Chaucerian Chromophobia? Beige Hengwrts and Bawdy Ellesmeres

Screenshot-Hengwrt Chaucer Digital Facsimile - Mozilla FirefoxI thank Michael Moon’s “Do You Smoke? Or, Is There Life? After Sex?” in After Sex? On Writing since Queer Theory (SAQ Summer 2007) for its reference to David Batchelor’s Chromophobia, a work that argues that:

The love of bright hues is an affliction as well as an alleged moral failing that has been routinely ascribed throughout the modern period to “orientals,” sensuous women, children, and “primitives” of “all stripes”…(Moon, 540)

I haven’t (yet?) read Chromophobia, but I like what I know about it (e.g., his observations on the privilege of drawing over coloring in), and in my gleanings from here and there, I’ve been happy to turn up gemlike prejudices from our foundational thinkers. Aristotle called color a “pharmakon” (31), Isaiah 1:18 aligns color with sin and whiteness with purity, and Goethe observed

that savage nations, uneducated people, and children have a great predilection for vivid colours; that animals are excited to rage by certain colours; that people of refinement avoid vivid colours in their dress and the objects that are about them, and seem inclined to banish them altogether from their presence (qtd 112).

I now have that feeling that I contract from some of my favorites works, suspicion coalesced into a master thesis. Call it paranoid desublimation. With Batchelor lodged in my brain, I compare the dangerous passion of the Big Orange Splot to the rational, calm, beige futurity of Swedish design (see the interiors in Scenes from a Marriage, or, if you’re an Ikeatiste, just look around).

I also consider the preference for the Hengwrt manuscript over the Ellesmere. At this point, and perhaps at all future points, I’ve only a hunch, a hunch, moreover, that’s not been validated by sprints through (only) three articles (the Linne Mooney Adam Pinkhurst piece in the Jan 2007 Speculum, Michael C. Seymour’s “Hypothesis, Hyperbole, and the Hengwrt Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales,” English Studies 68 (1987): 214-19, and Ralph Hanna’s “The Hengwrt Manuscript and the Canon of the Canterbury Tales), a hunch that has been validated, if we can call it that, only by a highly suspicious reading of Peter G. Beidler’s characterization of the differences between Hengwrt and Ellesmere (“…the Hengwrt manuscript, the oldest and most authentic” vs. “the lovely Ellesmere manuscript” (29)), by the predilection for the adjective “lavish” when describing Ellesmere, and by ill-remembered, misconstrued, or invented conversations and gestures from conferences, seminars, and, probably, clambakes.

Nevertheless: is it possible that the preference for Hengwrt over Ellesmere, even when expressed with hierophantic jargon of the codicologist, is fundamentally a preference for cool reason over vivid pleasures, pure judgment of the Aesopian body of one manuscript over the all too obvious lavish enticements of another? Are leading questions a valid substitute for research into critical discourse? By all means, no, but if I can’t offer my suspicions on a blog, how can I get them out of my head?

Thanks for the image, from here.


Jeffrey, thanks for the Fradenburg: I’m glad you had that thought at hand, and I’m glad to see that she wrote that (given that at times I think her such a psychoanalytic critic that I would expect her always to turn suspiciously on her pleasure). I remembered that I had quoted some relevant stuff here from my own work (from the written portion of my comprehensive exam!) (also see the conversation about creative writing here): so, right, I wrote:

“If we read Sir Gawain and ignore the Prick of Conscience except, perhaps, as it helps illuminate our favorite poems, we are not scholars: we are dilettantes. It is up to you to find ways to make these texts interesting, but you won’t succeed in this by attending to startling rhymes, unusual vocabulary, or any of these other purely aesthetic criteria. And if you were looking for these things in these texts, I doubt you would be successful. You may think I am arguing that scholarship requires you to suffer, but I would say that if you are bored by these works, the fault is probably yours because you don’t yet know how to read them. Scholarship—-and this is an ethical imperative—-requires that you try to apprehend cultures on their own particular historically, culturally, and materially specific terms and that as you read, as you think, you bring your own assumptions and categories under examination continuously.”

I think what saves the c. 2002 me here is the turn back to pleasure, how–if I can gloss my own work–I try to link ethics and pleasure, that in trying to recover why these terribly long, terribly alien works–the Cursor Mundi, Prick of Conscience, the Secretum Secretorum, the Wycliffite Bible(s)–should have been so popular, we might recognize ourselves as having arrived at a goal when we begin to enjoy them, when we affectively, unconsciously, account for their popularity. When we might feel the pleasure–sublimated or not–that drove so many hundreds of households to want their own Prick of Conscience.

Which is to say: it’s usual to discover the pleasure in sacrifice, but, less suspiciously, I wouldn’t doubt if Blake (and thanks Stephanie for the reminder) somehow liked chucking the Canon Yeoman’s tale.

[and, BTW, am I the only one who’s heard the story of Manly and Rickert as a story of sublimated, frustrated, peculiar pleasure, sex turned (in)to the war effort and scholarship, uncannily moving on despite death?] –

Found another one, also in the Beidler WoB edition: “Many scholars now see even the lovely Ellesmere manuscript, copied by the Hengwrt scribe and arranged by a highly intelligent editor, as a distraction rather than an aid in understanding Chaucer” (91).

I just need about 20-30 more of these, and Chaucer Review here I come! –
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