ART OR SCIENCE, biological determinism or mysticism, "Jewish confession" or the "impossible profession," whatever we choose to call it, whether we choose to reject, embrace, ignore, or even feel ambivalent about it, psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud's archaeology of the unconscious, has become as much a part of our culture as the Bible. Internal heresies have, of course, splintered the original doctrine. Not all Freud's sons were faithful to the master. Today we barely recognize the Freudian source behind such curiosities as "est" or "Primal Scream."

Lately, though, there has been a growing interest in the origins of our therapeutic culture. Bruno Bettelheim's recent article on Sigmund Freud's language (in The New Yorker) and Janet Malcolm's profile of a Freudian analyst (Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession) have helped stimulate curiosity in what Freud himself was really up to. Now Francois Roustang, a French psychoanalyst and visiting professor of literature at Johns Hopkins University, has written a book on the foundations of his craft, a study that touches in passing on some of the same questions raised by Bettelheim (the status of psychoanalysis as art or science) and by Malcolm (the inherent limitations of the "talking cure").

Roustang's book, let it be said at the outset, is no easy guide or popularization, but its difficulties stem less from its use of analytic terminology (which, in fact, is quite sparing) than from its intellectual rigor. With a clarity that is quite uncommon among contemporary French intellectuals, Roustang carries forward the project initiated by Jacques Lacan, a controversial analyst who created a schism within the Freudian School when he declared that no one was reading Freud correctly. Attacking those who reduced Freud's writings to a mechanistic dogma, Lacan argued that the real concern of analysis was with language. To understand the unconscious, he insisted, one must get at its linguistic structure. This emphasis endeared Lacan to structuralists and semioticians working in the social sciences and in literary criticism. Lacan's approach was in turn fortified by developments in these other areas.

So extensive has this cross-fertilization been that it is often difficult to distinguish a Lacanian notion from one of, say, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault. One does not easily emerge from this intellectual milieu with a clear head, much less a clear vocabulary. To Roustang's credit, he has emerged with both -- though without abandoning the semiotician's commitment to a radical examination of our structures of knowledge.

Dire Mastery (the French title, Un destin si funeste -- "Such a Dire Fate" -- though awkward in translation, is actually more suggestive of the book's content) proceeds on two related tracks. One is an explication of the "fateful" implications of analytic theory; the other, a history, consisting mainly of brief biographical sketches, of the early days of the psychoanalytic movement. The two lines converge in a concluding chapter on the treatability of psychosis, perhaps the most inaccessible chapter for the lay reader, but even before reaching this point, Roustang unifies his discussion with a sort of intellectual leitmotif--the transference phenomenon.

Transference is the drama of psychoanalysis, its sine qua non, and Roustang likens its initial stage to the religious leap of faith. Unless the patient comes to believe in the analyst as the one "who is supposed to know," analysis cannot begin. Roustang explains: "No analysis without analysis of the transference -- that is, nothing is achieved before the intricacies of my own wishes and thoughts have been disentangled from those of persons (or characters) who loved or hated me, and who consequently formed or deformed me. The analyst will occupy the place or places of the others' wishes, either all at once or successively, by intricately manipulating particular characteristics."

The purpose of this exhausting and sometimes terrifying exercise, in which the patient plays out his fantasies without fear of censure or punishment, is "the collapse of every object of desire" and, ultimately, "the extinction of desire itself." The successfully analyzed patient is released from the hold of unseen phantoms which once made him subject to the manipulations of others. This is the happy ideal, of course, and Roustang remains a little vague as to how fully it is ever achieved. But his faith in the analytic process is strong enough for him to say that successful treatment at least leads the patient clear of the worst (that is, most destructive) relationship that exists in everyday life -- which exists, indeed, by dint of unexamined transferences.

Still, there is a tangle in the analytic process, a loop that confounds the analyst himself. Freeing the patient from self-destructive transferences, the analyst himself remains subject to one that is almost impossible to break: The analyst must believe in the theory. It is, after all, by grace of the theory that the analyst functions. And to believe (or "transfer onto") the theory is really to believe in its maker -- the master, whether he be Freud, Jung, Lacan, or any other figure who sets himself up as the one "who is supposed to know."

Freud may have been the most difficult master, possibly because he understood the rules of the father-son game so well. Roustang's illuminating history of Freud's relationships with his various disciples--not only with Jung but also with the lesser known Ferenczi, Tausk, and Groddeck -- shows how truly domineering and manipulative a figure he could be. Like Moses, he could countenance no departure from the Law. His disciples had either to prove their loyalty (Ernest Jones' hagiographic life of Freud was a perfect testimony of allegiance) or rebel, break away, and formulate their own theory. A few unfortunates tried to steer a middle course, and these suffered the worst fate of all. Victor Tausk, a bright but extremely neurotic student in the Vienna group, tried to resist Freud's dominance and as a result suffered from paralyzing ambivalence. He finally committed suicide -- to Freud's unconcealed relief (Tausk's resistance had begun to get under his skin, as he confessed to Lou Andreas-Salom,e, one of the few female members of the early psychoanalytic movement). Another pioneer of psychoanalysis, Georg Groddeck, the first man to formulate the idea of the id, attempted to resist Freud's efforts to incorporate him and his work into the psychoanalytic (that is, Freudian) mainstream. Finally, perhaps out of fear of professional isolation, Groddeck submitted to the master, acknowledged him as the source, and promptly began a downward spiral to intellectual and emotional impotence.

Though this is not a very flattering portrait of Freud, Roustang does not really try to vilify him. Indeed, Roustang argues that Freud had to become a master, just as other analysts had to become disciples or become their own masters. A society of followers -- believers -- was essential. Without a society of psychoanalysts to learn and propagate his words, to transform them into "science and a principle of communication," the master would be adrift among his own solitary fantasies and obsessions. The corps of believers gave a sort of objectivity (though Roustang wonders if this really qualifies as a science) to Freud's own pattern of neurosis, his "Oedipus complex," for example. But a psychoanalytic society is, as Roustang understands it, an impossible contradiction: "There are no good psychoanalytic societies: they are all bad in regard to analysis, since they maintain the transference that analysis tries to dissolve. They are not completely bad either, however, siersnce analysts, after all, should not have to go mad, and since analysis could not be transmitted if there were not some sort of society." A society of madmen? Roustang calls it just that. Still, as he cryptically adds, it is an "impossibility that points the way."

"The way toward what?" we may ask. Perhaps toward a realization of the limits, the tragic limits, to how far most of us can go in attaining those ideals of individual freedom and autonomy. Roustang's analysis forces us to recognize that any human association or society, whether large or small, depends on mastery and discipleship. Without this relationship (which Lacan argues is built into language itself), there is no organization of desire, and without this organization, there is chaos (or, in personal and psychological terms, psychosis, for psychosis is unfocused libido -- libido without direction).

Who escapes? Perhaps only the artist, the poet, the maker -- the rare genius who, like William Blake, creates his own system in order to free himself from the systems of others. This is the exceptional figure, the man or woman who can live apart, self-sufficient and content with his or her own private language. Yet, paradoxically, all movement and change in history may depend on these rare few who break the bonds of submission and see beyond the accepted or patterned ways of seeing (for our vision, as Blake also realized, is shaped by our desire). Freud himself acknowledged that his best ideas were borrowed from those splendid isolationists of the imagination, Shakespeare, Schiller, Nietzsche, among others. Then he combined and shaped these ideas into Law.

The mass of mankind serves under the Law -- or under any one of the many Laws. That appears to be our fate. We may, however, continue to question this destiny, and Roustang's book will be of service in this vital interrogation.