Ethic 243


The Ethics of Psychoanalysis

Jacques Lacan

The splendor of Antigone





I told you that I would talk about Antigone today.


I am not the one who has decreed that Antigone is to be a turning point in
the field that interests us, namely, ethics. People have been aware of that for
a long time. And even those who haven’t realized this are not unaware of the
fact that there are scholarly debates on the topic. Is there anyone who doesn’t
evoke Antigone whenever there is a question of a law that causes conflict in
us even though it is acknowledged by the community to be a just law?


And what is one to think of the scholars’ contribution to the discussion of
Antigone? What is one to think of it when one has, like me, gone over the
ground for one’s own interest and for the interest of those one is speaking to?
Well now, while I have tried to omit nothing that seemed important in all
that has been said on the question, so as not to deprive either you or me of
the help that I might derive from this lengthy historical survey, I have nevertheless
often had the impression that I was lost in quite extraordinary byways.
One learns that the opinions formulated by the pens of our great thinkers
over the centuries are strange indeed.


Antigone is a tragedy, and tragedy is in the forefront of our experiences as
analysts – something that is confirmed by the references Freud found in
Oedipus Rex as well as in other tragethes. He was attracted by his need of the
material he found in their mythical content. And if he himself didn’t expressly
discuss Antigone as tragedy, that doesn’t mean to say it cannot be done at this
crossroads to which I have brought you. It seems to me to be what it was for
Hegel, although in a different way, namely, the Sophoclean tragedy that is
of special significance.


In an even more fundamental way than through the connection to the
Oedipus complex, tragedy is at the root of our experience, as the key word
“catharsis” implies.


For you the word is no doubt more or less closely associated with the term
“abreaction,” which presupposes that the problem outlined by Freud in his
first work with Breuer, namely, that of discharge, has already been broached
– discharge in an act, indeed motor discharge, of something that is not so
simple to define, and that we still have to say remains a problem for us, the
discharge of an emotion that remains unresolved. For that is what is involved
here: an emotion or a traumatic experience may, as far as the subject is concerned,
leave something unresolved, and this may continue as long as a resolution
is not found. The notion of unfulfillment suffices to fill the role of
comprehensibility which is required here.


Read over Freud and Breuer’s opening pages and, in the light of what I
have attempted to focus on for your benefit in our experience, you will see
how difficult it now is to be content with the word “fulfillment” that is employed
in this context, and to state simply, as Freud does, that the action may be
discharged in the words that articulate it.


That catharsis which in this text is linked to the problem of abreaction,
and which is already specifically invoked in the background, has its origins
in the thought of classical antiquity. It is centered on Aristotle’s formula at
the beginning of Chapter VI of his Poetics: Aristotle there explains at length,
in a classification of the genres, what must be present for a work to be defined
as a tragedy.


The passage is a long one and we will return to it later. One finds there a
description of the distinguishing characteristics of tragedy, of its composition,
and of what, for example, distinguishes it from epic discourse. I simply
put on the blackboard the end point or final words of this passage, what in
logical causality is known as its τέλσ?. It is formulated by Aristotle as δί
έλέον και φόβου περαίνονσα ττ\ν των τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν.
That is to say, a means of accomplishing the purgation of the emotions by a
pity and fear similar to this.

这个段落很长,我们以后再回头谈论。我们发现有一段描述,区别悲剧的特性,悲剧的组成,譬如,是什么跟史诗的辞说区别的地方。我仅是将这段的末尾句子与字词,写在黑板上。从逻辑的因果律来说,什么是众所周知的τέλσ?它由亚里斯多德说明,作为δί έλέον και φόβου περαίνονσα ττ\ν των τοιούτων παθημάτων κάθαρσιν.。换句话说,这是一种工具,完成情感的清涤,凭借类似这个的同情与恐惧。

These words which seem so simple have over the centuries produced a
flood – indeed a whole world – of commentaries, whose history I can’t even
begin to trace here.


The references I will make to this history are highly selective and to the
point. We usually translate the word “catharsis” by something like “purgation.”
And thus, all of us here, especially if we are doctors, are, from the
school desks of our so-called secondary schools on, more or less familiar with
the term “purgation,” which has a certain Molioresque meaning. And this is
the case because the Moliéresque element here merely echoes an ancient medical
concept, namely, in Moliere’s own words, the one which involves the
elimination of “peccant humors.”


Moreover, that is not very far from what the term still, in fact, evokes. But
it also has a different resonance. And to make you sense it right away, I can
simply point out what in the course of our work here I recently expounded
for you with reference to the name of the Cathars.


What are the Cathars? They are the pure. Καθαρός is a pure person. And
the word in its original sense doesn’t mean illumination or discharge, but

这些「净化」是什么?它们的纯净。Καθαρός 是一位纯净的人。这个字词原先的意义,并没有意味著,启明或发泄,而是纯净化。

Doubtless in classical antiquity, too, the term “catharsis” was already used
in a medical context, in Hippocrates, for example, with a specifically medical
meaning; it is linked to forms of eliminadon, to discharge, to a return to
normality. But, on the other hand, in other contexts it is linked to purification
and especially to ritual purificadon. Hence the ambiguity which we, as
you might suspect, are far from the first to discover.


So as to refer to a specific individual, I will mention the name of Denis
Lambin, who reinterprets Aristotle in order to emphasize the ritual function
of tragedy and the ceremonial sense of purificadon. It’s not a matter of affirming
that he is more or less right than someone else, but of simply identifying
the sphere in which the question is raised.


We shouldn’t, in fact, forget that the term catharsis is strangely isolated in
the context of the Poetics. It’s not that it isn’t developed and commented on
there, but we will learn very little about it until some new papyrus is discovered.
I assume you know that what we have of the Poetics is only a part,
roughly half, in fact. And in the half that we have there is only the passage
referred to which discusses catharsis. We know that there was more because
at the beginning of Book VIII, in the numbering of Didot’s classic edition of
the Politics, Aristotle speaks of “that catharsis which I discussed elsewhere
in the Poetics.” In Book VIII his subject is catharsis in connection with music,
and as things turned out, it is there that we learn much more about catharsis.


In this text catharsis has to do with the calming effect associated with a
certain kind of music, from which Aristotle doesn’t expect a given ethical
effect, nor even a practical effect, but one that is related to excitement. The
music concerned is the most disturbing kind, the kind that turned their stomachs
over, that made them forget themselves, in the same way that hot jazz
(le hot) or rock ‘n’ roll does for us; it was the kind of music that in classical
antiquity gave rise to the question of whether or not it should be prohibited.


Well now, says Aristotle, once they have experienced the state of exaltation,
the Dionysian frenzy stimulated by such music, they become calm.
That’s what catharsis means as it is evoked in Book VIII of the Politics.


Yet not everyone enters into such states of excitement, even if everyone is
in the position of being at least slightly susceptible. There are the παθητικοί
as opposed to the ενθονοστικοί. The former are in the position of being
prey to other passions, namely, fear and pity. Well, it turns out that a form of catharsis or calming effect will be granted them by a certain music also,
by the music, one may assume, that has a role in tragedy. And this comes
about through pleasure, Aristotle tells us, leaving us once again to reflect on
what might be meant by pleasure and at what level and why it is invoked on
this occasion. What is this pleasure to which one returns after a crisis that
occurs in another dimension, a crisis that sometimes threatens pleasure, for
we all know to what extremes a certain kind of ecstatic music may lead? It is
at this point that the topology we have defined – the topology of pleasure as
the law of that which functions previous to that apparatus where desire’s
formidable center sucks us in – perhaps allows us to understand Aristotle’s
intuition better than has been the case heretofore.

可是,并不是每个人都进入这样的興奋状态,即使每个人都处于这个立场,至少稍微受到影响。在此这个Παθητικοί 跟 ενθονοστικοί.相提并论。前者的立场是,成为其他激情的猎物,也就是恐惧与同情的猎物。呵呵,结果是,一种净化的方式,或是让人平静的效果,将会用某种音乐给予他们。我们可以假设,这种音乐在悲剧也有其功用。这种净化凭借快乐而发生。亚里斯多德告诉我们,他让我们再次省思所谓快乐是什么意义,在什么层次与为什么在这个场合它被召唤。在另外一个维度发生的危机过后,我们回去的这种快乐是什么,这种危机有时会威胁到快乐。因为我们都知道,某种狂喜的音乐可能会导致怎样的极端?就在这个时刻,我们曾经定义的拓扑图形,快乐的拓扑图形,作为那个乐器之前发挥功用的法则。在那里,欲望的可怕的中心将我们吸收进入。或许让我们能够理解亚里斯多德的直觉,比起从此以后的情况。

In any case, before I go on to define the beyond of the apparatus referred
to as the central point of that gravitational pull, I want to emphasize that
element in modern literature which has given rise to the use of the term
catharsis in its medical sense.


The medical notion of Aristotelian catharsis is, in effect, more or less current
in a sphere that goes far beyond the realm of our colleagues, the writers,
critics, and literary theoreticians. But if one seeks to determine the culminating
moment of this conception of catharsis, one reaches a point of origin
beyond which the concept is much broader and where it is far from obvious
that the word catharsis has only the medical connotation.


The triumph of the latter conception of its meaning has a source to which
it is worth making an erudite reference here. The paper in question is by
Jakob Bernays and it appeared in a review in Breslau. I couldn’t tell you why
Breslau is involved, since I wasn’t able to consult enough biographical material
on this Jakob Bernays. If I am to believe Jones’s book on Freud, the
latter, as you will probably have realized, belongs to the same family from
which Freud took his wife, namely, a distinguished Jewish bourgeois family,
that had long since acquired a form of nobility in the sphere of German culture.
Jones refers to Michael Bernays as a professor in Munich, who was
condemned by his family as a political apostate, as someone who changed his
political allegiance for the sake of his career. As for Jakob Bernays, if I am to
believe the person who looked into this for me, he is simply mentioned as
someone who had a distinguished career as a Latinist and a Hellenist. Nothing
further is said except that he didn’t achieve his academic success at the
same cost as Michael.


What I have here is an 1880 version of two papers by Jakob Bernays,
reprinted in Berlin, on the subject of Aristotle’s theory of drama. They are
excellent. It is rare to find such a satisfying work by an academic in general,
and even more so by a German academic. It is as clear as crystal. And it is no
accident if the virtual universal adoption of the medical notion of catharsis
occurs at that time.


It is a pity that Jones, who was himself so knowledgeable, didn’t believe it
appropriate to place a greater emphasis on the personality and the work of
Jakob Bernays; little attention has been paid to him. It is nevertheless difficult
to imagine that Freud, who was by no means indifferent to the reputation
of the Bernays’ family, wasn’t aware of him. It would have been a way
of referring Freud’s original use of the word catharsis to its best source.
Having said that, I will now return to what most concerns us in this commentary
on Antigone, namely, the essence of tragedy.



One Response to “Ethic 243”

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