Lacan in his historical context
If the 1890s saw the birth of psychoanalysis, then the 1920s saw it reach a kind of adolescence, where across Europe, it was breaking free of its parental boundaries and seeking its place in the wider intellectual world. As an attractive and intriguing newcomer, it was courted by many different, older disciplines – medicine, art, literature – whose practitioners took it up with enthusiasm, used and abused it, gossiped about, and fought over it. Equally, it worried others in those and other fields, who felt it to be an upstart threat. Psychoanalysis itself, with the promiscuous spirit of exploration and creativity of youth, absorbed far-reaching and sometimes unexpected influences: from the surrealists, from linguists, from poets. In Paris, the 1920s also saw the intellectual blossoming of a generation of young psychiatrists whose relationship with the new science (to use the word in its broad sense) was to lay the foundations of French psychoanalysis as it is today.
Psychoanalysis in France had different roots from its Viennese parent: Viennese psychoanalysis grew up with middle-class neurotics on the couch; French psychoanalysis grew up with psychotic patients in the bleak wards of mental asylums. It was also something of a late developer, with the medical establishment there not really taking the new ideas into their bosom until the 1920s. Then, at St. Anne’s Hospital in Paris – the French capital’s main mental hospital – two departmental heads, Gaëtan de Clérambault (at the l’Infirmerie Psychiatrique de la Préfecture de Police) and Henri Claude, began to have a far-reaching impact on the development of psychoanalysis in their country. The contribution of the former was accidental – Clérambault himself never ‘took’ to the new idea – but Henri Claude was enthusiastic about it, and in his unit at St. Anne Hospital, an analysand of Freud’s, Eugénie Sokolnicka, was allowed to analyse the younger psychiatrists. With Claude’s encouragement, many of these people – or their own analysands – were to become the founder members of the French psychoanalytic movement, René Laforgue, Edouard Pichon, René Allendy, and Sophie Morgenstern among them. In 1926, under the firmly steering hand of Princess Marie Bonaparte, they founded the Société Psychanalytique de Paris (SPP), which became the most important psychoanalytical organisation in France, and remains one of the two French groups officially affiliated to the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA).
Clérambault was a controversial figure because of his eccentric and difficult personality, and had no time for psychoanalysis, but he was an extraordinary clinician whose detailed descriptions of psychotic symptoms still form a benchmark of clinical excellence. In his first psychiatric work, L’Automatisme mental, written in 1909, Clérambault suggested that the mechanism of ‘mental automatism’ – when the mind appears to work independently of conscious control – might be responsible for ‘experiences of hallucination’. He divided mental automatism into three types: associative, sensory, and motor. Associative automatism includes disturbances in the form of thought (such as hallucinatory thoughts that occur as if you have no control over them); sensory automatism manifests itself as unpleasant feelings in internal organs thought to be caused by somebody else; and motor automatism involves the delusional belief that somebody else performs one’s movement and actions.
Clérambault also left his name to a form of paranoid disorder – the delusion of being loved-now known among English speakers as Clérambault’s syndrome, ‘Erotomanic Delusion’ or ‘Erotomania’. He described this condition in 1927 as psychose passionelle, a sort of passionate psychosis, which takes the form of a paranoid delusion with an amorous quality. He noted that the patient was usually a woman who had developed a delusional belief that a man, with whom she may have had little or virtually no contact, was in love with her. The person selected was usually of a much higher social status and thus was likely to be unattainable as a love object.
The brilliance of Clérambault’s clinical work left a deep impression on the mind of a young trainee in his unit: Jacques Lacan, who was to adapt his style of meticulous clinical observation to psychoanalysis.
The formative years
At the outset, Lacan’s intellectual journey was that of many of the founder members of the French psychoanalytic movement: he began his studies at the faculty of medicine in Paris and completed his psychiatric training (between 1927 and 1931) at St. Anne’s, under Clérambault and Claude, with whom he had good relationships. But he was a few years younger than these founding members – twenty-five when the SPP was founded – and he had to wait several years before he could attain membership of the group; his place in this inner circle of the SPP elite was, from the start, semi-detached.
French psychoanalysis was closely linked with medical psychiatry, and its proponents were dealing with extreme cases: the people treated by Clérambault, Claude, and by Lacan and his contemporaries would have been suffering from acute and chronic psychosis and manic depression. In addition, in 1930, Lacan spent two months at the Burghölzli – a mental asylum in Zurich which had been established in the 1860s as a model of the new, ‘humane’ way of treating severe mental cases. Here, he worked under Hans Wolfgang Maier, successor to its most illustrious director, Eugen Bleuler.
Bleuler (whose assistant was Carl Jung) belonged to the generation that presided over the birth of psychoanalysis; he took Freud’s ideas from the domain of neurosis into psychosis, challenging the prevailing belief that psychosis was the result of organic brain damage, insisting that it could have psychological causes, and trying to use the mechanisms described by Freud to understand it. In 1911, he wrote in Dementia praecox oder Gruppen der Schizophrenien (Dementia Praecox or the Group of Schizophrenia): ‘I call dementia praecox “schizophrenia” because (as I hope to demonstrate) the “splitting” of the different psychic functions is one of its most important characteristics. For the sake of convenience, I use the word in the singular although it is apparent that the group includes several diseases.’ Bleuler believed that delusion could be meaningful, even in psychosis: for example, an auditory delusion – the hearing of voices – could be seen as an internal discourse which has a relation to the subject. This view, novel then, has become widely accepted; it was also to remain lodged as the germ of an idea in the mind of Jacques Lacan. Bleuler also coined the term ‘Autism’ by the contraction of Auto-Erotism.
Upon his return to Paris, Lacan completed his medical thesis – a work which bears deeply the marks of the men who trained him. De la psychose paranoiaque dans ses rapports avec la personnalité (Of Paranoid Psychosis and its Relationship with the Personality), presented in 1932, contains a case study of a woman suffering from Clérambault’s ‘passionate psychosis’ of erotomania, and incorporates Bleuler’s ideas of the meaningfulness of delusion. However, ‘Le Cas Aimée’ (The Case of Aimée), as it is commonly referred to, does more than merely reproduce the ideas of his teachers: one can see in it already that Lacan was drawing inspiration from unusual sources (see below – Surrealism).
Shortly after presenting this thesis, Lacan began his own analysis with Rudolph Loewenstein, a Polish-born analyst who was one of the founding members of the SPP; Loewenstein’s analyst was Hans Sachs, an important Viennese member of the IPA, and one of Freud’s disciples. Loewenstein was a very ‘orthodox’ analyst and the relationship between Loewenstein and Lacan was somewhat conflictual: it seems that, privately, Loewenstein questioned Lacan’s analysability and Lacan, Loewenstein’s talent. Lacan had, perhaps, already too many ideas of his own.
In 1934, Lacan applied for membership of the SPP and was given ‘candidate member’ status; he was granted full membership four years later. In 1936, at the International Psychoanalytical Association meeting at Marienbad, Lacan presented his first paper, ‘The Mirror Stage’.1
Here, the tension between Lacan and the psychoanalytic establishment was apparent: he resented being stopped by Ernest Jones because the ten minutes given to his presentation were up. There was probably fault on both sides: in the establishment, for not recognising the importance of Lacan’s presentation sufficiently to grant him some leeway, and in Lacan for ‘not playing the game’ when he was such a newcomer. But the incident, and Lacan’s huffy reaction to it, shows his self-belief, which some call arrogance: he had a great idea of himself, and could not bear being treated like a minor player. However, hindsight also shows that he was right
to believe in the extraordinary nature of his work, for out of everything presented at that conference, ‘The Mirror Stage’ remains the most important work.
From the 1920s onwards, Lacan moved in avant-garde intellectual circles, befriending the writers André Breton and Georges Bataille. André Breton was one of the leaders of French surrealism, having written the Surrealist Manifesto in 1924, while Georges Bataille’s writings were more abstractly philosophical: he developed the concept of base materialism, which had an influence on the deconstructivist thinking of Jacques Derrida. Lacan also associated with Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, whom he greatly admired, and several of his articles were published in the surrealist magazine, Minotaure.
In 1938 Lacan received his full membership of the SPP; this was also a year in which the shadow of war was heavy over Europe. Freud and others of the Viennese circle were helped to safety in England, and stopped on their way in Paris. Much is made by historians of the fact that Lacan was absent from the evening organised by Marie Bonaparte to receive the Viennese – and of Lacan’s later claim that he had decided not to go to it because he did not want ‘to please Marie Bonaparte’. In reality, it is far more likely that the young psychiatrist and new SPP member was simply not invited, and his glossing over of this is an indication that Lacan was vulnerable to narcissistic hurt.
One major impact of the war on the evolution of psychoanalysis was the transfer from Europe to the English-speaking world of the majority of its leading lights. Even before the war, there had been tension between the American Psychoanalytical Association (APA) and the IPA, with the Americans wanting to accredit only analysts with a medical training, and the Europeans wishing to keep the new discipline quite separate from medicine. The dominant psychological model of the United States was at the time (and is still today) the Behaviourism of Edward Lee Thorndike, John B. Watson, and B.F. Skinner; the APA, with their insistence upon a medical degree, clearly thought it necessary to present psychoanalysis with the same trappings of science – or at least as something that could be assessed and regulated in the same way as a science.
When the Nazis dissolved the Viennese Association, there was a general exodus of intellectuals from Europe to Britain and the United States. Sigmund Freud died in London in 1939; his daughter Anna and disciple Melanie Klein remained working there for the rest of their lives. Even more significantly, Heinz Hartmann, Ernst Kris, and Rudolph Loewenstein (who had tried to analyse Lacan) fled to the States, where they were to become the founders of Ego Psychology – a branch of psychoanalysis that drifted rapidly towards the functionalist thinking of much modern psychology. European psychologists without a psychoanalytical background also fled to America; they included Wolfgang Köhler and Max Wertheimer, who joined their colleague Koffka to become the founders of Gestalt Psychology, which gave rise to Cognitive Psychology.
While psychoanalysis lay dormant in Europe under Nazi rule, east coast America and London became the centres of its development. London played host to most of the Viennese ‘old guard’; it also may have had some of the most gifted theoreticians, but the United States had more wealth and therefore, more power. In London, Ernest Jones tried to hold out against the American drive for control of the IPA, but it was a losing battle; in a meeting just after the war, he had to agree to a ‘power-sharing’ arrangement in which the presidency of the IPA would alternate between Europe and the States. This arrangement was reached between seven Americans and six members of the British Society: no other European organisation was party to it; the Americans had, in fact, achieved a ‘coup’ in the absence of all other European representation. From this point onwards, the issue of the regulation and accreditation (and therefore training) of psychoanalysts was to dominate the further development of the discipline in the manner of a straitjacket.
How did the war affect Lacan? For him, the war years were a silent period: he published nothing in this time, and remained working as a psychiatrist at the military hospital of Val de Grace in Paris. What he did in the immediate aftermath suggests that silence for Lacan did not mean intellectual dormancy; the proliferation and maturity of his immediate post-war presentations suggest that the war years had been a time of intense reflection. But what he was able to observe of the evolution of the rest of the psychoanalytic community during this period may have been less than congenial to him.
One does not know how much information he received from the United Kingdom and America during the war, but in its aftermath, Lacan would have seen that the psychoanalytical writings emanating from the other side of the Atlantic were developing into Ego Psychology and Gestalt Psychology, which were irrelevant to his thinking. Immediately after the end of the war (autumn 1945), he spent five months in England, ostensibly studying the English practice of psychiatry in war-time; but one wonders how much this visit was motivated by a curiosity about developments in psychoanalysis in the city in which Sigmund Freud had died, and which was now home to his most direct heirs.
The very next year, Lacan began again to present psychoanalytical papers: that he had continued to think, and perhaps to write in private, during the occupation, is evidenced by his presentation of six papers in the space of a year. Lacan’s production continued to be prodigious in the coming years – mostly in the form of presentations. The return to France of Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1948, after years in the Americas, provided a fresh stimulus to his thinking: Lévi-Strauss’s development of structural anthropology led Lacan to use Saussurian linguistics in the same way.
Lacan was now attracting a following: the younger analysts in particular were excited by his new ideas, which were developing in counter-current to developments in the English-speaking world. Some of Lacan’s more provocative formulations can be best understood in the context of a challenge to the increasing tendency to treat psychoanalysis – and psychology – as subject to simple scientific proofs. France was not immune to the formalising tendency – in order to be accepted by the IPA, the SPP had to produce a system of accreditation, and a training programme to go with it. By 1949, Jacques Lacan had a central role in the formulation of this programme – but as always, his relationship with other leading SPP figures was uneasy.
The Lacanian innovation that caused the greatest problem for the SPP was his use of sessions of variable duration, which have come to be known as ‘short sessions’. In classical psychoanalysis, clinical sessions between the patient and analyst last just under an hour, and this was a duration fixed upon by the IPA in their phase of rule-making. Lacan’s sessions lasted, according to Elizabeth Roudinesco, between ten and forty minutes, with an average of twenty minutes. The short sessions were seen as problematic by the analytical establishment for more than one reason. Firstly, the sessions represented a transgression of the IPA rule; secondly, the IPA were afraid that this practice would put the analyst in an omnipotent position; thirdly, and maybe most importantly, it allowed Lacan to accept many more trainees than the other training analysts. The risk was that after a few years of this regime, Lacan would command the loyalty of a majority of the newly trained psychoanalysts. Lacan’s adherence to this technique was to cause him problems with the entire psychoanalytical establishment for the rest of his life, but in the early 1950s, the causes of tension between him and the other leading SPP members were more general and political.
The wider context in which the SPP power-struggles of the day must be seen was created by the seizure of power by the American movement at the end of the war, and their insistence upon regulating training and accreditation. The IPA now insisted upon a formalised system of accreditation, and the SPP, if it wished to retain IPA recognition, had to produce a set of rules in line with IPA thinking. In the early 1950s, two currents started to emerge within the SPP: on one side, the ‘conservatives’, who favoured the medical model and were keen to create an institute of psychoanalysis in order to implement IPA standards of training; and on the other, the ‘liberals’, who preferred a more psychological model and opposed the rigidity of the planned institute. Despite being a doctor himself, Lacan sided with the ‘liberals’, and ironically, it was almost immediately after he had become president of the SPP that he resigned from it.
In June 1953, a small group of ‘liberals’, led by Daniel Lagache, walked out of the SPP to set up an alternative society, the Société Française de Psychanalyse (SFP); Lacan quickly joined them. The new SFP now had to negotiate its recognition from the IPA, and in doing so, fell into the same trap its members had experienced while still in the SPP: the need to demonstrate to the IPA that its standards of training followed IPA rules. Predictably, it was Lacan’s use of ‘short sessions’ that provoked the crisis. At its annual meeting in London in 1953, the IPA refused the affiliation of the SFP and asked a committee to examine their application. This fact-finding commission was directed by Winnicott and its members were the American psychoanalyst, Phyllis Greenacre, a friend of Anna Freud’s, Willi Hoffer, and Jeanne Lampl De Groot, a Dutch analyst trained by Freud.
None of this appeared to dampen Lacan’s morale; if anything, during the period in which the SFP was under the surveillance of the IPA committee, the energy with which he continued to develop and disseminate his theories increased. Immediately after the schism with the SPP, he presented his paper ‘The Symbolic, the Imaginary and the Real’ at St. Anne Hospital; two months later, in Rome, he delivered ‘The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis’. In November, he gave a public seminar – the first of a series that was to continue for twenty-seven years.
For the duration of this first IPA investigation, the problem of the variable duration sessions just would not go away: Lacan would not renounce them, and the IPA would never accept them. He continued to practise in this way while publicly denying it: he told representatives of the IPA that he was following their rules, but regulatory bodies hate transgressors, and hate transgressors who show contempt even more. What happened next was quite shocking to the French psychoanalytical movement – particularly to members who had grown up with the easy freedom of the developing discipline in its formative years.
The committee’s views on Lacan were negative in many more ways than expected: not only did they find him to be using ‘short sessions’, they also felt that he was very ‘seductive’ towards his pupils: he had an influence on trainees that was judged to be too great and probably unhealthy. The committee also criticised the child psychoanalyst, Françoise Dolto – not as an analyst, but as a training analyst. They felt that she lacked method and that she was often the object of a ‘wild transference’ by her pupils; the committee was afraid that she would ‘influence the young generation’. The findings of this committee, therefore, meant that two of France’s most respected and influential psychoanalysts would not have professional recognition as training analysts.
The discrepancy between the hostility Lacan attracted from critics and the status he held in the eyes of his admirers posed a great problem for the international...