Thursday, April 28, 2005

Finishing the Canterbury Tales

Today was the Chaucer class where we read the Parson's Prologue, parts of the Parson's Tale (I am the only person my age that I know who has actually read the whole thing in Middle English, and I don't inflict it upon my students), and the Retraction.

It's my experience that students do not react well to the Retraction. I do my best to try to put it in context, to explain how Christianity gave a very powerful worldview in the Middle Ages, that to ask Chaucer to follow our standards of "standing by his art" is unreasonable.

But they just don't buy it.

One student was particularly peeved that Chaucer was "once again trying to have it both ways," retracting his works in a text appended to those very works. "If he really wanted to retract his works, he could have burned them." Students pointed out that in some ways the retraction is just like Chaucer's attempt to distance himself from the bawdiness of the Miller's Tale while still writing it and taking credit for it: it's the Miller's Tale, and he's a churl, so if you don't want to be offended, turn over the leaf (interesting suggestion there that the Tales were to be read, not orally performed, the way Chaucer is depicted reading to the court in the Cambridge Troilus manuscript).

One student asked if we could blame the Retraction on social pressure. I said that we had no evidence that there was some priest standing next to Chaucer's deathbed saying "you'd better retract these things." "No," she said, "what I mean is social pressure inside of Chaucer; his ideas of what was right and wrong."

"How can you separate that from Chaucer?" I asked. And we then had an absolutely amazing literary / philosophical discussion. Of course my thinking on these matters is strongly influenced by Dennett's philosophy, which I know is controversial. But I was able to keep myself out of the discussion a lot, and the class really came alive. I think by the end they got an idea of how much is at stake in our understanding (or even construction) of authors. And they'd gotten there themselves (with a little guidance from me), not by decoding a theoretical text. Cool stuff.

[This leads me to my next post, called "The Problem with Theory," which I hope to work on tomorrow. Then a post on the Hieronymus Bosch painting that is the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo (and I say that in the most affectionate way possible). But it's the end of the semester and many meetings of many sorts take precedence. Students first, who are worried about papers, exams, etc., but also preparation for my term as Chairman of the Educational Policy Committee. Everyone who hears that I've been chosen says "that's a real honor." So you know which kind of pain in what location it's going to be. ]

1 comment:

Fred said...

Hmm. I've never tried this, but you might teach the ideal of "detachment" as background to the Retraction. The form that springs to my mind most readily is later than Chaucer: the First Principle and Foundation from Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises.

The "First Principle" also contains the attitude that all created things lead to God, truth, and salvation -- not just Scripture. Feces, no less than a beautiful spring day, can be a revelation of God's love. Dante (Inferno) and Julian of Norwich (God opens us like a purse) shared this attitude.