Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Conversation in the Car

We're driving to school this morning, me and mr. delagar. He's fretting over his comps. He's on his last set of comps, and then he'll be ABD. We're talking about professors we have known. He's just had to deal with a professor issue. I'm remembering a professor issue I had when I was in graduate school. This is a professor mr. delagar and I both knew, since we were both in graduate school together, back when. (I finished my doctorate back then -- he went out to LA and did a stint with the movie houses.)

"Yeah, him," mr. delagar said, since he knew that professor too. "He did hate you. I don't know why. He loved me."

I cast a glance at him. "Because I talked back," I said, in a tone that added, you idiot, anyone knows that one. "He didn't like women who talked back."

mr. delagar grinned. "Oh yeah."

"He liked women told him he was brilliant and right all the time. I talked back and told him he was wrong. Which he was wrong," I added. "He didn't like me saying so, either. Women aren't suppose to tell men they're wrong, are they?"

"I told him when he was wrong," mr. delagar noted. "That didn't make him mad."

"You have a penis," I pointed out. "You can tell him he's wrong. Girls can't. It's a certain kind of guy can't get past that."

mr. delagar brooded. "I'm not like that, am I?"

"I wouldn't be in this car with you if you were, dude."

All of this reflects, interestingly, on where I am in Chaucer these days: the Wife of Bath, and about to start the Clerk's Tale. I put these two tales back to back in my Chaucer class because they always make such a nice conjuction. (Same reason I always teach the Miller's Tale and the Reeve's tale back to back.)

You all know the Wife's Tale, no doubt -- well, first the Prologue, where the Wife sounds off about the care and management of husbands, how you have to nag them into submission, and then if it turns out you can't it's fine to (maybe? I guess?) poison one or two of the troublesome ones -- but husband number five, who turns the tables on her, who scolds her into a frenzy, and smacks her around in the bargain, and whom she may have had to murder as well, to get out from under him, he's too much for her to handle...this was a bad husband, she admits. In her tale, she tells us what a good husband would be like. Something like her fifth husband, in that he would be young and pretty like her fifth husband was, but, like her first three husbands (who were old and ugly) he would be wholly under her control -- yeah! That's the ticket! That's what we want in our spouses!

I recollect when I was a young thing, back in graduate school, taking Chaucer from my (male) professor, being told that the Wife was a medieval feminist. I remember being cheered by this. Yay, I remember thinking. Feminism, finally! A woman's voice, finally! Now I'm reading the notes written in the margain of my text, the things that professor told me about Chaucer's intent and what the Wife meant, and yikes, my lovelies. Worse? I remember agreeing as I wrote them down.

Now don't get me wrong. I do think Chaucer speaks for women, and I do think he is a feminist voice -- finally. But I don't think that is what he is doing with the Wife of Bath. Though possibly she is (finally) speaking feminist issues. Just not with this prologue and this tale. Because what does she say with that tale? As the Clerk, with his tale of Patient Griselda, easily points out?

His tale, after all, is the same tale as the Wife's, only with the genders reversed and the situation made slightly more extreme -- Walter, obviously, is more wicked than the old women in the Wife's tale because he has the power of class and wealth behind him; and Griselda I cannot forgive for her blatant sappy stupidity in allowing her husband to usurp all of her power -- which she does allow it, the story makes that obvious, it is her free choice -- so all the characters in this story are morally bankrupt, not just sweetly stupid, as they are in the Wife's tale; but that's the Clerk's point, he's removing the shadows to make the moral positions clear: having this sort of power over other people's souls is evil, no matter who you are. It doesn't matter if you're their husbands or their wives or their preachers. Free will was given to us for a reason: so we could make our own moral choices. When Griselda surrenders her moral decision making power to Walter, she's fucked, and that's that. When the Wife says her husband should surrender his to her, it's the same thing. No one, male or female, has the right to ask anyone to submit that to anyone else. (Which is the basis of that illegal order deal in the military, in case anyone wants to go there.)

This is a long post, so I'll stop there, but I just want to add, what a clever dude that Chaucer was, and what one of my best professors, John Locke, who was shot in his office a few years ago by a whacked-out student, told me: it's all already out there, isn't it? All the wisdom, it's already known, it's all already been said. We already know everything. We just have to listen to each other. I don't know why we won't.

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