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Rather than write another of those translator's forwards that try to explain how I perceive the differences between the French and English languages, I have chosen to tell you about why I translated this book. I want to share an experience that has taught me about psychoanalysis, not as an out-dated notion that only interests a few eccentrics, but as a viable reflection that continues to transform itself, with effects in the here and now that reach far beyond what is considered up-to-date in mental health care.
My background is in education; I was working on a doctorate in English, in literature. I came to France to study psychoanalysis because what I had read of Lacan intrigued me. I didn't understand it. I still don't understand it, if by understanding one means mastery. That is what intrigued me. In Lacan I had finally found an inexhaustible resource; I will never stop discovering what I want to know in those twisted sentences with their slightly off-kilter vocabulary precisely because the language is skewed into new meanings.
Trying to read Lacan is a challenge. I suspect that one only understands in it what one needs to know or what one is ready to accept. So the challenge lies in being willing to find out where your limits are. Maybe I'm just stubborn, but I had never been able to accept limits to knowledge. I would learn to accept the limits of knowledge. Courtil would teach me that. But first, I had to take up the challenge.
I had been in analysis with a member of the Ecole de la Cause Freudienne and enrolled in the University of Paris VIII's department of psychoanalysis for about two years, and I felt that the more I tried to understand, the less I knew. This is probably exactly the right kind of attitude to take in the clinic, but it's a very frustrating position for a student. When a friend, Elizabeth Doisneau, suggested that there was an opening for an internship where she worked, at Courtil, I didn't hesitate to apply. It seemed to me that she had an enormous understanding of the diagnostical distinction between neurosis and psychosis, and the concepts that remained so opaque for me: jouissance, master signifier, Name-of-the-father, etc... This is what I hoped to find at Courtil. And I did. And this is what I hope to share in translating The Courtil Papers.
But I didn't know this when I applied. I thought I wanted to work with autistic children because I had the idea that I knew something about the Lacanian object, the voice, and I felt I might be useful in this field. This, of course, is exactly a denial of my own desire. It is an identification to knowing rather than a question that seeks knowing. It would take a few preliminary interviews before my question about diagnosis could surface. I had met briefly in Paris with the therapeutic director and founder of Courtil, Dr. Alexandre Stevens, and a few other members of the team of directors before I was called to Courtil for the official interview with the administrative director, Bernard Seynhaeve.
Mr. Seynhaeve focused on my past experience as a teacher, and what, in that, had brought me to Courtil. I related the story of what I imagined was the closest thing in my experience to an encounter with psychosis: a composition student whose writing was so confused in such a particular way with pronouns functioning as prepositions and new words he created to sum up whole experiences or scenarios, that I was at a loss to help him. I explained to Mr. Seynhaeve that I had the profound impression that this student was terribly fragile. He couldn't even look at me and only responded by shaking his head yes or no. I had found no better way to work with him than to say, "I suspect you must think very fast, faster than you can write. Maybe you need to write out your thoughts this way and then translate them in a second draft." Over nine weeks we worked on translating, and, for whatever reasons, this approach seemed to help. Then Mr. Seynhaeve asked the question, "So would you diagnose this student as psychotic?" I had no idea, no response. I could only say that's what I needed to learn. I had a question.
I still couldn't tell you if my student was psychotic or not; diagnosis was beside the point in our encounter. But I learned to diagnose according to the structures Lacan taught us to see in the manifestations of the unconscious. There is an old adage: The best teacher is the one who can still learn from his students. It is perhaps the best position from which to approach psychoanalysis, which, unlike psychology, is not a science of statistics, but works at the level of the particular and individual. At any rate, I was selected for the internship at Courtil.
I tend to think of my internship in terms of Lacan's logical time: the instant of seeing, the time for understanding and the moment to conclude. The instant of seeing corresponds to the emergence of the question on diagnosis during the interview, and to my second day in Courtil.
My first day was the day of clinical meetings. It went by very quickly. Everyone was speaking about children I didn't yet know. I only saw the children a little while at lunch. They seemed to me like ordinary school children: they fought, they screamed, they heaped insults on each other and ran around with a great deal of energy. I wasn't seeing.
On my second day, I entered Courtil. Veronique Mariage, whose experience, clear explanations and no-nonsense practicality I came to depend on, dropped me off at the door with my key and wished me luck. But no amount of explanation can prepare you for some things. I opened the door and found myself in a little room with two other closed doors and a wall of lockers. So I crossed the room and applied my key to the next door, which opened onto a hallway with large windows looking out on a courtyard. To my right were more closed doors, to my left an open door giving onto a large space in which stood a rather chubby boy of perhaps eight or ten. He looked me up and down, and fixed his gaze on my chest. His eyes lit up, and an enormous smile split his face. His arms came up, straight out like battering rams, his hands open wide. I deflected the charge and introduced myself. He said not a word, but continued to try to get past my hands to my chest. Then I said, "No, one doesn't introduce oneself that way." I had heard the other intervenants use the impersonal pronoun "one" a lot. This didn't do much to discourage him, but luckily another intervenant intervened, firmly inviting the boy to come outside and play. I explained that I had tried to introduce myself. The other intervenant explained that the boy in question was autistic. In a flash all my preconceptions of the autist as a mute, withdrawn shadow fell flat. Welcome to Courtil! My eyes were beginning to open.
This scene also illustrates an aspect of the work at Courtil that I hope the collected articles will clarify. We do not work alone. We count on each other, often to deflect an identification turned persecutive or simply to introduce a third element before the persecution emerges, but we count on each other to intervene. We also count on each other's help in building our understanding, but not in the sense of sharing professional know-how that the others don't have. We all have special encounters with the children, and none of us is specialized.
Later that morning, I would make my first mistake. And it would finally wake me up and allow me to pass from the instant of seeing to the time for understanding. A boy in the workshop had made a drawing. I was feeling more or less useless. The other intervenant was quite efficient. Each child seemed occupied at a task -- copying letters from a book, doing crossword puzzles, cutting out magazine pictures. So I asked this boy to show me. This he did, saying he didn't like what he'd done. It wasn't good. In fact, it was really stupid. He tore the page from his notebook and shredded it to bits. I, quite stupidly thinking to assuage his broken self-esteem, said, "Oh. But why did you do that? It was good, your drawing." The room exploded in six different directions at once. Chairs and paper flew everywhere, and everyone was screaming. The boy, having upset the table and dropped it on the floor with a resounding menace several times, finally propped it up on its side and hid behind it, saying, "It's my work. MY work, you hear!"
This incident was a short course on the status of the Lacanian object, the gaze, in its relation to the demand or request coming from the Other -- "Show me!" It was quite easy, even for me, to see that this boy was not in relation with a little other -- me -- but with an all-powerful, big Other, who wanted to take its pleasure in him, to persecute him. Once the question "What do you want?" manifest itself in "Show me," whatever the boy had done could never be other than bad, stupid, a failure. The request "show me" demands an object; it indicates that something is lacking. For the psychotic subject, for whom there can be no lack, identified as the object completing the maternal phantasm, this request to "show me" can have no other response than an assumption of the position of this object which is always what is lacking. There is no possibility of substituting the drawing as the object.
And my idiotic affirmation full of the most loathsome of all affects -- pity -- only confirmed his certitude that what I wanted from him was no good. Pity is an affect that demonstrates well what Lacan called the "paranoid knowledge of the world." When one feels pity, it is because one is thinking to oneself "Better thee than me" or "I feel much better about my life when I think of all those starving children in third world countries" or any other of the many forms of pity. Pity holds to what Lacan described as the imaginary axis in his schema L (a to a prime), me and my fellow. The other axis goes between the unconscious subject and the big Other. It is the axis of the unconscious, and it is interrupted by the imaginary axis:
But in psychosis, this mirror relation of the imaginary axis is more dangerous because the big Other has a different status. For the psychotic, the big Other both doesn't exist and is one with the subject. In other words, the big Other doesn't have a symbolic status that would put it on a different level from the subject and the little others, his fellows. It is almost as if the two axes were collapsed together, imaginary and real becoming a sort of toggled, binary exchange. So what could I do with my pitiful arrogance?
People often comment, when they learn of my work, that it must be a hard job. I have discovered that what they mean is that it must be emotionally distressing to see those (poor) children. It is hard work. But it's a lot harder when you haven't let go of your pity, your arrogance.
I apologized, "I'm sorry. I didn't understand." I also learned. I learned how to work together with this person, indeed these people whose psychotic structure finds its expression in paranoia, who must fight constantly against an impossible jouissance that they have localized in a capricious, big Other.
This was just a little lesson, a first day lesson. I would learn much over the next year and half, from the children, but also from the team of intervenants and the supervisors. There are so many stories to tell, so many crucial moments that turned my thinking. I would love to linger over the time for understanding. It is my hope that the articles of this collection will function as a time for understanding, a time for questioning, for questing, for discovering. But for me, this translation partakes of the moment to conclude, to which I now hasten.
Dr. Alexandre Stevens suggested we produce this book. And I was instantly caught up by the idea. I suppose that for both of us, as well as the others involved in its production, The Courtil Papers is about transmission, about constructing or formalizing an experience through the process of communicating it. But for me in particular, my experience of Courtil and this translation accompany my analysis, the two processes are intertwined. So this work for me also represents emptying an experience of its jouissance, the reduction of a signifier to the letter through loss of its signification. I had indeed positioned myself as the object of my experience at Courtil. This text represents a change in position, a transition in the mode by which I take pleasure, perhaps all the more so in that the words are not my own and my work of making substitutions is a fairly dry task.
I used to say that I loved translating because I didn't have to take responsibility for the words. This isn't correct. I'm just as responsible as the author. What makes translating different from writing, what I don't have to take responsibility for is the jouissance of lalangue, that burdensome joy behind the writing that makes it painful because language only poorly shadows lalangue. This is what my composition student taught me. Writing is already a reduction of the full expression which is a mysterious non-sense. The translator only takes responsibility for language insofar as he recognizes this.
Thus, the mysterious non-sense that was Courtil, for me, has been formalized, has become this book. I don't mean that Courtil makes no sense. But my investment in my experience of Courtil partakes of the non-sense, the jouissance that cannot be reduced to meaning. And strangely enough, this reduction, this formalization liberates in me a desire to continue to explore, to discover, to formalize, not in a repetition of the same cycle, but from a new and different position, one that renounces this jouissance in order to truly learn.
Even so, this collection is not just about exporting another theory. It is not even about practice, if by practice one implies technique. Although you may find yourself inspired by some of the interventions related in the texts which follow, technique is not exportable; what works once or with one subject will not necessarily always work or work with another subject. What is transmittable is an understanding of the structures of psychosis and neurosis, and the individual and unique responses that each subject makes to the demands and exigencies of his/her structure. This book is about psychoanalysis as a lived experience, transmitted and constituting the verification of its truth. In other words, this book is about people, about their courage and ingenuity in the search for a solution to what is impossible or unbearable in their unconscious, psychical structure.
This book is also about creating space in the institution to allow for each subject to encounter the unique, unbearable impossibility of jouissance for the neurotic, or to construct a unique treatment of this unbearable impossibility in the case of psychosis. Thus, Courtil performs as an organizational assembly of many, but it remains a singular experience for each one. In other words, at Courtil equality doesn't necessarily translate into the same thing for everyone.
The people who have written this book come from many different backgrounds -- medicine, psychology, social work, eduction, etc. -- and they have different relations to psychoanalysis, ranging from long study and fluency in the theory to those who are just beginning to study and struggling to understand. The fact remains that what is true or even what is verifiable doesn't emerge from the theory itself, but rather the theory emerges as true from individual encounters.
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