Between "Ernest" and "Game": The Aesthetics of Knowing and Poetics of "Witte" in William Langland's Piers Plowman and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
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A common assumption in theories of the aesthetic is that it is a concept and experience that belongs to modernity. However, as Umberto Eco has shown, the aesthetic was a topic of great consideration by medieval thinkers. As this project demonstrates in the study of the poetry of William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer, the aesthetic was, in fact, a dynamic and complex concept in the Middle Ages that could affirm institutional ideologies even as it challenged them and suggested alternative perspectives for comprehending truth. This project focuses on the ways in which the poets' respective vernacular literary masterpieces, Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales, individually craft theories of the aesthetic and defend its role as a privileged discursive epistemology. I argue that, for Langland and Chaucer, the aesthetic is a discursive mode through which the reader comes to possess a complex knowledge that matches his or her nature, material and immaterial, sensitive and intellective; the reader arrives at this knowledge by engaging his or her wits in a translation of the poetics of Piers Plowman and The Canterbury Tales. For Langland, this translative exercise is evoked by the complex interplay of allegory and irony, and the result of the aesthetic experience is an embodied knowledge of God's truth that he refers to as "kind knowing." For Chaucer, the aesthetic is configured through the experience of irony, a figure that engages the process of translation as it confirms the complexity of truth as we can comprehend it. The aesthetic is also, for Chaucer, represented by the privileged mode of parody, which allows the reader to hear, as it were, what is missing and, in reading, supply the missing voice and create a dialogue--between text and reader and/or tale and tale--that in effect remasters whatever is monoaural by translating it into stereo. Ultimately, for both Langland and Chaucer, the aesthetic engenders instruction and pleasure, and both together are essential to our embodied comprehension of truth.