Blogging about reading means, among other things, coming up with something to say about a book while I’m in the middle of it. And sometimes I decide by the end of the book that what I said in the middle wasn’t exactly right. And that’s just what happened with The Romance of the Rose.
In an earlier post, I said that I thought second author Jean de Meun disapproved of the lover’s pursuit of the rose. But in the end, the lover gets his way, and I think Jean does, too. But then why does Jean bring in Reason with a long sermon against getting swept away by passion? And why does he make Friend offer advice so wanton that even the young man in love thinks he’s gone too far?
The key for me lay in the characters False Seeming and Nature. False Seeming (or Hypocrisy) defends himself to the God of Love (i.e. Cupid), who reluctantly agrees to ally with him. And in this apologia, he concentrates on the advantages religious hypocrites have. In fact, sometimes it sounds like False Seeming works with no one who isn’t a monk, nun, or priest. And the hypocrisy he works in these people all goes to hide the sexual activities of people who have taken vows of celibacy. Nature’s long (all the monologues in Jean’s part are long) speech basically says that God gave sex to Nature as her way of perpetuating the species, so where would the human race be if everyone took the vow of celibacy?
Now, remembering that Jean, in order to have the knowledge of classical works that he does, must have been trained in a monastery or cathedral school, I saw the pieces fall into place. He takes (or is ready to take, or has contemplated taking) the vow of celibacy, and then he reads Guillaume de Lorris’s aborted poem, its lovely verses singing the beauty of the passion of love. And then he experiences a debate. Perhaps he actually argues with his superior, or perhaps the conflict of ideas is all in his mind. One way or another, like my hero Mortimer Adler, he came to see the authors he had studied facing off against each other in a Great Conversation. And in the grand debate he witnesses, it soon becomes clear that the answer can’t be as simple as yes or no. The arguments on both sides are too good. So Jean must find a way to reconcile the rationale for virginity that he receives from the Church and from Reason, with Nature’s lesson that sex is God’s good gift to the world. On the negative side, he has to find the golden mean between the excess of Friend’s promiscuity and the defect of Hypocrisy’s call for total abstinence from everyone. The protagonist may land a little on the excessive side in my view, but at least he gives us noncelibates a model of enjoying a rose as a blessing of God.