contributor.author: Anne Berthelot

title.none: Kimmelman, Poetics of Authorship (Berthelot)

identifier.other: baj9928.9703.012 97.03.12

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Anne Berthelot, University of Connecticut, aniuszka@aol.com

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997

identifier.citation: Kimmelman, Burt. The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Pp. 288. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-820-42856-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.03.12

Kimmelman, Burt. The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona. New York: Peter Lang, 1996. Pp. 288. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-820-42856-6.

Reviewed by:

Anne Berthelot
University of Connecticut
aniuszka@aol.com

According to its title, Burt Kimmelman's book intends to study the formation of a self-conscious persona of the author inside its works through the Middle Ages. He argues, in agreement with the accepted notions about this period, that on the one hand, the idea of authorship is not at the center of medieval preoccupations about literature, on the other hand that between the 13th and the 15th centuries this topic comes to be one of the most important, and can serve as an epistemologic tool for approaching medieval thought and literature. After a brilliant introduction, "Alterity and History", which posits the problem and draws a general picture of the situation at the start of the period, four chapters endeavour to show how the developments of philosophy interact with the progress of literary devices, and how some special authors, chosen apparently for their high relevance to the main topic of the book, deal with the contradictions and difficulties of the mere notion of authorship: Chapter 1 gives an encompassing historical perspective, Chapter 2, "The Poetics of the 'I'", address the issue in regard of the Troubadour Marcabru. Chapter 3, "The Poet as Text, the Text as Name", is mainly focused on Dante's dealing with the same questions, while Chapter 4, "Poetic Voice, Poetic Text, Thematics and the Individual", constitutes, so to speak, the main dish of this study, dealing mostly with Chaucer, and Langland's Piers Plowman. Three short appendices convey further information about some details discussed in earlier chapters; an exhaustive list of "Works Cited" (the contents of which, however impressive they are, do underline the gaps in Kimmelman's information), and an Index conclude the book, and make it very easy to consult.

The basic ambition of the book is to read literature through philosophy, or to discover the influence of philosophy in literary works. Although the distinction beteween the two categories is indeed rather less noticeable during the Middle Ages than in later periods, it remains a rather dangerous and paradoxical approach to texts, since, with the possible exception of Dante, none of the "literary" authors considered has the makings of a philosopher. They are, of course, educated men who have heard of the new theories, or read the new books. But they definitely choose to write fiction works, or poetry, not treatises of philosophy. So the results Kimmelman comes to are very often either truisms, or far- fetched--and not very convincing--conclusions.

Another problem arises from the choice of texts upon which Kimmelman builds his reasoning: on the one hand, there does not seem to be any real coherence, any "fil rouge" going from Marcabru to Langland through Dante and Chaucer. As often, one has the impression the author has decided to make a book with several unrelated monographical studies. As understandable, these studies do not always focus on the main topic of the book, and do seem to lead the reader astray. However, in this case, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that the selected four authors belong to time periods, and to linguistic areas, widely varying. In other words, it is somewhat artificial to link Marcabru with Chaucer or Langland, and Langland with Dante.

A further problem arises from the fact that Kimmelman's choice appears to be largely arbitrary. Marcabru is not the only "troubadour" who addresses problems of enunciation in his works; he is not even the one who does that the most consistently. As for the rest of the book, Kimmelmann completely omits any references to French Literature, except for one or two passing allusions to the Roman de la Rose, the entire construction of which is, nevertheless, at the heart of his own topic. Due this "selective blindness", some of Kimmelman's arguments look like the proverbial mountain giving birth to a mouse.

This effect is deepened by the sometimes curious translations of the quotations: translations of Latin, Old Provencal, and Italian seem often slightly biased to fit better in the frame of Kimmelman's theory. Admittedly, there are as many interpretations of Dante's verse as there are translations of it, but the ones Kimmelman privileges do not seem quite convincing in many respects. There are no translations provided for Chaucer's or Langland's quotations, which is understandable if one supposes this book is intended only for English Literature specialists, but it does seem as if Kimmelman wanted to address a wider issue and to reach a larger audience.

The last two paragraphs of the Afterword ("The Middle Ages and the Modern Persona") do reveal the crux of the matter: what Kimmelman is looking for is a "mirror" for the modern (the word comes back with an alarmingly high frequency in the last pages) notion of authorship. According to the author's own words, what he is interested in is an "extensive probing into the nature of modern fiction," and one has too often the impression that some medieval writers--and not necessarily the most relevant in this area--are taken hostage for a modern, or post-modern, research without any true interest in the possible specificity of the Middle Ages. It is not necessarily in favour of this literature to simply erase its originality by affirming, which should be quite evident, its "modernity".

As a whole, Kimmelman's book seems to me rather biased and not very useful. However, as a casebook for Dante, Chaucer or Langland, it is indeed a valuable contribution to late medieval studies. And Chapter 1, "Text and Word, History and Fiction", is a truly remarkable study on the evolution of the ways of thinking, from an Augustinian point of view to an Anselmian one. Although it is risky to apply philosophical theories to literature, in this case, the relationship Kimmelman describes is very much enlightening. The analysis he gives of the new conceptions introduced by Ockham and his followers, and of the manner in which ontologistic principles relate to grammar, is also one of the strong points of the book, far more convincing than the strictly literary readings.