Book Review of: Eleanor Johnson, Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve
AbstractEleanor Johnson's book demonstrates that “the aesthetic power of literary language—its power to make ideation sensory and hence experiential through form and style—is fundamental to late medieval experimentation with ethically transformative writing” (3–4). As that quotation indicates, Johnson is concerned with the aesthetic in its etymological meaning of sense-perceptible rather than with any notion of beauty, Kantian or otherwise. The “mixed form” of her subtitle is prosimetrum: verse and prose alternating within the same work. Her study's other key word is protrepsis, “the literary modeling of ethical transformation” within a narrative that aims to effect a comparable transformation in its readers (10). Prosimetrum and protrepsis are most clearly united in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, which Johnson aptly describes as “a work of literary theory-in-practice” (19) in that it both articulates and performs the proper relation between prose and verse: the former enables rational thought and linear argumentation, whose protreptic effects the latter supports by offering a sensually pleasurable reprieve from logical rigor. Johnson argues that a host of late-medieval vernacular fictions are indebted to Boethius for their explorations of the relation between mixed literary form and the potential for ethical conversion.
Bahr, Arthur. “Eleanor Johnson, Practicing Literary Theory in the Middle Ages: Ethics and the Mixed Form in Chaucer, Gower, Usk, and Hoccleve.” Speculum 89, no. 2 (April 2014): 496–497.