Friday, September 26, 2014

Teaching the Prioress, again: Shock, Awe, and Innocence


Obviously, read Jonathan Hsy first, below, before you read me. His stuff on Vikings is great. And do your darndest to get your paws on Inhuman Nature!

Now, my post.

I've just commented, with some befuddlement, on two classes of short papers on the Prioress's Tale. I had introduced the Tale with, yes, a Trigger Warning that went something like this: "As this is a class on race and racism focused on medieval texts, many of the readings will, or at least should, horrify you. Chaucer's Prioress's Tale is one of them. It's antisemitic. For the last 50 years or so, the main debate has been whether Chaucer or the Prioress is to blame for its antisemitism. But there's no way around it: it's awful."

Despite all that, about half the papers said something like "I think this story is antisemitic," "it seems unfair to Jews," "it seems to be trying to say Christians are good and Jews are evil," "it tells us that antisemitism is really old," or, the variant, "the antisemitism in the Prioress's Tale is still around today."

I warned them, but they're still shocked. I'm befuddled but I'm also delighted, because the tale really is that horrible.

I've tried to push them towards more direct, more specific engagement, not only with the tale's antisemitism, but also with the anxieties, concerns, and assumptions that antisemitism requires to have any force at all. When a student says "this shows that medieval Christians were antisemitic," I, of course, say "the earliest written account of this kind of tale is the 1170s; they're confined to northern Europe; so we have to get more specific"; but when a student just condemns the tale's antisemitism in the broadest possible terms and walks away, then I have to lean on their good conscience. At the least, I have to teach them to close read. My main questions:
  • What's the relationship between ignorance and holiness? In other versions of the tale, the boy's 10 years old; here he's 7, just before the age of responsibility, killed before he learns how to read. The nun herself wants to become like a child of 12 months old, unable to speak even. The Prioress herself snarks at the monk, and even the 'holy abbot' in the tale is, in a way, the one to kill the boy. And what does this suggest about the way that 'simplicity' and 'goodness' tend to be equated? Is there something sinister about this?
  • Similarly, why do you assume that the Prioress's intense feeling for the Virgin has to be faked? Why do you assume that simplicity and simple expression are more authentic than fancy talk?
  • The central myth of Christianity is a martyred god who resurrects. This is the story Christianity needs to tell. While the tale blames the Jews, sort of, for killing the boy, Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, needs martyrs. The tale itself, I'll remind you, is an antisemitic fiction. So, who killed the boy? Not the Jews. The tale did. And why was the tale told? Christianity. Or to get a free dinner. One or both of these, I'd argue, is what actually killed the little boy. Think of the way that detective shows chase after killers, but need to kill women, especially women, to start the story...
  • The tale blames Satan for inspiring the Jews to murder; or it thinks Satan makes his nest in Jews' hearts. Are the Jews responsible or not? Unlike other versions of the tale, the Jews don't murder the child out of a sense of religious duty. The Prioress's Tale isn't a Ritual Murder case, but rather a random, unthinking act of violence. Also: the tale has a pure little boy who -- as a sign of his pureness -- sings a song he barely understands and who tends towards intellectual neoteny. The Jews do what they do because they have to; the boy does what he does without understanding. They're both machines, objects not agents, the one evil, the other good. Why does Chaucer strip agency from both Jews and boy?
In the next class, I'm also going to talk about this painting:

This painting, by or based on Edward Burne-Jones, appears regularly in my students' presentations on the Prioress's Tale. Probably yours too. No wonder: it illustrates the Wikipedia page on the Tale, and dominates the Google image search results. Though I've recommended ArtStor for images, the students go with what's most readily at hand (probably yours too). I imagine, though, that even if they'd gone to ArtStor, they'd find much the same stuff (but as the Brooklyn College library website is shockingly down....).

I'm going to tell them this: the image, featuring a standard pre-Raphaelite pose for Virgin and clergeon, is itself antisemitic, and just a little more subtle than the images, just as popular in presentations, of hooked-nose Jews (there, usually, to show the continuing force of antisemitic stereotypes). I thank the St Louis Museum of Art (warning AUTOPLAY) for making some of this clear to me: the image invites us in, opening the gate to let us join the virgin and boy. The Jews and the murder are in the background, cut off absolutely from the virgin by the garden wall, barred from this innocent paradise. Now, the St Louis Museum seems perfectly fine with this, and perhaps my students too, though far more innocently. As I'll argue next week, the painting is as antisemitic as the tale itself to the degree that it reproduces without condemning both the tale's hatred of Jews and its saccharine logic of sanctity.

I'll say the painting, in fact, aims to become like the Litel Clergeon. It pretends not to understand the tale. It just presents the encounter between boy and (virgin) mother -- the virgin mother who can belong to the boy entirely precisely because she remains a virgin1 -- as the tale's actual content, while forgetting, as much as it can, how the tale proves the boy's innocence by hating Jews and by murdering the boy. The painting pretends to be a holy fool and is all the worse for it.

 For more on the painting, see Eileen way back in 2007, who saw it in St Louis, and writes well about:
all the ways in which various anti-semitic discourses and even meta-anti-semitic discourses [whether in the form of apocryphal stories, reductively stereotypical tropes, satire, etc.] are made to kind of "disappear" in or move into the background of our "readings" of various texts.

1 The psychoanalytic readings come automatically, don't they? The Jews, Satan, and even the Abbot are all men who want to interpose themselves between the boy and his mother, cutting him off. The boy, refusing to learn to read, doesn't want to enter the Symbolic or doesn't want to give up on the good object of his virgin mother. The Prioress wants to be a like a child of twelve months old or less. It's basically fill in the blanks by this point, yeah?


Unknown said...

Thanks for this, Karl. I always find your reflections on your teaching incredibly insightful, and somewhat...embarrassing? In the sense that I think you work so deeply into these questions and pursue them with such a refreshing range of strategies (I always teach from the Vernon MS image of the slain boy, but using that Edward Burn-Jones image is a great idea, because it provides another point on the continuum of reception to work through what it means to "identify" with the characters in the story, in this case your astute alignment with the perspective of the Clergeon himself, in his innocence). Teaching Chaucer's version of this story has become increasingly difficult for me, as I am increasingly uncomfortable with its voicing, especially the way that Prologue, so obviously authored (in my view) prior to the Canterbury Tales Project (as I name it) was in full force, situates us in relationship to the Tale. I think we have been, for a couple of decades now, abjecting the Prioress herself as a way for creating a safe space for Chaucer to wiggle out of complicity. I don't think that's wrong, per se, but it dissolves a key point of tension in the historical narrative of anti-semitism in late medieval England, including, crucially, that fraternity at Lincoln to which Chaucer's wife (but not Chaucer) was admitted in 1386. The way "good people," as we hear lately in the instance of the racist slur used as the mascot of a certain NFL team, traffic in a racist discourse illustrates the range of possible engagements, and I wonder--continually, without resolution--where Chaucer sits in that continuum. OUR complicity with such discourses will almost always rest on our self-delusive commitments to some other principle of value of which we are not fully conscious, fully aware: like the Prioress, we will have a view of ourselves that clashes violently with the worlds we inhabit, the discourses we channel (like, I don't know, massive use of electricity in an era of global warming?), and being aware does not in any way guarantee us that we will dissolve the symptom. I think of Chaucer as working hardest on us in those areas that are most closely connected to his own self-examination (rape in the case of the Wife of Bath's Tale, which connects to his own life-course; anti-semitism in the case of the Prioress' Tale), and where he has not resolved, by any stretch, that tension. We want to be right, morally and ethically, about these characters, because we want to be right, morally and ethically, about ourselves in our own worlds. The harder truth laid bare is that a beautifully rendered piece of violence will seduce us into feelings that we know we should not have or want, and yet there they are. If we are not sympathetic with the murder of a 7 year-old child and his frantic mother, we are bad people, too, aren't we? The story lays a problem in our lap that we cannot resolve without recourse to some standard of ethics that will "scale" various levels of violence (say, the trade off of a dead Christian boy and an entire Jewish community, which perversely reminds us of the way the Palestinian conflict forces us into absurd questions of relative scale of murder, mayhem, death and violence). "Chaucer," as a cipher for a certain kind of reading experience, IS this contradiction, not its resolution. Just when we feel strongest that we have an ethical answer, I think a good reading of his "text" (including his biography) reveals that our strength of feeling is the harbinger of a delusion. He seems to know that the story is bad, to have recognized (when, one wonders?) that he has trafficked in one of his culture's worst ethical blindspots, and that he cannot "cure" that problem, only re-cast it in the form of an ethical debility in its speaker. That's an interesting strategy, but if anything it points to an unresolved (unresolvable?) ethical project.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I wonder if it's true that Chaucer deprives both boy and Jews of agency; I think the setup is more complicated than that. Anyone can say no to Satanic temptation. The boy need not be so centered around himself -- so devoid of empathy -- that he cannot perceive that his mechanistic singing of the Marian hymn each day as her passes through the Jewry will resound in ears for whom the woman praised is not a nourishing mother of the redeemer ... Agency is an insistent problem in the Prioress's Tale, but it seems to me that it is so difficult to map or reduce because it is so diffuse, and isn't always hooked to intention (think of the machinic function of the grain, of what Anthony Bale calls the lapidary impulses that vie with the sonic interpenetrations, of what the latrine reveals about embodiment, of the flows of money ...)

Great, thoughtful post. Your students are fortunate to have you in the classroom.