Eugene Vance

title.none: Jager, The Tempter's Voice

identifier.other: baj9928.9410.008 94.10.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Eugene Vance, University of Washington

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1994

identifier.citation: Jager, Eric. The Tempter's Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. Pp. xviii + 336. ISBN: ISBN 0-8014 2753-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 94.10.08

Jager, Eric. The Tempter's Voice: Language and the Fall in Medieval Literature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993. Pp. xviii + 336. ISBN: ISBN 0-8014 2753-3.

Reviewed by:

Eugene Vance
University of Washington

Over the past two decades, historical approaches to grammatical and semantic theory, to rhetoric (or pragmatics), and to semiotics have become major areas of exploration in medieval studies. Interest in such topics began to flourish not only as the grip of philology loosened in the '60's, but also as the faith waned that general linguistics might be a master-science emancipated from history and the key to all other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. Among literary scholars, much of the initiative in the historical explorations of linguistic theory has come from Britain and America, and it has provided a rich vein of critical insights into all aspects of medieval culture.

During a millennium of medieval culture— from Augustine to Ockham— concerns about the functions and limits of human speech remained prominent in medieval intellectual life. How is this metadiscursive intelligence refracted through "literature"? Eric Jager's book is the latest addition to a growing body of criticism devoted to this and related questions. It goes almost without saying that Jager's subject, language and the Fall, is intrinsically interesting because it is built on a story of sin and retribution, but no less because it draws attention to ethical and psychological dimensions of verbal action; so too, issues of gender become insinuated into the virtues and failures of homo loquens, his spouse, and her eloquent false friend, Satan.

Jager has approached his material not only from the standpoint of an intellectual historian, but also from a that of a literary critic well embued with post-structuralist theory. He has drawn with abundant acknowledgment on the work of a handful of medievalists who share his concerns, and he has made an original and resourceful contribution of his own.

Jager's study is centered upon the vast metalinguistic problems raised by Genesis 3. "The Fall...was the archetypal crisis of knowledge, authority, and hierarchy, and what had happened in the school of Paradise had weighty import for the whole culture of discourse, not only in the church and institutions of learning but in society and the domestic sphere.... the Serpent's question about God's command, and the ensuing discussion about the meaning of God's word and the significance of the forbidden fruit, suggested that the Fall was also centrally concerned with signs, texts, and problems of interpretation" (3).

In his introduction, Jager gives a lucid overview of his purpose in a book that covers a broad range of material, yet turns out to have considerable thematic coherence. The book is divided into two parts. The first is devoted mainly to Augustine, "with separate chapters on the Fall as a paradigm for doctrine, hermeneutics, and eloquence..." (18). Part 2 deals with "the medieval reception, use, and transformation of patristic ideas about language and the Fall," and, instead of attempting an over- arching history of the topic, Jager wisely deals with specific authors or works, and in good, old-fashioned chronological order. After Augustine, English literature forms the main core of Jager's critical investigation. Thus, part 2 includes studies of Old English writings, specifically, Genesis B (ch. 4), the Ancrene Wisse (which is nevertheless compared with the Middle French Livre du chevalier, ch. 5), and Chaucer's Merchant's Tale (ch. 6).

Chapter 1 deals with the notion of Paradise as a kind of late classical and early Christian school, also allegorized as the Church, with God as teacher. Within that school, a hierarchy of knowledge is established between Adam and Eve, with the Serpent signifying Satan, and the forbidden fruit, heresy. After exposing Ambrose's and Augustine's interpretations of Genesis 3, Jager turns to the late 5th-early 6th century Latin poet, Avitus of Vienne to show how, with his Poematum de spiritalis historiae gestis, the story of the Fall passed into a robust medieval poetic tradition. Since I do not know this work, it is difficult for me to assess Jager's claim that the poem enjoyed a wide influence on medieval poetry dealing with the Fall. Nor do I get any sense of what Avitus contributes specifically to the myth of the fall, of what elements of that contribution become influential to later poets; still, Jager has done us a favor by drawing attention to an interesting but little-known work.

Chapter 2 traces the relationship between the Fall and hermeneutical error: "Essentially,... Augustine viewed the Fall as the primary scene for the human culture of signs" (53). Though humans had used signs before the Fall, with the fall, the function of signs changed because the inner word became impaired. I think Jager overstates the case when he says that the inner word (or what we now call mental language) was, for Augustine, entirely "lost" (57). In the De trinitate, Christ as Verbum and as Second Person is taken as a figure of the human intellect, whose very action even after the fall transpired as mental language. With the Fall, however, came the labor of understanding, made all the more arduous because of the materiality and temporality of signs— a statement that should be qualified, since mental language is neither material nor temporal, but natural to the soul. As for language as a vehicle of interpersonal communication, Jager is perhaps on sounder terrain when he says that "For patristic authors, the Fall marked a transition from the spoken to the written— or, in modern terms, from "orality" to "literacy"— a distinction cutting across both divine and human discourse" (61). The fig leaves became equated with books, while skin garments become equated with the letter and finally with the veil that obscures the meaning of the sacred text. The couple Adam and Eve introduce highly charged models of gender to models of reading, with Eve serving as a figure of the text. Jager shows how these ideas lead into the construction of Augustine's conversion in the Confessions, though, in my opinion, falling a little short of the potential for a solid reading of that work that his subject offered.

Chapter 3 connects Augustine's interpretation of the fall with eloquence. In this interesting discussion, Jager shows how the actions of persuasions and seduction amount to a rhetorical "scenario": "Just as a psychological 'fall' occurs when appetite usurps authority over reason within the soul of the individual, so a rhetorical "fall" occurs when the speaker's or listener's pleasure in verbal delight takes precedence over rational functions such as teaching (or being taught) the doctrine of the truth" (103). Without denying the connections that Jager finds between the promise of delight in the Fall and the subversive potential of eloquence, I am not entirely happy with his hasty treatment the De doctrina christiana. To his disadvantage, Jager mistakes the dating of the finished text (427 C. E.) with that of its inception, which was 396 C.E. The dating is important, because the year before the undertaking the Confessions, Augustine interrupted the De doctrina christiana to write what is essentially the story of his life in language. Jager is a sensitive reader of Augustine, but with a correct scheme of dating in mind, he could have found much more continuity between the Confessionsand the treatise that immediately preceded it. One danger of Jager's topic, compelling as it is, that it can lead us to forget that the very same faculties that become corrupted with the Fall are the very same faculties that allow a fallen human will to redeem itself. Thus, the subversive side of eloquence is stressed by the Confessions, while its redeeming potential is expressed in the De doctrina christiana and in the Contra Cresconium,and elsehere.

So too, the grammarian's oppression and vanity depicted in bk. 2 of the Confessions is diametrically opposed, in the life of the soul, to the positive powers of grammatica as evoked in the De grammatica and the Soliloquia. And, just the pleasure of tropes in Cicerionian suavitas becomes salutory when we interpret the Song of Songs, so too, the difficultas of intellectual labor becomes sweet as Augustine begins his exegesis of Genesis in bk. 11 of the Confessions. My appeals for a balanced perspective on Augustine's intellectual values should not be allowed to cloud the real intelligence that Jager shows as he follows linguistic problems raised by the Fall through the text of the Confessions. His writing is balanced, lucid and articulate.

Chapter 4, on Genesis B, starts by stressing how this poetized Biblical text, laced as it is with a Patristic understanding of the Fall, points to this event as a crisis of signs and interpretation, as well as of rhetoric (147). However, Jager goes on to suggest that the political position of orthodox Augustinianism was now threatened, not only because of pagan invasions, but because of questions arising from within the Church itself, particularly in the courts of Charlemagne and Charles the Bald. The poem, according to Jager, "mirrors the attitudes of the continental and English clerics involved in writing biblical poems in the native oral style while striving to transcend the traditional ethos of the latter" (149). He shows how, in the context of monastic culture, the tension between written and oral cultures made monks eater to circumscribe oral tradition (155). "Thus, Genesis B equates the fall with fallible oral-mnemonic tradition by dramatizing that such a tradition is vulnerable to error and misrepresentation" (156). This is a thesis likely to exercise a considerable number of medievalists who tend to idealize "orality" as a condition of truth rooted in human presence: is it possible for a learned poet might employ written "oral" poetry to subvert (the myth of) orality? Jager makes his case well, with a close analysis of the temptation scene as a pragmatic performance, concluding that "Oral tradition is a fallen medium, Genesis B suggests, not only because it is vulnerable to tampering but also because it creates its own compelling versions of reality that cast a spell over the minds of its recipients" (165). This statement will make more than a few medievalists choke. So much better, Jager is bringing a subtlety to thinking about such cultural categories that is badly needed, and he is carrying back into a much earlier period Brian Stock's skepticism about the integrity of orality that he acquired by studying the eleventh and twelfth centuries in his powerful book, now a classic, The Implications of Literacy. Jager is a careful and close reader of texts, and he constructs his arguments cogently, daring though his conclusion is: " Genesis B turns the Fall into a tragedy of oral tradition" (188).

Chapter 5 moves "from the precincts of the monastery to a wider sphere. We are invited to consider how the Fall was used during the later Middle Ages to interpret and regulate verbal culture as it related to not only religious but also social and domestic matters, particularly in the lives of women" (189). Jager selects two works to illustrate his thesis, the 13th c. Ancrene Wisse, writen for women in seclusion, and Le livre du chevalier de la Tour Landry, written in the late 14th c. by a French nobleman for his daughters, who were destined for a life in society. "Tending to focus on the dynamics of language, these cautionary tales assert a large degree of control over women's bodies, mental life, and conversation. Moreover, these tales typically construct their female audience, the vulnerable 'daughters of Eve,' according to certain ideas about language, the feminine, and the Fall that were founded by the church fathers and that descended through an exclusively male literary tradition into the Middle Ages" (191). Accordingly, "both books draw on the rich tradition of marriage and seduction topoi based on Genesis 3" (192). They reflect, as well, the later medieval focus on piety as an inner process. So too, the increasing importance of private space within the medieval household favored women, offering them more opportunity to be by themselves or to spend more time with female friends. Still, medieval stereotypes about women persist. Thus, "The two books discussed here represent women as irrational, appetitive, sensual, gullible, vain, and fickle— in short, as embodiments of the "lower" part of human nature and hence as needing the guidance of fatherly, husbandly, or priestly authority" (195). Discussions follow of Eve's ear as an orifice of seduction, then of the eye and mouth. Talkativeness is what took the worst toll as it attacked the ear, especially when the seducer's speech drew on courtly lyric and complaint (209). In the Ancrene Wisse, "desire is not only represented by language but also constructed by it" (209). Moreover, even edifying words can be corrupting when it deals with sexual sins (213). Even the rite of confession, in its quest for naked truth, carries dangers of its own— for instance, incitements to lust for nakedness of another sort (218).

The Livre du chevalier, according to Jager, sustains "special emphasis on verbal and sexual matters" in its discussion of Eve's faults or errors (220). Jager proposes that this book not only brings clerical traditions of misogyny to bear upon poor Eve, but a late feudal lord's worries about the politics of land tenure and social class. Jager goes on at length to how the anatomy of sin in Eve bears out this aristocrat's worries about the moral instruction of his daughters— with Eve as the constant negative example.

The final chapter, devoted to Chaucer, is the one that will perhaps find the biggest number of impassioned readers. Stressing Chaucer's orthodoxy as an heir of Augustinianism, Jager also rings some very modern bells: "In presenting the Fall mainly as a literary seduction, and one that takes place specifically through private letters, Chaucer dramatizes the sexual politics of script as well as the role of writing as representation" (242). This bias reflects the rise of lay literacy, and the "emergence of the general reader" (243). And with this creature, came phantasms about his or her dismal origin as it is refracted through the division of labors (and thought) in Adam's household: "In this constellation of ideas, Adam was the first namer, the first to wield a hoe or spade, the phallic progenitor of the race, and hence the symbolic inventer of letters or the first scribe. Eve, for her part, bore children and made cloth, progeny and textiles, both symbolic symbols for texts" (244). One of the good things about his subject is that it really does lead naturally into discussion of such issues: they are not simply dumped on the material Jager discusses. Sidling up slowly to the topic of his last chapter, which is "textual abuses in the Merchant's Tale," Jager draws on some useful landmarks in Dante. Then he summarizes the main events in the tale that interest him (which contain few surprises), before he starts dealing more closely with Damyan's letter to May as his first example of "textual abuse" which is also "a symbolic rupture of January's marriage" (262). From the "pryvee" where Damyan's letter ends up we suddenly move to a discussion of the Temptation as a "privation," a move that I find just a bit forced, clever though the discussion is. With the discussion of the "literal fornication" in January's garden, we get briefly into a mainstream before getting back to the "privy"— "privy communication", "private signs and writings," the private garden as "private property." Though I find the "privy" chain a bit strained, the discussion is suggestive and fun. When Jager gets back to the more serious issues about the typological games going on in January's garden, his arguments are astute: "As a symbolic and typological site, the pear tree figures the ancient links between writing and trees, especially between writing and the Fall, a crisis viewed by medieval culture as the ultimate genesis of script or letters. Aptly, the carnal letter finds its culmination among the shady leaves ( folia) of the tree, traditional emblems for concealment, illicit desire, and spiritual death as embodied in 'fallen writing'" (282). This is a plausible argument if you believe that the ghost of Augustine is haunting this whole tale— as I certainly do. As January regains his sight, May "pulls the smock of language over his eyes plunging him back into darkness" (285).

The book closes with a far-reaching glance at ways in which the ideas of this book animate future chapters of Western literary culture, and I Jager's fleeting insights are interesting and suggestive. What I most like about this book is its grasp of a cluster of ideas that is profoundly medieval and tenaciously coherent. This cluster was always at work in the production of medieval culture, but is hardly lost from our own.