Is it wrong to spurn the gifts of nature?

I’ve been out of blogging for weeks now, self-pityingly swamped under the TT job that the current market demands I experience with gratitude or, at least, stoicism (edit: which is not to say that the BC job sucks. It doesn’t. My complaint is with the market itself and with the insidious nexus of deferred pleasure, the pleasures of stoicism, and reward). Here I dip in my 5 toes (holding 5 in reserve), having read through the recent posts on time, desire, and disaggregation by Eileen, Jeffrey, and Mary Kate, and having nearly finished the Kłosowska that all of us seem to be reading. I have, however, only a few questions for you, one of which I’m posting now. You must wait, perhaps forever, for my longer posts, one on the conservativism of students (why oh why do they resist understanding Pearl as oneiric sexual harassment? why do they demand the Nebuchadnezzar of the opening chapters of Daniel be the same person throughout, a mere character, rather than a shifting set of differing narrative machines?: have I just written my post?), and another on Karma Lochrie speaking, as last Saturday I saw Karma Lochrie speaking at my alma/amara mater, and my wondering about thinking with the “not present” as a way to circumvent or, better yet, to overflow the impasse of Reproductive Futurity.

Below, Eileen quoted Schultz quoting Boccaccio commenting on Dante’s placement of Priscian among the sodomites:

Dante put him there “to represent those who teach his doctrine, since the majority of them are believed to be tainted with that evil. For most of their students are young; and being young, are timorous and obey both the proper and the improper demands of their teacher. And because the students are so accessible, it is believed that the teachers often fall into this sin.”

In moral literature of (at least) the late Middle Ages, certain ages have certain appropriate or, rather, expected sins. Young people–Chaucer’s Squire, for instance–are expected to be lusty; and the old are expected to be backbiting and envious, likely because of their impotence (as one lyric runs, “Elde makiþ me geld and growen al grai (Old age makes me impotent (literally: castrate) and all grey)). This raises two questions: the first is whether the potent leeky old man (“hoor head and grene tayl”) would be monstrous or even queer because of its possession of a working cock it should not have: any medieval examples spring to mind? Is the lusty old man almost always an incestuous father?

The second, which drove me to this question in the first place, is on the naturalness of this desire for boys. Which, by the way Interpol, I am not endorsing. This is, Interpol, an academic question. Young women are presented as naturally desirable; old women as repugnant. Think of the Wife of Bath’s tale, where the possibility of marrying the old wyf shocks the rapist (and presumably the Wife’s audience, themselves faced with the desires–and desirability–of an older woman) into horror.

Are young boys, then, also naturally desirable? If the sin is expected, is Priscian’s crime not running against nature but rather not resisting nature by compelling himself into desiring the (im)proper object? I think of 4 Macabees, which I just taught, in which the tyrant Antiochus demands that Eleazar eat pork: he doesn’t demand that Eleazar sin or spurn God. He demands only this: “Why, when nature has granted it to us, should you abhor eating the very excellent meat of this animal? It is senseless not to enjoy delicious things that are not shameful, and wrong to spurn the gifts of nature” (4 Maccabees 5:8-9). My point, my little point for now, is this: Eleazar’s virtue is precisely his unnaturalness, and Priscian’s crime is being altogether too natural. In this, where do we locate the properly sexual?


JJC: what differentiates Chaucer’s senex amans from the frightening senex amans I imagine is their incapacity. They’re not entirely buffoons, no, but they’re still more victims (of age, of circumstance, of clerkly learning, and chiefly of their own desire) more than they’re actors. When the desiring old man is himself the actor, I’m inclined to think that the story falls into violence, revenge, or perhaps more often than not, incest. I think of The Testament of Cresseid, where in my understanding of the poem the impotent reader inflicts leprosy on the beautiful woman he alone cannot have; and I think of the Constance story, as in Emaré, where it seems the father fixates on the quality in his child that he himself has lost, her freshness (“Dowghtyr, y woll wedde the, / Thow art so fresh to beholde”).

Thanks much for the comments on Chaucer and their particularity and correction of my transhistorical noodling; “Chaucer gained from his wide reading many glimpses of human sexuality constructed and practiced otherwise than the ways in which his London practiced it” sounds like it can be very productive.

SH: thanks for the RR reference. There’s something similar in Selections from English Wycliffite Writings (ed. Anne Hudson), in the third of the “Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards”: þe thirdde conclusion sorwful to here is þat þe lawe of continence annexyd to presthod, þat in preiudys [prejudice] of wimmen was first ordeynid, inducith sodomie al holy chirche.” Is the argument here that samesex sex is more desirable? Or that it’s in some way “natural”? I don’t think so; it’s more that men must have sex, and when forbidden women, they will have sex with men. The desire is natural, even if the object becomes the object only through an artificial constraint. Nonetheless, it, like the RR, puts the natural under question, which is, I suppose, what I was hoping to get at in the first place.

Which point leads me finally into the nice distinctions NM draws, but I still must wonder about this: “the unnaturalness of human nature.” I wonder if imagining sex through technological metaphors–that is, cultural precisely not natural metaphors–is a way to sidestep this problem of the natural – See more at: