Prelude 16, Susan Schwartz

Of Desire and Death


In 1947 a beautiful young woman, considering herself an unworthy bride for her husband to be, jumped to her death from the 86th floor of the Empire State building. She landed, seemingly unbroken, on the roof of a parked car. A photo was published in Life magazine soon after, and the image was seen to represent “death’s violence and its composure” as she “reposes calmly in the grotesque bier her falling body punched into the top of the car”. The image was reproduced many times in different contexts including by Andy Warhol in “Suicide (Fallen Body)”, 1962.[1] It is in the tradition of the much-reproduced death mask of the beautiful, anonymous woman, L’inconnue de la Seine, who drowned, presumed suicide, in the late nineteenth century. The mask, with its enigmatic smile inspired art and literature; it was an erotic ideal of its time.[2]

In 1846, Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.[3] “Poetical”, because for him, a poem is only a poem to the extent that it excites; in its knotting of beauty, desire and melancholy, the death of a beautiful woman lures, fascinates but also disturbs. Why this effect? Lacan will say in Seminar VI, Desire and its Interpretation, “the object of the fantasy is the alterity, image and pathos, through which an other takes the place of what the subject has been deprived symbolically”: the phallus.[4] This provides the frame for his interpretation of the function of Ophelia in Hamlet, because for Hamlet, she is the conscious object of his fantasy and the “barometer” of his relation to his desire. Lacan speaks of her as “one of the most fascinating creations of the human imagination”,[5] one of the most captivating and most disturbing [les plus troubles].[6] For him she is a creature of flesh and blood whose suicide he terms “ambiguous”.[7] There is no easy relation between beauty, desire and death: the beautiful suicide has something of the uncanny about her, and something of the fetish too.

As phallus-girl, Ophelia is the object of Hamlet’s desire; as exteriorised phallus, signifying symbol of life, he rejects her and she is only reintegrated into the fantasy “at the price of mourning and death”.[8] In the death that produces a real hole she becomes the impossible object that reinstitutes her value as object in desire.[9]

For Lacan, Hamlet is the tragedy of desire and mourning, a mourning that demonstrates the closeness of the links between the registers of the real, the imaginary and the symbolic.[10] The relation of desire and death is paradoxical. Desire attaches the subject to life in its quest for more being, yet death is its condition: the corpsification the subject suffers as a consequence of its dependence on the signifier. “[D]esire is borne by death” says Lacan, and that is the one and only meaning of life.[11]

[3] Edgar Allen Poe, “The Philosophy of Composition”:

[4] Jacques Lacan, Le Séminaire, livre VI, Le désir et son interpretation, Paris, Éditions de la Martinière et Le Champ Freudien Éditeur, juin 2013, p. 370 (Lesson of 15.4.59). Translation in English by Cormac Gallagher can be found at:

[5] Ibid., p. 291 (Lesson of 4.3.59).

[6] Ibid., p. 357 (Lesson of 8.4.59).

[7] Ibid., p. 292 (Lesson of 4.3.59).

[8] Ibid., pp. 380, 382 (Lesson of 15.4.59).

[9] Ibid., pp. 396-97 (Lesson of 22.4.59).

[10] Ibid., p. 399 (Lesson of 22.4.59).

[11] Jacques Lacan, “The Direction of the Treatment and the Principles of Its Power”, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. B. Fink, New York and London, W.W. Norton & Company, 2006, pp. 536-37/642.