Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Les conneries de Jacques Lacan

I was worried. I really was. But I needn’t have been.

The worry was this: I’m old enough to have only caught the first waves of the French invasion of British academia. I was there for Albert the compulsive philanderer and Louis the wife-killer. But the deconstructionists and post-modernists didn’t cross La Manche till after I’d left university. The author may have died in Paris (and Aspen) in 1967 but his obituary hadn’t made it to south-east London by mid-1974.

I knew little or nothing about the next wave of French thinkers: Jackie le pied noir, Paul the anti-semitic collaborationist, Henri VI (number of wives), Michel the AIDS victim or Roland the laundry van victim.

So when I started thinking about a masters in psychoanalytic stuff, I hopped and skipped right past the MA in Psychoanalysis at Middlesex when I read that it was ‘largely Lacanian’. I wasn’t sure I could face two years of Jacques-Marie-Émile the bent cigar smoker. I tell a lie. I was sure I couldn’t.

So I worried about the unit on him — Jacques Lacan, that is, the French psychoanalyst who might or might not have had really profound things to say. It’s really hard to tell, particularly when you read him — or rather try to read him. As he himself agreed, admitting that his Ecrits — which are his only substantial writings — were not meant to be understood as such. They were, he said, meant to be comprehended, or at least absorbed, in some kind of non-cognitive, mystical way. So, so far, I had him marked down as the Kahlil Gibran of psychoanalysis.

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The first Lacan seminar began with a joke. A good one, too, if martini dry. The lecturer arrived 15 minutes late, with no explanation or justification. Usually, I guess, this would be a result of heavy traffic, signalling problems at Edgware Road or a family row — something like that anyway.

This, though, was something else. Quite obviously, this was a gag — a witty associative link to Lacan’s ‘controversial indeterminate-length sessions’, for which he both charged a full fee and sometimes took the opportunity to have his hair cut.

Having opened with this gag, the lecturer (who’d clearly already had his hair cut) went straight into explaining and didn’t let up till the clock called time. It was everything I didn’t expect — clear and straightforward, with more gags, sideswipes at Lacan’s terrible, French sense of adventurous dressing and the fact he was always an editor or two short of being able to write French. There was even a pointed reference to the expensive Cubanity of his cigars — though no explanation of their peculiar shape, as curlicued as a pig’s penis.

All that was missing was anything about how to pronounce his name. The lecturer, being a Lacanian — French, too — had no problem with it, naturally. But it does cause problems in the anglophone world.

This is how it should be pronounced. The first syllable is pure Scouse, as in ‘alright, la.’ The second is pure criminality, as in ‘con trick’. Just nasalize the final consonant and you’re there.
English speakers — or at least those who’ve never sat through a Lacan seminar — don’t generally pronounce it that way. If they know no French, they tend to rhyme him with, say, Suzi Quatro’s 1973 chart-topper, Can The Can — a hit when he himself was in his fullest pomposity.

If, however, they think they know French, they often have the amusing — at least to my infantile mind — habit of trying to make his name at least sound French. So they rhyme him with Simon Le Bon. As someone who’s writing a book about swearing, I am only too aware that this turns him into a French word that can be translated both directly and indirectly into English, neither of them complimentary.

This pronunciation makes him either a fool (as in the comedy flick Le Diner Des Cons) or a charlie or a berk (as in the body part euphemised in both those pieces of truncated rhyming slang). I’ve never seen a French person impolite enough to point this out to someone who insists on talking about Jacques le con.

Of course, if natural gender rules were in operation, this most feminine of things would be la con — ie as the great analyst’s surname is actually pronounced. But they’re not, it’s a masculine noun. As it is in Spanish. It’s just one more thing the Romans did for us: stupid cunni (second declension masculine nominative).

And yet, and yet . . .there were those who thought that pronunciation was a fair pronouncement on Lacan. I was told this by someone with close links to the camp of that other French philosophe, Henri Lefebvre — who died at the age of ninety, in the arms of his sixth wife.

‘Lefebvre felt Lacan’s analytic treatment had really harmed a friend of his,’ said my informant. ‘So he told Lacan he was un con. In response, Lacan told Lefebvre he was une clune. A clown.’

Ah, the heights and wonders of French philosophy. Still, it could have been worse. Lefebvre could have called Lacan une con — ie used the feminised version. But he wouldn’t have done that. That implies homosexuality. One French thinker would never do that to another French thinker. He’d sooner call him an Anglo-American empiricist — much the same thing in French intellectual eyes.

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