October 2006

Arts & Letters

‘The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book XVII: The Other Side of Psychoanalysis’ By Jacques Lacan, trans. Russell Grigg

By Justin Clemens
‘Being and Event’ By Alain Badiou, trans. Oliver Feltham

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the philosophical waters, two large French warships turn up off our coastline, aided and abetted by Australian translators. Seminar XVII is the transcript of a series of presentations delivered in 1969-70. Lacan, one of the most important psychoanalytic thinkers after Freud, was never considered an easy listen. Nor is he an easy read, but persisting with this book will be worthwhile for anyone interested in postwar European thought. Calling on examples from the Bible to thermodynamics, Lacan examines the effects that psychoanalytic insights have had on the status of knowledge. As he says of human enjoyment, "once you have started, you never know where it will end. It begins with a tickle and ends in a blaze of petrol." Endlessly controversial but deeply conservative, Lacan can be savage: rebuking unruly students after the May '68 riots, he predicts, "You are looking for a master. Very well, you shall have one."

Badiou is a kind of monstrous descendent of Lacan. Perhaps France's most important living philosopher, he doesn't much care for false modesty, praising his own Being and Event as "a ‘great' book". He's right. The tome spans the history of philosophy from Plato to the present, weaving in stunning reinterpretations of writers such as Friedrich Hölderlin and mathematicians such as Georg Cantor and Paul Cohen. Twentieth-century philosophy divided bitterly into the so-called Analytic and Continental schools, the former obsessing over science, logic and mathematics, and the latter over art and literature. Badiou circumvents the sterility of this non-debate by being at once more mathematical than his Analytic predecessors and more poetic than his Continental bedfellows. It's a difficult book, sure, but brilliant.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

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