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  • Masoch / Lancelotism
  • Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (bio)

In bed or in life, it’s one and the same.

Depeche Mode, “Master and Servant”

Surplus Value

Noi leggevamo un giorno per diletto / Di Lancelotto, come l’amor lo strinse. [“One day for our delight we read of Lancelot, how love enthralled him.”]

Dante, Inferno V.125–26

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.” 1 Kaja Silverman explains that this “female fantasy” which Freud reconstructs is composed of three distinct parts: Phase 1: “My father is beating the child [whom I hate].” Phase 2: “I am being beaten by my father.” Phase 3: “Some boys are being beaten. [I am probably looking on.]” 2 Remarkably, Phase 2 is wholly fictional: “It is never remembered, it has never succeeded in becoming conscious. It is a construction of analysis, but it is no less of a necessity on that account” (CB 185). 3 Phase 2 is pure surplus, a story outside of and beyond the two other narratives (Phase 1, Phase 3) whose contact produces it. Masochism and creation of narratives which embody something extra, some necessary surplus, are always intertwined. And so for Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, the rhythm of spanking becomes the rhythm of enjambed verse; “A Child is Being Beaten” becomes “A Poem is Being Written.” 4

Perhaps it seems strange to preface an essay on Chrétien de Troyes’s Le Chevalier de la charrette (Lancelot), 5 a refined but playful account of the love between Lancelot and Guenevere, with an uncomfortable account of bodies in pain that are indistinguishable from bodies in pleasure. Yet Chrétien’s work invites the odd conjunction. 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’s [End Page 231] 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. 6 That he allowed the work 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: the story is inherently dirty, 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” (LC 138). 7 Life imitates art. Unlike Lancelot, the story goes, Chrétien resisted the demand for subordination. Imperious Marie may have gotten her way with Andreas Capellanus, whom she commissioned to compose a paean to adulterous love in De arte honeste amandi (The Art of Courtly Love), but Chrétien she could never fully dominate. He writes a tale undermined by irony and humor, and leaves it for someone else to finish. This supplemental, surplus narrative offers the chronicle of masculine triumph that Lancelot mysteriously fails to provide.

Le Chevalier de la charrette has historically been so discomforting because it functions not unlike the masochistic dream which fascinated Freud. The romance enacts similarly disconcerting substitutions, and stages similarly strange enjoyments upon the body. Lancelot sexualizes the social, reconfigures the somatic in ways both dangerous and pleasurable, and smashes with a peculiar jouissance the boundaries that compartmentalize culture. By rehearsing as erotic a set of scripts written to be enacted in religious and political theaters of power, Lancelot explores the pleasures of adultery (category admixture, adulteration) and of masochism (the paradoxical but joyous gains of contingency, subordination). 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 it is like to embrace domination—to take...

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pp. 231-260
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