Professor Jean Laplanche: Celebrated psychoanalyst

His wife went with him everywhere, and sat through hours of lectures which surely held little interest for her

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The Independent Online

There is an exquisite surprise moment in Agnes Varda's award-winning documentary The Gleaners (2000) when she discovers that the man she has interviewed solely as the proprietor of the Château de Pommard turns out to be France's most famous living psychoanalyst, whose work has had an immense impact on the very world of contemporary film and culture whence her project derived. She is already shocked by the fact that a wealthy château-owner like him has no practical problem whatsoever with gleaners – the scavengers who gather the grapes left over from his harvest – but she is dumbfounded when she is told that these figures actually profoundly inspire his own clinical and creative work: "As a psychoanalyst," he tells her, "I am completely familiar with heading out across already harvested land searching out for the fruit and unexpected treasures that have been previously overlooked."

This interview charmingly reveals the deep roots that bound together seemingly disparate areas of Jean Laplanche's life and work. First and foremost, he always remained deeply connected to the soil of Burgundy. He was born there, studied there, joined the Resistance there in 1943, inherited the proprietorship of the Château de Pommard in 1966, and from then on divided his working life between four days in Pommard and the remaining three in Paris.

His wife Nadine was a vital counterpart in this work-life balance. They were inseparable, and happily married for 60 years. Nadine was irrepressible, sociable and stylish, and brought a large dash of Corsican passion, volatility and gregariousness to temper his more withdrawn and contemplative sides. Nadine accompanied him everywhere, and sat through hours of technical lectures and conferences which surely held little interest to her.

He was, equally, always subliminally and creatively engaged with Burgundy, often in surprising ways. I will never forget a conversation we had visiting Leeds Castle in Kent in 1990. We had entered a room filled with 14th century carved furniture from John the Fearless, the Second Duke of Burgundy. After a brief celebration of Burgundy's independence from France, and the pre-eminence of its regional style during this period, Laplanche began to muse on the contrast between the human figures, cut to stand out embossed from the wood, and the features of the landscape, which were cut into the main flat surface of the chest.

He embarked on a long reverie about how the silences of open spaces in nature allow you the space to follow your own line of thought, whereas the loud noise and anger of other humans intruded and cut off your space to think. He concluded with the association that there may be children surrounded daily with unprocessed anger or passion from adult others, who will probably later come to feel trapped and claustrophobic in their relationships. Everything they then feel unable to digest will stand out embossed and intrude monolithically in their thinking, like the human figures in the wood-carving.

Alternatively, there may be children who live surrounded by the long silences of depressed adult others. They will probably find themselves at some point feeling anxious and agoraphobic. Gaping holes will emerge in their thinking, which may never bottom out, but rather pull everything into their vortex. I realised years later that Laplanche had discovered in that Burgundy carved chest some free associations that clustered, ripened, and came to fruit in his theory of the embossed and hollowed-out forms of transference that govern human relationships.

Laplanche's method was built around enabling people to explore how such cut-out and embossed forms emerge, intrude and wend their way through their own personal lives. For Laplanche, at the heart of our consciousness lies a foundational enigma posed by the intrusion of otherness – the dawning awareness from childhood that other people and things are ultimately separate from us, so do not follow our thoughts or wishes about how we would like them to behave or respond.

From the beginning we become seduced by this other adult world, which we cannot understand, but make every attempt to translate it. We create stories and theories to try to make sense of why others feel and act unpredictably or in puzzling ways, but we always fail – as all translations ultimately fail to capture their original – and we are always left with bits that just do not fit in, so come to stand out mysteriously; or worse, form some ominous prescience that vital bits may be missing.

For Laplanche, these bits form the central concern of analysis – and set out the main starting points for any work with the unconscious. He remained adamant that the analyst must leave the story-telling and big life-constructions to the client: "Hands off the theories of the client!" he would half sing, always with a broad grin. The worst of all outcomes for him would be a world in which ex-clients ended up explaining their miseries and unhappiness by the set theories of their own psychoanalyst. He wanted clients to grapple with the sources of their own feeling and thinking, and, if possible, be surprised, nourished, strengthened and inspired by their discoveries – just like the more fortunate gleaners end up surprised and inspired in Agnes Varda's film.

Jean Laplanche, psychoanalyst and author: born Burgundy 21 May 1921; married Nadine (died 2010); died 6 May 2012.