Amoral Gower: Language, Sex, and Politics

Amoral Gower: Language, Sex, and Politics

Amoral Gower: Language, Sex, and Politics

Amoral Gower: Language, Sex, and Politics

Synopsis

An innovative reading of John Gower's work and an exciting new approach to medieval vernacular texts. "Moral Gower" he was called by friend and sometime rival Geoffrey Chaucer, and his Confessio Amantis has been viewed as an uncomplicated analysis of the universe, combining erotic narratives with ethical guidance and political commentary. Diane Watt offers the first sustained reading of John Gower's Confessio to argue that this early vernacular text offers no real solutions to the ethical problems it raises--and in fact actively encourages "perverse" readings. Drawing on a combination of queer and feminist theory, ethical criticism, and psychoanalytic, historicist, and textual criticism, Watt focuses on the language, sex, and politics in Gower's writing. How, she asks, is Gower's Confessio related to contemporary controversies over vernacular translation and debates about language politics? How is Gower's treatment of rhetoric and language gendered and sexualized, and what bearing does this have on the ethical and political structure of the text? What is the relationship between the erotic, ethical, and political sections of Confessio Amantis? Watt demonstrates that Gower engaged in the sort of critical thinking more commonly associated with Chaucer and William Langland at the same time that she contributes to modern debates about the ethics of criticism.

Excerpt

From the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance and beyond, writing in the vernacular has been associated with daring intellectual experimentation. At around the same time as Geoffrey Chaucer began work on The Canter- bury Tales, John Gower embarked on his own long poem in the vernacular, Confessio Amantis (completed 1390–93). Medieval literary scholarship has traditionally focused on the works of Chaucer, at the expense of those of his contemporary and friend, Gower. One of the main aims of this study is to make readers aware of the intellectual sophistication of Gower’s Confessio and to demonstrate ways in which Gower’s writing lends itself to the current critical and theoretical climate. the epithet “moral Gower” (originally coined by Chaucer) has proved sufficient to dissuade many from exploring his poetry, but Gower’s examination of language, gender, and sexuality, as well as the questions raised by his poetry about the ethics of reading and writing, are still relevant today. While, in an era that celebrates literary “subversion,” Gower’s reputation as both morally and politically conservative may seem off-putting, it is crucial that we acknowledge that in overtly criticizing as well as describing current affairs, Gower intervenes in politics in a way Chaucer did not. Although Gower is not overtly opposed to either the traditional social hierarchy or the monarchy, his text often challenges the readers’ ethical and political expectations. While ostensibly concerned with the promotion of morality at the levels of both macrocosm (of society) and microcosm (of the individual), Gower’s Confessio betrays a fascination with loss of control, abuse of power, and the dangers of knowledge gone astray.

To begin, I should explain and justify the title of the book: Amoral Gower. Gower’s Confessio Amantis has often been read as a poem that attempts to reach a loftily abstract and ethical view of the sinful (or in Gower’s own terms, divided) human condition. I would not dispute the claim that Confessio Amantis is profoundly concerned with the related issues of good government and personal conduct (indeed, according to . . .

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