Thursday, April 28, 2005

Finishing the Canterbury Tales

Today was the Chaucer class where we read the Parson's Prologue, parts of the Parson's Tale (I am the only person my age that I know who has actually read the whole thing in Middle English, and I don't inflict it upon my students), and the Retraction.

It's my experience that students do not react well to the Retraction. I do my best to try to put it in context, to explain how Christianity gave a very powerful worldview in the Middle Ages, that to ask Chaucer to follow our standards of "standing by his art" is unreasonable.

But they just don't buy it.

One student was particularly peeved that Chaucer was "once again trying to have it both ways," retracting his works in a text appended to those very works. "If he really wanted to retract his works, he could have burned them." Students pointed out that in some ways the retraction is just like Chaucer's attempt to distance himself from the bawdiness of the Miller's Tale while still writing it and taking credit for it: it's the Miller's Tale, and he's a churl, so if you don't want to be offended, turn over the leaf (interesting suggestion there that the Tales were to be read, not orally performed, the way Chaucer is depicted reading to the court in the Cambridge Troilus manuscript).

One student asked if we could blame the Retraction on social pressure. I said that we had no evidence that there was some priest standing next to Chaucer's deathbed saying "you'd better retract these things." "No," she said, "what I mean is social pressure inside of Chaucer; his ideas of what was right and wrong."

"How can you separate that from Chaucer?" I asked. And we then had an absolutely amazing literary / philosophical discussion. Of course my thinking on these matters is strongly influenced by Dennett's philosophy, which I know is controversial. But I was able to keep myself out of the discussion a lot, and the class really came alive. I think by the end they got an idea of how much is at stake in our understanding (or even construction) of authors. And they'd gotten there themselves (with a little guidance from me), not by decoding a theoretical text. Cool stuff.

[This leads me to my next post, called "The Problem with Theory," which I hope to work on tomorrow. Then a post on the Hieronymus Bosch painting that is the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo (and I say that in the most affectionate way possible). But it's the end of the semester and many meetings of many sorts take precedence. Students first, who are worried about papers, exams, etc., but also preparation for my term as Chairman of the Educational Policy Committee. Everyone who hears that I've been chosen says "that's a real honor." So you know which kind of pain in what location it's going to be. ]

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Apologies for a dearth of insightful posts (or even replies to good comments). I have been drowning in proofs of one sort and another as well as a birthday party for my one-year-old son and the subsequent respiratory infections that are sweeping the house. Things are starting to calm down, but now I have 32 English 101 papers and 20 Chaucer papers to grade by Tuesday.

But there is good news as well. My college course on CD, Bard of the Middle Ages: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer should now be on sale in Barnes and Noble bookstores. It's not on line yet, from Recorded Books' The Modern Scholar, but since my copies just arrived in the mail, I'm guessing that it will show up on the website any day.

Tolkien Studies volume II is at the printer right now and should be out any day now. I think it's as strong as volume one, with some very good pieces, and not all by 'the usual suspects' in Tolkien criticism.

Work on the Encyclopedia is proceeding apace. If you haven't received an invitation to contribute and think you should, please get in touch. We've had some difficulty with invites bouncing due to spam filters, etc. I'm tracking these down individually, but it takes time to figure out if someone never received the email or if he or she did but just didn't want to contribute. There will also be a "second wave" of open topics as I figure out what is and isn't covered and integrate the many suggestions for entries that keep coming in.

Finally, it's less than a month until Kalamazoo, the 40th International Medieval Congress. Last year was the first time I missed the conference in a decade, but I'll be there for all four days this year, soaking up the medieval scholarship (and hopefully some nice Michigan spring weather). My paper has perhaps the least appealing title in the conference's 40-year history: "Repetition, Pattern Recognition, Metrics and the Evolution of Traditions: Some Old English Examples." This is what happens when you throw everything and the kitchen sink into an abstract because you haven't written the paper yet. I did come up with an alternate title: "Beowulf 1864a and the Memetic Evolution of Traditions," but that wasn't exactly a barn-burner, either. On the other hand, the paper is, I hope, challenging and should be a good fit for the Oral Tradition session I'm in. But now I must go and comfort my son, the incredible mucous machine.