Today I found myself rereading Lacan’s 8th seminar (transference) after 15 years. I try to put myself in the shoes of his audience. He had such a remarkable talent for shedding entirely new light on texts, but also for transforming psychoanalysis itself. Take your average Anglo-American psychology (or social science) program today and imagine someone with the audacity to engage in a close reading of Plato’s Symposium to understand the nature of transference. Were talking about a period where positivism was regnant across the board and where there was a deep drive in psychology, psychoanalysis, and other social sciences to take on an air of ersatz scientificity. Here we have a man that wore ridiculous wigs guiding us through the Symposium to understand the core of the psychoanalytic experience.
His readings are always remarkable in that you get the sense that you are discovering a secret text within the text: a secret that somehow reveals the meaning of the text, its internal logic, that somehow has endlessly been missed. Texts that we’ve read dozens of times take on an entirely new cast. “How could I have missed that? It was so obvious?” is often my experience. His readings never carry the air of scholarly or academic pedantry, but rather show why these texts continue to speak to us across time: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas, Descartes, Russell, Quine, Wittgenstein, Kant, Sade, Shakespeare, etc. All of it becomes something else in his hands, and somehow something quite different than what it’s been.
But it’s also psychoanalysis that becomes something different in his hands. Let’s be honest, Freud and much of the psychoanalytic literature prior to Lacan is just plain crass. We get something that appears like a reductive hydraulics of psych. With Lacan entirely new terms are introduced that go to our existential, extimate core: love, desire, jouissance, the Other, the Law, ethics, etc. These are not really terms that Freud used; at least not in the sublime sense deployed by Lacan. Somehow Lacan introduces something entirely new into Freud, while also finding something that was everywhere there. Lacan is a model of what a reading can be, of a productive reading, of a reading that bears fidelity to the living being of texts rather than placing them in the museum of scholarship. Lacan provides a model of reading that is thought rather than mastery.