Thinking and Feeling

Earlier this semester, I read Patricia Ingham’s article on the “Pleasures of Arthur,” arguing that the attitude of derision to scholars who hang on to their “fangirling” readings of texts is ridiculous (my words here, not hers). Of course scholars need to be able to criticize their favorite texts and stories, of course they need to be able to point out misogynistic, racist, imperialist undertones – but that doesn’t necessitate leaving behind their exhilaration and pleasure in the text, either before or after making that argument.

That’s been coming to mind a lot in two ways.

First of all, I still get excited about books I read, regardless of how terrible their attitudes are. My favorite childhood books – A Little Princess, Anne of Green Gables, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Secret Garden, Little Women (and the BY Times series too!) – are hugely problematic in many ways. When I first realized this, I resisted changing my rosy views of these books, until I realized that just because I now acknowledge issues which I couldn’t have known about when I read these feel-good books as a kid, that doesn’t mean I have to give up those warm memories, nor does it mean I can never read and enjoy those books again. When I need to interrogate the racism in those books, I will, and when I want to live in that imaginary princess world again, I will.

But the other side of this is the emotion opposite to pleasure in fandom being totally allowed too. As a scholar, I can read a book that inspires strong negative emotions. I can be angry at the text, at the author, at the long line of critics for reading in a manner that elides key issues. But just as when doing scholarship on a book I love, I need to separate the “ohmygod I love this book!” from critical analysis, even if just for a few moments (if only writing a paper took just a few moments!), I also need to separate the anger, or whatever negative emotion it is, from the critical analysis when necessary.

A few colleagues have been surprised that I can be working on medieval interactions between Christian and Jewish communities, particularly in the period following the First Crusade of 1096 when the violence perpetrated against the Jews caused shifts in those interactions and attitudes, and not be in a constant state of anger. As a Jew, I should (so some think) be upset at the atrocities committed against my people. I should always speak about Christians acting with religious fervor in terms of anger, and never in terms of understanding.

But I can’t do that.

I’ve been reading Hebrew chronicles of the Crusades, pages where the chronicler lists numbers – astronomical numbers – of Jews killed in each town. I’ve been reading Hebrew poetry from around that era responding to the horrors of forced conversions, suicide to prevent that, mothers and fathers killing their children, lords promising protection and then handing over whole communities to be slaughtered, crusaders storming in and decimating entire cities within a matter of hours.

The poetry is beautiful. And I can’t read more than one or two poems at a time. Of course it’s painful, of course I am picturing my ancestors, and of course I am drawing parallels between those vague accounts and the details I know of my grandparents’ experiences in the Holocaust.

But my notes are thoughts about the language used, comparisons of the accounts of similar episodes in the chronicles versus the poetry, rhetoric and attitudes etc etc. If I wrote a paper without doing that, only focusing on how terrible and painful it is to read these texts, it would be – let’s say less than good.

In the class for which I’m writing this paper, Medieval Conversions, we spoke about the Prioress’s Tale, and it brought to mind my reaction to The King of Tars, where the attitudes of the Christian writers seem to show a bit of understanding towards the Saracen/Jewish religious fervor. There is even a small parallel made in The King of Tars between the Sultan wanting his wife to be of his faith and a Christian man wanting the same thing. But one of the conclusions in that class was that even when one group can, and tries to, understand the other, that does not necessarily mean there is sympathy.

I can’t be angry at the crusaders because I can understand them. I know their historical moment, I know the effects of a group/mob mentality, I know the realities of religious idealism gone wrong. I’ve read about the nuances, the mechanics and the politics of the crusades. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with them. But it does mean that my scholarship will contain more than “look what atrocities were committed, and this is how the Jews reacted.” It will contain analyses of the effects of the violence on the Christian community as well – an angle I would never take if I were condemning the perpetrators without trying to understand all of the dynamics.

For our Malory seminar today, we’re talking about rape. Malory himself was a convicted rapist, and rape appears throughout the text in various ways. When we were preparing for class and first started thinking about rape in Le Morte Darthur, we had some good thoughts, some good discussion.

But at one point we had to stop and say – might our reactions to and analyses of this issue be colored by our contemporary perceptions and definitions of rape? Once we take a step back and say – okay, this is how the author was thinking about this issue, because that was his historical reality – then we can begin to tease out arguments about what else is going on in the text.

If we stop at “how messed up is it that he rapes her and steals her dog and that proves his love for her!” and don’t consider the historical and legal realities that allow for that situation, we’ve missed out on a whole rich array of possibilities. (We didn’t miss out on that, by the way. We let ourselves feel disgust, but then we did take that step back.)

I want to read affectively. I want to allow myself the pleasure of enjoying a text and the pleasure of hating a text or historical background. And I also want to allow those pleasures to inform, but not take over, my critical readings of those texts.

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