Stop presses!

A Momentous First has just occurred. Highlyeccentric just drafted a paragraph- the very first paragraph in the essay, discounting the introduction- defining her theoretical approach to literature. Apparently, I use a ‘dialogic’ theoretical basis, as defined by Laurie A. Finke in her chapter on Sexuality in Old French Literature, in the aforementioned Bullough & Brundage ‘Handbook of Medieval Sexuality’.

It’s just as well I started reading B&B, really- I picked up my feedback forms from the honours conference today, and although I thought I’d gone through reasonably clearly for the benefit of everyone the way I saw literature (or at least SGGK) relating to social context, most of them came back with ‘please define your theoretical approach’. So now I have a definition, and I will wave it around. I like this definition, because it will also allow me to argue the validity of the study of literature before historians, should I meet any historians in a fightin’ mood. Also, thanks to Finke, I have names and publication titles which I can use (later) to read MORE about this theory, and generally advance in the world of literary awesomeness.

Everybody witness this amazing first:

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a product of the chivalric ideals of the fourteenth century English nobility. It is not a pure reflection of the practices of that class, by any means, but rather a stylised expression of the ideals by which they identified themselves. The poet guides his audience to identify with Gawain, rarely presenting a scene outside of his point of view. For a fourteenth century audience, the poet’s artistry in this respect would only serve to emphasise a personal identification with Gawain based on his status as representative of Arthur’s court, the embodied figure of the golden age of English chivalry to which fourteenth century chivalry aspired to emulate. The literary depiction of the chivalric ideal is not a static one, however, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in its construction of this ideal can be seen respond to the anxieties facing the knightly class in the fourteenth century. The literary construction of chivalry is, if you like, in dialogue with the actual situation of chivalry in society. This set of assumptions about the relationship between literature and history is defined by Laurie A. Finke, in his overview of theoretical approaches to the study of sexuality in Old French literature, as a ‘dialogic’ approach, emphasising the dynamic, two-way interaction between a literary formulation of an ideal, and the historical realities affecting that ideal.

Please note that it’s very draft-y, and you’re bereft of the rest of the essay it goes with (although so am I, not having written it). If it strikes you, however, that this makes no sense as an introduction to the basic assumptions underlying the essay I’m about to write, please do tell me.
In case you think I need to actually explain the anxieties of the fourteenth century chivalric classes if I’m going to argue anything based on them, yes, I know, and the next paragraph will be a SRS version of this post, plus some more stuff I’ve picked up along the way.

And now, to bed, to mourn the demise of my happy theory-free existence.


6 Responses to “Stop presses!”

  1. Dr. Virago Says:

    Ooh, this sounds good! I especially like the emphasis on Gawain’s point of view and identification. But one little point of information: Laurie Finke is a woman. Darn those non-gender-specific names! The UK penchant for initials is even worse. I very nearly misidentified a famous male social historian as a “she” in my book!

  2. Chris Says:

    So here’s a question, and it may not be a fair one to ask you, but hopefully it’s at least interesting: Why an “ideal”? Or do you just mean “idea-based” rather than “reality-based”? Because I always read “ideal” as meaning “closer to perfection” — an ideal of chivalry as a model to live up to. And if that’s the way you’re going with it, then I’m curious what makes you think it was considered a better model to aspire to (or however you want to put that), versus a model that would make an effective story. Does the depiction of chivalry subscribe to moral-logic, or to story-logic (or to both?). How does that play out?

  3. highlyeccentric Says:

    THANK YOU! That could have been very embarrassing… I had originally thought the author was a woman, for whatever reason, and had the idea her name was Laura or Louisa, but when I want to check, found Laurie… Right, fixing that now.

  4. highlyeccentric Says:

    Hi Chris!

    Good question. I do mean ‘closer to perfection’, i suppose: a construction of chivalry that ought to be lived up to. HOWEVER, supposing literature to be ‘in dialogue’ with its social context, I read Gawain not only as an expression of the ideals of chivalry (he is that, in his identification as the best of knights, his pentangle, and so on), but also as a commentary *upon* those ideals, where we find the validity of the ideal tested through the same process which tests Gawain’ s identity.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by moral-logic or story-logic, but I think both, perhaps with a tilt to the former?

    Thanks for your comments, tricky questions are helpful 🙂


  5. Chris Says:

    Well, to simplify to a point that is hopefully not insulting: When you tell a story, you make decisions, like how to represent a character who is of a certain social class. And you can make these decisions for any number of reasons (and you can make them for more than one reason at once).

    For instance, let’s say you’re telling a story with a factory owner in England in the mid-19th century. And you decide to make him an over-the-top pre-conversion Scrooge. Why did you do this? Is it because you are telling a morality story, to teach people not to act like Scrooge? Is it because people will recognize this as an archetype and it can work as a sort of cultural shorthand, so you don’t need to develop your character as much? Or is it because the type of story you are telling requires that sort of clearly evil character in order to be effective in its context — the requirements of the summer blockbuster action movie, which seems to work best without nuance.

    The first reason would be a moral-logic reason, the second might be a cultural-logic reason, and the third would be a story-logic reason. And of course it can be a mix of all three, or any number of other reasons. But I feel as though people often want to jump to a moral-logic reason — that a writer made the factory-owners soooooo evil because they really hated capitalism — when it might have just been more expedient for the needs of the art, when it might have made things more “blockbuster”.

    Maybe a pithy aphorism would go something like: A good writer expresses their moral take on the world in their story; a great writer transcends their moral take on the world to make a better story. But I’m not sure I totally agree with that.

  6. highlyeccentric Says:

    oho. i see.


    dunno. i guess we’ll see as the essay writes itself… erm… you mean *I* have to write it?

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