Courting Lady Language

Courting Lady Language April 29, 2015

Insofar as Derrida’s thought is a thought of the ineffable, retreated sublime, the transcendent signified that escapes language and leaves only traces, his thought is structured like the courtship of a courtly lover. In an essay in the Cardozo Law Review, Barbara Vinken shows that Derrida was quite self-conscious about the debt, describing his relationship to language as that of a courtly lover to his mistress.

As Vinken explains, Derrida sets up his analogy by exploring sexual metaphors to describe various relationships between language and power: “The sexual metaphor for . . . the politics of the colonizer, is rape. The colonist appropriates the language and makes it his through rape. The metaphor for the [politics of the colonized]  is . . . promiscuity—multiple erotic partners and a variety of sexual practices in which the tongue—la langue—plays a determinant role” (880).

To these, Derrida opposes a model of courtly love: “To language—his lady, his mistress—he is subjected; he is her subject. He has totally succumbed to her. A la vie, à la mort—unto life, unto death, he is in her service. Even before he could speak, vows were binding him to her. These vows prescribed an almost monkish solitude in her service, starting at dawn—matitudine—the time the monks start their morning prayer. But this only one, this sovereign lady, interdicting and interdicted, cannot be appropriated; it cannot be made his and cannot become his property. Since she comes from the other, and since she comes form elsewhere—au delà de la mer, from beyond the sea—he is forever deprived of her. It is a passion that he cannot help but suffer in order to expose his wounds of love. What Derrida then proposes is an unheard of way, a totally new way of making love, and of inscribing oneself into the body of another—into the body of language by inscribing stigmata, tattoos, and wounds of love” (880).

One aspect of the parallel is the total exclusivity of the one and only. All desires are directed at her; she is the only occupation of the lover. The lover surrenders unconditionally to her sovereignty. But this total surrender is not respect; it retains accents of revenge and jealousy.  This only object of desire remains principally unreachable—the lady cannot be appropriated, cannot become mine. Their exclusive relationship must be kept totally secret. Being subjected to passion, this suffering surrender, surrendering to suffering, is neither a choice nor can it be understood; it is something done to the subject that it cannot but suffer. Courtly love is a mode of relating to the other that exposes the subject to lack. It can never come into its own, but is always exiled from itself. This self-alienation does not only inhabit the subject, but is the very nature of language. It inhabits language and finds its best expression— its perfect illustration—in the address to the beloved in the lover’s lament. Derrida uses all these topoi of courtly love to illustrate the paradox of a language that is his only one but that does not belong to him” (881).

Within the secret erotic space, language discloses herself, and the lover who unconditionally submits to her, can leave traces and wounds behind: “It is because of this knowledge that he can dream of making her come into herself differently—to make something incredible happen to her: “de lui faire arriver quelque chose.” . . . In this strange economy—rather of an-economy—the addition of lack ‘giving to language what she doesn’t have, but what the lover does not have either’ will make a difference, not a satisfactory one, sans doute, but a desirable one. Greffer, griffer this body, even with borrowed nails, leaving a trace—a wound of love and thereby letting her come into herself differently was Derrida’s dream” (882).

(Vinken, “The Love of the Letter: Derrida and his Only Lady,” Cardozo Law Review 27 [2005] 877-882.)

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