The cabinet of Dr. Lacan
Obscurity is not the worst failing, and it is philistinism to pretend that it is. In a series of brilliant essays written over the last fifteen years Stanley Cavell has consistently argued that more important than the question whether obscurity could have been avoided is whether it affects our confidence in the author.
Confidence raises the issue of intention, and I would have thought that the primary commitment of a psychoanalytic writer was to pass on, and (if he can) to refine while passing on, a particular way of exploring the mind. Indeed this is how Lacan himself proposes that his work should be judged. “The aim of my teaching,” he writes, “has been and still is the training of analysts.”
For decades now Lacan has been insisting that the nature of this commitment has been systematically obscured, particularly in North America. Training has become “routinized”, and analysis itself has become distorted into a process of crude social adaptation. There is much here to agree with. Yet two questions must be raised. Has Lacan devised a more effective method of training analysts? And, would one expect this from his writings?
Neither question gets a favourable answer. All reports of his training methods, over which he has now brought about three distinct secessions within the French psychoanalytic movement, are horrifying.13 It is now, I am told, possible to become a Lacanian analyst after a very few months of Lacanian analysis. And what pedagogic contribution could we expect from a form of prose that has two salient characteristics: it exhibits the application of theory to particular cases as quite arbitrary, and it forces the adherents it gains into pastiche.14 Lacan's ideas and Lacan's style, yoked in an indissoluble union, represent an invasive tyranny. And it is by a hideous irony that this tyranny should find its recruits among groups that have nothing in common except the sense that they lack a theory worthy of their cause or calling: feminists, cinéastes, professors of literature.
Lacan himself offers several justifications for his obscurity, about which he has no false modesty. At times he says that he is the voice, the messenger, the porte-parole, of the unconscious itself. Lacan's claim stirs in my mind the retort Freud made to a similar assult upon his credulity and by someone who had learned from Lacan. “It is not the unconscious mind I look out for in your paintings,” Freud said to Salvador Dali, “it is the conscious.”