Faith and Disillusinoment: An Interview with Dr. Michael Eigen

Faith and Disillusionment: An Interview with Dr. Michael Eigen

Michael Eigen is widely acknowledged to be the finest, most profound psychoanalytic writer of our time. In a review of one of Dr. Eigen’s works, Christopher Bollas writes:  “Eigen has not only assimilated the works of his intellectual tradition, they have traveled a dense journey into his unconscious and returned in the form of spontaneous original thinking, as rare as the authors he admires.  Do we know of any one who writes like an evocative amalgam of William Blake, Mark Twain, Freud, and Raymond Chandler?  Eigen’s voice is unique; his vision is singular yet embracing, his mysticism is of this earth yet transcendent, and each of his chapters is a wonderful ‘spot in time’.” Dr. Michael Eigen is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Post Doctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at New York University, and Senior Member of the National Psychological Association of Psychoanalysis. He is also the editor of the Psychoanalytic Review.

Dr.Michael Eigen was interviewed in September 2006 by New York Institute for Psychotherapy Training (NYIPT) faculty and supervisor, Dr. Regina Monti.  Dr. Eigen has a relationship with respected NYIPT going back to the 1970’s when he was a teacher and supervisor at the New Hope Guild.

by Regina Montiimage
Regina Monti: Throughout your writings, there is a thematic grounding of faith.  In The Sensitive Self you describe the infant’s agony and hunger for the mother (the Other) leading the infant into a “numbness, stupor, oblivion”.  When mother shows up, the infant is full with the “Bountiful Other . . .whose merciful intervention enables restoration of aliveness.”  You go on to say that “something of this pattern remains as an organizing sequence . .informing emotional life”.  Disintegration-integration, fragmentation-wholeness, etc. Is this the arena of faith? A definition of faith?

Along with faith, you write often about destructiveness. So much destruction in the Bible (a book of Faith).  Where does the therapist’s faith originate in sitting and witnessing with the patient his/her trauma, destruction and shattering?

Michael Eigen:  I’d like to start by taking these first two questions together. The problem of faith and destructiveness is basic to the human condition.  Many sessions I write about are felt to be crises of faith. Faith in face of destructiveness. Can faith survive destruction? In what way? How?

As you know, a person sours in face of injury. Disillusionment can lead to cynicism, an embittered personality, an embittered soul. One hardens. We’ve learned that even fragmentation can harden.  Diffusion can harden. Personality dispersal can become a chronic defense, a self-hardening. And if one touches it, one finds injury.  A baby faith devastated. Often devastation one never recovers from, not fully.

We may give reasons why we use unnecessary violence, like wiping out Dresden, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unnecessary violence. Like the Nazi concentration camps. Like so much wiping each other out on the global scene today. We point to politics, economics, national “self-interest”.  Why does so much professed self-interest have to be so destructive, including destructive to the “interest” it professes to advance? It  may be jejune of me to say that one reason is our injured baby faith, soul injury that remains with us all life long, looking for expression, correction. We are caught in a dreadful law:  injury leads to injury.

We get a thrill from acts of obliteration. The biblical God is a model of our psyche on this score. What’s his response to feeling hurt by how badly his human creation turns out, human beings a blow to his ego? He wants to wipe the human race out, blot it out. With a flood.  Throughout the bible, one emotional flood or another tries to wipe out destructiveness.  Destruction wiping out destruction.  This primal response shows how prone we are to respond to difficulty and injury by trying to blot it out, obliterate it.  Because we feel wiped out by it.  Because we are partial beings who ache for total states.

A lot of therapy is about the slow recovery of faith, at least more of it, a more informed faith, wiser, fuller, ready for anything.  Although we can never be so ready.  A respectful faith.  In which caring has a real place, a caring about one’s destructiveness.  To care enough to struggle with it.

In my twin books, Toxic Nourishment and Damaged Bonds, I describe how people are poisoned by what nourishes them, damaged by bonds that sustain them, that give them life. You mention a rhythm I describe in The Sensitive Self, a basic rhythm. Therapy supports or tries to jumpstart a rhythm of coming through injury, defeat, megalomania, a rhythm one goes through over and over, a rhythm of faith.

RM:  You have written that the post-Freudian interest and deeper exploration of psychotic process has allowed psychoanalysis to “come out of the closet”.  Please explain.  What is the close? Who and or what is in there?

ME:  Although Freud ostensibly developed a theory and clinical approach to neurosis, I point out in The Psychotic Core, that his concepts are heavily steeped in a phenomenology of psychosis. The id:  seething cauldron of emotional realities where the law of contradiction and common sense do not hold, where space and time are abrogated, compressed, nullified (and in some ways expanded).  The superego:  persecution gone haywire, spinning into self-hate, self-demolition, a mixture of self-torment and self-obliteration.  The ego:  at once a hallucinatory organ and adaptive agent with anti-hallucinogenic properties.  Freud wrote that an early cognitive operation of the ego is hallucination.  For example, the ego as wish-fulfillment machine, attempting to get rid of disturbance by making believe it’s not there in some way, wishing it away.  A problem with wishing disturbance away is one tends to wish  oneself away as well.  A vanishing tendency is initiated that becomes objectless or something like all-inclusive.  In extremis, a vanishing tendency that vanishes itself as well as anything in its path.

Freud spoke of flooding as a primal trauma. And one way one deals with emotional storm is by trying to wish it, hallucinate it out of existence. A problem being one hallucinates oneself out of existence, too.

So, one thing I brought out is how psychotic states informed the background and construction of Freud’s structural concepts, and that psychosis was crucial to his theory and practice from the outset.

As psychoanalysis unfolded, attention gravitated to psychotic states:  Melanie Klein, Harry Stack Sullivan, Searles, Winnicott, Fairbairn, Bion.  In 1975 Andre Green formalized this seismic shift in psychoanalysis in his statement that where once neurosis was a defense against perverse tendencies, now both were seen as ways of warding off and organizing psychotic anxieties.  Henry Elkin, steeped in Jung and the British school, used to lecture:  “Behind every neurosis is a hidden psychosis”.

It seems to me after two world wars, the shift towards madness was inevitable.  Although, of course, madness has never been a stranger to the human race.  Now we can add pervasive psychopathy to the pie.  For our own moment of history has as a guiding light, the calculated, psychopathic manipulation of psychotic anxieties.  We have just seen one of the great power grabs in our nation’s history, certainly the most amazing in my 70 odd years, a basic weapon being manipulation of catastrophic dreads.  Bodies are paying for it and, I believe, the psychic health of nations.

RM:  In your work, your refer to “states of consciousness.”  For example, you write: “We are challenged to work with cosmic and practical I-feelings”. I love this statement. Would you explain further?

In many of my books I write about the challenge of being in multiple worlds at once.  Pluralistic dimensions of experience. One might speak of tendencies, capacities, attitudes.  Different worlds open with different modes of approach.  For example, when immersed in taste, touch, vision, hearing – worlds open in each that the others can’t offer.

With this in mind, one appreciates the implicit humor in Bion’s references to “common sense”.  How to coordinate the senses is no small wonder.  In autism, for example, attention is pulled first by something preeminent in one sense, then another.  So that common sense, the senses working together, becomes quite a challenge, a genuine achievement.

And yet each sense gives us inexhaustible worlds, gives us ourselves differently. There is no end to the nuances of self-feeling, the self-sensations that our senses modulate, ineffable pathways.  Yes, sensation is ineffable.

How much more so is the challenge, the invitation, to get to know, to taste, to smell different worlds along the cosmic-personal dimension.  In The Psychotic Core I showed intricacies of being both anonymous and personal beings.  We are made up of many anonymous capacities that work by themselves and we sense this anonymity that pervades our existence. Yet we have personal feeling, personal self-feeling, I, me, you, we.  A  feeling of my personal being.  Winnicott, for example, is exercised by the question of how personal self-feeling extends to embrace and grapple with anonymous processes that make it up.

It may be that Federn was the first to write about this systematically.  He, following Freud, felt the I at first is a kind of cosmic I, boundless, no end to surface or depth, if these spatial terms apply at all.  Psychotic individuals he worked with failed to make the transition to it into their body envelope.  They refused or were unable to squeeze into the limiting field of usual material and social reality.  The ability to contract the cosmic I-feeling to fit a common sense world did not undergo sufficient development.  I won’t cover all this ground again here.  Just using this to note the difficulty the demand of living in and coordinating different regions of being can bring.  Part of therapy involves a certain double (multiple) directionality:  worlds open with movement of sensation fields and worlds narrow and close.  The rhythm of opening-closing, expanding-narrowing is part of basic rhythms that need to evolve.  Therapy tries to support evolution of capacities to nourish each other.

Mystics also attest to impalpable, ineffable awareness.  This is a very real capacity that stamps experience.  It plays an important role in creativity, personal transformation and deformation, and also horrendous individual and group scenarios.  For we squeeze a sense of the infinite into time-space scripts that can be uplifting or murderous or both.  Note the fusion of infinite satisfactions in suicide bombing, where devotion and obliteration merge, an approach to a totalistic experience that is hard to match in ability to satisfy competing strivings.

How to confess we are at a loss what to do with ourselves, with all we are and have been given, with all we can do?!   We are like babies who have not yet developed frames of reference that do justice to experience, this sense of being, streams not only of sensations, but infinities of worlds within and without.  I am glad you love the sentence you ask me about.  It shows a love of the mystery we are part of.

RM:  I am confused by the discussion in your book Damaged Bonds regarding the idea that with traumatized or what Bion refers to as “shattered” patients, the analyst needs to “dream the patient”.  “Dream” in the sense of imagine? Or literally dream as in during sleep? Or both?

ME:  Bion remarks in Cogitations, “I am his other self and it is a dream.”  You let this resonate, let it seep in.  Sometimes I play with a resonant statement like this:  I am his other.  I am his dream.  I am his other dream. We are indeed each other’s selves, each other’s dreams.

In Cogitations, Bion develops the notion that dreaming is part of our psychic digestive system.  InDamaged Bonds and other places, I somewhat rework this and put it this way. Dreams, in part, help initiate digestion of catastrophic impacts.  They help feed trauma globs into the stream of experience and try to begin the processing of injury.  Often we don’t know what wounds us or the extent of the wound.  It hits and if there are enough hits or big enough hits, we are in danger of going under.  We deform to work with unbearable impacts.  There is always more than we can ever possibly digest.  But we try to break off, bite off some bit of trauma glob or chunk and chew on it, turn it this way and that, dream it, rework it, develop expressive symbols and gestures.  In some form or other, through dance, music, painting, poetry, hopefully psychotherapy, we slowly develop, over thousands of years, an emotional language, a digestive language.

Politics, economics, public affairs potentially does this too.  With modern technology the stakes are greater, nearly instantaneously global.  And if the digestive process goes wrong- and often it does- we are left with global representations of trauma that escalate the trauma chain, increase the trauma momentum.  The digestive system is broken.

Bion calls attention to the deep fact that our emotional digestive system can be damaged, our psychic digestive system damaged, dream-work damaged, primary process damaged.  The impact of massive trauma is through and through.  It is not a matter, as in the old model, of secondary process working on primary process.  The new model is that primary process itself plays an important role in the digestion of affects. And if primary process is warped and damage, no amount of secondary process “correction” will correct this.  We will add warp upon warp and make the whole in some way even more monstrous.  It would be a macabre caricature to say we are in danger of chronic psychic indigestion.  The situation is much worse. People are paying for this damaged capacity with their lives.

That is why in Psychic Deadness, in a chapter called “Primary Process and Shock”, I call the analyst an auxiliary dream processor, rather than auxiliary ego.  For primary process needs long-term support.  And this support partly comes by profound self-to-self interweaving, unconscious permeability, in which we taste each other’s self-substance, a kind of mutual steeping.  It is a process that is needed in cultural as well as personal dreamwork.

RM:  You (like Winnicott, Bion, and Lacan) have found a personal language, a unique voice in psychoanalysis and methodology.  Your idiosyncratic use of language, the experience-near aspect of reading your work manifests, I feel, from the ability to blend the deeply personal with the historical-theoretical.  Your work is at times unabashedly autobiographical, experiential, and self-revealing.  In light of the issue of self-disclosure in psychoanalytic work, please comment on the evolution and use of your personal experience in your analytic work.
You often cluster your thoughts/observations/case studies around specific human emotions/feelings:  e.g.Lust, Rage, Ecstasy.  Why these particular emotions, and how has this methodology served to express your professional experiences/observations?

ME:  Thanks, Regina, for these thoughts.  Let me try putting these two questions together.  When I wroteEcstasy my intent was to give expression to something that made my life worthwhile, something at the very heart of my experience.  An ecstatic core at the heart of life.  Yet when I got into it and tried to let come out what wanted to speak, I found myself gravitating more and more to destructive ecstasies.  For there is something about ecstatic destruction that is world threatening at this moment of history.  Destruction of the conditions that support life, the atmosphere, the water, the air.  The hole in the ozone layer parallels a hole in our own selves through which toxins spill, emotional toxins, affective attitudes that damage rather than support existence.  This is happening on a wide scale with accelerating momentum. But there must be something we can do.

When I speak about damaged primary process and dream-work, I am speaking about damaged processes that support emotional life, that support psychic life, that support us.  We breathe each other as feeling beings, breathe in feelings and attitudes and expel them too.  We live in a psychic atmosphere that is very sensitive.  We have sensitivity that can evolve to support our psychic atmosphere and enable it to support us. But we seem to be heading in another direction and getting a kick out of doing so.

Our current bully government seems to get well-nigh ecstatic from the exercise of power, even though they are like drunk elephants in the china shop of the world.  They know what they are doing.  They know how to make fortunes and create power for themselves and their corporate base.  But they do not seem to care about the damage their jouissance causes.  A kind of psychopathic element rules the day.  But it is not the only element.  It is now the only path we can take.  So many of us want something better, fuller, more caring than this.  A caring for the conditions that support life.  A caring for the emotional conditions that support us.  A caring for our human health, which is falling behind the pace of spiritual toxic spills.

The second book in this series, Rage, caught a ruling feeling of the time.  Everyday news reports spoke of one kind of rage or another, race rage, terrorist rage, road rage, computer rage,alcoholic-addictive rage, you name it.  Rage appeared to be a core affect in our nation and I tried to put some tracers on it.  I tried to turn the experience of rage around, something like a kaleidoscope, and touch it in many contexts from many angles.  Through art, literature, religion, clinical sessions, politics.  I used anything I could, anything that was part of me, that could let rage speak and dig into and open our rage world.  There is, for example, a smoldering rage against the inflated power egos that flaunt dumbfounding success while multitudes look on and cringe.  Great Macy parade balloon egos inflated with and feeding on the resentment of many, playing with fire.

The last book in this series, Lust, just came out this year.  My own experiences of lust, ecstasy, rage play an important role in these works.  But lust, too, took me deeper into the body politic and the lust for power.  It straddles individual and group activities.  A particular lust dear to me, writing lust, poetry lust received some care and poets will, I think, like what I say about their particular addiction – what poetry opens.

Tradition tells us death haunts lust and this notion is no stranger to psychoanalysis.  I use some of Lacan’s writings on death in lust to heighten the interplay of our pairing of lust and mortality.  A premature dying haunts experience, as if we drag a kind of self-deadening process like a weight.  Self-deadening we try to deny.  Again, I fear, if we don’t find ways to face this coupling of heightened aliveness-self deadening, we will create overly destructive mimicry of these states.  We are doing so with alarming consistency in public affairs where sensitivity to human feeling is for losers.

My latest book, Feeling Matters, should be out any month, any day. It builds on these themes and pleas for the importance of feeling in personal life and in public life.  It shows how insensitivity spirals, wreaking havoc on a national and global scale. In one chapter, for example, “Election Rape”, I trace the resonance between a case of child abuse and this same person as an adult feeling raped by the 2000 presidential election and much that followed.  She was sensitized to rape in daily life and felt it keenly in the body politic as well as in her own body.  A confluence between childhood trauma and adult trauma opened reality in important ways.

While this new book is concerned with fits between personal and group trauma, it also opens domains beyond trauma and appeals to an ethics of sensitivity with psycho-spiritual roots.  This work explores ways that faith meets catastrophic impacts and helps support beginnings of processing them, ways of working with them.  An affirmation of life in the midst of horror.  We have much work to do.

Thank you, Regina, for your questions, your care, your exuberant sensitivity.

“There can be no crisis of psychoanalysis” Jacques Lacan Interviewed in 1974

‘There can be no crisis of psychoanalysis’ Jacques Lacan interviewed in 1974

In this interview given in 1974, Jacques Lacan prophetically warned of the dangers of the return of religion and of scientism. For him, psychoanalysis is the only conceivable rampart against contemporary anxieties. These are arguments of surprising present-day relevance.


As if by magic, Lacan lives again with full force in this interview given to the Italian magazine Panorama in 1974. The Italian interviewer Emilio Granzotto noted that ‘we hear more and talk more of the crisis of psychoanalysis’. Fortunately in Jacques Lacan we can find real frankness, good sense, lucidness and precision – far from the ‘comforting’ psychoanalysis established by some of Freud’s students, who ritualised techniques of therapy that gently re-adapt the patient to his social environment. ‘This is the very negation of Freud’, Lacan tells us. What were his fears, at that time? Showing his talent for prophesy, Lacan feared already in 1974 both the return of religion and the triumph of science. Sex in evidence everywhere? No. Rather, a fake liberalisation, without importance. But scientific meddling – well, that’s a different matter…

Emilio Granzotto: We hear more and more talk of a crisis of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud has been left behind, they say, as modern society has discovered that his work is insufficient for understanding man or for deeply investigating his relationship with the world.

Jacques Lacan: This is tittle-tattle. In the first place, this so-called crisis. It does not exist, it could not. Psychoanalysis has not come close to finding its own limits, yet. There is still so much to discover in practice and in consciousness. In psychoanalysis, there are no immediate answers, but only the long and patient search for reasons.

Secondly, Freud. How can it be said that he has been left behind, when we have still not yet entirely understood him? What we do know for sure is that he made us aware of things that are entirely novel, that would not even have been imagined before him, from the problems of the unconscious to the importance of sexuality, from access to the symbolic sphere to subjection to the laws of language.

His doctrine put truth itself in question, and this concerns everyone, each individual personally. It is hardly in crisis. I will repeat: we are far from Freud. His name has also been used to cover for a lot of things, there have been deviations and epigones who did not always loyally follow his model, creating confusion about what he meant. After his death in 1939, some of his students also claimed to be exercising a different kind of psychoanalysis by reducing his teachings to a few banal formulas: technique as a ritual, practice restricted to treating people’s behaviour, as a means of re-adapting the individual to his social environment. This is the negation of Freud: a comforting salon psychoanalysis.

He had predicted it himself. He said that there were three untenable positions, three impossible tasks: governing, educating, and exercising psychoanalysis. These days it doesn’t much matter who takes the responsibility for governing, and everyone claims to be an educator. As for psychoanalysts, thank God, they are prospering as experts and as quacks. To offer to help people means guaranteeing success, and the customers are banging down the door. Psychoanalysis is something quite different to this.

What exactly?

I define it as a symptom – something that reveals the malaise of the society in which we live. Of course, it is not a philosophy. I abhor philosophy, for an awful long time it’s had nothing new of interest to say. Nor is psychoanalysis a faith, and I am not keen on calling it a science. Let’s say that it’s a practice, and it is concerned with whatever is not going right. Which is a terrible difficulty because it claims to introduce the impossible, the imaginary, into everyday life. Thus far it has obtained certain results, but it still has no rules and is prone to all sorts of ambiguities.

We must not forget that it is something entirely new, with regard to both medicine and psychology and its outliers. It is also very young. Freud died barely thirty-five years ago. His first book, The Interpretation of Dreams, was published in 1900, and met with very little success. I think they sold only three hundred copies across the first few years. He had a handful of students, who were considered mad, and they did not even agree amongst themselves on how to put into practice and to interpret what they had learned.

What isn’t going right with people today?

This great listlessness in life, a consequence of the rush for progress. Through psychoanalysis people expect to discover how far it is possible to draw out this listlessness.

What is it that drives people to have themselves analysed?

Fear. When something happens to someone and they do not understand it, even if they wanted it to happen, they are afraid. They suffer from not understanding, and little by little they fall into a panic. This is neurosis. With hysterical neurosis, the body becomes ill from the fear of being ill, and without really being so. With obsessive neurosis, the fear brings bizarre things to mind, thoughts that cannot be controlled, phobias in which forms and objects acquire different meanings that make people afraid.

For example…

The neurotic person may feel constrained by a terrifying need to go dozens of times to check if a tap is really turned off, or if something is in the place that it should be, even though they already know for certain that the tap is off and the thing is in the right place. There are no pills to cure that. It is necessary to find out why that happens and what it means.

And the cure?

The neurotic is an ill person who is treated by speech, above all his own. He must speak, recount, explain himself. Freud defined psychoanalysis as the subject’s assumption of his own history, insofar as this history is constituted by the words addressed to another person. Psychoanalysis is the realm of speech, there is no other remedy. Freud explained that the unconscious is not deep as much as it is inaccessible to conscious examination. And that in this unconscious, the speaker is a subject within the subject, transcending the subject. The great strength of psychoanalysis is speech.

Whose speech? The ill person’s or the psychoanalyst’s?

In psychoanalysis the terms ‘ill person’, ‘doctor’ and ‘remedy’ are no more appropriate than the passive formulas that are so commonly used. We say: ‘have yourself psychoanalysed’. This is wrong. The person doing the real work in the analysis is the speaker, the subject analysing himself. That is the case even if he does so in the manner suggested by the analyst who indicates how he ought to proceed and who makes helpful interventions.

The subject is also provided with an interpretation, which at first sight seems to give meaning to what he himself says. In reality, the interpretation is rather subtler, tending to efface the meaning of the things from which the subject is suffering. The goal is to show him, by way of his own narrative, that the symptom – or let’s call it the illness – has no relationship to anything, and lacks any kind of meaning. Even if it is apparently real, it does not exist.

The routes by which this act of speech proceeds demand a great deal of practice and infinite patience. Psychoanalysis’s tools are patience and moderation. The technique consists of moderating the degree of help that you give to the subject analysing himself. Psychoanalysis is thus no simple matter.

When we speak of Jacques Lacan, we inevitably associate his name to a formula, the ‘return to Freud’. What does this phrase mean?

Exactly what it says. Psychoanalysis is Freud. If you want to do psychoanalysis, you have to go back to Freud, his terms and definitions, read and interpreted literally. I founded a Freudian school in Paris with precisely this goal in mind. For more than twenty years I have been expounding my viewpoint: to return to Freud simply means to sweep the ground of the deviations and ambiguities of existential phenomenology, for example, as well as of the institutional formalism of psychoanalytical societies, and to resume a reading of Freud’s teachings that follows definite, enumerated principles based on his own work. Re-reading Freud just means re-reading Freud. Whoever does not do so is abusing words if they speak of psychoanalysis.

But Freud is difficult. And Lacan, they say, makes him utterly incomprehensible. Lacan is charged with speaking and, above all, writing in such a way that only very few adept scholars can hope to understand…

I know, I know, I am taken for an obscurantist who hides his thinking behind smokescreens. I ask myself why. I repeat, with Freud, that analysis is the ‘inter-subjective game by which truth enters into the real’. Isn’t it clear enough? Psychoanalysis isn’t child’s play.

My books are called incomprehensible. But for whom? I did not write them for everyone, thinking that just anyone could understand them. On the contrary, I have never made the least effort to cater to my readers’ tastes, no matter who they are. I had things to say, and I said them. For me, it is enough to have an audience who reads my work. If they do not understand, well, let’s be patient. As for the number of readers, I have had more luck than Freud. Maybe my books are even too widely read – I find it astonishing.

I am also convinced that within ten years at the utmost, people reading my work will find it entirely transparent, like a good glass of beer. Perhaps then they’ll say ‘This Lacan, he’s so banal!’

What are the characteristics of Lacanianism?

It’s a little early to say, since Lacanianism does not yet exist. We can just about get a whiff of it, a premonition.

In any case, Lacan is a gentleman who has been practicing psychoanalysis for at least forty years, and has been studying it for just as long. I believe in structuralism and the science of language. I wrote in my book that ‘what the discovery of Freud drives us to is the enormity of the order in which we are inserted, into which we are – so to say – born for the second time, emerging from the aptly termed stage of infancy, in which we are without speech’.

It is language – as a moment of universal, concrete discourse – that constitutes the symbolic order on which Freud based his discovery. It is the world of speech that creates the world of things, which initially blur into everything that is in-becoming. Only words give a finished meaning to the essence of things. Without words, nothing would exist. What would pleasure be, without the intermediary of speech?

My thinking is that in outlining the laws of the unconscious in his early works – The interpretation of dreamsBeyond the pleasure principle,Totem and taboo – Freud’s formulations were a precursor to the theories with which Ferdinand de Saussure some years later opened the way to modern linguistics.

And pure thought?

Like everything else, it is subject to the laws of language. Only words can engender thought and give it substance. Without language, humanity would never make any forward step in its efforts to understand thought. This is true for psychoanalysis also. Whatever the function you attribute to it – a form of cure, of training or of making soundings – there is just one medium that you can employ, the patient’s speech. And all speech deserves a response.

Analysis as dialogue, then. There are those who interpret it more as a substitute for confession…

But what confession? You confess precisely zero to the psychoanalyst. You give yourself over to telling him simply whatever comes into your head. Words, that is. Psychoanalysis’s discovery is man-as-speaking-animal. It is up to the analyst to order the words he hears, giving them sense and meaning. For a good analysis to be possible there needs to be an agreement, an understanding between the analyst and the subject analysing himself.

Through the latter’s discourse, the analyst seeks to get an idea of what is at issue, and going beyond the apparent symptom locate the tangled knot of truth at the heart of the matter. The analyst’s other function is to explain the meaning of the words used in order to allow the patient to understand what he can expect from the analysis.

A relationship that demands a great deal of trust…

Or rather, an exchange, in which the important thing is that one person speaks and the other listens. As well as silence. The analyst poses no questions and adds no ideas of his own. He only gives the answers that he wants to, to the questions that he wants to. But ultimately the subject analysing himself always goes where the analyst leads him.

You just mentioned therapy. Is there a possibility of being cured? Can one emerge out of neurosis?

Psychoanalysis is successful when it clears the ground, goes beyond symptoms, goes beyond the real. That is to say, when it touches the truth.

Could you put the same concept in less Lacanian terms?

I call a ‘symptom’ everything that comes from the real. And the real is everything that isn’t right, does not work, and is opposed to man’s life and his engagement with his personality. The real always returns to the same place. And it is there that you will always find it, in the same trappings. There are scientists who make out that nothing is impossible, in the real – and it takes some nerve to say things like that, or, as I suspect, total ignorance of what one is doing and saying.

The real and the impossible are antithetical and cannot go together. Analysis pushes the subject toward the impossible, suggesting to him that he ought to consider the world as it truly is – that is, an imaginary world without meaning. Whereas the real is like a gluttonous seagull, and only feeds on meaningful things, actions that have some meaning.

We often hear it said that we have to give meaning to this or that, to one’s own thoughts, aspirations, sex, life. But we know absolutely nothing about life. Experts run out of breath trying to explain it to us.

My fear is that through their failings, the real – this monstrous thing that does not exist – ends up winning. Science substitutes itself for religion and is all the more despotic, obtuse and obscurantist. There is an atom-god, a space-god, etc. If science or religion wins, psychoanalysis is finished.

What relationship is there today between science and psychoanalysis?

For me the only true, serious science worth following is science fiction. The other, official science with its altars in the laboratories gropes its way forward without reaching any happy medium. And it has even begun to fear its own shadow.

It seems that the experts will soon be facing anxious moments. Donning their starched shirts in their aseptic laboratories, these rather elderly toddlers playing with unknown things, making ever more complex devices, inventing ever more obscure formulas, begin to ask themselves what might happen tomorrow, what these ever-novel research projects might bring to bear. Enough, I say! And what if it’s too late, biologists and physicists and chemists now ask themselves. I think they are mad. They are already changing the face of the universe, and it only now occurs to them that perhaps this might be dangerous. And if everything blew up in their faces? If the bacteria so lovingly raised in their shiny laboratories transformed into our mortal enemies? If hordes of these bacteria overran the world as well as all the crap that lives there, starting with these laboratory experts themselves?

In addition to Freud’s three impossible positions – government, education, and psychoanalysis – I would add a fourth, science. But the experts are not expert enough to know that their position is untenable.

So you have a rather pessimistic view of what they call progress…

No, it’s something else entirely. I am not pessimistic. Nothing is going to happen. For the simple reason that man is a good-for-nothing, not even capable of destroying himself. Personally, I would find the idea of an all-encompassing plague, produced by man, rather marvellous. It would be the proof that he had managed to do something with his own hands and head, without divine or natural intervention.

All these bacteria overfed for amusement’s sake, spreading out across the world like the locusts in the Bible, would mark the triumph of mankind. But this isn’t going to happen. Science happily saunters through its crisis of responsibility: everything will return to its natural place, as they say. And as I said, the real will win out, as always. And we’ll be as fucked as we ever were.

Another paradox of Jacques Lacan. As well as the difficulty of your language and the obscurity of your concepts, you are reproached for your jokes, word games, puns, and, rightly, for your paradoxes. Your reader or listener has the right to feel a bit disoriented.

I am not joking, the things that I say are very serious. I merely make use of words in the same way that the experts of which I speak make use of their alembics and their electronic circuitry. I always try to refer to the experience of psychoanalysis.

You say: the real does not exist. But the average Joe knows that the real is the world, everything around him that he can touch and see with the naked eye.

First off, let’s get rid of this average Joe, who does not exist. He is a statistical fiction. There are individuals, and that is all. When I hear people talking about the guy in the street, studies of public opinion, mass phenomena, and so on, I think of all the patients that I’ve seen on the couch in forty years of listening. None of them in any measure resembled the others, none of them had the same phobias and anxieties, the same way of talking, the same fear of not understanding. Who is the average Joe: me, you, my concierge, the president of the Republic?

We were talking about the real, about the world that all of us see.

OK. The difference between the real – what is not going right – and the symbolic, the imaginary – that is, truth – is that the real is the world. To see that the world does not exist, that there is no world, it is enough to think of the great mass of banalities that an infinite number of imbeciles believe the world to be. And I invite my friends at Panorama, before they accuse me of paradoxes, to reflect carefully on what they have just read.

People will say that you’re becoming ever more pessimistic.

That isn’t true. I am not among the ranks of the alarmist or the anxious. Woe betide the psychoanalyst who hasn’t gone beyond the stage of anxiety. It’s true: everywhere around us there are troubling, all-consuming things, like the TV that eats up so many of us. But that is only because there are people who allow themselves to be eaten up, who even invent an interest for themselves in what they are seeing.

And then there are other monstrous things that are just as voracious: rockets that go to the moon, research at the bottom of the oceans, etc. All sorts of things that consume people. But there’s no point in making a big deal out of them. I am sure that when we have enough of rockets, TVs and these wretched quests into the void, we will find something else with which to busy ourselves. It’s a reincarnation of religion, isn’t it? And what monster is more voracious than religion? It is a continual feast, to be enjoyed for centuries, as we have already seen.

My response to all this is to note that man has always been able to adapt himself to the bad. The only real that we can conceive, that we can have access to, is precisely that, the need for a reason: to give some meaning to things, as we said earlier. Otherwise, man would not have anxiety, Freud would not have become famous, and I would be teaching in some grammar school.

Are anxieties always of this nature, or are there anxieties linked to certain social conditions, historical eras or geographical climbs?

The anxiety of the expert afraid of his discoveries may seem a latter-day phenomenon. But what do we know about what happened in other times? The dramas of other researchers? The anxiety of the worker enslaved to the assembly line like the rowers on a galley – that is today’s anxiety. Or, more simply, this anxiety is linked to today’s words and definitions.

But what is anxiety, in psychoanalysis?

Something that is situated outside our body, a fear, but a fear of nothing, that can be driven by the body, including the mind. The fear of fear, in sum. Many of these fears and anxieties, at the level that we perceive them, have to do with sex. Freud said that for the speaking animal called man, sexuality has no remedy and has no hope. One of the analyst’s tasks is to find the relation between anxiety and sex, this great unknown, in the patient’s speech.

Now that sex is promoted everywhere you look – sex at the cinema, at the theatre, on TV and in newspapers, in songs and on beaches – you hear it said that people are less anxious about problems linked to the sexual sphere. The taboos have fallen, they say, and people are no longer afraid of sex.

The invading sex-mania is just an advertising phenomenon. Psychoanalysis is a serious matter that concerns, I repeat, a strictly personal relation between two individuals, the subject and the analyst. There is no collective psychoanalysis, just as there are no mass anxieties or neuroses.

The fact of sex being spoken about, shown off on street corners, treated like some detergent on the TV merry-go-round, does not bring any promise of joy. I do not say that this is a bad thing. Certainly it is insufficient for treating particular problems and anxieties. It is part of fashion, of this fake liberalisation that so-called permissive society gives us, like some gift from on high. But it is of no use at the level of psychoanalysis.

Translated by David Broder

Resources on Rage

Eigen, Michael. Rage.

Groshong, Laura, W. Politics in the consulting room: Hate in the Countertransference Revisited.

Von Kleist, Heinrich. Michael Kholhaas, in The Marquise of O-,