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  • Reading Lacan, or Harlaquanage: An Essay Review
  • Shuli Barzilai

Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen. Lacan The Absolute Master. Translated by Douglas Brick. Stanford: Stanford UP. 1991.

Malcolm Bowie. Lacan. London: Montana, 1991.

Elizabeth Grosz. Jacques Lacan: A Feminist Introduction. London and New York: Routledge, 1990.

How to read Jacques Lacan is a question. Lacan may be read, Malcolm Bowie suggests, as “one who can think fruitfully only from inside someone else’s text” (7). The image of a creative renovator—occupying the texts of others, mounting extensive changes, and yet retaining features of the original work—partly explains why Lacan’s texts continue to generate an industry of introductions. It is not only the style of his theoretical statements nor his calculated cultivation of obscurity. Lacan is a great appropriator. The task of the explicator is complicated by the alterations and rearrangements that concepts culled from diverse sources undergo in his work. Elizabeth Grosz and Malcolm Bowie primarily focus on Lacan’s reading (or reinvention) of Freud. Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen studies Lacan’s debts to philosophical modes of thinking. Taken together and each alone, however, these critics construct the figure of a harlequin: Lacan as one who, although attired in a motley of borrowed ideas, represents a new and innovative contribution to psychoanalysis.


Bowie introduces his book simply as “an outline of Lacan’s theory” (1). In five short chapters, he nonetheless carries out a more far-reaching project: tracing the stages of Lacan’s thought [End Page 81] during his fifty years’ career, examining the “Freudian texts from which Lacan takes his cue,” and scrutinizing the verbal textures of his unconventional theoretical writing (7). In addition to this survey of major tenets, Bowie’s agenda includes (albeit unannounced in his prefatorial remarks) an ongoing critique of Lacan. He provides evaluative commentary that is at times, tongue-in-cheek and at others, direct and outspoken.

In rapid summary fashion, for example, Bowie renders the polemical stance, “already confident and grand,” that characterizes the early papers (1936–49) in which Lacan rejects the Freudian model of ego-id-superego. Speaking through but not for Lacan, Bowie practices a kind of critical ventriloquism here:

[T]he day of reckoning has arrived not only for clinical psychiatry, associationist psychology, the Cartesian tradition in European philosophy, and a number of revisionist movements within psychoanalysis, but for Freud himself . . . . Freud himself went wrong in a special way. He attributed powers and responsibilities to the ego that the ego was ill-equipped to exercise, and in so doing repeated and reendorsed a classic European overvaluation of the individual conscious mind. Freud’s error was exceptional in that he alone possessed a theory that could have corrected it.


In this passage as in many others, Bowie both describes and distances himself from an aspect of the metaphysical tone or atmosphere of Lacan’s writings. Theorizing inclines toward terrorizing—that is, toward “the language of fundamentalism” (85). He also proceeds to show how, in inveighing against Freud’s remodeled thesis of the mental apparatus, Lacan strenuously simplifies The Ego and the Id (1923) and misrepresents “its dubitative manner and the range of alternative mental models that it proposes” (19). To reinvent the already decentered I, Bowie argues, Lacan attributes a unified notion of selfhood (“an integrated ego, buoyantly pursuing its goals”) to Freud who repeatedly found the individual only too riven by internal dissenting forces (21). [End Page 82]

Mimicry is only one of Bowie’s critical methods. His book abounds in metaphors, conceits, allusions, and analogies. Figures of speech become a vehicle for the evaluation of concepts and controversies closely associated with Lacan’s intellectual progress. Early in his study, Bowie characterizes Lacan as “a dramatist of ideas” (35). No less is he. Thus Bowie stages what happens when Lacan rewrites the Saussurean sign, turning the signified/signifier formula on its head: “the signified retreats to the lower position, shrinks into the lower case and withers into italic type”; or, he portrays Lacan’s difficult-to-classify piece on “God and the Jouissance of the Woman,” in Encore, as it “lurches between catechism, riddle-book and Pindaric ode” (64, 150; emphases added). In the first instance, Bowie...