Study Guide

Jacques Lacan Influences

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A Word to the Wise

I was a psychoanalyst, not a literary theorist. Sorry, everyone. But, in all fairness, I've drawn upon many different theories to formulate my own take on psychoanalysis—the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure, Claude Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology, and the work of Big Important Dudes like Plato, Kant, Hegel and Heidegger, just to name a few. So it's not like I'm not, you know, reading stuff.

Most importantly, I'm constantly haunted by Freud, but I don't just adopt Freud's ideas as my own. (Freud never cites the triad of Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real, and he never talks about the "big Other," so there.) As one critic has said—and this is a good thing for y'all to know: "Lacan reads Freud. This is the simplest and most important thing about him" (source).

That said, many many many people (with various success) use my work extensively to do readings of film—film noir, the films of Stanley Kubrick (like Eyes Wide Shut), Casablanca, Alien, and so on. There's no end to Lacanian readings. Even you can give it a shot.

At the end of the day, my work falls into two categories: seminars (conducted weekly during the school-year beginning in 1953, in front of a an ever-expanding audience—I got real popular) and écrits, or written theoretical texts.

Seminar on The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allan Poe

Poe's short story is all about a missing letter that contains potentially harmful dish about a powerful person. Some bad dude comes in to the room of the woman who has the letter, and when she's not looking, he switches them. Now he potentially has the power to blackmail her.

All sorts of high jinx occur with heaps of intellectual analysis by different detectives. All the while, the letter is hidden in plain sight, but the police still can't find the stolen letter because they simply cannot think like criminals.

So where do I come in? Well, my opening essay in Écrits is called The Seminar on the Purloined Letter. I use this story to map the workings of the human mind.

The narrative's blackmail looks a lot like the way in which words gain fresh significance, power, and meaning for each person as they circulate. And here comes the crazy part: the letter itself (as a form of communication) never actually changes as the letter (as an object) changes hands. But (and that's a big but) its meaning changes radically depending on who's got the thing in hand. To me, this is exactly how the unconscious works—it longs to become language.

1936 Lecture on the Mirror Stage to the Fourteenth Annual Psychoanalytic Congress at Marienbad

I have to say, I really kicked butt and took names with this groundbreaking work. Ah, the good ol' days.

I got the ball rolling by comparing human infants and chimpanzees and their reactions to their images in the mirror. If you see human infants and chimpanzees as one and the same, you may want to stop reading here. But what one of my clever colleagues observed was that both chimps and human babies distinguish themselves at six months, but chimps lose interest whereas babies become increasingly fascinated. All of this interspecies experimentation helped me formulate my theories on subjectivity.

Sorry—I can't link to the official version of the lecture because my notes were lost and we only have memory of the content to rely on. But I can link to the 1949 written version of the talk, which should do the trick. Plus, I picked up a few things in the intervening thirteen years, so this version's even better.

Female Psychotics

In the wayback days, I was able to combine my interests in literature and psychoanalysis in my game-changing doctoral dissertation entitled On Paranoiac Psychosis in its Relations to the Personality. The dissertation studied "pathological manifestations in psychosis," which—I claim—is part of having consequential bonds in the human community. (See, I don't reject the mentally ill, I look at what truths and meanings come out of their behavior.)

My case study looks at Aimée, a thirty-eight-year-old woman who, with "eyes filled with the fires of hate" tried to stab some famous actress. Well, she went off to prison, so I started visiting her. There, I learned a lot about every variety of paranoia: persecution, jealousy, prejudice, delusions of grandeur, dreams of escape, the whole kit and kaboodle. This was one-stop neurosis shopping. Studying Aimée allowed me to link psychosis to personality and life experience—and that's something I've put into my work every since then.

Okay, sure, my dissertation hasn't brought me as much attention as I'd like from psychoanalytic circles, but it got me in good with the Surrealists, which gave my work a lot of hipster crossover appeal. Salvador Dalí even praised my work. But most importantly for me, my dissertation declared my loyalty to psychoanalysis, and it launched my awesome career in that respect.


Let's get one thing straight right off the bat: the tragedy of Hamlet is the tragedy of desire. So a while back I presented this little seminar called "Desire and Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet."

First, I throw the whole incestuous desire for the mother theory out the window. With Freud, the key of this play is Hamlet's desire for his mother, whereas for me, it's his mother's desire. I argue that Hamlet delays revenging his uncle-turned-stepfather Claudius (who, by the by, apparently murdered his father) because of problems with his own desire, which were the result of his mother's desire, for him, for his uncle, and for herself.

I also claim that Hamlet has a touch of obsession and the hysteric. He just can't function without being told what to do and hates taking responsibility for his actions (in other words, he's a big baby). I proceed into details of the phallus and castration, but we can only take so much here, n'est-ce pas?

The Massacre of Le Mans: The Papin Sisters

Just about every French intellectual (Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Genet) jumped on the critical bandwagon with this crazy case in which two sisters (Christine and Léa) who were maids brutally murdered their mistress and her daughter. My article appeared in that great avant-garde journal Minotaure.

Let's face it: a lot of help is treated like inhuman wretches, so maybe these two felt persecuted by the mistresses? Apparently the electricity had gone out, which meant the sisters couldn't finish their ironing. And when they got in trouble for failing to complete this task, the sisters just snapped—tearing the two women's eyes from their sockets and giving them a good braining.

As I explain in "Motives of a Paranoid Crime: The Crime of the Papin Sisters," the two maids used "hammer, fin pitcher, kitchen knife" to attack "the bodies of their victims, bashing their faces, baring their genitals, and deeply slashing the thighs and buttocks of one in order to soil with blood the members of the other." After cleaning up the mess, they went and snuggled together in bed in what many interpreted as a lesbian and incestuous embrace. Awkward.

When they faced trial, they offered no real reason for the murder and even said they had no beef with their bosses—they simply didn't like that their ironing had been interrupted. There was a jumbled attempt by the older sister to free the younger, but a general secretary found them both "cracked." Ya think?

In my humble opinion, they were responding to an aggressive drive fresh out of the paranoia box. And typical me, I say they were motivated by—that's right—silence. Because I reduce everything to language (I'm a one trick pony like that), I say that the violence was a reaction to not speaking—they didn't get to talk, so they did the next worst thing.

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