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Chrétien de Troyes's Gettier Problem: Cligès, Lines 2048-89

From: Romance Notes
Volume 53, Number 1, 2013
pp. 21-25 | 10.1353/rmc.2013.0011

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Irony has often been used to describe the poetics of Chrétien de Troyes's Arthurian romance Cligès. The two were forever linked by the subtitle of P. Haidu's seminal 1967 dissertation Aesthetic Distance in Chrétien de Troyes: Irony and Comedy in Cligès and Perceval, and ever since, critics have found irony throughout the text. There is a passage in Cligès at lines 2048-89, however, that presents an irony that critics (including Haidu), translators, and scribes have missed. It comes a third of the way through the romance and is doubled by a more usual, less disturbing ironic moment of mistaken identity in which a few characters mourn their not-actually-dead lord and companions. But underlying that typical irony, which challenges what we can know based on illusion, we can disinter a deeper irony that challenges what we can know even when we are not mistaken.

Alexander, future father to the text's eponymous hero, has just defeated the rebellious Count Angrès. But there is a problem: he and his men are trapped within the castle walls by the remaining rebels outside.

Not all of Alexander's Greek cohort are with him, and those still on the battlefield make what they think is a deathly discovery:

The Greeks who were still outside [the castle] knew nothing of [Alexander's victory]. In the morning, after the battle was over, they found their companions' shields lying among the dead and wrongly presumed them to have been slain. When they recognized their lord's shield, the Greeks were in such anguish over his loss that they fell in a faint upon his shield, proclaiming that they had lived too long. Cornix and Nerius fainted, and on recovering regretted they were still alive. From Torin's and Acoriondes' eyes there flowed a torrent of tears down over their breasts; their lives and their happiness seem detestable to them. And more than all the others, Parmenides tore at his hair and pulled it out. These five grieved more deeply for their lord than can be imagined. But their grief was groundless: instead of Alexander, whom they thought they were bearing off, they had another. The other shields, which they thought marked the bodies of their companions, likewise caused them great sorrow. They wept and fell in a faint upon them; but they were deceived by these shields, too, for only one of their companions, [Lerïolis], had been slain. They might rightly have borne off his body, had they known; but they were in as much distress for these others as for him. So they took them all and bore them away, though they were mistaken about all but one. The shields made them take appearance for reality, like a man who dreams and takes a lie for the truth. By the shields they were deceived.

(lines 2048-89; Kibler 148)

The Greeks might not be the only ones confused here, for we too may wonder just who is dead and who alive. Such uncertainty is central, I think, to the meaning of this passage, which establishes an irony whose bite goes deeper than expected. Confusion arises because the structure of this passage is what modern philosophers call a "Gettier Problem."

This is no mere case of mistaken identity or of some disjunctive irony in which the reader knows more than the characters. While such elements are present, Chrétien's Gettier problem is a uniquely troubling instance of irony in an otherwise thoroughly ironic text, revealing more than a gap between the reader's knowledge and the characters' knowledge.

Indeed, readers (be they translators, editors, etc.) get stumped by this passage. The problem is that the irony here is not just generally epistemological, but perversely skeptical; it does not just involve false reports based on illusion (which is the focus of Haidu's analysis), but challenges whether we know something even when based on true reports and correct perception.

In 1963, E. L. Gettier produced a mere two-and-a-half-page article that, according to the hyperbole of legend, overturned some twenty-three hundred years of epistemology. Since Plato, so the story goes (although not...


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