Note 1: The Myth of Eden, Bakhtinian Carnival, and Chaucer's Merchant's Tale.
The Biblical account of the fall of man is addressed in the second and third chapters of Genesis. Two important and interconnected themes are expressed in the story. On the one hand, Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden, where it had never been necessary for him to work for a living, and was told by God that he would have "to till the soil from which he had been taken" for the rest of his life.* What might properly be called the monologic voice of God also said to Adam "[a]cursed be the soil because of you. With suffering shall you get your food from it every day of your life." The curse God placed on the soil and the fact that life itself could only be taken from it through suffering afterward, establishes the ground for the presumption that nature is evil and that man's expulsion from the Garden cast him forth into an alien and dangerous world where he could expect to survive only with the greatest possible effort against the punishment God meted out to him f or his sin. At the same time, of course, and on the other hand, God also prevented Adam and all future generations of his offspring from eating the fruit of the tree of life. In other words, apparently, God punished man for his "original sin" by depriving him of eternal life. God said: "He must not be allowed to stretch his hand out next and pick from the tree of life also, and eat some and live for ever." Hence, God's punishment for man's "original sin" was that he could live only by suffering every day of his life and that he would not live for ever.
One way to evaluate this myth is to take note of the fact that never in the history of humankind did any single living person actually dwell in a Garden of Eden where no labor was required to sustain life. It is also true as well that no one has ever reasonably expected to live forever. If nothing else is true about the human condition, one can count on labor as a means of survival and on death as a means of escaping from it. Having said this in no uncertain terms, it is also true that any number of people will object to a literal reading of the Biblical text. People will say that it is meant to be taken metaphorically, symbolically, allegorically, spiritually, and so on. Of course that is true; however, it is also true that myths have consequences which may not always be so obvious to the individuals who embrace them as a way of defining their life expectations.
In a recent critical evaluation of Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of carnival, and other aspects of his thought, Michael Bernstein has argued that Bakhtin's view of the world is not sufficiently pessimistic and does not accord well with the realities of the human condition.* Citing Freud, for instance, he notes that one way to define human experience is through a concept of "reminiscence-as-suffering" which psychoanalytic theory, and Freud especially, employs to explain the condition suffered by hysterics (204). Bernstein links this concept to Nietzsche's perception of ressentiment and asserts that the Freudian term "is the most succinct definition" he can imagine for this "central" term of Nietzsche's thought (204). One can note in passing here that a concept like "reminiscence-as-suffering," even without defining it specifically or technically, can hardly be distinguished from what we have always been told about the human condition through the myth of man's expulsion from the Garden. What else is there to remember after all if every day of our lives must be spent in suffering the fate of our inescapable alienation from Eden's perfect existence?
Bernstein goes on to link the Freudian concept to Nietzsche's thought by noting that "[i]t is only through a long temporal process . . . that ressentiment becomes linked to time itself as the 'feeling-again' of something vile, something whose vileness, in fact, is a function of its repetitive nature" (213). Two other statements make the connection between "ressentiment," as a sense of "vileness," and "time" more explicit: "[r]evenge and ressentiment are twin moments of the same malign emotional orchestration, and their deepest rage is aimed at time itself" (214); and, "Nietzsche defined the fundamental nature of revenge as a constant and nagging rage at the human experience of temporality" (214). What is again clear in this line of thought, even if Bernstein never acknowledges it, is the fact that man's temporality, like his alienation from a mythic and ideal world, has always been perceived in Western thought as the result of his "original sin" against God's monologic command to refrain from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. One problem here may be linked to logic; that is, if Adam and Eve had not eaten of the fruit, would we now live eternally in the extratemporal perfect world of Eden or would we still be forced to work every day of our lives for our living and then die? Myths have consequences; and to return briefly to the literal reality of the human condition, no one ever did live in Eden because by definition as "extratemporal" it has never existed in the real world where human beings have always lived.
There seems to be a fundamental choice here. One can embrace the myth of Eden and follow Bernstein's and Nietzsche's path to a fruitless raging against what has always been true and inescapable, that man is and always has been mortal, or one can decline to accept the power of the ultimate monologic word that we used to be immortal but lost that attribute because a serpent tempted the woman and we all got collectively thrown out of paradise, coming down, as it were, somewhere in Indiana, perhaps.
Bakhtin always approaches the monologic utterance the same way-- dialogically; that is, he thinks of it as a potential target for parody. Parody always involves repetition and Bernstien explains the consequences of repeating the same utterance when he notes that "the passage of time and the ensuing dissimilarity in context [between the first and second articulation] come close to ensuring that the second utterance will be experienced as either a banal echo of its earlier affirmation or, still worse, as a parodic falling off of the energy once released by a forceful word" (212). At the heart of Bakhtin's concept of carnival is the notion that parody, and the laughter it engenders, always breaks down the barrier that stands between the monologic discourse of the official word (in this case the myth of Eden) and the perception popular discourse, the word of the street and the public square, has and articulates toward the meaning or sense of that word. He notes, for instance, that the word of parody has a "liberty to crudely degrade, to turn inside out the lofty aspects of the world and world views" and that "the entire world and everything sacred in it is offered to us without any distancing at all, in a zone of crude contact, where we can grab at everything with our own hands."* Indeed, parody does strangle the "forceful word" and does deprive it of the "oxygen" it needs to maintain its original vitality.
In the Middle Ages, of course, the thrust of the parodying word was always directed at the monologic discourse of the church and the sense of carnival that Bakhtin privileges is connected to the way that medieval writers employed parody to undercut the hegemonic power of that institution and its official word. Bakhtin describes the process in these terms:
"Another's sacred word, uttered in a foreign language [Biblical Latin], is degraded by the accents of vulgar folk languages [vernacular English], re-evaluated and reinterpreted against the backdrop of these languages, and congeals to the point where it becomes a ridiculous image, the comic carnival mask of a narrow and joyless pedant, an unctious hypocritical old bigot, a stingy and dried up miser." (DI, 77)
Bakhtin also notes that "[a]ll the parodic-travestying forms of the Middle Ages, and of the ancient world as well, modeled themselves on folk and holiday merrymaking, which throughout the Middle Ages bore the character of carnival" (DI, 79).
In short, any repetition of a sacred word in a vernacular language has the potential to carnivalize the monologic, official discourse of the church. As often as not, the parodic text will show a direct, if not vulgar, use of the language of raw and open physicality that borders on an obscene depiction of the human condition.
For the sake of illustration, and specifically in terms of the Eden myth, it is possible to examine the Merchant's Tale from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to outline precisely how that story both challenges and undercuts the notion of man's "original sin" as it is expressed in the Biblical account in Genesis. The idea that the Merchant's story is a cynical parody of Christian sacraments (marriage especially) and the language of the Holy Scriptures is certainly not new. Emerson Brown, Jr., for instance, in an attempt to get "beyond old controversies" in critical evaluations of the Tale,* has affirmed the fact that "it is the negative, cutting humor of the cynic that dominates the tale, not that exuberant, life-affirming humor of youthful vigor that some observers find in the fabliau view of life" (151) which molds the narrator's purpose. J. D. Burnley* has argued that the verbal surface of Chaucer's discourse in the tale is a consciously directed parody of the language used in liturgical performances of sacramental marriage in the fourteenth century (20-23). Reacting against the idea that the tale is "utterly lacking in moral perspective," as many early critics maintained, Burnley suggests that the vantage point from which the morality of the tale can be perceived is hidden or concealed in Chaucer's use of parody (18). He concludes that "the conceptual content of the work expands beyond its bounds to form part of a complex network of values and ideals, secular and religious, which contrast with and condemn the actions portrayed in the narrative" (24).
The problem with Burnley's argument, from a Bakhtinian point of view, is that parody targets the dominant, monologic al discourse in society, in this case the liturgical language of sacramental marriage, in an effort to replace its semantic authority with the authority generated by the parodic text itself.* Hence, there is no way to argue that the Merchant's Tale creates a "network of values and ideals" that re-enforces the dominant, monological discourse of the church, since that is precisely what the tale parodies.
In another modern evaluation of the Tale, Michael D. Cherniss has argued that Chaucer's parody is directed at the myth of man's fall in Genesis.* He notes for instance that "Chaucer transforms the Pear-Tree story into a parody of the Fall of Man with Damyan, under a bush (2155) and then in a tree (2210), playing the serpent" (252). Cherniss also argues that the paradise theme itself is connected to Januarie's perception of marriage which forces it take an "outrageous form" where "the creation of Eve is offered as proof that a wife is Man's 'paradys terrestre'" (248). Duly noting the antifeminist character of the Merchant's speech performance, Cherniss suggests that Chaucer suppresses the traditional view of Eve's complicity in causing the loss of paradise in the first place. Arguing that the idea is "suppressed," however, may miss the point of Chaucer's parody, since he has inverted the traditional view of Eve's role more than he has worked to suppress it.
Charniss makes two other points in his analysis that are significant. He argues that Pluto and Proserpine, who seem to preside over Januarie's garden, are the wrong deities to perform such a role. He notes that "they are unholy spirits in an unholy place" (251), a point which makes it obvious that Januarie's garden is nothing like the actual Eden. Finally, he argues that "January remains a parody Adam in a false paradise" because "he is a spiritually blind fool whose paradise has been false from the beginning" (253). He concludes that "January cannot lose what he has never really had, outside of his own warped imagination" (253).
As implied earlier, Cherniss' evaluation of the parodic aspects of the Tale, especially in terms of the difference between whether an author has suppressed or inverted a traditional reading of a Biblical text, does not engage the issue of the role parody plays in literary production. Cherniss's view of parody, like most formalist criticism, perceives it as one device, among many others, that functions on the verbal surface of the work, carrying with it a rather limited set of preconceived functional conventions, known to everyone, which do not significantly affect the deeper meaning of the literary performance. In other words, Chaucer has written a parody of the fall of man but the essential and traditional meaning of that story, and that myth, has not been challenged, or altered in any significant way by the fact that it has been parodied by the Merchant's Tale. This fact is most clearly expressed in Cherniss's conclusion that Januarie "cannot lose what he never really had, outside of his own warped imagination." This statement simply misses the point of parody as Bakhtin perceives it.
Gary Saul Morson, in his evaluation of Bakhtinian parody, has established three criteria for determining whether a work is parodic in its intent or not. The parody must clearly evoke its target text. In this case, it is clear that the Merchant's performance, in its language-use and imagery, points to the story of the fall of man in Genesis as a target text. Secondly, there must be a clear antithetical distinction between one text and the other. Finally, the parody must suggest, in some way or another, that its semantic authority is superior to the target text. Cherniss's perception that Januarie's view of paradise is false and does not exist "outside of his own warped imagination" is precisely the wrong position to take with respect to Chaucer\rquote s intent because Januarie's view is mostly consistent with the perception fourteenth century people had of the issues at stake in the story.
Chaucer usually relies on a technique of inversion in his parodic work. He turns things "up-so-doun" in order to expose the absurdity or hypocrisy of the "official" version of an original story. Comparing May to a pre-lapsarian Eve opens an obvious space for parodic intent but the target of the parody is the fourteenth century argument that the marriage of Adam and Eve in paradise, as the Parson describes it, was "varray mariage, that was establissed by God, er that synne bigan, whan natureel lawe was in his right poynt in paradys; and it was ordeyned that o man sholde have but o womman, and o womman but o man" (X.920). Arguing that Januarie's expectation of having a marriage like the one described by the Parson, in spite of the antifeminist orientation of the Merchant's performance, certainly does cast him in the role of the fool but also ignores the fact that fourteenth century marriage was "a ful greet sacrement" (IV.1319) that was supposed to achieve the state envisioned by the Parson. One can argue that Januarie's choice of May as his "make" was the point at which he sealed his ultimate downfall in having his "hevene in erthe heere" (IV.1673); but his expectation in having it realized is neither unorthodox nor particularly foolish. It was every Christian's right to expect a "varray" sacrament of the church to achieve its stated objective.
The point at which Chaucer's parody of the Eden myth, and his technique of inverting it, becomes most obvious and compelling is in the reported speech of May to Januarie in the garden when she expresses her desire to climb into the tree with Damyan. She says, giving him her reason for ascending into the tree, that:
"I moste han of the peres that I see,
Or I moot dye, so soore longeth me
To eten of the smale peres grene.
Help, for hir love that is of hevene queene!
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." (IV.2331-2337)
In the Eden myth, of course, eating the fruit of the forbidden tree is precisely what brings human mortality into the world's perfect garden. When Chaucer inverts the terms of that monologic prohibition by having May claim she will die if she does not eat the fruit, he fashions a supremely humorous moment of fabliau parody, (what could be more ridiculous than Adam bending down so Eve can climb up his back to secure the one object forbidden to man in all of God's perfect creation?), that challenges the very foundation of the myth of man's fall into "original sin."
Only two things are required to make this reading of Chaucer's intent valid. The agency which presides over the action of the story must be antithetical to the original myth and the end result of the action must be shown to carry no significant sanction or punishment against the actors who engender that action. Chaucer, of course, combines these two aspects of the story in the same profound message: Pluto and Proserpine are the "heroes" of his parody. Michael Cherniss notes that "God and St. Peter" are the "usual deities" who preside over the story in its analogues and that "Pluto and Proserpine" are "never" the ones mentioned (251). Chaucer's introduction of these two "unholy spirits" into his version of the "Pear-Tree" tale, and the roles they play in its denouement, profoundly alters the nature of his literary production.
When Pluto becomes aware of the fact that May and Damyan plan to betray Januarie, he proclaims his intent that the old knight "shal have ayen his eyen syght,/ Whan that his wyf wold doon hym vileynye" (IV.2259-2260). In response to her husband's threat to restore Januarie's sight, Proserpine swears
That I shal yeven hire suffisant answere,
And alle wommen after, for hir sake,
That, though they be in any gilt ytake,
With face boold they shulle hemself excuse,
And bere hem doun that wolden hem accuse. (IV.2265-2270)
Both promises are kept and, while Januarie does see his own betrayal at the hands of his wife and Damyan, May manages to convince him that he has not seen what his eyes tell him has happened. Damyan is left unpunished for his deceit. Januarie and May simply go on with their married lives as if nothing has happened at all and, as numerous critics have said before, the tale fails to achieve any moral center from which it can be judged. In a final cut at the authority of the Biblical myth, the author-creator of the story tells us that Januarie, just as his sight is restored,
Up to the tree he caste his eyen two,
And saugh that Damyan his wife had dressed
In swich manere it may nat been expressed (IV.2360-2362),
which clearly questions the notion that God was able to perceive man's original sin in the mythic garden because Adam and Eve had covered their innocent nakedness as soon as they had eaten the forbidden fruit out of the sense of shame engendered in them by their new-found knowledge of good and evil. Here, of course, what Januarie sees when he looks up into the tree is precisely the naked, bare-fleshed truth of his wife's sexual betrayal . The inversion, since May is "dressed" by Damyan's flesh (literally his penis), is both powerful and profound in its parodic thrust at the Biblical myth.
Referring to this moment as the high-point of Chaucer's parody, even as the image it generates carries us to the lowest level of the Tale's moral degeneracy, in as much as the Biblical version of God's absolute and monologic judgment is ruthlessly suspended by Chaucer's narrator, speaks eloquently to the issues Bakhtin raises about the nature of the carnivalesque as it appears in medieval literary production. Is this tale comic? No one dies; in fact, one can even argue that everyone lives happily ever after, with certain unequivocal refinements one might wish to attach to May's plight in being married to an old, lecherous fool. If she manages to maintain her "relationship" with Damyan, she will get what she deserves or, to put it another way, she will get what she deserves. Januarie will go on living in the blissful ignorance of his own profound blindness. Is the tale blasphemous? Emerson Brown, Jr., quoting Jill Mann, argues that "[o]ne of the features associated with merchants in the estates tradition is 'ungodliness, blaspheming and neglecting the Sabbath'" (Part II, 250). (See also Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Class and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1973.) Certainly. Beautifully. Wonderfully so. Does it challenge the hegemonic power of the monolithic fourteenth century church in all its ecclesiastical splendor? Of course it does.
Modern responses to Chaucer's Merchant's Tale have traditionally expressed a deep concern over the fact that it fails to establish a moral center from which it becomes possible to judge the actions of the characters in the fabliau. The fact that Chaucer does not explicitly punish any of the obvious sinners in his tale produces a profound uneasiness in contemporary critics. In order for literature to claim a moral ground, something Chaucer tends to deny anyway, sinners must be shown to suffer for their sins. That too is a basic tenet of Judeo-Christian belief, especially in the context of the Eden myth, and to find a fourteenth century fable which clearly evokes that myth but fails utterly to enact a suitable punishment against its miscreant characters can do little else except generate confusion in response to that failure. When the fable is also viciously misogynistic, anti-sacramental, offensively lewed, if not pornographically explicit, in terms of some current community standards, it is not difficult to understand why some critics have labeled it "unChaucerian."* As J. D. Burnley notes, it is difficult to understand how such a "negative and cruel" story can be accepted "as the work of so humane and sympathetic an author" (18).
In the context of Bakhtinian carnival, however, most, if not all, of these problems tend to dissipate. As an example of what Bakhtin calls "holiday merrymaking," in which the official word of the hegemonic church was routinely made the object of parody, the Merchant's Tale cannot be taken seriously as an attempt to re-enforce the values and ideals of the moral high-ground represented by ecclesiastical discourse. Chaucer's purpose is to parody that ground and his Merchant's Tale does exactly that explicitly. Having said that one must still find a way to deal with the Tale's existence, one must find a way to read it in that context.
The myth of Eden, while it is connected to scriptural tradition and is part of the sacred word so powerfully honored in the Middle Ages, is nevertheless, and even exactly for that reason, a target for the parodic-travestying word of the holiday merrymakers of medieval carnival. That some of them were also poets only serves to preserve that word. The ultimate effect of parody on the sacred word, when it is subjected to a retelling so brutal in its assault against the values and ideals standing at the center of the moral fabric of Chaucer's world, is perhaps impossible to assess. The fact that Eden still stands as a powerful concept used to define the relationship between human and God, man and nature, as well as most aspects of interpersonal relationships, suggests that parody of the sacred, while ultimately entertaining as a source of somewhat nervous laughter, and a considerable amount of critical confusion, has generated only a modest amount of real change in the way any of these concepts are viewed and articulated. The fact that Freud and Nietzsche, according to Michael Bernstein, at least, depend so heavily on concepts and ideas directly traceable to the myth of Eden tells us that we have not grown much beyond what any fourteenth century poet can show us in a story told by a merchant.
Bakhtin, on the other hand, since he has been accused of not being pessimistic enough in his perception of the human condition, one that depends on "reminiscence-as-suffering" and "ressentiment," may simply have taught himself to look beyond the limitations imposed on human potential by the notion that opening one's eyes is the same as an original sin that condemns us to being deprived of attributes we never possessed in the first place. Chaucer's parody of the myth suggests he may have had more than a few doubts about the validity of the Eden story. Bakhtin's celebration of carnival, if it accomplishes nothing else, does give us the necessary critical tools to examine fourteenth century examples of the parodic-travestying word as it works its way through the sacred texts of medieval Christianity. If we blunt the edge of our moral condemnation of the other in the process, perhaps we have been well served by Chaucer's word after all.
Alexander Jones, ed., The Jerusalem Bible. (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 16-18. All quotes are from this edition of the Bible.
Michael Andre Bernstein, "The Poetics of Ressentiment," in Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges, eds., Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson (Evanston: Northwestern U P, 1989), 197-223.
M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson (Austin: U of Texas P, 1987), 26. All other references to this work will be designated DI in the text.
Emerson Brown, Jr., "Chaucer, The Merchant, and Their Tale: Getting Beyond Old Controversies, Part I & II," ChauR 13 (1978): 141-156, 247-262.
Norman T. Harrington, "Chaucer's Merchant's Tale: Another Swing of the Pendulum," PMLA 86 (1971): 25-31.
E. T. Donaldson, "The Effect of the Merchant's Tale," in Speaking of Chaucer (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970), 30-45, who tends to agree with the tradition that the bitterness of the tale is uncharacteristic of Chaucer's work in general.
J. D. Burnley, "The Morality of The Merchant's Tale," YES 6 (1976): 16-25.
Gary Saul Morson, "Parody, History, and Metaparody," in Rethinking Bakhtin: Extensions and Challenges, eds. Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson. (Evanston: Northwestern U P, 1989), 63-86, 67.
Micharl D. Cherniss, "The Clerk's Tale and Envoy, The Wife of Bath's Purgatory, and the Merchant's Tale," ChauR 6 (1972): 235-254.
A. E. Hartung, "The Non-Comic Merchant's Tale, Maximianus, and the Sources," Mediaeval Studies 29 (1967): 1-25.
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