Jacques Lacan's very name signifies fear in the hearts of graduate students who were once forced to wrangle with his notoriously difficult body of work. But for all his dense prose, the philosopher is widely considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. His weekly seminar was a veritable event and saw France’s most prominent thinkers in attendance, and he founded the Freudian School of Paris. Through his works, he transformed the fields of psychology, literary theory, sociology, and psychoanalysis.
But Lacan was also an asshole. He stole the work of colleagues, arrogantly intimidated undergrads, and was accused by feminists of being a sadistic narcissist. He romanced the ex-wives of his friends. At least one reviewer referred to him as "the Shrink from Hell.” In the current climate of notable thinkers making pricks of themselves—like the misanthropic Slavoj Žižek, the sometime thinker and full-time asshole Richard Dawkins, or the probable Nazi Martin Heidegger—Lacan’s is a name that doesn’t deserve to be forgotten.
The fact that some love to hate the father of modern psychoanalysis is nothing new. Way back in 1995, Noam Chomsky, who had met Lacan several times, described him as an “amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan.” Three years later, the physicist and strident critic of postmodernism Alan Sokal referred to Lacan's work as “gibberish,” a viewpoint Richard Dawkins backed up, deriding the Frenchman as a “fake” for “equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one.” But for others—perhaps those impressed by someone with the temerity to find the penis's mathematical twin—Lacan is an endless source of inspiration.
Alongside Claude Lévi-Strauss and Louis Althusser, Lacan stood as part of the movement to infuse the French humanities with structuralism, the idea that overarching invisible structures dictate society and culture. French structuralism stood in stark contrast with humanism at this time, the philosophical camp that celebrates agency and free will, because it argues that concepts like "free will" were always already governed by the structure of society. That debate rages on today, between those who believed an enlightened class have to “uncover” the oppression of the masses (the unconscious, the machinations of capital, etc), and those who see that resistance is everywhere around them in the status quo.
He ushered a return to Freud, declaring that “the unconscious is structured like a language.” For Freud, there is nothing literal about a dream; it’s all metaphor. Like language, the unconscious is beautifully complex and not reducible to appearances. To understand the human psyche, we need to understand how the language of the mind is structured.
"For Lacan, desire doesn't merely refer to our needs and wants. Rather, desire is something that can never be sated."
Arguably the most important of Lacan's theories is his theory of desire. For Lacan, desire doesn't merely refer to our needs and wants. Rather, desire is something that can never be sated. Desire arises from an existential lack, a gaping hole that can never be filled. According to Lacan, it’s actually the constant thwarting of our desire that drives our pleasure. Phrases like “You want what you can’t get” and “the grass is always greener on the other side” hint at this logic. Desiring something—a lover, a gadget, an event—is always more tantalizing than actually fulfilling a want. Slavoj Žižek, the much-discussed Slovenian writer and modern philosopher, elegantly uses the Lacanian language of desire to describe why Coke is the perfect commodity.
Many of Lacan’s students, even those who went on to eventually reject their teacher, still permeate the halls of philosophy departments today. Some of those students, though indebted to his philosophy, have brought to light Lacan’s moral dubiousness. In a recent biography, Élisabeth Roudinesco describes the thinker of desire as a “temperamental child,” a man who'd often demand his preferred variety of liquor, cigar, or food at the click of his fingers, wherever he was.
Lacan’s casual relationship with theft is also documented. Namely, toward the books he was lent by his friends. Unlike your friend who “lost” your copy of Fifty Shades of Grey, Lacan was far more premeditated. After poring through her archives of Lacan’s letters, Roudinesco discovered that Lacan would often write to friends to either borrow or purchase books that were rare and collectible. When asked to return them, they were often “lost,” and in the case of purchasing them he rarely shelled out the full agreed-to amount.
Many psychology undergrads know the case of Aimée (a pseudonym for Marguerite Anzieu), Lacan’s patient and the subject of his now famous 1932 doctoral thesis. Aimée was jailed and put under Lacan’s ward after she tried to stab famous French actress Huguette Duflos. Aimée was described as paranoid and delusional, but Lacan was fascinated by the novel she was writing while under his care. Even Aimée couldn’t escape his avarice, as Lacan “borrowed” the novel’s manuscripts for his own scholarly work. To this day, the descendants of Aimée are trying to recover the manuscripts.
More serious are accusations of plagiarism. Lacan is famously known for positing the “mirror stage,” a psychoanalytic term for the point in life at which infants can recognize themselves in mirrors. However, not unlike his book collection, it was stolen from somebody else. Roudinesco notes that the term comes from a Communist psychologist named Henri Wallon, and that Lacan—ever "quick to erase the original archive”—“always suppressed Wallon’s name.”
Another great Lacan scam was his “variable-length session,” a fancy way to justify bilking his therapy patients out of money. Throughout his life, Lacan slowly decreased the time he spent with each patient; what began as nearly an hour of psychoanalysis later dwindled to only a few minutes, and cost a bundle. And, if you were an aspiring student of Lacan, you too were required to pay to get on his couch.
Lacan enjoyed the stereotypically French “finer” things in life—food, booze, women, and art. He liked extravagant clothing “made in accordance with his instructions: furs, suits in unusual materials, hard collars without flaps or collars twisted and turned up, lavallières of various sizes, made-to-measure shoes in rare skins, gold pieces, ingots,” Roudinesco notes.
Roudinesco also describes Lacan as a “fetishistic” collector who kept detailed lists of all of his possessions. Besides his partially-stolen collection of rare and original books, he also owned various works of fine art, like L’Origine du Monde, which was craftily covered by Sylvia with a painted panel that Lacan used to like to slide back for his friends—revealing the origin of the world like a teenager reveals their porn stash. “The phallus is in the painting,” Lacan liked to declare.
One of Lacan's students happened to be Felix Guattari, who, with French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, would eventually become famous as of Lacan’s greatest critics. Guattari was originally part of the Lacanian cult, a star student who paid for the privilege of driving Lacan home after his seminar. It was, Lacan argued, a part of the psychoanalysis.
However, when Guattari met with Lacan for dinner and explained his forthcoming book, Anti-Oedipus (a lengthy screed against Freudian and Lacanian thinking), Lacan broke off all contact with Guattari, and started spreading rumors to his friends to ruin his former disciple's career. (He also banned his students from discussing Guattari's book, as a biography of the duo notes.)
A frequent womanizer, Lacan’s friends weren’t immune to his self-centered desires. While his wife assumed she was in a monogamous marriage, Lacan was out philandering with famous French actresses. One of those actresses was Sylvia Bataille, and if the name sounds familiar it’s because she was married to the esteemed writer, and friend of Lacan, Georges Bataille. To Lacan’s credit, the two were separated before Lacan’s “intervention.” Against Lacan’s credit, he concealed the existence of the daughter he fathered with Sylvia to his other children.
"He named his beloved dog Justine, after the eponymous sex slave of the Marquis de Sade book."
Lacan had a twisted sense of humor; he named his beloved dog Justine, after the eponymous sex slave of the Marquis de Sade book. He also famously noted: “There’s a lot psychoanalysis can do, but it’s powerless against stupidity.” And winter sports, for Lacan, were a “kind of concentration camp for affluent old age.”
The idea that philosophers are shitty human beings has been all the rage these last few months. Whether it’s Martin Heidegger’s anti-Semitism or the fact that Žižek accidentally plagiarizes the occasional white supremacist magazine. But all these arguments, whether for or against these academics, assume that we should either wholly endorse, or reject, certain thinkers. And it all assumes an uncritical, unthinking reader who must be told by someone else what is and isn’t “true” and whom we can and can’t read.
If the locus of Lacan’s work was “how not to be a dick," this might be a different conversation. That’s why Roudinesco argues that, in spite of everything, Lacan should still be read today.
All too often, great thinkers succumb to the crime of not living up to their own ideas. Maybe it’s better to have an idea to aspire to than a role model to emulate. Because chances are, they’re kind of a dick.