115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Heterodoxies of Desire and Religious Ambiguity in Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata 

Alani Hicks-Bartlett, University of California, Berkeley

From the very first cantos of Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata, the reader will note the constant renegotiation of personal, sexual, and spiritual identity. Although the overarching context of the poem is the Christians’ quest to liberate Jerusalem from the ‘Pagans’ during the First Crusade, even while describing the heroic and tragic clashes of the opposing camps, the primary narrative attentions suggest that the distinction between Christian and Pagan is not as clear or defined as the text initially claims. 


 Particularly if Tasso’s battlefield is read as a sort of hermeneutical process, as metaphor for man’s epistemic quest for meaning as he forges through a dim realm filled with uncertainty and doubt, the blind or uncertain state many of the disoriented personages of the Liberata stages the systematic breakdown that culminates on the battlefield. Since an ‘inganno occulto’ has taken root, sign processes lack coherence; since vision is constantly frustrated, the characters can almost never correctly identify what they see and appearances are never what they seem to be. Aside from the visual frustrations and examples of the ‘denigration of vision’ following the violent collision of the Christian and pagan troops, all of the barriers and categories that would usually order the world seem to have completely broken down as well. It is precisely this mutability, this permeability, and the multiple, ambiguous identities of many of the characters of liberata that confound facile visual interpretation and lead to a dangerous, vulnerable heterodoxy that complicates the identity of the self. If Christian and pagan are collapsible terms, so too are friend and enemy, good and evil, appearance and truth, male and female, and finally, self and other. 

 This essay therefore, examines how the tragic and highly gendered conflict between religious groups are proleptically staged by the struggle for power and visual control at the heart of the Canto II—one of the most fundamental yet most neglected cantos of Tasso’s epic. As I follow the path of poetic surveillance and the scopophilic eye, I concentrate my analysis on the first disruptive and mediating female body of the Liberata, the figure that most overtly incarnates the struggle for possession and control exemplified by the clashing Pagan and Christian camps—a statue of the Virgin Mary. Representative of heterodoxical anxieties, this statue is a problematic body indeed, since is it not only fought over and abused, but completely reified and desired. Moreover, it is circumscribed by the same static, possessive and sexualized terms which are later attributed to the catastrophic bodies of the poems’ other female characters as well. Thus, the drama surrounding the statue’s exemplary provenance and potential in Canto II can be read as the mise en scène of the text’s later heterodoxical preoccupations, as it elucidates the connection between fragmentation and negation, religious ambiguity and national alterity, which all become fatal on the battlefield.


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