Literary Criticism with Book History: A Response to Arthur Bahr’s “Celebrate Fragments”

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The Man of Law. Ellesmere Manuscript. San Marino, Huntington Library, MS EL 26.C.9, fol. 50v. 

I love it that Arthur presents his post as an “enthusiastic taking-up of Bobby [Meyer-Lee]’s exhortation that we engage in a thorough and collective rethink of how we use the term fragments in reference to the Tales, as both codicological designation and literary-critical concept.” I strongly agree that there needs to be such a rethink. The Riverside edition, as Meyer-Lee observes, enshrines an editorial decision about the Tales that has remained unchanged since 1868. So habitual is this way of thinking that even Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor’s excellent 2008 Broadview Press edition of the Tales (now in its 2nd edition, 2012), which uses Ellesmere as its base text and follows its ordering of the Tales – exactly what Meyer-Lee advocates (SAC 35, 82) – groups the tales according to their traditional arrangement in ten blocks called “Fragments.” But they are not fragments in Ellesmere: they form part of a single, large textual object.

However, leaving aside the codicological fitness of the term, I want to take up Arthur’s invitation to rethink “fragments” as a literary-critical concept. This seems pressing in several ways. Chaucerians, for example should be protesting that Camelia Elias’s monograph The Fragment: Towards a History and Poetics of a Performative Genre (2004) does not once mention Chaucer. Fragment, though, is not an innocent word. Fragmentation is a critical term that is particularly associated with modernism: think of the fragmentary structure and sentences of Joyce’s Ulysses, or T.S. Eliot’s reference in The Wasteland to a “heap of broken images ... These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Eliot’s words mourn the iconoclastic destruction of a civilization (“broken images”), reclaiming its shattered pieces as hacked-off quotations and blocks of verse that can be ironically used to prop up a self that is threatened with imminent collapse. Eliot’s implied oppositions – heap/form, broken/whole, ruins/structure – suggest a yearning for a lost unity and coherence, to say nothing of a yearning for a lost past.

This is what Jean-François Lyotard is getting at when, in The Postmodern Condition, he declares that “modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one,” because it “allows the unpresentable to be alleged only as an absent content,” whereas the postmodern “alleges the unpresentable in presentation itself,” and refuses “the consolation of good forms.” Thus, Lyotard continues, “It seems to me that the essay (Montaigne) is postmodern, and the fragment (the Atheneum) modern” (81). An essay – an essai – is a testing out of ideas that is necessarily incomplete but which does not figure that incompleteness as a gesture towards “absent content” but rather as the condition of signification itself: a radical unsayability. The essay doesn’t ever regret that incompleteness and it doesn’t yearn for – or yearn to be – a decorous whole.

I know that we’re all now so past (or post) the postmodern, and I don’t in any way mean to suggest that we think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a postmodern enterprise, but in many ways the figure of the essay seems closer to the spirit of the Talesthan that of the (modernist) fragment: as Chaucer’s narrator impishly advises, “turne over the leef and chese another tale.” Arthur wants us to think of this as drawing attention to the physicality of the Tales (and it does), but it also embodies an attitude towards the project: you don’t like this one? then choose another. It enlists the reader as active participant in meaning-making: as Arthur says, “the entire project’s structure is subject to the reader’s imaginative intervention.” In fact, this is not at all like the project of the essay. However, it’s also very different from a “heap of broken images.” Much as I like the idea of Arthur’s queer, affirmative reclaiming of a “misguided or offensive” term and much as I like his claim that fragment “admirably conveys [a] sense of incompleteness not as loss but as interpretive invitation,” I find it hard to shake off the modernist implications of fragment and its associations both with loss and with a very traditional historicity. I see how one might be able to claim for fragment some of the senses that Heather Love claims for a queer history of loss in her Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007), yet Arthur is not arguing that we see the Tales in terms of loss. But in any case “essay” embodies an aesthetic; it does not answer to the Tales’ codicological situation.

The nature of the Tales as we find them in their various manuscript matrices is not essay-like. Incompleteness of the project is not the same thing as aesthetic unpresentability. And – as far as we know – Chaucer is not responsible for the way the Tales appear in most of their manuscripts (Ellesmere may be an exception). Nor are the Tales postmodern. Despite Derek Pearsall’s playful call for a “loose-leaf binder edition of the Tales containing the Riverside fragments as a collection of moveable pamphlets” (Meyer-Lee, SAC 35, 63), the presentation of the Tales is not like that of B.S. Johnson’s novel The Unfortunates (1969), which contains 27 sections, presented unbound in a box, with a first and last chapter specified, but with the remaining 25 sections, which range from a single paragraph to 12 pages, designed to be read in any order. Despite the advice to turn over the leaf, and despite my concurring with Meyer-Lee’s judgment that the Tales exhibit a “dynamic, unpredictable, open-ended structure” (SAC 35, 61), they are not meant to be read in any order. Variations in their order, as he points out, are minimal. And Johnson’s work, which is about death and memory, draws its impact from the fact that printed books are bound, and that the concepts of “the author” and the “work” are in part an effect of this binding and can thus be productively flouted. None of this corresponds to the moment of production of the Tales. And while the Tales demand “the reader’s imaginative intervention,” they are not akin to the phenomenon of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. The reader may be advised to turn the leaf, but the Tales do not offer, in any of their manuscript versions, an aleatory, random experience. They confront us with variance, but how to do justice to that variance? One of Meyer-Lee’s solutions – to go for a best-text ordering, namely, the Ellesmere order – does not adequately represent the relative incongruence between individual exemplars.

Arthur is right: even if we abandon the fragments, “we do, in any event, need some word or other for the various tale-groupings of the Tales project.” Patchwork? Collage? One thing I have discovered in the course of writing this post is that codicological categories do not adequately represent aesthetic ones. The problem of naming the nature of the Tales turns out to be also the problem of the vexed relationship between literary criticism and book history. Finding a term that will cover the codicological situation and that will also embody the aesthetic endeavor is a challenge.

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