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Ethics and Interpretation: ReadingWills in Chaucer's Legend ofGood Women James Simpson Girton College, Cambridge stanley Fish acgues that all inte,pmm oftexts ace intentional­ ists. Readers, he says, "cannot help positing an intention for an utter­ ance ifthey are in the act ofregarding it as meaningful."1 Once Fish has made this point, however, he goes on to posit that appeal to intention is "methodologically useless." Precisely because every interpretation is intentionalist, appeal to intention cannot constrain interpretation, since intention is indistinguishable from that which it would constrain.2 And besides, intention gets us no nearer the work, since intention, like everything else about a text, must be construed, and it is construed according to the rules of play ofthe interpretive "community." A work only "is" as a textual community decides it to be. The momentary prospect of a category (intention) outside and in some ways constrain­ ing what the interpretive community decides to be true is immediately withdrawn, since, according to Fish's golden rule, "interpreters are con­ strained by their tacit awareness of what is possible and not possible to do, what is and is not a reasonable thing to say, and what will and will not be heard as evidence in a given enterprise.''3 Interpreters can be con­ strained only by these considerations, since how they interpret is itself Without implying their agreement, I am grateful to both Christopher Cannon and Jill Mann for their penetrating critiques of this article in earlier forms. 1 Stanley Fish, "Wrong Again," in his Doing What Comes Naturally: Change, Rhetoric and the Practice of Theory in Literary and Legal Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), pp. 103-19 (quotation from pp. 116-17). See also his companion article, "Working on the Chain Gang: Interpretation in Law and Literature," in Doing What Comes Naturally, pp. 87-102 (especially pp. 98-99). For a similar argument that understanding intention (in the sense of what an author meant by what s/he wrote) is equivalent to "a knowledge of the meaning of what [an author} writes," see Quentin Skinner, "Motives, Intentions, and the Interpretation ofTexts," New Literary History 3 (1971-72): 393-408. 2 Fish, "Wrong Again," p. 117. 3 Fish, "Working on the Chain Gang," p. 98. 73 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER determined by the textual community in the first place. To reinterpret a text is, for Fish, and for Richard Rorty, to remake it.4 Fish and Rorty's textual communities are cozy and sensible places; the use of the word "community" is itself designed, as it usually is, I think, to suggest their warmth subliminally.5 History is, however, brimful of textual "communities" that have decided on brutal versions of what is reasonable, and which have remade the records, in exactly the way Fish argues is inevitable, to suit their interpretation. Simply be­ cause history offers many examples of brutal textual communities does not of itself, I concede, demonstrate that there is a hermeneutic alter­ native. In this article I turn to Chaucer's Legend ofGood Women by way of suggesting that Chaucer does at least propose an alternative. I argue that Chaucer represents himself working within a tyrannical textual "community," and that he asks us faithfully to intuit an unstated and unstatable intention that, by virtue of being unstatable, is necessarily outside the work. The faith we exercise in intuiting that intention of­ fers an alternative both to the tyrannical reading of his patron and to the brutal faithlessness depicted in the legends themselves. Chaucer provokes us to recognize that our interpretive practice has ethical im­ plications, since the issues involved in interpretation are no different from the issues of the "real world" depicted in the narratives them­ selves. He sharpens this provocation by suggesting resonances between the Legend and the last will of a dying author. I A variety of late Middle English writing manifests a startling consis­ tency of interest in the will as reader. In a set of key texts we find an 4 Fish, "Wrong Again," p. 107; "Working on the Chain Gang," p. 98. See also Richard Rotty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), the main thesis of which...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 73-100
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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