Geri L. Smith

title.none: Kosta-Thefaine, Le Chant de la douleur (Geri L. Smith)

identifier.other: baj9928.0809.018 08.09.18

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Geri L. Smith, US Military Academy,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Kosta-Thefaine, Jean-Francois. Le Chant de la douleur dans les poesies de Christine de Pizan. Nantes: Editions du Petit Vehicule, 2007. Pp. 155. ISBN: $25.00 (pb) $978-2-84273-571-5 (pb).

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.09.18

Kosta-Thefaine, Jean-Francois. Le Chant de la douleur dans les poesies de Christine de Pizan. Nantes: Editions du Petit Vehicule, 2007. Pp. 155. ISBN: $25.00 (pb) $978-2-84273-571-5 (pb).

Reviewed by:

Geri L. Smith
US Military Academy

The works of Christine de Pizan have inspired thousands of pages of scholarly reflection on everything from her personal life to her politics, from the nature of her "feminism" or lack thereof to the implications of her status as the first professional woman of letters in France. At the heart of almost any such discussion, implicitly if not explicitly, is Christine's feminine authorial persona, based on her own life story and cultivated throughout her works. Fundamentally shaped by Christine's widowhood, her persona and her writings carry the indelible mark of suffering. Generalized beyond Christine's immediate pain, the theme haunts her oeuvre in the forms of the suffering of her nation in turbulent times, women's plight in the face of misogyny and ill-treatment, and the often sad experiences of her characters, particularly feminine ones, due to the caprices of conventional "courtly" love. In this brief book, Kosta-Théfaine takes on this quintessential Christinian theme, to show that Christine's oeuvre was consciously and systematically inscribed "dans la perspective de la douleur" (10). He sets out to analyze the subject along three axes, each treated in the three chapters that follow.

In chapter 1, "Une écriture de deuil," Kosta-Théfaine considers a group of twenty-four poems of various forms that he categorizes as "poèmes de veuvage" (15), in which Christine expresses her personal sadness upon losing her husband. He stresses that since not all of the poems in this category come from Christine's first collection, Cent ballades, the grief poems were not necessarily all written early in Christine's career, an observation that one doubts that readers would find surprising. He goes on to point out that there are two ways in which Christine expresses her grief--by specific reference to her own situation and her deceased husband, as well as by expressing loss in a wider sense, which Kosta-Théfaine attaches to the medieval lyric tradition more generally. In the analysis that follows, the two kinds of expression of grief tend to be intermingled, making the reason for the initial distinction somewhat hazy. The discussion then shifts to Christine's self-presentations. Here again, Kosta-Théfaine identifies two kinds--Christine-qua-writer caught in the professional poet's paradox of supposedly writing from immediate sentiment but also as a technician highly conscious of her craft, and Christine the widow who writes of her personal experience. Kosta-Théfaine notes that we see this second image emerge through her texts (29), but we might say more accurately that the persona that emerges is precisely a combination of the two that Kosta-Théfaine distinguishes from each other.

Chapter 2, "Entre lyrisme de la douleur et lyrisme courtois," addresses Christine's oscillation between the two forms of expression of pain, a notion already implied in chapter one but pushed to the forefront here. Observing that Christine's poems treat both her own grief and suffering in the conventional courtly mode, Kosta-Théfaine states, "le thème de la douleur se généralise de telle sorte que nous pourrions émettre l'hypothèese que Christine de Pizan désire signifier que toute personne, sans distinction ni de classe sociale ni de sexe, peut souffrir comme elle" (46). One could argue that rather than a hypothesis, this is a recognized aspect of Christine's writing, which has been explored elsewhere in numerous nuanced and well-developed studies. What is more, such a dialectic would not be an unexpected result, as Christine wrote both for and about herself, as well as for patrons with a taste for courtly convention.

In this chapter that sets out to analyze different expressions of personal suffering, the topic then suddenly broadens to suffering at the level of the public (from the death of leaders, from political turmoil), and comments on Christine's patriotism. The theme of public loss, a generalization of the concept of suffering that stems from Christine's personal experience, is nonetheless unexpected in light of the chapter's title and announced goal, yet it occupies more than one-third of this section of the essay. While this topic warrants discussion, it would have lent itself to treatment in a separate chapter. The final topic in chapter 2 is the fact that Christine's favored form is the ballad, an observation stated at least three times in a span of two pages (68-9), and reflection on why that might be. In sum, the chapter's apparent aim is to show that the way Christine oscillates between expressing personal loss and writing as a professional poet is a way for her to show that suffering is not limited by class or gender. Ultimately, the rapid-fire shifts from a widow's grief to courtly love convention to a concept of public loss, to reflection on Fortune in the works of Charles d'Orléans and Guillaume de Machaut, to the question of poetic form, leaves the reader a bit disoriented.

Chapter 3, "Les images du 'deuil' amoureux," mainly takes up topics discussed in the two previous chapters, making it unclear how it constitutes a third axis in this analysis. And while its opening lines announce that the chapter's focus will be the Cent ballades d'amant et de dame as Christine's most developed foray into courtly lyric poetry, that focus is diluted by further general discussion of courtly love conventions illustrated with examples from a variety of poems by Christine and others. This emphasis on courtly love topoi would have fit logically into the preceding chapter. The main point of this chapter is that Christine innovates in the Cent ballades d'amant et de dame in her use of alternating masculine and feminine lyric voices. That point is certainly of interest, but the conclusion to which it leads understates the impact of that work. Kosta-Théfaine asserts that "Christine de Pizan propose une véritable innovation qui consiste à mettre enfin en évidence le fait que l'homme n'est pas le seul à souffrir...quand il s'agit d'amour" (76-7). Depicting women's suffering in love is not in and of itself groundbreaking--the tradition of women's songs of the Middle Ages, not to mention such ancient works as Ovid's Heroides, are just two examples that come immediately to mind. More important here is what it means when a feminine writer confronts and co-opts traditionally masculine discourse, which Christine undertakes strategically throughout her works and where her true innovation shines.

In the Conclusion, Kosta-Théfaine emphasizes that Christine's use of widowhood as a thematic underpinning of her work is a hallmark of her innovation, as is her gender reversal of the courtly lyric voice. He also notes her use of lyric voices of undetermined gender to emphasize that for Christine, suffering in love is not limited to a particular gender or social group. The book ends with an extended citation from L'Avision-Christine, which rather abruptly brings in the analogy, often identified with Christine, between writing and childbirth. Here, that analogy is meant to show that one cannot reduce Christine's oeuvre to a song of suffering, but that there is joy to be found as well. A bit of reflection after the citation could have helped to close the book less abruptly and make the quotation seem less out of place.

Following the selected bibliography is an appendix containing twenty-five of Christine's poems representing the kinds of pieces that have been the focus of the essay.

This work seeks to provide an overview of an important aspect of Christine's oeuvre, but is marred by a number of shortcomings that undermine its potential value. Typographical errors and other instances of imprecision suggest that the text was too hastily sent to print. By way of example, in a citation of an English-language source, an uncorrected or halfway corrected error leaves us with the phrase, "Christine sound found it necessary to hide her grief" (21-2). With respect to organization, there is a noticeable amount of repetition--certain poems and lines appear numerous times as examples, and some observations are presented as if new after having already been asserted at least once previously. For example, the basic concept that "Christine de Pizan va donc faire de la douleur un élément significatif de son écriture" (46) is stated nearly halfway through the discussion even though it has been the basis of the essay from the start and is a notion already fully understood by anyone familiar with Christine. Overall, the repetitiveness mars the flow of the text and muddies its argument.

Another tendency here is to counter assertions that have already been put to rest by scholars, and to defend Christine from criticisms pulled from what would now be considered dated sources. At one point, for example, Kosta-Théfaine defends Christine against Gustave Lanson's 1894 labeling of her as an insufferable "bas-bleu" (110). One might say that Christine is no longer in need of such defense, as scholars have long since uncovered the importance and artistry of her writings, and she is rarely dismissed as a "bas-bleu" these days. More broadly, Kosta-Théfaine's sources tend to be older, with the ample scholarship from the past two decades noticeably underrepresented. This is not to say that the earlier works do not warrant attention, but the imbalance is curious.

Also troubling as one seeks to follow this essay's argument is its sometimes unclear and inconsistent invocation and linking of terms and concepts related to suffering. "Deuil," the personal suffering of widowhood, versus "douleur," a more widely applicable term, for example, are at times interwoven in ways that make it seem as if they are intended to mean the same thing. The author himself points out the ambiguity of the term "deuil" in Middle French (36), which can convey "pain" or mourning in the stricter sense, and points out that that ambiguity is reflected in certain of Christine's poems. The overall effect is that throughout the essay, the terms appear too loosely deployed.

The subtitle of this work is "Essai," which is indeed what it is, in the sense of reflection or meditation, or, as the Robert defines it, "ouvrage littéraire en prose, de facture très libre, traitant d'un sujet qu'il n'épuise pas ou réunissant des articles divers." The mosaic of images from Christine's manuscripts that make up the cover of this text is, in a sense, a visual announcement of the fragmented nature of the reflections to follow. Further, this discussion does not explore the relationship between Christine's poetic expressions of suffering and the wider context of her quest to establish authority, for example, or of her poetic motivations in a larger sense. This all leads to the most basic question, which is, just who is the intended audience for this text? On the one hand, the newcomer to Christine studies, who is presumed to be comfortable with the idiosyncrasies of Middle French while at the same time in need of basic information about medieval poetic convention, would not come away with a coherent overview of suffering as a cornerstone of Christine's works. On the other hand, these reflections do not open new doors that would lead an initiated reader to think about this subject in new ways. In short, this is one critic's take on a well-studied theme.