Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Chaucer Blog Book

by J J Cohen

By now everyone knows that the Chaucer blogger is not David Wallace but Brantley Bryant -- and I will here insist, again, that Brantley Bryant is not a fictional persona created by David Wallace to make it seem as if he is not the author of Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog. For the record: "Brantley Bryant" is NOT the medievalist version of JT LeRoy, and though there are some superficial similarities uniting the two scholars, Brantley Bryant is not David Wallace in a nice wig and different glasses.

Nor is he Rita Copeland.

With all that cleared up, let me turn to a question that is no doubt on the minds of many ITM readers. The Chaucer Blog was entertaining, but how is the book of the blog? I've just read the volume through for a second time, and I'm happy to answer: it is also quite entertaining. You know already that I have an included essay, on "Blogging the Middle Ages": the essay was in fact blogged at ITM. And Brantley Bryant and David Wallace -- who are not the same person, and whose relationship involves no wigs, changes of glasses, or other disguises -- and who come to think of it have never actually been spotted in the same room together -- ANYWAY, they are both my friends, even if as I am typing this I am realizing that I know less about them than I thought I did and am finding it a little strange that they have never been observed, let alone photographed, anywhere near each other. I also note that Brantley Bryant is NOT on the program for NCS Siena, while David Wallace IS. How convenient.

ANYWAY, again, I am obviously well disposed towards the book, and indeed I do like the thing. From its bitter prefatory poem by John "the Wanker" Gower ("Beware, ye shal nat L O L / The while that ye burne in helle") to its concluding -- and new for the book -- road trip to Vegas, Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog is great fun. And why shouldn't it be? Brantley emphasizes in his narrative of origins "Playing Chaucer" that starting the irreverent blog was a relief from the seriousness of his dissertation (he was a graduate student when he created the blog, and is now an assistant professor at Sonoma State University). He observes that has been pleased at the "good bit of fun and enjoyment" the site has provided. But play is also serious; didn't Chaucer teach us that? So even though Brantley often veers away from his moments of acuteness with humorous lines like "imagine me in a clown suit if necessary," I would emphasize how useful for thinking about medievalism is the narrative he provides.

On the one had, since I've known Brantley from c. 2006 when I met him at Columbia, much of the history behind the blog isn't news to me. On the other, by invoking the work of scholars like Stephanie Trigg and emplacing the persona within the tradition of Chaucerian congeniality that Stephanie has excavated, he argues well for the project's relevance to Chaucer scholarship. Invoking as influences both BABEL and In the Middle (both of which were then "concentrating on rethinking the methods of medieval scholarship and on finding new configurations between the medieval and the modern"), he writes that "In its own jokey way, the blog aimed at the same effect through its simultaneous appropriation, disruption, and estrangement of contemporary concerns and Chaucer's text" (22). He dilutes the assertion by adding "please remember, however, that we are discussing a joke blog" -- and again I want to say, jokes are serious, important, and require no apology. We're generally not allowed to write with a jocular tone for Speculum, and that's OK; but a benefit of blogs and the new critical modes they enable is that we can speak in a way that is more direct, often more engaging, and potentially full of sober challenge beneath the seeming lightness. That, at least, is my take on it: the self-enforced sobriety of the field has its negative effects, and blogs widen the possible.

Along these same lines, the included essays by Bonnie Wheeler and Bob Hanning emphasize how venerable this history of serious fun is within the field. Bonnie's essay traces the "long tradition" of formidable academic levity, especially at Kalamazoo. Her account of how the impromptu convocation of "823rd Meeting of the Holy Foreskins Society" in 1974 became the Pseudo Society is hilarious, as well as a reminder of how far back these challenges to scholarly solemnity go. Bonnie writes that the seriousness of the Medieval Academy was a primary target of these "creative efforts of frustration," because "any society with women members that named its academic journal Speculum deserves the occasional parody" (10). This democratic carnival seems to have had many members, but its most prolific was Bob Hanning, whose amusing contributions to medievalist humor are collected in the book as well. His limericks, puns, and assorted verses are insanely clever.

The bulk of the book, however, is the print version of the Chaucer Blog itself. I wondered how well the posts would hold up three and four years on, since so many of them took as a point of departure ephemeral pop culture. Most remain hilarious, even when the films and celebrity gossip they reference are no longer foremost in our mind. "Ich and the Perle-Poet on Mount Dorse-Quassee," a rewriting of Brokeback Mountain, seemed to me as fresh as when I first read it. The interview with Reims Launcecrona, built upon Paris Hilton c. 2006, loses a little when references to "The Lyf Symple" take a few extra seconds to compute (for my old brain), but some of the lines remain priceless. Reims explains that she doesn't like blogs because she is afraid of falling into one: "Blogges are moost uncourtlie," she adds, "And ful oft ther ys sum dead Pict at the bottom of the blogge." Then again, another line (when asked about professors of literature, Reims breezily declares "Vntil they owene up to havynge no ethical use, I shal nat respecte them") brought me back to an interesting period at In the Middle, since the reference was meant as a comment upon the discussion unfolding here. Other posts, like "Serpentes on a Shippe," didn't seem quite as fresh; but "Ask Chaucer" and "Flayme Werre" are timeless.

My advice? Buy the book. It's in paperback, it's fun to read, and what else are you going to lug to the beach, the Confessio Amantis?


Karl Steel said...

Nice work.

they enable is that we can speak in a way that is more direct, often more engaging, and potentially full of sober challenge beneath the seeming lightness
And why not vice versa too? Full of lightness under a seeming sobriety? One of my insights from blogging and reading medievalist blogging is discovering the pleasure of scholarship.

Eileen Joy said...

Also, as perverse as it may sound now, given its "venerable" history & status, consider these words from the inaugural 1926 issue of "Speculum" by its first editor E.K. Rand:

"Speculum, this mirror to which we find it appropriate to give a Latin name, suggests the multitudinous mirrors in which people of the Middle Ages liked to gaze at themselves and other folk—mirrors of history and doctrine and morals, mirrors of princes and lovers and fools. We intend no conscious follies, but we recognize satire, humor and the joy of life as part of our aim. Art and beauty and poetry are a portion of our medieval heritage. Our contribution to the knowledge of those times must be scholarly, first of all, but scholarship must be arrayed, so far as possible, in a pleasing form."

[and thank you to Nicola Masciandaro who first brought this quotation from Rand to my attention]

Jeffrey Cohen said...

That is an amazing quotation, Eileen. Thanks so much for sharing it.

Brantley Bryant said...

Thank you for this discussion! I'm glad you liked how the book came together.

Continuing the discussion of Speculum, a wonderful colleague of ours in the field pointed out to me recently that John Fleming used to do hilarious reports to the Medieval Academy about ACLS dinners, funny pieces which were published in...Speculum. So perhaps there's a lot more medievalist play out there, even between the most seemingly august pages.

Anonymous said...

See also anything published in Speculum by Roberta Frank, I would add! Deadly serious and throwaway playful at the same time, not an easy trick.

I am still so annoyed not to have been in time to grab a copy of the book while I could have strong-armed (er, wrong word, sorry) Brantley into signing it for me. Now I shall have to acquire one at Leeds and then ship it to Somona with a begging letter assembled from cut-out newsprint.