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"Like Straw": Religion and Psychoanalysis

The Letter, Issue 11, Autumn 1997, Pages 1 - 15


William J. Richardson


In describing the end of psychoanalysis as the arrival of the analysand at the point of 'subjective destitution', Lacan cites as an analogy the experience of Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life when he suddenly stopped writing, explaining to his secretary that he could no longer continue because everything that he had written up to then seemed to be 'like straw'. In the following essay, the writer attempts to discern the meaning of Thomas's remark and evaluate the import of Lacan's analogy. For Thomas, the remark suggests nothing of what Lacan calls the 'destitution of the subject' but rather a 'destitution' that follows upon the failure of the metaphysical structures of his rational synthesis to account in any adequate way for his own concrete (perhaps mystical) experience of the sacred. What appeared 'like straw', then, was the scaffolding that another language would call (properly or not) 'onto- theo-logy', which in turn is structured, psychoanalytically speaking, by the Lacanian categories of the symbolic and imaginary. Accordingly, what characterised Thomas's experience would be the disillusionment with this symbolic/imaginary synthesis by reason of his encounter with what he called God in the real. Thus, religious 'meaning', for example, the interpretation of human suffering in terms of union with the suffering Christ) need not be considered, as Lacan suggests, a repression of the real (of 'what does not work') but rather a way of confronting it.


Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Lacan make strange bedfellows. One would hardly presume to associate them together in any degree of proximity, were it not Lacan himself who invited us to do so. For in his Proposition of October 9, 1967, concerning psychoanalysis in the (Freudian) School,[1] where he discusses his conception of the end of the psychoanalytic process, he interrupts the argument at a crucial moment by introducing a mysterious analogy: 'Sicut palea, as Saint Thomas says of his work at the end of his life - like manure'.[2]

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