A Windmill Under a Walnut Shell: Chaucer's "House of Fame" on the Illusionist Rhetoric of Systems

Dissertation, Stanford University (1988)
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Abstract

The House of Fame, a parody of the cosmological epic, expresses Chaucer's doubts about the representation of reality as a system penetrable to its depths by human understanding. Specifically, the poem mimics works of Martianus Capella, Bernard Silvestris, Alain de Lille, and to a lesser extent, Dante. I call this group of writers the Liberal Arts Cult, because, posing reality as a Neoplatonic system with certain magical and gnostic features, they propose to perfect the human soul by instilling in it a knowledge of the seven liberal arts. ;The title-image, "a windmill under a walnut shell," comes from Book 3, where Geoffrey sees Colle Tregetour playing the shell-game, not with the conventional pea, but with a windmill, an image of the cosmos known to Chaucer through Dante and the Arab astronomers. This cosmic legerdemain represents a common trick of intellection: the illusion of broadened understanding achieved by narrowing perspective. Colle's trick symbolizes the basic feat that epics of the Liberal Arts Cult, with other magic systems, play by reducing the world's mysteries to manipulable quantities. The common excess of these writers amounts to elevating their special knowledge to magical potency, an action that puts them out of touch with a basic fact of existence seldom far from Chaucer's consciousness. It is the sheer structural subordination of human creativity to the divine Logos; as Erich Voegelin describes it: "The word of man, when he articulates his consciousness of reality, emerges from the reality that is the word of God." ;Questions of style merge with philosophical concerns as the House of Fame meditates on the literary representation of reality. The main problem and the point from which Chaucer diverges farthest from the Cultist's epics involves their histrionic personifications of philosophical concepts, especially phronesis, defined by Aristotle as the "virtue of deliberation about what is good and useful for man." The House of Fame is Chaucer's first major effort to restore this cognitive activity to its human scope both by representing it as the commonest action of his characters and by demanding it of his readers.

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