Louise Bourgeois’s Hysterical Love of Psychoanalysis
"Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter" On view until September 12, 2021 at The Jewish Museum in New York City Reviewed by Jamieson Webster
Bourgeois’s Life and Psychoanalysis
It is important to say that even though I am a psychoanalyst and this show addresses the question of Bourgeois’s relationship to psychoanalysis—both her own and her theoretical investigations into it—what I hope to avoid here is psychoanalyzing Louise Bourgeois. It cannot be done; what took place was private, in a dialog with duration, quite a duration in fact, and neither she, nor the doctor, has any meta-perspective on this while its happening because they are in it. And so neither can we. Rather, I want to look at Bourgeois’s relationship to psychoanalysis, which is rich, layered, and, importantly, long, as psychoanalysis is wont to be. She began treatment in 1951 following her father’s death, and it lasted until 1985 with her psychoanalyst’s death. In her journals, she variously calls psychoanalysis “a jip,” “a duty,” “a joke,” “a love affair,” “a bad dream,” “a pain in the neck,” and “my field of study.”1 It is, indeed, all these things and more. And it is, in ways I think have been neglected or rarely glimpsed, also sculptural.
Louise Joséphine Bourgeois: Her name is already a sculpture, an uncanny site that unites her parents’ names, Louis and Joséphine. (How can one not think of Bourgeois’s “couple” sculptures?) It’s odd that this eponymous inheritance escaped her older sister; her stillborn sibling; and her younger, very much desired, brother (though the name of the sister, Henriette Marie Louise, contains the feminized version of the father’s, and the name of the brother, Pierre Joseph Alexandre, the masculinized one of the mother’s). Bourgeois’s creative life was more clearly marked by the machinations of this family environment than that of other artists. It was punctuated by her parents’ deaths: her mother’s inducing a suicide attempt and then a change in career from math to art, and her father’s throwing her into depression and finally psychoanalysis, prompting the style that would become synonymous with her name.
This show is testimony to how Bourgeois’s art blossomed from her time in and with “the talking cure.” She was a late bloomer, creating her strongest work toward the end of her most rigorous period of analysis, when she was in her fifties. With psychoanalysis we are, I think, beyond the world’s relentlessly ticking clock that measures our life according to pre-established norms. We are working on another time. In 1957, Bourgeois writes,
You only occupy two soles
of the earth except when you sleep you
occupy—6 feet—without height—and in
time you propel yourself from one minute to
the next and much slower from one hour
to the next and there are people who relive
all their life in only in a few seconds. I would
rather say that we live more by the intensity of our
affects than by time or by the space
in time or in space we exist above all
by our absence since we can only
be in one place at a time and we
are only in the same hour once
but with ourselves we are always
I’ve schlepped Louise Bourgeois around with me
for more than 40 years. every day brought
its wound and I carried my wounds cease
lessly, without remission like a hide
perforated beyond hope of repair. I am a
collection of wooden pearls never threaded—and
Her investigation of time skews quasi-mystical. Time is ecstatic, carried by affective intensities more than any measure of duration. This leads her to the strange burden of always being stuck with herself, forced to carry her wounds and her name. But this isn’t merely the articulation of a discrepancy, which, in any case, by the end, becomes a sculpture: the image of a hide perforated beyond repair, a collection of wooden pearls unthreaded.
This is the kind of fascinating transformation one sees her make again and again in the writings and journal entries that point forward to her art: a sculptural transformation, whose importance in both psychoanalysis and life she makes powerfully evident. Psychoanalysis, then, is not only the uncovering of trauma, the deconstruction of fantasies, the reigning in of one’s destructive wishes and needs—nor even the whole mommy-daddy-siblings-childhood-sexuality business. It is the art and work of transforming these things, making something of them, making something more of them. The material of one’s life is simply that—material. A problem that needs to be worked and reworked. This is really the foundation for this review, one that I will come back to through investigating a number of themes from Hysteria to Penis-Envy to Oedipal conflicts and symptoms.
In fact, one place I might put the “collection of wooden pearls never threaded—and perfectly idiotic” is alongside its resonance in the Bourgeois family and their work collecting and mending tapestries. In the installation Passage Dangereux, 1997, the father’s collection of chairs surrounds the primal scene of the parental bed, all of it locked inside a cage.
There is also her infamous disdain for what she called Freud’s collection of toys (his antiquities) and the box of pebbles she discovered on her father’s desk. Each pebble, he said, was a beautiful memory that encouraged him to keep living. These memories might have been beautiful to him, but to Bourgeois, her father’s libidinal intensity and the havoc it wreaked were things that demanded reckoning. She undertakes this reckoning through art, through giving it a form and image rather than letting it possess her. Look at the following dream:
Atrocious Dream Oct 10 - 1958 travel in Switzerland and by train + car – a suite of women including Sadie with a fox fur from head to knee
a tan fox around his neck puts me in a rage and I reproach my father for having made me unfit for married or professional Life – he is shocked at my mentioning sex and I realize that he is unconscious of the harm he has done - I feel sorry for him and ashamed of my accusation I turn to suicide in my need for being loved at least that way I would make him care – Champfleurette disguised as a little yellow fox very little comes in, she is dying – he says, Poor little animal it’s too bad – I think that maybe, I could obtain as much sympathy as it if I died 2 very bad days after this. irritation painful + exciting at the same time leads to the realization of a desire to urinate standing up. The Penis envy so very difficult to realize is present.
The rage toward the father and his mistress drives her to a contemplation of suicide, and this is compounded by the fact that the father cannot understand, is unconscious of what he is doing, and she is forced to pity him. What to do with a father who is both weak and voracious? An avenue that opens to a daughter is to be like him, to have what he has, since being the object of his desire is too precarious. Again, note that the hide appears, this time as a beautiful unperforated fox fur for the father and the other women, but not for her.
In fact, it is in her work, her professional work (and in her important support of other women artists), that Bourgeois smashes through her inhibitions and wrestles with a ferocity that mirrors this ambivalently loved father—see The Destruction of the Father from 1974: a den with a red glow, often described as “womblike,” wherein a feast is laid out on a table, the family patriarch presumably the main course.
And this isn’t just destructive because every patriarch is offering himself, wants to be a totem, to be taken in and glorified in this fashion. For Louise, there isn’t a father figure that she doesn’t put to the test—especially her artistic forefathers, and admirably so.
The pictures of Louis and Joséphine working in their studios feel important when thinking of Bourgeois, whose entire home had become a studio, practically a sculpture, by the end of her long life.
Look at yet another metonymic sculptural shift in a dream she had about her mother shortly after her father’s death:
Very very tired day because of the dream.
That dream about my mother was a horror I am anxious to pin it down
where can it come from and what can it mean,
I dreamt that I was going to find something in a dream that the fight
was going to be terrific and that Robert had (at any cost) to get the
meaning. there is a secret and I cannot get at it. I want to reach it.
I am out to pry it The anxiety is great because I know that I will not
succeed . . .
it is my mother
I call come come and I pound on Robert she is going away. and he does
not wake up. Then in a surhuman effort knowing that he fails to answer
I call her and try to reach her again, and suddenly I reach a climax
and satisfaction in a long kiss. I am surprised to see that I wanted
it. and she leaves in my mouth an object like an almond. which was in
her mouth. I take it out in my fingers and think that is strange, I
notice that it does not move. I notice also that it is hard enough
to resist the pressure of even my thumb nail. “it is harder than soap
I think that marble is harder. Then I want to put it away for examination.”
maybe it is not the truth but it may be a form of truth,
you know so little, you have to try everything you can to learn how
to read around you At a level above mother and the almond . . .
now that I hold it, I am going to lose it. I pound again on his
chest howling: maman. maman. this time again I am exhausted when I
force myself to hear. my own voice wakes me up. Robert actually
hears it and answers. From then on I talk without control but aloud.3
Mourning is processed, dreamed, as a sculpture: what her mother (and father) leave in her mouth, a form of truth about which she knows so little, a truth that retains its secret. But it is something she can hold, fearfully feeling its hardness and shape, experiencing its kiss and climax and anxiety. I love these lines: “you have to try everything you can to learn how to read around you at a level above mother and the almond.” And “my own voice wakes me up.” My entire profession is built on this sentiment.
Again, this isn’t a psychoanalytic “interpretation.” This is equivalent to a material fact, put down in writing, taking shape in the creation of her work and style of working. It is tangibly there in what she says about her work and art more generally: “I’m interested in people who instead of analyzing, put things together.”4 And it’s there in conversation with her assistant, Jerry Gorovoy, in 1992:
My relationship to psychoanalysis is through writing
Lacan is a fake, a joke
I don’t believe in Jung. I believe in Freud, Charcot, De La Tourette,
the neurologists and the time of Salpetriere
I knew Moreno here in New York City. The verbal is too easy and makes me anxious.
To talk does not constitute a catharsis. It is the actual doing.
A work of art is successful for me when it removes anxiety.
The price we have to pay: The work is only an acting out, trying to get rid of things.
The work of art is limited to an acting out, not an understanding. If it were understood, the need to do the work would not exist anymore.
Art is a guaranty of sanity but not liberation. It comes back again and again.5
It’s so true. It is the actual doing, which doesn’t have all that much to do with understanding—contrary to what many would like to believe about psychoanalysis. Beyond this capacity to act, psychoanalysis is very pessimistic when it comes to ideals of liberation because all of it does come back again and again. Interestingly this capacity to act and rework and twist and even memorialize and embody is a truth that psychoanalysis discovered from its work with hysteria at the very origin.
Hysteria – Definition/History
Hysteria is a contentious term: dubbed misogynistic by feminists, misogynistically used by psychiatrists and culture more broadly to denounce women. The excavation of the term and its history within psychoanalysis is lost in this judgment of it as violent against women. It is, but it also has pointed to something incredibly specific that is important for thinking about Bourgeois’s work, especially those works that explicitly reference the history of hysteria. Hysterics, Freud showed, because it was only this rubric that was widely evident at the time, unconsciously identified with men to understand how women were seen. Symptomatically they use this rubric to figure out what they are or might be, which often ends in a painful deadlock in their very bodies. It was this crossroads that led to the discovery of the unconscious, an understanding of repression, and a focus on fantasy over stated “reality”—a sea change in perspective that took place when Freud decided to listen to these hysterical women instead of merely looking them over, assessing them, using male rubrics to decide what was wrong with them. Psychoanalysis, in finally listening, provided a means for ‘hysterical’ pains to come to speech.
Hysteria is about the desire for equality born from living closely with the disjunction that defines the modern subject, split between the aspiration to freedom and the lived experience of domination. Why modern? The turn of the twentieth century marks a high point in the history of hysteria and the birth of psychoanalysis. Imbued with the spirit of positivism, with the Enlightenment values of freedom and equality, the turn of the century saw the promise of a liberation for every-body turn into the reality of the liberation for only some-bodies: namely, white males.
Hysteria comes from the Greek hustera, meaning womb, and indeed the earliest definitions of hysteria, dating back to ancient Greece, diagnosed it as the consequence of a wandering, animalistic womb that would cause bodily ailments and excessive emotional explosions. The spectacular nature of the sickness also explains why descriptions of hysteria proliferate in Western literature, in which at times it was also portrayed as a kind of ancestral possession or seduction by a male devil (we are clearly in the time of Christianity here). Fascinating is the fact that despite the passage of time, the conceptual picture of hysteria was remarkably homogeneous—that is, up until the seventeenth century, when it began to be associated with the brain and not the uterus.
Thus hysteria follows us into the Enlightenment and into the age of scientific reason, where, at the turn of the twentieth century, the birth of psychiatry consolidated the understanding of hysteria as a neurological and psychiatric pathology that affected mostly women—a disorder of the nerves that showed the body-mind unity! Psychiatry sought to classify and order the various manifestations of hysteria, work done most importantly by Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris. His favorite young patient, known as Augustine, is the one whose photographs show the “attitudes passionnelles” of the hysteric and her arched body, on which Bourgeois seems to have based her various sculptures. With Charcot, hysteria reaches a pitch of delirium as he was clearly obsessed with these bodily spectacles and would produce and reproduce them through hypnosis for an audience of male doctors, also employing a newly available means for documentation—the camera. The sexual politics of the situation of male gaze / hysterical body were dramatic. They reveal a relationship always present in hysteria: the way it forms and reforms in lockstep with the knowledge of those who take up the mantle of authority and attempt to answer to her.
While the hysteric speaks to the unity of the body and mind, she also speaks to an experience of the body that is anything but a unity, a body that is fragmented and undone and can take on a life of its own, a body whose representation can be caught in a conflict of ideas and ideals. As well, she shows that the body has incredible mimetic capacities insofar as these hysterical women were able to produce all manner of rigidities of posture, swellings, epileptic fits, tics, and so on. All in all, she brings to life the phantasmatic aspects of bodily existence, connected to the pulsating and sexual body. Witness here a dream from 1964 that Louise Bourgeois says makes her “hysterical”:
…Here I am breast-feeding the child and people look at me waiting and the orchestra even stops playing. the child has grown, he needs to be changed he urinates in a blanket and it makes me hysterical I run around I panic I want to stop him but he urinates anyway, I am scared I press his body – I do not know where to put him I am afraid of strangling him I have to entrust him to someone else – I cannot be trusted do you know what happens then he shoots straight out of my hands and disappears towards the wall down the baseboards I am flabbergasted but gone he is and he certainly could get a revenge for my treating badly – I had it coming – through a peep hole I see a rock and dozens of exquisite lizards pink blue yellow white frolicking in frantic happiness suddenly (feeling my eyes on them) they disappear in a split second – then the mother’s rear end reveals itself moving it is a piece of an enormous monstrous snake – I am surprised but that is the way of things and who am I to have any comment.
The baby boy urinates, presumably with his penis that isn’t mentioned, which sets off the nightmare from what at first was a situation of joy and admiration. Then you find the confusion: mothers, babies, frantic happiness, urination, shame, horror, and then the monstrous snake—why is this the way things are? Who am I to comment, she adds. This dreams says so much, without saying… as it were. And again, witness the spatial, the disappearance into space, the search in an enclosed space that is overwhelmed. This is a kind of “hysterical architecture,” as Freud named it. Enter psychoanalysis! Freud left behind hypnotism and the spectacle of the imprisoned and impassioned female body and chose to lend his ear to these women, to hear in their somatic and nervous complaints a personal complaint, a deep dissatisfaction with what it meant to be a woman in the world at that time, the suffering of her body under patriarchy and the rapid-fire changes that can take place between sexuality and violence. Thus the answers of the psychoanalysts ideally left behind the biological gender-essentialist explanations (woman as the weaker sex), the mythological-occult explanations (woman as the susceptible or corruptible sex), and the psychiatric explanations (woman as the emotionally disordered sex).
Psychoanalysis, while surely not giving one explanation, stretched hysteria between an equation with the effects of sexuality and trauma on the human being, especially women, to the feminist plight expressed in symptomatic form that was also the wellspring of artistic creation, especially those arts that put body and gender at the center. Psychoanalysis shows that an understanding of the modern subject starts with hysteria, which, to our great shock, gives us a picture of the unruly nature of sexuality and the drives at all phases of human existence, child to adult; of the disordering effect of the unconscious on any conscious knowledge or sense of identity; gives us a sense of the biases that surround sexuality and difference more generally; and finally, of the way all creation, from art to science, depends on the cultural specificity of its creators and their place in history, especially history as repressive. The hysteric’s bisexuality became the sexual norm, the ubiquity of psychosomatic illness the medical norm, and the repetition compulsion of trauma the norm for experiences of violence, especially sexual violence.
The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, in his Écrits, referred to hysteria as the always censored chapter of history: “The unconscious is the chapter of my history that is marked by a blank or occupied by a lie: it is the censored chapter. But the truth can be refound; most often it has already been written elsewhere. Namely, in monuments: this is my body, in other words, the hysterical core of neurosis in which the hysterical symptom manifests… is deciphered like an inscription which, once recovered, can be destroyed without serious loss.”
Marie-Bonaparte – Penis-Envy
Let us turn to the famous French Princess and psychoanalyst Marie-Bonaparte, who got Louise’s attention. Bonaparte was born in 1882 to Prince Roland Bonaparte, the emperor Napoleon’s great-nephew, and Marie-Felix Blanc, heiress to the Monte Carlo fortune. Marie became one of the most powerful figures in the psychoanalytic movement of the twentieth century. When she’s remembered today, it’s usually for a handful of notable events: marrying Prince George of Greece in 1907; co-founding the Paris Psychoanalytic Society in 1925; publishing a psychobiography of Edgar Allan Poe in 1933; negotiating Freud’s Nazi-dodging move to London in 1938; and pushing for Jacques Lacan’s exclusion from the International Psychoanalytic Association in 1953. She is also known for her distinguished list of lovers, including the sociologist Gustave Le Bon, the politician Aristide Briand, Rudolf Loewenstein (Lacan’s analyst, and, briefly Princess Marie’s as well, also her son’s), and quite possibly Constantin Brancusi, whose sensational 1920 sculpture Princesse X supposedly depicted the Princess studying herself in a mirror, while it also looks like a massive phallus and was infamously banned from the art show where it was first displayed. Bonaparte was also the subject of a 2004 made-for-TV movie starring Catherine Deneuve.
It is fascinating that Bonaparte’s conundrum—she lost her mother very young and, suffering greatly, she struggled with what she called “female narcissism” or a feeling of being lesser than; she was beset by phallic preoccupations, including concerning her wealth and illustrious history and what it could afford her and what it couldn’t; and her relations with famous men and her own frustrated aspirations—all this is captured by this sculpture! No wonder Bourgeois turned her attention to this Grand Dame.
Bonaparte’s book Female Sexuality, which appeared in French in 1949 and English in 1953, collected her essays. The English edition, published by the psychoanalytic house International Universities Press, came wrapped in a band that proclaimed “The Kinsey Report gives the facts—this book explains the why and wherefore.”6 Bonaparte, truth be told, was obsessed with the clitoris. She undertook anthropological research in Africa, where she measured the distance between women’s clitorises and their vaginas. Female libido, she believed, was inevitably lost as it navigated the canyons and crevices of the female genitalia: “Power is generally lost when rivers change course,” she wrote. The further the clitoris from the vagina, Princess Marie believed, the more likely the orgasm will fall into the gap.
In Bonaparte’s work, we see the contradiction between fantasy and anatomical reality that has always hampered investigations of sexuality—particularly female sexuality. Among the many things that Freud did right was to enlarge the sphere of sexuality while trying to remain closely tied to the body. The routes travelled by sexuality had many more dimensions for Freud than the single one described by Marie Bonaparte, with her fixation on the clitoris.
More importantly, between Bonaparte and Freud is another well-documented psychoanalysis—Marie’s notes on her childhood and her analysis were reproduced. What we can see is that the reason the Princess had decided to consult Freud in the first place was because of her lack of physical pleasure during intercourse. Indeed, sex had been a huge disappointment for Bonaparte. At first she thought it was her husband’s fault. “I hate this as much as you do, but we must do it if we want children,” he told her on their wedding night. She soon discovered that his most meaningful relationship—which was almost certainly sexual—was with his Uncle Waldemar, who had a castle outside Copenhagen. But her liaisons were no more satisfying.
A year into the analysis there was an extraordinary passage à l’acte: The Princess underwent an operation to have her clitoris relocated closer to the urethral passage. Freud was furious, refusing to visit her during her recuperation, accusing her of having a “wild imagination,” of “stupidity.” Eventually he relented and came to see her at the clinic which, in retrospect, could only have compounded the disturbances in the transference. The operation had been unsuccessful; she was filled with remorse. But this did not prevent her from repeating the procedure again while still in analysis.
This focus on anatomy, on the one hand, and generic interpretations of it along the lines of penis-envy and so on, is like the most clichéd version of psychoanalysis imaginable… and yet, there is something important about a woman courageously venturing into this territory, trying to say what happens to a woman regarding her feelings about her body, trying to reshape her body, mould it as she would like it to be, that I imagine speaks to Bourgeois.
Louise Bourgeois is drawn to Bonaparte’s theories of feminine sexuality and so she pulls together numerous threads, from the girl child oscillating between blaming father and blaming mother for their “condition,” to the association between the vagina and the unseeable reproductive organs, to fears of feelings of emptiness that are distinctively female—along with the intense resentment of the roles that women are put into. Bourgeois writes of Bonaparte in January of 1958:
I do not have to live in an empty world, world of vacuum (Marie Bonaparte) I can create my own artist world of omnipotence + fantasy I have to control space because I cannot stand emptiness, emptiness is a space the edge of which you do not know and you are not sure of – like falling into space or like being dizzy. This question of space is perhaps sim ply based on the fear of falling –When Pierre was born Maman said – Louise got up and she walked. Maybe I was just afraid to fall at that moment - Vertigo and great fear on balconies (roof at 18th St) Pull yourself together. Do not try several things just so that one will pull you away from the one before – Be modest and tight knitted Always go back to the work you have on hand – Perfect and revisit again.
And again, in January of 1975:
Fear of emptiness
9) intuition of the damage caused by the thought – I have nothing. terror of emptiness, of the void
10) Repeat I have nothing, but I am not going to lose my balance, hold on
11) I am left panting dizzy disoriented as if I woke up after fainting from a terror attack
It’s fascinating, this idea of the manipulation of space as a way of gaining an upper hand on the terror of emptiness and the rage at the mother for being likewise “empty” or “castrated.” This mother, not being able to give you what you want, leaving you empty handed, is shown as the beginning of sculptural production and imagination. There are so many Bourgeois sculptures that we might turn to here. Bourgeois herself seems to translate what she learns from Bonaparte (or learns despite her) and psychoanalysis, back into her understanding of Bonaparte’s lover Brancusi. I was so taken when, during an interview, Bourgeois was describing Brancusi’s sculptures as pillars, and the interviewer said “phallic,” and she retorted, “I didn’t say that, you said that.” She then went on to describe a child, angry at their mother, cutting their own towers into pieces. “That,” she says, “I know.”
Jacques Lacan – Phallus
One last French psychoanalytic figure. Bourgeois gathers that she and Lacan are barking up the same tree, reading Freud to the letter—I know this kind of macho Frenchman, she indicates, and though she indicts him as a fraud, she admits that she is seduced. They were both French Catholics born after the turn of the century who stole from the Jews, especially the Jewish psychoanalysts. They loved them, married them, were saved by them, and took something from them. She writes about Lacan in 1994:
(The Tartuffe) military school
Lacan. I start where he does, Topology
on the 3rd floor of the military museum.
Topology of clothes, sewing
Topology and its knots. It’s “shown” on
page 475 of the Roudinesco book, that leads to
poisons (liquids) humor and the 2
suicides; smart Alek; macho,
he does not play dumb, he plays Turenne
it is very clever to play dumb, goody two-shoes
hypocrisy is an acknowledgment of virtue
by vice. Tartuffe
a strategic war – a war of maneuvers
The defense of Paris. my father never talked
to me about the army or the motherland
or the war, he never talked about
religion either. In fact he didn’t talk about anything
St Thomas. I only believe what I see. Proverb
the wrong way around.He didn’t believe (laziness) in either
class struggle or social climbing.
only Sensual + coward.7
Lacan and Bourgeois both attend to topology, which is essentially sculpture. One can liken Lacan’s obsession with the Borromean knot, the torus, and the Klein bottle to Freud’s early diagrams of the mind and his original research cutting up eels, examining the structure of neurons. There is a kind of hidden sculptural labor in the very creation of psychoanalysis. And as Louise indicated earlier, she likes the early French psychiatrists who were Lacan’s teachers, not to mention his close work with the surrealists. Psychoanalysis for him was material… even when he’s reading Freud, you have this sense of him working with it as if it is material and not ideas.
Both Lacan and Bourgeois also like to play dumb—to play, as she calls it, a kind of doubting Thomas, especially when it comes to Freud. And yet they are mercilessly tactical, militant even, in how they work inside his theoretical edifice. Lacan and Bourgeois take what they need from psychoanalysis to defend what they feel needs defending. They throw out the rest. They are sensual creatures, voracious. Also: often cowardly and aggressively insulting. Certainly, both are contradictory in the extreme. Surprisingly, Bourgeois—against what many deem as work that is pre- or post-linguistic—hears, as Lacan does (and as Freud before him did), the sculptural quality of words. She constantly plays with them. In so many of her diary entries, it’s right there, just as it is above, in a chain conjured for the ambivalent love of Lacan: Moliere’s Tartuffe, topology, the French military general Turenne, talk, not talking, and St. Thomas. Touché. The only freedom is free association in word and in deed. But you can do a lot with this constrained freedom once you find the guardrails. Both seem to play with a concept of the phallus—not as THE PENIS, or THE CLITORIS, or even THE ORGASM that’s finally oh so satisfying—but as the mystery of the power of creation and its manifestation in material, linguistic or otherwise. Something you have to get your hands around, give shape to, voice.
In fact, to push this all a bit further, I would line up Bourgeois saying “It is not me who ignored the market, it is the market who ignored me and it was okay . . . I had complete faith in the work” and “You have asked me, what did you want? . . . What I wanted is to have an itineraire unique. That is it.” with Lacan’s injunction to “never give up on one’s desire.” Lacan named this injunction “the ethics of psychoanalysis,” and he puts it in relation to the possibility of sublimation as the highest aim of psychoanalysis. Freud famously destroyed the paper on sublimation; the term was handed down to us with his mouth sewn shut about it. One should see Bourgeois as articulating this missing piece.
Sublimation is certainly the mystery of creation, but psychoanalysts know that it constitutes a displacement in relation to trauma, brute sexuality, and the fragments of one’s past. Yet it is not a defense mechanism. It is differentiated from defenses by what it is able to achieve. It brings true satisfaction, a satisfaction that jumps the barrier of repression, coming finally into contact with the unconscious. While it reworks the past, it brings something new into the world—as Lacan would have it, it creates a new desire that forces upon us its own recognition.
And so we arrive at a psychoanalysis that isn’t this or that grid of interpretation, but psychoanalysis as the art of contact with the unconscious. Lacan spoke of the unconscious as if it were something that could be played like an instrument—supple, not so much raw, rigid, or reactionary. When Lacan attempted to illustrate what he meant by this, he did so in strangely sculptural terms, speaking about the elevation of the object beyond utility, toward what he called “the dignity of the Thing.” He suddenly recalled an art object where the artist took a matchbox and opened its little drawer a bit in order to attach it to another one, eventually creating a kind of chain. This was a creation and a depiction of the act of creation itself, displacing the function of the item and using its own form to do so. The snake eats its own tail. Or better, creation and creator here attain the dignity of a couple embodied for a moment—as in the name Louise Joséphine Bourgeois. Lacan, funnily, said he had seen this object at the home of a friend, hung above a doorway. The analyst can lead the patient to this doorway, but it is, as he always remarked, up to the patient to step through it.
There is no better illustration of this “dangerous passage” than this exhibition, Louise Bourgeois, Freud’s Daughter. And what I see is something not only beautiful, but deeply ethical, founded in the congruence of the life and work that is illustrated there. What better testament to psychoanalysis than one that runs counter to all the misconceived ideas we continually harbor about it? But that’s, as we like to say, only resistance. The truth is always somewhere else—just shy of an almond-shaped marble, or a wooden pearl, or a topological, twisted pile of mended fabrics named Child Devoured By Kisses (1999).
Louise Bourgeois, Loose sheet of writing, c. 1958. Louise Bourgeois Archive. LB-0127.
Louise Bourgeois, loose sheet of writing, September 1957. Louise Bourgeois Archive; LB-0251.
Louise Bourgeois, loose sheet of writing, 4 December 1951. Louise Bourgeois Archive; LB-0454.
Louise Bourgeois: The Spider, the Mistress and the Tangerine. Directed by Marion Cajori and Amei Wallach. Zeitgeist Films, 2008.
Louise Bourgeois, in conversation with Jerry Gorovoy, c. 1992. Louise Bourgeois Archive; LB-0837.
Loewenstein, R.M. (1955). Female Sexuality: By Marie Bonaparte. Translated by John Rodker. New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1953. 225 pp.. Psychoanal Q., 24:119-120.
Louise Bourgeois, diary entry, 2 September 1994. Louise Bourgeois Archive; LBD-1994.