A response from Bloch on Jones on Burns' Bodytalk (BMR 94.11.11 = BMMR 94.11.05)

title.none: RESPONSE: Bloch on Jones on Burns' Bodytalk

identifier.other: baj9928.9412.001 94.12.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: A response from Bloch on Jones on Burns' Bodytalk (BMR 94.11.11 = BMMR 94.11.05) , Department of French and Romance Philology, Columbia University

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: BMCR/BMMR archives.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.12.01

BMCR/BMMR archives.

Reviewed by:

A response from Bloch on Jones on Burns' Bodytalk (BMR 94.11.11 = BMMR 94.11.05)
Department of French and Romance Philology, Columbia University

Having read Nancy Jones' review of Jane Burns' Bodytalk, I would like to explore the implications of the following:

"While agreeing with other critics that gender is not a fixed category in Old French texts, she [Burns] critiques the semiosis (read erasure) of woman and the "lived body/experience" of women typical of such critics as R. Howard Bloch and Alexandre Leupin and Jean-Charles Huchet. She reclaims Old French texts for women and for feminists whose readings reflect their lived experience as women and of gen dered embodiment."

The accusation of an "erasure" of women is a serious charge. The word "erasure," when applied to a group or class of people, resonates with a sexism, which, in the hint of violence it also contains (i.e., erasure as a "rub bing out"), insinuates a racist, and even a genocidal, motive. Since the charge is not substantiated by any logical argument, proof, or documentation on Nancy Jones' part, I can only assume that it stems from a passage in Bodytalk (p. 13) which reads: "To establish woman in this way as a figure for the process of literary invention in the Middle Ages is to blur the existence and significance of real sexual difference. Taken to its logical conclusion, this line of thinking will lead us to deduce along with R. Howard Bloch that 'If a woman [in misogynist discourse] is defined as verbal transgression, indiscretion, and contradiction, then Walter Map, indeed any writer, can only be defined as a woman.' Such a deduction effectively reads woman out of the literary equation."

Bodytalk is a book which raises many significant questions. It would be difficult to claim, however, that one of its strengths is making room for women writers, that is to say, giving a place to the real women of the Middle Ages who did speak—or rather wrote—in their own voices. Neither Heloise, nor the women troubadours, nor Marie de France, nor Hildegard of Bingen, nor Christine de Pizan, nor the visionaries of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are accorded more than a sentence or two in a book of 277 pages devoted solely to the representation of women by men.

This leads to a difficult question of voice, which Jane Burns seems to address forthrightly from the beginning when she asks the reader to make believe, to suspend disbelief where the question of who is actually speaking i s concerned—e.g., "...what would happen if women were speaking subjects?" (p. 37) "And if it [the female body] did speak, how might the female voice issuing from it refocus the phallic look of the penis eye?" (p. 39). We are, of course, for the sake of complex readings, willing to pretend; but we should not lose sight of the fact that the bodies which speak in Bodytalk are female bodies represented in works written by male poets and not women's representations of themselves.

Bodytalk offers an exclusively poetic treatment of the question of gender. That is to say, its readings remain entirely within the domain of literary works and do not move in the direction of any other extra-literary discourse, and especially not in the direction of history. On the contrary, Jane Burns is only interested in one aspect of a history which is reduced to a concept, an idea, an assumption having to do with the hegemonic presence of patriarchy everywhere once and for all—from the early Fathers, through the twelfth century (which many historians who have done work with the material sources see as a time of empowerment for women), to the present. Bodytalk contains no analysis of the differences between specific historical moments such as between Late Roman/Early Christian culture and the High Middle Ages, between specific geographical places such as Northern and Southern France, or even between differences of experience among women of widely divergent social conditions and class.

Thus, while Bodytalk seeks to give a voice to the women depicted in literature written by men, it neglects, alongside of literature written by women, any account of the "lived/body experience" of particular historical wo men. There is, of course, a complex relationship between literary representation and social, economic, legal, and medical reality. Indeed, one would no more want to speak of real women using exclusively literary sources where medieval culture is concerned than one would want, to take modern examples, to conflate the idealized portrayal of love and sex in Harlequin romances, or that contained in the novels of Philip Roth, with the real thing.

For historical discussions of the relationship between Old French literature and the material condition of women in the twelfth century, one might turn, say, to most of the work of Georges Duby over the last two decades, to the essays of Diane Hughes, to Penny Shine Gold's The Lady and the Virgin: Image, Attitude, and Experience in Twelfth-Century France, or to my own Medieval Misogyny and the Invention of Western Romantic Love with its chapters on the power of women to inherit, to choose to marry or not, and if so to whom, to dispose of their property and of their bodies.

Jane Burns is drawn in Bodytalk to a conclusion which equates the insistent disruptive presence of the feminine voice with the erotic, the pleasurable ("the wanton chaos of female pleasure" [p. 63]), and the irrational. More precisely, she contrasts repressive, patriarchal, male logic—"the insufficience of philosophical and rational systems that privilege one true answer over the possibility of competing truths" (63)—with a feminine openness to plurality—"holding one view and its irreconcilable opposite simultaneously" (178).

What is interesting is that such a contrast resembles nothing so much as the very equation, rejected by Jane Burns speaking through Nancy Jones, between the feminine and the literary, literature being defined as a discourse irreducible to univocal meaning, rationality, hierarchy, authority; and this holds whether it is written by women or by men. In this Jane Burns and I could not be in closer agreement, for her version of the feminine voice is practically identical to my own in the passage which she quotes from me regarding the medieval depiction of women as "verbal transgression, indiscretion, contradiction." My only reservation has to do with the fact that she does not go far enough in seeing in medieval poetry and in the medieval as well as the modern definitions of the feminine on which she relies (i.e. those of Helene Cixous and Irigary) co-conspiring disruptive principles and forms.

Let me simply add that when one scholar asserts that another is guilty of the "erasure" of women, such an assertion, if it is not accompanied by substantive proof or logical justification, is mere name calling, insinuation, a swipe—nay, a slur—which at the same time insults a scholarly community predicated upon making one's own arguments and then taking responsibility for them. Further, when such a slur is couched in terms of being "typical of such critics as...," it seems to want to create the fiction of a conspiracy based upon a false difference between Jane Burns and the critics she cites.

Just who are the other critics whom Nancy Jones has in mind when she uses the phrase "such as"?