Category Archives: Dialectics

Reappropriating the Bourgeois Revolutions

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” -Tom Paine, Common Sense

here is a rather unfortunately amusing predicament a student of bourgeois revolutions will notice upon first foraying into online research databases for primary documents. The databases you frequent, and are in many cases forced to use, hold  a noticeable connection to modern libertarianism and whig liberalism. Revolutions of peasants and merchants are now revolutions of only ingenious merchants; of Locke and Hobbes, and not Lilburne or Winstanley. A professor and I were in one particularly odious case forced to print off John Milton’s Eikonoklastes (in which Milton defends tyrannicide and lampoons the historically stagnant) from the “Online Library of Liberty” (a collection of scholarly works on individual liberty and free markets, as the header proudly proclaims), much to our own perturbation.

One finds this elsewhere, as the popularly published and circulated history of the American revolution is extraordinarily conservative and deterministic with some notable exceptions such as Zinn and Linnbaugh, amongst others. A statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest (the first grand wizard of the Klu Klux Klan) stands proudly in Memphis, but there is only one statue of Tom Paine (author and catalyst of American revolutionary nationalism) in the United States in a small New Jersey town. The peasant rebellions subsequent to the American victory are a mere footnote in history textbooks, only glossed over in most junior high and high school level history courses while the story of George Washington and an unlucky cherry tree endures in cultural memory (in spite of its relationship with truth).

Consistent with the bourgeoisie’s own narrative of its historical finality, the fire of the 17th and 18th centuries has been turned into a stone buttress holding up modern capitalist mythos of free enterprise and personal liberty. To such gentrified narratives, Milton’s Areopagitica is a treatise exclusively on modern freedom of speech and the press, the Leveller’s Agreement of the People is merely anticipatory of american radicalism, the Diggers are an insignificant minority, the English Revolution (sorry, the English Civil War) a battle to get rid of an ineffective and catalytic king (Russel), and the Ranters didn’t even exist at all!

The gentrification, or revision as author James Holstun calls it, of the bourgeois revolutions is a two-way street, however, with many leftists rejecting the revolutionary legacy of the English Revolution (for Cromwell and Ireland), the American Revolution (for slavery) and the French Revolution (for  the “Reign of Terror” and Napoleon). Such an ideological decision plays into the hands of modern counterrevolutionaries who endeavor to appropriate revolutionary history.  The history of class struggle and warfare, even if the victors are the left’s contemporary enemies, is by right (not divine, of course) the area of Marxists and Marxist critics. There is no doubt that the bourgeois revolutions advanced through crippling dialectical contradictions (between liberty and slavery, for example), and Marxists must never let bourgeois theory escape from these historically objective contradictions. Such an activity, however, requires an appreciation of the movement of these revolutions down class lines and their ultimate failure to fufill their most radical goals; requiring mass repressions of radical peasants and workers in each case.

At the heart of historically highlighting the bourgeois revolutions is the central thesis of a modern Marxist approach – revolutions are what change history. Mass movements of people, not singular heads of government, forge in the fire of violent upheaval the existing social order. The Bourgeois revolutions do not suggest the eternal triumph of the bourgeoisie, as many mainstream critics and historians have sought to prove through historical revision and post-modern diffusion, it is, instead, proof of the universality of class struggle; the power of the working classes, and the greater trend of humanity towards the democratization of production. To write off the bourgeois revolutions as historically necessary and inevitable is not only lazy Marxist analysis but it also silences the voices that actively fought against both feudalism and emergent capitalism. To ignore the struggles of peasants and workers in an era before developed capitalism and Marxism is to rob ourselves of a rich history and context for the establishment of our current struggles and dynamics. It is to chain Marxist analysis to the material conditions of the 19th century, an idea Michael Foucault and other post-modernists have endeavored to  establish for several decades; and an idea we must continue to oppose.

Let us then appropriate in this essay, as the bourgeois revolutionaries did in their revolutions, history. Just as Milton would highlight the democratic “nature” of the English people in Saxon times, let  us tell a history that leads to an understanding of these revolutions developed for many decades by Marxist historians across field and era. An understanding that renders the revolutions as a crucible where revolutionary anti-capitalist voices erupted from anti-royal struggles and were violently silenced by emergent capitalist states; revealing, in turn, the true nature of modern capitalist states and mythos.

Armed with Book and Lance: England and the Danger of Peasant Power

 “For the army are acted by their own principles; they are an army that  understands themselves.” -John Saltmarsh, A Letter from the Army, on the New Model Army

Perhaps the most obvious positive outcome of the bourgeois revolutions was the destruction of the feudal mode of production and the states that supported it. In England, in spite of the ultimate failure of the Commonwealth, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme into Restoration England, orchestrating the dubiously titled “Glorious Revolution” when fears of James II tolerance of Catholicism was used to bring about liberal reforms. England had become, as author J.G.A Pocock alludes to in his recommendable book The Machiavellian Moment, a society where economic stability was tied to political stability, where stability was tied to the prosperity of all; a convenient ideological strand given the frightening upsurge of peasant consciousness and resistance during the interregnum.

There are two things of import in highlighting this ideological turn in the restoration era bourgeoisie in England. First, the feudal economic system was undone. No longer did a King hold the leash of a parliament, long, short or in between; parliament now held the leash of King and Queen; rather tightly, as the Glorious Revolution illustrates. Second, the economic stability of capitalist England was tied to political stability (read Pocock’s chapters “Court, Country and Standing Army” and “Virtue, Passion and Commerce”) to nurture the later blooming English fear of chaos caused by violent revolution, manifested in Alexander Pope’s rational exultation of inaction in his Essay on Man, Samuel Butler’s lampooning of puritan revolutionaries in his Hudibras, rabid anti-Jacobin tracts, and fearful early-Victorian tracts on continental upheaval (1848). Just what had happened in England during its revolution to elicit such fearful sentiments from the triumphant bourgeoisie and their culture? That, in our effort to render the bourgeois revolutions as class wars alight with ultimately snuffed out peasant consciousness, is worth answering.

The English Revolution is remarkable for its firstness in executing a king, and paradoxically, the revolution’s fairly conservative goals. The poetry of Andrew Marvell and John Milton (Marvell’s Horation Ode, Milton’s 16th Sonnet) reflect a deep anxiety with the violent revolution that killed 100,000 in a nation of five million. The political developments of the period (the Presbyterian parliament, the general unpopularity of the commonwealth government, and the ultimate betrayal of the military in the Restoration) show a keen conservative discomfort with what the revolution had uncovered; notably an English heritage of peasant revolt and consciousness, found politically in 1381 and even in literature in Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

The Commonwealth government, despite its enemies’ accusations, advocated itself for fairly conservative measures. Cromwell, and his fellow Grandees (landed gentry and other nobleman of the New Model Army, of which Cromwell was one, who opposed the agitators at Putney) advocated for very little past greater representation and parliamentary autonomy. That’s not to say, however, that radical and future-looking rebel voices didn’t emerge. In fact, the English Revolution is remarkable for the level of dialogue modern readers can find, be it through the Clarke Papers (which record, by quote, the Putney Debates) or the political tracts of Winstanley, Lilburne, Milton, Presbyters, Grandees, Fifth Monarchists and beyond, all of which survive to this day.

These tracts were read by an ever-diversifying populace. When John Milton was born in 1608, approximately 30% of the population in England could read, by the time he died, in 1688, nearly 50% of the society could read. What is the function of this change? Put simply, revolution and puritan egalitarianism (two connected concepts, no doubt), and what Jurgen Habermas would call the public sphere. Gone were the days of Latin texts read by only a handful of souls deciding the fate of an entire nation. In revolutionary England, working class New Model soldiers read and circulated texts, arguing with each other on points of organization, terror, and agitation. These texts, of course, were written in the vernacular. They were printed by the hundreds and thousands with ease. Political consciousness in peasants, women (see: Lucy Hutchenson, Anne Trapnell) and urban proletariat soared. Bibles were read by everyone in a pike battalion and everyone in a parish. The same anti-slavery verses that would so attract radical African slaves to the old testament worked unfiltered through the minds of revolutionary puritans via the Geneva Bible.

Of course, this consciousness and ideology wouldn’t be worth very much if it was not itself conscious of its own potential for realization. This potential was elicited, rather unwittingly, by the Grandee officers who gave the same peasants who had rebelled in 1381 pikes and muskets to do battle against the King. The New Model had, by its very own organization and revolution in military leadership and command, toppled one of the most powerful monarchs in the world. This experience, as James Holstien highlights with precision in his chapter “New Model Soviets” in his book Ehud’s Dagger, garnered a previously unseen level of political, communal consciousness. At Putney, a debate between New Model radicals and Grandees, battalions elected there very own agitator to represent their interests. Agitators verbally acknowledge in the debates that they speak not for themselves but for their troops. This, fundamentally, was revolutionary democracy. Without the legitimacy of state and constitution, New Model soldiers struggled against what they saw as Grandee betrayal.

Predictably, Cromwell and Ireton (a frequently quoted Grandee from the Clarke Papers) responded to these agitator’s cries for universal suffrage with accusations of anarchism and banditry. Cromwell retorted to Rainsborough, the oft quoted agitator, by claiming, “No man says that you have a mind to anarchy, but that the consequence of this rule tends to anarchy, must end in anarchy.” Ireton condemned the leveling ideology at the meeting by asking, “by what right may I not take your property?”

These responses to peasant power, in letter and musket, is anticipatory of the universal repressions of peasants and workers subsequent to each major bourgeois revolution. Critically, we see a keen tension between what the bourgeois revolutions produced as bi-product and what they were prepared to procure politically. Elevated consciousness in the peasants and the wars they were willing to wage to bring together ideal, both religious and political, and reality, posed a grave danger to the triumphant bourgeois state of England. It is for this reason that repressions occurred, and that even through restoration and glorious dynasty change, the bourgeoisie continued to reign supreme in England; in stability, profit, crushing urbanization, and growing inequality.

We must never silence the voices of these agitators because they are inconvenient to our analyses, both left and right. The bourgeois revolutions were not simply anti-feudal, inevitable struggles born of inherent contradiction, nor were they wars for universal freedom and liberty. In between lies a world of both Grandee and Agitator, where both parties battled, and the latter lost. This battle and its belligerents are not insignificant. In the battle, many aspects of modern bourgeois democracy and the mythos that supports it were forged. The martial metaphor, as will be elucidated, is apt indeed.

A Republic of Burned Letters

“-no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.” -Ireton, Putney

The battles and its ultimate outcome is worth stopping upon, to illustrate how the failures of the bourgeois revolutions to meet their revolutionary ideals can be used as a catalyst in understanding the dominance and weaknesses of modern bourgeois mythos.

I had previously mentioned Jurgen Habermas’ concept of the public sphere and highlighted then only the core and mostly well-respected movements of his theory; chiefly that in Early Modern Europe you see the emergence of a republic of letters (not his term, but a popularly used one) in which textual voices discoursed over vast geographical distance critical problems and issues in society, philosophy, and so on. What many Marxist critics notice upon reading Habermas (a Frankfurt Marxist himself) is that the idea is too glorified, that Habermas believes too strongly that this system actually worked in any measurable amount.

I do not dispute the idea of the public sphere (obviously, having used the concept previously), but I do agree with other critics that Habermas’ vision of it is too idealized. The public sphere functioned down class lines, and was, as alluded to above, working in a society where only half of the population knew to read and write. We must guard cautiously against dubiously claiming the public sphere was anything more than an inter-bourgeois mode of critique and debate. Clearly, as we will revisit and hash out below, many voices in emergent bourgeois society were crushed utterly and violently.

In England, many leveling New Model soldiers refused to go to war in Ireland, earning them jail and expulsion from the army. The Diggers, lead by Gerrard Winstanley, numbering only 50, were attacked by hired thugs of landed gentry (on whose land they lived on the outskirts of) and were eventually dissolved forcefully by Thomas Fairfax and Commonwealth soldiers, with their crops torn out, their hovels burned, and their common buildings torn to the ground. Radical preachers were thrown in prison by a parliament preaching religious freedom. Licensing of texts continued in spite of John Milton’s famous protestation Areopagitica. Perhaps most famously but least importantly, Christmas was cancelled due to peasant revelry and the associated sinning.

Clearly, this was a society much to John Milton’s liking; a society where a privileged, intellectual few men made the decisions for an entire nation, and not a society were millions discoursed on national policy free from repression. What we see in England is, as Pocock is right to trace, republican governance in the true Roman and Greek sense; as Vladimir Lenin was astute to point out, freedom for wealthy men, and not plebs, lest we find ourselves in tyranny (or anarchy, as Cromwell suggested at Putney). Indeed, this was, explicitly, what Milton and many other Commonwealth intellectuals (such as Marvell) advocated for. The rule of the rich was universally preferable to the rule of the emotional and chaotic “thralls” (as Milton called the working class in his Readie and Easie Way).

As many recent scholars have been right to point out, the American revolutionary generation inherited much from its English younger brother. Ben Franklin reflects in his autobiography reading Milton’s political tracts in his grandfather’s library. Tom Paine quotes Milton’s Satan in Common Sense, and Lilburne was widely read. Interestingly, the repression of emergent peasant radicalism was not transcended by a purely temporal shift forward (as a Whig historian might suggest). We see in the Whiskey Rebellion and more particularly Shay’s Rebellion, opposition to the failure of even the Constitutional (as opposed to the confederated) government to achieve the aims of revolutionary peasants and workers met with violent repression instead of an open republican hand or even a concession like the tribune or plebeian council.

In France we find an extremely similar story. The sans-culottes, essentially rioting urban proletariat, were originally used and championed by the Jacobins and their leader Maximilian Robespierre. It was the sans-culottes who most vigorously defended the “terror” against reactionaries and enemies. When Robespierre was executed himself and the Directorate rose to supremacy, the sans-culottes were repressed violently as remnants of a chaotic and tyrannical period. Those two words associated with peasant power should be familiar to you at this point. The offspring of Greco-Roman republicanism shared its deep fear of true democracy and the crucible of plebian control.

“The secret in freedom lies in educating the people, whereas the secret of tyranny is to keep them ignorant.” – Maximilien Robespierre

In total, studying the true, if often not recounted, nature of the bourgeois revolutions; in their deep fear of true democracy and in their brutal repression of emergent peasant power, we find a fruitful theoretical avenue for understanding the formation of modern bourgeois states and their mythos. A Marxist will be eager to use the simple fact that the bourgeois revolutionaries never attempted to provide true democracy or freedom. They never sought to hear the voices of every citizen, and this is flagrantly obvious with the tangential study of bourgeois repressions of peasant movements in each major revolution found above. In spite of capitalist mythos of unlimited freedom and a republic of letters, the history of the revolutions alone (to say nothing of imperialism) proves these to be completely false and even never explicitly desired by the founding fathers in each case.

Given what we have highlighted above, we must refute both whig and crude marxist renderings of the bourgeois revolutions that leave them a lifeless husk of nebulous progress and inevitability. What we find in a true study is quite the opposite – a period alight with bloodshed, rebellion, revolutionary discourses, and tyrannical bourgeois republicanism; where each tract and battle titled the scales of history. Critically, we find in the bourgeois revolutions as an almost unintentional bi-product the empowering of peasants past what the bourgeois leaders were comfortable with. We see peasants and urban proletariat waging war against capitalism as well as feudalism, and forming their own independent organizations with their own representatives.  Their voices are important for us now, in light of whig history coming from both left and right, we find in history that the contradictions of capitalism have not moved an inch. From 1640 to today, from Lilburne to Hampton, the bourgeoisie maintains its deep fear of a people’s tyranny, repressing violently any who would suggest something more; any who would suggest for true universality and not the universality of Rome and Athens, who would endeavor to fulfill the true promise of the revolutionary movements in England, France, and America. Such is the function of the bourgeois state from its inception as we have seen above, but in the history of its forging, what we have endeavored to reappropriate to the history of class struggle, we can find in their own deeds the means for procuring an end of true, universal “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”

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On Marxist Literary Criticism, Its Problems, and Its Value

A Marxist needn’t spend much time in academic, literary circles before they receive an eye roll catalyzed by the usage of cobwebbed-covered terms such as “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie” or perhaps, if the perpetrator is feeling daring, “class conflict.” Postmodern academia, like the Victorians to the Romantics, wants nothing more than to distance itself from “the red decades” where  the Frankfurt school, French philosophical and economic discourses, and the Communist Party Historians Group in the United Kingdom made significant advances in the fields of history and literary criticism.

It is a process with a historical precedent – we make the dominant discourses of the day concrete through an interaction with its negative; we mock the Romantics for their idealism, and we castigate the Victorians for their racism and imperialist attitudes. As the latter example proves, this process is not always in error. Dialectical advancement in thought is a necessary and often fruitful endeavor, but for this process to move forward beneficially, it must be based on accurate depictions and renderings. This, sadly, has not been the case for modern Marxist literary criticism, and the purveyors of a bastardized Marxism are diverse in politics and theory.

For too long have postmodern ideologies used Marxism as a crutch for their synthetic construction of antithetical ideologies. For example, Michael Foucault claimed proudly, “Marxism exists in nineteenth-century thought as a fish exists in water; that is, it ceases to breathe anywhere else,” suggesting inexplicably that postmodern discourses are free from the chains of history. (4) Of all the anti-Marxist lingo that floated and floats around 20th and 21st century universities, this one is worth stopping upon as it is the root of many others. There is a deeply held belief that Marxism is “outdated.”This seems like a rather dubious accusation coming from departments still proudly teaching Russian Formalism and New-Criticism, two aged, if not sometimes useful, critical schools; and that is to say nothing of the present admiration of digging up obscure classical documents that our favorite early modern authors must certainly have read in Renaissance studies.

That’s not to say postmodern critics are the only ones castigating and co-opting Marxist literary theory. There is a distinct feeling on the left that theory, and even more so for literary theory, is for “academics.” Marxist literary critics are seen by many leftists as a bunch of less significant Althussers running around from journal to journal stringing five-dollar words together into a generally unintelligible mass of intellectual ego stroking. This is partly true, and party our fault. The pressures of making a living in academia are partly to blame, but that is the subject for an entirely different article. In this abbreviated medium, I want to explore the accusations that Marxism is outdated, historically dependent and abstract, and offer, with the help of Friedrich Engels (the first Marxist literary critic), some avenues for movement between abstract and real.

History and Propaganda:

The perceived crudeness and historical particularity of Marxism is a two-fold problem. For one, the idea supposes any ideology is not “crude” in terms of its relationship with the historical epoch in which it was created and resides. For another, many Marxist critics have indeed been crude in their analyses; seeking propaganda over truth, or, as critic Gaylord Leroy wrote, “seek(ing) songs of social significance” (3). The former can be unraveled by a peripheral study of history and theory, and the latter can be undone by an analysis of Marx and Engels’ very own vision of literature and criticism.

The postmodern love of accusing all other forms of literary criticism as being “outdated” or tied to limiting and historically specific metanarratives is one of the foundational aspects of their critical method. Lyotard, one of the first writers to identify “the postmodern condition,” elaborates: “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives[. ..] The narrative function is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goal. It is being dispersed in clouds of narrative language-” (8). Lyotard goes on in his canonical The Postmodern Condition to lump essentially all past human thought into the “metanarrative” camp. Marxism, a materialist strain, was particularly guilty. An ideology dependent on a progression towards communism, a conclusion based upon the implementation of the grand critical method of class struggle, was surely vanquished; dispersed into the netherworld of narrative and discourse.

We need only consider postmodernism’s own place in history to reject its authority on the issue of historical dependency. It’s quite peculiar that a critical method so vitriolically opposed to Marxism and even New-Historicism should suppose itself to be free of the chains of history. Indeed, a rejection of societal metanarratives is uniquely and keenly suited for our present historical epoch, sitting but a decade after “an age of extremes” as Hobsbawm would call it. The 20th century, and the modernist ideas that defined it, was a crucible of war, genocide, poverty, contradictory ideologies, states, and globalization. It is not so surprising that theorists would, in reaction to the tail-end of this age, reject the grand narratives of society. The very construction of postmodern thought, through its chief purveyors, was done through a specific rejection of not only Marxism but also the myths of bourgeois progress.

This inherently suggests that such ideology does indeed have fruitful uses, namely the rejection of capitalist notions of the individual and unlimited progress. We should read it as a reaction to the collapse of modernity and its ideology in the fires of the 20th century, just as we should also read Marxism as a reaction to the heightening of contradiction in emergent industrial capitalism in the 19th century. We should not think that since we have escaped the confines of a particular historical epoch that birthed both, for we are certainly no longer in the same historical conditions that procured Lytoard and Derrida, that the contributions of both schools are no longer valid.

In use, the contrary is true. It is a critical method’s interaction with its historical epoch that lends the most use-value to contemporary readers and practitioners. In seeing a theorist interact with his or her specific historical circumstances, we see his or her method in action. We are able to, as John Milton would say in his canonical Areopagitica, discourse with the author and their historical moment. We, perhaps most importantly, are able to substantively look at theory in relation to the material world, and judge freely on its merits and pitfalls in the divergent historical circumstances of today and tomorrow. It is the historical specificity of a critical method that lends the theory a long historical shadow. Ultimately, to tie history to a school of thought is to only add to its richness for contemporary readers. To strive for ahistorical thought as many postmodern critics have is to rob not only Marxism but also their very own critical method of much of its intellectual meat.

I haven’t forgotten those marxist critics that fail in this important task of presently implementing historically specific theory. For Freidrich Engels, the job of literature was to portray society, that is, a historically specific and identifiable one, realistically. Engels meant “real” denotatively; a Marxist novel portrayed the relations in society exactly as they existed. It was for this reason that Engels’ favorite author was Balzac, a political reactionary. For Engels, the Marxist seeks realism at all costs. Engels elaborates,

“I think however that the purpose must become manifest from the situation and the action themselves without being expressly pointed out and that the author does not have to serve the reader on a platter — the future historical resolution of the social conflicts which he describes. To this must be added that under, our conditions novels are mostly addressed to readers from bourgeois circles, i.e., circles which are not directly ours. Thus the socialist problem novel in my opinion fully carries out its mission if by a faithful portrayal of the real conditions it dispels the dominant conventional illusions concerning them, shakes the optimism of the bourgeois world, and inevitably instils doubt as to the eternal validity of that which exists, without itself offering a direct solution of the problem involved, even without at times ostensibly taking sides.” (Engels, Engels to M. Kautsky)(2).

The author needn’t concern him or herself with “taking sides” or “serving” Marxist analysis on a platter to the reader. This is as true for critics as it is for authors. Marxist critics should avoid at all costs taking a critical stamp to every text or event, but seek instead to unravel the social reality of the text. We need, in short, to avoid propaganda and seek analysis. The previously quoted Gaylord Leroy elucidated a useful marxist analytic method along these lines: “The critical principle involved is that symbolic form should not be assigned to a closed and self-relating universe of meaning; it should be derived from social reality (as represented in the work), and that social reality should be recognized as primary” (3). Thus Marxist criticism must seek this second reality, one that is dialectically attached to our primary reality but fundamentally made different through individual synthesis and authorial creation. Attached to this is the foundationally Marxist concept that the individual, like the theory that sprouts from his hands, is historically specific.

In short, our job as critics and as authors is to seek the social realities of a text using the critical methods of Marxism and apply them sensitively to history, time and place. Engels reiterates:

“Failing to comprehend the ‘external circumstances’ and ‘class grounds’ for the development of the new, she (Kautsky) creates heroes that are ‘incarnations of a principle’… prepared models of ideal new people, standing outside society- Not analyzing the real live forces of social development Kautsky ardently strives for the ‘new’ principles my means of declarations, standarized propaganda.” (5)

We must analyse the “real live” forces at work within a text, and not bring into it fabricated notions and Marxist buzzwords and instead take the synthesized, historically specific method of Marx, Engels and others, and apply it to our specific historical moment or the specific historical moment of the text and the person who wrote it. Marxist literary criticism cannot be effective in using lazy analyses and crude class reductionism on texts that would be better served with an Engelsist elucidation of the real social relations at play within the text. We must stand inside of the society of the work and author, and in doing so, move from abstract to “real,” as defined by Engels.

From Abstract to Real:

Having considered postmodern critiques of Marxist literary theory and the school’s own faults, it’s high time we analyzed the notion that literary theory is a useless academic endeavor offering little to no value to a leftist movement. I will not argue, for reference, in defense of the liberal arts or humanities at large; as that is a job better left for an LAS administrator. I will, instead, argue for the relevancy of literary criticism in the collective consciousness of the left.

The notion that the study of literature is a “petty bourgeois” (who knew shop-keepers had such an interest in literature?) or “academic” endeavor that is largely useless to the left and working people is a prime example of the “crude Marxism” highlighted above. It supposes that the arts (of which literature is but one part) and criticism of the arts has no use to a working person, which is a ridiculous claim. Literature impacts the consciousness of those who read it, with very little doubt. On this issue, Engels agrees:

“The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.” (Engels, Engels to J. Bloch)(1).

As Mariela Castro, daughter of Vilma Espin and Raul Castro and member of the Cuban Communist Party said in a talk given in Havana in 2013, “-revolutions cannot transcend the minds of revolutionaries.” This, essentially, is the point Engels is making. A revolution is undoubtedly a class war, but a class war is fought by warriors – each with a consciousness interacting with varying discourses, religions, and politics (to use Engels’ examples). Literary theory is but a part of the consciousness of part of the revolutionaries, but the effect is substantive in both revolutionary movements and the establishment of revolutionary states. In Cuba, for example, Nicolas Guillen inspires an urban renewal project in the streets of Havana. Maxim Gorky’s socialist realism had material impacts on the Soviets’ conception of themselves and the ideal.

In summary,revolutions are indeed class wars, but they are fought by people influenced by their society. Engels castigated the bastardized Marxism that renders economics as the only catalyst in revolution in his letter to J. Bloch, writing,

“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase” (7).

Engels’ word choice is convenient (or manufactured?) for our point. When we reduce revolutions and the people who fight them to pawns in a game of class chess, we move from the real to the abstract. Literary theory practiced correctly and grounded in Marxist ideas of society and the real can and has had substantive effects on revolutionary societies. Thus, Marxist literary criticism is not abstract as many leftists suggest when partaken by a careful and sensitive practitioner, but the opposite. It is a catalyst of real thinking, an illuminator of those troublesome facets of the societies of today, yesterday, and tomorrow.

When we truly look at Marxist literary criticism and its supposed weaknesses, its historical specificity as a weakness, its crudeness, and its supposed uselessness to leftist movements, we find the opposite is true in each case. We find instead historical specificity as a mark of effective criticism for modern implementation, its crudeness a product of bastardized and lazy readings, and its supposed uselessness a product of an incorrect rendering of true abstraction and revision.

As Marxist critics in a critical world that seeks to annihilate history and reduce texts to microcosms of the intellect of its author (or even its reader), the important task of finding Engels’ reality falls to us. To our various eras and literary movements we must seek that primary reality in the secondary reality of literature, avoiding with care a propagandist approach. Our job, as Engels suggests, is to find the tendrils connecting those primary and secondary realities and bring them to the fore; and in doing so, we proactively, if not explicitly, advocate for change in both.

Works Cited:









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Dreaming of Another World: Revolutionary Puritanism in England

“Was the earth made to preserve a few covetous, proud men to live at ease, and for them to bag and barn up the treasures of the Earth from others, that these may beg or starve in a fruitful land; or was it made to preserve all her children?” -Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness n a damp prison cell in the Tower of London  in the year 1677, a portly Evangelist sat defiantly in his cell writing what would become, next to the bible, the most published and read book in the English language. He had been arrested countless times subsequent to Charles II’s Restoration, each time suggesting to his judge what Joey Strummer would later defiantly yell in his 20th century punk song “Clampdown,” to double the prison sentence. The man, in a statement quoted in Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” preferred to“-stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” The book he wrote was about a dream, a dream about a man named Christian defeating all obstacles on a perilous but ultimately successful journey to the gleaming citadel of heaven. The man, of course, was John Bunyan. The book was his masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress. 

I use this anecdote of a dreamer in prison in response to the shocked and amused
“why?” I get every time I express my passion for the radical puritan literature that erupted from the English crucible of the 1640s and 50s. Today, the perception of 16th through 18th century puritanism in the consciousness of the left and modernity at large is one of scornful amusement, and justifiably so given modern developments. The descendants of puritanism, modern day radical Protestants, have been unkind to the legacy of Bunyan and his dreamer.

However, in the world of Bunyan and Winstanley the vocabulary of radical religiosity was at once religious and political, personally empowering and collectively egalitarian. In this extraordinary time where feudalism fell to parliamentarian liberalism, revolutionary puritanism became in England a way of critiquing emergent capitalism on radically equal spiritual grounds.  The puritan experience was congruent with Christians’ in Pilgrim’s Progress: reading a book, looking at the world around, and asking “-what shall I do?” The revolutionary generation that Bunyan was but the latter bookend was marked by a different kind of puritanism from that which we are familiar with today; a puritanism that gave voices to the voiceless, namely women, preached radical economic equality begotten out of spiritual sameness, and one that rendered property and ownership as the root of sin on earth.

Anna Trapnel, Fifth Monarchist Prophetess

The dialectical nature of radical Puritan thought attacked one firmly held belief of historical import – the inherent inequality between social strata of men and women. In the radical puritan thought system, the body was annihilated and replaced with the fervent soul; a soul that suggested total equality divorced from physical and mental limitations often fraudulently ascribed to women in the period (and ours). It is no coincidence that in the English Revolution countless female political actors emerged from enforced silence to the center of movements through the avenue of spirituality. The spirituality of Puritanism, at the time, was a legitimated vocabulary that opened the door to the creation of discourses of struggle for women, namely for the purposes of this post Anna Trapnel.

A modern reader of Anna Trapnel, a fifth monarchist prophetess, may wonder if she was mentally insane. She writes fervently, like Bunyan, about hearing voices so loud as to turn her head. Yet, her textual constructions (Notably “A Narrative of Her Journey Into Cornwall”) and her visions were of a dual nature. On one hand her visions were orthodox and apocalyptic, typical for the period amongst puritan radicals. On the other, they pit a woman against the highest secular powers on earth; priests, kings, lords, and land-owners. Her most famous vision came at the very location where Charles I had lost his head, a vision that warned against the resurgence of tyranny and anticipated that Caesarian, Cromwellian bolt of lightening Marvell describes in his Horation Ode. She would fast for weeks on end, a radical divorcement from material reality, but she would always return to it in the visions that were produced from her periods of fasting. When she was arrested for disturbing the peace in Cornwall (preaching), she responded to her accusers with verses and parables; much like Jesus in his Roman trial. Throughout her career as a prophetess, we find keenly secular critiques in the form of visions rooted deeply in biblical precedent. (See Holstun’s chapter on Anna Trapnel in Ehud’s Dagger for more, citation below).

Anna Trapnel teaches the modern reader to dig deeper into Puritanical thought beyond the immediate facade of radical religiosity. For Trapnel as for Bunyan, Winstanley and others, Puritanism was a mechanism for critiquing society, a dialectical antithesis to a thesis of equality that formed the synthesis of the rule of the saints. These saints were without gender. Through visions and biblical citation, Anna Trapnel gained a secular voice through deep religiosity, and she was able to construct a validated discourse with which to clash with the ruling class of her society. The opportunity to construct socially antithetical discourses in direct opposition to secular powers gave voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and in doing so, rendered all of society as made up of equal members. Marxist critics of the period must be vigilant, as Holstun reminds us, not to simply render Trapnel’s voice as a product of bourgeois individuality, but rather as a point in the spectrum between individual empowerment and societal equality. Holstun concludes, “If we reduce the civilian an Army radicals at Putney to possessive individualists, we overlook the democratic and collectivist currents inside seventeenth-century radicalism, which never quite died” (256).

The legacy Holstun alludes to is a truly remarkable part of Puritan thought and revolution in Early Modern England. Puritanism gave voice to the voiceless and opened the door to the creation of discourses antithetical to worldly power, and just what they said is still relevant to contemporary struggles against strictly gendered societies obsessed with mammon. Much of the radical egalitarian ideology of 1648/9 came out of the New Model Army, an army of radical parliamentarians with a significant puritan leaning. Cromwell lead this army to smashing victories over the king at Marston Moore and elsewhere; surely a sign, as Cromwell noted, of God’s favor. Unfortunately for Cromwell, the New Model knew a different kind of providence than he, one that made them all equal and members of a democracy of  God, pike and musket.

At Putney soldiers met with Cromwell and his leadership to discourse and debate over the “disunity” of the parliamentarian cause. Cromwell, in motions similar to those of modern moderates, scolded the New Model for promoting faction and disunity. His solution, of course, was to submit to New Model authorities. Each regiment elected agitators to speak for them and agitate for their goals. If one reads the Putney Debates, one finds agitators cautiously unwilling to speak on behalf of their soldiers, reflective itself of an emergent communal power in the New Model. Both of these concepts were important, community and power, for the Putney agitators and for modern critics looking for a cast shadow on political developments in the 18th century. The soldiers were not solely a collection of individuals but something more; they were a community whose power superseded that of a single arm or pike; and they knew it.

Thomas Rainsborough, one of the more memorable agitators of the New Model at Putney, elucidates:

“For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.” (Rainsborough, Putney Debates)

Rainsborough knew by his very presence at Putney that a man’s voice was not simply his own but that of his entire class. Through the Puritan creation of alternative discourses Rainsborough moved, if only for a moment, into something profound and historically unique; a critique of emergent, victorious English capitalism. Rainsborough and his agitators were the voice of the voiceless, a struggle opened by radical puritanical egalitarianism and taken forward perhaps most famously by New Model Colonel, Gerrard Winstanley.

The resurgence of the popularity of Gerrard Winstanley in the general public and critical circles in the wake of the Occupy movements is telling of the character of the Colonel’s ideology. Winstanley is undeniably a proto-marxist, a socialist without Marx, and a class warrior on the historical frontier of emergent capitalism. Yet, as we must not forget, Winstanley was a fervently religious man and a devout puritan. His motivation to creating a common treasury of earth through his communist Diggers was a vision. He, like Bunyan and Trapnel, heard divine voices speak to him in times of trouble.

Yet, Winstanley’s religious, critical analysis leads him to make cutting critiques of capitalism and authority; be it King or lord (or Lord Protector, for that matter). Winstanley wrote several letters to the Council of State (of which Milton was the Latin Clerk) urging them to fulfill revolutionary promises, elucidating with precision the theme I am highlighting throughout – Puritanism as a mechanism for critiquing the emergent bourgeoisie and their counterrevolution. In his famous “Declaration of the Poor Oppressed People of England, Winstanley declares, “And we look upon that freedom promised to be the inheritance of all, without respect of persons; And this cannot be, unless the Land of England be freely set at liberty from proprietors, and become a common Treasury to all her children.” Winstanley reached a new synthesis of puritanism in conflict with bourgeois society in the crucible of English revolution. Not only is he speaking on behalf of a class and not a denomination or sect, but Winstanley looks at his society (like Bunyan’s Christian) and highlights the problem – inequality. It is inequality that makes the revolutionary promises of Cromwell and his Council impossible. While Lords are left to tyrannize the working classes, no rule of the saints can truly be procured. In short, Winstanley was right. The promises of saintly equality were impossible while the land was divided and profited from by a select few.

We must guard against rendering Winstanley as a “man ahead his time,” however. Winstanley was but one man who cast a literary shadow in writing, but he was emblematic of a movement that bursts through the cracks of history at Putney, Whitehall and even Milton’s Pandaemonium. Puritanism, first through the creation of egalitarian discourses for both male and female, and secondly through the emergent consciousness of community, power and inequality in New Model struggle, became capitalism’s first resistance movement. Winstanley was not an aberrant lifestylist, as some Trotskyists claim (, but a man born from an army of consciousness and struggle.

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Winstanley and his Diggers did not only attack  inequality, however, and this is perhaps the greatest contribution of English puritanical radicalism through the precision of hindsight; they attacked what they saw as the root of all inequality – property. Bunyan’s “Vanity Faire” is a commodity market, Christian’s chief enemy Apollyn offers Christian a higher wage for him to desist form his journey to the Celestial City, Milton’s Mammon is obsessed with gold and its procurement, and Winstanley’s Biblical analysis dating back to Cain and Abel sees ownership as the root of all sin on earth.

Winstanley is perhaps the most emblematic of the puritanical impulse to see property as the root of sin on Earth. Winstanley writes, “So long as the earth is intagled and appropriated into particular hands and kept there by the power of the sword……so long the creation lies under bondage.” As Winstanley’s career advances towards the ultimate forceful dissolution of his Diggers we see a developing understanding of the violence inherent in the system (to quote the Anarcho-Syndaclist peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail). Winstanley sees not only inequality as a problem but identifies its main cause; the ownership of property and the system built to enforce it. Inequality does not simply exist in Winstanley’s analysis, it is enforced by sword and fire. Winstanley and the agitators at Putney made class struggle central to a developing puritan understanding of saint and society; one tempered by their experiences with the property holders of their society.

Winstanley, like later Marxists, would see the specter of property as theft. Winstanley’s historical firstness is key here, and it suggests that a unique collision of material circumstances produced his forward-looking ideology; chiefly the collision of puritanical egalitarianism and the capitalist state it helped create on the battlefield. Winstanley, Rainsborough, Bunyan, Trapnel and others are evidence that the Puritanism of England was not simply a catalyst in the creation of bourgeois, humanist ideology and the republicanism that would take hold in the Americas and Western Europe. At work in the Puritan experience in the New Model and early modern English society at large was burgeoning radicalism. A radicalism that would be repressed in 1649 in England, 1786 in the United States, and 1794/5 in France. Of import is the fact that these movements were suppressed by emergent capitalism by force, and was not simply a product of bourgeois liberalism. I can say without flinching that Winstanley and his Diggers are the roots of modern British Socialism, if not international socialism; and the grounds for such a statement are in Winstanley and other radical Puritan’s rendering of property as the cause of inequality and sin. Winstanley concludes,

“For though you and your Ancestors got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do) about that disturbing devil, called Particular propriety: For the Earth, with all her Fruits of Corn, Cattle, and such like, was made to be a common Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinde, friend, and foe, without exception.” (Winstanley, Declaration).

Winstanley looks to the Peasant Rebellion of 1381 as a historical lesson, that the lords attained their wealth by the sword and with the sword they will keep it. This, in short, is the experience of radical puritan elements in the English Civil War. 1649 would see the Levellers and Diggers disbanded, executed and imprisoned. The common treasury would be taken away to private cellars, Trapnell would be thrown in prison along with Bunyan, left only with his literary dreamer defeating what Bunyan could not in physical reality. Winstanley’s ideology evolves through material struggle, a pedagogical process for future generations who would carry on his work. Winstanley began with the belief that his Diggers could coexist with Lords and manors, but later, as illustrated in this quote, realized that struggle was necessary; and struggle he did, through scriptural critiques and communal living. In summary, Puritan radicalism in England must be understood as a struggle within a unique, period, and religious vocabulary that procured material struggle between newly forming proletariat and bourgeoisie. Of this struggle we find the creation of radical, inclusive discourses, emergent class-consciousness and the rendering of property as the root of all of Earth’s ills.

The historical struggle of the radical puritans in early modern England gives valuable insight to the movements of today that struggle still with lords and manors of different character but identical nature; those who would keep their property by murder and theft and deny the people their common treasury. From that which we started we shall end, as there is no finer example of the puritan radical experience than that of Bunyan’s Christian, shedding tears over the present state of things but ultimately struggling against it through dangerous adventure. To Bunyan as it was to Winstanley and as it is to us today, the common treasury is but a dream. As Bunyan proved with his prose, Trapnell with her prophecy, Rainsborough with his pike, and Winstanley with his pen, to dream is a first step well taken towards the procurement of a rule of the saints.

Further Reading

Dunn, Alastair. The Great Rising of 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus, 2002. Print.

Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1989. Print.

Hill, Christopher. Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The Century of Revolution 1603-1714. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The English Bible and the Seventeenth-century Revolution. London: Allen Lane, 1993. Print.

Hill, Christopher. The World Turned Upside Down; Radical Ideas during the English Revolution. New York: Viking, 1972. Print.

Holstun, James. Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution. London: Verso, 2002. Print.

Petegorsky, David W. Left-wing Democracy in the English Civil War; a Study of the Social Philosophy of Gerrard Winstanley,. London: V. Gollancz, 1940. Print.

Pocock, J. G. A. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. Print.

Winstanley, Gerrard. The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley. Ed. Thomas N. Corns, Ann Hughes, and David Loewenstein. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

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Filed under Capitalism, Class, Dialectics, Early Modern, English, English Civil War, Gerrard Winstanley, John Bunyan, Literature, Puritanism

Knowing Sweet Through Bitter: A Dialectical Reading of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde



              eoffrey Chaucer’s take on Boccaccio’s classic poem “Troilus and Criseyde” is one that honors the original as it innovates and brings in entirely new thematics to the tale. Chaucer’s own version of the tragedy is one that deals intimately with the processes of a happy life and the failure of Troilus to capture that happy life. Of import is the presence of a process within the poem; Chaucer delivers the reader with a keenly dialectical process, one where everything is made known only by its opposite and were all joy must be followed by a period of grief. Certainly Chaucer’s translation of Boethius would make him familiar with the medieval sense of the dialectic which was part of the trivium and deeply rooted in Aristotelian logic. Chaucer’s use of binary dialectics (i.e. the definition of everything coming from its opposite) is but a starting point for his greater exploration of the contradictions of free will and foreknowledge, one that wrenches at the troubled mind of Troilus in Book IV (Grady). Indeed, the entire story is constructed upon this very question – every reader and listener of Chaucer’s poem knows the ending of the story, if not from reading Boccaccio’s own version simply by Chaucer repeatedly telling the reader that the tale is of “The double sorwe of Troilus;” yet Chaucer endeavors to tell the tale nonetheless. By studying the dialectical nature of the triumvirate of main characters, Chaucer’s establishment of happiness as a product of grief, Troilus’ struggle with free will and predestination in Book IV and finally Chaucer’s final thoughts in Book V, a greater understanding of the dialectical nature of the story emerges. The dialectics of Boethius, of which Chaucer interacted with deeply, are not simply present in the poem but its main catalyst; the means through which Chaucer establishes his characters in relation to one another and forges the thesis of idealistic love, the antithesis of infidelity and the synthesis of the eighth sphere and the “floures fayre.”

The three main characters in Troilus and Criseyde are emblematic of thesis, antithesis and synthesis in the way they represent idealistic love, pragmatism and an interesting expression of their mixture. Troilus, of course, is keenly emblematic of the thesis of idealistic and chivalric love. His falling in love with Criseyde is highly conventional, as his eyes by “cas bifel” upon the maiden, causing his heart to “sprede and rise” (I. 270-275). Indeed, the minute he sees Criseyde he goes from teasing lovers to being the most conventional lover of them all. The Canticus Troili is a case study in Chaucer’s representation of Troilus as the prototypical love-struck individual as Troilus ponders anxiously over his churning heart. Yet, Troilus’ song expresses his own anxiety over his naïve understanding of love, as he sings, “If no love is, O god, what fele I so? / And if love is, what thing and which is he? / If love be good, from whennes cometh my woo? /…When every torment and adversite / That cometh of hym may to me savory thinke, / For ay thurst I, the more that ich it drynke.” (I. 400-406). Troilus struggles intimately with just what it is he is feeling, and the dialectical relationship between his great joy and his great woe. He ponders that if it is his own “lust I brenne,” why then should he be upset if such a harm “agree (him)” (I. 407-409). Reading from a dialectical perspective, Troilus’ woe is a product of his singular nature; he mocks lovers and then becomes one, he cannot live without Criseyde’s faithfulness and so on. The tragedy of Troilus’ character is his lack of any pragmatism and his almost innocent dependence on his love relationship.

The antithesis of Troilus is his greatest ally in the poem, Pandarus. Indeed, Pandarus is the catalyst of the entire story yet tellingly he vanishes when the lovers are finally united in mutual love. If we accept that Troilus is the thesis of idealistic love, Pandarus is the antithesis of pragmatism. In Book III, as Troilus anxiously invokes the gods to help in this encounter with Criseyde Pandarus crassly retorts, “Thow wrecched mouses herte, / Artow agast so that she wol the bite?”(III.176) Throughout the poem, Pandarus is emblematic of a pragmatic, results oriented approach. He cannot understand Troilus’ invocation to gods to ease his anxiety because he is not Troilus’ emotional peer. He forces Troilus’ letter on Criseyde and manipulates her into meeting with Troilus by having Troilus ride under her window, he sets up the scene in the gloomy bedroom where Troilus lies falsely ill, and he indeed is the mastermind behind the entire love relationship. But Pandarus’ own failures in love cause Troilus to ask, “How devel maistow brynge me to blisse?” As it turns out, Troilus question is a prescient one as Pandarus truly is unable to bring Troilus bliss. In Book V Pandarus condemns the understanding of dreams, even though dreams have been correct in two instances within the poem. Pandarus scolds Troilus by saying, “Have I nat seyd er this, that dreams many a maner man begile?” (V. 1275). Pandarus cannot escape from his pragmatism, even when both Criseyde’s dream in Book I and Troilus’ dream in Book V are both keenly accurate in their foretelling. In this way Pandarus, like Troilus, is unable to reach a synthesis; the two of them representing only one part of what Chaucer presents as love and happiness and instilling the sense of tragedy within the poem.

Interestingly, Criseyde is perhaps the most dual character in the entire poem. Her nature is highly fluid and conflicting, illustrated by the fact that within the first 100 lines Chaucer refers to her death in line 56 and then dubs her “a thing inmortal” on line 103 (Grady). To most readers Criseyde’s character is a reasonable one, as she often finds middle ground where Troilus cannot. This theme is found from her first meeting with Troilus, as she agrees to see him but says she will only do so to ease his heart. In Book V, she agrees to see Diomed if he will relent on his romantic advances, a pragmatic and compassionate response. The narrator tells us, “So that Criseyde / Graunted on the morrow, at his request, / For to speken with him at the leeste — / So that he nolde speke of swich matere” (V. 952-3). In this way Criseyde is perhaps ironically the closest character to a synthesis of idealistic love and pragmatism that we are given, and it is perhaps her reasonable nature that elicits Chaucer’s pity in Book V. Like Chaucer, a dialectical reader cannot absolve Criseyde, but it certainly moves us into Chaucer’s party, in that such a reading elicits one to feel sorry for the Trojan maiden separated from her doomed home and lover. So we see that through a dialectical reading that Troilus, Pandarus and Criseyde are keenly dialectical in their representation; as Chaucer uses the concept of thesis, antithesis and synthesis to construct his characters and their relationship to one another. Troilus and Pandarus must come together to create the synthesis that is the love relationship centered on Criseyde, arguably the most dual character in the poem. Indeed, the synthesis of Troilus and Criseyde’s love quickly dissolves into despair and woe, and Chaucer deals intimately about whether or not this invalidates the beauty of that synthesis.

Chaucer from the outset of his poem establishes the known end of the story, the first line having established the imminent twin sorrows of Troilus. Immediately following his mentioning of the twin sorrows, Chaucer elucidates the process through which Troilus will tragically navigate later in the poem. Chaucer expresses his intent to tell of “how his aventures fellen / Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie” (I. 3-4). Here Chaucer is not at all diminishing the wele and joie, rather, the language mentions “wo” once; the last tragedy being Troilus falling “out of joie.” Certainly as the story progresses Chaucer makes no effort to at all diminish the joy of Troilus and Criseyde in any way, in spite of the fact that every reader knows of the ever present final sorrow on the horizon. This opposition between “woe and joie” is both the heart of the tragedy and the heart of the truly romantic scenes in Book III, and here in the first lines Chaucer is establishing that very fact. Attached to this fact is the binary dialectical thesis that runs throughout the poem, best described in Book I by one of the frequent soliloquies by the narrator. The narrator states, “By his contrarie is every thyng declared / For how myghte ever swetnesse han ben know / To him that nevere tasted bitternesse” (637-639)? This is the central question within Troilus and Criseyde, as Chaucer endeavors to negotiate whether or not the foreknowledge of Troilus’ fall can negate the flowers faire of the love that illuminates Book III with its beauty. Chaucer begins to elucidate this answer by offering that true sweetness is unknown to those who do not know bitterness. Indeed, the lines immediately preceding this expression is Pandarus’ thesis that he above others could advise Troilus in love, for his failures are exactly what enables him to better advise his friend. In other words, Chaucer acknowledges both dialectical poles; as one necessarily begets the other. In this way Chaucer has not diminished the joy, anxiety and anticipation in the hearts of the young lovers in spite of their foreknown fall, illustrating the tension between foreknowledge and free will that cuts through both Boethius and Chaucer, as is poignantly explored by Troilus himself.

Troilus’ struggle with free will and predestination is one that Boethius deals with intimately in his Consolation of Philosophy. Troilus’ debate with himself over the metaphysical concepts of free will and predestination is certainly related to the story but Troilus is much more thoughtful in his explication of the issue than he is at any other point in the poem. A reader can clearly see Chaucer’s own debate with the material coming through, as Troilus ponders the ideas of “great clerkes olde” (IV 973). Within the scope of the story Troilus’ contemplations are of central importance, as Chaucer here is interacting in an almost detached way with the nature of his story; and it’s worth noting that such a contemplation is completely absent in Boccaccio’s version. Troilus begins his exploration by saying that, “For cereyntly, this wot I well, / That forsight of divine purveyaunce / hath seyn alwey me to forgot Criseyde / Syn God seeth every thing, out of doutaunce…/ But natheless, allas, who shal I leeve? / For there been grete clerkes many oon /That destine thrugh arguments preve; /And som men seyn that nedely there is noon, / But that fre chois is yeven us everychon” (IV 960-75). This is the foundation with which Troilus and Criseyde is constructed upon, for every listener and reader knows the end of the story. Does this fact, Chaucer ponders through Troilus, change the crafting and development of the story? This is a keenly dialectical series of thoughts, as fate and choice are opposed to each other in Troilus’ construction. As Troilus continues, he is essentially using the dialectical process to debate himself, bringing up point and counterpoint and using reason to determine a correct answer. He first reasons through whether or not foreknowledge necessitates an event or what the men with “han hire top ful heigh and smothe yshore” suggest; that things happen and thus divine foreknowledge knows of its happening but does not necessitate it happening. Chaucer’s metaphor of the chair is telling, as he certainly used his surroundings to craft the metaphor while he composed his poem. He concludes the metaphor by offering that “And I seye, though the cause of soth of this / Comth of his sittyng, yet neccesite / Is entrechaunged, both in hym and the” (IV 1045). In this dialectical construction Chaucer has elucidated his perceived role in the crafting of the story – to tell of this tragedy necessitates both him as a creative author and the foreknown end, and arguably Boccaccio’s own version. Troilus then ponders over those clerks, of which Chaucer has labeled himself as earlier in the poem, who suggest that all men have complete free will, but this is not Chaucer or Troilus’ conclusion. Troilus’ final conclusion is thus, “So mot it come; and thus the bifallyng / of thynges that ben wist bifore the tyde, /They mowe nat ben eschued on no syde” (IV 1080.) Ergo, Chaucer places himself between the two camps of predestination and free will; and this is certainly where he sits as he writes the very poem – he and his audience all know the end, yet he writes anyway, the final foreknowledge unavoidable “by any means.” Thus the dialectical relationship between fate and free will is one that drives the entire story, one that drives the reader on to an end already known to them; and indeed, what drives Chaucer’s own anxiety over leading his characters to the gallows of shattered love.

Yet Chaucer does not leave the reader with tragedy, he instead leaves the reader one last synthesis; the one between the serene 8th sphere and the beautiful flowers of earthly spring. Ultimately, Chaucer endeavors to reconcile the tragedy of Troilus, dead at the hand of Achilles, and a compassionate higher power. Indeed, Troilus’ entire speech elicits the reader to question why a god should let such a tragedy happen. Chaucer presents the spirit of Troilus as spiteful of the “blynde lust” he felt on earth and the sorrow he endured, and this is much in line with his singular nature highlighted above. Chaucer, however, does not deliver us with such a simplistic notion in his final lines of Troilus and Criseyde. The end of Book V is not a simple condemnation of all things worldly, but in an Augustinian sense, worldly things done incorrectly. Chaucer uses repetition to illustrate the fate of Troilus, writing, “Swich fyn hath all his great worthynesse! /Swich fyn hath his estat real above!” It’s clear Chaucer is condemning very specific parts of sublunary life, and not all of material life. The image of the “floures faire” certainly lends the reader to a certain level of affection for this brief time we spend on earth, and Chaucer is not condemning the sublunary pleasures felt by Troilus and Criseyde just to glamorize the superlunary 8th sphere. In between these two concepts is Chaucer’s synthesis of the passing nature of life on earth and a life after; based in the necessity and beauty of both joy and woe that will end in the most serene of places. Thus the dialectics of opposition are the means through which Chaucer conceives the woe of Troilus and indeed Chaucer’s own effort to leave the reader on a positive note; Troilus never stopped to see the flowers faire, wherein lies the tragedy of the tale, but in the end he still ascended to the 8th sphere, where Mars brings him to residence unknown in heaven.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde is a work that keenly interacts with the dialectics of opposition, be it through explorations of joy and woe or fate and choice. By studying the dialectical nature of the three main characters, Chaucer’s establishment of sweetness as a product of bitternesse, Troilus’ debate over predestination and choice and finally Chaucer’s last synthesis of material and spiritual, a greater understanding of Chaucer’s dialectical project within Troilus and Criseyde emerges. The dialectic is not only in the poem in numerous places, but it also is present in its very creation as Chaucer deals intimately with the creation of a story with an already known end; as he struggles dialectically to understand whether or not his sitting in a chair, or Troilus’ fall, is a necessity of foreknowledge or an event simply known by foreknowledge. In any case, Chaucer’s wish for his “litel myn tragedye” to kiss the steps of Ovid and Virgil did not fall on deaf ears; for certainly his tragedy is one of his most read and enjoyed works. That the accounting of such woe should elicit such literary enjoyment is fitting indeed to this keenly dialectical tale.

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