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Daniel Bristow writes for the serious Lacanians, discussing Karnac’s latest on Seminar 23.

Raul Moncayo, Lalangue, Sinthome, Jouissance, and Nomination: A Reading Companion on Lacan’s Seminar XXIII on the Sinthome (Karnac, 2016), p. 164.

We are in the presence—nay, the present—of Jacques Lacan’s twenty-third Seminar, The Sinthome. Yet, it is now forty years after the delivery of its teaching at the Panthéon, and we are still learning to be its contemporaries—as Richard Ellmann said of James Joyce. Ten years after its French publication with Seuil it is now available in official English (after Cormac Gallagher’s trusty ‘under-the-counter’ Englishings), through Adrian Price’s adroit translation, with Polity Press. Contemporaneously, dedicated works are appearing to decipher it—appearing to.

There is a second part to Ellmann’s clause at the beginning of his biography of Joyce: that in learning our contemporaneity, we are only in the process of understanding our interpreter, and not the other way round. Thus, we begin asking questions; questions like: where is reading, and what is read, when it comes to Joyce and Lacan—on whose part is it? Are we being read—interpreted—are we being written, and how? These appear to be Lacan’s ruminations, too, in The Sinthome—appear to be; some of them, at least. And so, where does Seminar XXIII leave the reading, read, written, and writing subject—the post-Joycean subject, in all its Borromean topological knottiness? In his new reading companion to the Sinthome Seminar, Raul Moncayo endeavours to offer us something of a guided freefall, free-for-all, or ‘grand funferall’, as Joyce has it in Finnegans Wake (indeed, that is, much in the spirit of the Seminar itself), sneaking towards addressing these central questions.

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Seminar XXIII being present makes it pressing—as Lacan says of the presence of France’s leading Joycean scholar, Jacques Aubert, in the first session of The Sinthome. The Seminar’s central ideas are pressing on our present conjuncture’s conceptology; ideas that Moncayo marshals in the book’s very title: sinthome, lalangue, nomination, jouissance. They clunk into clear action and fade back off into necessary enigma throughout his poetic renderings of the workings of each session, dealt with according to the chronology of their procession over 1975-1976. These session commentaries are prefaced, however; and before the book’s introduction, nominated preface, and contents page even, is a cautionary topological exposition (pp.v-viii). Interestingly here, Moncayo extrapolates from the Seminar a neurotic and psychotic knot, and shows how they can be suppleted by the sinthome (in its topological form). ‘Extrapolation’ is here a precisely used word, in that the first of these knots goes further than the Seminar takes it—in making of it a model of neurosis—and due to that fact that the latter is not included in the Seminar, but is derived by Moncayo from its workings; indeed, Moncayo’s psychotic knot is an extimate knot. The knots—as Moncayo labels them—are these:

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     ‘Knot of four neurosis’                     ‘Knot of four psychosis’

In both are depicted the rings of the Real (blue), Imaginary (green), and Symbolic (orange), and the sinthome (grey). The distinct ways in which the three rings can be linked determines what kind of link will be made (Adrian Price has recently highlighted that ‘knot’ is a misnomer when it comes to these connections—which are properly links—but it has been such a productive méconnaissance in Lacanianism for it(s) (k)not(s) to matter). The Borromean link comes about when three rings are interlinked in such a way that by the removal of one of the rings the entire structure will come undone:

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‘Borromean knot’

Thus, in Moncayo’s ‘knot of four neurosis’ (which Lacan uses in the Seminar merely as a way of demonstrating the function of the sinthome on his planar diagram of the untied three) we see—before the sinthome—the three rings completely unlinked, resting on one another (green over blue over orange), tied together by the grey band, the sinthome. In the ‘knot of four psychosis’, the Real (blue) and Symbolic (orange) rings are directly linked, and they rest over the top of the Imaginary (green); the sinthome then threads under the Imaginary, over the linked portion of Symbolic and Real, and then back under the Imaginary, to form the structure’s reparation. What this last knot appears to come out of in Seminar XXIII is the topological structure that Lacan gives to Joyce’s psychality, in which the Imaginary—rather than being completely detached as in the ‘knot of four psychosis’—is wedged between those of the linked Symbolic and Real. Due to this ‘wedging’, the Imaginary might stay in place normally, but under stress could be pushed out and float off (Lacan derives this from traces in Joyce’s writings dealing with the peculiar dehiscence of the body and characterological reaction to it). The sinthome is then tied in such a position as to prevent this, as a ‘corrective Ego’, as Lacan puts it (drawing on the Latinate ‘Ego’—with a capital ‘E’—in contrast to the ‘moi’, which he usually uses to translate the word into French, as it is found in Freud’s second topography, for example). In the colours of Moncayo’s tetrads, this is thus:

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‘Sinthome knot’

Moncayo’s ‘knots of four neurosis and psychosis’, then, are extremely productive extrapolations from the Seminar, the clinical utilisability of which have been put to the fore. They thus form a form of clinical microscopy – or perhaps better kaleidoscopy – through which neurosis and psychosis can be newly seen, analysed, interpreted; indeed, treated—that is, in the ‘post-Joycean’ clinic, which Lacan is gearing towards in the Seminar and the preparatory symposial talks that focussed its trajectory: ‘Joyce the Symptom’ I and II, delivered at the fifth International James Joyce Symposium, on 16 and 20 June 1975.

Thus, to return at this moment to Joyce: there has been much debate, if not purer confusion, over whether or not Joyce was a psychotic, had a psychotic structure, or was ‘mad’. This is of course not unique to the Lacanian intervention (C. G. Jung put had in his two cents of his true sense of it at the time of Joyce’s writing, for example), but it is nonetheless central to it. Lacan’s question of the session of 10 February 1976 was indeed: ‘Was Joyce mad?’ He does not, however, answer the question, despite the answer supposed to be known (to play on Lacan’s subject supposed to know) having spawned a great deal of interesting and productive theoretical grappling, such as with the structure of ‘stabilised psychosis’, for example (e.g., a psychotic presenting as neurotic, until an irruption), etc.

Yet, Lacan does not come down on a positive or negative answer, but leaves the question in a splendidly suspended and animatedly ambiguous limbo state. In having ‘dared to ask whether Joyce was mad’ (Lacan, 2016, p.63)—in relation to his ‘écrits inspirés’ (Lacan early on in his career worked on the ‘inspired writings’ of the diagnosed/designated ‘mad’)—Lacan states:

After all, why shouldn’t Joyce have been mad? All the more so given that this is not a privilege, if it’s true that in most people the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real have become intertwined to the point that each forms the continuation of the other, for want of any operation that would set them apart as in the link of the Borromean knot – of what is claimed to be a Borromean knot, because the Borromean knot is not a knot, it’s a link. Why not grasp that each of these loops continues in the next in a way that is strictly indistinct? By the same token, being mad is no privilege (ibid. p.71).

Thus, whilst it is clear that Lacan is suggesting that one psychical structure should not get privileged over another (there should be no neuro- or psychocentrism, that is), it is not clear what Joyce’s structure is, nor is what it should be perceived as prescribed; this for the reason that psychoanalysis cannot be applied to, or imposed upon, the creative writings of one who has not offered up their innermost speech (that is, in the specificity of its of its psychoanalytical offering, however the psychoanalytic situation might modulate such a subjective offering). On this front, Moncayo has heeded the warning well, and elucidates its underpinnings: ‘this book is not about Joyce the writer, but more about the use that Lacan makes of Joyce, not to apply psychoanalysis to a literary subject, but rather to use the literary text to illustrate and develop psychoanalytic theory and Lacanian theory in particular’ (p.xiv). Lacan was indeed deeply sceptical of ‘applied psychoanalysis’ – to characters and their writers (see his remarks on Marie Bonaparte’s considerations of Edgar Allen Poe, for example) – and Moncayo is attuned to its pitfalls; any awkwardness in this respect is avoided, leaving the new conceptual vocabulary and apparatus, which forms the inventory of his title, and its reach, open for exploration.

It is the sinthome and its differential resonances that will be concentrated on specifically in the remainder of this review, for it is on this extraordinary and extravagant fixture of the late Lacan that Moncayo is at his astutest. In a wonderful early summation of it in relation to the biblical creation story and the centrality of original sin to it, Moncayo states: ‘if you look at the eating of the apple as sin it is a symptom but if you look at it as a structuring gap for the symbolic then it is a sinthome’ (p.32). For knowledge to arise—and for there to be known what to do with it (for there to be its savoir-faire, or know-how)—a structuring gap in the symbolic has had to have come about, a space has had to have opened, through which a movement forward can be made, into a new dimension, into which will be brought with it what will have been gleaned in the plucking and biting into of the knowledgeable apple (otherwise, its guilt as sin will tie itself into a symptomal knot in the stomach from its in(di)gestion, and repeat on the subject). In this conceptualisation, it is the sinthome that advances the Symbolic—in how it proliferates in its gaps—and which allows for its transformations, as opposed to its congealments (that may well come about when the symptom tries to stop up those gaps). As Moncayo later says: ‘the holes within the Symbolic are places of non-identification that provide the necessary distance from ideas to transform and evolve the symbolic structure’ (p.55).

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Homemade ‘borromean’ by the reviewer

It is how this ‘necessary distance’ is utilised that determines its symptomal or sinthomic property. Moncayo gives an astonishing clinical elucidation of this that ties in that know-how that Lacan insists on to the functioning of the sinthome as the symptom’s other side:

An analysand felt shame about being identified by the Other as having the marks of a past addiction and criminality that only they knew so well. At the same time they felt proud of their symptoms and rejected normative discourse. Their symptoms gave them a street knowledge and jouissance that “normal” people ignore. They felt both proud and ashamed of their identifications. Once they no longer identified with their symptoms this freed them from ego pride and disavowal and shame at the same time. On the other hand, their inside knowledge of addiction and criminality in relationship to the Law are the manure or raw material that will transform the symptom into a sinthome or a practical-ethical know-how with regards to the symptom (p.43).

Irreducibility is the key to the sinthome, and it is the subjective way in which it is dealt with that determines assumption, or assimilation—that end of an analysis: identification with/assuming one’s symptom/sinthome (for at the point of such assumption would not these two sides then collapse into each other (that is, in the transformation of the first into the second, as Moncayo sequentialises it)?). We are taken right to the heart of the matter later when Moncayo delineates that:

Lacan says that the Real is a traumatic forcing of a writing that has a symbolic bearing, something that one has to bear, that may be bearable or more or less unbearable, a jouissance, a satisfaction and a dissatisfaction or a frustration. Both the satisfaction and the frustration may be traumatic (p.108).

The real (traumatic) as the forcing of the hand that writes, upon the imaginary of the page, the symbolic of the print. It’s this bearing that the subject bears; in one way or another. In Moncayo’s researches into the lost time of Seminar XXIII—that is, critically, clinically, now—it is those ways that give us the differential, structural determinants of our apparatus:

The psychotic subject does have an unconscious. In the neurotic the unconscious is created through repression; in the psychotic the unconscious is created through foreclosure.

The unconscious in psychosis involves a failure in the program/knot that articulates the relationship between language and perception. In psychoses, the unconscious is found in perception rather than thinking or wishing (p.121).

This remarkable passage that comes at the moment to conclude seems at pains to state—to the Lacanian letter—and to stake, that the différend between the knot of neurosis and of psychosis, between habitation in language and habitation in perception (habitations mediated by their other sides, perhaps; respectively, perception and language), is always already unificatory/separatorily sutured by that prime mover of psychoanalysis: the unconscious.


Daniel Bristow is a scholar of psychoanalysis from the UK. Among other things he is the author of Joyce and Lacan: Reading, Writing, and Psychoanalysis (Routledge, 2016) and the series editor of the Everyday Analysis book series.

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