Let us begin with one of Jacques Lacan's observations. It involves an exchange of his with a young child, most likely from his family; an exchange that he relates in his Four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, immediately after evoking Freud's grandnephew. Lacan says, "I myself also saw the child, with my own eyes opened by maternal divination, traumatized by my departure despite the precociously formulated call of his voice, and henceforth renewed for several months – I saw it again, long after, when I took him in my hands – I saw him rest his head upon my shoulder to fall asleep, with only this sleep being capable of giving him access to the living signifier I incarnated ever since the trauma."[i] The child of whom Lacan speaks finds the peace of the symbolic in the Other and falls asleep there.
Let us first comment on how Lacan speaks of this child traumatized by the Other's departure, despite the child's call. This child who, ever since, facing the Other's absence of response, addressed no further call, entered into a sort of mutism - indeed even a sort of autism - by means of sleep in the arms of Lacan: "The access to the living signifier that I incarnated ever since the trauma."
For this child, the Other is above all a living signifier, one that illustrates that although the encounter with the Other is traumatic, it can be pacifying as well. Lacan indicates that the signifier is not simply symbolic or pacifying, but that it is alive; that it can enjoy his own life as signifier, thus engendering a meaningless jouissance. Since no other signifier comes to give it signification, this jouissance escapes the child's understanding, and therefore is traumatizing to him. The child understands nothing of this and his ignorance traumatizes him. In his departure, the Other abandons him, not responding to his call. The Other, the bearer of the signifier, lives and enjoys elsewhere, apart from him.
We remark that Lacan underlined the devastation for a child when one ignores his call. He says that between the child and the Other, there was a "precociously formulated call of the voice." Finally we note how, through the call to the Other, he introduces the importance for the child of this object, which comes from the Other's desire. The voice object is central for any subject in its relation to the Other. This voice object and the attached invocatory drive, as in the case of the sight object and its corresponding scopic drive, are two fundamental objects that Lacan highlighted in his clinic of the child. The sight object and the scopic drive are essential in this scene: "I saw with my own eyes" and the "gaze of the mother." While elaborating on the "mirror stage", Lacan first pointed out the moment when the child, faced with chaos and the disintegration of his being, attempts to recover unity in the specular image which he libidinally and imaginarily invests in order to make himself an ego. Later, he would underline the importance of the Other's gaze and the scopic drive.
During the scene of taking this child in his arms, the Other (Lacan) is witness to the heartbreaking tear of being which shocks the child. The gaze he bears, however, involves him in the event, makes him occupy a causal position that gives existence to this scene through his observation. The Other, by its gaze, becomes that which accompanies the child at the moment of his entrance into the world and ends up being the fundamental, active element that transforms this hostile world into a pacified one. The Other frames the child's experience through his gaze.
Moreover, we remark how, in this clinical vignette, Lacan clarifies that his position orients itself from the maternal relation. He specifies that through maternal divination the scales drop from his eyes, making the traumatism visible to him. Here we note how the signifying divination, founded in eytmology, elides between divine and psychic, and allows this divinity attached to the figure of the child to appear – of the divine child as God, of the child "innocent and joyous" as described by Victor Hugo in his poem Lorsque l'enfant paraît[ii], or as Freud in Introduction to narcissism designates "His Majesty the baby". We remark as well how, for Lacan, the Freudian child is guilty of wallowing in the masochistic jouissance he endures, indeed in the jouissance from which he benefits. In the child there is a precocious disposition to revert to a primordial masochism, which pushes him to suffer his degeneration and extract a fundamental satisfaction, a jouissance.
Something insists at the heart of being, whose existence Lacan asserts as a first necessity; this something places every being at the mercy of being abandoned by the one who symbolically supports him in his nomination. For Lacan, the child is not an innocent; he is guilty of the jouissance extracted through use of the signifier as well as for indulging in his primordial masochism.
For Freud and then Lacan, childhood neurosis does not originate so much from a traumatic encounter with the Other as with the real, from the jouissance at play in this encounter, a jouissance that the child cannot put into words despite the fact that he does obtain a certain usage.
The Lacanian child is not careless since, by the facts of language, there is no possible symbiosis between him and his parents; instead there is always the discord of misunderstanding. The child is separated from this world into which he was born, which precedes him. He is an immigrant to the world of language, a world in which the call does not always find a response. A child is born, a wrenching occurs, a fault opens, and a distance remains irreducible. There is a cut, a separation.
The child never unveils the mystery of his origin; faced with the question of Who is he,[iii] he must resist the belief that one day he will be able to resolve the mystery of his origin. Infantile amnesia attests to the impossibility of any subject to respond to this question – the child does not go back to his origins, he introduces the dimension of the real through the means of misunderstanding. Something escapes the subject, something, from which he is forever separated. This non-symbolizable real can return, can erupt at any point in his lifestory. To the question of who is this child? we could propose to respond that the child, to be a child, is fundamentally traumatized. We have already seen[iv]: "Of traumatism, there is no other: man is born misunderstood."[v]
To give back vigor and rigor to the term 'trauma', Lacan forged the neologism 'troumatisme'.[vi] How can one better speak of what causes trauma for the child? It is the encounter with a void in his understanding of the things and words he receives from the Other. For the child there is a hole in knowledge; he cannot put his experience, what he feels, what he encounters, into words. He experiences something beyond meaning, an experience of jouissance in an encounter with a real which he cannot assimilate. Thus the Lacanian child is a trholematized child.
[i] Lacan, J., Le Séminaire, livre XI, Les quatre concepts fondamentaux de la psychanalyse, Seuil, Paris 1973, p. 61.
[ii] Hugo, V., « Lorsque l'enfant paraît », in recueil Les feuilles d'automne, 1831 :
« Lorsque l'enfant paraît, le cercle de famille
Applaudit à grands cris.
Son doux regard qui brille
Fait briller tous les yeux,
Et les plus tristes fronts, les plus souillés peut-être,
Se dérident soudain à voir l'enfant paraître,
Innocent et joyeux. »
[iii] Lacadée, Ph., « Qui est-il, cet enfant-Là », chapitre 2 , in Le malentendu de l'enfant, Nouvelle édition revue et augmentée, Préface de Christiane Alberti, Editions Michèle, 2010.
[iv] Thèse développée dans Le malentendu de l'enfant.
[v] Lacan, J., « Le malentendu » 1980, in Ornicar ? n°22/23, Lyre , Paris 1981, p 12.
[vi] Lacan, J., « Les non-dupes-errent », leçon du 19 février, 1974 , (inédit).