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 The Nonsense of Chivalry, Courtesy and the Invention of Western Romantic Love

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PostSubject: Re: The Nonsense of Chivalry, Courtesy and the Invention of Western Romantic Love Wed Nov 02, 2016 5:12 pm

Zizek wrote:
"Why talk about courtly love [l'amour courtois] today, in an age of permissiveness when the sexual encounter is often nothing more than a 'quickie' in some dark corner of an office? The impression that courtly love is out of date, long superseded by modern manners, is a lure blinding us to how the logic of courtly love still defines the parameters within which the two sexes relate to each other. This claim, however, in no way implies an evolutionary model through which courtly love would provide the elementary matrix out of which we generate its later, more complex variations. Our thesis is, instead, that history has to be read retroactively: the anatomy of man offers the key to the anatomy of the ape, as Marx put it. It is, only with the emergence of masochism, of the masochist couple, towards the end of the last century that we can now grasp the libidinal economy of courtly love.

The first trap to be avoided apropos of courtly love is the erroneous notion of the Lady as the sublime object: as a rule, one evokes here the process of spiritualization, the shift from raw sensual coveting to elevated spiritual longing. The Lady is thus perceived as a kind of spiritual guide into the higher sphere of religious ecstasy, in the sense of Dante's Beatrice. In contrast to this notion, Lacan emphasizes a series offeatures which belie such a spiritualization: true, the Lady in courtly love loses concrete features and is addressed as an abstract Ideal, so that 'writers have noted that all the poets seem to be addressing the same person. . . . In this poetic field the feminine object is emptied of all real substance. However, this abstract character of the Lady has nothirig to do with spintual purification; rather, it points towards the abstraction that pertains to a cold, distanced, inhuman partner - the Lady is by no means a warm, compassionate, understanding fellow-creature:

By means of a form of sublimation specific to art, poetic creation consists in positing an object I can only describe as terrifying, an inhuman partner.

The Lady is never characterized for any of her real, concrete virtues, for her wisdom, her prudence, or even her competence. If she is described as wise, it is only because she embodies an immaterial wisdom or because she represents its functions more than she exercises them. On the contrary, she is as arbitrary as possible in the tests she imposes on her servant.

The knight's relationship to the Lady is thus the relationship of the subject-bondsman, vassal, to his feudal Master-Sovereign who subjects him to senseless, outrageous, impossible, arbitrary, capricious ordeals. It is precisely in order to emphasize the non-spiritual nature of these ordeals that Lacan quotes a poem about a Lady who demanded that her servant literally lick her arse: the poem consists of the poet's complaints about the bad smells that await him down there (one knows the sad state of personal hygiene in the Middle Ages) , about the imminent danger that, as he is fulfilling his duty, the Lady will urinate on his head. . . . The Lady is thus as far as possible from any kind of purified spirituality: she functions as an inhuman partner in the sense of a radical Otherness which is wholly incommensurable with our needs and desires; as such, she is simultaneously a kind of automaton, a machine which utters meaningless demands at random.

This coincidence of absolute, inscrutable Otherness and pure machine is what confers on the Lady her uncanny, monstrous character - the Lady is the Other which is not our 'fellow-creature'; that is to say, she is someone with whom no relationship of empathy is possible. This traumatic Otherness is what Lacan designates by means of the Freudian term das Ding, the Thing - the Real that 'always returns to its place',3 the hard kernel that resists symbolization. The idealization of the Lady, her elevation to a spiritual, ethereal Ideal, is therefore to be conceived of as a strictly secondary phenomenon: it is a narcissistic projection whose function ino render her traumatic dimension invisible.

Deprived of every real substance, the Lady functions as a mirror on to which the subject projects his narcissistic ideal. In other words - those of Christina Rossetti, whose sonnet 'In an Artist's Studio' speaks ofDante Gabriel Rossetti's relationship to Elizabeth Siddal, his Lady - the Lady appears 'not as she is, but as she fills his dream'. For Lacan, however, the crucial accent lies elsewhere:

The mirror may on occasion-imply the mechanisms of narcissism, and especially the dimension of destruction or aggression that we will encounter subsequently. But it also fulfills another role, a role as limit. It is that which cannot be crossed. And the only organization in which it participates is that of the inaccessibility of the object.6

Thus, before we embrace the commonplaces about how the Lady in courtly love has nothing to do with actual women, how she stands for the man's narcissistic projection which involves the mortification of the flesh-and-blood woman, we have to answer this question: where does that empty surface come from, that cold, neutral screen which opens up the space for possible projections? That is to say, if men are to project on to the mirror their narcissistic ideal, the mute mirror-surface must already be there. This surface functions as a kind of 'black hole' in reality, as a limit whose Beyond is inaccessible.

The next crucial feature of courtly love is that it is thoroughly a matter of courtesy and etiquette; it has nothing to do with some elementary passion overflowing all barriers, immune to all social rules. We are dealing with a strict fictional formula, with a social game of 'as if', where a man pretends that his sweetheart is the inaccessible Lady. And it is precisely this feature which enables us to establish a link between courtly love and a phenomenon which, at first, seems to have nothing whatso­ ever to do with it: namely, masochism, as a specific form of perversion articulated for the first time in the middle of the last century in the literary works and life-practice of Sacher-Masoch. In his celebrated study of masochism, Gilles Deleuze demonstrates that masochism is not to be conceived of as a simple symmetrical inversion of sadism. The sadist and his victim never form a complementary 'sado-masochist' couple. Among .those features evoked by Deleuze to prove the asymmetry between sadism and masochism, the crucial one is the opposition of the modalities of negation. In sadism we encounter direct negation, violent destruction and tormenting, whereas in masochism negation assumes the form of disavowal - that is, of feigning, of an ' as if' which suspends reaJity.

Closely depending on this first opposition is the opposition of institution and contract. Sadism follows the logic of institution, of institutional power tormenting its victim and taking pleasure in the victim's helpless resistance. More precisely, sadism is at work in the obscene, superego underside that necessarily redoubles and accom­ panies, as its shadow, the 'public' Law. Masochism, on the contrary, is made to the measure of the victim: it is the victim (the servant in the masochistic relationship) who initiates a contract with the Master (woman) , authorizing her to humiliate him in any way she considers appropriate (within the terms defined by the contract) and binding himself to act ' according to the whims of the sovereign lady' , as Sacher­ Masoch put it. It is the servant, therefore, who writes the screenplay - that is, who actually pulls the strings and dictates the activity of the woman [dominatrix]: he stages his own servitude.s One further differ­ ential feature is that masochism, in contrast to sadism, is inherently theatrical: violence is for the most part feigned, and even when it is 'real', it functions as a component of a scene, as part of a theatrical performance. Furthermore, violence is never carried out, brought to its conclusion; it always remains suspended, as the endless repeating of an interrupted gesture.

It is precisely this logic of disavowal which enables us to grasp the fundamental paradox of the masochistic attitude. That is to say, how does the typical masochistic scene look? The man-servan t establishes in a cold, businesslike way the terms of the contract with the woman-master: what she is to do to him, what scene is to be rehearsed endlessly, what dress she is to wear, how far she is to go in the direction of real, physical torture (how severely she is to whip him, in what precise way she is to enchain him, where she is to stamp him with the tips of her high heels, etc.) . When they finally pass over to the masochistic game proper, the masochist constantly maintains a kind of reflective distance; he never really gives way to his feelings or fully abandons himself to the game; in the midst of the game, he can suddenly assume the stance of a stage director, giving precise instructions (put more pressure on that point, repeat that movement . . . ) , without thereby in the least destroying the illusion'. Once the game is over, the masochist again adopts the attitude of a respectful bourgeois and starts to talk with the Sovereign Lady in a matter-of-fact, businesslike way: 'Thank you for your favour. Same time next week?' and so on . What is of crucial importance here is the total self­ externalization of the masochist's most intimate passion: the most intimate desires become objects of contract and composed negotiation. The nature of the masochistic theatre is therefore thoroughly 'non­ psychological': the surrealistic passionate masochistic game, which suspends social reality, none the less fits easily into that everyday reality.

Masochism confronts us with the paradox of the symbolic order qua the order of 'fictions': there is more truth in the mask we wear, in the game we play, in the 'fiction' we obey and follow, than in what is concealed beneath the mask. The very kernel of the masochist's being is externalized in the staged game towards which he maintains his constant distance.

This coincidence recalls the way a male hysterical 'sadist' justifies his beating of a woman: 'Why does she make me do it? She really wants me to do hurt her, she compels me to beat her so that she can enjoy it - so I'll heat her black and blue and teach her what it reaUy means to proooke me!' What we encounter here is a kind of loop in which the (mis)perceived effect of the brutal act upon the victim retroactively legitimizes the act: I set out to beat a woman and when, at the very point where I think that I thoroughly dominate her, I notice that I am actually her slave - since she wants the beating and provoked me to deliver it - I get really mad….

How, on closer examination, are we to conceptualize the inaccessibility of the Lady-Object in courtly love? The principal mistake to avoid is reducing this inaccessibility to the simple dialectic of desire and prohibition according to which we covet the forbidden fruit precisely in so far as it is forbidden - or, to quote Freud's classic formulation:

. . . the psychical value of erotic needs is reduced as soon as their satisfaction becomes easy. An obstacle is required in order to heighten libido; and where natural resistances to satisfaction have not been sufficient men have at all times erected conventional ones so as to be able to enjoylove.

Within this perspective, courtly love appears as simply the most radical strategy for elevating the value of the object by putting up conventional obstacles to its attainability. When, in his seminar Encore, Lacan provides the most succinct formulation of the paradox of courtly love, he says something that is apparently similar, yet fundamentally different: 'A very refined manner to supplant the absence of the sexual relationship is by feigning that it is us who put the obstacle in its way.'H The point, therefore, is not simply that we set up additional conventional hin­ drances in order to heighten the value of the object: external hindrances that thwart aur access to the object are there precisely to create the illusion that withaut them, the object wauld be directly accessible - what such hindrances thereby conceal is the inherent impossibility of attaining the object. The place of the Lady-Thing is originally empty: she functions as a kind of 'black hole' around which the subject's desire is structured. The space of desire is bent like space in the theory of relativity; the only way to reach the Object-Lady is indirectly, in a devious, meandering way - proceeding straight on ensures that we miss the target. This is what Lacan has in mind when, apropos of courtly love, he evokes 'the meaning we must attribute to the negotiation of the detour in the psychic economy':

The detour in the psyche isn't always designed to regulate the commerce between whatever is organized in the domain of the pleasure principle and whatever presents itself as the structure of reality. There are also detours and obstacles which are organized so as to make the domain of the vacuole stand out as such. . . . The techniques involved in courtly love - and they are precise enough to allow us to perceive what might on occasion become fact, what is properly speaking of the sexual order in the inspiration of this eroticism - are techniques of holding back, of suspension, of amOT interpru tus. The stages courtly love lays down previous to what is mysteriously referred to as Ie don de merci, 'the gift of mercy' - although we don' t know exactly what it meant - are expressed more or less in terms that Freud uses in his Three Essays as belonging to the sphere of foreplay.

For that reason, Lacan accentuates the motif of anamorphosis (in his Seminar on the Ethics of Psychoanalysis, the title of the chapter on courtly love is 'Courtly Love as Anamorphosis'): the Object can be perceived only when it is viewed from the side, in a partial, distorted form, as its own shadow - if we cast a direct glance at it we see nothing, a mere void. In a homologous way, we could speak of temporal anamorphosis: the Object is attainable only by way of an incessant postponement, as its absent point of reference. The Object, therefore, is literally something that is created - whose place is encircled - through a network of detours, approximations and near-misses. It is here that sublimation sets in - sublimation in the Lacanian sense of the elevation of an object into the dignity of the Thing: 'sublimation' occurs when an object, part of everyday reality, finds itself at the place of the impossible Thing. Herein resides the function of those artificial obstacles that suddenly hinder our access to some ordinary object: they elevate the object into a stand-in for the Thing. This is how the impossible changes into the prohibited: by way of the short circuit between the Thing and some positive object rendered inaccessible through artificial obstacles.

The tradition of Lady as the inaccessible object is alive and well in our century - in surrealism, for example. Suffice it to recall Luis Bufiuel's That Obscure Object o/Desire, in which a woman, through a series of absurd tricks, postpones again and again the final moment of sexual re-union with her aged lover (when, for example, the man finally gets her into bed, he discovers beneath her nightgown an old-fashioned corset with numerous buckles which are impossible to undo . . .) . The charm of the film lies in this very nonsensical short circuit between the fundamental, metaphysical Limit and some trivial empirical impedi­ ment. Here we find the logic of courtly love and of sublimation at its purest: some common, everyday object or act becomes innaccessible or impossible to accomplish once it finds itself in the position of the Thing - although the thing should be easily within reach, the entire universe has somehow been adjusted to produce, again and again, an unfathomable contingency blocking access to the object Bufiuel himself was quite aware of this paradoxical logic: in his autobiography he speaks of 'the non-explainable impossibility of the fulfilment of a simple desire'.

It should be clear, now, what determines the difference with regard to the usual dialectic of desire and prohibition: the aim of the prohibition is not to 'raise the price' of an object by rendering access to it more difficult, but to raise this object itself to the level of the Thing, of the 'black hole', around which desire is organized. For that reason, Lacan is quite justified in inverting the usual formula of sublimation, which involves shifting the libido from an object that satisfies some concrete, material need to an object that has no apparent connection to this need: for example, destructive literary criticism becomes sublimated aggressiv­ ity, scientific research into the human body becomes sublimated voyeur­ ism, and so on. What Lacan means by sublimation, on the contrary, is shifting the libido from the void of the .unserviceable, Thing to some concrete, material object of need that assumes a sublime quality the moment it occupies the place of the Thing.

What the paradox of the Lady in courtly love ultimately amounts to is thus the paradox of detour: our 'official' desire is that we want to sleep with the Lady; whereas in truth, there is nothing we fear more than a Lady who might generously yield to this wish of ours - what we truly expect and want from the Lady is simply yet another new ordeal, yet one more postponement. In his Critique of Practical Reason, Kant offers a parable about a libertine who claims that he cannot resist the temptation to gratify his illicit sexual desire, yet when he is informed that the gallows now await him as the price to be paid for his adultery, he suddenly discovers that he can resist the temptation after all (proof, for Kant, of the pathological nature of sexual desire - Lacan opposes Kant by claiming that a man of true amorous passion would be even more aroused by the prospect of the gallows . . .) . But for the faithful servant of a Lady the choice is structured in a totally different way: perhaps he would even prefer the gallows to an immediate gratification of his desire for the Lady. The Lady therefore functions as a unique short circuit in which the Object ofdesire itselfcoincides with theforce thatprevents its attainment - in a way, the object 'is' its own withdrawal, its own retraction. In this way, it becomes possible that the very agency which entices us to search for enjoyment induces us to renounce it.

Back to the Lady: are we, therefore,justified in conceiving of the Lady as the personification of the Western metaphysical passion, as an exorbitant, almost parodical example of metaphysical hubris, of the elevation of a particular entity or feature into the Ground of all being? On closer examination, what constitutes this metaphysical or simply philosophical hubris?

The Lady is not another name for the metaphysical Ground but, on the contrary, one of the names for the self-retracting Real which, in a way, grounds the Ground itself. And in so far as one of the names for the metaphysical Ground of all entities is 'supreme Good', the Lady quaThing can also be designated as the embodiment of radical Evil, of the Evil that Edgar Allan Poe, in two of his stories, 'The Black Cat' and 'The Imp of the Perverse', called the ' spirit of perverseness ' :

Of this spirit philosophy takes no account . Yet I am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart. . . . Who has not, a hundred times, found himself committing a vile or a stupid action, for no other reason than because he knows he should not? Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our bestjudgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such? ('The Black Cat')

The affinity of crime as an unmotivated acte gratuit to art is a standard topic of Romantic theory (the Romantic cult of the artist comprises the notion of the artist qua criminal): it is deeply significant that Poe's formulas ('a mobilewithout motive, a motive not motiviert') immediately recall Kant's determinations of the aesthetic experience ('purposeful­ ness without purpose', etc.). What we must not overlook here is the crucial fact that this command - 'You must because you are not allowed to ! ' , that is to say, a purely negative grounding of an act accomplished only because it is prohibited - is possible only within the differential symbolic order in which negative determination as such has a positive reach - in which the very absence of a feature functions as a positive feature.

Poe's 'imp of the perverse' offers us an immediate example of such a pure motivation: when I accomplish an act 'only because it is prohibited', I remain within the universal-symbolic domain, without reference to any empirical­ contingent object - that is to say, I accomplish what is in strict sense a non­ pathological act. Here, then, Kant miscalculated his wager: by cleansing the domain of ethics of pathological motivations, he wanted to extirpate the very possibility of doing Evil in the guise of Good; what he actually did was to open up a new domain of Evil far more uncanny than the usual 'pathological' Evil." [The Metastases of Enjoyment]

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"ἐδιζησάμην ἐμεωυτόν." [Heraclitus]

"All that exists is just and unjust and equally justified in both." [Aeschylus, Prometheus]

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The Nonsense of Chivalry, Courtesy and the Invention of Western Romantic Love
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