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The Invention of Literary Subjectivity
The Invention of Literary Subjectivity, by Michel Zink; translated by David Sices; ix & 263 pp. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, $36.00.
In this book, the translation of a volume published in French in 1985, Michel Zink builds a case for the appearance of literary subjectivity in texts from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Zink's claim for the pioneering achievement of Old French is elaborated in three chapters, subdivided into five sections and preceded by an introduction. Sections are devoted to the study of subjectivity in four literary genres or modes: romance, the dit, allegory, and autobiography. An additional section, concentrating on indications of time and dates, is interspersed--somewhat artificially--in between dit and allegory.
Genuine insights are to be drawn from this book. Zink is persuasive on the dit genre, on links between religious subject-matter and the evolution of romance in prose, and on the interpretation of dreams. He reads Guillaume de Lorris and Watriquet de Couvin with grace and sensitivity. His presentation of Guibert de Nogent and others writing in Latin as early manifestations of autobiography makes a tangible contribution to the discipline. Zink ranges widely over authors, genres, and periods. His is a commendable catholicity of scope and interest. In addition, by insisting on medieval subjectivity, he helps medievalists refute new historicist Renaissance scholars who claim the beginnings of modernity, including subjectivity, for their so-called Early Modern Period.
This said, I believe The Invention of Literary Subjectivity to be seriously flawed. Zink defines subjectivity simply as "what marks the text as the point of view of a consciousness" (p. 4). He quotes a linguist who quotes Bourdieu who quotes Chomsky. One should not demand a full-blown theoretical first chapter (or first three chapters), as in so much recent American criticism. Zink, at least, is readable. However, one does expect him to be aware of the richness of theoretical and critical thought devoted to the problematics of subjectivity.
Significantly, he makes a claim for his own revisionary subjective reading of the Middle Ages as opposed to a purportedly dominant school of "immanent" criticism which proclaims that "language was all that was at stake in our first romances" and that "medieval literature obeyed principles compatible with it and deliberately based itself on the play of language and eliminated all referents" (pp. 1-2). I assume that Zink is alluding to Paul Zumthor, a distinguished Swiss scholar who taught for many years in Canada. However, at no time was Zumthor's voice the only or even the preponderant one in the profession nor did he create or wish to create a school of disciples. Since the 1950s the richness of methodology in Old French studies, in France and abroad, was and is comparable to what we find in Middle English or in modern French, German, and English.
One downright error in Zink's study is his contrast between chanson de geste performed before an audience and, therefore, given over largely to melody [End Page 488] and to rhythm and sound effects, and romance offered for individual reading and focused on narrative content. Whatever were the conventions of creation and performance of early chansons de geste, we know that the vast majority were written texts and that they were read aloud to an audience, just as we know that romances were written texts and were read aloud to an audience. Silent, individual reading of anything became a general rule long after the end of the Middle Ages. Both epic and romance were narrative, and both were grounded in rhetorical convention. The point is important because Zink tries to claim subjectivity for romance and not for chanson de geste because of its structure and its presentation.
He is right to distinguish the conventional jongleur as the narrator of epic from the conventional author as the narrator of romance. However, he should not refer to the romance narrator as "the poet." Booth and Genette taught us, a generation ago, the importance of the implied author...