Like a Lizard That junks its Tail in Distress

Pithamber R. Polsani


Homer Simpson is No Antigone

Ned Flanders in the television cartoon series The Simpsons is a family man, a good Christian and a good neighbor to Homer Simpson. In the episode entitled Dead Putty Society, Flanders invites Simpson to have a cold beer in the Rumpus Room on a hot day after seeing Simpson profusely sweating while mowing his lawn. The beauty and tidiness of the Rumpus Room surprise Simpson, who accepts his invitation.

Flanders offers him a beer from the tap saying, "Here's a tasty little lager that came all the way from Holland." Meanwhile Mrs. Flanders brings in a tray of cheese sandwiches; Todd, Flanders' son comes in to thank his father for helping him with his science project.

Simpson, who has been observing all this, is unable to contain his feelings and screams; "you've been rubbing my nose in it since I got here! Your family is better than my family, your beer comes from 'farther' away, than my beer, you and your son like each other, and your wife's 'butt'…" Ned Flanders, insulted by Simpson, asks him to leave his house. But in the night, overcome by a sense of guilt for his actions that afternoon, Flanders is unable to sleep. In order to alleviate his plaguing conscience Flanders calls his Pastor in the middle of night and confesses to him: " I feel like I violated Matthew 19:19." Following an innocuous proverb from the Bible quoted by Rev. Lovejoy, Flanders writes a note expressing his love for Simpson and apologizing for his behavior.

Homer Simpson is equally tormented by guilt and loses sleep trying to justify his behavior through a "kettle logic": "lousy bragging know-it-all showoff… Well it wasn't so much what he said; it was how he said it…. It wasn't how he said it either. It's the thought that counts".

The next morning Homer's family breaks out into uncontrollable laughter reading Flanders letter of apology: " you are my brother. I love you. And yet, I feel a great sadness… in my bosom."

The tense relationship between Ned Flanders and Homer Simpson characterized on the one hand by Flanders relentless pursuit to embody the commandment of love the neighbor as thyself and ensuing guilt, and on the other, of Homer's refusal of Flanders' love and his flight from the neighbor, reveals the millennial impossibility of fulfilling that commandment.

In the Ancient Testament the emphasis is on the commandment itself, that is to love the neighbor as thyself is the law as such, and law as the word of God is his representative that makes His absence present. But the question that remains is, can this law that has the function of substantializing God be known?

No philosopher has elucidated the Jewish law better than Kant. Kant's Critique of Practical Reason1 is an attempt at restoring law to its proper place. His radical break consists in conceiving of law through itself, emptied of all content (pathological) and retained in its pure form. Kant inverts the relationship between law and good, by declaring that Good is dependent on law, because for law to be law, it has to be independent of content, object, and circumstances; hence Good as a relative concept cannot be a higher principle upon which law is predicated. Two important consequences follow from Kant's articulation of law. First, there is the elusive feature of law, that is, law as a pure form lacking substance, object or determination is indeterminate and indefinable. Second, there is the relationship between subject and law. Now the lawful subject is no longer virtuous as in the Platonic form of law, but, on the contrary, the subject is guilty, because law does not offer a yardstick against which a subject can judge or measure himself, except for itself, and since no limit is posited, a subject is forever striving to be lawful and falling short. Kant's argument towards the end of second Critique that immortality of the soul is the only possibility of achieving moral perfection for a finite being, and God as such a perfection, is a final gesture that closes forever religion or God as an escape from guilt before law. Furthermore, the Kantian discovery of unconditional law- not conditioned on anything other then itself- announces the death of God, the God who was always already dead. What follows from this event- the death of a benevolent God- is the appearance of law, whose contours can neither be discovered nor defined, yet that which is terrifying and terrorizing because of its power to constitute the subject as guilty subject. Pain is the only pathological feeling admitted to a moral subject by Kant, and, as the second Critique clearly states, it is through pain that a subject can know how to be moral. This is the irony of Kafka's fable "Before the Law"2 ; even when the path to the discovery of law is clearly marked we do not know that it is meant for us. We may fulfill the law of love towards ourselves and towards the neighbor to the letter, but how do we know that we have fulfilled it? This radical absence of knowledge or meaning gives rises to anxiety.

The anxiety is born of introjection of Law by the lawful. The law is not exhausted in its prescriptive dimension, but survives beyond signification as the voice. This voice is not the terrible voice of God against which the Israelites placed Moses, but the thunderous voice that silently crept into the conscience of all those who accepted the tablets of Law. Freud reanimated this origin of law in his myth of primal murder. The jealous horde of brothers conspired and murdered the tyrannical and envied father, and after killing him they consumed him in a final act of revenge. The problem is not that they devoured him, but what exceeded and survived the totemic feast: "after they had got rid of him, had satisfied their hatred […] a sense of guilt made its appearance….3 Now the dead father "became stronger then he had been," by living in the form of remorse he reappeared as the senseless voice, the perverse voice of superego. Kant is not oblivious to the vocal dimension of Law. The Law speaks to the subject with a You ought to.

With St. Paul the emphasis shifts from the commandment, as such, to love. St. Paul's discourse is one of love that emphasizes love as binding thread of a human community instead of law. This is an attempt of St. Paul to liberate the followers of Christ from the terrifying Jewish law through introduction of love as the object as well as the objective of the commandment. Paul's articulation at first appears to be a shift in emphasis from one word, law, to another, love. But the shift is in the registry of voice and image. That is to say the Jewish God who refuses to appear only speaks to his faithful, whereas the Christian God appears either as Spirit to Mary in annunciation, or as the Son of God. Now the image is erected to conceal the void of voice- a conjuring of voice through image. It is in this domain of the imaginary that all ethics of love for the neighbor is played out with all of its frustrations and anxieties.

For St. Augustine only God can be a true object of love. Augustine reaches this conclusion while morning for a lost friend. He realizes that love for his friend was only a fable, because this love was "to indulge in an interchange of kindness; to read together pleasant books; together to trifle, and together to be earnest; to differ at times without ill-humor, as man would do with his own self; and even by the infrequency of these differences to give zest to our more frequent consentings; sometimes teaching, sometimes being taught; longing for absent with impatience, and welcoming the coming with joy."4 St. Augustine, in an attempt to dissipate the suffering he experienced upon death of a friend denounces life for its finitude and creates a new object of love in "Him who cannot be lost." While the permanence of God is an indisputable fact, his manifestation always eludes us. In spite of all of the beautiful images sculptured as testimonies of God's presence, as Lacan says "…one doesn't see in the image, beyond the capture of image, the emptiness of God to be discovered. It is perhaps man's plenitude, but it is also there that God leaves him with emptiness."5 This unfathomable abyss gives rise to anxiety, because an abyss does not guarantee anything: there are no guarantees of its love. Thus in two interchangeable injunctions Love for neighbor and love for God the neighbor is called upon to play God. What is this neighbor's function in this play of love?

In Augustinian formulation "neighbor" is a mirror that reflects, the core of one's being, that is one's righteousness. Righteousness is something present in me as an object that only my mind can discern, but what is apprehended is not myself, but an other that is visible in me. Augustine says, "I discern something present, and I discern it within myself, though I myself am not that which I discern… whoever hears me and knowingly approves, he too discerns this same thing within himself, even though he himself be not what he discerns."6 For Augustine righteousness is an image existing in oneself independent of all phenomenological experience. In order to maintain the independence of this image/object from all its objectiveness he contrasts it to other forms of image formation. According to Augustine, whenever the name of the city Carthage is uttered he has an image of it that was formed through the experience of living in that city, which always corresponds the physicality of the city. He also has an image of Alexandria, a city that he has never visited but only heard and read about it. He can recall this image as a picture whenever he talks about Alexandria, but this image does not correspond to what Alexandria truly is.

Righteousness in contrast, is an image independent of all phenomena and an object, and this object is not objectal in the sense of materiality, nor is this image an image of that object. This image/object is the true object of love that one discerns in one's self and in ones neighbor. In other's righteousness I see my own righteousness, and image of goodness and love that image. As long as I can locate my object, my image and my righteousness in you I love you–"in you more than you." But this path to narcissism is full of treachery because it drags along with it its correlative, the hatred. The other's image attracts me and repels me at the same time. The one I love is also my rival whom I hate. This love for the neighbor soon finds it's limit when the neighbor refuses to play along. In his profanation directed against Ned Flanders Homer Simpson says, "I will not be your mirror." Homer is a black hole that devours all rays of love emanating from Flanders.

In an attempt to pacify the perverse and ungraspable voice of Law, St. Paul and St. Augustine erect the image of God/neighbor as the object of love. However, the problem is doubled: now voice has a body and the image is animated by voice. If the voice enchants me the image repels me, and if the neighbor's image attracts my love, his voice brings out my hatred. The truth of this discord is revealed in Homer Simpson's senseless justification of his behavior: "lousy bragging know-it-all showoff… Well it wasn't so much what he said; it was how he said it…." While Flanders' altruism is enchanting for Homer, the tone of his speech (…how he said it), and his voice is exasperating. Similarly, Flanders is moved to love by the pitiful image of Homer mowing his lawn but soon his love for his neighbor dissipates when he hears Homer's vocal profanation.

Freud fundamentally dismantles Pauline articulation and Augustinian theorization in Civilization and its Discontents. Freud begins by posing the naïve question: "why should we do it?"7 My love is something precious and important to me. I will not give it to whomever comes along and demands it, nor will I share it with every stranger simply because he or she happens to be an inhabitant of this earth. The other will deserve my love if the other is like me in fundamental ways, that is, if I can find my self in the other's image or if the other is someone better than me, so that I can see my ideal in the other, and thus love the other. The other not only does not love me, but takes advantage of my good disposition, and never hesitates to harm me, show his superior powers, insult me, and slander. If the commandment were to say, "Love thy neighbor as thy neighbor loves thee" I would not have any problem in reciprocating the neighbor's gesture, but to love him as I love myself is impossible to fulfill as well as a cruel demand.

The civilization that calls upon subjects to love their fellow being is based on a ethic of good, that is, the human being is understood to be a gentle creature who can aspire to the universal good with the help of gentle nudge from the moralists. Freud, who ranked the tendency for destruction among the humans as one of the two fundamental instincts, retreats in horror from the commandment to love the neighbor, because unlike any other rule this is absolutely "counter to the original nature." Human beings not only see in a fellow being a "potential helper or sexual object, but also some one who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and kill him".8 If my neighbor is evil, then so am I. Look at the tense relation between Homer Simpson and his neighbor Ned Flanders. Ned Flanders, a person who believes in all the virtues of humans the Bible preaches, demonstrates goodness towards Homer, but what he receives in response from his neighbor is humiliation and aggression. Homer, on the other hand, sees only foul machinations in Flanders' philanthropy and evil behind his humility. Neither one is happy because each can never fulfill his desire.

Ned Flanders, as well as Homer Simpson, feel guilty of their actions, but their guilt rotates on different axis. While Flanders guilt is a residue of his pursuing an impossible injunction to love the neighbor, Homer's guilt is born of his inability to enter into the economy of love. In order for the fulfillment of love of the commandment to love the neighbor or for it to be articulated, one must suppose a relation between I and an other, and the other should receive the love I offers, not only to confirm my love for him but also as a validation to myself that my disposition towards the other is of love. I summon the other to acknowledge my behavior and me. If the other refuses to recognize, my enterprise of loving the neighbor is completely shattered. On the other hand, by accepting my love the other, my neighbor falls into my debt. Ned Flanders as the true believer in the commandment and who gives credence to the doctrine of commensurability of love between himself and his neighbor pursues Homer demanding that his love be accredited. Perhaps herein lays Flanders eroticism, and his hysterical disbelief in the evil that shines forth in Homer. Homer Simpson on the other hand, stands at the limit refusing to be indebted to Flanders, resists the economy of love. But Homer is no Antigone, thus he feels guilty of having resisted. He is like a lizard that junks its tail in distress.


Images from the episode "The Deadputty Society" of The Simpsons © Fox Television Networks.

1. Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason, trans. Lewis White Beck (New York: Macmillan, 1956).

2. Franz Kafka, "Before the Law," The Complete Stories, (New York: Schocken books, 1983).

3. Sigmund Freud, "Totem and Taboo," The Penguin Freud Library, vol. 13, trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 204.

4. St. Augustine Bishop of Hippo, "Confessions," Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, vol. 1 edited Whitney J. Oates (New York: Ramdom House, 1948), 48.

5. Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan. Book VII. The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960, edited Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Dennis Porter (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 196.

6. St. Augustine Bishop of Hippo, "On Trinity," Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, vol. 2 edited Whitney J. Oates (New York: Ramdom House, 1948), 782.

7. Sigmund Freud, "Civilization and its Discontents," The Penguin Freud Library, vol. 12, trans. James Strachey (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 299.

8. Ibid., 302.