Monday, April 30, 2007

Burne-Jones, Chaucer, and the Slippage of Everything

Okay, since spending some time recently watching a lot of episodes of South Park with my first-year writing students and reading Mandeville's Travels with my M.A. students [see previous post here], we can now call this an obsession of mine--by which I mean: noticing all the ways in which various anti-semitic discourses and even meta-anti-semitic discourses [whether in the form of apocryphal stories, reductively stereotypical tropes, satire, etc.] are made to kind of "disappear" in or move into the background of our "readings" of various texts: whether travelogues, television shows, or even paintings. My interest is not in delineating the contours of the anti-semitic discourses themselves [which are obvious], but in trying to take note of how we subvert a certain way of "taking note" of them [if that makes any sense].

I recently attended a show at the Saint Louis Museum of Art, "Waking Dreams: The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites from the Deleware Art Museum," in which I was able to view a painting of which I had formerly been completely unaware, Edward Burne-Jones's The Prioress's Tale (1898), based on Chaucer's tale of the same name. It was his last "produced" painting (he died that same year), and he had apparently been working on it for over thirty years. Burne-Jones had also worked with William Morris on his 1896 Kelmscott edition of the Canterbury Tales, and earlier in his career had also illustrated a wooden cabinet with scenes from this particular story. "The Prioress's Tale," of course, has generated much critical scholarship, especially as regards its virulent anti-semitism, with some critics feeling discomfited by what appears to be Chaucer's comfort with telling a supposedly uncritical story about a Christian child being savagely murdered by Jews and thrown into a communal privy, and others maintaining that since it is the Prioress's story, Chaucer is obviously doing something more subversive--i.e., this brutal and hate-filled tale, coming from the mouth of the nun who wears a necklace that declares "amor vincit omnia" and who is so "pitous" she would weep over a small mouse caught in a trap and whose table manners make her "ful semely" [but in a contrived manner--she "apes" politeness], cannot possibly be read "straight," and part of its shock value comes from who is telling it. I tend to agree with this latter view, and I actually believe Chaucer made some of the details in the tale as crude as possible in order to make this cliched martyr narrative both "cute" ["litel"] and sublimely horrible at once. With Chaucer, it's all about the layering. The layers, my friends, the layers.

By "referencing" this story of Chaucer's in a painting, there is already somewhat of an undermining of Chaucer's framing, because it is no longer the Prioress's story, per se, but is Burne-Jones's "lifting" and re-framing [literally] of two particular moments in that story: the murder of the boy--seen in the right-hand middle-third of the canvas, one woman can clearly be seen holding the boy down against his will, a dagger in her hand pressed against his back, with which we know she is going to slit his throat, while another women looks on, apparently an accomplice--and the moment at which the Virgin Mary places the grain on his tongue so that he can continue singing even though his throat has been cut. To a certain extent, Burne-Jones quite purposefully minimized the violence of both of these scenes. In the central image of the painting--where the Virgin Mary is bending over the boy who can be seen to be standing in a kind of grave in a garden of poppies and lilies, hands clasped in a prayerful pose--the boy is completely unmolested, his body whole and complete and beautifully boy-like. His actual murder is relegated to the background at the moment just before it actually happens. There is nothing in the painting to suggest that the boy is in the Jewish ghetto of the original tale. You have to look hard to notice the dagger.

I assume the original audience of this painting would have been more familiar than the museum-goers in Saint Louis with the original story and may have filled in the missing details, as well as looked for the murder weapon, and the imminent moment of the boy's murder. For the contemporary audience, the accompanying wall plaque and the iPod audio tour provide the necessary glosses on the painting, and to my surprise, while both mention that the painting is based on a story by Chaucer, the only narrative details provided are that the story is about a boy who is murdered while singing a hymn to the Virgin Mary, and that she is placing a grain in his mouth so that he can continue singing even though he has been murdered. All of the provided detail--brief as it is--focuses on the foreground of the painting, and no mention is made of what is happening in the background. I was looking for the murder scene, but I doubt other museum-goers were, and the detail will be lost to many without some kind of narrative guidance. Simply put, much of the content [and context] of Chaucer's original story is drained in this painting [by Burne-Jones], and the museum curators and exhibition authors have not seen fit to fill in much of what is missing, thereby flattening the painting's possible effects upon its viewers, as well as covering over the story's richly multi-layered history. For now, it's just another pretty picture in the room.

There are other interesting details in this painting which I am sure were intended by Burne-Jones as narrative "cues," but I did not have sufficient time to study them all, so if others have further thoughts about the painting, I would love to hear them. I wonder why Burne-Jones labored over this particular painting for so long? Does anyone know? I would love to know more about that, too. To a certain extent, the story obviously had some kind of hold on him, as it still does on us today.

9 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

I forgot to say that much of the wall plaque and iPod commentary on the painting had mainly to do with explicating the symbolism of the flowers in the foreground of the painting. The flowers, my friends. The flowers!

J J Cohen said...

It's interesting that Burne-Jones paid so little attention to the setting as described by the text -- no public latrine, no constricted street, no Asian milieu (looks vaguely Roman; look at that victory pillar!), no sense that the Christians are a minority sect ... even those flowers tend to anglicize and contemporize the scene.

Karl Steel said...

Two women killing the little clerk?

Here's an original:

"And homycide therto han they hyred,
That in an aleye hadde a privee place;
And as the child gan forby for to pace,
This cursed jew hym hente, and heeld hym faste,
And kitte his throute, and in a pit hym caste.
I seye that in a wardrobe they hym threwe
Where as thise jewes purgen hire entraille."

I don't have my Riverside on hand right now, so I don't know the authority for switching from a single professional assassin who disposes of the body in a pit to the Prioress's revision of her own record (if that is how we should here "I seye") to the Jews collectively throwing the body into a privy. Regardless of whether it's one assassin or the Jews as a whole, there's no evidence that it's two women responsible. Why the change?

Here's a stretch at an explanation. Perhaps in giving us female murderers, Burne-Jones, inspired by the Prioress's allusion at her tales' end, is drawing from the folk song Hugh of Lincoln in which a woman (albeit only one) is responsible? From my notes on
#155 "Sir Hugh, or, The Jew's Daughter." Francis James Child. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 5 vols. New York, 1956. III:233-54; IV: 497; V:241, where one version runs in a key stanza:

She led him in through ae dark door,
And saw has she thro nine;
She's laid him on a dressing-table,
And stickit him like a swine

==
BTW: am I surprised by the Curators' screw up with this painting? Nope. Distressed: absolutely. Good catch EJ.

Karl Steel said...

even those flowers tend to anglicize and contemporize the scene

Right: and the flowers. Like so many other victims of ritual murder, he should be in a pit full of human shit, not in a nice field of flowers. Good lord.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

you had me at the scare quotes around 'referencing'!

Joseph Kugelmass said...

My thoughts on the Tale are up at The Valve, and over at my place (see link below). My thought on the painting is that it must be at least partially conscious of its own erasures; look at the way the partial occlusion of Mary's body, by her robes, is echoed in the partial occlusion of the scenes and even the arches behind her. Whether the beautiful, unsullied foreground was, in Burne-Jones's vision, a deliberate irony, or a celebration of beauty triumphant (emerging from, and replacing, harsher realities), is hard to say.

Karl Steel said...

EJ, I just turned up some more material on the occlusion of antisemetism. From here, Greg Wilsbacher, Lumiansky's Paradox: Ethics, Aesthetics and Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale" College Literature. Fellow named Lumiansky published prose translations of the CT after WWII, but chose to include only a summary of the Prioress's Tale. Understandable, given the Shoah, but look at the summary:

The Prioress tells a tale which belongs to a large body of religious stories called "Miracles of Our Lady." A little choirboy is murdered, but through the action of the Virgin he is enabled to speak and to make known the facts concerning his death. This miracle makes a great impression upon the people of the vicinity, who bury the little boy in holy fashion. (Lumiansky 1948, 248)

!!! (now, Lumiansky's introduction explains why he, a Jewish veteran, refused to include the PrT: "For most of us, "The Prioress's Tale" is ruined by the similarity between this sort of story and some of the anti-Semitic propaganda which was current in Nazi Germany, and which is still in operation, not only in numerous foreign countries but also here at home")

Oh hell, read the article. I am, right now, while writing this post, before I dive it's today's ("Kzoo!" "Bless you!") work.

N50 said...

The Prioress's Tale was one of the first works EBJ illustrated as well as one of the last (I think he tackled it 3-4 times altogether) - so it clearly mattered to him. He had turned down a career in the church to 'discover' himself as an artist. Maybe that is what he liked about the story - didn't he once say something about needing to re-make himself as a child again before he could progress in his new chosen profession? Perhaps he is more interested in the re-birth of the boy and the boy's talent - and the other stuff was TMI.

Anonymous said...

The McCune Collection has a copy of the Kelmscott Chaucer and has been highlighting it on its website: www.mccunecollection.org