Gower Bibliography

Taboo and Transgression in Gower's Apollonius of Tyre

Donavin, Georgiana. "Taboo and Transgression in Gower's Apollonius of Tyre." In Domestic Violence in Medieval Texts. Ed. Salisbury, Eve and Donavin, Georgiana and Llewelyn Price, Merrall. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002, pp. 94-121.


"Following Aquinas," Donavin writes, "Genius presents us with contradictory origins for the incest and violence taboos. Because these injunctions are essential to the organization of family and society, Gower invites his readers to investigate Genius's contradictions through an independent inquiry into taboos and transgressions in the Confessio Amantis. For the contemporary reader, postmodern psychological and anthropological theories may provide the best methodologies for such an inquiry" (100). The contradictions stem from the attempt to trace the prohibitions of incest and violence to both natural law and to social constraints, which determine, in the one case, what degree of kinship is allowed in marriage and in the other, when killing might in fact be permissible. "Law alters and thus destabilizes 'natural' reactions" (100), leaving no firm basis for either sort of prohibition. Ground for "a consistent interpretation of [Genius's] discourse on taboos and his tales illustrating their transgression" may be found, however, in the "postmodern theories of social and familial structures" that "indicate that the root of incest and violence is the taboo itself and that continual sermonizing, such as Genius's, only exacerbates a problem better mitigated through an unblinking exposure of violations." She continues, "One of the most useful ideas from postmodern psychoanalysis . . . is that the taboo both prohibits and perpetuates activity. In other words, it induces in rebellious personalities the very behavior it condemns. Repudiating incest or violence, the taboo casts the allure of impossibility over the forbidden behavior and instigates a yearning for what cannot be" (101). This sequence is enacted in CA, as Genius consistently "first articulates the law and then illustrates its rupture," providing a clear hint of "the discursive genesis of pro-hibited desire" (102). Donavin's principal example, however, is the tale of "Apollonius of Tyre." Antiochus' "primary aim," she asserts, "is to commit a crime because it is a crime" (102). Genius demonstrates the "productivity of the incest taboo" (103), moreover, in his own refusal to name Antiochus' crime explicitly, in contrast to his clear statements on the nature of the offense preceding the tale. "The oblique vocabulary surrounding incest . . . euphemizes the incident and thus enables its recurrence" (103). Similarly, the obliqueness of Antiochus' riddle "ensures continued transgression of the taboo" (104). Antiochus' daughter too experiences an inability to name the offense because of the taboo, symptomatic of "a culture in denial of infractions" (107). ). But while in that respect the poem illustrates the effects of denial, Gower also sets before us Venus, a flagrant example of the offenses that Genius struggles to control. "Venus's libertinism blares amidst the confusion of Genius's statements about taboos; it depicts what is absent in his and Antiochus's vague references to incest and it voices the reality of transgression. Through Venus's character Gower insists that his readers confront the inevitable effect of mere moralizing" and that they "take further steps to mitigate the personal and social harm caused in the violation of the taboos, beginning with the bold admission that infringements often occur" (106). Gower also presents the "ineluctable reversal implied in the incest taboo" (107) in his depiction of the relationships of the other fathers and daughters in "Apollonius of Tyre," as the daughters find their spouses in their attempt to please their fathers, and as Apollonius' slap of Thaise reminds us, "the sentimentalized attraction between father and daughter always plays out in the shadow of rape" (109). Examples of family dysfunction are as common in CA as examples of happy families, Donavin concludes, as Gower "reveals that domestic harm precipitates from the same social principles intended to produce family harmony" (112). [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society: JGN 22.2]

Item Type:Book Section
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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