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Luther, Lacan, and the Heart of Human Destiny – What Psychoanalysis Can Tell Us About Our Own Political Theology (A Review)

Herman Westerink. The Heart of Man’s Destiny: Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Early Reformation Thought. New York: Routledge, 2012. 161 pages.

The question of the modern has always been a political one. We cannot understand its genesis, of course, apart from the revolution of the subject made possible by Descartes’ “hyperbolic doubt.” Yet the modern becomes even more unintelligible if we do not consider its political corollary: the struggle between emancipated “secular” subjectivity and the autonomy of Hobbes’ Leviathan-like state which undergirds the historical dialectics driving 19th and 20th century revolutionary theory and praxis.

Ironically, however, the further question of the “postmodern” constantly today besetting us rests on a radical questioning of the subject, which begins with Nietzsche and crystallizes in the writings of Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, etc.

This deeper questioning, which is an even more profound political form of interrogation, ultimately comes down to framing the mission of psychoanalysis in the 20th and 21st centuries. Why does the “liberated” subject in its concrete historical and political situatedness, as Hegel envisioned in The Philosophy of Right, turn out to be the agent of monstrous collective evil as well as self-destructive anxiety and despair? Is it an “escape from freedom,” as Frankfort School maven Erich Fromm all-too-glibly put it, or something far more abyssmal, perhaps even ontological?

Herman Westerink in his penetrating and brilliant book The Heart of Man’s Destiny: Lacanian Psychoanalysis and Early Reformation Thought invites us to ponder this last question in a way that has not hitherto been put out there, even perhaps by such well-known contemporary critical theorists as Slavoy Zizek who powerfully fuse Lacanian psychoanalysis with Hegel and Marx.

As both a philosopher of psychoanalysis and intellectual historian, Westerink takes us all the way back to the strange rages and Anfechtungen of Martin Luther, not to mention the fierce debates of the early Calvinist theologians over double predestination, to pinpoint the true “Archimedean point” for both the modern and the postmodern.

Only psychoanalysis, particularly in its Lacanian iteration, can take us to that point, Westerink suggests. But once we arrive at our destination we find ourselves strangely at the intersection of a “fatal attraction” that was the Reformation’s passion for God with the grandiose construction of a rational and humanized world that would be the Enlightenment’s legacy.

The “disorder” that underlies all Western history since the sixteenth century, we may surmise, lies in what Westerink terms “Luther’s thing”, applying Lacan’s enigmatic notion of das Ding in his seminar entitled the Ethics of Psychoanalysis to early Reformation theology. Westerink seizes on Lacan’s own episodic references to Luther, a veritable treasure trove for psychohistory, to underscore how whom the former termed “‘the mad man from Wittenberg’ indicates ‘that at the heart of man’s destiny is the Ding, the causa‘, which is to say, something at the heart of psychic life that does not belong to us.” (p. 65
Lacan, Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 96-7).

This alien “what” or ultimate “thingness” Westerink traces to the late Medieval preoccupation with the terrifying Deus absconditus, the “hidden God”, whom Luther identifies with wrath and a primal “hatred” for us that seems to be there at the beginning of creation. The hidden God encapsulated as an almost cosmic divine Ding points to everything that cannot be contained with the symbolic order regulated by our highest form of “theological” reasoning – in effect, the perennial arguments of Job’s friends.

It amounts to the fundamental Lacanian insight that “what we call the object of desire…is in fact”, according to Lacan, “the object of another’s desire” foisted on us by the structure of discourse, which is always the discourse of the father, the discourse of the Other (p. 65). If God is “unconscious”, as Lacan famously says, it is because the hidden God drives in us, not just personally but collectively, a desire for la chose in rebellion against a God that cannot be articulated, a God that we hate in the same way that Freud’s primal sons hated the primal father.

“The difference between Deus absconditus and Deus revelatus is nothing other than the difference between God and his Word.” (p. 67), which is to say the difference between God and theology, or between theos and logos. Theology serves, therefore, as the ultimate objet petit a.

If what Westerink attributes – and I think quite rightly – to Lacan is the realization that history is not so much an escape from freedom as an avoidance of coming to terms with the “madness” at the heart of civilization, then any genuine political theology has to take Hobbes more seriously, someone whom Lacan in fact admired.

Zizek, for example, in his use of Lacan constantly cites Schelling’s notion of the primal Abgrund, of the blind compulsion at the center of creation, a compulsion that is the true en archai and precedes the work of the logos. It is not simply the state of nature that is “nasty, brutish, and short,” insofar as the state of nature itself mirrors the cosmos as a whole.

This insight into the “dark god” who is at the beginning of things, whom Luther finds difficult to distinguish from the Devil, whom Spinoza understood as the immanent conatus of all things in their tendency to strive and persist in their own being, which Nietzsche diagnosed as the “will to power”, which Freud saw as the death drive, grounds the crisis of our times.

It is the consuming existential as well as socio-political crisis of our times that underlies the global collapse of liberal, “democratic” solutions to what turns out to be the indefatigable perversity of the human overall. It is essentially what Lacan identifies as a crisis of “ethics.”

We have as a species failed in the project to “domesticate desire,” which as Westerink notes is Lacan’s own take on our secular dreams and projects. But we can be as ruthlessly honest as Luther at the dawn of the modern was, and come to realize that salvation lies inescapably in the confession of the limits of all symbolic interventions (the true meaning of sola fide).

It was John Updike who wrote in the 1960s that even if God is dead, we’ve still got sex. A more precise formulary might be that we’ve still got psychoanlysis.

What psychoanalysis does, Westerink concludes, is not “solve” anything at all. “What is the nature of theology and theological thought if underneath intellectual speculation lies a disturbing, hidden desire that Luther, for example, associates with philosophical inquiry into God’s hidden will?” (p.131) Where such inquiry may actually take us is where we do not actually want to go – Joyce’s “terror of history,” Zizek’s “monstrosity” of the real.

But psychoanalysis can begin to offer us a solace verging on hopefulness, a curious sort of
non-theology that offers what Simon Critchley terms a “faith for the faithless,” a post-Lutheran theologia crucis where we embrace in our “fidelity” the contingencies of our vastly complex and conflicted history.

It may not be Spinoza’s “blessedness”, but neither is it Hegel’s “Golgotha of Absolute Spirit.” We simply need to chill out and, as Zizek says, “enjoy our symptoms.”

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