Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Perverse Dynamics of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Academic journal article Arthuriana

The Perverse Dynamics of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Article excerpt

This article turns a queer eye upon Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to suggest that categories are continually elided through the workings of a perverse dynamics whose touchstone is not Gawain and the Green Knight as the title might indicate, but the semi-visible character of Morgan. (GA)

Several critics have recently argued that Sir Gawain and The Green Knight deliberately presents a threat to the proper Christian chivalric and masculine subject Gawain in order to resecure conventional gender boundaries and normative ideals. In so doing, what holds is the naturalization of a heterosexual matrix formed by the interlinking of sex-gender-desire and the erasure of a potential for a same sex desire that must precede heterosexuality. Homosexual desire, fearfully written out of heterosexual performance, is, nevertheless, an integral part of the latter's construction. All heterosexual norms, and especially those so insistently produced by the chivalric frame of this text, remain 'haunted by phenomena that have been marked as other to them.'1 It is with this in mind that I argue the poem presents a sodomitical potential that exceeds even the hint of homosexual desire between Gawain and the Green Knight/Bertilak that has so far been the focus of critical appraisal.

If SGGK is a conventional heteronormative poem-a normativity I question-then it can only be secured by defining 'hetero' against 'homo' to push the latter outside, a disavowal inherently unstable and predicated on a similar exclusion of all other unnatural or sodomitical categories, however much that disavowal may be tinged with desire. Thus many theorists explore a range of sexual transgressions in this text only then to write them out. I am especially keen to note a recent trend of viewing the poem through the lens of the queer which, nevertheless, insists on restoring conventional binary oppositions. Though she explores a potential homoerotic trace in the poem witnessed between Gawain and Bertilak/the Green Knight (most notably in the hunt scenes), Carolyn Dinshaw argues that heteronormativity is finally reasserted and the more troubling aspects of the text elided. Karma Lochrie agrees that possibility is closed down but offers an equally rich reading of the ways in which the pleasurable 'game of seduction dangerously veers on the dislocations in masculine and heterosexual identity that are crucial to the chivalric/Christian ethos of the poem.' David Boyd views the poem as a 'queer defense mechanism occluding chivalry's homosexual desire' whereby the triangular relation of Gawain, the Lady, and Bertilak demonstrates how, in familiar medieval style, a 'cok' is turned into a 'hen' so that sodomy becomes a displacement tactic projected onto women in order to uphold the status quo. Cohen offers a reading perhaps closer to my own. He suggests that this is a far from normative text for any performance of sexuality is impossible; 'homosexual' cannot exist while heterosexuality is incoherent (150-51).2

In this way a queer reading such as the one I propose here is not simply 'about' sexuality but must also take into account notions of gender. The category of sodomy always defies or exceeds any attempt to contain it. Like Lochrie, I suggest that it includes a range of acts, not least those that might be termed female perversions, in a process that destabilizes both 'natural' heterosexual and 'unnatural' identity.3 Sodomy becomes an unmentionable gender perversion rather than a specifically homosexual one. It marks a crisis whose focus is all sex acts, all gender category disturbances. 'To queer' is, then, a pathology of gender roles and identities. Its reference is not necessarily to sodomitical acts-though these may be implicit or potential-but rather to a category designating the sexual as a site of conflict and struggle. 'To queer' makes visible heterosexual norms in order to reveal that nothing can ever be 'natural,' normative or determinate.4 It works through those dominant referents that seek to map securely a masculine (here a chivalric) order precisely in order to defamiliarize them. …

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