Friday, March 02, 2018

On Courtly Love and Toxic Masculinity

By Leila K. Norako

One of the ways I encourage my students to see the relevance and importance of what we do in a medieval literature classroom is to take opportunities to look at what we have inherited from that time period. I am, as a result, always on the lookout for ways to make seemingly arcane concepts like courtly love more accessible and immediately relevant to undergraduates, many of whom will have never encountered them prior to taking my class.

In the course I’m currently teaching (a 10-week survey of medieval and early modern English literature), I pivot from Old English literature to High and Late Medieval English lit by way of a lesson spent mainly on Marie de France’s Bisclavret. To help students understand the relational dynamics in the text, I’ve found I need to spend a bit of time explaining the concept of courtly love. We go through the salient details, and students tend to remark simultaneously on the seeming alienness of the concept but, almost always, tend to notice that there are certain parallels/holdovers in contemporary culture (i.e. the idea that a man has to pursue and be persistent in winning a woman, and that in doing so he betters himself). Over the past few years though, especially in light of the growing awareness (and seeming popularity) of "Men’s Rights Activism" and, more broadly, the toxic masculinity that courses its way through mainstream American culture, I’ve felt more and more compelled to drive home to students the underbelly of the courtly love paradigm, and how we can still see aspects of that paradigm in our culture today.

To make this point, I read the following poem to the students, explaining that it was written by Bernard de Ventadorn (1135-1194), an influential troubadour poet:

Bernat de Ventadorn en un cançoner:
BnF ms. 12473 fol. 15v, cançoner K 

"Can vei la lauzeta mover"

When I see the lark beat his wings
for joy against the sun's ray,
until he forgets to fly and plummets down,
for the sheer delight which goes to his heart,
alas, great envy comes to me
of those whom I see filled with happiness,
and I marvel that my heart
does not instantly melt from desire.

Alas, I thought I knew so much about love,
and really I know so little,
for I cannot keep myself from loving her
from whom I shall have no favor.
She has stolen from me my heart, myself,
herself, and all the world.
When she took herself from me, she left me nothing
but desire and a longing heart.

Never have I been in control of myself
or even belonged to myself from the hour
that she let me gaze into her eyes—
that mirror that pleases me so greatly.
Mirror, since I saw myself reflected in you,
deep sighs have been killing me.
I have lost myself, just as
handsome Narcissus lost himself in the fountain.

I despair of women,
no more will I trust them,
and just as I used to defend them,
now I shall denounce them.
Since I see that none aids me
against her who destroys and confounds me,
I fear and distrust them all
for I know well they are all alike.

In this my lady certainly shows herself
to be a woman, and for it I reproach her,
for she wants not that which one ought to want,
and what is forbidden, she does.
I have fallen out of favor
and have behaved like the fool on the bridge;
and I don't know why it happened
except because I tried to climb too high.

Mercy is lost, in truth,
though I never received it,
for she who should possess it most
has none, so where shall I seek it?
Ah, one who sees her would scarcely guess
that she just leaves this passionate wretch
(who will have no good without her)
to die, and gives no aid.

Since with my lady neither prayers nor mercy
nor my rights avail me,
and since she is not pleased
that I love her, I will never speak of it to her again.
Thus I part from her, and leave;
she has killed me, and by death I respond,
since she does not retain me, I depart,
wretched, into exile, I don't know where.

Tristan, you will have nothing from me,
for I depart, wretched, I don't know where.
I quit and leave off singing
and withdraw from joy and love. (emphasis mine)

I place particular emphasis on the bolded portions of the poem, and then read the following excerpts from the Santa Barbara Shooter’s manifesto. This time, however, I introduce the text only by saying that it was written very recently:
 1.     All of that pleasure they had in life, I will punish by bringing them pain and suffering. I have lived a life of pain and suffering, and it was time to bring that pain to people who actually deserve it.   
 2.     I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. They have starved me of sex for my entire youth, and gave that pleasure to other men. In doing so, they took many years of my life away.  
3.     I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts.  
4.     They are all spoiled, heartless, wicked bitches. They think they are superior to me, and if I ever tried to ask one on a date, they would reject me cruelly.  
5.     I dreaded how horrible it would be to continue suffering my miserable, lonely, celibate life in such a beautiful city where everyone else experienced the pleasures of sex and love. That would be the darkest hell. And that was exactly what was in store for me.  
6.     On one of my very last days as a teenager, as I was sitting at my usual place . . . I saw a sight that shattered my heart to pieces. A tall, blonde, jock-type guy walked into one of the restaurants, and at his side was one of the sexiest girls I had ever seen. She too was tall and blonde. They were both taller than me, and they kissed each other passionately. They made me feel so inferior and worthless and small. I glared at them with intense hatred as I sat by myself in my lonely misery. I could never have a girl like that. The sight was burned into my memory, and it caused a scar that will haunt me forever.  
7.     I realized that I would be a virgin forever, condemned to suffer rejection and humiliation at the hands of women because they don’t fancy me, because their sexual attractions are flawed.  
8.     They are attracted to the wrong type of male. I always mused to myself that I would rather die than suffer such an existence, and I knew that if it came to that, I would exact my revenge upon the world in the most catastrophic way possible. At least then, I could die knowing that I fought back against the injustice that has been dealt to me.  
9.     If I can’t have it, I will destroy it. I will destroy all women because I can never have them. I will make them all suffer for rejecting me.  
10.  If they won’t accept me among them, then they are my enemies. They showed me no mercy, and in turn I will show them no mercy.
After reading these excerpts, I ask if any of the students can identify the text in question. I’ve done this four times now in different classes, and every time at least a few know right away who wrote it, and are quick to tell their peers – if any of them are chuckling at the absurdity of the statements – that the comments are anything but funny. The atmosphere of the class changes every time at this point in a hard but necessary way. We take a look at both of these documents (I provide them with copies), and students are asked to note both the key differences between the culture and texts in question, but also the many eerie similarities and parallels – especially when it comes to the privileging of male sexual desire and the objectification of women.

The conversation tends to branch out after a while, as students come up with additional examples in contemporary culture that mirror what we see in courtly love literature, especially examples of “persistent pursuit” (see this article as well)  in Hollywood films. In closing, I offer that this kind of comparative work is one way of many to accomplish a central goal of the course: to learn about the past in order to figure out what we have inherited from it and, in doing so, make ourselves better equipped to identify concepts and paradigms that do more harm than good.

I was reminded of this lesson (which I taught several weeks ago) after reading several op-eds in the past couple of weeks on the connection between toxic masculinity and the mass shooting epidemic in our country at present. A day after the Parkland shooting, Ashley Alese Edwards wrote an op-ed for Refinery29 entitled “We Need To Talk About How Toxic Masculinity is Killing America.” In it, she quotes Monica Mclaughlin, deputy director of public policy at the National Network to End Domestic Violence, who offered the following in an interview with Refinery29:
In the domestic violence community, we brace ourselves for a likely, inevitable connection to violence against women when these horrific mass shootings come out. It’s never a surprise.... Where have those messages come from? Why do young men, men of all ages, think they have an entitlement to women in their lives that they can maintain through violence and threats?

Edwards points to experts who offer that the way in which boys tend to be socialized, and the tendency to blame mental illness (which, she and others offer, simultaneously stigmatizes the vast majority of people with mental illnesses who are non-violent, while implicitly suggesting that mental illness is an excuse for violent behavior). But as Edwards offers in closing, and as I offer to my students, the answer to a question like Maclaughlin’s also needs to include discussions of the cultural values that are disseminated through a wide variety of means. And in complement to what Edwards offers, I contend that medievalists can and should invite our students to consider the ways in which aspects of courtly love’s underbelly continue to circulate and persist in our respective cultures, and how they too contribute to the kind of masculinity that can and does lead to feelings of entitlement, which all too often then leads to violence (worth considering in light of the frequency with which mass shooters are also domestic violence perpetrators). 

Screenshot from a french animated adaptation of
 Bisclavret. You can rent or purchase the short film here.
 In the class discussion on Bisclavret that followed my short lecturette on courtly love, for instance, we talked about the fact that the entire court is more willing to believe a dog they just met than a woman they have known (and presumably respected) for years. Students notice all the more readily how quick everyone around her is to suspect her because she is the victim of a brutal attack. They wonder why she is never given a name. They notice too that the wife is not malicious in intent when she conspires against her husband, but rather that she does what she does out of deep fear. And by way of this intro to courtly love, they notice how clearly the wife tries to use the courtly love paradigm as an exit out of her now terrifying marriage, but also how the entire process of attempting to acquire agency within a restrictive paradigm that privileges male desire can only backfire in the end. In short, by being invited to attend not only to the mechanics of the courtly love paradigm but also to its underbelly, the students were all the more able to detect the potential subversiveness of Bisclavret in ways they otherwise might not have been able to do.

Based on the connections my students have continued to make in the weeks following
the lesson above, they seem to be realizing more and more — for all of the crucial/salient differences between 21st century America and Medieval England — that there exists an array of aged paradigms and concepts that persist in some form even today, ones that we have to continue to confront. And that, in tandem with the courage and ferociousness of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High students and their fellow students around the country, gives me no small amount of hope.

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