“The Borromean Knot of Jacques Lacan; Or, How to Beat Your Death Drive” a lecture by Aron Dunlap

“The Borromean Knot of Jacques Lacan; Or, How to Beat Your Death Drive” a lecture by Aron Dunlap


Jacques Lacan was a French psychoanalyst, born in 1901, in Paris, two years after Freud revealed psychoanalysis to the world in The Interpretation of Dreams. Lacan died at the age of eighty, still in Paris, having become known as the French Freud. [He left for brief visits elsewhere.] In the English speaking world, we know him not so much as a psychoanalyst but as one of the fathers of post-structuralism, a sometimes foe and sometimes friend of feminism, and a font of obscure jargon, to be raided by film theorists, philosophers, and literary critics—and really anyone who just wants a new, fancy sounding word. One downside of this for us is that it is easy to forget that, even when he was giving a seminar to hundreds of people, he was still doing analysis — in fact he claimed that his own analysis occurred during these weekly seminars over nearly 30 years— and so we must interpret everything he said with the goals of the analyst in mind. According to the psychoanalyst Bruce Fink the mode of speech most salient to the practice of analysis is the oracular—speech that hides the truth while it reveals it, in order that the listener, the analysand, the person lying on the couch, can work out the truth for him or herself. So, I’m going to talk about Lacan today not as a critic or a philosopher or a post-structuralist or a font of jargon, but as an analyst, which, I think, will enable us to cut through some of the obscurity that often clouds discussions of his ideas. As I’m currently teaching “Hum 1,” and I’m in art mode, I will use a well-known painting by Hans Holbein to illustrate some of Lacan’s notions, and I’ll also be drawing from some familiar Shimer College texts, Freud included. So, the Borromean Knot. It’s up there, it’s here. I’m going to start by discussing a visual representation of Lacan’s map of the psyche. He called it the Borromean knot, because it resembles the family crest of the Borromeo family. Actually it pretty much is the representation here, even down to the way the rings overlap. The most prominent member was Carlo Borromeo, 16th c. archbishop of Milan, under whose direction, interestingly enough, the Roman Catholic practice of confession or penance moved into the confessional, an enclosed double box with a screen separating the priest from the penitent. Though Freud was adamant that psychoanalysis had nothing to do with confession, Lacan’s choice to reference this famous catholic reformer, is perhaps a somewhat playful confession to the contrary. We have here the overlapping registers of the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic. [Hopefully you can see it written clearly on the knot. My handwriting is bad, but it’s not that bad.] These are the terms within which pretty much the whole of Lacan’s teaching can be placed, and they more or less rely on the topologies of Freud, the first of conscious, pre-conscious, and unconscious; and the latter of the ego, super-ego and id. Now, there are no one-to-one correspondences between the registers or elements of any of these schemas, such that one could say that Lacan’s symbolic equals Freud’s unconscious. Yet Lacan was adamant that he was not changing Freud’s thought so much as putting it into new terms, the terms of the new science of linguistics especially, as Lacan found it in Saussure, Jakobson, and others. The key feature of the Borromean knot is the way in which no two rings are tied together directly, but each pair of rings depends on the third to link them, so that should any ring be disengaged the whole thing comes apart. For example, the real is not directly linked to the imaginary, but must connect to it via the symbolic. [I’ve tried to make that clear with the way that the rings overlap, and it’s probably more clear in this image over here.] If you look closely at the links you can see it. The psyche, for Lacan, is a tapestry with these three registers providing the guiding threads. Let’s talk about the thread of the imaginary first. It achieves its formation in a person’s psyche during what Lacan calls the mirror stage, between the ages of 6-18 months. Since my daughter just turned two, I have anecdotal expertise in this realm. The Imaginary is where the ego first starts to develop, but not as a self or subject (in French this is a little clearer, since the word for ego is le moi, the me). The ego, in Lacan, always develops as an other. But what does this mean? Well it means that everything that goes into the ego, all my images of myself, comes from others; comes especially from those others to whom the child is most closely connected: parents, caregivers, siblings. When my daughter refers to herself in the second or third person, as she usually does, this is a good example of this point. It’s been surprising to me that other complications of language (irregular verbs, tricky pronunciations) have not given her the same kinds of problems as pronouns do. So, she has the beginnings of an ego, but she has borrowed it from me (poor thing), and she refers to herself as you or she or Lucy because that is how I refer to her. When I tried to explain her out of this error, I quickly hit a brick wall: I never refer to her as “I” so why should she? The ego, for Lacan, is not subject, it is not something that possesses or owns objects, but it is object, and it is either identified with, or it is rejected—the toddler is either reveling in their power over the universe, or throwing a self-destructive fit on the floor, destroying that universe with which they identify. Another way to say this would be that, in the mirror stage, language is copied from others, but is not internalized. There is a “me”, but no “I”. And when the “I” first shows up, it is a purely imitative “I.” I can only get my daughter to use “I” when she is directly copying a phrase I have spoken. It is precisely this somewhat counter-intuitive origin of the ego in the other that accounts for the binary logic —the peek a boo logic — of the imaginary realm—identity or non-identity—and the competition and aggression that follow in the wake of this logic. Sharing does not come naturally to children at this stage. I think everyone thinks that their kid will share. “Other kids don’t share, but mine will.” The things that we are asking them to share are them, at this age. When a child makes an attachment to an object, because the child does not conceive of a self or subject possessing an object, they identify absolutely with that object. Freud talked about this kind of identification in the child’s inability to distinguish between themselves and their mothers or their mother’s
breast; Lacan sees this logic as fundamental to the being of the ego and its relation to any object. Because I have borrowed my “I” from another, there is no way for me to truly own that I. “I is another,” said Lacan, quoting the poet, Rimbaud. It’s possible to see the imaginary realm as entirely unfortunate, as something that should be gotten over or overwritten as quickly as possible. But it is precisely the mirroring dynamics of the imaginary without which children would not be able to learn things, especially language in all its complications, as quickly as they do. If children were concerned with the meaning of words as they were trying to learn them, they would be as bad at learning languages as adults are. As Lacan notes in an early Seminar: “The child is prodigiously open to everything concerning the way of the world that the adult brings to him. Doesn’t anyone ever reflect on what this prodigious porosity to everything in myth, legend, fairy tales, history, the ease with which he lets himself be invaded by these stories, signifies, as to his sense of
the other?” Children in the imaginary stage learn language with the same ferocity that they latched onto the nipple as infants, as if their lives depend on it. It’s hardly proper to even say that they learn language, more like they devour it; it invades them and they become it. [So, moving on to the “Symbolic”] The imaginary register is crucial, especially concerning the first steps of learning, which as the Greeks knew, was largely mimetic, based on imitation. But it is the symbolic register, always the key register for Lacan, which intrudes into the binary logic of the imaginary (me or not me) and says, no, there are rules which govern life and language, and the imaginary identifications have to find their place in an overall structure of symbols. The cliche: “everything I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten” is true from this perspective. The only thing you really need to get in order to enter into the symbolic, which is the properly human realm for Lacan, is that there is a rule — always a rule — that triangulates between any two objects and any two egos. There are not just things that I devour or expel, but there is a schedule that tells me when I can eat, when I can excrete. There is not just the pressure of the instinct rising up, which must be satisfied immediately, but there is a law that apportions such satisfactions. There is a rule, for example, that tells me that I can play with the ball in the morning, but in the afternoon I have to let my sister play with it. It doesn’t really matter what the rules are, but you have to accept the framework of those rules. Kant said that the purpose of early education is to teach a child to sit still — the first five years or something. Lacan would agree in general, but would add that the rule itself doesn’t really matter. For instance, you could imagine a classroom in which lessons were only learned while doing jumping jacks (That’s pretty much my Humanities 1 class). [Audience laughs.] I’m sure there’s a progressive school that focuses entirely on this mode of education. What holds the community together is not the content of rules, but the fact that we bow to rules in general, that we respect the need for rules. For the Dobu that Ruth Benedict describes, a ubiquitous and ritualized theft of yams is clearly part of the symbolic framework in which they live, and as such it is not senseless anarchy, as it no doubt appears to us on first reading it in Social Sciences 1, but has a meaning– Lacan places meaning–[points] right there–where the imaginary and symbolic overlap. Developmentally, the symbolic framework is established between about the age of 4 and the beginning of puberty. These ages more or less map on to Freud’s “latent stage of sexuality.” The result of the symbolic not taking, as it were, is psychosis, according to Lacan. This is a diagnostic category and not meant to be disparaging. I realize it looks bad, especially next to the other ones. It is possible to be a healthy psychotic, and Lacan actually thought that James Joyce was one of these. We’ll talk more about that later. [Audience laughs.] Those who read Finnegan’s Wake last semester could probably add some things too. One might say that the psychotic is incapable of getting meaning, which requires an acceptance of the repressive regime of the symbolic, and though they might learn language through a process of pure mimesis and copying (as we all do originally), it will never properly mean anything. The theft of yams, to an outsider ignorant of the symbolic importance of this act, will appear meaningless. Bruce Fink describes psychotic language in the following passage: “The psychotic way leads to language learning by imitation alone, no split between conscious and unconscious (and thus no ambivalence per se), and an inability to hear both literal and figurative meanings of an expression at the same time.” Fink gives an example of a psychotic patient of his, who, as a child, was called “tape recorder” because of the way she acquired and utilized language, which she describes in the following terms: “When I talk to other people I translate my picture into stock phrases or sentences I have ‘on tape’ inside my head … The reason I don’t sound like a tape recorder anymore is that I have so many stock phrases and sentences I can move around into new combinations.” Obviously, most people don’t think of language in this way. The three main categories of pathology in Lacan are based in Freud and consist of: neurotics, psychotics and perverts. [All just great news.] They’re not meant to be insulting, or, it occurs to me, they might all just be equally insulting. That might be part of the project. To explain two of them (we’re going to ignore “perversion” for today)–in a very summary manner: neurosis is the lot of most people–yay! the neurotic!–who have accepted the authority of the symbolic register, and who live according to a desire that, because of repression, can never fully be satisfied. Freud’s super-ego clearly informs Lacan’s notion of the symbolic. The mirror phase aspect of the first register we discussed partly explains Lacan’s use of the term Imaginary. But why does he call this second register symbolic? The etymology of symbol, the word is originally Greek, literally means thrown together. In the ancient world it meant a token or mark; early Christians referred to the nicene creed as the mark, or symbolon, of a Christian. Only in 1590, in Spencer’s The Fairy Queen, does it first get used in English to mean “something that stands for something else”. All three meanings I think are relevant to Lacan. First of all the symbolic throws two realms together, suppressing the realm of desire with that of the law. Like a creed the symbolic functions as a framework, expressing the totality of one’s faith or idea of the world; the symbolic is also behind the ability to use metaphor, to say one thing while meaning another, as in the joke told by Freud: (This is the joke.) “Two Jews meet in a railway carriage–that’s not the funny part yet–… Two Jews meet at a station in Galicia. ‘Where are you going?’ asked one. ‘To Cracow,’ was the answer. ‘What a liar you are!’ broke out the other. ‘If you say you’re going to Cracow, you want me to believe you’re going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you’re going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?'” According to Lacan, this ability to tell the truth at one level while lying on another is uniquely human, symbolic. Animals, for Lacan, are masters of the imaginary, they imitate just as well as infants and better than adults; in fact a chimp keeps up with a human developmentally until about the age of 3. Animals can communicate, often in complicated ways, but never speak, according to Lacan. They can deceive, but they cannot tell the truth in order to deceive. One might assume that Lacan’s real, the third and final register here, has a relation to the reality principle of Freud, but in fact that latter notion is more closely related to Lacan’s symbolic, as it is the symbolic reality into which the young child is initiated and to which her wishes and desires must become subordinated. It is actually the death drive, which Shimer students read about in Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, in Social Sciences 3, that functions as one of the inspirations for the real of Lacan. But before we discuss Lacan’s real I’d like to look at a painting that Lacan discussed at length in his seventh seminar. I’m going to be mean, and hide it now. I’m going to ask–and get some participation here–for those who don’t know the painting, and have never seen it before, just tell me what you saw? [Audience member: Two noblemen and a lute.] Nice. L-U-T-E. Although there was plenty of “loot” as well. Anyone else? [Audience member: I noticed an inexplicable pallet just sitting there in the center.] A pallet. Anyone else? Let’s look at it again. This is called “The Ambassadors.” Painted in 1533 by the German Hans Holbein the Younger, when he was working in England. I’m going to use it as an example of Lacan’s three registers. Let’s see if it works. This picture of two men gazing at the viewer could very well be the primal scene of the mirror phase, which Lacan described as a child propped up in front a mirror, supported by another, a parent or whomever, saying yes, that is you… …(in fact, because of our binocular vision, we are actually always seeing two of everything; all of our objects are double at the level of perception, even if they are unified in the mind)–which a painter would be especially sensitive to. Both of these men, Jean De Dinteville (on the left) and Georges de Selve are real life ambassadors, de Dinteville in secular dress — a fetching robe — and De Selve wearing a clerical collar. In other words who they are are two similar looking men, who mirror each other as well as the viewer gazing at them, but what they represent, symbolically, is the totality of human authority, church and state. Then we see the table that they are both casually leaning on. It is filled with all of the objects that Renaissance scholars and scientists used to gain knowledge of the world. There’s two levels to the table, here. On the top, you have items that are used to interrogate the heavens. There’s an astrolabe…other sorts of GPS devices. [Audience laughs.] There’s a globe of the heavens. On the second level — earlier Dan was very perceptive and noticed the lute — and there’s also other things that are earthly.There’s a globe, there’s a math textbook, there’s a hymnbook — I’ll get a close up of some of these things. This is the top shelf, here. Note the lute, and the globe. The lute has a broken string. This is the math textbook. It’s actually open to a chapter on division, and it features a couple of long division problems. The Lutheran hymnbook—one can actually read the German text— in the context of these French ambassadors calls up the religious divisions of the day. 1533 is the same year that Henry VIII divorced his first wife and married Anne Boleyn, was all leading up to him taking England away from the Catholic church. The textbook, like I said, is marked at the chapter on division. Actually — let’s see if this works — I’m using Google Art Project, which is a wonderful thing. I’m not online so I’m going to hope this still lets me look at the details. This is the Lutheran hymnbook. You can kind of see that there are German words, but that’s as far as I could get. And then this is the…(it might not resolve for me)…You can actually read the German word “Dividiert,” and you can see some long division problems there. Let’s look at some of the wonderful texture here. I don’t quite have the focus [on the screen] that I should, but one thing I want to point out is the level of detail with the interlocking shapes. There are arabesques not only in the curtain, but also in this Persian Rug. The mosaics on the floor, which were modeled on the mosaics in Westminster Abbey. The way these shapes interlock, these simple patterns repeated and modulated — they are reminiscent of the linkings and joinings of the rings of the psyche. In the last decade of his seminars Lacan would often, instead of speaking, just stand up in front of the audience and play with pieces of string. [Audience laughs.] He got fascinated with mathematical properties of string and topology, which is how you can rearrange these shapes and maintain their structural identity — I don’t really understand too much about it — he would just take a Borromean knot and see what he could do with it. Attendance kind of…fell during those years. [Audience laughs.] Let’s go back to the — [audience has another outburst of laughter] — Persian rug, and there’s the floor of Westminster Abbey. (Here’s the full painting again.) At the imaginary level these two men might be rivals, the symbolic elements in the painting, though, join them, dissolve their differences and suggest a harmonious accord between them, heaven and earth come together, the realm of the secular and the religious, the realm of desire and the realm of the law hand in hand. They are smack dab in the center of meaning in their world, even riding astride it. Like (I believe) Arlo said earlier, they look content. I think that they exude this power, and this contentment with their knowledge and their place in the world. Smack dab in the center of the world. And yet what is that smudge at the bottom of the painting? Someone in the audience said “a skull” I think…it’s a human skull. It’s actually hard to see from out there. Stuart actually has the best line of vision on it. But you [pointing into audience] noticed it right away, which most people don’t. Or they might notice the smudge, but it’s not clear what it is. Well, when you’re looking at it head on, at a point where the marvelous foreshortening of the lute — it’s just fun to say “lute” — is most impressive and from where you can best ogle at the richness of the mens’ outfits, this object here — this skull — — is simply a smudge and you will probably turn away not having spent too much time worrying about it, though it might disturb at a level that is less than conscious. You might see it and not really know what it was. Some scholars think that this fellow here (Jean De Dinteville) had commissioned this painting and told Holbein he wanted to hang it in a room with two doors, one that would be right in front of the painting, the main entrance, and one that would be to the right. Now, if you were to enter there, gaze at the painting, then exit here, you might, because of some slight unconscious discomfort, turn once more just before leaving to look at the painting one more time. At the end everyone should go over to the corner where you can see the skull. It’s sort of a nice effect. Should you do so at this point you would be quite shocked to see a perfectly recognizable human skull grinning demonically at you. That’s what it looks like if you stand over there. The lesson, quite common in the renaissance, was, no matter how glorious one’s state in life, how rich one’s clothes, how vast one’s knowledge, death gets you in the end. Death has the last laugh and the last smile. Many renaissance paintings feature both a skull to act as a reminder of death and the vanity of earthly things, and many paintings featured anamorphosis, a trick of perspective which is literally a forming again, in a distorted way, of an object. So everyone remembers — did everyone take Humanities 1 here? The trick of drawing an object on a grid? In anamorphosis, you draw the object (such as a skull) on a grid as you normally would, then you make a distorted version of the grid, trapezoids that are going towards a perspective point out there. And then you simply transfer the skull. Here’s an example of how this would be done, although this doesn’t come out very well. You would take an object, put it in the grid, and then, with the perspective point down here, transfer it. There were paintings in the Renaissance that were all anamorphosis. This painting was the first, I think, to mix normal perspective with anamorphic perspective. Actually, what’s interesting about this one is that the perspective line follows the grimace of the skull’s grimace here. It’s hard to see here, but it’s right there. So it’s somewhere over there that you would stand to view it. Which happens to be the same parallel to the perspective line of the lute. So, when you can see the glory of these men in their world, and all of the meaning that they embody, you can’t really see death. When you get to the point that you can see death, which is a very tight angle over there, you can’t see anything else. It’s just a blur. Which brings me to the real. I mentioned earlier how animals are masters of the imaginary realm. In a way, because they do not suffer from the distortions of the symbolic, they are also masters of the real. Lacan’s psychic knot of animal psychology, I think, would be something like two interlocking rings that can double each other. Down in the corner there, it’s just the two rings, essentially one on top of the other. That would be a wild animal’s psychology. If you pull them apart, this could be an image of domestication. You can imagine that they’re kept together by a shadowy symbolic. So we say, dogs are loyal, cats are wise — or, brilliantly evil, whatever your take on that is [audience laughs] — But of course, those are a symbolic overlay that we give. Animals, undomesticated, live because they imitate their elders obey unthinkingly the instincts rising from within, and there is no disconnect between their impulses and their actions. Concerning the pigeon, Lacan tells us that: “It is a necessary condition for the maturation of the female pigeon’s gonads that the pigeon see another member of its species, regardless of its sex; this condition is so utterly sufficient that the same effect may be obtained by merely placing a mirror’s reflective field near the individual.” So, the real of sexual maturity is triggered directly by an imaginary identification. Lacan used the term primal real to describe the instinctual drives of both animals and pre-mirror phase children. So, when a newborn screams in hunger, or latches onto the breast, it is manifesting the real. But because we are not wild animals, for whom real instincts and imaginary identifications allow us to reproduce according to our kind, care for our young, and welcome death without blinking, it is precisely these drives which must be repressed by the symbolic as the child grows up. Yet, that repressed drive always comes back in some fashion, differently depending on your analytic classification (whether you are neurotic, psychotic, or perverted). For the psychotic, because the symbolic has no hold, or only a tenuous hold, the real can come back in the most terrifying ways. The schizophrenic who must obey the voice that tells him to kill, is hearing the voice of the real. Slavoj Zizek, Lacanian philosopher, says that a neurotic person hears a commandment like “don’t kill” as a prohibition: I should not kill people. But the psychotic hears ellipses between the two words. He hears, don’t. . . . kill— [audience laughs] — in other words, do nothing but kill. For your everyday neurotic the real never comes back as such. Like in the painting it is only experienced in a distorted manner. The fate of the neurotic is to circle endlessly around a jouissance or a pleasure that can never be owned, since the symbolic will forever get in the way of complete satisfaction—triangulating between the erotic object as well as the aggressive one. As Freud taught, civilization is possible because we repress both kinds of drives while at the same time allowing a shadowy existence for them. As Lacan tells us: “we spend our time breaking the ten commandments, and that is why society is possible.” [Audience laughs.] But if you break them, it also means you hold them. I’d like to talk about this letter — — that’s right in the middle of the Borromean knot. The little “a” there. Lacan refers to it as “Objet petit a,” for some reason, English translators never translate it, so you just have to say “Objet petit a.” It just translates “Object little a.” The “a” stands for “other.” Objet petit a is a “little bit of the real” as Lacan says, that manages to pass through the sieve of the symbolic. It is not like an object in the imaginary, something which one identifies with or rejects absolutely; it is also not like an object taken from the perspective of the symbolic, where subjects possess objects; rather it is the very cause of pursuit, the origin of desire. It pursues the pursuer. It is, as Lacan said, “the object cause of desire.” You also get that sense, should you experience the painting perfectly, that death is following you as you walk out the door. This door should really be over there, then it would be perfect. Lacan always notated objet petit a as just “a.” I think this is to remind us of the otherness of objet a, but it also calls up death in a certain way, for the letter a is a skull. The phoenicians, whom we have to thank for our alphabet, used this letter, an “A” on its side, the aleph, which became alpha in Greek, to mean ox, one of the first animals domesticated by neo-lithic humans. It was written like this, a stylized version of an ox head or skull. At the center of the Borromean knot is a death’s head and a reminder of our animal nature, that has been all but domesticated out of us. In the same way that we blunt the erotic and aggressive edges of the wolf or the auroch, turning these beasts into dogs and oxen that serve us, so too, at our core, we are beings severed from our primal purpose, in order to serve some Other. Objet a is the hook on the line that keeps us in line. Inasmuch as objet a is the “object of anxiety” it occassioned, for Lacan, one of the few overt disagreements he had with Freud (Freud was dead so it was okay.) According to Freud, while fear had an object, anxiety was a kind of fear that was all the worse for not having an object. The proof that objet a is more grounded in the real than the symbolic — although it sits right in the center of it all — is that it is not marked by lack. Lacan tells us that the anxiety attaching to objet a arises from the lack of a lack, the absence of desire, and thus a kind of suffocating proximity that marks the presence of the real. I think I’m done with the jargon, now. The rest is…in English. So perhaps you’ve turned and seen this glaring death’s head, gotten over your shock, and think that you better take a closer look at the painting itself, which now seems to be more than just a luxurious tapestry of self-satisfied guys. As you look, you might notice another detail, especially once you’ve become aware of the perspective line of the skull, for intersecting this at a right angle is the half hidden crucifix. It’s in the upper corner of the painting. [Audience murmurs in surprise.] Very tricky. The redeemer of death hiding behind the intricate curtain of sumptuous life. This might cause you to see the painting in a new light, to bring up older associations of the crucifixion, such as in the Crivelli painting we talk about in Humanities 1… …in which, down at the foot of Christ’s cross, we see the skull of Adam, telling us of course that Christ’s death overcomes the death that Adam introduced into the world. For renaissance men and women, be they Protestant or Catholic, death as the end of worldly success and Christ’s victory over that death, were both equally real. Death for them was a two colored thread woven into every aspect of their life. or Freud, in Civilization and its Discontents, the religious aspect of that thread was mere illusion, and his fear was that this thread of death, now shorn of its redemptive obverse, would drown out all of life. Lacan did not believe that religion could be so easily eradicated from human psyches and cultures, and atheist though he was himself, he states, somewhat mysteriously, that in the end it is “the true things of religion,” which are ultimately able to fend off the destruction of the death drive. But in order to clarify what Lacan means by the things of religion, we will have to weave one more term onto the loom of our Borromean knot. I guess one more term of jargon here. Bear with me. In Holbein’s painting [pause] the skull functions as a kind of memento mori, a Latin phrase which means “remember your death” and according to the tradition, was whispered into the ear of the Roman emperor by one of his slaves, during triumphant processions, reminding him that all his glory would one day fade, or, that he will one day fade from all this glory. For the Renaissance Christian, the lesson was similar: no matter how brilliant the fabric of your imaginary/symbolic matrix, one day there will be left only a gaping skull to take it all in. This should cause the faithful to remember Christ, half obscured in life as in the painting; in effect it should draw one back to religion, to repentance, to confession. For Holbein’s ambassadors, or arguably, anyone living at a time when a religion constitutes the bulwark of the symbolic, the resources to deal with the meaninglessness of death are contained within that register. The Nicene creed (that archaic symbol) makes it clear that, in the end, death bows to eternal life. But what about for Lacan, or the modern enlightened person, for whom the real is not necessarily a crucified god? Lacan died. Modern people still die. How do we cope with the anxiety of imminent death? How do we cope with Objet a, at the center of the psyche? Lacan’s answer, or one of them at least, is the sinthome, a fourth ring supplementing the three fundamental registers of the Borromean knot, that can serve to hold the three rings together as a suture would a wound. Sinthome, in French — actually the spelling is weird but is just the Medieval French word for “symptom” — sounds like both symptom, In French they’re pronounced the same, but it also sounds like holy man. Slavoj Zizek, trying to get at the difference between symptom and sinthome, says that when one is trying to get rid of it, it becomes symptom — for example when I go to an analyst in order to overcome my self-loathing or my fear of relationship, or whatever. However, when I approach this symptom, as something not to exclude but to learn to live with, than it is sinthome. This plays off of one of Lacan’s definitions of sinthome, that it is a savoir faire of the symptom, a knowing what to do with one’s symptom. In other words, there is no cure, but there is perhaps a way to live with yourself. One beats the death drive by learning to live with it. This understanding of sinthome is supported by what Lacan had to say about James Joyce, that he was a psychotic who had kept himself from psychic dissolution via his writing. His sinthome was Finnegans Wake, and Lacan even attempted to draw a picture of Joyce’s psyche. We won’t try it here, but if he just took another thread, and said, “Well, the symbolic is dislodged in Joyce and psychotics, so you weave another thread to try to bring it back together.” According to Lacan Joyce, in his sinthome, had managed to “unsubscribe to the unconscious,” to stop taking orders from the Other. It was his study of Joyce that led Lacan to shift his emphasis from objet a, to the sinthome, as that which keeps the psyche and its different registers together. Although it’s not completely clear how sinthome would act with neurotics or perverts. It might be something that is only available to psychotics. It’s quite a shift. If objet a is calling the shots, then we are stuck in a Freudian world in which we cannot go beyond the “bedrock of castration” (as Freud said late in his life) the brick wall of neurosis the other leading us by the nose. Sinthome suggests that there is a beyond to castration, as Lacan said, that, working from within the traumatized knot, one can ravel as well as unravel, and weave a new pattern out of the old threads. This is actually pretty clear if you open up Finnegans Wake, that Joyce is making a new language out of the old languages (even if that’s the only things that’s clear in that book). [Audience laughs.] One should always remember that there is no apostrophe in Finnegans. It is not just a funeral service for a dead man, but it is also a call to a multitude of Finnegans to wake up. There’s those psychotic ellipses again. Finnegans. . . . wake! But this time, happy ellipses. [Audience laughs.] So if our first reading of sinthome boils down to a savoir faire of the symptom, the other reading, or I should say, other hearing of sinthome (the holy man), would seem to take us in the opposite direction, for saints are those people who did not rest until they found a cure for what ailed them, until they battled their symptoms into submission. Lacan loves talking about these people, he mentions them in Seminar 7 — it’s a little bit gross — Angelo de Folignio so desperate to overcome her loathing for lepers that she drank the water in which she bathed them, or another saintly woman, Marie Allacoque, who consumed the excrement of a sick man. One might add to the list the 3rd c. theologian Origen, who was so tortured by his sexual desires that he castrated himself. This list goes on, I’ll stop it there. Lacan, in one strange moment, even admitted that he became an analyst because he couldn’t quite make it as a saint. [Audience laughs.] Considering the number of mistresses he had, it doesn’t seem like he tried too hard. The saint beats the death drive in a much more literal sense, flagellating it out of their very nature. A saint overcomes death in overcoming their symptom, and is someone who lives here and now as if they were already in heaven. I think the point of the pun on sinthome is this: For Lacan, today’s holy person does not find redemption from the meaninglessness of death, and the anxiety of living in its shadow, as one might find Christ by drawing back the curtain in the painting… Every time I go over that line, I think of a bumper sticker, “I found Jesus, He was hiding behind the couch the whole time.” It’s sort of like, “Oh! He’s behind the curtain.” You haven’t seen that bumper sticker? [Audience laughs.] That’s not how you find it for the modern person. You find it like Joyce did, who produced a singular redemption from within the tangled threads of the Borromean knot, one that does not destroy death but crosses it at a right angle. For Freud, the question of life vs death, meaning vs nothingness, was open; he couldn’t say whether it would be eros (life and love) that would be triumphant in the end for us, or whether thanatos, death and meaninglessness, would take the day. The end of Civilization and Its Discontents is very beautiful, right? He leaves it completely open, right as World War II is getting underway. Lacan suggests a beyond to this dilemma and says that when the age of science is over, when we are done amusing ourselves with our little gadgets as he says (referring both to technological toys and to the first successful atomic bomb, nicknamed the gadget), we will turn to the true things, which are the things of religion. At the same time, he fully owns the atheism of his age, saying that “Our own atheism is located not in a relation to a supreme entity—it’s linked to this always elusive aspect of the I of the other.” Lacan uses religious vocabulary, I think, for two reasons, first to annoy everyone — his enlightened and anti-clerical audience mainly, but also because for him religion “underwrites our very structures of being” (as one pair of Lacan scholars put it). True religion would be a religion bereft of the comforting illusions of religion. That’s my form of it. And it’s not so much that eros beats thanatos, but that a wounded subject finds the resources to enact a kind of anamorphosis on death, a kind of forming again of the tapestry of life, using all the old threads to weave one new work. Thank you. [Applause.] That’s the thing, Lacan says, “Oh I got my analyses through these seminars,” but then he says, “You can’t do that.” “Analyses only happens on the couch.” So, I would say that would be dangerous. [Audience member] Don’t all psychoanalysts have to say that, though? I think so. I mean, Freud of course was never analyzed either.

2 Replies to ““The Borromean Knot of Jacques Lacan; Or, How to Beat Your Death Drive” a lecture by Aron Dunlap”

  1. I did not know they teach Lacan in America too! In my university in Belgium, all psychoanalysis classes are Lacan oriented; it's rare in Europe

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