The Canterbury Tales And The Virtues Of Pauvreté

(Note: This piece may be a bit heavy on the lit-major nerdishness for those who haven’t read Chaucer and/or who aren’t so good with Middle English. Then again – what’s your excuse for these oversights? We’re talking about your cultural heritage here.)

Namedropping Geoffrey Chaucer in my last piece put me in mind to rework something I wrote years ago about the Canterbury Tales, and how it illustrates the attitude that the medievals held when it came to the subject of poverty. Their concept of virtuous poverty seems worth bringing up in an age in which it becomes increasingly obvious that the West’s excessive wealth has been a primary factor in making our society degenerate, decadent, and soft – neither strong enough to survive nor very much deserving of survival. Our ancestors, who were far wiser than we in every area except the technological, had attitudes toward this topic that were very different from ours, and this is reflected in the stories they have left us. Among these attitudes, the one perhaps most prominently displayed in the Canterbury Tales is the belief that poverty is the seedbed of virtue. Poverty was defined, in this context, not as wretched, ragged, starvation-level poverty, but rather as possession of a sufficiency of the necessities of life, without excess or luxury. In our own era, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn clarified the differences between these two sorts of poverty when he remarked that:

“[T]he notion of misery is different from that of poverty. Péguy has already drawn the distinction between ‘pauvreté’ and ‘misère’. To live in misery means to suffer genuine physical privation: to know cold and hunger, to have no proper dwelling, to be dressed in rags, to be unable to secure medical attention. The poor, by contrast, have the necessities of life, but scarcely any more. They can borrow books, no doubt, but cannot buy them; they can hear music on the radio, but cannot afford a ticket to a concert; they cannot indulge in little extras of food and drink, but should, by self-discipline, be able to save a little. The poor have, therefore, the normal material preconditions for happiness — unless plagued by acquisitiveness or even envy, which has become a political force in the same measure as people have lost their faith.”

A hardcore monastic order here or there aside, misère was really never seen as being conducive to virtue, as medieval moralists of Chaucer’s bent believed that it would simply cause the sort of desperation that would lead to crime. However, pauvreté (and this is what the reader should assume I mean by the term “poverty” going forward), which could even be achieved by members of the gentle classes by the exercise of self-denial, was believed to engender virtue by lessening attachments to worldly possessions and pleasures. Thus, while poverty did not necessarily always produce virtue, nor was it necessary to live in poverty in order to be virtuous, poverty did, according to this worldview, create conditions that predisposed people towards leading virtuous lives. It is in order to illustrate this point that Chaucer created characters, most notably among the warrior and priestly classes, whose stories directly tie poverty to virtue.

The most explicit example of virtue tied to a poverty caused by self-denial is that of the Knight. Though he is a nobleman, and thus a member of the upper classes, his possessions are described as being exceedingly modest. Chaucer describes the Knight’s goods thus:

“But for to tellen yow of his array,
His hors were gode, but he was nat gay.
Of fustian he wered a gipoun
Al bismotered with his habergeoun”

The Knight’s horse and clothing are of the good and rugged quality that his position requires, but without a hint of opulence to them; he has not so much as a bauble that might be called a luxury. This self-enforced austerity befits a man who: “loved chivalrye/Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye”, but is conspicuously not described as loving money, ease, or comfort.

The Knight is not the only one whose poverty is voluntary. Included in the party are a number of churchmen who are bound by the three vows of monastic life: poverty, chastity, and obedience. But while there are some among them who live up to those vows (the Parson and the Clerk primary among them), there are others who plainly do not. The first among these is a nun, who Chaucer refers to as the Prioress. While Chaucer’s characterization of her is unquestionably of one who falls very short of his ideal for monastic life, it is also a portrait of a perfectly decent woman of perfectly good intentions who has been consigned to a life for which she is simply constitutionally unsuited (people became monks or nuns in those days for all sorts of reasons; some good, some bad). Her trespasses are the stuff not of wickedness, but of worldliness. Her violations of her vows of chastity, for example, are not ones that involve the narrow definition of that term which imply sexual misconduct, but the larger sense in which that word is (and was, by the medievals) understood – of an immodest attachment to worldly pleasures. These include an undue attachment to appearances, as illustrated in Chaucer’s long description of her impeccable table manners. In addition, a hint of violation both of the Prioress’s vows of chastity and of poverty is illustrated by her concern with the wellbeing of her dogs (which bring joy to her heart), while so many of her fellow men go needy. This suggests a misplaced charity, a selfishness and concern with that which provides her pleasure, and a self-indulgence which call into question both her understanding of and her commitment to her vows of chastity and poverty. Further evidence is provided by the description of her “broche of gold ful shene/On which ther was first write a crowned A/And after, ‘Amor vincit omnia’”. This sentiment could be read in two very different ways, and Chaucer leaves it unclear whether the love in question corresponds more closely to the concept of agapé, or to that of eros. Beyond the issue of chastity however, a gold brooch is most definitely a luxury, one that may border on unseemly when worn by a woman sworn to a life of poverty.

We move father down the scale of unsuitable churchmen when we meet the Friar. While the Prioress was a bit too concerned with her own personal pleasures, it is obvious that the Friar is a man who is entirely out for his own interests. He has found a cushy and lucrative sinecure, and will allow no concerns such as ecclesiastical vows, love of Christ, or concern for his fellow man interfere in his enjoyment of it. He spends his time with carefully-selected members of his community, for as we see: “Ful wel beloved and famulier was he/With frankeleyns (prosperous freeholders) over al in his contree”. And he is just as particular in his selection of those he does not spend time with:

“For unto swich a worthy man as he
Acorded nat, as by his facultee
To have with seke lazars aqueyntaunce:
It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce
For to delen with no swich poraille
But al with riche and selleres of vitaille”

In this, we see both infractions against his vows of poverty (for his preference for the company of the rich certainly had much to do with the amenities available while in their company), and his vows of chastity (in his attachment to the worldly pleasures those amenities represented). In addition, his policy of going easy on those who accompanied their confessions with “a good pitaunce”, smacks of disobedience of, if not the letter, then at least the spirit of the church’s policies on penance. Indeed, it may be fairly said of him that, while he is not a man of malicious intent, his life is lived not one bit in accordance with the spirit of a dedicated clergyman.

Representing a complete contrast to this is the Parson, a poor preacher who is the embodiment of Christian virtue. We learn nearly immediately of his poverty, as he is described as: “a povre Persoun of a toun”. Chaucer describes him in terms that neatly describe his own ideal of poverty, telling us that the Parson “coude in litel thing han suffisaunce”. And though he could secure a more lucrative sinecure in London, it does not interest him. Instead, he “dwelte at hoom, and kepte wel his folde”. And well-kept they were, for as Chaucer relates: “A better preest I trowe that nowhere noon is”.

Accompanying the Parson is the Clerk, Chaucer’s ideal of scholarly virtue (In Chaucer’s time, a “Clerk” meant a full-time scholar. As all institutions of higher learning were, in those days, affiliated with the church, and there was no distinction drawn between secular and religious learning, Clerks were considered to be living a sort of religious lifestyle, although they did not take the vows by which nuns and monks were bound). He is a thin man on a thin horse, covered by a thin cloak that is “ful thredbar”. We learn that there is a reason for his privation, as: “Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre/But al that he mighte of his freendes hente/On bokes and lerninge he it spente”. As befits a true scholar, he eschews extravagance, loves knowledge above all else, and devotes every penny he can scrape together to the furtherance of learning.

It is fitting, then, that in the tale told by the poor and humble Clerk we meet the character that perhaps most explicitly embodies Chaucer’s philosophy on the power of poverty to engender virtue. As soon as the Clerk begins his tale of the fair Grisilde, we are told: “For povreliche y-fostred up was she/No likerous lust was thurgh hire herte y-ronne/She knew wel labour, but non ydel ese”. It is the hardship, labor, and poverty she has faced that has produced in her a countenance described as “rype and sad corage”, and it is this countenance that attracts the attention of the Marquis Walter. Once her marriage to him is complete, it also allows her to bear his cruelties. And bear them she does, for: “Disposed was, this humble creature/Th’adversitee of Fortune al t’endure”. Having never allowed herself to become attached to the worldly delights of wealth or status, Grisilde, when faced with the prospect of returning to poverty, stoically responds by paraphrasing Job: “Naked out of my fadres hous, quod she/I cam, and naked moot I turne agayn”. This is, by even the Clerk’s admission, positively superhuman fortitude in the face of more suffering than anyone should be expected to abide graciously. By repeatedly making a point of her humble upbringing, the poet transparently ties this fortitude to her poverty. Thus, when Walter reveals that all of his cruelties were mere tests designed to make sure that she was a worthy wife, and that from now on she could count on him to be a loving and generous (not to mention rich and noble) husband, she is shown to be a woman who, through a display of exceptional virtue, has earned exceptional privilege.

Though she is often presented as a near-opposite of Grisilde, and though it may seem bit incongruous for a character who herself seems to find little merit in the idea that poverty engenders virtue, the Wife of Bath’s Tale contains a philosophical digression on both the nature of virtuous poverty and on the topic of what truly makes a person noble. In her tale, a knight gets a well-deserved moral lecture from an old crone to whom he has found himself married. She reminds him that: “Heer may ye see wel how that genterye/Is nat annexed to possessioun”. She divorces true nobility from the idea of highborn status, declaring that “Thy gentillesse cometh fro God allone”. Having done this, she addresses poverty, reminding her husband (and thus, the reader) of examples of poverty tied to virtue in sources both religious and secular. She turns to the authority of the Gospels to attest that: “The hye God, on whom that we bileve/In wilful povert chees to live his lyf”. She follows this by an appeal to the learning of philosophers: “Glad povert is an honest thing, certeyn/This wol Senek and othere clerkes seyn”. And indeed she seems to sum up Chaucer’s position on poverty, previously illustrated in the General Prologue descriptions of the Parson and the Plowman, when she says: “But he that noght hath, ne coveyteth have/Is riche, although ye holde him but a knave”.

(In a fine parallel to the Clerk’s Tale, the Wife’s Tale ends happily, as once his old, ugly, and mysterious wife tests him and determines that he has learned his lesson, she obligingly uses magic to transform herself into a beautiful young woman.)

It can be seen, then, that Chaucer takes every opportunity to extol the virtues that he associates with poverty. The characters that are richest in the qualities most admired by the poet are consistently the poorest and humblest among them. Poverty is, in his judgment, an ideal breeding ground for moral virtue, health, wisdom, long life, and cleanliness of mind, body, and spirit. Though these beliefs go utterly against the grain of the Whig/Modernist worldview, we should ourselves be wise enough to reevaluate the wisdom of our ancestors; in it, there is a great deal of lost truth.

On Homosexuality And Uranus

When I first got started with my reactionary writings, I thought I would be the only anime fan in these circles. Boy was I ever wrong.

Despite this, I sometimes get questions from those reactionaries who are not anime fans about aspects of anime and anime culture, often of the “How can you call yourself a reactionary when you like something which…” variety. Normally these are easy enough to answer, but there’s one that I’ve gotten a few times that deserves a bit more of an exploration; specifically as regards the seemingly tolerant attitude towards homosexuality often seen in anime. This is something that can indeed be confusing – it often leads people to think that anime is, as a genre, more leftist than it really is, and that Japan is, as a society, more tolerant of homosexuality than it really is (having lived there, I can assure you that it is not very receptive to open homosexuality). So here is my attempt at something like a full response – apologies in advance if it wanders about a little, as it is more a reflection than anything thesis-driven.

The short answer is that anime reflects the tolerant attitude that a society can have towards what Fred Reed referred to as “baroque sexualities” when they represent no threat to the prevailing heterosexual order. This, in turn, reflects the tolerant attitude that can be had towards any minority – whether it be a lifestyle minority, an ethnic minority, a religious minority, or a political minority – when it is below a certain level of prominence in that society.

This opens us up to looking at a much larger picture. But let us begin with homosexuality.

So then, anime reflects the attitudes of a society that isn’t threatened by homosexuality. This may seem like an ambiguous statement to make, since those of baroque sexuality have often, in sneering and pushy voices, asked “Are you threatened by my sexuality?”. Or at least they used to – now, of course, we know that that question was, in itself, a threat – the fulness of it, including the unspoken portion, would go something like: “Are you threatened by my sexuality? Well if not, just you wait. You’ll be paying astronomical fines for not wanting to bake a cake for my wedding or losing your job for daring to oppose my pet political causes soon enough, chump”.

And yet in Japan, and certainly in the world of anime, things are different. Anime homosexuals are carefully portrayed as not representing a threat to the prevailing cisheteronormist order. Let us take consider an early example, Sailors Uranus and Neptune from Sailor Moon. Though obviously (and yet never quite explicitly) a lesbian couple, one of whom has some prominent transgender (or at least highly androgynous) qualities, they never really make any demands for accommodation on the world that surrounds them. Sailor Uranus does not wish to upend the society around her in order to gain the validation involved in having her lifestyle redefined as normal; she only desires to be left in peace to discreetly live as she wishes. She doesn’t want to change marriage laws, get you fired for saying that you don’t like her, or tear down the faith of the polis.

And it is because of this that she can safely be left alone by the larger society around her. She is not a threat, so she can be treated as a curiosity – liked by some, disliked by others, but simply not worth bothering with on a societal level. The implicit, unspoken bargain that she makes with the larger society is both reasonable and humane – she gains a strong measure of security through obscurity, and the mores of the society around her remain secure. That is largely how it is in Japan, and how it largely used to be in the West as well. Laws against homosexuality in the West existed, but were essentially a hedge against precisely what has happened now that they have been removed – open, politicized homosexuality becoming a serious threat to the existing order. As for the discreet, private practice of homosexuality, laws against it are and always were virtually unenforceable (for many reasons, including the general disinterest of Westerners in taking any great pains to enforce them against those who kept their proclivities private), and when they were on the books they remained virtually unenforced.

To mix fictional metaphors a bit, I am reminded of the Borg from the Star Trek franchise. In one episode of, I believe, The Next Generation, several members of the crew find that they can, if they are discreet and quiet, move unmolested through a Borg ship, though they are in plain view of numerous Borg drones. The Borg, it turns out, are interested in assimilation at a civilizational level, not an individual level. Thus, if an individual, or even a very small group, moves through their ship and seems to present no threat, they are ignored. Below a certain level of prominence, they are simply not worth doing anything about.

This, again, can apply to any group that is a minority for any reason. Consider this: I shall describe the plot of a television show that is sure to be controversial in the modern day. In it, a red-haired white woman, portrayed as a bit of an amiable dimbulb, is in a mixed marriage with a Latino man. And not just Latino – he is an immigrant who often breaks into his native Spanish when annoyed with his wife, which is often, as she is a clumsy crybaby who can do little on her own. One can imagine the White Nationalist taking umbrage at the mixed marriage and the unflattering portrayal of the white woman. One can imagine the left heaping on praise of its brave multiculturalism. Controversial, then? Very likely so. And yet the show I have described is I Love Lucy, which debuted in 1951 to a general lack of socially-conscious reaction. This almost certainly is because, at the time, Latinos were so small a percentage of the U.S. population that they were in the range of being exotic curiosities (their small number was reflected in the fact that it wasn’t until the Census of 1970 – nearly twenty years later – that Latinos were counted as a distinct group). Even racism, that scourge of all things egalitarian, seems only to rear its head when a group reaches a certain prominence in a society.

And here we must define “prominence”, as I have intentionally used a term that could have its basis in multiple factors. Prominence could be based on sheer numbers – but it could also be based on political influence, cultural influence, disproportionate disposition to either a negative activity (e.g. criminality) or a positive one (e.g. economically important minorities like the Chinese in Malaysia), the loudness and severity of demands placed by it upon the surrounding society, or any number of other things that, voluntarily or involuntarily, cast aside a group’s security through obscurity and bring it to the attention of society at large. It is only then, once a group is past that certain level of prominence and can no longer be dismissed as a curiosity, that problems seem to start on any sort of large scale.

But let us return to the topic of anime and homosexuality.

Not long ago, I was asked my opinion of the late-90s series Revolutionary Girl Utena, which some say contains traditionalist themes (but also contains heavy lesbian themes). I had to admit to having never actually seen it, and so resolved, despite receiving some admonitions that it was “degenerate”, to watch at least some of the show. I am not far into the series as of this writing, but so far, it seems to me that it portrays an attitude towards homosexuality that is not so much degenerate, but reflective of what is, in a way, a very traditional view. What it shows are the pre-1960s attitudes of the old upper class in a society whose traditions were not under assault from politicized, weaponized homosexuality. It is, then, traditional in its representation of homosexuality in a sense, but so much so that modern reactionaries (and no matter how we may long for a more civilized past, we are all native-born sons of Modernity) may find it rather difficult to understand.

In the manners of the old British upper class, homosexuality, when practiced at all, was seen as something properly limited to the realm of a youthful indiscretion. A bit of schoolboy buggery at Eton or Harrow was treated with a wink and a nod, and not spoken of in polite company either in school or after graduation. It was not expected to be a lifestyle that one engaged in forever, much less a political cause. It was a thing one grew out of – the idea of being 45 years old and still “gay” (a term that would have been near-incomprehensible to them) would have been seen as being utterly ridiculous. Same-sex crushes of the idol-worship variety, for both males and females, were to be expected in one’s school years, but were simply a step along the way to a permanent romantic bond, which was to be found with one’s suitably upper-class wife (which illustrates how this attitude is not so very far off from that of the ancient Greek upper class, for whom boys were for recreational sex, and women for marriage and continuation of the family line). At that point, the less said about youthful indiscretions, the better.

A good example of this exists in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, which, though being of relatively modern vintage, seems to be rather incomprehensible to modern people. A recent film version (which I have not seen) is said to have reconfigured it so that the story is about a mean old Lady Marchmain and her spoilfun Catholic beliefs getting in the way of Charles and Sebastian’s eternal love (which would doubtless be sealed by a gay “marriage”, if the spoilfuns of the time had allowed such a thing). This, of course, misunderstands Waugh, his novel, and his message on so many levels as to be utterly risible. It filters it through modern eyes, and also through a demotist and egalitarian worldview, which cannot comprehend an older, upper class worldview that is very different from their own (it should be said that the attitude towards homosexuality that I have described was exclusively an upper-class one, both in that the lower classes did not share it and in that the upper classes did not believe that the lower classes should share it).

What destroys Sebastian Flyte is not his mean mother or her restrictive Catholic ways (which both Waugh and Charles Ryder accept), but the fact that while Charles eventually leaves his schoolboy days behind, grows up, and accepts his adult responsibilities as a member of the upper class, Sebastian steadfastly refuses to do so (his inappropriate adulthood attachment to his teddy bear is a prominent symbol of this). His persistent homosexual behavior and refusal to marry is one symptom of this, but his alcoholism is another. Excessive drunkenness was then, as it is now, rather expected of students at university – but it also was and is expected to stop when a young person graduates and enters the world of adult responsibilities. This is what Sebastian never accepts – to the last, he remains flaky, irresponsible, and childlike. It is this, not his mother’s sternness or the strictures of her religion, which is at the core of his descent into a spiral of self-destruction.

No wonder leftism, which is really no more than the political arm of the desperate desire for eternal adolescence, should turn him into a hero!

Similar things could be said of androgyny. Utena herself wishes to be a prince instead of a princess, and affects a certain androgyny which involves wearing a customized version of a male school uniform (still quite flattering though, this being anime and all). This, too, was something that was accepted, and even expected, at a certain stage of youth (although, admittedly, Utena pushes that boundary more than a little). Once, while touring Versailles, I came upon a portrait of Louis XVI as a toddler, wearing a full-length blue velvet dress. This was not at all unusual among the upper classes before the 20th century – both pre-pubescent boys wearing dresses and girls wearing trousers – because it was accepted that children were by nature androgynous, and came into their gender characteristics at puberty. But once the time to become young gentlemen and ladies arrived, young people were expected to put away the things of childhood, including androgyny. If Louis XVI had worn a dress to court as an adult, for example, even he would have been treated as having gone mad, King or not. The idea of spending a lifetime “transgender” or in a state of in a permanent, androgynous limbo, would have been unthinkable.

Utena may indeed be pushing the limits of when such things are overlooked, but she is still a schoolgirl, and the cultural assumption that androgyny will go the way of the same-sex school crush or the schoolboy buggery still looms in the background. At some point, she is expected to grow up and leave all that behind.

And perhaps this is as much the problem as anything. We are a Peter Pan society, in which people refuse to grow up, few seem motivated to comport themselves like adults, and everyone seems to run about asking for – no, demanding – validation for every aspect of their existence, even – especially – the baroque, the degenerate, the antisocial, and the sinful aspects of it. This has led us to an age of Totalism – in which it seems one must only either gushingly praise a thing or passionately hate it. It is an age of no quarter, in which the rule is to oppress or be oppressed, and only fools think that they can safely live and let live. That is the age in which we find ourselves, and we all know it, and feel it so deeply that it is difficult to remember that there have existed times and places in which “tolerance” meant what it actually means, and was not a codeword for the ruthless crushing of tradition and Christian morality.

These times and places were far more genteel and civilized than what we have now, and while we must never either forget that it was the left that was the aggressor, nor lose sight of what must be done to restore a decent society, it is still, I think, permissible to wish that we could live in them. A world in which private things are kept private, the prevailing culture of decency is not under threat, and the rule is not “They are always either at your feet or at your throat” is a humane and orderly one, and there is much to admire about it. To the degree that any anime series provides a look into such a world, I do not believe it to be degenerate. Someday, the Social Justice Warriors may come for anime in earnest (there are already some troubling signs here and there), but until and unless that happens, I see nothing wrong with continuing to watch.