Arthur D. L. Lindley

title.none: Kelly, The Conspiricy of Allusion (Arthur D. L. Lindley)

identifier.other: baj9928.0208.004 02.08.04

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Arthur D. L. Lindley, National University of Singapore,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Kelly, Douglas. The Conspiricy of Allusion: Description, Rewriting, and Authorship from Macrobius to Medieval Romance. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Pp. xii, 310. ISBN: 9-041-11560-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.08.04

Kelly, Douglas. The Conspiricy of Allusion: Description, Rewriting, and Authorship from Macrobius to Medieval Romance. Leiden: Brill, 1999. Pp. xii, 310. ISBN: 9-041-11560-9.

Reviewed by:

Arthur D. L. Lindley
National University of Singapore

This is a one-idea book, but the idea is a good one. Neither the fact that it is less original than Douglas Kelly implies nor the fact that his development of it is plodding and repetitious prevent The Conspiracy of Silence from being a useful addition to the literature on medieval theories of authorship. The idea in question, simply put, is that the history of medieval writing is a history of rewriting. From Macrobius' Saturnalia down to Chretien de Troyes--and on, Kelly might have added, to Chaucer and Malory--authors see themselves as reinterpreters of earlier texts: first within the Latin tradition, then from Latin to the vernacular, and finally within the developing tradition of vernacular romance. Taught originally by Macrobius, "The Middle Ages raised the art of allusion to an art of poetry . . . . [the medieval writer] engages in intertextual allusions that rewrite and even correct earlier voices rather than relying on inspiration whose only source is the creative imagination." (xii) In what may strike our students as an eerily post-modern move, writing becomes an extension of critical reading. "Rewriting . . . is the sphere within which medieval writers in the scholastic tradition sought and achieved originality." (xiii)

To develop this argument, Kelly devotes his introduction to establishing that Chretien's assertion in Erec et Enide (V.6736-44) that he learned the art of description from Macrobius refers primarily or exclusively to the Saturnalia. On this rather narrow basis he argues in chapter one for Sat. as the master text not only for Chretien but for the critical theory of his time. In chapter two he focuses on Chretien's use of 'description' in the specifically Macrobian sense of "open or disguised allusion to and rewriting of antecedent material" (10) in Erec IV- VI. Chapter three deals with description in the educational theories of the time and its emergence in commentaries on Horace in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The second half of the book is concerned with various aspects of the transfer of Macrobian theories and methods from Latin to vernacular literature: the rewriting of Dares by Benoit de Sainte-Maure and Joseph of Exeter (chapter four); the description of the motif of sexual consent in the Roman d'Eneas, Erec and the Bel inconnu (chapter five); and finally with lyric insertions in the texts of Huon de Mery, Jean Renart, Gerbert de Montreuil and Jakemes. While this plan involves a considerable amount of repetition of basic points-- 'description' is explained again and again, as is the ideal of 'bele conjointure' (see 194, 198, 200, 214)--Kelly's argument seems to my English-oriented mind generally convincing and carefully argued.

If I am happy with this line of argument, that is because I have been teaching it for many years in my graduate courses in Ricardian literature and Medieval Authorship. I claim no particular originality in this. I got this version of medieval creativity from one of the surprising number of important medievalists (e.g., D. W. Robertson) who do not appear in Kelly's extensive bibliography: A. C. Spearing. In Criticism and Medieval Poetry (2nd edition, London: Arnold, 1972; orig. 1964), Spearing argues "that the medieval ars poetica begins from the assumption that the writer would not be the inventor of his own material, but would be reworking some already existing story or argument . . . . [The writer] retells, reshapes, reinterprets the . . . material. And the retelling could be a matter of reinterpretation." (76)

[T[he kind of skill which nowadays goes into literary criticism went in the Middle Ages . . . into retellings of existing stories, which incorporated the findings of the writer's critical and interpretive reading of his auctours. A Dr. Leavis of the Middle Ages . . . would have embodied his creatively sensitive readings of . . . Middlemarch or Women in Love . . . in rewritten versions of those novels. . . . The new versions might have borne the same relation to their originals as, say, the anonymous Perlesvaus to Chretien de Troyes' Perceval. (77)

Spearing is here, in fact, at the beginning of an important and much-cited essay on Chaucer's "Clerk's Tale" and is thus (a bit) outside Kelly's Latin and French sphere. He is a major figure in medieval studies, however, and the omission of any reference to so elaborate an anticipation of Kelly's thesis is disturbing, especially since Spearing's sources include not only Curtius but E. de Bruyne's Etudes d'esthetique medievale (1946). What Kelly presents as a new version of medieval writing, in other words, is long established. I do not mean to suggest any dishonesty on his part but rather a kind of tunnel vision that causes him to miss things just outside (or around the bend from) the field he is cultivating.

Given that Kelly's primary concern is with the critical and often subversive reinterpretation of prior texts and that one of his primary focuses is on Arthurian literature, it is curious that neither Chaucer nor Malory are ever mentioned in his text. The Clerk is, after all, doing a particularly sophisticated reinterpretation of Petrarch's reinterpretation of Boccaccio's Griselda. Dares and Benoit, not to mention Boethius, are rewritten into Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer's elaborate and subversive manipulation of his sources is a major and constant topic for his critics. Malory notoriously adapts Arthurian material from Chretien on to the conditions and assumptions of his own time, just as Kelly shows Renaut de Beaujeu to be doing in the Bel inconnu (202- 12). I am not, of course, asking Kelly to become an expert on Middle English, but I would expect him to know the more obvious and important extensions of the tradition he is describing, especially since he is making quite valid claims about European, not just French, medieval literature. Similarly, if he is going to devote much of his discussion to the re-writings of that great primal text the Aeneid, I would expect him at least to consider Dante's incorporation and displacement of Virgil and his text in the Inferno, surely the most important rewriting of Virgil in medieval literature. 'Description' sometimes takes the form of revolutionary overthrow instead of incremental criticism. Kelly's extreme scholarly caution leads him, I think, to minimize both the extent and the complexity of the tradition he is describing. Milton, after all, is sustaining that very tradition in 1667 when he rewrites Dante, Virgil and Genesis in Paradise Lost.

What we get instead is the careful detailing of a relatively narrow tradition of incremental change by authors--or rather rewriters--who lack the sense of subversive empowerment displayed in very different ways by Chaucer and Dante. In so doing, Kelly risks reinstalling precisely the version of medieval writing as endlessly subservient to a few great predecessors that he wishes, quite rightly, to overthrow. The resulting book is nonetheless valuable for its establishment of the pervasive importance of Macrobius and its convincing demonstration of the details of a literary culture of imitation. That demonstration will, hopefully, undergird more adventurous books than this one.

I don't mean to berate Kelly for not having written someone else's book. I do find that his basic, important case is made fairly early on and that the latter half of the book suffers severely from the law of diminishing returns, though readers with a specialized interest in Huon de Mery may disagree. I found myself wishing Kelly would engage more of the underlying theoretical problems than he does. For example, the stories in all the matieres are indeed 'always already written', but when a writer 'corrects' one of these stories--when Virgil is revised by Dares who is revised by Joseph who is revised by Benoit (and so on through Chaucer and Shakespeare)--what truth claim is being advanced by any of them? What is the predecessor supposed to have got wrong? Do any of the members of the chain believe in or invoke any antecedent, historical reality? If one of them, for instance, decides to inject Briseis into the matter of Troy, does he have some confused idea that she was actually there? Does he even believe there was a 'there' there? If I knowingly insert a fictional Briseis into my account of Troy, have I then defined Troy itself as a fiction? Or have I simply accepted that historical (or quasi- historical) Troy has disappeared into its texts, none of which has any necessarily greater truth claim than the others? Are we instead looking at a proto-Bloomian process of esthetic opportunism in which each writer in the sequence is required to manufacture difference from his sources simply to justify his text's existence? Much of the time in Kelly's account his writers simply seem to be exploiting gaps in their antecedent texts, looking for tropes to be amplified or recast, conventions to be modified, styles to be altered.

However obviously fictional they may seem to us, the matters of Troy and of Arthur rested on some claim of historicity. That, after all, is why the central facts of the stories were assumed to be unalterable: Troy must fall because it always falls; Criseyde will betray Troilus because all the books say she did. What Kelly shows, particularly in chapter five, is that the matter is in fact regularly changed to fit the expectations of changing audiences: "In the Eneas"--unlike the earlier Erec-- "love serves dynasty by marriage and procreation. . . . . In this, the Eneasimitates an extant model for marriage, a kind of imitation we have seen to be widely recognized in the twelfth century." (194) It was equally recognized in the fifteenth century. If Malory's political agenda requires Camelot to be at Winchester, that is where he puts it. To the extent allowed by the necessity of Lancelot, he also cleans up Guenevere's act to accord with his own age's version of a 'trew lover'. [1] That is, he behaves as if he were dealing not with facts but with texts, constrained not by truth but simply by audience expectation. If so, aren't we looking at a proto-postmodern wilderness of competing texts which exist simply as different versions of the same formulae and refer to little except those formulae? Is there a Trojan or Arthurian hors-texte? Was there ever?

I am not, of course, asking for answers, but I would like to see some further consideration of the nature and significance of the textual culture Kelly is describing. One might argue, for example, that the apparent view of even the most authoritative texts, Virgil and Homer, as merely texts and thus open to endless manipulation and revision in fact reflects the continuing, Augustinian denigration of secular literature as the realm of lies and shadows. When Chaucer takes up this tradition, of course, he uses it to raise the most serious questions about the reliability of textual authority, whether in Jankyn's book or in Troilus's.

Here and elsewhere, I think Kelly's apparent lack of familiarity with contemporary critical idiom may dull him to certain implications of his argument. (In other ways, such as freedom from jargon, it may be a blessing.) Bele conjointure is, after all, a way of describing pastiche. The incorporation of one's critical and even dissenting voice into an antecedent text, as in the Clerk's resistant reading of Petrarch, is a way of creating "dialogism," a term Kelly picks up from Maureen Boulton (243) with no apparent awareness of its derivation from Bakhtin. In the end, when Kelly describes the end product of the process he has described as a kind of text whose "gaps" force "the reader as private person [to] ask more personal questions that involve one's own life and views" (260), he is describing the sort of interactive text posited by reception theory. Here, as so often, medieval literary practice, rooted in a sense of the complex and problematic relation of text and authority to personal experience, uncannily anticipates the concerns of recent criticism. The two bodies of theory can throw considerable light on each other. If I am impatient with this generally worthy book, that is partly because I keep hearing the voices of Bloom, Jameson, Iser and company whispering behind the curtains and wondering why Kelly doesn't hear them.


[1] See, for a very recent example, Beverly Kennedy, "Malory's Guenevere: A 'Trew Lover,'" in On Arthurian Women: Essays in Memory of Maureen Fries, ed. Bonnie Wheeler and Fiona Tolhurst (Dallas: Scriptorium, 2001), 11-34.