Chapter 6


LOVE FOR Chaucer, as for Dante, is the only viable response to our middled and muddled condition. For all the pain it brings, its absence is unbearable. We must love, then, but how do we love with a minimum of selfishness and hence also with a minimum of deception, self-deception and deception of others? This, I take it, is the fundamental question for Chaucer. To begin to answer it, he structures the Troilus with imagery of narcissism and coinage, which, as his allusions and quotations prove, he assumes from Dante's Commedia; and he uses this structure of imagery to probe the imagination's invention of ideals in love. The result is nothing less than a theory of mediation--a theory which, while transformed in them, nonetheless informs The Canterbury Tales.

This theory is henceforward my subject. As I explicate it and follow it to its often surprising conclusions, I will from time to time recommend positions and suggest interpretations which will at first seem disturbing. But it is only like pouring water into a half full pitcher: when the new hits the old, at first there is a splash, disturbance, but then, very soon, calm and continuity return; the pitcher is a little bit fuller. In particular, I will be found to insist, both with his characters and with his plots, more on the somber than on the merry in Chaucer. This is not because I do not think Chaucer merry; I do. It is rather because I believe his capacity for merriment is directly dependent on his often too carefully qualified sympathy with the misery of the human condition. My hope for the rest of this book is that it can see and show the merry Chaucer and the somber Chaucer as the one, inimitable, loving and lovable Chaucer.

The theory of mediation is most visible in the poem's coinage imagery. This imagery asserts itself in Book 4 at a number of points but most forcefully near the end of the book. Here, through an oblique allusion to Inferno 30, Chaucer suggests that Criseyde is like a coin (4.1534-40; emphasis added): {107/108}

"For thilke day that I for cherisynge
Or drede of fader, or of other wight,
Or for estat, delit, or for weddynge,
Be fals to yow, my Troilus, my knyght,
Saturnes doughter, Juno, thorugh hire myght,
As wood as Athamante do me dwelle
Eternalich in Stix, the put of helle!"
In the context of the allusion to Dante through Athamante, the word "fals" announces the problem of corrupt or fraudulent reference. Although she claims otherwise, Criseyde will in fact betray Troilus and be "fals" to him even as a false coin betrays the authority of the prince or the community which issued its original. 1 Chaucer reinforces this reading with the allusion to Juno: under one of her aspects she is Juno Moneta, goddess of the temple of the moneyers in ancient Rome. 2 Moreover, he has already repeated ten times in Book 4 the words "chaunge" and "exchaunge" 3--Criseyde, of course, is to be exchanged for Antenor--and, although Hector claims early in the book, "`We usen here no wommen for to selle'" (line 182), his heroic sentiment serves to pass economic sentence on Criseyde's future. She will, in fact, be sold, more goods for Troy than good for Troilus.

Now Chaucer supplements the image of Criseyde as coin with many suggestions that she is also like a sign or text: for example, her face is "lik of Paradys the ymage" (4.864); and Troilus himself declares, "`Though ther be mercy writen in youre cheere, / God woot, the text ful hard is, soth, to fynde'" (3.1356-57). If Criseyde is a text or a sign or even perhaps the parchment, she is already written before Pandarus, in Troilus's behalf, begins his effort to rewrite her. In the language of medieval grammar, she has already been "imposed" to signify a meaning. The impositio ad placitum by which signs receive a meaning, in her case, has occurred "at the pleasure" of an Authority far greater and more original than either Pandarus or Troilus. If Pandarus attempts Criseyde's "herte for to grave" (2.1241; 3.1499), he not only wounds flesh with his stylus or chisel but also violently effaces an original character, imprinted by that greater Authority (it matters little whether we call it Nature or God) and substitutes for it a character of his own making (poesis) which, to Troilus's sorrow, must necessarily prove false.

Chaucer's strategy with Criseyde and the coinage imagery is, briefly, this: Troilus, by means of Pandarus, intentionally falsifies Criseyde; Troilus, by means of Pandarus, renders Criseyde "irreferent." Criseyde is both word and coin on which Troilus imposes and stamps the meaning of his idealism: she is the gold which his love would mint; she is the voice with which his love would speak. But, as the analogy makes only too clear, he is doomed to {108/109} failure. Criseyde is already gold and minted; she is already a sign. 4 Troilus is belated (and in this, perhaps, is most the poet since the poet must always work tradition's vein).

To open out the analogy: Criseyde is, as it were, an alloy of all those characteristics which make her who she is. She is already a person, an individual, as Chaucer (and E. Talbot Donaldson) make abundantly clear. 5 Criseyde is a woman, a human being, with a will of her own, and she is therefore changeable and capable of changing others. Because she is a self and hence changeable, she can receive Troilus's relentless fin'amors idealism only as a "mondiglia," or a dross which falsifies: Troilus reduces Criseyde to identity with his ideal. Necessarily, therefore, she is "fals"; necessarily, "ir-referent." Indeed, exchanged for Antenor and circulated to the Greek camp, her own alloy dominant again, her own character visible again, especially her "slydynge corage" (5.825), Criseyde becomes Diomede's coin, and he wastes no time in spending her.

But he spends her character. She has a character, and it cannot be, ought not be, effaced. It must out. Hence Criseyde is not to blame alone. Nor, at the same time, is Troilus to blame alone. They are to blame together. Chaucer is as humane as he is profound. If a man imposes such idealism on a woman, even if his motive is helpless love, falsification is bound to result. By its very intensity, the idealism imposed upon others becomes "mondiglia," a dross of personal desire. Humankind cannot bear very much idealism. The "irreference" of the sign, we have seen, derives from the tendency of the sign to replace that which it mediates. Criseyde appears for a brief, blissful moment to be the ideal woman whom Troilus imagines in the privacy of his heart; she appears to be the ideal incarnate, so absolute is Troilus's desire, so irrevocable his narcissism, so helpless his love. But she, the woman, as medium, is changeable, with a will of her own, and she cannot be the private hoard or the blank parchment which Troilus imagines and desires. All signs, words or coins, have always already been "imposed," and the "pleasure" of the authority is absent if not inscrutable. Away from Troilus's desire, Criseyde's alloy asserts itself; and she is "fals"--by her own curse condemned, along with all the other false signs, "`as wod as Athamante'" to "`dwelle / Eternalich in Stix, the put of helle'." Criseyde is to blame for being "slydynge of corage"; but Troilus and Pandarus are also to blame for inhumanely, if in the one case very humanly and even desperately, refusing to see who and what she, the woman, really was. {109}