If anyone else had called psychoanalysis a scam, he would have felt the full fury of the Freudian horde.
Coming from Jacques Lacan, the most influential Freudian since Freud, the judgment was not so easily dismissed.
Unfortunately for those who still hold fast to the Freudian faith, Lacan added that analysts’ words, their interpretations were bullshit. And he predicted that the practice to which he had devoted his life would soon become an historical relic.
Lacan made these remarks in Belgium in 1977. They should have been noted and debated. They were not, not even by Lacan’s most fawning followers. They were ignored.
By 1977, Lacan had amassed a significant cult following in Europe and Latin America. Many of them worshiped him as a god and took his word as holy writ. They were convinced that theirs was the truth faith. It had to be, since so many of them were thriving. How could they accept that they were scamming their patients?
At the time, very few Parisian analysts even knew what Lacan had said. It’s ironic, but many of them had mastered the art of repression.
When the statement appeared in the French press in 1980, analysts continued to ignore it. Some told themselves that Lacan did not mean what he said. Or better, that if he meant what he said he did not know what he was saying.
The net effect was that most of Lacan’s followers did not even know that he had accused them (and presumably himself) of scamming their patients.
In 1977, I was in Paris studying with the man himself. I was attending Lacan’s seminars faithfully. I was teaching psychoanalysis at the University of Paris VIII. As a member in good standing of the Lacanian community, I was privy to most of the relevant and irrelevant local gossip.
In 1980 I was practicing psychoanalysis in New York. I was in continuous, close contact with the world of French psychoanalysis.
Yet, I did not hear that Lacan had compared psychoanalysis to a criminal enterprise until 2011. By that time I had long since abandoned psychoanalytic practice.
Of course, American analysts knew nothing about it. Having dismissed Lacan as a heretic they paid no attention to his theoretical lucubrations.
By now, however, Lacan’s name has become so prominent in the world of international psychoanalysis that his words demand attention. If American analysts want to continue to call themselves psychoanalysts, they will be obliged to respond to a charge issued by a man who is recognized around the world as Freud’s most important intellectual heir.
But, what did the notoriously confounding Frenchman mean when he called psychoanalysis a scam?
Evidently, he was saying that psychoanalysts had no business pretending to be mental health professionals conducting a clinical practice. Lacan had recognized that psychoanalysis could neither treat nor cure mental illness. If analysts continued to pretend that they could, they were receiving payment and fostering hope for a payoff they could not deliver. Thus, they were scamming the public.
But, how could it be? Most psychoanalysts are licensed healers. It is true in France and it is true around most of the world. In America, especially, they have never been shy about showing off their credentials. Many of them even believe that theirs is a scientific discipline.
Obviously, a psychoanalyst who still thinks he is a scientist needs more help than any therapy can provide.
When it came to question of clinical effectiveness, most psychoanalysts have tried to have it both ways.
On the one hand, they tout their medical or paramedical credentials. On the other, they insist that they are only offering knowledge and understanding, insight and awareness.
They will say, as Lacan once did, that if a patient in psychoanalysis gets better, it is a fortunate accident. Insight is nice, but it neither treats nor cures.
Of course, Lacan was not telling his followers to toss their Freud books in the poubelle. He wanted psychoanalysis to fulfill its destiny by becoming an instrument of cultural revolution and thought reform. He wanted to lead psychoanalysis out of the clinic and into the cultural arena.
If psychoanalysis could not cure depression or anxiety, it would find a higher calling by curing civilization (Ger. Kultur) of its discontents. Taking up arms in the culture war was surely better than competing against medication and cognitive therapy.
A cynic might well imagine, more or less correctly, that Freudians needed to blame someone or something for their record of clinical failures. Wasn’t “civilization” a convenient target?
If Freudian psychoanalysis does not teach you how to shift the blame it has taught you nothing.
To make psychoanalysis a player in the culture wars, Lacan started talking about “the Freudian cause.” Rallying people to an ideological cause was surely safer than risking the future of Freudian theory on its ability to treat or cure mental illness.
Better yet, how do you adjudge the success or failure of civilizational transformation? We have a fairly clear idea of what a successful treatment produces; we have a far murkier idea of how to assess a cultural transformation.
His boundless hubris notwithstanding, Freud did not really believe that he could cure civilization of its discontents. It did not stop his most devoted disciples from trying accomplish a task that Freud believed to be futile. They believed that they were being more Freudian than Freud.
Freud saw the history of civilization as a dramatic conflict between libidinous urges that were seeking to express themselves and repressive forces that were trying to stifle them.
He saw no way to resolve the conflict. Believing negotiated compromise impossible, Freud concluded that human beings could never get along. If mental health involved emotional tranquility, spiritual serenity or harmonious social relations, neither Freud nor his most serious followers believed that it could ever be achieved.
Believing that life was a tragedy—a Greek tragedy, in particular—true Freudians believed that the optimistic, can-do spirit that we often identify as mentally healthy was an illusion. They preferred to see people wallow in the Freudian truth, the better to turn—in Freud’s words-- misery into common unhappiness.
But then, how can you live the Freudian truth?
By Lacan’s lights, you needed first to become a true-believing Freudian, a totally convinced cult follower.
Theyn you should live the civilizational drama between libido and repression by turning your life into a perpetual psychodrama.
It will not solve your problems, but it will show that you have truly understood Freud.
[Adopted from The Last Psychoanalyst.]