- I Love to Hate my Life or the Allure of Guilt: A Response to Simon Critchley
Phaedra’s subjectivity is rent between desire and conscience, between the virus of Venus that she inherits from her mother, Pasiphaë, and the prohibition that she inherits from her father, Minos, the guardian of Hades, and her maternal grandfather, Helios, the Sungod. Phaedra is thus torn between two imperatives, the overwhelming desire clawing at her entire being and the restriction of conscience embodied by her grandfather. Hers is a dilemma between two impossible alternatives that characterizes tragic choice. But, as in classical tragedy, her division between desire and conscience is just formal, it is a dual structure without content, as Barthes observes.1 Its terms, desire and conscience, constitute the two sides of the same thing: of her desire for conscience, for guilt.
What does Phaedra desire, what is the object of her desire? Hippolytus, her husband Theseus’s son? (the other, another’s body?) Hippolytus as a substitute for the absent Theseus, as a blank screen on which to project her desire? Not really. In an acknowledgment that would make many husbands shudder, and that Hippolytus does his best to misinterpret (II, v), Phaedra loses her sight and speech in Theseus’s presence because she sees his son Hippolytus in him.2 In a moment of rapture, transfigured by the intense erotic desire that invades her, she confesses her passion to Hippolytus, asking him to end her life by striking her with his sword (frappe), or to give her his sword to kill herself (donne) (II, v).3 Terrified and shocked, Hippolytus the hunter, the chaste, runs away.
But is Hippolytus indeed the object of Phaedra’s desire? Lacan says that there is no such thing as a desired object. Hippolytus seems the ideal object of desire (the object of desire that Lacan says does not exist, that is, the excuse for displacing one’s desire) because he himself is incapable of desiring. Phaedra is in love with prohibition, and from this perspective choosing the frigid Hippolytus as object of desire proves appropriate, since he will neither respond to her desire nor satisfy it. True, when Phaedra learns that Hippolytus desires another woman, Aricia, she is full of jealousy and rage. But her rage should be read in light of her investment in Hippolytus’s frigidity, that is, less as a consequence of jealousy than as an anticipation of the terrible threat that a desiring Hippolytus would pose on her own desire. What disrupts Phaedra’s integrity is the fact that he desires at all. And terrified she should be, since what a desiring Hippolytus would ultimately threaten is Phaedra’s desire for necessity, the continuity of her desire that his frigidity guaranteed. Only by virtue of remaining insensitive can Hippolytus keep Phaedra’s desire, and hence her self-division, alive.
In Euripides’s Hippolytos, the play that inspired Racine’s Phèdre and the only extant one of the three Attic recreations of the legend of Hippolytus (there was a first unsuccessful Hippolytos also by Euripides and a Phaidra by Sophocles), the Nurse, the predecessor of Racine’s Oneone, speaks of “something other dearer still than life”4:
But something other dearer still than life
the darkness hides and mist encompasses
we are proved luckless lovers of this thing
that glitters in the underworld: no man
can tell us of the stuff of it, expounding
what is, and what is not we know nothing of it.
Idle we drift, on idle stories carried.5
Something “other,” a “thing” “dearer still than life,” of which “we know nothing,” of which nobody can tell us. “[W]e are proved luckless lovers of this thing.” Is “this thing” death, the ultimate object of desire? Is death, in this case, an otherness that desires, whose unknowable desire we attempt to interpret and fulfill? Is it, in this sense, an ethical imperative so foreign, excessive and incomprehensible that it is impossible to meet? We can hear an echo of “something other dearer still than life” in the chapter on “Incentives of Pure Practical Reason” of the Critique of Practical Reason, where Kant also speaks...