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Abstract

Authenticities East and West
March 30 - April 1, 2001

The Rhetoric of Love: A Comparative Study of Korean Kisaeng and Occitanian Trobairitz Lyrical Poetry
Lezlie Christensen (lac28@georgetown.edu)
English Department, Georgetown University


My current research focuses on two specific bodies of literature which, as they currently stand, might be more precisely described as the severed appendages of their once flourishing and intact bodies. It is hardly debatable that their amputated states are a direct result of a general historical lack of interest in literature written by women. The fact that these two literary fragments have braved between six to eight centuries warding off complete annihilation is, however, a tribute in itself to their relative staminas and pervasive cultural acceptance and celebration. I will analyze kisaeng and trobairitz conceptions of their own difference, their otherness as women; and argue that it is possible to read their poetic manipulation of the jargon of love as a form of resistance to the patriarchal systems which insisted upon such differences. My analysis of the Korean kisaeng along with the Occitanian trobairitz results from my perception of multiple factors that make the two particularly comparable:

a) kisaeng and trobairitz poems compose some of the earliest extant poetry written by women in both of their relative cultures. The existing poems of the trobairitz were written during the period spanning the years 1130 to the mid-thirteenth century, and while the kisaeng poems are more difficult to date precisely, I focus on those which were most likely composed during the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392) and the early Yi Dynasty (1400-1600).

b) Both the kisaeng and the trobairitz poets were educated women in their relative cultures, though for very different reasons. kisaeng were courtesans chosen from lower-class households by the government for their exceptional beauty and talent and were trained in "literature, social manners, and ritual music and dance" and sometimes in the sciences and medicine. The trobairitz, on the other hand, were members of Provencal aristocracy, "the very ladies at whose skirts the troubadours had knelt, the wives and daughters of the lords of Occitania." Though the precise academic regimens accessible to the trobairitz is somewhat questionable, their works combined with their occasional literary allusions attests to the fact that they had received substantial education in the poetic arts. Of comparative interest here is the somewhat unusual fact that both groups of women were educated at all. An overview of the Middle Ages and Koryo and Yi Dynasties suggests that neither Christianity nor Confucianism traditionally advocated or even allowed intellectual recourse for women outside of her household duties (and here I exclude monastic women). The poetry of the kisaeng and trobairitz, then, provides crucial fodder for comparison as they did indeed participate in intellectual communities of their eras and did so while occupying diametrically opposed positions on the social class spectrum.

c) The primary theme of both sets of texts is that of erotic love. The majority of their poems are in some way concerned with the power relations between men and women and the ways in which these relations are represented in poetic discourse and use the form and vocabulary of the love lyric to open up and participate in a dialogue about such power dynamics.

I consider it crucial to understand the complex relationship between author, poetic voice, and reader. A search for "authentic voices and experiences," as I define such terms, implies that such voices and experiences did at one point in time exist, however fleeting or fragmentary and in whatever form. I do not mean to suggest, however, that such core "authenticities" can be located or decoded by contemporary scholars. Yet to uncover as much of the authentic ideologies of the kisaeng and trobairitz as is humanly possible, through painstaking attention to the historical, social, and political circumstances under which they occurred and were recorded; while simultaneously remaining conscious of the differences between the author and her poetic voice (as well as my own feminist political agenda) forms the overarching aspiration of this study.

Lezlie Christensen received her BA in Literary Studies from Utah State University and will receive an MA in Literary Studies from Georgetown University in May 2001. She has edited Volume of Papers Presented at the 50th Anniversary of the Republic of Korea and Korean Comfort Women. Her Interests include texts of medieval and early modern European women; poetry of Koryo and Yi Dynasty Korean women; Heian Japanese women's novels, poetry and diaries; contemporary literary theory; and theories of tutoring writing. She has worked on medieval European women mystics, Julian of Norwich, and Hildegard von Bingen. She is currently writing a comparative study of kisaeng and trobairitz lyrical poetry for her MA thesis.

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