Posts Tagged ‘art’


We have so become accustomed to looking at ourselves in mirrors, that even when facing ourselves we overlook ourselves. And not having seen ourselves, once we turn around, we are blind to the beauty and the injustices of the world. Lifeless we see no life; deaf we hear no cries. We have lost the child’s playful love of mirrors. Even Zarathustra, who has to be handed a mirror by a child, is a stranger to himself:

‘O Zarathustra,’ the child said to me, ‘look at yourself in the mirror’. But when I looked into the mirror I cried out and my heart was shaken; for it was not myself I saw … (TSZ, II, “The Child with the Mirror”)

Zarathustra, unlike us, dares to look; he dares to challenge what he finds staring back at him, a “devil’s grimace and a scornful laughter”.

One way of shedding some light on the event known as ‘nihilism’, involves recovering ourselves, and the world, through mirror-like relations. Just as mirrors provide the possibility for a doubling split between spaced figures, so nihilism itself is a split phenomenon arising from what is truly spaceless, a point in which we learn of the death of God. In order to understand the duality characteristic of nihilism, I shall turn in Section I to Zarathustra’s creator, Nietzsche. Why him? Well because Camus sees in his works, in the multitude of colorful mirrors it provides, and the multitude of mirrors it shatters, a lucid reflection of the emergence of modern meaninglessness. The death of God marks, according to Nietzsche, our modern identity. It is an event in which all possible reflection is shadowed; an event which forecloses all foreshadowing. From it, flowers nihilism in its two principal mirroring modalities, the passive and the active. But besides this important theoretical gain, for Camus, Nietzsche is one of those whom it is worthwhile to mirror creatively: “if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that a philosopher, to deserve respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply” (MoS, 3). But, can we, really? We, who are unable even to mirror ourselves.

In Section II, I will proceed to look at one who loves mirrors as few do, Camus’ Caius. He comes to mirrors by confronting the death of his beloved. In Caligula, his imperial name, passive nihilism shows one of its two faces, that of murder. His feverish mirror becomes stained in blood. It is precisely because of its reddish reflection, the one which likewise invades the moon he longs for, that he must in the end break it. But ironically, at the moment where all reflection ends, Caligula claims to be finally alive. Could this be possible?

Finally, in the last section of this essay, I will take up Camus’ remark that “even within the limits of nihilism it is possible to find the means to proceed beyond nihilism” (Preface, MoS). The guiding questions here will be: can we truly move beyond nihilism? Would it not be better, perhaps, to say we learn to move within a certain kind of nihilism, that is to say, its active variant as elucidated by Nietzsche? I will try to look here at the possibility of re-covering ——- in other words, covering anew ——- ourselves and the world through a new light that streams from a web of mirrors exhibiting an ephemeral value. We will be able to look at, and through, an artistic kaleidoscopic whose motion is born out of the present desire of life. But in this peculiar kind of kaleidoscope, the playful child who delights in it, is him/herself part of the figures and colors recreated. Perhaps by partaking of some of the dancing figures which Camus himself allows us to see ——-and as in a mirror, reflect upon—— we will come closer to understanding what Camus meant by saying that ‘creation is the great mime’. (MoS, 94). (*1)


In The Gay Science Nietzsche wrote concerning ‘New Struggles’: “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown —-and we —– we still have to vanquish his shadow, too” (TGS, 108). The divine mirror on which we saw ourselves mirrored has been shattered. Of it there remain only fragments and the shadow of a corpse. But a shadow is much like a mirror; for it, too, is our other. But this other, unlike the reflected self facing us in the mirror, is born out of the absence of all sunlight. Nevertheless, the shadow spoken of, is of infinite dimensions. To divine mirroring, there follows a dead God’s omnipresent shadow.

The death of God is a modern phenomenon which alludes to the downfall of all previously held hierarchical valuations. The divine axle, that standard around which we orbited, has been crushed. (*2) We are left suspended in mid-air; or no, mid-air implies there being a middle to which one can refer in order to place oneself appropriately. There is no middle anywhere now. Instead we are exiled into a weird atmosphere lacking any gravitational pull whatsoever. Flung around, disoriented where once we knew our way around, we see the land we once stood on, crumbling. (*3) Where lay constructions now appear ever-fading ruins. We are overtaken by the aquatic fluidity of it all:

In the horizon of the infinite.—-We have left the land and have embarked. We have burned our bridges behind us—- indeed, we have gone farther and destroyed the land behind us. Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize that it is infinite and there is nothing more awesome than infinity. Oh, the poor bird that felt free and now strikes the wall of this cage! Woe, when you feel homesick …… there is no longer any land. (TGC, 124) (*4)

There is nothing but ocean straight ahead; only in the sea can we come to see ourselves again. And on it, knowing of its dual nature, at the same time a silky gold and a deep devouring black, we landless moderns must set sail. But this quest is precisely the quest for ourselves because looking overboard we cannot overlook the reflection which stares at us from beneath. The sea is the mirror of mirrors:

Free man, you will forever love the sea!

The sea’s your mirror; you observe your soul

Perpetually as its waves unroll,

Your spirit’s chasm yawns as bitterly (Baudelaire, 51) (*5)

Like waves, we long for a land upon which to break. But instead, for us, there remains only a world rid of continents; a true laberynth made up of watered walls. Our universe, at its worst, is that of a whirlpool sucking us to the dark depths where shadows find comfort.

But even if we look up, tired of gazing downwards, we find much the same picture, that of utter confusion. Even our galaxies have ceased to follow the regularity we had become accustomed to. We voyage in a milky way, but one lacking orbits, lacking milkiness, lacking predictable ways:

Parable.—–Those thinkers in whom all stars move in cyclic orbits are not the most profound. Whoever looks into himself as into vast space and carries galaxies in himself, also knows how irregular all galaxies are; they lead into the chaos and labyrinth of existence. (TGC, 322)

Looking at oneself not only involves the sea, but star filled galaxies where all light is born. However, our galaxies, these have to be constructed anew out of chaotic ruins. Nostalgia reminds us of once known star systems where orbits, milk and predictability were taken for granted.

But continuously longing for this center upon which to gravitate, we start to become dizzy as never before. The chaos that emerges and the marine labyrinth into which we are flung leave us at a loss. Meaning and purpose mean nothing.

He who feels the blurring of our disintegrating cartographies; he who holds a compass liberated from any magnetic pull; he who knows himself at a crossroads whose point of origin is quicksand; he who feels all this is the mad human:

‘Whither is God?’, he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him —- you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? …Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? …. who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? Is not the greatness of this deed to great for us? (TGS, 125)

Sunlight is effacing; night sets in, enlightened by a blood covered moon. Thirst becomes unquenchable for to quench it there is only the salty water of the ocean which, the mad human tells us, we have already drank up. Even the sea seems permanently deserted, lifeless. The madman announces an event, but nobody listens. Breaking his lantern, he tells us, from the ensuing shadowy atmosphere: “deeds though done, still require to be seen and heard …. themselves” (ibid.). But we, who are unable to look at ourselves in mirrors, how could we not overlook the deed that precisely shatters all mirroring?

Nevertheless Nietzsche did try to see; as a matter of fact, he foresaw as few have. His tenacity allows us to gain clarity while still among shadows, shadows whose pull is like that of black holes. Nietzsche stood his ground for, as Camus tells us, one who “has become conscious of the absurd ….. is forever bound to it” (MoS, 31). The absurdity of nihilism is what Nietzsche faced. The deed, God’s death, triggers an event, the leveling of all values; the ‘reign’ of emptiness, the will to nothingness. If God’s death arrives as shadow, then surely nihilism is that shadow which we carry upon ourselves; like Zarathustra his dwarf. Ours is not a cross, but a cross’ shadow. Nietzsche places himself at the crossroads, at that point where the two logs meet, that point where the divorce between humans and the world has taken place. And there, in that crack which follows the earthquake —-a crack quick to close itself—– lucidly he awaits; and listening intently, there he sees two paths flowering in different contradictory directions. (*7)

The question “What is nihilism”, is an odd question to ask. The real question, for Nietzsche, is quite different: what does nihilism, the situation emerging out of God’s death, mean to whom? For one does not, in a parallel way, ask what is the beautiful, nor what is the good, or the true:

In every case it is a question of the conditions of preservation of a certain type of man: thus the herd man will experience the value feeling of the beautiful in the presence of different things than will the exceptional or over-man” (WtP, 804) (8)

Beauty, goodness and truthfulness are taken to be different things depending on the character of those concerned. And this holds true, likewise, for the interpretation of nihilism.

Nihilism is an event we as moderns share. It is in this sense that Nietzsche speaks of it as being a “normal condition” (WtP, 23). But this normal condition, which we have seen is defined precisely because of it abnormality, its anomie, is one which can be faced in different ways. And the way we do face it, says a lot of the way we face ourselves in mirrors. How we see the world and how we perceive who we are, are as inseparable as a coin’s two sides.

Even though Nietzsche has been all to keen on portraying, as vividly as possible, the disorientation that stems from the death of God, he wants anything but simply despairing beings who embrace as desirable the loss of all valuations. Not only has he told us that we have a ship on which to cruise the ocean, but likewise reminded us of the silky gold graciousness of the sea upon which we travel. And furthermore, his keen eyesight brings to light that “only ONE interpretation succumbed; but because of the fact it passed as THE interpretation, it looks as if there were no sense in existence, as if everything were in vain” (Melendez, FP, 5 (71), 1887, p 31). God’s death is the culminating point in the history of a unique interpretation; an interpretation which claimed to be the only mirroring possibility. Its having been questioned leaves now open the possibility of a plurality of mirrors.

For the univocal pessimist, the loss of an interpretation necessarily involves the loss of all possible interpretations. Unsurpassable meaninglessness ensues:

Everything lacks meaning (the impossibility of practicing one unique interpretation of the world to which immense efforts have been dedicated —– awakens the suspicion of the falsity of all interpretations of the world —-) Buddhist tendency, longing for nothingness (Melendez, 2(127), 1885-86, p. 23) (9)

The pessimist rids all life of meaning for life does not fit his/her notion of what meaningfulness is. The pessimist prides himself on dis-covering the world; but his egoism lies precisely in his/her passion simply to un-cover, leaving everything nakedly, shamefully, barren:

it has been discovered, the world is not worth what we thought … a senselessness which finally begins to be understood after unfortunate roundabouts, a Comedy of Errors, a bit too prolonged, which shamefully looses itself in nothingness. (Melendez, FP, 3(14), 1886), p. 31) (10)

Love of disorientation. Desire for an endless fall free of any meaning whatsoever. A decision to remain in perpetual indecision. Triumph of the shadow and its aimless wandering, its coldness incapable of taking in the light required to carry on the quest for horizons of sense. All this is the pessimist, and much less. Through the pessimist, who is nothing but shadow, one gains clarity on the phenomenon of nihilism. His/her shadow asks Zarathustra:

Nothing is alive anymore that I love; how should I still love myself? …. how could anything please me any more? Do I have a goal any more? A haven toward which my sail is set? A good wind? Alas, only he who knows where he is sailing also knows which wind is good and the right wind for him. What is left to me now? A heart, weary and imprudent, a restless will, flutter-wings, a broken-backbone. Trying thus to find my home ——O Zarathustra, do you know it? ….’Where is —-my home?’ I ask and search and have searched for it, but I have not found i. O eternal everywhere, O eternal nowhere, O eternal—in vain!’ (TSZ, IV, “The Shadow”)

Windless wandering upon boats without masts; ships peopled by back-bone lacking creatures; eternal homelessness and never-ending directionless wandering; all this is the world of shadowy figures. Theirs is an adventure which is truly an undertaking, that is to say, an ‘under’-taking. A death sought in dreamt ships, among ghostly seamen vent on fictitious quests. Shadows who, lacking any port, disdain all possible ports. Each and every possible site of arrival is burnt out of resentment and resignation. A lifeless life of blackened mirrors, is for them a perfect life:

Perfect nihilism

Its symptoms: The great scorn

The great compassion

The great destruction

and its culminating point: a doctrine which precisely makes of the life of nausea, of compassion, of the pleasure of destruction, more intense, and teaches them as absolute and eternal” (Melendez, FP, 11 (149), 1987-88, p.67)

Perfect teachers of the hatred of life. Desire vent on destroying itself; on punishing itself.

But for every shadow in us, there lies a living laughing being from which it stems. Not all destruction need simply rejoice in its destructive abilities. This is why nihilism is not a one way affair; but much more like a coin with two opposing faces. Nihilism flowers into two variants which stand to each other as one stands to a mirror. On the one hand, the passively imprisoned image, on the other, the actively living human:

“Nihilism. It is ambiguous:

A. Nihilism as sign of increased power of the spirit; as active nihilism.

B. Nihilism as decline and recession of the power of the spirit; as passive nihilism” (WtP, 22)

Active nihilism, for it Nietzsche, for the most part, stands as mirroring model due to his lively confrontation with the void. A dignified spirit standing its ground under the most extreme of disasters. Affirmation of a life desired ever and ever anew just as it is; a ‘yes’ to a loved narration which eternal recurs. (*11) A faint light in the dark world of madness and indifference. The fragile light born out of a candle in the quiet of the night onboard our interim home:

“With ropes I have learned to climb many a window; with swift legs I climbed into high masts; and to sit on high masts of knowledge seemed to me no small happiness; to flicker like small flames on high masts —- a small light only, and yet a great comfort for shipwrecked sailors and castaways” (TSZ, III, “On the Spirit of Gravity”)

Our homes, ships with backbones and true sea-humans. Zarathustra, climber of masts whose words shine in order to be mirrored creatively. Creatively, that is, not like blind shadow-like followers. Shadows to which Zarathustra asks: “this is my way; where is yours? —-thus I answered those who asked me ‘the way’. For the way —that does not exist” (ibid.).

Caligula is no follower, and he too will tells us of his way.


In the ‘Introduction’ to The Rebel Camus lets us know that absurdity and mirrors go hand in hand: “in a certain way, the absurd, which claims to express man in his solitude, really makes him live in front of a mirror” (R, 8). Caligula’s absurdity lies precisely in his being a lover of mirrors. But what he sees there, in front of him, is not the light that Zarathustra won through his unconditional affirmation of life. He sees there, at a distance, that which Zarathustra once saw, a “devil’s grimace and a scornful laughter”. That grimace and laughter somehow tied to the passive nihilist.

Passive nihilism itself is a complex phenomenon which Camus portrays as split; it too, like nihilism construed broadly, is like a coin. When tossed its downward fall resembles that of a guillotine. When it lands on the emptiness from which it springs, two possible outcomes can follow: heads is suicide, tails murder. Absolute nihilism

“which accepts suicide as legitimate, leads even more easily, to logical murder. If our age admits, with equanimity, that murder has its justification, it is because of this indifference to life which is the mark of nihilism” (R, 6)

Caligula’s coin has landed heads-side up. Murder is Caligula’s peculiar sort of passive nihilism. But ironically it seems completely opposed to all passivity; it is active nihilism set head over heels. All this is better seen by looking at the mirroring pages of Camus’ Caligula.

The recurrent appeal to nothingness with which the play starts, stems from their being no news of the emperor who, on parting, himself had nothing to say (C, 3). Caligula, the political name for Caius, the man, has left to see, for the last time, Drusilla. Loving her was an affair “something more than brotherly” (5). Face to face with the death of his beloved, Caligula disconcerts us. Rather then entering into a radical disorientation, he remains calm, cool, in control: “he stroke it with 2 fingers and seemed lost in thought for a while. Then swung around and walked out calmly” (5). Caligula’s body has come into contact with Drusilla’s shadow. The death of God manifests itself for him in the death of the beloved one. And yet, seemingly, nothing happens. The others, most of whom believe that loosing a loved one “doesn’t amount to much” (4), do not yet perceive that Caligula has already been lost to them: “and ever since we’ve been hunting for him in vain” (5). Caligula evades them for they disdain what Caius has felt.

It seems to me not at all self-deceptive to seriously take Caesonia’s words concerning Caius’ love for Drusilla: “one thing is sure, he loved her. And its cruel to have someone die whom only yesterday you were holding in your hands” (10). (*12) But, why believe her? Particularly given the fact that Caligula himself, again and again, denies this? Because she, of all the characters in the play, knows love. She alone will stand by Caligula, as unconditionally as the fool by King Lear: “Caligula: Swear to stand by me, Caesonia. Caesonia: I needn’t swear. You know I love you” (17).

Nevertheless, what Caesonia affirms, Caligula denies vehemently. The emperor denies, from the start, the determining encounter with mortality which was his touch of Drusilla: “love is a side issue, I swear to you, her death is not the point” (8), or elsewhere, “what nonsense is this? Why drag in Drusilla? Do you imagine love’s the only thing that can make a man shed tears?” (15). All this talk of love is, for Caligula, pure nonsense. In him loving is senseless, it turns out to be that loving is precisely what lacks all meaning; it is, for the emperor, nihilism at its clearest. And yet, he cannot stop desiring and loving.

We do not, and should not, believe Caligula. Why take his ‘swearing’ seriously if he sets out to replace all Gods? Something deep down in us rebels against Caligula’s denial of Drusilla. And we faintly know why. We sense somehow that Caius’ body feels what Caligula’s logical knowing fails to admit. Caius has touched Drusilla, and is moved, Caligula moves back untouched. Drusilla’s death shatters Caius’ every bodily sense, it makes life senseless:

Pain everywhere, in my chest, in my legs and arms. Even my skin is raw, my head is buzzing. I feel like vomiting. But worst of all is this queer taste in my mouth. Not blood or death or fever, but a mixture of all the three” (5)

Caius’ skin, that which stands between him and the world, between him and Drusilla, is raw material. The body is pure flesh left naked and vulnerable to the world’s hostility and indifference. But Caligula, well he knows better. He finds this new taste in his mouth not so much queer as desirable.

Nevertheless in the first entrance of Caius-Caligula unto the scene of the action, he appears not naked, but rather covered. That which covers his body, and garments, is the earthly mud of a torrential night:

“His legs caked with mud, his garments dirty, his hair wet, his look distraught. He brings his hand to his mouth several times. Then he approaches a mirror, stopping abruptly, when he catches sight of his reflected self” (6-7)

And with the world sticking to him Caius-Caligula catches sight of himself as he never had before. Without Drusilla’s absence, a love which cost even the overstepping of the incest taboo, Caligula would not have come to be present to himself as he is now. A child gave Zarathustra his mirror; mortality gave Caligula his. Stopping abruptly one can imagine Caligula’s silent mouth saying: “I am alive, you, my love, are dead; I cannot be happy; and if I cannot, no one will”.

With Drusilla’s death, Caligula enters the night. And in it he sees a being so overwhelmingly lit that he longs for it as he perhaps never did for his beloved sister. Raising his eyes above Drusilla’s fragility, Caligula finds a pregnant moon overflowing in light. The moon is majestic, seemingly eternal; Drusilla, perhaps lovely, but neither majestic nor long-lasting:

Caligula: Yes, I wanted the moon

Helicon: Why?

Caligula: It’s one of those things I haven’t got …. I couldn’t get it ….That’s why I’m tired (7)

Caligula desires the moon, he longs to possess it. Drusilla he wanted and kind of had; but she was snatched from him. The moon, if he could have it, that would certainly, seem to be, a much more consummate affair. For the moon is a celestial being, not simply a worldly one: (*13)

“Really, this world of ours, the schema of things as they call it is quite intolerable. That is why I want the moon, or happiness or eternal life, something, in fact, that may sound strange, but which isn’t of this world” (8)

Only in the moon can Caligula now find eternal happiness; but scarcely does he know that for him the evanescent happiness of human evenings will never again be possible. Scarcely does he realize that the moon is only a mirror, its light source not of itself. The moon makes sense only by way of the rays of the sun and the permanent longing for the return of daylight.

Caligula, logician as he is, is one of those who really “dare(s) to follow his ideas” (13). Caligula persists as few do. He alone will have the courage of tracking down the moon. This hunter adventurer is set on “exploring the impossible, or more accurately, it is a question of making the impossible, possible.” (13). It is a quest begun out of a real death, carried through on a red sea populated by deadly encounters, and its circular conclusion being the proud prize of all hunters. It is a syllogistic proof of a single truth: “a childishly, simple, obvious, almost silly truth, but one that s hard to come by and heavy to endure … Men die and are not happy” (8). God’s die and they are not happy either; but what Zarathustra derived from this was certainly not what Caligula believed inevitable.

The mirror upon which Caius stares at himself shows him the magnanimity proper to an emperor; the mirror blurs Caius so, that now he sees only Caligula. Mirrors sometimes can be made to distort; Caligula’s eyesight so distorts this one that he appears magnified a thousand fold. And the reflection which reaches his eyes, much like in King Oedipus’ case, makes him turn around and see in the world, and us, nothing but lies and self-deception. (*14). But the Roman, unlike his Greek counterpart, feels a gnawing need to become a teacher. Caius has felt the truth, he has earned the diploma. In contrast Caligula believes it his mission to set out and impose: “for I know what they need and haven’t got. They’re without understanding, and they need a teacher; someone who knows what he’s talking about” (9).

Caligula’s denial of the experience of the death of the beloved becomes norm; his mirror is the only possible one. We must all stand in line to face ourselves through it. Whoever sees not death as Caligula himself does, must be sentenced to death. Then his raw skin will be made to feel what up to then it, stubbornly, refused to know. While Drusilla remains as the dead beloved unjustly taken away, those Caligula sets out to murder are his/her ignorant students, who, for their own good, must be ‘taken away’. Like the shadow Caligula task is truly an ‘under’-taking. And ironically, what Caligula sees flowering from this enlightening project is a noble end: “then perhaps I shall be transfigured and the world renewed; then men will die no more and be happy” (17). Caligula has come up with the answer to the predicament of death; but only faintly does he perceive that his transfiguration is such that it leaves no figure whatsoever to play with.

But, if to transfigure is to change in form, then Caius does so transfigure himself. He transfigures himself in that his now, unique and only, form seems to lie in the emperor’s figure. Facing the mirror once again, the transfigured Caius faces an image free of either landscapes as background, or comforting beings as companions;

Caligula: All gone, you see my dear … no more masks. Nothing, nobody left. Nobody? No, that’s not true. Look Caesonia. Come here all of you and look …. (He plants himself in front of the mirror in a grotesque attitude).

Caesonia: (staring, horrified, at the mirror) Caligula!

Caligula: Yes …… Caligula. (18)

The world is truly renewed, in it there remains one figure, one reflection, one interpretation. Only Caligula remains in the world. The transfigurative murdering of others and disruption of the world can commence. The untouchable is violated: murdered father’s and son’s, raped wives, usurped property. Anomie becomes the imposed norm (9).

Extreme solitude would seem to be price for all of this. This is what Scipio, whose father has been cowardly murdered, seems to believe. “How horrible loneliness yours must be”, he tells Caligula (36). But the latter again disconcerts us, as many years later will Meursault. The emperor is emperor, and not simply out of luck:

“You don’t realize that one is never alone…. Those we have killed are always with us. But they are no great trouble. It’s those we have loved; those who loved us and whom we did not love; regrets, desires, bitterness and sweetness” (37) (*15, *16)

Those who loved us and were taken away from us; that is the first, albeit unacknowledged, premise in Caligula’s criminal argumentative process. Drusilla’s absence haunts Caligula till the end, but everything he says seems to deny, again and again, our claim. Even nearing death he clings to his indifferent attitude towards the loss of the beloved’s face:

Love isn’t enough for me; I realized it then, and I realize it today again … To love someone means that one’s willing to grow old beside that person. That sort of love is outside my sort of range; Drusilla old would have been far worse than Drusilla dead” (71).

Caligula’s range is, as I briefly mentioned, sky oriented. And perhaps we might be tempted to say that he has real reasons to say that his sky-oriented range is not simply the desire of a madman; but rather can be considered as a real, human, possibility. Perhaps, like the Socrates of the Symposium, his desire for the moon can be seen as moving, somehow, beyond that worldly, too fragile love of a Drusilla condemned to aging and passing away.

Once, his reign of terror already on the roll, Caligula tells us that out of the mirror on which he only saw himself, there came a new light; the light of the moon. Once, while in bed, Caligula’s longing seems to have been temporarily consummated. The full moon itself decides to share its reflected and guiding light for those lost in the midst of darkness and utter despair:

“to come back to the moon —it was a cloudless August night …… She was coy, to begin with. I’d gone to bed. First she was blood-red, low on the horizon. Then she began rising, quicker and quicker, brighter and brighter all the while. And the higher she climbed, the paler she grew, till she was like a milky pool in a dark wood rustling with stars. Slowly, shyly she approached, through the warm night air, soft, light as gossamer, naked in beauty. She crossed the threshold of my room, glided to my bed, poured herself into it, and flooded me with her smiles and sheen …” (46)

The moon has shared itself with Caius, once lover of art. But the alleged encounter takes place too late. The moon’s reddish color perhaps stems from the evening contact with the evanescent sun, but Caligula’s reddish color projects from his murdering hands. The emperor cannot even comprehend what has just happened between Caius and the guiding light of night. Caligula now speaks, and with his words, the charm of the moon is forever lost: “so you see Helicon, I can say, without boasting, that I’ve had her” (ibid.) Revealing the intimacy of his encounter, viewing it as the hard won prize in a hunting competition; precisely this, is boasting.

And Caius knows this. This is why, just prior to the final mirroring encounter with Cherea, Caligula and Caius stand once again facing each other. Together they doubt. Caius seems to deny that they ever actually had the moon. Caligula ironically says:

Suppose the moon were brought here, everything would be different. That was the idea, wasn’t it? … After all, why shouldn’t Helicon bring it off? One night, perhaps he’ll catch her sleeping on a lake, and carry her, trapped in a glistening net, all slimy with weeds and water, like a pale bloated fish drawn from the depths, Why not Caligula? Why not, indeed? (49)

An ‘idea’, that is what it was all about; an idea, not a living loving act. Or was it? Caligula displaces his search for the moon on Helicon; Caius knows, deep inside, that his ‘trapping’ it is doomed to fail. But to our surprise the moon seems to have, itself, been transfigured. What Caligula intends to trap, in a move towards modesty, is not anymore, the heavenly body. The moon has descended, or perhaps, as Caligula says so himself, emerged from the depths of the earth. Moreover, the moon is now one which in its proximity comes to be covered by water and weeds, and unavoidably, by the mud that covers Caligula from the start. Disconcerting revelations follow. Caligula now he seems intent on a net-size moon. The moon, it seems, is no longer that unreachable object overlooking our world; but a reflection found in the mirror-like calm of a lake in a cloudless night of August. This is a human moon, and Caligula’s halfway realization, makes his tragic fate, even more so. It is not a chance event that Caligula, as we shall see, is loved and admired by many of his own.

The words just analyzed, we are told by Camus, are to be spoken in complete irony, and irony implies expressing that which one disbelieves in such a way that all who hear understand this masking. This is why to their pronunciation there follows a muffled voice which, like MacBeth’s, knows of the inevitability of the events to follow: “too many dead, too many dead — that makes an emptiness …. No, even if the moon were mine, I could not retrace my way … There’s no return” (49). To the emptiness born of the loss of Drusilla, Caligula adds a self-inflicted one. The world has become stained in red, looking at it unbearable. Caligula must look ahead, to the mirror in front. But before the ultimate confrontation, that of Caius and Caligula, the emperor is met by three successive attacks; attacks born out of love and/or admiration. But just as with the moonstruck encounter, these final encounters, take place after Caligula acknowledges that truly, “there’s no return”.

In the first place Caligula stands face to face with Cherea. The defender of a courageously held ‘common sense perspective’ likens Caligula to a rather odd ‘murdering Socrates’: “he forces on to think. There’s nothing like insecurity for stimulating the brain. That, of course, is why he’s so much hated” (58). Cherea, who sees himself as an “ordinary” man (52) desiring “to live and be happy” (51) refused, from the start, to join the hunters. He is no coward, rather he knows death’s inevitable appearance, but he likewise knows of the different ways of dying:

“to loose one’s life is no great matter; when the time comes I will have the courage to loose mine. But what’s intolerable is to see one’s life being drained of meaning, to be told there is no reason for existing. A man can’t live without some reason for living” (21)

He “refuse(s) to live in a topsy-turvy world”, he wants to stand secure (51). Cherea is a land creature, not a lover of the sea. His mirror is that which challenges, like no other, Caligula’s pretensions. He cannot bring himself either to hate Caligula, for he knows him not to be happy, nor to scorn him, for he knows him to be courageous (51). Nevertheless he will, and does, participate in the final stabbing of the maddened emperor.

A second mirror now appears in the mirror full world where Caligula’s death is steadily approaching. Scipio reflects a warmth for Caligula which Cherea did not. He both admired and loved Caius. (10) Fatherless because of Caligula’s ruthlessness, Scipio knows a love of Caligula which goes beyond the bondage of familial ties. Their bounding element is art. And this linkage is for Scipio unbreakable: “I cannot be against him, even if I killed him, my heart would still be with him” (56). Bonded by the heart, Scipio, though not a coward, denies himself revenge. His counterattack lies in the pen as a sword:

Pursuit of happiness that purifies the heart

Skies rippling with light

O wild, sweet festival of joys, frenzy without hope (66)

Scipio’s three line poem shines forth in a different light. The pursuit of happiness lies not only in knowing the bitter cold of a hopelessly unending night. Happiness as purification; that seems to be more a matter of the permanent interplay of night, and its frenzy, and day with its ‘skies rippling with light’. Happiness, as we shall see, in our third section, lies in between these; in the eveningsat Algiers. Scipio leaves; his poem unheard. Caius’ love of art mocked by Caligula’s disheartening wreckage. Another beloved has died to Caligula, and, as he told us, it is those loved who are the real problem: “I shall go away, far away, and try to discover the meaning of it all ……. Good-by dear Caius, when all is ended remember that I loved you” (67). Scipio loves Caius, the human being who has lost his beloved, not Caligula the human who has lost himself, his humanity. This is why he too finally participates in the culminating self-defensive act.

The third and final mirror which places itself against Caligula’s, is that of Caesonia’s love. But this one, the most fragile, is precisely the one which has been torn to pieces, even before the beginning of the play, with Drusilla’s death. Caesonia’s love for Caligula makes one shudder “we will defend you. There are many of us left who love you” (69). It is alone for her that Caligula has felt a sincere emotion a “shameful tenderness”(71). Caesonia makes Caligula blush, and she reminds tenderly of Caligula’s childish nature (10). But Caligula’s cheeks of filled with a red from a very different source; his tenderness buried under the redness of his crimes.

And Caligula knows this. Out of the two types of love and happiness he knows, he admits to have chosen the murderous kind:

I live, I kill, I exercise the rapturous power of the destroyer, compared with which the power of the creator is merest child’s play. And this, this is happiness; this and nothing else —-this intolerable release, devastating scorn, blood, hatred all round me; the glorious isolation of a man who all his life long nurses and gloats over the ineffable joy of the unpunished murderer; the ruthless logic that crushes out human lives (he laughs), that’s crushing yours too, Caesonia, so as to perfect the utter loneliness that is my heart’s desire.” (72)

Caligula’s destructive nature undoubtedly places him in the field of the passive nihilists; but his passivity can only be understood as a negative, counterclockwise activity turned against the world, others and himself.

But even this rage towards the world, this desire for complete loneliness, is marred by his incapacity to kill Caesonia (72). Drusilla was taken away, but if Caesonia were to die it would be by his hand, not by that of fate.

Nevertheless a kind of loneliness, not absolute, not so perfect as Caligula would like, sets in; it is that odd loneliness characteristic of a dialogue among identical, symmetrical beings, among Caius and Caligula who are one and the same. Caius, the man, the art lover, the living body who senses the loss of the beloved, he who knows of tears and of trembling, in the first instance condemns the distorted image of Caligula, that over-magnified image reflected on the red-tanned mirror: “Caligula! You, too; you too, are guilty”. But this momentary humane resurgence is followed by an imperial denial : “then what of it — a little more, a little less? Yet who can condemn me in this world where there is no judge, where nobody is innocent?” (72). A true duel is on the make, and in the space separating the duelers, sincerity is born. Caius, distressed, realizes now that the moon will “never, never, never” be his, and self-questioningly asks himself why, even though “innocence will triumph”, he is not among those sharing in it (72).

But Caligula’s calmer speech, that same calm attitude with which he left Drusilla’s inert body, is now reflected from the glassy surface. Calmness quickly diminishes and a heartbreaking screaming sets in:

If I‘d had the moon, if love were enough, all might have been different. But where could I quench this thirst? (*17) What human heart, what god, would have for me the depth of a great lake? (kneeling, weeping) There’s nothing in this world, or in the other, made to my stature, And yet I know (presumably Caligula) and you know (presumably Caius)(still weeping stretches out his arms to the mirror) that all I need is for the impossible to be. The impossible!”

The emperor kneels and weeps; his body has partly recovered his humanity. His knees on the floor remind us of the descent of the moon to the lake. Earthly bound, Caligula stretches out his hands, but in that space between him and Caius, he now only sees emptiness and death; death of the beloved, absence of the moon:

(screaming) See, I stretch out my hands, but it’s always you I find, you only, confronting me and I’ve come to hate you….. I have chosen a wrong path, a path that leads to nothing, My freedom isn’t the right one … The air tonight is heavy as the sum of human sorrows” (73).

Though heavy, the air is not so heavy that Caligula cannot pick up the stool and hurl it with all his strength at the mirror image which from the beginning has overgrown itself. Watching his reflected self disappear into shattered fragments Caligula shouts: “To history Caligula. Go down to history” (74). Caligula goes down into history for each and every one of us who, when we look at ourselves in mirrors, overlook ourselves. In each look of ours at the everyday mirrors that permeate our modern world, Caligula-Caius appears. In this sense, Caligula can claim to still live at the moment of death. We are challeged by the simple truth from which he derived the wrong conclusions.

Nietzsche too knew of this rebirth to which he alluded at the beginning of Book IV of The Gay Science. After a destructive period, Nietzsche wins for himself the miracle of Sanctus Januarius, whose blood, once a year, becomes liquid again:

With a flaming spear you crushed

All its ice until my soul

Roaring toward the ocean rushed

Of its highest hope and goal.

Even healthier it swells,

Lovingly compelled but free:

Thus it lauds your miracles

Fairest month of January! (TGC, IV)

Camus knew himself of such new beginnings.


When we moderns try to reflect on nature, we do not see ourselves reflected through it. For us, nature has ceased to be a source we can mirror for it manifests itself as the other which confronts us with its overwhelming force and its silencing indifference. Nature is no home for us:

“in a universe suddenly divested of illusion and light, a man feels alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home, or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting is properly the feeling of the absurd (MoS, 6)

The universe has been rid of all its masks, there are no illusions left. And without illusions, no magic. Moreover, without light, the playful interplay of mirrors is destroyed. The home we once inhabited no longer is, and the one we longed to make our permanent habitat no longer will be, it never really was. Looking back one sees not cities but only ruins; looking forward, simply a void, not the divine city in which we thought our long pilgrimage would finally come to an end.

The most familiar, the beloved face itself becomes faceless: “there are days when under the familiar face of a woman, we see as a stranger her we had loved months or years ago” (14). The beloved stands unattached; living, but for all intent and purposes, dead-like. To corporeal intermingling there follows a separation and an endless longing. But not only personal beauty erodes, the beauty of the world too lies ravaged. Undressed, behind its illusory meaningful garments, there lies nothing but corroding hostility:

“at the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outlines of the trees at this moment loose their illusory meaning … the primitive hostility of the world rises up to face us across millennia (14) (*18)

The colorful and meaningful mirror upon which we once saw ourselves reflected, lies now shattered into fragments (18). And with its infinite fragmentation, we ourselves become like nucleus-free electrons. Our-’selves’ are “nothing but water slipping through (our) fingers” (19). Nature’s silent indifference and incomprehensible violence is met, or better, never met, by our inability to hear and articulate.

Setting a date to which neither party cares to attend; something like this is the absurd. It “lies in neither of the elements compared (but) … is born in their confrontation” (30). But a confrontation requires an intermediate space, that space in which duels take place. It is a space of silence and darkness where we see, now, not simply God’s death, but our own mortality in a godless, and many times gutless, marine environment: “the idea that ‘I am’, my way of acting as if everything has meaning, all that is given the great lie in vertiginous fashion by the absurdity of a possible death” (57).

Caligula, for example, could never have proclaimed this ‘I am’. The confrontation between Caligula and Caius is born within the space lying between them. This space is precisely the “no man’s land” which separates Marie and Meursault in her only visit to the condemned stranger (S, 76). It is also that horrifying space that opens up in the mirror-like confrontation between Maria and Martha at the end of The Misunderstanding. (Maria and Martha, Spanish names whose three first letter match each other in perfect symmetry; three letters which, furthermore, in Spanish mean nothing other than ‘sea’. The sea in which alone we can see ourselves.)

Now, exile would truly be ‘without remedy’ if this intermediate space between us and the world, us and others, and us and ourselves, were totally devoid of any life forms whatever. But to our astonishment life seems capable of flourishing even in such arid territories. This is why we should take Camus literally when he says; the absurd is “born out of (a) confrontation”. The absurd is a kind of birth, it is not simply an aborted fetus. It is this dimly felt light, above anything else, which makes it meaningful to seek intercommunicative channels between those confronted. Without the presence of any links whatsoever, confrontation itself would become incomprehensible; for how to confront that from which one is completely detached? If confrontation were solely a matter of monologues, then surely there would follow the most monstruous of characters, a Caligula without any mirror to break, a lonely emperor without the possibility of redemption.

What Caligula did not see, or feigned he did not see —– or distorted when he in fact did see it —— is something to which Don Juan, in the The Myth of Sisyphus, dedicates his entire life. Don Juan lives for desire’s living. The lover is truly the most absurd human for “the more one loves the stronger the absurd grows” (69) If the absurd human’s ideal is “the present and a succession of presents” (60), then Don Juan ——and all Doña Juanas (*19)——- are more than any other human, the caretakers of this ever-present way of living. Their banner, that is, that for which they would, if they had to, give their lives, is that of the instant where they, others and the world come to be in the presence of each other. For them life is bodily vitality felt, here and now, at its highest energetic level: “life gratifies his (her) every wish and nothing is worse than loosing it. This mad(human) is a great wise (human)” (72) (*20). Living life’s every second has made this topsy-turvy human ——- a different species of mad human than the one we found in Nietzsche ——– aware of the stakes involved in life’s loss.

Loving passionately paves the way to transforming the space between the confronted parties. Don Juan’s love is the love of a human, and such love is capable of transformation. Yet, ironically, the transfiguration that ensues from his activity is one in which both “nothing is changed and eveything …… tranfigured” (72). Through his/her figure-giving love, the lover’s commanding figure rises, not as a stone sculpture that condemns, but rather as a thread-thin bridge which resonates to a world with a new, more humane figure (*21). In all this, the passionate lover is very much like a cicada, those platonic figures which “enter the ‘now’ of their desire and stay there”; little fragile animals who “have no life apart from their desire, and, when it ends, so do they” (Carson EBS, 139). (*22) Nevertheless, unlike cicadas, Don Juan and Doña Juana are human beings. Desire for them is a bridge to dwell upon, not an immediacy out of which no confrontation can be born. The lover, unlike the cicada, loves humanely, that is to say as a another Don does, Don Quijote.

Don Juan and Doña Juana know Caligula’s simple truth: they will die and they, like all of us, are not happy. But although Don Juan awaits “the end face to face with a God that he does not adore” (76), his interest lies not in a divine mirror from which are born rays of grace. Death he is faintly conscious of, but he does not desire to be conscious simply of its inevitable presence. He loves living all the more so, for he knows, but cares not to pay too much attention to this, that in the end love really ends. There he stands “the ultimate end awaited, but never desired, the ultimate end is negligible” (72). Don Juan and Meursault are vey much alike. The former’s attitude towards death, is that of Meursault to, among many other things, God. To the priests’ words he responds, thinking through: “though I mightn’t be so sure about what interested me, I was absolutely sure about what didn’t interest me. And the question he had raised didn’t interest me …… I hadn’t time to work up interest for something that didn’t interest me” (S, 114). In the same way Don Juan is not so much interested in death for what interests one is that which one spends time doing; Don Juan does not spend much time dying. (*23)

This is why he prefers to turn his loving aging face elsewhere. From the solitary monastery cell which has become his home, he turns to the light shining “through a silent narrow slit in the sun-baked wall, some silent Spanish plain, a noble, soulless land in which he recognizes himself” (76). Ennobled, nature rises temporarily, all too briefly re-’covered’, that is to say, covered anew, by the warmth of a being sold out to the pre-articulate desiring impulse which flows out of his body regained. Don Juan, unlike Caligula, is not covered by mud.

Don Juan and Doña Juana await death, perhaps even together, and death will come to each in their loneliness. But the air he/she breathes is one which does not weigh over and suffocate him/her like it did Caligula. His/ her air is of a much purer variety. It is that air which Camus himself allows us to breathe through our reading of his desire pregnant lyrical works. Breathing as Don Juan does, is recovering a new atmospheric confrontation which nevertheless cannot but remind one of one’s unavoidable exile:

“being pure is recovering that spiritual home where one can feel the world’s relationship, where one’s pulse beat coincides with the violent throbbing of the 2 o’clock sun. It is well known that one’s native land is always recognized at the moment of loosing it. For those who are too uneasy of themselves their native land is the one that negates them” (SA, 152)

Our spiritual home as moderns can only stem from the realization of our inevitable homelessness.

Caius surely recognized love’s abode by loosing Drusilla. Besides he mistakenly longed for a homeland, or better an over-land, which is impossible for any human to achieve. Martha too longed for a new realm of meaning, but unlike Caligula’s, it was earthbound. Nevertheless, like the emperor’s, it too travelled the reddish path of murder. Both Caligula and Martha longing as they do, become terribly uneasy. But somehow we sense that Don Juan is really the uneasy character par excellence; made uneasy out of the fragile bondage to life he so much cherishes.

In being uneasy we are not that different from Caligula, Martha and Don Juan. In what sense? Well in the sense that we too know of the longing for both a native land and a beloved face. This encounter if ever it is to happen for us becomes not a given, but rather a creative task. But even if all three characters share this with us, it is in Don Juan where uneasiness finds itself a home; his courage lies in living uneasily till the end do him apart. It is in him, as in no one else, that what Camus tells us occurs: the “pulse beats” of his desiring blood coincide with the “violent throbbing of the 2 o’clock sun”. A human being and nature stand confronted, but at the same time erotically intertwined as peculiar kinds of energetically charged mirror images. (*22) Don Juan’s selfishness lies in his love of this newly won mirror which reflects much more than he himself is, or can, see. Caligula, in contrast, must break the desert-like mirror in which he alone stands facing his red stained image.

But surely there is one thing Don Juan knew nothing of, this is creative writing. What would or could he have written about? (*24) He cannot even look at portraits —— yet another kind of mirror of which Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a beautiful portrait —– much less articulate what he would have seen in them. But Camus did write, his passion to articulate moves him much more towards towards a Don Juan, Conqueror of himself. (*25). In this sense, something like what Don Juan’s pulse beats felt looking enamouredly at the Spanish plain, is what Camus allows us briefly and secretly to read in his return to Tipasa. For Don Juan to return is a joke. “Return! To what?”, he would ask.

Camus’ permanent and healthy uneasiness is that which permeates his every written word. Camus is a lover of lively portraits which spring from the light of his pen. Returning to Tipasa he allows us a return. Although in some sense it is his return, he allows us all to share in its beauty. Together we return to the ruins of our youth. Camus re-walks paths once traveled. But traveling anew is not simply a childish nostalgia for what, somewhat disoriented, Camus knows has been inevitably lost:

“disoriented, walking through the solitary countryside I tried at least to recapture that strength …. that helps me to accept what is when once I have admitted I cannot change it” (RT, 196).

To return is to recapture desiring strength. Part of strentgh comes from purer air, part from purer drink. Through liquid words Camus reaches outside Don Juan’s monastic cell. He traverses that land he once inhabited. A landscape which once again gives him some refreshing water to quench, his two main thirsts:

“I satisfied the two thirsts one cannot reject without drying up — I mean loving and admiring. For there is merely bad luck in not being loved; but there is misfortune in not loving” (RT, 201)

The lovers of suicide and murder find their thirst quenched in the thickness of blood. They onle vary as to the source. But blood coagulates outside its body bound atmosphere. It does not refresh, and this is why Sanctus Januarius’ miracle strikes us as miraculous. Looking back at the quoted passage one is lead to realize: unlike this bloody saint, Caligula has known misfortune, Martha only bad luck.

Camus’ thirst for loving and admiring he met in a world he retraced; a world which allows us to bathe our naked, mud-covered bodies, again. A world of words and live figures which recovers the warmth of a fragile candlelight:

(I) discovered once more at Tipasa that one must keep intact in himself a freshness, a cool wellspring of joy, love the day that escapes injustice and return to combat having won that light. Here I recaptured the former beauty, a young sky and measured my luck, realizing at last that in the worst years of our madness the memory of that sky had never left me.. This was what in the end had kept me from despairing. I had always known that the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our new constructions … there the world began over again everyday in an ever new light. O light! This is the cry of all characters of ancient drama brought face to dace with their fate. This last resort was ours too, and I knew it know. In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer” (RT, 201-2)

In Tipasa Camus, face to face with the ruins and beauty of his past, resembles the condemned heroes of Greek tragedy standing facing fate’s decisions. And in these two face to face encounters —-separated by thousands of years ——- again springs that intermediate space, a void, which has recurrently returned to us. It is the unbridgeable space which separates us from ourselves, from others and from nature. But in that space there springs life out of a light never lost; a light that traverses the youthful ruins in a country to us unknown: “I had always known hat the ruins of Tipasa were younger than our constructions … there the world began over again everyday in an ever new light”. Camus is born to life like Meursault, but unlike him he does not need to be sentenced to death to do so. Sentenced to death officially, that is.

This light which allegedly gave Camus invincibility, this light is not that of divinity. It is not a never ending, shadow-free light. It is not the light that numbed Meursault. Not at all. Camus’ return knows instead of candlelight ephemerality. The return is not simply a longing for a golden lit age which would utterly blind us, if we in fact could ever reach it. The return is to ever fading, mortal bound ruins, the only homeland we moderns can know if we take the death of God seriously. In the ephemeral nature of ruins, Camus finds the most beautiful mirror for our fragile nature as desiring and mortal creatures (*26). Ruins are dead memories of fought for constructions, constructions made possible by proud and dignity deserving human beings (*27). Besides, the actual ruins stand only as a physical human reminder of the natural ruins which are summer and winter to each other. In its among the ruins of winter and its, apparently, lifeless landscapes, that Camus actually finds, facing himself in his ruins, a light so powerful and yet so weak, that it can even melt ice.

In the middle of winter Camus finds in himself an invincible summer. Winter and summer stand as the seasonal correlates, of the more recurrent confrontation between night and day. This is why Camus returns to find not the revival of a divinely everlasting light, but rather that light which is born when the day comes to an end and prepares itself to enter the night. Or to put it another way, Camus finds himself facing those Algerian evenings of which he asks that figure reflected in the mirror which are his books: “what exceptional quality do the fugitive Algerian evenings possess to be able to release so many things in me?” (SA, 146). Fugitive, lawless, evenings re-’lease’ Camus from a certain kind of imprisonment. Evenings give him a new lease on life. Why evenings? Why not sunrises? Aren’t they equally as beautiful? Caligula loved the absence of light; sunlight truly hurt Meursault; Camus enlightened both shadowy figures for us. Only evenings make us long for a return.

Evenings bring, in an instant, the divorce of night and day to a momentary togetherness. In those instants Merusault’s sun, fading, reaches the cool waters of the sea; but almost instantaneously, Caligula’s sunlit moon rises to allow us to see the emerging beauty of the night. And between them, in their confrontation, there is born the presence of an intemediary; “the old mossy god that nothing will never shake, a refuge, and a harbor for its sons, of whom I am one” (RT 200). Scipio’s sky, rippling with light, traverses the land bound ruins of Tipasa; that which remains of them is reflected unto the salty waters which in an mysterious instant fill the entire horizon, (and even Caligula’s weeping eyes):

“the evening is inhabited. It is still light, to tell the truth, but in this light an almost invincible fading announces the day’s end. A wind rises, young like this night, and suddenly the waveless sea chooses a direction and a flow like a barren river from one end of the horizon to another. The sky darkens” (RT, 203)

The space between one end of the horizon, and the other, is flooded; and we marine moderns can inhabit it momentarily by swimming away as Meursault and Marie did; that is, like strangers in love. (*28)

This Tipasian evening, this nihilistic event, is one of which Camus goes on to say, “begins the mystery, the gods of night, the beyond pleasure”. But knowing that we are bound to be lost in the language Camus uses, he tries to translate this natural event into something more familiar to us who are so unused to looking at evenings. The translation into human terms is peculiar, it involves a two-sided coin:

But how to translate this? The little coin I’m carrying away from here has a visible surface, a woman’s beautiful face which repeats to me all I have learned in this day, and a worn surface which I feel under my fingers during the return. What can that lipless mouth be saying, except what I am told by another mysterious voice, within me (*29) which everyday informs me of my ignorance and my happiness? (RT, 203-4)

The mysterious pleasurable dance of gods is mirrored unto a worthless coin which Camus carries away from Tipasa. A coin is much like a two sided mirror. But unlike the possible contact of two figures approaching themselves in a mirror; in a coin those two who constitute it stand forever apart, yet at the same time, welded by channels they feel intensely, yet cannot comprehend.

If for passive nihilism tossing the coin involved two possibilities, heads meant suicide and tails murder, Camus’ active nihilism involves two radically different ones. On the one hand, beauty emerges in all its visibility. It is the beauty of a woman, it is Drusilla born again, Marie meeting Meursault, Maria meeting Jan. But Drusilla is dead, Meursault and Jan too; beauty’s mouth must remain lipless. Yet beauty finds a translator who has word-loving fingers as lips. And this is why, what beauty silently says, remains nothing other than what another mysterious voice within Camus informs; informs, that is to say, gives form. What is informed are the limits of all possible forms; the inner limit being ignorance, the outer happiness.

But a coin has two faces and only one seems to have been brought to light. This is so because, just as the moon has too its permanent dark side, so beauty must have a worn backside to which it cannot turn its back on. The tail end of the coin is one that Camus’ fingers feel worn out, tired, exhausted. It is a deserted land of lifeless cries:

“I should like, indeed, to shirk nothing ad to keep faithfully a double memory. Yes there is beauty and the care of the humiliated. Whatever may be the difficulties of the undertaking, I should like never to be unfaithful either to one of the others” (RT, 203)

To each lucky coin there lies an unlucky face. But the tossing of the Camusian coin involves a more dignified outcome than that which accumulates endlessly in the coins amassed by some passive nihilists. This everyday coin, which enriches our life like no other, is the coin of art with its mirror-like duality: “negating on the one hand and magnifying on the other, is the way of the absurd creator, he must give the void its colors” (MoS, 114)

Perhaps know, I hope, we can come a little bit closer to understanding what Camus could have meant by remarking that “creation is the great mime”. But even if this is not so, at least, his creation will certainly allows us, not only never again to overlook ourselves when looking at mirrors, but also to see and hear the absurd confrontation between a beauty which certain evenings give and the painful endless cry which emerges humiliated out of voiceless mouths.




A) Primary Sources


Camus, Albert Caligula and three other plays, Vintage Books, New York, 1958. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. (Abbreviations: Caligula: C)


———The Myth of Sisyphus, Vintage International Books, New York, 1955 (1991), Translated by Justin O-Brien. (Abbreviations: MoS, Summer in Algiers: SA, Return to Tipasa: RT)


——– The Outsider, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1961 (1980). Translated by Stuart Gilbert. (Abb: S)


——–The Rebel, Vintage International Books, 1956 (1991) Translated by Anthony Bower. (Abb: R)



B) Secondary Sources


Baudelaire, Selected Poems, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1975 (1984). Translated by Joana Richardson.


Carson, Anne, Eros the Bittersweet, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1986.


Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Gay Science, Vintage Books, New York, 1974. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.


——–Thus Spoke Zarathustra, in “The Portable Nietzsche”, The Viking Press, New York, 1968. Translated by Walter Kaufmann.


———Will to Power, Vintage Books, New York, 1968. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale.


———Fragmentos Postumos, Editorial Norma, Bogotá, 1992. Translated by Germán Meléndez Acuña.


Taylor, Charles, Sources of the Self, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1984.


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One cannot help but be puzzled by Freud’s four-page interpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrranus. Innumerable pages have been written on the tragedy, and yet Freud seems not to be troubled much by his brief and allegedly clear solution of the work’s principal riddle. Freud seems to share some of Oedipus’ confidence as riddle-solver. But we must ask just how so.

In order to get clear on Freud’s interpretation, I propose to divide this essay into five sections the interrrelation of which, I hope, will become clearer as we move along struggling with the issues present in each. In the first I will look specifically at Freud’s analysis as explicitly presented in The Interpretation of Dreams. By proceeding in this manner three possible paths of interpretation will be brought to light: i) the ‘regressive path’, which is the pillar of all, ii) the ‘humiliation path’, and finally iii) the ‘revealing path’. Then I will proceed to show why the four page interpretation is so problematic by focusing primarily on the issue of the ahistorical nature of Freud’s analysis. The third section will be devoted to signaling out two central aspects of the play itself, aspects upon which Freud barely touches: the issue of the revelation of truth and its relation to Oedipus’ pride and hubris. Why Freud is blind to some of these aspects will become clearer in the fourth section when psychoanalysis’ regressive type of inquiry will be uncovered. Finally, in the last section, I will try to show how the ‘humiliation’ and ‘regression’ paths of interpretation, both of which are present in psychoanalytic theory and practice, make sense only with view to a third ‘revealing’ interpretation in which a special kind of truth can be brought to light; a truth that can be lived meaningfully.


Freud’s interpretation of Sophocles’ play is very specifically located. Without an understanding of this location Freud’s brief analysis is dramatically impoverished. Therefore, it is crucially important to remember that the interpretation of the tragedy takes place in Chapter V of The Interpretation of Dreams which is the chapter that deals with the material and sources of dreams. But within it the play only appears in the section entitled “Typical Dreams”. We are moving closer to localizing the isssue but still a further qualification is required; the tragedy appears only within it in the subsection beta , that is, the one concerning dreams of the death of persons of whom the dreamer is fond of. The four-page interpretation of the play thus involves death dreams, which are a special kind of dreams, which in turn refer to special kinds of sources.

Among typical dreams one finds those dealing with embarrasing situations involving some sort of nudity. It is among these that we come to the dream of the unhappy wanderer; Odysseus himself standing naked and covered with mud before Nausicaa. Literature makes an early appearance in this section on ‘typical dreams’. Besides, Freud’s commentary on the dream present in Homer’s work paves the way for what is to follow: “the deepest and eternal nature of man, upon whose education in his hearer the poet is accustomed to rely, lies in those impulses of the mind which have their roots in a childhood that has become prehistoric” (F, TIoD, 346). Odysseus’ dream portrays Homer’s reaching out backwardly in time. Children’s shameless exhibitionism likewise pointing to some long lost Paradise where shame, anxiety, sexuality and cultural actvity were not yet present (ibid., 343).

The fact that some writers such as Homer follow the creative process “in a reverse direction and so trace back the imaginative writing into a dream”, allows Freud to ascertain the connection between dreams and literary works of diverse kinds (ibid., 345). If this connection is to hold, then it becomes crucial to find some common element shared both by literary art and typical dreams. And in fact, Freud claims to have found such a linking thread. Of typical dreams we are “accustomed to assume they have the same meaning for all of us” (ibid., 339). That is to say, what links typical dreams to literary works is the underpinning sense of universality characteristic of both. What is meant by this can be better appreciated if one listens to Eliot’s words concerning Twain’s Mississippi river; this river “is not only the river known to those who voyage on it, or live beside it, but the universal river of human life” (Eliot, LNI, 66).

The fact that the discussion is carried out in reference to ‘embarrasing dreams of being naked’ brings nudity itself as a common element underpinning children, adults and literature; children live it, adults embarrasingly dream it, and artists, as we shall see in the case of Sophocles, use its power to undress us, leaving us nakedly facing ourselves in order to better live.

To nakedness there follows a sort of death. And it is in relation to dreams of loved ones that we find Freud’s words on Oedipus. Such dreams, under normal circumstances, seek not a real and bloody manifestation of the desire from which they stem, but rather reveal an unfulfilled wish the history of which can be traced regressively. Psychoanalysis “is satisfied with the inference that this death has been wished for at some time or other during the dreamer’s childhood” (ibid., 349). A desire to kill has been set up, or better sets itself up, as part of our human make-up. Dreams’ power to move backward allows us to bring to light what would otherwise remain concealed, or at least, not properly understood.

Wishing the death of brothers and sisters can be understood by referring to the child’s intensely maginified egoism. Children, at one point in their development, take themselves much like Oedipus will, to be all powerful. And given that for them death is easily equatible with ‘general absence’, then their wishing the death of brothers and sisters becomes, through psychoanalysis, more comprehensible, much less shocking.

But wishing the death of one’s parents, now that seems like a much more complicated matter. There is truly a riddle here: how can we make sense of the wish to kill precisely those beings who have given us life and love in the first place? People who perhaps we are fortunate enough to admire? Freud, like Oedipus, does not shy away from the riddle. Instead he calls on the reader to consider what analysis has found in the case of psychoneurotics who exhibit “on a magnified scale feelings of love and hatred for their parents which occur less obviously and less intensely in the minds of most children” (ibid., 362). It is from the analysis of these troubled humans that analysis, Freud confesses, reaches “complete conviction” (ibid., 360). They convince the analyst of two things: first, that there is a sexual preference by children for the parent of their opposite sex and, second, that the other parent stands as a rival “whose elimination could not fail to be to their advantage” (ibid., 356-7). Analysing neurotic patients then, like dream analysis, involves a regressive uncovering of childhood wishes.

It is only after having said all of this that Freud begins to speak of Oedipus. But the role of the interpretation to follow is not intended to add anything new to the findings already reached. Rather than there being in Sophocles’ tragedy a new discovery, what we find is a different, albeit not unrelated path, towards the revelation of the same conflict. Dreams, neurosis and Literature seem to follow different paths towards an identical destination:

“this discovery is confirmed by a legend that has come down to us from antiquity; a legend whose profound and universal power can ONLY be understood if the hypothesis I have put forward in regard to the psychology of children has an equal universal validity.” (ibid., 362-3; my emphasis)

The argument is intended to be purely circular.[1] The emergence of the meaning of the death wish in dreams ——– an understanding that arises out of an understanding of the distortive mechanism of the dream-work process ——- is intricately connected to the meaning which emerges undistorted in the tragedy:

“It is thus the psychology of children that furnishes the core of the argument, provided that it has ‘universal validity’. But it is the legend and its literary elaboration which provide evidence for this. The explanation is thus perfectly circular: psychoanalysis brings out ‘the particular nature of the material’ ….; but it is the tragedy which makes it speak” (Ricoeur, PWA, 9)

The tragedy speaks from a realm different than that of our, or neurotics, everyday dreams. But within the work itself Jocasta fails not to remind us that what psychoanalysis discovers in the twentieth century is something deeper, the universal character of which, Sophocles’ tragedy allows us to better see.

In Freud’s four-page analysis, I take there to be three interconnected interpretations at work. I will call the first, the ‘regresive interpretation’, the second, the ‘humiliation interpretation’ and, the last, the ‘revelation interpretation’. For Freud, seemingly, the first of these carries most of the weight in our understanding of Oedipus’ psuche. Nevertheless, I will show not only that the other two are already present as early as The Interpretation of Dreams , but likewise take on added importance if one looks beyond the analysis of Sophocles’ play. While section IV will deal with the ‘humiliation’ and ‘regression’ interpretations in the broad context of Freud work, section V will elucidate briefly what the ‘revelation’ interpretation involves.

The ‘regressive’ interpretation is primarily intended to fill up the circular argument of which we spoke above. The tragedies main, or for Freud, ONLY theme, is that dealing with the issues of incest and parricide. Oedipus’ destiny:

“moves us only because it might have been ours —- because the oracle laid the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him. It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father” (Freud, ibid., 364)

We are thus shockingly perturbed and moved by the tragedy becuase it leaves us nakedly facing the wishful nature which cements our psychological history. We shrink upon reading Oedipus’ life-story because we repudiate the meaning of the dreams we ourselves have; dreams which, thanks to psychoanalysis, we come too know all too well. The real shame (and guilt) which asssaults us having dreamt these phantastic dreams, finds a parallel in Oedipus’ own self-punishment. But we, we do not blind ourselves as the hero does. Instead we are “blinded”, through repression, and thus cease seeking to carry out these disturbing wishes in reality.

The ‘humiliation interpretation’ —– to borrow Ricoeurs terminology[2]—– finds expression in the text some of Freud’s own words which strike us as a reprehension. Having quoted the last lines of the play, lines which ask of us to fix our eyes on the culminating fall of the Greek hero left nakedly facing himself, Freud tells us that all this: “strikes us as a warning at ourselves and our pride, at us who since our childhood have grown so wise and mighty in our eyes. Like Oedipus we live in ignorance …..” (Freud, ibid., 365). Now, this is of course not just any kind of ignorance, but precisely the kind of ignorance which ties this second interpretation to the first. It is ignorance, as Freud proceeds to say, of our childhood wishes for incest and parricide. Having regressed and acknowledged what this regression entails “we may all of us well seek to close our eyes to these scenes of our childhood” (Freud, ibid., 365). We moderns close our eyes ashamed (or feeling guilt); Oedipus, through Sophocles’ “pen”, does not simply close them but instead violently and bloodily pulls them out.

The third and final interpretation is the one I have called the ‘revelation interpretation’. It likewise, I believe, finds expression in the text in the following words: “the action of the play consists in nothing other than the process of revealing with cunning delays and ever mounting excitement — a process that can be likened to psychoanalysis” (Freud, ibid., 363). Revelation is here not to be taken in the religious sense of an undistorted meaning given to us humans by the divine.[3] Rather, for our purposes, it is to be understood as the coming to light of truth as meaningfulness.

Through the intertwining of the three interpretations, we will come to see how psychoanalysis not only humiliates in order to open the realm of the past, but is likewise projected and fed by the desire of present resolution and future construction of healthy ways of moving about.

However, even though the three interpretations interact in different ways, they are seemingly under the banner of the first. This is so in the sense that, as we quoted above, this first interpretation is the one which truly allows us to understand what is going on in Oedipus’ mind; it alone can really explain what is that something which the tragedy triggers in us. The tragedy stirs us because we find in it the birth of the Oedipus complex. And its taking shape in early childhood stands, for Freud, as the pillar of psychoanalysis. This complex is both decisive and divisive; it is representative of a frontier. Those adhering to it are truly, for Freud, psychoanalysts. Its denying critics are playing on a separate field:

“It has justly been said that the Oedipus complex is the nuclear complex of neuroses, and constitutes the essential part of their content. It represents the peak of infantile sexuality, which, through its after effects, exercises a decisive influence on the sexuality of adults. Every new arrival on this planet is faced by the task of mastering the Oedipus complex; anyone who fails to do so falls a victim to neurosis. With the progress of psychoanalytic studies the importance of the Oedipus complex has become more and more clearly evident; its recognition has become the shibboleth that distinguishes the adherents of psychoanalysis from its opponents” (Freud, 3ES, 149)

This quote, written 20 years after the writing of the principal work on dreams, sees the Oedipus complex as a shibboleth, that is to say, the crucial piece, the real clue, the very solution of a very important human riddle.


Section I, I hope, has shown that Freud’s four-page commentary of Oedipus Tyrannus is more complex that it would appear at first sight. And yet one is left with a sense of lack and incompleteness. One longs for something more, so to speak.

It is Greek scholars who particularly feel this way. There is just something odd and suspicious in trying to understand a Greek text through three quotes taken out of context and reprinted, seemingly, haphazardly. But what is most puzzling is that Freud, particulary in The Interpretation of Dreams, goes out of his way not to rid the reader of innumerable quotations from all corners of knowldege. Unknown scientists, difficult philosophers and literats all share in Freud’s voluminous work on dreams. But Sophocles does so in an astonishingly limited way; particularly given the centrality of his appearance.

It is precisely this oversimplification which really irritates Greek scholars such as Vernant and Vidal-Naquet. One finds their protest for example in their purposely entitled essay “Oedipus without the Complex”:

“If one proceeds … as Freud does, by succesive simplification and reduction —- of all Greek mythology to one particular legendary schema, of the whole of tragedy to one particular play, of this play to one particular aspect of the story and of this aspect to a dream —- one might just as well substitute, for example, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon for Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex” (Vernant, 69)

Although Vernant’s commentary is half-mocking, half-serious, I have been trying to argue that the simplification, while blatantly obvious —- and just because of this so very puzzling—– is not really so simplistic, but instead makes more sense within the context of Freud’s work.

Nevertheless there are two points to be recovered from the view that wants to argue for an Oedipus without a complex. One is the crucial issue, which I take it really goes to the heart of Freud’s limited interpretation, of history; the other the tension and relationship between, what I have called the ‘humiliation interpretation’ of the play and its counterpart, the ‘reggressive’ one.

Although in a sense the regressive nature of dreams makes them historical both phylogenetically and ontogenetically, it is obvious that Sophocles’ play is seen by Freud without the most minimal attempt at understanding the context within which it arose. In a sense Freud’s interpretation, in its search for universality, takes a leap outside history: “for in the Freudian interpretation the historical aspect of tragedy remains totally incomprehensible” (Vernant, 67). But tragedy is so historically situated. Tragedy springs out of and within a highly complex artistic, religious and social reality. To put it in the most minimum terms; we moderns read Greek tragedy, the Greeks in contrast, at one point in their history, lived and experienced it through their bodies. Tragedy made them feel truly naked.

Tragedy arouse not just anywhere; its birth lies in a crossroad —-much like the crossroad at which Oedipus begins his doom. Tragedy is born out of and expresses conflict and contradiction. The highest tension possible comes to live in the peculiar form of art which is Greek Tragedy. But the tension from which it sprung is not completely our own. It is rather that which appears, very broadly speaking, in the struggle between conflicting moments and ways of viewing the world. Contraries come face to face for a moment in history: the decaying myth encounters the emerging philosophical outlook, prejuridical social forms struggle with the juridical status of the new born cities, the almost absolute determination of action by divine forces is questioned by a new conception of action and decision “in” the agent (Vernant, IWGT, OWC), the competitive virtues face the now emphasized cooperative ones (Adkins, MR). It is in this border zone that the tragic hero lives and breathes. He is a torn being, both acted upon and acting over:

“It is a form that must convey a sense of the contradictions that rend the entire universe, the social and political world and the domain of values, and that thus presents man himself as ….. some kind of an incomprehensible, baffling monster, both an agent and one acted upon, guilty and innocent, dominating the whole of nature with is industrious mind yet incapable of controlling himself, lucid and yet blinded by a frenzy sent to him by the gods … his choice takes place in a world full of obscure and ambiguous forces, a divided world … “ (Vernant, 68)[4]

Understanding this divided world involves taking the gods seriously. But instead what Freud tells us is precisely that the interpretation which holds that Oedipus Tyrranus is a tragedy of destiny — which for Freud, erroneously implies complete submission to divine will (F, TIoD, 364)[5]——– is not the most accurate. This is so for, Freud argues, other modern tragedies of destiny fail to move us: “the espectators have looked on unmoved while a curse or an oracle was fulfilled in spite of all efforts of some innocent man. Later tragedians of destiny have failed in their effect” (Freud, ibid., 364) Freud does not investigate further why precisely it is that such tragedies do not move US, and in doing so he does not quite see how and why they did move the Greeks.[6]Furthermore to his argument one could equally reply, playing devil’s advocate: “dramatic success would be simple if it sufficed to write plays about incest, there have been plenty. But Walpole’s Mysterious Mother, for example, is stone dead. Oedipus lives. Why?” (Lucas, 168).

It is part of this ‘why’ that Freud, as child of the Enlightenment, cannot see. And this is a reminder that we always runs the danger of misreading the Greeks by projecting on to them our own views, vocabulary, and practices.(Vernant, 29).[7]

The second issue which I would like to touch upon is the question of the primacy of what I have called, the ‘humiliation’ thesis, over and against the ‘regressive’ one. For Vernant the value of the play lies precisely where Freud sees it not. Oedipus errs out of megalomania, out of an excess of grandeur. He oversteps ——- and at the same time is made to overstep ——- the limitations set upon us humans by the divine and cosmological order. Under this perspective, the central theme of the tragedy becomes, not incest and parricide, but “absolute power and the necessary hubris that necessarily stems from it” (Vernant, 84). Oedipus is overproud, oversure of his prowess as solver of riddles. And this facet of his character is made worse because of his lack of self-criticism. Rather than seek to change himself, Oedipus, as we shall see, changes the world by distorting it. The central concern of the play is therefore, not so much the murder of Laius, but Laius’ murderer and his relation to the gods:

“It is this hubris characteristic of a tyrant … that causes Oedipus’ downfall and is one of the mainsprings of tragedy. For the inquiry concerns not only the murder of Laius but also the question of Oedipus himself, Oedipus the clairvoyant; the solver of riddles, who is a riddle to himself that, in his blindness as king, he cannot solve.” (Vernant, 81)

The ‘humiliation’ interpretation is primary; the ‘regressive’ only an added one.

Having come to see some of the dangers in bypassing the historical context within which Oedipus’ tragedy was played out, we are now led to ask who is this Oedipus king, who even though most famous of riddle-solvers, has become a riddle to himself. We would like to get clearer on who is he of whom his mother-bride says “may you never, unhappy, know who you are” (Lucas 1068).[8]To do so we cannot follow Freud any longer, but rather must turn our sight, weary of what we shall see, to Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus.


Oedipus is intent on truth. He is driven against all obstacles, both self-imposed and of external origin, to try to uncover Laius’ murderer. Oedipus’ self-clarifying inquiry into the nature of his past will leave him, all of us at least think we already know, nakedly revealed. Oedipus is truly undermined for the ground on which he felt secure is taken away from him. He enters the eternal darkness of the really unhappy wanderer; he who blindly gropes in the night. But Oedipus is king, and as such he is also beholder of heroic force and power. He thinks highly of himself and it is precisely because of this that his drive towards truth is capable of overcoming his and others’ resistances. Only in revealing himself through his past, does Oedipus humiliate himself to the point where even though self-blinded, he nevertheless will come to see a new light —– a light far away in Colonus.

The very first lines of the play intertwine these two struggling paths; the one towards truth, the other towards true hubris: “I thought it right to hear the truth, my children/and so am come/ I, Oedipus, whose name fills all men’s mouths” (Lucas, 7-9). [9] Moreover, the Oedipus who knows himself bent to truth is he who also knows that other’s must bend in his presence. The Thebeans, who look up to him (35), place in him their salvation: “greatest in the eyes of all/ Here at thy feet we beg thee, Oedipus,/ Find us some help” (42-44). And Oedipus will be at all costs —- even if he must loose himself —– of ‘some help’.

First he seeks help in the divine; by way of Apollo. Apollo, god known as ‘Phoebus’ which means bright or radiant (133), as Lycean King that isprotector of flocks as against wolves (203), and as healer (155). (Lucas, page 230). This gods of light speaks bright words that aim at a healing which protects from the ravages of excessive beings. His words to the Thebeans stand clear, pollution can only come to an end through exile or blood. (100).

It is with this new information that Oedipus recognizes that he must begin anew: “I must start afresh, and bring to light/ these hidden things” (132-3). Oedipus will start an excavation out of which will surface what is hidden; but nothing does he know of the fact that this tunneling is carried through and about himself. Unknowing he firmly continues his search for truth, initially understood only in reference to the murder of Laius (129). But in order to so continue; he is in need of further information. And not just anybody gives it to him.

Summoned by Creon, Teiresias enters the action. But he does so in a very peculiar way; his entrance is one that is guided. Teiresias comes to life in the tragic play led by the weak hand of a boy. He is the well-known prophecy teller who was blinded for having looked at Athena’s naked body. But to blindness followed as divine gift another kind of seeing, that of foreseeing. Nakedness, which appears again, cost him his sight; but having seen the nude goddess won him a sight which “shares most nearly Apollo’s vision” (285). His new sight then would seem to have some relation to the power to heal. Moreover, what Teiresias sees, now blinded, is nothing other than the naked truth, he is“the prophet in whose heart/ alone of men, lives knowledge of truth” (300-1).

Teiresias entrance is not only guided by a child, it is one guided by silence; he knows all too well what his words carry with them. The enraged Oedipus cannot endure this and calls him, who for all is the wisest of men, a “creature of unending night”, a creature who has no power “to injure (him) or any that sees the light” (375-6). Oedipus has truly lost all measure, and his excessive pride fills his mouth:

“If merely for the sake of this my greatness,

Bestowed on me by the Thebens, a gift unasked,

The loyal Creon, my friend from long ago,

By stealthy machinations undermines me,

setting upon me this insidious wizard —-

Gear-gathering hypocrite, blind in his art,

With eyes only for gain!

For tell me now, when have you proved true seer?

Why, when there came that chanting, monstrous hound,

Had you then no answer to deliver Thebes?

And yet her riddle was not to be read

By the first comer’s wit —- that was the time

For powers prophetic. But of those no sign

You gave us —- neither by the voice of birds,

Nor taught by any God. But then came I —–

the ignorant Oedipus! —– and closed her mouth

By force of intellect — no birds to help me!” (381-398)

Oedipus reveals himself as the self-sufficient king and riddle solver who has lost his humanity; he alone has defeated the Sphynx and alone he will stand accursed. He has both severed ties to friends, through his distortion of Creon’s intentions, and to the Gods, through his mocking of Teiresias mediator.

But even so, Oedipus will not cease asking. He is driven to uncover the riddle which he know sees facing him. “Who was it that gave me life?” he asks the humiliated Teiresias (438). A puzzle to which the seer answers, mockingly enough, with yet another riddle: “this day shall bring thy birth — and thy destruction” (438). And we, puzzled ask, how is Oedipus, already born, to be brought to birth once again? And how is it that this newly won first sight of light, will simultaneously involve the darkest night of death?

The action rushes on and it does so primarily through a process of remembering. Oedipus remembers the words of the insulting drunkard who had said Polybus and Merope were not truly his parents (778-9). And his capacity to reminesce is aided by its slow eruption in different characters which are lead slowly, but surely, towards the discovery of the meaning behind Oedipus’ birth. The herdsman who saved Oedipus as a child from death has to be reminded by the messenger about these past events. Besides this dialogical remembering is one dealing with truth:

Herdsman. Not that I can recall it —— out of hand

Mesenger. No wonder sire. But though he does not know me,

I’ll soon remind him. Well I know he knows

Those times that we ranged together round Cithaeron,

He with two flocks ……..

Am I talking truth or not?

Herdsman. ‘Tis true enough; though a great while ago” (1132-40)

The herdsman is even forced to remember and answer by Oedipus’ threats of physical torture (1150). But when all the information has been put together, Oedipus realizes what has happened; how it was he who murdered his father, thus committing parricide, and he who wed his mother, thus committing incest. A contradictory (like the contradictory world out of which tragedy is born) ‘shadow full clarity’ sets in: “now all accomplished —-all is clear/Light of this day, let me look last on thee/ Since now I stand revealed, curst in my birth/ curst in my wedlock, curst in my bloodshed” (1182-5). Oedipus stands revealed; he has been uncovered, all his clothing removed.

But the shadow of the intellect is not enough; this blindness must be appropriated by the body itself. In a monologue of utter despair Oedipus, as reported by the servant, yells “henceforth be darkened/ eyes that saw whom ye should not” (1270-4). Oedipus king lies truly helpless. He is now become a hideous monster to look upon (1318-20), too “hateful for human sight” (1301-2).

But his is a king’s nature and pride, even now, is not lacking. Thus to the leader’s words: “I cannot count well what though hast done”, he answers, “ah cease advising me/tell me not now/ that what I did was not the best to do” (1368-9). Oedipus most definitely does not believe himself merely to be a puppet of the gods, as Freud would have it. He knows well both that it was he who blinded himself and, in a sense, not he who was involved in the acts of parricide and incest: “It was Apollo, my friends, Apollo/That made me suffer this misery;/But my eyes were stricken by myself alone./What need had I to see/For whom life kept no sight of sweetness more?” (1328-32).[10]

Oedipus does not die or commit suicide. If had so proceeded, Teiresias’ riddle involving a birth and a death in the instant of coming to know, would have been denied. Teiresias foresees another path into the future. And as the mark of this beginning, which is now simply seen as total disorientation, Oedipus chooses exile. But exile not just anywhere but precisely to the land in which he as a child, one could say, was truly saved to life:

“Leave me among the mountains, where Cithaeron

Is linked with my name forever. There it was

My parents when they lived, assigned my grave;

There let me die, according to their will

That sought to doom me then —-yet well I see

No sickness, no mischance, had power upon me;

Who could never have escaped, had I not been

Reserved for some portentuous doom.

But let my own fate drive to what end it will” (1451-9)

And end of which Freud did not speak and which Oedipus will find only in the Colonus of a poet in his nineties. (Lucas, 215)

It is only after all this has been revealed that one —-finally—– encounters the closing words of the play which are quoted by Freud in his analysis in The Interpretation of Dreams.[11] Our feeling that something was missing seems not to have been completely misleading. But then why Freud’s confidence in his four-page analysis? Why this neglect of relevant aspects from a man whose magnificence, humour and humanity shine through in all his writings?


Freud did not ever pretend to see everything clearly, but he did claim the capacity to give us clarity in certain dimensions of our understanding: “Freudian interpretation touches on the essential precisely as a result of its narrowness” (Ricoeur, PMCC, 141).

Diagnosis is psychoanalysis’ path towards understanding. As investigatory practice it is not content with the way things appear, but is rather suspicious of such a-critically held appearances. For instance, something more lies behind the appearance of the manifest content, of our identifying love for our parents, of our neurosis, of our kokes, of our love of God, of our civilization’s goals. It is because of this that the linguistic symbols which psychoanalysis sets out to comprehend come to light, in the first instance, as shadowy, illusory and deceitful. The meaning of symbols is undermined by their presence as idols. Analysis, in uncovering deceit, distortion and blindness, cannot but ask negatively. (Ricoeur, FP, 31). Psychoanalysis is intent on undressing symbols, so that in their nakedness we can better come to comprehend and reappropriate them once again.

Psychoanalysis, as a hermeneutics of suspicion, is primarily concerned with the humiliation of the historically developed narcissism which anchors our pride in conscious knowledge. Of course psychoanalysis cannot deny the immediate certainty of consciousness, the Cartesian ‘I think’, but it does lay bare the former’s illusory claims to immediate truth. Consciousness in this view, is in immediacy a ‘false consciousness’ for, although it posits itself, it does not possess itself: “psychoanalysis cannot situate the essence of the psychical in consciousness,, but is obliged to regard consciousness as a quality of the psychical, which may be present in addition to other qualities or may be absent” (Freud, EI, 351) Psychoanalysis, Ricoeur tells us, does away with “consciousness and its pretensions of ruling over meaning in order to save reflection” (Ricoeur, FP 422). Meaning is a task, not a given.

The movement towards reflection necessarrily implies a dispossession or displacement of the illusory cogito. We relinquish consciousness in order to recapture it at a more complex level through the integration of a ‘deeper’ understanding of the conditions within which consciousness itself is born. To gain myself I must, oddly enough, somehow be willing to loose myself:

“If it is true that the language of desire is a discourse combining meaning and force[12], reflection, in order to get at the root of desire, must let itself be dispossessed of the conscious meaning of discourse and displace it to another place of meaning ……… But since desire is accesible only in the disguises in which it places itself, it is only by interpreting the signs of desire that one can recapture in reflection the emergence of desire and thus enlarge reflection to the point where it regains what it had lost” (Ricoeur, FP , 424)

There is then a reduction not ‘to’ consciousness but ‘of’ consciousness and for the sake of a new, more humble, type of conscious activity. But, why is discentering so crucial to my rediscovery? It is because through it alone can one move beyond the narcissism which cements one’s ego. The illusion of a not fought for selflove, safeguards the ego from the work involved in its becoming. Freud’s appeal to our ‘humiliation’ interpretation is clear:

“You are sure you are informed of all that goes on in your mind …. come let yourself be taught something on this point ….. turn your eyes inward, look into your own self, learn first to know yourself! Then you will understand why you were bound to fall ill; perhaps to avoid falling ill in the future” (Ricouer quotes Freud, FP, 426-427)[13]

Consciousness is wounded by the “reality” of the unconscious. The ego no longer rules in an unqualified manner, but is instead set within a complex and demanding internal and external framework. The immediacy of the ego and the world is forever shattered; the idea, for instance, of an oceanic feeling —— adhered to uncritically —— is in reality the flight of an ego who denies the exigencies of an external reality which stands apart as alien, overpowering and senseless.[14]The ego is uncovered, undressed, and what Freud finds is a precipitate of lost objects. That objects have been lost signifies that direct real satisfaction of libidinal demands has not been adequately met. The ego thus presents itself to the Id as a totality of losses, ‘I’ becomes the primordial love object for ‘it’: “when the ego assumes the features of the objects, it is forcing itself, so to speak, upon the Id as a love object, and trying to make good the Id’s loss by saying: ‘Look, you can love me too —- I am so like the object’” (Freud, EI, 369). The ego which posits itself arrogantly, does not come close to possessing itself. In order to become itself, it must start by reviewing the history of its losses; it must engage in archeological investigation on itself. The ‘humiliation’ interpretation consequently goes hand in hand with the ‘regressive’ one. Making oneself humble implies retrogression and retrogression can only start through humility. A new circle is born.

Negation opens up the way to the remoteness of our history both phylogenetically and ontogenetically; this happens in various interrelated ways. One can see this backward motion in dream formation. Dreams lay bare, and allow us to acquaint ourselves through critical interpretation, not only with our personal history (going as far back as our childhood), but also, and through connections with works of art such as Oedipus Turranus, but also with the whole archaic heritage which constitutes our humanity. The first topography shows the mechanism of this regression in dreams which allows movement of unconscious material, not towards the motor end of the y-systems, but rather to the opposite extreme, namely, the perceptual end (Freud, TIoD, 692)[15]. Dreaming is not only ”an example of regression to the dreamer’s earliest condition, of the instinctual impulses that dominated it, and of the methods of expression …. available to him” (Freud, ibid., 699), but likewise a universal regression towards the archaic structures which involve the rise of the Oedipus complex itself. Psychoanalysis, having quoted Nietzsche, knows that this its particular kind of narrowness is far reaching:

“Dreams and neurosis seem to have preserved more mental antiquities than we could have imagined possible; so that psychoanalysis may claim a high place among the sciences which are concerned with the reconstruction of the earliest and most obscure periods of the begginings of the human race” (Freud, ibid., 700)

It is in this sense that topographic, temporal and formal regresion are at bottom one and the same kind of regression; for “what is older in time is also more primitive in form and in psychical topography lies nearer to the perceptual end” (Freud, TIoD, 699).

But this regressive tendency, is far from being only present in dreams, rather it permeates the whole of Freud’s outlook. It continues to play a central role in the second topography where in a difficult passage we are told: “in the id, which is capable of being inherited, are harboured residues of the existences of countless egos; and, when the ego forms its superego out of the id, it may perhaps only be reviving shapes of former egos and be bringing them to ressurrection” (Freud EI, 378). Understanding ourselves today involves then an understanding of residues present prior even to our birth. Moreover this regressive tendency is likewise present in Freud’s writings on culture.. An example of this being the analogy of mind and Rome in Civilization and its Discontents, where we are told concerning mental life:

“Since we overcame the error of supposing that the forgetting we are familiar with signified a destruction of the memory trace — that is, its annihilation —- we have inclined to take the opposite view that in mental life nothing which has once been formed can perish — that everything is somehow preserved and that in suitable circumstances (when for instance, regression goes back far enough) it can once more be brought to light” (Freud, CD, 256) (my emphasis)

Regression is not an endless abysmal fall into the darkness of the unknown; it rather involves, as we shall see, a bringing to light; something for which we are better prepared having read Sophocles’ play. But furthermore, one finds this regressive type of inquiry coming to life in the very foundation of psychoanalysis, that is to say, it is present in psychoanalysis dualism. as seen in the perpetual struggle between the eros and the death instincts. The latter, which for Freud finds meaningful expression in sadism and hatred is not only supported by biology but its task is to lead organic lfe back ino the inanimate state” (Freud, EI, 380). This is truly as back as you can go.[16]

Having said all this, I hope it becomes clearer to see why it is that in an early work like The Interpretation of Dreams so much emphasis is placed by Freud on Jocasta’s words on incestous dreaming. Only with a view to the whole regressive nature of psychoanalytic investigation does the four-page interpretation of Sophocles’ play start to make more sense. Humiliation and regression, which we saw present in the work itself, are two of the banners held by psychoanalysis in its search for understanding. Ricouer, who captures this tendency in his concept of the ‘archeology of the subject’, tells us:

“If one interrelates all these modalities of archaism; there is formed the complex figure of a destiny in reverse, a destiny that draws one backward; never before had a doctrine so coherently revealed the disquieting consistency of this complex situation” (Ricoeur, FP, 452).

A complex situation hinted at by Teiresias’ puzzling words: “This day shall bring thy birth —– and thy destruction”. Destruction, painful as it might be, is not for destruction’s sake. Neither Sophocles nor psychoanalysis aim simply at leaving us nakedly and embarrasingly facing ourselves defenseless in the uttermost cold of cage-like caverns.


Literature is fond of playing with words. To reveal is one of those words that invite us to playfulness; it calls on foreplay, that is to say, all that which goes on before the actual playing. But some languages aid us better is playing certain games; I will therefore refer the reader to Spanish words here. To ‘reveal’ in English is to bring to light, to disclose. But, at least phonetically, the word could be seen to have some relation to the verb ‘to veil’ which means exactly the opposite, that is to say, to cover, to haze over. If one added the prefix ‘re’ which means to do again (as in redo your homework) then one would end up with the exactly opposite word to ‘re-veil’. The game I am playing works much better in Spanish, for the word for ‘to reveal’ is ‘revelar’, and the word for ‘to veil’ is ‘velar’. It is easier then to add the repetitie prefix ‘re’ which also exists in Spanish. To reveal then would involve a new type of vealing, a new covering up. The game takes added force because inseems to point precisely at Ricoeurs conception of what a ‘symbol’ is double meaning and which in reference to dream we are told: “the dream and its analogues er set within a region of language that presents itself as the locus of compelx significations when another meaning is BOTH hoddenn and given ina n immediate meaning” (Ricoeur, FP, 7). The regressive and humiliation have moved us a primary meaning that distorted, veiled. But there movement revelas new posibilities which leave us not strandeed nakedly humiliated in a maddening past but covers us agains, re-vveils’ us. How is dthis done? [17].

Now under this view to ‘reveal’ is a ‘re-veiling’ that is to say, a recovering, a covering oneself anew. Naked we would surely die; we humans must cover us through new meanings.

There are many ways in whih one could come to see how psychoanalysis could do this within its regressive framework; through a positive view on identification[18], also by way of a recovery of the never fully articulated and comprehended phenomena of sublimation by Freud[19], and finally, the course I propose here to take by looking at Freud’s own words, by reminding oneself of the practice which psychoanalysis involves. In the analytic situation analysand and analyst meet in dialogue to overcome regression and firmly held resistances. IN the analytic situation nakedness sets in, but it s a different kind of nakedness, one that reacts much like Athena did to Teiresias.

The analysand —and all of us reading Freud outside the analytic situation —- is suffering from symptoms which hamper his ability to move around, articulate and face the reality which mingles outside the analytical situation. He/she is stuck, so to speak, much like we dream universally of being embarrassingly stuck in our own nakedness. Their inability to orient themselves in the real world lies partly in a regressive fixation on past experiences: “not only do they remember painful experiences of the remote past, but they still cling to them emotionally; they cannot get free of the past and for its sake they neglect what is real and immediate” (F, 5LP, 40). But not only are they backwardly fixed, they cannot see what it is precisely they are fixed on. It is as if they had become amnesic. The analysand is there fore set in an awkward situation of simultaneously knowing and not knowing. Confusion sets in, as Freud clearly saw in the case of Fraulein Elizabeth von R.:

“it followed that her feelings themselves did not become clear to her …. her love for her brother in law was present in her consciousness as a foreign body …. with regard to these feelings she was in a peculiar situation of knowing and at the same time not knowing” (Freud, SoH, 165)

A riddle plays itself out here. It is a riddle that Oedipus knew all too well. Uncovering the riddle implies recognition this dangerously regressive tendency “the libido …. has netered on a regressive course and has revived the subject’s infantile images” (F, TDoT, 102). We are literally caught up in a dream world.

Psychoanalysis, like Oedipus, does not shy away from this riddle. It desires a try at it. It rebels against human suffering for it cannot understand how “people notice that the patient has some slit in his mind, but shrink from touching them for fear of increasing his suffering” (Freud, 5LP, 84). Psychoanalysis likes to touch; it does so for the purpose of healing. It faces our split head on and tries to comprehensively fill gaps building brdges of communication between both split —much like iin tragedy — disconnected worlds.

And it knows that this construction is a task, “one o f the hardest” (Freud, SoH, 138), is a true battle of continuous struggle towards recovery:

“The analysis has to struggle against the resistances … the resistance accompanies the treatment step by step. Every songle association, every act of the person under treatment must reckon with the resistance and represents a compromise between the forces that are striving towards recovery and the opposing ones which I have described” (Freud, TDoT, 103)

Psychoanalysis, following the basic rule of honesty which states that “whatever comes into one’s head must be reported without criticizing it “ (Freud, TDoT, 107), moves by way of shedding clothes, by untangling knots which hamper our everyday fulfillment. Psychoanalysis clears, much like Oedipus, its procedure is “one of clearing away the pathogenic material layer by layer, and we liked to compare it with the technique of excavating a city” (Freud, SoH, 139). Psychoanalysis exccavates but its excavations matter iin so far as the uncovered city that is brought to light is not simply left standing to werode but rather integrated, cultivated and admred by making it part of the whole topography of one’s mind. Psychoanalysis rebuilds, repaints, reconstructs. Psychoanalyis recovers, that is to say, it covers again our nakedness.

In the analytic situation, byy way of the, beautifully termed by Freud, “catalytic ferment” which is the transference (Freud, 5LP, 82), which is the “true vehicle of therapeutic influence” (ibid., 83) psychoanalysis embarks of the reconstruction of misunderstood losses in order to construct new meaning. Knowing all too well about the dangers of transference as substitute for the analysand most intimate desires — the analysand feels his nakedness can be covered by way of the analyst —-(Freud, TDoT, 103-4), it sets out on a quest towards the difficult articulation of a narrative, the coherence and beauty of which, allows, and proceeds from the overcoming of resistances. Freud sees this narrative structure but his scientific outlook is weary of its claims to real truth: “and it still strikes me as strange that the case histories I wrote should read like short stories and that we might say they lack the serious stamp of science” (Freud, SoH, 160). [20]

With the aid of a trained analyst who, with Freud’s unfortunate choice of words “tries to compel him to fit these emotional impulses into the nexus of the treatment and of his life history” (Freud, TDoT,, 108). The analysand is given the tools through which he can not only comprehend his/her past, but move beyond it creatively and realistically in a world outside the analytic situation for “what matters is that he shall be free of it in his real life” (ibid., 106). IN the construction of a narrative of which I cannot go into detail here, regression and humiliation end up ina form of revealing, as we saw a new covering, a revealing; a veiling in the warmth of meaningful words and actions. truth emerges out of a backward movement in which we doubt as never had. Truth emerges as a rock that “is reliable,, strong enough to be a foothold, a foundation for us to stand upon” (Loch, CSPT, 221) A rock from which Oedipus at Colonus finds his own death (Sophocles, OC, 1594), with these words, leaving his children without a father:

“My children, from this day

Ye have no father. Now my life is done.

You shall not toil to tend me any more.

How hard it was for you, I know, dear daughters;

Yet that one word of ‘love’ repaid it all.

No man could give you deeper love than mine.

And now without me

You both must pass the remnant of your days” (1614-1621)

His children are left nakedly facing the world, but they are better prepared for it.

[1]For a defense of such circularity as mode of understanding peculiar to human beings one can look at Heidegger’s Being and Time..

[2]For Ricoeur psychoanalysis can be understood, in conjunction with the work of Marx and Nietzsche, as a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’. For these critical thinkers the immediacy of meaning is questioned and each develops a way to gain insight into the process of distortion which governs, be it dreams, capitalist accumulation and alienation, and morality. This idea will perhaps become clearer in section IV of this essay. Besides, the term is used by Ricoeur in reference to the three-fold humiliation of Western thought: i) the cosmological humiliation by Copernicus, ii) the biological humiliation at the hands of Darwin, and iii) the psychological humiliation at the hands of Freud himself. (Ricoeur, FP, 32-36, see also PMCC). Humiliation therefore, as I take it, has nothing to do with guilt; but with something more like shame.

[3]Ricouer does attempt to situate psychoanalysis within, what he considers are three zones of symbolic language: i) the cosmic, linked to the phenomenology of religion, ii), the zone of the oneiric linked to psychoanalysis, and iii) the zone governed by poetic imagination (Ricoeur, FP, BOOK I: “Problematic: the placing of Freud”)

[4]Perhaps one could see in this tension clear parallels with the struggle between unconscious and conscious forces, between the ego and the id, but one must continuously be weary of projecting the way we understand ourselves to other cultures who shared neither our practices nor our conceptual frameworks. A crucial example is the inexistence of a concept of ‘will’ within Greek thought. (Vernant, 28)

[5]The theory of double motivation holds instead that there is not simply a submission by the agent but rather a complex double participation, both divine and human: “Since the origin lies in both man himself and outside him, the same character appears now as an agent, the cause and source of his actions, and now as acted upon, engulfed in a force that is beyond him and sweeps him away. yet although human and divine causality are intermingled in tragedy, they are not confused. The two levels are quite distinct, sometimes opposed to each other” (Vernant, 53)

[6]Within the tradition of a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ one could look at Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy for a clearer view of what Tragedy meant to the Greeks. Nevertheless, the Nietzschean analysis is not itself without problems, and one can therefore try to look at works such as Dodds’ stimulating The Greeks and the Irrational for a better understanding of teh context within which Greek Tragedy took place (e.g. Appendix I “Maenadism”). For a defense of a more Freudian analysis of Oedipus Tyrannus , one can also look at Thallia Feldman’s “Taboo and Neurotic Guilt in the Oedipus Theme”. Her argument is that “ it is principally Sophocles who, in his two dramas, bridges the transition between such surviving notions surrounding primitive taboo and their elevation into a significant stage beyond, one which indicates a new, individual concern and feeling” (Feldman, 60)

[7]The issue of historicity places real questions on the whole enterprise of psychoanalysis. This is nowhere better seen than in the important work of Michel Foucault who traces the history of madness in his Madness and Civilization. The possible ground for a critique of psychoanalysis is found particularly in his first and third volumes on the History of Sexuality. While in the third he attempts to understand Artemidorus within his context, in the first he argues that modernity is characterized by a deep concern for what is referred to the ‘repressive hypothesis’. The fundamental claim of this hypothesis, according to Focault, is one of liberation by engaging in discursive critique through which it is argued we may finally overcome both external and internal repression. (Of course Freud himself never aims at this, but some aspects of Foucault’’s critique due go to the heart of psychoanalytic practice) For Foucault this project is radically misguided. He seeks to show this by tracing its origin in history to the development of a practice peculiar to the West, namely, the radical emphasis we have placed in the discursiveness of sexuality. The overwhelming concern with the speaking of sexuality is traced back to the Christian confessional. In the confession one seeks permanently to ‘uncover’ oneself; it is an uncovering which makes possible,at least ideally, the emergence of some deeply concealed truth which up to that point had been held back. For Foucault the Christian confessional becomes secularized in a move from Augustine’s Confessions through to Rousseau’s Confessions and finally in the analytic situation itself. Freud many times writes as if within this paradigm, for example in An Outline of Psychoanalysis: he tewlls us: “this looks as though we were only aiming at the post of a secular father confessor. But there is a great difference, for what we want to hear from our patient is not only what he knows and conceals from other people; he is to tell us too what he does NOT know” (Freud, AOP, Chpter VI ) What is problematic for Foucault on this view of things is that we are continuously incited to confess believing that herein lies the breakdown of repression. But for Foucault this confessional practice is set within a whole network of power relations which give expression too a historically developed technology of the self through which we come to be constituted as particular kinds of subjects, that is, confessional subjects. The former perpetuate the discourse of protest which represents the very means of perpetuating their condition as the kind of subjects the have come to be. For Foucault this condition is that western human have become ‘confessional animals’ (Foucault, HoS I, 159) (This position radically questions many of the points in this essay).

[8]Vernant and Vidal Naquet have two furher arguments against Freud’s interpretation: i) the first concerns the circularity of the argument (I have tried to show that this is precisely what Freud intends and therefore the critique is unfair) (Vernant, 64); and ii) they question the whole idea of Oedipus’ really knowing or not whether Polybus and Merope were his parents. I think this to be a weaker argument and Freud could attempt to answer it.

[9]I will use F.L. Lucas translation because although its English is difficult I find it particularly beautiful. But perhaps not everyone coincides.

[10]Vernant and Vidal-Naquet shed light on this dual nature of the action: “the contrary aspects of the action he has accomplished by blinding himself are both united and opposed in the very same expressions that the chorus and himself both use … The divine causality and the human initiative which just now appearede to be so clearly opposed to each other have now come together and, at the very heart of the decision ‘chosen’ by Oedipus, a subtle play of language produces a shift from the action …. to that of passivity …” (Vernat, 54)

[11]”Dwellers here in Thebes our city, fix your eyes on Oedipus/Once he guesed the famous riddle, once our land knew none so great—-/Which among the sons of Cadmus envied not his high estate?/Now behold how deep above him there hath rolled the surge of doom/So with every child of mortal” (1524-8)

[12]Ricouer sees n Freud’s analysis two interpretations, the hermeneutical and the energetic, neither of which can be reduced to the other an the dual nature of which gives an added strength to psychoanalytic theory.

[13]Perhaps one could argue that part of the fascination with Sophocles’ play lies precisely in its appeal  to the language of sight. In this sense it moves us closer to the perceptual end of the first topography.

[14]A view which makes sense, I beleive, only as stemming from a Schopenahuerian view of the will.

[15]It is interesting to note that our game leads us, in its Spanish variant,  to realize that the verb “velar” also means to take care of something important, and particularly of the dead.

[16]The presence of the symbol is further made interesting if one looks at its Greek origin. As Anne Carson tells us in her beautiful Eros: the Bittersweet: “The English word ‘symbol’ is the Greek word symbolon which means, in teh ancient world, one half of a knucklebone carried as a token of identity to someone who has the other half. Together the two halves compose one meaning. A metaphor is a species of symbol. So is a lover.” (Carson , 75.)  The importance of this relation becomes more important if one sets to try to understand Freud’s claim to be following Plato in erotic matters. (Freud, 3ES, 43.)

[17]A positive view of identification would see it as an inevitable event, yet under certain historical circumstances not simply a negative one. One could try for example, to link the issue of identification with a notion of ‘identity’ such as theone defended by Charles Taylor in his Sources of the Self.


[19]Ricoeur recovers this in his view of Sophocles’ play seen principally as a tragedy of truth and in his genral understanding of art as providing the progressive movement which, while incorporating some regressive understaniding, nevertheless reveals present and future possibilities. : “because of their emphasis in disguise dreams look more to the past, to childhood. But in works of art the emphasis is on disclosure; thus works of art tend to be prospective symbols of one’s personal synthesis and of man’s future and not merely a regressive symptom of the artist’s unresolved conflict”. One can also  look at also Ricoeur’s “Psychoanalysis and the Work of art” where he touches on the realiton of he ‘fantastic’ as both representabel and substitutable, and the sublimation found in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci.

[20]On the issue of narrativity and truth see Ricoeur’s essay: “The Question of Proof in Freud’s Psychoanalytic Writings”



Freud, Sigmund, Two Short Accounts of Psycho-analysis, Penguin, London, 1991, “Five Lectures on Psychoanalysis” pgs. 31-87. Translated by James Strachey.

———– The Interpretation of Dreams, Volume 4 of the Penguin Freud Library, Penguin, London, 1991.

———–On Sexuality, Volume 7 of the Penguin Freud Library, particularly “Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality” pp. 33-169.

———–On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, Volume 11 of the Penguin Freud Library, “The Unconscious” 159-210, “The ego and the Id”, 339-401. (Edition 1984)

———–Civilization Society and Religion, Volume 12 of Penguin Freud Library, “‘Civilized’ Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness” pp. 33-55. (edition 1985


Loch, W., “Some Comments on the Subject of Psychoanalysis and Truth”, Essay 8 in Psychiatry and the Humanities Volume 2: Thought, Consciousness, and Reality, (de. Smith, Joseph) Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1977, pgs 217-250.

Lucas, F.L., Greek Tragedy and Comedy, “Oedipus the King”, The Viking Press, New York, 1967, pp. 168-208

Ricoeur, P., “Psychoanalysis and the Work of Art”, Essay 1 in Psychiatry and the Humanities Volume 1: Psychiatry, Art and Literature (de. Smith, Joseph), Yale Univesity Press, New Haven and London, 1977, pp. 3-33

———– Freud and Philosophy, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1970. Translated by Denis Savage.

———- Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press,

“The question of proof in Freud’s Psychoanalytic writings” pp. 247-273.

Sophocles, Oedipus Tyrannus, Translated and edited by Luci Berkowitz and Theodore Brunner, Norton and Company, New York, 1970. Particularly “Thalia Phillies Feldman “Taboo and Neurotic Guilt in the Oedipus Theme” pp. 59-69.

Vernat, J.P. and Vidal-Naquet P., “Preface”, Chapter 3: “Intimations of the Will in Greek Tragedy”, Chapter 4:“Oedipus without the complex”, in Tragedy and Myth in Ancient Greece, Harvester Press, Sussex, n.d., pp. 28-86.

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Nadie en la Biblia, en particular en el Antiguo Testamento, padece la voluntad de Dios como lo hace Job. Infortunado por designio divino sufre la muerte de sus criados, la pérdida de su cuantiosa propiedad, el asesinato de sus hijos e hijas, y además es hecho preso de una sarna maligna enviada por Satanás como prueba a su fe en el Dios Jehová (Job, 1,2). Es él quien antes de confesarse pecador por soberbio —– acción que le posibilita recuperar su propiedad y bienestar perdidos —— maldice incluso el día en que nació. En un apartado este doliente dice a Dios estas desgarradoras palabras:

Mi carne está vestida de gusanos, y de costras de polvo;

Mi piel hendida y abominable.

Y mis días fueron más veloces que la lanzadera

del tejedor,

Y fenecieron sin esperanza.

Acuérdate que mi vida es un soplo,

Y que mis ojos no volverán a ver el bien.

Los ojos de los que me ven, no me verán más;

Fijarás en mí tus ojos,

Y dejaré de ser. (Job, 7, 5-8)

Juan Rulfo en su breve cuento “Talpa”, uno de los que conforman El llano en llamas, recupera muchas de estas ideas en el contexto latinoamericano contemporáneo. Miremos más de cerca dicho cuento misterioso y desgarrado regido por la carga de la letra ‘T’; la letra del crucifijo que cuelga sobre los delicados cuellos de muchos y muchas.

La visión judeocristiana del universo permea todos los bienes y prácticas nuestras como latinoamericanos en particular, y como occidentales en general. Así no comulguemos con las doctrinas de la Iglesia Católica, y tampoco estemos completamente de acuerdo con sus prácticas, es incuestionable que su marca en nuestra cultura, en nuestras prácticas cotidianas, es inmensa e innegable. Nuestro referente temporal siempre es Cristo cuya fecha de nacimiento se ha convertido en eje de nuestra temporalidad histórica. Es así como al hablar de los griegos, por ejemplo, los ubicamos de manera dantesca en un periodo anterior al nacimiento de Cristo, los siglos a.C. Respetar e intentar comprender esta tradición cristiana en la que nosotros —–querámoslo o no ——- somos, evidentemente involucra un enfrentarnos con nuestra propia realidad, con nuestra propia cruz. Nietzsche sabe bien de la necesidad de este enfrentamiento, él lo asume como pocos escritores lo han hecho. Desviémonos una vez más para ver cual es el problema en cuestión.

Talpa, Tanilo, Natalia, todos nombres cruciales del cuento de Juan Rulfo “Talpa”. La extraña letra ‘T’ palpita por entre sus trazos; los gobierna. La letra ‘T’ es la letra de la cruz, y cada personaje y espacio de la obra carga con su propia cruz desde su mismo nombramiento por el autor. Incluso la misma división estructural del cuento en cinco partes, la tercera de las cuales abre al lector al camino de Talpa, nos recuerda en su simetría y mediana prolongación una cruz compartida.

En una famosa canción Serrat, nos canta, siguiendo un poema de Machado, que no hay camino, sino que hacemos camino al andar. Para Rulfo, en este breve cuento, por el contrario lo que en efecto no hay son posibles caminos por recorrer con bifurcaciones y desvíos intermitentes. No, existe en la tradición católica un único camino, el camino de Talpa; a saber, el camino de la peregrinación en la que reconocemos nuestra pecaminosa naturaleza y la necesareidad del perdón divino. Y recordemos que el peregrinar es el viajar por el extranjero; es que efectivamente el católico no es de este mundo, este mundo no es sino un mundo extraño que recorre hacia el mundo del más allá.

Natalia y su enfermo esposo, llamado Tanilo, recorren junto con el hermano de Tanilo (el narrador sin nombre) el camino hacia Talpa. Talpa, lugar de peregrinación a la virgen misericordiosa del mismo nombre. Pero si bien el camino tendrá su fin para Tanilo. los otros dos protagonistas serán condenados a recorrerlo —– ya no tanto físicamente sino espiritualmente —– en el infinito remordimiento que les corroe el alma. La culpa y el remordimiento permea todos los ámbitos del cuento. Este lo abren las largas e incontenibles lágrimas de Natalia quien a su regreso de Talpa llora, “como si estuviera exprimiendo el trapo de nuestros pecados.” (Rulfo, T, 168). Pero nos preguntamos, ¿a qué se debe este llanto desmedido como catarata de sentimientos ocultos? ¿Acaso llora ella su reciente viudez? No, llora ella no por su viudez sino por haber deseado vehementemente esa viudez conseguida.

La narración del hermano anónimo de Tanilo es en su totalidad una confesión. La confesión es el diálogo que conoce el catolicismo y que tiene su más clara ejemplificación en Las confesiones de San Agustín. Es esta una práctica cuyo eje es el constante revelar a mi superior espiritual la compleja interioridad de mi alma para purgarla de toda maldad que la agobie; sobretodo limpiarla de males carnales pensados y, peor aún, actuados. Pero lo paradójico es que este narrador rulfiano no se confiesa frente a un sacerdote, en lo oscuro de una parroquia silenciosa; no, él lo hace frente a todo el universo de lectores posibles, lectores que sabemos, así no vayamos a tales parroquias, de la necesidad del continuo confesar dentro de nuestra cultura. Es esto cierto hasta el punto que Foucault señala que el ser humano occidental se ha convertido en un animal confesional (Foucault, THS, p. 60). El narrador en su relato contado comienza el recorrido de su paz por el camino de Talpa:

“Porque la cosa es que a Tanilo Santos entre Natalia y yo lo matamos. Lo llevamos a Talpa para que se muriera. Y se murió. Sabíamos que no aguantaría caminar, pero, así y todo, lo llevamos empujándolo entre los dos, pensando en acabar con él para siempre. Eso hicimos. “ (ibid. 169)

El confesar la certeza de su crimen es el camino hacia la reconciliación del hermano de Tanilo consigo mismo y con su Dios. Revelándonos la atrocidad de su crimen se abre él a la posibilidad del arrepentimiento y del perdón, el único tipo de redención que conoce el católico.

A Tanilo —– y que apellido el suyo, ‘Santos’ —– el destino divino le ha enviado, como a un Job moderno, una prueba para comprobar la veracidad de su fe. Padece él una incurable enfermedad que le carcome los miembros frágiles de su cuerpo; maldita enfermedad que le corroe no desde fuera,, sino desde sus propias más internas entrañas. Lo que alguna vez fue cuerpo de ser humano estaba ahora compuesto de “llagas por donde no salía nada de sangre y si una cosa amarilla como goma de copal que destilaba agua pesada” (ibid. 169). Estaba su corporeidad “llena por dentro de agua podrida que le salía por cada rajadura de sus piernas o de sus brazos.” (ibid. 174). Para la tradición católica el cuerpo es la fuente de todo pecado en tanto que su terrenalidad encarna las pasiones contaminantes. El cuerpo de Tanilo es el cuerpo católico llevado al extremos de su infecciosidad. Sin embargo Tanilo tiene fe en su Dios todopoderoso y bondadoso cuyos planes, así parezcan terriblemente injustos y dolorosos, siempre tiene una razón de ser, un fin preciso.

Creer es tener fe; la racionalidad no podrá ayudar a Tanilo a comprender su situación enfermiza. Ser fiel es tener esperanza en aquello que motiva nuestra fidelidad incondicional. En su esperanza Tanilo espera el fin de esta prueba divina; espera él que en su peregrinación hacia la virgen de Talpa se le de la gracia divina que le permita encontrar la redención de este mal corporal que él no ha escogido voluntariamente. Esperanza tiene él en la pureza de María, madre de Cristo.

La Virgen María, símbolo de la pureza del cuerpo y del alma, puente siempre abierto entre los seres humanos y Dios, modelo de las mujeres latinoamericanas. Mujer ella que sabía “lavar las cosas, ponerlo todo nuevo de nueva cuenta como un campo recién llovido” (ibid. 169). Virgen a la que el párroco de Talpa invoca recordándonos su infinita benevolencia:

“La que quisiera llevarnos en sus brazos para que no nos lastime la vida, esta aquí junto a nosotros, aliviándonos el cansancio y las enfermedades del alma, y de nuestro cuerpo ahuatado, herido y suplicante.” (ibid., 176)

Virgen en quien Tanilo cifra toda esperanza de curación, de limpieza y de nuevo comienzo.

Enfermedad corporal es la de Tanilo, él no ha podido elegirla; en cambio es un enfermedad del alma la que eligen libremente Natalia y su hermano. La pecaminosidad de la cual son ellos objeto, surge de la insaciabilidad de sus pasiones que en medio de la muerte de Tanilo se encuentran, entregándose a sus excesos pecaminosos. Son las piernas de Natalia aquellas que habían estado “solas desde hacia tiempo”. (ibid., 169) Exceso de excesos para los católicos, el adulterio. Cometer adulterio es el quebrantar el sacramento divino e indisoluble del matrimonio católico. Es este el pecado de pecados que en el caso de Natalia y su amante multiplica su pecaminosidad por el deseo vivo de realizarlo llevando a Tanilo mártir hacia su muerte. Eliminar la sangre de su sangre: “algo que no podemos entender ahora, pero entonces lo queríamos. Me acuerdo muy bien” (ibid., 170)

Ahora ya no comprenden ellos los motivos escondidos de su acción, pero el recuerdo de haber en un momento anterior comprendido, y además de haber querido actuar como lo hicieron, hace que, por ejemplo, Natalia “no ve(a) ya nada”, sino el fantasma de su esposo muerto. Ve ella sólo culpa, ve ella tan solo el camino de perdición como posible redención. Está ella llamada a recorrer el camino que Tanilo ya ha recorrido siguiendo el camino de las estaciones de la crucifixión de Jesús. Ella lo camina una vez más en su interioridad, padeciendo a cada paso de concientización, su infidelidad. Su interioridad la carcome lenta y agudamente.

El tercer apartado del cuento de Rulfo se alarga como eje central de una cruz que es este camino a Talpa. Recorrerlo les ha tomado en términos puramente temporales desde mediados de febrero, hasta finales de marzo. Pero este recorrido espacio temporal local de los personajes del cuento es el universal recorrer esperanzador de todo creyente peregrino; recorrido por el camino en el que a la soberbia se enfrenta al arrepentimiento, la penitencia y la humildad en el amor de Dios.

De una luminosidad agobiante, este camino en su calurosa claridad destella como una corona angelical: “teníamos que esperar a la noche para poder descansar del sol, y de aquella luz blanca del camino” (ibid., 172). Pero en el recorrer la luz blanca que es este camino los caminantes como rebaño desplazan la claridad con sus pesados pasos polvorientos: “y arriba de esta tierra estaba el espacio vacío, sin nubes, solo el polvo, pero el polvo no da ninguna sombra” (ibid., 172). La sequedad polvorienta lo cubre todo; se cubre el camino del mismo polvo con el que en el Miércoles de Ceniza los católicos se marcan recordándose como han surgido del polvo y al polvo volverán luego de su recorrido por este valle del exilio. El polvo invade con su grisáceo tono mortal —— y paradójicamente para Nietzsche el tono de la genealogía es el gris (Niet, GdM, Prólogo, #7) —– todo ámbito: “el cielo siempre gris como una mancha gris, y pesaba que nos aplastaba a todos desde arriba (ibid, 173).

Solo en el fresco de la oscura noche los caminantes se pueden refrescar momentáneamente; Natalia y el hermano de Tanilo se refrescan en la liquidez compartida de sus cuerpos entregados al amor erótico; no al ‘agape’, es decir, al amor cristiano. El recorrido del día es el agobiante y caluroso, fatigante y sudoroso, recorrer del católico por este mundo que es un valle de lágrimas; recordemos que nuestra palabra ‘inmundo’ con su connotación puramente negativa quiere decir también, ‘en el mundo’. La noche es la oscuridad de la muerte como tránsito necesario hacia la ciudad divina y la vida eterna en comunidad con Dios. El camino a Talpa es el caminar por la vida del católico latinoamericano:

“Algún día llegará la noche. En eso pensábamos, llegará la noche y nos pondremos a descansar. Ahora se trata de cruzar el día, de atravezarlo como sea para correr del calor y del sol. Después nos detendremos. Después. Los que tenemos que hacer por lo pronto es esfuerzo tras esfuerzo para ir de prisa detrás de tantos como nosotros y delante de otros muchos. De eso se trata. Ya descansaremos bien a bien cuando estemos muertos” (ibid., 173)

Recorriendo este cambio hacia la noche eterna llega por fin Tanilo a Talpa. Su cuerpo peregrino a duras penas ha resistido el viaje; su cuerpo ya no es el de un humano sino el de una cosa animada desfigurada e irreconocible. Su cuerpo era “aquella cosa tan llena de cataplasmas y de hilos oscuros de sangre que dejaban en el aire, al pasar, un olor agrio de animal muerto” (ibid., 175). En la penitencia ha abierto Tanilo a la Virgen lo infeccioso de su corporeidad. En medio del baile y la oración del párroco surge de ese animal como muerto, que es Tanilo, una gran lágrima que pareciera no compartir la infecciosidad de todos sus otros humores corporales. En su aparente pureza esta gota cae “apagándole la vela que Natalia le había puesto en sus manos” (ibid., 176). Esas velas que inundan con su frágil y tenue luz la oscuridad pacífica de iglesias sin fin. Nuestra vida para los católicos es como un vela cuya cambiante textura hace que unas se consuman más rápido que otras, y además cuya luz débil está siempre abierta a la posibilidad de corrientes de aire divino que acaben con ella. Apagando su propia vela de vida, grita su rezo de redención y rendición Tanilo a la Virgen de Talpa. Pero como dice su hermano, “no le valió de nada, se murió de todas maneras” (ibid., 176). Muere Tanilo en su cuerpo putrefacto que había sido llamado a la descomposición mucho antes de ser realmente enterrado. Muere él sin recibir el alivio del abrazo virginal que le desaparezca sus dolores aquí, en esta tierra. Muere él sin correr la suerte de Job. Enterrado es Tanilo por las manos manchadas y sudorosas —- pero de un sudor muy diferente —– de su esposa Natalia, y su pecaminoso hermano anónimo. Viven ellos desde ese momento en el recuerdo repetitivo de su oscura relación adultera. Son ellos enterradores que en su acción han enterrado bajo el polvo su propia felicidad. Para ellos comienza ahora sí el recorrido hacia una nueva Virgen de Talpa más allá de Talpa y de Tanilo mismos:

“Y yo comienzo a sentir como si no hubiéramos llegado a ninguna parte; que estamos aquí de paso, para descansar, y que luego seguiremos caminando. No se para dónde; pero tendremos que seguir, porque aquí estamos muy cerca del remordimiento y del recuerdo de Tanilo” (ibid., 177)

Natalia y su amante no podrán olvidar pues el pecado resurge constantemente en el recuerdo. Recordando su culpa retornarán ellos indefinidamente hacia su acto pecaminoso hasta que algún día confiesen su acto para que suplicando el perdón, sean liberados del eterno retorno de la culpabilidad. ¿Cómo? Gracias al influjo misterioso de la gracia divina.

Y nosotros, que hemos leído este cuento, lo hemos podido comprender ya que somos un poco como ese anónimo que lo recuenta; también nosotros estamos marcados por la ‘T’.

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