Seeing Time: Boethius and the Ethics of Perspective in Chaucer's Dream Visions and Troilus and Criseyde
This dissertation argues that Chaucer’s early poems pluralize subjective experiences of time to challenge the singular, authoritative temporal models Chaucer inherited from antiquity, and to theorize about how the past serves the present. It emphasizes the distinctive deployment of anachronism and the philosophical intertext of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, as these formal features help Chaucer entangle past, present, and future dimensions in his narrative worlds to different ends, sometimes to highlight the virtues of remembering and forgetting, and at other moments, to solicit distrust of established historical and etiological texts.
Anachronism in Chaucer’s works confronts readers with the simultaneity of past and present temporalities. Through anachronism, Chaucer familiarizes his readers with history, eliciting their sympathy with characters whose visions of time are fragmented by virtue of their position within the text. However, anachronism also links his readers’ perspective to an omniscient eye by establishing a sense of temporal estrangement, which incites recognition of the human individual’s position in the scheme of time and encourages readers to make critical judgments about the uses of history. The fantastical realms of Chaucer’s dream visions appear to transcend the confines of everyday human experience, and the world of ancient Troy seems distant from medieval London, but the constant interplay between past and present in all challenges the conventional ways in which readers and characters “see time.”
Chaucer appropriates the notion and vocabulary of “seeing time”—wherein the literal ability to see determines the metaphorical insight into time—from the Boece, his Middle English adaptation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. This dissertation argues that the metaphorical discourse of sight permeates Chaucer’s poems, but beyond the religious parameters of Boethius’s Latin original, displacing its transcendent authority. This work bases consolation on the premise that the human subject can use distance to ethicize the way in which he sees time, transforming the fragmented vision of time as a collision of temporal moments into a divine-like perspective in which past, present, and future appear as a continuous whole. Chaucer’s poems show how the distant and idealized Boethian perspective helps to shape the past into an ethical dimension through which to understand the present and future. Chaucer’s Boethius exposes the fragmented nature of the human perspective, which prevents characters within the narrative from foreseeing the macrocosmic patterns of rise and fall of human experience, and which forces readers to confront their own limited vision of time. Nevertheless, these poems also highlight the universality and adaptability of the Boece, occasionally validating the temporally-entrenched perspective and proliferating constructions of time. This dissertation thus seeks not to trace Chaucer’s adoption of a single specific Boethian philosophical position, but rather to emphasize how multi-functional, plural, and disruptive Boethius is in Chaucer’s works, and to argue that reading these works through the Boethian lens pluralizes ways of understanding time.
Finally, this dissertation pays special attention to anachronism and Chaucer’s Boethian intertext, rather than to explicit content and allusion, in order to expose the profoundly political and social nature of Chaucer’s early works. Scholars have tended to look for evidence of Chaucer’s stake in political claims in his late oeuvre, the Canterbury Tales, given the obliqueness of direct historical references in his early works. However, anachronism and the Boethian intertext in the dream visions and Troilus and Criseyde reveal the pressure that Chaucer places on his contemporary readers to reflect upon their own position within the historical cycle. Particularly in Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer blurs the temporal distinction between past and present to reinforce the political recursiveness that haunts Ricardian London and invites identification with an idealized Boethian perspective that demands distance from the political chaos of Troy and London alike. Simultaneously, these techniques resist the moralizing tendencies of the panoptic perspective and advocate the idea of making virtue out of necessity. By emphasizing the dialectical movement between positions of nearness and farness, Chaucer highlights his complicated relationship to his historical place and time. He ultimately suggests that he settles on the value of a loving distance from his city and time, and on a viewing position protected from the tumult of a politically-charged urban London and yet never fully aloof from its situatedness and chaos.