Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Theseus is no fraud, or, Thank You Paul Auster!

by KARL STEEL

There was a pattern in my students' papers on The Knight's Tale. Those who had read the Mark Sherman chapter, "Chivalry," in the Oxford Chaucer Guide accused the whole chivalric class of fraud. Pretending to be the embodiments of high culture, pretending to be motivated by love, they were instead only bloodthirsty warriors; the Temple of Mars and the malignance of Saturn are the truth of knighthood; and so forth. I'm sympathetic to this view, and, because of my teaching, even responsible: my tribe, being suspicious of political power, is necessarily suspicious of Theseus, and loves to call him out as much for his mistaken reverence for the ineffectual Jupiter (I.2442) as for the tyranny of an Athenian parliament (I.2970) where Theseus does all the talking. I try, perhaps not very well, to tell them that my criticism is a phase, like any other phase, and that they may want to dip in other critical waters, or--to extend the metaphor--open a new canel. Perhaps it is time for we beautiful souls (plural of "yafeh nefesh" please?) to subject Theseus to a Chávezista or neocon interpretation, one suitable for our decade?

I've said only a bit of this in class; instead, I argued for the inextricability of chivalric culture from chivalric violence, and I thought, secretly (but perhaps not so secretly now), that the accusations of cultural fraud against knights is simultaneously cynical--"oh, those knights. they were really just stinky, illiterate, nasty types" (I think I have the right Pinkwater here)--and deeply sentimental ("true culture is elsewhere, with us beautiful souls, who don't kill anyone"). I'd like to push matters a little bit further, so, with that in mind, tomorrow night, I will distribute to them a photocopy of Paul Auster's stunning new translation of Bertran de Born's most famous poem, which appears in the March 9, 2009 issue of The Nation. If you subscribe, great! But since the entire poem is accessible only to subscribers, I think I'd be violating something by quoting it in full. Our nonsubscribing academic readers, however, should have online access to it through their libraries; as for the others, my apologies: perhaps write to Auster directly. Here's what The Nation provides for free:

I love the jubilance of springtime
When leaves and flowers burgeon forth,
And I exult in the mirth of bird songs
Resounding through the woods;
And I relish seeing the meadows
Adorned with tents and pavilions;
And great is my happiness
When the fields are packed
With armored knights and horses.

And I thrill at the sight of scouts
Forcing men and women to flee with their belongings;
And gladness fills me when they are chased
By a dense throng of armed men;
And my heart soars
When I behold mighty castles under siege
As their ramparts crumble and collapse
With troops massed at the edge of the moat
And strong, solid barriers
Hemming in the target on all sides.
And, skipping a big chunk, here are the last two stanzas:
I tell you that eating, drinking, and sleeping
Give me less pleasure than hearing the shout
Of "Charge!" from both sides, and hearing
Cries of "Help! Help!," and seeing
The great and the ungreat fall together
On the grass and in the ditches, and seeing
Corpses with the tips of broken, streamered lances
Jutting from their sides.

Barons, better to pawn
Your castles, towns, and cities
Than to give up making war.
Now, this whole post is essentially an excuse to direct your attention to what strikes me as a supurb, timely translation. For my students, I trust they'll understand, after reading this, that chivalric culture is--for better or worse--no fraud.

8 comments:

afarber said...

Thanks for calling our attention to that ... I certainly wouldn't have expected to find Bertran de Born in The Nation! I'd love to hear how your class reacts to the poem. I tried to teach it once, and I don't think it went well (although I admit, this is probably due to the fact that I hardly understand the poem myself).

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

This only shows what an antique I am, but when I first started leading Chaucer discussion sections as a graduate student assistant (this would be 1989 or so), and for many years thereafter, I was constantly aware that I was doing so in the wake of Monty Python -- specifically, in the aftermath of Terry Jones's book Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary. I can't say much more about this book other than that it turned the bloody Arthur of The Holy Grail (the one who kills the dull medievalist who blathers on about Arthurian myths) into Theseus. It also turns Chaucer into a figure any Cambridge-trained liberal can love (a Chaucer, that is, who is exterior to his own time: disgusted by violence, seeing with his penetrating stare the charade that chivalry offers, stressing the dark side of the military-industrial complex).

You can see how such a reading would appeal to college students, because you can both side with Chaucer and condemn the Man. Self-satisfaction all around.

It's tough to get medieval after that ... or maybe not, since the Jones book also offers such a good entryway into how not to do a presentist reading of a text. I would ask my students about Chaucer having been captured in battle. I would ask them what they thought he might feel about killing someone with his own hands. These are not answerable questions, but they do not offer the delightfully peace-loving Chaucer that a swift rejection of Theseus enables either.

Thanks for the poem, Karl, and for the time travel.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

By the way, I admit to knowing next to nothing about Bertran de Born. Is his sirventès generally accepted as satire? In what spirit is it composed?

dan remein said...

my partner (and live-in hebrew expert) tells me that nephesh is fem., so yafot nephesot, I think.

irina said...

Speaking of which, can anyone recommend a handy Old Occitan/Provencal grammar and reader?

Karl Steel said...

Dan and MM thanks!

Irina: no idea. I know we have some Occitan readers in these parts though...

Jeffrey: jeez, I should know that in re: satire, but I just don't.

As for Theseus: on Chaucer's personal experience we can also observe that he was a Justice of the Peace in the 1380s and thus responsible for enforcing labor regulations, among other laws. This certainly complicates Chaucer's supposedly liberal bemusion.

That said, the portraits of Mars and Saturn are pretty dark, AND Theseus does mistakenly seem to invest Jupiter with more power than Jupiter is able to exercise: much hinges, however, on whether this should be understood as a mistake on Theseus's part or as a deliberate misdirection of the 'true' source or model of power, princely included.

The well-ordered admirable Theseus of KnT is as dead as the well-ordered admirable 'Great Chain of Being' in Ulysses's speech from Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. But, I hope, the bemused liberal--or even reformist--Chaucer is also dead.

With all that in mind, how should we teach Theseus? I guess I've already proposed a route, above, with my Bertran de Born, so I'll just ask Jeffrey (et al.): how do YOU teach Theseus?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Cf. the fifth line of this. Feel the longing to have been born on the *other* side of the alps.

With meadhorn raised to martial synaesthesia,

Nicola

afarber said...

Irina: As far as I know, the standard text is William D. Paden's Introduction to Old Occitan ... but, according to the reviewers on Amazon, that book won't do you much good if you don't already know the other related languages. So, depending on your background, you should approach it with caution. I would give you a more personal review, but sadly, the book has sat neglected on my shelf since I bought it years ago. I need to improve my Latin and French before I tackle Old Occitan.