Jacques Lacan's Benedict Option

To the Reverend Father Marc-François Lacan, Benedictine of the Congregation of France, my brother in religion.
—Jacques Lacan’s 1932 dedication of his doctoral dissertation[1]

On May 13, 1926, Marc-Marie Lacan had a revelation while reading The Rule of St. Benedict. He felt compelled to write down the word “Benedictine,” the very sight of which brought him a single, unerring conviction—he would be a monk. His brother Jacques, then an unknown quantity and soon-to-be medical student, was aghast. Filled with rage, he enjoined his brother to continue with law school (the good, safe, bourgeois option).[2]

Yet here in 1932, now Doctor Lacan uses his brother’s religious name, the symbol of his transformation from in-the-world to out-of-it: Marc-François (for St. Francis of Assisi). The ex-Marc-Marie was, of course, Jacques’s brother by blood. Here, more than any biological connection, the essential category is “religion.” Fr. Michel de Certeau, S.J. found the dedication “strange.”[3] Indeed, it is very, very weird.

As I discussed recently, Lacan’s relationship to religion is (to be laconic about it)—complicated. From his first seminars in 1953-1954, he kept faith in the mix, even inviting the Jesuit priest, former anti-Nazi resistance member, and professor of philosophy, Louis Beirnaert to discuss Augustine’s De Magistro.[4] When just a high school student, Lacan studied under Jean Baruzi,[5] who himself would go on to write a dissertation on St. John of the Cross and become an expert on one of my favorite mystics, Angelus Silesius.

Étienne Gilson greatly influenced both Baruzi and Lacan; his commitment to close textual analysis supposedly helped structure Lacan’s studious devotion to Freud’s oeuvre.[6] The psychoanalyst exhorted his students to read Jacques Maritain.[7] Most astoundingly, in 1964 he founded his famed École Freudienne de Paris with three Jesuits.[8]

Throughout his seminars, Lacan seems unable to shake an obsession with medieval Christian texts in particular. Bruce Holsinger has argued that Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux are fundamental for understanding Seminar VII,[9] which the good doctor even ends with a reference to the Book of Revelation. In that series alone, he mentions or alludes to Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Andreas Capellanus, Marguerite de Navarre, Dante, and a scatological poem by the twelfth-century troubadour named Arnaut Daniel. Seminar VII is also where he famously tarries with amour courtois, the “courtly love” of medieval Romance. His interest extends beyond that one course, however; indeed, there is an entire book called Lacan’s Medievalism.[10]

Much like Lacan’s Unconscious God (more on that below), French Catholicism suffused its postwar culture, even among non-believers and above all among the so-called poststructuralists. Roland Barthes, for example, attended the 1969 colloquium of the Association catholique française pour l'étude de la Bible in Chantilly.[11] Bruce Holsinger contends that Henri de Lubac’s L'Exégèse médiévale informed Barthes entire mode of reading, essentially providing the basis for the structural analysis at the heart of his famous essay, S/Z.[12] Georges Bataille, known for his a/theological updating of Nietzsche, started off as a seminarian, and never quite left behind an interest in the Catholicism of the Middle Ages.[13] He even corresponded with the eminent French Jesuit and cardinal Jean Daniélou.[14] Jean Cocteau and Jacques Maritain published texts addressed to one another.[15] Even that great supposed enemy of morals, Michel Foucault could not shake an interest in the Church Fathers, or, more broadly, a fascination with sin and the flesh.[16]

Late in his life Lacan gave an interview in Rome, in which he claimed that “the Roman religion is the true one . . . There is one true religion and that is the Christian religion.”[17] By this comment, he meant that Christianity could best help people find meaning as science further explored the world, that is, de-natured nature (ironically, it seems that he felt it could attribute meaning precisely because of its consciousness of lack). Such an understanding cannot be the one found in his doctoral dedication; neither can this “religion” be psychoanalysis itself, which, when asked if it would become a religion, Lacan jeered, “Psychoanalysis? No. At least I hope not.”[18] Instead, the fraternal religion of which the Parisian psychoanalyst speaks is, I contend, the religion that recognizes the Unconsciousness of God in contemporary society, what that means, and how it might best be addressed. But, before we can go down that rabbit hole, we must comprehend some key terms in Lacan’s theory.

St. Charles Borromeo, Pray for Us!

At the heart of Lacan’s decades of thinking about the human subject is the relationship among the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real orders. He sees these as interconnected like a set of Borromean rings, such that, no matter how they are reconfigured, a hole (lack) will always be at the center. These, taken together then, are human subjectivity; they define how we relate to ourselves and to the world, with the caveat that no way of formalizing our existence can ever fill the void at the heart of the human experience. Our desires cannot be fully satiated in this life; we can never entirely account for who we are and what we want; there is no “I” to integrate into itself. Lacan argues, drawing on Heidegger, that this void ek-sists, “a kind of existence that is impossible to symbolize”[19] and thus to define, understand, or fill.

Just the other day a Facebook Reel popped up at the top of my newsfeed. In this short video, taken by a mother of her small child, the little one smiled and clapped and waved as she gawked at a mirror. The Imaginary finds its roots in just this moment—Lacan’s famous “mirror stage.” In his understanding, a baby first lives with a prelinguistic sense of wholeness. Needs for food are met by a parent (most often a mother, whose literal suckling of the child makes it seem as if they are still one, as if the baby were still attached to the umbilical cord). There is, as yet, no “I,” not even in the child’s mind. Eventually, however, the baby will “see their reflection” and experience a sense of unreal wholeness even as they see that they are not what they see in the mirror. They are finite, a specific being that looks a specific way.

On the one hand, this experience is alienating, since one is no longer primordially whole, at peace, and taken care of. On the other hand, there is something fundamentally narcissistic here—the small person, for the first time, is an “I,” a body separate from the world, as if drawn inside the lines of a coloring book. Here, then, we have the first separation of “self” and “other,” which dogs us for the rest of our lives. As we move through our set span, we never lose this imaginative sense of integrity, even as we recognize that we are not, in actuality, whole. We are not our reflections in the mirror, and yet we feel there is some “there” there, an “I” that holds us together, a fantasy that we will always be measuring ourselves and others against.

The Symbolic, to riff on Tina Beattie’s phrasing,[20] polices one boundary of the Imaginary. Put simply, this order deals with language, specifically the various discourses that we inherit when we learn our culture’s speech. The very words that come down to us interpolate us into specific ways of understanding, whether political, social, legal, or even familial. We thus learn to make ourselves understood in these terms; they are, after all, all we have, because with language comes concepts, names and expectations.

Imagine for a moment that you were born in ancient Athens, around the time of Socrates, and you felt the desire to entertain people. How you can describe that desire and therefore attempt to actualize it is constrained by what you see around you in Hellenic culture. You could, perhaps, become a stage actor or a musician or even a playwright. But you could not begin to formalize a yearning to act in a film, to wrestle Sumo, or to write for prestige TV. Your desire itself is circumscribed by the language you know; your very sense of self is delimited.

The Real is exactly that from which we are severed by our entrance into language. It cannot be described because all description is linguistic. We can approach it, however, by relating it to our experience of wholeness in infancy, a time when our needs were met and we had no sense of alienation, either in our heads or in our words. But, of course, we do not remember this time, because it was, properly speaking, before any of us was an “I.” Still, we are aware of it (I’m writing about it right now!), and so the Real becomes that against which all our fantasies break, the very sense of completion that we cannot achieve in this existence.

Even if one does not accept any of this stuff about infant development, we are aware that such a state could exist; we have no concept for this satisfaction (that would be to circumscribe it, know it), but nonetheless we aspire to it, chase it, hope for it, pursue the total destruction of ourselves in, for example, love. What is love (ha!) but the desire to become two in one body, to abolish and sublate our particularity into unending bliss? Is this not what the mystics seek with God? Or what we feel when we think about our spouse or the object of our affections? Who wants to be stuck like this? But we must not think that these are somehow separable. As Lacan says in an early seminar:

A creature needs some reference to the beyond of language, to a pact, to a commitment which constitutes him, strictly speaking, as an other, a reference included in the general or, to be more exact, universal system of interhuman symbols. No love can be functionally realizable in the human community, save by means of a specific pact, which, whatever the form it takes, always tends to become isolated off into a specific function, at one and the same time within language and outside of it.[21]

The subject, in other words, is imposed upon by all three, and it is precisely the intersection of these elements that generates what we understand to be human-being.

Father Knows Best

If God is our Father and we wish to understand this “religion” Lacan is speaking about, we will have to understand the role fathers play in his theory. As you might imagine, for Lacan a dad has Imaginative, Symbolic, and Real faces. In the second sense (and that is what most concerns us here), there is the “nom du père,” the “name of the father.” As usual, however, Lacan is being tricky. In French, “nom” (name) and “non” (no) are homonyms. The former also calls to mind the Greek, “nomos” (law). Each of these tells us a piece of what we want to know.

I, for one, know that my mother was very upset when I said “dada” before “mama.” I also know this is not an uncommon experience. In the Symbolic Order, then, a father’s job is to introduce us to language, to pass on the words and understandings that define us as members of families, communities, and societies. He is, however, also the voice of authority, the one who first says “no,” who needles our mothers that we’ve been breastfeeding long enough, who demands that we become our own person. By extension, he is thus the lawgiver, the one who lets us know that there are rules (rules that make up our language, our family, our society, etc.). To be clear, this person need not literally be a father; this is a function, not a specific being—though a function with a rich linguistic history. The God who handed down the Torah at Mt. Horeb would, by Christians, later be called “God the Father.” Marc-François as a priest, a religious leader, that is, an authority figure—was Father Lacan.

By means of this severing from the Real, we face the other and the Other. If you have ever attempted to read Lacanian theory before, please accept my apology on behalf of anyone so interested: there is a constant flurry of symbols, along with the capitalizing and lowercasing of O’s that makes so much work alienating and nigh unreadable (“x~Φx” or “mOther,” for example). These are merely ways of separating out two different kinds of alterity. With a lower-case letter, other (or “a,” for the French “autre,” “other”) means the bits of incompleteness that we discern in the world, the gaps through which we imagine the Real, completeness. We project this sense onto other people—when we seek the fullness of romantic love, it is through another person, another subject who we imagine can lift us up unto the heights of perfection. We imagine that it, just with that thing, that thing that we cannot name and yet pursue by way of another, we would be happy. This is the famous objet petit a.

The Big Other (“A”) by contrast is the Father of all Fathers. When we act, we always act in accordance with a principle, as if someone were watching us (even for a non-believer their actions are only legible to themselves when held up against something greater than themselves, something complete). As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has it:

[The Big Other is] the overarching “objective spirit” of trans-individual socio-linguistic structures configuring the fields of inter-subjective interactions. Relatedly, the Symbolic big Other also can refer to (often fantasmatic/fictional) ideas of anonymous authoritative power and/or knowledge (whether that of God, Nature, History, Society, State, Party, [or] Science.[22]

We all measure ourselves against something. In this sense, Big Other is always watching.

God is Dead

With all of this in mind, we can understand the key phrase in evaluating Lacan and religion: “the true formula of atheism is God is unconscious.”[23] In context, Lacan is discussing Freud, but he is clearly riffing on Nietzsche’s famous declaration in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “God is dead!” This formulation, the analyst says, is inadequate, because it fails to reckon with how God as Symbolic Father continues to regulate how we think and act. The atheists of the world appeal to universal principles which originally found their origin in a divine ground. When an agnostic looks on in horror at a burning building, they yell “oh my God!” or “Jesus Christ!” Even the desires we pursue are, in many cases, linked to God insofar as they are transgressions of what is understood to be normative; in these cases, one’s desire is the desire to upset the other, to break with the Symbolic Father of religion, or culture, or “Western Civilization.”

In this way, God is unconscious, even for the atheist, because God speaks to even non-believers how Lacan believes the Unconscious speaks. Perhaps the Parisian analyst’s most famous dictum, repeated time and again, is that “the unconscious is structured like a language.”[24] What he means by this is that the Unconscious works by way of coding, decoding, and recoding; it speaks through slips of the tongue and voice that we must then try to figure out. We cannot totally express it; it is defined by its only speaking in whispers and mistakes. And yet, there it is—our task is to interpret what it speaks, since in that way we better come to understand our own desire. It is “an ensemble of contortions, curvings, folding, inflections, twists, and turns immanent and internal to a single plane of minded subjectivity accessible to rigorous, rational (psycho)analysis.”[25] In this sense, God acts in our culture like our Unconscious itself; he lisps misheard phrases from another time, still defines how we speak, and even, in the form of the Big Other (whatever it may be for an individual) promises to watch us, to hold us to account:

We continue to be positioned before an unknowable Other whose commands and prohibitions govern our desire—whose desire determines the conditions of our own desiring. Lacan, following Hegel (but not all the way), insists that desire is subservient and responsive to the desire of the Other. My own desire is dominated by the futile attempt to discern what the Other is asking of me and to satisfy its demands in order to be loved, in order to experience that blissful state of union.[26]

The Brothers Lacan

In this Unconscious God, I cannot help but see the twin obsessions of our age: language and moral revolution. We worry about which construction, say, “homeless person” or “person experiencing houselessness,” or “unhomed person” is best. We vigorously attempt to imagine objective standards for justice absent faith, developing vocabularies that are both post-religious and yet utterly saturated with a moralism once associated it with bishops and pastors.

For my part, I agree that both language and morals are important. I think the brothers Lacan would too. But they are brothers in religion as well as by blood. Siblings in religio are, I think, siblings in lack. Lacan the analyst understood that his function was historically determinate and therapeutic. He studied fundamental structures of languages, but also recognized the necessary inadequacy of his position in the face of never-ending desire:

The analyst is something else altogether [compared to the priest]. He is in a moment of molting. For a little while, people were able to perceive what the intrusion of the real is. The analyst remains there. He is there as a symptom. He can only last as a symptom. But you will see that humanity will be cured of psychoanalysis. By drowning the symptom in meaning, in religious meaning naturally, people will manage to repress it.[27]

Religion will triumph because its job is “to cure men.”[28] Because lack will never go away, there will always be the need to be cured. Some religions accept the truth of that lack; others do not. All will, for the atheist Lacan, paper over it, but to lesser and greater degrees. We cannot stop meaning from returning—humans beings ail too greatly for that. But there is wisdom, a wisdom I suspect Jacques saw in Marc-Marie turned Marc-François, to be found in the recognition of our lacking, our limitedness, our pain.

Christianity teaches that God died on the Cross. When it is honest with itself, does not lie to itself about itself, it cannot but acknowledge the constitutive nature of pain and suffering. The classic question a non-Christian might ask is “what kind of god lets himself die?” Jacques Lacan, hearing this, might merely smirk: “what kind of god wouldn’t?” Only in this way is, as de Certeau suggested, the Rule of St. Benedict the basis for some of Lacan’s theories.[29] Where Jacques was the symptom, Marc-Francois was the cure—so long as both knew they were afflicted with the same wound:

I am in favor of John and his “In the beginning was the Word,” but it is an enigmatic beginning. It means the following: for the average Joe—for this carnal being, this repugnant personage—the drama begins only when the Word is involved, when it is incarnated, as the true religion says. It is when the Word is incarnated that things really start going badly. Man is no longer at all happy, he no longer resembles at all a little dog who wags his tail or a nice monkey who masturbates. He no longer resembles anything. He is ravaged by the Word.[30]

[1] Quoted in Roazen, Paul. “Lacan’s First Disciple,” (Journal of Religion and Health, 35:4, 1996), 325

[2] Roudinesco, Elizabeth. Jacques Lacan, trans. Barbara Bray, (University of Columbia Press, 1997), 13.

[3] Roazen, 325.

[4] Dolzell, Tom. “On the Death of God in Lacan—A Nuanced Atheism,” (The Heythrop Journal, 63:1, 2022), 27.

[5] Holsinger, Bruce. The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory, (The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 61.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pound, Marcus. “Lacan’s Return to Freud: A Case of Theological Ressourcement?” Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology,” ed. Gabriel Flynn and Paul D. Murray, (Oxford University Press, 2011), 446.

[8] Gale, “Lacan and the Benedictines,” European Journal of Psychoanalysis.

[9] Holsinger, 62-68.

[10] Labbie, Erin Felicia. Lacan’s Medievalism, (University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

[11] Pound., 442.

[12] Holsinger, 152-194.

[13] See Holsinger, 26-56 as well as Bataille, Georges. “Medieval French Literature, Chivalric Morals, and Passion,” trans. Laurence Petiti, included as Appendix I in Holsinger, 204-220.

[14] Pound, 443.

[15] In English these have been collected in English as Cocteau, Jean and Jacques Maritain, Art & Faith, (Philosophical Library, 1951).

[16] See, for example, Bernauer, James. “Fascinating Flesh: Revealing the Catholic Foucault,” (Foucault Studies, 29:1, 2021), 38-47.

[17] Lacan, Jacques. The Triumph of Religion Preceded by Discourse to Catholics, trans. Bruce Fink (Polity, 2013), 64, 66. Italics in the original. My text in brackets.

[18] Ibid., 65.

[20] Beattie, Tina. Theology after Postmodernity: Diving the Void—A Lacanian Reading of Thomas Aquinas, (Oxford University Press, 2013), 26.

[21] Lacan, Jacques. Freud's Papers on Technique 1953-1954, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book 1, trans. John Forrester, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, Norton, 1991), 174.

[22] Johnston, Adrian, "Jacques Lacan", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta. My text in brackets.

[23] Quoted in Beattie, 32.

[24] Quoted in Johnston.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Beattie, 32-33.

[27] Lacan, 67. My text in brackets.

[28] Ibid., 71.

[29] Gale.

[30] Lacan, 74.

Featured Image: Paul Signac, Mont-Saint-Michel - Setting Sun, 1897; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70. 


Chase Padusniak

Chase Padusniak is a PhD candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in medieval literature. In addition to his academic pursuits, Chase spends time working on creative projects such as films, poetry, and cultivating negativity.

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