09.03.04, Pugh and Marzec, eds., Men and Masculinities

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A. J. DeLong

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.004


Pugh, Tison and Marcia Smith Marzec, eds.. Men and Masculinities in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer Studies XXXVIII. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2008. Pp. viii, 200. ISBN: 978-184384160-9.

Reviewed by:
A. J. DeLong
Suffolk County Community College

Masculinity, once considered too politically charged to be a legitimate source of academic inquiry, has produced a second entire essay collection in the Chaucer Studies series. The previous contribution, edited by Peter Beidler, appeared a decade ago and took the entire range of Chaucer's writings as its field. Out of Beidler's seventeen essays, three focused on this Chaucerian work, all ringing various changes on the theme of Troilus's emasculation at the hands of Criseyde and/or courtly love. In the last ten years, the theoretical conception of masculinity has become more nuanced, as this new collection's introduction indicates, having run into and through Judith Butler's theories of performativity and embodiment, and into a more multivalent understanding of what it means to be male both in society and in oneself. This collection concentrates solely on Troilus and Criseyde and approaches masculinity from a variety of more complex and nuanced perspectives than were available ten years ago. Characters other than Troilus, such as Hector, Pandarus and Criseyde get treatment as well, and challenge the standard assumption that Troilus is, necessarily, feminized in the poem.

The essays appear in pairs covering everything from gaze theory to contemporary politics. The first two consider the poem's reach into critiques of sovereignty. John Bowers's article, "Beautiful as Troilus: Richard II, Chaucer's Troilus and Figures of (Un) Masculinity," argues that the young king was deliberately compared to both Troilus and Absalom as a backhanded slight to the king's impotent reign. Robert Sturges's essay considers the meaning and uses of sovereignty in the poem delimited in his essay by Giorgio Agamben's concept of 'bare life'--sovereign power as that which decides whose life falls inside the protective power of the state, and whose falls outside that boundary (29). Hector, Troilus and Diomede are brought up for comparison in their abilities to grant or protect this limit of sovereignty both to Troy and Criseyde.

The next four essays revisit Troilus's masculinity, particularly in how to read his fainting episode and the experience of love. Gretchen Mieszkowski's essay convincingly calls scholars to reconsider the old chestnut that Troilus's faint would have been read by Chaucer's contemporaries as 'feminizing'. Drawing from a host of analogues, Mieszkowski argues that male literary characters fainting were a not uncommon motif, that had no discernible effect of softening or compromising their gender. For example, Chaucer's Arcite from The Knight's Tale and the hero of the Prose Lancelot both faint without any seeming repercussions imperiling their gender. Mieszkowski concludes that since the courtly love scenario rewarded masculine passivity, Troilus's faint in fact marks him out to be a superlative courtly lover.

Marcia Smith Marzec's essay, "What Makes a Man? Troilus, Hector, and the Masculinities of Courtly Love," compares Hector and Troilus and the appeal they may have held for Criseyde. Criseyde turns to Hector first, seeing Hector, as Marzec argues, in the same way Chaucer's literate contemporaries would have, as a paragon of knightly prowess and wisdom. As the perfect knight, however, Hector is untouchable by women--even Andromache and Hecuba falling at his feet and pleading fail to stir him from his epic-warrior lines. Troilus, on the other hand, second only to his brother in knightly prowess, represents the courtly love form of masculinity, or, at the very least, represents the limitations to masculine performance that the courtly love tradition imposes.

James Paxson's "Masculinity and its Hydraulic Semiotics in Troilus and Criseyde" considers Troilus's subterranean journey to Criseyde's bedchamber as a complex allusion to King David's emergence from the tzinor to conquer the Jebusites, recasting Troilus's journey into one of conquest, and penetration, rather than sewer- crawling. Paxson weighs the possible translations of the tzinor, connecting Chaucer's fascination with the episode to Chaucer's own occupation and pre-occupation with waterways and gutters as Clerk of the Works in the 1390s.

Pugh and Holly Crocker collaborate on the next essay, "Masochism, Masculinity and the Pleasures of Troilus." This essay argues that Troilus's suffering in love is not contrary to masculinity and not feminizing in the least. Instead, the lover's pain not only does not diminish masculinity (being a chance to demonstrate fortitude under pain), but Troilus enjoys the suffering that love brings him. Jesus is invoked as an archetype for masochistic suffering without gender- diminishment. Jesus suffers in a similar silence, offering an exemplar of masculinity made entire by his pain, as well as inverting the standard conception of the masochistic power dynamic. The sufferer (Jesus) is in control, and following from that, the lover (Troilus) is as well: the lady does not so much wield power over her lover (as normally conceived) but merely serves as a modality through which the lover can attain further suffering. Unlike others in the poem who use women either as pawns or markers of their own power and masculinity, Troilus's relation to Criseyde removes him from the interrelationships of power with other men, leading smoothly to his 'transcendence' at the poem's end.

The next pair deal with how Criseyde contributes to or detracts from Troilus's masculine construction. Kate Koppelman's "'The Dreams in Which I'm Dying': Sublimation and Unstable Masculinities in Troilus and Criseyde" invokes Zizek's conception of subjectivity as a struggle against the symbolic structures imposed upon one by the other. In studying the work through this lens of subjectivity, Koppelman argues that Criseyde demonstrates a larger "ethical subjectivity" than Troilus, because she acknowledges her position as pinned-down subject against and through which Troilus (and others) demonstrate their own gender. The text's refusal to delve into Criseyde's thought process push her to the position of the opaque objectified other, though her choices throughout the poem hint at a greater understanding and compassion toward the others similarly objectified. Angela Jane Weisl's essay considers Criseyde's choices from another perspective--the complications a courtly lady may face in choosing and rewarding certain manifestations of masculinity. She attempts to utilize "masculinized power and privilege, and her inability to maintain her reputation while doing so, point(s) out both the limitations of and access to masculinity" (126).

Gaze theory is the focus of the following two essays: one, Molly Martin's "Troilus's Gaze and the Collapse of Masculinity in Romance," re-investigates the power of the gaze through the medieval understanding of optics. Instead of the more modern and conventional conception of the gaze as demonstrating and granting subjective power to the gazer, Martin argues that in Chaucer's time, the gaze was understood to be a recipient of outside stimulus--the object reaches in via the portals of the eyes and affects the viewer. In Troilus's case, this gaze afflicts him with love, rendering him powerless against the gaze's ability to control his moves. This gaze, rather than enforcing his masculine prerogative, effectually disempowers him.

In the other gaze-theory essay, Richard Zeikowitz, who has published widely in queer theory, here invokes the cinematic notion of 'suture' and the gaze to examine the homoerotic power dynamic between Troilus and Pandarus. This second essay argues that Troilus is not so much the passive, feminized object upon which Pandarus works, but that he actively engages in a sort of seductive, sexual struggle and exchange; part of which is the general eroticism of Criseyde, and part of which is Troilus's own erotic appeal.

The last pair reach out beyond Chaucer and compare the masculinity in the poem to other literary works--the first compares Troilus to Will in Piers Plowman, the second to Shakespeare's vision of the Troilus story. Michael Calabrese's "Being a Man in Piers Plowman and Troilus and Criseyde" considers Will and Troilus as men on quests to restore their masculinity, here envisioned primarily as sexual potency. As Will ages, he becomes unable to fulfill his marriage debt, which Calabrese compares to Troilus's impotence with Criseyde. Both need, somehow, to redeem their masculine performance. He lines up Criseyde as a figure like Lady Meed, and Pandarus as an umbrella figure for a whole host of characters who strive to lead Will astray. He argues that we are not used to thinking of Will as a sexual being, and investigating him this way lends a new angle of insight into the poem, though it seems more useful to Langland than Chaucer scholars.

R. Allen Shoaf's final essay, which reads less as a scholarly piece than as a meditation on sex and gender while in the neighborhood of Chaucer's and Shakespeare's Troilus, leaves the collection on a thundering, but odd note. The intimate tone and references seem out of place. His conception of masculinity as forcibly suffering under separation but conflicted about the price of union seems drawn from Lacan and anxieties of the Oedipal complex. His focus is, in the end, upon Shakespeare and his own experience--Chaucer's Troilus serves only as a backboard for his Freudian meditation.

The twelve essays in this volume cover a significant range of theoretical approaches in addition to masculinity, rendering a multivalent reading of gender and embodiment. No one coherent reading is offered, but the book holds together under the aegis of re- exploring the old chestnuts of masculinity and gender theory, which gives it broader utility to scholars than a book insisting on one coherent, unified re-vision of Troilus.

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Author Biography

A. J. DeLong

Suffolk County Community College