Wednesday, May 20, 2009

False voices and true lovers: Bestializing Machaut’s Lay de Plour (Malgre Fortune)

As a child, I spent endless hours of fascination over a toy stuffed frog, complete with a zip down its back. When you unzipped the frog and inverted the plush, the frog turned into a prince, its animal identity hidden in the toy whilst giving body to the metamorphosized prince. This model of transfiguration evidently captivated more than just an eight-year-old boy, fascinated with the mechanics of fabric. Bruno Bettelheim’s groundbreaking Freudian analysis of classical fairy tales considers the boundary between man and beast fluid and continuous, reading the frog’s magical transformation into Prince as a psychical shift in perspective of a maturing lover. It is, as Bettelheim argues, the mutating ideological apparatus behind the princess’ gaze which transforms beast into man and vice versa, entailing what Slavoj Zizek might call a shift in “parallax view”, causing the beautification of the beast or the bestializing of the beloved.

Michael Camille’s illuminating studies of representation and figuration in the manuscripts of Roman de Fauvel similarly brings to light the intriguing reversibility between bestiality and humanity. Chaillou’s satirical depiction of Fauvel, the power-hungry horse, undergoes a series of mutations in manuscript illuminations, appearing not only as fully bestialised, but also on a series of hybrid representations from incomplete metamorphosis to full human verisimilitude. In stark contrast to jongoluers and minstrely musicians depicted wearing beastly masks, the illuminations in the Fauvel manuscripts seem to suggest an epistemology of difference that is more than merely “skin-deep”. Chaillou draws from the Aristotelian tradition which casts the body as a vessel caught between the animal (sensuous) and the human (rational) soul, but aestheticizes this critical difference as one of masquerading inversion: Fauvel is a beast masquerading as a human, while the revellers are humans masquerading as beasts. Fauvel's own "false front" is merely an inversion of the mask, with the beastly side flipped on the inside.

The slippery division between lover and beast literally marks the artistic corpus of Guillaume de Machaut as allegorical “masks” in the menagerie of courtly lovers. Two works, Le Dit de l’alerion and Dit dou lyon come to immediate attention. In a comparison of these two dits, both male and female genders are equally presented as beastly beings: L’alerion centers the male (human) protagonist as a learned trapper of (feminized) hunting birds, whereas Lyon bestializes a homosocial network of male rivals vying for the affection of the island’s single (human) dame. In the latter, as Margaret J. Ehrhart opines, the human autonomy of the narrating “I” is threatened by his attraction to the island’s female inhabitant. Moved to amorous emotions, the narrator recognition of the “beasts” as potential rivals both casts himself above them while simultaneously implicates (identifies) himself in their company as one of them, competing under the gaze of the dame. A “kindred spirit” under the auspices of love thus bestializes himself by accepting his given subjectivity under the rules of courtship, acceding to the reduced status of beast in order to battle for his lady’s love.

Machaut’s L’alerion, however, suggests a different take on the subject of love and courtship in the game of fin’ amours. Ladies are bestialized objects of desire, falcon birds that have to be deceived into trapping – in order for the lover to better his chances of winning his ladies’ love, he must first prove a master of deception amidst the homosocial before emerging triumphant in the realm of the heterosexual. L’alerion reads as an extended didactic dit on the tips and tricks of courtly love, but above all, trickery is highlighted as a unifying theme. Trapping a prized falcon bird, the narrator declares, demands that the lover be “suitably equipped with tools” (60), preferably learnt in secret from more experienced lovers in the community of the homosocial. The lover “ought to regulate his thoughts, his actions, and his speech in a form that hides them well ... [and] must be on guard not to draw regard unduly” (51). Later in the dit, Machaut allegorizes the trap in which the lover lays for his beloved as a “small bird”, a bestialized object of affection to attract its prey:

“In this way should a lover act / who would, in his own interest, / set up a trap in such a way / that it appear agreeable, / arranged in the customary way [...] It (the trap) would contain the noble bird / used by most gentlemen / known as the ‘amorous sweet glance,’ / nurtured with the greatest care” (65)

By this double act of bestializing, the narrator implies that to “trap” the falcon, the lover must first offer himself as prey by presenting himself as domesticated beast (a “little bird”) of the courtly trade, disciplined and ennobled by “eloquent and courteous speech” (ibid). Hunter and hunted are obfuscated in Machaut’s clever twist of the bestial mask: lover captivates his beloved by offering himself captive in the first place. Advanced recognition of mutual deceit underlies the risky adventures of courtly love:

“It was thus good to deceive her / with this courteous deception, / for such deceit may benefit / the hearts of many, / when it turns / them towards the good, away from ill: / thus she who finds herself deceived / in such a way is no whit harmed.” (69)

In the same breath, Machaut warns against discarding the ideal lover’s disguise too quickly under the pressures of delayed consummation. To stay implicated within the discourse of fin’ amours, the rejected (or abjected) lover should “hold his peace and mind his task” since “too much talk ... does harm” and transforms his amorous “song ... to a sad lament” (66). Full admission into the economy of fin’ amours demands that the subject “suspend his heart in a true amorous suspense” and “faithfully ... await Love’s approval” (62). In other words, the subject is instructed to betray his true emotions, deceiving even himself in order to be taken seriously as a worthy suitor. The lover dons a “false front” of self-deceit, stoically enduring his lady’s apparent “discordant deeds” (54) for want of a delayed possible future in which both hearts are “so much in tune with one another and ... [thus] truly bound together” (56). The uninitiated novice too inexperienced to sustain his “false appearance” befalls a fate of madness, ousting him out of love’s orbit and into a self-indulgent spectacle of bickering bestiality:

“But even if he holds his peace, / if his heart should him dispose to show his sadness openly / when it intrudes upon his joy, / in manner or in countenance, / he makes his cause quite manifest / to others: this can well be said. / If he cries today, tomorrow laughs, / how he behaves will be remarked / and he can’t be excused for it. / In such behaviour danger lies / as much as if he’d spoken out ...” (51)

True love, the poet seems to suggest, is the prolonged effort of domesticating a wild beast rather than hastily divulging in immediate pleasures of the flesh. An illumination in Manuscript E (Fig. 1) accompanying the dit heightens this observation. Here, the narrative “I” of the dit is portrayed desiring the rare Alerion perched on the hand of one of two merchants. The potential poet/purchaser touches his wallet positioned suggestively near his crotch, while the two merchants gaze dangerously into each others’ eyes. Within the bounds of the frame, the horizons of socially accepted sexual boundaries are threatened by the “suspended animation” of the action – should the poet “purchase” the Alerion with his money (seed), the bird(s) propping the gap between male partners which neutralizes homosocial relations may disappear, leading both poet and merchants into unspeakably bestial acts. Fortunately, defiling the honour of the Alerion and compromising normative structures of sexual relations are not on the mind of the poet. Instead, he takes “great care ... not to attempt to buy the bird, for it was clear [he] never could make her [his] own in such a way.” (95)

Machaut’s oft-neglected Le Lay de Plour (Malgre fortune et son tour) paradoxically goes against his own advice against superfluous exposition. Apparently discarding the warning to keep one’s earnest animal desires at bay, Lay de Plour’s poet-protagonist throws off his “false front” in anguish, confronting – even accosting – his listening (or reading) audience with an all-too-honest disclosure of his heart. Arguably one of Machaut’s later composed works, Lay de Plour shares the same name as an earlier Lay, “composed” out of the narrative demands of Le Jugement du Roy de Navarre where, as penance for his misjudgement of feminine subjectivity, Guillaume the poet is sentenced to compose a lay. (For purposes of clarity, I will be referring to the lay accompanying Navarre as Lay de Plour and the later work as Malgre Fortune.) The musical, lyrical and rhetorical content of both lays, however, could not be more different. While Lay de Plour concerns a grieving feminine “je” mourning over the death of her beloved and the passionate tortures which the memory of her departed inflicts, Malgre Fortune depicts a rejected lover fallen from the vestiges of fin’ amours grace.

Written in 12 standard versicles, ouvert-clos structures and a recapitulation of the opening incipit up a perfect 5th in the 12th verse, Machaut’s poet-protagonist in Malgre Fortune directs his mournful aggression against his beloved, and against the pressures of performative “false fronts”. In contrast to Lay de Plour, the declamatory “je” does not wish to find aesthetic “life” in a “book”. Rather, the poetic “je” establishes himself as authorial source of the musical and lyrical, pronouncing that he wishes to make:

“De mon amoureus labour “From my amorous labour

Un piteus lay A piteous lay

Que je nomme et nommeray That I am naming and shall name

Le lay de plour” The lay of weeping.”

Both lays, however, parodies the craft of lay-making by foregrounding the writing process instead of the finished product. An aesthetic excess haunts both lays, denying them a sense of closure and self-referentiality. While Lay de Plour’s female protagonist continues articulating her desire to be enshrined in writing long after the writing is brought to completion, Malgre Fortune’s lovesick poet declares that he will write a “lay de plour”, but never succeeds in completing the actual poem. Instead, Malgre Fortune tracks the poet’s pseudo-biographical transition from uncouth, maddened beastly lover to smooth, refined subject under the laws of fin’ amours at the cost of the lay itself. Listening to his narcissistic ramblings, the poet discovers his own deficiencies and abandons the project of the Lay midway, seeking forgiveness for his vulgar excesses and humbly acceding to perform the “false front” of a refined lover. Put another way, the poet is saved from the cause his solipsistic artistic inspiration precisely by his artistic enterprise: his impulse to etch the lay upon the back of another sacrificed beast (the parchment) helps him to externalize (materialize and therefore stage) the gaze of his lover, revealing to him his own inner beastly qualities. Only by doing so, as Lacan might posit, can the poet comport his performative structure to the gaze of his beloved, inverting the bestial mask to transform himself into a well-subjectivized object of desire of the “Other’s desire”.

Lamenting that the object of his affection has forbidden the poet to “pass the threshold of her dwelling”, he bemoans the maddening imprisonment of his solitary thoughts, claiming that Love has done him wrong for his “humblement l’endure” (“humble enduring”), causing him to live “contre nature” (“contrary to nature”) in “desconfiture” (discomfort). Perched on the verge of despair, the poet decries the necessity of such “false fronts”, although later he pines:

“Si que pleindre “Thus I do not wish to plain

Ne complaindre or complain

Ne me vueil plus ains vueil findre more than I wish to fain

Que mi doloureus complaint that my sorrowful complaint

Soient maindre might be less

Puis qu’attaindre” than that which I attaint”

His song of expressive detesting becomes one of self-reflexivity, a project of realigning himself with the necessity of his performed “false front” for fear of further making a spectacular beast of himself in the social presence of others. Likening his song to “Li cignes contre sa mort / se reconforte en chantant” (“the swan before his death / [comforting] himself in singing”, the poet ruminates over the dangers of unbridled beastly gestures, noting that such unrefined (in)versions of the animal-mask makes a fool of him. Indeed, he berates himself for “je parole contre moy” (“speaking against [himself]”), having committed the sin of disclosing his heart’s lamentations. In verse 11, the poet then commits himself to Venus, seeking forgiveness for “pechie de la rudesse” (“the sin of crudeness/rudeness”) by his narcissistic outburst. Vowing to comport himself to the role of stoic lover, the poet ennobles his activity through the exercise of humanly restraint, domesticating his bestial side by inverting the mask, although, paradoxically, betraying his essential emotions. On the other hand, the torture of exile from his beloved’s quarters is sublimated into gentlemanly gesture of nobility and refined social stature, ennobling the poet within his immediate community.

Yet, Machaut clues us in to another hidden detail of the poet’s well-camouflaged relations with the lady. In verse 7, the poet berates Love for turning against him, “me fait plus contraire Qu’Alixandres ne fist Daire” (“[making] more against [him] than Alexander was ever against Darius”). In this rhetorical slip-of-the-tongue, the poet (perhaps unwittingly) allies himself with one of history’s best-remembered losers, famous for his cowardly acts of flight from battling with Alexandria. Has the poet indicated yet another “false front” he has adopted, duping listeners by their undiscerning leap to sympathy? Is the poet not secretly confessing that the truth regarding his banishment from his ladies’ territories is not in fact a red-herring, that his plight is caused by his own cowardice and lack of courage to confront his lady face-to-face? After comparing himself as a contemporary Darius, the poet explains:

“Et si ne m’os traire “And so I dare not pull

Vers son dous viaire against the sweet image of her

Pour mes maus retraire to drag back my ills,

Car mieus me vaut taire for it is better for me to keep silent

Qu’a li plus desplaire than to cause her further displeasure,

Qui me puet faire et deffaire.” who can make and unmake me.”

The poet’s true dilemma, is twofold: he is both unable to digest harsh reality of rejection and cannot bear to bring himself under the direct gaze of his lady who “can make and unmake” him. It is the bestial version of his lady and her de-subjectivizing gaze that “se taindre et destaindre” (“makes [him] lose courage and destroys [him]”), a two-faced (even hybridized) chameleon that collapses beauty and beast into a single continuum, though on opposing sides. This, Slavoj Zizek reminds us, is the crucial ambivalent nature of the objet petit a raised to the level of das ding (“The Thing”). For Zizek, the “censoring” (displacement) of the Lady as a form of power-discourse authorised by an overriding “Big Other” affects:

“[Not only] the status of the marginal or subversive force that the power discourse endeavours to dominate but, at an even more radical level, splits the power discourse itself from within.” (31)

That is, the lady is the monstrous loved-other of the split objet, the traumatic void about which the entire support of the lovesick subject is structured, regulating his access to jouissance (a position between pleasure/pain, between laughing/crying (L’alerion, 54). By embracing his animal side, the poet dislocates himself from the Symbolic of fin’ amours, “traversing the fantasy” and becoming abject-subject of the Freudian death drive (42). The teleology of the subject’s reidentification with the Symbolic order of fin’ amours and triumphant re-emergence as “fully constituted” fin’ amours subject can thus be read as the inversion of Zizek’s “traversing the fantasy”, literally a “regression into fantasy” by logical sleight of hand, finding refuge in the fantasy that he may be someday “addressed” by his beloved and have his pangs of love finally cured, or, at least elevated as an honourable, faithful lover amongst his peers.

Musically, Machaut effectively portrays the poet’s “regression into fantasy” via a teleological trajectory dominated by two musica recta hexachordal poles of F and C respectively. Figure 2 shows a reduced voice-leading graph of the discrete pitch-based “cells” that compose each successive verse. Verses 1-5 are dominated mainly by a three-note descending figure A-G-F, strengthening the tonal importance of F as a cadential port-of-call, reinforcing the initial authority of the recta F-hexachord with numerous inflections of B-fa as well as its strategic participation in ouvert-clos relations in verses 3,4,6 and 7 (see figure 3 for a condensation of final, ouvert-clos and incipit features).

From verses 7-12, however, an 8-note voice-leading figure (F-E-D-C, Bb-A-G-F) begins to fill out the pitch progressions. While potentially reifying the controlling feature of a diatonic mode centred about F, it is also possible to consider the octachordal descending figure as an overlapping of both the F (F-G-A- Bb-C) and C (C-D-E-F-G) hexachord members, navigating the shifting tonal terrain to a higher musical goal. In verse 8, a sudden increase in B-mi population density over B-fa tips the tonal balance in favour of the C-hexachord, overriding the F-hexachord’s organizing role. Furthermore, the involvement of B-mi in both verse 8’s ouvert and clos procedures shifts hexachordal gears, stabilizing C as a new gravitational centre of attraction. Indeed the proceeding verses confirm this pole-swapping: verse 9, 10 and 11 consist of a repeating G-F-E-D-C figure, with C being the clos final for verses 5 and 8-12. Rhetorically, it is as if the subject migrates to the ‘natural’ recta C-hexachord by forfeiting his drive-centred insistence on B-fa (F-hexachord), precisely “naturalised” by means of embracing a disciplined subjectivity in the Symbolic of fin’ amours.

More curiously, however, are the random interjections of an F# ficta note, belonging neither to the economy of the B or C-hexachords. Springing to declamatory prominence in verses 2, 9 and 12, the F# ficta appears like a foreign bestial body, haunting the (bodily) sanctity of Malgre et Fortune’s dominantly recta circuit. Upon close inspection of manuscript sources, the mystery deepens. Based on existing evidence, Machaut’s Malgre Fortune survives in four sources: MS A, MS F-G, MS E and MS V-G. Of these four sources, only MS A, F-G and V-G contain the poem with notated music, usually found in the Lays section of the manuscript. MS E, presumably compiled after the composer’s death, interestingly attributes Malgre Fortune to the end of Machaut’s Le Livre du Voir Dit (“True Story”), though it survives without any notated music to the poem. Machaut’s other Lay de Plour is linked directly to Navarre by means of narrative, but no other surviving manuscript except MS E makes the attribution of Malgre Fortune to Voir Dit. Though it is possible that Machaut later decided to make such a connection, we have no evidence available to suggest so, or otherwise. If, following the compiler of MS E’s suggestion, we decide to read Malgre Fortune against Voir Dit, one is left with two works querying and queering the nature of “truth” by means of “false fronts” and masterly deception.

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