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

By Gayle Margherita | Go to book overview

3
Women and Riot in the Harley Lyrics

In the previous chapter, I identified the hagiographic text with a lyrical movement whereby the feminine body is sacrificed to the theological metaphor. The Middle English Juliana, like so many medieval saints' legends, can be understood as a purification ritual: man is like God only to the extent that he can dissociate himself from body by linking femininity to the notion of an intractable and irreducible materiality. I also made the rather bold claim that many secular texts are similarly bound to the theological aspect of metaphor, and thus to an essentialist notion of sexual difference that allows woman to stand in for the problematics of origin. In the chapters that follow, I will be exploring this idea further, paying particular attention to courtly discourse, and the extent to which it succeeds in repressing the primal violence of tropological substitution, a violence whereby the feminine body is obliterated ("written out") in a poetic struggle for dialectical resolution or transcendence, a struggle that I am calling lyrical.

A logical point of departure for this interrogation of courtly language is the love lyric itself. Lyric poetry, like autobiography, problematizes the relation between form and affect, figure and voice, or, more generally, inside and outside.1 While traditional readers of the lyric have tended to privilege one of these constituents at the expense of the other, post-structuralist critics such as Paul de Man have emphasized the sense in which the lyrical voice is itself a figure or a trope which ultimately effaces the boundaries upon which hermeneutic closure depends. De Man argues that the figure of prosopopoeia, the lyrical trope par excellence, "gives a face" to inanimate and imperceptible entities, but not without exacting a price. According to de Man, there is a "latent threat that inhabits prosopopoeia, namely that by making the dead speak, the symmetrical structure of the trope implies, by the same token, that the living are struck dumb, frozen in their own death."2 In other words, the effacement of the border between life and death which lyric -- and particularly elegiac lyric -- promises carries with it a potential return to inanimacy and silence.

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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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