Review of: The Tragic Effect: The Oedipus Complex in Tragedy. By André Green, translated by Alan Sheridan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979. £10.50.
Notes and Queries, Vol. 28, No. 1, February 1981, pp. 92-3
We are concerned with Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Euripides and Racine. Green's work was written in French with the original title 'Un Oeuil en Trop'. Oedipus had to blind himself not to see too much; and we all offend in the same way if we ever seek for 'truth'. Consider the following passage (pp. 238‑9):
There is always an eye too many, that of the spectator who is not admitted to observe the scene. However, the weight of repression, its sheer massiveness, as is shown by the extent of infantile amnesia, opens up a second constraint. The truth is elusive, hidden, otherwise it would not be the truth. Nor is it given in a relation of all or nothing. It is always absent and always present: absent in its wholeness or its originality, present behind and through the distortions to which repression subjects it. The truth, said Freud, toward the end of his life, is attained only through its distortions‑ distortions that are not the result of some falsifier, but which are a necessity for all men who wish to avoid the unpleasure that necessarily accompanies the relevation of the inadmissible. This constraint is the constraint of distortion. Hence the méconnaissance when the truth emerges; it is never quite the same, so it cannot be the truth, thinks the subject under its gaze and trying desperately not to recognize it.
Apart from isolated passages the entire book is written in this meta‑language, in which the Greek, the English and the French of the tragedians has been transformed by a metamorphosis, through Freud into Lacan, and from Lacan into Green. We are not in the world of intellectual discourse. We start from no premisses and reach no conclusions, and between the beginning and the end there is no matter which has been submitted to logical argument. There is no truth, anywhere; for truth is only to he recognized by its distortions. Frank Kermode, in his Foreword, tells us 'Truth endlessly repeated is endlessly deformed; every interpretative act has an element of méconnaissance'. Green, says Kermode, disowns the desire to convince. His medium forbids it; the art of the theatre is the art of the misheard and misunderstood. One desires strange and powerful emotions, but not understanding.
In order to guard us against too much danger of understanding, the message is crammed with ambiguities and internal contradictions. Ordinary rules of syntax are over‑ridden. Words ('polysemy', 'diachrony') which may or may not have precise meanings in appropriate contexts, appear from nowhere. Such special meanings have been given to jouissance and méconnaissance that they have to be left, constantly appearing and reappearing, without translation. One longs for some of the props of scholarship, index, glossary, chapter summaries, epitomes of the materials used. Indeed, one longs for some protection against the assaults of unreason. But all one gets is, here and there, the emergence of some original and provoking ideas. But they die fast, like the ideas one drags back into waking consciousness from the world of dream.