The self was there before Lacan…
thierry ehrmann: Jacques Lacan, painted portrait, 2014 (CC)
The truth is that I never thought I’d get through an entire book by Jacques Lacan. But then the pandemic broke out, and I found myself at home with time to read The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. I’ll admit that what drew me into the book was the drama of its provenance. Lacan had been kicked out of the International Psychoanalytic Association, and was no longer allowed to give seminars as a training analyst, and so the École normale supérieure offered him a platform to present his work. Speaking in a new context, Lacan felt it was necessary to offer his audience an overview of his thinking, and this was the text I followed — one chapter per week, word by word, for 20 straight weeks. What struck me as I read was how closely I felt I could follow his train of thought when transcribed from the spoken word. Sometimes I could even sense where his ideas were heading; I would react to an idea he put forth in my mind, and then, a little later, I’d find that same thought articulated. It felt like — and I don’t mean to sound presumptuous — Lacan and I were on the same wavelength. And that felt pretty uncanny.
Nowhere was this uncanniness as pronounced as when Lacan described psychoanalysis in terms of physics. In an essay I’d written on Samuel Beckett and Melanie Klein, I had used physics to describe what I saw as the core difference between Klein and Sigmund Freud. I had said that Freud was, to my mind, interested in energetics while Klein was interested in dynamics, especially how forces affect objects. As I read Lacan, I tried to put him into a branch of physics too, and as he increasingly gave examples taken from optics, I put him in with optical wave theory. But nothing prepared for the moment that he would suggest, in a section on Freudian drive theory, that “what we see emerging here in Freud’s mind are the fundamental concepts of physics. . . especially those connected with energy.” There was nothing more uncanny, but also reassuring, than to feel like Lacan and I were — whether right or wrong — barking up the same tree.
This feeling of solidarity helped me make my way through the densely-packed paragraphs of his speech, which had been given punctuation by one of his disciples, Jacques-Alain Miller. But this feeling slowly began to fade as my sense of camaraderie turned into critique. What emerged, as I made my way through the book, was something I could only think of as Lacan’s mistake. And, ironically enough, it was Lacan’s own analysis of Descartes — and, in his words, the “mistake” Descartes had made in his reasoning — that clued me into Lacan’s own mistake and gave me language to discuss its contours. So, in a way, Lacan himself paved the way for my articulation of his mistake.