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Authorizing the reader in Chaucer's House of Fame.


It is curious that Chaucer tends to portray himself as a "reader" rather than as an "author" in his major works. The dream-visions of The Parliament of Fowls and The Book of the Duchess are fueled by the reading material the narrator claims to have had before him when he fell asleep. The preambles of Anelida and Arcite and The Legend of Good Women discuss the importance of reading and consulting the sources, while the entire treatment of the Dido and Aeneas materials in The House of Fame is occupied with the problem of assessing what one reads. Troilus and Criseyde is, in many ways, a text entirely about reading: the narrator/author presents himself as a "reader" and complains about ongoing problems in reading his sources; he projects an audience of readers who will in turn read him; and finally, he creates characters who are themselves engaged continually in various acts of reading. They read books; they read dreams and portents; they read each other. Even in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer styles himself as a "reader of people" rather than a creator of them. When he remarks in the General Prologue that "Whoso shal telle a tale after a man, / He moot reherce as ny as evere he kan / Everich a word, if it be in his charge" (731-3), Chaucer both denies authorial responsibility for his characters and insists upon sustaining the integrity of each speech act he "witnesses." Every word--and every misstatement--indicates something important about the speaker, if his or her audience is clever enough to read between the lines.

Such a mode of self-presentation seems particularly profound considering an imaginative shift taking place in the late Middle Ages, which figures reading as a prominent moral and devotional act. Readers abound in late medieval manuscripts: from Annunciation scenes introducing images of Mary reading at the moment of revelation, to primers displaying the Virgin learning to read at the lap of St. Anne, images of reading began to proliferate in the imagination. Correspondingly, a huge number of private devotional and prayer books, each punctuated with scenes of private reading, began to circulate throughout Europe and England, giving testimony to the phenomenon of private reading. These recurring depictions suggest the establishment by the late fourteenth century of a cultural concept of a "reader," for whom these manuscripts were intended and whom they were meant to educate. This reader was real, in the sense that s/he bought and commissioned books, and had his or her image and/or arms prominently figured within the space of the manuscript itself. But this reader was also imagined as an idealized figure who would react to the text and be affected by it.

Chaucer's own interest in the act of reading is not, I think, coincidental. Indeed, Chaucer's works, foregrounding both the presence of an engaged audience and the act of reading to which that audience commits, show a particular concern for establishing a connection between reading and personal ethics. By demonstrating that even the "masterpieces" of literature have their origins in the acts and discourses of the living world, Chaucer establishes a linguistic and non-essentialist basis for his culture's most revered traditions and legends. Instead such traditions are depicted as retaining their authority only through the repetition of oral and written texts. In this decentralized literary vision, readers have an active stake in reading "aright," as assessing and interpreting received texts in an engaged manner becomes a matter of ethics. By destabilizing the force by which such cultural models retain their authority, Chaucer gives his readers a basis for reassessing the more problematic assumptions of their culture on their own.

This paper argues that the House of Fame, a work that has been called a model of "skeptical fideism," (1) advocates an "ethics of reading" that will prove a recurring force throughout Chaucer's works. In it, the narrator Geffrey models the ideal act of reading as he struggles to adapt his aesthetic horizons to accommodate the contradictory facts and assumptions embodied in a diffuse body of literary texts. The three books that make up the text can each be seen as comprising a separate action and thematic concern involving the nature of reading: in the first, the narrator apprehends the text and ponders both the legend and textual transmission of the Dido and Aeneas story; in the second he learns about the nature and truth-content of language; in the third he receives a lesson about the vicissitudes of fortune as he witnesses how literary works come to be canonized and their subject matters glorified.

In this enterprise, reading becomes a double antidote to the problematic beliefs, ideals, and models for behavior the poet sees being offered by "authoritative" texts or people. In its most limited sense, as a synonym for perusing or interpreting written texts, reading offers a method by which an interested individual may analyze issues in a single text or compare intertextual assumptions and/or contradictions across several traditions. Because the House of Fame privileges reading over the act of writing, the venerated traditions of authority and canonicity necessarily melt away as texts protected by the veneration of tradition are subjected to the magnifying lens of the critic's eye. However, insofar as the poem reveals both history and mythology to be themselves constructions of human language and contrivance, reading also becomes a synonym for "seeing" or "judging" other, non-textual acts. The incompleteness of the poem makes Chaucer's would-be conclusions unclear, but it would seem that the point of this dream vision is to prove that the basis and founding measure of all our practices and ideals should be not the "authorities," but the self.


The suspect value of the authority of writing is a dominant theme throughout the text, for fame finds its essence, as Jesse Gellrich notes, "in the primary medium of communication, language." (2) Chaucer's critique of authority and his relocation of moral responsibility are founded upon the relationship between past "great works" and the discursive voice of the community that creates all stories initially. Literary styles, genres, and narratives in the House of Fame are shown to be linked to historical processes, which themselves are largely determined by the generic patterns of everyday speech and response. The relationship Chaucer creates between the utterance and the literary artifact has an oddly Bakhtinian sensibility, insofar as Chaucer, like Bakhtin, locates the dissemination of all human action and expression in the "generic styles" that emanate from everyday discourse. (3) In Bakhtin's account, literary language is dependent upon the set of basic language structures in place in any given era. These "primary genres," as Bakhtin calls them, are made up of the dialogic patterns of the everyday--the family, the marketplace, the church, the court. As basic units structuring both grammar and thought, "primary genres" may be approximated to the discursive presence in society of the various ideological apparatuses at work in any given culture. Though they may change or adapt with the unfolding of historical events, they always directly reflect the sociohistorical context of their times. Literary language can thus be considered a "secondary genre" that draws upon the assumptions and patterns of the "extra-literary" primary genres, breathing into basic discourse a kind of idealism that grants great authority to what would otherwise be known as the "everyday" or the "common." In such way ideals are made and bred, as cultures continue to read their own canonical works and proudly acclaim them as upholding the highest deeds and acts of their own history. For both Bakhtin and Chaucer, the dependence of both history and authority on culturally-driven structures of speech precludes any possibility that the content of their canonical texts might possess transcendent value. Yet Chaucer recoups the possibility that the reader, at least, may determine values specifically beneficial to him or herself. After all, it is precisely because texts are by and about humanity that they have relevance. Literature may say nothing about "truth" in a fixed sense, but it may still have much to offer a reader who is careful to contextualize, scrutinize, and apply.

The relationship between the importance of words and the canonization of texts is established in Book 2 with the eagle's dismissive account of how words and sounds signify. The pseudosemiotic explanation for language provided by the eagle parodies the account provided by St. Augustine. In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine accounts for a system of human communication based on sign systems but is careful to maintain an ontological basis for all thought and all great ideas. Instead, speech should be considered as a system of articulated signs:

In order that what we are thinking may reach the mind of the listener through the fleshly ears, that which we have in mind is expressed in words and is called speech. But our thought is not transformed into sounds; it remains entire in itself and assumes the form of words by means of which it may reach the ears without suffering any deterioration in itself. (4)

Although both human perception and human knowledge are contaminated simply because both are mediated through signs, words, in Augustine's account, do not necessarily suffer the stress of being once more removed from their origins. Instead they signify an entire, non-deteriorated thought, forming into the appropriate words directly as they are conceived in the mind, suffering no corruption in the transition from idea to word. Further, insofar as all great thoughts emanate from God by means of the commemorative processes of a mind that remembers its own origins, "redeemed speech"--that is, speech that signifies according to God's intention--has a certain ontological value, and may directly convey truths about the world and about relationships between things.

Augustine's writings on language provide an account that supports the medieval veneration for the authority of the written word. Chaucer's farcical rendition of the ontological impact of words, however, at one and the same time deauthorizes Augustine and parodies the efforts of the scholastics, whose attempts to "fix" the meaning of the great texts can thus be seen as amounting to nothing less than interpretive legislation. Though the eagle initially appears to concur with the scholastic dream that "every natural thing there is has a natural place where it might best be conserved; toward which, through natural inclination, it moves" (730-36), he goes on to portray speech not as inspired communication commemoratively transmitting the pure thought of its origin, but rather as "broken air":
   "Soun ys noght but eyr ybroken;
   And every speche that ys spoken,
   Lowd or pryvee, foul or fair,
   In his substaunce ys but air."

The House of Fame's polarities reverse the scholastic dream: instead of signifying from God down to earth, signs originate on earth and float upward, diffusing ever more until they little resemble the realities to which they allegedly refer, until they reach the lofty position of fame. It is thus impossible that words can ever convey a transcendent value. As their material origins suggest, words can only ever convey messages about their human creators.

The process by which language begins to take on generic form is described as taking place inside the so-called "House of Rumor." There human activity in all its permutations is inexhaustibly refracted into ever new combinations of utterances. As Stephen Knight points out, this whirling house of sticks, lying in the valley below the House of Fame, represents much more than the simple mechanism by which narratives become rumors. The house of twigs is the house of mortal life, a house whose "images of motion, size, and strangely stable flimsiness ... catch the essence of the world outside the castle in Chaucer's time." (5) Inside a cacophony of noise, whisper, and speech swirls about; every fresh piece of news gets transmitted again and again, in ever-transmuting form. There tidings "of werres, of pes, of mariages, of reste, of labour, of viages, of abood, of deeth, of lyf, of love, of hate, acord, of stryf, of loos, of lore, and of wynnynges, of hele, of seknes ..." (1961-76)--in short, of every topic or genre of discourse used in human speech--get turned about and formulated by the work of common, every-day people:
   ... this hous in alle tymes
   Was ful of shipmen and pilgrimes,
   With scrippes bret-ful of lesinges,
   Entremedled with tydynges,
   And eek allone be hemselve.

As particular subjects or actions achieve status and importance simply by virtue of their being discussed by more and more agents, they develop into those very Bakhtinian "speech genres" that take on a life of their own. Thus it is that new and ever more complex genres of discourse and expectation take root in everyday life. The people inside the house of twigs--the shipmen, the pilgrims, the pardoners, and the rest--are themselves the makers of texts, whether those texts be composed of truth or fictions. They are authors in the sense that they, too, use discourse and transform it until it takes on narrative and meaning of its own; they are readers in that they listen and transmit themselves the stories that they hear from others.

Unfortunately, however, the recipients and transmitters of texts are not what one might refer to as "ethical readers." They are respondents, transmitting without censure or forethought the various portions of speech they encounter. Thus develop what the dreamer refers to as "lyes," which freely commingle with and contaminate legitimate truths. It is this mixed content, rather than the "unadulterated truths" of canonical writers writing in a privileged vacuum, that flies from the cracks in the walls toward the House of Fame, there to be associated and canonized with a particular writerly authority.

Thus Chaucer reveals a mechanism by which the very parts of larger narratives--the received "truths" of love, death, action, and all of life's particulars--are themselves crafted from the discursive free-flying of words made of air. He would seem to observe, with Bakhtin, that "speech can exist in reality only in the form of concrete utterances of individual speaking people, speech subjects." (6) These small narratives--those speech genres so powerful in their ability to shape and homogenize behavior--are as arbitrarily established by the laws of chance and human intervention as the canonical texts that make it into the House of Fame.

The fact that such commonplace utterances should be canonized and fixed within the House of Fame--the canonical writers and their creations are metaphorically portrayed as statues adorning the great hall of Fame--denotes the presence not of divine authority, but humanized authority, authority granted by humanity itself. It is merely because the words have traveled so far from their fallible source that they achieve immortality and grandeur. Indeed, it is interesting to note that oftentimes the burden of maintaining the fame of a person or set of events comes at some serious effort to the writer. Homer, Dares, Lollius, and the English Geoffrey are each "besy for to bere up Troye, / So hevy therof was the fame / That for to bere hyt was no game" (1472-74). Such is the cost of holding up materials, Chaucer would suggest, that do not bear remembrance on their own.

Ultimately authorized texts and actions are inseparable from the mundane world of everyday speech. As Chaucer's hall of Fame reveals, even canonical discourse; has its primary root, as does all discourse, in the generic realm of living utterances. As the canonized authors stand immortalized along the perimeters, the hall of Fame fills with living supplicants who would join their ranks. They clamor about Lady Fame, begging that their own achievements be immortalized. The predominating image of cacophony reminds us that it is within the realm of spoken language that these would-be auctores make their way. The style and thematic content of the supplicants' stories reassert a collection of generic ideals already built up by their forerunners--that heroic exploits win the love of women, that saintly action deserves immortal recognition. Yet the actions of each must be retold through a story before it can claim any authority on its own. Indeed, the legitimacy of the claims has little to do with the stories generated from them; presumably the written expressions immortalizing the achievements of each will exaggerate and idealize their worth. Notoriety and honor are elided through the touch of Fame, as, one after another, writers are arbitrarily assigned to the fates of fame or oblivion, whether they be deserving or talentless, self-aggrandizing or humble. The feats they carry with them for canonization, like their authors, may or may not be worthy of this valorization, despite their induction into the ranks of fame.

This is the crux of Chaucer's critique, and it is echoed by the description of the icy hill upon which the House of Fame stands. There, the heat of the sun has melted away the names engraved upon one side, while the names on the other side, protected by the shadow of fame's castle, remain as "fressh as men had writen hem here / the selve day ryght ..." (1156-57). The endurance of some texts and authors and the disappearance of others is largely due to time and chance, but fame's protection to some extent helps block the light of scrutiny. Fame grants authority--perhaps too much authority--upon the writers she canonizes. Had the writings of the famous ones undergone the same exposure to the light as those on the other side, they would surely not have endured. Such is the "two-faced nature of the linguistic sign": that utterance protected by the veil of idealizing forces, which ever remove it from the glare of skeptical inquiry, remains obscured, so that its metaphorical force upon ethics and actions remains forever unquestioned. The utterance subjected to "real life," however, has less endurance. (7)

Once fixed in the House of Fame, however, such fictions become firmly established for posterity. Individual agency and personal desires are not left entirely free from blame. Although some writers deserve their fame, others do not; chance and whim govern the canonization of the great authors. Thus proclaimers of actions such as Aeneas' beseech Lady Fame:
   ... "Mercy, lady dere!
   To tellen certeyn as hyt is,
   We han don neither that ne this,
   But ydel al oure lyf ybe....
   Al was us never broche ne ryng,
   Ne elles noght, from wymmen sent,
   Ne ones in her herte yment
   To make us oonly frendly chere,
   But myghten temen us upon bere;
   Yet lat us to the peple seme
   Suche as the world may of us deme
   That wommen loven us for wod."

The apparent discrepancy here between the "ideal" with which the clamorers would have themselves be associated and the shortcomings they obviously recognize in themselves makes a curious statement about the perpetuation and degradation of societal behaviors and ethics. Once codes of behavior are legitimized through writing, they begin to clone themselves endlessly in poorer and poorer models. Despite acknowledging their own poorer status as authorities, living writers clamor to have their own essential identities made untouchable through the Midas-touch of fame. Canonization places the actions beyond scrutiny, regardless of what really happened or what moral or ethical implications those actions might have had.


Such a phenomenon has repercussions for medieval ideals of masculine behavior that the original authors can little have foreseen. For there is a traceable connection between the model and the subsequent acts of readers: behaviors that are glorified by the canonized authors will continue to be validated by their readers, who look not just to those texts but to the imaginative mythology they inspired to provide examples of traits that will win them esteem in the eyes of their own world. Some critics have gone so far as to suggest that the poem is flawed, and that Book 1 detracts from the unity of the poem by overwhelming the action with a debate on the authority of source-material. (8) Even those who have sensed in the House of Fame a new ars poetica have concluded that the new subject matter broached in each successive book frequently amounts to nothing less than a starting-over, so that each provides "a whole new approach" to the issues that absorb poetry. (9) A. J. Minnis's recent reading, observing that "the irreducibly `polysemantic'" nature of the poem renders the possibility of closure or even thematic unity a contradiction in terms, perhaps comes the closest to offering a reading that understands and accepts the ambitious implications of the House of Fame. (10) Yet if the central purpose of the House of Fame is to establish the ethical force of reading, then the seemingly disparate discussions of semiotic convergence and the vicissitudes of fortune are most unmistakably connected. The Dido and Aeneas story in Book 1 is strategically placed in order to delineate the negative ideals and heroes frequently venerated by the auctores. The discourses following, on the commonplace origin of utterances and the hero-worship that turns those utterances into myth, illustrate a process of canonization that explains the valorization of unethical feats such as Aeneas'. An endless repeating of the famous texts, as new authors respond to and reshape the old story, establishes negative models for behavior and thought so that the auctores may in fact valorize and perpetuate ideals or behaviors that are not necessarily worth emulating. As Piero Boitani remarks, fame is "beyond morality" (11) : the problem is not merely that Lady Fame chooses randomly, but rather that her random process of selection has a profound effect on the readers who take up her "authoritative" texts as models for their own actions.

The poem can thus be read backwards as a process in which Chaucer's dream-persona, a reader par excellence, reverses the medieval value placed on tradition and auctoritas as he learns to question the values fixed by the canonical authors. It is no accident, as W. H. Clemen observes, that so much attention in the poem is placed upon individuating the experience of the dreamer as he moves through the various sights and phenomena of the dream. (12) The personalized level of the dreamer's response mirrors the experience of reading a text, as the reader is exposed to and influenced by new concepts. The dreamer exhibits confusion, wonder, skepticism, and finally exercises censorship as he begins to pull together the various strands of his multifaceted experience. Yet this range of skeptical doubt does not suggest a deeply personal impasse or crisis in Chaucer's own poetic enterprise, nor does it suggest a contempt for the world and its values. (13) Rather, what is promoted is the conviction that readers play a pivotal role in completing the literary agenda. As the model of Geffrey reveals, readers have the ultimate responsibility for sifting through material seemingly verified by tradition; it is they who must judge what is of value, what not. Careful and mediated reading on the part of an individual respondent becomes a way of decentering the claim to an authoritative stance.

As such, the poem privileges the act of intelligent and engaged reading over a tradition that incontrovertibly fixes both interpretation and its significance by an outside authority. Book 1 offers several examples modeling the act of active and engaged reading of literary texts. The sustained examination of the legend of Dido and Aeneas with which the poem begins depicts a legend whose textual transmission is so fraught with inconsistencies, as the narrator himself notes, that the truth of the story cannot be established. As an alternative, the dreamer/narrator Geffrey, alleging "non other auctour" (314), offers his own rendition combining dream, illustrated panel, and narrative. The text of the legend is three times removed from the authority of the original text: Geffrey narrates material transmitted to him in the dream; the dream itself invokes materials presumably read and reread in the waking Geffrey's life, but filters those materials not through direct discourse, but through illustrated panels, which in turn invite narrative response. Though the introduction of the story begins with the opening text of the Aeneid written on a brass tablet, the literal words seem to disappear as Geffrey begins to look at the images that recreate each of the central moments from the ill-fated romance. He becomes the author through whom the text is preserved, bringing together each of his memory strands of the story's various texts and trying to make sense of them.

The vehicle of the dream as a medium for questioning the authority of the canon is significant in that it privileges the immediate vision of the dreamer over any knowledge that might hold true in the waking world. The act of seeing, accentuated through the visual medium of the panels, becomes both an act of perception--the dreamer views the panels--and an act of reading--he interprets the movements on the panels by mnemonic reference to the blueprint of the story in his own mind, and reconciles the interior story with the exterior through the acts of contemplation and evaluation. (14) The process of viewing the panels thus defines and models the integrated process of reader-response: Geffrey narrates in specific detail what he actually sees before him and how he translates those images in his mind's eye; he justifies his reaction as an engaged and concerned witness to a troubling set of historical events.

The centrality of Book 1 to the text as a whole, however, lies in the material the dreamer peruses. As a reader, Geffrey must not only deal with the fact that the authorities on the tradition are in disagreement--a problem dealt with long before by Abelard in his famous Sic et Non. More importantly, he must also engage the problem that the authorities valorize acts which seem to him at best unethical and self-serving. Chaucer's rendition of the Dido and Aeneas story combines the two largely conflicting accounts offered by Virgil and Ovid. In the former, Aeneas' abandonment of Dido is justified because a more glorious destiny awaits him, whereas in the latter Dido is treated more sympathetically and Aeneas' behavior is vilified. The delineation of the Dido and Aeneas story in Book 1 is thus divided equally between presentation of events and puzzlement over how to interpret them. The emphasis is on salvaging the judgment of a reader who finds Aeneas' behavior difficult to legitimize, despite the claims of some of his chroniclers. The dreamer notes that Virgil, for example, justifies Dido's abandonment because "Mercurie ... Bad hym goo into Itayle" (429-39), and remarks (rather ironically, I think) that such a disclaimer might "excusen Eneas / Fullyche of al his grete trespas" (427-28). Yet his own empathetic reaction to the plight of the different characters seems closer to Ovid's. The House of Fame's Dido complains, "Alias, is every man thus trewe, / That every yer wolde have a newe / ... Or elles three, peraventure?" (301-2). The connection between fame and its ethical consequences upon succeeding generations of admirers is made explicit here, as Dido scoffs that every man pursues women for the pursuit of his own fame, for the similar "magnyfyinge of hys name" (306).

Such an emphasis does much to decenter the authority of literary texts. (15) However, more is at stake here than the veracity of sources. Despite the fact that contradictory accounts of Aeneas exist, which indeed any medieval reader might be able to learn by reading the Heroides, Aeneas' feats have seemingly grown to become rather more than literary diversion. His legend and fame have extended beyond the text, as the narrator's imaginative conjuration against the panels demonstrates. If the heroic ideal modeled by Aeneas in Book 1 and sustained by the statues of the auctores in Book 3 is problematic, it is because the tradition that has glorified it is driven by material concerns. As the panels in the opening of the dream would suggest, time has mythologized Aeneas so that his name conjures images of glory in the mind of the medieval recipient that only tangentially refer to the actual text. The visual presence of the panels underscores the ethical problem of idealizing the nonideal, whether it be concretized through paintings or through words on a page: "Alias! what harm doth apparence, / Whan hit is fals in existence!" (265-66). As "seer," Geffrey's act of interpretation bridges the distance between reading texts and reading life. The gilded visual portrayal of the legend on the panels emphasizes the disparity between appearance and reality, and makes more urgent the ethical connection that must take place in a reader's mind when reading a narrative.

As Books 2 and 3 eventually reveal, the generic ideals of various arenas of human activity are immortalized and enforced through language. The specific discourse communities in which we all participate modify the way we see ourselves in the living world by providing idealized models of behavior against which to measure our own. Chaucer's treatment of the legendary materials in Book 1 emphasizes that the behavior legitimized by Virgil, though (initially at least) endorsed by both men and women, is based on a discourse that glorifies one mode of behavior at the cost of marginalizing or oppressing others. The poet draws attention to the fact that his sources are in dispute as a means of further deteriorating the degree of untouchability that time has invested in Aeneas. In doing so he also reminds his readers to return to the text itself rather than relying on an abstract ideal. This move calls attention to the details of a text that might otherwise be forgotten--in this case, the lesser individuals sacrificed to Aeneas's heroic mission. The reader Geffrey imagines a Dido who falls for Aeneas's mode of behavior and his false self-presentation but berates herself for listening to his false speech: "O, have ye men such godlyhede / In speche, and never a del of trouthe?" (330-31) Even in the microcosm of Dido's world, utterances that make claims to the ideal work false expectations in the minds of their respondents. If a man's speech and behavior correspond enough to the woman's image of the ideal--itself insinuated into her expectations through a received ideological discourse--his words and behavior will place him, at least until events necessitate otherwise, beyond scrutiny. Received discourse, established by convention and authoritative texts, shapes succeeding behaviors. Yet if such is Chaucer's position (as it indeed seems to be, given his sympathetic alliances in Book 1), then his "excusing" of Aeneas can only be taken as an ironic dismissal, not only of the character but of the type of authority that (however unwittingly) encourages the belief that an unquestioning pursuit of self-glory may legitimately take precedence over the concerns of others.

Though it has been suggested that Chaucer, skeptic that he is, "grants the validity of conflicting truths" when he leaves his narrative of the Aeneid at this stage, (16) the underlying concern goes beyond the fact that an ambiguous tradition makes the establishing of authority problematic. More important is the poem's concern that our very notion of what constitutes authority--not only in a literary tradition, but in the realm of human acts--is problematic in itself. Chaucer's target in this book would thus seem to be not only writing but the intangible process of idealization. Both have their roots in the discursive genres that structure action and ideas and render them meaningful. Geffrey's response as a reader of the Aeneas legend, far from "granting validity" to these authors, dismantles the very disruptive claims or ideals that the auctores proclaim to be transcendent and only grants them validity (if at all) within a circumscribed historic moment. The issue is not that varying accounts of Aeneas may all be in some respect correct, but rather that the moral and imperative message such texts proclaim is no longer correct for Geffrey's world:
   But wel-away, the harm, the routhe,
   That hath betyd for such untrouthe,
   As men may ofte in bokes rede,
   And al day sen hyt yet in dede,
   That for to thynken hyt, a tene is.

Asserting that such messages no longer hold true requires that they be de-ontologized. The dreamer refuses to read figuratively: that is, he refuses to use old, authoritative, or mythologized texts as the model or frame by which to read contemporary texts or actions. Thus fame as a legitimate human pursuit becomes a particular issue in the poem, when it is shown to be the process validating certain texts and when it becomes a goal to be sought and valorized in itself by certain authorities or heroes seeking their own claim to immortality. By valorizing certain human pursuits, writing mythologizes acts which otherwise might be perceived as partaking in the sins of vanity and pride. As Steven Knight observes, the "harm" and "untrouthe" that emanate from such texts have repercussions not merely for the idea of fame as reputation, but as well as for the "substantive social force" of "honor" itself, (17) Both types of fame are legitimized and made part of the ideological apparatus through the authority of writing, which, particularly in the Middle Ages, praises honor, knighthood, and the establishment of a viable reputation as ideal models for human pursuit. Such writings cannot be taken without a grain of salt. Instead, the House of Famewould seem to suggest that the answer to justifying conflicting and/or problematic accounts lies in the reader, who becomes the real authority for the text received--a point reasserted later with the Wife of Bath. Skeptical reading identifies in textual traditions those questionable pursuits that should be isolated for judgment. If the dreamer Geffrey finally accedes to the responsibility of determining the "correct" text for the transmission of Aeneas's exploits, he merely participates in his own call that the individual reader take the responsibility for such determinations. He refuses to assume the role of authority for yet another reader.


Peter Travis writes, "One reason Chaucer's poetry is so patently open to reader-response criticism is that it is highly conscious of itself as linguistic artifice and of its readers' role as coconspirators in the art of making fiction. (18) Chaucer acknowledges that individual writers stamp the texts they produce with their own particular cast and character, but he also paints a world in which every writer is "shaped and developed in continuous and constant interaction" with the discourses and writings of the past. (19) This process of cultural assimilation thus unwittingly establishes particular behaviors or thought patterns--no matter how pathological they might be--as social norms. Every generic action idealized through discourse bears a concrete resemblance to some predecessor-whether that be the school of thought in which a writer was trained or even the counterschool against which a writer wishes to distinguish himself. Even the desire to distinguish one's own writings will not necessarily improve the ethical content, however, for, as Martin Irvine cogently puts it, "Fame disseminates what has already been neutralized of truth value." (20) In other words, the subjective element can never be erased from the matter put forward, because individuals have too much to gain even from notorious acclaim. Through fame the process of assimilation thus continuous. Villainous actions escape being read, interpreted, or judged; instead they are simply "received." Yet even received texts are, responded to, because all action--indeed, all understanding--is responsive. (21) And so the cycle perpetuates itself as each successive generation continues to both appropriate its own culture's values through their discursive modes of seeing and expressing and to reenact and perhaps even further aggrandize those values through continued publishing.

As the only possible ethical conclusion to his vision, the dreamer must therefore forego any claim his own writing might make for establishing authority over the lives of his readers. Like his forerunner Petrarch, the dreamer Geffrey avers a distrust of fame and its pursuits; unlike Petrarch, however, he does not distrust fame because it indicates his potential succumbing to the pride of the fleshly self. Rather, he desires to protect the truth of his art from the numbing artifice of fame:
   "I wot myself best how y stonde;
   For what I drye, or what I thynke,
   I wil myselven al hyt drynke,
   Certeyn, for the more part,
   As fer forth as I kan myn art."

Asserting that subjective judgment remains the best way of asserting what is true or false, Geffrey offers a curious desire to protect himself from the deification of culture, as if the renown that such consumption brings should take away from the core of the man himself. This brief and private moment of self-revelation, normally so absent in Chaucer's writings, perhaps indicates a recognition that in writing this text, and in personifying himself as Geffrey, the author already runs the risk of allowing himself not only to be textualized but misread.

At the same time, however, the dreamer's confidence that only "I wot myself best how y stonde" stands as a model for his readers. They, too, know best how they stand. The plea stands out almost as a call for reading responsibility--for receiving texts and utterances not passively, but actively and skeptically. If indeed our author makes any claim for authority or moral advice at all in this text, it is here, where his own utterance becomes a call to remain distant from the entrapment of discourse and ideology. The advice looks personal rather than public, but, given the dreamer's troubled engagement with the struggle for power he has witnessed in the establishment of fame and authority, this utterance is his only option.

Can Geffrey's own innovative discourse take hold in the already-established world of speech genres? The process by means of which characters portray themselves discursively through self-description, story-telling, and readerly judgments upon others as texts will be most fully explored in the Canterbury Tales. Here, however, it suffices for Chaucer to expose the tyranny of tradition and to dislocate it from the iron grasp of authority. Questioning readers are invited to choose and judge for themselves the narratives that so effectively impact their lives.


(1) Sheila Delany, Chaucer's House of Fame: The Poetics of Skeptical Fideism (U. Press of Florida, 1994).

(2) Jesse Gellrich, The Idea of the Book in the Middle Ages; Language Theory, Mythology, and Fiction (Cornell U. Press, 1985), 174-75.

(3) M. M. Bakhtin, "The Problem of Speech Genres," Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (U. of Texas Press, 1986), 65.

(4) St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, thins. D. W. Robertson (Indianapolis: The Liberal Arts Press, 1958), 14.

(5) Steven Knight, Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 22.

(6) Bakhtin, "Speech Genres," 71.

(7) Piero Boitani, "Chaucer's Labyrinth: Fourteenth-Century Literature and Language," Chaucer Review 17.3 (1983): 211. Boitani's argument differs from the point I am making here, however, insofar as he divides the two utterances between "high" poetry and the "low" poetry of the minstrels, the muscians, and popular culture.

(8) See, for example, Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition (U. of California Press, 1957), 109; Nevill Coghill, The Poet Chaucer (Oxford U. Press, 1967), 34; Larry Sklute, Virtue of Necessity: Inconclusiveness and Narrative Form in Chaucer's Poetry (Ohio State U. Press, 1984), 35.

(9) Laurence K. Shook, "The House of Fame," in Companion to Chaucer Studies, ed. Beryl Rowland (Oxford U. Press, 1968), 341-54; Wolfgang Clemen, Chaucer's Early Poetry, trans. C. A. M. Sym (London: Methuen, 1963), 73; see also Donald R. Howard, Chaucer (New York: Ballantine, 1987), 255; A. C. Spearing, Medieval Dream Poetry (Cambridge U. Press, 1976), 87.

(10) A.J. Minnis, with V.J. Scattergood and J.J. Smith, The Shorter Poems, Oxford Guides to Chaucer (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 219.

(11) Piero Boitani, Chaucer and the Imaginary World of Fame (Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, 1984), 16.

(12) Clemen, 112.

(13) C.f. Paul Ruggiers, "The Unity of Chaucer's House of Fame," SP 50 (1953): 16-29; Gardiner Stillwell, "Chaucer's `O Sentence' in the Hous of Fame," English Studies 37 (1956): 149-57; Ann C. Watts, "`Amor Gloriae' in Chaucer's House of Fame," Journal of Medieval and Renaisance Studies 3 (1973): 87-113.

(14) On the link between Chaucer's "seeing" and his "book of memory" see especially V. A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative (Stanford U. Press, 1984), 41-42; see also Marilyn Desmond, Reading Dido: Gender Textuality, and the Medieval Aeneid (U. of Minnesota Press, 1994), 140-41.

(15) On this topic see Katherine H. Terrell, "Reallocation of Hermeneutic Authority in Chaucer's House of Fame," Chaucer Review 31.3 (1997): 279-90. See also Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (U. of California Press, 1992), 87107, who sees in Dido an identification with the narrator himself, who learns from her lesson and refuses to be "taken in by ambiguity."

(16) Delany, 57.

(17) Knight, 18.

(18) Peter Travis, "Affective Criticism and Medieval English Literature," Medieval Texts and Contemporary Readers, ed. Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Schichtman (Cornell U. Press, 1987), 205. See also Jacqueline T. Miller, Poetic License: Authority and Authorship in Medieval and Renaissance Contexts (Oxford U. Press, 1986), 52.

(19) Bakhtin, "Speech Genres," 89.

(20) Martin Irvine, "Grammatical Theory and the House of Fame," Speculum 60.4 (1985): 850-76.

(21) Bakhtin, "Speech Genres," 69.
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Author:Amtower, Laurel
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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