The Medieval Review 11.02.20

Catherine E. Léglu. Multilingualism and Mother Tongue in Medieval French, Occitan, and Catalan Narratives. Penn State Romance Studies. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Pp. 237. . $35 ISBN 978-0-271-03673-1.

Reviewed by:

Michelle Warren
Dartmouth
michelle.r.warren@dartmouth.edu

Catherine Léglu dives right in with a fascinating discussion of a mid-fourteenth century treatise from Avignon written in Occitan and Latin, featuring a dedication to a female patron and graced with a marginal scene of a French-speaking ox. This brief summary captures the many themes that run through the book: multilingualism, translation, gender, genealogy, marginalization, court cultures, book design, and religious authority. In ten chapters, Léglu ranges across several narrative genres in the languages of her subtitle, weaving interconnected yet independent analyses of linguistic performance. She has purposefully avoided providing a "grand metanarrative" of the literary vernaculars (13), attending instead to the particularities of each individual text or image.

Multilingualism and Mother Tongue does, though, have one major goal: to resist "the prevalent view of late medieval Occitan writing as a last, sad expression of a decadent or politically oppressed minority language" (4). This negative view developed, seemingly logically, from the fact that Occitan is one of the few romance languages that "did not eventually become the official idiom of a nation-state" (5). When we shake off the modern pressures to align language status with state formation, Occitan looks less like a peripheral dialect and more like a nimble "literary and cultural go-between" (5), capable of communicating rich literary sophistication even to those who don't understand it. It evidences "dynamic intercultural exchange rather than colonized defeat" (7). Léglu pursues her goal by analyzing texts written in multiple languages, texts that represent or refer to multilingual interactions, and monolingual texts written in multilingual environments.

In its many intriguing details, Multilingualism and Mother Tongue exposes the fraught foundations of language-based definitions of community. The linguistic system in evidence here belies the myth of the monolingual nation, and of national literary traditions defined by language. The "myth of multilingualism" (title of Part 1) in fact relies on an equally potent myth of monolingualism: each region or community has one language; we can always tell the difference between one language and another. The interplay between these two linguistic fictions attaches pressing ethical and moral value to language competence: what does it mean to hold the multilingual as a higher virtue than the monolingual? or vice versa? Léglu, and the texts she analyzes, offer varying responses. In the opposition between Babel and Pentecost traced in Part 1, for example, multilingualism slips from proof of God's punishment to sign of Holy presence (e.g. 33, 53). Babel itself can reverse into a positive multilingualism that never knew the tyrannies of the monolingual (55-60). Elsewhere, monolingualism expresses aggressive political expansionism (97); conversely, it can signify entrenched endogamy (119-38). Multilingualism can serve disguise, identity manipulation, and the consummation of desire (as in Paris et Vienne, 147-58, or La Belle Maguelonne, 167-75)--all of which can either solidify or resist broader forms of group belonging.

The translating mother emerges as a pivotal figure for Léglu's book. The first example in this mode is Berthe in Girart de Roussillon, an omnicompetent translator able to transit comfortably among Chaldean, Greek, romance, Latin, and Hebrew. Berthe single-handedly overcomes Babel's "confusion of tongues" (22). Her story, moreover, survives in a form written in two languages, leading Léglu to conclude: "If Girart de Roussillon is read as a poem that is multilingual in content as well as in language, it ceases to be an aberrant object of scholarly scrutiny and becomes the site of a sophisticated exploration of communication and of the pervasive medieval idea that vernacular and sacred languages were in equal measure the source both of harmony and of conflict in the secular world" (34).

Another figure marvelously enmeshed with "mother tongues" is Tiresias in Bernat Metge's Lo Somni. In work that draws on sources in several languages, dedicated to a female bibliophile (Isabel de Guimerà), the bi-gendered Tiresias includes women's capacity to speak several languages in his portrait of their vanities (81). In fact, according to Tiresias, the happiest women are buxom multilingual literary critics who spend their time "proffering, defending, and reasoning" questions of interpretation (81). Léglu refers to both Rosi Braidotti's theory of gendered "nomadism" and Lawrence Venuti's theory of translational "foreignness" to conclude that Metge "uses gender conflict to highlight the cultural conflicts that are usually concealed in a translation and, in so doing, points out the intercultural polyphony that constructs his text" (85).

The "mother tongue" metaphor turns all maternal scenes into language allegories. The simultaneous presence of the "other tongue" makes these same scenes self-cancelling allegories of social alienation and Pentecostal reconciliation. Some of the most disturbing mothers are those impregnated while dead or sleeping, whose return to consciousness poses complicated questions of both lineage and language (Chapters 5 and 6). Substitute mothers also disrupt genealogical and linguistic transmission. The wet nurse, for example, functions as an "other" more responsible for the "mother tongue" than the mother herself (62-63, relying on discussions by Marie Balmary and Gary Cestaro; also 171). The go-between (sometimes also a nurse) serves as a multilingual, translating maternal substitute who wields multifarious social powers (e.g. 112, 146, 149, 167, 171, 193).

The theoretical concepts that enable these varied conclusions are themselves quite varied (readers should note that not all of these names are thoroughly indexed). Explicit theorization begins with Chapter 3, which opens with Balmary discussing Freud and Babel (55). Babel's place in the "childhood" of world history provides a link from Balmary to political theorist Giorgio Agamben: "Ethical judgment, and according to Agamben, a sense of history, are associated directly with the primary acquisition of speech" (60). In Agamben's reading, Babel represents the "transcendental origin of history" (cited 60). For both Agamben and Balmary, Babel marks a positive developmentthe beginning of human subjectivity in language, the end of monolingual tyranny (60). Léglu points out, however, that this interpretation sidelines the maternal in favor of strict patrilineage, a prejudice against "mother tongue" amplified by the Occitan universal history Las Abreujamens de las estorias (60-61); she suggests that Agamben likewise represses the maternal (63). This line of reasoning gains further psychoanalytic force through Jacques Lacan's "exclusion of maternal desire as constituent of the ego" (citing Cestaro, 63). Léglu then turns to Luce Irigaray's extended critiques of the philosophical tradition (including Lacan) that suppresses the feminine: "The suppressed or forgotten feminine may by extension be the (m)other tongue" (64). This psychoanalytic discussion ultimately supports a sociopolitical point about language interactions in fourteenth-century Toulouse (64-66, 74).

Léglu pursues the psychoanalytic thread in Chapters 5 and 6 with the "sleeping beauty" theme. All of these plots include a period of "in-between" existence for the heroine, sleep or death between two lives. Léglu connects this narrative structure to Hélène Cixous's entredeux--"a moment in life where you are not entirely living, where you are almost dead" (cited 113). Léglu presses the intersubjective dimension of Cixous's insight ("internal conflict and estrangement within the self") to characterize the cultural and linguistic forms of the sleeping beauty narratives: hybrid languages are also "entredeux," in-between, "abroad at home," estranging (strange and othering); they capture the distance between self and language (113). (Lacan's "space between two deaths," especially as articulated by Slavoj Žižek, would cast a somewhat different psychoanalytic light on sleeping beauties.) Léglu elaborates on the "entredeux" after analyzing the sleepy heroines of Richars li Biaus and Perceforest. It now appears specifically multilingual, both vulnerable and subversive; it gives corporeal form to hidden narratives of incest: "Incest with the self, without a desired Other, may resemble the underlying concerns of the monolingual narratives produced in linguistic borderlands" (138). By refusing the conventional demands of an exogamous marriage arranged by the father, women who conceive in secret while unconscious overturn "traditional constructions of gender, eroticism, and narrative" (138). In relation to language, the entredeux "points to the perils of assuming that a monolingual text is to be viewed as a simple expression of a collective mother tongue" (138). (In a later psychoanalytic sidenote, Léglu uses the stench of rotten chicken in Paris et Vienne to challenge the applicability of Julia Kristeva's theory of the abject [151]).

Léglu's interest in disrupting the nation-based analytic frames that have mischaracterized Occitan's historical roles in the literary and cultural system inflects her chapters with a postcolonial bent. From this perspective, the corollary to Cixous's "entredeux" is Homi Bhabha's "third space." In such a "borderline existence...multilingual texts can find voice" (86). Writers and characters who manipulate multiple languages adopt the role of postcolonial go-between, "linguistic or cultural mediator" (146, also 149, 184, 193). Occitan itself fulfills this role among the other romance vernaculars (5, 91, 112).

Léglu's use of translation theory--namely, Venuti's The Scandals of Translation--reinforces the postcolonial approach. Venuti's influential distinction between "domesticating" and "foreignizing" translations emphasizes cultural power relations. For Venuti, foreignization guards against oppressions of various kinds, creating instead "a shifting sphere of multiple and heterogeneous borders where different histories, languages, experiences, and voices intermingle amid diverse relations of power and privilege" (cited 85, also 158; allusions to Venuti throughout Chapter 4, entitled "Translation Scandals").

The last theoretical word goes to Jacques Derrida, with Part 3 and its final chapter entitled "Monolangue" in reference to Le monolinguisme de l'autre. Derrida's emphasis on the "otherness" of the "mother tongue" enables Léglu to weave together various threads drawn out from the maternal metaphor. The fifteenth-century texts examined in Part 3 confront the increasingly national connotations of both "French" and "Catalan," a development with significant implications for the Occitan go-between: "If the monolangue is characterized by an uneasy awareness that the mother tongue is an illusion, neither mother nor a single tongue, these texts may be viewed as three very different explorations of that tension" (141); linguistic estrangement increases in travel narratives (177). After discussing Paris et Vienne, La Belle Maguelonne, and Antoine de La Sale (among others), Léglu returns to Derrida and his famous statement, "Je n'ai qu'une langue, ce n'est pas la mienne:" "The mother tongue can only be effectively absorbed once it is divorced from the maternal and has become, thanks to numerous go-betweens, the (m)other tongue, producing new thoughts and texts in a process of hybridization and enrichment. The monolangue unmasks the fantasies that subtend the mother tongue as both an ideal and a nostalgic symbol of lost (pre-Babelian) communication" (193). On this last page of Léglu's book, I am left deeply curious about what she might have to say about Derrida's essay on Babel ("Des Tours de Babel"), itself an extended meditation on Walter Benjamin's "Task of the Translator."

Multilingualism and Mother Tongue is full of insightful nuggets that will interest a wide range of readers. Regardless of one's own linguistic competencies, all readers can learn a lot from the texts that Léglu has brought together, from her translations and synopses, and from the eclectic range of theoretical perspectives that she brings to bear on these understudied sources of late medieval romance narrative.