This is a question for all you literary/historical types.
For the little essay I’m writing on Piers Plowman, I’m reading around and thinking about the question of authorial and narrative voice, and thinking about the ways we can help students think about the voices in the poem. I’ve been reading David Benson’s wonderful book, Public Piers Plowman: Modern Scholarship and Late Medieval English Culture, and am pleased to find he has been thinking about medieval public culture (using Habermas) in ways I know I am going to find useful when I eventually get around to working on the project and grant application whose progress I began this blog in order to chart. Oh well. Sigh. Being sick just means I have to go slower, is all.
I was very struck by this passage, on page 74:
“Piers is an interactive text meant to be applied to its readers’ lives. As such, it somewhat resembles a modern newspaper, which different readers will use differently, each one finding information or advice to suit his or her own needs.”
I find this a very evocative analogy, because it chimes with my slowly-germinating idea about the pre-history of public or mass culture in a manuscript era. I suspect, too, it is the kind of thing we often say when we are teaching, as a short-hand guide to students trying to make sense of unfamiliar works. And because it takes the form of an analogy, it is different from Kittredge’s famously ahistorical pronouncement about Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde as the first novel.
But there is perhaps an interesting issue to be teased out here, about the way we use analogy or other similar devices to explain the effect of medieval or pre-modern texts. I don't mean to raise the hoary methodological issue of "presentism". I'm interested in the rhetorical status of this kind of remark in what is a profoundly historicist study, after all.
Perhaps it's a question about the relation between pedagogy and scholarship. Have we tended to censor this kind of remark out of our writing, when we might use it freely in the classroom? Is that self-censorship lightening up? What do people think? How do we see the relation between our teaching and our writing?
Now that I think about it, I am reminded of a comment one of my students made after our discussions of Troilus and Criseyde this semester: he was a little disturbed by the easy and familiar way we were talking about the characters' personalities and sexualities. It's hard *not* to do this when you are teaching, though I would almost certainly not write in that way. Hypocrisy? Or respect for the differences between spoken and written discourse, between informal and formal contexts, between pedagogy and scholarship?
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