Miller re-examines agency, love in Chaucer’s Canterbury TalesBy Jennifer Carnig
Mark Miller, Associate Professor in English Language & Literature and the College, has taken a fresh look at the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer—one that might encourage even the most hardened math or science student to give the father of English literature a chance.
In Philosophical Chaucer: Love, Sex and Agency in the Canterbury Tales, published last month by Cambridge University Press, Miller argues in an innovative study that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a poetic meditation on 14th-century English life, represents an extended meditation on agency, autonomy and practical reason.
While most Chaucer critics interested in gender and sexuality have used psychoanalytic theory to analyze the writer’s poetry, Miller (Ph.D.,’93) re-examined the links between sexuality and the philosophical analysis of agency in texts such as The Canterbury Tales, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and The Romance of the Rose. Chaucer’s philosophical sophistication provides Miller with the basis for a new interpretation of the emerging notions of sexual desire and romantic love in the late Middle Ages.
In his research, Miller said he found that the literary experiments of The Canterbury Tales represent a distinctive, philosophical achievement that remains vital to our own modern attempts at understanding agency and desire, and their histories.
“Two of the oldest ideas about Chaucer are that he is England’s first great poet of love, and its first great philosophical poet,” explained Miller. “I think both claims are right, and each sheds a good deal of light on the other. But I also think Chaucer’s work requires us to rethink what it means to explore love in poetry.”
Chaucer did not write poetry that was meant to support a philosophical doctrine, Miller argues, and while some of his poetry deals explicitly with philosophical themes, that is not what is philosophical about his poetry, either.
“He’s interested in philosophical problems he takes to be in some strong sense insoluble, problems that resist any dogmatic solution,” Miller said. These include fairly abstract and traditionally philosophical problems like the nature of autonomy and its relations to action, practical reason and personal identity. But it also includes “things people are interested in even when they’re not doing philosophy,” such as “What does it really mean to love someone?”
Miller argues that Chaucer engages such problems in ways that cannot be done in philosophical argument—by “building narratives around them to express the ways people engage them in ordinary life as well as in moments of abstract reflection.”
Chaucer’s interests in love and philosophy overlap in several ways, Miller said. One way is that love becomes an object of philosophical inquiry in his poetry. He builds “narrative thought experiments” around questions like, “If we really think love ought to be unconditional, what would that look like? Would we really like the way it looks?” or “In what ways does love enhance autonomy, and in what ways does love threaten it?”
Another example of these overlaps is that even when love is not a direct part of the philosophical topic, erotic life frequently becomes the site for Chaucer’s explorations of “the ways we live philosophical problems.” Miller said an example of this is the Miller’s Tale from The Canterbury Tales, which explores the idea that gender identity and sexual desire are grounded in nature.
One theme that runs throughout Philosophical Chaucer is that “we don’t need a specific modern theoretical discourse”—such as that provided by psychoanalysis, queer theory or feminism—in order to understand Chaucer’s interests in love, sexuality and gender. “We can find in his poetry and his immediate intellectual and literary tradition quite sophisticated ways of thinking about those topics,” Miller said.
Not that psychoanalysis, queer theory or feminism are bad, Miller was quick to point out. “It’s just to say that it can also be useful, as I try to do here, to figure out how problems of sexuality and problems of autonomy get intertwined in the Middle Ages, or how narcissism and its relation to erotic desire get theorized in allegorical romance, or how ideologies of gender difference get both instantiated and problematized in medieval moral discourse.”
Miller has been teaching at the University since 1997. His next project is tentatively titled Handling Sin: Agency, Bodiliness and the Moral Emotions in Late Medieval English Writing.