Tuesday, 23 January 2007

Marilynn Desmond, Ovid's Art and The Wife of Bath (Cornell UP, 2005)

When Naomi arrived for a court hearing into the alleged assault on her maid, she wore a t-shirt that sums up the premise of Marilynn Desmond's new book on Ovid and the erotics of violence in the Wife of Bath's Prologue. 'Naomi Hit Me...And I Loved It', or in another (more apposite) variation 'Naomi Hit Me...And It Felt Like A Kiss'.

The book opens with a very interesting account of a 1997 conference in New Paltz entitled 'Revolting Behaviour: The Challenges of Women's Sexual Freedom'. In the conference there was an informational panel looking at the issue of sadomasochism and the ideas around consensual and safe S/M. It provoked a huge controversy with the SUNY being denounced for 'promoting lesbianism and sadomasochism'. In an investigation it was found that nothing illegal had happened, no taxpayers' money had been misused, and academics were left feeling the welts of a non-consensual conservative spanking. 'The report of the investigating committee specifically appealed to free speech and academic freedom - two principles that have come under enormous pressure in the few short years since September 2001' (p. 2).

There are six chapters: 1. 'Sexual Difference and the Ethics of Erotic Violence'; 2. Ovid's Ars amatoria and the Wounds of Love'; 3. 'Dominus/Ancilla: Epistolary Rhetoric and Eotic Violence in the Letters of Abelard and Heloise'; 4. 'Tote Enclose: The Roman de la Rose and the Heterophallic Ethic'; 5. 'The Vieille Daunce: The Wife of Bath and the Politics of Experience'; 6. 'The Querelle de la Rose: Erotic Violence and the Ethics of Reading'. Chapters 3 and 6 have already appeared in 1998 and 2003. Desmond is primarily interested in the French responses to Ovid and in particular to the marginal responses that appear in gloss form in manuscripts of the French translations of the Ars amatoria. The book is particularly sensitive to the iconography of women and violence and is generously illustrated. I found very interesting the opening discussion of MS illuminations of the figure of the 'mounted Aristotle', and while the point is not forced, I was quite struck by the similarity between many of these figures and the fifteenth-century illuminations representing the Wife of Bath (cf. BNF MS fr. 95, f. 61v [fig. 4, p. 18] and the Wife in MS Gg. 4. 27, f. 222r).

Desmond is very good at looking at broad visual and textual traditions (I'm thinking of her rather excellent Reading Dido: Gender, Textuality, and the Medieval Aeneid) though this book is much more restricted in scope than Reading Dido and I was left wanting more. I'm paying the book a compliment of course, but I am also left with the peculiar feeling that the book could have been a little more substantial. The focus is, admittedly, on the mainly French traditions around Ovid, but a more developed and ripened discussion would have been welcome on the Latin commentary and glossing traditions on Ovid and how this relates to the vernacular glossing traditions. How distinct are they and why?
How Cornell University Press can think it is OK not to produce a bibliography is beyond me. This is an extremely interesting book and I very much recommend it.

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