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What Does a Woman Want?Review - What Does a Woman Want?
by Serge André
Other Press, 1999
Review by Andries Gouws
Dec 6th 2000 (Volume 4, Issue 49)

This book is published by Other Press, the exciting new press featuring many titles in psychoanalysis coming from outside the dominant paradigms in Anglo-American clinical psychoanalysis. This book appears in their series: The Lacanian Clinical Field, which aims to make the clinical Lacan accessible to two American groups to whom it is still largely unknown: on the one hand psychoanalytic clinicians, and on the other those who have used Lacanian theory outside the clinical context in film studies, literary theory, etc.

I found it hard to find my way into this book, and often had to seek enlightenment in Dylan Evans's Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 1996). However, André's book got easier once I had worked my way past Frances Restuccia's "Foreword" and Chapter 1, both of which give a highly concentrated introduction to the rest of the book. Those interested in the topic and in Lacan's notoriously difficult thought, are likely to find it well worth the effort.

Serge André, a widely published Lacanian author, practices psychoanalysis in Belgium. The title plays on Freud's famous remark to Marie Bonaparte: although the question "What does woman want?" had occupied him all his life, he had never been able to answer it. Shoshana Felman warns us not to underestimate the revolutionary nature of this acknowledgment: patriarchy has always supposed the answer to this question to be evident ("women want husbands and babies, of course"), so that Freud was breaking new ground in admitting his ignorance.

André is an able spokesman for the Lacanian approach to these matters, and often made me see the power of ideas that I had previously found recondite. André uses late Lacan to read early Freud, and claims that Lacan supplies the way out of a number of impasses encountered by Freud. Central to Freud's achievement was that he had deprived sexuality and gender of their self-evidence. This book made me look at this aspect of Freud's thought with new eyes, and a new surprise at just how innovative Freud was here.

At times André writes beautifully and movingly, especially when interpreting particular cases or particular dreams. However, this book shares fully in one failure that is unfortunately not unusual among Lacanians: the attempt to present Lacan as an absolute authority. First of all by making Lacan the true heir to Freud's revolution, rather than one branch among others on the multifarious psychoanalytic tree. (Though sometimes illuminating, the constant attempt to find late Lacan in early Freud eventually starts appearing ludicrous). And secondly by not questioning any of Lacan's doctrines. Freud sometimes erred, but wherever he did, André has Lacan there ready to correct him, so that he can be truer to his own invention. And for André to confer authority on Lacan is of course is also for André to confer authority on himself as Lacan's spokesman.

André knows too much. Nowhere does he admit to being stumped by anything. Men are like this, women are like that (despite his own subversion of these categories). Hysterics are like this, hypochondriacs like that, and obsessives something different again. Contrary to the gist of his and Lacan's subversion of our normal categories, his world is by and large an Aristotelian one in which people (or syndromes) fall into neat categories: if you know the category, you already know the essence. This to me is to throw overboard one of the most fundamental contributions of psychoanalysis: that very little can be said in advance about anybody on the basis of a categorization; that if we are not to be "wild analysts" we will have to await a patient working through of the particulars of the unique constellation making up an individual before anything much can be said. André only admits to not having an answer in those cases in which, according to him, no answer can or should in principle be given. Not for André Freud's admission that he doesn't know what woman wants; André, armed with Lacan's Seminars and Écrits, clearly does know. (As Restuccia gingerly indicates in her "Foreword", he may have too many answers to his title question). A "return to Freud" on this score would have stood André in good stead. As long as Lacanianism is linked to dogmatism, it is a poisoned gift.

But let such objections not stand in the way of acknowledging the very real virtues of this book. It really offers us new ways of looking at a wide variety of phenomena. And very often these ways ring true. In the process André often shows us the import of Lacanian ideas that seem empty or farfetched when encountered only as abstractions. Let me mention a small sample from the many riches of this book:

  • The way André analyses situations which could easily have been seen as dyadic relations ("Dora desires Frau K" for instance) as relations between four individuals. (Dora needs the whole constellation of herself, Frau K, Herr K and her father, and the relations of desire existing between them, to sustain her desire. It then becomes understandable why she resists a resolution of the current ambiguities of the situation). Although this is not completely alien to Freud, in André's hands it becomes clear that Lacan's approach is more open to the intrinsically dialectical and complex nature of desire.
  • André's discussion of the imaginary, symbolic and real bodies and the concomitant notion that they do not coincide; how the imaginary body needs the symbolization of the Other as a support, and how disgust results when the symbolic body collapses and the real body breaks through. A number of persons that I had myself encountered were illuminated for me by this discussion, and they indeed all happened to be women.
  • The development and application of Lacan's idea that "the female sex" ("sex" both as gender and as genitals) does not exist; that there is no signifier for the female sex in the unconscious. I am by no means absolutely convinced, but in André's hands this idea becomes much more plausible, suggestive and powerful than I had ever thought possible. (As does Lacan's formula: "the sexual relation does not exist").
  • What happens to the domain of needs and the organs involved in them, when they become subject to symbolization, and hence sexualization (André makes this "and hence" very plausible).

A final doubt about André's (and Lacan's) position: it unquestioningly adopts as axiom Freud's conviction that femininity is intrinsically much more problematic than is masculinity. That is to say: much harder to understand, theoretically, or to attain, developmentally. Aside from the fact that such a position should not precede, and thus decide in advance, the investigations which could confirm or disconfirm it, I would tend to agree with that substantial body of contemporary psychoanalytic thought which reverses the terms: masculinity is far more problematic than femininity. The boy's initial symbiosis or identification with the mother makes the route to any later masculine identification much more complex than the girl's route to a female identification, and, accordingly, makes the boy's later masculine identification essentially fragile.

Andries Gouws teaches philosophy at the University of Natal in Durban, South Africa. His Masters thesis and doctoral dissertation both dealt with Freud and philosophy. He is currently completing a book on Freud's theory of sexuality, and has previously published on welfare policy, literary theory and postmodernism. Before studying philosophy in the Netherlands, he attended various art schools in South Africa and Europe. His paintings are available in his own web gallery.


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