Hysteria Today: Duane Rousselle Interviews Ellie Ragland

Ellie Ragland was Professor of English and Honorary Professor of French, as well as Frederick A. Middlebush Chair, at The University of Missouri where she taught psychoanalytic theory and world literature. She edited two journals on Lacanian psychoanalysis and is author of nine authored and edited books on Lacanian psychoanalysis. Her first book on Lacan was Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis and her forthcoming book is Lacan and Hysteria:  The Logic of Paradox. She is a member of the New Lacanian School and the World Association of Psychoanalysis. She is currently a practicing psychoanalyst.


Note: The following is a transcript of a telephone interview. As such, there are some editorial adjustments. I have removed some parts that were inaudible, and I have placed a note where certain phrases seemed to me to be equivocal.


Duane Rousselle: What’s so negative about psychoanalysis?

Ellie Ragland: Psychoanalysis rips apart the veil of what you assume about your life. You think you know who you are, you think that you became who you are in a certain way, and psychoanalysis just rips that apart. You learn that your father and mother are not who they thought you were, and you are not who you thought you were. All of that is just ripped apart if you go into psychoanalysis. You don’t have to be in a Lacanian psychoanalysis, that’s just psychoanalysis as such. Psychoanalysis is going to take apart the family, and most of the knowledge that you assumed — your master discourse, your assumptions. In that sense, psychoanalysis is negative because it shreds the assumptions according to which you’ve lived. At the same time learning that you are not who you were labeled to be also provides a certain relief.  On the other hand, I talk about the negative aspect of psychoanalysis because it is a generalized conception about psychoanalysis. Often, families and loved ones don’t want their family members or partners to go into analysis because they do not want to question the status quo of their relationships. However, there are many people who go into psychoanalysis and resist having their identities questioned at all.  It takes years for some people to have a doubt or a question that will allow psycho-analysis to begin.

I can see why people are afraid of psychoanalysis. They don’t want their identity or their concept of the world rocked. I can see why some claim that psychoanalysis is a negative experience. Although, on the other side, it is also very freeing. […] Another aspect that can be negative about psychoanalysis is the transference. There are all kinds of possibilities for the transference to go wrong, not just on the analysand’s side but also on the analyst’s side. Analysts in the Freudian Field are very careful not to give a lot of interpretations. They want the interpretation and the discovery of a new truth to come from the analysand. In that way they hope to avoid many of the power abuses that have been known to arise in other types of psychoanalysis.

These are the basic things that I would say about what’s negative about psychoanalysis: your world is torn apart.


DR: Could psychoanalysis be dangerous for those whose world has already been torn apart?

ER: It depends on how it has been torn apart. Psychoanalysis tears apart your identity, who you think you are, based upon all of the signifiers and identifications that you’ve had while growing up. It turns things upside down, and you will begin to see them in an altogether different light. So, there are many ways of being torn apart. I guess you could have that identity torn apart, but not in the way that it’s revealing something else. I mean, psychoanalysis tears down something but also builds up something. It tears it apart, but it gives you something different. It doesn’t leave you hanging.


DR: Is there anything within psychoanalysis that can be said to be “positive”?

ER: Positive?


DR: Yes, in whatever way you might use that word.

ER: Absolutely. I think that it is important that for Lacan, and in the School of the Freudian Cause, you have to come to understand that you have an unconscious. A lot of what you do and think is done in the unconscious, and that is what is causing you to act in certain ways that do not work well for you. You assumed that it was just the way things were, the way you were. I mean, we all probably know someone who cannot listen at all, and who cannot bear to listen to another point of view. Psychoanalysis opens up the doors to listening, to someone hearing your stories about suffering, stories of your pain. And the patient has to pay for that because it is expensive work. You have to pay for that kind of knowledge, for somebody to take your burdens on their shoulders and to let you talk in that way. That’s not the way we talk, generally speaking, in society.


DR: Early I was talking with you about your book, I think it was called Essays on the Pleasures of Death … is it ‘Pleasure’ or ‘Pleasures?’

ER: “Pleasures of Death,” right.


DR: When I think of the word “pleasure,” I tend to think of something — I’m using the word casually — that is maybe “positive,” as in, “pleasure” is a positive experience in some way. On the other hand, when I think about “death,” I imagine that most people associate it with a “negative” experience. How could it be that there are “pleasures” of “death”?

ER: There is the word “pleasure” and there is the word “jouissance.” I was using the word “pleasure” in the sense first related to sexual pleasure or jouissance in French and then later to what Lacan did with the word jouissance. It concerns how each person takes his or her pleasures, maybe as an alcoholic, maybe as a gambler. The way I’m using the word “pleasure” involves the question: “do we get pleasure in our symptoms?,” because it is what sews one together. Even if the way you take your pleasure is negative for your body and for your being, it is what you know, and who you are; so it is a pleasure that you take in your suffering. When I use “pleasures of death,” I am using it in a manner quite opposite to “pleasure,” since it is pleasure applied to death, to the death drive.

The sinthome knots the orders or dimensions (imaginary, symbolic, and real) together around and onto the father’s name signifier. It is another way of thinking about working with the sinthome. This is the opposite of the idea of the “pleasure principle,” that people do things because they’re getting pleasure out of it. With Lacan, this is not the way things work: we do things in order to satisfy our symptoms, in order to obtain jouissance, even though, at the same time, we may be killing ourselves from it, psychologically if not physically.


DR: Does psychoanalysis aim toward the removal of jouissance? Or does it allow it to persist?

ER: It offers a solution which allows you to reweave it, so that you are less on the side of the death drive. Rather than just be “positive,” it is going to be more truthful, and to give you less suffering. It is a problem in psychoanalysis: you can’t cure a person of who they are, structurally. A psychotic is a psychotic. You can’t remove psychosis. A neurotic is a neurotic, and the neurosis will remain, even though you change your symptoms, identifications, and ways of being. There is still the structural underpinnings of who you were, but then, finally, because of psychoanalysis, you can live with it. What you do is reweave much of that material so that your suffering becomes diminished: you are causing less suffering, feeling less suffering, and you are being more truthful about who you are and about what you can do with your life once the negative jouissance has been dismantled.


DR: I have a naive conception of, say, an earlier version of Lacan’s teaching, and a later version. Maybe you could help me sort it out. When I think of the earlier version, I tend to think about the paternal signifier–the name of the father– mortifying jouissance, and when I think about the later Lacan, something different seems to happen. The logic of mortification is not quite there anymore. Would you say that this is accurate? Or is there another way that I could think about it?

ER: I missed one word: you said “the logic of “ what?


DR: I don’t quite remember. I was saying that I imagine there to be two moments in Lacan’s teaching. There’s a moment when the name of the father seems to liquidate jouissance and then there seems to be a later logic where that ceases to be the case. And then you have the development of the concept of lalangue, which describes language made out of jouissance. So, would this be an accurate conception? Or is there another way to think about this?

ER: I don’t know how you could think about the father’s name in the earlier teaching of Lacan in terms of a mortifying function, unless you’re using it in the sense of patriarchal law. With the father’s name function, Lacan is really trying to get away from other psychoanalysts who placed causality for human suffering onto the mother. Lacan is moving things away from the mother toward the father, the father being a third function that escapes the infant/mother symbiosis. This move makes it possible for one to have an identity within the symbolic order. That is what is lacking in psychosis, the function of the father’s name as that which separates you from being one with the mother, essentially. So, in a sense, I don’t see the father as mortifying for Lacan, ever. Although, there is a lot of talk now in the Freudian field of Lacan about the father’s name not being a very strong signifier anymore, as it used to be in patriarchal society. Feminism, and the rights of women have changed society, in the last 50 or 60 years. You can’t, within Western society, assume that the father’s name is the structuring principle of identity anymore.  You may have a gay couple who decide to have children and the function of the father’s name will be taken up by an Aunt, cousin, uncle, or family friend, and not by Daddy himself.

As for lalangue, Lacan says in one place that he is writing language that way, as an object. In another place, he says that lalangue begins to be made up of maternal murmerings.


DR: I suppose I was thinking about that essay by Lacan in the Ecrits, “On a Question Preliminary to any …” or whatever it was called … “Psychosis.” You get that formula, where the name of the father stands in place of the mother’s desire, as a sort of effacement of it. And I was thinking of that as, say, a particular moment, and …

ER: I don’t see it as an effacement. The mother’s desire is standing under the Name-of-the-Father as a controlling principle, although Lacan does say that the Father’s Name is standing in the place that was first symbolized by the operation of the mother’s absence.  The mother’s desire subsequently stands above what is signified to the subject. Besides the father’s name and the mother’s desire, there is also a supplementary metaphor, the Other over the phallus. Lacanians now speak of a secondary paternal metaphor. I do not know how they are spelling it out. But, in any case, the idea of the paternal metaphor leaves a question concerning what is called the mother’s desire, or even the mother’s unconscious desire.  Right after giving this graph in “On a Question…,” Lacan begins to speak of psychosis where the father’s name is foreclosed.


It was essentially about giving a point of view toward the phallus, the mother’s desire.

The baby is the phallus and the father’s name is the signifier. So, it doesn’t dispense with the mother. It is just that she’s not the one who is going to give you the law.

There is one person who wrote a book on the mother, on mother’s who give the law. I’ve got the book, but I haven’t yet read it. It was written after this person left the Ecole. But there are many IPA psychoanalysts who believe that any problem is always caused on the side of the mother. This view could sometimes be true, especially in psychosis, but Lacan is saying that one doesn’t have psychosis when there is an adequate father function, one that provides calmness, distance, from the mother’s desire, from her unconscious desire.


DR: I don’t know if you’ve read Marie-Helene Brousse’s book on the feminine?

ER: I haven’t read it. On feminine jouissance?


DR: In a clear way, she argued that the mother is an identification, like gender, and that really what is perhaps at stake is the feminine, feminine jouissance. So, it’s interesting that in the earlier Lacan, you’ll see something like “mother’s desire,” but do we see that expression in the later Lacan? Anyway, the question that I wanted to ask was this one: how, for the later Lacan, can the sinthome operate as a name of the father?

ER: Exactly. He develops that in his seminar on James Joyce. This is the topological Lacan, the Lacan who claims that sinthome can knot the orders together. The sinthome is on the side of the father, the father as a signifier and as a function. And in James Joyce, it was, basically, language itself that became this function. Lacan figured out that Joyce was psychotic, and that in order not to have a “break,” he found a supplement for what he call his “ego” via language itself. I know someone very well who supplements his psychosis with language, with being able to speak any language — and he can do anything with language. It’s interesting, this whole idea. It is interesting because the singularity is in the other person. That is, the psychotic’s singularity comes from his or her making the error of believing that two are one. He or she retains the mental functioning of being one with the mother throughout life. In a relationship, the other or partner is expected to behave as if he or she were one with the psychotic. Dialogue or compromise are foreign words for the psychotic.


DR: What was that, the singularity is with the other person?

ER: The singularity, in psychotics, in how they manage with an other. That is, psychotics are not all sick and in hospital beds. There wouldn’t be a world [sounds like “there wouldn’t be an award”] of genius if there weren’t worlds for psychotics. Look at Bobby Fisher, winning those chess championships. Yet, he was clinically paranoid, and he became completely mentally disabled. And he died that way. He had been the greatest genius at chess, more than anyone who played before him. So, it is interesting the supplements that people come up with when they are not given the father’s name as a function when they are young, when all of this was laid down for them. Very often psychosis manifests itself in the 20s or 30s when an individual really confronts the symbolic order and its laws. They don’t have a “no,” whereas others do have a “no.” Yet in “ordinary psychosis,” the person will probably never have a break. He or she has learned to function with good enough fathers, maybe taken from books, maybe from everyday life.


DR: I will ask one more question. You know, I was talking with Tom [Thomas Svolos]. He said, as I mentioned to you earlier, that what interested him, finally, in the World Association of Psychoanalysis, was the development that occurred within Jacques-Alain Miller’s seminars of this concept you mentioned earlier, “Ordinary Psychosis.” I know you were in the room when he was developing it because your name is in the transcripts. I think that this concept, and its subsequent expansion, and perhaps generalization, brought him closer to the Lacanian School. It seems to me that we are hearing more about these sorts of theoretical generalizations from psychosis, even in the recent discussions of delusions, and those sorts of topics. Yet, at this same time, you’ve been busy working on the question of hysteria. I wonder why you think, at this time, hysteria is such an important topic?

ER: I hope to send my latest book on this topic out to the publisher soon to let people read it. Lacan came up with something which is so different from the way hysteria was discovered and treated from Egyptian times on. The idea of hysteria, throughout the centuries, was that there was a certain kind of nervous woman, and sometimes men, a certain way of being. It was treated in many different ways throughout time, from petra stones, to witch burnings, to surgeries to remove the uterus.  Freud wanted to figure out what caused hysteria, and he had all kinds of theories. But he never figured it out. He knew that there was something special there, and that there was something different about ‘woman,’ and about hysterical ‘woman’ when compared with ‘normal woman.’ He figured out that when certain women lost a husband or a father this contributed to a hysterical (or nervous) breakdown. It had to do with the loss of a major father figure. But what Lacan figured out about the hysteric–and this is what my book is really about–is that the hysteric identifies with the father. She can also identify with the mother and sisters, but mostly with the father and brothers. The whole question becomes, according to Lacan: “Am I a man, or am I a woman?” This is something helpful, and it’s different. Maybe there’s something of this also in “trans,” although some people seem to think that trans usually has more to do with psychosis and not with neurosis. The hysteric is usually a woman who knows she’s a woman–she doesn’t say that she’s not a woman, she doesn’t dismiss this–but she identifies with men more than women.

Julia Childs is a perfect example. There is a documentary about her. She’s really only happy cooking with men, who she calls “homos.” She always calls them “homos.” [Ellie laughs] She loves to cook with men, to be with men, and so on. She is very clearly a hysteric, and it is especially obvious when you read about her life. Her husband is the one who organizes her life. She couldn’t figure out which knife to separate from other utensils, and so on. He is a bit of an obsessional figure who organizes things so that she can be productive for the public. That’s the case for a lot of hysterical women.

Bruce Fink writes about this in one of his books. He takes Marilyn Monroe as an example. But he has a very negative view of her. She is a hysteric, he says, just as many people were throughout the centuries: troubled, dramatic, sexually cold, problematic figures. I think the question of Marilyn’s diagnosis is still open to question, as is Fink’s negative view of hysterics. Lacan found the split between the masculine and the feminine to be an identification that is painful for hysterics, but not in the psychotic way. There is a lot of work still to be done on this, and that is why Jacques-Alain [Miller] encouraged me to write my book on hysteria.


DR: Ah! Maybe I still have a follow-up question. Clinically, how would you distinguish a female psychotic from a hysteric with delusions?

ER:  I know that Miller has recently said that everyone has delusions. This makes sense. But psychotic delusions differ from fantasmatic ones. As you know, the DSM V calls hysterics “borderline,” which is another word for “psychosis.” Those who use the concept “borderline” don’t make that distinction, they blur the lines. Freud’s conception of hysteria was as a neurosis, not as a psychosis. The difference is that a psychotic, basically, still identifies with the maternal, demonstrating what Lacan called the “push to the feminine.” The hysteric’s basic identification is a push toward the man, toward daddy. And it is sad for her because she will never be able to enter that group. It is a closed ensemble [sounds like “a closed semblant”]. The point is that the hysteric pushes toward the masculine while the psychotic pushes toward the feminine.


Duane Rousselle is a Lacanian psychoanalyst and Canadian Sociology. He is currently Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology at the University College of Dublin, Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology at the University College of Cork, Visiting Associate Professor of Sociology at Nazarbayev University, and Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati. He has published numerous books including Real Love (Atropos Books, 2021), Gender, Sexuality and Subjectivity: A Lacanian Perspective on Language, Identity and Queer Theory (London: Routledge, 2020), Jacques Lacan & American Sociology: Be Wary of the Image (London: Palgrave, 2019), Lacanian Realism: Political and Clinical Psychoanalysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), and Post-Anarchism: A Reader (London: Pluto Press, 2012).



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European Journal of Psychoanalysis