The Confidence of the Mediocre White Man: Stephen Fry, QI and Rape Culture

download

I love Sarah Hagi’s plea, “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man”. I’ve been using it to motivate myself – and friends have been reminding me of it, as I negotiate the ever-growing pile of job applications – for a fair while now. The quotation reminds us of the undeserved confidence people gain purely as a result of holding a privileged position: the confidence that their efforts will be seen and rewarded, and, further, their unconscious knowledge that credit for things not strictly merited may well also accrue to them.

Hagi’s point seems particularly relevant today, as I see swarms of angry people complaining about Stephen Fry’s latest idiotic, selfish, misogynistic comment (no link. If you really want to find it, you’ll find it, and the title makes his targets fairly obvious. But I’ll opt out of spreading it further). You see, on the quiet, I’ve been bemused by attitudes to Fry for a while.

There’s much in Fry that invites sympathy and liking. He has the charming patrician accent, the old-fashioned middle-class habit of pausing politely as he invites comments, the self-deprecating humour, the delight in being silly. He has overcome real difficulties, working against homophobia and against both the personal impact and the social stigma of mental illness. And he’s a talented actor, particularly brilliant at ventriloquising Oscar Wilde’s witty quips and despairing philosophies alike.

But he is also, above and beyond these things, treated as a towering intellectual heavyweight. Why is this, exactly?

We all know, I assume, that QI is scripted. We know that Fry isn’t actually the genius who holds all of these tiny details at his fingertips, eruditely sifting through the banks of data in his memory to tell us about his research into the lesser-known puffer fish of Malaysia. We know, too, that QI on occasion gets it wrong – corrected and uncorrected – because it is, of course, not based on the infallible genius of the person in the presenter’s chair but on a host of busy researchers who sometimes stumble. We know, moreover, that even if Fry was already aware of some of the ‘facts’ he quotes, he certainly didn’t discover them. He’s not the researcher here. That’s not his job.

I know a lot of educated, intelligent women – both working within academia and without – and they do research some of these things. They do know (from first-hand discoveries) some of the facts that feed into the image of Fry as a purveyor of learning.

Just on facebook – browsing, without trying to remember or analyse, and just in the past week – I saw articles in the papers discussing research carried out by (amongst others) Dr Charlotte Houldcroft, which offers new insights into the effects of disease in prehistory. I read a proposal by Dr Katie Collins, which explores hidden stories of women’s lives and offers to change the way we think about researching history. I saw a link to a new issue of academic journal including work by Dr Tekla Bude, who interrogates the ways we’ve interpreted displays of royal power and patronage in medieval England; by Dr Holly James-Maddocks, who’s discovered new links between scribes and artists that could change our understanding of how medieval English literature was produced; and by Dr Sarah Baechle, who examines the manuscripts of one of the most famous medieval poems ever written – Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde – and illustrates the complex responses of readers and writers living 500 years ago. I saw British Academy Rising Star Dr Catherine Redford start a discussion group to outreach programmes for bringing university work on English language and literature into secondary school classrooms.

Elizabeth Savage announced her talk on early printing; Deborah Cameron was interviewed on the relationship between language and feminism; Carissa Harris and Liza Strakhov talked about pedagogies of feminism to combat rape culture; Helen Stagg announced the publication of her handbook on infectious diseases. And so it went on.

All of these women are educated and qualified in their research. And their work is painstaking, detailed, often carefully hedged about with awareness of its own limitations and nuances. It’s not easily made into soundbites (I know: I’ve just tried). It doesn’t carry a glib miasma of erudition, the way the QI script does when it’s read out in Fry’s sonorous tones. And that made me realise that there’s something more than slightly suspect about the way information is presented in QI. It’s TV programme equivalent of an Edwardian gentleman-explorer’s trophy cabinet: a mish-mash of tiger skins and elephants’ feet, of bits and pieces souvenired from the Valley of the Kings or the Acropolis, of unexplained butterflies stuck to pins and ‘exotic’ statues and dubious black-and-white portraits of people who didn’t particularly want to be photographed.

I’m not suggesting QI is a hotbed of retrograde, imperialist racism (though it usually groans under the same tedious weight of sexism as other panel shows, Sandi Toksvig notwithstanding). But the attitude towards ‘curiosities’ Fry is paid to promote hasn’t really moved on much from 1904. His role is to play the authority, the collector, bringing us knowledge that’s collected piecemeal and out of context from its sources. And, because he displays his collection with the confidence of the mediocre white man, we somehow forget that it wasn’t his in the first place.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Rocks, Hard Places, and the (Lesbian) Interpretation of Literary Texts

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes an interpretation of a text legitimate – or valuable, or rigorous, convincing, or even useful. Your standard English Lit 101 will tell you that an interpretation of a text has to be supported by 1) close reference to the words and the way they’re used and 2) awareness of the context in which the text was written. Simple, right? You look at a precise word, and you narrow down what it means by looking at the rest of the text. And the person who wrote it. And the people who read it. And everything you can find out about the time and place it was written in, and the technology used to record it, and the texts written before it and at the same time as it and after it. And possibly also whether the moon was in the seventh house at the time, and whether it’s a coded message in Trithemian cryptosystems referring to the hay wain, the night of Saint John, and the knights with the white cloaks.* Not so simple anymore, right?

These are the questions we face before we even consider the implicit acknowledgement of power dynamics – relationships of economic capital and lack, of educational privilege and deprivation, of linguistic prestige and genre-based inferiority, of cultural status and material cheap ephemerality, all represented by a written text on a page. If something is legitimate, who allowed it? Who stands as authority to judge, and where do they get that power? If an interpretation is valuable, are we talking monetary value? To whom? And so on.

My questions came about for two reasons. One is that, over the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a popular medieval text which, I’m increasingly convinced, has a carefully constructed subtext of innuendos about female homosexuality. Medieval lesbians! Yay! I’ve mentioned this – occasionally in almost exactly those words – to both colleagues and friends. There’s not that much point putting the argument more seriously, because if I do, pretty soon, they cut in, grinning. Medieval lesbians! Yay! Now, I’m enjoying this bit of research, but I can’t help noticing that (surprising as it may seem), it’s not quite the response I get when I talk about the fascinating details of Latin marginal interpolations into fifteenth-century Lives of Christ, or the finer details of manicule usage in Anglo-Norman penitential tracts**.

Alongside this, about month ago and in response to a conversation with some friends, I wrote a quick, slightly tongue-in-cheek post titled ‘Is Peter Wimsey Bisexual?’ Wimsey, as you may know, is a fictional character, the hero – and sometime dashing heterosexual love-interest of the heroine – of Dorothy Sayers’ classic crime novels, written in the 1920s and 1930s. Amongst his many colleagues and friends is the flamboyant lawyer, fan of the music hall and aficionado of canary-breeding, Sir Impey Biggs, known by Wimsey’s mother as the handsomest man in England, for whom no woman will care. Biggs, I think we can fairly safely say – with a cursory knowledge of subtextual hints  – coded as homosexual. Wimsey, though, is a more complex proposition, and I wanted to see whether I could quickly scare up sufficient textual support for the idea of his bisexuality, and what this kind of thought experiment could tell us about our own cherished biases. You can read that post here.

I was surprised – which was daft of me – but the responses to what I said. Some people read it, and told me they could accept Sayers’ minor characters being homosexual or bisexual – but not Wimsey. Not possible. Others pointed out that Wimsey ends up with a woman – as if (as we’re conditioned to believe) bisexual men don’t really exist, or that a charge of bisexuality levelled against a man is more or less the same thing as claiming he’s homosexual, and can be disproved by evidence of a heterosexual marriage.

But I was most surprised to find that, for some readers, interpreting Wimsey as bisexual came across as disrespectful to bisexual or homosexual readers. Another criticism came from an academic whose professional work centres on Sayers, and who pointed out that it was a little out of line for me – a medievalist – to put forward an interpretation of this bit of the text. Over at ArmsAndTheMedicalMan, Dr Jessica Meyer explains how she feels about ‘uncritical’ readings of Sayers – a particular problem for a scholar working on texts that also generate a substantial amount of interpretation outside the academy, which isn’t a problem (or a blessing) I have to deal with much in my field. Like me, Meyer’s interested in the way fiction sheds light on the past, but unlike me, she’s working with texts many people read for fun, in the original. There are people who read Chaucer or Langland for fun, of course, but they tend (and I do apologise if I’m misrepresenting anyone here) to be people who already have a basic grounding in the types of literary criticism whose absence Meyer deplores.

I could quibble about some of her readings – she is mistaken, for example, in thinking that the text does not claim Impey Biggs is blushing as he examines the witnesses in the pivotal trial scene to which I refer, although I suspect she would say that we must put this down to mere heat and emotion, rather than anticipatory nerves before Peter’s entrance – but her wider point that Wimsey’s sexuality is largely impugned by other heterosexual men in competition with him, stands. If it tends to conflate bisexuality and homosexuality, that’s probably perfectly in keeping with the period. So, Meyer’s criticisms give weight to the concerns other readers had: in offering a speculative picture of Wimsey as bisexual, am I disrespectfully ignoring the complex realities of sexualities in the past? In citing subtext and innuendo, am I trying to look at a gas-lit Edwardian novel under twenty-first disco strobe lighting?

At least two people advanced, as a disqualifying argument to Wimsey’s bisexuality, the fact that the rhyme he parodies – referring to ‘two pretty men’ – is a nursery rhyme. But this in itself tells us something about our ingrained assumptions about when, and where, homosexuality is a thinkable prospect. It’s not that nursery rhymes cannot make coded and child-like references to sexual and romantic contact: The Owl and the Pussycat is, depending on your perspective, a charming tale of heterosexual love and marriage, or a depraved picture of cross-species bestiality with explicitly objectifying lines addressed with vulgar crudity to the female pudendum. But I digress. The point is that we assume – still, I think – that if the heterosexual majority of society do not see an innuendo, it is therefore invisible to everyone else, too. We cannot imagine a child born in the late Victorian period who could possibly think in categories later periods would call homoromantic. Yet, we’ve no difficulty accepting that a three or four year old Victorian child, reading Lear’s nonsense rhyme hot off the press in 1871, would recognise that what is described is a recognisable, if delightfully strange, version of a marriage ceremony.

Is this observation ‘uncritical’, or simply critical in a different way?

Lying behind some of these issues is, I think, the feeling that if you enjoy reading against the surface of the text – if you pick on innuendos, jokes, hints, and all of that material that lies uneasily between comedy and the unpleasantly exclusionary politics of euphemism – then you are making a game of what you interpret. If you find bisexuality in a novel by reading into its subtext, you are, in some sense, making a game of bisexuality itself.

I disagree quite strongly with this, and I’d distinguish between the kind of game that is mocking (and genuinely exclusionary), interested in policing sexuality by pointing and laughing at aspects of it, and the kind of game that is joyful, and fun, and part of a tradition of shared, understated recognition.

Novels can be compared to visual art: what one person sees is not the same as that of the next person, because of environment, their experiences, their thoughts – their feelings at the time. People who go to the Tate year after year find different things to appreciate, different things to notice. But that’s what makes a great painting or a great novel – the readings between the lines.

We tend to worry a lot about the distinctions between ‘critical’ and ‘uncritical’ readings, between ‘educated’ and ‘amateur’ interpretations, between ‘literary criticism’ and ‘appreciation’. But it worries me that, as we make those distinctions, readings in which Peter Wimsey is bisexual, or my medieval characters are lesbians, are unhesitatingly aligned with the ‘uncritical’, the ‘amateur’, the ‘appreciative’ reading, as if only a reader devoid of rigorous scholarship could arrive at such an interpretation. And it worries me more that these readers – when they have any truck with the methods of literary criticism – come across as a game, a form of mockery, a way of treating the real struggles of sexuality as if they were the province of fiction, of that trivia that is literary criticism.

I don’t think either way of looking at these texts is right for me.

 

*If you’re wildly curious, the cryptosystem is that referred to in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, p. 135.

**Latin marginal interpolations into fifteenth-century Lives of Christ, and the finer details of manicule usage in Anglo-Norman penitential tracts, are the bomb in certain comedy circles, I’ll have you know.

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Comments

A Quick Note on Moderation

Just a note to explain the way I (haphazardly) moderate this blog. Dead boring, but it seems it’d be useful to have this written somewhere.

All sorts of people comment on my blog. I try to respond to everyone (though I sometimes miss comments, because once you click ‘approve’ on one comment, WordPress automatically sends all subsequent comments through the filter, which is nice because it means regular readers can post in real time without waiting for me to send their comments through).

If I get comments that are obviously spam, or strings of obscenities/death threats/etc., I delete them. Unless they tickle my slightly dark sense of humour, or are useful in demonstrating the kind of idiots who write this stuff. It’s a bit hit and miss.

I also leave in comments I don’t personally agree with, including those I think are pretty offensive. I tend to think ignoring die-hard bigots is the best way. But I don’t automatically delete, as I do with plain-out spewing of swear words. Partly this is because I don’t feel comfortable setting myself up as Grand Arbiter of Bigotry, partly it’s because I spend a fair bit of my day job agonising over when to pull someone up on what they say or claim, and partly because it could take a very long time to get into a proper, considered argument. And I don’t always have that time.

So, there you go. It’s not a perfect policy and I might very well change how I do things in the future, but for now, that is what you can expect if you are reading my stuff.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Is Peter Wimsey Bisexual? Some brief thoughts on innuendo

download

For some time now, I’ve been reading Jem Bloomfield’s excellent, speculative posts about Dorothy Sayers’ novels. And I’ve enjoyed them – they coincided with me discovering her work – but until now, I’ve not felt able to add anything much. But, recently, I took a break from writing my current article on Chaucer to think about modern innuendo, and found myself led to the passages in one of Sayers’ less well-rated novels, Clouds of Witness, and so, to the burning and perhaps unexpected question: is Peter Wimsey bisexual?

Wimsey is famous in certain (admittedly, small) circles for his erudite romanticism and for being, we tend to agree, really rather nicely feminist despite being a fictional character born in the late nineteenth century. I’ve heard more women than I’d like to admit – and me included – exude a little sigh over the idea of an academic-gowned proposal taking place in starlit Oxford streets and crowned with “Placetne, Magistra?” as the phrasing of the time-honoured question. And so, perhaps I need some justification for what might seem an alarming suggestion.

My first exhibit for the jury is not Wimsey himself, but his good friend and oftentimes colleague, the dashing lawyer Sir Impey Biggs, of whom the Dowager Duchess of Denver once remarked:

‘”Sir Impey Biggs is the handsomest man in England, and no woman will ever care twopence for him.” He was, in fact, thirty-eight, and a bachelor, and was celebrated for his rhetoric and his suave but pitiless dissection of hostile witnesses. The breeding of canaries was his unexpected hobby, and besides their song he could appreciate no music but revue airs.’

The Dowager Duchess is, as readers of Sayers will know, not always the most reliable or systematic observer, but she does have a much-cited talent for understanding people, and for hitting on the crucial detail. And here, she’s speaking in fluent code. Biggs is a ‘confirmed bachelor’. The music he appreciates is ‘revue airs’ – that is, the currency of the Music Halls, which often featured cross-dressing acts and innuendo-laden songs.

Sayers goes on to describe her hero, Peter Wimsey, meeting this famous figure:

“He answered Wimsey’s greeting in his beautiful, resonant, and exquisitely controlled voice. … Wimsey expressed himself delighted to see him in a voice, by contrast, more husky and hesitant even than usual.”

On one reading, the scene is a knowing cliché: two people, conscious of the precise tones of each others’ voices; the one ‘controlled’ as if against betrayal of unseemly emotion, the other deepening into ‘husky’ tones. But, before we fan ourselves hastily, there’s another reading. On the surface, Sayers clearly means, also, to indicate that, in the presence of the great lawyer, Wimsey appears more diffident even than normal, less artificial in his control, more uncertain. This is a quality consistently associated with Wimsey, and it’s a quality Sayers takes great trouble to present as part of his appeal, as a counterweight to his frequent flashes of arrogance and self-assurance. And so, we can’t be certain this scene is to be read in the light of innuendo, especially if we’re anticipating the introduction of Wimsey’s unlikely love-interest, Harriet Vane. And yet … we’re soon treated to another telling scene, as Wimsey sits in the firelight setting the world to rights with his friend:

“Lord Peter watched his statuesque profile against the fire; it reminded him of the severe beauty of the charioteer of Delphi and was about as communicative.”

images

The Charioteer of Delphi (detail)

On the surface, Wimsey’s thoughts suggest his irritation with Biggs’ discreet refusal to speculate too much on a current murder case, but the suggestiveness of the image Peter evokes is telling.

The Charioteer of Delphi is an Ancient Greek statue, portraying a young man. It was discovered in 1896, the year after the trial of Oscar Wilde, in which Wilde expounded at length on the nature of what he called ‘Greek love’, and in which the phrase (coined by Wilde’s lover Bosie) ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ was first popularised as a byword for homosexuality. In short, Wimsey recognises Biggs as a ‘Greek’ figure, an uncommunicative figure (or a figure who ‘dares not speak’) – and he phrases his recognition to himself in terms of aesthetic appreciation of another man’s Classically captivating appearance.

From this, it’s a short step to the ditty the rather rattled Wimsey comes out with when, hauled up to the witness stand before a surprised and blushing Biggs, he sings out:

“Biggy and Wiggy
Were two pretty men,
They went into court 
When the clock –“

The rest is silence: the ditty is cut off, the judge demands obedience, and Sayers rapidly retreats to a less subversively suggestive hero and, eventually, to a conclusion of impeccable Oxford courtship and ensuing matrimony.

This could all be taken as a fun parlour game – and reading books against the grain is one of my favourite things to do. But, perhaps there’s more to it than that. When I first suggested, to devoted fans of Sayers, that Impey Biggs might be a covertly homosexual character, they were willing to run with the ball. And when other readers have raised the point that Eiluned Prince, Sayers’ quite obviously lesbian character, is ‘a type to keep her hands in her pockets’, I’ve seen very little dissent. But for us to imagine Peter Wimsey as bisexual requires more of a shift of readerly attitudes, because of our own contemporary assumptions about fiction and sexuality.

It’s a truism that we are, even today, liable to imagine bisexual men are fictional – ‘in the closet’ – and that men who are truly attracted to women cannot also be attracted to men. And we tend, too, to assume that the subtle reach of innuendo in 1930s England could not possibly have denoted a sufficiently widespread tolerance of homosexuality such that Dorothy Sayers might possibly have penned a bisexual central character. But, as I hope I’ve shown by keeping one eye on the subtext, anything is possible.

Posted in Uncategorized | 65 Comments

Jesus Wept: On Umberto Eco and John Donne

topofeastwindowFULL550

East Window, King’s College Cambridge

At 5.30 on Monday, I was sitting in King’s College Chapel, looking up at the stained glass, which – from where I was – was mostly shades of blue, with the afternoon light behind it. We were waiting for the beginning of a service, a service for Lent, on the theme of tears. As we waited, candles were lit, and by the time the choir began to sing, the fading light outside made the stained glass darken almost to black.

I was noticing these details, because I’d got there early. I was running over the passages from a sermon by John Donne, which I was going to read. Donne’s sermon is based on the text from John’s Gospel, in which Jesus responds to the death of Lazarus by weeping. All week, I’d been enjoying getting emails from the chaplain of King’s with the faintly blasphemous-sounding subject line Jesus Wept. But Donne takes a predictably serious approach, and he makes a characteristically perceptive point that, while the Bible describes God in terms of human body parts (hands and feet, eyes and ears) as well as human emotions:

“I do not remember that ever God is said to have wept. It is for man. And when God shall come to that last act in the glorifying of man, when he promises ‘to wipe all tears from his eyes’, what shall God have to do with that eye that never wept?”

I enjoyed this point, and this rhetoric, but while I was enjoying it, I was also figuring out how to negotiate one of those lines you can’t read without raising an irritated feminist eyebrow. Discussing the idea of Jesus weeping, Donne comments on contemporary attitudes towards tears:

“We call it a childish thing to weep, and a womanish; and perchance we mean worse in that than in the childish; for therein we mean falsehood to be mingled with weakness.”

Donne glides over the idea of duplicitous feminine tears so quickly you don’t have time to explore the implications of the claim, nor what it says about the visibility of emotion and the sincerity of feeling. Donne would not be the only writer to see tears as something that should be contained, repressed, controlled, kept within the limits of the body. But Dr Thomas Dixon – who’s a historian at Queen Mary – gave the fascinating and wide-ranging address during this service, and he pointed out that Donne was writing at a time of rapidly-shifting ideas about the acceptability of emotion, a time of post-Reformation perceptions of medieval emotional display as a form of excess or insincerity. Dixon also notes that Donne is one of a very few sermon writers to discuss Christ’s tears, and I admit that this surprised me.

I was thinking back to the conversation about another kind of emotion Christ may – or may not – have displayed, which is notoriously central to the plot of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Eco died this week, and I was reading obituaries and reviews of his books.

The Name of the Rose is a classic detective story, transplanted to the early fourteenth century, and told from the perspective of a wet-behind-the-ears young monk, Adso, and his preternaturally observant, cynical, and jaded mentor, the evocatively-named William of Baskerville. Both men are visitors to a monastery in which mysterious and gruesome events are occurring, in best murder mystery tradition. But if William of Baskerville is a composite of Sherlock Holmes and of the stagey trickery that created one of his most famous cases, he’s also a skilled theologian, and early on in the novel he and Adso become dragged into what seems to be an absurdly dry argument over whether or not Christ ever laughed.

name-of-the-rose-pic-2

William and Adso in the Library. Still from The Name of the Rose (1986)

Looking over the comical and carnivalesque illuminations in a manuscript in the scriptorium, William is amused by scenes of abbot-monkeys and pope-foxes. Jorge of Burgos, an impeccably pious, irascible and deeply misogynistic scholar, declares that it is blasphemous to imagine that Christ – in full knowledge of human sin and sorrow – could ever have engaged in something as carnal and trivial as laughter. Amongst the thorns in his side is the charismatic dilettante and – whisper it – possibly not entirely heterosexual Berengar, the assistant librarian, who, it turns out, has been attempting to probe the hidden secrets of the monastery library. When William refers learnedly to Aristotle’s famous, lost treatise on Comedy, Jorge responds with rage, insisting that such a book could never have been written.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.49v

The Pope as a fox. London, BL MS 10 E. IV, f. 49v (detail)

Their argument is, as you’ll see, based on real theological points of view. I’ll quote from the film script, since I enjoy imaging Sean Connery’s accent as William, and you can watch the scene here.

Jorge: Laughter is a devilish wind which deforms the lineaments of the face, and makes men look like monkeys.

William: Monkeys do not laugh. Laughter is particular to man.

You can see that the outline of the debate is the same one that Donne presses into service in his discussion of Christ’s tears. While William (and Eco) describe laughter as particular to man, as opposed to animals, Donne describes tears as particular to man, as opposed to God. Together, they form a theory of emotion that determines the ordained place of humankind in the scheme of things. But gender doesn’t seem to come into it – at least, until I came across this old review of The Name of the Rose, written in 1983. It’s spiky praise, given grudgingly:

“Filled with the good-natured polyglot banter of the superfluosly learned, “The Name of the Rose” might be seen only as a effete “Canterbury Tales” except for tell-tale markings on the walls of its medieval monastic library, markings declaring that this records of those walls’ destruction is itself a labyrinth in the library’s image.”

It’s that word ‘effete’ that caught my attention. It’s a rarely-used term today: our vocabulary of habitual and ingrained misogyny is fashionably up to date. I have my suspicions about what the author might have considered ‘effete’ – from Eco’s choosing a genre usually dominated by women, to the portrayals of monastic homosexuality, to his poncey in-joke academic pastiches of language – but, as I was thinking about emotion, its containment and its display, it made me reassess a crucial scene in the novel, and the understated way it plays with gendered expectations.

As William and Adso become dragged further and further into the disturbing events of the monastery, they find themselves investigating a series of gruesome murders that seem somehow to relate to the highly secret portions of the monastery’s impressive and labyrinthine library. Racing through that library with suspicions mounting in their minds, William and Adso discover the  seemingly Stoical, dispassionate and authoritative Jorge, the monk who has spoken out so harshly against the idea of a laughing Christ, desperately cramming the poisoned pages of a book into his mouth in an act of destruction that will also kill him. It transpires that the fabled Aristotelian treatise on Comedy does indeed exist – hidden within the depths of the library – and that Jorge, having failed to suppress rumours of its existence, had daubed the pages in poison to trick any reader who licked his fingers as he leafed through the forbidden accounts of laughter.

name-of-the-rose

William and Adso confront Jorge. Still from The Name of the Rose

This frenzied activity is, to a medieval eye, not simply bizarre and desperate. It’s also gendered. In medieval religious literature, there’s a huge and long-standing tradition of imagining readers who devour their books. But – crucially – they are women. Religious writers approvingly described how holy women, from St Cecilia to the Virgin Mary herself, devoured the words of the Bible as if chewing, eating, and enjoying the sweet taste of the book; instructional works directed to women described how a female reader should feel and imagine each word in her mouth as she shaped its syllables with her lips. The root of this image is a quintessentially feminine experience, that of pregnancy: as Mary read the words of the Bible, she became aware of the angel Gabriel, come to tell her that she was to bear the Word of God.

annunciation_detail_300

The Annunciation, attrib. Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1465-75 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

So, when Eco has an elderly male monk – a fanatic, opposed to laughter and display of emotion – cram the pages of a book into his mouth, he’s participating in this tradition of gendering the internalisation and the display of emotion. The eating of the book feminises Jorge, even as he attempts to destroy the evidence of Christ displaying an emotion that later writers would see as suspiciously human, even suspiciously feminine. But Eco also participates in a process of aligning the medieval – as represented by Jorge and his ilk, and challenged by the proto-Humanist and rational William – with the crazed repression of emotion, the distorted and dishonest response to religion, that post-Reformation writers would seize upon for polemical purposes, like Donne’s.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Wings, Hearts, and Medieval Lesbian Valentines

CaxQN_YWwAAROzq

Detail of a miniature of the allegorical personifications of Friendly Expression and Courteous Manner, catching flighty hearts in their net; from Pierre Sala, Petit Livre d’Amour, France (Paris and Lyon), c. 1500, Stowe MS 955, f. 13r.

The other day, I saw this brilliant image come up in my twitter feed. The work of the delightfully titled ‘Master of the Chronique Scandeleuse‘, it shows two women engaged in the mutual attempt to entice a flock of winged hearts into their net with what looks like skipping rope. Naturally, I read it as a Valentine’s Day image. I blame my partner for this: just before, she’d shown me the Disney retelling of the Sleeping Beauty story. The de-centred heroine of the original story grows up as the daughter of the man who stole Maleficent’s wings and her heart, and when she returns the wings, she gains queenship of Maleficent’s kingdom. Like the original, this isn’t a story that is completely devoid of same-sex implications.

Charming as it is, I’ve got to admit that the medieval image isn’t a lesbian Valentine after all. In fact, it comes from the determinedly heterosexual Petit Livre d’Amour (Little Book of Love) written by Pierre Scala and dedicated to his mistress. The British Library has a lovely and informative post on the real context of the image and of the manuscript in which it’s found, which formed their 2013 Valentine offering. In medieval English and French literature, stories of women who fall in love with other women are exceptionally rare – the Roman de Silence excluded – and I’ve been trying to find some for a while.

So I followed up my first thoughts about women trapping winged hearts. After all, the tropes of hunters catching birds, and of women as birds, are both pretty prevalent in medieval culture, and both often relate to debates on love. Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls begins with the lovely regretful line (referring to love, but also to writing love poetry) “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne …” and goes on to describe, in the first ever ‘Valentine’ poem, the meetings in which the birds choose their mates on this day.

The bird-lover also features in one of Marie de France’s lais, the story of Yonec, which is traditionally read as a love story between the mysterious knight Muldumarec and the unhappy wife of the jealous lord of Caerwent, who has imprisoned her in a high tower. In Yonec, the trapped woman sees a dark hawk fly in through her window, and it transforms into a man who declares his love for her. Doubting his faith – and, indeed, whether he is truly human – the woman insists that he must take on her shape, and take the Eucharist in her place, which will prove whether or not he comes in good faith.

The hawk-man consents, takes on the woman’s form, and receives the Eucharist, and the validated couple hurry to bed. But, seeing his wife’s happiness, the jealous husband places spikes around the window, and when the hawk returns a second time, its wings are torn and it flees away bleeding, leaving the desolate woman to follow the trail of drops of blood out of her window and into a silver city, where she finds her lover lying bleeding on his deathbed. It’s a dream-like sequence, full of mysterious images and shape-shifting visions of the supernatural, which works hard to make us forget the cold logic of the real world.

But I wondered about the implications of that central test of truth. The Eucharist, we’re assured, reveals the ‘truth’ form of the lover: human, not bird; Christian, not supernatural demon or fairy. We’re primed by the shape of the narrative (and by heteronormative assumptions) to discount the fact that the lover is, at this moment in the story, in a third alternative form: that of a woman. If the Eucharist reveals the truth, then perhaps the hawk-lover’s true form is female. Following this up, I checked the text, and found that it’s not clear when this female form is given up: or even whether the lover retains it into the woman’s bedchamber. And it would perhaps be no surprise to a medieval audience to imagine a hawk-lover as female rather than male, for hawks are often associated with women in love. In Yonec, then, a disguise of hawk-wings hides a story of women in love, as well as the identity of the ‘knight’ who flies in through the window. I think it’s a good story for Valentine’s day.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Artifice of Femininity: Double Standards in The Danish Girl

There are, obviously, spoilers for the film in this post.

danish-girl

Still from The Danish Girl, starring Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne.

I saw The Danish Girl, the film loosely based on the real story of Lili Elbe, at the beginning of the month. But I’m only now writing this blog post, because it took (as usual) a little while to organise what I wanted to say. The film is a strange mixture. I thought it was subtle in the way it told the characters’ stories, moving and engaging. As you might guess if you know Elbe’s history, it is pretty dark, with some appallingly disturbing scenes: notably, the episode in which a doctor emotionlessly diagnoses Elbe as a homosexual and enforces a ‘cure’ involving radiation of the genitals, and the scenes of Elbe’s horrific pain following a surgery that was crude beyond belief. But – disappointingly – it’s also saccharine in places, with some surprisingly false notes.

First the good: the film is beautifully shot, and worth seeing on those grounds alone. It is truly painterly: a breathtaking series of natural images prepares us for the scene in which we see young Einar Wegener hailed as an up-and-coming artist, the painter who captures the spare, structural and natural beauty of the leafless trees we’ve just seen growing. As the film progresses, the imagery becomes richer, with heavy tactile fabrics, swishing kimonos, drapes and silky scarves. This visual vocabulary, in turn, is echoed in the paintings associated with Gerda Wegener, Einar’s ambitious, talented, and bohemian wife.

The film is strongest when it concentrates on the relationship between these two. Lili Elbe isn’t played as a saint: there were times when you definitely sympathised with Gerda Wegener; times when Elbe’s actions and words seemed selfish, thoughtless, or shallow. This was refreshing: one of the things that annoys me about, for example, Sophia in Orange is the New Black is that she’s almost never allowed to be anything but an anodyne cardboard cut-out, tiredly bringing out clichéd remarks about hairstyles or Our Shared Struggles As Women. By contrast, Elbe comes across as a human being, and at the same time there’s a rare sympathetic portrayal of the struggles Wegener faces. And I could appreciate the film makers’ decision to portray Wegener as a heterosexual woman: it was a good change from the irritating and guilt-inducing contemporary assumption that female sexuality must always be ‘fluid’ and accommodating.

But, a bit of me is quite sad that the film makers decided to edit out the historical part of Elbe and Wegener’s lives during which they lived as an out lesbian couple in 1920s Paris. A quick google of Wegener’s art, made during this period, is eye-opening, and very different from the tasteful, Impressionist-lite images the film substituted – and the image below is definitely one of the politer pieces. But, in place of this, there’s a single scene, in which Elbe rocks an androgynously-tailored, lesbian-chic suit and is momentarily (and delightfully) thrilled to hear a couple of men speculating: “lesbienne?”

Capture_d’écran_2015-12-19_à_04.14.03.jpeg

Gerda Wegener, ‘Ved Spljlet’ (‘By the Mirror’).

… And then they beat her up. It’s undeniably moving that the film makers’ decided to follow this moment of Elbe’s delight in ‘passing’ with sudden violence from the men, and it’s sadly ironic that she’s treated to the same violence lesbians did and do face for being too easily confused with men. But the film doesn’t really explore the possibility that Elbe – or anyone else – might associate femininity with anything other than dresses and makeup, and certainly not with lesbianism. Indeed, it’s quite hard to interpret that scene of violence as anything other than the film’s own brutal insistence that there is only one legitimate way in which to be female.

And it was this insistence that began to nag away at me as I watched.

In one pivotal scene in the film, Elbe – whose cheerfully bohemian wife is in need of a model to stand in for the absent female subject of her current painting – draws a filmy silk stocking over a strikingly hairy, masculine-looking leg. It’s a moment that’s been criticised, with some viewers arguing that to reduce Elbe’s desire to transition to a single moment of rather coy cross-dressing (ooh! women’s underwear!) is a bit simplistic. My issue was different. We see Vikander’s naked body at several points during the film, and at no time are her legs anything other than perfectly hairless. This is, of course, a tacit nod to twenty-first-century aesthetics: audiences are deemed unable to imagine the possibility of an attractive woman who doesn’t come pre-packed as hair-free, even though it’s highly unlikely a woman living during this period (and wearing the long-skirted fashions Vikander’s character wears) would have been shaving her legs. Vikander’s femininity is socially constructed, but that social construction is actively obscured, hidden, made as invisible as the hair that surely grows on her legs.

I found this telling. I didn’t expect The Danish Girl to break the mould and go for exact historical verisimilitude. I read trash media; I know that women and men alike are (supposedly) transfixed with horror at the sight of a furry female and would be utterly unable to sustain their interest in a film that portrayed one. But that’s the problem. The film works very hard to make us believe that the main character we see is, and always was, a woman; it works against the fact that Redmayne, who acts Elbe, is a male actor. But, because it also makes invisible the performances we demand from female actors (Vikander) and not from male ones (Redmayne), the film lands itself with a problem of confused categories: why is this one leg hairy, when the other is not?

By contrast, the artifice Redmayne uses is highly visible – even too visible, leading to what’s probably the complaint I’ve heard most frequently about the film as a whole. Redmayne, as Lili, spends much of the film batting, fluttering, lowering and raising, his enhanced feminine lashes.

Critics on all sides have weighed in with acidic questions: is this Redmayne’s poor acting?Is it something the director decided? Does Redmayne imagine that being a woman is a kind of performance, a kind of artifice? Does he think transwomen all look like this? What is it? The questions keep coming, because – at root – we’re aware that there’s some visible artifice here, some mannerism, that obtrudes between us and our sympathy with Lili Elbe, the character. But discussing one kind of artifice has, I’d argue, blinded us to another kind, which is hidden in plain sight.

In the film, Redmayne wears lashings of thick mascara. And unlike Vikander’s shaven legs, this isn’t an anachronism. Like quite a lot of cosmetics, mascara is a bit of an irritant. It’s come on a long way since 1933, when a new product on the market caused the death of one woman and the blindness of sixteen more. But, however hypoallergenic a product may be, the advertising boasts of new, un-clumping formulas, lighter-weight versions and waterproof options remind us that painting something onto the hairs around your eyes is never going to be a totally fuss-free option, especially if you’re not used to it. On balance of probability, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest Eddie Redmayne probably doesn’t wear mascara as a day-to-day habit, and certainly not heavy, thick, dark lashes like the ones in this film. It doesn’t particularly surprise me, then, that he’s batting his eyelashes a fair bit. It’s a natural reaction. And in an actor supposed to be playing a woman, nature looks like artifice.

These details – hairless legs, mascara’d eyes – may seem tiny. But they’re telling examples of the rigid system of expectations society places upon women, the rigid demands to perform femininity. For decades, feminists have been arguing that these performances – these ‘minor’ artifices – are neither transparently innate to women, nor matters of free and natural choice. This film – which might have taken the time to expose the artifice of what it means to be accepted as a ‘real’ woman – instead chose to essentialize differences rooted not in biology, but in the aesthetics of a misogynistic culture.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments