A. W. Strouse: Form and Foreskin. Medieval Narratives of Circumcision, New York: Fordham University Press 2021, 165 S., ISBN 978-0-8232-9475-6, USD 25,00
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Florence Chave-Mahir / Julien Véronèse: Rituel d'exorcisme ou manuel de magie? Le manuscrit Clm 10085 de la Bayerische Staatsbibliothek de Munich (début du XVe siècle), Firenze: SISMEL. Edizioni del Galluzzo 2015
In this rather quirky study, A. W. Strouse, adjunct professor of medieval literature (university unspecified) and poet, endeavors to read medieval theology and literature through the lens of the foreskin, identifying all comments about prefaces, the book, the body, flesh wounds, editing of texts, and the like as associative of the foreskin. He draws from the broad notion that there is an association between the text-meaning correlation and the connection between body and soul (2). The foreskin emerges then, for him, as a symbol for the textual letters. Since he can identify numerous examples in the New Testament and in the writings of St. Augustine where seemingly allusive phrases pertaining to circumcision appear, he believes to have a solid basis for the central argument developed here in four short chapters.
The first engages with the Gospel, the second with comments by St. Augustine, the third with the nick wound in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the fourth with "The Wife of Bath's Tale" in Chaucer's Canterbury Tale, where the Wife carries out "a circumcision upon marriage" (99) in order to achieve a new form of self-definition. Since circumcision was the central operation applied to infant Jewish boys, Strouse recognizes here a reflection of the tension between Judaism and Christianity. Since he has available plenty of evidence from modern American literature in which the authors engage with the foreskin both metaphorically and materially - he also claims that young George Washington's chopping down of trees was an act of circumcision - there seems to be, at least on the surface, solid evidence to confirm that medieval writers also engaged with this issue for their own purposes. The act of circumcision would thus constitute a form of liberating the individual giving him/her access to his/her own words and language (108).
Thirty-nine pages of notes and thirteen pages of index conclude this volume, whereas a bibliography is missing (see the notes). This might not be a scholarly book as we would have expected from Fordham University Press, and the author himself admits that his study might "not fully satisfy scholars of medieval cultural studies" (7). But it is certainly not a light reading for the general audience either. Yet, there is much playfulness here, and the best approach to this book might be to read it through a playful lens, not taking it too seriously. After all, as Strouse emphasizes, he has in mind the person "who loves poetry, outré readings, queer readings, and/or who is interested in homosocial conversations and in the body-as-text metaphor". (7-8) He himself relies heavily on "[p]ioneering feminist medievalists" (6), which might sound like following the loudest speakers on the academic market invested in the production of theoretical approaches, instead of taking the best scholarship as a model. Perhaps, this is the ludic element of the entire study. If that is the case, however, what role does the extensive apparatus then assume? After all, the author takes a serious approach by arguing that circumcision is associated with narration, which in turn is correlated with prophecy and interpretation (13). Since Strouse regards circumcision as a metaphor, he actually suggests that any critical approach to a subject matter can be read in those terms, especially because language functions "foreskin-like" (19) insofar as it is ambiguous and somewhat undefinable (24 - but what would that have to do with the real foreskin?), which leads the author into all kinds of phallocratic reflections that might or might not make sense regarding the various comments in the Gospels and other texts.
However, there are indeed concrete examples of stories, such as the one told by St. Augustine ("The Literal Reading of Genesis"), about a boy's extraordinary long foreskin, which led the saint to ruminate on the relationship between body and spirit, and hence on the need to circumcise a text to reach its inner meaning. In other words, the Old Testament has to be cleansed of its loose ends to make room for the New Testament, as St. Paul had already indicated.
Only if we are prepared to go on a wild ride of interpretation, can we then follow Strouse in his interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight where he recognizes fundamental problems with masculinity from the very start of the tale. When Gawain at the end bows his head to receive Bercilak's blow, then this would be a hermeneutic process or event (65), but I still have difficulties recognizing the foreskin here either literally or metaphorically. Certainly, as the author also argues, Gawain is going through a transformative process and becomes cleansed, recognizing what the true essence of his own self might be (73). Of course, this is basically the consensus of scholarship, and we find ourselves here on well-trodden ground, so it remains unclear why the author endeavors to employ the foreskin as an interpretive tool for insights that are obvious to see for anyone who has ever read that wonderful text. When Strouse then concludes that the "poem frames its typological concern in terms of the Circumcision" (75), I can only perceive an attempt to fill new wine in old bags. We just do not need such analysis which reiterates well-established observations, a negative evaluation which also applies to his study of the other romances by the Gawain-poet.
Finally, in chapter four, the author endeavors even more speculative readings of Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale" with regard to the support of marriage in terms of circumcision, which leads to rather meaningless comments that will not support our further interpretation of Chaucer's works. As to marriage, Strouse notes that circumcision was necessary to bridge the tension between inner reality and outer expression and identifies, certainly quite creatively, though without any rational consequence, the "circumlogical queerness of matrimony" (85). As much as the author claims to have "established" that many pre-modern authors viewed marriage in terms of circumcision (87), I cannot find any proof of that anywhere in this book, unless we accept that 'preface' has to be equated with 'prepuce' (92). Such kind of argumentation opens all kinds of doors for any relativistic and idiosyncratic reading which has very little to do with scholarship, evidence, or logical conclusions.
Of course, Strouse anticipated this kind of criticism, but I wonder why he then did not opt to produce a literary work about the foreskin and leave the scholarly aspects aside since he does not seem to care about solid interpretations or critical readings. With a sigh of relief, I reached the end of the book, knowing that I will never quote from it. But I had to read it for the purpose of this review as closely as possible. The author deserves credit for an elegant writing style, for his serious attempt to examine the primary material fairly closely, but the outcome of all of those endeavors is mere playfulness, not serious analysis worthy of our further consideration. Sexual, Freudian fantasy here substitutes for philological precision, and once the foreskin has been identified as a hermeneutic mirror, the author has free rein to argue anything he likes.