19.06.28 Normandin, Chaucerian Ecopoetics

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Susan Signe Morrison

The Medieval Review 19.06.28

Normandin, Shawn. Chaucerian Ecopoetics: Deconstructing Anthropocentrism in the Canterbury Tales. The New Middle Ages. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. pp. x, 226. ISBN: 978-3-319-90456-6 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Susan Morrison
Texas State University
morrison@txstate.edu

While some of us say we are "deconstructing" Chaucer--by which we mean simply analyzing critically--Shawn Normandin takes the term strictly, applying titans of poststructuralism to Chaucer's oeuvre. True to its title, Chaucerian Ecopoetics: Deconstructing Anthropocentrism in the Canterbury Tales devotes time in its argument to Paul de Man and Levi Bryant, all the while drawing on thinkers as various as Schiller, Kant, and Walter Benjamin. While these philosophical underpinnings may frustrate come ecocritics, Normandin's approach also remains grounded in key thinkers and texts which have emerged from the field of ecocriticism and the environmental humanities. Karl Steel, Lesley Kordecki, and Alfred K. Siewers are familiar names to those exploring medieval texts from an ecocritical standpoint; Normandin wisely braids their insights into his own argument.

Chapter 1, "Introduction: Chaucer and Ecopoetics," argues strenuously for the necessity of reading Chaucer's work in light of the Anthropocene. Though written long ago, his poetry illuminates the basis for environmental woes today by "demystify[ing] the vanity, paranoia, and bad faith attendant on the pretense that humans are ontologically superior to or radically different from other lifeforms" (6). Citing recent literary analyses and theoretical insights, Normandin posits that aesthetics demands an environmental consciousness. Indeed, Chaucer's "rhetorical complexity...limits the value of ecocritical moralizing...The literariness...prevents the texts from making the unequivocally biophilic gestures ecocritics tend to esteem" (7). Normandin foregrounds the term anthropotropism, which he uses to "describe moments in texts when the focus shifts from nonhumans to humans" (8). This does not necessarily assert a hierarchical preference for the human; indeed, such moments highlight the ambiguity of nonhuman-human distinctions.

In reconciling poststructuralism and ecocriticism, Normandin concludes that The Canterbury Tales "marks the precariousness of humans' relations to nonhumans and to themselves" (25). Drawing on Timothy Morton, Normandin sees Chaucer's irony as productively disruptive and "even more instructive than his thematic considerations of nonhuman objects" (37). While some of his history of deconstruction may seem irrelevant to attempts at dismantling the pernicious effects of the Anthropocene, Normandin draws out fundamental issues in meta-ecocriticism, such as problems inherent to too much or too little human agency as opposed to nonhuman and object agency (see 26).

Chapter 2 explores the Knight's ecophobia and "anxiety about nonhuman nature" (51), though ultimately the Knight's Tale "voids the anthropocentric delusions it so luridly depicts" (53). Human emotions require a "nonhuman supplement" (55)--in this case, for instance, a reference to boxwood to make a complex interior moment blaze forth. Complicating the maligned binary nature/culture, Normandin insists on having his reader contemplate its "enormous influence on texts" (56). Theseus is a problem: is he villain or hero? For Normandin, Chaucer's gift lies in his "least naturalistic devices" which "undermine ecophobia," including "ekphrasis, allegory, praeteritio, and punning" (56). In a fascinating analysis of the diachronic and synchronic in visual images versus narrative, Normadin cleverly points out how "[e]kphrasis represents the synchronic...diachronically" (62). The scary forests of the temple landscapes are, we are reminded, merely human constructs.

Chapter 3, "Nocturnal Ecologies: Metaphor in the Miller's and the Reeve's Tale," constituted one of my favorite chapters by far. Normandin points out how theMiller's Tale points to the "perils of metaphor" (87), seeing as it uses similes more than any other Chaucerian tale. Metaphorical thinking goes hand in hand with "dangerous knowledge" (88), such as "Goddes pryvetee" (I.3164). Some sections of Normandin's prose made me laugh out loud. Concerning Absolon, he learns more about Alison's "'pryvetee' than he expected...[Nicholas'] scheme to exploit John's interest in divine secretes ultimately backfires" (90)--literally! In a compelling discussion of metaphor and metonymy, Normandin concludes how the Miller's Tale "emphasizes the erroneous dimension of metaphorical thinking" (91). Just as the characters within the tale suffer variously by exploring hidden secrets, we readers likewise should not know all.

The Reeve's Tale, then, can be read as a response to the use of metaphor by the Miller. Rather than sticking with animal metaphors, the Reeve blurs "the boundaries between humans, animals, and plants" (99). The mention of the students' Soler Hall (II.3990) Normandin fits together with the "cosmic ecology" of the tale, which "represents nonhuman nature (the sun, the night, the moon) victimizing humans nonconsciously by triggering their metaphorical tendencies. Language...is a faculty that makes humans vulnerable to nature" (105). He concludes the chapter by exploring why it is the only tale to exploit regional dialect, converging as it does on metaphorical issues. Normandin's view that Chaucer's "fabliaux are commentaries on metaphor" (94) will stay with me.

Chapter 4, "Iterability, Anthropocentrism, and the Franklin's Tale,"explores how "the tale narrates the inhumanity of language, its refusal to cooperate with human intentions" (36). Normandin initially begins by investigating the ontological position of rocks themselves (citing, among others, J. J. Cohen). I appreciate his periodic meta-ecocritical commentaries that situate his own insights, such as his questioning of claims "often made by scholars in the environmental humanities that reenchanting the nonhuman world and recognizing its agency can help us to solve our environmental problems" (126). Perhaps overdoing it on the rhetorical front--"instead of marinating in lithophobia, the rest of the tale seems intent on rinsing away the rocks" (126; my emphasis)--the chapter (as indeed the entire book) returns repeatedly to issues of language. Again and again, Normandin's focus is on language throughout the book--whether metaphor, ekphrasis, or, as in this chapter, speech act theory (J. L. Austin and Derrida's reading on the "inhumanity of language" 127). While "Chaucer beguiles readers by appealing to various anthropocentric fantasies," including ecophobia, biophilia, naturalism, the tales "also dramatize the incoherence generated by humanity's supposedly constitutive power, language" (36). Language, indifferent to human intentions, becomes as "hostile to Dorigen's interests as she thinks the rocks are" (128). An inquiry into the binary of literal and figurative in the rocks' (apparent) disappearance destabilizes the literal, which is no "secure foundation upon which" (136) meaning may be erected. Normandin concludes by opting not for the agency of the rocks, but for reading the tale "as an excavation of the vulnerability that humans share with rocks." Indeed, "the tales' humans are more lithomorphic than they know" (142).

Chapter 5, "The Unnatural Personifications of the Physician's Tale," rehearses the critical reception--often harsh--of this aesthetically troubling tale: "Chaucer's ugliest work contains his most beautiful character, Virginia" (153). More allegorical than her source counterparts, Virginia personifies her name. But, "if Virginia can function as a personification of virginity, then so can Virginius" (158). Normandin carries through a thorough examination of the names Virginia and Virginius. Can the father be a virgin? That's impossible--though not from his accuser Claudius' point of view. "Virginia is either named after her father or named after the virtue she personifies" (162). The problems arising from this choice make the tension between an allegorical or an historical reading evident. "In order for one name to function allegorically in this tale, the other name can only function historically" (163). Normandin's argument provokes me to ask: why cannot Virginius be named for Virginia? And what would that imply?

Normandin redeems the unpopular Monk's Tale in Chapter 6, "Ruminating on and in the Monk's Tale." Provocatively, he links monastic rumination with our reading of the tale, with particular focus on Nabugodonosor. After a discussion of the tension in medieval monastic thought towards the wilderness, Normandin points out how ecocritics have neglected the Monk's Tale. The Monk's Tale has displeased readers because it is fragmented, lacks copious dialogue, and opts for third person narrative. He convincingly urges us to reconsider it, given that it contains "Chaucer's boldest reversal of anthropocentrism" (184) in the figure of Nabugodonosor, who shows how "redemption requires a passage through the nonhuman" (185). The importance of the monk's position is vital; indeed, his "tragedies become much more interesting if one reads them like a monk, if one ruminates on them" (185).

Normandin excels in the section of the chapter "Reading Like a Monk" (190-199), in which he ties Deguileville's Le Pèlerinage de la vie humanine and Chaucer's "An ABC" (inspired by a section of Deguileville's work) in with the Monk's Tale. Both the Monk's Tale and "An ABC" use the "same eight-line stanza" (191), each one of which could, I would argue, function as an individual step on the pilgrimage framed by each work. Here, Normandin complicates the pilgrimage frame of each work, seeing the Monk's Tale as a moment in which "the viability of pilgrimage as a religious practice and a poetic device" (193) is questioned, in part due to the inevitable ensuing boredom. As Normandin points out, "almost no one has examined how the literary experience of monks may have informed Chaucer's monastic tragedies," including the experience of boredom (186). Medieval monks commented on the experience and even place of boredom in meditative practice, including textual study associated with rumination, explicitly undertaken by Nabugodonosor. Rather than seeing "textual rumination" as a "passive process" (197), monastic rumination "is radically repetitive" (198). Normandin links the fear of boredom now (and consequent distaste for the Monk's Tale) with ecocritical issues (207). "One service ecocriticism might perform is to transvalue boredom--to get people to appreciate boredom as an enhancement to or prerequisite of enjoyment" (207). Indeed, boredom is linked to slowness, something recent examination into slow pilgrimage ecopoetics validates. [1]

Chaucerian Ecopoetics has ample moments I'll continue to reflect on, including calling the opening 18 lines of the General Prologue Chaucer's "money shot" (27) and the observation that the Pardoner's appearance "is describable only through nonhuman similes" (34). This volume offers much for the Chaucerian critic committed to or simply intrigued by ecocritical approaches to literature. Normandin makes even less appreciated tales vital to our understanding not just of Chaucer's time period, but our own.

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Notes:

1. Susan Signe Morrison, "Slow Pilgrimage Ecopoetics." Ecozon@: European Journal of Literature, Culture and Environment10.1 (2019): 40-59. http://ecozona.eu/article/view/2527/3110. Accessed May 13, 2019.

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