Lacan on Madness - On Psychoanalysis and with Lacan

Psy-Complex in Question: Critical Review In Psychology, Psychoanalysis And Social Theory - Ian Parker 2018

Lacan on Madness
On Psychoanalysis and with Lacan

Gherovici, P. and Steinkoler, M. (eds.) (2015) Lacan on Madness: Madness, Yes You Can’t. London and New York: Routledge.

This wide-ranging 18-chapter collection about ’madness’ overturns many preconceptions about the way that psychoanalysis is usually understood to approach the topic. The contributors come from different vantage points within the fractured field of Lacanian psychoanalysis, and this gives a rich diversity of accounts of the clinic, theory and cultural context (three domains of work that are signalled in the three main sections of the book as ’encountering madness’, ’thinking psychosis’ and ’madness and creation’). This fracturing of the field of Lacanian psychoanalysis is enabling, once the reader is able to appreciate that there is no one settled theory of ’madness’ in Lacan’s work, still less in the broader field of psychoanalytic practice.

Lacan’s trajectory through psychoanalysis was very different from Freud’s, and the starting points of the two gave rise to contrasting approaches to what is helpfully and inclusively referred to as ’madness’ in this book rather than the technical (and psychiatric) term ’psychosis’. Freud invented psychoanalysis, and with it the array of concepts that turn it into very much the kind of paranoiac hermetic system that the mad are assumed to track their way around as they make sense of their own realities, concepts that include as central, of course, the ’unconscious’. An understanding and treatment of neurosis was the foundation of psychoanalytic methodology, and the existence of the unconscious posed a perpetual problem for every human being whether they were in the desperate condition of ’hysterical misery’ that characterised the patients who found their way to Freud’s couch or the ’everyday unhappiness’ that might, if they were lucky, await them at the end of the treatment.

The demarcation of hysteria as one form of neurosis (usually associated with women) from obsessional neurosis (as a ’dialect’ of hysteria usually associated with men) made the question of gender as well as sexuality of central importance to psychoanalysis, and these questions reappear in this book. But while ’perversion’ was at times seen as lying within the remit of psychoanalytic treatment (partly because every neurotic is afflicted by perverse fantasies that they find repulsive, in the case of hysterics, or bewitching, in the case of obsessional neurotics), ’psychosis’ was assumed by Freud to lie outside the scope of the clinic, resistant to treatment. Later generations of psychoanalysts — most importantly those from within the Kleinian tradition — extended and transformed Freudian psychoanalysis to include psychosis within their remit.

Lacan took this extension and transformation of psychoanalysis much further, and not only because he replaced the traditional Freudian account of distress which relied too-often on a narrative of biologically-wired-in sequences of development with an account which located the human subject as a speaking being who encounters and then must navigate language. Lacan’s starting point was as a psychiatrist who worked first with ’psychosis’ and then reworked, or ’returned to’, Freudian theory. Instead of taking neurosis as the starting point, the starting point and ’normal’ condition of human subjectivity, and then attempting to make sense of how psychosis departs from it, Lacan took psychosis and the paranoiac formation of the ego as his starting point, and this quite different conception of what is ’normal’ about human subjectivity gives us a new vantage point on the neuroses (and the perversions).

The third section of the book on madness and creation (on ’environs of the hole’) is actually very important for the Lacanian rereading of psychoanalysis. This section of the book includes discussion of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf (by Juliet Flower MacCannell), of Samuel Beckett (by Olga Cox Cameron) and of the Baroque poet Richard Crashaw (by Stephen W. Whitworth). These readings of classic authors are complemented by an exploration of work by Primo Levi (by Paola Mieli) and of creative text by a psychiatric patient (by Manya Steinkoler). At their best these chapters shift focus, with Lacan, and in line with the trajectory of Lacan’s own discovery of Freudian psychoanalysis, away from psychiatric terminology to a wider concern with the location of subjectivity in culture, with the attempt by the artist to creatively rework the images of humanity that provide models and warnings about what it is to be a human being.

These chapters drive home how important the creative process was for Lacan himself as he broke from medical psychiatry and, alongside his personal analysis and training as a psychoanalyst, encountered the surrealists, was friends with Salvador Dalí and attended a reading of Ulysses by James Joyce (a writer Lacan returned to at the end of his journey from madness to psychoanalysis and back again). They each show how Lacan built a version of psychoanalysis that has the potential to challenge our images of madness and normality from a basic premise that is spelt out in the second section of the book (in a chapter by Jasper Feyaerts and Stijn Vanheule which contrasts Lacan with Merleau-Ponty): ’Language enables the human being to fictionalize reality and to live it through as a problem of truth, believed in conditionally’ (p. 160).

The second part of the book (on ’method in madness’) also includes an examination of the importance of Lacan’s first beloved patient he dubbed ’Aimée’, psychotic subject of his doctoral thesis on ’self-punishment paranoia’. Marguerite Anzieu was, Jean Allouch argues, Lacan’s muse and even something approaching the status of his first psychoanalyst. There are detailed considerations of ’melancholia’ (by Russell Grigg), ’narcissistic neurosis’ (by Hector Yankelevich) and ’manic-depressive psychosis’ (by Darian Leader) that tread a delicate path through psychiatric conceptions of distress and open the way to something quite different, something more in tune with ’madness’ than the reduced notion of ’psychosis’.

The existential and (most Lacanians would say) irreversible ’choice’ of madness (discussed by Nestor Braunstein) and the unravelling of the category in contemporary psychoanalysis (discussed by Jean-Claude Maleval) are complemented by a clear account of the insistent connection in psychoanalysis, and in Lacanian psychoanalysis, between madness, gender and sexuality (by Claude-Nöele Pickmann). Were we to read back from the third section of the book on culture to these chapters on theory we might also be more sensitised to the way that images of women, their sexuality and their madness enter into their unconscious lives rather than simply seeming to flow from it.

There are connections between this potentially more critical (and, dare we say, historicising) location of psychoanalytic subjectivity in cultural context and some of the chapters in part one of the book (that on ’madness manifest’ as the editors put it). Alongside the clinical case descriptions in the first two chapters, one about a man (by Rolf Flor) and the other a woman (by Geneviève Morel), and a cultural-clinical exploration of images of suicide bombers (by Richard Boothby), there are two chapters that illustrate how radical Lacan’s own shift from psychiatry to psychoanalysis was, and how it continues to unravel psychiatric diagnoses of the ’mad’ today. A chapter by Paul Verhaeghe rehearses his argument that contemporary subjectivity does not correspond to the psychoanalytic categories assumed by Freud, and the chapter by Guy Dana (on ’re-inventing the institution’) explicitly takes its distance from psychiatric treatment in a deployment of some ideas from Michel Foucault.

The signs are there from the beginning of the book of an encounter between psychoanalysis and other traditions of work that throw it into question, and some of the contributors are brave enough to treat this questioning as something that is in the spirit of psychoanalysis rather than a threat to it. Most often these are just signs, and there is no sustained engagement with, for example, the work of Foucault, or Franco Basaglia (a psychiatrist and then inspiration for the ’democratic psychiatry’ movement) or Thomas Szasz (trained as a psychoanalyst and then critic of the medical model of ’madness’). The references to these other traditions of work are fleeting, and some of the contributors seem as certain about the truth of psychoanalysis as psychotics (seen from within the frame of Lacanian theory) are about their delusions. Together, though, these Lacanians illustrate the truth of the founding premise of the book that there is something impossible not only about ’madness’ but also about psychoanalysis itself, even that that impossibility comes to define it, that it is not a case of discovering that, yes, you can use psychoanalysis to make sense of madness or, no, you cannot, but rather ’yes, you can’t’.