Misogyny As Literature
The relation between vision—the seduction of a gaze—and the erotic lies at the source both of an idealization of women in literary texts and a corresponding antifeminism. For if a look engenders desire, desire, in turn, forecloses all future possibility of seeing. This is true not only for the church fathers but for the classic misogynists of the High Middle Ages as well. Love, for Andreas Capellanus, the architect of courtly and indeed of Western romantic love, represents "a certain inbred suffering caused by sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, causing desire for embrace." And yet love, identified with woman and the senses, is also synonymous with illusion, which makes it the cornerstone of the discourse of misogyny. As we shall see by way of conclusion, it is the equation of women with the illusory that serves to identify the misogynistic with the literary.
Mathieu, the antiheroic narrator of the Lamentations , laments less because he
has married a woman who has been married before ("Le plus chetif de tous clamés / Pour ce que je suy bigamé" [I am called the most unfortunate because I am bigamous; book 1, lines 1074–75]) than because his intellectual functions have been troubled by a gaze:
Je me plaing, car par la veüe
Fu ma science deceüe.
Beauté par ma l'uel mon cuer navra,
Dont jamais jour repos n'avra. . . .
Las! povre moy, quant tant amay,
Que par amours me bigamay.
[I complain, for by vision was my knowledge deceived. Beauty wounded my heart through my eye, and because of which I will never be at peace. . . . Alas! poor me, when I loved so much that by love I became bigamous; book 1, lines 647–58.]
Beauty, however, has turned to its opposite. The difference between a happy former state and the present state of bigamous torture is a difference produced by the seductions of vision ("Je fuy seduis et afollés / Par doulx regars, par beau langage" [I was seduced and maddened by sweet looks, by beautiful language; book 1, lines 570–71]) that now has turned to its opposite: "Mon impotence est anoncie" (My impotence is made manifest; book 1, line 1349). It is impossible, in fact, to tell if it is a loss of beauty that has diminished desire or diminished desire that has troubled perception—or rather, whether it was or was not a trouble of perception that produced desire in the first place. For vision is certainly at stake in Mathieu's seduction:
Mieulx me venist mes yeux bander
Au jour que premier l'avisay
Et que sa beauté tant prisay
Et son doulx viaire angelique
Dessoubs la fame sophistique.
[I would have done better to shield my eyes the day I first saw her and so esteemed her beauty and her sweet angelic face covering sophisticated woman; book 1, lines 626–30.]
Here the connection is established between bigamy, seduction, and sophistication. Woman, feminine or sophisticated beauty, is that which seduces not only because it appeals to the senses but because it corrupts them, one by one:
Mes cinq sens sont mortifiiés
Mes yeuls ne peuent regarder. . . .
Je ne puis a goust savourer
Ne je ne puis rien odourer,
Si ne sçay taster de mes mains
Tant com je souloie, mais mains,
Et de mes oreilles n'oy goute.
[My five senses are mortified, my eyes cannot see. . . . I cannot taste or smell anything, nor can I feel anything with my hands as I used to be able, but less; and my ears don't hear a thing; book 1, lines 1510–16.]
Thus we encounter a familiar paradox: before marriage the senses are seduced and distorted by desire, yet after marriage they are distorted by abuse, or by the tears of lamentation that distort vision. There is, then, no moment at which woman does not trouble vision, distort and destroy the senses. This is because the seducing sophistication of woman is that of illusion itself; she is by definition not only sophisticated (e.g., dirty, illusory) but is posited as that which exists in distinction to reason. If, as Mathieu admits, "By her sight my knowledge [science ] was troubled," it is because woman is conceived as that which escapes logic. Rather, she is portrayed as a kind of false logic, the sophism that vanquishes both grammar and logic: "En ce fu grammaire traïe / Et logique moult esbaïe" (In this was grammar betrayed and logic greatly confounded; book 1, lines 1105–6). Together grammar and logic constitute within the medieval language arts the trivium , the sciences of the true, respectively of rectitude of expression and of correct propositions. Woman, however, is posited as the opposite of the truth: "Femme de verité n'a cure" (Woman cares not at all for truth; book 1, line 966). More precisely, she becomes, in the misogynistic thinking of the High Middle Ages, associated with the third element of the trivium —rhetoric, the art of persuasion that, by the thirteenth century, was synonymous with poetics. Woman is figured as the sophist, the dissimulator ("Faindre et dissimuler convient" ([To feign and trick comes naturally; book 1, line 1024]), the seducer with false arguments or subtlety: "Oultre les tençons et les limes / Par cinq manieres de sophismes / La femme meine l'omme a methe" (In addition to arguments and quarrels woman brings man to his end with five kinds of sophism"; book 1, lines 843–45). Here just before ending I would like to stop for a moment on the word methe , which from Latin meta, metae means "a mark or boundary, an end, period, or turning point." But the resonance of methodium , "a witty conceit, jest, or joke," is also there, as is that of metus , "fear." Moreover, the careful reader, aware of the extent to which medieval vernacular poets loved word play, cannot help but recognize in methe a part of the poet's name—Mathieu or Matheolus brought by woman to his end. But why not all four—end, joke, fear, and the name of the poet? After all, if woman is by definition the sign of an always present bigamy, she is also the very figure of ambiguity ("figure d'amphibolie"; book 1, line 1144): the one who through the ruse that is her power works against logic and grammar (methodice ) to trouble the senses with sophisms: "Avec la langue est la veüe / Par le sophisme deceüe" (book 1, lines 903–4).
Here we have come full circle, since the alliance of women with rhetoric against grammar and logic places her on the side of the poet, whose interference with univocal meaning is equated with noise—noise, furthermore, specifically related to the defining secondariness with which we began:
Pourquoy sont femmes plus noiseuses,
Plaines de paroles oiseuses
Et plus jangleuses que les hommes?
Car elles sont d'os et nous sommes
Fais de terre en nostre personne:
L'os plus haut que la terre sonne.
[Why are women more noisy, full of foolish words, and more garrulous than men? Because they are made of bones and our persons are made of clay: bones rattle louder than earth; book 2, lines 241–46.]
More than mere encumbering ambiguity, woman is defined, above all, as embodying the spirit of contradiction: "Je ne sçai de chose passé / Ne du temps present rien retraire / Qu'elle ne die le contraire" (I know how to say nothing, past or present, that she does not say the opposite; book 1, lines 1300—1302). As man's copy or image, his double, she doubles perniciously everything he says: "Elle est de trop parler isnelle / Et en parlant a double ment, / Pourquoy je peris doublement" (She is too quick to speak; and in speaking she lies twice, by which I perish doubly; book 1, lines 1291–92). Nor is Jehan Le Fèvre's characterization unique. Andreas Capellanus, to cite another prominent example, concurs:
No woman can make you such a firm promise that she will not change her mind about the matter in a few minutes. . . . Woman is by nature a slanderer of other women, greedy, a slave to her belly, inconstant, fickle in her speech . . . a liar, a drunkard, a babbler, no keeper of secrets. . . . Even for a trifle a woman will swear falsely. . . . Every woman is also loud-mouthed. . . . When she is with other women, no one of them will give the others a chance to speak, but each always tries to be the one to say whatever is to be said and to keep on talking longer than the rest; and neither her tongue nor her spirit ever gets tired out by talking. . . . A woman will boldly contradict everything you say.
Neither the portrayal of woman as endless garrulousness nor as contradiction would be so significant if it were not for the defining rhetorical context of all misogynistic literature, which seeks to dissuade from marriage and to do so precisely by speaking, often at great length. How, it may be asked, does the desire of women to speak differ from that of the writer who, like Walter Map, author of the "Dissuasion of Valerius to Rufinus the Philosopher That He Should Not Take a Wife," repeats in the space of only two pages: "I am forbidden to speak, and I cannot keep silence. . . . So I am forbidden to speak—I the prophet of truth. . . . I cannot keep silence. . . . I cannot keep silence . . . therefore I cannot keep silence. . . . I am forbidden to speak. . . . Therefore I cannot keep silence. . . . I
am forbidden to speak. . . . You should make allowance for me who, in the impatience of my affection, cannot keep silence."
If a woman is defined as verbal transgression, indiscretion, and contradiction, then Walter Map, indeed any writer, can only be defined as a woman; and the discourse of misogyny then becomes a plaint against the self or against writing itself. For Walter is no less fickle than Andreas accuses all women of being: "No woman ever makes up her mind so firmly on any subject that she will not quickly change it on a little persuading from anyone. A woman is like melting wax, which is always ready to take a new form and to receive the impress of anyone's seal." And the very works that bemoan the instability of women are attempts to achieve what they denounce; they perform what in their own terms is the otherness of which hatred of the sexual other is the thematic analogue. Put another way, the author seeks to do to his interlocutor—whether the anonymous Walter or Rufinus—precisely that of which he accuses women: to deceive with words, to provoke contradiction, and to seduce with what is defined as the essence of the feminine: the ruses of rhetoric. The misogynistic writer uses rhetoric as a means of renouncing it, and, by extension, woman; he "cheats," in the phrase of Andreas, "one trick with another" (Courtly Love , 205). This, perhaps, is the greatest ruse of all, for the confession of contradiction, which Walter Map equates with "the goodwill of the writer and the honesty of the written page" (De nugis , 164), is no less of an aporia than Andreas's concluding advice:
Now this doctrine of ours, which we have put into this little book for you, will if carefully and faithfully examined seem to present two different points of view. In the first part . . . we set down completely, one point after another, the art of love. . . . In the latter part of the book . . . we added something about the rejection of love.
Thus the book is all that it claims to reject: contradiction, deceit, seduction, a source of mischief and of mistrust. "We know that everything a woman says is said with the intention of deceiving, because she always has one thing in her heart and another on her lips," Andreas inveighs in a phrase whose unreadability warns against nothing so much as itself (Courtly Love , 204).
This is a way of suggesting, by way of conclusion, that the reader's own strategy can only be one of mistrust of the writer and of the text—which returns us to the problem of reading. How do we distinguish, finally, persuasion from dissuasion? How do we mark the difference, for example, between Andreas's prescription, "If you want to get a woman to do anything, you can get her to do it by ordering her to do the opposite" (Courtly Love , 206), and the opening injunction to the reader, "Friend Walter": "Read this little book, then, not as one seeking to take up the life of the lover, but that, invigorated by the theory and trained to excite the minds of women to love, you may, by refraining from so doing, win an eternal recompense" (Courtly Love , 187). There is no way of determining with certainty Andreas's intent—whether to urge to convince or desist—and ultimately
whether he wants us to take literally the warning against love or ourselves to be seduced by the letter. He, and any other author for that matter, performs that which he denounces Eve for having done—seduces, in the words of Tertullian, "by mere words," disobeys his own injunctions. The danger of woman, according to this reading of the phenomenon of misogyny, is that of literature itself.