Thursday, March 3, 2011

Object-Horror, "The Franklin's Tale" and Monmouth

I’ve been considering for awhile now crafting a new writing sample to use for my graduate school applications, one that better reflects my present interests in the field. I’ve had a life-long infatuation with stone, with rocks and pebbles, gemstones and crystals, and with my growing passion for OOO, I realized I could fuse those interests together and search for the agency of stones in medieval literature (which lends itself nicely to the sort of post-humanism of OOO and the dark ecology of Timothy Morton, considering the middle ages existed before Kant). I have since been dismayed to discover that one of my favorite contributors to the blog In The Middle, Dr. J. J. Cohen, is also interested in the role of stones in medieval literature and has already ready been writing about the topic. He has even received the funding to finish a book on the matter this summer. Yet, I confronted my dismay and realized a couple of things: 1) I should be proud that an idea my lowly pre-grad-school self came up with on my own is actually being taken seriously by a scholar I admire, 2) I am distinct from Dr. Cohen and thus there is no reason to believe my observations and arguments will be too similar to his own, 3) I can shamelessly scour his bibliographies for resources I may otherwise miss (and I will of course note my indebtedness to any contributions his work has made to my research), and 4) As a pre-grad-student, nothing I write will hold a candle to his brilliant prose and I should therefore not worry this much about the fact that a much sharper and better trained mind than mine is working with similar materials. My only remaining fear is that I plan on applying to GWU because I would like to study with Dr. Cohen, and I don’t want my application essay to be read as a pale imitation of his work.

That being said, here is a bit of writing I did to work out some ideas I have about The Franklin’s Tale and The History of the Kings of Britain, and to give a shot at trying to figure out this notion I have about object-horror, or what I argue can be found the moment a character/person first recognizes that objects must be taken on their own terms, that they have a thing-power outside of human control. It is poorly executed, I now, but the birthing process is always messy.

Some Notes on Object Horror and Vibrant Matter in "The Franklin’s Tale" and Historia Regum Brittanniae

While Chaucer’s "Franklin’s Tale" is concerned primarily with the relationship between “trouthe,” “gentilesse,” and “freedom,” it is worth noting the presence and force that rocks play in the development of the narrative. When the loyal and doting wife Dorigen is left years and miles apart from her noble husband and knight Averagus, she is overcome with abject grief expressed similarly to the tropes of unrequited courtly love. Staring out unto the sea in her self-imposed isolation, she is suddenly overcome with terror upon noticing “grisly rokkes blake” near the shore. She questions why God would create something that callously destroys human life: “But Lord, thise grisly feendly rokkes blake, / That seemen rather a foul confusioun / Of werk, than any fair creacioun / Of swich a parfit wis God and a stable, / Why han ye wrought this werk unresonable?” She adds, “An hundred thousand bodies of mankind / Han rokkes slain,” and more, that “Thise rokkes slain myn herte for the fere.”

Although supernatural elements appear in "The Franklin’s Tale," it is a fear of the natural that grips Dorigen so fiercely. While on the one hand she is certainly projecting her fears of being abandoned by her lover, that while away he may suffer some harm or even death and thus never return to her, she also fully believes that the rocks mean or intend to do harm. She distances the rocks from the divine and thus familiar framework, and sees them as objects removed from any human control or understanding. They are things, distinct and self-willed, they have a “thing-power” that terrifies her precisely because the rocks are that-which-cannot-be-controlled. Her inability to fully conceptualize the stones, their distance from an anthropocentric reality, is the real root of her terror. In this medieval and pre-humanistic story, things unquestionably have agency, they are what Bruno Latour would call actants, and her primal reaction at that first moment of realizing the autonomy of things, that objects perform and exist outside the sphere of human perception or control, is horror.

The squire Aurelius, who dotes upon and is deeply in love with Dorigen, also suffers from an object horror. After professing his love to Dorigen, he is offered what is thought to be an impossible promise: if he can rid the coast of the black rocks, Dorigen will love him better than any man. The very fact that she finds this task so impossible gives credence to her belief in thing-power. The rocks, possessed of their own will and vibrancy, follow their own course, which is their remaining in position to pose a threat to sailors. Believing as well as Dorigen the impossibility of accomplishing this task, Aurelius falls into deep despair. The real horror of his situation, however, is not that love between he and Dorigen is impossible. She has made a promise, a vow, she has given him her “trouthe” that if the task can be completed, she will give herself to him in love. The possibility of love between them is extant, therefore it is not unrequited love that is driving his madness, but the impossibility of the task, the inability to control the rocks. The absence of control is the unifying element of horror that enables the blackness of the story (contrasted against its generally light and airy tone), much as the blackness of the rocks, to manifest as woe, the woe of the human-animal’s insignificant place in a web of things he/she/it has no power over.

An attempt is made, however, to gain control over the rocks, if only a superficial and illusory control. A magician is set to the task of ridding the sea coast of its black rocks, but for all the supernaturalism employed, the magician still has no real contest against thing-power, only the ability to seem in control. “For with an appearance a clerk may make / To mannes sighte that alle the rokkes blake / Of Britaine were yvoided everichoon,” it is in appearance only, a misperception, that the rocks can be controlled; it is only by the power of the magician over other men that he can accomplish this feat. Anthropocentrism underlies the magic of the tale, and illusion is the only tool sorcery can conjure.

A similar scenario occurs in Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittanniae, when Vortigern, fearing a coup against his person by the very Saxons who pretend to be protecting him, wishes to build a tower upon Mount Erith. The rocks, however, repeatedly swallow up these attempts to build this phallic structure and Vortigern turns to magicians to explicate and alleviate this problem. In their uncertainty and incomprehension of the thing-power of this stone foundation, they propose a visceral and horrific solution: “They told him that he should look for a lad without a father, and that, when he had found one, he should kill him, so that the mortar and stones could be sprinkled with the lad’s blood” . Like animists seeking some anthropomorphic spirit in N/nature, they are misinterpreting their relationship to the inorganic object and trying to offer it a blood sacrifice as if it were a sapient thing. Hubristically trying to control that which they cannot, the magicians proposed solution is doomed to failure.

The fatherless boy in question here is Merlin, spawned of an incubus’ seed and an earthly mother, more praeternatural than supernatural, and it is not his death that will appease the rocks but his knowledge of thing-power. Merlin is the architect, the reader and mover of stones; he knows the language of rocks, understands the agency of the inanimate stones, and is able to work within an assemblage via the language of architecture. He comprehends thing-power and thus is able to tune into the vibrancy of the mineral world and, instead of shouting at it in a language of human blood it cannot or will not understand, listens to it and learns what is causing the stones’ violence. Thus he orders the earth to be dug which reveals a pool, at the bottom of which are two hollow stones housing dragons. In sharing his knowledge of the assemblage of stone and water and dragon, Merlin spares his own life and astounds and appeases Vortigern.

Well, my footnotes didn't copy over from Word, but here are the works cited:

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Franklin's Tale." In The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Larry D. Benson. Boston: 1987.
Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin, 1966.


Bacchanal in the Library said...

From Timothy Morton:

Great Idea
It's been a while since I've thought about The Franklin's tale but yes, that's a great idea. Free association makes me think of the term "lapidary" to describe prose (when did that come in?) and lapis lazuli, and also the henges that dot the coastline of Cornwall still. If I can be of any assistance let me know.

Bacchanal in the Library said...

From Karl Steel:

Great approach to the rocks, which have a long and privileged place as signs of objects resistant to anthropocentric pretensions. You might want to compare the tale's rocks to its garden, and also to observe that Dorigen's complaint against the rocks begins nonanthropocentrically, though still focused on life (V.874), before finally succumbing to anthropocentrism (V.876). To my mind, her horror never quite gets to a horror of the INDIFFERENCE of rocks to humans, or to the rocks being interested in humans as agents only among others; she still imagines the rocks have a particular animus (word carefully chosen) against people.

A few nitpicks: Dorigen's isolation is not QUITE self-imposed. She does retreat for a while from the society of her peers, but her isolation may be blamed, more directly, on her being unable to travel to gain honor. Her honor is to remain where she is, to resist the variability and motion misogyny--another hater of change--imputed to women. Simply put, her remaining in Brittany while her husband fights in Britain gives the lie to the claims of equality (more correctly: mutual subservience) in her marriage. More interestingly, though, her remaining stable makes her a rock (see the trope at V.829-31 especially, 'By proces, as ye known everichoon, / Men may so longe graven in a stoon / Til som figure therinne emprented be').

I might say that the magician recognizes and works with nonhuman and apparently nonsentient agency to achieve his effects. He just stands aside and lets the tide do its job. This, after all, is natural magic: the recognition that agency resides in something other than humans.

Additional reading: on the mobility of stones, and a possible secret discourse for this tale, see Joel Kaye's essay in Engaging with Nature. You'll also want to see Gillian Rudd's reading of the rocks in Gillian Rudd's Greenery: Ecocritical Readings of Late Medieval English Literature.