Name of the Father, ‘One’ of the Mother: From Beauvoir to Lacan

With introduction by Penelope Deutscher

RP 178 () / Article

To Our Lady of the Pillar in Zaragossa, perched on her column, ‘But there is something more, a puissance beyond the phallus.’

If I take a few aspects of the thought of Jacques Lacan, and investigate their relation to Simone de Beauvoir around one specific point, I have no intention of making him out – against received opinion – to be a feminist who didn’t know it and even less of turning him into a disciple of the author of The Second Sex.1 My aim is simply to indicate how the ‘question of women’ is introduced into his reflection on the basis of a chapter of Beauvoir’s book. And by ‘the question of women’ I do not mean the question about women – psychoanalysis cannot shut up ‘about’ women – but the question that comes from women, whether they formulate it or not: women as question. Moreover, this question was explicitly put to Lacan by the psychoanalysts of the first wave of feminism who attended his seminars in the 1970s. But if he received it head-on at that point, it was because it had resonated with him much earlier. And everything leads one to think that he had already seen it emerge in The Second Sex. So it is a historical point as well as a point of doctrine that I will try to deal with briefly here.*

Born or made

When the question of women comes up in Lacan’s discourse, it always seems to provoke a feeling of unease in him. He generally responds to this feeling with defensive sallies where he displays his position as a (masculine) man. These are like the symptoms of the displacement that his thought undergoes, of his development, for in fact Lacan allows himself to be interpellated by this upsetting question, even as he protects himself from it, and protects himself from it precisely to the extent that it interpellates him.

These sallies have a frankly misogynist quality. They generally consist of putting women in their place – which is not his – and in talking about them in the third person: ‘In no way do I have a disrespectful judgement of these beings, let those persons be assured’ (my emphasis) he says at one point, which illustrates the matter sufficiently. But this is just after having asserted that the ‘unbelievable’ manner in which woman is treated in discourse and more particularly in psychoanalytic discourse comes from the fact that she is most often only seen as the ‘object of (masculine) desire’. As if it was necessary to compensate with a reductive movement for the audacity of what he had just put forward. So that he seems to incarnate just what he has announced if not denounced in others: ‘The most famous things that have come down to us about women in history are literally what one can say that is infamous.’ ‘She is called woman and defamed.’2

Simone de Beauvoir and Jacques Lacan met each other through common friends (Georges Bataille – whose wife, Sylvie, Lacan later married – and Michel Leiris) towards the end of the war, or more precisely in 1944, according to Elisabeth Roudinesco.3 They were present with others during the public reading by some of them (including Beauvoir) of a play by Picasso – Desire Caught by the Tale – in Leiris’s apartment. Beauvoir seems already to have read Lacan’s early texts and to have consulted him before the publication of The Second Sex. Lacan estimated that it would require at least five or six months of interviews to sort out the problem; Beauvoir abandoned the idea. She only devoted a short chapter of the Second Sex to ‘The Psychoanalytic Point of View’ and quotes Freud rather than Lacan.

But what Roudinesco’s biography does not reveal is that Lacan almost certainly read The Second Sex on its publication, having been notified about its appearance; indeed the book was not likely to have escaped his legendary curiosity. And there are such correspondences between the references essential to his reformulation of the feminine and those – much earlier – of Simone de Beauvoir, that he could only have borrowed them in order to follow his own path. Thus at one …