Freud’s Massenpsychologie and Lacan’s “Patristic” Exegesis
First of all, I would like to thank the organisers and particularly Cristiana Cimino for inviting me to make a contribution by responding to Professor Nobus’ presentation. It is an honour, although I am very aware that I have a limited ability to do so. I should like to start by dwelling for a moment a paragraph from the advanced notice:
In order to recover this lost clinical dimension of Freud’s 1921 volume, I shall return to the way in which the text was interpreted during the 1950s and 60s by Jacques Lacan, for whom the key point of Freud’s exposition is to be situated in the notion of ‘einziger Zug’ and its ramifications for our understanding of the principle of identification. Apart from the fact that Lacan’s idiosyncratic reading—‘einziger Zug’ is effectively a ‘unary trait’ of Freud’s book in the most literal sense—will enable me to present some fundamental aspects of what psychoanalytic interpretation entails, within as well as outside the clinical setting, it will also prompt me to investigate the place and function of identification in Lacan’s theory of subjectivity and, most crucially, the meaning of identification in Lacan’s conception of the end (the direction and the finality) of the psychoanalytic treatment.
From this dense paragraph, we can see immediately that the territory Professor Nobus intends to explore is concerned with: (1) Lacan’s interpretation of Freud (which, this implies, may differ from other interpretations, including other psychoanalytic interpretations); (2) Lacan’s interpretation during a specific period – the 1950’s and 1960’s (perhaps earlier or later he interpreted it differently?); (3) psychoanalytic interpretation more broadly, or to be more precise, some (not all) ‘fundamental aspects’ not exactly of interpretation itself but of what that interpretation ‘entails’; (4) that the inevitable consequences of these fundamental aspects (what it entails) concerns not only the clinical sphere but also the ‘outside’; (5) that the notion of ‘einziger Zug’ is a ‘unary trait’ in Freud’s text; (6) that this was ‘key’ in Lacan’s reading of Freud’s text; (7) that this reading was idiosyncratic; (8) that there is a single component or function or characteristic in Freud’s text and that this needs to be understood, not figuratively or metaphorically or allegorically, but in a ‘most literal sense’; (9) that it has ‘ramifications’ (consequences?) for the way in which we ‘understand identification’; (10) that identification has both a ‘function’ (it does something) and a ‘place’ (is topographical) within Lacan’s theory of subjectivity; (11) that it has a specific ‘meaning’ within Lacan’s concept of the end of analytic treatment; and (12) that this specific meaning concerns both ‘direction’ (the goal aimed at) and ‘finality’ (its end as such) in as much as they are two aspects (are there other aspects?) of ending. I shall endeavour to comment on some of these extremely complex points.
From the Massenpsychologie to Identification
In the Massenpsychologie, which Freud wrote in 1921, he said little that was new. In substance the text concerns matters which had hitherto already been the subject of his major studies. These were now simply postulated as being of sociological significance. However, Freud’s argument is astonishingly naïve as he seems not to have noticed that this may be problematic. Moreover, the writing decidedly complacent . Older ideas are cobbled together onto the work of others, notably that of Le Bon, which, like the rest, Freud did not read critically. The text is fairly short and can be read through in one sitting. The reader having got the answers to manifold questions about society, politics, the Church, the army, and even about falling in love. In fact, given its sweeping generalisations, across manifold discourses, including history, sociology and theology it is, perhaps, surprising that it continues to be read. As Michel de Certeau reliably puts it, Freud was simply not competent in these fields (1987: 104). The ‘booklet’ was based on the simplistic idea that what had been said of the individual in terms of his or her relations to other family members, the object of love and the analyst, could be said of the crowd (Carveth 2018). Yet the question about the relationship between the way the singularity of the subject (haecceitas) is ‘constituted in its structure’ and the Other does not go away (S9: 109). Thus Ricoeur (1970) thought the study entirely failed in its aim and is not a book about social psychology at all. Freud himself told Romain Rolland that he had grave doubts about the text. Indeed, towards the end of his life he seems to have had increasing misgivings about the status of his socio-historical studies as a whole, claiming he only wrote them as a way of passing the time while smoking his pipe (de Certeau 1987: 104). Nevertheless, in his learned exposition Professor Nobus has been able to show the way Lacan deciphers, masterfully, in Freud’s text something of profound significance.
The novelist Anthony Powell, looking back on his life said that he felt his whole personality had been formed and his future shaped more than anything else by his time at school. I suspect that many of us could say something similar. If not about school, about university or the army or the Church. Perhaps. And, of course, those places are institutions (groups). But they are also places where we meet and form a link with significant individuals – school masters or mistresses, tutors and so on – and unconsciously identify with them, making their ‘paths in thinking’ our own (Heidegger) even when this identification is expressed only in the adoption of small, seemingly insignificant details in outlook, manner or turn of phrase as well as a more fundamental moral stance. Indeed, in some respects, the tutorial system has something of an analytic quality to it as the tutor aims, to adopt Wittgenstein’s idiom, not to give over his thoughts to others but to ‘stimulate someone to thoughts of his own’ (PI Preface). Showing us ‘not so much a formal thinking, but a certain style of being-in-the-world’ (Benvenuto 2020: 158). Powell’s remark refers to the past, the present and the future, and the way all three ‘ecstasies’ are mixed up in our experience (SZ 328); something Freud had noticed (Nachträglichkeit). There seems to me to be something in Powell’s take on it. The idea that there is a time when one was not yet formed. A time when one is being formed. And a time after which an essential formation has taken place, and from which all future developments follow a course that could almost have been predicted. Though never entirely. Strange and unexpected things do happen to us in the course of life, yet although they come as a surprise at the time, often in retrospect we glimpse the way even they seem to have conformed to an overall pattern already set during the brevity of youth. A thread that ties us to bonds formed much earlier. Establishing a path that our life will follow throughout its short span. One which, however, does not correspond exactly to what we would have chosen consciously.
Lacan’s Exegesis and the Semiotics of Scripture
Krutzen lists references to the Massen text in thirteen of the seminars, from 1954 till 1976. Professor Nobus tells us that one of the more significant of these comes in 1961 in Seminar IX (henceforth S9). And that what interested Lacan was a particular phrase that Freud had used in chapter vii, when listing three types of identification (Identifizierung). Lacan developed the point in relation to the way the subject constitutes himself through the process of symbolic rather than specular identification through the assimilation of small aspects of others. That is to say, secondary identification. The phrase in question, we are told, being a hapax legomena in Freud’s corpus that nobody seems to have noticed: ‘nur einen einzigen Zug’ (GW XIII: 117). It appears in one of the most coherent passages in the Massen text, one that has nothing to do with the social sphere as such. This attention, on Lacan’s part, to Freud’s modus scribendi and more specifically to this particular lexical marker illustrates the way the exegesis of a text resembles an analysis both being, necessarily, hermeneutical. Getting behind the text and probing it Lacan carefully translates einzigen with unaire rather than ‘single’ (unique) (S9: 33), seeing it as a primordial symbolic term which is introjected to produce the ‘ego ideal’ which he more than Freud, carefully distinguishes from the superego (Laplanche and Pontalis1980: 144). Reading this passage in Lacan, it is hard not to be impressed by his multifarious scholarship despite his ingrained tendency to heighten and intensify an expression in support of the transposition of Freud’s ideas into his own. But this is because, working from Freud’s text, Lacan faced a conundrum. And so just when we think we have grasped something of what Freud meant by ‘einzigen Zug’ – which had, at first, seemed transparent but has become more complex – Lacan does something unexpected. He changes the meaning of the thing he has been setting out by a ‘reversal of the position around the One’ (S9: 95). At first it seems as if he has lost confidence in his own exegesis and realised that if he continues his interpretation to its logical conclusion, he will end up saying something he knows to be wrong. But Lacan is, in fact, doing something far more sophisticated. He is reminding us that no narrative is definitive. That it would be a mistake to read Freud as a set of dogmatic truths. Because a text always has more secrets to give up, more meanings for us to elucidate, and new angles to lay open. And in the future diverse paths in thinking will continue to open up so long as we really know how to read.
This approach is, itself, reminiscent of the De magistro, a treatise by Augustine on ‘signs’ to which Lacan may have been indebted. In it, Augustine says that before we can understand a sign we must understand the thing signified. Without that prior understanding the sign will be meaningless. This epistemology holds good for the hermeneutics of the Confessions too. Thus, Augustine thought Ambrose a good exegete because he already knew the spiritual things – as opposed to the literal things – that the biblical text signified. Scripture did not reveal things to him, because he already knew them (Aug. conf. V, 24f; VI, 4; cf. Cary 2008: 104-5). Like Ambrose, Lacan already knows that what Freud’s text signifies is not the same as what it says. Lacan knows that language and thus thought have limitations. This is a moment of crisis in Lacan’s commentary on the Massen text and he is trying to find his way out of the literal sense Freud intends. Augustine had similar problems with scripture. He realised that there were not only the external signs and the invisible truths they signify but also the author’s intent (voluntas) (Aug. mag. 8; doctr. christ. 2, 5). At first, he thought it would solve everything if Moses appeared to him. He could then ask him to explain the meaning of the many obscure passages in the Old Testament. But then he realised that Moses would probably be speaking in Hebrew and like Freud, he did not know Hebrew. So he realised he would not get anywhere like that. Then he thought a bit more and realised that even if Moses spoke Latin it would not be much help either (Aug. conf. XI, 5). Because it was not what Moses thought or intended that interested him but what the text signified. Which is not quite the same thing.
Lacan has already told us that the key phrase in the Massen text – maybe the only useful signifier in the entire work – is einzigen Zug. And that this means ‘trait unaire’. Now he tells us what it really means. That is to say, what it signifies, what Augustine refers to as veritas which he distinguishes from verum, ‘truth’ in the sense of the literal meaning (conf. XI, 5). Starting with an excursus on ‘the One’ (monas) (S9: 38), Lacan says by ‘unary trait’ he is not referring to an incorporation (Einverleibung), a ‘consumption of the enemy, of the adversary, of the father’, as we find it in primary identification (S9: 95). Its function is ‘no longer that of [the Kantian] Einheit’ (S9: 96). By this ‘reversal’ he re-defines unary in relation to its opposites, thus ‘abandoning the unifying unity’ it comes to signify ‘difference as such’, as a ‘distinctive’ unity (Einzigkeit) that designates radical otherness rather than sameness (S9: 95, 109). That is to say, Lacan gives to Freud’s text a meaning Freud did not know or intend, one that overcomes the two main ways in which identity is conceived. In this, Lacan’s way of reading Freud closely resembles the Platonist epistemology outlined by Augustine in the De Doctrina Christiana (particularly chapter iii). One that hinges, moreover, on an understanding of voluntas and velle as ‘will’ rather than ‘wish’ (Cary 2008: 297 n. 56 ).
Of course, someone might conclude that this merely reveals that Lacan’s Freud is made in his own image. In which case, I should have to object to the word ‘merely’. For to do an exegesis is not to ‘throw a signification over some naked thing’ as Heidegger puts it, for meaning is not arbitrary but ‘bound by an absolute criterion: the truth, the alētheia of being (ens et verum convertuntur)’ (Heidegger SZ 150; see D’hert 1978: 159). The well-known example given by Xenophanes may suffice. He wrote that Ethiopians think their gods have stub noses and are black; that Thracians see them with blue eyes and red hair, as the different races see the gods having their own characteristics. By the same token he says that if oxen could paint, they would paint gods that looked like oxen. Thus, he understood, not only the essential relativity of religious ideas in general but also something essential in our identification with the father (fr. 14-16, Diels 1906: 49).
The Interpretative Situation and Its Telos
The exegesis of a text at some point reaches an end. It is a process that has a telos. It depends on inner judgements that are arrived at over time and which often starts with a sense of not understanding. Frequently it involves us in long detours, making mistakes along the way, misunderstanding things, going in the wrong direction in a line of thought or coming to a dead-end and having to make a new start. Such a procedure is also dependent on other texts we have read. Some texts speak to us at one stage in life, others only later on as, at points, we identify to varying degrees with one or other idea or writer. This is particularly true when we become immersed in the corpus of an author such as Freud or Lacan. Our shifting identifications will, of course, all have their prehistory in our memory. As a result, in these developing positions and provisional readings, we can sometimes with hindsight discern earlier identifications or influences and somehow move beyond them. Even when, in so doing, as Sergio Benvenuto says, evocatively, a text cannot be entirely swept away but rather becomes one of our ‘precious texts’ into which we can turn back, now and then, with a kind of ‘reverence’ (2020: 2, 73). In this case, while moving beyond the text, it nevertheless remains part of us. Could these shifting identifications be described as forming a ‘unary’ strand, as Lacan describes it, like separate notches on a stone age hunting stick? Might this mean that some of the radical shifts in our trains of thought, judgements and position turn out not to have been so fundamental after all? Rather, a step along a path that was marked out from the very beginning in the first notch. And if so, where is free will in this course? Is there not a danger that this becomes another way of talking about fate or divine providence?
What might it mean – both for the analyst (‘being the one’) and for the patient – to end an analysis? What might the notion of an end to identification in the analytic relationship mean?
If an analysis resembles the exegesis of a text, can we understand something of the nature of ending an analysis from the experience of finishing reading or deconstructing a text? During our engagement with a text our relationship to it changes. We seem to get to know the author and have a sense of the variations in his style often in marked phases. And of those literary ticks that every writer has; his repetitive use of certain words or expressions, his style and mastery of language and of plot. But to speak of an end is not the same as saying that everything that could be said about the text, has been said. Far from it. In this sense, the ‘end’ is only ever partial. A point from whence others will make a new beginning.
The Cynic philosopher refused to call himself a sage, insisting he knew nothing (Goulet-Cazé, 1986). This tradition comes down to us in the Socratic paradox ‘I am wiser […] as I do not know anything’ (Plat. Apol. 21d; cf. Courcelle 1975). The doctrine that the divine is beyond Being and thus beyond language or mind led pseudo-Denys to assert that not-knowing or unknowing (ἀγνωσία) surpasses knowing, as the latter is always an inaccurate means of expression (De div. nom. vii, 3). Beginning with Meister Eckhart this apophatic note became central for the Rhineland mystics (Brons, 1976). Many later thinkers, including Heidegger, refer to it. A similarly apophatic note runs through the Tractatus. It amounts to an understanding that there are things which are ‘not a part of the world’ and are consequently unknowable (T. 5.641). This is manifest in the case of pedagogy, an example of which is where Wittgenstein writes: ‘My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it). He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.’ (T 6.54-7). Might moving beyond identification be something like this? We could, perhaps, see this tradition in Lacan’s notion that imaginary self-knowledge must be challenged, as it is fundamentally a misrecognition based on the ego (E 306); and in relation to the subject-supposed-to-know, the dissolution of which forms part of the end of analysis (Fink 1999: 30).
To end an analysis is to end a movement towards truth. A movement which, in fact, can never reach a conclusion. For truth does not only have ‘one face’ (Lacan 17: 201). Just as reaching the end of a commentary in the process of textual criticism can only ever be a partial ending. For there are always further significations waiting to be disclosed. In fact, an exegesis often raises more questions than it answers. In expounding the Massenpsychologie Lacan managed to transcend Freud, disclosing a meaning Freud did not intend. Surely, in so doing, he invites us to do the same. For the purpose of reading the work of others is not just to be able to repeat as facts what the author wrote but to find our own thoughts. And ultimately, having scaled that work, to move beyond it and ‘throw away the ladder’.