Chaucer’s (Anti-)Eroticisms and the Queer Middle Ages by Tison Pugh
Reconsidering the “queer paternalism” (29) of both Chaucer and the English literary tradition, Tison Pugh’s latest monograph charts the contrapuntal traffic between medieval eroticism and what he calls “antieroticism.” Specifically, Pugh aims to untangle “the privileges and privations of heterosexual desire in medieval culture” (4). He seeks out [End Page 307] the queer potential of human sexuality at the nexus of the self and society and discovers queer narrative tension in Chaucer’s contradictory treatments of what Pugh calls (anti-)eroticism. Dialogic in nature, (anti-)eroticism moves from surface to depth, and back again; Pugh defines it as “juncture where eroticisms and anti-eroticisms converge” (10). He identifies (anti-)eroticism as the primary site of queerness in the Middle Ages. What is anti-eroticism? For Pugh, anti-eroticism can take several forms: virginity, chastity, bachelorhood, widowhood, and commitment to a nonreproductive future.
Theoretically grounded in Freud, Lacan, and Lee Edelman—among others—Pugh tackles topics such as masochism, brotherhood, oaths, thanatos, the child, the divine, and the nonhuman. He explores these problems through a series of close readings from the Chaucerian canon. Pugh’s engaging work provides both an introduction to and an in-depth inquiry into many of the core concerns of medieval studies and queer studies.
Medieval romance, especially Chaucer’s treatments of matters of courtly love and chivalry, makes up the bulk of Pugh’s analysis. In a chapter devoted to The Franklin’s Tale, he argues that Arveragus and Dorigen use masochism to register “the anti-eroticism latent in relationships predicated upon hierarchy” (32). According to Pugh, courtly love, at its heart, concerns itself with male narcissism; in performing heterosexuality, the knight reveals its inherent queerness. Reading the Courtly Lady via Lacan and Žižek, Pugh contends that the Lady mirrors the failure of the lover. As a catalyst of courtly rituals, the Lady metamorphoses into das Ding, a “Queer Thing” (36) whose gender is ultimately irrelevant and unnecessary. Occupying the anti-erotic position, the Lady becomes a “potentially hermaphroditic figure capable of inhabiting masculine and feminine genders simultaneously” (40). Pugh leverages these insights to argue that Dorigen, after her marriage, becomes a narcissistic masochist who is in love with the pain and longing she feels for her husband. In essence, Arveragus assumes the role of the Courtly Lady, the desired Thing. Hermaphroditism is a tactic deployed by this lady/wife and her lover/husband in their attempt to fulfill their marital contract. When Aurelius disrupts the marriage, the resulting erotic triangle exposes masochism as a productive force in marital relationships. According to Pugh, The Franklin’s Tale never reaches the climax toward which it seems to build, ending on a decidedly anti-erotic note.
Masculinities and their queer discontents are the focus of chapters 3 [End Page 308] and 4. In the former, Pugh notes Chaucer’s satire of the tradition of medieval brotherhood oaths. Whereas works such as Amis and Amiloun and Eger and Grime valorize fraternal bonds, The Knight’s Tale, The House of Fame, and The Pardoner’s Tale all mark the failure of brotherhood oaths. Latently queer and overtly normative, brotherhood dissolves rapidly in the face of competing erotic and financial rivalries.
In Chapter 4, Pugh returns to the problem of male narcissism in romance. If love for women were the outward erotic manifestation of male narcissism, thanatos would be its inner anti-erotic core. The male lover’s professed willingness to die for love is simultaneously figurative and literal. The Knight’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, Pugh suggests, are examples of Chaucer’s necrotic romance, in which male desire is inherently fatal; Arcite and Troilus must die. Men in a necrotic romance are interchangeable, and they turn the Lady into an adversary, a swete foe, who must be conquered and subdued. Emelye and Criseyde, resisting male necrotic desires, align themselves with “anti-heteroerotic freedom of life without men” (101), whether that is virginity or widowhood. In so doing, they reject motherhood and reveal the queerness of female anti-eroticism.
Pugh next shifts attention to what he terms the “queer families” in the Canterbury Tales and to Chaucer’s representations of a masculine, (anti-)erotic God. Though typically depicted as asexual and anti-erotic, children in some of the tales are “drafted into amatory rivalries centered on their fathers’ attenuated masculinities” (25). Serving the father’s desires, which drive the narrative, a child must sacrifice her erotic agency. In The Clerk’s Tale, the fantasy of infanticide exists alongside the possibility of incest between Walter and his daughter. And in The Physician’s Tale, Virginia plays the roles of daughter and erotic prey; her chastity obscures sexual mores and makes possible Virginius’s public performance of fatherhood. But if Virginia dies to preserve her virginity and spiritual purity, the Godhead is not necessarily devoid of eroticism. Here, Pugh pivots to a consideration of the sexual poetics of Chaucer’s depictions of the divine. As exemplified in The Miller’s Tale, God’s pryvetee is figured both as divine secrecy and as private parts. Possessing potential carnality, the explicitly male God is the center of mystery and pleasure. Divine law is established only to be ignored; anti-erotic prohibition solicits queer erotic transgression. In Pugh’s words, the Wife of Bath portrays Jesus as “virtually a pimp” (191). [End Page 309]
The epilogue, “Chaucer’s Avian Amorousness,” is the most provocative piece in the monograph. Arguing that The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a parodic play on romance’s eroticisms, Pugh reads Chauntecleer as an erotic role model who has successfully built “a sustainable culture” (209) that is free of the shame of polygamy or incest. The chickens’ farmyard is a sexual utopia that is unregulated, yet enlightened. Like the Wife of Bath, Chauntecleer intentionally mistranslates the Bible in order to justify his access to erotic pleasure. However, masculine discontents and the pressures of courtly love ultimately undermine even this avian pastoral. Pertelote must both mirror Chauntecleer’s beauty and challenge his identity as a proper lover; ironically, Chauntecleer outsmarts the fox but does not defeat him in battle. Pugh observes that if the rooster emerges as the erotic paradigm of the entire Chaucerian corpus, readers are challenged to sacrifice their “sense of the human as a constituent factor of human culture” (211). Building on Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “becoming-animal,” Pugh speculates on the possibility of our “becoming-queer” and thereby becoming “fully human” (215). The brevity of the epilogue leaves one wishing for more, especially in light of recent work on posthumanism, cross-species queerness, and ecomaterialism.
In a sense, Pugh’s present monograph returns to his earlier consideration of cultural genres. Like sexuality and gender, eroticism and antieroticism are normalizing genres with non-normative potential. In the manner of a fugue, Pugh’s work charts the contrapuntal melodies of amatory strategies in the Chaucerian corpus. At times, one wishes for some lingering over the dissonance between the notes—for example, a longer consideration of Aurelius’s nameless brother, or of Hippolyta’s sacrificial masochism. Navigating Chaucerian surfaces and depths, Pugh shows us that eroticism is not necessarily love or carnality. He decisively proves that erotic pursuits can easily be disguised by anti-erotic tactics, and that latency and manifestation are not always mutually exclusive. Pugh begins his book by unmasking Chaucer’s various ludic guises (as author, narrator, fabulist, and pilgrim). One of these alter egos is Ganymede, through whom Chaucer queers himself and embodies both erotic and anti-erotic impulses. Pugh concludes by considering Chaucer in the guise of trede-foul.
Over all, this book tackles many key debates in both medieval studies and queer studies. Its creative engagement with central works of the [End Page 310] Chaucerian canon makes it a volume of scholarly interest and a valuable resource in the classroom.