It would be lovely to write up a neat State of the Blog as a nod to its first anniversary – but I would rather let the blog continue to *be* before I start analyzing it just now.
So, a way to close out the old year, and welcome the new –
Below is an excerpt from a paper I began while in university (which is another way of saying I was much younger when I wrote it: the self-conscious academic tone belies this); my intention is to continue the work this year. If I’m very very good, I plan to publish it.
PS I’ve just done a copy and paste with the document; any missing footnotes or annotations are due to a lack of clerical attentiveness. Please, if you find one, kindly let me know.
This paper is, succinctly, about living within and beyond desire and imminent death. It investigates the struggle to make something beautiful using Lacanian psychoanalysis and postmodernism in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
In the Knight’s Tale, lives are beautiful postmortem. The memory of Arcite’s senseless death for love gives the Tale bittersweet pleasure. When Palamon and Arcite are rescued (or captured) from death in Thebes and drawn into Athenian delayed execution, they are prevented from the agency that even captured knights usually have. Without promise of ransom or rescue, they become ghosts locked in a tower. Yet they are rescued: Arcite is released and Palamon escapes. But because they have been the living dead, they are unbearably close to recognizing that they are signifiers without the power for real action. In fact, they have become split elements of language during captivity: one speaks while the other acts. The only times they are able to speak or act as one is when Theseus witnesses the exchange either in the grove or in the tournament. The tournament is an attempt to fuse the two elements, or reflections, into one man. It succeeds, although only because of a random act of the gods leaves only one man alive.
The man outside of language, the one who has relinquished his identity as a knight and stepped outside of his estate, is killed by the gods. Arcite wins his love, but he is too close to realizing that both she and he are masking some hideous void. Chapter one explores why his death and the form that it takes is necessary to those who live after Arcite and for Arcite himself.
In Blade Runner, there is already a recognition that some people are lacking something essential. The effort to designate the replicants as not real is a move to avoid the realization that humans themselves lack that precious something. The struggle to force lack onto someone, preferably something, else is the same battle that was fought between Arcite and the Fury. Blade Runner proves that the humans and the replicants are the same, despite every contrary effort, through the use of photographs and memories. Blade Runner questions the necessity of death, without the heavy ideological leader to justify it and squelch all complaints that we find in Chaucer. Theseus can maintain control; Roy, however, has killed Tyrell, the one in the position to control. Roy dismantles the existing ideology – the one that created him – and dies regardless. As a result, the focus then shifts from the “why is death necessary?” in KT and becomes “how does one live knowing we must die?”
In both tales, memories are the opiate and the balm for a retreat from death and a stance towards it. Only in memories can one live in that past (where one knows a future will happen) and in the present (where one hopes for a future). Memories give us a past, a narrative chain that we hope continues whether in this life or the one after it. “More Human Than Human” looks at how death is faced and avoided, made beautiful and into a form of life, and how memories glue us to this life constantly in death.
Making something beautiful before we die – or perhaps it’s the quest to make death beautiful – is the motivation behind art. Maybe there is no distinction between an attempt at making life art and an attempt at making death an art, for the effort to do so only begins at the moment we realize we are mortal – that we must leave what we love and know and give in to what is our ultimate desire. For desire is deadly, and if we were to die simply because of an old heart, not a passionate one, then death could never be beautiful, could never be art. Why the emphasis on art as an explanation for our deaths, or our lives lived in the face of death? For Lacan, art is the medium through which we approach and yet protect ourselves from our desire, from the mythical other possessing the answers to our questions. Death is both our annihilation and our union with pleasure, with art, with desire.
The Knight addresses these issues of beauty, of finitude, and of death in his Tale. He presents to us a beautiful world. Theseus is a just and noble leader, Palamon and Arcite just and honorable captives, the Amazons lovely and submissive women. Just beyond these statements, the Knight, or his language, breaks apart his ideal, problematizing his chivalric vision which is the art form he uses as justification for his life of campaigning and murder. Revealed is the struggle of ideology to contain the chaos that desire and fate compels. In recognition of this struggle, Theseus confronts the problem of the uncontrollable and inexplicable, transforming it into some-Thing worthy of desire rather than lament. There is no better occasion for such ideological sublimation as the transformation of Arcite’s loss into Arcite’s honor:
Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me,
To maken vertu of necessitee,
And take it weel that we may nat eschue,
And namely that to us alle is due.
And whoso gruccheth ought, he dooth folye,
And rebel is to hym that all may gye.
And certeinly a man hath moost honor
To dyen in his excellence and flour,
Whan he is siker of his goode name;
Thanne hath he doon his freend, ne hym, no shame,
And gladder oghte his freend been of his death,
Whan with honour up yolden is his breeth,
Than whan his name apalled is for age,
For al forgeten is his vassellage.
Thanne it is best, for a worthy fame,
To dyen whan that he is best of name. 3041—3056
Theseus states here the thesis of this chapter – that we must make something virtuous, or precious, out of what is inevitable in life. It is better to die with honor than live a long life without notice of heroic deeds.
I’d like to begin with one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of wisdom: “Knowledge (esp. of a high or abstruse kind); enlightenment, learning, erudition; in early use often = philosophy, science. Also, practical knowledge or understanding, expertness in an art.” Chaucer’s line is read usually as “I think it is wise.” I propose we read it “I think it would be a form of expertise in art, the art of dying.” The notion of dying as an art form justifies much of the pageantry in tournament and in courtly rituals. We work hard to produce art; we work as hard to produce life. It is crucial in knightly culture to see death as not merely the end of a life, but as the goal of a life. Only after death is a life measured. A knight ought to think then of what may be done during life produce something beautiful after death – something that is not only a rote biography of action, but more delicate and therefore harder to create – a memory full of mystical and idealized proportions, a tale.
OED definitions of “vertu” are “[t]he power or operative influence inherent in a supernatural or divine being” and “[a]n act of superhuman or divine power; a ‘mighty work’; a miracle.” In other words, if we make a “vertu” of something, we are divine creatures committing a superhuman act. We are greater than human; we are heroic. By transforming failure in obtaining our desire and yet not retreating, we become Lacanian heroes.
These lines may be read as “I think it would be a form of expertise in the art of dying to make a miracle, an act that only the divine are capable of, to transform what is inevitable and to take well what is inescapable and that which all of us deserve, or to which is due to us.” Art betrays the hero by sublimating his ultimate desire into desire for a sublime object. By persisting unto death, the hero claims art as payment for desire. That is, desire offers art to the hero as enticement. The hero then takes art (or the beautiful) and redelivers it to desire in exchange for death, for the final consummation. According to Lacan , Freud’s explanation of the artist’s role is that he takes what is frightening or forbidden, repackages it into a commodity that may be evaluated and exchanged, and thereby makes the fearsome or the taboo knowable while receiving great praise for his bravado in facing the subject matter. Lacan believes this summation to be “practically grotesque,” stating that it is reductive to understand the function of the artist as merely making the dreadful less fearsome and even desirable by remaking the reality into a beautiful representation. Yet is that understanding of the artist’s life is reductive? To force into language that which is outside signification and turn silence into discussion and into a shape making the fearful desirable and worth owning is the role of ideology itself. The artist, therefore, has the power to rule his ideology. The quality of beauty permits shifting desire from one object to another. As in any ideology, if we exchange the idea of real physical lonely death for an idealized “beautiful” death for a Cause, we can make death beautiful. Beautiful death is not our annihilation; it is satisfaction. Death becomes desirable and desire becomes beautiful. One might say that the actual nature of death/desire as simply cessation of being is a betrayal of the one who is desiring. But a hero may be betrayed with impunity – desire may lie to him, and he will not recoil. Desire may run away from the hero; he will pursue. He will make a virtue of necessity; and he will die – beautifully, so as to not spoil the illusion for those left behind.
While lessening terror, making death beautiful also keeps us alive. “The true barrier that holds the subject back in front of the unspeakable field of radical desire that is the field of absolute destruction, of destruction beyond putrefaction, is properly speaking the aesthetic phenomenon where it is identified with the experience of beauty—beauty in all it’s shining radiance, beauty that has been called the splendor of truth. It is obviously because truth is not pretty to look at that beauty is, if not its splendor, then at least its envelope.” If it is the expertise of art that creates a beautiful death, that expertise is polished in the effort to stay alive. Annihilation is the truth that art/beauty hides. That is to say, by changing the name from “death” to “art”, we change the meaning of death from an embarrassing annihilation into a performative act desired by and of audience with whom to share the beauty of a ceased existence. By raising it to the level of art, or of the Thing, we make death Sublime.
Brief list of works cited:
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed A.C. Cawley. London: Everyman. 1995.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality Volume One: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books. 1990.
Fradenburg, Louise O. “Sacrificial Desire in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale” from the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 27:1. Winter 1997. Durham: Duke University Press. 1997.
Jameson, Frederic. “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” from New Left Review, 146 (1984). Pp. 53-92.
Lacan, Jacques. The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: Book VII The Ethics of Psychoanalysis 1959-1960. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Dennis Porter. New York: W.W. Norton and Company. 1992.
Staten, Henry. Eros in Mourning: Homer to Lacan. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins Press. 1995.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso. 1989.
- Slavoj Zizek: I am not the world’s hippest philosopher! (salon.com)
- In Defense of “Theory” (danieltutt.com)