Gower Bibliography

Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy

Lochrie, Karma. "Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy." Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999 ISBN 0812234731

Review

Lochrie's discussion of CA – headed "Confessio Amantis and the Limits of Heterosexuality" – is the final section of her book on the uses of secrecy in the Middle Ages and stands as the conclusion of her final chapter on "Sodomy and Other Female Perversions." Both book and chapter pursue very broad agendas. For an overview of the book's complex argument see the review by Sarah Beckwith in SAC 22 (2000): 503-7. The chapter is primarily concerned with the construction of gender and sexuality both in the Middle Ages and in our own time, particularly of normative heterosexuality and its perceived opposites. Lochrie works to expose the incoherence of western heteronormative ideologies, and this is where Gower fits in. She makes the most of the many disjunctions between narrative and morality that others have detected in CA in order to argue the instability of the entire framework upon which the poem's morality is based. In particular, she focuses on the contradictions in Gower's ideology of the "natural" and the "unnatural," with what she sees as the consequent regular eruption of the perverse into what is presented as normative natural love. The contradictions begin, of course, with the opening epigram of Book 1 and continue in Genius' attempts to label and categorize the incestuous relations of Canace and Machaire and of Antiochus and his daughter. The category of the natural itself is revealed to be "incoherent, contradictory, and discontinuous," she concludes (p. 209) – she evidently does not consider "paradoxical" – and a token of the incoherencies of Gower's ideology as a whole. She examines particular examples: in Book 4, the tales of sloth in love result in a reversal of gender roles which is corrected to some extent in the tale of Pygmaleon, but not before they have also produced a denial of Genius' oft repeated declarations of the irresistible force of love. In the same book, Iphis and Iante's relationship renders the role of Nature even more confusing than the tales of incest do, and in Book 5, "Achilles and Deidamia," in which Achilles impregnates Deidamia while still posing as a girl and is restored to his proper masculinity only by the call to arm himself for battle, further problematizes normative gender roles. Other tales in Book 5 trivialize crimes against women. The disjunction between tale and morality, she finds, is also reflected in the poem's conclusion, where Amans' forced abandonment of love renders virtually pointless all of the previous instruction. The description of the division of the world in the Prologue – modeled as it is upon divisions inherent in Nature – suggests, moreover, the impossibility of the moral stability that Amans is told to seek as Venus dismisses him at the end. In conclusion, she writes, "The confusion of natural categories throughout the work and the misfitting of theological categories of sins to the subject of courtly love point to problems in both, regardless of Gower's intentions. . . . Heterosexual love in its idealized form as courtly love both contains the perverse and is already perverted into those ‘unnatural' forms that nature seems to permit, including incest, same-sex love, rape, and self-love. The bland moralizing that glosses over these blatant perversions of medieval gender and sexual ideology only calls attention to the problem. . . . What is useful is the way in which Genius's instruction exposes the perverse within the normative and the very instability of the normative itself" (223). But "For all its perversions, Gower's text is not finally subversive" (224). "The perversion that is heterosexual, courtly love as it has been codified in the Confessio clearly serves the narrative of masculine chivalric heroism . . . . Because the perverse functions to authorize vital cultural myths and ideals, such as those of love and masculine heroine, it is not only implicated in those ideals but it is essential to them" (earlier on the same page). [PN. Copyright by the John Gower Society. JGN 20.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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