The Meaning of Desire - Sado-masochism and Courtly Love

The Meaning of desire -
sado-masochism and Courtly Love,
an Essay by Emmanuel-Juste Duits, published in France


In our consumer societies, we have placed desire at the very centre of our existence. Man struggles to satisfy his many and various desires; these, by a process of constant growth and rebirth, provide him with a purpose to his existence, while at the same time driving the economy. The culmination of man’s desire is the sexual impulse and the idealized image of woman. Now, the chief hidden characteristic of desire is that it cannot be extinguished. As Schopenhauer asserts, the tragedy of the human condition can be summed up thus: desire produces pain; possession of the object of one’s desire produces boredom. The various religions have suggested a worthy object of desire in the Absolute or Final Release; contemporary man, on the other hand, has turned to material wealth and ‘experiences’ – extreme sports, travel, etc., - in order to satisfy his insatiable desires. This latter path, however, seems less and less convincing: few men are sufficiently wealthy to treat themselves to the experiences they dream about…

Should we then renounce desire and adopt a Buddhist code of ethics, as seems to be somewhat fashionable at the moment? Or is there another possibility that has remained hidden until now?
Society leaves us a limited choice: we either choose renunciation or a consummation that remains unsatisfying. Let us consider a third, more demanding way, together with the reasons for choosing it. By specifically working on our desire itself, it may become possible to satisfy it. This is a roundabout route, but one which escapes the usual alternative. In our view, sado-masochism, like courtly love, is an attempt to distance the object of our desire, while, paradoxically, satisfying it in a deeper way than by direct ‘consummation’.

In La Vénus à la fourrure, Sacher-Masoch describes his evolution – or rather, the evolution of his narrator – in the following way:

“My austere manner (…) and the shyness I felt in front of women was nothing other than an excessively keen taste for beauty. In my imagination, sensuality gradually became a sort of cult, and I swore never to squander its sacred treasures on a common creature, but rather to preserve them for an ideal woman, and, if possible, for the goddess of love herself. (…) I came to worship them (women). In sensuality I perceived something sacred, indeed, the very principle of the sacred, and in woman and her beauty I perceived something of the divine(Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, La Vénus à la fourrure (Venus with Fur), trans)(…)”
These sentiments could well have been borrowed from a troubadour - Troubadour is the name used to describe the lyric poets of the 12th and 13th centuries who composed their works in one of the languages of the southern part of what is now France - admiring his lady from a distance. Yet, this is one of the founding texts of sado-masochism. What links them both? The same hidden aspiration: to reach transcendence by means of the flesh. This is because what constitutes the sacred in each case is extraordinariness, intensity and beauty – those vestiges of a transcendent order that constantly call the individual to realize himself in the most exalted way possible.

Strong objections will be raised here, for the media image of SM likens it to a more or less unhealthily deviant practice or to one indulged in by those on the margins of society in order to whip up dulled senses. Given the vogue for sado-masochism and the vast amount of literature devoted to it, are its devotees’ motives quite so simplistic, since these people are so often found in the intelligentsia and the upper echelons of power? If we focus on the religious aspects of sado-masochism – the genuflection, the decorum (incense, candles, crosses), the ritual clothing, reminiscent of the Inquisition or nuns’ garb, not forgetting the solemn liturgical music… we will realize this ceremonial is not simply there by chance.

Clearly the ‘transcendence’ aimed at is not the transcendence of the main religions. There is no god here, and even less the notion of any clearly defined dogmas. What we find here is a more or less prolonged alteration of the conscious state achieved by the stirring up and frustration of desire. This is a state more ardently sought after than pleasure itself, and it comes about through suffering and self sacrifice. SM, as commonly understood, merely retains the outward appearance without understanding what is really at issue. Far from reducing their quest to a simple hedonistic pursuit, some ‘followers’ of SM seem to be pursuing heightened awareness – as did the troubadours - by hetero…dox means. But surely the true goal of desire is that ideal state - going beyond the self?

Let us ponder the meaning of love, taking as our starting point factors usually thought of as peripheral, but which are in fact extremely revealing. It is our belief that the links between sado-masochism and courtly love demand a fundamental re-examination of the whole idea of sexuality and the couple.

Commonly held opinion waves ‘obvious facts’ in our face. The mystery of the sexual urge seems to have been resolved or even removed. And the goal of desire is pleasure, or the ‘reproductive instinct’, the purpose of love being mere procreation.
We should not be afraid to query this. What if this normative vision were to be false, or at least inadequate? Passion often implies suffering, sacrifice or constraint. We cannot reduce these to mere ‘pleasure’, unless we want to play on words. The delay of love includes within itself a desire for the absolute that far transcends all lesser, easy satisfaction. As for the reproductive instinct, it all too often serves as a pretext to deny the value of homosexual couples or those without children – all those who have deliberately chosen not to have any.

During the twelfth century, courts in the Languedoc (south of the France) area witnessed the appearance of a subversive form of love, which questioned both religious and naturalistic ideas, as well as the practices of the couple and the family. ‘Courtly love’, far from being a bland form of romanticism, posed a challenge to medieval norms, but it also challenges the ‘liberated’ notions of our own day. Relations between the troubadour and his lady were sterile and antisocial; the couple did not indulge in normal sexual relations; they mixed eroticism and spirituality in a cocktail that upset all kinds of moral and sexual conformists. By separating feelings of love from what is usually mixed in with it (the marriage contract, family obligations, sexual habits, etc.), courtly love acts in much the same way as a chemical reagent: it isolates desire in the pure state, thereby enabling us to grasp its very nature. Courtly love was condemned by the Church, because it overthrew three supposedly inviolable orders: the religious order, which claims that the essence of love is realised in the love of God (or the One); the social order, according to which marriage should be ‘respected’ and adultery prohibited; finally, the biological order, which assumes that people – and woman in particular – find their true value in procreation.

It is not immediately obvious that we have long forgotten this love that originated in Provence.(A region which forms the south-east of present-day France). However, we have done so, and for understandable reasons: it calls us to an erotic asceticism and summons us to regard the other as sacred. It presupposes a non-simplistic image of both man and woman, as divine yet incarnate beings, capable of realising their highest potential in the flesh and the sovereignty of their own actions. Not only does it constantly oppose the prevailing ethic, with its restrictive structures: it also opposes debauchery and theories that reduce feelings to the level of mere biological drives. What is involved here is both philosophical and practical in nature. Let us not forget the fact that love does not need a biological or ‘utilitarian’ purpose in order to exist; it deserves to exist without them – for example, apart from procreation.

Here, then, is the enigma: what is the basic nature of this desire for love, which cannot be reduced to mere pleasure or the survival of the species? What sort of new ethic of love can be adduced, to transcend both the family model and that of nihilist debauchery?



CHAPTER 1. SM and Cortezia

Omphale – a founding myth

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-95)

SM dominatrix and courtly dominatrix

Eroticism of the mind

The death wish

‘SM therapy’ – a modern introduction

The source of the therapeutic effect of SM

Courtly love – a precursor of SM?

CHAPTER 2. The Meaning of love as seen in the light of courtly love

A hybrid civilisation

William IX, prince of Aquitaine

Love as opposed to marriage?

The spiritual essence of love

Love at a distance

Esthetics of love

CHAPTER 3. A philosophy of courtly love

The essence of desire

Lovers of the divine

The sacredness of love

Androgynous originals

Discussion of the theory of androgyny

Conclusion: towards a revolution in the life of the couple

The modern couple

A rebirth of Cortezia?

Erotic friendship