Sunday, March 10, 2013

Undeath in the Tween Years: Chaucer & Twilight

"They're gonna clean up your looks 
with all the lies in the books...
They said all teenagers scare the living shit out of me
They could care less as long as someone'll bleed
So darken your clothes or strike a violent pose.
Maybe they will leave you alone, but not me"

Teenagers, MCR

Working in trans, queer, and disability theory in the field of medieval literature, I have found myself compulsively seeking what Eve Sedgwick calls "reparative readings" of rejected persons, narratives, cultures, and even time periods. I have come to firmly believe that a smart reader makes a book smarter. While Twilight has been a public success, it remains an abject or guilty pleasure for many serious academics. In many respects, however, the things that attract readers to Twilight queerly reflect much of the allure of medieval literature; including shared relations to time, conflicts and magical realisms. Pulling Twilight and Medieval-Early Modern Literature together becomes not only a queer project of appropriating from the mainline but a medieval project of messing with the archive. Enjoy!


Tween & Middle Ages

The teen years are not so far behind me that habits that grew up in that time of my life have totally transformed into their young adult version. Conversely, the experience of being a teen is not so enveloping of my day to day experience that I cannot see forests for the trees.

That said, spending my spring break dipping into the popular fiction of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga (conveniently passed the time in which reading it would be significant and I will be able to be more charitable in my reading of the book) and the Prioress's Tale has brought up memories of a perspective that has lost a degree of intensity (although by no means relevancy) in my current circumstances: the experience of occupying a vulnerable position of power.

Living alongside Bella Swan as she began to be courted and dominated by Edward Cullen proved to be far less objectionable than I had anticipated. Asking myself why I am not more offended by the blatant chauvinism and stalker-like behavior of Edward, I came up with the answer, “well, isn’t that how any dom(inant), of any gender, would behave towards their sub(missive)?” Coming from a queer theoretical and subcultural perspective, the particularity of the Bella/Edward story resonated with the S(ub)/D(om) world I knew.

Indeed I'm not the first person to make the connection between the Twilight romance and Sub/Dom culuture, as evidenced by E.L. James, citing it as the inspiration for her book series 50 Shades of Grey.



Indeed, calling it a “resonance” rather than a representation, I feel does more justice to the literature as well as to the readership. Rather than pining down the book’s meaning or making it stand in for all male/female, all heterosexual, all human/non-human, all dom & sub, all x & y relationships allows the book to live and retreat into its own particularity which resists being instilled as an allegory or meta-story. It loses deific power as the universal love-story at the same time as it loses its demonic power as the universal story of patriarchal dominance. 

Instead, via resonance “something that is constituted here resonates with the shock wave emitted by something constituted over there. A body that resonates does so according to its own mode” (the I.C., the Coming Insurrection 12).

The Invisible Committee’s (the I.C.) concept of resonance as a revolutionary mode, functions well as a mode of literary scholarship, because it allows us to bracket the question of direct causal or representative story-telling; i.e. Bella does not submit to Edward because she is a woman and he is a man, or because she is a sub and he is a dom, because she is a human and he is a vampire, because she is a X-ist and he is a Y-ist --- rather, Bella’s submission exists in its own world and may resonate with the experience of a human, submissive woman elsewhere but was not written as a result, as a cause, or any other direct reaction to her experience. 

“[Resonance] is not like a plague or a forest fire --- a linear process which spreads from place to place after an initial spark. It rather takes the shape of a music, whose focal points, though dispersed in time and space, succeed in imposing the rhythm of their own vibrations, always taking on more density” (I.C. 12-13).

Bella (in Twilight), Sub/Dom Culture, the Coming Insurrection, and myself, all resonate together through this reading (as the very form of this reading), in part because we are all concerned about power. Each of us exist as submissive bodies that yearn for dominance or else to become dominant, but experience our position in relation to power as ever under threat, as unstable, inconstant, and contingent.


Teen Vampires

The experience of the Sub, the Teenager, and the Human strike a common chord: here we are regarded as powerful, but always with the permission of something else, there we are outright dominated, and ever in both and between there is a sense that our power might be taken away.

The Dominants, Parents, the Vampire, may give us room to stand with them as equals but the moment that we move counter to their wishes for us, they might insist on their privilege over us to bring us back in line. We have power insofar as other powers abstain from exercising their power and desire over us. The Scholar, like the Doms, the 'Rents, the Vamps, desires the submissive body to be independent but fears that it might run too far away or get into danger, thus putting them beyond our power to feed off their life-blood and affection.

Edward’s hold on Bella, keeping her close and yet resistant to either devour her or make her into a thing equal to and like him (a vampire), evidences this tension. Bella calls Edward out on this treatment: i.e. giving her piggy-back rides (279), watching her while she sleeps (293), dancing with her feet standing on his, telling him that this behavior makes her "feel like I'm five years old" (488). Indeed, it is an extension of Bella’s contingent power with her father, and to the reader, which gives her a life of her own only insofar as they do not insist on pinning her down.


Undead Choirboys

Such resonance moves between texts, harmonizing with the song of the Prioress’s boy in Geoffrey Chaucer's the Canterbury Tales. There, he is given a voice through song, but given only the form, not yet trusted with the meaning of the words (he could not understand Latin, "For he so yong and tendre was of age"). There, he walks through the Jewish quarter of the city to school, on the contingency that they allow him to pass (for a time) unhindered.

The Jewish population too exists in this city in a "Iewerye" (a ghetto), on the contingency that they are not expelled, pay additional taxes, function as the bankers for the city, and generally submit to the dominant Christian overlords (from which the child descends and with which his song resonates). At a moment when the boy passes through the Jewish Quarter, singing his song of the Mother Mary (the Ave Marie and Alma Redemptoris)  a few members of the Jewish population are convinced by an oppositional Satanic spirit to reject the sonic dominance of the child; silencing him with death. In this moment of rupture, the silencing violence against the Jewish people of the ghetto reaches a breaking point, resulting in an another act of violence that spurs on the murders being put to death and even heavier domination of the "Iewerye." Power breeds resistance which can be co-opted (by the city and the narrator) to justify further oppression. Even death is no escape.

Miraculously, the child is brought back to a kind of contingent unlife by the intervention of a parental (Mother Mary) figure, who with the help of an enchanted grain ("[which] she leyde... up-on [his] tonge"), his song continues despite his death. This child’s particularity continues to resonate and exercise power, as a sonic agent of the dominant religion and Mother Mary in particular, with the physically powerful Jewish men/adults, with parents, with other children, with the unliving, with vampires, with teen-agers, with Bella/Edward, and with us.


Un/de(te)r-mined/ Lives

The power of the Prioress’s Tale and the boy’s song is contingent on the reader, but its vulnerable efficacy has persisted in a partially alive/autonomous state as well as in a partially dead, passé, pinned-down tradition of medieval literature. The Text and the boy are both undead vampires in a sense, sucking life-blood from the reader, just as we are drawn to it and bite into it for nourishment. This unlife has thus allowed the boy’s singing dead body to continue on for centuries until it can sit (literally and literar-ily) on the shelf next to Bella and Edward. 

The resonance of vulnerable power-positions and power-plays continues to connect them with my lived experience.

While the particularity of the Prioress’s song-boy and Stephenie Meyer’s teen-vampires are in a sense removed from my current circumstances, I continue to harmonize with their song of feeling uncertain about one’s position in a community, the feeling that one’s autonomy and life are contingent on dominant forces not exercising their power over me, shutting down my song and closing my book. And yet, this resonance reminds me also of all I will never know of the unlife of teens, boys, and vampires. What comes next for such Un/de(te)r-minded Lives?

To quote Twilight: Eclipse, "who the hell knows? This isn't the time to make hard and fast decisions, this is the time to make mistakes... to change your mind and change it again, because nothing is permanent." In other words, Things Transform, and that involves the demands for support in undeterred undetermined lives.


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