The French psychoanalyst, psychiatrist and teacher Jacques Marie Émile Lacan was born on April 13, 1901 and died on September 9, 1981.
Here are a few words about his adult life.
In his twenties, Lacan abandoned religion and was rejected for military service. He entered medical school and, in 1926, specialised in psychiatry at the Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris. He entered into a lengthy, problematic analysis and was eventually regarded as unanalyzable. (This latter fact must surely be regarded as ironic, given the fact that more has been written about Lacan than about any other psychoanalyst, with the exception of Sigmund Freud.)
In 1931, Lacan became a licensed forensic psychiatrist, and for the rest of his life and career (which were more or less the same span of time) he investigated psychoanalysis, including the work of Sigmund Freud, and made a breakthrough in 1936, when he presented his first analytic report at the Congress of the International Psychoanalytical Association in Marienbad on the 'Mirror Phase' – 'a decisive turning-point in the mental development of the child,' as he would later phrase it (Lacan 1953).
As well as the major contributions Lacan made to psychoanalysis and philosophy, his legacy lies in his work he did with his students. Each of the seminars he gave in Paris between 1953 and 1981 lasted one year, and they were usually conducted to a fascinated audience that attended every week and often hung on his every word.
The audiences were often made up of intellectuals from varying fields, as well as students. He dealt in depth and with passion with the subjects of the unconscious, the castration complex, the ego, identification, and language as subjective perception. He insisted on 'a return to Freud', and concentrated on the linguistic nature of psychological symptomatology, and Freud's work in relation to contemporary philosophy, linguistics, ethnology, biology and topology.
Lacan expected a lot from his class. Sometimes he would revisit earlier material, but just as often he would assume a stock of knowledge from his observers. Although his Seminars – roughly one-third of which are now published in English – are regarded as among the more accessible of Lacan's material, it is important to stress that even the Seminars are not for beginners who have not done their homework.
In my opinion, it is precisely this sense of intellectual nourishment that is attractive. As well as his ideas having had a colossal impact on critical theory, literary theory, twentieth-century French philosophy, sociology, feminist theory and clinical psychoanalysis, they have also influenced me directly, as a student of psychoanalysis myself. Lacan's work – as challenging, sometimes frustrating as I occasionally find it – is enjoyable for these very same qualities. It pushes you harder as a reader. It pushes you harder as a thinker. Lacan makes you work.
All of this said, however, there is little point in pretending that Lacan did not have his faults. He was famously irascible and bad-tempered. He had a taste for scandal – that of others and that which he caused himself – and he seemed to share with his beloved surrealists a mischievous tendency to provoke, viewing as he did provocation as an important element in psychoanalysis itself. 1953 saw the notorious falling-out with the Société Parisienne de Psychanalyse, which in turn saw his membership within the International Psychoanalytical Association revoked. By the 60s, the public regarded him as a far-left supporter, and he was vocal in his support for the student protests. He was also accused of not only borrowing from others (a somewhat ironic accusation, given the field of psychoanalysis), but of invoking other men's work and claiming to base his own arguments on them.
To this day, Lacan continues to divide professional opinion; my own view is that this can only be to the good. (After all, who wants to read a writer who only creates consensus?) Many commentators regard Lacan's work of 1959-60, Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (Lacan 1992) and Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (Lacan 1977) to be among the most influential works of psychoanalysis of all time. Lacan's late work (dealing with masculine and feminine jouissance – or, loosely speaking, 'enjoyment' or 'pleasure') had great influence on feminist thought, as well as on postmodernism.
In addition to the Seminars, we have the enormous volume of collected writings, Écrits, a fine and fresh translation of which was published in 2006. There is even a slender volume called My Teaching (Fr. 2005; Eng. 2008), which is where I would advise anyone new to Lacan to start reading.
For more information on Lacan, there are hundreds of websites to browse. 'lacan dot com' can be found at www.lacan.com/lacan1.htm (for Lacan with a US spin); or you might want to try www.iep.utm.edu/lacweb or www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwlirZQLAAg. However, please be advised that due to the nature of the work that Lacan conducted, some of the material contains adult themes and the occasional swear word.