Lumiansky's Paradox: Ethics, Aesthetics and Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale"
Greg Wilsbacher. College Literature. West Chester : Fall 2005.Vol. 32, Iss. 4; pg. 1, 29 pgs
Abstract (Document Summary)
R. M. Lumiansky's removal of Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale" from his 1948 edition of the Canterbury Tales demonstrates that ethical challenges exist for those studying anti-Semitic texts from the past. This essay suggests that such ethical conflicts don't emanate from the text itself but from the dual context of the historical past and the contemporary context of that reading. The obligation to account accurately for the past may not always sit well against the responsibilities issuing from contemporary events. "Lumiansky's Paradox" provides medievalists with an opportunity to judge how best to "respect" "The Prioress's Tale" (as well as other bigoted texts) by examining the unrecognized role aesthetics has played in historicist and non-historicist readings of the tale. The essay contends that the response should not be to reject aesthetics in favor of historicism but to dwell in "Lumiansky's Paradox" so as to explore the potential for an ethical aesthetics. [PUBLICATION ABSTRACT]
Copyright West Chester University Fall 2005
Whatever our response to this advertisement is now, Simon and Schuster thought that audiences in 1948 would respond favorably to this dust jacket blurb for R. M. Lumiansky's newly printed edition of the Canterbury Tales. The good folks at Simon and Schuster tried to sell the book on many levels. The Canterbury Tales will enlighten ("wise"), entertain ("witty"), endear ("romantic"), and even arouse ("racy"): not even Harry Bailey could ask for more. All of this, of course, is only possible if the book circulates like the newly minted coin at the close of the passage. Books must be read if they are to have any transformative effect (titillating or otherwise), something of which writers are well aware-I don't think Lumiansky is any exception. But if we consider-as Chaucer certainly did at the close of Troilus and Criseyde: "Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye . . ." (V. 1786)-the enormity of this prospect, the fact that one loses control of one's own writing once published, then we may come face to face with a sense of responsibility for the future that will ultimately inherit our texts. I doubt most of us tend to think in these terms on a regular basis, but I believe Lumiansky did so on at least one occasion, and his recognition of the ethical consequences of his own scholarly work serves as a telling exemplum of the paradoxical bind that results when two competing senses of obligation crash together in the course of "doing one's job."
Of all of Chaucer's poems, "The Prioress's Tale" is perhaps the most prominent example of a difficult or problematic text that challenges medievalists' ability to "do our job" without conflict. Not only does the poem present a variant of a particularly troubling form of medieval anti-Semitism (the Blood Libel), but "The Prioress's Tale" also has been praised in the past (directly and indirectly) tor the beauty of its verse. As aesthetics remains an important-even if often understated-reason for teaching not only Chaucer but literature in general, coming to terms with the ethical demands enjoined upon us by the tale's potent combination of anti-Semitism and art remains a legacy and a central problem for medievalists who read and teach this poem to students in an era during which religious bigotry remains very much part of our world. What might it mean to treat the Prioress's anti-Semitism with "respect"-the term is Art Spiegelman's-is the heart of this essay's concerns and at the heart of what I call Lumiansky's Paradox.1 By exploring this paradox, I endeavor to perform one possible manifestation of that respect, one that places postructuralist ethics alongside the practice of literary criticism within the context of the modern university.
Shortly after the conclusion of the Second World War, Lumiansky published a modern edition of the Canterbury Tales, a prose translation intended for a broad audience of non-specialists.2 His modernization should be seen as part of a growing trend toward the translation of Chaucer's works, one that had already produced Nicholson's famous Fine Print edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent as well as F. E. Hill's illustrated edition. Indeed, as Lumiansky argued, Chaucer's work deserved such a broad contemporary audience not only because it belonged to the canon of English Literature, but also because it contained "new ideas and attitudes toward our own twentieth-century world and the people in it which can come to us from thinking about the motives and actions of these people in the Canterbury Tales" (1948, xvi). Clearly, Lumiansky envisioned his edition as providing a useful tool for the modern age; however, the utility of the prose translation stemmed, somewhat ironically, from Lumiansky s belief that only through prose, rather than verse, "can we approach the language and spirit of Chaucer today" (xvi). The audience envisioned for this prose edition would be at once "modern" (denizens of the twentieth-century) and "medieval" (capable of hearing the "language and spirit of Chaucer" in a way analogous to his medieval audience). Temporarily inhabiting both worlds, post-war readers would enjoy the fruits of sentence and solace in a way surpassing the one-dimensional understanding of Chaucer's poetry as an artifact from another time.
Inhabiting two vastly different historical and cultural realms is not so easy, as Lumiansky's edition itself demonstrated. The ethical imperatives of the "modern world" may come into conflict with the culture of the "medieval world." Publishing only three years after the public revelation of the full horrors of the Shoah, He found himself in just such a bind. Lumiansky chose to pass over "The Prioress's Tale", offering in its stead an explanation and a summary, both of which deserve closer attention. The summary is placed within the Tales as a substitute for the tale itself:
The Prioress tells a tale which belongs to a large body of religious stories called "Miracles of Our Lady." A little choirboy is murdered, but through the action of the Virgin he is enabled to speak and to make known the facts concerning his death. This miracle makes a great impression upon the people of the vicinity, who bury the little boy in holy fashion. (Lumiansky 1948, 248)
The sparseness and lack of detail make this summary, if not downright poor, at least uninteresting enough that it is unlikely to stimulate any desire to read the tale in its entirety. One cannot be sure, but I suspect that this was Lumiansky's intent. Stripped of any reference to Jews, anti-Semitism, ritual murder, or pogroms, His summary of ""The Prioress's Tale"" is as general as possible. For instance, he casts the murder of the chorister into the passive voice, masking the fact that in this tale Jews kill the little Christian boy. Similarly, while he mentions that the boy's death "makes a great impression upon the people of the vicinity," he does not relate the retaliatory justice meted out to an entire community. To do so would raise the question: the community comprised of whom? It seems that Lumiansky first and foremost does not want to tell the anti-Semitic tale; but, in addition, he wants to be certain that after reading his summary no one will decide to read the tale because it is anti-Semitic.
While the text of his prose translation makes no mention of anti-Semitism, the same cannot be said of Lumiansky's introduction to the book. That such frankness is reserved for the introduction may well provide a clue as to who Lumiansky thought would read the introduction and who he thought would skip it. Here Lumiansky unflinchingly clarifies the reasons for his refusal to translate ""The Prioress's Tale"". While he briefly explains that he has summarized three tales (Chaucer's "Tale of Melibee," "The Monk's Tale," and "The Parson's Tale") because they were "moralizing," Lumiansky offers a fuller exposition of the rationale behind his decision to omit the tale of the little clergeon:
One other story, the Prioress's, is presented in summary, but for another reason. Though anti-Semitism -was a different thing in the fourteenth-century from what it is today, the present day reader has modern reactions in literature, no matter when it was written. From this point of view, the Prioress's story of the little choirboy who is murdered by the Jews possesses an unpleasantness which overshadows its other qualities. For most of us, "The Prioress's Tale" is ruined by the similarity between this sort of story and some of the anti-Semitic propaganda which was current in Nazi Germany, and which is still in operation, not only in numerous foreign countries but also here at home. (Lumiansky 1948, xxiii)
Fresh from his own military service, Lumiansky is quick to draw parallels between the bigotry of Chaucer's tale and that of Nazi Germany.3 If that were his only point of reference perhaps he would not have struggled so with translating "The Prioress's Tale"-after all, the Nazis were defeated. But as a Jew who had lived in pre-war America, Lumiansky would also have had in mind other groups, groups like the German-American Bund, headed by Francis Kuhn, as well as a recently reinvigorated and surprisingly acceptable Ku Klux Klan, and mass media ideologues like Father Coughlin. These, of course, were not "defeated" in the war, and their legacy is one that remains in circulation with other forms of bigotry in American culture, albeit in a less brazen form.
Perhaps some critics might find his omission of the tale on these grounds to be an extremely personal response motivated by emotional and unscholarly concerns. Those who agree with, or at least sympathize with, Lumiansky's stance might counter that to behave otherwise would demand an almost ruthless separation between scholarly and human imperatives. Indeed, given his plan for a broad, non-academic audience, Lumiansky's decision to intervene (or at least attempt to) in the transmission of this particular bit of populist anti-Semitism speaks volumes about his own sense of professional responsibility. Why Lumiansky's decision to skip the tale represents the best traditions of professional ethics and not what some may be quick to call vulgar censorship (itself a seemingly unprofessional activity) becomes clearer if one accepts an evaluation of "The Prioress's Tale" from someone other than a medievalist. Folklorist Alan Dundes argues that anti-Semitic myths have flourished, in part, because they have found effective and oft repeated vehicles for their transmission. There can be, he contends,
little doubt that the most famous literary articulation of Jewish ritual murder is Chaucer's "Prioress's Tale." . . . Inasmuch as Geoffrey Chaucer ... is one of the acknowledged giants of English literature and his masterpiece is generally conceded to be his Canterbury Tales, of which "The Prioress's Tale" is one, Chaucer's version of the story is very much part of the history and dissemination of this anti-Semitic plot (Dundes 1991, 91)
While Dundes is technically incorrect in calling "The Prioress's Tale" a ritual murder story, the essential element of Jews killing Christian children remains powerfully articulated in the tale. Audiences inclined to accept such fabrications are not likely to split such critical hairs. One need only recall Julius Streicher's infamous May 1934 edition of Der Sturmer devoted to the ritual murder libel to recognize that ritual murder accusations remained a myth with some currency in the twentieth-century, not only in small rural villages but also in major metropolitan centers like Nuremberg.4
I raise the issue of Lumiansky's dilemma here not to engage in a debate about whether his decision was right or wrong. As an example of an ethical judgment it cannot easily be measured in those moral terms. Rather, my interest in Lumiansky's edition stems from its demonstrative value. That is, his edition well illustrates that ethical conflicts do exist for modern readers of medieval texts. The case of concern here is Lumiansky's struggle with the problem of anti-Semitism immediately after the war, but other conflicts could surely present themselves to different readers. Such ethical conflicts don't emanate from the text itself but from the dual context of the historical past and the contemporary context of that reading. The obligation to account accurately for the past may not sit well against responsibilities issuing from contemporary sources. Lumiansky suggests such a dual context in his introduction: "Though anti-Semitism was a different thing in the fourteenth-century from what it is today, the present day reader has modern reactions in literature, no matter when it was written." Recognizing the potential impact of circulating the tale in a "freshly minted" form, Lumiansky was forced to judge between conflicting responsibilities. That Lumiansky found his initial judgment no longer satisfactory can be assumed from his subsequent decision to reinstate ""The Prioress's Tale"" in the 1954 edition of his translation.5
But what of these conflicting responsibilities? To whom is Lumiansky responsible? To what community? The community of general readers, including many high school and college readers? Exposing Chaucer to a wide range of audiences through modern prose seems to present Lumiansky with questions about how his text will be read and what types of responses it will evoke. There is something dangerous about the anti-Semitic art of "The Prioress's Tale" with which he does not trust some communities of this general reading audience. These communities might well range from active hate groups to the more likely and more prevalent religious and ethnic communities that harbor latent or passive-aggressive bias against the Jewish community. In either case, and recalling his sensitivity to anti-Semitism "here at home," he wants to fuel neither existing anti-Semitism nor foster new hatred. Alongside this general audience, though, are other communities as well, communities who knowing the tale's content might, for a variety of reasons, demand either the exposure or the erasure of the tale.
On the one hand, the community of medieval scholars emerges as significant for Lumiansky. His decision to restore "The Prioress's Tale" despite its anti-Semitism to the 1954 edition appears to indicate the recognition of responsibility to this community.6 But what about the particular community to which Lumiansky undoubtedly felt some special responsibility? What about the larger community of Jews? His initial decision to try to "silence" this anti-Semitic legend clearly indicates an inclination to this particular community. Again, trying to second-guess his judgments in both editions, trying to determine if he was right or wrong, would miss the central importance of Lumiansky's paradox: that the tale's anti-Semitism read among the ashes of the Endlosung forced him to make an ethical judgment, one that he himself ultimately found unsatisfactory. Like the Paradox of Abraham described by Jacques Derrida in The Gift of Death, Lumiansky is caught in an impossible situation (Derrida 1995, 53-81). To choose fidelity to one community is to refuse responsibility to another. Caught between the two, he must decide, but his decision to be responsible will invariably entail a sense of irresponsibility as well: honoring the dead of Auschwitz seemingly makes him an irresponsible medievalist engaged in the censorship of "great art"; being an honest medievalist who takes seriously the burden of comprehensiveness-despite the potential that this might entail the transmission of repugnant ideas-risks a refusal of what he seems to perceive as the ethical burden of the Shoah.
For Derrida this paradox is an inevitable part of the ethical because it marks the central component of the ethical that distinguishes it from the narrowly defined realm of morality: my relationship with the Other, and with others. The two do not occur separately. They remain condemned to operate in antithetical ways. The realm of the ethical is not, to be sure, a haven for the self-assured and the self-righteous; it is a palimpsest of contradiction, conflict, and ambiguity. One cannot engage in a relationship with a wholly singular Other without transgressing, to some degree, other relationships, in that this relationship supposes the denial-even if for an instant-of so many other others. Derrida explains:
As soon as I enter into relation with the absolute other, my absolute singularity enters into relation with his on the level of obligation and duty. I am responsible to the other as other, I answer to him and for what I do before him. But of course, what binds me thus in my singularity to the absolute singularity of the other, immediately propels me into the space or risk of absolute sacrifice. There are also others, an infinite number of them, the innumerable generality of others to whom I should be bound by the same responsibility, a general and universal responsibility (what Kierkegaard calls the ethical order). I cannot respond to the call, the request, the obligation, or even the love of another without sacrificing the other other, the other others. Every other (one) is every (bit) other [tout autre est tout autre], every one else is completely or wholly other. As a result, the concepts of responsibility, of decision, or of duty, are condemned a priori to paradox, scandal, and aporia. (Derrida 1995, 68)
Whether debating the (injustice of abortion, euthanasia, animal rights, absolute free speech or any other truly difficult ethical problem, many of us would be quick to recognize the difficulty of sustaining a definitive opinion that cannot in itself be undermined by contradictions and qualifications. In this sense, I think Derrida has hit upon the problematic aspect of any ethical dilemma:rather than being simple legal issues that allow one to see things as right or wrong and to which an external rule may be applied, they are defined by an essential paradox of conflicting responsibilities. Every time I am called into question by the other, every time I am called to judgment, I am confronted with this paradox and am condemned to be irresponsible even as I act at my most responsible. Without doubt, here we have Lumiansky's Paradox, caught between two communities-one indescribably private and another professional and public-to both of which he and I cannot remain equally responsible.
While Lumiansky's dilemma must remain a singular one, one that manifested itself within an immediate post-war context, his was not an isolated problem. Although no other editor has grappled so graphically with the ethical conflict of reading medieval anti-Semitic works after the Shoah, the critical history of "The Prioress's Tale" itself traces the very ethical conflict recognized by Lumiansky. Reviewing the history of the tale's reception prior to and after the Endlösung, one can see that the Shoah has posed a new imperative on reading the Prioress's anti-Semitic-but artfully crafted-legend. Alan T. Gaylord, Florence Ridley, and most recently Beverly Boyd have all provided critical surveys that recognize some shift in the reception of the tale after the second World War.7 However, while their surveys help to draw attention to this shift, none directly contends with the ethical dynamics revealed by it.
As Boyd (1987) rightly notes, commentary on the anti-Semitic nature of "The Prioress's Tale" pre-dates the Second Worid War. However, the criticism of the tale prior to the war does not focus on anti-Semitism as a central problem (whether aesthetic or ethical). Some of the earliest commentaries on the tale note its anti-Semitism. Thomas Percy (1765) and Thomas Tyrwhitt (1775) both look skeptically at the Prioress's representation of Jews, and William Wordsworth-in one of the best known pieces of commentary on the tale-notes that the "fierce bigotry of the Prioress forms a fine back ground [sic] for her tender-hearted sympathies with the Mother and Child; and the mode in which the story is told amply atones for the extravagance of the miracle" (1896, 240).
The critical history of "The Prioress's Tale" makes two things in particular quite clear. First, the anti-Semitic content of the tale has received some degree of notice since Percy and Tyrwhitt's comments in the late eighteenth century. Second, after the Shoah many critics have, like Lumiansky, found themselves confronted with a feeling that the stakes of reading "The Prioress's Tale" have shifted from literary to moral and ethical concerns. The responses to this feeling have been varied, some choosing to valorize Chaucer's enlightened humanism, others exonerating him through appeals to the historical ubiquity of medieval anti-Semitism.8 More recently, others have found the best response to be one that directly addresses the moral and theoretical dimensions of anti-Semitism per se.9 What these critics all indicate is that they-like Lumiansky-partake of the Paradox of Abraham in some degree. Like Lumiansky, critics after the war are apt to find themselves confronted by potentially conflicting obligations: fidelity to medieval history, responsibility for twentieth-century history, and concern for what it means to profess literature in the academy. As with any paradox, there can be no easy solution, if indeed one can continue to speak of solution in the face of paradox. However, while affording no solution, a paradox does provide an ample scene for thinking through the complexities of its components. That, I think, underlies the potency of Alfred David's rather disarmingly straightforward suggestion "that the issues are broader than the character of a nun or even conventional medieval anti-Semitism" (1982, 156). After Auschwitz, a name, a place, or better, an event that marks the ultimate path down which anti-Semitic art can lead, the stakes of reading and teaching "The Prioress's Tale" shifted and with them our responsibility for Chaucer's art.
Toward an Ethical Aesthetics
Wordsworth's contention that the "mode in which the story is told amply atones for the extravagances of the miracle" squarely sets the aesthetic category of form over and above ethical concerns, read here as vague "extravagances" (1896, 240). In stark contrast, Lumiansky reverses this hierarchy, arguing, "the Prioress's story of the little choirboy who is murdered by Jews possesses an unpleasantness which overshadows its other qualities" (1948, xxiii). Ethics trumps aesthetics in Lumiansky's recognition of social function over form. These two critical bookends encompass volumes of scholarly commentary (not only about "The Prioress's Tale" but also about other examples of bigoted art) and forefront the relationship between aesthetics and ethics for readers of Chaucer's Prioress. Medievalists have become unaccustomed in the past two decades to aesthetic criticism, as historicist modes of interpretation have dominated the field. But aesthetic criticism has been the subject of much discussion in other disciplines, and it has already made some small inroads into medieval studies.10 The return of aesthetics to medieval studies holds much promise, but that promise will be short lived if the discussion does not move beyond the New Criticism's problematic mode of aesthetic commentary, especially when dealing with "The Prioress's Tale".
Commentary on the aesthetic quality of art faces two hurdles of special importance in medieval studies. First, aesthetics must confront the accusation that it tends to remove texts and objects from their historical context; as I'll argue, aesthetic commentary can usefully complicate the charge by demonstrating one way in which historicist criticism hasn't been sufficiently historical. Second, it must respond to the claim that aesthetic commentary is politically suspect. The latter charge is typically framed in one of two ways: either aesthetics ignores the political altogether by suggesting that art lacks any political content or that aesthetics functions as a sinister purveyor of objectionable political ideology. Terry Eagleton, for example, argues that the assessment of an object as beautiful has been an important element in the construction and theorization of community at the level of ideology (1990, 20-28). The claim that aesthetics quells difference is important for readers of "The Prioress's Tale", so I want to begin by better understanding it. Eagleton traces this development to the rise of the bourgeoisie after the collapse of absolutist polity. In an ideological environment lacking the top-down justification for all aspects of life, bourgeois society needed to provide its own seemingly egalitarian justifications for being together as a community (for the development of communal interest alongside of those of self interest). Kant's treatise on aesthetic and teleological judgment figures prominently in this justification. For Kant, judgment of the beautiful presupposes a communal assent to that judgment, which does not mean that all people do or will share that judgment, but that they ought to. More specifically, it offers the possibility of presupposing a critical audience unified as to the decision whether to read or not to read a poem, and it is this very possibility that places us-especially those interested in renewing the place of aesthetics in our field-within the ethical paradox so well exemplified in Lumiansky's initial decision to refuse to read "The Prioress's Tale". After the Shoah, aesthetic criteria continue to play a role in justifying the reading of this anti-Semitic tale, even though the tale's artistry serves to strengthen its ethical problems. Caught within such a paradox, critics are left with seemingly no way out: they must either read the tale (risking the transmission of its ideological fantasies about Jews) or remain silent (provoking any number of professional objections concerning censorship in the academy).
The poetry Chaucer places in the mouth of the Prioress is exactly the type of poem capable of evoking powerful aesthetic responses. Chaucer it seems was at his aesthetic best in composing both "The Prioress's Prologue" and her tale: one mainstay of commentary is the recognition of their artful construction. Descriptions of this poetic beauty come from a wide range of critics. In the nineteenth century Wordsworth deemed it worthy of translation and even submitted that translation for wider circulation; moreover, Matthew Arnold cited lines 649-655 as an example of Chaucer's finest verse (1891, xxxiii).11 As the profession of English studies developed in the new century, the artistry of the work received accolades from such important scholars as John Livingston Lowes (1905) and R. K. Root (1906), who called it, "as flawless work as Chaucer ever did" (1906, 197-98). More admiration was forthcoming in George Lyman Kittredge (1915), J. M. Manly (1926) and G. K. Chesterton (1932), who referred to it as "the beautiful legend of the child singing down the street on his way to the crown of martyrdom" (1932, 170). This praise continued after the Second World War: e. g., Brewer (1953), E. Talbot Donaldson (1958), R. O. Payne (1963), and G. H. Russell (1969). Marchette Chute (1946) described it as "a small, flawless jewel offered to the glory of Our Lady" (1958, 295-96); Brewer echoing Chute lauded it, "though brief it is perfectly proportioned-as much a gem of flawless artistry as 'The Miller's Tale'" (1953, 127); and Donaldson deemed her tale to be "in some ways as pretty as her own brooch," consisting of "a strange mixture of delicacy and horror" (1972, 934, 932). Even Lumiansky, who had struggled so much with the tale, found himself able to praise the artistry of the tale's prologue (1955, 81). More recently, comparing "The Prioress's Tale" to other Marian legends, Helen Cooper argues that through his skilled deployment of pathos and the quality of his rhyme royal stanzas Chaucer "rais[es] the genre to its highest level" (1983, 167-68); and Bruce Holsinger closes his ingenious mapping of the tale against the history of musical pedagogy with a reference to the "gem-like elegance and poetic precision of [its] rime-royal stanzas" (1997, 192).
That such accolades have accompanied a poem that at the same time often receives condemnations for the bigotry woven among its verses in itself raises a question: what is the relationship between the tales anti-Semitism and its artistry? Can these two seemingly disparate realms be treated separately, especially in lieu of the connection between aesthetics and community so well articulated in Kant? Historicist critics answer in the affirmative, arguing that the tale's bigotry can only be treated within the confines of historical context. The text of the Canterbury Tales, however, provides a different answer. Following upon the heels of the Prioress's legend comes a notable moment of unity among the pilgrims. The sober silence that reigns immediately after the Prioress finishes her story confirms the unifying potency of her tale and magnifies the seriousness with which we as medievalists ought to treat the aesthetics of her tale.
Although this sober reaction has received some attention because it is out of place in relationship to the typical response of the pilgrims to the tales told by their companions, I think that the full weight of this silence has yet to be heard by the tale's commentators. Not only is the company's silence uncharacteristic of their usual banter, not only is the unified nature of the response in stark contrast to the typically dialogic nature of the text, but also-and perhaps most importantly-the unified silent sobriety of the pilgrims at this one moment marks the first time since the interruption of the tales' order by the Miller that the monologic impulse of the society of pilgrims has been restored. Upon completion of the tale, Chaucer the narrator observes:
Whan seyd was al this miracle, every man
As sobre was that wonder was to se,
Til that oure Hooste japen tho bigan. . . . (VII. 691-93)
Interestingly, the reader has no concept of how long this silent pause endures because silence defies the temporalizing impulse of narrative. The "Til" marks a moment of closure for this narrative: nothing seems to move; time literally stops. Only the warmth of the Host's japing heats up the spirit of the pilgrims, reintroducing an element of non-closure back into the narrative to destabilize the totalitarian impulse behind this unified moment.12
The real danger of this suspension of debate in favor of unified consent becomes more apparent when read in relation to the action of "The Prioress's Tale" itself. Set in an unspecified "greet citee" in "Asye," the tale presents a Christian community literally divided by a "Jewerye." This Jewry-"free and open at eyther ende"-stands as a supposed contaminant for the Christian community surrounding it. Less obviously, though, the ghetto also marks that community's own potential for internal discord. The little clergeon must fulfill his desire to learn the antiphon, Alma redemptoris mater, in secret because if he openly favored it over his primer, he would risk not only scolding but physical punishment as well:
Now, certes, I wol do my diligence
To konne it al er Cristemasse be went.
Though that I for my prymer shal be shent
And shal be beten thries in an houre,
I wol it konne Our Lady for to honoure! (VII. 539-43)
The only place for the clergeon at first to learn the song from his "felawe" and then practice and perform it is, ironically, in the Jewry itself (through which he walks daily to attend school):
His felawe taughte hym homward prively,
Fro day to day, til he koude it by rote,
And thanne he song it wel and boldely,
Fro word to -word, acordynge with the note.
Twies a day it passed thurgh his throte,
To scoleward and homward whan he wente. . . . (VII. 544-49)
Only in this alien enclave do he and his conspirator feel safe to practice such subversive and revolutionary readjustments of the catechism. Moreover, the means through which this dissent is articulated also flouts conventions:memorization of song "by rote" was not an accepted manner of training young students in song (Holsinger 1997, 171). The little clergeon's conscious thwarting of the Christian community's expectations of him indicates that within this (and implicitly any) Christian community dissent happens. But his fear of reprisal, his fear that "for his prymer he shal be shent / And beten thries in an houre" provides clear indication that such dissent can expect to meet with physical retribution, particularly when that dissent is aimed squarely at the unhindered transfer of the community's doctrine through the "prymer."13
The anti-Semitic stage is thus set: the Jewish community-fantastically structured as allies with Satan-also harbors, or provides, a space in which the Christian community's alienation from itself is performed twice daily. Within this fictional space, the ensuing anti-Semitic violence becomes a unifying principle for the Christian community through which it purges the aliens in its midst. But, as the text itself demonstrates, this unification is spurious, a scapegoating facade that masks its own internal discord by symbolically sealing that discord away beneath the weight of a marble slab. Additionally, it is important to recognize that violence per se is not the motivation. The little clergeon's disappearance, an event that implies some physical violence and clearly visits psychic violence on the widow, seems to do little to bring the Christian community together. At first, the widow is left to wander the streets of this city by herself, alone with her panic and grief: "she gooth, as she were half out of hir mynde." (VII 594). No one, no Christian that is, feels motivated to aid this single mother in her hour of need. Only when the little clergeon's miraculous singing-the mark of his dissent-pinpoints the violence as perpetrated by Jews does the Christian community act swiftly and of one accord.
Like the pilgrims traveling to visit Becket's martyred body, the Christian community of this tale swarms about this newly martyred body of the boy. En masse they arrive, and en masse they call for justice:
The Cristene folk that thurgh the strete wente
In coomen for to wondre upon this thyng,
And hastily they for the provost sente;
He cam anon withouten tariyng. . . . (VII. 614-17)
Their anti-Semitism violently purges the Jewish community living in their midst and sublates the differences internal to their own community through the sanctification of the little boy, dissenter but martyr. It is significant that the justice meted out to the entire Jewish community comes swiftly and with little elaboration.14 The Jews are tried, convicted, and punished within the space of a stanza, in part because the goal of a unified Christian community requires their immediate disappearance. The remaining stanzas can then enact the far more complex unification of the Christian community with itself. "The Cristene folk" carry the body of the child to an abbey, placing him before the altar. After the removal of the "greyn" from the boy's throat, the abbot and his community fall prostrate and then rise in unison, acting as one body:
And gruf he [the abbot] fil al plat upon the grounde,
And stille he lay as he had ben ybounde.
The convent eek lay on the pavement
Wepynge, and herying Cristes mooder deere,
And after that they ryse. . . . (VII. 675-79)
What began as a Christian community separated by a Jewry and divided internally by dissident youth is now left a unified whole: the Jews are hanged and the boy is safely enclosed in "a tombe of marbul stones cleere" (VII. 681). The tale's movement toward such a definitive closure ripples outward to its fictional audience, an audience who can only respond with universal silence.15
On the one hand, it is tempting to see the tale as a demonstration of the sociological explanation of the unifying power of what has become known as othering (a term often used to invoke a school of thought traceable to Emile Durkheim and powerfully articulated in medieval studies by R. I. Moore and others): the strategy whereby minority communities are stereotyped and held out as different in order to better define a sense of self. This alone might explain some of the potency of the effect of the Prioress's narrative on her fellow pilgrims. But this sociological rationale leaves some questions unaddressed, among them, why would anti-Semitism continue after the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, and why would it remain so prominent in literature in particular? Some critics who recognize the political utility of othering have argued that anti-Semitism after 1290 is just another trope, a means by which real political enemies (like the Lollards) are targeted.16 Essentially, this maneuver makes anti-Semitism something other than what it is: a virulent hatred toward Jewish persons and culture. Such an approach leaves one scrambling for the real target of the Prioress's anti-Semitism; after all, she too speaks after 1290. Who are her real targets? The answer is difficult because no one objects; no one is left out in the open; no one is othered. Everyone is "sobre"; everyone is silent. They are all of one accord.
On the other hand, the unifying impact of the tale's artistry, the Prioress's deft combination of Marian prologue and Marian tale interwoven with hatred and cast in well-crafted stanzas, must also be better understood. If the tale's critical tradition is any guide, the Canterbury pilgrims (and Chaucer's real audiences) are likely to find the tale's art quite compelling. So much so that aesthetics, more than the socio-political explanation (othering), may provide a better explanation for the troubling silence of the entire Canterbury community, and of the potential ethical dilemmas presented to modern readers by this very artistry. In short, the sober silence of the community of pilgrims brings us face to face with the ethical dimensions of reading and teaching this artistic tale in a community setting like the classroom of a modern university. Classrooms are communities, albeit temporary ones, in which broader social and political realities are intentionally and unintentionally exposed, exercised, developed or diminished. They are also communities containing very clear lines of power. Whether in the front, in the middle or on the fringes of the classroom, the instructor (who wields the most power even-and perhaps especially-when s/he publicly disavows the mantle of authority) always risks annealing unpleasant ideas without being aware that it is happening. When teachers approach subjects like anti-Semitism they ought to look as broadly as possible for potential pitfalls. In the case of "The Prioress's Tale," the classroom's relationship to aesthetic discourses in general and as applied to the tale is one such pitfall.
While it is important to concede that Chaucer would not have thought about aesthetics in Kant's terms, Kant's work provides, as Eagleton notes, some useful insights into how art has functioned at an ideological level for those of us reared within the Western tradition of the individual and independent subject-the development of the English canon is an undeniable part of this history.17 For Kant, to judge a landscape or poem beautiful is really a judgment of the state of thought upon itself and in no way founded upon objective qualities per se.18 By arguing that aesthetic judgments are universally valid, Kant counters subjectivist views of aesthetics (beauty is palpably different for every person) and centers aesthetic judgment at the core of a community conceived as unitary. That is, when faced with what Lyotard calls the "occurrence of a form," the subject renders a judgment on his or her state of thought (1994, 19). Kant, moreover, contends that this judgment has a "general validity" (1952, 54). If I believe that X is beautiful, I can only do so with the understanding that everyone ought to agree with my judgment:
The judgement of taste exacts agreement from everyone; and every person who describes something as beautiful insists that every one ought to give the object in question his approval and follow suit in describing it as beautiful. The ought in aesthetic judgements, therefore, despite an accordance with all the requisite data for passing judgement, is still only pronounced conditionally. (Kant 1952, 82)
To remark upon the beauty of a tulip, of a particular painting or landscape, or of "The Prioress's Tale" implies that this judgment of beauty ought to be shared by all, that it ought to be a universally held judgment. As such, aesthetic judgment of the beautiful holds out a certain promise of community, a community that, if nothing else, shares this particular judgment of the beautiful. However, this claim to universality must be qualified. It must be understood as always being indeterminate and subjective, and thus, it does not indicate that everyone shares a certain judgment of an object as beautiful, just that everyone ought to share in that judgment. In other words, the feeling of pleasure is viewed as universal, not the aesthetic object or the subject itself. In that sense, aesthetic judgments of the beautiful always gestures to a closure of debate and a desire for general consent, the type of consent manifest at the close of "The Prioress's Tale."
Recalling the survey of critical praise for "The Prioress's Tale's" beauty, it is evident that each of those critics is, initially at least, making a judgment in response to the art object. When Chesterton describes the tale as "the beautiful legend of the child singing down the street to the crown of martyrdom" or when Brewer deems it "as much a gem of flawless artistry as "The Miller's Tale" each offers a conditional ought to his critical community. Each gives voice (consciously or not) to some expectation that all readers of the tale share or should share this state of mind. Now certainly, their assessments of the tale are not in practice universally valid: they are not binding statements to which all readers must adhere. And indeed, not all readers have concurred with their judgments.19
Theoretically, then, such aesthetic judgments regarding the beauty of "The Prioress's Tale" itself (and even, to some extent, of the Canterbury Tales as a whole) have provided and may yet provide an authorizing and authoritative criterion for reading her tale. And while the reasons for reading any work by Chaucer are complex, part of the expectation underlying the general validity of these types of judgments of beauty is that other critics, other members of this academic community, will read the tale and will share that state of mind. However, in the face of bigotry so obviously untenable to readers of the poem after the Shoah, "The Prioress's Tale" continues to be read, and the aesthetic rationale for that reading exists on a continuum, at the far end of which sits the aestheticization of politics (i.e., the collapsing of the beautiful and the good into one) that played such a significant role in the rise of fascism in Nazi Germany.20 This, in no way, means that commentators on "The Prioress's Tale" are fascists or bigots. Emphatically, they are not. Instead, I am contending that there is a similarity in the way that aesthetic rationales are treated in each instance: as a cornerstone of an idea of a unified community that seeks closure and consent rather than the non-closure of difference and debate. Eagleton writes tellingly of the real danger of the Kantian sensus communis:
Such solidarity is a kind of sensus communis, which Kant opposes in his work to the fragmentary, unreflective collection of prejudices and opinions which is doxa or common sense. Such doxa is what Kant himself . . . might have termed "ideology"; but sensus communis is ideology purified, universalized and rendered reflective, ideology raised to a second power, idealized beyond all mere sectarian prejudice or customary reflex to resemble the very ghostly shape of rationality itself. (Eagleton 1990, 96)
The moment of sober silence following "The Prioress's Tale" marks the emergence of Eagleton's "ghostly shape of rationality itself." The violence of the moment is difficult to read because it doesn't simply depend upon the utterance of "sectarian prejudice" by the members of the pilgrimage (or by the critics of the tale). That is, the sober silence of the pilgrims (or the potential sensus communis of the academy) does not result from the open assent to the bigoted message but from the silent closure of assent brought on by the aesthetics of the tale itself. The reflective nature of the judgment makes it harder to recognize as politically dangerous, as the Prioress's hatred can slip in under the moral radar, as it were. Nevertheless, it still "gets through;" it still gets aired in public. Even at a distance of several centuries, that medieval literature scholars have participated and in some ways continue to participate in a community constructed in part around a tale whose content is anti-Semitic should give us pause because the collaboration of aesthetics and anti-Semitism has had such devastating consequences in the past century.
But if reading the tale on account of its beauty is problematic, so too is the opposite: the refusal to read because of a lack of beauty. Given this uncomfortable realization of the dangerous concoction of art and antiSemitism, critics might, following Lumiansky, condemn "The Prioress's Tale" as bad art, as ugly, and refuse to read and teach it. Lumiansky's initial decision to omit "The Prioress's Tale" from his modernized edition draws upon on aesthetics as a means of authorizing the refusal to read. In addition to the tale of the little clergeon, Lumiansky dropped three other tales: Chaucer's "Tale of Melibee," "The Monk's Tale," and "The Parson's Tale." The omission of these tales is unusual for they have little in common on the surface. Yet, as Lumiansky explains in the introduction to his text, he finds these tales to be overly didactic and moralizing: to him, a quality in art popular at the time but no longer appreciated by modern audiences. In other words, we no longer render the same aesthetic judgment concerning these tales: rather than being beautiful, they are-supposedly-deemed poor art by modern audiences. Within the context of Lumiansky's edition, the aesthetic judgment about these three tales bleeds over into "The Prioress's Tale" as well: it too makes for bad art. Indeed, John Archer directly connects the two with his condemnation of "The Prioress's Tale" as bad art, "we cannot escape the virulent anti-Semitism of "The Prioress's Tale," even if Chaucer realized that diatribes against the Jews (or against anybody) make for bad art"(1984, 46-54). Given the offensive nature of its content, if anti-Semitic poetry is bad art, then why read it at all? Wouldn't this be a way of "respecting" (coming back to Art Spiegelman's phrase) the potential violence stored in such poems?
Accepting the question's complexity, I suggest the answer does not lie in a standing commitment to censorship because such a decision continues to enact a promise of a unified community constructed around the exclusion of a particular object. Critical silence based upon aesthetic judgment (even if that judgment is one of ugliness rather than beauty) remains as problematic as the conditional ought voiced in judgments of the beautiful (i.e., "this is beautiful; you ought to read it" is little different from "this is bad art [ugly]; you ought not read it"). Something akin to a photographic negative of the beautiful, the ugly, in Adorno's words, "preserves the moment of pleasure, if only as a distant echo" (1983, 22). Once again Lumiansky s paradox surfaces: silencing "The Prioress's Tale," even for the best of intentions, partakes of an ideological violence at a different, but still troubling, level.
If the nature of aesthetic judgments is such that those judgments risk reduplicating the universalizing impulses of a totalitarian community, then why not reject altogether, as some critics (especially materialist ones) have argued, the very concept of the aesthetic as ideologically dangerous? "The Prioress's Tale" could be read, so this argument goes, with the protective gloves of historical knowledge. This view challenges the legitimacy of the burgeoning work on aesthetics even before it can establish itself. The presumption is that silence about aesthetic matters resolves the problem of the aesthetic. I would argue, however, that the real danger lies in ignoring the aesthetic precisely because there is no way of eliminating our engagement with it. By this I mean not only that there will always be paintings, poems, landscapes, etc. that provoke responses of a certain type from us, but also that the idea of the aesthetic is too deeply ingrained in the history of the West for us to have done with it.21
If a critical aesthetic discourse remains not only valuable but, perhaps, even inevitable, then closer attention must be paid to how it affects our discourse. Terry Eagleton's work provides one possible means of respecting the full dimension of the aesthetic; by returning aesthetics to its roots he provides a path that even the most materially minded critics might follow. Not only does Eagleton demonstrate that the aesthetic should be the subject of materialist critique, but he also values it because the aesthetic marks a space where the body intersects with the realms of ideas and of spirit. Reminding us of its Greek root, aisthesis, Eagleton argues that aesthetics can, from a materialist perspective, help initiate inquiries into how the ideological forces of art objects act upon material bodies.22 One need not be an avowed Marxist to appreciate Eagleton's re-inscription of the corporeal into a field often situated only at the level of ideas. He reminds us of what formalist criticism forgot: that the beautiful ultimately operates at the level of feelings (which for Kant were signals of reflective judgment), a level that demands the analysis of the context of the body that senses and the conditions under which it feels pleasure and or pain.
If aesthetics is an inevitable part of what we as readers experience, then it behooves us to think its presence more critically than we have over the past few decades dominated by historicist thinking. In addition to exploring its dangers, we should reexamine its potential as a critical and pedagogical tool. Doing so provides a space within which to approach aesthetics ethically. Eagleton's aesthesis is one such way of proceeding, a way that ought not prove difficult for materialist critics to accept. Examining the context of aesthetic feeling, feelings of pleasure and anxiety, enable an aesthetic attentive to its ethical and political consequences. Such an analysis can be as much a part of our evaluation of ourselves as readers as it is for our analysis of the reception of culturally central texts like the Canterbury Tales.
From the outset of this article I have been suggesting that, like Lumiansky, many readers of "The Prioress's Tale" after the Shoah are apt to try to think two temporalities at once, an instant of thought that lies at the heart of their aesthetic and ethical encounter with the poem. That is, when presented with the occurrence of this anti-Semitic poem through the act of reading the mind struggles with two distinct temporal absolutes: one that places it comfortably within an accepted medieval context and one that gathers around that reading the much more modern context of the Shoah. For me, at least, this moment has been signaled by quite visceral feelings of unease, and I suspect I haven't been alone in this. Trying to think or inhabit both contexts at once is irrational, and any effort to do so is bound to fail. This irrational materiality (irrational because it cannot be encompassed by logic or reason) stems from the recognition that "The Prioress s Tale" belongs to two worlds. Those of us who read the tale after Auschwitz may find it difficult to read this medieval tale without darker images of concentration camps arising as part of its horizon-even if distant, the presence of these images remains troubling. Unlike most other medieval texts, ""The Prioress's Tale"" calls into question the very idea of a stable medieval context. Whenever critics speak of these texts after the Shoah, the modern readerly context refuses to be set aside in favor of the medieval one. The resulting contextual heterogeneity is unheimlich [uncanny]-a term which for Freud was as much aesthetic as analytical-and may aptly name the feelings I've experienced. For Lumiansky, at least, the unexpected return of the Shoah as a context for reading a supposedly medieval text is signaled by his editorial struggle to decide whether or not to reproduce the anti-Semitic art of the single most important English artist of the Middle Ages. Lumiansky's paradox bespeaks the co-incidental (in the sense of a happening side by side in one event) awareness of an unrepresentable context for "The Prioress's Tale": we can sense the irrationality of this context as much, if not more than, we can understand it.
If matter-of-factly praising "The Prioress's Tale's" beauty has become not just reprehensible, but also virtually impossible for most readers finding themselves grappling with two impossible contexts, then recognizing the critical potential of this moment opens a space for considering more than formal or historical issues. "Respecting" (to use Spiegelman's phrase) "The Prioress's Tale," demands that we as readers inhabit the decentered subjective space created by the uncanny context and magnified by the aesthetic potency of the poem. The aesthetic cannot provide a safe haven for readers; rather, it is revealed as entailing an important ethical encounter precisely because the aesthetic cannot be abstracted from material conditions.
The feelings of pleasure and of anxiety produced in modern readers of "The Prioress's Tale"-the ruptured and decentered sense of self resulting from the uncanniness of its context-is like the subject of ethics elaborated by the recent work of Derrida. The analogy is crucial: ethics is not reducible to aesthetics; art (neither as a general category nor as a specific work) does not contain a priori the key to an ethical life as New Critical methodology supposed. The feelings signaled by aisthesis do, however, provide the opportunity to link the phrases of an aesthetic genre of discourse to those of an ethical genre, and it is the ethical genre that orients us to the future and to the other.23 Dwelling on the unpleasantness of the aesthetic affect of the poem is, I believe, vital for such linkage to happen. What results from a reading of "The Prioress's Tale" (as Lumiansky paradox shows) is never permanent, never a rigid model for how to proceed. The feelings of pleasure and anxiety provoked by reading "The Prioress's Tale"-feelings that are not likely to disappear-encourage us to see this text as ours, not theirs, as belonging to us, or at least of haunting our presence: a gift of history that we cannot repay or return (for surely it is an unwanted gift), one that exceeds even the discourse of repayment or satisfaction.
This essay contends "The Prioress's Tale" involves us in questions as fundamental as whether we ought to introduce bigoted texts into instructional environments and if so, how we as educators ought to proceed. If religious totalitarianism can be a breeding ground for hatred and if political totalitarianism can provide a means for the prosecution of existing hatreds in the form of physical violence, then, as I have argued, one characteristic of our approach to bigoted texts might be to expose ourselves and our students to the power of non-closure as a bulwark to totalitarian impulses. After the Shoah, one can never be satisfied with a reading of "The Prioress's Tale." In fact, our post-Shoah world demands that we continue to ask whether it ought to be read, now, more often than not, the answer will be, yes, but sometimes-as Lumiansky discovered-the answer may be no. Respecting the tale's implication in past traumas and its potential to be part of future traumas, means one can never be done with the responsibility entailed by its continual return, its (re)arrival, always singular in its happening, always demanding of us yet another response.
Cite the original online posting at http://www.geocities.com/salferrat/chaucwils.htm