Monday, June 29, 2009

Is Mark to Maria as Tristan is to Isolde?

[illustration: troubadour casket]
by J J Cohen

According to Margaret Soltan at University Diaries, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and his paramour in Argentina reveal in the missives they sent each other
nothing more nor less than true thunderbolt from the sky love. English professors tend to be people who love language, and who seek in language, more than in other places, the real. The Sanford/Maria letters have in them the grain of that sought-after actuality. Every word, every phrase, comes from the deep heart's core.
According to Cristina Nehring in the New Republic,
We inhabit a strange society, indeed, when love (albeit misallocated love, excessive love) seems to elicit, of all crimes, the most vocal and violent repugnance. As soldiers and economies continue to fall around the globe, citizens at home rise to denounce ... a love relationship gone awry. A love affair that is, in many ways, a dozen times nobler than its Washington counterparts, more altruistic than the carnal flings that get pardoned every week, and greater-souled than the flirtations (with power) of many of its sneering, small-minded critics.
A secret adulterous love finds reason to be praised? A love socially forbidden, that has the power to render its adherents ridiculous to the public eye? Its practitioners do not denounce the relationship as tawdry and demeaning, a lapse or a sin, but speak of how it ennobles and transforms? Call it (with Gaston Paris) amour courtois. Or use a more medieval term: fin'amor, hohe Minne, cortez amors. But I think we have a whole lot of courtly loving going on. Behold a Mark Sanford email, sent to his beloved Maria:


You are glorious and I hope you really understand that. You do not need a therapist to help you figure your place in the world. You are special and unique and fabulous in a whole host of ways that are worth a much longer conversation. To be continued ...

Here's what Bernart de Ventadorn might have said, had this medieval troubadour composed Sanford's emails on his behalf:

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.*
So Sanford is married. Marriage is no real excuse for not loving. So he is a hypocrite, condemning others for his own secret practice. A new love puts to flight an old one. So he may have used state funds to finance some of his jaunts. Love is always a stranger in the home of avarice. So his emails are filled with anxiety. A man in love is always apprehensive. So jealousy is a frequent topic in the correspondence. Real jealousy always increases the feeling of love. So Mark told everyone he was hiking in the mountains. Every act of a lover ends in the thought of his beloved. So he didn't tell anyone he was in South America. Love can deny nothing to love. So he broke up with Maria and then returned to her. A lover can never have enough of the solaces of his beloved. So things seem to be falling apart now. When made public love rarely endures.

Governor Mark Sanford, latter-day Lancelot. And could there be a better name for a princesse lointaine than Maria?

*of course it would have been written in Occitan, a language Google translator might have some trouble with.


Holly Crocker said...

So he runs the economy of his state like a colony that still depends on slave labor--that he might also feel love is even more horrifying, in my view. Please don't sentimentalize the man: it is an insult to Lancelot, if not all those SC citizens whose unemployment benefitss he threatened:

i said...

Love it, Jeffrey. Love it.

God bless Sanford for doing something so gorgeously literary, both in word and action. One of my favourite procrastination blogs posted a textual analysis of the love letters:

Who says that English degrees aren't useful?

Holly Crocker said...

oh, and gov. Sanford's supporters have been calling him (and Jim DeMint, whose name is spot-on), the "emerging Knights of the right" for about 6 months now. So they'll *love* this Lancelot angle...

Tim said...

I've been proceeding under the assumption that Sanford was Odysseus and Maria Calypso -- this was before the affair had even been revealed, when I twittered to a friend that Sanford had better use the Homeric excuse that Neptune had delayed his return.

With a little help from Samuel Butler, I wrote this up as Sanford's Odyssey over at Snarkmarket. Books II and III have also been transcribed.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Irina, links like that are the reason the internet was invented. Tim, I've been following your posts via Google Reader.

Holly, believe me when I say that I need no education in your governor's politics, by which I have long been fascinated and repelled. I would be dishonest not to admit to Schadenfreude ... I can't imagine sentimentalizing him!

There should also be a genre called Love Letters of the Infamous.

As to Sanford being a knight of the right, his Arthur must be Ronald Reagan, of course -- who once wrote the following to Nancy:

I more than love you, I'm not whole without you. You are life itself to me. When you are gone I'm waiting for you to return so I can start living again.

Who else could we add to the list? Prince Charles and his tampon desires? Napoleon's missives to his "lace and gossamer" Josephine?

Eileen Joy said...

Having, like Holly, lived in South Carolina for quite a while now, off and on [9, almost 10, years], I understand Holly's anger. Jim DeMint and Sanford are, on one level, absolute bastards in my mind. I was relieved, to be honest, that this affair would essentially evacuate Sanford's future bid to run for President [because he has been planning that, as you all may well, or may not, know--he refused the stimulus money partly out of that ambition because it would make "good press" later, right?].

BUT: having said that, I am not going to lie to you, my friends, that when I saw the letters I had pretty much some of the same sentiments Jeffrey expresses here, and then some. I do not care one way or the other if Sanford is, or isn't, a modern-day Lancelot [as Holly points out, that is likely treating him with too much beneficence that he doesn't deserve], but I have to also say that, having gone through several of these public scandals over the years where the revealed email and other correspondence went something like "I wish I could be your tampon right now" [Prince Charles] and the tawdry, base like, that these letters from Sanford gave me somewhat of a thrill. In short, they are beautiful, and being in love myself, I cannot hate him for these. Thanks for this post.

Holly Crocker said...

Hi Jeffrey—
So, how would "tan lines" translate into occitan? I ask this flippantly, but my point is more serious: the “Love Letters of the Infamous” simply do not compare to the Bernart de Ventadorn you cite. The passages from Sanford, Reagan, and Prince Charles are not beautiful; they are embarrassing. And if anyone wishes to defend the vulnerability that such bumbling awkwardness expresses, that is of course perfectly fine, even admirable for its generosity (or forceful for its ability to forward an argument for a renewal of passionate living, like that contained in Nehring’s new book). But such a gesture has very little to do with poetry, particularly the power-inflected expressions of adoration sung by the troubadours. And we all know this here, because we are scholars of this material (who’ve put in long hours of close study to avoid casual lumping gestures). Hence, I simply do not understand medievalists’ enthusiastic embrace of some comparisons (those we take to be authentic, real, and valuable), and not others: while we are quick to correct associations of the “medieval” with brute violence and spare primitivism, we celebrate those that elevate love, feeling, or sincerity? Why do we do that, even when it means comparing Sanford to Lancelot? Are we so starved of cultural recognition, particularly of a kind that seems positive?

I’m sorry, therefore, to suggest that you are not up on SC politics, Jeffrey. I’m sure you know what a jerk Sanford really is. But I did find the omission of any mention of Sanford’s policies—those he was pushing at the same time he was pouring out his feelings--deeply dismaying. I realize that Sanford is an ever-so-amusing joke for the world (and rightly so!!), but let’s not isolate one aspect of this affair so that we may enjoy it free from all consideration of its broader import. Even if this is something of a game, meant to while away the minutes/hours when we can’t get our writing to do what we’d like it to, it doesn’t seem in keeping with what we do for a living. Why would we reduce the complexity of a literary figure (or work) to forge a comparison, or ignore the cultural circumstances that such a comparison might impact?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Holly, yes: my post does make light of Sanford by comparing him to medieval authors and figures he is evidently not. Thus Bernart de Ventadorn, whose poem is about rejection by the distant and domineering domina, does not in fact hold anything comparable to Sanford's cliches of "unique and fabulous in a whole host of ways" (addressed to a woman who is not a domineering domina). He really isn't all that comparable to Lancelot or Tristan or even Napoleon.

I hope my post was kind of funny. I acknowledge that it can be easily taken to task for its lack of social conscience and its glib comparisons. I guess I should be sorry that I "enjoy it free from all consideration of its broader import." But, I don't want to give up my silliness, so I'll likely continue on that road, sometimes.

i said...

I'd like to pick up the gauntlet here on Jeffrey's behalf, though, alas, not nearly so eloquently as other commenters, pro or con.

There several issues or questions as I see it:

1. Does discussing one aspect of a person require us to deal with his or her entire life, works, and moral being?

I would argue that unless the context is a general evaluation of that person, the answer should be "no" more often. It's legitimate to think about Sanford's emails as a document of love without also treating his politics in depth (especially on a blog, which should allow for this kind of playfulness and experimentation), just as it is legitimate to discuss, say, Michael Jackson's role in twentieth-century American dance without referring to his massive debts or alleged abuses of children. A biography, an obituary, a discussion about the person as a whole -- these are genres where all the bases should be covered.

2. Is it sentimentalizing or glorifying a person to suggest they have any kind of noble feelings, or that their emotions are worthy of sympathy?

I have to begin by saying that I'm more than a little frustrated by the extent to which North American society assumes people to be morally unambiguous, and that their sexual and romantic ethics are an index to their total worth as a person. Just as I don't believe that a politician in a straight-laced, non-adulterous, heterosexual, middle-class, unmixed marriage with three cherubic children is therefore well-equipped to legislate and wield executive power, I don't believe that a man who writes romantic letters and seems to be truly enamored of his lover is therefore excused for his political failings. But I do believe we and the public at large would do well to reflect on the inconsistencies more often. Perhaps the fella whose politics I prefer conducted a seedy and tasteless affair with a young intern and then denied it and her. Perhaps the guy who opposes same-sex civil unions and adoptions by homosexuals (opinions which are abhorrent to me) writes awkward but intimate and caring letters to his lover. I'd like for us to be able to denounce the seedy affair or appreciate the tender letters without that being a comment on the politician's ability as a leader either way. (And yes, I admit, I'm charmed by the Obamas but I have to remind myself now and then that their enviable relationship is lovely to watch, but has little to do with judging the effectiveness of his presidency.)

3. The issue of comparing modern things to the Middle Ages:

Perhaps if Jeffrey had been a Romanticist, he would have compared this scandal to one of Byron's affairs. But he's a Medievalist, and he used the material at hand for what was a pretty lighthearted comparison. Still, as starved for cultural recognition as we Medievalists are (and especially we Anglo-Saxonists!), I don't think we'd shy away from reasonable comparison of reprehensible modern actions to reprehensible medieval ones, or vice versa. To wit, when I load ITM, the two posts preceding this one are on "Anglo-Saxon apartheid" and twelfth-century English massacres of Jews.

i said...

Just another note, and a link.

Of course Sanford is not as eloquent, or better put, as masterful as medieval troubadours. (Poetry's not really his job, after all.) His letters can be seen as a failure, but I enjoyed them because they reminded me that all attempts to put love into words, even the technically exquisite ones, are to some extent doomed to fail. It's in the act of attempting to express the emotion, to convey powerful and overwhelming feeling to his lover, that Sanford is connected to poets much greater than he. (One could go further, I suppose, and say that his attempts to express his passion, or the passion itself, were distantly shaped by medieval literature, but that's more than I'm willing to take on.)

And my second link, also from Jezebel: Is There Any Way To Write A Love Letter Without Sounding Ridiculous?

Holly Crocker said...

Dear all,
I’m sorry for intruding upon the fun post that Jeffrey intended—it *was* clever (the troubadour box was pretty, too), and if you don’t live in SC, where people are really seeking to salvage Mark Sanford on account of his romantic sincerity—sometimes in rubbished, medievalised terms—it is a great extension of the ridiculous. Fun and games; all’s good.
If those parameters are to operate, however, let’s not then act like discussing the e-mails of Mark Sanford approximates a discussion of his person, in any way. We are talking about fantasies of his person, pro or con, which we are making up from our readings of his e-mail (that’s troubling in a whole different way, of course). Still, perhaps I’m missing the fun here: Irina, if you want to turn S’s e-mails into a “document of love,” have at it. I don’t think he’s much of a writer, but if there’s an argument to be made for his prose, I’m certainly willing to be convinced otherwise. I’d prefer to stick to his policies, since I care little about, much less for, what I take to be his person.
Even so, I do think our loves say a lot about our politics. Adolf Eichmann, for instance, was deeply affected by the countryside; turns out it was an integral part of his nationalism, and so completely implicated, if completely sincere. Sometimes our loves are terrible, even if they are deep or heart-felt. I make the connection to Eichmann, itself horribly loaded, because I want to be clear about my view of how this post relates to the other work on this blog: I can’t think of another critic (besides H. Arendt, perhaps) more sensitive to the fraught interconnections between expressions of care and hatred than Jeffrey. If I take umbrage to his willingness to ignore distinctions in this particular post, it is because I see it as a peculiar departure from the powerful indictment of what I might haltingly call the “casual” harms perpetrated in daily life, medieval or modern (the post Irina cites is a great example of this kind of work: “The Jew of Unbelief / The Jewish Neighbor”). Jeffrey certainly needs no larger defense against the objections I raise about this post…

Matt said...

Great post! Even the little orthographic liberties in the Mark-Maria source texts suggest some something of the medieval yearnings. Alas, they're no Tristan-Isolde--there will not be blood.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, everyone, for your comments on this post.

And thanks, Holly, for your kind words about my work. Your praise means a great deal to me ... but I must confess that in the end I don't recognize myself in your description of my scholarship. Yes, much of what I do is deadly serious: frequent topics include racism, genocide, antisemitism, intolerance, mutilation, and the murder of children. Working with a document like the portion of Matthew Paris's chronicle on the death of Hugh of Lincoln is, for me, like staring into an abyss: a child died horribly, likely drowned in a well that he could not even with last struggling efforts escape; the owner of the house in which this happened -- the father of Hugh's Jewish friend -- is tied to a horse and dragged to the gallows; the wealthiest Jews of Lincoln are placed in a cart and brought to London for imprisonment; eighteen of these innocent people are hanged. Matthew narrates all of this with approval.

The narrative is serious stuff, and it brings a tear to my eye every single time I read it: the twenty people who die in the account mattered in 1255, and matter still today.

So what are my options in the face of this tragedy? Misanthropy is a road I could easily travel. Despair. Self-righteousness is another possibility, and one that I think I've been drawn to in the past: I could appoint myself the voice of the unjustly dead ... but in the end it seems to me that such a position of certainty does away with the self-criticism and endless self-reflection that are at the core of my own scholarly values. I need my hesitations.

So I write about these events in the best way that I, as a limited and fallible person, can. I don't shy away from what is horrific, but I try my best to catch a glimpse of alternate endings, even if they are foreclosed (in the Hugh story, the unnarrated accounts of Jewish-Christian amity and compassionate neighboring).

And I am seldom serious or solemn for long: I can't be, because that would bring me so deep into tragedy that I, personally, would not be able to see anything but that abiding darkness. I would not be able to catch sight of the stories that fall outside Leidensgeschichte (tales of suffering) and Jammergeschichte (lachrymose history). I fear that I wouldn't perceive that the story of Hugh of Lincoln is not just an antisemitic blood libel tale, but an account of how a mighty theological partition between Christian and Jew was overcome in sublunary Lincoln by two neighboring boys who enjoyed each other's company, who played together in a Jewish house.

That playing together as a kind of affective neighboring is what the non-serious, non-solemn part of my work is about. So, I have recently been posting about the York massacre of 1190 and about the twenty dead in Lincoln. But I have at the same time been posting about a smart-ass Jew who punked the Christians of Oxford by mocking their devotions to an ancient saint. I've posted a discussion about Christians and Jews meeting each other over fondue pots and possibly roasting human hearts in Gruyère. In part this lack of seriousness is gallows humor, a coping mechanism. In part it's what enables me to do scholarly work of any kind.

And please do not get me wrong: I prescribe nothing of this for anyone else. The method works for me, and I am therefore unlikely to change. But a mixed approach will not be to everyone's taste; not everyone will find value in it. That is fine.

So I write in what is ultimately a comic rather than tragic mode. I hope that my levity will not seem a lack of commitment or of care. For me a compassionate, unironic enjoyment with is an essential component of how I practice my scholarship, as well as how I live my life.

Thank you for the invitation to articulate that credo, Holly.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

And to get back to Sanford, just want to say that I doubt my own gently mocking post will assist in the Republican rehabilitation of the man (though I can see the ways in Soltan and Nehring's *might*) -- anyway, if it does I am sorry for that. I also think that I would have a very different attitude towards the guy if I were living in his state, so let me be up front about that: it is easier to poke fun at what isn't close to home.

Last, I just want to point out that Bernart's poem, beautiful as it is, reveals a self-absorbed lover who can see in his lady only a narcissistic mirror. There's nothing much to admire here, really -- and let's not let Lancelot, Tristan, or any other medieval knight off the hook too easily either. Chivalry is a lovely coat of paint on something that is rather ugly underneath, and courtly love is part of that varnishing process.

Holly Crocker said...

To your last comment, Jeffrey: yes, exactly. That's actually what I meant by my first one: chivalric fantasies certainly dismiss values that disrupt their privileged, rarefied, narcissistic fin'amor (as your post points out: so he's married, so he's a hypocrite, so he's reckless, et cetera), but they equally suppress the material inequities and racialized differences that produce, sustain, and valorize these affairs. classic stuff of romanz...hardly ennobling.

Nevertheless, *Lancelot* is far more rich than the Sanford affair. So the man had a feeling--now he's a lover in literary vein?? not so much.