In Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, there is a strange object that disturbs the painting’s opulence. In Seminar XI, Lacan tells us that the spectator can only see the true form of this object on his way out of the room. Along a similar line, towards the end of the seminar, Lacan points towards a cause for the atrocity of the Holocaust:

“For whoever is capable of turning a courageous gaze towards this phenomenon—and once again there are certainly few who do not succumb to the fascination of the sacrifice in itself – the sacrifice signifies that, in the object of our desire, we try to find evidence for the presence of the desire of this Other that I call here the dark God.”[1]

Jewish history is woven around the repetition of a disastrous event. During the Seder (the feast opening the Passover holiday), families sit around the table to read the mythical account of the first time the Jewish people faced their destruction, in the Haggadah (translated as “the telling”): “in every generation, they rise against us to destroy us.” Our generation is facing this danger again. Israel’s current government has started a process to pass anti-democratic laws to abolish the political independence of the supreme court and Israel’s very existence is put into question. In these pressing times, it is urgent to return to the question of the dark God.

In the “Mirror Stage”, Lacan almost offhandedly relates to Roger Caillois’s essay “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia” to help us understand what he calls “the de-realizing effects of an obsession with space.”[2] This essay offers us a key to understanding the coordinates of the dark God. In this essay, Caillois examines the phenomenon of insects that mimic the space around them. Caillois shows that this phenomenon does not serve to help the insect. On the contrary; the Phyllia moth, for example, mimics the leaves they themselves eat. Thus, they find themselves engaging in cannibalism.[3] Caillois calls these painted insects sorcerers, since they make use of the “realm of…magic, according to which like produces like.”[4] The insect makes use of the magic of attraction to the similar to fashion a mask, which has the power to fascinate. Another example is insects that carry on their body the shape of the ocelli, the black circular eye-like shape that “gives rise to a particular kind of fear, an imaginary terror not corresponding to any real danger…working through the strange and the fantastic.”[5] Caillois locates this fascinating shape on various creatures, including the Caligo butterfly and the praying mantis.[6] Yet, this trap also captures the sorcerer himself, who is tempted to give his body over: “Mimicry would thus be accurately defined as an incantation fixed at its culminating point and having caught the sorcerer in his own trap.”[7]

The living creature is tempted to reproduce the similarity he finds in space to give its organism the very marks of the environment around him. However, in doing so, it becomes “but one point among others…and literally no longer knows where to place itself.”[8] Thus, for these insects, “space seems to be a devouring force.”[9] Mimicry is hence a phenomenon of the temptation for sacrifice in nature. Ultimately, it is a phenomenon of death: “Life takes a step backwards.”[10] Mimicry hence fashions a force that propels the living creature to sacrifice a piece of its own existence.[11]

What, then, can mimicry teach us about the workings of the unconscious? Caillois locates this phenomenon in human fears and myths – in cultural phenomena. Lacan, in the “Mirror Stage”, offers more specific coordinates.  Man’s relationship between his Inwelt and his Umwelt, he states, is altered by man’s “prematurity of birth.”[12] Man is born too soon in a state of helplessness (Hilflosigkeit), thus requiring what Freud called “extraneous help” to alleviate his pain.[13] Hence, man constructs his space in accordance with his identifications with his helpers. If physical space tempts insects to give their bodies over to it, in the case of man this temptation is transposed to the realm of the unconscious identification, tempting us to offer ourselves as a sacrifice to the Other’s desire. The subject, states Lacan, is “caught up in the lure of spatial identifications.”[14]

Lacan locates the path to resist the spell of the dark God in Spinoza’s Amor intellectualis Dei, which he identifies with the universality of the signifier. The subject, it seems, can be extrapolated from this dark God if we hold onto the fragile belief that this God is made of subjective signifiers that we can read. Perhaps it is incumbent upon those of us who hold to this delicate belief and who are living in Israel – a land replete with bloody history – to turn back our own “courageous gaze” toward the phenomena depicted in the Haggadah, as mythical first moment of our own nation’s temptation for sacrifice.

[1] Lacan, J. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan Book XI, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York and London: Norton, 1981, 1998), 275.

[2] Lacan, J. “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I function”, in Écrits, trans. Bruce Fink (New York and London: Norton, 2006), 77.

[3] Caillois, R. “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia”, trans. John Shepley, MIT Press 31 (1984): 16-32, at 25.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Caillois, R. The Mask of Medusa, trans. George Ordish (London: Victor Gollancz, 1964), 104.

[6] Caillois dedicates quite a bit of attention to the praying mantis and the way it has been represented in myths. It might be interesting to further inquire into the relation between fascination and anxiety in relation to Lacan’s fable related in his tenth seminar. See Anxiety: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book X, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans, A. R. Price (Cambridge: Polity, 2014), 5.

[7] “Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia”, 27.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 30

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 32.

[12] “The Mirror Stage”, Écrits, 78.

[13] Freud, S. Project for a Scientific Psychology, in The Standard Edition, trans. James Strachey and Anna Freud (London: Vintage, 2001. Vol. 14, 67-102), 317.

[14] “The Mirror Stage”, Écrits, 78.