The ubi sunt topos in Middle French: sad stories of the death of kings
Within medieval Christianity, accepting that one had to die was an ethical and spiritual imperative involving realigning one's priorities towards God and eternity and away from earthly reality and the worldly pursuit of ease, wealth and power. A substantial effort was therefore poured into persuading and enabling subjects to acknowledge what Ariès calls ’the death of the self’ (as opposed to ’the death of the other’).1 Medieval texts, like modern theorists, recognize certain challenges in the project of contemplating mortality. One is the difficulty of imagining one's own death. Thus in Guillaume de Deguileville's influential fourteenth-century dream vision, the Pèlerinage de vie humaine (first redaction, 1330—1), when Death arrives the narrator-Pilgrim wakes, bringing to an end both narrative and poem:
La Mort laissa sa faus courir
Et fist m'ame du cors partir,
Ce me sembla si com songoie.
Mais ainsi comme je estoie
En tel point et en tel tourment
J’oui l'orloge de convent
Qui pour les matines sonnoit
Si comme de constume estoit.
Quant je l'oui, je m'esveillai
Et tout tressuant me trouvai,
Et pour mon songe fu pensis
Mont grandement et esbahis.2
(Death let her scythe swing and made my soul leave my body, so it seemed to me as I dreamt. But just as I was in this circumstance and in this torment, I heard the abbey bell ringing for matins, as it normally did. When I heard it I awoke and found myself all in a sweat, and because of my dream I was most perplexed and astounded.)
Unable to dream dying, the Pilgrim is recalled to life by the religious commitment for which the bell stands. This event also figures his hoped-for passage into eternal life on that future morning when he will finally wake from the dream that is earthly existence. The passage thus doubly sidesteps the problem of personal extinction, highlighting an important limitation which affects many engagements with death. Christian thinking teaches that ’self-preservation leads to death, while self-oblation leads to eternal life’, and secular modifications of this paradox are widespread within medieval culture:3 death is a gateway to various other forms of life, while life wrongly lived incurs the death of some higher faculty. In this chapter I examine late medieval French uses of the ubi sunt topos, paying particular attention to their complex interweavings of death and life. The topos has a range of tones, from strictly ascetic and Christian variants, commonly supported by contemptus mundi and vanitas themes, to elegiac, classically rooted and secular modulations which lament the passing of youth, beauty and glory and urge either stoic resignation or seizing the day.4 In this chapter I shall investigate the ubi sunt as one rhetorical strategy employed in the didactic project of persuading Christian subjects to confront their personal mortality and the world's impermanence. I look not at ecclesiastical or strictly spiritual contexts, where the message may be expected to be relatively consistent, but at the ambivalent multiple engagements of secular poetry in ballades (a fixed-form lyric fashionable in the late Middle Ages) by Deschamps and Villon.5
The ubi sunt topos invites layered responses. Overtly, its rhetorical questions — ’Where are they now?’ or ’Where have they gone?’ — encourage listeners to identify with a specific set of deceased people, reminding the former that they too will die. As the dead man interpellates the living through his epitaph, ’Itel cum es, itel jeo fu, E tel seras tel cum jo su’ (’As you are, I was, and you shall be as I am’).6 However, because I instinctively recoil at the thought of my own death, evidence of the demise of others causes me to distance myself from them.7 Even where the will to know death is present, the concept is elusive. ’I think, therefore I am’ expresses an important truth independent of Descartes's historical moment: reflexive consciousness presents us with testimony of our own existence which it is difficult to refute. My ability to hear and read of and reflect upon the deaths of others proves my continued vitality. This can become a simple but effective syllogism: ’They are dead, therefore I am.’ This counter-movement appears to be inevitable; and texts which use the ubi sunt topos exploit it. The living reader's dissociation from the dead is diversely realized in different works. Both the soul's Christian immortality and secular renown through the ages are ways to prolong existence, while the embrace of momentary pleasures and glories is a means of intensifying it into another kind of transcendence. Situating its implied audiences between two deaths — their own and those of the recalled dead — the ubi sunt topos cannot but assert life present and lasting, the question then being in what relationship the text places this brand of life to the death that it primarily announces. Do ubi sunt works surreptitiously deny the transience that they ostensibly announce? Do they create a counter-counter-movement in order to deliver their message of mortality? The readings in this chapter will examine how two works of the Middle French period weave together the topos's effects.
I shall highlight two concepts in particular: the sovereign subject and memory. The sovereign subject is the subject of consciousness and especially of self-consciousness, a self which experiences, feels, desires, thinks, acts, reflects and remembers. (This is a phenomenological rather than a Lacanian notion of the subject, and I am here disregarding Lacanian distinctions between ’self’ and ’subject’.) However, the sovereign is also ’subject to’: that is, determined by rules, conventions and contracts, conscious of the will of others and of the collective as influencing its own potential for action. I am also interested in the relational and political dimensions of the self, and here ’sovereign’ takes on the meaning of ’dominant’ and sometimes specifically that of ’princely’. The subjects here considered have a will to dominate, hence to dominate someone else. It is commonplace to see women as the primary objects of domination; however, I am interested here mainly in the numerous masculine objects who also are posed to be dominated.8 The position of ’sovereign subject’ may be allotted exclusively to the speaker, the explicit addressee, the implied audience or the deceased of ubi sunt questions, but equally there may be co-operation within or competition for the role among the various masculine figures.
In the works I examine here the sovereign subject is defined not, as in much modern thinking, primarily as a speaker or writer, but as a listener; he is a cultural consumer, not a cultural mediator. This is the ’Prince’ to whom the ballade envoy is addressed, retrospectively orienting the whole poem in his direction. In the court-poetry style as Deschamps and Villon use it, the writing poet and his speaking persona define themselves secondarily, through their relation to this sovereign listener, working to borrow his prestige or to moderate it. These efforts are not necessarily contradictory. Indeed, one of the themes of this chapter concerns the ways in which acceptance of one's own death or dominated position are linked positively to sovereignty and the ability to consign others to death. On the other hand, the convoluted interrelationships of life and death typical of the ubi sunt topos mean that another kind of power emerges, which enforces a certain way of life. For Foucault, archaic sovereignty is epitomized by the power to put to death, against modern biopolitics that instead manages life administratively.9 The presence of both in these late medieval French works suggests (once again) the weakness of Foucault's periodizations, but it also bespeaks the prominent role in contemporary literary production of a certain bureaucratic class attached to the prince and hungry for influence within the court. In the ballades that I shall analyse, the late medieval sovereign reader and the more marginal poet figure have much in common: both are projected as shadowy figures entre-deux-morts. The different ways in which the various poems make them occupy that non-place will be discussed below.
Considering the interpersonal aspects of sovereign subjectivity leads us on to memory, essential to the self in society. Memory is both individual and collective, and although some instances are recognizably one rather than the other, there is substantial overlap. Collective memory is to a large degree experienced as personal, while individual memories exist against a shared background.10 This overlap is necessary to produce socially meaningful activity, and the degree of overlap may be taken as an indicator of social integration. Ubi sunt questions call on the addressee to remember that he is mortal, grounding ethics in the difficult tasks of understanding what is already known and of connecting his personal experience of sovereign subjecthood to the universal fate of death. Memory relates both to the named or listed dead with whom listeners are repetitively encouraged both to identify and to disidentify, and also to the listener's own projected life to come. The spiritual afterlife of the soul stands in implicit or explicit contrast to secular renown, thus presupposing two, hierarchically organized, collectives: temporal society and the divine universal. To the notion of spiritual second death or damnation, corresponds that of dishonour, a secular ’eternity of living death’ (see p. 17, above). So it was alleged against the duke of Burgundy that his murder of the duke of Orleans was not his greatest crime: ’defaming the Duke of Orleans and destroying his reputation, he had in truth killed him “with second death” [“par seconde mort”]’.11 Inasmuch as the ubi sunt topos presupposes and incites memory, oblivion is not contemplated within its system.
My first text is by Eustache Deschamps (c. 1340(?)—1404), a prolific, mainly lyric French courtier poet of the minor nobility, attached at various times to the courts of Charles V, Louis d’Orléans and Charles VI, and known today for his celebrations of aristocratic love, for his moralizing, and for poems presenting recent public events and contemporary mores in a lively and ’personal’ light.12 His work has frequently been exploited as representative of its period by historians, notably Huizinga, for whom his being ’a superficial poet and a commonplace mind’ had the virtue of making him ’so faithful a mirror of the general aspirations of his time’.13 This view discounts the original and ambitious poetic programme developed in Deschamps's Art poétique; his formal developments and innovations, notably of the ballade, to which he may have introduced the envoy which will be central to my arguments below; and his opening up of courtly poetry to an extensive and unorthodox range of topics.14 Critics have argued that Deschamps's ’mediocrity’ has rhetorical, philosophical and political purpose, expressing his Aristotelian ideal of mediocritas and the ’estat moien’ (’middle estate’) on the one hand, gathering his society into a community purportedly speaking in unison through him on the other.15 A further development consists in reading Deschamps's interest in the mediate as an exploration of difficult states of being uncomfortably caught between conditions that threaten the self's integrity — entre-deux-morts conceived as a precarious living-space between fatal whirlpools and monsters.16 In this discussion I shall investigate how, in one of Deschamps's courtly ballades, the complex effects of the ubi sunt topos locate the sovereign subject entre-deux-morts, and how this leads to a special kind of social integration.
Deschamps uses the ubi sunt topos and related themes in a number of his works, including the interesting Ballade 1457:17
Comment ce monde n'est riens quant à la vie
Ou est Nembroth le grant jayant,
Qui premiers obtint seigneurie
Sur Babiloine? Ou est Priant,
Hector et toute sa lignie?
Achillès et sa compaingnie,
Troye, Carthaige et Romulus,
Athene, Alixandre, Remus,
Jullius Cesar et li sien?
Ilz sont tous cendre devenus:
Souflez, nostre vie n'est rien.
Ou est David le combatant,
Judas Machabée et Urie?
Ou est Charlemaine et Rolant,
Godefroy qui fut en Surie,
Baudouin, leur chevalerie,
Josué, Daires et Artus
Et ceuls qui conquirent le plus
Sarrazin, Juif et Crestien?
Ilz sont mis en pouldre et corrups:
Souflez, nostre vie n'est rien.
Ou est Atille le tyrant,
Caton plain de phillosophie,
Herculès, Jason conquerant,
Socratès et son estudie,
Augustin en theologie,
Le pouete Virgilius,
Es estoilles Tholomeus,
Ypocras le phisicien?
De mort n'est d'eulx eschapez nulz:
Souflez, nostre vie n'est rien.
Prince, il n'y a que les vertus,
Bien faire et esjouir ça jus
Et departir pour Dieu du sien
Aux povres, pour regner la sus;
Nos eages est tantost conclus:
Souflez, nostre vie n'est rien.
(How this world is nothing where life is concerned
Where is the great giant Nimrod who first gained lordship over Babylon? Where is Priam, Hector and all his line? Achilles and his company, Troy, Carthage and Romulus, Athens, Alexander, Remus, Julius Caesar and his men? All are become ashes; a breath,18 and our life is nothing.
Where is warlike David, Judas Maccabeus and Uriah? Where is Charlemagne and Roland, Godfrey who was in Syria, Baldwin, their knights, Joshua, Dares and Arthur and the greatest conquerors Saracen, Jew and Christian?19 They are turned to dust and rotten; a breath, and our life is nothing.
Where is the despot Attila, philosophical Cato, Hercules, conquering Jason, Socrates and his learning, Augustine with his theology, the poet Virgil, Ptolemy with the stars, Hippocrates the physician? Not one of them has escaped death; a breath, and our life is nothing.
Prince, only the virtues — doing good and spreading happiness here below, and distributing some of one's belongings to the poor for God's sake — will allow one to reign there above. Our time is so soon over; a breath, and our life is nothing.)
The poem calls on its audience to identify with the deceased as mortal, the refrain and last line of each stanza emphasizing the transience of ’nostre vie’ and gathering speaker, audience and dead into a collective first-person plural. We are all effectively already dead, though in only some of us is that manifest. Deschamps's ballade also, however, incorporates a multi-level disavowal of death.20 Most obviously, the envoy shifts the focus to the heavenly reward awaiting those Christian subjects who accept its message: Deschamps's reader may expect to ’regner la sus’ (l. 34) in return for exercising ’les vertus’ here below.21 Deschamps regularly uses regner for temporal sovereigns and for God, and also to mean a stable, prosperous and independent existence at all social levels in accordance with his ideals of franchise (’freedom’) and médiocrité (’sufficiency’), as in the refrain to Ballade 75 in praise of the religious life: ’Servir a Dieu est regner, si c'om dit’ (’Serving God is living well, so they say’). Sovereignty is apparently available to all Christian subjects who obey these recommendations. Implicitly, however, other criteria are also at work in defining the sovereign subject of the poem.
A second aspect of ubi sunt disidentification is here associated with memory — as a faculty, and as a cultural construct inscribed in a communal store of references. Deschamps's list of famous men identifies and celebrates a tradition or translatio spanning hundreds of years and several countries; this early definition of what could today be called Western civilization writes a particular history.22 The act of recognition that the ubi sunt text calls on its readers to perform confirms their individual participation in this collective structure, uniting them with the remembered heroes and with living, remembering beings in a greater whole which seems immune to death and which underwrites a form of immortality for its subjects.23 A comforting sense of social integration and mastery of the cultural environment is the antithesis of death's trauma and flatly contradicts the explicit threat of dissolution. Huizinga quotes from a twelfth-century ubi sunt poem: ’Stat rosa pristine nomine, nomina nuda tenemus’ (’The rose of yore is but a name, mere names are left to us’).24 Works like Deschamps's, however, celebrate the longevity of names liberated from corporeal corruption.
Deschamps's ballade, and each name in it, is what historian Pierre Nora calls a lieu de mémoire: ’any significant entity, whether material or non-material in nature, which by dint of human will or the work of time has become a symbolic element of the memorial heritage of any community’.25 In the resonant phrases of Arthur Goldhammer, Nora's translator, lieux de mémoire ’emerge in two stages: moments of history are plucked out of the flow of history, then returned to it — no longer quite alive but not yet entirely dead, like shells left on the shore when the sea of living memory has receded’.26 In Ballade 1457, the question ’Where are they now?’ elicits both the Christian answer ’dead and gone into the afterlife’, and the secular response ’here in us, their successors’, as writing history works to efface the historical distance it also marks. Audience members themselves move towards a numinous domain of cultural legend. For this reason Deschamps's names must not be obscure, affirming only the individual poet's scholarship.27 Audiences are invited to relish their own learning. Deschamps's reader experiences self-affirmation as subject of memory through this connection, where the individual response — ’I know that name!’ — meets the collective imperative — ’These figures define this magnificent culture of ours; make yourself part of it by recognizing, admiring and emulating them.’
This interpersonal process can be understood from a phenomenological point of view in terms of what Ricoeur calls the dialectic between the complementary poles of reflexivity (réflexivité) and worldliness (mondanéité) which participate in any act of memory: ’One does not simply remember oneself, seeing, experiencing, learning [= reflexivity]; rather one recalls the situations in the world in which one has seen, experienced, learned [= worldliness].’28 Thus the poem evokes the diverse circumstances in which audience members have encountered the names in question, harmonizing these by positing the notion of an education and a culture shared by all members of the elite. Death is thus, as so often said, a leveller; here, however, it levels (up and down) only within a single, dominant class whose cohesion the poem reinforces. Scope for not knowing the great names mentioned or for dissenting from their greatness is minimal. ’I’ is here essentially part of a particular ’we’ with claims which are at once normalizing and elitist.
The culture established in Deschamps's ballade provides a selective ancestry of fathers for the prince addressed in the envoy to ponder.29 The first two stanzas offer him what initially appear to be exemplary forebears defining kingship (’seigneurie’) as military activity, and more specifically as conquest. Deschamps celebrates paragons of conquering chivalry: pagan in his first stanza, Judaic and Christian in his second. No ideological barrier is drawn between deceased and audience, rather there is a rapprochement between ’them’ and the implied cultural ’us’ of the wider readership, whose extension is anticipated, thanks to the presence of an envoy, to an explicit princely ’you’. The inclusion of the Nine Worthies in these first two stanzas encourages readers to bridge epochs, and also to disregard the men's less admirable particularities in favour of their common status as great lords and conquerors. On the abstracted, exemplary life of all these, the prince may unproblematically model himself, striving to mimic the qualities which have made their names deathless.
Instead of continuing the progression from godless to godly warlike ’seigneurie’ enacted in the first two stanzas, the third stanza suddenly shifts perspective to question conquest's value and might's right. Attila, the flagellum dei sometimes credited with the fall of the Roman empire, presents a different perspective on chivalric and political violence and challenges us to explain why the same actions are good in one context, bad in another. While Attila bears the name of ’tyrant’ so feared by late medieval kings, Cato is an exemplary counsellor for having opposed the despotism of Rome's powerful. The focus moves, initially as if to a higher source of authority, onto figures of the most elevated learning, heroes of the liberal arts. The inclusion of such figures as Socrates and Virgil defines a specific role for scholarship in the prince's world. There is perhaps an implied threat, or at any rate a word of advice to the patron. If poets can make a prince's reputation, as Virgil made Augustus's, then they can also unmake it, bequeathing him to history as a despot. A wise prince cultivates his scholars. Rulers need thinkers also to help direct their warfare and government towards ends collectively useful and pleasing to God. Deschamps is often critical of courts and courtiers (sometimes by name), though in addressing patrons confines himself to exhortation and advice.30 Throughout his œuvre he argues that all nobles from the knightly class upwards should be learned, a priori the king himself, for, in the proverbial refrain to Ballade 1244, ’roy sanz lettre est comme asne couronné’ (’a king without learning is like a crowned ass’).31 Though this argument is not explicit in Ballade 1457, the list of historical names, as I argued above, merges the estates by implying a knowledgeable audience. The prince's education does not render the scholar obsolete. In Ballade 1244, Deschamps cites Alexander, Julius Caesar and Charlemagne as ’roys clers’ (l. 21; ’learned kings’ or ’clerk-kings’) whose wisdom aided their conquests and government, whereas ’Princes non clers n'y ont voulu entendre [to advice], / Dont les pluseurs en sont desherité (ll. 27—8; ’Princes who were not learned [clerks] would not listen [to advice], wherefore the majority were disinherited’). His own learning, mediated by his erudite clerks, will bring the prince the discrimination and virtue he needs in order to rule, together with the humility which will allow him to appreciate their advice.
The names in the third and last stanza of ’Comment ce monde’ therefore furnish both prince and poet with a genealogy, though the prince's is more admonitory. In one perspective learning surpasses chivalry; however, this stanza also works to limit clerical prestige by introducing into death's domain the scholar with his cultural, moral and even spiritual authority. Line 29, ’De mort n'est d'eulx eschapez nulz’, pointedly puts the salvific knowledge of these sages on the same plane as that of the great lords of stanzas 1 and 2. If even Hippocrates, if even Augustine can die, then death is truly universal. Clergie is not allowed to escape chevalerie's fate. Whereas in Ballade 1244, quoted above, Deschamps implies that a learned prince will have a durable reign, nothing here alleviates the foreshortening of the earthly lifespan. A further important point is that by associating clerks with tyrants, this stanza hints that learning may serve despotism; erudition, contrary to Deschamps's insistence elsewhere, is in this poem no guarantee of moral fibre or even of moral judgement. Although Augustine is cited as an intellectual rather than as a churchman, nevertheless notions of the clerk as a prime mediator of God's message are undercut. The answer to the prince's problem is not submission to churchmen. Nor is it submission to the learning of the intellectual, on which poets had been founding their capacity to advise the powerful for centuries before Deschamps.
Further doubt is cast on the authority of erudition by the heterogeneity of the names in this stanza and by the clumsily enacted internal shift of theme in the four-to-five-line opening section (the ouvert) in which the stanza lays out its theme; contrast the homogeneity of the previous stanzas’ openings.32 Professional scholars, the stanza demonstrates, may lack the discrimination correctly to interpret the material they study. The cosmic order will not come to earth from, or even through the poet; indeed, it seems that even the coherence of the poetic text does not originate with him. Instead of standing above terrestrial weaknesses, the speaking subject is demonstrably subject to corruption. Even if we choose to read the enactment of disintegration as reassuringly clever, the points remain valid ones. Cultural memory, genealogy and history writing are not self-sufficient; to yield their full educative potential, they require the practical wisdom that can be supplied only by an active, informed reader experienced in the ways of the world. The third stanza therefore raises materiality and corruption as threats to the prince who misuses his power, while highlighting their application to even exemplary clerks. The speaker is included by virtue of his office, the sovereign listener only where he abuses his.
The envoy which, like other envoys, ’manifests a certain detachment in relation to the poem's contents’, fills the moral vacuum created by undermining the ideals of martial kingship and of scholarly insight with the figure of the virtuous prince, the poem's ’you’.33 This conventional addressee of envoys has features of Everyman; the verb ’regner’ (l. 34), as discussed above, allows for us all to be princes in heaven — provided that we fulfil certain stringent social and cultural conditions. The virtues recommended to this prince are distributing alms to the poor and good cheer to his fellows: ’Bien faire et esjouir ça jus / Et departir pour Dieu du sien / Aux povres’ (ll. 32—4). The conduct urged here contrasts to the conquests that the opening stanzas associated with kingship, encouraging us to reread those conquerors as usual rather than ideal. Deschamps's ballade implies that conquest should be considered merely earthly acquisition, though he refrains from disparaging it. A modest, almost domestic model of exemplarity replaces the grand military undertakings referenced in the first two stanzas, thus redefining kingship as well as offering a pattern to those in other stations in life. Attention turns to the prince's spiritual and private self, implying a thoroughly revised idea of kingship. The new prince is to exercise the defining aristocratic virtues of largesse and patronage in personal piety, reorienting himself towards God. His acknowledgement that he will die impels him to works that will benefit both his soul and his people. Equally significantly, as a model subject (before death, before God) he is an exemplar for his own subjects.34 He is, truly, a sovereign subject, and it is this novel combination which justifies his reign.
In a poem filled with familiar names it is, paradoxically, the prince's anonymity which marks his distinction. His non-inscription in his culture's historical genealogy expresses the humility which will allow him to inherit the consciously new and modern earth of the late Middle Ages. Spiritual immortality in God, not everlasting secular renown, is the reward promised for idealized princely behaviour; although secular immortality is not ruled out, for who will rein in the appreciation of the prince's beneficiaries and admirers? Better conquests are made by love and gratitude than by violence. The sovereign subject — here an actual ruler — unites in himself the secular and spiritual worlds, and the prince approaches simultaneously God and a redefined ideal of kingship. Deschamps's construction here would suit Charles V's commitment to learning, piety, diplomacy and political reform against martial tradition.35 It contrasts with the poet's glorification of warfare in other works, for instance in the poems associated with the youth of Charles VI or in his repeated calls to retake Calais from the English. Over and above the occasional nature of his poetry, Deschamps espouses mainstream views heterogeneously, so that his works voice a range of often contradictory opinions. The compilers of the principal manuscript of his works, BN f.fr. 840 (whose order is followed in vols. I—IX of the uvres complètes), seem to have enjoyed pairing works with contradictory messages.36 Thus Ballade 1458, ’Songeons à nous bien conduire en vue de la mort’, undercuts the elevated moral and cultural tone of Ballade 1457 by comparing man's comportment in the face of death to the training of hounds. The envoy concludes:
Princes, tout homme se soulace
En vaine gloire ou il s'enlace
Tant que vertus en pluseurs dort;
N’aient plus les yeulx de lymace!
Advisent que chascun trespace!
Qui autrement fait, il a tort.
(Princes, every man consoles himself in vainglory in which he becomes enmeshed, so that virtue lies drowsing in many; may they have snails’ eyes no longer! Let them take notice that everyone dies! Whoever does otherwise is in the wrong.)
Are Ballade 1457's princely and poetic genealogies ’vaine gloire’ distracting the subject from the universal truth of mortality? Ballade 1458's line 19, ’A congnoistre ont les oeulx derrier’ (literally, ’for knowing they have their eyes backwards’), implies poor insight and perhaps encourages us to look back at the previous ballade and at its history lesson as instances of such delusional thinking. On the other hand, a further level of irony may be present intertextually, since this trope recalls the Memoire of Deguileville's Pèlerinage, whose eyes in the back of her head (ll. 4825—6) are explicitly connected with university clerks and their learning about the past, and with the message that these should be valued (ll. 4883—908). Although scholarly opinions vary over whether Deschamps himself oversaw the production of BN f.fr. 840, it may well be that he relished such juxtapositions; his single texts often encapsulate internal dialogues or shifts in contrary directions, verging on dialogue even when spoken by a seemingly single voice. Ballade 1457 manifests its own double movement when the prestige of the great warriors and clerks of the past is at once harnessed for and surpassed by the modern prince and poet. Modern monarchy and its servants claim both continuity with and discontinuity from their antecedents, portraying themselves as the modest representatives of a superior conception of duty, dwarfs on the shoulders of giants. By this means the demands of both secular and Christian traditions are satisfied.
The prince's glorious (because self-effacing!) rejection of older aggressive, self-aggrandizing values may, of course, be a way to recode his real-life failure to live up to those values. The early promise as a warrior that Charles VI manifested never came to mature fruition, and this fact, together with his other documented infirmities, altered monarchical ideology.37 Deschamps provides the sovereign with a powerful cultural imaginary in the series of mighty forebears, then deals with the actual king's shortcomings by interpreting them as the inevitable shadow cast by the unattainable ideal on any living incumbent. Lacan argues in Seminar IV that inadequacy in face of the ultimate Father is itself a defining feature of the paternal position within the symbolic order; in the same way, it is Deschamps's prince's very insufficiency when measured against such strong paternal models as Charlemagne and Caesar that justifies his public position on earth as well as his personal place in heaven.38 Ballade 1457's repeated invocations of the nom-du-père or death-defying name are therefore fulfilled and transcended at the same time as they are negated in the envoy's nameless prince, a non-du-père. This (non-)figure founds authority in lack and in a mortality that is not simple but reflexive: a self-effacing, virtuously humble rejection of the seigneurial claim to secular immortality. Anthropologist Max Gluckman observes that revelation of a leader's human frailty can bring his subordinates ’to question his authority…and ultimately to seek someone else who, they fondly imagine, will attain the ideals they desire’.39 When Ballade 1457 exhibits the prince's weaknesses, it might therefore be understood to encourage rebellion. However, by including in his portrayal of the supermen their besetting frailties of pride, violence and tyranny, and by presenting his humanly weak prince as an ideally meek and virtuous subject of Christ as well as a community-minded fellow subject, Deschamps forestalls the impulse among audience members to ’seek someone else’. Charles VI's generosity and hospitality may have been often unwise, but they are well attested; and Deschamps highlights just these desirable virtues in the envoy. Finally, Poirion insists that ballade envoys mark ’a new connection to concrete, objective reality’ after the stanzas’ lyrical ’expedition into the domain of the ideal’.40 What is designated ’reality’ by inclusion in the envoy thus receives an ideological fillip. The envoy to Ballade 1457 signals that the idea of a strong and virtuous, perfectly kingly king is illusory. A prince who acknowledges both his personal failings and the ethical insufficiencies of the old, glorious, chivalric model of kingship — who acknowledges, in short, that the King is dead — is henceforth an excellent candidate for the throne and has an exemplary claim on the hereafter.
We may compare the end of the Oxford Chanson de Roland, where Charlemagne's authority flows from his weakened, mourning state (see Chapter 1, above). A position entre-deux-morts sponsors a political order which presents itself as bridging past and future: a revolution in ideas that yet relies on and strengthens the ’best’ of existing institutions and ideologies. This vision of history incorporates a process of change into a transcendent eternity of spirit. Thus Deschamps's emphasis on innovation is not irrelevant. His new prince, like his new poet, must ’avoir a court un pié hors et l'autre ens’ (Ballade 208, refrain; ’have at court one foot out and the other in’). Deschamps here articulates not a straightforward anti-curial message but an improved way of being courtly: to achieve the court's higher aspirations it is necessary to be partially outside it. Insight comes not from externality (which would be mere exclusion) but from a divided position, at once within and beyond.41 In Ballade 208, Deschamps establishes the subject's sovereignty in this space, arguing that its uncertainty is not incompatible with plenitude: ’vivre du sien’ (l. 19; ’independent living’) and ’demourer en paix de cuer’ (ll. 19—20; ’dwelling in heart's peace’). This new courtliness presents a strange form of sovereignty, bounded by ’aucun meschief’ (l. 15; ’some harm’) on one side and ’aucun mal’ (l. 17; ’some evil’) on the other. To be between a rock and a hard place, it appears, permits effective social integration and domination for both poetic and princely subjects.42
’Je suis mort’
I turn now to explore this state of affairs via a long-running debate over the phrase ’je suis mort’ between two great figures of modern criticism — a debate which throws light on the potential of ’between two deaths’ as a trope. As a trope, the figure relates to the Lacanian imaginary or symbolic; I explore here the connections between those and the Real to which Lacan primarily links the notion.
At the famous symposium on The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man held at the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center in October 1966, the critic Roland Barthes contributed a paper on the ’reflexive’ relationship between writer and writing. Developing his theory of literature as a ’middle voice’ neither active nor passive, Barthes drew on linguist Gustave Guillaume for the grammatical analogy of the French passé composé formed with the auxiliary être, giving the examples ’je suis sorti’ and ’il est mort’ (’I went out’, ’he died’) and adding parenthetically, ’for I can't say “je suis mort”’ (’I am dead’ / ’I have died’).43 In the following discussion, the philosopher Jacques Derrida disputes Barthes's rejection of the utterance as an invalid use of language and awards it instead a foundational value: ’You were reticent about saying “I am dead”. I believe that the condition for a true act of language is my being able to say “I am dead”’.44 For Derrida, the utterance ’Je suis mort’ handily illustrates language's independence both of its user and of the referential world, key features in his philosophy. The necessary multiple repetitions and conventionality involved in using any symbolic system depersonalize and, in an important sense, de-animate every subject position, however intimate, which can be articulated within that system.
Derrida invokes Husserl's logical grammar to comment on ’I am dead’ as a ’contre-sens’ rather than ’nonsense’. That is, it is viable as an untruth, ’a possible proposition for one who is known to be living’.45 The illegitimacy of untruths lies elsewhere. They break the ’pacte de la parole’ or bond of trust that founds spoken language and emblematizes the metaphysics of presence central to Derrida's early thought. Writing, or écriture, contrastingly, is explicitly grounded in the possibility of lie, fiction, figuration or wish, hence in the subject's ability to articulate what it knows to be literally untrue. Derrida famously argues, against what he represents as Western tradition, that écriture and not parole is the primary form of language. Thus even where speech is concerned, the pacte de la parole is not ’living’ but a ’phantasm’, at once fantasy and ghost.46 Language's ’power of meaning…independent of the possibility of its object’ precludes any unmediated relation to the world — though such a relation haunts it. Hence the foundational nature of the disputed utterance, reiterated: ’the very condition for the living person to speak is for him to be able to say, significantly, “I am dead”’.47
Derrida, therefore, treats death as a figure for the alienation imposed on any subject who would use language. He attacks the fantasies of self-determination, straightforward interlocution, social integration and direct interaction with the non-linguistic environment that attend the spoken word, emblematized in the utterance ’Je suis’ (’I am’, but also the auxiliary in some cases of the perfect tense, hence ’Je suis mort’ equates to ’I am dead’ and to ’I have died’). ’Je suis mort’ therefore encapsulates the death of a particular notion of the human subject, sometimes today called the humanist or Enlightenment subject: transcendental and authorial, atomistic and self-determining, present and self-present in language, entitled to and assured of a hearing. This figurative mortality is, for Derrida, a necessary condition of entry into human social life, reason and language. Our choice in relation to it is between clear-sighted acceptance and fantasmatic disavowal. Derrida's writing in his relatively early works renders the former option more attractive by emphasizing how it permits the emergence of a different subject, able to abandon itself to the proliferating, uncontrollable possibilities of meaning and to appreciate, even enjoy the play (in the senses of ’room for movement’ and of ’game’) within language.
In Speech and Phenomena, his discussion of the sign in Husserl, originally published in 1967, Derrida broadens the import of his analysis. In Husserl's thinking, according to Derrida, acceptance of our mortality is the price we pay for access to the universal which bestows all value: ’the possibility of my disappearance [/death] in general must somehow be experienced in order for a relationship with presence in general to be instituted’.48 Derrida develops his critique of this stance by substituting for ’je suis mort’ a new ’impossible proposition’: ’I am immortal’.49 He explains, in terms that extend the 1966 discussion, that the latter proposition's ’absurdity’ and the ’truth’ against which it is measured depend on culturally specific and challengeable methods of filtering and constructing knowledge which are themselves ultimately determined by a particular relation to death: ’as the classical idea of truth, which guides these distinctions, has itself issued from…a concealment of the relationship with death, this “falsity” [“I am immortal”] is the very truth of truth’.50
In spite of the similarities to his oral intervention a year earlier, Derrida's later argument is more disturbing. He here criticizes, not fantasies of personal immortality of the kind supposedly afforded by speech, but a notion of impersonal immortality which, he claims, illogically haunts Husserl's phenomenology specifically and Western metaphysics generally. Submitting myself to a greater symbolic structure (which I do when using or interpreting language) offers me immortality by proxy: the big Other will continue and I as part of it, although my specificity will pass. Those who renounce the transcendent ego are rewarded with another transcendence, creating an immortality that addresses what in Lacanian terms is the subject, not the self.
Derrida's point is no longer only that dying is the price we pay for a place in culture; instead he recognizes that this position may itself be the symptom of an overarching disavowal. He now alleges that Western thinking is ruled or driven by the unconscious need to deny what it consciously acknowledges and attempts to address, namely death. Even the philosophical subject who proclaims ’Je suis mort’ seeks in that utterance a backdoor escape from extinction. We cannot understand the Western rational tradition unless we appreciate the significant role played in it by the attempt to rescue a transcendental subject from the reality of death, for this desire warps not only the conclusions reached but also the logic relied upon to verify or falsify, that is, the methodological basis. ’Je suis immortel’ is treated as a lapsus, a return of the cultural structure's repressed indicating the secret imperatives that determine it: ’the very truth of truth’. In Derrida's 1967 argument, therefore, acceptance of personal mortality can actually sustain the possibility of transcendental meaning and of a transcendent existence for the subject, even though in some contexts transcendence may be deferred or partial.
Example may be taken from Deschamps's Ballade 1457, which shows how tropes of speech, voice and presence, as exemplified in the lists of great names, have no monopoly on fantasies of immortality in medieval texts; lacking earthly ’presence’, the prince of the envoy and his attendant poet attain eternal life by means precisely of their absence, coded as transcendent Christian anonymity and humility. Thus the ubi sunt topos allows the subject a place within the universal dependent on the acknowledgement of personal as well as general mortality. ’La mort de soi’ opens onto ’la vie de soi’, not only in a Christian afterlife but on earth. It opens, moreover, onto secular authority. Renouncing the straightforwardly self-aggrandizing possibility of personal immortality on earth, the impersonal immortality of Deschamps's envoy in fact represents ’the height of narcissism’, in Jean Starobinski's phrase.51
Supporting Derrida's 1966 intervention, Jean-Michel Rabaté affirms that ’For Derrida, the belief in a pure speech is a fantasy, a delusion under which Barthes is still working.’52 Drawing on Derridean and Lacanian thinking, Barthes later defended his throwaway dismissal, developing the fantasmatic aspects of the utterance ’je suis mort’ as ’pure speech’. In his 1973 close reading of parts of Poe's ’The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar’, Barthes took up Derrida's 1966 mention of ’that extraordinary story of Poe about M. Valdemar, who awakens at a certain moment and says, “I am dead”’.53 Poe's short story relates a scientific experiment in which a man on the point of death is mesmerised. Interrogated as to his state, M. Valdemar replies on the first occasion that he is asleep, on the second that he is dying and on the third ’still asleep — dying’. When asked a fourth time, he dies before he can answer. Clinical death is verified, but then Valdemar's tongue writhes out the following words: ’Yes; — no; — I have been sleeping; — and now — now — I am dead.’
Like Derrida, Barthes highlights the impossibility at the heart of Valdemar's utterance and the challenge it poses to traditional notions of selfhood: ’In the ideal sum of all the possible utterances of language, the link of the first person [Je] and the attribute [mort] is precisely the one which is radically impossible.’54 To highlight the distinctiveness of Poe's creation, however, Barthes notes that ’there exist numerous mythical narratives in which the dead person speaks, but only to say: “I am alive”’.55 Barthes would presumably include under this rubric not only the epitaph quoted above (p. 104) but also the many medieval ghost stories in which the dead ask that their debts be paid — the persistence of debts implying the persistence of the dead person.56 Thus in its normal fictional usage, the trope of the dead man talking sustains fantasies of the self's sovereignty and indestructibility against a background of general mortality.
Poe's Valdemar represents a different, more disturbing idea:
We have already extracted the theme of encroachment [l'empiètement] (of Life on Death). Encroachment is a paradigmatic disorder, a disorder of meaning. In the Life / Death paradigm the bar is normally read as ’against’ (versus); it would suffice to read it as ’on’ for encroachment to take place and the paradigm to be destroyed. That's what happens here: one of the spaces bites unwarrantedly into the other [il y a morsure indue d'un espace sur l'autre]. The interesting thing here is that the encroachment occurs at the level of language…Prior to the meaning ’I am dead’, the voice conveys simply, ’I am speaking’ — rather like a grammatical example which refers to nothing but language. The uselessness of what is proffered is part of the scandal: it is a matter of affirming an essence which is not in its place (the displaced is the very form of the symbolic).57
This encroachment is much less comforting than the mutual differential construction of a ’death’/’life’ dyad or the erasure of death by the living voice in the epitaph.
For Barthes, the voice speaking through the deceased Valdemar is not that of any human subject. It is language itself, whose radically alien nature is revealed in the phallic, undead tongue — la langue — that inhabits the mortifying corpse of ’M. Valdemar’. Poe's story communicates the terrifying inhumanity of the symbolic order behind its familiar facade. The human subject's essential supports — language, the body, the voice, objective knowledgeable discourse, civic society — are defamiliarized together, exposed as inherently destructive of the accepted categories and habits of thought which perforce use them as their underpinning. This is ’death’ as the truth of the symbolic, realized in something of its Real force and impossibility, thanks to literature's specific ability to engage the fantasmatic and the paradoxical. Writing as a literary critic (and himself employing considerable rhetorical colour), Barthes brings to the fore the rhetorical and narrative strategies by which Poe creates his scandalous text uncovering language's ’blind spot’.58
For both Barthes and Derrida, therefore, Poe's ’I am dead’ indicates the constitutively contradictory position of the subject in language. Acknowledging this position represents for each an intellectual and ethical step towards a more accurate apprehension of human existence. Their differences may be illustrated via their contrasting notions of M. Valdemar's utterance, and thence of language and the human condition generally, as entre-deux-morts. Derrida argues that all active language users are figuratively dead due to their subordination to the symbolic order, indeed that they must first ’die’ in order to ’live’ within that order. Properly seen, therefore, human life is led in a deathly environment. This deathliness can, however, be negated by denial, leading to inauthenticity, or equally by an acceptance that purports to transcend. In reaction to what he construes as this banal vision, Barthes insists on the world-destroying horror which surges irrepressibly within the perilously thin fabric of everyday human existence — the symbolic order is for that existence at once its foundation, its generative principle and its nightmare. His impassioned, highly ’literary’ essay implies that Derrida's more measured and philosophical analysis serves to detract from the affective power of this frustrating and ghastly situation, and thereby to construct the same fantasmatic barrier against death's disruptiveness that Derrida criticizes in Husserl. ’La langue, c'est la parole’:59 with this gnomic utterance Barthes confronts the aberrancy of the forms within which we live. The phrase may be translated ’the tongue is speech’ or ’the tongue is the word’, thus grounding the subject's voice-consciousness in Valdemar's obscenely realized body whose materiality and drives defy human attempts at orderliness or transcendence.60 It also indicates Barthes's rejection of the idealism and monism inherent in Saussure's identification of the primary focus of linguistic study; ’langue is parole’ implies that language, and hence culture itself, is composed out of multiple, conflicting forces incapable of totalization. These conflicts are suppressed in normal life; however, literary texts like Poe's, by emphasizing and exacerbating them, can open the door to an insistent and indestructible life-force. And this force figures the destruction drive working through the symbolic order better than does Nirvana (see Chapter 1, above). Barthes's concept of Valdemar's entre-deux-morts as a traumatic, perpetually unacceptable presentation of the alien and alienating nature of the symbolic is notably more Lacanian than Derrida's.
The disagreement under discussion is not reducible to strictly Lacanian terms but, given the overall framework of this book, it is worthwhile attempting some rapprochement. In his reading of M. Valdemar's multiply inscribed utterance, Derrida gives ethical and ontological precedence to what we can call the symbolic order, conceived as the domain of formal structures independent of, estranged from and estranging the subject who lives in them. His analysis in Speech and Phenomena recognizes the power of the dreams of sovereignty which energize the human ’I’ and criticizes the tendency to rework the symbolic into a ground of impersonal immortality, a stronghold of stability against change and decay. Barthes offers a different account of the symbolic order in which he stresses its conflicted plurality characterized by, and offering to the human subject, instability, confusion and discord: mortality, in short. His corresponding insistence on the aesthetic gives to the imaginary dimension a positive value that Derrida denies it. The horror inspired by the symbolic order's radically unassimilable nature can be felt only via the imaginary, which is therefore an indispensable heuristic tool — illusory in itself, but guiding us powerfully towards certain of life's truths. Voice is a key element, since it is only in parole — and not in écriture — that we hear the timbre of the alien; in Lacan's oft repeated phrase, ’le ça parle’. In contrast to Derrida's emphasis on writing as locus of figuration and absence, Barthes highlights the fact that ’I am dead’ is inscribed in Poe's text as a spoken and literally true utterance, and shows that precisely for this reason, it bears the weight of a presence that it simultaneously renders unfeasible. In Barthes's presentation, symbolic and imaginary combine to produce a surging destructive force recalling Lacan's Real. For Barthes the literary critic, literature is valued not only for its ability to make us feel this destruction — as the work of art does for Heidegger, and for the Lacan of Seminar VII — but for the enormous aesthetic power and creative generativity which destruction calls into being. Derrida the philosopher demolishes logically the foundations of such a pretension; although his objection is not so much to imaginative art per se as to texts that purport to be objective, a target that Barthes too addresses in his insistence that the ’asymbolic’ posture adopted by knowlegeable discourse is an imaginary, and indeed illusory one.61 Thus in Deschamps's ballade, the fantasies of empowerment that are generated around the prince's and poet's acknowledgement of personal absence circumscribe that acknowledgement's ethical and epistemological value. True to its author's ’non-literary’, ’historical’ reputation today, Deschamps's lyric may be taken to illustrate Derrida's analysis. In the remainder of this chapter I turn to a more ’artistic’, and more troubling treatment of the ubi sunt topos.
Dead man talking: Villon's ’Ballades du temps jadis’
The Testament of François Villon (1430/32 — mid-1460s?), a mock will written, according to its own testimony, in 1461, may be viewed as an extended exploration of the utterance ’Je suis mort’, or of ways of imagining, knowing and denying ’la mort de soi’.62 The poem is placed insistently in relation to death, although precisely what relation is obscure; in the opening stanzas Villon's persona is variously pronounced physically dying, symbolically dead, metaphorically resuscitated and still optimistic of spiritual redemption. A death sentence hangs over the work, which shifts between gloomy or salty contemplation, revived hopefulness and studied defiance. Repetition, that manifestation of the death drive, impels the whole; it is not even Villon's first attempt at a will, a fact emphasized when he here rejects the intention that would name his 1456 Lais (’poems’/’legacy’) a ’Petit Testament’.63 The three ballades known collectively as the ’Ballades du temps jadis’ are among a number of fixed-form lyrics contained within the Testament, some of which may have predated the larger frame poem or have circulated separately.64 They form part of the meditation on death which occupies the first eight hundred lines or so of the poem, the remaining twelve hundred lines being dedicated to scurrilous and satirical legacies to Villon's contemporaries.65
Villon's Testament is characterized by its use of diverse registers and voices, though the dominant milieu is that of the bottom rungs of society, and there is a constant theme of social marginalization. The poem adopts a kaleidoscope of tones within the overarching frame of libellous satire and burlesque directed above all against those who enforce social rules.66 Nevertheless, elements of the Testament approach court poetry in their style, and some may indeed have begun life in that context.67 Bearing this in mind, I compare the treatment of the sovereign subject and of personal and cultural memory in the three ’Ballades du temps jadis’ to that in Deschamps's undoubtedly courtly Ballade 1457.
Whatever the possible uses of some of the lyrics outside the Testament, their contexts within it orient interpretation in particular ways. It is important to bear this in mind when encountering the ’Ballade des dames du temps jadis’, which has been widely read in isolation from the frame work; anthologized, quoted, translated and set to music. In the Testament it is followed and echoed by another string of ubi sunt questions in the ’Ballade des seigneurs du temps jadis’. In spite of their formal similarity, the poems have met with divergent critical judgements. Critics and readers have celebrated the ’Ballade des dames’ not just as a high point of lyricism within the Testament but as one of the great lyrical moments in the European poetic tradition. The ’Ballade des seigneurs’ is rarely examined in detail and commonly considered a prosaic and bathetic failure.68 Closing the mini-sequence is the ’Ballade en vieil langage françois’, also little discussed though less harshly judged, which abandons the ubi sunt question for a related theme reminiscent of that of the Dance of Death or Danse macabre.
Edgar Allan Poe's celebrated assertion that ’the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world’ envisages female death for a male writer and public as painful yet within the domain of aesthetic craft and pleasure, where it represents at once a limit case and a central theme.69 This same topic contributes to the reputation of Villon's ’Ballade des dames’ as a zenith of lyricism. The relationship between dead females and poetry will occupy much of the remainder of this book, pursued in discussions of Pearl and marguerite poetry (Chapter 4) and of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess and Legend of Good Women (Chapter 5). I embark on it here with a reading of the construction of femininity and masculinity in Villon's ’Ballade des dames’ and its reception, arguing that the poem's celebrated ’most poetical’ quality depends on its promotion of a particular masculine sovereign subject. Afterwards I consider in turn the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ and ’Ballade en vieil langage’, to show how reading the three ’Ballades du temps jadis’ in sequence breaks down that sovereign subject. The relative obscurity and critical depreciation of the second and third ballades are no accident, for they work to spoil the ’poetry’ of the ’Ballade des dames’.
The ’Ballade des dames’
Dictes moy ou n'en quel pays
Est Flora la belle Romaine,
Archipïadés ne Thaÿs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine,
Echo parlant quant bruyt on maine
Dessus riviere ou sur estan,
Qui beaulté ot trop plus qu'umaine.
Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten?
Ou est la tres saige Esloÿs,
Pour qui chastré fut et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart a Saint Denys?
Pour son amour eust ceste essoyne.
Semblablement, ou est la royne
Qui commanda que Buriden
Fust gecté en ung sac en Saine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten?
La Royne Blanche comme liz
Qui chantoit a voix de seraine,
Berte au plat pié, Bietrix, Aliz,
Haranburgis qui tint le Maine,
Et Jehanne la bonne Lorraine
Qu’Engloys brulerent a Rouen,
Ou sont ilz, ou, Vierge souveraine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten?
Prince, n'enquerrez de sepmaine
Ou elles sont ne de cest an
Qu'a ce reffraing ne vous remaine:
Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten?
(Tell me where, in what country is Flora the beautiful Roman, Archipïadés or Thaïs, who was first cousin to her once; Echo who speaks when one brings a sound over river or pond, who had much more than human beauty? But where are the snows of last winter?
Where is the very learned Heloïse for whom Peter Abelard was castrated and afterwards a monk at St Denis? For her love he suffered this outrage. Similarly, where is the queen who had Buridan thrown into the Seine, in a sack? But where are the snows of last winter?
The queen white as a lily who sang with a siren's voice, and flat-footed Berte, Beatrice, Alis, Haremburgis who held Maine, and Joan the good woman from Lorraine whom the English burned at Rouen; where are they, where, oh sovereign Virgin? But where are the snows of last winter?
Prince, you may not ask this week where they are nor this year, that I won't tell you back the refrain: But where are the snows of last winter?)70
I print the ballade here in order that it inform the following discussion; but I begin with the stanzas preceding the three ’Ballades du temps jadis’. These stanzas prepare the disidentification—identification sequence characteristic of the ubi sunt topos. After lamenting his poverty, Villon's poetic persona is advised by his heart:
Mieulx vaut vivre soubz groz bureau
Pouvre, qu'avoir esté seigneur
Et pourrir soubz riche tumbeau.
(Better to live under common cloth poor, than having once been a lord to rot under an expensive tomb.)
This short-lived triumph over the dead lord melts into identification as the poet reflects that he too will die. Future death orthodoxly swallows up present life. But there is no mention here of eternal glories merited by the humble — they get only an uncomfortable life in addition to the death which is the universal lot. The poet then dwells on the physical pains of dying and on the impossibility of finding another who will take one's place in the face of death. He turns abruptly to interrogate the female body:
Corps femenin, qui tant est tendre,
Poly, souëf, si precïeulx,
Te fauldra il ces maulx attendre?
Oy, ou tout vif aler es cieulx.
(Body of woman so tender, so polished, so smooth, so dearly loved, must you too come to these agonies? Yes, or rise living up to the heavens.)
Feminine beauty is evoked with a sensuous emphasis on the tactile, transitively ’felt’. In one interpretation of this stanza, disturbed though he is by the thought of the female body's inevitable disintegration, the poet may nevertheless contemplate it with more equanimity because he does not fully identify with it. Eroticism in such a case objectifies the female physique and thereby distances its fate from the observing subject. The inevitable decay of every erotic object which temporarily plays the role of objet a can be mourned by the heterosexual male without necessarily impinging on his own sense of subjecthood. It may even produce a self-congratulatory sense of his own immunity to time so long as sexual desire or its counterpart, revulsion, spring anew in his breast to confirm his lustiness. A certain sadistic or narcissistic pleasure may therefore tinge representations of female decrepitude.
Consider this passage alongside that in which the Belle Hëaulmiere contemplates her ruined body in the Testament's complementary exploitation of the ubi sunt theme (ll. 453—560) through the feminine voice. The former helmet-maker perceives that her body's ageing corresponds to a vertiginous collapse in her worth to others and to herself, and her experience of personal invalidity constitutes a fate worse than death: ’Car vielles n'ont ne cours ne estre / Ne que monnoye qu'on descrye’ (ll. 539—40; ’For old women have neither currency nor being, any more than obsolete coin’). We may view this as symbolic death so long as we recognize that its pain stems from the combination of an invalid symbolic position with a living consciousness.71 Villon joins that company of male writers who have expressed their most intense apprehensions of a supposed universal human condition through a representation of specifically feminine experience, with its restrictions and vulnerabilities — above all, in its privileged relation to the passive voice.72 Contrastingly, the masculine subject of Testament lines 321—8 finds someone to suffer death in his place (compare Alceste, Chapter 5, below). The female body becomes his proxy (l. 320; ’son pleige’) in corporeal extinction, allowing him to believe that he, at least, is something more than only flesh, and that masculine ’cours et estre’ are assured.
However, lines 321—8 also suggest a reserve of disbelief in the possibility that the female body can suffer real disintegration. The constitution of that unblemished body in lines 325—6 against the torture of the previous lines, together with the notion of direct translation into heaven, gesture towards the notion of a feminine which is in essence unbreachably whole. This incorruptible female body is sought as a refuge against the horrors of physical dissolution. In a complicated way, the subject need not feel too guilty about sacrificing the female's body to save his own, since hers in any case cannot really die. This and the alternative reading sketched above, however logically contradictory, are not emotionally incompatible. Freud's paper on fetishism analyses complex responses in the masculine subject to the spectacle of the female genitals which, he claims, the boy reads as proof of castration.73 The perception ’I see you castrated’ leads to the gratifying ’And I, unlike you, have not been castrated’ and thence to the anxious ’But I, like you, may be castrated.’ ’Normal’ resolution of the masculine castration complex occurs when the subject withdraws from Oedipal rivalry with the father, supposed agent of castration, in order to avoid the female's fate. A model of sexual difference is instantiated that leaves her in feminine inferiority and him within a masculinity which, while superior to femininity, is internally hierarchical, the boy submitting to paternal authority in the expectation of one day inheriting the father's prerogatives. The initial feminine ’you’ becomes a third-person ’she’, with interlocution limited to masculine subjects. However, where anxiety is overwhelming, the fetishist's response is to adopt gender difference while nevertheless disavowing female castration, finding evidence of the female phallus elsewhere — in a shoe, or a shiny nose. Freud extends himself in an exposition of the contradictory logic and self-splitting of the fetishist who both does and does not ’recognize’ female castration; such dualities are a basic psychoanalytical tenet, discovered in numerous everyday and extraordinary stances.
Commentaries on the ’Ballade des dames’ by two of its greatest male readers fall within the field of responses mapped by Freud. For Italo Siciliano, Villon has ’opened the doors of the infinite’ with his cortège of dead ladies ’who live again for a moment, joyous and oblivious’.74 Before this procession of female names conjuring up timeless immortality, the poet humbles himself: ’he is as if bewildered [égaré] before the grandeur of the thing, he makes himself ever smaller’.75 Ultimately, however, it is the ladies who are effaced: ’the brilliant procession winds out, draws away and is lost in the night from which it emerged: dream and dust’.76 In the face of this sublime vision, the poet remains in control, agent and beneficiary of his own temporary abjection. Siciliano locates the feminine at once ’above’ and ’below’ the masculine writing/reading subject, who is neither ’dream’ nor ’dust’ but acquires solidity and actuality from the contrast. Whereas Siciliano associates the transcendental quality he identifies in the lyric with the feminine, for Leo Spitzer it lies with the ’very gentle, paternal reprimand’ of the refrain, among the elements of the poem ’alone…destined for immortality’.77 The refrain's voice is distinct from that of the stanzas, answering its anguished ubi sunt questions with ’the assured, insistent and imperturbable tranquility of a parent much older and wiser than we’.78 In Spitzer's account, the poem's poetic quality is due to the dialectical movement between masculine and feminine (both from a masculine viewpoint), the paternal wisdom of the refrain giving durable form and articulate meaning to evanescent maternal matter, which encompasses the subject matter of beauty, desire and loss as well as that materiality of language that Julia Kristeva calls the semiotic.79 The poetic ’I’ oscillates not, as for Siciliano, between two views of femininity, but between the maternal body and the paternal, super-egoic maxim — dialoguing, however, only with the latter. Although the feminine supplements the rationalist paternal proverb with an important poetic softening, the core masculine values of rationality and immortality remain central and the poetic voice's allegiance is clear. From a Freudian perspective, Spitzer's position, which is more explicit about consigning the feminine to death in place of the masculine and about the need to accept, with reservations, paternal Law, exhibits a more ’normal’ dramatization of the castration complex, while Siciliano's position, which construes femininity as simultaneously deathless and extinct, constructs the feminine as a fetish object which disavows while it represents male castration. Neither position confers subjecthood on women; instead these constructions work together to characterize an other which defines and shores up the universality, exclusivity and sovereignty of (internally differentiated) masculine subjectivity.
I am not arguing that either critic is mistaken, rather that the ’Ballade des dames’ encourages gendered readings that, in turn, invite analysis. Feminist philosophers have analysed at length the apparently contradictory ways in which constructions of the feminine other strengthen the masculine self's claim to represent neutral universality and the only genuine form of selfhood. In her awe-inspiring aspect, woman mediates between men and the divinity — witness the Virgin Mary's appearance in stanza 3 of the ’Ballade des dames’. Her superhuman assimilation into the transcendent realm answers in mortal man a striving towards transcendence. But woman is also the material ground of man's more-than-material being, his superior spiritual and cultural potential. ’Dream and dust’, she provides the inhuman support for that consciousness which in him is half angelic, and which typifies the highest ’human’ aspirations. Read in these terms, the ’Ballade des dames’ and the stanzas leading up to it allow simultaneously a consignment of woman to annihilation in man's place and an assertion of her elemental wholeness in his service.
Comparing the ’Ballade des dames’ with Deschamps's Ballade 1457 throws light on the former's peculiarities. Villon's lyric opens with a question which, in spite of following ubi sunt conventions, leads towards an unusual response. Instead of eliciting the usual range of responses — ’in the grave’, ’damned in hell’ or ’reborn in our own culture’ — the query ’Dictes moy ou n'en quel pays’ (l. 329) suggests an elsewhere in which these figures may still exist, thus enhancing the topos's death-denying tendency. This space is supplemented in the first stanza by classicizing-orientalizing connotations and by watery landscapes that recall the Celtic merveilleux. The dames’ association with such natural-supernatural phenomena distances them from the world of human society, erudition and ethics. These women's ’place’ is in legend, not in the virile history outlined by Deschamps. Although masculine learning put them there, moreover, their names are not presented in a way that evokes the world of clerical scholarship any more than its political application by princes and their advisers. The names are evocative but mainly indeterminate, with minimum social structuring and barely sketched reference points.80 Editions note that Flora and Thaïs were courtesans (and ’la belle Romaine’ sounds like a prostitute's cognomen), but Flora was also known as a goddess, Thaïs as a saint.81 Similarly, it is commonplace to remark that ’Archipïadés’ may originally have been the Greek general Alcibiades, famed for his beauty, but this, like other historical knowledge considered to contravene the spirit of the ballade, is swept aside on the tide of gendered lyricism.82 Both Spitzer and Siciliano declare that there are things they do not want to know about the ’Ballade des dames’, an arresting pronouncement in view of the weight of historical scholarship that the Testament generates.83 Against the frame poem's notable tendency to elicit epistemophilia, the ’Ballade des dames’ calls on us to suspend detailed knowledge. The names of the first stanza constitute lieux de mémoire in a cultural tradition, but the lieux with which they are associated are unlocatable in a ’real world’ frame, contributing to the sense of a mysterious, feminine ’other place’ outside historical time and profoundly unlike the manly, public world conjured up by Deschamps's lists. The masculine readers and writers implied in these two poems indulge in quite different fantasies and desires.
The refrain may be interpreted either to counter or to confirm the construction of femininity encountered in the first stanza. It is difficult for English speakers today to read the ’Ballade des dames’ without hearing in its refrain, ’Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten?’, the resonant phrasing of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His celebrated ’Where are the snows of yesteryear?’, according to Spitzer, brings to mind virgin wastes of eternal snow, an otherwhere in which time has no relevance. Complementing Rossetti's lyrical rendering, Robert Lowell's prosaic translation ’Where is last year's snow?’ to my mind underlines how thoroughly the passage of time obliterates the past.84 If Rossetti's romantic rendering emphasizes the Eternal Feminine in the poem, Lowell's rationalist version suggests a feminine as insubstantial and transient as meltwater. This version too gestures towards eternity, albeit in a different mode, for last year's snow will return as next year's, essentially no different. In the same way, individual women's deaths seem as irrelevant as the particularities of their individual lives. What matters is that femininity endures, not the demise of its incarnations (this idea will be explored further in Chapter 5). ’Poetic’ and ’prosaic’ renderings of the refrain are therefore more congruent than they may appear.85 As Martineau-Génieys comments, ’at the end of the day, there is no difference between going “living up to the heavens” and evaporating like snow in the spring thaw!’.86
In the second stanza of the ballade, the focus moves to women exercising sexual power over men. Against the background of the first stanza and refrain, in which the women are at once eternalized and consigned to existlessness, vulnerable corporeality enters for the first time, recalling that evoked in the stanzas preceding the lyric. It is not, however, feminine: woman is castration's agent, not its victim. Femmes fatales literally castrate and dishonour Abelard and humiliate Buridan. Castration reinforces the gender divide, opposing male and female in a traditional misogynistic configuration around heterosexual desire. At the same time it particularizes masculinity, since it is the clerical body that is sacrificed. This has two important effects. According to the Lacanian account, castration attends subjects’ inscription in the symbolic order and thus enables them to write, speak, generate and desire; in the ’Ballade des dames’, it transforms its victims into cultural champions, great writers and martyrs to love, the poet's forebears. Castration institutes literature and genealogy — two meanings of the term ’culture’. In the second place, the clerk's mutilation does not entail that of the princely reader conventionally addressed in the envoy. On the contrary: the cultural mediator takes castration upon himself in order to relieve the cultural consumer of that vulnerability. A prince may smile at these scholarly fools, comfortably reassured by his inferiors’ foibles. As in Deschamps's lyric, clerks, however learned, lack both the self-governance and the practical political insight that are the preserve of a ruler. Any ethical reflection, any science issuing from their scholarship benefits less themselves than the princely consumer and those he governs. Its sacrificial assumption of castration makes clerical masculinity tragic, comic and heroic, all at once.
In Over Her Dead Body, the major study that she grounds in Poe's pronouncement, Elisabeth Bronfen argues that dead female figures express a lack in the masculine. In this instance, that lack founds a cultural authority that may be appropriated by a prince exempted from the concretely realized disgrace foisted onto his clerical proxies. Thus in the second stanza of the ’Ballade des dames’ the abject clerical body, instead of denying feminine castration, represents while circumscribing the negative effects of masculine castration, inviting the princely reader at once to reap castration's patriarchal benefits and to discount the possibility of his own castration. Some part of the benefits acquired will, by way of patronage, be graciously passed on to the poet. The feminine's fetishistic representation therefore serves the splitting of the masculine subject into two essences: intact sovereign reader and abject, castrato writer. However, the ambivalence of that fetishized femininity, with its combination of corporeal death and eternal, inhuman life, also sustains, through the binary gender opposition that the poem encourages, masculine ’cours et estre’: man's pragmatic mastery of the material world and management of the sublime, which is thus clawed back from the edge of the Real for the symbolic (within which it is further tamed for the prince by the clerk's sacrifice). The feminine triangulates a co-operative relationship between prince and clerk-poet. Only in the following ballades will this relationship be revealed as competitive.
In the ’Royne Blanche comme liz’ (l. 345) who opens the third stanza of the ’Ballade des dames’, the natural and supernatural references of stanza 1 are gathered together with the predatory female sexuality of stanza 2.87 Whereas the siren-like ’lily-white queen’ recalls the world of legend, ’Blanche’, a not uncommon name among the late medieval aristocracy, carries us into a framework of political, collective activity involving dynasties, land and battle, where female sexuality is important in property transfer and kinship relations. This sets the tone for the stanza. Reference remains imprecise, however, keeping us at a remove from the historical world. Bietrix and Aliz are names evocative of chansons de geste without being attributable to any particular song or cycle, while Berte ’au plat pié’ is perhaps significantly not quite Berte ’au grant pié’, daughter of Floire and Blancheflor, mother of Charlemagne, and heroine of the eponymous poem by Adenet le Roi.88 None of these names supplies its own context, nor is one provided for us (unlike those of Abelard and Buridan in stanza 2); this is neither history writing nor princely advice as Deschamps presented them. Instead of concrete evocation, the third stanza returns us to the legends and fantasies that provide the world of men with a glamorous ’bordering of reverie and infinitude’.89
Whereas the stanzas of the ballade focus on femininity, the envoy directly addresses masculinity. Suddenly we turn to a history familiar from earlier parts of the Testament, in which time, shaped into weeks and years, carries with it a sense of practical, moral urgency pressing on the present moment: ’Prince, n'enquerrez de sepmaine / Ou elles sont ne de cest an’ (ll. 353—4). This kind of time, unlike that of the stanzas, can be wasted. Space similarly shifts mode, as the Prince is warned not to seek some really locatable place in which the women may be found. Sovereign masculinity's proper dimension is not the timeless otherwhere assigned to the feminine. Whereas the great men named by Deschamps are presented as, among other things, subjects with whom the princely reader may — up to a point — identify, the women of the ’Ballade des dames’ remain objects in the field of collective, masculine cultural memory. Villon heightens the disidentification effect of the ubi sunt topos. Being neither the reader's forebears nor active makers of the culture that he is invited to join, the famous ladies constitute no genealogy on Deschamps's model. The collective memory of which their poetry is guardian holds little practical utility for the patron. Dallying with it could at best make him an ’asne couronné’, at worst castrate him: this learning makes a man ineffectual within the lordly sphere. In other respects, the imaginary that this lyric offers to lordship is not so distinct from Deschamps's. To be a prince is, in the ’Ballade des dames’, to move in the historical world, with a real-life public role and political function, very different from the fairytale nymphs and queens in their eternal present which is also essentially past and gone. It is different also from the clerk's dangerous and circular tarrying with the feminine and the legendary, with unruly bodily and textual urges, and with alluring deceptions. The envoy suggests that the ubi sunt question which the poem has so insistently posed represents an appropriate quest only for the poets and clerks who fantasize in the prince's place — and suffer the penalty. Again the clerk, rendered helpless by his pursuit of the dreamily impractical and unanswerable, takes on impotence and frees the prince to appropriate in the real world the executive power that submission to the paternal Law bestows. Unique princely authority over the natural, clerical and political worlds is constructed over the clerk's mutilated body as well as over the lady's numinous one. Lordly power is grounded in its distance from the unearthly immortality granted to ladies and from the poetic impotence of clerks.
As I shall argue in the remaining sections of this chapter, the organization of ethical, social, political and cultural spaces in the ’Ballade des dames’ lays a trap for the reader. Although this trap will be sprung in the following lyrics, disturbing elements are already detectable within the ’Ballade des dames’. The compelling lyricism makes these easy to ignore, especially when, as so often, the lyric is read outside its textual context. The envoy's ’n'enquerrez’ (l. 353; ’do not inquire’ or ’you will/shall not inquire’) confirms the stanzas’ push away from cognitive knowledge and suggests that the reader does not want to know the truth about women. That knowledge might require confronting the reality of his own death like theirs, in fulfilment of the moralizing ubi sunt function. The text implies that what the princely reader desires is reassurance of his own sovereign subjecthood — his life and power — and this the poet, a dutiful prince-pleaser, supplies through feminine and clerical proxies.
The poet thus adopts the stance of Echo, ’parlant quant bruyt on maine’ (l. 333) to create an illusory other that merely reflects his own words back to the initiating subject. This relationship interprets and comments upon the mechanisms by which Deschamps served his prince. In the ’Ballade des dames’, the process of constructing a mythologized cultural tradition is shown to involve the suppression of detailed, factual, worldly knowledge; the sovereign subject of collective memory relies on a certain forgetting. Read in the context of the Testament as a whole, with its manifold historical details, its focus on marginalized and marginalizing social groups, and its deliberate eschewing of lyricism, this revelation calls attention to those whose exclusion from the public sphere of power and history both sustains the princely subject and exposes his dependence on their willing or forced submission. Furthermore, it disconnects the prince from the actual, historical world, thus undermining the princely authority grounded in its allegedly superior grasp of that world. Only wilful obliviousness can allow Joan of Arc to take her place among the long-dead, legendary females evoked in the rest of the ballade. Executed in 1431, Joan had been formally rehabilitated only a few years before the writing of the Testament: on 7 July 1456 (coincidentally, the year ascribed to Villon's Lais), her ’trial and sentence…together with the abjuration, the execution and all their consequences’ were pronounced ’null, invalid, without effect or value’.90 Her resulting undeath can stand alongside Antigone's, a reproach to the political order and ’eternal irony of the community’. ’Jehanne la bonne Lorraine / Qu’Engloys brulerent a Rouen’ (ll. 349—50) is an anomalous figure. Her official rehabilitation testifies to the challenge that she always presented to princely activity in the fields it here claims as its own: real-world political immediacy.91 Her transgression of the ballade's gender rules is clear but difficult to respond to; it is easier to fit her into the overarching poetry. From a feminist standpoint, other historical and legendary women invoked within the ’Ballade des dames’ have been similarly reduced by gendered stereotype, Heloise being a case in point. Instead of near-immaterialization, we ought perhaps to see in the ladies’ liquefaction the disagreeable bodily viscosity that Irigaray associates with feminine resistance to patriarchy.92 Thus, while the treatment of most of the ladies may not have appeared discordant to Villon or his contemporaries, certain cases do, at the margins, question the structure as a whole and raise the spectre of a quite different understanding. By drawing attention to the limitations of the prince's inquiry and to the self-interested nature of its results, the ’Ballade des dames’ hints at the tenuous nature of a sovereignty based in the imaginary rather than the symbolic. The following ballades will exploit and bring to fruition the potential for anxiety that the ’Ballade des dames’ discreetly plants within the prince's position. Joan the undead cross-dresser anticipates features that will typify the prince of the following ballade — though cultural evidence shows that she had a contemporary grandeur beyond what the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ will impute to its lords.
The ’ballade des seigneurs’
Qui plus, ou est ly tiers Calixte,
Derrenier decedé de ce nom,
Quy quatre ans tint le papalixte,
Alfonce, le roy d’Arragon,
Le gracïeux duc de Bourbon,
Et Artus le duc de Bretaigne,
Et Charles septiesme le bon?
Mais ou est le preux Charlemaigne?
Semblablement, le roy scotiste
Qui demy face ot, ce dit on,
Vermaille comme une emastiste
Depuis le front jusqu'au menton,
Le roy de Chippre de renom,
Helas! et le bon roy d’Espaigne
Duquel je ne sçay pas le nom?
Mais ou est le preux Charlemaigne?
D’en plus parler je me desiste,
Le monde n'est qu'abusïon;
Il n'est qui contre mort resiste
Ne qui treuve provisïon.
Encore faiz une questïon:
Lancellot, le roy de Behaygne,
Ou est il? ou est son tayon?
Mais ou est le preux Charlemaigne?
Ou est Clacquin le bon Breton,
Ou le comte daulphin d’Auvergne,
Et le bon feu duc d’Alençon?
Mais ou est le preux Charlemaigne?
(Moreover, where is the third Calixtus, last of his name to die, who for four years held the papacy; Alphonso king of Aragon, His grace the duke of Bourbon, Arthur duke of Brittany, and Charles the seventh, the good? But where is the worthy Charlemagne?
Similarly, the Scottish king, half of whose face, it's said, was crimson as an amethyst from forehead to chin; and the well-known king of Cyprus, alas, and that good king of Spain whose name I don't know? But where is the worthy Charlemagne?
Let me say no more. This world is only a cheat. No one can fight off death or lay up store against it. But let me ask one more question: Lancelot, king of Bohemia, where is he? Where is his grandfather? But where is the worthy Charlemagne?
Where is Claquin [Du Guesclin] the good Breton, or the count dauphin of Auvergne, and the late, good duke of Alençon? But where is the worthy Charlemagne?)
In apparent reaction to the disidentification between implied audience and deceased subjects in the ’Ballade des dames’, the immediately following ’Ballade des seigneurs du temps jadis’ imposes identification. This is achieved by making the deceased according to the same parameters which in the envoy to the ’Ballade des dames’ constructed the reader's self-representation as masculine, sovereign and efficient. Locating the subject in terms of chronological time and public office, the details of lines 357—9 create an impression of precision, an effet de réel which instantiates a certain notion of what counts as ’real’.93 Chronology is here closely related to genealogy, Callixtus being specified as third to have taken that name on accession to the ’papalixte’, literally the ’papal list’. Cultural patriliny — the nom-du-père — provides an important reference point for the authority referred to in this stanza (compare Deschamps's Ballade 1457). In the next lines, place is similarly interpreted in terms of public power, function and title (ll. 360—3). Thus the opening stanza of the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ foregrounds the historical and public dimensions of sovereign identity.
Its position immediately after the ’Ballade des dames’ encourages us to read the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ as half of a gendered diptych. As Marot's titles suggest, one major theme emerging from this contrast is the difference between feminine and masculine modes of power and effectiveness, which are ultimately also modes of being. The ’Ballade des seigneurs’ reserves for men a mode of ’cours et estre’ that I shall call ’lordship’, which operates in a historical dimension unlike the legendary non-time and other-place in which the ladies are situated, and differently efficacious from their nebulous, mythical, but hardly executive power over male life and death (even the attempt on Buridan's life failed). The real-life influence and authority that many medieval women exercised is erased by this gendered model, while lordship is extended to all men who participate in the world here delineated. Not every man can consider himself a prince in his own domain, but many can feel, as the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ presents it, that they exercise a certain active, practical masculine authority, presentist in the double sense of ’here’ and ’now’.
By its opening lines, therefore, the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ announces that its illustrious dead represent the same lordly masculinity that was sketched in the envoy to the ’Ballade des dames’.94 Continuity between the princely reader of the envoy and the subjects of the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ is reinforced by the initial ’Qui plus’, which implies both an afterthought and a shift to the really important subject matter: the sovereign subject himself. In thus blocking the reader's ability to dissociate himself from the deceased, the identification imposed by the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ frustrates a tendency vital to the affirmative effect associated with the ubi sunt topos. Taken together, the two ballades manoeuvre the sovereign subject into a situation of risk.
Almost all the titles and given names mentioned in the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ are dynastic and had, by Villon's time, a lengthy history. This has led to modern scholarly dispute when pinpointing the individuals involved (note that we return here to the desire for exact, historical knowledge elicited by the bulk of the Testament and suspended in the ’Ballade des dames’). For example, Rychner and Henry discuss the candidacy of Béraud II and Béraud III to be the relevant ’comte daulphin d’Auvergne’ (l. 382), while Brittany had had three dukes called Arthur before 1461. It has become conventional to identify each name (excepting those in the final four lines) with the ’Derrenier decedé de ce nom’ (l. 358). If these identifications are accepted as reflecting an impetus within the text, then it is noteworthy that the majority died after the presumed composition of Villon's Lais in 1456; more recently too than Joan of Arc's rehabilitation trial. This period of history is therefore already positioned entre-deux-morts by important references contained within the Testament itself. The ’Ballade des seigneurs’ points to men who had in recent memory played active roles on the European political stage, their names if not their persons a presence in readers’ own social and political lives. In the ’now’ imposed by this lyric, they are yesterday's men, pointing the transience of worldly influence and status in a less celebratory, more anguished mode than does the deathless fame of Deschamps's great men. Lordship's short lifespan is further stressed when, for instance, all previous kings of Cyprus are obliterated in favour of the most recently deceased (even where, as Rychner and Henry note, John II was considerably less well known in Western Europe than Peter I),95 who has himself been displaced by the present incumbent. Genealogy's very success as a cultural strategy threatens those it benefits. These barely dead men stand on the verge of life, if ’verge’ can refer to a succeeding as well as a preceding state. They are not in those Elysian Fields of the physically departed but culturally vital implied in the ’Ballade des dames’ or by Deschamps; indeed, the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ raises the important problem of access to that realm from the kind of existence its lords have embraced. Will today's notables be remembered or forgotten? The text is concerned with their oblivion, here not the neutral act of time but actively hastened by the text. These seigneurs therefore illustrate one interpretation of what it means to be between two deaths.
For the reader, recalling these men to mind is a very different operation from the instant though somewhat nebulous recognition inspired by the ladies in the ’Ballade des dames’, where even names we may not actually know, such as the otherwise unattested ’Haranburgis’, are made to seem familiar by the rhythm, rhymes and easy reference of the verse. Turning again to Ricoeur's distinction between reflexivity and worldliness, we may say that the ’Ballade des dames’ works to make the reader overlook not only the particularity of the remembered objects themselves but also the ’situations in the world in which one has seen, experienced, learned’ the names. It introduces instead a familiarity effect composed of a general sense of acquaintance and a broad background knowledge, whose value lies in part in its resistance to specific recall. Unlike the exclusivity seemingly imposed by many of the Testament's obscure references, the ’Ballade des dames’ works to define as wide a community as possible, and the (implicitly masculine) reader's consciousness of sharing in an interpersonal cultural space is an important component of its celebrated lyricism; its continuing popularity is witness to its success. Contrastingly, the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ draws significantly on worldliness, both because the masculinity it embraces is worldly (of the social world, and especially that of movers and shakers) and because bringing to mind named, recently deceased individuals who have been influential in one's own social existence recalls the circumstances in which one encountered their names, persons or influence. One noteworthy corollary is that where the ballade's lords are concerned, readers must rely on individual knowledge and powers of remembrance, whose limitations the second stanza highlights: ’Helas! et le bon roy d’Espaigne / Duquel je ne sçay pas le nom’ (ll. 370—1). The lament seems to refer less to the king's corporeal death than to the oblivion already swallowing up both his earthly existence and the remembering subject's reminiscences. ’Living’ memory is seen to decay in an almost burlesque representation of forgetfulness. The anonymous kings of Cyprus and Spain are qualified by the vapid epithets ’de renom’ and ’bon’, while the only fact retained about the Scottish king is his disfigurement (ll. 365—8). Although some argue that his birthmark expresses the king's fierce nature and is therefore of public import, ’ce dit on’ (l. 366) evokes the register of gossip, the shadowy, half-secretive publication of a perhaps shameful private condition. The princes are actively de-faced and defaced, defamed and de-famed by the text which belittles them. Like Jean of Burgundy slandering Louis of Orleans (p. 106, above), the ballade aims at second death in its attack on the lords’ memories. To be remembered awry is more shaming than merely to be neglected. In the second stanza of the ’Ballade des seigneurs’, therefore, we see a disintegration of the public space and of the sovereign subject's place in it. Given the close identification established with the reader via the ’Ballade des dames’, this affects the sovereign or lordly reading subject as well as the particular princes referred to.
Decay here afflicts the masculine. This is particularly evident from the contrast with the ’Ballade des dames’. Unlike feminine names, masculine ones slip from recollection. Whereas the ladies seem disembodied and almost volatilized, the lords live with physical imperfection, encumbered with bodies that refuse to reflect their owners’ noble nature or, like the poet's own in the Testament's frame, to obey their will. The ’Ballade des seigneurs’ forces a rift between the mortal bodies of individual sovereigns and the immortal body of sovereignty, imposing particularity on the lords while detaching them from the universal that is the source of their authority.96 This is quite different from the anonymity that inscribed Deschamps's prince in the big Other, or from the impersonal immortality via the universal that Derrida criticizes in Husserl. The option of castration as a means of inscription into the symbolic has been foreclosed for the prince since the ’Ballade des dames’. Memory's interpersonal worldliness works in the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ against the subject's sense of participating in an enabling concrete or abstract collective. Masculine society becomes only an accretion of individuals in their singular places, times and relationships, incapable of connecting to the communal identity which should properly cement the group and ground individual identities.
The lack of lasting impact imputed to the figures by the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ could be taken to suggest that they are individually poor examples of lordship. It is, of course, difficult to determine what their contemporaries thought of them, but worth mentioning that most were prominent in defending French, European or Christian interests. There is also an emphasis on the long-standing struggle against the English; however, this does not stand alone. A theme of rebellion against the Crown and of tightening absolutism, albeit neither approved nor condemned, also runs through the French names. Thus, in the first stanza, Arthur duke of Brittany, as Constable of France (the ’connétable de Richemont’) and a favourite of Charles VII, was a principal object of the Praguerie or noble rebellion of 1440, in which Charles I, duke of Bourbon, participated (as did Charles VII's son, Louis XI, the king flatteringly addressed by Villon early in the Testament). Alençon and Brittany were among the great nobles lately subdued by the Crown. A third strand consists in connections to Joan of Arc; within the same first stanza, Callixtus III ordered her retrial, Bourbon and Brittany fought on her side, Charles VII was her dauphin.97 One could certainly construct several politically partial interpretations of the list of lords in the ’Ballade des seigneurs, although these associations would be normal for major nobles involved in events of moment during the years preceding the Testament's composition. Villon's selection strategically avoids affirming unambiguously any single theme. As elsewhere, his poetry is flexible in application, offering, if not all things to all men, certainly points of interest to many potential patrons.
In sum, there is, as far as I know, no partisan explanation for the bathos that Villon's rhetoric here bestows on these names. The selection of titles and the associated activities, indeed, provide one definition of the European political theatre of the mid to late fifteenth century, seen from a French centre with extended interests in southern, central and eastern Europe and further afield. Glynnis M. Cropp's judgement that these names ’must have resonated with particular force in the fifteenth century’, if correct, heightens the rhetorical effect of their effacement in the ballade.98 Rather than exposing individual departures from the norm, the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ destabilizes the norm itself via what the preceding ’Ballade des dames’ construed as a centrally defining quality and strength of princely identity. Just because they are embedded in their own moment by their historical and public agency, these princes are subject to time in a way the ladies of the ’Ballade des dames’ are not. By its very constitution, the princely subject is anchored in transience, in what Nora calls ’the thin film of current events’, and its fame occupies only the present moment, cut off from the dimension of near-immortal legend that here defines collective memory and group vitality.99
Turning to a quite different cultural context can clarify an unfamiliar way of thinking. Annette Weiner's analyses of Trobriand society (Papua New Guinea) provide an interesting comparison.100 Weiner poses the problem of cultural longevity in relation to the ’complementary and confounding’ Trobriand gender roles, and especially to difference between masculine and feminine ’cours et estre’. Weiner argues that where the distinction between individual and collective is organized by gender, women may be entrusted with the enduring, symbolic and transpersonal aspect. Thus in Trobriand society, wealth produced and controlled by women symbolizes the group (in the event, a descent group), its long-term existence over time and its political status, in distinction to men's wealth, which remains strictly individual in import:
In the contrast between women's and men's wealth we find exposed the human condition of how one expands outward into the lives of others descended from different ancestors while keeping one's own ancestral identity intact. Loss, decay, and death continually attack the cultural semblance of wholeness and the vision of immortality. For these reasons, the loss of things and the death of people translate into political action — because such losses are a threat to all that went before — expressed in the creation and regeneration of identities, ancestors, and rank. Without a past that is given a concrete existence in time and space, it is difficult to control the future.101
Today's prince is justified while he lives and reigns, but what will happen when he dies? The wholeness and immortality in question are secular, implying not only individual renown but the fate of dynasty and regime, ultimately of society. The masculine real-world political present and future need the feminine legendary past.
This argument is helpful in approaching the first two ballades in Villon's mini-sequence. The ’Ballade des dames’ sustains lordship in the here and now through a contrast with a feminine otherworldliness seemingly extraneous to the political realm. Only during the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ does the reader discover that by assenting to the terms of the first ballade, he has ceded his claim on the politically meaningful past and with it the future, thus querying the legitimacy of lordly activity in the present. Does the name of Charlemagne, which occupies the refrain of the ’Ballade des seigneurs’, reconnect masculine lordship to the legendary domain? Of all names, that of Charlemagne — emperor of Europe, defender of the pope and conqueror of the pagan — defines the ideal self-image of French princes. In order to justify their own occupancy of the French throne, kings over the centuries turned repeatedly to a perceived continuity with this iconic figure, whence the Valois Charleses of Villon's own day.102 Some critics understand Charlemagne's name as transferring lordship's imaginary support into the legendary, communal realm, in which case a sharp discontinuity becomes apparent between the recently dead lords and the illustrious father figure. There is here no legendary seigneurial ancestry such as Deschamps created for his prince but a series of failed attempts to constitute a genealogy, expressed peremptorily in the ’Ou est il? ou est son tayon?’ of line 379. Names such as that of Arthur duke of Brittany or Lancelot king of Bohemia fail in this environment to convey the charisma and effectiveness of their more famous legendary and historical forebears, emphasizing the gap which separates the ancestral from the recent past. The princes of the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ seem incapable of exercising the paternal function either by begetting their own ancestors or by founding a genealogy of their own. Instead of standing as guarantor to these men, the paternal figure of Charlemagne would thus become a source of anxiety and reproach. He would represent the nom-du-père with emphasis on the nom, his disabling excess of nomination inverting the empowering anonymity of Deschamps's prince.
I am inclined, however, to include Charlemagne's name in the destitution of lordship and of the sovereign reader operating in the stanzas. Deschamps's lyric made ideological profit both from magnificent genealogy and from its final anonymous rejection. Villon's poem operates the negation of both; refusing to install the seigneurs in the second life of glorious memory, it inscribes their anonymity only as genealogy's failure and as the defacing of historical record, opening no door onto the universal. The seigneurs are merely undead, without the éclat attaching to Antigone or to Joan; though entre-deux-morts like the prince in Deschamps's envoy, they have nothing like his high-minded, high-deserving humility. Even Charlemagne's name rings hollow in this company. The point would therefore be more subtle than a straightforward contrast between past plenitude and modern insufficiency. Du Guesclin, a chivalric paragon from a much more recent period than Charlemagne, and the still less recently deceased Count-Dauphin of Auvergne and ’late good Duke of Alençon’ in the final lines, could perhaps bridge the gap between yesterday's men and Charlemagne — but their names are not singled out. All these lords are in the same boat. Nor, however, can the impact of the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ be reduced to the idea that Charlemagne and other icons of lordship are simply illusory, vanities to be disregarded in the face of death.103 Even within the earthly realm where it has staked out its authentic efficacy over lives such as Villon's (see especially the Testament's opening), lordship rests on a foundation of quicksand, and the poem's strength is the way in which it makes us feel that constitutive instability. The legendary dimension needed to underpin any effort at ancestral legitimacy remains with the feminine alone.
Relatedly, some critics consider that the clerical subject fares better than the princely in the ’Ballade des seigneurs’.104 However, the second stanza shows that neither has access to that source of authority that is collective memory, the prince due to his inability to be memorable, the poet due to the reduction of his powers of recall to the merely personal. This is a professional shortcoming, since it is the scholar's job to provide the names which will be woven into the prince's legendary history, or, in a different phrasing, to imbue present-day princes with the glories of the collective past with an eye to future generations. Formally, too, the poem enacts the failure of the poet's powers. Notably, there is no proper envoy. It has been suggested that the lines which begin the third stanza (ll. 373—6) fulfil that function, for they contain the sort of generalizing, moralizing conclusions that are normally found in an envoy.105 These ideas about the poem's formal arrangement are attractive for the questions and observations they raise about the loss of control which the poet represents himself as experiencing. He can neither put the envoy in the correct place nor compose the poem correctly around it. After the pseudo-envoy he returns apparently compulsively to the ubi sunt theme — ’Encore faiz une questïon’ (l. 377) — as if the banal, irrefutable answer (or sage advice) just sketched were no answer. The wisdom of the super-egoic, ’gentle, paternal’ voice that Spitzer detected in the ’Ballade des dames’ refrain is ineffective. In the ballade's final lines the questioning continues relentlessly, tediously, beyond its own closure (ll. 381—4). The formal ubi sunt frame rolls pointlessly on, overriding the quest for meaning. No coherent system has been convincingly identified for the selection and ordering of the seigneurs in the ballade, although a nebulous intentionality is everywhere signalled. This is a very different vision of the poetic situation from that proposed in ’Ballade des dames’. Like the lords, the poet is caught within formal systems stripped of their necessary imaginary supports. The ballade contains no address to an implied reader and no patron, hence no interlocution between masculine first and second persons; the relationship which links poet and prince in other ballades has broken down. Ironically fallen from the precedence they enjoyed in the ’Ballade des dames’, the lords here join the poet as abject masculine ’others’. If the ballade's princes cannot beget ancestors, their impotence is inseparable from the poet's failure to produce the poem of collective memory which would establish that ancestry in culture. Yet the categories of men form no company in misery. Where Deschamps's third stanza offers poetic disorientation as a compliment to the Prince as bringer of order, Villon's poem apparently lacks any central ordering authority that might endow it with sense and purpose, and exhibits its own lack of mastery with more conviction and less elegance. Neither chevalerie nor clergie emerges unscathed. By these manoeuvres the deathly message of the ubi sunt theme is delivered, as the lordly reader has to confront his own death without the reassurance afforded by Deschamps. There is no affirmation of a sovereign subject in the ’Ballade des seigneurs’; no wonder it has been so unpopular.
We need, nevertheless, to recognize a constructive dimension to the ballade's negativity. This point may be illustrated via Nora's influential delineation of modernity, at times conspicuously reminiscent of the masculine, historical universe of the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ and of the sense of loss which separates that universe from the ’past’ of tradition and collective memory represented by the ’Ballade des dames’:
Acceleration of history: the metaphor needs to be unpacked. [In modern times] Things tumble with increasing rapidity into an irretrievable past. They vanish from sight, or so it is generally believed. The equilibrium between the present and the past [which once existed] is disrupted. What was left of experience, still lived in the warmth of tradition, in the silence of custom, in the repetition of the ancestral, has been swept away by a surge of deeply historical sensibility. Our consciousness is shaped by a sense that everything is over and done with, that something long since begun is now complete. Memory is constantly on our lips because it no longer exists.106
Modernity's melancholia is not crippling; on the contrary, it grounds modernity's own creative practices. A similar note has recently been introduced by thinkers seeking to return to Huizinga's autumnal vision of the later Middle Ages while revising his emphasis on the period as a geriatric one: excessive, devitalized and decadent. Jacqueline Cerquiglini-Toulet and Michael Camille, to name only two, argue for the vitality inherent in the period's fascination with death, commemoration, mourning and melancholy.107 A writing position grounded in loss will characterize the late medieval texts discussed in the remaining chapters of this book.
When Derrida insists that ’the very condition for the living person to speak is for him to be able to say, significantly, “Je suis mort”’, he accentuates the utterance's productive as well as its disruptive aspects. The new subject to which this utterance may give birth, with its reformed relation to truth and reality, is deployed in the late Middle Ages to imply superior ethical and spiritual potential and to augur an improved social and cultural future for the collective. This is, in Derrida's terms, to live the possibility of one's own death and disappearance in order to institute a relation to presence. It is this constitutive role borne by the sense of inadequacy, loss and rupture in relation to a more vital, self-assured past that Barthes interprets in Derrida, and Derrida in Husserl, as an evasion of death. Villon's text, however, by showing in full measure how painful it is to instantiate death as the speaking subject's foundational position within the symbolic order, indicates a possible defence of Derrida, and perhaps of Husserl. The pairing of the ’Ballade des dames’ and ’Ballade des seigneurs’ leads the reader along a path that communicates the alien nature of the symbolic order and the discomfort of inhabiting the ’impossible’ situations to which it obliges us, so keenly that ’[le] réel pâtit du signifiant’ (’the [R]eal…suffers from the signifier’):108 the pressure of the Real makes itself felt. Whereas Derrida criticizes Husserl for a transcendental security which negates earthly uncertainty, Villon emphasizes how the subject ’at home’ within the big Other is tormented by placelessness. The ’Ballade des seigneurs’ thus contrasts with Deschamps's Ballade 1457, whose final address to the princely reader and sovereign subject was more reassuring in tone. Villon's poem focuses on a bleak, processual extinction which leaves no authoritative figure or institution untouched. It threatens precisely the sovereign aspects of the masculine subject: those in which it invests in the big Other by imposing on others and on its environment (lordship), and those it achieves through self-consciousness leading to a belief in its own immortality. More searchingly than Deschamps's poem, therefore, both Derrida's and Villon's discourses point towards an ethical critique of the privilege that would say ’Je suis immortel’ — though no doubt the particular lessons to be drawn diverge. While the philosopher objects to what in Lacanian terms may be glossed as the comforting use of the imaginary, the poet demonstrates the discomfort of the symbolic by exploiting the imaginary, in the shape of the lords’ disintegration in body and memory and his own dissolution in poetry.
The ’Ballade en vieil langage françois’
Car ou soit ly sains appostolles,
D’aubes vestuz, d'amys coeffez,
Qui ne seint fors saintes estolles
Dont par le col prent ly mauffez
De mal talant tous eschauffez,
Aussi bien meurt que cilz servans,
De ceste vie cy buffez:
Autant en emporte ly vens!
Voire, ou soit de Constantinobles
L’emperieres au poing dorez,
Ou de France le roy tres nobles,
Sur tous autres roys decorez,
Qui pour ly grant Dieux adorez
Batist esglises et couvens,
S’en son temps il fut honnorez,
Autant en emporte ly vens!
Ou soit de Vïenne et Grenobles
Ly daulphin, ly preux, ly senez,
Ou de Dijon, Salins et Dolles
Ly sires filz le plus esnez,
Ou autant de leurs gens prenez,
Heraux, trompectes, poursuivans,
Ont ilz bien boutez soubz le nez,
Autant en emporte ly vens!
Princes a mort sont destinez
Et tous autres qui sont vivans;
S’ilz en sont courcez n'atinez,
Autant en emporte ly vens!
(For be it his holiness the Pope wearing his alb and amice, who puts on his holy stole with which to strangle the devil all flaming with evil power, he dies exactly as his servant swept off from this life. It all goes with the wind.
Yes, or be it the emperor of Constantinople, with the golden fist, or that most noble king of France, singled out above all kings to build churches and monasteries to the greater glory of God; even if he was honoured in his day, it all goes with the wind.
Or be it the brave and wise dauphin of Vienne or of Grenoble, or the great men and their eldest sons of Dijon, Salins and Dole, or the same number of their servants — heralds, trumpeters, men-at-arms, didn't they happily stuff their faces? It all goes with the wind.
Princes are destined to die and so are all others who live, whether they rage against it or tremble, it all goes with the wind.)
The last ballade in the mini-sequence addresses memory and the sovereign subject differently from the other texts reviewed in this chapter. There is no attempt to create a communal memorial tradition; the lyric presents only unnamed personages, not even contrasting these to durable famous names. The content displays no obvious interest in times past; there are no ubi sunt questions, and the subjects referred to are living. Unlike the just-dead lords of the ’Ballade des seigneurs’, suspended in inactivity, here great ecclesiastical and secular magnates are presented in the vigorous exercise of their executive functions. Strikingly after the previous ballade, all are here anonymous, abstracted into their functions. The final ballade is preoccupied with and absorbed in the symbolic order and the present moment. Both men and Death are busy doing their jobs.
Its archaizing language earned the ’Ballade en vieil langage françois’ its common title. Late medieval French rewritings of earlier romances sometimes justify their proceeding by alleging the incomprehensibility to modern readers of the older language.109 A similar sense drives Villon's ballade, albeit with significant differences. In the first place, it is written in the supposedly incomprehensible and irreproducible idiom of olden times. Its linguistic desuetude is signified by the use of the obsolete case system for nouns, and also by the errors which mark that language as non-current, notably the confusion over the final —s which in Old French marks the masculine singular subject case. (Compare the modern English ’Ye Olde Tea Shoppe’.) It is debatable whether Villon or his audience would have been aware of such errors, though I shall argue for their effective significance. In the second place, neither archaisms nor errors affect the ballade's intelligibility to a modern reader (although they do place details into debate) and it seems likely that a fifteenth-century reader would have been similarly situated. Indeed, the poem creates a parallel between these two audiences. The ballade projects its contemporary reader into the position of a hypothetical future one, encouraging the former to experience and imagine himself into the latter's linguistic frustration. It thus raises questions of posterity, at once decrying and creating (difficult, obscure, partial) communication between distant future and distant past. A mise en abyme of the twenty-first-century reader's relation to the Testament is planted in its text for its contemporaries, partially depriving their present of the support afforded by cultural longevity — the imagined future that complements the imagined past. The poem therefore is written in a ’dead’ language which, because and not in spite of that death, ’speaks’ to its audience, then and now, in a present which has no place in temporal sequence. Its poetic position is, in Barthes's phrase, ’radically impossible’.
The ’Ballade en vieil langage’ is often compared to a Danse macabre or Dance of Death, that stereotypically late medieval mixed-media genre in which Death leads away members of various estates.110 Like a Dance of Death, the poem respects hierarchy in the arrangement of social station within stanzas and in the register of comment, dignified for the masters, bumptious for the men. In spite of a breathless dégringolade through the social and linguistic hierarchy, it follows convention in beginning with ecclesiastics before proceeding to secular powers. A certain clerical ideology would approve the elevation of the meanest cleric over the greatest prince, and this is not a performance of rootless disorderliness akin to the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ or to Deschamps's third stanza.111 The overall impression given by the ’Ballade en vieil langage’ is one of order, purpose and achievement. There is no nostalgia, no sense of loss, and nothing to regret. The tone is upbeat, lively and brisk, sometimes jaunty. The up-and-down rhythm reinforces the sense of hustle and activity, punctuated by the irreverent and somehow always abrupt refrain, ’Autant en emporte ly vens’.112 The rhetoric of the ’Ballade en vieil langage’ is a resurgence of life in a dead language, and after the death notice served on lordly authority by the ’Ballade des seigneurs’.
This represents no natural rebirth or renewal of the life cycle, but an occasion when, in Barthes's vivid terms, ’one of the spaces [of life and death] bites unwarrantedly into the other’ (p. 120, above). Vitality is expressed in a language visibly decaying.113 Between the distant past of the first ballade and the projection into a near future of the second, the third presents the over-inhabited present as the site of living death. Instead of mourning an inevitable rupture with the past (or even celebrating such a rupture), it represents the poetic voice as unstoppable while impossible. This final ballade declares ’Je suis mort’, but not as Derrida analyses the utterance. We must turn to Barthes to throw light on Villon's inaccurate use of obsolete syntactical markers: ’grammatical example[s]’ referring to ’nothing but language’, of scandalous inutility. Speaking in a tongue marked as extinct, the voice of the ’Ballade en vieil langage’ affirms ’an essence which is not in its place’. Its displacement accords with the Testament's dramatization of a poetic persona consistently in the wrong place, stuck inside peering out at the action or locked out and looking in, subject to secular and religious powers that constrain his and others’ bodies and social spaces in frustrating and sometimes violent ways.114 Authority to determine who shall occupy these spaces and in what ways belongs to princes like Thibaut d’Aussigny, bishop of Orleans (l. 6), and Louis XI, ’le bon roy de France’ (l. 56; ’the good king of France’). But Villon ’son lieu ne congnoistra jamais’ (l. 292; ’will never know his place’).115
In the ’Ballade en vieil langage’, the effect is not — as in Deschamps's ballade — to assert the poet's centrality to the politico-cultural project of sovereignty. Nor is it to avenge him on those lords who have persecuted or patronized him and on their agents, for the socially low as well as the high figures identified within the ballade are members of the establishment. Privilege and marginality are equally vulnerable to the passage of time and vagaries of collective memory, concretely presented here in language's mutation. The final ballade gathers first, second and third persons into a common fragility. Most truly when in their places within the symbolic order, no one is ’in their place’, and yet they have no other. The escapism of the ’Ballade des dames’, the anxieties of the ’Ballade des seigneurs’ are rejected. So, by implication, is the pious transcendence voiced in the envoy of Deschamps's Ballade 1457, for in the ’Ballade en vieil langage’ there is no prospect of a beyond.
And here the poem becomes Barthesian in the use it makes of the symbolic (which Bowie compares to a Danse macabre).116 It embraces as a poetic topic the present moment, empty of past and future, and the unquenchable vitality with which it bites into death's space. The ballade corresponds to the Testament's overall strategy of presenting a highly personally invested, hostile and ostentatiously realistic late fifteenth-century Paris in its impact upon the perpetually displaced poet dictating his second living will. This is not an art that separates itself from life; poet and poem reject transcendence to immerse themselves in an immanence which has already passed beyond the culturally sanctioned boundaries of life, and is distinct from ’the thin film of current events’ on which lordship floats. Reading the Testament we experience Villon's vibrantly realized present as past, and labour to revitalize that past, hence the fascination for recovering the facts of Villon's and his subjects’ biographies. This is not a work of memory. The ephemeral yet paradoxically solid now-ness that he creates ensures his poetry a longevity to rival the immortality of the dead ladies, though of a quite different sort. The vulnerability of language, the poet's medium, joins other forms of obscurity foregrounded in the Testament as means of tantalizing and inciting in readers an epistemophilia which is — not necrophilia, but whatever term would be appropriate for love of the fully realized, grinningly vital undead.117 By presenting us with a language and a poetry speaking insistently in its own death, the final ballade in Villon's inset sequence troubles paradigmatic distinctions between life and death and the normative functions those distinctions often carry, examples of which are provided by the other texts discussed in this chapter.
Perhaps the most subjectively invasive instance of this encroachment occurs in the envoy (ll. 409—12). As edited by Rychner and Henry, these lines may be translated as given above. However, ballade envoys generally begin with an address to a ’Prince’ or ’Princes’. ’Prince’ indicates a singular reader, ’Princes’ generally plural though sometimes, especially in earlier instances, singular.118 An alternative translation of lines 409—10 is therefore: ’Prince [or ’princes’], also all others who are living are destined to death.’ Whereas Rychner and Henry's translation includes princes in the common fate, this alternative rendering places them outside it, allowing them to transcend it through knowledge and consciousness, and over others’ dead bodies. The sovereign subject demolished by version one (the overt ubi sunt message) is instated by version two (the secondary denial). The choice between versions is undecidable because of the syntactical confusion that the ballade has worked to create through its chaotic use of archaisms. It is this confusion that places a question mark over the interpretation of ’Princes’, and thence over the envoy. Each reading gnaws into and inhabits the other. The ballade is as irreducible and as resistant to totalizing meaning as is death itself — or life. To summarize: in the ’Ballade des dames’, Villon builds up the sovereign self over the dead and castrated bodies of imaginary others; his ’Ballade des seigneurs’ then submits this self to the symbolic imperative to utter ’Je suis mort’, while depriving it of the expected recompense, namely the support afforded by the notion of its own immortality within the big Other (a notion that in Deschamps's ballade grounded the anonymous prince's sovereignty). Finally the ’Ballade en vieil langage’ creates a dynamic overlap between life and death in the spectacle of old language reanimated though not restored, of life seething after death has been pronounced, in a symbolic whose decay proceeds visibly. The final ballade in the sequence thus exemplifies and draws attention to what Barthes calls language's ’blind spot’, its contradictory, impossible and horrific situation, encouraging and expressive of life as well as of death.
Thus Villon's intense engagement with existence, extinction and the literary pre-empts Barthes's. His text incorporates similar ironic critiques of the sovereign subject, which dominates even in its escapist and its elegantly resigned modes, and of the processes of reading as and writing for a sovereign. Villon is less ready to assert the artist's independence of the princely reader, hardly surprisingly given his situation. Allowing for historical specificities, Barthes's description of Valdemar could sum up Villon's poetic voice in the ’Ballade en vieil langage’: ’the chthonic voice, the voice from beyond the grave’.119 This, in a particularly visceral inflection, is the voice of the Testament. I leave the last word to Barthes, whose comments on Poe may be adapted to describe the quality of Villon's poetic voice in the work:
It is, then, visceral life, the life of the depths, which is assimilated to the spoken word [la parole], and this itself is fetishized in the form of a phallic organ which begins to vibrate, in a sort of pre-orgasm. The momentary vibration is the desire for [/of] jouissance and the desire for [/of] language [le désir de parole]: it is Desire's movement to arrive at something.120