An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 27, 2014

Dinshaw, How Soon is Now?

Carolyn Dinshaw, How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time (Durham: Duke UP, 2012).

Reviewed by Jesse Swan (

"Dinshaw Glue and Other Queer Products of Attachment"

If there is one quality forbidden the late modern professor, surely it is love. Nothing gums up the mind of a late modern professor more than the sticky glue of love. As soon as “love” is proposed in one’s professional imagination, one seizes a reflexive guffaw the way John Milton’s patience seizes his profane question, “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?” The seized guffaw, like the activity of patience, closes down passion, mostly by closing down temporal experience, and as such they are endorsed by modernity, yet they can, if queered, go the other way. Going the other way, Carolyn Dinshaw elaborates the unmodern time necessary to have had a guffaw that was suppressed at the moment of its production and to know such a guffaw, distinct from many another guffaw. That’s a queer feeling, to late modernity (which is queer in a different way from that of an early modern Puritanism, such as Milton’s, or from that of a Medieval religious experience, such as Boethius’s). In the now of late modernity, such a literary criticism and history as Dinshaw’s can operate only in queer environments of their own imperfect generation, such as the environment of the now old-style, 1980’s (gay-inflected) club scene, the sort of club scene that, for an hiatus from the usual Hi-NRG sound, would play the song of lovelorn experience, “How Soon Is Now?” The Smith’s song, title and substance, is borrowed for Dinshaw’s monograph-mashup, and to good purpose, not only conceptually, but also methodologically. Moving out of loveless and professional late modernity into unmodern appreciations of medieval cultures and amateur queers and temporally-flexible medievalists, Dinshaw makes fascinating, among much more, Aristotle, Augustine, Hope Emily Allen, Rip Van Winkle, a young man at a public festival in a bathrobe, The Book of John Mandeville, Margery Kempe, James I of Scotland, and, as she terms it, “the brilliant and baffling 1944 film,” A Canterbury Tale.

Among Medieval texts Dinshaw’s historiography revives out of “the modernist settlement” (p. 168 et passim) is Boethius and The Consolation of Philosophy. I concentrate on Boethius, because I want to highlight a marvelous product of Dinshaw’s method: that of providing an experience of Christian divine eternity absent the usual mysticism. Another way of saying this is that Dinshaw provides knowledge of religious existence without being permanently or only religious. She provides a sort of chiastic completion to Augustine’s crede, ut intelligas (believe so that you will understand), so that Dinshaw provides an understanding that provides the perception of the belief. The belief involves, as I’ve written, Christian divine eternity, a temporal experience that is accessed by way of Dinshaw’s engagement with and engagement of queer amateur texts and practices. Indeed, it is something of a perversion of Dinshaw’s method to concentrate upon Boethius as I am doing, but it is perversion that can be accommodated and even celebrated, if it is left fluid and not fixed, relational and not settled. To regenerate the Boethian ecstasy that is the divine and rationally lovely consolation in which the The Consolation of Philosophy culminates, Dinshaw requires her reader to bring into cognizance and intellectual reflection her own experience of several nows, including the now of encountering the “moving headstone [from the destroyed grave of one David LeValley (1820-1893) that] haunts . . . this chapter” and that washed up the flooded stream forming the border of the property “in the remote southwest corner of the Catskill mountain range” that Dinshaw owned with her “girlfriend,” whom I take to have been her lover, using what I imagine must now be my old-fashioned, 1980’s nomenclature for same-sex erotic, sexual, romantic, and community-property partner (129-130). The gravestone commemorating LeValley floating not entirely unlike one of Derrida’s postcards (and Derrida informs this chapter’s idealization overtly by reference, but not specifically to his postcards), is imaginatively combined in the chapter’s reverie with Washington Irving / Rip van Winkle / Geoffrey Crayon, James I of Scotland, and all that came before the chapter in the book, including all the discussions of “asynchronous” time, such as that of Augustine, the experience of colonial and postcolonial British India, philology, and queer amateurs such as the aptly named and ever optimistic, Hope Emily Allen. This combination is made in order to read / to regenerate Boethius’s sensational, ever-present consolation, a consolation absent to those of “the modernist settlement.”  There is no passage suitable for quoting to provide something of the thrilling experience Dinshaw regenerates, but readers are urged to consult pages 146 through 149 for something of the experience. Of course, without all that comes up to page 146, and, really, without all that comes after page 149, the four pages lack the fullness that they can possess as they “temporally rent Boethius” (149).

Reading and rereading pages 146 through 149 the way Dinshaw instructs is “exhilarating,” which is, as she well knows and even advances, a form of “queer appreciation of temporal heterogeneity [that we should use] to contest and enlarge singular narratives of development, and to begin to imagine collective possibilities for a more attached – that is to say, queer – future” (127).  And there can hardly be anything queerer, in the current moment, than queer and even gay or even LGBTQQIA history that does not involve sexual practices or even discussion of sexual practices. I mention this, because this is another fascinating queer feature of Dinshaw’s literary history: While it does not denigrate sexual practice, and while it even references sexual practice when apt, Dinshaw’s literary history, like Augustine’s and like Hope Emily Allen’s among others considered amateur in one way or another and in one time or another, pursues many queer matters in addition to the sexual and does so in a manner that is erotically enticing, indeed, lovely. This is something she is able to discern and celebrate most keenly in the ultimate chapter, a chapter that is to be considered the chapter that is not one, to provide allusively another blast from the theoretical and feminist past (for the Anglophone queer reader, Luce Irigaray’s The Sex Which Is Not One is a distinctly 1980’s sensation, not unlike The Smith’s “How Soon Is Now?”). In the last chapter which is not one, called the “Epilogue,” Dinshaw explores how A Canterbury Tale, “the brilliant and baffling 1944 film, pushes to a bizarre and criminal point the implications of [her] discussion heretofore” (152). The criminal nature of the film is part of its plot and theme, not part of its existence in society, as might be the case with treasonous or pornographic intention and effect or with queer sexual practices in 1944. In the story of the film, an amateur historian and deeply patriotic townsman, Thomas Colpeper, takes to molesting new women to the small town on the road to Canterbury by sneaking upon them and smearing their heads and hair with glue. Alison, a British girl new to town, is the one featured in the film being so welcomed, and, like many another Alison, particularly a Chaucerian one, she reacts, not with a sense of victimization, but with great self-possession and determination to discover and denounce the miscreant. All is, naturally, or, more properly speaking, queerly, which is to say literarily, eventually found out and all desires are expressed and even, in their way, celebrated by the movie’s end, which is part of what draws Dinshaw to this odd piece of propaganda produced in war-time and about war-time experiences, experiences that were very much present at the time, yet not always, or not for everyone, except for the queerest, most patriotic, most attached amateurs, historians and humane citizens, such as Colpeper and the producers of the film. Like the soldiers the molesting, glue-smearing Colpeper means to save and make interested in their own history and country (it is discovered that Colpeper molests as he does in order to make women unavailable to the soldiers on the nights he gives his historical and literary lectures, knowing that the soldiers will attend his lectures only if there be nothing better to do), the “indifferent audience” of readers and students Dinshaw tries to save, with her own queer gestures, writings and lectures, seems so close, so potentially active, yet so, well, “indifferent.” Such makes her, and me, “laugh, sort of” (170). The “sort of” is because the laugh is not that of modernity and its derisive humor that is “a confident distancing,” but, rather, the laugh is the humane, empathic, attached humor that makes her – and me – “recoil at my own implication in this image [of Colpeper]: with his pathetic lonely eagerness to share his enthusiasm about the Canterbury pilgrims, he’s my personal nightmare version of the Chaucerian – me – trying to interest an indifferent audience in the Canterbury Tales” (170). The indifference is difficult to address, because it is the mode of the professional administrator of “the modernist settlement,” just the sort of job-holder so many of the students are passing through town to become. Dinshaw realizes, as she hopes we do, how much like a glue-smearing miscreant the attached queer Medievalist must seem to be now, and how much she, or he, has to work to remember that she loves being so.

I’m not sure there’s a way to get this glue onto those who most need it anytime soon, yet I recommend this brand of glue to all who have some time for it now.

Jesse Swan
University of Northern Iowa