Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - Knight's Tale

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - Knight's Tale

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Chaucer's Knight's Tale: Now you See it, Now you Don't         

In the Matthean discourse on sin and the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, "And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire." (Matt.19.9). Yet this homily is perhaps better known through the compressed poetry of the King James translation. "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out." Grahically and even grotesquely materialized, the "eye" is that which offends, that which slides, with terrible corporeality, from the body to the table. In this proverb of the visual, "it" or that which requires excision in the offense, is the self, in an erasure of exteriority. There is no object, no objective "it" that offends. The gaze and its object are coterminous: the eye becomes the screen, the site of truth--both agent and vehicle of retributive justice. Vision never leaves the body, but sits at its margins--or only leaves it when the eye is thrown away, and the world becomes encapsulated in a broader metaphoric range: myself, the hole where my eye was, and the eye lying across the room.

I begin with this embodied proverb, in part because it troubles, and has always troubled me, rising in the dark with its self-reflexive and impossible logic. It also haunts the margins of all discourse on vision, informing the point of slippage between self and object we look on, the trap, as Lacan writes, of the gaze (93). In his moving seminaires on the eye and the gaze, Lacan speaks of the all-seeing spectacle of the world, the inside-out structure of the gaze that fixes us in front of what we see (75): "What determines me, at the most profound level, in the visible, is the gaze that is outside." (106) Unlike the it of the Matthean proverb, Lacan's eye stands apart from the interplay between subject and object, the ocelli as distinct from the gaze; yet both texts seem to describe the act of vision in terms of a radical discontinuity between what we see and the self that perceives it: both have us fixed before a world--and in Matthew we respond like Oedipus, with self-castration.

In Chaucer's Knigtht's Tale, a tale rich in overlays of visual narratives, one of the first accounts of the operations of the gaze effects a similar kind of inversion, one fully authorized by medieval amatory metaphysics.

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When Palamon sees Emelye in the garden, he becomes instant victim of the object of his eye, cast on Emelye: "He cast his eye upon Emelya,/ And therwithal he bleynte and cride, "A!"/ As though he stongen were unto the herte" (1077-1079). First Palamon and then Arcite, through the agencies of visual rays, become victims of love, victims of the object of their gaze, Emelye, who is entirely unaware of their presence. (Cf Tes--Spearing, Hansen). The representation of amatory trajectories in this scene are of course easy to explain away through recourse to conventions of medieval amatory metaphor, the arrows of the God of love that penetrate the eye to wound the heart; through medieval optics, that understood an embodied and multidirectional operation of visual rays; and also through transhistorical cultural metaphor, a sense of this scene as representing "how it feels" or "the way people fall in love." Yet this scene sets in place a visual rhetoric for the narrative as a whole, I will argue, that is founded on paradoxes of apparent agency. The space occupied by Emelye in her garden and Palamon and Arcite in their tower becomes a kind of shadow box, a microcosm of invisible agency, framed by horizontal walls within which each "rometh up and doun" and transected by a gaze that seems to slice up toward its male agents from across vertical space.

Central to the paradox of agency of vision in the prison/garden scene is its representation of gendered fantasy. On the one hand, the moment of vision seems to describe a male dream of heterosexual desire, a haptic possession through an aggressive masculine eye that assumes possession, the gaze from a darkened space, (the prison), onto a lit stage (the garden)--a process that uncannily suggests both the psychic and material technologies of vision that are described in feminist film theory. The gazes of Palamon and Arcite, crossing the peephole space of the prison bars to the garden below, are profoundly voyeuristic; Emily is pure object, pure objecthood as idealized sexual spring. As many readers have commented, she is also the text's most absent signifier, effaced, along with conquered Amazonia, in the public spectacle and pageantry of masculinity. (Spearing; Hansen; Crane et al).

Nevertheless, one of the text's most mesmerizing fictions is the fiction of Emelye's agency, the fiction that she has power and that the Theban knights live and die as her love slaves. When Arcite, sighing in the grove in the direction of Palamon as hidden auditor, remarks, "Ye sleen me with youre eyen, Emely!" (1567) (Leicester 275) the text continues as a seemless web, imperturbed by the fictions of its metaphor; for Emily, certainly absent, as far as we know has also never even cast her eyes in his direction. In the earlier description of her in the garden, in fact, the only graphic detail of her person curiously describes her hair--seen from the back, "bihynde hyr bak" (1050). This detail, one could argue, both embodies and dismantles the text's own fantasies, its gendered fictions. The reverse/shot portrait of Emily's posterior serves to underscore the circulation of her eyes as agents separate from her will.

This essay thus begins with a gaze that seems to trap us as well, to take us in, penetrate our collective bodies, seduce us with its fiction of female centrality. The paradox remains, snagged on a projection that situates the gaze as separate to the self. In many respects the Knight's Tale, prodigal in its displays of masculinity, parades its mesmerizing fictions in a scotoma, in a blink of comfortable delusion that seems remarkably similar to fictions of heterosexuality underpinning 20th century mass-market cultural productions. In a neat inversion, the text constructs a tissue of visual lines similar to mass market women's romances--which depend, according to Tania Modleski, on the conviction, however delusory, that men are thinking about women all the time. The typical plot, that is, plays to a heterosexist fantasy that men, however brutalizing or apparently indifferent, are obsessed with that very woman, that very feminine, that their demeanor suggests hardly crosses their consciousness. Recent work on the "buddy flick" points to a similar cognitive disjunction; for while the plots of such films may be motivated by a passion of loss, a passion for a lost female love that pitches Riggs (Mel Gibson) into suicidal mahem in Lethal Weapon, women are effectively absent. Lethal Weapon and other films of its kind center instead on the homosocial/homoerotic passions fueling male/male relationships (Fuchs 201; Modleski) and drives, as Cynthia Fuchs writes in her essay "The Buddy Politic," to "ejaculatory excess" in its conclusion with its partners "triumphantly detonating all villains and nearby vehicles" (195).

The questions that I wish to raise in this essay concern the relationship between gendered fantasy and spectacle, the visibility politic that allows display to function powerfully as masquerade--that consistently instantiates the visible as the anodyne of recognition or perhaps the fetishist's matter at hand: "I know, but even so." The personal moment fueling this essay is the question, "how do I read the Knight's Tale?"--which is itself prompted by a a confession (as fetishist?): I continue to believe that Palamon and Arcite are willing and happy to die all for her. Recognizing that Emily is profoundly unimportant to this tale, observing the erasure of her body by the narrator, the cooption of her gaze by the men who love her and the usurpation of her will by everyone in the text, I continue to trust in the patent fiction of her centrality. The question, I believe, is an important one, not only for what it can tell us about the structures of gendered fantasy, but also for what it suggests about the relationship between regimes and subjects, between male communities and women. And although numerous recent scholars have pointed to the ways in which the Knight's Tale inveighs against itself, serving as a parody and demonstrandum of chivalric excess or enacting a story about masculine communities at the expense of Emily (Hansen 216), a first encounter with the text (though never an innocent one) would still be likely, I believe, to float it as an idealizing story of derring-do, honorable action, and true love for a lady. One of the most remarkable features of the Knight's Tale is its insistence on its own fictions.


H. Marshall Leicester, in a series of rich and complex essays on the Knight's Tales shaping of subjectivity, argues that the text constructs "an extended treatment of the masculine gaze" through a "rhizomatic network" of visual relations, particularly in the account of the temples. His discussion, itself richly rhizomatic, dismantles the text's fictions of the feminine, its visual apparatus, and argues that the text offers a critique of the masculinist subject by a dual practice in which the knight operates as both subject and central spectator, identifying with the female object of his gaze in a complex play of bisexuality (293) even as he exposes the myths and projections that operate in visual fantasy. What always holds the gaze, with a central and paradoxical fascinum, is the female body, however mirrored and dismembered, caught in the lines of sight of layered male spectators--Palamon and Arcite, Theseus, the Knight, and ultimately Leicester himself.

Yet does the gaze so consistently circulate around a female body? And is it so insistently masculine? The question is a basic one for issues of both female fantasy and feminist politics, addressing not only how we read the tale, but how we watch it, drawing together reading and watching in a monocular optic. The text's central visual metaphor of course circulates around Emily; yet if, as I suggest, that metaphor is figured into abstraction through an entirely idealized and entirely passive body that is itself abstracted from its own extraordinarily aggressive eye, Emily is always already curiously invisible. Furthermore, the Knight's Tale consistently seems to displace or replace Emily with a story about male-male relations, even figured visually in terms that invert the gendered structured of male fantasy. For instance, when Arcite returns to Thebes as Philostrate, inserting himself as page in Emily's chamber, he makes himself visible through spying and and the practice and fruits of renoun. Arcite "was wys and koude soone espye" (1420) how to insert himself among the servants; yet even as page of the chamber for a year or two, there is no mention of Emily, invisible in the bedchamber. Arcite, scrutinizing the apparently male household, is also the one scrutinized, and even physically embodied; "yong," "myghty," "long and big of bones," he is finally noticed by the court as a whole and promoted to Theseus. Emily remains screened, neither the seer nor the seen.

Affairs in the grove follow a similar pattern of inversion or reversal, even in a play with both topos and metaphor. As readers have noted, Arcite/Philostrate's visit to the grove on a May morning to "doon his observaunce to May" recasts with sledgehammer echoes Emily's garden walk: both enter the green world, both perform odd seasonal rituals, both "rometh up and doun" (1515) (Leicester 255). A chief effect of this reconfiguration is replay--and replay of the voyeuristic frame, for just as Palamon and Arcite watch Emily through prison windows, settting in place a definition of love as distance and the gaze as a complex relation of inversion and self-objectification, Palamon, hiding in the grove, watches Arcite in this scene. Even as Arcite laments, "Ye sleen me with youre eyen, Emelye," the literal eyes that watch are Palamon's--and as the narrator comments, "feeld hath eyen and the wode hath eres." (1522.)

What this episode replays, that is to say, is the position of the subject, or of the subject in relation to the object, and offers a curiously specular moment in which a man views a man, orchestrating love within a closed circle that effectively excludes the feminine from its score. What is more, the shift in spectacular arrangements seems to be consistent with a shift generally in the text; for while the Knight's Tale opens with a sequence of scenes of women on view--first the Theban women making themselves visible to Theseus, and then with Emily in the garden, the text moves toward male spectacle and pageantry, recasting Eros as Mars and formalizing the representation of women on display within tightly figured strictures of idolatry--of the goddesses Diana and Venus that, while consistently traps of a male gaze, "ther saugh I," also display and iconize heterosexual eros as idolatry (Camille). The text's move toward increasingly formal and even malevolent accounts of female action in the ekphrastic accounts of the goddesses in the temples operates in tandem with an erasure of Emily's body, exemplified in the narrator's choice to withold from even a textual replay of the voyeur's pleasure when, in a scene that surely recalls the elders at Susannah's bath, he chooses not to describe Emily's ablutions before her rituals at the temple of Diana.

Consistent or even parallel with the text's move away from its founding fictions, that male identity is constructed on the view of a woman, is the increasing visibility of its masculine agents. Bodies multiply; for while a single Palamon views Arcite, doubled only in as much as he also carries the pseudonym, Theseus and company return to watch the contest of the corporate Theban body, such that individual lament has become public contest, and "sight" has taken on a decidedly corporate construction. On the one hand, the narrator allows "sight" to be in the hands of "destinee, ministre general"--that chooses this day and its set of coincidences that allow for paths to cross so fatally and providentially. This divine oversight, "the sighte above" that rules action is immediately qualified, in a curious parataxis, as Theseus' gaze:


         Al is this reuled by the sighte above.


                  This mene I now by myghty Theseus... (1672-73)


"This mene I" refers literally of course to the general coincidence, that Theseus should in effect be ruled by destiny and the driving fatality that should join his desire to hunt with the order of the stars. Yet the phrase also suggests, of course, that Theseus is destiny; that his sight rules. And in a sense, so it does, as the text moves increasingly to arrangements of visual spectacle that are under Theseus' purview. He watches: "under the sonne he looketh, and anon/ He was war of Arcite and Palamon" (1997-98).

And as the tournament approaches in book iv, of course, the text is swept into a spectacle of surfaces--tactile, electric, and embodied as visual display below the gaze of Theseus in the window--himself in a position of double visibility, poised to view the tournament but also to be seen as well by the people who "presseth thiderward ful soone/ Hym for to seen." (2530-31) The text positively rustles with excitement, ready to go. The narrator focuses our lines of sight, "ther maystow seen" on a scene of masculine excess:


         Knyghtes of retenue, and eek squieres


         Nailynge the speres, and helmes bokelynge;


         Giggynge of sheeldes, with layneres lacynge... (2502-2504)


What we see is also certainly not Emily, but bodies of men, Palamon and Arcite in surrogate form ("ther maistow seen" 2128)--Emetreus/eros with "lippes rounde," the hypermasculine body-builder Lycurgus with his rippling biceps and his black bear-skin--in animal and perhaps cross-dressed masquerade, like the Jack London heroes that one critic has dubbed "Men in Furs." (Leverenz, "Last Real Man," 771)

Book iv of the Knight's Tale is rich in perceptual paradoxes: even as the story picks up for a concentrated attention on an action scene, the forward thrust of the narrative slows nearly to a full stop; and even as all lines of the plot come to this still or at least turgid point, Emily is strictly at the margins. How can we account for the romance/epic's displacement of its central fiction, its deferral of action into slow expectation? More directly, how can the text maintain its heterosexist premise--when the story circulates so slowly and pleasurably around men looking on men? And both last and first, how can I (why would I?) participate in supporting a fiction that would seem to have so little in it for me?

Studies in media theory on male display, such as the recent collection Screening the Male, would seem to offer approaches to this question, as gay studies and work on masculinity has increasingly begun to explore the ways in which masculinity parades as masquerade, with hypermasculinity exposing even as it represses desire for itself. A common pressure of much of this work is a focus on representational and narrative practices that allow the homoerotic to be simultaneously seen and contained, exposed and repressed. In his now classic essay, "Masculinity as Spectacle," Steve Neale argues that male bodies are prepped for a male gaze in mainstream cinema by representing those bodies as objects of "fear, or hatred, or aggression;" we watch them in violent excess--lacerating themselves or others, suffering, pumping iron. (285) More recently Norman Bryson, in his study of Gericault, has argued that central to the construction of male spectacle is the fetishized male imago, the coalescence of political identity in a hybridized hypermale that at once proclaims paternal power, the nom du pere, even as it disavows its own outlawed oedipal challenge through the construction of a castrated male image (230-32)--Schwarzenegger body-building photos with air-brushed and concealed genitalia; Roman bronzes with diminished and idealized penises (234-5)--and even perhaps Superman, tumescent in calves, biceps, and forearms, but forever virgin.

These studies, however suggestive they may be for understanding the moves to homosocial display in the Knight's Tale, only would seem to explain that display through the psychic structures of male fantasy, as if the text were bound in its own visual fictions as a closed circle of male spectacle and spectator,--and might allow us to suggest that the text in its masculine excess moves to an affirmation of the aristocratic male body as the corporate public, le roi c'est moi. (Spearing)

Yet for the female spectator, what does this parade of masculine pageantry offer? Immediately, of course, we can say that it allows the absent female spectator, or the woman who stands at the margins, watching like Emily, to play what Donna Haraway calls the "God trick." The text's increasing location of Emily's position with Theseus, either watching at the grove or sitting at the tournament (2578), allows Emily, and us, to project an all-seeing and omniscient gaze that, Haraway says, "makes the unmarked category claim the power to see and not be seen, to represent while escaping representation" ("Persistence of Vision"). The scenes of pageantry, that is, invert traditional structures of fantasy that focus the gaze in a male optic, with woman its object; masculinity as spectacle is collusive with the inversion of the gaze, turning upside down power relations and in a sense giving control to the woman who chooses to watch. The male body becomes the marked, the knowable and the known--and in this sense, we might say, safe--in the position of being in representation that allows the extraordinary racial otherness of hypermasculinity to seem as if both known (Said) and and as if feminized. Suzanne Moore, in her article in the Gamman and Marshment collection on female spectatorship, points to the recent tendency for images of men in advertising to embrace a passivity that, she claims, was once "symbolically outlawed," a shift in the market that she explains through a recognition that material once targeted for men as softcore homoerotica also sells to women; marketing passive male bodies to a female public, in a "disavowal of phallic presence" (56), apparently is good business. Book 4 in particular of the Knight's Tale would seem to parade male bodies not only as visible but also as invisibly curtailed. The defeat of narrative time and the overt control of action by celestial forces showcase the tournament as spectacle, eg, as that which is in representation and in a sense under our control. The strangely detailed and detached account of Arcite's death through a kind of bodily implosion may contribute as well to the sense of capture or passivity, though here hardly eroticized. In a grotesque inversion of masculine excess, Arcite's body swells at all points with no possible release ("ne may the venym voyden ne expelle (2751). "Phallic presence" is certainly disavowed.

Yet if the representation and construction of masculine homosocial spectacle inverts the structure of fantasy, does the female spectator really assume a position of control? Emily, of course, is never completely absent and never invisible, wedged between power and helplessness, the subject of the unmarked gaze and also the fully marked, the known, the prize that the tournament is all about. And Arcite's body remains, trapped in the spectacle of its imminent irruptions, caught in a trap of the gaze that preserves it in the realm of the visible, not even fully cancelled by his death. That is to say, the text itself is hardly so easily in the pay of an abstracted gaze that plays the "god trick," but circulates apart from it or around it. Even if the tale forecloses female fantasy with its politicized homosocial erotics, the tale itself is contained within structures of visuality that themselves master the homosocial through arts of display. Nevertheless, the greatest prop of the heterosexist fiction is the spectacle itself. The tale's visibility politics satisfy a dual agenda that operates by the maxim, "we're not really seeing what we're seeing," a slippage in which agency in vision both contains the thing seen and also forfeits control from subject to object, allowing the very object on display, the thing seen and somehow not known, to play out a desire of its own.

The spectacle itself thus holds us, assuming an authority that we cannot or do not interrogate. Purely in representation, ponderous in its fictions, the parade of the homosocial in effect marshalls us, keeps us bound to our seats in the grandstand. The text's presentation of masculine spectacle offers us Lacan's world as trap for the gaze (Copjec 36), slipping in front of us: now you see it, now you don't.

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