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Spenser in Conversation: Marshall Grossman on The Faerie Queene
by Graham Hammill

“Spenser in Conversation:
Marshall Grossman on The Faerie Queene

Graham Hammill
English, University at Buffalo-SUNY

October 2012

Marshall Grossman’s rich and provocative work on Spenser might best be understood as a deep meditation on what Spenser means when he claims to follow “Poets historical” in fashioning a “gentleman or noble person.” Others have considered the question by focusing on Spenser’s historiography, his attempts to craft roles for Elizabeth, and his overall sense of self-fashioning. What distinguishes Grossman is that he approaches the question through the mediating force of the literary. How in The Faerie Queene, Grossman asks, are character and action shaped and determined by the literary?

Grossman, who was a Miltonist of the highest caliber, tends to read Spenser through the lens of a literary historian whose end point is Milton’s great narrative poem Paradise Lost. In The Story of All Things, for instance, Grossman opposes Miltonic choice to Spenserian quest. Like Milton, Spenser investigates the possibility of shaping virtuous action through literary imagination, but in Grossman’s account the claims each poet makes on the relations between and among imagination, agency, and history are quite different. While Milton’s characters make choices, often bad ones, that determine events, Spenser’s characters “discover sequentially the events that call upon them to act” (Story 143). Historical experience for Spenser is less the experience of decisive moments than it is slightly modified but largely habitual responses to events that by and large resemble on another. Spenser represents character and action in this way, Grossman argues, because as a follower of Aristotle he understands virtue to be a matter of habit. Instead of becoming ethical subjects who demonstrate their virtue, or lack thereof, in moments of choosing, Spenser’s characters “wander in search of positive attributes,” demonstrating who they are “by unfolding in varying situations the habits of virtue” (145). Or, as Grossman puts it elsewhere, the movement from Spenser to Milton is “from characters whose history grows out of what they are, to characters whose history accounts for what they have become” (“Reading,” 116).

It would be inaccurate, however, to say that Milton entirely determines Grossman’s reading of Spenser. Grossman was less interested in elaborating Milton’s relation to Spenser (itself a complex and rewarding subject) than he was in understanding affinities between English Renaissance culture and modernity. For Grossman, this means making strong claims about the significance of psychoanalysis for the study of narrative poetry beginning with The Faerie Queene. In The Story of All Things, which includes his most sustained treatment of Spenser, Grossman argues that Renaissance narrative poetry, Spenser in particular, installed a sense of deferral and belatedness that defines modern subjectivity and that gets theorized most powerfully in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Here is Grossman’s admirably precise explanation of his project. “The point,” he writes, “is neither to elicit from Freud, Spenser’s meaning, nor to identify the ways in which Spenser’s meaning must exceed or elude Freud’s interpretive procedures. It is rather, to understand the peculiar intimacy of Renaissance narrative practice and psychoanalytic interpretation by locating both within the same literary, historical (that is, literary and historical) event” (Story 108). What follows is a powerful discussion of psychoanalysis’s historical significance, developed through a provocative reading of Spenser. Grossman’s aim, however, is neither to psychoanalyze Spenser nor to historicize psychoanalysis but to show that both respond to a sense of literariness that emerged in the Renaissance, that Spenser intensifies, and that culminates in Freud’s thinking about narrative, memory, and subjectivity.

Grossman’s target is Stephen Greenblatt who famously sees psychoanalysis as the belated expression of Renaissance culture. The problem with psychoanalytic criticism, Greenblatt argues, is that it unfortunately imposes and reinforces a modernist understanding of subjectivity onto the history out of which it emerges as a disciplinary practice. Psychoanalysis is a product of the Renaissance, yes. But it is a belated product that lacks critical distance on its own interpretive procedures. Grossman responds by showing how belatedness is an effect of the specific ways that, beginning with Spenser, narrative poetry of the English Renaissance binds the psyche to history through memory and narration. To historicize both Renaissance culture and psychoanalysis, Grossman makes the more formal and Hegelian claim that one must historicize “belatedness as such” (112). In making this argument, Grossman’s main interlocutor is Joel Fineman, who makes a similar claims for Shakespeare’s Sonnets. However, Grossman’s account is broader in range and scope, more phenomenologically nuanced (he is more attentive than Fineman to the complex dynamics of literary subjectivity), and queerer (a term I can imagine Grossman accepting with some amount of methodological qualification. In his reading of The Faerie Queene, sex is neither redemptive nor solipsistic. It is, rather, communal, though in complicated ways involving fantasy and social imagination.)

Spenser plays a central role in Grossman’s account of Renaissance culture and psychoanalysis because of his experimentation with allegory in The Faerie Queene. A remarkably skillful historian of literary form, Grossman argues that Spenser transforms—or perhaps better, deforms—Augustinian allegory, thereby opening a set of reflections on subjectivity, narrative, and time that Freud later theorizes in an admittedly very different key. From one perspective, Grossman argues, Spenser harkens back to an Augustinian model of conversion when, for instance, the Red Cross Knight understands on Mount Contemplation what he will have been when he defeats the dragon at the end of Book One. Subjectivity here is determined by a telos that, once revealed, converts both character and narrative. However, Spenser fractures this model, trading teleological closure for projection, imagination, and fantasy so that from a second perspective, Grossman argues, The Faerie Queene places its characters in a world of sexual fantasy and erotic imagination that displaces both the theological subject and the subject of classical virtue, suspending the telos that each seems to provide in the figure of the apocalypse or the attainment of virtue in the City of Man.

Although Spenser repeatedly holds out the promise of transcendental epiphany, that promise is increasingly empty. Spenser’s allegory is less likely to explain narrative action in epiphanic moments than it is to proliferate what Grossman following Freud calls “other scenes”—of court politics, Irish rebellions, the wars of religion, etc.—that broaden the poem’s already quite extensive range of reference. For Grossman, then, Spenser follows poets historical in an unusual way, crafting a fragment, a narrative that resists allegorical closure in such a way that, paradoxically, the longer the poem becomes, the more fragmentary and incomplete it seems to be. And to be a character or an historical actor within this world is to confront situation upon situation, each of which demonstrates in very specific ways the power of fantasy and the impossibility of transcending the world of ruins. Instead of a secular or Christian subject, Spenser’s poem generates symptomatic subjects—the products of an incomplete transformation of Christian allegory.

Some readers will surely disagree with the relation that Grossman draws between Spenser and psychoanalysis. But it is impossible to think of his use of psychoanalysis as reductive or ahistorical. The more urgent question to ask is whether or not Grossman’s use of psychoanalysis is itself belated. Doubtless, English Renaissance studies has moved beyond the debate between psychoanalysis and historicism that informs Grossman’s work on Spenser in The Story of All Things. More pointedly, though, have we moved beyond the psychoanalytic moment? By we, I mean broadly we who live in an arguably post-Oedipal, post-postmodern, post-9/11 world in which Freudian paradigms and explanation no longer seem to pertain. And I also mean more narrowly we Spenserians who have inherited a thoroughly historicized, theorized, and psychoanalyzed Faerie Queene. Even if we cede Grossman’s account of literary history, wouldn’t the most salient point be that we have moved beyond this particular configuration of literature, history, and subjectivity? And, therefore, beyond any interpretation of The Faerie Queene that anticipates Freud, or that Freud inspires?

These are the larger questions that form the background of the two essays published here in The Spenser Review. It should be said from the onset that these two essays, previously unpublished conference papers, are like many excellent and thought-provoking conference presentations fragmentary, densely argued, and compressed. I take the two essays to be companion pieces, and not only because “Mimetic Verisimilitude and Poetic Truth” ends where “Spenser’s Middle Voice” begins, by glancing at the hidden Mount of Venus in the Garden of Adonis. The essays have a similar goal. In both essays, Grossman extends his earlier arguments about character and action to account more fully for affect and the passions. How, Grossman asks, do Renaissance fictions generate passions that, through a certain reversal, authenticate “mimetic verisimilitude as a criterion of literary or fictive truth”? (“Mimetic” 4) What forms of selfhood and embodiment emerge when passion is understood to be a product of mimetic verisimilitude? How does this understanding of selfhood and embodiment speak to Spenser’s sexual politics, his attempt “to think about ways to negotiate the still strong traditions of patriarchal representation in the course of a non-trivial rethinking of women as desiring subjects”? (“Middle Voice” 2) To these, I would add a final question, one implied by the essays’ critical moves and method: what role does Grossman’s earlier argument about Spenser and psychoanalysis play in pursuing this line of questioning about mimesis and the middle voice?

Grossman’s thinking in these two essays is, I believe, animated by two terms: conversation and the drive. Conversation is first and foremost a mode by which Spenser conceives of community. This is as clear in figures like Calidore, whose capacity for civil conversation is his greatest tool in forging community, as it is for figures like Sclaunder and the Blatant Beast, who use language to destroy community. Just as clearly, the opposition between good and bad uses of language breaks down when Spenser accounts for the ways in which conversation is infiltrated and overdetermined by desire—for example, when Una’s demand for a masculine knight, her counsel that the Red Cross Knight become a warrior hero, puts him in increasingly difficult situations in which he can only despair of his inability to be what she wants him to become. The point is not that Una has bad intentions or malevolent designs but that conversation in Spenser is populated by half-saids and unsaids that may or may not be known to speakers but trigger effects in listeners.

What interests Grossman most are the ways in which these half-saids and unsaids are materialized. Instructive here is the opposition that Grossman draws between The Faerie Queene and Hamlet. In part shorthand for Fineman’s account of literary subjectivity in the works of Shakespeare, an account in which the difference between the inside and the outside leads to a sense of feeling that exceeds expression, Hamlet exemplifies a familiar mode of theatricality which aligns the passions with an “inexpressible interiority” beyond mimetic representation (“Mimetic” 4). When Spenser describes memory of “that happy land of Faery” as “th’aboundance of an idle braine” (2.Proem.1), he is as interested as Shakespeare in the effects of mimetic representation. Rather than resorting to metaphors of interiority, however, Spenser stages a process of exteriorization through which the self takes shape, encountering itself in exterior objects that pass into the mind as seemingly useless abundance. Or, as Grossman elsewhere describes this vision of the Spenserian self: “the exterior object passes over into the mind, but mediates only the exteriorization of the mind — now not transcendentally absolute but just cluttered with the bric-a-brac that has passed into it” (“Seminal” 249). This abundance is only seemingly useless because it is through this bric-a-brac that the self comes to understand itself (Spenser “represents the exteriority of the inner self as a moving boundary in which each of us must read himself or herself as it were in a book” [“Mimetic” 9]) and we come to understand the odd topography of Spenserian representation (“Faeryland remains exterior to its intersubjective naming; actually existing but as yet unseen” [8-9]). In The Faerie Queene, that is, the unspoken or barely spoken desires that pass between characters in the world of discourse are not located inside the self, as they are in Shakespeare, but outside the self in the landscape through which Spenser’s characters travel. As Grossman implies, this process of exteriorization includes the poem’s narrator, whose own half-saids and unsaids make up some of The Faerie Queene’s most mysterious scenes of desire.

Freud describes this process of exteriorization in his concept of the drive. Freud uses the drive to foreground the problem of passion and action—unconscious passion and complexly motivated action—which he links to the highly theatrical scenes of sadomasochism and exhibitionism/voyeurism through which the drive becomes manifest. A “borderland concept between the mental and the physical” (“Instincts” 87) and analogous to the “the opacity of the boundary between pathos and observable action” that Spenser repeated foregrounds (“Mimetic” 6), the drive helps Grossman get at the ways in which the half-saids and unsaids of conversation develop into quasi-allegorical scenes of erotic interaction. The reason is both historical and literary. Briefly glancing at Milton, Grossman makes the point that conversation between friends became the privileged mode by which Protestants idealized marriage. What’s unique to Spenser is his optimistic desire—never fully realized—for a new language within which that conversation could take place. What Spenser hopes to invent is what (in one reading) psychoanalysis aims to theorize, an understanding through conversation rather than ideology of the transformation of “a universal grammar of desire” (“Middle Voice” 4) into gendered subjects and sexual fantasies. In the half-saids and unsaids of Spenser’s poem, Grossman deduces a desire for a middle voice that—were it to exist in English—would enable that conversation to take place in more equitable and poetically inventive terms, so that gender would be “forged in the saying, rather than prior to it” (“Middle” 4). The scenes in which this desire is most evident may seem oddly exterior to the poem’s narrative space, but that in turn only reinforces the complexities of Spenserian conversation.

Grossman’s work stages a powerful conversation between Spenser and Freud, one that is highly mediated (by narrative, allegory, the history of mimesis, etc.) while nonetheless oddly direct, since in Grossman’s account it is Spenser’s unconscious desire for a new language of sexual relations that Freud theorizes in his most difficult, uneven, and shifting works. (Freud compares the drive to “the reflexive middle voice” [“Instincts” 92].) It is this conversation that makes psychoanalysis significant for The Faerie Queene beyond its conception of subjectivity and makes Grossman’s work central to our understanding of that conversation. As he puts it elsewhere: “Spenser performs the literary equivalent of psychoanalysis, putting into play the performativity of Freud’s dicta ‘Wo es war, soll Ich warden’—‘Where it was, shall I become.’” (“Seminal” 252). At his best, Grossman shows that this claim is more than an equivalence or an analogy. It expresses the relation between Spenser and psychoanalysis that animates his work: where psychoanalysis was, there The Faerie Queene shall become.

Works Cited

Freud, Sigmund. “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes.” In General Psychological Theory: Papers on Metapsychology. Ed. Philip Rieff. New York: Collier Books, 1963. 83-103.

Grossman, Marshall. “Mimetic Verisimilitude and Poetic Truth in Book II of The Faerie Queene.” The Spenser Review ****

________. “Reading, Death and the Ethics of Enjoyment in Spenser and Milton.” Imagining Death in Spenser and Milton. Eds. Elizabeth Jane Bellamy, Patrick Cheney, and Michael Schoenfeldt. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004. 116-30.

________. “The Seminal and the Inimitable: An Adventure in Harryland.” A Touch More Rare: Harry Berger, Jr., and the Arts of Interpretation. Ed. Nina Levine and David Lee Miller. New York: Fordham University Press, 2009. 237-54.

________. The Story of All Things: Writing the Self in English Renaissance Narrative Poetry. Durham: Duke University Press, 1998.

________. “Spenser’s Middle Voice: The Grammar of Jouissance in Book Three of The Faerie Queene.” The Spenser Review ****

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. Text edited by Hiroshi Yamashita and Toshiyuki Suzuki. London: Longman, 2001.


Cite as:

Graham Hammill, "Spenser in Conversation: Marshall Grossman on The Faerie Queene," Spenser Review 42.2.8 (Winter 2013). Accessed January 22nd, 2018.
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