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13.09.38, Seaman, Joy, and Masciandaro, eds., Dark Chaucer

13.09.38, Seaman, Joy, and Masciandaro, eds., Dark Chaucer

Dark Chaucer is an essay collection that positions itself as a "rogue journey against the teleological tides of the narratives and over the beachheads of certain comforting scholarly 'resolutions'" (prefatory note, unnumbered second page). The book is "rogue" even in its method of publication. It was produced by Punctum Books, a Brooklyn-based publishing enterprise that offers its books free under a Creative Commons license and that bills itself on its website as: "dedicated to radically creative modes of intellectual inquiry and writing across a whimsical para-humanities assemblage." Punctum Books is directed by Eileen A. Joy, and "powered by" the BABEL working group, so medieval scholarship is well represented in its still-small catalogue, often in conversation with scholarship that the conventional disciplinary apparatus of the academy would have kept quite distinct.

The volume's subtitle, "An Assortment" aptly describes the mix of voices, scholarly approaches, and even definitions of "darkness" to be found within the collection. Some essays are resolutely personal. Brantley Bryant's "Saturn's Darkness," uses the personal narratives of eight anonymous academics to call for a more humane openness toward those within the academy who confront depression or anxiety. In "A Dark Stain and a Non-Encounter," Ruth Evans introduces and punctuates her essay about the abyssal epistemology of Alcyone's dream in the Book of the Duchess with a parallel narrative about herself writing the essay; Evans's desire to find the "dark stain at the edge of the poem" is uncannily gratified both through and despite the refusal of consolation in Alcyone's dream.

Other essays celebrate Chaucerian obscurity within a more traditional academic rhetoric of scholarly revelation. Nicola Masciandaro's "Half Dead: Parsing Cecelia" is wide ranging in its jumps from Augustine to Foucault to Nietszche to Aristotle to Heidegger, and also in offering multiple interpretations of the fact that the Second Nun's Tale's headsman strikes Cecelia three times without decapitating her. Still, while the essay resists singularity in its approach, it presents that multiplicity in terms of interpretive unity: "The representation of the three strokes emits several rays of darkness, occult illuminations of significance from what the image hides" (73).

The darkness of or surrounding Chaucer in these essays also varies. In many, Chaucerian darkness means "women have it bad in this Chaucerian text" and more broadly in the literary traditions that Chaucer inherited. Hannah Priest's essay, "Unravelling Constance" plays on Constance's explanation that she was: "so mazed in the see/ That she forgat hir mynde," invoking other mazes (the labyrinth) and other stories of women whose identity was lost (Procne). Priest's essay uses a refrain which, alongside the essay's allusions, demonstrates that the narrative repetitions of the Man of Law's Tale are only a microcosm of the repetitions of Constance's story, or of stories like it, throughout the western canon. This darkness goes well beyond Chaucer, but Priest leaves unanswered the question of Chaucer's culpability in this tradition.

In a few of the essays, the collection's titular darkness is an emotional darkness, referring to characters' deaths or their desire for death. Very frequently these essays use "dark" as a synonym for "occluded," highlighting interpretive obscurity, things unknowable or unsaid. Two of the essays deal with visible darkness: in Candace Barrington's "Dark Whiteness: Benjamin Brawley and Chaucer," the darkness is racial blackness; in Travis Neel and Andrew Richmond's "Black as the Crow," it is the transformed color of the Manciple's Tale's crow.

Some of the essays are only obliquely about Chaucer. In Bryant's "Saturn's Darkness," the Knight's Tale's contrast between Theseus and Saturn figures the hollowness of the pretense that one is in control of one's own professional and personal destiny. In Barrington's "Dark Whiteness," Chaucer is a synecdoche for the dominant (white) Anglo-American literary tradition. Barrington argues that the sonnet "Chaucer" (1908) by the African-American scholar Benjamin Brawley implicitly staked Brawley's own claim to a position within that tradition, "darkening" Chaucer.

The methodologies visible in this dark collection are equally diverse. Dark Chaucer is bounded by reception history in the volume's first essay (Barrington) and paratextual study in its last: Thomas White, "The Dark is Light Enough: The Layout of the Tale of Sir Thopas." Between these insistently historicizing approaches are essays much more playful in their sense of time. Gaelan Gilbert's "Chaucerian Afterlives: Reception and Aeschatology" juxtaposes the afterlife of literary reception with Chaucer's own interest in soteriology. Lisa Schamess's "L'O de V: a Palimpsest" superimposes the Story of O upon the Physician's Tale, revealing parallels between Virginia's willing renunciation of agency and that of O.

Given the assortedness of the contents, it is perhaps appropriate that the collection demonstrates some ambivalence about its own form. The volume begins with a Prefatory Note on two unnumbered pages that precede the Table of Contents (which does not mention this anterior text). The volume's first tabled entry is "and here we are as on a darkling plain" by Gary J. Shipley, which both is and is not a preface. The running header of the text reads: "Poetic Preface," but that phrase appears neither on the title page or on the text's internal title. Shipley's text appears on pages denominated in lower case Roman numerals, but it reads more like a postface than a preface, despite its placement and numbering. Shipley's lyric mediations on each of the essays recapitulates their central ideas but without either summarizing or introducing them in the usual rhetorical sense.

Shipley's texts, while evocative as commentaries, would be cryptic if read prior to the essays themselves. Myra Seaman's "Disconsolate Art" identifies both Sir Orfeo and Book of the Duchess as "disconsolate art," art that insistently refuses a humanist consolation for mortality. Shipley's response to Seaman's essay expands her analysis to the epigrammatic: "A corpse with the merest purpose has more art and life than those that though still living stand enervated by the air they breathe" (v). Shipley's prose is simultaneously playful and erudite, and to that extent seems to call for a reader who is already familiar with its subject. Bob Valasek's essay "The Light Has Lifted: Trickster Pandare" implicates the reader in Pandarus's dark mischief. Shipley says of Pandarus: "Our intrigant though detached is not omniscient, so cannot see the latent doom his instrument must face, nor the instrument that he too has become" (vi). Gaelan Gilbert also points out the way Troilus and Criseyde accuses the reader of desiring an always-elusive interpretive control (53-54). After his death, Troilus laughs at this folly, but perhaps he should rather weep.

Troilus and Criseyde, which begins by announcing the "double sorwe" of Troilus (TC, I, 1) is a likely place to look for Chaucerian darkness. The Prefatory Note calls upon us to question the notion of Chaucer as a comic poet; the dark passages in Chaucer are "more numerous than you realize when you start looking for them" (unnumbered second page). Many of the dark passages brought to light in this collection are, however, ones a reader might expect to find in a collection focused on the melancholic or disturbing. Two of the essays discuss the Book of the Duchess (Evans, Seaman); two discuss the Knight's Tale (Bryant, Steel); two the Man of Law's Tale (Priest, Steel); and three the Physician's Tale (Schamess, Steel, Treharne).

When the essays do concern the same Chaucerian text, however, they deploy similar material to different ends. In "L'O de V," Schamess emphasizes the fact that Chaucer's version of the tale of Virginia is unique in featuring Virginia's own request for her death. For Schamess, this willing self-abnegation "resonates" (151) with the fact that Anne Declos/Dominique Aury invented a tale of an idealized submissive in order to please her older, more socially prominent, male lover. Schamess also implicates Chaucer in desiring control over a powerless woman, citing the documentation surrounding the rape of Cecily Champain (135).

Karl Steel ("Kill Me, Save Me, Let Me Go: Custance, Virginia, Emelye") also focuses on Virginia's request to die, but he allies Chaucer with the three female characters of his subtitle, each of whom "momentarily struggles" against the constraints on her volition before realizing that she is "destined to be made to be satisfied with what happens, destined to be exemplary" (152). Virginia does consent to her own death, but not immediately; "[s]he consents to patriarchal authority, but, in a larger sense, she is consenting to the inevitability of the tale itself" (155). Chaucer himself, Steel notes, was limited by his source material; like these initially-resistant but ultimately resigned female characters, "he could not deny the larger logics of sanctity, political exemplarity, and romance" (159).

A third essay on the Physician's Tale, Elaine Treharne's "The Physician's Tale as Hagioclasm" points out a generic paradox at the center of the Tale: it is a hagiography of a pagan non-saint. Although Viriginia's story echoes the lives of virgin saints, it is spiritually meaningless. As a non-Christian, Virginia gains neither sanctity nor salvation for her chastity. The Tale is a hermeneutic abyss. As Lisa Weston shows, however, even the Prioress's earnest attempt at hagiography fails ("Suffer the Little Children, or, A Rumination on the Faith of Zombies"). The Prioress's fascination with the macabre details of the clergeon's murder, the arbitrariness with which events occur in her telling, and her use of sexualizing rhetoric unsettle the generic conventions of the saint's life. In the end, the universe of the Prioress's Tale ultimately remains a dark and capricious one" (187), and the saint's life fails in its generic purpose.

Leigh Harrison also finds darkness in a Chaucerian text that undermines the stereotypes of its genre: "Black Gold: The Former (and Future) Age." In its eight stanzas, "The Former Age" seems to hold up the golden past as a lost ideal. Harrison, however, finds "profound blackness in this apparently simple poem" (60), insofar as the poem shows that the undesirability of the former age rivals and may even exceed that of the present age, which the poem associates with: "covetyse,/ Doublenesse, and tresoun, and envye, Poyson, manslawhtre, and mordre" (lines 61-63). The people of the former age may have been peaceful, but they were also animalistic, subhuman, in Chaucer's telling. The poem does not contrast a debased present with an idealized past state so much as it contrasts two unpleasant social structures.

The Prefatory Note recalls the book's origin in a dinner conversation among friends, and Dark Chaucer retains the feel of friendly, even joking, conviviality, titular darkness notwithstanding. Reading Dark Chaucer has the feel of attending a particularly dynamic conference or seminar series. The essays are provocative, sometimes playful, and potentially generative, opening just as many questions as they answer. The free distribution of this electronic book should give it a boost among cash-starved graduate students. If this is the case, Dark Chaucer may well give rise to a few years of illuminatingly dark Chaucerian dissertations.