Sol Neely (University of Alaska Southeast)

44th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2009

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: Are We Serious Enough Yet? The Place of Ethics in Medieval Scholarship

Chaucer as Religious Seducer:  Toward an Existential Postsecular Literary Theory

There is a movement that I would like to trace out here that the brevity of these remarks might betray.  It is a movement opened by a question that returns us to the possibility of questioning, which is to say, to the possibility of writing:  Can we not read the movement of Chaucer’s authorship in the same way we read the movement of Kierkegaard’s authorship—which is to say, as effecting a kind of religious seduction?  What are the qualities of this movement?  How are they irreducibly and, more importantly, materially ethical?

As most of those in BABEL seem to understand, our traditions of literary criticism are dominated by a sublimated Platonism that haunts our pedagogy. This Platonism distinguishes the truth of philosophical inquiry (which we inherit from Aristotle in the form of commentary) from the mimeticism of the literary.  As Sandor Goodhart notes, poetry, as such, has traditionally been understood as an episode within philosophy:  The philosophical reader (or critic) is the one who evaluates, studies, and masters the dramatic surplus of the literary through commentary.  According to Goodhart, European epistemology is thus governed by an idolatry of Platonic reasoning, but precisely because such idolatry constitutes the philosophical endeavor, philosophy remains blind to the sacrificial violences of its decision to expel the poetic.  Aristotle concretizes this move by Plato, and it is given its most totalizing expression by Hegel.

In some sense, the ethical turn in literary theory aims to recover the dramatic origins of the philosophical that it wishes to expel.  To paraphrase Goodhart, rather than reading literature from the point of view of philosophy, which we have done since Plato, we should read philosophy from the point of view of literature.  This is not a simple inversion of a philosophical-literary hierarchy; rather, it’s a recovery of the dramatic origins that philosophy would otherwise expel. Both Kierkegaard and Chaucer organize their respective authorships through a dramatic movement that employs duplicitous authorship that starts and stops with the seductions of false hopes, cruel ironies, and ethical decisions of the either/or logic. Both Kierkegaard and Chaucer take as their respective points of departure and points of arrival something other than their work (as oeuvre) and something other than the didacticism of philosophical adequation.

Maurice Blanchot opens his essay, “Literature and the Right to Death,” by observing that “literature begins at the moment when literature becomes a question.”  The question of literature is not merely a question addressed to the doubts of the writer; rather, it is a question “addressed to language, behind the person who is writing and the person who is reading, by language which has become literature” (300-1). Blanchot recognizes a difference between the language of literature, for which language becomes a question to itself (a system of difference that posits the radical exteriority of language), and the language of philosophy, for which language is a system of difference predicated on assumptions of adequation. The literary recovers, expresses, and preserves the meaning of the question of literature, but it does so as question—or, more specifically, as an-archic interruption (literally dramatized time and again throughout each author’s work). To recover the dramatic origins of philosophy means to start not from Aristotle’s unities or the scholasticism of Bildung, but from the sublime—from the persistence of a question and the violence of revelation that the literary occasions.

This sense of the literary is “existentialized” when it makes its dramatic impact on the reader.  Kafka, perhaps, says it most succinctly when he writes, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? We need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide.”  I read “like a suicide” as the suicide (in the sense of an absolute giving of oneself) of the Cartesian subject, which is the still-too-stubborn starting point of so many literary criticisms. The death of the Cartesian subject is the radiant birth of transformed existential self, which Kierkegaard dramatically understands as irreducibly relational. What if Kafka’s suicide is thus the suicide of the philosophical self, which is the expression of the death of the self as idol—which is to say, the death of idolatry?

The meaning of the question of literature, as such, remains difficult to discover because the question tends to turn into “a prosecution of art and art’s capacities and goals” (Work 301).  Blanchot writes that such an experience of language isolates the nullity of the meaning of the question of literature “in a state of purity,” which constitutes literature’s extraordinary force:  “To make literature become the exposure of this emptiness inside, to make it open up completely to this nothingness, realize its own unreality”—this is the great achievement of literature.  It turns the “emptiness inside” inside-out and thus engenders the radical exteriority of language that subverts philosophical assumptions of adequation and (re-)conciliation.  Goodharts notes that the question of the literary allows nothing in this world to be sacred (to be sacralized by the mythic).

From these meditations on the literary and the existential, I wish to stage a dramatic reading of Chaucer that keeps in line with the dramatic, pedagogical, movement of his authorship. To read Chaucer’s work in this way is to emphasize not just the literature but the language behind the literature—which is to say, the literary in Blanchot’s sense.  I make this reading in light of my reading of Kierekgaard.  Occasionally, Kierkegaard announced the motivations and efficacy of his work as a whole.  We are as readers are implicated in Kierkegaard’s larger religious undertaking that he describes in On My Work as an Author as a movement “to reach, to arrive at simplicity”:  “the movement is:  to arrive at the simple; the movement is:  from the public to ‘the single individual’” (Point of View 7, 10).  Kierkegaard, in this respect, continually affirms his authorship as thoroughly religious, noting that “[t]his movement was traversed or delineated uno tenore, in one breath.” The one breath is important because it expresses the temporality of revelation as opposed to temporality of Hegel for whom suffering is ultimately made to mean something in the narratives of history. In effect, we are delivered, on the other side of the book, to the questioning that precedes the book—the question of responsibility, which makes writing possible.

Do we not get this in Chaucer? We can read particular texts from Kierkegaard—such as Fear and Trembling by Johannes de Silencio—but these are not Kierkegaard. These “indirect communications” are dramatic personae within the movement of Kierkegaard’s authorship. In contrast, there are a number of “authored” texts by Kierkegaard, which he calls his “direct communications.” What if the Canterbury Tales (indeed, the whole of Chaucer’s authorship) was such a pedagogical dialectic between indirect and direct communications—those for which the narrator of the Retraction claims (paradoxically by renouncing)?  If this is the case, Chaucer’s task is intensely pedagogical and self-reflective, much like the authorship of Kierkegaard. In some sense, Kierkegaard was a religious seducer.  We can understand direct communication as “education” and indirect communication as “seduction.”  Both words (to educate and to seduce) share the same etymological origin: ducere, meaning to lead, and they are distinguished only by their respective prefixes:  ex ducere (to lead out from) versus se ducere (to lead away from).  Accordingly, Kierkegaard writes that there are two pedagogical situations:  One in which the student is ignorant and simply needs to be given the information directly; the other is when the student is under a delusion, and the delusion must first be taken away.  As we know, the second pedagogical situation is the most common and most difficult.  What if the delusion of commentary and criticism is the idolatry of Platonic reasoning and it accompanying ego? It makes an idol (or heroes) not just of critical traditions but, even worse, it makes an idol of oneself.  The sobering of the self, the lessons of the literary, can only be indirectly communicated.  The book can only become the occasion (and, as such, the vanishing transition) for existential self-transformation; otherwise it simple produces so much didacticism pressed against mute lips.  The reader must undergo the existential transformation by playing out the mythic structures to their ends, which is the very meaning of prophetic literature. Like Kierkegaard, much of Chaucer’s work opens a kind of trap wherein we are baited into the mythic organization of text and community so that we may bear witness to the exhaustion of its narrative thought.  Accordingly, we must pass through the entirety of the work, as pilgrims ourselves, and read the tales prophetically rather than mythically—give ourselves to the text like suicide.

Blanchot writes:  “To write is to produce absence of the work (worklessness) [désoeuvrement].  Or:  writing is the absence of the work as it produces itself through the work and throughout the work.  Writing as worklessness is the [. . .] indeterminancy that lies between reason and unreason.”  The book is the “passage of an infinite movement” wherein writing is transformed from “an operation” to “worklessness.” Still, “the book is not that to which it is destined”:  “Writing passes through the book, completing itself there even as it disappears in the book; and yet, we do not write for the book.  The book: a ruse by which writing goes towards the absence of the book.” Chaucer, quite remarkably, makes a very similar gesture, announcing through the Retraction, “Heere taketh the makere of this book his leve”—as if, having passed through the book Chaucer’s Retraction delivers us from the work of the book (the oeuvre) back into the worklessness of writing. Chaucer delivers us not to the book but to the possibility of writing, which is the book’s future—which, as Edmond Jabès so beautifully writes, “is no longer that of the book”; rather, it is ours:  “What remains always to be written and read” (11).

Works Cited

Blanchot, Maurice. “Literature and the Right to Death.”  The Work of Fire.  Trans. Charlotte Mandell.  Stanford:  Standford UP, 1995.  300-344.

Chaucer, Geoffrey.  The Riverside Chaucer.  Ed. Larry D. Benson.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1987.  395-7.
Jabès, Edmond.  A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Book.  Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop.  Hanover, Wesleyan UP, 1993.

Kafka, Franz. Letters to friends, family, and editors.  Trans. Richard Winston and Clara Winston.  New York:  Schocken Books, 1977.

Kierkegaard, Søren.  Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments.  Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1992.

———.  Fear and Trembling.  Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.  Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1983.

———.  Philosophical Fragments (excerpts) in The Essential Kierkegaard.  Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong.  Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1995.

———.  The Point of View.  Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1998.