Robert Hanning

title.none: Condren, Chaucer and the Energy of Creation (Hanning)

identifier.other: baj9928.0003.021 00.03.21

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robert Hanning, Columbia University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Condren, Edward. Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of the Canterbury Tales. Gainseville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1999. Pp. viii, 295. $49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01679-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.03.21

Condren, Edward. Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of the Canterbury Tales. Gainseville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1999. Pp. viii, 295. $49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01679-7.

Reviewed by:

Robert Hanning
Columbia University

Reading Edward Condren's Chaucer and the Energy of Creation is a little bit like opening a time capsule, or perhaps (depending on one's point of view) like renewing acquaintance with someone long absent from one's life. Condren is an unabashed admirer of Chaucer as a poet who transcends his time to appeal of all ages by his poetic genius and humane wisdom. Accordingly, from Condren's perspective the Canterbury Tales (CT) reveals Chaucer's "evident love affair with the world he creates--a world he neither condemns, endorses, burdens with ideology, nor seeks to improve, but a world he shows as a dynamic, human, endlessly fascinating entity unto itself." (2) This opening assessment finds an echo in Condren's comment on the significance of the poet's prayer for forgiveness and salvation in the Retraction at the end of CT: "Chaucer's reward will come...for faithful service to the craft of love, with love here understood as authorial affection for the whole of humankind" (243, 242).

Condren's embrace of such an admiring, and universalizing, critical model cheerfully dismisses (or ignores) much of the most influential Chaucerian scholarship and criticism of the last 15 years. Which is not to say he does not know this material--it appears, albeit not with great frequency, in his notes--but rather that, if this book is a fair testimony, he is not attracted to approaches that seek to locate (and fix) the poet within the ebb and flow of the religious, political, or gender assumptions of his time.

In Condren's reading, the "dynamic...entity" that is Chaucer's created world manifests two organizing principles, which the poet understood through observation and intuition, but which modern science has conceptualized and articulated. One is "that elusive reality shuttles precariously between opposing forces whose very opposition brings that reality into being." (2) The other is that "all dynamic structures...eventually pursue one of only three tendencies...: entropy [or the "tendency toward disorder"], cybernetics ["a process of applying correctives to reach self-governance"], and synergy ["the process by which things in nature, under certain conditions, elevate themselves to a more complex order than they had belonged to earlier"]." (6-7)

The structure of CT that contains and activates these principles is in turn organized according to principles of both linearity and balance. Accepting "Ellesmere order " as an adequate indication of Chaucer's final plan for CT, Condren divides the text into two equal halves of twelve tales each. Within the first half there are two major blocks of material: Fragments 1 and 3-5, representing respectively the entropic and cybernetic tendencies (or "disintegration" and "confused stability" [172]), respectively. Fragment 7, in the second half, parades attempts (to be sure, often abortive attempts) at synergy (or "yearning for ideals" [172]). Of these blocks of tales, the first two are structured in linear mode, the first dramatically, the second thematically. By contrast, Fragment 7 exhibits a ring structure governed by poetic forms (illustrated on p. 17), which can be expanded to include Fragments 6 and 8 as well, although these outer fragments cohere on other than formal principles (as illustrated on p. 175). In addition, numerous other pairings within and between Fragments, and between halves of the poem, are possible within Condren's scheme.

According to Condren, Chaucer's inspiration for this complex and fundamentally complete poem was probably Dante's Commedia, the three cantiche of which embody in succession entropy (Inferno), cybernetics (Purgatorio), and synergy ( Paradiso). Chaucer in effect derived the structure of CT "by rotating, as it were, Dante's vertical axis where Paradiso is above and Inferno below..., to a horizontal plane with the tales of increasing disintegration on the left and those yearning for a new order of being on the right...." (172) This is a geometric translation of the well known contrast (now seldom made) between Dante's "Divine Comedy" and Chaucer's "Human Comedy".

The object of scrutiny in Chaucer and the Energy of Creation is thus CT as an autonomous verbal universe, not (in accord with much recent critical practice) as participant in and response to events and ideologies of its time and place. This verbal universe is accessible by means of formal and thematic analysis of both individual tales and larger patterns which undergird and bind together matching tales or groups of tales. The contrast Condren draws between Dante and Chaucer contains the implication that goals other than salvation are of interest to the Chaucerian enterprise. And, in the great tradition of Kittredge and Donaldson (and, mutatis mutandis, H. Marshall Leicester, Jr.), Condren proceeds on the principle that CT's pilgrims require judgment by psychological rather than religious or ideological standards--a principle that seems at times to overshadow, or undermine, the book's larger proposed interpretive paradigms. In fact, to this reader of Chaucer and the Energy of Creation yet another tension defines its structural dynamic: that between the impulse toward individual-centered, psychologically oriented close readings and the impulse toward an accumulation of governing themes that connect (and thus justify) those readings.

However judged (and there is no doubt many will find them over organized and under historicized), Condren's readings of individual tales and of pairings and groupings are often ingenious and instructive, and always burnished by his evident love of his subject (presumably nurtured over long years of teaching and contemplating it). A few examples of his critical procedures will, I hope, give an adequate sense of the book's perspectives and procedures.

Condren's commentary on Fragment 1 of CT shows him thinking primarily in thematic, and at times formalist, terms. (At one point [27], he suggests, using numerical analysis, that Chaucer did not intend to write more of the Cook's Tale because the sum of lines of The Knight's Tale is almost exactly double that of the remaining tales--but not the interstitial links--in the Fragment.) The Knight's Tale establishes a paradigm of hard- won, contingent human self-governance: the passage of the human mind from harmony to disharmony and back, as it loses, then regains, control over the passions. This process is subsumed in an allegory of youth (represented by Palamon and Arcite, whom Condren insists are to be understood as identical, not crucially distinctive), maturity (Theseus), and old age (Egeus): youth is governed by passion, old age by post-passion platitudes, while the mature state is marked by the ability to control passion and direct it toward the general welfare. The tale also dramatizes "the tension between man's actions and his largely futile attempts to explain those actions as something different from, and more important than, mere illustrations of nature." (35) (Nowhere, perhaps, is Condren's self-exemption from recent critical practice move evident than in his consistent avoidance of the gender-inclusive language now routinely inculcated in many college writing courses.) Having thus established a mode of interpretation for The Knight's Tale that eschews major recent considerations of the tale (e.g., by Robert Stein, H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., and Lee Patterson) as a commentary on politics or the institutions and ideology of chivalry), Condren includes the rest of Fragment 1 in an entropic paradigm: to create "the dynamism of the first fragment [,] Chaucer seems to have placed several themes in a coordinated relationship with each other: awareness of the points of view of others, order, joy, and clearly defined spaces. We notice, as we proceed through the opening four tales, that as each successive teller's awareness of viewpoints other than his own decreases, his tale's respect for order, as reflected in its observance of discrete spaces and regard for the boundaries between them, similarly decreases. There is also a marked decrease in the joy each successive tale contains." (55) The succeeding, brief considerations of the Miller's, Reeve's, and Cook's Tales offer a few instances in support of these generalizations.

The "central truth" of Fragments 3-5 "concerns the preeminent importance of language, specifically the moral necessity to express meanings in words that accurately convey those meanings" (165). Within this "truth" lurks another, expressed via a spectrum of human relationships. "Fragment 3 and Fragment 5 stand before us as unacceptable extremes, the former for its repulsive force, the latter for its unrealistic magic. Nestled between them, the tales of Fragment 4 [Clerk and Merchant] contain the only practical method of achieving human harmony: a constant working at the give and take of physically limited lives, a continual adjusting between a reality we cannot accept and an ideal beyond our grasp, to produce relationships based on mutual respect and care otherwise known as love." (149) For Condren the paradigmatic status of Fragment 4 results from two interpretive moves unlikely to command universal assent. Recapitulating his 1984 article, he reads The Clerk's Tale as an anti-Petrarchan version of the Griselda story, equating Griselda with Christ, endlessly patient in the face of temptations to abandon his (her) obedience to the plan of Redemption, while Walter (representing sinful humanity) makes "a slow experiential progress toward what others had known from the beginning, 'That she from hevene sent was, as men wende,/ Peple to save and every wrong t'amende' (IV.440-41)." (134-35) I wish Condren had defended his interpretation against the most persuasive recent reading of Griselda as a purely human exemplum of Christian patience-- Linda Georgianna's "The Clerk's Tale and the Grammar of Assent," Speculum 70 (1995), 793-821--which however appears neither in his notes nor his bibliography. Perhaps even more controversial is Condren's argument that The Merchant's Tale depicts January's voyage of self-discovery, from a distorted view of marriage to an understanding that it should be "neither a contract for services nor admission to a clean and easy terrestrial paradise...but a relationship fostered by love...." Condren supports the idea that "a duped January sincerely invites May to come down from her tree of ignominy, with the tacit understanding that they will both try to rise above their flaws to make a success of their marriage" by drawing a parallel between The Merchant's Tale, "standing at the exact center of Canterbury Tales," and the midpoint of Dante's Purgatorio (and therefore of the entire Commedia), where the pilgrim Dante learns to distinguish between cupiditas and caritas (146). As Condren puts it, "though very differently talented and placed in very different settings, January and Dante are fellow pilgrims." (147)

The psychological analysis practiced in Chaucer and the Energy of Creation focuses especially on how performances by certain CT pilgrims attempt to hide, but end up revealing, their deeper desires, needs, and shortcomings--a perception that prompts some of Condren's most enthusiastic readings and, indeed, some of his most extravagant prose. The Wife of Bath's chronicle of sexual pleasure and marital manipulation cannot finally keep from her audience an Alisoun "whose unguarded responses let slip the real, private woman who wants to love her husband but cannot make him love her," and whose "only lifelong desire...[is] simply to love and be loved in return" (84). Since she is now old and ugly, this desire can only be fulfilled in the fantasy of her Tale; lacking any more tangible fulfillment, Alisoun "must still wander wearily by the way, slouching toward some Canterbury that may never take shape on her horizon" (112). Analogously, "in the old man and the three rioters of his Tale the Pardoner offers us, without his realizing it, vivid portraits respectively of his private and professional lives stripped of the elaborate pretences he has created for each" (197). As a eunuchus ex nativitate-- Condren embraces Walter Clyde Curry's physiological explanation and dismisses more recent Queer theoretical formulations of the Pardoner's sexuality--the Pardoner "falls heir to the pain of a joyless existence," and "the misery that the old man does not shrink from describing exposes for us the Pardoner's probable reality, a horrible physical life, unsuccessfully concealed beneath fabrications of avarice and lechery." (197) Analogously, "like the three rioters who seek to slay Death as a help to others, but who merely annihilate themselves, the Pardoner's abuse of his ecclesiastical function may shape his own eternal reward." (198) Hence "the Pardoner rides to Canterbury a figure of utter tragedy--tormented by the self- destructiveness of his game, humiliated by his opponent's [Harry Bailly] unwillingness to play, and painfully aware that, as a being totally lacking in essence, he is not playing a game at all. He has just lost a misguided fight for life." (202)

Ingenious as Condren's psychologizing frequently is, his interpretive terrain is nonetheless dotted with warning signals, in the form of locutions such as "maybe," "perhaps," and "probably"--words that make clear, however unintentionally, the hypothetical, non-text-supported nature of the analysis (an incomplete list includes instances on pp. 87, 88, 95, 97, 103, 104, 110, 148). And in addition to many satisfyingly provocative readings (e.g., of I. 460-61, clearing the Wife of Bath of youth sexual adventurism [91]), Chaucer and the Energy of Creation contains its share of oversights and questionable details: on p. 28, we are told that "'gentil' seems an unlikely qualifier for 'knyght,' implying more complexity than a man of broil and battle is likely to possess," where the adjective refers to the Knight's estate (admittedly in an idealizing manner), not to his personality. On p. 53, Condren appears to imply that the Miller's proposal of "a shocking story of Saint Joseph, a carpenter, cuckolded by the traditional perpetrator of bawdy shenanigans in fabliaux, a clerk" would be an unheard of novelty to the pilgrim audience, whereas versions of St. Joseph as cuckold abounded (cf. "Joseph's Troubles with Mary" in the Chester cycle and the suggestiveness of Frate Alberto's disguise as the Angel Gabriel in Decameron 4.2). And when Malyn, the Miller's daughter in The Reeve's Tale, has kind words to her rapist, Aleyn ("deere lemman^Êgood lemman" [1.4240, 4247]), Condren says "she borrows terms from courtly literature" (60), even though later in the book he quotes the Manciple's well known allusion to the same word, applied to Phebus's wife's lover, as "knavyssh speche" (IX.205 [244]).

If Chaucer and the Energy of Creation does not convince many readers to abandon their preference for a more historically grounded (and, for some, considerably less praiseworthy) Chaucer, it will still perform the valuable service of keeping alive a tradition that governed much Chaucerian research and criticism during a large segment of the twentieth century.