What is Madness? 6
Lacan on the Oedipus complex

In this sixth post I continue reading Leader's What is Madness? and look at his explication of Lacan's version of the oedipus complex. My intention, to repeat, is not to critique the reading of Lacan (about whom I know next to nothing) but to try to understand what I can, and note what can't be understood by me, of Leader's Lacanian text. At the moment we are still on the preliminaries, in chapter 2, and will have to wait till chapter 3 to arrive at the Lacanian theory of psychosis.

Unlike Freud, Lacan 'sees the initial relation with the mother as problematic and uneasy. Closeness to her may be valued, but it is also a source of anxiety. She has the power to dispense love and care at her will. This gives her a real dominion, echoed in her delivery of nourishment.' (p. 59) My reaction on reading that is, I think, mainly one of sadness - that it is sad that Lacan - as I now imagine it - had such an experience of his own mother - and sad if this experience became universalised into a conception of an infant's love for its mother such that closeness may (but the contrasting and yet implicated may not speaks louder) be valued but may also give anxiety. I notice I'm having a similar counter-transference to this as I do to some of R D Laing's writings on love, seeing in them a troubling experience, born out of his own disastrous relationship with his mother, but then projected (in the non-dynamic sense) onto human love relations in general.

'Anticipating her responses', Leader continues, 'a basic trust may be established between mother and child, which involves repressing the very idea that her actions depend on her will.' What this means is not yet apparent to me. Leader continues 'This is a faith in the symbolic order as such, a fundamental foothold that makes the mother-child relation subordinate to the symbolic law that we care for our offspring.' What I think Leader is saying is that the child finds it scary that the mother can dispense love and care at her will because this means that it is only a contingent fact that the infant is cared for - it is terrifyingly possible that she may not be (if the mother wills otherwise). I don't yet see quite what this has got to do with the symbolic order though, but perhaps it is the following: that the trust that the mother will not abuse her power is to be thought of as coming about by the child's taking the mother, in her behaviour towards the child, to herself be subject to a general rule: love your children. The moral appears to be: it isn't enough even for a normally developing child that he comes to trust in the good-enough-ness of their mother, trust that he is loved. Rather he needs to back this up to himself with a normative guarantee: it doesn't matter if the mother might, merely under her own steam, be less than ideal - since she has to, is obliged to, love him. Again, I don't know what Lacan's evidence is for thinking this way, or why Leader follows him in this; we aren't told.

Leader tells us next (p. 59) that we can link the experience of an infant, who fails to get a clear sense that the mother is restricted in her (potentially abused) exercising of her will (perhaps because the mother does abuse this power and is intrusive; perhaps because the 'paternal function' / 'symbolic law' does not kick in), to the experience of a psychotic for whom things happen because of someone else's will... but says (correctly) that we will have to wait till a later chapter to understand this. 'The plane is flying overhead or the wind is blowing due to some plot or conspiracy, as if the basic situation with the caregiver had been generalized to the whole of one's reality. There is no mediation to show that the mother is herself subject to laws and constraints.' (p. 59). I don't yet grasp the link here. A child's bad relationship with a mother who is experienced as having an unchecked will becomes generalised into a paranoid experience of the world beyond as willed? A failure to repress the truth - the truth that the mother could exercise a withholding power over the infant if she didn't love him - leading to an experience of untruth - the untruth that unwilled events which have no relation to the subject, are in fact willed? We aren't yet shown how to understand the one as a generalisation of the other.

At any rate, Leader tells us that a key task for the infant is to come to understand and tolerate the mother's absences - to grasp what pulls her away from it (what pulls her away is called her 'desire'). 'Her absences show that there is something that draws her away. And this means that she is not omnipotent, that she is lacking: otherwise, why would she be so pulled?' (p. 60). The child may attempt to compete with this 'desire' of the mother, trying to seduce her, but will eventually come to see that the 'magnet beyond hte mother cannot be him or herself, but is linked in some way to the father.' (p. 61). Both boys and girls must now identify with the father. The boy stops trying to be the mother's love object, and instead accepts that he will become like his father. The girl stops trying to be her mother's love object, and instead accepts that she will herself be a mother one day. (I'm leaving out here talk of 'equations with a phallus' to stop my brain fron exploding.)

'For both the boy and the girl, this transforms the relation to the mother, as it establishes a horizon for her, a meaning that her actions are now linked to.' (p. 61) Such talk of a 'horizon' is at first obscure, but luckily Leader breaks it down for us. 'First the child registers that the mother is not all-powerful but lacking, and second, this lack is named'. I think the idea is that the child becomes able to think about their mother, rather than as it were be merely enveloped inside her mind. That sounds like an important part of individuation for the child. The fact of the father allows them to get some kind of emotional handle on their mother; she stops being the whole universe; she is in some important sense lacking and so cannot be all for the child, just as the child cannot be all for the mother.

Leader also gives us a clue as to what Lacan means by talk of the 'phallus': this term, apparently, is used not to describe the father's penis, but rather to signify that  without which the mother is emotionally incomplete. It signifies the mother's neediness, one might say, without specifying what exactly fills that need. Talk of the 'phallus' is, Leader says, talk of two things: one, the to-the-child saddening fact of the mother's limitedness; two, the welcome fact of a symbolic framework to enable the child to become emancipated from the mother's world.

These pages of Leader's text are exceptionally dense, with unfamiliar Lacanian idea after Lacanian idea tumbling after one another onto the page. As I read through the text very slowly my sense of the intelligibility of what is being said does however increase. Much of Lacan's version of the oedipus complex appears familiar to someone more versed in the Kleinian version. What appears different are largely the rather negative, 'uneasy', views of the child's first relations with the mother, of the view of the mother as lacking, the father (or other such third term) as mediating the child's relations with the world, the regimenting of the child's embodied desires, etc.


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