from differences Volume 9, Number 1

The Sirens and Feminine Jouissance 1


When we hear the sound of a siren, we immediately think, "Danger!" or maybe even, "Death!" During wartime, the codified signal of sirens warns of enemy attacks, and during peacetime, sirens alert people to fires or medical emergencies. In some countries, sirens are also used on national holidays to invoke solemn events from the past. In the former Yugoslavia, sirens went off every year at 3:00 P.M. on the day commemorating Tito's death; and in Israel, sirens announce the moment of silence on Memorial Day, when people remember the soldiers who fell during the war for independence. When the sirens sound, life is interrupted: people stop, the traffic stops, and for a minute everyone stands motionless. The sound of sirens invokes the stillness of time; it freezes the moment and petrifies the hearers.

In this petrifying effect, today's public sirens very much resemble their predecessors, the ancient Sirens of classical mythology--half-human, half-bird beings who lived on an island to which they enticed sailors with their seductive singing. 2 Those sailors who succumbed to the Sirens' song immediately died. As a result, the island was covered with piles of white bones, the remains of the perished sailors. Hence, the very setting in which the Sirens dwelled was filled with death. Whenever a ship approached the Sirens' island, the wind died away, the sea became still, and the waves flattened into a calm sheet of glass; the sailors entered the land where life is fixed forever. The Sirens themselves were neither dead nor alive: they were creatures in between-the living dead. Or, as Jean-Pierre Vernant says, they were, on the one hand, pure desire, and, on the other hand, pure death; they were "death in its most brutally monstrous aspect: no funeral, no tomb, only the corpse's decomposition in the open air" (104).

As many theorists of Greek mythology have observed, the Sirens present danger to particular men's lives while also presenting a challenge to the social order as such, especially the family structure. In the Odyssey we thus read: "Whoever draws too close, off guard, and catches the Sirens' voices in the air-no sailing home for him, no wife rising to meet him, no happy children beaming up at their father's face" (Homer 272). This danger of the Sirens to family life and, more generally, to the social order is supposedly linked to their status as creatures that are closer to nature than to culture.3 In the context of psychoanalytic theory, the trouble that their bestiality presents for culture as well as for individual men has to be placed into the context of the subject's confrontation with that special form of "cultured" animality which is known as drive. But before we put the Sirens through the loop of psychoanalytic theory, let us first recount some points from Odysseus's encounter with them.

Curiously, we learn more about the deadliness of the Siren's from Circe's warnings to Odysseus than from Odysseus's own account of his adventure with them. Odysseus sees no heap of bones around the Sirens' island. He only says that the Sirens encouraged him to stop his ship and listen to their honey-sweet voices, which bring pleasure and wisdom to man. The Sirens thus boasted to Odysseus: "We know all the pains Achaeans and Trojans once endured on the spreading plain of Troy when the gods willed it so-all that comes to pass on the fertile earth, we know it all!" (Homer 277).

These words incite Odysseus's desire to stop and surrender himself to the Sirens' lure: he is willing to endure a collusion with the singers that excludes everything else.4 But the mystery of the Odyssey is that we never learn what the Sirens actually sing about. Did the Sirens ever sing, and if they did sing, why is this song not recounted by Homer? Pietro Pucci gives two explanations for this. First, "the Odyssey presents the Sirens as the embodiment of the paralyzing effects of the Iliadic poetics because their song binds its listeners obsessively to the fascination of death" (210).5 Death is therefore something that lies at the center of the Odyssey, the song of survival, but it is also something that must be left unspoken. The second explanation concerns the fact that "the Odyssey's own sublime poetry cannot be inferior to that of the Sirens. No text can incorporate the titillating promise of a song as sublime as the Sirens' without implying that this sublimity resides in the incorporating text itself" (212). Thus, the Odyssey itself has to be understood as the embodiment of the Sirens' song. Their song is thus "the negative, absent song that enables its replacement--the Odyssey--to become what it is" (212). In sum, the Sirens' song is left unsung either because death as such is something that has to be left unspoken or because the Odyssey itself comes to incorporate or represent the Sirens' song. In both cases, the Sirens' song stands as an empty, unutterable point in the Odyssey, which, with the allusion to deadly pleasure, brings a sublime quality to the poem.

Tzvetan Todorov gives another answer to the question, why do we know nothing about the Sirens' song? He argues that the Sirens said to Odysseus just one thing: we are singing. In other words, the Sirens' song is just a self-referential claim that there is a song. And death is always linked to this song. It is not only that the listeners die upon hearing the Sirens' song: if the Sirens fail to seduce their prey, they themselves commit suicide. (Some post-Homeric interpretations of the Odyssey maintain that the Sirens threw themselves from the rock into the sea when Odysseus escaped their lure.) Thus, the only way for the Sirens to escape death is to seduce and then kill those who hear them. On another level, this also explains why we do not know the secret of the Sirens' song:

The song of the Sirens is, at the same time, that poetry which must disappear for there to be life, and that reality which must die for literature to be born. The song of the Sirens must cease for a song about the Sirens to appear. . . . By depriving the Sirens of life, Odysseus has given them, through the intermediary of Homer, immortality. (Todorov 58-59)6

In other words, the Sirens' song is the point in the narrative that has to remain unspoken for the narrative to gain consistency. It is a point of self-referentiality that a story has to omit in order to attain the status of a story. From the Lacanian perspective, this empty point is another name for the real, the unsymbolizable kernel around which the symbolic forms itself. This kernel is not simply something prior to symbolization; it is also what remains: the leftover, or better, the failure of symbolization. The Sirens' song is the real that has to be left out for the story of the Odyssey to achieve form. However, there is no song of the Sirens before the story of the Odyssey. The Sirens' song is thus, on the one hand, that which incites the Odyssey as narration, while, on the other hand, it is also that which results from this narration: its leftover, which cannot be recounted.

What kind of knowledge of the past do the Sirens have? In regard to this knowledge, there is a significant difference between the Sirens and the Muses, who are also supposed to have voices that are delicately clear, immortal, tirelessly sweet and unbroken. The Muses are the daughters of Zeus and the Titaness Mnemosyne (Memory); as the fruits of their parents' nine nights of lovemaking, the Muses became the singers that preside over thought and artistic creativity.7 The Muses bring memory to their listeners, along with the divine help that produces inspiration: "according to Hesiod, a singer (in other words a servant of the Muses) has only to celebrate the deeds of men of former days or to sing of the gods, and any man beset by troubles will forget them instantly" (Graves 281-82).8 The memory of the past that the Muses bring is thus essentially linked to forgetfulness.

With the Sirens, the knowledge of the past has a different meaning: "The Sirens know the secrets of the past, but it is a past that has no future life in the 'remembering' of successive generations" (Segal 103).9 How is one to understand here the difference between knowledge and memory? For Lacan, memory primarily has to do with non-remembering of trauma, the real around which the subject centers his or her very being. When we tell our stories, it is at the point where we touch the real that our words fail, but fail so as to always come back to the trauma without being able to articulate it:

The subject in himself, the recalling of his biography, all this goes only to a certain limit, which is known as the real. . . . An adequate thought, qua thought, at the level at which we are, always avoids-if only to find itself again later in everything-the same thing. Here the real is that which always comes back to the same place-to the place where the subject in so far as he thinks, where the res cogitans, does not meet it. (Four 49)
The subject forms memory in order to achieve consistency, to fashion a story that would enable him to escape the traumatic real.

In regard to the difference between the Muses and the Sirens, we can say that only the Muses provide memory, since they enable their listeners to forget the traumas of life, while the Sirens put the listeners in touch with what Lacan calls the knowledge in the real, that knowledge which the listeners do not want to know anything about. Inspired by the memory that the Muses provide, their listeners are able to create works of art, while those who hear the knowledge offered by the Sirens' song immediately die. In a different theoretical context, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno make the same point when they claim that the Sirens' singing cannot be perceived as art precisely because of the way it deals with the past:

the Sirens' allurement is that of losing oneself in the past . . . The compulsion to rescue what is gone as what is living instead of using it as the material of progress was appeased only in art, to which history itself appertains as a presentation of past life. So long as the past declines to pass as cognition and is thus separated from practice, social practice tolerates it as it tolerates pleasure. But the Sirens' song has not yet been rendered powerless by reduction to the condition of art. (32-33)
The past in the Siren's song has not yet been symbolized, it has not become a memory; such an unsymbolized past is traumatic for the listener, since it evokes something primordial, something that is between nature and culture that the subject does not want to remember. And for Odysseus, it becomes essential to symbolize his encounter with the Sirens and to form a narrative about them. Here Odysseus significantly differs from his colleagues, who had their ears closed with wax in order not to succumb to the voices of the Sirens. Odysseus wants to hear their singing. Circe, who instructed Odysseus on how to escape the Sirens' enchantment, also gave him a mandate to remember this event and recount it to his colleagues and to Penelope. Odysseus thus becomes obliged to form a memory of his encounter with the Sirens, i.e., to cover up the trauma that the Sirens present.

The Impasse of Drive

The Lacanian term for this "knowledge in the real" which resists symbolization is drive, the self-sufficient closed circuit of the deadly compulsion-to-repeat. The paradox is this: that which cannot ever be memorized, symbolized by way of its inclusion into the narrative frame, is not some fleeting moment of the past, forever lost, but the very insistence of drive as that which cannot ever be forgotten in the first place, since it repeats itself incessantly.

Drive first needs to be understood as a leftover. Something is left out when the subject becomes the subject of the signifier and is incorporated into the symbolic structure. When the subject becomes a speaking being, he or she will no longer be able to have sex in an animal's instinctive way. However, in the place of this loss, we encounter a force that essentially marks the subject by imposing a constant pressure on him or her. This force is what Lacan named variously libido, drive, or lamella.10 Through this naming, Lacan does a rereading of Freud that offers another perspective on and to Freudian theory.

For Freud, libido primarily concerns the subject's ability to find sexual satisfaction in different ways. Aside from having sex, the subject can find this satisfaction through such activities as eating, shitting, looking, speaking, writing, etc. Libido is always linked to a libidinal object, which is not simply a material object and which Lacan names object a.

It is crucial for the subject that only partial drives exist, and no genital drive as such. The subject is determined on the one hand by these partial drives, and on the other hand by the field of the Other, the social symbolic structure. For Freud, love, for example, is to be found not on the side of the drives, but on the side of the Other. And it is in this field of the Other that anything that could resemble some kind of genital drive finds its form.

Drive and desire each have a different relation to the symbolic law. Desire is essentially linked to the law, since it always seeks out something that is prohibited or unavailable. The logic of desire would be: "It is prohibited to do this, but for that very reason, I will do it." Drive, in contrast, does not care about prohibition: it is not concerned with overcoming the law. Drive's logic is: "I do not want to do this, but I am nonetheless doing it." Thus, we have an opposing logic in drive, where the subject does not want to do something but nonetheless enjoys doing just that. Drive paradoxically always finds satisfaction, while desire has to remain unsatisfied, endlessly going from one object to another, positing new limits and prohibitions. Drive is thus a constant pressure, a circulation around the object a, which produces jouissance-a painful satisfaction.11

Drive is in the final instance always the death drive, a destructive force, which endlessly undermines the points of support that the subject has found in the symbolic universe. In regard to drive, desire plays a paradoxical role of protection, since desire, by being subordinated to the law, pacifies the lawless drive and the horrible jouissance that is linked to it. The subject of desire is the subject of identification: this is the subject who constantly searches for points of support in the symbolic universe, the Ego Ideals with which he or she can identify and thus achieve an identity. Such a point of identification can be a teacher, lover, analyst, etc. But on the level of drive, there is no identification anymore; there is only jouissance. Paradoxically, the subject is always happy at the level of drive: although because of drive the subject actually suffers terribly and tries to escape its enormous pressure, in this suffering jouissance is at work, which means precisely that this painful satisfaction is the highest happiness on which the subject can count (Miller, Donc).

The problem of the subject is that he or she is nothing except through the love and desire of others. The subject by him- or herself has no value. Recognizing this fact causes the subject's devastating depressive moods. So, it turns out that the subject is not the phallus that would complement the Other. The Other can function very well without the subject. And to overcome this traumatic truth, the subject endlessly tries to leave a mark on the Other, on the social symbolic structure, on history, etc. However, the subject can find a special form of happiness when he or she is not at all concerned with the Other, i.e., through jouissance which pertains to drive.

One can discern this jouissance in the partial drives related to the voice and gaze. It is in the tonality of the voice, for example, where we encounter jouissance--this is where the surplus enjoyment comes into being as something that eludes signification. This excessive jouissance that pertains to voice is what makes the voice both fascinating and deadly. If we take as an example the diva, it is clear that the very enjoyment of opera resides in her voice. At its peak, her voice assumes the status of the object detached from the body. The singer has to approach "self-annihilation as a subject in order to offer himself or herself as pure voice. The success of this process is the condition for the dissolution of the incongruity between singer and role, a dissolution that . . . is at the foundation of the lyric arts." But if this process does not succeed, the public reacts sometimes with violence. The singer who fails to produce this effect of the object detached from the subject reopens the incongruity between object and subject and thus becomes "a failing subject": "the singer is cast back by the public into the position of object, but now a fallen object, a piece of refuse, to be greeted in kind with rotten egg or ripe tomato-or . . . with the vocal stand-in for refuse: booing and catcalls" (Poizat 35). The public reacts so violently because it is denied its moment of ecstasy; its fantasy of finally possessing the inaccessible object has fallen through. And the same goes for the Sirens: if they do not succeed in seduction, they are punished. Many stories about the Sirens stress their failure to seduce with their voices. Unsuccessful singing contests with the Muses supposedly caused the Sirens to lose their wings. Later they tried to out-charm Orpheus's lyre but failed again and as a result supposedly committed suicide.

From the Other's Desire to the Other's Jouissance

For psychoanalysis, the problem of the encounter between Odysseus and the Sirens thus concerns the logic of desire and drive: how does the subject react to the drive in the Other? How does the subject respond to hearing the seductive voice of the Other? Could it be that the desire that the subject (Odysseus, in our case) develops in response to the luring Other (the Sirens) is actually a protection from the destructive nature of the drive? In this precise sense, one is tempted to claim that the Lacanian object small a, the object-cause of desire, is none other than drive itself: that which arouses the subject's desire for the Other is the very specific mode of the Other's jouissance embodied in the object a. In the case of hatred (which is always a counterpart of love), as with racism or nationalism, the subject is primarily bothered by the way other people enjoy: when racists object to how the others enjoy their food or music, the ungraspable jouissance of the Other materialized in these practices of everyday life sets in motion the subject's desire and incites all kinds of fantasies. In the case of love, this jouissance of the Other (which can easily turn into repulsion) gets inscribed in the gaze of the Other, his or her voice, smell, smile, laughter, etc., i.e., all the features that exert on the loving subject an irresistible attraction.

In Homer there is a certain ignorance at work in the Sirens' lure: they would like to get Odysseus into their trap, but they are not at all struck by him, i.e., he is not the object of their desire. Why is desire of the Other such a problem for the subject? For Lacan, this dilemma concerns the subject's very being; it is first formulated as the question of what was the subject's place in the desire of his or her parents. The subject tries to answer this question by way of forming a fundamental fantasy, a story of his or her origins that will provide the grounds for his or her very being.

The desire of the Other incites horror on the side of the subject, i.e., it produces anxiety. This anxiety arises because the Other's desire remains an enigma to the subject, which also means that the subject can never really know what kind of an object he or she is for the Other. Lacan exemplifies this anxiety by asking us to imagine that one day we encounter a giant female praying mantis (Ego). As it happens we are wearing a mask, but we do not know what kind of a mask it is: we do not know if it is a male or female mask. If it is a male mask, we can, of course, expect to be devoured by the female praying mantis. This example returns us to the subject's encounter with deadly feminine creatures, such us the Medusa or the Sirens. In this encounter, the subject's urgent question is: what kind of mask am I wearing? In other words, what kind of an object am I for her? Am I a man or a woman? This would be the question for the male hysteric. He has doubts about his sex and his being, therefore he expects to get an answer from the Other, just as a female hysteric does. And, in order to obtain this answer, he places himself as the ultimate object of the Other's desire, but the object whose allure is linked to the fact that he always vanishes and can never be possessed.

Because most men are not hysterics but obsessionals, the question is: what is the obsessional strategy in regard to the monstrous female? In contrast to the hysteric, who sustains her desire as unsatisfied, the obsessional maintains his desire as impossible. While for the hysteric every object of desire is unsatisfactory, for the obsessional this object appears too satisfactory, that is why the encounter with this object has to be prevented by all means. The hysteric, by always eluding the Other, slipping away as object, maintains the lack in the Other. She wants to be the ultimate object of the desire of the Other; but she nonetheless prevents this from happening and by doing so keeps her desire unsatisfied. But the obsessional maintains his desire as impossible and does so in order to negate the Other's desire (Lacan, Ecrits 321).

The obsessional wants to be in charge of the situation; he plans his activities in detail. An encounter with the woman who is the object of his desire will be thought out well in advance; everything will be programmed and organized, all to prevent something unexpected from happening. The unexpected here concerns desire and jouissance. The obsessional tries to master his desire and the desire of the Other by never giving up thinking or talking. His strategy is to plug up his lack with signifiers and thus to avoid the object of his desire. Lacan also points out that the obsessional does not want to vanish or to fade as a subject, which happens when the subject is eclipsed by the object of his desire and jouissance. The obsessional tries to demonstrate that he is the master of his own desire and that no object is capable of making him vanish (Ecrits 270). Even during sexual intercourse, he will go on planning, thinking, and talking, always in efforts to control his jouissance and the jouissance of the Other.

This obsessional strategy can best be exemplified by the case of a man who waited two nights for a telephone call from the woman who was the object of his love. In the middle of the night he got the idea that the phone might not be working, thus he repeatedly picked up the receiver and listened to check the dial tone. The man, knew, of course, that picking up the receiver would hinder the woman's efforts to call him, so as soon as he was convinced that the phone was working, he quickly put the receiver down. But after a short while he would repeat the test procedure. He continued this ritual throughout the night to the point of utter exhaustion. And after two nights, he fell into a serious crisis, which brought him to analysis (see Indart).

Odysseus's position is obsessional: he resorts to a series of strategies in order to keep at bay the jouissance of the Other and his own desire for the Other. Odysseus thus performs a whole ritual to prevent a genuine encounter with the Sirens. It can even be said that he finds his very jouissance precisely in this ritual of thinking and planning about how to escape the Sirens' lure.

While the hysteric endlessly questions the desire of the Other, the obsessional does not want to know anything about this desire. For the obsessional, it is crucial that he puts himself in the place of the Other, from which point he can then act so that he avoids any risk. Thus he wants to escape from situations that might involve confrontation, or might in any way disturb his equilibrium. While the hysteric deals with the dilemma "Am I a man or a woman?" the obsessional agonizes over the question "Am I dead or alive?" He hopes that with the death of the Other, who continually imposes obligations on him, he will finally be free. Thus the obsessional also questions whether the Other is still alive or dead. And thus the encounter with the Other who is the living dead becomes the most horrible thing for the obsessional. But paradoxically, the obsessional is himself a special kind of living dead, since the rituals and prohibitions that he imposes on himself make him a robot-like creature, apparently drained of desire.

Odysseus also acts in an obsessional way in his passion to narrate his encounter with the Sirens. It is well known that obsessionals find great joy not only in planning the encounter with the object of their desire and at the same time preventing this from happening, but also in narrating this failure, in creating a story about it. Odysseus also has been mandated to recount his meeting with the Sirens, and his jouissance is at work not only in planning how to avoid an actual encounter with the Sirens, but also in telling others about this missed encounter.

In sum: for both the hysteric and the obsessional, it is crucial to understand their dilemmas with desire as defenses against jouissance. The hysteric, for example, wants to be the ever elusive object of the Other's desire, but she does not want to be the object of the Other's jouissance. She does not want to be simply a partial object through which the Other enjoys, but something else-the never attainable object of desire. The hysteric masquerades herself as a phallic woman with the intention to cover the lack in the Other, to make the Other complete. Since this attempt always fails, she needs to repeat her seductive strategy again and again. Through seduction, the hysteric tries to provoke the desire of the Other for her, which will, of course, never be satisfied. Although the hysteric may enjoy this game of seduction and unsatisfaction, she cannot deal with the situation when the Other takes her as his object of jouissance and not simply as the inaccessible object of desire. The hysteric is therefore attracted to the desire of the Other but horrified by his jouissance.

Let us exemplify this aversion to the Other's jouissance with the help of a short story by O. Henry, "The Memento." This story is about a young Broadway dancer, Lynnete, who decides to change her life: she gives up dancing, moves to a small village and falls happily in love with the local priest, from whom she wishes to hide her dishonorable past. Rumor has it that the priest was unhappily in love sometime before and that he keeps a secret memento from his beloved locked in a box. One day, Lynnete finds and opens this box. What she discovers presents an absolute horror for her: in the box is one of the very garters that she, as a Broadway dancer, used to throw into the audience at the end of each performance. After this discovery, Lynnete flees from the village and, disillusioned, returns to the Broadway theater.

The story makes it clear that the priest did not know he fell in love with the same woman twice. When Lynnete questions him about his past love, the priest simply explains that he was infatuated by a woman he did not really know. He admired this woman only from a distance, but now all this has been forgotten, since he is finally happily in love with a woman who is real. Although the priest tries to distinguish fantasy from reality, he actually fell in love with the same object. Both the first and the second time, he loved the woman because of something that was more in her then herself. Since it was always the object a in the woman that attracted the priest, for his love to emerge it did not really matter whether the beloved was a "fantasy" or "reality"--a distant dancer in a Broadway show or an innocent country girl.

But the crucial problem of the story is: why was Lynnete repulsed when she discovered the memento? Why was she not happy that she herself was his great past love? One of the explanations for her horror could be her fear that the priest might stop loving her if he found out about her deception. However, there is another explanation for Lynnete's repulsion: Lynnete's horror is to encounter the very elusive object of love itself--the object a. The garter stands here for the object a. However, this object is for the priest not only the always elusive object of his desire, but also the object through which he enjoyed. And this created a problem for Lynnete: she wanted to be the object that is desired by the priest but not the object through which he had found his particular form of jouissance.

This story can help us to understand the universal dilemma of neurotics, which has to do with the subject's desire to be desired by another subject, while he or she does not want to be the object through which another enjoys.12 Returning to the story of Odysseus and the Sirens: it can be said that Odysseus actually desires the Sirens (and maybe even wants to be desired by them); however, what causes problems for him is the peculiar way the Sirens enjoy.

Feminine Jouissance

Odysseus's encounter with the Sirens has to be understood as a failure. However we read this encounter, as the seduction of Odysseus by the Sirens or vice versa, whatever attraction existed between them never brought the two parties together. That Odysseus escaped the Sirens is commonly understood as his triumph; however, it can also be understood as his failure to confront and pursue his desire. This failed encounter between Odysseus and the Sirens can also be taken as the prototype of the impossibility of the sexual relationship between men and women.

A man falls in love with a woman because he perceives in her something that she actually does not have, the object a, object cause of desire. He will therefore fall in love with a woman because of some particularity-her smile, some gesture, her hair, or the tone of her voice, whatever will fill the place of the object a for him. And around this object a man will form the fantasy scenario that will enable him to stay in love. The problem for a woman is that she knows very well that a man will fall in love with her because of some particularity that distinguishes her from other women and, as a result, she will desperately try to enhance what she thinks is special about herself. However, a woman can never predict just what particularity will make a man fall in love with her. Thus one woman might nurture her beautiful lips, thinking that men are attracted by her sensual smile, meanwhile a man does fall in love with her, but mainly because of her fairly unattractive voice. It is needless to point out how the whole cosmetic and fashion industry relies on women's search for the object in themselves that makes them the object of love. And since women can never guess what is more in them than themselves, the fashion industry encourages them to always look for another product that would make them unique.13

In Lacan's formulations of sexual difference, a man is totally determined by the phallic function; however, there is one man, the Freudian primordial father, who is the exception. As the possessor of all the women, he is also the one who prohibits other men's access to women. This father of the primal horde is the only one that has direct access to sexual jouissance and for whom there is no prohibition of incest. The sexuality of other men is essentially linked to prohibition; they have undergone symbolic castration, after which they are not able to enjoy the body of the woman as a whole.

It is wrong to understand castration as something that prevents the subject's rapport with the opposite sex. After the subject has undergone symbolic castration, he or she will not be able to engage in simple animal copulation, i.e., heterosexual intercourse will cease to be an instinctual activity linked to the preservation of the species. However, with humans, castration should be understood not as the basis for denying the possibility of the sexual relation, but as the founding condition for the possibility of any sexual relation at all. It can even be said that it is only because subjects are castrated that human relations as such can exist. Castration enables the subject to take others as other and not as the same, since it is only after undergoing symbolic castration that the subject becomes preoccupied with questions such as "What does the Other want?" and "What am I for the Other?"14

Why is symbolic castration on the side of men crucial to their love-liaisons with women? The fact that a man is totally submitted to the phallic function means that he is marked by a lack. After being barred by language, a man will endlessly deal with two questions. First, what is my symbolic identity (i.e., who am I in the symbolic network)?15 And second, which is the object that can complement me? The subject deals with this second question in his love life when he searches for the object on the side of the woman that would enable him to form the fantasy of an always provisional wholeness. When encountering his love-object, a man will want to know in what kind of symbolic role the woman sees him. In contrast to the woman's dilemma of wondering what kind of object she is for the other, a man's concern is whether the woman recognizes his symbolic role. Here a man's obsessions with social status, wealth, public importance all play an important part. For example, a millionaire in a film by Claude Chabrol complains that he is tired of women insisting that they love him for what he is; he would like to meet a woman who would finally love him for his millions. This man's complaint has to be understood as a confirmation that the man wants to be loved for what is in him more than himself-his symbolic status. Although a man has access only to phallic jouissance, he nonetheless has aspirations to the Other jouissance, i.e., to the jouissance that is beyond the limits of the phallus.

This aspiration is paradoxically caused by the superego's command to enjoy, which arouses the man's thirst for the infinity of the Other, while at the same time prohibiting access to it. The paradox of the superego is that, on the one hand, it is linked to the law of castration (because of which man's jouissance can only be phallic); but, on the other hand, the superego is also a command that goes beyond any law. In sum: the superego is analogous to castration in its prohibitive function, while at the same time it is not submitted to the phallic order (Morel 102). As a result, the superego is a demonic agency that commands the subject to go beyond the phallic order and to experience a non-phallic jouissance, but this agency also prohibits the subject access to this jouissance. That is why the superego is like the laughing voice of the primordial father, who appears to be saying to the son: "Now that you have killed me, go and finally enjoy women, but you will see that you are actually unable to do so; thus, it is better that you not even try."

When Lacan speaks about feminine jouissance he primarily emphasizes the impossibility of defining what it is. Since women are also determined by the phallic function, feminine jouissance is something that women get not instead of phallic jouissance, but on top of it. It is a supplement to phallic jouissance: while the man has access to only one form of jouissance, the woman has possible access to another, additional jouissance. Lacan points out that feminine jouissance is for women only a potentiality, since women do not expect it. And about this jouissance the woman knows nothing more than the simple fact that she enjoys it. She does not talk about it, since it is something that cannot be spoken of in language.

A man tries to find out what feminine jouissance is: he may even hope to experience it himself, but he always fails in these attempts. For Lacan, such failure is analogous to Achilles's failure to match the speed of the turtle: she is either ahead of him or already overtaken (see Encore 13; Andre). In the psychoanalytic clinic, this failure is incarnated in the two most common male sexual problems: ejaculation that is too quick or too late.

In this context, how can we read the story of Odysseus's encounter with the Sirens and his silence about the Sirens' song? In the Odyssey, we have, on the one hand, a promise of a limitless jouissance in the form of the Sirens' song, and, on the other hand, a prohibition against hearing it. This promise of the Sirens' song can be understood as something that is linked to Odysseus's superego: whatever voice Odysseus hears might be nothing but the voice of his superego, which commands him to experience feminine jouissance. But this voice also warns Odysseus of the deadliness of such jouissance and thus prohibits his access to it.

However, this explanation does not address the question of whether the Sirens actually did sing. Even if Odysseus heard nothing but his superego voice, the Sirens might still have been singing. But the question remains: did the Sirens want to be heard by Odysseus, i.e., did they need him as an audience? Since the Sirens' song embodies the ultimate myth of feminine jouissance, the question is also whether women need men in order to experience this jouissance. The Lacan of the sixties hinted at a positive answer to this question when he said that a man acts as the relay whereby the woman becomes the Other to herself, as she is the Other for the man ("Guiding" 93). But in later years, Lacan complicates the matter when in the seminar Encore, he claims that the woman does not necessarily need a man to experience feminine jouissance, since she is in a specific way self-sufficient in her jouissance. A woman might experience feminine jouissance simply by herself, or in a mystical experience, by relating to God.

How can we understand this self-sufficiency of women? Let us take the case of a femme fatale, usually perceived as a woman who desperately tries to impress men, who masquerades herself in order to be admired by men. But a femme fatale also has a certain ignorance about men, and it is this very ignorance that actually makes her so attractive. Freud pointed out that with this type of woman, as well as with young children, the ignorance is related to the fact that they have not given up on some part of their libido: since other people have lost this libido, they become so attracted to the ones who still retain some of it ("On Narcissism"). The paradox of a femme fatale, therefore, is that she wants to be admired for her beauty, but she is perceived as beautiful precisely because she is also ignorant about the reaction of others towards her. A femme fatale enjoys her own self-sufficiency, which is why we cannot simply say that she needs men as relays to her jouissance. Of course, she wants to catch and hold the gaze of men, but her attraction is linked to the fact that she quickly turns around and shows very little interest in her admirers.

The Silence of the Sirens, or, Kafka with Homer

We can take the Sirens as such femmes fatales, who enjoy their singing and who because of this jouissance are admired by the sailors: although the Sirens encourage the sailors to stop and listen to them, they possess a certain self-sufficiency because of which they will never express more than a fleeting interest in passing ships. Such a reading remains within the confines of the standard sexualized opposition between masculine desire and feminine drive: men are actively engaged in penetrating the enigma of the Other's desire, while the fundamental feminine attitude is the one of drive's closed self-sufficiency-in short, men are subjects, while women are objects. What, however, if we imagine an alternative version of Odysseus's adventure with the Sirens, in which the agents reverse their respective roles, i.e., in which Odysseus, a being of self-sufficient drive, confronts the Sirens, feminine subjects of desire? It was Franz Kafka who, in his short essay on the "Silence of the Sirens," accomplished this reversal. His starting point is that the measures that Odysseus and his sailors took to protect themselves from the Sirens' song were simply childish, since it was well known that nothing could protect men from the Sirens' allure. Although it is said that no one survives an encounter with the Sirens, Kafka speculates that "it is conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence never" (98). Now, what happened when Odysseus approached the Sirens? Kafka's answer is that during this encounter, the potent songstresses actually did not sing, whether because they thought that this enemy could be vanquished only by their silence, or because the look of bliss on the face of [Odysseus], who was thinking of nothing but his wax and his chains, made them forget their singing. But [Odysseus], if one may so express it, did not hear their silence; he thought they were singing and that he alone did not hear them. (98)

In short, Odysseus was so absorbed in himself that he did not notice that the Sirens did not sing. Kafka's guess is that for a fleeting moment Odysseus saw them and from the movements of their throats, their lips half-parted and their eyes filled with tears, he concluded that they were actually singing: "Soon however, all this faded from his sight as he fixed his gaze on the distance, the Sirens literally vanished before his resolution, and at the very moment when they were nearest to him he knew of them no longer" (98). Kafka goes on to speculate that they--lovelier than ever--stretched their necks and turned, let their cold hair flutter free in the wind, and forgetting everything clung with their claws to the rocks. They no longer had any desire to allure; all they wanted was to hold as long as they could the radiance that fell from [Odysseus's] great eyes. (99)

Kafka thus reinterprets the encounter between the Sirens and Odysseus by claiming that the Sirens themselves became fascinated by Odysseus and not vice versa. Two misperceptions were at work in the encounter; the first concerns Odysseus not noticing that the Sirens were actually silent. This misperception helped him to become over-confident in his strength, which also made him ignorant about the Sirens, and his ignorance sparked the Sirens to become enchanted by Odysseus's gaze. Here, we have the second misperception at work: the Sirens did not notice that the gaze of Odysseus was not directed toward them at all. The failed encounter between the Sirens and Odysseus can thus be summarized like this: the fact that Odysseus did not notice that the Sirens were silent, but thought that he had mastered their voice, made his gaze so alluring in its self-confidence that the Sirens fell desperately in love with him.

Kafka's rereading of the Odyssey can easily be understood as a myth that endeavors to restore men to their dominant position: a man does not perish when encountering a seductive, monstrous female if he reverses the situation and incites the female to fall in love with him. If some stories say that the Sirens committed suicide when they failed to enchant Odysseus, Kafka offers an even more devastating account of the Sirens' power: it was because they fell in love with Odysseus that they were unable to even sing. We meet a similar situation in Kafka's "Before the Law," where the peasant learns at the end of the story that the doors of the law were there all the time only for him. He is thus not a nobody in front of the law: the whole legal spectacle was put on just for him. The same goes for Kafka's Odysseus: he is not just one of the many sailors who come by the Sirens' island; he is the one that the Sirens were interested in, and he is the only one.

Kafka's reinterpretation of Odysseus's story enacts Lacan's notion of the magic moment of the reversal of the loved one into the loving subject. Lacan analyzes the deadlocks of the reciprocity of love in his seminar on transference, when he introduces the myth of the two hands: one hand (the hand of the desiring subject) extends itself and tries to attract the beautiful object on the tree (the loved object immersed in the self-sufficiency of drive), while suddenly another hand emerges from the site of the object on the tree and touches the first one, i.e., the object of love returns love, turns into a loving subject (Le transfert 67). That a second hand emerges in the place of the object is for Lacan a miracle, not a sign of reciprocity or symmetry. The touching of the two hands does not mark a moment of unification or the formation of a pair. So why does such unification fail to take place? The answer is very simple in its compelling necessity and is beautifully enacted in Kafka's version: because, at that very moment, the first subject no longer notices the hand stretched back, since he himself now turns into a self-sufficient being of drive. Kafka's Sirens lose their self-sufficiency when they subjectivize themselves by falling in love with Odysseus, and, as a result of this subjectivization, the Sirens become mute.

The crucial question here is: do the Sirens give up on their jouissance when they subjectivize themselves? If in Kafka this subjectivization results in muteness, in other post-Homeric interpreters the subjectivization of the Sirens is linked to their recognition that they failed to seduce Odysseus; as a result, they commit suicide. It would be wrong to take the muteness of the Sirens or their suicide as a proof that, as the result of their subjectivization, the Sirens gave up on their jouissance. On the contrary, the fact that the Sirens either became mute or died proves that they did not compromise their jouissance. Was it not Freud himself who associated drives with a fundamental silence, claiming that they pursue their work silently, outside the resonating space of the public word? Had the Sirens compromised their jouissance, they would have become "ordinary" women who would have tried to pursue Odysseus. But in that case, they would never have gained the status of such mythical figures.

The reversal of roles between the Sirens and Odysseus in Kafka is thus not quite symmetrical, since there is a crucial difference between the way the Sirens are subjectivized and the way Odysseus is subjectivized in his fascination with the enigma of the Sirens' song (in the standard version of the story). Odysseus did give up on his jouissance (which is why he was able to talk, to memorize his experience, to enter the domain of intersubjective community), while the Sirens' silence bears witness to the fact that, precisely, they refused to do this. What the Sirens' silence offers is an exemplary case of subjectivization without accepting symbolic castration (the Lacanian name for the gesture of giving up on one's jouissance). Perhaps this paradox of a subjectivity that nonetheless rejects the phallic economy of symbolic castration defines the central feature of the feminine subject. And my point is not that Kafka merely gives a modernist twist to the standard version of the encounter between Odysseus and the Sirens. In a much more radical way, Kafka's reversal provides the truth of the standard version: the reversal described by Kafka always-already was operative in the standard version of the myth as its disavowed background. Odysseus fascinated with the presubjectivized lethal song of the Sirens, intent on probing its secret--is this not the myth of the male desire, sustained by the reality of the male subject enamored in his own fantasmatic formation and, for that reason, ignorant of the invisible, but persistent feminine subjectivity?

A philosopher and sociologist, RENATA SALECL works as a researcher at the Institute of Criminology at University of Ljubljana and is currently a fellow at the Wissenchaftskolleg in Berlin. She is the author of The Spoils of Freedom: Psychoanalysis and Feminism After the Fall of Socialism (Routledge, 1994) and co-editor (with Slavoj Zizek) of Gaze and Voice as Love Objects (Duke UP, 1996). Her book progress is entitled Objects of Love and Hate.


1 A modified version of the essay will be published in Slavoj Zizek, ed., Cogito and the Unconscious, Duke UP, 1998.

2 Various stories explain why the Sirens became half birds and half women. Ovid relates that the Sirens were once ordinary girls, companions of Persephone. When she was abducted by Pluto, they asked the gods for wings to help them in their search for their companion. Other authors attribute this transformation to the anger of Demeter, since the Sirens failed to prevent the abduction of her daughter. It is also said that Aphrodite deprived them of their beauty because they scorned the pleasures of love. After their transformation from humans to half birds they tried to rival the Muses, who then removed all their feathers (see Grimal 403).

3 Some theorists claim that the idea of the Sirens came from the bee cult that existed in the pre-Hellenic Mediterranean and associated bees with various goddesses, as well as with the spirits of the dead (see Germain).

4 This forceful representation of enchantment is for Pietro Pucci unique in world literature, comparable only to Plato's portrayal of Alchibiades's cursed subjugation to Socrates's beguiling discourse (210).

5 Pucci here claims that "the text of the Siren's invitation and promise . . . is 'written' in strictly Iliadic diction" (210n7).

6 Maurice Blanchot also analyzes Odysseus's encounter with the Sirens as a problem of narration. However, Blanchot's thesis is that Odysseus actually heard the Sirens, but "with the disturbing deafness of he who is deaf because he hears." Odysseus "took no risks but admired the Sirens with the cowardly, unemotional, calculated satisfaction characteristic of the decadent Greek he was who should never have figured among the heroes of the Iliad" (60).

7 The Muses are "supreme in their fields, and those who dare challenge them meet with defeat and punishment" (Morford and Lenardon 88).

8 Graves adds: "Hesiod claimed that they accompany kings and inspire them with the persuasive words necessary to settle quarrels and re-establish peace, and give kings the gentleness which makes them dear to their subjects" (282).

9 There are also claims that forgetfulness is on the side of the men who listen to the Sirens' song. George B. Walsh thus says that "the Sirens' song is deadly in its charm, apparently because it brings men so much pleasure they forget to live" (15).

10 Lamella is the term used by Lacan to designate drive. He says: "The lamella is something extra-flat, which moves like the amoeba. . . . This lamella, this organ, whose characteristic is not to exist, but which is nevertheless an organ . . . is the libido. It is the libido, qua pure life instinct, that is to say, immortal life, or irrepressible life, life that has no organ simplified, indestructive life" (Four 197-98).

11 As Jacques-Alain Miller points out, in the later seminars of Lacan the object a, the object around which the drive circulates, needs to be understood as a special kind of satisfaction: "The object that corresponds to the drive is satisfaction as object" ("On Perversion" 313).

12 Here the perverts, of course, differ from the neurotics, since they want to be the object of the jouissance of the Other. However, in this case, the pervert actually imposes on the Other a specific form of jouissance.

13 It is significant how women's magazines, which are usually very much influenced by cosmetic and fashion corporations, advise women whose husbands cheat on them to buy new clothes, especially lingerie, to make themselves again the object of love. We can agree with the German designer Joop that designer shops today function as places for therapy. The failureof the fashion industry to find the object that would satisfy the desire of consumers helps this industry to flourish, but it also helps psychoanalysts to stay in business, since traumas usually cannot be resolved simply by a new dress.

14 The fact that human sexuality undergoes symbolic castration means that so-called natural sexuality or even animality has been repressed when the subject became the being of language. Repression also means that with the subject something becomes sexualized that has not been before, i.e., the function of repression is to make out of the real a sexual reality (see Lacan, Encore). Repression thus contributes to the fact that with the subject the partial objects like the gaze, voice, breast, etc. become sexualized and function as objects of drive. Since the subject has no genital drive, these other objects play a more crucial role in the subject's sexuality then his or her sexual organs.

15 In men who stutter, one finds that they experience a problem with their symbolic role. These men have difficulty not simply in speaking but in assuming a position in a symbolic network, i.e., in occupying the place from which to speak. Although we usually perceive women as being voiceless in our patriarchal culture, one rarely finds women who stutter, which confirms that women do not experience dilemmas over their symbolic role in the same way as men do. See Darian Leader 127-28.

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