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19.01.07 Prendergast/Rosenfeld, eds., Chaucer and the Subversion of Form

19.01.07 Prendergast/Rosenfeld, eds., Chaucer and the Subversion of Form

This important collection of essays by leading medievalists approaches Chaucer's oeuvre via the so-called New Formalism. What distinguishes the new from old New Critical close reading (in Chaucer's case, with an eye for ambiguity and irony) is the continuing legacy of New Historicism (yoking the text to its historical context), and the influence of 1) contemporary theory (here, temporality, disability, ecocritism), and 2) post-Barthesian textuality (unyoking meaning from authorial intention). Focusing on some of Chaucer's less admired productions (e.g., the minor poems, the Monk's Tale, the Physician's Tale, Treatise on the Astrolabe), the contributors emphasize Chaucerian failures of form: "the resistance to poetic terminology, to formal consolation, to formal interpretation, beauty, and even to literariness itself" (10). In the "Introduction," Thomas A. Prendergast and Jessica Rosenfeld conclude that the eponymous subversion is neither intentional nor the result of authorial negligence but "happens within form itself, an inherent tendency to go astray even as it organizes a text in essential ways" (10). In short, texts (or Chaucer? or the reader?) resist efforts to impose order on disorderly ontological and aesthetic experience.

My woefully brief summaries that follow fall far short of capturing the insightful theoretical and interpretive expertise embodied in the essays themselves.

The first three contributions come under the rubric "Failures of Form." Surveying Chaucer's minor poems, Jenni Nuttall's "'many a lay and many a thing': Chaucer's Technical Terms" demonstrates that while "Chaucer's formal innovations are indisputable" (23), he appears to maintain a skeptical and cavalier attitude toward elite literary fashions, and the Riverside edition perhaps overstates Chaucer's formal experiments. In "Chaucer's Aesthetic Resources: Nature, Longing, and Economics of Form," Jennifer Jahner turns to Theodor Adorno's aesthetic theory and ecological criticism to reassess both the ascetic ideal espoused by Philosophy in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy and Chaucer's ironic modification of philosophical austerity in "The Former Age" and "Fortune." The resistance against the consolation of linear causality and the embrace of disorder in The House of Fame (and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse and Lyn Hejinian's My Life) are the focus of Eleanor Johnson's provocative exercise in ontological intertextuality in "Against Order: Medieval, Modern, and Contemporary Critiques of Causality."

"Corporeality of Form" (Part Two) addresses the human body and its relation to the embodiment of form. Jonathan Hsy reveals how the rigid stanzaic tragedies in TheMonk's Tale (or, "Monk's tales") are subverted by enjambment, unusual syntax, and prosthesis, with the effect of disrupting the pilgrim-narrator's thesis of disability as divine punishment ("Diverging Forms: Disability and the Monk's Tales"). In "Figures for 'Gretter Knowing': Forms in the Treatise on the Astrolabe" Lisa H. Cooper finds in the unfinished instruction manual Chaucer's interest in representing "human subjectivity and its discontents" (101) through the emphasis on the physicality of little Lowys' body. And perhaps the most dense contribution, Julie Orlemanski's "The Heaviness of Prosopopoeial Form in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess," explores Chaucer's experimentation in the Ceyx and Alcione episode with two contrary models of elegiac prosopopoeia (i.e., when the dead speak).

Moving from the body to acts of interpretation, the essays in Part Three, "Forms of Reception," address how assumptions about the ends of form shape reading. In "Reading Badly: What the Physician's Tale Isn't Telling Us," Thomas A. Prendergast suggests that readers are uneasy with this problem tale because of its inability "to fit into a particular paradigm" (149), and that Virginia herself is an aesthetic text that is variously misread--by the characters in the tale, the Physician, the other pilgrims, and subsequent readers. Pondering how the purpose and audience of the Trentham manuscript have changed over time, Arthur Bahr ("Birdsong, Love, and the House of Lancaster: Gower Reforms Chaucer") reconsiders how the Chaucerian allusions in the Cinkante Ballades complicate the standard reading of the manuscript as a "fairly straightforward program of political praise" (179). And bookending Nuttall's examination of the Riverside's finessing of the Chaucer's canon, in "Opening The Canterbury Tales: Form and Formalism in the General Prologue" Stephanie Trigg demonstrates how competing "formalist and historical textual impulses" (197) in the Riverside edition result in a composite, hybrid, and "heavily mediated" (184) presentation of the famous prologue.

This collection will no doubt be considered the definitive New Formalist Chaucerian anthology not only for its important work in recovery or recuperation of the poet's less admired texts but also for its providing interpretive models and suggestions for further research. My only reservation is the apparent assumption that Chaucer, to put it plainly, can't write anything bad (i.e., of poor or inferior literary quality). Prendergast and Rosenfeld suggest that Chaucer's statement at the end of Troilus in which he expresses concern about the integrity of his "litel bok" reflects his awareness of the material and cultural hazards his creation will be subjected to: "Faulty diction, meter, or sense is ascribed to historical change, lack of scribal acumen, or readerly resistance and incomprehension" (2). Chaucer's implication, seemingly shared by the editors, is that "he is not only offering up polished poetic gems to the ravages of time and unreceptive audiences, but also creating works that expose the incompleteness and self-contradictory nature of form" (2). While most Chaucerians might agree that Troilus and Criseyde itself is a polished poetic gem, many might privately demur in the case of several Canterbury tales--although an earlier generation of critics, like J. S. P. Tatlock considering the Clerk's Tale, could not "free Chaucer from the imputation of occasional bad art" (The Development and Chronology of Chaucer's Works, 180). In the late 1970s, Donald Howard (The Idea of the Canterbury Tales) and John Gardner (The Poetry of Chaucer) rescued Chaucer from this imputation by suggesting 1) that the tales serve to characterize the tellers, and 2) as such some tales--like the Monk's and the Physician's--are intentionally bad art. The New Formalist salvaging depends on the assumption that "texts themselves maintain an agency that frustrates the formal ends that authors design for them, or that the form works against its own ends" (14). Frustration of the formal ends results in "a literary work [that] appears excessive, disruptive, resistant, or unfinished" (3). What would conventionally appear to be artistic failure (if yoked to authorial intention), however, can be reconstructed--given the requisite critical acumen and creativity--to reveal art "that creates access to the unarticulated aspects of culture, and…new, as yet unthought articulations" (10).