Monday, June 16, 2008

Stern Parson

I've been reading Chaucer's The Parson's Tale, as well as some commentary on it, preparing for a segment on the seven deadly sins for the virtue ethics section of my ethics course. Commentators don't say much, as far as I've been able to find; they remark on its piety and its high moral tone. I think they overlook the fact that some of the Tale may have its own form of humor -- what makes The Canterbury Tales great literature is in part the fact that it shows Chaucer's mastery of very different forms of humor and comic writing, and I think The Parson's Tale is an example. It is a work of piety and high moral tone; it is the serious preparation for the palinode. But there is a form of humor that is compatible with both piety and seriousness, and there is much in the Parson's stern little discourse that might make a person smile even while taking the point. An example is the digression on clothing right in the middle of the discussion of the sin of pride:

But natheles that oon of thise speces of pride is signe of that oother, right as the gaye leefsel atte taverne is signe of the wyn that is in the celer. And this is in manye thynges: as in speche and contenaunce, and in outrageous array of clothyng. For certes, if ther ne hadde be no synne in clothyng, Crist wolde nat so soone have noted and spoken of the clothyng of thilke riche man in the gospel. And as seith Seint Gregorie, that "precious clothyng is cowpable for the derthe of it, and for his softenesse, and for his strangenesse and degisynesse, and for the superfluitee, or for the inordinat scantnesse of it." Allas! may man nat seen, as in oure dayes, the synful costlewe array of clothynge, and namely in to muche superfluite, or elles in to desordinat scantnesse?

And he goes on from there into a long discussion of the awfulness of the clothing of the day, some parts of which are quite explicit, e.g.:

Upon that oother side, to speken of the horrible disordiant scantnesse of clothyng, as been thise kutted sloppes, or haynselyns, that thurgh hire shortnesse ne covere nat the shameful membres of man, to wikked entente. Allas! somme of hem shewen the boce or hir shap, and the horrible swollen membres, that semeth lik the maladie of hirnia, in the wrappynge of hir hoses; and eek the buttokes of hem faren as it were the hyndre part of a she-ape in the fulle of the moone.

That's a memorable image: buttocks like the hind part of a she-ape under the full moon. How can one not smile at it?

It's not that it's ridiculous. The Parson attacks the clothing of the day because, on the side of superfluity, it really does harm the poor by wasting cloth and driving up costs; and he attacks overly revealing clothing because it pushes out clothing suitable for good nature and good sense in favor of sexual strutting. He attacks riding gear because it is an indulgence for the rich that allows them to pretend superiority to the poor. He attacks the diversity of food and drink on the tables of the rich for similar reasons. The Parson, whatever he may be, is not ridiculous.

The humor of it, then, is a sober, serious humor; the humor in the Parson's tale has to be compatible with the sternness of it. It's the humor of a striking image that goes to the heart of the matter -- the she-ape, the tavern-sign, etc. -- and of the perceptive dissection of the world that shows the world itself to be laughable. A worldly man might mock the Parson for his long rant against clothing as an expression of pride. We can see this point of view. But the Parson's high ground provides a platform from which you can see that the worldly man is even more mockable. There is something incongruous about taking a long detour in the middle of a discussion of pride in order to rail against fashions in clothing; it's thus somewhat funny. But a closer look shows that the incongruity is not that of the Parson himself; it's not essential to the main points about pride, but it's not a digression either. He has good reasons for it. The Parson has his finger on the pulse of his society, and he knows the unexpected ways in which pride manifests itself in that society. If you stay at the superficial level, you might smile condescendingly at the Parson, with his stern disapproval of too much and too little clothing; but if you let the Parson's words sink in, you find that the absurdity you thought you saw in the Parson's discourse was the absurdity of your own life.

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