by J J Cohen
So I'm presenting this paper at NCS in Swansea -- where, according to the weather gadget in my iPhone, it has been 55 degrees and raining since May.
Offered in a session on "The Politics of Memory," my presentation's point of departure is a favorite book of mine, the anthropologist Richard Price's The Convict and the Colonel: A Story of Colonialism and Resistance in the Caribbean. Combining the personal with the archival, interviews with text, the present with the past, narrative with images, the book is a lucid -- and for me, absolutely entrancing -- examination of how a contemporary way of life can be distanced into a living past.
Through processes he calls variously postcarding, museumfication, patrimonialization, and folklorization, Price maps how Martinique's "traditional culture" was frozen into revered objects and texts, thereby estranging that culture from those who actually live it, invent with it, change it. Fascinated by Martinique since his first visited the island in 1962, and a part-year resident who lived through many of the changes he describes, Price has created a métissage of a book that performs the vitality he seeks to unearth (he speaks of collective, "subterranean" memories at 172; cf. 60) beneath official versions of the past: versions of history in which colonial struggle and atrocities like slavery are forgotten, vanish as lives that bear their traces are stilled into museum displays -- a transformation into uninhabited, uninhabitable spaces that denies the possibility of coevalness, continuity and endurance.
The Convict and the Colonel focuses on Médard Aribot, an artist who in 1925 participated in collective resistance against France's heavy-handed, ongoing colonialism and was exiled to Devil's Island as a result. Médard's father was African, and he grew up on an island where slavery (reinstituted by Napoleon) was "a living and vivid memory" (61). After his return to Martinique, Médard built a colorful house, a "gingerbreaded jewel of bricolage" where he dwelled for some time, but that fell eventually into ruin. Fifty years later, when Price was living on the island, the power of Médard's story "seemed tangible to rural Martiniquans," since the world they inhabited was still "hemmed in by sufficiently palpable (post)colonial structures" for them to feel that his struggle remained their own (172). Passing the site of the crumbled dwelling reminded local people of that important moment of resistance, especially as France was then transforming the island "from a producer economy to a heavily assisted welfare-based consumer economy" (xiii), prelude to its eventual fate as engine of a tourism machine. In 1987, the dilapidated structure was renovated to render its freshly painted walls and newly paved walkways a picturesque roadside attraction. Dubbed "The House of the Convict," no special history was attached to the rebuilt structure beyond its status as an object incarnating an earlier, more pastoral way of life -- vague emblem of lost days. Postcards with the seabound boulder known as Diamond Rock looming behind the empty dwelling began to circulate: the house, evacuated of its anticolonial history, was as lovely to gaze upon as the local flora surrounding its quaint architectural flourishes, the azure sea stretching behind. The house became, like the dark monolith and the blue water that formed its backdrop, an image without a past.
Price is interested in what happens to people who find themselves deprived through such aestheticization of their own past, a history obliterated into "official folklore" (173). What present is left open to the Martiniquans who find their lives estranged from a contemporaneity defined as modern and French? What is lost to this demand to assimilate culturally, linguistically, cognitively? What happens when local history is absorbed into an "amorphous, atemporal period of 'before'"(xi) in order to allow this transformation to proceed unquestioned? What future remains after a people's lived time is materialized as artifacts or as an archive that can be consumed by others rather than "actively produced" (183) within an ongoing present, when "everyday lives are turned into folklore before their very eyes"(186)? Is it possible to outlive your own modernity, and who gains through this temporal displacement?
This overview is, I realize, a long preamble of a tale. Yet I believe it directly relevant to how medieval English authors, including Chaucer, treated Wales and the Welsh. Here were a people sharing an island with the English, sharing a history and a contemporaneity. Yet English writers were content to employ "England" as a synonym for "Britain," a pars pro toto that from vantage points sufficiently distant from London is as reductive as it is galling. This English synecdochic practice had good precedent, especially from the twelfth-century onwards: Henry of Huntingdon wrote of "the most celebrated of islands, formerly called Albion, later Britain, now England" (Historia Anglorum 1.13), while the poet Wace transformed Geoffrey of Monmouth's regum Britanniae [kings of Britain] into regents ki Engleterre primes tindrent ["who were the first rulers of England," Roman de Brut 4].
Chaucer inhabited a polyglot, culturally restless archipelago, yet the island from which he writes appears in his work as a diminished geography that held diversity mainly in its past. His attenuated vision of Britain reveals an essential component of his Englishness: participation in a long tradition of passing over in silence the vitality and contemporary heterogeneity of the isles, imaging that the only modernity Britain can possess is singular and English.
The Wife of Bath's Tale, his single Arthurian narrative, implies that a hero tied intimately tied to Welsh nationalism is out of date. The regal warrior who in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s seminal narration conquered most of the known world becomes as insubstantial as the elves and fairies who once populated Britain but have since dwindled to their vanishing point. The Britons (that is, the Welsh) are aligned -- like the fairies and elves who become their magical doppelgangers -- with the “olde dayes” of the island, with the stillness of ancient history, with folklore rather than national narrative.
Chaucer's only avowedly "Celtic" narrative is the Franklin's Tale. Like all examples from this very English genre of writing, this “Breton lai” claims origin not on the island of Britain but from its near homonym, Brittany. This small feat of geographical acrobatics, familiar from Marie de France and a whole subgenre of English romances such as Sir Orfeo, makes it seem as if the story arrives from a direct line of communication between England and a mystical place across the channel, dooming nearby Wales and a potentially multicultural Britain to an oblivion of silence.
So, Chaucer ignores the non-English inhabitants with whom he shares his island by placing the action of the Franklin's Tale in Brittany rather than proximate Wales. This displaced setting seems especially perverse given that the names of the protagonists (Aurelius, Arveragus, and perhaps Dorigen) are taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, a profoundly influential text that provided the island a rich, pre-English history. With its resplendent envisioning of Arthur, Geoffrey’s History was also central to contemporary Welsh nationalism. Like all the Canterbury tales set abroad, however, the "speech and customs” of the characters in the Franklin’s Tale are (as John Bowers has observed) “thoroughly anglicized," as if the Bretons were Londoners and all the world England. When the knight Arveragus travels abroad to hone his chivalry, he goes to “Engelond, that cleped was eek Briteyne” (810), silently granting as primordial fact an equivalence of island and nation for which only England would argue.
And here is the eccentric -- or, at least, very difficult to prove -- part of my theory. The Franklin's Tale has typically been understood through reference to its primary source, Boccaccio's Filocolo -- as well it should be, since much of the story patently derives from that narrative. Yet the tale announces itself as the work of "old gentil Britouns ... rymeyed in hir firste Briton tonge" (709, 711), a narrative that the Franklin keeps "in remembraunce." I've already indicated that Breton "layes" are not necessarily all that "Celtic," representing more an English attempt at what Richard Price called museumfication, folklorizing, and postcarding -- one that involves playing up the magic of the temporally anterior culture. Such enchantment acknowledges that this world -- as charming and as beautiful and as dangerously alluring as it may shine -- that this nostalgia-tinged and now estranged world is resolutely premodern. Its time is that of the undifferentiated, amorphous, nonhistorical past, a period that has come to its disenchanted terminus, and can now be delectated only as "remembraunce."
The Franklin worries that he cannot add the expected "colours" (723, rhetorical ornamentation) to the Britoun narrative living in his memory, and that his performance will be "bare and pleyn" (720). The story he tells, however, is worse than sparse: it is subtractive, transporting Geoffrey of Monmouth's characters out of their British context completely, and fitting them into an Italian story that is not their own. Yet in a way Geoffrey's story returns, a kind of "subterranean memory" in the tale.
In the picture postcards from Martinique described by Richard Price, Médard's house (colonial history transported, decontextualized, and reinvented as a colorful remnant of forgotten past used to make render the present scenic) is haunted in background by the looming form of vast, dark Diamond Rock. Likewise the Franklin's Breton lai (Geoffrey of Monmouth transported, decontextualized, and reinvented to give a rather English story the patina of enchanted history while denying that past vitality, even meaning) is haunted by vast and looming lithic forms, the "grisly feendly rokkes blake" that so obsess Dorigen, the lai's heroine. Her anxiety, her fear that absolutely transfixes her is that these rocks will dash the happy life she enjoys with her husband Arveragus to pieces, will prevent him from returning from the errantry that brings him to England. "But wolde God that alle thise rokkes blake / Were sonken into helle!" she exclaims (891-2): her wish is that these stones that impinge upon her worried present with stark reminders of violence and death ("An hundred thousand bodyes of mankynde / Han rokkes slayn," 877-8) would sink below her field of vision, could be forgotten.
Thus the clerk Aurelius's hopeless task of making these rocks be swallowed into the oblivious sea ... a task that he performs with a book-derived magic that seems (erupting as it does from a tome-lined study that in many ways seems like Chaucer's own place of writing) like a recipe for composing a Breton lai ("He shewed hym, er he wente to sopeer, / Forestes, parkes ful of wilde deer ..."). This enchantment is easily dismissed for more mundane concerns, like dinner ("he clapte his handes two / And farewel! Al oure revel was ago"). It is also a spellbinding that can easily be disenchanted, since it has such a clear terminus, such a clear boundary ... since in its very application to the vanishing of the rocks it may involve nothing more than consulting a table of tides ("tables Tolletanes ... ful wel corrected").
Yet the rocks that may or may not dematerialize bring something more to the story, I would argue, than is evident at a first glance. Aurelius is, after all, a British king intimately connected in Geoffrey of Monmouth to the transporting to Britain of huge rocks: it is to satisfy this monarch that Merlin moves Stonehenge from Ireland to Salisbury Plain. There the towering circle of stones is supposed to commemorate feternally the victory of the Britons against the invading Saxons. Said to possess curative powers, these rocks do not destroy life, but give to those who have perished in battle an enduring and living memory. They materialize in the present an anticolonial history, while bringing into that present other stories (tales of giants and Africa and Ireland). How interesting, then, to find Geoffrey's chorea gigantum, Stonehenge, transformed into "grisly rokkes blake" limning the coast of Brittany, menacing the romantic dreams of a Chaucerian heroine, a perturbing backdrop to what should have been a pleasantly English tale.