Tuesday, May 27, 2014

On Teaching Bisclavret

I originally wrote this for my personal blog, ParaSynchronies, but I've decided to cross-post it here as well.

Like many people I know, I've been reading article after article on the Isla Vista shootings last Friday. When I haven't been reading articles, I've been delving into the heartbreak and poignance of #YesAllWomen. I get like this (I'm certainly not alone). When an event like Isla Vista or Newtown happens, I always seem to have difficulty escaping the event horizon of such senseless tragedy. Well, I wish I could say it was always senseless. There is too much sense (I do not, in any way, mean reason). Rather, there is too much to be read, too many free-floating signifiers of hate and violence that demand to be interrogated, if not interpreted. It's in this state that I finally poked my head out to get back to work prepping Marie de France's "Bisclavret" to teach in a summer British Lit I Survey course.
This text has always struck me as a deeply troubling one. The first time I taught it, I selected this lai because of its werewolf.  I was teaching my first upper-level medieval lit class (in fact, the last such course of its kind I have taught), and I chose as my theme "The Monstrous Middle Ages." A short text about a werewolf seemed like an obvious and perfect choice. For those of you who aren't familiar with the tale, here is a brief summary:
A Lord seems to have a wonderful life --  status, nobility, and a lovely wife; however, he has a secret. For three days a week he disappears into the forest to become a werewolf. His wife, anxious about these frequent disappearances, confronts him and asksHim and him what is going on. She fears that he has a lover on the side (I would add that this is a fairly justifiable fear given the evidence she had) and so she needs to know. At first, he refuses to tell her but after much coaxing he relents. He also reveals, after initial resistance, where he hides his clothes. He runs about naked in the forest, subsisting on whatever prey he can find, but he needs his clothes to once again resume human form. The lady, aghast at this state of affairs, convinces a knight (one who has attempted to woo her) to steal her husband's clothes. In return, she marries the knight. The husband is then trapped in his wolfish form, and is eventually taken in by the King who recognizes the seeming nobility of the animal. The story comes to a climax when the lord sees his connubial usurper and attacks him. Next, the wolf sees his wife and, in a fit of rage, launches himself at her and swipes off her nose. At this point, it seems like the wolf is going to be punished for this, but one of the wise counselors of the King suggests that the animal has never acted so viciously before and so there must be a reason. Agreeing, the King has the lady tortured until she reveals everything. Ultimately, the lord is returned to his human form and his one-time wife, now disfigured, is exiled. As a sign of her crimes, future generations of the women in her line are born without noses.
Whenever I teach this text, there is always an excellent conversation about the tensions between the spaces of the forest and the court, between civilization and wildness. The early going consensus in class often seems to be that the werewolf is not the true monster of the text, but rather the lady exhibits more monstrosity in her actions. Now, part of the reason we reached such conclusions might be because of how I lead class discussion, choosing to focus on some questions, and not others, but I also think that Marie de France provokes her readers to both overlook certain key details and to be rattled by that act of overlooking. After we've talked for a while about the working of monstrosity in the text, I often pose the following question: "Is there any way we can discover a sympathetic reading of the Lady?" When I first posed this question, there was silence for a considerable duration. Finally, someone raised the point that there was very little evidence to merit the lady's being tortured. This conversation soon turned to the idea that torture was extreme regardless.
Then, the ball got rolling. We returned to the prologue, which tells of the savage nature of werewolves, and the seeming contrast to Bisclavret (except for that whole disfiguring thing). If this is what people knew about werewolves, why wouldn't the lady be a bit freaked out? Why wouldn't she take extreme measures to extricate herself from such a situation? And, why include a prologue that seems to be contradicted by the tale, allowing for it to be easily forgotten?  We discussed how, in her vulnerable position, she had few options. It no longer seemed that easy to pinpoint where monstrosity could be found in the text.
Last night, I posted to twitter that I was unsettled prepping this text in the wake of UCSB. Someone then asked me if I'm not always unsettled by "Bisclavret." I certainly am always bothered by it, but somehow I had missed a few details before that I couldn't ignore now. After being told how praised and how good and handsome the lord is, the lady confronts him about his curious, alarming behavior. What I hadn't thought too much about before was the lady's first words:
"My lord," she said, "my friend, my dear,
There's just one thing I might care
To ask, if only I might dare--
But I'm afraid that you'll get angry,
And, more than anything, that scares me" (From Judith Shoaf's translation)
Sure, his later anger may seem justified, but does that justify such savage bodily violence? And, what do we do with the statement that the lady fears, "more than anything," that her husband will get angry. On one hand he is great and noble and praiseworthy, but we must not forget the threat of his anger. She was right to fear not only the anger of men, but also how others would normalize and justify the action taken from such masculine anger.  Surely the wolf would only show anger if there was just cause, even though the court had no data for this, and so the lady must automatically be at fault. The torture is retroactively justified because of her guilt, but it is clear that this justification was already accepted before her confession.
After writing out this blog post, I realized that I really have nothing new to add at this moment to the critical discussion of either a.) teaching Marie de France's "Bisclavret or b.) the toxic sludge of misogyny that the UCSB shooter seems to have waded in.  I am just struck by how the nice guy so suddenly turns violent, and how his virtue is taken at face value.  Yes, this is an imperfect analogy between this text and the state of affairs today, but I find it necessary to note that it seems all too easy to find contemporary resonance in a text which can be read to interrogate 12th-century notions of masculinity, violence, and patriarchal culture. And, I'm not saying that last Friday's act of violence should be described as medieval. I'm saying that "Bisclavret" is all too modern.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I just read Bisclavret in my seminar class of french period, movement & themes in literature. Sometimes I wish we didn't have our discussions in french, because I don't quite have the vocabulary to delve so deeply into the subject matter.
We have read many of the works of Marie de France, but Bisclavret stands out to me over all the rest. Upon first reading, I was merely intrigued by the portrayal of a beast who was clearly not as monstrous as "everyone assumes a loup garou to be". It was almost a comical story, on the surface.
Then my professor asked a question that had a similar effect to the question you asked your class. We were talking about how Bisclavret could represent the bestial nature that every Knight would undoubtedly demonstrate in battle. But that doesn't make them beasts, incapable of love. My teacher asked us if there were any other times that a nobleman could be a 'beast'. Could Marie de France be talking about something else?
I honestly didn't have any thoughts right away, and our professor took our silence as shyness. I figured out what he meant just before he suggested it. Men could be beasts at night, in the bedroom.
It would be a flat out lie or gross ignorance to say that noble women in the middle ages didn't see an astounding amount of abuse from their husbands. I don't want to get into how women were viewed and treated in those ages, because that would take forever.
All I want to say is this: my professor's simple suggestion opened my mind to a whole new interpretation, and it was spilling out of my brain faster than I could think up words in english, let alone french.
To me, this incredible piece of literary art is like unto an Escher drawing, or a magic eye illusion, or even those old 3D glasses where one lens is red and the other blue... where there is something hidden SO brilliantly and masterfully, but once you see it, you will not forget.
I LIKE to read Bisclavret as a reminder that not all who do bad things are inherently bad. That is a good story and a good moral.
But I also LOVE to see how a woman might be confused for an adulteress and jealous wretch when she is actually a misunderstood, abused woman who looked darkness in the face and said, "I'm done."
It is true that the poem does not end well for the woman, and it paints her as the villain. But I don't think that is how Marie de France actually felt about her. I think she hid a tale of an incredibly cunning and courageous woman in a text that was distributed in a male-dominant society. Remember, the literature of the time was expected to praise the king, his knights, his noblemen, his court, and the feudal system.
If Marie had written less subtle pieces, I doubt they would have been spread and recorded and preserved.