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The burial of the dishonored corpse of Polynices has, then, a very precise value and content. Finally, it identifies Antigone as the last living, true offspring, the true blood of Oedipus.
THE GOOD OF ALL
If, then, this tragedy situates the ground of a community between justice and law, between unwritten customs and modern laws, between family and state (as post-Hegelian interpretations tell us), we should recognize that the belief-system so situated is itself circumscribed by a more general symbolic act, an act that too often goes unregistered: Antigone’s attempt to affirm (fix, secure) Oedipus’ central position in her family. Whatever the city of Thebes will believe kinship relations to be, whatever the kind of rule the city will adopt, Oedipus (and his notion of what a family is, which is affirmed by Antigone) will be at the heart of its symbolic system. Here Oedipus is not merely a father figure but a father with a specific history—a dead king who unknowingly killed his father and committed incest. He is, in short, a criminal who committed no crime, a criminal only in the sense that, post facto, after the discovery of what a “true” identity is, he pronounced himself the killer of his father and husband to his mother.
What Antigone does, and what Lacan’s reading repeats after it, is to inscribe Oedipus’ law as the Law of the Father. As such, Antigone has the conservative purpose of confirming that the paternal function is modeled on Oedipus. What Oedipus himself stands for, what the divisions and assumptions inaugurated in his tragedy are, we shall see in the second part of this essay, after a brief look at Antigone’s sister, Ismene.
ISMENEFor the tragic audience, the family circle is closed at the end of Antigone.
The rupture signaled by the exposed corpse at the opening of the play is covered over, and the cycle of the family curse that moved the Theban tragedies forward is now finished. There are no more sons or strange daughters to continue the Atè into the next generation. The community can leave behind (that is, bury and forget) this terrible disturbance at the very heart of what makes it one political entity.
For the analytic audience, on the other hand, the message of the play is often said to be “do not give up on your desire.” After the interpretation we have offered, it is hard to see what giving up on one’s desire would mean in this context. In his reading of Antigone, Lacan defines the law of Oedipus as itself constitutive of desire, without allowing that a negation of this law, or an alternative to it, is possible. The two options Lacan presents are, in fact, either to follow desire, as Antigone does, or to exist without an essential determination, as Ismene does.
In not going after what is for Antigone “her desire” (Oedipus’ Atè), Ismene does not, however, simply give up on hers. Since at the very beginning of the play Ismene does not rise to the status of Oedipus’ true daughter, it seems that she is never again in a position to act (or not to act) according to her desire. Ismene is not the kind of daughter who could pursue the Atè, though she accompanies her father to his death and is ready to join Antigone now and share “the blame.” She even offers to die with her beloved sister (“But in your time of trouble I am not ashamed to make myself a fellow voyager in your suffering”) and is rejected by Antigone (“And I do not tolerate a loved one who shows her love only in words” ).
But neither is Ismene Oedipus’ rejected, illegitimate offspring. She is, simply, the other one (as Creon refers to her when he orders that both daughters should be punished, before changing his mind). Ismene, we can say, is the forgotten one, to whom neither ancient Greek myth and poetry, nor psychoanalysis, devotes attention. We have to say, then, that the alternative to the legal sphere that appears in the play, an alternative to the culture defined by Oedipus’ Atè and its repetition (including Ismene’s fear of Atè), is something altogether other than legality and civility as they are constituted in this play and reconstituted in Lacan’s reading.
This “altogether other” legality and civility are not some forgotten past forms, some more originary organization of the law—matriarchy, for instance, as Luce Irigaray claims. For instance, in Speculum of the Other Woman,
Irigaray identifies Sophocles’ play as the “historical bridge between matriarchy and patriarchy.”15 Her Sexes and Genealogies expands on the same thought:
What is the nature of the laws that Antigone respects? They are religious laws relating to the burial of her brother who has been killed in a war Antigone’s Kind among men. These laws have to do with the cultural obligations owed to the mother’s blood, the blood shared by the brothers and sisters in the family.
The duty to this blood will be denied and outlawed as the culture becomes patriarchal. This tragic episode in life—and in war—between the genders represents the passage into patriarchy. The daughter is forbidden to respect the blood bonds with her mother.16 It is not, however, Creon’s ban or any other political edict that stands between Antigone and her mother, as Irigaray indicates. It is the incest taboo that forces Antigone to affirm the law of the father and the logic of blood, where blood is a symbolic, rather than a biological tie. Otherwise, without this reinterpretation, her father would remain her brother.
With respect to Antigone, the other legality does not stand as savagery to civility, as pre-Oedipal to post-Oedipal, or as crime to law. Savagery, at any rate, as we learn from Shepherdson, is always younger than civility and is born of it.17 This legality, this culture is, simply, other than the law of the father constituted as Oedipal law, itself understood as the law of true blood ties.
Like Ismene, this other legality may be Oedipus’ child but is not Oedipus’ true blood in the sense that Antigone is. But what are true blood ties exactly?
PART II. OEDIPUS
Blood Ties Here I will offer only an introductory account of the significance of blood in Oedipus Tyrannus, which should nevertheless suffice, since the notion of blood I am going to identify is neither obscure nor new to the reading of Sophocles’ plays, only a radically different concept from the one to which psychoanalysis is accustomed.18 Basically, there are two instances of “blood” that are crucial for our reading. The first concerns the definition of the difference between Laius and Polybus, and the second concerns the definition of the Theban royal lineage.
The first takes place after the Messenger from Corinth tells the King that Polybus was not his father. I will paraphrase their conversation in order to emphasize the difference between the two fathers defined in this scene.
Polybus, the Messenger says, was not your genos (kin, stock, or race). But, what are you saying? Oedipus asks. How is it possible that he and I are not of the same kind if he is the one I came from, if he is my source? No, says the Messenger, he is no more your kind than I am. Oedipus then asks the crucial question concerning fatherhood, which brings together the two competing notions of what a father is: how is it possible that he who was my lord and my guardian was not the one who brought me forth? How is it possible, he asks, that Polybus is my progenitor but that he is not of my race? Well, the Messenger responds, it is not possible. Polybus was not your begetter, not your original procreator.
180 Penumbra Why then, Oedipus asks, surprised, did he call me his son? He called you his son, the Messenger explains, because he received you as a gift from me. But, Oedipus adds desperately, he loved me dearly. He loved me as a father loves a son. The reason for that, the Messenger suggests, is that he had no children of his own. He did not have any descendants of his kind to whom he could compare you.19 The first piece of the puzzle is thus solved: Polybus is not Oedipus’ father. In order to unravel the second secret—who fathered Oedipus?—the play traces in reverse the hands through which he was passed as a baby, starting with the Messenger who gave the baby to Polybus. The chain leads all the way back to Jocasta, who, the Shepherd suggests a bit later, is the beginning of the chain. As the baby’s mother, she is the only one who would know whether or not Oedipus’ real father was Laius, the former king of Thebes.
The mother does not herself confirm the veracity of the Shepherd’s words and the father’s identity. Instead, her suicide does so implicitly, suggesting that Laius is, indeed, Oedipus’ father. Oedipus, in a recognition of his own, storms into the palace saying, “All is now clear! O light, may I now look on you for the last time, I who am revealed as cursed in my birth, cursed in my marriage, cursed in my killing!” (453). When he comes back, he gives his final commentary on what he has done. Addressing his children for the last time, he says: “Your father killed his father and bore you from the source of his own being” (479).
The result of the differentiation of the two kinds of father is that Laius was a true father and had a child of his own genos. Polybus, on the other hand, was not a true father and did not have offspring of his own blood. Oedipus is indeed, as he himself concludes, “of the race of Laius” (469). While Laius is the begetting father, to whom Oedipus traces his lineage, Polybus is just another man to whom Oedipus is related in the same way that he is related to the Messenger. That is, Oedipus is no relation of his. Polybus merely handled the baby on its route from the mother to a definition of what, not only who, the real father is. Laius’ haima, his blood, runs in Oedipus’ veins. It is Oedipus’ blood, as well as the blood Oedipus spills, and it is this blood that needs to be avenged in order to lift the plague ruining the city of Thebes.20 The understanding of progeneration that Oedipus accepts at the end of the play holds that the true father deposits his seed (spermata) in the mother’s womb, which is itself the receptacle where the seed grows. Thus, Oedipus is Laius’ spermata grown, and Laius is Oedipus’ true father because he is the source of the seed. We should notice, however, that even in Oedipus’ case, the son is produced by an illocutionary act, enacting what it names. That is to say, even in Oedipus Tyrannus, biological origin is, in fact, a cultural origin. No matter what reason Oedipus gives to prove that Laius and not Polybus is his true father, the son is the one whom the father claims (which in this case happens when Laius identifies Oedipus as the future patricide). And the father is, as we see at the end of the play, the one whom the son claims last.
Antigone’s Kind LAIUS The second example of blood concerns Laius’ lineage identified in the very first line of the play: “Children, latest to be reared from the stock of Cadmus” (327). Laius has a place in the family because he is, in Oedipus’ words, “the son of Labdacus, [who] sprung from Polydorus and from Cadmus before him and Agenor long ago” (349). The blood line that Oedipus thus identifies spreads from one generation of true-begetting fathers to the next, starting with the oldest, Agenor, who begot Cadmus, who begot Polydorus, who begot Labdacus, who begot Laius, who, as Oedipus discovers, begot the last king. Or, rather, since it is the son who names a certain man as a begetter, the right order of Laius’ lineage is, as Oedipus himself indicates, the reverse, from the youngest to the most ancient. When there are no living sons, a daughter, as we saw above, has to take upon herself the impossible symbolic act of making the father.