I have to say, the episode vexes me and enlivens me, at the same time. I’m twisted up in knots, and I’m a mess to untangle.
Like a good student, I will start with my sources. Why did the professor have to assign this Chauncy fellow, who can’t even spell? At first I look over the Wiki, and read what other people have to say about The Wife of Bath. This morning, though, I read the story myself. I am Psyche – I have to know the face of my lover, even if it means explusion from Paradise. I admit I’ve cheated – I’m reading a “modern translation” side-by-side the original, for the Middle English is too much for me, especially first thing in the morning after an evening’s romp.
Oh, why yes, we made love last night! We’d been teasing each other throughout the day. Friday night wasn’t going to be the night. He’d worked hard that day – Harley is a carpenter – and his vitality was low by bedtime. And I was feeling, frankly, conflicted, having just seen Belle Chose. My noggin was too revved up to get into my body that night. All this and the day’s teasing made for a delicious escalation of tension, leaving me well and truly hungry for my man at night’s calling. We make love, and I imagine receiving divine gnosis as I’m receiving him – he is Christ taking his bride, and this makes for quite a rupture of joy.
So I’m reading the Wife of Bath’s Prologue this morning, sipping my coffee, and I realize I’m not quite sure what to make of the text. I hear the words of Gossen, of Kiki, of other bloggers. I’m hearing the voice of Alysoun, but also the voice of Chaucer. So many voices speaking through one character. I put myself in the story, to see how it feels. I am the Wife of Bath, and I’ve made my way through the world by virtue of my sex, and what I’ve learned because of it. Alysoun justifies herself through carefully selected Biblical passages, allegories, and first-hand experience. She has many ways of knowing.
Having read the prologue, I now understand the choice of title for this episode of Dollhouse. Belle Chose, from bele chose, “lovely thing.” The bathy girl-power: my vagina, coochie-snorcher, vulva, quim, pussy, cunt, lips, hole. I’m speaking the words now to reclaim their power, my power. “Belle chose” occurs twice in the prologue, showing two ways we use power, and how they are related.
What ails you that you grumble thus and groan?
Is it because you’d have my cunt alone?
Why take it all, lo, have it every bit;
Peter! Beshrew you but you’re fond of it!
For if I would go peddle my belle chose,
I could walk out as fresh as is a rose;
But I will keep it for your own sweet tooth.
You are to blame, by God I tell the truth.
Gossen tells his class to review the Economics of Love, and so we must consider this first type of power, which is power-over. It is the form of power most blatantly displayed on Dollhouse, and in this episode. The professor has purchased “love”, or so he thinks. He is such a contradiction. He exercises power-over, in order to indulge his own sense of power-under. He wants to be dominated, but only on his terms. He is caught up in a master/slave dynamic, but he’s also speaking truth to the nature of sexual lust, for it often comes unbidden and with an urgency that is hard to deny. This internal desire is externalized or projected onto an “object of lust.”
This is mirrored in how Terry has approached playing with dolls. He takes women against their will and paralyzes them, puts them into position as if they were mannequins, and then he performs his rituals. This stems from his own sense of powerlessness among the women in his life. A good deal of that stems from his lack of empathy – he can only focus on himself, and when he is not in focus he feels like nothing. It isn’t made clear to us whether Terry can’t use empathy (due to brain damage, for example) or that Terry won’t use empathy, by his own selfish choice, but regardless it’s true that Terry doesn’t employ empathy, and this is ultimately to his detriment.
This separation of self and other, without empathy, seems to be the basis for objectification. And once people can be painted as objects, they can be monetized. It’s no coincidence that our professor is named for an economist. Hermann Heinrich Gossen writes that scarcity is a precondition for economic value. Now, look at the economics of the Dollhouse. It’s run by powerful people, who use money to circumvent authority, to pay for exemptions. Adelle takes care of the business, a business she says is about fulfilling people’s needs. The reason there is a Dollhouse in the first place is because of scarcity.
When we consider the balance of scarcity in human desire, it’s easy to see in economic terms who has power and who doesn’t – men have greater sexual desire than women, both in terms of the urgency of the lust as well as the frequency at which it’s experienced. Hence the Dollhouse has need of more women, though some Actives are men. But this goes beyond sex: what is the scarcity that Dollhouse fulfills?
But in our bed he was so fresh and gay,
And therewithal he could so well impose,
What time he wanted use of my belle chose,
That though he’d beaten me on every bone,
He could re-win my love, and that full soon.
I guess I loved him best of all, for he
Gave of his love most sparingly to me.
We women have, if I am not to lie,
In this love matter, a quaint fantasy;
Look out a thing we may not lightly have,
And after that we’ll cry all day and crave.
So Alysoun learns the source of her power, that she has something someone else wants that they aren’t getting. She learns how it feels to be wanting, and not getting what she wants. This creates within her a growing desire, and it’s interesting how this plays out with her fifth husband and beyond. Jenkin has the ability to deny his own desire; he has discipline. However, this creates resentment and anger, and he projects his own self-domination onto Alysoun, claiming her possessions, violently controlling her body, and subjecting her to a litany of misogyny. He taunts her by reading to her stories of women’s vices, and mythically: Eve, Pasiphae, Clytemnestra, and so on, all examples of “women ruining men.” She tears out pages from his book and they come to blows, and his is mightier. Only when he fears she’s dead – and hence empty – does he repent, and the balance of power is restored. Alysoun wakes up… and I’m reminded of Briar Rose.
Alysoun is a widow again, but now she has been changed. She is no longer in the throes of this power-play. Now she is on a pilgrammage, and she holds her own with the other pilgrims. She has one of the most well-developed personalities, as Gossen avers, and she is a storyteller in her own right. Her stories – for she tells more of herself than she does in her tale – are about the emancipation of women, and that this is a precondition for love. Indeed, it is a condition for living mythically.
And so we come to Gossen, who has cast himself as Chaucer, and hired out Echo to be his Alysoun. He is stepping into the myth that he cherishes, and this is the need that the Dollhouse fulfills. However, Gossen does not realize the price. He thinks he is in control, but he is not, for stepping into myth is a surrender. He thinks he will be sexually fulfilled – that this is his surrender – but he doesn’t understand that you can’t just jump to the end of the story. Well before apotheosis, one must surive the Belly of the Whale which confers death and rebirth. Gossen is stabbed in the neck and falls.
Gossen wants to be Chaucer, but this is not how it begins. Had he really known his fairy-tales (and does Kiki know them better for mistaking Middle English with hobbits?) he’d be on the path of Briar Rose, who reaches for the spindle – a tool of Fate and hence authorship – knowing full well that the thorny path of surrender that awaits.