TIRESIAS: fathering the set, mothering the theory
I’m having dinner with a friend, who is just about the most erudite person I’ve known. I praise my luck. Every time I see him. Our discussion spans from bizarre academic practices at universities across Denmark to spelling Geismar the wrong way. We talk about knowledge, ignorance, subjects presuming to know, and Sophocles’s Oedipus. I’m surprised to hear that he even knows, as a matter of course, as he insists by pointing out, that Tiresias, and not Cantor, is considered the father of set theory. Indeed.
I’m reminded of one of Lacan’s sentences in one of his unpublished seminars, also quoted by Shoshana Felman in an article about teaching “terminable and interminable” analytical tasks (here in relation to Socrates and Freuds’s convictions that teaching itself is ultimately impossible). Taking her cue from Lacan who said that the unconscious is “knowledge that can’t tolerate one’s knowing that one knows” (Seminar, Feb. 19, 1974), Felman makes the interesting inference that the unconscious must be some kind of “unmeant knowledge” (28). As Tiresias had just served me for inspiration in connection with some writing, Lacan’s idea that where signs are concerned we always mobilize many more of them than we know, I think of numbers – also metaphorically here – that we play on others, or that others play on us.
Says Felman: “For knowledge to be spoken, linguistically articulated, it would constitutively have to be supported by the ignorance carried by language, the ignorance of the excess of signs that of necessity its language, its articulation – “mobilizes”. Thus human knowledge is by definition that which is untotalizable, that which rules out any possibility of totalizing what it knows, or of eradicating its own ignorance”. (29)
Says Cantor: “the set of all sets in a universe does not constitute a set.”
Says Teiresias in an exchange with Oedipus:
Teiresias: …You are the land’s pollution.
Oedipus: How shamelessly you started up this taunt! How do you think you will escape?
Teiresias: … I have escaped. The truth is what I cherish and that’s my strength.
Oedipus: And who has taught you truth? Not your profession surely!
Teiresias: You have taught me, for you have made me speak against my will.
Oedipus: Speak what? Tell me again that I may learn it better!
Teiresias: Did you not understand before or would you provoke me into speaking?
Oedipus: I did not grasp it, not so to call it known. Say it again.
Teiresias: I say you are the murderer of the king whose murderer you seek.
I tell my friend: “If psychoanalysts will come up with solutions to some of the most famous mathematical unsolved puzzles and conjectures formulated this and the past century, I won’t be surprised”. He concurs. And tells me that it will take the Other – the woman speaking, with whom the knowledge that is already there is always there – to articulate a proof.
And so says Felman: “From a philosophical perspective knowledge is mastery – that which is mastery of its own meaning. Unlike Hegelian philosophy, which believes it knows all that there is to know; unlike Socratic (or contemporary post-Nietzschean) philosophy, which believes it knows it does not know – literature, for its part, knows it knows but does not know the meaning of its knowledge – does not know what it knows.” (41)
What we learn better, I’d like to tell Oedipus, is that any proof must first be a style, and any knowledge must first be poetic.
Shoshana Felman: "Psychoanalysis and Education: Teaching Terminable and Interminable". Yale French Studies, No. 63, The Pedagogical Imperative: Teaching as a Literary Genre (1982), pp. 21-44