title.none: RESPONSE: Kimmelman on Berthelot on Kimmelman

identifier.other: baj9928.9708.005 97.08.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X


publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1997


type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 97.08.05

Reviewed by:

Professor Berthelot has written an incisive review of my book The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages; it is, nevertheless, somewhat misrepresentative. In places she is wonderfully perceptive and insightful, and throughout she is eloquent. I am quite grateful for her analysis generally, in certain respects in admiration of it. However, I feel she does not, overall, paint an accurate picture of my work.

Her review contains a few obvious errors, such as when she states that the book covers the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries. Actually, the book concentrates on a time span from the late eleventh through to the end of the fourteenth century (though fifteenth-century figures like Hoccleve are also discussed). She also finds that no French literature is covered. It is true that French texts are not examined at great length (more on this later). But a poem by Deschamps is fully analyzed; the Chanson de Roland is dealt with, as are Chretien, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, while people like Froissart and Machaut are mentioned briefly. My book also discusses two Middle High German lyrics by Reinmar von Reuenthal and Walther von der Vogelweide, respectively, and the Cosmographia by Bernard Silvestris. As well, a number of troubadours are considered --other than the principles Guillem IX and Marcabru, who take up a great deal of attention--along with the trobaritz La Comtessa de Dia.

Professor Berthelot rightly points out the special relevance to my study of de Lorris and de Meun. If I could do it over again, I would include some extensive analysis of the Roman de la Rose. Yet, finally, such discussion would only be in support of three critical turns in my argument: Marcabru, Dante, and Langland. De Lorris and de Meun cannot really be a critical turn. Here is why:

While it is true that the Roman presents a marvelous permutation of what I refer to in my book as the "authorship trope," the poem does not represent a fundamental stage in its evolution. The trope is defined rather strictly. This is not to deny that the works of other authors display various of its attributes. Indeed, Jean's references both to Guillaume and to himself are of significance, but they are not fundamentally different from the sort of reference Marcabru indulges himself in when he names himself in his poems and discusses the problems and triumphs of composing songs; nor do Jean's references attain to the coalescing of name and poetic vocation within a poetic persona as can be seen in Dante's Commedia.

The argument of my book is that there was a development of the authorship trope, which was aided and abetted, and most likely instigated, by contemporaneous ideas. Self-naming, for instance, can be seen to have been an outgrowth of a theological/philosophical fascination for, theorizing about, and privileging of the noun (especially the proper noun) over any other part of speech. Poets played around with this viewpoint in their work. These poets were intellectuals. Contrary to Berthelot's assertion that only Dante was in any real sense a philosopher, Marcabru and Langland--and Chaucer, whom I also examine at length--were steeped in philosophical thought and explored that thought in their works. I think my book amply demonstrates this contention.

Berthelot points out that troubadours other than Marcabru were more engaged in this self-referential activity. No doubt this is the case, but I single him out because his work represents the very first instance of a fully elaborated stage of the authorship maneuver, insofar as he names himself as well as talks about the problems of making poetry, essentially about the problems of language. Guillem IX (Berthelot completely neglects to mention my treatment of him) precedes Marcabru, and my book shows how the elder poet lays the groundwork for the emergence of the first fully articulated occurrence of the authorship trope.

Dante's work is, incontestably, the next stage of the trope. The persona of the Commedia is a poet, and the degree of self-reflection, of reflection in the poem on the act of making verse, is appropriately more developed than what we see in the troubadours--any of them--and more developed than what we see in the Roman. I do see now, thanks to Professor Berthelot, how the Roman could have helped me to illuminate Marcabru's poetics, and those of Langland and Chaucer. The poem can be, perhaps like no other, quite useful in making vivid certain elements in fourteenth-century English poetry. The Roman's allegorical format anticipates Piers Plowman; its setting can only be the source of the like setting in Chaucer's Prologue to the Legend of Good Women. Professor Berthelot reports that in my book I am "dealing mostly with Chaucer" not Langland. Yet in my fourth, large chapter, I devote approximately twenty-five pages to Chaucer, and thirty-one pages to Langland; other pages include both poets. She appears to miss the point I make about Langland's poem being the final stage in the evolution of the medieval authorship trope. Why Langland instead of Chaucer? The final stage, as seen in Langland's poem, adds to that configuration found in the Commedia the element of rhetorical theme. That is, I am claiming (as others have) that Piers Plowman is about the problems of exercising volition, exercising the will. Hence, I contend that the poem's persona, Will, struggles with the choice to compose the poem in which he appears, and basically with the choice to be a poet. I hasten to point out that, in essence, my thesis does not depend on there having been a real William Langland, although if one considers the arguments I make about Marcabru, Dante, and Chaucer (and let's add de Lorris and de Meun to this list), then the possibility of an actual William Langland may seem more likely. But what matters is that name, metatextual discourse, poetic vocation and theme, have been brought together within a single linguistic embrace. And, furthermore, what matters is that this embrace is reflected in contemporaneous philosophical developments (or is prompted by them).

There were, albeit they go unmentioned by Berthelot, other likely candidates for my "authorship" study, who are of great significance in literary history: Chretien and Petrarch. They escape extensive scrutinization, as I carefully explain in my introduction, because they do not fit the narrowly defined "authorship trope" as I needed to construe it. I won't take the time here to provide details as to why they don't fit; I do explain my decision explicitly and fully in my book, I believe.

The stages of authorship as demonstrable in Marcabru, Dante and Langland comprise the spinal column of my study; they are that by which my discussion progresses. They are unequivocally and explicitly enumerated as such. I don't know how Professor Berthelot could have missed this. To be sure, she seems to ignore my basic premise. On the other hand, she acknowledges its validity. She says that my argument is "far fetched" and implies that I have been tendentious. For instance, she says that my book contains translations into English that are questionable, that have been chosen by me to support my arguments, while alternative translations would not have been so supportive. Here I can only reply that no translation is ultimately adequate, and that in writing my book I depended, whenever I could, on the translations of others. I translated poems or prose passages only when I had to. There were not, usually, choices of translation, and anyway I was trying to work out my arguments from original texts, so if a translation happened to support my cause--well, then, good. In one or two cases, conversely, I chose translations that were not as sympathetic as others, simply because my instincts (particularly in the case of Greek texts--I have no Greek) told me they were more reliable.

As for the complaint that my thesis is unbelievable, I can only surmise that Professor Berthelot may have been looking for me to prove some other point than the one I was after. I don't know, except that what she takes away with one hand, she gives back with the other. For example, she writes that my book seems to contain "several unrelated monographical studies [which may] lead the reader astray. . . ." She must see hetero- instead of homogeneity, because of her basic position that "to read literature through philosophy, or to discover the influence of philosophy in literary works [is] a dangerous and paradoxical approach to texts . . . ." Still, she concludes her review by saying: "As a whole, Kimmelman's book seems to me rather biased and not very useful. However, as a casebook for Dante, Chaucer or Langland [not Marcabru?!?], it is indeed a valuable contribution to late medieval studies."

Furthermore, she says of my first chapter that it is "a truly remarkable study on the evolution of the ways of thinking from an Augustinian point of view to an Anselmian one." And then, surprising to me, she continues as follows. "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."

I submit that those readings, if understood in the context of the authorship trope's successive stages, which parallel stages in the evolution of later medieval theology and philosophy (as demonstrated in my book's discussions of Anselm, Abelard, Aquinas, Ockham, and others), are at least adequate. As does the book's introduction, which Professor Berthelot calls "brilliant" (I won't contest this assertion), the rest of the book rests on relating philosophy to literature, I would hope in ways that have not squelched the life out of poems.