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Chaucer's Queer Nation

Glenn Burger

(University of Minnesota Press)

Critical Theory Goes Lavender

Literary criticism can encompass any number of angles ranging from Marxist to Feminist, but the latest in the pantheon of analysis considers same-sex themes, references, and allusions. Known as “queer theory,” Glenn Burger applies it to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a means of focusing on sexuality and gender in the classic work, as well as how it applies to more postmodern issues of self and society.


The Queens College author owes much of his inspiration to Michel Foucault’s “invention” of the homosexual. It is Foucault’s sometimes controversial approach to homosexual themes that has influenced the majority of modern gay theory today, especially in distinguishing between modern references and classical ones. In this particular thesis, Burger creates a subtext that relies on both a rereading of the original Tales and an application of modern theoretical structures. This treatment itself may inspire a fair share of controversy as critics could easily claim the rereading is rooted in politics rather than true literary deconstruction. Luckily for Burger, whereas the claims are stretched to make his broader point about sexuality in the late English Middle Ages more credible, he succeeds at backing the thesis up with a highly intuitive understanding of Chaucer.


Burger uses the characters, such as the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, to begin the interpretative process. Much like Eve Sedgwicks’ epistemology of the closet, Burger emphasizes the dual nature of literature as both an overt and covert device. In the case for a queer reading, the supposition suggests that Chaucer was intent on including allusions to homosexuality using subtle nuance rather than the overt references found in modern works. Burger is careful to distinguish between reading with a mindset grounded in the English Middle Ages versus current day. The author states: “My central argument throughout Chaucer’s Queer Nation, then, is that under the pressure of producing a poetic vision for a new vernacular English audience in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer reimagines late medieval relations between the body and the community.”


The obstacle in doing so is in the application of modern terms. The author himself admits that “queer” emerged in popular culture post-Stonewall politics, as a way to “take back” and affirm identity among homosexuals. That said, the relationship between the term, it’s definition and the thesis that Burger establishes as Chaucer’s homosexual themes, are fused and the new understanding of the Tales falls more into place. Both are examining opposite, or rather, the individual against the community at large. The author uses it to explain structure as much as he does more obvious sexual and gender dynamics. It’s in the latter that the book enjoys it’s most rigorous academic work out.


Burger also rebukes the modern model of Freudian/Lacanian pyschosexuality in which heterosexuality is viewed as dominant. Instead, he looks to lesser known theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to carve a convincing argument about the nature of reproduction, stratification and libido. Burger characterizes what he calls Chaucer’s “bumbling, effeminate persona of his poetry.” The effort is carefully defending as to not necessarily seek out homosexual subtext reductively, but rather, as a territory in which the author’s own experiences shed light on attitudes, style and form of the work.


For Burger, it appears that the efforts are not new, but rather, borrowed specifically from Bruno Latour’s statement that homosexuality has always existed. And, rather than it being a rereading of existing material, it’s an acknowledgement of what has long existed—whether it be the dandy, the queen or the butch. In the book, Burger quotes David Leavitt, who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories. In doing so, Leavitt’s thesis provides a more succinct argument for queer theory in more general terms:


“Unlike our heterosexual counterparts, for whom history, rituals of courtship, models for behavior, and codes of decorum are handed out daily in the classroom, we must seek out, furtively, some sense of our connection to official history, not to mention some sense of our own history, which by definition is discontinuous, a series of stops and starts that begins again each time a young gay man or lesbian sneaks his or her way to the gay section at a bookstore—if there is a gay section; if indeed there is a bookstore.”


The political ramifications of Leavitt’s emphasis on gay studies can also be seen in Burger’s own challenge that a well-known, well-respected work of literature (in this case, Chaucer) also supports a gay presence, despite its early roots.


In the end, Burger’s argument hinges less on concrete examples of homosexuality in Chaucer’s works, but rather, the notion of personalization in the writings, telling more about who a character is, and broader still, how a culture is defined. Issues such as gender and marriage are foremost in Burger’s debate. On concrete terms, he points to the narrator’s interjections at the beginning of “Miller’s Tale,” wherein shame crosses the path of identity in the form of a drunken encounter involving the narrator, Knight and the Reeve. In a more abstract sense, this example is one that draws on situational ethics, rather than pure example.


Like the book itself, the debate becomes more an issue of body and community—both of which are rendered by Burger as significant in understanding queer allusions within the literary canon, as well as Chaucer’s own diverse, if not quirky, characterizations which are wrought with plenty of perversity.

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