The Medieval Review 10.09.21

Travis, Peter W. Disseminal Chaucer: Rereading the Nun's Priest's Tale. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009. Pp. 443. . $40 978-0-268-04235-7.

Reviewed by:

Theresa Tinkle
University of Michigan

Disseminal Chaucer raises the bar for literary criticism: the rest of us can now only aspire to be equally erudite and witty, and to engage texts with comparable intensity and subtlety. Peter Travis crafts an exceptionally compelling argument and sustains his critical energy and rhetorical verve for every single page in this longish examination of a shortish tale. His book should be studied as much for what it might teach us about crafting a book as for the author's discerning insights into Chaucer's poetics.

The argument begins with what most of us would probably take to be an unpromising question: what is the genre of the Nun's Priest's Tale? Chaucerians have answered this question variously over the years, attempting to discover some overarching scheme in the seemingly disparate discourses (comedy, tragedy, dream psychology, beast fable) that make up the poem. The author advances a case for the work being an encyclopedic parody of academic arts, touching at some point on most of the trivium and quadrivium, but concentrating for the most part on grammar, logic, and rhetoric. In order to make this case, Professor Travis must demonstrate his own thorough mastery of the trivial arts (his apt label) as well as the quadrivial, which he accomplishes through credible performances of how highly educated medieval readers might approach Chaucer's poem, and how it might remind them of their own schoolroom exercises and perplexities.

We might expect such a study to be drily historicist, but it is in fact engagingly philosophical and theoretically sophisticated. Modern scholars who refer to the medieval arts curriculum typically assume it has a straightforward authority, as when A. J. Minnis draws on the Scholastics to elucidate Chaucer's Wife of Bath and Pardoner (Fallible Authors: Chaucer's Pardoner and the Wife of Bath, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). By contrast, Professor Travis discovers considerable seriocomic play in Chaucer's approach to the philosophical, logical, and linguistic questions of the day. Far from resolving the questions raised by the poem, Travis's analysis characteristically leads to interpretive irresolution.

The discovery of poetic irresolution is a familiar deconstructive move, and it can be profoundly unsatisfying. Who, after all, wants to read over four hundred pages to discover that, despite our careful mastery of trivial and other arts, we cannot possibly know what Chaucer's tale means? Professor Travis's first great achievement in this book is that he grounds irresolution firmly in the language of the poem, advancing brilliant close readings that reveal semiotic cruxes and open the work to multiple possible meanings. His second great achievement is that he uses those moments of irresolution to demonstrate the meta-poetic issues at stake in the poem. For example, he analyzes Chaucer's detailed description of Chaunticleer--who has a voice like an organ, the time-keeping precision of a clock, a comb redder than coral, and so on--in order to reveal how metaphors challenge our philosophical understanding of human and animal nature (Chapter 4). How is a rooster like and as significantly not like a clock? Metaphor presents ontological questions that at once resist interpretation and call attention to the hand of the artist. Drawing on Thomas Aquinas, Paul Ricoeur, Paul de Man, and John Locke, Professor Travis investigates the pervasive categorical confusions presented in Chaucer's heliotropic metaphors (in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women as well as in the Nun's Priest's Tale). He concludes by pointing to the meta-poetic implications of his analysis: "Chaucer's poetics of metaphor argues the foundationality of the figural: metaphor is an absolute category within which we construct reality, poetry, and ourselves" (199).

Each chapter similarly addresses carefully selected passages of text, develops "extreme close-up critical readings" (341), and leads to conclusions about the philosophical implications of interpretive irresolution. The close readings are memorable and should fundamentally shape how we think about the passages at hand. For instance, Professor Travis focuses on the simple grammatical fact that "She" in "She was so ful of torment and of rage" (Nun's Priest's Tale, VII.3366) has an ambiguous referent. It might refer to the hen Pertelote or to a classical heroine. In the context of the medieval curriculum, which focused on grammar as an important tool of interpretation, we cannot brush this ambiguity off as irrelevant to how and what the poem means. Travis concludes that "the final vision of grieving Pertelote remains slightly problematic: are we meant to remember her as a seriocomic piece of fried chicken or as a lovelorn wife whose cries of woe expire in the heat of their own verbal conflagration?" (64). The discipline of medieval grammatical study allows for significant play with meaning, and that encourages Chaucer to create comedy out of grammatical indeterminacy.

The poem, in other words, parodies grammatical study in order to comment on the nature of literary language, inviting the reader to "think constructively about the disseminal nature of language and its resistance to any kind of adequate interpretation/translation" (102). This neatly expresses one of the book's major contributions, its investigation of the disseminal in Chaucer's poem, which the author explains as follows: "Playing upon the fortuitous resemblance between 'semen' and 'seme,' Derrida is gesturing toward the dispersal of semantic meaning in every text--a dispersal that is both a wasteful dissipation of semiological meanings and at the same time an excessive surplus of unlimited meanings. Although, according to Derrida, dissemination can never actually be defined, its very resistance to lexical categories serves as a critique of the idea that any text, literary or otherwise, can be owned, controlled, limited, or appropriated in the name of some legitimate reading or authoritative source" (17). It is to Professor Travis's credit that his own production of poetic irresolution, his refusal to limit the text, appears throughout this study a sensitive response to Chaucer's craft.

The book progresses from the frame (the Nun's Priest's body at the end of the poem, Chapter 1) to particular passages that serve as interpretive cruxes and organize the chapters. Beginning with Harry Bailey's response to the poem at its conclusion leads immediately to meta-poetic issues. The Nun's Priest's body, absent from the General Prologue, is hyper-sexualized in Harry's admiring gaze, suggesting an association with "virile poetics" but also challenging easy assumptions about "the potent art of male genius" (44). The virile style and male genius enter Chaucer's work under the sign of parody rather than as ideals. Chapter 2 investigates the ways in which an awareness of the medieval study of grammar, imitation, and translation (and the schoolboy exercises linked to that study) can open the poem to perplexing difficulties. The piled up apostrophes uttered by the Nun's Priest as Chaunticleer approaches death, for instance, appear in this context a "conspicuously comic piece of literary imitation" (89), which reveals the pretentiousness of the high rhetorical tradition students are trained to imitate. Parody, the author cogently proposes, is intertextual and calls attention to meta-textual issues (e.g., 107).

Chapter 3 considers the beginning pastoral and ending moralitas of the poem, seeking to illuminate how the poem produces multiple, conflicted meanings. This in turn leads to the proposition that "medieval reading practices [disclose] the grammatical decoding of a text inevitably left a residue of indetermination that had to be resolved, but could not legitimately be resolved, by grammatical means" (149). Grammar, the foundational art, ultimately fails the reader precisely when needed. Professor Travis finds in the experience of reading the text a "profoundly instructive education," for the reader has been brought "to think aggressively about the way language is fashioned into patterns of signification, about how we are traditionally instructed to read a text, and about the exemplary resistance of that text to the totalizing regimes of our understanding" (163). We thus learn about the limits of language and education as we confront the difficulties posed by Chaucer's text.

"The Noise of History" (Chapter 5) considers how nonverbal sounds--the animal and bird noises that perennially fascinate Chaucer--present intriguing challenges to sign theory and poetic signification. How does a fart, or bird calls, or a noisy fox chase signify in the context of a poem? And why does Chaucer insert a reference to the Peasants' Rising of 1381 into that fox chase? Professor Travis draws on grammar, logic, and rhetoric to explicate how Chaucer creates a chaotic, dissonant "noise of history": the murderous sounds that accompany the slaughter of the London Flemish in the Rising, the hard- to-hear cries of the victims. By representing this "noise," Chaucer teaches readers to think critically about power and its imbalances.

The book proceeds next to a densely difficult issue--the several ways medieval students learned to tell time--and to the presence of several chronographia (descriptions of time telling) in Chaucer's poetic oeuvre (Chapter 6). Travis imagines Chaucer's reader earnestly consulting the authorities and recognizing that Chaucer inserts errors into his poetry: "Each chronographia encourages rigorous scientific inquiry, but each eventually throws into doubt the possibility of any verifiably 'truthful' conclusion" (300). The liberal arts can only take us so far; the parodic chronographia reveal to the thoughtful reader that no certain truth about time can or will emerge. What we gain from the chronographia is therefore not what time of day or year it is, but the philosophical capacity to wonder what time is. Beholding the fox (Chapter 7) takes us deeper into sign theory and the problems of reference, testing our ability to ascertain meaning in the world around us, and guiding us through parody to recognize the vitality and limits of the arts curriculum.

Each chapter felicitously juxtaposes modern theory, philosophy, and fiction with medieval poetry, school exercises, philosophy, and language theory. The interweaving of modern and medieval texts and theories produces an impression of wit and lightness, as if the reader were witnessing a quicksilver mind drawing connections among seemingly disparate texts. The author speaks as an urbane connoisseur of both modern and medieval letters. His surprising personal narrative motivates the book. "I looked up from my rototiller and beheld Reynard loping in from the woods, followed by his attractive vixen. Chickens elevated in various directions, my family implored me to do something heroic" (xi). As often happens with foxes and chickens, the tale ends sadly except for the fact that "It was then I decided I might write a book about chickens" (xi). The book is not much about chickens, but it is a stimulating study of Chaucer's learned parody, and it should change many scholars' impressions about both the genre of the Nun's Priest's tale and the potential interest of scholasticism.

Reading this book is a bit like being in an advanced Chaucer seminar led by a very accomplished and patient teacher. The author judiciously mines the last century of Chaucer criticism in order to exhibit areas of critical consensus, which become a basis for the exploration of unresolved issues. The poem discloses its subtlest details in nimble close readings. The author's conclusions follow gracefully and coherently from his analysis. Although the argument focuses on a single tale, it gains considerable breadth from its attention to how other parts of Chaucer's oeuvre connect to that tale, and considerable depth from its engagement of medieval and modern philosophical, theoretical, and trivial issues. Besides all that, this book is fun to read.