Dr. Carl Phelpstead

title.none: Pugh, Sexuality and Its Queer Discontents (Dr. Carl Phelpstead)

identifier.other: baj9928.0809.019 08.09.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Dr. Carl Phelpstead, Cardiff University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Pugh, Tison. Sexuality and Its Queer Discontents in Middle English Literature. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2008. Pp. xii, 220. $74.95 978-1-4039-8487-6. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.09.19

Pugh, Tison. Sexuality and Its Queer Discontents in Middle English Literature. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave, 2008. Pp. xii, 220. $74.95 978-1-4039-8487-6. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Dr. Carl Phelpstead
Cardiff University

The metamorphosis of gay and lesbian studies into queer theory opened up new ways of understanding gender and sexuality in all their forms, including hetero- as well as homosexuality. Tison Pugh's new book explores some of the consequences of insisting on "the necessity of queer theory in analyzing both homosexuality and heterosexuality" in Middle English texts (7). His theoretical approach is fruitfully eclectic, grounded firmly in Foucauldian and psychoanalytic perspectives (the book's title deliberately echoes Freud), but also drawing on Althusser, Sedgwick, Žižek and others.

In his Introduction Pugh sets up the terms of his project and delineates its scope. The book focuses on male characters marked with, or compelled to embody, queerness before they proceed to become normatively heterosexual males. It is not claimed that all men undergo this process, but rather that "ideologically sanctioned masculinity in some instances depends on queerness" (151, n. 2). Pugh argues that queerness is a means by which the prevailing ideological order can construct normative masculinity: "When the ideal interpellative process fails to create normative subjects, disciplined subjects can still be constructed through queerness" (13). The concentration on men is justified in terms of an interest in the relationship between social and sexual privilege in patriarchal society (151, n. 2).

"Queer" is a slippery term in the book, resisting easy definition and exploiting the wide semantic range covered by everyday use of the word: "Consisting of both sexual acts and breaches of normativity, queerness comprises sexual, amatory, and gendered practices that ostensibly depart from prevailing cultural norms" (3). Pugh also makes the important, though often neglected, point that in some cultures forms of expression of same-sex desires have been normative rather than "queer." The difficulty of pinning down exactly what is mean by "queer" may trouble some readers of the book, but Pugh sees clearly the advantages of having one's thinking disturbed in this way and writes approvingly of "the power of queer theory to resist categorization" (19). One thing that "queer" does not (necessarily) mean in this book is "homosexual." On several occasions Pugh stresses that he is not claiming that the characters he discusses desire sexual relations with other men; the characters discussed here are (or become) heterosexuals who occupy a queer position in relation to society by resisting normative constructions of their subjectivity.

Pugh is sensitive to charges of anachronism and hopes his readers will add the suffix "-like" to all his uses of the terms heterosexual, homosexual and heteronormative in order to register the differences as well as the similarities between medieval and modern phenomena (10). He argues, I think rightly, that differences between medieval and modern frameworks do not necessarily undermine the value of discussing medieval texts in terms derived from modern theories. Towards the end of the Introduction, Pugh uses contemporary popular culture to illustrate the tension between masculinity and queerness in a way that genuinely illuminates his reading of medieval texts.

The following chapters discuss a range of texts from the centrally canonical (Pearl and The Canterbury Tales) to the much less studied (Amis and Amiloun and Eger and Grime). The content of Chapter Two is well summed up by its title: "Abandoning Desires, Desiring Readers, and the Divinely Queer Triangle of Pearl". The chapter begins by asking what the Dreamer in Pearl desires, then brings the reader's desires into the equation, before developing a productive analysis of the triangle of desire that links Dreamer, Pearl Maiden, and God. Pugh goes on to explore further the metatextual erotic triangle between reader, poem, and author (an analysis which, incidentally, led me to ponder the dynamics of desire between author, book, and reviewer...). The chapter conveys very well the shifting and ambiguous nature of the pearl's symbolism in the poem, effectively representing this as expressive of the way failure is inherent in desire this side of death. Just as the poem's symbolism resists the readerly desire for understanding, so does the text's shifting generic allegiances to allegory, dream vision, elegy, and romance. Pugh argues that this symbolic and generic instability troubles, and so queers, understanding of the Dreamer's relation to the Maiden while also teaching the reader that proper Christian subjectivity is achieved by submission to the God whose desires, in the end, always triumph.

Chapter Three, on "Queering Harry Bailly", appeared in earlier form in Chaucer Review. This chapter explores the ways in which the host in The Canterbury Tales attempts to manipulate carnival play in order to assert his masculinity and sexual identity. It shows how carnival troubles (a key verb in this chapter as elsewhere in the book) gender categories. The chapter manages to combine theories of carnival as genuinely rebellious with approaches that see it as only apparently subversive, supplementing a focus on social class in the work of Bakhtin, Eco, and Eagleton with an appreciation of the subversively carnivalesque potential of gender-queering. The chapter offers an enterprising rereading of the relationships between pilgrims in terms of power and gender.

The themes of Chapter Three are continued in Chapter Four on Chaucer's troubling Clerk's Tale. Noting that the Clerk tells a tale despite not wanting to join in Harry Bailly's game, Pugh draws a telling parallel between the Clerk and the heroine of his tale, Griselda: both refuse to refuse desires antithetical to their own. In this chapter Pugh analyses gender as a social contract to which one may or may not be faithful, exploring the ways in which fidelity to it can, paradoxically, sometimes be queer rather than normative. Within The Canterbury Tales the Clerk's "abundantly surpassing the rules of the game imbues him with subversive power in relation to the Host who demands the game" (84), whereas for Griselda "it takes balls--queer balls--to be such a faithful wife" (90). Pugh again engages with the reader's desires, noting how we remain queerly faithful to The Clerk's Tale despite the way it makes us uncomfortable.

Chapters Four and Five turn to two romances featuring homosocial bonds of brotherhood. Pugh is again at pains to stress that "In describing these brothers and their oaths as queer, I am not attempting to unmask the knights as homosexual" (102). Indeed, he argues that in these romances "normative sexuality reemerges with a vengeance" (103). Pugh offers a cogent reading of the way in which Amis queerly metamorphoses into an hermaphrodite figure, physically male but fulfilling a female role in the narrative and so in relation to Amiloun. Amiloun, on the other hand, is "depicted as hermaphroditically effeminized through his relationship with his cruel wife" (114). The two friends regain their masculinity at the end of the text by conforming to the desexualized demands of a saintly death: the text disproves the queerness of their friendship by metaphorically castrating them, so that we are left with the paradox of a normative eunuchism.

The final main chapter is devoted to a now little-read fifteenth-century Scottish romance, Eger and Grime. This poem explores the comic possibilities of the romance genre, and, in reading Eger's loss of a little finger as emasculating, Pugh similarly exploits the (perhaps more limited) comic possibilities of academic discourse (one section, for example, is headed "The Rise of the Comic Phallus"). As in the other texts Pugh discusses, normativity triumphs after a period of queer deviance: Eger's emasculation is remedied when his companion Grime cuts off the whole hand of Eger's former opponent, Grey Steele. The poem is then able to end happily and heterosexually, with the production of numerous children, though Eger's missing finger lingers as a "spectral image of the impossibility of ever completely becoming a normal man" (144).

The book's delightful Conclusion explores the queerness of medieval studies, noting the way that declaring oneself a medievalist queers one's identity and subjects one to a framework of perceptions derived from popular culture. This final chapter manages both to raise thought-provoking issues about one's vocation and identity as a medievalist and also to remind one of the pleasures of medievalism and, indeed, of reading.

The author of this richly stimulating study is in control of a very wide range of scholarly literature, though it must be said that a number of endnotes do little more than indicate that Pugh is aware of the existence of key scholarship, with little indication of how the works listed have influenced the argument being presented. Such lists may, however, be intended to orient readers from outside the discipline of Middle English studies, and welcome provision is made in other ways for the inexpert reader, including translations of quotations from Pearl and plot summaries for Amis and Amiloun and Eger and Grime. The book has been produced with exceptional care and I did not notice a single typographic error.

Sexuality and Its Queer Discontents in Middle English Literature is a very valuable contribution to the study of gender and sexuality in medieval literature. It combines theoretical sophistication with perceptive close reading and wide-ranging command of earlier scholarship. I derived a great deal of pleasure from this book, and so should other medievalists for, as Pugh asserts at the beginning of his Conclusion, "If one defines queer as that which is subversive of or otherwise resistant to normativity, medievalists are a decidedly queer bunch" (145). We are indeed.