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STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER would not have previously recognized. But still, I am left with some difficult questions: How do we use texts and traditions in ways that illuminate but not exasperate? How do we consider past cultural productions so as to speak fairly to the conditions of writing and reading in the fourteenth century as well as to the conditions in the twenty-first? How do we, as modern readers who resist the naturalization of supersessionist rewritings, nonetheless respect the power of such interpretations in our own attempts to understand poems that are, in many ways, as foreign to us as the Hebrew texts were to medieval poets? I don’t have the answers, except that I know we must take such texts, such modes of interpretation, and such questions seriously, and we must be very careful in doing so. Sylvia Tomasch Macaulay Honors College of the City University of New York Marilyn Desmond. Ovid’s Art and the Wife of Bath: The Ethics of Erotic Violence. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2006. Pp. xiii, 206. $52.50 cloth. $20.95 paper. One might not think that ‘‘free speech and academic freedom’’ as ‘‘principles that have come under enormous political pressure in the few short years since September 2001’’ have much to do with Ovid and the Wife of Bath. However, in an opening excurses on a Woman’s Studies conference that included a session on S/M, Marilyn Desmond relates contemporary cultural politics to sex and violence in medieval authors. Desmond generalizes from this incident that S/M is today ‘‘intensively policed’’ (p. 4), while maintaining that today in Britain and the United States ‘‘domestic violence has generally been tolerated . . . as part of the status quo’’ (ibid.). The transition from S/M to Chaucer is achieved through a citation from ‘‘one S/M practitioner’’ who ‘‘longingly writes’’ that ‘‘(f)or years I was actually unhappy about the civilized times I lived in, full of envy for people who had lived in the Middle Ages, in the days of witch-hunts and the Inquisition’’ (p. 5). The medieval, in other words, has always been a fantasy space psychologically. Desmond hopes, therefore , that ‘‘perhaps the constructs of the medieval past might elucidate specific performances of contemporary heterosexualities in terms of PAGE 482 482 ................. 16596$ CH13 11-01-10 14:08:19 PS REVIEWS erotic violence.’’ Cant overwhelms this section (‘‘category maintenance work,’’ ‘‘heteroerotic performance,’’ ‘‘cultural scripts,’’ etc.). Desmond then turns to an overview of the chapters: Ovid’s Ars ‘‘ironically explicates the potential of violence in the heterosexual contract as facilitated by Roman colonial power,’’ while the medieval citations and adaptations of Ovid ‘‘elaborate on violence as a formative component of eros.’’ Put more hauntingly: ‘‘The structures of medieval desire thus carry the traces of ancient Mediterranean sexual regimes’’ (p. 7). Desmond then traces a series of medieval commentaries on Ovid’s erotic poetics by Heloise, Jean de Meun, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan, moving toward the argument that the two female authors ‘‘expose the gendered nature of the French and Ovidian traditions that produced the Wife of Bath’s Prologue’’ (p. 9). Desmond first addresses the icon of ‘‘woman on top’’ enacted by the Wife of Bath as one that nonetheless ‘‘[a]s in contemporary cultures, obscures everyday violences, particularly marital violence, a quotidian feature of medieval cultures’’ (p. 13). The cumulative picture she paints, as she ‘‘articulate[s] the cultural intelligibilities of erotic violence’’ (ibid.), is that marriage is inherently , then and now (cf. ‘‘[a]s in contemporary cultures’’), tied to violence, with the modulation of that violence benefiting male pleasure and control. Despite this control, men fantasize their own humiliation as Desmond notices in images of ‘‘leather thongs furnished with metal studs’’ that she relates to ‘‘contemporary dominatrix pornography’’ and ‘‘pony training’’ (p. 27). Chapter 2 addresses Ovid’s Ars, a ‘‘handbook for heterosexual desire within a hierarchical dynamic,’’ which formulates ‘‘categories of erotic violence,’’ offers violence as an ‘‘effective option for heterosexual performance ,’’ and ‘‘crudely proposes the sexual pursuit of women with the goal of achieving dominance over them.’’ Accordingly Desmond associates the ‘‘male conquest of women’’ with colonialism, war spectacle, and even the ‘‘homoerotic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 482-485
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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