Louise M. Bishop

title.none: Collette, Species, Phantasms and Images (Louise M. Bishop)

identifier.other: baj9928.0207.009 02.07.09

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Louise M. Bishop, U of Oregon,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Collette, Carolyn. Species, Phantasms and Images: Vision and Medieval Psychology in the Canterbury Tales. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Pp. v, 208. 47.50. ISBN: 0-472-11161-2.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.07.09

Collette, Carolyn. Species, Phantasms and Images: Vision and Medieval Psychology in the Canterbury Tales. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Pp. v, 208. 47.50. ISBN: 0-472-11161-2.

Reviewed by:

Louise M. Bishop
U of Oregon

Carolyn Collette promises her reader an analysis of the interplay between medieval theories of human psychology, in particular the role of vision, and Chaucer's literary creation of The Canterbury Tales. The book posits other critics' neglect of the ways medieval intellectual and scientific philosophies inform a reading of Chaucer's vision-saturated tales, and shows that medieval theories of creation and sight can amplify theoretical or historicized interpretations of Chaucer's final works. Using both primary sources (Vincent of Beauvais's science (87) and George Ripley's alchemy (140), among others) and secondary analyses of medieval cognition (Mary Carruthers's Book of Memory and Janet Coleman's Ancient and Medieval Memories, for example), Collette reads in ten of the Tales--Knight, Wife of Bath, Clerk, Merchant, Franklin, Physician, Pardoner, Canon's Yeoman, Second Nun, and Parson--an abiding interest in vision's role in producing "reality", analogizing that process to the medieval poet's self-conscious production. And what poet seems more self-aware, intellectually commanding, and poetically plugged in than Chaucer?

Species, Phantasms, and Images does not pretend to be an exhaustive or earth-shaking study except as it brings learned medieval theories of vision to bear on Chaucer's tales; even then Collette wisely recognizes that works like Carruthers's and Norman Klassen's Chaucer on Love, Knowledge, and Sight (D.S. Brewer, 1995--included in her bibliography; see also note 5 on page 4) have already tellingly resituated our ideas about reading, memory, and medieval psychology (a term which is itself, of course, anachronistic). Collette treats vision as form, idea, and species, this last serving as her hermeneutical foundation of image-making (16-18, but also 103 concerning Lollard opinion on imagery). Ways of knowing conjure the reciprocal relationship of mind to body; epistemological issues loom large in every reading: "In repeatedly telling tales in which autonomous subjectivity is complicated by the presence and effect of the external world as mental image, Chaucer draws attention to how easily people can become one another's imaginative creations." (185) Collette uses the vagaries of vision, presented as both less vague (because she gives us a measure of "real" medieval thinking about the topic) and more vague (for a medieval audience, "radical uncertainty was a natural human state" (13)), to expose the challenge of reading the Canterbury Tales as they would be read, ostensibly, by a medieval audience.

It's an admirable project, although one which participates in a practice that plumbs the recesses of medieval thinking while to some degree ignoring the physical instantiation of texts and the meaning of textuality. What I missed in Collette's book-- perhaps both unfairly and selfishly, because of my own struggles with the issue--is an analysis of reading's role in the visionary/imaginative processes that inform her explication of poetic creation. Science, imagination, and will all participate in literary creation, but what in particular about reading's processes and writing's images distinguishes literary production from mere thinking? The extraordinary interplay among faculties and bodies in the act of reading as well as writing could inform a more nuanced (and perhaps, in its own terms, more "medieval") way of thinking about vision. Not that Collette ignores reading (except in the book's index): links between image and imagination show up throughout the book. But the chimera of the "real" medieval experience will always recede from a modern grasp; some would say rightly so, since "real" is itself a highly constructed term, a fact that Collette's argument seems to rely on: ". . . late medieval models of human psychology, deeply ambivalent about the fundamental processes of cognition, about the senses on which these processes depended, and about the certainty of knowledge humans might achieve, constitute a source of deep ambivalence about the human body and the nature of the self." (185) Collette is to be commended for grappling in a clear, structured, resourceful and readable way with the issue of Chaucer's making "reality", i.e., poetry, setting up her argument with an epistemological, scholastic history of visual perception in Chapter One, "The Psychology of Sight". She does not allow the complexities of vision and image to distract her from her proposition that "Chaucer understood the senses within the larger dynamic of the self in the world". (87)

Following her initial thirty-page chapter, "The Psychology of Sight," Species, Phantasms, and Images continues with five chapters on individual Canterbury Tales. The Knight's Tale has its own chapter, while the second chapter treats four tales together: Wife of Bath, Clerk, Merchant, and Franklin--in other words, the "marriage group". Four more tales are treated in two chapters that accord with those tales' status within a particular manuscript fragment: Physician with Pardoner, Canon's Yeoman with Second Nun. The book closes with a separate chapter on The Parson's Tale, followed by an afterword.

Collette uses a wide variety of approaches to make her points. She includes the optical theory of Roger Bacon (16-18, but more especially n. 12 on page 13), Christian exegesis from Augustine to Thomas (22 and 10, although Thomas is quoted not from a standard edition, but the text's elucidation in M. W. Bundy's 1927 The Theory of Imagination in Classical and Medieval Thought), Lollard sermons (2, 112-4, 174-5), and word studies (171-3, but not "grammar" per se). Additionally, Collette constructs her late Middle Ages broadly and cites Early Modern materials as evidence, for instance in the vernacular sources for alchemy she uses in Chapter Five's treatment of the Canon Yeoman's Prologue and Tale.

Some factors, albeit unavoidable, make the book an interesting but not entirely compelling study. Its range of secondary materials seems to neglect work from the 90s. Its frame of reference is limited, rather than exhaustive, without providing a rationale for using particular medieval Scholastic epistemology to elucidate a scientific treatment of the imagination and poetry. Surely Collette is right that a command of those learned Latin traditions usefully complicates an exclusively modern understanding of medieval poetry. At the same time, however, because the book elides rather than engages modern theoretical discussions of vision (in a semiotic, psychoanalytic, or gendered sense), it does not provide the rich, argumentative readings that inform the most challenging and perspicacious books on Chaucer.

Collette's choice of which Canterbury Tales to examine follows an established meaningful sequence--Knight first, Parson last--and the reader can gather that the tales she treats in-between provide the most powerful examples of her thesis about vision's role in poetic creation. Collette demonstrates a good reason for beginning with the Knight and ending with the Parson: a theory of vision helps the reader to contrast the Knight's and Theseus's limited perceptions of stability and mutability, while the Parson, in order to avoid will's moral pitfalls, consciously limits the metaphoric and affective imagery his sermon could have produced. Collette's main point about the marriage group in Chapter Two is the intersection of will and vision in marriage; in Chapter Three, about true and false images informed by a Lollard context; Chapter Four concerns true and false transformations apprehended by sight. All use, to a greater or lesser degree, the complex of "faculty psychology, optics, and volition" (5) with which Collette structures her book. Individual readings of the Tales vary considerably in subtlety of argument. One challenge the book meets only partially is establishing a firm connection among readings. While its first chapter sets up an expectation that the book's connective tissue will be a medieval idea of vision based on both seer and seen as active participants in the act of sight--extramission and intromission were medieval theories of perspective's workings (15-20)-- readings themselves don't capitalize on that motif but rather go their own ways. The afterword (184-7) cogently summarizes the book's intent, yet its cogency indicates that the rest of the book doesn't put the case so convincingly and succinctly. Chapters remain, by and large, relatively isolated from one another, making the book less compelling than it might have been with more precise and powerful concatenation among its individual arguments.

Still, there is much to learn from the book: its chapter on the Canon's Yeoman's and Second Nun's Tales, for example, makes a strong case for the joint treatment of these two texts. While the idea of true and false knowledge is not unique to Species, Phantasms, and Images, the book's evidence for the connection between alchemical transformation and the vagaries of interpretation provides a nuanced reading. Work on alchemical traditions, especially in the vernacular (for which Collette uses seventeenth-century sources (134, 144), a bit of a problem when positing a truer "medieval" sense of reading), will continue to inform these tales and perhaps will encourage continued examination of reading's relationship to transformation as a literary idea. Species, Phantasms, and Images is a useful book because it outlines how "late medieval thinking about human psychology posits the individual in a reciprocal relationship with the physical world apprehended by the senses" and "how humans are all tied to one another in a process of seeing, imagining, and remembering". (185) These are vital how's for our understanding of Chaucer's work and provide reasons for reading the Canterbury Tales today.