‘ "What you aspire to as revolutionaries”, continues Lacan barely audible now, “is a master. You will get one.” '
Late in May 1938, an 82-year old Sigmund Freud and his family were in Vienna eagerly awaiting the final details to be sorted before they could leave their country for good. There was no Austria any more. Its March annexation into Nazi Germany had just been overwhelmingly approved by plebiscite on April 10: 99.7%.
For the rest, this was a very difficult and dangerous time. At some point, Freud’s daughter, Anna, received an order to present herself at the Gestapo Vienna Headquarters. Not entirely sure of what she was to expect there, she equipped herself with enough Veronal to take care of things if needed.
With a lot of help of influential friends locally and abroad, and a lot of resilience, the Freuds were finally able to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles, one by one. Towards the end of May, Freud had to sign one final paper, in which he had to state that the authorities had not ill-treated him or his family. Freud signed, adding this comment: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.”
The irony was lost on the SS officer collecting the statement, and the Freuds were finally allowed to board their train on June 4. They arrived to London, via Paris, on June 6.
Three decades later, in Paris, things were far from settled. It was a tumultuous time both in the general context of French society and politics, and also within the narrower context of French psychoanalysis.
By then the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had already been giving his Seminar for a number of years. The seminar of 1969-70 was to be the one in which he would present his theory of discourses.
What he proposed was truly radical. Building on Freud’s discovery of the workings of the unconscious mind, he described the speaking being as always – and unavoidably – ex-centric: In whatever you say, in whatever you do, driven as you are by whatever drives you, you are just inhabiting a façade, a made-up identity on which the Other is mirrored. There is no way of escaping this. The position you occupy is always a position carved for you within the network of the discursive structures you find yourself involved in. As you speak, you reveal yourself as a subject of the ultimate Other: language. That’s the predicament of the speaking being, Lacan said. Once inside, always inside. Your only hope, if there is one, is not to be found in breaking the halters of language. That’s not going to happen anyway.
One of the favourite pastimes of the Nazi mobs before the war was to burn books. They burnt Freud’s books as well. “What progress we are making”, he is reported to have commented. “In the middle ages they would have burned me. Now they are content with burning my books.”
Humour, however, is of limited use in dark times. With the war approaching, Nazi extremism and antisemitic atrocities were already a source of inspiration across Europe, and in Britain. In November 1938, the editor of Time and Tidemagazine contacted Freud, by now established in Hampstead, North London, and invited him to contribute to a discussion of anti-Semitism. Freud was not eager to participate. This is what he wrote as a response:
“I came to Vienna as a child of 4 years from a small town in Moravia. After 78 years of assiduous work I had to leave my home, saw the Scientific Society I had founded, dissolved, our institutions destroyed, our Printing Press (‘Verlag’) taken over by the invaders, the books I had published confiscated or reduced to pulp, my children expelled from their professions. Don't you think you ought to reserve the columns of your special number for the utterances of non-Jewish people, less personally involved than myself?”
On the 3rd of December 1969, Lacan was invited to speak at the University of Paris VIII-Vincennes. When he arrived, the amphitheatre was almost full.
Many wanted to hear what he had to say; others intended to use the opportunity in order to protest. Addressing each other as ‘comrade’, they protested about everything: the authorities, cops, society, the university credit points, psychoanalysts, priests. Lacan was not spared. Someone called him a clown, and demanded that he do his public self-criticism there and then. Someone else suggested to transform the lecture into a “wild love-in” and started undressing.
“If the university is to be overthrown” someone is heard saying, “it will only be from the outside, with others who are on the outside.”
“So then, why are you inside?”, they ask him.
“I am inside comrade because I want people to leave. I have to come in and tell them.”
“You see!” exclaims Lacan grabbing the opportunity. “It’s all there my friend. To get them to leave, you enter.”
“Lacan, let me finish! It’s not all there. […] If we think that by listening to Lacan’s discourse, or someone else’s we will obtain the means to criticise the ideology that they are making us swallow, we’re making a big mistake. I claim that we have to look outside to find the means to overthrow the university.”
“And what then? You think that when you leave you become aphasic? Tough luck my friend. Even after you leave here you continue to speak. That is, you continue to be inside.”
The lecture goes on, as does the shouting.
The event was approaching its conclusion. “If you had a bit of patience”, Lacan was now saying, “and if you really wanted our impromptus to continue, I would tell you that always, the revolutionary aspiration has only one single possible outcome – of ending up as the master’s discourse. This is what experience has proved.”
The reaction, captured in a surviving recording of the lecture, is loud: clapping, laughing, shouting.
“What you aspire to as revolutionaries”, continues Lacan barely audible now, “is a master. You will get one.”
This article was originally published in the June edition of Splinters.
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