Monday, August 31, 2009

Pedagogical Journal: Some small points on Marie's Prologue

by KARL STEEL

Today was the first day of class for my Undergrad Comp Lit course (where I'm doing Marie Lais, a Life of Cuthbert, Voyage of Brendan, Lai d'Haveloc, Grettir's Saga, the Gawain Poet (SGGK, Pearl, & Patience), the Hebrew King Artus, Amis e Amilun, and the ME "Debate of a Christian and Jew"). After my dreadful pocket introduction to the MA, I distributed the prologue to the lais, and asked them to keep a few basic questions in mind: "How does she claim authority or the right to speak? What is the purpose of literature? Why is she writing? And who is her audience?" Surprising me with their enthusiasm, as good students always do, they would never have left the first question had I not interrupted them with a few of my favorite points. For example:
Li philesophe le saveient,
Par eux meïsmes entendeient,
Cum plus trespassereit li tens,
Plus serreient sutil de sens
E plus se savreient garder
De ceo k’i ert a trespasser. (17-22)

Philosophers knew this
they understood among themselves
that the more time they spent,
the more subtle their minds would become
and the better they would know how to keep themselves
from whatever was to be avoided. (Hanning and Ferrante trans; here's another one)
You probably recall that Marie is here speaking about the deliberate obscurity of ancient texts, and the necessity of glossing them, and that she implicitly links her own literary production to that of the ancients. This is what I told my students, anyhow, but I also observed that the verb "trespasser" means, in its first use, to spend time, but in the second use means much more like what we mean, now, when we say "trespass." Since the AND doesn't allowing linking (easily?), click on this image for more:

What is she up to here? What do you do in your classrooms? (I know more than a few of you have handled the Prologue, although I'm told not typically on the first day of class). I suggested that she's at once claiming the mantle of the ancients and disputing the social value of literary interpretation: perhaps all glossing, she suggests, is a waste of time (or worse!). If, however, she's sinking, she plans to take the whole literary edifice down with her at the same time.


I also played with the metaphor of blooming by linking it with her address to the King. Cf.:
Quant uns granz biens est mult oïz,
Dunc a primes est il fluriz,
E quant loëz est de plusurs,
Dunc ad espeandues ses flurs. (5-8)

When a great good is widely heard of,
then, and only then, does it bloom,
and when that good is praised by many,
it has spread its blossoms.
to her praise of Henry (?): "e en qui quer tuz biens racine" (46; in whose heart all goods [nb: "biens" means goodness, as in l. 5, and also wealth or property] take root [modified trans.]) and to Marie's description of her heart, which thinks and decides ("mun quer pensoe e diseie" (49)).

Hers is the heart that thinks; his is the heart in which she means to plant her flower. In other words, he is the reproductive body, the recipient of her rational seed, the biens, the flurs, she gives him. Typically, we speak of the writer as pregnant with the work he or she brings forth ("my hideous progeny"), but here, reversing Mary's impregnation by the Verbum Dei, she herself fertilizes the king!

9 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I love the classes that focus so intently on a word that we can't seem to move on to anything else ...

I like your reading. I always point out when I teach the prologue that instead of an invocation to the muse Marie speaks as someone already inspired: her self-confidence is stunning. I also like how she cites the classical only to lave it quickly behind ... then cites her own past work in translations from Latin only to leave them quickly behind ... then finds novelty in the lais, towards which she acts as mediator and preserver and co-artist. She is a complicated writer, to say the least -- and that's why I never tire of teaching her.

Eileen said...

I'm intrigued by Ferrante and Hanning's translation of the second instance of "trespass," especially given the further glosses you provide. Is "to be avoided" really the right connotation, following from something like "to pass *over*" [?], or is more like "to break *into* and *through*" [?]. And what, more specifically, is the "whatever" that is to be "avoided," "passed over," or "passed into/through"? I get the sense of *avoided* [i.e. mistakes in glossing/reading/understanding], but I guess my frustration with Ferrante and Hanning's translation is that it somehow doesn't respect or at least utilize the double-instance of "trespass" here, which has so many subtle connotations--I mean, "the more time they SPENT"? And then AVOIDED? And "keep" over "guarded," which has beautiful, overlooked resonances with "trespass"? This all seems to miss the mark [and frankly, the *poetry*] for me. More fun/poetic might be,

the more time they passed there,
the more subtle their senses would become,
and the better they would know to guard themselves
from whatever might be trespassed.

Or something like that--the last line is frankly the most difficult.

Eileen Joy said...

Or again:

the more time they passed there,
the more subtle their sense would become,
and the better they would know how to guard themselves
from whatever might be crossed over.

Karl Steel said...

Jeffrey: I made reference to the absence of a prayer from the Prologue's opening lines, but you took that point further: thanks, and I'll borrow that for tonight's discussion.

Thanks Eileen. That last line is a real bear, isn't it! Bloch uses the same translation as Whelan, it looks like; I don't have the Busby trans. available (the Penguin one, usually taught) or any of the modern French translations; and Judy Shoaf goes with a rhymed translation:
Those old philosophers, wise and good,
Among themselves they understood
Mankind, in the future tense,
Would develop a subtler sense
Without trespassing to explore
What's in the words, and no more.

Maybe the Busby gets the polyvalence of trespasser across; I don't know. But the others, as you stress, miss a key point. I do wish some of the French scholars who read us occasionally--Huot & McCracken, where are you? (and has Wogan-Browne ever read us?)--would weigh in...

I like what you're getting at Eileen. I wonder if we could do something with "passed time/pastimes," especially as 'pastimes' gets at the sense of the (dangerous?) supplement to what we really ought to be doing.

So:
Li philesophe le saveient,
Par eux meïsmes entendeient,
Cum plus trespassereit li tens,
Plus serreient sutil de sens
E plus se savreient garder
De ceo k’i ert a trespasser.

Philosophers knew it, and they understood among themselves, that the more time they passed [in commentary/composition], the [sharper their minds would become/the more subtle their writings would be], and they more the would know how to keep themselves from

oh crap. That last line's a killer. Somehow I want to get 'pastimes' in there while still respecting the grammatical sense. You're on the right path, EJ.

Eileen Joy said...

One self-correction:

I realize now that Ferrante and Hanning's "keep" isn't so awful as it also refers to something like a fortress, and like "guard," then, has intimate connection with "trespass." But there is also the *sound* of all this in the modern English that just isn't, somehow, being attended to in their translation. The last line, as Karl points out, really is "killer," and it would be fun to see what our Old French experts might come up with [and that would respect what Marie herself was doing with sounds/double- and triple-connotations there].

Anonymous said...

Well, this is the first time I've ever strayed into a blog and found that I was actually SUMMONED there.

I am totally unfamiliar with English translations of Marie, never having used one. However, the problem I instantly see with all these translations is that they in v. 19, 'trespasereit' is singular and the subject, I assume is not the philosophers but 'li tens'. I have never thought the implication here was 'the more time they (themselves, personally) spent studying texts' but rather, 'the more time went by'. As I see it: the philosophers knew--they could see it in/amongst themselves--the the more time passed, the more subtle philosophers (readers, scholars) would become, and more able to ignore the stuff that should be passed over.

This is Laurence Harf-Lancner's translation in the 'Lettres Gothiques' edition (sorry, I can't figure out how to do diacriticals in this medium):

Les poetes anciens savaient/ et comprenaient eux-memes / que plus le temps passerait, / plus les hommes auraient l'esprit subtil / et plus ils seraient capables / d'interpreter les ouvrages anterieurs.

Yes, she too has rather interpreted that last line--glossed it if you will. I think all it really says is that they will be smarter and better able to avoid that which is better avoided. Presumably it also means that they can better avoid being tripped up by the text (misreading, reading for the wrong kinds of pleasures, getting led into temptation by the text rather than delivered from evil). The idea that better readers are also better behaved in general is certainly implied though: as time goes by, readers get more subtle and are better readers and therefore they're also better able to use texts as a kind of moral screen to keep themselves from getting into trouble, by exercising their minds with these subtle readings, rather than going out and getting up to no good. (This could be because they spend so much time extracting endless meanings and lessons from single words that there isn't time for anything else, or also because they learn so much from their reading that they just know what to do and what not to do.) Certainly in the very next line she does move on to the need for absorbing intellectual work to keep oneself from vice.

So, on the one hand she is one of those modern readers, who benefits from the collective learning that civilization has gone through, and is more subtle and penetrating in her readings than the ancients. Thus she would be good at pulling hidden meanings out of those ancient texts (whether Latin or "Breton"--and she certainly draws on Latin texts in reworking those Celtic tales). And doing so will help preserve her from vice. And, she offers the fruits of her work to a bunch of other modern readers, who are also subtle and can see more than the ancients did and appreciate her work, and also be kept from vice in the virtuous pursuit of text-glossing. AND she makes a nod to the future, when readers will be more subtle still, and can find new meanings in her writings that might not be apparent right now.

We postmoderns are invited, therefore, to get down and gloss.

Anyway, those are my thoughts.
Sylvia

Karl Steel said...

SH: I'm glad my incantation worked. Thanks much for your expertise (which has caused a bit of embarrassment on my part, and a bit of surprise at Hanning and Ferrante getting it wrong!). And also thanks much for your reading, which has a great deal to do with the rapidly expanding discussion in Jeffrey's 'Oceanic Criticism' post (not least of all because Marie clearly presents creative writing as a form of hermeneutics).

It's interesting that where one might have expected a 'standing on the shoulders of giants' approach to increasing sophistication in glossing, Marie instead posits an increase owing to time passing. We have, then, what looks like a 'modern' conception of progress, which is always surprising to see in the Middle Ages.

However, I do think this:
et plus ils seraient capables
d'interpreter les ouvrages anterieurs.

Is a bit of a stretch for

Plus serreient sutil de sens
E plus se savreient garder
De ceo k’i ert a trespasser

As it misses the 'garder' and 'trespasser,' in other words, the language of moral guidance (or threat?) that accompanies Marie's comments on the history and purpose of interpretation.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Karl, Harf-Lancner's translation is not really a translation, but an interpretative gloss. However, I have always understood the gist, or implications, of Marie's statement in that sense, albeit with a greater emphasis on the ethical dimension of reading and glossing.

It does result in a very reader-oriented model, whereby the poet, as it were, produces a bare little sprout, but it's the generations of readers who actually bring the thing to flower, as you pointed out.

Old French specialists have sometimes argued over the bit about how readers should 'gloser la letre / e de lur sen le surplus mettre' (v. 16). Does it imply that the poets themselves are responsible for all the hidden meanings, but it takes several generations of readers to finally figure it all out? Or does it imply that the poet throws it out there, and the readers are the ones who bring their own special knowledge and perspective to produce ever-new meanings? Of course, as Marie herself exemplifies, the roles of reader and poet are not mutually exclusive--maybe the 'surplus of meaning' gets generated not only in the successive waves of reading and rereading, but also in the successive waves of telling and retelling, recasting, recombining with other ancient literary material, etc.

When you look at something like the mythographic tradition, with the wild allegorical and theological readings of, say, Ovid, it's hard to see it as merely uncovering what Ovid himself meant to put there... but more that the reader, benefitting from knowledge and understanding that Ovid lacked access to, can use the 'Metamorphoses' (say) as a springboard to explore and expound that new learning. I would think that's more what Marie is getting at, and she both does it (rewriting ancient stories, in recombination with other ancient stories, so as to infuse them with new meanings) and invites us to do it (there, put THIS in your pipe and smoke it, and see what you come up with).

Some people have pointed out that 'surplus' is also the word used when a c12 poet declines to elaborate in detail about something better left unspoken, such as love-making: I'll tell you that they hugged and kissed, but won't go into the 'surplus'. It's the supplement, 'the rest', perhaps 'the best bit', or maybe what you know and can kind of imagine and conceptualise but not actually put into words; what is implicit in the text, but not explicit; what poetry says by not saying it.

She's great, isn't she, Marie de France! Whoever she was...

SH

Anonymous said...

Let me just say that I am very grateful for this discussion to be unfolding when it is. I am teaching the majority of Marie's Lais (including the Prologue) this evening in my Intro to Medieval Literature class. Many of my notes on the Prologue have been gleaned from this discussion. Thanks everybody!

-Jeremy