The Medieval Review 12.04.19

Kordecki, Lesley. Ecofeminist Subjectivities: Chaucer's Talking Birds. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. 230. $85. ISBN 978-0-230-11527-9. . .

Reviewed by:

Isabel Davis
University of London
drbeldavis@gmail.com

More should be written on Chaucer's talking birds, who are crucial commentators on some of the poet's central themes, as this book notes- -themes such as voice, nature, mimesis, grief, reading, and the woman question. This book proceeds, as one might expect, with an introduction laying out its approach and then five chapters, each of which focuses on the main poems in which talking birds appear: The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls, The Squire's Tale, The Nun's Priest's Tale and The Manciple's Tale. It closes with a concluding "Epilogue." Two main arguments thread through the book which I shall consider in more detail below: one is about the relationship between women and animals or nature; the other is about Geoffrey Chaucer and his part in representing women and animals. There are some suggestive approaches: charting, for example, the balance of authority between vision and voice within Chaucer's work, considering the gender politics of Chaucer's animal characters, asking about Chaucer's theories of the natural; all are potentially fruitful lines of inquiry. The book begins, in the first sentence, with a good question: "What possible advantage can there be in reading Geoffrey Chaucer's poems of talking birds in an ecofeminist way?" (1). However, the rest of the book does not satisfactorily answer it, being undermined by a number of foundational problems.

In a discussion of The Manciple's Tale, Ecofeminist subjectivities makes an interesting link between Alisoun of Bath's question: "Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?" and Chaucer's retracted and lost "Book of the Leon." This is a suggestive place to consider the missing voice of the animal "other" which Kordecki uses to consider Phebus' censorship of his pet crow (123). The impossibility of accessing animal voices or subjectivity is thus sensibly acknowledged in a number of places: "the larger agenda of the definition of the nonhuman cannot be the focus here" (9), Kordecki writes. The book is underpinned by the premise of the Wife of Bath's question: that women and animals share an experience of oppression by, and objectification in Western patriarchal culture. Ecofeminist Subjectivities sometimes records that Chaucer is limited by his own masculine and human subjectivity (eg 6), a part, then, of that programme of oppression and objectification. However, there is also another, counter argument which runs through this book which continually works to contradict those limitations. Kordecki writes: "[w]e again observe Chaucer playing with possibility, probing voice, and challenging discourse's censorship of animals and women" (57). Chaucer, she says, "Lets the animal world into the equation" and, "[i]n the poems examined in this study he did something rather strange. He became, for a short time, these unusual speakers" (143). The conclusion to the book insists that Chaucer allows us, "through nonhuman discourse, a brief foray into the domain of the untapped other, oftentimes associated for better or worse with women" (153).

The following is an example of how these arguments work in practice, from the chapter on The Nun's Priest's Tale:

Despite the charm of the tale, the stakes are high, for Chanticleer is fated to become a meal for the villainous fox. As a part and parcel of the portrait of the rooster, the masculine procreator of the species, there is also his domesticated condition. This fact troubles the comparison to humans and their speech, for he supplies a need for his meat-eating, or at least pork-eating, owner (2845). Human devouring of domesticated fowl such as chickens is nothing new, but we are rarely in the position of the consumed bird. In this story we are in that position and are led to imagine that in the end the danger has been defused: Chanticleer in his male glory, the supreme cock, with his valued sperm and voice, will now enjoy a long life free from human consumption. Yet, we reflect that his "wives"--the female commodities--perhaps will not, when their egg-laying days are over. These hens may well be slaughtered, again showing the gulf between animals and humans in stories where women are represented in this case by the even more vulnerable female animal. (105)

This passage suggests a fate for the chickens which is hors texte. Within the time of the tale Chaunticleer is not actually "fated to become a meal for the villainous fox," nor are Chaunticleer's wives sent for slaughter. Furthermore, whilst Chaunticleer worries about the "beast" in his dream, that is, a threat from the animal kingdom, none of the animals in the story expresses an anxiety about their part in the human food chain, in spite of the incidental detail about the widow's taste for pork. There are animals in medieval literature who think about that prospect. For example, in animal will and testament poems or as in the Middle English lyric "By a forest as I gan fare," in which a hare narrates his own death and consumption: "With leeke-wortes I am eete anone, / And whelpes play with my skine!" [1] In Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale, however, Chanticleer and Pertilote are engaged with other struggles and so this tale is not really about that.

Another problem is that, contrary to what is suggested here, egg production is actually predicated upon the near universal slaughter of male chickens; Chanticleer rules the roost because all his brothers have been eaten. Furthermore, cocks, as well as hens, are culled for age; there are plenty of cockerels, after all, with which to replace older, waning cocks. My point here is partly about birds and that a book interested in the way they have been farmed might know a little more about it, but also about the gendered assumptions which underlie this mistake. As this paragraph admits at the outset, Chanticleer and his wives are threatened (although it is him, rather than them who almost gets it in the story), and their main threat comes from a fox (male) and, elliptically perhaps, from their carnivorous owner (female). In this story then, male and female animals, might be oppressed by both male animals (although Russell the fox might equally have been Renate) and female small-holders (although the tale's widow might equally have been a widower). Whilst it is one thing to suggest that women have an affinity with animals and nature because of their shared cultural subjection, it is another to suggest that males, even male animals, are always dominant and invulnerable, or that female animals are more susceptible than male; while meat can clearly come from animals of either sex, meat-rearing holds back more female animals for reproduction than males. Further, meat-eating or, more broadly, a utilitarian exploitation of animals is not more associated with masculinity, although Kordecki intimates, without definitively arguing, that it does (105).

The book establishes a flat, oppressive power which is sometimes referred to as "the patriarchy" (eg. 110) and sometimes, "the discourse" (eg 57). Chaucer alone, like a sort of medieval Dr Dolittle, stands outside of this programme of domination, getting us close to, if not quite into animal and female subjectivities. Given the suspicion of Western cultural traditions in this book, and its purported reliance on iconoclastic theorists like Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray and Val Plumstead, it is something of a contradiction that it holds on to the liberal humanism which identifies Chaucer as set apart: "the first great English canonical writer" (21), who writes "delightful" (103) lifelike tales and who does so "marvelously" (6). Indeed, the first paragraph of the book establishes that one of its main agendas is to confirm the value of reading Chaucer:

What we now are probing is how the alterity of the animal is not entirely suppressed, and how Chaucer, in some odd ways, then is "becoming animal" in his search for his own voice. And this is good news, for it becomes one more reason why we value these texts. (1).

It is difficult not to like Chaucer, of course, but surely his part in using animals to think through human problems, a project which this book decries (eg 14), should not only be admitted and, I think, forgiven but should also be enough. After all, anthropomorphism is all we can find in literary texts, no matter how sincere or sophisticated their authors are at imagining animals. If we want to find real animals we must become zoologists and, even then, we will be hampered by our own species difference. This project, then, sets itself an impossible task when it says that: it "strives to reassert the literal nonhuman" (4) even in an investigation of the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer.

This problem raises the question of: why Chaucer? Why not look at actual birds? Why is Chaucer's poetry, rather than anyone else's, the place to find the "literal nonhuman"? An answer to this is attempted in Ecofeminist Subjectivities, in brief source studies which always conclude that Chaucer does something wholly unique within the written tradition. So, for example, in the chapter on The House of Fame, Kordecki explores exegetical and bestiary precedents; Chaucer, however, "puts these traditions to better use" (25-26). At the same time, Chaucer's relationship to Dante--which perhaps is more germane to the poem and its talking bird--is dismissed as having been discussed before (35). Similarly in this book, there is a curious silence about other crucial prior texts, like Alain of Lille's De planctu Naturae or Jean de Meun's continuation of the Roman de la Rose, which are not only an important part of Chaucer's citative range, but also dramatize theories of nature. Chaucer's contemporaries, too, are interesting and subtle in their consideration of the natural. Langland's dreamer is an eager ornithologist and, in Piers Plowman, Nature is not gendered female. Neither are the birds dismissed or exploited in that poem; the dreamer, indeed, wishes people were more like them (B text, passus 11). There are also a lot of other speaking birds in non-Chaucerian texts--as for example in bird debate poetry--whose voices have had to be ignored to make this a study of Chaucer's isolation. Such an engagement might have discovered Chaucer's participation in, rather than necessarily his advance on, intricate and established discussions about the human relationship to nature. Ecofeminist Subjectivities argues that medieval people thought differently to modern people about animals (13-14) but never draws out that difference in any credible way, removing Chaucer from his times and any taint of the traditions of Western thought, which this book caricatures and then rejects.

Nature is understood in this book as "the universal abstraction that opposes the human or the cultural dimensions of life"; nature is thus always subordinate to "Western philosophy" (7). Aristotelian arguments which deploy the "natural" to confirm convenient social and political arrangements-like, for example, slavery or an asymmetrical gender system-are never acknowledged. Furthermore, whilst the book deplores a prevailing "reductive universal" (6) within whose logic woman is to nature as man is to culture, a separatist understanding of nature as a benign, passive victim of "patriarchal culture" unwittingly buttresses what it purports to demolish. If culture and history, forces of contingency, are always phallocentric, how can they be relied on to reorder those ideologies which rest on supposedly fixed patterns of "nature": blood lineage, say, or anatomical sex difference? Indeed, this book looks for the essential voices of women and animals in Chaucer's work as if his effacement of his textuality really does enable us to access the "real." So, even as Kordecki introduces the subject of Chaucer's engagement with his literary sources, in The House of Fame, she pulls away from it, arguing that the eagle guide in that poem is "marvelously alive" and suggests "pursuing his animal nature rather than his literary precedent" (35). Ecofeminist Subjectivities makes the argument in several places that Chaucer moves away from the "truths handed down in written tradition...to the truths gleaned from active, confrontational, and contemporary voices" (53) and strengthens this idea of the voice outside of text by twice thinking that Chaucer is "peeking around" established written tradition (18 and 19).

Exactly how Chaucer evades these boundaries is not clear. A great deal of the book is written in a conditional voice, which always defers its conclusions as if uncertain of them. A habit of the book is to argue that, whilst it might "seem" that Chaucer is doing X, and whilst that "could" be read as Y, Chaucer "has more to offer" (121) or "more to tell us" (55) (where X and Y observe the limits of traditional human perspectives). What exactly that something "more" is, is often diffusely presented. The insistence upon this something "more" is the premise of the whole book. Take for example this statement which remarks in parenthesis how key it is to the thesis of the book:

A nonhuman functions in Chaucer's poems as either an alien other or alternately as an assimilated self, or allegorized human, unless, and this distinction is crucial point of this study, Chaucer amplifies its subjectivity, as he does with his talking birds, in the full treatments granted to the eagle guide in the House of Fame, the debating birds in the Parliament of Fowls, the lamenting falcon in the Squire's Tale, and most extravagantly Chauntecleer and Pertelote in the Nun's Priest's Tale. His Manciple's Tale is the most telling of all, in that it brings to a close his experimentation with animal voice (10).

The list of the texts covered in the book makes this a comprehensive prcis of its case which amounts, then, to the statement that nonhuman characters are mostly presented by Chaucer from a traditional, human perspective unless that subjectivity is "amplified" into some unspecified "more." There is something elegiac in this quixotic search beyond the reasonable boundaries of our species. What is really lost in that quest, however, is not only a sense of what the writing or study of literature might realistically achieve but also a sense of Chaucer in his time, in discursive relation to his contemporaries and precursors which--human-centred though it might be--is a loss indeed.

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Notes:

1. See, for example, the piglet's last will and testament translated from the Latin by Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Medieval Latin Beast Poetry, 750-1150. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 299; Middle English Lyrics, ed. Maxwell S. Luria and Richard L. Hoffman (Norton: New York, 1974), # 134, pp. 123-25.