Eileen A. Joy, Assoc. Professor
Department of English
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Peck Hall, Room 3206
Edwardsville, IL 62026-1431

New Chaucer Society: 2010 Congress
15-19 July 2010
Siena, Italy


Session 3: Touching the Past
Organizer: Jeffrey J. Cohen, George Washington University

Shafts or Freight Tunnels Constructed Between Objects that Otherwise Would Remain Quarantined in Private Vacuums: Chaucer’s Griselda and Lars von Trier’s Bess McNeill

Figure 1. still image from Lars von Trier's film Breaking the Waves (1996)

In their essay “Getting Post-Historical,” which serves as the Introduction to their edited collection, The Post-Historical Middle Ages, Sylvia Federico and Elizabeth Scala acknowledge that “historicism has become the Jamesonian ‘cultural dominant’ of our field,” and they call for a reexamination and redefinition of historicism’s dominant status, even suggesting that the Freudian, Marxist, and Lacanian approaches to the Real that have founded both the materialist and psychic historicist enterprises are ultimately inadequate to the task of a scholarship that might seek in medieval texts a type of knowing “unavailable to their ‘original’ readers and beyond the intent of their writers” (pp. 1, 7).

This paper will entail a (mis)reading of sacrificial ethics in the “lives” of the fictional characters (and “saints” of a sort) Griselda in Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale and Bess McNeill (played by Emily Watson) in Lars von Trier’s film Breaking the Waves. I will follow the thought of Walter Benjamin, in The Origin of German Tragic Drama, that the work of art possesses its own history, one that is not readily reducible to the time period in which it was produced nor to the intentions of its maker, and further, that the goal of criticism might be to apprehend the historicity of the artwork that is not part of historical life, per se. And this would be best accomplished by considering the artwork as an object among other artwork-objects, all arranged in a non-linear constellation that does not privilege the place of one work over another and which produces certain dialectical images that give to historical time a particular shock. The work of interpretation, in this scenario, is the thinking — necessarily creative and non-teleological — that gives rise to the constellation, which is also formed when temporally disparate objects are seen to be in tactile and affective proximity to each other.

This paper will also follow the thinking of Deleuze and Guattari that texts do not form images of the world, but rather, they assure the world’s deterritorialization, but only if we can properly shake ourselves loose from the hegemony of the ways in which we usually read the signifiers of these texts, and for which enterprise we must get out of history proper through a process of hallucination and what the philosopher Graham Harman calls “vicarious causation”: what happens when “objects [Griselda and Bess as textual and visual networks; language; filmic image] confront one another only by proxy, through sensual profiles found only on the interior of some other entity [the reader-viewer-scholar-me]”? Therefore, this paper also aims to show that the “side-by-side proximity of real and sensual objects is merely the occasion for a connection between a real object inside the intention [my desire to be absorbed by these objects] and another real object lying outside it. In this way, shafts or freight tunnels are constructed between objects that otherwise remain quarantined in private vacuums” (“Vicarious Causation,” Collapse : Philosophical Research and Development, vol. II, March 2007: pp. 184, 185).