Against Lacanism: An Interview With André Green

Benvenuto: You were a pupil of Lacan for a while. Could you tell us something about your relationship with him?

Green: I met him in 1953 when I started as a psychiatric hospital doctor at the Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris. Some of my friends were in analysis with Lacan, who at the time was holding an extremely interesting series of lectures at Sainte-Anne, to which he often invited the most important intellectuals of the time. I attracted Lacan’s attention at one point, and a relationship began to develop between us. In 1958 he invited me to Barcelona where I had a very important conversation with him. He was surprised to hear that I had decided to join the Psychoanalytical Association which he had left five years earlier. My relations with him remained sporadic up until the time of the “Journées de Bonneval”, 1960, where the work of his pupils Jean Laplanche and Serge Leclaire had a considerable impact due to its remarkable quality of thought [Laplanche & Leclaire 1966]. I decided then to attend Lacan’s Seminar. Between 1960 and 1967 we began a collaboration, which caused some problems for me with the Association to which I belonged.

Benvenuto: But in 1963 a major schism occurred in French psychoanalysis.

Green: Yes, I had friends on both sides of that controversy. I arranged the first study group between “young” members of the Parisian Société Psychanalytique and “young” members of what was then called the Société Franaise de Psychanalyse. So I took part in Lacan’s Seminar, and even had the privilege of lecturing there, twice, in 1965 and 1967, and discussing the ideas that emerged. Lacan loved discussion. Of course he also hoped to convince me, in the end, to join his side. In 1967 our paths separated. I had published a long article on Narcissism in which I neglected to quote him. He reacted very badly and began to do what he usually did: that is, making allusions during his seminars, which was fairly unpleasant.
My relationship with Lacan was a very privileged one: I was close to him–he himself encouraged my criticisms, because he needed interlocutors-but at the same time totally free because I belonged to a different association.

Benvenuto: You are openly critical today towards Lacan and Lacanians. But leaving Lacanians aside, I’d like to hear more about your theoretical disagreements with Lacan.

Green: First of all, Lacan was exceptionally intelligent. Re-reading his Ecrits after some time, one discovers that they are still capable of arousing a considerable interest.

Benvenuto: This is an important statement, in light of the fact that many people–even in France–consider him an impostor. Lacan very often provoked extreme, conflicting reactions: uncontrolled admiration or utter contempt.

Green: An exceptional intelligence and the ability to produce some very interesting works do not necessarily imply his adherence to the psychoanalytical experience. I also find Heidegger and Derrida very interesting. But in psychoanalysis, we are committed to an alliance between practice and theory, and to the psychoanalytical institution. Therefore I cannot comply with your request to “leave Lacanians aside and talk about Lacan”, because Lacanians are Lacan’s posterity, his creations, and Lacan is responsible for what they do today. We cannot regard a psychoanalyst in the same way we regard a philosopher. A philosopher’s only concern is himself and other philosophers: a psychoanalyst must also deal with people outside his field.
How is it, you might ask, that someone who for seven years was an associate and an admirer of Lacan could suddenly abandon him, and become one of his foes? My answer is that it requires time to completely deconstruct Lacan’s theoretical mechanism and to relate it to his practice in general. At the time, I limited myself to a kind of compromise. I said: “I cannot approve of your practice, but your theory interests me”. Only in 1984 did I realize that theory and practice were considerably more interwoven than one would have thought. It is impossible to say: “His practice was debatable, but his writing is sound”.

Benvenuto: Back in the sixties, at the time you and Lacan were friends, were these aspects of his practice which you had already begun to question?

Green: Lacan appeared at a moment of impoverishment for French psychoanalytical thought. The analytical movement in France was interrupted by WWII, while in England it had continued. The famous Anna Freud-Klein Controversies occurred between 1941 and 1945, while London was being bombed, and constitute some of psychoanalysis’s most riveting documents. Even the American movement continued during that period. All those in Freud’s circle, fleeing from the Nazi invasion of Central Europe, sought safety where they could. France never gave them a warm welcome and it was itself occupied by the Nazis. So, they were more or less equally distributed between Britain and the United States, with a few in South America-which explains the presence of Viennese thought and controversies in those countries, while in France the only person to have known Freud personally was Princess Marie Bonaparte. Consequently, after the war, French theoretical and practical psychoanalysis had fallen behind. The only exception to this prevailing mediocrity was probably the work of the clinical psychologist Bouvet. So Lacan appeared, equipped with a considerable intellectual armor and an outstanding talent, in an ambiance of incredibly impoverished analytical thought.
In the end I considered Lacan’s theoretical renewal to be purely circumstantial. Unlike the other important works in psychoanalysis, it does not correspond to an awareness of the difficulties of analytic practice, although Lacan was perfectly aware of what was happening on the intellectual scene. Early on, with “the mirror stage”, Lacan flirted with the theories of alienation, essentially of Hegel, and later of Wallon, a Communist psychologist. In the best works of Lacan during this period he refers to Hegel. In the early 1950s Lacan felt that something extremely important was happening–the rediscovery of de Saussure and of synchronic linguistics, thanks to the mediation of his friends Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Roman Jakobson, and thanks also to his links with Lévi-Strauss. In 1949, Lacan realized that Lévi-Strauss’s Elementary Structures of Kinship was a cultural event of some importance, and focuses on language. But then the disappointments began: his meeting with Chomsky leads nowhere, linguists do not accept his ideas. Linguistics, which was for him a leading science, later became linguisterie (2).

Benvenuto: Didn’t Lacan say that linguisterie was the right term for his approach, to distinguish it from real linguistics?

Green: In any case a divorce took place after the union between linguistics and psychoanalysis which should have led to a great renewal. Consequently, Lacanian thought in the seventies tended more and more towards mathematical topology, and a logic of the pure signifier.
However, Lacan’s work moves completely away from psychoanalytic experience to drown in an ideology of science, moving radically away from the idea of psychoanalysis as an exploration of the depths of the unconscious, of the emotional underworlds, as an interest in the first months of life, etc. In time all this struck me as an incredible rush forward. The more difficulties he encountered, the more liberties he took in his technique. In the analytic situation he became a kind of Zen master, doing absolutely anything he wanted, not following any rule. Even so, he is the theoretician of Law. He talks of the Name-of-the-Father as a theoretical reference, but in fact he behaves more like an abusive mother than a law-providing father. As for his signifier theory, it goes hand in hand with the use of force, because the timing and interruption of a session correspond to a use of force.
But his position as the rebel of analytic institutions made it possible for a pole considering itself revolutionary to gather around him. Lacan was saluted as he who succeeded in opposing the establishment, and who has constructed a revolutionary line of thought and institution. At the very moment the Ecole Freudienne and the so-called passe were created, Lacan’s inspiration came exclusively from Mao and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Benvenuto: Many find Lacan’s theory interesting but find his clinical practice incomprehensible, also because he himself talked very little about it. That would explain why in the USA and in England, Lacan is more widely read by philosophers and scholars of literature than by practicing analysts. All the same, Lacan managed to form more than one generation of French analysts, as either their analyst or supervisor. In 1963–that is, before the Chinese Cultural Revolution–when he founded the Ecole Freudienne, he had already formed a generation of analysts. If Lacan’s clinical practice is negative, does that then mean that all the analysts formed by Lacan–some of whom are very prominent today–are bad analysts?

Green: When Lacan founded the Ecole Freudienne, a lot of talented Lacanians were still with him. Only later, in 1969, did they abandon him. Lacan wanted to remain the Maître absolu: he wanted to create a generation of followers who wouldn’t turn against him, as happened in the schism of 1963. One day he confided to me: “I have two types of followers, apostles and mandarins. The apostles will follow me anywhere, while the mandarins always have something of the irreducible.” He had therefore wanted to prevent the formation of a new mandarinate, and he considered the passe one way of avoiding it.
You asked “but are they then all bad clinical therapists?Ó Of course not. But it is not surprising that so many people left him. Some of the most prestigious and internationally names of the moment–not only from my Association, but also from the Association Psychanalytique de France (Laplanche, Pontalis, Anzieu, Rosolato, Granoff and others)-all left him at a certain point. And the analytical practice of Lacan’s former pupils (Piera Aulagnier, Franois Perrier, Paul Valabréga, Conrad Stein and others) resembles the standard clinical practice of non-Lacanians. They may have theoretical divergences but they are all in agreement as to the conditions of the setting. They abandoned him because they thought his clinical practice was undefendable.

Benvenuto: Freud too was abandoned by some of his most talented pupils: Jung, Adler, Ferenczi-some would say his most brilliant pupils. Do you not think that it is inevitable that the best pupils abandon their masters, just as it is often the most capable offspring to leave the family and make their own way?

Green: It is not possible to make a comparison between Freud and Lacan. After 1912, there were no real secessions from the Freudian mainstream and contrasts took place exclusively within the analytical movement.

Benvenuto: That’s not quite right. Wilhelm Reich was expelled from the Psychoanalytical International Association in 1933. Theodore Reik was never even accepted by the American Psychoanalytic Association. And even recently, long after Freud, Masud Khan and Donald Meltzer were expelled from the British Society.

Green: Even if there have been problems with Ferenczi and Rank, they were confined to the institution. None of Freud’s disciples, or Freud himself, ever questioned the analytical setting. Theoretical divergences were frequent, and continue to be so. Every five or six years we have a new prophet or Messiah, but none of them question the essential foundation of analytical protocol. No one practices–as Lacan did–shorter sessions; on the contrary, when a change occurs, it is always in the direction of longer sessions. No one questions the analyst’s neutrality. No one tries to manipulate transference. No one practices analytical seduction, or even violence. Lacan used to beat some patients.

Benvenuto: But that was in later years, when he was already very old and increasingly eccentric.

Green: That is not so. There was talk of such violent behavior by him as early as the 1970s…

Benvenuto: Yes, but in the 1970s he was already over 70!

Green: But I have evidence that even before he actually began abusing his patients, Lacan would not permit certain things to be said to him, and reacted abrasively. He was an absolute tyrant with his patients. And it takes time to become aware that Lacan wrote what he actually did from the very start.
Lacan understood well the conclusion of the Freudian lesson-the importance of primordial masochism. Paraphrasing Descartes, I would say that it is no longer common sense that is most generously distributed, but masochism. But à propos of masochism, Freud said: “I’ll step back; I’m not prepared to play this hangman role you want me to play”. Lacan instead decided to take advantage of it. He thought that if a patient’s masochism wasn’t fueled, he would resort to more dangerous situations. It is what he calls “narcissism of the lost cause”. Better an alienated situation with Lacan than terroristic kamikaze operations. In fact, when he went to Vincennes in 1969 (3), Lacan replied to the challenge of some students saying, “vous cherchez un Maître” (“you are looking for a Master”). Lacan would refer to himself as a Maître. And he added, “that’s why you had me come here”.

Benvenuto: Reading the text of that debate in Vincennes, I got the impression that, taken in their context, those words meant something else. What he was saying to the students who, by challenging him, thought they were proving their total independence and freedom, was: “you think you are rebelling against the Maître, who at the moment I incarnate, but you don’t realize that what you are actually looking for is Authority, the tyrant”. And, in fact, many of them found their Maître in tyrants like Mao or Ho Chi Minh.

Green: Your interpretation of Lacan’s words is slightly too much in his favor. But try putting his words in relation to his life as an analyst and leader of a school: he has always set himself up as the Maître. The articles in Scilicet-the journal of the Ecole Freudienne-bore no signature unless they were written by him, because the distinction between the Maître and the anonymous mass of disciples had to be maintained. Lacan was completely unresponsive to the idea of a reciprocal relationship: others owed him everything, but he owed nothing to anyone.

Benvenuto: What you are saying about Lacan has been said of many other analysts. Did Freud himself not behave often enough as a Maître, and tragically so with Victor Tausk, Sandor Ferenczi and Otto Rank? Many criticize psychoanalysis for the fact that it is based on charismatic ties. Other therapists criticize the analytic setting itself for being too unreciprocal, and because the analyst enjoys too dominant a position.

Green: People who are not in analysis express their fantasies with regard to an analytic situation from which they feel the need to distinguish themselves, while I speak as both a practicing and theoretical analyst.
In 1961 I became interested in English (not American) psychoanalysis. That year I attended the Edinburgh conference where I met personally for the first time the Kleinians (Rosenfeld, Hanna Segal) and Winnicott. It was there that I finally got to observe a functioning clinical practice that corresponded to the problems of practice of that time. My interests in Lacan and in English thought developed in a parallel way. Living in France, it would have been difficult for me to resist the fascination of Lacanian thought; but at the same time I had seen in England a different way of thinking about clinical psychoanalysis. And so for many years I was torn between the two.
Today, certain early Lacanians who abandoned him say, “I bought Lacan’s most recently published Seminar and it bore me to death; how could we ever have been taken in by that stuff?” The effects of time are important. Today, reading Lacan dispassionately, it is easy to see his tics, tricks, manipulations, his various ways of seducing the public, etc.
If we separate the core of Lacan’s thought from all the drivel, what we have left is quite a limited corpus of work.

Benvenuto: It has been said that compared to all the others, Lacanian analysts are either the best or the worst, there is practically no middle ground. I don’t know if this statement is true, but I think that you are only considering the worst Lacanians. As regards Lacan himself, I have also reservations as to his clinical style, especially when, with age, he became progressively more eccentric. Yet we all know analysts who maintain a fairly traditional analytical setting (i.e., the 45-minute session) who have been deeply inspired by Lacan’s thought. What do you think of this contradiction, finding as you do the key to Lacan’s theoretical approach in his “perverse, degenerate” clinical practice? And then, must we condemn Freud’s theory because–as we now know–he fed the Rat-Man during a session or analyzed his daughter Anna? The problem, after all, extends well beyond psychoanalysis: to what extent can a thinker’s practical life be considered a key to grasping the essence of his thought? Take Heidegger for instance: many uphold the view that Heidegger’s philosophical thought must be interpreted in the light of his Nazi sympathies, because it is an artifice to separate theory and practice.

Green: The comparison between Lacan and Heidegger doesn’t work. We can not say that Heidegger’s practice is Nazism. Insofar as he is a philosopher, his thought originates from texts. But you cannot put the psychoanalyst in a similar position: he is responsible for the patients in his care. Every now and then I see some “couch-scarred” patients, people who have undergone all sorts of abuse by Lacanian analysts. Here we are not talking about theories! And patients have to pay for this! This is their practice, this is how they earn their living!
Generally analysis is a situation of total alienation. Those in a relationship with an analyst will never know a similar or worse alienation with anyone else, not even with a doctor or lawyer, even though a doctor and a lawyer can be the last recourse in catastrophic situations. It is true, analytic alienation rests on the patients’ need of suffering and self-punishment. When a subject finds someone who fuels his need to suffer, he rushes in. Some talk about analyses lasting 15 or 20 years, and when I ask: “why did you go on for so long?”, they say to me “out of gratitude, I owed him so much”. But, in fact, their analysis has been a massacre!

Benvenuto: Your criticisms of Lacan are for the most part ethical. Strange, in the history of psychoanalysis Lacan more than any other has so closely connected ethics and psychoanalysis. In any case, one could object that disputes among the schools are mostly ethical. As a certain practice seems unjustified theoretically, it also appears ethically perverse. Freudians, for example, while admitting no validity for Jungian theory, cannot deny that a lot of patients of Jungian analysts have actually improved. How can this be explained in Freudian terms? Some might say that a Jungian is successful thanks to suggestion. But suggestion is something morally deplorable for a Freudian, ergo Jungian analysis is immoral! One’s own theory is truly scientific, while one’s adversaries’ is pure ideology. Even Lacan’s reasoning is thus: when he criticized American Ego Psychology, he dismissed New York analysts as ideologists of the American Way of Life. Kris and Loewenstein’s patients had improved because they were victims of propaganda! Now, when you say that “Lacanians obtain their effects by exploiting their patients’ masochism”, you are moralizing the scientific debate, which is so frequent in this field. But is it a right approach?

Green: Your relativism cancels all specificity. In fact, Lacan, in his seminar on ethics [Lacan 1992], states that an analyst is someone who does not give up his desire. This is how he himself describes Lacan-the-analyst: “I don’t give a damn about legislation telling the analyst to behave in such and such a way. I’m going to do exactly what I like, unless criminal law prevents it.” So he took advantage of the ambiguities in national law on psychotherapies to do exactly as he pleased. National law does not deal with psychoanalysis because that would imply recognizing it, also as a therapy, and having to refund analytical costs.
The ethical position which consists of saying “I will not renounce my desire” is analogous to the ethics of terrorists who say before a tribunal, “one day we’ll get rid of the judges who are judging me now”. This ethic reads: “My desire is the only law”. The Maître, like the terrorist, does not recognize a universal law. All are subject to the law but him.
You make comparisons with Jungians. Some of Jung’s theoretical positions disturb me, but I can say nothing against Jungians’ practice. If you ask me on what Jungians therapeutic results are based on, I would not say on suggestion–that would be too easy…

Benvenuto: But isn’t saying that Lacanians work thanks to their patients’ masochism is also too easy an answer?

Green: No, because masochism is everywhere, and is certainly not a Jungian prerogative. Jungians don’t exploit masochism in an unacceptable manner. When two people remain face to face for some time, in an atmosphere of proximity, something inevitably happens. Even in Lacanian analyses something happens. But is what happens in the patient’s best interests? The abandonment of neutrality, the imposition of the psychoanalyst’s will-all used by Lacanians-do not benefit the patient. I know of a patient who tried to interrupt her analysis five times, and her Lacanian analyst phoned her and talked to her for hours to convince her to come back to analysis. Where, then, is the patient’s freedom?

Benvenuto: Bad analysts who behave incorrectly can be found in any analytical school. There has been turmoil recently in the Italian Psychoanalytic Association over the question of a psychoanalyst who went to bed with his patients, and he was not a Lacanian. You said you had nothing to say against Jungian practice-yet, as we now know thanks to Carotenuto’s book [Carotenuto 1984], Jung went to bed with his schizophrenic patient, Sabina Spielrein. May the school that never sinned cast the first stone.

Green: You tend to relativize too much. There are analysts who do not abide by the law in any society, but they are in a state of delinquency. Amongst Lacanians there is no delinquency, because there are no laws!

Benvenuto: You do, however, make a caricature of the Lacanian theory on the analyst’s desire. Lacan says that every subject–and not the analyst alone–must not renounce his desire. More than any other analyst, Lacan insisted upon the structuring function of law in relation to desire. For Lacan, desire itself is partly an effect of the law. In fact, some leftists attacked Lacan quite virulently because his theory seemed too moralistic.

Green: Lacanians talk about the Law, but in practice they forcefully and arbitrarily interrupt sessions. They talk of the primacy of the signifier, but don’t give people even the time to talk. What can one analyze in sessions that go on for perhaps five minutes? There is not even the time to recount a dream. They talk of the Name-of- the-Father, but they seem more like possessive and abusive mothers: “Love me! And be on my side!”
Of course Lacan was warmly welcomed onto the French intellectual stage for the undeniable quality of his thought: he writes better than Melanie Klein, Winnicott or Bion, whose works don’t address the intellectual world.

Benvenuto: But is it only by pure chance that the analyst you criticize most is the one who writes best? M. Masud R. Kahn also wrote well, yet he too was thrown out of the British Psychoanalytical Association, apparently for ethical reasons. Is it not a “symptom” that in order to write well about psychoanalysis, it is necessary to be placed on the fringes of it?

Green: Céline too was a good writer, yet he was a Fascist. Lacan succeeded better than others in selling psychoanalysis to the intellectuals, telling them that the unconscious is structured like a language. An intellectual, who uses language as his primary tool, will be seduced by this conception of the unconscious which leaves all shocking aspects of psychoanalysis, like sexual drives, ignored. Intellectuals are deeply offended when psychoanalysis tells them that they are indelibly marked by their childhood obsessions, their bodily desires and animal-like instincts. Lacan transforms the problem of castration, or mourning, or fragmentation, into a kind of general manque (lack), saying “well, but this is the human condition”. Intellectuals don’t want to acknowledge the theological and Christian side of Lacanian theory: Lacan’s is a re-writing of Freud’s psychoanalysis in a Christian key. And the intellectuals were extremely grateful to Lacan for this softening.

Benvenuto: Have the best interpretations of psychoanalysis been made by Jews?

Green: That is not the point. What is important is to avoid re-writing psychoanalysis in a Christian sense. Freud had Jewish origins, but he is above all an atheist writer–I too am an atheist Jew. The Times Literary Supplement, in reviewing the Ecrits, quite rightly wrote that the weight of religion on Lacan’s thought is considerable. But his Christian rewriting of psychoanalysis makes it deviate from its course.
With time, a considerable segment of Lacanian thought collapses. What then remains? The charge of a deviation of analysis. The surviving core allows many incompetent, untrained people to live off people coming to buy the illusions of healing.

Benvenuto: Does this apply also to the late Franoise Dolto, the most popular analyst in France today? Although not strictly speaking a Lacanian, she was always a member of the Ecole Freudienne. Was it pure chance that the most popular clinical analyst in France was a friend of Lacan? How can your accusations of abuse be directed against solid people like Dolto? True, Dolto was a Catholic, and, like Lacan, she got people outside the psychoanalytical circle interested in psychoanalysis. But can we say that she became inoffensive and acceptable to the Catholic masses for this reason?

Green: Dolto was a generous and sensitive person. True, she did admire Lacan immensely. Shortly before she died she said that she was going to Heaven to play games with Lacan. Dolto’s works had a vast impact in France, but she was never recognized by intellectuals. On the contrary, she was attacked by many Lacanians precisely because of her religious beliefs. But in Lacan’s case, there was a theological rather than religious position. Dolto’s charitable spirit placed her at another end of religion. Lacan was not fascinated by religion, but by the Fathers of the Church.

Benvenuto: Ébut it is well known that the Devil is an expert theologian… I think you are missing the “diabolical” aspect of Lacan’s thoughtÉ

Green: Dolto spoke on the radio and ordinary people were touched; Lacan sold psychoanalysis to the intellectuals.

Benvenuto: Yet psychoanalysis has always sold well to the intellectuals; if analysis survives today, it is thanks to the intellectuals. The privileged position of psychoanalysis today in Western countries is certainly not due to doctors, psychiatrists or academic psychologists-now quite far from psychoanalysis-but rather to the enthusiasm that Freudianism garnered among writers, philosophers, journalists, feminists and Òcultural studentsÓ.

Green: I don’t agree with you. Up until now Freud has been a failure with intellectuals. Only a few men of letters have followed him.

Benvenuto: But with the Surrealists, for example?

Green: With the surrealists it was a total misunderstanding from the very start. When Breton went to see Freud, the latter told him he was interested in dreams only to the extent to which they could contribute to understanding oneiric work and associations. The Surrealists, however, were fascinated by the phenomenon of the dream itself.
Between the 50s and the 90s, interest in Lacan’s thought was linked to so-called Structuralism, which aroused the interest of some great names who nevertheless never subscribed to Lacanism or to psychoanalysis for that matter: Foucault, Lyotard, Derrida, Deleuze, etc. Deleuze’s Anti-Oedipus came out in the early seventies. Foucault, with his History of Sexuality, is, towards the end of his life, at the point of a complete break with psychoanalysis.

Benvenuto: In any case, Derrida has always been benevolent towards psychoanalysis.

Green: Indeed, he has an analyst living with him, his wife! But Derrida does not admit his debt to psychoanalysis. His famous text, “Freud and the writing scene” [Derrida 1978], is a lecture given by him at my seminar on psychoanalysis. He continued to write on Freud, but in what a style! His thought becomes even more bittersweet, acid: “I’m afraid that all analysis is simply a question of adapting and conforming to social norms”. It’s true that he works with René Major, an important analyst.
In the Paris Psychoanalytical Society’s monograph, La Psychanalyse: Questions pour Demain [Green et Al. 1990], there is a long text of mine on the question of “thirdness”, which was taken up by Charles S. Peirce. For this I re-read Derrida and was astonished to find that his theory is none other than Freud’s theory of primary processes, although Derrida evidently doesn’t feel obliged to acknowledge his debt. When he talks of the characteristics of a thought that doesn’t know where it is going, that proceeds by associations, then undoes itself, errs, etc., he is simply talking about the unconscious analytic process.

Benvenuto: But Derrida has often admitted that Freud is one of his fundamental points of reference. ÒDeconstructionÓ is something like ÒanalysisÓ.

Green: It is not a question of paying homage to Freud or Marx, but what to do with the notion of the unconscious. Will a philosophy of the unconscious ever be possible? Is what we are seeing today, behind the screens and contortions, an attempt to bring Freud’s thought on the unconscious back into the bosom of something which is still consciousness, even if it is no longer called “consciousness”. There is talk of Being, Difference, and other concepts which blur any reference to consciousness-because after Freud it became impossible to defend the primacy of consciousness.

Benvenuto: Derrida has also criticized Lacan in The Post-Card.

Green: Yes, he criticized him in “Le facteur de la vérité” [Derrida 1987, pp. 411-496], and during a conference at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. But today it is a question not of criticizing Lacan, but of placing oneself in relation to psychoanalytical thought, without Lacan. At the conference Lacan avec les Philosophes (4), some philosophers recognized their debt to him, others criticized him (in particular, the Russian linguist Avtonomova [Avtonomova 1991] radically criticized his conception of language). But the real, serious error is that today Lacan is the unchallenged interlocutor for intellectuals when they are talking about psychoanalysis, when the real question is not Lacan, but psychoanalysis itself.

Benvenuto: Philosophers today find in the Lacanian language a more direct way of approaching psychoanalysis because, you say, Lacan is comfortable with philosophical language, and because he re-reads Freudian thought in a secretly Christian key. But why, then, is not Paul Ricoeur, a Christian spiritualist, the preferred interlocutor of philosophers? In 1965, Ricoeur published a work on Freud, De l’Interprétation [Ricoeur 1970]. Yet the publication of Lacan’s Ecrits the following year completely obscured Ricoeur’s work in the philosophical milieu.

Green: Ricoeur wrote his book on Freud-a remarkable book-in the course of a personal search. At a certain point he became interested in Freud, and even attended Lacan’s seminars. Lacan even reproached Ricoeur for not having cited him, to which Ricoeur responded that he had understood nothing of what Lacan had said! Ricoeur’s book on Freud is nevertheless the work of someone who has stepped outside his habitual paths.
After WWII, however, there was a general Return to Freud. In Merleau-Ponty’s (1968) The Visible and the Invisible there are already several references to psychoanalysis. Sartre’s relationship to Freud is more delicate. Lévi-Strauss states that his two masters are Marx and Freud. Ricoeur’s book, therefore, is part of a predictable attempt to analyze Freud according to traditional methods. But Lacan’s Ecrits is not the work of a philosopher, rather of someone who has dedicated his life to the practice of psychoanalysis, and who is moreover a man of letters and very much aware of what is going on the cultural scene. Lacan, because he feared a poor reception by intellectuals, did not want to publish his Ecrits, and did so only under pressuring by Jean Wahl (5). I saw Lacan before the publication of the Ecrits, and he was extremely distressed.

Benvenuto: Why this fear of intellectuals? He repeatedly stated that his seminars were exclusively for analysts, even if every now and then he liked to invite some cultural personalities.

Green: Because Lacan always belonged to the intelligentsia. Many photos show him in the company of people in vogue on the Parisian intellectual scene. He frequented Kojève’s seminars, Queneau, Merleau-Ponty and Lévi-Strauss…

Benvenuto: Is it possible that many psychoanalysts in France envy their colleagues who-like Lacan-succeed in the world of intellectuals? One has the impression that French analysts aspire to an intellectual role-something far less common among American or British analysts, for example. Could it be that Lacan is envied as the first analyst, after Freud, to be a star of the Parisian intelligentsia?

Green: Of course, any analyst would enjoy success among the intellectuals-although the price for this success is to become a seducer. Intellectuals may be impressed when they are told: “even you have an unconscious!”, but there are always limits beyond which one may not go. The price Lacan paid was not going beyond these limits.
The Ecrits had an impact above all because it expressed an original and clear-cut thought, and because it has an excellent style of writing. At that moment the intellectual class felt somewhat guilty for having dismissed Freud so hastily. And here is Lacan advertising another Freud: one who is a philosopher and linguist, in short, a Freud who does not offend them.

Benvenuto: I am astonished to hear you say that intellectuals do not like the importance given by Freud to sexuality and the body! University professors today deal with nothing but sex, gender and the body! It appears to me that the opposite of what you are saying is true: Ricoeur at that time seemed too “sublimizing”, while Lacan concentrated on the phallus, sexuality, castration, which pleased the intellectuals. Instead, most psychotherapists prefer de-sexualized psychoanalysis, like the British and American ones. Anyway, many foes of psychoanalysis say it is too seductive as a whole. In his Conversations on Freud, Wittgenstein (1966) remarked that Freud very often denounced the resistance which psychoanalysis provoked-particularly among intellectuals-yet he was totally blind to its other side, that is, to the enormous seductive power of his theory. You say that Lacan created a caricature of psychoanalysis to seduce the intellectuals, but caricatures often reveal more of the truth than exact copies. A good part of your criticism of Lacan can be deflected actually against psychoanalysts in general.

Green: My criticism of Wittgenstein is similar to my criticism of Lacan: I don’t think one should keep silent about what cannot be spoken of. On the contrary, I think that one should make the utmost effort to talk as much as possible about what would be wrapped in silence. It is necessary above all to try to talk about what cannot be spoken of. Wittgenstein blames Freud for being too convincing, for giving himself too many means to prove his objects…

Benvenuto: He blames Freud for wanting to explain too much…

Green: Perhaps on a textual level Wittgenstein is right. But after Freud, things went ahead: an interpretation of Freud is needed, but it is also necessary to extend his interpretative field; psychoanalysis today deals with things that Freud barely glimpsed. French analysts are often accused of being too Freudian, but in my opinion Freud’s work is a permanent workshop for interpretative re-elaboration. Freud was said to have been a seducer, but so was Wittgenstein, if we give credence to what Richard Wolleim says, for example. But if Freud’s thought is so seductive, why then did it meet with so much resistance? Both philosophers, those who aim at the naturalization of thought through neurosciences, and the Heideggerians, are certainly not seduced by Freud.

Benvenuto: In Italy, Heideggerians (Vattimo, Rovatti) and many others (Agamben, Bodei, Galimberti-who is also an analyst-Gargani, Rella, etc.) have always dealt with Freud.

Green: You may be right as far as Italy is concerned. But Freud never really triumphed on the philosophical scene. On the contrary, philosophers’ resistance to Freud is still very strong. Freud succeeds on the other hand in the most unpredictable fields-for example, among mathematicians such as René Thom (6). Both logicians and hermeneuticians usually state that psychoanalysis is neither rigorous nor convincing, and so “flou”.

Benvenuto: What you are saying surprises me, because it appears to me that in Europe-and especially in France-Freudian thought is still dominant. The fact that Freud is criticized even harshly is a sign of his success: all thinkers who have left their mark on an era have been criticized. The fact that in the US Newt Gingrich is now spoken of in foul terms is a sign of his power, not of his weakness. In any case, I don’t see why some well-argued criticism of Freud should be factiously dismissed as “resistance”. You only seem pleased when a philosopher propagandizes psychoanalysis, propaganda fidei. Would you like philosophy to be what theology should be for the Catholic Church, proof that the Pope is always right? And is it true that many Parisian philosophers are in analysis?

Green: If they undergo analysis, they certainly don’t go around shouting about it, and they are perfectly able to maintain an absolute separation between psychoanalysis as a personal experience and psychoanalysis as a corpus of thought.

Benvenuto: But can you deny that, worldwide, psychoanalysis has made more inroads on intellectuals than on doctors, for example? Why do psychoanalysts such as you so often complain about intellectuals’, and not psychiatrists’, resistance against psychoanalysis? There are many well-known French philosophers or theoreticians who have become professional analysts: Julia Kristeva, Cornelius Castoriadis, Paul-Laurent Assoun, Luce Irigaray, to name just a few.

Green: I hold Julia Kristeva in great esteem, but I don’t consider her a philosopher. Cornelius Castoriadis has multiple identities, as he is also a sociologist and a political thinker. But neither Kristeva nor Castoriadis belong to the principal philosophical currents.

Benvenuto: Yet Freud was essential to the work of philosophers like Bachelard, Althusser, Deleuze, Marcuse, Lyotard. Habermas, in Knowledge and Human Interests [Habermas 1972], elevates psychoanalysis to a paradigm of a “science of the spirit”. And even for Richard Rorty, Freud is important. Is that not enough?

Green: Habermas’s thought is not psychoanalytically but politically oriented. And the “conversions” of the philosophers you had mentioned are rare. Among the so-called pure philosophers-of the caliber of Gadamer or Rawls-you won’t find a single psychoanalyst. I would hope, nevertheless, that Freud’s thought will become part of the field of epistemological thought.

Translated from the French by Gianmaria Senia


Avtonomova, N. (1991) “Lacan avec Kant: l’Idée du Symbolisme”, in Lacan avec les Philosophes, (Paris: Albin Michel) pp 67-86.

Carotenuto, A. (1984) A Secret Symmetry. Sabina Spielrein between Jung and Freud, translated by Amo Pomerans, John Shapley & Krishna Winston (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).

Derrida, J.:
– (1978) Writing and Difference, transl. by Alan Bass (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul).
– (1987) The Post-Card, from Socrates to Freud and beyond, translated by Alan Bass (Chicago, London: Univ. of Chicago Press).

Green, A. et Al. (1990) La psychanalyse: Questions pour demain (Paris: PUF).

Habermas, J. (1972) Knowledge and Human Interests, transl. by Jeremy J. Shapiro (London: Heinemann).

Lacan, J. (1992) The Seminar, Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (London: Tavistock-Routledge, 1992.)

Laplanche, J. & Leclaire, S. (1966) “L’Inconscient. Une étude psychanalytique”, VI Colloque de Bonneval (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer); English tr. The Unconscious. A Psychoanalytic study, transl. by P. Coleman, French Yale Studies, 48, 1972.

Marone, F. (1995) Review of Lacan avec les PhilosophesJournal of European Psychoanalysis, Nr 1, Spring-Summer 1995, pp. 185-7.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968) The Visible and the Invisible, translated by Alphonso Lingis (Evernston: Northwestern Univ. Press).

Ricoeur, P. (1970) Freud and Philosophy. An Essay on Interpretation, transl. by Denis Savage (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press).

Thom, R. :
– (1974), Modèles mathématiques de la morphogenèse (Paris: 10/18).
– (1983) Paraboles et catastrophes. Entretiens réalisés par Giulio Giorello et Simona Morini (Paris: Flammarion).

Wittgenstein, L. (1966) “Conversations on Freud” in C. Barrett, ed., Lectures & Conversations (Berkeley & Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, pp. 41-52.)


(1) Conversation held in GreenÕs office in Paris, 17.5.94. Published in Journal of European Psychoanalysis – No. 2 – Fall 1995-Winter 1996.
(2) “Lingu-hysteria” or “lingui-deli”.
(3) Lecture held by Lacan at the University of Vincennes after May 1968, before a large group of leftist students.
(4) Green is referring to the Colloques, the acts of which have been published in the volume Lacan avec les Philosophes (Paris: Albin Michel, 1991)[reviewed by Fulvio Marone (1995)].
(5) Green is referring not to Jean Wahl, the existentialist philosopher, but to Fran&ois Wahl, the prestigious editor of the Editions du Seuil, editor of the Ecrits and great supporter of Lacan.
(6) René Thom is well known in France as the creator of the mathematical “catastrophes’ theory”. See Thom (1974, 1983).

Share This Article

European Journal of Psychoanalysis