Womanliness as a riddle…

Gustave Courbet: L´Origine du Monde (1866, Musée d´Orsay, Paris) (as it is well known, this canvas belonged formerly to Jacques Lacan)

Does the Woman exist? From Freud’s Hysteric to Lacan’ s Feminine.

By Paul Verhaeghe, translated by Marc du Ry, Rebus Press, London, 1997

A fundamentally clinical book, with direct consequences on clinical practice. This is no less than the outcome of concepts with a solid ground.

Psychoanalytical everyday practice is presented as having its origin in the dialogue Freud started with his hysteric patients. Some 100 years later, so much post-freudian confusion in-between, this structure has to be redefined. Critics argue that a phenomenon so varied and difficult to grasp as the so-called “hysteria” has no right to exist any more, so it should be wiped out of any scientific domain. Yet others may insist it still may be found, albeit with new faces: it is only a complete inventory which still is lacking and has to be constructed.[1] Both overlook and ignore the difference between symptom and structure.

By placing hysteria within the field of discourse, confusion is- at least temporarily- lifted away. However, some new, difficult questions appear as well: the line carrying Freud from hysteric structure to femininity itself, to was will das Weib ? Or from the Oedipal myth and its supplements, the primeval father, to the mystic’s unspoken jouissance, a wordless abyss with no return. Perhaps Klein wasn’t unguided to consider castration complex as a defence against something she termed “psychotic” perhaps lacking a more appropriate term. Indeed, Verhaeghe is methodically able to trace some stunning anticipations in an unjustly forgotten Kleinian paper by J. Wisdom [2]: lacanisme avant la lettre. But let us summarize the principal stations of the voyage:

1. the transition from the visual field (Charcot) to a practice of listening,

2. the discovery of a split (be it between “incompatible representations”…

afterwards between ego and id, false and real self, or whatever),

3. desire of an unsatisfied desire (articulated through different, changing,

metaphors borrowed from scientific discourse: displacement, energy quantum, affects,etc.),

4. sexual signifiers, fragments of a sexual body that does not cease to be enigmatically incomplete, however strong the effort to make a “natural” One out of it.

After these repetitive trials, evidence still remains of a Real unreached through signifier production, and ready to be hidden below imaginary veils. This is a Borromean-knot structure, which closely resembles the Japanese stone-paper-scissors game: each register covers the following one in turn, but neither of them is able to prevent the fundamental lack from reappearing. Here one must follow every single step of the genesis of the theory of repression, the erogenous zones and seduction scenes, which intend to disclose the function of the father, while simultaneously trying to establish a definition of femininity – and never succeeding in reaching it. In fact, the latter turns out to be the main problem, rather than that of sexual differences: it may be said that Freudian thought is digital, not analogic [3]: there is only one term (“the libido is only masculine”) against a questioning void. Lacan’ s three negative aphorisms summarize the enormous effort done by Freud in this sense, along his clinical endeavors, and starting again from the point where the latter dropped his pen:

1.The Woman does not exist (which condenses every Freudian reference to the “mycelium of the dream”, to the last nucleus of repression in hysteria, the unknown and not able to be known), meaning there is no signifier for womanliness (is this not the untold basis for Joan Rivière’ s intuition of a “masquerade”? [4]),

2. There is no Other of the Other (which -beyond the impossible quest of the hysteric for a complete and unfailing Master-points at the failure of the Freudian myth of the primeval, not castrated father),

3. There is no sexual relationship (which is not only the stumbling point of infantile sexual theories, but -likewise-of any ideal of harmony between the sexes, or of the Ethics centered in the Good ).

One of the book’s most enlightening aspects is its explanation and applications of Lacan’ s theory of the Four Discourses. Readers of Clinical Psychodynamics may by now know this theory well enough, so it may seem unnecessary to state again its fundamentals here, but it should suffice to say Verhaeghe succeeds in presenting them with unrivaled clearness, detailing some aspects others hastily discard as elementary (For instance, Gérard Wajeman’ s attempt when discussing the same field, femininity,in his Le Maître et l’Hystérique, aims at similar objectives but takes sometimes too much for granted).Indeed, we’ d wish him to produce a supplementary volume, whose title could perhaps be, “is there any man at the height of the Phallus?”

A theory, according to positivistic ideals, should be simple and explain a wider variety of phenomena than former ones. Even being far away from positivistic thinking, Lacan’ s algebraic elements of psychoanalysis are astonishingly simple. His re-interpretations of classical case histories are no less illuminating, and Verhaeghe adds some re-thinking of these by means of the discourse theory. For instance, Lacan states why Freud couldn’t move the Acheron with Dora, being so sure girls should go with boys and vice-versa. The truth is, he didn’t leave the Acheron indifferent but rather moved it too much! But it was Freud’s position as an agent of the Master discourse which was impossible, and which caused Dora to slam the door in his face. The structure of analytic discourse -which Freud was courageous enough to discover as a result of this failure – gives the clue of its Ethics: the analyst’s knowledge must be left aside by him, in order to let the analysand produce his own signifiers.

Post-freudian analysis has forgotten this fact too often, and analysis of resistances has added only further spices to the confusion. Interpretation is, in this sense, something added from the outside, rather than eliciting an effect of signification from the analysand’ s associations.

The technical conclusion that follows is that hysteric phenomena and phantasms are nothing else but already themselves a massive, painstakingly detailed interpretation: to continue to pour over her more interpretative work, be it so wise, does not touch the structure a bit (while preventing the hysteric to engage in a metaphoric, creative way of working through womanhood, rather than exhausting herself in an endless metonimy). Lacan has said it even more bluntly and brutally: authentifier l’imaginaire, c’est faire de l’analyse l’antichambre de la folie…

(But then, it may be added that the analyst may sometimes tactically follow the Master discourse-which is the structure of the Unconscious- with positive effects. With Little Hans for instance, Freud acted as a Super-Father, even wiser than Hans’ own old man, thus providing the Symbolic tailpiece Max Graf was unable to supply his son with, and to which lack Hans reacted building up his phobic object).

Hysteria causes the Master she seeks to produce knowledge about her desire (To Freud’s three impossibilities, – to govern, to educate, to psychoanalyse,

Lacan adds a fourth to complete the structure: faire désirer). The product,

however, is impotent to reach her in her subjectivity. This is the failure of religious and medical order, when questioned by the hysteric’s body; let us remind, however, that as analysts we are no less subject to her questioning, and the temptation of placing upon her the grid of our knowledge lies strongly at hand. The formal consistency of an algebra may falsely induce a narcissistic feeling of a theory complete and unfailing, undisturbed by anything Real.

And nothing could be further away from truth.


[1]Both positions are simultaneously (let us say: symptomatically) represented in the D.S.M.IV.The term hysteria has been eliminated,but the clinical phenomena reappear under several headings.

[2]Wisdom,J.: A methodological approach to the problem of hysteria.Int.J.PsA,1957,42,224-237.

[3]This is the characteristic all other schools share,be it ego-psychology,Kleinism,even the Jungian animus-anima myth: they propose a substantialized femininity,a signifier allowing a sexual harmonic rapport as an Ideal to be reached,and -correspondingly- “reparation”as an aim for a psychoanalytic cure.

[4]Joan Rivière,Womanliness as a Masquerade,Int.J.PsA,Vol.X,1929.

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