"Gladly Lerne, Gladly Teche" is the personal web log of John V. Fleming, the Louis W. Fairchild Professor of English and Comparative Literature emeritus at Princeton University. It continues in its title and its spirit his one-time newspaper column in The Daily Princetonian. As a general rule a new post is mounted every Wednesday morning (EST).
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Groping: A Brief Literary History
"Adam catched Eve by the Furbelow" traditional English folk catch
Can a medievalist possibly have a special take on the latest
from Donald Trump?After all, the locker
room must be a comparatively recent architectural development.The Greek palestra was something altogether
different, and “palestra talk” was probably mainly devoted to speculation
concerning the ordering of the cardinal virtues or the metempsychosis of
material individuality and stuff like that.Nevertheless since there is a literary history of almost everything,
there must be a literary history of sexual groping.It’s a hard assignment, but somebody has to
be tempted to suggest that Mr. Trump is a Rabelaisian figure. But though he
achieves the requisite grossness, he lacks the cordiality of Grandgousier,
the savoir-faire of Pantagruel, and
the erudition of Gargantua.As painful
as it is for me to admit it, he is much more a Chaucerian character:
Donald was there in that compagnyë
speech was aldermost of harlotryë.
wolde restore the greatness of the lande,
bluster, insult, and a gropynge hande.
That’s not really Chaucer, of course, but the following
is.In the transcendentally brilliant
“Miller’s Tale” there are two
characters who have perfected Trumpian techniques.The first is the Oxford student “hende”
(clever) Nicholas who seizes the opportunity of his aged landlord’s temporary
absence to make the following move on Alisoun, his winsome young landlady:
clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte;
prively he caught hire by the queynte,
seyde, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille.”
The repeated word queynte
is obviously a quibble.In the first
line it is an adjective meaning something like “inventive”.In the second it is a vulgar noun, still in
common use in a slightly different form, for the female private part—thus
justifying a pun on “prively”—that throughout history has also been denoted by
the linguistically challenged with a select menagerie of small, furry animals,
including rabbits, squirrels, beavers, and pussy-cats.It is important to realize that Chaucer is
being satirical, and that the object of his satire is hende Nicholas, whose actual
subtlety approximates that of a battering ram or of the Black Death.Chaucer also knows that nobody in history has
ever actually died (spilled) from
sexual continence, frustrating though it may be, and that Nicholas’s hyperbolic
concerns on that score could be resolved with a small hair-shirt or perhaps
even just a cold bath.
from the hapless old husband, Nicholas has a competitor.A second character is chasing the same young
wife, and that is the dandy Absalon—like the biblical character from whom he
takes his name, a pretty boy with long blond hair.His ambitions to “score” are somewhat more
modest than are those of Nicholas:
Alison now wol I tellen al
love-longing, for yet I shal nat mysse
at the leeste wey I shal hir kisse.
maner confort shal I have, parfay.
mouth hath icched al this longe day;
is a signe of kissing atte leeste.
Now one of the more remarkable passages
on the recently published “Trump tape” involves oral hygiene.Mr. Trump is just about to get off a bus to
be greeted by a young woman he has never before in his life met but who has
already been sufficiently ogled from the bus window by Trump’s pandering sidekick,
Mr. Bush, to have been declared officially “hot as shit!”Now you or I might find some ambiguity or
even restraint in enthusiasm in the phrase “hot as shit!” but it only sends Mr.
Trump to his travelling medicine chest.“I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her,” he tells
Bush. “You know, I’m automatically
attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just
Returning to the fourteenth century we
find the fop Absolom preparing for his hot date in a manner somewhat similar.
arraieth gay, at point-devys.[all dolled up]
first he cheweth greyn and lycorys,
smellen sweete, er he hadde kembed his heer.
his tongue a trewe-love he beer,
therby wende he to ben gracious.
(pronounced grahs-i-OUS) preparing to
rhyme in the next line with the word house
(pronounced as it still is in Tidewater Virginia) is a marvelously ambivalent
adjective that can refer either to a deep moral virtue or a flimsy and
superficial affectation of “class”.The
“greyn” mentioned is cardamom seed, or “organic” Tic-Tacs.
Should there still be
anyone in the world who has not read the “Miller’s Tale,” it is too delightful
by far to have me ruin it with a plot summary.It is a beautifully plotted gem in which the high comedy begins where
the dirty jokes end, yet so transparently moralistic as to be called “Chaucer’s
Measure for Measure.”Suffice it to say that the bad guys get exactly what they deserve--and in a way that may have vindicated Billy Bush's odd index of female pulchritude.Oh that life might imitate art!