Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Is it wrong to spurn the gifts of nature?

I've been out of blogging for weeks now, self-pityingly swamped under the TT job that the current market demands I experience with gratitude or, at least, stoicism (edit: which is not to say that the BC job sucks. It doesn't. My complaint is with the market itself and with the insidious nexus of deferred pleasure, the pleasures of stoicism, and reward). Here I dip in my 5 toes (holding 5 in reserve), having read through the recent posts on time, desire, and disaggregation by Eileen, Jeffrey, and Mary Kate, and having nearly finished the Kłosowska that all of us seem to be reading. I have, however, only a few questions for you, one of which I'm posting now. You must wait, perhaps forever, for my longer posts, one on the conservativism of students (why oh why do they resist understanding Pearl as oneiric sexual harassment? why do they demand the Nebuchadnezzar of the opening chapters of Daniel be the same person throughout, a mere character, rather than a shifting set of differing narrative machines?: have I just written my post?), and another on Karma Lochrie speaking, as last Saturday I saw Karma Lochrie speaking at my alma/amara mater, and my wondering about thinking with the "not present" as a way to circumvent or, better yet, to overflow the impasse of Reproductive Futurity.

Below, Eileen quoted Schultz quoting Boccaccio commenting on Dante's placement of Priscian among the sodomites:
Dante put him there “to represent those who teach his doctrine, since the majority of them are believed to be tainted with that evil. For most of their students are young; and being young, are timorous and obey both the proper and the improper demands of their teacher. And because the students are so accessible, it is believed that the teachers often fall into this sin."

In moral literature of (at least) the late Middle Ages, certain ages have certain appropriate or, rather, expected sins. Young people--Chaucer's Squire, for instance--are expected to be lusty; and the old are expected to be backbiting and envious, likely because of their impotence (as one lyric runs, "Elde makiþ me geld and growen al grai (Old age makes me impotent (literally: castrate) and all grey)). This raises two questions: the first is whether the potent leeky old man ("hoor head and grene tayl") would be monstrous or even queer because of its possession of a working cock it should not have: any medieval examples spring to mind? Is the lusty old man almost always an incestuous father?

The second, which drove me to this question in the first place, is on the naturalness of this desire for boys. Which, by the way Interpol, I am not endorsing. This is, Interpol, an academic question. Young women are presented as naturally desirable; old women as repugnant. Think of the Wife of Bath's tale, where the possibility of marrying the old wyf shocks the rapist (and presumably the Wife's audience, themselves faced with the desires--and desirability--of an older woman) into horror.

Are young boys, then, also naturally desirable? If the sin is expected, is Priscian's crime not running against nature but rather not resisting nature by compelling himself into desiring the (im)proper object? I think of 4 Macabees, which I just taught, in which the tyrant Antiochus demands that Eleazar eat pork: he doesn't demand that Eleazar sin or spurn God. He demands only this: "Why, when nature has granted it to us, should you abhor eating the very excellent meat of this animal? It is senseless not to enjoy delicious things that are not shameful, and wrong to spurn the gifts of nature" (4 Maccabees 5:8-9). My point, my little point for now, is this: Eleazar's virtue is precisely his unnaturalness, and Priscian's crime is being altogether too natural. In this, where do we locate the properly sexual?


J J Cohen said...

I can't answer the nature and boys query (yet), though I like the way you pose it: fascinating. I have too much Chaucer on mind ... so it is easier to answer the lusty old man query.

Chaucer loves the stock figure of the senex amans. The Reeve describes himself as one, as you note. John the carpenter is one, as is January in the Merchant's Tale. What is typically Chaucerian about the latter two, though, is that he doesn't allow the two to be the buffoons that the elderly lover usually is (I'd say the lusty oldster is a comic monster rather than a horror-inducing one). Chaucer gives each a moment of depth, humanizing him: as when John's first reaction on learning of the impending flood is to feel a pang of grief for his beloved Alisoun (and not as we would expect for his property or life). January has a moment of humanization just as he enters the garden with may where she will have sex with Damian. By admitting his "unlikely elde" and voicing his wonder that he can be loved, we see for a moment that he might be something more than a caricature, that he is animated by a human self awareness and even a vulnerability. It makes the assignation in the pear tree that follows something rather different than the typical fabliau version of such scenes. It is also the first ray of light in a very dark tale.

J J Cohen said...

OK, one more thought on this and then I really will finish prepping for class.

Is desire for boys natural, and is resisting that desire ennobling? I think for many classical authors, the answer is an obvious yes: there's nothing necessarily shameful about the desire itself, which arises in response to beauty. What matters is the self restraint one shows, and the self denial: control is heroic, giving in to your desires potentially comic. Or worse.

For many Christian writers (but certainly not all), the answer is going to be quite different. Since I'm Chaucer obsessed at the moment, I don't think (and I say this without having thought too deeply on the subject) that he'd agree with your statement, Karl. He's no Dante. BUT I do think he would be aware of such a desire as belonging to a kind of alternative world of desires that intrigued him, even if his work doesn't suggest that he necessarily spent much time reflecting upon such possibilities for sexuality directly. Take for example the passage from Theophrastus quoted by Jerome that Chaucer obviously knew well, in which it is argued that a philosopher must not take a wife because (among other things) you will also have to support "the eunuch who ministers to the safe indulgence of her lust." I can only assume that Chaucer read those lines and said, "Wow! Those randy pagans! Just imagine, a world where women have access to living dildos." That is, Chaucer gained from his wide reading many glimpses of human sexuality constructed and practiced otherwise than the ways in which his London practiced it. My inkling is that such glimpses stoked his ardor for alternate worlds.

sylvia huot said...

A kind of free association that sprang to my mind when you commment on the literary suggestion of young boys being naturally desirable: in the 'querelle' of the 'Roman de la Rose', Pierre Col comments that marriage serves two laudable purposes. One is procreation; the other is helping men 'delaisser l'euvre contraire a nature, qui est abhominable a plus exprimer' (ed. Hicks, p. 107). Now what is that behaviour 'contrary to nature' that men apparently just WILL indulge in if they don't have marriage to distract them from it or satisfy their desires enough to keep them from it? Since it is unspeakable we don't know, but it isn't hard to imagine that sexual relations with boys or other men might well be at least AMONG the sins he has in mind, and while they might be 'abominable' to speak of openly, they clearly are not abominable in their perpetration, but indeed quite tempting. It is contrary to nature; but also something that, evidently, comes all too naturally. Depends on what one means by 'nature' doesn't it?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Nice question Karl, though it does seem a little like an insoluble demande d'amour, both for the geographical/cultural reasons Jeffrey raises and the problem of the "natural" that Sylvia raises. Maybe you should write a Bonobo bestiary!

What comes to mind: the extensive middle-eastern literature on boy-love, platonic and otherwise, which certainly seems predicated on the naturalness of male-male desire (cf. Phaedrus), though not necessarily sex. Pedagogus ergo sodomiticus, which also naturalizes the sin in a certain sense via profession, a certain kind of labor. And of course the length sodomy-as-bad-work passage, part of Genius's pardon, from the Romance of the Rose: "But those who will not use their styluses, through which mortals may live forever, to write on those fair and precious tablets that were not prepared by Nature in order to be left idle, but were lent instead so that all might write on them and so that all of us, men and women, might live; those who have received the two hammers but do not forge as they should, properly upon the proper anvil; those who are so blinded by their sin and misled by pride that they despise the straight furrow of the fair and fertile field; those wretches who go tilling the desert ground where their seed is wasted, and will not plough a straight furrow but overturn the plough, justifying their evil ways on the basis of abnormal excpetions ["excepcions anormales," Lochrie?] when they decide to follow Orpheus . . ." (lines 19599ff, Horgan trans). My reading, which I assume is fairly standard, is that the passage, while condemning sodomy and other "extra" sexual acts (cf. my recent post over at The Medieval Club of New York's Blog) supports, in a characteristically medieval way, a distinction between the naturalness of the desire or inclination (as something given within fallen human nature) and the unnaturalness of the act (as the operation of a free will). Of course there is also a lot of play going on here about the unnaturalness of human nature, the collapse of significatio into the letter, the 'pornography' of tablets and styluses, and overall the building up of love, life, culture, consciousness, the book out the little mechanical nothingness of the sex act (cf. the denoument of the last scene). How wonderful to see sexuality (cf. Wife of Bath) and its wanderings being thought through the multifunctionality of tools. In the case of the hand, this is precisely what makes it most rational, a tool of tools!

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for the comments! Much appreciated! My apologies for not getting back to you sooner: tomorrow is my goal, but I had a post in me I wanted to get out.

Karl Steel said...

JJC: what differentiates Chaucer's senex amans from the frightening senex amans I imagine is their incapacity. They're not entirely buffoons, no, but they're still more victims (of age, of circumstance, of clerkly learning, and chiefly of their own desire) more than they're actors. When the desiring old man is himself the actor, I'm inclined to think that the story falls into violence, revenge, or perhaps more often than not, incest. I think of The Testament of Cresseid, where in my understanding of the poem the impotent reader inflicts leprosy on the beautiful woman he alone cannot have; and I think of the Constance story, as in Emaré, where it seems the father fixates on the quality in his child that he himself has lost, her freshness ("Dowghtyr, y woll wedde the, / Thow art so fresh to beholde").

Thanks much for the comments on Chaucer and their particularity and correction of my transhistorical noodling; "Chaucer gained from his wide reading many glimpses of human sexuality constructed and practiced otherwise than the ways in which his London practiced it" sounds like it can be very productive.

SH: thanks for the RR reference. There's something similar in Selections from English Wycliffite Writings (ed. Anne Hudson), in the third of the "Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards": þe thirdde conclusion sorwful to here is þat þe lawe of continence annexyd to presthod, þat in preiudys [prejudice] of wimmen was first ordeynid, inducith sodomie al holy chirche." Is the argument here that samesex sex is more desirable? Or that it's in some way "natural"? I don't think so; it's more that men must have sex, and when forbidden women, they will have sex with men. The desire is natural, even if the object becomes the object only through an artificial constraint. Nonetheless, it, like the RR, puts the natural under question, which is, I suppose, what I was hoping to get at in the first place.

Which point leads me finally into the nice distinctions NM draws, but I still must wonder about this: "the unnaturalness of human nature." I wonder if imagining sex through technological metaphors--that is, cultural precisely not natural metaphors--is a way to sidestep this problem of the natural?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

KS: About the realtion between nature and technology, I would point to medieval concepts of technology as natural, as summarized, for example in Hugh of St. Victor's concept of the "three works," which goes back to a commentary on Timaeus I think. The work of God (creation), work of Nature (bringing forth the hidden), the work of Man (joining and disjoining). Technology, or least the ideal of technology, medievally construed, despite (and because) being a remedy for the fall, has a divine and hence natural origin. Human work imitates nature who imitates God. Medieval philosophical discourse also naturalizes technology in many ways, by pervasively employing it as a subject of metaphor and analogy. The structures of human technology are the structures of the world and hence the structures of knowledge