03.02.03, Scala, Absent Narratives

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Andrew Taylor

The Medieval Review baj9928.0302.003


Scala, Elizabeth. Absent Narratives, Manuscript Textuality, and Literary Structure in Late Medieval England. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Pp. xix, 284. ISBN: 0-312-24043-0.

Reviewed by:
Andrew Taylor
University of Ottawa

If psychoanalysis and historicism have in the last few years been the Hatfields and McCoys of Middle English, psychoanalysis and manuscript studies have been too remote even to feud. Absent Narratives is a bold and generous effort to bring the two together, combining close psychoanalytic readings of well-known Middle English works with an examination of their manuscript circulation. Scala posits "a fundamental analogy between the structure of medieval narratives and the culture of writing in which they circulated" (xvii). Just as manuscripts are reworkings of their exemplars and just as medieval writers ground their authority in earlier writings, so medieval narratives are structured anxiously around earlier and repressed tales. This analogy is reinforced by an appeal to Stephen Nichols's concept of the "manuscript matrix" as one that "consists of gaps or interstices, in the form of interventions in the text made up of interpolations of visual and verbal insertions which may be conceived, in Jacques Lacan's terms, as 'pulsations of the unconscious' by which the 'subject reveals and conceals itself'" (qtd on 11).

One of the clearest examples of how this analogy operates is Scala's reading of Chaucer's Squire's Tale, where she links the repressed story of incest with the Squire's endless deferrals, the unease of subsequent re-writers and editors, and the ultimate survival in fourteen manuscripts of the blank space that marks the tale as discontinued. The prevailing critical tendency is still to see the Squire's inadequacies as a teller as ironic and the Man of Law's curiously inaccurate description of the Legend of Good Women, where he praises Chaucer for not writing about Canacee, as a joke at the expense of Gower, who did. Scala, in comparison, believes that the tale's structure reflects not detached irony but a prevailing unease at the history of Canacee. Resurrecting an argument made by Haldeen Brady in 1942, she argues that the Squire's Tale breaks off to avoid confronting Canacee's incestuous relationship with her brother Cambalus/Cambalo. This repressed narrative determines the literary structure of the tale, which "dwindles down to a list of things to come, and finally to a blank space (in some of the manuscripts themselves) in which to place them" (88). Here, Scala draws on Stephen Partridge's claim that these gaps reflect an authorial rather than a scribal tradition. She completes her reading by turning to Anelida and Arcite and the heroine's lament for her false lover, which is echoed by the Squire's falcon. This compulsive repetition of grim Theban stories has also been explored at length by Lee Patterson in Chaucer and the Subject of History, although with markedly different conclusions. Scala uses the occasion to challenge Patterson directly, pointing to his unacknowledged debt to a method he has so sharply criticized. She argues that the equation Patterson sets up, in which the recovery of the past is played out in the "psychology of a lover's memory" (Subject of History, 63) could be reconfigured, since history itself is a subjective human construct, marked by repression and investment (93).

Scala has wisely not insisted on finding a conjunction between a repressed story and a codicological gap in every one of the works she has chosen. In the case of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the repressed narrative is that of the exiled or marginalized Morgan le Fay, a magician and also (by association with Arthur's other sister, Morgause) a reminder of the taint of incest that dooms the Round Table. Morgan's exclusion or repression, however, is only indirectly connected to manuscript textuality. Echoing Arthur Lindley, Scala raises issues with J. R. R. Tolkien and E. V. Gordon's glossing, which has provided an illusory sense of lexical stability, but she has little to say about the Cotton Nero manuscript. In the case of the Knight's Tale, Scala follows Mark Sherman and Elaine Tuttle Hansen in exploring the transformation of alarming Amazons into domesticated Theban women. The anxiety about female subjectivity is reflected in the silencing of Emily. In a fine close reading of the initial combat between Palamon and Arcite, Scala focuses on the "gappe" where the Thracian hunter stands waiting for his mortal enemy, the lion or boar, just as the two rivals wait for each other (119). This gap is associated with Emily, the emptiness without which the tale could not exist. The gap is a figuration of narrative space, however, not of the space on a physical page. Apart from a brief discussion of the opening quotation from Statius's Thebaid, Scala's reading does not depend on the details of the manuscripts. The same is true of her fine account of Malory's Morte Darthur. Scala begins with the debate between those who follow Caxton in seeing the Morte Darthur as a single and whole work and those who follow Eugène Vinaver and the Winchester manuscript in seeing it as a series of separate works. Her account of literary structure favors the former, but she leaves the debate unresolved and her reading does not depend on the physical layout of either book. She explores the powerfully absent figure of Arthur and the absent narratives that uphold his court, the "vanished stories" marked by tombs, shields, wounded knights, and weeping ladies discussed by Jill Mann, and the tales which substitute for one another, most notably that of Tristam and Isode, which both echoes and deflects the tale that cannot be told, that of Lancelot and Guinevere.

When she turns to the presentation of authority in Gower's Confessio Amantis, on the other hand, Scala deals with a wide range of codicological minutiae. Gower's self-fictionalization, which culminates in Amans's discovery that he is John Gower, is worked out in the Latin apparatus. Scala follows R. F. Yeager, Derek Pearsall, and Richard Emmerson in reading this apparatus not as an effort to limit the text's meaning but as a separate narratorial voice that further complicates it, and then, following J. A. Burrow, extends the approach to the illustrations. Whereas Bodley 294 portrays Amans as a young man, for example, Bodley 904 portrays him as an old one.

Admittedly, the analogy Scala draws between the codicological, literary, and narratological "other," on the one hand, and Nichols's concept of the "manuscript matrix," on the other, do tend in different directions. Nichols's model would seem to call for close attention to specific manuscripts and the role of a particular gap or insertion on a particular folio (although some manuscript scholars have objected to New Philology precisely because it does not engage with specific manuscripts often enough). Scala's readings, on the other hand, are for the most part based on standard critical editions. She acknowledges variants and editorial complexities and is punctilious in crediting the work of manuscript scholars, but her interests lie in the sophisticated artistry of the literary structure rather than art history and codicology. Only in the case of the Confessio Amantis does her argument repeatedly turn on details of specific pages. Absent Narratives never offers the kind of codicological detail found in John Dagenais' The Ethics of Reading in Manuscript Culture: Glossing the Libro de buen amor (Princeton, 1994), another important examination of the literary implications of manuscript presentation. What Scala offers is no less valuable. Her subtle and probing readings have mapped out a whole series of places where two distinct lines of inquiry can merge. Scala's demonstration of the force of the marginalized and repressed shows the broader cultural significance of codicological details that might otherwise remain mere erudition and opens up new areas for exploration.

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Andrew Taylor

University of Ottawa