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Issue 51: Editorial

The Letter, Issue 51, Autumn 2012, Pages v - vii


This 51st issue of the The Letter was put together by editor Tony Hughes who is currently ill and continues the project begun in issue 41 of introducing English-speaking students of Jacques Lacan to a reading of L’étourdit. It also presents the work of three authors – Monica Errity, Mary O’Connor and Brian Robertson – on earlier, more approachable aspects of his work.

Even today, more than 40 years after its completion on July 14th 1972, L’étourdit is regarded by many French psychoanalysts as incomprehensible and even, as one of his most able commentators put it to me recently, as an ‘unworthy showpiece’ at the end of a brilliant career. But for Christian Fierens it constitutes the summit of Lacan’s teaching and it was the publication of his ‘reading’ of the text in 2002 that has allowed access to it for a generation of Irish students. Fierens has recently published a second reading of L’étourdit and this will doubtless find a place in this journal in due course.

But the publication here of a translation of the first two chapters of his 2002 commentary requires an explanation since it is out of synch with the text to which it refers. From Spring 2010 until Summer 2012 the bi-lingual text of L’étourdit was accompanied by the relevant section of Fierens’ commentary. However when the first part was published in Summer 2009 only the introduction to Fierens work was available. Readers will therefore be required to use a little ingenuity as they attempt to use the resources of the commentary to unravel the unbelievable complexities of the text. Is it worth the effort? The arcane references to set theory and topology, predicative and modal logic, the ab-sense of the sexual relationship and the notall make the text resistant to all but the most resilient readers.

But Lacan’s argument that these apparently theoretical abstractions are drawn from his clinical presentations and re-presentations at one of the most prestigious psychiatric hospitals in Paris is enough to stimulate practicing analysts to at least make the effort to see how they can illuminate their own relationships with the troubled people with whom they work and who are their most important teachers.

Two of the following articles are the product of work carried out in a cartel on Lacan’s conception of the real and presented at an inter-cartel meeting in June 2013.

Monica Errity presents the fruits of her exploration of tyche and automaton, Aristotelian terms for chance and randomness, used by Lacan to illustrate his argument that the real is at the heart of what is normally called chance. Tyche she tells us was so important for ancient Greeks ‘that it became personified in the goddess Tyche who came to symbolise the fate and fortune of rulers and through them their cities’. These age-old notions take on a new abruptness as I write this in the immediate aftermath of the horrific intrusion of the real into the lives of those caught up in the Santiago de Compostella train disaster: ‘the absence of a helmsman might cause the loss of a ship’.

While Aristotle’s rational discussion of the four causes has influenced millennia of thinkers, it is little known that he thought that it was worth considering the popular view that chance is a cause that is ‘opaque to the human mind, because it is divine and too supernatural for us to understand’. However, he finally concludes that the reason why chance appears opaque is because its causes are indeterminate so that in the final analysis nothing comes about by chance.

In Lacan’s triad of symbolic, imaginary and real the first two elements are relatively easy to illustrate and understand. But from its first presentation in 1953 he struggled to answer questions by Serge Leclaire about the nature of the real. Monica Errity’s exploration of tyche and automaton in Aristotle points readers in the direction that Lacan hopes will allow some response to an ancient and still fundamental question: ‘is the real knowable?’

Mary O’Connor traces the history of Lacan’s commentary on Edgar Allan Poe’s Purloined Letter, which is given pride of place in his Ecrits, and in particular that of the Introduction and the Presentation of the following written in 1966. She argues that the ‘matheme’, which was first explicitly mentioned in L’étourdit, had been anticipated by the mathematical formalisations he had used to emphasise the primacy of the symbolic in the seminars of 1955.

She concisely articulates Lacan’s contention that the rules derived from the tossing of a coin demonstrate the fundamental alternative of presence and absence – heads or tails - which bring out ‘the essential link between memory and law’. Thus the repetition automatism (or compulsion to repeat) central to Beyond the pleasure principle is a symbolic process that works in silence beyond the conscious control of the speaking subject – ‘the neurotic’s unconscious does not forget him’.

These complex mathematical gymnastics have seldom been presented so clearly and succinctly making this article a valuable tool for anyone wanting to approach what Lacan saw as a central plank in his re-reading of Freud’s discovery of psychoanalysis.

Brian Robertson, a doctoral student at what for centuries was known as the Catholic University of Louvain – now Leuven – has contributed an academically useful and at times clinically insightful review of Lacan’s re- reading of Freud’s theories on sado-masochism. Over against the ‘insoluble knot of enjoyment and anxiety’ found in ‘genitalized forms of desire’ the pervert is more or less ‘at home’ in his search for sexual enjoyment. This seems to me relevant not only for an understanding of the ‘sexually perverted masochist visiting an S&M club’ but for the far more prevalent phenomena of domestic violence where the sadist seeks out the anxiety of his victim and the victim is able to roll with the punches of love’s agony to an extent that remains a puzzle to the outside observer.

Robertson introduces us to the long-running controversy among psychoanalysts and philosophers about Freud’s sometimes inconsistent views on sado- masochism and is especially conversant with the French literature on the subject. But curiously, for a contributor to the Letter, he seems to be unaware of Professor Bill Richardson’s magisterial translation of Kant and Sade – as well as Tony Hughes’ Scholion – and of the 1990’s translation of the seminar on Anxiety and its revision in 2005 available in

Nevertheless this is a valuable discussion of a subject that is highly relevant to our contemporary world and its changing sexual mores and deserves to be carefully read and widely debated.

Cormac Gallagher

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