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Unique Value On the assumption that it is children who define parents as parents, I will begin with Lacan’s reading of Antigone, leaving Oedipus Tyrannus for the second part of the essay. I will contend that it is the daughter who ultimately defines the kind of father Oedipus is, and that she does this in the last significant act of the Labdacid family saga, when she buries her brother Polynices.9 Commenting on Antigone’s act, Lacan says: “Because he [Polynices] is abandoned to the dogs and the birds and will end his appearance on earth in impurity, with his scattered limbs an offense to heaven and earth, it can be seen that Antigone’s position represents the radical limit that affirms the unique value of his being without reference to any content, to whatever good or evil Polynices may have done, or to whatever he may be subjected to” (279). By covering the corpse, Lacan observes, Antigone affirms her brother’s unique value. Lacan then explains what he means by unique value, adding to his commentary something that does not obviously follow from Sophocles’ play. Expanding on his assumption that Antigone “affirms the advent of the absolute individual” (278), Lacan states that this unique value of Polynices’ being has no “reference to any content,” that is, to any deed Antigone’s brother performed while he was alive.
According to Lacan, what “the unique value of his being” is should also make the corpse replaceable in the sense that, contentless, this body is just like any other unburied body precisely because it is outside of the web of social relations that made the son of Oedipus into a particular individual. Separated from all the details of Polynices’ life, the corpse is now all that remains of the human, mortal being, merely a bearer of a proper name. That the corpse still has a name means simply that there is someone (anyone, not necessarily his sister) to recognize and claim it. Antigone could even mistake his remains for another’s, and not tend to the corpse that was Polynices (presumably, there is a whole army of unburied enemy dead lying around Thebes?). Regardless, the act would have the same symbolic significance because the unique value, the absolute individuality, consists in nothing other than the recognition of Antigone’s Kind human mortality—the having been of him who once was Oedipus’ son. To honor Polynices means, in Lacan’s line of thinking, to acknowledge that these remains are not a mere object, certainly not an animal carcass, but the mortal remains of the man who answered to the name of Polynices.
From the same perspective, Creon’s ban on burying the corpse goes too far because it orders what is, in Lacan’s terms, the “second death” of a man, the debasement of his remains to the level of an object, and thus the man’s erasure from the symbolic. The purpose of the burial is to reverse the effect of this ban and to restore the being, without necessarily restoring any of the being’s attributes. The purpose, in other words, is to acknowledge Polynices’ singularity. But, as we well know, Antigone would not have defied Creon’s pronouncement just because it ordered the debasement of a corpse. By the end of his lecture Lacan himself shifts from the argument concerning the absoluteness of the individual being to the claim that Antigone protects the family being, not human singularity.11 What we are dealing with here are two different values (and value systems) that Lacan does not, in the Antigone lectures at least, distinguish as essentially different.12 The first is the absoluteness of the corpse, which is separated from all particularities of Polynices’ life, and represents the “ineffaceable character of what is” (279). This notion is of interest to Lacan only for a brief moment (in this lecture, at least) while he discusses Polynices’ remains and before he returns to Antigone. A second issue concerns what, in Sophocles’ play, constitutes a sufficient reason for the heroine to break Creon’s order. For the play, the question is whose corpse it has to be in order for Antigone to defy Creon and the city.
I am discussing the unique value here in order to suggest, even before we approach Sophocles’ text, that Antigone’s act has nothing to do with human singularity. It has nothing to do with the difference between human and animal deaths that, for instance, Heidegger asserts in Being and Time—a work that may have inspired Lacan, either directly or indirectly, to claim that the corpse is at the limit of subjecthood, that it is beyond “reference to any” moral, personal, or historical content.
Antigone is concerned only with the family, which she considers the very ground that confers upon one what one is. She does not act because she believes that leaving a human corpse to rot is an insult to the gods (as not only Lacan, but also the Chorus, Tiresias, and some Theban citizens may think), but because the corpse of her brother has not been properly honored—and this has certain implications for her family, all of whose members, as we shall see in a moment, are dead.
To what end, and how she buries this last male offspring of Cadmus’ line, if she does not bury him either as a human being or as an absolute individual, remains to be seen below.
THE FAMILY’S ESSENTIAL BEINGWhen she acts, Antigone is more than clear that she honors her dead brother, and she would not do the same for anyone else. After she is sentenced
to death, addressing herself to Polynices, she utters these crucial words:
Polynices, for burying your body I get this reward! Yet in the eyes of the wise I did well to honour you; for 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 [nomos] 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. Such was the law for whose sake I did you special honour.13 She would not have defied Creon’s law for anyone who is replaceable, but she has to do it for the one—her brother—who cannot be replaced by another, since her parents are dead.
Antigone’s mother is dead because continuing her life would have meant prolonging an unbearable incest. Her father, afraid to die because he would meet in the afterlife the father he murdered and his mother, who is also his wife, is no longer alive because, as Sophocles tells us at the end of Oedipus at Colonus, the gods took pity on him and bore him away. Antigone must have a particular reason for mentioning the offensive impossibility of another son of her parents, a reason beyond recalling that her parents are dead, or explaining that she has buried Polynices because she could not have another brother.
The latter is a necessary but not sufficient reason for her to defy Creon. In and of itself, it does not adequately account for the significance of her act.
The fact that Oedipus’ children and their father share the same mother makes an identification of what distinguishes him from them—namely, the different fathers—the implicit task of this speech (one of the final words that a living Labdacid utters). At any rate, Antigone devotes the central part of the speech precisely to deciding who and what her kin are and what her place in that family is. By saying that she would not have defied the city for anyone but a brother, she first separates kin from everyone else. She then goes on to define what the family is by distinguishing between three different families: one belonging to the dead Oedipus, to which she is related by blood; another possible family belonging to her husband, to which she would be related by law, that is, by marriage; and, of course, the family in which her mother has the organizing role, the family in which her father is her brother. She gives primacy to the first of these three, choosing Oedipus’ family for herself. She then identifies her mother and father (as those who cannot have children again), implicitly separating the incestuous parents from their children, her father from her brothers. Finally, she singles out one family member, an impossible brother, thus properly defining a brother as a male offspring of the same Antigone’s Kind parents who bore her. She makes these distinctions to order the relations between family members, between parents and children, sister and brothers, relations that were disrupted by the incest of Jocasta and Oedipus. And she does so understanding that she is the last of her kind and that her burial of Polynices is the final act in the entire saga of Cadmus’ unfortunate line.
In her own eyes, Antigone is, literally, the last among “those of me”: “O tomb, O bridal chamber, O deep-dug home, to be guarded for ever, where I go to join those who are my own, of whom Persephassa [Persephone] has already received a great number, dead, among the shades! Of these I am the last [the one left behind] and my descent will be the saddest of all” (87; emphases added).
The rule she lays down in the process of defining kinship dictates that her unburied dead brother—precisely because he is not yet buried—is her only remaining relation in this world to her own. Her own are members of Oedipus’ family with whom she hopes to reunite in the afterlife. Otherwise— if she did not believe that the family were a patrilineal bond with the dead Oedipus’ kind, but a relation established through marriage or another conventional rule—Antigone would consider even Creon her kin. He is her uncle, after all. And, more importantly, she would not so easily renounce her living sister, Ismene. (Below, we shall see why Ismene is not a part of the family that Antigone is trying to define and protect through the burial of Polynices.) If Antigone is not honoring the singularity of being we described above, neither is she honoring just any version of kinship relations, any Law of the Father. She favors what she understands to be the true family, her own dead people, that is, a father’s line (not a husband’s or a mother’s), the father figure being the disseminator of the family’s seed as well as of its name, which only one of his daughters chooses to bear. For it is this father’s Atè, as Lacan says, that Antigone is following. In her act Antigone is thus honoring one specific, patrilineal family bond, which is the bond with her own who are now dead.
She is placing this bond (and also the logic of true blood that underwrites it) before and above all other relations, including her relation to the living female sibling. Lacan, needless to say, recognizes that Antigone buries her brother as her father’s son (and not as a singular being). He goes on to conclude his analysis of the tragedy by claiming that Antigone “is required to sacrifice her own being in order to maintain that essential being which is the family Atè, and that is the theme or true axis on which the whole tragedy turns” (283). In other words, Lacan asserts that in burying her brother, Antigone maintains the unique value not of a human being (as a human being), but of her family.
The unique value, this “essential being,” is identified by Lacan as the family’s Atè. But the meaning of Atè as a concept (“the limit that human life can only briefly cross,” as Lacan says [262-263]), or its particular content, is not, I will argue against Lacan, what constitutes the essential being of Oedipus’ family.
The essential being is the fact that this family has an Atè and that Antigone is 176 Penumbra there to follow it and thus confirm that Oedipus’ dead kin are her true blood relations.14 The essential being that was, in our first approach to Lacan, emptied of content and divorced from all context, is now related to the family to which Antigone is “essentially” attached and for which she dies. If above we thought with Lacan that there was such a thing as a unique value of the singular being, as a mortal being irrespective of its history, by the end of the Antigone lectures, Lacan replaces this idea with the notion that the characters in the play derive their uniqueness from their position in the family. The family itself is identified post facto, in retrospect, after the death of the parents. The source of the family—its “center,” as Derrida might call it—is placed, in Antigone’s belated recognition, simultaneously here and elsewhere. The actual father is displaced into the afterlife where, dead, he becomes unassailable. Having been transformed into a function, the “father” is also removed into the past.
After her parents die, the only thing Antigone actually needs to do is to take upon herself the “impossible” role of being her father’s daughter. Her burial of Polynices is meant to affirm, to honor this logic, this indomitable law of Oedipus that is established through her act. Such is her nomos. To cite her words again: “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. Such was the law for whose sake I did you special honour.” We can conclude then that Antigone buries Polynices not merely because she can have no more brothers or because the unburied corpse is her brother.
The burial of Polynices is a means to the end of defining what family is hers and what her family is. She chooses, let me repeat, between, on the one hand, the future and the family of a husband she might have and, on the other hand, the past and the dead Labdacid line, electing the latter. Burying the brother is her way of distinguishing her dead father from her dead brother, and of honoring her own dead stock as her own, of whom she is the last in line. The reason for her sacrifice is thus not only that her act makes it possible for her to become a true member of the accursed family of Oedipus, as Lacan says, but also that it allows her to do what her father did—namely, to define what precisely a (“natural”) family is. For her, as for her father, family is a matter of the past, an unalterable, true blood tie spanning at least two generations, each of which is defined by its male members.