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Past, present, future perfect: paradigms of history in medievalism studies.

Brian Helgeland's film, A Knight's Tale, is usually taken to exemplify a paradigm of desire compatible with a capitalist narrative of continuous acquisition and achievement. In the film, another form of desire is evident, however, at odds with the capitalist narrative. Helgeland has introduced elements of that paradigm of desire usually termed courtly love, based on the deferral or renunciation of satisfaction. These elements appear to have been drawn from one of the seminal narratives of courtly love, Chretien de Troyes' Lancelot. Since the study of a medieval or a medievalist text always involves a kind of historiography, a comparison of these two texts, viewed in the light of psychoanalytic understandings of desire and the history of desire, offers a way of investigating theories of history which underpin medievalism studies.

'[C]ourtly love has ... left traces in ... a traditional unconscious that is sustained by a whole literature, a whole imagery, that we continue to inhabit.' (Jacques Lacan) (1)

'History does not explain a discourse, it frames it and defines its conditions of acceptability; fixing the parameters from which a question--or a discourse--can articulate itself at a given moment in time.' (Jean-Charles Huchet) (2)

'History is not the past. History is the past in so far as it is historicised in the present--historicised in the present because it was lived in the past.' (Jacques Lacan) (3)

How we study a medievalist text is always a question of history since it asks for a theorization of our relation to a past. Although the three quotations which herald this paper are all psychoanalytic accounts, each suggests rather different ways of understanding this relation. This article traces the appearance and function of desire in two narrative texts, one a twelfth-century French roman, written c. 1176, (4) the other a medievalist film made in 2001. (5) My hope is that a comparison of these two texts will offer a way in to a consideration of the three accounts of history.

In the first quotation, Lacan asserts that we 'still inhabit' traces of the discourse we know as courtly love; that is, as I understand him, that this structure of desire has not altered significantly since its appearance in eleventh-century Occitania with the troubadours. Its manifestations are all around us. In the second quotation, Huchet (a Lacanian medievalist), also referring to the discourse of courtly love as it arose in troubadour lyric, offers a more elaborated view. He poses courtly love as a similarly long-lived structure, but suggests that it is presented within changing parameters to render it acceptable in different historical contexts. In the passage preceding this quotation, Huchet cites some of the factors most commonly offered by historians as influencing the eruption of the troubadour lyric, among them that 'the high mortality rate of women in childbirth made the woman a rare object and therefore precious'. (6)

But Huchet questions the assumption that such historical factors produced the troubadour discourse 'and the erotic which it supports'; instead, they 'rendered it allowable as discourse by a certain society'. (7) The questions this raises--which I cannot hope to tackle here--are legion, beginning with: how does a change in discourse come about if not by way of historical factors? What could explain, produce or cause a change in discourse? Does anything explain, produce, or cause it? Is a discourse an 'event' or an effect which requires a historical cause to justify its existence? Sarah Kay, hoping to absolve Lacan of the taint of ahistoricism, suggests that he poses 'a historical link between medieval poetry and the modern self', (8) citing as evidence a passage in his Ethics seminar: 'I do believe the influence of this poetry has been decisive for us'. (9) But these words do not address my questions, since they suggest, not that the discourse of courtly love has a historical cause, but rather that it has an effect in history.

The third quotation poses a history in reverse. In his first seminar (1953-54), Lacan approaches history, the analysand's history, as an 'apres coup', a translation of Freud's 'nachtraglichkeit'; in other words, it is a retroactive history which operates '[not] from the past to the future [but] from the future to the past'. (10) This is a history of a more fluid kind, a 'mobile relation'. (11) In 'The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis' delivered around the same time (1953) and published in Ecrits, Lacan goes further, introducing the future anterior (or future perfect) tense as what is realized in a history:
   What is realized in my history is not the past definite of what
   was, since it is no more, or even the present perfect of what has
   been in what I am, but the future anterior of what I shall have
   been for what I am in the process of becoming. (12)


Future perfect suggests a more active historiography, whereby the subject, through action--a becoming--alters the trajectory between past and future.

I. Hunter and Prey: The Capitalist Narrative

A Knight's Tale is often seen to exemplify what Kathleen Forni calls the 'capitalist master narrative', (13) in which the man of prowess can change his stars and win the spoils. In addition to winning the World Championship for jousting, William also 'gets the girl', (14) who, from this angle, could be seen as just another of the spoils of victory. Like the lyrics of 'We are the Champions', he has 'no time for losers', or for losing. (15) But the picture is more complicated. William has another side, at odds with this unproblematically 'joust do it' modus vivendi. This tension is noted by a puzzled reviewer in the New York Times, Elvis Mitchell, who comments:
   But "A Knight's Tale" is half anachronistic, in ways that don't
   make sense. The way William courts Jocelyn is slightly puzzling.
   She is just as brash as William; with her physical confidence, she
   seems just as capable of jousting as he is. It seems old-fashioned
   for her to wait around for him to court her. (16)


Mitchell is right. A Knight's Tale doesn't entirely make sense. Jocelyn and William both hang back from courtship in ways that belie the 'joust do it' slogan. I believe this failure to make sense is related to the devious workings of desire in the film. Desire itself doesn't make sense; according to Lacan, it is distinguished from need by its 'paradoxical, deviant, erratic, eccentric, even scandalous character'. (17) For Lacan, it is desire, always unconscious desire, which creates those anachronisms so apparent in our daily lives, named, since Freud, parapraxes: the slips, the accidents, our unaccountable failures to achieve what is within our grasp, or our equally mysterious inability to prevent the preventable disasters. I would like to tease out some of these workings of desire and the effects of anachronism they produce in A Knight's Tale, troubling the ideological calm of the capitalist master narrative. But, as I hope to show, the capitalist master narrative is itself an articulation of desire, as distinguished from need. It is an articulation which Lacan calls 'a derangement of the instinct ... caught in the rails--eternally stretching forth towards the desire for something else--of metonymy'. (18) But this desire is naturalized in our culture; our economy (an economy of supposed perpetual growth) functions via this metonymy and it is imperative that we fail to notice its insanity; consumer confidence must be protected.

Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) calls William (Heath Ledger) a hunter. When he demands to know her name she responds: 'What would you do with my name, sir hunter? Call me a fox for that is all I am to you'.19 Jocelyn expects to be seen as one of the spoils of prowess. But William is only half a hunter, half a capitalist. When Chaucer tells him he is aiming high by setting his sights on Jocelyn, he responds: 'If there's another way to aim, I don't know it' (Shooting Script, p. 36). This sounds like the "Joust do it" style. Here he is a hunter, keeping his eye on the target, as he does in the jousting. By keeping his eye on the target he risks being pierced through the slit in his visor. Most knights protect their eyes by raising their chins at the last moment. Jocelyn comments: 'A true hunter' (Shooting Script, p. 41).

But William renounces the target metaphor when it comes to Jocelyn. Strictly speaking he doesn't 'get the girl'. He moves to a position where getting the girl, in the sense of an acquisition, is no longer an option. For him, as for the fin'amant of courtly lyric, possession is all on her side. This reversal poses a disruption of the film's ideological homogeneity, as in this exchange:

Jocelyn: Your name makes no matter to me. So long as I can call you my own.

William: I am your own.

(Shooting Script, p. 91)

In London William accuses Adhemar:

William: You talk about Jocelyn like she's a target.

Adhemar: Isn't she?

William: No. She's the arrow

(Shooting Script, p. 97)

For Adhemar Jocelyn is the target, a trophy to be gained and displayed. For William, the metaphor suggests, Jocelyn is not the end in view but the driving force of his desire.

Lacan conceived a term for the object in this reversed relation with desire: objet (petit) a. In Seminar X of 1962 -63, he posed the question: 'Is the object of desire out in front?', to which he replied that what looks like its object 'ought to be conceived by us as the cause of desire ... the object is behind desire'. (20) Ten years later, in Seminar XX, he conflated the two as 'object-cause':
   the substance of what is supposedly object-like ... is in fact that
   which constitutes a remainder in desire, namely, its cause, and
   sustains desire through its lack of satisfaction ... and even its
   impossibility. (21)


With a concept of 'object-cause' of desire it is easy to see how common-sense notions of causality and temporality are unsettled. If the desired object were simply out in front--the target--and exactly what it seemed, then 'just do it' would work every time. But what if what was desired did not inhere in any object but was instead the 'arrow' which 'sustains desire through its lack of satisfaction ... its impossibility'? What if that object, so apparently substantial, were a mere semblance, as Lacan insists? In that case, desire could never rest, never find a home; I believe that is the case. Once achieved, the ostensible object of desire is stripped of its glamour; it is found not to house the impalpable, impossible objet a.

Desire takes different paths to disguise this impossibility. The desirer can 'fail' to achieve the object, thus preserving its sublime status, its semblance to objet a; this is the path of courtly love. Alternatively, one can survive the disappointments of fulfilment by blaming the hapless object and moving on eagerly to the next semblance. If one source of contemporary enjoyment is the unending acquisition of goods and achievements, then the other is what Lacan, following Freud, called the enjoyments of foreplay:
   It is only insofar as the pleasure of desiring, or, more precisely,
   the pleasure of experiencing unpleasure, is sustained that we can
   speak of the sexual valorisation of the preliminary stages of the
   act of love. (22)


That response which is expressed in endless acquisition or achievement is called by Lacan metonymic. Desire is metonymic because it is beyond what we are able to formulate in language as a demand:
   It is precisely to the extent that the demand always under- or
   overshoots itself, because it articulates itself through the
   signifier, it always demands something else; that in every
   satisfaction of a need, it insists on something else; that the
   satisfaction formulated spreads out and conforms to this gap; that
   desire is formed as something supporting this metonymy, namely, as
   something the demand means beyond whatever it is able to formulate.
   (23)


The confusion in A Knight's Tale results from the uneasy cohabitation of these two responses to desire's impossibility: the deferral of satisfaction in favour of the pleasurable unpleasure of desire and the unending quest for 'something else'.

These two paths have a particular significance for literature. The first, the preservation of the object in its sublime state, relies on an endless deferral of fulfilment which finds its most comfortable literary accommodation in pure lyric, in particular the lyric of courtly love. Desire is enjoyable in a painful kind of way, and so we don't want it to stop. What can offer more erotic enjoyment than a certain form of sexual deprivation? As troubadour Arnaut Daniel's lover admits, he wishes to stay eternally poised between the asking and the response: '[I]n my asking I've become so adroit I haven't the slightest desire for anything else'. (24) Courtly lyric stops time in its tracks; the beloved lady remains in a never-to-be-ached future so that desire will never be subjected to the devastating corrosions which follow attainment: radical disillusionment for the lover and desublimation for the beloved.

The second, metonymic aspect of desire, however, is narrative to the core. The capitalist master narrative is precisely a narrative, the narrative of the 'stretching forth' for one thing after another. Capitalism thrives on the metonymy of desire. Here, the mysterious glamour of objet a moves incessantly from one object to the next; why else would we replace one perfectly good fridge with another? Capitalism would not survive a day in lyric, in courtly lyric at least, which rests in the hic et nunc, preferring deferral to acquisition. There is a third path for desire in literature, however, which occurs when the sublimations of courtly love are translated into narrative.

II. The Third Way: The Sublime in Narrative

In my opinion, the greatest challenge the discourse of courtly love has encountered has been in the process of its co-option into narrative; the anachronisms begin here with the necessity to bring these warring aspects of desire within the framework of a single text and a single literary form. How is an erotics of deferral, conceived in lyric, to be accommodated in a story, which runs on the fuel of metonymy? It can be achieved, however, and its imperatives then determine the structure of the text. Something must intervene continually in the linear progress of narrative temporality, holding up the action or diverting it, by which means it introduces something of the timelessness of the lyric into narrative. In the process, this intervention contests the claims which narrative makes of the continuity and coherence of the desiring subject and the consistency of his/her desires.

In medieval literature, the roman best exemplifies the challenges of accommodating the courtly love ethos in narrative. But the same challenges beset more recent forms of narrative, the novel and the film. How often, in film for instance, is a story spun on the thwarting of erotic expectations, as in, for instance, Luis Bunuel's L'Age d'or or That Obscure Object of Desire?

There are other possibilities for accommodation, however. The first allows renunciation to replace deferral, as in quest literature, where honour obliges the lover to leave his lady for some high purpose. In her absence she is again withdrawn and can thereby retain her status as semblance of objet a. The second is the quarrel or misunderstanding, also occasioning retraction of the object, but with the added erotic intensification provided by the lover's remorse and uncertainty; this is the method employed in A Knight's Tale. (25) It is also employed in Chretien de Troyes' Lancelot, which is significant both for its resemblances to A Knight's Tale and its differences.

III. Chretien, Andreas Capellanus, and Helgeland

I was curious to know what Helgeland had read of medieval literature and how notions of courtly love had found their way into his film. He mentions reading, among other things, 'a medieval treatise on the art of courtly love in fourteenth century France' (Shooting Script, p. viii). I have not yet found anything that corresponds to that description but I wondered if he had simply moved Andreas Capellanus' On Love forward a couple of centuries to fit his period. Nickolas Haydock suggests that Helgeland was inspired more by Maurice Keen's introduction to chivalry than by 'anything Chaucer wrote'. (26) Keen refers to Andreas Capellanus, also to his contemporary, Chretien de Troyes. (27)

Both men, by their own account, were associated with the court of Marie de Champagne at Troyes. Chretien dedicates his roman to Marie and claims, in the opening lines, to be no more than her humble scribe. Speaking of himself in the third person, he insists: 'The material and the treatment of [the Lancelot] are given and furnished to him by the Countess, and he is simply trying to carry out her concern and intention'. (28) Andreas, for his part, cites Marie on ten occasions and credits her with seven of the love-judgements included in his treatise, including the celebrated judgement that 'love cannot extend its sway over a married couple'.29 Gaston Paris 'embodies the practice of love corresponding to Andreas's theory', an idea not contradicted by reading them together. (30)

It certainly appears that Marie's court at Troyes fostered the promulgation of courtly notions of love inspired by the troubadour lyric. Marie was the daughter of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, herself the granddaughter of the first known troubadour, William, Duke of Aquitaine and Count of Poitiers. Chretien was one of the earliest of the trouveres, the northern counterparts of the troubadours. In addition to his romans he wrote a few of these same songs of fin'amors inspired by the troubadour canso. By these means (among others), a conception of desire arising in lyric found its way into narrative and encountered the constraints peculiar to it. (31)

Helgeland appears to draw on Andreas. 'Love', says Andreas, beginning his book, 'is an inborn suffering which results from the sight of, and uncontrolled thinking about, the beauty of the other sex'. (32) This certainly meets the case for A Knight's Tale. When William first sees Jocelyn, who should remind us, we are directed, of Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' (Shooting Script, p. 22), he falls immediately into a trance. 'Cupid's arrow is so deep in him, it might be fatal' comments Helgeland, taking up the narrator's role (p. 22); the arrow of love metaphor begins here, at first sight. William then, successively, nearly runs down a char-woman, smacks into a wooden pig outside a butcher's shop (pp. 22-23), and inadvertently rides into Rouen cathedral (p. 23).

Chretien's Lancelot, it must be said, always goes one better than William. He is the champion lover of the world, extolled by Chretien's narrator as a 'perfect lover' (p. 318), and Love's favourite son (p. 286). He will always outstrip the sometimes reluctant William in the courtly love-stakes. The narrator reveals that, when Lancelot thinks of Guinevere,
   [h]is thoughts are such that he totally forgets himself, and he
   knows not whether he is alive or dead, forgetting even his own
   name, not knowing whether he is armed or not, or whither he is
   going or whence he came.

        (p. 279)


For a champion fighter, not knowing whether he is armed or not might be considered an even less forgivable lapse than not knowing his name; Lancelot's love for Guinevere threatens to overcome his competence as a knight or even his interest in knightly pursuits. This intrusion of love's madness into the valorized realm of chivalry is a site of major tension in both roman and film. William's forgetfulness has a homely quality suitable to a man of the people but Lancelot's is perhaps even more ludicrous, certainly more extreme. (33)

Keen refers to a scene in Chretien's Lancelot where Guinevere instructs Lancelot to 'do his worst', that is, deliberately lose the tournament. (34) Helgeland must have read this scene, perhaps the entire roman, and has responded with one of his own for the film, which is instructive in its differences. The most striking difference is in the way William and Jocelyn struggle with their imposed roles in this regard; for Lancelot there is no struggle; in this he demonstrates his superiority as a fin'amant. In the scene where Lancelot is preparing to fight in the tournament, Guinevere sends him word, via a damsel, bidding him to 'do his worst':

"Sire, my lady the Queen sends you word by me that you shall do your 'worst'". When he heard this, he replied: "Very willingly," like one who is altogether hers. ... From that time till evening fell he continued to do as badly as possible in accordance with the Queen's desire. But the other, who fought with him ... struck him with such violence that he was roughly handled. Thereupon he took to flight, and after that he never turned his horse's head toward any knight, and were he to die for it, he would never do anything unless he saw in it his shame, disgrace and dishonour; he even pretends to be afraid of all the knights who pass to and fro

(Chretien, pp. 341-42)

When, on the following day, the queen bids the damsel tell Lancelot to now 'do his best' he replies: 'Tell her now that it is never hardship to do her will, for whatever pleases her is my delight' (p. 344). The damsel comments to the queen: 'Lady, I never saw so courteous a knight, for he is more than ready to obey every command you send to him, for if the truth be known, he accepts good and evil with the same countenance' (p. 345). At this point the struggle is over for Lancelot. Win or lose, pride or utter humiliation, it is all one to him. He lives to please his divinity; that is his 'delight'.

William, on the other hand, puts up a terrific fight when Jocelyn makes the same suggestion. Briskly sorted in the Lancelot it takes a number of scenes to transplant this awkward material into the body of the film without triggering its immediate rejection. When Jocelyn issues her command, in Notre Dame cathedral, William refuses point blank: 'I will not lose', underscored for emphasis in the script (Shooting Script, p. 84). She is asking him to throw the match! Jocelyn, on her side, is made to justify her position. Guinevere, secure in her dominance, makes no such attempt. Her unconcern is horrifying; she is, in this moment, what Lacan calls an 'inhuman partner ... "cruel as the tigers of Ircania"'. (35) This is a horror which A Knight's Tale works very hard to damp down.

Here is Jocelyn:

Jocelyn: If you would prove your love you should do your worst.

...

Instead of winning to honor me with your high reputation, I want you to act against your normal character and do badly.

...

William: But losing proves nothing except that I'm a loser! [The capitalist narrative is fighting back!]

Jocelyn: Wrong. Losing is a much keener test of your love for me. Losing would contradict your self-love. Losing would prove your obedience to your lover, not to yourself!

(p. 83)

William does not know the rules of courtly love. He has been suddenly transported into an alien universe which scuttles his entire ideology of upward mobility via continuous achievement (his vow to 'change his stars', p. 5); his identity is in tatters. For the two women the issue is roughly the same. Both demand total obedience as a proof of love and submission but Jocelyn is obliged to spell out her motivations to an incredulous William, to make a case for her tyrannical demand. Guinevere offers and Lancelot requires no justification whatsoever. This dynamic is familiar territory for them.

The film's audience has already been well-prepared for a suitable reception to the scene in Notre Dame. Back in Rouen, two callow young knights promise a 'stunningly bored' Jocelyn to win the tournament for her (p. 35). Adhemar, more formally, sends the same message via Christiana, Jocelyn's maid, in a scene not included in the script. In Notre Dame, William 'unfortunate[ly]' echoes their words in his brash offer (p. 82). Jocelyn has demanded poetry and this is William's response:

William: The tournament. I'll win it in your name. Every knight I defeat, I defeat for you. Your beauty will be reflected in the power of my arm, the flanks of my horse.

Jocelyn: Really? Its flanks?

(p. 82)

The audience is asked to accept Jocelyn's annoyance at this adolescent goofiness as an adequate motivation for her insistence on absolute obedience and to obligingly overlook the extravagance of her demand. William's offence and Jocelyn's dissatisfaction with her position are proffered as sufficient reasons for her merciless insistence on his public humiliation.

There are more such attempts at damping down in the following scene at the tournament. Jocelyn alternately winces and smiles as William takes blow after blow without defending himself, 'frozen like a statue' (p. 87). He also plays the scene very differently from Lancelot, suggesting more a Christ-like stoicism than Lancelot's wholehearted, even hammed-up self-abasement. But the attempt to humanize Jocelyn by demonstrating her compassion only makes more apparent how unlikely it is that she would ever have issued such a command in the first place. Jocelyn is no inhuman partner; Sossamon does not have the chutzpah to carry off that despotic role. One critic refers to her as a 'charisma-free zone'; unkind but true. (36) If Helgeland had wanted a Guinevere anything like Chretien's he would not have cast Sossamon. (37)

It is curious that Helgeland introduces such awkward material and then makes such clumsy (and unsuccessful) attempts to tuck it out of sight. (38) It demonstrates both the power and persistence of the courtly love paradigm and its ultimate unacceptability, which is the unacceptability of unconscious desire; it is unwelcome knowledge. Lacan said, quite late in his career, at the start of Seminar XX, that what had 'constituted [his] course was a sort of "I don't want to know anything about it"'. (39) We would simply rather not know.

IV. Back to the Paradigms

My task now is to apply the three paradigms of history to my two texts, separated by nearly nine centuries, and see what each turns up. I will begin with an amalgamation of the first and second since they are compatible: Lacan's assertion that courtly love is still with us, but, as Huchet contended, framed within different parameters to render it acceptable to a different audience. It must be admitted that A Knight's Tale is a good test-case for the first part of this claim. It incorporates the identical tropes of courtly love into a contemporary discourse. Where the difficulty arises is that, to my eye, the film is incapable of rendering these tropes acceptable; they stick out like sore thumbs. Helgeland's possibly ambivalent attempts to assimilate the unassimilable of courtly desire into his 'capitalist master narrative' fail at every point.

But it seems that Chretien's introduction of courtly love motifs into his Lancelot has also failed the acceptability test. This certainly holds true for modern critics who have done all they can to paper over its glaring inconsistencies.40 According to Jean Frappier, critics have credited Chretien with a distaste for his matiere in the Lancelot, ostensibly dictated to him by Marie, citing as evidence his apparent disclaimer in the dedication,41 and the fact that he, supposedly, handed on the job of finishing the roman to Godefroi de Leigni. Frappier himself commented:
   How could [Chretien] render credible a hero who was a paragon of
   physical prowess and energy, and at the same time a lover
   ecstatically submissive to a tyrannical divinity? How transfer from
   lyric to narrative form the love concepts of the troubadours? How
   harmonize the ideal of a hero who is a free agent and dominates his
   fate with the ideal of a hero who is a slave to his mistress. (42)


I am not so sure of Chretien's distaste. I think he may have relished the challenge (while disclaiming responsibility), and, unlike the critics, revelled in the bizarre results. But Frappier has captured the difficulty: courtly desire wreaks chaos in narrative. What might just pass muster in lyric becomes patently absurd in narrative. The lover's abject submission and his lady's capricious tyranny are exaggerated in narrative and far more visible. Narrative provides a screen by which the imagination takes hold more tenaciously than lyric allows as the qualities of lover and lady are substantialized through action in time.

The interesting thing is that medieval texts demonstrated an equal, though differently articulated, anxiety about what surfaces in narratives of courtly love and a desire to subject these texts to some overarching explanation in the hope of ironing out their inconsistencies and defusing the sense of galloping insanity which they produce. Perhaps courtly love has never been acceptable in narrative. In the early thirteenth-century Vulgate Lancelot, Derek Pearsall suggests, a 'great arch of destiny is projected upon the old mysterious incoherencies'. (43) A grid of 'coherent motivation' is imposed. (44) In the Vulgate version, Pearsall argues, this coherence was provided by a clerically inspired 'indictment of secular chivalry'. (45)

Both the Vulgate Lancelot and A Knight's Tale attempt to pull the teeth of courtly desire by means of an overarching ideological framework. Chretien, on the other hand, lets all the sore thumbs stick out, allowing his hero and heroine to go to extremes without any attempt to disguise, justify, or explain the remarkable inconsistencies in their behaviour. The queen is utterly merciless one moment, plunged into remorse the next, eager for sex the next. Lancelot is monumental in his inconsistency. This is what gives them their mythic status. William and Jocelyn are cut down to size (the size Hollywood allows) by the attempt to provide the audience with some semblance of politically correct justification for their absurdities, in a late-capitalist, post-second-wave feminism, post-sexual revolution age.

To sum up, it seems that the first and second paradigm, taken together, work to some extent: we continue to reproduce in our lives and our art the self-same structures of courtly desire and we continue to attempt to find ways of rendering them acceptable to ourselves and each other; but these attempts continue to fail. To me, it is an indication that courtly love is at once unacceptable and impossible to suppress; it will find a way to speak. Nothing renders it acceptable, as Huchet's earlier words suggest, but, as he also observed, elsewhere:
   From the outset, since the twelfth century, medieval literature in
   the vernacular languages is massively a discourse on love rooted in
   an impossibility of loving which it attempts to make us forget.
   (46)


It is this attempt itself, however, which indicates the impossible: 'When a text speaks the sexual impossible in the effort of forgetting it, it produces a knowledge of this impossible'. (47) Framed within different parameters, A Knight's Tale also produces this disturbing knowledge of the sexual impossible, hidden and uncovered in the same moment.

V. The Third Paradigm

What of the third paradigm--the retroactive history which operates '[not] from the past to the future [but] from the future to the past'? (48) In her article in this issue, Louise D'Arcens offers Derrida's notion of 'undecideability' as a way of deprivileging the originary text, a 'displacement of the implicit privileging of the medieval over the medievalist text'. (49) I was reminded of a quotation from Slavoj Zizek's Metastases, on the subject of courtly love and the troubadours, which might also offer a less stable sense of the relation between medieval and medievalist texts than that of an (apparently) immutable structure framed within changing parameters. Zizek begins by reiterating Lacan's claim that courtly love is still with us:
   The impression that courtly love is out of date ... 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.... 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. (50)


I think this notion of retroaction might offer a handle for the study of medievalist texts since it posits a different relation between past and future, a different kind of history. Retroactivity, like unconscious desire, undoes the notion of history as a seamless, unidirectional narrative.

Zizek seems to privilege our own present time, post the emergence of masochism, as uniquely placed to 'grasp' the 'libidinal economy of courtly love', but Lacan's own account, I think, does not privilege one particular present, one particular gathering of the strands, over another. Zizek's words also, paradoxically, privilege medieval texts of courtly love as the origin of twentieth century variants such as The Crying Game, as if the true kernel of courtly love has been waiting there for us all this time, only now to be 'grasped'. For him, past and present appear to be engaged in a circular process of mutual authentication. (51) Again I think it is a little different for Lacan, although he also posits a double action, but not one which precisely authenticates either past or present. What matters to Lacan as an analyst is the subject's 'centre of gravity ... this present synthesis of the past which we call history'. (52) He is almost always speaking, as here, to analysts and about analysis. The subject in question is the analysand, who retroactively constructs his/her own history in his/her own way. (53) There is no general or absolute authentication. Lacan rarely makes the leap, as so many of his followers have done, from the personal to the social. It is a risky business taking that leap.

In his second seminar, he continues to mull over the question of history. Here, he distinguishes it from memory: '[I]t is important to draw a very sharp distinction between memory and remembering [rememoration] which pertains to the order of history'. (54) Remembering is 'the grouping and the succession of symbolically defined events'. (55) History, as opposed to simple memory, is an ordering, a valuation, of events, from the place where the subject presently stands.

In his third seminar, however, Lacan does take the leap into the public domain. He offers a piece of French history as an example of this process--the Fronde. In February 1652, Mlle. de Montpensier was at the barricades. This has no significance in itself, Lacan contends; he is indifferent to the event. We might ask: would it matter whether she was there at all? But, he says, '[s]he was there, and a meaning, whether true or not, has been given to her presence there'. (56) What does interest Lacan is the meaning, 'the decisive moments of symbolic articulation, of history', (57) what was made into history of her presence at the barricades. (58)

The subject changes, perhaps as a result of this historicizing: 'In the course of his progress, is it always the same subject?', Lacan asks, rhetorically I think. (59) As the subject changes he (or she) reintegrates memories into a different order and a different valuation, and the past is modified in the process: 'We have', says Lacan, 'a retroactive effect ... specific to the structure of symbolic memory, in other words to the function of remembering'. (60) Remembering is a symbolic function; to remember is to create an effect of meaning and that is what makes a history.

VI. Future Perfect

This gives some account of the past and present of my title, but what of the future perfect? The making of a future perfect history requires something more for Lacan. It involves the subject in something Lacan refers to with a variety of significant terms, each of which I have emphasized in the following passages. In 'Function and Field' he speaks of an 'assumption by the subject of his history insofar as it is constituted by speech addressed to another' (i.e. the analyst), (61) as that which 'precipitates the meditation of the subject towards deciding the meaning to attach to the early event'. (62)

In Seminar I, he maintains:
   There is a connection between the imaginary dimension and the
   symbolic system, so long as the history of the subject is inscribed
   in it--not the Entwicklung, the development, but the Geschichte
   (history), that is, that within which the subject recognizes
   himself. (63)


In a passage I quoted earlier, Lacan speaks of 'what is realized in my history [which is] the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming'. (64) In Seminar I, he speaks of
   the effaced signal of something which only takes on its value in
   the future, through its ... integration into the history of the
   subject. Literally, it will only ever be a thing which, at the
   given moment of its occurrence, will have been (his emphasis). (65)


Assumption, inscription, recognition, realization, integration: something of these is required for Lacan in the making of the subject's history in an analysis. This something is made clear by the use of the first person pronoun: 'what is realized in my history [is] the future anterior of what I shall have been for what I am in the process of becoming' (my emphases). This history of nachtraglichkeit cannot be made from a distance. The subject must recognize and inscribe him/ herself within it. In other words, I think, he/she must assume some implication in it, some responsibility for it. As almost always for Lacan, this is history on the couch, but can we apply it (an exercise he explicitly rejected), (66) to the question of how we historicize the Middle Ages in our theorizations, and, in particular, how we might historicize the persistent appearances of courtly love in our art and our lives? For medievalist Paul Zumthor, of course, such an idea was unthinkable; the distance was unbridgeable: 'We are cut off from the Middle Ages by a divide that we should not attempt to ignore, but that we should rather see as an impossible abyss'. (67)

I should like to make a couple of attempts to respond to this question of how we might bridge the 'impossible abyss' and recognize ourselves in the medieval past in ways that go beyond facile, fantasy-driven identifications. The first involves the more general question. Walter Benjamin maintained, in 'On the Concept of History':
   To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognize it
   'the way it really was' (Ranke). It means to seize to seize hold of
   a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. (68)


Christiane Weller, in a recent conference paper which drew my attention to Benjamin's concept of history and was also a source of inspiration for this essay, comments on this passage: 'The relation between past and present is neither based on causality, nor on analogy, but on affinity--not given but chosen'. (69) Further on, Benjamin elaborates:
   Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection
   between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is
   for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously,
   as it were, through events that may be separated from it by
   thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of
   departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a
   rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has
   formed with a definite earlier one. (70)


This grasping of the constellation is the basis of that affinity of which Weller speaks. Benjamin's words sound remarkably like Lacan's. Weller speculates that they may have come into contact. (71) Certainly each had good reason to consider both the making and the bearing of public history at this time. (72) Like Benjamin, I believe that there are times, those times most traumatic and difficult to bear--such as the time of the rise of fascism, World War Two, and its aftermath--when something akin to an analysis may take place; we may seize a moment in the past, recognizable to us as our own in a flash of affinity. In this seizing we choose a founding history, to paraphrase Lacan, a 'what we will have been for what we are in the process of becoming'--so that the unspeakable trauma can be spoken. (73)

On the more particular question of courtly love, this history in particular cannot be made at a distance although it is not the distance of which Zumthor speaks; that distance is immaterial to it. The distance which is impassable for this history is the distance of observation. One cannot view it from afar as a detached observer.

Lacan, at the time that he considered these questions of history was also deeply engaged with the question of desire. In Seminar II, he posits the speaking of desire--that 'the subject should come to recognize and to name his desire', (74)--as 'the efficacious action of analysis'. (75) This speaking 'creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world'. (76) And yet, for Lacan, in his later seminar, RSI (1974-75), desire is 'forever impossible to speak ... as such'. (77) I think the difference is between speaking and naming. To speak desire involves an object (and is therefore impossible because desire always outstrips the object), but to name desire implicates the subject. Naming here means, I think, to recognize unconscious desire as one's own: to baptize it, that is to assume it. This recognition is the point of affinity, the subject's historic moment.

I would like to pose, tentatively, the idea that the moment in which we recognize and name unconscious desire as our own is the moment in which courtly love might become historical for us in this sense; the moment in which we might grasp the constellation our desire forms with theirs. But we can only make this history one by one. For Lacan, the analysand is the historian. This means, not that the historian needs therefore to be an analysand but that we need to be the historians of our own desire; no-one can write it for us. The structure and tropes of courtly desire persist--witness A Knight's Tale and countless other tales which speak unwillingly of desire's impossibility. '[M]an's desire is the desir de l'Autre (the desire of the Other)' asserts Lacan. (78) This Other (in one of its senses) is the Other of language, which is shared. But the particular set of signifiers in which desire is encoded is different for each subject. It is not an easy history to write as it is the one we do not want to know about; the history which speaks in spite of us. (79)

This is the point at which the difficulty of applying psychoanalytic theory to the social realm becomes apparent. The act of recognition and assumption of one's own desire is a singular act. Zizek's idea, that it is 'with the emergence ... of the masochist couple ... that we can now grasp the libidinal economy of courtly love', (80) accounts for the history of desire which can be shared--his 'we' encompassing a collective. (81) It does not seem to me to account for the history we make one by one. Benjamin, on the other hand, in his reference to 'a historian', singular, as the one who 'grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with [an] earlier one', captures something of the intimacy of that singular historiography. (82)

I do not think, finally, that we can leave off the inverted commas with which we frame the 'medieval' in medievalism studies. We cannot, that is, blandly reduce copy and original to a single level. Nachtraglichkeit feeds on the idea of an original--an originary event. That construction which is history needs to be projected into the past so that it can work to found the present and future which, paradoxically, are its own foundation. It needs a then for its now just as it needs a now for its then. That is why critics cannot resist appealing to the original to authenticate the copy. We rework what may have no actual origin but it is a reworking nonetheless and has a kind of truth.

Literary Studies

School of Culture and Communication

University of Melbourne

(1) The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, 1959-1960, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. and notes Dennis Porter, Book VII of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan (New York: Norton, 1997), p. 112.

(2) L'amour discourtois: La 'fin'amor' chez les premiers troubadours (Paris: Privat, 1987), p. 15.

(3) Freud's Papers on Technique, 1953-1954, trans. and notes John Forrester, Book I of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 12.

(4) Chretien de Troyes' Lancelot, le chevalier de la charrette, Arthurian Romances, trans. W. W. Comfort, intr. and notes D. D. R. Owen (London: Dent, 1975).

(5) A Knight's Tale, dir. Brian Helgeland (Columbia USA, 2001).

(6) Huchet, L'amour discourtois, p. 15. Scholars offer a variety of factors, for instance Simon Gaunt's suggestion of 'the context of the Church's concerted attempt ... to gain control of aristocratic marriage practices', Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Cf. also Erich Kohler's idea, in Sarah Kay's view, of 'the contradictory material reality of the lesser knights, grouped in courtly society together with magnates, yet not fully admitted alongside them in the ranks of aristocracy', 'The Contradictions of Courtly Love and the Origins of Courtly Poetry: The Evidence of the Lauzengiers', Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 26.2 (1996), 209-53 (p. 210).

(7) Huchet, L'amour discourtois, p. 15.

(8) Courtly Contradictions (California: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 27.

(9) Quoted in Kay, in Courtly Contradictions, p. 26.

(10) Lacan, Freud's Papers, p. 157.

(11) Lacan, Freud's Papers, p. 158.

(12) 'The Function and Field of Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis', in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), pp. 30-113 (p. 86).

(13) 'Reinventing Chaucer: Helgeland's A Knight's Tale', The Chaucer Review, 37.3 (2003), 253-64 (p. 257). Nickolas Haydock, following Eco's 'Ten Little Middle Ages', suggests a 'Middle Ages of Trademark Capitalism' ('Arthurian Melodrama, Chaucerian Spectacle, and the Waywardness of Cinematic Pastiche in First Knight and A Knight's Tale', in Studies in Medievalism, 12 (2002), 5-38 (p. 26)). Caroline Jewers calls A Knight's Tale the '"winner takes all" vision of society peddled to the young and impressionable within and without the United States' ('Hard Day's Knights: First Knight, A Knight's Tale and Black Knight', in The Medieval Hero on Screen: Representations from Beowulf to Buffy, eds Martha W. Driver and Sid Ray. (Jefferson: McFarland, 2004) 192-210, (p. 203)). Susan Aronstein and Nancy Coiner offer a more benign term for American re-inventions of the medieval: a 'Middle Ages of Democratic Possibility', qtd. in Haydock, 'Arthurian Melodrama', p. 25.

(14) Cf. Forni, 'Reinventing Chaucer', p. 255.

(15) This famous Freddie Mercury song plays as the credits roll at the end of the film.

(16) 'In Merrie Olde England, Waving His Banner All Over the Place', review, New York Times, May 11th, 2001.

(17) 'The Signification of the Phallus', in Ecrits: A Selection, pp. 281-91 (p. 286).

(18) 'The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud', in Ecrits: A Selection, pp. 146-78 (p. 167).

(20) Anxiety, Book X of the Seminar, unpublished, lesson of 16 January, 1963.

(21) On Feminine Sexuality: The Limits of Love and Knowledge: Encore, 1972-1973, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. and notes Bruce Fink, Book XX of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 6.

(22) Ethics of Psychoanalysis, p. 152. It is in Ethics that Lacan takes his most sustained look at the courtly love paradigm of desire.

(23) Lacan, Ethics, p. 294.

(24) 'En breu brisara.l temps braus', The Poetry of Arnaut Daniel, ed. and trans. James J. Wilhelm (New York: Garland, 1981), pp. 44-47 (p. 47).

(25) See the quarrel, Shooting Script pp. 70-71, which introduces the necessary separation and remorse.

(26) See Haydock, 'Arthurian Melodrama', pp. 27-28. Keen's book is Chivalry (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).

(27) For instance, Keen, Chivalry, p. 22.

(28) Chretien de Troyes, 'Lancelot', in Arthurian Romances, trans. W. W. Comfort, introd. and notes D. D. R. Owen (London: Dent, 1975), pp. 270-359 (p. 270).

(29) Andreas Capellanus. Andreas Capellanus on Love, ed. and trans. P. G. Walsh (London: Duckworth, 1982), p. 157.

(30) Paris, cited by Walsh, in Introduction to Andreas on Love, pp. 1-26 (p. 1).

(31) The picture is not simple; influences operated from narrative to lyric as well as from lyric to narrative, as Rita Lejeune noted ('Troubadours', in Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History, ed. Roger Sherman Loomis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), pp. 393-99). The songs of the troubadours and trouveres abound in Arthurian references. Nor was Chretien the first of the romanciers, as Simon Gaunt points out, although he 'reshaped [romance] profoundly' (Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 92).

(32) Andreas, Andreas Capellanus on Love, p. 33.

(33) Andreas cautions, in Book Three, his denunciation of love: '[E]very lover becomes slow and idle in all matters except when they seem to advance his love', (p. 296). Roland, William's squire, also believes love gets in the way of manly pursuits: 'Women weaken the heart', he tells William. 'Without your heart, you cannot win' (Shooting Script, p. 25).

(34) Keen, Chivalry, p. 91.

(35) Ethics, pp. 150-51.

(36) Peter Bradshaw, 'Knight Fever', review, The Guardian, August 31, 2001; http://film.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/Critic_Review/Guardian_Film_of_the_week /0,,544490,00.html#article_continue

(37) Most modern Guineveres are far more well-behaved than Chretien's, however. See for example Julia Ormond in Jerry Zucker's First Knight. Caroline Jewers maintains that 'Jocelyn retains some characteristics of Chretien's Guinevere' ('Hard Day's Knights', p. 200). On paper she may, on screen, no.

(38) His attempts are so unsuccessful that I am in two minds about how much he really wanted to hide it. As in Chretien's Lancelot, the clashes produced are very amusing, as, for instance, in the joust where William is doing 'his worst' (Shooting Script, pp. 85-87).

(39) On Feminine Sexuality, p. 9.

(40) Simon Gaunt offers a long list of critical readings of the Lancelot which explain its inconsistencies, either by idealizing over the contradictions or by the invocation of irony (Gender and Genre p. 307, n. 36.)

(41) Jean Frappier, 'Chretien de Troyes', in Loomis, ed., Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages, pp. 157-91 (p. 175).

(42) Frappier, 'Chretien de Troyes', pp. 175-76.

(43) Arthurian Romance: A Short Introduction (Malden: Blackwell, 2003), p. 47.

(44) Pearsall, Arthurian Romance, p. 47.

(45) Pearsall, Arthurian Romance, p. 47.

(46) Huchet, Litterature medievale et psychoanalyse: Pour une clinique litteraire (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1990), p. 22.

(47) Huchet, Litterature medievale, p. 27.

(48) Lacan, Freud's Papers, p. 157.

(49) 'Deconstruction and the Medieval Indefinite Article: The Undecidable Medievalism of Brian Helgeland's A Knight's Tale', Parergon, 25.2 (2008).

(50) The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso, 1994), p. 89.

(51) Cf. D'Arcens' reference to the 'characteristic hermeneutic circularity in medievalism studies' ('Deconstruction and the Medieval Indefinite Article').

(52) Lacan, Freud's Papers, p. 36.

(53) Lacan, The Ego in Freud's Theory and in the Technique of Psychoanalysis, 1954-1955, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Sylvana Tomaselli, notes John Forrester, Book II of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan (New York: Norton, 1991), p. 185.

(54) The Ego, p. 185.

(55) The Ego, p. 185.

(56) Lacan, The Psychoses, 1955-1956, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg, Book III of The Seminar of Jacques Lacan (New York: Norton, 1997), p. 111.

(57) Psychoses, p. 111.

(58) The editor comments: 'The importance of the Fronde in French history is to have shown the inability of the nobility and the Parlement to form a legitimate alternative to the king; it was the last serious threat to the monarchy till the Revolution of 1789' (p. 111, n. 13.)

(59) Freud's Papers, p. 42.

(60) The Ego, p. 185.

(61) 'Function and Field', p. 48.

(62) 'Function and Field', p. 48.

(63) Freud's Papers, p. 157.

(64) 'Function and Field', p. 86.

(65) Freud's Papers, p. 159.

(66) 'Psychoanalysis is applied, strictly speaking, only as a treatment and thus to a subject who speaks and hears' ('The Youth of Gide, or the Letter and Desire', in Ecrits: The First Complete Edition in English, trans. Bruce Fink, coll. Heloise Fink and Russell Grigg (New York: Norton, 2006), pp. 623-44 (p. 630)). In other words, its only application is in an analysis.

(67) Toward a Medieval Poetics, trans. Philip Bennett (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992), p. 3. See discussion in Bruce Holsinger's Introduction to The Premodern Condition: Medievalism and the Making of Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), pp. 14-17.

(68) Benjamin, 'Theses on the Philosophy of History', in Illuminations, ed. and introd. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana/Collins, 1973), pp. 255-66 (p. 257).

(69) 'On Nachtraglichkeit' (unpublished), p. 6. Cf. Carolyn Dinshaw's discussion of Benjamin and Homi K. Bhabha in Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), pp. 16-19. Cf. also Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's notion of 'interlacement ... (the past that opens up the present to possible futures)', Introduction to The Postcolonial Middle Ages, ed. Cohen (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000), pp. 1-18 (p. 5).

(70) Benjamin, 'Theses', p. 265.

(71) Weller, 'On Nachtraglichkeit', p. 2.

(72) Benjamin, at great personal risk in France, wrote 'Theses on the Philosophy of History' in 1940. It was his last work. Lacan was considering the ideas that later produced the work on history in his early seminars and 'Function and Field' in March of 1945, in 'Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty', published in the complete Ecrits, pp. 161-75.

(73) I believe that we in white Australia are at present in the grip of such a trauma in desperate need of historicization--the trauma of our displacement of and injury to the indigenous peoples of this country, a displacement and injury which have shown little sign of abating.

(74) The Ego, p. 228.

(75) The Ego, p. 228.

(76) The Ego, pp. 228-29.

(77) RSI, Book XXII of the Seminar, unpublished, lesson of 21 January, 1975.

(78) 'The Subversion of the Subject and the Dialectic of Desire in the Freudian Unconscious', in Ecrits: A Selection, pp. 292-324 (p. 312).

(79) Cf. L. O. Aranye Fradenburg, for whom desire is a group affair (Sacrifice your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism, Chaucer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), p. 8. Only so can culture transform 'its desires into objects of exchange' (p. 9). Nonetheless, as she also observes, we each have our 'particular histories', histories that 'particularize us as desires' and these particularities cannot be ignored (p. 48). Erin Labbie also acknowledges each subject's particularity in her recent book, Lacan's Medievalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), p. 9.

(80) Zizek, The Metastases of Enjoyment, p. 89.

(81) Of course the academic 'we' is notoriously ambiguous. It may be a euphemism for 'I', or, if truly plural, may mean 'we' collectively or one by one. Nonetheless I think Zizek's 'we' has the flavour of the collective. Lacan too, is speaking collectively when he says that 'the influence of [troubadour lyric] has been decisive for us' (Ethics, p. 153).

(82) Benjamin, 'Theses,' p. 265.
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Title Annotation:Theorising Modern Medievalism
Author:Dell, Helen
Publication:Parergon
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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