Questions in Response to Conversations with Lacan

Opening the book, looking at the title, knowing that the author had been present at Lacan’s seminar and that he had met him personally while a student in Paris, I imagined that Sergio Benvenuto would be one among the many memoirist who distill for posterity the memory of their encounters with the master. But then I realized that this was not at all the format. By conversation we are closer to the German Aus/einander/setzung, or confrontation, which means a theoretical discussion allied with the succinct summary of where divergence ends to create consensus. Then I took a look at the etymology of the word CONVERSATION. In its English usage it derives from the mid-14th century to mean, “place where one lives or dwells,” also “general course of actions or habits, manner of conducting oneself in the world,” both senses are now obsolete; in Old French conversacion meant “behavior, life, way of life, monastic life,” and directly from the Latin conversationem “frequent use, frequent abode in a place, intercourse, conversation,” a noun of action from the past-participle stem of conversari  “to live, dwell, live with, keep company with” the passive voice of conversare “to turn about, turn about with.” 

The sense of an “informal interchange of thoughts and sentiments by spoken words” dates from the 1570s, but it was used as a synonym for “sexual intercourse” from at least late 14th century; hence criminal conversation, a legal term for adultery from late 18th century. 

It seems difficult to actually engage in conversation with a dead man, unless we believe in spirits and so I will take from the rich polysemy of word conversation and its historical resonances, the meaning “way of life” and take this book as a lively testimony of the way of life of a psychoanalyst. As Benvenuto writes, as if to warns us against my previous philological excursus via semantic roots, “In psychoanalysis, too, it is a mistake to think that everything that happens … is the effect of the arché of language” (p. 164). This is one of the several qualifications facing classical Lacanian orthodoxy. 

Late in the book, Benvenuto proposes to set aside Lacan’s logocentrism “the primal transcendentality of language” (163). He is aware as well that the preceding chapters have highlighted the dominance of the signifier. What Benvenuto is questioning here is Lacan’s consideration of language as a transcendental condition of subjectivity.

Does this depend from what he calls his “deconstructive” reading? On page 155, he calls himself a deconstructive Lacanologist. In what sense is this deconstruction at work?

Here is one of my questions for him. Would Benvenuto be a covert Derridian? I don’t think so, even if he mentions in this passage the wish to return both to Derrida and Agamben, perhaps to highlight that humans are animals. We all remember Derrida’s queries and even attacks, the attempt to show how idealistic, Hegelian and teleological Lacan was. There is a reference to Nancy and Lacoue-Labarthe on page 64. We have not forgotten how they demonstrated that one cannot be a Saussurean and a Heideggerian at the same time. This does not seem to be Benvenuto’s take—he seems to argue that the domination of language is a myth of the sixties. He gives a chilling account of a French Lacanian psychoanalyst who interprets the symptom of a young Italian whose knee hurts as having to do with the signifier genou which works very well with a French speaker, but not really relevant for whose language is Italian.    

However, we also know that Derrida and Agamben do not agree about life (zoé or bios) and the animal. Or rather that Derrida dismissed Agamben’s claims in The Animal that Therefore I Am. So where are we exactly here?  

As the speaking animals that we are, especially those animals who undergo analysis, the equivocal value of words should not be disregarded in the cure. We should try to not indulge in what Benvenuto calls an abandonment into “a modernistic sort of spiritualism” (163) aware that the analytic intervention “feeds in logos” (p 164).

His intention is to highlight that despite the fact that we may get lost in words, we are also zoé, life. With life, we open the way to an assessment of the true important issue, das Trieb, the drive, the force that transubstantiates into desire. 

One of Benvenuto’s desires that one can see in the book is to tackle the real Thing at stake in psychoanalysis: the Real (capital R). To accomplish it, he follows a path that is not derailed by the hubris of reading Lacan’s “dazzling mottos” as science, or exercising “devotional philological preservation” and reconstructing meaning in a “militant exegesis of the [sacred] text.”  In fact this trilogy, like that of Catholic theology, is 3 in one, because the three modalities of reading are interdependent and could boil down to one: the “simulation of scientific style” relies on the evidence and data from “philological reconstruction” and leads to a “religious exegesis of the sacred text” (p. xiii and p. ix).  

What I like in this book is that it is fresh, lively, always intelligent and takes us away from a devoted myopic interlinear gloss. Benvenuto knows his Lacan and distills the gist of his teachings. He is aware that Lacan’s famous one-liners, even when they sound like definitions, or even inspirational poster slogans, are parodies of definitions. Benvenuto gives as one example, Lacan’s definition of love as “giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t want it” as “a caricature of the definition of love.” (p. 6). I have to say that, however, he devotes several pages of the book to developing this one as well as many of Lacan’s famous quotes. I agree that these aphorisms give us some important cues, but as Benvenuto recommends, one should not take them too seriously but rather play with their wit. I value his non-dogmatic approach, prudent, showing care and thought for the future, a sincere gesture that highlights what of Lacan can be “topical and alive” as he says. 

Lacan’s aphorisms are often an excuse for devotional worship “the Militant Exegesis of the Text of the Absolute,” as Benvenuto calls them.  These pseudo “knowledges” as Benvenuto writes, are treated as “traces of monuments” of the past aimed at reaffirming religious truths (p. x). Like “play it again Sam” in the film Casablanca, or “Do you feel lucky, punk” in the movie Dirty Harry, these are phrases that everyone quotes but wrongly. Furthermore, some of the “eternal truths of psychoanalysis” (p. x) are apocryphal or perhaps added post facto. Of note is the phrase that Benvenuto implicitly alludes to at the beginning of the Chapter 7, “Waiting for Machiavelli”, when he says that he is not a Lacanian or that he calls himself a Freudian. 

Thus, it was a surprise for me to discover that Lacan’s famous last phrase, from the July 1980 Caracas seminar, a little more than a year before his death: “C’est à vous d’être lacanien, moi je suis freudien” (“It is up to you to be Lacanian, as for myself I am Freudian”) against the Lacanian dogma built around it, was never pronounced by Lacan. As confirmed by two recent documentaries on that seminar available on You-Tube, as well as a personal communication with Diana Rabinovich, the Argentine analyst at the time in exile in Venezuela and the organizer of the Caracas seminar (the only seminar Lacan gave in Latin America and where he met his “Lacanoamericanos,” as he called his Latin American readers) the famous phrase was added to the published written version of seminar, but it is never heard in the actual recording of Lacan’s oral presentation. To cure us of our wish to fetishize the sacred text, I invite you to compare the actual film Television with the published text; you will notice many discrepancies. 

All these confirm the absurdity of the “devotional philological preservation” as Benvenuto calls it, the absurdity of worshiping the absolute text. 

Benvenuto’s tongue-in-cheek style reminds me of the humor of Lacan in “The Situation of Psychoanalysis and the Training of Psychoanalysts in 1956.” If I underline Benvenuto’s style, it is in order to highlight that style reflects substance, that is, a beyond meaning, which is something we can grasp in terms of Lacan’s theory of the real.  

But what about the real man, when he was still alive, I mean, the man Benvenuto met in the flesh, the Jacques Lacan whom Benvenuto “never consider[ed] going into analysis with”?  I wonder why? 

To conclude, I have to say that I saw a plot in this collection of lectures that made them into a real book, maybe a novel with a secret. And the secret was only half-revealed. On the first page, we read that Benvenuto “never considered going into analysis” with Lacan (p. 1). He says he will give his reasons later. Indeed, one has to wait until the last chapter to read this: “In my youth I was a fervent Lacan fan. Then, after overcoming my transference with him, I stopped being one, and for me he was no longer the subject supposed to know” (p. 155).

I have to say that I am still curious. What happened then? Why was his “analysis with Lacan”—an analysis that never really took place in real life—ended long ago?

Reading through those pages, I was wondering whether this had to do with the issue of the master, or more precisely the “master’s voice” that renders the written text alive (Benvenuto says that the seminars are like Pinter’s theatre plays that once seen performed, they render the writings alive). I wonder about the way Benvenuto managed nevertheless to become a reputed “Lacanian” psychoanalyst. In one interesting clinical aside, he mentions an Italian patient who was an hysteric and to whom he said “You are looking for a master to dominate” – he was quoting Lacan’s famous formula for hysteria. (p. 7) He concludes very cogently: “this was a turning point in her way of being.”

Elsewhere he examines the links between being an analyst and being a Master (p. 44). He also highlights the danger of becoming pedantic—a sin he never commits in these pages—and falling into University discourse, which he eschews as skillfully. 

However, he confesses that Lacan had been his maître, which works better in French. Why does he feel “tender pity” for those who never had a master, who are “little orphans who have to steal hot dogs to survive” (p. 156)? Did Benvenuto fear that he would have to be the slave facing this master? 

He declares that he is not a Lacanian because he preferred to do as Lacan did. In Rome in 1974, Lacan famously declared: “Do as I do, do not imitate me.” When in Rome, do as Romans do. This wonderful double bind would have been acted out by Benvenuto with a vengeance. “I am an imitator of Lacan … hence not a Lacanian” (p. 156).  Whatever it is, I sense that these remarks are important. Do we need to be like prodigal sons, who betray the father and never return home with their “tails between their legs” or will be with our stolen hot-gods in our hands? What does Benvenuto mean while declaring his love for Lacan, his symptom, his joy and pain? These are real questions for me, and I would like to hear his answer.     


Patricia Gherovici, Ph.D. is a recipient of the 2020 Sigourney Award for her clinical and scholarly work with Latinx and gender variant communities. She is co-founder and director of the Philadelphia Lacan Group and Associate Faculty, Psychoanalytic Studies Minor, University of Pennsylvania (PSYS), Honorary Member at IPTAR, and Founding Member of Das Unbehagen. Her single-authored books include The Puerto Rican Syndrome (Other Press: 2003) winner of the Gradiva Award and the Boyer Prize,  Please Select Your Gender: From the Invention of Hysteria to the Democratizing of Transgenderism (Routledge: 2010) and Transgender Psychoanalysis: A Lacanian Perspective on Sexual Difference  ​(Routledge: 2017).
She edited two volumes with Manya Steinkoler: Lacan On Madness: Madness Yes You Can’t ( Routledge: 2015) and Lacan, Psychoanalysis and Comedy (Cambridge University Press: 2016).  Most recently, she published with Chris Christian Psychoanalysis in the Barrios: Race, Class, and the Unconscious  (Winner of the Gradiva Award for best edited collection and the American Board and Academy of Psychoanalysis Book Prize; Routledge: 2019.)

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