Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Chaucer and the Animated Book

As I gear up for the New Chaucer Society's convention in Reykjavik next month, I've found myself thinking back rather fondly to my time spent in Portland nearly two years ago. And as I slowly transition back into some semblance of a work life after giving birth to my little one, I'm also thinking quite a bit about my projects (both current and future). I'm spending the month of June trying to wrap up a few smaller ones (my article on Middle English Mongols, an encyclopedia entry on Crusades Literature, and, of course, my paper on Ice for the NCS conference), but come August I'll resume work on my book project, Imagining the Crusades in Late Medieval England, in earnest. I hope to have a completed manuscript ready for interested publishers sooner rather than later (later being Spring 2015), and as a result I'm starting to think about what kind of project I'd like to create for myself after I send the manuscript off and away.

Over the past couple of years, I've presented on an array of topics not devoted to "things Crusades-related" in hopes of figuring out what my next project should be. I love my current work on the Crusades, but I have a feeling that by the time this book project is completed I'll be itching for the chance to branch out into newness. For a time, I thought about writing a book on the poetics of grief in Late Middle English literature. Presenting on Pearl last year at Kalamazoo, however, made me rather aware (as I expressed in a related blog post) that I'm not ready to sit for that long with such a potentially depressing topic. As a result, I went back to the drawing board and have been there for quite a while. But working on my current NCS paper on agential Ice in The House of Fame (and revisiting my paper on books as animate objects in Chaucer's works) has renewed my curiosity about the ways in which Chaucer positions and prioritizes various objects in his works — and how he gives them varying degrees of power. While I'm far from fully committed yet, I'm leaning more and more towards diving into this topic in earnest in hopes of producing a larger project that maps out and explores Chaucer's agential objects.

For now, I'll share the paper that got me started along this path (only two years late!):

“Chaucer and the Animated Book”

In the Squire’s Tale, a stranger from Arabye visits the (intensely fictionalized) court of Chinnghis Khan, and presents the Mongol ruler with a series of mirabilia. One of them, a ring, allows the wearer to understand the language of birds. In turn, the brass horse will take its rider anywhere in the world with a turn of a key. These objects, in short, allow their owners to encounter, read, and translate the world around them in entirely new ways. In this respect, they reminded me (as I revisited them a little while back) of books in all of their animating properties.
            This paper explores how we might consider books as animate objects in Chaucer’s literary worlds — as kindred of the animate and animating mirabilia of The Squire’s Tale. Unlike the brass horse or the ring, books are objects that can, in fact, speak in some way — they have the capacity, as Chaucer reveals so persistently, not only to transport but to inspire visions in even the most selective or haphazard of readers.  In this way, books as objects have greater animating properties than the fabled brass horse. A turn of a switch might allow the mechanical beast to transport a rider around the world, but — as Chaucer seems to argue — the turn of a page can produce even more fruitful journeys. For the sake of time, I will limit my discussion largely to Chaucer’s dream vision poetry, though my hope is that we can discuss other appearances of books as objects in Chaucer’s poetry later on.
Dream vision poetry consistently relies on the trope of a narrator falling asleep and “waking” in a dreamscape, where an extended, often didactic, vision ensues. But as Larry Benson and others have observed, Chaucer seems to have invented the convention of the dreamer falling asleep on a book prior to experiencing his dream vision. This image — of the sleeping reader and his book — persists in Chaucer’s poetry, and suggests a certain consistency in his approach to books as objects.
In The Book of the Duchess, both the book and the act of reading offer an escape for the insomnia-addled narrator — an opportunity to “rede and drive the night away” (49). The book that the narrator selects for his nightly reading is Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the tale of Ceyx and Alcyone attracts him the most. He refers to it, in fact, as a “wondyr thinge” (61), and he relays a version of the story that halts abruptly before the lovers’ metamorphosis and reunion. As Helen Phillips and others have argued, by omitting the metamorphosis altogether, the story of Alcyone’s dream more ably parallels the dream vision experienced by the narrator later in the poem. Alcyone, through this omission, becomes a clearer counterpart to the Black Knight, and the story itself focuses (as does the conversation between the narrator and the knight) on the inevitable transience of earthly joy (Phillips 35).
While it is clear that Chaucer may have intended to create this kind of parallel structure, the ties between the book and the dream are utterly lost on the narrator. He stresses at the beginning and end of the poem the impossibility of interpreting the dream.  According to his preface, not even Macrobius or the biblical Joseph could riddle a meaning out of it, and as a result the narrator unceremoniously ends the poem by stating “This was my sweven: now hit ys doon,” refusing to offer any potential commentary or insight into what his dream might mean (1334). Moreover, the narrator only focuses on the theme of sleep and dreaming in the Alcyone narrative, stating how he desperately wishes Juno or Morpheus would grant him the kind of sleep they gave to Alcyone. These instances could suggest that the narrator is either so fixated on his insomnia that he can’t help but focus on this aspect of the text, but they could also suggest that his reading practices are somewhat haphazard. The narrator finds his wish for sleep fulfilled and immediately falls asleep on the book he had been reading. From this point onwards, the intricate dream vision unfolds and it pulls aspects of the Ovidian narrative — the themes of grief and loss overlooked by the narrator — into its landscape. Books, at least in the world of this dream vision poem, can still transport and inspire the mind of even a haphazard or overly selective reader.
The Parliament of Foules treats books in a similar fashion.  Here, we are presented with a narrator who reads a book in order to learn “a certain thing” about love (20). His book of choice: The Dream of Scipio. Like the narrator of The Book of the Duchess, this narrator is also rewarded for his efforts with an elaborate dream vision. And here, as in Book of the Duchess, certain aspects and themes from the book the narrator reads eke their way into the dream itself and are subject to imaginative repurposing; Scipio himself appears to the dreamer at the beginning of the vision, and the importance of common profit in The Dream of Scipio reappears in the later portion of the bird’s debate.
The first section of Parliament, however, contains a passage on the importance of books that sheds additional light on how these particular objects are configured and how they function in Chaucerian dream visions. The narrator tells us that

            Of usage – what for lust and what for lore –
            On bokes rede I ofte, as I you tolde.
            But wherefore that I speke al this? Nat yore
            Agon it happede me for to beholde
            Upon a bok, was write with lettres olde,
            And thereupon, a certeyn thing to lerne,
            The longe day ful faste I redde and yerne.

                        For out of olde feldes, as men seyth,
                        Cometh al this newe corn form yer to yere,
                        And out of olde bokes, in good feyth,
                        Cometh al this new science that men lere.
                        But now to purpose as of this matere:
                        To rede forth hit gan me so delite
                        That al that day me thoughte but a lyte. (15-28)

This description of the book and of the reading process conveys — in ways more elaborate than that seen in The Book of the Duchess — the idea of the book as an object capable of transporting a reader. Books, in this configuration, are objects filled with knowledge. They produce a distracting amount of delight in readers — so much so that readers can find themselves absorbed for an entire day in their contents. The narrator stresses that these objects, moreover, do not lose their capacity to delight because of their age; he elevate the status and appeal of older and dustier tomes, using the analogy of the field to strengthen his case. Books in this configuration produce delight and visionary inspiration, but they also are imbued with creative powers. More than mere repositories of “old” wisdom, they are the direct inspirers of “newe sciences” — new ideas — as well. I think it highly significant that the narrators in the poems mentioned thus far place their emphasis on books rather than the authors who write them. To be sure, authors are mentioned briefly by name, but the book as material object consistently holds the foreground. Animating properties are thus placed squarely in the realm of the inanimate.
            In contrast to these two dream visions, The House of Fame does not describe a narrator falling asleep on a book.  It does, however, have much to say within the actual dream vision about the inspirational power of books to inspire. The narrator of the poem, for instance, encounters an ekphrastic version of Virgil’s Aeneid, and he immediately focuses on the portion of the narrative involving Aeneus and Dido.  He unequivocally takes Dido’s side, criticizing Aeneus at length for treating her so poorly. This episode from Virgil, moreover, reminds the narrator of a host of men who have similarly mistreated their women. These men do not appear directly in Virgil’s story, and as a result, his encounter with this pictographic Aeneid mirrors the narrators’ encounters with physical books described in the other dream visions. Here, as elsewhere, the book is presented as an object that inspires the reader without keeping him bound entirely to its matter.  The narrator also repeatedly stresses that it is “the book” that “tellis” (or speaks), even though Jove — through the Eagle — is said to look fondly on the narrator for his diligent work as an author.  The reader owes his inspiration and his translocation largely to this object, but he is also capable of misreading, misunderstanding, or simply selecting only the portions of the text that are of interest to him or seem applicable; he is also capable of spring–boarding into related thoughts or visions that are only obliquely related to the contents of the book itself.  It is here, then, that a kind of tension emerges, because creative power seems to be transferred to both the reader and the book.  At the same time, it is also possible, I think, to see the reader’s freedom as an indicator that the book has realized its animating potential.
            Out of all of Chaucer’s dream visions, the Legend of Good Women provides the lengthiest homage to books, one that directly addresses their capacities as animated objects.  The passage is a bit long, but I’m going to read it in its entirety since it ties in so directly with what I’ve already discussed:
           Than mote we to bokes that we fynde,
Thurgh whiche that olde thinges ben in mynde,
            And to the doctrine of these olde wyse,
            Yeve credence, in every skylful wise,
            That tellen of these olde appreved stories
            Of holynesse, of regnes, of victories,
            Of love, of hate, of other sondry thynges,
            Of whiche I may no maken rehersynges
            And yf that olde bokes were aweye,
            Yloren were of remembraunce the keye.
            Wel ought us thane honouren and believe
            These bokes, there we han noon other preve.
                        And as for me, though that I konne but lyte
            On bokes for to rede I me delyte,
            And to hem yive I feyth and ful credence,
            And in myn herte have hem in reverence
            So hertely, that ther is game noon
            That fro my bokes maketh me to goon,
            Save, certeynly, whan that the month of May
            Is comen, and that here the foules synge,
            And that the floures gynnen for to sprynge,
            Farewel my bok and my devocion! (17-39)

Despite his capricious admission at the close of this passage, the narrator repeatedly urges for “credence” to be given to these books, for them to be upheld as authorities in their own right, because they are the only way for readers in his day to access ancient wisdom (this line of thinking echoes what the narrator of Parliament of Foules observes so briefly about old books). They are, in other words, the sole remaining repositories of important knowledge.
He argues that books should be revered specifically because of the voices of authority contained therein. This seems, at least a first, to put the power back into the authors’ hands. However, just as in Parliament of Foules, no authors are mentioned in these lines, which suggests the disembodied nature of authority contained within the books in question. The focus, as a result, remains squarely on the material object. Books, then, are presented as access points and portals to an older time and to writers and thinkers who have long since passed. 
Eventually, the narrator encounters the God of Love, who calls him a foe because of his actions as an author; his “translacyoun” has turned potential lovers away from their devotion to him . What is particularly compelling in this diatribe against the narrator is the way in which books are conceptualized.  The god of Love announces, for instance, “Yis, God wot, sixty bokys olde and newe hast thou thyself, alle fulle of storyis grete” (273-74), which is an impressively large collection for any private owner in the late fourteenth century. This line suggests the importance of books as tactile objects and the importance and significance of collecting them. The god proceeds in subsequent lines to cite authors directly, asking the narrator “what seith Valerye, Titus, Claudyan? / What seith Jerome agayns Jovynyan?” (280-81), questions that do momentarily reintroduce the author as a figure of great significance. However, the authority of the writer is brought directly into question several lines later, when Alceste comes to the Chaucer-narrator’s defense; she argues that he is so used to composing books that he “takyth non hed of what matere he take” and “nyste what he seyde” (343, 345). Chaucer is cast here as an innocent, but rather incompetent and passive author/translator, so involved in the process of creating and/or translating that he neglects to examine his own material. His books, however, are acknowledged directly by the god of Love (and indirectly by Alceste) as potentially harmful to the god’s cause because of their ability to sway their readers.   Here, as elsewhere, then, poem prioritizes books over their authors as objects responsible for an important, and potentially subversive, kind of transportation.
            What this configuration of books suggests is that as soon as the author cuts the cord on a literary work, it is no longer solely his own; it becomes an object capable of inspiring a reader on his or her own terms, a notion that the narrator of Troilus and Criseyde openly admits in the epilogue:

            Go, litel book, go litel myn tragedie,
            There god thy maker yet, er that he dye,
            So sende might to make in some comedie!
            But litel book, no making thou n’envye,
            But subgit be to alle poesye;
            And kis the steppes, where-as thou seest pace
            Virgile, Ovyde, Lucan, and Stace.

            And for ther is so greet diversitee
            In English and in writing of our tonge,
            So preye I God that noon miswryte thee,
            Ne thee mismetre for defaute of tonge.
            And red wherso thou be, or elles songe,
            That thou be understonde I God biseche! (Book V, lines 1786-98)

Chaucer, or the Chaucer narrator, speaks directly to his book in this passage, talking to it as if it has a sentience all its own. Here, as in The Legend of Good Women, he muses on the matter of authority. One the one hand, he admits that the book is now out of his control even though he authored it. But he affirms the significance of authors by citing names of great writers from the past (as the narrators do in each of Chaucer’s dream vision poems). Nevertheless, he ends his envoy to his creation by voicing his anxieties about how it will be treated (and potentially mistreated) by readers. Once again, then, Chaucer positions the book as an object that, while responsible for the connectivity between author and reader, is ultimately in neither his nor his readers’ control.
To draw upon what Karl Steel observed in his paper given on Tuesday, this representation of books certainly forces us to remember that, as he put it, we cannot relegate the matter of intentionality solely to humans; inanimate object are indeed “forceful entities.”  But unlike many inanimate objects studied across the animate ecologies panels at this conference, books are man-made objects, and they have a different kind of animate capacity as a result. They may well be compendiums of wisdom, but they are also, ultimately springboards.  They are animating objects, but they do not command the perfect attention of their readers, no more than an author can control the way in which his or her work is understood; it is no surprise then, that the matter of misreading comes up consistently and in a variety of ways throughout Chaucer’s works.
In this way, books contain animating properties that are both powerful but finite. On the one hand, the process of reading a book results in the dream visions, but the fact remains that the reader isn’t bound to the written text he has just encountered. This has made me begin to wonder whether we might be able to understand Chaucer’s — or the Chaucer narrators’ — somewhat persistent anxiety over being misread through an understanding of books as finitely animate objects, as objects made by an author but no longer in that person’s control once they are completed, an idea that in many ways evokes modern theoretical patterns of thought, especially Barthe’s “death of the author” and the related realm of reader-response theory.
The figure of Pandarus reflects this idea of authorial anxiety, and also evokes the animating properties of books, and I’ll close this paper by briefly examining how his presence in Troilus aligns with the representation of books in the works I’ve previously discussed. Throughout Troilus, Pandarus acts (as Carolyn Dinshaw has argued) as a poet creating a text, and — I would offer — as a poet inspired by texts like the romances of which he seems to be so fond. In Book III, Pandarus — after having tossed Troilus into bed with Criseyde — curls up by the fire and pretends to read. To quote the text directly, he “took a light and fond his countenance / as for to look upon an old romance” (979-80). These lines, like the passages about reading in the dream visions, reveal the animating properties of books.  Here, the lovers become objects of Pandarus “play,” and they are positioned as characters in a romance twice over as a result. Pandarus in turn, can be understood in this scene as either reading a book (a romance) or as watching the lovers as if they are characters in a romance.  If we follow the second interpretation, the lover’s bed becomes a book, one that reflects the creative (and potentially procreative) desires and aims of its author while also remaining simultaneously beyond the creator’s control and domain. Pandarus, like the authors of the books encountered in the dream vision poems, only has but so much control over the very story he seeks to create. Similarly, books only come about through the work of human hands, but once that work is finished the book itself becomes object with animating and creative properties all its own.
A book might seem, as the Chaucer plaintively suggests at the end of Troilus, at the mercy of its readers, but it never loses its capacity to animate and enliven.  Readers and books, in this configuration, require each other for animation. Chaucer consistently exposes their animating circuitry with regularity, suggesting his persistent engagement with the idea of books as objects, with the notion that the seemingly inanimate book can, in fact, continue to develop and possess animating properties long after an author takes “a light.”

  • Amtower, Laurel. Engaging Words: The Culture of Reading in the Later Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2000.
  • Benson, Larry D., ed. The Riverside Chaucer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1987.
  • Phillips, Helen and Nick Havely, eds. Chaucer’s Dream Poetry. London: Longman, 1997.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Ship of Theseus and The Stave Church

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.
-- Plutarch, from Theseus (trans. John Dryden)

About this time last year, I had the immense pleasure of traveling to Norway for a couple of weeks. I mainly went to attend the Nordic Branch of the International Arthurian Society’s phenomenal conference, which focused on Northern versions of Arthurian narratives, but I also allowed myself time before and after the conference to do as much sightseeing as I could. Flying solo in a country I'd never visited before turned each day into an adventure, and one of my favorite – and perhaps insane – capers involved an all-day driving trip through the fjords north of Bergen to get to Urnes, perhaps the most famous (or at least famously carved) stave churches in all of Norway.

The day before the trip to Urnes, however, I visited Fantoft, a stave church lovingly rebuilt after it was burned down by members of the Norwegian black metal scene in 1992. Tragic as its near total destruction was, what I found most remarkable about Fantoft was the way in which it was rebuilt. According to the Armenian guide and proprietor (Bergen surprised and delighted me in being as multicultural as it is), the church was reconstructed using the same building methods and materials that would have been used to construct the original. It apparently took a significant amount of time just to build the tools necessary for the reconstruction efforts, and the woman who commissioned the project only allowed a few modern materials and methods to be used in order to ensure that she'd be able to see it completed before she died. On the whole, however, the rebuilt Fantoft is essentially as it was -- the builders even used trees that would have existed when the original was first built.

Fantoft sits nestled in the woods just a short walk from the Bergen Light Rail. I made my way there in the afternoon, after having spent several hours wandering around and picnicking at Trollhaugen, Grieg’s marvelous home. The clouds had settled in, and the woods were calm and quiet. The church appeared slowly as I rounded a bend in the trail, and I was immediately struck by its imposing structure, with its pitch-dark wood and dragon head embellishments. When I approached the church itself, I smelled the pungent tar recently applied to the entire exterior of the church as a protectant. Important note: if you have the good fortune to stumble upon a recently-tarred stave church, DO NOT get so entranced by the architecture that you lean up against a pillar for the sake of a good photo. You will invariably take home a permanent patch of said tar on whatever you were wearing. 

I took my time examining the exterior and the interior of the church, marveling at the woodwork, the depictions of Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir on the pews, and the care that clearly went into the entire building process. As I made my way out,  I struck up a conversation with the Armenian caretaker. As I mentioned previously, he told me all about the reconstruction process, but also described a heated conversation he had with a few Norwegian officials who came to Fantoft a while back. To the complete irritation of this caretaker, they kept referring to the building as a replica. As he explained to me (quite animatedly), this church is in many ways — by virtue of its careful reconstruction — a far purer representation of a medieval stave church than many of the "originals" still dotting Norway's landscape. He made this point by observing that most of those very churches have had pieces replaced many times over, and that the repairs have typically been modern in their materials and practices (from contemporary tools to modern nails).  To him, Fantoft was a pure and authentic a stave church as one could hope to see. 

My exploration (and mounting obsession) with stave churches continued as I wound my way through the fjords the following day.  Given that I was driving from Bergen and had to return to the city that evening in order to fly to Oslo the following morning (!!!!), the day trip was more than ambitious, but despite (or even because of) the rollicking pace, I managed to have an absolutely magical time. I tried to limit the stops along the way in order to give myself a good chance of making one of the afternoon ferry boats to Urnes, but I did linger for a little while in a tiny town called Undredal, famous for two things: its stave church and its goats, both of which greeted me simultaneously as soon as I got out of my car. There are, I think, few things more entertaining than finding yourself gently stampeded by a herd of shaggy, inquisitive goats. That I managed to exit the herd with all of my clothing intact (and barely chewed) is nothing short of a miracle.

Goat stampede or no goat stampede, the church itself was well worth the stop. As I was the only visitor, I enjoyed a personal tour of the building by its proprietor, and learned all about the various additions to the building over the years. More than anything, I was struck (and somewhat baffled) by the bizarre figures painted on the ceiling. The decorated ceiling was only "discovered" in 1962 when the building was restored and the layers of paint peeled away. Wikipedia will tell you that the ceiling is adorned with angels and saints, but while there certainly are some angels, the guide admitted that no one has really been able to identify the other figures.  The church also contains an array of adornments that have accumulated over the years. According to my guide, deer-head chandelier is likely medieval, as is one of the church bells, whereas the pulpit and the candlesticks date to the late 17th and early 18th century respectively. These artifacts stand as reminders that the church has been in continuous use for well over nine hundred years and has undergone several renovations and modifications -- the building exterior, in fact, was covered in scaffolding when I visited.

Wandering through the church at Undredal was a markedly different experience from the one I had at Fantoft. Remnants of the original 12th-century building remained, but the church felt and looked much more like a temporal collage -- and an impressive one at that. So many centuries crammed into such a diminutive space.

From there, I wound my way up and down hair-pinned, mountainous roads towards Urnes and barely made the afternoon ferry! I decided to stretch my legs a bit and left my car back at the ferry stop so that I could hike my way up to the church. It seemed like a grand idea at the time, and in many ways it was, but I nearly missed the return boat and had to run -- backpack and all -- straight down the hill through some lovely apple orchards, feeling all the while like a graceless Bilbo heading off for his adventure.

Urnes was absolutely gorgeous, and well worth all the careening there and back. I could see it perched on top of the hill as I approached the small town by ferry, and the carvings that have made it famous — and for which an entire style of animal ornamentation gets its name — are nothing short of spectacular. The stave church is one of the oldest in Norway and still stands at its original location (many extant stave churches have been moved over the years). Like the church at Undredal, this one has seen numerous renovations as well as structural and decorative additions over the centuries. What is more, three churches occupied this space prior to the current one. The famous carvings are likely from one of these earlier buildings, and their meaning -- like the meaning of the ceiling paintings at Undredal -- remains elusive. The most common explanation is that the large figure is a lion consuming a snake, and that this represents the struggle between good an evil. It is also possible, however, that the large figure is Níðhöggr, the dragon from Norse mythology that chews on the roots of the world tree Yggdrasil.

Walking around and inside the church felt like a mixture of my experiences at Undredal and Fantoft. The main draw for me had been the chance to see the medieval carvings up close and to see the stave church itself in its "natural" setting. What I hadn't anticipated, however, were the numerous and more modern additions the church had enjoyed over the years (most noticeably in the interior which, alas, I was not allowed to photograph). In this way, the interior felt quite similar to that of the church at Undredal, even though the church at Urnes is no longer in regular use. And to a certain extent the exterior offered up a similar experience as well, especially considering that the carved panels likely belonged to an older, now vanished, stave church.

I've found myself wondering on more than one occasion which of the three offer the most "authentic" experience of a stave church. Urnes, with its "original" wooden carvings and its even more original setting? Undredal, given that it remains a living, breathing parish? Or Fantoft, rebuilt so recently yet with painstaking and faithful attention to original methods and materials? As with Theseus' paradox, one could make a compelling argument for any of the three depending on how the criteria for authenticity are prioritized. I still, in all honesty, haven't quite made up my mind. In this way, these remarkable  churches scattered across the Norwegian landscape truly are ships of Theseus, their very existence challenging easy notions of authenticity.  As still-living objects, they invite us to muse upon the very reasons for visiting them, and they challenge us to think long and hard about what makes an object sufficiently and authentically aged.