Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Strangest Chaucer Book I Have Ever Read

by J J Cohen

So how could I not read a book with a description like this one?
Even in [Chaucer's] writing, characteristics that seem anomalous—familiarity with many languages, ability to slide from tradition to tradition, witty scepticism and self-deprecating comedy, and insider/outsider perspectives—also point away from the standard assumptions of a normal fourteenth-century Christian in England. By a series of recontextualizations and other forms of rabbinic-style interrogations of the text of the man and his poetry, this book points to a new way of reading Chaucer as a kind of “Fuzzy Jew” even more than as a Marrano or Crypto-Jew, whether he was actually one or not ... this midrashic reading explores the way Chaucer constructs a performative self that once conceals and reveals itself as other, takes head-on the problem of anti-Jewishness as a mental as well as moral or spiritual disease, and looks at the strategies of the schlemiel persona in classical, medieval and rabbinic contexts.
There is more, but my quotation gives you the gist of what A New Midrashic Reading of Geoffrey Chaucer: His Life and Works is all about. And I don't think I've ever seen "schlemiel" and "Chaucer" next to each other like that. I'm not saying there is anything inherently wrong with such a "midrashic" reading, or even in seeing Chaucer as a "fuzzy Jew" (other than "Fuzzy wuzzy was a Jew" is now going through my head). After all, I once argued that Margery Kempe is Jew-ish. Yet the book really does go to far. It's terrific at making evident Norman Simm's deep knowledge of Midrash, and his grasp of Chaucer's life and works is often impressive ... but this is not a highly theorized enterprise. The book derives its critical momentum from parallels that aren't exactly suggestive, and don't exactly lead to conclusions. Here is a typical statement:
Chaucer ... imbibed, informally from his parents, the neighboring and visiting 'foreigners' around the docks of London, some other essential rhetorical and aesthetic presumptions. These were at first probably extremely vague and inchoate, more 'feelings' and somatic responses to the rhythmns of language and thought and emotional expression, and only later, when he began to travel to the Continent di he begin to pick up more specific directions, or at least hints, as to a rabbinical and kabbalistic set of principles, though. again, he may not have ever thought of them in any specific forms (427).
Okay, then. Fuzzy Jews are filled with "fears, rage, and self-hatred" (460) because of their forced cultural doubleness, says Simms. But maybe they are so angry because they've been entrapped in a transhistorical identity?

[thanks, Karl, for bringing this book to my attention]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I picked this book up today. Your impression was roughly my own.