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Medieval Dreams

Medieval Dreams

The essay opens with a discussion (using both medieval dream theory and psychoanalysis) of the Wife of Bath’s words to her prospective fifth husband, that the previous night she had dreamed of him and that her bed ‘was ful of verray blood’. Zeeman then name-checks central elements of Freud’s Interpreting Dreams, emphasising Freud’s sense that many of the features he identified in dreams are also to be found in the artwork and the literary text. She also reviews Lacan’s re-articulation of Freud’s dream theory in terms of the law of the signifier and the fact that the dreamer ‘does not even know where to pretend to be its organiser’: the dream channels desire, but may also, through its slippages and missed encounters, reveal something more traumatic, an ‘it shows‘. Zeeman notes Lacan’s obsession with Freud’s ‘dream of the burning child’. She goes on to point out the parallels between Freud’s dream theory and the literary-dream theory of the Middle Ages, noting their joint emphasis on the visual image and the contrasting role of language, and a shared preoccupation with questions about the dream’s interpretation, and its origins in the culturally and linguistically imbricated subject.
Zeeman then discusses three medieval dream poems. She draws on well-established psychoanalytic readings of medieval love poetry to show how Guillaume de Lorris’s Romance of the Rose moves between the language of voluntarism and involuntarism, of pleasure and violence, and the contrasting claims of subjectivity and the desire of the Other. She also discusses how the poem’s recognition of the secondary and substitutive nature of the object of desire is graphically replayed in the pornographic fetishism of Jean de Meun’s continuation. Zeeman then revisits the arguments of her book on PPl, noting the repeated process by which apparently virtuous desire gets diverted onto lesser objects, resulting in scenes of aggressive critique and narrative breakdown. This time, however, she reads these moments in terms of fetishism and the refusal to recognise the divagatory work of desire, arguing that the real problem with even virtuous phenomena is that ‘they masquerade as the ends of desire’. Finally, Zeeman considers Chaucer’s House of Fame, one of his comedic treatments of desire and loss. Noting the humour of Lacan’s ‘sardine can’ discussion of the gaze, she argues that for both Dido and Geffrey, the discomforting effect of being seen, criticised and even laughed at from a position that they cannot properly grasp or understand, involves something akin to noticing oneself within the gaze.


A Concise Companion to Psychoanalysis, Literature, and Culture, ed. by Laura Marcus and Ankhi Mukherjee (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), pp. 137-50


Zeeman, Nicolette