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Four Lessons of PsychoanalysisReview - Four Lessons of Psychoanalysis
by Moustafa Safouan
Other Press, 2004
Review by Michael Lewis, Ph.D.
Jun 18th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 24)

Perhaps the best way to review an introductory book of this kind is to demonstrate the clarity of the picture which it gives us of its topic, Lacanian psychoanalysis, particularly if the introduction is a good one. This will demonstrate just what the book can provide us with and assist the reader in deciding whether it is appropriate for their level of expertise.

According to Moustafa Safouan, one of the most distinguished Lacanian psychoanalysts and commentators, the contemporary reception of the work of Jacques Lacan is analogous to the sorry state in which Lacan found psychoanalysis when he began his Seminars in the early 1950's.

Following Freud's death in 1939 and partly under the influence of Freud's daughter, Anna, and a prominent group of American psychoanalysts, psychoanalysis had been reduced to the attempt to bolster the weak ego of the patient by remodeling it in the image of the strong ego provided by the analyst: this was supposed to allow the neurotic patient to cope with his illness and to take his place as an efficient and useful member of society. Thanks largely to the trivialization and ubiquitous talk of 'therapy', largely emanating from America, which promulgates something like this view of psychoanalysis as 'ego-psychology', this is in fact the pre-theoretical understanding that we still have of psychoanalysis today.

This is the hermeneutic situation in which Lacan found himself: the true meaning of Freud's work had been covered over by the accretion of weak interpretations such as those of ego-psychology. In much the same way as Martin Heidegger was returning (creatively) to the original meaning of the works of the Ancient Greek philosophers, Lacan urged a 'return to Freud'. This means that, through a -sadly rare- reading of Freud's entire corpus from the very beginning, we shall recover its truly original insight and the properly new understanding of the unconscious which it develops. This, Lacan famously believes, is the understanding of the unconscious as structured like a language.

The hermeneutic situation in which Safouan chooses to place himself in these lessons is one in which the study of Lacan has lost sight of this intimate relationship between Lacan's work and Freud's: in truth, Lacan's work as a whole is nothing but a reading of Freud and an attempt to answer the questions which his theory leaves open (pp.16-17). Safouan takes it that because of the immense number of (apparently and genuinely) new concepts which Lacan introduces in order to fully express the Freudian discovery and to make distinctions that will enable this discovery to be expressed in a systematic and coherent way, attempts at understanding Lacan's work are in constant danger of failing to see the way in which this work is nothing but an unfolding of the potential inherent in Freud's; this unfolding allows many if not all of the tangled threads and knotty parts of Freud's work to become unknotted and Lacan to name and describe these threads and the way they relate to one another.

For this reason, we are called not so much to 'return to Lacan' but rather to return to the precise way in which Lacan is a Freudian in remaining true to the founding experience of psychoanalysis described in Freud's work and the way in which he devoted his entire life to unfolding, precisely and systematically, the nature of the peculiar unconscious which Freud discovered. For this reason, Safouan begins his work with a masterly description of the way in which Lacan's notion of the unconscious as structured in the same way as a language may already be found in one of Freud's earliest works, at the very outset of psychoanalysis, the Studies on Hysteria of 1893-5. Here we see the essence of Freud's discovery more clearly than elsewhere, in a work that scintillates with the freshness that comes from lying near to the source, as yet unsullied by the lower reaches and undiluted by the forking of the tributaries that inevitably occurs when a discovery is forced into institutionalization. (This is why the constant Lacanian references are the early works of Freud, where the linguistic nature of the unconscious is most clear: The Interpretation of Dreams, Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.)

What was Freud's discovery? That the unconscious is not a trivial biological matter of irrational drives and processes in the body that our minimal consciousness remains unaware of (but is this not still the common-sense pre-theoretical understanding of Freud today?) (cf. p.72), in which case Freud would have displayed no originality whatsoever; the Freudian unconscious is rather an effect of language, and this means both that it is the result of the historical emergence within the human species of language as such and that it manifests itself in language as a certain disruption of the way in which the significant -and so linguistically structured- experience of our life unfolds.

Lacan does not arbitrarily introduce the science of linguistics into psychoanalysis; linguistics is merely a tool that allows Lacan to make precise certain distinctions and concepts which Freud was already using but could not make fully clear because -for simple historical reasons- he did not yet have a science of language (linguistics) at his disposal. Psychoanalysis began in the 1890's but Ferdinand de Saussure's monumental lectures on structural linguistics, which marked the birth of the discipline as an exact science, did not begin until 1907 and were not promulgated until 1916, while the reformulation of Saussure's work by Roman Jakobson, which Lacan found so perfectly to express the effect of what happens to the animal man when he becomes engulfed in language, did not emerge until after Freud's death.

What Freud discovered in his Studies on Hysteria was that, in psychoanalytic sessions, although the discourse of the patient (more properly, the 'analysand') was meant to be without purpose, the patient simply saying whatever came to mind -'free association'-, this speech nevertheless persistently tended to move towards a certain topic. It was as if, without consciously intending it, the patient's talk was constantly circling around a subject that he did not want to mention, and yet this topic wanted to be spoken. What has this effect on discourse, acting as a center of attraction, directing the talk in a certain direction, is the subject's true desire, the desire that cannot speak its name, but which nevertheless wishes to find expression, and does so by the disturbances it inflicts on the subject's conscious discourse and experience.

For psychoanalytic theory, a person's desire is that which gives to him his singularity, his uniqueness. Since language or 'signifiers' are necessarily general and are linked to a particular meaning (or 'signified') only arbitrarily -meaning that they can in fact be used to signify anything-, no signifier can actually represent this desire: or rather, no signifier can positively say what it is that I desire. This is why the desire cannot directly be spoken and why the analysand is trying not to talk about it, but it can bespeak itself indirectly, by the effects that it has on his talk (which may involve for instance, stuttering, suddenly going blank, failing to find the right word, or simply suddenly feeling anxious).

This blank, this desire, can act as an asymptotic point, drawing all the strands of the subject's discourse towards it and thus leading them to point to it without ever reaching it, as if indicating the void that the patient's empty ramblings are indeed 'avoiding'.

What is this desire? What does the subject want that it cannot speak about? In fact, the reason the subject cannot speak about his desire is because desire, by definition, does not want any particular object. If it did, speaking of it would be easy, even if one desired something that was difficult for the subject to accept (such as the desire to sleep with one's own mother). But the truth about desire is in fact that it does not want anything: it merely wants to desire. Everything, after all, wants to persist in its own nature (Spinoza), and if desire actually received the object of its desire then it would be satisfied and stop desiring. So each time desire appears to have achieved its target, one finds the curious phenomenon that it is never satisfied with this object: one realizes that this is not after all what one wanted. As soon as one obtains one's heart's desire, one starts desiring something else: desire, intrepid, always needs something new to conquer. Indeed, even when one manages to cross the river, the grass is still greener on the other side.

So, essentially, desire always takes on a succession of different objects, never settling on any one thing, and it is this succession (not this... not this... always something else) that indicates the true nature of what desire wants: it wants nothing. As soon as one settles on a particular positive object, one stops desiring, and this would contradict the essence of desire: above all, desire must continue to desire. And the only way it can do this is if its ultimate goal is nothing, a void or lack. The question 'what do you want?' is a question that has no answer. It must always remain a question. It is precisely our not knowing the answer to this question that causes anxiety: What do they want? What do they want?... (Come to that, what do I want?)

The only way to answer this question positively is effectively to make something up. Something, anything, to end this quite unbearable anxiety. One fantasizes an answer to the question. A fantasy is nothing besides that which gives an imaginary object to desire and hence lets us escape the dreadful uncertainty of not knowing what the Other wants, and most pertinently, what they want from us. In this fantasy, one posits something that gives a positive character to this enigmatic thing that the Other finds so desirable. This fantasized imaginary object is what Lacan calls the objet petit a.

The purpose of psychoanalysis is to open the subject's eyes to the fantasies it has constructed and to demonstrate that the object of desire is in fact nothing but a void. So the subject first needs to be shown that his discourse is tending in a certain direction, without his intending for this to happen, and then made to accept this as a desire that is his own, and importantly, a desire that does not want any particular object. The patient's resistances (which in fact comprise his ego) to accepting this desire as his own and indeed as the very core of his existence, must be overcome, and the fantasies which he has constructed must be dismantled.

Safouan paints an exquisite picture of this. He then demonstrates the way in which Lacan systematizes Freud's theoretical account of why desire emerges in the first place. Lacan is able to do this because he has at his disposal two disciplines which Freud did not have, and which in combination can render psychoanalysis a properly consistent and rigorous science: structural linguistics and the structural anthropology which it made possible, allowing it to become the first fully exact human science, as Claude Lévi-Strauss was the first to recognise.

Why does desire emerge? It emerges because of language: because language exists and because of the way in which language works.

As soon as man starts to speak, and to speak about himself, he becomes cut off from himself. His own singularity (his true desire) is lost to him and cannot be expressed simply because the words of language are general: they can apply to other things besides him. The nearest he gets to a word that might express his singularity is his name, and even this can be shared by other people. For this reason, the linguist, Jakobson, introduced the distinction between the subject of the enunciated (which is the pronoun 'I' in any statement we can make about ourselves) and the subject of the enunciation (that singular individual who actually pronounces these statements). The existence of language thus separates man from himself, sunders him from what he really is and what he really wants.

This is why Lacan writes the subject as an S with a bar splitting it down the middle, $. This is to indicate that the subject is always inaccessible to himself, due to the very existence of language. The human subject, once it is subjected to the signifier, becomes the 'barred subject', the subject that is barred from accessing and speaking about its true desire, its own singularity. This cruel and painful consequence of being a human (and to be human is to be an animal that speaks) is described by the word for a very cruel and painful procedure: castration. If one has no penis, then one cannot realize one's (sexual) desires. The castration of the subject, slicing him, tearing him away from his desire is known, logically enough, as 'symbolic castration'.

This symbolic castration causes no end of problems for the human being. In fact, almost all specifically human ailments stem from it. And since it is an effect of language, only the 'talking cure', that treatment whose sole instrument is speech, can cure these ailments effectively and certainly. Because there is language, there must be psychoanalysis.

So, man is cut off from his desire by language. And he feels it. It would be impossible to undergo castration and not know about it! In fact, this state of uncertainty with regard to what one really wants is unbearable for the subject. It needs answers. It needs to know what it wants and what it is that is desirable. Only in this way will it escape the anxiety of not knowing what the Other wants with it: I am desirable, I must be since the Other desires me. But why am I desirable? What is it about me that the Other desires? It is me, my singularity, me as the subject of enunciation: it is not anything that I could pick out about myself but me as the individual speaker of these empty words.

There are no words in language singular enough to describe this 'me', and so we need to invent one.

We have seen already that Lacan names the object of desire -or that in the object which causes someone to desire it- the objet petit a. It is this objet petit a that the subject uses in order to pick out the singularity of what it truly is, what is ultimately desirable about it. In a dazzling formulation, Safouan tells us that 'the objet a is the subject's lost name, her name as the subject of the enunciation' (pp.77-8). Something makes us desirable in distinction from everything else in the world, something about us is singular, but we cannot make out what it is, and so (not consciously) we take some characteristic, some feature of the imaginary image we have of ourselves, perhaps our voice or something peculiar about a part of our body, and take this to constitute our singular desirability. The 'a' in 'objet a' stands for autre, which means that other (or those others) with whom I identify myself: we make this identification -- which is rather a series of identifications- precisely in order to compensate for the fact that we are unsure of our own identity, and these imaginary identifications constitute what is known as our 'ego'. This is the subject of the enunciated or the statements that can be made about us. In order to say something about ourselves, we need to have certain features, and these are the features of our ego, our conscious self.

When language splits us from ourselves, it divides us into our conscious ego (subject of the enunciated) and the unconscious subject (subject of the enunciation). The latter is what is 'primordially repressed', forming the unconscious, and every subsequent repression that takes place is in some way linked to this one fundamental desire that must necessarily remain repressed so long as we are imprisoned within language (which will be forever: we were entrapped here before our birth and will remain so after our death).

But something needs to stand in the place of this void where our true desire lurks, and that is the objet petit a, that element taken from our imaginary self-image which gives a positive form to our desire. We have already seen that desire pursues a series of different objects, none of which finally satisfies it, but in order to give some consistency to the objects desired, to avoid confronting the fact that there is nothing that unites them and that ultimately desire aims not for a particular object but for nothing, we take them to be unified by a particular trait which each of them shares. We do not know what this is, since it is unconscious, but it is that 'je ne sais quoi' which makes each thing irresistible: the Lacanian name for this 'je ne sais quoi' which gives some consistency to our various desires is 'objet petit a'.

In fact, the objet petit a is a fantasy, an entirely imaginary feature. It is deceptive in that it allows the analysand to carry on believing that there is some positive object to his desire and hence some hope finally of satisfying it. Psychoanalysis aims gently and productively to show the patient this fantasy and thus to show it up for what it is. In this way, the patient will be led to confront the real object of his desire, which is nothing. He will be led to end his incessant fantasies about who he is and why he might be desirable (or otherwise), and to see that he is in fact, fundamentally, nothing.

It may seem then that the patient is rather worse off at the end of his treatment than at the beginning! Indeed, this is precisely the reason why fantasies exist, to make life more bearable for the human being, and generally if one is not suffering from these fantasies one will not seek the psychoanalyst's help (which is not to say that one's life would not benefit if one did). The psychoanalyst is first and foremost a doctor. He treats diseases, and these diseases are, famously, species of either neurosis or psychosis. The neuroses are generally diseases in which the subject does everything possible to avoid actually having to follow through on one of his desires: he may spend all of his time engaging in obsessive rituals, preparations and organizations which ultimately prevent his ever having to do anything, or his entire life may be lived in fantasies of acting, which can consume his entire life and paralyze his real activity.

One has of course many desires. But every desire that we are finding it difficult to follow through with or express will be in some way connected to that fundamentally unconscious (repressed) desire that we are. Ultimately there are many desires that could be repressed, and those that are will be repressed because they have some connection with that desire which is primordially and irretrievably repressed. The desires as it were 'remind' us of that one absolutely forbidden desire, and the terror that this stirs makes it impossible to go through with these other desires which in themselves might be entirely innocuous (and of course, in madness, in psychosis, things swing round to the opposite extreme since here no desire is forbidden, everything rises to the surface: what would normally be unconscious is consciously desired and pursued). Neurosis, particularly at high levels, can have a crippling effect on our lives; and clearly psychosis is yet more unsustainable. For this reason, psychoanalysis is needed, and since both of these ailments are a consequence of man's immersion in language (which is concomitant with man's leaving his animal nature and entering the symbolic world of culture, which is why anthropology is of interest to Lacan), the way in which they will be cured is precisely through language. Only one form of cure uses this medium, and that is psychoanalysis, the talking cure, and Lacan is the psychoanalyst who remains most trueto the very nature of psychoanalysis by insisting on the unconscious as a matter of language.


This incredibly persuasive picture is what may be gleaned from Safouan's excellent book. Let us, in closing, turn briefly to the format of the book and raise what minor problems remain with it.

The book is a reworked version of four lectures which Safouan gave in San Francisco in 2001. There are four lessons and one additional closing session concerned with the concrete practice of psychoanalysis, which is not at all thrust into the background of the main text, although it is -of necessity in an introduction to Lacan- primarily concerned with theory. Each session comprises an extremely clear, pedagogically expert demonstration of a certain strand of Lacan's thought, which is unfolded with rigorous logic and illuminating examples. This translucency is however slightly marred by each session's being opened to questions at the end. As is generally the case, this tends to lead the talk in rather random directions and to dissipate the focus somewhat. But thankfully these sections are usually short and Safouan's ability to answer the questions in a productive fashion can only be marveled at, particularly -- though at the risk of being patronizing -- for a relatively old man (Safouan first met Lacan in 1949). One wonders, given that this book is a reworking of transcripts from the lectures, whether the format could not have been changed and the questions taken up into the main text in more logical places. The pedagogical value of the book is not improved by this arrangement, which is perhaps to be attributed to the editor rather than the author himself.

In addition to this, given that Other Press is a publisher avowedly dedicated to publishing works on Lacan, it might be queried as to why they employ copy-editors and proof-readers who would introduce the following curious words into the psychoanalytic vocabulary: transidivism, Shreber, sembleble, and Jacobson. Also mysteriously, the phrase 'objet petit a' is consistently abbreviated to 'obj. a'. This almost looks as if it were an abbreviation from the typescript of the lectures itself that has remained unexpanded due to timidity on the part of the editors. Finally, it would be petty if not a little xenophobic to criticize Safouan himself for certain infelicities in his English, so perhaps here again a slight criticism might be addressed to his editor, who could have eradicated them.

In general, however, this is an excellent introduction from a great Lacanian exegete, and we must eagerly look forward to the English translation of Safouan's magnum opus, Lacaniana. As an introduction to Lacan's thought, Four Lessons of Psychoanalysis begins at a slightly more advanced level than the excellent and well-respected Introducing Lacan (also called Lacan for Beginners) by Darian Leader: the present book surveys a narrower terrain but at a greater level of subtlety and complexity. These two, in the order of Leader first, Safouan second, provide an excellent bridge to the longer and more complex introductory and exegetical texts that are available, many also being published by Other Press. Perhaps the next logical step after reading these works is to turn to some of Slavoj Zizek's earlier works, particularly Looking Awry, so long as all of this is understood merely as a propaedeutic to reading Lacan himself.


© 2005 Michael Lewis


Michael Lewis, Ph.D., Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick


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