- Devil Take the Hindmost:Chaucer, John Gay, and the Pecuniary Anus
The bawdiest of the Canterbury Tales have always been problematic for the critics, as the responses documented by Peter Beidler—which range from apologetics to effacement and outright dismissal—attest.1 The fact that someone has documented the reception of Chaucer's scatology does imply, however, that the door to this aspect of Chaucerian satire has begun to open. Furthermore, that scatology has already become a legitimate domain in literary criticism of other periods is given witness by such recent critical collections as Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art: Studies in Scatology.2 Although it is evident from the superabundance of dirty humor in medieval texts that medieval readers ("readers" in the broad sense of cultural cryptographers) knew well how to parse scatological figures, knowledge of the satiric function—that is, the poetics—of scatology has to a great extent fallen away, particularly within the academy. As Beidler shows in the case of the Miller's Tale, taking Chaucer's dirty parts seriously restores them to their integral place within the narrative and poetic framework and produces satisfying readings of individual tales that have been traditionally bowdlerized or ignored.
One such tale is the Summoner's Tale. Its fierce scatology has not, to my knowledge, been approached in close study. The crudeness of this tale, with its sustained meditation upon a fart, has received two main interpretations. The first recognizes the rivalries between the Canterbury pilgrims and sees the Summoner's awful joke as a "low blow" to the Friar, whose tale has just targeted him. The second view interprets the fart's scatology insofar as it participates in the medieval fabliau tradition of bawdy humor and inversion. It is not my goal to discount either interpretation, as both offer insights into the complex ethos and generic tradition of the Canterbury Tales.3 Still, neither a dramatic nor a historicist account explains how the satire—with its (literally) fundamental scatology—works. Why, for instance, in a satire on greed, does the Summoner choose a fart to [End Page 71] humiliate the Friar? In what ways does the mock-Pentecostal divvying of the fart in the second half of the tale construe the friar's greed?4
Fortunately but not fortuitously, to address these questions we have recourse to another scatological satire, John Gay's "An Answer to the Sompner's Prologue of Chaucer" (1717). Usually remembered for his one big hit, the perpetually adapted Beggar's Opera, Gay wrote the "Answer" imitating the style of Chaucer, whom the Augustans admired for his satiric powers if not for his versification. Though it evinces his unique ability as a parodic satirist,5 Gay's poem has remained virtually invisible to two and a half centuries of criticism. By comparing the ways the two texts reconfigure contemporary discourses of scatology and greed, I hope to shed light on the internal logic of Chaucer's scatological satire and begin to answer the questions I have already posed: Why a fart? How does the fart function in the text? How is the fart related to greed? I also seek to provide a preliminary account of Gay's little-known satiric poem, since to my knowledge no substantial treatment of the "Answer" yet exists.
One reason Gay's poem has been "forgotten" entirely and Chaucer's bawdy tale is often sanitized by exegesis is that both transgress categories of decency in a way that Jonathan Goldberg describes as "sodometric."6 Only recently have critical apparatus emerged that are capable of dealing with these operations. Goldberg's term, sodometries, draws on Foucault's observation that sodomy is a "thoroughly confused category."7 Sometimes designating sex between men, sometimes anal sex between any two people, many times a seeming host of practices and relations that might be termed "transgressive," sodomy, or as Goldberg queers the term, sodometries (the plural most accurately describing the phenomenon), specifies a subset of a culture's transgressive practices and relations. It suggests not only that which is condemned as sodomitical, but also the shifting cultural and symbolic processes that inscribe and inform sodomy as a category.8 Mark...