Sunday, July 1, 2012
The Aesthete of Desire: Lancelot and Courtly Love
Many undergraduate students have the impression that theme is the heart of a work of literature in spite of the fact that thematics (the relation of the text’s implications to the reader’s lived experience) are only one aspect of the aesthetic text, the importance of which varies from primary to virtually absent. Students sometimes asked me with a bit of a groan why so many literary texts deal with death and suffering. My first response was to say that, whereas people required the aid of art to cope with such intolerable facts of existence as mortality, no such symbolic manipulation need assist the enjoyment of pleasure. “Some great American poetry,” I would add, “is contained in the lyrics of the blues, but there is no genre called ‘the happies.’ The prelapsarian garden had, presumably, no art because it had no conflict or pain.”
This answered the need for a makeshift pedagogical parry, but the truth, of course, is more complex. No matter what the level of verisimilitude, a text is always artifice whose implications have only a highly symbolic and mediated relation to notions of extra-textual reality. When I was teaching Bible as literature, a fundamentalist or two and occasionally an atheist as well would suggest that the most important issue about the stories of Scripture was their literal historicity. I would say what I would say of any text, that “truth” in that sense was irrelevant to our inquiry which focused instead impact, design, and significance. Far from cutting off meaning, I would say we sought what is “truer than true” in allowing the particular resources of aesthetic texts – metaphor and sound, for instance -- to function. An interest in mere facts: to what age a Homeric shield belongs or whether Dante’s poetic persona in Vita Nuova is autobiographical seems, not so much beside the point as reductive.
While few critics would inquire into whether the incidents of Don Quixote accurately represent events of Cervantes’ time, for over fifty years much discussion of medieval love poetry has centered on whether “courtly love” behavior as implied by the texts existed in the society contemporary with the poems. Numerous researchers have debated whether the courts of love really existed and whether compliments to courtly ladies were, in fact, meant to lead to sex. Such an approach implicitly accepts the mimetic view of literature, slighting the fact that all art is a symbolic construct whose representation of reality no more directly corresponds to reality than the word “pig” reflects a real animal. In spite of Dronke’s miniature anthology of similar earlier passages,  one often reads that the eleventh or twelfth century “invented” romantic love and, with it, a new relation between men and women.
The fact is that the critical concept of courtly love dates only from the Gaston Paris’ late nineteenth century use of it in a treatment of Chrétien’s Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart. This story is therefore a useful test case for an evaluation of the function of romantic love, so dominant a theme in Western literature for the last nine hundred years.
I will leave such questions as well as questions of origins and influences (though Arabic poetry, Mariolatry, and the Song of Songs surely played roles) to others and inquire simply into the meaning of that shape-shifting corpus of attitudes, rituals, and clichés identified as “courtly love.”
On the most fundamental level, reevaluation of the hypermasculinity of earlier heroic epic and romance and the elevation of women is part of the search to achieve completion, whether the other is figured by Plato’s Aristophanes as the primordial split of humans into male and female portions or by Jung as the anima/animus.
Chrétien explicitly identifies his erotic project with religious imagery and values. When Lancelot receives a lock of Guenevere’s hair, the poet says, “Never will the eye of man see anything receive such reverence.” Even the protection of the saints, the reader is told, could not be so efficacious. Observing her in bed”he bows in adoration, for no holy relic inspires him with such faith” King Bademagu’s use of Three Marys ointment, Borrowing from the Gospel of Nicodemus identifying Lancelot with Christ [see D. R. Owen in Arthurian Romance: Seven Essays] The wound on his hands and feet he receives just before his night with Guenevere recall the stigmata. Love, which had been conceived as a spiritual discipline by Plato and others, received churchly attention in the twelfth century from Bernard of Clairvaux’s sermons on the Song of Songs and the Victorine progress from love of the particular to universal love to divine love. 
Such transfers from the erotic to the spiritual generate implications toward both of their elements. The psychological truth of the primacy of eros among human impulses validates the use of the imagery of Ultimate Reality to convey its urgency and power, while devotional forms of worship may closely resemble romantic love.
Thus the reader must think not only of erotic masochism but of asceticism as well when Lancelot repeatedly says that suffering in the service of love is pleasure to him. For instance, while gashing his hands and feet passing over the Bridge of Swords he finds since “Love, who guides and leads him on, gives him complete comfort and relief, so that all his suffering is pleasant to him”  The central image of the whole narrative is similarly significant – for Lancelot it is “an honour” to do “whatever Love will, even to climb into a cart”  He consents with enthusiastic willingness to appear cowardly at the joust because she commands him.
Though Lancelot delights in his love’s physical consummation, he is enough an aesthete of love, an athlete of love, to cultivate delectation of his self-abasement, since the more extreme it becomes, the greater a lover he must be. Just as the Christian celebrates the redemptive power of undeserved suffering, and the athlete recognizes the agony of the hardest workout as the route to the exhilaration of victory, the combat soldier may sometimes experience an extraordinary freedom in his suffering, the lover welcomes every difficulty.
By no means, however, that love is altogether spiritualized or fleshly desire at all discounted. When Lancelot does enjoy a night in bed with Guenevere, the experience passes beyond language. Only when he must leave, a “true martyr” with redoubled pain for his temporary satisfaction, can words again convey his love. It is as though his voice arrives only with suffering and vanishes or become inadequate at the point of union. As the poet discreetly says, “I shall keep silent, for it should not be told in a story.”  Desire, by definition, is unsatisfied.
1. In Peter Dronke, Medieval Latin and the Rise of the European Love-Lyric. Before Paris’ 1883 essay, the term amour courtois was attested only in a single use by Piere d’Alvernhe, though such terms as fin’amor and words like cortez’amors are common. For Paris Andreas is the theoretician and Lancelot the model. His scheme was accepted, notably by Lewis Freeman Mott (The System of Courtly Love) William George Dodd (“The System of Courtly Love”), and William Allen Nielson (Origins and Sources of the Courts of Love). The concept was altered and developed by Jeanroy (La poesie lyrique des troubadours) who excluded actual physicality and for whom the early troubadours were the model. C. S. Lewis (The Allegory of Love), Denis de Rougemont (who claimed it is Cathar in Love in the Western World) while for Denomy in The Heresy of Courtly Love, it is heretical but not Catharist. Valency In Praise of Love indicates a plurality of attitudes. A major alternative was outlined by D. W. Robertson in “Some Medieval Doctrines of Love” (reprinted in A Preface to Chaucer) and by E. Talbot Donaldson in “The Myth of Courtly Love” both of whom questioned the very concept and argued that Chretien and Andreas both opposed the patterns we call “courtly love.”
2. Among the best-known authors to conflate romantic and spiritual rhetorics were Mechthild von Magdeburg and John of the Cross. In more modern quasi-scientific writing, Jung’s The Psychology of the Unconscious treats the subjugation of the male lover’s ego in the ascending archetypes of Eve, Helen, Mary, and Sophia.