All of Sophocles’s mighty protagonists, so Lacan points out, have strayed
beyond the protective shell of the symbolic order into some trackless territory
of the spirit, thrust by some implacable demand or preternatural
purity of being outside the stockade of civic decency to a place of extreme
solitude and self-exposure in which they are set apart in the manner of the
sacred. The sacred signifies those ambiguously cursed and blessed objects
which are earmarked for death, and which in being thus marked with the
livid signs of their own mortality can unleash a formidable power for
transformation. These acolytes of the Real are all liminal creatures, pure
incarnations of Thanatos, at once animate and inanimate, men and women
who are dead but won’t lie down. They are characters lingering in the
departure lounge of life, individuals who like the protagonists of high
tragedy sightlessly move among the ranks of the living dead, and in whose
dumb agony death can already be felt stealthily trespassing upon the terrain
of the living. As such, they are exemplars of the truth that, in Lacan’s own
phrase, ‘all that is lives only in the lack of being’ . Desire in the end
is desire for nothing. It is no more than the living relation of men and
women to their own lack of being, the néant which keeps them on the
move. Psychoanalysis is the resurgence in secular, scientific guise of the
tragic sense of life. In Lacan’s hands, it becomes an atheistic style of religion,
clinging like Beckett’s tramps to a redemption which will never arrive.
The keystone of religion – God – is placed under censure, but the whole
elaborate edifice remains remarkably intact. What is the desire of the Real
but what Augustine and Kierkegaard knew as faith?
So there is no sovereign good, it would seem, beyond clinging intractably
to one’s longing for it. To replicate something of Lacan’s own baroque
wordplay, an ethics of the Real can be summarised in the imperative: Lack



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