So here is the thing about being department chair: I don't possess as much time to read as I did in days of yore, and what I do read I frequently don't have the leisure to blog about. It's a tough life. But since 2008 is coming to an end, and since every literary outlet uses the long empty space when the year is on life support and when we're all waiting for it to just terminate already to publish "Best Books of Year XXXX" lists, well, I've decided to do a series of flash reviews of books I meant to blog about this year.
So I'll start with one of my favorites, James R. Simpson's Troubling Arthurian Histories: Court Culture, Performance and Scandal in Chrétien de Troyes's Erec et Enide. To say that Simpson's work is the best book on Erec et Enide out there doesn't say enough: though a copious number of scholarly articles and sections of monographs examine the romance, very few books devote themselves entirely to the work. A meditation on (among other things) gender interrelations, homoerotism, desire, uxoriousness, aventure, the weight of history, aristocratic power and its performance, scandal and mischief, Erec et Enide is a complicated work -- and therefore a fitting first attestation of French Arthurian romance. Like other theorists of chivalry (Richard Kaeuper, Roger Sherman Loomis, Aranye Fradenburg are among those cited, but Larry Benson and Joachim Bumke would also have been appropriate), Simpson sees romance as offering a script for aristocratic behaviors in the real world: its "indebtedness to elsewheres and elsewhens" (28) cannot mask an abiding interest in reconfiguring the present. This performative notion of romance allows him to move quickly to Judith Butler and performative gender, but always with historical nuance intact: Simpson is a good excavator of the courtly context for the production and consumption of Chrétien's work.
This will not be a flash review if I dwell upon how Chrétien's depiction of Erec's recreantise might resonate with the military underachievement of Henry II's son (Henry, Duke of Normandy), or how the "salacious tang" of Eleanor of Aquitaine's family history might intersect with the romance's interest in scandal. But allow me to quote Simpson putting some of this together:
By incorporating or encoding family histories of Eleanor's kin and the Plantagenets into vernacular revisionings of the ancient past, romance texts arguably strengthen a historical and genealogical 'middle ground,' reinforcing the compositional weave of what might otherwise seem like a more distant relation in which there would be nothing between the immediate present's foregrounded mime of a remote background past. The gesture is both one of projection (they are intimately contextualised in, or translated into that history) and appropriation (because they are in it, it belongs to, or is 'carried across' / translated to them). As with Erec's relation to the court, they do not just 'love' History, abjectly waiting on its regard: History 'loves' them, too. This context emphasises both lineage and seriousness of their cultural claims. (25)Such analysis is clearly sensitive to the text's ambitions within the work's generative context. Yet Simpson's work is not so historicist that the only possible explanations to Chrétien's highly aesthetic text are those provided by an extensive knowledge of political shenanigans in Northern France towards the end of the twelfth century. The book concludes, for example, with a powerful (if implicit) argument for the power of presentism: invoking the funeral of Princess Diana, Zizek on Coca Cola, the film The Queen, Cicero, and Napoleon's condemnation of the Directoire of the young Republic to point out the necessity of illusion, spectacle, and performance to both terror and "the rational life of the polis." That is complicated when I type it all out: trust me that Simpson does a far more lucid job of explicating the nexus between absolutist claims and the danger of the bloodless bluff far better than I can ... and in his reading, it all comes down to the troubling figure of Arthur.
Simpson's writing style is clever, playful, creative -- and for that reason supremely appropriate to an analysis of Chrétien de Troyes, surely one of the most ludic and innovative writers of the Middle Ages. Who says that hardcore philology, continental philosophy, and history-minded literary analysis should not when combined also be great fun? Simpson is as hilarious as he is insightful, a perfect match between writer and subject.