‘Ecosexual Bathhouse’ and The Parliament of Fowls: Part Two

Le Roman de la Rose
Jeanne de Montbaston, On natural sexuality: a nun harvests phalluses from a tree, Roman de la Rose, 14th century. Courtesy of Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS. Fr. 25526, f. 106v

By Clare Davidson, The University of Western Australia

What are the premises of biological, or ‘natural’, views of sexuality? It is reproductive, and between agents of the same type, so it not only normalises ‘male’ and ‘female’ as a privileged unit, but also the union of eagles with eagles or the socially elite with the socially elite. The popularity of eugenics programs in the early twentieth century ominously forewarn us of the unethical application of match-making taken too far. Lady Chatterley’s Lover can in some ways be read as a less humorous modern retelling of The Parliament of Fowls. As in Chaucer’s earlier poem, eugenicist D. H. Lawrence’s description of Connie’s sexual awakening as the spirit of May-time germinates within her is an erotic ode to fertility:

All her body was alive, and softly vibrating, like the woods under the pulsing of the sap. It was as if passion had swept into her like a new breath, and changed her from her dead wintriness. She was like a forest soughing with the soft, glad moan of spring, moving into bud. And she felt sure she would have a child, a baby with soft live limbs, and a little life of its own, ensheathed in her own life. She could feel her body like the dark interlacing of the boughs of the oak-wood, humming inaudibly with myriad-myriad, unfolding buds. Meanwhile the birds of desire had their heads on their shoulders, asleep in delight, in the vast interlaced intricacy of her body.[1]

Unlike the intended inclusivity and sustainable values of the modern ecosexual movement, Lawrence’s natural view of fertile human sexuality, like Chaucer’s Parliament and Alain’s De planctu before it, is deeply embedded in a taxonomically concerned system of ethics that delineates the parameters of what constitutes a natural love partnership. Transgressions of this rule, although mild, are shocking enough to provide entire narrative twists. The female eagle won’t choose a lover? Connie will be attracted to a man beneath her noble station? But Alain de Lille’s captious Lady Nature exerts her rule in the end, we are assured that Chaucer’s eagle will only have one year to hold off making her decision, and Connie’s relationship with the lower-class but educated gamekeeper remains legally, as well as socially, illegitimate.

‘Ecosexuality’ is a tautology, at least in the Western literary tradition, because human sexuality is understood to be governed by nature and therefore fundamentally a matter of ecology. Embedded in this discourse is a troubling denotation of the biological certitude of sexual desire. If humans are in and of nature, they also are nature, and they have nature. Certain acts can be ‘against nature’. For the Cleanness-poet, recounting the story of Sodom, it is more natural that Lot offers his young and sexually inexperienced daughters to a frustrated and angry mob than that men should take pleasure in consenting male bodies.[2] Christian ethics have exuded significant influence (‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it’) but a belief that the universe was created is inessential to this ethical system. The positive ethical evaluation of that which is ‘natural’ has classical antecedence and remains culturally resonant. We continue to see our sexuality in the delicate flowers, the birds and bees, the changing of the seasons. We also see it in the justification of sexual assault because ‘boys will be boys’ and, in Australia like many other countries, the ethical condemnation of same-sex partnerships through governmental policy ruling that marriage – which from the twelfth century has sanctioned certain kind of human pairings and delegitimised others – is between a man and a woman.

As in The Parliament of Fowls, debate over the right way to ‘feel’ love remains fundamentally tied to the political and civic notion of the ‘common good’. Judgement over the ‘right’ way to love, or the right person to feel that love, and the equating of this to that which is ‘natural’, or reproductive, is fundamentally a political issue. Chaucer’s poem, unlike de Lille’s De planctu, offers the reader a fractured encounter with the ideology of natural sexuality through a series of dissenting voices and an emphasis on the agency of subjective will. Although The Parliament starts with reference to the philosophy of Cicero, the sparrow-murdering cuckoo is the only bird who claims to speak for the common good. It quickly becomes apparent that his idea of civic mindedness is to call to a close the debate proceedings so that everyone can get back to their own business. His motivations are shown to be entirely selfish as well as counter-intuitive to the ‘common good’ –the harmonious reproductive sexual order that ensures the continuity of the earth, year after year, season after season. But by ‘selfishly’ suggesting that everyone stop making rules for others and instead give attention to their own affairs the cuckoo raises a salient point: why do some birds get to judge the merit of the love professed by others and, in the end, what jurisdiction does this well-dressed lady really have? His view doesn’t go down well with the other birds, particularly the merlin who curses the cuckoo to live singly because his kind is so low that cuckoos may as well become extinct while the rest of the world endures. While medieval ‘nature’ may have disagreed with the merlin’s flippant disregard for environmental diversity, modern day evidence of rapidly declining biodiversity suggests that the bird may be right; no matter how many extinctions it suffers the world will surely endure one way or another. Even in the devastating but foreseeable future in which the ‘natural’ world is preserved not as a lived reality but only as a historical literary construct.

Ren Hang. Photography 2015. http://renhang.org/
Ren Hang. Photography 2015. http://renhang.org/

Within the messy and frequently conflicted early modern conceptualisation of arousal as an embodied emotional experience we can identify a long literary discourse in which ‘Nature’ serves as a ‘figure of sexual governance’, sowing the seeds that germinate and give birth to modern sexual identities, from the heterosexual to the ecosexual.[3] ‘Ecosexual Bathhouse’ is a joyful artwork, which offers an unexpected and welcome encounter with the peculiar and the sensuous. Beyond its immediate aesthetic appeal, the show calls for further critical discussion of our cultural understanding of arousal by ‘naturalising’ while simultaneously destabilising the universality of human experiences of ‘sexual’ attraction. Apart from loading the morally ambiguous gun that is ‘human nature’, an ecosexual narrative in which human reproduction is the ultimate end of desire may no longer serve the notion of the ‘common good’. So perhaps the real brilliance of ‘Ecosexual Bathhouse’ is in evoking, with clinical assuredness, a horrifically nostalgic encounter with an outdated aesthetic that celebrates a world that is pregnant with pastoral plenitude, a garden of earthly delights in which humans exist harmoniously with and in ‘nature’, whether it is anthropomorphised as a lady, vicar, goddess, mother or lover. Because – although we may wish it to be a dream – our little earth, unlike Chaucer’s, is not a place of eternal regeneration, but rather is one of scarcity, reduced diversity and large-scale environmental degradation. In relation to this, perhaps the eagle’s unwillingness to choose is not a failing of her nature, but the legitimate enactment of her ambivalent feelings of desire? And after all, what is so ‘natural’ about sexual reproduction and what is the place of ‘love’ in all this anyway? To tell you the truth I just don’t know; I really should start reading other books.

 

Clare Davidson is an Associate Investigator (UWA node) with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, and a sessional lecturer in English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia. She recently completed her PhD on the rhetoric of physiological and mental arousal in fourteenth-century Middle English literature. Her continuing research explores aesthetics, reading practices and the history of the body.

 

 

[1] D. H. Lawrence, The First and Second Lady Chatterley Novels (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 346.

[2] ‘…I schal kenne yow by kynde a crafte that is better;/ I haf a tresor in my telde of tow my faire deghter…/ To samen wyth tho semly the solace is better’. Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by A. C. Cawley and J. J. Anderson (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1962), pp. 88–89.

[3] Kellie Robertson, Nature Speaks (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), p. 16. Robertson is responding to Barbara Newman’s description of Nature represented to be ‘goddess of the normative’: Barbara Newman, God and the Goddesses: Vision, Poetry, and Belief in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 134.

 

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