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Theories of Desire: Antigone Again

Author(s): By Franoise Meltzer

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Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Winter 2011), pp. 169-186
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Theories of Desire: Antigone Again

Francoise Meltzer

The figure of Antigone has never ceased to preoccupy usthis despite

remarks such as Matthew Arnolds in the 1853 preface to his Fragment of
an Antigone. The play of Sophocles, argues Arnold, turns upon the
conflict between the heroines duty to her brothers corpse and that to the
laws of her country. But such a conflict is no longer one in which it is
possible that we should feel a deep interest.1 George Eliot retorted that
Arnold had misread the play, which for her had to do with the struggle
between elemental and established laws. Through this struggle, the
outer life of man is gradually and painfully . . . brought into harmony with
his inner needs.2 In point of fact, both Arnold and Eliot see the same
problem in the play, though they use a different vocabulary: the duty to a
brother as against the laws of a country (Arnold) is basically the same as the
struggle between something elemental and established law (Eliot). On the
other hand, Eliot was certainly right to refute the notion that we no longer
can have a deep interest in the play. As George Steiner makes clear in his
exhaustive book Antigones (1984), Antigone has been the object of obsession from the end of the eighteenth century till the present.3
Recent texts might be seen as bookends shoring up the two ends of a
spectrum of Antigone versions, obsessions, and theories. Judith Butler, in
For Raquel Scherr.
Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.
Thanks to Jay Williams for his insightful (as usual) editing.
1. Matthew Arnold, Preface to First Edition of Poems, On the Classical Tradition, ed.
R. H. Super (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1960), p. 12.
2. George Eliot, The Antigone and Its Moral, review of The Antigone of Sophocles, trans.
and ed. J. H. Parker, The Leader, 29 Mar. 1856, p. 306.
3. See George Steiner, Antigones (New York, 1984).
Critical Inquiry 37 (Winter 2011)
2011 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/11/3702-0006$10.00. All rights reserved.



Francoise Meltzer / Theories of Desire

Antigones Claim, for example, reconsiders a great deal of the thinking on

Antigone (mainly by G. W. F. Hegel and Jacques Lacan), particularly in
relation to what we persist in calling postmodernism.4 Even in todays
political, controversial, and conflict-laden world, Antigone emerges as a
central force that seems to embody the tensions of the age. In 2004, Seamus
Heaney produced a searing (if problematic) translation: The Burial at
Thebes. The situation of Antigone is being reenacted, writes Heaney, in our
own political world: just as Creon forced the citizens of Thebes into an
either/or situation in relation to Antigone, the Bush administration in the
White House was using the same tactic to forward its argument for war on
Iraq.5 But Garry Wills, in his review of Heaneys translation, disagrees:
the result is a black-and-white picture, with Antigone all purity and
Creon sheer taint. There are good reasons for opposing the invasion of
Iraq, but none that Sophocles can provide.6 These comments are all concerned with the Antigone of Sophocles. Twentieth-century adaptations by Jean Cocteau, Bertolt Brecht, Jean Anouilh, and Heaney, for
exampleare of course examined in studies of the authors in question;
but when it comes to considering Antigones strange and powerful lure, it
is the Sophocles figure that largely dominates. It is as if there were a certain
flattening of Antigones crisis in the more modern, largely political, renditions of her story.
The most successful of such flattening is Anouilhs 1944 Antigone.7 One
of the authors pie`ces noires, the play is a resistance piece to the German
occupation (it was produced in Paris under Nazi censorship). Like the
other pie`ces noires, the play is a pessimistic (and sardonic) attack on the
4. See Judith Butler, Antigones Claim: Kinship between Life and Death (New York, 2000).
5. Seamus Heaney, The Burial at Thebes: A Version of Sophocles Antigone (New York,
2004), p. 76.
6. Garry Wills, Red Thebes, Blue Thebes, review of The Burial at Thebes: A Version of
Sophocles Antigone by Heaney, New York Times, 5 Dec. 2004,
7. See Jean Anouilh, Antigone, ed. David I. Grossvogel (Boston, 1959); hereafter abbreviated

F R A N C O I S E M E L T Z E R teaches at the University of Chicago where she is the

Edward Carson Waller Distinguished Service Professor in the Humanities. She
has been a coeditor of Critical Inquiry since 1982 and is author of several books,
the most recent being For Fear of the Fire: Joan of Arc and the Limits of
Subjectivity (2001). She has just completed Seeing Double: Baudelaires Modernity
and finished coediting, with Jas Elsner, Faith without Borders: The Curious
Category of Saints (2009), a special issue of Critical Inquiry, which will appear in
book form in 2011.

Critical Inquiry / Winter 2011

family, lofty ideals, friendship, love, and the confident passions of youth.
Unlike the Sophocles, the Anouilh playlike most modern versions
does not engage philosophical considerations, nor does it consider the
question of desire or the notion of conceptual boundaries (those for example of gender and subjectivity in relation to death) and limit concepts.
One might say that the Anouilh play confines itself to the polis and to the
psychological. There is no question in Anouilhs play of mixing registers,
of religion, or of desiring the underworld; it is rather a question of rejecting
everyday life. But it is precisely by looking at what is missing from
Anouilhs Antigone that we can get a bit closer to the powerful and disturbing aspect that the Sophocles text so brilliantly suggests. How
Anouilhs Antigone fails, what he leaves out become clues to Antigones
mysterious and haunting power as a philosopher of death in Sophocles.
What I want to insist on as crucial in the Sophocles is Antigones foreignness. That, in turn, has to do with the peculiar, even unmappable,
nature of her desire and her insistence on religiosity. Even the etymology of
her name suggests the foreign, an aspect that in Sophocles comes early and
is tied to Antigones love for her father. At the end of Oedipus at Colonus,
Antigone comments on her fathers decision to die in a foreign land: I
know you wished to die in a strange country, she tells him, Yet your
death was so lonely! / Why could I not be with you? She says to the chorus, I think there is no way / for me to get home again.8 Home will
increasingly mean joining her father (and, later, brother) in the foreign
country of death. If she initially returns to Thebes in an attempt to prevent
bloodshed between her brothers, their deaths and the advent of Creon as
king will make her feel less and less at home in the polis as well as in life
The Anouilh text does not concern itself with foreignness. His Creon
notes angrily that Antigone just wants to die. He tries to talk her out of it by
telling her the awful truth about her brothers: they tried to assassinate their
father Oedipus more than once, that they hated each other, and that after
they had killed each other it was impossible to know which body belonged
to whom, so mangled had they become in the deadly fray. But this Antigone (after brief indecision on the heels of Creons revelations) decides that
she wants to die anyway in order to avoid becoming an adult for whom life
will erode into habit, dullness, and the lack of passion. Suddenly overcome
by a Peter Pan complex, as it were, Anouilhs Antigone does not want to
8. Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, trans. Robert Fitzgerald, Three Tragedies, trans. David
Grene, Fitzgerald, and Elizabeth Wyckoff, ed. Grene and Richard Lattimore (Chicago, 1954), ll.
171315, pp. 152, 154.



Francoise Meltzer / Theories of Desire

grow up to say yes to the ordinary in life like her uncle. Nor does she wish
to see his son, Hamon, the young man to whom she is engaged, similarly
reduced to saying yes to compromise, disappointment, and boredom.
Shes the one who wanted to die, Creon says confidently to the chorus in
Anouilhs version. None of us, he continues, was strong enough to convince her to live. I understand now, Antigone was made to be dead. . . .
Polyneices was merely a pretext. When she had to give up on that, she
found something else right away. What mattered to her was to refuse and
to die (JAA, pp. 7980). Anouilhs Antigone does not want to say yes to
any compromise. Since she knows that time will force her to say yes in a
myriad of ways, death becomes her only option (an attitude that is partly
what inspires Lacan to call this Antigone the little fascist).9 And, speaking of Lacan, as if in cahoots with his model of lack as that which constitutes the subject, this Antigone of Anouilhs displaces her desire onto
different pretexts (Lacan would say signifiers) until the transcendental
signified rises up to reveal itself: death. That, at least, is how Anouilhs
Creon reads her. His reading, moreover, is politically expedient and allows
him a guiltless self-righteousness; she had forced his hand, and he had no
choice but to execute her as if in spite of himself.
Indeed, we might say that Anouilhs Creon misreads Antigone much as
Freuds Thanatos, or death drive, is frequently misread: as a desire for
death. Freuds understanding of Thanatos, however, is as an unconscious
drive of biological (even cellular) origin that is therefore completely separate from the will and has nothing to do with desire. Anouilhs Creon, in
other words, performs a failed hermeneutical gesture with Antigone insofar as he wants to understand her from the point of view of his own notion
of desire. Not only does Creon get her wrong; he wants us to join him in his
reading of her, and he wants us to read her, to repeat, through his own
concept of desire. That is, Creon (and Anouilhs play as a whole) can only
understand Antigone as she-who-longs-for-death. There is something
that resists this interpretation, however, something that is nostalgic for the
Antigone of Sophocles, who resists interpretation itself in a manner much
more compelling than the ultimately naturalized Antigone of Anouilh.
For what Anouilhs play wants to demonstrate, even as it ultimately misreads with Creon, is that Antigone desires not to desireat least not to
desire in the way the play understands desire to function, which is entirely
from the point of view of Creon.
9. Jacques Lacan, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959 1960, vol. 7 of The Seminar of Jacques
Lacan, trans. Dennis Porter, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York, 1992), p. 250; hereafter
abbreviated EP.

Critical Inquiry / Winter 2011

It is in this sense that Anouilhs Antigone is deeply unfamiliar as Antigone. The theologian Gabriel Marcel is on to this meconnaissance when he
writes that Anouilh did not shy from remodeling the character of Antigone herself such that it is no longer recognizable. Anouilh mocks the
nobility of tragedy, and the danger in his drama, Marcel continues, is that
pity itself turns constantly to derision. In Antigone, and in Anouilhs drama
as a whole, writes Marcel, there is always a grimacing, but grimacing
cannot be the supreme expression of a theatrical thought.10 He who misrecognizes the nobility and grandeur of human drama, Marcel writes in a
prescient tone, condemns himself to being condemned one day in his turn.
To an extent, the theologian is following Sren Kierkegaard here, for
whom the Antigone of Sophocles personifies a fully self-conscious mode of
subjectivity that is for him the mark of modernity. It is a mode, moreover,
that is steeped in religion. Kierkegaards Antigone is like Adam in that she
is haunted by sin (the House of Oedipus); she is like Abraham in that she is
silenced by a secret that separates her from other human beings; and she is
like Christ in that her identity lies between absolute suffering and absolute
action. This gives her what Kierkegaards narrator (Aas if in identification with Antigone, but that is another matter) calls an extraordinary
passion.11 Her secret, in other words, is generated by another secret: religious conviction, the name and desire of which in her case is death. We will
return to this problem of religion that Kierkegaard sees permeating the
Sophocles text but is absent from the Anouilh.
Indeed, in Anouilhs Antigone Creon speaks for the implied narrator of
the play and secularizes the gestures of the tragedy. When he says, for
example, in the passage I cited, that all Antigone ever really wanted was
death, we are supposed to discover that fact along with him and thus
understand her better with Creon as our guide. The chorus largely supports his views so that at the end of the play we are expected to join forces
with the chorus in their rather annoyed take on her. Without Antigone,
they complain, everybody would have been left in peace: But now, its
over. They are all at peace after all. All those who were meant to die are
dead. . . . Antigone is calmed now; we will never know what fever possessed her (JAA, p. 92). We are, as it were, at home with Anouilhs Creon,
and even his Antigone is little more than a troublesome teenager with a
tiresome idee fixe. Such a perspective neutralizes the antinomy that motivates Sophocless play: that is, the absolute contradiction and irreconcil10. Gabriel Marcel, De Jezabel a` Medee: Le Tragique chez Jean Anouilh, La Revue de
Paris (June 1949): 105, 110.
11. Sren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, trans. Alastair Hannay (New York,
1992), p. 159.



Francoise Meltzer / Theories of Desire

ability of Creon and Antigone. If in Anouilh the tragedy is fully recognized,

the plays refusal to remember religion has the correlative effect of drowning out gender at the same time. The problem becomes law and order
(Creon) as against an adolescent crisis, with Creon performing therapy
sessions on his unruly niece even as he explains to her that she will leave
him no choice but to have her killed. No longer foreign to the polis and to
thought itself, as in Sophocles, Anouilhs Antigone is a spoiled brat whose
misbehavior and stubbornness necessitate her execution in the eyes of the
law; her gender is pretty much beside the point. So too, with the gods
absent, the realms of the dead and the living are blurred into the biological,
rather than conceptual, end of subjectivity; all those who were meant to die
are dead, and whatever fever possessed Antigone has caused her death.
Creon is comfortable again on his throne and alls righted with the world.
In other words, not much has happened in the Anouilh play. What
makes the Sophocles play so disturbing, and so powerful, is precisely that
from their own lights Creon and Antigone are both right; and yet they
cancel each other out (hence we are dissatisfied with black-and-white renditions such as Heaneys, as Wills complained). In the Sophocles the two
are, as everybody from Hegel to Butler has noted, speaking from different
registers. At least on the face of it, Creon speaks for the state; Antigone
speaks for kinship. Such is the first layer of disharmony between them.
Neither can bend, nor indeed even read (as in decipher), the others moral
compass. This is the first antinomy that Sophocles foregrounds and that
Anouilh domesticates. In this sense, Anouilhs Antigone is close to that of
Jean Racine in his La Thebade. Adieu, says Antigone to Creon in that
play. And she adds, we are nothing but obstacles to each other. I wish to
weep, Creon, and you to rule.12 Racine though it be, the situation is too
clear-cut here as well. What makes the Sophocles text so persistent is that it
maintains an antimony between Creon and Antigone (as with Anouilh
and Racine); and because it maintains the realm of the gods of the underworld and of the earth, Sophocless play can give us an Antigone who
finally does not belong anywhere.
Not-being-at-home, foreignness, are the hallmarks of Sophocless Antigone; but these are possible only if there are boundaries to provide taboo
and unholiness. You, says Teiresias to her menacingly, have no business
with the dead, nor do the gods abovethis is violence you have forced
upon the heavens. Unlike in Anouilh, here (religious) violence and the
12. Jean Racine, La Thebade, ou, Les Fre`res (1664), Oeuvres compltes, ed. P. Mesnard
(Paris, 1885), p. 487.

Critical Inquiry / Winter 2011

ensuing avengers (in Teiresiass term) produce the tragedy.13 The violence itself, moreover, is underlined by Antigones gendera further scandal, in other words. The putting of things where they do not belong, as
Mary Douglas long ago noted, creates the outrage of unholiness. With the
borders between realms provided by the gods, gender too produces a shock
value when it is no longer in its place. Antigones contention that she
belongs neither to the dead nor to the living is an echo of the feminine
subject with agencya third term that reveals the place of danger because
it fits into neither its native category nor the one that is its opposite. Or, put
another way, if Kierkegaard is right, that the truth of subjectivity is always
susceptible to the most radical misunderstanding, such misunderstanding
gets whited out when there is no taboo (as provided by religion and the
category of gender) and no transgression. The tragic must be placed beyond aesthetics so that, to turn again to Kierkegaard, it allows for a suffering that participates in its own burden (the secret)passivelyas a
mode of guilt. For Kierkegaard, this is the rebirth of tragedy in modernity.
To the extent that the Anouilh, for example, remains aesthetic (in a Freud
cum Rene Girard-like model, executing Antigone to restore the pleasure
principle of the static in the state), it neither transgresses nor is in excess of
itself. Anouilhs Antigone is less burdened by guilt than by the fear of
bourgeois boredom.
In Sophocles, then, there is an incommensurability that is utterly lacking in Anouilh. Sophocless Antigone echoes her leitmotif on homelessness begun in Oedipus at Colonus. But if in that play her homelessness is
literal (she does not want to, and fears that in any case she cannot, return to
Thebes)in Antigone foreignness takes on ontological proportions since
it partakes of what Kierkegaard calls the fellowship of the already dead. It
is not, however, a comfortable fellowship for her: Alive to the place of
corpses, wails Antigone in her final lament, an alien still, never at home
with the living nor the dead.14 Sophocles does not have Creon speak with
the chorus, nor does the play take on his point of view as in Anouilh. The
shifting perspectives of the chorus allow for hearing the prophet Teiresiass
warning. After sending Antigone to her death, Creon assumes that Teiresias wants to make a profit from his advice to bury Polyneicess rotting
corpse. Creon arrogantly warns him that human beings fall . . . when they
plead a shameful case so well in hope of profit (A, ll. 1045 47, p. 194).
Teiresias, however, is pleading the same case as Antigone: there is a sick13. Sophocles, Antigone, in The Three Theban Plays: Antigone, Oedipus the King, and
Oedipus at Colonus, trans. Robert Fagles (Harmondsworth, 1984), ll. 119193, p. 115.
14. Sophocles, Antigone, trans. Wyckoff, Three Tragedies, ll. 850 51, p. 188; hereafter
abbreviated A.



Francoise Meltzer / Theories of Desire

ness in the state because the dead want their own; the corpse must be
buried. If Antigone by her own admission belongs neither to the dead nor
to the living, or to both, Creons own problem is that he distinguishes but
badly between the two realms: For youve confused, Teiresias tells him,
the upper and lower worlds. You sent a life to settle in a tomb; you keep up
here that which belongs below, the corpse unburied (A, ll. 1068 71, p.
195). The threat to Creon is as grave as the earlier one to Antigone; things
are being moved from their proper placea blasphemy hypostatized in
Sophocles by religion (and, therefore, the notion of the holy). Rather than
joining forces with the conventional voice of the chorus as in Anouilh, the
Sophocles play has its Antigone understood or at least recognized by
another marginal figure, another subject who falls outside the norm in his
excess: Teiresias. And insofar as the prophet turns out to be right, the play
implicitly supports Antigone, even if it does not understand her.
In the Antigone of Sophocles, what emerges are two responses to desire:
that of Creon, which we can recognize as the Symbolic in Lacans sense,
and that of Antigone, which we precisely do not recognize, since it has no
obvious place inside the registers of either kinship or the state, nor in the
place of the living or dead. If Creon confuses registers, Antigone falls outside all registers, realms, nomenclature. She is in herself in excess, a figural
catachresis, the emblem of which is her entombment while she is still
living. She does not, in other words, belong hence, her foreignness. Less
a desire for death, Antigones is the desire not to desire the law as it is
offered to her; she stands, she says, for the unwritten . . . laws (A, l. 455, p.
174). Creon, on the other hand, desires that the state, and his authority
within it, be obeyed without question. Do you realize you are talking to
a king? he asks Teiresias (A, l. 1057, p. 194). This intersection of knotted desires and of transgressed registers are absent from Anouilhs text,
but this is one of the aspects Hegel considers closely in the Antigone of
In The Philosophy of Fine Art, Hegel notes that the Greeks had two types
of tragic situations: the first was between ethical life in its social universality and the family as the natural ground of moral relations.15 The second has to do with the individual who commits acts that have dire
consequences but does not commit them consciously, acting under the
directing providence of the gods (HT, p. 69). The best example of the first,
says Hegel, is Antigone and of the second, Oedipus at Colonus. We might
15. G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel on Tragedy: Selections from The Phenomenology of Mind,
Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, The Philosophy of Fine Art, and Lectures on the
History of Philosophy, trans. F. P. B. Osmaston et al., ed. Anne Paolucci and Henry Paolucci
(Smyrna, Del., 2001), p. 68; hereafter abbreviated HT.

Critical Inquiry / Winter 2011

note here that Antigone is present in both of Hegels examples, for it is she
who will accompany her father to Colonus. For Hegel, if there is no harmony between the two spheres in this first type of tragedy (that is, between
oikos and the polis), there can be no moral life. The problem in Antigone is
that she reverences the ties of blood-relationship, the gods of the nether
world (HT, p. 68). Creon, on the other hand, reveres Zeus, the paramount Power of public life and the commonwealth (HT, p. 68). And yet
for Hegel there is a symmetry between the two: both Antigone and Creon
are under the power of that against which they battle, as well as under the
power of that which they uphold. Both, in other words, have obligations of
respect to the royalty of which they are part (the royal prerogative is an
obligation [HT, p. 73]); and both have familial obligations since they are
in kinship with one another. The fact that each chooses the other obligation to combat is what for Hegel makes the success of the play. Both are
seized and broken by that very bond which is rooted in the compass of
their own social existence (HT, p. 73). Given such a symmetry, writes
Hegel, the Antigone of Sophocles is from this point of view in my judgment the most excellent and satisfying work of art (HT, p. 74).
I have said that for Hegel, Creon worships the god of the heavens, Zeus,
and Antigone the dei inferni of Hades. For Hegel, this means that Antigone
reveres as well feeling, Love and kinship, whereas Creons deities are the
daylight gods of free and self-conscious, social, and political life (HT, p.
178). What is lacking in the Anouilh play, religion, Hegel takes as a given in
the Sophocles. And within that given, the central words for Hegel that
describe tragedy in general and the Antigone of Sophocles in particular, are
combat, the search for a moral existence, sacred duty, obligation,
feeling, Love and kinship, pathos, and so on. In the Phenomenology of
Spirit, Hegel argues that Antigones being lies ultimately in the ethical law,
which becomes her substance (HT, p. 280). Antigones crime (burying her
brother) is a conscious one, which for Hegel means that what is ethical is
actual in her: Acting expresses precisely the unity of reality and the substance (HT, pp. 279 80). The guilt, Hegel notes with some satisfaction,
will be all the purer.
What we do not find in Hegels reading of Antigone is a theory of desire
(Begierde).16 On the contrary, we find the lack of desire as an explanation
for Antigones insistence on burying her brother; the brother, in the eyes of
the sister, is for Hegel a being whose very nature is unperturbed by de16. That occurs in the Phenomenology of Spirit, wherein the doubling of consciousness
becomes self-consciousness: self-consciousness is Desire in general (Hegel, Phenomenology of
Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller [Oxford, 1977], 167, p. 105; hereafter abbreviated PS). The splitting of
the subject that ensues is closely related, it seems to me, to Lacans mirror stage.



Francoise Meltzer / Theories of Desire

sire. The two are ethically similar in nature because their recognition is
pure and unmixed with any sexual relation (HT, p. 269). Because of this,
and because they are of the same blood, the loss of a brother is irreparable,
precisely what Antigone says of Polyneices in Sophocless play (see A, l. 910,
p. 190). There, she says to Creon: One husband gone, I might have
found another, / or a child from a new man in first childs place, / but
with my parents hid away in death, / no brother, ever, could spring up
from me (A, ll. 909 12, p. 190). It is because of this lack of (sexual) desire
that for Hegel the moment of individual self-hood, recognizing and being
recognized, can here assert its right, because it is bound up with the balance
and equilibrium resulting from their being of the same blood (HT, p.
269). We can grant Hegel this point, although it is at best a murky one.
After all, Oedipus was Antigones brother as well (three-quarters
brother?), and the family did not make incest preclude sexual desire, as we
Can we locate Antigones desire in Hegel, if it is not for her brother, not
for her fiance, not for death, not for life? Hegels point, begun in the Phenomenology, is that desire is self-consciousness. That is, when selfconsciousness return[s] from otherness, from itself as being of the
world of sense and perception, it desires a unity with itself (PS, 167, p.
105). This desire sets up the master/slave conflict, which follows a few pages
later. In that conflict, it will be remembered, self-consciousness is faced by
another self-consciousness; it has come out of itself (PS, 179, p. 111). It sees
its own self in the other, and so must supersede this otherness of itself in
order to become certain of itself as the essential being, and to overcome
otherness in itself (PS, 180, p. 111). So it makes sense that Hegel does not
see desire in Antigone; her relationship to her brother is a type of mirror
image to her (being of the same blood), but not of the type that redoubles self-consciousness in desire. There is no dialectic of recognition
needed between Antigone and Polyneices. Rather, her brother binds Antigone to balance and equilibrium because their mutual recognition is
based on sameness, on blood ties that preclude the hostility engendered by
a veritable other. Antigone is thus before the master/slave conflict in Hegel.
There can be no desire in Hegels sense for Antigone. She is in excess
because she is the transcendental good; and because she is an excess of
good she is too good to live. Nothing could be further from the derisive
approach to life that characterizes Anouilhs Antigone, who says no to life
because it will become too colorless, habitual, passionless. On the contrary,
Hegels Antigone is an excess of the good who cannot accept, much less
adhere to, the ethical norms of the state. Anouilhs Antigone wants to keep
the passion of youth and prefers death to losing it. She is not in excess; she

Critical Inquiry / Winter 2011

suggests (rather obviously) modernity, in the tradition begun, for example, by Baudelaire. Excess of good, that which she lacks, may be one way of
understanding why with Sophocless Antigone excess can be understood
to mean foreign.
Hegel is not alone in reading Sophocless Antigone as excess. Excess is
central to Simone Weil in her reading of Sophocless Antigone. (It is worth
noting here that Weil was called Antigone by her friends). Excess for Weil,
however, is tied to love. If Antigone wants to honor the gods of the underworld it is because of excess of love and not because of kinship or goodness
in Hegels sense. Weil will tie this excess of love, extreme and absurd, to
that which led Christ to the Cross. (In this she follows Kierkegaard in
part.) She continues: It was Justice, companion of the gods, in the other
world, who dictated this surfeit of love, and not any right at all. Rights have
no direct connexion with love.17 For Weil, Antigones decision to obey the
gods of the underworld is born of what to the Lebenswelt is a scandalous
sense of justice, a justice that has nothing to do with kinship, but rather
with excess, surfeit, in a word: caritas. As such, this justice as Weil describes
it is precisely in a kingdom not of this world; Antigone does not belong in
Creons realm of laws. It was not Zeus, she says to Creon, who made
that order. Nor did that Justice who lives with the gods below mark out
such laws to hold among mankind (A, ll. 450 52, p. 174). Creon argues
with her, of course, but she retorts, death yearns for equal law for all the
dead (A, l. 519, p. 176). In other words, one might say in Lacanian terms
that neither Antigone nor Christ is willing to be constituted by the Symbolic. At the same time, in reading Weil and Hegel on the Antigone of
Sophocles, one sees that figure as a litmus test for a given philosophical
focus (or obsession): an excess of the good for Hegel; an excess of justice
and love for Weil. Both of these notions of excess, let us note, are rooted in
the gods.
Anouilhs Antigone, lost as she is in a dreamy love of death, has lost all
of her religiosity. Marcel grumpily refers to this lack of gods. No religious
atmosphere, he says, permeates the play. But if religion does indeed permeate the Antigone of Sophocles, we might understand religion as that
which is in excess precisely because, to return to my earlier point, it allows
for borders (the realm of the living versus that of the dead; male versus
female), that which can neither be codified nor apprehended by the state,
though the state is certainly codified by the gods in Sophocles. This excess
within the religious in Sophocless world is with the gods who rule be17. Simone Weil, Human Personality, trans. Richard Rees, The Simone Weil Reader,
trans. Rees et al., ed. George A. Panichas (New York, 1977), p. 325.



Francoise Meltzer / Theories of Desire

lowHadesthose gods whom Creon accuses Antigone of serving, part

of that dreaded region where there is no light of day, as Creon notes. Thus
Sophocless Antigone is linked to death as that which is beyond understanding. As Lacan puts it, Antigone is the heroine. Shes the one who
shows the way of the gods (EP, p. 262). Anouilhs Antigone, on the other
hand, is drawn to death for personal reasons having to do with the social:
expectations, habit, custom. She does not show the way to the gods; she
shows the way to the refusal of the social. While such a stance may say
something about the resistance in France during the Second World War, it
says nothing about the notion of conceptual taboo, of gender and religion
as charting the imagined outlines of sovereign subjectivity, of unholiness
as that which is in the wrong place.
What does it mean to ignore religion in the context of Antigones tragedy? Kant said that religion without ethics is superstition; Hegel noted, on
the other hand, that ethics without religion is an empty intellectual exercise. In an early text, Hegel calls religion the nurse of free men and the
state their mother.18 The rivalry is clear, gendered in the feminine, for
both state and religion are understood by Hegel as that which brings into
being and nurtures man, respectively. In the Antigone of Sophocles, the
gods of both the upper and the lower regions need to be satisfied. They
engage different ethical norms. Antigone obeys those from below; Creon
those from above. Antigones excess, then, is in part this identification with
the dead, this love, to return to Weil, that is in excess because it identifies
with those who have suffered. She identifies with that which is not her
place. Sophocless play supports Weils notion that Antigone lives an excess of love. Indeed, Creon says to Antigone, Then go down there, if you
must love, and love / the dead. No woman rules me while I live (A, ll.
524 25, p. 177). Excessas we know from Lacan, Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Georges Bataille, to name a fewis one aspect of the feminine.
Anouilhs Antigone does not transcend the social realm; she simply
rejects its hegemony and the waning of passion necessitated by living.
Sophocless Antigone somehow manages to ignore the constraints of the
law or what Lacan calls the Symbolic. She refuses to obey Creons dictum
and declares that Acheron, the river of Hades, is to be her mate. It is not by
coincidence, of course, that I bring up psychoanalysis in this context. As
Steiner and others have noted, until about 1905 the Antigone of Sophocless
trilogy was the most known and most appreciated; Oedipus at Colonus
followed, and Oedipus Rex came in third. But with the advent of Freuds
Oedipus complex, and the popularity of the new talking cure, Oedipus Rex
18. Quoted in Steiner, Antigones, p. 23.

Critical Inquiry / Winter 2011

came into first place, where it has since firmly remained. Desire itself, we
are frequently reminded, is a modern invention of psychoanalysis. But
Plato (as usual) sets the ground. For him there are two desires: the first
moves the soul itself alone; this is the realm of the immortal and disembodied souls. The second occurs when the soul loses her wings because she
desires something outside herself and thus descends to the ground where
she will be weighted down by a body. Thus the body in Plato is born of
Desire has become astonishingly central more recently. Freuds Oedipal
triangle is at the heart of modern notions of desire. Gilles Deleuze and Felix
Guatarri, in Anti-Oedipus, argue that desire is indeed excessive, but that as
such it should be understood as productive, not destructive.19 Michel Foucault tries to sideline the whole problem in the first volume of The History
of Sexuality, but by the second volume he is asking his readers, what produces desire? how does it work?20 Julia Kristeva, using Lacans notion of the
Symbolic, situates the problem of desire within the semiotic and the very
materiality of language itself.21 Luce Irigaray faults both Plato and Aristotle
for vesting desire in the masculine. On her account, they attempt to define
the feminine as passive in order to retain the fantasy of masculine autogenesis.22 But in all of this it is of course Lacan whose theory is the most
visible. Using the death drive from Freuds Beyond the Pleasure Principle as a metaphor, Lacan argues that desire is a case of always displacing,
of never being content to gain a desired object, until the subject returns full
circle to the place where there is no longer any tension, no longer any
That place, of course, is death. That is why I said, earlier, that when
Anouilhs Antigone shifts her reason for dying from needing to bury her
brother to not wishing to become middle-aged (which is what it finally
boils down to), it is as if she is enacting Lacans notion that desire always
(unconsciously) attaches itself to different signifiers. The signified, however deathremains. Anouilhs Antigone wants to die so as to remain as
she is. Her displaced desires are unconscious, such that she can be seen as
the enactment (somewhat like the circulating purloined letter) of a subjectivity constituted by lack. The Antigone of Sophocles, on the other
19. See Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, vol. 1 of Capitalism and
Schizophrenia, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (Minneapolis, 1983).
20. See Michel Foucault, The Use of Pleasure, trans. Robert Hurley, vol. 2 of The History of
Sexuality (New York, 1985).
21. See Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans.
Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez, ed. Roudiez (New York, 1980).
22. See Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C.
Gill (Ithaca, N.Y., 1993).



Francoise Meltzer / Theories of Desire

hand, in her very insistence on accepting only the gods below transgresses
even as she reveres the boundaries that allow for religion.
In his seminar The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, Lacan argues that Sophocless Antigone must be seen as something akin to Kants limit concept or
ate. Indeed, Lacan describes her like the sun, so splendid it cannot be
looked at directly. And he adds, Yet that image is at the center of tragedy
(EP, p. 247). After telling us that Antigone is a mystery, Lacan (like Freud
defining the indefinable uncanny) begins to tell us how this mystery works.
(She is a mystery which up till now has never been articulated [EP, p.
247]. But Lacan, his seminar makes clear, is going to articulate it.) After
arguing that Antigone blurs registers, because she blurs the distinction
between life and death, he then tells us that she is in the Imaginary register.
After telling us that she is at the limit of human experience, he then informs
us that it is essential to situate that limit if a certain phenomenon is to
emerge through reflection (EP, p. 260). But ate is precisely that which
cannot be situated. And it turns out that, for Lacan, when Antigone goes
beyond the limits of human experience her desire aims at the following
the beyond of ate (EP, p. 263).
Sophocless Antigone is not, for Lacan, a limit concept at all finally.
Rather, she is herself in a limit zone, between life and death (see EP, p. 272).
Instead of looking beyond ate, now Antigone is herself an image of tragedy.
Moreover (as in Weil), she is also related to Christ by Lacan, but in what
turns out to be Oedipal (in both senses). Lacan will tie her to the famous
Father, why hast Thou forsaken me? Lacan claims that Sophocless Antigone says, I am dead and I desire death, and thus what we have here,
he says, is an illustration of the death instinct (EP, p. 281). A page later,
Lacan adds, Antigone pushes to the limit the realization of something that
might be called the pure and simple desire of death as such. She incarnates
that desire (EP, p. 282). Turning Antigone into a kind of Salome without
the veil, Lacan notes as well, the desire of the mother is the origin of
everything. The desire of the mother is the founding desire of the whole
structure (EP, p. 283). Jocasta, the mother, has long since killed herself, so
that Lacans Sophoclean Antigone might be seen as mimetic of her mothers
desiremimetic of a desire for death, given a life in the polis that cannot
match her ethos, and is as such unbearable, and convictions, which do not fit
into the Lacanian registers. Lacan must read a desire for death in her because
he cannot place her; he puts therefore his failure at taxonomy onto Antigone.
But we must not be fooled. Lacan empties Sophocless play of its dangerous
mixing of realms and turns it into a kind of flattened Anouilh. Desire becomes
the protagonist of the tragedy for Lacan, and the implications and boundaries
transgressed by the unholy are elided into displacement.

Critical Inquiry / Winter 2011

Indeed, the Antigone of Sophocles cannot be circumscribed thus. She

does not want to die so much as she wants to escape Creons laws and
return to her family (all, with the exception of Ismene, in Hades). The
extent to which Antigone is outside the law, outside the Symbolic, is evident in her famous last lament. She laments for herself because in her view
there is no one left to do it for her or, at least, no one she would permit to
lament her. Her own people, she says, are mostly in Hades; and she goes to
Hades without a friend (A, l. 919, p. 190). Or again, she descends to Hades
in her words, with no friends mourning (A, l. 848, p. 188) and unwept . . . unfriended (A, l. 878, p. 189). So she does the lamenting and
orating herself. But the gendering gets blurred and fairly complicated here.
As Charles Segal points out, in ancient Greece, wailing and lamenting (threnos)
is the role of women.23 Funeral speeches (epitaphios), on the other hand,
and burial itself are the province of men. Antigone performs both; she
wails for herself in the feminine mode (Oh tomb! Oh marriagechamber!) in the ululations that are traditionally feminine; but she also
delivers her own funeral oration (Men of my fathers land, you see me go /
my last journey. My last sight of the sun, / then never again) in a manner
both lucid and unrelenting (A, ll. 891, 810, pp. 187, 189). Her lament is
private because it is in the royal enclave of Creon; but it is simultaneously
public because it is before the chorus. This confusion of gender roles
public and private, masculine and feminine acts, the controlled and the
hystericalthis transgression, is one way in which it becomes evident how
this Antigone does not fit even as she acknowledges transgression. She
remains foreign in the Sophocles text, as if the play were enacting this
figure as an instance of that which cannot be defined or placed within the
So she performs her own lament in the Sophocles, and among other
things she erases the existence of her sister in so doing: Look, leaders of
Thebes, she cries as she is being led to her execution, I am last of your
royal line (A, l. 941, p. 191). Blood ties are thus shaky at best. Antigone will
find her marriage chamber in her tomb; her virginity is to be eternal. If
sacrificed virgins are led to their deaths as brides of Hades,24 Antigone
sacrifices herself to Hades as the virgin who is, in the words of Kierkegaard,
the bride of God.25 None of this is in Anouilh by which I do not, of
course, mean that he should follow Sophocles. The impoverishment of the
23. See Charles Segal, Sophocles Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society (Cambridge, Mass.,
24. See Nicole Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman, trans. Anthony Forster
(Cambridge, Mass., 1987), p. 37.
25. Kierkegaard, Either/Or, p. 155.



Francoise Meltzer / Theories of Desire

Anouilh lies in its inability to rise above the social. In that sense, Anouilh
himself conflates with his own Creon, his own Antigone. The inability to
rise above the social speaks, as it were, to modernity.
The means of death is gendered as well. Death by hanging is unusual for
a woman in ancient Greek tragedy, as Nicole Loraux notes.26 The majority
of women in Greek tragedy kill themselves or are sacrificed. Men are murdered. Here again, Sophocless Antigone distinguishes herself. Not only
does she choose to die by her own hand, she does so by hanging. Hanging
is considered particularly dishonorable in ancient Greece because it yields
a formless death (aschemon). Of course, Jocasta, Antigones mother (and
grandmother) also hangs herself, in her case with a rope. But Antigone
hangs herself with her veil of virginity, symbol (in the words of Loraux) of
her sex. Thus the mixture of gendered roles: she is led to her execution like
a man, but she hangs herself (already unusual) with a veil of femininity.
Even if we separate, as Butler asks us to, the social from kinship, we are
left with the question of Antigones desire. In Antigones Claim, Butler
looks at Antigones insistence on execution as a means of triangulating the
Symbolic law/kinship/death. For Butler, structuralisms refusal to separate
the social and the familial (kinship) lies at the heart of the problem with
analyzing Antigone. Her story, Butler argues, seems to show that desire
leads to death when it defies symbolic norms. Butlers critique of Claude
Levi-Strauss and structuralism in general is well taken, and forcefully argued, but it leaves Antigone floundering in the wake of that discussion
because it secularizes her crisis and elides the question of the gods. Irigaray,
in her reading of the play, argues that the blood remaindered after Antigones death maintains the authority of the state, thus rendering the feminine into this remainder (woman as supplement, as a sex which is not
one). Death or desire: these are the two lenses through which the Antigone
of Sophocles seems always doomed to be peered at. Sophocless Antigone
embodies the extent to which the woman with agency has no place within
the prevailing (masculine) structures, economies, architectures.
The West, moreover, has an abhorrence of mixing the living and the
dead, as well as the present and the past, as race and/or queer theorists have
been recently insisting.27 Perhaps the Western notion of subjectivity itself is
the difficulty; its gendering is an obfuscation that detracts from the real
difficulty. There is something of death in subjectivity, something that its
26. See Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman.
27. I am thinking here for example of the work of Carol McClain, Michael Grosso, Paula
Gunn Allen, Mae Henderson, and Patricia Holland, to name but a few, who argue that in
African and Native American cultures, for example, the reverence of ancestors maintains the
continuity between life and death and between past and present.

Critical Inquiry / Winter 2011

gendering helps to veil. Anouilhs Antigone is further flattened by the

avoidance of any consideration of death and subjectivity; the crisis is personal, as I have noted, thus evading the threat of death to the state and the
social as well as to the subjects controlled by the state.
Sophocles leaves the figure of Antigone a mystery, a supplement refusing the bounds of any economy. The religious aspect to Sophocless Antigone is that which allows for taboo and thus boundaries, without which,
I have been arguing, there is no strong gender and thus no notion of Antigone
as a scandal, as a radicality, as an existant who is woman. Antigones religiosity
is a problem for the nation-state; but the play makes no sense without it. On
the other hand, if religion allows for boundaries, as I have been arguing, and
allows therefore for taboo as well for concepts such as gender, we need remind
ourselves that subjectivity is in itself a notion of boundary. Subjectivity is a
concept that maintains the unbridgeability between categories, indeed that
uses religion and gender specifically to maintain dyadic unbridgeability.
Froma Zeitlin makes the intriguing suggestion that Antigone blurs the
distinction between life and death, thus overvaluing death itself.28 Once
again, we are seeing the Antigone of Sophocles as mixing registers that are
meant to be mutually exclusive. The real point may be that subjectivity,
with woman so consistently depicted as other, is in itself a self-protective
but imagined boundary between self and death. The boundary is not only
necessary, in other words, to demonstrate transgression and thus radicality; the boundary is also a shield allowing for the concept of subjectivity in
itself. The Antigone of Sophocles is powerful because her very religiosity
produces the architecture undergirding her shocking agency as feminine. At
the same time, however, the extent to which this figure of Antigone embodies
betweenness (the cliched space into which woman has been placed one
thinks of Derridas work on the hymen, for example) puts into question not
only subjectivity, but the dyads (for example, gender), which it must insist
upon and their concomitant hypostasizations of noncontiguity or spaces between them.
This is perhaps the rather terrifying suggestion, albeit certainly a textually unconscious one, of the Antigone of Sophocles. She shows the extent
to which subjectivity is masculinized, on the one hand, and the extent to
which the boundary is necessary for veiling the thought of death, on the
other. She shows where subjectivity is at risk and simultaneously that it is
a necessity for thought itself. Religion may be the manifestation of this
28. See Froma Zeitlin, Thebes: Theatre of Self and Society in Athenian Drama, in Nothing
to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, ed. John J. Winkler and Zeitlin
(Princeton, N.J., 1990), pp. 130 67.



Francoise Meltzer / Theories of Desire

conundrum. Kierkegaard was probably right then when he called Antigone she-who-is-to-come (his echoes of the second coming are inescapable,
though his immediate interest in this case was modernity).29 The more
modern readings of Antigone betray the flimsiness of the concept of subjectivity and, contradictorily, its necessity. But they also betray the extent
to which the traditional notions of gender no longer work inside the
boundaries of the imagined sovereign subject. We need to find something
else to trace the boundaries. The desire for subjectivity may in fact be,
finally, what we rethink and remetaphorize as religion, the gods. Moreover, contra Hegel, desire may be the flight from self-consciousness, of
which the Western notion of subjectivity is the most obvious symptom.
Anouilh may bore us with his domestication of the sacred, his insistence
on secularization, his flabby move toward epistemological decorum. But
the Antigone of Sophocles hints at the extent to which the binaries of the
sacred are far more porous than their apparent intransigence and certainty
would have us believe. In her desire for a kinship with death, and in her
very transgression of registers, this Antigone of antiquity suggests the extent to which the boundary itself may be our own necessary tragedy.

29. See Kierkegaard, Either/Or.