In The Canterbury Tales, our dear friend Geoff Chaucer tells the story of others telling stories (about others). It’s a text rich in material for study, especially on narration and authority. One of the most memorable characters/narrators is the Pardoner, a man whose job is
collecting extorting money from penitents. The Pardoner introduces his tale with a confession, admitting that he is a phony driven by avarice and listing some of his most egregious misdeeds, including peddling false relics. His actual tale is a story that illustrates how destructive avarice can be, so this confession ultimately builds his credibility as its teller, establishing him as an expert on the issue. But the sticking point for so many readers (and scholars) is the claim that links his confessional prologue to his tale about three greedy thieves seeking Death:
“For though myself be a ful vicious man,
A moral tale yet I yow telle kan” (460, 461 in Bevington).
He knows that he is a “vicious man” yet maintains that he can tell “a moral tale.” He’s been perfectly up-front about his cheating, stealing, and ostensibly unrepentant self, so it seems unlikely that he’d lie in this instance.
I find myself trying to redeem the Pardoner here. “He’s at least honest; that’s a start,” I say. But is it? What happens when someone who does bad things does something good? Do we always see these notions as either withdrawals or deposits into our human-ness account, looking for good deeds to undue past cruelties, and expecting all our meannesses to undo that volunteer work we did in high school?
Regardless of the speaker, what’s at stake here is really the difference between being a good person and doing good things. We all think, say to ourselves, say to our loved ones, “good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things.” This is certainly convenient. But what this assumes is that what a person is, fundamentally, is static. To assume that a good person can do bad things doesn’t seem to account for the possibility of transition from “bad person” to “good person”– or any mutability or boundary-blurring between. One simply is good or bad, and is allowed (even expected?) to deviate from time to time.
How easily we as students, teachers, parents (of pets or people) hear and say that we meant better, that we’re really not like that, that our actions this one time define or express us less than better moments. Are we so involved in a culture of disclaimer that we can’t even fathom being a bad person, if only for a moment? And is it so impossible for someone to be bad one day and good the next? Why must we couch all devious actions in the context of our personhood? When do actions speak for themselves?
I saw the resurgence of a Taylor Mali poem about conviction on Twitter last night. The youtube clip is here, and I encourage all to check this, and his other work, out frequently and thoughtfully. Here is an excerpt from the poem that examines a trend of decreasing responsibility in writing and speech (my favorite bits are in bold):
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too. (taylormali.com)