Why novelists love to fictionalise French philosophers

Jacques Lacan is one of many theorists to have appeared in fiction over the years

April 19, 2022
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Where it all happened: the office of Lacan in Paris. Credit: Alamy

Jacques Derrida. Jacques Lacan. Luce Irigaray. Roland Barthes. Michel Foucault. Julia Kristeva. Gilles Deleuze. The 1960s saw a generation of French thinkers come of age in what was perhaps one of the greatest intellectual flowerings in history. Hélène Cixous, one of their number, would label this generation “the incorruptibles” and their influence, for better or worse, would flow outwards from philosophy departments into literature, film, gender studies, postcolonial studies and popular culture.

Deeply serious and deeply playful, each of them put language and discourse at the centre of their analyses, whether it was Derrida arguing “there is nothing outside the text,” Lacan that “the unconscious is structured like a language” or Kristeva introducing the idea of “intertextuality” in her Desire in Language. The barrier between philosophy and literature has become increasingly porous and the “pleasures of the text,” to use Barthes’s term, even more alluring. For each of these thinkers, words matter—more than that, words are matter, from which we build both ourselves and our world.

It is no coincidence then that their lives have been plundered for novels. Kristeva herself was among the first to do this—her 1992 novel The Samurai featured thinly disguised versions of Barthes (the amiable homosexual writer Armand Brehal), Lacan (Maurice Lauzun complete with cape and cigar) and Derrida (the eccentric semiotician Saida, inventor of “condestruction”). Kristeva’s heroine Olga just happens to be an eastern European intellectual living in Paris, much like the author, and married to the smart and sexy Hervé Sinteuil, editor of the literary journal Now—all bearing an uncanny resemblance to her actual husband Philippe Sollers, the editor of Tel Quel.

It’s all pretty ropey stuff, erring on the side of gossip and in-jokes, and featuring terrible sex scenes with, as the New York Times put it, “no equal in modern literature”—although the same article may have gone a little far in grouping The Samurai with Louis Althusser’s murder of his wife and Paul de Man’s exposure as a Nazi sociopath as part of a “bad year for Europe’s academic superheroes.”

Later, Patricia Duncker’s terse and intricate Hallucinating Foucault explored an obsession with perhaps the most obsessional of the thinkers—the unnamed protagonist of the 1996 novel becomes consumed with the eponymous philosopher and his writings. It is an exploration of the love between the author and the reader—as the novel puts it, “You ask me what I fear most… It is the loss of my reader, the man for whom I write.” As Foucault himself said, “I don’t write a book so that it will be the final word; I write a book so that other books are possible, not necessarily written by me.”

More recently, Prix Goncourt winner Laurent Binet’s 2017 novel The 7th Function of Language weaves a historical thriller out of the death of the author of “The Death of the Author,” Roland Barthes. Barthes famously died after being run down by a laundry truck on his way home from lunch with French presidential candidate François Mitterrand. In Binet’s novel, Barthes’s death is a murder. Two gloriously ill-matched police officers, the conservative Bayard and his offsider Herzog, along with a left-wing university postgraduate, are tasked with solving the mystery. Was Barthes murdered because he was on the verge of discovering the “seventh function of language,” on top of Roman Jakobson’s six? A function which allows the wielder to persuade anybody of anything, through sheer rhetorical prowess? Derrida, Foucault and Kristeva herself are all interrogated, Sollers is mercilessly mocked, while Barthes’ own theories become the clues for unravelling the mysteries. It’s thrilling stuff, even if its tricksiness can occasionally irritate—but then irritating tricksiness, some might argue, has a certain affinity with the incorruptibles.

And none more so than the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Complex, abstruse and rebarbative—both as a writer and as a man—Lacan’s dense writing can inspire fear and exasperation in even the most hardened denizen of late 20-century French philosophy. His stated aim—a “return to Freud”—sounds simple enough, but lurking in this quest is a blizzard of inscrutable and recherché concepts, from the “Name-of-the-Father” to the “Object A,” from “jouissance” to “méconnaissance.” These are often interspersed with quasi-mathematical diagrams of things like “The Graph of Desire” (a “flattened” representation of a signifying chain as it crosses the vector of desire) or the Borromean knot, which represents the structure of human subjectivity.

These are perilous waters in which to swim—and yet Susan Finlay’s new novel The Jacques Lacan Foundation does so not only with aplomb, but in a way that is laugh-out-loud funny, from the doe-eyed picture of Kate Moss on the cover to the wonderfully absurd plot which keeps itself just this side of shooting fish in a barrel.

From its opening exclamation, “Cunt!,” followed by an immediate nod to Gustave Courbet’s 1866 painting L’Origine du monde—which hung for a time in Lacan’s country house—this is a wild ride, wearing its intelligence lightly while still performing a detailed critique of a world where politics, capitalism and image-making are almost indistinguishable.

It is 2018, and Nicki Smith—styling herself “Lettuce Croydon-Smith” for reasons of class and her own terrible error in nomenclature—is a young British woman who blags herself a “low-paid glamour job” at the Jacques Lacan Foundation in Texas—having previously been employed at London’s Freud Museum, where she had “failed to grasp the subtle nuances between different psychoanalysts’ theories, or even the subtle nuances between different interpretations of the same psychoanalyst’s theories.”

Suitably impressed with her resume, her employers entrust her with the task of translating Lacan’s newly discovered final notebook—or is it?—although as we know and they don’t, she has no French and is forced to rely on Google Translate (annoyingly there is, she notes, “some math”—for which she is forced to substitute E=MC2). And who is the mysterious Piper? And who is the mysterious Alain-Jacques?

If Nicki/Lettuce is oblivious to the subtleties of Lacan, Finlay isn’t. Here is a world as its own mirror stage—that defining moment in the existence of an infant where they not only recognise themselves, literally, in a mirror, but where they take their place in the symbolic order, able to view themselves from outside—a vantage point we are more and more forced to take as we are thrown outside of ourselves, where history has piled up and made even our most emotional moments derivative.

Nicki’s world is one where everything is an image of itself and a reference to something else, where she can drive past “a farm that could have been in a bluegrass music video, a skyscraper that could have been in a 1980s movie about hotshot lawyers,” worrying that her life might be “merely a series of pretty existential vignettes in the manner of a New Wave film or a perfume commercial,” and where people smoke cigarettes “so hipster they are almost healthy.”

Everything is done for effect or for affect—Nicki isn’t shell-shocked, she is shocked that she is shell-shocked. Her new “sort of” boyfriend Diego, the air-conditioning repair guy (or should it be “man,” she muses?) and (“sort of”) filmmaker, reveals that he has lost his mother and therefore understands Nicki’s feelings about losing her father to cancer (as she almost certainly has, maybe). She then reflects that in the movie of their life “this would have been a perfect moment to rest my head upon his shoulder. I would have asked him about his own childhood, and this would have then led onto many illuminating insights each one of which would help to explain and shape the narrative… Fortunately we were both too cool to be mainstream…”

Drawn deeper into the mysteries of the notebook, spending her time watching Kate Moss commercials, and finding herself almost already starring in the films her boyfriend is almost already making (“like Lady Macbeth, but the really hot influencer version”), Nicki must keep one step ahead of various Lacanians (the collective noun for which she decides is a “skulk”), or perhaps one step behind as the novel gradually becomes—inevitably and wonderfully—the road movie/rags-to- riches story/happy-ending romcom it was meant to be. Or does it?

The Jacques Lacan Foundation is a rollicking ride through contemporary culture and politics, which enacts Lacan’s work in all its playfulness, and critiques it in all its pomposity. There remains a desperation to the lives of the characters as, in Lacan’s terms, their Imaginary and Symbolic lives keep running up against the Real and, as Nicki puts it, “more personal forms of nothing.” The drama of the mirror stage is that it is the first step of self-alienation. One hates the version of oneself that is no longer oneself, while also wanting to be them, whole and complete. But for all that, this remains a fun and sexy novel, spilling over with jouissance. Lacan would have hated it. Or would he?

The Jacques Lacan Foundation by Susan Finlay is published by Moist