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Affective Stylistics and the Study ofChaucer Chauncey Wood McMaster University Nither "reader-response criticism" nor irs close relative "affective stylistics" has made much of an impact on the study of Chaucer, and this ineffectual condition is shared by semiotic ap­ proaches, deconstruction, and other contemporary critical modes. While many factors undoubtedly contribute to our positive and negative critical enthusiasms, I should venture to argue that the Chaucerian's characteristic preoccupation with texts and textual interpretation has made criticism that puts the reader and the text on equal footing appear to be contrary to our customary priorities. We imagine the texts we study to be, like Love in Dante's Paradiso, fixed in the center with worshipers circling around, and an approach that denies the primacy of the text is greeted with the same warmth customarily accorded any other heresy. With this in mind, it is useful to recollect that no less an authority than Saint Augustine championed the "reading" of a text over the text itself, arguing that "when, from a single passage in the Scrip­ ture, not one but two or more meanings are elicited- even if what he who wrote the passage intended remains hidden-there is no danger if any of the meanings may be seen to be congruous with the truth taught in other passages of the Holy Scriptures." There is no "intentional fallacy" here, for Augustine is interested in the doc­ trinal rather than the authorially intended meaning. Someone like Saint Augustine, who can speak of the "heretical punctuation" of a text, is not a formalist critic. 1 Indeed, insofar as Augustine favored 1 Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson,Jr. (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1958), pp. 101-102, 79. 21 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER doctrinal interpretation over authorial or textual intention, one might say that, as well as reading texts, Augustine "writes" them. Later in the Middle Ages, Isidore of Seville took his cue from Saint Augustine and in his Etymologies regularly selected meanings and derivations ofwords that would permit the desired interpretations, rather than the other way around.2 Thus texts affect us while we affect texts, and the "affect" in affective stylistics is a modern attempt to underscore the two-way nature of this avenue of approach. It is my contention that affective stylistics is an approach that should be particularly congenial to medievalists and Augustinians and that it deserves more attention from Chaucerians than it has received to date.3 While the method sometimes seems more suc­ cessful in raising questions than in answering them, nevertheless it is an approach to texts that will frequently lead a mature critic to fresh insights and will almost invariably help students deal with Chaucerian materials that seem to them at first beyond response, let alone interpretation or analysis. The present article, therefore, has as its goals both the introduction of affective stylistics to readers presumably not altogether familiar with its practice and prove­ nience and the demonstration of its utility through some sample exercises. My style, accordingly, is pitched somewhere between the news bulletin and the lab report, while my content emphasizes the practical over the theoretical. "Affective stylistics" is a term used by Stanley Fish to describe the process through which the reading of a text contributes to its meaning and does not merely extract it.4 Affective stylistics is 2 See, for example, the entry "De Filio Dei" in Isidore of Seville, lsidori Hispalensis episopi etymologiarum sive originum libri, ed. W. M. Lindsay (Ox­ ford: Clarendon Press, 1911), 1.7.2. 3 That the presidential speech to the New Chaucer Society byJohn Hurt Fisher in 1982 embodied some reader-response criticism may have been prophetic. Although not many essays on Chaucer have appeared that overtly use affective stylistics or other forms ofreader-responsecriticism, it seems to me that a number of recent articles implicitly rely on an awareness ofthe reader and his responses. 4 Fish's many theoretical essays have been brought together in Is There a Textin This Class? The Authority ofInterpretive Communities (Cambridge, Mass., and 22 AFFECTIVE STYLISTICS related to but not derived from various kinds of "reader-response criticism," a broad rubric coined to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 21-40
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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