by CAROLYNN VAN DYKE
[Note from Eileen: Carolynn Van Dyke's post here is a continuation of the ongoing dialogue stemming from papers presented at the session Ruth Evans organized on "The Descriptive Turn" at the biennial meeting of the New Chaucer Society held in Portland a few weeks ago -- Eileen Joy's and Julie Orlemanski's expanded papers already posted HERE and HERE, and Ruth Evans's response to Julie's paper HERE.]
CLOSE BUT NOT CLOSED
The first thing I’ll say about the descriptive turn is, in brief, “been there, done that.” Many arguments in the texts that Ruth Evans distributed for this seminar [see Works Cited, below] resonate with what medievalists have been doing for some time. Heather Love associates the “turn” with a rejection of “the ideology of humanism” (“Close But Not Deep”)—a phrase used with comparable scorn sixty years ago by D. W. Robertson, Jr., Bernard Huppé, and other exegetical critics. Of course, the Robertsonians might exemplify another of Love’s targets, the presumption of the critic to “[interpret] divine messages” in acts of “ethical heroism”—but other Chaucerians slammed into that target long ago. I refer to critics like Talbot Donaldson and Charles Muscatine, who practiced the “close but not deep” reading that Love advocates. Repudiating patristic exegesis, attending instead to manifest features of tone and style, Donaldson emulated the position that he attributes to Chaucer’s own persona, that of—in Love’s phrase—“humble analyst and observer.” More recently, medievalists have anticipated the “descriptivists” in other ways. Few of those who read papers at NCS idealize a stable “text,” for instance, nor do we “conflat[e] the social practice of reading with the activity of expert readers,” as John Frow puts it (“On Midlevel Concepts”). We study communities of readers based on gender, language, class, sexuality, and ideology, and we are keenly aware of the diversity and materiality of individual manuscripts. Nor do we generally celebrate what Love disparages as the “singularity of the literary” (“Forms of Description”). That is, medievalists seem to spend less time on what she calls “the metaphysical and humanist concerns of heremeneutics” (Love, “Close But Not Deep”) than on codicology, natural and social history, and philosophical and theological frameworks. We often raise concerns that might be called pre- or post-humanist.
Indeed, we are spending more time on such matters than we once did. And that leads me to a second and less self-congratulatory point about the descriptive turn. If many of its attacks leave us unscathed, we might benefit from its fresh and forceful defense of reading. Particularly exciting to me is Heather Love’s call to redefine literary studies as “a discipline defined by reading or close reading”—that is, “reading across fields.” To me, the best recent work in medieval studies reads texts—poems, encyclopedias, laws, manuals, records—not just closely but continuously, from beginning to end, with sustained attention.
And with humility. That word surfaces in several of the essays that Evans distributed, and humility shapes nearly all of them, especially Latour’s moving reconsideration of his own participation in critique. Heather Love’s reading of Beloved is avowedly modest: she retreats from her original confidence (shared by many readers) that the novel’s climactic moments endorse an ethical stance that she had anticipated and could expound authoritatively. Similarly, in reading the lyrics of Bernart de Vendatorn, Simon Gaunt backs off a little from his standpoint as a brilliant exponent of critical queer studies; moreover, he relinquishes the somewhat arrogant skepticism of many modern readers toward the troubadours’ religious and sacrificial discourse.
Equally interesting about Gaunt’s essay, however, is his employment of psychoanalytic concepts. That raises my third comment about the descriptive turn. To me, Gaunt seems to read both “close” and “deep.” On the one hand, he “attends to what is most obvious” about Bernhart’s lyrics, taking them “at face value”—here I borrow Love’s quotation from Leah Marcus and Stephen Best in Representations. On the other, he also demonstrates what he calls “functional” parallels not just with religion but also with Lacan’s analysis of “desire of/for the Other.” This is hardly “flat” or “thin” reading. Indeed, I would have found Gaunt’s close reading less coherent without the psychoanalytic parallel (though I seldom find Lacan coherent in isolation).
The power of Gaunt’s close-and-deep reading leads to my fourth and final point, which concerns description itself. Some descriptivists ask that we “reject the traditional humanist categories of experience, consciousness, depth, and motivation” (I quote Evans’s paraphrase of François Dosse); but those categories inform Gaunt’s essay as fully as does his “atten[tion] to what is most obvious.” And they inform at least one of the fields on which the descriptive turn bases itself. I refer to animal ethology, the systematic study of animal behavior. Love writes that ethologists are “less interested in motivation than in gestures, behavior, and pattern” (“Close,” 378). But Gregory Bateson, whose work Love cites in this regard, writes about the ways in which nonhuman primates signal their motives—in particular, playfulness instead of aggression (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 179-81). More recently, Marc Bekoff argues that the behavior of a wolf or baboon can be best described with reference to affective states and motivations—that is, described more economically and with more predictive value than it can be in rigidly objective terms (Emotional Lives of Animals, 121). And empirical work in neurology has shown that to label as “empathy” certain cognitive responses (in both human and nonhuman animals) is an act not of inference or interpretation but of accurate description: neural activity in an observer’s brain mirrors that in the brain of the creature being observed (citations in, e.g., Bekoff 12 and 128). The brain re-writes what it sees. Indeed, on a somatic level, empathy is description.
To suggest how reading might be both descriptive and empathetic, I turn briefly to a text that has received too little reading of any kind: Robert Henryson’s “Morall Fabillis.” Work on the fables has focused primarily on the relationship between what John Marlin calls the “humanism of the [Aesopian] tales” and their didactic, often incompatible moralitates (Marlin 135). In the last of the thirteen narratives, a naïve mouse accepts a toad’s duplicitous offer of help crossing a river. As the two struggle, a kite snatches and eats them both. As Edward Wheatley writes, Henryson supplies two epimythia, or “morals”—one “social” (don’t trust false companions) and one spiritual (the body bears the soul downward until death attacks) (Wheatley, 94-96). Attending to “what is most obvious,” readers have noted that the morals contradict: the mouse might have declined the toad’s offer, just as we can avoid false friends, but the soul can hardly refuse the body’s portage through what Henryson calls the “watter [that] is the warld” (Henryson, l. 2955). And the second moral jars against the narrative itself, for mouse and toad were equally corporeal; before meeting the toad/body, the mouse/soul yearned not for heaven but for easy eating in a field of grain. Wheatley and others confront the divergence directly: they conclude that Henryson exposes the “variety inherent in the scholastic fable tradition,” or places the reader “in the uncertain space between precept and [narrative] example” (Wheatley 99, Marlin 145). Their conclusions remind me of John Frow’s account of descriptivisim. Frow’s “midlevel concepts” arise, he explains, not just from “an aggregation of elements heterogeneously and contingently assembled at any one moment of the social” but from “the recursive ordering effects by which the social is assembled (and precariously maintained).” So too, we can see Henryson’s inconsistent moralitates as interacting recursively with each other and the narrative to produce contingent meanings.
But that formulation is description only at a high level of abstraction. It bypasses elements of the texts themselves that most readers would call “description”: narrative and sensory details. In Henryson, those elements take us inside the characters, who are—I have argued elsewhere—bimorphic. On the one hand, their animal bodies are vividly detailed and intrinsic to the plot. The mouse can’t cross the river on her “short shanks”; she mistrusts the toad because of its wrinkled face and cheeks, its hoarse voice, and its “harsky hyde”; the kite pulls their skins intact over their heads before eating them, flesh “and guts also” (2779, 2819-22, 2903-6). Meanwhile, however, the mouse seems surprised when the toad proposes to get her across the river without a horse, bridge, or ship, as though she didn’t know that neither of them is human. Before agreeing to lash herself to the toad, the mouse expresses her mistrust by citing “clerks” who discern “the inclination of man’s thought . . . according to the bodily complexion” (2824-29; my emphasis). Presumably no mouse would refer to a toad as a man, and in any case, no mouse would appeal to clerkly authority. But what this anthro-mouse says sounds comically apt to both species. Her nervous discourse translates into human rhetoric the uncertainty of a small rodent confronting an amphibian that might be a predator. (Large toads can eat small mice but usually don’t.) Conversely, a human being might inflate her own autonomic recoil from ugliness as scholarly wisdom. Close-reading of this passage reveals trans-species subjectivity. The shifting moralizations do not simply reorder surface-reading; they open it further, enlarging the descriptive scope. Now the mouse and toad manifest entangled but conflicting impulses within humans; they are also any two subjects, human or otherwise, who can be comrades or predator and prey. What remains constant beneath the diverse forms is the experience common to the animals and readers alike, struggling and scheming but oblivious to the deadly kite.
In both of her essays provided for this seminar, Heather Love borrows a phrase from Latour to indicate what we can gain by “a turn from interpretation to description.” Like Latour’s “constructive” sociology, she writes, reading that is close but not deep “aims to show ‘what the real world is really like’” (Love, “Close,” 377 and 388; also “Forms,” 8). Her embrace of that phrase surprises me because she also laments the “longing for a ‘new reign of Truth’ in our institutional DNA” (“Close, 388). “The real world” and (capital-T) “Truth” are not identical, of course, but readers of Langland know that immersion in one can lead to the search for the other. Fields of folk (or actor/system networks?), dungeons ruled by Wrong, and towers of Truth are all right there on the surface, in multiple forms that have to be re-described. That surface is seldom “flat” or “thin.” Thus our descriptions must be close but not closed, always open to depth.
Frow, John. "On Midlevel Concepts." New Literary History 41.2 (2010): 237-252. Project MUSE. Web.*
Gaunt, Simon. “A Martyr to Love: Sacrificial Desire in the Poetry of Bernart de Ventadorn,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31 (2001): 477-506.*
Goldstein, R. James. “Writing in Scotland, 1058-1560.” The Cambridge History of Medieval English Literature, ed. David Wallace (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1999), p. 240 [229-54].
Henryson, Robert. Poems. Clarendon Medieval and Tudor Series. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963.
Love, Heather. “Close but not Deep: Literary Ethics and the Descriptive Turn.” New Literary History, 2010, 41: 371–391.*
_____. “Forms of Description: Reading Across the Humanities and the Social Sciences.” Unpublished lecture tdelivered March 10, 2011, UC-Berkeley. *
Marlin, John. “Robert Henryson's 'Morall Fabilles': Irony, Allegory, and Humanism in Late-Medieval Fables.” Fifteenth-Century Studies 34 (2009): 133-147.
Wheatley, Edward. “Scholastic Commentary and Robert Henryson's Morall Fabillis: The Aesopic Fables.” Studies in Philology 91 (1994): 70-99.
*Essays distributed by Ruth Evans for consideration for the seminar.