Sunday, June 13, 2010

A Feminist Aesthetic of Reading

A week ago, I read this article called "Pleasure, resistance and a feminist aesthetic of reading" by Geraldine Heng, which explored medieval literature and feminist interpretations of it.  I've spent a lot of time working in medieval history, so I was impressed by Heng's writing on that history, since she covered a lot of ground in very little space.  But I also liked the idea of looking at medieval writing from a feminist standpoint. 
In March, I read The Song of Roland, which is about Roland, a knight of Charlemagne, who defends a particular spot in the Pyrenees to the point where he and all his men die, but allow the rest of the troops to avoid being attacked by the Moors.  (The Moors, in the words of one of my professors, is another way of saying "You, them there Muslims.")  What bothered me about this story was, at the end, Charlemagne has to tell Roland's fiancee (who wasn't mentioned previously in the story) that Roland has died.  Then this fiancee goes off and dies, with the writer implying she had nothing left to live for.  Obviously, as a feminist, I don't like the idea of a woman being forced to marry, and I'm not a fan of the idea of women not having anything better going on in their life than a man, so this bothered me.  Because I was reading The Song of Roland for a history class and I didn't have to write a paper on it, I kept these thoughts to myself.  Even though Heng didn't discuss this work in her essay, I suspect she would probably have something to say about it. 
I'm also wondering how she would feel about literary interpretations of letters.  I turned in an essay six weeks ago on the letters between Pope Gregory VII and Countess Matilda of Tuscany.  Is it possible to see these in a feminist light, even though they are not the traditional idea of "literature"?  Matilda obviously defended Gregory, but Gregory helped her as well.  Since Heng advocates seeing women in medieval literature as both dependent on men but also with some degree of power themselves, I find myself wondering if I should see Matilda in the same light. 
I'm also wishing I could read the Vitas written about her by various monks, because those would come much closer to qualifying as literature.  Vitas, or Lives, were basically biographies.  They were usually written by men working within the church (as monks, abbots, bishops, canons, etc.) that tell a person's life story, emphasizing how saint-like they are.  If they were written before they were canonized, the goal is to persuade readers they should be, and if they were written after canonization, it's because they wanted to use the person in question as an example of living one's life justly.  There's been a lot of work by historians on these biographies in the last twenty to twenty five years, analyzing them using close reading, a technique that any English major worth their salt understands.  So I'm wondering if it's possible to do something similar while working in English and not history. 
I wasn't really looking to read these feminist essays in order to work on the issues between history and literature or feminist in medieval literature, but Heng's essay opened up a lot of really interesting thoughts for me. 

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