The argument of this book—that The Canterbury Tales is modeled on Dante's Comedy and that there is a fundamental affinity between the two works—has, I confess, an air of profound implausibility about it. Outwardly, at any rate, they could not be more different: one tightly organized and finished, seemingly to the last syllable, the other a sprawling series of fragments, everywhere showing evidence of continuing revision. Practically nothing is known about the personal circumstances in which their authors composed the works that are by scholarly consensus assigned to their final years, but I imagine them as again totally different one from the other. Despite its odd title, the Comedy is associated with the bitter years following Dante's political defeat and his exile from Florence, in 1302, under sentence of death. Even the much earlier genesis that can be inferred for it from the Vita Nuova (itself completed in about 1293) has an aura of great personal tragedy about it. The Vita Nuova, it will be remembered, deals with the poet's passionate if sublimated love for Beatrice and with her sudden death. In the concluding section the poet speaks of having had a "miraculous vision"—he does not say of what or whom—which has led to his resolve not to write about her further until the day
when he can write "that which has never been written of any woman."
It is difficult indeed to imagine the composition of The Canterbury Tales as having its genesis in such a mood of passionate exaltation and devotion to the memory of a dead person. And by contrast with Dante's, I picture the final years of Chaucer's life as the busy but contented ones of a successful civil servant undisturbed by the turmoil of Richard II's reign. This could be a totally misleading picture, of course, and in any case it is ultimately quite irrelevant to the fact, as I should like to call it, that the poem Chaucer left unfinished at his death plays on fundamentally the same emotional, poetic, and intellectual registers as its Italian predecessor.
That Chaucer had read Dante by the time he started to work on The Canterbury Tales has long been a familiar fact of literary history. But the idea that he had read him with enough care and understanding to develop a sense of a poetry or a poetics specifically "Dantean"—as distinct, say, from "Petrarchan" or "Boccaccian"—would have met with considerable skepticism not so many years ago. Fortunately this is no longer the case, thanks in part to our increased knowledge about Anglo-Italian cultural relations during the fourteenth century and a concomitant abandonment of the idea that, in contrast to Italy, England represented a feudal backwater largely untouched by the intellectual and other currents of the Continent. Wendy Childs has pointed out that "Chaucer lived in a society where international contacts were a commonplace of commercial, diplomatic, religious and intellectual life." As a servant of the crown who is known to have made at least two trips to Italy on diplomatic and commercial missions, Chaucer would undoubtedly have been part of this cosmopolitan scene. Yet once again there has been a long-
standing belief among scholars that he lacked the linguistic competence to master the nuances of an Italian literary text.
Were it not for a shift in general orientation that has taken place over the past few decades in medieval studies, therefore, the present undertaking would first have to offer detailed historical and philological evidence to "prove" what it takes for granted, namely, that Chaucer not only could read Italian texts but, in the case of the Comedy (among others), did so with the kind of care and joy as to affect profoundly his own poetic practice. The reader who requires the preliminary evidence and demonstration mentioned is advised to look elsewhere than in this book.
A sign of the shift in the critical sensibility that has given me some confidence in the writing of this book is R. A. Shoaf's Dante, Chaucer and the Currency of the Word, which, focusing on the two poets' concern with a poetic language, demonstrates that Chaucer was, in his words, "no mere quoter of virtuoso passages" from the Comedy, but "a great interpreter of Dante." Another important recent work dealing with the relationship between the two poets, Winthrop Wetherbee's Chaucer and the Poets: An Essay on "Troilus and Criseyde, " illustrates the changed understanding of such a relationship. "For Chaucer," Wetherbee observes, "Dante is not only a model but a standard by which the quality and seriousness of his own future work may be measured," and he goes on to show how the Comedy fulfills this dual role with respect to the Troilus . More recently, Karla Taylor's Chaucer Reads "The Divine Comedy " has shown how the Troilus is illuminated when read in the light of the Comedy . Where Shoaf thinks of one poet's absorption by interpretation of the other's work, and Wetherbee of the implicit, intertextual presence of one poem in the other, Taylor starts from the premise of Chaucer's "sustained dialogue with Dante," though what she demonstrates is really more an argument or a debate, since to her they are essentially antithetical in their approach to poetic fiction.
All three ways of conceiving the Chaucer-Dante relationship seem to me fruitful and illuminating, and in the following chapters I hope to show that they are not mutually exclusive. At the same time I am bound to demur at Taylor's suggestion that Dante's influence on Chaucer's poetry diminishes after the Troilus : "Chaucer no longer
argues against Dante as openly as he does here. He pays a compliment here and picks a quarrel there, but for the most part he silently assimilates what he can use, and ignores the rest. If his subsequent engagement with Dantean poetry is not as sustained as it is here, however, Chaucer does not shy from taking Dante on again" (p. 209). In chapter 2 I argue the opposite view, that the real assimilation of the Comedy begins with The Canterbury Tales rather than before. I also contend that Chaucer, while no direct imitator, was no enemy to Dante's poetic principles and in fact applied them in his own epic project. My starting point, in other words, is that the intertextuality between the Comedy and The Canterbury Tales results from the fact that one poem responds to the other in a conscious attempt to continue the poetic tradition that Dante was himself continuing, as he indicates by making Virgil the guide for much of his Pilgrim's journey. That Dante's quasi-autobiographical narrative should be regarded as a conscious continuation of Virgilian epic with its quasi-historical narrative may well strike the reader as problematic, though perhaps no more so than the idea that The Canterbury Tales is modeled on the Comedy, given the striking formal differences between the two. Like the Comedy, The Canterbury Tales is still a first-person narrative, yet it is clearly less a "novel of the self," in Freccero's phrase, and more a poem with a communal vision. But this contrast is itself questionable. John Freccero has written that the "process" of Dante's poem,
which is to say the progress of the pilgrim, is the transformation of the problematic and humanistic into the certain and transcendent, from novelistic involvement to epic detachment, from a synchronic view of the self in a dark wood to a diachronic total view of the entire world as if it were, to use Dante's powerful image, a humble threshing floor upon which a providential history will one day separate the wheat from the chaff.
This description does not seem to me altogether accurate, since "novelistic involvement" and "epic detachment," like the problematic and the certain, appear to be intertwined throughout, but it does
very neatly point up the full scope of the Comedy 's project to view the life of the individual in relation to that of the community and of universal history.
For all the contrast between the paths they travel—literal road to Canterbury and mysterious, circling route to the Empyrean—the scope of The Canterbury Tales is scarcely less ambitious than that of the Comedy . Both are pilgrimage or quest epics, and I will argue that the quest of one protagonist, Dante's Pilgrim, is, as it were, recapitulated, in whole and in part, by Chaucer's many pilgrim tale-tellers. To claim that every pilgrim with his or her tale recapitulates (at least in intention) the entire Dantean pilgrimage would of course be hyperbolic. The more usual situation is that in their recapitulation the various pilgrims comment or focus on one or more aspects of the Dantean pilgrimage. Thus some pilgrims-plus-tale may appear in a predominantly "infernal" mode, others in a "purgatorial," and so forth. But always there is a sense of the whole, since like Dante's Pilgrim, Chaucer's pilgrims are still en route. For this reason, too, Chaucer's pilgrims are perhaps most like the characters the Pilgrim encounters in the Purgatorio, since these are not yet fixed—as those in the other two canticles appear to be—but in transition, like actual, living persons. Again, the contrast is by no means perfect, since Dante's three realms are really so many ways of looking at one reality—a point that Freccero's statement quoted earlier also implies.
If, now, we inquire into the goal or object of the pilgrimage-quest in either poem, we enter into the province of their allegory. In the Comedy this province is demarcated clearly enough as the otherworld fiction, where, for all its vivid realism, the literal asks to be translated into the metaphoric, the concrete into the abstract. And it is in the Inferno, where the Pilgrim encounters distorted, mutilated, and transformed versions of a sinful and suffering humanity, that the object of the quest becomes unmistakable. Allegorically, that is, the self-alienated Pilgrim is searching for his own lost image and, in so doing, for that of humankind at large. He recapitulates, accordingly, the human predicament since the self-inflicted wound of original sin. Arguably, however, the predicament begins even before the Fall, with God's statement "Let us make man in our image, after our
likeness" (Gen. 1.26). The enigmatic character of these words led Augustine to conclude, in his commentary on Genesis, that human beings were created incomplete and therefore must define or form themselves: "The light itself [of the human intellect] was first created, in which the understanding of God's word would come into being, by which it had been created, and this understanding had to turn away from its own unformed state to the forming God and be created and formed."
The predicament, in other words, is not only intellectual but also existential. From the moment of its creation, the human creature has the arduous task, in Herbert Schade's words, of "tirelessly seeking its way back to the lost paradise and heaven." For the Pilgrim astray in the selva oscura of this world, it seems, this task has suddenly taken on an especially urgent, personal meaning. Consequently, his vision in heaven at journey's end, of the divine-human image—nostra effige —painted (pinta ) in the circle of Eternal Light (Par . XXXIII.131), does not perhaps resolve the enigma posed by Genesis 1.26 but unmistakably signifies that he has reached the goal of his quest in personal (and presumably also paradigmatic) terms. The Poet's words following his attempt to describe the vision, "Here force failed my high fantasy" ("A I'alta fantasia qui mancò possa," 142), indicate that his entire being was engaged in this vision and that to reach this point is to lose the sense of a bounded self and to discover one's will and desire, as it were, outside oneself, moved "by / the Love that moves the sun and the other stars" (144–45).
The allegory of the quest for the human image, then, is at the same time one of the protagonist's self-discovery: it can be observed in every one of the Pilgrim's encounters with the residents of the otherworld. Its pattern—what I shall call the "allegorical plot"—is most fully laid out in the mysterious and bizarre episode, discussed at length in chapter 3, involving the composite monster Geryon. In the Pilgrim this monster inspires mainly terror, even though his guide Virgil has already alerted him to the fact that its origin is in the Pilgrim's own thought, that it is, in short, his image, at once bestial and human, of himself. Self-encounter, the allegory here suggests, is an adventure involving a high degree of risk—of self-hatred, despair, madness . . .
True to the epic's title, the adventure here, as elsewhere, has a comically anticlimactic ending as the suddenly serviceable beast transports the Pilgrim and his guide through the infernal void. Allegorically, the narrative intimates a subtle transformation taking place in the Pilgrim's soul. But that is not all. The episode also illustrates, even if in an elusive way, the principle of allegory Dante enunciated in the Convivio, affirming the primacy of the literal level. The discussion of allegory in the Convivio is by no means altogether clear, and I certainly do not mean to be dogmatic about it in my interpretation. Instead, I want to hazard the suggestion that Dante's insistence on the primacy of the literal is part of his poetic agenda to reconnect what Western dualism (whether overt or covert) habitually tends to disjoin: body and soul, matter and spirit, animal and human. The Geryon episode seems to me a working out of this allegorical agenda, for Geryon as image of the self is at once an image of the soul and of the body, and the conclusion of the episode implies the error of regarding the physical, "animal nature" in purely instrumental terms, an error that is, precisely, a source of human self-alienation.
In the spirit of literal pilgrimage, The Canterbury Tales substitutes a whole group of pilgrims for one, and its "allegorical plot" is accordingly more dispersed, less clearly structured. Individually and collectively, nonetheless, Chaucer's pilgrims are also part of the allegorical quest to define and redefine the human image and likeness. Collectively they form an open symposiastic circle in which everyone contributes to the debate but no conclusion is reached.
In the absence of a final, "paradisal" vision, however (unless we accept that discussed in chapter 8), there is one pilgrim's tale that, like the Geryon episode in Inferno XVI and XVII, epitomizes the allegorical quest for the human image in—supreme Chaucerian irony!—a beast fable, and does so by erasing the traditional theological and other distinctions between the animal and the human. I discuss the Nun's Priest's Tale, to which I am of course referring, by way of concluding my consideration of allegory in chapter 3.
In the next chapter I deal with what I call "epic theater" as a complement to or realization of the allegorical plot. The theatrical has been recognized as part of epic tradition ever since Aristotle praised Homer for the dramatic-mimetic character of his poems, and in its general structure the Comedy conforms to epic tradition both in the way the work functions as a cosmic theater and in the way
the Poet "stages" his narration of many of the poem's scenes as well as his own role in relation to the reader. As for the cosmic theater, it is suggested by the celestial amphitheater in the Paradiso, where the blessed are pictured as the privileged spectators of what goes on in the world.
Except in the Knight's Tale, and to an extent in the Merchant's Tale, where the pagan gods are the witnesses of earthly affairs as they are in classical epic, The Canterbury Tales lacks a properly cosmic theater. Instead, it transfers its primary epic theater to earth, once again to the road to Canterbury. There it has, furthermore, the improvised, spontaneous character of much medieval theater: the Host does act in his self-appointed role as master of ceremonies, but his control is partial at best, and one tale-telling performance often seems, unpredictably, to generate another. And for the pilgrims themselves the tale-telling is their adventure, involving unforeseeable risks, and as such it parallels the quest on which Dante's Pilgrim sets out from the selva oscura .
My suggestion is that the tales represent the realm of the pilgrims' soul-searching, with all the dangers that can involve. But to put the matter that way is to fall into the trap—perhaps not always avoided in the following pages—of traditional criticism's use of the concept of "character" as though it were an irreducible given, a signifier endowed with soul and who knows what other characteristics. Marshall Leicester seems to me entirely right when in his superb article on the relation of Chaucer's pilgrims to their tales, "The Art of Impersonation: A General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, " he states:
The voicing of any tale, the personality of any pilgrim, is not given in advance by the prologue portrait or the facts of history, nor is it dependent on them. The personality has to be worked out by analyzing and defining the voice created by each tale. It is this personality in the foreground, in his or her intensive and detailed textual life, that supplies a guide to the weighting of details and emphasis, whether portrait or history.
Incontestably, the personality of the pilgrims, as of any literary character, is the effect of the text and of the active intervention of the reader attentive not only to the what and how of the text but also
to its gaps, what it does not say but leaves to be inferred. Leicester's comments on Chaucer the pilgrim-narrator in his conversational exchange with the Monk make the point perfectly:
What we have, in fact, is a speaker who is not giving too much of himself away, who is not telling us, any more than he told the Monk, his whole mind in plain terms. The tensions among social, moral, and existential worlds are embodied in a single voice here, and they are embodied precisely as tensions, not as a resolution or synthesis, for we cannot tell exactly what the speaker thinks either of the Monk or of conventional morality. What we can tell is that we are dealing with a speaker who withholds himself from us, with the traces of a presence that asserts its simultaneous absence. The speaker is present as uncomprehended, as not to be seized all at once in his totality. He displays his difference from his externalizations, his speaking, in the very act of externalizing himself. It is this effect, I think, that creates the feeling of "reality" in the text, the sense that there is somebody there.
At the same time these comments do imply what I think is true, namely, that we do credit a character like "Chaucer the pilgrim" with at least potential depth, interiority, mystery, even before the text has had much opportunity to establish its identity or "voice." And if this is true of "Chaucer the pilgrim," there seems to be no good reason why it should not be true of the Monk, the Knight, or any of the other pilgrims. That, at any rate, is my argument in chapter 4: that the reader, on the basis of their General Prologue portraits, already has a sense of the pilgrims' identity even before they start telling their tales. In other words, Warren Ginsberg seems right in saying that "the Canterbury pilgrims are twice-formed at least; once by their tales, once by their frames." In a slightly different sense the same applies to the characters in the Comedy before we ever hear their story: they, too, receive a prologal, provisional, or preliminary identity by the particular place they occupy in the otherworld, by the shape or manner in which they manifest themselves to the Pilgrim, and by the extratextual fame as historical or literary figures that they may bring with them.
In calling The Canterbury Tales "a literary imitation of oral performance" (p. 212), Leicester has something rather different in mind from the idea of epic theater I am proposing for The Canterbury Tales and the Comedy, but I think his conclusion about the relation of Chaucer the speaker to his poem can be readily extended to a broader notion of narrative theatricality in these two poems:
The relation of the voice that speaks in the General Prologue to the personality of the poet is like that of an individual portrait to its tale and that of the Prologue itself to all the tales. It is a prologal voice, a voice that is only beginning to speak. Chaucer's Prologue, like this prologue of mine, needs the tales to fulfill itself in the gradual and measured but always contingent and uncertain activity of impersonation in both senses. The speaker of the Canterbury Tales —Chaucer—is indeed as fictional as the pilgrims, in the sense that he is a self-constructing voice. He practices what I have called the art of impersonation, finally, to impersonate himself, to create himself as fully as he can in his work. (P. 222)
Clearly, if the (fictional) poet impersonates the "voices" of the different pilgrims and in so doing ultimately impersonates himself, then, on another, "theatrical" level the pilgrims also impersonate themselves even as they impersonate the "voices" of their tales.
What this means is that we come to see the pilgrims as actors (on an imaginary stage) who have a reality or an existence somehow apart and separate from their voice or the role they are playing. They are, to reiterate the point, analogues of the poet-narrator who impersonates them, to whom as readers we readily ascribe an extratextual reality. In the case of the fictive pilgrims, the name for that reality, I shall argue, is the body, that mysterious entity—unrepresentable except by real actors on an actual stage—which is not simply a physical object among others but an integral part of the human person. "One cannot say that one has a body or is in it," Gerald Bruns has written, "as if the body were something objective, an entity apart, a form of containment or prison-house. It is true perhaps," Bruns continues,
that in virtue of our bodies we are brought up against otherness, our own temporality, where we are always turning into someone else. But this just means that the body does not seal us off from whatever is apart: it is our mode of being temporal, of entering into apartness, which is to say: our mortality, our being mortal. It is in virtue of our bodies that we come into our own, that is, appear as what we are (situated, historical, contingent, mortal). The body (the outward and visible sign, not of the soul, but of mortality) catches us up, absorbs us, incarnates us and carries us along, not,
however, as its burden or its passenger but as its dancer. Think of the dance as a carrying away, bodily, as by the sheer exuberance or overflowing of embodiment, a releasement. It is no accident that Heidegger figures the belonging-together of earth and sky, gods and mortals (that is, the world) as a dance. The body is our mode of dancing, that is, our mode of belonging to the world, fitting into it, being appropriate to it, owning up to it, acknowledging or accepting it. One could say: the body is our mode of belonging to Saying, whose "soundless voice" calls upon us to speak (or sing) aloud, as with the body.
My reason for quoting at such length from Bruns's essay is for its relevance not only to my discussion of epic theater but also to the larger theme, which I have attributed to Dantean allegory, of the recuperation of the body. Thus what Bruns says about the body as carrying us along not "as its burden or its passenger but as its dancer" anticipates to an extraordinary degree my discussion of Geryon in chapter 3 (especially what I see as a bilingual pun at Inferno XVII.99 on soma, meaning in Italian "burden," in Greek "body"). And surely the dance described in this passage is one kind of gloss on the concluding lines of the Paradiso ?
As will be evident to the reader, it is here, with the theme of the body, that our two topics, epic theater and allegory, come to coincide. Not only do Chaucer's pilgrims in their playacting on the road to Canterbury acquire a body (however provisional and hypothetical) of their own, by which they come to embody the human image rather than merely illustrate it abstractly, but also, as we are frequently reminded in the first two canticles of the Comedy, even in the otherworld the Pilgrim retains his literal, concrete ("extratextual") body. These reminders, it seems to me, serve two different, quite contradictory purposes. On the one hand, they draw the reader's attention to the fact that this is after all an allegory in which the corporeal demands to be translated into the spiritual, the literal into the metaphoric. On the other hand, the reminder that an embodied Pilgrim, like the reader herself, is intruding on disembodied shades,
seems to suggest a break with allegory and its entrenched assumption that letter and spirit, body and soul, material and immaterial constitute neatly distinguishable realms that can yet stand in for each other. One implication would seem to be that in the Comedy Dante is redrawing the intellectual map of medieval Europe in such a way as to make the physical, the human body, an integral part of it.
A recent book by Robert P. Harrison entitled The Body of Beatrice lends support to this proposition. It argues that the figure of Beatrice in the Vita Nuova differs significantly from the figure of the lady to be found in the poetry of the troubadours or of contemporaries like Cavalcanti, precisely because Dante insists on seeing her not just as image but also as body . Dante, he says, "never ceased to acknowledge the exteriority of Beatrice or the historical otherness of her being in the world. It is this otherness that I have been calling her body." Beatrice, Harrison suggests, is also at the center of the Comedy 's poetics, and this helps to account for that poem's ability to represent, in his words, "the embodied historical world" without compromising its "exteriority and otherness" (p. 52). In a later chapter I return to Harrison's subtly argued thesis, which obviously fits very well with my own reading of the Comedy . Meanwhile, the question remains just how the body—whether Beatrice's or that of other literary characters like the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales —can manifest itself textually .
Like Spinoza's "absent cause" or Lacan's Real, which "resists symbolization absolutely," the body cannot make itself felt directly in the text, but only indirectly, perhaps by the kind of "gaps" that an author creates in his narrative "so that," in Wolfgang Iser's words, "the reader has room to enter into it." In The Implied Reader Iser discusses such gaps as may occur in a narrative between a represented world and a particular system of values, or when the narrative is suddenly broken off; they elicit, Iser suggests, the reader's active participation and so serve as a powerful means of bringing the text to life. Both types of gap mentioned here are common in The Canterbury Tales and the Comedy . One has only to think of the General Prologue and the question of what system of values the reader is expected to apply to the various pilgrims. Is the Knight, for instance,
to be judged by the traditional standards of chivalry (whatever they might be)? Or is Terry Jones correct in arguing that he should be judged by altogether different criteria? Is the Prioress to be condemned for her numerous violations of the rules of the convent? And is the Monk wrong to "leet olde thynges pace" (I.175), like the monastic rules of St. Benedict and St. Maurus? And if he is wrong, how wrong is the poet-narrator to say, "And I seyde his opinion was good" (183)? These and questions like them require the reader's constant active participation and surely have a great deal to do with the "vitality" traditionally attributed to Chaucer's characters. The same applies to the Comedy, where the question of what criteria to judge its characters by must constantly be faced. In the Comedy Dante also develops to a fine point of perfection the second type of gap mentioned above: the abrupt ending of a narrative, which forces the reader to complete, in Iser's words, the "realization of the text" (p. 35). We need only think of Francesca's "that day we read no more" (Inf. V.138), or of La Pia's three-line summary of her destiny (Purg. V.134–36). But even the spaces between the cantos can be seen as examples of Iser's "gaps," like the various spaces created between tales and links by editorial (?) headings in The Canterbury Tales .
The reader will not necessarily apprehend a body or bodies, of course, upon "entering" the text through one of these "gaps." However, in terms of our concern with epic theater it does make sense to think of the implied reader—now, needless to say, also a member of the implied audience—as "realizing" the text by a kind of physical empathy, a projection of his or her bodily sensations onto the text. In the Comedy this bodily empathy might be especially stimulated by the incongruity between the image presented of the otherworld residents and the sense of them as human characters as they engage in dialogue with the Pilgrim. As an instance there are the double tongues of flame from which, disconcertingly, there issues the voice of Ulysses with his magnificent peroration (Inf. XXVI). Here the problematic contrast, as Iser might say, between the presented image and the "actual" character speaking allows for, or entices, the engagement of the reader's own bodily sense.
In The Canterbury Tales the gaps occur above all whenever the need or possibility arises of establishing a connection between the
portraits of the pilgrims in the General Prologue and their dramatic roles as they unfold on the road to Canterbury and especially, of course, in the course of their tales. When the reader "enters" through these gaps, the textual pilgrims achieve a vitality and an autonomy analogous to the reader's own sense of self. Part of the reason for this is because the reader is also, like the audience in the theater, witnessing a play-within-a-play. Just as the play-audience is invested with a greater degree of "reality" than the players they are watching, so the pilgrims become less fictive or closer to real selves in the act of telling their fictive stories. And then there are those occasions, analogous to Dante's interweaving of narrative, simile, and metaphor, when the tales blend into the world of the pilgrims—most spectacularly, perhaps, in the Merchant's Tale, where Justinus cites the Wife of Bath as an authority on marriage (IV.1685–87) —so that the reader is once again compelled to "step in" and adjust his perspective on the fiction.
The final four chapters focus on a number of individual Canterbury tales and the varieties of intertextuality with the Comedy that they evidence. The Monk's Tale, as I try to show in chapter 5, is a strange amalgam of literary allusion, parody, and philosophical reflection. In the first instance it is a commentary on the Inferno by way of recreating and reinterpreting a number of "instances," ancient and modern, historical and mythical, in the mode of the Monk's idea of tragedy. The Monk himself is a Boccaccio figure, by which I mean the Boccaccio of the De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (the major "source" of the Monk's Tale) and the commentator on the Comedy both in his public lectures delivered in Florence and in the one hundred tales of his Decameron, which carry on a "sustained dialogue" with the one hundred cantos of the Comedy . What emerges from the Monk's re-creative commentary is no less than a meditation on history as the record of mankind's struggle for autonomy and freedom. In the course of that struggle, the Monk's tragedies show, the human image becomes most ambiguous, for at the very moment that it seems utterly degraded it is likely to appear in unexpectedly exalted forms.
Philosophically, the Monk's Tale embodies the kind of Stoic humanism implicit in Seneca's tragedies, the same humanism that underlies the Inferno, as the strange figure of Cato, transitional between Inferno and Purgatorio, would seem to confirm. Another index of this humanism is the notion of contrapasso operative in the Inferno . It implies that the sinners of that canticle have condemned themselves before the bar of their own conscience by the very sin they have consciously embraced, which through a kind of repetition compulsion continues to torment them. Chapter 6 discusses the Friar and the Summoner—the most demonic, in the Dantean sense, of the Canterbury pilgrims—as, together with their tales, perfect examples of the idea of contrapasso as I have defined it. Once again, it is they, rather than a higher authority, who condemn themselves, as well as each other, to hell, and they do so before a jury of their fellow pilgrims.
The last two chapters deal with the Clerk's Tale and the Merchant's Tale, respectively, and address the question of allegory in its relation—ultimately—to the fear of death. As Harold Bloom has shrewdly suggested, allegory, or the habit of troping, is a way of warding off death: "Death is therefore a kind of literal meaning, or from the standpoint of poetry, literal meaning is a kind of death. Defenses can be said to trope against death, rather in the same sense that tropes can be said to defend against literal meaning ." What Bloom calls the standpoint of poetry we may in this case identify with Petrarch, the source of the Clerk's Tale. In his prologue and envoy, at any rate, the Clerk seems to intimate Petrarch's obsession with death, insisting that not only Petrarch but also his "heroine," Griselda is dead, "And both at ones buryed in Ytaille" (IV.1178). Their allegorizing, even of themselves, has not protected them against the ultimate destiny. The man who "enlumyned al Ytaille of poetrie," the Clerk notes with curious emphasis, "is now deed and nayled in his cheste" (33, 29).
From the standpoint of Petrarchan allegory the great enemy is life in the body, subject as it is to contingency and the final catastrophe of death. It is thus in direct opposition to Dantean allegory, which,
as we have noted, insists on the primacy of the literal and the necessity of recognizing the body as integral to the human being. It looks as though the Clerk has reached something like this conclusion when, after finishing his tale, he sings a humorous encomium to the Wife of Bath. The Wife, that is, like Beatrice and unlike Griselda, will not submit to the violence of Petrarchan allegory, which is always ready to sacrifice the literal story for the sake of the "tropical" message. Just as she would never passively endure Walter's arbitrary violence against his wife Griselda, so she will not allow herself to be troped in order to demonstrate a spiritual or moral truth.
The verbal violence that the Merchant in his Prologue directs at his wife of two months suggests that he has troped her and that like Walter in the Clerk's Tale he has entered into marriage with motives once again bound up with the fear of death. However, the tale the Merchant proceeds to tell is thoroughly Dantean; indeed, it most fully exemplifies the intertextual relationship between Chaucer's epic project and the Comedy, for both of which marriage serves in different ways as the "mirror" where the human image and enterprise are most perfectly reflected. In this connection, the crucial mediating text for both poems is the Old Testament's Song of Songs, in the first instance, as passionate love poem, and, in the second, as storehouse of the West's marital symbolism. Thus the long-delayed "reunion" of the Pilgrim and Beatrice in the Purgatorio is presented in terms that suggest the triumph of a love "strong as death," in the words of the Song of Songs (8.6), between the Solomonic bridegroom and his bride.
Now, the Merchant's Tale reenacts the (re)union of the Pilgrim and Beatrice and of Solomon and his bride in the fabliau-style marriage of January and May. The effect, however, is in the long run one not so much of parody as of a seriocomic exploration of the way the human image, for all its glorious divine origin, has been split into two, so that body is divided from soul, heart from head, and so forth. The tale suggests that the culprit is the West's allegorical habit of mind and offers as "evidence" the interpretive fate suffered by the Song of Songs. When January invites May to accompany him into their erotic garden retreat, he does so in the powerful language of the Song of Songs, language that the Merchant-narrator dismisses as "olde lewed wordes" (IV.2149). The Merchant here repeats a gesture performed by a long line of ecclesiastical commentators, of suppressing the text's literal meaning for the sake of a
spiritual allegory. And the consequences of this suppression have been particularly fateful in the case of the Song of Songs, since it has meant eliminating the erotic from the category of the sacred as from official Christian consciousness. And the result of that has been many centuries of Christian theology troping against death and life in fearful uncertainty as to which is to be preferred.
The Comedy 's own erotic garden, the Earthly Paradise in the Purgatorio where the Pilgrim and Beatrice are united, leaves little doubt as to where Dante's poem stands on this question. Its significance at the ambiguous boundary between earth and heaven, life and death, a boundary the living, embodied Pilgrim is able to cross effortlessly, seems to me well glossed by Philippe Sollers's commentary on Bataille's assertion that "we have been given the power to face death directly, and to see there at last the opening onto the unintelligible and unknowable continuity which is the secret of eroticism, and of which eroticism bears the secret."
This opening [writes Sollers] is achieved not abstractly, but through the body. Not through the abstract element generally designated by this word, but at the heart of the material mass whose effects, opacity, resistances, and deviations we believe we dominate. The body is what the idea of "man" does not manage to destroy; it is what cries out mutely before the self-assurance of reason and propriety; it is that tapestry in which our shape shifts and alters, the weaving of desire and of the dream, of deep organic life pursuing its work of death; it is the "continuous" from which we fashion a visible, insistent discontinuity for ourselves and for others. The body is that in us that is always "more" than us, that kills its own representation in us and kills us silently. Through discourse and science we can know this body's conspicuous activities, its contingencies, modifications, uses, and speech; in sum, its formal activity. But only eroticism gives us access to its flesh, in other words, not to a "substance" but to its own inscription, to the excess which is this ungraspable inscription's relation to itself.