From The Little Womedievalist—who's apparently hard at work on something about the Nun's Priest's Tale—comes this week's most terrifying sample of academic prose. If you'll remember—by which I mean "skim your translated edition of The Canterbury Tales"—the NPT contains 7,392 frame narratives nested, like Russian dolls, around a beast fable about a cock named Chauntecleer who refuses to listen his dreams or wives. So a fox takes him by surprise, grabs him by the mouth and scoots into the woods. Chauntecleer, clever cock he is, tricks the fox into saying something. The fox's mouth momentarily agape, Chauntecleer flap-flap-flaps into the bosom of a nearby tree.
That's all the plot you need to know to understand the horrors to follow. (But I recommend reading the afore-linked tale in its entirety. This Chaucer fellow ain't half bad. A decent blogger, even.) So, the fox has the cock in his mou—crap, I gave the game away, didn't I? No choice but to present the offending sentence then:
Because the word "cock" passes through the throat of the fox, the thing it signifies will not.
When I talk about the rigors of deconstruction being lost on literary scholars, this is what I'm referencing. You see the priceless irony here? As soon as the fox utters the signifier "cock," he invokes the presence of that which is absent ... only it isn't! The cock was in his mouth when he said "cock"! Therefore, because the word "cock" passes through the throat of the fox, the thing it signifies—Chauntecleer—will not!
Where to even begin? Chill, my friend, chill. I have an idea. How about I begin the with the moment when uttering the word "cock" dispossesses said cock from the fox's mouth?
This cok, that lay upon the foxes bak,
In al his drede unto the fox he spak,
And seyde, sire, if that I were as ye,
Yet sholde I seyn, as wys God helpe me,
Turneth agayn, ye proude cherles alle!
A verray pestilence upon yow falle!
Now am I come unto the wodes syde;
Maugree youre heed, the cok shal heere abyde.
I wol hym ete, in feith, and that anon!
The fox answerde, in feith, it shal be don.
And as he spak that word, al sodeynly
This cok brak from his mouth delyverly,
And heighe upon a tree he fleigh anon.
[This cock, which lay across the fox's back,
In all his fear unto the fox did clack
And say: "Sir, were I you, as I should be,
Then would I say (as God may now help me!),
'Turn back again, presumptuous peasants all!
A very pestilence upon you fall!
Now that I've gained here to this dark wood's side,
In spite of you this cock shall here abide.
I'll eat him, by my faith, and that anon!'"
The fox replied: "In faith, it shall be done!"
And as he spoke that word, all suddenly
This cock broke from his mouth, full cleverly,
And high upon a tree he flew anon.]
Wait one cotton-picking minute here. I'm confused. I was promised that "because the word 'cock' passes through the throat of the fox, the thing it signifies will not." I'm reading that section and you know what? I don't see the fox mutter, sputter or otherwise address the cock as "cock" in that passage.
Which came first, I wonder, the sentence or the thought?
Because the sentence is damn clever. The thought ... not so much. I could draw larger conclusions from this monstrous sentence. I could note that it seems designed to shock puerile minds into paying attention to the deconstructive gymnastics this deconstructive embarrassment practices. Instead, I'll leave you to parse the sentence immediately preceding that brute:
When the cock sings with his eyes closed, whatever his voice might be referring to in the external world has disappeared.
Yes, that is the previous sentence.
No, I've no clear idea of its relation to the nonsense following it.