Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Reviewing Marilynn Desmond in 995 words

Well, it's been entirely too long since I posted or commented on anything. Been utterly swamped with finishing projects, TAing an ethics course for the philosophy department, and preparing for SEMA (more to come on that front).

Still, one of the "minor" (not really) projects that I finished up was my review of Marilynn Desmond's Ovid's Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence (Cornell, 2006). Some may remember a special session on the book at last year's Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo. My review will appear in the "Books in Brief" section of a forthcoming issue (I think the next one) of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies. It was a real delight and incredibly insightful to work with the book review editor, Beth Freeman. I'm posting the review below, although it's possible that changes might still (need to) be made. Generally, I thought the book was really great, but I did have some theoretical concerns/questions. In fact, at the Kalamazoo BABEL party I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Marilynn about the book, and she was incredibly gracious toward me. That was certainly a delight!

On the Receiving End
Nunzio N. D'Alessio

Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence
Marilynn Desmond
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006.
xiii + 206 pp.

After California’s Supreme Court extended marriage rights to same-sex couples regardless of state residency, The Advocate declared open season on the “Great Marriage Rush.” Featuring white-gowned and black-tuxedoed couples and the Golden Gate Bridge, the cover conjoined a homonormative rights agenda with a pioneer rhetoric of individual freedom and hard-won riches.{1} Advocating a pause before this juridical embrace, some theorists argue for a disarticulation of marriage practices from kinship structures.{2} But another potential lengthening of this respite emerges from scholarship on premodern literature, which continues complicating our easily drawn assumptions about past and present marriage politics.{3} Offering such breathing space, Marilynn Desmond’s Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath examines Ovid’s medieval reception in Heloise, the Roman de la Rose, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan.

Desmond’s carefully executed readings of visual and written texts highlight intimate connections between violence and erotic desires. An opening chapter surveys the “mounted Aristotle,” a specular tradition depicting the philosopher ridden like a horse by a woman in a trope of erotic humiliation, which foregrounds anxieties about female erotic agency. Her especially rewarding second chapter reads in Ovid’s Ars amatoria a structural and mimetic correspondence with Roman scripts of imperialism and coloniality. This prepares readers for how an ironically framed imperial work became in its medieval appropriations an ethically authoritative treatise. Desmond accounts for this interpretive rupture by emphasizing how institutional apparatuses condition both what and how a text is pedagogically appropriated. For example, when treating epistolary activities, Desmond demonstrates, through appeals to the medieval handbook tradition of letter writing, how the genre rhetorically “fixed the status of the sender in relation to the addressee and thereby encoded and enacted social hierarchy,” which leads to her provocative claim that “epistolary structure replicates the structure of desire” (55-56). Equally noteworthy are comments on how illustrations and Latin commentary in manuscript page design can give any text authoritative framing. Operative in these structures is a mechanics of absorption that brought texts of disparate value systems into the medieval classroom to teach Latin within a utilitarian axiology: poetry teaches ethics because it speaks of proper desire and comportment.

Much merits comment in Desmond’s study. Both the archival survey of medieval French translations of the Ars amatoria and the excellent treatment of Christine’s source-relations prove essential. Parsing Chaucer’s reliance on the “mounted Aristotle” for his Wife of Bath’s cultural legibility, Desmond also examines how Chaucer uses first-person confessional structures to establish the Wife’s authority. A fuller appreciation of Chaucerian discursiveness emerges from Desmond’s genealogical tracing of the Wife through the Roman de la Rose: precisely when the Wife seems “most personal or authentic” she is “most constructed” (125). Throughout, Desmond enacts a disciplinary capaciousness alongside a remarkable facility with a temporally diverse set of multilingual texts. (Such comparativist strengths could have been better displayed with a comprehensive bibliography.)

Some readings will rub specialists the wrong way. But more pressing is the disjuncture between theoretical languages and very exciting textual work. Desmond rhetorically frames her study with S/M’s potential to disrupt heteropatriarchy by staging “problem[s] of ethical negotiation” (2-3). Left undeveloped is her intriguing description of much S/M writing “read[ing] like a rhetorical manual” (4). Still, it seems that S/M appears only long enough to conjure its opposite in domestic violence; wife-beating, not the desexualizing intensities of S/M, is key for her argument.

This binary between consensual and nonconsensual erotic violence breaks down at critical moments. Consider Heloise, who, because of a hegemonically carceral religious life and a clerically administered education, appears incapable of resistance. In Desmond’s hands, Heloise’s religiously imbricated life seems irredeemably oppressive; here spousal abuse becomes a Christianly permissible act.{4} But Christine de Pizan resists more effectively because cultural shifts in gender relations, Parisian bureaucratic culture, and autodidactism make possible “a less institutional and more idiosyncratic appreciation” of the Ovidian material (155). The contrast is even sharper, when Desmond declares Heloise little more than a “submissive lover” but Christine a forthrightly assertive subject (164). This not only posits religion and secularity as discrete and intrinsically agonistic spheres, it also places the locus of resistance on an externally sovereign subject. Desmond, unable to locate in Heloise’s submissiveness any tangibly resistant act, makes eroticism isomorphic with violence. A more productive reading would indicate the radical instability subtending erotic hierarchies. That structure can imply stricture need not mean the loss or irrevocable diminishment of agency, only that these are agency’s framing conditions.

Another concern is how Desmond uses heterosexuality. While sometimes highlighting its performativity, Desmond nonetheless uses heterosexuality interchangeably with heteroerotic and heterophallic, which conflates sexuality and gender within a hetero/homo frame. Conceptual dependency on such a capaciously normalizing category essentializes a discursive effect. By laminating heterosexuality onto a premodern past, as James Schultz argues, scholars allow it to “escape history” and assume a “cosmic and inevitable” status, thereby contributing to both the term’s colonization of the past and its consolidation in the present.{5} If Desmond relentlessly trains our eyes on discomforting scenes of erotic violence to demonstrate both their invitation to “ethical reading” and the presence and power of “textual violence in the disciplinary acts of interpretation,” then conceptual reliance on heterosexuality does its own discursive damage by foreclosing the sexual field within hetero/homo or conjugal frames (9).

But such criticisms cannot devalue what is an otherwise excellent and thrilling treatment of Ovid and his medieval appropriators. Argumentatively compelling and accessibly written, the book is also handsomely produced, with 37 illustrations. Specialists will benefit much from Desmond’s strengths in dealing with manuscripts and premodern rhetorical and pedagogical traditions. But queer readers might take away from Desmond a disquieting problematization of marriage: If the West remains heir to an “Ovidian libidinal economy” whereby the institutionalization of marriage not only “structures eros” but also “elicits and regulates violence” (64, 29; 116), then it seems all the more vital to not rush toward but interrogate whether these bonds are irrevocably pathological. Perhaps, then, the medieval never feels more modern than when asking, “Who’s on top?”

Nunzio N. D’Alessio is Ph.D. student in English at The University of Texas, Austin.

{1} To view the cover image, see: http://www.advocate.com/toc_ektid1010.asp (accessed 16 September 2008). The California Supreme Court’s 4-3 decision, which overturned the state’s existing ban on gay marriages, was handed down on May 15, 2008 and took effect on June 16, 2008.
{2} See, e.g., Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004). I remain particularly indebted to Butler’s theory of agency, as recast here, for several of my below critical formulations.
{3} Emma Lipton, Affections of the Mind: The Politics of Sacramental Marriage in Late Medieval English Literature (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) and Frances E. Dolan, Marriage and Violence: The Early Modern Legacy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008). Both Lipton and Dolan situate their work with respect to contemporary marriage debates.
{4} That Christianity’s relation to erotic domination between spouses is a more ambiguous phenomenon can be glimpsed in the writings of John Chyrsostom, whose often noxious treatment of women still disallows domestic violence—a condemnation far stronger than his contemporary Augustine. See Joy A. Schroeder, “John Chrysostom’s Critique of Spousal Violence,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 12.4 (2004): 413-42.
{5} James A. Schultz, “Heterosexuality as a Threat to Medieval Studies,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 15.1 (2006): 14-29 at 20. Briefly, Schultz taxonomizes heterosexuality in three ways: as naming discrete sexual relations between men and women, claiming an orientation or identity, and describing a regulatory institutionalization. This tripartite taxonomy causes damage, argues Schultz, through correspondingly reductive analyses that make heterosexuality isomorphic with reproduction, psychosexual integrity, and marriage. The article also appears as chapter four in Schultz’s Courtly Love, the Love of Courtliness, and the History of Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Schultz is certainly not alone in questioning the signifying capacity of heterosexuality, on which see Graham N. Drake, “Queer Medieval: Uncovering the Past,” GLQ 14.4 (2008): 639-58.


Eileen Joy said...

Marilynn Desmond was at the BABEL party at Kalamazoo? YOU were there, too? How come no one tells me these things? Was I drunk? Wonderful review, by the way.

Nic D'Alessio said...

Actually, Eileen, I was able to meet and have a delightful conversation with Marilynn. She asked me what I thought of the book, and began to hesitatingly tell her. But she was so gracious toward me, and it was one of my best experiences at Kalamazoo last year.

Oh, and we actually spoke at the BABEL party, in front of the fridge in the hotel room (yes, I have a very odd memory). In fact, you claimed to have met me before, and remembered that I previously had a beard , which narrowed the time-frame down to between Thanksgiving 07 and April 08 (since that's the only time in my life I'd ever had a beard). I still can't for the life of me remember where we would've met. I was floating around MLA in Chicago, so maybe we crossed paths there. Still, I was told that if Eileen claims to have met you, then she has. :)

Glad you liked the review.

Eileen Joy said...

Okay; now I'm worried about my memory, and I supposedly have a really good one. I was not at the MLA meeting in Chicago, so . . . hmmmmmm. Here's what we'll do--when I see you in Saint Louis, I'll say, "we've met before, Kalamazoo, I think, in front of a fridge." The thing is is, if I said it, I meant it. When I see you again, it will all come back to me. I swear.