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 undertake it.

            One might 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:
                        A Donald was there in that compagnyë
                        Whose speech was aldermost of harlotryë.
                        He wolde restore the greatness of the lande,
                        With 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:
                        As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte;
                        And prively he caught hire by the queynte,
                        And seyde, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
                        For 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.

            Quite apart 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:
                        To Alison now wol I tellen al
                        My love-longing, for yet I shal nat mysse
                        That at the leeste wey I shal hir kisse.
                        Som maner confort shal I have, parfay.
                        My mouth hath icched al this longe day;
                        That 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 kiss.”

Returning to the fourteenth century we find the fop Absolom preparing for his hot date in a manner somewhat similar.
…hym arraieth gay, at point-devys.  [all dolled up]
But first he cheweth greyn and lycorys,
To smellen sweete, er he hadde kembed his heer.
Under his tongue a trewe-love he beer,
For therby wende he to ben gracious. 
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!