Kernels: Lacan, Jung, and the Hindoos
Updated: Jan 17
This article will argue that Jacques Lacan, CG Jung, and the Hindoos all hit upon a common way to understand consciousness through geometry and, in particular, a relationship to the number four. The contention in itself is not particularly sophisticated or difficult to grasp, but it does have to be foregrounded in Lacanian psychoanalysis in order to make sense—as for Jung and the Hindoos, this is more straightforward to grasp; if you know about the Holy Trinity you already know roughly what they thought. The reason this convergence interests is because Lacan would have seen himself—as a strict Freudian, in his mind anyway—as engaged in a different project to Jungian analysis, and certainly not religious; as with Freud he wanted to end “the illusion”, religion, and not perpetuate it. So for Lacan to have identified the same structure of consciousness independently indicates that all three streams were on the right track—indeed, it means the ancient Indians understood the basic structure of consciousness long before anyone in the West managed such a feat.
Lacanian psychoanalysis begins with “the mirror stage”: when a baby is small he is just a bundle of wants and needs—things are “done to” him, and even if these actions are necessary care and attention the baby remains fundamentally impotent; he is acted upon—he conceives himself in a fragmentary way, as occasional needs and desires that are met; nothing is joined up. The baby only becomes joined up when he looks at himself in a mirror for the first time—or the first few times. Now he has a way in which he can organise all those needs and wants; he is no longer fragmentary, no longer a desire to make a urine fountain one moment and to bawl for food the next, he now understands that he is that unitary object in the mirror in which those desires are situated; and, further, now that he understands himself as that unitary object he can identify with the other humans—mum and dad, mostly—around him.
From the mirror, he now knows that “I am one of those things, so I can copy them if I wish—start to understand what ‘I am’ from them.” However, in a sense, the bébé is alienated from himself; he internalises the mirror image as “me”—as the ego—and yet the mirror image is not him, not really. So the project Lacanian analysis seeks to undertake, at root, is to help a client understand this fundamental alienation—to understand the mirror-world they live in.
However, it is more complicated than that, for it is not just that the baby sees himself in the mirror and thinks, “That’s me! The desire to excrete and eat and cry all relate to that object in the mirror; everything I do is situated from that image that I have now internalised.” Rather, we go on, internally, to mirror the mirror image and then mirror the mirror—and so on into the hall of mirrors; so to extricate someone from this mirror-world is quite a task. As it happens, this is the first connection between Lacan and the Hindoos; for the Hindoos also hold that consciousness is like a diamond, you look into the diamond and see yourself replicated over and over again—and hence certain stones, with perfectly cut lines that concentrate light, are held to be the cosmic essence; distilled light. Lacan’s work owes a lot to Hegel, and Hegel was a speculative philosopher—literally, “a mirror”; a speculum—so it is no surprise that the mirror is central to his psychology, just as it is to the Hindoo worldview.
As a subject, for Lacan, the human is held together by three interlinked strands : the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real. These three interlinked concepts give geometry its first debut in our picture: the three concepts were likened by Lacan to the Borromean knot, as represented below. This recursive knot can take on many forms—when it comes undone a person can be said to be psychotic; cut one link and all the circles fall apart. For Lacan, this topological picture of consciousness is non-metaphorical—the Borromean knot is literally how consciousness is.
To understand what Lacan means by the symbolic, the imaginary, and the real we must first consider de Saussure’s linguistic theory, upon which Lacan’s approach rests. Saussure said that we may think about “a tongue”—as in the archaic or Tolkonian English, “He speaks the Elvish tongue.”—and “a language”; in Saussure’s sense, “a language” is all the undergirding framework for “a tongue”—the syntax, grammar, register, and other rules that make the tongue operable. In particular, Saussure held that signifiers (mostly, though far from exclusively, words) almost always have an arbitrary relation to what they signify (what they “mean”). To demonstrate by exception: “Oink, oink” means “pig”; if I said to you, “I want a lovely little oinker,” you would know what I meant—even though that is not standard English; in fact, even a Frenchman would know what I meant if I went “Oink, Oink”, or, perhaps better, “Mama, Mama”. This is because, due to onomatopoeia, in these cases the signifier (“Oink”, “Mama”) matches the signified—pigs sound like that, babies across the world roughly say “Mama”.
However, Saussure says, the above situation is the exception; for the most part the association between signified and signifier is arbitrary—“meaning” in language is derived from arbitrary binary opposition between sounds; for example, “part” means “part” because it excludes other categories through its opposition to words such as “whole” or “bit”—ultimately, it excludes every other word that could cover that meaning, and that is how it “means” anything at all; meaning is negative, exclusionary. This is how semantic drift happens, the sounds that make up the words that apply to different meanings are arbitrary; as what the words exclude changes, so too does the meaning—the sounds themselves, apart from “oinkers and mamas”, are arbitrary and can shift meaning at will.
This means that you can understand the structure of language, particularly through the study of these binary oppositions and exclusions; and, indeed, Saussure’s ideas were taken up in France—and particularly taken up by a school called, unsurprisingly, “structuralism”; and structuralism came to be applied to everything from anthropology to literary theory. As a theory it compels, for it allows you to generate an explication as to what goes on, particularly in culture, at an abstract level. You are not stuck with the tongue—the superficial associations—rather you can go deeper. To use a very simple example, you could look at Romeo and Juliet and say: at its structural heart there is a binary opposition between “girl” and “boy”—even encoded in the play’s title—and this is supported by another binary opposition “Capulet” and “Montague”, the “tribal opposition””; and then you could look at the play’s “tongue”, at all the ways the words, rhymes, and even costume and staging reflect these underlying binary oppositions—the “language” that ultimately makes Romeo and Juliet possible; all the ways Juliet is not Romeo, or a Capulet is not a Montague.
So this was a craze. In fact, it aimed to be a science, because you can count and perform statistical analyses on the abstract “language” units within cultural artefacts—and even compare them, trace the genealogy of, say, the binary opposition between star-crossed lovers through European culture. Lacan proposed to do the same for the psyche, for the unconscious in particular—he wanted to develop a language, a “Lacanguage” (ha, ha, ha), of the unconscious; so unlike Freudianism, where it is all a bit vague as regards the unconscious, Lacan thought he could very neatly lay out the “language” of the unconscious—to do so he borrowed algebraic notation similar to that used by linguists to report the structure of language, to pin down the unconscious; so Lacan’s project hoped to represent the structure, the language, of the unconscious in particular and the psyche in general. This is why you will often see Lacanians using these neat little algebraic-like notations, as borrowed from linguistics—it is all very precise, quite rigid.
Actually, this was the problem with structuralism; it was hugely successful—everyone was at it, in every humanities subject, especially in France. Yet it also tends to constrict; rather, um, anal-retentive men, such as Lacan and the Marxist Althusser, developed these very rigid “languages” of binary oppositions for literature, psychology, Marxism, anthropology, and so on. Indeed, structuralism is quite a French way to think and Saussure himself was Swiss-French; it is very logical and abstract, and quite rigid—and not very empirical, either. Eventually, something had to crack—and it did, and this was post-structuralism; and post-structuralism eventually became postmodernism.
Whereas the structuralists loved their binary oppositions—their signifier/signifieds—the postmodernists basically stuck a carjack between the signifier and signified and pumped away until a huge gap had opened up between signifier and signified, until meaning collapsed or inverted. Hence, perhaps, we should “queer” Romeo and Juliet by, for example, attributing all the negative characteristic that make Juliet Juliet in the play’s “language” to Romeo—put simply, translated into the play’s “tongue”, this means you put Romeo in a dress. Peculiar…and yet also an escape from that terrible rigidity—two decades or so where absolutely everything was precisely analysed for its binary oppositions—and, after all, Saussure said that the signifier/signified relationship is arbitrary; so why not put Romeo in a dress? The dress is arbitrarily assigned signification after all…
At this point, the English hove into view on the horizon: “The French have gone mad with some abstract intellectual scheme, again, just like during the Revolution,” they say. When you see these debates between “postmodernists” and “scientists” today, broadly put, you really see two people speaking past each other. The postmodernist says, “Male and female are arbitrary in meaning within a ‘language’, reverse the oppositions and you reverse what male and female are—simple.” The “scientist” says, based on British empiricism, “Male and female relate to chromosomes and hormones. A man cannot be a woman.” In a sense, both are right. The postmodernists have emerged from structuralism, where the idea is to create an abstract schema that maps thought and “language”. There is very little empirical content to it, it is about the logic of thought and language; and, unfortunately, the entire system totalises—so it reads “empirical science” as another “language” to be divided into binary oppositions; inevitably this structure is then “problematised” by postmodernists. This is what postmodernists mean when they say they treat “science as a text”.
The divide is neatly illustrated by the division between the eminent French-Jewish anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, the arch structuralist, and Napoleon Chagnon—the Anglo-inflected empirical and Darwinian American anthropologist. For Lévi-Strauss, who was long-lived and about as stellar as stellar can be in French academic terms, anthropology involved sitting in your study in Paris mapping the relations between different myths, kinship groups, and tribes—you sit at the centre of your web and create this fantastic map of binary oppositions and “myth units” that have spread about various continents; a symbolic world perfectly untouched by reality. Although Lévi-Strauss did fieldwork in his early years—apparently without speaking the native tongue very well—he largely retreated to his office and did his anthropology from Paris; very abstract and French.
Meanwhile, Chagnon went out and lived with the Yanomami tribe, collected data about their genetics, and applied Game Theory to the tribe. He revealed how in tribal disputes men tended to clunk men more genetically distant to themselves over the head harder and more often—and that, further, most wars between the tribes were caused by the capture and rape of women; and not by, as Marxists and leftists had it, nascent systems of private property or imperialist incursion. Lévi-Strauss, meanwhile, tended to promulgate, safe from his office in Paris, bland bien-pensant ideas about the brotherhood of man—so much so that the French praised his thought, in the 2000s, as being ideal for a “globalised world”. Well, Lévi-Strauss did train as a lawyer first of all, perhaps he always was a politician…
Even before postmodernism, structuralism favoured the left; and perhaps that is because it lives almost entirely in its sign-system—indeed, for Lacan, who was heavily inspired by Lévi-Strauss, the symbolic realm is fully autonomous from the biological; and the symbolic realm is, for Lacan, almost the entire world we live in. Almost all there is for structuralists and postmodernists is the sign-system—everything is symbolic for them, hence everything is a bit poncy and, basically, French. Since they think the sign-system is largely arbitrary, it is entirely malleable; and so, it follows, if it is hierarchical and unfair it can easily be modified—just change the sign-system and you get social justice, simples.
Admittedly, Lévi-Strauss did send his disciples out to gather real anthropological data on the ground, material he could process into binary oppositions back in Paris—yet his acolytes showed a remarkable penchant for buggering tribal children in exchange for Western trade goods; a fact that was kept neatly swept under the carpet, whereas poor old Chagnon was endlessly slandered by Marxists and leftist structuralist anthropologists for trying to “genocide” various tribes—basically, for not delivering the optimistic, broadly leftist, outlook to be found in structuralist anthropology.
It would not be fair to say, as those who oppose postmodernism often do, that structuralism and postmodernism are entirely irrational—or even unscientific. Certainly structuralism and Saussure thought they were engaged in a scientific investigation into “language” and into the very structure of human thought. Lévi-Strauss’s ideas about “myth units” are not so different from Dawkins’s “memes”—and Lévi-Strauss’s attempts to systematically understand the structure of myths and how myths spread across South America were really early studies in memetics. However, there was always a tendency within structuralism to retreat to the purely linguistic; a temptation especially present when it meshed with the left, so that it contributed to what we call “wokeness”—this vague egalitarian idea system that is not quite Marxist but is very structuralist and post-structuralist (postmodern) when it obsesses over the “language” encoded in, say, the way different races are arranged in an advert—and whether their arrangement is hierarchical or not.
For Lacan, for example, a phallus can be feminine—it can be a Phyllis, if you like—and this is because he does not refer to a literal penis, as some obtuse Darwinian playing dumb may say, but rather to the phallus as a sign in a sign-system; and so a biological female can have a phallus as well as a male, if you think about it like that—i.e. purely symbolically, purely from the inner structure found in thought and language. Of course, not all structuralists went that far, and there is a truth to the “language” idea and the way it can influence our actions—and yet, obviously, the most leftist post-structuralists preferred to think that “language” was everything.
To return to Lacan in context, you can see quite how dependent structuralists are on the sign-system when you consider that Lacan’s symbolic and imaginary constitute your totality, the sign-system you live in; he uses the “Real”, “Real” with a capital “R”, to represent the ineffable and inexpressible thing that intrudes into the sign-system and cannot be expressed by it. We could say this is death, “God”, or, in fact, Napoleon Chagnon—for, in this sense, Chagnon, with his “autistic” Indo-Aryan anthropology, was “the Real” that intruded into the linguistic games played by the French-Jewish Lévi-Strauss. Anyway, at least Lacan admits there is something beyond the sign-system—“the Real”. That is a lot more than many structuralists or postmodernists do; they just live in the sign-system, basically because—though it can be used to say true things about culture—it is a great way to lie about the world. If you live entirely in the sign-system then to change reality you just change the sign—it is all arbitrary; although, of course, that assumes that Saussure was right in his original contention—perhaps he was not, perhaps, per Heidegger, there is something like an Adamic language, something like ancient Greek or Sanskrit, where all the words are like “oink, oink” or “Mama, Mama”, not arbitrary at all…
So Lacan has the imaginary, the real, and the symbolic. The imaginary is roughly the ego, the symbolic is the sign-system you live in, and the real is that which intrudes from without the sign-system; and these can be represented, literally, by the Borromean knot. As with Jungian psychoanalysis or Hindooism, the aim is to free a person from the accreted ego/persona—a mirror-like ego for Lacan—and come to know the Self; in Lacanian terms, not to be driven by the mirror-image that is “you” in your head and the symbolic order it moves in—for this “you” that is, in fact, symbolic also lives in a “language”; and this includes a “family language” and a wider “social language”. In Jungian psychoanalysis, this would be taken to be identification with the persona; and, in Hindooism, with the profane world.
However, there is a fourth element in Lacan—and it is here he really links up with the Hindoos and Jung. The fourth aspect is the sinthome (symptôme); if we add the symptôme to the imaginary, real, and the symbolic a person experiences jouissance—the final ineradicable kernel beneath the ego, beneath the symbolic and imaginary and the real. This word is untranslatable from the French, but basically means “joy”—with connotations of sexual joy, although Lacan does not mean it entirely sexually. Actually, jouissance is the unmediated experience of consciousness.
To understand this we must return to the Borromean knot and its loops; consciousness, as Hofstadter observed in Gödel, Escher, Bach, seems to be connected to the strange loop—to loops like the Möbius strip and Borromean knot. The strange loop is Lacan’s “ineradicable kernel” that lies hidden behind the symbolic and the imaginary—the Self or atman, as the Jungians and Hindoos would say; a topological feature. Consciousness is in, out, in, out (not unlike sex, the orgasm but not quite purely sexual); joy—jouissance—occurs when you are inside the outside inside the outside. To understand this notion, look at the image by Escher that heads this article: imagine an invisible finger that traces the interconnected snake-lines round and round—or just trace the paths with your eyes. This is jouissance, not necessarily the subjective experience but what it is objectified; although, actually, if you follow the snakes round and round for nine minutes or so you may experience joy.
You may have heard or read this term “a writerly novel”; it sounds rather pretentious, the writerly writer conjures certain images…David Foster Wallace on a harbour quay, in a bandana, looking out to a sunset at sea; or perhaps Proust in a cork-lined room with a little Madeleine cake and very watery tea without milk. The term is a bit cringe-inducing, really. However, it was coined by Barthes, himself a structuralist, to describe books that induce jouissance —although he would not have put it like that.
An ordinary book merely produces pleasure, not joy—only the writerly book induces joy. How does it do that? It does it when it induces the in-out-in-out-in-out sensation. You could say that a writerly book turns you inside out and then turns you back inside again—or maybe it just leaves you turned inside out. Techniques to achieve this sensation: Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, since this book is looped—the last sentence is the first sentence, you could just keep reading Finnegans Wake again and again, round and round; it is like an ouroboros; and, rather like a fugue, it layers upon layers as it goes round and round. This is what makes it more than just a pleasurable book, as with, say, a Philip K Dick novel; it actually turns your consciousness inside out, again and again—it meshes with consciousness at the fundamental level, beyond egos or personas.
It is here that Lacan directly agrees with Jung, except he uses different words for the same experience—you could say that they share “a language”. Jung has a quaternary, not a trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—being a Gnostic, he says you have to add a missing fourth to complete the Trinity; and the missing fourth is Lucifer, the light-bearer who is usually repressed and abominated. Lacan’s real, imaginary, and symbolic (+ the symptôme) merely recapitulates the Jungian quaternary in another form—as with both men, the quaternary releases a fifth, highly excitable, element; it allows you to realise base consciousness. For Jung, using old alchemical terminology, this is “the Fifth Element” whereas for Lacan it is “jouissance”—the quaternary realises extreme joy, as with an orgasm but somehow more so; it is an awakening. For both men, the fourth element—Lucifer or the symptôme —is invisible, it is somehow outside the Borromean knot and yet knits it together.
Further, the Lacanian symptôme relies on wordplay—for example, he lauded Joyce as Saint Homme, i.e. “sainted man” but also “symptôme”; and, further, had “synth-homme” as in “sounds similar”, “synth-phone” or “homophone”—or “synthetic”, an artificial creation; and, indeed, perhaps these strange loops—Turing complete loops—really will eventually lead to a real “synth-homme” or a real synthetic man or artificial intelligence. Finally, the symptôme is a “symphony”, a glorious sound. To use wordplay in this way, for this fourth element, the Luciferian element in Jungian terms, is alchemical, for alchemy relies on wordplay; especially to attain the Holy Grail. These peculiar coincidences in symbology are also equivalent to Jung’s meaningful coincidences, synchronicity—syn-homme; symptôme. Further, Lacan also relies on a coincidence of opposites—in his case between Joyce’s wordplay and circular (multilevelled) novels, and mathematical topology (Borromean knots)—just as with Jung, Jung’s coincidence of opposites (enantiodromia) being based more upon the traditional male-female or Yin-Yang oppositions.
So, in essence, Lacan and Jung have exactly the same project—albeit with different names, and Lacan would say that his is carried out without religious or obscurantist illusions. In short, consciousness is at bottom a strange loop, a Borromean knot, that can be experienced in an unmediated way through certain patterns—words or music, ultimately mathematical operations—that mesh with consciousness and draw you in-out-in-out in an effectively egoless experience; i.e. joy, the kernel of consciousness itself.
This relates back to the ancient Hindoos because they already knew all this was so. If you look at the Sri Yantra, pictured below, you look at a Borromean knot; to contemplate the Sri Yantra was a means to achieve the highest consciousness in Hindooism—Jung used this sacred geometry in his work with his clients. Similarly, you can see the same in the valknut symbol—now commonly used by Nordic white nationalists as a symbol. This symbol is almost the same as the Sri Yantra, and perhaps, if mathematical intuitions differ slightly by race, then it is more appropriate for Nordic people who wish to reach the highest awakening—for it was important in the Viking religion long ago.
So, in short, Lacan and Jung both use similar techniques—a quaternary, topology, coincidence of opposites, wordplay-synchronicity—to access consciousness at the deepest levels, in an unmediated way (i.e. not mediated by the ego or persona); and this is very similar to what the Buddhists and Hindoos mean by Enlightenment. The fundamental structure of consciousness was quite well understood by Jung and Lacan—and by the Hindoos long before them.
Well, are they all the same? There is a difference. The difference is this: what Jung—and, particularly, Lacan with his fully mapped unconscious—did, according to Traditional interpretations by men such as Guénon, was Satanic; the reason is that although they managed to hit on fundamental unmediated consciousness—the Sri Yantra, so to speak—they also decided to delve into the unconscious; and this is a demonic realm—an evil realm, to be strictly suppressed. For example, in Hindooism and Buddhism the Enlightened man does not dream; liberation, identification with the cosmic One, ends dreams. Lacan and Jung, by contrast, are keen on dreams—and would probably think it a “bad” thing if a person had no dreams or recalled no dreams; yet, for the old religions, this merely reflects an attempt to delve into the forbidden realms.
Indeed, Lacan enjoyed Joyce and celebrated Joyce as a “sainted man”, the Saint Homme; yet Joyce’s novels excavate the forbidden—pissing, shitting, masturbation, farting, and fucking. He takes the glorious and inverts it—Ulysses inverts the Odyssey and turns what is glorious into a rather tawdry affair. Notably, the central protagonist in Ulysses, Bloom, is a Jew—and Lacan was also closely aligned with the Jews, as was Jung to an extent. For some Traditionalists, the Jews are associated with the dark age of decay, the Kali-Yuga, so for these men who excavated the demonic in consciousness to be associated with the Jews makes sense—Lacan’s “saint” is covered in piss and shit, and he enjoys it.
Excavate the forbidden content and the demons will emerge; and I think this is even more true for Lacan than for Jung—since Jung retained a spiritual sensibility and connection with a primordial tradition, if only vaguely. With Lacan it is all purely “scientific”; and, indeed, my experience with Lacanians is that they are creepy, manipulative, and essentially demonic people—and this is because they follow a man who created an algebra for Hell, for the demonic subterranean world; naturally, they, as with the Freudians, abominate religion and intend to replace it.
Anyway, I think the way these three very different streams of thought converge on similar ideas about consciousness seems to confirm that the idea that consciousness is “knotted”, literally topologically expressed, is basically correct—indeed, about the same time as Lacan began to think about the Borromean knot, in the 1970s, the psychiatrist RD Laing, inspired by cybernetics and Game Theory, published a book called Knots—a book that contained many looped paragraphs that might help you “pop” out of the circle and achieve Enlightenment, just as the reboot button exits a program stuck in a loop (joyous escape). However, in practical terms, you are better off if you spend nine minutes a day absorbed before a Sri Yantra or valknut than engaged in Jungian—or certainly Lacanian—psychoanalysis. It seems the ancients had such advanced knowledge; perhaps, indeed, time itself is but a strange loop?