18.10.23, Nowlin, Chaucer, Gower, and the Affect of Invention

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Linda Burke

The Medieval Review 18.10.23

Nowlin, Steele. Chaucer, Gower, and the Affect of Invention . Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2016. pp. xi, 234. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1310-0 (hardback) 978-0-8142-7420-0 (ebook).

Reviewed by:
Linda Burke
Elmhurst College

I approached this book with some trepidation, despite my career-long interest in the intertextuality of Chaucer and Gower. Its title phrase--"Affect of Invention"--signals a work of critical theory applied to the study of medieval literature. At times, I have struggled to engage with such a treatise in which the writer clearly has something to say, but esoteric concepts are applied with no attempt at definition, leaving the uninitiated reader at a loss to follow the argument. Would Nowlin's monograph trail down that unfortunate path?

To my happy surprise, it does no such thing. Nowlin's study is insightful, often groundbreaking, and arranged for clarity as it applies the theory of affect and invention to the study of selected poems and stories by Chaucer and Gower. While sometimes challenging in the range of erudition brought to bear, the work proceeds in a step-by-step format that virtually takes the reader by the hand. In Nowlin's argument, these highly intertextual narratives (whatever their ostensible topic) encode a meta-text that dramatizes the author's creative process per se. In so doing, they often provide a welcome new perspective on cultural authority and the medieval construction of gender.

Nowlin begins his opus with the all-important Introduction, where he defines the terms "affect" and "invention" as they apply to his topic: "the process of poetic invention as it conceptualized and expressed in the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer and John Gower (1, emphasis added). His careful definition of "affect" (as a noun) is especially important for purposes of clarity, as he uses it in a sense quite different from its everyday meaning of "mood" or "emotional state." In Nowlin's theory, "affect" means "the 'intensity' that precedes what is only later cognitively understood and expressed as feeling or emotion" (13). It is both experienced and described as "imminence, emergence, and movement" (13). As a burst of "generative potentiality" (176), "affect" is not to be confused with "emotion"; rather, it gives rise to the emotion that motivates and informs the creative process.

Further explaining this concept of "affect," Nowlin reproduces a famous passage in Geoffrey of Vinsauf's early thirteenth-century Poetria Nova, where Geoffrey likens the writing of a poem to the process of building a house: "If a man has a house to build, his impetuous hand does not rush into action. The measuring line in his mind first lays out the work...Its mode of being is archetypal before it is actual" (quoted on 22). For Nowlin, "affect" is embodied by the "impetuous hand," the "pre-cognitive" (16) energy that necessarily precedes the conceptual and material work of creation.

Also defined at the start, Nowlin's concept of "invention" is more conventional and familiar to the medievalist. Inseparable from the force of affect, "its processes deal with existing and imagined forms, with texts already written and arranged in the mind. Like affect, however, invention is also about imaginative potential and about the energies leading to discovery..." (16). In ancient philosophy, as Nowlin explains, the term was understood literally as a process of "finding" subject matter amid inherited "topics" or "regions" of thought (19). As expanded in the Middle Ages, the concept of invention came to include not only "finding," although that process remained essential, but "description, augmentation, and elaboration" of earlier text as well as the author's inner turn to her own "imagination," or storehouse of mental images constantly replenished by reading and life experience (20, 20ff., 43 ff.). Not limited to authors, invention might also be shared by readers as they respond to a text with their own "hermeneutical" activity (20, 21). Invention is not the text itself, but a highly mobile process leading to creation.

Explaining how affect and invention work in concert, Nowlin argues that "the way affect emerges and 'collapses' into emotion parallels the way in which invention emerges and collapses into poetic forms...the phrase 'affect of 'invention'...refer[s] also to the ways in which affective and inventional movement inform each other" (28). (Here as he does often, Nowlin uses the word "collapses," despite its negative connotation in everyday English, where "resolves" might be the expected term.) Interweaving the connection to Chaucer and Gower, Nowlin explains how their work is never merely self-reflexive, but aimed at "something 'more'"--a "productive" poetics (30, et al.) deploying the "rush" of affective invention (33) to question existing power structures, and for Gower especially, to attempt a "cultural rejuvenation" of the troubled outside world in which he lives (34).

Chapter 1 applies this innovative approach to Chaucer'sHouse of Fame, an especially apt choice as the work as long been understood as an ars poetica cast in narrative form (37). With a nod to earlier critics, Nowlin chooses to read the poem "backwards" (39), beginning with the House of Rumor in Book 3, where Chaucer's quite original image of "the whirling wicker basket" (36) represents the dizzying "moments of emergence that culminate in invention" (39), that is, the earliest stirrings of the creative process. The basket is populated by personified "tydynges" both true and false who jostle and commingle as they struggle to escape through the myriad openings in the basket--understood on one level of meaning as the poet's imagination. The tidings-people have little of substance to say--their motion, fraught with affect, is the message (53). Crucially, however, Book 1 with its Temple of Glass objectifies the way "inventional action is made real--that is, becomes a component of living in the world" (59). Strolling among the inherited images of lasting fame, especially the suffering women of Virgil's Aeneid and Ovid's Heroides, Chaucer experiences an emotion, "pitee," which inspires him to "collapse" the forces of affect and invention into a finished poem, a monologue spoken by Dido where she laments not only her betrayal by Aeneas, but the "results of future inventions" (63) defaming her. As Chaucer channels her voice, which he claims to be hers alone (HF, 314), Nowlin questions: has Chaucer opened a "space of emergence" allowing "any sort of escape from the misogynistic trope of masculinist invention" (68)?

In chapter 2, he argues that "the answer is ultimately yes" (68), at least in the Legend of Good Women, as it more fully works "to trigger in readers a sudden awareness of the pervasiveness of cultural constructions of gender and power" (69). Advancing on earlier theory, Nowlin delves "beneath the narrative of emotional experience" (76) in the famous Prologue to explore the imagery of movement that identifies the earliest origin of the poem as a primal explosion of affect: e.g., the restlessness of the persona's "busy gost" in search of new experience (74), the opening and closing of the idolized flower (77), and the "resonant" reechoing of old English words including "daisy" itself (76). Suddenly, as the persona recognizes Alceste, the daisy personified, affect and invention "collapse" into the socially ordered phenomena of "emotion and narrative," with all the "fourteenth century constructions of gender" implied with these (78). In the Legends that follow, however, Chaucer often works upon the reader's affect to produce a sense of "rupture" (86) between the entrenched assumptions of the patriarchy--for example, Tarquin's confidently "recordynge" his mental image of Lucrece (87)--and the reader's ultimate "resistance to participation in those narratives" (90). For Nowlin, such "displacements" suggest the "potential" of invention to influence the wider culture beyond the work of fiction (91).

On this thought, Nowlin neatly transitions to chapter 3 on "Macrocosmic Emergence in the Confessio Amantis," where he argues that "Like Chaucer, Gower thematizes affect and invention within individual narratives," with the goal of understanding how "affect and invention can enable the Confessio to somehow trigger the beginnings of a macrocosmic cultural revivification..." (93). Building on earlier scholarship, Nowlin reinterprets Gower's exemplum of the miraculous harpist Arion as the catalyst for a burst of cosmic affect in the form of laughter shared all around (CA Pro. 1070-1071). Of course, Gower identifies his English poem with Arion's peacemaking "melodie" (97-99) as he hopes to manipulate the reader's affect to the same good outcome. In the episodic "Tale of Jason and Medea," the heroine most notably personifies the force of affect as she moves about frenetically to restore the youth of Jason's father Eson, an inventive project that simultaneously "repurposes Ovid [to serve Gower's] own program" and exemplifies the rejuvenating project envisioned for the Confessio as whole (105). In the "Tale of Constantine and Sylvester," the emperor's moment of pure, involuntary affect--described as a wakening out of sleep (CA 3.3241-42)--leads to his "collapse" into pity for the children targeted for slaughter, his conversion, and the real-world "invention" of newly built churches and a new law with fateful consequences, all illustrating the power of Arionic intervention both for good and ill (111-114). In "The Tale of the Three Questions," Peronelle's inspired answers set off a "cascade of affect and invention" (118) that leads to a positive new social order for her native Spain (121). At the end of the story, Gower adds the crucial detail that his source is a "Cronique" (yet unidentified), a genre lending "cultural authority" to the "restorative" project of his poem as a whole (121).

Introduced on that note, chapter 4 explores "Transformative Poetry and the Chronicle Form in the Confessio Amantis," specifically the little-studied chronicles embedded in Books 4 and 5 of the poem (127-28, 123). These passages seem to embody "a new kind of chronicle...one that encodes the affective energies of inventional movement as an aspect of its form" (123). In the first chronicle appearing in CA Book 4, his lives of the great inventors, Gower not only portrays but "perform[s]" an act of "productive work, thus establish[ing] a powerful gesture toward the affect of invention" (135). Significantly, the first inventions noted are Hebrew and Greek letters, poetry, and historiography, the inventions enabling all future inventions to happen (136-137). In his history of the "displacement" of Latin culture to western poetry including his own (CA 4.2633ff.), Gower describes a fertile field to be gleaned by the reader's own "inventive choice" (142): "men schal the wordes pike/After the forme of eloquence ..." (4.2650-51), leading to "the generative enactment of [more] invention" (143). In CA Book 5, the chronicle of pagan religions (spoken by Genius) represents affect as the primal force of "misbelieve," showing how a "wrong 'weie' [may] collapse into...social reality...in a fractured present" (145). With ludicrous details such as Genius, the priest of Venus, disparaging the pagan faith that produced his lady boss, Gower awakens the reader's affective laughter "by having some fun with his poetics," while never losing sight of the "true' historical trajectory...depicted in the iconography of Nebuchadnezzar's dream" (149).

Taking off from Gower's ironic interlude, chapter 5 returns to Chaucer, analyzing three of the Canterbury Tales to demonstrate how Chaucer "Satiriz[es] the Affect of Invention in Fragment VII...stag[ing] a...self critique [that] includes Gower's as well as his own explorations..." (151). Building on earlier critics' observation of "stasis" and "sterility" in "The Prioress's Tale" (153), Nowlin observes how the Prioress's invocation to the Virgin "forecloses" the potentiality of affect: Mary is described as carrying our prayers to heaven "biforn" (line 476) we even put them into words (157-160). Throughout her Tale, the Prioress likewise goes "biforn" the events described to pre-establish their meaning, thus producing "an object perfectly completed, well beyond any stage of invention" (163). While the Tale itself provides no sense of "rupture and emergence that might compel...reassessment" (165), the response in modern criticism "has indeed been productive" (167), as students and scholars have wrestled with its antisemitism. In "The Monk's Tale," Chaucer uses a collection of exempla in chronicle form as "an approach similar to--but exaggeratedly satirical of--Gower's Confessio, ostensibly citing examples from history to educate readers in the present" (169). Sadly, the "potentiality" of affect is nullified by the "predetermined outcome" of decline and fall, thus satirizing the Gowerian project of restoring the macrocosm through the power of historical exempla (173). After seeming to follow the same "overly scripted" path (186), the Nun's Priest delivers a "jolt" of affect as he describes a barnyard scuffle in terms alluding to Gower's apocalyptic account of the Rising of 1381, a source of terror for his audience (189). While confirming the power of his poetry to question "the discourses of cultural power," however indirectly, Chaucer simultaneously debunks the vaunted process of creative "emergence" as perhaps not all that different from "an affective occurrence happening in a chicken" (190).

In his final chapter on intertextuality in Shakespeare's works based on Chaucer and Gower, Nowlin begins by asserting that Shakespeare did indeed engage with the earlier poetic of affect and invention (194). In "The Phoenix and the Turtle," Shakespeare echoes not so much the story-line of Chaucer's "Parliament of Fowls," but its beginning with a burst of affect--for Shakespeare, Reason's uncomprehending "wonder" at the love between the two birds, followed by its resolution into emotion and the creation of a poem. The mobile quality of emergence is conveyed throughout by the pleasing irregularity of Shakespeare's unusual choice of verse form (200). In Shakespeare and Wilkins' Pericles, the fictional Gower presides over a story with many occurrences of affect; the macrocosmic aim of the historical Gower is channeled into "the transformation of poetic text into dramatized event," a drama with at least the potential to renew and restore its audience (204-205).

As I hope to have demonstrated, Nowlin's study is a carefully crafted, profound, and persuasive analysis of the creative process in Chaucer and Gower, as they themselves not only described it but performed it for posterity. I have only one reservation--really only a question possibly yet to be "collapsed" by the author's future scholarship. Is the portrayal of "emergent," "pre-cognitive" affect and invention really as distinctively English as Nowlin seems to believe (25-28)? Has he considered the self-reflexive "arts of poetry" in the works of Machaut and others? This is not to mention Dante's Inferno as an allegory on the turbulent path to its own creation. In fairness, one study can't include everything. Nowlin's book provides a most "productive" foundation and direction for future "movements of invention" to follow.

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