Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Flash Review I: Jim Simpson, Troubling Arthurian Histories

by J J Cohen

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.


Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for this flash review of Simpson's book, Jeffrey. I did not know about it and definitely want to read it.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I'm also a big fan of Simpson's previous book, _Fantasy, Identity and Misrecognition in Medieval French Narrative_. His work deserves to be better known among nonfrancophile medievalists, and will surely apepal to ITM readers for its smart combination of history and theory.

Steve Muhlberger said...

I am teaching a seminar on chivalry and this review is very welcome.

Karl Steel said...

It's funny that this has just been posted, since I just did my penultimate Comp Lit 'Arthurian Literature' class (BC semester ends Dec 22. Yes, Dec 22. I'm dying here, dying I say), and I do wish I had read this months ago, when I was teaching Hartmann von Aue's Erec.

And, with that in mind, I do wonder what happens to the Plantagenet historical/genealogical desires of E&E once Hartmann moves them from their Northern French and Bretagne cultural roots. What have the Germans to do with Champagne? Why should they want to tell this story? Does their not knowing or not caring about the problems of Henry II with his boys free E&E up to speak to something closer to a purely artistic expression? After all, there's the assumption--perhaps nowhere so strong as in medieval exegesis--that writing will, or can be made to, make sense. If that political context is invisible to a reader, then perhaps the text is made to make sense--as it will be made to make sense, regardless--much more freely. Chretien's text may lose something initially by being given over to Hartmann, but then it can give so much more back.

And no doubt this same possibility applies to Chretien in the later 13th c. and on, when the Plantagenet political context no longer mattered. And, given that a fair number of the surviving mss of E&E are late 13th-c. Picard--for whatever reason--perhaps most of the production/reception of E&E was, in the Middle Ages and up until Simpson's book, unattached from those original political contexts/desires. Thus, perhaps, E&E was mostly read in the French as it was in the German, always applied to local contexts, local moments, as the Hartmann was in my classroom in October.

[Note: I know it's been said before, but isn't it odd how 'history' and 'eros' conjoin so neatly through genealogy in aristocratic conceptions of the past, especially to make the past touch, even penetrate, the present?]

Anonymous said...

I really meant to get to this before now but life (or rather, to be more precise, the other guy...) intervened. Suffice it to say that I was left Oscar-night speechless by the very kind comments.

Karl Steel is spot on with his observations. I'm generally as sceptical about and default resistant to arguments about 'original' contexts, meanings and 'intentions' as anyone else in a Barthes-loving French department, and it was certainly somewhat to my critical discomfort that aspects of the reading evolved as they did. I would certainly echo the view that any account of this poem's afterlife begins precisely with audiences '[either] not knowing or not caring' about various of the possible resonances or connections I was talking about. Indeed, it's probably more interesting and important that any given text was taken up, reread and rewritten in other contexts in the first place. Where I began back in the day was working on the Roman de Renart, and it always struck me as supremely odd that literary histories so often invest so much in reading it as a C12 text when all the manuscripts date from at least half a century later. (A recent interesting and illuminating read I'd recommend on this subject is Simon Gaunt's chapter on the Chatelain de Couci in the Cambridge Companion to Medieval French Literature, btw.) That said, part of my argument was that our rightful suspicion of biography and also weariness with character study as a preoccupation of romance criticism have perhaps led us to overlook how Chretien may be engaging with traditions of construction and portraiture, whether in the form of biography/ prosopopoeia or more abstractly in form of personification allegory. The way I argued it was that you can see Chretien's poem as a response to classical prosopopoeic traditions and their afterlives (Julius Caesar was the chief suspect here). Classical and medieval accounts of Caesar target precisely the erotic dimension as a means of squaring circles in the historical enigma of 'the man' as well as articulating the inherently scandalous dimension of his (or indeed any) illustrious career. (As Deleuze puts it in The Fold, ‘I must have a body […] because an obscure object lives inside me. […] The mind is obscure, the depths of the mind are dark, and this dark nature is what explains and requires a body’ (p. 97).) In that sense, the rules of the prosopopoeic game mean you the biographer inherently find yourself fetishistically working your way back to some libidinal/bodily ‘scandal’ as the source of the historical trouble the subject under consideration causes. This leaves you with a paradox rather similar to the one that Paul Zumthor and many since have seen as attaching to lyric poetry in the Middle Ages: the conventional content overshadows any ‘genuine’ autobiographical, the song is a referential fiction… and yet at the same time the idea that there was a kernel of biographical truth (however misconstrued, trafficked or self-consciously confected in the manuscript tradition) was clearly something that had a shaping influence in the teasing drama of reception. Part of what Chretien may have been driving at in perhaps constructing Erec et Enide as a commentary on the relation of Henry’s milieu to its medieval ancestors and classical antecedents is that the present is capable of producing ‘troubles’ worthy of the ancient past. Indeed, the very fact that you’re talking about a continuing pulsation of desire and eros in the present may even be a more spectacular testimony to the uncanny and undead dimension of those forces. Where I think Chretien would agree with Karl is at the level that Chretien is clearly playing games in his constructions. The fact that Enide is presented as a quasi-allegorical handiwork of Natura and the fact that the text is so predicated on rumour, misconstrual and uncertainty gestures inevitably to the power and liberty of the text as artifice in its present moment to conjure a plausible (but, at the same time, potentially entirely convention-derived) depth of field in its vision of a given past. What this may suggest is that Chretien would have been up for borrowing one of Homer Simpson's great comments: 'Just because I don't care, doesn't mean I don't understand.' Or something like that…

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Karl and Jim, your comments together make me think (surprise!) of my latest obsession, Marcel Proust, who describes the church at Combray as a polytemporal architecture: "an edifice occupying a space with, so to speak, four dimensions -- the fourth being Time -- extending over the centuries its nave which, from bay to bay, from chapel to chapel, seemed to vanquish and penetrate not only a few yards but epoch after epoch from which it emerged victorious." The thick and rambling description that follows -- in which eleventh century thickness of stone washes into coquettish Gothic, Saint Louis mingles with a Merovingian knight, even a fossil surfaces -- well, the passage well illustrates how an object of art can be both of its time and place, and a nexus where multiple times and places are gathered but not harmonized.