Emma Campbell

title.none: Griffin, The Object and the Cause (Emma Campbell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0710.011 07.10.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Emma Campbell, University of warwick,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Griffin, Miranda. The Object and the Cause in the Vulgate Cycle. Oxford: Legenda, 2005. Pp. xi, 170. $69.00 1-900755-67-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.10.11

Griffin, Miranda. The Object and the Cause in the Vulgate Cycle. Oxford: Legenda, 2005. Pp. xi, 170. $69.00 1-900755-67-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Emma Campbell
University of warwick

The Vulgate Cycle is a vast cyclical enterprise comprising five books: the Estoire del Saint Graal, the Estoire Merlin, the Lancelot, the Queste del Saint Graal and La Mort le Roi Artu. The three romances that conclude the Vulgate Cycle--the Lancelot, the Queste del Saint Graal and the Mort-were probably composed before 1230 and are also known as the Prose Lancelot Cycle. Later on (between 1230 and 1235), the Prose Lancelot was further elaborated to produce an even larger cycle known as the Lancelot-Grail Cycle or Vulgate Cycle. This larger collection prefaces the Prose Lancelot with two other texts: the Estoire del Saint Graal and the Estoire Merlin. As even this brief sketch of the evolution of the Vulgate Cycle illustrates, questions of causality and temporality are complicated both within the narrative itself and on the level of the Cycle's composition. The later romances retrospectively narrate the origins of the stories contained in the Prose Lancelot, a cycle which chronologically predates them in terms of its composition but which relates events supposed to follow on from those of the Estoire del Saint Graal and Estoire Merlin. Partly as a result of this, the Vulgate Cycle is characterised by chronological loops and internal contradictions. Such complexities are not of course unique to the Vulgate Cycle; they are a relatively common feature of medieval cyclical narrative. Indeed, Miranda Griffin's study of "the object and the cause" in the Vulgate Cycle does not claim that the complex patterns of causality it explores are necessarily specific to this Cycle. Instead, what Griffin's book aims to examine are the ways in which the patterns of causality that might be considered to characterise the Cycle's compositional structure (and the scholarly work that has been carried out on it) might be reconsidered from a perspective informed by Lacanian psychoanalysis and how this might also illuminate other features of this large body of texts, which seem to be concerned with objects and causes in other ways.

Griffin's main argument is that the Vulgate Cycle organises relations of desire to a series of objects--most notably the Grail, the book, and the body--each of which apparently proposes an origin or cause for the narrative. However, these objects are only able to represent origins or causes insofar as they are retrospectively portrayed as such. The Grail, for instance, is an object of desire called into being by the quest that ostensibly takes it both as its origin and as its ultimate goal; as such, it is caught in a complex movement of anticipation and retrospection that challenges straightforward causality as well as conventional notions of linear time. Through its depiction of the objects that Griffin examines, the Vulgate Cycle thus announces a desire for origins while, at the same time, representing that desire as constantly frustrated. This impossible and continually thwarted desire for a cause is also reflected in other ways. For instance, the Cycle repeatedly insists on its truthful origins while playing on its lack of reliable origin; in its use of prose--which was thought to be a more reliable, truthful form than verse--the Cycle also lays claim to veracity, yet, at the same time, it quite clearly remains conscious of its fictional status. Moreover, this central paradox is something that operates not only on the level of the texts themselves but also on the level of modern criticism and editorial decision-making. It is generally accepted that the Vulgate Cycle was composed at various times by a number of different authors, making an original, authentic text difficult to disentangle from the mouvance of the scribal tradition. As a result, modern editors and critics of the Cycle seem repeatedly to find themselves caught up in the impossible logic of desire for an object-cause that governs the elaboration of the text they are studying, searching for an "authentic" version that appears as such only by virtue of the fact that it is retroactively constituted as the authentic source for other texts.

The book is structured around the three objects that Griffin identifies as central to the mechanisms of desire at work in the Vulgate Cycle: the Grail, the book and the body. The Introduction outlines Griffin's central arguments and gives useful summaries both of the critical context for the Vulgate Cycle and of the psychoanalytic formulations she uses in the book. Using the Lacanian distinction between logical and chronological time, Chapter 1 then explores the relationship between chronology and causality and, most especially, how temporality is connected to anticipation and retroaction in the Vulgate Cycle. In this chapter, Griffin explores how meaning is created as part of a process that, on the one hand, anticipates an ending that is predetermined and, on the other, retrospectively creates a cause from the point of view of the effect. This process creates a complex temporality that interweaves past, present, and future. The way this process is implicated in the formation of subjectivity is analysed in connection with the depiction of Lancelot in the various texts of the Cycle (as well as in Chretien's Charrete). Griffin then goes on to consider how the retrospective reconstruction of the past as a premonition of the future works through objects such as the Ship of Solomon or the body of Perceval's sister, and in connection with the prophecies concerning Mordred's destiny.

Chapter 2 develops the discussion of predestination through retroactive reconstruction by focusing on how the Vulgate Cycle creates a prehistory for the Grail to mask the contradictory chronology of a quest that creates what it seeks. The representation of the Grailwinner is an important part of this process. Griffin thus initially turns her attention to Galahad's tangled genealogy, which is established in order to secure his status as the perfect Grail knight. The repeated--yet confused-- narratives of descent attached to Galahad in the Vulgate Cycle both highlight and conceal the mechanisms by which he is anticipated as the Grailwinner. Like the Grail, Griffin argues, Galahad is an object of desire called into being by the place he is required to fill in the quest, a place represented in the Cycle by the empty seat at the Round Table. In her discussion of the Grail itself, Griffin develops her analysis of its participation in logical time by arguing that, despite the way in which the quest is described by some modern scholars, the Grail's paradoxical status as object- cause calls into question the notion of a fixed goal or end-point for the quest. The Grail is only marked as the goal of the quest once the quest is over. Moreover, as the elusive and multiform object around which the quest is organised, the Grail's position in the narrative is associated with its excessive or impossible visibility. The problem of seeing (or not seeing) the Grail is related by Griffin to its status as an object of desire (the Lacanian objet a)--an object that represents the absence of representation while simultaneously organising desire around this absence.

Chapter 3 concerns itself with the book. As a venerated, conspicuously absent, and authoritative object, the book has much in common with the Grail; yet, whereas the Grail derives its power from its ability to contain the body of Christ, the book is revered for its potential to contain and transmit the truth in its totality. This nonetheless results in a double-bind: the totalising ambitions of prose romance in its attempt to account for everything mean that there will always be another book to be written before the story is complete. The book--as the object that guarantees the telling of the complete truth--is thus always at one remove from the text one is reading. Griffin thus reads the book in terms of the fetish: that which promises completion while remaining continually haunted by absence. The logic of fetishism, she argues, organises the relationship between truth and fiction, memory and forgetfulness in the Vulgate Cycle. Griffin explores this thesis both in connection with the references to the Conte du Brait in the Post-Vulgate Merlin (and critical responses to them) and in reference to the quest for the book that opens the Estoire. The role of the voice in the Vulgate Cycle is also considered, as that which competes with the book as an object that guarantees the truth in its entirety and, in some cases, completes the book where gaps in its inclusiveness threaten to appear.

Chapter 4 examines the last of the objects identified by Griffin as central to the Cycle: the body. Like the book, the body's wholeness in the Vulgate Cycle is a fantasised image of perfection that is haunted by fragmentation and lack. Griffin deploys the notion of the fetish in a subtly different way in this final chapter in order to explore the specificity of its application to the body. In Freud, the fetish is the result of the male spectator's traumatic encounter with what he perceives to be the mutilated body of the mother. Fetishism thus creates two fictional bodies: what is perceived to be a castrated body and another, "whole" body that masquerades as its cause. If the fetish creates two bodies in varying states of wholeness, what perpetuates the two bodies in this state is what Lacan describes as the zone-entre-deux- morts (or "zone-between-two-deaths.") Griffin examines this notion of a space between two deaths and its relationship to the body in a range of examples, most notably in connection with the afflictions of the mortally wounded but undead Chevalier enferr in the Lancelot. In this section of the chapter, Griffin deftly explores Lancelot's identification with the undead corpse of the knight and the splitting of Lancelot's chivalric persona, a split that is associated with his love for Guenevere and that is manifested in a variety of ways, not least of which is the fragmentation of his own body. The figure of the virgin--and anxiety over the corruption of virginity--are also examined in connection with the logic of the fetish. This leads into the final section of the chapter, which looks at bodies that represent disturbing visions of gender and sexuality in terms of wholeness and mutilation--bodies that are often associated with characters who profess a love for Lancelot. Griffin here examines in some detail the "false Guenevere" episode, which she argues creates a second body for Guenevere situated between two deaths, a body upon which punishment for the queen's adultery can be visited. The relationship between doubling and the space between two deaths is, finally, explored in connection with Lancelot's relationship with Galehot.

Griffin's Conclusion examines the scenes of the Eucharist, where the Grail, the book, and the body come together most spectacularly. Such moments represent points at which chronology is suspended, and readers and characters are offered a glimpse of a time frame beyond that of the human world. For Griffin, this fantasised access to the end of time is precisely what enables the eschatological perspective that governs the constitution of subjectivity and desire explored in the book as a whole. This perspective is equivalent to the gaze of the Other, the fantasised point from which causes and effects are clearly aligned.

This is a highly accomplished and subtle analysis of the Vulgate Cycle that manages to negotiate successfully between primary material, the critical debates surrounding that material, and psychoanalytic theory. The difficulty of such an enterprise should not be underestimated. Griffin maintains throughout an impressive command of a large corpus of primary material, while also offering elegant and original discussion of key passages and comment on major scholarly debates. Throughout the book, her explanations of the psychoanalytic models she deploys are remarkably lucid, well- informed and to-the-point. Though there are inevitably moments where explanation of the ideas being used is necessary, the use of psychoanalysis serves to illuminate and support the argument rather than overpowering it. Perhaps more importantly, in weaving psychoanalytic ideas into discussion of medieval literature, Griffin is able to use the literature to explain the theory rather than simply applying a rigid set of psychoanalytic models. This not only allows her to offer a medievalist's perspective on Lacanian deployments of medieval examples but also results in a more flexible relationship between theory and text--something which enables her to push her readings in different directions while maintaining a central argumentative coherence.

Given the ambitious coverage of Griffin's project, the one reservation that one might have about this book is the fact that her analyses tend to privilege certain texts over others (such as the Suite du Merlin). Such a criticism would, however, seem rather churlish, given that Griffin has produced an admirably coherent and wide-ranging study of her central corpus. Indeed, criticising this book for what it fails to include from this large body of texts would also be to miss the central point of Griffin's argument. The totalising fantasy that governs the assessment of academic work is, after all, no less fetishistic than that which Griffin associates with the book in the Vulgate Cycle. This is, all told, a study that manages its inevitable exclusions very well and that offers new, impeccably researched, and exciting perspectives on a highly complex corpus of texts.