Monday, July 07, 2008

An Eccentric Theory about the Franklin's Tale

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.

19 comments:

Karl Steel said...

* applause *

Maybe I'll have more to say later. For now, my enthusiasm: great stuff.

Rick Godden said...

This sounds like a fascinating paper, making me all the more sorry that I am not attending the NCS this year. Also, your post makes me realize I need to read Price at this point.

I'm intrigued by your connection between "people who find themselves deprived through such aestheticization of their own past" and Chaucer's tale. This may be outside of the paper, or you may have already written on it, but what of the turn to verse in Higden's Polychronicon in book I when Higden discusses the geography of Wales? I've always been intrigued by this moment in the text when prose is abandoned for poetry.

I have some further thoughts on Aurelius and the rocks, but I need to finish my writing for the day. I'll try to post again later.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Marie's Breton lais were a Francification of another colonized Celtic people -- and Chaucer's English generation of litterateurs were rejecting French.

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen said...

Thanks, Karl!

Rick, that's a great point, and not something I'd thought about. If you have any further thoughts on that lyrical turn I would love to hear them.

Steve, I really don't think it's that simple. I would argue that Marie de France -- who did, after all, write in England -- was, like Chaucer, displacing Wales into Brittany. Her lais don't Francify a Celtic world so much as project an Anglo-Norman world upon ostensibly "Celtic" materials -- and really, considering the Anglo-Norman word for Anglo-Norman is English, what she really does is anglicize them (which in the terms of the day meant translation into French; cf. Wace).

Marie clearly loved French, and saw French language and francophone culture as an integral part of her identity and world. I don't think it is enough to say that Chaucer and his cohort rejected French, exactly; they were ambivalent about the language, but not exactly against absorbing its genres and conventions into a French-flexible English.

Karl Steel said...

Steve's question about Marie might be transmuted into another: is your return of the Colonialist repressed reading of Chaucer portable to other lais? I wonder how Orfeo would respond to some of these concerns. Recall:

* its opening, borrowed entirely from a MEnglishing of Marie, the "Lay le Freine"
* its hero, a harper-king
* its (arguably?) very Celtic underworld (more Celtic than anything Chaucer provides)
* Winchester remapped as Thrace (does this efface the Celtic past by rendering the distant past Anglo-Saxon?)
* the 'sterility' of Orfeo and Heurodis, who, in effect, never return from the underworld...

Rick Godden said...

I don't have it at hand at the moment, but I have in mind Gabrielle Spiegel's Romancing the Past where she talks bout the truth value assigned to prose and verse regarding history. Prose was considered more straightforward, where verse was askew.

It's been a while since I've looked at either Geoffrey or Higden, so I may be making much of nothing, but it seems interesting that, in the verse section on Wales, Higden mentions the bloodline of Priam, that "noble brood," before Brutus. And when Brutus is mentioned, it's in the context of Camber, his son for which Cambria was named (according to Higden). I'm also not sure if there is some confusion on Higden's part (or mine), Brutus was not part of Priam's brood. There seems possibly to be some distancing of Wales here through the mention of Priam's brood and the lyrical turn. The origins of both countries would be the same from the point of view of Geoffrey, but we get two different versions of it here. Both the section on Wales and the section on England in Book I mention Brutus's conquest, but one seems to present a more legendary aspect to it (mention of Priam) and presents it in verse.

I should just mention that Trevisa's rhyming couplets are not great poetry, and that the later English translator turned it into prose.

Sarah Rees Jones said...

I love this idea of Chaucer marginalising the Welsh by pushing them into the past - I do wonder about the 'Londoness' of that perspective. That at least is how I would identify it - Chaucer was not English but he was a Londoner. London and England were/are not the same thing (however much Londoners - and visitors to London - might think that they were/are).

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen said...

Karl, Sir Orfeo strikes me as part and parcel of the same (implicit) literary colonial project as the Franklin's Tale, distancing Wales as an enchanted other world AND assimilating it to conventional (even classical) models. Just as Winchester becomes Thrace, so (in the Merchant's Tale) the fairies turn out to be the classical deities Pluto and Proserpina. The past becomes amorphous, gathering together all kinds of relics and clutter. As to Orfeo and Heurodis not returning from the underworld ... I'm not so sure. Recall how much of that brief lai's energy is invested in Orfeo setting his kingdom right upon his return: he doesn't just announce to the steward "I'm home!" but extends the story into a prolonged political probing.

Rick, fascinating: thanks for the additional details.

Sarah, thank you so much for that: you are absolutely right. That's why I wrote in my post about perspective changing the farther from London one is, rather than the farther from England. I'd agree with Salter and Pearsall that Chaucer is more international than he is English: it was up to his 15th C lionizers to transform him into the father of English poetry. He didn't seem all that concerned with the English nation per se, and you'd have a hard time finding much patriotism in his work.

Nonetheless there are certain assumptions and active forgettings that are part of his perhaps unthought Englishness, and especially his English literariness -- an indifference (at best) to the rest of Britain among them, and an active obliteration of the island's multicultural history at worst. You could say similar things about his treatment of Jews in the Prioress's Tale.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Late to the banquet as usual, but a few thoughts here.

This essay is absolutely fascinating, and it's moments like these I wish I were more a Chaucerian so I could be a better reader of it!

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. Another instance where it seems the land might remember more than we do? I remember that was something you touched on in your Kzoo paper (though my memory fails me as to anything more specific at this moment) - I'm curious if you see the same motion here? If that makes sense.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

To push my comment further (slowly, the coffee kicks in) -- perhaps the stones seem to remember what Chaucer wants (directly or indirectly, actively or passively) to forget?

Steve Muhlberger said...

I'm not a literary person so correct me if I'm wrong, but in what earlier generation of English writing, or London writing, or what ever you want to call it would projects as ambitious as Chaucer's various works have been written in English rather than French or Latin? Chaucer may well be an international figure or an aspirant of international participation, but by using London English he is making a claim for the importance or authority of thatlanguage that it sure didn't have been 1300 or 1350.

Correct me if I'm wrong.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Mary Kate, YES. You put that so much better than I did. The grisly rokkes are the return of a "subterranean memory" (in Price's terms), a part of Geoffrey of Monmouth's story -- and a part of England's British story -- that Chaucer wants to forget. You're right, this is intimately tied to my Kzoo paper. In fact I am now ceratin that much of my fourth monograph now exists in outline and that it is about stones, stories, and the weight of the past.

Steve, absolutely. But he is doing so not in an "English triumphant" kind of way that we'll see in 15th C literature, or even with a nativist or patriotic fervor. His narratives are very French/Italian/classical -- but are written in English, making them more hybrid (and international-looking) than resolutely English.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I guess that's a verbose way of saying that I want to emphasize that Chaucer isn't rejecting French so much as incorporating French forms into English, and setting the literatures side by side rather than dismissing a language/culture that he clearly adored.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Maybe his career says, "We've got great potential here, but we've got to be open to the wide world -- or at least the cool parts."

Dan P. Carr said...

Great post Jeffrey.
I question though the idea of Chaucer displacing Wales. Britons did migrate to Brittany/Armorica (the A.S. Chronicle says they came from there). Chaucer at least works off a real historical connection.

To me he doesn't do any different from other artists who appropriate their source material - everything gets assimilated somehow. The Tales aren't "histories", like Geoffrey of Monmouth's fake one - and if we are concerned with a lack of Celtic-ness, I wonder how was it a positive thing for that Breton-Welsh pseudo-historian to stress a distant Trojan origin in the figure of Brutus?..

Could that kind of thing (along with bardic material) be considered aesthecization of the past by the Welsh themselves? Or is that just called mythology?

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Jeffrey, re: fourth monograph and the rocks> SO COOL. looking forward to seeing how it continues to develop.

Insurditate vero said...

Catching up slowly, admittedly!

I'm dealing with this to a degree myself in terms of medieval disabilty history, actually.

In terms of modern perceptions of disability history, deaf history is the most-developed of the subgenres of disability history. Deaf history begins in the late 18th century with the abbé Epée and his school for the deaf.

However, what happens before Epée? In fact, Catherine Kudlick, in her essay "Disability History: Why We Need Another 'Other'", argues that Epée represents the "creation myth" for the deaf.

I've always found this idea remarkably fascinating because it brings up, to name just one thing, issues of parallelism. We have 'normal' history dating back thousands of years, and all of a sudden we have this parallel line beginning in c. AD 1760 and continuing in parallel with 'normal' history. There really hasn't been much effort to discern a 'deaf history' (if there is one) before Epée. To make a long point short, we effectively have a 'prehistory' existing at a time when we think that we have a 'history': we talk about the middle ages as history, yet in terms of deaf (and disability) history, it's 'prehistory'.

I promise to write up a lengthy and detailed post on this issue in the near future - it would be interesting to see what you and other ITM readers think about this concept.

Many thanks for writing this essay - it was quite thoughtful!

Eileen Joy said...

Jeffrey: this is a wonderful essay; Like Rick, it makes me want to read Price, and following Mary Kate's comments, I think your essay makes a great case for the "return of the repressed" in Chaucer's writing.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Dan: although you are right, of course, that Chaucer is not composing history, he is nonetheless authoring a work with a historical and geographical setting that matters -- in the same sense that, say, an Indiana Jones film about the ark of the covenant might be fictional and placed in a distant time/geography, but can still be a meditation on American exceptionalism at the turn of a specific decade. What gets left out of any work, moreover, matters as much as what is included. And you are right: aesthecization of the past is something the medieval Welsh could revel in as well, though in general this mythologizing served a very different purpose from its English counterpart.

Greg, thanks for the connections, and for the reminder as well of how recent the prehistorical can be!

Eileen, I am trying not to put the vanishing in psychological terms, but then again why not? What I am hoping throughout the project (and thanks for your encouragement, MKH) is to make even stones -- which are supposed to be, as retainers of memory, aligned with obliteration or petrification -- mobile and changing (metamorphic I think would be the proper geological term) agents within a living sense of history, one in which that which has vanished because it is has gone subterranean keeps resurfacing -- like the Green Children of Woolpit -- in surprising and possibly future-oriented forms.