Do and Die, and Faith in the Classroom

To acclimate myself to Brooklyn College, I’ve been sitting in on Nicola’s summer Canterbury Tales course and occasionally participating in class discussion. It’s been fun, not least of all because I feel like a spy (although Nicola introduced me on the first day, the students persist in handing me the attendance sheet. I’m sure they think I’m a pretentious brown-noser, or maybe the equivalent of a Parisian taking a French course for an easy A). Yesterday, Nicola did the Clerk’s Tale (here and here), one of several I know mainly by reputation (in other words, the course is also a chance for me to get a sense of this “Chaucer” you “medievalists” seem to know so well, since I’m a teaching a class on him in the Spring).

I immediately fixated on the ClT’s presentation of death and duty. In the prologue, the Clerk declares himself to be under the “yerde” of the Host, and then lists the other forces that condition, or to which he has submitted, his existence: “resoun,” “deeth, that wol nat suffre us dwellen heer,” and, implicitly, time, since he cuts short his representation of Petrarch’s prologue because it would be “a long thyng…to devyse.”

The other great “yerde” of the tale is of course Walter. Griselda didn’t ask to be thrust into marriage; and despite Walter’s formulaic rehearsal of the request for consent, her father, Junicula, has no more choice in the matter than his daughter. Walter must get what he wants. And the virtue of his subjects is not to wonder, and certainly not to reason why, but to tremble, “abayst and al quakynge,” and to submit patiently to whatever power desires, regardless or even because of its pointlessness. Eventually, as is proper, death and time take Griselda (“Grisilde is deed, and eek hire pacience”), but not before she has given up everything to become, in what is surely among Chaucer’s most chilling lines, “sad and constant as a wal.”

It struck me first that the tale’s engaged in something analogous to trauma envy (here inspired by the chapter on Tr. Envy in The Truth of Žižek). The Clerk more or less implicitly likens his submission before reason, death, time, and the game of tale-telling to Griselda’s submission and suffering. Simply in allowing himself to be snatched from his great pleasure of studying “aboute som sophyme” to tell the tale, the Clerk shows himself “constant in adversitee,” so modeling the first great moral lesson he extracts from his tale (“every wight, in his degree, / sholde be constant in adversitee / as was Grisilde). Thus the Clerk at least participates in the moral authority that Griselda gains by doing her duty.

The tale also naturalizes two great submissions, women to men and the poor to the rich. If submitting to arbitrary force as a woman and peasant is like the Clerk’s submission to death, reason, and time, the Clerk presents these great social injustices as simply the way things are. At the same time, the Clerk presents his own incapacity before death, time, &c., as akin to the minimal choice the Clerk has allowed Griselda: she might have protested, after all. If she had no choice, we could no more admire Griselda’s constancy than we admire the constancy of a wall. Go figure: given her class and gender, she doesn’t really have a choice, but any admiring response makes it seem as if she does. Thus the Clerk represents his own quakynge before death as a choice also, so clearing space for virtue in the midst of a great, meaningless necessity of mortal existence.

Pretty straightforward, no? I’m sure this reading has been done hundreds of times in the criticism, but, again, I’m not a Chaucerian (yet), so I don’t know. Now, I grabbed onto my thoughts on duty, and linked them to the godlike aspects of Walter: since Griselda surpasses Job in her patience, clearly Walter is structurally like God, or Satan, or both at once in their arbitrary, inaccessible grandeur. (Note that I don’t think this is an allegory, although the googles show me that it’s not that uncommon to see Griselda as the Bride of Christ and so forth). And then I leapt into Nicola’s conversation with his class, where I began to offer up some of what I set out above.

A funny thing happened. Once I brought divinity into the classroom, the students came out as Clerklike. While they don’t much care for Walter, they do admire Griselda, and they do think there’s virtue in patient endurance. And once they began to think of Walter as godlike, they began to want to like Walter a little more (Nicola may dispute this, but this is the sense I got). They didn’t feel that they understood him, but they began to think he had some kind of justification in testing his wife; indeed, they became convinced that he was testing his wife and not simply making her suffer in the way that all men do with patient wives (“wedded men ne knowe no mesure, / Whan that they fynde a pacient creature). In short, the students, at least the students who talked, think of God as a good thing.

This came as a surprise to me. I’m such an atheist–and, because of my reaction to my fundamentalist upbringing, a pretty intolerant atheist–that I would have thought that bringing God into the discussion would explode the whole complex of submission, virtue, death. So what I learned: some people think God is love (duh); when I teach the ClT, I’ll have to be careful to frame my material on duty and divine force to keep the students with me.