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The same point concerning blood relations can be made starting from the beginning of Oedipus’ life. When Laius receives the prophecy, he does not understand it as, to paraphrase Jocasta, just another revelation of every man’s unconscious and recognizes that he and his son will rival in competition for the mother. Instead of hearing the prophecy as an indeterminate message (announcing, for instance, the possibility that the son may even go so far as to rise up against and kill his father), Laius, being a Labdacid, behaves as if the prophetic words did not need to be interpreted. As if it were absolutely certain and clear that his son would kill him, he desperately tries to prevent the patricide from taking place, all the while unconsciously working to make his murder and the incest possible. (For instance, we learn that Laius did not see to the baby’s end himself. Instead, it was Jocasta who handed the child to the Shepherd.) It is his belief in a certain kind of truth, the strength of his unconscious desire, and his blindness to what he is doing that make Laius into the father of the son who will kill him.

If this makes Laius into a figure for the father’s unconscious desire, or for the father’s castration anxiety, he can be that only if he is also a figure for literal interpretation, a figure for the belief in blood bonds as indomitable and true ties.


Reading Oedipus’ story backwards, from Antigone’s death toward Oedipus’ birth, has allowed us to develop an understanding of what a father is that is fundamentally different from the basic psychoanalytic notion developed in relation to the Theban plays. Staying close to Lacan, Pietro Pucci defines the father as follows: “The Father figure is the figure of the anchorage of any discourse to a fixed origin, to a transcendental signified, and therefore, in the play, he is not simply the figure of Oedipus’s real biological origin, but the figure around whose constitution and fabrication the possibility of truth pivots for every discourse in our world.”21 182 Penumbra According to Pucci, the father is not simply a begetter; he is—rather miraculously—the figure that can be two things at the same time: a biological origin, an actual father, as well as the center, the function, around which the very possibility of truth circles. What Pucci identifies in the above quotation as the truth is Oedipus’ truth, not a father’s truth or the truth of fatherhood in general. It is the truth that becomes possible when Oedipus recognizes Laius as his legitimate father and rejects Polybus, who is not his genos and who cannot be called the true begetting father.

Surprisingly, given her feminist and queer investments, in Antigone’s Claim Judith Butler accepts Lacan’s understanding of Oedipus, which is, at bottom, the same as Pucci’s suggestion that Oedipus is the organizing principle that

sets the rule “for every discourse in our world.”22 She writes, for instance:

“For the Oedipus complex to be universal by virtue of being symbolic, for Lacan, does not mean that the Oedipus complex has to be globally evidenced for it to be regarded as universal …. Rather, where and when the Oedipus complex appears, it exercises the function of universalization: it appears as that which is everywhere true.”23 Precisely. But, the figure of Oedipus can appear as universal only if two additional assumptions also appear as true.

First, that there is such a thing as true fatherhood, and second, that the system of signs—the entire system of signs—follows the rules that Oedipus, and Antigone after him, rely on when deciding what constitutes a proper father function.24 Butler, to do her reading of Oedipus justice, does go on to ask if the understanding of universalization she has formulated “work[s] to usher in God (or the gods) through another door.”25 But she all too quickly equates the contingency of the Oedipus complex with its “ungroundedness,” and does not pursue the implication.

Even if seen as contingent, the figure of Oedipus (and the complex with his name) depends on a certain ground, namely, on the distinction between true and arbitrary blood, legitimate and illegitimate family ties. The drama institutes a binary (true/false, indomitable/arbitrary) on which the protagonist’s destiny and the meaning of the figure of Oedipus rest. In differentiating between his two fathers, Oedipus, and Greek culture with him, choose one genealogy, one logic of truth, one legality over a possible alternative. In relying on the Oedipus myth the way we commonly do—the way Lacan does in the lectures on Antigone, the way Pucci does in Oedipus and the Fabrication of the Father, the way Butler does in Antigone’s Claim—we are reiterating this election.

Through Antigone Oedipus imposes itself as a universal model, making certain family forms appear insignificant or, in the worst case, illegitimate. As is to be expected, what is taken to be the drama at the very origin of Western culture—the myth of Oedipus—also sets the limitations to what can legitimately be called a family within that system.

Although the father figures are mutually interchangeable in the three plays by Sophocles, it is important to emphasize that the principal father Antigone’s Kind figure of the tragedies is not Laius but Oedipus: I do not mean Oedipus the king who finds his true father, but the Oedipus who is the father of the truth that there is such a thing as a true father. Antigone the daughter is the one who confirms and fixes this figure for the future, which will see no more sons of the Labdacid line. She is, in other words, the first one with the complex.

Following this line of thinking, to have the complex means to accept the father in the terms that define Oedipus as a father. As such, the Oedipus complex is more a rite of initiation than a complex, a tangle of unconscious, unarticulated desires. It is a deed or act that a child must perform, just like Antigone, in order to become a member of a specific (Western?) family.

Through the rite, the child becomes what it (already) is and, in the process, makes its parents into who they (already) are, namely, parents.

That fatherhood and family are defined based on Oedipus’ choice is the problem with the complex and with any reading—including Sophocles’ three plays, Lacan’s lectures on Antigone, Butler’s Antigone’s Claim26—of the Oedipus myths as an originary cultural drama.

FREUD For his part, Freud states clearly that we do not share Oedipus’ fortune.

In one of the few places in his work where he does actually address Sophocles’ tragedy (which is of little consequence for his building of psychoanalysis),27 he says: “King Oedipus, who slew his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfilment of our own childhood wishes. But, more fortunate than he, we have meanwhile succeeded, in so far as we have not become psychoneurotics, in detaching our sexual impulses from our mothers and in forgetting our jealousy of our fathers.”28 What Freud indicates in this passage is that we are more fortunate than Oedipus was. Unlike us and unlike neurotics, the poor king did not feel jealousy toward the dead man he identified, at last, as his father. In this sense, he never had a chance of becoming neurotic.

But, more importantly, in The Interpretation of Dreams Freud refers to the myth of Oedipus and to Sophocles’ play in the hope of identifying the nascent science of psychoanalysis with classical Greek culture. On the one hand, the myth illustrates, for a wide, general audience, his hypothesis of children’s sexuality. On the other hand, Oedipus Tyrannus offers a hyperbole for the work of psychoanalysis, for, according to Freud, the play “consists in nothing other than the process of revealing … a process that can be likened to the work of a psychoanalysis.”29 The result of the comparison is that psychoanalysis appears capable of explaining the most puzzling misfortune related in Greek mythology.

Its work of explanation, Freud suggests indirectly, runs as ineluctably as destiny in Sophocles’ famous play or, perhaps, as persistently as the tragedy’s uncovering of the truth. Freud does not indicate, however, whether psychoanalysis too moves towards blinding the patient (as Chase suggests),30 or if it 184 Penumbra runs toward some kind of catharsis. By the end of his life, as we learn from Freud’s late text on the terminal point of analysis, his belief in the potency of psychoanalysis—which is what the early reference to Oedipus expresses—is, however, significantly revised.

In this essay I have attempted to continue Lacan’s project of emptying the paternal metaphor, which I take to be the defining task of psychoanalysis after Lacan. I have also tried to suggest that an interrogation of a certain form of identification, and of a certain notion of family within which this identification is formed—in short, the logic of blood—should be the very focal point of our psychoanalytic thinking about wars. I should add in closing that there is, perhaps, an even more fundamental type of genos than the one (blood) to which this essay is devoted. It is found in relation to the status of psychoanalysis conceived as a body of knowledge and, specifically, in the investigation of the kind of knowledge that psychoanalysis pretends to be. Both Freud and Lacan claim for it that it is a science, a discourse about family (and not so much a science about the individual), without devoting much analysis to their supposition (their fundamental scientific but also cultural notion) that there is a genos—be it natural or cultural—in the first place.


1. Charles Shepherdson, Vital Signs: Nature, Culture, Psychoanalysis (New York:

Routledge, 2000), 140.

2. In a recent essay on Freud’s “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” Samuel Weber singles out identification—an “identification with the hero, the star, the individual … and against the enemy, the foreigner, the mass”—as the prime mobilizer for war. “Wartime,” in Violence, Identity,

and Self-Determination, ed. Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber (Stanford:

Stanford University Press, 1997), 102.

3. Among Judith Butler’s primary tasks in Antigone’s Claim is reenvisioning what a family is. To the extent that Butler challenges in this work the figure of Oedipus, whose law is “the law of psychoanalysis itself,” my exposition on Antigone and Oedipus fully agrees with hers. In my reading of the plays, however, I will depart significantly from her interpretation. For Butler, the two Greek plays are still the primary model dramatizing the human transition into culture, even though she wants to radically examine “whether the incest taboo has also been mobilized to establish certain forms of kinship as the only intelligible and livable ones.” Antigone’s Claim: Kinship Between Life and Death (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 21, 70.

4. Though the classical scholarship on Sophocles’ Theban tragedies is overwhelming, to the best of my knowledge, no work, not even Pietro Pucci’s Antigone’s Kind psychoanalytically informed Oedipus and the Fabrication of the Father: Oedipus Tyrannus in Modern Criticism and Philosophy (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), explains what it is that Oedipus is choosing when he begins to consider Laius, and not Polybus, his father. Literary scholars seem to be so invested in the established understanding that they are unwilling to examine closely the crucial differences between Sophocles’ Oedipus and the psychoanalytic function that bears the king’s name. For instance, in “Beyond Oedipus,” Shoshana Felman presents a theory of self-recognition without noting that in the play Oedipus’ self-recognition is predicated on an understanding of what a true father is. See “Beyond Oedipus: The Specimen Story of Psychoanalysis,” in MLN 98 (December 1983): 1021-1053.

5. Citing George Steiner’s Antigones, Butler asks in Antigone’s Claim what psychoanalysis would be if it took the figure of Antigone, and not Oedipus, as its point of departure (57; see also 76). In this text I will suggest that such a psychoanalysis would not be fundamentally different. This is what Lacan’s interpretation of Antigone, when read in the way we are going to read it here, shows. But the stakes of analyzing Antigone and Oedipus are quite beyond what Steiner would want to wager—at stake is psychoanalysis itself as a body of knowledge whose organizing principle is the castration theory (and not the figure of Oedipus or, for that matter, Antigone).

For Freud, and Lacan as well, castration is the crucial psychic mechanism underpinning the desire and rivalry that the figure of Oedipus represents.

6. Jacques Derrida, “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences,” in Writing and Difference, ed. and trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1978), 280.

7. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: Norton, 1993), 309. Subsequent references will appear parenthetically within the text. While I will be arguing against one Lacan in this article—the Lacan of the dead father—I consider my reading Lacanian because it agrees with, and indeed follows, the Lacan for whom fatherhood is a matter of linguistic utterance, a matter, as he says, of acknowledgment.

8. Commentators agree that Sophocles’ text does not provide enough evidence that the man whom Oedipus murdered at the crossroads was Laius.

The other crucial identification—namely, the identification of Oedipus, who is the king of Thebes, with the son Laius wanted killed—is a combination of two firsthand testimonies, one by the Shepherd and one by the Messenger, and Jocasta’s tacit admission that Oedipus is, indeed, Laius’ offspring. Given this background, it should be easy to conclude that what is at stake in reading or retelling Oedipus’ drama is not only the nature of 186 Penumbra fatherhood but, primarily, the nature of truth.

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