Valerie Traub. The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England.
Valerie Traub's study of representations of female same-sex erotics during the Renaissance joins an emerging consensus that changes in cultural knowledge about female sexuality during the seventeenth century contributed to a major shift in the ways in which female same-sex relations were being represented, and perhaps enacted; these changes eventually contributed to the consolidation of modern sexual identities. Professor Traub impresses by her command of scholarship in several fields and by her adroit handling of a striking array of the discourses of early modern eroticism; from anatomies and travel narratives to works on midwifery and legal treatises, from medical and pornographic texts to poetry, drama, and paintings, her discussion follows the complex circulation of discourses in England and on the Continent. She undertakes "to develop an analytical framework adequate to the complexity of the representations [she has] encountered and to the variety of issues they raise" by adopting specialized terms ("amor impossibilis, anatomical pudica, chaste femme love, erotic similitude, (in)significance, and prosthesis") to describe the variety of representations of female same-sex relations (33). In establishing a Foucauldian "genealogy" of the "lesbian," she also appropriates a number of psychoanalytic concepts ("desire, anxiety, abjection, identification, melancholy, perversion, and psychomorphology") to address "interpretative problems unique to early modern regimes of representation.... [particularly the] representation of lesbianism [which] is governed by tensions between visibility and invisibility, possibility and impossibility, significance and insignificance" (33).
In broadly schematic terms, Traub describes the opposition between representations of the tainted figure of the tribade and the more normatively acceptable person of the chaste friend and the ideology associated with her, demonstrating how the friend is eventually contaminated by the specter of sexual suspicion and "chart[ing] how a discursive regime of impossibility is gradually displaced by a governing logic of suspicion and possibility" (20-21). This historical trajectory is uneven, marked by the starts, stops, and regressions that characterize temporal process. However, it is not always Traub's primary interest to fine-tune historical nuance; rather, having painted historical processes with a broad brush, her central purpose is an intervention into recent critical--particularly feminist, queer, and lesbian and gay studies--discussions of "alteritism" ("the insistence on the radical incommensurability of past and present sexualities") vs. grand narratives and continuist histories of sexuality (333). Chapter 8, in particular, "The quest for origins, erotic similitude, and the melancholy of lesbian identification," addresses in detail what is at stake in our relation to and in our attempts to recover the past; it offers a skillful summary of the many perspectives those working in the field must consider as well as a meditation on critical theoretical issues that promises to shape many future discussions. Still, for sheer scholarly exuberance and the delights of Renaissance cultural history, chapter 3, "The politics of pleasure; or, queering Queen Elizabeth," offers its own very special pleasures of analyses of representations of Elizabeth I, notions of chastity, and the poems of Herrick.
Traub's work is not entirely unproblematic. Her scrupulously generous discussion of the work of other critics provides sharp, useful summaries; often, it also impedes, even overwhelms, her own arguments with its voluminous detail. Her anachronistic use of "lesbian," while extensively rationalized and italicized for emphasis, is more apt to disconcert than to do the intellectual work intended: it elides the differences of the past rather than forcing us to examine them. Related is the identification of women who were not tribades as "chaste femmes," a phrase that invokes the feminine half of the modern butch/femme dyad. Traub is aware of these difficulties but has not vanquished them. Similarly, there is a tendency to jump boundaries of time and place between England and the Continent without pausing to explore the nuances of cultural transmission. An example, but one of many, is the discussion of Cavalli's opera La Calisto (1651) and Thomas Heywood's The Escapes of Jupiter (ca. 1622) (244ff); we leap seamlessly over almost thirty years from London to Venice. While the Ovidian source-tale was widely circulated, we cannot rely on a vague associational matrix to show that particular common assumptions shaped their representations of sexuality. Our focus on England is blurred, the texture of a national moment--a mentalite--flattened, even as we gain a larger perspective.
Professor Traub's scholarship is prodigious, her critical acumen impressive. We will be recalling with pleasure for years to come the stories she has brought to our attention; for her capacious study provides a rich and welcome store of material for future argument and debate.
Texas A&M University
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2003|
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