In the paper I'm posting below, things took a bit of a turn when writing. The panel I was on was the Neighbor/stranger in medieval romance, and I initially thought I'd write on the intersection of the neighbor and the monstrous, which I did do, but I ended up wanting to focus more on temporality. As Carolyn Dinshaw discussed in her wonderful plenary at NCS, we're surrounded by all kinds of time. We often encounter different times when we go to a new place, such as Portland where the Dream of the 90's is very much alive. But, I want to think through further how we encounter different times when we confront other people, especially someone in the position of Neighbor.
I also want to quickly note that, in my discussion of three Gawain romances, I treat the texts more or less as being interchangeable in terms of evidence. I'm very aware that I'm flattening out the differences here, and as I work this project further, I want to consider the distinctions to be made between how these texts engage with the neighbor-encounter. (The loathly lady deserves her own paper, for example.)
“Monsters and Other Neighbors: The Stranger Knight in Medieval Romance”
“The neighbor (Nebenmensch) as the Thing means that, beneath the neighbor as my semblant, my mirror image, there always lurks the unfathomable abyss of radical Otherness, of a monstrous Thing that cannot be ‘gentrified.’” (Slavoj Žižek, “The Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence” 143)
“Being near, nigh, on the brink, is a matter of time as well as space, the time of the Nebenmensch.” (L. O. Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love 191)
One of the most familiar and recurring tropes in medieval romance, especially the ones that cluster around Sir Gawain, is that of the stranger knight who offers a challenge to the Arthurian court, and after some adventure or trial by combat, is welcomed or re-integrated into the communal fold. As a genre, medieval romance conjures the fantasy of the domesticated stranger, offering a figure that at first seems to undermine political stability but ultimately ends up reinforcing bonds of fellowship. The inevitable conversion of the threatening other also suggests a teleology to the genre—we start with the excluded and end with inclusion. One of the most intriguing things about this stranger knight, however, is that he is often someone who should be part of the political order but has been somehow excluded, or his authentic identity as a Christian knight has been obscured by some sorcery. He is not, strictly speaking, a great enemy of King or country. He turns out to be a fellow knight, if a disenfranchised one, or he is sometimes even more intimate—family. Instead of affirming social bonds, the knightly challenger fluctuates between excluded and included with alarming ease, not necessarily following a linear development. In doing so, the intruder-turned-fellow exemplifies the figure of the Neighbor, especially as that figure is interrogated by Slavoj Žižek and Kenneth Reinhard. In this essay, I argue that the encounter with the neighbor is a defining feature of the romance, and that the eventfulness of this encounter haunts and distorts the comforting temporality of inclusion. While there are many variations of the stranger-knight, I’m going to refer to three today --The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle, The Turke and Sir Gawain, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Before turning to the medieval texts, however, let me pause to offer just a few words on the concept of the neighbor. George Edmonson, in his excellent book The Neighboring Text, offers the following gloss on the position of the Neighbor:
Located somewhere between familiarity and anonymity, between the family unit and the polis, the neighbor stands as that intimate other whose recognition we crave, and with whom we can partially identify, but who also displays a strange, potentially hostile desire—a death drive—that uncannily threatens the dream of community. There is an amorphous quality to the neighbor, a kind of liminality, that fundamentally confuses our approach to the neighbor both in theory and in practice. The neighbor is both intimate and strange, both proximate and remote, both reassuring and threatening; he rattles us even as he ratifies us. (Edmondson 10)
The neighbor occupies a zone of indeterminacy between friend and enemy, creating community even as it attests to the impossibility of that community. Reinhard traces this “intimate and strange” neighbor to Freud’s reflections on the Nebenmensch, that is, the “next-man.” But who, exactly, is this neighbor as nebenmensch? Is it an issue of proximity only or can we identify it through some other means? Reinhard writes
To the extent that the Nebenmensch is the "next person," merely contiguous with the subject and its maternal source of both pleasure and unpleasure, it represents any and every other person to whom the subject is bound in a relationship of competitive similarity…. But insofar as the Nebenmensch is always this next person, always embodied in a particular person who fills the arbitrary place of the neighbor, it materializes an uncanniness within the social relationship, an enjoyment that resists sympathetic identification and "understanding," linking the self and other instead in a bond of mutual aggression. (“Toward a Political Theology of the Neighbor” 32)
In identifying the stranger-knight as neighbor, I want to emphasize the “uncanniness” he introduces to communal relationships, being at once familiar and foreign.
It is no surprise, then, that we would find the neighbor in the romance since that genre often offers us a meditation on communal bonds, on inclusion and exclusion. Frederic Jameson defines the romance against the chanson de geste, which, as he puts it, perpetuated the “older positional notion of good and evil.” In contrast, the romance provides
a symbolic answer to the perplexing question of how my enemy can be thought of as being evil (that is, as other than myself and marked by some absolute difference), when what is responsible for his being so characterized is quite simply the identity of his own conduct with mine…. (Jameson, The Political Unconscious 118)
Friend and enemy, good and evil, begin to collapse here. The enemy becomes a friend through the recognition of some similarity, some identity. In this recognition of identity over difference, the romance performs a narrative of inclusion as it neutralizes the otherness of the stranger. The Turke and Sir Gawain provides an illustrative example of such a narrative. In the text, King Arthur and his knights are sitting down to a feast when the Turk suddenly enters. (The entry of the stranger in these narratives is always a surprise and unannounced.) The Turk makes a challenge, in this case, to trade blows, and, as is often the case, Gawain enters into an agreement with the stranger. Gawain delivers his blow, but the Turk delays his. The return blow is deferred, and the two have many adventures. In the end, the Turk asks to be beheaded – but in place of a gruesome death, his curse is broken and he becomes a Christian knight, his authentic self. The text would seem to eliminate any “uncanniness”, making us all friends rather than neighbors. However, these texts do not so easily abandon the liminality of the neighbor as the narratives would suggest.
For example, the stranger in The Wedding begins and ends as a liminal figure. The text starts with King Arthur out on his own hunting, having told his men to wait for him. Alone in the woods, he is then accosted by a threatening figure, first identified by the narrator as a “quaynt grome”, and who we later find out is named Sir Gromer Somer Joure. Sir Gromer, it turns out, is so angry because Arthur gave his lands to Sir Gawain. Rather than exact his revenge right there in the wood, however, Sir Gromer imposes a seemingly impossible task – find out what women want, and report back in twelve months with the answer.
I want to focus, for a moment, though, on his introduction to the narrative. He is identified as a knight, but his name points to a position outside of chivalric identity – to the wildness of midsummer and of pagan rites. He is a force of anarchy that should be held in strict contrast to the order that Arthur imposes. Yet still, he is a knight, and is identified as such by Arthur himself:
"Syr Knyghte, whate is thy name with honour?"
"Syr Kyng," he sayd, "Gromer Somer Joure,
I telle the nowe with ryghte."
"A, Sir Gromer Somer, bethynk the welle;
To sle me here honour getyst thou no delle.
Bethynk the thou artt a knyghte:
Yf thou sle me nowe in thys case,
Alle knyghtes wolle refuse the in every place;
That shame shalle nevere the froo.
Lett be thy wylle and folowe wytt
And that is amys I shalle amend itt,
And thou wolt, or that I goo." (61-72)
Arthur is the first to call him “Syr Knyghte,” but then immediately goes on to negate that identity. He warns Sir Gromer that if he takes his revenge, then no knight will recognize him as a fellow. The King recognizes yet undercuts his similarity nearly simultaneously. To encounter Sir Gromer is to encounter the intimate other of the neighbor. He fluctuates between fremde (stranger) and friend, without ever settling one just one subject-position. Interestingly, he warns Arthur to bring neither with him when the twelve months is up. It is to be a neighbor-encounter only.
These figures, such as Sir Gromer, the Turk, or the Green Knight often share a trait that is fundamental, here, to the neighborly – they bear some marker of the monstrous. Sir Gromer is a type of the wild man, and the Green Knight seems both perfectly courtly but also “half-etayn”, that is half-giant. And the Turk’s potentially racial and religious difference is often, in the Middle Ages, a vehicle for the monstrous. Žižek, in his “Neighbors and Other Monsters,” returns repeatedly to the problem of the inherent ontological monstrosity of the Neighbor, something that I would suggest is made explicit in many medieval romances. The category of the monstrous, like the neighbor, is to be found in between two positions, fully inhabiting neither. For Žižek, the inhuman is essential to the human, not separate from it. He defines inhuman as follows:
"He is not human" is not the same as "he is inhuman." "He is not human" means simply that he is external to humanity, animal or divine, while "he is inhuman" means something thoroughly different, namely, that he is neither simply human nor simply inhuman, but marked by a terrifying excess which, although it negates what we understand as "humanity," is inherent to being-human. (Žižek 159-160)
This terrifying excess is the presence of das Ding, the tramautic kernel of the Real that we find in the neighbor, and which reflects us at our must human. For figures of the inhuman, Žižek looks to both the Muselmann, the “living dead” of the concentration camps and also to the figure of Odradek in Kafka’s “Cares of a Family Man.” Odradek is a curious creature which looks like a “flat, star-shaped spool for thread”, and is made up of broken-off bits of thread, but yet still retains some human-like qualities, such as the ability to stand upright and to speak. Significantly, when questioned about where it lives, Odradek would reply “No fixed abode.” Instead, it occupies liminal spaces such as stairwells and lobbies. In Odradek, Žižek sees not just the neighbor, but jouissance embodied: “jouissance is that which we cannot ever attain and that which we cannot ever get rid of.
While the stranger-knight is not as curious a figure as Odradek, it too remains a liminal one, and the narrative of inclusion that the romance seeks to perform is, often, an empty-handed exercise. In The Wedding, when Sir Gromer and Arthur meet at the appointed time, they part as enemies. Gromer therefore maintains his wildness and divided self. This stands in contrast to the usual confrontation with the stranger that ends in conversion. Not all hope is lost just yet, though. The inclusive trope here has shifted, instead, to Sir Gromer’s sister, Dame Ragnelle, the famous loathly lady. Most of you are, I am sure, familiar with the story of the loathly lady – a hideous hag, monstrous in her ugliness, becomes beautiful. In this case her change comes about because Gawain, her new husband, grants her sovereignty—that thing that all women want. But even though Sir Gromer seems to be designated as “enemy” for a while, moving him from intimate other to just simply other, Ragnelle’s marriage to Gawain brings Sir Gromer into the Arthurian family, though I am sure he is not thrilled by these new family connections.
The comfort that the conversion of the loathly lady into beautiful wife brings is itself problematic, however. While Ragnelle may have become thoroughly familiar and lady-like, she dies in five years. And despite the sentiment that it “grevid Gawen alle his lyfe,” it is difficult not to see this as being similar to a convention of episodic television—a character that would seem to introduce radical change for a narrative is suddenly written out, often by an untimely death. (We can call this the logic of the guest star.) Gawain, then, can now go on to be the amorous hero of further narratives. And with almost her last breath, Dame Ragnelle tries to bring further harmony—isn’t this, after all, what a beautiful lady does?
She prayd the Kyng for his gentilnes,
"To be good lord to Sir Gromer, iwysse,
Of that to you he hathe offendyd."
"Yes, Lady, that shalle I nowe for your sake,
For I wott welle he may nott amendes make;
He dyd to me fulle unhend."
Nowe for to make you a short conclusyon,
I cast me for to make an end fulle sone
Of this gentylle Lady.
She lyvyd with Sir Gawen butt yerys five;
That grevid Gawen alle his lyfe,
I telle you securly. (811-822)
Arthur agrees, bringing Sir Gromer further into the fold, but he again undercuts this by noting Gromer’s continuing unknightly behavior. The wildness is still present.
What I’m looking to draw out here is that the otherness, the monstrosity of the stranger-knight as neighbor is never conjured away. Like the embodied jouissance of Odradek, we can not quite fully identify with it nor can we eliminate its difference. This is by no means particular to just The Wedding. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it is revealed that the monstrous knight is actually Bertilak, that most knightly of lords, and further, he is even family through Morgan le Fey. Yet his monstrosity abides as a potentiality thanks to the continuing presence of the monstrous feminine embodied in Morgan. Bertilak is only passing as a comforting familiar presence. Even more alarmingly, in The Turke and Sir Gawain, the beheading of the Turk births none other than Sir Gromer, who will possibly join up with Sir Mordred and Sir Aggravayne in the downfall of the Arthurian order. The inhumanness of these figures is not banished so much as temporarily suspended.
Reinhard notes some of the points of contact between the sovereign’s ability to decide who is inside or outside a political order, along with his ability to suspend that order, and the neighbor which blurs these boundaries. To the sovereign’s ability to decide who is friend or enemy, I would also add as important here the power to exert control over time. An example of this is seen in the King’s declaration that he won’t eat until seeing a marvel. Or we might look to the beginning of The Wedding, when he tells his men
"Hold you stylle, every man,
And I wolle goo myself, yf I can,
With crafte of stalking."
The stranger-knight, however, usurps this power from the sovereign. For example, the Green Knight and Sir Gromer both get to dictate not only what task Arthur or one of his knights has to complete, but also the temporal terms and limits of that task. Similarly, the Turk repeatedly delays the completion of his bargain with Gawain.
The inhumanness of the stranger-knight as neighbor introduces a temporality that suspends, delays, and disturbs what is expected or hoped for. In her chapter on the neighbor in Sacrifice Your Love, Aranye Fradenburg describes the slow poetic timing of the “Prologue” to The Legend of Good Women as “the fantastic pleasure of a fullness of expectation conferred by deferral.” The medieval romance, marked as it is by the presence of the neighbor, continuously raises such a “fullness of expectation” through “deferral.” Gawain never quite gets beheaded, the other doesn’t become identical to me, and the monster is always ready to suddenly make an entrance. In closing, let me return one last time to Odradek. The final line of Kafka’s story is “but the idea that he is likely to survive me I find almost painful.” The inhumanness that lurks in the hearts of the many neighbors of medieval romance will always survive into an indefinite future, their designation as friend or enemy endlessly deferred. As Fradenburg would remind us, “Being near, nigh, on the brink, is a matter of time as well as space, the time of the Nebenmensch.”