Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Is that a riddle in your pocket? Apollonius of Tyre and The Third International Congress of the John Gower Society

We had our own watery voyage.
(A boat ride on the Genesee River.)
This summer has combined conferences both far away and very near. I got to travel to Iceland for the New Chaucer Society Conference (about which I'll blog later), and I got to present at home in Rochester at The Third International Congress of the John Gower Society: "John Gower: Language, Cognition, and Performance." Traveling to Iceland was magical, but it was also a joy to welcome scholars from around the world to my own institution. The Gower conference was all that I hoped, combining scholarship, camaraderie, and creativity.

I presented a paper entitled "'Bot in writinge it mai be spoke': Intratextual Desire in Gower's Tale of Apollonius of Tyre." The paper was new topic for me. Just as I'm finishing up my dissertation, this paper helps bring a second project into focus (which also connects to work I've been doing on Elaine of Astolat, the Camelot Project page on whom I published recently). As is inevitable at the beginning of a project, I feel like I need to think through it much more fully, but I'm excited about where it will take me. Despite my nerves, the paper went well. The whole panel fit together beautifully, our ideas mingling in surprising and delightful ways, and the discussion afterward continued throughout the conference. As with the best presentation experiences, I feel like the enthusiasm and questions and discussions I encountered will help me continue to develop my ideas.

For those who aren't familiar with the Tale of Apollonius of Tyre, I recommend reading the tale (just scroll down to line 271 of Confessio Amantis book 8). If you've seen/read Shakespeare's Pericles, then you have a basic sense of the plot. The story begins with a king, Antiochus, who has lost his wife and tries to replace her with his daughter. It's a disturbing beginning, and Gower doesn't shy away from the trauma of the princess as her own father violates her. As suitors begin to vie for the princess's hand, Antiochus devises an impossible riddle for them to answer.  Many suitors try, and many suitors fail. Finally, Apollonius arrives to try his hand at the riddle. He correctly guesses that the answer is the
Gower's main hobby is shooting the world.
He's basically the opposite of Atlas.
incest between Antiochus and his daughter, but this correct guess sends him running for his life. After many adventures, he lands on Pentapolis, where he gets a position as tutor to the king's daughter. Many suitors are vying for this princess's hand as well, but this father tries to facilitate his daughter's marriage. He asks the suitors to write bills, which the princess will read and compare. The princess, however, has fallen in love with Apollonius and is ill with lovesickness. The king is worried about his daughter, and she writes him a letter explaining her condition. The king brings the letter first to his wife and then to Apollonius, carefully arranging the marriage his daughter wants. Apollonius and the princess are married and the princess soon becomes pregnant, a sure sign that things are going well. When they hear that Antiochus and his daughter have been destroyed in a storm and it is safe for Apollonius to return home to Tyre, it almost seems like we've reached a happy ending. But there are a lot of lines, and a lot of troubles, left in the tale. While sailing to Tyre, the princess gives birth to a baby girl but dies in chil
dbirth. Apollonius, heartbroken over the loss of his wife, puts her in a coffin with jewels and a letter begging for her proper burial and then sends the coffin to sea. The coffin, miraculously, reaches land, and, even more miraculously, the clerk who reads the letter discovers that the princess is only mostly dead. Reviving her and hearing her story, he sets her up for the chaste life she requests. A lot more happens in the story, and we get wonderful adventures of the daughter as she grows up as well, but this brief summary will get us through the parts of the tale I had time to discuss in my paper.

I began outside the tale (and a few hundred years earlier), with riddle 44 from the Exeter Book: 
Swings by his thigh a thing most magical!
Below the belt, beneath the folds

of his clothes it hangs, a hole in its front end, 
stiff-set & stout, but swivels about.

Levelling the head of this hanging instrument,
its wielder hoists his hem above the knee:
it is his will to fill a well-known hole
that it fits fully when at full length.   

He has often filled it before. Now he fills it again.1
The answer, of course, is a key. What, were you thinking something else? The moment where the room shares a stifled laugh and represses the obvious dirty answer in favor of thinking through less obvious and more innocuous possibilities is the heart of such riddles. The pleasure lies in the simultaneity of the answer we don’t say and the one that we do.

The riddle at the beginning of Apollonius of Tyre, on the other hand, distorts this tradition by denying the pleasures of the genre. Antiochus gives suitors a riddle in which the sexual answer is correct. Centuries of riddles would suggest that there must be a clever trick here, but there isn’t. And yet speaking the real answer is a dangerous option as well. To declare publically that the king and his daughter share an incestuous relationship seems a good way to separate your head from your shoulders. No wonder so many suitors get it wrong. This twisted form of a twisted genre is well-suited to such a taboo desire as the king’s for his daughter.

The riddle in Apollonius of Tyre is the first of many expressions of as many varieties of desire. Characters in the text articulate their desires by crystallizing them in language. I argue that the genre that each linguistic expression takes directly represents the type of desire being expressed. From the opening incestuous riddle to the body wrapped lovingly in a letter, characters solidify their desires in language that can then be examined and distributed. At each instance of linguistic desire, language takes on a more corporeal quality, until letter and body are interconnected. Throughout the tale, then, language does not merely convey emotion, but embodies it, rendering it both tangible and communicable. Like the key from our opening riddle, language is both the thing to be unlocked and the means to unlock it; it is a passageway between the private and the public, one’s one thoughts and desires and the rest of the world. The fact that the genres of the linguistic expressions I discuss match the desires they communicate gives language an increasing material reality that renders it increasingly productive.

The tale begins with an inappropriate and traumatic desire, that of a father for his own daughter. The private world that Antiochus creates for himself, in which he may do as he pleases, is a world where desires cannot be clearly articulated. As María Bullón-Fernández explains, “incest is equated not just with ignorance but also with secrecy; can keep being performed as long as it is kept private” (49).2 Antiochus’s daughter weeps, but doesn’t know how to express herself so that he will hear her. Afterward, “sche lay stille, and of this thing,/ Withinne hirself such sorghe made” (314-15). The daughter’s emotions and desires become trapped in her motionless, soundless body. Not only is she silent, but R.F. Yeager points out “that Antiochus's daughter has no name, in a tale in which even the least servants and functionaries … are made known. … Thus the namelessness of Antiochus's daughter … bears a message we should ponder: that … sexual gluttony has no acceptable side” (228).3 Although the second princess, whom I will discuss later, also has no name, namelessness here seems to deny the princess any possibility of a subject position. She has no language; she cannot articulate her position. 

As offspring becomes consumed by progenitor, desire feeding upon that which it engendered, it’s fitting that the verbal form for these forbidden feelings is a riddle, a tricky trap of language to represent something to taboo to express. If, as Yeager suggests, “sexual gluttony has no acceptable side,” then it makes sense that its linguistic representation is a genre that both reveals and conceals. Antiochus recites, 

'With felonie I am upbore,
I ete and have it noght forbore
Mi modres fleissh, whos housebonde
Mi fader for to seche I fonde,
Which is the sone ek of my wif.
Hierof I am inquisitif;
And who that can mi tale save,
Al quyt he schal my doghter have;
Of his ansuere and if he faile,
He schal be ded withoute faile.' (405-14) 
The riddle puts the desire itself into first person. If the “I” is Antiochus himself, then by sexually consuming his daughter he renders himself his own father-in-law and thus his daughter becomes his mother-in-law. His daughter is his wife is his mother. Family titles multiply to the point of chaos. As Gary Lim explains, "While the riddle evokes familiar subject positions of the family … these terms are thrown into an incomprehensible jumble, except when incest is offered as an interpretive key. Yet if incest indeed governs these relations, it would render the conventionally accepted significance of these subject positions meaningless” (334).4 According to Larry Scanlon, the pleasure of riddles “lies in drawing a single, unambiguous solution out of what initially appears to be an irresolvable confusion. Thus, though they are founded on the possibility of instability, they depend just as much on the capacity of language to stabilize meaning as they do on the capacity to destabilize. In this riddle, by contrast, instability is all” (124).5

Although the riddle is difficult to parse, as family titles multiply and feed back on themselves, there is something inherently incestuous about it. Unlike riddles like the key from the Exeter book, this one is uncomfortably suggestive precisely so that no one would guess the answer. Even Apollonius never mentions the word incest, only stating that 

‘The question which thou hast spoke,
If thou wolt that it be unloke,
It toucheth al the priveté
Betwen thin oghne child and thee.’ (423-6) 
The answer to the riddle is that the answer is a secret. The riddle represents something that can be unlocked, but that perhaps shouldn’t be, a private space of taboo that can only be put into language when that language resists naming it. Bullón-Fernández points out that “the moment of incest might seem to have assumed a nature/culture opposition, or an opposition between the pre-linguistic and the linguistic, … Such an assumption postulates the existence of an original ‘natural’ state that culture acts upon,” but she argues that  “It is impossible … to go back to that origin, because … the moment we try to conceptualize an original moment, a moment before language, we must use language” and thus Antiochus’s “actions are thus not pre-legal or prelinguistic; rather, they change the existing law and they produce a new type of discourse, the riddle” (59; 60).6 This inextricability of language, prohibition, and transgression suits the riddle well, since its very messiness marks it as a link between the desire, the inexpressibility of the desire, and the desire’s expression. If desires are not prediscursive, then it makes sense that linguistic expressions in this tale fundamentally embody the desires of the characters who voice them.

After Apollonius, right about the riddle and yet running for his life, makes his way to Pentapolis, we get is very different scene of wooing. The bills created by suitors for the hand of the princess of Pentapolis are diametrically opposed to the riddle. The king recommends that “ech of hem do make a bille/ He bad, and wryte his oghne wille,/ His name, his fader and his good” (875-877). The bills are formal documents; they are straightforward, listing name, father's name, and possessions. The desire they represent is proper, but more practical than emotional. The twisted form of the riddle mirrored the twisted physical interactions between Antiochus and his daughter, her flesh proceeding from his and then being pulled backward, whereas the lineage related by the bills is appropriately linear, an overly determined teleology. Further, the bills only represent the suitors themselves, no physical or even linguistic interactions having taken place between them and the object of their attentions. The too-private desire of Antiochus is replaced by the too-public desire of these suitors. Rather than meeting her suitors, the princess will compare their petitions. They are interested in making a good match to a princess they neither know nor who knows them. But her love for the mysterious Apollonius, whom she knows in person but about whom she knows nothing, exceeds these other princes, who have given her clear information but with whom she has no personal connection. 

The letter the princess writes in response to these bills is neither direct information, like the bills, nor is it a riddle. Russell Peck explains that “[i]n Gower's source the daughter, when approached by the suitors, replies with a riddle, saying that she will marry the one who was shipwrecked ... The riddle in the source is a felicitous touch in that it makes more emphatic the parallel with Apollonius' first courtship when he encountered Antiochus' riddle. … Gower's reason for the change is probably to set off the motif of movement from will to reason, a motif we have already seen in a negative way with Antiochus, and now put positively in the growth of both Apollonius and his bride-to-be” (170-71).7 Not only does this second scene, as Peck suggests, give us a more positive version of the movement from will to reason, but it also gives us a linguistic expression more suited to this positive desire. 

The response the princess gives is romantic desire crystallized into language, a letter voicing her love for Apollonius that convinces her parents and her beloved to forge a marriage according to her wishes. As Peter Nicholson explains, “Apollonius' kin … are more virtuous … not because they don't fall in love but precisely because they do, and it is worth pointing out how fully the effects of romantic love are celebrated this late in the poem” (371-72).8 Whereas Antiochus’s desire was destructive and traumatic, the princess’s romantic desire is mutual and fruitful. And unlike the private desire of the riddle or the public desire of the bills, the princess’s letter is a point of access between the private and the public; it renders private emotions publically intelligible. We learn that she loves Apollonius “malgré wher sche wole or noght,” and this lack of control might connect us uncomfortably back to the unwieldy desire that opened the tale (829). Yet even those physical conditions that seem out of her control—being fevered or chilled, for example—proceed from “Riht after the condicion/ Of hire ymaginacion” (849-50). Her imagination, then, becomes physically manifest in her body, and these feelings take shape in the words of her letter. 

A carefully-reared young woman who is unfamiliar with such feelings and who “wolde hire goode name kepe/ For feere of wommanysshe schame,” the letter is a suitable method of articulating her desires in tangible, controllable form (854-5). Her letter opens with reference to maidenly shame as a bar to verbal communication: 

'The schame which is in a maide
With speche dar noght ben unloke,
Bot in writinge it mai be spoke;
So wryte I to you, fader, thus:
Bot if I have Appolinus,
Of al this world, what so betyde,
I wol non other man abide.
And certes if I of him faile,
I wot riht wel withoute faile
Ye schull for me be dowhterles.' (894-903)
Her words are not addressed to the object of her affection, but rather to her father, which fits within her sense of maidenly shame. Shame makes verbal communication impossible, and the rhyme between the words “spoke” and “unlock” indicates that there’s something hidden away that she must reveal through the letter. Apollonius used the same rhyme earlier, but in that case it was his job to unlock the riddle that had been spoken, whereas here the princess will unlock her own desires by writing the letter. The riddle obscured desire, while the letter clarifies it. Bullón-Fernández notes that words like “schame,” “unloke” and “privete” link this courtship scenario to the one in Antioch, but argues that “Unlike Antiochus, even though she falls madly in love, Artestrathes's daughter is aware of the public … the scenes and vocabulary are parallel to the story of Antiochus, but in these instances … privacy and secrecy are ultimately handled wisely and for public purposes” (51-2).9 The princess’s act of writing brings about a royal marriage, and the princess is clear about what she wants. Though much of the letter is conditional, using words like “but” and “if,” there is an ultimatum in her final statement. Either she’ll have Apollonius, or her father won’t have a daughter any longer. The role of daughter in her world is clear – it’s the only relationship possible between her father and herself, and it can only be maintained if she has her way. 

By voicing her emotion via letter, the princess is able to choose how and to whom she will grant her body and heart. The letter becomes a tangible, distributable form of her emotion, and it functions to facilitate her marriage in spite of the fact that the suitors have followed the proper procedure. Even as Apollonius was denied his initial suit after he correctly guessed the riddle, the princes here are denied their suit even after they write the bills. In the first case, Antiochus’s desire outweighs the suitor’s wishes, and in this case the princess communicates her desire to outweigh the bills. As Georgiana Donavin points out, “In contrast to Antiochus who controls his daughter’s sexuality, Arestrathes allows his daughter to choose her own mate; indeed, in her letter she demands the right to choose herself” (79).10 Scanlon agrees that “[a]t Antioch the desires of the daughter were obliterated; at Pentapolis they are determinative” (116).11 I would argue that this shifted emphasis onto the desires of the daughter is directly related to the ability of this daughter to express herself linguistically and the ability of this father to heed her words. Scanlon notes a contradictory element in the second father-daughter relationship:  “Antiochus’s riddle revealed the ‘privete’ he intended to hide. The king of Pentapolis, by contrast, wholeheartedly offers to Apollonius, 'The lettre and al the privete, / The which his dowhter to him sent' (VIII.918-19). What is striking about this gesture is its radically antithetical double meaning. On the one hand, it is an assertion of patriarchal privilege of the most [brutal] and naked sort. He displays his daughter’s ‘privete’ as if she were livestock at auction. One the other hand, this gesture also constitutes a radical abdication. The king reduces his role to that of obedient go-between. He becomes the transparent signifier of his daughter’s desire. Neither of these meanings can be subsumed by the other; they are irreducible components of the same act” (121).12 Whether the father here is displaying his daughter like livestock via the letter or whether he is “a transparent signifier” of her desire, her letter manages to directly stand in for her body and desires. 

Although this letter allows her to distribute her body as she chooses, the next letter comes when she has no voice left to speak her wishes. Believing her dead while they are at sea, Apollonius wraps her body in a letter and places her in a casket to float to land. The letter pleads for her burial, but leads instead to her resuscitation. 

'I, king of Tyr Appollinus,
Do alle maner men to wite,
That hiere and se this lettre write,
That helpeles withoute red
Hier lith a kinges doghter ded:
And who that happeth hir to finde,
For charité tak in his mynde,
And do so that sche be begrave
With this tresor, which he schal have.' (1110-1130) 
The fact that the subject of the letter is the body that lies “here” renders the message only meaningful if read in conjunction with the body, making text and body mutually constitutive. It’s as if the body is a text in its own right and the letter is a gloss to explain its meaning. 

The coffin also becomes a form of communication, since the men who find it “Which that thei finde faste stoke,/ Bot thei with craft it have unloke” (1175-6). As the princess used her letter to unlock and reveal her desire, the men here unlock the casket to reveal the letter and body. And, luckily for the princess, those who find the casket are able to read both the letter and the body. The letter is visible immediately upon opening the casket, and the letter leads the men to unsew the body from its shroud, another layer of unlocking that reveals crucial information. A learned clerk examines the princess’s seemingly lifeless body, “And with the craftes whiche he couthe/ He soghte and fond a signe of lif.” (1188-9). In order to find this sign of life, the clerk not only needs to be able to read both letter and body, but also must be open to a disjunction between the meaning of the two. Though the letter states that the princess is dead, the physician discovers that he can revive her. Written communication, it seems, can only unlock within the limitations of the writer’s perspective. The princess’s letter stated that she would die without Apollonius, and we believed her because she was describing her own body, but Apollonius’s letter about her can only state what he can see of her. 

Thanks to the physician, the princess regains both consciousness and linguistic expression. And her simultaneous reintroduction into both life and language allows her to situate herself and her needs properly once again. That her husband's written words can give way to her spoken ones extends the possibilities of the letter, even as this final letter is inextricably bound to her body. Her desire to be chaste while she believes her husband dead, like her earlier desire to choose her husband, is granted. Though coming from a place of limited narrative control, because of her death-state, her enclosed position, and her powerlessness to steer on her impromptu ocean voyage, the princess again succeeds in dictating her own terms for her life and body. Her husband's love for her, voiced in the letter he places with her body, allows her to continue her life as she chooses until their surprise reunion. Her facility with language thus creates for her the life of her choosing; it allows her to shape the world according to her desires. 

The tale begins not only with incest, but with rape. Gower presents us with the trauma of the rape victim, the woman who could neither articulate nor enact her own desires but rather had desires enacted upon her. The riddle is her father’s, the “I” of the riddle is him; she is silenced and fated to feel the pain of lightning strike along with her rapist. The rest of the tale, however, shows us how desire can be communicated and love can be expressed. The second princess uses writing to choose her own husband, and her own daughter, of whom I don’t have time to speak, is able to use both tears and words to maintain her chastity even when kidnapped by pirates and brought to a bordello. Language, both as a thing to be interpreted and an interpretive key in its own right, is inextricable from material realities it represents in the tale. The concordance between the language and what it represents allows for efficacious communication and thus greater autonomy and reciprocity for characters who can both speak and listen.

1 The Earliest English Poems. Translated and introduced by Michael Alexander. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1991.

María Bullón-Fernández. Fathers and Daughters in Gower’s Confessio Amantis: Authority, Family, State, and Writing. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000.

3 R.F. Yeager. John Gower's poetic: The Search for a New Arion. Woodbridge, Suffolk; Rochester, NY, USA: D.S. Brewer, 1990. 

4 Gary Lim. "Constructing the Virtual Family: Socializing Grief in John Gower's 'Tale of Apollonius of Tyre.'" Exemplaria, Vol. 22 No. 4, Winter, 2010, 326–48. 

5  Larry Scanlon. “The Riddle of Incest: John Gower and the Problem of Medieval Sexuality.” Re-Visioning Gower. Ed. R. F. Yeager. Asheville, NC: Pegasus Press, 1998. 93–127. 

6 María Bullón-Fernández. Fathers and Daughters.

7 Russell A. Peck. Kingship & Common Profit in Gower's Confessio Amantis. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978

8 Peter Nicholson. Love & Ethics in Gower's Confessio Amantis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005. 

María Bullón-Fernández. Fathers and Daughters.

10 Georgiana Donavin. Incest Narratives and the Structure of Gower’s Confessio Amantis. Victoria, B.C.: English Literary Studies, 1993.

11 Larry Scanlon. “The Riddle of Incest."

12 Ibid.