14.11.03, Spearing, Medieval Autographies

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Mary-Jo Arn

The Medieval Review 14.11.03

Spearing, A.C.. Medieval Autographies: The "I" of the Text. Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies 2008. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. Pp. viii, 348. ISBN: 9780268017828 (paperback).

Reviewed by:
Mary-Jo Arn
Independent Scholar

A. C. Spearing has in recent years produced not one but two vitally important books on a central issue, if not a central concern, of Middle English criticism: the narrator. The first, Textual Subjectivity: The Encoding of Subjectivity in Medieval Narratives and Lyrics (2005), is a meticulous analysis of and deeply informed argument about the phenomenon of the apparent speaker in Middle English poetry. The second, an expanded version of the Conway Lectures in Medieval Studies, considers the "genres" of the dream, the prologue, and the dit and extends the demonstration of his conclusions in the previous book to post-Chaucerian narrative. Together they form an unusual pair of companion volumes.

In the first of the two books, Spearing links late Middle English writers with earlier writers of romance: the King Horn author writing in the early thirteenth century and the Havelok author writing around 1300; he moves through Chaucer's work, chiefly the Troilus and the Man of Law's Tale, and that of the Pearl-poet, and then into post-Chaucerian literature in his discussion of the lyrics of Charles of Orleans and others, and epistolary poetry. In the second book, he follows discussion of Chaucer's Wife of Bath with that of works by Thomas Hoccleve and Osbern Bokenham. The two books share at least four premises, all of which are acts of myth busting: (1) writing is not, stricto sensu, a representation of speech and would not have been understood to have been so in the Middle Ages; (2) narrative does not require a narrator; (3) a narrator does not function in Middle English poetry as a "unifying principle"; (4) the "I" of the text is not intended to act as a fully developed consciousness or character in the work.

An oversimplified version of the problem that Spearing sets out to solve in both works goes something like this. We (professional, academic readers) create a character out of the "I" because we are unwittingly looking at medieval poetry in the same way we've been trained to look at novels and short stories, which frequently (or perhaps always) have narrators. To discover the workings of a piece of literature, that which makes it cohere, is one of the primary tasks of the professional reader. In order to succeed in displaying the coherence of a great many medieval works, the reader must see the narrator as unreliable. Only thus can the work be seen to hang together from beginning to end. What we seek, we find. This created narrator serves us well because, when we encounter inconsistencies or even just things we don't like or don't agree within the text, we can explain them away as misunderstandings or character flaws of the narrator. This has consequences: it cleans up the work by smoothing out problems of incoherence; it allows for the creation of more intricate literary structures; and it makes the genre we are dealing with much more familiar to today's readers (students). Because this little mechanism works so well, we can then ignore the work as literature and get on with whatever interests us (psychology, politics, gender, or whatever subject or ideology is currently fashionable). In the process we miss the poetry, and usually fail to enjoy its pleasures.

Of course the medieval author's plan, when he had one, may not always have been to produce a text that was, in the first place, coherent, and he or she may not have been in complete control of the material at hand. As academic readers, however, we are not content to allow such imperfections (omissions, contradictions) in the work of our chosen author. After all, we compete for space in anthologies and conference programs and grant competitions. We stake our reputations on our ability to read (and to publish our readings) and to make sense of medieval works of literature, and the sense we make of them often translates as consistency. Why didn't Chaucer polish the Troilus before moving on to the Tales? Why is Hoccleve's Series so disjointed--and who is the Old Man anyway? We cannot allow such questions to stand if we are to defend or enhance the quality of the work of the author we are writing about. We must therefore find intention and organic form. Looked at from this angle, the "I" of the text becomes a consciousness, a personality that reacts to fictional figures and events and reveals his or her own moral system in the process. This approach to Middle English literature has been a boon to students, who need to grasp the nature and structure of the work they are reading. The unreliable narrator makes papers easier to write and essay questions easier to answer. What they have learned, students later teach.

Unfortunately, in this process we readers lose more than we gain. We lose the grappling with an alien genre, a genre we no longer write and therefore no longer have the tools to read. We lose "face-to-face" contact with the author, attempting to understand his or her struggles with the chosen material and form. We lose the required vigilance and the ensuing battle that comes with freedom--freedom, that is, from this mechanism Spearing describes. And we lose the immersion of ourselves in "the literature of literature", the poetry. We thus create that which we want to read--but, Spearing asks, what if we have no such thing before us? What if autobiography and the narrator as distinguishable from the author had not yet been invented (and would not be until the eighteenth century, with the rise of the novel)? What if what we have at hand is a compilation, an apparent assemblage of forms or ideas or stories? What if the author resisted a consistent, God-like design and took risks that did not always result in a smooth product? How are we to make sense of the work? Spearing suggests that the concept of autography can help us to understand such works better than does the invention of a narrator.

We can begin to back out of the crevice we've gotten wedged into by replacing our model of the novel with a more accurate one of medieval forms or genres, and we could begin with prologues and dream poems (the latter of which the author dealt with in his 1976 book, Medieval Dream Poems, and so does not take up here), which Spearing sees as subsets of the French dit form. These three forms are related in that all are free from internal logic, free from the requirement of coherence, and free from story (though they might contain stories). All are autographic.

Medieval poetry is in many ways more fixed than more modern literature (Roland will die--always). Medieval writing is generally rewriting--retelling in writing what has been told many times before: biblical or classical stories or histories, treatises on philosophical or religious subjects, even love poetry (what story is older?). Although that left the author space to craft the given story the way he liked, it limited him to received fictional or historical figures and events. What it did not allow is what Spearing calls free writing. Chaucer, to take one example, who was no great planner, got around these limitations by writing an inordinate number of prologues and an unusual number of dream visions. His desire to improvise is evident in his Canterbury Tales.

The dit is of course a French form that no English writer claims to have composed, but Chaucer is likely to have taken to the dream and the prologue because they offered him the kind of freedom (free writing) that the dit as practiced by Machaut or Deschamps affords (and Spearing points to Hoccleve's knowledge of French literature as well as to Chaucer's). What the dit also affords is autographic writing, that is, writing in which the first person is used not to present a fictional character, a fully developed consciousness, but to add to the narrative a subjectivity that is not specific, a sense of person without a personality. The dream models this most clearly. It can only be my dream because only I dreamed it. Likewise a prologue might begin anywhere, proceed in any direction, and arrive wherever the writer pleases. Chaucer's prologues are good examples. The dit, like the dream (in fact sometimes confused with the dream) begins wherever the author chooses, rambles through all sorts of places where any kind of character (allegorical or not) may be encountered, and ends--sometimes abruptly--at almost any moment. All three genres are also frequently about writing or at least reveal a serious concern with writing, the very writing of the piece being read.

Spearing turns to autography to explain how these three kinds of writing all carry out an intention to write "non-lyrical discourse in the first person" without creating a narrator who is or has a consistent individual consciousness--and why it has been necessary to "create" the new category of autography. Autography as he defines it has four main characteristics: it is non-lyrical writing in the first person; it involves freely composing, following no blueprint; it creates the illusion of speech but remains unmistakably textual (it has an "indeterminacy of tone, deriving from the unfixed position of the textual 'I'," 133); and it takes writing as its theme. Autography is a literary device in which first person is introduced not in order to insert a fully developed human consciousness into a story but, in Spearing's words, to introduce the "I" as "a means of evoking proximality and experientiality" (257). His announcement of the death of the unreliable narrator in late medieval English poetry is a very large project and well worth the trouble of the writing--and reading--of these two books of exposition and demonstration.

The writing of autography in English begins with Wynnnere and Wastoure, followed by Chaucer's Book of the Duchess. Spearing's discussion of the French forerunners of this kind of writing is richly well-informed, dealing with its simplest form in the Dit des monstiers and its most complex and sophisticated, in Machaut's Voir Dit. Against this background, he lays the prologues of Chaucer, especially the one attached to the Wife of Bath's Tale. By drawing out many inconsistencies and unanswerable questions in his meticulous dissection of the prologue and pointing out the many Latinate sources for it, Spearing reveals the fact that it is not actually a monologue by a surprisingly well-rounded character, but an instance of "impersonatory realism"--that what we are reading is the work of a man staging a woman, Chaucer performing the Wife of Bath. Like all his prologues, this is a textual performance, not a writing down of an imagined oral performance.

Spearing uses this conception of medieval composition to shed light on the work of two post-Chaucerian authors deeply influenced by him: Thomas Hoccleve and Osbern Bokenham. I shall deal only with Hoccleve. Although Spearing titles his fourth chapter "Why Autography?" it is in his discussion of Hoccleve that he illustrates the why and how of it. Earlier he named two possible catalysts for the invention of autography: being "forced by external circumstances into self-absorption and a sense of being separated from others" (100), and psychological disturbance. The second clearly applies to Hoccleve, but the loss of his livelihood adds to it the first. Writing provides a means of recovering himself (he has become separated from his wit), but this does not mean that he is writing autobiography. "Of Chaucer's many fifteenth-century followers, the one who learned most from his predecessor's autographic writings was Thomas Hoccleve" (129). Autography makes sense of many things in Hoccleve's Prologue (chapter five) and his Series (chapter six). Both are freely composed and resemble the formless form of the dit more than a little. Hoccleve's rambling digressiveness--the fragments of the texts, its many kinds of instability, the fictional dismemberment of his own body, his display of his faults, his timidity--is to be enjoyed, not explained away. The "I" of the poem produces "effects of proximality and experientiality" (145) through autography. The work's fits and starts are intentional and dramatize a number of Hoccleve's agents of unrest. His need to express his dis-ease is itself a symptom of his problems, but his lamentation is autographic rather than personal, a construction, not an expression of personality. Hoccleve skates closer to autobiography than does any other Middle English poet (173), but he does not quite write autobiography, nor did he intend to.

One of the challenges Spearing faces is imagining a time and a kind of writing before the invention of autobiography as we know it. This makes discussion of the main "character" of the Prologue and the Series particularly difficult to analyze and position. With his usual precision, Spearing teases apart the "speeches" to illustrate his claim that Hoccleve's writing creates the illusion of speech but remains clearly textual. "The inner life evoked by the Dialogue, constructed out of recognizable literary fragments, keeps on dissolving into completely free textuality, unanchored by any single voice" (207). Spearing points to the insubstantiality of the Old Man as a "person" separate from the "I" and Hoccleve's concern with writing about writing as he portrays his unhealthful clerk's job. So these two works have all the earmarks of the dit. Spearing describes the Series as "a montage made up of a number of distinct parts" (171), held together only by an "I." This "I" carries all the markers of autographic writing: it is discontinuous, it mimes speech in writing, it mixes forms, it is concerned with its own composition, it dramatizes its own lack of control.

Medieval Autographies is not a book to be perused in parts, to be dipped into here and there as one's own interest or one's research subject dictates. Because the literary phenomenon he analyzes is so fundamental, it is essential to engage with Spearing's entire argument. This review cannot begin to represent his nuanced handling of late Middle English poetry (see his discussion of the Miller and the Reeve in chapter two), which is more finely drawn that this review can reproduce, but what it can offer is the suggestion that, if we remove the need to distort Middle English literary works by reading them as dramatic monologues, we gain whole new reading pleasures in the play of ambiguities and inconsistencies in the text. In allowing the author his freedom, we regain our own.

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Author Biography

Mary-Jo Arn

Independent Scholar