Chapter 12

The Merchant and the Parody of Creation

The Merchant's Tale is one of Chaucer's most complex poems and possibly one of his highest achievements. For a long time its surface brilliance, its comedy and wit, and its carefully crafted plot have received high praise. The poem is a delight to read. In recent years scholarship has begun to realize that, in addition to all these features, the poem has unusual philosophical heft and that it possesses wide-ranging implications for the whole of The Canterbury Tales. Brown (1978:141-56, 247-62) has argued that the poem is a kind of confession, for example, a position I have assumed for some time now, and that as such it suggests how the whole of The Canterbury Tales might be confessional, a suggestion we ought not to take lightly. Smarr, to take another example, has demonstrated the extraordinary care with which Chaucer has shaped his sources in the poem, one of which might have been the Decameron. 1 My own researches into the sources, which I am about to report, will support her approach even as they extend the range and type of sources we assume to be relevant to the poem. At the same time I will make a conscious effort to isolate and articulate the philosophical position of the poem. My remarks are necessarily incomplete, but I do hope to suggest that in the Merchant and his tale Chaucer explores the position of nihilism and in particular a nihilism of the sign and that he does this by assigning the Merchant a style best described as "usurious"; moreover, I will argue that the tale is the work in which Chaucer most successfully exposes the nature of allegory. Finally, I will suggest that, if the Merchant claims that "craft is al, whoso that do it kan" (MerT E 2016), Chaucer, consummate craftsman though he be, repudiates this position of malicious instrumentality and repudiates it in favor of a poetry whose content is not the victim of its craft.


Donaldson (1958:1083-84) has noted that "there is no more startling {185/186} disclosure of character in The Canterbury Tales than the one that follows the telling of the tale of Griselda .... While in his tale the Merchant does not tell us of his unhappy marital experience, the attitudes he assumes toward the plot and its people are conditioned by what has happened to him." In other words, Narrator identification with narrative matter is extreme in The Merchant's Tale. This is crucial. It helps us to reason that the Merchant is a usurer. At the beginning of his tale the Merchant tells us that January dwelt "in Lumbardye" (line 1245). A prosperous Lombard to Chaucer's audience would have meant, instantly, "usurer." Along with Jews, Lombards formed the largest class of usurers in medieval Europe, and they were extremely active in London in the fourteenth century. 2 January has almost certainly made part of his fortune through usury. Now given the extreme of Narrator identification with narrative matter in this tale, if January is a usurer, the Merchant probably is, too. And this probability approaches certainty once the tale is analyzed as if its teller were a usurer. 3

As understood in the Middle Ages, usury is the taking of any interest whatsoever on a fungible commodity--that is, a commodity replaceable by another of the same definition--which is also consumptible. 4 Such a commodity, for example, is wine or grain, which can be replaced by other wine or grain and which cannot be used without also being consumed. The teaching that money also is a fungible consumptible derives from Aristotle. Aquinas, for example, quoting Aristotle, argues that "money, however, was invented chiefly for exchanges to be made, so that the prime and proper use of money is its use and disbursement in the way of ordinary transactions." 5 Hence, as Aquinas goes on to insist in the same response: "It follows that it is in principle wrong to make a charge for money lent, which is what usury consists in." Since a loan is a "mutuum," where "mine /meum/ becomes yours /tuum/," to charge for the use of money in a loan is to demand that yours remain mine, although mine was consumed in becoming yours. 6

Not only is money a fungible consumptible, it is also, according to ideas current in the Middle Ages, sterile ("money does not give birth to money") because, once it is consumed by being alienated to another in a transaction, its original possessor can no longer profit from it. 7 Hence usury, or the generation of more money from alienated money, is not only illicit but also unnatural (Oresme Politiques 1.12) and, indeed, illicit because unnatural. Usury is not only against the law, or a conventional human code, but also against nature, or the divinely established order; moreover, it is against nature also because, to employ Dante's argument, it perverts art which "follows" nature (Inf. 11.97-111; Reade 1909:429). Hence the usurer, properly speaking, abuses nature, society, and art alike. Finally, since the origin of money, according to {186/187} Aristotle, is need, the usurer exploits and violates the greatest human vulnerability, or that insufficiency of the discrete individual because of which he must enter into society and public space--the usurer, in short, is a corrupter of relationships and of relationship.


Before he is a usurer, the Merchant is, of course, a merchant, or someone who, according to the scholastic definition, buys goods only to sell them again, just as he received them, at a higher price. 8 Hence a merchant, by definition, is rarely interested in the thing itself but only in what it will bring--what it is worth. Such is the mental attitude of January as he literally "shops" for the girl who will be fortunate enough to become his bride (MerT E 1577-85; emphasis added):

Heigh fantasye and curious bisynesse
Fro day to day gan in the soule impresse
Of Januarie aboute his mariage.
Many fair shap and many a fair visage
Ther passeth thurgh his herte nyght by nyght,
As whoso tooke a mirour, polisshed bryght,
And sette it in a commune market place,
Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace
By his mirour.
This passage and its context are remarkable for a number of reasons. First and foremost is the emphasis on "fantasye." This emphasis responds to the issue of subjectivity in valuation and pricing, an issue crucial to late medieval economic theorists. For example, Peter John Olivi--as I have already remarked (Chap. 9n2), perhaps the most important of the scholastic theorists--argues that three factors are at work in valuation. In the terms invented by San Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), who uses Olivi's theory without acknowledgment, these are virtuositas, or the intrinsic worth or "virtue" of the object, raritas, or the abundance or scarcity of the object, and complacibilitas, or what we might call simply personal preference. 9 It is here, with this last factor, that Olivi and subsequent theorists like San Bernardino recognize the element of subjectivity in valuation. But what for the theorists is a necessary step in valuation, or just a part of it, for January is rather the whole process. To be sure, he pays some attention to virtuositas, at least after his own fashion, and in this regard he is willing to listen, for a while at least, to the valuations of others (lines 1478-1565); but finally complacibilitas is his main criterion for girl-flesh--his girl must, quite literally, suit his "fantasye" (lines 1597, 1608-10): {187/188}
And /he/ chees hire of his owene auctoritee;
Hym thoughte ech oother mannes wit so badde
That inpossible it were to repplye
Agayn his choys, this was his fantasye.
Most incriminating here of January's economic sense, not to mention his moral fiber, is his solipsistic certitude in the matter of wife-pricing. Under the second item of complacibilitas, Olivi notes:
We must understand that such deliberation we rarely or never perform except through conjectural or probable opinion.And even then, we are not precise or rational or using absolute measurement which is not further divisible into more and less. Quite the contrary, we are working then with a certain latitude or play in estimation about which various opinions and judgments might differ.And so it is that such estimation or valuation includes various degrees of precision and little certainty and a lot of ambiguity, which is only in keeping with judgments by opinion--even as in some cases, it is a question of more, in others, of less (Ed. Spicciani 1977:255-56; emphasis added).

January chooses a wife according to his and no one else's "good pleasure," but at the same time he insists that his choice is absolutely the best, full of certitude and lacking in ambiguity (just the opposite of Olivi's "little certitude and a lot of ambiguity"). And so it is that medieval economics exposes January's "fantasye" for the extremism of its subjectivity.


Chaucer stresses January's "fantasye," of course, in the context of a "commune market-place." He complicates the context and deepens its import by adding the image of the "mirour" (line 1582). Had Chaucer left us with only the "fantasye" on a shopping spree, the image would have been pertly ironic, eliciting the calculated effect, and we would have gone on to the next image of January's high foolishness. But Chaucer is about a more serious game than irony here. Ultimately the girls whom January sees are projections of his own fantasy. And of all Chaucer's characters, perhaps, he is the nearest equivalent to Dante's Master Adam: an obvious narcissist, he is also counterfeiter and falsifier. And this because he is a (very perverse) maker of images.

January's image-making the text insists on through the trope of wax. At one point in his harangue about the best way to dicker for a good marriage, January observes: "`But certeynly, a yong thyng may men gye, / Right as men may warm wex with handes plye'" (lines 1429-30). January has delusions of Pygmalionism, on top of his relentless narcissism. 10 The girl he mar- {188/189} ries, rather than be a person in her own right, must be his manufacture. This lust, of course, backfires on January when May takes "swich impression" (line 1978) of Damyan that she desires "to doon hym ese" (line 1981). Having treated May like wax, January discovers to his dismay that she is wax in Damyan's hands. Moreover, when May "In warm wex hath emprented the clyket / That Januarie bar of the smale wyket" (lines 2117-18), the impressionability of wax must once again dismay January. Finally, perhaps the most telling instance of the reversal of January's delusions of Pygmalionism occurs in his garden when he is, to all appearances, "sweet talking" May and actually admits: "`Ye been so depe enprented in my thoght'" (line 2178; emphasis added). He who would "enprent" his "fantasye" on another person reduced to a lump of wax is forced to admit, doubtless with no sense himself whatsoever of the irony at work, that she is "enprented in /his/ thoght." It is as if the wax to which January reduces reality is continuous with and extends into his own brain; and here he unwittingly confesses that, so far from being a creative authority impressing an Idea or an Archetype upon chaos, he is himself, in his own thought, a lump of wax impressed or imprinted by the "fantasye" of lust.

If the false coiner is here himself coined, more than local irony motivates this reversal. The Merchant doubtless remembers the Clerk's lament about the scarcity of "Grisildis" in the modern world (ClT E 1163-69; emphasis added):

But o word, lordynges, herkneth er I go:
It were ful hard to fynde now-a-dayes
In al a toun Grisildis thre or two;
For if that they were put to swiche assayes,
The gold of hem hath now so badde alayes
With bras,
that thogh the coyne be fair at ye,
It wolde rather breste a two than plye.
It is as if, to "quite" the Clerk, the Merchant went out of his way to corroborate his lament. Wives "now a dayes," the Merchant implies through May, have so far degenerated that they are wax, hardly even brass, and, so far from being able to hold the print or stamp of those who "coin" them, they on the contrary turn on the coiners and coin them, "enprent" them, as if having reduced them to wax.

If May is what the Merchant thinks of Griselda, January is what he thinks of any man fool enough to get married (including, I suppose, himself). Such a man presents the sorry figure of a Narcissus complete with mirror, wax, and porno mint in his brain. Moreover, and what can only be worse foolishness in the Merchant's eyes, such a man actually spends money to fulfill his "fan- {189/190} tasye." Indeed, if January finally condescends to buy May, she does not come cheap--the Merchant makes that abundantly clear (MerT E 1696-99). But, in return, January is expecting her to fetch him no less a "good" than Heaven: "`I shal have myn hevene in erthe heere'" (line 1647). We can almost hear the Merchant muttering "a fool and his money are soon parted." Be that as it may, his relentless scorn for January does succeed in insisting on the latter's strictly mercantile interest in May. January buys May only to spend her for Heaven on earth. Just like a merchant, he is interested not in her but in what she will fetch. Hence when he treats her like wax, he is, in effect, trying also to convert her into coin, so as to spend her, the living girl, on his "fantasye," thus littling her to a thing. Confirming this reasoning, Aquinas, who is following Aristotle (Ethics 4.1.1119b26), declares that "anything whose price can be measured in money is deemed to be money" (ST 2a. 2ae. 78, 2 resp.). If May can be bought for money, she is money--"can be measured in money." And in what is a chillingly precise "quiting," when Damyan comes, as it were, to borrow May, just like money, she will be ready to change hands. Coined by January's "fantasye"--falsified for his pleasure--she will, in fact, be spent by another man, who seeks to deposit his "interest" on this "loan" in the mint, where, according to Macrobius, the human "coin" is fashioned, or "hire wombe /that January/ stroketh. . .ful softe" (line 2414). 11


January's marriage arises from and presupposes exchange of property. So in fact did most if not all marriages of the Middle Ages. 12 No sentimentality should obscure our understanding of the role of property in medieval marriage. But the mercantilism attending the sacrament did not necessarily reduce it to merchandise. In 1374, Oresme finished translating and glossing for Charles V of France the Latin version by William of Moerbeke of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Oeconimica (Menut 1957:791). The bulk of Le Livre de yconomique is concerned with marital relations within the household, which is the space of "yconomique." Now Oresme recognizes the mercantilism attending the sacrament of marriage, but he does so in a wholly different spirit from that of January and the Merchant:

Text: For she /the wife/ has been bought at great price, that is, as his life's compamon .... Gloss: Until death without separation and not for a period of time like a hired woman or like a slave who can be sold again (Ed. Menut 1957:830).
A man may have bought his wife, yes, but the price which he paid is, or should have been, "societé de vie"--obviously a price January cannot and will not afford. Hence, without sentimentality, and in full recognition of the role {190/191} of property in medieval marriage, it is possible to censure January's mercantilism in marriage as a literal practice of "yconomique" devoid of the spirit of "yconomique".

Aristotle, and after him medieval economists, distinguish between oikonomía and kapelikês--the former being the art of wealth-getting for the individual household and for the polis inasmuch as it consists of a collection of households, the latter being the art of wealth getting for its own sake, or trade or merchandising. 13 "Yconomique" is, then, in Oresme's terms--and here I allude to the etymology cited earlier--the science or "ycos" of establishing "icons" and "nomoi" for the successful and beneficial conduct of the family within the household. The implications of "symbol depositing" and of "convention depositing" in Oresme's etymology of "yconomique" will require further discussion in a moment. Here I am chiefly interested in the norms of marital behavior within the household which the treatise establishes, since these are the norms which define the enormity of January and May's travesty of marriage. For example, the treatise declares:

Text: What Hesiod says is correct: namely, that it is fitting and expedient for a man to marry a young maiden, tender in years, so that he may instruct her in good behavior.... Gloss: For affection cannot exist between persons of contrary wills. And such are those couples whose habits are unevenly matched and discordant. And when the wife is young, the husband can better bend her to his will than when she is older (Ed. Menut 1957:816).
The position expressed by "can better bend her to his will" is mitigated elsewhere in the treatise on those many occasions when it insists that a husband must treat his wife not like a slave or a hired woman but precisely like his mate (Menut 1957:816, 333c; 837, 344b; 839, 344d; etc.). All the more ironic, then, is January's immoderately literal practice of "yconomique" in regard to the difference between the ages of husband and wife. His desire for a wax doll who "`shal nat passe twenty yeer'" (MerT E 1417) argues a certain nonchalance about making ends meet. "Whan tendre youthe hath wedded stoupyng age" (line 1738), the irony is not only literary (the topos of the "senex amans"; Brown 1973:97) but also "economic."

January's literal practice of "yconomique" (which, note, is quite uneconomical) continues when he prepares May for her initiation into the mysteries of the connubial couch. For such a moment, Le Livre de yconomique gives the following prescription:

Text: It is a decent, proper and fitting procedure that the husband should approach his wife when she is calm and composed.... {191/192} Text: With great courtesy and modesty or self-restraint and also with awe and humility, speaking to her such words concerning carnal union as are fitting and suitable to the lawful and honorable performance of the sexual act. Gloss: For should he approach her too roughly and shamelessly and use indecent language and behave in a dissolute manner, he would make her too brazen and incline her to incontinence and to lust after another man. And this is not the way chaste persons act but rather the manner of incontinent men toward wanton women (Ed. Menut 1957:837).
Now January's compliance with this prescription is enough to make one wonder whether such a prescription should even be allowed to stand, so contrary a result it produces (MerT E 1828-34):
"Allas! I moot trespace
To yow, my spouse, and yow greetly offende,
Er tyme come that I wil doun descende.
But nathelees, considereth this," quod he,
"Ther nys no werkman, whatsoevere he be,
That may bothe werke wel and hastily;
This wol be doon at leyser parfitly."
Again it is a case of immoderately literal practice of "yconomique." January's approach is and is not the one which the treatise prescribes. He would comfort May regarding her imminent deflowering but succeeds, one strongly suspects, only in disgusting her--and it is certainly true that hereafter she is inclined to "incontinence and to lust after another man." January adopts the manner which the treatise recommends, but he adapts it to utterly incongruent matter. At "economizing" as at love-making, one suspects that May "preyseth nat his pleyyng worth a bene" (line 1854).

If January's literal practice of "yconomique" succeeds in being uneconomical, May's is hardly less self-contradictory. In the course of discussing the friendship in marriage, Le Livre de yconomique notes that

nature granted carnal pleasures to the animals only for the purpose of reproduction; but it accorded the human species this pleasure not only for reproduction of its kind but also to enhance and maintain friendship between man and woman. This is implied in Pliny's statement that no female, after she has become pregnant, seeks sexual union, except woman only (Ed. Menut 1957:813).
Now here is May worming her way through January into the tree (MerT E 2335-37; emphasis added):{192/193}
"I telle yow wel, a womman in my plit
May han to fruyt so greet an appetit
That she may dyen, but she of it have."
"In my plit," of course, refers "irreferently" to pregnancy, and so it is that May "re-presents" one of the "signs" of the "yconomique" of married friendship in the moment just before her adultery, or the opposite of married friendship. Moreover, note the literalism of her practice of "yconomique": the pregnancy (res) is only literal, only in the letter (vox), "in my plit"--it is literally the presence of an absence--and the "re-presentation" is a falsification (though, as we shall see, much like a trope or metaphor too).

These ironies, dazzling though they be, pale beside May's intricately straight compliance with the treatise's prescription that a wife should help her husband "when he is the victim of his own faulty judgment" (Ed. Menut 1957:829): "`Ye maze, maze, goode sire,' quod she; / 'This thank have I for I have maad yow see.' / . . . `He that mysconceyveth, he mysdemeth.'" (MerT E 2387-88; 2410). May does, indeed, minister to her husband's "faulty judgment"--only to make it more manifest. Here, as in the other cases, the right thing to do, the good thing to do, the "economical" thing to do, is done--but to ends diametrically opposite those intended by the spirit of "yconomique."

The culmination of this literalism is the "yconomique" of January's marriage itself: it answers almost literally to Oresme's etymology of the term. For May, in January's mind, resembles an "ycon" in wax; and January himself, solipsistic valuator of girl- flesh, is full of "nomoi" (private laws for ruling his household); and his "ycos" is carnal knowledge ("scientia"). January's "yconomique" is a concupiscible science predicated on private conventionality and fantastic signs. Hence the failure of his household. His "yconomique" is another extension of his "fantasye," and the signs he deposits refer only to their insistence in his "fantasye." His marriage and his bride alike are products of his peculiar and pecuniary art through which he disposes of his private conventions and his fantastic signs. Such a fantastic product, too, is his garden, which is so much his "work of art" that it excludes Nature herself from her proper realm, and is thus a counterfeit or false garden whose "irreference" defines a new depth of reference without reverence.


January's garden, one of the most famous in English literature, is both pudendum and paradise, which he fashioned, doubtless at great cost, because, the Merchant notes, he agreed with those clerks who "holden that felicitee / Stant in delit" (lines 2021-22); and, therefore, "with al his myght, / In honest wyse, as longeth to a knyght. / /He/ shoop hym to lyve ful deliciously" (lines {193/194} 2023-25). Betrayed in the Merchant's observations is January's conviction that the Lord of creation is inadequate to see to his, January's, felicity, either in this world or, one may assume, in the next. Hence January supplements creation with his garden wherein "thynges whiche that were nat doon abedde, / He. . .parfourned hem and spedde" (lines 2051-52), in what we might call a physical or carnal parody of creation. But in addition to this parody and concurrent with it is the far vaster parody, at the Merchant's will, of God's creative Word itself, for January's pudendum paradise complete with tree, fruit, serpent, and deities, even if Pluto and Proserpine are hardly Christian--fairly boasts its emulation of the original home of man east in Eden. In effect, January has bought his own Eden, as a merchant would do, and conducts therein his fantastic business. At the same time, in narrating this business in Eden, the Merchant imposes his will on a constellation of signs crucial to Christianity, the source of meaning in his world, in an effort to make the meaningful meaningless--in an effort to make the real (res) merely vocal (vox), so that, by commanding the voices, he might dictate the real.

The Merchant goes out of his way to observe that the garden which January's money buys and his "fantasye" constructs, to enclose his "hevene on erthe," would tax the descriptive resources of the author who "wroot the Romance of the Rose / /Who/ ne koude of it the beautee wel devyse" (lines 2032-33). 14 The emergence of the Roman de la Rose at this moment in The Merchant's Tale is significant since, in Jean de Meun's, as in Alain de Lille's, figure of the goddess Nature, the three mediations which we have met before--sexuality, language, and coinage--are assimilated and articulated as reflexes each of the other. For example, Jean observes (lines 15975-86):

But when Nature, sweet and compassionate, sees that envious Death and Corruption come together to put to destruction whatever they find within her forge, she continues always to hammer and to forge and always to renew the individuals by means of a new generation. When she can bring no other counsel to her work, she cuts copies in such letters that she gives them true forms in coins of different monies (Trans. Dahlberg 1971:271-72).
Sexuality, as Nature's instrument against Death and Corruption, is both a writing ("letre") and a coining ("quoinz"). January in his garden, practicing his fantastic sexuality (all those "thynges whiche that were nat doon abedde"), is thus Nature's deformed double, perverting not only sexuality but also the art of writing and that of coining as well. And as goes January, so goes the Merchant: if January forges paradise into something as material and carnal as {194/195} Dante's Hell, the Merchant falsifies the sacrament of marriage, the story of Adam and Eve, the Roman de la Rose, the Marriage of Mercury and Philology, and many other texts and tropes into a tale just as material and carnal. In doing so, he proves himself unnatural, too, a corrupter of mediations.

But if January and the Merchant both corrupt mediation, the process is more easily and quickly grasped, initially anyway, in the former. When January approaches May in his garden, his labors upon her body are an all too easily imagined mockery of Nature's labors at her forge or in her mint. In the iconography as well as the written tradition of the goddess, her forge is both implicitly and explicitly assimilated to the pudendum, and her hammers are the male genitalia. 15 Hence when January hammers on May's anvil inside his pudendum paradise, from one perspective he is simply a man (hammers) coupling with a woman (anvil or forge) as Nature dictates; from another perspective, however, one which sees his arrogance in fashioning the garden and his attempted usurpation of Nature, he looks like nothing so much as a puny smith, trying to assume Nature's powers, imagining himself her substitute while in fact he can only corrupt her work.

The case is similar with his coining or moneying. January coins upon May, whom he has already coined in his "fantasye." And he perverts Nature as much in the former act as in the latter. Not only is the womb a mint (Macrobius; see above), but Nature, we know, is a moneyer. 16 Alain de Lille, for example, insists on Nature coining or moneying creatures; this insistence begins as a fascination with the stamping or imprinting of the Ideas upon chaos--a fascination which he shares with Bernard Silvestris and other medieval Platonists. 17 Similarly, in Jean de Meun, the image of Nature as moneyer is a serious trope for the providential ordering of the natural world. Nature's forge, or anvil, and her mint are images of the organs of generation without which the natural world must fail. Hence, when Chaucer's text suggests that January would arrogate to himself Nature's dominion, it is underlining his unnaturalness. January the merchant at the mint of May corrupts natural mediation.

January's corruption of natural mediation is also evident from his perversion of writing. Immediately after May and he enter the garden and just before the climactic scene in and beneath the tree, January appeals to his wife to be true to him (MerT E 2169). If she is, she shall have, he says, "`al myn heritage, toun and tour; / I yeve it yow, maketh chartres as yow leste'" (lines 2172-73; emphasis added). Apparently January held something back when by many a "scrit and bond . . . /May/ was feffed in his lond" (lines 1697-98), and now he uses his "heritage, toun and tour" as a bargaining item. He encourages May to make charters in witness of her ownership of this "heritage"; it is crucial to {195/196} remember, however, that such charters would bind May also--to complete fidelity to January. Hence January encourages writing--charters are very much written documents--in order to make a contract which, none too subtle, really, would bind May to him legally, where the bond of partnership ought first to be amorous, spiritual, and sacramental and only then legal. January is blind, indeed, and blind most of all to the spirit behind the letter.


If January displaces and perverts Nature, corrupting mediation, it is because he subsumes discourse and intercourse under currency: for him, money is the measure of all other mediations. Whereas the Wife of Bath would spend language but only for her own kind of freedom, January spends language and spends May just to spend. Here as elsewhere the letter rules: language and sex are literally money for January. And when money measures discourse and intercourse, creativity, or the generation of the Other in speech and in nature, falls victim to replication, or the reduction of the Other to the Same. January perverts Nature ultimately because he frustrates difference.

January frustrates difference, producing the Same, because he is incapable of pretense and therefore, by implication, incapable also of that alienation of self through media into the Other (sympathy, empathy) which initiates definition of the self. January's incapacity for pretense is most obvious at the moment in the garden when he stands beneath the tree. Here the Roman de la Rose is of great help. In Amis's advice to Amans in Jean's continuation, at one point he declares (lines 9666-72; emphasis added):

"Moreover, the less to estrange her, if he /the young lover/ finds her even in the act, he should take care not to open his eyes in that direction. He should pretend /senblant doit fere/ to be blind or more stupid than a buffalo, so that she may think it entirely true that he could detect nothing" (Trans. Dahlberg 1971:173).
Now it would be hard to deny the relevance of this passage to January's behavior in his garden and beneath the tree. But its precise application is tricky, principally because of the multiple layers of irony in Jean's text. However, we can rely on what seems the Merchant's typical ploy: wherever a standard of any sort seems relevant, we should adduce it because the Merchant consistently and obsessively seeks to destroy standards--to set them up in contexts where they must inevitably fail. Hence we can and should assume that January should be judged according as he actually follows the fin'amors directives which Amis gives Amans; and we should not be surprised to discover that he follows them in such a way as not to follow them at all. {196/197} Hence, for example, he is blind when May and Damian are coupling in the tree, but literally so, and therefore he cannot pretend to be blind as a good fin amant should. Subsequently his eyes are opened, but at that point he screams in rage at what he sees above him in the tree; and obviously he does not pretend to be blind or "simple" in this situation. Finally, with his eyes open, January is in fact blind, as Amis advises precisely, but not out of pretense or of his own will, but rather because May has deceived him with her impromptu justification of struggling in trees. Hence on each of the occasions when Amis's advice might be taken, January repeatedly fails to pretend, "a fere senblant." He fails to be the fin amant because he remains the same as he has always been--rigorously and laboriously himself.

Although replete with "fantasye," January lacks invention; he is incapable even of pretense. Pretense is not, of course, a consummation devoutly to be wished, and I am hardly advocating that January become the Pardoner. The failure to pretend is not important because pretense is desirable but rather because it suggests the stultifying uniformity of January's character. He can participate in no Other; he can only replicate himself. If he is Pygmalion, he is Pygmalion in reverse: whereas Pygmalion (who could both pretend and empathize) would make the naturally dead unnaturally alive, January would make the naturally alive unnaturally dead. Incapable of pretense, sterile of invention, January parodies and subverts Nature, who incessantly generates difference and differences. 18

If January would replace Nature in the garden, she is nonetheless present though in a guise she is not wont to wear. In her confession to Genius in the Roman de la Rose, Nature at one point exclaims: "`I am a woman and cannot keep silent; from now on I want to reveal everything, for a woman can hide nothing'" (lines 19188-90; trans. Dahlberg 1971:317). Now in January's garden, Proserpyna makes a very similar exclamation: "`I am a womman, nedes moot I speke, / Or elles swelle til myn herte breke'" (MerT E 2305-2306). Chaucer's strategy is that Proserpyna should speak in Nature's voice. Previous scholarship has long recognized the mercantile-monetary relevance of Proserpyna to The Merchant's Tale; according to one gloss, for example, "Proserpina significat pecuniam" (Olson 1961:212). Complementing this relevance is her role as natural or chthonic power. And, it must be emphasized, it is this power which enables her through May to deceive January with a fiction or pretense (lines 2265-66, 2272-74; emphasis added):

"Now by my moodres sires soule I swere
That I shal yeven hire suffisant answere {197/198}
Al hadde man seyn a thyng with bothe his yen,
Yit shul we wommen visage it hardily,
And wepe, and swere, and chyde subtilly."
Proserpyna it is who enables May (and all other women, too, we note) to "fere senblant"; and she suggests, therefore, that pretense or invention is a natural power, a power of the earth. More pertinent, perhaps, she suggests that imagination or fantasy, which is ultimately the faculty May employs (if to very dubious ends), is also a natural power--one which, if suppressed or perverted, as January perverts it, can and will reassert itself indiscriminately. It is as if, in the figure of Proserpyna, imagination or fantasy, continuous with Nature in man's person, rises up to claim its due.

Because of Proserpyna, May proves more than an "ycon" of January's "fantasye"; because of the power which she shares with Proserpyna, she proves more than the dead thing which January would make her. On the contrary, she is very much alive and capable of signification or mediation. She can at least make a fiction, even if that fiction, regrettably, should be only a lie. We can hardly approve of May, but we can hardly deny either that she is more imaginative and more alive than January. Through Proserpyna, May is the fiction maker in January's garden, to his great chagrin and despite his will to the contrary.

May's extraordinary capacity for signification or mediation actually emerges earlier in the tale, though without Proserpyna's vow we probably would not recognize the pattern. Repeatedly May is said to make or to give signs to Damyan and to write to him. For example: "But nathelees, by writyng to and fro, / And privee signes, wiste he what she mente" (lines 2104-2105; emphasis added; see further, lines 2150-51, 2209, 2213). One or two instances might be too few to justify suggesting a pattern; five are too many to excuse not suggesting a pattern. The text definitely insists on May's capacity for signification. In spite of January's concupiscible science of private conventionality and fantastic signs, May makes signs of her own. January's household and his garden are definitely not without signification, though he wishes they were. And wishes they were for good reason, given his position. Writing, the Roman de la Rose makes clear, is a trope for intercourse (see lines 19599-606), and in May's actions this trope has been almost literalized. Her signs and writings to Damyan not only anticipate her adultery but in fact are the early stages of her adultery. The mediation which they achieve is, in more senses than one, a false copula. It looks like communication, but there is in fact little community in it--at most, it is "irreferent" exchange of sexual pleasure. May the "visager" is indeed full of mediation or signification, but {198/199} she is devoid of significance--much like a puppet whose strings are of sex.

So, too, with January's garden. He "shoop" it as a reification of his own desire--as a thing fixed in one meaning, his own. The last appearance he wants in his garden is the appearance of significance. He much prefers instead his carnal satisfaction. He could care less about the sponsa of the Cantica Canticorum when he addresses May in the language of that poem (MerT E 2138-48): he is only interested in the "dowve" spreading her wings. And yet the garden which he "shoop," precisely because it is a garden, is full of signification; it bristles with signs--of Paradise, of the genitalia, of classical mythology, etc. As he sees it, though, "for love is blynde alday, and may nat see," they signify only his desire and its satisfaction. As the Merchant sees it, however, the garden with its signs, like the tale itself, is not yet devoid of significance. Not until he annihilates the plenitude of signification, for evil is blind always and blindly sees, will the threat of significance pass from him--"irreference" become the only reverence.


The most ostentatious stylistic quirk which the Merchant displays in his narrative is disregard--indeed, disrespect--for the boundaries of his fiction. Not only does Justinus, supposedly in Pavia supposedly in fictional time, refer January to the Wife of Bath's recent sermonizing about marriage (lines 1685-87), but the Merchant himself also trespasses the boundaries of his fiction to apostrophize his character Damyan (lines 1866-69):

Now wol I speke of woful Damyan,
That langwissheth for love, as ye shul heere;
Therfore I speke to hym in this manere:
I seye, "O sely Damyan, allas!"
If we couple this trespass with the Merchant's obvious manipulation of personifications--January, May, Placebo, Justinus--in all but one of his major characters, and if we add to both Justinus's simultaneous existence (so to speak) in Pavia and on the road to Canterbury, we have an evident case, within a fiction, of someone reducing media to a mirror. 19 The Merchant, in this like his character January, rather than reality sees the images of his "fantasye" which he has projected onto media. He too is a moneyer of imagination; he too suffers from delusions of Pygmalionism; he too desires that reality be wax to bear the stamp of his die. Hence, for example, the Wife of Bath (who is, within the fiction, part of his reality) is reducible to material for his fiction. Unlike his character January, however, the Merchant perverts media with conscious malice. Where January moneys imagination or "fantasye" only for his sensual pleasure, the Merchant moneys imagination out of spite and {199/200} envy. It is important to note here that the medieval etymology of "invidia" (envy) is "in-videre," or "not to see." 20 If there is such emphasis on blindness in The Merchant's Tale, it is owing in part to the blindness of envy which the Merchant suffers. He envies all those who are sexually and maritally happy, and his tale is an eruption out of that envy. Like all other envious, he does not want others to be happy. Indeed, he prefers that they share his hell. And so it is that the Merchant tries to stamp the wills of his audience, to impose his stamp upon them, so that they will become coins of his "fantasye": if they become such coins, he can spend them, use them, to validate and valuate his poisoned view of human sexuality and, indeed, of human creativity itself.

We are in a position here to grasp the peculiar effect of The Merchant's Prologue, discussion of which I have purposely delayed until this moment. After twenty-six lines of misogamy delivered in a tone of near hysteria, the Merchant agrees to begin his tale, "`but of my owene soore, / For soory herte, I telle may namoore'" (MerP 1243-44). By now we should be able to see through the falsification, the lie, which the Merchant has just uttered--of course, he is going to tell us of "his owene soore." His claim to the contrary, an attempt to throw his audience off the track, almost protests too much to succeed, though our common and natural tendency to believe someone until we have reason not to believe him probably works in his favor at first. But by the time we hear the allusion to the Wife of Bath, if not before, we are aware of a design upon us. And with this Narrator we may indeed die of imagination, if we are not careful of the impression we take. For he means to take out on his audience his bleak disappointment with his wife and his marriage, and he means to take out of his audience some compensation. The Merchant's furious indignation at his wife only exacerbates his desire for property. Because his private property has betrayed him--one gathers that his wife was something more than wax--he desires more property all the more vehemently, property which, because he owns it, will reinforce his sense of self. And the property which answers most expediently to this desire is the will of each member of his audience. If they consent to his view of sex and marriage, then he "owns" them, and the ruins of his ego are shored up by this "property." And he almost succeeds in his design. Listen to how like the Merchant Harry Bailly sounds at the end of the tale (lines 2421-40; emphasis added):

"Lo, whiche sleightes and subtilitees
In wommen been! for ay as bisy as bees
Been they, us sely men for to deceyve,
And from the soothe evere wol they weyve;
{200/201} By this Marchauntes tale it preveth weel.
But doutelees, as trewe as any steel
I have a wyf, though that she povre be,
But of hir tonge, a labbyng shrewe is she,
And yet she hath an heep of vices mo;
Therof no fors! lat alle swiche thynges go.
But wyte ye what? In conseil be it seyd,
Me reweth soore I am unto hire teyd.
For, and I sholde rekenen every vice
Which that she hath, ywis I were to nyce;
And cause why, it sholde reported be
And toold to hire of somme of this meynee,
Of whom, it nedeth nat for to declare,
Syn wommen konnen outen swich chaffare;
And eek my wit suffiseth nat therto,
To tellen al, wherfore my tale is do."
Harry's words, of course, are not the same as the Merchant's; Harry is not the Merchant's replica. But this is the only tale which Harry tells, and it is, for a moment, a playback of the Merchant's, at least in vitriol and violence. 21 For a perilous moment Harry is a coin stamped by the Merchant, made in his image--unable to see anything but vice in women--and for that moment, before Harry's innate good humor reasserts itself, we see the cruel and ugly result of a narrative style that can only be called "usurious."

To understand the usury of the Merchant's narrative style, we must first see that his inflation of self, his self-aggrandizement, appears rhetorically as amplificatio.For example, he practices "astrological" inflation by means of the amplificatio of circuitio or circumlocutio (periphrasis) at lines 1795-99. 22 Then, too, he inflates through the amplificatio of apostrophe, as at lines 2057-61. 23 Finally, he indulges for amplification the "outdoing" topos, as at lines 1715-21. 24 It is as if the Merchant has memorized his Geoffrey of Vinsauf. This supposition is all the more attractive, if not compelling, when we recall how Geoffrey finishes the introduction to his section on amplificatio.Telling the novice poet to "reflect upon the precepts below," because "they will guide your pen and teach the essentials," Geoffrey continues: "The material to be molded, like the molding of wax, is at first hard to the touch" (Ed. Faral 1971:203; trans. Nims 1967:23; emphasis added). The Merchant's inflationary or amplificatory rhetoric is itself a sign of his delusions of Pygmalionism: he would follow Geoffrey almost literally in treating the material of his "fantasye" (or his tale) like wax, just as his character January treats the material of his "fantasye" (or May) like wax. But the Merchant's in- {201/202} flationary rhetoric does not stop with amplificatio; it also runs to what we might call brazenly literal captatio benevolentiae (Arbusow 1963:98). He says (lines 2350-53):

Ladyes, I preye yow that ye be nat wrooth;
I kan nat glose, I am a rude man
And sodeynly anon this Damyan
Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng.
We might want to strike the bene from benevolentiae; but still the Merchant has "seized the will" of his audience all right, and by as prim a turn of reverse pornography as we might hope to read.

In his darkness visible of human sexuality and creativity, after May has cast Damyan's letter in the privy and privily informed him of her availability, the Merchant describes Damyan's behavior as "so plesant unto every man / (For craft is al, whoso that do it kan) / That every wight is fayn to speke hym good" (lines 2015-17). For the Merchant too, craft is all--content, or that which is crafted, merely wax, passive and defenseless--and his position is one of constant imposition of his craft upon others. He is, after all, a merchant, hence a salesman. Selling is his craft, and selling is endless. Endlessly and relentlessly, the Merchant sells his craft of selling. If his audience buys it, they too become salesmen, just like him, for whom the craft of selling is all; and whether they sell the "wax" of misogamy or sell "sheeldes" (GP A 278) or sell the sacrament of marriage, they are his replicas and his property. They have, in fact, paid interest on as well as had interest in his surreptitious autobiography, his "irreferent" fiction.


I am moving here, tentatively but seriously, toward a description of exactly how the Merchant's narrative style is usurious. At this point the technical term during the Middle Ages for monetary exchange, or cambium, will, I believe, be helpful. Human communication, I would like to suggest, resembles a cambium because in communication we exchange our words of different value: we exchange difference as and because we are different. Even if, upon occasion, our words happen to be the "same," in reality they are not because they are, on the one hand, mine and, on the other, yours (cf. Deleuze 1968:35). Now if, on the contrary, I stand before you and demand that you consume my words exactly as mine--my words as money to buy your assent-- you can become only my replica, not my mate in the exchanges of humanity. In this event the cambium of communication has become a usurious mutuum where, with no exchange from you, mine "becomes" yours--you consume what I want you to hear--while, just so, I insist that mine remain mine {202/203} and return to me with more of mine, or the same. Where a cambium conceals a usurious mutuum, community dies. 25

To preserve community, usury must be rejected. Even if it should happen that a cambium is impossible and a mutuum necessary, then the mutuum should flow from "caritas," as indeed the church taught (Noonan 1957:42, 64-65, 72-73). Hence, for example, because (but only because) my students are younger than I, often I lend them my words when they do not have their own to return, and they credit me: they believe me. But this is only in order that they may return their words to me, not mine but theirs, equally as equals, when their understanding has matured. "And unlike money, the word gives birth to the word," but only when my word is consumed and bears new fruit. And I can only ask in exchange an equal return. Not a return of the same, but an "equal return": "The Roman law said that the matter of loans was goods consisting in number, weight, or measure, that is, goods which were fungibles; since 'by giving them we contract a credit; for they can be repaid by being returned in their species rather than individually'" (Noonan 1957:40). Just as the "same" money hardly ever returns "individually" to the hands of the lender, so the "same" words should not return "individually" to either party in the cambium, or the occasional mutuum, of communication. Return of the "same" is replication merely and reification of the self demanding the "same." To be sure, my meaning may return; you and I may agree with each other; you and I may understand each other; you and I may communicate with each other. But, in this case, even when our words happen to be the "same," they are not because they are mine and yours. True "inter esse" is the celebration of difference without which life itself is impossible.

But the fertility of the word is ruined to sterility when the word is transumed into money--when it is used to buy replication of the self rather than to facilitate exchanges of self with the Other. When the word is confounded with money, the cambium of communication becomes a usurious mutuum.The usurer of the word demands not interest in himself calling to the Other but interest on his word such that it will return to him laden with more of himself. This unnatural increase of self dissolves the "inter esse" of human society. And this dissolution exposes the crime of the usurer, or his violation of humanity in trading on the necessity of togetherness to human being.

For the Merchant, usurer of words, as for January, the only "real" audience, the only audience he deems worthy of his performance, is such an audience as will acquiesce in his version of the world. To such an audience the Merchant would sell his fantasy and thus reinforce it. It is as if, to this end, he empties words of their living mediation--"Swiche olde lewed wordes {203/204} used he" (MerT E 2149)--until they become dead matter which he can then quicken with his own insistent sexual and marital trauma. Where Geoffrey of Vinsauf likens the poet's material to wax, the Merchant wants words (and probably reality itself) to be wax, to be malleable to his will. He would prefer that words have no independent life of their own, no freedom to generate new forms (though, of course, they do, in spite of him). Rather than media which facilitate exchanges of self and Other, he would prefer that they be things which his craft of selling could consume. For if sold, they would return to him, or so he wants to believe, the Same. This is his desire. He does not want credit; he wants replication. He wants Harry Bailly to sound just the way he himself sounds. And at the core of this desire is the axiom, the frightening axiom, that everyone is just as unhappy, just as depraved, just as sorry as he is. Everyone desires the Same; there is no desire for Difference. These are axioms of the Merchant (and, if we stop to consider the matter, of the mercantile world too--think only of the assembly line). Without an identity of his own, possessed only of craft, the Merchant must try to eliminate the differences of others so that they will want only what he wants. He must try to reduce everyone to the same desire and to the desire for the Same. Hence he invests the money of his imagination in the wills of his audience, hoping for a yield of the Same. The Merchant must have more and more of the Same (we are all, I suspect, fairly tired by the end of his tale of his relentless pursuit of the Same). Aristotle taught the Middle Ages that the curse on "campsoria" (traffic in money) was precisely the infinite desire which it unleashes (Noonan 1957:46-47).

The Merchant's lust for the Same is a will to level creation into destruction. It is a will to eradicate difference whose ultimate perversion is that creation "means" destruction or that good "means" evil or that, as Donaldson would express it (1958:1086), the positive "means" the negative. It is, in fact, creativity itself which the Merchant hates, and so death is his consuming desire. Because January claims that he is a green tree (MerT E 1461-66), we know that (the Merchant "means" that) he is rather a "lignum aridum," or a sterile or dead tree (Miller 1955:182-91). Because January claims that "`mariage is a ful greet sacrement'" (line 1319), we know that (the Merchant "means" that) marriage is a curse, a dead thing, bearing death. Because January's eyes are opened, we know that (the Merchant "means" that) he is in that moment most utterly blind. And so on, again and again, that which is life and creative is for the Merchant death and deadly.

The Merchant's desire for death is a reflex of his lust for the Same. The rhetorical appearance of this desire, this lust, is the opposite of allegory--hence the presence of so many potential allegories in The Merchant's {204/205} Tale -- and since the medieval manuals universally define allegory as "alieniloquium," I propose here to call its opposite "proprioloquium." 26 If allegory and irony, which is one of the tropes of allegory, are an "other-speaking," then the Merchant's version of allegory, his falsification of it, is "self-speaking." Note well that, as with all of the falsification or counterfeiting, the original appears to be present--we have in the tale what looks like an abundance of allegory--but it is in reality false--the various allegories are actually "self-speakings" of the Merchant. Hence, the green tree "means" as if it were an allegorical image, but it "means" dead tree in the Merchant's coinage. Hence, again, the garden "means" as if it were an allegorical image--it is so near a duplication of the one in Genesis that it could hardly fail to do so--but it "means" the duping of an old fool by a young slut in the Merchant's coinage. We are, I must hasten to insist, talking now exclusively about the Merchant's, not Chaucer's, narration; Chaucer's narration is another matter altogether. In the Merchant's narration, with its usurious style, we confront again and again the structure of "other-speaking" (allegory), but what we hear is "self speaking," or "proprioloquium." In the Merchant's narration, with its usurious style, we have false or counterfeit allegory. The Merchant doles out words and images fully intending that they "mean,"or bear fruit, but also fully intending that their meaning, their fruit, remains exclusively his to profit from as he pleases. 27 The fungible word, we have seen, is fertile if it is consumed and then reborn in the Other, but for the Merchant the word is a coin whose ownership he retains after it has left him, with the result that when it is consumed by his audience the only fruit it can bear is his and himself. Counterfeit allegory, these arguments suggest, looks like plenitude of meaning, but, in fact, it is impoverishment of meaning (green tree=dead tree) for aggrandizement of the self.


As May is to January, so is his tale to the Merchant: devoid of significance, except for the expression of lust, it is full of signification, despite the Merchant's will. And as May overwhelms January with her pretense or "lie," so his tale overwhelms the Merchant with its allegorical resonances. These resonances, in Chaucer's gift and control, are more than pretense, I should hasten to add, and they are "lies" only in the structural sense in which all fiction is a "lie." In Chaucer's narration they are not false but true "alieniloquium" (i.e., "true" or designed fiction). And this we know, first and foremost, because we sense the living mediation in his narration: we are not melting a lump of wax, we are not being duped by counterfeit coin, when we read and interpret Chaucer's poem. Hence it is a fair question to ask, What exactly is the difference between Chaucer and the Merchant? {205/206} The difference is this: the one is blind, the other can see. In media the Merchant can see only himself; Chaucer, we know, can see the Other, can see differences and Difference, can see the many ways in which people love themselves, define themselves, rule and fail to rule themselves. Chaucer is a love-poet; the Merchant is a hate-poet. And it is the measure of the love-poet's love that he knew enough to try to see matters from the perspective of the hate- poet's position.

We can nuance the difference between Chaucer's and the Merchant's visions with the help of Saint Augustine. He himself was a merchant, a "venditor verborum," or merchant of words, as he tells us. 28 And he wrote an autobiography, just as Chaucer's Merchant did. He and the Merchant both confess through literary form (cf. Shoaf 1981:175-85). In the eighth book of the Confessions, Augustine describes the consummation of his conversion, which took place beneath a tree in the garden of a friend. The tree strongly resembles the one which stands in January's garden, since both recall that "original" tree east in Eden; indeed, Augustine probably means to assimilate this tree to the earlier pear tree, where he first saw the fruits of his concupiscence (2.4), and by way of that tree to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Now the conversion beneath the tree in his friend's garden was immediately preceded by the narration of the life of Saint Anthony (8.6). And as Augustine prepares to relate the events of his own momentous response to that story, he writes:

This was what Ponticianus told us. But while he was speaking, O Lord, you were turning me around to look at myself. For I had placed myself behind my own back, refusing to see myself. You were setting me before my own eyes so that I could see how sordid I was, how deformed and squalid, how tainted with ulcers and sores. I saw it all and stood aghast, but there was no place where I could escape from myself. If I tried to turn my eyes away they fell on Ponticianus, still telling his tale, and in this way, you brought me face to face with myself once more, forcing me upon my own sight so that I should see my wickedness and loathe it. I had known it all along, but I had always pretended that it was something different. I had turned a blind eye and forgotten it (8.7; trans. Pine-Coffin 1961:169).
Augustine tries to turn from what he sees, but Ponticianus is "still telling his tale," and he cannot avoid the impingement of himself upon his eyes. He sees himself in and through the story of Saint Anthony--and cannot endure the self he sees. Hence, the story of Saint Anthony is a mirror, but it is a very special kind of mirror. Instead of the self which he desires to see, Augustine sees the self and its iniquity which he has known all along but avoided through dissimulation. And so, if the story of Saint Anthony is a mirror, we {206/207} must say that it is a mirror of Difference. In it Augustine sees a man so different from himself that the difference throws into relief his own iniquitous self. Augustine sees Difference, or, sees the Other, and the Other tells him who and what he is. It turns him and twists him until it makes two of him, the one seeing and the one seen. This, we know, is self consciousness. And Augustine is self-conscious--what rhetorician is not?--and becoming so much more self-conscious that he can no longer dissimulate and hide himself from himself; rather, seeing the truth, he must confess it. When he looks into the story of Saint Anthony, Augustine sees through the medium to the Other, and its Difference tells him who he is. We might think of Dante once more: it is Narcissus who looks into the mirror, but it is not Narcissus who sees himself.

Nor does Narcissus see himself when Chaucer looks into the mirror, whether the mirror of The Merchant's Tale or the mirror of any of his other poems. Chaucer, too, sees Difference even as he always celebrates differences. The Merchant, however, sees only the Same. Condemned to presence--to the hard, carnal materiality of his mercantile imagination--the Merchant is blind to the "alienness" of allegory. His "proprioloquium," a kind of verbal usury, so far from turning him to make two of him (self consciousness), re-turns him the "turning" of the trope so that "meaning" may be his meaninglessness. The trope is ex-propr- iation, or the alienation of the proper of the word into the Other and new meaning--"pratum ridet" ("the meadow smiles")--and the whole community of the language is the richer for this "transfer" of "property" between meadows and smiles. 29 But this turn or transfer or alienation the Merchant assiduously attempts to direct toward himself and into his own possession, so that he might control it or dictate it. Do not ask for whom the meadow smiles or for whom the tree is green; it "smiles" for him; it is "green" for him.

Perhaps the single most revealing example of this perversion is the Merchant's gloss on January's paraphrase of Solomon's song of love--namely, "swiche olde lewed wordes used he" (MerT E 2149). January sings the song to entice the "columbyn" to spread her wings in his garden. Very well, this is lust, and bad though it be, it is only lust, least criminal of the seven deadly sins. 30 The Merchant, however, much more terrifying than January, is guilty of envy (not to mention other sins), and he utters the song cum gloss to annihilate its allegorical plenitude. The key here--it is one of the most brilliant word choices in Chaucer's poetry, as brilliant as "taille"--is "lewed." In glossing January's words as "lascivious," the Merchant is also trying to suggest that they are "unlearned" and "simplistic," the other and possibly more dominant meanings of Middle English "lewed." 31 In fact, however, words are {207/208} "learned," and they are "knowledgeable" (cf. Payne 1981:36). They have a life of their own which is their property. This is not merely a way of speaking. Or if it is a way of speaking, it is such a way as Heidegger follows (1971:213-29) when he affirms with Hölderin that "dichterisch wohnet der Mensch" ("poetically man dwells"). Language speaks man at least as much as man speaks language. And this because words have a life of their own. They have their life in the "in-between" (the "inter-esse") not only through the power of convention, or that agreement or concordance by means of which men form communities of meaning, but also through their power to ex-propr- iate themselves. The church, the body of the faithful, had agreed that Solomon's Song was "learned" in the relationship between Christ and His Bride; but if the community of the church celebrated that significance as real, it is because that significance "turned" from the property of Solomon's words. 32 The agreement and the trope are simultaneously cause and effect each of the other. But January will sing Solomon's Song only if his carnality is its "allegory": the trope "turns" but it is privatized; January's satisfaction, alone in his world, signifies--"this /is/ his fantasye." But as the Merchant sees it, allegory itself, the plenitude of signification, must be "lewed": unlearned and unknowledgeable, the trope is not not "turned" but "turned" not to "turn" ("proprioloquium": counterfeit allegory)--"this /is/ his fantasye." Finally, January is an idolatrous old fool. The Merchant, on the other hand, is a nihilist of the sign: for him, meaninglessness is the only meaning.

Because he is a nihilist of the sign, because he would annihilate significance in the world, the Merchant is most fittingly seen as, so to speak, an escapee from Dante's Inferno. Characteristic of the damned is their reduction of all media to the carnal and the literal: in addition to Master Adam, we may think of the Medusa as the type of authority in Hell (Freccero 1972:1-18). As Master Adam almost turns Dante into a falsifier and narcissist, so Medusa would turn him into stone. Their false authority carnalizes or hardens those who are exposed to it. Just so, to look at the Merchant and his tale directly--without any protection, without any mediation, such as Virgil provides Dante (Inf. 9.55-63)--would be to turn to stone, one's will reduced to the Merchant's property without any further vocation, the fate which Harry Bailly almost suffers. The Merchant utters, breeds, and sells death. The creativity of media, of words especially, he must kill to satiate his envy. This he attempts by the supreme usury of insisting that he alone determine their structure and their meaning--"swiche olde lewed wordes used he." The Merchant would have it that conventionality, or the creative concord of the community, and expropriation, or the creative "turn" of words, be replaced by his counterfeit allegory. The words which he uses, alive with meaning, he {208/209} tries to reduce to wax or to stone, so as, once they are dead, to quicken them with his own character; the coin of his imagination, they will return to him, having bought the wills of his audience--an infinity of the increase of the Same were he to succeed. The Merchant, usurer and "proprioloquist," disposes of a narrative style which would reduce the community of meanings to a soliloquy in Hell.

But this in fact does not happen. And this because of Chaucer, the other voice if not the voice of Other. I am not here invoking tale-teller irony, that old if not wearied dogma of Chaucer criticism. I am speaking rather to the phenomenon of a text which revels in disclosure, which plays with the profoundest of all paradoxes of mediation, or the concealment simultaneous with every revelation. As the Merchant tries to close (as he "sees" it, reveal) ) the reality of romance and marriage within his own blind view, darkened by usury and a bankruptcy not monetary only, his words disclose his malice and his suffering. As the Merchant tries to impress upon the wax of his material the dies of his "fantasye," his words prove more than wax, and as living mediation, they succeed in implying that he is a copy of a very old Hater of life. What the Merchant would close, materialize, and reify, Chaucer opens, spiritualizes, and personalizes. He does so by giving the Merchant what the merchant would destroy: significance. Chaucer protects us from the Merchant and his tale just as Virgil protects Dante from the Medusa, but not in the same way. Whereas Virgil covers Dante's eyes, Chaucer is rather the light by means of which we see through the Merchant and his tale to the significance beyond. {209}