Antigone, as Lacan's figure for the beautiful, embodies this excess of the ethical over the aesthetic. The effect of her beauty, what Lacan refers to as her 'splendour', is to trace the sublime movement of the ethical within the aesthetic. The key term in Lacan's extraordinary reading of Antigone is até, which he renders as 'transgression'. Thus, the function of art is transgression, the transgression of the aesthetic through the aesthetic. Namely, that Antigone transgresses the laws of utilitarian Creon, refuses to feel any guilt for her transgression and does not give way on her desire. As such, she obeys the categorical imperative of Lacanian psychoanalysis: ne pas céder sur son désir [not to yield to his desire].
The law of desire is death and Antigone goes all the way unto death because she will not give way on her desire. The beautiful work of sublimation, and Antigone is this work - she is the beautiful - takes the human being to the limit of a desire which cannot be fully represented. The work of sublimation traces the outline of something sublime, the aesthetic object describes the contour of the Thing, la Chose, das Ding, at the heart of ethical experience. In Seminar VII, this is why Lacan writes, 'Thus, the most general formula that I can give you of sublimation is the following: it raises the object to the dignity of the Thing.' In sublimation, we are momentarily lifted from the utilitarian world of calculations, the world of our familiar concerns, and allowed a relation to the Thing that does not crush or destroy us. The beautiful artwork sublimes the object, endowing it with Thingly dignity. Or again, beauty sublimes an object into the Thing. In relation to this sublimed object, we experience catharsis, what Lacan thinks of as a kind of purification of desire. . .To my mind, Lacan makes Antigone into the heroine of psychoanalysis: she who does not give way on her desire and follows that categorical imperative all the way to her death.
Thinking of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex rather than Antigone. . .the claim here is that at the end of the tragedy Oedipus succeeds in attaining a free recognition of his determination by necessity or fate. At the start of the drama, Oedipus falsely believed himself to be free. Unbeknownst to himself, however, he is determined by necessity: married to his mother, his father's murderer and the source of the evil pollution that threatens the life of the polis. By the end of the tragedy, however, Oedipus is truly free because he knows the truth about who he is and also knows what is to be done, that he must leave the polis. Having stuck out his eyes, he can finally see and is led calmly from the stage by the hand of his daughter, Antigone. The tragic hero, then, is defined by the free acceptance of their determination by fate. They heroically bear the truth of their finitude in an act of affirmation which allows them to achieve authenticity. - Simon Critchley
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