Joyce.
Three years later, I was present at the first public reading of Joyce’s ULYSSES in the legendary bookshop, Shakespeare & Co.
A friend of André Breton and Salvador Dali, he was to become Picasso’s personal physician and a contributor to several Surrealist publications from the early 1930s.
Beginnings in Psychiatry
His internship at St-Anne hospital, starting in 1926, and at the Infirmerie Spéciale des Aliénés de la Préfecture de Police, in 1928, gave Lacan a particular interest in the study of paranoia. Later he would say that …
My only real master in psychiatry was Gaȅtan Gatian de Clérambault.
Lacan singled out his concept of “mental automatism”. This brought together many seemingly disparate phenomena of madness under the common motif of something being imposed from “outside”: the echo of thoughts or a commentary on one’s actions, for example.
The form of a particular psychosis would then be determined by how one made sense
of these elements which lacked an initial content. Lacan would say that this concept was the closest that contemporary French psychiatry got to a structural analysis, with its emphasis on the imposition of formal elements beyond the “conscious” control of the subject.
In 1932, Lacan completed his doctoral thesis on paranoia, Paranoid Psychosis and its Relations to the Personality, a study which had a great influence on many of the Surrealists.
I REFERRED TO LACAN’S WORK IN THE FIRST ISSUE OF THE SURREALIST REVIEW, MINOTAURE, IN 1993.(SALVAD OR DALI)
I often contributed to MINOTAURE.
I CHAMPIONED THE POETRY OF THE PATIENT, AIMÉE, THAT LACAN DESCRIBED IN HIS 1932 THESIS.(PAUL ELUARD)
The Case of Aimée
The thesis contains a detailed analysis of a woman, named Aimée after the heroine of one of her unpublished novels, who had attempted to stab a well-known Parisian actress, Huguette Duflos. The case was widely reported in the press at the time, and Lacan tried gradually to piece together the logic behind her apparently irrational act. His thesis introduced a new concept into the psychiatric milieu, that of “self-punishment paranoia”. Lacan argued that, in striking the actress, Aimée was in fact striking herself: Duflos represented a woman with freedom and social prestige, exactly the sort of woman that Aimée aspired to become.
In her ideas of persecution, it was this figure that she saw as the source of threats to her and her young son. The ideal image
was thus both the object of her hate and of her aspiration. Lacan was especially interested here in this complex relation to images and the ideas of identity to be found in paranoia. In her subsequent arrest and confinement, she found the punishment which was a real source of the act itself. She understood, at a certain level, that she was herself the object of punishment.
Lacan’s analysis of the case shows many of the features which would later become central to his work: narcissism, the image, the ideal
, and how the personality could extend beyond the limits of the body and be constituted within a complex social network. The actress represented a part of Aimée herself, indicating how the identity of a human being could include elements well outside the biological boundaries of the body. In a sense, Aimée’s identity was literally outside herself.
Around the same time that Lacan completed his thesis, he began his analysis with Rudolph Loewenstein, which continued until 1938. Loewenstein had been analysed by Freud’s student Hans Sachs.
I LATER EMIGRATED TO THE USA WHERE I BECAME WELL KNOWN FOR MY WORK IN ESTABLISHING THE PROGRAMME OF EGO PSYCHOLOGY.
Studies in Philosophy
Instead of confining himself to the standard texts in psychiatry and psychoanalysis, Lacan read widely, with a special interest in the philosophic work of Karl Jaspers, G. W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger. He attended the seminars on Hegel given by Alexandre Kojève together with many of the thinkers who would leave their mark on French intellectual life,...