How to take revenge? Would it not be one of the cruelest retaliations thinkable to let the other live, but to destroy him as a subject? But how does one destroy the subject without destroying the biological existence? We can achieve this (so the speculation might go) by separating the subject from himself, not splitting it, for which we would always come too late, but reversing the very process of subject-formation. In the realm of this devious thought experiment this would entail the revocation of the paternal metaphor, it would entail the creation of a psychosis, it would entail the dissolution of the Oedipal conflict with its outcome of gendered identity and the movement of desire. Needless to say, the outbreak of every psychosis is precisely the return to the stage of infantile duality, but for the psychotic the phallus never took root.
It was Pedro Almodovar who carried out our thought experiment in his 2011 movie The Skin I Live In. Here, a plastic surgeon takes revenge on the young man who raped his daughter by abducting him and operatively turning him into a female with a vagina, breasts, and an altogether new skin. His name Vicente is removed and replaced with that of Vera Cruz. Together with his penis the signifier of conquest (and rape) is taken from him, and on his body is inscribed the true cross of suffering. But the literal castration is not the punishment, it is merely undertaken to undo the gendered identity that had emerged when the law of the father was installed. The removal of the phallus returns the subject to a state of pre-Oedipal desire and imaginary instability. Hence for a long time Vera Cruz is required to wear a skin-tight body suit, a flexible armor that props up her body from the outside, as no internal agency of self-structuring exists any longer. The surgeon’s ultimate aim is for Vera to completely revert to a position of infantile dependence and duality by making her his lover who identifies entirely with the desire of her tormentor. This is not Stockholm Syndrome; this is an artificial psychosis that leaves the subject no other choice than to take rescue in a crocodile relationship, as Lacan would have it, that forever prevents the construction of an identity. The assignment of the new gender and the new name are not to be confused with the (however forced) creation of a different identity. Instead, they merely serve to perpetually undermine the original gender position and identification with the name of the captor.
Yet in the end the experiment appears to fail. Vera shoots and kills her prison warden and returns to the shop where s/he used to work. Narrating her nightmarish tale from the physical position of a beautiful woman, s/he ends with the proclamation “I am Vicente.” And while we as viewers, still shocked by the possibility of the undoing of the Oedipal outcome, much want to read acknowledgement in the faces of the two listeners (a new chance for a triangulation), the film closes before a verbal answer can be given. But the gaze of the Other will never serve as foundation of an identity; rather it will split the subject once more. Without the spoken “Yes, you are Vicente,” Vera must remain in limbo. It is not enough to proclaim the signifier yourself. No one names himself, no one rescues himself. Out of the position of un-gendered non-identity leads only the signifier of the second Other. So in the end, the devious surgeon triumphs after all: A psychosis, even an artificial one, can never be undone.
An end is only an end if it entails loss. The end of any captivity is not experienced as an end, but rather as the beginning of freedom. So who then is the father? Messenger of the king who announces liberty to the bound not-yet subject? We see him in heraldic armor, inscripted with the family lineage, a lancet pointed against the devouring dragon, or, as Lacan will have it, the crocodile mother. Or is he the angel with the flaming sword, expelling from paradise whoever clings to their first desire? (He will emerge to be a sad liberator, his head hung in shame because of what he must do to his child.)
For a proper Greek tragedy, two actors in front of a chorus are sufficient, as Aischylos demonstrated. In the Oedipal drama, four actors take stage: child, phallus/desire, mother, and father. But here tragic loss and role of protagonist do not coincide. The loss is first and foremost that of the child; in the second instance that of the mother. The protagonist is not dead, but dad. Against Kleinians, object relation theorists, and Freudian child analysts all of which emphasize the role of the mother, Lacan props up the central relevance of the father (however pitiful he will turn out to be as the messenger of loss and renunciation). But even with dad at center stage, there are still the two ways sketched out above to describe his function, liberator or punisher. While we know that the answer to every either/or question must be “Both!,” we will still have to take sides to some degree (which is precisely the degree determined by our very own narrative of our Oedipal story). So, Freud or Lacan? (The neurotic in me issues a loud warning that I will lose my intellectual phallus over postulating this alternative.)
Here is (an ever so slightly Lacanian) Freudian retelling: Juan-David Nasio’s Oedipus. The Oedipus complex is not concerned with emotions, Nasio states, but with desiring bodies, to be more precise with the erotic and sexual fire experienced by the four year-old child for his or her parents. The essential outcome of this crisis is the channeling of excessive desire into socially acceptable pathways and the recognition that no desire can ever be completely satisfied. For Nasio, Oedipus is a childhood reality in form of a crisis brought on by desire; a fantasm created as a solution to this crisis; a theoretical concept in psychoanalytic thought; and finally a modern myth that takes the form of an allegory describing the battle between the individual and civilization. The Oedipal desire itself is threefold: the desire to posses (the body of the Other); the desire to be possessed (by the body of the Other); and the desire to suppress and destroy (the body of the father). Since none of these desires can be fulfilled, each of them is answered by a fantasm that replaces the real action of inhuman jouissance with an imagined pleasure accompanied by its own form of anxiety. Overwhelming jouissance is substituted by, as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra would say, ein kleines Lüstchen, a petite pleasure, and a bit of frustration. For the boy, a good amount of anxiety results from his confrontation with the father, and the fear for his penis will from now on color his life: anxiety is central in the life of man, Nasio claims. While the man is most concerned about losing his power, which makes him a coward for Nasio, woman’s anxiety is focused on the loss of the love of the one she loves. Their desire is different, but complimentary; a neurotic sexual relationship between man and woman is perfectly possible for Nasio. In clinical terms, he deduces phobias from (imaginary) abandonment, obsessions from mistreatment, and hysteria from the seduction of the father.
Nasio is a far cry from Lacan. The impossibility of a sexual relationship is replaced by complementary male and female versions of the unconscious; the Oedipal structure is neatly divided between genders once more with the girl having to undergo a complicated switch in imaginary objects; at least for the boy the phallus is equated with the penis; the resolution of the Oedipal conflict in Nasio’s version is never experienced as a moment of liberation for the child and thus no genuine accomplishment can be attributed to it other than an acquired tolerance for frustration; and the register of the symbolic does not even make a guest appearance in Nasio’s narrative nor does he account for the possibility of the failure of the implementation of the paternal signifier leading to psychosis. Orthodox Freudians might rejoice over this retelling of the Oedipal myth, Lacanians instead will turn to Paul Verhaeghe’s New Studies of Old Villains.
In Freud, the father of the clinical reality clashes with the father of the Oedipal theory. The former is frequently weak, ill, and impotent, and all threats to the child are not issued by him, but by the mother. Hence Freud constructs a theory to prop up an idealized potent father who can morph from a problem figure into a fantasmatic solution. This paternal figure (the primal father, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed) is installed to control the female; Freud’s theory itself enacts its hysterical assumptions by becoming a defense against the real (for Freud the drive, for Lacan jouissance). The Oedipal conflict is a rewriting of the impossibility of jouissance (because it leads to death) in terms of a prohibition of enjoyment. In the prohibition, however, is contained the imagined possibility of a supreme enjoyment. If it were not forbidden, we could have it. Hence we continue to want it. But ultimately we only have one possibility at our disposal to handle the impossibility of this jouissance, namely the formation of the symptom. Thus, one of the goals of the Oedipal constellation is the formation of the symptom as a signifier of the lack. It all begins when the infant encounters an overwhelming jouissance from its own body. To defend against it, the infant appeals to the Other for help. This help is offered in the form of a first identification established through mirroring which allows the threatening sensations to be experienced as external, i.e. resulting from the Other. In this identification the infants risks disappearing completely in the Other, but a second Other offers a signifier to the child that rescues it from being the phallus/desire of the (m)Other. Recognition of a lack, desire, and the formation of both an identity and a symptom all occur simultaneously. And while the goal of the analysis is the identification with one’s symptom, Verhaeghe warns that we must not believe in the symptom. A belief entails the assumption that our symptom can be rendered meaningful by the Other (a knowing analyst), thus positing an Other who is without lack. Instead, we should identify with our symptom that can then become the sinthôme, namely a signifier that knots together the three registers and allows the subject to function without a guaranteeing Other.
Every desire must also be the desire for the sinthôme. To lock it out opens the doors for the revenge of the symbolic that stages its psychotic scenarios in the real.
Juan-David Nasio: Oedipus. The Most Crucial Concept in Psychoanalysis. Albany: SUNY Press, 2010.
Paul Verhaeghe: New Studies of Old Villains. A Radical Reconsideration of the Oedipus Complex. New York: Other Press, 2009.