Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bad Daddy
A Preview of My Upcoming Colloquium Presentation

I finished my translation of the Old English Life of Euphrosyne tonight in a four-hour orgy of coffee and rage and Anglo-Saxon dictionaries. (Come on, you know Clark-Hall's relationship to Bosworth-Toller wasn't platonic.) This hagiography forms the core of my dissertation's second chapter, and I feel a little reluctant to talk about it publicly because, more than any other text I've encountered in the medieval canon (canon in the broad sense), the Life of Euphrosyne inspires a truly passionate reaction in me. It. Is. Important. I don't want to risk (1) not being taken seriously about it, or (2) and by far the more horrifying prospect, being scooped on it.

For those of you who don't remember (i.e., all of you), Euprhosyne is one of the two cross-dressing saints—the other is Eugenia—in the OE canon, and she's usually considered the lesser of the two because she's non-Ælfrician. Her story, though, is so much more interesting than that bare description. The only child of parents who struggled desperately to have her, Euphrosyne's mother dies when she is 12, and she is raised by a doting father, Pafnuntius, who allows her education in all manner of holy writings and churchly practices. When she's 18, however, he engages her to a rich man. Euphrosyne, no fan of this plan, decides to run away to the monastery. Of course, she can't go to the convent because her father will think to look for her there, so while her father is off celebrating the abbot's ordination day, she gets another monk to cut her hair in a tonsure, dress her in monk's robes, and she presents herself to the monastery as an escaped eunuch named Smaragdus. Smaragdus is welcomed by the abbot, but the other brothers aren't so sure because he's so beautiful that they're afflicted by unholy desire. So he spends the next 38 years living alone in a cell, fasting, praying, and counseling Pafnuntius, whom the abbot sends to him for comforting because he's in a prolonged despair about his missing daughter. Finally, Smaragdus reveals to Pafnuntius on his deathbed that he is Euphrosyne and asks that he not tell anyone and that he let no one touch his body after death.

It's what happens after her death that I find so deeply infurating—and so critically important for our understanding of father-daughter relationships in the medieval world. Despite her request, the first thing Pafnuntius does after Euphrosyne's death is fall down in a faint, and then, when revived by another monk, drape himeself across Eurphrosyne/Smaragdus's body and cry out, "Woe is me, why did you conceal yourself so long?!" Of course, the other monk hears him and runs off to tattle to the abbot. The monks come running, get all touchy-feely with the corpse, and then bury it with the appropriate pomp and circumstance. Pafnuntius moves into Smaragdus's cell for the next 10 years, and when he dies, he's buried in the same grave as his daughter.

In other words, he COMPLETELY FAILS to honor any of his daughter's wishes. He doesn't even try. The monks, I don't really blame—you find a saint, you honor her without regard for any saintly modesty topos, that's the way it works. A father, however, should respect his daughter's wishes, especially his virgin daughter who specifically tells him not to let other men touch her. And this is where I think the narrative crosses the line from disturbingly disrespectful of feminine agency to incestuous. The one continuous thread is Pafnuntius's disregard for his daughter's wishes with regard to her own body. Without this disregard, in fact, Euphrosyne's story wouldn't exist; it's because Pafnuntius wishes to sell her virginity to a bridegroom that she runs away to the minster. His disrupted plan to dispose of her worth (worth of women = chastity in the Middle Ages, and, frankly, today as well, in many cases) is "corrected" at the end of the vita when he exposes her identity and, thereby, her chastity, to the monks.

How, you might be wondering, does that count as disposing of her virginity for his own benefit, and what makes that incestuous? Pafnutius benefits from his exposure of Euphrosyne by aquiring a sort of secondary sainthood that, in fact, becomes primary to hers. He assumes Smaragdus's identity, moving into his cell and leading what the text calls "a holy life." When he dies, he is buried with Euphrosyne, repossessing her space, his body covering and superceding hers. His entire life becomes an assumption of his daughter's identity, one that is implicitly more successful because it is not hidden behind a false gender. Pafnuntius can be a "true" monk because he is a "true" man. As the narrative closes, Euphrosyne has disappeared completely, and we circle again to where we began, with Pafnuntius. She exists only as a function of her father, as is "proper" for an unmarried woman.

The incest is a function of this identity consumption. The text is desperate to reassert sexual control of Euphrosyne, to correct the dangerous example she provides of a woman set loose by her assumption of masculine identity. The solution for this little problem is to grant Pafnuntius the power to dispose of her sexuality—and her identity—for his own pleasure. Read in this light, the moment of anagnorisis, where Pafnuntius faints, and then throws himself on the body, becomes uncomfortably sexual, almost orgasmic. The only thing saving us from outright incest is Euphrosyne's conveniently-timed death. Pafnuntius's subsequent assumption of her identity that that death allows, though, is also, therefore, simultaneously incestuous and masturbatory: he bestows her sexuality upon himself.

My friend Erin (that's not masturbatory; she really exists and is an 18th-centuryist on the East Coast) told me recently that she doesn't always see what sex-based readings of texts get us; just because something's longer than it is wide doesn't mean that it's phallic. It's a fair point, but this is one of the rare texts where I think examining the sex, sexuality, and gender of the characters gets us an enormously significant insight, not only into father-daughter relationships in a period where daughters were valued primarily for their marriage potential, but into one of the most overlooked consequences of incest for its victims throughout time: the loss of identity. Incest is about identity consumption—it becomes the defining characteristic of both its victims and its perpetrators. It is a violence against not only a person's sex, but a person's—and, in literature, especially a woman's—self. And that is why this text makes me boiling mad. Pafnuntius chews up his daughter and spits her out into her own grave, and is called a good and holy man for his trouble. I hate him, genuinely hate him, and he's only a cipher on a page.