The following is a brief attempt at a reading of one Marie’s lesser-studied lais, “Laüstic.” This particular lai, when I read it for the first time a few months ago, struck me as an exceptionally deep meditation on love, empathy, and mortality. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante, editors of an exceptional translation of Marie’s lais, respectfully disagree. In their commentary of the lai, they describe the lovers as “like children” whose love has “little substance” and “no apparent reason for beginning or continuing.” Their feathered companion is treated no less gently and rendered a mere symbol of selfish love. Given the fact that Marie’s lais are littered with myriad adulterers, cheaters, and violent loves, one wonders what it is about the lovers of “Laüstic” that particularly irks Hanning and Ferrante. This lai, it seems to me, is at least worth a second look.
In a 1986 interview for French radio, Jacques Derrida posited a reviewing of narcissism as not only a necessary condition of the human existence, but also a quality capable of ameliorating the uncomfortable divide between the singular subject and the other: “The relation to the other…must trace a movement of reappropriation in the image of oneself for love to be possible.” In other words, love is by definition an identification with both the external other and the other within—an exceedingly empathetic gesture that takes up one of Derrida’s central themes of the artificial binary systems. Perhaps this is why Derrida’s musings on the animal—or “l’animot”—are so central to his later work. By blurring the boundary between animal and human, one also necessarily brings into question the knowing subject and its enforced separation from the other—something very much at work in the act of love.
In Marie de France’s lai “Laüstic,” there seems to me to be a representation of this transference of empathy from the lovers to the animal other; despite the questionable morality of their union, both come—through love—to identify their spiritual pain with the nightingale’s physical pain. Though it would be tempting to equate the nightingale, as critics have repeatedly done, with a mere symbol for the lovers’ union, I believe a less anthropocentric reading is available to us. In line 63, Marie notes that “It is no wonder if he understands them [birds],/ he who has love to his desire.” The act of loving opens the knight—and, Marie implies, all who love—to a way of experiencing the world that is not only less human-centric in its privileging of vision as the center of knowledge, it also permits the identification with a previously othered being. Before learning to love, one could imagine that birds were simply birds to the knight—nothing but background noise and peripheral masses of flying feathers. After encountering the lady, however, their songs are heard anew with resonance and meaning. In short, the creatures are now endowed with not just natural reaction, but with what Derrida calls “response.”
Similarly, the singular nightingale that comes to a gruesome and violent end not only serves the function of standing in for the lady when her husband kills it, its dead body is lamented at least in part because it retains its self-hood as a nightingale: “The lady took the little body;/ she wept hard and cursed/ those who betrayed the nightingale.” One would be remiss to ignore the selfish reasons behind the lady’s despair, but it seems to me that there is something else at play here concurrently. The lady’s love for the knight and subsequent heartbreak allow her to identify with the nightingale’s betrayal as if it were her own—most obviously because it is. Moreover, Marie’s use of the phrase “little body” as well as her interjection that its murder was “too vicious an act” serve to underscore the sympathetic relationship between two suffering beings. The nightingale transcends the mere symbolic and becomes a small, fragile bird who was born, lived, suffered, and died.
In the dénouement, the nightingale achieves immortality, but to human ends. After serving as a sort of morbid, undead messenger, the nightingale is subject to the whims of the knight and confined to a bejeweled coffin to be “carried… with him always.” However, is it not possible that the slightest glimpse of heterogenic identification is still present? Though the dead bird lacks the agency of its human counterparts, it retains an intangible Derridian “trace” that resonates long after death. And through love, however selfish, the two adulterers achieve a narcissistic ability to see the self in the other. Is it feasible that the relationship between humans and birds in “Laüstic” calls into question what Derrida calls “the pure, indivisible concept” of the human animal as well as “the philosophical and theoretical right, to mark as opposite… the Animal?” If so, then perhaps we can begin to see an “irreplaceable living being” where once there was merely an empty gesture, a voice without a face, a mere symbol.