Tuesday, 11 April 2006

A.C. Spearing, Textual Subjectivity (OUP, 2005)


Anyone familiar with Spearing's recent work will, in a way, have seen this book being born. His article on the Man of Law's Tale (NLH 32 [2001], 715-46) in particular will show a fault line of the polemics of the book. Why do we need all these narrators in Chaucer's work? Spearing says that it's a notion that was developed with Kittredge and has stuck fast since; if we have a problem with a tale, we generally attribute it to the narrator. If, on the other hand, we like something in the tale then we attribute it to Chaucer. The proliferation of narrators is unnecessary according to Spearing. In an opening chapter, entitled 'Subjectivity and Textuality' he outlines how he has come to this view, mainly with recourse to Derrida. He uses Derrida's suspicion of Western phonocentrism and priviledging of the spoken word over the written word which has led to our multiplying narrators in the Tales: thus, we trust a narrator more because he is speaking, rather than allowing ourselves to trust the textuality of the poem.
There is an awful lot more I could say about this book. It is a good book, and I recommend it. I do, however, have some problems with it. For all his talk about textuality, his attention in the analysis of the Man of Law's Tale to its curious textual format in both the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts is too scant. The Tale is glossed in Hg and El, drawing material from Innocent III's De miseria condicionis humane, Ptolemy's Almagest, and Bernard Silvestris' Megacosmos. Robert Enzer Lewis has already demonstrated that these glosses are drawn from Chaucer's manuscript of the De miseria (see PMLA 81 [1966], 485-92 & SP 64 [1967], 1-16). OK. Now go somewhere with that. What's all this talk about textuality and then no talk about the manuscripts? He makes the point that Chaucer's texts are hugely self-conscious, and in a very physical way. This is true. He cites Cooper (Oxford Guide to Chaucer [2nd ed; 1996], p. 126) on the abundance of glosses supporting his claim that the Tale was seriously intended. Ok. Now what? On pp. 12-13 he cites Jeffrey Kittay ("Utterance Unmoored: The Changing Interpretation of the Act of Writing in the European Middle Ages", Language in Society, 17 [1988], 209-30) who highlights the changes in the format of manuscript pages, in particular word division, and biblical glossing where reference is made to numbered passages rather than cited passages (indicating readers flicked back and forth to texts); this is all to talk about a developing textual awareness and increasing sense of textuality. "The implications of this fact for the elements of commentary and self-glossing in medieval poetry are obviously important (see Rouse and Rouse 1982)". And that's it. What? The Statim invenire article is very important, but it's one and only one starting point of a huge point that shouldn't be left hanging like that. Reynolds, Stillinger, Minnis' new stuff (Magister amoris for example), everything Ralph Hanna has written [not cited BTW], and a whole shed load more are just screaming out after this full stop for attention. It is like he has made an excellent point but then has done nothing with it, and indeed the flatness of the subsequent reading of the MLT is a good case in point.

Final word: very stimulating book with some huge gaping holes.

3 comments:

hesitant hack said...

miglior! where are youuuuuuu....

Parsifal said...

Very pointedly written. After going through bits of Hanna'a new book, I think it is a waste of time and resources to write textual commentaries on Medieval Literature without exploring the manuscripts themselves and bringing that exploration to impinge upon literary explorations. 'London, Literature' is an excellent and indispensible book for medievalists.

Missed the Medieval Grad Sem, hope it went well. Shd catch up sometime.

Miglior acque said...

My people, I have returned. I was back in Dublin for the past few days, recovering from the Conference. It went very well I must say. I shall post about it again. Yes, I still haven't bought it, but I'd very much like to. I think that it's money well spent. And when you consider that Spearing's book costs the same...mad.

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