“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.


Rethinking friendship

After puzzling through the two notions of friendship put before us, I couldn’t help but draw some comparisons to Excommunication. I wonder of the figures of Hermes and Iris might provide a means of unpacking Cicero and Derrida’s understandings of friendship, respectively.

Cicero’s ideal friendship, one that is defined by “accord in all things, human and divine, conjoined with mutual goodwill and affection,” at first seems to be one characterized by closeness; yet much of how he tests and refines that definition relies on a sort of suspicion (5). A great deal of the text is devoted to characterizing what is not friendship or who is not a friend. Friendship does not “spring from the hope of gain” (8). Friends who fail to live up to the standards of virtue are no friends at all, so “you should love your friend after you have appraised him” (19). Essentially, Cicero’s entire approach operates on applying hermeneutics and symptomatic to human relationships.

Derrida’s approach, conversely, seeks to enable an all-encompassing nearness that corresponds with Iris. The strict application of standards like Cicero’s can create the friend/enemy dichotomy, and he seems opposed to the notion of any definition of friendship that seeks to exclude. He calls for us “to think and live the quiet rigor of friendship, the law of friendship as the experience of a certain a-humanity.” The question of “who” our friends are, in and of itself one defined by Hermes’ standing on the border between us and other, “moves off into the distance” (386). He calls for a democracy that embodies “an experience of equality,” in which friendship is not a bond between one and another, but rather a bond between one and all around him. This model of friendship leaves room for the universal warmth and iridescence that Cicero’s lacks; it operates on the same principles, but demand that those principles be put into practice on a political level instead of tested on an individual level.

Heroides (Separation Anxiety)

The treatment of secondary characters is essential to the construction of many of the letters in Ovid’s Heroides. As the women of “lesser” value take the stage, Ovid grants them distinct and intricate voices. They long to communicate with their distant men and to make their opinions and assertions tangible. But they are not the same. No, absolutely not! And it is this variety of women that gives the complication its true power. The correspondences would be rather forgettable if not for their blatantly contrasting personalities. Yes, the letters often deal with love. Yes, they frequently deal with desire. And yes, the theme of infidelity reemerges. But these are not simply the musing of the same woman tossed into various household and relationships. The messages strikes different chord that, when layered, creates a thick enmeshing. There is an accumulatory effect that leaves the reader well aware of the diversity within women (and men): Penelope reiterates the prevalence of fickleness. Phyllis succumbs to unwise love, and finds refuge in nature. Briseis fears loneliness. Old Phaedra plays innocent. Oenone grapples with an affair. Hypsipyle allows power and love to tear apart her heart. Dido challenges Aeneas to find a better match. Hermoine whimpers her hopelessness. Ariadne feels robbed. Canace falls pitifully to the victimhood of incest. Medea seeks revenge. Laodamia reveals an almost ideal love. Hypermestra is oppressed by virtue. Sappho loses inspiration. Helen illuminates consequences. Hero invites disaster and drowning. Cydippe selects a manipulative fool. Ah, what variety! It seems as those the female form herein in multitudinous. Ovid expands the role of a woman, not only by allowing Her to play a larger role, but to variegate Her identity; she is sharp and soft, witty and naive, powerful and weak. As an amalgamation, She reminds the absent men of the world (past and present) that Her treasures are abundant and waiting to be recognized.



For this first week, I am disheartened by the fact that I will not be able to attend class on Tuesday night. Nevertheless, my mandatory excommunication has got me thinking. Perhaps it is my excommunication that incipits your excommunication. I can write here, on this blog, yet any response that one wishes to share during class becomes directed not at me, but at my other classmates, at you. My statements and questions are simultaneously invitations and exclusions. The door is locked open, such that our anti-conversation remains full of potential (e.g. what we can say) and restriction (e.g. what we can’t share). Therefore, I begin and end with a simple question: What influence does my empty seat have on class discussion tonight?