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Transforming Desire: Erotic Knowledge in Books III and IV of the Faerie Queene.

At the heart of this book, and advertised in its title, is a play on words which Silberman believes is the raison d etre of this part of The Faerie Queene. Carnal knowledge may mean 'arriving at understanding of the world by means of the body (especially in its amorous aspects)' and also, well, sex. The lovers' quests, which are the staple of romance, are searches after the truth, not desire for sexual union per se. Or, put another way, if Redcrosse must be sent off for six years to do some more jousting before consummating his marriage to Una (an event so chaste that it is even more mind-boggling to the profane than the union between Emma and Mr Knightley), then there is obviously more to his quest than erotic fulfilment. Moreover, the reader (along with Spenser's muse) is to learn through this frustration of the 'happy ever after', as well as the hero. For the muse has to work with a cumbersome, and potentially stultifying, literary inheritance, which, like all good muses, she is busily overhauling, under a show of deference to the past. In particular, Britomart's varied adventures show a heroine in the making, not one born to the task, and making up her responses as she stumbles from one adventure to the next, not a Martial Maid sprung fully armed from the epic poet's head. Silberman argues that this kind of empiricism (the story-teller through the character making things up as he goes along) is Spenser's way of demonstrating the provisional nature of human understanding in this sublunary world - seeing in a glass darkly. Fair enough, although a medievalist suspects, without looking further, that this apercu had been anticipated by Chaucer in Troilus. The stances prescribed to a lover in the Petrarchan tradition, in the words of a well-known limerick, reduce him (and it is usually him) to

Just a being that moves In predestinate grooves, Not even a bus, but a tram.

If Britomart is, metaphorically, a bus, then the part of the tram is played by Scudamore, who, Silberman says, misreads situations because he is a prisoner of Petrarchan language. And, if a character can be said to misread situations, then there must be something outside language for him to misread. Silberman is one of the post-post-modernists (as she says, there is, as yet, no name for this new academic tribe) who is consciously moving on from Derrida; while she revels in the free play of words (the book is a close reading of Books III and IV), she recognizes that, for a Christian poet, there is a Transcendental Signifier in the sky.

This is a subtle book, and full of ingenuity. If all in the here and now is provisional, then this goes for any reading of the poem: there can be no insights inscribed in stone. The author fully recognizes that she and her readers are engaged in a sophisticated game, and she is most refreshingly unsolemn about it. It is a relief to find an academic book which, while it is demanding to read, is none the less not written in the usual constipated prose, and shows obvious attention to style, as well as a real belief in the worth of what she is discussing. A writer with cloth ears does not inspire confidence, especially when the subject is a poet who, by definition, must care passionately about language. This book is admirably lucid, and the arguments correspondingly clear - as well as hard-headed. And Silberman, who is nothing if not an enthusiast, certainly convinces her readers that, even if Spenser does not appeal to everybody, he is a source of endless intellectual stimulation.

H. L. SPENCER Exeter College Oxford
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Author:Spencer, H.L.
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1997
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