- The Ethics of the Signifier:Wilde and Lacan
Wilde avec Lacan
This essay explores connections between Lacan’s statements on the ethics of psychoanalysis, beauty, and desire in Seminar VII: The Ethics of Psychoanalysis (1959-60) and the aesthetic philosophy of Oscar Wilde. Lacan’s thinking about ethics echoes in remarkable ways Wilde’s position with respect to aesthetics and representation, while Wilde’s work evinces an ethics similar to Lacan’s (though it does so without an explicit mention of psychoanalysis, the beginning stages of which were roughly contemporaneous with Wilde’s work).1
Lacan’s contention that it is an error to separate the concrete from the figurative, which, tellingly, appears in the seventh seminar dedicated to ethics, is similar to Wilde’s insistence on the primacy of form and the ethics of style. Conversely, Wilde’s emphasis on following a desire that is distinct from what we define either as personal happiness or as communal good invites a comparison to Lacan’s call, issued famously in Seminar VII, to “act in conformity with [one’s] desire” (1992, 311). This ethics of desire stands in contrast to the constraining and oppressive “service of the goods,” the locus of power. Finally, attempting to go beyond a Lacanian reading of Wilde, or a Wildean reading of Lacan, I will focus on Wilde’s one-act tragedy Salomé (1891) and suggest that viewing the play through the lens of Lacan’s [End Page 259] interpretation of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone opens up a possibility for reading the titular character’s desire not as heterosexual or encoded same-sex one, but, rather, as object-less.2
The Two Tragedies
Both tragedies zero in on language/representation/the signifier as the guiding principles of the tragic heroine’s ethical act.3 In the case of Antigone and Salomé, to use Lacan’s terminology, the trajectory of desire follows the signifier, insofar as Antigone’s brother, Polynices, is reduced to one, and so, I would argue, is the object of Salomé’s passion, the prophet Jokanaan. Besides being laid out by the signifier, the paths of Salomé’s and Antigone’s desire are also deadly and self-destructive, involving what Lacan calls the vestiges of the unrepresentable “non-being” (1992, 322). This “non-being” nonetheless depends on the signifier, because we can only conceive of it through its (mis) representation in the field of language. Both tragic heroines, by pursuing the signifier, court the state beyond the two deaths: Antigone’s Até and Salomé’s demise between the shields of Herod’s soldiers.
The young self-destructive princesses are driven by an ethics unrelated to happiness, romantic fulfillment in any conventional, or unconventional, sense of the word, or to the good of the community. Instead, theirs is the ethics of following one’s desire, posited by Lacan as one of the crucial components of the ethics of psychoanalysis. Both Wilde (implicitly) and Lacan (explicitly) posit such an ethics of desire as central to their philosophy. Lacan dedicates the concluding sections of the seventh seminar to the formulations of the ethics of refusal to suppress desire and, by implication, of resistance to the jouissance-devouring “service of the goods.”4 In the writings that elaborate his aesthetic vision, as well in some of works of fiction and drama, Wilde expresses an ethical stance, which, while not identical to Lacan’s, is similar in spirit. Famously, Lord Henry Wotton, in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) opines that “the only way to resist a temptation is to yield to it” (Wilde [End Page 260] 1997, 19). The ambitious politician Robert Chiltern, the protagonist of the society comedy An Ideal Husband (1895), shares with his friend Lord Goring the counter-intuitive idea that it takes a “horrible courage” (Wilde 1997, 617) to commit a wrongdoing, to follow one’s desire, to go against the grain of the service of the goods. Both Antigone, in Lacan’s version at least, and Salomé show such courage.
There is an additional ingredient in the potent brew of Wildean/ Lacanian ethics of desire, and that is beauty. Lacan ascribes to Antigone an otherworldly, magnetic beauty, which has little to...