In the past decade, queer theory has emerged from gay and lesbian studies, charting not merely the non-heterosexual but exposing and questioning the power structures that make one model of "proper" social identity dominant and "natural." Yet queer theory has often focused on the present, rarely attending to power structures and identity constructions before the 18th century. With Chaucer's Queer Nation, Burger challenges this bias by applying queer reading to medieval studies.
As Burger defines his project,
...under the pressure of producing a poetic vision for a new vernacular English audience in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer reimagines late medieval relations between the body and the community....Attending to this performativity inherent in the Tales' construction of "Chaucer's queer nation" gives their readers (past and present) an opportunity to see the author and audience constructed with and by the Tales as subjects-in-process caught up in a conflicted moment of "becoming." ...Analysis of the queer torsions present in the Canterbury Tales thus provides an exceptionally promising location to bring together the canonical and the marginal, the modern and the medieval, the historical and the theoretical, imagined not as stabilizing difference but as productive contiguity and rhizomatic connect. (x)
Such an analysis resists historicization in at least two ways, first, it rethinks the "textual and conceptual 'middle' ... by resisting the stabilizing push of an absolutely other and distinct Middle Ages against which modernity can define itself and within which medievalists can isolate themselves (xviii). Queer medievalists can also uncover the fallacy of reading modern systems of sex and gender analysis back into medieval culture. "A premodern without the 'heterosexual,' but with sex-gender/sexual perversity aligned under categories such as "the sodomite" and "the feminine," presents a promising and challenging re-presentation of sex/gender/sexuality for the queer theorist working to think outside the box of modernity."
Burger's thesis illustrates the theoretical density and ambition of this book, which applies various tactics of queer theory (intersecting with feminist, Marxist, and postcolonial approaches) to several of the main fragments of the CT. His first chapter, "Shameful Pleasures," begins by placing The Miller's Tale in "queer contiguity" with two modern texts: David Leavitt's preface to The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories and John Preston's introduction to Flesh and the Word. While Leavitt ultimately rejects a literature of marginalization and validates (in Burger's view), an assimilationist, liberal subject, Preston embraces the shame and indeterminacy of outlawed desires. His refusal to distinguish between the literary and the pornographic in his erotic anthology (nevertheless published by a mainstream press, Dutton), positions his anthology as "deformative." (16)
Burger denies that he is promoting a "good" vs. "bad" gay culture here. Calling upon Deleuze and Guattari's image of the book as "machinic assemblage" (which he will draw extensively in analyzing Fragment VII of the Canterbury Tales), Burger assigns one side of the "desiring machine" to Leavitt (with its order and hierarchy) and the other, a body without organs that dismantles hierarchies, to Preston. One side seems poised to assimilate to "modernist narrative, while at the same time evincing a queer performativity" (17).
We can think of The Canterbury Tales as just such a machinic assemblage. In the Prologue to the Miller's Tale, the narrator parallel's Leavitt's attempt to transform "subcultural homosexual experience" by keeping away "vileynye" (19). To a certain extent, Burger privileges Preston's "rhizomatic relationship" to the "dynamic relationship with shame, flesh, and the word" which the narrator's interjection can create. The performance of "shame on you" (the term is derived from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick) that the Miller embraces excites desire and invites the exploration of an 'I' in the process of construction (20).
This "I" is a new kind of reader that the Canterbury Tales and its late medieval milieu were helping to bring into being. In the Canterbury Tales, Burger sees the identities of the three traditional estates being dislodged from a neat opposition: the aristocracy and clergy vs. the churls. The Miller's Tale is showing a new reader, the incipient bourgeois subject, being born and exploring both identity and desire. "'Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys' thus acknowledges the queer performativity inherent in the unstable and unpredictable set of relationships necessary to establish identity here;" (19) and this has implications for 21st-century readers. "The postmodern queer reader, then, might very well embrace that blush of shame with which the narrator 'opens' the Miller's Tale as a productive middle..." (22). Some readers may wonder here: was Chaucer even conscious of shame and its enjoyment in the same way as a postmodern queer academic reader schooled in modern French poststructuralist theory? The articulation of this reading owes much to theory and much less to medieval intertextuality, of which more will be said below.
The new "middle" identity coming into being is also visible in the juxtaposition of the Knight's Tale with the Miller's Tale. While the former wants its readers to "conform to hegemonic view of body as organic hierarchy, head to body, noble to lower, male to female..." (26), the Miller's Tale restores the body's centrality. Nevertheless, even the Miller disciplines the wayward body of Nicholas through Absalon's act of revenge.
Burger also claims that the female body is on the margins in the Miller's Tale; yet it would seem that the female body is not disciplined here. The argument underestimates Alison's agency and the realization of her desires-pleasures in subjection, perhaps, but hardly abject ones (though Burger does read Alison's female body as "outside masculine control" ). But the "gender loosening" of the Tale gives even churls a certain purchase on knowledge and power, in spite of the fact that the Miller "embraces a humiliating position in reference to the Knight" (33). Both the Knight's Tale and the Miller's Tale suggest the instability of the new category of "gentil" (virtually noble but without land, laboring but above the masses of churls, guild members and professionals).
From this point, Burger explores how a new conception of late medieval "conjugality" used the body to invent both socially stabilizing and destabilizing ways to stake a social space for the "middling" gentils (Chapter Two, "Medieval Conjugality," and Chapter Three, "Modernity and Marriage"). He notes that the now-classic analysis of George Lyman Kittredge on the "Marriage Group" creates a "progressivist teleology" for this set of tales. But Kittredge is layering on the text a modernist conception of marriage and the liberal subject, and scholars have noted this. For instance, feminist and Marxist scholars have questioned Kittredge's preconceptions about gender and class. Yet critics have hardly considered the presumed heterosexuality in Kittredge's analysis. Echoing Deleuze, Guattari, and the recent work of Judith Halberstam in Female Masculinities, Burger rejects the "trace" of modern heterosexuality onto a medieval system of sex and gender.
Clearly it is true that sex and gender questions in the Canterbury Tales are not organized simply along modern binarisms of masculine/feminine and homosexual/heterosexual, but instead are located within the larger field of a complex sex/gender system articulating personal and social relations by means of premodern identity categories (such as virginity, celibacy, marriage , and sodomy) (43).
Bakhtin and Homi Bhabha also undergird his approach as he sees the Canterbury Tales resisting "the universal, clerical colonizing of marriage. It is the emerging "gentil" notion of conjugality that allows lay middlers to be equal to or better than clergy/ aristocracy, in addition to their mobility in Parliamentary representation, vernacular culture, and the increased prestige of London as the capital of a unifying nation. Within this conjugal relationship, the feminine develops a new value in the domestic sphere, though enveloped by masculine leadership of the home (72). Burger sees this conjugality as deformative, playing with "the potential for change in the present moment" (76).
While the Wife of Bath performs a "queer repositioning" of female masculinity, the Merchant's Tale and the Franklin's Tale try to contain her complicating of "heteronormative masculinity and its productive circulations of male power" (89). Female masculinity does not merely imitate maleness but shows how masculinity is a construction. In fact, it models an alternative masculinity that shows how the "new" men of the gentils imagine themselves in the center of male power.
By contrast, January's impotence and feminized position in the Merchant's Tale mirrors this female masculinity of the Wife of Bath. January wishes to embrace the new Italian patriciate, yet he has no feudal or kinship ties. Furthermore, he cannot reproduce his masculine power, since Damian and May are the only ones equipped to do so. With this tale, the Merchant wants to keep male effeminacy contained in a kind of corrective to the Wife of Bath's "unpredictable energy" (105). The Merchant's Tale is at once intensely aware of how authorities construct value from outside...and also intent on constructing its own (masculine) safe vantage point of self-valuation" (112).
Finally, in the Franklin's Tale, "destabilizing differences" among the characters become insignificant as the new freedom of gentility" replaces the cultural capital of feudalism (114). The setting of the Tale, Brittany, mirrors the middleness of gentils: Brittany is "neither French nor English, neither purely aristocratic nor purely bourgeois." Thus, the Franklin's Tale is another exploration, but not a finalized resolution, of late medieval conjugality and a new middle position in society.
While stressing the indeterminacy and "becoming" of this conjugality, the chapters on the Marriage Group become somewhat detached from the most obvious notions of "queer." But Chapter Four, "Queer Performativity" stresses this concept in Fragment VI of the Canterbury Tales. Such performativity creates a "re-presentation of male bodies" as they encounter the feminine in the Physician's Tale and the Pardoner's Tale. The Physician's Tale claims a kind of masculine authority through the destruction of the female body, and here Burger detects a "sodomitical panic" that threatens proper homosocial bonds among men in the Tale.
As he adapts ideas from a host of postmodern thinkers--laying a table of ideas from Edelman, Sedgwick, Butler, Jordan and Laqueur (among others), as well as historical studies of the nature of lay piety and the meaning of relics-- Burger focuses more closely on an event near the end of the Fragment: kissing the Pardoner. Burger rejects Vance's masculinist and heterosexual reading of the Pardoner's revolt of language that leads to the Knight's Christ-like kiss of peace, leaving us with "reassuring binaries" (139). Instead, Burger charts the complex interrelationship of ritual kisses in late medieval culture, especially in feudal ceremonies and the custom of kissing and image of the Eucharistic host (a paxboard) or a relic. Kissing the Pardoner is not something that can "erase" him "with reassuring metaphoric substitution" (143). Nor is the Host's refusal as simple as it seems. The Host's own "denunciation...looks suspiciously like the rhetorical ornamentation the Pardoner uses to disguise cupidity as righteousness," and by emphasizing male potency and worldly success, he repeats the Pardoner's mistaking the material for the eternal (144). Burger once again calls on a postmodern thinker, in this case Jonathan Dollimore, to explicate the queer performativity here: the Pardoner exemplifies "discoherence," a meaningful contradiction which allows us to us the opportunity to touch our own desire and see that our own identities are constructed (148).
Indeed, the Pardoner strikes Burger as transgressive is the ways he is not other (and, we might add, just so, even an assimilationist gay couple that Leavitt might want to valorize cannot escape being transgressive). Kissing the Pardoner, too, ironically encourages readings to "increase and multiply," creating "room for maneuver" outside of closed binaries in both medieval and modern reading. This can lead to a sense of play in the Canterbury Tales that empowers readers. The kiss, of course, is no comfort; it has implications for the gentils in the party who anxiously identify those near them as like them (the aristocracy) or as lower (the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner).
The fifth chapter, "Desiring Machines," moves away from the discussion of Fragment VI, resuming the discussion of Deleuze and Guattari's concept of the book as machinic assemblage in Fragment VII. The Fragment is not "floating" in the way that Fragment VI does, but with its succession of different tales--the Prioress' Tale, Melibee, The Monk's Tale, The Nun's Priest's Tale--no master narrative clearly links them. The fragment emphasizes the notion of becoming, of ceaseless increasing and multiplying.
Melibee especially reproduces the endlessness of the Fragment, with Prudence citing a huge number of authors to argue against her husband's call for revenge. Burger makes an interesting case for the new conjugality's repositioning genders within marriage that allows Melibee to take his wife's advice. What is more, Burger connects Melibee with Lerer's studies of the compilatio. In this genre, rising gentils could participate in reading with a great degree of agency--entering the text as they wished, making marginal notations, and making their own decisions (as do Melibee and Prudence) about how to put practical wisdom into practice. Melibee takes a middle ground between the Host's "domestic farce of Goodelief and the rarefied allegorizing of the monastic school" (183).
Unfortunately, the Nun's Priest's Tale gets short shrift in this chapter. It is very disappointing not to hear more about the Tale , and not simply because it makes such awfully fun reading. More germane to Burger's argument, the Nun's Priest's Tale mirrors the relentless cascade of authorities and stories instantiated in Melibee and the Monk's Tale. The cacophony of endless authorities in Chauntecleer's arguments (also paralleled ironically in the cacophony of barnyard noises) and the author's digressions into predestination or the lament topoi of Geoffrey de Vinsauf--not to mention the way that the Nun's Priest's Tale spoofs new conceptions of conjugality so carefully delineated in the earlier tales. The place of the Nun's Priest's Tale in the machinic assemblage of Fragment VII invites more attention.
In the final chapter , Burger examines how the Host, Parson, and fifteenth-century continuators imagined a time "beyond" the completion of the proposed Canterbury pilgrimage. He laments that the Host's and Parson's attempts to "settle" the meaning of the Canterbury Tales differ greatly from "the lines of flight, rhizomatic structures, and desiring machines" he has already identified (188). While he distinguishes here between Walter Benjamin's hegemonic historicism and materialist historiography, a more useful paradigm may be Burger's use of the "perverse dynamic" in private confession which Karma Lochrie has recently discussed, and how confession's acts of disclosure brought late medieval subjects into being. Burger adds that confession gets dominant because it is performative and because of the various, complex material conditions that made it meaningful. The real conditions of confession in lay piety differed greatly from the careful scholastic structure of the Parson's Tale. At the same time, the Host has created a different sort of new confession by asking subjects of "ech degree" to tell a tale. Yet the Parson himself resists being labeled as just another tale-telling member of this gentil company.
The Parson, the Host, and fifteenth-century continuations of the Canterbury Tales (such as The Tale of Beryn) try, in their several ways, to stabilize the story of the Canterbury Tales with a fulfillment of the journey. Burger sees a more promising reading in Homi Bhabha's concept of "post-ality." The idea of a "beyond" promises a future, yet it is the idea of actually going beyond which is "unknowable, unrepresentable, without a return to the 'present' which in the process of repetition, becomes disjunct and displaced" (202). The route towards Canterbury in this last Fragment is open to interruptions and lines of flight which Lydgate and Beryn do not account for.
Clearly, this book's own route embodies a richly-informed poststructuralist queer theory. The readings are provocative and promising, but they need to engage more with medieval intertextuality; moreover, engagement with actual text of Chaucer is quite modest. To be fair to Burger, this book is "ground-breaking" for future applications of and intersections with queer theory. But it would be good to see more of the intensive study, say, of medieval discourses of the body (medical, theological, and literary) found in recent work by Mark Jordan and Karma Lochrie--and perhaps not see as intensively the critical regimes of Father Foucault and his children. Furthermore, just as Burger rightly wishes to "resist essentializing Chaucer's identity and its connection with heterosexuality in critical history" (xiv), what is to prevent a postmodern approach, with its undoubtedly productive and polysemous and indeterminate inquiry, from becoming an essentialist body as well?
Yet the queer nation of Chaucer foregrounds a very important idea of the "middle" position of the Canterbury pilgrims and the real conditions of emerging "middle" identities. Above all, Burger shows how important it is to keep the study of the perpetually varying examples in the Canterbury Tales historically situated--not simply reading the modern hetero-homosexual binary into the sex-gender system and keeping the sodomitical at the forefront.
A queer reading of Chaucer is fascinating, vital, and productive; it is also just as time-bound, and in that sense, presentist, as a Drydenesque reading of Father Chaucer and God's plenty. But queer readings insistently remind us that we cannot escape our own readings, and to the extent that is the case we must embrace the pleasure of this moment of touching the past.