Living death in medieval French and English literature - Jane Gilbert 2011
Introduction: living death
This book is about the ways in which certain medieval literary texts use death, dying and the dead to think about problems relating to life — problems political, social, ethical, philosophical or existential. More specifically, it is about the dynamic interface between life and death and about figures caught at that interface, hence ’living death’. There are ghosts and revenants who, although dead, actively speak and will, disturbing the properly living. And there are those who while alive exist under a deathly shadow that forecloses their engagement with life and isolates them from their fellows. Vampires, ghosts and zombies are currently fashionable in popular culture; in literary criticism, tropes of the interstitial, the intermediary or the ’third’ are in vogue. What I have attempted to do in this book is to use some of the latter — in particular, Lacan's notion of l'entre-deux-morts — to think through some medieval examples of phenomena related to the former: dead who return to place demands on the living; living who foresee, organize or desire their own deaths.
Life and death
Death, dying and the dead, as Lévi-Strauss might have said, are good to think with. But surely this assertion is paradoxical? The modern philosophical tradition with which I engage in this book is shaped by Epicurus’ affirmation that death ’is nothing to us; since, when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist’.1 Epicurus’ rhetorical opposition between life and death is reflected in modern rejections of personal immortality in an afterlife; however, his insistence on death's nothingness for the living is transformed. In a tradition borne most influentially by Hegel and Heidegger, death has become the negative which constitutes humanity as such, distinguishing it from animals on one side and from immortals on the other.2 Awareness of mortality, of finitude, makes possible that freedom from compulsion which is the highest human capacity. Modern life, in Heidegger's phrase, is ’being towards death’ where the simple fact that death is nothing to us frees me ’for possibilities before death, my own possibilities, not everyday trivia or the menu offered to me by the They’; this freedom compels me to make my own meaning.3
In the Middle Ages, things were different. As regards the dead, first of all. Patrick Geary asks us to imagine a ’movement in support of the dead's rights’ parallel to those which today demand ’women's rights, children's rights, minorities’ rights, and even animal rights’.4 Dying is seen as ceasing to be one kind of person and becoming another, significantly altering but by no means destroying social roles and relations. The medieval dead and living had reciprocal obligations and complementary spheres of activity as members of a greater community.5 Geary relates how the deceased Stephen of Grammont was approached when he failed in his duty to protect the tranquility of his monastery: ’Miracles worked at [Stephen's] tomb resulted in a pilgrimage that threatened the peace and isolation of the community. The prior approached his tomb and solemnly commanded him to cease his miracles, or else, he was told, his body would be disinterred and cast into the nearby river.’6 Saints formed a special case in several ways, but the ordinary dead also retained a social role safeguarding the communities and places in which they found themselves and shielding those who were special to them. These might be the communities, places and people they knew when alive, or equally those among whom they found themselves when dead. In return, the living owed them reverence, commemoration and the prayers which might advance their souls through purgatorial pains.
Most dead persons remained quietly in their place. Those who rose from the grave in dreams, visions, apparitions or even vivid memories did so to intervene in the existence of the living and in this sense were troubled and troublesome even where their intervention was appreciated, and much more so when not. Schmitt relates the case of the knight's son who inherits his dead father's profits from usury. One night the deceased comes calling to reclaim his goods. Since the son refuses to open the door, the spirit eventually goes away, leaving behind him a gift of fish. Come the dawn, the young man finds instead toads and snakes, ’hellish food cooked in the sulphurous fire’ according to Caesarius of Heisterbach, who recounts this exemplum. Schmitt comments:
The intense ambivalence of these gifts and of this revenant who offers, in the guise of fish, hell's deadly fare — symbol of the ill-gotten inheritance — equals the son's ambivalence towards his father. Only too happy to accept the inheritance, he does not want to know its origin, just as he refuses to recognize his father and open the door to him. The repressed returns in the figure of the father, whose hammering on the door expresses metaphorically — even the exemplum's vocabulary recalls it (fortiter pulsans) — Freud's ’repetition compulsion’, so characteristic of ghost stories.7
The obvious enforcing of social and ethical order in this tale does not prevent the dead man from appearing unusual and disturbing; even when playing their proper role by warning or advising, revenants depart from the norm for death. Others are deliberately obstreperous and obstructive. Welcome or unwelcome, the dead possess authority, agency and urgency; they threaten the living, making explicit or implicit demands or heralding imminent demise. Death in this perspective, then, is very much something to medieval people.
Relations between life and death were also different in the Middle Ages, and most intimate in Christianity. ’You have filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchres’, Julian the Apostate complained, protesting against such Christian practices as the cult of bodily relics and the location of burial spaces within inhabited areas.8 From the earliest period onwards, Christian writings play on the opposition between ’life’ and ’death’ in such a way as to make the two share quarters. Innocent III's influential De miseria condicionis humane [De contemptu mundi] illustrates the characteristic ideas and the biblically grounded rhetoric that mingles while it divides:
We are therefore always dying while we live, and we only stop dying at such time as we stop living. It is better to die for life than to live for death, because mortal life is nothing but a living death. Solomon: ’I praised the dead rather than the living, and I judged him happier in both ways that is not yet born.’9
Life in the body is a long process of dying that begins with conception and ends only with death's consummation. Metaphorical uses of the terms as well as massive emphasis on the afterlife add to the complexity.10 Earthly life is not only a shadow of the life to come, it is very much more deathly than the post-mortem condition enjoyed by the blessed. In an extremist but recurrent Christian tradition championed by St Paul, corporeal and spiritual life are placed in inverse relation: ’God's ecstasy-in-Incarnation, his leaping down from heaven, demonstrates once and for all that self-preservation leads to death, while self-oblation leads to eternal life.’11 In this way of thinking, life in the material body is an ethical concept:
The gospel message of life through self-oblation and sacrificial death cuts clean through the assumptions of the present age. The world lives by the law of the flesh and strives wherever possible to consolidate self. The world believes that power and glory come through calculating self-preservation. The world can make no sense of the word of the cross, of Christ-wisdom-crucified, and so regards it as ’insanity’ (mría, 1 Cor. 1: 18ff.).12
By aiming to minimize as far as possible the impulses of the flesh and the importance of its various conditions, including its demise, the ascetic attempts to die to sin and to the flesh and thus to actualize the life of the spirit on earth.
Conversely, pursuing the life of the flesh leads to, and indeed constitutes, the death of the soul. The damned are condemned to what is sometimes referred to as a ’second death’ (the phrase derives from St John's Apocalypse) whose magnitude dwarfs that undergone on earth (and note that the first death is envisaged for most Christians as a physically painful and spiritually trying experience).13 Although in early Christianity the second death which was the fate of non-Christians may arguably have been envisaged as simple ceasing to be, by the period with which I am concerned damnation, for Christians and others, had become an eternity of torment actively suffered by a conscious, sentient being whose awareness formed an essential element of his torture. From this perspective there is no final cessation of or for the spirit, hence in one important sense no death. Spiritual ’death’ is rather a kind of negative life, characterized by duration, existence, consciousness and intensity.14 Death is thus everything to us.
If damnation may be taken to be an important notion in the minds of medieval people, it by no means dominates medieval literature in French and English. Issues of salvation, and the extremist ideology according to which worldly life equates to spiritual death, govern only one of the texts I foreground, the Middle English Pearl, and even there it is put into question. Among the other texts I discuss, secular concerns predominate in relation to mortality and immortality, questions of fame, influence and potency in this world. This is a function not only of my own literary preferences but in part also of ideas of what constitutes ’literature’; modern literary studies often pays scant attention to the vast body of medieval theological, devotional or simply pious writing. (I am not the critic to redress this imbalance, which is more marked in French than in English studies, in part due to the nature of the extant material.) On the other hand, while the latter massively outnumber those works that qualify today as literary, it cannot claim to define medieval culture as a whole. The writers whose works are discussed in this book inevitably belong to educated cultural elites (which may coincide with a socially marginal position, as famously in Villon's case, or to a much lesser degree in the self-presentations of Chaucer or the Pearl-poet; marginality is a feature of late medieval poetics). Their audiences, insofar as we can recover information about them, are more diverse, and usually not identical socially or culturally to the writers, even where there is substantial crossover. But it is evident that both writers and audiences availed themselves of a variety of discourses. The names by which medievalists refer to these discourses depend on the contexts within which they have come to critical attention: genres such as romance, epic or fabliau; social milieux such as courtly, chivalric, clerical or vulgar; intellectual distinctions such as learned or popular; moral attitudes such as pious, secular or irreverent. Most medieval poets for whom we can identify an oeuvre show (display, even) a range of formal, rhetorical and ideological modes. Those who are sometimes pious are not always, only or uniformly pious. A single writer may use themes relating to death in ways which imply quite divergent views on the philosophical, social or literary issues involved. While numerous aspects of medieval thinking in relation to death, dying and the dead are foreign to modern Western subjects, many others are familiar, including the ability to hold or at least express contradictory opinions on those subjects. In this book I have not attempted a cultural history of the medieval ’way of death’;15 my field is literary criticism, my subject the ways in which certain topoi are exploited in particular literary texts.
Fine recent work has been done on the themes of death, suicide and sacrifice in medieval literature; however, my subject is different.16 I have selected my texts to fulfil a number of criteria. Each foregrounds the shifting frontier between life and death, and shows human subjects and cultural systems confronting that problematic division. All are particularly embedded in medieval networks of reading and writing. All are notably high quality; almost all enjoy canonical status today. Widely studied and researched, they influence modern academic perceptions of medieval literary norms and therefore provide excellent places from which to re-examine such perceptions. One of my aims has been to investigate whether and how these important French and English literary works can be said to be normative.17 I argue that the works analysed in this book deploy the ideas of death's presence in life and life's in death in such a way as to place in suspension or abeyance certain expectations, rules and ideals of what they represent as everyday life. These norms are thereby extracted from the ideological or customary contexts which give them meaning, force and vigour, to be examined from new and disorienting perspectives. It is therefore important to appreciate that the figures and situations through which this examination takes place are not themselves in conflict with normal expectations; the literary texts work to make cultures strange to themselves by highlighting problematic aspects of normal practice, whether ’normal’ is taken to mean banal or ideal. The living dead present an ethical challenge to the ordinarily living.
I have sought meaningful representation rather than exhaustive coverage. The first three chapters, which focus on masculinity, encompass works from different genres and periods in the long development of medieval literature in French, from early chanson de geste (the Chanson de Roland) through mid-period Arthurian prose romance (the non-cyclic prose Lancelot do Lac) to late ballades by Deschamps and Villon, in the latter's case set into a satirical mock-will. In English I have concentrated on the flowering of high literary discourse under Richard II. The final two chapters develop the analysis of idealized femininity begun in relation to Villon's ladies, in Middle English poems mourning dead females: Pearl, read in relation to Middle French marguerite poetry in Chapter 4; Chaucer's Book of the Duchess and Prologue to the Legend of Good Women in Chapter 5. In discussing these English-language texts in the context of French-language ones I place them in one proper context. Such Ricardian works belong to a period and milieu in which English literature enjoyed an especially close and well-documented association with French, exemplified here by the use of French models and the adaptation of continental poetic practices and projects to insular media.18 These poems therefore form a privileged site for comparative study.
Central to my project is the distinction between corporeal death and what may be called ’symbolic’ death, by which I mean the community's formal recognition of a person as dead. Symbolic death may follow bodily death, as in the funeral or the memorial ceremony. Symbolic may also precede corporeal death, as when such phenomena as religious commitment or mental illness make a person ’dead to the world’.19 A different understanding of non-corporeal death might be termed ’subjective’, referring to subjects’ sense of being set on an inevitable course towards death, and attending to the ways in which that awareness affects their engagement with life. Symbolic and subjective deaths refer respectively to collective and individual aspects of human experience; although I would not wish to lose sight of the distinction completely, these two aspects interpenetrate. All death is importantly subjective until formally ratified by the collective (though it may be objective enough in the criteria it relies on to determine the extinction of life). Similarly, a particular subject's sense of being effectively already dead (’effectively’ invites exploration) necessarily refers to the wider social order with its norms of life and death — what characterizes life and death, how they are to be recognized, accessed and organized.
The condition of those whose subjective or symbolic deaths seem to have come adrift from bodily death, I shall term entre-deux-morts or ’between-two-deaths’: ’mort empiétant sur le domaine de la vie, vie empiétant sur la mort’ (’death encroaching on the domain of life, life encroaching on death’, my translation).20 These much-discussed expressions, drawn from psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan's Seminar VII of 1959—60 on the ethics of psychoanalysis, have been widely used in modern literary studies where they are understood in varied ways, therefore any use requires explication and particularization. Before embarking on a preliminary overview, I emphasize that my use of Lacan does not entail rigorously Lacanian analyses of the medieval texts, for two reasons. In the first place, I treat Seminar VII here not as the exposition of a system but as a complex text: fragmentary, teasing, elusive, its constituent parts suggesting divergent, sometimes contradictory directions of inquiry. My chapters take this heterogeneous text as a starting point in order to develop different directions in relation to the medieval material. If my theoretical expositions are sometimes pedagogical in tone, it is not because I wish to restrict my readers’ responses but rather, by clarifying the ideas, assumptions and logical steps that guide my arguments, to invite critical engagement with those arguments. In the second place, I explore alternative explanations of similar phenomena, with a view to contextualizing and thus reconceptualizing Lacan's account (the distinction between ’symbolic’ and ’subjective’ death is not Lacanian, for instance). Different chapters highlight different aspects of and approaches to these phenomena, dialoguing around their common theme of death's overlap with life and its ethical and political effects. I have drawn in my analyses on Freudian psychoanalysis for its accounts of the death drive, mourning and repetition; on (post)structuralist phenomenology and rhetorical theory for their challenges to human subjectivity; on gender studies and queer theory for their critiques of the famously contentious psychoanalytical accounts of gender and sexuality; and on anthropological discussions of burial and memorialization practices in different cultures. Each chapter can be read independently, but the approaches and questions treated in any one chapter will enrich those discussed in others, material from Lacan's Seminar VII providing both continuity and variety.
Unlike many theoretical medievalists, I do not justify my practice by appealing to continuities between medieval and modern culture; though it never fails to surprise me how many points of contact there are. It not infrequently seems, to adapt Slavoj Žižek's jeu d'esprit, that medieval writers have read Lacan; conversely Lacan, like some other thinkers, at times appears to be more in sympathy with medieval writers than with modern readers. This enjoyable illusion is not the basis of my method, however. I subscribe to the principle of ethnographic study according to which the explanatory model employed in the analysis should not be internal to the culture being analysed. Deploying modern critical theory in juxtaposition with medieval texts avoids the circularity risked by, for instance, reading in the light of Lacan's writings modern writers themselves influenced by having read those writings. The model of the medievalist as anthropologist has been influentially disputed, embraced by R. Howard Bloch and rejected by Sarah Kay, who points out that the past is not, in fact, a foreign country and cannot be visited by participant-observers.21 I defend the model on three counts. In the first place, the impossibility of inhabiting the medieval world fully is a positive condition of medievalist study insofar as it aids the critical distance essential to insightful analysis. In the second, although many ethnographers participate in the living cultures they study in a way strictly impossible to modern literary medievalists, we can, by our practices of reading and research, aim to enter sympathetically and imaginatively into the ethos of the literary works we read. The imaginary is a valid heuristic tool and dimension of knowledge, though naturally scholarly observation and analysis also require drawing on documented external sources. Finally, an equally vital element in the ethnographic investigative model is the principle that investigators should not only refer to explanatory terms familiar from their own cultures, but should adapt those and formulate new ones as the material requires; thus the encounter between cultures, entre-deux, ideally generates both the analysis and its terms, and provides a new perspective on the analyst's original as well as target culture.22 This goal of conceptual innovation, its purpose to discover more about medieval cultures than can be supplied by the terms within which modern cultures predominantly think about themselves or about more familiar others, is shared by many medievalists of both ’theoretical’ and ’non-theoretical’ persuasions. In pursuit of this innovation, critical theory (which may more helpfully be considered philosophy employed in the practical context of the study of literary and other cultural artefacts) stimulates by its bold questioning of modern mindsets and by the creative tensions which arise from placing its determined modernity and avant-gardism into dynamic interaction with a serious effort to imagine and to inquire into the past. My use of theory, therefore, aims to open up new questions, to find new angles on old ones, and to test contemporary ideas against other kinds of evidence.
Death and the work of art
For Lacan, as for many thinkers influential in recent times, death is the negation of existence. It is one manifestation of what he calls the Real: those aspects of human life that cannot be mastered because they defy symbolization (which may be glossed as the process of translation into one of the many artificial patterned and structured communicative forms which make up human reality).23 Lacan, again like others, does not consider death's nothingness as one among a number of historical and philosophical responses to a perennial existential crisis facing human beings but as an ontological reality — the crisis itself.
Although death in its Real dimension can never be tamed (pace Ariès, whose influential cultural history The Hour of Our Death entitles its opening, medieval chapter, ’The Tame Death’), this does not mean that it has no impact on human life. On the contrary, the unassimilable trauma of the Real stimulates endless responses, which show the futility of efforts to tame it. Thus the Real lies at the heart of human culture, even though that culture by definition excludes it. Lacan distinguishes two other registers within cultural and psychic experience: the imaginary and the symbolic. However distinct in theory, these registers nevertheless intertwine in complex ways. Any attempt to represent death figuratively involves the imaginary, ’the realm of image and imagination, deception and lure’, whose ’principal illusions…are those of wholeness, synthesis autonomy, duality and, above all, similarity’.24 Visual examples can include the transi or decaying corpse of late medieval tomb-sculpture; the skeleton representing death or the dead person; the soul going to heaven or hell, and indeed the characteristic rewards and punishments of the afterlife. Dying may be conceived, under its imaginary aspect, as reunion and return, as the recovery of loss and the end of lack, as ultimate fulfilment and peace. Hence the blessed expect repose in Abraham's bosom and everlasting bliss in the presence of the Lord. For the wicked, death brings a painful and humiliating dismantling: dismemberment, impalement, suffocating, burning, violation, explosion, turbulent and uncontrolled movement — a permanent process of dying which never achieves its final denouement (this providing its principal distinction from purgatorial regimes).25 Since the symbolic aspect relates to social, political, cultural and linguistic order as systems abstracted from content or actual realization (which belong to the imaginary), symbolic death concerns whether or not someone is considered to exist as a person. There is a potential confusion here. On the one hand, ’symbolic death’ can refer to the rites by which a person moves from the society of the living to that of the dead, a process which keeps that person within society's remit. Thus medieval anchorites, officially dead to secular society, were empowered by their unworldly position to exercise in some cases considerable political influence.26 Even marginal categories such as the mad or the leprous — made up of subjects incapable of fulfilling their proper social roles — have a place: as to receive charity or to remind the more fortunate to be humble; or to criticize and thus improve the social order, like the unquiet dead. On the other hand, there is a more radical sense, in which death under its symbolic aspect appears as non-personhood, manifested either by social placelessness (the Wandering Jew, the Flying Dutchman) or conversely by too-perfect assimilation of, or into, the symbolic order. Fantasy figures corresponding to this latter condition include the living doll, the zombie, and figures of possession or hollowness, the apparently human shell animated by a non-human, automatic force. Metaphors rather than figurations of death, these figures refer to the symbolic, structural aspects of death (though clearly they also have imaginary aspects).
If death in its Real aspect resists symbolization absolutely, nevertheless Lacan argues that imaginary and symbolic responses to death can conjure up a sense of the Real. He considers this to be the special vocation of art, explaining via an elaboration of that classic metaphor of creation and paternity, the pot.27 Considered from one point of view, a pot is a container for some substance, such as water, and is therefore logically secondary to the thing it contains. Viewed in another perspective, however, a pot gives shape to the emptiness within it prior to any filling. Thanks to the pot — and beyond it, to the potter — this emptiness acquires a kind of presence, coming into conceptual being as a void; which then cries out to be filled. We may choose to fill it with God the Potter or with some other transcendent stabilizer of meaning; however, for Lacan (as for many other thinkers) the mystery is final. The void thus produced is not the Real, but is a response to and place-holder for it, and genuinely if inadequately communicates a sense of its alterity. Thus the void dwarfs the artefact that projects it. Lacan insists on the heroism of human making: when the potter creates the pot he introduces into the world a no-thing (the void) which is man-made yet beyond making, indicative of the threatening, creative emptiness of the cosmos, and dwarfs into insignificance any human effort within that vast context. Our response to this au-delà (’beyond’) will be one of awe and horror, in various measures. Lacan emphasizes that such images as the pot (both as object and as analogy) are ontologically entirely distinct from the Real, yet insists equally that the contact between them is a valid one. By means of this special artistry, which lies as much in the beholder's response as in the artisan's craft, a pressure point is set up such that the Real becomes almost — but never quite — accessible to signification. Any product in which this pressure can be felt renders ’ce qui du réel pâtit du signifiant’ (’that which in the [R]eal suffers from the signifier’).28 In an endless dialectic of revelation and concealment, art takes away with one hand what it gives with the other, since each work of the sort that interests Lacan can gesture towards the Real which dissipates the imaginary only by itself privileging an image.
The purpose of art, according to Lacan, is therefore to ’projeter une réalité qui n'est point celle de l'objet représenté’ (’to project a reality that is not that of the object represented’).29 This alternative reality is the Real, which makes us question the ontological status of the reality within which the object ordinarily has meaning for us. Lacan focuses on figurative but non-realistic art forms which, by treating the objects represented in an obviously artificial manner, allow us to see beyond the imaginary shapes and symbolic patterns within which we live. His major themes are anamorphosis in early modern painting, courtly love in the medieval lyric, and Sophoclean tragedy, principally Antigone; the expression l'entre-deux-morts occurs in this last context.
Lacan defines anamorphosis by the experience of becoming legible: ’c'est tout espèce de construction faite de telle sorte que, par transposition optique, une certaine forme qui n'est pas perceptible au premier abord se rassemble en une image lisible’ (’any kind of construction that is made in such a way that by means of an optical transposition, a certain form that wasn't perceptible at first sight transforms itself into a readable image’).30 This shift from unintelligible to intelligible image has a purpose : ’il s'agit, d'une façon analogique, ou anamorphique, de réindiquer que ce que nous cherchons dans l'illusion est quelque chose où l'illusion elle-même se transcende en quelque sorte, se détruit, en montrant qu'elle n'est là qu'en tant que signifiante’ (’it is a matter of indicating anew, through an analogy or an anamorphosis, that what we seek from the illusion is something in which the illusion itself somehow transcends itself, self-destructs, showing that it is there only as a sign-post’, my translation).31 Baroque anamorphosis, by distorting the perspectival constructions which conventionally render three-dimensional space onto a two-dimensional surface, pushes us to recognize the factitious quality of figurative art per se, a quality that we tend to forget when faced with more straightforwardly mimetic works. Courtly love similarly highlights its own artificiality and its investment in not achieving union, by a rhetoric and an attitude of prostration before the beloved Lady which jar with medieval reality (Lacan insists on the brutality of medieval women's social position). In Sophocles’ Antigone, the figure of the protagonist overcome by Ate (a goddess inducing folly and thence ruin) reveals the workings of the death drive, indifferent to the interests of a fragile social order and of the organism itself.
Each of the art forms that Lacan discusses is conceived as a means of projecting this haunting other dimension, reminding audiences that the reality within which they live is contingent, a mere symbolic and imaginary order, and reconnecting them with that Real dimension which is the birthplace of fertility and meaning, as well as their negation. What works through art is thus the death drive, displacing man from his position as master of the universe and belittling his achievements. This primary work of art, although inevitably lost sight of by artists and audiences — since it is not an intuition that can be tolerated long-term — can be reactivated by departures from figurative traditions.32 The Real may be projected in ’l'entre-deux de deux champs symboliquement différenciés’ (’the in-between of two symbolically differentiated fields’, my translation).33 This entre-deux is not an intermediate place or space (although that may act as a trigger or vessel), but the consciousness that the existence of plural distinct fields implies a further field external to any that can be delimited or identified. This further field may be considered a metaphysical dimension; Lacan bids us be wary of giving it that ontological status.
Lacanian ethics and politics
A good deal of this book will be occupied with exploring the entre-deux connecting death and life, both within and without Lacan's conception of it. I approach death as a crisis confronting humanity at collective and individual levels, and concentrate on the responses of societies and subjects who face the challenge of integrating death, dying and the dead into their lives. My analyses therefore highlight different ethical and political dimensions of the entre-deux-morts in various texts. I do not limit my understanding of ethics to Lacan's account of the ’ethics of psychoanalysis’ in Seminar VII; however, my analyses throughout this book are in dialogue with that account. The next two sections explain my broad understanding of that ethical stance and its political consequences, preliminary to more detailed analysis of particular points in the chapters below.
Lacan argues that certain psychoanalytic theories are significant both in psychoanalytic practice and in ethical theory more broadly. His primary reference is to Freud's identification of ’the sense of guilt as the most important problem in the development of civilization’, or more precisely: ’the price we pay for our advance in civilization is a loss of happiness through the heightening of the sense of guilt’.34 However, a major intellectual influence in Seminar VII, in my opinion, is existentialism; Lacan's themes and approach are consonant with Steven Crowell's characterization of existentialist thinking:
Heidegger's 1927 Being and Time, an inquiry into the ’being that we ourselves are’ (which he termed ’Dasein’, a German word for existence), introduced most of the motifs that would characterize later existentialist thinking: the tension between the individual and the ’public’; an emphasis on the worldly or ’situated’ character of human thought and reason; a fascination with liminal experiences of anxiety, death, the ’nothing’ and nihilism; the rejection of science (and above all, causal explanation) as an adequate framework for understanding human being; and the introduction of ’authenticity’ as the norm of self-identity, tied to the project of self-definition through freedom, choice, and commitment. Though in 1946 Heidegger would repudiate the retrospective labelling of his earlier work as existentialism, it is in that work that the relevant concept of existence finds its first systematic philosophical formulation.35
The dialogue with this concept of existence conducted within Seminar VII makes it a particularly appropriate text for my purposes. The ’ethics of psychoanalysis’ on which this Seminar focuses relates to mortality and to death as ’nothing’, and to the limit experiences which confrontation with these induces.
Drawing a highly selective history of ethical thought from Aristotle through Kant and Bentham, Lacan makes three general points against which psychoanalytic ethics must distinguish itself. Firstly, he claims that ethical theory traditionally treats ’the good’ as something known, measurable and common, essentially the same for all ethical subjects. Thus the Golden Rule, ’do as you would be done by’, is a valid principle and the notion of welfare a rational one: material needs and conditions for contentment adequately met but not indulgently exceeded. Secondly, traditional ethics subordinates the individual's freedom to maximize his or her good to collective interests (’the greatest good for the greatest number’, in Bentham's phrase). This principle, according to Lacan, entails envisaging happiness as what economists call a limited good (if one person has more then another must have less), posing problems relating to distribution. Finally, ethical tradition has emphasized the role of pleasure in reinforcing our attachment to the good, but with a proviso: human beings must be taught to restrain baser pleasures in order to appreciate the finer rewards offered by goodness and self-discipline.36
Psychoanalysis, by contrast, introduces the idea of the unconscious and rests on a Hobbesian philosophy of human nature as greedy, competitive and irrational but restrained by civilization, whose job is both to limit and to sublimate human impulses into socially acceptable paths. Freud refines by making guilt itself, together with its agent the superego, at once the moral force and the social glue. Guilt is originary, implanted in humankind by the primordial murder of the father and, unlike remorse, needing no prior action or even intention on the subject's part. Following Freud, Lacan refuses to consider unconscious desires within a framework of evolutionary usefulness. Self-preservation itself cannot be taken to be a goal of the human organism; Lacan sees the organism as tending towards its own death and (following Freud's analogy between individual and collective processes) civilization towards its own destruction.37 Human desires do not relate to biological need, cannot be rationalized, and are essentially singular, hence unpredictable, unintelligible and potentially illegitimate in the eyes of others. They can never form the basis for a social system. This conception allows Lacan to critique certain accepted ethical notions as hegemonic (because they serve the interests of particular groups) and/or unworkable (because they neglect or conceal a fundamental aspect of human nature). For instance, he considers the tale of St Martin sharing his cloak with the beggar as an exemplary fable of the ’good’ in its utilitarian, communal, distributive sense, and suggests that the beggar's desires might lie elsewhere.38 Or he discusses a problem put by Kant, in which a man is offered sex with a woman he desires on condition that he be put to death immediately afterwards. Whereas (according to Lacan) Kant presents this bargain as exemplifying the inconceivable, Lacan points out that the promised execution might actually heighten the allure; for some the opportunity of dying might increase exponentially the pleasure gained from what is otherwise another banal sexual encounter. Jouissance, the ultimate pleasure sought by each human subject under an irreducibly personal form, involves a kind of dying — temporary self-dissolution if not literal bodily death — which itself is only part of the vicious pleasure of destruction. Civilization at once denies us this, implants in us a guilty sense of having effectively already done it, and maintains our desires in relation to it. Lacan develops elements of Freud's text to invert the usual picture according to which human desire is ruled by a drive to destroy ourselves and others, society, the whole known world, and which further claims that as social animals we are impelled to suppress that drive, to behave altruistically and communally, to sublimate our desires into art or other displacements, while as moral beings we suffer from our dual nature. For psychoanalysis in the Lacanian tradition, patriarchal civilization thrives on a transgressive urge to unbridlement which it also restrains, through the conscience as well as through external constraints, thus doubly manifesting the death drive: via the unleashing of the destructive urge and via the organism's collapse under the tension between competing forces.
In spite of the emphasis on singular desire, it would be incorrect to label Lacan's ethics individualistic or egocentric. In the first place, its field of application is psychoanalytic practice. From one perspective its import is therefore narrow. The question ’As-tu agi en conformité avec ton désir?’ (’Have you acted in conformity with your desire?’)39 posed to the analysand marks a divergence between psychoanalytic and general practical ethics. The case of Antigone, who does not ’give ground relative to [her] desire’, is both mythical and tragic.40 Lacan admires her authenticity and comments on the function of her beauty but notes that her position is adopted in extremis, her life being intolerable, and uses her to exemplify the destructive nature of desire.41 From another point of view, the non-utilitarian ethic of psychoanalysis has far-reaching implications. Lacan rejects the notion that psychoanalysis aims to make subjects either happy or normal. Lacanian analysis (at least the training analysis that qualifies analysts) will not enable analysands to attain their desire (which is by definition unattainable), though it may help them to achieve an accommodation with that desire and their own chronic lack of fulfilment. Nor will it encourage them to submit pragmatically to normative social ideals; rather, it teaches a critical method designed to challenge intellectually those ideals and the social, cultural and political conditions that dictate them. Conditioned conformity to a normative code is a suppressive mechanism unworthy of psychoanalytic sanction. Civilization ought to produce discontents, and Lacanian analysis aims not to reconcile the subject to its discontentment, but to carry that discontentment to a further, reflexive level. This leads me to a second important disjunction between Lacan's ethics and either individualism or voluntarism: the subject acting in accordance with the ’désir qui [l’]habite’ (’the desire that inhabits it’, my translation) is ruled neither by the ego nor by any conscious self but by the unconscious (in Lacanian thinking, absolutely inaccessible to consciousness).42 This is the dimension that Lacan seeks to restore to philosophy. Lacan's Antigone is not a hero in any normal sense: ’Victime et holocauste, c'est malgré elle qu'elle est là’ (’victim and holocaust, it is in spite of herself that she is there’).43 Dissenting from the idea that autonomous, atomic individuals act with intention, will and cognizance or can assume their own unwilled acts in this spirit, Lacan attacks liberal and Enlightenment ideas of the person and the morality that addresses those ideas. His ’hero’ inverts the traditional form.44
Finally, his ethics may be considered a politics of resistance or revolution, even though Lacan's own expressed views on the possibility of revolution altered over his career, and his political engagement was rarely more than lukewarm. The singular desire driving the subject produces a stance which defies hegemonic collective orders, based as these are on notions of the general good. Correspondingly, civilization's internal dynamic, similarly impelled by the death drive, will inevitably lead to political and cultural upheaval on a large scale. These impulsions may — however contingently — lead to new social forms. While Lacan himself, elevating only certain theoretical constructs to the status of Real, mostly forgoes the notion of social progress through this dialectical process, thinkers such as Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Žižek have found room in his theory for positive, Marxist-inspired revolutionism. As Terry Eagleton insists, ’there is a redemptive face to the Real as well as a destructive one’:45 it can regenerate as well as devastate, and devastation may be a step on the path to regeneration. Thus in the medieval texts with which I am concerned, some individuals faced with their own or others’ death find renewed impetus in life. Where the collective is concerned, at times an old order is reasserted, at others change may be initiated or a new order founded. For Eagleton and others, there is a politics as well as an ethics of the Real. For Lacan, contrastingly, such appropriations belong to the realms of the imaginary or symbolic, and are to be maintained as analytically distinct.
The politically disruptive and constructive uses to which death may be put are a major theme of the book. Entre-deux-morts in my understanding of it serves at once and in varying degrees as crisis and partial solution; it powerfully undercuts ideological constructs, but that very power can be exploited in the service of other ideologies. My principal guide in this area is Žižek, to whom I refer throughout this book as at once a witty and illuminating expositor of Lacan, a Lacanian revolutionary revisionist, and an analyst of ideology, of the Real, and of the relations between the two. One example of how Lacan's Seminar VII facilitates and limits ideological analysis is through the concept of the ’second death’. Terminological confusion with ’between two deaths’ is inevitable, and indeed, as Lacan uses them, these concepts are related. Numerous interpretations circulate; as I use it here, the second death is not to be identified with that death (symbolic, subjective or bodily) which brings to an end the state ’between two deaths’. The ’deaths’ in the latter refer to ’deux champs symboliquement différenciés’ in the entre-deux between which the Real arises: two states whose definition, place in the world and relationship to each other are regarded as closed or ’dead’ questions. To be entre-deux-morts is therefore to disturb a settled vision of the world. In contrast, the ’second death’ is, as mentioned above, an ancient and important idea within Christian tradition, signifying eternal damnation within an apocalyptic framework. In one sense, therefore, the second death has an established place within Christianity as salvation's complement; it is a powerful imaginary support for the Christian regime. Differently viewed, however, it is a source of perpetual outrage. Thus Charles Péguy, before his conversion, writes: ’This is what I find most hateful, this is barbaric, this is what I shall never consent to…: that strange combination of life and death which we call damnation…An eternity of living death is a perverted, inverted imagining.’46 Péguy's objection responds to the excessive nature of second death, extravagantly over and above any rational ethical norm. The second death offends. In this perspective, it represents death in its Real aspect. Its profligacy places it ethically entre-deux-morts; politically, however, it is evidently open to exploitation by various interested forces. It is the former rather than the latter aspect which attracts Lacan, who is not concerned with the economic and material bases of power. He nevertheless not only emphasizes the potential for ideological appropriations of the entre-deux-morts but over the course of his life's work analyses various psycho-political positions adopted in the public sphere by different forms of power, thus sharing in the debate over the political that occupies French post-war thinking.47 Lacan's thinking about power does pay attention to historical specificity, though not in the mode of a historian.48
His scepticism of causes and emancipations, of sacrifices and salvations, is a useful reminder to be cautious about our investments. On the other hand, Lacan himself is of course not free of such investments — nor does his analysis of the human allow for such purity. He too allows the Real regenerative potential. For all the dramatic rhetoric of Seminar VII, the ethical position ’beyond the second death’ with which it resolves permits the common man through being-for-death to borrow some of the hero's glamour while remaining within the circuit of everyday life. This position bespeaks a certain redemption enabling either provisional acceptance of prevailing norms or positive commitment to changing them.49 The scepticism that Lacan here advocates does not preclude, and may even empower ideological engagements. We cannot, therefore, except Lacan from our ethical and political critique; indeed, he ’at once analyzes and symptomizes’ the ’fantasy of law as insurpassable authority’.50 In order to address in detail this last point, I turn to the potent figure of Antigone as a case study in the modern problematic of relating ethics to politics.
Antigone is a reference point throughout this book. This requires explanation, since although she has been since the nineteenth century a major Western cultural focus for thinking about certain issues under the aegis of death, she was not a figure to conjure with in medieval culture.51 To summarize her story as found in its today most influential telling, Sophocles’ Antigone, of 441 BCE: Antigone is one of the four children of Oedipus and Jocasta's unwittingly incestuous marriage. After Oedipus blinds and exiles himself on discovering his incest and parricide, his sons Eteocles and Polyneices agree to share power but soon embark on a civil war. Polyneices, who brings a foreign army against the city, loses. Both brothers are killed. Creon, Jocasta's brother, inherits the governance of Thebes and declares that while Eteocles will receive honourable burial, anyone undertaking to bury Polyneices’ corpse will die. Antigone defies Creon's proscription to bury her brother and is condemned to be buried alive. She hangs herself in the tomb. Creon survives desolate after the consequent suicides of Haemon, his son and Antigone's fiancé, and of Eurydice, his wife.
Sophocles’ Antigone is a key figure in discussions of the Lacanian entre-deux-morts. She forms a pendant to Polyneices: if he is physically but not yet symbolically dead, then she is symbolically dead from the moment she decides to bury her brother in defiance of Creon's edict. Her role as one who tidies up anomalies on the life/death interface — by struggling to achieve the appropriate symbolic death for her brother — leads her into a complementary (rather than opposing) condition, as she herself becomes anomalous through her inevitable, then actual condemnation. By mirroring and supplementing Polyneices’ situation ’between two deaths’, Antigone's example elevates the anomaly into an alternative to the norm and establishes the zone between two deaths as a distinct ethical ’place’ — or more exactly, a ’no-place’, for it negates ’place’ as a bounded and intelligible category. This no-place has a particular relation to death in the body, which it contrasts to some worse fate which may be conceived as another form of ’death’ — spiritual, moral, social or subjective — a second death. Thus for Antigone, bodily dying is the painful but justified price of a superior form of integrity. Many commentators rest here, with Antigone's heroic sacrifice or pathetic martyrdom. Lacan pursues her ’beyond the second death’, and the comparison between his approach and others’ is worth making.
Apart from her importance to discussions of the entre-deux-morts, Antigone is important here for her focal role in modern thinking about the relation between ethics and politics, and particularly in the post-war French effort to go beyond Oedipus as the political and philosophical subject.52 Hegel, the major intertext for modern philosophical interests in Antigone, is also Lacan's; his understanding of Hegel being heavily influenced by Alexandre Kojève. Hegel's famous association of Antigone as woman with divine law and with the family (realms respectively ’above’ and ’below’ the masculine laws of the polis) is only one treatment to associate her with law, and may be placed in a wider context. In her history of (principally but not only French) presentations of Antigone, Fraisse outlines an ancient strand in the reception of Sophocles’ protagonist as spokeswoman for ’natural law’ against ’positive law’, a distinction elaborated by Aristotle, Cicero and Aquinas. Natural law (exemplified in this case by the duty to bury the dead) is eternal and immutable, the same for every human being — indeed contributes importantly to defining the meaning of the term ’human’. It takes precedence over the contingent positive laws of particular regimes. In Sophocles’ play, natural law as appealed to by Antigone derives its authority from the gods; however, Fraisse notes an influential secular appropriation, according to which Antigone stands for ’the judgement of the individual conscience in revolt against collective embargos’:
Antigone's protest — the protest of one who dares to act according to her heart in spite of social oppression — engenders modern individualism: that of Rousseau who believes that conscience is a divine instinct, that of Kant for whom the moral law is written in every man's heart, that of the anarchists who acknowledge neither God nor master, but each of whom believes himself to be in possession of truth, of his truth.53
If Lacan's Antigone epitomizes the subject in conflict with collective authority and its laws, nevertheless she does not stand for moral conscience in the tradition of Rousseau, Kant or the anarchists. To see her as such would be to fill the intolerable Real opened up by her actions with transcendentals that award to imaginary constructs and symbolic structures an illusory metaphysical grounding. Lacan challenges at base the contention that death — whatever, if any, significance be granted to it — gives meaning to life. Death, for Lacan, is meaningless, and the view that it renders life meaningful is a defensive reaction formation to this glimpse of the void. Confronting life's Real meaninglessness is the basis of Lacan's ethical position.
Lacan's Antigone is therefore inhuman without being divine, driven by an amoral imperative that sets her apart from everyone, including other would-be protesters, and that refuses the name of martyrdom. Lacan focuses on those same lines in Antigone's self-justification which were highlighted by Hegel to the scandal of other commentators, notably Goethe:
never, had children of whom I was the mother or had my husband perished and been mouldering there, would I have taken on myself this task, in defiance of the citizens. In virtue of what law do I say this? If my husband had died, I could have had another, and a child by another man, if I had lost the first, but with my mother and my father in Hades below, I could never have another brother.54
Lacan neither seeks an explanatory cultural framework for these lines nor attempts to read them as symptomatic of any principled stance but instead emphasizes their unintelligibility as indicating the radical singularity of Antigone's desire.55 She dies for nothing else and in no other name. Antigone incarnates ’the death that is without meaning, the sheer terror of the negative that contains nothing positive, nothing that fills it with a content’ — Hegel's characterization of Terror.56 Ideological appropriations of the figure attempt, by referring to a big Other as transcendental guarantor of meaning, to evade the truth revealed in her. The ’natural law’ to which Lacan's Antigone bears witness at the cost of her unliveable life is only that desire is finally autonomous, antisocial and destructive of its human host.
Lacan turns to the lament in which Antigone, on her way to be walled up, regrets all that she has lost and bids farewell to life — a key passage for such influential modern commentators as Hölderlin and Heidegger, who see in it the human consciousness become superhuman in its recognition of and refusal to yield before the nothingness of death and humanity's aloneness within the universe.57 In my opinion Lacan's reading pays more attention to her aesthetic context in the ritual of classical tragedy (some critics would dispute this). For him, the speaking Antigone here shifts from the unconscious to the conscious and from the Real to the symbolic; past the point of no return and therefore released from the drive, she becomes recognizably, intelligibly human and regrets all that she has lost. She is pathetic and sublimely beautiful in her suffering, and it is this spectacle which leads the chorus (and with it the audience) to the catharsis that will allow them to resume their ordinary, liveable lives with their own destruction drive partly purged, partly satisfied. The éclat of her sacrifice dazzles, beauty (le beau) intervening at a higher level than, though in a similar way to, utilitarian moral concerns (le bien) in distracting us from the Real to redirect our own energies back into familiar paths and familiar evasions.58 Her drama as Lacan tells it comprises two acts: the ’ethical’ drive to death, followed by the ’moral’ rehabilitation into, and consequent regeneration of, the established order. Lacan's assessment of the figure's capacity for enabling workable, durable resistance to that order is therefore lukewarm. Insofar as she has a social and political function, Antigone is normality's sacrifice to itself.
Thus Lacan undermines the various moralizing and political traditions that have hailed Antigone as hero or martyr. Her actions’ significance in his view lies in the fact that the working of the destruction drive is revealed most clearly by the subject's choice of a course of action which is not merely disallowed but inexplicable and foreclosed. Maintaining one's choice unto death nevertheless has ethical force — more precisely, the ethical force with which Lacan is concerned lies in just that perseverance. Human living requires us to accept any number of compromises, substitutions and detours in relation to our desire. Lacan draws on Lévi-Strauss's anthropological theorizing to argue that the incest taboo formalizes a pattern in which desire is prohibited from attaining its object and sidetracked towards other goals; this pattern is that of life in society. To insist on one's desire is therefore to resist not just a given society but sociality itself. Similarly, although dying is unavoidable, the preference for death over giving up on one's desire is a short circuit which extracts the subject from the self-reproducing cycle of social existence and, further, allows it to symbolize social liberation or revolution for others. It is therefore through its structure and not primarily through its content that Antigone's demand is unassimilable for the dominant order. As Žižek comments:
With regard to this relation between drive and desire, we could perhaps risk a small rectification of the Lacanian axiom of the psychoanalytic ethic ’not to cede one's desire’: is not desire as such already a certain yielding, a kind of compromise formation, a metonymic displacement retreat, a defense against intractable drive? ’To desire’ means to give way on the drive — insofar as we follow Antigone and ’do not give way on our desire,’ do we not precisely step out of the domain of desire, do we not shift from the modality of desire into the modality of pure drive?59
This theoretical clarification, however, raises the question, central to Lacan's work, of the intimate relation between desire as social formation and the destruction drive as absolute. Subjects do not generally go to their deaths in the name of the ’pulsion de mort’ (however that drives them unconsciously) but in that of some desire locatable within the symbolic and imaginary fields: the fields of familiar, intelligible, social and political discourse. In Seminar VII Lacan judges the good for which subjects are willing to die to be a mere camouflage for the death drive, consonant with his wider analysis of ’the good’ as a means of keeping us at a distance from our ultimate object of desire. The ideological effects that interest him concern the parameters that in a given culture shape our approach to the ethical sphere — responses such as guilt, ideals such as forgiveness, neighbour-love or mesura, goals such as happiness or the common good. In contrast, Žižek himself has been an important analyst of the psychic dimensions of, in particular, capitalism and some variants of state communism or socialism: forms of government and economic organization which reach far into the mind. Individuals’ refusal or failure to give up on their desire may have far-reaching collective implications.
Žižek conspicuously revives the revolutionary potential on which Lacan's pessimism casts doubt. In the absence of a positive, intelligible moral framework, Žižek's Antigone becomes a figure of pure negation.60 This figure has the potential to ground an extremist understanding of resistance or revolution that draws on the writings of Robespierre, Marat and revolutionary socialism, allying itself with 1793 and the Terror against the bourgeois liberal republicanism that has dominated leftist thought and understandings of the Revolution in recent decades.61 In an environment where all rational discourse has been appropriated by institutional authorities, resistance will be inarticulate, even incomprehensible, but not necessarily unethical in the broader sense (compare the Newspeak of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four). Though in one perspective negating the natural law tradition, therefore, in her inherent disruptiveness Žižek's Antigone rejoins it. As Fraisse points out, ’in the constitution of a collective, nothing is more unsettling than natural law: “It is indispensable for establishing order…but seems to enclose a principle that destroys all order.”…Natural law is only ever invoked so as to resist established laws.’62 In spite of his emphasis on the singular form it takes for each individual, Lacan's notion of jouissance as driving every human subject without exception beyond society is itself an instance of natural law (his and Žižek's use of Antigone as exemplar is traditional in this respect). The more inconceivable within dominant systems of meaning the desires expressed become, the more revolutionary force they contain, for revolution (as distinct from rebellion) challenges the philosophical and discursive bases of power as well as its established forms. The incomprehensible nature of Antigone's decision to bury her brother therefore enhances the political radicalism of an action that might otherwise be merely defiant and thus subservient to the hegemonic order (hence Anouilh's insubordinate heroine becomes in a Lacanian view a ’petite Antigone fasciste’, a ’little fascist Antigone’).63 Antigone's is ’a decision (to kill, to risk or to lose one's own life) made in absolute solitude, not covered by the big Other…[although] extra-moral it is not “immoral”’.64 Thus the unrepresentable nature of revolutionary desire functions for Žižek as a trope for a sublime which, as in Lacan's writing, is twinned with the abject. Whereas in Lacan's Seminar VII this twinning serves to divorce the notion of the sublime from the idea of the good to which it once seemed naturally wedded (hence the treatment of Kant and Sade as complementary), in Žižek's writing the abject-sublime is recuperated to a positive moral value broadly associated with the political left which he aims to regenerate. In Žižek's interpretation, Lacanian ethics rescues leftist politics from its own timorous bad faith by permitting a move from theoretical to practical anti-humanism. Thanks to Althusser the left has long had a structuralist, hence inhuman vision of man, but has supplemented that with a traditional, humanist ethics; Lacanian ethics, grounded in man's inhumanity, will allow socialism's true radical potential to emerge.65 As the monstrous neighbour (prochain, Nebenmensch) in whom we recognize our inhumanity, Antigone is the parable for this new (in)human — and thus for the first time properly human — order.
’Sophocles’ Antigone will not suffer from Lacan,’ affirms Steiner, for whom the play uniquely expresses ’all the principal constants’ conditioning both conflict and ’positive intimacy’ in human life.66 The great humanist's protest against this anti-heroic Antigone is echoed by writers within other intellectual traditions, some of whom claim Lacanian heritage. Steiner's intimate conflicts are fivefold: ’the confrontation of men and of women; of age and of youth; of society and of the individual; of the living and the dead; of men and of god(s)’.67 His list of ethical encounters is markedly apolitical, lacking the struggles which oppose class to class, people to lords, subjects to rulers, nobles to kings. He reminds us of other political aspects, however: firstly, of the fact that Antigone struggles against an antagonist — Creon, often said to be absent from Lacan's account; secondly, of dimensions of struggle not foregrounded by Lacan. I highlight here two such, championed by important thinkers: gender, in Irigaray's writing, and sexuality, in Butler's.
For both thinkers, Lacan plays a part akin to Creon's, since both argue that he sacrifices Antigone to vested interests which, for all his anti-establishment rhetoric, are institutionally entrenched. Antigone's double exclusion, from the political order by Hegel and from the symbolic order by Lacan, is thus itself a political fact to be interrogated (Butler actually distances Creon from the persecuting role, attributing it to the philosophers). Lacan consummates this exclusion. When he makes Antigone exemplify the death drive, consequently to self-destruct on the impulse of apolitical, unconscious forces, he severely restricts her potential impact on the mutually interwoven spheres of society, culture, representation and politics. Butler and Irigaray, contrastingly, view the necessity of Antigone's death not as ontological — necessary in all possible worlds — but contingent — necessary in particular worlds only. They consider Lacanian psychoanalysis to be guilty of elevating specific cultural norms to universal laws. For both, Lacan is at once enabling and frustratingly constraining: he shows how the symbolic functions ’to transcendentalize its claims’, ’enforcing an appearance of its universality but having no mandate outside itself that might serve as a transcendental ground for its own functioning’, yet then appears to accept at face value the transcendence of certain claims, awarding them Real or universal status.68 Irigaray and Butler attend to the radical content of Antigone's claims, thus restoring her from the field of drive to that of desire, from Real to symbolic and imaginary, brute fact to alterable state. They urge political realignment in the ’real world’ of public policy, also for the sake of Creon, whose fall is inseparable from Antigone's.
For Irigaray, Antigone is the spokeswoman of an essential femininity excluded from the twin male orders of discourse and government. Her early work highlights the figure's tragic irony.69 Antigone acts out of fidelity to a feminine ethics represented by the maternal genealogy, burying her mother's son; however, this solidarity with the maternal will lead her to reproduce her mother's fate, hanging herself. Her self-affirmation as a woman is thus also her self-destruction, a result of the foreclosure of an alternative, feminine order. Not Antigone but patriarchy embodies the death drive. Irigaray's more recent work, however, changes this focus. In the 1997 Être deux, Antigone has a valid order of her own: that of ’concrete singularity’ and ’a concrete collectivity’.70 The artificial world of men, in self-imposed alienation from this natural order, is caught in near-psychosis, incoherence, violent destruction and self-destruction. Creon dies — all the men die — but Antigone lives and speaks. She institutes a language, an ethics and a politics grounded in the imaginary, ontologically prior and necessary to man's merely symbolic fabrication.71 In Irigaray's own writing style as well as in her arguments, Antigone achieves an intelligible place from which to state what remain extraordinarily far-reaching claims on patriarchal forms.
Butler's position is closer to Irigaray's than she herself allows.72 For Butler, Antigone's claim is to be allowed to mourn a relation based in the brother—sister incest to which Hegel and Lacan seem strangely blind. Antigone therefore argues for social recognition of a relation and a love whose transgressive nature otherwise condemns them, and those implicated in them, to the outlawry of symbolic death. Butler criticizes Lacanian psychoanalysis for its heterosexism. She points to its failure to address ’how new forms of kinship can and do arise on the basis of the incest taboo’.73 In place of the revolutionism endorsed by Žižek, for whom Antigone is the perverse constitutive exception (foundational but excluded) of the new order to come, Butler proposes a Foucauldian variant of evolution. The incest taboo, like all prohibitions, works by inadvertently proliferating the sins and crimes it forbids. Butler envisages that these illegitimate practices may give rise to changes in actual laws if presented as Antigone articulates them, that is to say if ’the perverse or the impossible emerges in the language of the law and makes its claim precisely there in the sphere…that depends on its exclusion or pathologization’.74 The ethical-political act here becomes that of the faithful traitor: Antigone enacts the law and carries out her father's orders but ’in aberrant form, transmitting them loyally and betraying them by sending them in directions they were never intended to travel’.75 One might, then, view Antigone as a ’queer heroine’; however, Butler only partially endorses this.76 Unlike the later Irigaray, Butler maintains Antigone's unrepresentability and impossibility even while insisting that she holds the potential for effective change. Indeed, in this account Antigone's capacity to help legitimize new forms of attachment and desire depends on her continuing to challenge the established order, thus on her marginality. If Antigone's specific predicament and claim cannot come to full realization within the present (or perhaps any) symbolic order, Butler nevertheless stresses how Sophocles’ text strains linguistic and conceptual structures to achieve another order that teeters on the brink of representability. Butler's demonstration that Antigone can and does speak her unthinkable, horrifying desire importantly replaces her claim within the political sphere.77 Where literary language innovates, cultural and legal orders may follow. Those who fail to listen, notably Hegel and Lacan, reject the intellectual and political challenges that Antigone embodies, condemning her to sterility and to death.
A medieval antigone?
It is fair to say that the medieval Antigone has little of the immense cultural resonance with which the nineteenth and twentieth centuries invested the figure, though she is not without political significance. Medieval Antigones are drawn not primarily from Sophocles but from Euripides’ Phoenician Women via Statius’ Thebaid, texts which show more interest in the problems of statecraft and a greater focus on the male characters. Antigone here does not die, nor is she always the instigator of Polyneices’ burial, and the obligations to which she responds are typically those of a daughter as much as or more than of a sister.78 Her relative marginality is illustrated by her omission from the major retelling of the Statian Theban story that is Boccaccio's Teseida. In these predominantly political narratives, what place is there for the Lacanian ethical?
We cannot assert that versions in which Antigone does not act or die necessarily lack either a place between two deaths or the death drive. In the mid twelfth-century Roman de Thèbes, for instance, Antigone plays no part in the burial episode, where the focus is on the Greek king Adrastus’ two daughters, married to princes slain in the battle against Thebes (the elder sister being Polyneices’ wife). These women decide to commit suicide, before consenting instead to the prayers of the assembled bereaved Greek women to lead them to find and bury their menfolk's bodies. The burial episode thus takes place under the shadow of a suspended suicide, with the exhausted women dragging themselves to the battlefield; however, it is also a mass event and one which earns official protection in the shape of Theseus duke of Athens, whom the women (led by Adrastus) meet on their way. Only ’Creon le vieil, qu'est assotez’ (l. 10008; ’Senile old Creon’) rejects their claims, and he is swiftly defeated by Theseus. All the bodies are buried, but the earth itself rejects Eteocles and Polyneices. It proves impossible to prevent them from fighting each other even once dead: their very ashes attempt combat, and Theseus finally has them buried in a single sarcophagus to struggle eternally (ll. 10187—90). More strikingly still, the entire history of the Roman de Thèbes is one of entre-deux-morts after the baby Oedipus, whom his father has ordered to be killed, is secretly abandoned alive by servants who tell their king, ’Se vos poez des vis guarder, / Ne vos estuet les morz doter’ (ll. 127—8; ’If you can keep yourself safe from the living, you need not fear the dead’), thus identifying the child as a mort vivant, and placing the story arising from his survival ’between two deaths’. Whereas the passage between ethics and politics may be contested within modern treatments of the Theban story, in this medieval account it is an urgent and unavoidable question.
No medieval ’Antigone’ as such, then. However, in this book I shall argue that figures comparable to the modern Antigone arise entre-deux-morts in numerous medieval literary works: Roland, Galehot, the lords and ladies of ubi sunt works, the Pearl-Maiden, Blanche and Alceste. Ethics and politics intertwine in various ways, suggestive of different aspects of the Antigones I have discussed above. My explorations, though broadly held together by a Lacanian approach, will therefore not be limited to Lacan's own questions or answers on the subject.
The structure of this book
I end this introduction with a brief overview of the structure and contents of the following chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 discuss the relationship between the death drive and heroic desires — what the masculine hero desires and what is desired of him — in narratives belonging to the two major secular narrative genres current in the early period of French literature, chanson de geste in the first chapter, chivalric romance in the second. ’Roland and the second death’ focuses on the eleventh-century Anglo-Norman Oxford Chanson de Roland, today the most iconic of medieval French works, comparing it to other redactions. After discussing the ’second death’ and its link to revolution and to apocalypse, this chapter explores the hero's route towards death as a Lacanian ethical act that shatters existing symbolic and political structures, but which is afterwards appropriated for ideological use by a particular political order. Chapter 2, ’The knight as Thing: courtly love in the non-cyclic prose Lancelot’, concentrates on an early thirteenth-century version of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, one of the most developed romance narratives. I discuss how this version differs from other major accounts, primarily Le Chevalier de la Charrette and La Mort le roi Artu. This chapter foregrounds the parallel between the love of Lancelot and Guinevere and that of Galehot and Lancelot. It incorporates extensive reflection on what is meant by ’courtly love’, and an exploration of how that love models homosocial relationships within the text without imposing pseudo-heterosexual norms on them. In the third chapter I examine how the official message of mortality, mutability and vulnerability carried by the widespread ubi sunt topos is shadowed by a second one affirming the subject's immortality and sovereignty. I concentrate on particular Middle French fixed-form lyrics: Eustache Deschamps's late fourteenth-century courtly Ballade 1457 and François Villon's celebrated mini-sequence, the three ’Ballades du temps jadis’ inset in his Testament of 1461. Here I show how Villon's ballades progressively bring disintegration upon the sovereign masculine subject which other examples sustain — often, like Deschamps's, in complex ways. A debate between Derrida and Barthes over the phrase ’Je suis mort’ completes the perspective.
The remaining two chapters turn to dream poems in Middle English, and to the analysis of the desires expressed by female figures entre-deux-morts within male dreams. These poems offer an opportunity to consider male—female relations in a context wider than the heterosexual; they also examine the relationship between the court poet and the prince. Chapter 4, ’Ceci n'est pas une marguerite: anamorphosis in Pearl’, considers the English poem in the light of the fashionable marguerite topos employed in contemporary and slightly earlier French-language court writing, arguing that these writings share a discursive field regardless of language difference. Through Lacan's discussion of anamorphosis or distorted perspective, I examine Pearl's problematic negotiation of religious and courtly ideologies. Chapter 5, ’Becoming woman in Chaucer: on ne naît pas femme, on le devient en mourant’, contrasts the dead ladies at the centre of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess and Prologue to the Legend of Good Women in the light of anthropological discussions of memorialization rites. This chapter links the difficulties of reading the notoriously monotonous Legend to its identification of the poetic project as a living death.
One definition that Lacan advances of the Real is ’ce qui revient toujours à la même place’ (’that which always comes back to the same place’).79 Though I treat here of the Real — among other things — that is not my aim for this book.