Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Angelic Details

 So what's with the feathers?

The devil may be in the details, but so far as great writing is concerned it is the angels concealed there that interest me the most.  Great writers are, before all else, masters of the telling detail.  It is a crying shame that our first superlatively great English poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, is so little known today, even among voracious readers.  Superficial linguistic difficulties—so superficial that I can teach anybody to overcome them in two or three one-hour classes—keep him imprisoned in university lecture halls.

            The “Summoner’s Tale” is a brilliant satire that attacks the hypocrisy and venality of some mendicant friars, perhaps Franciscans or Carmelites.  The mendicants (beggars) took their name from their religious practice of depending entirely upon the kindness of strangers for their often quite comfortable upkeep.  As the tale begins, a particularly suave religious beggar arrives at a village house, flirts briefly with the wife, then makes himself at home as he prepares to make a serious financial solicitation of the bedridden householder.

And fro the bench he drove away the cat

And laid adown his potente and his hat     [walking stick]

And eek his scrip, and set him soft adown.   [eek=also      scrip=purse, bag]

 A frere the was, a wantowne and a merrye

As usual, learned commentary can enrich one’s enjoyment of the comedy.  It helps to know for example, that in commissioning his disciples Jesus said (Luke 9:3) “Take nothing for [your] journey, neither staves, nor scrip”; and if you’re dirty-minded enough to suspect something slightly fishy in the word potente, so much the better.  But no reader will require a footnote to savor the deliciousness of the detail of the first line—the easy presumption with which the friar shoos the cat away, so that he can sit down soft.

Or how about this one from Dante?  Is there anything more fantastic than the amazing pageant of the Church in Purgatorio xxix?  It’s so fantastic that it completely nonpluses even Virgil, whose imagination dreamed up the whole Æneid.  It features, among other things, the four feathered “living creatures” from the beginning of the prophecy of Ezekiel—with faces of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle respectively.  You probably know that in Christian iconography these became the symbols of the four evangelists.  But Dante describes the feathery parts not in the fashion of Ezekiel, but in that of John’s slightly altered reprise of the image in the Revelation (4:6-9).  Then Dante says this: Giovanni è meco, e da lui si diparte.  “John is with me [!!!], and departs from him [Ezekiel].”  Note: Dante does not agree with Saint John the Divine.  No, John agrees with Dante.  Only a genius could write that line.

Details, details.  In the second book of Gulliver’s Travels Swift is faced with the problem of convincing the reader that his narrator is in Brobdingnag, a land of giants, in comparison with whom he—a normal-sized man—seems minute.  There are only so many ways of saying “They were very big, and I was very small,” and so Swift lets carefully chosen detail do the work for him.  As Chaucer could use a cat, Swift uses a salt cellar.

 The court of Brobdingnag reviews the British navy

 Gulliver explains that the king of Brobdingnag, having taken a shine to his minute house guest, has had some tiny furniture made for him.   But just how tiny?  “T’is the custom, that every Wednesday (which, as I have observed, is their Sabbath) the king and queen, with the royal issue of both sexes, dine together in the apartment of his majesty, to whom I was now become a great favourite; and at these times, my little chair and table were placed at his left hand, before one of the salt-cellars.”  (G.T., ii, 3).  Gulliver dines not at the King’s table, but upon it.

            But let us turn to the world’s greatest novel, Tom Jones.  (May peace be upon the advocates of—in alphabetical order--Brothers Karamazov, Madame Bovary, Les Misérables, Middlemarch, Moby Dick, Portrait of a Lady, Vanity Fair, War and Peace, etc., etc.).   Fielding’s novel is at the very least the world’s greatest novel of amazing revelations, the chief such revelation being that of the identity of the hero.

            At times the revelations are a little, well, delicate.  Young Tom Jones,  a foundling, is a lovely lad, but he does have a normal sexual appetite, and at one point he falls into a brief fling with a handsome woman of a certain age and of uncertain morals who goes by the name of “Mrs. Waters”.  “Mrs. Waters” is in fact the middle-aging Jenny Jones, who as a young housemaid twenty years earlier, was accused of being the unwed mother of Tom, to whom her surname was given. 

            It turns out eventually that this belief is mistaken, but not before the misinformation comes to Tom’s ears from his garrulous sidekick Partridge.  Having carnal knowledge of one’s mother, even unawares, rarely turns out well in our literature.  Think Oedipus Rex.  The hyphenated vernacular term for the taboo activity was not in the eighteenth century a commonplace of African American or any other English dialect.  Poor Tom is absolutely horrified to be told he has done it.

            “Why, then, the Lord have mercy upon your soul, and forgive you,” cries Partridge; “but as sure as I stand here alive, you have been a-bed with your own mother.”…."Sure," cries Jones, "Fortune will never have done with me till she hath driven me to distraction. But why do I blame Fortune? I am myself the cause of all my misery. All the dreadful mischiefs which have befallen me are the consequences only of my own folly and vice. What thou hast told me, Partridge, hath almost deprived me of my senses! And was Mrs Waters, then--but why do I ask? for thou must certainly know her…O good Heavens! incest----with a mother! To what am I reserved!"  Book XVIII, 2

            Fielding does not write “incest with my mother” but “incest with a mother”.  Is there a more brilliant use of the humble indefinite article in English literature?  Poor Tom is recalling as best a layman can such moral guidance as may be in the layman’s common domain.  The Anglican Prayer Book of 1662, the official liturgical and doctrinal handbook of English religion as re-established at the time of the Restoration, contained a chart called “A Table of Kindred and Affinity:  Wherein Whosoever Are Related Are Forbidden by the Church of England to Marry Together”.  There are no fewer than twenty-four relations with whom a man is forbidden to have relations, including some pretty unlikely ones such as a “daughter's son's wife,” but right at the top of the list is a mother.

a memorable dinner with Mom

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