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  • Ill Said Ill Heard: Psychoanalytic and Other Discourses on the Language of Madness in the Early Years of This Century
  • Olga Cox

“The unconscious is structured like a language.” In the tradition of Pascal and La Rochefoucauld, Lacan favored the smooth lapidary surface of the maxim, conveying as it does a truth that is both self-contained and unassailable. Nonetheless, unless one is simply to use this phrase as a mantra, magically opening access to some kind of magisterial position, one must presumably come to grips with what the analogy implies about the unconscious, not just as semantic system but also as formal structure.

As a term of comparison, language is unmalleable. Ferdinand de Saussure himself points this out in the opening pages of Cours de Linguistique Générale (1972). “Taken as a whole, language is many sided and heterogeneous; straddling several fields—physical, physiological and psychological—it belongs both to the individual and to society; we cannot put it into any category of human facts for we cannot discover its unity” (25). This unmalleability is however not necessarily a bad thing. In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) Freud repeatedly emphasized the unknownness, even the unknowability of the unconscious, and throughout his life he resisted efforts to fit this discovery into the comfortable contours of any existing episteme, whether that of religion, philosophy or psychiatry. It is perhaps idle to wonder what he would have made of Lacan’s bold assimilation of linguistics and psychoanalysis. The declaration that these two disciplines not only have the closest possible relationship with each other, but can even be said to overlap, and indeed that “the unconscious is the condition of linguistics,” creates a dizzying, parabolic sweep above the almost reluctant trajectory of Freud’s own thought from the field of neurology to the field of language. As Starobinski and [End Page 307] others have pointed out, Freud more than once sounds a note of regret that his case histories should read like short stories and that the figurative language of poetry and myth should have replaced the equally figurative language of biology and chemistry in his vocabulary. In opting for the former, however, as alone capable of offering access to the processes he sought to describe, he crucially demarcates the field of psychoanalysis as co-extensive with that of language, since its phenomena would be radically different if they were to be described in terms of neurons.

To what extent should psychoanalysis take other disciplines into account if it is to engage adequately with language? From the beginning, psychoanalytic interest extended along three axes, the language of dreams, the language of free association and the language of madness. The focus of this paper will be the third of these. It can be fairly said that at the time of its publication The Interpretation of Dreams was the single most important contribution to the study of this third language, the language of madness, which in the first three decades of this century occupied a very particular place in disciplines adjacent to psychoanalysis such as psychiatry, para-psychology and literature. In retrospect, however, it is perhaps regrettable that the current of influence was entirely one way, and that these other disciplines did not impinge more on psychoanalysis. To the present day reader it seems that the combined contribution of these disciplines stakes out an exceptionally rich field of inquiry for psychoanalytic thought and also raises important questions which both include and exceed the scope of linguistics. What Roudinesco has called the great structuralist adventure of the fifties tends to overshadow the first decades of the century; Lacan’s dazzling pyrotechnics can easily occlude what was in fact a quite extraordinary convergence of interest not just on language, but on its outer reaches, the edges where it begins to reveal the weave and the warp of madness. It is not more than a slight exaggeration to designate this era as unique. Set between two silences, the silence of obliquoy of earlier times and the silence induced by pharmacological intervention in our own, it constitutes a space in which the language of madness can command [End Page 308] a hearing, a hearing which varies very considerably...

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pp. 307-324
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