The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature

By Gayle Margherita | Go to book overview

imperative that subtends Marxist literary theory.3 Similarly, David Aers has drawn on Marxist economic theory in attempting to create a social context for medieval texts, distancing himself in the process both from "poststructuralizing assertions" that deny the existence of extralinguistic reality and from "literary scholarship," which "tends to ignore the material foundations of medieval culture."4 For both scholars, history and materiality are foundational and primary, the thingly origin from which language and literature emerge, and to which the rigorous scholar must return them. This romance of the origin pits "history" against "literariness" in a dialectical struggle whose synthetic resolution holds out the promise of return and of moving not, as Hegel would have it, to the realm of Spirit that is the end of History, but rather to the equally transcendent space that exists outside language: the end, if you will, of literature.

If we wish to move beyond this reductive and unadventurous oppositional frame, it seems to me that we must begin to engage more honestly with the issues and challenges posed by a post-structuralism that seeks to unsettle the notions of archē and telos that underwrite most historicisms, and to restore the historicity to history. Far from foreclosing the possibility of history, deconstruction and psychoanalysis offer frameworks whereby we might begin to read and write different kinds of histories -- to interrogate, for example, the fantasmatic construction of fascism, the connection between pathology and theology in mystical texts, the ways in which fantasy and reality are mutually implicated at precise moments of historical trauma or crisis. Perhaps more important, these theoretical interventions pose the question of history in an ethical sense. What is the at stake in the notion of an extralinguistic origin, when our understanding of origins is so dependent on assumptions about gender, race, and class? How do literary conventions and genres encode the "drama of the origin" in ways that sustain and/or subvert the metaphysical presuppositions and psychic fantasies that in turn sustain patriarchal, nationalist, and aristocratic hegemony? How does the public/private opposition inform what "counts" as history? To what extent, in short, does our historical memory depend on a strategic "forgetting" of the conditions of historical meaning?

In his case history of the Wolf Man, Freud asserted that "dreams are another kind of remembering." In this book, I will make a similar claim: literature is another kind of history. As the condensations and displacements of the dream-work enable us to both remember and forget psychic trauma, so the tropes that constitute "literature" are the culturally-specific traces of histories remembered and forgotten, of a past that is uncannily

-xi-

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The Romance of Origins: Language and Sexual Difference in Middle English Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents vii
  • Preface ix
  • Acknowledgments xv
  • Introduction: the Psychic Life of the Past 1
  • 1. Margery Kempe and the Pathology of Writing 15
  • 2. Body and Metaphor in the Middle English Juliana 43
  • 3 - Women and Riot in the Harley Lyrics 62
  • 4. Originary Fantasies and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess 82
  • 5. Historicity, Femininity, and Chaucer's Troilus 100
  • 6. Father Aeneas or Morgan the Goddess 129
  • Afterword: the Medieval Thing 153
  • Appendix 163
  • Notes 179
  • Bibliography 203
  • Index 211
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