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Saturday, May 06, 2006

Tirant Two

OK, so the Shuger book just came to me via ILL (the book was a relatively rare failure in State U's early modern holdings), and I'm still reading. I have things to say, though by the time I'm ready, everybody will probably be done with the whole thing, but there it is. This is my life: constant belatedness.

In the meantime, I want to post a sequel to my earlier comments on the Catalan romance "Tirant lo Blanc." In part, this will entail retailing a few more salacious and amusing episodes. But I also think these particular episodes are interesting in more substantial ways.

The first thing to note is that the narrative of this text is literally consummated: the climax is, yes, in fact, a climax. Wink wink. Now, that in itself may not be so new, at least if we all know how to read for the plot, but the way it's managed strikes me as, at least, worth observing. Tirant has, for about 400 pages, been negotiating a secret relationship with Carmesina, the princess of the Greek Empire and the heir to the throne. (Well, she'll lose control of the kingdom when she marries, as the text repeatedly points out, but at any rate, she's the only child). She is in love with him, wants to marry him, and wants him to, uh, "rule her kingdom," and in fact the two are betrothed maybe three-quarters of the way through the text. Nevertheless, all good knights have needs that aren't quite satisifed in marriage or betrothal alone -- and so much of this particular plot-line concerns Carmesina's resistence to Tirant's sexual advances. Although prompted by various friends, men and women, to force himself on her, he respects her wishes. This plays out several times over with variations.

Abundant complications ensue -- as impatient readers, we'll jump to the climax. The very moment that Tirant finally (after 500 pages) conquers the various Saracens, Moors, and Turks who have beset the Greek Empire is also the moment when he finally conquers Carmesina. Moreover, both moments are explicitly achievements of force. Allow me to transcribe Carmesina's amazing speech, as Tirant is, evidently, doing unspeakable things to her:

"Tirant, do not change our glorious reunion into bitter woe but calm yourself, my lord, and abjure bellicose violence, for a delicate damsel cannot resist a knight. Do not treat me thus, as love's battles should be won through clever flattery and sweet deception, nor should you employ treachery except against infidels. Do not cruelly defeat one already vanquished by love! Will you brutally prove your mettle against a helpless damsel? Give me part of your manhood that I may resist you! Oh my lord, how can you delight in forcing me? Oh, how can you hurt the one you love? By your virtue and nobility, please stop before you hurt me! Love's weapons should not cut; love's lance should not wound! Alas, cruel false knight, be careful or I shall scream! Lord Tirant, show your compassion and pity a helpless damnsel! You cannot be Tirant! Woe is me! Is this what I longed for? Oh, my life's hope, you have slain your princess!"

As narrator remarks, in case we didn't get it, "Do not think the princess's pleas persuaded Tirant to leave the job unfinished, but although he won the battle, his beloved also fainted."

So, the narrative climaxes in what we would call a date rape -- and one that involves an explicit rejection of Carmesina's claims that force has no place in love: afterward, she is presented as being glad for what happened here. Knights win honor in the bedroom as well as on the battlefield, as the text several times notes, and that involves violence in both places. This seems to me to give an interesting perspective on that ubiquitous early modern rhetoric about desire as conquest, though I don't quite know how to interpret this relationship: is "Tirant" a send-up of chivalric sexual codes, at least here? A realist version of them? The praise for this book in "Don Quixote" is based on the fact that, in it, according to the priest, "the knights eat and sleep and die in their beds, and make their wills before they die, and other things as well that are left out of all other books of the kind." (The knights do, in fact, produce wills, as well as other vaguely legal documents -- in fact, the text is obsessed with the precise legalistic formulae attending duels, jousts, and challenges, in a way that calls to mind the mockery of that kind of thing in "As You Like It" and other Shakespeare plays).

Ok, I have a couple of other things to notice, so onward. I'm now going to move backward in the narrative a bit, to one of those other failed sexual encounters. Pleasure-of-my-life -- you may remember her from my last post on this -- has smuggled a naked Tirant into the princess's bedroom one night, intending to slip him into bed with her. First, she wants him to grope her thoroughly. In order to manage this, she first starts touching Carmesina herself, and then at some point substitutes Tirant's hand for her own. This is one of two passages in this book that seem to me to really push the envelope on female same-sex erotics. It's been a while since I've read my Valerie Traub, but I found this text fairly surprising in its emphasis on female intimacy in general, and on the way that can push over into what's very clearly eroticized: Pleasure-of-my-life, having just delivered a hushed lecture to Tirant that women want to be forced into sex, then "rolled up her sleeves and placed the Breton's hand upon his princess, whose nipples, belly, and sex he began to caress." Now Carmesina wakes up, and, thinking this is Pleasure-of-my-life, tells her she's a nuisance. She rolls over, goes back to sleep, and Tirant begins again, at which point Carmesina wakes up again, and asks, "What do you want, wicked woman? Let me sleep! Have you gone mad, trying to do what is against nature?"

Now, she does seem here to identify lesbian sex as against nature -- but on the other hand, it never occurs to her that someone else might be in the room, and initially, at least, she seems to identify what is really pretty graphic groping as something that might, in fact, occur, when two women share a bed. Again, I can't remember my Traub, but I found this pretty striking.

The next passage also concerns these same two; moreover, it is, at least according to the editor of this book, the first extant version of the "Much Ado About Nothing" story, a version of which is also told in Ariosto's "Orlando Furioso." But the "Tirant" story is *significantly* different.

A character called the Easygoing Widow has fallen in love with Tirant, and wants to poison his relationship with Carmesina as a prelude for ... well, you know. The Widow's ongoing efforts are in fact the major reason for distance and suspicion between Carmesina: the Widow has first told all sorts of lies about Tirant to Carmesina, and now is going to convince him that she's being unfaithful. Specifically, that while she won't sleep with him, she is sleeping all the time with Lauseta, the Moorish gardener -- described by the Widow as "a black Moorish slave." The Widow then has a mask made "with black leather" and also black gloves, designed to look exactly like Lauseta, apparently -- allegedly for the feast of Corpus Christi. She puts Tirant in some kind of shed or other structure adjacent to the garden, with a contraption involving two mirrors that enables him to see into the garden, where the court ladies are enjoying themselves, without being seen. Meanwhile, she has Pleasure-of-my-life put on the Lauseta-costume, enter the garden, and begin to garden -- Tirant, watching, is convinced that this is in fact "the Moor." Then Pleasure/Lauseta approaches Carmesina:

"Having kissed Carmesina's hands, she began to caress her breasts, fondling the nipples and speaking sweet words of love. The princess laughed so hard that she forgot her weariness, while the damsel edged closer and felt beneath her mistress's skirt. Everyone was delighted by Pleasure-of-my-life's pleasantries."

Now, this scene strikes me as really pretty incredible. First of all, we have cross-race and cross-gender performance; secondly, this game -- which Tirant thinks is a heterosexual encounter -- again presents a pretty flagrant example of lesbian erotics: I mean, what Tirant is thinking now is clear, but what's going on among these women? At any rate, this is altogether something different from what Shakespeare gives us.

Lauseta, I should say, gets a very raw deal: after seeing this, Tirant goes to his room to fret for a while, then comes out and beheads Lauseta. There are no consequences for this act: once he's reconciled with Carmesina and understands that this was all a trick, I don't even think he ever expresses regret for it.

At any rate, this stuff makes English romance look pretty damn tame. All that language Greenblatt uses to emphasize the supposedly raw sexuality of the Bower of Bliss? That's nothing.

It's not surprising puritans and other square-hat-wearers didn't want people reading this stuff.

  • At 5/06/2006 03:26:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Is it just me, or is this blog getting a little blue?


  • At 5/06/2006 03:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    not with terrifically smutty posts like this!


  • At 5/06/2006 03:45:00 PM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    Yeah, did I cross a line here?


  • At 5/06/2006 04:20:00 PM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Nooooo! Besides doing an amazing job of ratcheting up everyone's expectations for the movie (even if it's straight to video), your post a) gives us an idea of what's in Spanish romances, b) contrasts this Spanish romance to the Fairie Queene, and c) reminds us why the square-hat-wearers disliked these works. The Renaissance was smutty, not us. But can you work Tirant into the kissing Puritans woodcut competition?


  • At 5/06/2006 04:33:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Great post. It makes me want to read the book, although I also have a sense that I'd be wading through 500 pages of chivalric bore to get to the smutty parts--which I already know from here. So maybe on second thought I'll just re-read your two posts on the book.


  • At 5/06/2006 05:02:00 PM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    We're clearly dealing with the wrong Romance tradition... Britomart would have had a very different life in Spain.

    I also predict a sudden spike in traffic akin to that caused by the infamous "hundred vaginas" post. Welcome, Leather/Moor/Knight-Girl-Hand-Substitution fetishists!


  • At 5/06/2006 07:03:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Speaking of vaginas, I just finished a great article: Eric Naiman, "A Filthy Look at Shakespeare's Lolita," Comparative Literature 58.1 (winter 2006): 1-23. It traces Nabokov's interest in Shakespeare, particularly via Eric Partridge's classic Shakespeare's Bawdy, published in 1947 just as Nabokov was beginning to write Lolita. Let's just say that there are quite a lot of country, purse, nothing, thing, con- [the prefix, think French], eye, gap, part, case, etc., puns in Lolita. All of which will be familiar to Renaissance scholars. And all amply demonstrating both Shakespeare's "puden-synonymy" (Patridge's term) and Nabokov's philo-Shakespearean-puden-synonymy. But there is also, though less copiously and generally less ingeniously, radish, pierce, coq, etc. I say generally less ingeniously, because there is one interesting pun on penis with an early modern history that I was unaware of: "the French word for sexual member (vit) is a homonym for the word for life" (Naiman 8). Ronsard uses it. And so does Nabokov: "My life was handled by little Lo in an energetic, matter-of-fact manner as if it were an insensate gadget unconnected to me. While eager to impress me with the world of tough kids, she was not quite prepared for certain discrepancies between a kid's life and mine" (pp. 133-4 in The Annotated Lolita, ed. Alfred Appel, jr.; quoted in Naiman 12).

    On another note, Naiman suggests that the book's antagonist, Clare Quilty, is patterned on the Shakespearean Arthur Quiller-Couch (who went by "Q" to his friends).

    Anyway, thought I'd pass this along, both because it really is a filthy essay, but also because this blog has seen some recent discussion of the Nabokov/Shakespeare nexus, though on a much more elevated level.


  • At 5/06/2006 10:20:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    You Renaissance scholars are dirty.


  • At 5/06/2006 11:21:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    Note that the same curate who praises Tirant lo Blanc in Don Quixote for being "a treasury of enjoyment and a mine of recreation" also says, immediately afterwards: "he who wrote it, for deliberately composing such fooleries, deserves to be sent to the galleys for life. Take it home with you and read it, and you will see that what I have said is true."

    So again, it's not we who are smutty; it's the Renaissance itself. As all puritans and curates could tell you.


  • At 5/07/2006 12:58:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    I didn't mean to criticize -- I've been enjoying this a lot. I just wish I could spend my time reading books like that!


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