Letter to Essaim Editorial Committee

Dear Nicolas Guerin, Severine Mathelin, Mary McLoughlin and Erik Porge,

I was surprised to receive such an impolite and patronising response from the editorial committee of Essaim. When Erik requested an article from me, I let him know that it would make “a few polemical points without going into the details of the historical issues”, which I did not have the time to present more fully at present. He had said that this suited the journal perfectly, and he welcomed the contribution. Well, until he read it.

The collective response of the Editorial Committee, sadly, exemplifies many of the things that are wrong with inward-looking analytic groups, certain of their own knowledge and looking down on other voices and traditions rather than being open to learn from them. The idea that Lacan could have been influenced in any way by Americans – or indeed, really, by anyone – seems unthinkable, and so we are left with a dehistoricised Lacan, an irony given that our work as analysts always involves a recognition rather than a foreclosure of historical factors.

The “simplifications” and “erroneous considerations” that you evoke are on the side of those hasty and ill-informed depictions of American psychoanalysis that my article aims to question, and that are still such a staple in our literature. To take the most ridiculous example from your letter, you state that “Regarding Kris, one must make the effort, as you say (and as we have done), to really read Kris’s case, and also Lacan’s commentary in his response to Hyppolite, to see that, contrary to what you claim a) Kris intervenes at the level of reality in questioning the patient precisely about the real content of the supposedly plagiarised text, and b) that Lacan does not say that Kris consulted the material in question. It is thus absolutely false to claim that Lacan totally distorts the facts here”.

But since you have “really read” the texts so carefully, did you not notice that Lacan says, of Kris and the book in question, “Il demande a voir le livre. Il le lit”, and then later, ”On se permet de lire cet ouvrage”. So it is plain as day that he does say that Kris read the work. If that is not a distortion, then what is? Jorge Banos Orellana has shown the other misrepresentations of the case in Lacan’s seven references to it, and these cannot just be airbrushed away because you don’t like them.

Note also that it is rather contentious to claim that Kris “intervenes at the level of reality in questioning the patient precisely about the real content of the supposedly plagiarised text”. He simply questioned him in detail, just as any analyst would, when exploring some episode in a person’s life. Would asking an analysand about some aspect of their history count as intervening ‘at the level of reality’? Would we have to dismiss Freud’s questioning of Dora about her role in the family drama on the same grounds? Or the repeated rehearsing of the Ratman’s military manoeuvres?

You go on to pronounce that “It is improbable that the Schema L was inspired either directly or indirectly by American intellectual contributions to the Unesco seminar in 1953 at which Lacan participated. If Lacan was ‘inspired’ by anyone for the schema, it was by Lévi-Strauss who, in 1947, and then in 1952, used quadripod schemas resembling more or less the Schema L to formalise kinship and exchange structures in the tribes of Western Siberia”.

But how exactly do you know what happened at the UNESCO seminar? What justifies the categorical dismissal of the possibility that Americans might have been relevant here? I had spoken with Lévi-Strauss in 1998 about his own use of mathematics, and he explained that it was in fact during his stay in New York in the 1940s that he realised how important certain areas of maths could be to formalise not kinship groups as such but the relation between sets of kinship groups. It was Claude who told me about the UNESCO  work, which I had not been aware of, and of the importance at that time of graph theory and the servosystem circuits elaborated by Shannon, Weaver and others. His own quadripod diagrams derive from there, and it would be obtuse to deny the homology between the schema L and those found in Shannon and Weaver’s ‘Mathematical Theory of Communication’ (1949). I wrote up some of this in Drawing the Soul: Schemas and Models in Psychoanalysis ed. Bernard Burgoyne, Rebus (2000). It is also worth noting here the scare quotes you feel obliged to insert around the word ‘inspired’, as if this is not something that could happen to Lacan.

You go on to state, once again with certainty, that “It is absolutely incorrect to affirm that Fromm’s anticapitalism is proof of his anti conformism. You know perfectly well, like many American colleagues, that the supposedly progressive critique of Horney and Fromm regarding capitalism and consumer society didn’t succeed in masking their penchant for right-thinking, conformism and adaptation. This is a known fact. It was perceptively noticed in the US by Adorno in 1946, by Marcuse in 1955, by Lasch in 1979 and by the Frenchman J.-B. Pontalis in 1954.”

I am puzzled by the idea that I make Fromm’s anticapitalism “proof of his anti conformism”, as I can’t find this claim in my text. Fromm elaborated both an anticapitalism and a certain anti conformism. Although you state, with your characteristic certainty and omniscience, “You know perfectly well”, in fact, I don’t, and certainly would not agree that Horney or Fromm were conformist thinkers or, indeed, clinicians. To say that “This is a known fact” is really quite silly. Adorno and Horkheimer did their best to undermine Fromm’s reputation – dubbing him “a professional Jew” – after the 1939 split, for a variety of reasons, yet Horkheimer knew hardly anything about psychoanalysis, and they both subscribed to the “biological materialism” of what they took to be Freud’s libido theory.

Ironically, the more recent studies of their work and correspondence have shown that one of the things that bothered them about Fromm was the risk that his Marxist – and anti conformist – views would upset their American hosts. Marcuse popularised the critique of Fromm, as did Lasch, yet their works are very much open to question, and what bothered them – and in particular Marcuse – was precisely Fromm’s emphasis on relational structures – which is something that, as students of Lacan, we give the highest value to.

The schoolmasterly lecture continues, this time about Ferenczi. “The use, in American psychoanalysis, of the term ‘analysand’, from Ferenczi, is hardly surprising. However it has nothing to do with the denotation of the term ‘analysand’ used by Lacan. The term ‘analysand’, for Ferenczi, stems from his conception of mutual analysis where the analyst analyses, and is thus an analysand: and symmetrically, his patient can be an analysand, that is analyst of his analyst. This specular conception of treatment has no relation with Lacan’s direction of the treatment, as you also know. And it’s no surprise that the Ferenczian term, carrying with it a conception of the counter-transference as a technical tool, should have had a certain success in the US. So no relation with Lacan.”

Once again, I’m told “as you also know” – but actually I do not know this. The categorical statement about the American use of the term ‘analysand’ is simply a product of your imagination. The use of the term did not actually reference the Ferenczi model, but was initially employed to designate analysts who were doing training analyses, later becoming a term indexing the active work of the patient, together with a way of avoiding the use of this latter term. I mentioned it in order to trouble the frequent claim that Lacan introduced the term. To then state that the American use “has nothing to do with” Lacan’s use, without even knowing the first thing about it, once again reinforces the phantasy that Lacan could not have taken anything from anywhere, unless he acknowledged this himself – an idea that in itself is reminiscent of those symptoms that involve rigid separation protocols.

As a parenthesis, to reduce Ferenczi’s rich and diverse contributions to analytic technique to a “specular conception of treatment” is unfortunate, and the underlying phantasy structure is perhaps obstetric rather than specular. It is, likewise, surely one of the lessons of psychoanalysis that where specular relations may seem commutative, not all commutative relations are specular. The arrogant reduction of Ferenczi’s work echoes exactly what my article tries to show re: American psychoanalysis: how Lacanians often dismiss divergent traditions with cliches and catchphrases, so as always to prove…’Aucun rapport avec Lacan, donc‘.

Returning to American psychoanalysis, you write that “It is not correct to think that Lacan reduced the problem of the currents in American psychoanalysis to ego psychology. Like you, we have no doubt that American psychoanalysis is made up of very diverse currents.  But as we pointed out in the argument of issue 48 that we sent out, Lacan thought that it was culturalism that constituted the real problem (see the discussion with Miller in Crucial Problems) in the development of psychoanalysis in the US”.

It is perhaps just a little bit far-fetched to claim that Lacan saw “culturalism” as the main problem with American psychoanalysis – and indeed, one could say the same thing about analysis anywhere in the world – and to prioritise the brief comments in Seminar 12 over the detailed critiques in Seminar 1 and Seminar 2, and the published articles in the Ecrits, and elsewhere. In fact, in the argument that you sent out for issue 48, you do mention it after ego psychology, with a “but also”: “Human engineering found its fullest realisation in the 50s in the currents of ego psychology, but also in the culturalism that Lacan considered to be what was “most questionable in the development of psychoanalysis in the US”.

Likewise, when the endless commentaries on Lacan explain things to us, they almost invariably equate American psychoanalysis with ego psychology (or rather, a certain incorrect version of it). You conclude your argument for issue 48 with a ‘Church in Danger’ style warning, in the form of a question: “Could we imagine that the Freudian epidemic, weakened by its American mutations, could in turn be propagated beyond the frontiers of the US, and, why not, contaminate Europe?”. The allusion to the current pandemic is perhaps in poor taste here, but the question shows, yet again, the idea of US psychoanalysis as something toxic, threatening the purity of our own European version. Nice.

Finally, a few more points.

You find the “allusion to the ‘negro republic’ incomprehensible” etc. This is the well-known comment that Freud made when trying to persuade Alexander not to move to the States, and it surprised Alexander at the time. There seems little reason to censor it, and it indicates Freud’s negative attitude towards the States. It appears in both Alexander’s Recollections and in the Eissler interview in the Library of Congress.

You don’t like “the idea that Freud was influenced by his American analysands in the 20s, simply by being his analysands, and this remains a speculation. This would have to be proven but you don’t do it”. As you have read my text attentively, you must have missed the following sentence, which shows that I do not actually hold this view. That’s why I wrote “Whatever our views on this..”

You note that you don’t see the link between Lacan’s notions of language and the act and the examples of theatrical interpretation. These examples are used as counterpoint to the frequent reduction of American psychoanalytic practice to heavy-handed transference and content interpretations.

Concluding your letter, you interpret that the “adversary” here is Lacan and those identified as “the French people who follow him”. I wasn’t aware of having identified any “French people’’ in the article, as the comments are directed at those Lacanians who perpetuate distorted views of American psychoanalytic traditions – wherever they may happen to be. But your response shows both that you’ve taken them personally, and that you should.


Darian Leader

October 14, 2021


Darian Leader is a psychoanalyst working in London and a member of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research and of The College of Psychoanalysts-UK. He is the author of several books including: Why do women write more letters than they post? (Gardners Books, 1996); Freud’s Footnotes (Faber & Faber, 2000); Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing (Faber, 2002); Why do people get ill?, with David Corfield (Penguin, 2008); The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia and Depression (Penguin, 2008); What is Madness? (Penguin, 2011); Strictly Bipolar (Penguin, 2013); Hands. What We Do with Them – and Why (Penguin, 2016); Why Can’t We Sleep? (Penguin, 2019); and his most recent book, Jouissance: Sexuality, Suffering and Satisfaction (Polity, 2021). He writes frequently about contemporary art.

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