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 rather nicely 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 the Lady’s role in courtly love. Contra the usual interpretation (that the Lady is ideal spirituality, a symbol of purity to the man, as Beatrice was to Dante), Zizek actually locates 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 realtionship 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 (one know the sad state of personal hygeine 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 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.
The 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.
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 the children of Israel in Babylonian exile or Job who, in his suffering, asks “Why?” The Lady enacting the Lacanian Real does not respond; she is, in short, opaque and capricious.
So how do we deal with the opaque and capricious Real? 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, in Lacanian terms, 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’.
Note the mirror in this 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 the Real is really like (that is, empty and impersonal, but the prerequisite for the endless play of passing narcissistic 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). Stepping before a mirror, or placing someone else before a mirror, is the narcissistic 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 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.
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 may on occasion imply the mechanism 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.
This Imaginary limit 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 in which her dominance and his submission are ironically staged:
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 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 . . . masochism, . . . 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. . . .
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. . . . 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 disavowel which enables us to grasp the fundamental paradox of the masochistic attitude. That is to say, how does the typical masochistic scene look? . . . [T]he 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.
Courtly love, in other words, enacts as Imaginary and Symbolic masochistic theatre 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). This 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. In short, 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 point, therefore, is not simply that we set up additional conventional hindrances in order to heighten the value of the object: external hindrances that thwart our access to the object are there precisely to create the illusion that wihout them, the object would 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 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:
After this painful revelation, the relationship between the two is reversed . . . It is only at this point that true love emerges, love as a metaphor in the precise Lacanian sense: we witiness 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’; . . .
And it is only by way of this reversal that a genuine love emerges: 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 masochistic theatre of courtly love just a heterosexual male hang-up? Slovak 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:
The problem is that once the relationship between the two sexes is conceived of as a symmetrical, reciprocal, voluntary partnership or contract, the fantasy matrix which first emerged in courtly love remains in power. Why? In so far as sexual difference is a Real that resists symbolization, the sexual relationship is condemned to remain an assymetrical non-relationship in which the Other, our partner, prior to being a subject, is a Thing, an ‘inhuman partner’; as such, the sexual relationship cannot be transposed into the symmetrical relationship between pure subjects. The bourgeois principle of contract between equal subjects can be applied to sexuality only in the form of the perverse—masochistic—contract in which, paradoxically, the very form of balanced contract serves to establish a relationship of domination. It is no accident that in the so-called alternative sexual practices (‘sadomasochistic’ lesbian and gay couples) the Master-and-Slave relationship reemerges with a vengeance, including all the ingredients of the masochistic theatre. In other words, we are far from inventing a new ‘formula’ capable of replacing the matrix of courtly love.