Courtly love

From No Subject - Encyclopedia of Psychoanalysis
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Courtly love is a tradition of lyric poetry that developed in Provence, southern France, in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries and which spread throughout Western Europe in the Middle Ages. It embodies a whole philosophy of love and represents an elaborate code of behaviour which governs the relations between 'aristocratic' lovers, turning the more bodily and erotic aspects of love into a spiritual experience and the most elevated of passions. The courtly lover both idealizes and is idealized by his beloved and subjects himself entirely to her desires. However, there is an inherent impossibility, an obstacle to the fulfilment of love, in the very structure of courtly love. As it developed, courtly love often entailed the love between a single knight and a married woman. The most famous example of this in English literature is the love between Lancelot and Guinevere in King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. This love cannot be consummated in a physical sense and, if it is, disaster and death ensues. Courtly love therefore involves the agonies of unfulfilled love, but the lover remains true to his beloved, manifesting his honour and steadfastness in an unswerving adherence to the code of behaviour.

What Lacan finds of interest in these chivalric romances is, first, its symbolic aspect. Courtly love is 'a poetic exercise, a way of playing with a number of conventional, idealizing themes, which couldn't have any real concrete equivalent' (1992 [1986]: 148). Nevertheless, these symbolic conventions do have real concrete effects and even continue to organize 'contemporary man's sentimental attachments' (1992 [1986]: 148). First and foremost of these is 'the Lady', an impossibly idealized figure for which no real equivalent exists. Lacan writes:

The object involved, the feminine object, is introduced oddly enough through the door of privation or of inaccessibility. Whatever the social position of him who functions in the role, the inaccessibility of the object is posited as a point of departure.(1992 [1986]: 149)

The Lady is the objet a (or das Ding, as Lacan calls it in this seminar) - that impossible object cause of desire that inaugurates the movement of desire itself. Crucially, then, she is not only unattainable but never existed in the first place; she is an idealized image for which there is no real equivalent. In The Metastases of Enjoyment Žižek points out that Lacan is careful here not to elevate the Lady to the status of a 'sublime' spiritualized object; she is rather an 'abstract character' - 'a cold, distanced, inhuman partner' who functions like an automaton or machine: '[T]he Lady is thus as far as possible from any kind of purified spirituality: she functions as an inhuman partner in the sense of radical Otherness which is wholly incommensurable with our needs and desires' (1994:90).

If the Lady of courtly love can be said to act as a mirror upon which the male lovers project their idealized images and fantasies, then this can only take place if the mirror is there already. This surface, the Lady, 'functions as a kind of black hole in reality, as a limit whose Beyond is inaccessible' (Žižek1994:91). In other words, she is exactly the kind of figure that one can have no empathetic relationship with whatsoever. She is that traumatic Otherness that Lacan designates as the Thing or the Real.

This is the structure of courtly love that continues to resonate with contemporary audiences and Žižek gives as an example of this Neil Jordan's 1993 film The Crying Game. The Crying Game centres on the 'love' affair between a member of the IRA, Fergus, on the run in London, and a beautiful hairdresser, Dil. While Fergus falls in love with Dil, she 'maintains an ambiguous ironic, sovereign distance towards him' (1994:103). Eventually Dil gives way to Fergus's advances, but before they make love Dil retires to another room and changes into a semi-transparent nightgown. As the camera slowly follows Fergus's gaze and covetously moves down Dil's body, in one of the most startling moments in recent cinema, we suddenly see 'her' penis. Dil is a transvestite. Repulsed, Fergus pushes her away and throws up. After this failed sexual encounter their relationship is reversed and Dil becomes obsessively in love with Fergus, while he remains distant towards her. What we see here, therefore, is precisely the asymmetry that Lacan describes in all sexual relationships between 'what the lover sees in the loved one and what the loved one knows himself to be' (1994:103). This is the inescapable deadlock of all sexual relationships, according to Lacan. Dil's love for Fergus is so absolute and unconditional that Fergus slowly overcomes his aversion to her. As the IRA tries to draw Fergus back into its activities, Dil shoots and kills Fergus's ex-lover and IRA operative, Jude. Fergus assumes responsibility for the killing and is imprisoned. The film ends with Dil visiting Fergus in prison, dressed once again as a provocatively seductive woman. They are now separated by the glass partition denying them any physical contact. For Žižek, this scenario encapsulates the impossibility of the sexual relationship.