The finger in the sand

by Bruno de Florence on May 16, 2012

At the 23 April 2012 Lacanian Forum’s reading group session on Lacan’s Seminar 10 (L’angoisse, 20 March 1963), I had been puzzled by the reference to “Sartre’s making a hole in the sand with his finger”. One of the participants had suggested that it might refer to the phallicity of continental philosophical writing.

Researching the cultural context of that seminar’s year, 1963, it became clear that this could also be seen as a reference to Maurice Merlau­Ponty, via Sartre. Also, this seminar does contain 9 references to Sartre, and none of them can said to be complimentary.

I do not have details of the extent of the collaboration between Lacan & MMP. However, his name is quoted by Lacan on 42 occasions throughout the seminars, and some of his philosophical categories are expounded by Lacan in support to some of his own arguments in both Seminar 10 (L’angoisse, 1962­1963) and Seminar 11 (Les quatres concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, 1964).

MMP and Sartre were close collaborators, and situated themselves on the progressive left of the French political chessboard having started together Les Temps Modernes, a very influential post war opinion journal. As Sartre became closer to the Communists, they had some serious political and philosophical differences, which led to a complete breakdown in their relations. It is important to remember that in those days, the purpose of formulating a philosophy went hand in hand with formulating a political action. In the words of Mao Ze Dong: “Truth, practice, truth”, meaning that Truth leads to action which in turn changes Truth.

MMP’s philosophy integrated Husserl, Freud, Mauss, Levi­Strauss and Saussure in his work (Phenomenology of Perception has 2 bibliographical references to Freud: Introduction à la Psychanalyse and Cinq psychanalyses). This led him to define Being as inhabited by a hollow, as opposed to Sartre’s definition of Being outside of which there is nothingness, a being haunted by a pure negativity.  While MMP also considered Being as inhabited by a negativity, it was a true negativity and therefore something. This hollow is very similar to Lacan’s example of the potter’s vase which is used to scoop some of the real, a metaphor he uses frequently in Seminar 10. MMP always tried to hold together the categories of body and mind, trying to account for one via and through the other. Which is exactly what Freud had set out to do from the very start.

Curiously, MMP does not seem to take into account the sexuation of the body, although he is fully aware of the Freudian concept of libido.

Lacan’s mocking of Sartre in the 20 March 1963 session of L’angoisse can be taken as a political stand, something his audience would have been fully aware of. Following the MMP/Sartre rupture, MMP was publicly crucified and vilified by Sartre, his gang, and his communist allies, and MMP was kicked out from the journal he had co­founded. Lacan had written a highly moving tribute upon MMP’s sudden and unexpected death from a heart attack in 1961.

Bibliography of MMP’s works available in English which I think to be directly relevant to the Lacanian text:

– Phenomenology of Perception, Colin Smith (trans.), New York: Humanities Press, 1962.

-Signs, Richard McCleary (trans.), Evanston: Northwesteren University Press, 1964.

-The Visible and the Invisible, Alphonso Lingis (trans.), Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968

-Themes from the Lectures at the Collège de France 1952–1960, John O’Neill (trans.), Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1970.

Further references:

-The online version of the  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good entry on MMP, including numerous secondary bibliographical sources in both English and French.

-A 2003 essay in French on the  MMP/Sartre rupture, by F. Caeymaex.

-The French text of Lacan’s tribute to MMP is available on Lutecium.