In this interview given in 1974, Jacques Lacan prophetically warned of the dangers of the return of religion and of scientism. For him, psychoanalysis is the only conceivable rampart against contemporary anxieties. These are arguments of surprising present-day relevance.
As if by magic, Lacan lives again with full force in this interview given to the Italian magazine Panorama in 1974. The Italian interviewer Emilio Granzotto noted that ‘we hear more and talk more of the crisis of psychoanalysis’. Fortunately in Jacques Lacan we can find real frankness, good sense, lucidness and precision – far from the ‘comforting’ psychoanalysis established by some of Freud’s students, who ritualised techniques of therapy that gently re-adapt the patient to his social environment. ‘This is the very negation of Freud’, Lacan tells us. What were his fears, at that time? Showing his talent for prophesy, Lacan feared already in 1974 both the return of religion and the triumph of science. Sex in evidence everywhere? No. Rather, a fake liberalisation, without importance. But scientific meddling – well, that’s a different matter…
Emilio Granzotto: We hear more and more talk of a crisis of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud has been left behind, they say, as modern society has discovered that his work is insufficient for understanding man or for deeply investigating his relationship with the world.
Jacques Lacan: This is tittle-tattle. In the first place, this so-called crisis. It does not exist, it could not. Psychoanalysis has not come close to finding its own limits, yet. There is still so much to discover in practice and in consciousness. In psychoanalysis, there are no immediate answers, but only the long and patient search for reasons.
Secondly, Freud. How can it be said that he has been left behind, when we have still not yet entirely understood him? What we do know for sure is that he made us aware of things that are entirely novel, that would not even have been imagined before him, from the problems of the unconscious to the importance of sexuality, from access to the symbolic sphere to subjection to the laws of language.
His doctrine put truth itself in question, and this concerns everyone, each individual personally. It is hardly in crisis. I will repeat: we are far from Freud. His name has also been used to cover for a lot of things, there have been deviations and epigones who did not always loyally follow his model, creating confusion about what he meant. After his death in 1939, some of his students also claimed to be exercising a different kind of psychoanalysis by reducing his teachings to a few banal formulas: technique as a ritual, practice restricted to treating people’s behaviour, as a means of re-adapting the individual to his social environment. This is the negation of Freud: a comforting salon psychoanalysis.
He had predicted it himself. He said that there were three untenable positions, three impossible tasks: governing, educating, and exercising psychoanalysis. These days it doesn’t much matter who takes the responsibility for governing, and everyone claims to be an educator. As for psychoanalysts, thank God, they are prospering as experts and as quacks. To offer to help people means guaranteeing success, and the customers are banging down the door. Psychoanalysis is something quite different to this.
I define it as a symptom – something that reveals the malaise of the society in which we live. Of course, it is not a philosophy. I abhor philosophy, for an awful long time it’s had nothing new of interest to say. Nor is psychoanalysis a faith, and I am not keen on calling it a science. Let’s say that it’s a practice, and it is concerned with whatever is not going right. Which is a terrible difficulty because it claims to introduce the impossible, the imaginary, into everyday life. Thus far it has obtained certain results, but it still has no rules and is prone to all sorts of ambiguities.
We must not forget that it is something entirely new, with regard to both medicine and psychology and its outliers. It is also very young. Freud died barely thirty-five years ago. His first book, The Interpretation of Dreams, was published in 1900, and met with very little success. I think they sold only three hundred copies across the first few years. He had a handful of students, who were considered mad, and they did not even agree amongst themselves on how to put into practice and to interpret what they had learned.
What isn’t going right with people today?
This great listlessness in life, a consequence of the rush for progress. Through psychoanalysis people expect to discover how far it is possible to draw out this listlessness.
What is it that drives people to have themselves analysed?
Fear. When something happens to someone and they do not understand it, even if they wanted it to happen, they are afraid. They suffer from not understanding, and little by little they fall into a panic. This is neurosis. With hysterical neurosis, the body becomes ill from the fear of being ill, and without really being so. With obsessive neurosis, the fear brings bizarre things to mind, thoughts that cannot be controlled, phobias in which forms and objects acquire different meanings that make people afraid.
The neurotic person may feel constrained by a terrifying need to go dozens of times to check if a tap is really turned off, or if something is in the place that it should be, even though they already know for certain that the tap is off and the thing is in the right place. There are no pills to cure that. It is necessary to find out why that happens and what it means.
And the cure?
The neurotic is an ill person who is treated by speech, above all his own. He must speak, recount, explain himself. Freud defined psychoanalysis as the subject’s assumption of his own history, insofar as this history is constituted by the words addressed to another person. Psychoanalysis is the realm of speech, there is no other remedy. Freud explained that the unconscious is not deep as much as it is inaccessible to conscious examination. And that in this unconscious, the speaker is a subject within the subject, transcending the subject. The great strength of psychoanalysis is speech.
Whose speech? The ill person’s or the psychoanalyst’s?
In psychoanalysis the terms ‘ill person’, ‘doctor’ and ‘remedy’ are no more appropriate than the passive formulas that are so commonly used. We say: ‘have yourself psychoanalysed’. This is wrong. The person doing the real work in the analysis is the speaker, the subject analysing himself. That is the case even if he does so in the manner suggested by the analyst who indicates how he ought to proceed and who makes helpful interventions.
The subject is also provided with an interpretation, which at first sight seems to give meaning to what he himself says. In reality, the interpretation is rather subtler, tending to efface the meaning of the things from which the subject is suffering. The goal is to show him, by way of his own narrative, that the symptom – or let’s call it the illness – has no relationship to anything, and lacks any kind of meaning. Even if it is apparently real, it does not exist.
The routes by which this act of speech proceeds demand a great deal of practice and infinite patience. Psychoanalysis’s tools are patience and moderation. The technique consists of moderating the degree of help that you give to the subject analysing himself. Psychoanalysis is thus no simple matter.
When we speak of Jacques Lacan, we inevitably associate his name to a formula, the ‘return to Freud’. What does this phrase mean?
Exactly what it says. Psychoanalysis is Freud. If you want to do psychoanalysis, you have to go back to Freud, his terms and definitions, read and interpreted literally. I founded a Freudian school in Paris with precisely this goal in mind. For more than twenty years I have been expounding my viewpoint: to return to Freud simply means to sweep the ground of the deviations and ambiguities of existential phenomenology, for example, as well as of the institutional formalism of psychoanalytical societies, and to resume a reading of Freud’s teachings that follows definite, enumerated principles based on his own work. Re-reading Freud just means re-reading Freud. Whoever does not do so is abusing words if they speak of psychoanalysis.
But Freud is difficult. And Lacan, they say, makes him utterly incomprehensible. Lacan is charged with speaking and, above all, writing in such a way that only very few adept scholars can hope to understand…
I know, I know, I am taken for an obscurantist who hides his thinking behind smokescreens. I ask myself why. I repeat, with Freud, that analysis is the ‘inter-subjective game by which truth enters into the real’. Isn’t it clear enough? Psychoanalysis isn’t child’s play.
My books are called incomprehensible. But for whom? I did not write them for everyone, thinking that just anyone could understand them. On the contrary, I have never made the least effort to cater to my readers’ tastes, no matter who they are. I had things to say, and I said them. For me, it is enough to have an audience who reads my work. If they do not understand, well, let’s be patient. As for the number of readers, I have had more luck than Freud. Maybe my books are even too widely read – I find it astonishing.
I am also convinced that within ten years at the utmost, people reading my work will find it entirely transparent, like a good glass of beer. Perhaps then they’ll say ‘This Lacan, he’s so banal!’
What are the characteristics of Lacanianism?
It’s a little early to say, since Lacanianism does not yet exist. We can just about get a whiff of it, a premonition.
In any case, Lacan is a gentleman who has been practicing psychoanalysis for at least forty years, and has been studying it for just as long. I believe in structuralism and the science of language. I wrote in my book that ‘what the discovery of Freud drives us to is the enormity of the order in which we are inserted, into which we are – so to say – born for the second time, emerging from the aptly termed stage of infancy, in which we are without speech’.
It is language – as a moment of universal, concrete discourse – that constitutes the symbolic order on which Freud based his discovery. It is the world of speech that creates the world of things, which initially blur into everything that is in-becoming. Only words give a finished meaning to the essence of things. Without words, nothing would exist. What would pleasure be, without the intermediary of speech?
My thinking is that in outlining the laws of the unconscious in his early works – The interpretation of dreams, Beyond the pleasure principle, Totem and taboo – Freud’s formulations were a precursor to the theories with which Ferdinand de Saussure some years later opened the way to modern linguistics.
And pure thought?
Like everything else, it is subject to the laws of language. Only words can engender thought and give it substance. Without language, humanity would never make any forward step in its efforts to understand thought. This is true for psychoanalysis also. Whatever the function you attribute to it – a form of cure, of training or of making soundings – there is just one medium that you can employ, the patient’s speech. And all speech deserves a response.
Analysis as dialogue, then. There are those who interpret it more as a substitute for confession…
But what confession? You confess precisely zero to the psychoanalyst. You give yourself over to telling him simply whatever comes into your head. Words, that is. Psychoanalysis’s discovery is man-as-speaking-animal. It is up to the analyst to order the words he hears, giving them sense and meaning. For a good analysis to be possible there needs to be an agreement, an understanding between the analyst and the subject analysing himself.
Through the latter’s discourse, the analyst seeks to get an idea of what is at issue, and going beyond the apparent symptom locate the tangled knot of truth at the heart of the matter. The analyst’s other function is to explain the meaning of the words used in order to allow the patient to understand what he can expect from the analysis.
A relationship that demands a great deal of trust…
Or rather, an exchange, in which the important thing is that one person speaks and the other listens. As well as silence. The analyst poses no questions and adds no ideas of his own. He only gives the answers that he wants to, to the questions that he wants to. But ultimately the subject analysing himself always goes where the analyst leads him.
You just mentioned therapy. Is there a possibility of being cured? Can one emerge out of neurosis?
Psychoanalysis is successful when it clears the ground, goes beyond symptoms, goes beyond the real. That is to say, when it touches the truth.
Could you put the same concept in less Lacanian terms?
I call a ‘symptom’ everything that comes from the real. And the real is everything that isn’t right, does not work, and is opposed to man’s life and his engagement with his personality. The real always returns to the same place. And it is there that you will always find it, in the same trappings. There are scientists who make out that nothing is impossible, in the real – and it takes some nerve to say things like that, or, as I suspect, total ignorance of what one is doing and saying.
The real and the impossible are antithetical and cannot go together. Analysis pushes the subject toward the impossible, suggesting to him that he ought to consider the world as it truly is – that is, an imaginary world without meaning. Whereas the real is like a gluttonous seagull, and only feeds on meaningful things, actions that have some meaning.
We often hear it said that we have to give meaning to this or that, to one’s own thoughts, aspirations, sex, life. But we know absolutely nothing about life. Experts run out of breath trying to explain it to us.
My fear is that through their failings, the real – this monstrous thing that does not exist – ends up winning. Science substitutes itself for religion and is all the more despotic, obtuse and obscurantist. There is an atom-god, a space-god, etc. If science or religion wins, psychoanalysis is finished.
What relationship is there today between science and psychoanalysis?
For me the only true, serious science worth following is science fiction. The other, official science with its altars in the laboratories gropes its way forward without reaching any happy medium. And it has even begun to fear its own shadow.
It seems that the experts will soon be facing anxious moments. Donning their starched shirts in their aseptic laboratories, these rather elderly toddlers playing with unknown things, making ever more complex devices, inventing ever more obscure formulas, begin to ask themselves what might happen tomorrow, what these ever-novel research projects might bring to bear. Enough, I say! And what if it’s too late, biologists and physicists and chemists now ask themselves. I think they are mad. They are already changing the face of the universe, and it only now occurs to them that perhaps this might be dangerous. And if everything blew up in their faces? If the bacteria so lovingly raised in their shiny laboratories transformed into our mortal enemies? If hordes of these bacteria overran the world as well as all the crap that lives there, starting with these laboratory experts themselves?
In addition to Freud’s three impossible positions – government, education, and psychoanalysis – I would add a fourth, science. But the experts are not expert enough to know that their position is untenable.
So you have a rather pessimistic view of what they call progress…
No, it’s something else entirely. I am not pessimistic. Nothing is going to happen. For the simple reason that man is a good-for-nothing, not even capable of destroying himself. Personally, I would find the idea of an all-encompassing plague, produced by man, rather marvellous. It would be the proof that he had managed to do something with his own hands and head, without divine or natural intervention.
All these bacteria overfed for amusement’s sake, spreading out across the world like the locusts in the Bible, would mark the triumph of mankind. But this isn’t going to happen. Science happily saunters through its crisis of responsibility: everything will return to its natural place, as they say. And as I said, the real will win out, as always. And we’ll be as fucked as we ever were.
Another paradox of Jacques Lacan. As well as the difficulty of your language and the obscurity of your concepts, you are reproached for your jokes, word games, puns, and, rightly, for your paradoxes. Your reader or listener has the right to feel a bit disoriented.
I am not joking, the things that I say are very serious. I merely make use of words in the same way that the experts of which I speak make use of their alembics and their electronic circuitry. I always try to refer to the experience of psychoanalysis.
You say: the real does not exist. But the average Joe knows that the real is the world, everything around him that he can touch and see with the naked eye.
First off, let’s get rid of this average Joe, who does not exist. He is a statistical fiction. There are individuals, and that is all. When I hear people talking about the guy in the street, studies of public opinion, mass phenomena, and so on, I think of all the patients that I’ve seen on the couch in forty years of listening. None of them in any measure resembled the others, none of them had the same phobias and anxieties, the same way of talking, the same fear of not understanding. Who is the average Joe: me, you, my concierge, the president of the Republic?
We were talking about the real, about the world that all of us see.
OK. The difference between the real – what is not going right – and the symbolic, the imaginary – that is, truth – is that the real is the world. To see that the world does not exist, that there is no world, it is enough to think of the great mass of banalities that an infinite number of imbeciles believe the world to be. And I invite my friends at Panorama, before they accuse me of paradoxes, to reflect carefully on what they have just read.
People will say that you’re becoming ever more pessimistic.
That isn’t true. I am not among the ranks of the alarmist or the anxious. Woe betide the psychoanalyst who hasn’t gone beyond the stage of anxiety. It’s true: everywhere around us there are troubling, all-consuming things, like the TV that eats up so many of us. But that is only because there are people who allow themselves to be eaten up, who even invent an interest for themselves in what they are seeing.
And then there are other monstrous things that are just as voracious: rockets that go to the moon, research at the bottom of the oceans, etc. All sorts of things that consume people. But there’s no point in making a big deal out of them. I am sure that when we have enough of rockets, TVs and these wretched quests into the void, we will find something else with which to busy ourselves. It’s a reincarnation of religion, isn’t it? And what monster is more voracious than religion? It is a continual feast, to be enjoyed for centuries, as we have already seen.
My response to all this is to note that man has always been able to adapt himself to the bad. The only real that we can conceive, that we can have access to, is precisely that, the need for a reason: to give some meaning to things, as we said earlier. Otherwise, man would not have anxiety, Freud would not have become famous, and I would be teaching in some grammar school.
Are anxieties always of this nature, or are there anxieties linked to certain social conditions, historical eras or geographical climbs?
The anxiety of the expert afraid of his discoveries may seem a latter-day phenomenon. But what do we know about what happened in other times? The dramas of other researchers? The anxiety of the worker enslaved to the assembly line like the rowers on a galley – that is today’s anxiety. Or, more simply, this anxiety is linked to today’s words and definitions.
But what is anxiety, in psychoanalysis?
Something that is situated outside our body, a fear, but a fear of nothing, that can be driven by the body, including the mind. The fear of fear, in sum. Many of these fears and anxieties, at the level that we perceive them, have to do with sex. Freud said that for the speaking animal called man, sexuality has no remedy and has no hope. One of the analyst’s tasks is to find the relation between anxiety and sex, this great unknown, in the patient’s speech.
Now that sex is promoted everywhere you look – sex at the cinema, at the theatre, on TV and in newspapers, in songs and on beaches – you hear it said that people are less anxious about problems linked to the sexual sphere. The taboos have fallen, they say, and people are no longer afraid of sex.
The invading sex-mania is just an advertising phenomenon. Psychoanalysis is a serious matter that concerns, I repeat, a strictly personal relation between two individuals, the subject and the analyst. There is no collective psychoanalysis, just as there are no mass anxieties or neuroses.
The fact of sex being spoken about, shown off on street corners, treated like some detergent on the TV merry-go-round, does not bring any promise of joy. I do not say that this is a bad thing. Certainly it is insufficient for treating particular problems and anxieties. It is part of fashion, of this fake liberalisation that so-called permissive society gives us, like some gift from on high. But it is of no use at the level of psychoanalysis.
Translated by David Broder
To read the original interview in French at Le Magazine Littéraire click here.
To read Élisabeth Roudinesco's interview on the 30th anniversary of Jacques Lacan's death click here.