Antigone (Lacan)

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Lacan was deeply interested in ethics. In one of his essays, "Kant avec Sade" (1962-1963), the attempt to construct a rationally coherent system of ethics by Kant is discredited by a structural analogy with the delirious rationality of Sade. It is argued that by attempting to universalized ethics and to establish the criteria for universally binding ethical laws which are not dependent on the logic of the individual situation, Kant merely succeeds in separating pleasurability from the notion of good.

An important theme in one of his seminars, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959), is the desire for death. Lacan believes that there are two deaths. He suggests that there is a difference between biological death and symbolic death. In Sophocle's play, Antigone is excluded from the community; in other words her symbolic death precedes her natural death. In Shakespeare's play the ghost of Hamlet's father represents the opposite case: natural death unaccompanied by symbolic death. In the above seminar Lacan comments on the tragedy of Antigone, in a play which clearly expresses human being's relation and debt to the dead.

For Lacan, Antigone is a model of ethical conduct. But, first, let us remind ourselves of the story. The sons of Oedipus, brothers of Antigone, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other in battle. Eteocles was fighting on the side of the state, Thebes, and Polynices was attacking it. The ruler of Thebes, Creon, brother of Jocasta, decrees that the corpse of Eteocles be buried with full honors and that the corpse of Polynices be left to be rupped apart by dogs and birds. Wilfully disobedient, Antigone performs the proper funeral rites for Polynices. She takes full responsibility for her actions. Creon sentences her to be walled up in a cave with just enough food to relieve his guilt for her death. Antigone chooses to die: she hangs herself. As a consequence, Creon's son Haemon, fiancé of Antigone, also kills himself, and so does Creon's wife, Eurydice. For having declared himself and the state as mightier than the gods, Creon loses everything.

Creon represents what we could call a strong ego. He cannot tolerate a defiance of his authority, especially from a woman. On the other hand, Antigone's action is ethical. She is not in flight from responsibility and is not afraid of desire. Her act is disinterested; she does not consider the claims of her ego for happiness. She does not procrastinate about something she knows she must do. Antigone represents a principle of ethical conduct: she acts according to her desire and that desire is the desire of the Other.

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