“As a man in a dream who fails to lay hands upon another whom he is pursuing- the one cannot escape nor the other overtake.” (Homer’s Iliad, XX11.)
In his valuable book Looking Awry, Slavoj Zizek offers a Lacanian interpretation of Zeno’s Achilles and the Tortoise paradox (1) “The libidinal economy of the case of Achilles and the Tortoise is here made clear: the paradox stages the relation of the subject to the object cause of its desire, which can never be attained. The object cause is always missed” (Looking Awry, Slavoj Zizek pg’ 4). Our object of desire always eludes no matter what we try to do to attain it. Achilles can never arrive at the tortoise, he can only get closer and closer.
A few days ago, in a London meeting between people who spend the best part of their time campaigning for Palestine, a leading activist, an adorable woman who supports the Palestinian cause since the 1960’s, shared with us a nightmare of a dream she had back in the 1980’s. In her dream she was kidnapped and held hostage by the Lebanese paramilitary Amal. While the Amal combatants were making their final preparation for her execution, the activist made a desperate effort to persuade them that she was actually on their side. She stated again and again that she was in South Lebanon to support the Lebanese people and the Palestinian refugees. In her dream, to her dismay, her hijackers ignored her plea. She was murdered (2).
The activist’s interpretation of her horrendous dream was pretty elegant, coherent and valid. She grasped that, in the eyes of her imaginary captors, she was personally liable for the entire list of crimes committed by the ‘white man’. In her eyes she was punished for a reason. To a certain extent her reasoning is similar to Robert Fisk’s interpretation of his own personal experience in Pakistan in 2001. After being attacked by a (real) mob he said “If I had been them, I would have attacked me."(3)
Interestingly enough, it took me a day to realize that I myself had experienced some very similar dreams in the past. In my dreams I was also held hostage, and very much like in the case of the above dream, I was quick to announce my support of liberation movements and resistance. In my hallucination I was similarly ignored or dismissed. Preparing my self to meet my creator I would wake up sweating, only to find out that I was well and safe and still amongst the living. When I started to ask around I grasped that the ‘activist hostage dream’ is actually a very common nightmare amongst the people who support Palestine, Arab and Islamic liberation movements. As if this is not enough, the above interpretation is also widespread amongst humanists and activists. We tend to understand why others hate us so much. We occasionally tend to agree with them, for we, ourselves, happen to resent that which we are associated with.
However, after thinking about the activist and her dream for a day or two I grasped that as much as her interpretation was elegant, coherent and valid, it would also be intriguing to find out why we experience such dreams in the first place. What is it that sets our mind into such a frantic creative mode that speculates our own destruction by the very object of our solidarity? In Lacanian terms we may extend the question and ask why it is that our minds are speculating on the possibility of being murdered by our political objects of desire?
The dream, as we understand it, is in the realm of the inexpressible. It is in the dream where thoughts, desires and fears are transformed involuntarily into sensations, ideas, and emotions. It is in the dream where symbolism, signifiers and identification explode into shrapnel of doubts and anxiety.
While being awake, we happen to say very many things, occasionally enough we believe what we say, other times we just pretend or even lie. While being awake, we also claim to follow some ideas, we avow to possess a consistent moral value system, we also maintain our support of ideologies we barely understand. We assert acceptance of cultures that are rather remote to us. Many of us support the Palestinian, the Iraqi and the Afghan struggle for liberation. Some of us support Islamic resistance, others are happy to affirm the logos behind armed Jihad. However, while being asleep, our mind liberates itself; like a moth soaring to the light, it drifts towards integrity. It occasionally hints to us that there may be some truth out there which we are reluctant to admit or even face.
While being asleep, our mind is willing to confess (at least to itself) that as much as it is willing to support, approve and affirm, our object of solidarity, the oppressed, remains elusive to us. They are rather foreign and for obvious reasons: it is the language, the spices and the sounds. Their value system seems to be distant. Sometimes it is the religious belief that opposes our modernist, rational secularist and so called ‘humanist’ precept. Other times it is the awareness that our political object of desire is not as ‘kind’ to women as we ourselves claim to be. As if this isn’t enough, our fantasmic comrades do not seem to ‘value life’ as much as we pretend to. We somehow experience a total cognitive dissonance once we are pushed to admit that our political object of desire is holding enough chutzpah to dismiss our Western intellectual achievement. Our camaraderie fails to see the light in our highly praised enlightened individualism. They don’t even approve our technological achievements. At least in the dream, we are willing to confess that the object of solidarity is not very impressed with us, not even with our solidarity. In fact, as much as we want to give, there is hardly anything he or she is willing to take from us.
Challenging Self Love
For Lacan (4), the act of love-making can be interpreted as ‘loving oneself through the other’. I have already maintained in earlier writings that solidarity activism can be realized as ‘loving oneself on the expense of the other’. We are basically loving ourselves on the expense of Palestinians and Iraqis. Similarly, the hostage dream can be interpreted as an unconscious burst of ‘self-loathing through the other’.
‘Unconsciousness is the discourse of the other’, according to Lacan. And in fact, it is in the hostage dream where we are willing to admit that our political object of desire (the other) manages to see through us. The dream challenges our ‘symbolic order’(5) by threatening our physical existence. Unconsciousness, in that sense, is functioning here as a willingness to admit that the other may know our deepest and most hidden secrets. It knows that which we struggle to conceal even from ourselves. The threatening murderous other, is a reflection of our guilt. And yet, we must remember that the ‘murderous other’ is an imaginary one. He or she is a fantasmic product of our mind. In the dream, it is our own mind (unconsciousness) that is desperately trying to combat our ethical, intellectual and political discrepancies; we do it all through our (political) object of desire.
The hostage dream brings to light a devastating duality within the Left psychosis. It confronts the overwhelmingly conscious symbolic discourse with the innocent fear that our lifetime political project is in vain. In the dream we juxtapose our solipsistic digital rationality with the puzzling mystifying yet analogous other. While we are up and around we saturate ourselves with symbolism: badges, banners, scarves, flags, affiliated texts, thinkers and statements but once we shut our eyes, our own sense of ethics and truth sends us a devastating message through an imaginary other: the more symbolic you are, the less genuine you happen to be. The more you identify the less you feel.
The hostage dream is our reaction to our repetitive failure to attain a real comprehensive bond with our subject of solidarity. Like Achilles who is closing in on the tortoise but never manages to reach it, the solidarity activist, at least in the dream, faces his or her doomed failure to reach a true bond with his or her (political) object of desire. The more we empathize, sacrifice and give, the greater is the abyss that threatens to swallow us while we are asleep.
The hostage dream should be interpreted as a genuine call for integrity. It is a moment of moral awakening. It is the mind that demands that we replace our empty symbolism with dynamic ethical awareness.
The hostage dream is a beam of truth; it is there to suggest to us that we may never understand. This is probably the real meaning of true solidarity, the acceptance of the other as a mystery.
(1) Zeno of Elea (circa 450 b.c.) is credited with creating several famous paradoxes, but by far the best known is the paradox of the Tortoise and Achilles.
The Tortoise challenged Achilles to a race, claiming that he would win as long as Achilles gave him a small head start. Achilles laughed at this, for of course he was a mighty warrior and swift of foot, whereas the Tortoise was heavy and slow.
“How big a head start do you need?” he asked the Tortoise with a smile.
“Ten meters,” the latter replied.
Achilles laughed louder than ever. “You will surely lose, my friend, in that case,” he told the Tortoise, “but let us race, if you wish it.”
“On the contrary,” said the Tortoise, “I will win, and I can prove it to you by a simple argument.”
“Suppose,” began the Tortoise, “that you give me a 10-meter head start. Would you say that you could cover that 10 meters between us very quickly?”
“Very quickly,” Achilles affirmed.
“And in that time, how far should I have gone, do you think?”
“Perhaps a meter – no more,” said Achilles after a moment's thought.
“Very well,” replied the Tortoise, “so now there is a meter between us. And you would catch up that distance very quickly?”
“Very quickly indeed!”
“And yet, in that time I shall have gone a little way farther, so that now you must catch that distance up, yes?”
“Ye-es,” said Achilles slowly.
“And while you are doing so, I shall have gone a little way farther, so that you must then catch up the new distance,” the Tortoise continued smoothly.
Achilles said nothing.
“And so you see, in each moment you must be catching up the distance between us, and yet I – at the same time – will be adding a new distance, however small, for you to catch up again.”
“Indeed, it must be so,” said Achilles wearily.
“And so you can never catch up,” the Tortoise concluded sympathetically.
“You are right, as always,” said Achilles sadly – and conceded the race.
(2) It would be crucial, at this stage, to make a clear distinction between the ‘activist Hostage Dream’ and the ‘common hostage dream’. While in the ‘activist Hostage Dream’ one is captured by one’s object of solidarity (political object of desire), something that leads to a sense of betrayal, in the ‘common’ dream one is taken hostage by the so called ‘terrorist’ something that evokes sensations of victimhood.
(4) Jacques Lacan- http://www.lacan.org/
(5) Symbolic Order (Lacan)- The social world of linguistic communication, intersubjective relations, knowledge of ideological conventions, and the acceptance of the law.