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Religion, Psychoanalysis*



Jacques-Alain Miller

translated by Barbara P. Fulks


To resume again...


The Supreme

The Birth of
the Intimate

Jews, Christians,
and other

A Conversation
with Alain Badiou

Fifteen Theses on
Contemporary Art

Katy Grannan

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I. The Logic of the Great Man

I'm going to tell you what I was thinking, stuck in traffic for an hour and fifteen minutes. I was thinking that this course was surely a ritual for me, without my knowing it. I say this because it is clear that I was not paying attention to exterior reality today. I heard at 8:00 am that there were strikes in the transportation sector, but it slid like water off a duck's back. I did not take the natural precautions because I was caught up in the automaton that this practice entails, an automaton that implies what Freud called — a denial of exterior reality. Anyway, this is what held me up; I fell inside. When I finish this speech, I will reflect on what has just happened to me, having perceived that this course is ritualized for me. This can't go on.

1. Why Moses

Final message

Why Moses? Why did Freud need Moses, as Lacan asked himself in his Seminar, L'envers de la psychanalyse? It's an historical fact that Freud made Moses — his death, monotheistic religion, its survival, and its persistence — the content of what Lacan called his final message. Of course one takes into account the historical context in which Freud sent this message: after having left Vienna and at a moment when the scientific ideas — his own, stemming from the Enlightenment, with modifications from Romanticism, these ideas which promised a future of rationality and tolerance — were revealed to be only illusions.

This revelation, imposed on his contemporaries, echoed for more than half a century and was carefully preserved in a certain number of memorials from another time—from another time, as they say, that has not been forgotten. Nonetheless, it was forgotten, as though what was manifested from the resurgence of a barbarity—as one says, from another time—could easily have been the entrance to the end of History.

Freud’s message thus remains a strange memento bequeathed to posterity, initially bequeathed to those who took over from his discovery and practice, in order that it be known that we remain tied to religion. There is something of religion which continues to be written. And today when religious belief flows into politics in multiple ways, how can we fail to recognize it? One might predict that this is only a beginning. Religious belief inspires unprecedented sacrifices, terrorist sacrifices which haunt the planet, which disrupt international exchange, which have palpable economic consequences. And then, here, in France, in a rather more comic way at present, religion claims a new place in the common space, in the public sphere, let us say even in the Republic itself.

Every day one can read in the press the tone with which an interconfessional syndicate claims a new mode of presence. Ah! They were all queued up there last week: the Papists supporting the Muslims, who were agreeing with the Jews, and then, last in line, the Protestants, even the most secular, who were claiming a right to the signifier, clothed in vestments. This touches on the image of the body; they want to modify the image of the body in the common space. The Republic does not know what to do about these claims in which a marvelous vestimentary ecumenicism is effected.

One is obviously forced to return to Freud’s illusion that religion had only the future of an illusion in the age of science, and that it would be effaced, exhausting what he called the interest—Interesse—of mankind. He had isolated the element which is undemonstratable in religion yet irrefutable, and he had the idea that the libido could be withheld by what was irrefutable in religion.

Woman and Monotheistic Religion

Why did Freud need Moses? This is the main question of The Future of an Illusion (1927). He released his Mosaic message from London and seemed to say: “This illusion has a future.” Who is Moses? Many things. A proper name. Someone. A man. The one Freud used in the title of his book, L’homme Moïse et la religion monothéiste.

A man—this is the reference to the age-old question of Diogenes, wandering in the City with his lantern, responding when asked when his promenade would end: “I’m looking for a man.” This has inspired infinite commentaries. A man of the kind that Napoleon recognized in Goethe and greeted with “Monsieur Goethe, you are a man.” He probably said “man” because Moses is designated that way in the Bible, the only passage in Exodus which refers to his being Egyptian: “Moreover, the man who was Moses was very great in the country of Egypt.”

Jan Assmann, an intellectual, professor of Egyptology at Heidelberg, points out this passage in his work, Moîse l’Égyptien, published recently in a collection reflecting Jesuit erudition, a commendable work, amenable to Freudian studies. [1] They have perceived that Freud’s Moses, as Lacan said in a word, is “Christcentric,” leading straight to Christ, of whom the assassinated Moses is a prefiguration. I appreciated that this intellectual, while offering the Biblical reference, emphasized discreetly in his work that Freud also used the expression “the man Moses” quite simply because he was a great man.

Freud needed a great man to make monotheistic religion rational. He needed a great man to make the primacy of One God rational. One more step. For the sovereignty of the signifier “one.”

The debate over Freud’s unlikely last message is confusing: it was always received with reserve in psychoanalysis itself, not to mention the sarcasm that tradition quite naturally devoted to it. We have hardly understood it yet. The annoyance, the disgust, the irritation, the profound hatred and hostility, directed against Freud by the representatives of the orthodox tradition from which he detached himself. For quite a while we simply have not been able to understand it. It is also a fact that we hear this today and perceive in what tone one spoke, from that time on, about monotheistic religion. We must thank the memory of this brought to us now, when it is not muffled as usual by good breeding, courtesy and Christcentrism. That tone causes much reflection. In the not too distant future, in order to speak of psychoanalysis, one will have to take the same kind of tone, of the sort “we also, we have something to defend and to attack those boys with.”

The question in Moses, when one sees it through the Lacanian prism, is that no “God is dead” can deliver the kind of speaking/beings from the power of the signifier “one.” Lacan posed the question in the same vein, a little later in his Seminar Encore: “Where does the signifier “one” come from; where does the master-signifier as such come from?” If we decipher the title of Moses and Freud’s intention in this way, then it is not excessive to say that Lacan responded to Freud’s Moses with his invention of the discourse of the master, where he created envers of psychoanalysis. It is in the Seminar L’envers… that he himself re-evaluated the reading he had done of Moses in The Ethics of Psychoanalysis. It is not enough to say that monotheism, the cult of the One and of its total power, comes from the discourse of the master. When one hears one of its spokespersons—a recent convert, or one who has returned not so long ago—one sees that monotheism condenses its force, the insistence of the master-signifier, and that it translates, expresses, perpetuates the fixation which attaches the speaking/beings to the signifier “one.”

Lacan is engaged on this path at the moment when it might seem that there was something else imposing itself—1968, subversion—to which he was responding in his four discourses. He made a point, singularly, about this Moses and about the body of where he inscribed Freud between Totem and Taboo and The Future of an Illusion. On the path on which Lacan is engaged, something else is unveiled behind the One God which is not man, not “the man Moses” of the title. What is unveiled for Lacan and what he communicated is rather “Woman and Monotheistic Religion.” The point which begins to be outlined in L’envers… bears heavily on the Seminar Encore.

Incidentally this was brought to my attention, unexpectedly, on the occasion of this conference. [2] I extended my hand to the wife of a colleague, whom I had known for a long time. “Men don’t touch our women.” I should have known. It’s true that there are degrees in orthodoxy, but it was clear that there was the evidence of a settled question here.

2. A Christcentric Movement

Life Freud himself insisted on man. Moses was a great man, an exceptional personality. Personality, Freud insisted on it, since in The Future of an Illusion there is only sarcasm for the abstractions of the divinity, for the Gods refined through the filter of science. The objector he invented proposes to serve him up a God absolutely compatible with science, but who would permit both to advance tranquilly. Freud said: “That will interest no one, and it’s a false God because the exceptional personality of the God of tradition is unrecognizable there.” He baptized personality with the name of Moses, and he took off on his quest for the great man.

I had the occasion, at the beginning of this year, to emphasize at what point the quest for the great man had been urgent in the age of science, in the same way that the homogenizing effects of the discourse of science call the exception. Lacan gave it the simplifying formula adjusting its “for every x, phi of x” with “there must exist at least one which is different.” From the moment in which, by necessity, all are alike, one must be found which is other, and it is always marked by the contingency of the figure under which it appears.

∀ x Φ x ∃ Φx

As I said at the beginning of the year, it is the genial, reactionary, Romantic Englishman, Carlyle, who gave birth to the cult of the great man in the age of science and who infected everyone with the malady of the great man. [3] And Freud is marked by it in his own fashion.

The logic of the great man is fully apparent in The Future of an Illusion. His fundamental thesis on civilization and culture, according to which every culture is built on constraint and the renunciation of drives, which we translate as “built on a sacrifice of jouissance,” requires the influence of exemplary individuals. They are the vehicles of the constraint. It is not only by repetition, by social pressure, that the norm of renunciation is inculcated. For Freud, someone personally must pay.

The constraint, for Freud, functions by identification. There is for him, correlatively, a certain disdain for the masses. He lived through a time of great movements of masses. Even so, from a psychic point of view, he considered them as inert, as incapable of renouncing drives if there was not someone, not a subject, but a person, a personality, a speaking/being, a living person. At least this is the presupposition, so that he could have what he called murder: it was necessary that a living being be implicated in the affair. He put his finger on what is today an extraordinary master-signifier of religion: life.

Durkheim via Bergson

In order to justify the statement I’ve made about the cult of the great man as a phenomenon of the epoch, I would like to point out that, at the same time, in the 30s, there’s one example, among others: Bergson, in the connection he proposed about closed and open societies, of the social instinct and the mystical overture to nature and humanity in Les deux sources de la morale et la religion, [4] in which custom is what appears to be essential to the socialization of the subject. He was looking beyond sociology. Everything he learned from Durkheim’s Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse [5] he placed in the ranks of the closed society in order to open up a transcendence; but, for him, socialization was effected through custom. He did not speak of civilization but of society as a system of customs equivalent to instinct. One of the great characters in Les deux sources… is the ant. It returns periodically: “Let us regard the ant; let us take the ant.” There was a whole dimension of social existence that he considered analogous to what is produced in social organizations of animals. This is his reference. With all the modulations, the temperaments he might introduce, he ended up speaking of a social instinct which is analogous to animal gregariousness.

Durkheim’s orientation, following his re-reading of Bergson, continued to pervade a sociology which preferred the custom of sacrifice as operative. What suddenly stands out for me, when you take both Bergson and Freud’s books, is that custom did not function for Freud, while it is the pivot of the concept that Bergson had of society. That makes it even more remarkable that one finds a passage there about great men who are those who can, in the bosom of a closed society, make evident l’envers of what he calls the complete morality, which is no longer that of custom and impersonal duty, but that of natural and humanitarian outpouring.

“Exceptional men in whom this morality is incarnated have always appeared. Before the saints of Christianity humanity had the sages of Greece, the prophets of Israel, the Arahants of Buddhism and others. We always refer to them as having this complete morality which would be better to call absolute. […] While the former”—the morality of closed society, social morality—“is accordingly purer and more perfect when it leads to impersonal formulas.” This is against the Kantian categorical imperative; there is no one, or everyone has disappeared; there is a Kant with Bergson, Kant corrected by the supplement of soul. “The second”—the complete morality—“in order to be fully itself, must be incarnated in a privileged personality who becomes an example. The generality of the one holds to the universal acceptance of a law, that of the other to the common imitation of a model.”

Then, a development: some lines on the charisma of the great man. He takes the saints as reference, probably in another sense than Lacan’s ironic statement concerning the psychoanalyst: “Why did the saints have so many imitators and why have great, good men dragged crowds behind them?” Not only great, good men. Well! He wrote that in 1932. “They ask for nothing, and nevertheless they receive. They don’t need to exhort; they only need to exist; their existence is a calling. […] While the normal obligation comes from persuasion or coercion, with the complete and perfect morality there is a calling.”

In this angle, curiously, Bergson was swept along in the same Christcentric movement as Freud. The work celebrated the morality of the Evangel, the incomparable personality of Jesus, and made of the Sermon on the Mount the purest expression of this morality of being called. “One says that to you, and I say to you something else: ‘Leave that behind and go out into humanity with a spirit of love’.” In Freud’s The Future of an Illusion one finds, with less pathos, an evocation of the Carlylean era: “Only the influence of exemplary individuals whom the masses recognize as their leaders can lead them to the benefits of work and renunciation on which the existence of the culture depends.” [6]

3. Science and the Death Drive

Narcotic or Awakening

What Lacan proposed for the future of religion was of a completely distinct tenor, when he expressed in 1974 in Rome, during an interview, [7] when he was giving his conference entitled “La Troisième” [8] It is on one hand a radicalized reprise of the Freudian motif of The Future of an Illusion, in the form “either one or the other,” either psychoanalysis or religion: “If religion triumphs it is a sign that psychoanalysis has failed.” But he adds, in the same vein as the Moses, “The triumph of religion is more probable.”

This supposes a somewhat enfeebled definition of monotheistic religion, but, reflexively, undermined in religion itself. This supposes to define it on the basis of meaning and simultaneously to define psychoanalysis as the extraction of the subject outside of meaning. This implies that meaning is the narcotic which Freud spoke about regarding religion in The Future of an Illusion, which is the echo of the famous opiate of the people. The Future of an Illusion, as well as Civilization and Its Discontents are the sources which will be developed at some point as Freudo-Marxism. On the contrary, what Lacan tried to construct, including with the pass, was an awakening. Religious narcotic, psychoanalytic awakening.

What is drawn from Lacan’s science is completely different from what Freud put in his work, which is obviously dated. To the point that, in one whole part of The Future of an Illusion, Freud does not speak as an analyst. He himself said: “others have said for a long time what I evoke here.” One entire part, the sixth, is done from the epistemological point of view of the Enlightenment. Freud believed and understood the progress of what he called, as it is usually translated, the voice of reason, but it is really the voice of the intellect, Stimme des Intellekt. He believed in the advancement of knowledge, and he called science a power of elucidation, of awakening, and of soothing. Science had, in Freud’s texts, a pacifying power. This is in the order of technique, of production, of endless research, and what Lacan would emphasize as the characteristic frenzy of science is completely absent with Freud.

What Lacan isolated, made understood, and what is the point of The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, is that the proper space of science places it in relationship with the death drive. He said “desire” and not “drive,” but that’s what was entailed. “Desire has been anesthetized everywhere, put to sleep, domesticated and betrayed.” There is but one human activity in which desire could find refuge and flow freely. “It is sheltered,” he said in his terms of that era, “in the passion for knowledge.” And science, blind, was animated there from a desire which is freed and which is en route, conforming to its structure, to destruction. Destruction is the promise itself which the Cartesian cogito implies, which implies the barred S.

This is the yardstick with which to measure Freud. He saw in science a protection, the promise of a peaceful future in which we are well placed in order to verify what is accomplished in the discourse of the science of the production of anguish. Lacan emphasized in passing, in this interview, that Freud never spoke of the position of the intellectual. It is true that when it was a matter of religion, he put into question the position of the priest, but the intellectual as subject is taboo for him. This is why Lacan amused himself, on the contrary, by emphasizing the anguish that already had already appeared at the time for intellectuals, especially biologists, by evoking the fact that, in cultivating bacteria one could end up letting out some capable of wiping out life on the whole planet. This is the promise of a cogito cut off from the Other, cut off from tradition, cut off from life, in which the subject of science as subject of the signifier is already dead. This is what the tabula rasa of the scientific spirit brings us.

Shepherd of the Real

We’ve had the nuclear menace, and today the biotechnological menace is felt by everyone, including in the political field—a menace rendered even now imminent because of the marvelous decoding of the human genome, the practice of cloning, etc. Far from being effaced by science, religion, and even the syndicate of religions, in the process of formation, is progressing every day. Lacan said that ecumenism was for the poor of spirit. There is a marvelous agreement on the questions of the secular and of all the religious authorities, in which one tells oneself they should agree somewhere in order to make echoes equally marvelous, even saying that finally the secular is a religion like the others. We see this because it is revealed in effect that the discourse of science has partly connected with the death drive. Religion is planted in the position of unconditional defense of the living, of life in mankind, as guardian of life, making life an absolute. And that extends to the protection of human nature.

Lacan made us turn our eyes to what we are living through now, what we no longer have to decipher but to receive, since it is all around us. As Nietzsche said “the desert is growing,” Lacan made us see that the real is extended through science. Science began by respecting nature, then it put all its passion into discovering its laws, that is to say in what way nature revolves, is always on time, doesn’t get caught in traffic jams, is capable of yielding formulas of its revolving. But after having given its laws, science has allowed itself to act, to master, and to possess—as Descartes said, “to be and to have.”

In this production it has damaged nature. This has given birth to many movements, including social and political. After having discovered the laws of nature, it has set itself to damaging it. This is what Lacan called the real, what does not work. This is also what gives a future to religion through meaning, namely by erecting barriers—to cloning, to the exploitation of human cells—and to inscribe science in a tempered progress. We see a marvelous effort, a new youthful vigor of religion in its effort to flood the real with meaning. Psychoanalysis is not a narcotic. Nor is it good sense. It has to accommodate the real, the new real, the real which is the production of the discourse of science, which has nothing to do with nature. If I dared give it this title, parodying Heidegger, I would say that the analyst makes himself the shepherd of the real.

II. Passion for the New

I want to end today with our interest in the new. For me, the new has come for the first time through delivery. This is a break with what I felt was the ritual of this course. I should say that it is delicious. Not truly to have my head totally covered with a helmet, but to be able to bypass marvelously, metonymically, all the obstacles that modern society multiplies on your route. If we managed to do delivery psychoanalysis it would be ideal. We’re not quite there yet.

1. Effort and Irony

Antidote of the Ideal

We are ready, because the moment has come, to put a final point on this year’s topics. Just like that. I had absolutely not foreseen stopping at “Psychoanalysis comma Religion.” [9] I could even be encouraged to think that this is rather a threshold, the threshold necessary to enter into what is not only modernity, but the present, the contemporary, in relationship to which we can only feel that psychoanalysis is in a certain deficit. It is still restrained by certain adherences, those of its history, those of the ritualization of its practice, in which one might see the opportunity—in a modernity that certain sociologists call “liquid,” “liquid modernity” [10] —of having installed and preserved a ritual, a ritual that functions. But this is not the path that, for a long time, I’ve privileged, and this year I find myself placing my topics under the heading of “An effort of poetry.”

How to understand it if not in the mode of irony? It could be that irony is the only poetry that remains accessible to us. There are indications of Lacan which have this sense, which propose schizophrenia as model for the analyst, for his interpretation, inasmuch as he attacks, with his irony, the foundation of the social relationship. A clinical treatment can be imagined which would characterize the neurosis as a defect of irony. This would be to believe excessively what the signifier carries rather than ironizing it, to take it seriously rather than to play with it.

At any rate, is appealing to irony, whatever its form, very different than appealing to effort? Appealing to effort, there you go! That invites irony. Because it’s admitting that what is important doesn’t come to you by itself. What an air I have when I’m here. God only knows!

To appeal to effort is to recognize that you must be forced. Forced in the name of what? Why forced rather than letting you be? To use force is to admit that there is something of the ideal involved. And the ideal calls, revives irony as its antidote.

Saving the Father

This makes us remember Sade’s injunction: “French, one more effort!” They have not stopped since then, in every sense, for and against. “French, one more effort”—a useful point—“to be revolutionaries!” This expresses well what an effort is. It’s an effort to be revolutionary.

What did Sade understand by “being revolutionary”? He didn’t seem to doubt that for him, translated in our language, it was a matter of drives. It meant putting the drive in the form of commandment, in the place of the master-signifier. Since he was imaginative, he could conceive, at least in writing, of a society in which the social relationship would be forged on the promotion of drive as commandment. This is denied by Freud since for him all social formations are founded on repressing drives.

I’ve evoked Sade’s injunction because there was another response, once this revolutionary effort aborted. Oh! It took time. But it led to the erection of an unforgettable master who continued to make a reputation for the French, whoever they may be, with the name of Napoleon Bonaparte. That didn’t last for long. And, as we know, for two centuries the French, engaged in an effort to be revolutionaries, have lived in a legal and political framework, forged precisely by the failure of their first effort.

Once this lovely effort aborted and the new master who emerged from it was exiled, once a Restoration was accomplished in which one cannot neglect the contribution in the constitution of the groups then exploited by the Republic, another injunction resounded, perhaps more modest, more insinuating, that of Balzac inviting us, in a novel, to an effort of poetry. [11] The effort of poetry which is all that’s left to us when the “one more effort to be revolutionary!” has been removed from the list. This is why the effort of poetry seems suspect, seems to be the echo of the revolution, and we’d like to shake it off. This is, moreover, what motivated my insurrection when I read that poetry was still too much for the new progressives. [12] We know what Balzac’s effort was. I stated once before what he expressed without beating around the bush in the dedication of his novel, The Black Sheep to Charles Nodier in 1843. Balzac’s effort, which is the thread of The Human Comedy, is the effort to save the father, precisely in a modernity which has reduced the father to a congruent portion. “We perceive,” he said, perhaps too late, “the effects produced by the diminution of paternal power.” [13] This is the musical note from Balzac: it is perhaps too late to save the father.


It is logical that the emotion of “one more effort” be expressed by the French because they are the ones who inaugurated modernity by sending the King up to the scaffold. The French are the regicide people, the parricide people. That was worth a very particular glamor for them in the history which followed, and one could imagine that it would now prompt some resentment, which in any case has the air of expanding in a singular, unaccustomed way, which indicates something about our entry into the twenty-first century.

Anyway, the murder of the father, of the patriarchal royalty, took the stage in the political field through the people of revolutionary effort. Balzac thought that the event was descriptive of this ongoing modernity. He announced the consequences of it: in the place of the defunct “Woman would rise,” he said: women were par excellence the readers of his novels, and “the reign of money” would begin, the beginning of a society based uniquely on the power of money, dominated by unbridled personal interest.

If one dreams of Balzac in these terms, as a prophet who knew how to decipher a historical destination, then one should think that it is not by chance that he was invoked by Lacan in L’envers…,the Seminar which gave us a new edition of the Malaise in civilization, and which conveyed very precise indications about the meaning to give in psychoanalysis to the murder of the father, as Freud emphasized it.

Freud was obsessed with it. He could not have arrived at the history of Moses without looking for murder there. For someone as erudite, he relied on very tenuous research in order to find the indication he was looking for.

Balzac is invoked by Lacan, not through the slant of Balzac’s The Black Sheep, but by his L’envers de l’histoire contemporaine, in which a secret elite joined in a conspiracy to govern beneath events, beneath history. Nothing is more current than this marriage of opposites, this marriage of evidence and suspicion. On the one hand, evidence of an irresistible movement, almost programmed, which prevails over modern societies, put in movement after the death of the king, a movement to which one has to submit. And on the other hand, suspicion of conspiracy, suspicion that there are secret societies which are used to orient this movement to undeclared ends.

I gave the image of it, probably with excessive pathos, when speaking this year about the Society of Jesus. But these “conspiracies” are everywhere for those who want to decode them. It is not just the psychoanalytic movement itself that had, at least at its beginning, the character of a conspiracy whose ends needed to become known.

2. Unconscious! = Psychoanalysis

Leo Strauss

Today everyone is fascinated by the so-called neo-conservative conspiracy which has taken the reins of the government of the United States of America. The pages referencing our contemporary history spread this out as evidence, and furthermore, this conspiracy seems to be inspired by the philosophy of the unfortunate Leo Strauss.

It is even more risible, I think, that no one ever knew what Leo Strauss advocated. He has never been hailed except as the commentator on great classical texts of the religious and philosophical tradition, and even with an attentive reading of his works, one would hardly deduce an aggressive politics of universal imperialism from them. This reflects the penchant for a logic of conspiracy rather than that of stigmatizing him. And it’s with pleasure that I’ve just read that his daughter felt the need to explain to the American press, in order to clear her father, in terms one might expect: “My father was very kind, he was an intellectual, he had nothing to do with all that.” [14]

The neo-conservatives take the floor a lot these days to explain that they were never his students: perhaps they followed, for a year at the most, one of his abstruse courses on Plato’s Laws, but this is not what caused them to take the positions one hears from them.

What is it that one cannot pardon Leo Strauss for? For having promised the idea, through his lectures, that there is always a thinking elite which has never had the ability to say clearly what it is thinking, that it should practice the art of writing so that one can perceive that one is in the loop. This is what interested Lacan about Leo Strauss, after his collection on Persecution and the Art of Writing [15] was published by a small American press, which you find cited—and few did this at the time—in ‘“The agency of the letter….” [16] He illustrated there the powers of metonymy, the feature of language of speaking between the lines. This is an illustration supported by the fact of the taboo of speech, of social censure.

Straussian metonymy, as Lacan saw it, described the power of speech in spite of political persecution, that is to say the power to overturn obstacles. Thus Lacan used it to refer to the analysand, also under the influence of censure, but who nevertheless, and without knowing it, through metonymy, tells the truth in his oppression, that is to say as repression. This is Lacan, coming through Freud, who thought he could conclude from his experience that the patient cannot say the truth clearly because of unconscious censoring, and censoring implies circumlocution.

What Becomes Readable

Under what conditions does one speak clearly? One speaks clearly—we saw it last year with Lacan—when one releases the master-signifier which controls his purposes. [17] The master-signifier is the signifier that manages to make the signifier and the signified agree, to stop them in their sliding. This is the function of the anchoring point—to render readable.

Doubtless it is this master-signifier becoming readable that Lacan cleverly subtracted from his teaching, his writings as well as his Seminars, to the point of bragging about preserving the power of the unreadability of his work. He wrote, not under persecution, but under (S1). That way no one knew where he was going, and if today we still continue to talk about it, it is that we remain suspended.

It is also through the placement of the master-signifier that Lacan defined analytic discourse, inasmuch as this discourse has the function of ordering the speech of the analysand, and the purpose of this discourse is to produce its own S1. That is to say this S1 which becomes readable is not presupposed, but rather to be produced. This supposes that it is immediately put between parentheses in analytic discourse. What is called free association is the putting between parentheses of this signifier as the operator of readability.

This construction implies that, contrary to what Freud elaborated, it is not a censoring, a prohibition which prevents saying the truth clearly, but that it is from the structure itself of truth uttered between the lines. This is the meaning one must recognize in what Lacan called the half-telling (mi-dire) of truth, which is not a trick, an artifice of the analyst, as one might imagine. It comes under the technique of interpretation. What our American readers have understood as “making oracular interpretations.” “How does one make oracular interpretations?”

But disregarding artifice, why is it of the essence of truth to be told by halves, between the lines, in a metonymic form? To say this is to say that it is not the effect of a censoring, not the effect of the prohibition. What Lacan wanted to construct there was a consequence, the consequence of the rapport as such of the truth in the real. It matters little to clarify the value of each term. What counts is that it is a doctrine of truth, of the truth which can only be said between the lines, but which does so without the prohibition, where prohibition and censoring appear as additions. For saying the truth, one does not do better when there is no censoring.

It is here, through this detour, that one approaches what structure meant for Lacan. Structure for Lacan is what allows for doing without censoring and prohibition. And more precisely, in psychoanalysis, structure is what replaces the prohibition through the impossible. That is Lacan’s operation on Freud. This is the meaning of the return to Freud, namely the reprise of the Freudian project turned upside down. This reprise consists in making two of the unconscious and psychoanalysis. There is the unconscious and there is psychoanalysis. It is clearly readable in the fact that Lacan made two distinct discourses of them. In the Lacanian orientation, this distinction constitutes in itself a critique of Freud. Something remains failed with Freud; it is the scission of the unconscious and psychoanalysis. The unconscious is not psychoanalysis. Lacan said it: “the unconscious is the political.” The unconscious is the presupposed master-signifier.

3. God, A Signifier

A Suspended Discourse

It is through Lacan that one perceives that Freud was someone in the genre of Balzac, who made psychoanalysis save the father. These are the stakes of his last strange, extravagant book, titled Moses and Monotheism.

This is where Lacan interprets Freud. He notes that in diligently perusing the texts of intellectuals of the 18th and 19th centuries, Freud goes back to Ancient Egypt, to the god of volcanoes. This is because he wanted to turn away from what had happened to the father in post-revolutionary, post-guillotine modern society, the father who is only a worker. He who works for everyone, as Lacan said, that is to say for his small family, in accordance with what he is reminded is somehow that proper notion of Judaic altruism. Not for humanity, for my own. Lacan said that at the beginning of the 1970s. We are no longer there since women have been in the workplace in modern society for thirty years. One can no longer say what Lacan said at that time. One no longer has that privilege.

It is because of what he could not stand to see that Freud hearkened back to the eternal father, to the fiction he forged of an original father who is necessary for him as the foundation of the prohibition and censoring. His whole theoretical construction relied on that. He preferred to make himself an anthropologist rather than a logician, the path Lacan would choose.

It is precisely on this point that Lacan contends that if psychoanalysis is the discourse of Freud, it is nevertheless a suspended discourse. I refer you to this adjective on page 429 of “Radiophonie” in Autres écrits. [18] Suspended means not considering all the consequences of one’s premises. And the major consequence imposed on the premises of analytic discourse is that S1 is a product and not a preamble.

The three works of Freud that constitute a critique of religion, Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an Illusion (1927), Moses and Monotheism (1939), present a psychoanalytic genealogy of God. God is put out of play, conforming with the spirit of the Enlightenment. Of course. But all three tend at the same time to save the father as master-signifier and to devote psychoanalysis to this safeguard. At the time when patriarchal primacy was but a memory—it had some remains but it was battered—there clearly followed for most Freudian analysts an effect of disorientation that Lacan anticipated. It remains in psychoanalysis like a scent of nostalgia. What happened to the prohibition? Can we make it return? Is that what we’re looking for in psychoanalysis?

In these three works of Freud, it stands out immediately that Freud interprets God through the father, that the truth of God is the father. But as a result Freud did not interpret the father, he looked at the paternal core in which one could see that the father conveyed a semblance. There was a refusal of Freud to interpret the father. Which led him to what Lacan called his Darwinian buffoonery of the all-powerful father and to the event of his murder repeated innumerable times, leaving indestructible traces in the history of humanity. Freud wanted him to be real. This is why when, in The Future of an Illusion, he puts the desires, the wishes, and the realizations of desires in function in order to take into account the religious illusion, he completes it a bit more by saying, “That’s all there is, historic memories that leave a trace.”

The Freudian critique of religion does not prevent Freud from relying on the name of God to save the father, but is on the contrary the instrument by which he accomplished it. He relied on the name of God as a proper name. This was his point of departure, that God is a signifier. It is not blasphemy to say it. God help me!

Karl Rahner

I’m immersed in Traité fondamental de la foi by Father Karl Rahner,[19] the Jesuit thinker of the century, republished and available for all those who want to immerse themselves. But there is no need to be immersed to perceive that this grandiose vision of the religion to come begins with a meditation on the word God. I even had the feeling that he had read something of Lacan’s, that something came to him from Lacan that made him open his treatise in this way, that he took his departure from the fact that the word exists in the language, in whatever way, and that this name has the effect of a proper name, even if what it refers to remains opaque, even if it is subtracted, even if the word presents, as he explains, a terrible absence of contour. Ah well, even if one does not know what that means, it is there as signifier.

This very slim point of departure is sufficient nevertheless, because he makes of it, with extreme pertinence, a word which puts into question the whole linguistic world. If he allows himself to invent a signified in the name of God, it’s the signified that language speaks itself, the word thanks to which language grabs hold of itself by its own fundament. He makes S of A of it, the signifier of the Other as the equivalent of language and of truth. A departure one cannot submit to. He then must link the God of the signifier to the God of the Christian revelation. He cannot do it except by distorting, aligning himself with a notable know-how with the Revelation. He has to make Jesus the name of love of humanity. He makes him the anchoring point which makes sense of history, but at the price—he was reproached, he was persecuted by the most elevated authorities of the Church, held in suspicion—of admitting non-Christian religions, of admitting anonymous Christians as he called them, those who did not confess the Christian revelation; he took them into his project.

God Off-Side

Freud needed this anchoring point. If he was caught up in the monotheistic cult, it was because he recognized there what was most precious for culture, the signifier for which the highest value was recognized, the agalma of thought. His whole effort tended, at least in The Future of an Illusion, to transform this agalma into palea, into waste. The title declared it, testified that religion was only one among other registers of culture. He refused the definite article for religion, he said “an” illusion.

Freud aimed for God while attempting to trivialize religion. He included it in culture, but he refused to give it transcendence; he saw only a set of cultural representations there. Freud invented in The Future of an Illusion an objector who refused the inclusion of religion in culture, and he responded to himself: “religious representations are there ready-made like the multiplication table and geometry.” One sees that his method was to refuse what is presented as truth in order to treat it like knowledge.

The essential part of the detouring road that Freud followed in The Future of an Illusion was his definition of culture as a defense against nature, but he made a necessary space for a defense against culture. For Freud, neither culture nor nature is friendly to mankind, and if religion represents the advanced front of the defense against nature, the defense of culture remains to be assumed, and this is implicitly the place Freud reserved for psychoanalysis. For him, psychoanalysis should be the doctrine and the practice which, in culture, returns to itself, against itself, in order to loosen the constraint. And it’s here that psychoanalysis would find religion, which itself marked the extreme tightening of the constraint. This is why he made of psychoanalysis and religion two enemy powers in culture; he wanted to put—he advocated this with nuance—the function of God in culture out of play. He expected from it the desacralization of what is cultural, the constraints and the taboos of culture. What he was looking at when he spoke of religion was the rigidity, the immutable character that sacralization gave the commandments and the laws, and his ambition was to establish with the social order a more amicable rapport than that allowed by religion, a reconciliation with culture in which the obstacle would be religious.

This is where Freud aspired to find the space which could be an invented social order. What he viewed as God is what prevented this play in culture which leaves a place for invention. As though, by putting God out of play, the sacralized programming of the social order would be able to be broken and would leave a space for what is often presented as a Freudian utilitarianism, a moderatism, a humanitarianism, employed to renounce the solemn transfiguration of cultural prescriptions.

4. A Quest-Novel

Multiple God

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud, with some reservations, believed all that possible. His perspective was an imminent abandonment of religious belief, 18th century and scientistic belief, which in the long run would not be able to resist reason and experience. His explicit perspective was that of an extinction of religion. He even went as far as evoking the great experience which was taking place in the East. We are in 1927; the Soviet Union, which will disappear in 1992, still exists. Freud probably was not wrapped up in that. He discussed objections that it would be better to keep the system in place, that perhaps one could render religion compatible with science. But, in the end, for him, religion would be effaced along with God. This diagnostic, this prophecy, only made it more apparent that what was not effaced for Freud was the father. The purpose of The Future of an Illusion was to state: the father is not an illusion, is not a semblant, to give this illusion its Lacanian term.

Moses is the penance for The Future of an Illusion. Moses and Monotheism was written to show that, behind the unique signifier of God, there is a multiple. Freud’s immediate position was not to be fascinated by the name of God. We find this at the beginning of the fourth part of Totem and Taboo, when he ruled out the temptation that psychoanalysis might have to derive something as complicated as religion from a single origin, putting his hopes instead in a synthesis. In The Future of an Illusion he mentioned that the unique divine being resulted from a condensation of all the gods from the early ages. What Moses added to the two works that preceded it—this complicated Moses, this extravagant architecture, made to show that our signifier God is a formation of compromises, the result of a condensation, a montage—was a theory of traumatism in religion. And Lacan’s real, his usage of this word, the setting forth of its function, illuminated in return the eminent place that Freud gave to the function of traumatism in his genealogy of monotheistic religion.

Moses is a narration, a novel, and at the same time an inquiry, a quest-novel, as they say today. “Who killed Moses?” But this narration is the mise en scene of a logic. One might ask, what was Freud’s question? Was it: Why Hitler? Why the hatred of Jews? Why the persistence of the Jews? Why does destruction follow them? Why do they resist destruction? But it’s a question about persistence as such, about the persistence of belief and ritual, belief in the order of thought, and ritual in the order of action. More fundamentally, it’s a question about drive, that is to say what about jouissance involves damage.


In the religion of the One, traumatism is in play. What Freud called a traumatism is an event. An event is not a fact. A fact exists while an event is produced and determines an origin, that is to say, separates a before and after. An event is traumatism when it disturbs a pre-established order which it does not assimilate, which remains unassimilable. This is what Freud, in his clinical practice, called a fixation. In his clinical practice a fixation engenders two orders of effects, repetition on the one hand, defense on the other: repetition, which is a memory that ignores itself; defense, whose force is exercised in a contrary sense. These two effects of repetition and defense are not separated, but rather they form a mix of repetition and defense, and this is what Freud called a formation of compromise.

We should note that the Lacanian concept of repetition, which is one of the four fundamental concepts, distinguished, in accordance with Freud, repetition as automaton, return, come back from origins, and repetition as tuché, that which integrates defense in Freud’s sense, the repetition that avoids, that leads to a failed encounter. The Freudian unassimilable real is not inert, it is the motor of a Zwang, of a compulsion, of a constraint, and it is under this rubric of the Zwang that Freud ranked the psychic phenomena which don’t obey the exigencies of exterior reality, or of logical thought.

The clinical part of Moses is done in order to situate the enclave of this Zwang, which does not understand reason, which is like a state within a state, in the subject. He situated it in our language as exteriorized. And there is an intimate rapport, if I may say so, of religion with the exterior. Which Freud developed when he spoke of rituals as beliefs. Moses is the scenography of traumatism and of repetition. When Freud considered the One of monotheism, the One-God, he was led to make it arrive as traumatism, that is to say as event issued from the exterior. This is why he made Moses an Egyptian. The One comes from the exterior, comes from the Other. Jan Assman’s Moîse l’Égyptien lists the elements of the erudite tradition which, since the 18th century, has made Moses an Egyptian. This passed through the Platonists of Cambridge who were great readers of Malebranche, Cudworth, John Spencer, and Warburton, and it was then expounded by Reynhold, a Kantian.

I’ll cut short these detours about Freud to bring up two Moseses who are the spokesmen of two distinct Gods. This is the revelation of the multiple that Freud offered: the God of monotheism is a syncretism, a condensation between a God of the signifier and a God of jouissance. As for Moses, he is the metaphor for the originary father, he’s an operative Freud needed to make the link between the father of Totem and Taboo and the God of monotheism. This logic led to Christianity and, for Freud, reproached by the upholders of tradition, monotheism is accomplished in Christianity, which progressed, from the point of view of the return of the repressed, through originary Judaism.

An All-Loving Superego

This Christcentric design that Freud assumed and that Lacan called surprising at the same time supported his argument: love must emerge in the end. The emergence of love conforms to what Freud invented with the name “superego.” The Freudian drive requires a demand. The ego must be there to obtain pleasure from it, and what erects a barrier for Freud is at first always exterior. Thus it’s through a process of interiorization that the barrier veers into the psyche. He called the interiorized barrier the superego.

The effect of interiorization is to add a Lustgewinn, a gain of pleasure, a substitute satisfaction, to displeasure, which is a consequence of inhibition of the drive. And love is introduced there. The ego waits, in recompense for the sacrifice of the drive, to be loved more through the superego. Lacan translated this in “Science and Truth”: “The religious leave to God the burden of the cause, give back to God the cause of their desire. They must seduce God. This is where the game of love enters.” [20] Freud’s Christcentrism passes this prevalence of love onto the drive.

At the end of the Freudian operation, the superego remains as heir of the father, who is the clinical example of the symbolic father. This is a father who is above all love. The operation of the superego seen through the slant of religion is what allows jouissance to be exchanged for a gain of love. Thus Lacan accused Freud, in his Seminar L’envers…, of having preserved, in fact if not in intention, the most substantial part of religion, the idea of an all-loving father. This is how, in very pregnant terms, François Mauriac summed up the lesson of Christianity: “You are loved. Know you are loved. In your grief, in your misery, in your loss, the good news is that you are loved.” Pope John-Paul II said it in a speech dazzling in its simplicity: “Don’t be afraid.” This is supported by the logic of a superego, heir of the father, and which is all love.

Murder? Castration

Freud only transported the essential predicate of the God of the Christian religion onto the father. This is why Lacan indicated that Freud left analytic discourse suspended. Certain people hoped Lacan would push psychoanalysis toward the Judaic tradition. They wrote this in a book published at the end of last year: “We hoped that Lacan would push psychoanalysis toward Judaism in order to take its place in Christian speech.” Ah well, they are confused. It was Freud who did that. And everything Lacan did led to exactly the opposite, to putting in question the survival of an all-loving God who was the key to Freud’s Christcentrism.

For this same reason Freud left the analyst prisoner of the function of the father, while Lacan advanced toward interpreting the father with an interpretation which confers a cleansing. Through the angle of hysteria, in the rereading of the Dora case in L’envers de la psychanalyse, he exposes the secret of the father, the truth of his love as being castration. He supports this thesis on the contingent facts of the Dora case and indicates another truth than that of Freud, a truth which Freud’s work on religion denies, namely that the father is castrated.

In his elaboration of analytic discourse, Freud remained suspended in an idealization of the father, he who says no to the jouissance of the son and who is the unforgettable foundation of the renunciation of drives as the price to pay for winning love. Wanting to desacralize the social order, he sacralized the impotence to jouir, and from this fact he maintained the law as desirable. This is what today animates the nostalgia of psychoanalysts and makes them reactionaries.

Lacanian psychoanalysis which formulates consequences from the structure of analytic discourse poses, on the contrary, that the impotence is imaginary, and that what is real is the impossible. Lacan showed this while showing a discordance in Freud’s theory between the Oedipus myth and that of Totem and Taboo. In Oedipus, the father makes an obstacle for jouissance and he must be killed to access the jouissance of the mother, while, in Totem and Taboo, the killing resolves nothing since the prohibition is, on the contrary, perpetuated. This contradiction is only resolved by the formula of the castration complex, as a third between Oedipus and Totem and Taboo, which is not a myth, which is not a phantasm, and which indicates that the murder of the father that Freud was looking for, that he invented through Darwin and through the Bible, and for which he had to accomplish a forcing concerning Moses, is strictly equivalent to the castration of the phallus. Murder and castration are the two names of the same operation. And if Freud feverishly looked for murder, it was because, concerning the father as well as the phallus, he needed a symbolization which would pass through an annulment. In other words, the theme of murder with Freud was nothing but a denial of castration.

From the Father to The Woman

We can leave all that behind us as nothing but a phantasmagoria. Permission to jouir changes nothing about the structure of jouissance, and once psychoanalysis is relieved of the father and his prohibition, one can establish that it is jouissance itself which conveys a gap. Thus, no need for a barrier. All of Lacan’s construction showed that it’s in some way natural that jouissance finds its limits, that it is traumatic, and that it inaugurates the Zwang of a repetition which cannot find redemption.

Lacan takes up Freud’s clinical theory of traumatism and transports it to the field of jouissance. It is jouissance itself—a thesis he develops in L’envers…—which makes a hole, which carries an excess which must be subtracted, and the Freudian father as the God of monotheism is only the packaging, the cover of this entropy. Thus, a loss specific to jouissance, which has no need of a prohibiting father in order to find its functioning, to find its regime.

This hole, in the course of Lacan’s later teaching is going to be displaced and re-established as the absence of sexual rapport between man and woman, introducing a differentiated structure of jouissance according to the sexes which was not indicated in L’envers de la psychanalyse.

Then, the Freudian genealogy of God is displaced from the father to The Woman. We already had an indication of this with Freud, a fugitive indication that before the paternal divinities there were maternal divinities. Lacanian genealogy drills a hole in the paternal metaphor. Freud, establishing the genealogy of God, stopped at the Name-of-the-Father. Lacan drilled the metaphor right down to the desire of the mother and the supplementary jouissance of the woman. Thence the notion we find in the small preface written for Wedekind’s L’éveil du printemps, in which the father is only one of the names of the maternal goddess, the white Goddess, who remains Other in her jouissance. [21]

The Path of His Escapade

This is done to indicate the path of a psychoanalysis in the permission-to-jouir era, in the era when the prohibition was not at the top of the list, an era confronted with an impossible which is the truth of the prohibition, or the intrinsic gap when jouissance is not sheltered any more behind the father.

If Christianity had recourse to the God of the philosophers, if it needed at that time to have recourse to the God of Aristotle via Saint Thomas, to the supreme being, to the immobile sphere, it was because, Lacan said, it refused to confront the structural embarrassment of jouissance. It was because the Christians had a horror of revelation, inasmuch as the true revelation is that there is a gap of jouissance, that there is no agreement of the speaking/being with jouissance, that they are sent to do philosophy.

Likewise, the psychoanalysts had a horror that this analytic experience would reflect on this revelation, that the speaking/being withdrew sexual rapport. This is why, with Freud himself, they sheltered themselves in the lap of the father. Once the horror was surmounted by the matheme, a field opened for psychoanalysis, not for the hope which is inappropriate, but for the passion of the new. Passion one can have, but the new has to be inflicted, and psychoanalysis is no longer condemned to the monocentric ideal where Freud held it captive to the end by trying to close the door of his prison.

Let’s hope also that the analysts of tomorrow—or even today—will not respond to the standards of any Church, to any canonical path. They are not the children of the father, but each one has his own path, appropriate for only him, which can be opened for him to follow in the post-paternal era. And it is, as Lacan indicated, the path of his escapade.


[1] Assman, Jan, Moïse l'Égyptien, Paris; Aubier, 2001.

[2] Benny Lévy came from Israel to lecture at the École de la Cause freudienne.

[3] Miller, J-A, "Mégère modernité," Le neveu de Laca, Paris: Verdier, 2003.

[4] Bergson, Henri, Les deux sources de la morale et la religion, Paris: PUF, 2003.

[5] Durkheim, Émile, Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse, text available on line.

[6] Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, SE XXI, London: The Hogarth Press, 1986.

[7] Lacan, Jacques, "Conférences de presse au Centre culturel français," Rome, 10/29/1974, in Lettres de l'École freudienne de Paris 16, 1975.

[8] Lacan, J., "La troisième," Lettres de l'École freudienne de Paris 16, 1975.

[9] Miller's reference to his lessond "An Effort of Poetry: Religion and Psychoanalysis," 14 May 2004.

[10] Miller's reference to Zygmunt Bauman.

[11] Miller, J-A, Le neveu de Lacan, op. cit.

[12] Ibid

[13] de Balzac, Honoré, The Black Sheep, New York: Penguin, 1976.

[14] Strauss, Clay J., "The Real Leo Strauus," The New York Times, 7 June 2003.

[15] Strauss, Leo, Persecution and the Art of Writing, Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1952.

[16] Lacan, J., "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud," Écrits: A Selection, New York: Norton, 1977.

[17] "The modern conemporary meaning of the Master-Signifier is that of the anchoring point." J-A Miller, 13 June 2002.

[18] Lacan, J., "Radiophonie," Autres écrits, Paris: Seuil, 2001.

[19] Rahner, Karl, Traité fondamental de la foi, Paris: Centurion, 1966.

[20] Lacan, J., "La science et la vérité," Autres écrits, Paris: Seuil, 2001.

[21] Lacan. J., "Préface à L'éveil du printemps," Autres écrits, Paris: Seuil, 2001.

* L'orientation lacanienne, Paris, Spring 2003.

Art: Jiri Georg Dokoupil, Jesús dorado, inacabado, doble, acrylic on canvas, 1986
courtesy of Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich.

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