Jacques Lacan in the Mirror: the Real v. the Imaginary and Symbolic

The Real as illustrated in courtly love. In his essay, “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing” (1994) cultural critic Slavoj Zizek (b. 1949) presents courtly love—knight-Lady romance as ritualized in the European Middle Ages—through a Lacanian lens (Jacques Lacan, the psychoanalyst popularly dubbed the “French Freud”). Courtly love, on Zizek’s reading, is representative of our existential problem as such. The reality, according to him (and, always by extension, Lacan), is that we are in the midst of a universe that simply is not comprehensible to us; it neither answers to our most narcissistic desires (such as to live forever without suffering), nor makes sense when we press our questions beyond a certain point. For example, “What kind of universe is this, that the Holocaust happened in it?” When we ask such a question, neither God nor the universe speaks; they are mute; their radical otherness resists comprehension.

Zizek, following the psychoanalytic terminology of Jacques Lacan, calls this Thing—Freud’s das Ding—that does not speak and resists being spoken about “the Real that ‘always returns to its place’, the hard kernel that resists symbolization.”

In support of his claim, Zizek does not quote Friedrich Nietzsche, but Nietzsche, in his essay, “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense” (1873), seems to anticipate Lacan’s notion of the Real in writing the following:

What do human beings really know about themselves? Are they even capable of perceiving themselves in their entirety just once, stretched out as in an illuminated glass case? Does nature not remain silent about almost everything, even about our bodies, banishing and enclosing us within a proud, illusory consciousness, far away from the twists and turns of the bowels, the rapid flow of the blood stream and the complicated tremblings of the nerve-fibers? Nature has thrown away the key, and woe betide fateful curiosity should it ever succeed in peering through a crack in the chamber of consciousness, out and down into the depths, and thus gain an intimation of the fact that humanity, in the indifference of its ignorance, rests on the pitiless, the greedy, the insatiable, the murderous—clinging in dreams, as it were, to the back of a tiger.

This is the Lacanian Real before Lacan and assists us in understanding Zizek’s interpretation of the Lady’s role in courtly love. Contra the usual interpretation (that the Lady is ideal spirituality, a symbol of purity to the man), Zizek sees her as enacting “an inhuman partner,” a monster, a machine producing capriciousness and sadism in ways akin to nature and the biblical Yahweh:

The knight’s relationship to the Lady is thus the relationship of the subject-bondsman, the 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 […] The Lady is thus as far as possible from any kind of purified spirtuality: 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.

In other words, the Lady is the inscrutable Most High (or the blind machinery of Nature, depending on whether you want to think of the relationship in theist or atheist terms), and the knight is akin to the children of Israel in Babylonian exile or the biblical Job who, in his suffering, asks “Why?” The Lady enacting the Lacanian Real does not respond; she is opaque and capricious.

The Imaginary and the Symbolic. So how do we deal with the opaque and capricious Real? In Lacanian terms, in two ways: (1) by framing it with rose-colored glasses; and (2) by changing the subject of the Real to things we can actually talk about. These two methods constitute the Imaginary and Symbolic solutions to our bleak existential situation; the ways in which we construct an alternative reality for coping with the Real. And so Zizek writes:

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 is to 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 of Dante Gabriel Rosetti’s relationship to Elizabeth Siddal, his Lady—the Lady appears ‘not as she is, but as she fills his dream’.

The mirror. Note the mirror in the above passage, for it is crucial to understanding the Lacanian argument that Zizek is making. In Lacan’s system, the mirror brings together the disparate parts of one’s own body into a singular focus: when you look in it you see yourself as you cannot see yourself elsewhere, as whole. On gazing at yourself whole, you are no longer a Dionysian disembodied hand here, a nose smelling there, a foot stepping forward from your left there. You are now stopped in your tracks, as in a photograph; an Apollonian image comprehended and framed, set apart from all the rest of creation; apart from the Dionysian Real.

So this mirror image is not the Real you; it’s a reduced image of you, the Imaginary you; the you that reduces the unspeakable you—the always shifting you, the particulars of you—into something that is not you but that you take to be you, the whole you. And thus Zizek asks a question:

[W]here does that empty surface [of the mirror] 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 narcissisic 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 mirror’s emptiness, in other words, provides a hint to what the Real is really like (that is, empty and impersonal, but the prerequisite for the endless play of passing forms), and what appears before it and conceals it is the Imaginary (as the cloud that conceals the ground or the sun from your vision, depending on your vantage).

The Imaginary tames the vampire. Stepping before a mirror, or placing someone else or something before a mirror, is the framing gesture that blocks the mirror’s unbounded nature. It also blocks the unbounded nature of its subjects; that is, you and me. The Imaginary in the mirror assures us of a comprehensible identity, and suggests why the vampire’s inability to see his own reflection in a mirror is so unsettling: he is revealed to be without borders; beyond comprehension; the Thing.

So the knight must set up the Lady before a mirror: it tames her capriciousness and conceals her inhuman and vampiric nature (even as he projects his own vampiric nature away from himself). In plucking out her terrible mystery—the Real—and replacing it with an intelligible reflection, a comprehensible Imaginary, he also assures himself that he is comprehensible, and not also a terrible mystery; the mystery of being.

But this is not all the knight does. He also makes the Imaginary—that is, his reflection of the Lady back to himself in a manner comprehensible to himself—a taboo boundary for his own gazing and speaking: a flaming sword for blocking Eden. Beyond this boundary he must not pass. The Lady’s reflection is his limit. Here’s Zizek quoting Lacan: “[The mirror] fulfills another role, a role as limit. It is that which cannot be crossed.”

The Imaginary, the Symbolic, and sadomasochism. The images that hide the mirror’s limit—the realm of passing forms, the Imaginary—is supported by the Symbolic, the realm of language; the third element in Lacan’s trinity of the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic. In courtly love, the Symbolic appears in the form of a masochistic contract with the “Lady-Thing” in which her dominance and the knight’s submission are ironically staged: “The next crucial feature of courtly love is that it is thoroughly a matter of courtesy and etiquette; […]” Courtly love enacts an inferior bowing politely before and entreating a superior, submitting to her whims, without it ever resulting in coitus (union); it enacts the hierarchy and sadism of the Real (in the poet Tennyson’s phrase, “nature red in tooth and claw,” and the muteness of God in providing an explanation for this arrangement of things).

Courtly love’s sadomasochistic theatre plays out the persistent frustration of desire and it does so via ambiguity, anamorphosis (distortions of form), betrayal, blocking, capricious demands, castration, concealment, deadlock, delay, deprivation, detour, difficulty, disruption, hindrance, impotence, inaccessibility, indirection, impediment, impossibility, interposition, intrusion, invasion, irony, meander, obscurity, obstacle, ordeal, postponement, prohibition, shock, the spectral, suspension, and trauma. It obeys Emily Dickinson’s admonition to tell the truth, “but tell it slant.” Or, as Zizek puts it:

[C]ourtly love appears as simply the most radical strategy for elevating the value of the object by putting up conventional obstacles to its attainability. . . . The place of the Lady-Thing is originally empty [like a mirror]: she functions as a kind of ‘black hole’ around which the subject’s desire is structured. […] 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’ […]

Courtly love in enacting the “negotiation of a detour” never actually arrives at its destination.

Film noir, love, and the answering Object. Zizek sees in the genre of film noir a modern enactment of the dark side of courtly love:

The definitive version of courtly love in recent decades, of course, arrives in the figure of the femme fatale in film noir: the traumatic Woman-Thing who, through her greedy and capricious demands, brings ruin to the hard-boiled hero. […]

[I]f we bear in mind the original traumatic impact of the Lady, not its secondary idealization, the connection is clear: like the Lady, the femme fatale is an ‘inhuman partner’, a traumatic Object with whom no relationship is possible, an apathetic void imposing senseless, arbitrary ordeals.

Is there any way out of this horrible state of affairs? Zizek suggests that there is. In the absence of God’s appearance on the scene—some deus ex machina—setting all things right, it arrives as love, “the sublime moment when eromenos (the loved one) changes into erastes (the loving one) by stretching out her hand and ‘returning love’. This moment designates the ‘miracle’ of love, the moment of the ‘answer of the Real.'” For Zizek, love is acceptance and mercy:

I am truly in love not when I am simply fascinated by the agalma [image] in the other, but when I experience the other, the object of love, as frail and lost, as lacking ‘it’, and my love none the less survives this loss. […]

And perhaps, in courtly love itself, the long-awaited moment of highest fulfilment, when the Lady renders Gnade, mercy, to her servant, is not the Lady’s surrender, her consent to the sexual act, nor some mysterious rite of initiation, but simply a sign of love on the part of the Lady, the ‘miracle’ that the Object answered, stretching its hand out towards the supplicant.

But is the sadomasochistic theatre of courtly love and its resolution in acceptance, sympathetic communication, and mercy just a distinctively male and heterosexual fantasy? Zizek thinks not, arguing that, when it comes to sex, both genders and all sexual orientations are caught in hierarchical dilemmas posed by the bottomless inhuman partner that dwells, Oz-like, behind the curtain of the lover’s image; that is, the Real.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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One Response to Jacques Lacan in the Mirror: the Real v. the Imaginary and Symbolic

  1. Pingback: I found more clouds of grey than any Russian play could guarantee… Are love songs evil? | Only The Sangfroid

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