Jean-Bertrand Pontalis, Brother of the Above Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith (Unconscious in Translation/International Psychoanalytic Books: 2012)
by Alexander Freer
The younger took himself for the intellectual inferior, having followed a brother surely destined for the Académie française. The younger became an analyst, and an essayist. The elder, having endured the approbation of teachers, parents and family friends, became nothing of the sort. Jean-Bertrand went through childhood known firstly as the brother of Jean-François; now the latter is known only as the brother of the former. It is in some respects a very simple story of two boys and their mother, and the joint histories of joy and pain which accompany any love triad: all the little victories and disappointments, periods of armistice and animosity, the betrayal. And “history” proves an apt term, because all we have are shards of evidence, unreliable recollections which are moored to feeling rather than fact: an overheard conversation, a look, an apricot pie. This is the story of J-B Pontalis and his brother, reconstructed from the self-analysis which he continued until his recent death in January 2013, and around which Brother of the Above is written. It takes the form of an extended essay on historical and fictional brothers, on fraternity and on psychoanalysis; across novels, literary and political history, clinical case histories and personal memoir.
At times the brothers must have seemed very close, born less than four years apart, and reduced in their mother’s verbal abbreviations to a single letter of difference: J-F and J-B. And yet they found their differences. The elder took pride in his family’s aristocratic heritage; he enjoyed their achievements so much that he added to them with his own inventions. The “innovation” was not without precedent: their paternal great-grandfather, a Lefèvre, had supplemented his own name, making it into Lefèvre-Pontalis, in order to sound more distinguished. The younger was so nauseated by what he saw as aristocratic self-satisfaction that he dropped the “real” half of the familial name and kept only the “vanity” half; he became J-B Pontalis. Jean-François Lefèvre-Pontalis had more reason to maintain the link: following the early death of their father, it was he who was told to assume the paternal mantle. Familial continuity became a matter of duty. The younger had loved his father more than any other male relative, and would suffer him no connection to the others. And his disdain for lineage was also disdain for his own position in that lineage, being the younger, the second-best.
As Pontalis admits so candidly in the opening pages, to have a brother is to have a problem, and the problem is “a mother who cannot be shared.” What links brothers is also what divides them; their shared affections are also the source of a rivalry, perhaps the source of rivalry as such, for one must compete for something, and parental affection is likely to be the first good one encounters above mere sustenance. And what begins as competition for things (food, warmth, kisses) very quickly leads to a question of identity. The social claustrophobia of childhood (especially in a family of three) has a lot to answer for; the tendency to be defined specifically by parental or sibling relation is strong. And the question of definition is as pressing for the question of rivalry: to exist as someone, or to exist as a relation to another; to be the mother’s son or that son’s brother; to come first, or to be related to the one who did. Yet for siblings to have shared so much life—especially early life—leads to mutual dependence, and some measure of love. “Ambivalence” doesn’t do it justice. The background of intimacy makes the rivalry all the more concentrated; it lends an unmatched “frèrocité.”
The numerous micro-studies of pairs of brothers in this book are not used to test this idea of brotherhood but to contribute additions, suggestions and nuances. Was the story of Cain and Abel one of “a hate diverted”? That is, brotherly rivalry can be seen as a deformation of the son’s real struggle with his father. When France abolished primogeniture in 1790, and the revolutionaries sought to create fraternité in the place of the father-king, they perhaps underestimated just how intertwined family history and political history had become. Marcel Proust’s chronic illness may have ultimately been a form of rebuke to his younger brother, the surgeon (as if submitting to good health would be submitting to the primacy of his sibling). And there is the case of a patient who spent hours in analysis detailing his brother’s cruelty, and his own persecuted existence, but broke down in tears at the brother’s funeral. Is this love buried beneath hatred more common than it first appears? The suggestion is that the curse of being the brother—that a man’s existence might “come down to” being the brother, just like the entries of less famous siblings in biographical dictionaries are marked “brother of the above”—might be impossible to escape, so that he spends a lifetime trying to evade the connection, trying to be the first, and yet weeps for the loss of the brother because he has lost a part of his identity which he still loved.
But let’s get back to specifics for a moment. After all, not every family is composed of two brothers and their mother. Born in Paris in 1924, Pontalis attended lycée Henri IV, diverting the lonely walk home from school with visits to the bookshop where he first read Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s seminal work on sexual perversions,Psychopathia Sexualis. He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne and became an academic researcher. In the forties he worked on Jean-Paul Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes and in 1953 he underwent a training analysis with Jacques Lacan. A decade later, in collaboration with Jean Laplanche, he published the first edition of the book for which he is most famous in the psychoanalytic community, the reference text The Language of Psychoanalysis (Vocabulaire de la psychanalyse). The book is not only a dictionary of Freud’s key terms, but a historical survey of the changing uses of these terms across Freud’s own oeuvre and beyond. It is one of the most practical contributions to the post-war French “return to Freud” in a field which had largely stopped reading its founding texts. The usage dates for terms are important because they depict the Freudian corpus as a series of evolving and sometimes contradictory attempts to capture and characterise human experience, rather than the static models and maxims (the familiar ego/id/superego; Oedipus complex; “oral stage,” ”anal stage,” “genital stage”) which are still often assumed to constitute Freud by analysts in the Anglophone sphere, through a combination of theoretical short-cuts and psychological positivism. Donald Nicholson-Smith, the translator of the present volume, was Norton’s translator for the English edition of The Language of Psychoanalysis, which perhaps due to its rather generic title in both languages, is informally referred to as “Laplanche and Pontalis” (Pontalis does so himself in Brother of the Above).
Readers familiar with this generation of French psychoanalysis (which includes Pontalis, Laplanche, Daniel Lagache [their advisor for “Laplanche and Pontalis”], Didier Anzieu, Jacques Lacan and his disciples) will be reminded of both Laplanche and Lacan by the chapter on the Champollion brothers. Jean-François Champollion, famous for deciphering the Rosetta Stone, had his own brother of the above, twelve years his senior. Pontalis remembers his discovery of Champollion (“how irritating that he should bear the same name as my own brother!”) and seizes on his “mad love” for inscrutable dead languages and, latterly, for hieroglyphs. The similarities between mysterious symbols and the utterance of the unconscious (and those scholars and translators of both) have not been lost on psychoanalysis. Freud himself spoke of signs being like hieroglyphs, and in Laplanche’s theory of “enigmatic messages” the message is likened to finding inscriptions in the desert: the meaning is opaque, but the desire that they might speak is palpable. And what of these scholars of riddles, archaeologists of “the mystery of the origins”? Is psychoanalysis a love of the interior, the self, or of the exterior, the other? Analysts can be drawn to philosophy, philology and indeed analysis by a sense of their own internal complexity, or they can be true Champollions, fascinated by a “language of the other” which they long to translate, explicate and comprehend.
In the case of Pontalis himself the answers to the question of motivation are far from obvious. Was he ever genuinely “brother of the above,” or is his insistence a kind of false modesty, a deferral of intellectual potency which brings us onto his side before his adult triumph? Is the book a final attempt at a truce with a departed sibling, or a parting shot in a war which never ended? Jean-François would decry the vulgarity of being published within one’s lifetime, but left no posthumous papers, so we cannot know the extent to which Jean-Bertrand’s book unfairly paints the elder brother as the lesser. One charge which cannot be levelled at J-B, at least, is that he makes J-F into a brother of the above. To do so would be to devote only the odd footnote or a stray line to his brother across his memoirs. Instead, he dedicates an entire volume to the brother who so clearly occupied and concerned him, for better or worse. As for the question of “fairness,” whatever that might entail, J-B leaves it open, refusing the false magnanimity of either performing a reconciliation with a dead man, or graciously ascribing their animosity to personal fault, as if passion and rivalrous desire could seriously be retracted.
Alongside all these brothers, Pontalis also considers “those who find a brother for themselves other than their own.” In this category he places Gustave Flaubert and Louis Bouilhet, and Freud and his close correspondent Wilhelm Fliess. Although a doctor and a theorist in his own right, Fliess is now chiefly remembered within psychoanalysis as an addressee of Freud’s speculations; he has become “Dear Wilhelm” (and “Dearest Wilhelm,” “Dear Magician,” even “Cherished Wilhelm!”; Freud could write a brother into history with all the affectionate force of a blood rivalry). If it is not too unkind a suggestion, there is also a rich vein of academic brothers of the above still waiting to be hewn out. Several come to mind: Marx and Engels; Adorno and Horkheimer; Deleuze and Guattari. They are omitted, perhaps, because Pontalis himself might also be brother of the above in this respect: in the Anglophone world, at least, Pontalis is chiefly cited in “Laplanche and Pontalis.” The suggestion to an English reader is not helped by the fact that this translation is published by “Unconscious in Translation,” a small imprint of International Psychoanalytic Books which has formed recently, and has so far published this volume alongside Laplanche’s final volume of collected work. In France, however, the volume is published by the prestigious Gallimard, where he worked as a publisher and wrote numerous books of his own.
One final brother or sister of the above must be the translator, often praised for his or her discretion bordering on disappearance. Yet it would be unfair to leave it at that. Donald Nicholson-Smith does admirably in producing a volume which feels as immediate and precise as one would expect from the translator of a five-hundred page dictionary. This might seem faint praise, but it is worth noting two points: firstly, Nicholson-Smith is not by any means just a psychoanalytic translator (although he has worked on a wealth of French psychoanalysis). His translations of Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, Antonin Artaud and Jean Piaget may be familiar to readers of literary, social and psychological theory, while crime novel readers may recognise his translations of Thierry Jonquet and Jean-Patrick Manchette. Secondly, it is hard to overstate the effect which translations have had on psychoanalysis outside of the German-speaking world. Huge volumes of ink have been expended on the decision of James Strachey, the general editor for the English Standard Edition of Freud, to translate the terms Ich and Es (literally “I” and “It”) into the Latinized “Ego” and “Id,” spawning a vast quasi-Latin nomenclature in the place of Freud’s original, direct language. Strachey doubtlessly had his own theoretical aims, since he was a trained analyst (by Freud, no less!) My point here is simply that psychoanalysis, like other highly insular and intellectual fields, can promote difficult, nominalizing, technical writing and translation, and it is an achievement that Brother of the Above remains a memoir occasionally interspersed with technical analytic discussion. In this sense, Nicholson-Smith’s translation is more akin to Penguin’s new series of translations under the supervision of Adam Phillips, which are translated by writers, literary critics and linguists, rather than analytic theorists, and an exciting prospect for Freudians because of it.
When Le Monde published their obituary for Pontalis, the first paragraph noted that while he was “issu de la grande bourgeoisie, petit-fils du sénateur Antonin Lefèvre-Pontalis et petit-neveu de l’industriel Louis Renault, il n’aimait guère qu’on lui rappelât sa généalogie.” [“born into the aristocracy, grandson of Senator Antonin Lefèvre-Pontalis and grandnephew of the industrialist Louis Renault, he did not like to be reminded of his background;” my translation] This dislike keeps coming back. After a brief diversion into the topic of perversion, “the love of hate,” Pontalis muses over “all of these tales of brothers who love each other, hate each other, fight over their mother’s love, their father’s love.” By the end of the book, it seems that the real demon here is not the brother, but the “monomorphism” Pontalis detects in perversion: the sickness of being chained to “scenarios at once monotonous and elaborate,” forced to repeat the same desire in the same way, to the point of exhaustion. And it is a monomorphism of sorts to be bound by a single point of perspective, so that one is only the above or the below, first or second, subject or relation. The problem is not so much that (brotherly) relations exist, but that it is so easy to become fixated on one relation at the expense of all others. “I want there to be no fixed point, just lines,” Pontalis says. And perhaps this is the ultimate desire, half-formed in the book: to replace genealogy with a plurality of connecting lines, lines which would indicate no fixed structure, only the difficult and multiple relations of love and hate, intimacy and otherness which constitute human relations in general.