Clément’s Lacan Sparkles and Fizzes like Champagne

Training for Vietnamese Translators in Social Sciences and Humanities,
a project funded by EUNIC Global.


A review of Catherine Clément, The Lives and Legends of Jacques Lacan,  Columbia University Press, 1983.

By Etienne Rolland-Piègue, Director of Institut français du Vietnam

Originally published in French as: Catherine Clément, Vies et légendes de Jacques Lacan,  Grasset, 1981.

Beginning in 1964, Jacques Lacan presented a public seminar every Wednesday at the Ecole normale supérieure, or ENS. Catherine Clément, then a young normalienne and philosophy student, attended regularly. As she recalls, « You had to get quite early: an hour in advance was barely sufficient to get a seat… The hall quickly filled to overflowing. Besides the psychoanalysts and the normaliens, curious at first and then quickly conquered, there was a motley crew of actors and writers. With each new term, new faces were added to the crowd. With each new term, too, Philippe Sollers kept coming. »

What was a precocious philosopher trained in the classic tradition of French humanities doing in a seminar on psychoanalysis by a person who was « neither normalien nor philosopher, not even agrégé or professor »? There was first, of course, the lure of curiosity, the urge to join the intellectual bandwagon and to participate in a public event that was the talk of the town. Catherine Clément was then teaching assistant to the philosopher Vladimir Jankelevitch at the Sorbonne: a gentle old man, whose writings on the I-Do-Not-Know-What and the Almost-Nothing are full of irony and musicality; but hardly a rebel or a breaker of conventions. By contrast, attending Lacan’s seminar had the taste of the forbidden fruit. Smart students could jettison their classical garb and passive habits, and actively take part in a thought process that was not simply the rehashing of long dead authors.

Lacan’s seminar

Besides, Catherine Clément and her comrades were on familiar ground when they rubbed shoulders with psychoanalysts and writers in the salle Dussane, where Lacan lectured every week. The form of Lacan’s teaching was from beginning to end inscribed in the purest tradition of French academia. Lacan himself was steeped in the classics and deeply familiar with the canon of great authors that he quoted in their original language, be it Greek, Latin, Italian, German or English. Listening to Lacan required an enormous amount of knowledge and documentation. Of course, there were no class assignments, no reading lists or paper handouts. But students and disciples took note of every reference and quote, and quickly visited the library to read and assimilate the original. As Clément notes, one could reproach Lacan many things, but not of lowering the cultural bar of his listeners. People usually came back from each session of his seminar with a memorable quip or a profound aphorism that would put them in a state of protracted meditation and slight euphoria.

Lacan’s teaching was not only an intellectual happening or a cultural performance. Little by little, hour after hour, a system was being built up, a relentless grid of meaning that would render null and void any other form of thinking. Lacan’s reinterpretation of Freud was in tune with the times. This was the heyday of structuralism: to state that the unconscious was structured like a language was to pay tribute to structural linguistics as developed by Saussure and Jakobson. There was a boom in the social sciences and literary studies: Levi-Strauss had exposed the elementary structures of kinship and was transforming anthropology into a full-fledge science, with graphs and logical symbols. Intellectual entrepreneurs like Philippe Sollers and his group Tel Quel were surfing on the fashion of anything sounding obscure and structural, turning the analysis of texts and signs into a sectarian cult. There was a spate of re-readings: of Nietzsche, of Marx, of Freud. Lacan’s return to Freud was therefore not a solitary journey: it was a return loaded with theories and concepts that had accumulated over the period and that covered the original text with layers upon layers of interpretation.

A Master’s narrative

As Clément’s narrative makes it clear, Lacan could be different things to different people. For a die-hard group of followers and disciples, he was a master and a guru. They attended each of his lectures, noted every utterance, and formed around him a protective ring of devotion and courtisanship. They followed him blindly when he developed an interest for topology and set theory, and became infatuated with graphs and knots. For other persons, Lacan was a shrink doctor. They would sit for hours in his circular waiting room, before a session of variable length that could sometimes last only a few seconds. Still for others, Lacan was a philosopher or theorist. Gilles Deleuze once said the best approach to a great philosopher is to bone him from behind. In this respect, Lacan was a great bugger. He was at his best when combined with another author: he could make Kant copulate with Sade, give Hegel a perverse twist, or bring Marx out of the Marxist closet. His contribution to the realm of ideas could unlock the meaning of obscure sentences or liberate the subversive potential of seemingly sage authors.

For Catherine Clément, Lacan was neither a guru nor a therapist, not even a philosopher or a thinker. He was a shaman. He was endowed with magical powers and inhabited by sacred fire and inspiration. Clement does not use this metaphor randomly: she was also trained as an anthropologist, and she knows a thing or two about shamanism. She studied with Claude Lévi-Strauss, and wrote her first essay about the French anthropologist. For her, the shaman is different from the priest: his authority rests only on charisma, on his ability to communicate with the gods and to deliver oracular sentences to ordinary mortals. The shaman has no legal authority , no institutional backing: he represents only himself, and has to give evidence of his supernatural powers each time as if the world was anew.

From shaman to priest


One day however, the shaman became a priest, and Catherine Clément stopped going to his seminar. This is how she describes the end of her love affair: « This familiar voice was now ringing hollow. I was looking at this comedy as if I had never seen it before. Sollers was still there. The auditors, some of whom had gently aged, were like children waiting for the puppet to appear. Nothing in this great Parisian display was capable of moving me. I felt ridiculous to be there. » The transformation from shaman to priest is accompanied by the institutionalization of charisma, the substitution of vision and trance by rituals and dogma. Magic becomes ceremony, and disciples organize into schools and chapels. Lacan was not responsible for this transformation: he never ceased to repeat his followers that he was not their master, that he didn’t want their adoration. But as he aged and gained recognition, his thought also lost its magic. There was a point when he stopped inventing new concepts. Instead, he took old ones and translated them into mathematical equations or nonsensical puns. Theory became rhetoric, and rhetoric then turned into illegible wordplays.

If Catherine Clément took to writing the Lives and Legends of Jacques Lacan, it was not only to reconnect with her lost youth. It was an act of fidelity. She set out to portray her own private Lacan, the figure she kept behind other people’s gloss and commentary. In particular, she addresses the accusation of misogyny and antifeminism, which by the time of the book’s writing had become commonplace. « Lacan doesn’t like women, » « Lacan says women don’t exist »: so ran the usual clichés. Clément, herself a feminist, recalls that Lacan forged the tools and concepts that helped many feminist writers to build their own theories, sometimes against–right against–Lacan but in constant dialogue with him. Lacan himself owed everything to women. He wrote one of his first papers on the case of the Papin sisters, the heroins of a bloody crime that made front-page news in 1933. His lectures were filled with references to a gallery of female characters: mystics and saints, glorious hysterics, criminals and victims. There was something in Lacan that talked to women, and he greatly contributed to the critical adoption of psychoanalysis by the French feminist movement.

Sparkling like champagne

Clément also addresses the accusation of obscurity and hermeticism. As she explains Lacan to her teenage daughter, she makes him plainly accessible for ordinary readers. She offers a middlebrow version of Lacanism, somewhere in between the women magazine’s article and the theoretical dissertation. Key concepts are explained, obscure sentences are deciphered, but in a light and engaging mode. She is more the chronicler of cultural fashion than the philosopher, and doesn’t sound at all like a professor talking to her class. Even the most abstruse and recondite parts of Lacan’s theory are made easy and fun to read, like when she transforms a multilayered graph known as the ultimate challenge for Lacanians into a game of hopscotch. Her Lacan sparkles and shines like champagne, and her book reads like the intelligent conversation of a beautiful woman.

Catégories : Book reviews