Jacques Lacan, On the Names-of-the-Father
Want to start a fistfight in a university humanities classroom? Just name-drop Jacques Lacan and watch the feathers fly. No single thinker of modern (slash-post-modern) times polarizes opinion so starkly. Academics love or loathe Lacan; only those who’ve never encountered his densely allusive theories remain neutral. That’s why this extremely concise book makes a good introduction to Lacan studies, and a précis of current critical theory.
Lacan (1901-1981), like most postwar Freudian theorists, was personally atheist. But unlike Freud himself, Lacan believed religion embodied human attempts to comprehend the ultimately incomprehensible. Though that in itself is hardly controversial, Lacan viewed this insight through a psychoanalytic filter that perceived Father as an Oedipal foe we must vanquish. How can this jibe with faith in a beneficent, all-knowing Father whom we petition in love?
The Name-of-the-Father evolved within Lacan’s thinking over decades, overlapping other important concepts, coloring how Lacan and his followers perceived central human interactions. But Biblical influence signifies a multiply named Father, a patriarch whose panoply of titles reflects an ever-changing relationship with His people. Spiritual transcendence distorts conventional psychoanalysis. Lacan begins here to address this apparent paradox.
Begins, I say, because though Lacan introduces the principle here, he begins the idea in a symposium abruptly abridged by his frequent conflicts with the establishment. Lacan’s literary executor, Jacques-Alain Miller, notes that this symposium, once abandoned, never resumed, and the transcript languished for decades. Lacan didn’t want the manuscript published during his lifetime. He believed the world wasn’t ready for his newfangled grandeur.
Lacan’s twofold approach requires he first reiterate one of his common creeds, the subdivision of perception into the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. By recognizing the difference between the real (biological) father, the imaginary (loved) father, and the symbolic (law-giving) father, we can commence understanding the multiple, transcendent Father. Thus the book commences the modes of a theological creed, though it flinches before bringing the idea to maturity.
Psychoanalysis often displays unacknowledged messianic inclinations. Freud believed he could heal humanity’s lingering suffering with his “talking cure,” while Carl Jung’s experiments with alchemy and mysticism eventually convinced him of his own holy mission. Lacan’s “Return to Freud” statements, here and elsewhere, suggest himself as the Apostle Paul. But he sometimes ventures into disquieting trinitarian veins: Freud as Father, Lacan as Son, and their books as indwelling Spirit.
Not for nothing did Deleuze and Guattari condemn the dogmatic inclinations of postwar psychoanalytic theory.
Yet this modern creed’s willingness to engage with older cosmologies explains psychanalysis’s ability to survive changing science. New neurological breakthroughs have forced re-evaluations of existing psychoanalytic doctrine (particularly that which rests on Freud’s or Lacan’s personal authority). Yet Lacan’s intellectual catholicity absorbs challenges in ways Christianity substantially has not. This resilience keeps psychoanalysis germane to lived society, and sustains its vital core, even when workaday applications must adapt or die.
This slim book, running barely ninety pages plus back matter, began life as two speeches Lacan gave in 1953 and 1963, is certainly more comprehensible than his immensely compressed prose. As spoken language does, this runs more open and lucid, permitting audiences to hear and grasp it immediately. Not that anyone will mistake it for breezy beach reading: even Lacan’s apparently extemporaneous speech is complex, Latinate, and specialized.
But his impermeable dialectic only serves to emphasize his true approach. A notoriously erudite speaker, Lacan’s long, wordy, frequently tangential approach passes through opaque arteries in pursuing its goal. Some portions appear unrelated to Lacan’s ultimate point, revealing their pertinence only in retrospect, if ever. One doesn’t read Lacan straightforwardly; like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, or the Bible, one immerses oneself in the structure, wrestling to be transformed.
Rest assured, this book will generate more controversy than it resolves. He demonstrates his propositions using mathematical models that, absent identifiable numeric foundation, permit plural, contradictory interpretation. Lacan loves assertions predicated on personal authority, and often forestalls doubt by proclaiming: “It cannot be otherwise.” His first lecture herein concludes with a lengthy Q&A, but ever resistant to friction, his second lecture commences with an injunction to siddown and shuddup.
Lacan, like Darwin or TS Eliot, forms a bottleneck which all thought must traverse in approaching modernity. Scandal is the point of his work, not an accident of form. And his often arcane language lets ideological enemies use the same quotes to opposite ends. But new readers will find herein a concise introduction to Lacan, while longstanding believers will find an intriguing, uncompleted avenue of thought. This difficult book deserves a dedicated audience.