Book Review: Charles Freeland (2013). Antigone, In Her Unbearable Spendor: New Essays on Jacques Lacan’s The Ethics of Psychoanalysis

Book Review: Charles Freeland (2013). Antigone, In Her Unbearable Spendor: New Essays on Jacques Lacan’s The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (Albany: State University of New York), pp. 315, p/b, ISBN 978-1-4384-4648-6


Shiva Kumar Srinivasan,Ph.D.
IIPM Chennai

These essays by Charles Freeland, who teaches at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, on Antigone and the ‘ethics of psychoanalysis’ are based on Jacques Lacan’s ethics seminar of 1959-1960 at St. Anne’s Hospital in Paris; this seminar was the seventh in a series of twenty-seven seminars that lasted from 1953-1980 (Lacan, 1992a). There are seven essays in this book excluding the introduction. The topics covered here include the psychoanalytic notions of truth, desire, death, the moral law, the significance of Greek tragedy for Freudian metapsychology, and the problem of happiness. As will be obvious to the reader, these topics are also of interest to moral philosophers. The main difference however between the treatment of these topics in the texts of moral philosophy and psychoanalysis is in the invocation of the unconscious as an explanatory category here. The Greek and German thinkers of consequence in this context include Aristotle, Sophocles, Immanuel Kant, and their commentators. It would not be far-fetched to say that the depiction of Lacan as an ‘anti-philosopher’ in this book does not mean that he is not at all interested in philosophy, or that he had lost interest in philosophy (as opposed to psychoanalysis). What it really means is that Lacan wants to rethink the history of philosophy from the point of view of the unconscious (Boothby, 2001). This is analogous to the attempt made by Claude-Lévi Strauss to rethink the fundamental questions of anthropology from a structural point of view in the light of Ferdinand de Saussure’s work in general linguistics. Once the notion of linguistic structure became the most important explanatory category in the structuralism of Lévi Strauss; it not only revived anthropology as a discourse, but also made it possible for the insights of structural anthropology to be exported to a number of ancillary discourses (Boyne, 1996). Likewise, it is important for the reader to not go astray on the basis of what it means to do ‘anti-philosophy,’ and consider instead how the interaction between moral philosophy and psychoanalysis not only imbues moral philosophy with a sense of lived experience and human suffering on the basis of clinical insights, but also makes it possible for psychoanalysis to attain the dignity that is reserved for moral philosophy in the university curriculum.

Moral Philosophy and Psychoanalysis
The temptation to engage with moral philosophy, needless to say, was as strong for ego psychologists as it was for Lacan. So, for instance, more or less at the same time that Lacan was doing his ethics seminar in Paris (1959-60), Heinz Hartmann (1960) had a go at the same topic in America; the preoccupation with moral philosophy should not be misconstrued as an idiosyncrasy on the part of the French. Lacan’s main assumption in the ethics seminar is that there is something inadequate in how moral philosophers and classical scholars have treated the traditional themes of moral philosophy, Greek philosophy, and Greek tragedy. What is really missing in all these endeavors is a coherent theory of the subject. What psychoanalysis provides scholars in these areas is a coherent theory of the subject that can account for a range of moral phenomena that have not been adequately thought through; instances of such phenomena include the death instinct, desire, and happiness. This does not mean that Lacan is arguing for an alternate theory of ontology on the basis of his readings in philosophy; it means that for Lacan the unconscious does not lend itself readily to forms of ontological thinking; it is not only elusive in its manifestations, but is best described as ‘pre-ontological’ (Lacan, 1979). Lacan was fond of pointing out in his seminars that while everybody talks about or yearns for happiness, they are not emotionally prepared to attain happiness. Lacan even goes to the extent of saying that happiness has become more of a political category than a moral category. It would not be a stretch to say that what happened to happiness in traditional society is now happening to desire within the space of modernity. Whenever a moral category begins to serve as a political category, it means that the subject is not adequately prepared to either seek happiness or act on his desire. The reasons for the subject’s unwillingness to act on his desire can itself then become the main topic in an analysis. This problem matters for psychoanalysis because patients have a propensity to demand happiness in analysis even while they refuse to act on their desire. Does it really make sense to promise a patient that analysis will make him happy when that was very far from the Freudian intention? Freud’s promise was limited by the fact that psychoanalysis can at best reduce neurotic misery to commonplace unhappiness. It is therefore illegitimate to invoke happiness as a desirable or even a realizable outcome of analysis.

The Politics of Happiness
Freudian psychoanalysis was an attempt to alleviate suffering – not an attempt to induce happiness in the positive sense of the Aristotelian Good. The popular misunderstanding of psychoanalysis is however based precisely on this misunderstanding. Another misunderstanding is the failure to relate the life instinct adequately with the death instinct and think that psychoanalysts are, or should be mainly preoccupied with, the normative ideals of genital sexuality, or that they should work with their patients necessarily on a model of happiness that is based on the sexual function. These ideals – however important they may be – are to be situated as political ideals and must be fought for in the political realm rather than in the clinical realm (Jones, 1966; Marcuse, 1970; McCready, 2001). Happiness however is not the goal of the Freudian clinic; in Freudian psychoanalysis, the model of the cure is not medical in its cast, but existential in its orientation. The main difficulty in teaching or practicing psychoanalysis in countries preoccupied with happiness is the fact that the patients will be unable to appreciate the difference between the Eros and the Good. This distinction is important in terms of methodology because psychoanalysis doesn’t necessarily make the patient either happy or even a better person; such outcomes, needless to say, cannot be guaranteed in analysis. On the contrary, the most that can be said is that a well-analyzed person will have a better understanding of why he is unhappy or lacking in goodness. If this is not clearly understood from the beginning of the treatment, the existential tenor of analysis will be lost, and the patient will not be able to come to terms with the tragic cast of Eros that constitutes the subject’s attempts to make sense of his life, and psychoanalysis becomes reducible to the ‘service of goods.’ This is not only a recurring motif in Lacanian ethics, but a danger that has to be guarded against. This question is addressed by Lacan not so much in the context of case studies, but through the invocation of scenarios and thought experiments. A patient preoccupied with the Aristotelean Good, for instance, will think of Greek tragedy from a functional point of view in the context of his own analysis. The tragedy will become functionally reducible for him to the clinical technique of ‘catharsis’; it will become, as Aristotle thought it should be, mainly a purgation of ‘pity and fear’ from the minds of the spectators rather than an encounter with the real as the ‘impossible’ of desire, death, and the human condition as such (Evans, 1997; Lacan, 2007). Lacan, in other words, is more interested in the ‘tragic’ or the sense of tragedy, rather than with the literary genre of tragedy (Aristotle, 1996). This then will be the model of psychoanalysis that will be demanded by the patient who will then either reduce or conflate the notion of Freudian ‘abreaction’ to psychoanalysis as such (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1973; Rycroft, 1995). Once a patient makes this false move, he will neither understand himself in analysis, nor the significance of the techniques of free-association and working-through (that constitute the main-stay of the analytic method). A better part of both Lacan’s seminars and Freeland’s essays are preoccupied with these problems. But, as the title makes obvious, Freeland’s main concern is with ‘Antigone,’ the protagonist of Sophocles’ tragedy. The points that Lacan makes about Antigone’s death instinct and her encounter with até are made in the context of a specific reading of the play; they are not invoked as convenient examples. That is why Lacan’s reading of Antigone revived the interest of literary scholars in this tragedy.

Reading Antigone
Why did Lacan devote so much attention to a reading of Antigone? While it is difficult to do justice to the long commentaries that Lacan and Freeland have come with up on this topic, it will suffice in the space of this brief review if I can invoke at least two or three important reasons for this preoccupation with Antigone. What Antigone represents for Lacan is the dramatic experience of a limit and what it means for the subject to go beyond the boundaries of this symbolic limit. The term that Lacan invokes from Sophocles for this symbolic limit, as previously mentioned, is até. Antigone’s compulsive, transgressive, desire to bury her brother, Polynices, when she has been forbidden to do so by the edict of the tyrant, Creon, even at the cost of her own life is a specific instance of breaching the symbolic limits, of an encounter with the beyond of até. Most contemporary readers or patients, who respond to this tragedy with a notion of either the Aristotelian Good, or even a simplistic notion of the good in the everyday sense of the term, will simply not be able to make sense of the ethical or heroic elements that are being invoked in Antigone. They will find themselves in the locus of her sister Ismene who refused to participate in the burial of Polynices. This is because the notion of the Good is preoccupied with what is politically safe for the subject to do. The main task of the Chorus in the play is to explain what in fact is safe for the citizens to do. The Good is a way of orienting social life to prevent encounters with these limits of the symbolic on the part of the citizen lest his death instincts be triggered-off in a moment of excess. Likewise, for Creon, the ruler who forbids Antigone from burying Polynices, her dead brother, there is symbolic equivalence between Law and Reason; and Creon does not recognize any limit in his pursuit of the Law since, in his conception, he is himself in the locus of the State, and there is no gap for him (unlike in contemporary jurisprudence) between Law and Reason. This notion is fine as long as it is merely a philosophical assumption, but when Creon really begins to act on this assumption, he too is propelled beyond the moderate confines of the pleasure principle, and the tragedy begins to unravel for both Creon and Antigone who find themselves as the ethical equivalents of an irresistible force and an immoveable object (Sophocles, 1968). Neither was aware that they would both be caught up in the excess that their encounter would generate. Like most tragic protagonists, they are not fully aware of the situations in which they find themselves; and Lacan’s goal, as that of Freeland’s commentary, is to help us make sense of wherein lay the tragic element in their encounter.

While Antigone’s act was no doubt transgressive, it will be difficult to make sense of what she was up to without some understanding of the French preoccupation with transgression as an ‘ethical paradigm’ in the wake of Georges Bataille’s theory of transgression. What Freeland tries to do then is to situate Lacan’s reading of Antigone within precisely this French tradition of taking transgression as a point of entry into a theory of desire; and the ethics of desire, since the main question that Lacan invokes in a thought experiment for the patient – at the end of the analysis is – to answer this question on the Day of Last Judgment: ‘Have you acted in conformity with the desire that is in you?’ (Lacan, 1992b). This book will be very useful in courses in literary theory, comparative literature, and psychoanalysis. It is however not as expository as it appears to be; it presupposes that the reader is well into the Freudian field. For readers who are however willing to put in the effort, it will help to make sense of not only what Lacan was trying to do in his ethics seminar of 1960, but what Freeland hopes to make of it in his turn.


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Boyne, Roy (1996).’Structuralism,’ The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, edited by Bryan S. Turner (Oxford, UK & Cambridge, USA: Blackwell), pp. 194-220.

Boothby, Richard (2001). Freud as Philosopher: Metapsychology after Lacan (New York and London: Routledge).

Evans, Dylan (1997). ‘Real,’ An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (London and New York), p. 159-161.

Hartmann, Heinz (1960). Psychoanalysis and Moral Values (New York: International Universities Press).

Jones, Howard Mumford (1966). The Pursuit of Happiness (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

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Sophocles (1968). ‘Antigone,’ Greek Tragedies, Vol.1, edited by David Grene and Richard Lattimore, translated by Elizabeth Wyckoff (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press), pp. 177-228.


Shiva Kumar Srinivasan has a PhD in English Literature and Psychoanalysis from Cardiff University, Wales. His PhD thesis was titled ‘Oedipus Redux: D.H. Lawrence in the Freudian Field’ (1996). He has served as a faculty at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur; Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi; Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad; Xavier Labor Relations Institute, Jamshedpur; Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode; and International Institute of Planning and Management, Chennai.