“Schwarz’s approach is sophisticated and wide-reaching, as she thinks through the nuanced way in which a single reference or metaphor mediates issues of sexuality/desire, on the one hand, and community formation on the other.”—Wendy Wall, author of The Imprint of Gender: Authorship and Gender in the English Renaissance
Tough Love: Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissanceby Kathryn Schwarz
In Tough Love Kathryn Schwarz takes up a range of literary, historical, and theoretical texts in order to examine the relationship between Amazon myth and the social conventions that governed gender and sexuality during the early modern period. Imagined as embodiments of female masculinity, amazonian figures stimulated both homoerotic and heteroerotic response, and Schwarz shows that their appearance in narratives disrupted assumptions concerning identity, gender, domesticity, and desire.
Despite seeming to function as signs for what is outside the social—the alien, the exotic, the other—Amazons in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts were often represented in conventionally domestic roles, as mothers and lovers, wives and queens, Schwarz demonstrates. She traces this pattern in works by Shakespeare, Spenser, Sidney, Raleigh, and Jonson, as well as in such materials as conduct manuals, explorers’ accounts, court spectacles, and political tracts. Through readings of these texts, Schwarz shows that the Amazon myth provided a language both for setting forth and for challenging the terms of social logic. In representations of Amazon encounters, she argues, homosocial bonds became indistinguishable from heterosexual desires, masculine agency attached itself as logically to women as it did to men, and sexual difference was made nearly impossible to sustain or define. Schwarz’s analysis unveils the Amazon as a theoretical term, one that illuminates the tensions and paradoxes through which ideologies of the domestic take shape.
Tough Love contributes to the ongoing discussion of gendered identity and sexual desire in the early modern period. It will interest students of queer theory, cultural studies, early modern history, feminism, and literature.
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Amazon Encounters in the English Renaissance
By Kathryn Schwarz
Duke University PressCopyright © 2000 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Falling off the Edge of the World: Ralegh among the Amazons
The Amazons are still further off: I doubt beyond the region of Truth; if the title be properly meant of such as are described. —Samuel Purchas, Hakluytus Posthumus
When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four
In a letter describing his first voyage, Christopher Columbus offers the following catalogue of persons.
Thus I have neither found monsters nor had report of any, except in an island which is the second at the entrance to the Indies, which is inhabited by a people who are regarded in all the islands as very ferocious and who eat human flesh ... they are no more malformed than the others, except that they have the custom of wearing their hair long like women ... These are those who have intercourse with the women of Matremonio, which is the first island met on the way from Spain to the Indies, in which there is not one man. These women use no feminine exercises, but bows and arrows of cane, like the above said [cannibals]; and they arm and cover themselves with plates of copper, of which they have plenty. In another island, which they assure me is larger than Española, the people have no hair. In this there is countless gold, and from it and from the other islands I bring with me Indios as evidence.
The passage exemplifies a particular kind of new world voice, which mingles the claims of proximity and hearsay to demonstrate that it speaks the truth. A fabulous population, heard of but not seen, introduces a land identified by a mistake; the narrative conflates female violence, male effeminacy, cannibalism, and wealth, and hopelessly blurs the distinction between finding things and hearing reports. As a later account of the voyage makes clear, Columbus describes what evades him: "[Columbus] passed by many Ilandes: among the whiche was one called Matinina, in whyche dwell only women, after the maner of them, called Amazones."
The process of "passing by," paradigmatic for accounts of new world Amazons, suggests a larger point about exploration narratives. As they connect knowledge and even acquisition closely to failure, amazonian quests play out tensions between the impulse to explore and the claim to discover. These quests, like exploration more generally, are governed by an uneasy relationship among representational strategies, yoking figures of possession to figures of endless pursuit. As mythical objects, Amazons can never be found, identifying the edge of knowable space by remaining just beyond it. But for explorers they are also linked to all the objects that can be found, from gold to cannibals to women to land, and stories about them invoke not only frustration but the richness of presence. In The Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov writes, "Just as for modern man a thing, an action, or a being is beautiful only if it finds its justification in itself, for Columbus 'to discover' is an intransitive action." Amazons preserve this quality of the intransitive, ensuring that ambition is never satisfied, possibilities are never exhausted, the end of the quest is never reached. Yet there is serious materialism behind the belief that Amazons have what explorers want.
Stories about Amazons in the new world reflect the doubled and to some extent contradictory workings of metonymy as a narrative trope. Metonymy is in one sense closely akin to synecdoche, using a part or attribute to signify a thing or things and assuming a natural and recognizable relationship between the representative and the represented. The examples listed by one dictionary of literary terms—"'The Stage' for the theatrical profession; 'The Crown' for the monarchy; 'The Bench' for the judiciary"—indicate that metonymy offers access to objects or concepts through aspects that can be felt, seen, and understood; metonymy in these instances symbolizes constellations of ideas through their associations with specificity and presence. But metonymy is associative in another sense as well, indicating the impossibility of full presence and signifying that which cannot be comprehended or reached. The term then describes an endless progression along a signifying chain, in which moving from one reference to the next proves only that the object remains elusive. This is the version of metonymy that Lacan describes in "The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious," defining it as "being caught in the rails—eternally stretching forth towards the desire for something else."
Lacan's description seems more apt both to Amazon quests and to exploration narrative as a discursive form. The process of exploration depends on the frustration of desire, and Amazon myth is symptomatic in its perpetuation of quests and quest narratives: mountains, rivers, winds, storms, the threat of enemies and the orders of authorities intervene between the Amazon discoverer and his discovery. More than this, epistemology intervenes; knowledge of a new space is fundamentally incompatible with its occupation by Amazons. Describing the quest for El Dorado in terms of this kind of metonymic logic, Mary Fuller writes, "We must say not that we have arrived but that we have reached some point of exhaustion." Amazons are past that point, representing the last—and inevitably missing—link in the signifying chain.
But to understand exploration narrative only in these terms is to ignore the fact that explorers and their patrons are deeply invested, in all senses of that word, in the end of the quest. Through their close association with other objects of desire, Amazons function metonymically in the representative as well as the elusive sense of that term, compelling interest in exploration by promising its translation into discovery. The pursuit of Amazons implicates and symbolizes more obviously material goals—gold, land, women who don't fight back—and the fact that Amazons themselves remain not only hard to find but epistemologically opaque proves irrelevant. If finding them would stimulate belief in a further constellation of desirable objects, almost finding them has much the same effect.
André Thevet writes of American Amazons, "Some may say, that they are not Amazonists, but as for me I judge them suche, seeing that they live even so, as we finde the Amazonists of Asia to have lived. And before passing further, ye shall note, that these Amazones of which we speake, are retired, inhabiting in certaine Hands which are to them as strong holdes, having alwayes perpetuall warre with certaine people, without any other exercise, even as those of whom have spoken the Historiographers." Thomas Gainsford registers a far more skeptical response to "Amazons, as supposed to flie hither, when the Kings of Europe repined to see women the equall sharers of honour amongst them"; he writes, "But for my owne part, I rather suppose it the error of ignorant Cosmographers, who when they cannot, or dare not certainly deliniate a countrey, then will they fill up a place with monsters and formidable creatures both men and women." Mythological historiography and geographical inaccessibility prove two points at once, both authorizing amazonian presence and making it manifestly unlikely. Such interpretive disparities characterize the responses that early modern explorers, their readers, and their editors have to the question of Amazons, but even the most outraged disbelief only reinforces fascination with its object. Texts in which explorers claim experience, editors append doubt, and readers express incredulity do not cancel out Amazon encounters but redouble their production of narrative.
The quest for Amazons occurs at an intersection of conflicting desires. Amazonian stories are at once too familiar not to be true and too strange to be believed, reflecting a mixture of motives: Is discovery about revelation or recognition? Even as they claim the privileges of novelty, new world narratives reason by analogy, so that objects found or imagined are contextualized by and referred to objects already known. From the interpretation of native languages to statements about sovereignty, marriage, and exchange, exploration narratives construct a new world that signifies in old ways. Familiarity and strangeness intersect, conflating home and away and creating tension between moments of discovery and presumptions of knowledge. At stake is the process that translates exploration into conquest: as an anticipatory revision of the unknown, recognition becomes a statement of possession, translating objects from things that are strange to things that can be had. Amazon encounters, at once impossible and well-known, become shorthand for a larger uncanniness in which mapping familiar stories onto strange places articulates a strangeness already present in the familiar. The pursuit of Amazons produces a doubled discourse that claims what has not yet been found, but at the same time threatens to alienate what is already possessed. Metonymy, I have suggested, is the synecdoche of desire, the taking—in all senses of that word—of a representative object to consolidate objectification as a process; but metonymy is also the process of desire, Lacan's "being caught in the rails." As amazonian pursuits in the new world make clear, it is at once a possessive figure and the figure for loss.
STILL FURTHER OFF
Abby Wettan Kleinbaum describes 1542 as "The Year of the Amazon in America." In that year, Francisco de Orellana took a party from Gonzalo Pizarro's expedition and sailed into a notorious confrontation, of which Gaspar de Carvajal gives this account: "It must be explained that [these Indians] are the subjects of, and tributaries to, the Amazons, and, our coming having been made known to them, they went to them to ask help, and there came as many as ten or twelve of them, for we ourselves saw these women, who were there fighting in front of all the Indian men as women captains, and these latter fought so courageously that the Indian men did not dare to turn their backs." Carvajal struggles to recreate the immediacy of the encounter: We have seen the Amazons, and there were twelve of them. But the moment of recognition immediately inspires doubt, as one early skeptic's summary suggests, "Francisco de Orellana, in descending the river, had some skirmishes with the Indians inhabiting that shore, who were very fierce, and in some parts the women came out to fight, with their husbands. On this account, and to make his voyage the more wonderful, he said that it was a land of Amazons, and besought His Majesty for a commission to conquer them."
The language of wonder evokes the power of Orellana's experience, but wonder itself appears as something constructed, a deliberate manipulation of response. Stephen Greenblatt writes of new world encounters, "The expression of wonder stands for all that cannot be understood, that can scarcely be believed. It calls attention to the problem of credibility and at the same time insists upon the undeniability, the exigency of the experience." Orellana claims that undeniability; the river must be "Amazon" because the Amazons are there. But Greenblatt's "problem of credibility" is there as well, and even for Orellana himself the name becomes a source of rather than a response to the immediacy of the thing. He pursues not Amazons but Amazon myth, extracting it in all its classical detail from a prisoner he interrogates; Carvajal assures the reader, "He now understood him by means of a list of words that he had made" (219), but whatever the efficacy of that list, foreknowledge structures Orellana's questions and, it seems safe to imagine, the answers as well. "The Captain asked him what women those were ... The Captain asked him if these women were married ... The Captain asked him about how they lived ... The Captain asked if these women were numerous ... The Captain asked if these women bore children ... The Captain asked him how, not being married and there being no man residing among them, they became pregnant" (220). Todorov writes of Columbus, "He knows in advance what he will find; the concrete experience is there to illustrate a truth already possessed, not to be interrogated according to preestablished rules in order to seek the truth." Orellana, like Columbus, knows what he wants to know. His information concerning Amazons depends less on a sporadically intelligible captive than on mythographic cliches; his questions do not elicit a narrative, but reveal one.
That narrative has always been subject to critique. Cristobal de Acuna writes of Orellana's discovery, "Time will discover the truth," and with time skepticism has only increased. For recent historians, Orellana's Amazon encounter is an aberration in an otherwise credible history, a flight of fancy from a prosaic text. José Toribio Medina traces doubts about the entire account to the presence of this story: "As the existence of these women could be nothing but a fiction, a serious charge was raised against both Orellana and his chronicler for having sponsored a fable destitute of all verisimilitude." Boies Penrose refers to the river's name as "the misnomer which has survived through the centuries." Paul Herrmann blames not the narrator, but widespread cultural fallacies, concluding, "We have no reason for branding Gaspar de Carvajal, Archbishop of Lima, as a shameless liar." But however thoroughly the episode has been discredited, it cannot be repressed; if the Amazon encounter is a fiction, a misnomer, and a lie, its effects are tangible. The river has had a number of names, including Marafion and Fresh Water Sea; Samuel Eliot Morison records that one explorer called it the Ganges, and it was even, briefly, called after Orellana himself. Yet "Amazon," inspired by women whom few but Orellana ever believed were Amazons at all, is the name that persists.
If no one believes that Orellana has found the Amazons, this does not mean that no one believes in Amazons. Rejection of easy and accidental discoveries preserves them as at once evasive and useful; doubt drives exploration forward; skepticism informs the need to find and find out. Closely linking failure to the promise of future success, Amazon quests produce a pragmatic opportunism already acknowledged in the first critique I cited: having seen the Amazons, Orellana "besought his Majesty for a commission to conquer them." Material optimism produces such artifacts as the Amazon Company, a trading company founded in the early seventeenth century. Accounts of its founding refer indistinguishably to "the Amazon" as a river and "the Amazons" as a population; Amazons may not be the goods to be traded, but they provide tacit assurance that those goods are there. In what seems suggestively like nominal determinism, the company fails, but "Amazon" continues to signify the presence of desirable objects. Greenblatt describes a causal connection between awe and acquisition: "The marvelous is a central feature then in the whole complex system of representation, verbal and visual, philosophical and aesthetic, intellectual and emotional, through which people in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance apprehended, and thence possessed or discarded, the unfamiliar, the alien, the terrible, the desirable, and the hateful." Amazon quests follow the fault lines of these processes, conflating the impulse to possess and the need to sustain a state of mystification.
Such ambivalence returns to the metonymic doubleness with which I began. Association with Amazons lends objects value, but Amazons guarantee value most effectively when they escape the condition of possession. If this is paradox for the sake of paradox, it is not mine; claims about amazonian discovery repeatedly take back as much as they give away. Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo promises "an account of the dominion of Queen Conori and the Amazons, if Amazons they ought to be called." A chapter in an account of Prester John is headed, "Of the kingdom of Damute, and of the great quantity of gold there is in it, and how it is collected; and to the south of this are the Amazons, if they are there." At once linked to geographical specificities and veiled by epistemological doubt, Amazons both appear and recede through fantastic associations. Not only do they live next to Prester John; according to Mandeville, they are also the keepers of the lost tribes of Israel. A marginal note in Samuel Purchas's collection titled Hakluytus Posthumus describes "An Unicorn or Asinus Indicus not that which Painters present with home in the fore-head. Amazons." Mandeville writes "Of the Land of Job, and of his age; of the array of men of Chaldea; of the Land where women dwell without company of men; of the knowledge and virtues of the very diamond." In the region of Amazons, anything is possible, and the result is a collection of fabulous objects that are not out of the question but just out of reach.
Excerpted from Tough Love by Kathryn Schwarz. Copyright © 2000 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Kathryn Schwarz is Assistant Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.
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