Thursday, December 17, 2009

Now you know why I was an English major

Via Big Think, Lea Carpenter's writeup of a writeup on Peter Ackroyd's particularly bawdy translation of Canterbury Tales. What can I say? Carpenter had me at the title ("Fucking up Chaucer").

It's easy to avoid Chaucer. Or rather, easy to attempt avoiding him even when electing English as a major, or as a passion. Nothing about the academic marketing of Chaucer would lead one to believe he is sexy, or current. Yet he was both.

Actually, when I was first exposed to Chaucer, in the early nineties, it was under the tutelage of a flaxen-haired, husky-voiced associate professor on whom I had a ridiculous, intense, and fleeting crush. And when she read the Tales, aloud, and in the original Middle English (which even on the page always seemed beautifully eerie to me)... well... it left no doubt that this was a poetry that spoke to the soul through the body.

I graunte thee lif if thou canst tellen me
What thing it is that wommen most desiren;
Be war and keep thy nekke boon from iren.

(from the Wife of Bath's Tale)

Anyway, Carpenter goes on to quote Joan Acocella, author of the New Yorker essay on Ackroyd's text:

When Chaucer has the Wife of Bath saying, in defense of love, "For what purpose was a body made?," Ackroyd translates, "Cunts are not made for nothing, are they?" She also cites King Solomon, with his many wives. "On his wedding nights," she says (in Chaucer's original) "he had many a merry bout with each of them, so lively a man was he." Ackroyd translates, "What about all those wedding nights? I bet that he did you-know-what as hard as a hammer with a nail. I bet he gave them a right pounding." When, in the Miller's Tale, Alison says to her swain, "Love me at once or I will die," Ackroyd gives us "Fuck me or I am finished."

And glosses it accordingly:

This is literary history: a loving "fucking up" of English Literature. Wouldn't we rather spend afternoons reading lines like "fuck me or I am finished" than deconstructing the latest evolution of the Kindle's hegemonic rise?

Yes! Or the latest essay on "The Stasis of Language: Social realism in the works of Smith"? (That's a random title spewed out by the delightfully spot-on Postmodernism Generator. But it's not unlike much of the stuff written about literature in the last twenty years.)

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