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Lacan and Fowles on human knowledge

When I first read John Fowles’ wonderful counter-Bildung novel, The Magus, years ago, I had not read Jacques Lacan. When I finally did try to make sense of Lacan, after reading Freud, something Lacan says made me think back to The Magus. In The Other side of Psychoanalysis (2007: 23), Lacan makes this observation: “The desire for knowledge bears no relationship to knowledge” — a puzzling statement that seems counter-intuitive, to say the least.

It resonates with something he wrote at a much earlier stage in his career, in “The mirror stage” (1977: 3) and in “Aggressivity in psychoanalysis” (1977: 17) to the effect that human knowledge is structured “as paranoiac”. In “Aggressivity” he puts it this way: “What I have called paranoiac knowledge is shown, therefore, to correspond in its more or less archaic forms to certain critical moments that mark the history of man’s mental genesis, each representing a stage in objectifying identification.”

He is obviously using the term “paranoiac” metaphorically here, and not in the sense of a full-blown psychosis, which is marked by such pervasive delusions on the part of a “psychotic” person that non-psychotic people cannot really communicate sensibly with him or her — the psychotic is caught in the circle of his or her delusional ideas in such a way that they mediate all their experience, including attempts by others to communicate with them.

So what does Lacan mean by claiming that human knowledge is “structured” in a “paranoiac” manner? Anyone familiar with philosophy’s history will know of the difference between the pre-Socratics, Parmenides and Heraclitus, on the nature of reality, or being. While Parmenides claimed that “being is, and it is impossible that it is not”, relegating experience of change and movement to the level of illusion (“being” not admitting of any change, but remaining unchangingly permanent instead), Heraclitus begged to differ: only becoming is, and permanence is illusory. Hence his statement: “All is flux.”

Several thinkers after Heraclitus similarly stressed becoming as the dominant cosmic process, including Henri Bergson, for whom “élan vital” or life-flow was the true reality, although the human intellect reduces such becoming to distinct, supposedly “permanent” entities for merely pragmatic reasons. By saying that knowledge has a paranoiac structure, Lacan is saying the same sort of thing — we act as if “reality” remains stable, the same, throughout time, but it is really only a function of “objectifying identification”, which we need in order to interact with the world. Nietzsche and Deleuze could be added to this list of thinkers who stress the perpetual “becoming” of the world. And, of course, novelist Fowles, who has one of his characters, Lily de Seitas, in The Magus observe: “The basic principle of life is hazard … if one goes deep enough in atomic physics one ends with a situation of pure chance. Of course we all share the illusion that this can’t be so.” (1983: 627-628).

I described The Magus as a “counter-Bildung” novel earlier — that is, one where the hero or heroine does not, as in a Bildung-novel proper, learn from his or her mistakes the painful lesson that wisdom is only attained through trials and tribulations (recall Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations). The anti-hero in Fowles’ novel, Nicholas Urfe, never seems to learn from his experiences on the Greek island of Phraxos, where he goes in search of “a new mystery” when he tires of his girlfriend, Alison. There he meets an enigmatic but fascinating man, Maurice Conchis, in whose villa he spends weekends as a guest and by whom he is exposed to a series of “mysteries” that resonate with beliefs that were widespread in ancient Greece.

He is impressed by the extensive knowledge and psychic power displayed by Conchis (the “Magus”), at whose villa he meets a mysterious young woman, Lily, who appears to be acting out the role of Conchis’ deceased beloved, and whose “real” identity he later discovers to be “Julie Holmes”, one of twin sisters who were supposedly employed by Conchis to star in a film. Despite the puzzling series of events, involving what he believes to be “actors” employed by Conchis for his benefit, Nicholas is driven by the conviction that he will decipher their true meaning.

Nevertheless, given the pattern of apparently deciphering a mystifying experience and subsequently being mystified and frustrated anew by Conchis’ “masque”, Nicholas admits to himself at one point: (Fowles 1983: 294): “Every truth in his world was a sort of lie; and every lie a sort of truth.” The amazing thing is that he never seems to learn — every time he believes that he has finally cracked the “code”, the carpet is pulled from under his feet again.

In this respect one might say that the fictional Nicholas represents the human condition. This is counter-Bildung of the most tantalising kind.

I should mention that this “refusal to learn” is also connected to Nicholas meeting his erstwhile girlfriend, Alison, in Athens, from where they embark on a simultaneously wonderful and disastrous journey to Mount Parnassus, ending with Nicholas breaking off the relationship with her. He later receives the devastating “news” from a friend that Alison has committed suicide — only to learn, much later in the narrative, that she is alive and complicit in the masque to which he has been subjected.

The story culminates in a series of events — a “trial” of sorts — so startling that it catches the reader, who has unavoidably identified with the protagonist, unawares, subjecting one to some uncomfortable moments of vicarious experience with remarkable intensity. As intimated earlier, the astonishing thing is that he persists in believing he has discovered the true state of affairs, despite new experiences rendering this belief null and void.

Hence the resonance between Lacan’s claim concerning the “paranoiac” form of human “knowledge”, or what he also calls the human “will to illusion” (which “the will to truth”, driven by desire, appears to be) and The Magus. One might say that the narrative involving Nicholas is propelled by the Socratic exhortation, to “know thyself”, a quest that nevertheless proves to be elusive.

Readers interested in a lengthier treatment of this theme, can read my paper, “Negotiating the ‘paranoiac structure’ of human knowledge: Fowles’ The Magus and Lacan”, in Philosophy and Psychoanalytic theory. Collected essays, London and Frankfurt: Peter Lang Academic Publishers, 2009.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.