Co urtly Love, or,. Wom an as Thing. Why talk about courtly love [1'amouT r. ouTtois] today, in an age of permissiveness when the sexual. The fascination of the lady in courtly love is usually attributed to her visible a 23 As for this Deleuzian opposition of surface event and bodily depth, see Zizek, . Courtly Love, or Woman as Thing This is a chapter from The Metastases of Enjoyment (, pp. ). Here Ziiek argues that courtly love.
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Why speak about courtly love (amour courtois) today, in the age of permissiveness, Back to NLR I/, Nov Dec · PDF. Slavoj Zizek. In his essay, “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing” () cultural critic Slavoj Zizek (b. ) presents courtly love—knight-Lady romance as. Who is the Lady who is ostensibly at the center of the medieval tradition of “ courtly love”? What does Zizek say about the commonly held idea that she is an.
T h e man-servant est ab lishes in a co ld , busin esslike way th e ter ms of the co ntract with the woman -master: what she is to do to hi m , wha t scen e is to be reh earsed endle ssly, what d ress sh e is to wea r, how far sh e is to go in th e direc tion of real , p hysical torture h ow severe ly she is to whip him , in wh at pr ecise way sh e is to enc h ain him, where sh e is to stam p h im with the tips of her hig h he els, etc.
When th ey final ly pa ss over to the masochis tic game pro per, th e masochist constantly maintains a kind of reflective dis tance; he never really gives way to h is feelings or fully abandons himself to the game; in th e midst of th e game, he can suddenly assu me th e stan ce of a stage dire ctor, givin g precise in str u ction s pu t more pressure on th at p oin t, re p eat th at movement.
Once th e game is over, the masochist again ad op ts the attitu de of a respectful bou rg eois an d starts to talk with th e Sovereign Lady in a matter-of-fact, b usinesslike way: 'Thank you for your favou r.
Sam e tim e next week? Masoc hism confron ts us with the paradox of th e symbolic order qua th e order of 'fictio ns': there is more truth in the mas k we wear, in the game we play, in th e 'fiction ' we obey an d follow, than in wh at is concealed be ne ath th e m ask. The very kernel of the masoc hist's being is ex ternalized in the staged game towards which he maintain s h is con stan t dist ance. And th e Real of viole n ce breaks out precisely when me maso chis t is hyste ricized - wh en th e subject refuses the role of an o bj ect-instr umen t of th e enj oymen t of his Other, whe n h e is h orrified at th e prospect of be ing reduced in the eye of the Oth er to objet a ; in order to escap e th is de adlock, he re sort s to tJassage Ii l'acte, to th e ' irration al' violence aimed at the o th er.
Towards th e end of P. He practically asked fo r it. I-Ie co uld have tried to sto p m e, plea ded , argued , p ili u p a figh l. He co uld have begged fo r me rcy, "No , please don't do it. Just th at o ne wo rd. He look ed aline with suc h co ntem pt. He knew then. Of course he kn ew. And I wo uld n ' t have done it, not if he'd spo ken to me as i f! He was suppose d 10 he terrified. H e wa sup pose d to prev en t it from happening. He just looked a t me as if he were sayi ng "So it's you , H ow strange tha t it has to be you.
Min d less, Bil l I did have a choice. And so did he. Christ h e cou ld havestopped me. Why didn 't h e sto p me? The victim however, d id not give an y suc h sign. Sir Paul 's attitud of non-resistance, of indifferen t provocation, obj ectivi ze d the murderer reducin g him to an instrument of th e O ther 's will, an d so left h im with no ch oice. In sh or t, what compelled the murd ere r to act was th experience of having his desire to kill the victim coi ncide with the victim 's death d rive.
This coincid en ce recalls the way a mal e hysterical 'sad ist' j ustifies hi beatin g of a woman: 'Wh y does sh e make me do it? She really wan ts m to do hurt her, she compels me to beat he r so that she can enj oy it - s I'll beat her black an d blue and teach her what it really means to p-rovoke me! The principal mi stake to avoid is reducing this inacc essibility to th e sim ple dialectic of desire and prohibition according to which we covet th e for bidden frui t pr ecisely in so far as it is forbidden - o r, to quote Freud 's classic formula tion:.
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 convention al ones so as to be able to enjoy love.
P Within this perspective , cou r tly love appears as simply the most radic al stra tegy for elevating th e value of the obj ect by p u tt ing up co nven tion al obstacles to its attain ability. When , in h is seminar Encore, Lacan provides th e most su ccinc t formulation of th e par adox of courtly love , he says so meth ing that is ap pa re n tly similar, ye t fundamentally different: 'A very refined manner to sup p lan t the absen ce of the sexu al relationship is by feigning that it is us who put the obstacle in its way.
Th e place of the Lady-Thing is originally empty: she functions as a kind of 'b lack hole ' arou nd which the subj ect 's de sire is structured. This is what Lacan has in mind when, apropos of cour tly love, he evokes 'th e me aning we must attribu te to the negotiation of the d etour in the psychic economy' : Th e detour in the psyche isn't always designed to regulate the commerce between whatever is organized in the domain of the pleasure principle and wha tever presen ts itself as the structure of reality.
The techniques involved in courtly love- and they are pr ecise enough to allow us to perceive what might on occasion become fact, what is properlyspeaking of the sexual order in the inspiration of this eroticism - are techniques of holding back, of suspension, of amor interruptus.
The stages courtly love lays down previous to what is mysteriously referre d to as le don de merci, 'the gift of mercy' - although we don't know exactlywhat it meant - are expressed more or less in terms that Freud uses in his Time Essays as belonging to the sphere of foreplay.
In a homologous way, we could speak of temporal ana morp hosis: the Obj ect is attai na ble on ly by way of an in ce ssan t po stp onem en t, as its absen t poi n t of refe re nce. The Obj ect, therefore, is liter ally some thing tha t is cre ated - whos e place is en circled - th ro ugh a networ k of detou rs, approximatio ns an d nea r-misses. It is h er e that sublimation se ts in - sublimation in the Laca nian sense of the elevation of an object in to the digni ty of th e T hing: 'su blimation ' occu rs whe n an obj ect, part of ever yday reality, finds itself at th e place of the impossible Thing.
Her ein resid es the fun ction of those art ificial obsta cles th at suddenl y hinder our access to some ordinar y obj ect: th ey elevate the object int o a stand-in for th e Th ing.
This is how the impossible ch anges into th e pro h ibited : by way of th e short circuit between th e Thing and some positive obj ect rendered inaccessible through ar tificial obstacles. The tradition of Lady as the inacc essible object is alive an d well in our cen tury - in surrealism, for example. Su ffice it to recall Luis Bufiuel 's That Obscure Object of Desire, in which a wom an , th ro ugh a seri es of absu rd tricks, po stpones aga in and again th e final mom ent of sexual re-union with her aged lover when , for example, the man fin all y gets her into bed, he discovers ben eath h er nightgown an old -fashioned corset with numerous bu ckle s which are impossible to undo.
Her e we find the logic of courtly love and of su blimatio n at its purest: some common, everyd ay obj ect or ac t becom es innacc essible or impossible to accomplish on ce it finds itself in th e position of the Thing - although the thing should be easily within reach , the entire universe ha s some h ow been adjusted to produce , again and again, an unfathomabl e co n tingency blocking acces s to the object.
It sho u ld be clear, now, what determines the difference with regard to th e u sual dial ecti c of de sire and prohibition: the aim of the prohibition is not to 'raise th e pri ce ' of an object by rendering access to it more difficult, but to rai se thi s o bj ect itself to the level of the Thing, of the 'black hole', arou nd which desire is organized. What Lacan means by sublimation , on the co ntrary, is sh ifting the libido from th e void of th e 'unserviceable' Thing to som e concrete , material o bj ect of need that assumes a su blime quality th e moment it occupies the pl ace of the Thing.
In his Critique of Practical Reason, Kant offers a parable about a libertine who claims that he cannot resist the temp tatio n to gratify his illicit sex ual d esire , 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 ca n resist th e temptation after all proof, for Kant , of the pathological nature o f se xual de sire But for the faithful servant of a Lady the choice is structured in a totally different way: perhaps he would e ven prefer th e gallows to an immediate gratification of his desire for th e Lady.
The Lady therefore functions as a unique short circuit in which theObj ectof desire itselfcoincides with theforce that prevents its attainment - in a way,th e object 'is' its own withdrawal, its own retraction. That is to say, precisely th e same paradox characterizes the phallic signifier qua sign ifie r of castration.
Or - to quote Hegel 's for. There is only one solu tion to this problem: the phallus, the signifier of enjoyment. IS Back to the Lady: are we, therefore. O n closer examination, what co nstitutes this metaph ysical or simply philosophical hubris?
Let us take what might app ea r to be a surprising exam ple. He gel made the same point in asserting that every genus has two species, itself and its species - that is to say, the genus is always one of its own species. The 'philosophi cal' or 'me taphysical' is this very 'absolutization', this elevation of a particular moment of the totality into its Ground, this hubris whi ch 'disrupts' the harmony of a balanced Whole.
Let us mention two approaches to language: that ofJohn L. Austin and that of Oswald Ducrot. Why is it legitimate to treat their work as 'philosophy'? Austin's division of all verbs int o performatives and constatives is not ye t philosophy proper: we en ter the domain of philosophy with his 'unbalanced', 'excessive' hypothesis that ever y pr oposition, including a consta tive, already is a performatiue - that the performative, as one of the two moments of th e Whole, simultan eously is the Whole.
We remain within the dom ain of positive science as long as we simply endeavour to discern in each predicate the level of information and the level of argumentation - that is, the specific modality of how cer tain information 'fits' some argumentative attitude. H e re, of course, we encounter the paradox of 'non-all': the fact that 'no aspect of a predicate's content remains unaffected by some argumentative attitude' does not authorize us to draw the seemingly obvious universal conclusion that 'the entire content of a predicate is argumentative' - the elusive surplus that persists, alth ough it cannot be pinned down anywhere, is the Lacanian Real.
That is to say, 'non-metaphysical' is not a 'balanced' totality devoid of any hubris, a totality or, in more H ei dcggerian terms: the Whole of entities in which no particular aspect or entity is elevated into its Grou nd.
T h e domain of entities gains its consistency from its sup-posited Groun d , so that 'non-metaphysics' can only be an insight into the difference between G rou nd and the elusive Re al wh ic h - al though its positive content 'reality' is grounded in the Ground - no ne th e less el udes and und e r m ines the reign of the Ground.
An d now, back to the Lady again: th is is why 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.
YetI am not more sure that my soul lives, than I am that perverseness is one of the primitive impulses of the human heart. Have we not a perpetual inclination, in the teeth of our best judgment, to violate that which is Law, merely because we understand it to be such?
In theory, no reason can be more unreasonable; but, in fact, there is none more strong Nor will this overwhelming tendency to do wrong for the wrong's sake, admit of analysis, or resolution into ulterior elements.
It isa radical, a primitive impulse - elementary. What we must not overlook he re is the crucial fact that this command - 'You must because you ar e not allowed to I' , that is to say, a purely negative grounding of an act accomplished only because it is pro h ibited - is possible o n ly with in the differe ntial symb olic o rde r in which negative d e te rmi na tion as such has a positive reach - in which the very absence of a fea ture func tio ns as a positivefeature.
Poe 's 'imp of the perverse' therefore m ar ks the poin t at whic h the motivation of an act, as it were , cuts off its external link to empirical objects and grounds itself solely in the immanent circle of self-reference - in short, Poe 's 'im p ' correspo nds to the point of freedo m in th e s trict Kantian sense.
This reference to Kant is far from accidental. According to Kan t, the faculty of desiring does not possess a transcendental status, since it is wholIy dependent upon pathological objects and motivations. 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.
Exemplifications From the thirteenth century to modern times, we encounter numerous variations on this matrix of courtly love. The paradox here turns on the nature of the task the servant must perform in order to earn the promised gesture of Mercy: he must seduce other ladies.
His Ordeal requires that, even at the height of passion, he maintain a cold distance towards his victims: in the very moment of triumph, he must humiliate them by abandoning them without reason, thereby proving his fidelity to the Lady. The Marquise's reaction to Valmont's 'betrayal' is thus strictly ethical: Valmont's excuse is exactly the same as the excuse invoked by moral weaklings when they fail to perform their duty - 'I just couldn't help it, such is my nature, I'm simply not strong enough..
For that reason, the punishment imposed by the Marquise on Valmont is quite appropriate: in renouncing the Presidente de Tourvel, he must have recourse to exactly the same words - that is, he must compose a letter to her, explaining to her that 'it's not his fault' if his passion for her has expired, it's simply the way things are Another variation on the matrix of courtly love emerges in the story of Cyrano de Bergerac and Roxane.
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.
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. 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.
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.
While Fergus falls in love with Dil, she 'maintains an ambiguous ironic, sovereign distance towards him' 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. The Lady is thus perceived as a kind of spiritual guide into th6 higher invisible.
In this precise and limited sense, Lacan concedes that 'the element of sphere of religiOUS ecstasy. Masochism, on the Deprived of every real substance, the Lady functions as a mirror oJ:1 to which contrary, is made to the measure of the victim: it is the; victim the servant in the subject projects his narcissistic ideal.
In other words - those of Christina the masochistic relationship who initiates a contract with the Master woman , Rossetti, whose sonnet 'In an Artist's Studio' speaks ofDante Gabriel Rossetti's authotizing her to humiliate him in any way she considers appropriate within relationship to Elizabeth Siddal, his Lady - the Lady appears 'not as she is, but the terins defined by the contract and binding himself to act 'according to the as she fills his dream'.
It is the servant, therefore, who writes the screenplay - that is, who actually" pulls the strings The mirror mayan occasion imply the mechanisms of narcissism, and especially the and dictates the activity of the woman dominatrix : he stages his own servi- 8 dimension ofdestruction or aggression that we will encounter subsequently. But it also tude. One further differential feature is that masochism, in contrast to sadism, fulfils another role, a role as limit.
It is that which cannot be crossed. And the only is inherendy theatrical: violence is for the most part feigned, and even when it organization in which it participates is that of the inaccessibility of the object. The man-Servant establishes in a cold, businesslike from, "that cold, neutral screen which opens up the space for possible projec- way the terms of the contract with the woman-Master: what she 'is to do to tions?
When they finally pass over to the courtesy and etiquette; it has nothing to do with some elementary passion masochistic game proper, the masochist constantly maintains a kind of reflect- overflowing all barriers, immune to all social rules. We are dealing with a strict ive distance; he never really gives way to his feelings or fully abandons himself fictional formula,.
In his businesslike way: 'Thank you for your favour. Same time next week?
The sadist masochist's most intimate passion: the most intimate desires become objects of and his victim never fonn a complementary 'sado-masochist' couple.
Among contract and composed negotiation. The nature of the masochistic theatre is those features evoked by Deleuze to prove the asymmetry between sadism and therefore thoroughly 'non-psychological': the surrealistic passionate masochis- masochism, the crucial one is the opposition of the modalities of negation.
In tic game, which suspends social reality, none the less fits easily into that sadism. Masochism confronts us with the paradox of the contract. More wear, in the game we play, in the 'fiction' we obey and follow, than in what is precisely, sadism is at work in the obscene, superego underside that necessarily concealed beneath the mask. The very kernel of the masochist's being is externalized In the staged game towards which he maintains his constant, ofloop in which the mis perceived effect of the brutal act upon the victim distance.
And the Real of violence breaks out precisely when the masochist retroactively legitimizes the act: I set out to beat a woman and when, at the is hystericized - when the subject refuses the role of an object-instrum,entof',:,.
Jarnes's A Tastefor Death, the murderer describes the circllIll- stances of the crime, and lets it be known that the factor which resolved his The Courtly 'Imp of the Perverse' indecision and pushed him towards the act the murder was the attitude ofthe victim Sir Paul Berowne : on closer examination, are we to conceptualize the inaccessibility of the L;. The principal mistake to avoid is reducing this 'He wanted to die, God rot him, he wanted it!
He practically asked for it. He could have inaccessibility to the simple dialectic of desire and prohibition according to tried to stop me, pleaded, argued, put up a fight. He could have begged for mercy, "No" ,fb, which we covet the forbidden fruit precisely in so far as it is forbidden - or, to please don't do it.
Just that one word He knew then. Of course he knew. An obstacle is required in order to heighten libido; and where natural resistances 'He didn't even look surprised. He was supposed to be terrified. He was supposed to , to satisfaction have not been sufficient men have at all times erected conventional ones prevent it from happening He just looked at me as if he were saying "So it's you.
Just an instrument.
And so did he. Christ, he could have stopped me. Why didn't Within this perspective, courtly love appears as simply the most radical strategy he stop me? When, in his seminar Encore, Lacan provides the most succinct Several days before his death, Sir Paul Berowne experienced an 'inner break- fannulation ofthe paradox ofcourtly love, he says something that is apparently down' resembling symbolic death: he stepped down as a Government Ministet 'similar, yet fundamentally different: 'A very refined manner to supplant the and cut all his principal 'human ties', assuming thereby the 'excremental' ,absence of the sexual relationship is by feigning that it is us who put the position of a saint, of objet petit a, which precludes any intersubjective relation obstacle,in its way.
The victim, however, did not give any such sign, which would have sub-- The place of the Lady-Thing is originally empty: she functions as a kind of jectivized the murderer, acknowledging him as a divided subject. Sir Paul's 'black hole' around which the subject's desire is structured.
The space of desire attitude of non-resistance, of indifferent provocation, objectivized the mur- is bent like space in the theory of relativity; the only way to reach the Object- derer, reducing him to an instrument of the Other's will, and so left him with Lady is indirectly, in a devious, meandering way - proceeding straight on no choice.
In short, what compelled the murderer to act was the experience of ensures that we miss the target. This is what Lacan has in mind when, apropos having his desire to kill the victim coincide with the victim's death drive.
She really wants me to hurt her, she compels me to beat her so that she can enjoy it - so I'll beat her black and blue The detour in the psyche isn't always designed to regulate the commerce between and teach her what it really means to provoke me!