Much contemporary theory in the humanities would be unimaginable without the peculiar pronouncements and abstruse ruminations of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Although “psychoanalyst” feels like a rather dull description in his case: his work was more like surrealist performance art, blending psychoanalysis with structural linguistics, philosophy and literature. Here Catherine Millot, a Parisian writer and psychoanalyst, offers a slight but intensely lyrical memoir of her romantic and intellectual relationship with Lacan. But the operative word in the book’s title is “with”: it is an account of her relationship with her mentor and lover – she is eye-wideningly patient with him, given his behaviour – rather than a book “about” Lacan.
Millot describes the more material, mundane textures of Lacan’s existence, often involving restaurants he dined in, relating the pattern and rhythm of his working days. We read about his love of Rome, and the particular Renaissance paintings that he found sources of fascination, which go some way towards explaining the intense declamatory drama of his self-presentation (look him up on YouTube). We read of his madcap, frenetic enthusiasm, driving everywhere at breakneck speed, or hounding the sacristan of an Italian church to allow him in to view the paintings, as well as his monastic, impenetrable stillness at his house in Guitrancourt.
To be typically elliptical and Lacanian, then, it is easy to say what this book is not: neither a granular intellectual history of the psychoanalytic establishment in post-war Paris nor a helpful introduction to Lacan’s thinking for beginners.
This is not intended as a criticism. Millot’s book is noticing something more fundamental about psychoanalysis and its modes of expression, reminding us that psychoanalytic writing takes place in a generically ambiguous place, blurring the boundaries between life-writing and fiction to hint at the ineluctable truths of desire and psychic life. In this respect, her book is reminiscent of the experimental nouvelle autobiographie, or autofiction, of avant-garde French writing, invented by Alain Robbe-Grillet in the 1980s, or, earlier, the American poet H. D.’s Tribute to Freud.
Psychoanalysis is very much the art of the enigmatic vignette: patients and analysts recount the micro-dramas of ordinary life whose obscure meanings resound through a single word or bizarre detail. Such anecdotes are rife in Millot’s book, presented with an arched eyebrow, hilarious and bewildering. What do we make of the revelation in the first few pages that Lacan owned shares in a golf course near his house yet never played himself? Or that he was fond of the hippos at Vincennes zoo?
These moments – alone worth reading the book for – make our encounter with Lacan disconcertingly ambivalent. The book is a love letter celebrating someone Millot sees as an extraordinary and implacable genius, and it is her relationship with him that goes under the microscope. Yet Lacan’s idiosyncrasies make him a tempting object of psychoanalytic speculation on the part of the reader, and beg for an interpretative intervention. Here he is both stony-faced analyst and hysterical analysand: entirely apt for a thinker whose radical approach to psychoanalysis was as much clownish parody and resistance as masterful elaboration of Freud’s thinking.
Benjamin Poore teaches English literature at Queen Mary University of London. His book on psychoanalysis, Making Masud Khan, will be published in 2019.
Life with Lacan
By Catherine Millot; translated by Andrew Brown
Polity, 128pp, £16.99
Published 9 March 2018