contributor.author: George D. Greenia

title.none: de Looze, Pseudo-Autobiography in the Fourteenth Century (Greenia)

identifier.other: baj9928.9806.011 98.06.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: George D. Greenia, College of William & Mary, gxgree@facstaff.wm.edu

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: de Looze, Laurence. Pseudo-Autobiography in the Fourteenth Century: Juan Ruiz, Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Pp. xi, 211. $49.95 . ISBN: ISBN 0-813-01507-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.06.11

de Looze, Laurence. Pseudo-Autobiography in the Fourteenth Century: Juan Ruiz, Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, and Geoffrey Chaucer. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Pp. xi, 211. $49.95 . ISBN: ISBN 0-813-01507-3.

Reviewed by:

George D. Greenia
College of William & Mary
gxgree@facstaff.wm.edu

Good books, they say, raise more questions than they answer, and in this intriguing book that truth becomes literal. In some chapters -- on Juan Ruiz, for example -- there are long stretches where the interrogatives on the page seem to outnumber the statements. But these are clearly important questions, artfully deployed, refreshingly lucid, compelling. Pseudo-Autobiography seems poised to preside over a large segment of the current critical forum on medieval studies.

Laurence de Looze's central questions deal with fictional presentations of the self. This is not another tired genre study but a very tough and savvy examination of the truth value of any supposed projection of subjective realities through the conventions of literature. He is certainly right to begin by challenging notions of 'genre', categories gutted by postmodernism and largely irrelevant to medieval authors. Too bad that autobiography since Romanticism (and certainly since Freud) has acquired a whining, pleading character as alien to Machaut and Chaucer as it would have been to Abelard and Augustine before them. A recent critic could admire Norman Mailer for being his own supreme and most persuasive fiction, and still complain that "so ambitious and gifted a novelist has been most successful in quasi-autobiography . . . rather than in the novel itself" (Harold Bloom, "Norman Mailer's Testament," The Washington Post Book World [May 24, 1998]: 10). De Looze helps us question whether pseudo- autobiography should not be prized as a supremely reflective register in its own right.

The modern example I invoke does not violate de Looze's own interests. One of his more telling points of departure is the tension modern readers can live with in a work like Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. After portions of her narrative first appeared in print, the author had to confront the contradictory testimony of her family and friends, so she offered in a later book version additions reflecting on her now admittedly revised memories. De Looze rightly asks "Does McCarthy's [double] text cease to be autobiographical, and if so, at what point -- when she discovered her factual errors, when she announced them publicly, or when she published different versions of the same historical events?" (23). The autobiographical pact between writer and reader shares some assumptions with other literary forms, but also throws into deeper relief, and sometimes into jolting alternation, the confusion between what readers are expected to take as uncompromised invention or accept as literal truth. The standard reasons scholars of medieval literature have offered for this sort of discourse -- playing hide-and-seek within the humility topos, or dodging the censors -- come up short in de Looze's views. Gifted Spanish, French and English authors of the fourteenth century were capable of highly complex ways of churning their (erotic) pseudo- autobiographies into more deeply textured and pleasingly complex challenges to their audiences.

I am a Hispanist by training, and therefore grateful that de Looze moves freely beyond the pretenses of traditional Northern hegemony -- that French and English letters are the only medieval ones we need to read. That fallacy provincializes "Channel" literature and makes its students less read elsewhere since one tends to doubt the universality of their conclusions. His brief chapter on Juan Ruiz's Book of Good Love cuts through the massive bibliographical backlog to the most informative precedents for his concerns: Marina Brownlee, Dayle Seidenspinner-Nunez, and most of all John Dagenais's magisterial The Ethics of Reading in Manuscript Culture (Princeton, 1994). De Looze shows how two segments that have hardly concerned critics about their biographical truth (the dona Endrina episode, and the archpriest's confrontations with the lusty serranas, both derived from well-known sources) are in fact good places to examine how Juan Ruiz manages to keep his autobiographical pretense not only alive but vividly in sight. It's a masterful case of snagging the reader with the autobiographical bait: we are so amused by the possibility of Juan Ruiz recounting his personal adventures that we tag along when he requires us to put up a struggle to stay convinced.

The author argues that "the fourteenth century is a period of considerable hesitation regarding the dominant codes underpinning society" (103). This might well be debated, but at least three of the four targeted authors (Machaut, Froissart and Chaucer) wrote in the same literary milieu and the last two almost certainly knew each other. The chapter on Machaut fields an engaging discussion of the fiction of an author's life trajectory mapped onto the pages of his authorized manuscript. De Looze reminds us in a perceptive endnote

. . . how effectively Machaut has succeeded in harnessing the illocutionary power of autobiographical discourse. Even though we may choose to read his works as fictive in most instances, as soon as we need to know something of his life we switch our generic orientation and reread the works for their autobiographical value. Is there any great tribute to their status as pseudo-autobiography? (173, n. 11)

Similar insights are laced throughout the seductive chapters devoted to Jean Froissart, with his exasperating relativism (127), and Geoffrey Chaucer, with his "his life as an articulation of texts" (134). Devotees of these specific medieval writers will mine these pages with pleasure and surprise, and de Looze deserves much credit for handling the "hard core" philological detail with as much confidence and perception as the broader critical issues that tie his book together.

In the end the reader starts to wonder about the truth value of a good deal of first-person expressions elsewhere in medieval letters and outside the fourteenth century. Troubadour poetry is an obvious example, especially that large corpus of lyric composed in fictive women's voices. Or the Marian miracle stories in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which are all ventriloquized under the voice of the patron, Alfonso X. His first-person testimonials to the Virgin's more celebrated interventions are intercalated with incidents that Alfonso himself witnessed and even miracles worked for his personal benefit. And there are occasional songs which truly seem to flow from the king's own pen and not just emerge from the royal mask shared among his court poets. How much in these 420 poems is autobiographical, either historically or spiritually, and how much a template for communal piety, a moveable autobiography, as it were?

Avoiding autobiography seems to be just as hard. Apart from histories and legal codes, intrusions of the self-designed 'self' are often the raw stuff of literature. The only counter example that comes to mind is Celestina, the 1499 dialogue novel without so much as stage directions. But the triumph of the work is that every character is devoted to inventing a self to strut, often disastrously. And Fernando de Rojas, the historical author who felt compelled to pile on extra introductory and concluding essays (universally regarded as dispensable bookends to the immortal drama itself), is anxious to confect an authorial persona who is both enchanted with his raw materials, that anonymous first act that he found by chance, and worried about the susceptible and wounded young friend to whom he directs his efforts.

Counting typographical mistakes when reviewing a book is an outdated and school-marmish practice, although it did perhaps offer some objective way to gauge reviewers' value judgements. This volume is scrupulously free of errors, even to this picky editor's eye. (Well, okay: "Evesque" on page 169, line 6 needs an accent; I don't care for macaronic insertions in quotations: "the 'cancion ... [being] en fuerte oposicion...'" on 171, line 13; I don't think one should use foreign words like histoire, recit and hors-texte without italics.) My own quibble is splitting the "Works Cited" into six sections, forcing the reader to scan all six to find a given bit of bibliography. Since de Looze uses the insights of modern commentators on one medieval work to enlighten the discussion of another, and since the listings for Juan Ruiz and especially Chaucer hardly pretend to be representative, let alone comprehensive, they could have all been merged into a single set. This apparent will to precision is sometimes abandoned in casual internal references to whole books or authors (e.g., Hernadi on 69). Finally, like all modern critics it seems, de Looze takes liberties with language and neologisms in ways that are only sometimes enlightening (cupiditous, 'minim-al pair'). Some of this is playful teasing, but some successfully teases us away from our conventional presumptions and throws a new light source on a well known object.

In an age of much ephemeral criticism and "analysis by recipe," this meaty and elegantly voiced volume will provoke discussion and response for a long time to come. De Looze has taken us on a long, bracing run, brought us to new vistas, and helped us to place this fresh landscape on new maps.