Monday, March 23, 2015

Mad Romance: Sir Tristans Gender & Neoplatonic Logos

“I tell you that he had 
suffered such hardships for her ...he was already a madman”

Roman de Tristan

Introduction to English Literature 1 
A Genealogy of Gender and Genre 

In this course, we explore gender and genre through literature produced in and around the early British Isles, from the elegiac poetry of the Anglo Saxons to the Epic poetry of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In this survey of medieval and early modern texts, we trace how forms of narrative were informed by and acted on the construction of concepts of sex and sexuality. We study how debates around nature and nurture, essential and artificial, eternal and mutable came to produce later notions of transgender, queerness, disability, race, and religious difference.


King Mark's Logos

The second section of our course centered around two Chivalric Romances about Knights of Cornwall, the 12th century Roman de Tristan by Beroul and the 13th century Roman de Silence. The movement from an Anglo-Saxon to French language follows cultural changes in and around England after the Norman Conquest. After William the Conquerer invaded England, he launched a census project over all his domain, collected in the Domesday Book. The significance of tomb goes beyond its tactical uses. Suddenly, the disparate land inheritance rights honored by the Anglo-Saxon lords were now nullified, centralizing all property in the kingdom under the sign of the King. Power was located in the center and moved outwards through intermediaries to the peripheries, following the rising theological structure of Neo-Platonism. Structured around a hierarchy of concentric circles, the Norman Neo-Platonic Logos became well represented by one of the conquerer's tools: the castle.

The chief castle of Cornwall is Tintagel, where King Mark sits in the center of power. We began by examining Beroul's Tristan from the point of view of the King's supposed (and humorously faulty) god-eye view. In Neo-Platonism, the greatest of all things is the unified and the unifier. Difference and particularity marks someone as lower in rank of perfection. This may be one explanation why King Mark is such a flat character. He lacks the charisma of Tristan or Yseult because he lacks their madness, their characterizing marks. King Mark marks others as Other, but works to remain above demarkation. He represents an exacts he Law and the Truth - as they would be traditionally defined. When Mark enacts power and information, he does so through intermediaries. The unmoved mover must remain above the fray. Often Mark shows anger and compassion, but even these emotions represent the wider unrest in Cornwall and Tintagel. The characteristic scene with King Mark is sitting in his castle, on his throne, listening to his advisors.

Sitting in the earthly counter-part to the seat of the Neo-Platonic unmoved mover, Mark is far from omniscient and omnipotent, yet is supposed to represent the logos that his castle orders. In Tintagel, there are designated chambers for the King, the Queen, Knights, and Ladies where life is organized according to rules of gender and genus. When rumors of sexual impropriety emerge about his Queen Yseult and nephew Sir Tristan, they center around the male knight breaking the spatial code of the castle that ordered their bodies, entering the lady's chamber at night. When the King orders his hunchback dwarf, Frocin, to spy on the lovers and determine whether or not they are committing treasonous adultery, he perpetuates the securitization of bodies that the castle is designed to enact. Frocin covers Yseult's chamber in a fine dusting of flour after she goes to sleep in order to catch any footprints of men walking in and out. Through the flour, the castle's floors gains the ability to perceive and report the sexual trespasses of the bodies it contains. While Tristan spots the trap and leaps over the flour-covered floor, his strain rips open a wound and pours his blood over the floor. This is significant event represents and sets into motion the unmaking of Tristan's physical, mental, and social integrity at the hands of the state apparatus of King Mark's castle and logos.


Sir Tristan's Madness

The counter-point to King Mark's logos is Sir Tristan's Madness. Tristan's madness is a characteristic feature of his romance that remains throughout iterations of the character from Beroul's 12th century version to Thomas Malory's 15th century Book of Tristan. The story of Tristan's madness is often marked off, as it is with Beroul, as a self-contained scene, and yet it contains all the central themes of his romance as contrast's to King Mark's constancy. Whereas King Mark works towards Neo-Platonic Unity, Sir Tristan points towards 13th century Nominalistic Division (or at very least Realism). Whereas the King is a monotonous presentation of universal kingship, Tristan works to emphasize radical particularity. The King is a conservative force that retains identity and truth, while Tristan is constantly changing his identity and dissembling matter from meaning. If the King's symbol (and weapon) of logos is the castle, then Tristan's symbol (and weapon) of madness is the sword. This sword enacts the work of Ockham's Razor, cutting bodies free from the presumptions of gender and rationality which confine them.

Beroul's Tale of Tristan's Madness exists in a fragment of its own, but continues the theme of ecstatic particularity from other tales. King Mark is always King Mark, but Tristan us also Tantris, a leper, a black knight, and the madman Picous. In most of these versions of himself, Tristan emphasizes the mutability of the body through wounds, open sores, or fragmented mental states. In the process, Tristan changes his clothes, skin, and hair to become his new persona. "He did not want anyone to think he was in his senses," writes Beroul, "so he tore his clothes and scratched his face. He struck any many who crossed his path. He had his fair hair shorn off... he was carrying a staff in hand" (153-154). Madness is not merely a mental characteristic, but involves a whole body transformation. The objects he carries become integral to his being mad. So too when Tristan became a leper, "He wore woollen garments and no shirt. He wore a rough woollen tunis and his shoes were patched. He had made a wide cloak made of coarse wool, which was blackened with smoke... his face was well covered with bumps" (127-129). Disability is embodied through physical differences as well as changes in the vestments of class, from a supposedly sealed body whose mind and body emphasize porousness and dependency. King Mark's powerful masculinity can suppose universality and self-sufficiency, but the leper and the madman bears their vulnerable physical and social bodies to put pressure on the systems that make them particular yet intermeshed in wider networks. Just as a knight is no knight without armor and a horse, so too the madman requires specific material assemblages.

This constant transformation becomes essential to Tristan's being. Just as when becomes a leper but cannot resist wearing his signature sword, Tristan remains himself even when he becomes other, "he had extremely well made arms, hands and feet, and a shapely waist" (157). Yet he is also "not at all like Tristan" as the Queen condemns him. "He is a fine man and you are a wretch. You have taken on a strange task - beggary makes you deceitful" (161). Picous may share similar body parts as Tristan but his use of them is other. The physical transformation coincides with a social transformation. Yet there is more to the condemnation of deceit that a mere classism. Tristan is always Tristan because Tristan is always changing - always deceiving. The primary motivation for many of these changes however are a lack of power. If Tristan was King, like Mark, he could afford to be truthful in traditional manners. But because he lacks power, his beggary makes him deceitful and encourages change not only in his body but in a wide range of social positions. Neo-Platonism is oriented towards the middle and works towards preserving unity, like the walls of a castle, with everything in its proper place. Nominalism, however, like Tristan's sword or Ockham's razor, cuts through the presumptions of embodiment, gender, and class to open up uncharted possibilities for life, love, and truth. Truth is constantly made anew. Truth itself becomes mad(e).


Queen Yseut's Ambiguity

While King Mark sits in the central logos of power and Sir Tristan's madness cuts through presumptions with radical particularity, Queen Yseut finds herself constantly caught between warring powers. While a King and a Knight have the ability to suppose themselves to be self-contained universal or particular bodies, Yseut is rarely ever alone, depending on men (Mark or Tristan) to enact power for her. As a relational being, caught between systems, Yseut is able to play both sides through the power of ambiguity. In terms of Christian metaphysics, Yseut embodies (like the protagonist in Roman de Silence) John Duns Scotus's theory of "thatness" (categorical relations structuring power dynamics between like beings) and "thisness" (the ever changing specific conditions that break off to create an alternative logos). While Tristan acts like a sword that cuts and reconstructs his relations between identities with his costume changes, Yseut is more like the fabric of the tunic to which she is regularly compared - at once revealing and veiling, conforming and subverting her liminal position within the Neo-Platonic hierarchy of King Mark.

In "the Tale of Yseut's Ambiguous Oath," Beroul describes how Yseut manipulates King Mark's Neo-Platonic desire to expose the Truth and Sir Tristan's Nominalistic desire to produce new truths by calling for a public declaration of her innocence that will play upon the ambiguity of meaning to present multiple T/truths at once. Specifically, the truths that are competing revolve around the state of Yseut's chastity to King Mark. Previously, Yseut had avoided consummating her marriage by slipping out of bed on her wedding night and having her servant woman, Brangain, take her place, "the unfortunate girls was at first reluctant, but finally acquiesced" (44-45). Here bodies are exchanged, given and withdrawn in a move that would become a trademark of Yseut's ambiguity. When Yseut becomes nervous that her maid would reveal her duplicity, she plots to have her servant killed. Yet when the knights employed to carry out the task ask Brangain why she is sentenced to death, she confesses her own ambiguous truth, "she answered that her only misdeed was to lend Yseut a clean white tunic when Yseut's was soiled" (46). This metaphorically laden confession persuades the knights and the queen to preserve Brangain's life. The servant, like Yseut, know how to use the ambiguity of clothing and language to manipulate truth in ways that at once reveal and conceal bodily states.

When Yseut's mad romance with Tristan is made an accusation of treason to King Mark's laws ordering sex and loyalty, Yseut insists that her trial be staged as a public declaration where royal dignitaries, lords, clergy, and commoners will be present to witness the proceedings. In effect, Yseut transforms a private confession of sin into a public spectacle where she can play upon the metaphorical power of clothes and language to at once reveal and alter the truth. The location chosen for the event is a muddy clearing near the forest, where Tristan is hidden as a leper and Yseut arrives dressed in pure white clothes befitting a queen representing all the cardinal neoplatonic virtues. "The queen was wearing robes of silk brought from Bagdad," writes the narrator, "lined with white ermine. Her cloak and tunic hung down behind her. Her hair fell over her shoulders in a linen headscarf worked with fine gold. She was wearing a gold circlet on her head which showed off her fresh rosy and white coloring" (135). These valuable, precious, and white materials suggest the delicate royal body they enfold. The length of the garments also introduce a problem which Yseut bends to her advantage. Because they drag on the ground behind her, it is improper for her to walk through the mud. Getting off her horse, Yseut calls over the leper (Tristan) and has him carry her to the stage. This contrived situation compels this embarrassing but justifiable humiliation of a mad lower class body under the service of his royal superior. The neoplatonic order is being affirmed on the surface. Yet the event also allows Yseut to speak truthfully and in apparent innocence when she confesses, "I swear that no man ever came between my thighs except the leper who carried me on his back across the ford and my husband, King Mark" (142). Here, as before, Yseut uses clothes and words to at once speak a truth which is demanded by the King and will be safely received because of other truths it obfuscates and reconstructs. Yseut is presented as white, chaste, and pure by contrasting with Tristan's dirty, dark, and diseased costume. Yet by playing with these public appearances, Yseut is able to arrange events to acknowledge a sexual relationship with Tristan that becomes recast as the benign service of a lower member of society to a higher. "That" category of divine and court law is fulfilled to the letter, while the meaning of "that" letter is made ambiguous so as to serve the needs of "this" circumstance.

More on Chivalric Romance
coming soon...

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