On Zizek’s “Courtly Love, or, Woman as Thing”

Zizek sets out to explore the notion of “courtly love” and claims that it is only in the last century, with the emergence of masochism and the masochistic couples that we can begin to “grasp the libidinal economy of courtly love” (2407).

Zizek outlines the first problem of looking at courtly love, which is that the Lady is idealized; the woman is rasied to a sublime, radical Otherness, which makes her Freud’s uncanny ‘Das Ding’ (the Thing) and which he suggest is an example of Lacan’s Real—that is a thing which resist articulation and being placed in the symbolic order (it is unknowable). Furthermore, the Lady-Thing is just a mirror reflecting the narcissistic ideal projection of the subject.

The second problem with looking at courtly love is that courtly love has nothing to do with passion; it is just a “fictional formula” where the man pretends “as if” the Lady is inaccessible (2409). Zizek links this idea with a masochistic relationship, where the couple where the couple pretends “as if” the masochist has no power; although, it is the masochist who dictates the contract of the relationship. This relationship is a busness exchange (not psychological).

The principle mistake to avoid, Zizek posits, is reducing this inaccessibility to a mere “dialectic of desire and prohibition” (2412). Zizek describes how in courtly love the man creates obstacles and barriers around the Lady; as the Real, the only way to approach the Lady is at an angle, indirectly. This is Lacanian sublimation, where an everyday object is raised to impossible Thing. To reduce the rest of the argument into a concise summary: the subject claims to want to sleep with the womean, but in reality, he is scared and so creates barriers of postponement. The Lady, like the phallus, becomes a symbol for both enjoyment and for castration (2415).

Then by looking at a number of examples (most prominently The Crying Game), Zizek elucidates how true love is ‘the stretching out of the hand, “towards the loving one and to ‘return love’” (2421).

Zizek uses these examples to make his argument: that courtly love (and any conception of “love”) only reinforces this imbalance in the sexes, and it is only in the masochist relationship that a true symmetry in a relationship can be achieved.