Monday, May 06, 2013

Karl's Kzoo2013 Paper -- Feeding the Dogs / The Queer Prioress and Her Pets

Grave Stele of the Dog Parthenope
by Karl Steel

My Kalamazoo session, as I mention in comments below, is at an unfortunate time for fans of this blog, opposite the 10am Saturday MEMSI Session (The Future We Want: A Collaboration [roundtable: GW-MEMSI]) described in Eileen's post. I don't mind speaking to a room of (mostly) strangers; I don't even mind speaking to an empty room (but I hope I don't); but I do mind your not getting to encounter my paper.

So, there it is, down below.

It's a longer version of a blog post from last September, and, in a way, a development of another one from 2006 about Tristan's loving dog. It's also, I think, more worrying at the problems of pet love I play with in this Studies in the Age of Chaucer piece.

On a related note, if you haven't read Will Stockton's beautiful piece here, "Steiner Crushes Derrida: Or, Veganism for Boys," do that, too, as its material on inapt affect harmonizes with what's below, which I'm now calling "The Queer Prioress and Her Pets."


Everybody knows what we should think about the Prioress’ love for animals.1 She steals from the poor by feeding her “smale houndes” roast meat and good bread. And she’s breaking the rules just by keeping pets. As we all know, lapdogs are less appropriately at home in a convent than in the houses of secular noblewomen. The criticism then tends to list a set of prohibitions against conventual pet-keeping,2 which other articles counter by cataloging the very many nuns who did keep pets.3 But whatever the actual practice of actual nuns, it's clear enough that Chaucer's portrait isn't praising the Prioress for her dogs. Something is off here.

And then there’s still the weeping, for dogs and even for mice. All this together has produced a steady run of more and generally less sympathetic commentary on her emotions or what’s been called her emotional displays, commentary whose tone seems to modulate according to the critics’ attitude towards both nonhuman animals and women. Marking how her compassion for mice of all things shows her “delicate sensibilities”4 is perhaps as kind as the criticism gets.5 Here’s a sample of the others. First, Kittridge, who diagnoses the Prioress’s dogs as a symptom of her “thwarted motherhood.”6 By observing that the milk, bread, and softened meat the Prioress feeds her dogs matches what Avicenna recommends as a suitable diet for infants, Edward Condren likewise pegs the Prioress as acting out “maternal instincts.”7 More recently, the animals have been identified as evidence of her stunted psychological development, evidenced elsewhere in her excessive concern for the integrity of own orifices.8 She’s otherwise been called an insincere show-off,9 inane,10 and extravagant,11 isolated from proper human sentiments.12 She’s been charged with demonstrating--and this is my last one--"the suppressed sexual instincts of a big girl who has transferred her emotional needs to dogs, rather than to human charity or spiritual devotion.”13

What I’ve rehearsed just now has been played through many times. And I trust you to sense that I’m not on board with everything I’ve been reporting, though, as you’ll hear, I’m going to do something different than just the usual agonistic response to my critical forebears. In fact, I’m going to agree with them, sort of, even while arguing that previous criticism has been too confidently human, too confident in what affections are appropriate to humans, and too unwilling to let their sense of human community be challenged by how the Prioress loves.

Let me restate what we've been told. The Prioress is impractical. Eating for her is a ceremony of politeness, not simply a way to get fed; per the record of the General Prologue, she’s the only one of the pilgrims to attempt any refinement in her table manners. She takes particular pains with her dress, as with her eating, tending towards the impractical and decorative. And above all she loves and grieves for the wrong things. She has not given herself to proper society. Instead of loving children, she devotes herself to what tend to be called only inauthentic and somewhat pathetic substitutes. While the monk keeps hunting dogs, working animals with a purpose, and suitable to his rowdiness, she keeps animals just as companions, as delicate as she is, not there to run with men but to be beaten by them. She herself suffers from arrested development. Her prayer and her tale both suggest an excessive attachment to mothers. She’s insufficiently linguistic. She attaches herself to mute beasts; she has the little clergeon of her fatherless tale prefer to learn language ‘by rote,’ to devote himself to his mother and the Mother Mary and to keep himself from from the social language of the Symbolic.

Another restatement: The Prioress refuses the straight time that requires her to develop into proper adulthood, with a proper family, proper loves, appropriate sentiments.14 She won’t leave off play. She’s decorative.

Bluntly put, according to any number of standard catalogs, the Prioress is queer.15 To point out that nuns often kept pets, to call her compassion excusably feminine, to observe that we never do actually see her weep for mice--which, we’re told, would be “the height of satire”16--to suggest that the Prioress’s actual profession would have required her to take on the characteristics of a secular noblewoman: all of this normalizes her. I think straightening her out is a mistake.The oscillation of the critical tradition between condemnation and indulgence is evidence enough that there is something off about her. With all due respect to source studies, I don’t think we should seek to find a literary or historical spot for the Prioress that can arrest that oscillation. She’s never going to work quite properly.

But to condemn her as misdirected or even as an inauthentic fraud is just as much a mistake. Even the General Prologue does this when it speaks of her taking pains to “counterfeit” the behavior of the well-bred. The claim of inauthenticity of course allows us to pretend that authenticity exists somewhere, that somewhere out there, maybe even in our own tastes and behavior, there’s authentic Thai food or blues, the “real Paris,” the sincere neighborhood or street or diner as yet unmarred by hipster irony. In this case, we get to pretend that what we have what the Prioress doesn't, an authentic, deep, true, and appropriate feeling for our fellow human beings and own, real children. If the Prioress’s inauthentic feelings, or, to make this even clearer, her drag of proper emotions, are made to perform any function, it’s less to condemn her than to let the rest of us pretend that we’re doing it right. Or that there's a chance to do it right at all.

It’s particularly galling to call the Prioress’s love inauthentic or misdirected, as if love elsewhere works any better. Love is great, sure, but as we know simply from reading The Canterbury Tales, it's also generally improper, a bad fit, a morass of bad feelings, an incitement to jealousy, grotesque embarrassment, and confusion. Here I think of Dominic Pettman’s Human Error, which, while discussing the films Zoo and Tierische Liebe among other works, reminds us how love can entail “monomania, projective narcissisms, and so on,” a “familiar libidinal economy, involving the kinds of struggles around difference and recognition that can lead to passive-aggressive sulking because of perceived miscommunication.”17 But I could just as well direct you to the grotesque love of medieval animal stories: the suicidal horse Bonus Amicus in the Otia Imperalia, the suicidal knight in some versions of the Guinefort legend. By comparison, the Prioress’s animal love seems to work well, better than what we find even in the Franklin’s Tale.

Like other loves, hers centers around the hearth, which is to say, around eating. Her portrait links together the weeping, her charity, and her eating with these animals. Her charity and pity are such that she would weep for trapped mice, which were, presumably, themselves caught pilfering the abbey’s food. As we all know from the Canterbury pilgrims themselves, eating together makes community. These animals, then, form the Prioress’s other community. Becoming messmates with these nonhumans opens the Prioress to a emotional connections unavailable or even incomprehensible to those humans willing to share a meal only with members of their own species.

And making such a community means making new vulnerabilities, likewise incomprehensible to other humans. This isn’t simply cute or silly. (For something like that--though not just that--I direct you to the website for the “Freedom to Marry Our Pets Society,” run by the Bully Bloggers, a collective of several notable queer theorists.18 It’s hilarious but maybe not relevant to what I’m doing today.) The Prioress weeps terribly if one of her dogs dies. This is her own, animal community, one no one else respects. Though she’s a prioress and thus a person of no small authority, even her own beloved dogs might suffer the “yerde smerte” of men indifferent to her position and insensible to the significant vulnerability of nonhumans.

Alone with these humans, she weeps. It’s typical in commentary to talk about weeping as a sign of penitence; but it can also be identified as a voice. Medieval linguistic treatises classified weeping and sobbing as vox confusa along with “voces volucrum aut bestiarum,” the voices of birds and beasts.19 By weeping over them, the Prioress speaks their language, a language that no one else is willing to hear.

The Prioress’s critics might respond by observing that at least two late medieval conduct books, Symon’s Lesson of Wysedome for all Maner Chyldryn and Caxton’s Book of Curtesye, specifically recommended that children learn not to beat anyone’s dog with a stick, which once again suggests that the Prioress is just “wel ytaught” (I.127), still just putting on airs; but again, I wouldn’t rely too much on the distinction between authentic and inauthentic, the true and the supposedly merely performed. More to the point, no courtesy manual would ever recommend that its readers habituate themselves to weeping for mice. The Prioress does, and, at the very least in the eyes of her critics, isolates herself as thoroughly as another of Middle English literature’s famous weeping women.20

For those familiar with critical animal studies, my talk of messmates and companions will necessarily recall Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet. As much as I like it, I’m not going to be turning to her work, however, because I don’t think her primarily ontological proposals would lend themselves to the Prioress’s portrait without a lot of straining. More light can be shed on on the isolations the Prioress risks in her own community through Kathy Rudy's Loving Animals: Towards a New Animal Advocacy. Here Rudy talks about finally breaking up with what she is certain will be her final girlfriend and deciding to devote her household life entirely to her dogs. This wasn’t easy. She writes that "the task of coming out as gay was a piece of cake compared to coming out as--what?" She observes "there is not an adequate name for the kind of life I lead, the way my desires organize themselves around animals, especially dogs",21 that "it's not so much that I am no longer a's that the binary of gay and straight no longer has anything to do with me. My preference these days is canine."22

Rudy cooks for her dogs. One loves any kind of meat, another needs a lot more food than you'd think to look at her, and another, Duncan, a yellow lab mix, loves breakfast food: oatmeal and scrambled eggs. Rudy's learned a lot more about her dogs by feeding them; it's another way to "talk" to the dogs, to build affection and knowledge, another way, she writes, to make "their subjectivity more visible."23 She's made a better love between them, which is to say, this queer animal lover is making love to them in a new, better way. And Rudy, too, risks making herself ridiculous.

The Prioress’s love is unjustifiable.That’s part of what lets it be love. But it's beyond the love that’s normally thought appropriate. There’s no human reason to it. It’s directed at mice who want her food, dogs that can offer nothing in return but play, loyalty, and love. Though it’s earned her mostly contempt, she persists in it.

In a more moral sense, her love is also unjustifiable. While commentators delight in condemning the Prioress for the extravagance of feeding her dogs roast meat, none that I know of has got her for the hypocrisy of weeping over animals while feeding her dogs the flesh of who knows what slaughtered beast. Some animals matter to her; most don’t; and so we have, seemingly, what Cary Wolfe and Jonathan Elmer nearly 20 years ago called “the logic of the pet,”24 which leaves human privilege in place by exempting housepets from a system that condemns most other domestic animals to butchery. So much for her conscience, we could say: but more about that very soon.

Moreover, when she feeds her dogs “rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed,” she is--per the Bookof the Knight of the Tour-Landry and the Johns Bromyard and Wyclif--misdirecting resources that would better be given to the poor.25 If this flesh and bread are table scraps, perhaps slipped to begging dogs, then the Prioress is committing a kind of “alms-fraud,” short-circuiting the compulsory reliqua almsgiving that alone justified what’s been called the extreme “overprovision” of feasts in monastic and other houses.26 We have records of people dying while waiting for charity like this.27 It may be still worse if she pilfers this food not from her own setting, but rather from the abbey’s own stores. Wastel-bread was far from the low-quality “horsebread”28 more suitable for provisioning animals, and, in a Benedictine convent, roast meat was at least de jure meant only for the sick. In this case, we wouldn’t have misdirection but rather a kind of embezzlement.

But, as I draw towards my conclusion, I’m not going to link the Prioress’s sentimental, embarrassing, unjustified, and selfish charity for animals directly to her hatred of the Jews. This move is usual, if not in the criticism, then certainly among my students and possibly yours too. The Prioress loves little things--dogs, mice, children--and conflates Jews and excrement to tell what has become the ugliest and most embarrassing Canterbury Tale. The logic seems to be that she has two things terribly wrong with her and that they must be linked. So, for example, if only she felt more proper compassion, her tale wouldn’t have been so hateful. Sentimentality and hatred of “the cursede Jewes,”29 to use the Parson’s language: one of these, it’s not clear which, is a symptom of the other. But such an argument saves mainstream late medieval Christianity--and above all Chaucer--from anti-semitism. I think this is special pleading and probably the wrong way to go at the problem.

The problem may be with love and community themselves.30 Cases like these, where the love looks monstrous, where it doesn't follow the rules, helps us see that better. The Prioress never lets us forget love’s exclusions and even violence. Love makes choices, and hers are strange and horrible, as much to her contemporaries as to us. On the inside, her dogs and mice, and on the outside most other animals, the poor, and Jews.

Her brooch, which I’m concluding with, lets us know how this works. It doesn’t say AMOR AMAT OMNIA but, as you know, AMOR VINCIT OMNIA. This is a metaphor of violence, but also a metaphor of conquest, which is to say, a metaphor of claiming territory, of drawing lines, of borders, and dividing the whole between valued subjects and those compelled to serve. This is a love that fights on behalf of some and lets the rest be butchered or executed. We shouldn’t simply condemn the brooch as being the wrong kind of love; rather, I’m hoping that we can use it to probe our own good conscience, to wonder at love, at what’s left out, and whether it’s possible to get it right.31

Thank you.
1 For a review of viewpoints, most of which remain current, see Malcolm Andrew, ed. A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Vol II: The Canterbury Tales, The General Prologue Part One B Explanatory Notes (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 146-54.
2 R. D. Simons, “The Prioress’s Disobedience of Benedictine Rule,” CLA Journal 12.1 (1968): 77-83, 81, citing Manly 216, address given to Benedictine nuns of Chatteras in Cambridge in 1345.
3 Henry Ansgar Kelly, “A Neo-Revisionist Look at Chaucer’s Nuns,” The Chaucer Review 31.2 (1996): 115-32
4 Robert Raymo, “The General Prologue,” in Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Vol 2., ed. Robert M. Correale and Mary Hamel, (2005/2009), 15. See 18 n34 for a summary of criticism on the dogs.
5 Further judgments: “clearly at fault,” in Thomas J. Farrell. "Hybrid Discourse in the General Prologue Portraits," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 30.1 (2008): 39-93, 84-85, who also emphasizes that her weeping for mice is only hypothetical (“if that”); William Rothwell, “Stratford-at-Bowe Revisited,” The Chaucer Review 36.2 (2001) 184-207, 186, which contrasts her properly feminine love of dogs to the Monk’s “boisterous hunting” with greyhounds
6 "What can the Prioress know of a mother's feelings? Everything, though she is never to have children, having chosen, so she thought, the better part. But her heart goes out, in yearnings which she does not comprehend or try to analyze, to little dogs, and little boys at school. Nowhere is the poignant trait of thwarted motherhood so affecting as in this character of the Prioress." Chaucer and His Poetry (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1915), 178
7 Edward I. Condren, “The Prioress: A Legend of Spirit, A Life of Flesh,” The Chaucer Review 23.3 (1989): 192-218, 194 and 214 n16.
8 Marrall Llewelyn Price, “Sadism and Sentimentality: Absorbing Antisemitism in Chaucer’s Prioress,” The Chaucer Review 43.2 (2008): 197-214.
9 Eg R. D. Eaton, “Sin and Sensibility: The Conscience of Chaucer’s Prioress,” JEGP 104.4 (2005): 495-513
10 Simons, “Prioress’s Disobedience,” 80.
11 Helen Cooper, The Canterbury Tales: An Oxford Guide, “her extravagance towards her lapdogs,” 38
12 Eaton, again.
13 John Finlayson, “Chaucer’s Prioress and Amor Vincit Omnia,” Studia Neophilologica 60.2 (1988): 171-74
14 Considering lines like “But as a child of twelf monthe oolde or lesse / That kan unnethe any word expresse, / Right so fare I” (7.484-86), Stephen Spector, "Empathy and Enmity in the Prioress's Tale," in Love, Friendship, Sex, and Marriage in the Medieval World, ed. Robert R. Edwards and Stephen Spector (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), 211-229, 220, observes that the Prioress is no thwarted mother but rather, in her prologue’s self-presentation, a child.
15 Most recently, I have in mind a recent facebook post by JJ Cohen sharing a draft of the introduction of essay on queer theory and disability studies: “In this arrested temporality the queer is also frequently represented as residing: within a failure of maturity and progress, within a refusal of straight time.” In a longer version of this paper, a response to Traub would go here
16 RD Simons, 80; “Hilarious” Kaske review of Robertson, cited in Eaton, “Sin and Sensibility.”
17 Human Error 95
18; Lisa Duggan, Jack Halberstam, José Estaban Munoz, and Tavia Nyong’o.
19 Thomas of Cantimpré, Liber de natura rerum, p. 26: “Omnis autem vox articulata est aut confusa: articulata hominum, confusa animalium. Articulata est, que scribi potest ut a, e; confusa, que scribi non potest ut gemitus infirmorum et voces volucrum aut bestiarum” [All voices are either distinct or indistinct: the human voice is distinct, and animal indistinct. A distinct voice is one that can be written, such as A or E; an indistinct voice is one that cannot be written, such as the moaning of the sick or the voices of birds and beasts].
20 A longer version of this paper will do much with Jeffrey Cohen’s reading of Margery Kempe’s tears, “most prevalent at those moments when [Kempe] is moving away from socially legible categories like mother, brewer, miller, pilgrim and becoming something other, something difficult to articulate in advance,” Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003, and perhaps even reframe Cohen’s provocative question “Was Margery Kempe Jewish?” to include the Prioress.
21 Loving Animals 35
22 Loving Animals 41
23 Loving Animals 184
24 “Subject to Sacrifice: Ideology, Psychoanalysis, and the Discourse of Species in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs,” boundary 2 22.3 (1995): 141-170, 149, reprinted in Wolfe Animal Rites: American Culture, The Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 97-121.
25 Wyclif, "But now þe more þat a curat haþ of pore mennys goodis, þe more comunly he wastiþ in costy fedynge of houndis & haukis, and suffre pore men haue grete defaute of mete & drynk & cloiþ," quoted in Richard Rex, The Sins of Madame Eglentyne: And Other Essays on Chaucer (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1995), 102.
26 Maria A. Moisà, “The Giving of Leftovers in Medieval England,” Food and Foodways: Explorations in the History and Culture of Human Nourishment 9.2 (2001): 81-94. Cites Bishop Wykeham 1387 nuns depriving poor of alms by keeping pets
27 Moisà, “The Giving of Leftovers in Medieval England,” 82.
28 for example, "Cornelius Walford, "Early Laws and Customs in Great Britain Regarding Food," in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, ed. Charles Rogers, Vol. 8 (London, Royal Historical Society, 1880), 70-162, 145-46. See also Variorum Edition 152-53.
29 XII, p. 307b, Riverside Chaucer
30 Long note about Esposito might be happy here!
31 Obviously working in the tragic mode of Derrida’s Gift of Death, e.g.,”What binds me to singularities, to this one or that one, male or female, rather than that one or this one, remains finally unjustifiable as the infinite sacrifices I make at each moment,” but also beginning to think through Cary Wolfe in Before the Law, 83, “Is there not a qualitative difference between the chimpanzee used in biomedical research, the flea on her skin, and the cage she lives in—and a difference that matters more (one might even say, in Derridean tones, “infinitely” more) to the chimpanzee than to the flea or the cage? I think there is.”


Steve Mentz said...

I like this, & wonder if you might have fun engaging more with Cary Wolfe's new book as you start to at the end. Might Chaucer to figuring a split in discourse about love across an extended species boundary as Cary's talking about?

I also think about the love scene with the sports car in Thomas Pynchons *V.*, which stil seems to me a go-to text about love between human and inanimate objects.

Karl Steel said...

thanks Steve, and I WILL have fun with this, probably by looking at things like, oh, this.

If I had time to rebuild this paper completely before Saturday (which I just don't), here's what I would do:

one obvious problem with my piece -- the portrait never uses the word "love" - what we have are charity, pity, a 'tendre herte', all guided by 'conscience' (whose definition has troubled the critics for decades. so. must get ready to respond to that). So! I'm interested in CHARITY as a kind of disinterested love, or love for the thing-in-itself, but this will require A LOT of further unpacking. Clearly I've got enough for a plenary in here...

Unknown said...

Oh I'm sorry that I'll be missing this talk, Karl! I've always loved the fressen/essen difference in German and am taken by your description of the foods softened and cooked (been thinking a lot about fire and cooked food and "what makes a human" in that sense) and the civilizing process of the hearth and eating cooked food. Are animals' love for humans absurd (or sentimental)? We certainly deem them authentic. Looking forward to talking to you _after_ your talk then.

Eileen Joy said...

A couple of random thoughts:

1. is disinterested charity [like Derrida's "gift"] ever possible? Rebecca Davis talked about charity [in its more positive valence] as a form of unselfing/"childishness" at the Critical/Liberal/Arts symposium in Irvine the other week--and perhaps talk to her about that at Kalamazoo? Some in the audience questioned whether charity could ever be anything other than an asymmetrical power relationship. But I [and I think Rebecca as well] would like to hold open the idea of charity as something like a disinterested love [as you say] for things-in-themselves, but then: why call this charity, which has a troubled semantic history [originates in a Greek word for love/affection, but then, in Latin Christian usage becomes associated with care/giving] -- it's the semantics of "giving" that gets us into trouble for all the reasons Derrida has outlined in his writings on the gift]. Maybe something like affection is a better word to tease out, since it rests with charity/caritas as an origin. To what/whom does one lend one's propulsive energies, as it were? Yes, Chaucer uses the term charity, so you have to work through that semantically, of course, within ME context.

2. if love is directed at some objects while neglecting others, then it will always possess a monstrous dimension, and Peter Singer has probably been the most eloquent on the idea that we can't have ethics until we step outside of our most immediate/intimate family-love-friends circles [e.g., How Are We to Live? Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest], but isn't there another sort of violence also implicit in this? Because it requires flattening out one's attention/affective tendencies, such that some who really count on us can't get our proper attention. Maybe a better love/affection schema is one where you open up your affective field, such that you are willing/able to be "called" asymmetrically from the outside, at a moment's notice, while still tending to those who are more intimately "inside" with you [this is a bit Levinasian, I suppose]. This is a little bit like saying, we need communities [emphasis on the plural], but they need to remain open/porous and willing to be up-ended by strangers. Communities with fixed identities always lead to violence, as we know too well. But for me, as I've written here before, love/affection doesn't necessarily have to be understood as landing upon, or tending toward specific objects at the expense of others. It can be something like the conscientious manufacture of a force-field [Leo Bersani's similitude of forms, or Deleuze's becoming-phosphorescent] that wants nothing specific from the world other than contact with everything being-for-itself.

Karl Steel said...

wow, Eileen, this is just what I need. Thanks! This is just a kind of placeholder response, because today's a crazy day and tomorrow is travel day, but you can bet on me leaning on you about this in Kzoo this week.

Unknown, whoever you are -- yes, track me down!

Karl Steel said...

here's the thing Eileen -- I'd afraid by thinking with Derrida's GIFT OF DEATH towards the end, I've gone too TRAGIC. Your material in #2 especially is what I need not to be so PONDEROUSLY and TRAGICALLY ETHICAL, not because I don't think this stuff is worthwhile, but because I want to try out some new ways of thinking this material that doesn't keep taking me down the, uh, paths of death!!

still madly prepping, so more in Kzoo.