This is a wonderful story from Lacan’s clinic, as told by Suzanne Hommel, who was in analysis with Lacan in 1974. It gives us a rare insight into Lacan’s method and style and how, by intervening on a single signifier from his analysand’s speech, he was able to effect a therapeutic change.

It is recounted in an interview that forms part of Gérard Miller’s film ‘Rendez-vous chez Lacan’, released last year to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Lacan’s death.

As a young girl when war broke out, Hommel had experienced at first hand the occupation of her country by the Nazis. Her memories from this period were discussed with Lacan in the course of her analysis. The vignette nicely demonstrates why Lacan urges his followers to focus on the materiality of the signifier in the subject’s speech and base an intervention on its polyvalence, its ambiguity. In French, the signifiers ‘Gestapo’ and ‘geste à peau’ are pronounced almost identically.

Whilst the film is only available in French, I have appended subtitles to this excerpt so that English speakers can follow it.


 Three comments about what makes this vignette so special.

1. Lacan does not make an interpretation in the usual sense. He does not tell his analysand the meaning of her dream or attempt to explain it away for her. Indeed, what is fascinating about this account is that Lacan does not even say anything. His intervention comes in the form of a gesture instead of at the verbal level. The effect on his analysand was to turn the nightmare she recounted, and the painful associations of the Nazi occupation that followed from it, into a quite literal gesture of kindness: from ‘Gestapo’ to ‘geste à peau’. As Hommel puts it, using the same signifier, it was “a gesture of humanity”. Lacan’s move had the effect of an interpretation without the heavy-handedness of a didactic intervention.

2. In many current psychotherapeutic disciplines physical contact of this sort with the patient would be considered unorthodox and is likely to be frowned upon. This is not only to protect the patient from abusive therapists but to avoid giving the patient a response at the affective level where he or she might expect or demand it. This risks falling into the trap of providing a sympathetic gesture that only serves to mask resistance (on the part of either the analyst or the analysand) to unconscious material. Some might even argue that Lacan’s intervention ran contrary to the so-called ‘rule of abstinence’ that originated with Freud, or even the more general rule of analytic neutrality. In his 1915 paper ‘Observations of Transference Love’ Freud writes, “I have already let it be understood that analytic technique requires of the physician that he should deny to the patient who is craving for love the satisfaction she demands” (SE XII, p.164-165). But in this vignette is it clear that in caressing his patient’s face Lacan’s intention was not to satisfy a demand for love – his intervention was not at the level of affect – but instead to provide his analysand with a new perspective on her experience of the war, offering her a new way to interpret the signifier ‘Gestapo’ as ‘geste à peau’.

3. Regardless of what you think of the intervention itself, Lacan’s act testifies to a remarkable attentiveness to – and respect for – the analysand’s speech. In choosing to intervene in the way he did on the signifier ‘Gestapo’ Lacan demonstrates what Jacques-Alain Miller has labelled the “discipline of the signifier” in analytic practice, a necessary correlate to his central theory that the unconscious is structured like a language.

By Owen Hewitson,