Troilus and Criseyde or Rinaldo and Flora…
To Laugh or Weep…
At the end of Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer describes, in lines as justly famous as any in English poetry, the assumption of Troilus’ ghost “Up to the holughness of the eighthe spere”, whence, with the eternal musica mundana in his ears, he looks down upon “this litel spot of erthe”
and fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyn felicite
That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
Ther he was slayn, his lokyng down he caste.
And in hymself he lough…
In the fourteenth century, Troilus’ attitude of bemused indifference toward the follies and iniquities of this world was a universal philosophical and religious desideratum. But it is no easy thing to achieve, especially today. How does one laugh at a world whose monstrous stupidity and vice make one want to rage and weep?
Consider the recent Diana-esque effusions of grief and adulation inspired by the death of Michael Jackson, an “artist” of ambiguous gender and sexual orientation (though with a clear preference for minors), and pathetically addicted to drugs and plastic surgery. That Jackson’s hermaphroditic disfigurement was self-willed and self-inflicted and thought by him to be surpassingly beautiful should have made him an object of revulsion and pity. Nonetheless, he commanded hundreds of millions of devoted fans and admirers across the globe. Testimonials to Jackson’s greatness (including one solemnly intoned by the President of the United States) make one wonder if there has ever been a period in history when general moral standards and popular culture were as debased and unhinged as they are today. Ancient Rome had her Neros and Caligulas, to be sure, but only grasping sycophants or terrified underlings sang their praises publicly. The Roman populace reviled them, and would have been dumbfounded by the beating of breasts and rending of garments over the demise of any such serially self-mutilating musical mediocrity and social misfit as The Gloved One.
While the obsession with Jackson was in full metastasis, the news vomited up something even more symptomatic of the sickness of our age. One Ryan Jenkins, 32, was found dead in a B.C. motel room, hanging from his own belt. Unlike Jackson, Jenkins was (thitherto) only a minor celebrity, an ascending “star” of “reality” TV. It was while taping an episode of one such television series, in which a number of wealthy bachelors competed for the hand of a trophy blonde, that he met his future “wife”, a swimsuit model supposedly named “Jasmine Fiore”. The two instantly fell in “love” and, within a few days of meeting, were “married” in a Vegas “chapel”. (I am obliged to use repetitive quotation marks because, in our age of “reality” TV, practically every “reality” is as fake and synthetic as Jackson’s face or Fiore’s…well, read on). Within a few months of the wedding, Ms. Fiore was apparently no longer in “love” with her husband, and was planning a rendezvous with an ex-boyfriend. Jenkins found out about the tryst and strangled her. He then dismembered her corpse, being careful to erase all evidence of her identity by amputating her fingertips and extracting her teeth. Nonetheless, forensic investigators discovered who she was from the serial numbers on her breast implants.
Go ahead and laugh, if you wish. Succumb to the urge to impersonate, in your best Mafioso wise-guy accent, some inept criminal getting caught because he forgot to file off the serial numbers of his purloined goods. Roll around in your mouth the irony of a woman whose character, achievements, and aspirations were so completely circumscribed within the narrow compass of her simulated carnal endowments that in death she could only be identified by her implants. I too have always thought that in the presence of such absurdities and abominations laughter was the only sane response. I’m beginning to think differently.
The story of Jenkins and Fiore is surely a tale of our times, as Chaucer’s was a tale of his. Rename it “Rinaldo and Flora”, or the “Romance of the Jasmine”, throw in a few more dubious characters (the game show host as Pandarus, say), and the similarities to Chaucer’s romantic tragedy commence to seem almost plausible. In Chaucer’s time, Troilus was certainly meant to be read as a damning moral commentary on the fourteenth century’s own culture of lust, jealousy, adultery, and ersatz celebrity. The popular craze that then held the effete upper classes in its grip was called “courtly love”, with all of its affectations of religiosity (enthusiasts counted themselves servants of the Great God Cupid) and romantic authenticity (extra-marital love was supposedly pure), including its own “reality” game show in which contestants entered the lists to win “fame” and the “love” of a Lady, through the mock and dangerless soldiering of the tournament. Chaucer thought the whole spectacle decadent and risible. But there the comparison ends.
With all of her vanity and calculating deceit, Criseyde is a model of Christian modesty next to Fiore. Compared to Jenkins, Troilus is a true husband and knight of mercy. In the Middle Ages, the lust, sexual opportunism, narcissism, and pseudo-celebrity on display in courtly romances such as Chaucer’s Troilus were considered moral aberrations, and evoked universal ridicule. Today, they are regarded as the minimal conditions of well-being, and are thus unremarkable if not normative.
Mainstream popular culture (I say nothing about Internet porn or even gangsta rap), whose reach is practically infinite, is their bawd. Whether desert islands or ballroom dance floors, the sets of the aforementioned “reality” shows are invariably pullulant with the perky bodies of fetching male and female youths, whose principle talent and raison d’etre is the ability to arouse the prurient instincts of the viewing audience. The same is true of most prime-time serials, which seem preponderantly to follow some variation on the “Sex in the City” archetype, whose characters take it for granted that the road to happiness and purpose of life involve having as many casual sexual encounters as possible–and are regarded as fluffily innocuous for all that. The most popular female singers are almost always pubescent (or in the case of Madonna, middle-aged) tarts, with legions of would-be pubescent tartlets for fans. I’d venture to guess that if any given female star of contemporary television, film, or song were to suffer the unfortunate fate of Jasmine Fiore, there’s a good chance that she too could be identified by the serial numbers on her breast implants.
None of this would matter, of course, were it not for the fact that an entire generation of oafish teens and young adults has not only drunk at this poisoned fountain for hours every day of their lives, but tuned in religiously to the early evening TV entertainment journals–every network and major cable station has one, believe it or not–for the “news” that matters most. Nor am I referring merely to the impoverished or disaffected single-parent offspring of the urban underclass. On the first day of a course called “The Western Tradition” which I used to teach (at a university open only to the brightest and the best), I sometimes asked my students to tell me anything they knew about Zeus or Apollo, Agamemnon or Aeneas, Plato or St. Paul. Never more than a few hands were raised. Then I asked them to identify the name, birthplace, and hair colour of the current “American Idol”. That, as they are wont to say, was “no problem”.
It’s just not funny anymore. In a period of ordinary wickedness and vacuity, the world can get along well enough with the corrective satire of a Lucian, a Chaucer, or a Tom Wolfe. Present times call for sterner sonorities than those of laughter.