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22.10.11 Samuelson, Courtly and Queer

22.10.11 Samuelson, Courtly and Queer

Charlie Samuelson’s ambitious book juxtaposes language and poetics with gender and sexual politics, arguing that a queerness inextricable from poetic indeterminacy is at the heart of courtly verse narratives from the High and Late Middle Ages. Courtly and Queer also makes an argument about genre, reconsidering what Samuelson sees as an overly rigid and teleological view of the differences between twelfth- and thirteenth-century verse romances and late medieval dits. In a series of chapters that study them alongside each other, he claims that thinking the two genres together opens new ways of thinking about what each does. Closely engaged with deconstructive and queer theoretical texts, Courtly and Queer offers an unusually tight demonstration of how modern theory resonates with medieval texts through detailed and insightful close readings of courtly narratives.

In his claim for a queer indeterminacy in courtly texts, Samuelson uses “queer” to name “all that resists the notion that courtly literature seeks to present gender and sexuality as coherent and/or normative” (1). Samuelson’s project is not to identify queer characters or to reveal queer relationships represented in medieval texts. Instead, he is interested in indeterminacy--in language, rhetoric, and poetics, and in gender and sexuality--and its operations. And what he means by “indeterminacy” unfolds over four chapters in which Samuelson puts key texts from queer theory into dialogue with medieval courtly narratives.

Courtly and Queer is organized thematically: Chapter 1 focuses on subjectivity, Chapter 2 on metalepsis, Chapter 3 on lyric insertions, and Chapter 4 on irony. However, what I am calling ‘themes’ are in fact sites of inquiry for Samuelson. He interrogates how subjectivity is defined, what metalepsis does, and how lyric insertion and irony work, both theoretically and in his texts. Each chapter details intersections between modern theoretical texts and medieval courtly narratives and each chapter brings together verse romances and dits, using the thematic analyses to posit ways of understanding a relationship between the two genres.

Chapter 1, “Reflexive, Ambivalent, Queer Subjects,” explores the notion of the subject as defined through the ambivalent relations of the subject with itself and with power. Calling on Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet and Judith Butler’s Psychic Life of Power for its theoretical framing, the chapter focuses on Christine de Pizan’s Duc des vrais amans, Machaut’s Fonteinne amoureuse, and Chrétien de Troyes’s Chevalier de la charrette. Samuelson foregrounds reflexivity, defined in terms of a “turning back upon itself” that he borrows from Butler, and for Samuelson this reflexive looking back counters the notion of a medieval subject that progressively becomes something like a modern “I.” Moving in a deliberately reverse chronology, he argues that dits may be understood to be developing verse romances’ examination of the subject by deepening the ambivalent reflexivity already found in the earlier texts. Reflexivity fosters ambivalence, he argues, and courtly literary texts and queer theory both focus on the illogical nature of the reflexive subject which always looks back at as well as beyond itself. Both literature and queer theory reflect on and generate an ambivalence that Samuelson valorizes as a site from which to think rather than a problem to be resolved.

In a second chapter on “Medieval Metalepsis: Queering Narrative Poetics,” Samuelson considers the interpenetration of narrative levels in three rather different texts, Partonopeu de Blois, Le roman de Silence, and Froissart’s Prison amoureuse, putting the medieval narratives into dialogue with Judith Butler’sGender Trouble. Metalepsis is unruly, he argues, and it invites an interrogation of the invisible and (il)logical connections among heterogeneous narrative levels or segments and reveals the ways that unruly narrative poetics map onto unruly gender and sexual politics. Here Samuelson’s definition of the queer comes more clearly into view. Partonopeu is a queer text in his reading not primarily because of what it represents but because of how it works against patriarchal structures; the romance mobilizes narrative poetics to destabilize binaries fundamental to the workings of patriarchy. By embracing unruliness instead of clearly defined relationships among narrative levels, the texts he examines disrupt the coherence of the stories they recount and they also disrupt the ways in which gender and sexual identity are attached to fixity, determinacy, progress, and resolution. That is, they “trouble the aspects of the narratives--and even of the narrativity--on which normative gender and sexual politics (whether medieval or modern) rely” (109).

In Chapter 3, “On Sameness, Difference, and Textualizing Desire: Queering Lyric Insertion,” Samuelson works against what he identifies as a tendency to understand lyric insertions as interruptions in narratives. Reading Jean Renart’s Roman de la rose, Jakemés’s Roman du Châtelain de Coucy et de la dame de Fayel, and Nicole de Margival’s Dit de la panthère, and citing Lee Edelman from Homographesis, he argues that the insertion of lyrics into narratives can effect a “disorientation of positionality” in relation to lyrics and the love they describe. That is, lyric insertions are not to be read simply as additions or embellishments to a narrative, but instead, the displacement of the song from its original context into a narrative allows for an engagement with the dialectics of love at issue in the song. In this respect, the narrative--which Samuelson reads as a long lyric poem--supplements the lyrics and extends the emphasis on the indeterminacy of language and desire found in the inserted lyrics. Edelman’s Homographesis is the guiding theoretical text for Samuelson’s interrogation of lyric insertions and at the end of the chapter Samuelson explains his own engagement with the theoretical text: he himself insertsEdelman’s work into his analysis of the medieval texts as a way of destabilizing notions of sameness and difference between the courtly and the queer.

A fourth chapter, “Queer Irony in Chrétien de Troyes and Guillaume de Machaut,” calls on Paul de Man’s work on irony to argue that irony figures the impossibility of controlling meaning. In his readings of medieval narratives, Samuelson insists on the negativity of irony, following de Man, and on queer desire, following Lee Edelman’s No Future. Here irony is less an aesthetic technique than a force constantly seeking to unravel the coherence of texts and the erotic relationships they describe, and in readings of Chrétien’s Erec et Enide and Cligés and Machaut’s Jugement poems and his Voir Dit, Samuelson explores the ways in which deconstructive irony and the deviance of desire intersect. He stresses the queerness of irony, which he describes as “its relentless antagonism toward the coherence or meaningfulness of desire” (161).

In a short coda entitled “Slashes,” Samuelson articulates the stakes of his argument using the diacritical slash to stand for relationships that can be called queer insofar as they resist the pull of sameness and difference: courtly/queer, romance/dit, High/Late Middle Ages, language and poetics/gender and sexual politics.Insisting on queer desire’s radical potential to destabilize, he argues for the importance of breaking down strict accounts of a fundamental difference between the medieval and the modern. This is what his engagement with queer theory structures: a way of highlighting the confusion of similarity and difference, inside and outside, and self and other, whether in relation to elements within texts or between larger concepts like courtliness and queerness.

Courtly and Queer moves across a fairly broad range of courtly narratives and Samuelson is an excellent guide. He situates the medieval texts very clearly, giving enough plot summary and context to orient the reader in analyses that are always generously and meticulously articulated with respect to existing scholarship. Still, I think some patience will be required from those unfamiliar with the theoretical texts he discusses. Samuelson insists on the “resonances” between modern theory and medieval texts (24 and passim), and in his book such resonances are indicated largely through juxtaposition; that is, he cites phrases from theoretical texts to describe the medieval texts. This citational-descriptive practice is very effective in underscoring resonance, but it can also work as a kind of shorthand for the stakes of an argument that for me sometimes needed a more explicit articulation.

Throughout his book, Samuelson is confronting critical assumptions about courtly literature, the most obvious being the strict generic division of romances and dits. He subverts this oppositional logic by exploring the ways that oppositions are subverted in the texts themselves. His point is not just that oppositions do not hold, but rather that ambivalence, ambiguity, disorientation, and irony are modes through which indeterminacy is inscribed in the poetics and values of medieval courtly literature. If courtly literature in its most canonical terms is often taken to ultimately be complicit with patriarchal norms, Samuelson’s astute readings and careful theorization of its queerness show first, that resistance to such values need not be oppositional and second, that in the form of indeterminacy, such resistance permeates medieval courtly texts. In this, his book offers a powerful model for understanding the relationship between the courtly and the queer.