Why speak about courtly love (amour courtois) today, in the age of permissiveness, when sexual encounter is often nothing more than a ‘quickie’ in some dark corner of an office?footnote1The impression that courtly love is something out of date, long superseded by modern manners, is a lure which blinds us to the fact that the logic of courtly love still defines the parameters within which the two sexes relate to each other. This, however, in no way implies the evolutionary model in which courtly love would provide the elementary matrix allowing us to generate its later, more complex variations. My thesis, on the contrary, is that history has to be read retroactively: the anatomy of man offers the key to the anatomy of ape, as Marx puts it. It is only the emergence of masochism, of the masochist couple, towards the end of the last century, which enables us to grasp the libidinal economy of courtly love.

The first trap to be avoided apropos of courtly love is the erroneous notion of sublimation, of the Lady as the sublime object: as a rule, one evokes here spiritualization, a shift from the object of raw sensual coveting to elevated spiritual longing—the Lady is thus perceived as a kind of spiritual guide into the higher sphere of religious ecstasy, somehow in the sense of Dante’s Beatrice. In contrast to this, Lacan emphasizes a series of features which belie such a spiritualization: true, the Lady in courtly love loses concrete features and is addressed as an abstract Ideal, so that ‘writers have noted that all the poets seem to be addressing the same person . . . In this poetic field the feminine object is emptied of all real substance.’footnote2 However, this abstract character of the Lady has nothing to do with spiritual purification; it rather points towards the abstraction that pertains to a cold, distanced, inhuman partner—the Lady is in no way a warm, compassionate, understanding fellow-creature:

By means of a form of sublimation specific to art, poetic creation consists in positing an object I can only describe as terrifying, an inhuman partner. The Lady is never characterized for any of her real, concrete virtues, for her wisdom, her prudence, or even her competence. If she is described as wise, it is only because she embodies an immaterial wisdom or because she represents its functions more than she exercises them. On the contrary, she is as arbitrary as possible in the tests she imposes on her servant.footnote3

The relationship of the knight to the Lady is thus the relationship of the subject-bondsman, vassal, to his feudal Master-Sovereign who subjects her vassal 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 commanded her servant literally to lick her arse: the poet complains about the bad smells that await him down there (one knows the sad state of personal hygiene in the Middle Ages), about the imminent danger that, while fulfilling his duty, the Lady will urinate on his head . . . The Lady is thus as far as possible from any kind of purified spirituality: she functions as an inhuman partner in the precise 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 randomly utters meaningless demands. This 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’, i.e. with whom no relationship of empathy is possible. This traumatic Otherness is what Lacan designates by the Freudian term das Ding, the Thing. The idealization of the Lady, her elevation to a spiritual, ethereal Ideal, is therefore to be conceived as a strictly secondary phenomenon, a narcissistic projection whose function is to render invisible her traumatic, intolerable dimension. In this precise and limited sense, Lacan concedes that ‘the element of idealizing exaltation that is expressly sought out in the ideology of courtly love has certainly been demonstrated; it is fundamentally narcissistic in character’.footnote4 Deprived of every real substance, the Lady functions as a mirror onto which the subject projects his narcissistic ideal—or, to quote Christina Rossetti’s sonnet ‘In an Artist’s Studio’ which speaks of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s relationship to Elizabeth Siddal, his Lady: ‘not as she is, but as she fills his dream’.footnote5However, the crucial accent lies elsewhere.

The mirror may on occasion imply the mechanisms 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.footnote6

In other words, before we yield to the commonplaces on how the Lady in courtly love has nothing to do with actual women, on how she stands for the man’s narcissistic projection which involves the mortification of the actual, flesh-and-blood woman, we have to answer the question: where does that empty surface come from, that cold, neutral screen which opens up the space for possible projections? That is to say, if we are to project onto the mirror our narcissistic 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 next crucial feature of courtly love is that it is thoroughly a matter of courtesy and etiquette; it has absolutely nothing to do with some elementary passion overflowing all barriers and disregarding all social rules. We are dealing with a strictly codified fiction, a social game of ‘as if’ where we pretend that our sweetheart is the inaccessible Lady. And it is precisely this feature which enables us to establish a link between courtly love and a phenomenon which, at first approach, at least, has nothing whatsoever to do with it, namely masochism as a specific form of perversion articulated for the first time in the midst of the nineteenth century in the literary works and life-practice of Sacher-Masoch. In his classical study of masochism,footnote7 Gilles Deleuze demonstrated that masochism is not to be conceived as a simple symmetrical inversion of sadism: sadist and victim never form a complementary ‘sado-masochist’ couple. In the series of features enumerated by Deleuze as proof of their asymmetry, the crucial one is the opposition of the two modalities of negation: in sadism we encounter direct negation, violent destruction and tormenting, whereas in masochism negation assumes the form of disavowal, i.e. of feigning, of an ‘as if’ which suspends reality. Closely dependent on this is the opposition of institution and contract.