Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Divine Women: Respectability Politics and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale


Besser Chart
Chart from Besserman
[read Eileen first if you haven't yet!; same for Ta-Nehisi Coates, here]
If you teach Chaucer, you’re likely more than familiar with this bit from the Nun’s Priest’s Tale:
Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde;
Wommannes counseil broghte us first to wo
And made Adam fro Paradys to go,
There as he was ful myrie and wel at ese.
But for I noot to whom it myght displese,
If I conseil of wommen wolde blame,
Passe over, for I seyde it in my game.
Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere,
And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere.
Thise been the cokkes words, and nat myne;
I kan noon harm of no womman divyne. (VII.2356-66; Riverside ed)
You may also know the double meaning of the last line, which depends on whether we read “divine” as a verb or as an adjective: “I am not able to guess any sin about woman” (divine as verb) or “I know no sin about divine women [i.e., women devoted to theology, i.e., a nun, like the Prioress]” (divine as adjective). In 1977, Lawrence L. Besserman charted the line's various possibilities;[1] then in his Variorum edition, Derek Pearsall complained that Besserman, “overreliant on mechanical aids” (in this case, the Middle English Dictionary), generated an ambiguity entirely of his own making; then finally (?), Peter Travis’s Disseminal Chaucer demonstrated, quite keenly, that “Besserman’s systematic taxonomizing is absolutely consonant with a dominant methodology of a typical medieval liberal arts classroom” (63).
I think we can safely keep teaching the line as a pun.
Now, while Besserman took the line as a “veiled critique of the Prioress and her tale” (70; no pun intended?), I think we can take his reading further by understanding it as an instance of medieval respectability politics.
Here’s a succinct paragraph on the theme from Michelle Smith’s “Affect and Respectability Politics,” her contribution to the (sadly still) essential special issue of Theory and Event on Ferguson and “disposable lives”:
The signature of respectability politics is its disavowal of the legitimacy of black rage. By respectability politics, I refer to the first resort of marginalized classes. On the one hand, like all democratic politics, respectability politics seeks to realize collective aspirations whether grand (justice, equality, full participation) or pedestrian (balanced budget, community policing, bike paths). On the other, respectability politics evince a distinct worldview: marginalized classes will receive their share of political influence and social standing not because democratic values and law require it but because they demonstrate their compatibility with the “mainstream” or non-marginalized class. So, have you been discriminated against on the job market? Take off that hoodie and pull up your sagging pants! Rejected by the magnet school? “Nigga” is not a friendly greeting! Have the police thrown you against a wall againto search your pockets? Don’t stand on the street looking like you’re up to no good! Propriety breeds respect. Did your unarmed son/daughter/husband/wife/best friend/cousin die after the police applied the chokehold too vigorously? Cooler heads will prevail!
Respectability politics burdens the marginalized with the obligation to make themselves right; they shift the blame from deadly systems to individuals and their habits; they absolve the status quo of its own guilt; the call for respectability erases the many marginalized who themselves are respectable, who are marching peacefully, who are responding to violence with as much calm as they can muster, and still being battered and killed for all that; and finally the call to respectability erases the illegitimacy of the system people are being required to live up to, and the real possibilities for justice that “disrespectable” behavior might manifest. Respectability politics is mostly bullshit.
For the Nun’s Priest to say, among other things, “I know no sin about divine women” is to divide women into two categories (at least): divine women or even godlike women; and all the others, the less respectable women, who fall somewhat short of the low mark of divinity itself. This line, heard in its second sense, allows the Nun’s Priest to maintain his clerical misogyny—“wommenes conseils been ful ofte colde”—while propping up the whole system that clerical misogyny justifies, and that sustains his own privilege. It allows him to gaslight us by denying that he himself holds, acts on, and benefits from the beliefs that are actually his own and those of the patriarchy that owns him.
After all, some of his best friends are women.
For trusteth wel, it is an impossible
That any clerk wol speke good of wyves,
But if it be of hooly seintes lyves (Wife of Bath's Prologue, III.689-91)
We can imagine, now, some of the respectable women of the Canterbury Tales and what happens to them: Emelye, Custance, Griselda, Virginia. You might have your own list. And we can mark, quite neatly, just how far respectability gets these adherents to appropriate behavior.
And we can see, then, that respectability politics demands – to choose an example not at all at random – that black people be divine: to be better than white people; to be better than people; to be saints; to be gods. Respectability politics loves the crucified respectable saint; and it loves just as much to crucify those who can’t or won’t be saints. Respectability politics is bullshit.
[thanks to Alison Kinney for talking this through with me. Any errors, in politics or anything else, are probably my own]
[1] Lawrence L. Besserman, "Chaucerian Wordplay: The Nun's Priest and His 'Womman Divyne.'"  The Chaucer Review 12.1 (1977): 68-73

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