Chaucer at Ground Zero
This essay was begun on the day that the last load of debris was removed from the site of the World Trade Center disaster of September 11, 2001. My desk at New York University is about a mile from Ground Zero, as the site became known. I easily could have attended the ceremony that day marking the end of recovery and clean-up, but I did not go to that vast literal and metaphorical pit. In fact I would not revisit it, lest I never return from all that loss. Instead, I wrote about the Middle Ages.
If I attempted - however unintentionally - to regain via the medieval a measure of wholeness, safety, and grounding lost in the trauma of September 11, it certainly wasn't the first time the past era has been invoked to perform such a recovery. Indeed, it has been recently argued that British historians in the 1950s undertook 'an obsessive search for the archival identity of Robin Hood' upon 'the loss of the raj'. Not long after that postcolonial grieving, a leading American Chaucerian hoped that 'the recognition of valid realities established by earlier generations' might provide protection against another gaping hole, what he called 'that rancid solipsistic pit' of modernity. In these scholarly instances the medieval, and particularly Chaucer, was used in a process of mourning, or rather, if we accept Freud's distinctions, in a melancholic refusal of loss, the putative modern-day loss of good love, revealed truth, and fullness of being.
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