Serendipity played a big part in my one and only encounter with the aging master. The time was the morning of Bloomsday, June 16, 1975, when he delivered his now-famous opening address to a packed house at the Paris James Joyce Symposium, one of the few Joyce Symposiums I have attended and enjoyed. It all began at the site of that address, a big hall in the old Sorbonne that opens onto the rue des Écoles.
Before I go into that, perhaps some personal background is needed. My wife and I had spent the fall/winter of 1973 in Paris, where I taught at Paris VIII (Vincent), that stepchild of the breakup and redistribution of the University of Paris. Still filled with the post-1968 liberated spirit, the Paris literary and cultural scene was exceptionally open. As a result, a relative outsider could have access to just about any of the lights. Among the many I contacted and who befriended me were Philippe Sollers and Julia Kristeva. I will not give details here, but that is another tale worth telling. Tel Quel and Maoism were at their height but the revolutionary fervor was winding down. Sollers had just published what I still think may be the best of his novels, H, brilliantly documenting its rise and fall. That year I began what was to be a series of interviews with him using his novels as a focus. I mention this only because Sollers contributed so much to my 1975 experience. At that time I also attended one of Lacan's famous sessions at l'École de Droite, a sort of tout Paris event that took place before a crowd of literati (including the rival camps of Sollers's Tel Quel and Jean-Pierre Faye's Change) and, of course, psychoanalysts. I recall vaguely that Stuart Schneiderman first told me about the sessions. The hall was so long and narrow that loud speakers had to be strung along the walls so that people in back could hear. Those speakers were festooned with tape recorders belonging to eager followers. At regular intervals people would get up to change their tapes. I don't recall what was said, but I remember that Lacan was hardly a dramatic speaker and that he paused to put diagrams of his famous knots on the blackboard.
The 1975 occasion was radically different, even though some of the same people were in the audience, doubtless with the same tape recorders. It was of course something of a coup to have Lacan open a Joyce conference. The symposium, which was exceptionally well-planned, turned out to be a major cultural event bringing together an extraordinarily large collection of rival Parisian groups and opening up the rather insular Joyce community to what became lasting influences. As it happens, the chief organizer, Jacques Aubert, had become a friend of Lacan's and his major informant in matters Joycean. Joyce le Symptôme was obviously more accessible to the regulars even though some of them had little knowledge of Joyce or Finnegans Wake, but Lacan was a new name for the Joyce mob, many of whom understood little or no French, and few of whom had much professional interest in psychoanalysis. I should note that the reaction of my American Joyce colleagues to the barrage of Parisian thought was largely negative, if not downright unfriendly, due in part to the unusual approaches taken and to the predominance of French and French thought, but in part also to the improvised nature of the pre-Beaubourg echo-infested building in which the sessions took place.
From my perspective the proceedings began as farce and ended as comedy. Shades of Flaubert's Comice Agricole, they were opened by a windy, insignificant and slightly befuddled undersecretary rather than by a figure of some administrative stature. Lacan had not endeared himself to the establishment. Already, during the admittedly pointless welcome address, the master showed signs of impatience. Seated behind me, Philippe Sollers clucked audibly. When the speaker finally got around to introducing him, he didn't hide his disgust. In fact he let it show in his expression and gestures, and in an emphatic snort. But as Lacan rose to the occasion, the undersecretary remembered that he was supposed to introduce not the keynoter but Joyce's friend and supporter Maria Jolas, who was to greet us for the conference organizers and then do the honors. Lacan's impatience seemed limitless, and I heard Sollers clucking even more audibly. Mme. Jolas, an imposing presence herself, was unfazed and unhurried. She said her piece with the aplomb of an ex-schoolmistress, and a tough one at that. Lacan fumed. When she had finished, she need hardly have turned to him. He was already half out of his seat. His next move was the comble. Instead of proceeding immediately to the podium, he paused and, with comic deliberation, slowly pulled an oversized handkerchief from his pocket and loudly, ostentatiously blew his nose. Only then did he tell his largely uncomprehending audience why he thought of Joyce in Finnegans Wake as a symptom, and why he questioned his decision to write so psychoanalytically revealing a book as the Wake. (Incidentally, though for the wrong reasons, Lacan was more in tune with his Joycean audience than he could have realized, since a great many of my Joycean colleagues didn't work with that book, preferring to stop at some earlier stage).
After the talk Sollers and I, having left the hall together, were talking when Lacan came up to us and, without a by-your-leave, pulled Philippe away. A few minutes later they came back and Sollers introduced us. I complemented Lacan on his talk. He was nervous and unhappy with it, and perhaps with his public performance as well. But that was not why they returned. It turned out that he was anxious to meet me. "I have something to ask you. We must get together, when are you free for dinner?" A bit surprised and not unpleased, I said I was free that evening. "Good. Philippe, can you bring him? Bring Julia too. " We agreed to meet at his apartment. Philippe phoned Julia, who must have known the drill. She begged off.
Philippe and I drove there at about seven. We were taken to Lacan's office past the expected collection of antique bric-a-brac in a lighted cabinet. I don't remember much about the room itself, but two things stand out: in the place of the usual divan there was what I believe to be a barber's chair in a semi-reclining position; and there was a table on which lay my FDV of Finnegans Wake, opened to a place in my introduction in which I had put a sample passage from Chapter I.5 (page 114)1 in an attempt to illustrate how Joyce managed to incorporate in his text-proper a description of his method of revising it, thus identifying process with product. I remember trying the unusual chair out for size before Lacan came in. Perhaps I misremember, but at about that time other guests began to arrive, beginning with Jacques Aubert and his wife. Lacan ordered drinks, whisky, neat for most of us. As for social conversation, I recall him wanting to know about Julia and accepting Philippe's excuse, but I don't recall much else happening before he pulled me over to the table and pointed to the illustrative passage in my book.
The urgent matter, the reason for my presence at what was beginning to seem like a planned social event, was clearly that passage cited in which he wanted to find one of his key fetish terms: "symptom." I was there to fill his hollow tooth with reassurance. "Look here," he said, "is Joyce saying symptomy?" The word to which he was pointing was one of a relatively small number of puns constructed of a series of monosyllables strung together and slightly altered for effect. The passage was not from the manuscripts but from the Wake itself. Let's look at the word in its setting: "But by writing thithaways end to end and turning, turning and end to end hithaways writing with lines of litters slittering up and louds of latters slettering down, the old semetomyplace and jupetbackagain from tham Let Rise till Hum Lit."(FW 114. My italics.). I stared at the sentence and tried to say something soothing because I sensed genuine anxiety and confusion along with considerable ignorance about Joyce's book and only a limited awareness of what was in my own. The picture in my mind elicited by this account of the manuscript of ALP's Letter in defense of her husband was clear enough. The Letter's manuscript, like that of Joyce's early drafts, was written over in all senses, turned to make maximum use of the blank space. Obviously, Lacan thought he saw what he wanted to see, which is only fair, given Joyce's advice, "Wipe your glosses with what you know."(FW 304fn3). But perhaps he followed that advice a bit too literally. I suspect that Jacques Aubert had given him my book, encouraging him to use it less as a short-cut through the Wake than as a key to his compositional method. The sentence really begs for a complex and subtle reading, one reflecting at least an awareness of another passage treating the book as process, the answer to a question referring to the reader/hero/dreamer of the Wake, Chapter I.6's ninth question, which like this sentence contains an overt reference to Hamlet, that dreamer afraid to fall asleep. The "Let Rise till Hum Lit" clearly echoes the phrases "having plenty of time on his gouty hands and vacants of space at his sleepish feet and as hapless behind the drams of accuracy as any camelot prince of dinmurk."(FW 143.5-7). Of course all of this could lead us down another garden path. But it could also help to show how interconnected everything in Joyce is and how easy and pointless it is to read words out of context in the service of a pet idea. Like these two passages, even the word "semetomyplace," with its missing e, needs more than one interpretation. All I could do for Lacan on the spur of the moment was give him a straightforward reading. The cluster "semetomyplace and jupetbackagain," yielded the not-quite adequate "see me to my place and jump it back again." In context, symptom or symptôme had no resonance for me then nor does it now. His disappointment was as palpable as was my mephistophelian friend, Soller's, whinny of amusement. "Oh! It's a good thing I didn't mention that this morning!" Indeed, though I doubt anyone would have noticed had he done so... I'm not sure that he didn't allude to it in passing.
Of course I had no idea of Lacan's plans for what remained of the evening. It turned out that, rather than dine in the apartment, we were taken to Lacan's favorite dinner spot on the Quai du Louvre, just across the river. By then the group had grown to eight, including a psychoanalyst friend and his wife (names forgotten), the Auberts, Jacques Lacan's current female companion, Sollers and me. We sat down to an unusual meal. I was seated next to the master, who frequently grabbed my arm to ask a question. The waiter brought out plenty of hors d'oeuvres: sardines, snails, pickles, etc. Bottle after bottle of champagne was uncorked and poured while we talked. For the first time I saw people using a stick with a notched knob at one end designed to remove the bubbles from the bubbly. All very exotic. As for entrees, not many had one. I did: a daunting pyramid of beef which refused to yield any chewable meat despite my urging. The conversation turned to Lacan's dissertation on paranoia, a book I have since used frequently, but it was otherwise unmemorable though Sollers wanted to know why Lacan thought Finnegans Wake too revealing. But when he asked, the master was already pretty deep in his cups. When it came time to pay, my host deferred to his genial psychoanalyst guest.
Sollers found the whole thing amusing, especially my reading of the word and interaction with Lacan. Together, we watched the master's slow progress home on the arm of his willowy young friend. Coincidentally, on our way down the solidly parked sidewalk toward the car, we bumped into a trim elderly man, who treated us to a splendidly paranoid berating. It had been a long day.
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