“They Didn’t Know How to Treat a Lady”: Imagination and “Camp” in Boethius & Prudentius

Medievalist A.W. Strouse rejects academic queer theory as another “tediously” normative tradition, writing instead in a vein of self-described “irresponsible homo-medievalism” that utilizes medieval text as a “technology of self-preservation”. In the introduction of My Gay Middle Ages, he writes: 

“First of all, the heroine of the Consolation is this great big fierce diva, whose name is Lady Philosophy. She’s a Lady, and she doesn’t stand for anybody’s crap. At the beginning of the book, Boethius is crying, all alone in prison, depressed that he’s lonely and loveless and is going to be killed. Lady Philosophy descends from the heavens, à la Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. The first thing Boethius notices about her is that she’s wearing an amazing dress with the Greek letters ∏ and Θ embroidered on it—they stand for practical and theoretical philosophy. Her dress has been torn to shreds by the hands of uncouth philosophers. They didn’t know how to treat a lady”.

Strouse’s brief, unorthodox prose re-frames Boethius’ heroine in the language of twenty-first century camp; the idealized concept-as-woman that is philosophy re-branded as a “diva” that commands and shines in the dark space of Boethius’ cell. In Strouse’s queer framework, Lady Philosophy is a fragment of Boethius’ fabulous and salvatory imagination; her regality may illuminate his dire straights–his blunt loneliness, lovelessness, fear–but as she herself is one of Boethius’ constructs, she seems to represent an inner subversion and creativity that pushes against the constraints of captivity with both rhetoric and flair. In Boethius’ original work, the tearing of Philosophy’s gown is alarming, violent: a female figure rendered partially-clothed by attacks through poor philosophy. Strouse makes light of their ignorance: they “didn’t know how to treat a lady”. Lady Philosophy’s gown, which she has woven, can be read as part of the “rhythmic recycling” and crafting that characterizes camp and queer aesthetics and, by extension, the ability of garments and self-construction to bolster spirit, identity and imagination in dire straits. The tearing is a part of this “rhythmic recycling”: expected, the fault of ignorance and poor philosophy. Philosophy steps forth ready to educate on “correct” philosophy, seemingly unabashed at her ragged garment–a characterization of imagination that is feminine, dominant and fabulous. 

Other aspects of medieval camp shine through in the battles of Prudentius’ Psychomachia; perhaps the battles might be re-framed as a struggle between camp and kitsch. Worship of the Old Gods storms in with her beribboned brow; Faith, in a moment of “overkill”, brutally slays her, walks on her body, and hands out purple robes and flower crowns to her followers. Chastity and Lust battle with much thrusting and piercing; the victor is the virtuous “queen”. As throughout the poem, the violence is graphically overstated; women that are described as beautifully adorned in one moment the next are literally tearing each other apart with much spilling of blood and viscera. The battles border the “ludicrously tragic/tragically ludicrous” valley of camp–all occurring in the free plane of the imagination or personal interior, as if every reader has two bedazzled women battling it out with each other for their virtue inside them. Such a reading must, of course, be at least dominantly tongue-and-cheek: I do not for a moment suggest that these weighty Christian poems were intended to be or received by medieval readers as evoking the cringe/fascination/voyeurism that camp invokes, nor even its less noteworthy cousin, kitsch. But if one of the functions of camp is to be a “lifeboat for drowning men”, then perhaps it is exactly this mode of reading that might bring about our own Consolation in isolation.

 

Strouse, A.W. “My Gay Middle Ages” (Punctum Books, 2015).

Sontag, Susan. Notes on “Camp”. Penguin Random House (2018).

Image: the British Library, Prudentius’ Psychomachia, England, c. 980–1010: Add MS 24199, f. 18r.

One thought on ““They Didn’t Know How to Treat a Lady”: Imagination and “Camp” in Boethius & Prudentius

  1. I have nothing to add to this but I would like to say that “irresponsible homo-medievalism” is a wonderful phrase

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