- 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...