cover image Jacques Lacan: Outline of a Life, History of a System of Thought

Jacques Lacan: Outline of a Life, History of a System of Thought

Elizabeth Roudinesco. Columbia University Press, $55 (496pp) ISBN 978-0-231-10146-2

French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (1901- 1981) tried to provide a philosophical basis for Freudianism, which gained him prestige in his native land. Lacan accorded ""paramount importance to what is said"" and posited parallels between the structure of language and the unconscious--which explains his particular influence on literary theorists. The present biography is written in stately, heavy prose by a French historian, psychoanalyst and critic, who dutifully explicates Lacan's work, but also includes lots of fun details about some very weird French people, like the surrealist writer Georges Bataille, who proudly declared, ""I jerked myself off, naked, at night, in the presence of my mother's corpse."" Piling up enormous wealth and prestige, Lacan became a noted collector of modern art masterpieces and rare books. He was also determined to ""collect all women,"" as Roudinesco puts it. While the author was aided by various of Lacan's relations, this is not a sugary account of the man's life. Lacan comes across as an often difficult figure; he often threw patients out or pulled their hair if they didn't speak enough to satisfy him (though these abbreviated sessions did not mean Lacan returned the high fees they paid). He was equally rude to friends: while visiting Claude Levi-Strauss one dinnertime, he ate all the food on his hosts' plates. In conspicuous contrast to Lacan's famously abstruse writings, this account--from the psychiatrist's birth into a family of vinegar-makers to his last words, ""I'm stubborn... I'm dying""--makes for a lively read. (Apr.)