08.04.07, Spearing, Textual Subjectivity

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Elizabeth Scala

The Medieval Review baj9928.0804.007


Spearing, A. C.. Textual Subjectivity: The Encoding of Subjectivity in Medieval Narratives and Lyrics.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Pp. vii, 273. ISBN: 0-19-818724-6.

Reviewed by:
Elizabeth Scala
University of Texas at Austin

There's something of a theoretical retrospective going on in literary studies these days. Hard-core social constructionists are trumpeting essential differences (Eve Sedgwick), and dyed-in-the-wool Marxists are urging more close reading and attention to aesthetics (Terry Eagleton). The boomer generation of literary critics is seeing new horizons in refuting its once signature moves, generously returning us to a simpler way of reading. Medievalists, for their part, are not immune to this trend. Since the principal subject of this review is A. C. Spearing's Textual Subjectivity and its principal focus is Chaucer, we could call this trend in medievalist scholarship "the New Retraction." Its global form may be no easier to take than the local one I will describe here, and neither is it any less suspect than Chaucer's own repudiation of much of his writing at the end of the Canterbury Tales.

In this book, Tony Spearing returns to the question of the narrator in medieval poetry. He overturns much of his own former scholarship to argue that most of our theorizing of the complex narrating subjects constructed by Troilus and Criseyde, the Canterbury Tales, and Pearl are really matters of linguistic necessity rather than poetic creativity and intent. Beginning with the rather simple narratorial situation in Middle English romance, here exemplified by King Horn and Havelock the Dane, Spearing holds that deixis--"terms that have no objective referential meaning...are used to describe objects or events in their spatio- temporal (and, by extension, emotional) relation to the person who uses them[:] I, you, here, there, this, that, and so on" (5)--accounts for the complexities that will be identified as self-consciously crafted narrating personae distinct from the authors who created them. In Horn and Havelock, Spearing shows, many deictic features appear to mark both a spoken and a written narrative situation; this emerges from the textual conditions of late medieval poetic making.

Textual Subjectivity thus challenges readers, particularly those invested in Chaucer's complex storytelling, to give up the assumption of "the narrator" installed after New Criticism's reign of irony and largely drawn from assumptions based on the novel. The "function of the medieval poet as a reteller and commentator marks a fundamental difference from the role of the novelist. The consequences of this fact are, perhaps inevitably, missed by theorists whose conception of 'fiction' is shaped by the novel, a genre whose very name indicates a claim to originality" (22). Spearing devotes his book to these consequences and reminds us, with a review of older criticism that is now largely neglected, how scholarship once operated without this base assumption. Showing the slipperiness of terms like "poet," "author," and "narrator," which are too often used interchangeably, Spearing re-locates the grammatical and poetic speaking subject in the text and refocuses our attention on the textuality of medieval narrative.

Bravely and admirably, Spearing chooses the most difficult and resistant cases to prove his points. One can hardly think of narrators more likely to be personalized and individuated (and thus open to our probing skepticism) than those of Troilus and the Man of Law's Tale, especially since the latter claims to be a speaker different from one "Chaucer" in his own prologue. Called upon for a story by Harry Bailly, the Man of Law complains about the lack of stories available because Chaucer has told so many of them already. True, such a claim does not argue for a distinct and consistent personality for the Man of Law that could (and should) then become the key to unlocking the meaning of his narrative. Spearing is certainly right here. But surely it does distinguish the Man of Law from the Chaucer we know to be his author.

Much of Spearing's book argues for the value of good common sense. This is especially pointed where it relates to hyper-theorizing narrative (largely on the basis of the nineteenth- and twentieth- century novel) and the failure to examine knee-jerk assumptions about the autonomy (and thus unreliability) of narrators. Spearing's extensive reading in narrative theory (in at least three languages) licenses his critique of its lack of historical differentiation as well as his corrective to medievalists for over-indulging in it--and that includes himself. He tirelessly castigates himself and some of his former studies, in fact, for their over-indulgence in these matters, a de facto separation of author and narrator.

But one could quibble here on a number of grounds, some of them Spearing's own. As, for example, when he complains of the way so many current medievalists blithely ignore the critical works of earlier generations in an unscientific evaluation of previous "knowledge." How can one complain about this kind of critical neglect and write footnotes such as "Space forbids a comprehensive survey of existing criticism; in particular I omit consideration of the relation of the 'I' of Chaucer's writing to Chaucer's social and political situation in his lifetime" (77, n. 9)? But there are less ironic moments of contradiction. For instance, when Spearing draws attention to a certain kind of criticism he finds unduly neglected, he enacts some neglect of his own. Here I note his tendency throughout Textual Subjectivity to defend the commonsense interpretations of Helen Cooper, Derek Pearsall, and the late Elizabeth Salter. These three important and well-respected British medievalists of Spearing's own largely New Critical generation (who remain untainted by any theoretical allegiance--we would call them literary historians) need little defending.

However, it should be noted that the students of these three, along with those of E.T. Donaldson, have been largely responsible for the theoretical turn in medieval literary studies. Here I am referring to such scholars as Lee Patterson and David Aers, among others. Because their critical works are prominently cited by scholars of diverse orientations, Spearing's special pleading for them leads me to wonder if Spearing is really complaining about the neglect of his own work-- even as, ironically, he's repudiating much of what would have been read. Less personally perhaps we might note the anti-Americanism in the particulars of Spearing's anti-Kittredgian critique; this is a critique of the very American Chaucer industry in which Spearing himself works. In many ways this is a book that rails against the way modern medievalists have cast Chaucer in their own image, the way critics continue to find Chaucer in sympathy with themselves by separating him from his fallible narrator. But given the remarks above, we might likewise see Spearing's Chaucer in much Spearing's own image, British and commonsensical, throwing entirely new light on the book's core conviction.

Taking up Spearing's topic, the subjectivity produced in texts by language rather than by "characterization," we might return to theory- -a different theory than the one Spearing demonizes--to rehistoricize the "self" he spends so much time critiquing. Many of the readers who find themselves criticized by this book for their overly complex and "ingenious" readings are those who would also argue against any notion of a unified or stable "self" in these texts--such a fantasy is the construction of Burkhardtian humanism. The narrating subjects of Chaucer's poems and of Pearl's unconsoled father are subjected to various discourses as well as the subjections of language, and such studies have emphasized their subjected nature rather than their autonomous selfhood. This is not Spearing's cause. Nor is it explicitly what his book is about, even though it is the language that he uses--and so, one could say, it remains invoked by him even if he does not mean it.

Spearing's attention to the control of language over the author's attempt to write narrative, and in more modern students' interest in the subjections of narrative speaking, we can see not so much stark differences as relations of emphasis. That is, focused and narrow attention to one of these features necessarily blinds us to others nearby. And to that extent, Spearing's points are well taken, even if I'm not about to change my mind about the individuation of Chaucer's narrators. I can appreciate what Chaucer's narrative shares with the Middle English romances of Havelock and Horn. But such a comparison tends to make those romancers more complex (in making oral performance textual) rather than simplifying Chaucerian narrative (making all of his narrators into versions of Chaucer himself).

This book proceeds chronologically, and thus works implicitly in developmental terms, beginning with Havelok and Horn and working through Chaucer's Troilus and Man of Law's Tale to the Pearl poet, lyrics, and epistolary poems. The jump from the early thirteenth-century romance to the late fourteenth-century works of Chaucer could be better explained. The romances make Spearing's case most clearly and thus set the model of textual subjectivity out of which, he argues, the later texts develop. That is, in Horn and Havelok we see fine examples of the subjectivity effects that grammar and writing produce, which form the foundation upon which later writers like Chaucer build. Spearing's readings of Horn and Havelock are sensitive to the ways Middle English romances more generally appeal to both a written form and an oral context. This mingling of written and oral text occurs throughout romances copied into the fifteenth century, which suggests both the aural nature of delivery (reading aloud from a written text) as well as the possible fictionalization of the minstrel performance in later romances, topics studied by Joyce Coleman and Andrew Taylor respectively. Such attention to these romances makes us aware of their author's presence in the text as well as the use of free indirect discourse--contrary to what scholars of the nineteenth-century claim for Jane Austen's invention of the device.

Spearing is pressed into harder service once he begins discussing Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, whose readers are heavily wedded to the notion of a fully characterized narrator telling its sad tale. He sends out a clarion call for us to see this figure as an inscription of Chaucer facing the difficulties of writing, instead of liberating Chaucer from making them a fiction of the poem (74). If the source of much of Spearing's critique is the over-influential readings of "Chaucer the Pilgrim" by E. T. Donaldson, the deeper source for Donaldson is G. L. Kittredge's dramatic reading of the Canterbury Tales as the speeches of individual characters in a play. Further, in moving from these early Middle English romances to Chaucer's late medieval English sophistication, he sets up a linguistic lineage of narrative articulation at odds with the French and Italian sources of Chaucer's works. And though Spearing does mention the works of Machaut and Froissart as the sources for some of the narrators Chaucer seems to have analogously complicated according to their models, he attempts to show the Middle English language as one that more fully constrains and thus explains the "consciousness" (or lack of one) we have at work in late medieval English fiction.

Textual Subjectivity is full of provocative and compelling considerations that ought to be taken seriously. Spearing is well aware of the fundamental philosophic propositions about the subject his study broaches, and he cites (even if secondhand) Heidegger to posit its limits. Though he does not fully take it up, he gestures to a predominantly different world view in the Middle Ages, one that "took for granted the objective existence of certain realities, such as God or stories" (28), unlike the modern world, in which the human subject is made "the ultimate foundation upon which entities are rendered intelligible" (28; quoting Critchley, Deconstructive Subjectivities). Positing the objectivity of God is one thing, but taking "stories" to the same objective extent is yet another. Spearing does not dilate at this point, but rather concludes: "But I cannot offer that as anything more than speculation"--or than assumption, we might better say.

Spearing sees the modern theory of the narrator as something we too easily assume for medieval literature. This theory participates in the humanist assumption of an autonomous self--one that writes completely new and original narratives. As such, it is something that modernism and post-modernism have been working to undo, and that the late- medieval period had not yet seen done. In his words: "For medieval writers a distinction that seems obvious to us but is now beginning to dissolve did not yet exist, or was only just beginning to come into existence. In this respect as in others, we are experiencing their history in reverse" (23). Such observations subtend some of the post- historicizing moments in current medieval studies that link the medieval to the post-modern in new and engaging ways. Like much of that post-historicism, Spearing attempts to link his work to pleasure, seeing the danger of "a lessening of the pleasure to be gained from reading" (33). But much remains unanswered in this plain defense of pleasure, what might be a defense of the New Critical close reading his work exemplifies and whose over-reading of the narrator he now critiques and repudiates. While acknowledging the "primitive and indispensable goal of pleasure," he fails to tell us how it is constituted, for whom it works, and by what standard it could be universal.

In conclusion, Textual Subjectivity is, like Tony Spearing's books more generally, thought provoking, intelligently written, and sensitive to the details of literary texts. If I am not fully convinced by his argument, I am sure the subject deserves more of our attention.

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Author Biography

Elizabeth Scala

University of Texas at Austin