Living death in medieval French and English literature - Jane Gilbert 2011
Ceci n'est pas une marguerite: anamorphosis in Pearl
The Pearl-Maiden is dead.1 Cutting through the Jeweller's elaborate, indeterminate metaphors (ll. 9—10), she insists on the fact by repeated references to the rotting of her corpse (ll. 857, 958). Jean-Claude Schmitt notes that revenants (returned spirits of the departed) often materialize in medieval texts in response to some irregularity in the dying process which hampers their progress within the afterlife, typically an unconfessed sin, a wrong left unrighted or an unpaid debt.2 This, as the Pearl-Maiden explains to the Jeweller, is not her case. The notion that her death, untimely to him, represents an acme of Christian aspiration is one of many shifts of perspective that he has to confront in the course of the poem. She died innocent and is therefore ’saf by ryt’ (l. 684; ’saved by right’), having incurred no debts. Her spirit has been incorporated properly — indeed, ideally — into the society of the afterlife. As a Christian she has, in leaving the flesh, been subtracted from death; for, as baptism replaces birth as the commencement of life in the spirit, so bodily death is superseded by ’þe deth secounde’ (l. 652; ’the second death’) of damnation or spiritual death, from which Christ's sacrifice releases the baptized. For the first time in this book, we encounter the extremist Christian opposition between corporeal and spiritual life. For the elect there is no spiritual death. The pearls with which the Maiden is encrusted and identified recall the dry, clean bones that many cultures view as the support of eternity; the conventional comparisons of her skin to ivory and whalebone point the contrast with corruptible, impermanent flesh. There is nothing unquiet about her death and when she returns it is not as a disturbed spirit. The Jeweller, in contrast, is a ghostly figure; unable to leave his lost pearl, he haunts her. In this poem problematic, placeless figures are recruited from among the living, not the dead. The bereft Jeweller's existence before his dream is one of aimless drifting through a world devoid, for him, of meaning and substance, a living death.
Thus Pearl offers us two distinct ways of being ’between two deaths’. On the one hand, the Pearl-Maiden presents the spirit liberated from the obscurities of the flesh into a truer, transcendent existence achieved by ritual rebirth. Not all Christians will be granted her elevated condition, however; she explains that grace is given at God's pleasure. The high heaven that she occupies is and will remain accessible to the common adult Christian reader only as a witness, through visions such as that granted the Jeweller. The Pearl-Maiden therefore is not only inaccessible in herself but, like the mirror in Lacan's analysis, presents an impassable boundary that organizes the inaccessibility of God's love as ultimate object of desire.3 Her deathly existence structures the reader's but is no model for it.
Chastising and consoling the Jeweller with the aim of improving his spiritual fate, the Pearl-Maiden is, like many another revenant, the bearer of a demand or imperative. In this case, however, the demand has nothing to do with her personally. There is nothing in her address to the Jeweller of a child's claims on its parent. One effect of presenting the Maiden as a transmuted toddler is to make clear that the knowledge and demand she supports do not issue from her. She forms a screen onto which are projected the knowledge and the demand that she articulates, but which also hides, and thereby generates as an enigma, the source of that knowledge and that demand somewhere beyond the screen, in a Real au-delà which is here identified with God. Less obviously, the screen also generates a Real en-deçà, a space not transcendent but falling short, and which the poem's ideological thrust aims to overlook. The self-possessed, independent Pearl-Maiden's apparition makes it plain that the infant of less than two years, with the neediness, affection and babbling which are part of its charm for adults, has been suppressed in the process of sublation into the Maiden. This double loss is not to be mourned within the poem which, in fact, produces it.4 Pearls appear in both medieval bestiaries and lapidaries. If a sensuous but inarticulate pearl, more animal than stone, is an appropriate image for the toddler, the incorruptible gleam of the Pearl-Maiden, God's own signifier, conjures up a pearl that is more stone than animal. Since pearls are crystallized out of dew, she proceeds in the opposite direction from Villon's equally white and disembodied ladies.5
On the other hand, the Jeweller, a human being mourning a traumatic loss, is potentially Everyman. Contrasting with the Pearl-Maiden, who is ’neither dead nor alive, but beat[a]’, the Jeweller exists in a melancholy state in which death circumscribes the possibility of living — without, however, extinguishing life itself.6 Life, indeed, proliferates around him:
Þat spot of spyse mot nede sprede,
Þer such ryche to rot is runne;
Blome blayke and blwe and rede
Þer schyne ful schyr agayn þe sunne.
Flor and fryte may not be fede
Þer hit doun drof in molde dunne;
For vch gresse mot grow of grayne dede;
No whete were elle to wone wonne.
(That spot where such a rich thing has run to rot must necessarily overspread with spices; blooms yellow, blue and red shine brightly there in the sunshine. Flowers and fruit may not be decayed there where it drove down into the dull clods. For each grass must grow from dead seeds; otherwise no home would have wheat.)7
The narrator attempts to make death meaningful by giving it a function in producing life. The ’cycle of corruption and regeneration’ (to borrow Sade's phrase, discussed in Chapter 1, above), however, fails to console, its bleakness only enhanced by the acknowledgement of its utility to people. This reductive perspective is insufficient to sustain human life: man cannot live by bread alone. The comparison with Sade shows what is lacking in this first section of Pearl, namely a dimension to life beyond the material and earthly cycle — that dimension which Lacan associates with ’creationist sublimation’.8
As well as registering death's omnipresence, these lines seem to protest against an oppressively irrepressible quality in life.9 The vision is reminiscent of Žižek's discussion of Leni Riefenstahl's deep-sea films, whose ’fascinating crawling of primitive life-forms’ he interprets as an image of ’the ultimate life-substance’ which is also ’the indestructible palpitation of life beyond death’.10 This substance gestures towards the Real, naked confrontation with which is unsustainable for human consciousness. Žižek notes: ’the barrier separating the [R]eal from reality is therefore the very condition of a minimum of “normalcy”; “madness” (psychosis) sets in when this barrier is torn down, when the [R]eal overflows reality (as in autistic breakdown)’.11 Similarly, the Jeweller fails to maintain the barrier between life and death which is essential to an engagement with earthly existence. Everyday life can be lived only within convenient fictions, which the Jeweller now sees through to the proliferating, indestructible life-substance palpitating beneath. His melancholy condition calls forth the Pearl-Maiden — ’life beyond death’. His dream of her is, of course, the vehicle of a beneficent Truth reinstalling stable divisions and counterbalancing the impure, death-directed vision of mourning; yet it also partakes of the Real in its continual alienations, in the carefully constructed outrages it presents to implied common sense, and in the insistent auditory repetitions which link the poem's different sections. These Real qualities ground the religious vision's claim to be more than merely symbolic or imaginary. I have looked in earlier chapters at texts exploiting the entre-deux-morts to political ends; however, in Pearl ideological value becomes both more complex and more critical, for at stake is Christian Truth. This Truth has ancient, learned resources for justification, but I have been concentrating on its modish presentation in the forms of late fourteenth-century court poetry: Pearl makes age-old Truth novel and fashionable. Moreover, many would argue that Christianity is Real. Arguing that Christianity has an important Real dimension does not imply accepting or denying the revealed Truth, but it does raise the question, as in Terry Eagleton's ambiguously rhetorical poser: ’What is the desire of the Real but what Augustine and Kierkegaard knew as faith?’12 There is an important perceptual antagonism between those for whom God is Real and those for whom he is not. I shall examine in this chapter how that antagonism is at issue within Pearl itself, where the argument is not that God is an instance of the Real but that the Real is an instance of God. In my analysis I accept intellectually the first position, but not the second, that turns all instances of the Real into proofs of God's existence. I am interested rather in the ideological possibilities opened up by such a view and by the consequent ethics of the Real staged by the poem, which asks how humans do, should or can relate to a God whose Reality overflows human reality.
After an introductory plot summary, I shall analyse in the first part of this chapter how the Real serves the Truths that the poem promotes: its political and cultural messages. I concentrate on Lacan's discussion of the visual art technique of anamorphosis in Seminar VII. Lacan's extended exploration of the ’looking awry’ by which psychoanalysis purports to reconstruct unconscious truths has much to offer readings of medieval dream visions, with their traditional interrogation of the relationship between songe and mensonge, ’dream’ and ’lie’. Both psychoanalysis and dream visions insist that truth cannot be read directly from the surface or manifest content, but that dreams, like anamorphoses, in their distortions yield truths which require a different, and further distorting perspective if they are to be interpreted correctly. My analysis bears both on these heuristic processes and on their potential for ideological exploitation.
The Jeweller's entre-deux-morts draws on a courtly melancholia elaborated in numerous fourteenth- and fifteenth-century poems, notably in French. In the second part of this chapter I shall turn to aspects of Pearl's contemporary literary context in this French-language tradition. I do not attempt a comprehensive overview nor to identify particular sources, but to trace certain poetic dialogues and discursive fields which illuminate the poem. In my opinion, Pearl represents courtly writing of the sort produced by Machaut, Froissart and Deschamps, and practised by such contemporary insular writers as Chaucer, Gower and Usk. Pearl's provenance has been a puzzle; my argument may support those scholars who assign it to the court of Richard II, with its international, francophile culture and noteworthy Cheshire presence.13 Through its themes and its frames, Pearl forms part of a series of international and interlingual literary dialogues, in which the various texts inflect the concerns of the discussion differently, draw on distinct sources, and gesture in divergent directions.
One of the most famous focal points today is that of the marguerite, a term translatable into English by ’daisy’, ’pearl’ or the saintly and courtly name of ’Margaret’. Marguerite literature has been widely written on in connection with Chaucer's Prologue to the Legend of Good Women (to which I shall turn in the final chapter), but it is rarer to explore the implications of the fact that Pearl is also a marguerite poem.14 Although Chaucer criticism has perhaps overstated its distinctness and importance, the marguerite, in its polyvalence and equivocation, is a significant motif in a small number of fourteenth-century French-language works — notably by Froissart, for whom it may be considered a signature.15 It is one among a number of tropes through which the roles of courtly poetry and of the courtly and/or court poet are interrogated. More widespread and influential are the discourses of the dit and the dream vision, which may overlap with that of the marguerite; Pearl belongs to all three.16 The non-exclusive relationship is evident from the classification; marguerite works are defined by their central image, dits by their formal and thematic discontinuity and first-person clerical enunciation, dream visions by the frame within which they construct their fictions. The discursive field associated with the marguerite — its engagement with poetry and history, with loss, the beloved and her sponsor, with the courtly and the religious, with the court poet and his patron, with formal sophistication and poetic innovation — informs the artistic, philosophical and ideological practices of the Pearl-poet. I am concerned here both with how these practices serve the poem's religious message and with their earthly contexts.
Pearl presents a narrator who laments the loss of his favourite pearl, which he refers to as either ’it’ or ’her’, describing it in womanly terms — ’So smal, so smoþe her syde were’ (l. 6; ’so small, so smooth her sides were’) — as well as in terms of a precious stone. Unable to recover from his loss, he ’slode vpon a slepyng-slate’ (l. 59; ’slid into a sudden, deathly sleep’) in the garden where ’hit fro me sprange’ (l. 13; ’it sprang away from me’) and has what he declares to be an out-of-body vision (ll. 61—4). He finds himself walking through a glittering aureate landscape alongside a light-filled river, on the other side of which he eventually spies ’a faunt, / A mayden of menske, ful debonere’ (ll. 161—2; ’an infant, a noble maiden, very gracious’), dazzling white and pearl-encrusted. He addresses her as his lost pearl and identifies himself as a jeweller. During the ensuing exchanges we learn that she is a dead human being, not yet two years old at the time of her death, and that, in the Jeweller's words, ’Ho wat me nerre þen aunte or nece’ (l. 233; ’she was nearer to me than aunt or niece’). In answer to his hailing her the Maiden rebukes him, first for describing her as lost, then for believing all and only what he sees and finally for imputing to himself the power to cross the water which separates them and to stay with her forever. She advises him rather to seek reconciliation with the Lord whom he has offended by his rebelliousness. Taken aback, he asks about her present state and she explains that she is a queen in heaven and Bride of the Lamb. As he challenges her abrupt elevation in rank, she describes heaven's social organization, where the elect become kings and queens, and its economy, which values innocence and purity above everything and which permits each individual to enjoy absolutely sufficient good without encroaching on any other's similarly absolute enjoyment. The Maiden relates and glosses at length the parable of the labourers in the vineyard to emphasize how different earthly and heavenly orders are and to stress the importance of God's grace. She explains the significance of the New Jerusalem as divine not historical city. In culmination, she has arranged for the Jeweller to have a vision of the New Jerusalem, which is conveyed with repeated reference to the vision of St John in the Apocalypse. ’Rauyste with glymme pure’ (l. 1088; ’ravished with sheer radiance’), the narrator tries to swim the river separating him from the holy city and his ’lyttel quene’ (l. 1147; ’little queen’), who has now joined the procession of the one hundred and forty-four thousand Brides of the Lamb witnessed by St John. Foundering, he wakes to regret the rash act that has deprived him of insight into still greater mysteries and concludes the poem with expressions of submission to divine will and a commendation of the Eucharist as divine presence in the everyday.
Lacan discusses anamorphosis at length in Seminar VII and again in Seminar XI of 1964 (The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis). As I have done elsewhere in this book, I shall refer primarily to the former for its contextual association with discussions of courtly love, death and the sublime; although I do not follow strictly the terms of the latter, more developed account, I do have them in mind.17 In the earlier account, Lacan draws heavily though selectively on Jurgis Baltrušaitis's 1955 popular art historical work, Anamorphoses.18 The most famous example exploited by Lacan is Hans Holbein's 1533 portrait of two French ambassadors to the court of Henry VIII. As is well known, the foreground of this richly detailed, mimetic painting is disturbed by a spot or stain — a peculiarly distorted image which is in fact a skull painted at an angle steeply oblique to the picture plane, hence from a perspective much at odds with that of the main representation.19 Once a viewer is standing at the appropriate angle to perceive this death's head, the remainder of the picture itself fades into the background and eventually suffers distortion, even disappearing from view (according to Lacan, at least). Other, less celebrated anamorphoses are also of interest. Lacan mentions several times the case of a panel painted with ’quelque chose d'assez dissous et dégueulasse’ (’something decomposed [or shapeless] and disgusting’);20 when one stands a cylindrical mirror upright in a specified place on the picture there appears, projected in the mirror, an image of the Crucifixion based on a Rubens painting. Works of this sort illustrate Lacan's point that anamorphosis presents us with an unreadable image which becomes intelligible as we change the point of view from which we look at it.21 A secular counterpart to the Crucifixion anamorphosis is provided by a double-sided canvas. One side presents a portrait of Charles II in royal regalia, on the other a small central skull is surrounded by a distorted image that Ariès describes as ’the severed head’ of the English King Charles I. When the cylindrical mirror is placed over the skull, obscuring that image but grounded in it, it reveals what Ariès in a parallel discussion calls the ’bust of the king when alive’.22 The function of such anamorphoses is fundamentally ambivalent. On the one hand, they prevent the dominant regime of reality from constituting itself as all-inclusive and all-explanatory. On the other hand, they provide a productive absence around which dominant reality has the opportunity to (re-)organize itself; the support thus afforded can, and often does, work to authorize that reality.
This ambivalence gives anamorphosis as a figure complex ideological value, predicated on three terms: ’normal’, everyday reality; the illegible stain that lies across reality; and the image which that stain makes intelligible. All three are present in Holbein's work, where the ambassadors themselves by the grandeur, content and representational manner of their painting represent the regime portrayed as normatively real. This vision is interrupted by the strange foreground blob, which, when ’properly’ viewed, becomes a death's head commenting ironically on the mastery of cosmic and earthly knowledge implied by the various objects on the shelves at the centre of the painting. The message is that death's Reality shatters earthly life and human pretensions to control that life (compare the sovereign subject of Chapter 3). Strictly speaking, the death's head itself does not instance the Real (that is done by the unintelligible, distracting stain), for it refers to the important sixteenth-century memento mori tradition. The void of death is created in order to be filled by what Lacan calls a sublimation créationniste (’creationist sublimation’ — see p. 42, above), represented by the crucifix in the upper left-hand corner which, though not in anamorphosis, is only marginally visible and intelligible. Present in the dominant field but not belonging within its worldly vision, the crucifix complements the death's head. The painting rebukes the ordinary piety which leaves religion a subsidiary or banal concern; Christianity should ideally be as extraordinary, exacting, uncompromising as death. It nevertheless seems to acknowledge that for the Real to overflow reality in this way risks making life unliveable. Thus the crucifix, notably less alienated and alienating than the death's head, bridges the gap between ’everyday’ and ’psychotic’ perspectives. Adopting a Christian viewpoint does not here require total dislocation from the standard view, though it will demand a certain shift of focus. Invoking the Real thus serves a propagandistic purpose — not so much via the anamorphotic skull itself as by the cachet that the anamorphosis confers on the (supposedly) overlooked crucifix. This familiar artefact acquires the aura of another world while also providing a coherent answer to the problem of death. Thus the Real is converted to serve specific Truths (Christian and courtly), with the two structurally entre-deux elements — anamorphosis and crucifix — positioned as respectively untenable and reassuring (though still strange) alternative points of view on the fissure running through earthly normality. Importantly, however, that ’normality’ is itself an artwork. The high worldly concern of international diplomacy, figured by the extremely skilful painting, is drained of the Real support that its symbolic and imaginary aspects require, only for this to be restored in a trickle-down of transcendence.
Holbein's painting thus points to an essential feature of anamorphosis as a trope. By layering different visual fields it suggests that all such fields, and indeed all concrete representations, are symptoms or screens projecting beyond themselves a further and transcendent truth which they both indicate and obscure. This structure is itself polemical, working to limit alternatives to acceptance of the projected truth. It is easy to reject that truth wholesale — if one is prepared to condemn oneself to meaninglessness; difficult to critique it constructively, to consent only in part, or to find substitutes. Anamorphosis therefore tends towards either mysticism or nihilism as its final destination. The ideologically constructive aspect becomes clearer on examining the simpler Crucifixion or Charles I anamorphoses. Here ordinary reality is represented by the surrounding world itself rather than by a depiction of it, as in the realistic field of the ’Ambassadors’. The resulting structure is therefore simpler — the ’real world’ plays itself, and the distorted image is the stain unsettling normality and urging viewers to inquire into a different dimension. When the secondary image springs into sight, a superior reality or truth is made accessible to those who know how to interpret it; what was initially perceived as an accidental, contingent disturbance of the regular visual field is transformed into a symbol of revelation or initiation. Implied in this concrete metaphor is another audience, undiscriminating and superficial, which lacks the ability to appreciate the higher truth projected via the secondary image. For this audience the stain (or nasty canvas) will remain a stain. In a secondary move, therefore, in the eyes of the enlightened audience the stain as figure symbolizes the hollowness of inferior, common, workaday reality and also the distorted understanding of those who are limited to that dimension.
The kinds of anamorphosis and the historical period of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation on which Lacan focuses lend themselves both to promoting transcendent over limited world-views and to associating truths with secrets, intrigues and initiation. The examples I have been discussing, like numerous others, take the relationships between life and death, immortality and mortality, as central themes. Holbein's painting makes mortality the secret truth behind worldly existence but hints at a revealed counter-truth through the liminal crucifix indicating Christ's triumph over death. Death disrupts human consciousness only to encourage its reorganization around different and transcendent grounds. In the anamorphoses that require a cylindrical mirror, the secret truth corresponds to that eternal, authentic life which is accessed only through fleshly death and especially through sacrifice. For a Christian, Christ's divine nature is consummated in his Crucifixion and Resurrection. Royalist politics borrows the Christian archetype to instate Charles as divine victim, and kingship as beneficiary of that sacrifice. The King never really dies, and beheading an individual monarch only makes manifest the indestructible symbolic body of monarchy: ’The king is dead, long live the king!’ This point is hammered home by the double-sided canvas with its complementary images of Charles II triumphant and Charles I in defeat; the death's head, on which the father's anamorphosis centres, corresponds to the son's royal orb. In these instances, viewing corporeal death as an end in itself is presented as simultaneously ordinary, false and distorting; rightly regarded, death is a screen hiding and generating the sublime life which contradicts and complements the earthly. Note that such anamorphoses also generate an idealized image of their audience. The Royalist work, with its air of a secret portrait preserving clandestine loyalties from Cromwellian eyes, projects for its owner the story of a fidelity maintained in secret during the interregnum and meriting reward after the Restoration that it celebrates. This construct works equally well prospectively and retrospectively, testifying that its owner kept the faith against the dominant political tenor and rejected historical contingency in the name of a supreme value, here divinely ordained monarchical right. Ahistorical transcendence can thus serve highly political and historically specific ends.
Lawrence Besserman in a classic essay likened the double plot of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to double images of the duck/rabbit variety as analysed by Gombrich. According to Gombrich, the brain can know cognitively that both images are present in such a work and ’we can switch from one reading to another with increasing rapidity; we will also “remember” the rabbit while we see the duck, but the more closely we watch ourselves, the more certainly will we discover that we cannot experience alternative readings at the same time’.23 An analogous situation prevails with anamorphosis, except that anamorphosis does not present two equally weighted alternatives but a hierarchy, demanding that the viewer pass through the primary image to the secondary. ’Demanding’ means that such a change is both necessary if the painting is to be viewed in full and is firmly imposed on the viewer as a desire and a duty. Perception of the anamorphosis in its correct perspective thus comes to resemble progress in knowledge, which in turn lends conviction to any particular ideological content for which the image may be a vehicle. Anamorphoses are in this sense lures: ideological, epistemological and ethical bait. Moreover, it is very difficult to forget the presence of the hidden image when seen. Once over the perceptual hurdle, even when viewing the unintelligibly messy or grotesque image or the ambassadors in their full-frontal glory, one adds to the image dominating the visual field one's knowledge of the other, secret image, positioned not only as the key making sense of the visual whole but also as morally and ontologically superior. After the primary field, however imposing, has been identified as the inferior term in a determinate binary, it becomes difficult to sustain at any level other than the merely physical. It comes instead to signify materiality's status as a signifier or symptom, at once useful and inadequate; the critical question then being how to reconnect, by some modification, with the Real support needed for meaning. The rhetoric of anamorphosis leads viewers towards the hidden, transcendent, ideologically determined ’truth’ that it projects au-delà the image — any image. Anamorphosis is a particular and little-used artistic technique; however, for Lacan it clarifies how all artworks project a transcendent entity while casting doubt on pre-existing understandings of the world. This is a Heideggerian notion of art, though for Heidegger the new and universally valid truths made accessible by the work of art are multiple, particular insights into human ’world’. Lacan, warned by Heidegger's ideological captation, emphasizes instead the monotonous truths of the Real (which are ’nothing for us’) while dissecting how art can seemingly elevate propaganda to the status of Truth.
Pearl as anamorphosis
Looking awry: heaven versus earth
Pearl works much in this way when inducting audience and Jeweller into the truths of the Kingdom of Heaven. His mourning detaches the Jeweller from his surroundings and society, stains them for him and him for them — and for us. He has become one of those who, according to Julian the Apostate, ’grovel among tombs…for the sake of dream visions’ — equally horrifying impurities in the eyes of the pagan emperor.24 His grief makes him look awry on the world, and his anamorphotic point of view leads him to the higher truths presented by the Pearl-Maiden; though it is arguable whether he grasps them, they are made available to the audience. It also serves to reveal the emptiness and falsity of a certain view of earthly society when the Jeweller within the vision voices an everyday perspective according to which the Maiden's account is nonsensical. The heaven she projects is jarringly counter-intuitive yet it is the earthly view that is designated inaccurate and senseless, as the Maiden relentlessly informs us that the Jeweller sees things from the wrong angle.25 The pearl which he believes lost is revealed to be where it truly belongs, the child whom he considers dead turns out to be alive in a superior sense, and her value is far beyond what he imagines. The notions of stain and stainlessness are key here, the poem's terminology resonating with Lacan's. Over and over, what the Jeweller sees as blemish — in her, in heavenly society, in the Lamb — is reinterpreted as being in truth the price, passage or mark of a superior purity.26 The erstwhile ’blot’ (l. 782) in sublunary vision — life and death beneath the ’spotty’ (l. 1070) moon — must be transformed into a lens permitting proper vision. Here the Jeweller's function is to register by his repeated objections the discrepancies between heaven and a common earthly sense. It appears that the heavenly Father's demand for an altered perspective exceeds the conceptual abilities of the earthly father and, by extension, of the culture he epitomizes. This is not identical to the audience's culture, for the Jeweller's position and experience are not entirely those of the poem's implied audience; his role is to misread. Nevertheless, the repeated astonishment that he expresses prevents the audience from becoming acclimatized to the divine regime, whose power to disorient, even scandalize, is one of the poem's achievements.
Speaking for the inferior understanding, the Jeweller questions divine values:
Þou lyfed not two er in oure þede;
Þou cowþe neuer God nauþer plese ne pray,
Ne neuer nawþer Pater ne Crede;
And quen mad on þe fyrst day!
I may not traw, so God me spede,
Þat God wolde wryþe so wrange away.
(You lived not two years in our land, you never knew how to please or pray to God, nor either the Our Father or the Creed; and yet you were made a queen on your first day! I cannot believe, so help me God, that God would distort things so awry.)
In response the Pearl-Maiden relates the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20: 1—16). Demonstrating that God is not bound by earthly notions of fairness, this parable undermines ideas of desert measured in terms of time, effort or product. (So, at least from a modern perspective, does courtly life; however, this parable concerns spiritual reward.) According to Stephen Wailes, commentaries frequently use the vineyard tale to rebuke stalwart Christians, in particular those in religious orders, for their expectation of heavenly reward. Several commentators interpret the parable's day as the span of a life, with the groups of workers representing persons converted to God's service at different ages. Those who arrive in the vineyard at the eleventh hour symbolize deathbed converts; thus the parable interpreted allegorically demonstrates ’the full validity of late conversion’. In Gregory the Great's influential interpretation, ’The householder first gave the denarius to the last because he gathered the thief to the peace of paradise before Peter.’27 This parable was therefore commonly invoked to address a more than ordinarily devout, orthodox and obedient audience and raises, in order to settle, the spectre of rebellious incomprehension within even that audience. This conventional use to signify an important sticking-point for Christian understanding explains its function in Pearl as a pivot between orders, where choices must be made, distinctions cannot be fudged, and God's will must be accepted regardless of human sensibilities. The parable expresses the imperative to submit to the heavenly perspective even when it seems distorted to us. Given the common identification of the latecomers as in extreme old age, Pearl's application of this category to the infant may contribute to its emphasis on defamiliarization.
Heavenly reason: heaven plus earth
In spite of this imperative, and to some extent undermining it, Pearl's heaven is anything but irrational; on the contrary, the poem justifies the divine order at length through a kind of ethnographic exposition of alternative cultural values. Thus the Maiden carefully explicates the vineyard parable as an analogy for the Kingdom of Heaven. One explanation concerns the heavenly valuation of innocence and purity, a long life inevitably accumulating more sins as well as more good works such that the value lost outweighs the value added. Another turns on linked conceptions of sovereignty, contractual obligation and property rights which reserve to the lord the right and the virtue of distributing gifts as he sees fit, so long as he does not fall below the contracted amount in any individual case. Such a principle elevates monarchical rights and places the aristocratic ideology of largesse and gift-giving above an ethics relating to labour economics (ll. 565—6).28 A third rationalization argues for an egalitarian interpretation of the labourers’ reward, disregarding economic criteria to award each the same pay. This last interpretation makes a heavenly virtue out of homogenizing what on earth are different categories of people. However, it addresses only imperfectly Pearl's Kingdom of Heaven, where an insistent rhetoric of sameness combines paradoxically with a presentation of hierarchy, to baffle human understanding. The egalitarian message seems rather to address the earthly realm. John Bowers has been the principal proponent of the argument that Pearl engages with the historical conditions of post-Black Death England with its scarce labour and discontented labourers.29 He contends that the labourers’ demand for a penny a day was also that of real-life wage-earners, and that God's practice in distributing spiritual rewards is cited in order to reject a similar practice on earth. This elitist urge in the poem can alternatively be described through the three terms of anamorphosis: by including in its field both a stain across ordinary reality (the Jeweller's grief) and the intelligible heavenly Truth which that stain eventually reveals, Pearl renders the everyday, earthly objections to divine practice of the insubordinate lower ranks as the chaotic product of inferior understanding. The labourers’ condition thus becomes an intellectual failing to be addressed by a change of perspective, not of material circumstance.
Elicited in response to his protests against the heavenly order, the field of rebellion rejoins that of the Jeweller and is associated with his personal objections to the Maiden's revelations:
Me þynk þy tale vnresounable.
Godde ryt is redy and euermore rert,
Oþer Holy Wryt is bot a fable.
(I think that your account is irrational. God's justice is prompt and ever supreme, or else Holy Scripture is only a fable.)
We should perhaps say that the Jeweller here speaks not from his grief-stricken point of view but from that of the ordinary human world which that grief drains of meaning for him. But the human shortcomings — grief, envy, jealousy — that blinker the Jeweller appear to meld with those colouring the labourers’ response, compounding the rejection of what is already presented as an order of being inferior to that of heaven.30 At the very moment when they are articulated in the poem, the lower-class economic-ethical demands are made to seem almost the antithesis of articulation itself, an unenlightened distortion of the true order. Earthly reality is so empty that it is deformed. It has the same heuristic value as the Jeweller's mournful gaze, which calls forth divine truth wherein the egalitarian appeal to justice merges into the lord's right to dispose of his own as he wills. In line with the logic of anamorphosis, we can observe that the consistency of the heavenly vision, and therefore its effectiveness as a model for earthly labour and class relations, is maintained by insisting on its distance from earthly perceptions and practices, measured in the repeated surprises it provokes in the Jeweller and in the recourse to rhetorical tropes which conjure up a further dimension beyond the highly realized vision. Here, as with the Charles I anamorphosis, we see the historical masquerading as history's transcendent negation.
However, we should be wary of equating the vision of earthly reality that is generated within Pearl with the poem's own historical context, even allowing for the presence of political bias in the representations. An earlier generation of scholars sought evidence for the poet's real-life loss of a daughter on essentially the same rhetorical basis. Whatever the referential status of the labourers, Pearl is not alone among medieval courtly dream visions in producing a ’realistic’ version of contemporary social life at the height — or depth — of its fiction; indeed, this had already become a tradition. Jean de Meun's Roman de la Rose, notably, having layered mediation upon mediation, short-circuits to recent Parisian university politics when Faux-Semblant, the personification of misleading appearances, turns to discuss the long-running conflict between the fraternal orders and lay clergy for the control of academic chairs at the Sorbonne (a topic familiar from Rutebeuf's poetry and hence also a literary reference). Analogously, the prophecy made by the God of Love naming the Rose's authors at the mid-point of poem and dream provides the main evidence for the existence of the first author, Guillaume de Lorris.31 The appearance of ’history’ in Pearl in a highly mediated context — a parable concerning biblical labourers (thus coloured by established uses of Scripture), related by a semi-allegorical figure in the vision within the dream — should be approached with comparable caution. This is not to deny them political relevance. Fourteenth-century French and English courtly dream visions, to different extents and in distinct ways, aim to include both poetry and politics within an englobing ethical framework and an overarching discourse, while at the same time drawing attention to the processes involved and displaying their workings. This they do by exaggerating the dislocations of perspective needed to shift from one to the other, as Holbein includes the world of the French ambassadors, the crucifix and the anamorphotic skull in his painting. Dream, vision, fable, allegory and the traditions of courtly love writing are all deployed within late medieval literary texts alongside meticulous discussions of the statecraft, patronage and spiritual and professional duties that mark the poet's and audience's lived realities. When these works switch between private and public, love and war, or fictional dream vision and historical dispute, they emphasize the interdependence of these dimensions precisely through their dissonance. They teach that literature, including the fantastical, provides examples of and reflections on order or disorder through models of ordering and cases of order's disarrangement and institution, which are indispensable to an intelligent approach to the complex, heterogeneous political and social situations of the fourteenth century; and that major shifts of perspective are necessary when measuring each one's pertinence to another. Pearl amplifies the strain by rejecting the historical, legendary and biblical examples with which late medieval literature is stuffed, in favour of the Gospels and especially of the Apocalypse, least overtly realistic and historical of biblical sources. The effect is to pose, not the particular vision that the dream articulates, but the reference implied beyond that fictional vision, as transcendent, eternal and ultimately true. Like its contemporary works, though, the poem does not seek to obscure the political concerns which lie behind its seemingly disinterested philosophical discussions, but rather highlights an ideological agenda.
Thus in Pearl, heaven is the domain in which sense is made. Similar in this to the images projected by the anamorphoses of Charles I and of the Crucifixion, the heaven of the dream vision is the text's principal symbolically differentiated field. Significantly, heaven produces not only the poem's ideal, properly otherworldly systems, but also the earthly systems that are contrasted to them. The earthly becomes intelligible as lacking only in heaven's representations of it, which also tell us exactly what it lacks. Thus the unheavenly labourers have their genesis as well as their refutation within the bounds of the vision. Contrast the Jeweller's mourning account before his dream, in which his relation to the pearl is free-floating and amorphous, and where she or it is variously lost, trapped, dead and metamorphosed into vegetable life. Within the vision, that relation becomes richly polyvalent, subject to a variety of interpretations in terms of human relations. He calls her his near relative, his child, his courtly beloved, his social superior, and longs for her in all these roles. An instance of the Thing (see Chapter 2, above), the Maiden throws into relief not only the Real but also, and here more strikingly, the symbolic.32 Although she insists that the heavenly reality of her relation to the Jeweller is to be understood as not any of the above structures, nevertheless it is within the vision that those earthly relations and structures become manifest. Thus he is introduced into the structures of desire and exchange. He becomes a subject in the sense of one whose unruly longings can be trained, negotiated with, ’subjected’ to a guiding influence. Order and its complement, intelligible disorder, are equally heaven's creations. Thus do dream poems, like anamorphosis, make the ’ordinary’ world seem intrinsically chaotic and unreal, a mensonge awaiting the truth that the anamorphotic songe will somehow impart; this may be called the medieval dream-work. Pearl utilizes the Real of anamorphosis not only to differentiate strictly and hierarchically between the particular symbolic and imaginary regimes of heaven and earth but also, paradoxically, to operate a rapprochement between those regimes such that heaven's courtly, monarchist ideology, counter-intuitive to earthly sense and the product of ’creationist sublimation’, persuades as the best system also for us below. Rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's comes to be part of the greater project of rendering unto God the things that are God's (Matthew 22: 21). It can be argued even in modern secular times that God imparts the Real to anamorphosis and not, as Lacan claims, vice versa; but few today would defend the view that a king is similarly Real in his own right, though kings may have seemed so at moments.
Pearls and daisies
From the above theoretical exploration of the complex relations between earth and heaven in Pearl, I turn now to explore those same relations through a selective literary history. I take fourteenth-century courtly francophone literature to be an important cultural context of Pearl, and therefore examine some of the poetic dialogues in which the text participated, with an eye above all to the marguerite, a figure in which courtly, religious and poetic ideas interact. According to the standard Old French dictionaries (Tobler-Lommatzsch, Godefroy), the principal meaning of marguerite was ’pearl’. The dictionaries record only one use of the meaning ’daisy’: in Aucassin et Nicolette, generally dated to the early thirteenth century. Nicolette's whiteness is described: ’et les flors des margerites qu'ele ronpoit as ortex de ses piés…estoient droites noires avers ses piés et ses ganbes, tant par estoit blance la mescinete’ (’and the marguerite flowers that she crushed with the toes of her feet…were quite black next to her feet and legs, so white was the girl’).33 The Robert Dictionnaire historique de la langue française (’marguerite’) notes that in Aucassin's locution the precise meaning is ’fleur de perle’ (’pearl flower’).34 Dictionaries date the absolute use of marguerite meaning a flower to 1364, with Machaut's ’Dit de la marguerite’ (hereafter ’Marguerite’).35 All the earliest examples in the Anglo-Norman Dictionary, Französisches etymologisches Wörterbuch and Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources date from the fourteenth-century vogue for marguerite poetry. It seems likely, therefore, that when the marguerite came into fashion, pearly connotations bore heavily on the flower. Daisies are, as far as I can discover, something of a tabula rasa symbolically, but when called marguerites they assume some of the pearl's emblematic associations without being limited to those. They acquire instant gravitas, symbolic weight and polyvalent, even ambivalent density while remaining relatively underdetermined, thus becoming highly flexible figures.
It is crucial to grasp the marguerite's novelty and flexibility in order to appreciate the innovations it enabled within courtly poetry. The fourteenth-century French-language poets who write of marguerites give the impression of investing a new courtly symbol. Written perhaps some months after Machaut's opening sally, Froissart's ’Dit de la marguerite’ (hereafter ’Flor’) lingers over the naming process to emphasize its unfamiliarity:
Je ne me doi retraire de loer
La flour des flours, prisier et honnourer,
Car elle fait moult a recommender:
C’est la consaude, ensi le voel noumer,
Et qui li voelt son propre nom donner,
On ne li puet ne tollir ne embler,
Car en françois a a nom, c'est tout cler,
(I must not draw back from praising, extolling and honouring the flower of flowers, for it is greatly to be recommended: it is the daisy, thus I wish to name it; and whoever wishes to give it its proper name, one cannot take that from it nor steal it away, for in French it has the name, quite clearly, of marguerite.)37
Naming the marguerite is staged as revelation and investiture of the patrician status of the seemingly humble consaude; the poet leads his community in awarding it its ’propre nom’ of ’marguerite’. This sense that marguerites invite revision clings. Marguerite poems in French repeatedly stage a defence of the flower against what are presented as more obvious or established courtly choices, thus redefining what courtliness might consist in and suggesting really or purportedly new aspirations to guide the court.38 Most notably, the newly elevated daisy supersedes the rose, marking for late medieval writers at once a genealogy and a change of orientation within courtly writing in relation to the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose.
Sublation is, therefore, an attribute of the marguerite. The same process is enacted in the English translation into ’pearl’ — which is also, given the pearly connotations borne by the signifier marguerite, a back-translation. Much has been written on pearls in connection with Pearl. In spite of the gem's associations with purity and revelation, it is ambiguous, adorning the Whore of Bablyon as well as the gates of the New Jerusalem.39 Pearls’ ambivalence is one expression of the traditionally equivocal and variable relationship in courtly writing between the earthly court and its heavenly prototype. It may be that translating marguerite as ’pearl’ renders this relationship tenser. My aim here, however, is to explore the poetic field not of the pearl but of the marguerite, to which field Pearl also belongs. I stress the poem's French-language connections, and defer on questions of its Englishness to other scholars.
Arts of mourning
The marguerite is linked to a debate relating the complex of life, death and life beyond death to that of desire, love and poetry. The Pearl-poet enters into this debate, revising its terms in different directions; note that participating in the debate ideally requires a poet to differ in this way. Thus Machaut, apparently founding the marguerite discourse, states that ’Sa grant douçour garist les mauls d'amer, / Sa grainne puet les mors ressusciter’ (’Its great sweetness cures the ills of love; its seed can resuscitate the dead’).40 It enables the poet to write in defiance of his woes, and indeed of his triumphs; the life-beyond-death that it figures is above temporal concerns. Against Machaut's assertion of life-giving power, Froissart associates the marguerite with pain, wounding and death. In the version of his invented origin myth found in the Joli Buisson de Jonece, marguerites spring from the tears shed by Herès over the dead body of her lover Cepheüs.41 This latter's ’ardant folie’ (l. 3208; ’burning madness’) and ’grant merancolie’ (l. 3209; ’great melancholy’) are related to those of Pygmalion, Narcissus, Orpheus and many other tragic lovers current in court poetry. Marguerites memorialize those dead of passion but can never bring them back. Flowering even when ’toutes flours sont mortes pour l'ivier’ (’all flowers are dead because of winter’), they symbolize the perpetual rebirth of desire, with its characteristic, tantalizing semi-pleasure, and consequently of poetic inspiration or compulsion.42 Unlike Machaut's, Froissart's marguerite renews desire and its pains (’en cascun floron, je vous creant, / Porte la flour un droit dart a taillant’; ’in each petal, I assure you, the flower bears a keenly cutting dart’).43 Returning to the subject in the ’Dit de la fleur de lis et de la marguerite’, thought to be one of his final works, the older poet rejects this conception, emphasizing again how the flower calms the pangs of desire (’Froide est et seche et restreintive’; ’she is cold and dry and extinguishing’) and heals ’maus amoureus’ (’ills of love’).44 Machaut hymns the marguerite for transcending the life cycle with its joys and pains, Froissart for material renewal progressing through loss to memorialization, mourning and — perhaps — rebirth, though without transcendence: his lover returns essentially to the same place, more repetition than renascence.
The Jeweller's condition as a lover who has lost his beloved is familiar to readers of medieval courtly literature. It is tempting to summarize in Lamartine's memorable phrase: ’Un seul être vous manque, et tout est dépeuplé’ (’You lack a single being — and the whole is depeopled’). However, in medieval dits the lack of the beloved typically leads the poet not to solitude but to an over-peopled world. One has to sympathize with the Man in Black of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess who, seeking to lament alone, is joined by the inquisitive Dreamer (himself in search of seclusion), though the latter is no doubt less officious than the narrator of Machaut's Jugement du roy de Behaigne, who thrusts himself into a thorn bush to overhear the courtly mourners whom he will eventually drag back to the court like an Arthurian knight sending outlanders and renegades to his king. The beloved need not even be dead to be thus missing. The dreamscape of the Roman de la Rose is crowded with personae with whom the lover has to negotiate willy-nilly in his quest for the silent, vegetable Rose. In courtly love lyrics, similarly, the poet-lover of the unattainable lady finds himself interacting primarily with lauzengiers and other, to his sense, superfluous figures. Social life is apparently something conducted on the margins of the principal preoccupation. This is one way in which we can interpret Lacan's claim that amour courtois emphasizes the vacuole, the empty space at the heart of the symbolic order (see Chapter 2, above). The Jeweller's experience is thus a typically courtly one in that he will move from lovelorn isolation to a highly peopled social environment. In this case that environment is explicitly Christian, comprising both the courtly afterlife described by the Maiden, culminating in the vision of the heavenly Jerusalem, and the lowlier milieu of labouring and trading that she invokes through parables. Like other late fourteenth-century poet-narrators, the Jeweller will remain marginal to the poem's court, a partial outsider who serves without fully understanding or belonging. Like others, he is nevertheless a lover, for the Maiden's parable of the pearl of great price situates him socially as a tradesman but also elevates him as a true desirer of one prize.45 We leave him conventionally lonely among society, for the poem's closing lines show that he is finally conscious of a structure which surrounds him though inaccessible to his (grief-stricken? lower-status? worldly? fleshly?) understanding.
It has become commonplace to observe that melancholy is fundamental to the literary process in much fourteenth-century francophone literature.46 Writers portrayed themselves suffering from collective as well as individual mourning and melancholia (subgroups of the sin of acedia or sloth), overwhelmed by the cultural weight of a past tradition which had said all there was to say and which they could never hope to equal; in this very situation they found the wellspring of their own innovative literary practice. This model influenced English writers at least during the Ricardian period. Chaucer phrases it with characteristic skill in making well-worn themes seem novel, in his own marguerite poem:47
For wel I wot that folk han here-beforn
Of making ropen, and lad awey the corn;
And I come after, glenynge here and there,
And am ful glad if I may fynde an ere
Of any goodly word that they han left.48
(For well I know that people have reaped the field of poetry before now, and taken away the corn; and I come after, gleaning here and there, and am very glad if I can find an ear of any good word that they have left behind.)
In this context we must distinguish between the role of the clerkly narrator and that of the courtly patron, as found, for instance, in the Book of the Duchess and in dits by Machaut and Froissart. Although both narrator and patron may figure as bereaved or unrequited lovers locked into their fixation, this state has a distinct value for each. Acedia is a potentially productive condition for the writer, whose semi-conscious and segregated state leads him to compose, even if it is often not his own fixation that inspires him. Other unhappy lovers generally occupy the main body of the work, whether as patrons, consolees or legendary examples.49 For the patron, even if he is also secondarily a poet, acedia is destructive inasmuch as it diverts him from his public function and saps resources asserted to be vital to the larger community. Thus in the Book of the Duchess it is inappropriate for the Man in Black to adopt the same model of lovesickness within which the narrator can and even must operate as a writer. Although the Man's desires are shown to be conditioned by the courtly ethic which dictates that the lover's own death or eternal mourning are the proper responses to the loss of the beloved, he must, willingly or not, eventually conform to what Georges Duby called the ’aristocratic’ model of marriage, which subordinates choice to dynastic strategy.50 The alternative model of love as election, compatibility and uniqueness, which Duby terms ’clerical’, is in this late fourteenth-century work shown to be an appropriate pattern for living not for the knight but for the clerk who, seemingly lacking another centrally important role, ’works’ for the community by acting out this model as a proxy for his patron while simultaneously gesturing to the superior performance that his betters would naturally deliver, were it not inappropriate for them. Thus the nobles of the court are enabled to espouse the ethically superior affective model while practising pragmatic marital politics.51
Within a substantial corpus of works representing the relation between writer and his subject or patron in this way, the ambiguous situation of Pearl's Jeweller is conventional. He is one, socially not of the first rank, who works for the pleasure of his betters. These aristocratic patrons constitute important sources of creativity, to whom the specialist craftsman lends his professional knowledge and skill; although some poems present the nominal producer as a dignified co-author and the patron's brother-in-art, others depict him as a mere ghost writer or even a courtly idiot savant. By portraying the Jeweller's melancholy, isolation and marginality, the Pearl-poet situates and authorizes him as an artist-narrator within an internationally fashionable, courtly literary tradition. Poets working in this rhetorical mode frequently represent their own positions within the tradition as an oppressive source of anxiety and alienation. The common position therefore has anti-communal tendencies, and its ability to ground an artistic community or identity is precarious. Attempts to construct these tend to take the form of negation, undermining what they also function positively to sustain. On the other hand, while the writer's conventional claim to alienation can in fact reflect or produce real alienation from dominant literary practice, at the same time it also awards authority within the terms of that practice. Thus Christine de Pizan's representation and performance of her own marginality in relation to masculinist cultural institutions is one strong variant on the typical poetic position of her time. In Pearl, analogously, the Jeweller, although conventional as a bereaved lover, is unusual among courtly narrators in being portrayed as neither a writer nor a reader of secular material. This narratorial presentation isolates him from any putative courtly-literary network. In situating his narrator outside such networks, the Pearl-poet (in this respect like Christine) pursues the rationale of a conventional poetic position to one logical extreme. Paradoxically, he thus claims for that narrator a privileged position in relation to those networks. The Jeweller's distinction from other courtly dit narrators constitutes his distinction within that company.
Thus far, then, the Pearl-poet's persona and practice are only conventionally unconventional, their narrow divergence from the common model part of a shared poetic programme and conferring merit within that programme. Most significant is the Jeweller's non-literary presentation. This is surely linked to the fact that Pearl omits the explicit flaunting of classical erudition that characterizes other writers working within the same broad cultural milieu, including Chaucer, Gower and Usk, not to mention the French writers. Such writers generally exploit biblical material in the same antiquarian, scholarly spirit (compare the poems by Deschamps discussed in Chapter 3, above). Contrastingly, the Jeweller is not justified by arcane historical learning. Instead his experience emphasizes, as the sources of moral, spiritual and intellectual reflection, the New Testament and those parts of the Old Testament that can be read as types of the New, with special attention being paid to St John's Apocalypse or Book of Revelations. The implied claim appears to be that poetic authority rests not at all on the poet's erudition or on secular knowledge, but directly on God's word and especially on personal revelation of that word. Pearl here effects a definite reorientation of reading and writing practices in relation to other marguerite texts; nevertheless, that reorientation remains within the discourse's possible extension, the groundwork for it having been laid elsewhere. We may compare and contrast the middle-aged and uninspired writer-narrator of Froissart's Joli Buisson de Jonece, who is in the habit of praying every morning to St Margaret before Venus interrupts him, transporting him to a second youthfulness of love which will rescue his poetic ’frois…art’ (’cold art’). This illusory youth, treated with considerable irony, forms the basis for significant ethical reflection and for the body of the poem; finally the dreamer awakes to turn again to sacred poetry, addressing his art to the ’Flour d'onneur tres souverainne’ (’Flower of most sovereign honour’) that is the Virgin Mary.52 Turning rather to holy subjects as the matter for a poem whose sophistication and dexterity of form, language and thought match that of his great contemporaries, the Pearl-poet both claims descent from such a stance and re-targets it towards other concerns.
Both aspects of this bilateral presentation are crucial. Unlike those French and English writers who adore daisies, the Jeweller is concerned with pearls, the more durable kind of marguerite. So too is the Pearl-poet. He, however, is a reader and writer of courtly literature, and his poem takes its place in literary networks of which the Jeweller seems oblivious. Thus, for instance, the ’gleaning’ topos, quoted above in Chaucer's version, surfaces in the first section of Pearl as part of the Jeweller's sense of unstoppable, death-saturated life. The Jeweller enters the garden ’In Augoste in a hy seysoun, / Quen corne is coruen wyth croke kene’ (ll. 39—40; ’in August, at the height of the season, when corn is cut with keen scythes’). The poet advertises his courtly-literary qualifications subtly and with consummate skill by naturalizing them within an apparently non-’literary’ account. These lines must themselves be read in the light of the previous stanza's evocation of the lost pearl's fertile rotting, ’For vch gresse mot grow of grayne dede; / No whete were elle to wone wonne’ (ll. 31—2; ’for each grass must grow from dead seeds; otherwise no home would have wheat’).53 This bleak evocation recalls the Ovidian metamorphoses so beloved of courtly writers throughout the medieval period. Compare the learned, classicizing tenor of Froissart's marguerite origin myth of Herès and Cepheüs; in Pearl, the metamorphosis is at once utilitarian and biblical in tone. However, refusal to be governed by tradition is an essential part of the courtly literary tradition, in which novelty is an important aesthetic criterion. Courtly dits typically raise through the poem as an artefact philosophical questions that are only begged within the narrative. Thus the Pearl-poet's cultural experience exceeds the Jeweller's: the pearl-seed will go on to produce not flowers and wheat but marguerites, the stuff of courtly cultural exploitation. Displaying an awareness of contemporary literary fashions and a wide cultural and theological learning denied to the Jeweller, the Pearl-poet distances his humble intratextual I-persona from his own poetic role as a scholar and counsellor without whose advice and knowledge his earthly prince is no more than an ’asne couronné’, and whose principal function is now to remind of the greater Prince who rules them both, in their spheres.54 Distancing of this sort is standard, but not to this degree; the Jeweller's position outside courtly-literary and scholarly networks constitutes a material intervention in the debates conducted through the marguerite, among others. The Jeweller's knowledge is not undermined by the poet's courtly supplementation of it. We can go further: just as other works suggest that the noble patron and audience may appreciate the value of the bookish narrator's learning more correctly than he himself does, so the Jeweller's sincere piety and revelation may here be the rarer and more valuable commodity that the poem offers up to a courtly audience, its pearl of price.
The relation between the secular and the religious is a recurring problem within fourteenth- and fifteenth-century courtly poetry, with its turn to moral seriousness and spiritual worth. Marguerite discourse, with its endless glossing, typically replaces the common-or-garden daisy with its higher avatar, ’the margarita preciosa, the Biblical pearl of great price (Matthew 13: 45—6): an image of absolute desire, of absolute perfection, by definition unattainable in this life, and nameable only metaphorically’.55 It is a central part of courtly discourse to reject older courts in the name of some superior manifestation of the courtly ideal. Machaut notably argues that true courtliness shares many of the values of Christianity, in particular its piety and its purity. The alliance of ’clannes’ and ’cortaysye’, as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has it, is in Machaut's ideal system a tautology. Courtliness complements Christianity as an art de vivre rendering its ideals more humanly accessible. In the fullest statement of his marguerite conception, in the ’Dit de la fleur de lis et de la marguerite’, Machaut contrasts the austere theological virtues of the embattled, martyred lily to the gentler qualities of the marguerite. The two flowers share several qualities such as a strong green stalk, white petals and golden seeds, but the significations ascribed to each are different. Whiteness, for example:
La fueille dou lis, qui est blanche,
Autant ou plus com noif sus branche,
Signefie, je n'en doubt mie,
Purté, chasté et nette vie,
Sans pechié, sans tache et sans vice
Et sans penser mauvais malice.
(The lily's petal, which is as white as or whiter than snow on a branch, signifies, I have no doubt, purity, chastity and a clean life, without sin, without stain and without vice and without thinking any wicked malice.)
The same colour is resignified in the elaboration of the marguerite:
De fueilles a une ceinture
Si blanche, qu'il n'est creature,
S’il la voit, qu'il ne s'en resjoie,
Car le blanc signefie joie.
(It has a belt of petals so white that there is no creature who does not rejoice on seeing her, for white signifies joy.)
Machaut asserts that the marguerite's more pleasurable virtues are no less admirable than the lily's glacial merits. He emphasizes the former's usefulness to others, hence the long passage on its medicinal qualities.56 Much of the imagery and language applied to the marguerite is Marian or Incarnational, the parallel authorizing its convivial attractions as rendering it at once closer to ordinary mortals and, because it forms a bridge between earth and heaven, in a sense nearer to the divine. Evaluating the merits of what appear to be distinct forms of the via activa, Machaut concludes:
Raison, justice et equité:
Tant ont loange et grace et pris
Et si ay d'elles tant apris
Qu'assez loer ne les porroie
Ne leurs biens dire ne saroie,
Tant en y a, tant en y truis,
Et mieus vorroie estre destruis
Que d'elles vous deïsse rien
Que tout ne fust honneur et bien.
Toutevoie tant en diray
Et puis mon ouevre fineray:
Tout veü, tout consideré,
Vertu, grace, douceur, biauté,
Pour chose que d'elles soit ditte
Ne lairay qu'a la marguerite
Ne me teingne tant com vivray,
Car mis en ses las mon vivre ay.
Or vueille Dieus qu'elle soit moie,
Qu'en ce monde plus ne vorroie
Que li pour avoir esperence,
Joie, pais, merci, souffissance,
Pris, et honneur, loange et gloire
En la fin, et tresbon memoire.
(Reason, justice and equity have so much praise, grace and worth, and I have learned so much of them that I could never praise them sufficiently, nor tell all their good, for there is so much in them and I find so much in them; and I had rather be destroyed than say anything to you on their subject which was other than completely honourable and good. Nevertheless I will say this much on the topic and then finish my work: whatever may be said about virtue, grace, gentleness and beauty, all things seen and considered, I shall not refrain from cleaving to the marguerite while I live, for I have placed my life in its net. Now would to God that she were mine, for in this world I would want no other thing than her in order to have hope, joy, peace, mercy, sufficiency, renown, and honour, praise and glory at the end, and an excellent memory.)
The lily remains isolated and inaccessible, surrounded by thorns from which God will ultimately rescue it in triumph (ll. 160—7) but which also endow it with a certain rebarbative quality compared with the marguerite, which in semi-mystical fashion gives enjoyment even without sexual possession. While the lily guards itself from the sexual dishonour which would constitute spiritual death (an Old Testament reference; ll. 51—8), the marguerite confers itself generously and chastely, resuscitating the dead (ll. 275—9). Although both are proposed as metaphorical dresses for the poet's lady (ll. 381—8), the lily is said to be a masculine flower, the marguerite feminine (ll. 171—2), perhaps recalling the sense in which the Incarnation is also gendered feminine.57 Flexible, accommodating, gentle and serviceable, the marguerite defines a notion of femininity quite different from that exemplified by the lily (compare White and Alceste in Chapter 5, below).
There is a moment of surprise when the lily shifts from the femininity previously constructed for it to the masculinity its grammatical gender implies — an example of the shifting interpretative grounds which characterize courtly dits so consistently that we may consider them to subscribe to a hermeneutics of surprise or of ’looking awry’ (Pearl's inversions being another example). Fourteenth-century dream poems, similarly, play with references to or illusions of extra-poetic reality, delighting in unsettling the perspective from which the reader has become accustomed to view the poem. Machaut's re-gendering of the flowers may be interpreted as blocking the lily as an aspirational object of erotic desire for heterosexual male readers and of identificatory desire for females, directing both towards the more acceptable and, though equally pure, somehow more accessible and certainly more utilizable marguerite. This would be, however, an anachronistically narrow conclusion. Both male and female virgin saints were available for a variety of identificatory and desirous appropriations by audiences of both sexes, while the confusions of gender and sexuality in the Roman de la Rose set the terms for later medieval courtly expectations as well as following on from the mixed gender of the earlier lyric Lady.58 The fact that the marguerite is posited as the preferable norm should not blind us to the fact that the lily is elevated above the norm and recalls the models of the Christian virago and of the unattainable courtly Lady. Moreover, both flowers are commended as inhibiting lust, or at any rate its direct expression, in the beholder who desires them. Either can therefore be loved only in sublimated modes. Thus Machaut's poem at once tempts the reader to jouissance and bars her or him from it by the standard Lacanian obstructions of beauty and virtue.
Of the two flowers in Machaut's dit, the Pearl-Maiden is closer in presentation to the lily. Authoritative, severe and otherworldly, she recalls such other great visionary guides as Boethius's Lady Philosophy, the Roman de la Rose's Reason and Deguileville's Grâce Dieu, all spokesmaidens for transcendent against secular realms and for the ultimate impossibility of compromise between the two. Lapidary, the Pearl-Maiden is distanced from compliant feminine objects of male heterosexual desire, and desire such as the Jeweller's to enjoy her takes sodomitical forms, at once incestuous and excessively exogamous.59 It is all the more significant therefore that the Maiden, and indeed Pearl itself, occupy the same structural position as does Machaut's marguerite (and not his lily), poised between prized material beauty and hagiography, the courtly and the religious, at once connecting these realms and organizing them hierarchically:
Chascuns scet c'une marguerite,
En France, en Ynde et en Egypte,
C’est une pierre precieuse
Qu'est mout digne et mout vertueuse,
Et dames et signeurs s'en perent
Pour ce que plus cointe en apperent.
Sainte Marguerite jadis
Fu sainte et est en paradis.
(Everyone knows that in France, India and Egypt a marguerite is a precious stone most worthy and with many virtues, and ladies and lords adorn themselves with it in order to appear more elegant. Saint Margaret was once a saint and is now in Paradise.)
Whereas Machaut's marguerite emphasizes the continuum between these domains, the Pearl-Maiden represents a pivotal point between fundamentally incommensurate perspectives, distinguishing them stably and hierarchically for the reader. She specifically does not cross the river separating the world occupied by living humans even out of body from that of the blessed who, having passed through fleshly death, live forever in Christ. Yet she is clearly a mediator, meeting the Jeweller as near to that barrier as is possible in order to channel his desire towards the Christian truth that she also marks as ultimately irreconcilable with earthly perspectives. In this duality she parallels the poem itself, whose effect is to yoke together in hierarchy what it also establishes as incompatible: the highest manifestations of courtliness with an elite spirituality.60 The vision's main function is not to supply cognitive knowledge (the Jeweller identifies the New Jerusalem from John's description, showing that he is already familiar with it) but to orient and train longing in the direction of revelation.61 Against ideally inexhaustible satisfaction, the inflationary nature of human desires appears greedy. This rhetorical contrast can evidently be used in various contexts, and can emphasize conveniently either mode or object of desire. No doubt this trope is relevant to Bowers's social reading of Pearl's demanding labourers: in the late Middle Ages, inflation is the curse of the modern world as well as its condition of possibility.62 One political answer to inflation is just to say no. With the help of a king (or his poet) acting as a therapist, his subjects may realize that jouissance is not withheld by a tyrant but is simply impossible, and thus accept their lack. With an essential proviso, however: Pearl's final section draws out the moral that submissiveness on earth to God's will earns its reward in the hereafter. ’Now al be to þat Prynce paye’ (l. 1176; ’Now let everything be at that Prince's pleasure’), sighs the Jeweller after his exile, in contrast to the folly of desiring which impelled him across the stream. Unlike Lacanian psychoanalysis, Pearl promotes a transcendent figure capable of withholding and bestowing jouissance. Heavenly fulfilment underwrites deferral of satisfaction on earth, justifying the labourers’ and Jeweller's willingness to suffer denial in the here and now. Civilization's discontents will be answered by God; meanwhile, resigned contentment is the practical solution.
In spite of the advice to give up on our earthly desire, however, human desire's inflationary demand for more than its allotted share is not in Pearl really a cause of disorder. Contrariwise, it sustains heaven's prestige as an object of desire and authority in the poem, as the Jeweller seeks ever more and closer contact with the divine. This desire is evidently necessary if humans are to progress towards the goal that God has set them. Who could not desire heaven, and what would be the consequences of such a position? One answer is rebellion, as Bowers suggests; another is proposed in the poem's mournful opening section. Heaven intervenes to reinstall the symbolic order that the Jeweller has lost. He must learn again to desire in relation to ’the barrier separating the [R]eal from reality’. Human desire will be transfigured in heaven, but on earth its proper form is inflationary. What needs readjustment is therefore the object and not the mode of desire; real-life labourers are urged to focus not on the dross of their earthly wages but to read those as a metaphor and their paltry nature as an anamorphosis, raising their eyes to the true prize that is their afterlife reward.
My analysis of the ’more and more’ form of desire in the poem — which is, in my view, also the poem's analysis — coincides with Lacan's account of courtly love. To recap briefly on material covered at length in Chapter 2, above: according to Lacan, desire is torn between an impulse towards a fulfilment which would be the death of desire, hence the destitution of the subject, and an inertia impelling us towards a frustration that enables desire to spring anew, and therefore subjective life to continue. The former impulse, in Lacanian terminology, represents desire's ’goal’, the latter its ’aim’. Humans move within this field, now nearer, now more distant, and our constant circling round the goal allows anything that stands within the field to masquerade as the ultimately fulfilling object of desire. Approaching the goal provokes anxiety, and it is with relief as well as disappointment that we fall back under the sway of the (un)pleasure principle, whose job is to allow us to enjoy as little as possible. Courtly desire, for Lacan, is distinguished by its attention to maintaining this circuit over reaching the final object, and by its consequent emphasis on the ’vacuole’: the unbearably stimulating, terrifying black hole that all this circling generates at the centre of the structure of desire. In Pearl, the Jeweller's trajectory is one of mounting excitement and impatience, realized as increasing visual proximity to his apparent goal and ending with a frenzied attempt to cross the final boundary. This returns him to the circuit of frustration, thus satisfying desire's aim. Filling out the central vacuole with the Christian God, the vision in Pearl gratifies its earthly subjects by reassuring them that an ultimately fulfilling object of desire exists and will one day be achievable, while at the same time postponing the approach to it until after death. By making that approach contingent on moral and spiritual behaviour in life, it displaces but does not avoid the anxiety that such an approach must provoke. The Jeweller's failure is therefore a necessary part of the vision's consolation as well as of its ideological functioning, the courtly analysis supporting an ethics of deferral which applies both to late fourteenth-century English politics and to the good Christian's relation to God. This accords to the Lacanian vision of human life in which, as observed earlier, we are reconciled to temporary suspension of our wishes and submit realistically to the dominant order. When Pearl appears to expose courtly love's shortcomings in the face of eternity, it serves courtly hegemony.
The shift from the Pearl-Maiden to the Lamb as object of desire is anticipated in other marguerite works but develops significantly on those precedents. Both Machaut and Froissart make their marguerite belong to the sun, its lord and beloved, superior to the writer. The poet of Machaut's ’Dit de la marguerite’ may fantasize about plucking his marguerite and ’li porter a ma bouche, a mon oueil, / Et a loisir / Baisier, touchier, odourer et sentir’ (ll. 39—41; ’bear her to my mouth, to my eye, and at leisure kiss, touch, smell and feel her’); his intimacy is limited by the poem's opening lines:
J’aim une fleur, qui s'uevre et qui s'encline
Vers le soleil de jours quant il chemine,
Et, quant il est couchiez sous sa courtine
Par nuit obscure,
Elle se clot, einsois que li jours fine.
(I love a flower that opens and that inclines towards the sun by day when he is out and about, and when he has retired behind his curtain in the dark night, she closes herself up before the day ends.)
’Rien plus ne vueil’ (l. 44; ’Nothing more I want’): as in same poet's later ’Dit de la fleur de lis et de la marguerite’, the marguerite satiates, liberating the subject from desire's ’more and more’ nature. In the course of the ’Dit de la marguerite’ the marguerite's physical presence recedes while its emotional presence to the poet increases, and he declares himself satisfied with increasingly distant mediations. ’Dous Pensers’ (l. 83; ’Sweet Thought’), a wind blowing from her country and his single-minded devotion to her service are sufficient to sustain him in life, health and honour (ll. 96, 118—19). His love overwhelms and inhabits him so intensely that it may even survive him, for he envisages ’mon ame, moy mort’ (l. 170; ’my soul, me being dead’) continuing to love and serve the marguerite. Ultimately the flower is absorbed into the sun figure of the opening lines:
C’est li solaus qui esclaire et qui luit,
C’est la lune qui fait la clere nuit,
C’est l'estoile qui par mer me conduit.
(It is the sun which gives light and shines, it is the moon which makes the bright night, it is the star guiding me at sea.)
The marguerite dissolves in a chain of metaphors of guidance, inspiration and maintenance that runs through the whole sixteen-line stanza. There is no shift of allegiance but a suavely realized continuum, his commitment to her elegantly expressing the poet's dependence on and affectionate esteem for his patron.63 ’Lys’ maintains the same pattern in a more religious orientation, as the sun adored by the chaste marguerite ’fleurs, fruit et tous biens meüre / Par l'ordenance de Nature’ (ll. 257—8; ’brings flowers, fruit and all good things to ripeness by the disposition of Nature’). She emanates from the sun, a privileged signifier of his goodness and might.
Froissart's ’Dit de la marguerite’ (’Flor’) develops different positions for poet, marguerite and patron and substantially complicates the networks of desire between them. ’Flor’ initially establishes the marguerite as beloved. The poet cannot get his fill of looking at her (ll. 10—11) and finds her unmatched in virtue and beauty. He hopes for further joy in reward for his devotion, and comments that he has lived in hope for a long while (ll. 39—40). It is clear early on that this peerless creature is abstracted from multiple individual flowers, since it can be found in all seasons (l. 9) and in all green places, growing equally in ’le praiiel d'un hermitte’ (l. 19; ’a hermit's meadow’) and in ’les biaus gardins d’Egipte (l. 21; ’the beautiful gardens of Egypt’). The marguerite next becomes the figure for female desire in bereavement, through the origin myth of Herès and Cepheüs; daisies sprang from the earth seedlessly, a metamorphosis of her tears after his death (ll. 65—82). Mercury then enters, lovelorn discoverer of Cepheüs’ tomb and of the surrounding daisies. He marvels:
Car en jenvier,
Que toutes flours sont mortes pour l'ivier,
Celle perchut blancir et vermillier
Et sa coulour viveté tesmongnier.
Lors dist en soi: ’Or ai mon desirier!’
(For in January, when all flowers are dead because of winter, he saw this one white and crimson, its colour testifying to liveliness. Then he said to himself, ’Now I have my desiring!’)
He makes a garland which he sends via Iris to Ceres, his love, who returns the message that ’jamais jour n'amera sans partie’ (l. 116; ’he [Mercury] will never love unrequitedly’). The poet laments that his own fate is not so, though he still has high hopes. He declares again his devotion to the marguerite and compares his love with that of Mercury, whom the poet claims to emulate in his devotion to the marguerite and whose happy standing with his lady he would like to enjoy. From jealousy of Mercury the poet turns to fears of losing the marguerite, spoiled by the touch of a human hand ’ne rudes ne villains’ (l. 140; ’rough or ignoble’), and fantasizes about the possibility of enclosing the flower for himself alone — a far cry from the egalitarian ubiquity celebrated in the opening. The poem turns to a competition between lovers:
S’en ce parti vivoie, nul millour
Ne doit querir
Homs, ce m'est vis, qui tant aimme et desir
La flour que fai, car n'ai aultre desir
Que del avoir, pour veoir a loisir
Au vespre clore et au matin ouvrir
Et le solel de tout le jour sieuir
Et ses florons contre lui espanir.
Tele vertu doit on bien conjoïr
A mon semblant;
Si fai je, voir: la gist tout mon plaisir.
(If I lived in this condition, no one ought to seek for a better, it seems to me, who loves and desires the flower as I do, for I have no other desire than to have it so as to watch, at my leisure, it closing in the evening and opening in the morning, and following the sun all day long and spreading its flowerets for him. Such virtue should be celebrated, in my view. And indeed I do so: therein lies all my pleasure.)
The poet's pre-eminence thus lies in his toleration of his beloved's preference for another, the sun which both displays and shields the marguerite, forming a barrier between her and other lovers which renders her more desirable (ll. 49—63). Although he begins by lauding the marguerite's generous spreading of itself across social and cultural conditions, the poet ends by coveting the flower, fearing for it and enclosing it within a limiting, conventionally courtly model. In the course of the poem he therefore loses the flower, for he loses what he prizes in it. Not enjoying exclusive possession of the flower is painful, but aspiring to own it in this way is evidently a worse option. Froissart's marguerite is finally to be enjoyed only vicariously, as the object of a sovereign's pleasure.
This is not the end, though; the poet goes on:
Il m'est avis, le jour que le remir,
Qu'i ne me puet que tous biens avenir.
Et pour l'amour d'une seule a cui tir,
Dont je ne puis que de regars joïr
(C’est assés peu, mais ce me faut souffrir),
Toutes les voel honnourer et servir
D’or en avant,
Et si proumech a la flourette, quant
Es lieus vendrai la ou il en croist tant,
Tout pour l'amour de la ditte devant
J’en quoellerai une ou .II. en riant,
Et si dirai, son grant bien recordant:
’Vechi la flour qui me tient tout joiant’.
(It seems to me, in the day when I look on it, that only all good things can come to me from it. And for the love of one alone to whom I aspire and whom I can enjoy only by sight (which is little enough, but I must put up with it), I wish to honour and serve them [feminine plural] all henceforward. And I promise the little flower that when I come into a place where many of them grow, all for the love of the aforementioned one I shall laughingly gather one or two, and then I shall say, recalling her great worth, ’Here is the flower which keeps me all joyful.’)
His devotion to the singular, unpossessable marguerite will impel him to pluck flowers whenever possible. The relation between the universal and the particular allows the poet to promise himself amorous satisfactions, the marguerite's proxies compensating for her own inaccessibility, as Ceres promises Mercury love always requited but not necessarily by her. Each individual petal of every flower found by the poet bears one of Love's darts to inflame him; the unattainable object of desire is the very fount of particular, plural desires, these latter presumably corporeal and satisfiable. Constancy is maintained by promiscuity, so long as each individual flower is approached as an avatar of the marguerite, sole object of the poet's constant affection.
Thus Froissart turns Machaut's single-minded devotion awry. The positions are superficially similar but the effects are opposed. In the ’Dit de la marguerite’, Machaut's flower is unique and irreplaceable, the mere thought of her more rewarding than possession of all other flowers could be.64 The erotic substitutions instigated by Froissart's marguerite are quenched by Machaut's, as it also extinguishes inflationary desire directed towards the flower itself. For Froissart, however, the marguerite initiates and supports a series of substitutions which allow the subject to maintain his satisfactions at a tolerable, manageable level according to the pleasure principle — neither too much nor too little. Becoming through her a handler of the chains of signification that make up the symbolic order, he also becomes a poet. Whereas Froissart celebrates dissemination, plurality and substitution, Machaut in ’Lys’ presents ’marguerite’ as the original and exemplary signifier:
Et aussi chascuns aperçoit
Que c'est li plus biaus nons qui soit,
Et je croy tout certeinnement
Que cils nons fu premierement
Que ne furent les autres nons:
Pour c'en est si grans li renons.
(And also everyone perceives that it is the most beautiful name there is; and I believe quite firmly that this name existed first, before other names: and for this reason is its renown so great.)
The idea of poetic as well as of erotic activity implied here is very different from Froissart's revision.
The French texts I have been analysing emphasize the shift from a relatively socially humble setting, whose occupiers take direct and straightforward pleasure in the marguerite, to an elevated context in which both desiring subject and desired object are mysterious to the narrator. They accept and acclaim the marguerite as the possession of a higher authority while asserting that it can for that very reason be enjoyed by the poet in his own, lesser pursuit of pleasure. Pearl follows this pattern but develops it differently. It similarly emphasizes the overlord's pleasure; indeed, this dominates the final section of the poem, where the link-word ’paye’ (’pleasure’) is on almost every occasion joined to the alliterating ’Prince’. However, the Jeweller initially positions himself not as another legitimate though secondary enjoyer of the marguerite, but as one who must realign his own desire because this otherwise competes with that of the prince; and while no effective rivalry is possible, his desire is nevertheless significant for its rebelliousness. His new primary goal must be to interpret and satisfy the prince's desire, itself focused on his submission; this is to be achieved by identifying with the marguerite, learning to desire and possess her in a different way.
Faced with the impossibility of possessing his marguerite, Pearl's Jeweller turns not to substitute objects but to emulation, aiming to become like her an object for the delectation of a mighty overlord: ’He gef vus to be his homly hyne / And precious perle vnto his pay (ll. 1211—12; ’May he grant us to be workers of his own household, and precious pearls to his pleasure’). The potential which the chain of substitutions and significations opens up for the Jeweller, therefore, is not that of which Froissart's persona takes advantage — the not inconsiderable pleasures to be gleaned from consciously allowing one's desire to enter into that chain and from its dexterous manipulation (these pleasures are available to the Pearl-poet, in distinction to his unwriterly first-person narrator, but are not dramatized within the poem). Nor is it that construed by Machaut's later dit, of the Incarnational bridge redeeming earthly desires in heavenly ones. In Pearl, the chain as it presents itself to the Jeweller offers not only the possibility of taking pleasure in an object whose value is enhanced because it is also the object of the Other's desire, but also the possibility, by submitting to the Other's desire, of becoming oneself an object of the Other's pleasure. For Lacan, influenced by Kojève's interpretation of Hegel, desire is always ’le désir de l’Autre’, a complex notion which includes desire for the Other, desire of the Other's object of desire, and desire to be the object of the Other's desire. The Jeweller's final fantasy of becoming another marguerite and thus the Prince's (l. 1212) therefore represents a logical though surprising extension of the French court poets’ desire; neither identifies with the feminine, aristocratic marguerite, and thus Pearl's vision is significantly more humanly levelling and homogenizing — a thrust associated both with the rebellious vineyard labourers and with heaven itself. It also expresses a central human tendency according to Lacanian thinking.65 Not that the Other here is found wanting; the various arguments relating to heaven's sufficiency, where the rule is ’more and neuer þe lesse’, allow the heavenly Prince to desire without lacking.
When considering the moral lesson that in order to please the Other one ought to try to desire no more than is granted to one, it is important to remember that the Jeweller attracts the Prince's notice by his act of attempted transgression. He insists on this in the poem's final section:
When I schulde start in þe strem astraye,
Out of þat caste I wat bycalt:
Hit wat not at my Prynce paye.
Hit payed hym not þat I so flonc
Ouer meruelous mere, so mad arayde.
Of raas þa I were rasch and ronk,
et rapely þerinne I wat restayed.
(When I was about to plunge wrongly into the stream, I was summoned out of that purpose: it was not my Prince's pleasure. It did not please him that I in such frenzy flung myself over marvellous waters. However eager and impetuous I was in my headlong course, I was smartly restrained in that.)
The inflationary and transgressive logic earlier shown to characterize human desire also has its part to play in the Jeweller's submission:
To þat Prynce paye hade I ay bente,
And erned no more þen wat me gyuen,
And halden me þer in trwe entent,
As þe perle me prayed þat wat so þryuen,
As helde, drawen to Godde present,
To mo of his mysterys I hade ben dryuen;
Bot ay wolde man of happe more hente
Þen mote by ryt vpon hem clyuen.
Þerfore my ioye wat sone toriuen,
And I kaste of kythe þat laste aye.
(If I had always bent to that Prince's pleasure, and longed for no more than was given to me, and had stopped myself there, in faithful intent, as the pearl who was so fair requested, most likely I would have been guided to more of God's mysteries, drawn to God's presence; but always man wants to seize more happiness than falls to him by right. For this reason was my joy soon torn apart, and I cast out of lands that last forever.)
In concluding that he would have seen more had his excessive desire not prevented him, the Jeweller points the difficulties of freeing oneself from this earthly form of desire and of adopting heaven's. He also, however, demonstrates the value of this inherently extremist desire in leading us towards, and not only away from, the true, final object. Inflationary ’courtly love’ is here awarded a place within the economy of Christian desiring as a temporary perceptual aberration which brings the Jeweller the special favours of the Pearl-Maiden's visitation and the vision of the New Jerusalem, melding his vision with the apostle's.66 This is in line with the ideological exploitation of anamorphosis discussed in the first part of this chapter. However, as I have argued above, ’courtly love’ is induced in the Jeweller by the vision. In Pearl, queer desires and identifications ’stand for’ sublimation and for piety. The Jeweller's initial difficulties over the lost pearl are something else, and it is with a return to this unformed something that I close this chapter.
Famously, Pearl's final line links back to its first. This circular structure recalls that of some late medieval fixed lyric forms, such as the rondeau, where the opening strophe acts as a refrain to each of the remaining strophes, resulting in a series of returns to the beginning. Part of the art of working with such a form lies in making the return or refrain seem different at each reprise; the final repetition in particular may mark a significant realignment of the poem as a whole. This is so with Pearl, which returns us to the Jeweller's heartache and confusion. Christopher Cannon has recently argued that the formally realized theme of circularity emphasizes how grief remains intractable in the face of consolation, and God's ways incomprehensible to the human mind.67 I end this chapter by considering the role in Pearl of the return of the inconsolable, linking that to two distinct ways of understanding the function of anamorphosis within the poem.
Read from beginning to end once only, the later parts of the poem seem to answer the problems of melancholy, mourning and lethargy posed in the early section. A recognizably courtly experience is given new and personal meaning not, as in many other poets’ work, by the intervention of secular scholarship (classics, science, history) but by the revivifying return to and reworking of sacred text. The question of what to write about, which faces so many late medieval writers, is here answered resoundingly with Christian material, itself revivified by being filtered through the courtly discourses of the dream vision poem, dit amoureux and marguerite. Within Pearl's visionary space, heaven dominates earth by imposing its own construction of the latter as a distortion, ethically inferior though heuristically useful, of the former. From a different perspective, earth dominates heaven, for the latter is conceived within the courtly framework as the courtly topos of the ’improved’ court; even the biblical labourers with their uncouth demands are portrayed as embryonic courtly lovers. Thus the court and the courtly link heaven and earth and determine the limits of the poem's strictly discursive universe. Even where earthly subjects are urged to give up desiring ’more and more’, that desire is shown to be a route, via transgression, to immortality in the Christian afterlife for those who are less innocent and more sophisticated than the dead infant. The urgency and demand generated by the Maiden as a figure ’between two deaths’ is put to the service of a courtly ideology which is also a Christian one: make a sacrifice to the Other of your desire, for only so can you achieve the desire of the Other, which is the real object of your quest. Anamorphosis is absorbed into, indeed a key element of, the poem's ideological functioning.
This is not, however, the end of the matter. The ’constant dialectic’ between ’pattern and resistance to pattern’ that A. C. Spearing noted in Pearl powers both ideological pattern and its unstructured remainder.68 If we resist the pressure to look exclusively from the combined viewpoints of the revealed Truth and of the court, we see a different perspective in the formless world glimpsed before the vision begins; and this is more evident when a rondeau-style reading returns us to the opening section to repeat our early experience of the poem. This procedure emphasizes not ’more and more’ desire, shown to be inferior yet also recuperable into and indeed supportive of heavenly desire. Instead it highlights the loss suffered by the I-persona (not yet a Jeweller?) and his attempts to come to terms with it by assuring himself of its utility within a notion of the greater good. We see repeated his inability fully to accept this argument. The sense persists of a loss that resists compensation, rationalization or symbolization, and that is materialized in the unredeemed, palpitating life-substance and in the contaminated vision spoiling human reality for the mourner.69 This loss, associated in Lacanian psychoanalysis not with desire but with drive, is present in the poem as both life's base substance and as unliveable. Thus the dream vision purports to transform that loss into a lack which can act as the black hole at the centre of the symbolic order, undermining and grounding that order by means of the inflationary logic of desire. Substitution is no doubt the way for life to continue; in the end the poem itself is commended to the prince as the pearl that the Jeweller (at last a poet?) has brought to birth around his tears. Pearl thus foregrounds something more or less directly addressed in the poems I have discussed in this chapter, namely that the marguerite can be enjoyed only where loss is converted into lack, drive into desire. One must ’give up on one's desire’ in order to occupy a coherent, valued place within the symbolic order.70 This is justified in Pearl through the notion of redemptive sacrifice. But the poem also foregrounds a human wanting which resists both the dialectic of desire and the discourse of sacrifice, and this resistance in a way pays the lost pearl closer and deeper attention than does its sublation into the Pearl-Maiden. Nor is it lacking in artistry, even though it rejects what the poem advances as the conditions for the symbolic. On the contrary, it is the distinctive work of art, for Lacan as for Heidegger, to induct the Real into the human world (if an artwork fails to do so then it is mere formal experiment or pastiche). Thus Pearl allows us a glimpse, a temporary intuition, of a non-ideological Real before and after the vision. It seems, from the way the poem backs away from and marginalizes it, that this is not a poetic position to be occupied long-term; nevertheless, it does show us an art of loss unconverted into lack, thus moving from desire to drive. Anamorphosis, in this understanding, presents us with a Real which escapes the poem's courtly, Christian ideology.
Identifying hallmarks of the Real ought not to blind us to the fact that the poem's opening section sketches a coherent, though hardly fully expressed, ethics. The individual's loss feeds the collective — literally, as the seed-pearl is imagined to grow into wheat. Those who do not share my pain and about whom I do not specially care nevertheless benefit from my loss. This account appears only as a metaphor, but, after all, the whole poem is metaphorical; neither its figurative nature nor its failure to console the Jeweller diminishes this early account's ethical status. Here loss is not negated by being reinterpreted as sacrifice, sublation or recompense; only its material usefulness to others is affirmed, and that remains vague, as generalization or hypothesis — certainly it does not amount to a coherent symbolic system of exchange and substitution. The Jeweller's entre-deux-morts, although converted in the course of the poem into a Christian understanding of that state as one of submission to the Lord, at the poem's beginning and possible repetitive end makes an acceptance of subjective destitution the basis for another ethics of the Real, which could push both the court and Christianity in a significantly different direction from that elaborated within the dream vision. There is potential for a new order here, however marginally; one that might conceivably permit the labourers to move from rebellion to revolution.
On the other hand — and this constitutes my final argumentative turn — the persistence of loss within the poem is also its strongest argument for Christianity. Religion would be of little worth if it did not address the very gravest human problems, while to pretend that faith simply cures or obliterates grief would be trivial. The challenge gives the measure of the response. Exactly by escaping and even countering the poem's ideology, the non-ideological Real provides the supplement or constitutive exception which grounds that ideology, thus it is in the Jeweller's unaccounted-for pain that God is most manifest. The Reality that overflows human reality is His — He is the life-substance persisting beyond death, scandalizing our norms and nullifying our knowledge. Our second understanding of anamorphosis therefore folds back into the first. The stain remains across the artwork's foreground, to become a lure addressing the reader: you may not know God but you do have contact with the Real. Make your experience meaningful by accepting the doctrine here presented as His, though you know it to be factitious. Through its final repetition, Pearl calls upon its readers to confront themselves in their most meaningless and painful experience as shapeless oysters — the parallel with Riefenstahl's sea-life is suggestive — for out of that confrontation a pearl ’perfected in [its] incompleteness’ may come to birth.71
We thus find in Pearl Christianity interwoven between the three Lacanian registers, evident from the various critiques above. Whereas Christianity's imaginary aspect in the poem makes it seem ’clubbish’ in the insistent homophilia and satisfaction of the heavenly horde, the symbolic shows it to be ’thin-blooded’ and calculating in its proposal to overlook the death of a fleshly child in favour of her formal exaltation, while the Real emphasizes its ’unsociable’ quality through the isolation of the bereft Jeweller. These shortcomings are even highlighted in the text. Following a logic that is at once characteristically Christian and typically courtly, the poem's ideology ’finds a redemptive truth precisely in th[e] most unpropitious of places’.72 As in earlier chapters the king's inadequacies raised him above rational challenge and the courtly beloved's failings guaranteed his desirability, so in Pearl the vision invading and overwhelming human life is ultimately authenticated by its alien, unreal and illogical quality.