"Be nat agast": Chaucer, Adorno, and Ugly Aesthetics
Dominick, Gina Ann
This thesis uses Theodor Adorno's aesthetic theories of ugliness to reconsider the medieval/modern dichotomy implicit in much of medieval studies and contemporary aesthetic theory. I argue that Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is a piece of "oppositional art" that uses ugly aesthetics to upset and preclude a return to order and tradition and resists sublimation into the universal, theological, or cultic functions of medieval art. Attention to these aesthetic choices complicates medieval vs. modern artistic categories and shows how Chaucer's work participates in what Adorno considers to be the project of modern artwork: a "determinate negation of a determinate society." Part I surveys the current field of medieval literary studies and recognizes a place for renewed interest in aesthetic readings, while laying the theoretical foundation for how the use of contemporary aesthetic theories like Adorno's are useful in reconsidering where we choose to locate the "break" between medieval and modern, cultic and oppositional, art. Part II then applies Adorno's conception of ugliness in the form of "kitsch" to a reading of the aesthetics of Chaucer's the "Prioress's Tale." I argue that ideological critiques of the tale have not, until this point, paid due attention to how Chaucer's aesthetic choices work against the tale's collusion with the cult function of the devotional Miracle story and raise ethical questions regarding scholastic notions of beauty and truth.
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