Some books are a pleasure to read

Some books are a real pleasure to read. Hopefully most fiction is a pleasure to someone; but all too often, it seems like “readability” is not so much the second priority for academic work, but a long way down the list, after “contains enough made-up words to make me sound smart”.

Today, I am a very happy little Vegemite, because my own personal copy of Simon Gaunt’s Gender and Genre in Medieval French Literature arrived by parcel post! Firstly, it’s PRETTY – the original cover is lovely, much more appealing than the beat-up orange cover the library have on their copy. Secondly, I obtained it for $20 AUS from a second-handbookshop who obviously didn’t realise that places like Amazon sell it for fifty-something US secondhand.

Thirdly, it’s a VERY USEFUL BOOK for my  scholarly purposes. And many others! I have now added “monologic masculinity” to my list of bewildering terms to pull out in pop-culture analysis. I have determined, just for example, that in Star Trek (XI), the opposition between Kirk and Spock could be considered a “monologic of masculinity” – defining or representing masculine behavior by creating an opposition between two fundamentally similar characters; this opposition will eventually be overcome and the audience will understand the character’s common purpose and identity. Granted, the opposition between Kirk and Spock is rather more pronounced than that between, say, Olivier and Roland, and they don’t start from a position of friendship and loyalty – but the parallel childhood scenes at the beginning of the movie establish common traits of aggression, isolation, and Serious Freudian Issues. As Gaunt argues w/r/t to the Chanson de Geste, women *exist* in Star Trek (XI). The female characters are even pretty interesting! But neither Kirk nor Spock’s masculinity is developed in relation to Uhura, or even their omipresent Mummy Issues. It’s all about the m/m conflict, its eventual resolution and the discovery of basic commonality.

Conversely, I would say Whip It was interesting in that it attempted to create a monologic of femininity,  or perhaps womanhood. This was not really a possibility raised by Simon Gaunt (so far – I’m only up to the hagiography chapter), and given that the function of femininity in medieval narrative is usually (as Gaunt argues) to complement and define masculinity, that’s not surprising. It’s quite surprising that so few narratives today construct female characters primarily in relation to other female characters, but that is an essay for another day! Point is, Simon Gaunt is useful like that. If you ever wanted to compare Star Trek to the Chanson de Roland, that’s where I suggest you start!

Fourthly, this is a beautifully written book. Gaunt’s prose is smooth, he juggles complex theory without resorting to jargon, and you don’t find yourself sitting back and scratching your head thinking “what on earth? How did this relate to anything?” I would read this book for fun (and then apply it to Star Trek, as you can tell)! I consider myself rather lucky that I get to read it for Serious Purposes.

Another thing making me happy this week is that I’m reunited with an old friend, Geoffrey Barraclough’s The Medieval Papacy. I know this book is horribly out-of-date, but it’s still one of my favourites. I’m also very fond of Barraclough’s history of the early medieval Europe. Big, sweeping histories like that could be incredibly dull, but Barraclough manages to recount facts simply and tell stories well: so he’s the first place I turn when I need to know something obscure (in this case, 12th century marriage law) but have forgotten all the surrounding context as well.

The third thing that’s making me happy is that I own this t-shirt in a lovely shade of red. I was going to take a photo of it and my copy of Gender and Genre, and show off my incredibly geeky materialism. But, since the t-shirt is a man’s shirt (either all the women’s shirts were sold out, or Geoffrey Chaucer foolishly thought that women wouldn’t buy a t-shirt saying “I’m impossible to date… like Beowulf”), the writing is positioned in a really unfortunate latitude, and there’s no way to take webcam photos that actually show all the text.

So: tell me about your favourite academic authors who also write pleasurable prose? Or, possibly, help me decide which Chaucer blogger shirt I need next (John/Eleanor Rykener, or No I Do Not Know the Truth About King Arthur?)


*Possibly because of the memorable occasion in first year, upon which I was book-hunting at 9.30 pm in the evening, having taken a nine-floor drop in an antiquated elevator and accordingly lost all my balance, and security found me staggering about on the first floor of Fisher, bumping into shelves in a zig-zag pattern and clutching my good friend Barraclough. I’m fairly sure they weren’t thinking “sleep-deprived and lift-sick”, but they did leave me alone to stagger my way back up to the loans desk.


Today’s piece of good humour and cheer comes via Tarimanveri

Note: this video contains a lot of profanity and disgruntlement with Gerald of Wales. I have no quarrel with our friend Gerald, but perhaps that’s because I haven’t had to deal with him since second year.

Today is link day!

My friend Kari has just launched her own academic blog. Strange Student is (going to be!) full of resources for self-directed learning. Kari plans to lend some help and advice to students who come to higher education through non-traditional pathways (such as homeschooled young people or mature-age students), provide resources for those who want to learn more outside of the classroom, and to provide links to the best online education materials (with a history-specific bent).

On Mondays she’ll be posting about college (university), and she’s started off with a clear, concise post entitled Is College Right For You. I don’t know if I’ve got any followers who are debating their possible university career, but if you are, you might want to check out Kari’s post – you’ll get a lot more in the way of balanced advice from her than from me (pssst UNIVERSITY IS AWESOME). Dean Dad, Kari’s series might interest you; likewise anyone who’s in a student-advisory type capacity in academic administration.

The objectification of Sir Lancelot

I cannot stand Lancelot. There, I said it. And, knowing my luck, my supervisor will stumble across this and it will put a terrible gulf between us (her devotion to Sir Lancelot rivals my adoration of Sir Gawain). But the fact remains: Lancelot is a moron! And Guinevere is a wet blanket and they deserve each other.

To make matters worse, I read my way through the whole of the Chevalier de la Charette and it had very little in it which is of any use to my thesis whatsoever. But I did notice something! And although it has nothing to do with my thesis and, for all I know, many eminent people may have noticed it before me, I am nevertheless going to blog about it.

Lancelot’s milkshake brings all the girls to the (court)yard. He knows it; and he’s completely OK with exploiting this to his own ends.

Which is to say, in serious terms, that Chrétien’s narrative systematically objectifies Lancelot, and that Lancelot manipulates his status as an object of desire to get what he wants. Including implicitly and explicitly bargaining sex for material aid. That’s – that’s fascinating, especially since the Charette is playing complicated games with sexual ethics already.

The two main aspects of sexual ethics, as discussed openly in the Charette‘s plotline (either by the characters or by narrator’s commentary) are: firstly, men’s power/right to sex and/or marriage by conquest; and secondly, sexual fidelity. It’s mostly Guinevere’s marital fidelity which is in question, and needs to be preserved both against rape-by-capture and potentially consensual adultery, although we are also given the  impression that maidens wishing to go on journeys seek strong knightly protectors in order to avoid the likelihood of capture and rape. (Funny, that.)

Interestingly, Lancelot’s fidelity also features. We establish very early on, when he does his level best to get out of sleeping with a woman who offered him hospitality (being a knight he has the power to do so; having defeated her protectors he has the right to do so; and she consents, which would appear to give him some moral justification for doing so) that he’s in love with Guinevere, and only Guinevere, and won’t have a bar of anyone else.

The introductory parts of the adventure objectify Lancelot in two ways: they establish him as one hot piece of knight-flesh – apparently so hot that random ladies he meets on the road are willing to construct elaborate deceptions so that they get to sleep with him. But moreover, they establish him as an object of humour, both for his fellow characters (who get to point and laugh at him for riding in the cart) and for the audience, who are privy to hilarious scenes like “In Which Lancelot Nearly Falls Out Of A Window Trying To Catch A Glimpse of Guinevere” and “In Which Our Manly Manly Knight Does His Best To Avoid This Girl Who’s Throwing Herself At Him”. Lancelot is a moron, and it’s quite possibly meant to be ridiculous, the way everyone he meets falls all over him.

And so on we go, until Guinevere is found, slept with, rescued, and sent home to Camelot. At this point, Lancelot is locked up in a manor somewhere, and things start to get really weird. We, like Guinevere, are really curious to find out what Lancelot won’t do for the sake of his ladyfriend. The first thing we knew about him is that he’d give up the chance to sleep with other women (which might be shameful – compare to the Chevalier a l’épee, where Gauvain is terribly worried about what it’d do to his reputation if he’s known to have slept in a woman’s company and not shagged her; or it might earn Lancelot brownie points in the consent-over-capture value system Chrétien’s promoting); then we find out that he’ll embarrass himself in combat if Guinevere wants him to. What lengths will he go to to get out of prison (twice)?

Well, apparently, what he’s willing to do to get out of prison (twice) is to promise his affections and his body to whatever woman’s in a position to get him out. First the lady of the manor in which he’s being held captive – and she’s not silly, she knows his love is already taken, but she makes him promise it to her anyway (whether she ever claims it, we do not find out, but the implication, since Lancelot’s emotional love is all taken up with Guinevere, is surely that he’s promised her a good roll between the sheets instead). Then he promises his love and, explicitly, his body, to the pickaxe-wielding princess who gets him out of the tower.*

Do we have a problem with this? Are we going to get any kind of commentary on the fact that our hero, who was heroically faithful a couple of thousand lines ago, is now willing to seduce and bargain his way out of prison? That he is, in fact, doing exactly what Guinevere was accused of doing: selling his body to anyone who asks?

No, apparently we’re not. Instead we find out more about how awesome Lancelot is, how all the women at the tournament want him and all the men want to be him – until, at Guinevere’s bidding, he decides to play the incompetent for a while and ruin his reputation, at which point all the women still want him and all the men want to laugh at him. Meanwhile, Melagaunt wants Lancelot in order to prove his own manliness, but is quite willing to take Gauvain as a substitute.

The whole situation is ridiculous (and Lancelot, as I said, is a moron). But the upshot of the whole anonymity device, coupled with Lancelot’s apparently thoughtless abandonment of his fidelity, is that his character is undermined. The desire which defined his character for the first half of the story (his desire to find, and ultimately shag, Guinevere) is achieved, and instead, he becomes a sort of placeholder. An object, something everybody wants for one reason or another – the cause of much fuss and no substance.


* Incidentally, The Princess With The Pickaxe is my new favourite character. Running around demanding the severed heads of people who piss her off, and rescuing knights from towers with her trusty pickaxe. HOW OFTEN IS IT YOU MEET A PRINCESS RESCUING KNIGHTS FROM TOWERS, I ask you?

Academia and creativity

Thanks to everyone who left references re: eating disorders. My housemate and I got hold of “Holy Feast, Holy Fast” and “Holy Anorexia”, one each, but sadly we can only get them out of short loan for a week at a time. So my education on the subject of medieval eating disorders will have to be sporadic and tucked in around what I’m actually *supposed* to be doing.

Now here’s a question: does anyone else find that academic work chews up your capacity for other sorts of creative work?

Knowing people like Adrienne J. Odasso, who managed to combine work on an absolutely terrifying-sounding PHD and build up a career as a poet (while I’m spruiking AJO, you could do worse than to read her latest poem published online, Saints Lives at Divine Dirt Quarterly), or the Sydney-based semiotician Nick Riemer, who’s also a poet in his spare time, clearly it is and ought to be possible to be academically productive and creatively.

One of the few things that I regret about coming back to uni, though, is that for me, creative writing and academic work seem to be an either/or. I wrote a lot during high school and first year uni: prose fiction (of age-appropriate dubiousness) and then I hit my stride with poetry in the last year of school.

Thing is: I only seem to be able to write in one format at a time. Midway through second year, something clicked with my essay-writing. I think it was when I had my first senior-level essay (over 3000 words) due, the first paper which really required I think Original Thoughts and present them convincingly. Academic writing has always been a lot tougher than fiction or poetry, more likely to make me want to throw it all in and go off and become an undertaker. But then, I’m in academia for other reasons besides the fun of writing, and I can’t just leave it if it’s no fun, as I might with fiction or poetry. And when it works, there’s the same giddy feeling, the everything-in-the-right-place-and-i-am-just-AWESOME sensation.

But the more academic writing I do, the less likely I am to write anything else (except blogs. Maybe even blogs – observe how this blog died a terrible death in the tail end of honours). I accepted that years ago, traded in my probably-unrealistic and certainly poorly-paid ambition of becoming An Author in for the equally poorly-paid and difficult to achieve ambition of becoming A Medievalist. It feels like betraying my sixteen-year-old self, but them’s the breaks.

Last year, while I was off working for the public circus, two important things happened:

Firstly, I started writing again. Slowly, and very badly at first. Poetry doesn’t just tumble off the pen anymore, nor fiction; and at first I was faced with the dismal realisation that I was a better poet at sixteen than twenty-one. But four years of essay writing did me some good: my writing’s more controlled now, and I can turn a critical eye back on myself and know what I said and how I wanted to say it, which helps with the editing process. Slowly, with practice and time to read other poets, and with no essays or thesis demanding my brain time, I started writing things I’m quite proud of.

I liked that. I’m aware that flinging myself back into academia will be a huge cramp on creative writing: I just don’t have the energy to work consistently on two kinds of writing at once. I can deal with it: being An Author or A Poet would make me happy, but not being an academic made me miserable. So there’s that decision made. But it’s a sad one, all the same.

The second thing was much happier. I participated in an LJ-based writing challenge called WriSoMiFu (write something, you miserable fuck), in which, rather than trying to meet the 50-000 word NaNoWriMo standard, you merely had to write for ten minutes a day, every day, on anything. In one check-in post, some person with motivational intent told us to think about the things you like to read; the things you read that make you excited; the things that make you want to talk about them, read more, and make you want to write.

Cleverclogs me had a lightbulb moment. Fiction is fun, sometimes, but I no longer devour it insatiably. I don’t see new fiction books and think WANT, NOW so often; I don’t pick up random novels for their humourous title or tangential relation to something else I read. On the other hand, I can’t open any academic journal without picking up something weird that I absolutely must read; I steal my housemates’ textbooks; I have a to-read pile on my bookshelf of academic articles on subjects ranging from Chretien de Troyes to the genetic basis of BMI, via same-sex domestic violence and fan studies. While I was in Canberra, I bought a fair bit of fiction, but far more non-fiction, both academic and otherwise.

If, as advised, I were to write the things I’d really want to read, those things would be lengthy and dense and have far too many footnotes. The audience for such things isn’t exactly huge, but I should certainly know by now that there are some academic books which are a delight to read. And some which, useful as they are, are really terrible on the reader. There’s skill and artistry in that, in making a critical book readable.

So that’s one of the challenges facing me: to try to keep up the “creative writing”, because I like it, and I use it to say very different things about myself. But at the same time, I have to remember that academic writing is creative, in its own way; and that the reason one often loses out to the other is that they’re far more closely related than I think.

And for the good of my sanity, I’m trying to find creative things to do which aren’t word-based. Things I’m actually not all that good at, and which no one will ever mark me on: baking (except my housemates continue to mark me on that, on a scale of delicious to disastrous), knitting, attempting to grow tomato plants.