Gower Bibliography

Medieval Venuses and Cupids: Sexuality, Hermeneutics, and English Poetry

Tinkle, Theresa Lynn. "Medieval Venuses and Cupids: Sexuality, Hermeneutics, and English Poetry." Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996

Review

Chapter 7 of this important new study is devoted to CA. Tinkle places herself among those who have discerned in Gower's poem a formal and thematic multiplicity that deliberately juxtaposes a variety of interpretive perspectives without offering a precise resolution among them. By placing the lover's complaint within a penitential frame, Gower emphasizes both the similarities and the differences between amatory and pastoral discourses, and "accentuates the heterogeneity apparent in late medieval discussions of sexuality" (p. 179). On pages 180-83 Tinkle gives a good brief statement of an increasingly common view of Gower's strategy in deploying Amans, a glossator, and the author of the Latin epigrams alongside Genius, who himself adopts different positions according to need and circumstance. Rather than seeing Genius himself as merely inept, she points out that precedent both for his shifting moral standards and for his occasional reductiveness can be found among other medieval mythographers. CA differs from its predecessors in the commentary tradition by its greater valorisation of narrative and by Gower's foregrounding of the disjunction between narrative and Genius' interpretation, which forces a recognition of the limitations of the conventional authoritative tradition of moralizing commentaries. The disparity between tale and lesson offers another instance of the "multiplication of authorities and voices" in the poem, which "forcefully argues against the possibility of any single, unquestionably authoritative model of interpretation" (p. 182). Tinkle's principal interest is in Gower's use of the tradition of mythographic hermeneutics within this frame. She traces two general patterns. In the first, conventional medieval mythography is given a certain limited authority. Amans, the conventional literary lover, has deified his own desires by projecting them onto the figures of Venus and Cupid; guilty of idolatry, he "has fallen into the pseudo-pagan error of divinizing natural forces and humans" (p. 179). "Genius corrects him by means of familiar mythographic explanations that demystify sexuality and its supposedly divine representatives" (pp. 179-80), most explicitly in Book 5, where he offers a conventional historical explanation of Venus and Cupid, and in Book 7, where he turns to astrology to disclose their natural origins. Rational, Christian arguments against ancient pagan religion are used as a way of counteracting the neo-paganism of a medieval lover. But consistent with his refusal to grant final authoritative status to any discourse, Gower also declines to privilege any single mythographic explanation, instead deliberately juxtaposing irreconcilable ways of understanding ancient myths in such a way as to encourage meditation on the relations among them, and to reveal them as the products of separate, interested, individual points of view. His challenge to the authority of the astrological explanation in Book 7 is particularly clear, in the shifting role that Genius attributes to Nectanabus, first of all, and in the conflicts he describes among astrologers, divines, and philosophers over the potency of the will. Genius argues both the irresistibility of the law of nature and the need for reason to govern the flesh, but his statements on the supposed priority of reason turn out to be equivocal and suggest the "predetermined failure of self-governance" (p. 192). His notion of natural law has numerous ambiguities too, represented in the many different manifestation of Venus (p. 190). Gower thus depicts both astrology and natural law as "products of historical human activity," and like Chaucer, Gower "makes visible the culturally invisible ideological bent of science and nature" (p. 189). Even in the final scene, of Amans' "healing," Gower "develops a poetry of figurative ambiguities rather than an argument" (p. 193). "With Venus and Cupid," Tinkle concludes, "Gower exploits the multiplicity of traditions — literary amatory conventions, historicizing and astrologizing hermeneutics, natural law — so as to remake their meanings. . . . Within the poem, all the diverse traditions form an integrated whole, within which each convention, each discourse, each perspective enters into endlessly fascinating interplay with the others. The poem does not offer a single meaning but, rather, engaging invitations to reflect on the perspectives that create meaning and on the discourses that construct sexualities. We can of course resist the poem and select a single discourse (penitential, for instance) through which to read it. To the extent that humans tend to be uncomfortable with unresolved ambiguities, the text certainly invites this readerly activity. We might nevertheless choose simply to respect Gower's design, which calls into question the relationships between human wisdom and cosmic orders, between mind and body, between theological and scientific perspectives, without advancing the sure answers of a hegemonic discourse." The value of Tinkle's work for the study of Gower extends far beyond this challenging interpretation of CA. The opening chapters of her book contain a brilliant survey of the medieval mythographic tradition, in which she argues against the pervasive, naively historicist reading of such authors as Augustine, Fulgentius, Isidore, Alberic, and Bersuire in search of "transparent, immediately accessible meanings" (p. 211) that can be used for the explication of other, more "belletristic" texts; and against the corollary and equally common procedure of "torturing all medieval discourses until they confess the same truth" (p. 43). One must read her analyses for the evidence she presents that each of these authors "advances specific ideologies of sexuality" (p. 31), and that "there is no universal value, mythographic or ecclesiastical, to which we can refer for a fixed understanding of all medieval Venuses and Cupids" (p. 43). She disposes forever (one hopes) of the notion that all medieval authors recognized just two Venuses, the concupiscent one and the charitable one; and in dismissing the entire notion of a fixed value for either Venus or Cupid, she forces our attention upon individual texts. One discovers some unexpected sources for some of the ideas that show up in CA (see, for instance, her discussion of Fulgentius on page 56); but more importantly, Tinkle has opened up the study of the poem with her insistence that each author makes his own contribution to the medieval discussion of sexuality. Gower too can be allowed to have his own views on morality and sexuality, even if they are not precisely like Augustine's, and even if they are not quite as indeterminate as Tinkle herself asserts. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 16.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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