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French Forum 28.1 (2003) 133-135
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Kay, Sarah.Courtly Contradictions: The Emergence of the Literary Object in the Twelfth Century. Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 2001. 380 pp.
This innovative and provocative book examines the interaction of religious, clerical and courtly culture in the second half of the twelfth century, concentrating primarily on texts in Old French but also discussing Old Provencal and Latin texts. The book draws upon Lacanian psychoanalysis, primarily from Lacan's own writings, but also from those of Slavoj Zizek, in order to examine the logical problems of the contrary and the contradictory in texts of this era. The author's central claim is that these problems, in their literary manifestations, function as a way of exploring the limits of reason. More theoretically, she suggests that they serve to explore the limits of the Lacanian Symbolic Order, evoking the spaces beyond that Order, which are linked with the sensual, the erotic, and ultimately death. The "object" mentioned in the title is the Lacanian "Das Ding," and it appears in either "sublime" or "perverse" manifestations, as a form of negotiation with the boundaries of the Symbolic Order. The author argues that not only do such objects appear with increasing regularity within the romance of the late twelfth century, but also that these texts posit themselves as Lacanian "objects." Kay thus argues that the relationship of the audience to the text underwent a fundamental transition during this period, and furthermore, that the new relationship constituted the basis of our modern relationships to "literature" as such. This commonality is the central reason why she argues that Lacanian psychoanalysis is an appropriate teaching aid with which to [End Page 133] encounter medieval texts; she also examines carefully Lacan's own professed debt to the notion of the courtly and courtly love, as founding moments in the modern western psyche.
The book is organized into seven chapters, which begin with examinations of relatively traditional medieval scholarly issues, such as the evolution of courtly culture and the relationship between medieval logic, religious thought, and the courtly. Kay suggests that the three are intimately connected, and she traces the growing influence of religious and scholastic thought on early courtly literature in the vernacular, followed by the growing influence of the courtly on hagiographic texts. She focuses specifically on the use of the contrary, the contradictory, the meaningless (nonsense poems of the troubadours), and the riddle. While the larger framework of her analysis will be familiar to medieval scholars, this section makes valuable contributions both to clarifying the various discursive relationships on a micro-level, and also in pointing out the importance and unity of a theme that has not received attention to this degree in the past.
The latter chapters of the book become increasingly Lacanian, and include a number of useful discussions of Lacan's theory for those not intimately familar with it. These are largely successful, and the book is certainly accessible to a general medieval audience. These latter chapters attempt to define the specifically medieval nature of the Lacanian Imaginary and Symbolic during the twelfth century, drawing on Lacan's claim that both of these Orders are historically determined (as compared to the trans-historical Real). The genre of the romance is presented as the privileged locus of the evolution of the medieval—and modern—versions of the Symbolic and Imaginary, though debts to religious genres remain important.
This book broadly follows upon Kay's earlier The Chansons de gestes in the Age of Romance in its analysis of the romance genre as being characterized by a poetics of the "object" or the "commodity," and in its situating of that genre at the origin of the modern western economic, psychic, social and literary order. It is certainly one of the most overtly theoretical studies of medieval literature in recent years, and Kay's recent work more generally has sought to situate Old French literature in its extra-literary context through the sophisticated use of contemporary social theory. [End Page 134]
The biggest single question one must raise...