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THE COMPAKATIST CANTERBURY TALES: ROMANCES OF DISENCHANTMENT IN GEOFFREY CHAUCER AND ANGELA CARTER Nicoletta Pireddu To associate romance with the iUusion-breaking strategy of postmodernism may at first seem paradoxical, yet, in fact, romance is being increasingly taken as the privileged mode, staging the hybridity and openness ofcontemporary critical discourse. Associated with excess, impurity , and self-difference, romance shares the aesthetic and poUtical agenda ofpostmodern Uterature and theory: through textual dispersion and playfulness, it provides a counternarrative to the project of knowledge as deployment of authority and conquest of certainty.1 Beyond periodization and formal categories, romance can thus indicate a state, a certain attitude towards the cultural and historical heritage and its representation which is at work whenever a straightforward quest for meaning in fact becomes questioning of meaning—whenever, instead of offering a pleasurable escape to a freer world, narrative crosses the conceptual and aesthetic boundaries between referentiaiity and representation , disputing the neutrahty of both. The works ofAngela Carter suitably Alústrate such a destabüizing approach to enthraUing fantasies. With her blend of Uterary tradition and mass-culture stereotypes, this British contemporary writer creates a sophisticated fictional world that investigates our knowledge ofreahty, exposing the degree to which culture and power inform such knowledge. Romance is particularly suitable to this purpose because of the highly codified ideology that is sedimented within its structure, namely, the anticipation ofa Utopian idyU.2 The more conventional and crystallized Carter's target is, the more provocative her reinscription turns out to be. That's why her imaginary territory mainly takes over the magical realm of chüdren's fables. Disfigured by gothic and macabre motifs, dreams become indistinguishable from nightmares. Interrogated by gender, the apparently naive genre ofromance reveals that its wish-fulfiUing mechanism can not only perpetuate but also subvert the cultural values embedded in narrative form. Carter is aU for "putting new wine in old bottles, especiaUy if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode" ("Notes" 69). It is by writing as an analyst of mythologies and as a skeptical female fantasist that she can explode the practices and roles imposed by male tradition. Thus, romance for Angela Carter—like myth for Roland Barthes—can be either oppressive or Uberatory depending on how it is appropriated. It is never innocent, always an aUbi. Although Angela Carter's revision of romance is receiving considerable attention, most studies concentrate on her reinscription of modern literature—for instance, her parody of Perrault's and Grimm's stories, or her appropriation of the gothic tradition, of symbolism and surrealVcH . 21 (1997): 117 GEOFFREY CHAUCER AND ANGELA CARTER ism, of HoUywood myths and of the culture of consumerism. In fact, however, Carter's own statements, as weU as the observations of her friend, scholar Lorna Sage, emphasize the equally pivotal role played by medieval Uterature in her education at Bristol (Carter ix): medieval texts aUowed her to cheer up "the leftover Leavisite canon" (Flesh and the Mirror 4), leading her "into the territory of romance and folk tale" (5). Carter's journey towards the roots of storytelling, however, is anything but a search for an ur-text: rather, it brings to the foreground the notion of a communal Uterary patrimony, belonging to nobody and being constantly disseminated and manipulated by everyone. "Who first invented meatbaUs?"—Carter asks in her much-quoted Introduction to The Virago Book ofFairy Tales (x). "In what country? Is there a definitive recipe for potato soup?" (x). Romance invites us to think ofUterature "in terms of the domestic arts" (x): just as in cooking I can only teU "how J make potato soup" (x), narratives of myth and magic become each time what our craft makes ofthem. literature, Uke folklore, is not so much created as re-used, taken as raw material for new stories and contingent truths. Walking along Carter's road from the ghosts of modern fiction back to the old wonders ofyarn-spinning, we find another pivotal author who adopts romance to negotiate between repetition and reinterpretation of his Uterary and cultural heritage beyond stable meanings and values— Geoffrey Chaucer. For its enactment of chivalric models and simultaneous questioning of their authority, Chaucer...


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