Lacan and Claudel: desire and 'The Hostage.' (Jacques Lacan, Paul Claudel)
Sophocles - archetypal, atemporal, universal - has yet to release his hold on the psychoanalytical imagination. Paul Claudel? In comparison the French author exhibits only limitations - insular, hermetic, much too topical. Lacan's choice of Claudel, after Sophocles, was perhaps motivated by his penchant to shock and provoke. But not altogether. Claudel as anomalous subject of critical and analytical inquiry proves disorienting only for an instant. Indeed, the sure manner in which Lacan proceeds to discover the verification of his own theories in Claudel's trilogy is also a function of a very real and fortuitous presence of shared thematics in the works of both authors. Lacan wants us to believe that what separates the two of them - in their seemingly incompatible ideologies - is born from general misconceptions and misreadings. Lacan is convinced that there is, in fact, a way of releasing the Claudelian text from the forced reverence which relegates it to the ghetto of religious drama, one that can locate it instead at the site of a compelling psychoanalytical, linguistic, and structural discourse. This would be a Lacanian reading which proceeds by the accumulation of signifying details and isolation of contra-indications within the text. Here, Claudel will not only yield surprise and revival of interest, but also, quite often, the evidence of a thorough refutation, rather than confirmation, of faith. Lacan treats the plays of the trilogy as autonomous creations, linked however, by their differential methods of defining modern tragedy. In this paper I will expose and interpret only Lacan's comments regarding The Hostage (the first play in the trilogy). Focusing on a single dramatic text will, I expect, allow me to concentrate upon a critical language that is both quintessentially Lacanian and useful to theatre studies.
Claudel's protagonist, Sygne de Coufontaine, is for Lacan the chief agent who propels the action of the play throughout. "Sygne," Lacan alerts us, is a strange and unique name, one that sustains "ambiguity" at an "orthographical" level.
The word starts with an S, and it is there like an invitation to recognize in it a sign. There is, moreover an imperceptible change, the substitution of the y for the i, where one can recognize in this superimposition of the mark ... [an] imposition of the signifier upon [the individual which] is at the same time that which marks and disfigures ... [her]. [S.VIII, 352]
Lacan will find the last words of Sygne, her dying utterances, equally notable and germane to a linguistic analysis. After physically intercepting a bullet intended for her despised husband, Sygne repeatedly responds with an emphatic "No" to her priest's offers of comfort and efforts of absolution. This "No" of Sygne emanates, as we shall see, from an aporia native to what is, in Lacanian terms, the "self's radical excentricity,"(7) and is related to a language frequently expressed in tragedies where characters suffer a loss of self. Sygne's "No," of course, is anticipated by Claudel's stage directions: "Throughout the [third] act Sygne has a nervous twitching of the head from side to side, as though saying |No'" (63). It is important to convey to the reader that the nervous tic which Lacan also calls a "grimace" is (until the fatal shot that will kill her) the only aberration in Sygne's bearing, speech and composure. And to bring these first considerations to a close, Lacan notes that Sygne's appearance onstage is rendered significant by virtue of two stage props that dominate the theatrical space in acts 1 and 2 of the play: ". . . a fragment of brightly colored tapestry, on which is embroidered the coat-of-arms of Coufontaine, with the motto: |COUFONTAINE ADSUM'" (act 2) and "a large wooden cross with a bronze Crucifix. The body is mutilated and has a forbidding appearance" (11). Sygne's singular name, her final words, her nervous facial tic, and the strange objects with which she surrounds herself are salient components of a complex puzzle which Lacan attributes to Claudel's genius response to the exigencies of "modern tragedy."
Simply stated, Lacan's methodology is to scrutinize a behavior (Sygne's) as a continuous action fundamentally motivated by desire. But even though Sygne's desire is foregrounded as matter of inquiry in The Hostage, Lacan forewarns us not ever to assume a genetive relationship between a subject desirer and the act of desiring. Rather, desire is an expression of the subject's status in terms of being (as opposed to having), a structuring mechanism that defines the subject's position in the world. Subject and desire (rather than a subject's desire) - they elude each other at the "scene" of their conjunction, and the tension emanating from their mismatchment establishes an agonic relationship, evoking something like a drama. Crossroads, locations, sites - evocation of topoi is integral to Lacanian thinking. Placement guarantees virtual scenes where splits occur, meanings slide, knots appear and unravel. Now desire in its complex manifestation eludes the subject at the crossroads, leaving, nevertheless, an imprint, a mark, a telltale sign. From such indicators we become aware that desire has searched its subject through whom it wants to introduce itself. Symptoms and words are the residual effects of such missed linkages, and as such, they carry a) the burden of the entire ambassadorial message of incommensurability (between desire and a subject), and they do so b) by bearing witness to their own inadequacy, to wit: "I am not what I seem, I am merely standing in the place of that which I represent" (symptom); and "the word spoken here is only the inadequate support of a lost contention" (language). For Lacan, "symptom is a metaphor," and desire, inevitably expressed in relation to language "is a metonymy,"(8) implicating a contiguous
association of signifiers, words leading to words, barred throughout from the signifieds, hence, postponing the moment of arrival at a meaning.
The status of the subject in terms of "being" and in relation to desire is searchingly expressed in the form of a topographic displacement:
The 'being' referred to is that which appears in a lightning moment in the void of the verb 'to be' . . . it poses its question for the subject .... since the subject cannot come to the place where it is posed, but it poses it in place of the subject, that is to say, in that place it poses the question with the subject, as one poses a problem with a pen ....(9)
Concurrently, desire, characterized by a certain motility, by dint of lacunaes that it opens in relation to language, indicates its presence through absence:
Desire is a relation of being to lack .... lack of being whereby the being exists .... Being comes into existence as an exact function of this lack. Being attains a sense of self in relation to being as a function of this lack, in the experience of desire. In the pursuit of this beyond, which is nothing ....(10)
And finally, how does this being insert itself within a chain of signifiers, if not through a loss and a kind of perdition. Lacan explains: "I identify myself in language, but only by losing myself in it like an object. What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming."(11)
What Lacan finds in keeping with his own views in Claudel's text is not just the destiny of a desire, but also the companion concept that haunts it eternally, namely nomos (law). Law, of course, articulates and regulates prohibitions and is so intimately attached to desire as to be the inverse to the latter's obverse. Desire can be imagined to have given birth to itself parthenogenetically, but law is forever joined to its ur-model as the universal incest prohibition. Furthermore, to explain desire outside of articulated prohibitions (or signifiers) is to indulge in fiction. Desire and law are to be taken in tandem or not at all. Having said this, it remains to be asked what happens when desire aspires to go beyond the law? In a manner of speaking, it is very much the destiny of desire to situate itself beyond the law (of course, tragic desire dramatizes this fact openly) in a positioning operation that roughly corresponds to desire's own "beyond" status vis a vis "need" and "demand." Although sustained by the same dynamics immanent to need and demand, desire will always stand in excess to that which passes differentially as a subject's need or demand. Need, presumably, implicates the subject biologically, and can, for the most part, be satisfied. Demand is already a matter of psychology and language; it issues from a subject's "call" for reciprocal acknowledgment. For instance, in the matter of love, it seems that the demanding subject alerts the beloved of a personal lack, an emptiness that can be filled only by the object of desire's reciprocal attention; here, demand insists that the beloved also acknowledge an emptiness, a lack, that can be fulfilled only by the subject. At this juncture, wanting love and wanting-to-be loved appear as the horns of a dilemma, as much ontological as amorous. Desire in this model is that which is left overwhelmingly unsatisfied in the dialectic of demand, after the requirements of need have been met. In this sense, desire resides beyond need and demand, and as a condition of excess it functions beyond any satisfaction, and beyond any pleasure. Desire's mode of expression usually appears, but is not lodged, in the extreme instances of excessive pain, superhuman suffering, exemplary martyrdom, madness, and of course, death. Accordingly, desire's relation to the law is fated to manifest itself in transgression, where limits and taboos are crossed. Still, that aspect of criminality that confronts the subject with the unstable ordinances of common social life remains largely irrelevant to the Lacanian notion of desire. But whenever a crime seems to affect the subject's "being" so profoundly that the very coordinates of law and desire have to be reevaluated, then, Lacan's attention becomes transfixed. Eros and nomos sustain their antinomy and violent interdependence throughout the analytic experience, but it is in the discussion of ethics, aesthetics, and the tragic, that Lacan successfully locates a radical beyond the law that can animate desire, towards an "impossible" (S.VIII, 322) freedom and liberation, something that can be said arising "ex nihilo,"(12) prior to any law, and going beyond mere death to an absolute alterity.
If the subtextual target of Lacan's interest in Claudel is to demonstrate the dramatic confrontation of desire and law, his expository remarks relative to his reading of the playwright recapitulate formulas that in a distilled form represent the fundamental challenge he was trying to pose to traditional psychoanalysis:
... man is marked, he is troubled by all that is called symptom ... it is this that links him to his desires. [S.VIII, 313]
.. the desire of the subject is essentially ... the desire of the Other with a capital O. [S.VIII, 314]
The Desire of the Other - this genetive is at once subjective and objective. Desire in the place where the Other is, desire for being able to be at this place - and desire for some alterity. [S.VIII, 314]
To satisfy a search for an objective, to know what this other who comes to find us desires ... we lend it there, to the function of the subjective ... to represent ... not at all the object the desire targets, but the signifier. [S. VIII, 314-15]
... it is necessary to know how to fill its [the void's or lack's] place, in as much as the subject must be able to locate there the lacking signifier. [S.VIII, 315]
A great deal of Lacan, of course, is present in these cryptic, almost formulaic statements, which nevertheless, he feels he must repeat in order to explain the dynamics of the Claudelian text. Of course, the theatre of Claudel does not function as a simple analogy to Lacanian precepts, but stands for an operation that goes beyond these principles comparable to the centrifugal thrust of desire itself. Desire, as the desire of the Other is conceived here in terms of shifting topoi and within language. To coincide with the desire of the Other is also to occupy its same place, but this essentially mobile place (an elsewhere) is imbued with the paradoxical capacities of existing differentially, subjectively and objectively. Consequently, satisfaction of desire (aimed at an object) will invariably miss the object for its signifier, the latter being only a partial representation. Lack, therefore, arises from the inadequacy of the signifier, and is intimately linked to the subject's quest; it marks the subject in his/her very being. Accordingly, Claudel paints, suggests Lacan, a portrait of desire in The Hostage that is substantially sympathetic to the complex definition of it put forth by the psychoanalyst.
Following observations explicit in Lacan's reading of Claudel, we find in Sygne a character who is presented to us as one who has been engaged in an ambitious labor (physically and symbolically) which is none other than reclaiming the patrimony of her noble lineage. One aspect of her efforts has to do with restoring lands, fields, and edifices parcelled out by the Napoleonic regime, an attempt to restore the material integrity of her family heritage. That she identifies with holdings associated with feudal ownership, as one whose political beliefs are wholly partisan, even as her commitment to recoup the family possessions with painstaking and exacting effort is total, goes without saying. She is equally obsessed on another plane, for linked to the material exigency is, of course, her identification with the Coufontaine name. And in this respect we find her aspirations more auricular, if equally intense. As the sole keeper of the flame, Sygne is engaged in making certain that the Coufontaine name persists, to be preserved in history as a continuation vitalized not only by memory and solemn oaths, but also through the protection of privileged relics that beyond their material value exemplify the unique authority invested in the family name, now subject to mortal assault.
If the entire tragic movement of Claudel's text is embodied in Sygne's desire, her expository declarations to her cousin Georges de Coufontaine articulate the strongest expression of an ethos soon to be questioned:
I studied the value of each field and of each corner of each field, and the value of wheat, and of wine, and of buildingstone, and of lime, and of wood, and the daily wage of men and women, until at last I knew the old property as well as our grandfather knew his cards after a night's play .... At last I had gathered and fitted together again the whole estate, except our manor, which had been torn down. Bit by bit I bought back our china; volume by volume I retrieved our books, bound with our coat-of-arms on the covers.... Our castle has been destroyed, but the House of God still stands .... the old house, raised from the ground by faith, the mystical house built on the sacred Body and Blood, still stands. [20-21]
What Sygne has to say with respect to her diligence in reclaiming the integrity of the Coufontaine territories, in Lacan's view, cannot be disassociated from the complex coordinates which point to a sign system: ". . . this pact with the land, for the two characters, and equally for the author who makes them speak, is identical with the consistency, and the value of nobility itself" (S.VIII, 319). In other words, what has transpired between the land itself and the principles of nobility is part of an originary agreement, a primordial law endorsed by the Coufontaine fathers. It is not that recent history has witnessed merely the bleeding and suffering of the earth, but that the earth itself is vociferous. What does this mean other than a personification of the earth and attributing a pathos to it? Well, a unified estate in the Coufontaine scheme of values is highly symbolic. As enumerated, Sygne's recuperative labors guarantee a return to legitimacy. And the collection of the china, the books, and the family emblems, the production of the bread and wine, and the appraisal of lime and wood are so many "statements" forming a signifying chain leading to the conjunction of name and land as a core symbol, one which voices the restoration of parental authority. The earth evokes through the language of nobility "a mystical link" (S.VIII, 319) with those who owe allegiance to it. The values implicated by the language of the cousins (even as) they alternately grieve the past and call up courage for the travails of the present and the future) are supported by a "certain form of speech" (S.VIII, 319) expressive of the burden of nobility. This is to say, following the logic of Lacan, that land and lineage are not silent partners where the Coufontaine cousins are concerned. Land and lineage speak through the highborn subjects, reactivating in an articulated form a desire that is responsive to the memory of an original pact, one that was first drawn between a mythic founding Father (of the family) and his male heirs.
In Sygne's case there is no difference between her devotion to the laws of her forefathers and her submission to the Christian faith. For her, nobility and religion work hand in hand, generating spiritual truth in the shape of subservience to God and Church. And her belief in the legitimacy Of the Bourbons conforms to traditionally held convictions supportive of a close alliance between state and church. It is in conformity with these certainties that Sygne, early in the play, negotiates a "spiritual marriage" with Georges. The latter's faith has been severely tested. When in exile with his King in England, he witnessed the sudden deaths of his wife and two children, victims of an epidemic "fever" afflicting London. But misfortune has also been accompanied by scandal. Georges' wife, unbeknownst to him, had had an extended love affair with the Dauphin, a truth revealed to the hapless husband only after her untimely demise. The entire affair has left him utterly disconsolate. Grief, desolation, and sense of family obligation, therefore activate the mutual promise of a lifelong devotion exchanged by Sygne and Georges:
COUFONTAINE: ... You, who are the last surviving woman of my lineage, take what oath you will, and accept from your overlord the pledge of faith after the ancient custom. Coufontaine, receive my glove! (He gives her his glove.
SYGNE: I take it, George; and never shall you take it back. (A long pause.)
This ceremony represents, for Lacan, the conditions of an "impossible" marriage, because it will prohibit consummation, but is deemed binding "before God" (S.VIII, 322) in all other respects. Moreover, the memory of a conjugal infidelity transpiring during the nadir of the cousins' fortunes seems to call for a solemn pact capable of stitching the rent in the ethical fabric of their existence. It is no longer necessary to insist that the words of this nuptial oath is in strict conformity with and in the order of the language of the original pact with the land. Suffice it to say that against all dangers of inclement fortune and possible loss, the pact reaffirms the subjects' identification with the land as an expression of ontological certainty.
No doubt Claudel would be a poor playwright had he had not envisioned the inherent futility of a covenant such as the one binding Sygne and Georges. And Lacanian analysis is well positioned to identify the limits of this agreement, for even though the Other (the laws of the fathers, masters, authority, religion, etc.) speaks in the name of the subject's desire, it fails at every turn to fulfill desire's objectives, leaving the subject invariably wanting and alienated. The alpha and omega of the Other's relation to the subject is this inevitable letdown at the level of satisfaction. Claudel's text speaks succinctly to this dilemma. The truth of ancestral devotion as something symbiotically connected with faith is suddenly under question. Indeed, the patriarchal values of nobility and church have seriously eroded by the time Sygne is ready to champion them. Her resolve is blind to the crack registered in the composition of the Other. From her position of limited knowledge Sygne is subject to extraordinary vulnerability, her full resolve undermined by the confusing and paradoxical messages emanating from the field of the Other. Accordingly, Claudel's plot complications will force upon Sygne radical and wrenching decisions. The Pope (Pius VII) is at this very time a fugitive, and the nouveau riche charlatans, precursors to the modern bourgeoisie, are preparing to feed on the rotting corpse of the aristocracy. And moments after their mutual oath, Georges confesses to Sygne that the stranger with whom he has been travelling is none other than the Pope (the literal hostage of the title). Georges, profiting from the general disarray reigning in France as a result of the Emperor's disastrous Russian campaign, has singlehandedly obtained the release of the Pope from a provincial prison and has secretly conducted him to the relative safety of the Cistercian monastery where Sygne resides.
The image of a beleaguered Pope with his diocese used as a pawn in worldly schemes, expresses, no doubt, a fundamental crisis of authority in the Church. But it is perhaps possible to justify the necessity for such a crisis as part of that endless challenge faith will place in the path of true believers. What follows as a result of the fugitive Pope's presence at the monastery, however, transcends any test conceivable by the faithful subject. Complying with the role of host to so august a figure as the Pope immediately makes Sygne susceptible to the blackmail of a powerful machiavellian character, Toussaint Turelure, Prefect of the Marne. The latter has risen to high position during the Napoleonic years, leaving behind the most humble of backgrounds. The bastard child of a servant, domestic to the Coufontaines, and a father reputed to have been a sorcerer, Turelure grew up adopting republican sentiments, before embracing Bonapartism at the opportune moment. His exercise of power in the Marne has included a murderous and vindictive policy directed against the Coufontaines. Now, alerted to the Pope's secret presence, he declares outright that the price of his silence will accommodate only Sygne's hand in marriage. The natural revulsion displayed in response to the marriage proposal by Sygne cannot be disassociated from the fact that Turelure's mother had served as her wetnurse. In analyzing a text where the actual mother of the protagonist is conspicuously absent, and the presence of a surrogate mother is presented in cryptic terms, the status of mothers in relation to the formation of desire must be clarified. Prior to the well documented transition from the "imaginary" to the "symbolic," the child, according to Lacan, was happy to "be" or identify with the very substance of the mother's lack. But the child was barred from the mother by the father's explicit and violent interdiction. The paternal "no" occasioned the child's rebirth into the symbolic order (language and culture), but not before overseeing the child's death in the imaginary realm. Desire, of course, will carry forever the imprint of that passion play where the reciprocal attraction between mother and child was thwarted. And despite the complicity of the mother in the act of symbolic infanticide - executed as Oedipal drama - the substance of her original incestuous desire will leave an indelible impression upon the reborn subject. Very soon Sygne must cope with something like a desire for death, but in the beginning, her adherence to paternal dictums corresponds to staving off scandal and impropriety. Whereas her symbolic marriage to Georges is upheld by the self-sacrificing resolve of mutual chastity, marriage to Turelure would be doubly contaminating, for he is a professed enemy of the family, and as alien brother nourished by the same milk, bearer of the stigma of incest.
Sygne takes her case to the Curate Badilon, the priest who serves the Cistercian monastery and who has been the family confessor to the Coufontaines. It is Badilon's considered opinion that saving the Pope is the higher Christian good, and that Sygne should accede to Turelure's revolting proposal. Lacan considers the substance of the dialogue between Sygne and Badilon of enormous consequence. During "the major scene," Badilon acts as "the vehicle of the request to which Sygne de Coufontaine will cede ..." (S.VIII, 321). As "Sygne's confessor," Badilon "appeals to ... her weakness." The priest "shows her ... the chasm of this acceptance," whereby Sygne "must renounce ... her very being," by overriding "the pact that links her ... to her family," the proposal "to marry the exterminator of this family ..." (S.VIII, 321-22). Turelure's demand is very real. What he asks is a monstrous capitulation to be conducted at the level of her body and ethos - both sexual acquiescence and recognition of the class enemy (the other) as an equal. The language of nobility itself would recoil at the prospect of so radical a renunciation. And renunciation it is, precisely because Sygne must now break the promise of spiritual marriage to her cousin - the pact that has guaranteed the fusion of the two wounded beings into a single ethical entity. Now the Church itself wants her to commit perjury, to declare herself a willing bride, which is tantamount, for her, to criminal behavior. Such a demand, "the sacrifice of that which, for her ... is worth more than her life ... but in which she recognizes her very own being" (S. VIII, 322) means nothing less than a going beyond the very limits that define her as subject. At the level of "being" she must become other to herself. Moreover, her self-alienation is not instigated at this point by her lack of faith, but paradoxically enough by the contradictory message emanating from the field of the Other.
Following Lacan's argument, what Sygne is asked to sacrifice is her being. Accordingly, Anika Lemaire, a Lacan scholar, considers sacrifice as a structuring principle in the formation of the ego, a line of thinking that Lemaire correctly attributes to the Levi-Straussian influence on the French psychoanalyst. The original sacrifice occurred as the "precondition for the transition to the symbolic order. And what a subject sacrifices here in order that [s]he may designate ... and situate himself [or herself] by entering into the symbolic order is incest."(13) Complying with the Levi-Straussian formulation, this is an entry into culture. Interestingly enough, the borderline spectre of incest is evoked by the original mutual pledge officiated by the Catholic cousins. But it is not in the tenor of safeguarding against any breath of incest that a new demand is put forth by Badilon. It is, rather, an ordinance characterized by its innate cynicism: it urges (through Badilon's advice) Sygne to enter alliance with a person heretofore considered undesirable - born out of wedlock, an agnostic, and a self-declared libertarian - and moreover, she must find the reason for so doing not as exemplary response to the dictates of any religion that would, or could, conceivably sanction such an act, but in the private desert of her own heart. In this situation, Sygne's initial reaction reflects a strongly articulated sense of self: " ... God gave me my life, and I am ready and anxious to give it back to Him. But the name is mine, and my woman's honor is mine, and mine alone" (54). Badilon's strategy is to disavow external pressure: "I do not ask; I do not demand; I merely stand and look at you, and wait, as Moses watched the rock after he had smitten it" (56). The dialogue progresses in the spirit which Lacan associates with tragedy. Sygne declares, "I cannot go beyond the limit of my powers," and Badilon appeals to her heart, "Child, what says your heart?" (59). And having asserted that he is invoking not her "strength," but rather "her weakness" (60), Badilon reminds Sygne that no visible sign from God will appear to guide her in this choice, no comfort, nothing tangible - she must, in Badilon's reiteration, "take counsel with [her] own heart" (62). Sygne will say "yes" to Turelure's hand in marriage, and it is Lacan's belief that her consent signals her first death, precisely because she must abnegate at the level of her being. This death is metaphoric, but the depth of alienation registered in Sygne's psyche is consequential to the destiny of desire.
When we pick up the events of the play two years later, we are in the outskirts of Paris, where Turelure resides as the Prefect of the Seine. At this time, Turelure makes an exchange offer to the Coufontaine cousins that will entail guarantee of the Bourbon restoration. For the price of Sygne's willingness to transfer the entire deeds and entitlements of the Coufontaine legacy to their son born from their unhappy marriage, he will betray his Bonapartist allies. The child is to be consecrated as inheritor of the Coufontaine name on this day of baptism. Georges, unaware of the original motive of Sygne's capitulation, is now doubly horrified by the Prefect's morally insensate conditions for supporting the Bourbon King, terms that would wrench the Coufontaine name from its noble source and bequeath stewardship privileges to an outsider. A botched version of a duel, pistol shots exchanged between Georges and Turelure follows: the bullet intended for the latter is received by Sygne who throws herself in front of her husband. Georges, in turn, hit by Turelure's bullet dies, and Sygne is asked by Badilon to submit to a deathbed confession. She dies, however, unrepentant, refusing to make peace with God. Her penultimate words, preceded by truncated phrases expressive of delirium and pain, clearly state "No" to all offer of reconciliation with heaven. Moreover, a nervous twitch she has picked up since her marriage to Turelure - an involuntary shaking of the head - seems to corroborate, in these final moments, her unwillingness to receive absolution. It is in the nature of Badilon's deathbed offer and Sygne's refusal that Lacan recognizes in exemplary fashion the presence of modern tragedy. Nafive to tragedy, according to Lacan, is a sojourn between death and "a second death" (S.VIII, 322), a concept borrowed from Marquis de Sade who illuminated with cruel precision the extent to which death as an objective activates the principle of desire. In his Juliette,(14) Sade allows one of his characters, Pope Pius VI (the exquisite coincidence of presenting two Popes, historically so close in time, as fictional and alternative spokespersons for the disparate authors, Claudel and Sade, should not be lost to the reader), to put forth an amoral and murderous vision of Nature. Without actually using Sadean statements as analogy for his own vision of desire, Lacan suggests that there is an "orientation" in Nature, as explained by Sade, which is applicable also to desire. With respect to Nature, Pius VI declares:
To serve her better yet, one would have to be able to prevent the generation resultant from the corpses we bury. Only of his first life does murder deprive the individual we smite; one would have to be able to wrest away his second, if one were to be more useful to Nature; for 'tis annihilation she seeks, by less she is not fully satisfied, it is not within our power to extend our murders to the point she desires.(15)
In the preceding statement, Sade is saying that Nature's relation to this second death is one that seeks an objective beyond even the cycle of death and rebirth. In tragedy, Lacan asserts, desire also embarks on a journey that aims to a point beyond oblivion. Lacan weaves his interpretive argument through Claudel's text by treating it as a species of "contemporary" or "modern tragedy" (S.VIII, 317). For Lacan, tragedy is what qualifies the itinerary of desire perhaps in its most paradigmatic sense. To go beyond is the key to the tragic operation; a Lacanian reading of Aristotle's "by way of terror and pity" reads, "having crossed beyond all terror and pity."(16) Needless to say it is the complex movement of desire that is being charted here, and not the life of this or that particular affect. Ancient tragedy, according to Lacan, was an outreach effort fueled by desire, encompassing death and annihilation, but constitutive of a response to the chthonian demands of Ate. In other words, catastrophe (or universal misery) was very much in the business of settling scores, but outside of any conceivable court of law devised by god or man. Ate expressed its demands as part of that kinship ab(err)ation that first instituted the incest taboo at the foundation of culture. Such, after all, is the substance of Antigone's relation to the Ate governing the House of Labdacus. Antigone willingly assumes upon herself her family Ate, beyond human reason, and beyond divine laws of justice. Consequently, Antigone achieves at one and the same time the highest grace by assuming the fullest responsibility for her family disgrace.
Embodying the objectives of desire, Sophocles' Antigone is visibly situated in the space of between-two-deaths. She is, in a manner of speaking, not of this world from moment she appears onstage, knowingly bent on a course of action that will culminate in her death, and at the same time she is responsible to the letter to the chthonian demands of Ate, and in this sense she allows the desire of the Other (the family curse born of maternal incest) to coincide with her own desire. In the process, she is pushed to the limit of the second death, that is annihilation, but one that is substantiated by whatever structuring principle death-bearing Ate brings to the life of desire. In other words, Ate penetrates the fiber of Antigone's being, implicating destiny as both a necessary and necessitated desire, rooted in the primordial aporia of its death declaring imperative, but allowing destiny and desire to converge on the "yes" that she says to Ate, and the death beyond. Claudel's protagonist, like Antigone, enters the realm of between-two-deaths, but, and this is Lacan's central contention, Sygne says "No" to anything that presumes to give meaning to the prospect of the second death. For Lacan, the hallmark of "modern" or "contemporary" tragedy is implicit in Claudel's strategic positioning of Sygne in relation to her desire. "Sygne" is "brought to the limits of the second death" and subsequently it is "demanded of the heroine to cross them" (S.VIII, 322), believing absolutely that nothing can render her second death meaningful. The metaphoric nature of a living-death becomes somewhat clearer if we desist from privileging the inanimate quotient in favor of the "going beyond" process. Antigone is already beyond this life at the play's start; Sygne enters this comparable realm at the sacrificial moment of consenting to marriage with the family enemy, and the statuses of both protagonists are defined at the level of what they must denegate and what they must subsequently identify with, above and beyond their temporary situation in the space of between-two-deaths. In this space, an observant critic remarks, the subjects seem to step out of their beings and look at their personal subjection to horror, a veritable theatre of blood (typical setting for Sadean characters), as if the events were happening to someone other than themselves.(17)
The balance of what Lacan has to say with respect to Sygne's tragic situation is to explain how in terms of language, law, and historical precedence, modern tragedy establishes a rupture with ancient tragedy, and particularly, how the trajectory of Sygne's desire arcs toward a radical nothingness unbreached by either the ancient, and later, the Christian belief systems. Accordingly, navigation through the contradictions of faith and an implicit recognition of the dissatisfaction engendered by the conjunction of nomos and logos (in Christianity) is necessary for the appreciation of a modern desire that can be nothing if not essentially atheist. For Lacan, Ate of ancient tragedy "is misfortune, the thing ... that never exhausts itself, the calamity that is behind all tragic adventure . . ." (S.VIII, 133). Paraphrasing Homer, Lacan offers: "Ate, swift, indifferent, striking and dominating as always, lowering heads and rendering men insane" (S.VIII, 133).(18) But because Sygne is not a carbon copy of Antigone, the Sophoclean scheme is not altogether applicable to the study of Claudel. Despite what it shares with ancient tragedy, Claudel's The Hostage (as modern tragedy) presents a kind of postapocalyptic vision that leaves the dead certainties of Ate behind, reaching towards the meaningless signifier.
The Christian version of tragedy is a mixed message, one that despite its insistence on coherence and justice is innately flawed. Why? Because as it will presently become clear, Christian tragedy, in Lacan's view, responded to an ethos that proceeded to bind its subject to law, not by dint of indisputable ordinance, but by fostering a regime of culpability accountable to a shifty Father. As the rule of the Father unfolded, it guaranteed only one certainty, desire's permanent captivity. For Lacan, the governance of the Father is elevating the Name of the Father, and in no way different from the authority invested in the Word of the New Testament. On this latter point, Lacan is forcefully clear: "The Word is for us incarnated. It came into the world, and contrary to the word of the Evangelist, it is not true that we did not recognize it. We recognized it, and we live in the aftermath of this recognition. We are in one of the consequential phases of this recognition" (S.VIII, 354). Two moments, then: The revelation of the Word, and the instance of recognition. When faith is substantiated negatively by the recognition of debt, a post-revelation crisis occurs. In other words, the "God of Destiny" (S.VIII, 354) surges, promotes, regulates, and rewards according to an economy of vice and virtue, imbuing suffering with the value of a "divine comedy." In the "consequential phases" of Christian faith, the second moment, the subject discovers that the entire burden of being has shifted to the individual, for the God of destiny has disappeared. The recognition of the Word has been fatal: "The Word is not simply for us the law wherein we insert ourselves, each carrying the charge of the debt that makes our destiny. It opens for us the possibility, the temptation from where it is possible to damn ourselves, not only as a particular destiny, as life, but as the way itself where the Word engages us, and as meeting with the truth" (S.VIII, 354). The residue of this truth, that there may be no truth at all, merely a debt, is, for the subject, cataclysmic: "We are not only on the brink of being guilty of the symbolic debt. It is having the debt in our charge which in the closest sense of the word would be held as a reproach to us" (S.VIII, 354). Lacan speaks for the modem subject directly when he says that in the wake of God' s absence we are "Hostage" (S. VIII, 355) to an old debt, and our desires are structured by the debt itself where we have placed ourselves, which can ravish us, and it is there that we can feel ourselves totally alienated from ourselves" (S.VIII, 354).
Lacan suggests that Claudel, contrary to his religious reputation, at the crepuscular moment of modernism, has declared a "God is dead" (S.VIII, 355) statement in keeping with the causes and realities of modern neuroses. Such a conviction is fully supported by Lacan's linguistic analysis, honed to converge on Sygne's "No." Previously, Lacan had found complicity of words in the example of Oedipus (at Colonus) whose suffering he found expressed (in his translation) as ce puisse-je n'etre pas (could that I had not been); Lacan interprets this as n'etre pas ne" (not have been born).(19) Sygne's "non" like Oedipus' n' is another signifier "where precisely the direction of desire shows itself - not exactly the subject of the utterance (enonce), that is the I, the one who actually speaks, but the subject where enunciation (enonciation) originates from" (S. VIII, 354). The signifier in this case sustains the condition of a negation - the original prohibition being the Father's "no" to the desire of the child for the Mother - the inverse side of which is the subject's introduction to culpability. If birth into the world is equivalent to being born into debt (as obligation to the Word, the Father, the Law), a subject's being is characterized by a permanent being-in-debt. This is to say that imposed upon the subject, in the very assumption of self, is the introjected guilt of forever being "in default on a promise" (S.VIII, 353). Exemplary sacrifice and suicide are structural moments defining entry into the symbolic system of culpability, and not at all payments on a debt which, in any case, acknowledges no satisfactory payment.
What we also learn from Lacan is that the symptomatic twitching of Sygne is not to be read only as the substitute expression of recoil in the presence of he who has ravaged her, but as the inverse impression of the Other's discourse subjecting the flesh to spasms. The grimace speaks (metaphorically) of how the Other bound her to the law, and then abandoned her at the very moment she had sought fulfillment of the desire of the Other in her own being. The grimace (symptom) "is itself, through and through, signification, that is to say, truth, truth taking shape," and as such, "symptom is the inverse side of a discourse."(20) It bears witness to Sygne's history of becoming other, and in this capacity supports her "No" inside of a language, not as some variant repelling capacity of the organism outside the system of articulation. This grimace is waiting in the wings, rehearsing the sign of the "No" to be delivered, not to Turelure, but to the Other, as gesture of radical defiance.
The grimace and the "No," furthermore, shed light on all which at the end of the story represents resolution in terms of the play's intrigues, including the return to status quo politics and power. Lacan observes the introduction of the farcical and the "caricatural" in what seems to be one of the "two endings" (S.VIII, 324) of the play - the "Restoration" of the Bourbons through the machinations of a Talleyrand figure like Turelure who is subsequently elevated to the ranks of the nobility in recompense for his duplicity, so effective in the Bonapartist defeat. And throughout, Lacan observes Claudel's depiction of the supposed champions of faith as worldly politicians subject to moral amnesia. Claudel's "absolute derision" (S.VIII, 325) of social and political opportunism is heightened by the ambivalent presence of the two stage props, the bronze crucifix and coat-of-arms with inscription. The latter bears witness, not to its proud proclamation, "am present" ("adsum" or "me voila," in Lacan's translation), but to its historical inefficacy even as all that is associated with the Coufontaines undergoes disintegration. Lacanian considerations, so tuned to the significance of words, find in this heraldic message yet another example of how original and transindividual ordinances inscribe themselves within language itself. As for the other stage prop, restored through the efforts of Sygne - "The bronze figure was in many pieces ... I found bits of it here and there .... The legs were broken .... The body was a blacksmith's anvil when I found it .... the head I discovered in a baker's oven .... I brought Our Lord home ..." (22) - it, too, can only bear passive testimony to the profane nuptials uniting Sygne and Turelure. The sparagmos associated with the bronze figure will be repeated, not purposefully, but senselessly in the tortures in store for Sygne. And how the metaphoric aspect of the family logo reneges on its imperial command and is subsequently subsumed in a language of desire gone awry is apparent in the following interchange:
BADILON: ... Sygne, in the moment when you are about to go before God, tell me that you have forgiven him. (She makes a negative gesture.) Shall I have your child brought to you? (Negative gesture.) Sygne, do you hear me? Your child?
SYGNE: (in a clear voice). No. (Silence. Her death agony begins.)
BADILON: (rising from his knees). Death draws near. Oh, Christian soul, perform with me rites of hope and charity!
SYGNE: (makes a negative gesture) ...
BADILON: Sygne, soldier of God! Stand up! Stand up! The end has come! Stand up!
SYGNE: I have exhausted all. I have no more to give.
BADILON: COUFONTAINE ADSUM!
SYGNE: All is given; all is exhausted.
In this penultimate scene of the play, Badilon's further persuasions elicit only silence. Claudel's stage directions verify something like a final spasm on the part of Sygne: she "suddenly sits straight up, stretches her arms out in the shape of the Cross, and then, falling back upon the pillows gives up the ghost with a flood of blood" (81).
The second ending of the play, the one that interests Lacan, is included in Sygne's flight toward a beyond even of the "second death," and as such it is marked by a categorical refusal that posits "blasphemy" (S. VIII, 327), no longer as an ongoing agon with God, but as an arrival at a "there is nothing to say anymore" born of absolute conviction that God simply does not exist. Here, derision no longer takes to task essences and substances. Here, Lacan says, Claudel allows Sygne's "No" to push things "to the point of deriding the signifier itself" (326), in a manner that only can be construed as a radical epistemological rejection. Sygne's journey beyond the "second death" is one that scrambles the codes of epistemic foundations, reaching for an impossible realm, toward a "nothing" yet conceived which is the hallmark of modern atheistic tragedy.
(1) See Elisabeth Roudinesco, La bataille de cent ans: Histoire de la psychanalyse en France, 2 vols. (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1982, 1986). Volume 2 charts the rise of Lacan and Lacanian theory as the momentous event of French psychoanalysis. (2) See "Desire, life and death" in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II: The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis 1954-1955, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1991), 221-34. (3) See "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," in Literature and Psychoanalysis: The Question of Reading: Otherwise, ed. S. Felman, Yale French Studies, no. 55-56 (1977): 11-52. (4) See Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre VII. L'ethique de la psychanalyse (1959-1960), text established by Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1986). See also my essay, "Lacan's Antigone: A Case Study in Psychoanalytical Ethics," Theatre Journal 42 (March 1990): 94-106. (5) See Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre VIII. Le transfert (1960-1961), text established by Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1991), hereafter S.VIII, followed by page number. All reference to this work are in my own translation. (6) See Paul Claudel, Three Plays: The Hostage, Crusts, The Humiliation of The Father, trans. John Heard (Boston: John W. Luce, 1945). Hereafter, all references to The Hostage in this edition will be indicated by page number. (7) Expressing the truth of the decentered subject in unequivocal terms lies not only at the heart of the Lacanian project, but also is, for Lacan, a faithful reading of Freud: -But if we ignore the self's radical ex-centricity to itself with which man is confronted, in other words, the truth discovered by Freud, we shall falsify both the order and methods of psychoanalytic mediation; we shall make of it nothing more than the compromise operation that it has, in effect, become, namely, just what the letter as well as the spirit of Freud's work most repudiates." See Jacques Lacan, Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1977), 171. (8) Lacan, Ecrits, 175. (9) Lacan, Ecrits, 168. (10) Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II, 223-24. (11) Lacan, Ecrits, 86. (12) Lacan, Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre VII, 252. (13) Anika Lemaire, Jacques Lacan, trans. David Macey (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977), 62. (14) Marquis de Sade, Juliette, trans. Austryn Wainhouse (New York: Grove Press, 1988). (15) Sade, Juliette, 772. See also Richard Boothby who shows that Lacan has always taken Freud's notion of the "death drive" very seriously, having incorporated it, in fact, fully within his three interdependent registers of human experience (the "imaginary," the "symbolic," and the "real"): in Death and desire: psychoanalytic theory in Lacan's return to Freud (New York: Routledge, 1991). (16) Not "par la terreur et par la pitie," but "a travers toute terreur et toute pitie franchies" observes Lacan (S.VIII, 326). (17) See Jonathan Scott Lee, Jacques Lacan (Amherst: The University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 131. (18) Statement made by Agamemnon in Book nineteen of Homer's The Iliad: "This blindness is Ate, eldest daughter of Zeus, the accursed goddess who binds all men. Her feet are soft - she does not walk on the ground, but she treads across men's heads bringing folly to mankind, and ensnaring one or other of them"; trans: Martin Hammond (Middlesex, England: Penguin, 1987), 326. (19) It is worth following the history of Lacan's citation of words attributed to Oedipus (in Oedipus at Colonus). In the lecture of 11 May 1955 (in The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II), Lacan quotes Oedipus: "Am I made man in the hour when I cease to be" (214). Soon after, in the lecture of 18 May 1955, he evokes the same statement twice and correctly imputes to the Chorus the following words: Say what you will, the greatest boon is not to be; / But, life begun, soonest to end is best, . . " (230). In the French translation of Robert Pignarre, the statement of the Chorus reads: "Mieux vaut cent fois n'etre pas ne . . ."; see Sophocle, Theatre Complet (Paris: Flammarion, 1964), 294. Lacan's slight variation to Pignarre is "Mieux vaut, en fin de compte, n'etre jamais ne. . ." in Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre II: Le moi dans la theorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse (1954-1955), text established by Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1978), 269. A few years later, in his 1959-1960 lectures on Ethics, Lacan ascribes the Greek me phunai ("not to be") to Oedipus, rather than to the Chorus (in Le Seminaire de Jacques Lacan, Livre VII, 353). Obviously, by this time for Lacan, Oedipus' "in the hour when I cease to be" has converged with the Chorus' "not to be." Recently, Patrick Guyomard, in his lecture-essay, "Sur l'eclat d'Antigone," his contribution to the College International de Philosophie publication, Lacan avec les philosophes (Paris: Editions Albin Michel, 1991), noted Lacan's slippage with the me phunai: "... qu'il met d'ailleurs dans la bouche d'Oedipe, mais qui se trouve dite par le choeur" (64). Guyomard does not acknowledge Lacan's originally correct attribution of me phunai to the chorus in 1955. hi the 1960- 1961 lectures, Lacan continues introducing slight variations to "n'etre pas ne," including "puisse-je n'etre," "ne sois-je," and "nefus-je" (S. VIII, 354), as articulated expressions of Oedipus' self-alienation. The logic of Lacan's operation with language remains consistent even as he ascribes the words of the Chorus to Oedipus. His analysis of the function of negations in language as variant signifiers that upset the stability of "being" itself remains perfectly sound. Anecdotally, taking what others (the Chorus) say in place of (and for) the subject (Oedipus) is the kind of parapraxis not foreign to enigmas favored by Lacan himself. (20) Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book II, 320.
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|Date:||Mar 1, 1994|
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