“Freud’s dream”?
Some remarks on Lacan’s critique of the Oedipus complex in relation to his theory of hysteria in The Other side of Psychoanalysis

Philippe Van Haute


In this article we present Lacan’s critique of the Freudian Oedipus Complex as we find it in his seminar on the The other side of Psychoanalysis. In this seminar Lacan calls the Oedipus Complex Freud’s dream, meaning by this that it has to be analyzed like any other symptom. According to Lacan the Oedipus Complex is a compromise formation that both shows and obscures the fundamental truth of desire, namely castration as an effect of language. In this way Lacan separates the problem of castration from reference to the murder of the father and, in turn, the Freudian Oedipus complex. Lacan further shows that the tragedy of Oedipus does not revolve around desire for the mother but a desire to know and the impossibility of this knowledge ever coinciding with truth. In this way the figure of the (castrated) master, that Oedipus incarnates, replaces the figure of the (murdered) father. We further develop and exemplify this perspective in relation to Lacan’s reading of Dora as we find it in The Other Side. In this way we can show in what respect this seminar is a necessary step towards the seminar Encore that completes the progressive ‘de-oedipalisation’ of Lacanian theory.

Keywords: Oedipus Complex – Dream - Castration - Master Discourse - Hysteria.



In his seminar on The other side of Psychoanalysis – and more particularly in the chapter entitled “Beyond the Oedipus complex” (Lacan 1969-70, pp. 87-140) - Lacan mercilessly criticizes the Freudian Oedipus complex. In this seminar, he calls the Oedipus complex – one of psychoanalytic theory’s major clinical concepts - “useless” in the clinical setting (Lacan 1969-70, p. 113). He also notes his surprise that this discovery was not made before (Lacan 1969-70, p. 113). Lacan writes that clinical experience should have shown psychoanalysts that the Freudian Oedipus complex is unable to adequately account for the relationship between the hysterical patient and the mythical master figure from whom she expects an answer to all her questions. Hysterical patients themselves continuously set up this master figure and seek his counsel and advice... until he fails.1 One can think here of the famous Dora-case that in many respects plays a paradigmatic role in Freud’s theory of hysteria (Freud 1905a). Dora categorically dismisses Freud’s interventions, exposing in this way the inadequacy of his knowledge. In this regard, Lacan says that the hysterical patient incarnates the truth of the master that she herself sets up, namely, that he falls short structurally and is inadequate.2 Since the hysterical patient is not herself aware of this, she has no other choice but to stage this truth time and again.

In order to fully comprehend this claim, we must first take a step back. In The other side of psychoanalysis Lacan calls the Oedipus complex “Freud’s dream” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 135, p. 159), by which he means that Freud’s formulation of this complex should be interpreted like any other dream. More specifically, it means that the theoretical articulation of this complex reveals, in a disguised way, something about Freud’s own unconscious desire3 that simultaneously obscures his vision of the truth of the Oedipus myth. According to Lacan, this truth is the structural and inevitable castration of the master, which is an effect of language.4 This truth is lost in Freud’s interpretation of the myth (Lacan 1969-70, p. 130). The Freudian myth about a primal father who owns all the women and is murdered by his jealous sons should also be interpreted in such a way that its latent content can surface. As in the Freudian reading of Sophocles, the theme of the death of the father and patricide in this Freudian myth also hides the structural and insurmountable character of castration. Had Freud not allowed himself to become blinded by the neurotic problems of his patients in which the murder of the father unconsciously played a crucial role, he might have realised that what is at stake in the Oedipus myth is the truth and impossibility of ever completely merging this truth with knowledge (Lacan 1969-70, pp. 134-135). According to Lacan, Oedipus personifies the master figure and his castration.

I begin by discussing Lacan’s idea that the Oedipus complex is “Freud’s dream” and proceed to analyze Lacan’s re-interpretation of the Oedipus myth. In so doing I suggest that Lacan’s theory of the four discourses replaces the structural role of the Oedipus complex. Next I illustrate the clinical relevance – especially as it concerns an understanding of hysteria - of this new theory through a short commentary on Lacan’s remarks concerning the Dora-case in The other side of psychoanalysis. Finally, this illustration makes clear how far this theory takes us from Freud’s text.

1.Freud reads Sophocles5

Freud’s first reference to the Oedipal problematic occurs in his letters to Fliess (Freud 1986). He writes that he discovered in himself the infatuation with the mother and the rivalry with the father. He further adds that this theme characterises everybody’s childhood, which explains why the Oedipus myth continues to make such a strong impression on us. At one time in our youth all of us were little Oedipuses. Even if we have repressed these infantile wishes, they remain active in our unconscious. This makes possible our remaining under the spell of King Oedipus’ fate, despite our intellectual reservations against fate’s determining our existence (Freud 1985, p. 272).

Freud returns to this Oedipal theme in The Interpretation of dreams in his chapter concerning typical dreams (Freud 1900, from 248 onwards). He devotes a number of pages to dreams about the death of loved ones, not only siblings but also parents, specifically, a parent of the opposite sex than that of the dreamer (Freud 1900, p. 256). He also connects these dreams with infantile Oedipal desires repressed after puberty but that remain active in the unconscious.

Freud refers to the Oedipus myth and Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus Rex to support this argument. He writes that “… a legend… has come down to us from classical antiquity: a legend whose profound and universal power to move can only be understood if the hypothesis I have put forward in regard to the psychology of children has an equally universal validity” (Freud 1900, p. 261). Freud rejects the belief that the legend’s tragic effect lies in the contrast between the almighty will of the gods on the one hand and humankind’s inability to escape the evils that threaten it on the other (Freud 1900, p. 262). On the contrary, he writes that “King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our own childhood wishes” (Freud 1900, p. 262). Freud finds support for this argument in Sophocles’ work as well. Jocaste herself mentions to Oedipus a dream dreamt by many people: “Many a man ere now in dreams hath lain with her who bare him. He hath least annoy who with such omens troubleth not his mind” (line 982 ff, cited in Freud 1900, p. 264). Freud says this dream is but the complement to that regarding the death of the father. Hence, the Oedipus fable is nothing more than our phantasy’s reaction to both of these typical dreams (Freud 1900, p. 264). Since these dreams are unacceptable to adults, this fable must also incorporate fright and self-punishment (Freud 1900, p. 264). Oedipus gouges out his own eyes when he realises what he has done.

Notice that in his discussion, Freud fails to draw a distinction between the Oedipus myth, with its different versions, and Sophocles’ tragedy (Lacan 1969-70, p. 131). Neither does he question the political or cultural context in which this legend was created. Freud believes reference to the two childhood desires just mentioned provides a sufficient understanding of this tragedy. He limits himself to the most manifest level of the Oedipus myth and its meaning (Lacan 1969-70, p. 130 ff). At this level he most definitely has a point: Oedipus commits two crimes that Freud believes constitute the core of the Oedipus legend, of which he wants to understand the lasting impact. Lacan nevertheless notes that this limitation of the legend’s meaning at the same time denudes it of all tragic effect (Lacan 1969-70, p. 131; p. 134).

One can indeed find in Sophocles’ text, as Freud justly remarks, an explicit reference to the desire to sleep with the mother, but desire to kill the father is a much more complicated issue. First, Freud introduces this desire in a chapter about typical dreams that contain references to the death of loved ones, but none that refer to patricide. There is an unexplained gap in his argument here. Nor is this theme as obviously evident in the tragedy of Sophocles as Freud claims it to be. It is true that Laius’ murder gives Oedipus access to his mother, but Oedipus murders his father without realising it. Moreover his father is only his father in the strictly biological sense. Laius only provides the seed from which Oedipus is conceived (Lacan 1969-70, p. 148).

2. A psychoanalytical origin tale: totem and taboo6

The Freudian Oedipus complex cannot be separated from the myth regarding society’s origin that Freud himself designs in Totem and taboo (Freud 1913). “Origin myth” is not in fact a fitting description of the tale Freud tells in that work. He believes the tale describes the real origin of human society and history. It has often been argued that the theory of the Oedipus complex is a continuation of this “origin myth” since this myth can be understood as historical justification for this complex. However, Lacan remarks that it is indeed strange that no one has been concerned with the fact that the content of Totem and taboo differs strongly from Freud’s characteristic reference to the tragedy of Sophocles (Lacan 1969-70, p. 131). The role and meaning of the (murder of the) father are indeed central in both the classic Oedipus complex and the origin myth from Totem and taboo, but this role is different in the two cases. In the classic Oedipus complex the law of the father prohibits intercourse with the mother and, vice versa, Oedipus must first kill his father to sleep with his mother (Lacan 1969-70, p. 139). Here patricide provides access to an incestuous pleasure.7

Matters are completely different in Totem and taboo.8 In that work, Freud conceptualises a myth about humanity’s origin in which the starting point is less the law than an unlimited enjoyment – of the father this time. Freud was himself absolutely convinced of its truth. The original father figure, writes Freud, owned all the women, denying his sons access in the process. This is the reason he is murdered. The sons hoped patricide would ensure their participation in the father’s unlimited pleasure. But the murder does not have its intended effect. Following his murder, the sons continue feeling obliged to the father’s laws. Freud writes that their behaviour is guided by guilt. They are obedient in a differed way, not so much to avoid “a war of all against all” for ownership of the women, but because they feel guilty about the murder. The sons not only feared and hated their father, they also loved him. In this way, the power of the “dead father” can be greater than that of the living father (Freud 1913, 149). Hence, this murder results not in access to an incestuous and unlimited pleasure but rather submission to the law of the father.

3. Freud’s dream

I already mentioned that Lacan believes the Freudian Oedipus complex should be read as a dream of Freud’s. His thoughts on the matter should be interpreted like those of any other dream. We must first ask ourselves: where does Freud’s patricidal theme stem from? In this context Lacan refers to the preface of The interpretation of dreams (Lacan 1969-70, p. 141), where Freud writes the following regarding this book’s significance to him: “It was, I found, a portion of my own self-analysis, my reaction to my father’s death – that is to say, the most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life” (Freud 1900, p. xxvi). We remember that Freud interprets the dream of the father’s death from the perspective of a childhood desire to murder the father. This would consequently allow the little child access to the mother.9 Hence the dream of murdering the father is a reaction to his death: “Freud,” Lacan writes, “thus wished to be guilty for his father’s death” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 122)

To understand this claim, we should once again turn our attention to Lacan’s interpretation of Totem and taboo. The father’s murder is central in this case as well. Moreover, Freud understands this murder as a historic event. “What is there to conceal?” Lacan asks and answers: “That, as soon as the father enters the field of the master’s discourse where we are in the process of orientating ourselves, he is, from the origins, castrated…” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 101).10 The theme of patricide is nothing more than a defence against castration. How should we understand this?

In this instance Lacan refers to a patient’s dream Freud discusses in his chapter on “absurd dreams” in The interpretation of dreams. This dream runs as follows: “His father was alive once more and was talking to him in his usual way, but (the remarkable thing was that) he had really died, only he did not know it” (Freud 1900, p. 430, Freud’s italics). This dream becomes intelligible, writes Freud, if one adds “in consequence of the dreamer’s wish after “but he had really died”. The same is true of “He did not know” if it is supplemented with “that the dreamer had this desire” (Freud 1900, p. 430). Lacan says that Freud’s introduction of the theme of the murder of the father, this dream, and Totem and taboo’s origin myth all indicate an attempt to obscure the father’s castration – in other words, his actual limitations and mortality. As long as we are capable of believing (unconsciously) that the father’s death is the consequence of murder, we are also capable of believing that his death is the exclusive consequence of this murder. Or, in the terminology of Totem and taboo, as long as we believe that collective patricide terminated the father’s enjoyment, we are also capable of misrecognising the structural character of castration – the impossibility of unlimited enjoyment or jouissance outside the law (Lacan 1969-70, pp. 141-143).

4. Castration as the truth of the Oedipus complex

According to Lacan, Freud’s emphasis on the historical character of the origin myth in Totem and taboo and, more generally, his emphasis on the father’s murder, should be understood as a misrecognition of castration’s structural character. Totem and taboo implies a misrecognition of castration as the ultimate truth of desire and the subject. As with any other dream, however, Freud’s origin myth not only obscures. Lacan points out that this myth simultaneously highlights an important truth about desire, albeit in a distorted way. By postulating a similarity between the dead father and unlimited jouissance (Lacan 1969-70, pp. 143-144), this tale indicates an impossibility. Someone who is deceased cannot, after all, take pleasure. Hence, Lacan equates the dead father with the “real”, according to the formula that “the real is the impossible” (Lacan 1969-70, 143). He means by this that the dead father refers to a dimension that is structurally outside the human realm of all possible meaning. Lacan says it is the father of the primal horde who appears in the dreams of neurotics – more specifically, those of hysterical patients. It is the father who has an answer to any and all questions, and in particular, one who would satisfactorily answer the question What is a woman? (Lacan 1956-57, p. 141) Or better still What does a woman want?11

We already find this theme for instance in the seminar The object relation (Lacan 1956-57).12 In this early seminar Lacan refers to the familiar criticism that Freud takes little or no account of the actual physical pleasure experienced by women, particularly young girls. Freud believes that the young girl does not, after all, have knowledge of the vagina’s existence.13 In The object relation Lacan argues that Freud neither attempts to minimise the importance, nor deny the existence, of female pleasure in this way; rather, Lacan says Freud’s intention was to show that this pleasure only becomes meaningful within the symbolic order. It is in the symbolic order, Lacan explains, that the phallus serves as the signifier of lack (Lacan 1956-57, p. 141).

In Lacan’s discussion, the phallus emerges as the signifier that indicates the desire of the Other, insofar as this desire is submitted to the order of signifiers, in other words, insofar as it ultimately escapes all concrete determinations. Various objects – any object in principle – can appear in the space marked by this signifier and thus obtain a phallic meaning. This implies that these objects momentarily appear to the subject as possible fulfilments of its desire. Nevertheless, such an ultimate fulfilment is impossible. The phallus is the signifier of an irremovable lack in the symbolic: an object capable of fulfilling desire is in reality irretrievable.14

For the woman, however, the phallocentric nature of the symbolic implies that in the symbolic her desire can only take shape in terms of a male signifier. Lacan often says that the symbolic has no signifier to indicate female desire per se and “in itself” – one separate from reference to the phallically structured male desire.15 Whichever role is allocated to the woman in the Other’s desire, this role can only be interpreted from the perspective of the phallus as signifier of lack.16 The question “What does a woman want (outside and independent this phallic universe)?” is the logical consequence. The hysterical subject incarnates this question, as well as the search for a father capable of answering.

Symbolically structured reality is, by definition, the world of lack indicated by the phallic signifier (Lacan 1969-70, p. 149). This implies that within this order, there is no possible answer to the question “What is a woman (outside and independent this phallic universe)?”.17 Consequently, neither can the father capable of fulfilling desire and answering the hysterical subject’s question be found in this reality. He is an impossibility. This father is a dead father, which implies a father no longer defined by lack, a father who cannot fail.

Castration, says Lacan, is an effect of language: “...language... cannot be anything other than a demand, a demand that fails” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 144). Every demand produces a remainder specifically because it is articulated in language.18 In this sense, every demand “fails”. More specifically, desire only exists by the grace of our inscription in language, in the chain of signifiers that renew the lack in which it originates time and again. Lacan also then concludes that castration is a truly symbolic function that can only be understood from the perspective of the chain of signifiers (Lacan 1969-70, 144).19 In this way, Lacan completely separates the problem of castration from reference to the murder of the father and, in turn, the Freudian Oedipus complex. Only reference to the father – even if he is “dead” – still stands, but Lacan’s re-reading of the Oedipus myth shows that he wants to substantially re-evaluate this reference too.

5. Oedipus as incarnation of the master

We already know that, according to Freud, the Oedipus legend derives its meaning from the fact it shows the realisation of two inextricable infantile desires. According to Lacan, however, this is inessential.20 He says that Oedipus gains access to Jocaste’s bed less because he murdered his father – unknowingly, besides – than because he solved the sphinx’s riddle (“What first walks on four legs, then on two, and finally on three?”). In other words, Oedipus becomes king because he mastered the sphinx’s test of truth, which claimed the lives of many citizens before.21 First and foremost Oedipus is someone who deciphers enigmas for the sake of the community. Half human, half beast, the sphinx is also an enigmatic creature. Oedipus solves the riddle – “Man” – and frees Thebes from the grips of evil forces in this way (Lacan 1969-70, p. 140; Demoulin 2002, p. 403).

Lacan says that Oedipus assumes the position of the master in this way. He is the one who knows, and is capable of uniting society and protecting it against danger with his knowledge. For Oedipus, truth and knowledge are one and the same; there is no separation or distance between the chain of signifiers and the truth it expresses. In other words, the master denies or represses the split, which inevitably results from inscription in the signifying order.22 According to Lacan, the tale’s continuation proves without a shadow of a doubt that this is Oedipus’ significance. When Thebes is hit by the plague the people turn to Oedipus once again to find a solution. The oracle at Delphi tells him that Laius’ murderer is in Thebes and the only way to conquer the plague is by unmasking the murderer.

At this point, says Lacan, Oedipus finds himself once again confronted with the problem of the truth, which gives way to something that is at least partially related to the problematic of castration (Lacan 1969-70, p. 140). Bit by bit Oedipus uncovers the truth of what he has done and the circumstances surrounding his ascension to the throne. When Oedipus realises he is responsible for his predecessor’s death, he executes on himself the sentence he pronounced for the murderer. Oedipus gouges out his own eyes. Lacan interprets this act as symbolic of castration (Lacan 1969-70, pp. 140-141). In this way, Oedipus demonstrates that the truth of the master is his castration. Since signifiers are differentially determined and only signify in reference to other signifiers, the possible coincidence of knowledge and truth is, in principal, excluded. Every piece of knowledge leaves a remainder. No one can ever fully express truth; structurally it is a “half-said” (“mi-dire”) (Lacan 1969-70, p. 126).

Lacan’s re-evaluation of the Oedipus myth topples the Freudian perspective. This myth does not concern access to the mother as desire’s ultimate object through the father’s murder; rather, it concerns the figure of the master and his structural castration. Consequently this tragedy does not revolve around desire for the mother but a desire to know and the impossibility of this knowledge ever coinciding with truth (Lacan 1969-70, p. 135). In this way the figure of the (castrated) master replaces the figure of the (murdered) father.

6. Dora and the search for a master

The remarks that Lacan makes on Freud’s Dora case in the text we are commenting here, allows for a further elucidation of Lacan’s critique of the Oedipus complex. I already pointed out that, according to Lacan, Freud positions himself as master through his interventions and interpretations. Freud is the one who knows, and his only task consists in convincing Dora of this knowledge. Several years later Freud himself concedes that his prejudices regarding sexuality – more specifically, what a fully fledged sexual relationship ought to be – made understanding Dora’s homosexual ties with Frau K. impossible. But perhaps this is not the only thing Freud overlooks. More important than the homosexual object choice is the dynamic that controls the hysterical patient’s desire. It has become a common place to say that, in essence, hysterical desire aims at remaining unfulfilled. Hysterical desire is a desire for an unfulfilled desire. Freud relentlessly searches for a specific object that answers Dora’s (unconscious) desire. He is thus doomed to miss the mark. Hysterical desire does not aim at being fulfilled by any specific object. Not surprisingly Dora is unimpressed by Freud’s therapeutic and analytical skills. She abandons her therapy after only a few months. But what then is the dynamic that fundamentally determines hysteria, which Lacan identifies, but Freud misses?

As in his other commentaries of the same text23, in The other side of psychoanalysis Lacan highlights the importance Dora attaches to the father’s sexual “impotence”(Lacan 1969-70, p. 108).24 One cannot claim that someone fails in this way, Lacan continues, without simultaneously measuring him against a symbolic function. Not only is Dora’s father what he is in reality – an ill old man - but he is also a father in the way a soldier can be a “veteran fighter”. The father carries the title “former begetter” (“ancien géniteur”) and continues to carry reference to the possibility of procreation. Even after he has become “impotent”, he retains this symbolic position toward women. This is the origin of the father’s idealisation, which characterises and facilitates hysterical discourse. This idealisation is necessary to elevate the father to the level of master. Consequently, the hysterical woman seeks the master in the father.25 A desire to know inspires this master, and she believes he is in principle capable of answering her questions with which she is struggling.

It is not always clear in which way and to what extent we can retrace this search for a master in Freud’s case study of Dora. In The other side of psychoanalysis Lacan does not read this text systematically; rather, he uses it to illustrate his own views. He only refers to it because of his own theory of hysteria. With regard to the relation to a master, Lacan refers to one of the two dreams that play a central role in Freud’s interpretation of Dora (Lacan 1969-70, p. 110). In the second dream Dora is told that her father has died, and her mother writes that she can now return home. After extensive travel Dora returns home, but she discovers her family members are already at the graveyard (Freud 1905, p. 94 onwards). After Freud explains his interpretation of this dream to Dora, she remembers another piece of the dream: “she went calmly to her room, and began reading a big book that lay on her writing-table” (Freud 1905, p. 100). Lacan reads this as illustrating the fact that only the dead father produces the knowledge of sexuality desired by the hysterical woman – Dora in this case. Freud himself gives a somewhat more trivial explanation. The dream realises a revenge phantasy aimed at her father. Dora’s addition fits into this interpretation: “Dora’s father was dead… She might calmly read whatever she chose. Did not this mean that one of her motives for revenge was a revolt against her parents’ constraints? If her father was dead she could read or love as she pleased” (Freud 1905, p. 100). This is a far cry from a frenetic search for a master.

As in other instances where he discusses Dora in The other side of psychoanalysis, Lacan concentrates on the scene at the lake (Lacan 1969-70, pp. 109-110). He says: “It is quite true that at this moment the other’s Jouissance is offered her, and she doesn’t want having anything to do with it because what she wants is knowledge as the means of Jouissance, but in order to place this knowledge in the service of truth, the truth of the master that she embodies as Dora” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 97).26 Why does the hysterical woman yearn for knowledge? As we know, the problem of hysteria is dominated by the question “What does a woman want?” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 150). We might reformulate this issue in terms of the (im)possibility of a sexual relationship. A relationship presupposes two different and above all complementary partners that are capable of engaging in a symmetrical relationship with each other. According to Lacan, however, the relationship between the two sexes cannot be described in this way. He says that ultimately there is but one point of reference – the phallic signifier – in relation to which both sexes determine their positions towards each other. This train of thought results in the Lacanian adage that there is no sexual relationship (Lacan 1969-70, 1934).27

What attracts Dora to Herr K, says Lacan, is the fact that his organ is functional, as opposed to her father’s.28 But this organ only has meaning insofar as another can rob her of it. Lacan refers once again to Dora’s dream of the burning house from which her mother wants to save the jewel-case. We recall that Herr K also gave Dora a jewel-case as a present. Lacan says the fact that Herr K gave Dora a jewel-case and not the jewellery to be kept in the case is crucial to the interpretation of this dream (Lacan 1969-70, pp. 109-110). In his interpretation of this dream Freud equates the jewel-case with the female genitals (Freud 1905, p. 91). Consequently, in her relationship with Herr K Dora is uninterested in his organ (or his “jewels”) – which is to say sexual fulfilment – but in the question of her womanhood. Who am I as woman, beyond the phallic economy to which Herr K wants to confine me?29

The hysterical subject pursues knowledge for the sake of truth. This truth is, however, that the master is defective and essentially characterised by lack.30 Lacan’s thematization of the hysterical patient’s strategy now becomes clear. She appoints, as it were, a master – the father, a rabbi, but also the psychoanalyst – from whom she expects an answer to her questions (Lacan 1969-70, p. 150). The hysterical subject, then, presents herself as an enigma to this master.31 Through everything she says and does the hysterical subject suggests that answering her questions – resolving the enigma she incarnates – substantially aids the master in completing his knowledge and (re)establishing his masterhood. She inspires every psychoanalyst, because she is so “interesting” and makes such an “exciting” psychoanalytic patient.32 She awakens the desire for knowledge. No matter the answer the master produces, however, it is by definition deficient. Every answer reduces the subject to a pure object of the Other’s desire for knowledge. Every answer reduces the subject to an illustration of a theory that is structurally incapable of answering the hysterical question – “What is a woman?”

The hysterical subject’s paradoxical relationship vis-à-vis (the master’s) knowledge mirrors a similarly paradoxical relationship vis-à-vis sexual fulfilment. The master is no longer characterised by lack, and he cannot fail. This is only possible when the master no longer desires. Hence, the hysterical patient takes great care in “choosing” her masters. They are objects that are “out of reach” – the priest or rabbi, the psychoanalyst or a teacher – so that the hysterical subject is able to pretend for a while that they are indeed “above” or “beyond” desire. In this instance, however, the subject presents itself as a mysterious and exciting object that still has the potential to complete the master. Woe to the “master” who takes the bait and emerges as desiring subject. Rejection is then inevitable. The hysterical patient resists precisely this transformation into a phallicised object that has no other meaning besides facilitating the other’s jouissance. The only option left for the unmasked master is endless speculation regarding how it went so terribly wrong or, like Freud... to write a case study.


In The other side of psychoanalysis33 Lacan unmasks the Oedipus complex as a “dream of Freud’s” that has to be interpreted. At the same time he re-interprets hysteria as an incarnation of “the truth of the master”, namely that the latter is in actual fact characterised by his deficiency and is thus castrated. Hysteria is the continuous staging of this truth. Freud does not understand hysteria from the perspective of a search for a master. But Lacan’s theory at the same time sheds an interesting light on the course, and more importantly the failure of the analysis of Dora: Freud behaves toward her like the master for whom she has been searching and whose shortcoming she makes painfully clear at the same time.

The Oedipus complex no longer plays a central role in Lacan’s theory of hysteria presented in The other side of psychoanalysis. As a result, the reference to Lévi-Strauss’ structural interpretation of the complex – from which Lacan in his early texts gleaned his view that the woman should be understood as exchange object – also disappears.34 Henceforth Lacan understands hysteria from the point of view of the relation to a master and he further links it to the impossibility of a sexual relationship that is by nature not exclusive to either sex (Lacan 1969-70, 150, p. 112). In The other side of psychoanalysis Lacan still exclusively thematises this impossibility in terms of the phallocentric character of the symbolic order.35 In the symbolic, sexual difference can only become meaningful based on a reference to the phallus as signifier of lack. This implies that there is only one single reference point in the symbolic from which both sexes can determine themselves vis-à-vis the other. Hence the impossibility of a sexual relationship.

The passages from The other side of psychoanalysis that we commented illustrate the progressive ‘de-oedipalisation’ of Lacanian theory. It also became clear that the theory of the four discourses that Lacan developed at the end of the 1960s plays a crucial role in this context. Can we say that this theory replaces once and for all the Oedipus complex or are things more complicated? We cannot but wonder, for instance, how the figure of the master in Lacanian thought relates to the figure of the father in Totem and Taboo. Or more concretely, isn’t the master the father in disguise? And if that’s the case, doesn’t that inevitably mean that some of the most problematic aspects of Freudian theory – and more specifically the central role of the father – remain active in a theory that should help us to surpass them36? Clearly this debate isn’t decided yet...


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Demoulin, C. (2002) “L’Oedipe rêve de Freud” in Psychoanalytische perspectieven, 20, pp. 397-414.

Fink, B. (1998) « The Master Signifier and the Four Discourses » in D. Nobus, , Key Concepts of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (New York: Rebus Press), pp. 29-47.

Freud, S. :

- (1900) The Interpretation of Dreams, SE IV-V.

- (1905) Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, SE VII.

- (1913) Totem and Taboo, SE XIII.

- (1986) Briefe an Wilhelm Fliess 1887-1904. J.M. Masson, ed. (Frankfurt am Main : S. Fischer Verlag).

Grigg, R. (2008). Lacan, Language and Philosophy (New York : Suny Press).

Lacan, J.:

- (1955-56) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book III. The Psychoses (Trans.Rusell Grigg), Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York/London : Norton, 1993).

- ( 1956-57) La relation d’objet. Le seminaire de Jacques Lacan. Livre IV (Ed. Jacques-Allain Miller). (Paris: Seuil, 1994).

- (1957-58) Les formations de l’inconscient. Le seminaire de Jacques Lacan. Livre V (Ed. Jacques-Allain Miller) (Paris: Seuil, 1998).

- (1959-60) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (Trans. Dennis Porter), Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York/London : Norton, 1992).

- (1969-70) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XIX. The Other Side of Psychoanalysis (Trans. Rusell Grigg), Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York/London: Norton, 2007).

- (1972-73) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book XX. Encore. On Feminine Sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge (Trans.Bruce Fink), Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York/London : Norton & Company, 1998).

Lévi-Strauss, Cl. (1949) Les structures élémentaires de la parenté (Paris : PUF).

Miller, J.-A. (2000) On Semblances in the Relation between the Sexes, in : R. Salecl (ed.), Sexuation. Durham & London : Duke University Press, pp. 13-27.

Mitchel, J. & Rose, J. (1982) Feminine Sexuality. Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne. New York : Norton.

Morel, G. (2002)  Feminine Conditions of Jouissance . In : S. Barnard & B. Fink (Eds), Reading Seminar XX. Lacan’s Major Work on Love, Knowledge, and Feminine Sexuality. New York: SUNY, pp. 77-92.

Soler, C.:

- (2000a) The Curse on Sex, in : R. Salecl (ed.), Sexuation. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2000, pp. 39-53.

- (2002b) Hysteria in Scientific Discourse. In : S. Barnard & B. Fink (Eds), Reading Seminar XX. Lacan’s Major Work on Love, Knowledge, and Feminine Sexuality. New York: SUNY, pp. 47-56.

Tort, M. (2005) Fin du dogme paternel. Paris : Aubier.

Van Haute, P. (2005) Infantile Sexuality, Primary Object-love and the Anthropological Significance of the Oedipus Complex: re-reading Freud’s ‘Female Sexuality’. In: International Journal for Psychoanalysis, 86 (6), pp. 1161-1678.

Van Haute en Geyskens (2011) The Art of an Impossible Jouissance. Clinical Anthropology of Hysteria in Freud and Lacan. Leuven : Louvain University Press (forthcoming).

Verhaeghe, P.:

- (1996) Does the Woman exist ?: From Freud’s Hysteric to Lacan’s Feminine (New York: Other Press).

- (2001) From Impossibility to Inability. Lacan’s Theory of the Four Discourses. In: Beyond Gender. From Subject to Drive (New York: Other Press).

Voruz, V. (2007) A Lacanian Reading of Dora. In: V. Voruz & B. Wolf (Eds), The Later Lacan: An Introduction (New York: Suny, Series in Pyschoanalysis and Culture).

1 “What is there to conceal? That, as soon as the father enters the field of the master’s discourse where we are in the process of orientating ourselves, he is, from the origins, castrated…the experience with the hysteric, if not her sayings, at least the configurations she presented him with, should have guided him better here than the Oedipus complex does and led him to consider that this suggests that, at the level of analysis itself, everything is to be put back into question concerning what is necessary from knowledge, in order for this knowledge to be called into question in the site of truth” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 101) We return to this passage at a later stage.

2 Or, in more Lacanian terminology, that he is “castrated”. We return to this later.

3 This is the equivalent of the latent content of a dream. Freud’s explicit interpretation of the Oedipus myth corresponds with the manifest content of a dream.

4 “Castration is a real operation that is introduced through the incidence of the signifier, no matter which, into the sexual relation (rapport sexuel). And it goes without saying that it determines the father as this impossible real that we have been talking about” (Lacan 1969-70, 129) We return to this passage at a later stage.

5 In this section we are very inspired by a very interesting article by Demoulin (2002).

6 For a detailed discussion of the evolution discussed in this paragraph, see Grigg 2008.

7 Besides, in this case Lacan believes it concerns less desire for the mother than desire of the mother. From this perspective the law of the father limits the unlimited enjoyment of the mother. This law puts a lid on the desire of the mother. The law of the father prevents the small child from being reduced to the ultimate object of desire of the mother. This also defines the meaning of the law of the father.

8 For a detailed discussion of this evolution, see Grigg 2008.

9 The fact that references to the Oedipus complex and the Oedipal explanations are only included in later editions of The interpretation of dreams is not without importance to our discussion.

10 See footnote 2 for the French text. For a detailed discussion of Lacan’s theory of the four discourses, see e.g. Fink 1998 and Verhaeghe 1987.

11The idea of putting the omnipotent father at the origin of desire is very adequately refuted by the fact that Freud extracted its master signifiers from the hysteric’s desire. It must not be forgotten, in effect, that this is where Freud began and that he acknowledged what it is that remains at the center of his question…It’s the question, ‘What does a woman want?’ ” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 129). The connection Lacan makes here between the Oedipus complex, Totem and taboo, and hysteria can be challenged from a historical perspective. Indeed, The introduction of the Oedipus complex mainly concerns Freud’s growing focus on obsessional neurosis from roughly 1910 onwards (Van Haute & Geyskens 2011, passim).

12 For what follows, see Lacan 1956-57, from 141 onwards.

13 For a critique of the philosophical presuppositions on which this theory is based, see Van Haute 2005.

14 We return in greater detail to this problem, as well as that of the accompanying phallic pleasure, in the next chapter.

15 For an interesting discussion and critique of this theory see Schneider 2004, 299-340.

16 For the preceding see Mitchel & Rose 1982, Miller 2000, Morel 2000 and 2002, Soller 2000a and 2002b, and Monique David-Ménard 2009, among others. One wonders whether and in what exact way the view that the symbolic lacks a signifier for women and that the women’s role in the Other’s desire can only be elucidated in terms of the phallus as signifier of lack is a psychoanalytical re-formulation of Lévi-Strauss’s view that women are exchange objects between male kinship lines (Lévi-Strauss 1949).

17 In his seminar Encore (Lacan 1972-73) Lacan juxtaposes the limited phallic jouissance governed by the symbolic’s laws with another “female” jouissance that escapes or transcends the symbolic. Moreover, in that work Lacan totally detaches reference to these forms of jouissance from biological reality. This development implies a crucial correction to Lacanian phallocentric thought as it is discussed here. Space is lacking here to discuss this point in more detail.

18 This is the place where Lacan situates object a – the “object-cause” of desire (Lacan 1969-70, p. 144). A detailed discussion would take us too far afield.

19 This is the very reason why in The other side of psychoanalysis Lacan introduces a theory of discourses that replaces reference to the Oedipus myth (Demoulin 2002, p. 410).

20 At this point we could also note the influence of Lévi-Strauss and others on Lacan’s interpretation of this myth. However, this would deviate too far from our own argument. For these influences see Grigg 2008 and Demoulin 2002.

21What’s important is that Oedipus was admitted to Jocaste’s side because he had triumphed at a trial of truth” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 117).

22 For a more technical discussion of the master’s discourse in relation to the three other discourses Lacan distinguishes in his seminar The other side of psychoanalysis, see Verhaeghe 2001 and Fink 1998 among others.

23 See e.g. Lacan 1955-56, pp. 181-206 and Lacan 1956-57, pp. 95-147; for an overview see Voruz 2007.

24 Our subsequent commentary concerns the following passage: “It is implicitly to proffer that the father is not merely what he is, that it is a little like ‘ex-soldier’ – he is an ‘ex-sire’. He is a father, like the ex-soldier, until the end of his life. This implies that in the word ‘father’ there is something that is always in fact potentially creating. And it is in relation to this fact that, in this symbolic field, it must be observed that it is the father, in so far as he plays this pivotal, major role, this master role in the hysteric’s discourse, that, from this angle of the power of creation, sustains his position in relation to the woman, even as he is out of action. This is what is specific to the function from which the hysteric’s relation to the father stems, and it is very precisely this that we designate as the idealized father” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 95).

25 Later she does the same thing with other figures – the priest or rabbi, the doctor... the psychoanalyst.

26 It is not quite clear why Lacan refers to “pleasure of the Other” and not “phallic pleasure”, since it is precisely the latter that Herr K. “offers” Dora.

27 For further commentary on this problem and its orientation within the history of psychoanalysis, see Van Haute 2000, p. 136 ff. This issue is central in the seminar Encore (Lacan 1972-73), which is the main focus of the next chapter.

28What suits Dora is the idea that he (Herr K) has the organ...not so that Dora can find happiness in it, if I can put it thus, but so that another woman should deprive her of it” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 96, translation slightly changed)

29 That this is the determining factor of Dora’s pathology also emerges, according to Lacan, from the “theoretical contemplation” (“contemplation théorique”) (Lacan 1969-70, p. 110) of Frau K and of her “adorable white body” (Freud 1905a, p. 61), which flourished during a visit to Dresden when Dora spent two hours “in front of the Sistine Madonna, rapt in silent admiration. When I asked her what had pleased her so much about the picture she could find no clear answer to make. At last she said: ‘The Madonna’” ( Freud 1905a, p. 96).

30 “And this truth, to say it at last, is that the master is castrated” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 97).

31 The hysterical patient volunteers up symptoms, the meaning of which she does not understand. These symptoms can all be connected to the question of womanhood.

32 “She wants the other to be a master and to know lots of things, but at the same time she doesn’t want it him to know so much that he does not believe that she is the supreme price of all his knowledge. In other words, she wants a master she can reign over” (Lacan 1969-70, p. 129).

33 It is clear that the evolution of the place and meaning of the Oedipus complex from Lacan’s first series of lectures to The other side of psychoanalysis can and should be studied in more detail than what has been done here.

34 See on this Van Haute & Geyskens 2011

35 Lacan takes in this regard a further major step in his seminar Encore (Lacan 1972-73). There he positions the limited phallic jouissance that is subject to the laws of the symbolic opposite another “female” jouissance that escapes or transcends the symbolic. We don’t have place here to develop this idea here further. For the relation between the ‘formulas of sexuation’ and the problematic we introduced in this article see Van Haute and Geyskens 2010.

36 See in this regard Tort 2005.