The following is a written summary of a presentation given to the Lacan Circle of Melbourne on 17/3/18.
Freud on Religion
The period of Lacan’s teaching that I wish to focus on here is that of Seminar XX, by which time Lacan had ceased his ‘return to Freud’. Despite this, Freud remained an interlocutor of sorts throughout Lacan’s teaching, which is why it is worth revisiting Freud’s writings on religion.
In short, Freud was dismissive of religious feeling and practice. He himself was raised Jewish, but forbade the observance of religious ritual within his own home as an adult. His most detailed exposition of his religious views can be found in the 1927 paper, ‘The Future of an Illusion’. In it, he argues that the purpose of the Gods is threefold:
they must exorcise the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilised life has imposed on them (p. 18).
As one might expect, there is little room for mysticism or divine revelation within this account. These are relegated to the domain of wish-fulfilment. Freud’s assessment of religion shares much in common with that of Friedrich Nietzsche, despite the two differing a great detail as to the details of their arguments. Both tend to see religion as a consolation, and as a vehicle for something else (calm against anxiety, revenge, ressentiment, etc). Freud had, much earlier, discussed the religious ritualism (and blasphemy) of some obsessional neurotics, and he elaborates well on the cycle of guilt and penitence that religious law provides as a mode of transgressive jouissance. It’s a critique that elucidates some uses religion, and in our times we can think of how it might apply to contemporary fundamentalism (as an attempt to restore the Name-of-the-Father, for instance) or the use of religion as a master signifier (consider the importance of the nomination ‘alcoholic’ in the quasi-religious group, Alcoholics Anonymous).
The rejoinder to Freud’s account can be found in a letter by Nobel Prize winner Romain Rolland to Freud, arguing that the ‘oceanic feeling’ (the feeling of the eternal) was sufficient to inspire and justify religious belief. Freud’s response to this provided the impetus to his work ‘Civilisation and its Discontents’. Needless to say, Freud was not persuaded of religion’s merits on the basis of the ‘oceanic feeling’ and the sense of oneness which it apparently demonstrated, which for him was a ‘primitive ego-feeling’, a throwback to a time before separation between the ego and the breast. If we translated Freud into a more Lacanian register, it could possibly be thought of as the feelings accompanying a subject who is yet to encounter the object a that arises from the barring of the subject and Other.
Again, I think that it is worth recalling Nietzsche here, not because he and Freud share precisely the same views on religious feeling, but because their views share very similar limitations. In the clinic, and in life we can find people using religion as a way of mastering fear, or of seeking revenge, or where religious prohibitions are used by a subject to create a cycle of transgression, guilt and jouissance. (Of this latter, the flagellants are arguably an extreme but paradigmatic case) But, this critique doesn’t account well for St Francis of Assisi or St Teresa of Ávila, because, I argue, whatever jouissance is at stake for them is situated outside of this cycle, at least partly. This is where Lacan comes in.
Lacan on religion
Lacan, like Freud, had a religious upbringing He was steeped in Catholicism and his brother was a Benedictine priest. Lacan thought that a clear distinction had to be made between religion and science (see ‘Science and Truth’, for example) but also said that religion is invincible, especially in comparison to psychoanalysis (see p. 64, ‘The Triumph of Religion’). What I want to focus on here is the specific moment in Seminar XX where Lacan discusses sexuation, and delineates two different jouissances, or perhaps two different relations to jouissance. Here, I quote from the Seminar at length:
I don’t use the term “mystic” as Peguy did. Mysticism isn’t everything that isn’t politics. It is something serious, about which several people inform us – most often women, or bright people like Saint John of the Cross, because one is not obliged, when one is male, to situate oneself on the side of ∀xΦx. One can also situate oneself on the side of the not-whole. There are men who are just as good as women. It happens. And who also feel just fine about it. Despite – I won’t say their phallus – despite what encumbers them that goes by that name, they get the idea or sense that there must be a jouissance that is beyond. Those are the ones we call mystics.
I have already spoken about other people who were not too bad in terms of mysticism, but who were situated instead on the side of the phallic function, Angelus Silesius, for example. Confusing his contemplative eye with the eye with which God looks at him, must, if kept up, partake of perverse jouissance. For the Hadewijch in question, it’s like for Saint Teresa – you need but go to Rome and see the statue by Bernini to immediately understand that she’s coming. There’s no doubt about it. What is she getting off on? It is clear that the essential testimony of the mystics consists in saying that they experience it, but know nothing about it.
These mystical jaculations are neither idle chatter not empty verbiage; they provide, all in all, some of the best reading one can find…I believe in the jouissance of woman insofar as it is extra, as long as you put a screen in front of this “extra” until I have been able to properly explain it.
What was attempted at the end of the last century, in Freud’s time, what all sorts of decent souls around Charcot and others were trying to do, was to reduce mysticism to questions of cum. If you look closely, that’s not it at all. Doesn’t this jouissance one experiences and yet knows nothing about put us on the path of ex-sistence? And why not interpret one face of the Other, the God face, as based on feminine jouissance? (76-7)
There is much that one can take from this passage, but clearly, it outlines a distinction between phallic and ‘Other’ jouissance, with the latter being proper to mysticism, and to be situated on the feminine side of sexuation. The logic of the two sides of the graph of sexuation (below) is asymmetrical. On the masculine side, the whole is based on the exception. The paternal function institutes castration and phallic jouissance, on the proviso that there is presumed to be one – the primal father, say – who is not subject to castration.
A different logic altogether operates on the feminine side of the graph. This is the logic of the ‘not-all’, the pas-tout. Whilst the logic states that no woman is not subjected to the phallic function, it adds that not-all women – or not-all of a woman – is subject to this function. Lacan distinguishes two mysticisms, in a sense, with Angelus Silesius as a kind of pseudo-mystic, to be situated on the masculine side of the graph, contrasted with Santa Teresa of Ávila, who fits on the feminine side of the graph.
To illustrate further, we could consider Jacques-Alain Miller’s (2003, p. 15) comments on sexuation, which he describes as being two different response to loss:
There is also a completely different portrait, which is that of the completely lost, wayward woman who, in her essence, does not know what she wants. Thus, this is a woman from whom everything can be expected, a subject curtailed by no interdiction. And while man bends under the weight of his interdictions, this subject, who can on occasion pretend to obey these interdictions, retains her sovereign liberty, reducing them to the state of semblants. She is thus always likely to bolt towards the absolute – whichever absolute – leaving behind all the considerations, negotiations and compromises in which male desire gets bogged down.
Both sexes have a jouissance that is fundamentally bound to the signifier, but in different ways. The cycle of jouissance in transgression that Freud describes sits within the masculine side, and there is no reason to suppose that women cannot also participate in it. Lacan’s followers, especially Miller, never fail to emphasise the narcissistic, autistic and masturbatory dimension of this enjoyment, situated in a non-relation with the Other. There is an abyss of non-relation between the subject and Other, and to the extent that it can be bridged, it is via fantasy and the workings of perverse, partial drives. However, the feminine side of the graph for Lacan, in contrast with Freud’s account, allows a space for mysticism as a mode of feminine jouissance.
Mysticism and Romantic Consumerism: the ‘beyond’ of the signifier vs the ‘not-all’ of the signifier
The question then is what to make, for instance, of somebody like Santa Teresa. She outlines in her autobiographical work a series of procedures she undertakes through prayer to achieve an ecstatic state, a union with the divine. Once she gets there, she can say little about it. She loses perception of her body and senses, is absorbed into God, etc:
How what is called union takes place and what it is, I cannot tell. It is explained in mystical theology, but I cannot use the proper terms: I cannot understand what mind is, or how it differs from soul or spirit. They all seem one to me, though the soul sometimes leaps out of itself like a burning fire that has become one whole flame and increases with great focus. The flame leaps very high above the fire. Nevertheless it is not a different thing, but the same flame which is in the fire. You, sirs, with your learning will understand this. I cannot be more explicit. (p. 122-3).
As a hypothetical question – what would be the difference between this, and a person who consumes hallucinogens at a music festival, and has a ‘spiritual’ experience?
In the case of St Teresa, one point worth making is that whilst she can say little of her ecstasies, she is hardly untouched by the Law with a capital L. She is intensely preoccupied with the rules and regulations of her faith, and is not indifferent to erotic matters, though her interest here is expressed in the negative. In the very first paragraph of her autobiography (p. 22) she extols the many virtues of her father, who was, above all, ‘most rigid in his chastity’.
The forms of symbolic castration peculiar to the Spanish Catholicism of her times appear to be operative, and yet they do not – or not-all – account for Teresa’s experiences. This is what makes them an example of Other jouissance.
In contrast, there is, on the masculine side of the graph, a promise of a jouissance beyond the law and the signifier. I wonder whether my example of the music festival needs to be placed on this side. For another example, we could consider the release of Freud’s three essays by Verso, marketed as being from his ‘non-oedipal’, polymorphously perverse period, and therefore full of ’emancipatory potential’. There is a romantic fantasy at work here, or perhaps even a romantic mode of consumerism, in which, if only one could slip behind the symbolic field, one could engage in blissful perversion untarnished by the cycle of guilt, transgression and neurosis, in one’s natural and innocent state as it were. It is as if sexuality were a thing that existed prior to or independent of the signifier, rather than forged in the crucible of it.
Another example that came to mind, if only because I recently encountered it, was the novel The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector. It depicts a middle class woman who enters a room in her house, observes a dying cockroach, and enters into a spiritual and linguistic crisis as she addresses a fragmenting interlocutor. The novel is psychoanalytically interesting for a number of reasons, but the collapse of language it depicts is one of them, as it is not so much a flight from the linguistic to the ineffable but a gesturing toward the ineffable precisely through the insistence of certain signifiers that prevail throughout the text.
In this vein, we might query how some of this applies to the split between Catholicism/Orthodoxy and certain forms of Protestantism. Catholicism is the denomination of symbolic mediation par excellence, in that nobody gets a direct hotline to God. Instead, the believer is obliged to go through the priest, the church hierarchy (and by extension the theologians), the divine intercession of the saints, the Virgin Mary, etc. The presumption of an unmediated or minimally mediated relation to the divine is evident in some (though not all) expressions of Protestantism, yet it may be because, rather than in spite of this lack of mediation that it mysticism flourishes more in the Catholic tradition. We could also consider the use of mescaline or peyote by Native American tribes, in which the hallucinogen is incorporated into the symbolic efficacy of the ceremony, as compared to the auto-erotic, self-administered jouissance of our music festival goer.
In summary, Lacan’s views on mysticism and jouissance suggest two positions. The first is one of romantic consumerism, in which jouissance is fantasised to be beyond the signifier (cf Rousseau, or Deleuze) as opposed to a mystic jouissance which arrives alongside of the signifier (cf St Teresa, Lispector), but is not-all reducible to it. In this sense, the early Wittgenstein’s famous maxim that ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’ is not merely some prescriptive logical positivism, but also an enjoinment to mysticism.
Beyond this, it’s worth keeping in mind that in Seminar XX where Lacan introduces Other joussiance, there is a dual relation between language and jouissance. There is the traditional relation, wherein language is used to treat jouissance, to drain the swamp of jouissance in Trumpian language, and secondly, language itself as a mode of jouissance. This latter is language in the guise of lalangue, but since it involves a relation to language, it allows the possibility of sublimation (for Lacan, symbolic recognition) and the sinthome. (It is possible that some other forms of artistic expression which are lalanguesque might also offer the same potential). Whether Other jouissance can fulfil the same function is an open question.
Freud, S. (1927). The future of an illusion. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Volume XXI. (Trans. J. Strachey.) London: Vintage.
Lacan, J. (1998). On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge, 1972-1973. Encore. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XX. (Trans. B. Fink). New York, NY: Norton.
Lacan, J. (2015). The Triumph of Religion. (Trans. B. Fink). Cambridge: Polity.
Lispector, C. (1964). The Passion According to G.H. (Trans. I. Novey). London: Penguin.
Miller, J-A. (2003). Of distribution between the sexes. (Trans. P. Dravers). Psychoanalytical Notebooks, 11, 9-27.
St Teresa. (1957/1562). The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by Herself. (Trans. J. M. Cohen). London: Penguin.