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Antigone’s Acts through the Prism of the Freudian Death Drive

Adriana Cekic & Edita Pozhegu
ENGL 210 Spring Semester 2017

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     Sophocles’ tragic drama Antigone, along with its prequels, has passed the test of time as it has persisted as a literary favorite and most certainly a meaningful experience for its readers for thousands of years, while at the same time raising numerous dilemmas and debates. Repeatedly, Antigone’s actions have been viewed through many lenses including feminism, civil disobedience, and religion. While there is no denying the bravery behind her actions, Antigone’s motifs however, well-hidden in the play, lend themselves to an alternative interpretation. With this in mind, we will argue that Antigone’s actions were ultimately motivated by hidden incestuous desires for her brother, Polynices. We will present our arguments by exploring Antigone’s family history of incest, Freud’s theory of the “primal horde”, and the driving forces of Eros and Thanatos.

     Antigone, a deeply troubled young woman, comes from a family which crumbled under a detrimental prophecy. Previous actions undertaken by Antigone’s parents—Oedipus and Jocasta—to prevent an incestuous relationship, testify to their limited free will and inability to escape fate. The prophecy expands far past Oedipus’ incestuous relationship with his mother, and appears in their offspring, Antigone. Antigone, well aware of her role in the manifestation of her father’s prophecy, and her inability to escape it, starts her dialogue in the play with: “Dear Sister! Dear Ismene! How many evils/ Our father, Oedipus, bequeathed to us!” (Sophocles 1-2). However, unlike her parents, Antigone was able to cage her desires, but suffered the same fate nonetheless, mirroring her mother’s death by hanging herself.

     In order to understand the hidden motifs behind Antigone’s actions, we must take a look at ancient Greek social and moral codes concerning sexuality and, specifically, incest. It is common for the works of Homer and Plato, amongst other ancient Greek writers, to come across sexual acts which were considered taboo. Acts such as homosexual relationships between boys and elders, or married men taking liberties with various women, were tolerated by the society, even normalized; however, incest remained the one most incomprehensible and immoral act. Freud’s work on the theory of the “primal horde” gives us an insight into the reasoning behind this taboo which opposes incestuous relationships, and even well-hidden incestuous desires. Freud suggests that in primeval human societies, where the alpha man held the sexual privileges for all the group, the sons lusting after their mothers and sisters, would challenge him – which would often lead to the father’s murder – and claim his position. The violent results of this primal sexual drive formed the basis of the ‘incest taboo’ which over the course of time was internalized by most societies, including that of Ancient Greece (Freud 164-167).

   edita updated  Furthermore, Freud suggests—and later on Jung added to this theory, when he coined the “Electra Complex”—that the first sexual attraction of a child is towards the parent of the opposite sex. This sexual attraction awakens the desire to exclude and ultimately replace the other parent (Freud 20, 149-150). Putting this theory in Antigone’s context, in particular Antigone’s relationship with her father Oedipus, it is evident that unlike most children, she was able to presume her mother’s role on some level by taking care of her father. Her mother’s suicide and her father’s challenging condition contributed to Antigone’s vulnerability, dependence, and sexual inexperience which made it difficult for her to overcome her hidden desires. After Oedipus’ death, these desires were rather channeled towards her brother, Polynices.

     What is more, Westermarck’s theory concerning the incest taboo—which he claims is developed during the early ages of childhood among close blood relatives—considers this taboo as prevention against harmful inbreeding consequences (Rantala and Marcinkowska 859-873). In Antigone’s case, this taboo does not hold, as during her childhood she unknowingly considered the incestuous relationship between her parents, and even the birth of her and her siblings to be normal: up to the point of her mother’s suicide and her father’s self-blinding, that is. During her development stages, Antigone witnessed what to her was a perfectly normal relationship between her parents which was only disrupted by social norms, leading to Antigone’s lack of an innate aversion to incest.

     Antigone’s sexual inexperience and vulnerability combined with her normalization of an incestuous relationship, lead to her inability to have a ‘normal’ relationship. Throughout the play, Antigone gives us many clues of her affections for but ultimately lack of interest in a marriage with her betrothed, Haemon. She rather fed on her yearnings for her brother to the point of becoming delusional. Her final speech, which ultimately reveled her honest intentions, and even her rage towards Ismene her sister, Antigone’s defiance of the king’s orders paint her with the colors of a jilted lover. She goes as far as regarding her death sentence as her long-desired wedding: “O tomb, my bridal bed… I’ll soon be there, soon embrace my own” (Sophocles 979-981).

     Regardless, Antigone did not undertake any action to fulfill her inner desires while her brother was alive. Her inaction was not necessarily a result of her moral barricades since evidently they were not strong enough to unbalance her being nor feelings. More probably, the lack of action undertaken on her part was a result of the public perception and the consequences, discussed above. To add more to this, she was worried about the consequences her brother would suffer, as she herself no longer tried to escape any punishment after her brother was dead.

     Sigmund Freud’s epistemological blow, also known as the third blow to human narcissism, is based on a finding that the man is not a master of himself, but is rather dominated by unconscious processes in his psyche; “The patient cannot remember the whole of what is repressed in him, and what he cannot remember may be precisely the essential part of it.. He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of remembering it as something in the past” (Freud 253). One of the controversial concepts which can emerge from the unconscious functioning of the human psyche is certainly the death drive.

     In his work Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud derives from a children's game of Fort-Da to illustrate the idea of repetition compulsion. Fort-da, as named by Freud, was a game played by his grandson involving a cotton reel which he would repeatedly throw out of its cot, exclaiming “Oo” when he did so, obligating his mother to fetch it for him, at which he would respond with appreciative “Ah”: “Fort” meaning “gone”, and “da”, meaning “there”. The game shows how the child transforms an unhappy situation, a situation in which he has no control over the presence of his mother (or parents), into a happy one where the child has command over his parents. According to Freud, it may be interpreted as a sort of child’s revenge on its parents, a way of telling them they are not “important”. In addition to the existence and the rule of the pleasure principle—driven by unconscious mental processes—there are tendencies that are more original and are independent of the pleasure principle and reach beyond it. He turns to clinical cases of suppressed traumatic experiences. Traumatic events which mount to repression and are always specifically subjective, do not become part of the historical events and therefore part of memories. On the contrary, the repressed pursues us in the present. The subject is forced to repeat (the unconsciously repressed) as the experience of the present (Freud 255). This leads us to assume that the compulsion of repetition adds nothing to the subject’s well-being; on the contrary, the subject rather feels unbearable discomfort (anxiety, fear, horror, anxiety), but Freud says that it is clear that which is experienced for the sake of coercion of repetition brings the ego not only discomfort, but comfort and discomfort. Lust/Unlust, are only two polar concepts of one construct: the pleasure principle. What is unfavorable for one system, means pleasure for the other system (Freud 255). With the repetition compulsion, experiences of the past return which, according to Freud, do not include an advantage of pleasure. This repetition compulsion goes beyond the pleasure principle. It is this very repetitive compulsion (that drives us to death) which is interesting for us here: What propels Antigone in her tenacious path that abruptly leads to death? The answer may be obvious: the death drive. Outward expressions of coercion-repetition show a very instinctive nature, even demonic, when they are contrary to the principle of pleasure (Freud 272). These instincts are the instincts of the Ego and they strive to achieve restoration of the previous situation—the establishment of death. Freud named them the instincts of death. The death instincts thus arise from a recovery of inanimate matter and want to restore the lifelessness again (280). However, we also have self-preservation instincts that are exclusively of a sexual nature and are able to maintain life. Freud labeled them the instincts of life. What is contrary to comfort and moving beyond it, Lacan named pleasure, jouissance.

     Pleasure as jouissance is what the subject experiences as unbearable torment, though it represents a kind of satisfaction to its unconscious—a satisfaction which is not pleasure, and is as a matter of fact far from that. The subject thus experiences its pathological symptom as suffering, but is nevertheless so devoted to its symptom which the subject loves as much as it loves itself, although this brings him pain. Jouissance is therefore not associated with pleasure, but with pain. The pleasure ergo is in form of pain which harms the organism, and in so far as the pleasure diminishes, it inevitably leads to death. Heroism from this point of view, which is, according to Lacan, a kind of sublimation, does not exclude the will for pleasure, but conversely argues that a person is ready to sacrifice his whole life for the sake of it. That is, if you want, the triumph of the death drive is the desperate confirmation of the pleasure (Freud 50).

     The ethical act, the suicide, is for Lacan the core of the issue—the pleasure. Pleasure in the service of the death drive; We find such illustrative death drive in Antigone: "And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory” (Sophocles 655). Also: “These laws, I was not about to break them- not out of fear of some mans wounded pride and face the retribution of the Gods. Die I must, I've known it all my life, how could I keep from knowing, even without your death sentence ringing in my ears- but if I am to die before my time - I consider that a gain. Who alive in the midst of so much grief as I could fail to find his death such a rich reward, so for me, at least, this is precious little pain” (665). Additionally, Antigone identifies with Niobe who is fossilized into a rock and therefore identifies with an inanimate being—and a God.

     For Freud, the death instinct is primary ergo grounded in biology and derives the repetition compulsion as a result. The symbolization occurs as a secondary product with respect to the death drive. Freud strives to justify the death instinct in nature, while Lacan offers an alternate understanding: the death drive results from symbolization per se, because we are creatures of the symbolic order, creatures of language and transmission, not of a death drive.

     In Antigone, a work with the status of a tragedy of desire, the heroine holds a symbolic debt to her father, Oedipus, and guilt that shares roots with myths of Cadmus’ act. The myth implies catastrophic consequences, since its curse (governed by the death drive) is passed onto newborn family members. Antigone too, led by some of the death drive, is turned into an instrument in the hands of the families’ tradition of curse. Catharsis, as the key moment of tragedy, asks for a radical end with death.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. Totem and Taboo: Resemblances between the Psychic Lives of Savages and Neurotics. New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1918.

Freud, Sigmund, 1920, Onstran načela ugodja (Beyond the Pleasure Principle). V: Metapsihološki spisi, Ljubljana, Studia Humanitatis, 1987

Rantala, Markus J and Urszula M. Marcinkowska. "The role of sexual imprinting and the Westermarck effect in mate choice in humans." Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology (2011): 15.

Sophocles. Antigone. Ed. Martin Puchner. Norton Anthology of World Literature, Volume 1. W.W. Norton ad Co. Inc. New York, 2017


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