J. Stephen Russell

title.none: McGavin, Chaucer and Dissimilarity (Russell)

identifier.other: baj9928.0102.005 01.02.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: J. Stephen Russell , Hofstra University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2001

identifier.citation: McGavin, John. Chaucer and Dissimilarity: Literary Comparisons in Chaucer and Other Late-Medieval Writings. Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 240. $39.50. ISBN: 0-838-63814-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 01.02.05

McGavin, John. Chaucer and Dissimilarity: Literary Comparisons in Chaucer and Other Late-Medieval Writings. Cranbury, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000. Pp. iv, 240. $39.50. ISBN: 0-838-63814-7.

Reviewed by:

J. Stephen Russell
Hofstra University

To quote the dust jacket of McGavin's work, "[t]his book claims that a specifically rhetorical basis can be found for Chaucer's creativity, and for the openness of his work to multiple readings." It goes on to explain that this "specifically rhetorical basis" is in fact Chaucer's evolving deconstruction of the concept of metaphor/simile. Every rhetorical comparison exists as a unique tension between similarity and dissimilarity 'you look like Robert Redford' is qualitatively different from 'you look like a million dollars' and Chaucer discovers in this tension a space wherein to examine issues of language and perception, the transmission of knowledge, and ultimately the development of the literary character. It is an intriguing notion, and I suspect most readers can imagine exciting and illuminating things that can be done with Chaucer's poetry under this rubric.

McGavin in fact delivers most of this illumination in his book. The opening chapter on the mechanics of rhetorical comparison is a strong and useful discussion, especially as it distinguishes among similitude, imago, and exemplum. The discussion is sound and very worthwhile, and even the review of the "usual rhetorical suspects" is fresh and instructive. I have only two small notes of regret, however. First, inexplicably, McGavin does not so much as mention Macrobius, whose Commentary on the Somnium Scipionis (I.ii) is a fundamental commentary on similitude in philosophical writing (and a text we know Chaucer knew). Second, I wish the discussion of exemplum, especially were broader; it seems to me that McGavin misses an interesting opportunity to test his perceptions on that great percentage of medieval art which any audience would see as (loosely) "exemplary."

The book is at its best analyzing Troilus and Criseyde, the work that seems to exhibit Chaucer's most mature and complex use of metaphor. These chapters, "Patterns of Comparison in Troilus and Criseyde" (4) and "Persuasive Comparisons in Troilus and Criseyde" (5) form a searching and challenging discussion of this poem's (infamous) imagery. For example, McGavin spends time carefully setting up the use of the familiar love-as-fire simile. After first showing the more conventional use of the image (Pandarus to Troilus at III.856-9), McGavin turns immediately to the narrative reprise of the image at IV.183-4, the popular response to Hector's objection to exchanging Criseyde for Antenor: "The noyse of the peple upstirte thanne at one,/ As breme as blase of strawe iset on-fire." McGavin comments: Resonant in the comparison is one's sense of the impending destruction of Troy by fire, which will follow on from the return to the city of the traitor Antenor, who is here so fierily demanded. Behind the image of the comparison thus lies its literal correlative a further instance of Chaucer exploring that mysterious relationship between the figurative and the "real" which we have already encountered several times. (135) This is one of the book's many offered instances of Troilus and Criseyde as built upon a web of shifting "similiac" relationships within which the perceptions of the action, the meaning, and the characters inexorably move towards their fated ends. As a whole these discussions repay serious study. The second of the Troilus and Criseyde chapters is, in my judgment, the most complex and challenging. Looking at similes and their variations among characters (and the narrator) in Troilus and Criseyde, McGavin offers a striking and original new framework with which to analyze the poem.

The work is somewhat less persuasive away from Troilus and Criseyde. The chapter on the Hous of Fame, for example, "Naming and the Hous of Fame" (2) begins very strongly, with a discussion of the complex concept of "name" (as moniker, as reputation) in the poem and then moves from this towards a discussion of the poem as commentary on how "adducing the known to help in understanding what is not yet known is a project bound to fail. It will fail because the claimed knowledge has been undermined by an arbitrary principle built into the linguistic medium by which that knowledge is transmitted." [79] This focus on questions of language and knowledge is undermined, it seems to me, in McGavin's curious rejection of "skeptical" readings of the poem. Commenting on short excerpts from analyses by Paul de Man and Robert Hanning, for example, McGavin seems intent on distancing himself (and the poem) from the abime: There is much to agree with in both of these claims, and they certainly catch the sensation one has of Chaucer's justified unease with language, but they also rather overstate the case and misrepresent the source of that unease. If their position were true, one might expect to see Chaucer's turning away from an anxious involvement with language towards the view that it is predictably untrustworthy. Not many of his works would have escaped retraction with such a philosophy (66). The view is curious. McGavin has shown the openness of the language and the arbitrariness of the various names in the poem, but he seems to associate skepticism with defeatism: medieval skepticism seems more nuanced (and more courageous) than this. What makes auctoritas unreliable is that it is *not* reliable, that is, it is not always accurate. Logically, if fama were always unjust or incorrect, like my brother-in-law's restaurant recommendations or my football pool picks, she would be strikingly accurate reliably *wrong* and we would call her infama. The cosmos Chaucer sketches in the Hous of Fame is much scarier than this, a world whose only grown-up response is precisely skepticism.

In the end, I recommend this book especially to students of Troilus and Criseyde, for its most valuable insights regularly pertain to this poem. This readership will consistently admire McGavin's care as a reader and his uncommon attention to detail. The book will also be of (more limited) interest to students of the history of the verbal arts and to those considering the concepts underlying figurative language.