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Filtering by Category: Papers

Sexual Harassment in Arthurian Legend

Zuzu Tadeushuk

 Assaulting Men, Slandering Women

Written for Medieval Lit, November 2017

  

    As I write this paper, not a day passes that does not yield a new story about sexual misconduct in the workplace. An October 2017 investigation by the New York Times into Harvey Weinstein’s predatory history raised a floodgate of sorts that had for years suppressed a deluge of sexual harassment accounts so toxic that they could no longer be contained. Though chilling and to a certain degree eye-opening, the stories were not so shocking in content: the weaponization of sex, far from being a new blight, has persisted for centuries, appearing in many of the foundational texts on which modern society rests. These include religious texts, such as the Old Testament, and non-religious texts like the legends of King Arthur, folkloric material which originated in medieval England and France and whose peculiar power and timeless appeal have woven it firmly into the very fabric of Western culture as we know it. Issuing from a variety of sources written over a few centuries, the Arthurian legends feature some of the most grotesque and violent sexual offenses to appear in literature since. According to the Arthurian Vulgate, for example, Merlin’s conception is achieved when one of Satan’s demon’s, hell-bent on begetting a half-human child, kills an entire family to break the “resolve” of one pious daughter, whom he proceeds to rape once she’s fallen, heartsick, to sleep (Story of Merlin 170). In other gruesome sequences, an adolescent Arthur makes love to his half sister without her consent or knowledge (she believes him to be her husband, King Lot), and therewith begets his malevolent son Mordred (Story of Merlin 237), and a similar trick is played on Ygraine by Uther Pendragon in the siring of Arthur himself (204). 

There are, however, subtler, more ambiguous sexual manipulations to be found in these legends, too. These are far less violent and duplicitous than the rapes that produce Merlin, Arthur, and Mordred, and hence can be overshadowed by their grosser counterparts, and overlooked by the romantic reader. The actions of Guinevere in Marie de France’s Lanval and Lady Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are examples of such ambiguous sexual confrontations. In each case a lady attempts to elicit sexual intimacy from a knight, and in each case her suit is unsuccessful. Hence it is easy to construe the scenes as instances of frustrated seduction. I contend, however, that the advances which Guinevere makes on Lanval and which Lady Bertilak makes on Gawain constitute legitimate sexual harassment. Furthermore, the very trait which renders the abusive status of these acts so ambiguous also qualifies them for a greater rhetorical purpose. The fact that the forced seductions are committed by women complicates our perception of these sexual transgressions and simultaneously suggests that they are not featured in their respective legends simply for their value as catalytic plot points, or even as a way to denounce sexual misconduct, but rather for their insidious ability to demonize women.

 

    In seeking to define and identify sexual violence we must appeal to the domain of psychology. Behavioral researchers Barak, Pitterman and Yitzhaki explain that sexual predation cannot be understood without first identifying the assaulter’s motive. They provide an overview of existing theorizations of the role of power differential in determining this motive. The type of power differential to which this study refers, and which I see operative in Lanval and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is an “organizational power position (status)” (Barak et al 512), held by only one of a pair of individuals within an insular hierarchy, such as a company, institution, or community. Guinevere evidently occupies an organizational position over Lanval within the hierarchy of Camelot, as she is queen of the land and confidante to Lanval’s overlord. Lady Bertilak, on the other hand, is not ostensibly higher-born than Gawain, who is Arthur’s nephew. Nonetheless she wields more power than Gawain, or the reader, originally suspects, for she is a key player in a conspiracy that the knight is powerless to influence. For one thing, Lady Bertilak occupies a position of domestic power within the ‘organization’ of the Hautdesert household. For another, she acts throughout the poem in consort with a mighty sorceress and a king, thus functioning as a vessel through which is channeled the power, both organizational and physical, of these other figures.

 

    Additional factors, Barak et al explain, that contribute to determining sexual harassment are known as moderator variables. These are qualitative traits, such as sex, age, race, or marital status, that influence the likelihood of a certain behavioral pattern occurring, and predict under what conditions it is most likely to occur (Baron and Kenny 1174). In the context of Barak et al’s research, the behavior in question is of course sexual harassment. When Barak and his coauthors speak of moderator variables, they are referring to the various traits attached to a victim of a sexual offense. Specifically, they refer to “victim's personal vulnerability and response strategy” as moderator variables that are “thought to have a significant impact on experiences of sexual harassment” (Barak et al 499-500). This suggests that a victim’s sense of violation varies depending on how vulnerable they already are, and on how free they are to reject an assault or out-maneuver their assaulter; to consider alternatives. ‘Personal  vulnerability’ and ‘response strategy’ may be moderator variables that shape the assault experiences of our two knights explicitly: I will show how Lanval, recovering from his unpopularity at court, can be supposed to be ‘personally vulnerable,’ while Gawain, confined as a guest in a complex chivalric quandary, can be seen to struggle with ‘response strategy.’

 

    The first of these scenarios occurs in Marie de France’s lai Lanval, in which the eponymous character, a knight who is conducting a clandestine affair with a fairy, attracts the notice of Guinevere, queen of Camelot. After observing Lanval from her window, the Queen orchestrates a private audience with the knight and tells him directly of her desire for him. She prefaces her actual proposition with an insinuation of what she perhaps views as her entitlement to Lanval’s compliance, reminding the knight: “I have shown you much honor” (Lanval 263). Lanval’s response to the queen’s solicitation (“My lady, let me be!” 269) would likely not have been heeded if Guinevere had been a man soliciting sexual favors of a woman. It is heeded here, however, as the queen makes no further advances on Lanval; but this does not mean the knight escapes unscathed. Having been rebuffed, Guinevere lashes out at Lanval with a retort that smacks of blackmail: “Lanval, she said, I am sure / you don’t care for such pleasure; / people have often told me / that you have no interest in women. / You have fine-looking boys / with whom you enjoy yourself…my lord made a bad mistake / when he let you stay with him” (276-85). These dual insinuations of homosexuality, and more pointedly of pedophilia, amount to what is doubtless a most damning accusation from the lips of a queen. The possibility that such “noise” might get around Camelot, or jeopardize Lanval’s favor with Arthur, cannot be appealing to the knight, who has only recently gained popularity among the knights of the Round Table (and who may be willing to do anything to keep this popularity). Additionally, in observing that Arthur “made a bad mistake when he let” Lanval serve him, the queen reminds Lanval that he enjoys a position at court which the King might easily revoke, perhaps even at the queen’s behest. Wounded and menacing, Guinevere can thus be seen undertaking to bully Lanval into submission. 

 

    Such an undertaking is almost unnecessary, however. Lanval’s outcast past is a factor that could itself so destabilize the knight to social pressure as to render any blackmail on Guinevere’s part superfluous. Lanval’s history of isolation and poverty, which may be seen to correspond with Barak et al’s “personal vulnerability,” singles the knight out as an easy target for manipulation. It is observed of Lanval at the start of the lai that “Arthur forgot him, / and none of his men favored him either” (Lanval 19-20). Aside from making him “depressed and very worried” (34), this also means Lanval is financially stressed, “for the king gave him nothing” (31). But when Lanval receives riches from his enchantress lover and generously shares them with “stranger and friend” alike (213), he comes into sudden esteem among his fellow knights and things seem to be going his way at last. Lingering psychological patterns, however, like an inferiority complex or social insecurity, could render Lanval thrall to the slightest display of approval or interest on the parts of his superiors. Guinevere’s bullying does not explicitly mine this vulnerability, but the changeable nature of Lanval’s status is one of the defining traits of this lai, and could be seen as defining the man, too, and informing his actions and interactions. Uncharacteristically, then, this agglomeration of circumstances allots to a female the capacity to coerce and take advantage.

 

    Lanval, however, does not yield to his temptress, even after Guinevere levels such accusations at him. Instead, in a heated defense of his heterosexuality, the knight informs the queen that he has a mistress of such beauty and refinement that “any one of those who serve her, / the poorest girl of all, / is better than you, my lady queen” (298-300). In so exposing his mistress, Lanval betrays her, and quickly comes to regret it. This reply gains him only a court date and a pending death penalty, on the fabricated grounds that he propositioned the queen: “the men the king sent / arrived and told [Lanval] / to appear in court without delay: / the king had summoned him / because the queen had accused him” (352-56). In court, Lanval denies having made advances to Guinevere, but admits to insulting her, and when Arthur’s barons withdraw to determine a verdict they exhibit a pragmatic inclination to please the king on whose protection they rely:

“many wanted to condemn [Lanval] / in order to satisfy their lord. / The Duke of Cornwall said: / ‘No one can blame us; / whether it makes you weep or sing / justice must be carried out. / The king spoke against…Lanval; / he accused him of felony, / charged him with a misdeed— / a love that he had boasted of, / which made the queen angry. No one but the king accused him…if one were to speak the truth, / there should have been no need for defense, / except that a man owes his lord honor / in every circumstance.” (431-48) 

It is not, of course, true that “no one but the king accused” Lanval, for it is the queen who has supplied Arthur with his defamatory material on the knight. The capacity of the queen to manipulate her victim is thus further demonstrated, to a sinister degree. After bringing a romantic suit to him, she now brings a legal suit against him, leveraging her status as queen not only to place Lanval’s life in the balance, but to ensure that the barons who settle Lanval’s case will feel predisposed to favor her, and hence unwittingly to advance Guinevere in her crusade for retribution. 

 

    Perhaps the legitimacy accorded to Guinevere’s accusations is also due to the fact that the queen’s inverted version of events is more believable in many ways than the truth is. Indeed, women more often find themselves in the place of sexual victim than do men, as it is typically women who hold positions of lower power than men in physical or organizational frameworks. This comprises a typology that Guinevere is shrewd enough to tap into with her accusation: though the queen’s femininity proves a disadvantage to her in the majority of Arthurian legend, overriding her royalty in the eyes of narrators and fellow characters alike, perhaps here it works to her advantage. For Guinevere uses her femaleness, and the perceived inability of a fair damsel to pose any legitimate threat to a knight, to nearly bring about Lanval’s demise. 

 

    A second instance of female sexual predation occurs in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, while Gawain is staying at Bertilak’s castle. The hero is on his way to deliver himself to the dreaded Green Knight and is unaware that his host and his nemesis are one and the same. On the last three mornings of Gawain's sojourn at Hautdesert, Bertilak’s wife creeps “most quietly and craftily” (SGGK 1188) into Gawain’s bedchamber after her husband has gone out to hunt. She watches the knight until he wakes, then proceeds to flirt with and flatter him, and Gawain, recently come into this region and this company, is uncertain what to make of it. When he first spies her entering, “the knight felt nervous” (1189), and feigns sleep to buy himself time to “turn over in his mind…where the lady’s unlikely visit might lead” (1196-97). With her first words to Gawain when he opens his eyes, Lady Bertilak makes clear that wherever her visit does lead, she is definitively at the helm this morning. “You’re tricked and trapped!” she begins, “But let’s make a truce, / or I’ll bind you in your bed, and you’d better believe me” (1210-11). When Gawain begs to rise and dress, the lady responds “Not so, beautiful sir…Bide in your bed—my own plan is better. / I’ll tuck in your covers corner to corner, / then playfully parley with the man I have pinned” (1222-25). Such injunctions make use of the imagery of combat (trap, truce, parley, pin), and, despite being delivered by a Medieval lady, exude dominance. Gawain and Lady Bertilak banter back and forth, he “graciously…on guard” (1282) and she undaunted and persistent, until at last she arrives at her proposition, “you’re free to have my all, / do with me what you will. / I’ll come just as you call / and swear to serve you well” (1237-40), and he “counters [her] case by case” (1262). Lady Bertilak repeats these visits to his bed on the following two mornings, but only ever succeeds in compelling Gawain to accept from her a series of courtly (albeit ardent) kisses, and an enchanted girdle. 

    While the language of Lady Bertilak’s actual proposition is no longer that of dominance (“do with me what you will”), and while she poses little physical threat to the expert knight Gawain is known to be, Bertilak’s wife yet exercises one formidable power over Gawain: she is a lady, and his host, and both of these dictate that the knight must show her utmost respect and even devotion. Lady Bertilak overtly exploits these positions. She abuses her rights as hostess when she presumes to enter the chamber, and even the bed, which she has lent to her trusting guest, and which she might ostensibly rescind if her good will were for some reason to sour. And she abuses her entitlement, as a woman in the tradition of courtly love, to a warrior’s flattery and adulation when she offers Gawain “her all.”  

 

    Lee Tobin McClain writes of the harrowing demands of Medieval chivalric code. He explains that 

“Gawain's symbolic pentangle showcases the impossibly conflicting rules faced by chivalric knights who must be outwardly courteous and inwardly dedicated to religious values…Gawain must be chaste to maintain his religious values and do right by his host, whose wife tries to seduce him; but he must also be courteous which means he may not reject her openly.” (195)

We see this paradox operating in Gawain’s circuitous and contorted efforts to extricate himself from his predicament, and thwarting him at every turn. It is in the name of chivalry that Lady Bertilak first obliges Gawain to kiss her: she remarks that “‘a good man…the embodiment of courtliness…could never have lingered so long with a lady / without craving a kiss, as politeness requires’” (SGGK 1297-1300). And although Gawain is frequently “maddened and amazed” at her gall, he submits to her flirtation because “his breeding forbade him rebuking a lady” (1660-61). Ultimately this cultural cynosure of politeness nearly forces Gawain to yield his body to Lady Bertilak, and this fact is nowhere more evident than in the remark that the “princess pushed him and pressed him, / nudged him ever nearer to a limit where he needed / to allow her love or impolitely reject it” (1770-72). Is there a double entendre in this “pushing and pressing,” another sense to this “limit”? Whether her pressure of Gawain was purely verbal or involved physical contact, the knight somehow succeeds in “tiptoe[ing] through this tortuous situation in fine courtly style” (McClain 194) and evading his hostess’ ardor.

 

    Like Lanval, however, Gawain does not leave this encounter unscathed. McClain explains that the contradictory nature of the code of chivalry “can cause the breakdown of an individual who tries to meet all [its] demands perfectly” (194). Later in the story we do indeed witness Gawain’s “breakdown” when he is informed of the test his hosts have put him to. At this juncture his ‘cowardly’ acceptance and concealment of the enchanted girdle is revealed. Mortified, Gawain dramatically labels the episode “my downfall and undoing,” lamenting that “dread of the death blow and cowardly doubts / meant I gave in to greed, and in doing so forgot / the freedom and fidelity every knight knows to follow. / And now I am found to be flawed and false, / through treachery and untruth I have totally failed” (2378-83). Until this point in the tale Gawain has acted with unwavering transparency and sincerity; the drama of green girdle, a symptom of his confrontation with his hostess, indelibly taints this record. The chivalric code can thus be understood as a hindrance to Gawain’s free will, and the primary advantage that Lady Bertilak weaponizes in pressuring the knight to yield his body to her. It can also be viewed as the moderator variable of “response strategy”: by drastically limiting the knight’s potential responses to his assaulter, chivalric code amplifies Gawain’s experience of a sexual advance he could physically have warded off with ease.

 

    Such detailed inspection, then, reveals these two scenarios to be fairly straight-forward instances of sexual manipulation via the abuse of an organizational power differential. Their appearance in Arthurian literature serves to assert the oft-overlooked brutality embedded in the very same culture that devised courtly love. As one scholar put it, “the erotic and aggressive impulses in human nature…provide the primary motivation for most behavior in all the best and most characteristic Medieval romances” (Mandel 243), and these two scenes of fraught sexual confrontation provide perhaps one of the most vivid intersections of the aggressive and truly erotic impulses to be found in the legends of Arthur. 

 

    These particular scenarios also, however, play a strategic and misogynistic role in their respective tales. This becomes clear when we examine what unfolds after the knights are pressured for sex. Like most victims of sexual harassment, Lanval and Gawain sustain emotional damage in their encounters with sexual predators. Unlike standard assault victims, however, the knights’ specific complaints have little to do with the actual overtures they are submitted to. Lanval suffers over his betrayal of his supernatural lover and fear of losing her, and Gawain over his shame concerning the girdle. Far from originating in the sexual propositions, the knights’ respective regrets stem instead from steps the knights take themselves after they have been propositioned, steps they take in response to being propositioned. The knight’s woes spring from the fact that they each break a promise which comprises the premise and fundamental tension of these two Arthurian poems. Simply put, Lanval would not have suffered the anguish he suffers after his encounter with Guinevere had he not impulsively revealed the existence of his lover. The disclosure constituted Lanval’s earnest attempt to defend himself, but it also constituted a violation of his vow to his mistress that he would at all costs conceal their relationship. This betrayal seems to cause Lanval more distress than the fact that Guinevere goes on to litigate for his life: before he is notified of the queen’s accusations against him, Lanval “called on his love, again and again, / but it did him no good…from time to time he fainted; / then he cried a hundred times for her to have mercy / and speak to her love. / He cursed his heart and his mouth; / it’s a wonder he didn’t kill himself” (Lanval 339-346). Likewise, Gawain would not have suffered the bitter shame brought on by the discovery of the green girdle on his person had he not succumbed to reasonable fear of the Green Knight’s axe. When he accepted a safeguard to his life, he also consented to conceal this safeguard from his host, thus violating the terms of their arrangement to exchange their winnings at the end of each day that Gawain stayed with them. 

 

    Hence, the one by revealing, and the other by concealing violate the agreements they have sworn to honor. This violation has the potential to deprive the knights of happiness and honor, but also of their very lives. For while Lanval faces death as retribution for refusing his seductress, Gawain will face death if he submits to his seductress. The “game” which Bertilak proposes he and Gawain play during the knight’s stay at Hautdesert appears to be a straightforward trial of Gawain’s honor, a test to see if the famed knight will honestly disclose the gifts he receives while Bertilak is out hunting. We eventually discover, however, that Gawain is unwittingly defending not only his name but his neck as well when he proves at the end of each day that he has remained chaste. After the reckoning at the Green Chapel, the Green Knight explains to Gawain that his three failed swipes at Gawain’s neck reflected the three mornings that the knight was wooed by Lady Bertilak and accepted, for the most part, nothing from her. The Green Knight asserts that this “was only fair / in keeping with the contract we declared that first night…twice you were truthful, therefore twice I left no scar… The third time, though, you strayed / and felt my blade therefore” (SGGK 2346-57). This suggests that had Gawain accepted more from his temptress than a girdle he would have received more from the Green Knight than a nick under the ear.

 

    Though the ladies’ advances catalyze this disintegration of the knights’ certain and ordered existence, this is not equivalent to saying that they cause it. As we have seen, the distress experienced by Lanval and Gawain originated from the knights’ own hasty judgements. The ladies who assault these men, however, have already been demonstrated to be deceitful and manipulative characters, and hence it is all too easy to assign them all the guilt. This is exactly what these texts go on to do. When Lanval’s mistress arrives in court to exonerate the knight, she declares “I don’t want [Lanval] to suffer / for what he said. You should know / that the queen was in the wrong” (Lanval 618-20). In this statement the enchantress, like the narrator, effects a partial dislocation of guilt from its proper source. If we can safely assume that Lanval suffers primarily from his belief “that he’d lost his love” (Lanval 335), and that this belief causes him such sorrow that “they could have killed him, for all he cared” (358), it naturally follows that primarily responsible for this suffering is the knight himself. Lanval alone made the disclosure he now so rues, in a defense of his pride which he could perhaps have achieved by means of a more prudent argument. 

 

     For his part, Gawain, when he discovers the trick Lady Bertilak has played on him, wastes no time in dislocating guilt for his acceptance of the girdle to the woman who offered it to him. After initially rueing his own “cowardly doubts” (SGGK 2379), Gawain’s tone changes and he starts blaming his embarrassment on

“womanly guile— / it’s the way of the world. Adam fell because of a woman, / and Solomon because of several, and as for Samson, / Delilah was his downfall, and afterwards David / was bamboozled by Bathsheba and bore the grief. All wrecked and ruined by their wrongs; if only / we could love our ladies without believing their lies.” (2415-21) 

Here we see precious page space (imagine a scribe laboriously taking quill to velum for a sense of just how precious) given over to the condemnation of all manner of women who have deceived men. We see an extreme reaction to a moderate assault. As if to make this extreme reaction more credible, it is revealed that the Green Knight and his wife were put to their duplicity, most conveniently, by another woman: “Morgan le Fay, / so adept and adroit in the dark arts…guided me” (2446-56). By casting women in the positions both of mastermind and instrument of this scheme, the author assists Gawain in all the more easily ensnaring the entire female sex in the culpability, ultimately, of one spiteful sorceress.   

 

     Taking this misallocation of guilt into consideration, the way things work out for the knights post-assault might be seen as an attempt to frame women for corrupting men; a continuation of the tradition, originated in Genesis’s Eve, of vilifying feminine morality. This misogynistic enterprise places Guinevere and Lady Bertilak in the company of numerous other Arthurian women who are yoked to villainous roles in numerous other Arthurian legends, including Bisclavret’s wife, who tricks her husband into living as a werewolf, and the Lady of the Lake, who woos Merlin with the purpose of trapping him in a tomb, where she abandons the wizard to die (Post Vulgate 247). 

 

     Perhaps the unique danger of the two poems at hand, however, lies in the distressingly plausible nature of the offenses which Guinevere and Lady Bertilak perpetrate. Unlike werewolf heists and dark love spells, sexual harassment is all too real. It is especially real to the modern reader, in the current context of the #metoo movement. Sexual harassment is a crime that should not be made light of, whether you’re a big shot movie producer in the twenty-first century or a fictitious noblewoman in the Middle Ages. And hence the poets of Lanval and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight are initially justified in their ridicule of these ladies. This initial consonance, however, makes it much harder to detect the subsequent inconsonance, harder to tell exactly when the severity of the condemnation begins to outweigh the severity of the crime. For it is precisely in the crossing of this threshold, the tilting of this balance, that Guinevere and Lady Bertilak are transformed into tools for projecting slander and infamy onto all womankind. We as readers are responsible for recognizing this threshold, and taking care not to let our credence follow the narrators’ hurtling logic over it. For, just as the assaulted knights ought to own responsibility for the errors they make, the ladies who woo them are answerable only for their own transgressions, and not for any one else’s, whether man or woman, Biblical or contemporary. That is their limitation; it is their deliverance, too. 

 

 

Original watercolor, December 2017

 

Works Cited:

Barak, Azy, Yael Pitterman and Rivi Yitzhaki. “An Empirical Test of the Role of Power Differential in Originating Sexual Harassment.” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 17, no.4, Dec. 1995, pp. 497-517. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2048/login?url=http://        search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pbh&AN=7348127&site=ehost-live.

Baron, R. M., & Kenny, D. A. “The Moderator-Mediator Variable Distinction in Social Psychological Research: Conceptual, Strategic, and Statistical Considerations.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 51, 1986. pp. 1173-1182.

Lanval. Marie de France. Trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante,The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 154-67.

Mandel, Jerome. "Constraint and Motivation in Malory's 'Lancelot and Elaine'." Papers on Language and Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, vol. 20, no. 3, 1984, pp. 243-258. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2048/login?        url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?                                direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1984024270&site=ehost-live.

McClain, Lee Tobin. "Gender Anxiety in Arthurian Romance." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science     Fiction and Fantasy, vol. 38, no. 3, 1997, pp. 193-199. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?        direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1997065956&site=ehost-live.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Trans. Simon Armitage, The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 186-238.

The Post Vulgate, Part 1: The Merlin Continuation. Trans. Martha Asher, in Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, Norris J. Lacy, Gen. Ed., vol. 4, Garland, 1996, pp. 246-248.

The Story of Merlin. Trans. by Rupert T. Pickens in Lancelot-Grail: The Old French Arthurian Vulgate and Post-Vulgate in Translation, Norris J. Lacy, Gen. Ed., vol. 1, Garland, 1993, pp. 167-172, 237-38.

 

Fathering Despair: Creation and Crime in “The Pardoner’s Tale” and Frankenstein

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Medieval Lit, December 2017

    The Old Man in the Pardoner’s Tale is a mysterious, vacuous character that stands out in a text otherwise crowded with rich and highly developed personalities. Serving the catalytic purpose of directing the three “riotoures” in The Pardoner’s Tale to their death, the Old Man appears only briefly, but in what Alfred David describes as “a passage that seems to demand a symbolic interpretation. One feels that there is a mystery about this old man, that something is being left unsaid” (David 39). Gudrun Richardson relays that the tale which Chaucer’s Pardoner tells to his fellow pilgrims is a rendition of earlier Italian and German texts in which the Old Man appears as a nondescript hermit. In rejecting the hermit portrayal, “Chaucer endows the Old Man with a character in his own right, giving him a centrality which can only mean that he has a particular point to make. What that point is, however, has eluded critics over the years” (Richardson 324). The demand for symbolic interpretation, though, has hardly gone unanswered. Over the years, scholars have identified the Old Man with a comprehensive catalogue of allegorical and scriptural figures ranging from Death and Old Age (“Elde”) to the Wandering Jew, Noah, and Judas (Kittredge 215, Richardson 324, Bushnell 450). The problem with such symbolic interpretation, Richardson explains, is that “as with any stereotyping, this inevitably narrows the perspective, preventing an analysis of the true scope of this complex figure” (324). David chimes in with an assertion that the “notion that we are obliged to choose only one of several symbolic interpretations, none of them entirely satisfactory” is “mistaken” (40). On the contrary, David explains that a recent movement to understand the Old Man in polyvalent terms, and to contextualize him in relation to his creator, the Pardoner, provides a more wholesome view of the character (41). I would extend David’s logic and suggest that the notion, apparent in the uniformity of existing criticism of the Old Man, that this character is best illuminated by reference to the allegorical and scriptural material of which he appears to be comprised is also “mistaken.” Rather, our understanding of the Old Man, especially as he relates to the Pardoner, can be greatly enhanced by comparison with other Creator and Creation duos of English literature, perhaps the best known example of which is Victor Frankenstein and his Monster. This scientist and his creature, conceived by Mary Shelley in the nineteenth century, obviously exerted no influence on Chaucer’s rendering of the Old Man. Yet the choice of Shelley’s Frankenstein as a framework through which to examine this most enigmatic of Chaucer’s figures can indeed yield important insight, and affirms the symptomatic nature of the Old Man. This character, mirroring Shelley’s Monster in his supernatural existence and miserable condition, also mirrors the Monster in the fact that this very existence and condition are expressions of his Creator’s actions and attitudes.

 

    The parallels between the Creator and Creation duos of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale and Shelley’s Frankenstein are abundant, and instrumental to me in linking these texts is the analysis of the Old Man provided by Gudrun Richardson. Most notable about the portrait which Richardson paints of the Old Man is that it succeeds in shedding new light on the Pardoner, and much of this light reaches the character of Victor Frankenstein with equal force and clarity. The fundamental correlation of these two texts concerns the emotional and ethical attrition which occurs within the Creator figures and the multitude of implications this has for the Creations. This is manifested primarily in the fact that as Creators, and hence fathers, both the Pardoner and Frankenstein fail to provide for the beings, corporeal or conceptual, which they have authored. Specifically, these Creators deny their creations access to the asset that they are themselves primarily sustained and nurtured by. 

 

    The Pardoner makes a living by granting people authorized religious pardons in return for donations to the Church. In Medieval society these transactions were a popular means of “reduc[ing] the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins” after death (Peters 13), and Chaucer immediately establishes that the Pardoner earns a comfortable income by them: 

“of his craft, fro Berwik into Ware, / Ne was there swich another pardoner / For in his male he hadde a pilwe-beer / Which that he saide was Oure Lady veil…He hadde a crois of laton, ful of stones, / And in a glass he hadde piggies bones, / But with thise relikes whan that he foond / A poore person dwelling upon lond, / Upon a day he gat him more moneye / Than that the person gat in monthes twaye.” (General Prologue 694-706)

This passage, from the Pardoner’s portrait in the General Prologue, demonstrates that the Pardoner is so skillful a salesman that he can convince uneducated peasants and laypeople that his pigs bones and pillow cases are genuine holy objects—and that these peasants should part with far more money than such frauds are worth. It also attests to Medieval society’s hunger for spiritual resolution and for a clean passage from life, a hunger which the Pardoner handsomely benefits from. 

 

    The Pardoner withholds, however, this resolution and this passing from the character of the Old Man. In the Pardoner’s tale, the Old Man thus accounts for his appearance of “greet age”: “I ne can nat finde / A man, though that I walked into Inde, / Neither in citee ne in no village, / That wolde chaunge his youthe for myn age…Ne Deeth, allas, ne wol nat have my lyf” (Pardoner’s Tale 439). From this explanation we learn that the Old Man feels trapped within a life that he no longer wishes to live and of which his author, the Pardoner, will not relieve him: “thise riotoures r[u]n” off (PT 480), the narrative follows them, and the Old Man is abandoned permanently to wander in his unresolved condition. L.O. Purdon interprets this condition as the “second death,” a judgement theory expounded by Saint Augustine that defines a state of being not “after” nor “before” death (Purdon 343). Purdon demonstrates that the enigmatic statement that death will not take his life tells us simultaneously that the Old Man is not dead and that he is not either alive: obviously if death rejects him he is can not be dead, and yet this inability to die defies the very premise and defining characteristic of life—that is must end (Purdon 344). Purdon reasons: “if he is neither dead or ‘after’ death, nor living or ‘before’ death, then it must follow he is…dying or…in the state of being ‘in death’…suffering the grievous second death Saint Augustine says is not good for anyone” (344). The Old Man, then, resides eternally “in death” when all he desires is for his “bones to been at reste” (PT 445). He is denied, indefinitely, closure and release by a man whose occupation it is to provide these things.

 

    Like the Pardoner, Shelley’s Frankenstein also creates a supernatural character, his in a scientific laboratory rather than a Christian exemplum, and like the Pardoner, Frankenstein denies his Creature access to the source of his own empowerment. Frankenstein is enabled to become the magnificent scientist he is thanks to the care of his family; though he primarily educates himself, Frankenstein’s parents provide him with the opportunities and resources necessary to do so. Of his upbringing Frankenstein rhapsodizes: 

“with [a] deep consciousness of what [my parents] owed towards the being to which they had given life, added to the active spirit of tenderness that animated both, it may be imagined that while during every hour of my infant life I received a lesson of patience, of charity, and of self-control, I was so guided by a silken cord that all seemed but one train of enjoyment to me.” (Shelley) 

Frankenstein here illustrates the pivotal role tenderness played in educating him, and it is evident he highly esteems this method of child-rearing when he notes that “when I mingled with other families I distinctly discerned how peculiarly fortunate my lot was” (Shelley) in possessing such gentle and encouraging parents. 

 

    Frankenstein denies such care and guidance, however, to his creature. On the dreary November night when his Monster comes to life, Frankenstein experiences “breathless horror and disgust…Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room” (Shelley). Thus abandoning his Creature, Victor compels the clueless being to learn from experience the sensations of hunger and thirst, the rhythms of nature, human customs and language. Frankenstein’s second refusal to furnish his Creature with love and companionship comes when he abandons his efforts to create the partner which the Monster so desires. It is in his improvised laboratory in Scotland, at work on his Creature’s bride, that Frankenstein definitively sentences his beast to solitude:

“I thought with a sensation of madness on my promise of creating another like to him, and trembling with passion, tore to pieces the thing on which I was engaged. The wretch saw me destroy the creature on whose future existence he depended for happiness, and with a howl of devilish despair and revenge, withdrew.” (Shelley)

Thus we see that both Frankenstein and the Pardoner withhold from their Creations the resource to which they owe their successes. For Chaucer’s pair, this source is Christian faith, while for Shelley’s pair it is companionship. 

 

    These resources, however, somehow become intolerable to the two Creators who benefit by them, and at the time that we are first introduced to both the Pardoner and Frankenstein, they have rejected, and are living in estrangement from, God and society, respectively. The Pardoner’s disillusionment with faith is obvious in his marketing of false, blasphemous absolution. Richardson, however, imagines the Pardoner having once held true faith: “the passion with which he delivers his sermon and subsequent plea to his audience argues for him retaining, or at least once having held, some belief. He would not argue so cogently, nor mock so viciously, if he had no emotional involvement with the issue” (330-31). At the time he makes the Canterbury pilgrimage, though, the Pardoner is alienated from God because, Richardson asserts, he “perceives himself to be beyond redemption…If he cannot be redeemed it does not matter how many more sins he perpetrates because his fate of damnation is already sealed” (331). This fear of being spiritually beyond help is perhaps reasonable, considering some of the more chilling deeds the Pardoner claims authorship of. For far worse than his mercenary approach to Catholic indulgence, the Pardoner exhibits a malicious indifference to all lives but his own: “I wol have moneye, wolle, cheese, and whete, / Al were it yiven of the pooreste page, / Or of the pooreste widwe in a village— / As sholde hir children sterve for famine. / Nay, I wol drinke licour of the vine / And have a joly wenche in every town” (PT 159-63). Thus the salvation he provides, enacted with bogus relics, not only fails in its formal purpose of redeeming, but also implicitly defies some of the most basic tenets of Christian morality, as the Pardoner claims to lie, to actively injure those who come to him for help, and to debauch himself on the profits. And while the Pardoner’s boasts demonstrate a sneering contempt of the parishioners who’s blind faith he takes advantage of, the fact that he boasts of his misdeeds at all suggests an even greater contempt of self that prompts him recurrently to draw his companions’ attention to his flaws, even amidst the relative strangers with whom he makes the Canterbury pilgrimage. Punctuated with repeated assertions of his own avarice like a refrain (133-34, 139-40, 144-45, 171), the Pardoner’s entire prologue to his tale seems to be directed by this self contempt. We witness the struggle between his need to verbalize the burden that oppresses his conscience and his need to preen and pitch his services to an audience of potential repenters: “By God,” he exclaims, “I hope I shal you telle a thing / That shal by reson been at youre liking; / For though myself be a ful vicious man, / A moral tale yit I you telle can” (169-172). Richardson argues that the Pardoner does not confine his exposition of self to his prologue and epilogue alone, but that this unburdening continues in his actual tale—via the Old Man himself. As Richardson puts it, “the Old Man is a personification of the Pardoner’s ‘within’. As the Pardoner’s Tale is placed within the frame of prologue and epilogue, which extend the audience’s knowledge of the Pardoner on one level, so this is mirrored by the Pardoner’s revelation of his inner self through the medium of the Old Man” (332). If we accept this, we accept that the Old Man is a product of his Creator’s rejection of the Catholic faith which is the source of the Pardoner’s physical sustenance—his livelihood—but also at this juncture the cause of his spiritual desolation. Arguably if the Pardoner had never become disillusioned with the Church and abandoned hope of ever achieving the redemption he sells, the Old Man as the “Pardoner’s inner self” (Richardson 332) would not exist. 

 

    Likewise if Frankenstein had stayed within the fold of his family, friends, and teachers, and not distanced himself from them to work alone and out of contact with reason and reality, his Monster might not have come into being. For just as the Pardoner rejects the faith which facilitates his way of life, so Frankenstein secludes himself increasingly from the family who raised and taught him, and the friends who would advise and care for him. This is evident in the fact that once Frankenstein discovers renewed passion for chemistry at Ingolstadt, he sequesters himself in his laboratory away from the society of others. Three years pass in this manner, during which Frankenstein never once returns to Geneva to visit his family and hardly writes to them. His work on the Monster so consumes him that it 

“caused me…to forget those friends who were so many miles absent, and whom I had not seen for so long a time. I knew my silence disquieted them…but I could not tear my thoughts from my employment…I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed.” (Shelley)

In distancing himself thus from kith and kin, Frankenstein also distances himself from the tempering perspective they might offer concerning his grotesque project. He suffers the consequences when he finds himself ill prepared for the responsibilities of fatherhood which he has recklessly brought down about his shoulders. The ultimate consequences he suffers, though, arrive with the Monster’s bitterly vindictive campaign against Frankenstein: in retribution for Frankenstein’s refusal to provide him with kin of his own, the Monster deprives the scientist of one family member after another, plunging Victor into a “despondency and solitude” (Shelley) to rival the Creature’s own. Such a reprisal forces Frankenstein to pit his desire to protect his loved ones by humoring his Creation (and giving the Monster a loved one of his own) against his desire for damage control, or to protect “the species of man” from the potential “daemon” race which might issue from a Monster coupling (Shelley). Essentially, this dilemma penetrates the pith of Victor’s renunciation of family, for in choosing not to create a companion for his creature so as not to risk becoming what he imagines such a concession might make him—a “pest…whose selfishness had not hesitated to buy its own peace at the price, perhaps, of the…whole human race” (Shelley),—Frankenstein renounces his family in the most permanent way he can, condemning them to perish at his Creature’s desperate hands. Thus the darkly ironic effect of Frankenstein’s exclusion of his family from his life is their irreversible removal from his life, presumably to that state Augustine describes as “after” death. 

 

    Thus we can see that the characters of both Chaucer’s and Shelly’s Creators, in abandoning the good and nourishing elements in their lives, stray into godless and friendless despair. The curious byproducts of these degenerations are Creatures who, embodying their Creators’ errors, also represent their Creators’ futures. Richardson notes that the Old Man in his search for godless annihilation “anticipates the Pardoner’s fate if he were to die in his current state of mind” (332). For the Old Man’s search for death feels markedly un-Christian: he explains to the rioters that 

“on the ground which is my modre’s gate / I knokke with my staf bothe erly and late, / and saye, ‘Leve moder, leet me in…Moder, with you wolde I chaunge my cheste / That in my chambre longe time hath be, / Ye, for an haire-clour to wrappe me.” (PT 441-48)

The Old Man’s characterization of his deathly desire is thus bound up in pagan and macabre symbolism derived from his appeal to Mother Earth, rather than the Virgin Mary, and his longing for a winding sheet (“haire-clour”) that recalls ancient funerary rights (Richardson 326). Just such an un-Christian death must indeed await the Pardoner if he persists in his moral dereliction. On the other hand, Frankenstein’s Monster in his desolate friendlessness anticipates the bereft state in which Victor will find himself towards the end of the novel. Once the Monster has murdered Frankenstein’s brother, bride, and best friend, Clerval, and indirectly caused the deaths of Justine and Frankenstein’s father, Victor is as utterly alone in the world as his Creature has been all along.

 

    Neither Frankenstein nor Pardoner, however, take steps to reclaim, or be reconciled with their initial sources of empowerment, as the Pardoner shows no interest in mending his ways, but on the contrary launches immediately back into his wiles upon concluding his tale. Not skipping a beat, he appeals to his fellow pilgrims: “But sires, oo word forgat I in my tale: / I have relikes and pardon in my male…If any of you wol of devocioun / Offren and han myn absolucioun, / Cometh forth anoon” (PT 631-37). We here see the Pardoner persisting in his avarice, even in the face of an audience to whom he has just revealed his guile and deceit. For his part, Frankenstein, once he has heard the wish of his Creature but before he has fatefully denied it, withdraws further from his family. We see the scientist take himself repeatedly into the wilderness of the Swiss Alps, and take himself abroad to Scotland, in an attempt to “exempt my family from the danger of [the Creature’s] machinations” (Shelley). Frankenstein’s ultimate act of isolation, of course, occurs when he sets out alone to pursue his Creature in “a destructive and almost endless journey across the mountainous ices of the ocean” (Shelley), deserting civilization altogether, for the last time.

 

    In this persistence in denying themselves and their Creatures the assets that enable, or once enabled them to flourish, the Pardoner and Frankenstein commit themselves to lives of perpetual agitation and dejection, and confine their Creations to insatiable searches, the one for death and the other for affection. In the very wretchedness of their existence both pairings of characters again articulate an Augustinian theory concerning the soul’s “death in life.” Richardson links the Pardoner and the Old Man with a state Augustine describes in his City of God: “we ought not to say that a body is alive if the soul resides in it, not in order to make it live, but to make it hurt” (Augustine qtd. in Richardson 331). For indeed the Pardoner seems to exist not for the sake of any personal evolution “but for coveitise. / Of this matere it oughte ynough suffise” (PT 144-45); the Old Man purely because he cannot die; Frankenstein because he is animated by “nothing but the eternal sentiment of a just retribution burning within [his] heart”; and the Monster similarly to “satisfy [his] everlasting hatred” (Shelley). All four of these anguished characters are thus united in their soulless, or death-like, existences: whether wandering the English countryside perpetuating a cycle of sin and self-loathing, wandering through “Flandres” seeking “Deeth”, or wandering the ice floats of the Arctic in pursuit of retribution, all wallow in, and are ultimately defined by, their anguish.

 

    Such a grim outcome suggests a didactic function to these two vastly distinct texts. Chaucer, writing in the fourteenth century, cautions against greed and corruption, and Shelley, writing in the nineteenth century, against pride and recklessness. Both, however, make an essential point about the danger of short-sighted and self-serving behavior, and it is the unique dynamic which can only be fostered between a Creator and his Creation which brings the point forcibly home. For this relationship evokes the primal resonance of parenthood, of the generation and conduction of existence itself, and as such inevitably implicates all living things. By packaging their cautionary messages within an archetype of such primordial power, Chaucer and Shelley alike endow these messages with a weight that amplifies their impact and effect. Likewise, in analyzing the Old Man through the medium of this archetype, we amplify our potential impressions of him. For, contrary to an interpretation accessed by way of the allegorical and religious figures to whom the Old Man is usually, and most logically, linked, an analysis of this character within a progenitorial framework is not limited to a specific era and culture. Rather, the dynamics of a Creator/Creation relationship apply to all eras with equal intimacy, and admit “an analysis of the true scope of this complex figure,” which Richardson objects the more traditional comparisons do not. Thus while this relationship assists Chaucer and Shelley in making their instructive points about human nature, it also assists modern readers, who have the benefit of access to both these texts, in understanding the true identity and purpose of the Pardoner’s Old Man figure—that the Old Man, whatever allegories he represents or references, exists first and foremost as the conscience and the crime, the soul and the soullessness of the unsatisfied character who imagined him.

 

    So it is that the Old Man’s similitude with Frankenstein’s miserable Monster is as productive as it is penetrating. The Old Man is liberated from this likeness, however, in one important aspect. While the Monster kills in an attempt to extort Frankenstein to give him companionship, the Old Man kills in a fulfillment of the revelers’ request of him. Pleading for a partner, the Creature cautions Frankenstein: “do your duty towards me, and I will do mine towards you and the rest of mankind. If you will comply with my conditions, I will leave them and you at peace; but if you refuse, I will glut the maw of death, until it be satiated with the blood of your remaining friends” (Shelley). This threat demonstrates the coercive nature of the Creature’s murderous spree; it is evident that in killing the Frankenstein clan he hopes to compel his Creator to grant his wish. The Old Man, however, sends the rioters to their demise by simply and truthfully supplying them the information they ask of him: “Thou speke right now of thilke  traitour Deeth,” they remark. “Tel wher he is, or thou shalt it abye” (465-68). The rioters, indeed, proceed to find death at the place the Old Man directs them to; all three of them breathe their last under the “ook” (477) before nightfall. Hence one Creation murders innocent life in an attempt to get what he wants; the other is forced to kill in order to give others what they want. The Old Man does what neither Frankenstein nor the Pardoner do for their own Creations and grants the request of another pleading being. This twisted and ironic empathy on the part of the Pardoner’s Old Man indicates that perhaps the Pardoner is not so irredeemable after all, that perhaps, if he avoids making any irreversible decisions such as Frankenstein makes concerning his Creature’s bride and his sacrifice of his own family, perhaps he might yet rescue himself from perdition, rescue his Creation from the second death, furnish them both with the resolution and clarity that pervades the Pardoner’s every day but eludes him so absolutely. Perhaps in this he might allow the Old Man to finally find death. Perhaps in this he might allow himself, ultimately, to find life. 

Original watercolor, June 2017

 

Works Cited:

Bushnell, Nelson Sherwin. “The Wandering Jew and The Pardoner’s Tale,” in Studies in             Philology 28, 1931. pp. 450-60. 

Chaucer, Goeffrey. “General Prologue.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the             Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 243-64.

———. “The Pardoner’s Tale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, ed. Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 310-25.

David, Alfred. “Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale.” College English, Vol. 27, No. 1, 1965. pp. 39-44. www.jstor.org/stable/373708. Accessed Dec 2, 2017.

Kittredge, George L. Chaucer and His Poetry. Harvard U. Press, 1915. p. 215. 

Peters, Edward. A Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often                 Misinterpreted Teaching. Hillenbrand Books, 2008, p. 13-15.

Purdon, L. O. "The Pardoner's Old Man and the Second Death." Studies in Philology, vol. 89, no. 3, 1992, pp. 334-349. EBSCOhost. Accessed Dec 2, 2017. 

Richardson, Gudrun. "The Old Man in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale: An Interpretative Study of His Identity and Meaning." Neophilologus, vol. 87, no. 2, 2003, pp. 323-337. EBSCOhost. Accessed Dec 2, 2017.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. Project                 Gutenberg, 2008 [EBook #84], www.gutenberg.org/files/84/84-h/84-h.htm#chap16. Accessed Dec 15, 2017.

 

God in Battle: Divine Interactions in Judith and Beowulf

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Medieval Lit, October 2017

    The place of God in Beowulf has long puzzled scholars, and has been a subject of profuse debate among scholars of the last two centuries (Irving 175-7). In his insightful discussion of the meshing of pagan and Christian elements in Beowulf, Edward Irving writes that “God is truly felt as a living presence only at those moments when we feel the surges of heroic power in Beowulf. In this special sense the hero is indeed God’s agent, for he is the only way we can be aware of God and of how he acts in the world of men we know” (186). Though Irving acknowledges that the Christianity of Beowulf is “distinctly limited” (186), his characterization of God’s presence in battle presents a problematic generalization, and an exaggeration of God’s modest involvement in the poem. I would like to dispute this claim by using Judith, hero of the Old English poem by that name which appears in the Nowell Codex beside Beowulf, as a foil to show what hero as ‘god’s agent’ really looks like, and to demonstrate that Beowulf is not such. 

 

    An overview of the deities featured in Beowulf and Judith shows us a fundamental dissimilarity in their extent of engagement. While Judith’s God protects his heroine, Beowulf is protected less by divinity than by physical forces, such as his armor. The narrator of Judith, for example, specifies that when Holofernes prepares “to violate / the bright woman with defilement and with sin[,] The Judge of glory…would not consent to that, but he prevented him from that thing” (J 58-61)). In Beowulf, by contrast, it is noted that “the son of Ecgtheow would have surely perished / had the strong links and locks of his war-gear / not helped to save him” (Beowulf 1550-53)). While we see Judith speaking to, and instantly receiving guidance from, her God (J 77-98), we never see Beowulf directly address his deity, and the only guidance his God provides is reported in the form of awkwardly attached prosaisms (Beowulf 1553). As a result we experience Judith’s God as a tangible figure and Beowulf’s rather as a figure of speech. Robert Hosmer even regards the Beowulf poet’s references to God as “little more than rhetorical commonplaces” (67), and this idea is corroborated in the writing of F.A. Blackburn, who notes that “the vague and colorless Christianity of these passages becomes very apparent if for the word God or equivalent epithet we substitute fate…No further change is needed in many of the passages…to remove the Christian tone and make them entirely heathen” (216-17). This is an effective demonstration of how gossamer the veil of divinity is that drapes the Beowulf narrative.

 

    Disparities also arise between the characters of Beowulf and Judith. We witness Beowulf accept a myriad of rewards for his victories, in the forms of celebration, praise, status, and expensive gifts, while Judith accepts scarcely any reward. Rather, upon her triumphant return to Bethulia, the heroine does not dwell on her victory but conveys only as much of it as is necessary to rally her people (J 183-186), remarking that it is they who will receive the glory (196). Judith shows herself consistently content to win glory for others when it is concluded that “she did not doubt / in the reward which she had long yearned for. For that be glory / to the beloved Lord for ever and ever” (345-47). This egoistic distinction between Beowulf and Judith is not insignificant to the qualification as of God’s agent: as we learn from a comparison of these two poems, Beowulf’s ego comes between him and his god; Judith’s humility bonds her to hers.

 

    Status as God’s agent, however, can perhaps be best gauged by the warriors’ motives for engaging in battle, and the ways their conflicts are resolved, and explained. In Judith, on one hand, we see that the heroine does not lay a finger on her opponent until she has first consulted her God and received his direct encouragement: 

“Then [Judith]…took a sharp sword…and drew it from the sheath / with her right hand. She began to call the Guardian of Heaven by name…and said these words: / ‘God of creation, Spirit of comfort, / Son of the Almighty, I want to beseech you / for your mercy on me in my time of need…Give me, Lord of Heaven, / victory and true belief so I might cut down this bestower of torment / with this sword. Grant me my salvation, / mighty Lord of men: I have never had more need / of your mercy than now. Avenge now, mighty Lord, / eminent Bestower of glory, that which is so grievous in my mind, / so fervent in my heart.’ Then the highest Judge / inspired her immediately with great zeal, as he does to each / of the dwellers on earth who seek help from him / with reason and with true faith. Then she felt relief in her mind, / hope was renewed for the holy woman.” (77-98)

This spiritual transaction complete, Judith is motivated to action and proceeds to “seize the heathen man” (98) and behead him. Important to note is the fact that Judith asks God not only for success in her endeavor, but also for “true belief;” this and the emphasis on worshippers receiving help if they appeal to God with “reason and with true faith” (emphasis added) demonstrate all the more vividly just how inherently Judith’s execution of Holofernes is fused with her religious convictions.

 

    As a consequence, Judith’s success that night is referred to as a gift from God (“Judith had won illustrious glory / in the battle as God, the Lord of heaven, / granted it so when he gave her her victory” (122-24)) and also as guidance from God (Holofernes’ severed head serves “as proof / to the citizens of how she had been helped in battle” (174-75)). Later, we see that such divine assistance is not confined to Judith; when the Israelite militia takes arms against the Assyrians, “the Lord God, the almighty Lord, / helped them generously with his aid” (299-300). Interestingly, the commencement of that army’s combat, like Judith’s private one, awaits God’s sanction, which appears here in the form of a sunrise, as Judith instructs the soldiers to “hasten to battle, as soon as the God of creation, / that glorious King, sends his radiant beam of light / from the east” (189-91). This shows the extent to which Judith’s God infuses the poem’s structure, and imbues even its most quotidian incidents with sublime purpose.

 

    To gain any accurate impression, then, of piety’s place in Beowulf’s combative routine, we must measure each of his three motives and three outcomes of battle in turn against the pattern Judith sets for divine affinity. We see some general tendencies that apply to all the intentions and all the results of Beowulf’s fights, namely that the warrior’s motive always includes a longing for self-aggrandizement, and that the responsibility for each battle’s resolution is attributed to God and to forces other than God by seemingly equal iterations, with the tally of remarks which suggest divine intervention less than or equal to explanations entirely omitting divinity. Often, these two conflicting proposals follow one on the heels of the other, so that in a single breath the poet gives credit both to God and to the autonomous hero, or even to one of Beowulf’s physical traits. A pattern emerges of an indecisive poet, or of a God who demands independent aptitude as a prerequisite, or qualifying condition, for his aid, as if the Almighty won’t get involved unless he knows his hero has a winning chance to begin with.

 

    Looking beyond these abiding themes and into the distinguishing dynamics at play in each of Beowulf’s three battles, we find that it is in Beowulf’s first confrontation, against Grendel, that the warrior most resembles Judith in her venture. The two warriors’ motives for taking up arms are in this case nearly congruent: both enter battle to do their God’s work—in Judith’s case to protect God’s chosen people, the Israelites, and their religion from the Assyrians with their Satanic captain, and in Beowulf’s to eliminate a monster descended from Cain and therefor an affront to God’s ordered world. On the surface, Beowulf undertakes Grendel’s demise in order to save the Danes from the fiend’s nightly terrors, just as Judith undertakes the murder of Holofernes to save her city of Bethulia from plundering and destruction. In a different sense, however, they enter battle for antithetical motives: Judith to gain glory for others (God, and her people), and Beowulf to gain glory for himself, to “prove [himself] with a proud deed” (637) and establish an international reputation. In this sense we see Beowulf’s first, and mildest, deviation from the model of humble service that Judith exemplifies in her separate text.

 

    If Beowulf’s motive in confronting Grendel only partially resembles Judith’s motive in confronting Holofernes, the nature of Beowulf’s victory only partially resembles that of Judith’s. Unlike the “holy maiden” (Judith 56), whose aspiration and achievement both stem from God, Beowulf emphasizes his own importance in the proceedings by expressing his “complete trust / in his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor” (Beowulf 669-70), and observing that the Divine Lord will “in His wisdom grant the glory of victory / to whichever side He sees fit” (686-7). This last remark sounds almost like a boast, as if Beowulf is implying that God’s assistance is contingent upon some standard of moral (or perhaps bodily) fitness which the hero is eager to prove himself meet to. Further instances of the poet juggling his divine with his earthly explanations for Grendel’s overthrow can be seen in the contiguity of two seemingly conflicting sentences at 696: “the Lord was weaving / a victory on His war-loom for the Weather-Geats. / Through the strength of one they all prevailed,” and also in the narrator’s later assertion that “mindful God / and one man’s daring” (1055-56) put an end to Grendel’s murderous rampages. In these remarks the warrior’s strength and the warrior’s courage, respectively, are placed on a par with God’s will as equally responsible for the events at Heorot, and in the end it is “Beowulf’s doings,” not God’s, as is the case in Judith, that “were praised over and over again” (B 855-56). Our resulting faint impression of God as a deciding figure in Beowulf’s combat with Grendel stands in contrast to the predominance of Judith’s God, of whom, as we have seen, it is clearly stated he “gave her her victory” (Judith 124). 

 

     Perhaps most interesting among the ambiguous god-references surrounding the battle with Grendel are those in which God is credited with involvement, but on behalf of the wrong party. “As long as God disallowed it,” the poet says of the Geats who slumber in Heorot, “the fiend could not bear them to his shadow-bourne” (B 706-7). This declaration implies that God holds some influence over the monster, prompting the questions, how much influence? And could He have used it to check Grendel before the fiend became the “corpse maker” (276) we know him as? The prospect of God being responsible for Beowulf’s foe as well as for Beowulf crops up again in something Hrothgar says upon Beowulf’s arrival at Heorot (“God can easily / halt these raids and harrowing attacks!” (478-79)), and in a comment Beowulf makes post-conflict in which he credits God with “allowing” Grendel to slip free of the warrior’s death-grip and slink back to his lair, mortally wounded but living (967). From such passages we learn that whatever the extent of God’s influence in the Grendel battle, it is not exclusively exercised in the hero’s favor, whereas Judith’s God is responsible solely for the Isrealites’ interests and intervenes decisively for their benefit. 

 

    In Beowulf’s subsequent two battles, the pretext of his spiritual service becomes less apparent before it is finally lost altogether. The warrior’s motive for engaging Grendel’s Mother in conflict is divinely purposeful in the same way his first battle was. By her shared blood with Grendel, Grendel’s Mother poses a like threat to Christendom, and Irving’s characterization of Hrothgar’s attitude towards Beowulf vis a vis the Grendel battle can also apply here: “it is here that the pious Hrothgar thanks God for sending his champion in the person of Beowulf” (Irving 186, referring to Beowulf 927-28). But if Beowulf enters battle once more to police God’s creation, he enters now with the added burden of maintaining his exalted image, of keeping “his glory…secure” (Beowulf 1646). And when he confronts the monstress, we see ‘God’s champion’ slipping from the solid ground of his Christian purpose and teetering further into his personal purpose, his self-glorification. This becomes evident when Hrunting, Unferth’s gifted sword, “refuses to bite” Beowulf’s scaly opponent, and “Hygelac’s kinsman kept thinking about his name and his fame: he never lost heart” (1529-30). Strikingly apparent here is the contrast between Beowulf’s method of coping with adversity and Judith’s, as one draws encouragement and reassurance from thoughts God (Judith 95) and the other from thoughts of himself: the heroes’ egoistic distinction widens.

 

    As for what power is credited with orchestrating Beowulf’s victory over Grendel’s Mother, the liturgy of clues are of the same mixed bag as those that described Grendel’s overthrow, with one elemental difference. Here, emphasis is placed more on Beowulf’s war-gear and weaponry than on the warrior’s strength or the warrior’s God or any other deciding force: we learn more about the intricacies of Beowulf’s “keen, inlaid, worm-loop patterned steel” sword (Beowulf 1532) than about his faith. Midway through the skirmish “the mesh of chain-mail / on Beowulf’s shoulder shielded his life, / turned the edge and tip of the [monster’s] blade” (1547-49), and when prospects look grim for the warrior and he feels “daunted” (1543), he suddenly “saw a blade that boded well” (1557) and which succeeds in piercing the demon’s skin. Thus we come to understand that Beowulf owes his survival of this underwater episode to chain-mail, and that an ancient blade portends Beowulf’s triumph as opposed to God-sent sanction in Judith

 

    Our faint impression of God’s authority only grows fainter over the course of this battle. In an instance where the sovereign’s role is confidently asserted, it is immediately followed by a statement casting doubts on God’s categorical ability to influence events: we are told that “holy God / decided the victory. It was easy for the Lord, / the Ruler of Heaven, to redress the balance / once Beowulf got back up on his feet” (1553-56). The phrasing here implies that the omnipotent Creator as envisioned by the Beowulf poet relies on Beowulf’s own independent fortitude and gumption to level the odds before He can exert any real influence on the battle field. Such passages paint Beowulf’s God as a rather feeble and marginal figure, who, in addition to sometimes muddling his loyalties, also wields stunted powers. While we see Judith, as a demonstrable agent of God, enjoying a productive and communicative alliance with her all-powerful sovereign, we find Beowulf’s relationship to his God seeming far less coordinated, and far less functional.

 

    Lastly, in his third and fatal battle, Beowulf’s motive no longer bears any trace of the divine purpose that was built into his earlier conflicts as an effect of the Cain connection. As Irving notes, “the final fight with the dragon is never put in symbolic terms like these” (Irving 186), for the dragon poses not a spiritual threat but rather a witlessly physical one, that of a vicious pest infesting his land. As a result, we see Beowulf entering battle now solely to satisfy his ego: the warrior states, “I shall pursue this fight / for the glory of winning” (2515) and the narrator chimes in with the assertion that, “inspired again / by the thought of glory, the war-king threw / his whole strength behind a sword stroke” (2677b-79). In the exhibitionist nature of this last endeavor Beowulf offers the starkest contrast we’ve seen yet to Judith’s humble service, a contrast which is sharpened by Beowulf’s insistence on confronting the dragon by himself. While Judith is described in one breath as both “daring” and “prudent” (Judith 333-34), Beowulf shows himself possessed of too much daring and too little prudence in proclaiming that it is not up to “any man except me / to measure his strength against the monster / or to prove his worth” (B 1534-35). Approaching the dragon with all these pompous ambitions, Beowulf widens the gulf between himself and his God, and, in the process, between himself and Judith too.

 

    The explanations for the result of Beowulf’s third battle are consistent with their mixed predecessors, only now it is fate we see playing a new and larger role. Of the reckoning with the dragon the warrior remarks, “when I meet the cave-guard, what occurs on the wall / between the two of us will turn out as fate, / overseer of men, decides” (2525-27). And unfortunately fate this time is not in his favor. As Beowulf fights, “fate denied him / glory in battle” (2574-75), and at the hero’s death “his fate hovered near, unknowable but certain: / it would soon claim his coffered soul, / part life from limb. Before long / the prince’s spirit would spin free from his body” (2421-24). God is absent from the active sequences of this skirmish, but is conjured after the warrior’s death in phrases characterizing the permanence and breadth of this new development (Beowulf 2857, 2874).

 

    Beowulf’s death itself brings a new perspective on the hero's remoteness from God. Referring to Beowulf’s dying appeal to “gaze my fill” of the dragon’s treasure (B 2748), Irving explains that the hero’s final moment is ethically mislead enough (from a Christian standpoint) to null the hero’s previous pagan and ethical virtue. He quotes E.G. Stanley: “[Beowulf] is a pagan, virtuous, all but flawless. His flaw being this, that ignorant of God, he, in the hour of his death, could think of nothing other than pelf and a cenotaph; avarice and vainglory” (182-83). On a congruent note, Colin Chase demonstrates how the unjust results of Beowulf’s just career locate the king in a tradition of frustrated heroes: “we hear from the messenger what the people are to expect as a result of [Beowulf’s] death: the renewed warfare of Franks and Frisians and Swedes…Beowulf’s courage and generosity are to yield a harvest of bitterness and suffering. As with Oedipus, and as with Hamlet, the tragic effect lies precisely in the gap between intention and result” (190). This gap of which Chase speaks presents an appealing motif. Since we see no discrepancy between Judith’s intent and result, which both unfold according to her and her God’s plan, we may reasonably interpret this ‘gap’ as the egoistic distinction that cleaves Beowulf from Judith, and likewise as the distance that separates Beowulf from God, the vacuum where his ego has inserted itself, against the warrior’s best intentions, to warp and mislead his results. It is, perhaps, the very pith of his ineligibility to be God’s agent. 

  

 All this goes to show that Judith and Beowulf furnish to the reader of the Nowell Codex two antipodal types of hero, and, by extension, two antipodal modes of being. Their contrasting spiritual dynamics bring to the manuscript as a whole a sense of the boundless capacity of the human mind for faith, alongside a sense of the unimaginable potential of the body for might. Perhaps Beowulf’s inadequacy as an agent of God serves a purpose in the Codex, offering a contrapuntal perspective on the dissociation of religious faith from virtue to rejoin Judith’s fervent synthesis of these. Perhaps, too, to rejoin the saturated Christian discourse of a recently-converted isle. Whatever the purpose, if any, of Beowulf and Judith’s union in the pages of this remarkable manuscript, the spiritual interactions within them and between them speak volumes, ultimately, of the power and the beauty of determination. 

Original watercolor, December 2017

 

Works Cited:

Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 41-108.

Blackburn, F. A. “The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf.” PMLA, vol. 12, no. 2, 1897, pp. 205–225. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/456133. Accessed 27 Oct 2017.

Chase, Colin. “Beowulf, Bede, and St. Oswine: The Hero’s Pride in Old English Hagiography.”Beowulf: Basic Readings, edited by Peter S. Baker, Garland Publishing Inc., 1995, pp. 181-93.

Hosmer, Robert Ellis, Jr. “‘Beowulf’ and the Old English ‘Judith:’ Ethics and Esthetics in Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” University of Massachusetts, University Microfilms International, 1985, pp. 67-79. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.

Irving, Edward B, Jr. “Christian and Pagan Elements.” A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, University of Nebraska Press,1997, pp. 175-92.

Judith. Translated by Elaine Teharne. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 110-117.     

 

Seeking Out Offred: The Power of Elusion in The Handmaid’s Tale

Zuzu Tadeushuk

  May 2017

 In her futuristic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood constructs a dystopian world in which the United States have been overthrown in a military coup and supplanted by a theocracy called the Republic of Gilead. Under this new state, individuals are reduced to a function and assigned a specific utility to the greater good of society; to act, and interact, outside of one’s prescribed station is unnecessary and suspicious, and may even be punished by torture, execution, or banishment the chemical wasteland known as ‘the Colonies.’ In an attempt to salvage a dwindling population in the face of direly low birth rates, the regime of Gilead allots the responsibility of reproduction to a class of women called Handmaids, who exist to be impregnated by and bear children for Commanders, who with their often infertile Wives constitute the elite of Gileadean society. Identified by the name of the Commander to whose household they’re posted plus the possessive prefix “of,” Handmaids are just that, possessions “of” the man they serve, valuable only as long as their ovaries are viable. 

    The protagonist of Atwood’s novel, called Offred, narrates her experience of indoctrination into and life as a Handmaid in the early days of Gilead. The theocracy has only existed for a few years, and Offred retains poignant memories of her husband, daughter, and friends from ‘the time before,’ which she threads through her more immediate account of her existence in the house of a high-ranking Commander in what was formerly Massachusetts. No part, however, of her narrative is completely contemporaneous: though she narrates in the present tense, we discover in the effectual epilogue of the book that her tale exists as a spoken recording on a series of cassette tapes that she can only have had access to after she has escaped Gilead, or has at least gone into hiding in wait of escape.

    This revelation about the context of Offred’s narrative has a seismic effect on our reading of the story. In addition to unexpectedly framing the preceding tale, Atwood’s concluding fictional ‘Historical Notes on The Handmaid’s Tale’ provoke a multitude of questions—most of which go unanswered. In addition to prompting the reader to reconsider the motive for a narration that was evidently composed with the altered perspective that comes with remove, the ‘Notes’ make us question the identity and nature of our narrator herself. The contextualizing effect of this section confirms a niggling sensation in the reader that we have never really known Offred as a narrator rather than a character, as a host who has guided us through her vulnerable and intimate past experiences but not allowed us to assemble even the most rudimentary awareness of her present self and state. The realization of Offred’s elusiveness as a narrator dawns on the reader conjointly with the realization of the elusiveness of her narrative motive, and it is through Offred’s insistence on authorial unavailability that her tale’s narrative form, as much as its content, underscores the novel’s eerie warning that the revoking of a society’s right to interpret and wonder, and the supplanting of it with singleness of perspective are the first and foremost weapons of autocracy.

    The ‘Notes’ rattle our perception of The Handmaid’s Tale by showing us the unexpected truth of Offred’s assertion that “this is a reconstruction” (Atwood 225). Being as such a version of events inevitably approximate and colored by retrospect, an inquiry arises into just what hue the events have taken on since their actual occurrence, in the narrator’s eyes and hence in her readers’. How does Offred reconstruct her tale, and to what end? Though she does weave certain diegetic clues into her narrative, they yield no consistent theme. As Marta Dvorak points out, these clues arise when Offred “calls attention to the fabricated nature of her story…and repeatedly [disscusses] the procedures of her own narration” (Dvorak 449). Indeed, at one point Offred acknowledges: “[i]t’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it is, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, chances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many” (Atwood 134). While a quote such as this, treating as it does of the manipulative properties of reconstruction, could be expected to divulge something of Offred’s narrative intent, this passage offers only the general assurance that Offred is indeed deliberately story-telling, and aware of it. It does not reveal the purpose of this story-telling, or what, if any, “half-colors” she has endowed her reconstruction with. 

    If Offred’s narrativepurpose seems uncertain to us, it is perhaps because we are made to feel uncertain by the very structure of her narrative, the very mind-style of our story-teller. Barbara Garlick observes that the opening segments of the novel are the most straightforward of the book, “seemingly framed in an almost classically correct way for fantasy” (Garlick 163), with Offred describing in snapshots her various settings of the ‘present’ moment (which we later learn is not actually that) and its preceding phases. Here “the emphasis is on certainty of perception and realistic descriptions of the Red Centre and the Commander’s house” (Garlick 169), but with the advent of the second ‘Night episode,’ the narrative becomes marked by “unreliability and deliberate prevarication” (Garlick 169). The straightforwardness of Offred’s valiant counter-memory falters, and the ‘certainty of perception’ that we as readers generally rely on in a text becomes increasingly unstable. This mounting uneasiness peaks, and meets its ultimate realization, at the end of the novel with our discovery that we have indeed been duped all along by our narrator: Offred is not there, before us, speaking or writing to us from where she has lead us to believe she is speaking or writing. Her voice, we are informed, is not conclusively the voice we’ve come to know; that familiar one is rather the “guesswork” arrangement of her “unnumbered” tapes by self-satisfied male academics who are so far from empathizing with Offred’s story—putting themselves in her place—that they can flippantly crack jokes about it (Atwood 302; 301, 305). 

    We are made to feel that we have never really had access to Offred, or indeed to any sovereign narrator at all. To revisit Barabara Garlick, the scholar points out that “The ‘Historical Notes’…deliberately deny all possibility of establishing an identity for the narrator. She is like the first African Eve, evidently there—we have a consciously arranged version of the story told on the tapes—but without a clearly identifying face or name; it is only possible for Pieixoto to postulate a figure on the basis of the identity of the Commanders with whom she was associated” (Garlick 165). Offred the narrator is as remote from the telling of her tale as Offred the character is central to its content. We know her thought processes and motives as she navigates the Gileadean world, but we are excluded from the thought processes and motives of the Offred who is recording this story orally, who is enunciating from somewhere—we can only guess where, for this too is real-time information she does not grant us. And so the elusiveness of her diegetic intent becomes entwined with the elusiveness of her diegetic identity—the identity of an Offred who succeeds that Offred we know from the narrative, but is in fact the only Offred we have ever been exposed to.

    Again, clues are dispersed throughout the text that may portend to reveal what we seek, in this case an authorial presence, but which also prove ultimately unyielding. One particular passage, embedded in Offred’s meditations of a solitary evening in Gilead, extends a gleaming hint: “This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here—Let’s stop there. I intend to get out of here” (Atwood 134). Upon first reading, we may imagine this to refer to Offred lying in her bedroom in Commander Fred’s house reviewing her reality in her stream-of-consciousness way, and acknowledging our presence as a conjured listener in her head. After having read the ‘Historical Notes,’ however, we may return to reconsider this passage and now construe it as referring to the narrator’s immediate moment of actual recitation from her hiding place—perhaps a hiding place with a ‘single bed’ to lie ‘flat on.’ But such a revised reading is in turn revised by the following passage, in which Offred continues: “When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove” (Atwood 134). Does Offred here depict her Handmaid self anticipating her narrator self and the recording she will do ‘in the form of one voice to another’ if she can slip the noose of the regime’s control? The multitude of distinct, time-warping readings that branch out from this single excerpt conclusively extinguishes the hope of gleaning any omniscient authorial commentary here.

    We cannot, then, locate the intent of a narrator who herself cannot be located. But we may guess at it. Some have suggested Offred’s narrative was a form of resistance, with the scholar Hilde Staels perceptively aligning Offred’s narrative act with that of resistance to an imposed theocratic discourse: “Offred crosses the boundaries of accepted meaning by giving voice to an alternative perspective and an alternative discourse that continuously cut through the rigid logocentric texture of the superstructure” (Staels 233). Staels traces this logic in its literal manifestations: the regime tells Offred she is better off as a Handmaid and must forget the past; Offred recalls and relives ‘the time before’ constantly in her tale. The regime tells her she is “a thing…a made thing not something born” (Atwood 66); Offred insists “I feel,” “I want,” “I don’t want,” attesting to the existence of an inner life outside of that which the regime recognizes and permits (Staels 231-32). And though Staels’ claim is undeniably true of the majority of the novel, I believe the ‘Historical Notes’ invalidates it: being committed in hiding or somehow outside the periphery of the ‘rigid logocentric…superstructure’ it is said to ‘cut through,’ does Offred’s narration still qualify as the substantive resistance Staels designates it? 

    I would not characterize Offred’s narrative purpose as resistance—not substantive resistance, at least. Her narration is neither an attempt to assimilate to nor to defy the reality of her world. Rather I believe it’s the aspiration to a consciousness in between these poles, a delicate balance, that ultimately emerges as the function of The Handmaid’s Tale. For while Offred’s act of narrating her Gileadean experience is an effort to commemorate it—and her existence as a Handmaid—it is simultaneously an effort to protect herself from being overwritten by this experience, an effort not to yield her consciousness of her own individuality to it. This balance between pre-Gilead selfhood and Gileadean selfhood is a critical one: over-emphasis of either could result in the loss of life, or of hope. Were Offred to fall irrevocably into pre-Gileadean self, as a fellow Handmaid did once at the Red Center, she might never resurface and never escape the regime. At the Red Center when Janine wakes one morning in a trance in which she relives her daily interactions as a waitress in the time before (“Hello…My name’s Janine…Can I get you some coffee to begin with?”), it takes a slap from Offred’s friend Moira to bring her back to the present: “Get back here, [Moira said]. Get right back here! You can’t stay there, you aren’t there anymore…Don’t you know what they’ll do? You go too far away and they just take you up to the Chemistry Lab and shoot you” (Atwood 216). Though a relapse into the past—a “slipping over the edge” (Atwood 217)—would not be as dangerous for Offred, ensconced presumably “in [an] attic or cellar” (303), as it was for Janine, who was in danger of discovery and punishment by the Aunts at any moment, a relapse would be equally detrimental to her chances of survival, as it would render her incapable of a cautious, stealthy escape. But total submission to her imposed Gileadean identity, on the other hand, would defeat the purpose of escape at all: why risk your life and the lives of others in an effort to flee if you no longer have any objection to living as a Handmaid, no longer cling to your former memories and no longer resent the humiliation and subjection that a Handmaid’s existence entails?

    Offred’s orchestration of this balance can be seen in a passage in which she contemplates the importance of names to personal identity: “My name isn’t Offred, I have another name, which nobody uses now because it’s forbidden. I tell myself it doesn’t matter, your name is like your telephone number, useful only to others; but what I tell myself is wrong, it does matter. I keep the knowledge of this name like something hidden, some treasure I’ll come back to dig up, one day. I think of this name as buried” (Atwood 84). Here Offred shows that she can preserve contact with her past (I have another name), while not allowing this contact to endanger her current position (I think of this name as buried). She narrates in the hope of conducting herself safely towards that ‘one day’ when she can dig up her old life, her treasure. 

    It is as much through this balancing act as through her authorial elusiveness that we can view Offred as cultivating a layering of consciousness. Offred’s power lies in her ability to generate multiplicity: while in the regime’s view this amounts to her capacity to be fruitful and multiply, for Offred it takes shape in the deliberate proliferation of meaning, in the “heterogeneity [which] manifests itself…in non-calculable musical effects” (Staels 229). In fact, in this generative power of our narrator we can identify a different sort of resistance than the type which Staels indicates. If her vagueness creates the possibility of ‘heterogeneity,’ it does so through its allowance of independent interpretation and conjecture. Such allowance, I believe, is an agent of individual and societal freedom; its restriction functions as a restriction of freedom, and in extremity facilitates oppression. By perpetrating elusiveness, then, Offred fights what twentieth-century philosopher Antonio Gramsci terms ‘the fight of position,’ “in which aggrieved populations seek to undermine the legitimacy of dominant ideology, rather than just a ‘war of maneuver’ aimed at seizing state power” (Gramsci paraphrased in Lipsitz 146). A unique form of resistance, the very unavailability of Offred’s narrative form undermines Gilead’s ideology by its criminal vagueness, rejoining the regime’s discourse of certainty with her private legitimation of uncertainty.

    In an age when “alternative facts” abound, we are not in immediate danger of losing polyvalence in perspective. But with the ruling figure of the United States constantly clamoring to discredit the press—in deference to his own version of events—we find our nation uniquely ripe for the receiving of Offred’s warning. Both the content and the structure of her tale demonstrate how the denial of alternative discourses and alternative narratives denies the existence of certain populations, of certain lives and emotions and memories. Heterogeneity, Offred whispers, is worth fighting for.

Original sketch, May 2017

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Anchor Books, 1998.

Dvorak, Marta. “What is Real/Reel? Margaret Atwood’s ‘Rearrangement of Shapes on a     Flat Surface’ or Narration as Collage.” Etudes Anglaises, Vol. 51, Call No.             PR1.E85, Accessed May 8 2017.

Garlick, Barbara. “The Handmaid’s Tale: Narrative Voice and the Primacy of the Tale.”         Twentieth-Century Fantasists: Essays on Culture, Society, and Belief in             Twentieth-Century Mythopoeic Literature, edited by Kath Filmer, McMillan Press         1992, 161-171.

Lipsitz, George. “The Struggle for Hegemony.” The Journal of American History, Vol. 75,     No. 1, 1988, pp. 146-150. www.jstor.org/stable/1889660. Accessed May 8 2017.

Staels, Hilde. “Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale: Resistance Through Narrating.”        English Studies 76, no. 5,1995. pp. 455-468. Accessed May 3 2017.

 

Monstrous Heroes: Satan and the Creature in Shelley’s Frankenstein

Zuzu Tadeushuk

April 2017

   In Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelly frequently alludes to, and elaborates on, themes from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Throughout the novel she casts her characters in different roles from that great epic, exploiting the moral and philosophical significance such associations necessarily effuse to develop characters and intensify their relationships, specifically that of Creator to his Creation. The most obvious translation of Miltonic figures into Frankenstein is the association of Victor with God—though that scientist failed dismally in the duties which Milton’s God performs for his offspring—and his Creature with Adam. More noteworthy, however, andconstant, is Shelley’s similizing of the Creature with Satan, a connection she draws both explicitly, in the words of the Creature himself, and implicitly, through the evolution of his actions. In this nameless, beleaguered character, Shelly resurrects Milton’s Satan, and revises him. In the Creature she justifies Satan, and renders him the blameless, understandable antihero he couldn’t be in the didactic verses he sprang from.

    Shelly wrote Frankenstein at a time when Milton’s legacy was enjoying revived popularity among writers, philosophers, and artists (Schock 2-3). The poet was lionized by proto-Romantics and Romantics to such an extent, in fact, that Shelly’s own mother in 1787 eloquently declared: “I am sick of hearing of the sublimity of Milton” (qtd. in Craciun 699). Particularly, Romantic-era literati had a fixation on Milton’s rendition of Satan: as Peter Schock explains, “Milton’s Satan assumes in the Romantic era a prominence seen never before or since, nearly rivaling Prometheus as the most characteristic mythic figure of the age. A more active and ambiguous mythic agent than the bound, suffering forethinker and benefactor of humanity, the reimagined figure of Milton’s Satan embodied for the age the apotheosis of human desire and power” (3). The historic origin of the “Satanist position” (Wittreich 816) of identifying with and celebrating the Devil is unclear, but Joseph Wittreich explains that a portion of contemporary Miltonists locate its inception in Lord Byron and Percy Shelley while another portion objects to perceiving these poet’s notions as explicit Satanism at all (816). Wittreich explains, “This is the tenor of their argument: taking as gospel Satan's preachments in hell, the Romantics, who read Paradise Lost with indecent haste, have succumbed to his temptation; their unguarded admiration invests in Satan an unqualified sympathy and embraces him as a thoroughly admirable moral agent. Thus Blake, Shelley, and their contemporaries are depicted as intellectually irresponsible, morally derelict, and critically impoverished” (Wittreich 828). Regardless of whether recognizable Satanism originated in these Romantic poets or elsewhere, Wittreich expresses something valuable in the idea that by viewing Satan as a hero Milton’s reader is ‘succumbing to his temptation.’ Stanley Fish writes at length about this temptation in the first chapter of his groundbreaking book Surprised by Sin. As Fish describes it, Milton purposely portrays Satan as magnificent and inspiring in the expectation that his reader will sympathize with the demon, and then turns on the reader and, speaking now through the narrative voice of the epic, condemns him for fulfilling this very expectation (9). Fish interprets Milton’s poetic chide for us: “I know that you have been carried away by what you have just heard; you should not have been; you have made a mistake, just as I knew you would” (9). For to Milton’s mind Satan, who has committed unprovoked a supreme act of blasphemy, deserves every “affliction and dismay” (Milton 1.57) Hell has to offer. 

    By this logic it is indeed “intellectually irresponsible, morally derelict,” as Wittreich puts it, to view Satan in a sympathetic light. Not so, however, if one removes the inaugural culpability that felled the character in the first place. This is just what Mary Shelley does in Frankenstein when she replicates Satan’s development in the unlucky but fundamentally blameless Creature. The similarities between these characters abound; the divergence characterizes the two reading experiences with entirely antithetical emotions. 

    The links that Shelley draws between Satan and the Creature of her text center on the most emblematic feature of these two characters: their criminality. Each of the two is introduced to the reader in a state that is wretched and pitiable, and which ignites within each a thirst to be avenged on his creator and to inflict suffering such as that which has been inflicted on himself. This ambition catalyzes the main events of both Paradise Lost and Frankenstein, positioning Satan and the Creature as the driving force, and the crux, of their respective texts.

    When we first glimpse Satan, he has been cast off by God and lies “vanquisht, rowling in the fiery Gulfe” of hell (Milton 1.52), and when we meet Frankenstein’s Creature he is waking in a dim laboratory to behold his creator fleeing his presence, filled with “breathless horror and disgust” (Shelley). Both figures at the time of their creations are pure and good, and become evil when they are prompted to doubt the affection of their creators. In Milton’s epic, Satan initially ranks “of the first, / If not the first Arch-Angel, great in Power, / In favour and præeminence,” but waxes evil when he conceives a jealousy for god’s newly-begotten Son, whose supreme claim on the Father’s love he “could not beare…& thought himself impaird” (Milton 5.659-661, 664-655). Infuriated by this perceived ebb of love for him in his Creator, Satan challenges God and is subsequently banished to Hell. Similarly, Frankenstein’s Creature was created naive and mild, deriving pleasure from such trifles as the singing of a thrush and the clandestine gathering of firewood for ‘his cottagers’. “I was benevolent,” he explains at one point to his skeptical progenitor; “my soul glowed with love and humanity” (Shelley). He transgresses only after he learns from Victor Frankenstein’s diary of his creator’s abhorrence of him. It is this knowledge, combined with multiple rejections from other humans, which incites him to do what those rejections alone had not, and murder innocent William Frankenstein.

    Both characters arrive at a crossroads of sorts a third of the way through their respective texts that rears the possibility of redemption and reform but serves conversely to spur each down a path to irredeemability and absolute villainy. At this crossroads, which hinges on Book Four of Paradise Lost and Chapter Seven of Frankenstein, both characters yearn to be included in mankind, but, learning that they are barred from it, determine instead to ruin it in belligerence towards their Creators. For Satan, this moment arrives when he understands how utterly he is excluded from the joys and privileges of God’s universe, embodied for him by the nascent human race, “whom [his] thoughts pursue / With wonder, and could love” (Milton 4.362-63). As he views Paradise for the first time, he is overcome by sensations of “envie” but also of earnest remorse, and he exhorts himself “O then at last relent: is there no place / Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?” (Milton 4.115, 79-80). It is Satan himself, however, who rejects the idea of reform because, he reasons, even if he “could obtaine / By Act of Grace [his] former state…ease would recant / Vows made in pain,” and he would sin again (Milton 4.93-98). This projected recapitulation of corruption is, like all events, already “known” by God, “therefore as farr / From granting hee, as I from begging peace” is the conclusion of Satan’s fleeting consideration of repentance (Milton 5.103-104). 

    Hence Satan never delivers a request to his Creator; Frankenstein’s Creature, on the other hand, does. The Creature’s opportunity for reform arrives when he asks Frankenstein to engineer him a companion, vowing that his lost “virtues will necessarily arise when [he lives] in communion with an equal” (Shelley). And while God can preempt the outcome of Satan’s unproposed proposition, Frankenstein cannot know what might follow the fulfillment of his Creature’s request: not having seen these previous virtues first hand, he doubts the Creature’s good intent. Thus the scientist denies his Creature in ignorance the redemption God would have denied Satan in wisdom, both to the same effect: Satan’s “evil be thou my good” is echoed in the Creature’s “I will revenge my injuries: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear” (Milton 4.110, Shelley). Subsequently the one commits himself to further evil via the ruination of Adam and Eve and the other via the the ruination of the extended Frankenstein family. 

    To understand the operative distinction Shelley fashions between her Creature and Satan, we must consider their acts through a lens of context and motivation. As cultural anthropologist Francois Flahault explains, malice can best be comprehended through an investigation of “the historical, social, ideological, organizational and other conditions which can trigger the logic of destruction and set it in motion” (qtd. in Butchart, 177). A look at these ‘conditions,’ especially the social one, in the lives of our fiendish characters provides insight into their fundamental principles, the underlying intentions where their vital difference lies. Satan, we learn from Raphael’s conversation with Adam, as well as from his own admission in Book Four, first acted evilly in reaction to an imagined lack of love for him in his creator, while Shelley’s Creature first acted evilly in reaction to a real lack of love for him in his creator. The one was purposeless, unprovoked; the other purposeful and legitimized. Later this disparity asserts itself in the objectives undertaken by the characters’ second evils, that genuine malice which is brought about through the deliberate decision expressed by each at his ‘crossroads’ moment. Here, Satan sins hopeless of any benefit proceeding from his crimes, other than perhaps the momentary gratification of causing pain in his creator. As he meditates on the act he is about to commit, the fiend admits that he does not “hope to be my self less miserable / By what I seek, but others to make such / As I” (Milton 9.126-128). The Creature, on the other hand, is driven to evil for its capacity of extortion, its utility in achieving a desired end. And what he hopes his malice will achieve, essentially, is his happiness in the existence of a companion, and arguably his creator’s happiness as well, for, as David Marshall explains, the eighteenth-century concept of sympathy suggested “putting oneself in the place of someone else, taking someone else's part—a general condition or act, related to the modern word ‘empathy,’ of which pity, compassion, and commiseration are only specific examples” (qtd. in Hustis 848). Bringing happiness to the Creature would then bring happiness to Frankenstein, if the scientist were truly ‘putting himself in the place’ of his creation. But of course he is not, and “the monster’s transformation from failed Adam to fallen angel to malignant devil is the result of the neglect of his all too ungodly creator” (Lewis 280). By replicating Satan without this innate ill-intent of his, and with the desire for serenity and virtue which he wholly lacked, Shelley resolves for the sensitive reader that moral dilemma Fish observes in Paradise Lost. It is by this subtraction and addition, this amendment to the “conditions which…trigger the logic of destruction” in Satan, that she truly justifies the antihero and renders him, incarnate in the Creature, worthy of the acclaim he receives. 

    This exquisite interaction between Frankenstein and Paradise Lost lends to the whole of Mary Shelley’s novel an oppressive air of tragedy, for the Creature, like Satan, is left at the close of the text with imminent doom looming over his head. Readers at the time would have been aware of the extended Satanic analogy Shelley has drawn, and noted the uncomfortable distinction it produces at the end of the novel: while the prospect of Satan’s punishment at “the Judgement” (Milton 10.81) is a welcome remediation to our lingering sensitivity to the demon’s offense, the Creature’s professed intent of suicide (“I shall collect my funeral pile, and consume to ashes this miserable frame”) elicits doubt and even disappointment. For if “Milton forces us to acknowledge the personal relevance of the Arch-fiend’s existence” (Fish 22), Shelley brings that existence yet a degree closer to our experience by making the Creature pitiable, perhaps even lovable. Are we, as readers, lead to feel dissatisfied with Shelley’s promotion of sympathy the way we are with Milton’s prohibition of it? Having sympathized with the Creature in the full Romantic understanding of the word, and put ourselves in his place, are we not then doomed along with him, bound to feel about the course of Shelley’s plot the regret which the Creature feels about his string of ruthless murders? In mourning the fact that in fate, as in inception, the Creature mirrors Satan, we find ourselves mourning the perversion of innocence by hardship. Ironically, the perversion of innocence is Satan’s cardinal offense; in addition, then, to being a reiteration of Satan, the Creature also becomes a victim of the arch-fiend, or of what he stands for. It is the Creature’s stirring regret, in the face of this victimization, that serves to redeem him minutely in the reader’s eyes, and grants the character a rare opportunity for individuality: his expression of ambivalence and remorse over his blasted innocence occurs in the first scene in which the Creature appears in real time, through the narrator’s eyes and not those of his Creator, who is now dead. Freed for a moment here from his likeness to Satan, and from the conflict with Frankenstein which occupied so much of his existence, he appears to us suddenly an “apotheosis of human desire and power,” to repurpose Schock’s characterization of Satan’s heroic appeal. The Creature shows his “desire and power,” however, not solely through his significant malice, but also through his yearning for a happier life, his furious, undying ambition. In his own right, he too is an antihero. 

Original sketch, June 2016

 

Works Cited:

Butchart, Garnet C. “Malice by François Flahault, Liz Heron.” Cultural Critique, no. 63, 2006, pp.     177–181, www.jstor.org/stable/4489251. Accessed April 13 2017. 

Craciun, Adriana. "Romantic Satanism and the Rise of Nineteenth-Century Women's Poetry."         New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation, vol. 34, no. 4, 2003, pp.         699-721, EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2048/login?url=http://                search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2004395003&site=ehost-        live. Accessed April 8 2017.

Fish, Stanley E. Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost. U. of Calif. P, 1971.

Hustis, Harriet. “Responsible Creativity and the "Modernity" of Mary Shelley's Prometheus.”         Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 43, No. 4, 2003, pp. 845-858.             www.jstor.org/stable/462510. Accessed April 15 2017.
Lewis, Paul. "Victor Frankenstein and Owen Warland: The Artist as Satan and as God." Studies     in Short Fiction, vol. 14, 1977, pp. 279-282. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:        2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?                        direct=true&db=mzh&AN=1977107587&site=ehost-live.\. Accessed April 8 2017.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. The John Milton Reading Room, Dartmouth U.                 www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/pl/book_4/text.shtml

“Romanticism: More Satanic Than Satanism: Part 3 of 3.” thesatanicscholar.com, March 22         2017. thesatanicscholar.com/category/romantic-satanism/#fn16. Accessed April 8 2017. 

Schock, Peter A. Romantic Satanism: Myth and the Historical Moment in Blake, Shelley, and         Byron. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. 

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. panOpen, 1818 ed.        sunyrockland.panopen.com/reader#/courses/1570/books/4197/chapters/                2003c9d2f39c8/pages/e00712fc-6452-4d11-91f4-e6de7a1aa524/paragraphs/            1HpHHIyw8C3WdBFmzJPigpIAdPo-Aa4jTo6eFAYu6tdw_47?_k=y2sn0n. Accessed 17         April 2017. 

Wittreich, Joseph Anthony. “The ‘Satanism’ of Blake and Shelley Reconsidered.” Studies in         Philology, Vol. 65, No. 5, Oct., 1968, pp. 816-833, www.jstor.org/stable/4173623.             Accessed April 9 2017.

Sustenance as Sin

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Down the Rabbit Hole of Research that is Milton’s Paradise Lost

 

    In her article “‘For Knowledge is as Food:’ Digesting Gluttony and Temperance in Paradise Lost,” Emily Speller examines Milton’s bountiful food metaphors to show how they color the primary events, and intents, of the poem. Within the intricate and nuanced bounds of religious and cultural interpretations of sin and virtue, she uncovers Milton’s portrayal of gluttony as the vehicle of man’s original disobedience and explores how such a portrayal strengthens the poet’s persistent encouragement of temperance (Speller 1). Such an examination, she says, can help us to understand Milton’s professed objective of “[justifying] the wayes of God to men” (Milton 1.26), as well as the importance of Reason in guiding human beings towards the most ethical and temperate existence accessible to them after their Fall from grace (Speller 17).

    Speller portrays gluttony as a central concept in Paradise Lost that Milton’s characters both modify and are modified by. Milton, she explains, uses gluttonous and digestive metaphors to besmirch the “infernal and sinful” (Speller 2) figures in the poem when he describes Satan and his followers in terms evocative of vomit, flatulence, and defecation (Speller 2). This fosters within Milton’s reader a repulsion towards to the inhabitants of Hell, which sentiment Milton extends to entangle Adam and Eve as well when he fashions parallels between the actions—especially those involving the eating of fruit—of the demons and our ‘first parents’ (Speller 3-4). In addition, however, to borrowing from gluttony’s undesirable attributes to rub abhorrence off onto his characters, Milton also does the inverse and uses his characters, especially those whose unpopularity is pre-established, to lend infernal cachet to the concept of gluttony (Speller 4). Speller notes particularly that, in a topos common to Medieval and Early Modern writers, Milton personifies gluttony in the character of Death. She explains that “[b]y giving the formidable shape of Death a ‘Rav’nous Maw,’ Milton depicts not only the terror of death as a product of sin, but also what he believes to be the insidiousness of gluttony” (4). Speller’s apt demonstration here of Milton’s vilification of gluttony, combined with her argument for Adam and Eve’s association with gluttony via comparison with the devils, allows Speller to proceed plausibly to her cardinal claim, namely that the Fall from Grace in Paradise Lost is itself achieved through gluttony (5).

    This is essentially an assertion that in Milton’s understanding, humankind arrived at its current state through an act as sensually seditious as it was spiritually so. Speller sets about, through methodical, logical rhetoric that is punctuated by frequent allusions to preceding scholars, proving this claim, and draws evidence for Milton’s belief in the primacy of gluttony from a few of Milton’s own prose works, harvesting from his Commonplace Book the statement that gluttony is intolerable in part “because our first parent sank into it” (Speller 5). Speller proceeds to catalogue the literary history of gluttony as original sin, quoting religious authorities from Augustine to Aquinas as well as Medieval and Early Modern poets on the theme (Speller 5, 7, 10). She conjectures that in representing Adam and Eve’s transgression as gluttonous Milton may have taken a cue from these predecessors: being “familiar with the Church Fathers, Dante, Chaucer and Spenser” (7), she argues, Milton was undeniably aware of the literary tradition this portrayal comprised, and he can reasonably be seen as supplying it “further development in Paradise Lost” (7). 

    When it comes to definitively locating the particulars of gluttony within Milton’s narration of the Fall in Book Nine, Speller makes use of a diverse host of sources, fashioning from their texts a framework of definitions and distinctions within which she weaves her comparisons and harmonizes centuries of ethical thought to the key of one penetrating poem. With a keen understanding of the nuanced process of and preceding our ‘first parents’ ’ transgression in Paradise Lost, Speller extracts from her sources recondite features of gluttony that each reflect specific aspects of that process. Intriguingly, the source Speller most frequently draws on in this endeavor does not once mention Paradise Lost. The article “Gluttony,” by William Ian Miller, treats it’s namesake theme rather through a social lens, inspecting the inordinate scorn many cultures reserve for gluttony and the way in which it’s historical legacy “as an honored member of a select group of capital sins” (Miller 93) excuses this scorn, allowing us to view obesity, ugliness, and ill-health with antipathy and even reproach (93). For it is Miller who provides most of the historical data on gluttony’s classification which Speller benefits from in her article: Miller relates that as early as the fourth century gluttony was listed at the head of eight deadly sins, and that this arrangement can be found replicated in writings as recent as the thirteenth century, although following the reorganization by Gregory the Great in the sixth century most accounts list pride and avarice first (Miller 93-95). Miller relates that Thomas Aquinas considered gluttony to be a capital sin on the grounds that gluttony has the potential to generate other sins, such as lust and pride, an allegation that Speller shows us is indeed realized by Milton in Paradise Lost when, after their transgression, Adam and Eve’s “desires for food and sex are exacerbated, made increasingly inordinate” (Speller 9). This correlation between Aquinas’ definition and Milton’s verse demonstrates that the Fall in Paradise Lost can be identified as an act of gluttony by the consequences immediately following it. 

    It is also from Miller that Emily Speller draws the notion that gluttony conscribes more than “the primary meaning of consuming to excess” (Speller 6). On the contrary, Miller tells us that “[f]ollowing distinctions made by Gregory the Great in the sixth century, writings on vices and virtues well into the fifteenth century understood gluttony to have five main branches: eating too soon, too much, too avidly, too richly (in the sense of expensively), and too daintily” (99). Miller explains that this taxonomy of Gregory’s is an elaboration on an ecclesiastic tradition of viewing gluttony as comprised of quantitive excesses (such as eating “too much”), and qualitative excesses (such as eating “too daintily”) (Miller 103). The first, Miller writes, can be characterized as “vulgar masculine” (105), and the second “vulgar feminine; one low-class, the other pretentiously claiming for itself the superiority of expertise and highness, but often taking on the style of an unintended parody of highness” (105-6). Speller grafts this passage meticulously onto our understanding of the Fall in Paradise Lost when she asserts that Milton’s Eve commits both types of gluttony: initially she eats discriminately, when “[i]n an ‘unintended parody of highness,’ she first chooses to act beyond her human limits” (Speller 10) and partake of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Then she eats indiscriminately, when by Milton’s account she doesn’t hesitate “to iterate / Her former trespass” (Milton 9.1005-6) and partake again alongside Adam (Speller 10). As Speller points out, this “second helping of sin goes beyond the satiety she experienced earlier, complicating an already criminal act” (9). In thus dissecting the sequence of distinct acts that comprise this most vital scene of Milton’s epic, Speller illustrates another scheme by which man’s transgression in Paradise Lost may be understood as gluttonous. These vivid items of evidence that Miller provides, both that of gluttony’s alleged generation of further deadly sins and that of gluttony as a qualitative as well as quantitative excess, comprise the essence of Speller’s case for the gluttonousness of Milton’s version of Fall, demonstrating that a text written in another discipline and with an entirely distinct purpose, if thorough and well presented, may prove an essential source even to the most specialized of unrelated arguments. 

    Another source Speller mentions in her text is one that illuminates gluttony’s counterpart quality of temperance. True to her titular purpose of “Digesting Gluttony and Temperance in Paradise Lost,” Speller turns her focus to Milton’s cynosure of moderation after having established his condemnation of gluttony via its part in the ruin of humanity. Joshua Scodel is author of Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature, a book that treats of the popular, philosophical, and controversial concept of the middle ground. His introductory chapter summarizes English writers’ fixation on this Aristotelian juxtaposition of excess and deficiency, and describes Milton as writing Paradise Lost in a time when excess was widely exalted in Cavalier symposiastic verse (Scodel 11-16). On the contrary Milton, Scodel writes, glorified self-restraint and a moderate lifestyle, partly as moral advice to his fellow men and partly as censure of his Royalist contemporaries (Scodel 16). 

    Speller seizes on Scodel’s brief characterization of Miltonic Paradise and proves immensely resourceful in spinning it into corroboration for one of the points she strives to make about Milton’s use of temperance. “Milton,” Scodel writes, “presents unfallen Adam and Eve as models of a partially recoverable ideal” (17).  Speller uses this quote initially to demonstrate the idealized nature of Adam and Eve’s prelapsarian life, and it leads her into a discussion of the various manifestations of temperance in Milton’s text. She revisits it later in her text, however, with an eye to its connotations for the future: as Speller asserts, “[t]he final books of Paradise Lost are especially important because they take place in a postlapsarian world and can thereby advise the reader in the management his own fallen condition” (Speller 11). The potential for the ‘partial recovery’ of Miltonic Paradise, she argues, lies in the Archangel Michael’s advice to Adam to infuse all his actions with virtue, charity, and temperance, a passage that Speller argues “illustrate[s] the hope that Adam through moral striving may find a ‘partially recoverable,’ felicitous internal balance no longer possible outside the self, due to the changed nature of a world fallen askew” (Speller 14-15). Speller identifies additional evidence for the recoverability of Paradise in the fact that Milton himself believed that an appropriate amount of pleasure was good and even necessary to human life, as long as it was of course accompanied by temperance, an opinion for which Speller found evidence in Paradise Lost’s “Dinner Party” scene, when Raphael and the mortal couple exalt in God’s delicious bounty and yet only eat “until they had suffic’t, / Not burd’n’d nature” (Milton 5.451-52), as well as in a paragraph of Milton’s Areopagitica in which “pleasures are defended when, ‘rightly temper’d,’ they form ‘the very ingredients of vertu’” (Speller 8.) The corroboration of these passages from two separate Miltonic texts, Speller argues, “suggests that Scodel is correct in assuming that Milton believes the Edenic ideal is ‘partially recoverable’” (Speller 8), a suggestion which would in turn imply the validity of Speller’s assertion that the last two books of Paradise Lost are chiefly a guide to how postlapsarian man should best conduct himself.

    Viewing Paradise Lost, as Speller does, through its digestive imagery, clarifies the ethical and practical values expressed by the poem. To my mind, gluttony’s position as primary evil and temperance’s as ultimate good reveal the thoroughly Puritan nucleus of milton’s worldview, showing his work to be informed by intolerance of ritual and excess, and by the all-permeating Puritan tenet of “everything in moderation” (gettysburg.edu). Speller’s analysis of Paradise Lost reveals another pillar of Miltonic nomos: his ascription to monism, or the belief that “there is a single origin or destination for all the elements or beings within a system” (Speller 15, OED). If all things come from and return to god, one must assume that the evils of the world must somehow each evolve to serve an ultimately noble purpose. With this conviction in mind, one might reasonably regard Milton’s depiction of Paradise as ‘partially recoverable’ as an attempt to reconcile God’s omnipotence with the existence evil. The final two books of Paradise Lost, then, beyond being readable as advice to “the reader in the management his own fallen condition” (Speller 11), may perhaps be interpreted as the poet’s amendment to the tragic consummation of God’s expressed foresight of man’s Fall in Paradise Lost. After all, Satan’s penetration of Eden, temptation of Eve, and the entry of Death and Sin into the world were all permitted by Milton’s God, a fact which is held to be primarily justified in the prospect of the Eschaton (Milton 10.623-37, Speller 4). But Milton may intend to further remediate the evil of man’s intellectual and physical engorging—of the triumph of inordinacy and ‘parodied highness’—by extending, via Michael, the prospect of the “felicitous internal balance” that Speller describes (15). Perhaps it is in this, Michael’s intimation, that we can see Milton truly fulfilling his endeavor to “justifie the wayes of God to men” (1.26), via dialogue and scenes of his own devising rather than the mere honoring of a centuries-old religious theory like that of the Eschaton. Perhaps it is in this, the promise of renewed opportunity for feats of temperance over gluttony, that we can find a degree of redemption in the postlapsarian world.

Original sketch, April 2017

 

Works Cited:

Aquinas, Thomas. “Summa Theologica.” dhspriory.org, Benziger Bros. ed, 1947.             dhspriory.org/thomas/summa/SS/SS148.html#SSQ148OUTP1. Accessed 19         March 2017.

Gettysburg.edu. “The Puritan Beliefs.” www3.gettysburg.edu/~tshannon/hist106web/        site15/bobs/puritanbeliefpage11.htm. Accessed 21 March 2017.

Miller, William Ian. “Gluttony.” Representations, no. 60, 1997, pp. 92–112.,                 www.jstor.org/stable/2928807. Accessed 14 March 2017.

Oxford English Dictionary. “Monism,” entry 2. ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2098/view/        Entry/121244?redirectedFrom=monism#eid. Accessed 21 March 2017.

Scodel, Joshua. Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature. Princeton         University Press, 2002.

Speller, Emily E. “‘For Knowledge Is As Food’: Digesting Gluttony and Temperance in         Paradise Lost.” Early English Studies, vol. 2, www.uta.edu/english/ees/            fulltext/speller2.html. Accessed 14 March 2017.

Silent Hollers

Zuzu Tadeushuk

East Ramapo Central School District and How It Can Save American Education

    There are many weaknesses and shortcomings riddling the educational system of the U.S. today, but a simple lack—a glaring insufficiency—of education itself should never, ever, be one of them. Such a lack may appear in various institutions and districts, but it is most prominently exemplified to my knowledge by the East Ramapo Central School District (ERCSD) of lower New York State, which for nearly a decade now has been the site of a peculiar battle of public vs private, majority vs minority, diversity vs exclusivity in the administration of pubic education. When the orthodox Jewish population in the district, who paid school tax like all residents but did not send its children to public schools, gained a majority of seats on the school board in 2005 in order to better influence the financial and legislative forces antagonizing to their community, the result was a reduction of funds to public school programs and rapid decrease in the quality of education provided by East Ramapo (Greenberg 10). For years this fiscal quandary persisted in the district, with the scarcity of resources depriving public school students here of a vital education, and tension—confrontation, even—mounting between the discordant public and private school factions. It is a situation that persists to this day, though it has in some measure been alleviated over the course of 2016. But regardless of whether it has found remedy or not, this corrosive scenario serves to demonstrate that the American system of public education as a whole is vulnerable, anywhere and anytime, to such manipulation, such misuse. And it is this larger issue of nation-wide vulnerability of education that must be remedied—and immediately.

    The school board is the mechanism of choice for administering education in 49 of the 50 United States, with Hawaii being the exception (Beckham and Wills). According to the Center for Public education, the board’s duty is to ensure that students within its district of jurisdiction receive the highest quality of instruction available for the dollars its residents spend in property tax (“The Role of School Boards”). Education, the Center asserts, “is not a line item on the school board’s agenda—it is the only item” (“The Role of School Boards”). The Board of East Ramapo, however, is in a position quite unlike that of most other school boards, for the body of public school students the board is in place to serve has become a minority in the district. With an influx of Orthodox and Hasidic Jews to the area over the past decade, this district, which spans roughly 35 square miles of Rockland county, has seen it’s student demographics so reconfigured that currently less than a third of East Ramapo’s student population attend public schools—only about 9,000 students, according to a 2014 record (Greenberg 6). Half of these are Latino, 39% African American, and 11% an agglomeration of Pacific Island, white, and mixed race, and it is evident that this community relies heavily on public education for a number of reasons (“East Ramapo Strategic Plan” Exhbt. B, 7). According to a document released by the East Ramapo school Board as recently as September 2016, 85% of the public school students are “economically disadvantaged” (“Strategic Plan” 3); 30% are classified as ‘English Language Learners’ (a figure indicative of the large Central American and Caribbean immigrant communities here that speak little to no English); and 20% suffer from disabilities, which are required by state law to be treated in a public institution if they are to receive the benefit of tax dollars (“Strategic Plan” 3; Ober and Decker 64).

    The Hasidic community, comprising a majority not of the district’s total population but of it’s student population, faces its own share of economic difficulty, and also sustains an immense percentage of disabled children, possibly even greater than that of non-Orthodox populaces (This American Life; Wallace-Wells). But unlike the immigrant and non-orthodox families of the district, members of the Hassidim opt not to send their children to public schools in favor of private Jewish institutions called Yeshivas, where classes focus on religious texts like the Talmud and are conducted primarily in Yiddish (This American Life). The Hassidim here is comprised of several ‘courts,’ or congregations of families under one Rabbi, and grows rapidly as an effect of the large number of children each family rears (Justice 170). Paying both property tax to the public schools and private tuition often to multiple gender-specific Yeshivas, this community’s dissatisfaction with the public system of education mounted over the years. Their sense of abuse was exacerbated by the rigidity of the legislation that prohibits tax dollar contribution to special education in private schools, a measure known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that was initially adopted to prevent disabled children from being shelved away in institutions and neglected (Ober and Decker 64, Justice 172). Unable to convince the Board to circumvent or appeal this law, Orthodox parents turned to the obvious recourse that remained them: they ran for Board positions and, deriving power not only from their numbers but from the exceedingly close-knit nature of their society, easily triumphed in elections opposite the less-organized, less-unified, and less-informed public school population (This American Life). 

    By 2005 the Hasidim had secured a majority on the school board, and by 2014 held all nine Board positions, leaving the pubic school populace entirely without representation and driving a bitter wedge between Board members and the parents they were ostensibly supposed to serve (Greenberg 10, This American Life). The ensuing years saw dramatic alterations to the size and efficacy of East Ramapo public schools: in order to minimize the district’s tax levy, Board members relentlessly chipped away at the public school budget, even as external conditions—the 2008 recession, cuts in state aid, general rise of pensions, union wages, and healthcare costs—threatened the district’s financial stability and rendered every tax dollar of utmost essence (Engage NY 4; This American Life). A thorough 2014 investigation into ERCSD activity authorized by the State Department of Education and conducted by former federal prosecutor Henry Greenberg reveals that the Board laid off 400 school employees between 2009 and 2012 alone, and continued to make cuts in the two years that followed (30-32). The bevy of positions and programs eliminated includes but is not limited to: all social workers; all deans; administrators; counselors; full day kindergarten; summer school; speech therapy; music, dance, and art classes; the entire High School business department; extracurriculars like sports, clubs, and field trips; special-ed teachers; and nurses (Greenberg 30-32). As a result of these sweeping cuts, students in East Ramapo high schools found their class schedules were quite sparse: some had more study halls and lunch periods in a day than actual instruction and confronted the prospect of graduating in five years rather than four (This American Life). This dearth of quality learning was reflected in East Ramapo’s academic performance: the district measures deplorably against neighboring districts and statewide averages on standardized tests in all subjects, and has one of the lowest graduation rates in New York (Greenberg 7-10; NYS Education Dept.).  

    Furthermore, Greenberg’s investigation revealed that the Board, while imposing these limitations on the public schools of East Ramapo, was increasing “spending on programs benefitting private schools” (Greenberg 33), including multimillion-dollar infusions into transportation for private schools (the district funds gender-segregated busing traversing upwards of 300 unique routes) and special-ed programs in Yeshivas, defying IDEA (Greenberg 14, 33). In addition, the investigation found that between the years of 2009 and 2014, during the most acute period of financial devastation, the Board increased its expenditures on legal counsel by no less than 668% (in the hiring of a law firm known to have helped other school boards with similar demographics fashion loopholes in state education regulations); closed two public schools on false enrollment projections and subsequently attempted to sell the $6 million properties to a Yeshiva at nearly half their value (the transaction was blocked by the State but later took place with the same buyer for $4.9 million); and conducted 70% of Board meetings privately in what it called “executive session,” violating New York’s Open Meetings Law which requires that school board deliberations be accessible to the public (Greenberg 27; 34; This American Life). 

    All this served to debilitate the education of the students of ERCSD—an education that is their constitutional right (NYS Const. Art. XI sec. 1). Particularly devastating to public school students was the systematic stripping down of their curriculum to the bare essentials (i.e. math, science and english requirements), because this meager handful of subjects, some would argue, may not actually be the only that are ‘essential’ in the greater picture of a child’s life. In fact, to some they may be not essential at all. Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, suggests that our culture’s elevation of mathematical and linguistic skills as cynosure perpetuates a narrow and incomplete view of “human cognitive competence” (Gardner 508): math and language are only two, Gardner argues, of seven individual types of “intelligences.” The additional five, qualified as intelligences by their “ability to solve problems or fashion products that are of consequence in a particular cultural setting or community” (Gardner 509), are those of spacial, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal skills, and are all present in each one of us “to some extent” (Gardner 508). Gardner writes that this theory, known as the Theory of Multiple Intelligences, “has important educational implications, including ones for curriculum of development” (508), and adds that “it is of paramount importance to assess the particular combination of skills that may earmark an individual for a certain vocational or avocational niche” (521). It can be reasonably inferred, then, that when the cultivation and encouragement of any of these seven human intelligences is excluded from a system of education, as multiple were when the Board of East Ramapo eliminated art, dance, and music programs in public schools, students receive only partial preparation for the world they will enter, and risk graduating without full knowledge of their potentials and abilities and value to the greater global community. 

    As injustices accumulated and rancor mounted, public school community protest eventually reached the ears of state government. Decisive action on the crisis, however, was not taken until this very year. Previous attempts at reform included a proposition of redistricting made by investigator Henry Greenberg that would divide East Ramapo into two separate districts congruent with the public and private school concentrations in the area, and the recommendation of a temporary three-person oversight committee appointed to survey the district in 2015 that encouraged permanently reserving three of the nine Board seats for public school parents, to be voted on exclusively by public school parents (Greenberg 45; Kobre). But what finally prevailed was a plan modeled off New Jersey’s solution to a similar crisis in the Lakewood, NJ, school district: in June 2016 Governor Cuomo signed into law a bill appointing a fiscal monitor to oversee school board policies and practices in ERCSD (Greenberg 46; NYS ED). This monitor is empowered to veto inappropriate Board decisions, and tasked with creating and executing a five-year plan for “academic and fiscal improvement” (“East Ramapo Oversight Bill” 3), the official document of which was released in September and details exactly what percent increase the district hopes to achieve during each of the next five years in a handful of “priority” subjects (“Strategic Plan” 10-13). The plan professes an intent to restore arts and music instruction, and a month after its release full day kindergarten recommenced for the first time in years (“Strategic Plan” 15-16). 

    Having at last elicited definitive state action, it would seem that this crisis has found a degree of resolution—a claim which is highly debatable. But this is beside the point. Even if the East Ramapo school district truly is on the road to recovery, another more lethal problem remains unaddressed; and that is the possibility for this scenario to be repeated elsewhere. Because the existence—and scope—of the of East Ramapo calamity identifies an Achilles’ heel of the American educational system: by nature of the very democracy they facilitate, our local devices for regulating education are uniquely vulnerable to subgroup opportunism and the sanctioned plundering of public resources for other ends—ends which in East Ramapo’s case serve to “inculcate beliefs that explicitly reject the legitimacy of the secular state, encourage a fear of pluralism” (Justice 175), and undermine the social system by which they were empowered in the first place. Henry Greenberg touched on the pith of the problem when he remarked that the “[s]tatutory and regulatory scheme for public school governance assumes [the] board understands [the] vital role of public schools” (Greenberg 42). It is this assumption that, entrenched in law, permits nonconforming groups to gain power through “appeals to procedural, local democracy without committing to substantive democracy” (Justice 188), as Rutgers educational theorist Benjamin Justice put it in a 2016 treatise on American school districts and their colonial roots. In Justice’s view, the precariousness of our educational system all comes down to difference of nomos, a term which famed scholar Robert Cover circulated in the 1980’s as meaning a normative world view that “locates” and lends meaning to law (Cover 4). Benjamin Justice argues that public education is compromised when one active community in a district, such as the Hasidim in East Ramapo, “has a truly separate nomos that alienates it from the broader society, indeed positions it against the broader society” (186). “The distinction between public and private,” he elucidates, “is to some degree a question about our shared substantive commitment to the ‘undertones’ of a diverse and democratic civic culture. In an education for democracy, undertones are everything” (189).

        So what can be done to assure that Greenberg’s “assumption” (42) becomes a certainty, and that a “commitment to undertones” is truly a that, and not an exploitation of undertones sanctioned even by the educational structures that should promote them? For one thing, as the 2015 committee appointed to review ERCSD suggested, a provision could be implemented at the state level that would reserve a certain portion of School Board seats to public school parents—those whose interests are hitched to the optimal functioning of the system. And the only way to ensure that this would be effective is to reserve not just any portion, but a majority for public school constituents—say five out of nine seats in the case of the East Ramapo board. Opponents of this proposition will call it antidemocratic, an infringement on the people’s choice and hence on the fundamental tenet of republics; and indeed it will render elections decisive only as an expression of preference in political values within public school ranks, rather than as a determinant of what constituency or community will dominate the board. A measure any less drastic, however, would miss the point entirely: providing the public school community with a minority of seats would still allow an alternatively-motivated subgroup to monopolize board decisions. 

    Benjamin Justice, in fact, argues an even greater removal from democratic process is necessary in districts like that of East Ramapo: in his view the only acceptable solution to the corrosion of education here is the complete takeover of ERCSD by New York State (187). But this would indeed be too drastic to apply to all districts, and all states. Providing the public constituency with a guaranteed majority on the board, however, unlike state takeover, still permits individuals from opposing interest groups to serve on the board and voice their opinions—the private school perspective—at board meetings. This model also preserves the management of schools within the hands of locals who are elected by locals (albeit with an advantage), and the hope is that locals—public school parents, community members, those who have “boots on the ground” so to speak—better represent district interests than a state official in Albany would.     We can mourn the compromise to democratic process all we like, but what is the alternative? “A procedurally democratic site devoid of substantive democratic commitment or action” (Justice 170), managed by individuals who prefer not to use the services they administer? I fail to see how the former is any less democratic than the latter, and why New York State, or by extension any state, would decline to ensure quality education to its citizens in the name of upholding a tattered democratic rite that abets its own demise. 

    The only potential danger of this solution that is worthy of mention lies in the manner of classifying and identifying the public school constituents for whom the vote would be reserved. The operative clauses of this legislation would have to be carefully crafted so as to avoid involving religion and culture as determinants of permissible and impermissible voters and candidates for the reserved seats: only proof of a child’s enrollment in one of the district’s public institutions must be allowed to designate such individuals.

    A second, and less likely remedy I’d like to propose for this system-wide risk to education may be found in the dissolution of school districts altogether. Or rather, not the dissolution of districts, as geographical parcels, so much as of district boards—and with them their opinions and interests; their nomoses. In their place, the centralized government of the county would preside over property tax, school policy, and resource allotment, essentially removing the powers of school budget determination and tax levy from the multiple localized sovereignties and concentrating them in a single overarching sovereignty. How would county seats be foolproof to the same vulnerabilities that jeopardize districts, one might well ask? County governments are beholden to a much larger geographical area and their officials are elected by a much more diverse pool of citizens, making the demands and agendas of non-public minorities far less likely to gain precedence than they are in small and less scrutinized districts. In this new model of educational structure, the county would, as the district does now, determine a sum of money necessary to run every school within its borders and set the tax levy accordingly, with an equal burden on each household. These taxes would be amassed into one single county treasury to be apportioned to each public school in the county based on the school’s enrollment. Students who live within a certain geographical radius around a public school or schools (equivalent or similar to current district bounds) would be obligated to attend that school, or one of them if there are multiple close together, and barred from attending the others, as is currently the case. This enrollment-generated determination of funding would incentivize schools to manage themselves in the most effective and appealing way possible in the hopes of convincing as many of their district’s residents to attend as possible, and of avoiding driving even one of their student populace to the arms of private education.  

    If this were actually proposed, school districts would fiercely resist giving up their autonomy. The educational quality of a school district is currently a deciding factor for families looking to buy homes in suburban areas, and without autonomy districts would have no power to individualize themselves, set their schools apart from others in the county. To prevent each school from losing it’s distinction—or the power to distinguish itself—I would place a modest percentage of the whole budget dispensed to the school at the sole disposal of a committee of school parents or faculty. This small portion of the public funding of education would not be committed to a specific use; instead it would serve the discretion of the school committee in the developing of unique programs or the alleviating of unique needs in that particular institution. The county would continue to provide bussing and textbook aid to private schools, based likewise on their enrollment. 

    One potential weakness in this county-centric model of the educational system stems from its emphasis on school size. The determination of school funding by enrollment could, some might argue, jeopardize the quality and efficacy of schools in areas with a low density of school-age residents; say, for example, a neighborhood inhabited mostly by retirees. A school in such an area would be confined to smaller facilities than those with more students, and this is fair—but would this school be able to afford every program the big schools could? To ensure that low quantity never equals low quality, that a student’s education is never compromised by the low enrollment of h/her public institution, the county would close a school once it dwindled to a size at which it was unable to sustain standard programs and services, and its student body would be distributed among nearby public schools. This would create a secure, self-regulating system under which every child is guaranteed an acceptable education; within which any “assumption” of concern is supported by the system’s composition; and through which democratic “undertones” are protected and nurtured. 

    Whether through a small measure, like the reservation of board seats for public school parents, or a large system-altering fix like the dissolution of school districts, it is clear that something must be done to prevent the theft of even one more child’s education. Because the systemic fault line uncovered by East Ramapo’s upheaval undermines the whole point of American education: if our system can’t be trusted to administer proper instruction to those who need it most (those who are least able, not incidentally, to protect it), we fail to advance our underprivileged and impoverished masses, our minimum-wage workers and our immigrants. For, as one-time slave and eloquent abolitionist Frederick Douglas wrote in his memoir of 1845, education is the “pathway from slavery to freedom” (45), and though chattel slavery no longer exists in this country, Douglas’ message can be applied to these oppressed lower classes of modern society. If education shoulders the weight of freedom even half as vitally now as it did in Douglas’ day, the past decade in East Ramapo saw the path to freedom barred before an entire community, for without sound instruction to supply the rising generation here with fluency in English, competence in math, insight into science, and, through these, opportunities for profitable jobs and social mobility, this humble house-cleaning and yard-laboring society has that much less of a chance at achieving stability and prosperity for their children and grandchildren. And it is for this reason—the social one—more than any objection theory or politics has to offer that the domination of a public school board by private school parents is absolutely intolerable anyplace at anytime, and must be precluded permanently. And it is here that East Ramapo can actually serve to benefit American education: having shown us the havoc that unregulated democratic localism can wreak, this school district has indicated to the nation, through its own demise, an opportunity; a way in which we might enrich the society of our future. If we heed its message, if we act now to caulk this chink in our educational system, we have the power to protect untold numbers of school-age children and reconfigure entire lives with the potency education imparts. In a democracy that prides itself on diversity and equality, what more suitable power could we wish for?

 

Original sketch, November 2016

 

Works Cited

Beckham, Joseph and Barbara Klaymeier Wills. “Duties, Responsibilities, Decision-        Making, And Legal Basis For Local School Board Powers.”                     education.stateuniversity.com, education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2391/            School-Boards.html#ixzz4S0YTnjmp. Accessed 5 Dec. 2016.

“Board Members,” ercsd.org. http://www.ercsd.org/pages/East_Ramapo_CSD/            Board_of_Education/Members. Accessed 29 Nov. 2016.

Cover, Robert. “The Supreme Court 1982 Term Foreword: Nomos And Narrative.”         Harvard Law Review, Nov. 1983, Vol. 97 Issue 1, p4. ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:        2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?                    direct=true&db=a9h&AN=7734400&site=ehost-live. Accessed 6 Dec, 2016.

“East Ramapo Central School District Strategic Plan.” ERCSD, 23 Sept. 2016,             www.ercsd.org/files/_UbBov_/a7e7fbc6c6eac5ad3745a49013852ec4/            Entire_Strategic_Plan_9-23-16_Compressed.pdf. Accessed 30 Nov. 2016.

“East Ramapo Oversight Bill A5355.” State of New York, 18 Feb. 2015,                 www.documentcloud.org/documents/1670776-east-ramapo-oversight-bill-            a5355-2015.html. Accessed 4 Dec. 2016.

Engage NY, “Opportunity Deferred: A Report on the East Ramapo Central School         District.” 14 Dec. 2015, assets.documentcloud.org/documents/2646293/East-        Ramapo-recommendations-summary.pdf. Accessed 1 Dec. 2016.

Gardner, Howard and Joseph Walters. “A Rounded Version: The Theory of Multiple         Intelligences.” Blackboard, sunyrockland.open.suny.edu/bbcswebdav/            pid-176321-dt-content-rid-528010_1/courses/2016FA-ENG-ENG103-005H/        Gardner%20-%20Multiple%20Intelligences.pdf. Accessed 5 Dec. 2016.

Greenberg, Henry M. “East Ramapo: A School District in Crisis.” 18 Nov. 2014,             data.lohud.com/documents/east-ramapo-fiscal-monitor. Accessed 30 Nov, 2016.

Justice, Benjamin. “Settler Colony on the Hudson: What History and Theory Tell Us         About the Education Crisis in East Ramapo Central School District, New York.”         Theory and Research in Education, 2016. Vol. 14(2) 168–192, 2016. DOI:             10.1177/1477878515625654. 

Kobre, Eytan. “Q & A with Harry Grossman, VP of the East Ramapo School Board.” 

    Matzav, 28 Dec. 2015, matzav.com/q-a-with-harry-grossman-vp-of-the-east-        ramapo-school-board/. Accessed 18 Nov. 2016.

New York State Constitution. Department of State, www.dos.ny.gov/info/                constitution.htm. Accessed 6 Dec. 2016.

New York State Education Department. “Public School District Total Cohort Graduation         Rate and Enrollment Outcome Summary, 2013-14 School Year.’’                 www.p12.nysed.gov/irs/                                        pressRelease20141218/201314DistrictEnrollOutcomesAndDiplomas.pdf.             Accessed 3 Dec. 2016.

— — —. “Commissioner Elia Appoints Charles Szuberla as Monitor for the East             Ramapo Central School District.” 15 Aug. 2016, www.nysed.gov/news/2016/        commissioner-elia-appoints-charles-szuberla-monitor-east-ramapo-central-        school-district. Accessed 4 Dec. 2016. 

Ober, Patrick, and Janet Decker. “Balancing Communities, Cultures, and Conflict:         Lessons Learned From the East Ramapo School District Legal Battle.” Journal of     Cases in Educational Leadership, 2016. Vol. 19(2) 62–74. DOI:                 10.1177/1555458915626760. 

“The Role of School Boards.” Center for Public Education.                         www.centerforpubliceducation.org/You-May-Also-Be-Interested-In-landing-page-        level/Audience-The-Public-YMABI/The-Role-of-School-Boards. Accessed 29 Nov,     2016.

This American Life. “A Not-So-Simple Majority.” 12 Sept. 2014,                     thisamericanlife.org. Accessed 29 Nov. 2015. 

Wallace-Wells, Benjamin. “Them and Them.” New York Magazine, 21 Apr. 2013,             nymag.com/news/features/east-ramapo-hasidim-2013-4/. Accessed 20 Nov.         2016.

Changing the Text: The Rise and Fall of the Electoral College.

Zuzu Tadeushuk

       There are many contested features of our American government, but perhaps the most bizarre and unnecessary system of them all is that of the Electoral College. Devised at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and sanctioned in the original draft of the Constitution, this method of appointing the nation’s president was a settlement between various conflicting propositions which ranged from having Congress select the President to having the populace do so (“Cons. Convention and Ratification”). Instead, the Electoral College concentrates the power of election with neither government nor citizens, but in a handful of individuals acting as one-time Electors on behalf of their states. 

 

    When examining this system, it is important to understand the context it sprang from. At the inception of our nation, individual Americans had less influence in government than we do now—state legislators were at one point responsible not only for appointing Electors to the Electoral College, but also Senators to Congress, and were allowed to ordain the method in which their House Representatives were elected (Rakove 33). Though constitutionally states still hold the right to appoint Electors, it is impossible to imagine them exercising it (history.com). Nor do they any longer choose Senators: citizens do that, by popular vote. The only power, therefor, still vested in States to influence national politics is the decennial reapportionment of Congressional districts (Rakove 33). 

 

    So what changed that we the people have gradually gained political power that at the dawn of our nation we did not possess? The electorate of the nation grew as suffrage was expanded over the decades to include new sectors of the populace, and with it our feeling of entitlement to such rights as electing our own Senators and appointing our own Electors (history.com; Rakove 33). And yet one thing hasn’t evolved in tandem with this sociopolitical shift of consciousness to match our modern concept of democracy; and that is the Electoral College. With the exception of one small tweak made in the Twelfth Constitutional Amendment in 1804 that altered the procedure for selecting a Vice President, the Electoral College greatly resembles today what it did 226 years ago when the Constitution was ratified (US Const. am. XII). The trajectory of our democracy, however, and its current incarnation, are no longer congruent with the incarnation and the ideal that birthed the Electoral College. This legislative buffer between the populace and the office of President defies the principles of American democracy that characterize our values today, implicitly diminishing our influence in government and our voice as a society. This system no longer has a place in the ever-evolving organism that is the U.S. Constitution.

 

    The right to select our own head of state is at the core of the American identity, and yet we as citizens have never once, in our individual lives and in the history of the nation, actually voted for President. When we fill out a ballot every four years we are actually voting for the political party whose ‘slate’ of Electors we want appointed to that season’s Electoral College (history.com). Here’s how it works: as stipulated in Article II, Section 1 of the U.S. Constitution, each State is allotted a number of Electors equal to the total number of their delegates in Congress, Senators and House Representatives combined (art. II, sec. 1). On the matter of how these Electors are to be chosen, the Founding Fathers are less specific, writing only that an Elector may not be a member of Congress or a current federal employee. This leaves states at liberty to choose Electors “in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct” (US Const. art II, sec 1), which varies in application from state to state but in the majority of cases falls to the state’s political parties, who appoint notable party members, representatives, or local officials to their ‘slate.’ These men and women will become Electors only in the case that the candidate of the party who appointed them wins the majority of votes in that state on Election Day (National Archives, “Electoral College”). In most states, the candidate who wins a plurality gains all the Electoral votes for that state in what is known as the ‘unit rule;’ only Maine and Nebraska deviate from this method and appoint Electors by congressional district, reserving two Electors (the two ‘senatorial’ Electors) for the winner of the popular vote statewide (Longley and Dana 124; Archives, “Electoral College”). No federal law binds the Electors to honor the popular vote and cast their ballot for a specific nominee; some states have legislation that does so while others simply hold their Electors to party pledges, the violation of which is punishable in most cases by fine (Archives, “Electoral College”). Being close affiliates to one candidate or one party, however, it is rare that an Elector disregards the popular vote. Such individuals are known as ‘faithless Electors,’ and less than 1% of all Electors in the history of the nation ever voted faithlessly (Archives, “Electoral College”). 

 

    This rather cumbersome and convoluted process was initially adopted by the framers of the Constitution as a compromise between States of small population and those of large; between those favoring federal authority and those favoring state autonomy (history.com). Its intentions were numerous, but most notable among them were the goals of safeguarding the office of President from the consequence of ill-judged and uneducated choices the populace might make, and of affording greater representation to slave-holding states during election season than they would otherwise have had (history.com; Amar). The College’s function as an informed middle agent to make political judgements on the people’s behalf was surely a wise precaution during the eighteenth century, when modes of communication were primitive and slow and rendered large swaths of the country oblivious of political affairs. But the swift coalescence of national political parties by the turn of the nineteenth century helped rural citizens identify a candidate’s ideals by general acquaintance with the party that candidate hailed from, soon annulling this justification for the Electoral College (Amar). As for the latter justification, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution Southern states of the Union were considered to have smaller populations than Northern states, because their large constituencies of enslaved African Americans were barred from voting, and not even recognized under law as people (Amar). To increase their voice in Washington and defend their interests against the North, it was agreed that these states could count each slave as three fifths of a person, which boosted their censuses and hence their Electoral vote count. If the election of President had been achieved by the popular vote of citizens rather than the Electoral College, such States would have had less power to inaugurate the Presidents sympathetic to their cause (Amar). 

 

    As we can see, these two justifications for the Electoral College were delegitimized within a few decades of its inception by time and the course of history. Since then, there have been many attempts to disband the system. Politicians and scholars have dubbed it the likes of “historical anomaly” and “disaster for a democracy,” and as a former governor of Michigan asked, “if we really subscribe to the notion that ‘majority rules,’ then why do we deny the majority their chosen candidate?” (Mahler and Eder). In fact, according to a scrupulous 2001 issue of the Harvard Law Review, roughly one tenth of all Constitutional amendments ever proposed in Congress have sought to reform the Electoral College (2526). The most momentous such attempt took place after the election of 1968, when Nixon gained the Oval Office by an Electoral lead of about 36% while only winning the popular vote by a mere 7% (Archives, “Election Results”). The incongruence evident between these two figures sparked what came to be known as the Bayh Celler Amendment, named after the Senator and Representative who proposed it. The bill required that a candidate secure at least 40% of the national popular vote in order to ascend to the Presidency, and in the case that no candidate did, a rematch election would be held between the two highest tickets in the weeks immediately following (Crezo). Although it was approved by the House and the President, the Bayh Celler Amendment was stymied on the Senate floor and laid to rest with the end of the 91st Congress in January 1971 (Crezo). Subsequent attempts at reform have similarly been stalled by the formidable challenges intrinsic to the passing of Constitutional amendments in this country, a procedure which requires the approval of 2/3 of both houses of Congress, and ratification by the legislatures of 3/4 of the states (Chang). But change has also been obstructed by a few remaining arguments for the continued necessity of the Electoral College. As the authors of the Harvard Law Review summarized it, “supporters…contend that the [Electoral College] promotes federalism by balancing small and large states, encourages stability, discourages fraud, and forces candidates to wage national campaigns” (2526). I propose to disprove each of these points, with the help of the extensive literature on the subject. 

 

    The first cause, that of federalism, is one that is held to this day to be the crowning benefit of the Electoral College (Rakove 23, 33-37). Federalism, as defined by one political scientist, encompasses “the multifaceted political power relationships between governments within the same geographical setting” (Gerston 5). That is to say, in the United States it represents the way our federal government in Washington D.C. interacts with our various state governments, and juggles power with them. This is a tentative equilibrium at best, and some political scholars make the argument that it is stabilized by the presence of the Electoral College, as the College provides bolstered representation to small states by virtue of the ‘senatorial bump’ that lessens the densification of citizens per Elector in states with lower populations (Rakove 23). The great fallacy of the federalist justification of the Electoral College, however, lies in the weight it places on state size, on the apparent importance of reconciling the interests of small states with those of large states. It relies on the assumption that these interests differ; that citizens feel some identification with the size of their state and that this sentiment informs their vote. “If,” writes Pulitzer Prize winning historian Jack N. Rakove, “states and their citizens are to receive somewhat different electoral weight as a function of the senatorial bump, some persuasive legitimating idea other than the fact that the Framers endorsed the idea should be available to justify that calculus. No such principle exists. Or rather, if such a principle does exist, it was only persuasive at the original moment of constitutional foundation, as a necessary cost of reaching agreement, but its rationale disappeared as soon as agreement was reached, never to operate convincingly thereafter” (34). In other words, political conditions pre-Constitution did not reflect political conditions post-Constitution, as the ratification of the Constitution reconfigured the entire nation, transforming it from a loose confederation of competitive sates to an organized, legitimized federation (“Const. Convention and Ratification”). Hence a state’s political interests before the text was ratified could not reflect its political interests after, and any logic used to negotiate the constitution itself was irrelevant once the document was active. As Revoke explains, it can be expected that delegates of smaller states (indeed, of any states) went to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 with the determination to protect their interests and maximize the influence of their constituents on the process of designing the nation, of drafting its founding text. But once the nation was designed, so to speak, and an agreement among the states reached, wouldn't the system they contrived to reach that agreement be rendered obsolete to the new system they’d hatched, and to the living under the new system (Rakove 34-35)? Indeed it would, Rakove concludes, writing that “the size of a state would never again effect the political behavior of voters or representatives after the constitution was adopted” (34). Instead, what would effect the political behavior of voters were elements more representative of our individual situations as citizens: namely, our occupation, income, ethnicity, religion, and so on (Rakove 34). If our considerations when voting are in no way related to the fact of the state we live in, “then a system that allows the existence of states of different sizes to justify an inequitable rule for weighting votes on the basis of the accident of residence should not be deemed superior, in principle, to one that would rest on the modern democratic principle—usually labeled one person, one vote— that gives every vote the same value” (Rakove 23).

 

    The second and third arguments, that the Electoral College “encourages stability”  and “discourages fraud” (Harvard Law Review 2526), are joint claims and can be refuted jointly. It is a fact widely accepted that the system of the Electoral College protects the integrity of the election process by dividing it into fifty small, independent elections. It achieves this end by isolating vote count to each state separately, helping officials guard against, and locate, any fraud or error that may occur (Uscinski). In the case that a popular vote count is questioned, as it was in Florida in the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George Bush, officials are spared conducting a grueling nation-wide recount, which would allow additional opportunities for corruption (Uscinski). This same purpose could be served by other means, however. In fact, the very legislation dismantling the Electoral College could also see that this benefit of the College be continued: the text of the requisite amendment to revise Article II Section 1 of the Constitution could require that States tally their votes individually and that the governor of each state “sign and certify, and transmit sealed to the Seat of Government of the United States” (US Const. art. II, sec. 1) that state’s results in the very manner that Electors are currently required to submit their votes. I believe this would maintain the regulatory benefits of the Electoral College while still divorcing its decisive power.

 

    Lastly, the Electoral College, it is argued, ensures that all corners of the country get campaign attention, that “residents in states with smaller populations [are] not ignored” (Mahler and Eder) by Presidential hopefuls. It also guarantees that candidates will not dismiss the particular needs and issues of rural minorities to focus solely on urban areas with higher concentrations of voters. If this is a claim, however, that a lack of the Electoral College will allow candidates to discriminate in selecting areas to visit and issues to address, this is a sin the College itself perpetuates. Under the current system, candidates spend most of their time and resources appealing to ‘swing states,’ which are generally less densely-populated, and whose disproportionately large and unpredictable Electoral votes a candidate depends on for access to the Oval Office (Mahler and Eder). As Jack Rakove explains, “far from diffusing political activity across the extended republic, electoral logic allows it to be narrowly targeted to key communities and particular interests within them” (23). The recent development of refined polling methods has even further empowered campaigns to narrow in, with great specificity, on the areas that for them, in a particular time against a particular opponent, are most competitive—and most Electorally vital (Rakove 36). How is one evil superior to another? At least if candidates were elected by popular vote they would be forced to base their political platforms on solutions to nation-wide concerns rather than community-specific issues, and would be more likely to try and please a majority rather than cater to a minority in order to ‘game the system’ (Rakove 36). 

 

    In addition to all of this, and in accordance with all of this, I would like to add a thought of my own. What stands out to me most about the injustice of the Electoral College is the ‘unit rule’ by which it is usually implemented. The winner-take-all basis of appointing electors to my mind has the effect that the Electoral College, far from checking the opinion of the populace, exaggerates it. To give what is generally a majority of forty-eight to sixty-eight percent of voters a guaranteed 100% of their state’s representation in the Electoral College is to automatically superimpose the opinion of those few who tipped the scale away from equilibrium onto the thirty-two to fifty-eight percent of voters who’s opinions tended toward another candidate. Leveling a varied political landscape into a sweeping uniformity, this system denies those of the minority opinion their voice in the most blatant and institutionalized manner—and no matter what the defense or intent or justification, this act has no business existing on the soil of a democracy, let alone claiming relevance in the name of democracy.

  

    Perhaps worse yet is what occurs in the cases when the Electoral College does not serve to exaggerate the popular vote. In a freak glitch of electoral function, it occasionally happens that contrary to emphasizing the popular vote, the Electoral College defies it. There have now been five elections in the history of the United States in which the winner of the electoral vote lost the popular vote to his opponent. In the races of 1824, 1876, 1888, and 2000, Presidents John Quincy Adams, Rutherford Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and George Bush, respectively, all gained the Oval Office in such bizarre fashion (Archives, “Election Results”). The fifth case of the Electoral College defying the popular vote is found of course in our last and most recent Election of 2016, which awarded the presidency to Republican nominee Donald Trump despite Hillary Clinton’s lead of 200,000 in the popular vote (Italiano). By dint of the Electoral College, our nation is now subject to a man known for his prejudice and volatility, and we face the prospect of losing part or all of the social progress we have fought to achieve over the past few decades. The majority—however slim—of the populace voted against this outcome, but the system for electing president that was designed 229 years ago to prevent uneducated voters from being “swayed by populist demagogues” (Brennan) has monumentally backfired, and given us just that.

 

    There exists one meaningful current movement to depart from the Electoral College. It lies in the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would not amend the Constitution but rather circumvent it (Chang). This proposed compact takes effect when a number of willing states “cumulatively possessing a majority of the electoral votes have enacted [it]” (Chang), and would require all member states to contribute the entirety of their Electoral votes to the Presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote, regardless of how their states vote, thereby assuring that the winner of the Electoral vote is also the winner of the popular vote (Chang). As of November 2016, eleven states have signed this agreement, with a cumulative total of 165 electoral votes, and New York is one of these (nationalpopularvote.com). Whether this agreement is permissible under the Contract Clause of the Constitution forbidding “any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation” (art. I, sec. 10) between states has yet to be seen, but proponents contend that it is (Chang). 

 

    Other alternatives to the Electoral College exist as well, but none so effective as the definitive amendment of the Constitution. Though the path to amendment ratification may be arduous, long, and bitter, it is ultimately the only sure and stable solution to this impairment to the workings of democracy. If equality and liberty are truly the fundamental tenets of our nation, let them be practiced fully and mindfully by our populace, that we may see our wills and ideals reflected honestly in our governing figure. As Thomas Jefferson in 1820 epitomized it, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power” (Founders Online). This is the true realization of the democratic vision.

By me Jan 2017

 

Works Cited:

Amar, Akhil Reed. “The Troubling Reason the Electoral College Exists.” Time, Nov 10 2016. time.com/4558510/electoral-college-history-slavery/

Brennan, Jason. “The Electoral College is Anti-Democratic—and That’s a Good Thing.” Marketwatch, Nov 8 2016. www.marketwatch.com/story/the-electoral-college-is-anti-democraticand-thats-a-good-thing-2016-09-12            

Chang, Stanley. “Updating the Electoral College: the National Popular Vote Legislation.” Harvard Journal on Legislation, 44 Harv. J. on Legis. 205,  2007. ezproxy.sunyrockland.edu:2051/hottopics/lnacademic/. Accessed 13 Nov. 2016. 

“Constitutional Convention and Ratification, 1787–1789.” Office of the Historian, Bureau of Public Affairs. history.state.gov/milestones/1784-1800/convention-and-ratification. Accessed 9 Nov. 2016. 

Crezo, Adrienne. “The First (and Last) Serious Challenge to the Electoral College System.” Mentalfloss, Nov 6 2012. mentalfloss.com/article/13012/first-and-last-serious-challenge-electoral-college-system

Founders Online, “From Thomas Jefferson to William Charles Jarvis, 28 September 1820.” founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-1540. Accessed 15 Nov. 2016.

Gerston, Larry N. American Federalism: a Concise Introduction. M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2007. pp 1-7.

Harvard Law Review. “Rethinking the Electoral College Debate: The Framers, Federalism, and One Person, One Vote.” Vol. 114, no. 8, 2001, pp. 2526–2549. www.jstor.org/stable/1342519. Accessed 12 November 2016.

History.com Staff, “The Electoral College.” A+E Networks, 2010. www.history.com/topics/electoral-college. Accessed 8 Nov. 2016.

Italiano, Laura. NewYorkPost. “The One Scenario that Could Still Get Hillary into the White House.”  Nov 9, 2016. nyp.st/2fnb1bq. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016.

Longley, Lawrence D, and James D. Dana. “The Biases of the Electoral College in the 1990s.” Polity, vol. 25, no. 1, 1992, pp. 123–145. www.jstor.org/stable/3235022.    

Mahler, Jonathan, and Steve Eder. “Many Call the Electoral College Outmoded. So Why Has It Endured?” New York Times, 11 November 2016. p P8.

National Archives and Records Administration, Washington DC. “Historical Election Results.” www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/scores.html#1824. Accessed 9 Nov. 2016.

- - -. “US Electoral College,” www.archives.gov/federal-register/electoral-college/electors.html. Accessed 9 Nov. 2016.

Rakove, Jack N. “Presidential Selection: Electoral Fallacies.” Political Science Quarterly, vol. 119, no. 1, 2004, pp. 21–37. www.jstor.org/stable/20202303. Accessed 11 Nov. 2016.

Uscinski, Joseph E. “There's a Strong Case to Be Made for Electoral College.”                 NapaValleyRegister, 9 Nov. 2016. napavalleyregister.com/news/opinion/editorial/guest-editorials/there-s-a-strong-case-to-be-made-for-electoralarticle_92bd3877-4476-5f5e-980f-649ca9867e67.html. Accessed 10 Nov. 2016.

Intersexuality and Injustice:

Zuzu Tadeushuk

Examining Gender Identity and Reassignment via Butler and David Reimer

    In the third Chapter of her book Undoing Gender, Judith Butler sets out to examine the determinants of binary gender, and how one can define oneself as human—inhabit “personhood,” as she says—without conforming fully to any one of these determinants. To do this, she analyzes the case of David Reimer, a boy who was raised as a girl after undergoing a sex reassignment at nineteen months of age, and who eventually transformed himself back into a man during adolescence (Colapinto 51). David was the fulcrum of a prolonged and contentious debate within the medical and psychological establishments over whether one’s sense of gender identity is learned through socialization or ingrained in one’s anatomy at birth, and the rival specialists John Money and Milton Diamond used David’s situation to prove their opposing theories. Butler’s chapter, however, centers less on answering this “nature vs. nurture” question of gender, but rather on her claim that David neither proves nor disproves either of these doctors’ arguments: he stands outside every limitation of accepted gender norms, and he is no less human for doing so. 

 

    Judith Butler’s rhetoric is profound and thorough. Her investigation of David’s case and the medical furor that precedes, pervades, and proceeds from it, is astutely objective on the question of whether gender identity is a social construct or simple biology, although her tone does become more personal when she manifests disapproval of certain medical practices and the practitioners who endorsed them. The philosopher and gender theorist examines such weighty issues as the definition of justice, of intelligibility, and “the limits of the conceivably human” (Butler 64), while also relaying the sobering story of a case that made history and sparked both academic and popular discussion about the ethics of gender reassignment. 

 

    David Reimer was born a boy, along with an identical twin brother, but when he was eight months old his penis was accidentally obliterated in a surgery intended to remedy a minor condition called phimosis (Butler 59). The damage being found irreparable, David’s parents sought help from the renowned psychologist and sexologist John Money at Johns Hopkins University, who advised them that David be raised as a girl to spare him the psychological trials and tribulations of growing up male with no penis. The distraught parents agreed, and David was castrated, given a provisional vagina, and sent home again as a girl named Brenda (Colapinto 49-52). Each year, Brenda and her twin brother were returned to Money’s institute in Baltimore so that the renowned scientist could study and compare their psychosexual developments. These sessions also included “treatment” for Brenda: Money showed the child graphic photographs of vaginas and sexual intercourse, brought in adult transsexuals to tell her why it was good to be female, and forced her and her brother to perform “mock coital exercises” (Butler 60), believing that all these things would help Brenda assimilate to her new gender role, and that she would successfully grow up to be a “normal” and happy female, as his theory predicted she would. 

 

    While Money published papers and gave talks on the stunning success of his latest sex reassignment case, known popularly as the “Joan/John case,” Brenda’s reality was far from stunning: the child felt increasingly anguished in her state as female and insisted mysteriously on certain “boyish” activities, like peeing standing up and playing with trucks (Butler 60). Still unaware of the sex change she had undergone in infancy, she “started to make the realization she was not a girl” (Butler 60), and when eventually a team of local psychiatrists reviewed the case, Brenda was told the truth and decided to revert to the gender she had been born with. She had her breasts removed and a phallus constructed, and at age fourteen Brenda began living as David (Butler 60). 

 

    It was at this point that Milton Diamond entered onto the scene, and seized upon David as a means of refuting once and for all his long-time ideological rival John Money. At that time in scientific circles, Diamond was an anomaly in that he vocally advocated the “hormonal basis of gender identity” (Butler 60) rather than the social one. He and his colleague Sigmundson—and later the journalist Colapinto—made headlines with their publications revealing the ultimate outcome of Joan/John’s sex reassignment, shaking the scientific establishment and miring Money’s name in allegations of cruelty and egotism. 

 

    This all is relayed in Butler’s chapter concisely and judicially, and leads without rupture into her discussion of the ways in which the man David Reimer makes visible to us “those points where the human is encountered at the limits of intelligibility itself” (Butler 58). The author references the works of multiple gender scholars and scientists along the way, weaving key aspects of their views into her narrative without over-burdening the reader with extraneous information and theories. Ultimately, though, Butler uses the authors she cites both as first-hand informants from whom to sift the bare facts and events of David Reimer’s life, and as ideological trail markers to guide her, and her reader, through her venture into the thorny subject of gender identity and towards some incontestable kernel of truth.

 

    In her notes on Chapter 3, Butler directs her reader to certain sections of a book by the biologist and gender theorist Anne Fausto-Sterling for “an excellent overview of this controversy” (Butler 253). She refers not solely to the debacle surrounding David Reimer’s life and body, but to the larger controversy surrounding intersexual individuals (those born with “either/or, neither/both” (Fausto-Sterling 45) sets of genitals) and the widespread medical practice of “fixing” them during infancy. Although David’s case is not that of an intersexed individual, they share many of the same characteristics—and many of the same complexities. Anne Fausto-Sterling explores these cases and complexities extensively in the renowned third chapter of her book Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, which is one of the sources Butler credits within her actual text as an “important recent” (59) publication. In this selection, Fausto-Sterling lists common types of intersexuality, such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) and androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), and critiques the incongruity between the attitudes doctors hold towards these conditions as defects to be remedied and the surprising frequency with which they occur. 1.7 percent of all births are intersexed, according to a study done by Fausto-Sterling herself, which makes intersexuality more common, in fact, than albinism (Fausto-Sterling 51-53). 

 

    Typically, Fausto-Sterling explains, during embryonic development the elongated and nerve-dense phallus, which grows on all fetuses, will at some point evolve into either a clitoris (on a homogametic child of XX chromosomes) or a penis (on a heterogametic child of XY). In the case of an intersex child the phallus will remain at an indeterminate length, or will formulate, to varying degrees of completion, the genitalia contrary to the chromosomal content of the child’s genes (Fausto-Sterling 48-50). In such cases, prenatal treatment via a steroid called dexamethasone can decrease the masculinization of an XX fetus, and if the condition is not detected in time or the drug is ineffective, surgical action is taken at birth to reconstruct the infant’s genitals as a recognizable penis or vagina (Fausto-Sterling 55), even though such contrived organs often perform only some of their “expected functions” (Butler 60).

 

    When considering infant genital surgery, Fausto-Sterling writes, doctors usually adhere to the advice of one renowned Dr. Patricia Donahoe that “[g]enetic females should always be raised as females, preserving reproductive potential, regardless how severely the patients are virilized. In the genetic male, however, the gender of assignment is based on the infant’s anatomy, predominantly the size of the phallus” (Fausto-Sterling 57). This logic effectively diminishes the definition of femininity to the capacity for reproduction, and that of masculinity to genital size. To so strip away the complexities of value and emotion from gender identity is, I believe, to base a momentous decision on a precarious and partial view. Risky at best, Dr. Donahoe’s strategy leaves much to its practitioner’s discretion, and many of the elements factored into the assignment of gender to a heterogametic intersex child are highly subjective.

 

    In determining whether to operate on a genetic male to make h/her outwardly resemble a physical male, the primary consideration is a technical one: is the phallus long enough to be acceptable as a penis? For it is much harder to build a fully functional penis from tissue nearer in size to a “normal” clitoris than it is to cut away excess phallus in the sculpting of a vagina (Fausto-Sterling 59). The question that follows, however, is far less pragmatic, and far more prone to debate: what constitutes an “acceptable” penis? “The worries in male gender choice are more social than medical,” Fausto-Sterling writes. “Most intersexual males are infertile, so what counts especially is how the penis functions in social interactions—whether it ‘looks right’ to other boys, whether it can ‘perform satisfactorily’ in intercourse. It is not what the sex organ does for the body to which it is attached that defines the body as male. It is what it does vis-à-vis other bodies” (Fausto-Sterling 58). Ultimately, then, it is society that determines what phallus length is “too small” for a penis and “too large” for a clitoris, indirectly influencing the surgeons whose job it is to choose which children to convert into which genders. 

 

    But is this really their job? Fausto-Sterling makes the argument that it is only out of a need to uphold the traditional understanding of gender as starkly binary that the medical establishment so fervidly takes action to saddle the intersex infant with a recognizable sex (48). She calls for doctors to instead make a provisional gender assignment at birth but hold off all surgery until the child is old enough to make such decisions for him/herself. She even goes so far as to equate infant gender surgery with genital mutilation, and alleges that “early genital surgery doesn’t work: it causes extensive scarring, requires multiple surgeries, and often obliterates the possibility of orgasm” (79-80). Worse yet, in most cases the parents of the patient, and even the patient themselves once they are older, are not given complete and honest information about their own circumstances: surgeons belie the truly ambiguous and open nature of intersex genitalia, preferring to convince uncertain parents that there is a “true” gender present in their child that’s been temporarily covered by a developmental deformity, and that their decisions are not arbitrary but aligned with this “truth” (Fausto-Sterling 64-65). Medical procedures are often not fully disclosed, alternatives not enumerated, and medical records not released to patients even years after the fact (Fausto-Sterling 84). “In their suggestions for withholding information about patients’ bodies and their own decisions in shaping them,” Fausto-Sterling argues, “medical practitioners unintentionally reveal their anxieties that a full disclosure of the facts about intersex bodies would threaten individuals’—and by extension society’s—adherence to a strict male-female model” (65). This anxiety can be compared to John Money’s desire that his social-construct theory be proven correct. Just as Money drove Brenda into girlhood for the sake of his ideology, so do surgeons impose genders on infants who have none—infants who by their very existence outside of the binary gender system pose threats to the ideologies of the surgeons. 

 

    Butler uses Sterling’s work to illustrate the greater gender debate that simultaneously exceeds and includes David’s case, and to show why Money’s assertions about David were so important at the time they were published. It also helps Butler show why, when Money’s claims were eventually disproven, the covert manipulations David claimed to have undergone “galvanized” (Butler 64) the intersexual movement by exposing such practices to the public. Butler recapitulates Fausto-Sterling’s opposition to the practice of operating on intersex babies, pointing out, as Fausto-Sterling did before her, the paradoxes that riddle doctors’ justifications for performing such surgeries: they operate because they claim gender at birth is malleable, but then tell the parents they’re simply uncovering the “true” gender their child was destined to be (Fausto-Sterling 76). They operate in the name of making the child appear “normal,” but the extensive scarring they leave behind achieves all but that (Fausto-Sterling 85-86). It becomes increasingly clear through her relaying of these facts that Butler aligns herself with the opinion of her source (Butler 64).

 

    Another book that Butler uses in her chapter about David Reimer’s case is As Nature Made Him, by John Colapinto. While Anne Fausto-Sterling provides the medical background to the case, Colapinto offers the emotional and personal background. And contrary to Anne Fausto-Sterling’s opus, this is not so scientific a work as it is narrative, with Colapinto delivering in detailed but straightforward prose a comprehensive account of David’s childhood and relationship to John Money—his undisclosed resistance to the psychologist, unacknowledged frustrations with the gender imposed on him, and his family’s unwitting compliance with the prolonged torment of their daughter via the “pressure tactics, cajoling, pornography and unorthodox inspections and posings” (Colapinto 96) that Money subjected the young Brenda to during their private interviews. 

 

    In addition to shedding light on the personal interactions of this case, Colapinto illuminates the cultural context that influenced the scientific community during the 1950’s, setting the scene for the debut of Money’s social-constructionist theory. “Explanations for sex differences had been moving towards a nurturist view for decades,” Colapinto says. “Against this background, the Johns Hopkins team’s conclusions that sexual identity and orientation were solely shaped by parents and society fit perfectly into an intellectual zeitgeist in thrall to behaviorist theories” (34-35). He proceeds to show the scientific and cultural implications of Money’s claims. David’s anonymous case, in its role as Money’s victorious proof of gender malleability, was soon “enshrined in myriad textbooks” (Colapinto 70), echoed in articles in the New York Times and Time magazine, and celebrated in books by the likes of feminist Kate Millet. The women’s movement hailed it as validation of their driving principle: John’s successful transition into Joan proved, as Time put it, that “conventional patterns of masculine and feminine behavior can be altered” (Colapinto 69). “Such findings,” one Baltimore newspaper raved, “could have an effect on future attitudes about sex roles that could prove comparable to that of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution” (Colapinto 78). As we have seen, though, this was not to be the case.

 

    In her own text, Butler appears to have drawn on both the emotional and cultural insights of As Nature Made Him. She summarizes the traumatic interactions between David and Money described by Colapinto, and directly quotes Colapinto when discussing the deadly ramifications that misrepresented results (like those of Money and his team) can have for all of science and society at large. She specifically includes the quotes he used from Time magazine and Kate Millet to support this claim (Butler 62).

 

    And yet one sentence after quoting Colapinto, she challenges him; drawing attention to his assumption of “the inarguable value of normalcy itself” (Butler 62)—an assumption Butler and Anne Fausto-Sterling (76) alike do not approve of. Fausto-Sterling, in fact, may be the only scholar Butler mentions whom she does not challenge or dismiss with some comment or observation over the course of her chapter. The philosopher makes no secret of her disagreements with her peers: in her text Butler challenges the journalist Natalie Angier on the latter’s characterization of David’s case as having “the force of allegory” (Butler 62), and Money on his obvious omission and misrepresentation of facts (Butler 61). She protests Diamond for his appropriation of David’s case to argue that intersex infants possessed of a Y chromosome should be categorically constructed into males because, as he claimed, biological makeup determines all (Butler 63), and challenges David himself about the grounds on which he claims to have known all along that he was male. Responding to an interview in which David explains that he knew because he never liked traditional girl’s toys, Butler wonders: “But in what world, precisely, do such dislikes count as clear or unequivocal evidence for or against being a given gender? Do parents regularly rush off to gender identity clinics when their boys play with yarn, or their girls play with trucks?” (70). She even takes a jab at the scientific establishment as a whole when she caricatures industry posturing, quipping, “And surely we must have knowledge here. We must be able to say that we know, and to communicate that in the professional journals, and justify our decision, our act” (67). 

 

    Indeed, I do not believe Butler raises aloft any of these sources of hers as absolute authorities on this morally-fraught topic, or paragons of virtuous objectivity either. She uses them, rather, to demonstrate the breadth of variation in human reasoning and the ways in which ego can infiltrate scientific examination. By exposing the blind spots of many of the scholars she mentions in her chapter, who each had a voice to add to the cacophony surrounding David’s existence, Butler drives home her ultimate point: that in David’s case, as in all gender identity cases, there is a story apart from—“supervenient to”—the normative “discourses on sexed and gendered intelligibility that constrain” (Butler 73) and instruct our understanding of gender. That is to say: David was able to exist as a human being even though his prosthetic genitalia, through which he could not urinate, ultimately entered him into neither male nor female gender categories (Butler 60). Instead, he existed outside of such bounds and definitions, and by doing so showed that those bounds—the “norm”—must not include all possibilities, but must be limited (Butler 74). 

 

    David Reimer committed suicide at age thirty-eight (Butler 74). An article by John Colapinto reported it may have been a result of marital and financial difficulties, not to mention the “cyclical depressions” (Colapinto slate.com) David had suffered since childhood. Whatever the case, I believe David left behind an indelible memory, and a message, that will be heeded by doctors and scholars more than the girl Brenda ever was. For David’s life and death were occasions of awakening to the issues of infant genital surgery and imposed gender identity for hundreds of Americans; and now for me, too.

 

    This chapter of Butler’s, and the research I’ve done on her research, has opened my eyes to the entire world that exists in between genders—a world of which I was previously ignorant. Delving into Anne Fausto-Sterling’s book as one of Butler’s sources educated me for the first time not only in what intersexuality is, but also in how gender can be considered a sliding scale rather than a duality, and how vital it is that we promote and protect this insight. My foray into John Colapinto’s book, on the other hand, showed me how vital it is that research—scientific reporting especially—be honest and uncoercive. Inaccurate evidence leads to inaccurate thought, which leads to inaccurate action, and just like that a whole life, or a whole movement, can be founded on a fib. 

 

    The three texts of Butler, Fausto-Sterling, and Colapinto, when surveyed together, ultimately compose one resounding testament to the importance of honoring the rights of the individual, of respecting their privacy and observing their will. For although David’s case can be taken as grim evidence of how individual freedom may be quashed, I believe somehow it simultaneously proves the inverse: it shows us just how much freedom we actually each have to mold, modify, and metamorphose our identities in whatever image we desire—and now with modern technology, our bodies too. Those very situations that for David were the source of such suffering, for others hold out the promise of each our own version of human limitlessness. Maybe Natalie Angier was right after all: for despite the sorrow knitted into David’s tale, despite the fallacies and the partialities, this is essentially an allegory of hope.

Pen on paper, 2016

 

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. Undoing Gender. Routledge, 2004.

Colapinto, John. As Nature Made Him. Harper Collins, 2000.

— — —. “Gender Gap: What Were the Real Reasons David Reimer Committed Suicide?” Slate,     www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/medical_examiner/2004/06/                gender_gap.html. Accessed 9 Oct. 2016 

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality.         Basic Books, 2000, pp. 45-88.