Back to Basics

At a time when Israeli therapists are showing little interest in theoretical or conceptual discussions of psychoanalysis, along comes a Hebrew translation of a seminal work on Freud that might make a difference.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger ascribed many of the shortcomings of Western philosophical thought to the way in which the Romans' use of Latin insinuated Greek philosophy into it without noting the original meaning of the Greek words. Some gave a similar explanation for the way psychoanalysis developed in lands outside the German cultural ambit. Critics of the standard English edition of Freud's writings claimed, for example, that not only did his translators have trouble understanding the simple meaning of his work, they often missed the spirit of the words as well. In their zeal to build up psychoanalysis in scientific circles, they sought to distance Freud's language from its humanistic and literary roots.

Freud's path to acceptance in France was even less straightforward than in England and America, and "Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse" (The Language of Psychoanalysis ), published in 1967, was meant to help remedy this. The fact that its authors, Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, were born in the period between the two World Wars was not without significance in terms of understanding the work at the time it was published. For contrary to what might have been expected, the French, with their famously psychological bent, were not quick to embrace Freud.

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In the land of Charcot, Bergson, Proust, Balzac and Flaubert, opposition to psychoanalysis was especially vehement. But Freud took the cool reception from the French in his stride, writing to Max Eitingon, who had asked him to get involved in the French psychoanalytic field, that he wouldn't dream of regurgitating on other nations the grief he had to swallow from the Germans. In the Sixties, there was a turnaround in the French attitude toward Freud. They discovered psychoanalysis to be a useful bearer of the contents and motifs in the eye of the social and political storm.

At that time, French psychoanalysis owed much of its success to existentialism and Marxism. These two ideological streams, which up to then had denounced psychoanalysis as an insult to human liberty and a weapon in the hands of the bourgeoisie, called for revolutionary activity based upon self-management, local control of political power, and the blossoming of the individual personality. When the dust settled from the May 1968 student protests, the small group of psychoanalysts working in France found that they had gone from being of marginal consequence to cultural heroes. Jacques Lacan, the "French Freud," understood Freud in a way that was the polar opposite of the interpretation of American psychiatrists. The Americans were excited about the therapeutic possibilities Freud opened up for them, while Lacanian structuralism was more poetic, linguistic and theoretical than pragmatic.

Lacan stressed the possibility of discovering universal laws that apply to man and society through the way in which a person experiences himself. He stressed the inevitable lacks and wants that are built into the human psyche, as well as the limitations of the individual, more than his liberty, and he made possible a political and critical discourse that went beyond the field of interest of the British and American psychoanalytic mainstream. Now that he was saturated with philosophical influences, served up on a critical political platform and seasoned with fashionable hatred of America, no one in France could say no to Freud - that is, to Lacan.

But in France in the Sixties, there were some who were not so pleased with the discourse that was going on under Lacan. While it challenged the psychoanalytic establishment, some felt the absence of a clear text that would express the desire to understand Freud's thinking on its own terms. When "Vocabulaire" was published, it was therefore a very political text, which defied both the vulgar versions of Freud that were popular in revolutionary circles, and the emerging Lacanian monopoly on the proper way to understand Freud.

The careful new Hebrew translation by Noam Baruch is a multidimensional interpretive project disguised as a mere glossary of terms. The book breaks down the Freudian revolution into its conceptual building blocks and closely scrutinizes each one. Each of the 400 entries and each of the volume's 800 pages attests to the close connection that exists in science in general and in psychoanalysis in particular between erudition and critical thinking and innovation. Can the value of Freud be reduced, as modern science would have us believe, to the question of the "validity" of his assumptions, or even to the so-called "relevancy" of his theories to contemporary psychoanalytic discourse?

Psychoanalysis is not a "pure" naturalistic science that is progressing teleologically while forgetting its past. Like humanistic disciplines such as philosophy or history that develop through a continuous study of their own canonical texts, the development of psychoanalysis is also dependent to a large extent on the readiness of those who engage in it to read Freud's writings, to pore over them and interpret them. Whoever accepts the argument that the study of Freud and familiarity with his special language creates the conditions for self-understanding will find in "Vocabulaire" an irreplaceable learning and research tool.

Breaking down the Freudian oeuvre into its conceptual building blocks is an arduous task. Freud did not "write up" his ideas; he wrote in order to know what he was thinking about. As he worked in parallel on several essays at a time, Freud's atelier resembled that of an artist, with several unfinished canvases stretched next to each other, waiting for the muses and whims of the master to allow their completion. Ideas and dilemmas confronted while working on one essay were often caught in midair before reaching the (exceptionally large ) sheet of paper and their flow redirected into another unfinished text, where they settled into the company of other ideas. Some ideas were thus cut short and contained as miniatures within a relatively limited discursive frame, while others awaited their explication within an entirely new context. One occasionally has the feeling that a given text was suddenly hijacked by a train of thought seemingly springing out of an entirely different creative or theoretical impetus.

The thought of what Freud (who had a keen eye for technology ) might have done with a blog or website should send shivers down the spines of all those who complain about the volume of his writing. In most cases, the final versions of his papers still exhibit the characteristics of a draft or outline, crafted into a "final" version with theoretical content and mental process bound tightly together by the power of his prose. At the top of each entry in the Vocabulaire there appears, next to the original term, a translation of the Freudian concept into eight languages. Each entry opens with a brief dictionary definition, and is followed by a discussion of the history and evolution of the concept within Freud's writings.

In most of the entries, the discussion goes beyond the conventional dictionary framework and takes on a fascinating critical and polemical nature. The references direct the reader to the appropriate writings by Freud, as well as to writings by other authors. As Michel Granek notes in the preface to the translation, some of the definitions and the discussions may sound outdated or unsatisfying, and that it is missing many fundamental concepts that have become inalienable elements of post-Freudian psychoanalytic thought.

The Frenchness of the volume is also evident in the preference shown for concepts identified with the early Freud of the topographical model. These are treated with greater devotion than the structural concepts Freud developed in the years following World War I. Just as "French" is the tendency to ignore concepts developed by psychoanalysts who practiced in America. Even bearing in mind that the book was first published in the late 1960s, even then the two authors would have needed plenty of self-confidence to exclude common terms such as "self-" or "personality disorder" from the Vocabulaire.

One could complain, but one could also accept this with understanding and even take pleasure in the conservative stance of the authors, who identified the language of psychoanalysis almost exclusively with the language of Freud. And one could just start the alphabetical journey through the Freudian cosmos by amending the book's title to "Language of the Founder of Psychoanalysis."

There are many ways to read Freud, and it is doubtful whether a first encounter with the basic concepts of psychoanalysis in alphabetical order fits in with the "pleasure principle." But strangely enough, the somewhat esoteric and arbitrary reading experience that the Vocabulaire offers to readers is liable to connect the various approaches to the study and teaching of Freud's thought. For a "correct" reading of Freud is always a reading that is simultaneously contextual and esoteric or anachronistic. It is a reading that also makes it possible to extract latent meanings and truths that transcend time and the historical context in which they were formulated, and which at the same time require an understanding of the historical, sometimes the autobiographical, context in which Freud developed his ideas. Such a movement also characterizes the "free-floating attention" that Freud recommended to the analytic therapist: the same wandering, the same floating between the contextual and the esoteric, between that which may only be understood by means of its contexts with the other parts of the patient's personality and history, and that which may only be understood on its own, solely in that passing moment.

This impressive translation project may benefit not only from the appearance of new and admirable translations of Freud's writings, but also from the late blossoming that French psychoanalysis is experiencing in Israel. However, despite this relatively recent popularity, the "conditions for loving" psychoanalysis in these parts are becoming more and more restrictive. Therapists with good clinical abilities are showing relatively little interest in theoretical and conceptual discussions. Fundamental psychoanalytical concepts have long ago lost their communicative value; local analytic idioms and dialects make it hard for Israeli analysts to share their ideas with colleagues from other countries. Not that everyone must "return to Freud," but returning Freud to psychoanalysis would be very worthwhile. Much love for psychoanalysis is contained in this volume, whose major strength lies not only in its explication of Freud, but also in reminding readers that the language of the founder of psychoanalysis, even when suitably translated and even to those who speak it fluently, will always aspire to remain a foreign language.

"Vocabulaire de la psychoanalyse" by Jean Laplanche and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis; translated by Noam Baruch, scientific editing Michel Granek, Tola'at Sefarim Publishing House (2011 ).

Eran Rolnik is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and historian. He is the author of "Freud in Zion: Psychoanalysis and the Making of Modern Jewish Identity" (Karnac Books, London, 2012 ).