Oedipus at Colonus

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from "Desire, life and death" (Volume One of the Seminar)



3


To fill in what I am in the middle of articulating for you, I told you that we had an example, which I took because I happened to come across it - the example of Oedipus finding his end, the beyond of Oedipus.


The fact that Oedipus is the patronymic hero of the Oedipus complex isn't a coincidence. Another one could have been chosen, since all the heroes of Greek mythology have some sort of connection with this myth, they embody it under different guises, reveal other aspects of it. There was certainly a reason why Freud was guided towards this one.

Throughout his life, Oedipus is always this myth. He is himself nothing other than the passage from myth to existence. Whether he existed or not is of little importance to us, since he exists in each of us, in a palely reflected form, he is ubiquitous, and he exists far more than if he really had existed.

One can say that a thing does or doesn't really exist. On the other hand, I was surprised to see, regarding the archetypal cure, one of our colleagues oppose the term psychic reality to that of true reality. I think that I have put you all in enough of a state of saggestion for this term to seem to you a contradiction in adjecto.

Whether a thing really exists or not doesn't much matter. It can perfectly easily exist in the full sense of the term, even if it doesn't really exist. By definition, there is something so improbable about all existence that one is in effect perpetually questioning oneself about its reality.

So Oedipus does exist, and he fully realised his destiny. He realised it to that final point which is nothing more than something strictly identical to a striking down, a tearing apart, a laceration of himself - he is no longer, no longer anything, at all. And it is at that moment that he says the phrase I evoked last time - Am I made man in the hour when I cense to be?

I've torn this phrase out of its context, and I must put it back there so that you avoid acquiring the illusion that, for instance, the term of man would at this moment have some sort of significance. In all strictness, it has none, precisely in as much as Oedipus achieved the full realisation of the speech of the oracles which already named his destiny even before he was born. Before his birth his parents were told those things which required that he be hurled towards his destiny, that is that no sooner was he born, he be exposed hung by a foot. It is with this initial act that he begins to realise his destiny. So everything is written from the start, and unfolds right up to its final end, including the fact that Oedipus assumes it through his own action. I, he says, have nothing to do with it. The people of Thebes, in their exaltation, gave me this woman as reward for having delivered them from the Sphinx, and this guy, I didn't know who he was, I beat him up, he was old, I can't help it, I hit him a bit hard, it has to be said I was quite a guy.

He accepts his destiny at the moment when he mutilates himself, but he had already accepted it at the moment when he accepted the crown. It is when he is king that he draws down all the maledictions on the city, and that there is an order of the gods, a law of retributions and punishments. It is quite natural for everything to come down on Oedipus since he is the central knot of speech. The question is whether he will accept it or not. He thinks that, after all, he is innocent, but he fully accepts it since he tears himself apart. And he asks to be allowed to sit at Colonus, in the sacred precinct of the Eumenides. He thus fulfils the prophecy [[[parole]]] down to the last detail.


Meanwhile, people in Thebes continue to gossip. The people of Thebes are told - Just a minutel You pushed it a bit far. It was all very well for Oedipus to mortify himself. Except, you found him disgusting and you drove him away. Now, the future of Thebes hangs precisely on this embodied speech which you couldn't recognise when it was here, with its ensuing tearing, cancelling of man. You exiled him. Thebes beware - if you don't bring him back, if not within the limits of your land, at leust nearby, so that he doesn't slip away from you. If the speech which is his destiny begins to wander, it will take with it your destiny as well. Athens will reap the harvest of true existence which he embodies, and she will secure every advantage over you and will have every triumph.

They run aîter him. Hearing that he is about to receive some visit, all kinds of ambassadors, wise men, politicians, enthusiasts, his son, Oedipus then says - Am I made man in the hour when I cease to be?

That is where beyond the pleasure principle begins. When the oracle's prophecy [parole] is entirely fulfilled, when the life of Oedipus has completely passed over into his destiny, what remains of Oedipus? That is what Oedipus at Colonus shows us - the essential drama of destiny, the total absence of charity, of fraternity, of anything whatsoever relating to what one calls human feeling.

What does the theme of Oedipas at Colonus amount to? The chorus says - Say what you will, the greatest boon is not to be;/ But, life begun, soonest to end is best, . . . And Oedipus calls down the most extreme maledictions upon posterity and the city for which he was a burnt offering - read the maledictions addressed to his son, Polynices.


And then, there is the negation of the prophecy [parole], which takes place within the precinct, upon whose borders the whole drama takes place, the precinct in the place where it is forbidden to speak, the central point where silence is obligatory, for there live avenging goddesses, who do not forgive and who catch hold of the human being at every opportunity. You get Oedipas to come out of there each time you want to get a few words from him, for if he says them in that place, something awful will happen.

The sacred always has its raisons d'être. Why is there always somewhere where speech peters out? Perhaps so that it subsists in this precinct.

What happens at that moment? The death of Oedipus. It comes about under extremely peculiar circumstances. Someone whose gaze, from afar, has followed the two men as they go towards the centre of the sacred place, turns around, and sees ouly one of the two men, hiding his face with his arm in an attitude of sacred awe. You have the feeling that it isn't very pretty to look at, a kind of volatilisation of the presence of one who has said his last words. I think that Oedipus at Colonus here is alluding to some unknown thing which was revealed in the mysteries, which are here always in the background. But for us, if I wanted to picture it, I would look for it yet again in Edgar Poe.

Edgar Poe always juxtaposed the themes of life and of death, in a way not lacking in significance. As an echo of this liquifaction of Oedipus, I would choose The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.


It's about an experiment in the sustentation of the subject in speech, by means of what was then called magnetism, a form of theorisation of hypnosis - someone in articulo mortis is hypnotised to see what will happen. A man at the end of his life is chosen, he only has some few breaths left, and in every other way he's dying. It's been explained to him that if he wants to become one of humanity's heroes, he has only to signal to the hypnotiser. If this could be set up in the few hours preceding his last breath, one would find out. This is fine poetical imagination, which ranges much further than our timid medical imaginations, although we all try hard along that road.

In fact, the subject passes from life into death, and remains for some months in a state of sufficient aggregation to be still in fair condition - a corpse on a bed, which, from time to time, speaks, saying I am dead.

This state of affairs is maintained, with the help of all kinds of tricks and digs in the ribs, until the passes contrary to those that put him to sleep are started in order to wake him up, when several screams from the poor wretch are heard - For God's sake! - quick! - quick -put me to sleep - or, quick- waken me!-quick-

I SAY TO YOU THAT I AM DEAD!

He's already been saying he's dead for six months, but when he is awakened, M. Valdemar is no more than a disgusting liquefaction, something for which no language has a name, the naked apparition, pure, simple, brutal, of this figure which it is impossible to gase at face on, which hovers in the background of all the imaginings of human destiny, which is beyond all qualification, and for which the word carrion is completely inadequate, the complete collapse of this species of swelling that is life - the bubble bursts and dissolves down into inanimate putrid liquid.

That is what happens in the case of Oedipus. As everything right from the start of the tragedy goes to show, Oedipus is nothing more than the scum of the earth, the refuse, the residue, a thing empty of any plausible appearance.


Oedipus at Colonus, whose being lies entirely within the word [parole] proferred by his destiny, makes actual the conjunction of death and life. He lives a life which is dead, which is that death which is precisely there under life. That is also where Freud's lengthy text leads us, where he tells us - Don't believe that life is an exalting goddess who has arisen to culminate in that most beautiful of forms, that there is the slightest power of achievement and progress in life. Life is a blister, a mould, characterised - as others besides Freud have written - by nothing beyond its aptitude for denth.

That is what life is - a detour, a dogged detour, in itself transitory and precarious, and deprived of any significance. Why, in that of its manifestations called man, does something happen, which insists throughout this life, which is called a meaning? We call it human, but are we so sure? Is this meaning as human as all that? A meaning is an order, that is to say, a sudden emergence. A meaning is an order which suddenly emerges. A life insists on entering into it, but it expresses something which is perhaps completely beyond this life, since when we get to the root of this life, behind the drama of the passage into existence, we find nothing besides life conjoined to death. That is where the Freudian dialectic leads us.

Up to a certain point, Freudian theory may seem to explain everything, including what's related to death, within the framework of a closed libidinal economy, regulated by the pleasure principle and a return to equilibrium, involving specific relations between objects. The merging of the libido with activities which on the surface are at odds with it, aggressivity for instance, is put down to imaginary identification. Instead of beating up the other confronting him, the subject identifies himself, and turns against himself this gentle aggressivity, which is thought of as a libidinal object relation, and is founded upon what are called the instincts of the ego, that is to say the need for order and harmony. After all, one must eat - when the pantry is empty, one tucks into one's fellow being [[[semblable]]]. The libidinal adventure is here objectified in the order of living things, and one assumes that the behaviour of subjects, their inter-aggressivity, is conditioned and capable of explication by a desire which is fundamentally adequate to its object.

The significance of Beyond the Pleusure Principle is that that isn't enough. Masochism is not inverted sadism, the phenomenon of aggressivity isn't to be explained simply on the level of imaginary identification. What Freud's primary masochism teaches us is that, when life has been dispossessed of its speech, its final word can only be the final malediction expressed at the end of Oedipus at Colonus. Life doesn't want to be healed. The negative therapeutic reaction is fundamental to it. Anyway, what is healing? The realisation of the subject through a speech which comes from elsewhere, traversing it.

This life we're captive of, this essentially alienated life, ex-sisting, this life in the other, is as such joined to death, it always returns to death, and is only drawn into increasingly large and more roundabout circuits by what Freud calls the elements of the external world.


All that life is concerned with is seeking repose as much as possible while awaiting death. That is what devours the time of the suckling baby at the beginning of its existence, with hourly segments which allow him just to take a peep from time to time. You have to try bloody hard to draw him out of this for him to find the rhythm by which we get attuned to the world. If the nameless desire can appear at the level of the desire to sleep, which you mentioned the other day, Valabrega, that's because it is in an intermediary state - dozing off is the most natural of all vital states. Life is concerned solely with dying - To die, to sleep, perchance to dream, as a certain gentleman put it, just when what was at issue was exactly that - to be or not to be.

4

This to be or not to be 7 is an entirely verbal story. A very funny comedian tried showing how Shakespeare came upon it, scratching his head - to be or not . . .. and he would start again - to be or not . . . to be. If that's funny, that's because this moment is when the entire dimension of language comes into focus. The dream and the joke emerge on the same level.


Take this sentence, which is obviously not very funny - The greatest boon is not to be.8 It is quite striking to realise that for the greatest tragedian of Antiquity, this was to be found in a religious ceremouy. Can you imagine that being said during mass! The comics took it upon themselves to make us laugh at it. It would be better not to be born - Unfortunately, replies the other, that happens to scarcely one in a hundred thousand.9

Why is this witty?

To begin with, because it plays on words, an indispensable technical element. It would be better not to be born. Of course! This means that here there's an unthinkable unity, about which absolutely nothing can be said before it comes into existence, from which time it may indeed insist, but one could imagine it not insisting, so that everything passes into the universal rest and silence of the stars, as Pascal puts it. That is true enough, it may be so at the moment when one says it, it would be better not to be born. What is ridiculous is


7 English in the original.

8 The French version of the Greek that Lacan uæs is, literally translated: 'It would be better not to be born.' Without the reference to birth, the connection with the joke cited by Freud that follows is

lost.
9 See (1905c) GW VI 60: Stud IV 57-8; SE VIII 57.

saying it, and entering into the order of the calculus of probabilities. Wit is ouly wit because it is close enough to our existence to cancel it with laughter. The phenomena of the dream, of the psychopathology of everyday life, of the joke are to be found in this zone.


You must read Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. Freud's rigour is stupefying, but he doesn't quite give the last word, namely that everything relating to wit takes place on the vacillating level of speech. If it weren't there, nothing would exist.

Take the silliest story, the man in a bakery, who pretends he's got nothing to pay for - he held out his hand and asked for a cake, he gives the cake back and asks for a glass of liqueur, drinks it, he's asked to pay for the glass of liqueur and he replies - But I gave you the cake in exchange for it. - But you haven't paidfor the cake either - But I hadn't eaten it.'° There was an exchange. But how did the exchange begin? At some point, something must have entered the ctrcle of exchange. So the exchange must have already been set up. That is to say that when all is said and done, one is always left paying for the small glass of liqueur with a cake one hasn't paid for.


The absolutely sublime marriage-broker stories are also funny for the same reason. 'The one you introduced me to has an uabearable mother.'- 'Listen, you're marrying the daughter, not the mother. ' - 'But she isn't exactly pretty, nor a spring chicken. '- 'She'll be all the more faithful for it. '- 'But ske hasn't got much money. You can't expect everything.21 And so on. The conjoiner, the marriage-broker, conjoins on a completely different plane than that of reality, since the plane of an engagement, of love, has nothing to do with reality. By definition, the marriage- broker, paid to deceive, can never fall into crass realities.

Desire always becomes manifest at the joint of speech, where it makes its appearance, its sudden emergence, its surge forwards. Desire emerges just as it becomes embodied in speech, it emerges with symbolism.

To be sure, symbolism links up a certain number of these natural signs, of these loci, which captivate the human being. There is even the beginnings of symbolism in the instinctual capture of one animal by another. But that isn't what constitutes symbolism, it's the symbolising Merken which make what doesn't exist exist. You mark the six sides of a die, you roll the die - from this rolling die emerges desire. I am not saying human desire, for, after all, the man who plays with the die is captive to the desire thus put into play. He doesn't know the origin of his desire, as it rolls with the symbol written on its six sides.

Why is it only man who plays dice? Why don't the planets speak?

Questions I'll leave open for today.


18 May 1955