Friday, July 26, 2013

In Which the Author Makes His Retraction

“And if there is anything that displeases them, I pray also that they ascribe it to the fault of my ignorance and not to my will, which would readily have spoken better if I had the knowledge.”
   If you’ve ever read The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, you may have noticed, if the publisher included it at the end of the book, Chaucer’s Retraction. Chaucer wrote it at the end of his life, and in it ‘retracted’, or basically, renounced, virtually all of his works with which readers are familiar, including his Troilus and Cressida, the classic tale of sexual procurement from which we get the word ‘pander’, as well as the Canterbury Tales — or at least those of which ‘make for sin’, as the author puts it — and “many another book… and many a song and many a lecherous lay…” of his.  In the religious age in which Chaucer lived, certain types of works, of course, were likely to provoke the displeasure or censure of religious authorities, such as Chaucer’s translation of another medieval work, The Romance of the Rose. So Chaucer renounces all of his ‘secular’ works, but stands fast by his more ‘serious’ works, such as his translation of the excellent Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, and “other books of the lives of the saints, and homilies, and morality, and devotion…” He also asks the reader, if they find anything in it which displeases them, to attribute it, not to any guile or spiteful attempt — or ‘unkonnynge’ in the original English (cunning) — but to his ignorance. In other words, “Blame it on the fact that I am stupid.” A nice defense.
   Scholars have debated whether this retraction was sincere, or merely an attempt to avoid trouble, or perhaps just a way to promote all of his works. One other detail about the Retraction that is not immediately obvious and which makes it further compelling, is that, in the medieval manuscripts in which Chaucer’s works initially would have appeared, the Retraction would have been printed in the front of the book. So the Retraction would have been something that the reader would have read in advance. Which certainly seems, if not insincere, a bit even more cheeky.

   So that is what I am going to do in starting off this blog. I actually created this blog four years ago, but have not written much in it at all, attempting a few initial postings, and ultimately withdrawing all since, finding them unsatisfactory. I have been meaning to write from time to time, but never could getting around to it, because each topic I could think of seemed good, but not quite good enough, with which to begin. But now I have finally realized that here is the perfect way to start off this blog — with an apology. It comes to my mind that maybe I shouldn't have been so concerned with how to start; one of my favorite writers — perhaps my favorite — G.K. Chesterton, writing on Shakespeare’s supposed lack of originality, in that nearly all of the plots in his plays are recycled from other works, declared that genius is not concerned with beginnings, but with ends; true genius lies not in originality and in beginnings, but in taking those things which others have started fitfully and bringing them to their ultimate fruition. Or something like that. I can’t find the quote. So perhaps the long delay was unnecessary. In my defense, see the title of this blog. Nevertheless, I have been at great pains to get to this point, and while it may perhaps not even be necessary, here I am. I am sorry. So if you find anything in this blog which you find offensive, please do not think it is the result of any ill will on my part. Just blame it on the fact that I am stupid. I retract it in advance.

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