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The Double Consciousness of Noir

April 20, 2018

Thanks to Matt Phillips, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

There is a persistent paradigm in the American experiment: There are those among us who insist on closing their eyes to the truth, those who deny—in lieu of their discomfort—a dedicated hold on reality. More than sixty years ago, in Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin wrote, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster” (148). To fully understand and upend this persistent American paradigm, we must examine the too often ignored disparity between perception and reality. And we must outline and describe this disparity as a physical thing—it is a concept and/or idea, yes, but it is also an object. Noir—as a genre and practice—provides an effective palette for drawing, defining, and collapsing contrasts. And contrast, on its face, is what disparity is—an ill-drawn, and often evil, contrast.

In her noir novel The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes constructs this disparity—that is to say she gives it physical form—by manipulating character and plot. In the book, a young doctor named Hugh Densmore is driving to Phoenix for a wedding. In the middle of the desert he picks up a young woman, a teenaged hitchhiker. The doctor immediately regrets his decision and begins to feel anxious. Hughes writes, “A chill sense of apprehension came on him and he wished to hell he hadn’t stopped. This could be the initial step in some kind of shakedown, although how, with nothing or no one in sight for unlimited miles, he couldn’t figure” (5). As readers, we may not necessarily understand this apprehension—for some fifty pages we are left wondering for certain why (and how) the doctor can be anxious about a simple act of courtesy. This foreboding anxiety and tension persist until Densmore drops the teen at a bus station (her alias is revealed as Iris Croom). It’s not long before Iris appears again; she bangs on the door at Densmore’s motel and insists he help her. Her problem, as she describes it, is this: “‘I thought my boyfriend would marry me. But he’s already married’” (35). When Densmore insists he can’t help Iris, she says, “‘Yes you can … You’re a doctor’” (36). Of course, Densmore slams the door and sends the girl away, rage and fear now running through him like hot oil. But still, it’s an oddity for some readers when Densmore thinks, “There’d always be a residue of suspicion that the girl’s inventions weren’t all false. How could he prove otherwise? They had traveled together” (36). In what reality does a doctor fear the he-said-she-said machinations of a teenaged girl? And a girl who, she admits herself, is in trouble?

Not long after this episode, Densmore reads a story in the local paper: A teenager has been found dead and, reading between the lines, Densmore knows the woman is the victim of an abortion gone wrong—it turns out the dead girl is Iris Croom. In the subsequent passage, Dorothy Hughes describes the dilemma of an innocent man who knows—who is absolutely certain—that he will be accused of a crime he didn’t commit. Hughes writes, “[T]o flee in panic was not the answer. It was construed always as the act of a man bloodied with guilt, although in fact the innocent man involved beyond his depth might have more reason to run” (44). It’s clear at this juncture that Densmore knows his guilt will be assumed, that he will be called on to prove his innocence. How does one prove innocence? Must one acquire and present evidence? Must one, in the event of proximity to a crime, always be gathering evidence and formulating arguments of innocence?

When two detectives show up to question Densmore, he is immediately intimidated. His anxiety seems to burst out of him; his first question is whether or not the detectives are there to arrest him. During the ensuing interrogation, one of the detectives reveals that a witness saw a black doctor (he does not use so kind a term as ‘black’) driving the teenager into town in his “big white Cadillac” (55). And now we know that Dr. Hugh Densmore is a black man. We also know that the detectives, whether they open their eyes to it or not, are racists. Densmore’s anxiety and apprehension, his fear of the police, and his general doubt in controlling his own narrative become not only understandable, but also inevitable. In the first third of The Expendable Man, Dorothy B. Hughes depicts race as if it were a tablespoon of salt in a glass of ice water—it is present, yet undetectable. Until, of course, one is thirsty and must swig from the glass. For Densmore, this means he understands that racial bias exists within law enforcement, but he has not yet tasted the bitterness of that bias. Once he is connected by a witness to the dead woman, Densmore takes a long swig of that salty water. With his new legal trouble, race is the primary issue. If Densmore does not prove his innocence, race will be the decisive issue. Whatever your race, on page 55 of the book, with one character’s brief comment and description, the disparity that exists between perception and reality is clearly outlined—we all see it, whether black, white, or brown…the disparity between perception and reality is now a plot device. It has become a tool of craftsmanship.

The young doctor’s understanding of his situation is described, in part, by what W.E.B. Du Bois termed double consciousness. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois writes: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of the measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." (2) The young doctor knows the truth of himself, that he simply gave a ride to a young woman who needed one. He also knows the truth of white public perception—he is a black man taking a pretty, young, white woman for a ride. And she ends up dead after enduring a secretive abortion. At the heart of the Densmore’s presumed guilt is the assumption of power and its location. Power, in the society Hughes sketches, resides in the white body, and—by extension—in the white body politic. Of course, The Expendable Man was published in 1963, and is clearly a noir of stunning realism. In a piece about the book for The New Yorker, Christine Smallwood writes, “Difference is defined by oppositions of power, after all—black, white; accuser, accused. Noir provides a language and rhythm for such differences.” Difference, however, has a cousin: disparity. And while it is not so visible as the blatancy of difference, disparity still carries within it myriad oppositions of power. In Densmore, Hughes creates a character at the perceived height of society—a doctor intent on researching cancer—and still he is subject to the basest and most treacherous of assumptions cast by men. As Smallwood puts it, “Densmore is exemplary, but he is still expendable. His guilt precedes him…”

I’d argue further that Dorothy B. Hughes, in her use of double consciousness as a tool of craftsmanship, gives physical form to the unspoken. The Expendable Man is a work about the monstrosity, the depravity, the utter insolvency of ignorance. There can be no true progress in human rights without a shared agreement—between all of us—about what is real. We are here. We exist. Our perceptions vary, and yet the effects of those perceptions do not waver. Perhaps the effects we see (and experience) on a daily basis—we might all agree—are reality. These effects then, as manifested in our daily interactions, are the truth. Our ways of seeing (or not seeing) not only make our world, but can also dismantle and reassemble our world. James Baldwin writes, “[T]ruth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment; freedom which cannot be legislated, fulfillment which cannot be charted” (10-11). In The Expendable Man, Hugh Densmore escapes his accusations and takes to the highway with his future wife. His life is uncharted beyond the long road from Phoenix to Los Angeles, but it is a life still under observation and accusation by the tired eyes of monsters.

It is now the year 2018 and I wonder whether, to some degree, Dr. Hugh Densmore would still be The Expendable Man?

 

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. Print.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Dover Thrift Editions, 1994. Print.

Hughes, Dorothy B. The Expendable Man. New York: Hudson Review of Books, 2012. Print.

Smallwood, Christine. “The Crime of Blackness: Dorothy B. Hughes’s Forgotten Noir.” www.newyorker.com 15 August 2012. Web.

Rethinking Invention

April 13, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.” - T. S. Eliot

I used to work for a professor who would say: “Without the toaster, we’d have no computers!” Each invention brings about a whole new world of possibilities. The toaster may not resemble the computer, but they are stages on a continuum once seen at a distance. Of course, that is not apparent in the beginning of any invention, only hindsight provides that kind of perspective.

The first toaster came about in the early 1900s and even it did not resemble the toasters of today. The first toaster browned one side of bread at a time, requiring the user to flip the toast halfway through. And wouldn’t you know the invention that immediately followed the toaster? Presliced bread. In other words, the new product created space for another new product. This is not surprising, and in fact, seems to be an unwritten rule of invention. It is anyone’s guess which products will survive (like presliced bread) and which will fade.

Listening to Mark Zuckerberg’s Senate testimony got me thinking about invention in general. Zuckerberg has repeated that he did not know exactly what he was creating Facebook. I think that can be said of all invention. And if the inventor does not fully understand the capabilities and repercussions of their creation, imagine the public. We are left wandering behind in a variety of states of interest, desire, greed, paranoia and ignorance. Listening to the questions I had two thoughts. First: clearly there is a difficulty in framing the right questions, particularly about something so foreign to our own experience and training. And two: humans really do not understand these new technologies.

It is likely that all teenagers function on nothing less than three social media platforms a day. Maybe more. They may not be able to imagine a day when these platforms did not exist. But I think it is worth our time to offer some perspective on technology. For this, I thought it best to offer a very visual demonstration of invention, namely, the airplane. In 1903, the Wright brothers successfully flew the Flyer. It was not their first attempt at a plane, but it finally proved that humans could fly. Furthermore, they “discovered the first principles of human flight”. And of course, flight experimentation did not stop there. Nineteen years after the Flyer, Italian designer Caproni built the Ca 60, a prototype of a flying boat, intended for transatlantic travel. To look at it now, in retrospect, it looks like a science project (because, of course, it was). On its second flight, the Ca 60 crashed into the water and broke apart. Airplanes nowadays are sleeker, constructed from entirely different materials and a whole lot more sophisticated, but the builders learned a lot from these early experiments.

 Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Caproni's Ca 60 experimental flying boat on Lake Maggiore, 1921. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

That there were nineteen years between the first flight and the first pursuit of transatlantic flight is important, however, because it is also roughly equivalent to the length of time in which we have had social media. (The first blogs were generated in 1999, and took off by 2004. The intent of my blog today, however, is not to define social media, which will have to wait for another day). Blogs arrived in early 2000 and became heavy traffickers by 2010. Other sites naturally filtered in to fill niche markets. Sites like Photobucket and Flickr, Tumblr and Youtube generated a new way to use, share and create our own content. (During this time, Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004.) As social media sites visibly changed and grew with their markets, they also changed on the back end. Data-mining and information-gathering changed too. I think it is important to remember how revolutionary the internet was (and is!). Whereas with the Flyer and Ca 60 one could see the differences and reasons for construction, social media markets are much more subtle.

It seems to me that social media is less social and more media than we originally imagined. What is hidden may be more important than what is received. The way that we code documents, tag them, like them, share them, all create invisible data which now hangs onto the content in question, but also hangs onto the users. Ironically, this data is parsed and stored in a variety of middleman’s hands, on sites like Facebook and Twitter. In complete contrast to the airplane, the internet has masked invention in such a subtle way that the user is unaware of our own participation in invention.


When humans did achieve the first transatlantic flight, they had few navigational systems, and no bathrooms or heaters. Imagine Amelia Earhart or Charles Lindbergh, who were embraced for their spirit of adventure and bold daring. The first airplanes carried one person or a few people at their own cost and risk of their own life. Today, we use the internet more often than we use transportation and yet we understand it less. Its implications are creating profound effects upon our lives and yet we still cannot see the wheels or wings. How do we make transparent that which cannot be seen? How do we create a spirit of cooperation, much like the Wright brothers or Charles Lindbergh?

I am simply wondering if, as concepts become murkier and more nuanced, how do we educate a global population which is heavily dependent upon such technologies? The Ca 60’s first flight was short and its second, disastrous. Can we risk that of our websites and internet services? Yet, one idea often inspires the next. We are fortunate to have inventors willing to test their ideas, but what happens when the inventions risk issues of identity and truth? I ask this because I believe that future inventions will continue to be hidden from sight and we should find ways for dealing with such subtlety.

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Right to Be Forgotten, or Right to Evolve?

April 6, 2018

Thanks to Carter Vance, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas, for today's post.

When the European Union first gave legal force the notion of “right to be forgotten”, in a 2014 court ruling against Google, I was amongst those who were both confused at the practical impacts and fearful of what its long-term effects might be. Confused, because it has become an almost axiomatic truth for those of us who grew up with access to online spaces that the Internet does not forget. Anything, once posted online, regardless of how much effort is spent trying to scrub it out later on, is there forever, for anyone dedicated enough to seek it out. How, in concrete terms, was this “right” going to function, and to the advantage of whom? Though pitched as a device through which individuals could protect their reputations from false, misleading or outdated information, the potential dangers of such a “right” being active were obvious. Corporate CEOs could remove information about financial improprieties, abusers could remove information about their legal convictions, and so on. It is always worth remembering that attempts to use the public force of law to restrict informational flows have an inherent bias towards the well-resourced, as they are able to afford to bring forward the court cases which enforce such provisions. In other words, the danger is that it would become less a general “right to be forgotten”, and more a specific right to evade accountability for the powerful.

It is true that, under EU law and the various similar rights proposals that have been made in other countries, there is not an obligation for a piece of information to be completely scrubbed out of digital existence. Rather, individuals can request that particular information having to do with them be delisted from the search results of Google and other such companies that serve as primary traffic directors of the web. In this way, we are not talking about a true right for information to be completely eliminated, but rather to be made much more difficult to locate, and not be the first thing that an online searcher sees when looking for a particular person’s name. A dedicated researcher would still be able to locate something a person did not want to be known about themselves, but the casual reader would not. It is worth noting in this regard that, according to leaked internal reports from Google (which is by far the largest recipient of “right to be forgotten” requests), that 95% of the requests it receives are from private individuals trying to remove personal information from the internet, not the public or corporate figures some feared would abuse the system. Was, then, the concern over the EU’s decision entirely overblown, and should other countries embrace such a system as well? In my opinion, the answer is deeply complicated, and involves just as much a failure of social norms to evolve in response to technological change as it does a gap in the legal frameworks around information and privacy.

In terms of privacy, a couple of obvious initial points should be made. Insofar as the “right to be forgotten” is used to remove personal information or other intimate details that were posted about an individual but not by them, it is perfectly in line with existing privacy and anti-harassment laws in most countries. The system which Google uses to process requests is much more accessible than the often-obscure and inaccessible legal miasma which surrounds practically applying anti-harassment laws in online spaces. If information about an individual, which is not in the public interest, is online without the permission of that individual, it seems only natural to allow them an accessible option to have it removed. The same is true of outright false information about a person, or claims which reach the legal standard of libel. There is, of course, always going to be debate about where the lines of “public interest” and “libel” ought to be drawn (for instance, opinions differ on whether a politician cheating on his or her spouse is within the public purview), and different states have come up with different answers to this question, which have evolved over time. There may never be a legal standard in respect to public interest which satisfies everyone, but it is at least an area of both legal and political theory with a substantial background where the broad parameters of the debate are well known.

The more novel question at play concerns information or posts that one consciously chooses to put online, but then later wants removed. I came into this consideration myself recently when a comment I had made when still in high school (about a decade old at this point), resurfaced as it sometimes does. In it, in the course of making a joke about the film Silence of the Lambs, I used some language about trans persons that struck me as gobsmackingly retrograde in the light of 2018. I don’t judge it to be bigoted (though of course I cannot definitively speak to that), but it definitely is not language I would use today. I thought, however, if this had been found by someone else and I was asked to account for it, how would I do so? Would the passage of time, my intent in making the comment and the changing consciousness around those issues be explanation enough?

From this, I thought too about the recent semi-scandal of the British MP Jared O’Mara, who was found to have posted similarly crude and offensive comments about gay men on online forums in the early 2000s and subsequently faced disciplinary action as a result. He, whilst apologizing for the comments, did attempt to contextualize them within the language often used by young men at the time of their writing (O’Mara was in his late teens and early twenties), as well as his own social difficulties at the time due to his cerebral palsy, to a mixed social response. He did, however, stress that it is not language he would use in the present day and that his understanding of homophobia had progressed due to a general change in social climate around gay issues in the subsequent years. But, again, it can be asked, is his apology accountability enough, or should it go beyond that? Does O’Mara, assuming that he is sincere in his comments about having changed, have the right to no longer wear his old comments as reflective of who he is now? Would it have been right for him to ask that they be removed from the internet before his election, such that the whole controversy would have been avoided?

Though it may seem obvious to simply say that actions have consequences that should be considered before doing them, the reality when it comes to online speech is not so clear. What if, for instance, a comment is taken out of context and used to actively misrepresent the character of the person who posted it? Does this meet the standard of false information or libel, and who makes that determination? Is there a statute of limitations after which a person can reasonably say they no longer think in the way they did when the comments were made? Does this apply to people at all ages equally, or is it especially active for younger individuals? What about allowance for changing norms of speech? All of these are hard questions to answer, often embedded in the particular context of what, exactly, was said and who, exactly, was saying it. The issue is that a trial in the court of public opinion does not have even the limited guard rails for fairness we expect in the legal system, even if it is understandable that many turn to it when that legal system itself fails to provide justice.

A notional, if not often truly implemented, pillar of that justice system is of rehabilitation for all but the most egregious crimes. The idea that accountability involves a finite, rather than indefinitely ongoing, punishment is still not fully realized in the formal legal system. This is why, for instance, many organizations involved in criminal justice reform efforts have pushed for so-called “ban the box” legislation to prevent employers from inquiring about the criminal records of applicants. The problem is that, as we move to a world where more and more of our social lives and internal thoughts are expected to be put out into the world for all to see, and more importantly, archived to be looked back through, more punishment is being delivered through systems which are outside of the formal legal realm. For instance, “doxing” campaigns often attempt to get individuals fired from their jobs by connecting them to either questionable or outright hateful posts. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, as it could be reasonably stated that employers have an interest in not hiring, for instance, white supremacist activists, as do that person’s co-workers in not working with them (of course, this leads into a much more involved discussion on employment law, which there is not space for here). But, much like the drawing of the “public interest” line spoken about above, there is far from a clear social consensus on what kinds of attitudes or statements online constitute grounds for this kind of action to be taken, and there is not even a political system through which this line can be debated effectively. Instead, there are many different standards depending almost entirely on the social norms prevalent within the milieu of the individual who gets caught in a social media storm. A middle-aged white male insurance salesman from Alabama, for instance, is probably less likely to lose his job over insensitive tweets about the NFL kneeling controversy, than is a young copy editor at a magazine in New York. The latter, then, is going to be far more likely to want to access a way to make those tweets, and their attendant controversy, at least less accessible, if not disappear entirely.

In a time before the internet, if one made remarks 10 years ago which no longer reflected one’s beliefs and attitudes today, it is unlikely, unless you were a public figure at the time, that they would be held against you. There was a certain understanding that attitudes and beliefs should be allowed to naturally evolve and change over time and that being constantly confronted with one’s old statements would represent an impediment to that growth. Now, at least those expressions that are posted online have the potential to haunt us long after we have rethought them. One possibility of resolution on this front that keeps us from spiraling into ever-greater recrimination is that, eventually, those in positions of social and cultural power will all have grown up on social media, and thus a dynamic of mutually-assured reputational destruction sets in. Of course, the problem this may end up facilitating is that, as in the past, too many genuinely troubling or destructive behaviours are simply written off as follies of youth and thus allowed to fester unchecked. This use of the past as a cloak of secrecy can often also write off present behaviour by making it seem exceptional rather than as part of a pattern, and a return to a totally opaque world is also not desirable. Perhaps, then, the “right to be forgotten” is a somewhat crude and imperfect legal tool that needed to be developed in order to resist, or at least minimize, the trend towards the totality of one’s online presence being eternal and inescapable. Its inherent failure, though, is that it attempts to correct with a legal mechanism what is ultimately a social problem of a lack of allowance for personal growth and proportion of punishment.

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Chaucer Translations

March 30, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

In April, we will be discussing two of my favorite things in the Quarterly Discussion: translation and Chaucer. I love Middle English texts because they show such difference between Old English and contemporary English. Old English was originally spoken by Germanic tribes such as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes. As the Anglo-Saxons formed larger communities, Old English began to overpower Latin as the dominant language in Britain.

There are some stark differences between Latin and Old English. For example, English is structured around the subject-verb sentence structure. If we rearrange the word order, meaning may very likely change. In Latin, however, word order matters much less than the form of the words. Nouns are inflected for case, number, gender, and verbs are inflected for person, number, tense, aspect, voice and mood. Since Latin depends on these constant word endings, the language can attain a rhyme scheme that sounds awkward in English.

In fact, the first English poems depended upon alliteration and repetition instead of rhyme scheme and syllable count. As British arts began to commingle with the highly stylized French poetry, the style began to change. As so often happens when languages collide, the arts begin to absorb and reflect the other culture's style. Middle English began to assume some of the words and styles from French poetry. Beginning roughly in the 11th century, it continued into the 1500s. Since Chaucer constructed The Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, it is important to understand a bit about Chaucer's main dialect: Middle English.

In April, the group of participants in our Quarterly Discussion will review a variety of Chaucer translations. This practice is so interesting because it simultaneously reveals a wide variety of things. First, the Middle English is recognizable in structure (much moreso than Old English). Therefore, reading the original is not impossible. Most originals are now printed with excellent footnotes and background information for those words that have slipped out of the English language since Chaucer's day. Second, we learn about Chaucer himself. What sort of biases, prejudices and experiences he had can be reflected in a work of this magnitude. Finally, we discover cultural clues, such as clothing styles and stereotypes. Since Chaucer was an incredibly playful artist, the reader is required to ascertain tone as well. Is the cultural stereotype, for example, serious, playful or insulting? How will we know through language alone? There will be questions that are impossible to answer, but I find that discussions about Chaucer's works are always entertaining and rewarding.

As a teaser, I have been comparing some of the Chaucer translations, and I find the following bit particularly interesting. Chaucer modeled "The Franklin's Tale" after the French story-telling style of a breton lay. We know, then, that the narrative will be rhymed and involve chivalry. The language is highly stylized and assumes that the speaker is an educated man. Therefore, when the Franklin says “But, sirs, I'm not a cultivated man/ And so from the beginning I beseech/ You to excuse me my untutored speech”, the reader already knows that this is untrue. Chaucer chose the style to fit the speaker, tale and theme. But Chaucer also chose how to deliver the lines. From the very first lines, then, his tale incorporates irony and ambiguity as much as it uses elevated rhetoric.

"The Franklin's Tale" revolves around Dorigen, a fair maiden, who is won over by the knight Arvéragus. They swear their love to each other, but must part soon after their wedding. When Arvéragus is sent away for two years as part of his knightly duties, Dorigen pines away for him. During this time, another suitor approaches Dorigen. Though she rejects him, she does mention that if he can move mountains, she would love him. She says this because it is the mountainous, rocky shore that blocks her husband's safe return. Unfortunately for Dorigen, the suitor finds a magician who eventually moves the mountains. When he proves that he has fulfilled the pledge, Arvéragus consents to the coupling as the only way to save Dorigen's honor. Crestfallen and ashamed, she approaches the suitor and he forgives her debt. After hearing this whole tale, the magician (also called the philosopher), then, forgives the suitor's debt. So, in the end, no one errs other than in words. No crime has been committed, though the magician remains unpaid for his trick.

By looking at the final lines of this tale, we can gain an understanding of some of the tricks with translation.

First, the original reads:

This philosophre answerde, 'Leeve brother,/ Everich of yow dide gentilly til oother./ Thou art a squier, and he is a knyght;/ But God forbede, for his blisful myght,/ But if a clerk koude doon a gentil dede/ As wel as any of yow, it is no drede!

'Sire, I releesse thee thy thousand pound,/ As thou right now were cropen out of the ground,/ Ne nevere er now ne haddest knowen me./ For, sire, I wol nat taken a peny of thee./ For al my craft, ne noght for my travaille./ Thou hast ypayed wel for my vitaille./ It is ynogh, and farewel, have good day!'

And took his hors, and forth he goth his way./ Lordynges, this question, thanne wol I aske now,/ Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?/ Now telleth me, er that ye ferther wende./ I kan namoore; my tale is at an ende.

 

Next, the same section of text from the Great Books series version (translated by Nevil Coghill) reads:

Then the magician answered, “My dear brother,/ Each of you did as nobly as the other./ You are a squire, sir, and he a knight,/ But God forbid in all His blissful might/ That men of learning should not come as near/ To nobleness as any, never fear.

“Sir, I release you of your thousand pound/ No less than if you'd crept out of the ground/ Just now, and never had had to do with me./ I will not take a penny, sir, in fee/ For all my knowledge and my work to rid/ The coast of rocks; I'm paid enough for what I did,/ Well paid, and that's enough. Farewell, good-day!”/ He mounted on his horse and rode away.

My lords, I'll put a question: tell me true,/ Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?/ Ere we ride onwards tell me, anyone!/ I have no more to say, my tale is done.

 

While this translation has a lot to offer, I want to look at just one line for the sake of brevity. Coghill translates: “Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?” as “Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?” According to a variety of Middle English sources, “fre” can be translated as noble, free, of noble status, gracious, and generous. Which word best fits the syntax, meter, meaning and author intention? These are difficult questions, made particularly difficult in a translation of something that may also be tongue-in-cheek. I think it is important to note that Chaucer's original leaves open the possibility that Dorigen may have been the most “fre”. The translation, however, does not because instead of the ambigious “mooste fre”, it asks who was the finest “gentleman”. In my mind, that single word changes the passage quite radically.

Translations are never perfect, but they are fun to explore. I think we will gain much insight from our comparisons. Feel free to join us! Email asimon@hmu.edu for more information and to join the conversation!

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