郭建:In Search of an Unconscious: Jacques Lacan and China

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进入专题: Unconscious   Jacques   Lacan  

郭建 (进入专栏)  

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

—Walt Whitman

Did the Chinese have an unconscious? The question occupied the mind of Jacques Lacan in late 1973 and early 1974 as he was brushing up his knowledge of the Chinese language for a much-anticipated trip to China in the company of Philippe Sollers, Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, Marcelin Pleynet, and François Wahl.[1] It was a trip from which Lacan eventually decided to withdraw.

By “an unconscious” Lacan perhaps meant a Chinese counterpart of Freud’s discovery of the previously uncharted territory of the human mind; or rather, a Chinese mirror image of Lacan’s own reformulation of the Freudian discovery. It would be an awareness of that dark and mysterious recess more authentic and truer of our being than the well-lighted space of rational thought within our psyche, and it would be a speculation on that elusive beast lurking behind everything we say and do but ultimately beyond the grasp of our linguistically-constituted consciousness. Language, in Lacan’s view, is both the condition for the unconscious and the only means by which we may try to understand the unconscious. However, a verbalized unconscious is no longer unconscious; in seeking to grasp the unconscious, we lose it. So, challenging the Cartesian assertion of the centrality of human consciousness—“Cogito ergo sum” (“I think; therefore, I am”)—Lacan quipped, and meant it, too, “I think where I am not; therefore I am where I do not think.”[2]

Lacan’s search actually started much earlier. During the Occupation, Lacan, hating oppression but also scornful of heroism (of the underground resistance), refused to publish a single line and seemed to decide to be productive in another way: he read the King James Bible, translated T. S. Eliot, and learned Chinese at the School of Oriental Languages in Paris.[3] By 1953 when he delivered the seminal “discourse of Rome” entitled “Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis,” he apparently had managed to acquaint himself with some Chinese classics, including the Book of Changes (周易), and seemed to be able to understand the essentially pictophonetic (rather than pictographic or ideographic, as often misunderstood) nature of the Chinese language. In a crucial passage on the birth of language and the order of things highlighting the major thesis of the lecture, Lacan envisions a remarkable parallel between the Freudian speculation on the infant cries of (the German) “fort” and “da” on the one hand and the Chinese construction of the signs of yin and yang on the other:

Through the word—already a presence made of absence—absence itself gives itself a name in that moment of origin whose perpetual recreation Freud’s genius detected in the play of the child. And from this pair of sounds modulated on presence and absence—a coupling that the tracing in the sand of the single and the broken line of the mantic kwa of China would also serve to constitute—there is born the world of meaning of a particular language in which the world of things will come to be arranged.[4]

This passage, along with the assertions that immediately follow about the word as the trace of nothingness delineating, and therefore bringing into being, not only the world of things but humanity itself, was to inspire the likes of Foucault and Derrida, both attendees of Lacan’s well-known seminar, in their rebellion against enlightenment humanism.

In the late 1960s, as many French students, including his pupils associated with the journal Les Cahiers pour l’analyse, were spellbound by China’s ongoing Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution and were waging wars against bourgeois institutions in France, Lacan again immersed himself in a study of the language and philosophy of China. That was a time when a number of leading French intellectuals, Sartre and Foucault among them, were all infatuated by radical Maoism. Lacan’s interest in things Chinese, though, did not seem topical: he was at the time working out his theory of discourse on the basis of Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying and showing, and must have seen the relevance of Chinese thought to the project.[5] He sought help from the sinologist François Cheng, particularly with regard to the ways in which Chinese philosophy might aid him in writing the topography of the real, the symbolic, and the imaginary (the R.S.I, the Lacanian trinity of the human psyche). A text Lacan was working on extensively with Cheng was section 42 of the Laozi: “The tao begets one. One begets two. Two begets three. Three begets ten-thousand things . . .” Cheng’s expertise had become so indispensable to Lacan’s theoretical venture of the moment that in 1973 when Cheng stopped working with his demanding friend in order to write a book, Lacan felt rather desperate: “But what’s going to become of me?” he said to Cheng.[6] Eventually, Lacan made use of Taoism in a new definition of the real within the framework of an odd and obscure Lacanian quasi-mathematic formula called the theory of knots, to which Lacan devoted the last ten years of his life.[7]

However, the extent to which Lacan benefited from his four years of work with the help of Cheng on classical Chinese texts is hard to measure—as hard, perhaps, as any effort on the part of critics and scholars to untie the knots of the late Lacanian theory. At the very heart of this theory is the image of a certain “Borromean knot,” the ideograph of the theory as one may call it, with three perfectly circular rings mutually interlocked and arranged in the shape of a cloverleaf. Visually, what would be a more perfect reflection of the Lacanian trinity of the R.S.I.? Lacan, who believed dialogue to be nothing other than the juxtaposition of monologues, was particularly sensitive to echoes of his own genius, which he might have convinced himself to have heard in section 42 of the Laozi.[8]

While his journey into ancient China ended abruptly with the withdrawal of his passeur, Lacan’s search for a Chinese unconscious took an unexpected turn when he read Maria Antonietta Macciocchi’s book De la Chine, which had been a great success among French intellectuals since its publication in late 1971. He decided to resume Chinese lessons immediately, thinking of a real journey into the real China. “Would you like to go to China with me, my dear?” Lacan asked when he met Macciocchi. “You’re not interested? You’re a bit doubtful? Bring your husband, and you’ll have nothing to worry about!”[9] In response to Macciocchi’s puzzlement over the “craze for China” that had seized the Paris intelligentsia, Lacan explained that after the supposedly socialist revolution, the structure of capitalism was rebuilt in the USSR and in Eastern Europe and “nothing has changed,” he said. “That’s why people are so keen on China, my dear.”[10] Despite these words, echoing the perceptions of the Gauche prolétarienne (GP, a small but prestigious French political organization that embraced Maoism), Lacan was not on the ultraleft; nor did he speak upon conviction. Rather, his liberalism, political skepticism, and Freudian pessimism allowed him to view the French version of China’s Cultural Revolution with both sympathy and amusement. In late 1969 in an amphitheater at the University of Paris VIII-Vincennes, he told his audience, “As revolutionaries, what you long for is a master. You’ll get one . . . I’m only a liberal, like everyone else, insofar as I’m antiprogressive.”[11]

Nevertheless, Lacan seemed quite anxious to see the revolutionary China. Aside from the quest for a possible Chinese unconscious, his biographer Roudinesco speculates, Lacan probably also wanted to discuss the matter personally with Chairman Mao Zedong—the Great Helmsman known to the French intellectuals as a founding father, a rebel, a leader, and a philosopher, too.[12] Considering his own career, his achievements, and his enormous prestige as well as notoriety in the international community of psychoanalysts, Lacan may find the Chairman an irresistible mirror image of himself that he must have found it hard to turn away. Indeed, the vogue of Maoism à la française was a formidable rival to the Lacanianism that had been a continuous revolution in the name of Freud under Dr. Lacan’s helsmanship ever since he and his disciples broke up with the International Psycho-Analytical Association and formed their own group in 1953. In the late 1960s, Lacan’s pupils connected to Les Cahiers pour l’analyse—both students and young faculty, including Lacan’s daughter Judith and son-in-law Jacques-Alain Miller—began to desert the master and his bourgeois authority for the Maoist cause of the Gauche prolétarienne, who proclaimed as one of their aims to “destroy the university” as a bourgeois institution. Annoyed by the desertion, Lacan responded with an outburst of a revolutionary: “The revolution, c’est moi. . . . You are making my revolution impossible and taking away my disciples.”[13]

As Lacan was considering the China trip, Philippe Sollers, organizer of the delegation to China, eagerly urged him to join. Sollers prided himself on his thoroughgoing Maoism and would not have anyone emerge on his left. This was the time when an odd political campaign against Confucius was under way in China. The implicit, but real, target was Premier Zhou Enlai. The tactic was known later as “allusory historiography.” Watching the dubious battle at a distance and taking the ghost for the real thing, Sollers finally opened fire, from his office on the rue Jacob (the headquarters of the review Tel quel, of which Sollers was the founder and editor), at the thought of Confucius. He thought that by taking Lacan to China he would make another significant contribution to the world revolution: namely, “breaking the objective alliance between Lacanianism and revisionism.”[14] Lacan, however, still did not seem to have made up his mind. He made a request: he wanted to meet some Chinese. Subsequently, he had two meetings—

A dinner was arranged at La Calèche with Maria Antonietta and two young men from the Chinese embassy dressed in blue and wearing official badges. The campaign against Confucius was raging in China at that time, so Lacan launched into rhapsodies about Confucianism and said it was one of the world’s greatest philosophies. He quoted classical texts to his guests, who were taken aback but in favor of his going to China.

One morning a delegation from the Chinese embassy arrived in the rue de Lille in an official car complete with a little flag. The delegation brought Lacan a passport for him and his official mistress, accompanied by a tribute from the Great Helmsman. In exchange Lacan handed over an inscribed copy of the Écrits for the Institute of Sciences in Peking.[15]

The account of the Chinese diplomats’ visit to Lacan was given by none other than Sollers, who had been dreaming of a great headline, “Lacan chez Mao,” and possibly addressing the great question of a Chinese unconscious![16] Yet, what did “a tribute from the Great Helmsman” exactly mean? One cannot help wondering. Sollers must have felt, or just wanted others to feel, that he had made efforts and pulled off his plan.

But, three days after the diplomats’ visit, Lacan went to the Chinese embassy in Paris and cancelled his China trip. He telephoned Maria Antonietta Macciocchi on that day: “My dear, I would have been delighted to go just with you, but as things stand it will be a sort of procession. Perhaps with Sollers—yes, he’s more famous than I am—but . . .”[17] Then, Tel quel, with which the rest of the delegation to China (Sollers, Barthes, Kristeva, etc.) were closely associated, issued a statement concerning Lacan’s withdrawal:

He was to come with us to China. It’s a pity that, as he himself put it in his apology, he did not have time to work up enough Chinese, before his departure, for that. We would have liked to see Lacan discuss things, unprepared, with the population. The experience would have been interesting. It is true that Lacan had begun to have concerns about the campaign against Confucius and the fact that the latter was being presented as the ideologue of slavery in China. But could a critique of the “will of heaven,” “innate knowledge,” and “a moderation in order to return to rites” shock an established psychoanalyst? Perhaps.[18]

Whatever the real cause of Lacan’s decision to pull out of the trip—based on his own apology, or Maria Antonietta’s journal entry, or some other sources—and however trivial it might be, the intended irony at the end of the Tel quel statement is quite off the mark. First, the Analects-quoting Lacan, as showy as he was, might be at the same time sincere enough in his defense of the Chinese sage when the Parisian political tide was going the other way, with his pupils, even his daughter and son-in-law, riding on it. And between an old-fashioned Orientalism cherishing a time-tested tradition of the Other and a fashionable Orientalism Parisian style mimicking a culture-trashing political propaganda of, again, the Other, the choice, if it has to be made, is not hard. Second, though Lacan’s knowledge of Confucianism might be quite limited, for the theorist and teacher of the unconscious fighting a life-long Quixotic battle for a “retour à” Freud against the formidable enemies of biologism and behavioral science, Confucius, though foreign and remote in time, might not be entirely Other. Lacan might have known well Confucius the scholar who, with the magic of allegorical reading, transformed divination into philosophy. He might have spotted Confucius the teacher whose seminars attracted brilliant minds and who commanded an enviable following among competing schools. And he might have envisioned Confucius the philosopher of form who, in rites and rituals, names and words, saw the creation of order and the mandate of heaven. In a word, a contemporary Cultural Revolutionary critique of Confucius would shock Lacan. So Lacan’s earlier excursion into Taoism was, as his biographer may have rightly surmised, just “another way of responding to his pupils from Les Cahiers pour l’analyse and their engagement with Maoism.”[19] And so was his withdrawal from the much-anticipated China trip, perhaps.

For at least more than four years Lacan had been wondering if the Chinese had an unconscious. Just imagine Dr. Lacan on the back of a donkey searching . . . while the object remained forever elusive to him. Perhaps it did not exist as the signified. Or perhaps it did. Then surely it kept sliding under the unknown signifier supreme. In any case, the search seemed to come to a stop when Lacan backed out of the trip to China in 1974. Some years later, when Lacan met François Cheng again, he speculated about the “breaks” his friend must have experienced living in exile. Then Lacan offered a compliment: “But you’ve been able, haven’t you, to turn these breaks into an active median-void and to link together your present and your past, the West and the East. In the end you’ll be—you are already, I know—in your time.” (The “median-void,” or the French “vide-médian,” is a rather odd translation of the Chinese沖氣 or 中氣, from section 42 of the Laozi, meaning literally “blending the breath [of yin and yang]”.)[20] If dialogue is indeed deception as Lacan insisted, then what we hear is Lacan’s monologue projecting his own dream, and a rather nice one, too, despite his anxiety over breaks and differences. Somewhere in the background in the Lacanian field of dreams, a figure in the form of an ideogrammic algorithm might be beckoning—a huge question mark (in the place of SIGNIFIER) over a small “cu” (Chinese unconscious as signified) with a horizontal bar separating the two—like this:[21]




An interesting complementary question is, however: Did the French also have a yin and a yang to blend and breathe?


[1] Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co.: A History of Psychoanalysis in France, 1925-1985, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 545.

[2] Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (London: Tavistock, 1977), p. 166.

[3] Elisabeth Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, trans. Barbara Bray (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 158-59; 351.

[4] Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, p. 65.

[5] Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, p. 351.

[6] François Cheng, “Entretien avec Judith Miller,” L’Ane 48 (December 1991): 54. Quoted in Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, p. 352.

[7] Roudinesco, ibid., pp. 351-52.

[8] For Lacan’s idea that dialogue is deception, see Françoise Giroud’s account of Lacan’s May 15, 1968 seminar in an article in L’Express, entitled “Quand l’autre était dieu” (“When the Other was God”), reproduced in Revue internationale d’histoire de la psychanalyse 5 (1992). See also Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, p. 337.

[9] Unpublished journal of Maria Antonietta Macciocchi. Quoted in Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, p. 353.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jacques Lacan, Seminar XVII, 239. Quoted in Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, p. 342. See also Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co., pp. 552-80.

[12] Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co., p. 545.

[13] Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, Génération, vol. 2 (Paris: Seuil, 1988): 182. Quoted in Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, p. 238.

[14] Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co., pp. 544-45.

[15] Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, p. 353.

[16] Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co., p. 545.

[17] Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, p. 354.

[18] Tel quel 59 (1974): 7. Quoted in Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan & Co., p. 545.

[19] Roudinesco, Jacques Lacan, p. 351.

[20] François Cheng, “Entretien avec Judith Miller,” p. 54. Quoted in Roudinesco, ibid., 352. The “median-void,” or the French “vide-médian,” translates the Chinese 沖氣 (or 中氣, according to the 馬王堆甲本 of the Lao-zi) in the line 萬物負陰而抱陽﹐沖氣以為和 from section 42 of the Laozi. The phrase means literally “neutralize (or moderate, or blend) the qi (breath or air, of yin and yang).” The line may be translated as “ten thousand things [that is, everything in the universe] carry yin on their backs and embrace yang in their arms and are harmonized by the blending of the breath (of yin and yang).”

[21] The algorithm “S over s,” which Lacan attributed to Ferdinand de Saussure and which he identified as the foundation of linguistic science, is read as “the signifier over the signified.” See Lacan, “Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud” in Écrits: A Selection, pp. 146-78.

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