Controversies, #1 (Fall 1998)

"Who decides what is literature, how transgressive can humor be in art,  how can an author 'retract' a work of literature, and what does it mean for readers when s/he tries to do so?"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #1: this discussion shows the benefit of asking apparently "simple questions" and following their answers carefully to their consequences.  Nothing we do in this course is safe from this kind of re-examination and the results often produce excellent papers.  Such questions sometimes are called "epistemic" in that they query how we know what we know, rather than just asking what we know.  So simple are they that the answers lead to the foundations and to the  heights of literary interpretation.   This discussion was based on Chaucer but contains obvious implications for all humorous or satiric literature.  Particpants: Kim Garbe, Emily Chapin, Jenna Pearson, Joe Kranak, and Arnie.

Who Decides What Constitutes Literature?--Kim Garbe, 9/9/98

After reading Chaucer's Miller's Prologue and Tale, I am reminded of trashy romance novels. My question is who decides on the criteria for determining what writings are classified as "literature?" It seems to me to be an arbitrary system set up by the most knowledgeable to influence the reading preferences of the masses. I have read some excellent "literature" for English Lit classes in the past but I have also read some horrible novels. I am not arguing that Chaucer is one of the best Medieval authors. He does sink to the "romance novelists" level by creating lewd and lascivious characters. He uses the vernacular of the times and it tends to be just as offensive from Chaucer as it would be from Danielle Steele. So my basic question to any who care to reply is this: What makes Chaucer different from authors like Danielle Steele, John Grisham and Stephen King? Thank you for listening.

An attempt to respond to Kim--Emily Chapin, 9/10/98

I don't tend to think of Chaucer as the "author" of the Miller's Tale and Prologue, but rather the drunken Miller as the author. Yes, Chaucer is the physical author of C.T. but he uses the pilgrims as a way of representing the society of the times. ( As I learned in my Eng. 221 class today, the question of authorship gets a bit tricky at best). As Kim stated, Chaucer is using the vernacular of the times ; however, I don't necessarily know if Chaucer himself shares the same voice, or opinion, of his pilgrims. Rather, he characterizes the language as that which a drunken Miller would use, a Knight would use, etc.... Also, I think that Chaucer was a revolutionary of his time. I wouldn't guess that any other authors of his time would have dared to use the word "fart" or use sexually lewd statements similar to those made in The Wife Of Bath's Prologue And Tale, in character voice or otherwise. Whereas the things that Danielle Steele writes about have been done in numerous "trashy romance novels" and she doesn't use language that is risky for our times. Does this make sense?

Kim, Emily, and "Miller's Tale"--Arnie Sanders, 9/11/98

If we take Emily's useful refinement of Kim's initial posting's critical language, the two posts together set up an interesting problem. Is an author responsible for tales he attributes to a character he has created? I know I presented the tale sympathetically in class--I wish I had been aware of Kim's posting!--but there are serious hazards in "reading like the Miller." Consider the literal sense of the tale's end: the naive carpenter has been deceived by his wife and the young clerk whom he sought to rescue, his arm is broken, the neighbors all think he's mad, and the two clerks have their own reasons to feel less than entirely satisfied with things. Yet we laugh, or most of us laugh, at the tale's conclusion. Are we immoral for doing so?

Chaucer offers several rules for getting out of this bind, but it's not a perfect answer. As he tells the reader, there are other tales here which will improve your mind, "And eek men shal nought maken ernest of game" (78). That is, jokes are not to be treated seriously. Freud, somewhat later, suggested that jokes were a form of psychic release from the difficult constraints under which we labor in our effort to be socially acceptable. Who hasn't told a joke, among friends, that would embarass the teller if it were posted on the Internet with the teller's name attached? The Russian critic, Bakhtin, would see the Miller's tale as an eruption of the "carnivalesque" or subversive folk values into the discourse system run by authorized culture: the church, the court, and the bourgeoisie. He argued that European culture (and by extension lots of others) agreed to tolerate, at certain seasons, complete reversals of the rules that socialize us into submission, in return for obedience the rest of the year. The Miller's drunkenness, like the madness of fools or the silliness of April, alerts us to the possible influence of the Dionysian, too. Remember that the Greek classical tragedies always were followed by satyr plays in which even the gods were depicted doing foolish things and the stage was overrun by actors waving huge phalloi (plural, but it's what it sounds like). Do cultures need "safety valves" to handle the stresses of their creation, and is one of art's function to articulate that release?

Chaucer also was a man who lived for about 60 years, and perhaps thought differently about the Miller when he was in his 50s than he did in his 30s or 40s. Take a peek ahead in the syllabus and read the "Retracion" (page 195)--it sounds to me that the Miller's tale would be among those "Tales of Canterbury, thilke that sounen [tend toward] into sinne." Take seriously the possibility that the older Chaucer might deeply regret tales he wrote in his youth. But here's another problem--can any author "call back" (retract) a tale once he has sent it forth into circulation? What responsibilty do readers have in this case? Can one be guilty of "sinful reading" as much as an author can commit an act of "sinful writing"?

Thanks, Kim and Emily! You've both made very productive contributions to our thinking about "what makes something English literature."

"Humor in "The Miller's Tale"--Joe Kranak, 9/11/98

I'd like to address the issue of humor that Arnie brought up in his argument. From my understanding, humor is caused by the unique combination of unexpected but expected. In other words, there is some type of expectation that is either established by the joke or is ingrained in our psyche, but, through the joke, this expectation is suddenly contrasted by something that after we see it (hear it, read it) makes perfect sense. Let's make the example of a simple joke: a man walks into a doctor's office with a banana in one ear, a cucumber in the other and a grape in either nostril, and he asks the doctor: "what's wrong with me?" and the doctor says: "you're not eating properly." Now, before you got to the end of this joke, the image of a man with all this food in his face may have lead you to all type of conclusions of what's wrong with him, but, if you found this funny, none of those expectations were that he wasn't eating properly. But then, once you hear the doc says the man's not eating properly, it is believable because not only does he seem to be not eating correctly by putting the food in the wrong cavities but also this is the type of thing a doctor would say. Therefore, based on this analysis, for a joke to still be funny after so long it must rely on expectations which are a universal part of human nature. For example, "The Lysistrata," written before the turn of the century, is still funny because men are as lusty today as they were then, so the expectation of them acting as they do in the play is believable. "The Miller's Tale" leads to a perfectly plausible ending that we couldn't possibly have anticipated.

These universal expectations can be very valuable to understanding human nature. There are still people that are as gullible as John. There are still wives who are as unfaithful as Alison. There are still youths as lecherous as Nicholas. We could very well imagine someone sticking their butt out a window for someone like Absolom to kiss, or having someone retaliating by branding him on the behind. I also think that the plot of the story is very creative in its humor, and should be remembered for that reason. John's ploy in itself is humorous because it is such an unexpected means of solving a problem. I think the humor of this story is therefore valuable and one source of the story's quality.

As for whether we are immoral for laughing at the joke, it is true that humor can be negated by abhorrence or disgust. The fact that this is funny means that we are abhorred or disgusted by this because we have become, by exposure, accustomed to such things.

Jokes and Apologies--Jenna Pearson, 9/12/98

I have to agree that the telling of jokes is a necessary "release valve." Humor has always been therapeutic in allowing us to speak of taboos that aren't otherwise addressed in everyday conversations. And since these taboos are sometimes hard to die, the hilarious situations in Canterbury Tales are still able to produce laughs today.

But can an author retract their own work after deciding it is immoral? I believe that the voices and tales in Canterbury Tales are not those of Chaucer himself but of his characters (that he created to represent the diverse population of his time) and thus whatever messages were included were not necessarily his. I'd be interested in what prompted Chaucer's change of heart. Does anyone know why he decided the Tales were sinful in the end?


Quick Response to Jenna on Retraction--Arnie Sanders, 9/12/98

In part, it may have to do with the tale's ending, as much as its basic content. The good guy (carpenter) is punished and the lovers escape formal punishment for their sin by the connivance of the clerks with each other to laugh him down. In effect, it says that even someone who repeats a sinful joke or story bears a burden of sin for it, just as those who reproduce stories which lead people into good behavior acquire merit. That's perhaps not convincing for the modern writer who seems to operate with an ethic commanding that all should be represented and that repression of any subject is somehow itself a kind of sin. I've certainly grown up expecting that would be the writer's task and I was taught to view writers who transgressed social mores etc. as heroes of self-expression.

The content also poses some problems since Hende Nicholas' deception of John the Carpenter involves misrepresenting knowledge of the will of God, and misuses scriptural authority for ends which the Church obviously would call "sinful." So on both these counts, the tale meets a somewhat simple test of "sinfulness." However, that begs the question of whether one can tell a sinful tale to achieve a moral purpose. Many descriptions of saints' lives (a popular medieval genre) contain lots of sinful behavior, offset, to be sure, by the model behaviors of the saints and those they save. If we take the Canterbury Tales as a whole (or even a collection of fragments), most tale groups contain at least some good behavior. "Miller's Tale," for instance, always follows "Knight's Tale" in all surviving manuscripts, and KT contains some very high-minded philosophy at the end of its romance plot of two young knights in love with the same princess. In fact, the Miller breaks into the tale-telling game precisely to attack that tale's version of human existence by parodying the two knights in the two clerks (and the other-worldly heroine who prays for chastity vs. Alison, and the wise lord of Thebes with John!). (For more on this subject, consult the KT and MT web pages on the English 330 web site and come talk to me.)

Do any of you have examples of modern texts that you think go too far in their decision to represent the immoral or the vicious? Or do you all support the notion that representation of life in language has a kind of "infinite warrant" based on some general principle? And if so, from whence does that principle emerge?

This last question is related to what Stanley Fish calls "foundationalism," the notion that there is some fundamental fount or source of authority from which texts emerge. He prefers the notion of "communities of interpretation," which might be a useful way to see the pilgrims, especially when they try to interrupt each other or "quit" each others' tales. (For more "fishy" theory, see Is There a Text in This Class?.)

Response to Jenna--Kim Garbe, 9/12/98

I agree that the Tales do not necessarily represent Chaucer's opinion, but in all honestly can a good writer totally lose his identity when writing? My guess is that Chaucer's personal friends and acquaintances saw a lot of Chaucer's own characteristics and personality traits in his writing. The tales he tells, especially those of the Miller and the Wife of Bath are in whole entertaining, funny and somewhat moral (at the very least he attempts a stab at medieval feminism). I think that Chaucer's friends could find bits of the esteemed author in each of the tales. For example, our society has forsaken literature for cinema. Do you think that actors/actresses are able to delete all reference to their personality while playing a role? Many actors have played the role of Robin Hood over many years. Yet each actor read the character differently based on the era in which the movie was produced and how each individual interpreted the character (even the Disney version!).

Can Chaucer therefore retract his tales? Certainly, he grew up and realized that his tales were a little much for the audience intended. And if he did print a retraction, that in itself tells us that Chaucer was more than just a little personally involved in these tales. He realized that his writing would reflect him as a person. So he printed a retraction (also warnings in the prologue describing the nature of some of the tales). He gave himself a way to distance Chaucer, the man from Chaucer, the author.

This is why I think that the voices are not necessarily Chaucer's, but that in the tale telling, he is giving us glimpses of his personality. (A person with no sense of humor cannot be a comedian!) I also wonder if Chaucer is attempting to disguise his personal views of his society by creating lewd and seemingly immoral tales for the reader. He is using humor and outrageousness to subtly get his point across. We are reading his Tales looking for meaning. The people reading his tales in the 1300's were reading for entertainment. Chaucer held many jobs and was an educated man. In his era, men did not stand for feminism of any kind. Chaucer makes a feminist statement in the Wife of Bath's tale disguised with sexually explicit innuendo. My question is : Is Chaucer just trying to be funny (or moral if the tale calls for it) or is he trying to speak out about his society?


Kim's Points on Retractions and Authorial Intention--Arnie Sanders, 9/16/98

I agree that the very notion of "retracting" something one has set loose, even in manuscript circulation, sounds just a bit daft. But the fact remains that authors do try to do it, or something like it, with amazing frequency. W.H. Auden tried to "cancel" the poems of his youth with a "corrected" edition later in life, and (oh modernist colleagues please correct me) I believe most critics now think the later versions are aesthetically inferior in most cases. More notoriously, and in my case a poet I've studied closely, Wordsworth published two versions of "The Prelude," the great Romanticist epic about the growth of the poet's soul. The 1798 version is much sharper in its imagery and more kind to the youthful aspirations which led WW to dream the French Revolution would lead to a kind of universal liberation. The 1850 version, though more regular in form, feels like a more pompous, dull, and cautious version of the same events. The Norton Critical Edition (the kind with the essays in back and the big-time footnotes) publishes both editions, side by side, and the effect is wonderfully complicated. But I'm sure that's not what WW would have wanted at the end. Do we have the right to disregard authors' last or latest wishes as signs of their most complete intentions? Or do we have something like a duty to pick and choose among versions of a poem to find the one that seems best to us, regardless of the author's wishes? Even if Foucault's "author function" is blown out of the water by revisionists and the "author's intention" reading once again reigns supreme, this is the kind of puzzle that will forever make ambiguous the attempt to determine that elusive intention in any absolute and transcendent sense.

Now as to whether Chaucer intended the Wife's critique of male attitudes to be satire against her or for her, I'd like to remain nearly silent. The case can be (and has been) argued both ways, as I noted in class. Where the debate still occurs, I have to "teach the conflicts" rather than a single sense of the text. It's not unlike encountering, in biology, the debate over whether "prions" exist, and cause things like "Mad Cow Disease" and acute spongiform neuroencephalopathy (i.e., your brain turns to mush). Some people in Hoffberger have told me it's likely to be disproven that a thing that is only a protein with no DNA can "reproduce" itself and cause disease, but to the best of my knowledge it's still in debate. That's a sign the discipline is still growing, discovering new things that defy immediate description or understanding.