Institutional Power, Sexual Harassment, and the Physician’s Tale

Hi gang,

What follows was my contribution to the 2018 Kalamazoo Medieval Congress’s session on “Mood,” organized by Dan Remein and Arthur Russell (185 in the program). Discussions of institutional power and the star system in academia in the wake of the Avital Ronell case make me feel that it’s a good time to share this piece for a wider public.

First, a content note: I’m concentrating on the Physician’s Tale, which is one of Chaucer’s many tales about rape. It may seem at times as if I’m about to let the attempted rapist off the hook: I won’t. I also want to acknowledge my admiration for Carissa Harris’s public scholarship, in Vox and elsewhere, which is a model for all of us for thinking with medieval cultures to combat rape culture in the #metoo era. So:

We all know that the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales begins with the season and the weather that draws life from the earth, keeps birds awake for love, and sets pilgrims voyaging. Springtime is general, for all that lives; it catches us up too: so priketh hem nature in hir corages.

Springtime Christians don’t decide, not quite, to go on pilgrimage; they find themselves stirred up — by gratitude to the holy blissful martyr, by April’s suitability for travel, and also by the stirrings the season awakes in their hearts. As I routinely tell my students, that’s a lovely ecological observation. Ecocriticism habitually dislodges human supremacy by recognizing unintentional forms of agency, often nonhuman, operating as a network, a mesh, a mangle, chose your metaphor, irreducible to firmly defined subjects and objects. We can be happy with how well Chaucer responds to Jane Bennett’s model of an “agentic assemblage,” in which, to quote Bennett, the “efficacy or effectivity to which [the term agency] has traditionally referred becomes distributed across an ontologically heterogeneous field, rather than being a capacity localized in a human body or in a collective produced (only) by human efforts.” Bennett’s example is the American Power Grid failure of 2003, and Chaucer’s, we might say, is springtime stirrings, for springtime Christian are agents, but they also the objects of other agencies.

Human agency may be rational, but only to a degree; it does what it does amid a host of other encouragements, guiding us according to the determinations that the weather and other systems deal us. But the redistribution of agency can get us into trouble if we start to look at more unpleasant effects. What happens to our ecological pieties when we examine a moment of distributed agency that we’d likely prefer to center on one, very bad man?

This is the judge, Apius, of the Canterbury tale generally ascribed to the Physician. The story ultimately comes from Livy, although Chaucer’s direct source was the Roman de la Rose. It concerns a girl, Virginia, her father, Virginius, and the judge, who decides to expose Virginia to his lust by falsely having her declared an escaped slave; Virginius solves the problem by killing his daughter. Livy’s original is a highly dramatic story about a suitable match shattered by an old man’s cruelty, as well as, crucially, a story of political resistance; Chaucer’s story is primarily about the fatal allures of beauty, or the equally fatal compulsions of masculinity and paternal authority, tied up with an unsettling final warning about one’s secret sin always finding one out.

But even though Chaucer probably had not read the Livy, he shares something with Livy that the Roman de la Rose omits, namely, the strangely impersonal motivation that leads Judge Apius into corruption. For Livy, he is “stuprandae libido cepit,” that is, the desire to defile her seizes him; and, later, he is “amore amens,” driven mad by love. And for Chaucer, as soon as Apius beholds Virginia wending her way to the temple with her mother, “anon his herte chaunged and his mood / so was he caught with beautee of this mayde.” The second line’s “caught” uncannily echoes Livy’s cepit; the first line gives us “mood,” the sessions’ theme. I’ll talk about that word in a bit. For now, let me just point out that we find similar descriptions of motive in Boccaccio’s Virginia story in his De mulieribus claris, where his Apius “ab eo amaretur perdite,” “falls desperately,” or even ruinously, “in love with her” — note the passive verb, amaretur — and in Gower’s Confessio amantis, where Apius is subject to “The blinde lustes of his wille” (7.5147). Lust—blind and mad—makes them do things that make no sense, perhaps not even to lust itself.

We can contrast these impersonal accounts of desire with Chaucer’s other rapists, attempted and otherwise. While Chaucer gives us access neither to the mental state of the Wife of Bath’s knight nor to the thief on Constance’s boat in the Man of Law’s Tale, we do witness the deliberations of the Reeve’s calculating clerks, and those of Tereus too, in the Legend of Good Women, who “caste his fyry herte upon” Philomena, and then acts, quite by his own volition. But Apius is his mood’s object, in the standard reading–again, “anon his herte chaunged and his mood”–and especially in one striking variant of the line, present, probably inter alia, in Trinity College R.3.15 and Caxton’s 1476 printing: “anon his hert chaunged alle his mode.”

I’m reminded of Palamon’s “A,” his cry as he spies Emelye through his prison bars, a human voice that gives sound to his desire’s irresistible force; or the “O mercy, God” of Troilus when he first spots Criseyde. These are the sounds not of a decision, but of something having been decided. The key element, for all of these, is that of being captured, driven mad, irredeemably altered, of one’s faculties fleeing, as the self affixes itself to what it sees in another.

The off-kilter agency of this scene demands that we approach it with something like an “agentic assemblage” in mind, because it’s not so easy to put the blame exclusively on Apius. That is, I’m suggesting that we worry about his consent too. I recognize that this is an appalling suggestion, so I’m just asking you to hold on with me for a bit. “Mood” is a good word for thinking of an other-than-rational agency, although it’s somewhat less good for this in Middle than it is in Modern English. Middle English did not yet have a meaning that, according to the OED, first appeared in 1902, that is, “The pervading atmosphere or tone of a particular place, event, or period.” Per the Brothers Grimm, the German stimmung, translated into the “mood” so well-known to Heideggarians, originates in a term for musical tone or tuning, and is first applied to human comportment only in the 1770s. And humeur, the French analogue to the modern English “mood” and German stimmung, has a strictly medical meaning in the Middle Ages, as it does in Chaucer’s works.

That said, by Chaucer’s day, the English “mood” had generally stopped referencing the “rational mind” or “spiritual self”—its primary meanings in Old English—and had instead come to mean “the emotional mind”: this I draw from Ágnes Kiricsi’s research. In the later fourteenth century, mood is a feeling; it isn’t deliberative. Much too is suggested by the Middle English “moody,” whose meanings encompass states of being like bravery and nobility, but also more negative states like arrogance, stubbornness, and lasciviousness. Then as now, to be moody can mean to be stuck in an unpleasant relation to things — to recall the German, to be somewhat poorly tuned. Mood can also mean a character or a disposition, in fact not unlike the French humeur. It’s not quite clear what changes when Apius’s mood changes, but the key thing is that what changed didn’t happen through deliberation. He has become an object to himself.

Christine Rose’s “Reading Chaucer Reading Rape” observes that “multiple agents are involved in raping Virginia in this tale”: to her human agents, I would add the inhuman force of Virginia’s beauty and virtue, which surely, in the cruel, misogynist logics of chastity discourse, may be the chief cause of her misfortune (here and here), and Apius’s too. Virginia’s deobjectifying mental interiority, when we finally glimpse it, is a resistance to tale’s logic of beauty – you’ll recall that she talks back to her father, one of Chaucer’s unique additions to the tale.  Apius’s interiority, however, is a kind of unthought assent to her beauty and tale both. In some sense, Harry Bailly may be right when he exclaims “Hire beautee was hire deth, I far wel sayn,” for, faced with such a powerful actant, what else could Apius do?

A horrifying suggestion, I know, one to which we have to respond by finding Apius guilty. But we have to do more. Distributed agency does not dispel responsibility; but it does make certainty much more difficult and only ever partial. Joanna Zerlinska’s Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene is a good model for how to do this: she recognizes that on a sufficiently long or brief scale — whether that of the universe itself, or the subatomic — human agency may seem not to matter. But in our little space of responsibility, we still have to take care. A little power is still power. And Apius, moved as he is, still has it.

Furthermore, a distributed model of agency also gives us better tools for fending off future dangers from the likes of Apius. The tale may suggest that a posthuman framework like that offered by Jane Bennett’s accounts of agency may be an effective analytical tool for fighting rape culture. Apius is guilty; but not only Apius is guilty, and the tale’s “surplus” guilt can’t be located in only individual human subjects. We can condemn Apius through more traditionally human frameworks of course: in 1981, Sheila Delany argued that Chaucer missed the real political force of Livy’s original condemnation of judicial tyranny, while Dan Kline has often read the tale as a critique of the murderous logics of the patriarchal family (here and here). But we can also ask what kind of power beauty has.  what kind of power desire. Do we need something more than a critique of rational, human actors to account for what Apius did?

We can go further with a posthuman engagement of the power of mood. Thus I can tentatively suggest, by way of conclusion, that what must be done with Apii is first to anticipate what moods a given social system will deliver to them, and then to disarm these moods in advance by destroying everything that gives them such power over women. In a larger sense, I’m trying to rescue the ecological and posthuman accounts of distributed agency by testing them against a limit case, and trying to imagine what grounds remain for justice in the face of very bad actors whose agency, like anyone’s, are not entirely their own. Psychoanalysis may be one way in; affect theory another; while today, for my purposes, in a very preliminary way, I’m wondering about ecocriticism and the new materialisms.

Thank you.