On Ethics: A Propos of Antigone

Lecture held in may 1990, published, in French, in Collège International de Philosophie, ed., Lacan et les philosophes (Paris: Albin Michel, 1991), pp. 21-36.


Allow me to inscribe here the following excerpt from Jacques Lacan’s text:


“The register of being of he who could be placed by a name must by necessity be preserved by the funerary act.”

*   *   *

Why does ethics require a theatre?

And why does the ethical aim want not to know anything about this theatre?

On May 25, 1960, Lacan undertook his reading of Antigone, which he would entitle The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (L’Ethique de la psychanalyse), a topic which should not be held to be secondary or subordinate.  Quite the opposite, in his opinion, the subject concerned the essential, namely, the possible historial [historiale] inscription of psychoanalysis.  But this could equally lead to the development, and the limits of knowledge, of a teaching which supposedly imposed itself (through the written text as well: Lacan was resolved to rewrite this seminar).  Among the various pieces of evidence, there is the famous opening of his seminar “Encore” (1972-1973), the tone of which I am unfortunately unable to reproduce:


In the end, I did not publish The Ethics of Psychoanalysis.  At that time it was for me a form of politeness‑after you, I beg you, please, [je vous en prie]‑I “worse” you [“je vous en pire”].  With time I realized I was able to say a bit more, only to subsequently realize that what motivated my plodding rhythm [cheminement] was of the order of I don’t want to know anything about it [“je n’en veux rien savoir”].

That, without a doubt, is why I am still there, and why you too, you too are there.  I am always astonished at that… still [encore].

What has been an advantage for me for some time is that there is also in you, in the great mass of those who are there, an I don’t want to know anything about it. Only, and this is essential, is it indeed the same thing?

Your I don’t want to know anything about it, about a certain knowledge transmitted to you in bits and starts of yours, is that what it is about in me? I doubt it, and it is indeed the supposing myself as coming from an elsewhere other than yours, in this I don’t want to know anything about it, that you see yourself linked to me.  Consequently, if it is true that I can only be, to you, in the position of analysand of my own I don’t want to know anything about it, then from here on out, up to the point where you attain the same status, there will be a fee.[1]

Reopening the question of ethics at that time required a certain courage.  And it was not only because the period was not conducive to this type of preoccupation or that the attempt to dismantle the indecent humanism‑which continued to be exhibited as if nothing were going on at the university or elsewhere‑required nothing less than all the rigorous indifference of structuralism.   In reality, the century had forbidden ethics, a ban made evident, for contradictory reasons, by the embarrassed precipitation of Sartre (the reverse of that indefinitely promised Moral) and by Heidegger’s Letter on Humanism, as well as by the fact that Marxism, despite what had been exposed in existing systems of socialism, had taken the place of morals.  For those who did not shirk the need of thinking, the path towards ethics, or simply in the direction of the question of ethics, was extremely perilous.  It called for nothing less than a complete re-elaboration of the question.  And Lacan was well aware of this.

Such a re-elaboration would have to satisfy two conditions.

First, the imperative‑and not only because it was compelled by Heidegger‑to acquire a total perspective of the history of philosophy, if indeed it is philosophy that founded ethics and that‑but not alone‑sustained this project over time.

Second, the necessity‑due to the fact (position oblige) that the enterprise had begun with “the question of knowing what are the general ethical consequences entailed in the relation to the unconscious such as had been brought up by Freud”[2], to move in the direction of what I would term arch-ethics, in keeping with a dual modality of the arché:

l.  “Arché” in reference to what Freud states concerning the origin of ethics: on the one hand, insofar as the origins of analysis are themselves‑as is often recalled‑of an ethical character, since Freud “started out with an initial, central intuition, which is ethical in kind”[3], and ethics is in practice “the most essential level”[4] of psychoanalysis;  and, on the other hand, insofar as, in Freudian metapsychology it is possible to “uncover the traces of a theory that reflects an ethical thought”[5] and insofar as the so-called “anthropological” texts of Freud‑which, incidentally, Lacan tries seriously to reevaluate‑deal exclusively with the origin of ethics;

2.  “Arché” in reference to the search for an ethics more original than the philosophical ethics that dominates‑albeit not alone‑the sphere of Western morality and which may be broadly defined as an ethics of the good.  The approach here is analogous to the Heideggerian Schritt zurück, the “step backwards” [pas en arrière], with the same ambiguity (that Heidegger will eventually dissipate) concerning the zurück (“Backwards”, “to the rear”), because the question of a return to the “prior to” the ethics of the good, that is, of a return all the way to its very possibility (according to a line of questioning which is fundamentally transcendental), does not always prevent‑far from it‑this “prior to” from taking on a temporal or historical significance, insofar as the historicity of ethics, as Lacan insists, is tied to that of the unconscious‑one might even say: insofar as there is a historiality [Historiale] of the death drive.

In the course of this retrocession, from Freud to Aristotle, via Bentham and Kant (among others) Lacan encounters Antigone‑the heroine (or the figure) and the poem, not necessarily the piece.  Moreover, in this anabasis of sorts from the hypothesis of the unconscious back to the source of ethics, the source lies beyond a certain theology, “the literary art, so close to the domain of ethics.”[6]

The moment is decisive:  what is at stake is nothing less than “to cross the line”[7].  And‑Lacan may protest as much as he wants: “It is not about what we are doing here, but about what happens in the world where we live”‑the “theoretical” stakes are high: in the return to Antigone lies the “historial” possibility of establishing a beyond of the ethics of the good.  This is what Lacan will later, after the completion of the reading of Antigone, call the “tragic ethics of psychoanalysis.”  In the double sense of the genitive.

What is the line to be crossed?

(This is the language of a certain German Nietzscheism, and in particular that of Ernst Jünger, whose book Über der Linie (“Beyond the Line”), considers the possibility of crossing the line of nihilism.  Heidegger, increasingly circumspect with regard to the thematics of crossing or surmounting (Überwindung), had responded to Jünger in 1955, in a text initially entitled “Über “die Linie””, “About ‘the Line’“, [and subsequently in his Zur Seinsfrage, “Contribution to the Question of Being”].  It is possible that Lacan did not know this, but he certainly would have been very interested.)

The line to be crossed is “the barrier erected by the structure of the world of the good”[8].  And if the line is to be crossed, it is because “the sphere of the good erects a strong wall across the path of our desire”[9].  Desire is the enemy of the good, that is to say, of pleasure.  But this line is a historical frontier which, as we know, concerns “what happens in the world” today.  Underlying the malaise detected by Freud, this means that the world of the good is historically revealed to be the world of evil‑radical evil‑as epitomized not only by the famous reversibility of “Kant with Sade,” but also by the unending murders under the reign of the politics of happiness (because the morality of the good, in order to preserve itself, only engenders a politics).  Clarifications, or historic-political allusions are not absent from Lacan’s text: what the entire West had conceived, with horror, as Hell; that “beyond” of death that is still life, without name or face; that pure suffering which has been brought about to the point of crime, and even to the possibilities of its techniques; all that has been openly generalized, that crime which Sade considers to be a “second death,” by which it would be that “man is given the power to liberate nature from its own laws.[10]”  This is why this revelation is accompanied by another, no less historic, that “the movement of desire is in the process of crossing the line of a sort of historic unveiling”[11].  This revelation is provided by the Freudian discovery of the death drive.

Hence, a line is crossed‑“here and now, and not ad aeternum”[12].  It is up to psychoanalysis, as ethics or arch-ethics, not only to designate but also to try to gain access to the beyond of this line.  It comes from a “hope”[13], says Lacan with particular gravity, a gravity one might expect from a thought haunted (as is constantly apparent) by a catastrophic eschatology:  if there is no hope, no promise of a hope, if the threshold cannot be crossed, then it is the end, the world of the good  turns “to drag us to our destruction”[14], we are on the edge of disaster.  This must be taken literally if one doesn’t know whether to expect “the integration of nature or its disintegration”[15], from this “discourse that emerged from the little letters of mathematics”[16], from this “discourse that, by its very structure, forgets nothing,” and that affects the “omnipotence” of the signifier.

At that point, another barrier arises:  that of knowledge:

The formidable unknown beyond the line is what, in man, we call the unconscious, that is to say, the memory of what he forgets[17].

What is beyond this barrier?  Do not forget that even if we know that there is a barrier and that there is a beyond – we know nothing of what is beyond[18].

In its own cycle, the unconscious presents itself now, for us, and although it is located as such, as the field of a non-knowledge[19].

To cross the line‑you are certainly familiar with the Bataillian resonance of this word, non-knowledge‑is to cross the limits of knowledge, which one might also write as Knowledge [Savoir], with a capital K, or Science, in the manner in which it is necessary, in French, to transcribe the terminology of speculative Idealism, because what is to be crossed is none other than what Heidegger, in the aforementioned 1955 text, called the barrier or the enclosure (Schranke) of metaphysics, that is, of philosophy.

Consequently, the choice of Antigone and of Greek tragedy is not accidental.  Lacan knows that tragedy, after Kant (and by extension, after Sade) is the decisive test of philosophy:  it is in the interpretation of tragedy that the possiblity of philosophy, the opportunity of its reassurance and its accomplishment, is played out‑or, inversely, the hope to get over it, step beyond it, an access to another thought.  This is true of Hegel and Schelling, of Hölderlin, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche‑and is even more true, and close to us, of Benjamin and Heidegger.  Lacan does not escape from this rule any more than the Derrida of Glas does.

Tragedy lies “prior to” philosophy; that is to say, prior to Plato who erects philosophy against it.  Depending on the emphasis brought to bear on this “against” and the interpretation it is given, either tragedy potentially bears hiddem in it the entire unfolding of philosophy (this being the dialectical version); or tragedy is a document more ancient or archaic than philosophy, before which the latter serves as a screen.  But there a thought lurks that philosophy has obnubilated or forgotten.  This is, of course, the version Lacan embraces out of respect for the Heideggerian process, and while taking into account the ambiguity which I mentioned above.  However, the fact that tragedy simply occurred before the elaboration of the idea of a Sovereign Good,[20] and that it is necessary to underline the “distance separating the proper lesson of tragic rites from its later interpretation along the lines of an ethics which is, for Aristotle, a science of happiness,”[21] or, finally, that tragedy lies “prior to” in the sense that it “gives […] us the underpinnings” of the “ground where the morals of happiness are elaborated”[22]‑all this has, on a more basic level, little import.  According to a historial and rigorously Heideggerian logic, the “prior to” of tragedy signifies its “ahead-of-ness” [son “en avant”];  tragedy harbors a “non-thought-of” [un impensé] (that is, a thought-of, une pensée), which, having never been correctly thought, still awaits that “thought” and, as such, configures a “thought-to-come.”  I employ the Heideggerian vocabulary, but such is the very structure of the relation that exists between knowledge and non-knowledge.  Tragedy is beyond the line or barrier at the edge of which a possible crossing point is glimpsed, but above all hoped for.

Of this barrier, Lacan had already indicated two possible points of incursion:  the one is that of the historic or infra-historic example of potlach, of the “controlled destruction of property,” in a very “different way from that massive destructions which we have all witnessed”[23].  But Lacan does not insist upon this: after all, in the realm of non-knowledge, I daresay that would lie within Bataille’s competence.  The other, which “enables us to locate precisely an element of the field of the beyond-the-Good principle”[24], is that of the beautiful.  The reading of Antigone opens under the sign of this element.

What is the mainspring of this reading?

It is to counter the Hegelian reading, offered as the paragon of philosophical readings of tragedy, and here of that tragedy which, in the eyes of Hegel, was the tragedy par excellence.

Lacan’s reading is, in fact, organized along two lines.

On the one hand, it is concerned with bringing to light “the essence of tragedy”[25], that is to say, beyond the mythic sources recognized by Freud (nevertheless, Freud, when it comes to tragedy, goes beyond this simple use), the essence of the tragic function: i.e. the essence of katharsis, that according to Freud predates the Oedipal complex.  Retrocession, similarly, in psychoanalysis: the scene, it should be said, is more complex than it would appear.

On the other hand, Lacan’s reading interprets the text itself under the scope of the meaning of Antigone’s destiny.

The reason underlying these two gestures is simply that the sole Greek document concerning the essence of tragedy is Aristotle’s Poetics with its scarce reference to katharsis which one interprets, at any rate, as being linked to pleasure: as (medical) purgation in the manner of Jakob Bernays (whose writing Freud must have heard because of family connections) or as a (ritual) purification as it has been termed since the Renaissance.  Katharsis is an “appeasement,” explains Lacan.  The question then arises as to whether tragedy remains trapped within the economy of pleasure, and, as such, subject to the ethics of the good‑which was established more solidly by Aristotle than Plato.  Subsequently, it is necessary to read Antigone.  What is it this text expresses which provides the comprehension of how and why tragedy “appeases” fear and pity?

You are surely familiar with how the reading proceeds. I would nevertheless call attention to several of its characteristics that are for me its salient traits and serve as indications for my own reading of this reading.  I shall be, by necessity, very brief, which is a pity, given the richness and the force of Lacan’s interpretation.

The first trait: the interpretation proceeds from two pieces of evidence, which, although glaring, for this reason blinded almost all earlier commentaries.  First, the horror of the torment of Antigone: buried alive, submitted to the “between-life-and-death”, as well as the fact that “the central third of the text is composed of a detailed series of vowel gradations, which informs us about the meaning of the situation or fate of a life that is about to turn into certain death, a death lived by anticipation, a death that crosses over into the sphere of life, a life that moves into the realm of death”[26].  For who had noticed this central place of the apophasis of Sein zum Tode atrociously condensed in a torment?  The second piece of evidence is that the discourse on the irreplaceable brother, so unacceptable to humanist interpretations (Lacan evokes Goethe) is, on the contrary, the soundest and most true indication of the absolutely complete and intractable character of Antigone’s passion.

The second trait: the recognition of this second fact amounts to making of Antigone‑second trait‑the sole tragic heroic figure of the play: her passion is absolute, she is an inflexible being who “goes beyond the limits of the human.”[27]  But above all, according to Lacan (a fact worth keeping in mind), she is alone in remaining, to the very end, beyond fear and pity.  Which means‑contrary to the Hegelian thesis of an equal antagonism of the two principles or laws‑that Creon, insofar as he ultimately gives in to fear, is not heroic.  His fault is not of the order of hubris but of amartia (an error of judgment, as translated by Lacan), because in reality he wants the good, thereby responding to his political vocation, to his position of responsibility towards the community.  Thus, his edict is in Kantian form and speaks the language of practical reason: “one cannot at the same time honor those who have defended their country and those who have attacked it.  From a Kantian point of view, it is a maxim that can be given as a rule of reason with a universal value”[28].  Hence, it follows that tragedy is the “first objection” to the ethics of the good, in that it implies that “the good cannot reign over all without an excess emerging whose fatal consequences are revealed to us in tragedy.”[29]

Victim of her hubris,‑third trait‑Antigone is consequently beyond‑not only beyond fear and pity, but, and this explains all, beyond the até.  If “the hero and that which is around him are situated with relation to the goal [point de visée] of desire”[30], the specificity of Antigone is to reveal to us the “line of sight that defines desire”[31].  For what Antigone aims at is the ektos àtas[32], that beyond of the até, that is, of the allotria até (“até concerns the Other”[33]).  “Ektos atas has” says Lacan, “the meaning of going beyond a limit in the text.  And it is around this notion that the Chorus’ song is developed at that moment [the second stasimon of the Chorus], in the same way that it says that man goes towards pros àtan, that is, toward Até […].  It is because man mistakes evil for the good, because something beyond the limits of Até has become Antigone’s good, namely, a good that is different from everyone else’s, that she goes toward, pros àtan”[34].

Lacan does not translate até:  “This word,” he states, “is irreplaceable.”  He rejects “misfortune” as too weak, and curiously, offhandedly, lets drop “atrocious”:  “That same word Até is to be found in atrocious.”[35]  But he indicates that whether it is approached or not is bound, as such, to a “chain,” that of “the misfortune of the Labdacides family”[36].  He finally associates it to the “pure and simple desire of death as such”[37] incarnated by Antigone, insofar as this “desire of the Other” must be connected to the “desire of the mother” that is “the origin of everything”: at the foundation of the family as of crime‑and even the foundation of the species as crime:  “The fruit of the incestuous union has split into two brothers, one of whom represents power and the other crime.  There is no one to assume the crime and the validity of crime apart from Antigone […].  Antigone perpetuates, eternalizes, immortalizes this Até.”[38]

To assume the crime, or the “second death”, is, from that point on, the task to which Antigone devotes herself, like all Sophocles’ heros do (with the exception, perhaps, of Oedipus: a Fussnote from Erwin Rhode’s Psyché will show that this is not true either) positioned. as she is, “at the end of the line”‑“‘dead in life’, she says, ‘I am already dead to everything’”‑,“straight away in a no-man’s land between life and death”[39], in “the between-two-deaths.”  Tragedy is this paradoxical‑that is impossible‑ordeal of death, this nothingness [rien] towards which man moves, as the Chorus states in the first stasimon which Lacan interprets, either in a hint bordering on a joke or in consideration of the “invention” of maladies, in a way very close to Heidegger’s interpretation.  But “the between-two-deaths” is that hell our century has brought about, or still promises, and it is to this that Lacan responds and for which he would hold psychoanalysis accountable.  Did he not once say that the “hole” in metaphysics is politics?  The contention [la scène] with Heidegger‑and one exists‑is situated in that claim.

The fourth trait:  Antigone invokes unwritten laws, that is, “something that is of the order of law, but which is not developed in any signifying chain or in anything else”[40]: it is the inaccessible beyond of language, or its horizon.  Again, an extreme limit, “the ex nihilo to which Antigone is attached.  It is nothing more than the break [la coupure] that the very presence of language inaugurates in the life of man”[41].  In other words, tragedy offers the proof that there is language, or, and this amounts to the same thing, that beyond death there is the desire of death‑the desire to return to the origins of language.  To the god, probably‑at any rate to that dead God of Christianity who so bars our access to the Greek gods, but who is at least once revealed as language: en arhkè èn ho logos.

The last and fifth trait:  the brilliance of Antigone, her beauty.  It is what staggers the froth, in the kommos of the third stasimon (“Invincible love in combat”), when the desire emanates‑imeros enargès‑“from the eyelids of this admirable young girl”[42].  “The violent illumination,” says Lacan, “the glimmer of beauty, coincide with the moment of crossing, of achievement of the Até of Antigone.”  But this “effect of beauty is a blinding effect.” The beautiful as brilliance‑the ekphanestaton,  to which I shall return‑blinds: it conceals what is still happening beyond, “that which cannot be looked at.”  And thus Hölderlin noted it in much the same terms, when Antigone compares herself to petrified Niobe‑an inanimate object‑, in the direction of a desire for death.  This is the flagrant outrage, the hubris:  a certain “mysterious conjunction of the beautiful and of desire,”  the crossing “of some invisible line”[43].  The “function of the beautiful”‑and that is what Antigone literally incarnates‑is “precisely […] to reveal to us the site of man’s relationship to his own death, and to reveal it to us in a blinding flash.”[44]

This reference is caricatural, revealing nothing of the precipitation, or rather the feverishness [emportement] of the interpretation.  Being “historially” concealed from us (Lacan’s indictment of our Christian adherence is not feigned), and yet letting something to glimmer that resembles a truth too near because too distant, tragedy obliges such feverish transport, a precipitation over the Greek text itself, that one translates without translating, that one rather restores to a sort of savage incomprehensibility, meaning of which is expected to blaze its own way in an explosion of light.  This feverish transport is evident in both Hölderlin and Heidegger.  For Lacanthis transport itself is responsible for my saying, not that “the interpretation owes nothing to the analysis,” but rather that “it can in fact do very well without it.”‑something which remains bizarre, whether it be attributed to the vocabulary or to any incidental remark.  On a basic level, everything comes across as if what Lacan had been seeking to articulate all along, from Freud’s hypothesis of a beyond of the pleasure principle onward, found in the text of Antigone if not its confirmation, the eloquent proof of its existence.  Psychoanalysis would in this case proceed from what Bataille called tragic horror.

This said, an interrogation of this reading becomes inevitable‑although not necessarily critical (let alone something which would hastily be interpreted as a “denial”).

This reading is only possible under two conditions:

l. The condition that fear and pity‑the two passions to be purified, purged, appeased‑be situated in the heroes themselves (Do they experience them or not?  This alone decides their heroism.), and not, as Aristotle states, as aroused by the action itself, by the drama, in other words, by the destiny of the heroes.

2.  Consequently, that katharsis, the cathartic effect, be detached from mimesis, contrary to what Aristotle recommends in the very well known fourth chapter of his Poetics where, in order to explain the relation between pleasure and mimèsis, he states that “we take pleasure in regarding the most carefully polished images of things whose sight is painful to us in reality, for example, the forms of perfectly ignoble animals or of corpses”‑here I should note, although I consider it to be decisive, that to “take pleasure” is not here hedunô but khairô, which indicates joy (kharis).  Lacan might have said a satisfaction, an orgasm‑and also a flash, a brilliance.  Aristotle says more about this than Lacan would suspect.  Clearly, if tragedy has a power of katharsis, it is because tragedy authorizes this kharis as the mimesis of a grave event.

It is in order to circumvent what he considers to be pleasurable that Lacan‑who on this point may derive his authority from Aristotle‑avoids [fait l’impasse sur] the theatre, or more exactly, the spectacle (what Aristotle calls the opsis), as if mimesis were reduced to the simple act of representation.  Like practically all philosophers, Heidegger included, Lacan holds theatre in contempt.  But the fact that tragedy is theatre does not prevent this kharis, this bursting joy that “purifies,” from being experienced‑in the sole act of reading, as Aristotle notes. In theatre there is indeed a beyond “the” theatre‑of which one should be aware‑and which explains why the grandeur of theatre perhaps lies in its ability to restore theatre to theatre.  It then follows that the decisive fact, in what concerns art, is indeed mimesis.

This is what Lacan, a propos of tragedy, does and does not know‑or does not want to know. “The importance of the mise en scène‑Lacan says‑should not be underrated, and I always appreciate it […].  But we shouldn’t forget that it is only important‑and I hope you will forgive the expression‑if our third eye doesn’t get a hard-on; it is, jerked off a little with the mise en scène”[45].  If mimesis means to him “stagecraft” [mise en scène] then he cannot but assign the effect of katharsis to the froth:  it is not so much the spectator who is moved, but the froth, which then somehow mediates the katharsis:  “The froth is people who are moved […].  Your emotions are taken charge of by the healthy order displayed on the stage.  The Chorus takes care of them.  The emotional commentary is done for you.”[46]  When, inversely, a more hidden meaning vibrates in the language that occurs to Lacan, mimesis engenders “image.”  In this case Antigone herself “fascinates us, […] in her unbearable splendor”[47], and it is the aim of desire “that moves toward this image”[48], it is the beauty, the radiant burst of Antigone‑it is Antigone as anamorphosis.

One day, I demonstrated to you an anamorphosis […]. You will recall the cylinder around which this singular phenomenon sprung up. To be exact, one cannot say, from an optical viewpoint, whether or not there is an image. Without entering into the optic definition of the thing, it is image insofar as (upon each of the cylinder’s generators) an infinitesimal fragment of an image is produced, an image that we then see produce the superposition of a series of screens, in return for which a  marvelous illusion, a very beautiful image  of passion (that of a crucifixion taken from Rubens[49]) appears in the “beyond” of the mirror, while something rather formless and disgusting spreads out all around.

That’s the kind of thing that is involved here.  What is the surface that allows the image of Antigone to rise up as an image of passion?  The other day I evoked in connection with her the phrase “Father, why hast thou abandoned me?” which is literally expressed in one line.  Tragedy is that which spreads itself out in front so that that image may be produced.[50]

Everything, therefore, depends on what constitutes the essence of art.

The reading of Antigone and the place reserved for it in the organisation of the seminar clearly indicate that ethics exists only insofar as it is sustained by an aesthetics.  Lacan never ceases to affirm this: what he wants to demonstrate “is situated between a Freudian ethics and a Freudian aesthetics,” although he may minimize its range a bit by asserting that “Freudian aesthetics is involved because it reveals one of the phases of the function of the ethics”[51], at which point he waxes ironic with his: “we, artists of the analytic speech”[52].  Nevertheless, what this actually means is that Lacan constructs nothing more than what I might call an aesthethic‑with two “Hs”.  Which, in being so/also [aussi] ethics, would sunder the aesthetics from the aesthetics, as does practically all philosophy of art of our time.  That is to say, the aesthetics would be wrenched from that which since Plato has constituted it as such: namely, mimetology.

Lacan had demonstrated this well before the commentary on Antigone.

This demonstration follows from the position of the Thing, das Ding, the Other in internal exclusion:  the “extimité” (“extimacy”), as Lacan says[53].  The Freudian aesthetics, “in the broadest sense of the term,” that is, as “analysis of the entire economy of signifiers,” is designed to show us “this inaccessible Thing”[54].  And in fact, in a classical (at least until Heidegger) gesture, Lacan ultimately attributes to language the essence of art.  Slightly prior to this, in presenting anamorphosis as that mode of seeking in the illusion the point at which “the illusion transcends itself, destroys itself, demonstrating that it exists only as a signifying one,”  Lacan had noted:  “It is this which lends primacy to the domain of language above all, since with language we only ever have to do with the signifier in all cases.”[55].

The Thing, in its relationship to art, on the order of the techné (Lacan speaks of “creation”), is firstly Heidegger’s vase, that is, the thing whose essence is the void. Or, in Lacan’s words, it is “an object designed to represent the existence of the void at the centre of the real,” in such a way that the Thing, the void, is presented in the representation “as a nihil, as nothing” so that “the fashioning of the signifier and the introduction of a gap or a hole in the real is identical.”[56].  It is the motif of an ex nihilo creation, as well as the definition of the Thing as that part of the real that suffers the consequences of the signifier.  This is why, if there is a beyond of the pleasure principle, if the Todestrieb (death drive) is an “absolutely fundamental ontological notion” and not a psychological notion[57], it is because “man fashions this signifier and introduces it into the world” “in the image of the Thing, whereas the Thing is characterized by the fact that it is impossible for us to imagine it”[58] (my emphasis).

Everything is there:  what is at stake in “creation” is a pure fiction in the strict sense of the term, that is to say, mimesis (“in the image of”‑imago, being semantically connected to imitatio and mimesis) of something unimaginable.  Fiction‑the fashioning‑is the image of the unimaginable.  Mimesis is without a model.  It is, if you will, in the pure form of oxymoron, originary mimesis.

In his manner, Lacan says no more than Heidegger does, which is why the consequences, as regards art (the Fine Arts) strictly speaking, are rigorously Heideggerian.

This establishment of consequences is rendered possible in the Ninth Lesson, which is entitled:  “On History and on the Ends of Art.”  Here the point of departure is the actual origins of art, the cave of Altamira‑and not Lascaux (a later scene with Bataille maliciously labeled as “intellectual dandy”[59])‑and Altamira, insofar as the extimité that is the Thing concerned, is not only by chance a cave.  From there Lacan returns to anamorphosis via a thumbnail history of art, which goes directly from the false wall of the cavern to the temple with its empty centre (the site of the Thing), and from there to “the figuration of the void on the false walls of this void,” and to the final apparition of the illusion of space, which is something quite different from the creation of the void.  This is what, according to Lacan, “the apparition of anamorphosis at the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century represents”:

[…] the interest of anamorphosis is described as a turning point when the artist completely reverses the use of that illusion of space, when he forces it to enter into the original goal, that is to transform it into the support of the hidden reality‑it being understood that, to a certain extent, a work of art always involves encircling the Thing.[60]

What is the basis of an interrogation of the ends of art, which is to say of the end of art:  “Is the end of art to imitate or to not imitate?  Does art imitate what it represents?”  What is revealed is that this is a loaded question‑and has long been so; since Plato.  It is a loaded question, because if art imitates that which it represents, its end is obviously not exactly to represent it.  In imitating it, art makes something else of the object.  The imitation is a “feigned” imitation.  For, as Lacan states, “the object is established in a certain relationship with the Thing that is designed at the same time to encircle, to presentify [présentifier] and to absentify [absentifier].”  Lacan illustrates this using Cézanne as an example:


Everybody knows it.  At the moment when painting turns once again upon itself, at the moment when Cézanne paints his apples, it is clear that in painting those apples, he is doing something very different from imitating apples‑even though his final manner of imitating them, which is the most striking, is primarily oriented toward a technique of presenting the object.  But the more the object is presented in the imitation, the more it opens up the dimension in which illusion is destroyed and aims at something else.  [I demonstrated elsewhere, by the examples of Diderot and Hölderlin, that this paradoxical logic is itself mimetology.]  Everyone knows that there is a mystery in the way Cézanne paints apples, for the relationship to the real as it is renewed in art at that moment makes the object appear purified; it involves a renewal of its dignity by means of which these imaginary insertions are, one might say, repetitively restated.[61]


It is clearly no easier for Lacan than for the Heidegger in Origins of the Work of Art‑who, incidentally, is solicited in the course of the seminar on Van Gogh‑to exorcise imitation.  And this for the simple reason that only mimesis‑which I just called, for lack of a better term, originary‑is capable of doing this.  When Heidegger says, in the first version of Origins…, that “the work of art never (re)presents [darstellen] anything, being itself that which first creates what enters for the first time into the Open,” he is not attempting to say anything different than what Lacan, who had read him thoroughly, seeks to say here.  Why deny, then, that mimesis is essential to art?

From what Lacan advances I would retain two terms‑although time permits dealing with only one‑: the ring [le cerne] and the luster [le lustre].

“A work of art is always a question of encircling the Thing.” What does encircle [cerner] actually mean?  It means to circumscribe or delimit with a contour.  Now, as Heidegger tells us, such a circumscription, in the work of art, presupposes the Platonic comprehension of being as eidos, an aspect from which, moreover, the distinction hulè-morphémateria-forma originates.  Would Lacan remain subject to this eidetic overdetermination of the work?  In encircling the Thing, does the work‑all the while concealing‑offer its idea, the Idea (with a capital I) in the way it is presented in the Kantian Analytics of the Sublime (the examination of which, moreover, Lacan ceaselessly defers, although he obviously knows that it is there that the secret of sublimation lies)?  All the more reason, adds Heidegger, that “one carry along, in these determinations [matter-form], what comes to mind immediately the work of art is experienced as that which appears:  phainestai according to its eidos.  The ekphanestaton, that which appears with the greatest brilliance (Schein), is the Beautiful.  Via the detour of the idea, the work of art passes into the characterization of the Beautiful as ekphanestaton..”  Although I am not certain about whether the ekphanestaton, the Beautiful as brilliance (blinding, as Lacan says, insofar as it transfigures‑verklärt‑the object and ravishes the Thing), is indeed dominated by Platonic eidology, the question, nonetheless, does arise.  You can see that this could lead us very far.

The second term to be retained is that “lustral” that qualifies the object caused by art to appear suddenly: Cézanne’s apple.  Lustration is a ritual of purification‑not only by water:  for it might be performed differently in Rome.  And, at this point, we return once more to katharsis: art would be the katharsis of the object, its purification [épuration], so that the Thing would be indicated in its ring [cerne], in the throbbing of presentification and of absentification, in a dazzling, brilliant flash.

Connecting the “ring” to this “lustral,” Lacan does not know how well he speaks [ne croit pas si bien dire]:  for in the sacrificial form of the rite‑before one started making do with water, that is to say, while in an age in which lustration was still an expiatory sacrifice (from luo: to absolve, to acquit, submit to punishment, expiate, and not, unless by contamination, from louo: to wash, to bathe)‑lustration consisted of leading the victim around the object to be purified.  It was a question of encircling the object.  Whence, lustro, which indeed meant purification (by fire, if necessary), always also signifies ‘to turn about’, ‘to enter’.  If we add that in Rome the official lustrum took place every five years, upon the expiration of the census period‑the meaning remains‑then the “datification” of the object in the imaginary insertions of art (contingent upon the historicity of art) does no longer appear to be excessively arbitrary.  Lustration punctuates a time that would probably require a re-elaboration of the notion of repetition.

In lustro‑taken figuratively, in the dictionary sense‑in the “to turn about,” a certain magnetization occurs which repeatedly associates this verb to light.  Lustro may denote ‘to pass in review’‑a colony on the point of departing or an army, a ceremony, also requiring sacrifice.  By extension, I dare not say by laicization, it is to wander around, to visit.  To scan visually, or to pass mentally in review, as in Cicero.  But why light?  Does it suffice to cite the numerous points, especially in poetry, where luce lustrare or lumine lustrare signifies to scan something with one’s light, to throw one’s light on something?‑or, the sol omnia lustrans of Lucretius, the sun that visits (illuminates) all things?

There is the French word lustre (luster) which‑before becoming a finely wrought, luxurious light fixture‑is “le brillant ou le poli que l’on donne à un objet ou qu’un objet a (the brilliance or the polish imparted to an object or that an object inherently possesses}” (Littré dictionary) or “le brillant, l’éclat naturel et artificiel (the brilliance, the natural or artificial shine}” (Robert dictionary)‑or, ultimately, glory.  The term is formed (in 1489) after the Italian lustro.  But lustro is the Latin lustrare, which must consequently also have meant:  to shine, to throw off a flash of light.

We find ourselves then in this locus of a condensation of language, between purification, ring, burst of light:  katharsiseidosekphanestaton..  All the stakes, all the games, of aesthetics.

The Thing itself, instead of being absent, is rather to be situated on the side of what has been forgotten, the memory of which is the unconscious.  The Thing lies on the side of “the stench and corruption that always yawn like an abyss‑for life is after all rottenness”[62].  For lustrum has its doublet‑from louo.  The stink-hole [le bourbier]‑any savage place, the  slums and the landmarks, ethos.  Holes.  And finally, evil places, places of debauchery.  The lustro is a frequenter of low places.  The lustramentum‑depending upon whether it derives from the one or the other lustrare‑is a means of purification or a stimulant to debauchery; lustrivagus is he who wanders in wild places, to which one may associate‑and what does Lacan do if not just that?‑the infinite hell of Sadian debauchery and the “savagery of the world of the dead” where, according to Hölderlin, Antigone descends.

Second stake of aesthetics, which amounts to the same: the Thing is there‑it is the horror‑but in this luster which purifies it, and must purify it.  It is, according to Lacan, the Beautiful.  In my opinion, it is the sublime, which is no less blinding.

Returning to theatre, what is most beautiful in it is, as Baudelaire intimated, le lustre (the luster).

When Lacan postulates, that fundamentally‑this being one condition of the crossing of the line‑tragedy is not essentially theatre, what he attempts to do is‑like Heidegger‑to cross the line of aesthetics.  Aesthetics, in other words, presumes that one has crossed simultaneously the limits of both ethics and aesthetics.  For this reason, everything is reduced to katharsis, which, being the real effect of tragedy in its tragic essence, must be shown to have no relation whatsoever to moral edification.

It is here that the link to Aristotle becomes problematic: for either Aristotle did, despite the century separating him from Antigone, speak the truth about tragedy‑namely, that it katharei (purifies) fear and pity‑and in this case there is no possibility of divorcing katharsis from mimesis as its means.  One could not exceed “the closure of representation” (this is a quote from Derrida), that is, of pleasure, unless one questioned what Aristotle calls in this context “pleasure.”  Otherwise, tragedy is not essentially theatre, and, as such, not captured in an “econo-mimesis” (again, a citation), whereby nothing could be retained of the katharsis.  Even if we were willing to revert to tragedy’s ritual or sacrificial meaning, as Lacan is in danger of doing at one point, we would ultimately fall back on theatre:  Bataille experienced a similar rude awakening in his contestation of Hegel (a final quote).  Unless we ponder what Lacan himself calls a “feinte” (feint) or “leurre” (lure) (Bataille spoke of “subterfuge“), and which he assigns to the register of “simulation.”  Could we regain mimesis from there, where the brilliance of the Beautiful conceals it from the look?

There is no criticism intended in these questions.  My intention is not to infer that psychoanalysis presumes a theatrical setting, a space of “déréalisation” (un-reality), as Lyotard once said.  If that were the case, what would this imply with regard to the process of analysis‑which is assuredly something “grave,” as Aristotle says?  Or, with regard to what I have called the arch-ethics of Lacan, which is the only ethics (along with the one which may be gleaned from Heidegger) truly responding to the times of the‑immemorial‑death of God?

I still have one reservation, and it concerns art.  When Lacan says that “it is obvious that God is dead […] since God derives from the fact that the Father is dead”[63] (this is the Urvater; God was dead from the beginning), he credits Freud with having produced “the only myth that the modern age was capable of”[64], and which resounds strangely in the sphere close to aesthetics.  But why is myth necessary?  Why‑it is the same question I address to Heidegger, the political and historical implications of which will certainly not escape you‑why, in Lacan who was so irritated by Heidegger’s political attitudes, is there an attachment to the romantic program of a new mythology?  Of a myth for our time?

The tragic (sublime) ethics, and there is no other, today. The great artists of our time are the first to know this.  However, I do not believe that this constitutes a justification for the aestheticizing of ethics.  The knowledge of this is of the essence.


Translated from the French by Joan Tambureno


[1] Jacques Lacan, Encore. Le Séminaire, Livre XX (Paris: Seuil, 1975), p. 9.


[2] Jacques Lacan, L’Ethique de la psychanalyse‑Le Séminaire, Livre VII, edited by Jacques-Alain Miller (Paris: Seuil, 1986), p. 338. Eng. tr., The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, trans. by Dennis Porter (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 292.


[3] Ibid., p. 48; Eng. tr., p. 38.


[4] Ibid., p. 159; Eng.tr., p. 133.


[5] Ibid., p. 48; Eng. tr., p. 38.


[6] Ibid., p. 129; Eng. tr., p.108.


[7] Ibid., pp. 271,278; Eng. tr., pp. 231, 237.


[8] Ibid., p. 272; Eng. tr., p. 232.


[9] Ibid., p. 270; Eng.tr., p. 230.


[10] Ibid., p. 303; Eng.tr., p. 260.


[11] Ibid., p. 277; Eng. tr., p. 236.


[12] Ibid., p. 277; Eng. tr., p. 236.


[13] Ibid., p. 275; Eng. tr., p. 234.


[14] Ibid., p. 272; Eng. tr., p. 232.


[15] Ibid., p. 277; Eng. tr., p. 236.


[16] Ibid., p. 276; Eng. tr., p. 236.


[17] Ibid., p. 275; Eng. tr., p. 235.


18] Ibid., p. 275; Eng. tr., p. 235.


[19] Ibid., p. 277; Eng. tr., p. 236.


[20] Ibid., p. 331; Eng. tr., p. 285.


[21] Ibid., p. 330,331; Eng. tr., pp. 284, 285.


[22] Ibid., p. 281; Eng. tr., p. 240.


[23] Ibid., p. 276; Eng. tr., p. 235.


[24] Ibid., p. 278; Eng. tr., p. 237.


[25] Ibid., p. 289; Eng. tr., p. 247.


[26] Ibid., p. 291; Eng. tr., p. 248.


[27] Ibid., p. 306; Eng. tr., p. 263.


[28] Ibid., p. 301; Eng. tr., p. 259.


[29] Ibid., p. 301; Eng. tr., p. 259.


[30] Ibid., p. 308; Eng. tr., p. 265.


[31]Ibid., p. 290; Eng. tr., p. 247.


[32] Ibid., p. 305; Eng. tr., p. 263.


[33] Ibid., p. 323; Eng. tr., p. 277.


[34] Ibid., p. 315; Eng. tr., p. 270.


[35] Ibid., p. 306; Eng. tr., p. 263.


[36] Ibid., p. 306; Eng. tr., p. 264.


[37] Ibid., p. 329; Eng. tr., p. 282.


[38] Ibid., p. 329; Eng. tr., p. 283.


[39] Ibid., p. 317; Eng. tr., p. 272.


[40] Ibid., p. 324; Eng. tr., p. 278.


[41] Ibid., p. 325; Eng. tr., p. 279.


[42] Ibid., p. 327; Eng. tr., p. 281.


[43] Ibid., p. 279; Eng. tr., p. 238.


[44] Ibid., p. 342; Eng. tr., p. 295.


[45] Ibid., p. 295; Eng. tr., pp. 252-3.


[46] Ibid., pp. 294-295; Eng. tr., p. 252.


[47] Ibid., p. 290; Eng. tr., p. 247.


[48] Ibid., p. 290; Eng. tr., p. 247.


[49] Ibid., p. 162; Eng. tr., p. 136.


[50] Ibid., p. 318; Eng. tr., p. 273.


[51] Ibid., p. 190; Eng. tr., p. 160.


[52] Ibid., p. 122; Eng. tr., p. 102.


[53] Ibid., p. 167; Eng. tr., p. 139.


[54] Ibid., p. 190; Eng. tr., p. 159.


[55] Ibid., p. 163; Eng. tr., p. 136.


[56] Ibid., p. 146; Eng. tr., p. 121.


[57] Ibid., p. 152; Eng. tr., p. 127.


[58] Ibid., p. 150; Eng. tr., p. 125.


[59] Ibid., p. 236; Eng. tr., p. 201.


[60] Ibid., p. 169; Eng. tr., p. 141.


[61] Ibid., pp. 169, 170; Eng. tr., p. 141.


[62] Ibid.. p. 272; Eng. tr., p. 232.


[63] Ibid., p. 152; Eng. tr., p. 126.


[64] Ibid., p. 208; Eng. tr., p. 177.

Publication Date:

September 2, 2018


Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe (1940-2007), French philosopher, was born in Tours (France). He taught philosophy and aesthetics at the University of Strasbourg. He has worked as playwright, director and actor at the Théâtre National de Strasbourg, at the Centre Dramatique des Alpes, and at the Théâtre National de la Colline; in particular, he co-wrote and co-directed with Michel Deutsch the play Sit venia verbo. His books include: The Title of the Letter (A Reading of Lacan) (New York: SUNY Press, 1992) and The Literary Absolute (New York: SUNY Press, 1988), both with Jean-Luc Nancy; Portrait de l’artiste, en général (Paris: Bourgois, 1979); Typography (Mimesis, Philosophy, Politics) (Harvard: Harvard Univ. Press, 1989); The Subject of Philosophy (University of Minnesota Press, 1993); Heidegger, Art and Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990); Musica ficta (Figures of Wagner) (Palo Alto: Stanford Univ. Press, 1994); L’Imitation des Modernes (Typographies II) (Paris: Galilée, 1986); La Poésie comme Expérience (Paris: Bourgois, 1986); La Fiction du Politique (Paris: Bourgois, 1987)[Address: Université des Sciences Humaines de Strasbourg, Formation Doctorale de Philosophie, 22 rue René Descartes, F-67064 Strasbourg cedex – France]

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European Journal of Psychoanalysis