Where Have All the French Intellectuals Gone?

Where Have All the French Intellectuals Gone?

For some time time now it has been fashionable to bemoan the end of the age of the great French intellectuals. In the early 1980s, Sartre, Barthes, Lévi-Strauss, and Foucault all passed from the scene. Louis Althusser experienced a metaphorical death: after strangling his wife, he was found incompetent to stand trial and institutionalized for many years until his actual death (at home) in 1991. Jacques Lacan, a figure who towered over the French psychoanalytic establishment for three decades, and who is often ranked alongside these master thinkers, died in August 1981.

Lacan has been the subject of countless biographies. Most follow the standard hagiographic lines established by the master himself and perpetuated by his intellectual heirs. Elisabeth Roudinesco, herself a Lacanian analyst and the author of the standard two-volume history of the French psychoanalytic movement, La Bataille de cent ans (the second volume has been translated into English as Jacques Lacan & Co.), departs from the hagiographic model. Her research is exhaustive and breaks entirely new ground. When it first appeared in France in 1993, it created no small stir: the French are still relatively unaccustomed to acknowledging that their beloved intellectuals have feet of clay—and then some. Her study is an important one insofar as it chronicles the grandeur and delusions not only of Lacan himself, but of an entire generation of French analysts and intellectuals who succumbed to his mesmerizing influence.

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Lima