Graham Drake

title.none: Watt, Amoral Gower (Graham Drake)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.039 05.01.39

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Graham Drake, SUNY Geneseo,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Watt, Diane. Amoral Gower: Language, Sex, and Politics. Series: Medieval Cultures, vol. 38. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Pp. xviii, 219. $22.00 (pb). ISBN: 0-8166-4028-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.39

Watt, Diane. Amoral Gower: Language, Sex, and Politics. Series: Medieval Cultures, vol. 38. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Pp. xviii, 219. $22.00 (pb). ISBN: 0-8166-4028-9.

Reviewed by:

Graham Drake
SUNY Geneseo

Chaucer addressed him as "moral Gower" at the conclusion of Troilus and Criseyde, and this reputation has endured. Even into the twenty-first century, critics have conceived of Gower's Confessio Amantis as a coherent, conservative moral text that upholds social hierarchies and traditional Christian moral theology. The work's very form would seem to echo that coherence. The Confessio resembles its more famous contemporaries, The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron in its frame structure, embedding a series of tales within a larger narrative. Unlike The Canterbury Tales, however, the Confessio Amantis is formally complete, arranging the tales according to the Seven Deadly Sins and their subdivisions. Yet the disposition of the Confessio should give us pause: why is a pagan-like character called Genius, who tells the stories, acting as confessor to a lover (Amans), and what exactly do tales of love (and what sort of love?) have to do with a Christian configuration found in penitential handbooks?

This anomaly has attracted Diane Watt's scrutiny in Amoral Gower. If any coherent moral message exists in Gower's work, Watt cannot find it: "...I argue that the tensions, contradictions, and silences in Gower's text expose the limitations of the ethical structures available to him and open up his text to multiple interpretations" (xiii). To illustrate these limitations, Watt reads the Confessio for three interrelated themes: language, sex, and politics. She admits her approach is eclectic, drawing upon queer theory, deconstruction, historicism, and Freudian/Lacanian psychoanalysis. While the result seems a bit diffuse at times, her approach well suits the uncovering of inconsistencies, ambiguities, and silences in Gower's work. Moreover, the book maintains a readable style that never obfuscates its primary objective.

Before engaging with the three themes, Watt sketches some aspects of "social Gower"--his relationship to political events towards the end of Richard II's reign, the class concerns of his readership, and his intellectual milieu. Watt rightly underscores the complexity of his relationship with Chaucer and the "moral" moniker itself: "In his conflicting descriptions of Gower as both 'moral' in the sense of being 'an author concerned with morality,' and also, in his retelling of tales of incest, 'immoral,' Chaucer is responding on a sophisticated level to the ethical ambiguities in his fellow poet's writing" (8). In a similar vein, Gower's editorial control over his own text was shaky, and the various manuscripts are not easily classified. Should we divide the manuscript witnesses into a series of different recensions? The supposed Ricardian vs. Henrican political distinctions? Or even the deployment of Latin glosses and miniatures? Given the instability of a "standard" text, readers have no choice but to approach the Confessio Amantis through various instances of "interpretive layout" (16) presented in the manuscripts themselves. Such instabilities justify multiple interpretations, and Watt will add her own well-reasoned observations.

Language is the first source of ethical ambiguity and earthly division that Watt traces in the Confessio Amantis. The relationship between Latin (in glosses, headings, and prefatory verses) and English in the main text becomes "undermined by queer gender play" and at certain junctures end up contradicting each other. A good example is the personification of Hypocrisy: the word is feminine in Latin and appears thus in both the Latin head-verses of Confessio Amantis and in Gower's earlier all-Latin poem, the Vox Clamantis. But in the primary English text of the Confessio, Hypocrisy becomes a man--a flattering court counselor and lover.

Such a grammatical juxtaposition recalls Alain de Lille's De Planctu Natura, which Gower knew well, and which explicitly links errors in grammatical gender with impaired masculinity and sodomy. And this very Babel Tower at the head of Gower's work and in the core of his procedure exemplifies the division that sin, especially sexual sin, has created in a fallen world. Besides Alain, the presence of Brunetto Latini's Trésor--written by the teacher whom Dante finds among the sodomites in Inferno--suggests, in Gower's reading, a chain of ideas linking rhetorical ornament and "color" with falsehood. Gower's preference for a plain, unadorned style suggests that right speech is masculine and subject to reason. Bad rhetoric, by contrast, flatters and falsifies, a pitfall for heroes such as Ulysses and Julius Caesar in the Confessio--and, in late-fourteenth-century chronicles, with the effete dandies of Richard II's inner circle. Excessive rhetoric is not just untruthful, but functions as makeup; its cosmetic tendency is "queinte" to Gower (most likely with the double entendre of female genitalia), and it feminizes men.

The feminizing of men in medieval discourse often raises the specter of sodomy. Hanrahan's recent work on the sodomitical accusations surrounding Richard's court are of a piece with the status of sodomy in the Confessio Amantis. [[1]] Of course, the presence of "unspeakable" vice is a contextual suggestion (as Watt acknowledges), not an explicit one; incest and other sexual dissidence will feature more prominently the the poem. But Watt can, with caution, call the Confessio Amantis a "queer text," not "because it explicitly discusses homosexuality--it does not--but because it is undercut by a rich vein of linguistic gender play that involves its readers and that destabilizes its moral arrangement" (34). Moreover, the usefulness of the Confessio as advice to Richard II already begins to unravel as Gower presents such dubious implied advisers as Aristotle (depicted as a foolishly loving senex amans), or even Amans as an older man (eventually identified with Gower himself) taking counsel from a younger Genius.

If sexual ambiguity inheres in Gower's very use of language, it becomes even more apparent in the kinds of sexuality displayed in the confessional process of the tales. Watt focuses on three "transgendering" stories: those of Hercules and Eolen; Achilles and Deidamia; and Iphis and Ianthe. Ostensibly, these narratives are meant to illustrate the deadly sins of envy, covetousness, and sloth; thus, the cross-dressing or other transgendering does not seem to connect directly with the sins in question. In the Hercules story, Watt argues that the hero's exchanging clothing with his mistress undercuts the moral. His foolish act makes him seem less than a victim of the poisoned shirt his wife subsequently gives him, and it re-establishes a connection between cross-dressing and effeminacy.

But then the cross-dressing loses its stigma in the case of Iphis and Ianthe, the first of whom is a biological female brought up as a boy. And here any judgment on the possibly unnatural character of their union becomes confused in the disconnect between English and Latin. The English narrative allows Iphis and Ianthe an apparent physical relationship, whereas a Latin marginal gloss specifically states that Iphis cannot fulfill her "marriage debt." Iphis becomes a female character of masculine virtue--not an easy fit with the other discourses about masculinity in Gower's own text and in the texts he is responding to. "Genius's position on gender transgression and subversive sexuality is ambivalent; while he praises 'honeste love' (marriage) and self-governance, he also explores transvestism, transgendering, and transsexuality, and even, at times, allows them to undermine norms of gender and sexuality" (81).

Even though male sodomy is not directly portrayed, Watt alerts us to manuscript illustrations with a homoerotic resonance. In one, Cupid points an ample arrow, more like a spear, at Amans' heart, while Venus stands to the side. The English verses portray Cupid in the terms of a disdainful lady who is the only one capable of releasing Amans from his suffering. Another figure shows Narcissus clearly pining after his own image--even though Gower describes Narcissus viewing a nymph in the water rather than himself. Even as Gower "straightens" his Ovidian and other sources, Watt proposes that "Genius's evasion of the subject of male sodomy relates in some way to the communication failure between Genius and Amans" (79). Genius may be an inept confessor whose story-examples often jar with the moral discourse at hand; but he is also constrained by the very incoherence of sodomitical discourse in the Middle Ages: talking about an unspeakable vice might give penitents ideas not otherwise conceivable, and this becomes even more problematic between male confessor and male penitent.

Watt sees further inconsistencies in the figure of Venus herself and in her function. While Amans allies himself with Christianity, both Genius and Amans are in thrall to Venus; and in portraying Venus's incestuous relationship with Jupiter that produces Cupid, Gower is implying a parallel with his earlier French poem Mirour de l'Omme, where Sin's liaison with her son and brother, Death, result in the Seven Deadly Sins. Moreover, Venus' birth through the castration of her father, Saturn, reverses an Oedipal pattern that Watt sees as challenging gender hierarchy and the supposed sin of transgressive sexuality. "In Confessio, incest is metonymic of sexuality, which is simultaneously perverse and natural, and sexuality itself is metonymic of humanity's fallen, sinful state" (90).

Gender hierarchies continue to be undermined in some, though not all, of the rape stories, in the Confessio. Revising Dinshaw's view of rape as "intense homosciality," Watt argues that Genius' version of the Tale of Tereus and Procne does not make rape a crime against men but against women. [[2]] This will not be the case with later rape stories discussed below. More confusingly, the story of the sexual deception in the Tale of Mundus and Paulina is that of a hypocrite, yet this theme does not seem to fit with the larger frame narrative on Pride. Mundus seems to have the blame for the seduction deflected from him, yet he is not allowed to be a sympathetic character, and Paulina is heard to denounce him. The fact that Mundus does not meet his death "undercuts Genius' own stated belief that the individuals have to take responsibility for their actions" (99).

Finally, the politics section of Amoral Gower points up the Confessio's failure to serve as a mirror for princes--not that this stops Genius. For example, Genius adduces events from Alexander the Great's life at several junctures. Book V narrates Alexander's being tricked into idolatry, while Alexander in Book VII seems almost godlike in his measured wrath and compassion. Yet the narrative chronology belies the exaltation of Alexander here; his ignominious death story appears well before his good points are showcased. And even in Book VIII, we learn that Alexander's supposedly good teacher, Aristotle, is no better than a senex amans. This ambivalent depiction of the supposedly ideal king Alexander may reflect poorly on Richard II.

The rape tales of Lucrece and of Virginia provide additional insights into Gower's politics. Watt notes that Gower's Lucrece narrative follows the classical rather than more popular medieval version: as a crime not against Lucrece, but against society. Gower walks a political tightrope here; he uses the story to raise the issue of deposing an unjust king, yet he stops short of the next step in the narrative--the actual overthrow of the Roman monarchy and the establishment of a republic. For the second rape tale, critics have suggested that Virgina's father, Virginius, is a "private" tyrant over his daughter while the rapist Claudius is a public tyrant. But Watt thinks "it is difficult to see how it can be read as a coherent comment upon Richard II's reign," since Claudius is punished for his tyranny, while Virginius is not (123). Watt cautions us, too, about seeing Claudius as an easy example of "evil counsel" connected with the threat of deposing the king in historical documents from both the eras of Richard and of Edward III.

Watt concludes her argument with an analysis of the lengthy Tale of Apollonius--partly to answer the question why the Confessio Amantis ends with incest. Here she finds Larry Scanlon's psychoanalytic reading useful; but she wants to see as well where Gower differs from his immediate sources. This examination of Apollonius seeks to demonstrate "the connection between the construction of gender and sexuality in this tale and the political concerns and historical context of Confessio as a whole" (131). Gower apparently sees the role of the mother important in the story, so much so that he adds to the tale a daughter who has a mother in order to contrast with Antiochus' daughter, whose own mother's death leaves her vulnerable. "...[T]he role of the mother--as an active rather than passive figure--appears to reach further than an oedipal interpretation would suggest" (131). As for the relationship between Apollonius and Antiochus, the former becomes feminized because he does not kill Antiochus for his crimes and takes on a passive relationship of sorts with his wife-to-be. Ironically, Apollonius parallels Antiochus because Gower eventually associates Apollonius with the crime of incest through a suggestive misunderstanding between Apollonius and his own daughter. At the same time, the desire of Apollonius' wife for him is allowed expression, transforming an earlier complex nexus (linking Oedipal riddles, the Sphinx, and monstrous female desire) into something that provides a woman with some libidinal agency, albeit under the patriarchal marriage system.

The oedipal and "anti"-oedipal aspects of the Tale of Apollonius--positioned as it is in a section of the Confessio Amantis that purports to provide advice to princes--may tempt us to see similarly oedipal aspects in Richard II's profile that would connect him to Apollonius. While critics have argued that Gower's Apollonius comments obliquely on Richard II's kingship and have even seen Apollonius as a good king, as an example of effective self-governance, Watt believes that Gower is actually implying a certain cynicism about Richard himself. Apollonius, in her view, is not the ideal king that other critics have constructed, given the uncomfortable parallels with the tyrant Antiochus. "If Apollnius is intended as a double of Richard II, he is not, after all, a particularly impressive model of kingship. Gower's representation of Apollonius is as ambivalent as his attitude toward his monarch. In directing this book to Richard II, Gower may be offering advice, even a warning; he is not necessarily offering praise" (148).

Even the colophons to the manuscripts of Gower leave the work's status in ambivalence. While Gower has titled his work Confessio AMANTIS, the colophon puts the political ahead of the erotic. "Thus, emphasis is put on the Prologue and Book VII of Confessio over Books I-VI and Book VIII, but without establishing any ethical connection between the two" (150). The only tenable understanding of the colophon would be "if we do not assume that Gower was trying to resolve the disunities of his major English work" (151). Instead, Watt sees Gower's project and even his own self-representation as deliberately divided. "Even at its closure, Confessio Amantis is characterized not by success but by failure, not by reconciliation but by division" (160). This is a melancholy assessment of the poem, but Watt's reading implies a richer and more complex understanding of Confessio Amantis which, if it mirrors anything comprehensible, reflects the broken estate of humanity.


[[1]] Michael Hanrahan, "Speaking of Sodomy: Gower's Advice to Princes in the Confessio Amantis," Exemplaria 14 (2002): 423-46.

[[2]] See Carolyn Dinshaw, "Rivalry, Rape, and Manhood: Chaucer and Gower," in R.F. Yeager, ed., Chaucer and Gower: Difference, Mutuality, Exchange (Victoria, British Columbia: University of Victoria Press, 1991), 130-52.

[[3]] Larry Scanlon, "The Riddle of Incest: John Gower and the Problem of Medieval Sexuality," in R. F. Yeager, ed., Re-Visioning Gower (Asheville, North Carolina: Pegasus, 1999), 93-127.