Photo above: Museo de Bellas Artes (Museum of Fine Arts), Buenos Aires, Argentina
Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: an Introduction, Roberto Harari (Translated by Judith Filc), The Other Press, New York, 2004. ISBN: 1-59051-082-8
The English rendering of an Introduction to one of Lacan’s most significant Seminars, no. XI on “The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis” must be, necessarily, an important event – and a difficult question as well: should the reader prefer to start with the Introduction, or directly access the original text by Lacan in the Sheridan translation?
The Introduction has a clear departure point and date: it consists in the transcription of ten lectures by the author during a course in Buenos Aires in 1986. Roberto Harari is one of the most recognized Argentine scholars devoted to the work of the French psychoanalyst, and his thorough knowledge of the Seminar – as well as of Lacan’s whole output – is beyond all doubt. He is nonetheless – and notwithstanding – a child of his time (like we all are), and the context of Argentine psychoanalytic development, which gravitates upon many of the book’s meanderings, twists and turns, may be unknown and unnoticed to the English reader, thus leaving him in confrontation with many unexplained or even uncanny surprises. The purpose of this review shall therefore attempt to sketch this historic background – of which the book’s Prologue only gives an altogether scanty summary – in the hope that a more consistent outlook might be attained 1.
Roberto Harari (1943-2009)
During the 50s (and until the early 70s), the Argentine Psychoanalytic Association (APA), by then the only local member of the International Association, had adopted an exclusive Kleinian outlook. The trend become not only dominant and overarching, it swiftly developed into an explicit, overt fundamentalism (see Harari, 1969). A witness of that moment (Pavlovsky, 1977) writes that “whoever dared to declare that he did not believe in the depressive or the schizoparanoid position was instantly refused as candidate” (naturally, he was considered to have resistances that were too great for him to be able to become an analyst, and told to pursue his analysis at least some ten more years to overcome these before attempting again to knock at the Association’s door). Finally, the papers published by the Association’s Journal (Revista Argentina de Psicoanálisis) became entirely predictable in their mechanical, identical repetition.
José Bleger (1923-1972)
A new law issued by the Perón government had meanwhile restricted the practice of psychoanalysis to graduates of Medicine. The APA – fearing the worst consequences – immediately excluded psychologists as candidates and carefully hid away all their training analysts lacking a medical degree. Some of the APA’s most prominent figures – like José Bleger – had key roles in the University of Psychology, and they had to change their teaching programs accordingly to include a curious “double message”: psychoanalysis was undoubtedly the best way to the Human Soul, but – psychologists were not supposed to deal with it directly, lest they should lose their “identity as psychologists” (Harari, 2003; Harari and Musso, 1970). Their sad fate remained to dedicate themselves, after graduation, to an indigestible concoction baptized by Bleger as “psychohygiene”.
National University of Buenos Aires, Faculty of Psychology
Psychoanalysis was thus invested with the “fatal attraction” of a forbidden fruit. Of course, it was impossible for any government agency to control what was going on inside a private consulting room, and so all psychologists, despite the impossibility of becoming candidates of the APA, continued studying psychoanalysis with APA members, being analysed by APA training analysts, and having their clinical work supervised by yet other APA supervising analysts.
The scene was to change completely with the arrival of the first Lacanian writings and their nearly immediate acceptance and diffusion. Now, the rejected caste of psychologists had an extremely powerful weapon to declare the APA (and all its training system herewith) as theoretically invalid (Harari, 1970). Soon – with the ever-increasing number of Lacanian analysts and Associations -, this past, outdated aspect of the Argentine psychoanalytic history was forgotten, together with the works and concepts of Melanie Klein, however solid and unquestionable they had once been; they now seemed to have vanished into the thin air. Psychoanalysis tells us, however, that forgotten history might come back as a symptom, and so we have reached the lectures that were the starting point to An Introduction to Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.
The political scene had changed tremendously in 1982 with the return of democracy, after the dreadful and tragic military dictatorship. Needless to say, this involved a new feeling of freedom, including the possibility of once-censored ideas being openly discussed in public (Freud’s works had been almost forbidden in the University by the military dictators) 2.
A poignant Argentine feature is that the audience, supposedly non-specialised – as the lectures of the Introduction were open and not attached to any curricular program, taking place in a free-admittance Cultural Centre– is highly informed about Lacanian texts (one of the audience’s questions – p. 88 – goes so far as to cite one of Lacan’s most difficult writings in the Écrits collection – i.e. The Agency of the Letter).
Harari explains that he does not pretend to transmit the whole topics the Seminar deals with, and yet manages to assemble many of its concepts in a different order, including additional information (some answers to the audience’s questions feature much later developments by Lacan, such as the Borromean knot). But his attempt to follow with unrelenting strictness all of Lacan’s admonitions drives him to take the French Master’s “gardez-vous de comprendre” (which might be rendered by “beware of understanding too hastily) much too literally. Moreover, he eventually falls short to connect the concepts with the clinical sphere – perhaps following again the Master’s path, as Lacan never presented a full case-account. Indeed, it does not suffice to mention the concept of transference, or to present some extremely brief references to patients in analysis, to establish acknowledgeable clinical insights. Consequently, the unacquainted reader might have the impression that Lacanian theory is full of complex philosophical or literary novelties, but it remains difficult to ascertain their heuristic value. Again in the shadow of Lacan’s negative aphorisms, Harari announces he will restrain from delivering any clear-cut definitions, fearing to render shallow, flattened or degraded versions of the original, but relinquishing thus to achieve either clarity or straightforwardness. The author’s fears are wholly justified: it has always been the problem of a psychoanalytic “second generation”, to not transform the “first generation’s” otherwise valid and surprising clinical data into repetitive stereotypes (Verhaeghe, 2004). However, obscurity does not seem the best way out.
A significant moment can be found (pp. 262-264) where Harari comes very close to the pitfall’s borders – showing the problem is not beyond conscious boundaries – when he asks himself whether it is possible to find a way of creative innovation. However – and most unfortunately – the answer is negative throughout, with some controversial cases (Green, Laplanche) mentioned as pitiful examples. After all, Harari tells us, Lacan ordered “those who want to follow me must alienate themselves in my signifiers” (ibid), so there is no question of defying neither natural Laws nor the Master. Separation is, indeed, an exceedingly awkward and troublesome, if not altogether impossible endeavour…
The other highly interesting instant comes when Harari asks himself whether Lacan’s Other is just a new smuggling-in of God (p. 255). Nevertheless, he assigns all the question to “bad faith or sheer ignorance”, refraining to explain why not the Other, but Lacan himself has become an ego-ideal around which a group identifies; praises to the Master’s “extreme sagacity”, etc. insistently run the whole text throughout, parallel to the derogatory critique of the “other psychoanalysis”, giving the impression that someone has been construing an Imaginary Foe to convince the already convinced. And this is the book’s most problematic aspect: as Rik Loose (2002) interestingly puts forward, “there is a difference between a sense of community and the tendency to form groups. The former is an awareness of oneself and others in terms of a shared responsibility for co-existence. The latter is an act of grouping together that takes place on the basis of excluding others”. Lacanian theory is presented thus as an interesting and yet self-contained, self-sufficient and self-fulfilling system, unattainable by any “external” approach. This only condemns its movement – or even its progress – to isolation, preventing any dialogue with other psychoanalysts, however informed they might be 3. Likewise, we also risk forgetting and erasing Charcot’s motto – which Freud made his own – on the surprises of the clinic that transcend any theoretical scaffold.
A final word on the translation. Judith Filc may indeed be credited with the brilliant, remarkable achievement of a mammoth task – considering the author’s insistence on presenting untranslatable neologisms (raigalmente), or – the other way round – odd archaisms, together with tongue-twisting word puns – yet another of the author’s homages to Lacan’s allegedly baroque style. So much effort, however, cannot miss a slip or two – for instance, “toro” (Harari refers to the topological figure, the torus) is rendered by “bull” – unfortunately, both words are identical in Spanish. But that is certainly no demerit – to conclude with a Spanish saying, “un tropezón no es caída”, to stumble once does not mean to fall down entirely…
1 Readers interested in further details may consult Neuburger, R (1998-1999).
2 Democracy brought also an important change in the legal status of psychologists – the old law was cancelled and a new one allowed the latter to practice psychoanalysis. The APA immediately opened up its gates to psychologists – but it was too late. Lacanian associations had meanwhile become much more interesting and even stronger, therefore much more in demand for training.
The early papers by Harari (1969, 1970) mentioned above, far from being “youth sins”, are exceedingly interesting, rich and clear. They certainly would have deserved a translation.
3 A local psychoanalyst, R. Estacolchic (1994) has questioned the procedure of attacking the other Lacanian group/s on behalf of “not saying exactly what Lacan said”: “If what he says is, indeed, exactly what Lacan says, is that not equal to praying?”
Estacolchic, R. (1994), Apuntes clínicos de un psicoanalista (Clinical sketches by a psychoanalyst), Lugar Editorial,Buenos Aires, pp. 106-107
Harari, R. (1969), Sistematización y replanteo semántico de algunos conceptos básicos de la teoría psicoanalítica kleiniana (Systematic and semantic re-positioning of some basic concepts in Kleinian psychoanalytic theory), Revista Argentina de Psicología, Galerna,Buenos Aires, Vol. I, No. 2, pp 17-35
Harari, R. (1970), El Psicoanálisis y la profesionalización del psicólogo (Psychoanalysis and the psychologist’s profession), Revista Argentina de Psicología, Galerna, Buenos Aires, Vol. I, No. 3, pp. 147-159
Harari, R. (2003), Entrevista a Roberto Harari (Interview with Roberto Harari), http://www.elsigma.com/popup/index.jsp?idContent=4824
Harari, R., Musso, E. (1970), El psicólogo clínico en la Argentina (The clinical psychologist in Argentina), Revista Argentina de Psicología, Galerna, Buenos Aires, Vol. I, No. 4, pp. 109-121
Lacan, J. (1979), The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, 1964-1965 (A. Sheridan, trans.),London, Penguin Books
Loose, R. (2002), The Subject of Addiction, Karnac,London, p. 270
Neuburger, R. (1998-1999), A psychoanalytic Tango – Recent Developments in Psychoanalysis in Argentina, Journal of European Psychoanalysis, 7, 63-72 (also in www.psychomedia.it/jep). Featured also here: https://robertoneuburger.wordpress.com/a-psychoanalytic-tango-recent-developments-in-psychoanalysis-in-argentina/
Pavlovsky, Eduardo (1977): Sobre importación y exportación (On Import and Export), Adolescencia y mito (Adolescence and Myth), Ediciones Ayllu, Buenos Aires, p. 52
Verhaeghe, P. (2004), On Being Normal and Other Disorders, The Other Press,New York, p. 12-13