Originally uploaded by mivox.
Earlier today, I started to write a post on the Middle English Ser Tristrem. In this version, as in several others, Tristan and Iseult fall in love because of a magic potion. In an odd, funny touch, Tristan’s dog, Hodain, also has a taste of the love potion. Here’s what happens:
Tristrem in schip lay
With Ysonde ich night;
Play miri he may
With that worthli wight
In boure night and day.
Al blithe was the knight,
He might with hir play.
That wist Brengwain the bright
Thai loved with al her might
And Hodain dede also. (1684-94)
That last line’s quite a shocker, isn’t it? I read it, initially, as a hint of bestiality, a sort of menage à chien, and rushed–in my desultory way–to write a blog post, before I caught myself up short: what if the medievals knew this was funny?* In the spirit of our various posts about reuniting pleasure and scholarship, and in honor, too, of Wiley, I decided I wanted to try to allow the past a bit of unadulterated pleasure. While I’m sufficiently disenchanted to know there can never be such a thing, nonetheless I think we–or certainly, I–all too often treat all things in our field as pathological: the crisis of this and that, everything and its discontents, and so forth. It’s as if what we study merits our attention only in direct proportion to its danger: it must threaten everything we know and are, it must keep its world under control only by strenuous disavowal, it must not be just a silly obscure pig joke or an article about farts (warning: pdf). Otherwise, we’re wasting our time, letting ourselves and the medievals have too much fun, while real scholarship stomps past, fixing us with its baleful eye, upholding its sense of importance in a world that daily views us (perhaps justifiably so!) as less and less relevant.
Of course, we can ask why the hint of Hodain mixing himself up in this way is funny. In part, it’s recognition. I think we’ve all had a cold dog nose meet us where we’d rather be left alone. But there’s also the mixup, the fact that nonhuman animals should not be involved–whether alive or dead–in sex. At least not with us. Why that is certainly merits a suspicious investigation into the psychopathology of the human–which is precisely the post I initially meant to write–but for now, I just want to let well enough alone. I had a laugh, shockingly, while reading a Middle English chivalric narrative. For that laugh, much thanks to whoever’s responsible for Ser Tristrem, and much thanks to Alan Lupack for his excellent introduction to the TEAMS edition and his argument for its parodic content.
Now, an invitation, for the weekend and following, as we stumble towards the end of the semester. Either talk a bit about humor and scholarship, or, if you have something in mind–and I know this will be particularly difficult for the Anglo-Saxonists–give us a few medieval bits that you’ve decided to let be funny. Extra credit if it’s not from Chaucer or Deschamps.
* Update: Okay, I know it probably means “And Houdain loved her too,” in the sense of some kind of canine agape. And that’s why the dog was so loyal to the two of them. But that joke is all the funnier, I think, for not being as straightforward as all that. Ok?
The wanted to refuse, for a time, to see the joke about Houdain’s participation in Tristan and Iseult’s lovemaking as some kind pathology. If I didn’t “just” let the joke be funny, I’d want to consider the reason for this being a joke at all: it’s because sex between humans should be only between humans. The fact that the dog’s participation is funny, in other words, is a function of what I think the psychopathology of the human, the defense of the human through, among other means, erotic boundaries.
Part of what’s interesting about this set up is that animal eros is typically thought to be irrational, but also, because of this lack, not subject to the whimsy of choice. Because animals don’t make a decision about sex, they tend (to be thought) to make better decisions (not that what they’re doing can be thought a decision). By contrast, humans make choices, which means they can make mistakes; the gift of reason, in terms of eros, seems to be, first, the introduction of superfluity into the erotic object–there’s something irreducibly more than instinct guiding us–and, second, because of that superfluity, the possibility of a mistake. Among the many things that is appalling about Evolutionary Psychology is its effort to strip all eros of choice, the boil off its superfluity, to eliminate the ‘mistakes’ of reason, of responsibility, and of the inexplicable elements that, by preventing any decision from being straightforwardly “ours,” prevent any decision from being able to be perfectly fixed as our responsibility. Thank goodness we literary types don’t have that positivist arrogance!
To return to Ser Tristrem, we have the animal joining in, naturally enough, because Tristan and Iseult’s reason has left them; they’re compelled by a (super)natural force not their own. On the one hand, Tristan and Iseult have made a terrible mistake in loving each other; on the other hand, because of the potion, they’re not responsible. Because of their lack of responsibility, but also because they’ve made the choice they should have made–Tristan is the best knight, Iseult is the best lady, so they belong together–Tristan and Iseult have become like animals. They’re not responsible; they’re guided by an eros not their own; they’re beyond or below or whatever special metaphor you think best the capacity to make “mistakes.” Houdain’s love–which is, even without the magic potion, the natural state of a dog, proverbially “man’s best friend” as far back as Isidore, at least–is, then, “just” a materialization of this (un)natural irrational eros.
Something like that. I’m modeling the kind of reading I might do if I wanted to lean on the episode as pathological (although I would expect that if I developed this reading, it would be a bit more direct, less opaque). But I was wondering in my post what we get if we just allow the episode to be funny. If we imagine, for a while, that not so much is at stake. If we don’t show off by dragging the joke away from its humor up into the grim realm of critique, where every effort at identity, every articulation, is evidence of a crisis. What would happen if we just let Hodain have his fun? What would we gain as critics?
I want to say thanks, everyone, for all your examples, and fiction too. It’s been a lot of fun to read. Here’s one more example, from the early 12th c. outlaw/resistence story of Hereward. Hereward is fighting Letold, an contemptuous Saxon knight. Here’s how the fight ends:
“[having lost his first sword] Hereward drew from its sheath a second sword which he had forgotten, and attacked his opponent more vigorously. And at the first blow, while feigning an attack on the head, he struck the man in the middle of his thigh. Still the soldier defended himself for some time on his knees, declaring that for as long as there was life in him he would never be willing to surrender or look beaten” (A Book of Medieval Outlaws 57). I think we’re all fans of Monty Python here: I’d be surprised if I’m the only one who read this and thought, “None shall pass!” or “It’s just a flesh wound.”
(can’t remember, JJC, if you discussed Hereward in ODM. This work is marvelous for England and its cultures. We have Frenchmen doing parodies of English dancing, discussions of the English style of knighting (English knights must be dubbed by monks), Frenchmen speaking French around people they suppose peasants, (mis)figuring they won’t be understood, “English-style feasts in the monks’ refectory” of Ely, &c., much complaining about foreigners, King William using a “Scandinavian” mode of witchcraft, and eventually, Hereward joining the court of William) –
Let’s just say I wonder what a criticism that allowed for non-pathological pleasure, both in ourselves and in the texts we study, would look like. I don’t know. It would still be a disenchanted reading, it would still be suspicious: I’m not asking for a “return to beauty” or something like that, but neither am I pushing some kind of post-secular critical line. I’m just wondering if it’s possible to replicate, in criticism, the pleasure I felt–that I shared with the past–when I laughed at the Houdain line. The only way I’ve been taught to go at such things is to push the laughter back, to ironize it at the least, to fit it into some pathological model. Certainly that’s going to produce a good reading–with all due respect to my crappy example–but because it’s been the model of criticism, at least the really exciting stuff, for ages, I wonder if there’s something else we can do to respect* an aspect of reading, of living, that the criticism has been singularly unable to handle.
* Tellingly, I have no idea what verb should go here. That’s how far I feel from what this criticism might be. –