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  • The Ego Psychologists In Lacan’s Theory
  • Michael Zeitlin

If from a North American perspective Lacan has long seemed ambiguous in his basic ontological terms—a figure dispersed into his own discourse and so fundamentally inaccessible but as a series of traces—the recent work of Elisabeth Roudinesco (1990) has enabled us to approach the meaning of Lacan as an historical as opposed to a purely textual or theoretical subject. 1 Indeed, for the tradition of what one might call French-American Freud—whose roots are traceable to the landmark special issues of Yale French Studies edited by Jeffrey Mehlman in 1972 and Shoshana Felman in 1977—Lacan presented himself, and so was received, not so much as a human subject in history but as a radically decentered text. And throughout the 1980s this was the Lacan who continued to fascinate, the Lacan whose text, in never being susceptible to “full” understanding or mastery, generated a tremendously suggestive if ambiguously open-ended kind of hermeneutic power (Gallop 1985, 20; Felman 1987, 5; Felman 1985, 165; Ragland-Sullivan, 1986 xxi).

In his turbulent textuality Lacan, in fact, was often a virtual reification of “the discourse of the Other” itself:

[We] all have difficulty with the unconscious. This is what Lacan’s language makes us hear, even as we are unable to control, or grasp exactly, what the difficulty is about. Lacan speaks enigmatically. But the enigma is about us: about our own relation to the difficulty of our own unconscious; about the nontransparency between speech and the speaking subject.

(Felman 1987, 164n)

Ambiguity, incomprehensibility, and yet force: “A great number of the pages I was reading did in fact seem incomprehensible [End Page 209] , but at the same time they profoundly moved me” (Felman 1987, 5). In this very influential model of contact, one is seduced by Lacan, but the seduction has nothing necessarily to do with his being understood in any conventional sense:

On June 16, 1975, Jacques Lacan gave the inaugural address of the Fifth International James Joyce Symposium in a large auditorium of the Sorbonne filled with perhaps a thousand people. The hall was decorated with bas-reliefs of French immortals surrounded by wreaths. It was my first trip to Europe and my first symposium paper, and I was enormously impressed though I had hardly any French. In a neat grey seersucker suit, Lacan was a magnificent, charismatic figure. David Hayman later recalled to me that Lacan held everyone spellbound near the beginning by pulling out a large handkerchief and blowing his nose with panache. He spoke for about forty-five minutes with great eloquence in a deep, sonorous voice that rolled off each syllable with exquisite timing.

(Brivic 1991, 29: 17)

If, reading or hearing Lacan, one can experience a kind of oral jouissance, one may equally feel the disconcerting violence (and yet strange satisfaction) of being broken into and entered by an alien discourse:

Lacan’s writing disconcerts us precisely because it is consumed by a “fire” that can never be located by the discourse of Meaning. Reading Lacan is like . . . surrendering ourselves to a blindness that works us over and thinks us through without our necessarily ever achieving an exhaustive understanding of it.

(Felman 1985, 140)

In connection with Felman’s famous reading of (Edmund Wilson’s reading of) Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (Felman 1985), one remembers, perhaps inevitably, that James’s story, among many things, is about a central character’s erotic relation with an absent though strangely potent figure of proscription and authority. Lacan, indeed, is the Master who [End Page 210] does not reveal himself after the first seduction, the seduction whose “main condition” is that we should “take the whole thing over and let him alone” (James 1966, 6). It is the Master’s silence that produces the effect of desire, and desire, conceived in the Lacanian register, is always desire of the Other’s desire, i.e., of “the impossible.” In the words of Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, “Anglophone readers . . . express the hope that someone will explain Lacan to them in their own terms. This is simply impossible. To do so would permit an interlocutor to retain...

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