“The Student of Epistolarity’s Blog Response”

In the salutation of “The God of Love’s Letter,” Cupid wishes the recipient[s] “Health, Love, Intimacy” (my emphasis, de Pizan 16). This is seemingly at odds with the opening of the exordium: “We make it publicly known that complaints . . . have been made before us” (my emphasis, de Pizan 16). There is an immediate tension birthed by the proximity of the words “intimacy” and “publicly,” which mirrors the tension of the issues at hand. “Intimacy” belongs to a private sphere and one of the central concerns of the text is the collapsing of the boundaries of private (feminine) and public (masculine) which gives way to “intimacy” becoming a public affair, wherein it ceases to be intimate. What is curious is that de Pizan herself seems to transgress the accepted boundary between public and private as she is woman intent on engaging in a public debate and employing a private genre to address public concerns.

This early portion of the exordium is marked by reference to the state, courtly love, and honor – all gendered concepts relating to public relations. I wonder to what extent de Pizan must labor in her exordium not only to secure the good will of her audience, but also to establish her bona fides, i.e. is the adoption of the “clerkly” discourse a means for her not only engage critically with the public (read: male) literary debate, but also a means of establishing her right to be part of it in the first place? This concern for demonstrating a belonging to the masculine literary discourse community is perhaps evidenced in subsequent sections of the letter (Narratio? Do we get one?) by the classical, biblical and romantic literary references which are threaded throughout. Similarly, the martial metaphors including “throw[ing] down the gauntlet” and “captur[ing] a weakly fortified” perhaps function as a radical appropriation of the language of a masculine discourse to signal that she deserves a place within it.

It is curious that she employs the formal conceit of adopting the persona of Cupid to engage with her audience. Scholars of the Roman de la Rose – which she critiques – have argued that Jean de Meun’s allegorical characters function as cover for him to make claims that would otherwise have adverse repercussions – the dream vision genre helps in this regard as well. This formal conceit of deflecting ownership via adoption of a persona is in some ways echoed in the creation of an artificial commentary. As the editors point out, de Pizan produces the verse, gloss and allegory portions of “The Letter from Othea.” What is perhaps worth noting is that the author is attempting to create an artificial distance in the context of the commentary process, in which she mimics the practice of medieval authors commenting on ancient texts (de Pizan 30), but that this distancing is perhaps intended to create the illusion of objectivity, i.e. the formal conceit is meant to strengthen the arguments. Again, I wonder if the excess of allusions and references to literature and philosophy function as barrier removal for a female writer in this period. Similarly, I wonder if composing the verse and then providing commentary is meant to signal that she – as a woman – is more than capable of engaging in the work of not only one but three authors at the same time. 

In the spirit of feminist discourse, I will end with a series of questions rather than statements of fact. Feel free to engage with the above or what follows. How do we square de Pizan’s disdain of “deceit” with the adoption of a persona? How do we square de Pizan’s disdain of “deceit” and “pretending” and contemporary gender theory – is there a productive conversation to be had regarding de Pizan and “performativity?” Does the excess of references function as a sort of textual “drag.” In a public setting, is “intimacy” subsumed into politics? Derrida points out in The Politics of Friendship that the notion of a “private enemy” is nonsensical. Is the same true of a “public intimate?” What do we make of a public letter (this is unlike Ovid in that it is a literary appropriation of the genre which is in some ways functioning like actual letters)? Is de Pizan giving the object of her ire a taste of their own medicine by by having Cupid make the private – I’m assuming anonymous – complaints of individual women public?  I didn’t get to “The Letter on the Prison of Human Life” in this post, but what do we make of the public / private concerns of the letter, and the collapsing of these within the context of communication between women? Was anyone able to link these readings to the framework from Excommunication? See you all on Tuesday.

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4 thoughts on ““The Student of Epistolarity’s Blog Response”

  1. I have quite a few thoughts about your questions, Darisse, but I will focus on your questioning of Christine’s “public intimacy.” While this seems to fly in the face of most understandings of intimacy, which would be a private and close (perhaps even iridescent) relationship with someone else, I think we might be underestimating the power of intimacy, or at least reducing it to its extreme. While physical proximity and a private setting seems to be the ideal situation for intimacy, I think that intimacy can be distant and even distributed, especially in the case of Christine and perhaps more generally for many medieval letters. Petrarch is able to claim a new epistolary intimacy in his correspondence with Cicero because he is able to write in a new “familiar” style, but it is not any less public or distant. Likewise, I think Facebook can also foster these kinds of distant and distributed intimacies – the network mediates relationships and brings together those people who are physically distant from each other.

  2. Your questions concerning a “public intimate” strikes a chord with me. I think the secrets of characters/politicians have always captivated the globe. To see into another’s private space! What more could the public want? To know what a woman is really thinking! To know what a man really craves! Yes, we are a nosy bunch, but why? What can we gain from snooping around, or peaking into our neighbor’s mailbox? Perhaps we seek some kind of shortcut, a quick way to answers our seething questions (i.e. What are people really like? How do I win a perfect lover? Is there a way I can skip the work and get straight to the “good” stuff?). Christine de Pizan allows Cupid to set the record straight: These tricks do “not teach the condition or the ways of loving well, but rather the contrary” (22). As a woman, she explains that deceitful ploys are ill-designed. They will not allow one to penetrate a woman’s innermost depths… her mind. And, perhaps, that is why we hear from Cupid, not her.

  3. In response to your concern about deceit and the deceptive act of adopting a persona: Intentionality! Pages 26 and 27 may have been pulled straight from Abelard and Heloise, and you can see de Pizan working with many of the concepts that our two writers from last week sparred over. In her own words, “Without intending to deceive others, one cannot deceive them, for this is not true deception.” I think it’s fair to say that de Pizan did not intend to actually masquerade as a god of love and that her audience would not take her letter as such; since there was “no concealed malice,” her writing “should not be called deception.”

  4. I agree with Tim, and yet, intentionality also involves the end game, so to speak. de Pizan scoffs at how Ovid’s Art of Love teaches to “win love through dissembling” (22). With this in mind, I spy an interesting paradox of sorts. Do writers attempt to win love?

    The talk of ‘public intimate’ makes me think again of the intimacy of the medium. I brought it up before in terms of the proximity (a la Cicero) with which we carry our devices, but the intimacy stretches back, I think, to any sort of author-bearing medium (e.g., a book). Certainly I feel an intimacy with books and authors I hold dear, despite being post-“Death of the Author” or even post-death-of-the-author.

    I wonder if there is a key here to twist this framework of winning and love and deception. The masculine model de Pizan excoriates may be more martial, as Darisse suggests. I contrast the model of war with the model of play. de Pizan is certainly playful, as when she renames The Art of Love “The Art of Great Deceit and of False Appearance” (22). In a playful situation, communication is not always straightforward. One may be inclined to play tricks, to play the role of the trickster. That’s how I read her striking portrait of herself in the Prologue to Othea: “I am not well / grounded in reason. In this I do not resemble my good father, / except in so far as one / Steals grains of wheat while gleaning during the harvest…/Or as one picks up the crumbs falling from the / High table” (31). She does not resemble the masculine model that precedes her, but rather dissembles; she steals, picks up crumbs, and plays her different grounding to her advantage.

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