Review of Week 9 (Oct 19) by Josh Jackman
This week we had a guest lecturer, Jeffrey Cohen, who conducted a recap of what we have found interesting or surprising about the course thus far. We then analysed and discussed two of Marie’s lais, namely Laustic and Bisclavret.
In the initial discussion, we talked through the ideas which have had the most effect on us. The concept that humans only form one actant in what can be a sizeable network was raised by a number of students as their most unexpected discovery. One example that was given of this was Bennett’s blackout in Chapter 2 of Vibrant Matter. Food was also prevalent in the conversation, as people talked about how the idea that things you eat have agency and vibrancy, often over you, was interesting to learn. The fact that agency can be given to more abstract concepts, such as time, was also mentioned, as was the idea that human qualities can be actants separate of the person themselves. This lack of human control over assemblages was also espoused in the idea that networks come together to produce something which is none of the objects involved. We also touched on Bennett’s emphasis on object-oriented theory as a gateway to becoming more ecologically-conscious, and also on what these theories mean when viewed in spiritual, religious terms. This espoused a troubling contradiction in beliefs, between the idea of a hierarchy of being and the notion of a more horizontal view of agency in the world. Jeffrey Cohen reconciled these two values by stating that medieval people, who were religious, placed much importance on objects, and that Bennett’s theory is spiritual. It was also suggested that spirituality can itself be an actant, and becomes one in some medieval texts.
We then talked through the texts of the week, starting with Laustic, a tale from The Lais of Marie de France about underwhelming love and an unfortunate nightingale. We looked at how the set-up promises a typical medieval story about courtly love, and how we expect the two lovers’ feelings to enable them to transcend the wall between them. Adultery isn’t necessarily a worrying concept to us, because of our reading of Guigemar. However, the author’s reference to the Ten Commandments in the fact that the knight loves his neighbour’s wife condemns the pair. The unromantic reasoning that the wife loves him because he is close by also lowers the reader’s view of the couple, as does the idea that the knights are friends. The wall shouldn’t be such a barrier, as Guigemar’s lover walked straight out of her tower, but neither lover here has the strength of feeling to cross a simple divide.
We also spoke about the tale’s disappointing anti-climax, in which the woman gets a miniscule amount of blood on her, and the cheating knight reacts calmly to the bird’s death. This is especially discouraging considering that he now has no foreseeable way of seeing his love. Jeffrey then discussed how the bird’s death may merely symbolise the adulterous couple’s underwhelming love, therefore constituting an abandonment of object-oriented theory by Marie. However, it was agreed that the story of an object with a violent history, such as the nightingale (or even a blood diamond), has value in displaying the terrible consequences which occur when humans don’t respect objects. Loneliness was also shown to be an important actant in Laustic, as the actions of both the husband and wife are prompted by a need to have a proper love.
We then moved on to talking about Bisclavret, starting with the idea that the monster of the tale is not the werewolf protagonist, but instead his wife, who betrays him. Contrasting ideas were put forward about how much right the wife has to be scared after her husband’s revelation. Jeffrey then theorised that Bisclavret in werewolf form embodies the perfect knight – subordinate, loving, and violent only against those who deserve punishment. He also spoke about how the main character’s relationship with the King is intimate, and extremely affectionate. Bisclavret was also said to not want to clothe himself because being a beast rather than a human liberated and ennobled him, and led him to his true self. The wife’s nose-less children are similar to the nightingale, in that they suffer a fate they didn’t personally earn.
Object-oriented theory is “simultaneously intellectual and emotional” – Jeffrey
“Being in a relationship with food can change your relationship with the world” – Jeffrey
Bennett wants to “change the world” – Jeffrey
For object-oriented theory, you must “let go of your beliefs for a little while” – Jeffrey
“Every good classroom is an assemblage” – Jeffrey
“Time is continuously acting” – Autumn
“The first line is pregnant with promise” – Jeffrey
“He also loved his neighbour’s wife” – Laustic, line 23
“she loved him more than anything, / as much for the good that she heard of him / as because he was close by” – Laustic, lines 26-28
“True love is not built on this” – Jeffrey
“All our ancestors were murderous savages, (but) none of us are held accountable for that today, (and) that’s just the way it is” – Samuel
“If you accept it though (an object’s violent history), you can change future actions” – Austin
“Death and melancholy makes us more respectful of objects” – Jeffrey
“He had a small vessel fashioned, / [...] all pure gold and good stones, / [...] He placed the nightingale inside / [...] he carried it with him always.” – Laustic, lines 149-156.
“The werewolf had its own agent equality” – Autumn
“You don’t see her motives [...] she’s terrified for no good reason” – Simone
“Everyone was fond of him; / he was so noble and well behaved / that he never wished to do anything wrong / the creature loved him (the king).” – Bisclavret, lines 178-184
“When they (the clothes) were put down in front of him / he didn’t even seem to notice them” – Bisclavret, lines 279-280
“The king ran to embrace him. / He hugged and kissed him again and again / [...] he gave him more than I can tell.” – Bisclavret, lines 300-304
Preview of Week 9 (by Dr. Seaman)
After a rather exciting, if short, week this week, with Jeffrey Cohen’s visit to our class followed by his talk on “Feeling Stone” Thursday evening, we will return to our usual state of affairs next week, though no doubt changed by our experiences this week.
On Tuesday, we will return to Sir Cleges, to see how we might read certain features of that text differently through our added tools of assemblage, agentive drift, and so on. We will add two new literary texts to the mix, two lais by Marie de France: Les Deux Amanz and Chevrefoil. The first of these introduces us to a familiar Breton lay scenario—the father who challenges his daughter’s courters to an impossible task—but with an unfamiliar couple and a tragic outcome marked via a topographical monument. As you read, consider the possible actants and assemblages and especially, perhaps, compare its ending to that of Laustic. In the second poem, Chevrefoil, is an especially brief lai and is distinctive in its being about legendary figures, in this case the very well-known (in medieval Europe) Tristan and Iseult. You’ll note the prominence of a tree branch, in particular. Consider how it might be read as “working” here, given the marks Tristan makes on it (and the ambiguity most reawders see in those marks).
On Wednesday, we will discuss Kellie Robertson’s essay “Medieval Things: Materiality, Historicism, and the Premodern Object.” She is prominent in the arena of medieval object study and this essay should offer us an opportunity to consider our consideration of Breton lays in a larger forum. Alongside Robertson’s essay we’ll discuss (as she does) Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale, which the narrator calls a Breton lay. You’ll note many characteristics in common with the poems we’ve been reading by Marie and anonymous English poets. Both of these items are among the online reading materials on the blog.
I’ve listed Wednesday as the date for our next after-party. We’ll discuss this in class on Monday. If you have conflicts with that time, or if you have suggestions for where we might go this time, please share.