Thursday, July 24, 2008

Jenna Mead on Premodern Places

by J J Cohen

Here is a bit from Jenna Mead's eloquent review of David Wallace's Premodern Places. Although it appeared two years ago in Parergon, I only just discovered it. I'm sharing a portion because I think Mead well articulates the achievement of the book. My own belief is that Premodern Places is one of the most important interventions into medieval studies in a long time. I've been surprised not to hear more from other medievalists about the book; that's one of the reasons I invited Kofi Campbell to blog about Wallace's work. I was happy to hear Premodern Places cited and discussed at NCS Swansea, though -- and was reminded once again of the time lag between a book's publication and the appearance of noticeable effects of its scholarly impact.

David Wallace’s Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn begins as ficto-criticism; a genre that inserts autobiographical self-realization into theoretically-conscious critical scholarship. Alice Kaplan’s, French Lesson: a Memoir (1993), Stephen Muecke’s No road (bitumen all the way) (1997) and Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002) are exemplary instances. Wallace’s readers may be more familiar with its iconic version in Stephen Greenblatt’s Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Energy in Renaissance England (1989) where his opening claim – ‘I began with the desire to speak with the dead’ – is coeval with a sub-genre known as ‘confessional criticism.’ While it is by now a well-sanctioned rhetorical move, the opportunity to insert an authorial subjectivity into what is a scholarly and interpretive project is an indicator of Wallace’s commitment to rethinking the generic and thus intellectual boundaries of canonical criticism in which... he has a significant stake.

Premodern Places takes the form of a looping, fragmentary itinerary: Calais Gate, ‘Flaundres’ – the location of Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale’ – Somerset, Genoa, the Canaries or Fortunate Islands and Surinam. In each place – neither a starting point nor a destination but rather a pause – Wallace identifies, to use Roland Barthes’s term, a punctum: ‘a sign or detail in a visual field provoking some deep – yet highly subjective – sense of connectedness with people in the past’ (p. 2). For Wallace, in each place, there is a detail that provokes in him a sense of such connectedness ...

Wallace’s alter ego on his journey through these premodern places is Geoffrey Chaucer. The autobiographical narrative of the ‘Introduction’ – ‘I grew up in England, but now live mostly in Philadelphia’ – ripples the texture of scholarship in the dedication, in photograph credits, an unnamed figure in a picture, the intermittent use of the first person in singular and plural, in scattered touristic details and an occasional chauvinism. or Wallace, this moment is not so much a punctum as one of enfremden (‘the process of estranging, alienating, or rendering foreign’ 139) because the same ‘reviving classicism’ that enables Chaucer to ‘articulate a new poetic identity coincides with, meshes with, and ... decisively sustains the westward movement of slaving across the Mediterranean’ (p. 183). The sublimity of the Trecento that is central to traditional conceptions of Chaucer as poet, English as ‘pure,’ turns upon ‘the binomial most fundamental to classical consciousness ... : liberty and servitude’ (p. 192) materialized in Genoa’s thriving slave trade to which Chaucer is to be imagined as some kind of witness.

This, I think, is Wallace at his most risky, speculative and, paradoxically, suasive. Somewhere near the deep heart of Premodern Places is an attempt to meditate upon ‘the English-thinking imaginary’ (p. 239) for which both places and texts must be made visible and thus readable. Hence, perhaps, those aspects of this book which readers may find surprising and unnerving: the eclectic selection of materials and atemporal sequences, a set of quirky connections and an eddying movement of prose both anecdotal and formal, hints of an unresolved frisson of sexual desire and masculinity, the scholar as restless subject combined with an unashamedly subjective scholarship. Whatever the frustrations of an Englishman (not quite) at home in the land of the free, readers will be grateful for the Dutch (or is it Flemish?) courage it took to write this provocative and challenging book.

The whole review is worth reading in Parergon 23.1 (2006) 230-34.

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