You are here: Home / Synopses / Serge Leclaire: ‘Les éléments en jeu dans une psychanalyse (à propos de “L’homme aux loups”)’

This project is funded by an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) research grant and is supported by the Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy (CRMEP) and Kingston University's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

AHRC logo

CRMEP logo

Synopsis of Serge Leclaire, ‘Les éléments en jeu dans une psychanalyse (à propos de “L’homme aux loups”)’

[‘The Elements at Play in a Psychoanalysis (On “The Wolf Man”)’]

CpA 5.1:7–40

Leclaire’s essay, the fifth of his six contributions to the Cahiers pour l’Analyse, is based on three papers presented at the ENS in February and March 1966. It addresses many of the same issues as his 1965-1966 seminar ‘Compter avec la psychanalyse’ (summarized in CpA 1.5, CpA 3.6, CpA 8.6), but specifically in relation to Freud’s celebrated ‘Wolf Man’ case. The essay attempts (1) to describe the specificity of the psychoanalytic signifier in terms of what Freud calls the ‘unconscious concept’ of castration, (2) to provide a Lacanian reading of the ‘Wolf Man’ case that stresses the relationship between castration and desire, advancing that the signifier of castration allows the subject to ‘accede to a world of clarity where difference reigns’ and thereby assume his desire as a sexuated subject.

In the first section, ‘On the Signifier’, Leclaire distinguishes the psychoanalytic signifier from the linguistic signifier, which he describes a ‘psychic entity with two faces:’ a combination of two elements - signifier (Saussure’s ‘acoustic image’) and signified - that together constitute the sign; as such, it refers to the signified object it denotes. According to this definition, ‘the signifier is the phonic manifestation of the linguistic sign’ (CpA 5.1:10). As used by Jacques Lacan, however, the signifier cannot be considered as an element derived from the problematic of the sign, but rather as a fundamental element constituting the nature and truth of the unconscious (11). While Peirce famously defined the signifier as what ‘represents something for someone,’ Lacan declares that the psychoanalytic signifier ‘represents a subject for another signifier.’ Their functions of representation thus differ radically.

To elucidate this function, Leclaire cites two important essays from previous issues of the Cahiers, Jacques-Alain Miller’s ‘Suture’ (CpA 1.3) and Jean-Claude Milner’s ‘Le Point du signifiant’ (CpA 3.5). For Miller, the central paradox of the Lacanian signifier is that ‘the trait of the identical represents the non-identical, from which can be deduced the impossibility of its redoubling, and from that impossibility the structure of repetition as the process of differenciation of the identical’ (12). Milner adds that ‘The signifying order develops itself as a chain, and every chain bears the specific marks of its formality’: the vacillation of the element, the vacillation of the cause, and ultimately the vacillation of transgression itself, ‘where the term that transgresses the sequence, situating as a term the founding authority of all terms, calls the one to be repeated as term transgression itself, an agent [instance] which annuls every chain’ (12). Leclaire embraces these formulations, but points out that they do not explain how the psychoanalyst can distinguish a given signifier. While any element of discourse may be a signifier, the psychoanalyst must be able to differentiate between signifiers, to privilege some over others. He warns against ‘the error of making the signifier no more than a letter open to all meanings,’ and argues that ‘a signifier can be named as such only to the extent that the letter that constitutes one of its slopes necessarily refers back to a movement of the body. It is this elective anchoring of a letter (gramma) in a movement of the body that constitutes the unconscious element, the signifier properly speaking’ (14).

The remainder of the essay attempts to elaborate this claim through a detailed reading of the Wolf Man case. Leclaire identifies two ‘major signifiers’ in the case, ‘opening’ [ouverture] and ‘tearing’ [déchirure]. ‘Opening’ links the celebrated wolf dream (in which ‘the window opens by itself’) to the memory of the primal scene (his eyes opened suddenly to see the parents engaged in coitus), the symptom of infantile anorexia (which Leclaire translates as a ‘precocious enjoyment of the possibility of not opening his mouth’), the terror provoked by the sight of a butterfly opening and closing its wings, and the various openings in the body that will be implicated as erotogenic zones: the mouth, the eyes, the ears, and the anus. As the next ‘link’ in the chain, ‘tearing’ articulates the tearing of the caul at birth, the dream of a man who tears the wings off a wasp, the hallucination of the cut finger, and the tearing of the ‘veil’ that separates him from the world when he is able to pass stool following an enema. We can infer from these examples that the signifying chain is composed of a very restricted number of signifiers that articulate the logic of the fantasy, each of which relates to a dream, a significant childhood event, a symptom, and an erotogenic zone. This last point is particularly important for Leclaire: ‘Around the signifier “opening,” we already glimpse a multitude of possible determinations, all linked to the awakening of a sensitive zone of the body’ (15). What they reveal is that the signifier ‘is a body as much as a letter’ (16). He specifies, however, that the ‘opening’ at stake here ‘is not essentially the movement in its recordable materiality (what, after all, is an ear that opens?),’ but an ‘experience of pleasure or displeasure, an ungraspable difference apprehended at the very moment of its dissipation; the very experience of this “the same-not the same” that one discovers in the final analysis when one interrogates the truth of desire’ (17).

In the second section, ‘On Castration,’ Leclaire develops this point through a reinterpretation of the Wolf Man’s fantasy. Citing Freud, he recalls the complaint that summed up all of the patient’s troubles: for him the world was enveloped by a veil that was only torn, strangely enough, on a single occasion: when, following an enema, the fecal matter passed through the anus; then he felt well once again, and for a brief period was able to see the world with clarity before it once again receded into obscurity (18). One day the patient recalled being born with a caul [coiffe, literally ‘veil’ or ‘hood’], which was interpreted as a sign of good fortune and a protection against danger. In Freud’s assessment, ‘the caul is thus the veil that hides him from the world and that hides the world from him’; his complaint on this subject is therefore a fantasy of realized desire, since it depicts him as having reentered the mother’s body (18). The fantasy condenses two incestuous desires: the desire to possess the mother by penetrating into her (the entire body serving therefore to represent the penis) and the desire to find in the mother’s body during sex the father’s penis, and to obtain sexual satisfaction from him in being impregnated like a woman. In this incestuous fantasy involving the father he is in the place of the woman being impregnated in the anus, with the ‘child of shit’ as the fruit of the union.

Leclaire revisits this complaint, suggesting that the ‘fantasy of the veil’ stages not only penetration, impregnation, and giving birth, but parturition: the child’s separation from the mother’s body (20). He speculates that the Wolf Man, like most obsessionals, too early experienced himself as a ‘one’ cut off from the body of his mother, but also as precociously invested by her as an object of desire. He thus had reason to consider his whole body as an autonomous penis, or to consider himself as the phallus, according to Lacan’s expression (20). This privileged situation is also a catastrophe: to be veiled is to be at one with the mother, protected from danger, and immune to the threat of castration, but also to be enveloped in obscurity, incapable of distinguishing anything: including and above all his own desire. The fantasy of the veil therefore offers a ‘privileged example of a neurotic’s confrontation with the question of difference’: it stages the alternation between a world of twilight and confusion (being hidden by a veil) and a world of clarity exposed by its tearing. It attests that ‘something closely bearing upon his body must be cut, torn up, torn away for him to accede to a world of clarity where difference reigns’ (21). The concept of difference can only be founded on a signifier, which differs from a concept in that its letter cannot be abstracted from its anchoring in a movement of the body.

Which term should then be chosen as the signifier of difference? Milner, in ‘Le point du signifiant,’ had proposed the unitary term of ‘fission’ as a signifier of difference (CpA 3.5:78, grouping together-so as to emphasize their formal homology-the splitting of the subject, the expulsion of the objet petit a, and the division of being and non-being. For Leclaire, however, it is the psychoanalytic term of ‘castration’ that fits best, and that ought to be preserved. Castration is implied in ‘cutting’ and ‘tearing,’ as well as in the many terms from the case commentary-separation, rejection, splitting-that suggest analogies with the major terms of Lacan’s theory. More importantly, ‘castration’ invites us to think of Freud’s use of this word in relation to the loss of the penis, and his rejection of any conceptual extension of the signifier of castration that would ‘detach’ it from its somatic reference. In Leclaire’s gloss, ‘every separation, cut or loss, whatever it may be (even and especially that of parturition) necessarily refers back to the time of conception, to the phallus; and the phallus, as master signifier, cannot be other than lost with respect to the efficacy of sexual difference’ (28). Above all, it is in relation to castration that Freud first introduces the notion of an ‘unconscious concept’ that Leclaire reads as the prototype for Lacan’s theory of the signifier. In Freud’s words, ‘the feces, the child, the penis therefore constitute a unity, an unconscious concept - sit venia verbo - the concept of a little thing that can be detached from the body’ (26-27).

The example of the child is especially important for Leclaire, since it shows that this detachment is not only a loss, but the condition of emergence of a subject of desire. The birth of a child entails a literal separation of a part of the mother’s body, sanctioned by the cutting of the cord, that culminates in the existence of another sexuated human body. This is what links castration to the phallus as signifier of difference. If the phallus ‘is the signifier par excellence of impossible identity’ (28), it’s because there is no subjectivity without the loss of identity, ‘the movement of separation, of differentiation, in which the signifier of castration finds a necessary dimension of its somatic anchoring’ (27). As the object of his mother’s desire, Leclaire hypothesizes that the Wolf Man ‘found himself identified… in a kind of short-circuit with the very object of his quest, the phallus.’ It follows that ‘to reopen this cycle, to free himself from his blissful identification with the object of his mother’s desire, is really the condition of his being able to access castration himself, to enter into the order of the signifier, of impossible identity’ (29). (In trying to ‘find the father’s penis [...] in the mother’s body,’ in other words, the Wolf Man is really searching for the phallic signifier that would allow him to break with the fantasy staging that makes of his ‘whole body’ a penis for the mother.)

The final two sections, ‘The Object of Desire’ and ‘Psychoanalyzing,’ revolve around another pivotal moment in the Wolf Man case, when the patient recalls being seized with terror at the sight of a striped butterfly opening and closing its wings. The striped wings recall a delicious striped pear, Grouscha in Russian, whose name is identical to that of a maid the Wolf Man loved as a child. The patient recalls seeing her cleaning the floor on her hands and knees, her buttocks toward him in the very position Freud attributes to the mother in the primal scene. The (castration) anxiety provoked by the scissor-like wings of the butterfly leads Freud to conclude that the child (mimicking what he understood to be the father’s act in the primal scene) urinated on the floor in an attempt at seduction, provoking Grouscha to threaten castration. Leclaire claims that Freud missed an occasion to conclude the cure when he cut short his analysis of a transference dream that occurred in response to this memory: ‘A man was tearing the wings off a Wasp.’ In recounting the dream the Wolf Man introduces a slip, substituting Espe for Wespe [Wasp]. For Freud, the suppression of the W shows that his patient ‘took vengeance on Grouscha for her threat of castration.’ But when Freud points to his slip, the Wolf Man volunteers that ‘Espe’ is a homonym for his own initials, S.P. Leclaire therefore concludes that the Wolf Man is himself the mutilated Wasp of the dream, and that ‘the man’ who tears off the wings is none other than Freud himself. The dream is thus a demand for castration addressed to Freud, expressing the patient’s ‘most profound desire’: to be torn away from the mother (Leclaire points out that the severed W is also an inverted M, and that Grouscha is a maternal substitute), cut loose from the signifier that substituted itself for the phallus, and allowed to accede to castration (37-38).

The desire for castration is already apparent in the abundant references to cutting that emerge in the associations to the wolf dream, but especially in the hallucination of the cut finger. What the wasp dream reveals, however, is that the desire for castration is at bottom a desire for the signifier that would allow the patient to access difference. Freud misses this appeal, Leclaire maintains, because he is so pleased at having obtained what he was looking for: the resurfacing of the memory concerning Grouscha and, through it, the confirmation of his own object of desire - the reality of the primal scene. If Freud rightly insists that every analyst be psychoanalyzed, it’s because the analyst must have a ‘clairvoyance concerning his own objects’ so as to avoid the pitfalls of this kind of counter-transference. To psychoanalyze is to ‘consider the object for what it is,’ to identify the trait that separates it, and to know how to recognize its genealogy, the signifying articulation from which it has fallen. Leclaire maintains that it is only in the late sessions of analysis he undertakes with Freud’s disciple Ruth Mack Brunswick that the Wolf Man is finally allowed to speak, dream, and fantasize freely, with Brunswick ensuring the ‘relay’ function until the ‘efficacy of the signifier of rupture’ finally emerges in the ‘icon dream’ that stages the shattering of the sanctified bond between mother and child.

References to this text in other articles in the Cahiers pour l’Analyse:

  • Jean Nassif, ‘Le fantasme dans “On bat un enfant”’, CpA 7.4:78.

English translation:


Primary bibliography

  • Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams [1900]. In Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey et al. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-1974. vol. 4-5. [Hereafter ‘SE’ followed by volume number].
  • ---. ‘The Forgetting of Proper Names’ [1901], in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, SE 6.
  • ---. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality [1905], SE 7.
  • ---. ‘The Sexual Theories of Children’ [1908], SE 9.
  • ---. ‘The Unconscious’ [1915], SE 14.
  • ---. ‘From the History of an Infantile Neurosis’ (‘The Wolf Man’) [1918], SE 17.
  • ---. Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920], SE 18.
  • ---. ‘Analysis Terminable and Interminable’ [1937], SE 23.
  • Isaacs, Susan. ‘The Nature and Function of Phantasy’. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 29:2 (1948).
  • Klein, Melanie. Narrative of a Child Analysis. London: Hogarth, 1960.
  • Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XII, Crucial Problems for Psychoanalysis [1965-66], trans. Cormac Gallagher, unpublished manuscript.
  • Laplanche, Jean and Serge Leclaire. ‘L’Inconscient: Une étude psychanalytique’. Les temps modernes, 1961. ‘The Unconscious: A Psychoanalytic Study’, trans. Patrick Coleman. Yale French Studies 48 (1972), The French Freud, ed. Jeffrey Mehlman.
  • Laplanche, Jean, and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. ‘Fantasme originaire, fantasme des origines, origine du fantasme’, Les Temps modernes 215 (April 1964). Trans. in International Journal of Psychoanalysis (IJPA) 49:1 (1968). reprinted in Formations of Fantasy, ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald & Cara Kaplan. London: Methuen, 1986.

Selected secondary sources

  • Leclaire, Serge. ‘L’analyste à sa place?’ (CpA 1.4).
  • ---. ‘Compter avec la Psychanalyse. Séminaire de l’École Normale Supérieure 1965-1966’, I (CpA 1.5).
  • ---. ‘Note sur l’objet de la psychanalyse’. (CpA 2.5)
  • ---. ‘Compter avec la Psychanalyse. Séminaire de l’École Normale Supérieure. 1965-1966’, II. (CpA 3.6).
  • ---. ‘Compter avec la Psychanalyse. Séminaire de l’École Normale Supérieure 1966-1967’, III. (CpA 8.6).
  • ---. Psychanalyser. Paris: Seuil, 1969. Psychoanalyzing, trans. Peggy Kamuf. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.
  • Laplanche, Jean and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse. Paris: PUF, 1967. The Language of Psychoanalysis, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Hogarth Press, 1973.