“At the dances I was one of the most untiring and gayest … a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face … he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon … My frivolity would only hurt the Cause.
I grew furious at … the boy … I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal … should demand the denial of life and joy … [it] could not expect me to become a nun and … the movement should not be turned into a cloister.”–Emma Goldman, Living My Life (1934)
For medieval literary studies today, perhaps the most satisfying demand of a feminist aesthetics of reading is the dance of negotiating a delicate balance between resisting and acquiescing to what we read, when we read a medieval text: a dance which acknowledges that agency rests both in the text and in ourselves, in deriving the meaning we find when we read. Because medievalists work with texts written more than half a millennium ago, in historical contexts and social conditions almost unimaginable today, any other kind of trafficking feels a little suspect to us. If we are merely belligerent with a text, treating it with mistrust (as in a “hermeneutics of suspicion”) and noting its “symptoms” (in a “symptomatic reading”) in order to critique it for its ideology (“ideologie-kritik”) and impose our own preferred meaning by forcing the text to say what we would wish, the relationship forged between the text and ourselves, we tend to feel, is not an adequate or satisfying one. Committed to feminist principles and ideals, feminist medievalists invariably require a critical performance that respects the integrity of the text, and its place in history, by acknowledging the delicate choreography of meaning-making in which the feminist reader and the medieval text both participate, each possessing specific kinds of authority and knowledge, in the moment of reading. Our dance, of course, has steps and turns in common with all feminist readings of literature, of whatever literary period, and so is offered here as an allegory of feminist reading and readers that points to the example of others in feminist literary theory.