Jacques Lacan devoted considerable attention to the psychoanalytical import of the courtly love tradition, and this has been developed at some length by Slavoj Zizek, especially in Metastases of Enjoyment.
For Zizek, the elevation of the Lady that takes place in courtly love isn’t a “spiritualization” but rather a distancing that treats the woman as an abstraction, a “cold, distanced, inhuman partner.” She is “by no means a warm, compassionate, understanding fellow-creature.” He quotes Lacan’s observation that in courtly love, the woman is a “terrifying, an inhuman power.” She 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 embodied 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” (89–90). She is not a spiritual being, but represents “a radical Otherness which is wholly incommensurable with our needs and desires,” and thus a kind of “automaton, a machine which utters meaningless demands at random” (90).
This radical, distanced, indifferent Otherness is what Lacan calls das Ding, the Real, the hard kernel of things that “resists symbolization.” The idealization of the lady is a projection that attempts to neutralize “her traumatic dimension.” The lady becomes a mirror on which the subject projects a narcissistic ideal.
The Lady takes the place of the Thing, the Real, the radical Otherness that is the object of desire but incapable of approach or symbolization. The Real is like Yahweh, the inscrutable biblical God; the Lady is in that position, inscrutable, inaccessible, arbitrary in her demands. The knight is in the position of Job, crying out against what appears to be a void. The knight is like the Psalmist who cries out in bewilderment at being forsaken.
The Lady and her lover set up a master-servant relationship, in which the man’s service takes on a dimension of masochism. She commands him, and he does whatever she requires of him, no matter how humiliating it may be.
Lest we be tempted to think this a Freudo-Lacanian invention, Chretien’s Lancelot provides an apt illustration. C. S. Lewis (ever sensitive to masochistic overtones) summarizes the story (Allegory of Love): “Lancelot sets out to find the Queen and almost at once loses his horse. In this predicament he is met by a dwarf driving a tumbril. To his questions, the dwarf—surly like all his race—replies, ‘Get in, and I will bring you where you shall have news of the Queen.’ The knight hesitates for a moment before mounting the cart of shame and thus appearing as a common criminal; a moment later he obeys. He is driven through the streets where the rabble try out upon him and ask what he has done and whether he is to be flayed or hanged. He is brought to a castle where he is shown a bed that he must not lie in because he is a knight disgraced. He comes to the bridge that crosses into the land of Gorre—the sword-bridge, made of a single blade of steel—and is warned that the high enterprise of crossing it is not for one so dishonored as he. ‘Remember your ride on the cart,’ says the keeper of the bridge. Even his friends acknowledge that he will never be rid of the disgrace. When he has crossed the bridge, wounded in hands, knees, and feet, he comes at least into the presence of the Queen. She will not speak to him. An old king, moved with pity, presses on her the merits of his service.”
She replies that “all his time is spilt for nought.” He will not win any thanks from the Queen. Lewis continues, “It is only later that he learns the cause of all this cruelty. The Queen has heard of his momentary hesitation in stepping on to the tumbril, and this lukewarmness in the service of love has been held by her as sufficient to annihilate all the merits of his subsequent labours and hmiliations. Even when he is forgiven, his trials are not yet at an end. The tournament at the close of the poem gives Guinevere another opportunity of exercising her power. When he has already entered the lists, in disguise, and all, as usually, is going down before him, she sends him a message ordering him to do his poorest. Lancelot obediently lets himself be unhorsed by the next knight that comes against him, and then takes to his heels, feigning terror of every combatant that passes near him. The herald mocks him for a cower, and the whole field takes up the laugh against him: the Queen looks on delighted.” She finally relents and lets him fight (27–29).
Zizek sees the same religious dimension, and generalizes it. Courtly love is not just a religious vision of love, but an attempt to grapple with the existential condition that we are in, confronted by a Real that remains beyond our comprehension of symbolization. We can only deal with this by pretending it’s better than it is, or by translating the Real into something we can grasp, translating the inaccessibility of the Real into something that we have created.
Zizek writes, “Within this perspective, courtly love appears as simply the most radical strategy for elevating the value of the object by putting up conventional obstacles to its attainability. When, in his seminar Encore, Lacan provides the most succinct formulation of the paradox of courtly love, he says something that is apparently similar, yet fundamentally different: ‘A very refined manner to supplant the absence of the sexual relationship is by feigning that it is us who put the obstacle in its way. ‘ 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 without them, the object would be directly accessible—what such hindrances thereby conceal is the inherent impossibility of attaining the object” (94).
In this context, what the lover longs for isn’t sex, but response. Faced with a faceless Real, he longs for some sign from the lady-Real that she acknowledges his existence, that she responds to his pain, that she is not a machine: “in courtly love itself, the long-awaited moment of highest fulfillment, 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” (104).
Zizek sees courtly love everywhere still. It’s not a medieval phenomenon only, but a contemporary one. The femme fatale is an heiress of the cruel lady of courtly love: “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” (102).
He also sees the masochistic dynamics arising even in a world that claims to have renounced the Master-Servant model of love, in both its patriarchal or courtly love versions. There are ontological obstacles to the formation of truly equitable relationships among the sexes. At least, sexual relationship cannot achieve the reciprocity: “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 asymmetrical 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 a 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 re-emerges 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” (108-9).