Following on from our recent ruminations on the queer politics of hope I thought we could move on to love. So, I would like to share my upcoming review of Anna Klosowska's gorgeous Queer Love in the Middle Ages (which I am told will be in the next issue of Sixteenth Century journal--its a joint review with Tison Pugh's Queering Medieval Genres).
By the way, Noah Guynn's new book Allegory and Sexual Ethics in the High Middle Ages is out: http://www.palgrave-usa.com/catalog/product.aspx?isbn=1403971471
I would be really interested to hear what people make of this new-ish work on the Middle Ages.
Queer Love in the Middle Ages. Klosowska, Anna. New York: Palgrave, 2005. 195 pp. $65.00. ISBN 1-403-96342-8.
Queering Medieval Genres. Pugh, Tison. New York: Palgrave, 2004. 226 pp. $65.00. ISBN 1-403-96432-7.
Despite the almost unshakeable presentism of much Queer Theory it is undeniable that some of the best work currently being done in the field is by medievalists who are keenly engaged in the project of recuperating a sexually dissident Middle Ages. At the Queer Matters conference in London in May 2004 two of the plenaries were medievalists, Carolyn Dinshaw and Karma Lochrie, and the event, perhaps the biggest in queer studies since the Santa Cruz conference in 1991 at which the words queer theory were coined, was organized by Robert Mills. Up until recently much of this cutting edge scholarship appeared in the University of Minnesota Press’ Medieval Culture series which published Glenn Burger and Steven Kruger’s Queering the Middle Ages (2001), Burger’s Chaucer’s Queer Nation (2003), and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s Medieval Identity Machines (2003). Since the demise of this series we have seen the emergence of one with similar commitments, The New Middle Ages, at Palgrave Macmillan. In 2003 they published Richard E. Zeikowitz’s Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the Fourteenth Century, in 2004 Tison Pugh’s Queering Medieval Genres, and in 2005 Anna Klosowska’s Queer Love in The Middle Ages. It is the latter two which I will consider in this review and ask to what extent the new (queer) Middle Ages they recover is desirable or not.
Pugh’s book overlaps in significant ways with Burger’s and Zeikowitz’s in that it seeks to queer a wide range of mostly fourteenth century texts by destabilizing heteronormative interpretations of them and offering counter-normative readings which attend to sexuality, sexual identity, and homoeroticism. In chapter one Pugh argues for the necessity of queering to the project of unhinging the heteronormative and teasingly claims that sexual binarity and generic ideologies should both be viewed as complicit in writing out the queer. From the outset the deconstructive impulse behind Pugh’s reading practice is apparent as he seeks to jolt, shock, highjack, and overturn and this is what I would take “queering medieval genres” to mean, defamiliarizing and “overturning the heteronormative bias[es]” (3) of medieval genres and criticism of the texts which occupy them. But it seems to function differently for Pugh, for whom, as I understand it, the act of queering is something which happens not to the text per se, but radiates out from it, so that the reader is disarticulated from their heteronormative privilege in some way (95). Pugh makes two important points in the introduction: firstly, that he aims, after Allen Frantzen, to swerve away from a focus on sexuality and genitality to a consideration of same/sex love and affect, but it is nowhere apparent to me that he tells us anything new about queer affectivity. Secondly, he recapitulates, after Judith Butler and Biddy Martin, the need to revivify a queer attention to gender as a proper object. This is a timely reminder and Pugh is seriously committed to both feminist and queer readings of medieval texts although not unproblematically.
In chapter two Pugh queers the twelfth-century lyrics of Marbod of Rennes, Baudri of Bourgueil, and Hildebert of Lavardin. Paying attention to these much-neglected texts is welcome but here we begin to see where his attempts to mobilize a deconstructive queering founder. Queer and gay (male) tend to collapse here as do heterosexuality and heteronormativity and despite his being at pains to tell us otherwise Pugh does seem to be trying to reclaim these men as homosexual forebears. My worry is that queering medieval texts for Pugh, means gaying them, and that creating a space for homosexual desires, however laudable, really doesn’t do anything to shake the heteronormative edifices of the societal and generic regimes under consideration. Chapter Three examines a range of Chaucerian fabliaux although most weight is given to The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Remembering Pugh’s aims to shift away from sex to love and to reinsert gender into queer analyses this is a key chapter, but again there are problems. This book is really more about sexual contact (between men) than sensibility and queering seems to be something women do to men in fabliau. The distinction between the queer male and queer female fabliau is a helpful one but why can’t women be queer in these texts unless they are somehow undercutting male privilege? Chapter four advances an original reading of the queer possibilities in Troilus and Criseyde but again the female tends to drop out. While Pugh examines the triangulated relationship between Pandarus, Troilus and Criseyde in great detail Criseyde never appears as anything more than a bridge between the men in his argument. The same problem emerges in Chapter five which unpacks the perverse erotics of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Again, queering seems to be a game played between men and Pugh never considers the centrality of women to the queer dynamics of the text: Lady Bertilak, Guinevere, and most importantly Morgan. Arguably it is the women who are the most destabilizing agents in this text but Pugh leaves female same-sex desire untouched.
If Pugh’s new Middle Ages is one I would not particularly desire then Anna Klosowska’s is one I could fall in love with. Her queer “cryptology” (1) is a very French one, a deconstructive reading practice inspired by Derrida and Barthes, which aims to “begin the queer re-reading of the medieval French corpus” (144). Klosowska seeks out a number of what she calls “thematic sites” (3), underassigned moments, or what Pugh calls occluded sites. She borrows the Lacanian image of the point de capiton to describe these supersaturated, often surprising, moments, although I prefer the word charnière, or hinge-points which can also name these places of “connection” (4) and “interchange” (4) but also the way in which they, and Klosowska’s persuasively elegant readings, lure us in. In the introduction, after Frantzen, she argues for more groundwork, less wishful thinking, and for “the need to elaborate a tight theoretical framing that springs from the texts” (18). The terminological questions she poses and the intervention she makes into current debates about queer historiography makes this introduction indispensable.
Chapter one brilliantly queers Perceval with painstaking attention to the episode of the Fisher King and its unsettling qualities. The reading practice Klosowska stages is a mixture of queer philology/lexicography and queered psychoanalysis where Kristeva’s Stabat Mater appears alongside Perceval. This chapter, with its resemblances to Derrida’s Circonfession in mind, could be compared with Pugh’s on Sir Gawain, since both attend to castration and same/sex desire, but it is Klosowska who makes a more persuasive argument for queering as a kind of differàntial cutting, a reading practice saturated with a perversely enjoyable jouissance. The second chapter on Yde et Olive answers the question whether we can “legitimately do the history of sexuality in the absence of direct references to sexual acts?”(9) and again argues for a methodology emphasizing cutting, holes, dissection, recombination, and pleasure. Her beautifully complex Lacanian take on the female/cross dresser and the way the visibility of the slits and seams foreground her pleasure and the reader’s (75) is sure to have ramifications way beyond medieval studies. For Lacan and Klosowska cuts, margins, the in-between and borders are “sites of emergence” (76) and the queerness texts attempt to conceal re-emerges in the cuts, gaps, and silences. Chapter three traverses a number of supplemental moments in familiar texts including Lanval and Roman de La Rose and queer criticism of them to argue for the smuggling of queer readings into the heart of the medieval French canon.
If Pugh leaves the phallic Law mostly unchallenged, then Klosowska offers the queer medievalist a way in which to negotiate the complexities of heteronormative, rigidly phallic texts from a castrated vantage, and allows us to renegotiate the queerness of these texts in ways we cannot predict. While both authors talk about play, signs, those moments when the text “winks” at the reader, and perverse pleasures, it is in Klosowska’s conclusion when she describes Roland Barthes as “a fellow passenger on a train” (145) that I get an overwhelming feeling of her loving Barthes. She loves reading him, loves talking about him in relation to medieval texts, loves getting into and appreciating the details of those texts with him. And the more I read Klosowska’s book the more I loved it. This book should not be called Queer Love in the Middle Ages but rather Queer Love for the Middle Ages.