The Medieval Review 12.06.41


Holley, Linda Tarte. Reason and Imagination in Chaucer, the Perle-Poet, and the Cloud-Author. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Pp. svi, 184. $74.95. ISBN: 978-0-230-10510-2.



Reviewed by:


Christopher Roman
Kent State University Tuscarawas
croman2@kent.edu

Linda Tarte Holley's Reason and Imagination addresses issues both timeless and timely. The book is timeless in that it addresses imagining the unthinkable and goes back to first questions of how we know what we know. The book's center is thinking about where medieval authors--specifically Chaucer, the Perle-poet, and the Cloud-author--addressed the issue of knowledge acquisition, framed how we learn, where we stand when we learn, and how we are able to imagine the unthinkable and ineffable. This book is timely in that although not explicitly dealing with the "big guns" of speculative realism--such as Ray Brassier, Graham Harman, or Quentin Meillassoux-- Holley is dealing with similar questions from a literary and historical standpoint: how do we know what we know? where do we stand (or not stand) in the world, and in the text? Although Holley is dealing with these issues from a purely anthro-centric standpoint, a standpoint that speculative realists reject, this book is thinking through where authors or readers stood in book-space. They were imagining where they were not. Holley's book could be in conversation with something like Meillassoux's After Finitude in which he deals with the question of how we know if humans were not there to experience it. For example, how can we know about the prehistoric world if a human (a subject) was not in existence to actually experience it? Meillassoux tracks an answer throughout his book, however he poses this thought to end his first chapter that I think frames Holley's text well: "the arche-fossil enjoins us to track thought by inviting us to discover the 'hidden passage' trodden by the latter in order to achieve what modern philosophy has been telling us for the past two centuries is impossibility itself: to get out of ourselves, to grasp the in-itself, to know what is whether we are or not." [1]

For Holley these medieval writers may not have been fully able to "get out" of themselves, however they were able to occupy the gaps between reason and imagination, at times offering the reader a "view from nowhere" and, therefore, a subjectless space to look. In her Introduction, Holley provides us with the theoretical framework by which she is analyzing the work of Chaucer, the Perle-poet, and the Cloud-author. Holley sets up the medieval (and somewhat modern) conundrum: on the one side there is reason, perhaps figured by mathematics. We can account for what we know and see by what we can measure. We know a triangle has three angles, this can be accounted for. On the other hand, how do we know about what we can't see? For example, how do we "measure" God or does the knowledge of God through faith suffice? In this way, Holley advocates how these writers expound seeing from the center by taking account (or admitting their lack of ability to take account) of how we know and what we know.

In the Introduction, as well, Holley provides a well-researched and descriptive over-view of the tug-of-war between reason and imagination. Holley discusses Aristotle, Augustine, Scotus, and moves us to the present day with Gaston Bachelard, Thomas Nagel, and Bruno Latour. By conversing with modern theoretical concepts of pedagogy and knowledge acquisition Holley underscores our continued struggle with the problem of knowing what we cannot see (think sub-atomic particles, or even climate change, an event that is occurring globally and thus raises the question of where we need to stand to experience and understand it). Holley writes that "our sense of where we stand comes from a willingness to acknowledge our relative position. It is not that we can or must desire to move materially but that we place ourselves here and there by imagination, map, or metaphor" (13). (This idea is exploited to comic effect in the new The Muppet Movie when Fozzy Bear asks how the human characters arrived back at the theater so quickly and they reply, "we came by map"].

In Chapter One, Holley deals with Chaucer's "Nun's Priest's Tale." In this chapter Holley focuses on spatial practice in the NPT. The NPT is an example of a public text space, one that "looks beyond the Jack Straw Rebellion to a place of the future where texts bridge the gap between here and there" (36). Holley provides an overview of the long history of the Reynard adventures in order to ask the question, why would we need another one? Why would Chaucer use this tired tale? In many ways Chaucer's NPT has no clear moral to relate. Chaucer, however, as storyteller, is dependent on space. He reveals a certain "anxiety over contingency" and the text then serves as a way to order space. However, Chaucer lets us into the public space via the fable genre in order to participate in meaning-making, "allowing the outside chance to become the inside narrative" (52).

We move from the public space of meaning-making to the problem of book-learning vs. experience in Chapter Two's analysis of Chaucer's House of Fame. In this chapter Holley argues that the character Geffrey in the House of Fame offers us a version of Thomas Nagel's view from nowhere; a view that "acknowledges the gap between objective and subjective views" which then realizes that "things can only be understood from the inside and that access to them will depend on how far our subjective imagination can travel" (57). Thus, we stand in a nowhere. The House of Fame offers a pedagogy on how to get here, and how to achieve, in Holley's language, "incertitude."

In Chapter Three, Holley finishes her triptych of Chaucer texts by discussing the Book of the Duchess. In this chapter Holley is pointing out Chaucer's critique of a particular way of knowing, namely, allegory. The problem of allegory is that it is too easy to link the material with the abstract, something gets lost. By tackling the sticky problem of sorrow (or Sorrow), Chaucer is able to critique abstraction; Chaucer is attempting a guide to the "invisible motions of the heart" (74). The Book of the Duchess is a testament to that difficulty. On the one hand the author attempts to join the Black Knight's sorrow, while, at the same time, accounting for the difficulty of that notion. Allegory will not paper over that attempt. For Holley "we seem to stand in the space of metaphor—between dreamer/poet and his will to make sorrow readable and present in this moment" (83). In the end, the only place to stand is within the sorrowing self. No (old) allegory will do.

In Chapter Four and Five, Holley presents us with a diptych of chapters on the Perle-poet. In Chapter Four, Holley examines the Perle-poet's use of metaphor in his own examination of sorrow. The poet's dreamer in Perle moves through stages of knowledge represented by three birds: the hawk, the quail, and the phoenix. The hawk is linked with his jeweler's eye--his ability to examine closely. The quail is linked to the dreamer's ability to be humble in his examination. The phoenix represents his ability to imagine, to move beyond his reason into the realm of abstraction. This final stage is exemplified in his relationship with his Perle where he sees that he is separated from her and in closely studying the difference between what he knows (his ground) and what he can only imagine (her ground). Holley argues, however, that the Perle- poet creates a space where the use of metaphor is marked by "persistent uneasiness" because the jeweler makes "rather crude use of them" (99). It is the reader, then, who truly stands in the gap. Although we initially stand and sympathize with the jeweler, we begin to inhabit the space between earth-boundedness and the flights of divinity. In the end, Holley argues, metaphor can only take us so far; they may provide us with a shape, but in the end, the poet "causes the dreamer to show himself" (113). And, thus, we must show ourselves, as well.

In Chapter Five, Holley deals with the spatial considerations to be found in Patience. In Patience the search for a place to stand is characterized as a game between Jonah and God. This poem asks the question, where did God stand during or in the creation of the universe? As Jonah hides in his small place in the boat or finds himself within the belly of the whale, he is always imagining a place to stand in relation to God. God's presence, as argued by many medieval theologians, is everywhere, and, thus, to stand to God, with God, to play with God, is to do these things with the everywhere.

Finally, in Chapter Six, Holley analyzes the Cloud of Unknowing as a counterpoint to her previous chapters. The Cloud-author provides a negative to the question of "science and faith and the question of how one might stand to know" (135). The Cloud- author wants the contemplative to understand him/herself, in Holley's terms, as "space without defining measure" (135). From the beginning, the Cloud-author abandons order so that the contemplative can experience boundlessness. If there is a pedagogical point, it is for the contemplative to forget everything (s)he knows, to stand nowhere in order to experience divinity. As Holley concludes, all this attention to space and where God stands dilutes the contemplative's purpose for the Cloud-author: "a soul is where it loves" (148).

Palgrave's The New Middle Ages series puts out thought-provoking and theoretically timely books. Holley's book, too, fulfills that mission. As Holley writes in her epilogue, "as we read, the text becomes the pedagogical gap, the place where we might stand to look" (152). This book also provides us with a space to look, not only to examine where medieval writers stood and their own interrogation of that standing, but also this book made me think of how we know what we know and how we can push the limits of knowing. Not only is Holley's book thought-provoking in terms of the relation or struggle between reason and imagination and its gaps, but also it suggests that the gaps between the "modern" and the "medieval" are not as wide as we think.

Notes:

1. Meillassoux, Quentin.



Copyright (c) 2012 Christopher Roman

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