Sunday, November 18, 2012

On problematic sympathies for authors and artists

Venus Draws Her Bow. MS. Douce 195, f. 148v
The spring of 2006 saw my first teaching of the course "Love and War in Medieval Art and Literature" (the one that should be called "Desire and Subjectivity in Medieval Art and Literature").  It's a course comprised of one part epic, one part Arthurian legend, and one part Roman de la Rose.  I've always wanted to expand into other illuminated dream allegories, but once in the Rose, well, one gets snared by the thorns most assuredly.  This fall is my fourth time teaching the course, which also means my fourth attempt to master the Rose.  More on what that could possibly mean in a minute.  First a pause, a digression if you will, on having problematic sympathies for certain authors and artists. Somehow this is all related to my being fascinated with Kipling and Iris Murdoch, too - neither of which you're supposed to be fascinated by or even think of teaching (not that I have) or deem as having any particular merit. My continuing to read Iris Murdoch I can explain personally: I am drawn to her excruciating analyses of the mundane, her descriptions of tinned foods, of repeated gestures, of worn ways.  I come back to read how she will peel back that layer of the mundane to poke around irresolutely into unfulfilled passions, thwarted desires, bad wishes.  She usually does it with some explosive dramatic act which makes for fun reading, but (I've been told) bad literature. I've never read her philosophy but will always pick up one of her books to enter the characters' lives - and I would reread The Sea, the Sea always. Kipling is a different matter, not so much personal as interpretive.  He approximates the struggles with Jean de Meun more closely (but I always think of him and Iris Murdoch together as my literary sins or misplaced sympathies, so there you have it).  I cannot help but read Kipling as satirical to the English imperial project. The mincing rhythms of "The Young British Soldier" (picked up a few years ago and rewritten by a British soldier serving in Afghanistan to slam the military's treatment of its soldiers), the imploding fantasy of The Man Who Would Be King, especially present this edge of satire to me.  And I know I'm wrong, that's what gets me. I know that Murdoch is not a particularly innovative or radical philosopher or writer, and that Kipling fervently believed in the missions of the British Empire. But it's with these two (and maybe with Jean de Meun) that the work starts to separate from the author, that there are things I come to in the works that the authors never meant to provide.  This phenomenon is nothing new (although I wish that I had a pithy name for it), and has allowed thousands of people to admire Gauguin's art (he himself was a jerk). And so it is with Jean de Meun, whose complex dream frameworks, challenges to the process of interpretation itself, and endless games of "catch me (my intention) if you can" draw me back year after year.  Despite the misogyny, despite the arguably sadistic toying with the reader, despite the unnervingly different interpretations that he presents (is the whole damn thing a screed against love or a series of subversions and rebellions that push the concept of love to new radicalities? But this year, I think I have him. This year I think I mastered the Rose. And all I really mean by that, I realize, is that this year our own interpretations overcame our attempts to pin down his intention. We took the text elsewhere.  To the ethical problems of using realism to provoke social change (the Jealous Husband speech as a call to activism against domestic violence); to testing out the weight of the moral burden of literature and art on the shoulders of the author/artist, the work of literature/art itself, and the reader/viewer.  But in the back of my mind, I still see two Jean de Meuns: one smiling and nodding calmly that this kind of ethical quagmire was exactly where the text should place its readers, and the other looking at me like I'm a freak and stalking off across the Paris University courtyard muttering about women.

Who's to know?  All I do know is that the prompt I wrote for class discussion this time around gave us a power to interpret and take the text away from the dichotomy of either apologizing for Jean de Meun or championing him that we hadn't had before.  This is ironic only in that it was the promise of reading the Querelle de la Rose between Christine de Pizan and the Col brothers during the next class session (and the querelle revels in exactly this dichotomy of apology and championing) that made this one possible. So, for the sake of posterity and my own rethinking on this, I copy the prompt below, and am left to wonder, now that I have him where I want him (now that I've plucked the Rose), will I be done with this problematic sympathy and move on to other authors? RenĂ© d'Anjou has a lovely illuminated dream allegory in The Book of the Love-Smitten Heart...

And so we come to the convoluted center of the Rose.  You will be reading key excerpts of five speeches:
  • 7201-8424: Ami's advice about love (pulled from Ovid's Ars Amatoria (the Art of Love of which we read excerpts), remembered by the Lover and told to us.  This is, in its call to deception, strange advice to receive from a Friend (Ami).
  • 8425-9330 : the Jealous Husband speech (a "ventriloquized" speech in that it is embedded within Ami's speech (i.e. what we read is Ami re-telling the Jealous Husband speech), which is itself remembered by the Lover and told to us). (9331-9463 are Ami's response to the Jealous Husband speech, and contain the stunning declaration close after 9391).
  • 13781-14516 : the advice of the Old Woman (also pulled from Ovid's Ars Amatoria), which offers the equally stunning declarations of 13845 and the lines following 14263) - Chaucer fans: Alisoun, the famed Wife of Bath, was modeled directly on the Old Woman!
  • 15105-15272 : the author's apology (this incredible passage comes at the textual center of the Rose, and this placement has given it great importance - does the placement give it the supreme importance to determine the meaning of the entire Rose? this has been debated for hundreds of years).
  • 16317-16622 : the speech of Genius about secrets (a brief, but key passage I include here to add to our discussion - plus, secrets are fascinating)
Having just emerged from an election which included a much-discussed "War on Women," we are well positioned to study this series of statements about women's "true" natures.  In both the modern and the medieval "war," sexual violence played a role.  In our recent election, the violence of rape prompted statements about the power of female chastity and the will of God both.  In our medieval Rose, we witness the first ever this graphic description and discussion of domestic violence.  It is hard to read, and I will completely understand if you lose patience with the Jealous Husband - indeed, being angry with the Jealous Husband may be the entire point here.  Nonetheless, we are presented with a problem of the ethics of readership/viewer - and authorship/art-making: the Jealous Husband speech is incredibly violent and mean, but it is embedded within Ami's re-told speech which is itself remembered by the Lover.  The author's speech is presented directly, not through any frame whatsoever, possibly even outside of the frame of the dream - does that make it more honest? more real? It makes a pretty powerful apology for what we have had to endure in our reading.  Genius's speech follows the author's apology, and is spoken in the midst of the narrative action that will result in the take-down of the Castle of Jealousy and the conquest of the Rose. The question I have for you is simple enough to write, but will require you to consider difficult options within the ethics of readership: Does the frame forgive the content? Does the Jealous Husband's speech ventriloquized status diminish its power? its claims? does it ridicule it or amplify it? Does the author's apology "make up for" the Jealous Husband speech? Does Genius's speech "undo" the author's apology?

How does one find an ethical footing within this text? Many manuscripts used images to start to chart their way through the Rose's complexities.  Desmond provides wonderful information within her article which you are welcome to read in its entirety, but her work with the images of the Jealous Husband speech on pages 86-98 provide the most direct analysis of what I wish to discuss in class with you: this problem of interpretation, of how to deal with painful and violent realities like domestic violence and misogyny.  Please read those pages (starting with the line "The speech of the Jaloux is frequently illustrated..." and ending right before the section on "The Vieille") with particular attention to the discussion of images leading up to the point: "Taken together, these images, actually emphasize the vulnerability of male heterosexual perfomrance" on page 91.  Together, we will join the thousands of readers who over the past several hundred years have struggled with this text, and we will forge our own understanding of it.  Do we take it seriously? Do we take it as satire? What are the ethical benefits and perils of each stance? Can't wait for Tuesday!

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