Home - Publications - Courtly Contradictions


Courtly Contradictions: The Emergence of the Literary Object in the Twelfth Century, Sarah Kay

Review published in The Medieval Review, 2004

Sarah Kay's book is ambitious both in its scope and methodology. It deals not only with what is usually associated with the term "courtly," that is mostly troubadour lyric and Old French romance, but also with hagiography and romans antiques. Kay's methodology is a cross between Aristotelian logic as permeating the Medieval schola, Augustinian theology and concepts derived from Jacques Lacan. There is indeed an organic relationship that can be woven between these references, and this difficult question goes to the heart of the issues she tackles in her book, and especially to its problems. Since Kay's analysis is so strongly propelled driven by its theoretical suppositions, and cannot hang together without them, any evaluation of this book must start there. Thus, I will leave it to other readers of this book to assess for themselves how relevant or illuminating Kay's argument or critical insights might be.

It is indeed the case that a medieval debate, the quarrel of universals between nominalists and realists, provides one of the major keys to Lacan's thought. Lacan positions himself squarely on the side of the realists.[1] The Real, in his case, will be the unconscious. This essential dimension of Lacan, as well as the concepts that are linked to this unconscious Real, inform his thinking in its entirety. It is therefore inaccurate to claim, as Sarah Kay does, that there is "an irreducible difference between Lacanian analysis and medieval philosophical reflection" (304). Were we to point out an irreducible difference between these two fields of knowledge, Lacan's position would be situated between idealism and materialism. Lacan positions himself through a materialistic realism (the "matter" being here, as he says "the signifier transcended into language" [2]). Indeed, for Lacan, language, contrary to what it was for medieval thought, is not a projection of an internal soul or thought onto the world, a representation of something that preexists it, but a material exteriority that obeys its own laws and thus structures the human subject and the vision this subject has of the world.

An identical problem, due to a truncated reading of Lacan, appears in Sarah Kay's understanding of Lacan's logic. Although she correctly underlines the presence of Aristotelian logic revisited by scholasticism in Lacan, she fails to account for a move that goes to the heart of her argument: the overcoming of the principle of non-contradiction in the tables of sexuation [3], a move he identifies as such in "L'etourdit." [4] It is precisely this move that will define femininity not as a contradiction to masculinity, but as an exception which cannot be grasped through language and escapes any attempt at a rigorous formalization. In accordance with this logic, Lacan sees the courtly lady as an imaginary male construct of the troubadours, and it lacks any correspondent in medieval historical reality. This construct's purpose is a feint to mask the absence of sexual rapport, that is, the possibility of inscribing femininity in any logical representation. Lacan's reasoning is based on the "new tables of logic" that he proposes in an unpublished seminar, as a way to inscribe what Aristotle calls "enstasis," the obstacle to representation ("Les non-dupes errant," 19 fevrier 1974). [5]

Here again, Lacan follows Aristotelian and medieval logic only up to a precise point, which is the impossibility inscribing the absence of a sexual rapport into any logical formalization. Here Lacan follows Freud strictly when the latter asserts that the unconscious doesn't know the principles of contradiction and non-contradiction. [6] Hence, it cannot be framed through a recourse to Aristotelian and medieval logic. The square of oppositions that Sarah Kay uses widely throughout her book has to be overcome in order to correct medieval logic and open it to the Real of the unconscious.

Since Sarah Kay's book deals with hagiography, a reference by her to Television, where Lacan equates the psychoanalyst with the saint (since they both treat and recycle the litter of society), would have seemed warranted and would have provided us with an enlightening reading of Saint Alexis, eater of garbage under his parents' stairs.

A lot of recent or less recent work on Lacan pertinent to her thesis is ignored: among others, Jean-Claude Milner's L'oeuvre Claire [7], which would have dispelled Kay's confusion between Lacan's stylistic obscurity and the rigorous and clear structure that is a hallmark of his work from beginning to end (to talk about contradiction doesn't mean that you are ipso facto contradictory [8]); Francois Regnault's Dieu est inconscient [9], which grounds the link between femininity, the unconscious and God; and Dragonetti's La vie de la letter [10], which ushered Lacanism onto the scene or stage of medievalism.

Kay's book exhibits a deep chasm between its readings of the medieval texts, which are, for the most part, fairly traditional, and Lacanian theory as she practices it. We are introduced to something I would call an application of psychoanalysis, where there is a strict delineation between the medieval object and the modern reading subject. The problem here is that for Lacan, there is no strict and objective separation between the observer and the observed object in the humanities (as well as in science). The unconscious makes sure that the critic is involved in his or her observation. Lacan never applied psychoanalysis to Medieval texts (or any object of knowledge for that matter); rather, he uses it as a substitute for a psychoanalytical case, rejecting any hermeneutics of application. The only practice deserving the label of "applied psychoanalysis" in his lexicon is the actual cure lead by the patient and his or her analyst. As far as "theoretical psychoanalysis" is concerned, a major presupposition is that nothing, including the reading subject and its relationship to its object, is left intact and beyond its reach.

Let me make myself clear, I am not preaching here for the constitution of a Lacanian chapel in Medieval studies. I do not even criticize Sarah Kay's underlying presuppositions: after all, theoretical application, idealism and nominalism are, up to a point, defensible critical stances. However, I would take exception with her claim to a "Lacanian" reading of medieval culture. Here again, I dot not measure her discourse against some form of Lacanian orthodoxy, but only wish to point out that Lacan offers far deeper insights into this problem than her book evidences. It is not that Sarah Kay's book is bad or devoid of any interest; she has grasped intuitively the structural connections between medieval thought, medieval literature, and Lacan; her readings are sometimes really interesting, as evidenced by her detailed and well documented analyses of the ambiguities and tensions between religious and vernacular cultures, where she is at her best. What frustrates this reader is that she stops in her tracks precisely at the moment when Lacan could have provided her with more insights and when her own discourse could have really soared to brilliance.

NOTES:

[1] "Celui qui ecrit ces lignes (...) il se sait, il l'avoue, simplement 'realiste '...-Au sens medieval? Croit-il entendre, a le tracer d'un point d'interrogation. C'est deja la marque qu'il en a trop dit, et que l'infection dont ne peut plus se depetrer le discours philosophique, l'idealisme inscrit au tissu de sa phrase, va faire la son entree." "De la psychanalyse dans ses rapports a la realite," Autres ecrits, Seuil, Paris 2001, p. 351 (all the quotes in Autres ecrits refer to previously published material, long accessible to scholars).
Back to text

[2] "Le minimum que vous puissiez m'accorder concernant ma theorie du langage, c'est (...) qu'elle est materialiste. Le signifiant, c'est la matiere qui se transcende en langage." "Reponses a des etudiants en philosophie," Autres ecrits, Seuil, Paris 2001, p. 209.
Back to text

[3]On Feminine sexuality, the Limits of Love and Knowledge (Seminar X), Norton, New York, trans B. Fink , p. 73.
Back to text

[4] Commenting on his formulas, Lacan says: "Their inscription is not used in mathematics," Autres ecrits, p . 465.
Back to text

[5] For further information on logic, and the development of contingence, necessity and impossibility which would be too long for this review, I refer the reader to P.C. Cathelineau's excellent article "Logique modale," in Dictionnaire de la psychanalyse, Chemma and Vandermersch dir., Larousse, Paris 1998.
Back to text

[6] "A note on the Unconscious in Psycho-Analysis," in John Rickman, ed., A General Selection from the Works of Sigmund Freud. New York, NY: Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1957.
Back to text

[7] L'Oeuvre claire, Lacan, la science, la philosophie, Paris, Le Seuil 1995.
Back to text

[8] See for example "the self-conscious cultivation of contradictoriness" she ascribes to Lacan's thought, p. 178.
Back to text

[9] Navarin, Paris 1985. Sarah Kay's claim that Lacan produces a "parody of negative theology" (31) is overblown. Again, Lacan's relation to Saint Augustine, or, for that matter, apophatic theology is structural, not a pale or mocking imitation; psychoanalysis is indeed negative theology, but with an unconscious God that is radically anthropomorphized. Hence it is a form of atheism, the "only coherent one" according to Lacan.
Back to text

[10] La vie de la lettre au Moyen Age, Paris, Le Seuil 1980. The only reference to Dragonetti's oeuvre by Sarah Kay is to his trouveres study, a work he once confessed having written "only for the last hundred pages."
Back to text

Back to top