Arthur Lindley

title.none: Fyler Language and the Declining World (Arthur Lindley )

identifier.other: baj9928.0810.002 08.10.02

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Arthur Lindley , Institute for Advanced Research, University of Birmingham,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: Fyler, John M. Language and the Declining World in Chaucer, Dante, and Jean de Meun. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 306. $95 978-0-521-87215-7. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.10.02

Fyler, John M. Language and the Declining World in Chaucer, Dante, and Jean de Meun. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xii, 306. $95 978-0-521-87215-7. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Arthur Lindley
Institute for Advanced Research, University of Birmingham

The linguistic consequences of the Fall--our defective minds and language- -are the medium through which we understand and fail to understand all the other consequences (a.k.a. "reality"). This is the most fundamental of medieval subjects, and John Fyler has given it a book worthy of its importance. If it is not the final word on the matter, that is because, as Language and the Declining World constantly reminds us, last words, like first words, belong only to God. In the meantime, this book belongs on the reading list of any course dealing with language and authorship in medieval theology, literature, or culture. The first chapter alone should be required reading for all advanced students of medieval literature.

That chapter is a concise, subtle and learned account of language and the Fall in Genesis and in the long tradition of medieval commentary on it that descends from Augustine. This tradition (see pp. 3-4) describes not a single but a series of falls: from the Word that is with God and is God to the perfect but human and therefore limited language of Eden to the corrupted language that the fallen Adam passed to his descendents and finally to the division of languages at Babel. That last stage is, of course, on-going; language, like the rest of the creation, declines the farther it gets from its origin, a process that is reflected, for example, in the proliferation of occupations that engulfs the three representatives of the original estates-- Parson, Plowman and Knight--in Chaucer's General Prologue. "In the fallen world, language participates in the universal lapse into multiplicity and division" (99). Our language is, properly speaking, not fallen but falling, however much that process may be countered by Pentecost and "the wide transmission of the Gospel" (48). Precisely because of that ongoing decline, our linguistic culture incorporates both historicity--the awareness that "in forme of speche is chaunge"--and nostalgia for the original simplicity, clarity and truthfulness.

That clarity is beyond recovery, however, because the difference between Edenic speech and ours is one of kind, not degree. When Adam names the animals, his words somehow express what they are; there is no separation between signifier and signified. Fallen language, on the other hand, is both symbolic and arbitrary. The written word lamb designates a sound which in turn designates an animal which signifies a category (see 22-3). Different languages will use different words for different sounds for the same creature. Any language will attach any number of secondary and/or metaphoric meanings--an innocent, for example, or the Christ--to the same word. As Augustine everywhere insists, human language registers separation: of inner from outer, of self from other (Adam didn't need spoken words until he had to talk to Eve), of humans from nature, and especially of humans from God. Language is less that with which we communicate than that which we have in place of communication.

As Fyler notes, the linguistic Fall is (also) a fortunate one. It is the beginning of everything we recognize as thought, certainly everything we know as literature, a phenomenon whose point of origin can perhaps be found in the fallen Adam's renaming of his mate as Eva; that is, "woe," "life-giver," Ave reversed. Both the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales express "poetic delight, even revelling, in the centrifugal forces of multiplicity, and the difficulty of reining that multiplicity in" (52). The alternative response, following Pentecost and "the promised renewal of language by the Word as the world nears its end" (2), is Dante's pursuit of a redeemed and redemptive language in the Divine Comedy. The opposition between those two possibilities gives the book its structure.

After this brilliant and important chapter, the rather diffuse second--which traces Ovid's pagan myth of the evolution of language from the simplicity of the Golden Age; argues against the claims of John Fleming and others that there is any stable center of authority in the Roman; and discusses the complex relation of "obscene" words and their objects in the same poem--comes as a slight let-down. For all the subtlety and erudition of the arguments here, the Roman is somewhat peripheral to the book's primary focus on the contrasting responses of Dante and Chaucer to patristic theories of language. To be sure, "Chaucer's great medieval source for his ironic view of language is Jean de Meun" (70), but that still makes Chaucer the real subject.

Chapter 3, "Dante and Chaucer's Dante," has two primary intentions, both admirably fulfilled: to trace Dante's ideas on the history of language and to analyze the progress of language in the Comedy. The fact that the basic pattern of that analysis can be summed up by quoting Joan Ferrante-- "'we have the failure of language as a mode of communication in Hell, the unification of language in Purgatory, and the creation of language in Paradise'" (120)--suggests that it is less than wholly original. Nonetheless, Fyler's discussions of, say, the relation of Dante and Virgil, the changing role of fame in the three books, the place of poets in Purgatory, or Adam's account of language in Paradiso are consistently illuminating. In the latter section of the chapter, Fyler uses the observation that "Chaucer never tries for such effects of transcendence" (128) as Dante does to introduce a discussion of the House of Fame as a self-deprecating but also demystifying refusal of Dante's pursuit of higher truth and redeemed language. The fallen, unstable nature of language in that poem defeats any prophetic intentions of the author or his persona. A reinvented Babel is, we might say, no place for high aspiration.

Chapter 4, "The prison-house of language," focuses, somewhat selectively, on "the decay of language" (155) in the final sequence of the Canterbury Tales, from the Second Nun's Tale to Chaucer's final retraction: "a coda in which Chaucer takes us out of the realm of language and all other things, to the silence of death and eternity" (157). The body of the chapter contrasts the clarity, simplicity and rigor of 2NT with the hellish confusion, of things and words, in CYT, as "a movement from the Golden Age to the Iron" (158). Seizing on a key term of the latter tale, Fyler suggests it serves as an epitome of the whole. "'Multiplicacioun', whether of metals or of words, exemplifies the fragmentation of confusion of human experience" (172) in the world and the book, an effect he likens to Samuel Beckett (177). Whether or not one accepts this conclusion, Fyler's discussions of alchemy as an attempt to recover the Golden Age and of alchemists as poets are illuminating accounts of mental darkness. As many of us do, he sees Chaucer's refusal of closure and his abandonment of literature as a gesture of religious faith that responds to a despair at the failure of language to discover "a world of unity beyond or behind multiplicity and alienating categories" (179).

In the tradition Fyler is describing, you are either a Platonist who believes that words at least originally had an organic connection with what they signify, or an Aristotelian who believes that the meaning of any given word is simply a social convention that can change as the meaning of "gay", for example, has in recent years. If you are the latter, like Jean de Meun and Chaucer, you accept, cheerfully or despairingly, that fallen language is the inescapable condition of life in this world and that ultimate truth--or indeed reliable truth of any kind--is beyond us. If you don't, you write Paradiso in the hope of rescuing us from deconstruction. As you will understand, this formulation makes most modern writers and just about all modern critics children of Chaucer. It risks making Dante "medieval" in the bad, popular sense of "that which we have all agreed to reject."

Certainly, when I taught Chaucer after Dante in a graduate seminar on the evolution of medieval ideas of authorship, that is how my students wanted to react. Chaucerian irony, playfulness, skepticism, and indeterminacy were, after all, what they had been taught to recognize as the marks of real literature. Open texts, good; closed texts, bad. Perhaps defensively, I found myself formulating a Dante more unstable and abrasive than Fyler's seeker after redeemed words and final truths. The Divine Comedy may be a religious text, after all, but it is also an openly partisan political document, not to mention an avowed exercise in self-justification. The surest way to secure a place in Dante's Hell is to be his political or personal enemy. That is a fact no contemporary Italian reader could have missed. Scores are being settled. If you were a Ghibelline--or the Pope--you could not read his book as an impartial statement of religious truth. The political Commedia says at every point, I argued, "This is my truth. What's yours?"

I don't think, in other words, that Dante should be made as safely orthodox as Fyler tends to make him. We should never forget the extraordinary presumption of his blithe usurpation of divine authority. Whose judgments are being recorded here? And who is recording them? The very name "Dante" undergoes the process of multiplication and destabilization that words are subject to in the fallen world. There is, of course, Dante the pilgrim who coexists with and is viewed by Dante the narrator. There is also the historical Dante, whose life is continuously referenced throughout the work; not to mention Dante the author-figure, the one we reference when we talk about "Dante's" views or cite "his" authority. Fyler, who is elsewhere strikingly acute about the complexity and uncertainty of naming things and people, oddly takes this name as unproblematic.

What these Dantes see can be irresolvably problematic. Paolo and Francesca are in Hell, ultimately, because their murderer denied them a chance for absolution. Virgil has been condemned to an eternity in Limbo for the crime of having been born a generation too soon to receive the news of Christ. And, of course, nearly all the punishments in the Inferno are in human terms wholly disproportionate to their crimes. (That, after all, is what got Dante his reputation as a great hater.) None of these problems, to me at least, is resolved by the upward movement of the Purgatorio and Paradiso. At best, they are marginalized. The Divine Comedy is not meant as consolation, however, but as challenge. And as such, it is more "open," unstable, polysemous--to use the term first applied to it in the Letter to Can Grande -- than Fyler represents it to be. Significantly, Fyler never mentions the project of four- fold interpretation outlined in that famous letter. If he did, he might find himself with a more Chaucerian Dante than the one he constructs.

My response to the Chaucer material is less contentious: at the risk of sounding like Oliver Twist, I want more. In particular, I want more on the Parson's Tale in chapter 4. The Parson does indeed reject "the powers of poetical rhetoric," but does that really mean that "the only recourse is to brush away the web of words altogether" (157)? It's literature he is refusing, not language, and he goes on to expend a great many words on defining a/the/his/the Church's/whose? version of truth. I would like to know a good deal more about what Fyler thinks the Parson's role is in the final sequence of tales. Similarly, after several passing references to the "forme of speche" passage in the proem to Book II of Troilus, it would be nice to have some sustained reading of a poem notorious for its ambiguity about the exact historicity of its story. Of course, it notionally takes place in ancient Troy, but the Trojans read books on the fall of Thebes that haven't been written yet, lapse into Christian idioms, speak fourteenth-century English and, in the case of Pandarus, spout modern proverbs. They also enact a distinctively medieval romance. Even in the "forme of speche" passage itself, where we are assured that ancient lovers fared much as their modern counterparts do, the question of what changes, let alone declines, and what remains constant is central. Here, as with Fyler's treatment of the Tales, one who speaks so well about parts of a text ought to speak more about the whole. "Multiplicacioun" is central to the entirety of the Tales, not just those of the Yeoman and the Manciple. The on-going atomization of society into more and more specialized estates, each with its specialized point of view and its private language is the social subject of the General Prologue. It too is a re-enactment of the fall of Babel. It is every bit as directly related to the biblical texts and commentaries that Fyler discusses in chapter 1 as is the breakdown of communication in the final tales. I would willingly if reluctantly sacrifice the Roman chapter to make room for one that discussed the whole structure of the Canterbury Tales as thoroughly as this one does Fragments VIII-X. I would even more willingly accept a longer book. This is one of those rare works of criticism that no reader will wish shorter.