GEOFFREY CHAUCERGEOFFREY CHAUCER
(c. 1343 - 1400)
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer
The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer
Essays on Chaucer
Chaucer in the Bookstore
[From: ©1996-2007 Anniina Jokinen]
One especially interesting essay on Chaucer et al....
Romancing Ethics in Boethius, Chaucer, and Levinas: Fortune, Moral Luck, and Erotic Adventure
J Allan Mitchell, Comparative Literature (Eugene), Spring 2005, Vol. 57, Iss. 2, pg. 101
FORTUNE HAS LONG BEEN TREATED as an inconsequential cliché, an ideological concealment, or a negative theology whenever it appears in medieval literature. Rarely is it taken seriously on its own terms to signify something genuinely fortuitous or aleatory, even though poets and their fictional creations in courtly lyrics and romances typically understood the figure in just this way. Geoffrey Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382-86) is representative. Fortune propels the narrative forward-the story of love won and lost is roughly analogous to a revolution of the Wheel of Fortune-and gives shape not only to the outcome of the affair but also to its ethical and political meanings (cf. Windeatt 181; Ganim 79-102). Moreover, the characters depend upon such reversals of fortune. Pandarus, with his infectious optimism and fraternal affection, effectively consoles Troilus by assuring him of the mutability of Fortune, "That, as hire joies molen overgon,/So mote hire sorwes passen everechon" (1.846-7).1 Chaucer added such passages to the materials he found in in Boccaccio's Filostrato, amplifying and enriching the original Italian love story and raising the stakes on the moral and metaphysical issues involved. Pandarus's sentiment, present in all kinds of medieval courtly literature, attests to love's dependency on Fortune, and Troilus's sorrow does turn to joy when he consummates the affair about halfway through the romance, though his weal proves as transitory as his initial woe. Although it is possible to take this tragic conclusion as proof that fortune has no merits at all, why should Troilus not have hoped for a fortuitous and durable end to his affair? Or rather, what else can a lover do but hope for the good fortune of reciprocal affection and lasting fidelity? Love relationships are a form of risk. That is the expert instruction provided by Love in the Roman de la Rose, by Dame Espérance in Machaut's Remede de Fortune, and by Fiammetta's nurse in Boccaccio's Elegia di Madonna Fiammetta. It is also an argument that medieval love poets and preceptors routinely adapted for their own purposes from Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy. The phenomenon of erotic love, habitually described in the romance tradition as an aventure (a synonym for fortune in the works of Chaucer), is presented as a sort of volatile contingency outside the control of any individual.
Chaucer completed his English translation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy at about the same time that he began working on Troilus and Criseyde. But while the fourteenth-century poet obviously took great interest in the philosophical consolation provided by Boethius, questions remain about what exactly he saw in Boethius's treatment of fortune. Boethius of course undertook the original theological negation of the concept (rendering Fortune into an anamorphic image of Providence), and modern scholars who continue to dismiss fortune have, in effect, followed suit by reproducing and secularizing his critique. But Fortune exhibits a conceptual complexity in many medieval epic and romance narratives, including Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, which is regularly underestimated by readers under the influence of an overly reverential reading of Boethius. Another philosophy is perhaps required to reopen what has for too long been a closed question: whether fortune or the fortuitous more generally has a significance of its own.
I will attempt to reopen this question by bringing Emmanuel Levinas's Time and the Other to bear on Troilus and Criseyde, for Levinas seems keenly interested in the way something like amatory fortune makes ethics possible, and he appeals to medieval ideas and activities-investiture, adventure, and courtly love quest -to figure the ethical relation, though to my knowledge his medievalism has not yet been noticed. Relating Chaucer to Levinas-despite their different temperaments and everything else that distinguishes the medieval poet from the modern philosopher-thus stands both to illuminate the ethics of medieval romance and test the medievalism of the modern theorist. Both writers-as against certain programmatic readings of Boethius's Consolation-appear to elaborate the possibility of ethics as radical passivity before fortune and future contingency: a passivity that resembles a kind of courtship, given its demanding waiting period and uncertain end, its privileging of heteronomy over the autonomy of the self, its disavowal of self-sufficiency, and its subjection of self to the other. In their treatment of the fortuitous both writers also give priority to moral integrity over autonomy and agency. The analogies of course will only stretch so far, and in conclusion I express some reservations about any system of ethics that mortgages its future on romantic love. But Levinas at least helps us see that there may be reasons for wishing to restore "fortune" to our otherwise disenchanted postmodern critical vocabulary. I hope thereby to contribute to the recently recovered sense of the ethical role and importance of contingency for medieval discourses of various kinds (see, for example, Heller-Roazen and Bowlin).
Boethian philosophy is often adduced to discredit the commonsense identity of the good life and good fortune, and the Consolation of Philosophy has sometimes been taken as the inflexible measure against which deviations of character and conduct are to be judged in Troilus and Criseyde-rather than as a source of one or more philosophical positions with which Chaucer engaged in dialogue.2 But Boethius is himself ambiguous and contradictory, deviating from one line of argument to follow another, contradicting or redefining his terms of reference through dialogue, and raising doubts about various conclusions he has reached in the person of Lady Philosophy.3 And in any case we should not expect the philosophical consolation to remain unchallenged when brought into contact with the particular case of romantic love rather than (as in the Consolation) state persecution, however alike prison experience and love-longing were thought to be in medieval love poetry.1 Comparison between the two sorts of "fortune" brings out important differences. In an extremely suggestive remark attributed to Lady Philosophy, Boethius writes: "ultimus tamen vitae dies mors quaedam fortunae est etiam manentis" (2pr3.48-50), or in the rather more pithy translation of Chaucer, "the end of life is a maner deth to Fortune" (Boece 2pr3.87-8).5 The idea of fortune's demise is emphatically a prisoner's-and not a lover's-consolation. Indeed, it is a grave and powerful philosophical axiom in the original context of the Consolation, holding out the promise of the end of undeserved suffering for the political prisoner. But the sentiment becomes problematic in the context of romantic love, for as soon as one approaches the philosophical consolation from its vantage point (mindful of what one doesn't want to lose rather than of what one desires to escape), the question becomes who wants it to end? If life and fortune are coterminous, so are love and fortune, and love can seem to make life worth living. We might conclude from any number of medieval examples of sentimental love, then, that rumors of the death of Fortune are greatly exaggerated. Repositioned this way, Boethius's judgment about the end of life reads more like a concession to the importance and indeed indispensability of fortune-newly identified with human flourishing-than an expression of its irrelevance or triviality.
On these grounds alone the philosophical consolation (if there is a coherent one attributable to the Consolation of Philosophy) must make room for concerns that are not reducible to its terms of reference. What are they exactly? When it comes to romantic love, Boethius condemns carnal desire using the moralistic terms voluptas and libido (3pr7 and 3m7)-as consisting of so much beastly "bodily jolyte," in Chaucer's rendering (Boece 3pr7.11-20)-maintaining a position that is clearly hostile to the stirrings of erotic attraction that motivate courtship. Indeed, for Boethius at his most rigorous, secure married love would seem to be the only acceptable form of romantic attachment:
Hic sancto populos quoque
Iunctos foedere continet,
Hic et coniugii sacrum
Castis nectit amoribus,
Hic fidis etiam sua
Dictat iura sodalibus. (2m8.22-7)
This love halt togidres peples joyned with an holy boond, and knytteth sacrement of mariages of chaste loves; and love enditeth lawes to trewe felawes." (Boece 2m8.21)
And yet with respect to the integrity of the married state one can detect considerable ambivalence in his doctrine of love, most notably in his use of the celebrated fable of Orpheus and Eurydice (3m12). That fable does not concern human love explicitly, but rather "Vos haec fabula respicit,/Quicumque in superum diem/ Mentem ducere quaeritis" ("This fable apertenith to yow alle, whosoever desireth or seketh to lede his thought into the sovereyn day, that is to seyn, to cleerness of sovereyn good"). However that may be, when Lady Philosophy tells the story of the two lovers she cannot sustain her rigorist, Neoplatonic exegesis. Speaking of Orpheus's tender but tragic backward glance at his wife, Lady Philosophy remarks ambiguously: "Quis legem det amantibus?/Maior lex amor est sibi" (3m12.47-8; "But what is he that may yeven a lawe to loverys? Love is a grettere lawe and a strengere to hymself than any lawe that men mai yyven," Boece 3m12.525). She expresses herself in an astonishingly conciliatory way, "leniter suaviterque" (4pr1.1), or "softly and delitably" (Boece 4pr1.1), despite the fact that her fable ostensibly illustrates a kind of intemperate, earth-bound erotic desire that is an impediment to the very philosophical enlightenment she recommends. The power of the fable to evoke such a surprisingly sympathetic response from her (no less) seems part of its meaning. As such, it hardly demonstrates the excesses of desire in contrast to "chaste loves," and if anything Orpheus's transgression says rather more about the infernal, repressive nature of the laws of the underworld than about his failure in upholding them. The legendary power of love to bring harmony and suspend suffering in hell also argues against any simple moralizing against "bodily jolyte." Ultimately, the way the fable unexpectedly privileges sexual love as a law unto itself-that is, the way it is presented as better than the Law-points to a paradox Boethius is unable to ignore. Amatory fortune may be worth risking after all.
Chaucer introduces into his rewriting of Boccaccio's Filostrato an original and provocative comparison between Troilus and Criseyde and Orpheus and Eurydice (4.788-91), and we may usefully think of Troilus and Criseyde as a sustained elaboration of notions that are only half-formed in Boethius. Chaucer's frequent recurrence to the language and detail of the Consolation of Philosophy certainly argues for a close inspection of the ways in which the philosophy in that text is tested and transformed in the context of romance. In bringing this context to bear, Troilus goes on to show that the death of fortune entails the corresponding extinction of vital human goods: if the arrows of outrageous fortune are dodged in death, so too is the potential for love, friendship, and a host of other worldly values lost. Boethius's "deth to Fortune" thus suggests the possibility of human tragedy as much as it does a deliverance from it, and Chaucer's Troilus is a tragedy in which the fortuitous aspects of amatory and political experience are made especially visible and affecting.
That a major philosophical interest of the poem constellates around such issues is not a new insight, but it is one worth revisiting because of its relevance to what have become fairly typical moral and political disavowals of Fortune. Traditional humanist analyses of the poem usually complain, in reference to Troilus's passivity or Criseyde's inconstancy, that fortune is an irrational fantasy the appeal to which is an evasion of moral responsibility. Likewise, historicist critiqvies similarly treat the figure as though it amounted to a feeble alibi, a mystification of the real and concrete political realities shaping events. Why refer to the figure of Fortune as the mysterious cause of events when specific individuals and institutions are clearly responsible for the status quo? Fortune only exists insofar as it is misunderstood-a venerable Boethian precept. David Aers, for example, argues that talk of fortune in Chaucer provides only "evasory, pseudo-explanations, the irrelevant vestiges of a tradition which needed them to provide some sense of understanding about troubling, obscure and seemingly inexplicable events and changes" (129). Larry Scanlon likewise describes what he calls Fortune's "problematic political value": "although the image of Fortune and her wheel speaks to the contingency of material power, it understands such contingency as absolutely random, and denies it any coherent historical specificity" (123-24). In such accounts, Fortune dehistoricizes events by appeal to an iron law of (predictable) unpredictability: Cassandra's "olde stories" that tell "how that Fortune overthrowe/ Hath lordes olde" (5.1459-60) or the Monk's Tale's tedious catalogue of Fortune's fallen. Fortune is, in effect, an evasion of historical responsibility.
Here, humanist and historicist interpretations of the poem unexpectedly converge: both renounce fortune in order to safeguard responsibility, as if responsibility/or fortune were not possible (or even a problem). If personal and political responsibility is of utmost concern to readers of Troilus and Criseyde, it is because the poem is demonstrably preoccupied with ethics in the context of all that is fortuitous: what we might call the chances of being good. The challenge for readers of this poem has always been how to salvage ethics from vicissitudes of time and change or the wreckage of history. L.O. Fradenburg, who has recently reaffirmed the importance of fortune in Chaucer's writing, observes: "Fortune's aporetic condensation of chance and necessity, significance and insignificance, figures a long-standing difficulty in the history of responsibility and therefore of tragedy." However, as Fradenburg also observes, "many critics of medieval tragedy" resemble Boethius's Lady Philosophy in desiring "to disperse this condensation, or turn it into something altogether different" (123). Boethius redux. But what if the alternatives-contingency and necessity, autonomy and heteronomy, fate and freedom-are not opposed or independent of one another in the way usually assumed? What if responsibility is something "other," something that only arises as a radical passivity, a subjection to external fortunes and possible futures, a freedom always entrammeled in the contingency and temporality of the world?
An Allegory of Love
Troilus's consent to love's volatile fortunes and uncertain future partakes of both the contingency and necessity of a "right good aventure" (1.368). It is by means of a fatal gaze at the temple that, unexpectedly and with some considerable comic appropriateness, the hitherto disdainful Troilus "Wax sodeynly moost subgit unto love" (1.231). Any pretensions to self-sufficiency suddenly vanish. No longer a proud bachelor, Troilus slinks embarrassingly away to bed rather than face the recriminations of those whom he had mocked. Troilus proceeds to commit himself to love and embrace the risks attendant upon courtship: "with good hope he gan fully assente/Criseyde for to love, and nought repente" (1.391-2). But what could his assente possibly mean here if he has already become love's subject? Such love cannot be taken to imply autonomous and voluntary choice, and indeed the lover does not seem to be given time for any such choice. As Chaucer observes, love "soone kan"
The fredom of youre hertes to hym thralle;
For evere it was, and evere it shal byfalle,
That Love is he that alle thing may bynde,
For may no man fordon the lawe of kynde. (1.234-8)
Troilus is not free to choose to love Criseyde. He is already and irresistibly subject to love; by assenting he simply reconciles himself to its necessity. But assente is not just an attitude towards the past; it also embraces an unknown future "with good hope." Troilus will take his chances, abide his aventure. Who knows if it will go well for him? "It was to hym a right good aventure/ To love swich a oon, and if he dede his cure/To serven hir, yet myghte he falle in grace" (1.368-71). Amatory fortune is therefore an eventuality to which he responds, but in an allusive sense of the term-obediently, passively, modestly-as one who hopes to obtain a requital and so "falle in grace." If this also means that he risks falling on his face, risk of this kind has its own rewards. Chaucer goes on to comment on the goodness that is made possible by love-for "ofte it hath the cruel herte apesed" and "causeth moost to dreden vice and shame" (1.250, 252)-and Troilus soon becomes an example of just such an improvement:
For he bicom the frendlieste wight,
The gentilest, and ek the mooste fre,
The thriftiest, and oon the beste knyght
That in his tyme was or myghte be;
Dede were his japes and his cruelle,
His heighe port and his manere estraunge,
Andeccheof thoganforavertu chaunge. (1.1079-85)
And later still the narrator exclaims,
Thus wolde Love-yhcried be his grace!
That Pride, Envye, Ire, and Avarice
Hegan to fie, and everich other vice. (3.1804-6)
The consequences of this representation of love and its aftermath are far-reaching and deserve close scrutiny, for apparently the cherished notion of moral autonomy is put in doubt where important ethical values are concerned. The example of the lover's subjection opens the possibility of a responsibility that is not voluntary or contractual-in other words, the possibility that ethics arises out of fortune rather than freedom.
There are of course readers who think Troilus is irrational or irresponsible for succumbing to love. However, such criticisms only succeed in restating the problem. The quandary is whether Troilus had a choice in the first place, and, if not, then how does his assente count as a form of moral responsibility at all? How could Troilus, in his utter dependency and passivity, be said to be a moral agent given that his freedom would seem to be precluded at the very moment it is summoned? This is the central question of Chaucer's text, as well as one with which other medieval poets famously wrestled. For example, on learning about the innate human desire to love, Dante asks Virgil: "if love is offered to us from without, and if the soul walks with no other foot, it has no merit whether it go straight or crooked" (". . . s'amore è di fuori a noi offerto/e l'anima non va con altro piede,/se dritta o torta va, non è suo métro," Purgatorio XVIII.43-5). Virgil responds that, while it is true that humans have an inborn inclination to love, ethics consists in freely assenting to its force (XVIII.55-75). Ethics still requires free will. Chaucer's treatment is characteristically less programmatic, though it is instructive that for both medieval poets ethics arises from some combination of freedom and necessity, spontaneity and conscious choice: the ethical relation is one which to some degree takes for granted moral relations it sets outs to establish. In Troilus and Criseyde the problem is worked out in relation to particular circumstantial determinants that limit freedom but do not on that account diminish the lover's responsibility for fortune. There is more than one way to construe the issue.
Several Anglo-American philosophers have recently given serious thought to the way people take responsibility not only for what they intend or choose, but also for what happens contingently to or around them, and this gives us one way to interpret Chaucer's treatment of Troilus's assente. People regularly enlarge the scope of their agency and responsibility to cover fortuitous events never intended, deserved, or chosen. Proximity is often enough. Responsibility is taken not only for what we do ourselves, but also for those with whom we chance to be affiliated; integrity is often valued over autonomy. What such situations indicate is the compatibility of ethics and chance circumstance, a phenomenon philosophers have called "moral luck." Insofar as it flies in the face of a widespread modern presumption in favor of autonomy and rational choice, moral luck is the apparently contradictory but actually quite ordinary and intuitive experience of being unable to separate luck from other moral considerations when it comes to determining responsibility. Several kinds of luck enter into everyday deliberation. In the example of the besotted lover, freedom is itself subject to various fortunes. For one thing, it is the result of luck that Troilus has to make up his mind about Criseyde. He may be free to choose (though the text does not concede total freedom even in this regard), but he is not at any rate free of the choice. Here, choice is hedged in by fortune. His dilemma is therefore a matter of "circumstantial luck," according to which choices such as the lover's are themselves unforeseen or fortuitous events. second, Troilus is subject to the equally significant contingency called "outcome luck," which is the assessment of moral conduct in terms of consequences and irrespective of intention. Some of the narrator's negative judgments fall into this category (as do those of some critics), since surely if the love affair had not ended badly it would have struck many observers as unexceptionable. A third kind of contingency affecting the lover would be "constitutive luck": the habits, training, imagination, or other resources with which one is equipped to make choices and follow them through in action. Consider, for example, the difference it would make were the protagonist of Chaucer's romance the elder scholar-statesman Boethius rather than the young prince Troilus. Because he has not spent a lifetime in philosophical contemplation, Troilus should not be expected to have the intellectual resources equal to a moral problem conceived along Bocthian lines. In sum, moral luck consists in the awareness that the chances you have to act for good or ill are as much a matter of circumstance, contingent outcome, and constitution as they are of reason or willing. This awareness is therefore essential to any assessment of moral agency and responsibility, since the contingencies I have described can play a significant role in exacerbating or alleviating the problems one faces.
However, the fortuitousness of Troilus's situation actually goes much deeper than the contingencies of character, choice, and circumstance. Although moral luck theory acknowledges that moral agents do not just confront luck, but are in a profound sense constituted by it, the theory does not explain how ethics itself originates in contingencies, a notion that is articulated in the early writing of Emmanuel Levinas.
Ethics and the Erotic Adventure
Levinas dedicates himself to working out the seemingly counterintuitive idea that ethical responsibility is exterior and prior to personal agency; it is not a matter of choice. "No one is good voluntarily" (Otherwise Than Being 11). He does not mean goodness requires our self-willed austerity or disinclination, as in the ethical (essentially Kantian) equivalent of "no pain no gain." Rather, as he says elsewhere, responsibility is not located in the interior will but is "anterior to all logical deliberation summoned by reasoned decision" (Time and the Other 111). To Levinas's way of thinking, the other's priority to my being generates ethical obligation at the same time that it restricts my freedom. Obligation befalls the subject from outside. Indeed, ethics discloses itself as something chancy and contingent. Here, Levinas is developing Heidegger's logic, according to which the truth of being is unconcealed as a happening, an event, das Ereignis.1 Ethics, for Levinas more primordial than truth or being, is revealed as a form of happenstance. John Caputo elaborates this position in arguing that ethical obligation is something that "happens" and "does not ask for my consent" (7). Similarly, Derrida has claimed that ethical responsibility is subject to the logic of what he calls the indispensable 'perhaps' (Politics of Friendship 38).
Although thinking ethics "otherwise" in this way entails a radical shift in expectations as well as linguistic usage (Blanchot 25), it is worth pursuing if it helps us to understand the contingencies of courtly romance. Levinas's early work is dedicated to summoning the ethical relation along these radical "medieval" lines." Ethics here subsists in proximity, passivity, and even privation before the other and is figured, for example, in the phenomenon of courtly love. Indeed Levinas's conception that the ethical relation originates in contingencies helps us make sense of the paradox of the courtly lover, who cannot help but consent, bereft of the sovereign will and subject to amatory fortune, fated to serve the unappeasable courtly lady. Levinas may have in mind just this problematic when he discusses the ambiguity of erotic adventure. In an astute description of the love impulse, Levinas writes of a "movement by which a being seeks that to which it was bound before even having taken initiative of the search and despite the exteriority in which it finds it. The supreme adventure is also a predestination, a choice that had not been chosen" (Totality and Infinity 254). The presentation of love as contingent but necessary, free but fated, undertaken but always already given is a trope that will be familiar to those who study medieval romance, for the so-called destinai adventure (events that have an uncanny appropriateness) has long been seen as a staple of the genre (see, for example, Finlayson; Auerbach 123-42; and Bloomfield 123). In his account, Levinas also notes a key ambiguity that is also central to courtly love: while erotic desire stems from "the most egoist and cruelest of needs," it also remains an image of the ethical relation (Totality and Infinity 254). Indeed, what Levinas says about love could easily apply to the chivalric romance ideals of quest and courtship (chevalerie and finamour), as though ethics were some kind of knightly undertaking.
One can easily surmise both practical and literary reasons for Levinas to have alighted on the paradigm of erotic love to describe ethics as adventure, for experience teaches that there is no guarantee of requital in courtship and no forcing the other's fidelity. The beloved cannot be compelled to draw near, nor is she ever near enough. Even when the beloved seems to slip closer, when she appears on the horizon of the present, intimate and immanently graspable by the lover, the gulf between one and the other remains as infinite as a lover's caress. Lovers are therefore for Levinas never contemporary beings, and this in turn is a hallmark of the ethical relation: "The other is the future. The very relationship with the other is the relationship with the future" (Time and the Other 76-77). In short, sexual love is one area of human experience in which the singularity and alterity of the other becomes manifest. But Levinas is also drawing on a recognizable and affecting literary inheritance, appealing not just to any lover's assignation but to a particular kind embodied in traditions of courtly and spiritual love. Thus, in Time and the Other he expressly alludes "to the great themes of Goethe or Dante, to Beatrice and the ewig Weibliches, to the cult of the Woman in chivalry," forming a theory of ethics around a stock of romance motifs and metaphors that have both secular and religious provenance. He goes so far as to speak of the "virginity" and "mystery and modesty of Woman" to illustrate the holiness of the ethical relation (Time and the Other 86). Holiness points to the conventional quasireligious valence of the exalted feminine inamorata, and here Levinas's thought is likely indebted not only to Christian thought but also to Jewish traditions of spirituality that represent the divine as courting and arousing the beloved soul.10 Of course, Levinas may just as well have derived his notions of love from the spiritualization of sexual love set forth in secular court literature such as the troubadour lyric and courtly romance. His direct reference to Dante's Beatrice certainly points to his familiarity with the unattainable lady as an ethical exemplar.
Whatever its origins, Levinas's apparent medievalization of ethics is curious and deserves scrutiny, as much for what it may say about his theory as for what it tells us about medieval cultural formations. To Levinas's way of thinking, the lover's disposition in the adventure makes his allegiance to fortune intelligible as, not irresponsibility, but perhaps the most profound form responsibility takes. In what we might call Levinas's allegory of love, Troilus can be understood as responsible in a radically passive and modest way because he responds with a willing spirit, that is to say, with a specter of a will. He subordinates his will in the spirit of love. He does not choose to love from a position of autonomy or self-sufficiency; at best he loves in order to be able to choose. In fact, Troilus so lacks anything like strength of will one might reasonably object that it is putting too fine a point on his behavior here to say it is ethical. How can one theorize about heteronomy or passivity, when one recalls that this lover is not even able to get himself into bed without swooning? "O thef, is this a mannes herte?" (3.1098). Nor is he able to proceed in his relationship with Criseyde without the help of Pandarus. This last point is admittedly difficult to accommodate to an ethical theory that privileges radical passivity, for Troilus and Criseyde may simply seem to displace the active will onto a third person (Pandarus as go-between). One man's activity makes the other's passivity possible, a point to which I will return. The objection about the lover's emotional unmanning can be more easily placed within the context of Levinas's theory. The comic business in Chaucer's romance, particularly the lover's emasculating inertia (which one may compare with the swooning tendencies of a Lancelot or a Guy of Warwick), is instructive in that it points to the lover's subjection: love happens to him par aventure and does not arise from within the closed circuit of the self. Importantly, Chaucer's courtly lover undertakes an erotic adventure not in an active, heroic sense at all. In his infatuation and self-abasement he becomes that slightly ridiculous male figure whose total abandonment to love's folie seems more important to him than masculinity itself, a common enough phenomenon in medieval romance (see Gaunt 96-97). What Levinas says of the lover in this regard serves as a useful way of understanding this unmanning:
the self's trouble is not assumed by his mastery as a subject, but is his being moved, his effemination, which the heroic and virile I will remember as one of those things that stand apart from "serious things." There is in the erotic relationship a characteristic reversal of the subjectivity issued from position, a reversion of the virile and heroic I. (Totality and Infinity 270)
Troilus's falling in love and his subsequent amorous incapacity, his right good aventure, is an erotic undertaking in this eminently medieval, effeminizing respect. It is the folie of love that removes itself from "serious things" and by virtue of which the lover becomes a seriocomic example of Levinasian ethics, figuring what is at stake for any moral agent.
We can begin to see the moral significance of amatory fortune here as consisting in the logic of perhaps, happenstance, or adventure. The lover's particular fortune is an adventure in an original, temporal sense of the term: α-venir, yet-tocorne, futural, dislocated in time, to invoke a critical term central to the ethical theory of Levinas and given wider currency in Derrida's recent work on ethics and politics (see Time and the Other 10, 76-77, 89; and Derrida's Specters and Politics passim). Fortune and time are co-implicated in the medieval idea of adventure. In Troilus and Criseyde the courtly lover, unable to resist or force the beloved to return his affection, must simply await a requital that perhaps may come. Chaucer is sensitive to the significance of fortune (as we expect of the first writer in English to have used the word future) and foregrounds the issue throughout, adding passages to his source which heighten the pathos of the temporal dimension of amatory fortune, as for example when Criseyde complains that she could never have foreseen "future tyme" (5.746-9). In another passage plundered from Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, Chaucer makes Troilus also reflect on the indetermination of the future. In Book 4, 11.958-1078, Troilus's fixation on the great medieval philosophical theme of future contingents expresses a hazy sense of his uncertain fortunes: aware of the difficulty of reconciling divine foreknowledge with human freedom (and unable or unwilling to accede to the solution put forward in Consolation, 5pr.2 and pr.5), Troilus gets entangled in arguments against free will and comes down on the side of determinism. Who can argue against his description of the lover's predicament? Who can diminish the risks involved in loving? Or to put it another way, who would have love any other way? This is Helen Philips's point when she suggests that the truncated reference to the Consolation does not condemn the lover for his inadequate training in the school of Boethius:
Could we not, rather, read Chaucer's omission of the original philosophical lesson as, itself, an implicit philosophical challenge to Boethius' transcendental worldview and its limitations, especially its evasiveness over the ontological status of subjective, emotional experience: the challenge from earthly experience to the apparent certainties of the transcendental philosophical consolations for (or dismissals of) earthly passion? That would be, arguably, of a piece with a challenge the whole poem poses to Boethian values which are introduced in its many echoes of De consolatione Philosophies. (125)
Part of the challenge is a revaluation of amatory fortune. Troilus's responsibility to amatory fortune is simply to wait, passively, obediently, unheroically, ever dependent on the good fortune of the lady. Moreover, Leviiias-and Chaucer, I am arguing-has seized on just this image of the lover in all of his seriocomic intemperance and subject to the transcendence and temporality of love as a very powerful and affecting way of figuring ethics.
Erotic love is thus for Levinas not a passing ethical moment in the biography of courtly lovers, but rather more fundamentally a "prototype" of the ethical relation. Erotic love is the spatial and temporal displacement in virtue of which mastery of the other is impossible, union unattainable, possession futile. For Levinas such non-coincidence is an assurance that the ethical relation is abotit to happen. Medieval romances address this same phenomenon, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde being one example in which the drama of love plays itself out as an ethical adventure. In other romances the point is made more explicitly, as when Chrétien de Troyes comments on the love story he narrates in Cligés:
Ne dirai pas si com cil dient
Qui an un cors deus cuers alient
Qu'il n'est voirs, n'estre ne le sanble
Qu'an un cors ait dues cuers ansanble;
Et s'il pooient assanbler,
Ne porroit il voir resanbler. (Cligés 2783-88)
I shall not argue on behalf of those who claim two hearts may be united in a single body, for it is not true or plausible that two hearts can be in one body; and even if they could join there, it could never seem true. (Kiblerand Carroll 157)
For the medieval romancer-as for the modern philosopher-love operates on a principle of alterity. As Chrétien says, one heart cannot be in two places at once: "Mes uns cuers n'est pas an dues leus" (Cligés 2800). Romande love here stands in strict contradistinction to the notion of love as fusion in Plato's Symposium. "The pathos of love," contends Levinas against Plato, "consists in an insurmountable duality of beings. It is a relationship with what always slips away" (Time and the Other 86).
Of course love slipping away is in another sense the tragedy of Troilus and Criseyde, for Criseyde famously betrays Troilus. Nor is it clear that Troilus is always innocent in his relation to Criseyde. To give due consideration to the ethics of amatory fortune one would have to look closely at the betrayals and catastrophes of the poem. There may remain a lingering suspicion that future events in the poem deflate the pretensions of any ethical reading of amatory fortune. If the ethical relation truly grounds the love of Troilus and Criseyde, how then do we explain Troilus's complicity in Pandarus's treatment of Criseyde? And why does their relationship not last? Here, one can raise objections on three related grounds in order to clarify what is at stake in Levinas's moral language.
First, there is the literary critical and starkly ethical issue alluded to earlier concerning the conditions that make radical passivity possible in Troilus and Criseyde. As Jill Mann has observed, "It may appear that Chaucer achieves this admirably non-dominant role for Troilus only by a sleight of hand-that is, by transferring the coercive elements in the wooing to Pandarus, who manipulates, coaxes, threatens and deceives with unflagging energy" (Feminizing Chaucer 83). Mann's solution is to show that the "emotional reality" of love is not reducible to the go-between's attempts to orchestrate its development, and therefore that Pandarus's unethical meddling in the relationship does not vitiate its integrity. However that may be, the singular ethical relation between Troilus and Criseyde is seriously compromised by the unscrupulous interventions of Pandarus. Levinas too admits that there are difficulties in accommodating any "third party" into the ethical relation. For him the special asymmetry of the one and the other is constantly beset by the multiplicity of persons involved in any ethical relation. Moral agents never exist in relation to only one other person; there are always others to be counted. As Levinas observes in a key passage that marks out the borders of his ethical ideal, "the simplicity of this primary obedience [to the other] is upset by the third person emerging next to the other. . . . Here, starting from the third person, is the proximity of a human plurality." And the question from this point of view is always, "Who, in this plurality, comes first?" (Time and the Other 106). In light of this question of justice, Levinas must make accommodations to everyday reality, as he must if ethics is to survive in the world. Yet accounting and calculating always happen too late for ethics-or rather, the primary ethical relation is not reducible to reason and justice because it happens too soon. On these grounds love may still be seen as functioning ethically in Troilus and Cnseyde.
But "courtly love" may still come up for criticism on its own libidinal terms, whatever the role of the third party. Here one may start by raising familiar criticisms of the "ethics of sympathy," such as the one expressed long ago by Max Scheler, when he argued that such ethics "invariably pre-supposes what it is attempting to deduce" (5). The limitations of an ethics of erotic attraction reveal themselves when the experience or sentiment fades away, for is not ethics supposed to cope with the fact that sympathy is not a dependable human trait? Doesn't Criseyde's falling out of sympathy indicate that ethics must be grounded on something other than passion? Levinas would in fact agree that love is only an imperfect manifestation of the ethical relation among persons; he knows that erotic love is too dependent on need and enjoyment, too "complacent" to be unequivocally ethical (Totality and Infinity 266). What seems to emerge, then, is that one must not be "too in love" with the language one uses-or with the medieval phenomena one appropriates-in thinking about the ethical relation. There are ambiguities in the language of love that require sensitive moral discrimination and suggest that the erotic is not self-sufficiently ethical.
Some would deny that the erotic is ethical at all, of course. Is it not indefensible to base ethics on the unreal sublimations and quaint fantasies of medieval eroticism? The psycho-sexual matrix out of which such love springs points to another serious liability with a Levinasian reading of Chaucer: the theory arguably reproduces a sexual politics, deeply embedded in romance, which needs to be challenged.11 Several scholars question Levinasian ethics and charge that in his thinking sexual difference is a serious "blind spot" (Critchley 136; see also Chanter). By contrast, Chaucer is especially alert to the ways in which sexual difference is constructed and biased against the female partner. The poet, interested as he is in the woman's point of view and the history of her freedoms (or lack of them) in Troilus and Criseyde, goes a long way towards demystifying chivalric love as it is transmitted in romance and reappears-astonishingly enough-in the work of a twentieth-century moral philosopher. Here a Chaucerian (or "Criseydan") reading of Levinas is due. One could show how the predicament of the female partner is partly assuaged by the fact that Criseyde too yields, passively and responsibly, to amatory fortune. I leave it for another occasion to demonstrate that Criseyde is not just some sublime and inhuman object of ideology without adequate motivations of her own. The adventure of love is one she abides and indeed comes to enjoy, despite-or perhaps Levinas would say because-of the asymmetries of power restricting the choices she is able to make in the event.
Difficult questions such as these return us to considerations of justice and the human plurality, without which ethical criticism is certainly incomplete. Alert to what happens when human agency is overwhelmed by external circumstance, Boethius subordinated the amatory and the fortuitous to the philosophical. Chaucer, too, is conscious of the costs of courtly love in Troilus and Criseyde. And yet as we have seen, Boethius's Lady Philosophy is susceptible to a good love story, and Chaucer is not indifferent to the allurements of courtly love, either. If courtly love finally fails to deliver an adequate model of the ethical relation, it still has its attractions-and perhaps that is its attraction. The very idea of courtly love generates an ethical desire by remaining "otherwise than being," unattainable and unappeasable as any ethical ideal must be according to Levinas.
(University of Kent at Canterbury)
1 All citations of Chaucer's works are taken from The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
2 Studies include Gaylord, who argues that the philosophy of Pandarus is a sad "parody of the philosophical counsel offered to Boethius" (572); Robertson, who posits a "backdrop of Boethian philosophy" (68) against which idealizations of erotic love are judged inadequate; McCall, who sees the five-book structure of Troilus and Criseyde as leading to a repudiation of Fortune in a way paralleling the Consolation of Philosophy; McAlpine, who describes the lovers' careers as comic or tragic according to a standard set by Boethius; Heinrichs and Camargo, both of whom refine but restate Gaylord's argument that a knowledge of Boethius serves to correct misunderstandings and complete the meaning of the text. Camargo, however, does not think Chaucer shows an unqualified acceptance of Boethius. Others who argue for a qualified Boethianism include Jefferson, who long ago made the claim that "Chaucer never expresses complete acceptance of the Boethian doctrine" (79); and Mann, who shows that Chaucer's moral psychology is much more complex than that of Boethius ("Chance and Destiny").
3 Marenbon reveals various limitations in the reasoning of the Consolation of Philosophy, and Relihan holds that the arguments presented in Boethius's book do not hang together and frequently undermine each other. The book also ends abruptly and without the assent of Boethius. It is worth noting that Boethius was remembered by contemporary writers for his own rather vulgar interest in affairs of the heart. Memorable depictions of the philosopher as pander and philanderer can be found in the poetry of Maximian and Ennodius, both of whom were acquaintances of Boethius; see Mitchell and Shanzer. Boethius himself may have written erotic poetry. Such delectable biographical facts, and their possible ramifications for Chaucer's reception of Boethius, are questions I am pursuing at greater length elsewhere.
4 A classic expression of this association can be found in Chrétien de Troyes's romance Yvain (Le Chevalier Au Lion), ed. Reid, line 1940: "Que sanz prison n'est nus amis." Yvain exclaims that he desires such an incarceration, "An sa prison vuel je bien estre" (line 1927), pointing to a fundamental difference between two kinds of imprisonment.
5 Latin quotations are taken from the edition of H.F. Stewart. The original is accompanied here and elsewhere by translations taken from the Riverside Chaucer edition of Chaucer's Boece.
6 The problem of moral luck was famously debated in a symposium in which Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel participated. The symposium was initially recorded in Proceedings of the Anstotleian Society, supp. vol. 50 (1976): 115-51; and their separate contributions were subsequently reprinted in Nagel's Mortal Questions and Williams's Moral Luck. The issues involved are given lengthier treatment in Nussbaum and Hurley. Card brings moral luck theory to bear on identity politics and oppression. I have also benefited from several shorter studies: André, Zimmerman, and the articles collected in Statman. Several types of moral luck are usefully categorized and elaborated in Freadman.
7 See Heidegger's "The Origin of the Work of Art," and a later, more fully developed discussion of "the event" in Contributions to Philosophy. On Levinas's many debts to and departures from Heidegger see, for example, Manning.
8 The early work to which I am referring is Time and the Other, originally published in French in 1947, and Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, originally published in 1961. Levinas drops the phenomenology of love from his major later work Otherwise Than Being, although he does indicate its enduring centrality when he redescribes philosophy as the "wisdom of love," inverting the usual definition or etymological priority (161).
9 Medievalists have long considered the term courtly love, used for the first time in the nineteenth century, problematic. Theory nevertheless persists in enlisting the concept to its cause (see, for example, Lacan, Zizek, Deleuze, and Guattari), and it is ever a mark of the modernity of any theory that it takes the medieval to be so monolithic and aprioristic. While there are recognizable features of the medieval courtly romance in such theoretical treatments of the phenomenon, these theorists are generalizing about what was in medieval culture an aggregate of practices, discourses, and narratives. See Boase. Levinas does not use the term but evokes the generalized concept here and elsewhere.
19 The kabbalistic parable of the divine feminine as a "lovely princess, beautiful in every way," who "opens a little window in her hidden palace and reveals her face to her lover, then swiftly withdraws, concealing herself," as described in the thirteenth-century Jewish mystical work Zohar is matched by the Christian allegory of God "as noble wooer" attempting to win the love of a high-born maiden in a besieged castle in the roughly contemporary Ancrene Wisse. See Shepherd 20-22; and zohar: The, Book of Enlightenment, 123-24. As well as adapting the amatory discourse of the Song of Songs, both texts adopt something of the chivalric values current in the late medieval period. I am grateful to Maria Segol for drawing my attention to the medieval kabbalistic text in her paper "Levinas and the Mystics," delivered at the 2004 International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo.
11 For feminist critiques of the misogyny of fin'amor, see Kay 84-85 and Gaunt 71-179.
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