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03.05.14, Trigg, Congenial Souls

03.05.14, Trigg, Congenial Souls

Chaucer's six hundred year reception history has had so many twists and turns that most of us would shudder at the thought of providing a focused, detailed, wide-ranging analysis. Stephanie Trigg succeeds in this task, placing Chaucerian Studies firmly at the center of the history of modern English literary criticism. Many questions are raised in this study that will provoke much debate and self-reflection about our responses to Chaucer and to Chaucerians. The essence of her direct, often confrontational, analysis of the Chaucer Tradition is how the "uninhibited desire to hear Chaucer directly, while repressed from modern scholarly decorum, still resonates through much of our work, despite our best professional intentions." In characteristically incisive and vigorous style, the book begins with a discussion of the impact of retrospective readings, changing contexts, appropriations, multiple reading strategies and speaking across the ages; all this in a study of the cover picture on the paperback Riverside Chaucer. Herein Trigg sees the intrinsic contradiction at the heart of Chaucer Studies: we, like Lydgate, desire to accompany Chaucer by journeying with a congenial group of fellow travellers who are a diverse and motley crew, yet we are simultaneously constrained by the desire to speak directly, hear the true, Chaucer, in the form of a so-called "definitive" edition. Are Chaucerians interested in openness or closure?

In the first of seven chapters, Trigg's perceptive analysis of the history of Chaucer reception is presented in a much less linear way than usual. This is the hallmark of her approach, and a useful model for future studies, as she encourages various receptions of Chaucer to be read in relation to one another rather than as a diachronic sequence. Anyone who assumes questions of canonicity, literary authorship and affectionate readings no longer hold the influence they once did, think again. The impulse of creating the "real" experience of reading, or speaking for, Chaucer is shown to be a steady constant governing attitudes from the sixteenth-century printers to modern digital hypertext editors. Chaucerians venturing to welcome fragmentation and uncertainty are directly challenged for their reliance on a community that identifies itself by its likeness to Chaucer. The concepts of community and likeness come under close scrutiny for what they manifest and seek to repress, and these two concepts play central roles throughout the whole book. Using a range of modern theoretical perspectives, Trigg investigates reading communities as sites for association, communion, consolation, contestation, but most of all, congeniality. Influenced by Pierre Bourdieu and the politics of intentionalism, Trigg illuminates how various moments (various reading communities) despite their differences, form a tradition or "club" that "polices entry on applicants' likeness to Chaucer." She identifies this "likeness" as the badge of masculine friendship. The homosocial structures and heterosexual expressions that critics have identified themselves with in Chaucer's late personal poems -- the Envoys to Scogan and Bukton -- expose for Trigg the pretense of critical claims to share in the plurality of vision that Chaucer's community of pilgrims possess. Historicist and formalist readings are shown to rely upon a Chaucerian community that employs masculine discourse and shares Chaucer's spirit, or, at least, reads in the same clerical way as Chaucer did, those who are the "friends" of Chaucer. A biting interrogation of the congenial readings and rewritings of the "de raptu meo" incident highlights how recent trends, such as cultural studies, feminist theory and gender politics, and theoretically informed textual proliferation of Chaucerianism, threaten to create an uncertain future for the "clerical" Chaucer Tradition. At the end of the chapter we are left with two searching, and for some no doubt uncomfortable, questions "can we be Chaucerian without sounding like Chaucer?" and more specifically, "why do we want to be Chaucerian?"

Conventional models of reception theory are challenged in the second chapter "Signing Geoffrey Chaucer" by prioritizing the agency of the reader. Trigg argues that due to the modernist agenda of canonical authority, readings of authorial personality, biography and theories of narrative voices, the corpus of Chaucer texts are effectively "signed," finished for the author. Readerly expectations and horizons, Trigg demonstrates, are undermined by Chaucer's earliest readers in their production of the texts and by postmodern critics in their simultaneous consumption and production of textuality, both communities merge the practices of reading and writing. The novel insight of this study is how reception becomes a structural as well as hermeneutical issue for Chaucerians. A reading of the critical reception of the 'Retraction' serves to illuminate her point well. In this discussion, a rehearsal of the medieval paradigms of authorship -- of poet, writer and author -- are made, and then developed in relation to modern and postmodern theories of authorship. A persuasive case is made of how Chaucer traverses across all categories. The fragmented, parodic and playful continuation of "pseudo-Chaucerianisms" in present day marginal discourse seems to irritate Trigg, as yet more evidence of the professional field's claims of authenticity, that badge of masculine friendship in another guise. Once again the chapter closes with the suggestion that the days are numbered for such a tradition, due to postmodern attacks on authorial presence and, importantly, on critical ability to access or continue such presence.

In the third chapter, fifteenth-century additions to Chaucer's poems, critical reception of these "writerly readers," and modern imaginative reconstructions of Chaucerian verse are examined as a means to chart the origins and course of Chaucerian criticism. Focus is first made on structural and stylistic responses to Chaucer's poetry, in the Ellesmere, Hengwrt and Northumberland 455 manuscripts. John Lydgate's Siege of Thebes is also considered to begin the process of authorizing Chaucer, but in a different way as Chaucer is seen in this poem as someone who exists in a special relationship to his text. Trigg's analysis is even more perceptive in her recognition that Lydgate does not simply "become" Chaucer, he promotes the death of the author placing himself at the center of the narrative. As such, he creates distance between the present and past authors, developing the role of critical receiver instead of poetic imitator, creating a "readerly countersignature." Despite an astute survey of modern critical responses to Lydgate's poem, one weakness in this chapter is Trigg's ignorance of the recent critical trend to consider Lydgate's poetry its own right, as having distinct fifteenth-century cultural specificities. (For example see Scott-Morgan Staker, "Deference and Difference: Lydgate, Chaucer and the Siege of Thebes," The Review of English Studies 52 [2001]: 1-21, or James Simpson, "Bulldozing the Middle Ages: The Case of John Lydgate," New Medieval Literatures 4 (2001): 215.) She does, however, note this trend in the critical reception of the Tale of Beryn, and reads it as a sign of the future decline of obsessive "tracing and retracing the revoicing of Chaucer by his followers." Trigg has a particular ability of assessing likely departures from Chaucerian traditions in future critical scholarship. An ingenious and original connection is made between the fifteenth-century poetic imitations, completions and additions and the modern desire for absolute closure on The Canterbury Tales, in the desire for a "General Epilogue." She provides a unique criticism of a minor but important genre, modern Middle English, from Furnivall to John Bower. What emerges is a consistent desire for "heterosexual closure into the scene of reception, rewriting and recreation," that remains in competition with professional discourse.

The critical rather than poetic tradition is tackled next in a study of the transition from manuscript to print culture and from private to public readership. Detailed surveys are made of how the key figures of John Shirley, Caxton, Wynkyn de Worde, Thynne, Speght and John Atkyn engage in textual recuperation of the medieval past. What is new and interesting in this survey is the focus on the discourse of friendly authorship that is to be found in such humanist prefaces, commentaries, biographies and glosses. Editors are shown in various ways to be positioning themselves as the expert readers of Chaucer's verse, authorizing their own objective scholarly and philologically informed works due to their gentlemanly friendship with Chaucer, and inviting fellow reader friends to comment on their work. The discourse of friendship preserves the reading of Chaucer for a professional elite, who efface the distance of linguistic and historical alterity of Chaucer's verse for the collective public readership. It is not until Dryden appears (he gets a chapter of his own) that the trope of a heavenly comradeship of poets is used to highlight writerly subjectivity, which Trigg claims, is "one that modern Chaucerians are more comfortable in claiming as the origin of their own." Dryden's idea of being a congenial soulmate is seen to bridge the old model of reception through his translations with a new, modern image of criticism in his preface. Trigg summarizes the well-known tradition of how this preface was to shape modernists' subsequent discussion of Chaucer's language, sensibility, interest in human nature and its constancy, comic realism and national (English) character.

The last two chapters harden Trigg's resolve that most Chaucerians are hypocritical, preserving a specialized community of congenial souls who speak with and for Chaucer while proclaiming critical distance. Focus is paid in chapter six to specific moments in nineteenth-century "modern" editorial practices (Trigg disputes the innovatory nature of these practices). First in the firing line, not surprisingly, is Frederick Furnivall. The odd dialectical relationship between Furnivall and his contemporary paleographers is discussed at length, and provides evidence for Trigg's thesis that the literary critic is "caught between enthusiasm and scholarship, between the work of philology and criticism." Caution is needed when reading this expose of the life and motives of Furnivall, due to the focus on the agency of individuals at the expense of acknowledging wider forces that shaped Chaucer's reception. For instance, discussion is sidelined of the nineteenth-century model of education, that promoted social equality but retained an elitist head governing the system. Surely such institutional forces contributed, as much as individuals, to Chaucer emerging as a congenial patriarch? Where Trigg's entertaining and lively study is of significance is in her practice of relating different reception communities in fresh and original ways. For example, she identifies an affinity between Furnivall and Terence Hawkes, between the social and nationalist agenda of promoting early English and the mid 1980's campaign of promoting literary theory. Both are 'justified' on the grounds of making English literature a subject worthy of study and being cost effective. Also, the nineteenth-century debate about the relevance and place of arcane specialisms in medieval studies is related to the institutional development of English Studies, a debate I notice is once again arising in England in medievalists' discussion about inter / cross / post / anti-disciplinarity.

The chapter closes with two rather unusual choices of reception moments, in discussion of Virginia Woolf and G. K. Chesterton. The arbitrary nature of Trigg's method allows her to side-step the traditional trajectory of Chaucerian criticism and identify alternative receptions. Woolf, Trigg postulates, prefigures the debates in comparative historicism and the questions of textual evidence in the disciplines of history and literature. Meanwhile, Chesterton we are encouraged to believe prefigures the "self conscious political criticism of Marxist and materialist readers."

The best is saved for last; the final chapter is a hard hitting, uncompromising exploration of twentieth-century's so-called invention of textual criticism. "Reforming the Chaucer Community" exposes the paradox that Trigg has been excavating and challenging in the book: the diverse critical attitudes that a canonical author can spawn, while due to that status of canonicity the resistance to reform within the community permitted to discuss such diversity. Trigg confronts the conservative nature of a supposedly seminal work that claimed to depart liberally from the Robertsonian tradition of exegesis and positivist hermeneuticism, New Perspectives in Chaucer Criticism, edited by Donald Rose. The next stage of reform in the mid 1980's is not considered false, but of having a more limited effect than should have been. David Aers' Marxist and Stephen Knight's materialist works are welcomed as having introduced a more self reflective and intemperate strand. It is, however, feminism that is seen by Trigg as the liberator in the late 1980's and early 1990's, with Carloyn Dinshaw placing Chaucerian Studies in a broader institutional context by using both medieval and modern reading paradigms. Elaine Tuttle Hansen's form of feminism is judged to "represent the most considered attacks on many of the conventional subject positions of Chaucerian Studies and the cozy bonds that hold the masculinized imaginary community of readers together." Having the benefit of distance Trigg is able to assess the fits and starts of reform over recent decades in the academy -- at both the "popular" student market level and the "professional" level of scholarly communities. A timely and needy assessment, Trigg argues that we may now be on a brink of true reform, due to the virtues of postmodern, feminist, and postcolonial criticisms. In ever relentlessly optimistic tone she looks forward to a new directness, self-perception and integrity in Chaucerian Studies that can liberate us from the closed community of "congenial souls." The gauntlet is laid down for truly reforming Chaucerian Studies, and only with distance will the impact of Trigg's book be understood as either a minor, discontinued or momentous new beginning in the Chaucerian Tradition. What it does do is prioritize the need for not desiring to speak to Chaucer, but to Chaucerians.