CUNY Graduate Center, English Department (Rm 4409)
Friday, December 2, 7:30
“‘Ful lik a moder’: The Affective Circuit in the Griselda Story”
In Boccaccio’s version of the Griselda story, not only does Walter insist on his right to choose Griselda, but he offers Griselda the chance to explicitly and freely choose him in turn. In doing so, Boccaccio underscores how the bonds of marriage construct authority by virtue of an affective contract agreed to by both partners. And it is this affective contract, as much as Griselda’s obedience that is threatened by Walter’s excessive testing of Griselda’s obedience in the later action of the tale.
Boccaccio’s account of affect and emotion, however, remains a largely biologic one of “doing what comes naturally.” In his humanist Latin translation of Boccaccio’s story, Petrarch develops a much more complex representation of Griselda’s affective contract with Walter, one that explores how steadfastness functions as an emotion that is made rather than simply called up from within a pre-formed self. Petrarch’s reworks the Griselda story in order to construct an affective circuit that not only links author and reader with Griselda, but also the humanist author with his masculine audience. The performative acts of reading and displays of affect management made possible by this affective circuit thereby allow these masculine subjects to register a level of self-knowledge and agential wisdom that their “betters” do not always display.
Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale on the one hand echoes and intensifies Petrarch’s focus on an affectively understood ethical subject position. On the other hand this very intensification of affect forestalls the Petrarchan impulse to “read like a man” and move to socialize affect in appropriately authoritative ways. In moments such as Griselda’s final swoon, feeling here operates as a more powerful, creative, and disruptive force than Petrarch’s affective circuit would allow for. As such, rather than working to construct the kind of emotional community Petrarch’s affective circuit attempts, the Clerk’s emphasis on Griselda’s embodiment of a pre-social, pre-individual affective remainder works to produce what Sarah McNamer has called “an upheaval of thought” on the part of the tale’s audience.