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Bakhtin and Medieval Voices.

Bakhtin and Medieval Voices. Ed. by THOMAS J. FARRELL. Gainesville, Tallahassee, and Tampa: University Press of Florida. 1996.xi+240 pp. [pound]45.

As Robert Sturges notes in his contribution to this collection, many medievalists have found that Bakhtin's theoretical work may be applied to medieval texts with a more startlingly literal relevance than to those texts, such as the novel, that constituted his own major object of inquiry. Concepts such as carnival and heteroglossia seem merely to create newly specific terms for aspects of medieval texts that scholars have long recognized. As work such as Alastair Minnis's has shown, the practices of medieval authorship, combining the activities of compilation, commentary, quotation, and revision, are inherently dialogic. Or, to put the formulation in its broadest terms, as does Aron Gurevich, quoted by Nancy Bradbury in another essay in this volume, 'the concepts of ambivalence and immanent dialogue are absolutely essential for understanding the whole of medieval culture' (p. 178). It is odd, then, to find Thomas J. Farrell, in introducing the collection, writing as though Bakhtin's work were still relatively pioneering territory for a few daring medievalists. The essays themselves are the measure of how far Bakhtin's ideas have become naturalized for critics of medieval literature. There is little here that is likely to be theoretically unfamiliar to medieval scholars, though perhaps not all will realize that Bakhtin's work is the conscious or unconscious source of such familiar critical approaches.

The ten essays are collected under three headings: 'Carnival Voices in Medieval Texts', 'Multiple Voices in Medieval Texts', and 'Dissenting Voices in Dialogue with Bakhtin'. Though the remit is European, the focus is emphatically English, and especially Chaucerian. Only two essays, Lisa Perfetti's on Helmbrecht and Jody McQuillan's on the sottie, are wholly concerned with non-English vernacular texts. (It is a pity that McQuillan's is the only essay on drama, since Antony Gash's well-known essay, 'Carnival Against Lent: The Ambivalence of Medieval Drama', published in 1986, showed how productive the concept of carnival could be for the analysis of theatrical performance.) Non-English texts, however, also feature in the essays by Andrew Taylor and Mark Sherman: Taylor's piece studies a Latin manuscript, the Smithfield Decretals, and Sherman takes Dante's Commedia as the central text within his concluding piece on 'Problems of Bakhtin's Epic: Capitalism and the Image of History'. Other contributors also address Latin or other vernacular cultures less directly by way of their approaches to English works.

Essays on non-Chaucerian English texts include Daniel Pinti's exposition of the centrality of the concepts of dialogism and heteroglossia to the activity of translation, via Gavin Douglas's Eneados; Robert Sturges's study of the role of manuscript commentary, using the Middle English pseudo-Augustinian soliloquies; Nancy Bradbury's analysis of 'Popular-Festive Forms and Beliefs in Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne'. In every case, both the material and the conceptual practices of medieval writing seem to respond readily to a Bakhtinian theorization. As Michael Camille's book-length study, Image on the Edge (London: Reaktion Books, 1992), demonstrated so clearly, Bakhtin offers a ready-made vocabulary for examining relations between the multiple voices that inhabit the manuscript page, with its characteristic combination of picture and text, both central and marginal.

The essays on Chaucer use the same broad brush, though those collected here are more literary-critical in approach than manuscript-oriented. Robert Jordan argues persuasively for understanding the presence of different voices within The Man of Law's Tale without recourse to the supposedly unifying framework of the teller's 'personality', while Thomas Farrell makes a rather less persuasive case for the monology of The Clerk's Tale. Steve Guthrie's piece is, I think, the best thing in the book, and might stand as paradigmatic of the best aspects of the collection taken as a whole. In a brilliantly original extension of Bakhtinian principles into the analysis of prosody, Guthrie explores the differences between Chaucer's and Gower's verse. Comparing The Book of the Duchess with its French sources, Guthrie demonstrates that the dynamic interchange between French and English cultures is a central experience of the poem for both the dreamer and the poet. Chaucer's response to Machaut is not a matter of mere borrowing or imitation, but a complex engagement with French on the part of English. Gower, on the other hand, experiences the domination of French as something of a literary and cultural impasse. 'Where Chaucer aimed at the interanimation of his languages', Guthrie argues, 'Gower labored to keep his separate, and the price he paid was the awkwardness and sober discipline of bilingualism in a situation in which fluency could be achieved only through the mirth and license of polyglossia' (p. 108).

Bakhtin can be used to allow dull criticism to masquerade as exciting. A sprinkling of his terminology can suggest that merely remarking on the presence of different languages or different voices in a text represents a theoretical discovery. It is where Bakhtin is used as Guthrie uses him, not merely to note the existence of plurality, but to explore the nature of that plurality and the cultural work it is performing, that his influence on critics, both medieval and otherwise, is at its most productive.
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Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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