Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Reading Chaucer in a Time of Disasters

The real world is doing it again, topping any horror you can read/hear/see with its own, earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear explosions. With wall to wall descriptions of unfolding events, holding back on none of the griefs and personal disasters.

In fact, it seems to me the media is a vast mob-like mentality that individual practitioners claim they can do nothing about and saying they must, to keep their jobs, push their mics and their camera eyes where people are most in need of private moments to work through their emotions.

One interesting effect of this set of misfortunes happening in a country with its own (very different to Australian) strong language and strong culture and its own media organisation, the intrusive quality of the rest of the West's media pack seems to be blunted.

When everything has to be translated, when media getters look vastly different and out of place and talk an incomprehensible language and the victims don't particularly need to be noticed by the rest of the world, the media experience has a vastly different flavour. Which is good to see.

Reading any of the usual stories only replicate the real, and look pale as a result. I found myself with a loss of apatite for nearly anything. I wanted something with difficult words, that I couldn't just gloss and walk away with only an unsatisfying story.

When one of my circle had a medieval banquet for his birthday, with entertainment by the guests, I picked up an Everyman's Chaucer. Published in 1958. In the original but with plenty of foot, side and end notes. And what makes reading Chaucer's Canterbury Tales an even better experience for me are Old English's similarities to Old Dutch and even to more modern forms of Dutch. I 'get' about 80% of the meanings without having to refer to the notes, sometimes getting slightly different meanings that sound more accurate.

But it is not a fast read. I'm lucky if I do two or three pages a sitting. And it's essential to read aloud. Only then can I hear the similarities between the two languages. It also feels a lot like reading science fiction. I need to do a lot of extrapolation. I need to wait sometimes for a sound or meaning to sink in. When a concept is so foreign I can't hang any meaning on it, I have to accept and go on without expecting resolution. Maybe next time I meet it, in a different context, I'll get it.

But, I hear people saying, what about the story? Why bother reading if you can't get the story?

I know the outlines. References to them are everywhere in Western culture. We are all acquainted with the Wife of Bath. The Merchant's Tale. The Miller. The Nun. What I'm reading now for is the intricacies. The play of language. The need to keep all my wits about me when supping the day-to-day media allows, even demands, that you don't think too much.

Page 7 here I come.

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