Lacan’s Medievalism (Book Review)

Author:  Labbie, Erin Felicia
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Reviewed By: Marcella Tarozzi Goldsmith, Spring 2008 (Vol. XXVIII, No. 2), pp. 40-42

Lacan’s Medievalism is an inventive, complex, and stimulating book that stretches from literature, to philosophy to psychoanalysis. To follow the itinerary of its main theses demands not only erudition but also close attention to its labyrinthine structure. The book is divided into an introduction and five chapters; there is also an extensive apparatus of notes that demonstrate just how in command Erin Felicia Labbie is of her material while defending the strong thesis that “psychoanalysis extend[s] the language and methods of scholasticism to get at the core of the unconscious” (p. 19).

In the first chapter, entitled “Singularity, Sovereignty, and the One,” Labbie discusses Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which she uses as a source to explain the quarrel of the universals that was so crucial in the Middle Ages. Boethius and Lacan’s Seminar VII on ethics and Seminar XX, given in the years 1972-73, are also protagonists of this work that, being so detailed, can be given only a summary account in a book review. Suffice to say here that Labbie proceeds in the second chapter—on duality, desire, and ambivalence—to connect desire with animality in order to reveal desire’s ambivalence. In chapter three—on dialectic and Courtly Love—Labbie examines Lacan’s views on desire, the troubadours, and the “knot-like structure of the unconscious” (p. 33). Chapter four introduces the theme of the hard sciences, mathematics in primis, to show Lacan’s search for scientific precision. He was hoping that these sciences would make his theories more compelling, although he was also doubtful that they could explain everything under the sun. The fifth and last chapter, “The Pentangle and the Resistant Knot,” discusses the difference between paranoia and hysteria: the paranoid wants to conceal the unconscious (such is the case of Daniel Paul Schreber, a case history discussed by Freud), whereas the hysteric displays it.

The philosophical aspect of the work is about the quarrel of the universals, a debate that occupied philosophers from the eleventh century on. There are three possible solutions to this problematic: realism, nominalism, and conceptualism. Labbie discusses the first two of these interpretations of the universals to bring to light the many facets of realism, which she analyzes in great detail. The opposition realism/nominalism serves her purpose to demonstrate that the ontological status of the unconscious is “real.” It is important to pose this question because it is at this juncture that literary themes and psychoanalysis alternate in an apparent disorder. The psychoanalytic theory that provides an answer to this question is not so much that of the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud, but instead that of Jacques Lacan, who pondered all throughout his productive life about the ontological status of the unconscious. He was not the first to do so; however, Lacan’s extraordinary cultural background makes him a good source to introduce the philosophy of the Middle Ages. Whether Lacan accepted the religiosity of those times is doubtful, rather he looked—and here Labbie provides a useful and detailed analysis—at the sciences that could throw some light on how the unconscious “works.” He looked in particular at topology and the Borromean knots, because the unconscious itself is like a knot; that is, a rope cluster that follows geometrical patterns.

There are other threads in Labbie’s book, one of the most important of which is the theme of desire, seen through the eyes of Courtly Love. Desire is the key to the understanding of Courtly Love, those erotic approaches between a lady and a troubadour of the Middle Ages that were ritualistic in the extreme.

Courtly Love was so “staged” and formalized that the codes of love given by André le Chapelain in the twelfth century included no less than thirty-one articles. To call this romanticism would miss the point; and indeed Labbie is cautious enough not to claim that Courtly Love had anything to do with romantic love. But Lacan was perhaps a romantic in incognito. Labbie is convinced enough of this to say that it is the reason why Lacan devoted many pages of his work to the discussion of love.

But even more relevant is the narrative of the legend of Mélusine. According to the version by Jean d’Arras—Le Roman de Mélusine, written in 1393—Mélusine made a pact with Raymond, her husband to be, that he should never look at her while she was bathing. But eventually he was unable to resist, and discovered her to be a phallic-mother with a serpent tail. The mother’s animality makes her a monster, something “other,” who disappears after having been seen naked. For Labbie, this legend is significant in that it puts in evidence the voyeurism of Mélusine’s husband and the epistemophilia that accompanies it (p. 87). Desire is not defeated, but what disappears, it seems, is matriarchy. This legend has many different versions in different parts of the world, and it serves as an emblematic metaphor of the disappearance of the woman (Lacan wrote the word “woman” with a horizontal line crossing it). Summarizing the different elements of the Mélusine’s legend, Labbie writes: “Any attempt to sublimate animality will result in its emergence in a different, potentially more threatening form that will carry with it the force and power of the symptom that returns from the place of repression” (p. 90). Additionally, she writes: “when sublimation fails, ambivalence prevails.” (p. 90). But this is a debatable conclusion, because sublimation and its cultural products can be, from the start, ambivalent too. The title Labbie gives to the section on Mélusine, “Stealing Woman,” however, could not be more appropriate and her interpretation of Lacan is accurate, since for him the “death” or “non-existence” of the woman is the beginning of the symbolic order; that is, of the humanization process typical, for Lacan, of that order.

The Mélusine legend serves Labbie’s purpose to pose some relevant questions concerning Lacan’s stand on the debate of feminism/antifeminism. The fact that Lacan wrote the word “woman” and then crossed it out indicates that, in his view, there is no sexual relationship. Yet this statement can be explained in more than one way. Labbie’s hypothesis is that these were Lacan’s words to defend himself from the accusation of antifeminism. She claims that writing “woman” as Lacan did, “was a statement about the category of woman, as an impossible category, equal to the impossibility of God” (pp. 101-102). It is a debatable thesis, given Lacan’s insistence on the paternal metaphor and the patriarchic Law, which casts serious doubts about his feminist sympathies. Rather, Lacan liked to provoke his readers and listeners; and he avoided some issues, not so much because he did not want to disappoint feminists but because it was part of his “aesthetics,” ethics, and also rhetoric to leave undecided relevant theoretical points. What is certain, though, is that Lacan did not believe—as Goethe did—in the eternal feminine.

In the end, “love compensates for the lack of sexual relationship,” Labbie writes, connecting the theme of love to a distant God and a distant Other (p. 30). Notwithstanding these unavoidable ambiguities, Labbie’s thesis—stated at the beginning—is that Lacan was a realist in three specific senses: he was “an ethical realist,” and also an epistemological and linguistic realist. The unconscious, too, is a real universal substance, something real and material. Being foundational, the category of the Real connects the material with the spiritual. These themes run throughout Labbie’s book, and she concludes that Lacan was, after all, a Thomist (p. 215).

As a consequence, Labbie states that “Lacan’s theories engage ideas prominent in medieval literature such that our understanding of psychoanalysis and the Middle Ages is reconceived” (p. 9). Indeed, the Real, being linguistic in nature, plays an important role also in the poetics of the troubadours. Yet in the case of Lacan it can also be said that the real becomes “surreal,” given his early association with the surrealists of his time.

But the unconscious is real in more than one sense, so it is an ambiguous term in itself, although the first meaning of “Real” in this context concerns the quarrel of the universals. “Real” meant that the ontological status of genus and species is not a flatus vocis as Roscelin and the nominalists thought; realism means that the universals exist not only in the human mind but also in the things themselves. Ontologically, realism indicates that when we speak we are speaking of something existing, thus introducing the philosophical problem of the relationship between ontology and epistemology, which is still debated today. As to Lacan’s notion of “the Real,” it is one of the three structures he put forth to indicate that the Real is to be distinguished from the Imaginary and the Symbolic. The intricate connections and differences among these three structures could become a book in itself, since the transitions among these registers (as Lacan called them) are extremely complex. Put in a few words, Labbie’s thesis is that the unconscious corresponds to the Real of Lacan (p. 103). The unconscious is an “object,” and Lacan was a medievalist, because—as Labbie insists with vigor and erudition—he gave prominence to the unconscious Real.

The Lacanian rationalizing process of the unconscious begins here, and it continues with his project of its mathematization. Reality, as we understand it in everyday language, is not what Lacan meant by the Real, which refers also to unconscious desire; as such, though, it is something elusive and phantasmatic. Consequently, Labbie considers Lacan’s position in the quarrel of the universals as being situated between nominalism and realism, because language and reality have no common link (p. 49).

But the main theme of the book is desire. Desire is so pervasive in our culture that—from Aristotle, to Descartes, Diderot, and Hegel—it has become a prominent object of study among philosophers. Lacan was no exception, and appropriately Labbie’s book exergue is a quotation from Lacan: “Desire must be taken literally.” Coming from a psychoanalyst who theorized on linguistic structures and thought that language is essentially metaphorical, one can see that desire is, in a way, the troublemaker—bringing disorder to a structuralist, scientific theory that ideally should be neutral and uncontaminated by feelings and passions. If desire must be taken literally, then it becomes more difficult to satisfy it, even more than if it were metaphorical. Courtly Love demonstrates this point. Still, unconscious desire is so pervasive that to silence it is impossible; at the same time, desire cannot be satisfied, because if it is, it implodes.

An interesting point Labbie makes is “As the primary means of knowing the unconscious, desire is foundational to the epistemological map of the subject” (p. 20). Such a role cannot be underestimated, and Lacan certainly did not when he said that the only ethics worth following is not to give up desire. This means that the potential—and not so much the actual—has a special relevance for humans, since desire, as a universal, is projected into the future. The way Labbie discusses these points is remarkable: desire is a labyrinthine web of knots that Lacan attempted to mathematize, but the project ended in what Labbie does not hesitate to call a failure, which puts in evidence her independence from—and objectivity vis-à-vis—the Lacanian discourse of the master.

Lacan was not the only psychoanalyst who attempted the mathematization of the unconscious in order to give it a more scientific status. In 1975, the Chilean psychoanalyst Ignacio Matte Blanco published The Unconscious as Infinite Sets. An Essay in Bi-Logic. Though such efforts are often aporetic, they are worth pursuing as they can lead to further discoveries. However, these attempts show the limits not only of psychoanalysis but also of the scientific discourse itself.

Labbie defines desire semiotically “as a sign of the real of the unconscious” (p. 11). It is the desire of the Other. As such, it is always out of reach. Its circular vortices have, it seems, no origin; a point Labbie mentions in a note on how important it is for psychoanalysis to explore the desire for origins (p. 224, note n. 6).

Lacan’s Medievalism, interesting and stimulating as it is, cannot decide once and for all in what direction to proceed toward; in this sense it is like a Borromean knot itself, which is left to the reader to untangle. So many are the themes of this book that to fully grasp their relevance and get a general picture requires specific knowledge. Labbie is surely competent in literary matters and philosophy; however, when she discusses “the real” and realism in the philosophical sense it had in the medieval period, one might wish for more precision of expression and exposition. Her main point, though, is clear: the unconscious is something real. But, whether Lacan was committed to a realistic interpretation of the universals, is still an open question. And, in fact, Labbie herself is candid on this: Lacan oscillated between realism and nominalism. It is not surprising, since Lacan was ambiguous about almost everything. He liked to make puns and postpone answering the questions he himself had raised; he coined new words and nonce words that were left to the reader to decipher. But to give Lacan the attention he deserves, we should consider also that his use of language was a means to intrigue and seduce the listeners of his famous seminars.

Ultimately, Lacan was always in search of the Sovereign Good and happiness; a consoling conclusion for a book as captivating as Lacan’s Medievalism.

Marcella Tarozzi Goldsmith


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