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Slavoj Zizek: Death's Merciless Love
[space] © Slavoj Zizek & lacan.com 2004


Hamlet before Oedipus

When we speak about myths in psychoanalysis, we are effectively speaking about ONE myth, the Oedipus myth - all other Freudian myths (the myth of the primordial father, Freud's version of the Moses myth) are variations of it, although necessary ones. However, with the Hamlet narrative, things get complicated. The standard, pre-Lacanian, "naive" psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet, of course, focuses on Hamlet's incestuous desire for his mother. Hamlet's shock at his father's death is thus explained as the traumatic impact the fulfillment of an unconscious violent desire (in this case, for the father to die) has on the subject; the spectre of the dead father which appears to Hamlet is the projection of Hamlet's own guilt with regard to his death-wish; his hatred of Claudius is an effect of Narcissistic rivalry - Claudius, instead of Hamlet himself, got his mother; his disgust for Ophelia and womankind in general expresses his revulsion at sex in its suffocating incestuous modality, which arises with the lack of the paternal interdiction/sanction... So, according to this standard reading, Hamlet as a modernized version of Oedipus bears witness to the strengthening of the Oedipal prohibition of incest in the passage from Antiquity to Modernity: in the case of Oedipus, we are still dealing with incest, while in Hamlet, the incestuous wish is repressed and displaced. And it seems that the very designation of Hamlet as an obsessional neurotic points in this direction: in contrast to hysteria which is found throughout all (at least Western) history, obsessional neurosis is a distinctly modern phenomenon.

While one should not underestimate the strength of such a robust heroic Freudian reading of Hamlet as the modernized version of the Oedipus myth, the problem is how to harmonize it with the fact that, although - in the Goethean lineage - Hamlet may appear as the model of the modern (introverted, brooding, indecisive) intellectual, the myth of Hamlet is older than that of Oedipus. The elementary skeleton of the Hamlet narrative (the son revenges his father against the father's evil brother who murdered him and took over his throne; the son survives the illegitimate rule of his uncle by playing a fool and making "crazy" but truthful remarks) is a universal myth found everywhere, from old Nordic cultures through Ancient Egypt up to Iran and Polynesia. Furthermore, there are enough evidences to sustain the conclusion that the ultimate reference of this narrative does not concern family traumas, but the celestial events: the ultimate "meaning" of the Hamlet myth is the movement of stars in precession, i.e. the Hamlet myth clads into the family narrative highly articulated astronomical observations...1 However, this solution, convincing as it may appear, also gets immediately entangled in its own impasse: the movement of stars is in itself meaningless, just a fact of nature with no libidinal resonance, so why did people translate-metaphorize it in the guise of precisely such a family narrative which generates a tremendous libidinal involvement? In other words, the question of "what means what?" is in no way decided by this reading: does the Hamlet narrative "mean" stars, or do stars "mean" Hamlet's narrative, i.e. did the Ancients use their astronomical knowledge in order to encode insights into fundamental libidinal deadlocks of the human race?

One thing is nonetheless clear here: temporally and logically, the Hamlet narrative IS earlier than the Oedipal myth. We are dealing here with the mechanism of the unconscious displacement well known to Freud: something that is logically earlier is perceptible (or becomes, or inscribes itself in the texture) only as a later secondary distortion of some allegedly "original" narrative. Therein resides the often misrecognized elementary matrix of the "dream work," which involves the distinction between the latent dream-thought and the unconscious desire articulated in the dream: in the dream-work, the latent thought is ciphered/displaced, but it is through this very displacement that the other, truly unconscious thought articulates itself. So, in the case of Oedipus and Hamlet, instead of the linear/historicist reading of Hamlet as a secondary distortion of the Oedipal text, the Oedipus myth is (as Hegel already claimed) the grounding myth of the Western Greek civilization (the suicidal jump of the Sphynxh representing the disintegration of the old pre-Greek universe); and it is in Hamlet's "distortion" of the Oedipus that its repressed content articulates itself - the proof of it being the fact that the Hamlet matrix is found everywhere in pre-Classic mythology, up to the Ancient Egypt itself whose spiritual defeat is signalled by the suicidal jump of the Sphynx. (And, incidentally, what if the same goes even for Christianity: is not Freud's thesis that the murder of God in the New Testament brings to the light the "disavowed" trauma of the Old Testament?) Which, then, is the pre-Oedipal "secret" of Hamlet? One should retain the insight that Oedipus is a proper "myth," and that the Hamlet narrative is its "modernizing" dislocation/corruption - the lesson is that the Oedipal "myth" - and, perhaps, the mythic "naivety" itself - serves to obfuscate some prohibited knowledge, ultimately the knowledge about father's obscenity.

How are then act and knowledge related in a tragic constellation? The basic opposition is that between Oedipus and Hamlet: Oedipus accomplishes the act (of killing the father), because he doesn't know what he does; in contrast to Oedipus, Hamlet knows, and, for that very reason, isn't able to pass to the act (of taking revenge for the father's death). Furthermore, as Lacan emphasizes, it is not only Hamlet who knows, it is also Hamlet's father who mysteriously knows that he is dead and even how he died, in contrast to the father from the Freudian dream who doesn't know that he is dead - and it is this excessive knowkedge that accounts for the minimal melodramatic flair of Hamlet. That is to say, in contrast to tragedy which is based on some misrecognition or ignorance, melodrama always involves some unexpected and excessive knowledge possessed not by the hero, but by his/her other, the knowledge imparted to the hero at the very end, in the final melodramatic reversal. Suffice it to recall the eminently melodramatic final reversal of Wharton's The Age of Innocence in which the husband who for long years harbored illicit passionate love for Countess Olenska, learns that his young wife all the time knew about his secret passion. Perhaps, this would also offer a way to redeem the unfortunate Bridges of the Madison County: if, at the film's end, the dying Francesca were to learn that her allegedly simple-minded, down-to-earth husband knew all the time of his wife's brief passionate affair with the National Geographic photographer and how much this meant to her, but kept silent about it in order not to hurt her. Therein resides the enigma of knowledge: how is it possible that the whole psychic economy of a situation radically changes not when the hero directly learns something (some long repressed secret), but when he gets to know that the other (whom he mistook for ignorant) also knew it all the time and just pretended not to know to keep the appearances - is there anything more humiliating than the situation of a husband who, after a long secret love affair, all of a sudden learns that his wife knew about it all the time, but kept silent about it out of politeness or, even worse, out of love for him? In Terms of Endearment, Debra Winger, dying of cancer on a hospital bed, tells her son (who actively despises her for being abandoned by his father, her husband) that she is well aware of how much he really loves her - she knows that some time in the future, after her death, he will acknowledge this to himself; at that moment, he will feel guilty for his past hatred of her mother, so she is now letting him know that she is in advance pardoning him and thus delivering him of the future burden of guilt... this manipulation of the future guilt feeling is melodrama at its best; its very gesture of pardon culpabilizes the son in advance. (Therein, in this culpabilization, in this imposition of a symbolic debt, through the very act of exoneration, resides the highest trick of Christianity.)

There is, however, a third formula to be added to this couple of "he doesn't know it, although he does it" and "he knows it and therefore cannot do it": "he knows very well what she is doing, and, nonetheless, he does it." If the first formula covers the traditional hero and the second one the early modern hero, the last one, combining knowledge AND act in an ambiguous way, accounts for the late modern - contemporary - hero. That is to say, this third formula allows for two thoroughly opposed readings, somewhat like the Hegelian speculative judgement in which the lowest and the highest coincide: on the one hand, "he knows very well what he is doing, and he nonetheless does it" is the clearest expression of the cynical attitude of moral depravity - "Yes, I am a scum, cheating and lying, so what? That's life!"; on the other hand, the same stance of "he knows very well what he is doing, and he nonetheless does it" can also stand for the most radical opposite of cynicism, i.e. for the tragic awareness that, although what I am about to do will have catastrophic consequences for one's well-being and for the well-being of those who are nearest and dearest to me, I nonetheless simply HAVE to do it on account of the inexorable ethical injunction. (Recall the paradigmatic attitude of the noir hero: he is fully aware that, if he follows the call of the femme fatale, it is only doom that awaits him, that what he is letting himself into is a double trap, that the woman will for sure betray him, but he nonetheless cannot resist and does it...) This split is not only the split between the domain of the "pathological" - of the well-being, pleasure, profit... - and the ethical injunction: it can also be the split between the moral norms that I usually follow and the unconditional injunction I feel obliged to obey, like the deadlock of Abraham who "knows very well what killing one's own son means," and nonetheless resolves to do it, or the Christian who is ready to commit a terrible sin (to sacrify his eternal soul) for the higher goal of God's glory... in short, the properly modern post- or meta-tragic situation occurs when a higher necessity compels me to betray the very ethical substance of my being.

Thrift as a deadly sin

In what, then, does the break of modernity exist? Which is the gap or the deadlock that the myth endeavours to cover up? One is almost tempted to return to the old moralistic tradition: capitalism originates in the sin of thrift, of the miserly disposition - the long-discredited Freudian notion of the "anal character" and its link to the capitalist accumulation receives here an unexpected boost. In Hamlet (Act I, Scene 2), the unsavory character of the excessive thrift is precisely formulated:

Horatio: My lord, I came to see your father's funeral.
Hamlet:  I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow-student
            I think it was to see my mother's wedding.
Horatio:  Indeed, my lord, it follow'd hard upon.
Hamlet:  Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral bak'd meats
            Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
            Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
            Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!

The key point is here that "thrift" does not designate just an indistinct frugality, but a specific refusal to pay its due to the proper ritual of mourning: thrift (in this case, the double use of food) violates the ritual value, the one that, according to Lacan, Marx neglected in his account of value:

"This term /thrift/ is a fitting reminder that, in the accomodations worked out by modern society between use values and exchange values, there is perhaps something that has been overlooked in the Marxian analysis of economy, the dominant one for the thought of our time - something whose force and extent we feel at every moment: ritual values."2

What, then, is the status of thrift as a vice?3 In the Aristotelian frame of mind, it would be simple to locate thrift at the opposite extreme from prodigality, and then, of course, to construct some middle term - say, prudence, the art of moderate expenditure, avoiding both extremes - as the true virtue. However, the paradox of the miser is that he makes an excess out of moderation itself. That is to say, the standard qualification of desire focuses on its transgressive character: ethics (in the premodern sense of the "art of living") is ultimately the ethics of moderation, of resisting the urge to go beyond certain limits, a resistance against desire which is by definition transgressive - sexual passion which consumes me totally, gluttony, destructive passion which doesn't stop even at murder... In contrast to this transgressive notion of desire, the Miser invests with desire (and thus with an excessive quality) moderation itself: do not spend, economize, retain instead of letting go - all the proverbial "anal" qualities. And it is only THIS desire, the very anti-desire, that is desire par excellence. The use of the Hegelian notion of gegensaetzliche Bestimmung4 is here fully justified: Marx claimed that, in the series production-distribution-exchange-consumption, the term "production" is doubly inscribed, it is simultaneously one of the terms in the series and the structuring principle of the entire series: in production as one of the terms of the series, production (as the structuring principle) "encounters itself in its oppositional determination,"5 as Marx put it, using the precise Hegelian term. And the same goes for desire: there are different species of desire (i.e., of the excessive attachment that undermines the pleasure principle); among these species, desire "as such" encounters itself in its "oppositional determination" in the guise of the miser and its thrift, the very opposite of the transgressive move of desire. Lacan made this clear apropos of Molière:

"The object of fantasy, image and pathos, is that other element that takes the place of what the subject is symbolically deprived of. Thus the imaginary object is in a position to condense in itself the virtues or the dimension of being and to become that veritable delusion of being /leurre de l'etre/ that Simone Weil treats when she focuses on the very denses and most opaque relationship of a man to the object of his desire: the relationship of Moliere's Miser to his strongbox. This is the culmination of the fetish character of the object in human desire. /.../ The opaque character of the object a in the imaginary fantasy determines it in its most pronounced forms as the pole of perverse desire."6

So, if we want to discern the mystery of desire, we should not focus on the lover or murderer in the thrall of their passion, ready to put at stake anything and everything for it, but on the miser's attitude towards his chest, the secret place where he keeps and gathers his possessions. The mystery, of course, is that, in the figure of the miser, excess coincides with lack, power with impotence, avaricious hoarding with the elevation of the object into the prohibited/untouchable Thing one can only observe, never fully enjoy. Is not the ultimate miser's aria Bartolo's "A un dottor della mia sorte" from Act I of Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia? Its obsessive madness perfectly renders the fact that he is totally indifferent towards the prospect of having sex with the young Rosina - he wants to marry her in order to possess and guard her in the same way a miser possesses his strongbox.7 In more philosophical terms, the paradox of the miser is that he unites the two incompatible ethical tradition: the Aristotelian ethics of moderation and the Kantian ethics of an unconditional demand that derails the "pleasure principle" - the miser elevates the maxim of moderation itself into a Kantian unconditional demand. The very sticking to the rule of moderation, the very avoiding of the excess, thus generates an excess - a surplus-enjoyment - of its own.

The capitalist modernism, however, introduces a twist into this logic: the capitalist is no longer the lone miser who sticks to his hidden treasure, taking a secret peek at it when he is alone, behind the safely locked doors, but the subject who accepts the basic paradox that the only way to preserve and multiply one's treasure is to spend it - Juliet's formula of love from the balcony scene ("the more I give, the more I have") undergoes here a perverse twist - is this formula not also the very formula of the capitalist venture? The more the capitalist invests (and borrows money in order to invest), the more he has, so that, at the end of the line, we get a purely virtual capitalist a la Donald Trump whose cash "net worth" is practically zero or even negative, yet who passes for "wealthy" on account of the prospect of future profits. So, back to the Hegelian "oppositional determination," capitalism in a way turns around the notion of thrift as the oppositional determination (the form of appearance) of yielding to desire (i.e. consuming the object): the genus is here avarice, while the excessive limitless consumption is avarice itself in its form of appearance (oppositional determination).

This basic paradox enables us to generate even phenomena like the most elementary marketing strategy, which is to appeal to the consummer's thrift: is the ultimate message of the publicity clips not "Buy this, spend more, and you will economize, you will get a surplus for free!"? Recall the proverbial male-chauvinist image of the wife who comes home from shopping spree and informs her husband: "I've just spared us 200 $! Although I wanted to buy only one jacket, I bought three, and thus got a 200 $ discount!" The embodiment of this surplus is the toothpaste tube whose last third is differently colored, with the large letters: "YOU GET 30% FREE!" - I am always tempted to say in such a situation: "OK, then give me only this free 30% of the paste!" In capitalism, the definition of the "proper price" is a DISCOUNT price. The worn-out designation "society of consumption" thus holds only if one conceives of consumption as the mode of appearance of its very opposite, thrift.8

Here, we should return to Hamlet and to the ritual value: ritual is ultimately the ritual of sacrifice which opens up the space for generous consumption - after we sacrificed to gods the innermost part of the slaughtered animal (heart, intestines), we are free to enjoy a hearty meal of the remaining meat. Instead of enabling free consumption without sacrifice, the modern "total economy" which wants to dispense with this "superfluous" ritualized sacrifice generates the paradoxes of thrift - there is NO generous consumption, consumption is allowed only insofar as it functions as the form of appearance of its opposite. And was Nazism not precisely the desperate attempt to restore the ritual value to its proper place through holocaust, this gigantic sacrifice to the "obscure gods," as Lacan put it in his Seminar XI?9 Quite appropriately, the sacrificed object was the Jew, the very embodiment of the capitalist paradoxes of thrift. Fascism is to be situated into the series of attempts to counter this capitalist logic: apart from the Fascist corporatist attempt to "reestablish the balance" by cutting of the excess embodied in the "Jew," one should mention the different versions of the attempt to restore the premodern sovereign gesture of pure expenditure - recall the figure of junkie, the only true "subject of consumption," the only one who thoroughly, to his death, consumes himself in his unbound jouissance.10

Why did Christ die on the cross?

How, then, are we to break out of the deadlock of the thrifty consumption, if these two exits are false? Perhaps, it is the Christian notion of agape that points towards the way out: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."(John 3:16) How, exactly, are we to conceive of this basic tenet of the Christian faith?11 Problems emerge the moment we comprehend this "giving of his one and only Son," i.e. the death of Christ, as a sacrificial gesture in the exchange between God and man. If we claim that, by sacrificing that which is most precious to Him, His own son, God redeems humanity, buying off its sins, then there are ultimately only two ways to explain this act: either God himself demands this retribution, i.e. Christ sacrifices himself as the representative of humanity to satisfy the retributive need of God his father; or God is not omnipotent, i.e. He is, like a Greek tragic hero, subordinated to a higher Destiny: His act of creation, like the fateful deed of a Greek hero, brings about unwanted dire consequences, and the only way for Him to reestablish the balance of Justice is to sacrifice what is most precious to Him, His own son - in this sense, God Himself is the ultimate Abraham. The fundamental problem of Christology is how to avoid these two readings of Christ's sacrifice that impose themselves as obvious:

"Any idea that Gods 'needs' reparation either from us or from our representative should be banished, as should the idea that there is some kind of moral order which is above God and to which God must conform by requiring reparation."12

The problem, of course, is how exactly to avoid these two options, when the very wording of the Bible seems to support their common premise: Christ's act is repeatedly designated as "ransom," by the words of Christ himself, by other biblical texts, as well as by the most prominent commentators of the Bible. Jesus himself says that he came "to give his life as a ransom for many"(Mark 10:45); Timothy 2:5-6 speaks of Christ as the "mediator between God and humanity /.../ who gave his life as a ransom for all"; St Paul himself, when he states that Christians are slaves who have been "bought at a price" (Corinthians 6:20), implies the notion that the death of Christ should be concieved as purchasing our freedom. So we have a Christ who, through his suffering and death, pays the price for setting us free, redeeming us from the burden of sin; if, then, we have been liberated from captivity to sin and the fear of death through the death and resaurrection of Christ, who demanded this price? To whom was the ransom paid? Some early Christian writers, clearly perceiving this problem, proposed a logical, if heretic, solution: since Christ's sacrifice delivered us from the power of the Devil (Satan), then Christ's death was the price God had to pay to the Devil, our "owner" when we live in sin, in order that the Devil set us free. Again, therein resides the deadlock: if Christ is offered as a sacrifice to God himself, the question arises why did God demand this sacrifice. Was he still the cruel jealous God who wanted a heavy price for his reconciliation with humanity which betrayed him? If the sacrifice of Christ was offered to someone else (the Devil), then we get the strange spectacle of God and Devil as partners in an exchange.

Of course, Christ's sacrificial death is easy to "understand," there is a tremendous "psychological force" in this act: when we are haunted by the notion that things go fundamentally wrong and that we are ultimately responsible for it, that there is some deep flaw inherent to the very existence of humanity, that we are burdened by a tremendous guilt which we can never properly repay, the idea of God, the absolutely innocent being, sacrificing himself for our sins out of infinite love for us and thus relieving us of our guilt, serves as the proof that we are not alone, that we matter to God, that He cares for us, that we are protected by the Creator's infinite Love, while at the same time infinitely indebed to Him. Christ's sacrifice thus serves as the eternal reminder and incitement to lead an ethical life - whatever we do, we should always remember that God Himself gave His life for us... However, such an account is clearly insufficient, since one has to explain this act in inherent theological terms, not in the terms of psychological mechanisms. The enigma remains, and even the most sophisticated theologists (like Anselm of Canterbury) tended to regress into the trap of legalism. According to Anselm, when there is sin and guilt, there has to be a satisfaction, something has to be done by which the offense caused by human sin will be purged. However, humanity itself is not strong enough to provide this necessary satisfaction - only God can do it. The only solution is thus the incarnation, the emergence of a God-man, of a person who is simultaneously fully divine and fully human: as a God, he has the ability to pay the required satisfaction, and as a man, he has the obligation to pay.13

The problem of this solution is that the legalistic notion of the inexorable character of the need to pay for the sin (the offense must be compensated for) is not argued for, but simply accepted - the question here is a very naive one: why does God not directly forgive us? Why has He to obey the need to pay for the sin? Is not the basic tenet of Christianity preciusely the opposite one, the suspension of this legalistic logic of retribution, the idea that through the miracle of conversion a New Beginning is possible, through which the past debts (sins) are simply erased? Following an apparently similar line, but with a radically shifted emphasis, Karl Barth provides a tentative answer in his essay on "The Judge Judged in Our Place": God as a Judge first passed a judgement of humanity, and then became a human being and paid himself the price, took upon himself the punishment, "in order that in this way there might be brought about by him our reconciliation with him, and our conversion to him."14 So, to put it in somewhat inappropriate terms, God became man and sacrificed Himself in order to set the ultimate example that would evoke our sympathy for Him and thus convert us to Him... This idea was first clearly articulated by Abelard:

"The Son of God took our nature, and in it took upon himself to teach us by both word and example even to the point of death, thus binding us to himself through love."15

The reason Christ had to suffer and die is here not the legalistic notion of retribution, but the edifying religious-moral effect of his death on us, sinful humans: if God were to pardon us directly, this would not transform us, making us new, better men - it is only the compassion and feeling of gratitude and debt elicited by the scene of Christ's sacrifice, that have the necessary power to transform us... It is easy to see that something is amiss in this reasoning: is this not a strange God who sacrifices his own son, what matters most to him, just to impress humans? Things become even more uncanny if we focus on the idea that God sacrificed his Son in order to bind us to Himself through love: what was at stake was then not only God's love for us, but also his (narcissistic) desire to be loved by us, humans - is in this reading God Himself not strangely akin to the mad governess from Patricia Highsmith's Heroine, who sets the family house on fire in order to be able to prove her devotion to the family by bravely saving the children from the raging fire? Along these lines, God first causes the Fall (i.e. provokes a situation in which we need Him) and then redeems us, i.e. pulls us out of the mess for which He Himself is responsible.

Does, then, this mean that Christianity IS a flawed religion? Or is there a different reading of the Crucifixion feasible? The first step to get out of this predicament is to recall Christ's statements which perturb - or, rather, simply suspend - the circular logic of revenge or punishment destined to reestablish the balance of Justice: instead of "An eye for an eye!", we get "If someone slaps your right cheek, turn to him also your left cheek!" The point here is not stupid masochism, humble acceptance of one's humiliation, but the endeavour to interrupt the circular logic of the reestablished balance of justice. Along the same lines, Christ's sacrifice, with its paradoxical nature (it is the very person against whom we, humans, have sinned, whose trust we have betrayed, that atones and pays the price for our sins), suspends the logic of sin and punishment, of legal or ethical retribution, of "settling the accounts," by bringing it to the point of self-relating. The only way to achieve this suspension, to break the chain of crime and punishment/retribution, is to assume the utter readiness to self-erasure. And LOVE, at its most elementary, is nothing but such a paradoxical gesture of breaking the chain of retribution. So the second step is to focus on the terrifying force of someone accepting in advance and pursuing his annihilation - Christ was not sacrificed by and for another, he sacrificed Himself.

The third step is to focus on the notion of Christ as the mediator between God and humanity: in order for humanity to be restored to God, the mediator must sacrifice himself. In other words, as long as Christ is here, there can be no Holy Ghost, which IS the figure of the reunification of God and humanity. Christ as the mediator between God and humanity is, to put it in today's deconstructionist terms, the condition of possibility AND the condition of impossibility between the two: as mediator, he is at the same time the obstacle which prevents the full mediation of the opposed poles. Or, to put it in the Hegelian terms of the Christian syllogism: there are two "premises" (Christ is God's Son, fully divine, and Christ is man's son, fully human), and to unite the opposed poles, to arrive at the "conclusion" (humanity is fully united with God in the Holy Spirit), the mediator must erase himself out of the picture. Christ's death is not part of the eternal cycle of the divine incarnation and death, in which God repeatedly appears and then withdraws into himself, in his Beyond. As Hegel put it, what dies on the Cross is NOT the human incarnation of the transcendent God, but the God of Beyond Himself. Through Christ's sacrifice, God Himself is no longer beyond, but passes into the Holly Spirit (of the religious community). In other words, if Christ were to be the mediator between two separated entities (God and humanity), his death would mean that there is no longer a mediation, that the two entities are apart again. So, obviously, God must be the mediator in a stronger sense: it's not that, in the Holy Spirit, there is no longer the need for Christ, because the two poles are directly united; for this mediation to be possible, the nature of both poles must be radically changed, i.e. in one and the same movement, they both must undergo a transubstantiation. Christ is, on the one hand, the vanishing mediator/medium through whose death God-Father himself "passes into" the Holy Spirit, and, on the other hand, the vanishing mediator/medium through whose death human community itself "passes into" the new spiritual stage.

These two operations are not separated, they are the two aspects of one and the same movement: the very movement through which God loses the character of a transcendent Beyond and passes into the Holy Spirit (the spirit of the community of believers) EQUALS the movement through which the "fallen" human community is elevated into the Holy Spirit. In other words, it is not that, in the Holy Ghost, men and God communicate directly, without Christ's mediation; it is rather that they directly coincide - God is NOTHING BUT the Holy Spirit of the community of believers. Christ has to die not in order to enable direct communication between God and humanity, but because there is no longer any transcendent God with whom to communicate.

As Boris Groys recently remarked,16 Christ is the first and only fully "ready made God" in the history of religions: he is fully human, and thus indistinguishable from other ordinary man - there is nothing in his bodily appearance that makes Him a special case. So, in the same way Duchamp's pissoir or bicycle are not objects of art because of their inherent qualities, but because of the place their are made to occupy, Christ is not God because of his inherent "divine" qualities, but because, precisely as fully human, he is God's son. For this reason, the properly Christian attitude apropos of Christ's death is not the one of melancholic attachment to his deceased figure, but that of infinite joy: the ultimate horizon of the pagan Wisdom is melancholy - ultimately, everything returns to dust, so one must learn to disattach oneself, to renounce desire -, while if there was ever a religion that is NOT melancholic, it is Christianity, in spite of the false appearance of the melancholic attachment to Christ as the lost object.

Christ's sacrifice is thus in a radical sense MEANINGLESS: not an act of exchange, but a superfluous, excessive, unwarranted gesture aimed at demonstrating His love for us, for the fallen humanity. It is like when, in our daily lives, we want to show someone that we really love him, and we can only do it by accomplishing a superfluous gesture of expenditure. Christ does not "pay" for our sins - as it was made clear by St Paul, it is this very logic of payment, of exchange, that, in a way, IS the sin, and the wager of Christ's act is to show us that the chain of exchanges can be interrupted. Christ redeems humanity not by paying the price for our sins, but by demonstrating us that we can break out of the vitious cycle of sin and payment. Instead of paying for our sins, Christ literally ERASES them, retroactively "undoes" them through love.

The falsity of the sacrifice

What, then, is the sacrifice? What is a priori false about it? At its most elementary, sacrifice relies on the notion of exchange: I offer to the Other something precious to me in order to get back from the Other something even more vital to me (the "primitive" tribes sacrifice animals or even humans so that Gods will repay them by enough rainfall, military victory, etc.) The next, already more intricate level is to conceive sacrifice as a gesture which does not directly aim at some profitable exchange with the Other to whom we sacrifice: its more basic aim is rather to ascertain that there IS some Other out there who is able to reply (or not) to our sacrificial entreaties. Even if the Other does not grant my wish, I can at least be assured that there IS an Other who, maybe, next time will respond differently: the world out there, inclusive of all catastrophes that may befall me, is not a meaningless blind machinery, but a partner in a possible dialogue, so that even a catastrophic outcome is to be read as a meaningful response, not as a kingdom of blind chance... Lacan goes here a step further: the notion of sacrifice usually associated with Lacanian psychoanalysis is that of a gesture that enacts the disavowal of the impotence of the big Other: at its most elementary, the subject does not offer his sacrifice to profit from it himself, but to fill in the lack in the Other, to sustain the appearance of the Other's omnipotence or, at least, consistency. Let us recall Beau Geste, the classic Hollywood adventure melodrama from 1938, in which the elder of the three brothers who live with their benevolent aunt (Gary Cooper), in what seems to be a gesture of excessive ungrateful cruelty, steals the enormously expensive diamond necklace which is the pride of the aunt's family, and disappears with it, knowing that his reputation is ruined, that he will be forever known as the ungracious embezzler of his benefactress - so why did he do it? At the end of the film, we learn that he did it in order to prevent the embarrassing disclosure that the necklace was a fake: unbeknowst to all others, he knew that, some time ago, the aunt had to sell the necklace to a rich maharaja in order to save the family from bankruptcy, and replaced it with a worthless imitation. Just prior to his "theft," he learned that a distant uncle who co-owned the necklace wanted it sold for financial gain; if the necklace were to be sold, the fact that it is a fake would undoubtedly be discovered, so the only way to retain the aunt's and thus the family's honor is to stage its theft... This is the proper deception of the crime of stealing: to occlude the fact that, ultimately, THERE IS NOTHING TO STEAL - this way, the constitutive lack of the Other is concealed, i.e. the illusion is maintained that the Other possessed what was stolen from it. If, in love, one gives what one doesn't possess, in a crime of love, one steals from the beloved Other what the Other doesn't possess... to this alludes the "beau geste" of the film's title.17 And therein resides also the meaning of sacrifice: one sacrifices oneself (one's honor and future in respectful society) to maintain the appearance of the Other's honor, to save the beloved Other from shame.

However, Lacan's rejection of sacrifice as inauthentic locates the falsity of the sacrificial gesture also in another, much more uncanny dimension. Let us take the example of Jeannot Szwarc's Enigma (1981), one of the better variations on what is arguably the basic matrix of cold war spy thrillers with artistic pretensions a la John le Carre (an agent is sent into the cold to accomplish a mission; when, in enemy territory, he is betrayed and captured, it dawns on him that he was sacrificed, i.e. that the failure of his mission was from the very beginning planned by his superiors in order to achieve the true goal of the operation - say, to keep secret the identity of the true mole of the West in the KGB apparatus...). Enigma tells the story of a dissident journalist-turned-spy who emigrated to the West and is then recruited by the CIA and sent to East Germany to get hold of a scrambling/descrambling computer chip whose possession enables the owner to read all communications between KGB headquarters and its outposts. However, small signs tell the spy that there is something wrong with his mission, i.e. that East Germans and Russians were already in advance informed about his arrival - so what is going on? Is it that the Communists have a mole in the CIA headquarters who informed them of this secret mission? As we learn towards the film's end, the solution is much more ingenious: the CIA already possesses the scrambling chip, but, unfortunately, Russians suspect this fact, so they temporarily stopped using this computer network for their secret communications. The true aim of the operation was the attempt by the CIA to convince the Russians that they do not possess the chip: they sent an agent to get it and, at the same time, deliberately let the Russians know that there is an operation going on to get the chip; of course, the CIA counts on the fact that the Russians will arrest the agent. The ultimate result will thus be that, by successfully preventing the mission, the Russians will be convinced that the Americans do not possess it and that it is therefore safe to use this communication link... The tragic aspect of the story, of course, is that the mission's failure is taken into account: the CIA wants the mission to fail, i.e. the poor dissident agent is sacrificed in advance for the higher goal of convincing the opponent that one doesn't possess his secret. The strategy is here to stage a search operation in order to convince the Other (the enemy) that one does not already possess what one is looking for - in short, one feigns a lack, a want, in order to conceal from the Other that one already possesses the agalma, the Other's innermost secret. Is this structure not somehow connected with the basic paradox of symbolic castration as constitutive of desire, in which the object has to be lost in order to be regained on the inverse ladder of desire regulated by the Law? Symbolic castration is usually defined as the loss of something that one never possessed, i.e. the object-cause of desire is an object which emerges through the very gesture of its loss/withdrawal; however, what we encounter here, in the case of Enigma, is the obverse structure of feigning a loss. Insofar as the Other of the symbolic Law prohibits jouissance, the only way for the subject to enjoy is to feign that he lacks the object that provides jouissance, i.e. to conceal from the Other's gaze its possession by way of staging the spectacle of the desperate search for it. This also casts a new light on the topic of sacrifice: one sacrifices not in order to get something from the Other, but in order to dupe the Other, in order to convince him/it that one is still missing something, i.e. jouissance. This is why obsessionals experience the compulsion repeatedly to accomplish their compulsive rituals of sacrifice - in order to disavow their jouissance in the eyes of the Other. And does, at a different level, the same not hold for the so-called "woman's sacrifice," for the woman adopting the role of remaining in shadow and sacrificing herself for her husband or family? Is this sacrifice not also false in the sense of serving to dupe the Other, of convincing it that, through the sacrifice, the woman is effectively desperately craving to obtain something that she lacks? In this precise sense, sacrifice and castration are to be opposed: far from involving the voluntary acceptance of castration, sacrifice is the most refined way of disavowing it, i.e. of acting as if one effectively possesses the hidden treasure that makes me a worthy object of love...18

In his unpublished Seminar Angoisse (1962/63, lesson of December 5 1962), Lacan emphasizes the way the hysteric's anxiety relates to the fundamental lack in the Other which makes the Other inconsistent/barred: a hysteric perceives the lack in the Other, its impotence, inconsistency, fake, but he is not ready to sacrifice the part of himself that would complete the Other, fill in its lack - this refusal to sacrifice sustains the hysteric's eternal complaint that the Other will somehow manipulate and exploit him, use him, deprive him of his most precious possession... More precisely, this does not mean that the hysteric disavows his castration: the hysteric (neurotic) does not hold back from his castration (he is not a psychotic or a pervert, i.e. he fully accepts his castration); he merely does not want to "functionalize" it, to put it in the service of the Other, i.e. what he holds back from is "making his castration into what the Other is lacking, that is to say, into something positive that is the guarantee of this function of the Other." (In contrast to the hysteric, the pervert readily assumes this role of sacrificing himself, i.e. of serving as the object-instrument that fills in the Other's lack - as Lacan puts it, the pervert "offers himself loyally to the Other's jouissance".) The falsity of sacrifice resides in its underlying presupposition, which is that I effectively possess, hold in me, the precious ingredient coveted by the Other and promising to fill in its lack. On a closer view, of course, the hysteric's refusal appears in all its ambiguity: I refuse to sacrifice the agalma in me BECAUSE THERE IS NOTHING TO SACRIFICE, because I am unable to fill in your lack.19

The feminine renunciation

One should always bear in mind that, for Lacan, the ultimate aim of psychoanalysis is not to enable the subject to assume the necessary sacrifice (to "accept symbolic castration," to renounce immature narcissistic attachments, etc.), but to resist the terrible attraction of sacrifice - attraction which, of course, is none other than that of superego. Sacrifice is ultimately the gesture by means of which we aim at compensating the guilt imposed by the impossible superego injunction (the "obscure gods" evoked by Lacan are another name for the superego). It is therefore all the more crucial not to confuse the logic of "irrational" sacrifice aimed at redeeming or saving the Other (or at deceiving him, which ultimately amounts to the same) with another type of renounciation paradigmatic of the feminine heroines in the modern age literature - a tradition whose exemplary cases are those of Princess de Clèves and Isabel Archer. In Madame de Lafayette's The Princesse de Clèves, the answer to the enigma "Why, after her husband's death, doesn't the Princess marry the Duke of Nemours, although they are both passionately in love with each other, and there are no legal or moral obstacles to it?" is double. First, the memory of her good and loving husband who died because of her love for the Duke, i.e. who was not able to withstand the torment of jealousy when he thought that his wife and the Duke have spent two nights together: the only way, for her, not to betray her husband's memory is to avoid any liaison with the Duke. However, as she openly admits to the Duke in the long traumatic conversation which concludes the novel, this reason would not be in itself sufficient and strong enough if it were not sustained by another fear and apprehension, by the awareness of the passing nature of the male love:

"What I feel I owe to the memory of M. de Clèves would be weak if it were not supported by the cause of my own peace of mind, and the arguments in favour of that must be sustained by those of duty."20

She is well aware that the Duke's love for her was so enduring and firm because it did not find a quick gratification, i.e. because the obstacles to it were insurmountable; if they were to marry, his love would probably pass, he would be seduced by other women, and the thought of these future torments is unbearable to her. So, precisely in order to maintain the absolute and eternal character of their love, they must remain separated and thus avoid the "way of all flesh," the degradation which comes with time. After her desperate cry "Why has fate put such an insurmountable barrier between us?", the Duke answers with a reproach: "There is no barrier, Madame. You alone stand in the way of my happiness; you alone are subjecting yourself to a law, to which neither morality nor reason can subject you." To that she answers: "It is true that I am sacrificing much to an idea of duty that exists only in my mind."21 We have here the opposition between the simple external obstacles which thwart our desires and the internal, inherent obstacle constitutive of desire as such, or, in Lacanese, between the law qua external regulation of our needs and the Law which is the inherent obverse, the constituent of, and thus ultimately identical to desire itself. - Crucial is here the elementary structure of "overdetermination," i.e. the fact that there are two reasons the Princess obeys in her decision not to marry her love: the first (moral) reason can only prevail insofar as it is supported by the second reason (of "inner peace," of avoiding the torments which lie ahead). In the antagonistic tension between jouissance and pleasure, the symbolic Law is on the side of the pleasure-principle, it functions as a barrier against the traumatic encounters of the Real which would disturb the precarious balance of pleasure. In this precise sense, Lacan claims that the symbolic Law only elevates into a prohibition the quasi-natural obstacle to the full satisfaction of desire:

"/.../ it is not the Law itself that bars the subject's access to jouissance - rather it creates out of an almost natural barrier a barred subject. For it is pleasure that sets the limits on jouissance, pleasure as that which binds incoherent life together."22

In the case of the unfortunate Princess de Clèves, this predominance of the pleasure-principle is clearly signalled by her reference to the concern for her "inner peace" as the true reason for her rejection to marry the Duke: she prefers "inner peace," i.e. the life of balance, of homeostasis, to the painful turmoil of the passionate love; the injunction which prevents her from marrying the Duke on behalf of the memory of her deceased husband elevated this "natural barrier" of pleasure-principle into a moral prohibition. This predicament of the Princesse de Clèves also enables us to grasp Lacan's proposition according to which "desire is a defence, a prohibition against going beyond a certain limit in jouissance"23: the prohibition (to marry the Duke) which sustains her desire for him and eternalizes it, elevating it into an absolute, is a defence against the painful turmoil of excessive jouissance of the consummated relationship with him. The true Law/Prohibition is thus not imposed "by virtue and reason," i.e. by an agency external to itself, but by desire itself - Law IS desire.

Another way to arrive at the same conclusion is to take into account the fact that, in a fictional narrative, the repressed truth is as a rule articulated in the guise of a "story within a story", as in Goethe's Elective Affinities, where the proper ethical attitude of "not compromising one's desire," is articulated in the story about two youthful lovers from a small village, told by a visitor to the mansion. In The Princesse de Clèves, this truth is articulated in the guise of the story narrated to Princess de Cleve by her husband: his best friend Sancerre was first devastated by the sudden death of Madame de Tournon, his great love. However, an even worse experience awaits him when, after mourning the idealized Madame, he suddenly discovers that she was unfaithful to him in an utmost calculating way. This tragic predicament, this "second death," the death of the (lost) ideal itself, is what the unfortunate Princess wants to avoid. In short, her predicament is that of a forced choice: if she renounces marrying the Duke, she will at least gain and retain him "in eternity" (Kierkegaard) as her only and true love; if she marries him, she will sooner or later loose both, his bodily proximity as well as his eternal passionate attachment to her.

However, these two reasons for not marrying her love do not cover the entire field. One is tempted to claim that the Princess enumerates them in order to conceal the third, perhaps the crucial one: the jouissance, the satisfaction brought about by the very act of renunciation, of maintaining the distance towards the beloved object. This paradoxical jouissance characterizes the movement of drive as that which finds satisfaction in circulating around the object and repeatedly missing it. The three reasons thus refer to the triad of ISR: the symbolic moral prohibition, the imaginary concern for the balance of pleasures, the real of drive. - Along these same lines, one should interpret the other great mysterious feminine "No!", that of Isabel Archer at the end of Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady: why doesn't Isabel leave Osmond, although she definitely doesn't love him and is fully aware of his manipulations? The reason is not the moral pressure exerted on her by the notion of what is expected of a woman in her position - Isabel has sufficiently proven that, when she wants, she is quite willing to override conventions: "Isabel stays because of her commitment to the bond of her word, and she stays because she is unwilling to abandon what she still sees as a decision made out of her sense of independence."24 In short, as Lacan put it apropos of Sygne de Coufontaine in Claudel's The Hostage, Isabel is also "the hostage of the word." So it is wrong to interpret this act as a sacrifice bearing witness to the proverbial "feminine masochism": although Isabel was obviously manipulated into marrying Osmond, her act was her own, and to leave Osmond would simply equal depriving herself of her autonomy.25 While men sacrifice themselves for a Thing (country, freedom, honor), only women are able bto sacrifice themselves for nothing. (Or: men are moral, while only women are properly ethical.) And it is our contention that this "empty" sacrifice is the Christian gesture par excellence: it is only against the background of this empty gesture that one can begin to appreciate the uniqueness of the figure of Christ.


1 I am, of course, referring here to Hamlet's Mill, the notorious New Age classic of Giorgio de Santillana and Hertha von Dechend (Boston: David R. Godine Publisher 1977).
2 Jacques Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," in Literature and Psychoanalysis, edited by Shoshana Felman, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press 1982, p. 40. In defense of Marx, one might add that this "neglect" is not so much the mistake of Marx, but of the capitalist reality itself, i.e. of the "accomodations worked out by modern society between use values and exchange values."
3 For this entire subchapter, I am deeply indebted to conversations with Mladen Dolar, who developed these notions much further, encompassing also the genesis of the anti-Semitic figure of the Jew from these paradoxes of the Miser.
4 Hegel's Science of Logic, London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd. 1969, p. 431.
5 Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1972, p. 99.
6 Jacques Lacan, "Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet," p. 15.
7 This aria is to be read as part of the triangle, together with the other two great self-presentations, "Largo al factotum" and "La calumnia."
8 I develop here another aspect of the capitalist superego, whose logic is more fully deployed in Chapter 3 of Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, London: Verso 2000.
9 Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis, New York: Norton 1979, p. 253.
10 Today's attention to the drug dependence as the ultimate danger to the social edifice can only be properly understood against the background of the predominant subjective economy of consumption as the form of appearance of thrift: in previous epochs, the consumption of drugs was simply one among the half-concealed social practices, practiced by real (de Quincey, Baudelaire) and fictional (Sherlock Holmes) characters.
11 As to the materialist reading of this notion, see Chapter 11-15 of The Fragile Absolute.
12 Gerald O'Collins, Christology, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995, p. 286-287.
13 I rely here on Alister E. McGrath, An Introduction to Christianity, Oxford: Blackwell 1997, p. 138-139.
14 Quoted from op.cit., p. 141.
15 Quoted from op.cit., p. 141-142.
16 Private conversation, October 1999.
17 The interest of Beau Geste resides also in the fantasmatic opening scene - the mysterious desert fortress in which there is no living person, only dead soldiers placed on its walls, a true desert counterpart to the spectre of the ship floating around without any crew. Towards its end, Beau Geste nicely presents the same sequence from within the fortress, i.e. it depicts how this haunting image of the fortress with dead soldiers was generated. - Another interesting aspect is the opposition of the two communities: the warm English upper class family home dominated by a Woman versus the all male Foreign Legion community dominated by the fascinating figure of the sadistic, but militarily very efficient Russian Sergeant Markoff.
18 The mention of le Carre is far from accidental here: in his great (early) spy novels, he repeatedly stages the same fundamental scenario of the interconnection of love and betrayal, i.e. of how, far from the two terms being simply opposed, betraying someone serves as the ultimate proof of loving him/her. Is betrayal for the sake of love not the ultimate form of sacrifice?
19 This also enables us to answer Dominick la Capra's reproach according to which, the Lacanian notion of lack conflates two levels that have to be kept apart: the purely formal "ontological" lack constitutive of the symbolic order as such, and the particular traumatic experiences (exemplarily: holocaust) which could also NOT have occurred - particular historical catastrophes like the holocaust thus seem to be "legitimized" as directly grounded in the fundamental trauma that pertains to the very human existence. (See Dominick la Capra, "Trauma, Absence, Loss," Critical Inquiry, Volume 25, Number 4 (Summer 1999), p. 696-727.) Against this misunderstanding, one should emphasize that the quasi-transcendental lack and particular traumas are linked in a negative way: far from being just the last link in the continuous chain of traumatic encounters that reaches back to the "symbolic castration," catastrophes like the holocaust are contingent (and, as such, avoidable) events which occur as the final result of the endeavours to OBFUSCATE the quasi-transcendental constitutive lack.
20 Madame de Lafayette, The Princesse de Clèves, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1978, p. 170.
21 Ibid.
22 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, New York: Norton 1977, p. 319.
23 Lacan, op.cit., p. 322.
24. Regina Barecca, Introduction to Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady, New York: Signet Classic 1995, p. xiii.
25. The first to accomplish a homologous gesture was Medea as anti-Antigone: she first kills her brother (her closest family relative), thus cutting off her roots radically, rendering impossible any return, putting all her bets on the marriage with Jason; after betraying everyone close to her FOR Jason and then being betrayed BY Jason himself, there is nothing left to her, she finds herself in the void - the void of the self-relating negativity, of the "negation of negation," that is subjectivity itself. So it's time to reassert Medea against Antigone: Medea or Antigone, that's the ultimate choice today. In other words, how are we to fight power? Through the fidelity to the old organic Mores threatened by Power, or by out-violencing Power itself? Two versions of femininity: Antigone can still be read as standing for the particular family roots against the universality of the public space of State Power; Medea, on the contrary, out-universalizes universal Power itself.


back up to be continued...

Slavoj Zizek's Bibliography

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