16.10.30, Ginsberg, Tellers, Tales, and Translation in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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Robert Meyer-Lee

The Medieval Review 16.10.30

Ginsberg, Warren. Tellers, Tales & Translation in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. pp. x, 250. ISBN: 978-0-19-874878-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Robert Meyer-Lee
Agnes Scott College

In this rewarding monograph Warren Ginsberg unearths an interpretive issue that was at the heart of much twentieth-century Canterbury Tales criticism--the relation between teller and tale--before becoming buried under the hyperboles of dramatic readings like those of R. M. Lumiansky; trenchant critiques of such readings by the likes of C. David Benson, David Lawton, Derek Pearsall, and H. Marshall Leicester; and critical paradigm shifts that moved scholarly interest in the Tales on to other topics. As A. C. Spearing has recently shown (Medieval Autographies, 2012), however, the issue was not so much killed off as entombed alive. Much criticism on the Tales remains haunted by the dramatic readings of the past, maintaining an underlying assumption that the work consists of psychologically realized characters who serve as the narrators of stories whose topics, structure, genre, style, narrational idiosyncrasies, etc. betray their specific subjectivities/interiorities and historical positions, often by means of irony. Various alternative understandings of the relation between teller and tale, promoted by the dramatic approach's naysayers, have not generally succeeded at supplanting it (although Elizabeth Scala's very recent Desire in the Canterbury Tales [2015] adopts and extends Leicester's view), and this motivates Spearing's attempt to finish it off once and for all. Ginsberg, in contrast, seeks not so much the approach's final demise as its recalibration--or, as he might say, translation--in order to take into account more rigorously such considerations as the nature of Chaucer's Latin and Italian literary models and the sheer uncertainties regarding the composition and structure of the Tales. Less novelistic, more flexible, and more reciprocal than the dramatic approach, Ginsberg's account of the relation of teller and tale nonetheless affirms the tight artistic integration of the two, an integration performed most decisively by the work's linking passages, which hold center court in the monograph.

As he states in his introduction, Ginsberg's "principal argument...is that the pilgrim portraits, the introductions and epilogues to their tales, and the tales themselves, all move in the same direction because each expresses in a different mode a coordinating idea or set of concerns. For the Clerk, the idea is transition, for the Merchant it is revision and reticence, for the Miller it is repetition, for the Franklin it is interruption and elision, for the Wife it is self-authorship, for the Pardoner it is misdirection and subversion. [His] thesis is that in each instance the parts fit together because they translate each other" (3-4). Following this Ginsberg provides a "thumbnail sketch" (5) of the Benjaminian notion of translation that serves as the conceptual infrastructure of his analytical method, a notion that he earlier brought to bear on Chaucer's relations to his Italian intertexts (Chaucer's Italian Tradition, 2002). There as here the term translation denotes a complex, dynamic, nonhierarchical reciprocal relation, in which the translated and the translation mutually "disarticulate" one another in a play of sameness and difference. As Ginsberg goes on to elaborate, in the present study this notion extends not only to intertexts (here mostly, but not exclusively, the usual suspects of Ovid, Dante, and Boccaccio), and not only to Chaucer's own earlier writings, but also to the relations among the pilgrim performances (regardless, Ginsberg notes with a tip of the hat to Pearsall, of the order in which one considers them) and, most important, to the relations among the different components of each performance. In this way, Ginsberg arrives at a more finely grained formulation of his approach, in which "the links encourage readers to think of a performance as a metaphor-like clustering of the component texts," by which he means "that [the components] all share an idea that each expresses differently" (9). Intricately reworking the conceptual armature of the dramatic approach, he asserts that this metaphor-like clustering turns "the Canterbury Tales into dramas of 'fictorial' authorship," dramas that "we piece together in accordance with two related premises: a certain kind of person, the kind we meet in the 'General Prologue,' will tell a certain kind of tale; the value of a tale can be reinforced by or stand apart from the kind of person who tells it" (9, emphasis added). In contrast to the static, unidirectional delineation of character that marked dramatic readings, Ginsberg's approach to the components of the pilgrim performances is decentered, dialectical, and always in motion. While dramatic readings emphasized the artistic unity of contributing elements, Ginsberg's approach also relishes the significance that emerges through apparent failure of alignment. Nevertheless, for better or worse, as in dramatic readings Ginsberg's Chaucer remains a masterful orchestrator of disparate parts, so that the contributing elements of each "metaphor-like" cluster that Ginsberg examines add up to--if not precisely the sort of complex unity that New Critical dramatic readings inevitably discovered--a sort of quasi-unity consisting of a distinctive thematic agon provoked by a particular "coordinating idea or set of concerns."

Readers of this review may have noticed that in the above paragraphs I shift abruptly from describing Ginsberg's "argument" and "thesis" to his "analytical method" and "approach." In fact, I find Ginsberg's argument that the components of the pilgrim performances "fit together because they translate each other" to be not so much in itself an interpretive claim as an indication of methodology--of the manner in which he will organize, analyze, and explain the relations among parts. The book's actual interpretive claims reside within Ginsberg's identifications of the specific "coordinating idea or set of concerns" that inaugurate and are expressed by the reciprocal translations of the performances' components, the idea that in a simpler methodology would be termed a theme. Hence, rather than as a monograph that presents a single overarching thesis developed progressively through a series of chapters, the book reads more as bracing series of studies of individual Canterbury Tales performances (as well as related works by other authors) that share a common critical terminology and method. This, in my view, in no way depreciates the value of the book, since overarching arguments about the Tales tend to break like waves against the rocks of the capacious diversity of the work and its unfinished status. A methodologically linked set of readings of individual performances is well suited to this particular object of study, and inasmuch as Ginsberg's method addresses perhaps the most crucial and innovative feature of the Tales in a manner that cogently and profitably reworks past approaches, it marks an important contribution to Chaucer studies.

Ginsberg, however, does offer some justification for his argument qua argument, seeking both in his introduction and conclusion to locate translation at the center of Chaucer's creative process by emphasizing the prominence of translation commentary and practice in Chaucer's day, as well as the controversies these activities engendered. Translation, in this light, is more than the bedrock of Ginsberg's method of reading; it is also the heart of Chaucer's method of composition. Without hesitation we may agree that translation was very much in the air in late-fourteenth-century England, and in thought and practice has a central role in the Canterbury Tales. Nonetheless, whether this historical given also entails that Chaucer conceived of his orchestration of the components of pilgrim performances as translations, ones conceptually and practically related to, say, Bible translations--and whether Chaucer conceived of translation itself in a reciprocal, disarticulating, Benjaminian manner--may at best be matters of speculation. In my view, the question is moot. Translation, as a way for us to think about how the pilgrim performances work, is a considerably more apt and finely honed instrument than, say, the notion of roadside drama, and hence regardless of what was in Chaucer's mind it helps us read his poetry.

That the monograph's stated argument is more a statement of methodology does, though, act centrifugally on the book's structure, both globally and for each of the individual chapters. Because the "coordinating idea" that Ginsberg identifies for each performance is appropriately tuned to the specifics of that performance, these ideas do not accumulate over the course of the volume or progress to some greater, overall point about the Tales. In addition, because these ideas are themselves less interpretations of performances than umbrella concepts for describing the distinctive character of the complex relations among components, the most compelling interpretive work of this book is Ginsberg's identification and explanation of these myriad relations. For example, that the coordinating idea of the Wife of Bath's performance is, as Ginsberg's thesis statement puts it, "self-authorship," or that for the Pardoner it is "misdirection and subversion," scarcely seems, in itself, especially novel. Instead, what is most valuable is Ginsberg's elucidation of how pervasively and intricately self-authorship and subversion both govern and are developed by the complex constellation of relations among the respective performances' components (and among others of Chaucer's writings and select intertexts), and of how by means of these relations these ideas take on manifold and urgent thematic significances. In other words, what is most important about the journey on which each of the book's seven chapters takes us is, like all memorable journeys (and, not coincidentally, like the Tales itself), what happens along the way. For this reason, for the reviewer (a least the present one) the book can be rather daunting, as reasonably faithful summaries of these journeys would require lengthy condensations of the chapters' contents. In lieu of that, in what follows I offer snapshots that I hope at least provide a sense of their argumentative characters and textual focuses.

A bit awkwardly, the first two chapters--which together comprise about a quarter of the study--have relatively little to say about Chaucer. Proposed as considerations of "models of translation" (not, Ginsberg makes clear, as claims for direct sources, even when that relation applies), they primarily examine works by Ovid and Dante (Chapter 1) and Boccaccio (Chapter 2), with relatively brief comparative discussions of Chauntecleer's notorious mistranslation of Latin in the Nun's Priest's Tale (Chapter 1), the significance of quiting in the Miller's Prologue (Chapters 1 and 2), and of the relation of the Knight's portrait to his tale (Chapter 2). These chapters less lay the groundwork for what is to come and more leverage the notion of translation to offer self-standing interventions in the criticism on the Metamorphoses (specifically, the Apollo and Daphne, Lycaon, and Deucalion and Pyrrha episodes), the Purgatorio (specifically, the Statius and Bonagiunta of Lucca episodes), and Boccaccio's Filostrato and Teseida, especially the effect achieved by the latter work's framing material. As in his other scholarship, Ginsberg demonstrates here his enviable critical range, undergirding his detailed, cogent insights with evident mastery over these texts' diverse, extensive, and polyglot scholarly traditions.

The remainder of the chapters, while they periodically return to select intertexts, are on the whole devoted to illuminating the Canterbury Tales, taking up the performances of the Franklin (Chapter 3), Wife of Bath (Chapter 4), Clerk and Merchant (Chapter 5), Pardoner (Chapter 6), and Miller (Chapter 7). In Chapter 3's reading of the Franklin's performance (which also includes considerations of the Manciple's and Parson's Prologues, Chaucer's so-called Retractions, and Menedon's tale in the Filocolo), Ginsberg argues that the performance's intertwined social and spiritual concerns, and the Franklin's shortcomings in both respects, are consequences of the Epicureanism that entails that the Franklin "would maintain that the soul dies with the body" (95). Chapter 4 nimbly traverses the relays among the Wife of Bath's famously closely knit portrait, prologue, and tale. While the chapter's basic thrust--that the Wife's "prologue and tale...translate each other; in each, the Wife is the painting and the painter, the dancer and the dance, but in a different way in each" (138-39)--elegantly reformulates what many readers of the Wife's performance readily perceive, the scrutiny the chapter gives to the performance's complex reciprocality, and especially to the discursive gymnastics of the prologue, succeeds at casting new light on a text that has garnered a vast amount of commentary. Oddly, however, given the study's emphasis, Ginsberg has little to say about Chaucer's use of the Roman de la Rose and of the Metamorphoses, despite scrutinizing the very passages in which Chaucer most engages these intertexts. Chapter 5, in contrast, foregrounds relevant intertexts, first examining the Clerk's performance through iterative readings of Boccaccio's and Petrarch's renderings of the Griselda story, and then inquiring into the significance of the Clerk-Merchant sequence. To put the chapter's argument oversimply, the Merchant's performance reworks the dynamic liminality of the Clerk's as dynamic indeterminacy: "Chaucer translated Petrarch's alignment of this life and the next by creating a Clerk in transit: although he has largely left the world of physical needs...he has not yet taken up residence in the spiritual Canterbury...Chaucer's Merchant...is not in transit but in flux...he has learned how to remain blurry in plain sight" (145). Chapter 6 possesses more specific thematic and historical focus than the others, understanding the Pardoner's performance as drawing upon, for its own artistic purposes, the Eucharistic controversies of late-medieval England. To paraphrase its argument in terms more mine than Ginsberg's, the Pardoner's performance inverts the semiotics of the Eucharist in order to promulgate a sort of nihilist semiotics, and, since by implication authentic Eucharist semiotics serves as the ground of Chaucer's own poetic, the Pardoner's performance stands as the ultimate voicing of poetic self-doubt or self-scrutiny. In the book's final full chapter (after which follow a brief conclusion, bibliography, and index), Ginsberg argues that the Miller's performance, in response to the Knight's, seeks to flatten difference across several dimensions--social, sexual, etc.--reducing all to the common denominator of animal libidinal appetite. The key intertext in this instance is Alain de Lille's grammatically and rhetorically inflected worrying over hermaphroditic men in his Complaint of Nature. Chaucer, as especially evident in his apologetic aside to the reader in the Miller's Prologue, triangulates Alain and the Miller to achieve a kind of non-binary poetic: "At once arraignment and defense, Chaucer's statements about the relation between truth and his not false fictions are...entirely hermaphrodite...To read the poetry of the Canterbury Tales responsibly, we must learn that each performance asks us both to make and not make 'ernest of game,' to translate and not translate 'sentence' into 'solas'" (219).

That these snapshots scarcely account for the breadth and nuance of Ginsberg's readings is a shame, because, given the nature of the study, one's opinion of the volume will be largely determined by how compelling one finds these readings' details. I found that the fruits of Ginsberg's long career as scholar and teacher of Chaucer (and the poet's contemporaries and predecessors) were present in abundance, even if, at the volume's end, I was not wholly persuaded that the Benjaminian notion of translation was always mandatory equipment for their picking. Elegant, allusive, and--at times--elliptical, the book is a pleasure to read, if not always an easy read. It belongs on the bookshelf of every Chaucerian.

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