Colin MacCabe: Can we start with your family and where you were born?
Moustapha Safouan: Well, I was born in Alexandria and my father was a teacher. It was 1921 and all of that part of the world was experiencing what you call in French 'the earthquake of the Soviet Revolution', and the Comintern was trying to set up subsidiaries everywhere. And some Egyptian Jews were prominent in this new movement and they recruited my father who had a very classical Arabic education at Al Azhar and was steeped in language and religion. He became very active in the movement and, I believe, although I cannot be sure, that he was elected president of the first trade union congress in Egypt.
He married in, I think, 1919 and I was born two years later in 1921. By then he was very politically active, which resulted in his arrest in 1924, when I was three years old. And that is my first childhood memory. I see him going down the stairs surrounded by police. They were not in uniform but it was clear that they were police and it was clear that they were taking my father away. Now, I do not know who was carrying me as he walked down the stairs surrounded by these strange people, but I do remember my cry. And I think this was the strongest and most painful, the most frightful emotion I have ever had in my life. Now, of course I was too young to have notions of providence and affection, but it was as if I was condemned to a world where all these notions were finished.
So, happily enough things didn't go that tragically, because of my mother. Let me say a word about her. In that epoch marriages were arranged between male friends. So, for example, you are married and you have a sister in law who is unmarried but she is a nice girl to you and you recommend her to one of your friends. And he expresses a desire to meet her and so on. It was not brothers exchanging sisters but friends exchanging acquaintances. So I think my father had a friend who told him about her and et cetera. Now what were the qualifications? Well, the first was being feminine [laughs] and, of course, she was supposed to know how to be fertilised, and about pregnancy, and how to bring a new creature into the world. Well I don't think she was particularly instructed in all that, but it came naturally. And what she did have was all the necessary knowledge to take care of a house, as far as washing, cooking, inviting, entertaining relations and the outside world, mainly the family, but also friends. She was a very ‘alive’ person as a character, in addition to her managerial or 'wife' qualifications.
Well, then after my father was taken to prison, my mother left to see her family; she mobilised all her family to defend him, to get lawyers and so on. And I was taken care of by my grandmother, the mother of my father, and his brother, my uncle. And, by contrast, this was maybe the most tranquil period of my life. I mean, it was the age when you experience the Oedipus complex but, as a matter of fact, at that moment I didn’t experience the Oedipus complex because I was with my grandmother, who was very affectionate but I don’t think she was the kind of woman who sexualizes a child. And, at the same time, my uncle, who had a very modest job, as a matter of fact he was a shoemaker, was the most peaceful and human man I have ever seen in my life. He was the kind of man who was happy with a cup of tea and a cigarette. He really had a very deep love for me, and I never loved anyone as I loved him. So these three years, from 1924 to 1927 to be precise (my father was in prison for 27 months), I was really at peace with myself. The Oedipus started immediately when my father came out of prison.
And to finish with this first period; I was brought up by my uncle and my grandmother and I only remember one visit to my father in prison. I am sure that my uncle, and my other uncles, took me every week, because there were in Egypt two kinds of courts and two kinds of prisons: one for foreigners and one for locals. And my father, and political people with him, were condemned first to an ordinary prison, but they started a hunger strike and then they got the right, after 20 or 21 days, to be put in the luxury prison for foreigners. Everyone had his small room with his bed, and they were nicely dressed, as a matter of fact. So, I remember him in his room on the other side of the bars, and I was being carried by one of my uncles and I had a small coin, two centimes or something, and I wanted to give him that. But he refused. And I insisted. And this continued and I got very upset. So this was the first paternal reprimand, and I didn’t forget it or forgive it [laughter]. That's why I am very, very… I keep an acute sensitivity to what you call 'refusing an offer'.
CM: So you are brought up with your father in jail, but with a warm extended family, and then you go to school?
MS: My memories of my school begin with my father and with the Oedipus. That’s in 1927. I was myself something like 6 years old. Life outside the family, taking your part in social life, schooling all started. For me the Oedipus started; sexuality was felt. This means I started to know what was punishment, what was discipline, what it was to be obedient, and I think probably at this moment I had observed that my mother was pregnant or something like that. Anyway, my first symptom was what in French you call 'la fugue'.
CM: Oh, you ran away from home?
MS: No, I mean, I didn't make it that way. But you know, in Egypt there were people who came in the street with big boxes and they would set up seats and they would call for children, and the children would come and they would sit down on the seats and they would look through the peephole in the box and you would see images of Arab heroes. I remember there was one hero called 'Antar'. It was like medieval theatre. And the man would tell the story of Antar and the girls he loved and the girls he had to rescue and the fighting he had to go through. So I used to go and listen to that, and when the man left, I followed him.
This was also a moment in history when you always found something in the streets; a man with a monkey and a dog, or a juggler. The streets were absolutely alive with all these varieties of people. Not to mention the people who had metal jars who sold the nice drinks of summer like tamarind, carob, things which all disappeared with Coca-Cola. So, all these vendors, these spectacles and these circuses in the streets - I used to follow them and my family had to look for me. This was my way of fleeing…
MS: Yeah, this was my first symptom.
MS: But, at the same time, started the most impressive thing - which left its traces. This may be somehow wrong but it is absolutely fundamental for me. This epoch, 1927 and so on, practically until the World War was an epoch called, in Egypt, (and you can hardly translate it in any language but you can say in French) 'de lettres'.
CM: The epoch of the lettered?
MS: Yeah… but a man of letters, un lettre, was supposed not only to be well versed in all Arabic literature which is full of stories and anecdotes and curiosities and so on, but you can use it to exercise charm, to create pleasure, I mean, it was an art and of course the main trait of that was good humour; not humour, good humour.
People, the men, I mean, used to belong to groups. So the most eminent group was three or four people who used to meet in Cairo in a café in Giza called Sans Souci – it had a French name. In Sans Souci the people were Shouki, the greatest poet of the Arab world at that moment, Hafez the second greatest poet. Another sheikh called Sheikh Bishri he was a professor at Al Azhar, he was maybe one of the Deans or something like that. And anyway, their stories, their jokes, spread like lightening in the whole town.
I remember, even now, one story, which was really fascinating. You know in the Koran some suras begin with letters; for example, R, L, M, S, Z, X. And nobody knows what the hell it means, R, L, M… so one day, in this band of Sans Souci, a man came who was an outsider, and he was not a very sympathetic guy. He was the kind of man that just comes out of curiosity and his curiosity made him ask, seeing the letters on a cognac bottle X, O, C, "What does it mean X, O, C?" And the lettres replied “just like R.L.M.” [long laughter]
Now this was a very complicated and blasphemous joke for, on the one hand, they were making fun of the man for asking such a stupid question about letters, but they were also making fun of the Koran. When I told this joke recently to an Arab journalist, he said it was too blasphemous to write down. You can see how times have changed. But for me, as a child, I was made aware of what you can do with letters! So, my father has his own group and the same way of talking and dealing with each other, I mean with the pre-eminence of the word, the word was present. I remember once, I was nine or ten years old, and I had left the very preliminary school and I went to a school where my father himself was teaching. And once, during recreation, I went out with him and two or three other friends, and I remember it was very hot and one of the friends, I remember his name, I remember them all now, these are the things which I visualise. He spread his umbrella, and another man, who was black, I remember, he was Sudanese, he said a word that made everyone burst into laughter. I was astonished and I said “what the hell did he say?” But he used a verb in Arabic which has a double meaning, and used it in imperative voice. It means 'to mislead someone in the religious sense' and also 'to give shade'. So there was something devilish in the joke: 'shade yourself in the wrong belief'. At the same time it made you carry the burden of sin much more easily. The shade of sin. And I think this was the first interpretation I made in my life, without knowing what I was doing.
MS: But this was the third period of my childhood; the first before the prison, the prison, and then the schooling and the introduction into real culture.
CM: What kind of school did you go to?
MS: The kind of school where you learn to read and write – elementary school.
CM: In Arabic?
MS: There was an elementary school and then a primary school where you start taking Arithmetic, Geography, and a bit of History.
CM: But this was all in Arabic?
MS: No, we spent two years in the elementary schools only in Arabic but then we started English in the primary school.
CM: And then to secondary school?
MS: At the age of twelve, and then we started French also.
CM: Oh, so you did English and French? And now it is 1933, 1934… and you are in Alexandria which, in some ways, we now think of as la Belle Époque of Alexandria.
CM: How did Alexandria seem to you? I mean, did you live the life of the city?
MS: I mean… my memories of Alexandria are inseparable from the period of the war. I mean, let us say that I began my secondary school at twelve, but between twelve and eighteen it was a period when, like everyone, I was a pupil and I have amusing memories of my school time. For example, we had a very intelligent headmaster. I remember one day with some other children, after the end of school we stayed behind to play football and the headmaster came unexpectedly and his punishment was an example of logic: "Since you love the school so much so you will stay behind one hour every day" [laughter]. And we had very good professors in French and in English and I think our books in Mathematics and Algebra, especially Greek, Geometry, I think all these books were translated from English and I know the Egyptian Baccalauréat was of a very high academic standing.
So it was the life of a pupil, but then, of course, I started my personal reading. This was the epoch which witnessed the existence of the last really great writers in the Arabic language: Tahar Hussein, Ahmed Amin, Abbas el Akkad. And it was a time of translations, many translations. I remember a translation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I was convinced, after having read this translation, that you can translate anything in Arabic and I had a discussion about that with Badawi, who is now in Oxford, and he said I was exaggerating. I told him, “well, go and read this translation”, and he said, "you give me an exception, it is the only work where the translation is even more sublime than the original”.
There was also Anatole France. So, it was a period of reading and of course I began the Russians. Everymans Library was very cheap and very easy to get. And also some French series like Mercure de France… we had many bookshops in Alexandria. All these are the memories of a schoolboy, but my memories of Alexandria itself began when I left the house to go into the city, going to the bars, drinking… that was right at the beginning of the war. Then I knew the city.
MS: There was a great difference between the way I experienced Alexandria and my friend Badawi’s experience, because I started going out to the cabaret, the bars and the cafés, and the brasseries and the restaurants when I was 18, and he was 14 and still in short pants. For him, Durrell is a big liar. There is absolutely nothing of Alexandria in the Alexandrian Quartet and he is a big liar. And for me, it is absolutely the contrary, I mean, the Alexandrian Quarter is a picture of the city that I knew.
MS: Two completely opposed visions of the same city separated by just four years.
CM: Then you do a university degree?
MS: I did it in Alexandria.
CM: And you did it in what subject?
CM: What kind of philosophy?
MS: There was a problem of language. I had a professor of Greek philosophy who had been educated at the Institut Catholique. He was a complete Thomist. I think that, for him, everything that the human mind had invented apart from Aristotle and St Thomas was misleading, or at least ill-inspired. And, of course, according to Aristotle you talk to say what there is. At the same time, in 1940, came Mustafa Zewar, he was a psychoanalyst here in France and he came back to Egypt because of the war… He was a novice and, like all novices, he was full of enthusiasm for psychoanalysis. I mean, he would swear by Freud before swearing by God. And the text he used was the Psychopathology of Everyday Life. He used the method of Brill, of trying to find Arabic examples equivalent to the German, and I still remember his examples in Arabic to demonstrate the mechanisms at work in psychopathology. I mean, they were examples that made you laugh, so I didn't know what the hell the function of language was: to say what there is or to make you to laugh? And at the very end of the war, after I’d finished my degree but was still going to lectures, John Wisdom started to talk about Cambridge and Wittgenstein, and the new turn in philosophy.
CM: And at this stage what did you want to be?
MS: At this age what I wanted was - I was top of my class, so I was supposed to have a scholarship. What I wanted was to get a scholarship to leave Egypt, to go to Cambridge. I had another professor who was the professor of Islamic philosophy. He was a Cambridge man this man, Afifi was his name. He was a specialist of Ibn Arabi, the great mystic. His own professor at Cambridge had been Nicholson. He married Nicholson's daughter. I was invited to their house more than once. He was totally a Cambridge man and, for him, I was the heir, and for him I had to go there. Well, I think you know the story, what I wanted was to go to Cambridge and study Philosophy and Logic. But then came the problem of admission; Cambridge was giving absolute priority to the returning soldiers and would not consider any other candidates before all those returning soldiers had finished their studies.
MS: The people who had scholarships used to meet and one day we had a meeting with the French cultural attaché and this man said: "if you are going to wait for Cambridge, you will have to wait for a very long time. Why don't you come to Paris?" As a matter of fact, I was ashamed of myself, because I felt I was betraying my professors, I was betraying myself, I was betraying everything, but I couldn't resist the temptation. Because every day that you were waiting, you could feel that time was running out. So, I accepted the idea because it was also the case that French culture and French thinking were very prominent, were very present. So I accepted.
CM: And so you came to Paris in what year?
MS: In the first days of January, 1946.
CM: And you came as a Philosophy student?
MS: Yes. Philosophy, but I went to see this cultural attaché before I left and he said: "If you really want to make serious studies don't begin a doctorate, start with a licence." I was happy with that suggestion because I wanted to stay as long as possible. So I began a licence en philosophie à la Sorbonne. Then it was university life, which has absolutely nothing to do with what one was imagining as a student in Oxford or Cambridge. I mean, you have no professor, nobody takes care of you... So it was a period when I got to know more about the Catholics and the Communists than about Philosophy itself. Still, I had some good professors, I mean, Bachelard, Jean Wahl, Maurice Merleau Ponty; big names.
CM: When you say Catholics and Communists you mean you were caught up in the political and cultural debates of the time? This is Paris in 1946?
MS: Yeah, this is Paris in 1946. I remember I had a professor in Egypt who was married to a French wife and they asked me to take a big parcel of tea, coffee, sugar, to their family in Paris, and I telephoned the family. This family had an address in the Rue du Bac, very bourgeois; 'la bourgeoisie catholique du septième arrondissement'. So they invited me and I went and, among the people invited, there was a monseigneur, an eminent man of the Church. And I remember, very tactfully, they tried to make me think that the Communists were very far from being the only people who made up the resistance; that the Catholics had also played a part.
And I remember after the dinner we left the table to talk, and I remember that a young lady wanted to tease le monseigneur. And she told him ‘after all Pascal also was existentialiste’ [laughter]. That kind of naughtiness. But she was forgiven. So I took part in these kinds of bourgeois conversation. And, at that time, when you were at lectures, there were fliers saying: ‘do you want to spend this holiday, or this weekend, at such and such village? It's organised by the Holy Catholic Church’. So we always received invitations like that and I went. So, I had experience of Catholic priests and Catholic families and so on. And the same thing with the Communists. Even one of my student colleagues was himself a Communist, and he persuaded me to join the party. I joined and I went to the cell meetings in the Rue Mouffetard. But after two meetings I discovered that I was not made to be a militant [laughter].
CM: How did that relate to your father? Had your father gone on being a Communist through the 1930s and 1940s?
MS: No, my father… when he left the prison in 1927 he worked until 1935, and then in 1935 a law was promulgated which decreed that anybody who had been convicted of political offences had to be fired from government employment. So my father spent seven, eight years - I don't know how many exactly - but it was a period of economic disaster, a period when I really felt what both poverty and social shame meant. But then he managed to resume his work during the war, in 1939/1940 I think, he resumed his work.
CM: But he wasn't active in the Communist Party, then?
MS: No, he was not active, but he was a reference for a large number of people. For example, I remember in Alexandria there was opposition between the Greek Communists and Greek Royalists, and I remember a Greek man called Manoli came regularly every week to see my father, to ask his advice. Even when the Communist Party started during the war, and after the war, they asked his advice. My father was there, but without being a militant.
CM: But he never tried to persuade you to become a member?
MS: No, no, no… He never tried to… no, no he never tried.
CM: So, you are in Paris, you are studying Philosophy at the Sorbonne, spending your weekends with Catholics in the country, and the week with Communists in the Rue Mouffetard. How long does that last? Did you finish your license?
MS: Yeah, I finished the licence in 1950.
CM: You didn't go on to do a doctorate?
MS: The point is that when I came to France, I was left alone. I mean, I had my friends and I had my encounters here and there but without any of the scholarly direction I was expecting and which I would have had at Cambridge or Oxford. So I fell into a state of what you call 'l'apraxie'. It was a very heavy winter looking at the snow, going to concerts at Chatelet or the Champs Elysees, going to plays, sleeping, looking at the snow, seeing friends here and there, but doing no work at all. This was a very new experience for me, to be completely inactive, so I had to ask for an analysis, and I began my psychoanalysis in 1946.
CM: But how could you afford an analysis?
MS: Because I had a very good scholarship.
CM: So you started an analysis in 1946?
MS: In 1946 I went to my analysis with a dream, and you can make any use you want of this. In the dream, I was at the place de la Trocadero, and it was full of big men all clothed as priests, and I said to myself: are all the men in Paris priests? [laughter] And this is the first dream with which I went to my analysis [more laughter].
CM: And who was your analyst?
MS: Schlumberger, because Zewar, my professor of psychoanalysis, came to France with me for his own reasons. He had things to finish in Paris and we came on the same boat. And he was in Sainte Anne – the hospital. And he was already a member of the Société and so on. So when I told him about my state of things, he took me to Nacht, the President of the Society, and Nacht gave me the advice to start with Schlumberger ,because Schlumberger was bilingual in English and French. Nacht had the impression I might find it easier at that moment to begin in English. So I did my analysis with Shlumberger.
CM: And when did you think about becoming an analyst?
MS: I have to say that my analyst himself was very, very attentive to the signifier: the turns of phrase, the expressions, the double meanings, and he had an incredible tact. So, to answer your question, I had a good model of an analyst. No wild interpretations or things of that sort. So I had a good model. Meanwhile, because under Zewar’s encouragement and for my own personal reasons I had opted for a training analysis, I used to go to the Société, to the monthly evenings, and there I saw Lacan, who talked about language. And he gave some conferences in Sainte Anne for the psychiatrists, which were about language, and it was a period when a lot of talk about language began.
So I was fascinated by Lacan, by the idea of language, speech. And I remember in one lecture Bachelard made an allusion to “a young psychologist who doesn't have the reputation he merits, Jacques Lacan”, so I had an impression that the man was well known even in philosophical circles. So when I finished my analysis, as it was training analysis, I wanted to work with Lacan, and that was the end of any other kind of career, because... I mean, I was mobilised.
CM: So Lacan took you on as a trainee… he was your training analyst?
CM: And that began when?
MS: I began with him in November 1949.
CM: And were you his first pupil or were there other pupils?
MS: He had other pupils but, I mean, I had my individual sessions with him.
CM: How many analysts were training with Lacan at that moment in 1949?
MS: I don't know, but Lacan started his seminar at his home in 1951. And at that moment he told me that he was going to begin his teaching and he asked me to attend. So I went, and we were something like twelve, certainly no more than fifteen. But I remember the names, some of them: Anzieu, le père Bernard, Octave Mannoni, La mère de Elizabeth Roudinesco, Serge Leclerc, two other people from Canada, one man called Finkelstein who stayed with the Society of Paris. We were about twelve people.
CM: Right, right. So through the 1950s you are following Lacan, but you go back to Egypt?
MS: I don't remember exactly. I think in 1950 I made a trip to Egypt. I already knew Nimat, my wife, and we went to Egypt, I think it was in 1950, so that we could meet each other’s families, or something like that, but it was a very short holiday, I came back.
CM: Did you miss Egypt when you were in Paris?
MS: Not at all. No.
CM: And you saw yourself as living all your life in Paris?
MS: No, I didn't. Normally I would have gone back to Egypt, which I did, and lived there, working like Zewar, another analyst, but keeping in touch with Europe. Coming whenever I wanted to buying the books I need, as I need... normal life. But what happened is that in December 1953, or January 1954, I went to Egypt, and then Nasser came. This changed things completely. Under Nasser I had to spend five years, it was like the seven year service you have to undertake to have the right to marry a daughter. So I had to do five year service for the Nasserian State in order to have the right to have a visa. But then I left knowing that I will never go back to Egypt. Not the first time but the second time.
CM: What was your view of Nasser?
MS: A dictator.
CM: From the start?
MS: From the start.
CM: You didn't think 'this is National Liberation'?
MS: No, no, no, no… I mean, when people, they begin having fear for their lives you can't expect anything.
CM: And that fear was there from the beginning…
MS: That fear was there because one of the first actions of the Revolution was to hang two workers, because of a strike, I mean… to punish a strike by hanging people...
CM: We now know that the fundamentalism that would fuel al-Qaeda was bred in Nasser’s jails... Did you know at the time that this was happening? Did you have any connections with the world of the Muslim Brotherhood or the fundamentalists?
MS: No, not at all. But I was rather in touch with the Communists. But I am sure I was in Egypt when Nasser was shot at when he was making a speech in Alexandria. I think this was in 1956, or something like that. And there was a shot and I remember it, because I was listening to the radio and I remember him crying in a hysterical way "I die for you, Egypt, I am happy to die for Egypt, my country, my brother country", et cetera, et cetera.
But, as a matter of fact, he didn't die and he took revenge by bringing death, by tens and hundreds, among the Muslim Brotherhood. I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood organised this attack. It is more likely that it was the work of an isolated madman or even of the State itself. I still don’t know the truth of this affair. But anyway, the fact is that there was a savage persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood. There were people who were judged by military tribunals. Most of them were sentenced to death and hanged. The most eminent figure was a man called Qut’b, Said Qut’b. And there was a big discussion among the Brotherhood because in Islam no Muslim has the right to kill a Muslim, unless that Muslim has himself killed a Muslim, and then you have the right to kill the killer. And people like Qut’b considered the acts of these tribunals to be killings, and so they argued that they had a right to kill in return. Now the head of the Muslim Brotherhood wrote a book against these arguments entitled We are Not Judges. But the people who maintained the idea that they had a right to kill the killers, they became the people who killed Sadat, and they became the people who went on to form al-Qaeda.
CM: So you spend five years in Egypt and you come back to Paris, this time knowing you are coming back for good. You come back to a Paris which has moved from the existentialism of Sartre to the structuralism of Levi- Strauss, in intellectual terms.
CM: So you come back to Paris in 1959, has Lacan set up L'école Freudienne yet, or…?
MS: No, it was the Société Française. As you know, when I came to France it was La Société de Paris, but in 1953, there was the first split, break, and Lagache founded the Société Française. And Lacan of course joined him, because the whole story was about Lacan... the institute, and so on. La Société Française was founded in June 1953.
It was the custom then that you became an adherent member by presenting a memoir, and I presented a memoire about a case that I was treating under the supervision of Lacan about nausea in a hysterical patient. So, before leaving for Egypt in December 1953, I had finished my memoire and I gave it, of course, to the Société Française, that is, to Dolto, who was the secrétaire scientifique. And when I was in Egypt, I think in April, I received a letter congratulating me for having been accepted as a member of the society. And when I came back in the first days of January 1959, the Société Française was still there, but the dissensions were very apparent.
CM: Why do psychoanalysts split?
MS: [Pause] In general because in all institutions there are considerations of power, power and authority, and as psychoanalysts are not in institutions governed by the state, when individuals or leaders cannot get on they - or some of them - have the freedom to create something new. It is not like a university where they kill each other inside, but don't split. In a psychoanalytic institution, they split because of considerations of power and because they are not under the patronage of the state.
CM: You come back from Nasser’s Egypt in 1959. In 1959, you have the Cuban Revolution and you have earlier, in 1955, the Bandung conference of third world countries. Were these things that interested you or was it just part of the background?
MS: No, no, no. The Bandung movement was something I was very interested in, as a matter of fact that was the only point on which I agreed with Nasser: his resistance to Dulles. Dulles wanted to enforce the Baghdad pact, and that amounted to dragging the country into the struggle between the two great superpowers. I thought that the people who favoured neutrality were right – why get involved in the fight between America and Russia? So, this alliance between Nasser and Nehru and Chou En Lai and Tito, and the famous meeting at Bandung - these were great days and I was in full agreement.
CM: Zamyn has the idea of trying to bring psychoanalytic perspectives to the problems of development. You are very active in psychoanalysis, you are very concerned and interested in these politics. Did you see any connection between the two at the time, or indeed now?
MS: … No, I don't think I see any connection…I am trying now to find out if there was a connection which escaped me, but…
CM: We are now in the white hot heat of the Lacanian revolution, in the 1960s, Lacan sweeps all before him intellectually. Were you seized with that moment of excitement? Or were you just practicing your psychoanalysis and going to the seminars?
MS: As far as my activity as a psychoanalyst is concerned, a big change took place in the early sixties. I was upgraded, so to say, from adherent member to full member, what you call in French 'member titular', and the 'member titular' can be a teacher. That’s the difference.
CM: So you can teach… you start training other analysts?
MS: So at that moment, the Société Française had received a request from psychiatrists in Strasbourg who wanted to make their training with this society. Now, at the time this society was under the supervision of The International, they wanted to be affiliated to The International and The International said they had to submit to their direction for some years before they could be affiliated. But The International said you can take these people from outside Paris, from Strasbourg.
So the Société Française had to send a training analyst to Strasbourg. I was the only one who was ready to do this kind of work, because I had just relatively recently come back from Egypt, so, I accepted to go, and this was... another great experience. I mean, it had its own validity in itself.
CM: Let’s move to 1968. One striking fact, from the outside, is that after 1968 a large number of the most ultra-left Maoists found their way back into society through Lacanian psychoanalysis. How would you give an account of that?
MS: I talked about Strasbourg and how I was led to go there, to live there, to work there, to have a new experience there, all this meant that I only cared about what was training analysis and my work there, which means that I was really not in the mood to follow what was going on in Paris, but I know that Serge Leclerc had introduced psychoanalysis in the university of Vincennes and Lacan was furious when Serge Leclerc gave his first course, I think it was on the Oedipus. However, Lacan then decided that his teaching of psychoanalysis would go to the university and then Lacan did everything he could to evict Leclerc from the university and to put in his place Jacques Alain Miller. Jacques Alain Miller is a first class organiser. I mean, he loves power and he knows how to take it and how to hold it. So Miller organised the teaching of psychoanalysis at Vincennes, and I think he once asked me if I wanted to teach at Vincennes, but I had no liking either for teaching or for the whole business. And I had my own work which absorbed me sufficiently, so I was outside all this business.
CM: But this is the period you start writing. You publish 'De la structure en psychanalyse' in 1968…
MS: Yes, because I started to learn; to learn from my patients. As a matter of fact, sometimes when I read some pages from an old article, I can remember the name of the man or the woman, the analysand, who inspired it.
CM: In the 1970s, as well as the further spread of Lacanianism, there is also a ferocious attack on Lacan. There’s Deleuze and Guattari’s 'The Anti-Oedipe', there’s Foucault's 'The History of Sexuality'. Intellectually you could describe the 1970s in Paris as for or against psychoanalysis. Did you pay any attention to 'The Anti-Oedipe' or 'The History of Sexuality'?
MS: [Long pause]
I was… following my own way and… the only contemporary name, if you can say so, which seemed to me indispensable, I mean obligatory reading, one you can't ignore… and from which you can learn things, that was Levi Strauss, but otherwise I didn't pay attention to... what was going on, it is only now that I... that I try to see what happened, but particularly in this domain of research, that's anthropology, since Levi Strauss, I mean, you can't afford now... to ignore people like Godelier, people like that. So my own... work... didn't invite me to follow the whole extension of French culture, just the domain of anthropology, and ever since this has been my priority.
Even more important, though not centred on Paris at all, was linguistics and questions of language. Saussure, Jakobson, Chomsky and much of the field of analytic philosophy when it is dealing with language.
CM: Now we approach the splits in the École Freudienne, which must have involved you closely.
MS: I mean… Lacan founded his school I think in 1964… 1964?
MS: Yes… so this school lived for something like fifteen years. Anyway... during all this period he was the Director of the school, and at the same time he chose some people who were the administrators: secrétaire, secrétaire scientifique, trésorier. I never participated in any of these activities, so...
CM: But this is when I first knew you and I had the impression, possibly mistaken, that after the Ecole was dissolved you spent a great deal of time in meetings and discussions.
MS: No, I mean… I never had any influence on, or any participation in, this struggle for power. And I think Lacan himself knew that there are people who are not made for that. For example, he never thought of making Octave Mannoni an officer of the school. He just wasn’t that kind of person. And when Lacan wanted someone to represent him in Strasbourg it wasn't me, it was someone from there who he called his "minister”. But I can't be a minister, so I never had a share in all that, but when the dissolution of the school came, and as I was always a Lacanian and interested in, if not what he was doing at that moment, at least in developing what I had learnt from him, so I accepted to go to Caracas where the new era was to begin, because Jacques Alain Miller asked me to go also.
Afterwards... when we came back from Caracas, the situation became completely confused, simultaneously there was an explosion of institutes created by X, Y... I think one of the main things created was run by three eminent members of the old staff, Falade, Melman and Clavreul, who couldn’t get on together. And there was a series, an endless series, of resignation and it was after such a wave of resignations that Jacques Alain Miller came here one day with a letter written by Lacan. And the letter said something like 'Aidez le, il le merite' (help him, he’s worth it), adding that I asked him to make his analysis with you but 'Melman l’a conic' (Melman trapped him).
So, I put the letter in my pocket and asked Jacques Alain Miller, who was sitting here, why he had chosen Melman. And he replied, “But there was no-one else. You were in Strasbourg and here there was only him”. But he didn’t say that Melman had trapped him. But anyway, I started after even the first meeting, we went together to the delenda meetings, the meetings which Jacques Alain Miller and his group were organising in Paris once a month, or once a week or something like that. So it was a meeting for all those members of the dissolved school who wanted to follow things closely. So we went there, and we continued working for a certain time, and there was the idea of a forum, but then there was an ambiguity between me and Jacques Alain Miller. For him it was the school created by Lacan, L'école de la Cause, which was to organise the forum. For me the forum was to be the occasion to decide what to do about the school, how to create the school. Of course, when I remember things now, I think I was simply out of my depth. I mean, to imagine that you make a forum in which people like Clavreul, Falade, Melman, Leclaire can agree together [Giggles].
No, Lacan and Jacques Alain Miller were absolutely more realistic. And, as a result, I left the whole thing. So I didn't join the new school, I didn't even go to the forum. And that was the end of any participation in institutions, except that years later, I can’t remember too well… maybe in the late 1980’s, a colleague, Jean Clavreul, asked me to create an institution together and I accepted, because I liked him. But anyway, this institution also was a failure it came to an end in four or five years. And since then, that means since the end of the 80’s, I am out of all institutions.
CM: Then you went back to Egypt…
MS: Ah! That's for summer! Ah! I mean… That's… yes, I used to go to Hurghada.
CM: But you had thoughts at that stage of moving back to Egypt.
MS: No, at some moment I played with the idea. I played with the idea because Hurghada was a nice place and you could find no calm anywhere in the Mediterranean, so I said 'you will find the calm you want on the Red Sea', but also all this was just my fantasies. Yes, anyway, it is an idea with which I played, yes...
CM: But then…
MS: In five years’ time there was no more Hurghada.
CM: But out of that came a book 'Why are the Arabs not Free?' Now, you just said that you saw no relation between psychoanalysis and politics but in this book you analyse Egyptian politics in terms of the relations between writing and the sacred. Now your analysis seems to be an analysis which grows out of psychoanalysis. You seem to argue that the condition of political freedom is the separation of writing from the sacred. Now that seems, in part, a psychoanalytic argument.
MS: Yeah, I mean… In the very beginning, when the invention of writing first appeared in the Middle East, that is mainly in Iraq and Egypt, the new technology was considered as a secret. I mean, reserved for those who learnt it, and those who learnt it learnt it in schools supervised by the State and so on… which was not the same thing at all in Greece. In that sense, it was a State secret - it was a State secret at the beginning. Of course, with the evolution of time it became a duty of the State to teach writing to the population…
CM: But you argue very strongly in that book that unless you have writing in the demotic you cannot have democracy.
MS: Yeah, I mean… The idea is that if you distinguish between a language for culture or for thought, that is different from the language that everybody talks, then that distinction keeps the people, the biggest mass of the nation, cut off from any renewal of thought. Even at this moment, I mean… they made the Arab Spring. But now they face the fact that the five or…the six percent of the population represented by the petit bourgeoisie, by the moyenne bourgeoisie, which make Facebook, are completely cut off from the nation. So the nation is still under the burden of the same thought and religion and so on. And the result is that the army exploits the ignorance of the people. When there was the constitutional referendum of March 19th, people who were illiterate were given two circles; one green, which was for, and one black, which was against. In an Islamic culture green is good, so the army got 77% of the votes cast for the solution they wanted. So now the Facebook people are beginning to pay attention to the possibility of using other means of culture for growing a new spirit, for example, they can make poetry in slang or short stories in ordinary language in cassettes, so people can hear. This is a new direction.
CM: But your political thinking about the relation of writing and the sacred, would you say that it is a thought that comes from your reading in anthropology or from your practice as a psychoanalyst?
MS: I mean… no, it may have something to do with analysis as far as analysis makes you feel the full extent of the cunningness of power.
CM: From your analysis in the book, the Arab Spring is only Day 1.
CM: For you, real change will only come with a transformation in the relations between writing and power?
MS: I think there are some very precious gains obtained. For example: a halt to torture, less corruption, an end to arbitrary arrest. There will be less repression and less corruption, which is a good result. But if you hold an election, the only party is the Muslim Brotherhood. They are not the al-Quaeda but still, they will win again and again and again, forever. So… the gains are sure, but the system and its main body as a capitalist, an army capitalist regime, will remain the same, because the army in Egypt is a very, very big capitalist power. The army has its own factories, its own land, and it uses the money it gets from America in making these factories, these industries, and making more wealth. All that will change is that instead of creating a one party regime like Mubarak, they will use the Muslim Brotherhood. Maybe this will be good in the end, because maybe people will see what Islam can do to make us bring solutions to the problems.
Because, I mean... It's easy to say Islam is the solution. Well, which solution? Let us see…but anyway in the meantime, as a capitalist system, a military capitalist system will run with one majority party. Instead of a single party, a majority party which is a religious party. So rule by the Army will remain.
CM: In 'Why are the Arabs are not Free?' I was very struck by how seriously you took arguments from the 1920s and 1930s produced by Islamic scholars who argued that it was un-Islamic to confuse Church and State. Also, in your second edition of Speech or Death, you made even more explicit that a belief in a monotheistic God is essential to a civilised society. How do these thoughts relate to your own attitude to Islam?
MS: I may say I had an education in which religion had no part at all. I mean, my father may have been a believer, but he wasn’t someone who goes to the mosque five times a day and so on, and he didn't try to influence your beliefs, and he was even very tolerant concerning differences. I remember once I attacked a Coptic friend about the Trinity, making a joke in very poor taste about 'three are one and one is three'. My father asked me to be less heavy… So, and we didn't bring people to read Koran for the dead religion never put its feet in our house. So, as a matter of fact, I never went to a mosque, except after I came to Europe and then when I went to Cairo I visited the mosques like a tourist and for the first time.
But the idea of the necessity of the transcendental goes back to Lichtenberg’s aphorism: there exists a species of transcendental ventriloquism by means of which men can be made to believe that something said on Earth comes from heaven. You have to go to heaven, to have an authority, to which everybody can submit. It can't be you and me, it has to come from outside, I mean, heaven is the third. All this idea about a necessity of transcendental is from Lichtenberg’s aphorism. And, of course, psychoanalysis has its share because the efficiency of law as such, is invisible; you have to give law a shape and a person and make it transcendental. The transcendental is the only mechanism by which you can imagine law or even give effectiveness to law. That is the necessity of the imaginary to grasp the symbolic.
After the first interview was transcribed I had long conversations with Michael Aminian and Hanif Kureishi in relation to Zamyn’s concerns. I went back to the Rue Guénégaud in November, determined to gain a more personal picture of Lacan and to press Safouan further on the links between politics and psychoanalysis.
CM: What kind of man was Lacan? What kind of man was he when you met him, and how did he develop?
MS: Well, the reason I chose him to be my training analyst after I had finished my primary analysis and started taking patients was because of my interest in language. He was the only psychoanalyst who, most unexpectedly, I heard talking about language – his concept of speech and all that. As to the kind of man he was. Well, if you ask anyone, say Lagache or Dolto, any analyst in France, America or England, to be your training analyst, they understand that request as a request which puts them in the position of a teacher. Their job is to teach you analysis according to their conception. I can give you examples that are practically comic. Lagache, for example, was so rigid: “Where’s the transference now?”, "It was the father…” et cetera.
Lacan didn’t share in this conception in any way. Not only that, he just let you do your work. And I never felt in him - as a man whom I knew personally, as a teacher - the desire to teach, or the desire to transmit. But then the question becomes, how did I learn? I learned in relation to the material that we discussed, and the material makes you face some questions, produce some interpretations. I learned in relation to very particular moments in the analyses that we were discussing.
To give you an example: my first patient was a worker, a carpenter. During one of his sessions he had a fantasy of practicing fellatio with an unknown figure. When I reported this in my supervisory meeting with Lacan, I suggested the idea or possibility that transference was at work and the unknown figure was the analyst. At that Lacan smiled and said, “Ah! You are not the only one in the room. He is there.” So, for the first time, I realised how far the body image could crystallise - could attract such a powerful sexual investment - even though it remains unidentified exactly because of the power of the investment.
CM: It’s just his imaginings?
MS: Yes. The man was himself. The thing to which he refers when he talks about himself is his body image. So the body image was erotically charged, and that’s why it was unidentified. Are you interested in examples like that?
CM: Yes, very interested.
MS: Even with this man, there was another moment. He told me about a visit to the place where he worked. The visitor was the son of the owner of the whole enterprise—the heir. And even after, I remember clearly the way he talked about it. It was a volcano of hate. Calling him a faggot, a no good, a pussy. Describing him in every detail—the kind of shirt buttons he had, the kind of necktie he wore, the way he walked. Hate can be analytical. He detailed him, trait by trait.
Listening to him, I was impressed. And after he finished this long discourse that was at least ten minutes, if not a quarter of an hour, he just stopped. As if he had become aphasic, completely run out of steam. And then he said, “It seems as if I have finished masturbating.”
When I met Lacan, I told about him about this story from the perspective of what we were taught about relations to older men. The carpenter had an older brother. I thought it was the hate of the brother. That was the only time that Lacan showed himself impatient. He said “You shouldn’t be trying to find identification. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that it finishes with masturbation.” And then I could see how hate can be just as powerful an eroticiser as love.
So these are the things I could learn with him from the material that I bought to him. Another example was a case of male hysteria. The patient had consulted Lacan at St Anne, and Lacan had sent him to me. He was a commercial traveller and he had a phobia about means of transport. He could only travel by car. He only felt safe in his car.
It was clear that the superego was present in the case. It was unmistakable. However, this was a man who had never known his father. His mother died when he was two and immediately afterwards his father just disappeared. He was brought up by his grandmother. So, theoretically you have a problem. How can you have a superego that is too strong when you don’t have a father?
But then in 1951, Lacan began his seminar, and he introduced the distinctions between the imaginary, symbolic, and real fathers. So I had started with him in 1949, but it was the beginning of his seminar in 1951, in his apartment on Rue de Lille, that I began to interest myself in his teaching. He didn’t teach me but he had a teaching, and I did interest myself in that.
CM: You’ve often spoken to me about Lacan’s teaching, but he was also an extraordinary figure.
MS: I’m coming to that. However, to explain many things about this extraordinary figure, you must also understand how over time, through the years and through the decades, how his audience changed. His change of audience is very important. His first audience was fifteen people sitting in a room at his home. People like Anzieu, Serge Leclaire, Madame Roudinesco, Dolto, Mannoni. They were adults, and most of them were in analysis with him, either primary analysis or training analysis.
In 1953 began the business of the split with the Société Française. As you know, the split began because of the conception which Nacht wanted to impose on the psychoanalytic institution. The psychoanalytic institution was supposed to take total responsibility for training the analyst, and this training would follow a strict set of rules. And these rules would be enforced by sanctions.
Against this, Lacan wanted to promote a more liberal conception, but he never put in question the idea of training itself. Independently of Lacan there were many younger people who protested against these rules. And when Lacan found himself in a minority and Lagache announced the creation of the Société Française, this new society could never have existed without the energy of these young people. Remember, these people were in their thirties, some of them participated in the Resistance. These people and the other first founders of Société Française were Lacan’s first public audience.
That next five years I was trapped in Egypt, but I knew the people who formed this audience. They were mostly in their thirties, and they were well established in their careers. Either in the university, or in publishing, or as psychiatrists with medical responsibilities. So they were people who could not consider themselves as pupils and Lacan as a master.
And here is the contrast: Lacan had never showed any desire of forming me, of teaching me, of transmitting something to me. In his relationship with this audience, he was truly Messianic. When he talked to them he called them his pupils, his spokesmen, even his apostles. To show you to what extent he went with this attitude, I remember a small reception at Lacan’s home in the Rue de Lille. And Lacan introduced one of his pupils to Jakobson and said “This is my Saint John”. At that Jakobson - what a traitor - smiled and said that when they were casting medieval Passion Plays there were always plenty of people who wanted to play St John but it was always very difficult to find anybody to play Judas.
CM: But why did that happen? Why did Lacan move from being a figure without this Messianic quality to suddenly introducing, without any irony, his pupils as St John?
MS: It was not a change. When he worked with me, personally, I’ve never worked more authentically with anybody in my life than with him. But when he addressed a larger audience he changed. He had a very high estimation of his work, of his innovations. As a matter of fact, he introduced concepts that were absolutely new, and they became common currency. The very concept of the Other as the site of language and speech. He was recreating psychoanalysis and he made it his life's work. Maybe you need such a narcissistic dimension in relation to your work so that you can find the energy and the reasons to devote your life to it. There are people who have the character of being single-minded and dedicated. And then you get the dimension of preaching. It became a cause, the cause of psychoanalysis, the cause of civilisation, and the enemy was the homo psychologicus. I can’t explain the difference, but I see it. And it was a mistake. I remember that people would get tired of making resumes and accounts of the seminars, and then they would ask me to take over the task. I mean everybody has their own ideas about the future; they don’t want to just dedicate themselves as followers.
They admitted that he was bringing very new concepts and a whole new perspective. As a matter of fact, Lacan himself always dealt with his audience as if he was working for them. He was like a father who always tells the family, 'I am working, I am tired, and I do all of this to feed you…' I mean, the giver never disappeared from his gift. But they tolerated that because he had a passion for the truth. And even if you take someone like Mannoni, he was already a man of nearly fifty, he had his own culture - he really had a solid literary culture - and of course, he appreciated Lacan very much. He considered Lacan as a master, but not in a way that implied that he himself was a pupil.
And someone like Laplanche considered that Lacan was a genius. He had no doubt about that but he also thought that he was a bad teacher. So if you consider this second audience; everybody had his own judgment, his own message, his own idea about his own future. Nobody was ready to consecrate his life to the work, to be the prophet of Lacan.
And then we come to the famous split with the International. When the negotiations began with the International the majority were with Lacan. But things evolved in such a manner that Lacan himself was in a conflicted situation. The people who negotiated with the International, such as Leclaire, were his pupils, either he was their analyst or their training analyst. And so, he was with them through to the very end, but when they had accepted the conditions, he defended them. Maybe because Leclaire persuaded him that these final resolutions of the International were not final; they could renegotiate again. So he was with the people who negotiated, which inhibited him from saying: 'Stop the negotiations.' Many people had said, 'stop the negotiations', but when they found Lacan himself probably out of solidarity with his pupils, and because he wanted to be in the International - he himself wanted to be - they had enough of it.
And so there were five people called 'les motionaires' because they signed a document called 'La motion des cinq'. The five included Laplanche and Pontalis. For them, Lacan was no longer a man invaded by the love of truth, he was simply what they called ‘a man obsessed by the unmastered passion for mastery’. And so, they voted against him. Then you know the rest of the story, the Société Française went with the International and Lacan founded his own school. It was at that point that he left Sainte Anne and went to the École Normale Supérieure This was a completely new audience. Completely new. Remember that Lacan had always looked for someone who would do the work. What did it mean for someone to be his prophet? It meant to publish his seminars. Because he could not write, he only had time to teach. Teaching was his priority. But he always complained about this “Monumental desert of his work”, and that meant the typescripts of the seminars that were stacked in the cupboard. That’s the “monumental desert”. Who is going to take on this task? He had always hoped that Laplanche or Pontalis or even a Normalien called Jacques Nassif.
And then came Jacques-Alain Miller. Jacques-Alain was extremely brilliant with an unimaginable capacity for organisation. A capacity not just for organising but also for directing. He was a leader; a very cold and calculating leader. Someone who will talk calmly with a visitor, and, as he leads, makes a sign that he must be executed.
When Melman attacked Jacques-Alain Miller after the dissolution of the school and denounced his project to take hold of the whole heritage of Lacan, it was really something, because they were analyst and analysand. They were always seen as accomplices. It was a big surprise to everybody. So when Melman finished his speech full of hate, like the hate we just talked about, Jacques-Alain, who was sitting beside me, just looked at me and said, smiling: “it’s better to hear that than to be deaf”. He has astonishing sang-froid.
He has a tremendous fascination for money. A tremendous fascination. Lacan, by that time, completely despised those who he had called his pupils. He was expecting nothing from them. He said that he didn’t even know why they came to his seminar. All the expressions of hate of the old guard, and all the contempt, can be found on every page of the seminar. But Jacques Alain, and I was talking about his fascination with money, he didn’t just express his contempt for the old guard’s intellectual capacities, he constantly said that these people had earned their living by using the name of Lacan. He gave the impression that every centime that went into the pocket of a Lacanian had been stolen from the family, and that put him in a state of rage.
Even in a recent dispute with Le Seuil over a book of Roudinesco, he said: “Up till now, I let her prosper.” As if it was he who had earned her money. He’s mad. But I can’t say, as others do, that he used Lacan because Lacan had become senile. Lacan was not senile at all. The dishonesty in the business at the end is that Lacan never admitted his part in his failure.
The school was more than a thousand people. You can’t erase a thousand people. At the very end, after the dissolution, there was a big reunion and he was already relatively feeble, weak, and disgusted. And he just looked at the thousand people there and he said: “Vous equilibrez l’Internationale” (You equal the International in numbers).
But he forgot that he himself wanted to take his revenge. He was very vengeful, Lacan. After the dispute about la passe, and when his old pupils had left him, he had no respect even for the people he was leading. So, his practical conclusion was: 'Well, you want a master? Then I’ll give you one.' But it was the most cynical conclusion you can imagine.
CM: I wonder if I could come back to your own encounter with psychoanalysis. You arrive in Paris in 1945 as a philosophy student. You come from an Islamic country in which there is no tradition of psychoanalysis at all. Within a year, you are not only in analysis, but you are in a training analysis.
MS: No, I wasn’t in a training analysis. As you know, I was meant to go to Cambridge but instead I came to Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne. But the Sorbonne didn’t teach you anything. As a matter of fact, you don’t learn anything in French universities. The reality of the Sorbonne had nothing to do with what I had been expecting to do at Cambridge – to prepare a thesis with a professor. So, I just felt lost. I had symptoms: lethargy, a complete lack of energy, sleeping, wandering about without purpose, spending my time in cafés where there was music.
Now, there were three factors in my decision to transform my analysis into a training analysis. The first was that my teacher in Egypt was adamant that I become an analyst. But this was not enough. The second was my analyst, a man called Schlumberger. He was bilingual and very well read. He was a medical man, a psychiatrist but he was hugely cultured. For example, I encountered the works of Joyce through him. And he never made any wild or rigid interpretations. He was so nice - as a matter of fact, he was a Lacanian without knowing the theses of Lacan. So I liked psychoanalysis and the way I experienced its discoveries of how I was a victim of words. Thirdly, there was Lacan himself, who was then beginning to give lectures here and there about psychoanalysis and language. So, these three factors taken together gave me the idea of going on.
I’d like to tell you something about Lacan himself. The man himself, I saw only in two situations, but what I saw makes it impossible for me to believe that he ever signed something that was written for him and that he didn’t agree with.
The first was when his house was invaded by two robbers. I had an appointment with him at seven o’ clock. I went a little late, five or ten past seven. We had hardly started working when we heard the maid, Paquita, utter a horrible cry, and Lacan ran to see what was going on. I saw him immediately coming back with his face bleeding from where he’d been hit, and a man behind him pushing him and dragging the poor Paquita into the room. Behind this first man there was another man, masked, with a revolver.
They wanted money, and Lacan gave them money. Then the man with the pistol stood guard over us while the other went and searched the whole apartment. He came back and said he couldn’t find anything – not even a cheque. And Lacan said to them “Do you think I swim in gold?” It was an interpretation, and it was not bad. Anyway, when we were alone with the man with the gun he said “What do you want. My life? I’m sixty years old. If it’s my life you want then take it.” He wasn’t joking – if the man wanted his life then he could take it. You shouldn’t interpret this as the sign of a man who was tired of living, or had run out of energy, like you could say of Trotsky at the end of his life. He was a man who had always been decided from the very beginning of his life to live with, as you say in French, 'le tombeau ouvert' – with the coffin open. Life was not everything. He said to the thief “You know that when I make a lot of money I give some to left organisations but not like this”. Once they left, the first thing he said before calling the police was “These young people are so stupid”. As if this stupidity was the only thing that bothered him. There is no Mephistopheles who could have persuaded a man like that to sign a text he didn’t want to sign.
The other comes right at the very end, in Caracas. He was practically in another world. I remember him standing in the aisle in the plane, looking lost, and the air hostess asked, “What are you looking for?” And he said “The door”. So he was really out of it. And then in Caracas itself I saw him supported by his daughter, Judith, and another young woman. It reminded me of a seminar he had given at the end of the fifties, beginning of the sixties, on Oedipus at Colonnus. He described Oedipus at the end of his life, supported on each side by a daughter, determined to accept his fate but to lift the curse from his children. This description made a very strong impression on me. When I saw Lacan in Caracas I thought of that description, but Lacan did not have that determination; he was a tired old man.
But then the moment came that he had to read. People had come from everywhere in Latin American. It was the New World. The English had found a New World in North America in the sixteenth century and now psychoanalysis was finding a New World in Latin America at the end of the twentieth. He had a paper. So this man, who could not take two steps without support from these young women, who was completely out of it, drew himself to his feet. There was a hushed silence. He leant on the table and looked at the papers in front of him. The whole audience trembled. He began to read, word by word, with an incredible determination. The energy that he was drawing to read the paper was much more impressive than anything that he said. But I am sure that he had read the paper, had approved every word, and even probably made corrections to it.
All that to say that Lacan really found in Jacques Alain Miller, his prophet. Someone who could be a leader, someone with a good understanding of his work, who dedicated, possibly because of money, but all the same, who dedicated his whole life to Lacan. This is much more that writing a biography, much more than Boswell did for Johnson. That’s a lot.
CM: Zamyn is an organisation dedicated to the belief that there are psychoanalytic perspectives on political development. When I asked you in the first half of this interview if you saw any relationship between psychoanalysis and politics, you said no. However In psychoanalysis, the aim is to allow the patient to speak, to allow the patient to find a voice, a language. If we think about Egypt today, aren’t we thinking about the hope that a people will find a language and a way of speaking? Is there not a relation there?
MS: Could you rephrase the question?
CM: Psychoanalysis gives its patients a way to talk about themselves. Isn’t Egypt today a nation trying to find a language in which it can describe itself? Doesn’t that suggest a relation between psychoanalysis and politics?
MS: You can only give psychoanalysis to people who ask for it. And the people who can ask for it are the people who can have the idea that a symptom, like an obsession or hysterical vomiting, can be treated by science. Because every society has its own methods to cope with hysteria, to cope with obsessions. Societies have their magicians and their procedures to deal with these things. Even psychotics were accepted, treated - there were methods to meet this.
Let’s take the case of an Egyptian peasant whose wife become psychotic on giving birth. He has a method for treating such cases, it’s called al-zar. It’s a ritual with songs and invocations to the devil to leave. It’s a shock treatment and it can be very effective. And when a man is impotent, he doesn’t go to a psychoanalyst. He believes this is the work of magic and he has to find an anti-magic that is even stronger.
The people who ask for psychoanalysis are the people who live in Cairo and Alexandria. Cairo now has eighteen million inhabitants. Among them, you’ll hardly find one million among the doctors, architects, engineers, different professions - who might consider using psychoanalysis. But they are not a nation. As a matter of fact, the very idea of the nation state doesn’t exist.
CM: Let us agree that one of the major problems in the world is the speed with which people identify with the throne and the altar. Now you could say, if you wanted an optimistic view of the future, there must be some way of undoing those identifications. Can psychoanalysis not provide some indications?
MS: To me, there is no future. And I even wonder if there was a past. Remember that the idea of the past, of keeping the pyramids and visiting this and that, these are European ideas. People live their everyday life and it is as regular as the sunrise and the sunset over the same mud houses that they’ve lived in for a thousand years, and which we saw together. This will never change.
The only thing that can change is to teach - to ask the state to teach - spoken Arabic in the schools, as well as classical Arabic. But no government would ever accept to do that. And even the people who are now leading the revolution, they never think of formulating such a question, because they don’t see its importance.
Even the cultivated people will tell you 'Do you think because people read they will change?' Even the cultivated. People are imprisoned in religious dogma for thousands of years, and they’re satisfied with it, and because of it, they can bear life, they can have hope.
CM: We can all agree that in the movement from member of a tribe to citizen of a state, a great gain is made, but, at the same time, something is also lost. Is it possible to think of a status that would retain the benefits of citizenship but reclaim some of the benefits of membership of the tribe? Is this not one way of understanding the tremendous success of Mohammed’s teaching, that he seeks to retain some of the strength of tribal bonds, the umma, in a world increasingly made up of citizens?
MS: The downhill slope, as far as the tribe is concerned, had already begun in the sense that before, there weren’t tribes but there were very close familial relations that enabled people to live. If someone was unemployed he was helped by his brother or his cousin, who was under an obligation to help him. And then there was respect of the young for the old, so that the old could live and even be honoured without working to earn their living. But the dissolution of these bonds did not mean that the citizen was created. There was no compensation.
The man who becomes dissociated from his family, from his tribe, he goes to the city where he hears the mosques everywhere and the call to prayer five times a day, where the imams stuff his head with dogma. In the city this man becomes more religious than ever. There was a time, I talk of my own experience, when a member of the proletariat would feel solidarity for the comrade who was on strike, now he prefers to take money to betray them to the government. The trade unions have just become agents of the government. In a strike, half were striking and half were spying on the strikers. The culture of working together for the common good has just never existed.
MS: Because power is absolute, and absolute power is the negation of anything that one could call civil society. There is nothing that you can call society in Egypt – nothing where people can associate themselves together to defend an interest. Absolute power will not allow such an association.
CM: Can I return to more personal matters? In your first interview you spoke of that period of your life when you split yourself between Paris and Strasbourg. Can you explain how that worked administratively?
MS: There was a moment when there was work to be done in Strasbourg – the taking on of a number of training analysts. I was the only teacher available because I had been in Egypt. So I was free to take on this work. So Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday morning I was in Strasbourg and I was back in Paris by Thursday night.
CM: To pursue another question from the first interview. After 1968, a lot of gauchistes reintegrated themselves into society through Lacanian analysis. When I asked about this you responded in terms of the university but my question wasn’t really institutional. It was why you thought that these gauchistes reintegrated themselves in society through Lacanian analysis.
MS :Psychoanalysis has nothing to do with integration.
CM: No, but I will say to you as a historical fact that many gauchistes found their way back to a more normal life through psychoanalysis.
MS: These were not the kind of people I knew in Strasbourg. French psychoanalysis was foreign to Strasbourg. There was only one copy of The Interpretation of Dreams in French. German was and is still the language of Alsace so they didn’t need any French translations of Freud. And when, after the war, someone talked about translating Freud, the idea seemed ridiculous. They said, “You can’t be a psychoanalyst if you don’t know German. If you want to be a psychoanalyst go and read Freud.” So, when I went I had nothing to do with gauchiste circles.
CM: No, but I’m not talking directly of your experience. In Paris, in the early seventies, lots of young people who had really gone a long way outside society came back…
MS: That’s true, maybe, that’s true. It seems so, in a way. I think it was mainly because of the prestige of Lacan. Because Lacan - this is also one of the reasons for what he called his 'failure', but he would never admit it. He always wanted to have a seminar that would constitute a Parisian event, he wanted a seminar that would be more of an event than Bergson’s had been. He was invested as a new voice with a new liberating word. So people wanted psychoanalysis because of that.
CM: Three final questions. Your argument about Arabic is that we have classical Arabic and there are a set of demotic Arabics that are effectively incommunicable. Your account is an account which relies almost entirely on written texts, but the major medium for the transmission of the language is now television. What difference has that made? Is there not a kind of semi-lingua franca that is being developed by the televisions?
MS: People more and more use demotic Arabic in television and radio. But the point is that television and radio are still a state monopoly, so it is demotic but it is dominated by the state.
CM: Second; there is a very brilliant book called Dido’s Daughters by Margaret Ferguson. She writes about the Renaissance and the beginnings of education in the European demotics. In your argument there is the trace of a utopian belief in the demotic as the mother tongue. Ferguson argues that in Europe, in the 16th and 17th centuries, the teaching of the mother tongue was transferred from the home to the schools. The forms of teaching in the schools were masculine so the mother tongue was de-feminized.
MS: They may be male teachers but the masculine language that they use among themselves is the language that every one of them has learned from their mother.
CM: Third; is there no relation between psychoanalytic modes of explanation and political modes of explanation?
MS: Politics is power. If there is anything that you gain from psychoanalysis, it is to renounce power, which is called castration.
CM: Then is there no way of introducing castration into politics?
MS: Castrate Sarkozy?
CM: A final clarification. In the first interview you give a simple chronology. You grow up and study in Egypt, you come to France. By political accident you get trapped in Egypt for five years in the fifties but as soon as you can you return to France. Simple. But there was a period in the late eighties when you really made an effort to return to Egypt. Have you forgotten that?
MS: My friends there are dead. I had three friends. We were of the same people, the same Egypt, born between the twenties and the thirties. The epoch of what I called in the first interview, l’epoque des lettres. The last one died in 2006. His name was Mohammed Auda. Did I tell you his last words? When he was in hospital, ill to the point of near-death… I mean, no power at all, even physically—no teeth, no capacity. But he just was there and we were all around him; he didn’t participate, but he was there and he was listening. And then came a girl who tapped him on the shoulder and she said, “Do you know, Mr. Auda, that I am one of your greatest admirers?” And Auda replied, "Please leave your address”.