Sacrifice and our Destiny
Armand Zaloszyc

Author's Bio

Translated by Nadine Picard

Beyond the various meanings carried by sacrifices, to which myths as well as religious doctrines testify, the fact is that all these meanings, no matter how far their networks reach, fail to solve the fundamental enigma of sacrifice, which an anthropologist of Africa very suggestively pointed out as the enigma of a non-extinguishable “sacrificial debt,” as “a gap that no victim in the world will ever fill.” With such a remark we are bound to be driven at once to our field where sacrifice will catch its meaning from a certain structure of subjective arrangement.

But let us first clarify some details about sacrifice. Before all I would like to emphasize the contrasted value of a few words I am using. To that end, let us begin with an example found in a rather good book, Exodus.1 You know how Moses, on Mount Sinai, prays God to re­veal his ways to him, and you will doubtlessly recall what God, in this sort of dialogue, ends up replying: “. . . You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Let us skip all the details of the story and go straight to the point. All in all, God tells Moses — one should keep in mind it is the God of the Revelation at the Burning Bush — “What you can see of me now, it is what has so far been written from my word as history; and from this history, the meaning of which you will suppose, you are likely to create a knowledge with the help of which you think you can grasp me. But you can neither grasp nor know either my ways or my ends, or my intentions.” That is God’s answer to Moses. To which we can add from deduction for he need not express it, as God expresses himself concisely: “At most will you be able to own this knowledge as supposed.”

We can see that God presents himself to his deman­der as two-sided. On one side he is both knowledge sup­posed and a possible knowledge; but this knowledge sup­posed covers the other side where no knowledge is possi­ble; it is an obscure side, the darkness of which will never be erased by any knowledge, no matter how far its enlight­enment goes. Therefore the same question remains: “This Other, what does he want from me?” which is the question of an obscure Other.

No matter how extended a knowledge of the Other I can build, no matter how far I can articulate, discuss, argue about, codify this knowledge, I will not answer the question of what the desire of the Other is, beyond this knowledge, emerging from the inevitable lacks in this knowledge.

Thus, with this two-sided God, are we faced to a contradictory unity, where the being (the being of Ehye asher Ehye — I am who I am — of the unutterable Name) overflows knowledge, and where this forever-overflowing keeps on making it impossible for the contradiction to be ever definitively erased, whether by synthesis, or by totali­sation, or by globality. This two-sidedness, if I may say so, of an Other supposed to know, with its latent obscure side, characterizes God. What he is, what he has performed of his being as history can be read as an open book on the uni­verse, but, repeatedly, on the other side of this history, he is, because of the unerasable opacity of his desire, a black incandescence, an obscure God.

The two-sidedness of God constitutes a structure which does not only pertain to the unique God of monotheistic religions; far from it. It is indeed quite widespread. To keep to the point of sacrifice, as I think one can show that it is precisely at the junction of this two-sided structure of the Other that sacrifice finds its fundamental meaning, one can see the same structure exemplified in var­ious descriptions dealing with sacrifice: in Levi-Strauss’ re­peated assertions, ten years apart, that the system of sacrifice is void of any common sense; in Vernant’s brilliant analysis of Prometheus’ myth where the relevant flaw left is that, alongside the mythical plot, Zeus acts as a dupe although he knows that Prometheus has deceived him; and in De Heusch’s notion of a “sacrificial debt” which has doubtlessly been suggested to him by some acquaintance with psychoanalysis.

A more detailed analysis of these key studies would easily show that the same spot of obscurity remains but with different ways of either acknowledging it or not.


Why can’t we do without this opacity? It is because it intimately depends on the structure of language that we use to get hold of reality. We will be given no better clue to this than the paradox brought forth by Freud in one of the Jewish Witzes he reports in chapter 3 of his Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, and upon which Lacan bril­liantly commented in chapter 11 of his Seminar The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. I assume the story is well known by now:

Two Jews meet in a railway carriage at a station in Galitzia.
“Where are you going?” asked one.
“To Cracow” was the answer.
“What a liar you are!” broke out the other. “If you say you are going to Cracow, you want me to believe you are going to Lemberg. But I know that in fact you are going to Cracow. So why are you lying to me?”2

Let us clear up the paradox in the story: what is our Jew actually saying when he gets angry? He is not re­proaching the other with a lie, with something unspoken that would be hidden beneath the other’s words. No indeed. He is bringing forth the idea that what the Other has said induces, implies, contains in itself a denial of what has been said. That is why we are confronted here to a kind of para­dox. And what can we learn from it? That however true, however complete, however accurate what the Other has said is, we are always entitled to ask him the question of what he meant. This mere question is enough to render what is said always inadequate, and namely inadequate to tell the truth. Whatever you are told, you can keep on ask­ing: “But what are you telling me this for?,” a question which both implies that there is something else than what has been said, and is about what the Other wants.

“Why are you telling me you are going to Cracow whereas you are actually going there?” It is quite easy to see in such a wording of the story, that in this asking the utterance is designated as impossible to say, beyond whatever is said which is substituting for it and therefore proves it im­possible to say. That is how the question of the Other’s de­sire is set within knowledge as a non-erasable opacity in this knowledge, an obscure side on the other side of the whole stretch of knowledge, and the presence of which can, all of a sudden, show up in anxiety, in fear and trembling.

Let us only add to the latter point that Georges Bataille, who was, as we know, quite haunted by the prob­lem of sacrifice, had indeed noticed how close to each other sacrifice and anxiety were.

Thus, there is a spot where knowledge is impossible and from which the question of the Other’s desire arises as: “What does he want from me?” Am I able to answer this question? No, I cannot. But the Other will not give more of an answer, since there lies the very spot of his opacity. At best, at this spot, do I suppose a knowledge from the Other, which is precisely what Moses does, what the religious in­dividual does, and is nothing but what the analysand does at first, towards the analyst, in the analytical experience, where he draws the analyst into embodying the Other.

But what does the question “What does he want from me?” actually indicate if knowledge cannot answer it but by deceit? It is non-erasable jouissance which is the true cause of this gap in knowledge, it is the black incan­descence of the obscure God, the God which is but actual­ity, as Saint Thomas Aquinas says, the God we are neither to see nor to foresee.

Any sacrifice we may offer will be directed to this obscure God, whose nature I tried to throw some light upon. At least, this is the thesis Lacan offers us: “Sacrifice means that, within the objects of our desire, we try to find the evidence of the presence of the Other’s desire,” this very Other he calls the obscure God.3

There is indeed, within sacrifice, the two-way mo­tion described by this thesis, if we keep in mind that the repetition, the multiplication itself of sacrifices is ultimately founded on what has been called the never-to-be-erased “sacrificial debt.”

No doubt that this is difficult for us to fully grasp, for we can hardly picture how omnipresent ancient sacrifice was. The analytical experience can help us here, when it displays the subjective arrangement requiring and regulat­ing sacrifice. Freud is sure to have been aware of this, since in The Psychopatology of Everyday Life — he does not develop the idea, though, perhaps for fear of frightening us (after all, he wrote it well before what was later called the Holocaust) — he tells us that we are not about to be released from sacrificing to the “obscure powers of destiny.”


What is the object of sacrifice? Or rather: what is its function in the structure I am displaying? Let us try and define it with a short-cut, using two telling examples. I will take sacrifice in Vedantic India as a reference, not in order to set a pattern of sacrifice, but to focus on a particular feature which seems to me to be of a general interest. I will then delve into an element of the sacrificial ritual in Ancient Rome that is likely to have its paradigmatical value as well.

In Vedantic India where, as we know, the only ob­ject worth sacrificing should be the sacrificing individual himself, a sacrificed victim is substituted for him, and the various sacrifices performed all along one’s life time are, as Charles Malamoud pointed out, but the means of gradually paying off the debt of life. Moreover, sacrifice there sup­ports and even sustains the existence of Dharma, of the whole social and cosmic order, that is to say the Symbolic order which makes the Other a warrant of the distribution of distinctive features: not the obscure Other, but on the contrary, an Other which would be exclusively order and light. Sacrifice achieves it through a central act, which is to thoroughly give up the object, an act called tyaga. Yet, the food left by the offering will be shared between the sacrific­ing individual and the Brahmans. This is the point shown quite clearly through the sophisticated structure of Vedantic sacrifice: there is no sacrifice here without a payment to the priest. This payment, called daksina, is an essential part of the sacrificial ritual, the absence of which would nullify the sacrifice. Could daksina be a salary for the priest, as it has been suggested? Not at all. A Vedantic hymn tell us: “Daksina makes up for what is torn in sacrifice.” It is the price one pays to the priest in order to take back one’s body out of the sacrifice.

The preceding example gives us the opportunity to examine the fact of consuming links both the use and the waste of goods: sacrifice, indeed, performs this linkage by means of a primary substitution, as is shown by the logic of daksina. What pertains to use substitutes for what is given up to waste. We might thus characterize the structure of sacrificial cooking in Ancient Greece, and understand that for the Ancient Hebrews the true object of sacrifice might be said to have been not at all the share given up to God, but on the contrary, the one made suitable for use by sacri­fice.

What is now the object of sacrifice? It is a gift of goods that have been taken aside from the circulation of our use and exchanges to be given to the divine Other, as well as a given up to him of objects from the field of our desires, objects owed as a debt to him. It is, we know, a non-erasable debt. Part of the sacrifice intends to erase it as much as possible, and this is the side of the covenant which ties us to the deity, whatever its peculiar signification or topology are, whether it is an identificatory connection between sacred and worldly matters, or, on the contrary, a reassertion of the definitive gap parting human and divine beings, or the disjunction from a world of spirits when trouble arises from the improper conjunction of it to Man. These are the various aspects of the covenant made with the Other, whereas sacrifice will by no mean extinguish the ob­scure God’s fire burning me.

Let us consider for another while the sacrificial rit­ual in so far as it requires — and actually gets, within the limits I pointed out — an answer to the question: “What does the Other want of me?

This fact is featured in the universal phase of sacri­fice the Romans called litatio. The wholeness, whether ex­ternal or internal, of the victim, its conformity as regards to species, colour, age, size, etc. . . to a specific and detailed, sometimes complex code (i.e. the code of the pacifying re­lationship to the Other which is also to be found in the pre­scriptions of Leviticus), all this was required and was submitted to a probational examination called probatio. The exta themselves, which were the god’s share, were exam­ined with scrutiny and, unless they were in absolute con­formity to the norms prescribed by the code, the sacrifice could not proceed: this was litatio, the sign of the god’s ac­ceptance. If any flaw was to be noticed, the victim was de­clared improper, the process had to be canceled and then another victim (succidanea) was substituted for the former one. Those were the proceedings of sacrifice in Ancient Rome, as is reported by Georges Dumézil for example. The wish of obtaining the evidence of acceptance could go quite far: Titus Livius reports how, in 176 B.C., the Senate de­cided that the consuls whose offerings had failed to pass probatio had to repeat the sacrifice usque ad litationem with as many animals as were necessary to get the god’s ac­ceptance.



Thus does the sacrifice enable the Other’s desire to be transmuted into a fulfillment of our wishes, which are nothing but the wishes expressed by the Other’s code: what a fortunate coincidence! At least we can say that this transmutation of the Other’s desire into worded wishes is what the sacrifice intends to perform (and we do know that it will not manage to do it fully). In short, to perform a sac­rifice is to try to grasp the god through the networks of that part of desire which can be worded. It is to act as if the god actually desired the object of the sacrifice, which not only ascertains its presence as a living being, but also does it in forms where its inextinguishable luxuriance will be, so to say, metabolized: at best as a knowledge established (i.e.: the history in which we trust), at worst as a knowledge sup­posed, that is as intentions. I cannot know either what God wants from me, or what he wants from my people, since his face cannot be seen, but I nevertheless suppose that he does have some intentions towards me at the back of his mind.4

This is but the consequence of the subjective ar­rangement which the obscure God disrupts. I defend myself from it, and this very defence gives this arrangement a structure, its modalities regulate my position regarding the covenant, as well as my devices — inhibitions, symptoms and anxiety — when the limits of the covenant are over­flowed and sacrifice cannot pacify the obscure God any­more.

Are we now ready to tell what the sacrificial offer­ing the subject brings to the god is made of? We can say that it is an object belonging to the subject, whatever it is, as long as it fulfills the prescriptions of the covenant. The subject will be responsible for it. And thereby this object will become the object of his desires. But it is even further beyond that the subject has to respond to the Other’s desire: “Hineini, here I am” as Abraham twice replies, for he has already taken the object from his own life by subtracting it from the field of his satisfactions and by giving it to God.

My proposition is that the part of given-up jouissance that constitutes the object of sacrifice is handed over to the Other, so that the covenant reciprocated from the Other as love be re-assured. That is what Freud calls unifying Eros. But even love will not erase the demand of the Other’s desire, and the given-up jouissance which overflows the limits within which the covenant lies returns onto the subject as guilt.



As a conclusion, let us emphasize a particular point. Nazism may have been written about as an actualization of “the banality of evil.” Is it not that a splitting of the object of jouissance itself occurred among the subjects who were included in a Volksgemeinschaft, that is a community based on the ideal criteria of some physical anthropology? On the one hand, the love for the leader of the group who loved them all equally would have drawn these subjects towards an identification with the group’s ideals embodied by the leader; whereas, on the other hand, the part of jouissance which could not adjust to the form of the group’s ideals and overflowed it — this part which brings about guilt — would have fabricated matter to be endlessly thrown towards the obscure gods with those whom the pre­vailing identification both pointed out and cast out, while guilt was cast upon them.

Didn’t they thereby actually become what a poet named “the rose of Nobody, of Nothing?”


1.   Exodus, chapter 33.
2.   Sigmund Freud, S.E. VIII, p. 115.
3.   The Seminar, Book XI, p. 275.
4.   To refer to Exodus, 33.



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