Saturday, December 29, 2012


I'm reading VA Kolve's Telling Images, the second book he's written about Chaucer's imagery.

Kolve writes with such grace, it's just mindblowing.  You can hear his voice in his prose, and it's just beautiful, seductive, almost.  And gracious.

I love all the images, even though I'm not quite convinced so far by "The Merchant's Tale" reading (I'm halfway through the second chapter on the tale).  The thing is, he writes so well that I want to be convinced. 

The preface is marvelous in itself.  There's a moment when he's talking about his work, when Kolve says that
In the opening pages of the final chapter, "God-Denying Fools"--an argument conceived, in imitation of Chaucer, as a modernist's "Retraction"--I privilege my personal situation for the first time, confessing to a dilemma I have never wholly resolved: how to teach and write "from within" Christian systems of thought wihtout appearing to acquiesce in beliefs I do not share.  (xvii)
It's the best statement of a real difficulty I have with teaching Chaucer, Shakespeare, early modern literature, in fact all literature that takes Christianity seriously as religious truth, and expresses just that difficulty.  And it fits perfectly with the personal tone of the preface; it's Kolve's dilemma, and very personally his, but it also speaks to me.

In the introduction to the notes for chapter 3, Kolve quotes Donald Howard's essay "The Idea of a Chaucer course," "where he reflects on what he thinks our teaching is for
While there can never be agreement on methods [of teaching], there can be agreement on goals, and on this point I will risk being dogmatic.
The goal and idea of teaching The Canterbury Tales is to put the student in touch with the mind of Geoffrey Chaucer.  Chaucer had a certain frame of mind, a way of looking at the world, which in our time we could use to our own great benefit if we could but grasp it. . . . [For there] are moments when we grasp with special clarity Chaucer's unique sanity--his impatience with cant and hypocrisy and with the posturings of seriousness, his sad tolerance for human orneriness, his humorous view of the world and of himself, his tragic and comic sense of self.  This sanity is what we have in our power to offer students.  (Donald R. Howard, "The Idea of a chaucer Course" in Approaches to Teaching Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, ed. Joseph Gibaldi [New York: Modern Language Association, 1980], pp. 61-62, qtd in Kolve, 278.)
I'm thinking of using that as the introductory bit on my Chaucer syllabus.  And yet, because of the rape record (and rapes in the tales), I have a more troubled sense of Chaucer than Howard seems to.  Still, there is very much something to teaching Chaucer and reading Chaucer that's worth doing, I think.

(I thnk that my sense of how to teach patriarchal literature is much like my sense of how to deal with religion in literature.  It's the same sort of difficulty for me.)

Now, off to try out my skis for a bit and then to read some more Kolve.

Work Cited
Kolve, V.A. Telling Images: Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative II.  Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2009.


  1. YES! I really like the way Kolve put the teaching-Christian-literature dilemma. I struggled with that a lot this semester in humanities, while teaching Beowulf and The Inferno in particular. I have had less trouble with God in Shakespeare for some reason. I guess it's because I think of Shakespeare as more secular than other people do -- like, he just uses the oaths and such because it's part of the culture, not because he believes in them. But that's just me being secular, and I have nothing to back me up on it.

  2. Do you know Jill Mann's essay on teaching Chaucer as an atheist? It's in SAC 17 (1995).

  3. Thanks, Dame Eleanor! I don't know it, but I put in a request!

  4. Interesting post. I'm a little surprised to hear that it's such a struggle to teach religiously inflected literature from outside that belief system — we pseudologists need to do that on a constant basis. (Although I admit that epics and major works of fiction are a fundamentally different type of literature from pseudological texts.) Is the problem mostly one of getting the students to understand a different worldview driving the plot, or of being sympathetic to the author and his characters without feeling like you're betraying your own beliefs?

  5. I think for me the difficulty has to do with the fact that most of my students identify as Christians. So there's a fair bit of negotiation to get them to understand an older Christian viewpoint without advocating. Something like that.

  6. Dr. K - Bardiac says it well. I too have mostly Christian (actually mostly Catholic) students. It's hard for me to teach these things without sounding like I'm both advocating the position and am a true believer, and I'm not.

  7. There are different flavors of Christians, as well. I get most kinds at LRU. The Prods are willing to accept (medieval) Catholicism as Different; the Cat-lickers think they know about their own religion when they have No Clue about pre-Vatican II versions; everyone needs constant reminding that the Middle Ages were Before the Reformation, with all that that implies; the occasional Jew or Muslim is way, way, way better at grasping the ramifications of medieval Catholicism. My goal is to get students to think about what it was like to read and write the literature from within the belief system, since there is a huge tendency for everyone to create the medieval Church as a very foreign and monolithic Other, while refraining from revealing my own beliefs. It's a balancing act. As usual, it makes me wish I were a historian and could just teach a course on the medieval Church. Students who think they know something about medieval religion are the worst: their ideas usually come straight from the Da Vinci Code or similar. And, finally, English majors usually never expected to have to think in the ways that pseudology majors expect to. At least at LRU, I suspect that English is a default major for a lot of people with no particular talents who figure that they can at least read and lit crit is a lot of handwavy bullshit anyway.

  8. The other thing about the medieval western church is that it's the Roman church, not the Catholic Church -- as a historian, I try to teach my students that what we think of as Catholicism is created by the Council of Trent, as a reaction to the Reformation. So I try *not* to use the term "Catholic" for the medieval church.

    It's also amazingly difficult to get them to understand that doctrine and practice are different, and that there is wide regional variation in practice...

  9. I wish I had you two in the classroom to explain so much that I don't know about religion!