Fiction-making is the interpretive surplus of masochism.
Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari provide the example of a masochist's contract that outlines the role of a domineering equestrian who will write a metamorphic story across a subjugated body:
PROGRAM ... At night, put on the bridle and attach my hands more tightly, either to the bit with the chain, or to the big belt right after returning from the bath ... Ride the reins for two hours during the day, and in the evening as the master wishes ... The master will never approach her horse without the crop, and without using it. If the animal should display impatience or rebelliousness, the reins will be drawn tighter, the master will grab them and give the beast a good thrashing.Through a script composed and agreed to in advance, a man and a woman enact transformative roles that bring a series of signs and their significations (or forces) into explosive, unusual contact: "One series explodes into the other, forms a circuit with it: an increase in power or a circuit of intensities" (Deleuze and Guattari, 156). Yet, whether the masochist instigates a process of becoming-animal or becoming something other, the "circuit" produced by the erotic script is not a closed one; the story does not simply end when its outline is concluded. A surplus is always produced, something beyond and extraneous to the mere satisfaction of a contract. That masochistic surplus, that transformative jouissance (pleasure, enjoyment, explosion, orgasm) is, in fact, the supplemental narrative which the enactment of the contract engenders. We start with a merely contractual relation, but we end with a fiction whose formal structure has been scripted by the "victim," its protagonist.
Fiction-making is the interpretive surplus of masochism: the aphorism is already derivable from the primal scene of "modern" masochism, Freud's essay "A Child is Being Beaten." Kaja Silverman explains that this "female fantasy" which Freud details is composed of three distinct parts:
Perhaps it seems strange to begin an essay on Chrétien's Le Chevalier à la charrette (Lancelot), a chivalric romance, with an explication of an erotic contract that is "not in good taste." Yet Chrétien's work invites the odd comparison. No medieval romance has caused more discomfort among its interpreters than Lancelot, and this uneasiness has for the most part been displaced onto its author through a fanciful reconstruction of his biography. Ever since Gaston Paris' ground-breaking work on Lancelot and courtly love, the received wisdom has been that Chrétien "lacked enthusiasm" for his project because he harbored "understandable" moral reservations about the adultery which his patroness, Marie de Champagne, commanded him to celebrate. That he allowed the romance to be finished by another author, Godefroi de Lagny, is taken as evidence that he approached his subject (matière) with distaste, abandoning the narrative at the first available opportunity. Lancelot's passion is adulterous, idolatrous, treasonous, and therefore must have been (had to be) to Chrétien's disliking. A secondary romance begins to circulate in which Chrétien is, like his protagonist, oppressed by a "superior, even capricious lady who requires unquestioning obedience from her lover/servant": life imitates art.
Chrétien composed his romances at a time when the institution of marriage was undergoing a crisis of identity. George Duby has famously described the aristocratic and ecclesiastical models of marriage current in twelfth century northern France, the struggle for dominance between them, and the alignments of secular and church interests that motivated the construction of each. The institution of the husband was being invented, marriage was becoming a sacrament rather than a device for alliance, and power relationships of all kinds were consequently being subjected to realignments, reinvention, reinterpretation.
Is it possible under such conditions for the poet who has been called the "apologist for love in marriage" (Bruckner, 137) to envision a different configuration of identities, one in which the articulation of gender does not find its dominance in a mythology of marriage, but rather embraces the possibility of being outside the limits of this new cultural coherence? Is it possible for Lancelot's embrace of adultery to be seen as an act transgressive not because it violates the sacred dicta of the Bible and its exegetes, but because it sexualizes the very foundations of courtly power relations, and loves them (fetishizes them) for their excess?
By rehearsing as erotic a set of scripts written to be enacted in religious and political theatres of power, Lancelot explores the pleasures of adultery: category admixture, adulteration, the paradoxical but joyous gains of contingency, subordination, embracement. In short, Le Chevalier de la charrette both embodies and enacts the discourses of power circulating in late twelfth century France, and even more specifically the peculiar system of relations obtaining at Marie and Henry's court of Champagne. Lancelot asks what is it like to embrace subordination -- to take the place simultaneously of servant, vassal, lover, artist with an enthusiasm that not only erodes the distinction among these roles, but also through its unwavering obedience to a hierarchized system of power threatens, at last, to topple whatever architecture it undergirds.
Lancelot is about adultery, and adultery (which is never merely sexual) is always messy, always a problem. "Imbrication" is too clean a term to describe the interrelation of Chrétien's categories; these domains adulterate in that they not only overlap, but intermingle in a forbidden joining of what is supposed to remain discreet. All these conjoined disciplines align human bodies and behaviors under hierarchical schemata that create, support, and naturalize a machinery of dominance and submission. All simultaneously depend upon a variation of what I will call the "masochistic contract." And all, ultimately, are undone by Lancelot's (Lancelot's) radical, self-negating conjointure.9
Suppose for a moment that gender were not only relational, but consensual. Suppose, that is, that in the reiteration of power over time which is "gender," a space existed for realigning that dispositif du pouvoir so that it could function self-consciously, visibly, rather than silently and submerged? Consensual gender would bring us close to the cultural intervention practiced in Yvain and Erec et Enide, which construct a new model of "masculine" and "feminine" by aligning the terms with a heteronormativity wholly bounded by the performance arena of marriage, where the "new" roles of husband and wife are predicated upon (the myth of) mutual consent. This inquiry of hypotheticals can be taken further: could a sex/gender system built upon relationality and translated into consensuality be formalized by a social script, one that opened to a public, panoptic eye the series of invisible citations that give gender its coherence? Such a reworking of gender relationality through a technology of visibility could be labeled contractual.
Contractual gender would not necessarily radically reconfigure "relational" or "consensual" gender, only politicize their articulation. By foregrounding agency within the paradigm of power, contractual gender opens up the dangerous possibility that sexual relationships could be figured otherwise; even more disturbing, when a gender relationship is based upon a reconfigurable contract, it denaturalizes "sex," "gender," and the power relationships of all kinds invested in imbuing these terms with their cultural meanings. Contractual gender would, ultimately, desexualize love while "at the same time sexualizing the entire history of humanity."
The phrase "contractual gender" can hardly be spoken without suggesting the sensational love contracts associated with masochism as a simultaneously erotic and social art. Yet I do not (yet) wish to conjure visions of leather and whips; further, following Deleuze, I wish to exclude here the nebulous and not very useful concept of "sadomasochism." That masochism and sadism are neither dialectical nor contiguous has been adequately argued by Deleuze, whose "Coldness and Cruelty" is a brilliant prelude to the revolutionary work on sexuality he and Guatarri accomplished in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Masochism, Deleuze writes, is "all persuasion and education," an erotic geography mapped by a desiring victim who seeks a torturer to educate and "conclude an alliance with" (20). The consensual basis of masochism becomes formalized through a series of agreements, or contracts, that underscore the disjunction between sadism as an art of force and masochism as an act of persuasion.
The trope I shall use in my resexualization of the corpus of Lancelot is that of the masochistic contract. Such a conjointure maps gender roles across a matrix of social relations whose extent and composition have been agreed to in advance: it writes visibly in a private sphere (across two bodies) the operation of a power which proceeds unseen in public realms. The masochistic contract clearly concerns more than an erotic drama. Indeed, for masochism to be useful in philosophical inquiry it must be de-pathologized, stripped of the stigma of perversion and rewritten as a phenomenon simultaneously social, epistemological and sexual. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the literary darling of France in the 1880s, was horrified to learn that Krafft-Ebing had named a perversion after him in the Psychopathia Sexualis, wholly missing the point of the "folklore, history, politics, mysticism, eroticism, nationalism" condensed around the focal point of flagellation in his narratives (Deleuze, p.10). It may well be that "sexuality is ontologically grounded in masochism"; it may also be true that all experiences of power have something in their ontology that connects them, relentlessly, to sexuality. But masochism is not only about sex. As a foundational condensation (or narrativization) of religious, erotic, and political forces, masochism orders the world.
Or disorders it. The members of those flagellant movements which began in Perugia in the mid thirteenth century and swept northwards to Rome, Germany, and France publicly scourged their bodies for the sins which they had committed against the very moral system within which they had been subjectivated; at the same time as they enthusiastically administered the proper punishments for their crimes, in their zeal to bring the logic of a system whose Law they upheld to its fullest conclusion, they transformed themselves through their disciplina into bands of radicals and milleniarists led by what Norman Cohn has called "an elite of self-immolating Redeemers." These "revolutionary flagellants" terrified the ecclesiastical authorities. Writing a severe and negational law across their own bruised bodies, they transformed into public spectacle the repressions (psychological, somatic) through which they had been constructed as obedient members of the church militant. Desiring this disciplinary system to excess, they threatened the dispositif of power that had made their appearance logical, inevitable, and necessary to suppress. The flagellants believed they were living in a time near the return of their infinitely suffering, infinitely loving Messiah. Their imitatio Christi was aimed at hastening that Apocalypse. As far as the clerics whose authority they were undermining through their performative surplus were concerned, they very nearly succeeded.
Although enthralled by an abjecting, revolutionary desire that opposes itself to a system of "reason" even while embracing its hegemonic, life-ordering codes, Lancelot is no "revolutionary flagellant." Yet Lancelot, noble adulterer, is very much like Christ.
Lancelot enters Le Chevalier de la charrette as an absent presence, a cryptic allusion seeking a specific identity. Names and motives are withheld from the start: a mysterious foreigner whom we later learn is the foreign prince Meleagant has burst into Arthur's court as it celebrates Ascension Day (the day Christ's body vanished from the earth). The discourteous intruder announces that his distant realm is replete with chevaliers, dames et puceles ("knights, ladies, and maidens") from Logres whom he holds en servitume et an essil (2091). He has no intention of allowing them to return home unless someone battles him for Queen Guenevere. The obnoxious seneschal Kay tricks Arthur into entrusting the Queen to his guardianship, then challenges the foreign knight. As Guenevere is mounting her horse, about to be led away to certain capture at the hands of Meleagant, she sighs "under her breath":
"Ha! Amis, se le seüssiez ja ce croi ne l'otroiesiez que Kex me menast un seul pas." (ll.209-11)
"Ah! My friend, if you knew, I think you would never permit Kay to lead me even a single step away."
The enigmatic web of suppressions thickens when a knight whom no one recognizes appears after the Queen has been captured. Gawain follows this hyperactive stranger, and comes across the knight about to enter a cart. Gawain's eyes here become the audience's, just as we previously found ourselves borrowing Count Guinable's ear: the perspective we have on Lancelot is fully from the outside, so that his decision to mount the cart is evaluated within the framework of masculine power that obtains at Logres and is embodied in its knights (among whom Gawain is so far the greatest). The description of the cart proceeds from the perspective of the juridical court of "proper" chivalry, a frame within which Lancelot's actions in mounting are incomprehensible. Lancelot hesitates for two steps before he enters. By mounting the cart Lancelot is debased beyond the possibility of recognition. The event of the shameful entry becomes the semantic doppelgänger for his public identity, the meaning (nom) that suppresses into secondariness any other social signification his body could have. At this moment he is the reduced "chevaliers a pié, sanz lance" (345); a knight [chevalier] without a horse [cheval] is no knight at all. He will remain thenceforth le chevalier à la charrette , until Guenevere bestows his missing nom propre.
The knight's and the queen's identities are not just relational, but radically contingent: in the private world which they construct around themselves (a world which is, in miniature, the exterior courtly world), the removal of one gendered body from the relationship precipitates the complete loss of the other's selfhood. As Lancelot wanders in search of his absent love, he dissolves into a dreamlike state of negation, structured linguistically through a narcotic anaphora of ne:
...ses pansers est de tel guise que lui meïsmes en oubllie; ne set s'il est, ou s'il n'est mie; ne ne li manbre de son non; ne set s'il est armez ou non, ne set ou va, ne set don vient. (714-9)
His meditation was so deep That he forgot his own identity; He was uncertain whether he truly existed or not; He was unable to recall his own name; He did not know if he were armed or not, Nor where he went or whence he came.
Cil qui levera cele lanme seus par son cors gitera ces et celes fors qui sont an la terre an prison. (1900-3)
He who will lift This slab by his unaided strength Will free all the men and women Who are imprisoned in the land.
The monk who witnesses the revelatory act of opening the (empty) sepulchre demands the accomplisher's name, and Lancelot turns "name" to "nothing" and equates it with himself:
[Li moinnes] dit: 'Sire, or ai grant envie que je seusse vostre non; direiez le me vos?' -- 'Je, non,' fet li chevaliers, 'par ma foi.' (1920-3)
[The monk] said, 'Sir, now I am most anxious To know your name. Will you tell me?' 'I will not,' Answered the knight, 'upon my word.'
Removing one identity from Lancelot's and Guenevere's contractual relation imperils the other, because meaning is predicated upon definition against and therefore upon linguistic/social presence (if even simply a search for presence). Lancelot yearns for the joyful plenitude he expects as reward for having located the abducted Queen. Guenevere's coldness and cruelty at their reunion, though necessary and eventually pleasurable, take Lancelot quite by surprise. She rejects her amis for not having been passionate enough in his subordination to her, for having hesitated for two steps before entering the cart of shame. The two lovers are quickly separated, so that the spiral of negation begins anew.
Lancelot, however, never loses faith in the power/knowledge that he constructs around the queen. Her reasoning is impeccable, even if wholly opaque. Guenevere, meanwhile, enacts the masochistic script she has learnt from Lancelot, subjecting herself to the punishments of their relational system by entering into it as if she were him. Suddenly possessed of an interiority that makes its previous and henceforth absence all the more troubling, she labels her actions in rejecting Lancelot a sin (pechié). Only victims (those who have experienced loss, those who suffer in order to signify) possess subjectivity in Lancelot; Guenevere gains hers through the banishment of a lover who, when present, constituted her as object of desire rather than desiring subject.
Nostalgia for a lost moment of union is projected as a fantasy of sexual conjoining (conjointure, that which creates les conjoints): she should have held him in her arms, she thinks, tot nu a nu, to enjoy him "as fully as possible" (4229-30). She considers suicide when false news is brought that Lancelot is dead, but decides to take long pleasure instead in the suffering his permanent absence will cause; self-erasure is never as attractive to her as it is to her amis. "It pleases me," she says deliciously, "To mourn him for a long while" ("il m'est molt pleisant / que j'en aille lonc due feisant," 4241-2). At this moment she reverts to the script that the masochistic hero has assigned her, the role of the woman of cold pleasure who enjoys the negation of her lover rather than of herself. This restructuration restores her to the role of domna/dominatrix whose distant delication Lancelot's own suffering is predicated upon. Venus im Pelz.
The masochist suffers the penalty of the Law in order to enjoy, thereafter, its breach. The punishment precedes the crime, enabling its guiltless commission. After Lancelot pursues Guenevere through the imaginary geography of Gorre and engages Meleagant in battle to win her back, the Queen rewards him by publicly restoring his name: "Lancelot del Lac a a non" (3660). The narrative is more than halfway finished when the audience finally learns the protagonist's nom propre. We do not come to our knowledge through any act of assertion on Lancelot's part; he has steadfastly resisted any such identity-speaking, to the frustration of those whom he encounters in his aventures. Lancelot's name is a gift granted by Guenevere, an articulation of his true identity that effaces forever the taint of the cart. That it comes solely from the queen illustrates that his meaning in gender is coincipient with his relationship to her body. This relationship, structured as it is around an ascesis of excess, an embrace of "limit" and "category" and of a law that commands "No" will culminate in an embrace that cracks the walls that segregate being into meaning. For "enjoyment" itself is predicated upon surplus value, even if a surplus of negation: "The very gesture of renouncing enjoyment produces inevitably a surplus of enjoyment that Lacan writes down as the 'object small a' [objet petit a]," so that the ascetic can never be sure that "he does not repudiate all worldly goods because of the ostentatious and vain satisfaction procured by this very act of sacrifice."
The relationship between Lancelot and Guenevere is one that should logically culminate in the surplus (surplus ) enjoyment figured through the sex act, that dangerous identity loss "in which the sexual emerges as the jouissance of exploded limits, as the ecstatic suffering into which the human organism momentarily plunges when it is 'pressed' beyond a certain threshold of endurance." When, after a long suffering that serves as preparation and absolution for their assignation, Lancelot and Guenevere share her bed, we are met with one of the most astounding scenes of category confusion in all of medieval romance. In entering the sanctum sanctorum of the bedchamber Lancelot cuts his fingers on the metal window bars, but fails to notice. He bows and worships Guenevere as if she were a saint of radiant aspect, come to earth with the Word of God. Lancelot's reverence translates the sexual into the spiritual, rendering the one indistinguishable from the other. What makes the scene remarkable, though, is what happens next: after a lingering description of their love-making, Lancelot suffers a martyr's agony at a metaphorical evisceration. His body departs while his heart is left behind ("li cors s'anvet, li cuers sejorne"); but also literally, physically some part of him remains ("mes de son cors tant i remaint"). He says that he would rather have been dismembered than not have had the tryst (4731-3), but in a way that's exactly what has happened. The final, shocking revelation: Lancelot departs, notices that he has been wounded (that he has lost something during intercourse), and is informed the next day that the Queen has been discovered sleeping among white sheets ("molt blanc") stained red with blood ("tachié de sanc"). These bloody sheets are the wedding night topos, the display that announces consummation through feminine loss (the virgin's hymen): but here the masculine body has stained the sheets, and itself. Or, rather, the masculine body has become feminine. Or else masculine and feminine (along with lover/beloved, master/servant, vassal/lord, public/private) have temporarily lost their relational signifying power, each bifurcation blurring to the point at which it is no longer possible to contain them. Lancelot and Guenevere sleep together, and Lancelot bleeds like a wedding night bride, like a saint in imitatione Christi blessed with the stigmata.
This sliding, this "jouissance of exploded limits," is the ultimate act of adultery, Lancelot's (Lancelot's) triumph. No sooner is the moment of bliss attained, however, than desire is reactivated by a removal from grasp. "A goal once reached always retreats anew": Lancelot loses Guenevere at the moment he gains her. If he did not, the power system in which the text is embedded would discohere for too long. The threat is of permanent breakdown.
The revelation of the second writer's identity is startling, placed at the very end of the work: the moment is rather like Guenevere's bestowal of the knight of the Cart's nom propre. Godefroi suddenly takes the place of Chrétien, who now inhabits the role of Marie as bestower of sen et matière. The drama enacted in the prologue repeats, after a substitution of bodies and functions, in the epilogue. The adulterous events inside the poem occur simultaneously in the outside world of Marie's court which the poem itself constructs for us and is constructed by, leading to another category violation (inside/outside, Fictive/Real). Chrétien surrenders his power as author so that another author can surrender his power to him: invincible strength through disappearance, visibility through a technology of vanishing.
In thinking through this essay I have submitted myself, masochistically, to three difficult disciplines (difficult at least for me): ancien francais, a language far from my native tongue; a nested series of discourses of power in late twelfth century Champagne (a geography distant from me, spatially and temporally); and cultural theory, a resistant and amorphous body of knowledge that challenges one to speak and think differently -- if, after its constant challenges to self, subjectivity, and coherence, one has a voice left with which to speak at all. I submit to this triple supplice as an act of mastery: I allow these discourses to envelope me because I want to hold them close, make them mine, enact them at that limit where they align into new comprehensibilities.
I began this essay with a contract that masochistically enacted a substitution of bodies, a doubled act of adultery that mingled what is supposed to be singular and discrete. I traced with a particular fascination the joyful supplice of Lancelot (Lancelot). I conclude, after a long process, substituting Lancelot 's masochistic desires, which are Chretien's masochistic desires, for their origin, for my own.