Chaucer, Lewis, Art, and Argument: an Essay

This is a little different from my usual fare since I don’t usually do a lot of thinking about works written in the 1300’s, but this was just using up space on my hard drive and it’s actually quite relevant to the theme of this blog: using art as a way of examining reality. Normally, I just look at the ethics of fiction and apply it to real life, but there are many who would claim that such an approach is itself unethical because fiction is, essentially, a lie. It’s a question that needs to be addressed, and while this essay may be a round-about way of doing so, it’s as good an approach as any, methinks. Or maybe I’m just too lazy to write up something completely new.

Also, well, it’s got C.S. Lewis. That alone is a justification for posting it.

Part of the graduation requirement for my school was to take a certain number of upper-division courses outside of my major. Purely because I didn’t feel like taking any more science classes and I was too stubborn to take Shakespeare, I ended up taking a class on Chaucer. It was… educational. However, given the fact that it took me hours just to translate the Middle English into something intelligible, the thought of writing an 8-10pg. analysis for my final paper was painful. Luckily, my literary hero and all-around cool guy C.S. Lewis happens to have written some extensive commentary on Chaucer, and it was on that basis that I was able to work him into my analysis. It made the paper much more enjoyable to write. This is the result.

The line between what is true and what is fabricated is both very thin and very important because it determines reliability, and thus moral and aesthetic value. Yet it is a line that all artists must walk: to what extent is the representation presented truthful, and how does that relate to whether or not it is ethically or artistically ‘good’? This is a fundamental question that dates back at least to Plato and Aristotle, who debated the virtues or dangers of art as a form of falsification or seduction. They both recognized some sort of creator who shaped the world we experience, but they disagreed on the appropriateness of imitating that creator by making art. Mary Klages explains this debate by saying that “[f]or Plato, art, because it aroused the emotions, could never be ‘true’ in the way that reasoned argument could be true,” whereas “for Aristotle, art is a process of putting the events of nature into a medium… that improves on or completes nature. Art doesn’t lie… but reveals truths in a different way than rational deduction” (Klages, 12, 15). This friction between art and philosophy as methods of conveying truth has been explored by many authors, among whom are Geoffrey Chaucer and C.S. Lewis, for whom the added complication arises because they are both Christian authors who question whether fallen human beings have the capacity to use art as a way of reaching God. As Lewis points out in The Screwtape Letters, language can be a very manipulative tool that leads away from God, which makes authorship a potentially dangerous role (Lewis, Screwtape, 1-2).

Each author explores this question in a variety of ways, one of which is to have a character confront and react to works of art and pieces of argument, and in doing so, to comment on the value or danger of the unreal. For Chaucer, that character is Troilus from Troilus and Criseyde, and for Lewis it is Mark Studdock from That Hideous Strength. Both characters are morally shaped through their encounters with art, human creations meant to show the world as it is not, and with argument, presentations of facts that lead to logical conclusions. Because of the similarity of the two characters’ journeys and because of Lewis’ familiarity with Chaucer, as a professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, the points of contact or deviance of Mark’s character arc as compared to Troilus’ can be taken as Lewis’ commentary on the merits of or problems with Chaucer’s position in the Plato/Aristotle debate, whether or not that is what the character was consciously intended to do. Ultimately, both authors acknowledge the dangers of words, but consider them an acceptable risk; the transformative power of language can lead one to truth, whether or not the words themselves are truthful. This puts both authors on the side of Aristotle. However, Chaucer, who lived in an age heavily influenced by Platonic thought, displays a discomfort with this position and thus also gives a healthy nod to Plato, whereas Lewis firmly rejects that view.

Chaucer immediately introduces Troulis’ character trait which he will shape by art and philosophy, which is his desire for truth. At first, Troilus links truth with logic, and thus his greatest complaint against the world is the illogicality of love: “I have herd told, pardieux, of youre lyvnge,/ Ye loveres, and youre lewd observaunces,/… O veray fooles, nyce and blynde be ye!/ Ther nys nat oon kan war by other be” (Chaucer, 19, I.197-203). The problem with this statement is not that his argument is faulty- all his claims are more or less true; rather, it is that it is not based on experience. Troilus really does not know what he is talking about, for even as he mocks love as merely a foolish notion, Love incarnate is stalking him (19, I.203). The God of Love’s response is appropriate, therefore, in that he does not try to pick apart Troilus’ argument, which is not flawed, but rather shows in as vivid a way as possible the reality behind love’s outward absurdity. By making true reasoning that is built upon a faulty premise Troilus’ great flaw, Chaucer establishes right from the beginning both the importance of rationality and the possibility for it to go wrong if mismanaged.

Mark has the opposite fault of Troilus in that he is utterly unconcerned with logic, although this comes about through similar reasons: his thought processes are not based in truth. He is concerned, not with logical argument, but with appearance: the image of himself that he creates for other people to see. This is a characteristic born out of insecurity and the college fellowship culture that he works in, where status and credentials not only matter more than actual merit, but are used as weapons. Like Troilus, Mark’s philosophy is not based on reality or experience: he always wants a status slightly higher than the one he currently inhabits, and he is often mistaken as to what appearance he is actually projecting. Ironically, it is this very concern for looking good that causes him to look bad to others, such as Dr. Dimble (Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 222). In order to be disillusioned, Mark needs to strip away the art and the façade that he has immersed himself in so that he can see the reality underneath. Lewis sets forth through Mark the idea that the way things seem to be, whether or not that is how things actually are, can be a powerful tool and motivation, but like Chaucer, he shows that such art has the potential to be misused.

The next stage in Troilus’ development is when he is introduced to the society that he once hated: he becomes a lover. Almost as soon as he falls for Criseyde, Troilus turns from logic to art as he writes his first song, showing that his logic was somehow insufficient for explaining his experiences (Chaucer, 31-33, I.400-441). The interesting thing about this song is that it makes the same point that Troilus was making earlier: love makes no sense, but at this point Troilus is able to acknowledge that lack of apparent sense does not negate reality. Although Troilus has accepted that his logic does not fit the actuality, and although his desire for Criseyde was the inspiration for his song, these are not what engenders his desire. Rather it is his art- the “mirror in his mind” that drives his passions: “Thus gan he make a mirour of his mynde/… Imagenynge that travaille nor game/ Ne myghte for so goodly oon be lorn/… Thus took he purpos loves craft to suwe” (29, I.365-379). As soon as experience contradicts argument, the only response left for expressing that argument is art. With this, Chaucer is making the point that sometimes pure logic is insufficient for understanding human experience, and in those cases, art has the ability to pick up the slack, and in doing so to both express and incite passions. This is the first clear nod from Chaucer in Aristotle’s direction.

Mark’s introduction to the N.I.C.E. takes a different approach- his self-illusion is deepened rather than being debunked- but it is still a curious case of art playing off against argument. Mark is presented with a number of arguments saying that working for the N.I.C.E. is more or less equivalent to saving the world, and although, like Troilus’ complaint against love, this is sorely lacking in evidence, the logic behind the claim is at least convincing if not solid (Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 41-43). It is not the argument, however, that attracts Mark to the N.I.C.E.: it is the art. Working for this organization would (in theory) add the finishing touch to Mark’s elaborate fiction of self-importance. He does not care about saving the world, and gives hardly any thought to it after his initial conversation about it, but what he thinks about incessantly and what drives his passions is the willfully self-deceptive and artful image in his own “mirror.” Like Chaucer, Lewis is exploring the motivational power of art, showing that he agrees with Aristotle’s view that art can provide meaning to the bare facts of life, but in this case, the art provides the wrong meaning, thus giving credence to Plato’s view about art’s deceptive danger.

For both Troilus and Mark, the full initiation into their respective groups comes about when creativity and logic fuse together into artful arguments which use philosophy in a capacity in which it was never meant to be used, thus making what is actually art appear to be logic. It is here that the dangers of language are most fully explored. Not only are the arguments not based in reality, they are specifically designed for manipulation. In Troilus and Criseyde the ultimate artful arguer is of course Pandarus, who takes particular glee in twisting the truth to maneuver others into fulfilling his own ends. “He pretends, until it is no longer possible to do so, that the ‘real’ world is an illusion” (Fyler, 117). He does this to Troilus when he insists that “Woost thow nat wel that Fortune is comune/ To everi manere wight in som degree?/ And yet thou hast this comfort, lo, pardee/ That, as hire joies moten overgon,/ So mote hire sorwes passen everechon,” which is just enough truth to make Troilus hopeful, just enough logic to appease his truth-seeking nature, and just enough convenient omissions of truth to make the entire argument a manipulative work of art (Chaucer, 53, I.843-848). “Both imaginary threat and real summary judgment are made to serve, in an undifferentiated fashion, Troilus’ private ends” (Fyler, 124). And yet Troilus goes along with it, even when Pandarus is completely open about his role as a con artist, because his own art-inspired self-deception has made him susceptible to the deception of others.

Pandarus is a walking example of the seductive danger of art to lead into moral murkiness, but this danger is qualified by the fact that Pandarus has no power in and of himself in the way that Troilus’ “mirror” does: he is only powerful inasmuch as Troilus allows him to be. He is not an artist because he is not representing anything real; he is merely using art to twist his rationality into something more aesthetically appealing than would be possible with logic alone. Chaucer here is exploring the idea of language as a fallen, imperfect tool, and thus even Plato’s beloved argument can be subject to the same criticism that he has of art: it is removed from the truth.

Pandarus’ art incites no major change in Troilus’ character, but he does manage to draw Troilus further into the passion that had already begun. However, a major change in Troilus’ moral mindset does occur when Troilus begins imitating the deception used against him, becoming in effect a “little Pandarus.” He tells Criseyde an entirely fictional story about his supposed jealousy specifically for the purpose of manipulating her into sleeping with him, which is a very Pandarus-esque thing to do (Chaucer, 186, III.1156-1162). Up until this point, Troilus’ pursuit of Criseyde has been almost entirely passive and engineered by Pandarus, and although his story is a result of the situation manufactured by Pandarus, this particular fiction is created entirely by Troilus. Troilus has become aware of just how effective fabrications presented as part of an overarching argument can be, and has been, in a sense, corrupted by it. It is at this moment, and not the consummation, where Troilus passes the point of no return because it is here that he completely abandons his former insistence on logic.

Mark’s process of commitment to the N.I.C.E. is very similar to Troilus’: art is presented as logic with the purpose of manipulation, and like Troilus, the indication of the success of this tactic is when Mark uses it on others. However, in Mark’s case there are multiple artful arguers, none of whom are manipulative in and of themselves, but who together have a very manipulative effect: Mark becomes more enthusiastic about working at the N.I.C.E., but less sure of his place and his purpose. No one explicitly lies to Mark, and all their logic is sound, but the facts are presented with exquisite timing so as to force Mark into a corner and to make him happy about it. They play off of the deceptions that Mark himself instilled though his love of the art of self-presentation: truly an artful maneuver. Because of this, when he is offered a (somewhat) defined role that he certainly would not have accepted before this stage, he jumps at the chance: “Mark hesitated, uncertain of his own status. In the end, he decided that he couldn’t stand there looking like a fool any longer, and went in” (Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 55). The process is completed when he begins writing newspaper articles which never lie and never use bad reasoning, but present information in a carefully structured way so as to sway public opinion in favor of the N.I.C.E. (99).  “This was the first thing Mark had been asked to do which he himself, before he did it, clearly knew to be criminal. But the moment of consent almost escaped his notice… it all slipped past in a chatter of laughter” (130). Lewis is making the same point as Chaucer: that even rationality is subject to the flaw of misrepresenting truth, but Lewis takes this point even further than Chaucer in that his “artful arguments” do not merely include art, but actually are art.

Eventually both characters reject the deception that they had formerly embraced and look instead towards the reality because they come to understand the dangers of art masquerading as philosophy. The ways in which this happens, however, are drastically different from one another, and it is at this point that the differences between Lewis’ Christian view of fiction and Chaucer’s begin to come into focus. Troilus’ moment of change comes after he has learned of Criseyde’s imminent departure and he responds to Pandarus’ soothing deceptive arguments with disdain: “I pray God latthis conseil nevere ythe;/ But do me rather sterve anon-right here,/ Er I thus do as thow me woldest leere!” (Chaucer, 247, IV.439-441). He rejects Pandarus’ logic not because he does not want it, which would have been sufficient for him earlier in the story, but because it is untrue. He has received a healthy dose of reality, and it essentially washes all of the non-reality, all the art, out of his system, leaving nothing but the cold, hard truth and the corresponding logical conclusions. While Troilus does not abandon art altogether, such as when he writes his third song, he has stopped using art as a tool for crafting the way he sees the world. The emotional responses provoked by the art only have a limited amount of power behind them because Troilus has a logical argument to cling to amidst the stormy emotions; he may still want Criseyde, and he may still be under the power of art, but the reasoning that he must let her go, and then later that she has betrayed him, hold him on a steady path because it shows him what is truth and what is illusion. Chaucer has not left the territory of Arstotle because he still acknowledges the transformative power of art, but he shares Plato’s view of art as dangerous in that the art that Troilus encounters reveals less truth than his logic.

In contrast, Mark’s realization of how he had been deceived has almost nothing to do with logic, showing art to be the more powerful weapon. He is locked in a room filled with paintings and with dots on the walls, all of which is just slightly off from what Mark expects (Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 297). The room is designed to kill all of the subjective aesthetic tastes in Mark to make him a purely objective, rational creature (299). “But… this long, high coffin of a room began to produce on Mark an effect which his instructor had probably not anticipated…there rose up against this background of the sour and the crooked some kind of vision of the sweet and the straight” (299). These pictures do not point out any sort of logical fallacy in the N.I.C.E.’s attempts to manipulate Mark, nor do they provoke such a response in Mark himself: all the arguments remain intact. The pictures are not even representative of the “real world” in the way that Aristotle would approve of; they represent precisely what the real world is not. However, in spite of all this, the art provokes a powerful reaction in Mark because it helps him to move past all the posturing (both towards him and by him) to some sort of reality behind all the logic: “He had never before known what an Idea meant: he had always thought that they were things inside one’s own head. But now… this Idea towered up above him- something which obviously existed quite independently of himself” (310). Lewis practically quotes Aristotle in this, insisting that the thoughts and creations of man have meaning and power in and of themselves.

This dichotomy between Troilus’ transformation through logic and Mark’s maturation through art is deepened in their moments of self-realization, which are otherwise quite similar. Troilus’ occurs in the temple of Apollo after having been given time to process Criseyde’s departure (Chaucer, 273-279, IV.953-1078). The rapid destruction of his life by forces outside of his control has pushed him into contemplation about such forces in general, with the result of a very complete, logical, and convincing argument for predestination, of which Plato would have been proud. Despite the fact that his argument does not cause him to alter his behavior in any significant way, this is still a momentous occasion for Troilus because he has realized his place in the world as only a small part of a much bigger divine scheme, as confirmed by his experiences after death. Troilus comes to this conclusion not because he has seen it in the cosmos or felt it through art, but because he reasons it out. Although the argument comes about because of experience, it is the argument and not the experience that changes his thinking. This is the point at which Chaucer puts forth his boldest defense of reason as a life-changing force; that just as logic was previously insufficient to explain life’s mysteries, art is now shown to be insufficient for revealing truth.

Mark too has an epiphany in a solitary religious space, but his reaction, while including argument, is a firm rejection of argument as sufficient without the help of art. When Mark is instructed to desecrate a wooden crucifix, he refuses, but not because he has any sense of religious or cultural obligation not to do so: he refuses because it is art (Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 335). The very fact that he is being asked to destroy the art is a signal to Mark that the sculpture has significance beyond the sum of its parts, and “he found himself looking at the crucifix in a new way- neither as a piece of wood nor a monument of superstition but as a bit of history” (Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 336). In fact, the art actually makes an argument for Mark: to step on it would be to ally himself with the very people who executed the historical Jesus in the first place, and whether or not the man on the cross had any real power, he was in a situation not unlike Mark’s. “It was a picture of what happened when the Straight met the Crooked, a picture of what the Crooked did to the Straight… It was, in a more emphatic sense than he had yet understood, a cross” (336). Mark, like Troilus, has realized his place in the world as that of being opposed to the oppressors of the world; opposed to the N.I.C.E., and although he has not yet figured out the specifics as to why, he has made his first really brave choice, and all because of a piece of carved wood. Lewis is most clear in this scene that, while hard logic has its place- Mark uses such logic in his objection, after all- it is insufficient without the help of deeper truths about life, which may best be expressible through art. A mere theological discourse would not have been as helpful to Mark as it is to Troilus because, in Lewis’ representation, logic has its place, but art gives that logic life and power. Lewis has all but thrown Plato out the window at this point.

The final stage of Troilus’ development is of course his heavenly journey post-mortem where Chaucer’s art becomes philosophy. There, Troilus experiences neither argument not art, and, since he is already dead, we are not able to see if or how this experience affects his later thoughts. All we know is that, for Troilus, seeing the earth in its proper perspective in relation to the divine makes all of his humanly cares seem insignificant. He has realized, in essence, that “Pandarus is correct, though for the wrong reasons: the real world is an illusion” (Fyler, 129). All of Troilus’ life has been a fantasy- a work of art- that, while meaningless in itself, ultimately brings Troilus to a greater truth. It is the truth that matters, and whether Troilus achieves it through argument, as he comes close to doing in his predestination speech, or through art, as his entire life has done, it is immaterial. What matters is the conclusion that is drawn.

Lewis’ approach to Mark’s final moment of clarity develops his position that art can not only transform but can also reveal truth. Firstly, Mark is not dead, so the conclusions drawn are neither as sweeping nor as clear as Troilus’, but they are also conclusions pointing in an entirely different direction: not that the world is art, but that art is the world. After having experienced a bizarre inversion of “normal” behavior, Mark returns to his wife, stopping along the way at an inn where he rejuvenates by reading children’s books (Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 359). We are not told what these books are about- only that Mark enjoys them- so it is safe to assume that they make no kind of argument. Yet these books still manage to have a powerful effect on Mark, just by virtue of being books. Because they are fiction, Mark is symbolically cleansed of all the empty “objective” rationality of the N.I.C.E. which led (literally) to death; because they are children’s stories, Mark is able to lose the “grown-up” arrogance associated with that logic; because Mark enjoys them, he is able to gain the perspective that all his corporate ladder-climbing and obsession with his own image were artificial pleasures, whereas this pleasure is real. As the final step of a long process, by the end of this experience Mark has been transformed so entirely that he even begins thinking of his own life in terms of literature, which allows him to contextualize and see his relationship with his wife with more clarity than he was ever able to do with logic (Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 381). In effect, art has freed Mark from the constraints of pure argument, and allows him to put whatever rationality is appropriate in its proper framework, thus grounding it to what is real.

The respective points made through the characters of Troilus and Mark are also made on a larger scale by the stories themselves. Chaucer’s narrator makes a point of insisting that the story he is telling is completely historical, despite the fact that Chaucer’s entire audience would have likely thought of the Trojan War story in the context of various myths. It is almost as if the story holds no weight unless it is not art, so what is clearly fiction is framed as a history. This is in opposition to That Hideous Strength, which is grounded in modern-day Britain, refers to historical events, and is, at least initially, quite realistic, and yet right in the middle of all this realism, myths literally come to life. Merlin wakes from his tomb, elfish phantoms scamper through gardens, representations of Roman gods descend onto earth, and a character goes to what is essentially Avalon (Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 201-202, 304-305, 320-327, 367-368). While Chaucer seems to be saying that myths, artistic works, must be believed to be inartistic before they mean anything, Lewis is saying that myths actually are real. In other words, art holds just as much meaning as argument for Lewis because, in his view, the ultimate truth behind it all is in fact creative and not necessarily objective.

This last point is essential to understanding why the two authors differ in the way they do on the issue of art versus argument. As Christians, both writers acknowledge the world as fallen and imperfect, and both see the world we live in as being only part of the cosmological picture. For Chaucer, the goal is to get past the illusion of life on to the ultimate truth of Christianity, using art if he has to. In this way, he agrees with Aristotle’s point that art can be useful for representing things, but he also has a healthy dose of Plato’s view that the goal is to reach something more substantial than art can provide. Chaucer agrees to some extent with Screwtape in the belief that story is both powerful and deceptive, as demonstrated through Troilus’ dealings with Pandarus and his own songs, but concedes that passing through such deceptions may be necessary for obtaining truth. It is for this reason that “Troilus is for Chaucer something to be repented of” (Lewis, ‘De Audiendis Poetis,’ 9). As Alfred David points out, “In retracting his works Chaucer… wants to warn us about the limitations of poetry lest they me misused, and he wants to be forgiven for the venial sin of having created something of such equivocal worth” (David, 239).

Lewis, who after all did not live in a Neo-Platonic society, would likely disagree. For him, art is not an unfortunate (if enjoyable) necessity for reaching the truth; art is where the truth lives. Yes, the world may only be an illusion, but it is for that reason that we must use illusion to understand it. To Lewis, God is an artist, not a mathematician, and logical reasoning can thus only delve so far: “[Fantastical fiction] can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it” (Lewis, Of Other Worlds, 38). A little later in The Screwtape Letters, the demon makes the point that distracting a human from the important truths with logic is difficult when they are enjoying art because when that happens, the human is connected to a ‘real pleasure;” they are grounded into something divine that logical argument cannot touch (Lewis, Screwtape, 63-64). Lewis does acknowledge the potential for art to deceive and distract via. Mark’s image preoccupation and the creative maneuvering at the N.I.C.E., but these are corruptions of something which is, in its essential form, a reflection of God. Thus, Lewis plants his flag firmly in the Aristotelian camp.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. Ed. Stephen A. Barney. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006.

David, Alfred. The strumpet muse : art and morals in Chaucer’s poetry. Bloomington : Indiana University Press, c1976.

Fyler, John M. “The Fabrications of Pandarus.” Modern Language Quarterly 41 (1980): 115-30.

Klages, Mary. Literary theory : a guide for the perplexed, London ; New York, NY : Continuum, 2007.

Lewis, C. S. An experiment in criticism. Cambridge, University Press, 1961.

Lewis, C. S. Of other worlds: essays and stories. New York, Harcourt, Brace & World [1967, c1966].

Lewis, C. S. Studies in medieval and Renaissance literature. “De Audiendis Poetis.” Cambridge [Eng.] University Press, 1966.

Lewis, C.S. That Hideous Strength. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. 1946.

Lewis, C. S. The Screwtape letters : with Screwtape proposes a toast, New York : HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.


~ by ntertanedangel on July 13, 2010.

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