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The structure of literary response in Chaucerian texts The act of reading consists in the postulation of a series of interpretive constructs — corrigible schemata — by which we try to make sense of what we are reading (sense being something made, factuSt not found). Obviously, the nature of these interpretive constructs will vary widely from time to time and person to person, but some possess a more general acceptance. Of these none is held more tenaciously than the author. Since the N e w Critics we have, of course, learned to distinguish between the real author and the author implied by the text; but we have continued to find the author a useful construct enabling us to make sense of a text. Now, some fourteen years after the publication of Roland Barthes's provocatively entitled essay on "The death of the author", it is perhaps legitimate to wonder if we can continue to do so. The "death of the author" follows with inevitable logic from the basic premises of structural analysis and from the work of the New Critics on the intentional fallacy. The implications of this are wide-ranging, and I wish to consider here only one of them. The tolerance and broad-minded humanity of Chaucer are cliches of Chaucer criticism. Commonly these values are ascribed to the implied author, not infrequently also to the real author. What is happening here is that the "author" is postulated as an interpretive construct in order that "tolerance" and "broad-minded humanity" can be explained as textual values, textual meanings. If the author is dead — and the case no longer needs arguing — and if the legitimacy of using him as an interpretive construct is therefore doubtful, we are, however, still left with the question, "What is it in the text that led to the postulation of the author as an interpretive construct in the first place?" Also to be considered is the further question, "Can an alternative interpretive construct make sense of this, while avoiding the problems posed by the postulation of an author?" I propose to answer these questions by examining this famed Chaucerian "tolerance" and "broadmindedness" in a rather more rhetorical and phenomenological way than has been done in the past, and to see them as effects of the disposition of certain textual structures, rather than as characteristics of a real or implied author. These textual structures are organised according to a principle of dichotomous juxtaposition: concepts and categories which are normally thought of as distinct, even contradictory and dichotomous, are juxtaposed in the text. The effect of this is to foreground, rather than conceal, the contradiction between the juxtaposed elements. Furthermore, the absence of any contextual guide providing a secure basis for selection inhibits the possibility of reducing the juxtaposed elements to simpler categories, and this is further reinforced by the projection of the juxtaposed dichotomies into equivalence. Consequently, readerly judgment, especially moral judgment, which must be based on selection or choice is also inhibited. Is 108 D. Walker this effect — an effect of the organisation of certain textual structures — what an older criticism attempted to explain in terms of "Chaucerian tolerance"? If so, it clearly belongs to the text and the reader, not to the real or implied author. The principle of dichotomous juxtaposition may be described at three textual levels: 1 dichotomous juxtaposition within a single statement; 2 dichotomous juxtaposition between statements; 3 juxtaposition of dichotomous narrative levels. 1 Dichotomous juxtaposition within a statement The principle of dichotomous juxtaposition within a single statement may be exemplified best by examining the motto on the brooch attached to the Prioress's rosary and the long opening sentence of the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. The ambiguity of amor vincit omnia has long been pointed out by critics of the General Prologue; to every undergraduate for several generations now it has been a common-place observation to be repeated in end-of-year examinations. It is now recognised that stable and definitive meaning is strictly dependent on the existence of a stable, defined and particular context for any utterance: this is the condition of disambiguation. Indeed, most arguments over the meaning of a literary work are really arguments over...


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pp. 107-114
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