Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Aesthetic Principles of the Middle English Romance

I would like to approach my topic through what might seem a rather peculiar route — a few remarks on the aesthetic problems posed by the popularity of American television. Though the juxtaposition may seem provocative, it should not sound willfully arbitrary as others have associated the romances with detective thrillers and the like and have labeled them not only "popular," but "hackwork," "subliterary," and even simply "inferior." While the statement of literary value judgments is rarely logically compelling, it is often very revealing, and it is the basis for such denigrating adjectives and for the unstated but no less clearly expressed contrary views that led a mass audience to enjoy romances six hundred years ago and comedies and cop shows today that I take as my subject.

Many among us who love art and make some claim for familiarity with its beauties and its techniques are nonetheless insecure or indifferent before the question of popular genres. The romantic myth that during the golden age taste was miraculously universal (in Greece, say, or Artaud's Bali, or in any of a number of versions of the American Indian currently retailed in these states), but that the situation has today irreclaimably altered dismisses without accounting for the phenomenon of American television. The very tribal elders who only yesterday tossed proverbs and folk-tales about the evening cook-fire while anthropologists gathered in the darkening gloom may themselves today absorb reruns from the narrative factories that program the minds of Americans for nearly a third of their waking lives, and yet the respectful anthropologists have, for the most part, moved on. Through what means does television speak to the hearts of all with grace and persuasion sufficient to displace any rival? Only the film scholars are so "bold as to identify the most popular with the most artful in contemporary entertainments, while students of the popular arts as such often prefer sociological inference to critical discourse. What, precisely, are the qualities of truly popular art that make it at once appealing to its audience and unappetizing to the learned? I believe that the same qualities underlie both reactions and that they are equally evident in the season's new network shows and in the Middle English romances. As my interest here is generalizing and largely theoretical I shall speak of the romances as a unitary body of work, though much of what I have to say will be less true of the exceptional works which have been more admired and accepted. My attempt is not so much to justify the romances or to assert their special excellence as to illuminate the genre as a whole, and with it the idea of the "popular."

A survey of the last hundred years of scholarship treating the romances indicates that much of the early interest was in grouping them by theme and in tracing sources and influences. This approach was accompanied by a somewhat condescending attitude toward the poems. They were clearly derivative, such that even those with no known French originals were provided with hypothetical ones; they were highly repetitive on the level of incident as well as of verbal formula; they seemed "flat" with very little character development or description but with a good deal of action; and they normally had happy endings which celebrated the known and erased the contradictions and conflicts which the texts had briefly raised. A tone of apology for these characteristics is apparent in some work done yet today. Rather than disputing the reality of these "negative" traits or praising those few texts which do not exhibit them to so great an extent as others, I mean to focus on them and to suggest an explanation for them other than the incompetence of the authors.

The quality of repetitiveness may be quantitatively determined. It is surely first of all the hackneyed (that is, familiar) sound of the tale of Sir Thopas that causes Herry Bailly to call it "dogerel." Convention may be a ground against which change is measured, but what function can repetition have. The question has been illuminated by the investigation of the nature of oral literature over the last forty years, but much of the discussion of oral formulae has centered on their technical mnemonic advantages or their diagnostic value in testing the text for its degree of orality. Little detailed attention has been paid to the thematic implications of such repetition, though some possibilities are apparent. Its first function is clearly to mark off the text as a literary one and, further, as a representative of an established genre (like "once upon a time"). Secondly, the content of the repeated phrases must to some extent constitute an inventory of the values of the culture which produced it.

Just as the stereotyped presentation of sacrifice in Homer intensifies rather than reducing its emphasis as a highly significant ritual of Greek life, so Middle English passages on "Christian" war or ostentatious display of wealth and the modern television cliches of sexual stereotypes and dialogue consisting of verbally aggressive wisecracks define and buttress attitudes which are highly culturally specific. The insistent and coherent construction of a world-view through tireless repetition of motif may seem admirable in Indonesian myth but disagreeable in the products of our own society.

Repetition on the level of narrative episode, so alien to a Flaubertian or New Critical fetishization of the individual word, is indeed characteristic of much of the literature of myth which is culturally normative and which possesses a vitality and reality exclusive of any individual retelling. The binary oppositions resolved in myth according to Levi-Strauss structure the segments of the romance narrative in which episodes may be added or subtracted or may float from story to story. That this is the very stuff of folk-tale a glance into Stith Thompson will verify. So the very "looseness" of narrative is an essential and enabling condition for the construction of a localized "world of discourse," in which the elements may appear in virtually any order though they remain the same internally.

So, too, the lack of characterization, motivation, and specificity of description indicates the universality of the story's theme rather than the poverty of the author's imagination. Sinbad the poor and Sinbad the wealthy are the same, as the story makes abundantly clear. The archetypal family of old-fashioned situation comedy replicates the nameless father, mother, and children of fairy tales. Things happen without cause in order to show that they happen to Everyman, not to a particular person.
The insistence on a world of exceedingly solid yet floating conventions is evident in the rigidity with which editors require them not only of television shows, but also of romance novels, pornography, detective stories, and science fiction. The redundancy thus generated is neither incidental nor inappropriate. Rather it is a necessary technique in this powerful and yet despised mode of storytelling. Perhaps the most powerful convention of the lot is that the vicissitudes of romance characters must end with a happy resolution. This is altogether identical with the television conventions and expresses a positive acceptance of the social order of the day and a sort of sympathetic apotropaic magic to ward off problems. Here, too, the lack of specificity is instrumental. Fate controls destiny beyond the influence of any individual's powers, but the artist gains acceptance for his work by turning ultimately to wish-fulfillment. Denied the opportunity to master one's own life, one is nonetheless led to give assent to life in general. While given no organizing understanding, the reader is given a final answer that simulates one. This is probably the strongest single motive for popular art. Far from being a cry of protest from the people, it is a symbolic yea-saying that allows the members of the community to resolve the insoluble and in that way to endure the intolerable.

Having spoken at such length in generalizations, I would like now to review briefly a single specific example, the romance of Qctavian. The story begins with the problem of the barrenness of the royal marriage, a problem surely as profound and suggestive as any, both literally and symbolically. The difficulty is overcome through magical intercession, accompanied by no change in the principal characters. The question of adultery is then raised through the pure and gratuitous malice of the mother-in-law, a circumstance which, like today's mother-in-law jokes, raises without exploring the tensions of aging and sexual rivalry, marriage customs and descent systems which animate so many romance plots. The felicitous resolution of this situation must await the denouement, but it provides the transition to a new problematic opposition, that of city versus wilderness which opens the prospect out from the fertility and happiness of the royal marriage to those of the kingdom as a whole. These two closely related areas are then developed in ever new guises in a pattern as symmetrical as a mandala or a fugue. The search for stable and nurturing family is worked out in the odysseys of the two sons among savage or inappropriate parents, while the search for a supportive social order is represented by the opposition of home and exile of which the Christian against heathen conflict is a variation. (See the following schematic outline.) Every time the cause of deliverance adds nothing new to our knowledge of the characters, nothing to their own perspicuity or insight. The whole reassuring paradigm of affirmation would be undermined by ambiguity or tragedy or social criticism.

Schematic Outline of the Plot of Octavian

fecundity vs. barrenness

birth of twins

fidelity vs. adultery

her condemnation

the city vs. the wilderness

robber beasts

ape vs. knight


lion vs. griffin

maternal lion

nobility vs. bourgeoisie

giant’s defeat

home vs. exile

residence in Jerusalem

Christian vs. heathen


Christian vs. heathen


Lest it sound as though I, too, would class Octavian and the other romances as "subliterary," let me place this sort of story in the context of the nature of literature as a whole. Many attempts to define literature have foundered in the difficulties of accurately portraying the aesthetic text as essentially or exclusively critical, innovative, and convention-breaking on the one hand or, on the other, as conventional, traditional, and normative. The fact is that every use of language partakes of both; every utterance is at once conformist and novel. The distinguishing mark of the aesthetic text is that the relation between it and the norms is of central significance. The mixture of rule-breaking and rule-keeping is not identical in every case, of course. The anti-conventional is prominent in post romantic art while the conventional governs oral literature as well as neoclassical theory.

Each type of literature has masterworks and failures and each expresses a vision. To properly read the medieval romance I think it is imperative to see this classification as one inherently free from value judgments. Only then can fitting distinctions be made. The potential greatness of the conventional narrative is apparent in folk-tale, Hellenistic and medieval romance, ballads and silent comedies. One has a glimpse of its distilled charm in those iconic calendars distributed in many countries featuring an idealized couple, say neo-Aztec in Mexico City or pseudo-Vedic in Delhi, blissful and attractive, free from contradiction. At once encouraging self-acceptance and sales, their many American counterparts include not only Norman Rockwell and Victorian poetry books retailed through Sears, Roebuck but all those purely popular genres which gain their authentic hold on the imagination of people by verging into myth.

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