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Medieval Venuses and Cupids: Sexuality, Hermeneutics, and English Poetry.

Theresa Tinkle. Medieval Venuses and Cupids: Sexuality, Hermeneutics, and English Poetry. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. 294 pp. $39.50. ISBN: 0-8047-2515-2.

This book has the worthwhile goal of examining the multiple meanings of the deities Venus and Cupid in medieval mythography and mythographic poets, and thus of exploring the "multiple and shifting points of view on sexual love and desire," which are "conditioned by . . . gender . . . age and social standing" (97). In accordance with a useful postmodern awareness, Tinkle refuses to consider the mythographers' discussions as a key "divulg[ing] the deities"proper' or historical medieval meanings" (98). Furthermore, the meanings of either or both of the deities are not to be contained by simple hierarchized binary oppositions (e.g., heavenly/earthly, sacred/profane, or indeed "licit/illicit sexualities" [35]) that "deny multiplicity and diversity" (34).

The project suggests exciting prospects for an understanding of "medieval habits of reading" (212), of the apparently shifting perspectives of medieval texts such as Chaucer's or Gower's on love, sex, pleasure and their relation to the natural and the divine, as well as of how poets rewrite their predecessors. Patterns observed and hypotheses offered spark interest. For example: the mythographers' Venus "directs our attention to ecclesiastical ideologies imposed on sex acts," while Cupid (representing "youthful masculine license'), "embodies a fundamental equivocation between desire . . . and love" which shifts attention "toward the mind," a focus that "does not typically lead to penitential rigor." For the "almost exclusively male writers' who constructed the tradition, "sexuality is perhaps more comfortably judged as an aspect of the Other, . . . condoned as a part of oneself" (97).

Tinkle eschews the "commonplace binary opposition of absolute indeterminacy and absolute determinacy" - "a major conceptual basis of deconstruction" (39). Yet, for this reader at least, too much of her book is taken up with highly abstract assertions about multiplicity, ambiguity, destabilization, or absence of meaning as values in themselves - opposed to "lucid truth" (57), "transcendent meaning" (58), a "single authoritative historically correct meaning" (74), "utterly fixed and certain" meanings (79). Long passages in the mode of the following are not limited to the occasional summary of more substantive points: "By means of ambiguity, Chaucer lends aesthetic form to the possibility of anxious irresolutions in sexual norms and values. Deftly bringing uncertainties to consciousness, he accomplishes a poetic unnatural act. Ambiguity (like multiplicity) is the point rather than something to be argued away" (170). This reader kept wishing that the author would develop selected hypotheses with fewer tautological assertions and more concrete literary - and perhaps cultural - evidence which might add up to a thicker cultural description (she makes only a few glancing allusions to cultural practices - e.g., prostitution, or the schoolboy's learning of misogyny along with Ovid's Latin). This applies as well to her brief abstract assertions on how poetic texts "denaturalize" cultural constructs of gender and class. The "simpler view" begins to feel like a straw man; one wants to hear more about particular inadequacies of overly rigid views of mythographic tradition for the works under discussion, so that one can better understand the contribution and explanatory power of the author's interpretations.

In treating Chaucer's "self-fashioning" by means of a Venus suiting his poetic aims, or Christine de Pizan's reshaping of myth in the cause of social and political commentary, for example, Tinkle does begin to address the way in which traditions are created anew and literary contexts may be "unique" (134), in accordance with her goal of suggesting "new ways of thinking about . . . the tensions and ambiguities implicit in medieval sexualities, . . . the potentially complex quality of poetic allusions to myth" (213). However, rather than seeing quite so many assertions that a reified multivocality is the order of the day, this reader would have preferred a richer and more compelling illustration of how particular "renegotiations of meanings" (210) matter in substantive ways for particular subjects in particular cultural settings, as well as of the "cultural meaning" of "conflicts among hermeneutics" and "issues left unresolved" (39).

JUDY KRONENFELD University of California, Riverside
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Author:Kronenfeld, Judy
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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