Joseph Parry

title.none: McGerr, Chaucer's Open Books (Parry)

identifier.other: baj9928.9906.009 99.06.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Joseph Parry, Brigham Young University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: McGerr, Rosemarie P. Chaucer's Open Books: Resistance to Closure in Medieval Discourse. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. Pp. x, 210. $49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01572-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.06.09

McGerr, Rosemarie P. Chaucer's Open Books: Resistance to Closure in Medieval Discourse. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. Pp. x, 210. $49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01572-3.

Reviewed by:

Joseph Parry
Brigham Young University

Rosemarie P. McGerr wishes in Chaucer's Open Books: Resistance to Closure in Medieval Discourse to understand the ways that Chaucer's poems "implicitly or explicitly work against resolution" in the context of medieval "models of closure and resistance to closure" (11-12). Ambitiously assessing all of Chaucer's poetry and surveying an array of medieval sources and traditions, McGerr contends that such a comprehensive project is necessary in Chaucer studies because our sense of the openness of Chaucer's poetry, though frequently addressed in specific studies, has been "hampered" both by Chaucerians' "overlook[ing] the wide variety of medieval literary texts and critical commentary in Latin and the European vernaculars" that contextualize Chaucer's own "resistance to closure," and also by scholars' "reluctance" to engagm "modern and postmodern approaches to closure and openness" (ix). Accordingly, after she introduces her argument, she begins thu study with a broadly conceived, but suggestive chapter that both surveys the theory and the practice of closure in the textual traditions that contribute to medieval "literary theory," prominently the ars poetica, ars dictaminis, and ars praedicandi traditions, and also samples instances in medieval music and the literary genres of the debate and the demande d'amour to demonstrate that "resistance to closure did, in fact, occur in medieval literature" and to illustrate how this resistance emerges from a sense of openness and ambiguity about the world that modern theorists, such as Frank Kermode, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and even Umberto Eco, impute only to post-medieval literatures (43). In her next six chapters, McGerr ranges through all of Chaucer's poetic works, devoting a chapter to each of the three early dream visions, a chapter to Troilus and Criseyde, one to The Legend of Good Women, and one finally to The Canterbury Tales, to "examine the pattern of subverting closure in Chaucer's poems and the relationship of this subversion to central issues within these poems" (2). Her reading of Chaucer is guided by her sense that Chaucer's work is structured to encourage "retrospective reading" (153), that the "ends" of his writing (both his aims and the actual conclusions of the poetry) are to prompt us to reconsider and revise the ways we constitute meaning and completeness, and thereby discover how Chaucer embraces multiple points of view in order to offer "a challenge to readers to recongize their roles as interpreters" (155). McGerr's chapters on the early dream visions share a common interest in the way that each poem's structure, especially when read against preceding dream visions, attracts attention to our inability to understand mortal existence conclusively within the terms that mortality makes available for our understanding. For example, The Book of the Duchess builds into itself in multiple ways a doubled consciousness (e.g., the dreamer's and the Black Knight's point of view, the Knight's "literal" description and his use of courtly love conventions to describe his loss, etc.), but offers in its conclusion no reading of the dream, which becomes a way for the poem to invite us to become aware of poetry's dual power to locate "patterns that give insight into the relationship of mortality to eternity, flesh to spirit, and sign to significance," but also to "reveal the limitations of that power" (59-60). The particular use of double-perspective in this one poem, McGerr claims, is Chaucer's "transformation" of Machaut's Jugement du Roy de Behaignge and his Jugement du Roy de Navarre. The House of Fame employs a host of images and structures of circularity to encircle its readers into a continual "process of review and revision" (74). In the way the text uses its authorities (Virgill Claudian, Ovid, Dante), in its "reiterative" beginnings and endings to the poem's three books, and in the specific character of its apparent unfinishedness, the poem "repeatedly circles back on and mirrors itself, as though to return the reader back to its beginning" in which Chaucer problematizes the dream vision's claim to authority" (62). The Parliament of Fowls reenforces in its conclusion its Bakhtinian "polyvocalic poetics" not only by deferring the resolution to the debate about the right mate for the formel, but also by having the birds sing a roundel which "reflects the balance between continuity and closure that the end of the dream creates," and "more important," the harmony of which "results from the song's polyvocality" (83). Here again, Machaut figures as "an important model" for Chaucer, this time in his double and triple ballads (79). In her examination of Troilus and Criseyde, McGerr turns to a close examination of some of the more resonant instances of Chaucer's and his characters' play with semantic ambiguities and rhetorical strategizing, assisted by Dante and Geoffrey of Vinsauf, to illustrate how "the poem'w exploration of how meaning relates to ending pervades every level and thus provides a backdrop for its other concerns" (97). Further, Chaucer's conclusion, far from replacing a fallen, false perspective with a truer, enlightened vision in Troilus's retrospective judgment on human cares and concerns, only renders more intensely "the ambiguities about means and ends and the tensions between amor and caritas" that drive the poem throughout (117). Joining Harold Goddard and Donald Rowe, McGerr contends in her reading of The Legend of Good Womenthat the poem's final line as we have it, "This tale is seyde for this conclusioun" (2723), is its "true conclusion" (119), and stands as a final emblem to the "ironic" character of the narrator's own comments on "the ends he pursues" in the poem "because they reveal the tension between the tales he recounts and the interpretation he imposes on them" (126). This irony resides in "a parallel" Chaucer creates "between the narrator's tyrannical treatment of his sources and the poem's depiction of manipulation of women by treacherous men" (127). Finally, McGerr looks at Chaucer's "Retraction" to discern how an ending that seems to "close the discursive space opened up by most of the text," especially Chaucer's citation of Romans 15:4 -- "'Al that is writen is writen for oure doctrine,' and that is myn entente'" (X.1083) -- actually invites us to reopen the text and "encourage[s] us to view our experience of the text as an ongoing one of rereading or reinterpretation" (132). The Canterbury Tales is "designed," for McGerr, to "posit a parallel between the functions of memory and literature" (141). Chaucer's use of the term "Retraction" alludes to Augustine's Retractationesin order to allow the poem as a whole "to interrogate Augustine's arguments about the workings of memory, experience, and reading" (133). Attuned to this process of interrogation, and the reader's key role in this process, McGerr finds that The Canterbury Tales is particularly interested in "interrogat[ing] its capacity to lead us to good" and evidences this interest in its self-conscious relationship to the Bible. At key moments (especially Fragment VII and in the relationship between the "Parson's Prologue and Tale" and the "Retraction") the poem "parallels" itself to the structure of the Bible itself -- its beginning and end, the retelling of Jesus' life in four gospels -- "to point to an essential paradox of openness and closure in the Bible text that has led to an ongoing process of scriptural exegesis" (148). The perpetual reopening of the text that we experience reading the whole poem, reenforced by the "Retraction," enables us, McGerr argues, to "gain the perspective needed to understand that our best attempts to discover the truth about an issue must remain on the level of appreciating ambiguity until we escape temporality and gain the perspective of eternity" (153). McGerr's book is, in her own words, an act of "appreciation" for the way that Chaucer involves us in his poetry's interpretive processes (156). The strength of the book lies in its fundamental sensitivity to the way that Chaucer reads to illuminate and complicate the act of reading. McGerr shows that she is a perceptive reader of Chaucer, especially for me in her chapters on The House of Fame and Troilus and Criseyde, and each of her readings offers rewarding insights. Her gestures at situating Chaucer within medieval traditions of openness and closure are suggestive, but (and here's the weakness of the book) her attempt in one hundred eighty-two pages (notes included) to explore her topic in Chaucer's entire canon of major narrative poetry -- granting that the chapter on The Canterbury Tales focuses particularly on the "Retraction" -- prevents her from pursuing carefully her very desire to read Chaucer "implicitly and explicitly" reading, transforming, and thematizing his predecessors' implicit and explicit "ends." The chapter on The Canterbury Tales was particularly frustrating not only for its, again, suggestive, but finally unsatisfying treatment of complex intertextual issues, but also because she keeps the poem itself at arm's length, something she did not do (to admirable effect) in other places. In fact, at times she needs to read the sense of closure she imputes to Chaucer's sources with the same care and sensitivity she displayed when reading Chaucer's (the dream vision genre, in particular). The broad scope of her project also prevented her from pursuing her secondary aim of engaging with "modern and postmodern theories of closure and openness." Her arguments are inspired by the spirit of Reader-Response criticism, and she shows sensitivity to some important gender issues throughout the book, but she simply does not fulfill her design "to explore the links between modern and postmodern texts and theories" and medieval literature on her subject (x). Work with such figures as Eco, Smith, and Kermode, and also Wolfgang Iser, Robert Adams, and Bakhtin has some promise in McGerr's hands, as it has for many others who have worked with them for the past few decades. Yet she leaves me with many questions and concerns about how she would constitute postmodernism, if she had broadened even further her sense of relevant theories to include other figures that spring more readily to mind when one mentions "postmodernism." She intrigued me with her observation that "postmodern theories of openness have not for the most part attempted to distinguish between the inherent or implicit openness of all texts and the qualities that allow some texts to appear more explicitly resistant to closure than others" (2). I am uncomfortable with the absoluteness of her claim about postmodernism, but I readily agree that there is much good work yet to be done with medieval literature in the spirit of the distinction McGerr makes here that will enrich not only medieval scholarship, but literary scholarship in general. Finally, perhaps because she set herself such a far-reaching task in this book, but also because she can impressively examine and elucidate the nuanced motions of Chaucer's poetry, I found myself wanting her more directly to address topics which seem integral to her central interests, but which, admittedly, would have added even more bricks for her to carry in her sack. For instance, it seems useful and, to me, necessary for her to talk more, and encounter scholarly opinion more, on the old, interesting issues of Chaucer's narrators -- irony, self-irony, naivete, etc. -- and how those issues are certainly part of the "patterns" of Chaucer's narrative ends. But I still think McGerr's book intrigues because she makes me want her to address those issues.