by Leslie Dunton-Downer
An old assumption has it that the avoidance of incest differentiates humans from animals. Recent work in the field of behavioral biology demonstrates, however, that "many animals also avoid mating with their close relatives" (Pusey 201). If we take into account that an aversion to inbreeding is far from specific to humans, we come to see the extent to which incest avoidance as a zero-degree marker of culture is itself a cultural construct. It follows, then, that contributions to mythologies of the incest prohibition as an indicator or correlative of culture for their own parts function as problematic investments in and definitions of culture. In other words, incest brings with it questions not simply about the dangers of sex with members of one's close circle of kin, but more fundamentally about the dangers either of identification or indistinction between any two terms whose relationships establish a space in which culture happens. In short, the problem of incest condenses and helps to clarify problems more generally attributable to our understanding of culture. Chrétien de Troyes's Cligés, I will argue, offers an important medieval example of the ways in which the literary representation of incest comes to engage a number of cultural operations whose aims are to preserve an essential system of differentiation.
I use the phrase 'essential system' cautiously, aware that it implies an inescapable, even fatalistic interpretation of processes of differentiation, as if these could be attributed to a mythologized, pre-ideological origin of meaning and identity whose operations are forever bound to overdetermine the ways in which we construct our ourselves in our worlds. I am suggesting, however, that whatever may become in the future of the system of differentiation through which we engage in social, psychical, and semantic economies, through which we think ourselves, we are nevertheless currently -- and this remains the case even with work aiming specifically to think through the problem of essence, as in the areas of deconstruction, phenomenology, gender studies, and so on -- constantly rediscovering and returning to the basic principle of essence most succinctly formulated by Hegel in his discussion of identity and difference, which he understood to capture the universal laws of thought: "Everything is identical with itself, A=A; and, negatively, A cannot at the same time be A and not A" (167).
Responses to the apparent necessity of this underlying system, and in particular Hegel's insistence on its universality as well as the ultimate recuperative function of his concept of Being, include the important essay by Heidegger, Identity and Difference, in which (Hegelian) problems surrounding essence are tentatively attributed to Western languages and metaphysics: "It must remain an open question whether the nature of Western languages is in itself marked with the exclusive brand of metaphysics, and thus marked permanently by onto-theo-logic, or whether these languages offer other possibilities of utterance -- and that means at the same time of telling silence" (73). Insofar as this system of differentiation has become essentialized to the point where we are bound to conceptualize culture in terms of difference, and until we think through the essentialized position of essence and are equipped with "other possibilities," then, to this extent the system remains for the time being essential. Culture appears, that is, unable to perpetuate itself except by preserving the inevitability of its system of differentiation. And this is precisely why incest, whose horror is accomplished in the very idea of the collapse of a basic process of differentiation that is held to be sacred or inviolable, becomes the site of a potentially radical rethinking of the principles of identity and difference as well as the contaminating function assigned to indeterminacy.
The title of my essay alludes to Freud's landmark work entitled "The Horror of Incest," which nicely illustrates the nervous proximity -- a proximity that the very underlying system shared by incest prohibitions and culture works to distance -- of incest to culture. We read in the first paragraphs of Freud's essay:
There are men still living who, as we believe, stand very near to primitive man, far nearer than we do, and whom we therefore regard as his direct heirs and representatives. Such is our view of those whom we describe as savages or half-savages; and their mental life must have a peculiar interest for us if we are right in seeing in it a well-preserved picture of an early stage of our own development. (Freud 1)Freud's study goes on to treat "the tribes which have been described by anthropologists as the most backward and miserable of savages, the aborigines of Australia" (ibid 1). The incest taboo is Freud's proposed subject of study, but his fundamental preoccupation is with our (dangerous, unclean, incestuous) proximity to "poor, naked cannibals" (ibid 2). What's more: we are not only like savages, genealogically close to them, but also we somehow psychically contain them: 'they' represent 'our' psychic origins and against 'them' we may measure 'our' mental and cultural development. To what extent is Freud's study of incest about erecting differences -- differences that also serve as defensive fortifications -- between the Aborigines and 'us', or for that matter our past selves and our current selves?
The Freudian elaboration of the horror of incest in fact captures the horror of culture, its systematically violent and problematic investment in differentiations extending paradigmatically, through their dogged binarisms, an opposition between filth and its lack. 
The Latin term incestus ('polluted', 'defiled', 'unclean') suggests as the defining strategy of the prohibition the avoidance of what anthropologists following Mary Douglas call pollution, the contaminants of (synchronic) social order and its (diachronic) continuity. By their very nature, incest prohibitions stake out a distaste for cultural and social ambiguity. It is often forgotten that the incest taboo promotes at once two practices, each directed at the preservation of seemingly independent but in fact systematically related borders: 1) exogamy (marriage and sexual relations outside the group perceived as immediate kin) and, with few exceptions, and 2) endogamy (marriage inside a specific group). That is, prohibitions forbidding marriages between, say, Brahmin and untouchable, Jew and gentile, or white and black are identified with incest prohibitions insofar as they participate in the same system of rules; the unions they aim to prevent are deemed as horrible and 'unclean' as those between father and daughter or brother and sister. 'Clean' relations, then, are those outside the immediate family, but not so far out that the cultural, religious, 'racial', and social categories with which the family is identified are rendered invisible or incohesive. 
This two-way system of incest, which promotes sexual relations at once within and outside specific borders, generates mappings of cultural likeness and difference, cleanness and filth, proximity and remoteness, which are used to preserve the functions of identities as culturally-bound, predetermined, valuable, and natural. It is not surprising, under these circumstances, that incest discursively tropes or, more directly, generates expressed preoccupations with the reliance of cultural systems on the recognition and rejection of terms of likeness and difference.
The horror of culture is that it systematically relies on this principle of locating and investing in boundaries as if for their own sakes, simply because what we know as culture appears unable to be transmitted and to evolve unless it preserves its essential system, which is founded on the (at least perceived) necessity of a basic structure of differentiation. If culture is to be passed down, shared, exported, co-opted, in short, disseminated across space and through time, its enthusiasm for boundaries that allow it to recognize, perpetuate, and transform itself through specific, ultimately accidental differences can be afforded precisely because the rigidity and immobility of its essentialized oppositional structure is so fully assured. 
The desirability of the very concept of incest (from the vantage point of culture) is that it pictures the collapse of differentiation in terms of the system's necessity and intrinsic value. Incest has thus come to designate the absence of culture and the halting of its distributive and self-perpetuating impulses rather than, say, a conceptual space in which the very nature of culture could be thought anew.
In its refusal to embrace the oppositional essence of identity as it has been understood since Hegel, poetic language is nevertheless able to approximate spaces of incest. Jakobson's definition of poetic language effectively responds to the Hegelian equations for identity and difference; a sign's dual relation to the thing it signifies places it in a strangely indeterminate and paradoxical relationship to essence and its kind of differentiation. If A=sign and A'=object, then in poetic language (unlike, say, symbolic languages such as mathematics): A equals A' and at once A is not equal to A'.  This peculiar characteristic of poetic language suggests that the horror of incest as perceived by culture is always precariously present in language, and is especially pronounced in genres employing the signature indeterminacies of poetic language (rather than highly referential, less figurative language) most densely.
Given that incestuousness exists in what Kristeva calls the "unsettled" (136) activity of semiosis,  expressive arts are positioned to investigate uniquely alternative structurations of identity and to discover with efficiencies as yet unavailable to what Heidegger terms the languages of "Western metaphysics" (which include the discourses contained in this volume) the possibilities of being differently, of redefining the forbiddeness of specific activities and ontological spaces.
In the Old French Arthurian verse romance Cligés (c. 1176) by Chrétien de Troyes, aunt-nephew incest participates in a larger system in which relationships between East and West; present and past; amorous subject and beloved; male and female; and text and intertext are based on dangerous likenesses and, finally, necessary differences. In each case, one term risks blurring into and possibly becoming (incestuously) co-identified with its counterpart, a situation that the romance stages at once as desirable and horrible, with the ultimate outcome of full identification amounting conceptually to the collapse of writing and the impossibility of culture. The function of poetic language, here, is to rescue desire (of X for Y, of whichever term for its counterpart) from thoroughgoing identification, to prevent desire from shutting down the spaces in which each of the terms in play means something, becomes 'cultural.' The poetics of incest in Cligés suggests that the desire to transgress must ultimately meet up with the fact that it is bound to reproduce or even reinforce the tyrannies of culture's system.
For the purposes of this conference, I will restrict my discussion of
textual evidence to two examples. The double functioning of the incest problem
(i.e., who is inside and who is outside 'the family') is textually reproduced
in several different ways, with the question of cultural origins and authority
thematically framing the entire composition. There are also internal
monologues, where psychic divisions are explored as the self questions its own
place, permeability, and potential indistinctness from the object of its love.
The structure of the incest system also emerges as a rhetorical problem in a
brief but importantly weighted passage of descriptive simile whereby
Cligés is tellingly likened to Narcissus:
Mes tant ert biax et avenanz Que Narcissus, qui desoz l'orme Vit an la fantainne sa forme, Si l'ama tant, si com an dit, Qu'il an fu morz, quant il la vit, Por tant qu'il ne la pot avoir. Molt ot biauté et po savoir, Mes Clygés en ot plus grant masse, Tant con li ors le cuivre passe Et plus que je ne di encor. (2726-2736)[He was as beautiful and comely as Narcissus, who under the elm tree beheld in the fountain his reflection and loved it so much that, as it is told, he died when, seeing it, he could not possess it. He was of great beauty and little wisdom; but just as gold surpasses copper, and even more than I am able to relate, Cligés was wiser.]
While Cligés is being compared to Narcissus for his beauty, the Ovidian self-lover is also serving as a negative model for a kind of love recognizing no distinctions between self and other. The outcome of this total denial of boundaries preserving identity is of course death; but Cligés is said to be intelligent where Narcissus is not wise. And here we are returned to the differences Chrétien hopes exist between 'chivalry' as it is passed not only from Greece but also from Rome to France; the passage suggests the problems 12th-century French culture grapples with as it weighs differences between being like and having its antique cultural models.
In the comparison between the chivalric Arthurian lover and his self-obsessed Ovidian counterpart, Cligés himself risks becoming nothing more than the mere reflection of former and more authoritative likeness of himself. The fact that he has more wisdom is crucially inserted here, as if to suggest that the operations leading Cligés into a dangerous, polluted world of indistinction or unmediated reflection are checked by another kind of reflection (savoir) that inserts boundaries obstructing fatal self-absorption. In this instance, the inserted boundary, the additional quality that allows Cligés to be unlike Narcissus is, as savoir, nothing more than the function of (necessarily mediated) reflection.
I turn now to the closing passage of the romance. Fénice and Cligés have been meeting in the paradisal garden of a specially-constructed tower, where they embrace in nakedness without the knowledge of Alis (Fénice's husband and Cligés's uncle). This picture of the couple recalls a crucial exegetical point made by Aquinas regarding exemption from the incest prohibition: the children of Adam and Eve, in their sexual unions, are free from charges of incest because the species would not have continued were the prohibition in effect at this initial stage.  We are back into questions of origins, and Chrétien's desire to claim a new origin in the conjoining of East and West.  In the final verses of the romance, Cligés and Fénice (perhaps precisely because their action is set in the exoticized remoteness of Constantinople, where the usual Arthurian codes of courtly love may be more readily set aside) are made to figure a transgressive, yet paradoxically more enlightened kind of courtly love. Unlike Tristan and Isolde, who both die, Cligés and Fénice live out their lives never quarreling, their love only growing with each passing day (6641). The transgression of prohibitions has been used to idealize a cultural re-beginning through which Alexander's Greece and Arthur's Britanny form one large family epitomizing chivalric glory and collapsing distinctions contesting the priority and centrality of Chrétien's mythology of Arthurian culture.
But the romance does not remain here, in a place where hierarchies of crucial interest to Chrétien's myth of the 'current' and future locations of culture are left unclear, where borders have been transgressed at the risk of invalidating the entire Arthurian system, and where the elimination of distinctions is as frightening as it is desirable. The moment in which Arthurian culture achieves its transcendence in the transgressive union of Cligés and Fénice is at once the moment in which this culture's system is poised to evaporate completely. With no new others or territories through which to proliferate itself, through which to continue to stage its priority, the system (recognizing its imminent obsolescence) prefers to represent its radical re-conceptualizations as a mere holiday from which one is necessarily bound to return.
The romance switches gears dramatically to play out a second, alternative staging of origins, this time in etiological form. The final verses attempt to recast the romance as a cautionary tale explaining why emperors in Constantinople no longer trust their wives and are compelled, by the example of the betrayal of Alis, to confine them:
Por ce einsi com an prison Est gardee an Costantinoble, Ja n'iert tant haute ne tant noble, L'empererriz, quex qu'ele soit: L'empereres point ne s'i croit, Tant con de celi li remanbre; Toz jorz la fet garder en chanbre Plus por peor que por le hasle, Ne ja avoec li n'avra masle Qui ne soit chastrez en anfance. De ce n'est criemme ne dotance Qu'Amors les lit an son lïen. Ci fenist l'uevre Chrestïen. (6652-6664)[For this reason the empress, no matter how high-born or noble, is kept in Constantinople as in a prison; the emperor trusts her not at all so long as he remembers the story of Fénice. At all times he has her guarded in her room, more out of fear than to protect her from the sun's heat, nor is there ever with her any male who has not been castrated since boyhood. With things this way, there is no fear or suspicion that Love will tie them in his net. Here ends the work of Chrétien.]
Here is a vivid example of the generating of cultural differences for the sake of preserving the mythology of a specific culture's distinction: the exoticized, Eastern institution of the harem is made to be a direct and reactionary response to the Arthurian practice (imported by Cligés) of erotic Arthurian love in its most distilled form. The figure of the sexually inert eunuch is inserted to replace personified Love, which set in motion all of the desires that drew one term to seek out and entertain identification with its counterpart elsewhere in the romance. In the passage cited above, a number of re-differentiations (of East and West, male and female, past and present, liberty and confinement) display a strong desire for clearly demarcated sexual identities, temporal orders, hierarchies of power, forms of governance, and cultural spaces.
We may ask whether this second ending performs, for Chrétien, a problematic kind of thinking, the savoir (2731) that distinguished Cligés from Narcissus earlier in the composition. As a result of the various kinds of love that propel co-identifications throughout the romance, Arthurian culture and its language of selfhood are reconfigured as spaces of confusion in which originals and imitations, points of view and objects being viewed, desiring subjects and their beloveds, one term and its 'opposite' cannot be successfully opposed. That one term and its counterpart are viciously co-dependent but not essentially opposed -- emanating as they do from the same system -- is in part the subject of Chrétien's work. But the romance also claims, through the culturally hybrid figure of Cligés, that the desire for sexual, spiritual, and cultural fusion brings with it the destruction of boundaries across which identities and languages are formed and evolved. Cligés may desire an unwritable space of fusions as it investigates the absolutism of the same fierce oppositions that lure Narcissus to fall in love with and die for his likeness. But the savoir Cligés possesses keeps him from being self-destructive. Perhaps in its concluding passage Cligés, too, is performing a variation of this savoir when it suddenly prefers over and above fusing with the East (as the object of its cultural desire) rejecting all similarities between Arthurian and Byzantine court culture. One is left to ponder the differences between the amorous identification and disenchanted distinction that characterize the two endings of the romance, and to ask whether there is any essential distinction between the two pictures of cultural difference.
If it turns out that any reflection is bound to be no different from the savoir of Cligés (i.e., a mere marker of the function of thought rather than a kind of reflection that potentially alters the systems in which thinking may take place), then so be it; perhaps all we desire from cultural studies is a mere (Narcissistic) sign of our reflection, some evidence that thinking and cultural work (whether because it's intellectually gratifying, valuable in the marketplaces of academe, an indication that culture is 'going on' and must be maintained at any cost, or for any other reason) exists. We need to ask ourselves, at the very least, whom we are looking at and what we are looking for when we undertake knowing or reflecting on culture; these identities, places, and ideas we study will be the ones we are making ourselves of, the ones we desire.
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