The Prestige Essay On Sacrifice

Are you watching closely?

The following is a close reading of Chistopher Nolan's masterpiece The Prestige (2006) based on Todd McGowan's amazing analysis in the relevant chapter of his book The Fictional Christopher Nolan. You don't have to read the book to understand what I'm about to say since my article is meant to stand on its own feet. I just wanted to acknowledge my inspiration in this regard since Todd has been and continues to be my biggest influence in the world of film theory. Thank you, Todd.

The Prestige follows two rival magicians, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) on their quest to create the world's greatest magic trick. As with many of Nolan's non-Batman films, the story does not unfold chronologically and instead is told through each man reading the other's diary. For your comprehension as well as my own, and to make sure we're both on the same page, I've made a strictly chronological account of what takes place in the movie. Major spoilers ahead.

Borden, Angier, and Angier's wife work as stagehands for another magician until something goes wrong with their signature trick and Angier's wife drowns. Angier blames Borden for the incident, and the two magicians separate and begin their own competing shows. Angier gets Michael Caine as an ingénieur (illusion designer) and Scarlett Johansson as an assistant, while Borden's ingénieur Fallon is secretly Borden's twin brother in disguise. Each magician attempts to sabotage the other's show, and while Borden loses two of his fingers, Angier merely loses some of his reputation. So far it looks like Borden drew the short straw—although he does get to marry Rebecca Hall.

Alfred Borden (left) and Robert Angier (right)

Borden's luck soon changes as he unleashes his Great Trick on the public: The Transported Man. Angier immediately becomes hell-bent on discovering how he does it, unaware the Borden simply uses his twin brother as a double (Angier doesn't know he even has a twin brother). Angier sends his assistant to find out Borden's secret, and one of the Borden twins (the one not married to Rebecca Hall—who, by the way, also doesn't know about the twins) falls in love with her. Together they concoct a plan to send Angier on a wild goose chase by delivering him Borden's diary (which doesn't have the secret in it) and telling him that the secret to both the diary and his method is the eccentric inventor David Bowie.

Unfortunately for Borden, Angier does manage to catch a goose on his chase. He has Bowie build him what is supposed to be a teleportation machine, but turns out instead to be a cloning machine. Angier uses his machine to create a "better" version of The Transported Man (in order to make the trick work, Angier drowns a clone version of himself every time he does it) in an effort not only to show that he is the better magician but also to frame Borden for murder. While in prison, Borden is coerced into giving up the secret to his version of the transported man in exchange for his daughter's safety. In the process he learns that Angier is still alive (living under a different name), and has his twin find him and kill him. One of the Borden twins is hung for Angier's murder and the other lives happily ever after with his daughter.

Now that we're all up to speed with what happens in the movie, it's time for a theory break. Here I'll cover the three main concepts we'll need for my close reading of the narrative: identity, desire (objet a), and sacrifice. Next I'll discuss how they're related to Lacan's distinction between the subject of desire and the subject of drive. As I go through I'll apply all this to the characters of Borden and Angier to show why we should be rooting for Angier even if Borden is the one who lives to tell the tale. For now, get ready for some walls of text.

I just really like this image.

Quick side note here for clarity before we begin. For Lacan, there are two main types of people, the subject of desire and the subject of drive. The majority of people fall into the less ethical category of subject of desire, and are characterized by the feeling that there's something missing and the desire to fill this lack (most commonly by buying nice things). This is the worse of the two positions because the subject of desire doesn't understand how their attempts to fill the lack only address the symptoms and not the cause. The subject of drive on the other hand is more complicated and involves a specific relationship with this lack that re-envisions it as something other than a disease. For now just keep in mind that for Lacan the subject of drive is ethically prior to the subject of desire.

The first concept I want to go over is identity, and for this (and all the rest of the theory) we're going to turn to our old friend, Slavoj Žižek. He explains how we understand our identity with reference to Lacan's ideas of ideal ego, ego-ideal, superego, and the law of desire.

Lacan introduces a precise distinction between these three terms: the "ideal ego" stands for the idealized self-image of the subject (the way I would like to be, I would like others to see me); the Ego-Ideal is the agency whose gaze I try to impress with my ego image, the big Other who watches over me and propels me to give my best, the ideal I try to follow and actualize; and the superego is this same agency in its revengeful, sadistic, punishing aspect... What follows from these precise distinctions is that, for Lacan, superego "has nothing to do with moral conscience as far as its most obligatory demands are concerned": superego is, on the contrary, the anti-ethical agency, the stigmatization of our ethical betrayal. So which one of the other two is the proper ethical agency? ... [F]or him, the only proper agency is the fourth one missing in Freud's list of the three, the one sometimes referred to by Lacan as "the law of desire," the agency which tells you to act in conformity with your desire.¹

The place from which Christian Bale sees himself?

So for Lacan, identity is composed of three parts. The first part, ideal ego, is kind of like that scene in The Matrix where Morpheus talks about Neo's "residual self-image"—it's basically how you see yourself. The second part, ego-ideal, is the place from which you see yourself. So, for example, if you get a college degree because it's what your parents wanted, then your parents might be your ego-ideal. Yes, I know it's impossible to keep these two terms straight, so for our purposes I'm just going to refer to ego-ideal as the big Other. The third part, superego, is like an evil big Other: it's the gaze or agency which looks down on you and makes you feel guilty when you fail to live up your expectations. The most important thing to grasp here is the distinction between internal perception (how we see ourselves) and external perception (how we see ourselves being seen).

The fourth agency, the "law of desire", is the most difficult and the most important as it is the guiding principle of the subject of drive. "Acting in conformity with your desire," as Žižek explains it, does not simply mean "do what you want," and instead involves a more complex understanding of unconscious desire. Buying that new car, no matter how much you think you want it, is not "acting in conformity with your desire" because that sort of "wanting" is caught up in a web of other emotions such as anxiety (about the inevitability of death, about the value of your work), loneliness, etc. Before I get sidetracked though, the relevant details for our purposes are that "the proper ethical agency" is opposed to identity-based agencies (the ideal ego, ego-ideal or big Other, and superego), and that for subjects of the "law of desire" (i.e. subject of drive) the big Other does not exist.

Let's move on to some examples. Borden and Angier (before they part ways) go to see the act of another magician, Chung Ling Soo. After discovering that the trick to his illusion involves pretending to be crippled whenever he's in public, Borden praises what he sees as "a lot of self-sacrifice". Here Borden is identifying with Chung Ling Soo through his own sacrifice with his twin of being two people living the same life. He's saying, "That's how I see myself, my ideal ego looks something like that." Similarly, Angier defends their repertoire of illusions to Borden in an earlier scene by claiming that they're "all favorites," and later on he repeatedly refuses to "get his hands dirty" when working with his ingénieur. Both of these positions presume the existence of a big Other—someone to judge the value of Borden's ideal ego, someone for whom their illusions are perceived as favorites, and someone to witness whether or not Angier's hands are dirty. This is problematic because there is no big Other, and the two are performing (creating delusional identities) without an audience.

Angier using David Bowie's cloning machine.

This changes for Angier when he first uses the cloning machine. He understands that using the machine could have disastrous consequences; but, knowing that the consequences will be limited to himself, he decides to go through with it. He keeps a loaded gun by his side because, as he says, "if it went wrong I wouldn't want to live like that for long." This, as Borden later says himself, shows that Angier is no longer afraid to get his hands dirty. He no longer believes in a big Other watching over him and judging his actions. This is the first step on Angier's path to becoming a subject of drive.

Let's move on to our next concept, objet a. Objet a is a term from Lacan (one of the many not translated from French) which I have alluded to in my comparison of desire and drive. When you feel like something is missing (that your life is incomplete), what you're missing is your objet a (don't worry, we're all missing it). Žižek explains the different way objet a functions between the subject of desire and the subject of drive as follows:

While, as Lacan emphasizes, objet a is also the object of the drive, the relationship is here thoroughly different. Although in both cases, the link between object and loss is crucial, in the case of objet a as the object cause of desire, we have an object which is originally lost, which coincides with its own loss, which emerges as lost, while, in the case of objet a as the object of the drive, the "object" is directly the loss itself. In the shift from desire to drive, we pass from the lost object to loss itself as an object. That is to say, the weird movement called "drive" is not driven by the "impossible" quest for the lost object, but by a push to directly enact the "loss"—the gap, cut, distance—itself. There is thus a double distinction to be drawn here: not only between objet a in its fantasmatic and postfantasmatic status, but also, within this postfantasmatic domain itself, between the lost object cause of desire and the object loss of the drive.²


I absolutely love this cartoon because it does a pretty great job of explaining the basics of Lacan's theories of lack and of the objet a which would fill that lack. Everybody experiences lack. Almost everyone tries to fill their lack with something or someone (these are subjects of desire). What the cartoon doesn't tell you is that even when you get those things or those people, you are still bothered by your lack (the most elementary example of this is the idea that you want what you can't have, Lacan simply adds that you also don't want what you can have). Objet a, the object that would fill your lack, is by definition a lost object ("originally lost," "coincides with its own loss," "emerges as lost"). The transition from subject of desire to subject of drive involves embracing and enjoying loss itself ("loss itself as an object"), which is basically what we get from the fourth panel.

Alright, that wasn't so bad since we had a comic to help explain it, so let's get back to the movie. Borden, as a subject of desire, tries to fill his lack with people. He (one of the twins) falls in love with Angier's assistant Scarlett Johansson despite the fact that he (the other twin) is married and the affair will ruin either his marriage, his career, or both. He also gives away the secret to his version of The Transported Man in exchange for his daughter's safety (so that his twin can live with her), showing that he loves her more than magic—his life's work—and thus more than himself. Angier, before his transition, provides an even stronger example in the form of his obsession with Borden's secret. After being unsettled by the loss of his wife, he's willing to lose anything to have the secret (the conversation he has with his assistant when he sends her to spy on Borden is perfect in this regard) despite the fact that his ingénieur correctly informed him as to what the secret is (that he uses a double, it's just a clever double because nobody knows Borden has a twin). Both of these men begin the film as subjects of desire because they think that acquiring something (Scarlett Johansson; Borden's secret) will fill their respective lacks.

Angier later perfectly enacts both necessary portions of the transition to the subject of drive. First, when he finally gets Borden's secret (from Borden himself, not from his ingénieur's coincidentally correct assessment) he rips it up without even looking at it. He has completely lost interest in it (it would have been different if he at least looked at it before destroying it—without looking at it he doesn't even really have it yet and shows that he has given up the search). He then not only gives up his search for the lost object, but embraces loss itself in the way he performs his (final) version of The Transported Man. In order to kill one of the cloned versions of himself, he drops through a trapdoor and drowns in the exact same type of tank that drowned his wife at the beginning of the movie. His loss (of his wife), which he originally displaced onto the search for an object (Borden's secret), is now reenacted every night during his routine.

Borden explaining objet a with regard to magic tricks.

Now that we've gotten through the basics of psychoanalysis we have a solid framework through which to discuss the central theme of The Prestige: sacrifice. Here's Frances Restuccia analyzing sacrifice through the lens of Lacanian/Žižekian psychoanalysis:

Lacan’s "subjective destitution" has nothing to do with sacrifice, which would position the Other as addressee, but is "an act of abandonment which sacrifices the very sacrifice" (Zizek, 1992, 59)... In The Ticklish Subject, as part of a debate with Judith Butler, he clarifies that "to desire something other than its continued ‘social existence’, and thus to fall ‘into some kind of death’, to risk a gesture by means of which death is ‘courted or pursued’, indicates precisely how Lacan reconceptualized the Freudian death drive as the elementary form of the ethical act (Zizek, 1999, 263). And to Zizek, this is "the whole point of Lacan’s reading of Antigone: Antigone effectively risks her entire social existence, defying the socio-symbolic power of the City embodied in the ruler (Creon), thereby ‘falling into some kind of death’ (i.e. sustaining a symbolic death, exclusion from the socio-symbolic space)" (Zizek, 1999, 263). Antigone’s admirable feminine gesture of "No!" to Creon, and in turn to state power, carries value in and of itself: "her act is literally suicidal, she excludes herself from the community, whereby she offers nothing new, no positive program–she just insists on her unconditional demand" (Zizek, 1992, 46). In Enjoy Your Symptom!, Zizek likewise commends Romeo and Juliet for not giving way on their desire: "by means of their suicidal gesture, they repeated the fundamental choice into which they were born by disowning their respective Names, separating themselves from the totality of S1-S2 and thereby choosing themselves as ‘worse’" (Zizek, 1992, 76)... Zizek is also now infamously known for holding up the gesture of Keyser Soze in The Usual Suspects of shooting his wife and daughter being held hostage as a way of changing, as Zizek puts it, "the co-ordinates of the situation" (Zizek, 2000, 150). What this act represents to Zizek is a cutting loose from the hero’s most precious object(s), to gain "free action" (Zizek, 2000, 150). The point, to Zizek, is the importance of renouncing "the transgressive fantasmatic supplement" that attaches us to a given social reality (Zizek, 2000, 149).³

Sacrifice by itself, such as the act of committing suicide, addresses the big Other (who doesn't exist). When a subject of desire sacrifices something, they are looking for recognition. "Subjective destitution" (another term which refers to the subject of drive), on the other hand, "sacrifices the very sacrifice". This has a couple of levels to it. The simplest level involves sacrificing your personal existence—your identity ("disowning their respective Names" in the Romeo & Juliet analogy)—as well as your "social existence"—the way you're perceived among your community (the Antigone analogy). The second level involves sacrificing your pursuit of objet a (the "fantasmatic supplement"), or your "most precious object(s)" (The Usual Suspects analogy). Finally, the "sacrifice of the sacrifice" entails sacrificing any belief in the big Other, any belief in the possible recognition of the sacrifice and thus in any possible (external) meaning that the sacrifice would embody. Whereas initial sacrifice may be a literal or material gesture, the sacrifice of the sacrifice is always purely symbolic. In this way, sacrifice of the sacrifice is a "gesture by means of which death is 'courted or pursued'". You could say the essence of true (subject of drive) sacrifice is self-sacrifice, but not the way Borden means it.

Tanks containing the drowned Angier clones.

As I mentioned above, Borden praises Chung Ling Soo for his "self-sacrifice" since he sees his own sacrifice reflected. This is a perfect example of the wrong kind of sacrifice. Both Borden and Chung Ling Soo make sacrifices in order to create an identity, in order to gain recognition from the big Other. Borden sacrifices his twin in order to create his stage persona The Professor and perform his illusion The Transported Man. He sacrifices in order to become famous. He fails to give up his identity (as The Professor), he fails to give up his social existence (as a great magician), he fails to give up his most precious objects (his daughter), and he fails to give up his belief in the big Other (note his disgust when he realizes Angier is no longer afraid to get his hands dirty). Borden is stuck forever as a subject of desire.

Angier, on the other hand, while originally refusing the idea of sacrifice in general (his aversion to getting his hands dirty), transitions from subject of desire to subject of drive (in his relationship to sacrifice) when he begins using the cloning machine. His act of drowning a clone of himself every night contains a suicidal dimension similar to Antigone's since it is not performed for the big Other (even his stage hands are all blind). He gives up everything since he performed the acts "not knowing if [he'd] be the Prestige or the man in the box." He sacrificed all the sacrifices he made to become who he was and to reach the place at which he had arrived.

There's a common misconception about The Prestige that David Bowie made a similar cloning machine for Borden which he used to make his twin. While this isn't supported by the movie itself, thinking about this possibility helps illustrate the difference between Borden and Angier's relationship to sacrifice. Why doesn't Angier just create one clone, an absolutely perfect double, and perform The Transported Man the way Borden did? Because the illusion is more magical Angier's way, because Angier is willing to make the sacrifice (of the sacrifice) that Borden could never manage. Because Angier is willing to get his hands dirty.

This is actually not the final Transported Man.
It is a great .gif though.

If you're interested in Todd McGowan's take on the movie in his book, he sees the movie not only as a movie about magic and a movie about the magic of movies, but also as a commentary on the possibility of the creation of the new, whether it be new art, new politics, etc. His thesis is that "A genuinely new creation is possible, but the source of this creation is not, as we tend to think, the forward motion of time. Instead, The Prestige makes clear that the source of the new is the repetition of sacrifice." The way he gets to this point is theoretically dense but explained clearly enough that anyone who wants to should be able to understand it. Go buy his book if you're interested. It's well worth the read.

Also check out this and this if you haven't seen them.

Works Cited

¹Žižek, Slavoj, How to Read Lacan, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007. Available online here.

²Žižek, Slavoj, Parallax View, MIT Press, Massachusetts 2006. Available online here.

³Restuccia, Frances, Amorous Acts, Stanford University Press, California, 2006. Available online here.


(Happy first anniversary!)

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