12.05.12, Gilbert, Living Death in Medieval French and English Literature

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Paul Vincent Rockwell

The Medieval Review 12.05.12

Gilbert, Jane. Living Death in Medieval French and English Literature. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Literature, 84. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. vii, 283. ISBN: 978-1-107-00383-5.

Reviewed by:
Paul Vincent Rockwell
Amherst College

This rich and subtle study concerns medieval literary figures that are represented in canonical texts as trapped in a rhetorical space that lies between life and death. The primary texts examined are quite varied and are drawn from the traditions of the Chanson de Geste, romance, and lyric poetry. They represent a broad transsecular range. In order to lend coherence to a mosaic of readings that are from such disparate genres et cultural milieus, Gilbert has recourse to theoretical concepts that draw heavily on the psychoanalytic tradition, and most frequently on Lacan's notion of l'entre-deux-morts ("between-two-deaths") as articulated in his Seminar VII on the ethics of psychoanalysis. The readings are in no way mechanical illustrations of Lacanian concepts, however. Instead, the notions are used to heuristic effect in order to think through certain problematic textual moments that have proven resistant to critical analysis. Each of the figures examined is in some way analogous to the image that emerges from Lacan's reading of Antigone, which situates this mythological character between a "symbolic" and "corporeal" death (the two deaths in question). It is fair to say that each of the medieval figures examined might also be said to be analogous to the Antigone myth along different, sometimes multiple paths. Moreover, critiques of Lacan's analysis (by such theorists as Butler, Irigaray, and Zizek) are invoked in a manner that allows the author to situate a range of implications for these medieval textual moments along an arc defined by various readings of the Antigone figure in modern theoretical debates. The author's several digressions explaining her understanding of these concepts arise from her assumption that her readers would not necessarily be intimately acquainted with the theoretical texts invoked. Even though they interrupt the flow of the analyses somewhat, I would expect these digressions to be most welcome among the majority of readers.

However important these notions might be as analytical tools for the author, the book is not about them, but rather about the medieval texts themselves. After an introduction in which Gilbert's critical vocabulary is clearly laid out, each chapter focuses on a canonical text or set of texts. Each primary text is situated relative to pertinent reference points from the medieval literary tradition. The primary texts examined are, in order, (1) the assonanced version of the Song of Roland; (2) the non-cyclic Prose Lancelot; (3) three ballads from Villon's Testament in which the ubi sunt topos plays a central role; (4) the Pearl poem; and (5) two works by Chaucer, the Book of the Duchess and the Legend of Good Women.

In each of the analyses the rhetorical borderland "between two deaths" functions as a meeting point for incompatible values and discourses that enter into conflict in ways that could be described by analogy as rhetorical anamorphoses. In the Oxford Roland, the focal point is defined by the tension between the personal and collective values that might be attached to the term los. Roland's obsession with performing his proecce unleashes a purely destructive apocalypse for which no coherent rationale is given. The Baligant portion of the Oxford Roland is read to be a rewriting, akin to the rhymed versions of the Roland, in which Roland's death is interpreted retrospectively so as to lend it symbolic meaning within a new order. In the non-cyclic Prose Lancelot, two contiguous love triangles meet along the vector linking Lancelot and Guenevere. But they prove not to be congruent, as the pattern of desire in the second, less studied of these triangles (involving Galehot) makes of Lancelot the object of desire, the "Thing" in Lacanian terms. It transforms the paradigm of courtly love into an amour chevaleresque between male peers. Whereas the courtly love triangle is seen as integrated into the social order, the author takes the shift effected by the second triangle to be more subversive, and to underscore the impossibility of the chivalric social contract. The analysis of the ubi sunt topos uses a ballade by Deschamps as a backdrop against which the shifting elements of three ballades by Villon might be read. The series of poems known in critical literature together as the "Ballades du temps jadis" form a sequence that culminates in a questioning of "the paradigmatic distinctions between life and death" (149), which, in conjunction with the ambiguities of the final envoy of the series, forms an ironic critique of the sovereign subject's traditional relationship to time. I found the readings of the ballades to be nothing less than fascinating. In the Pearl chapter both Pearl-Maiden and Jeweller are found to be situated entre-deux-morts. Read in contrast with Machaut and Froissart's Marguerite poems, the meeting of two realms figured in the Pearl-Maiden highlights their "fundamentally incommensurate perspectives" (178) in a manner that parallels in interesting ways Lacan's discussion of Holbein's portrait of two French ambassadors to the court of Henry VIII. In the final chapter Gilbert plays the relationship among "female characters, ideals of femininity and death" (191) in the Prologue of the Legend of Good Women off a pattern found in the earlier Book of the Duchess. The author finds that the Prologue imagines a poetry that "engages fully with death but refuses equally to mourn" (213). For her, Alceste most closely resembles the Antigones analyzed by Butler and Irigaray, for whom the destructive impulse associated with the Antigone figure opens onto a future.

On a fundamental level, Gilbert's book is about change and about the force of repetition, both destructive and creative, experienced through the features of the poetic texts examined. The displacements mapped among the medieval texts discussed will undoubtedly be echoed in the shifts in critical debate that the strength of these readings should provoke. A thorough reading of the book does require an advanced familiarity with most of the primary texts examined and some knowledge of the critical commentary surrounding each text. This is not a weakness, but rather a necessity. Had the author sought to lay out the fundamentals of the tradition of commentary on such canonical texts in detail, the study would have become unwieldy. This book will not only be of interest to specialists in the field, but is recommended for graduate students who would seek a model of how to use literary theory in a manner that might be of interest to literary historians.

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Paul Vincent Rockwell

Amherst College