The Parson’s Tale

Posted in Uncategorized on December 3, 2009 by 062n09

Chaucer’s Parson isn’t the most likable pilgrim on the way to Canterbury but he stands out among the clerical throng.  Amid lecherous friars, sybaritic monks, simonous pardoners and cosseted prioresses, the parson’s poverty, humility and modesty almost awakens suspicion.  Just what is he after –  this plain-speaking wet blanket whose ‘tale’ is a sermon on penitance?  The worst that contemporary scholars can pin on the man is a charge of crypto-Lollardy.  Surely there must be more?

While the modern world singles out Lechery and Sloth, the middle ages held that the most dangerous mortal sins were Pride and Avarice (Coveitise).   Chaucer doesn’t like either and spends much of the Canterbury Tales revealing the excesses of a clergy who think too much of themselves and too little of others. In the Parson’s Tale, Chaucer runs through the mortal sins one by one, dissecting the meanings of each and suggesting remedies.  As the root of many other vices, Avarice is singled out for closer attention.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, Chaucer’s Parson does not see avarice as identical to ‘coveitise’.  The good Parson explains that avarice differs from covetousness in one essential way:

the difference bitwixe Avarice and Coveitise is this: Coveitise is for to coveite swiche thynges as thou hast nat; and Avarice is for to withholde and kepe swiche thynges as thou hast, withoute rightful nede

The Parson accounts the latter, avarice, as the worse sin.

Writing at about the same time as Chaucer, Robert Langland resists using the latin term ‘avarice’ much in Piers Plowman – 5 mentions to the 47 given to equally latinate ‘coveitise’ and 31 to variants of ‘unkyndenesse’.   Langland frequently links the allegorical figure Coveitise with one representing Unkyndenesse and the individual word ‘coveitise’ with the phrase ‘unkynde desiryng’. While this is certainly a felicitous combination for a poet who relies on consonance (ram, ruff, rom), it would be wrong to see the linkage as purely poetic instrumentalism.  To want what one has not got (and should not have) is, for Langland,  unkindness and a sin against Love.  Coveitise thus lies behind the first bite of the apple, the fateful kiss in the garden.  Desire is the root of all evil and must be remedied by love of others.  A more overtly radical poet than Chaucer, Langland insists that people should not only share their burdens:

Forthi love we as leve children shal, and ech man laughe of oother,
And of that ech man may forbere, amende there it neaeth,
And every man helpe oother — for hennes shul we alle:
Alter alterius onera portate.

but also their wealth:

And be we noght unkynde of oure catel, ne of oure konnyng neither,
For woot no man how neigh it is to ben ynome fro bothe.

Chaucer’s Parson also objects to coveitise – desiring – but avarice really gets his goat because it is linked to idolatry:

….the avaricious
Man hath moore hope in his catel than
In jhesu crist, and dooth moore observance in
Kepynge of his tresor than he dooth to the
Service of jhesu crist and therfore seith
Seint paul ad ephesios, quinto, that an avaricious
Man is in the thraldom of ydolatrie.

Avarice is here a terrible sin, not because an individual has an obligation to help bear the burdens of others or because wanting more implies wanting more than others have,  but because the avaricious man worships his treasure before God.

Thus is an avaricious
Man, that loveth his tresor biforn god, an
Ydolastre, / thurgh this cursed synne of avarice

Again, for the Parson, it is idolatry – the worshipping of money – that makes avarice a bad thing, not the desire for material goods or the failure to share per se.  In Langland, coveitise represents a great ‘unkindness’ against ones fellow humans and against the love of God.  For Chaucer’s Parson, however,  avarice sets up many gods before the one true God and transforms men into idolators.

But if the roots of sinfulness are different, the cures for ‘coveitise’ and ‘avarice’ are fairly similar.  Langland presents ‘kindness’ through the sharing of resources and Chaucer ‘misericorde’  – merciful feelings towards the less fortunate.  The Parson preaches that

niw shul ye understonde that the releevynge
Of avarice is misericorde, and pitee largely

And if you cannot muster true pity, he suggests

another manere of remedie agayns
Avarice is resonable largesse;

We might suggest that ‘resonable largesse‘ strains the quality of mercy a bit, but the good Parson assures us that there exists ‘fool largesse‘ or extravagant giving that only serves to puff up the pride of the giver.  Our Parson is rather strict on this point, claiming that the excessively generous will receive the curse of damnation on the day of judgement:

for as muchel as they yeven ther as they sholde nat yeven, to hem aperteneththilke malisoun that Crist shal yeven at the day of doom to hem that shullen been dampned

Given the strength of this formulation (damnation to the generous!), it comes as no surprise that the Parson never uses the word ‘unkyndenesse’ (it appears once in the Canterbury Tales).  Our Parson may well be a faithful shepherd to his flock and a salutary corrective to the all-too-worldly friars, monks and nuns in his company, but he does not run over with the milk of human kindness.  Most of us would prefer to be in Langland’s parish.



Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on September 9, 2009 by 062n09

Transportation and prostitution go way back.  Travellers going from one place to another needed a place to rest, a bite to eat, a pint of ale and…   Besides, the travellers were a long way from home and nobody back in the village would ever know.  The picture of home, so far away in a world where distances were measured in days, had in fact taken on a faded and unreal quality. Perhaps home didn’t even exist.

That great salt river, Sognefjord, that brings the ocean into the middle of Norway has a logical stopping point where the tide turns and the current quickens.  In the days when men pushed and rowed their salt water catches deep inland, they stopped at this point, at an Inn of dubious reputation, now the site of Kviknes Hotel.

In the New World, where one of the Kviknes brothers learned how to run a proper hostelry, the association of ‘the boardinghouse’ with women of ill repute could hardly be stronger, inherited and amplified by the Irish and the English.

Epidemiologists trace sexually transmitted diseases along highways and shipping routes.  In Africa, the history of AIDS runs along the roads, pooling at the truck stops.

And in our own clockwork societies of Europe, prostitutes hang out near the train stations.

They aren’t the only ones hanging out near the stations, of course.  Along with prostitution comes drug selling and consuming.  If anything, the drug addicts are the most visible signs of vice in the area.  Pale revenants clustered together, shoulders hunched against the cold.  Compared with the addicts, the Nigerian street walkers a block or two away seem almost jolly, rolls of smooth brown flesh falling out of pink shorts and ruffled shirts.  But it is their trade to seem so.

But what about our traveller?  Where is he?  There are no more farm boys coming in to sell livestock or milk or cheese. No more travelling tinkers and hardly a sailor at all unless you count the crew of the cruise ships docked at Aker Brygge.

The travellers are at the airport, at Gardermoen, whisked past the station on the airport train, hustled into taxis and shuttled to glass windowed hotels.  There are women of easy virtue there too, I suppose, dialled up on demand or sipping slowly on a cocktail at the bar.

Meanwhile, back at the train station, the shoulder blades of the addicts lift their thin jackets off their backs, the street walkers laugh and shout to keep their spirits up (customers being few since the new law criminalizing the purchase of sex went into effect), and men of vaguely criminal intent slope around making quick sideways eye movements.

Time to take the train back to the airport.

Testing, testing

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on September 4, 2009 by 062n09

Today many children in Norway took a national test to measure their abilities in English.  The example below was released by the Education department to help students in the 5th Grade (aged 9 and 10) prepare for the examination.  This question, number 12, comes after questions asking the children to identify farm animals – cats, dogs, goats, pigs, etc. and a series asking them identify colors.  As you can see, this one also relies heavily on the children’s familiarity with color words.  The words T-shirt and jacket are so close to the Norwegian words for the same objects that this question cannot really be a test of ‘clothing words’.  The lack of distractors – possible answers that are incorrect, but that force the student to think for a minute (in this question, for example, a distractor might be a  blond girl in a red T-shirt and green jacket or a brown eyed boy in a red T shirt and blue jacket) – makes this question almost impossible to answer


The questions do get a bit more difficult although almost all of the questionsrely on English words that resemble the Norwegian ones.  The children I know who took the exam all indicated that, with the exception of one or two of the later questions, they thought the test easy.  Statistically, children do well on the English portion of the national tests.

It is difficult to know what level of second language proficiency should be expected of 9 and 10 year old who have been learning a language since they were 6.  Certainly the format, brightly colored, clickable pictures with clear instructions, seems child-friendly and age appropriate.  The test is really a vocabulary test, asking them to manipulate objects, identify the names for pictures and answer simple comprehension questions based upon readings.  Although not complicated, some of the readings are quite long and do require the kids to focus for an amount of time.  The test requires no grammar, which is a shame.  Students are not asked to tell the difference between ‘on’ or ‘between’.  They do not have to identify the past tense of a regular verb.  This seems like a missed opportunity.

We will never really know how our children did, or even how the children in our school did as a whole.  Perhaps this is another missed opportunity.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on September 2, 2009 by 062n09

The landscape is littered with minor monuments.  With a long and lightly populated history, the west coast of Norway has accumulated a fair share of modestly crafted stuff – upright rocks where property boundaries lie, flat rocks laid over seasonal streams, piles of rocks on top of mountains and dead kings.  It goes without saying that any monument that wants to stick around in this land of wind and water better be made out of stone.

There are no palaces.  The churches are modest and of fairly recent date – although they often sit on ground hallowed for a millenium.  The tunnels and gunmounts made by the Germans during the war don’t really rise to the status of forts.  You have to look carefully to find the past in this place.  Often the oldest things don’t look as if they were crafted at all.  The stones the mark the foundations of remote huts could easily be mistaken for piles of rocks sent down from the mountains around them.  Moss has grown on and around them.  Hikers have borrowed stones to make fire rings.  Freezing and thawing have sent cornerstones further down the hill.

Permanent Guests

Posted in Immigration, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 1, 2009 by 062n09

If Anselm Hollo’s English translation of ‘Happy Birthday, Turk!’ is any indication, Jakob Arjouni is not a very good writer. Arjouni is the author of, among other things, hard-boiled detective stories centering around the activities of private investigator Kemal Kayankaya. Kayankaya, a Turk raised largely by ethnic Germans, drinks, brawls and fights crime in the immigrant neighborhoods and red light districts that spread out from the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof.

So far, so interesting. But while Kayankaya is supposed to be a lone wolf anti-hero he really just comes off as grumpy drunk. Some of this is Arjouni’s fault. Kayankaya’s rages are unpredictably and excessive; his drinking borders on the physically impossible. In type, he is more tragic mulatto than Philip Marlowe, wounded by the prejudices endemic in German society and tortured by his divided soul.

None of this really needs to doom Kayankaya as a character, although it doesn’t say much for Arjouni’s characterization skills. By contrast, Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole pulls off an ethnic Norwegian version of this shtick without making the reader want to join the people beating Harry up. But it doesn’t work for Kayankaya.

A lot of the blame seems to lie with the translator. In this novel, people say things like “For Chrissakes, stop that racket or I’ll call the cops” and ‘Put that thing down, sister, or I’ll blow your friend’s brains out.’ Interactions between characters are rendered ‘I tore myself from her embrace and got up. she looked at me, dumbfounded. I slapped her face. Where’s the wardrobe? Oh, you bastard…’

And so on..

But despite these weaknesses, the book as a certain appeal even beyond those who, like Arjouni, spent their teenage years drifting around the streets leading off from Kaizerstrasse. While the EU pours money into programs dedicated to encouraging young people to develop a European identity beyond that found in their passports, it largely ignores the many who already possess a sense of themselves as supernational or postnational. Of course, these people are generally not as bent out of shape about it as Kayankaya. In fact, more of them are like the non-Turkish Arjouni, sucessful at what they do and no less at peace with themselves than anyone else. But, postnational characters like Kayankaya do highlight the hypocrisy lurking behind the EU’s celebratory rhetoric. While it is fine for some people – Germans, French, heck even the Poles – to have identities that transcend borders, it is simply unacceptable and potentially destabilizing for others to do so. And while young EU country citizens are encouraged to travel, learn languages, and forge international friendships, the children of legal third country nationals have to cross their fingers and hope immigration lets them stay in their country of birth.

Next time, I will read Arjouni with another translator. Or in German.


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 31, 2009 by 062n09

Among other things, Teodor Jozef Konrad Korzeniowski wrote a novella called “Heart of Darkness”.  The story gained quite a bit of notoriety and, due at least in part to its length, is often included in the sorts of anthologies of English literature that are read – or at least were read – by ambitious students throughout the English speaking world.

The story has merits beyond its convenient length (being neither too short nor too long).  It concerns a voyage up the Congo River which is interrupted by the attempted evacuation of a brutal and enigmatic station agent Mr. Kurtz.  In a larger sense, the story is about the confrontation between empire/commerce and the lands and peoples it rules and exploits.  In the choice of theme and evocative language, the story resembles J.M. Coetzee’s memorable novel Waiting for the Barbarians.  In both books, the narrators (Marlowe in Korzeniowski’s story) appear as the face of empire when the wind blows gently, men of general decency who are forced to confront their own imbrication in the horror of colonialism.

Korzeniowski is, of course, not the name of the author of his story.  The Polish immigrant published under the anglicized form of his two middle names, Joseph Conrad.  Short and easy to spell, Conrad worked as a pen name and allowed the author to join the canon as an important English author.  Korzeniowski’s adoption of a pseudonym was in line with the times.  Many Central and Eastern European immigrants to England and the Americas adopted new names, or simplified spellings of the old ones, upon immigrating to new countries.

Most name changers operated out of principles of economy; they were saving on letters and time spent explaining to people how to spell their names.  Jozef, J. O. Z…. oh bother, Joseph, just put down Joseph.  Some were probably out to make a clean break after moving from a land where they were hunted, hounded or starved.  Some were no doubt hiding, attempting to escape either notoriety or detection by the authorities.

The colonial enterprises so terrifyingly evoked in Heart of Darkness have their  share of name changers as well. Cypriot Englishman Costas Georgiou ended his career as mercenary soldier of fortune ‘Colonel Callan’ through execution by the Angolan government.  The two Norwegians, Joshua French and  Tjostolv Moland on trial for murder in the Congo, worked and travelled under the aliases John Hunt and Mike Callan.  The trial of French and Moland has been heavily covered by the Norwegian press although this coverage has largely shied away from any in depth investigation of the two mens’ involvement with the Norwegian owned private security firm SIG or any real examination of what a young man from Aust Agder might have actually been up to running around Central Africa using a nom de guerre that echoes that of an executed British mercenary.  The carnival lunacy of their trial – the accused sit on white plastic lawn furniture and have been accused of trying to steal an Okapi under orders from a Drammen newspaper photographer – and the appalling prison conditions have allowed the press to ignore the more troubling implications of the Norwegian based and owned version of Blackwater International.  Norway is not a colonial power  – Conrad’s novel features a psychopathic Dane and a phlegmatic Swede but no Norwegians – but it now stands accused with French and Moland of conducting or authorizing or allowing intelligence mission in the service of …someone or some thing… in an area plagued by border fighting and atrocities committed by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

Here is a story in search of an author, under any name.

Governing the Governess

Posted in Immigration, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on August 21, 2009 by 062n09

The authors of Migration, Citizenship, and the European Welfare State argue that the EU’s development of coordinated economic policies stands in contrast to the disarray and confusion that characterizes European approaches to migrants and migration.  While a (mostly) common currency and single market policies have had concrete and often positive effects on the economies of member states and their trading partners, they do so at the expense of the non-EU migrant workers (documented and undocumented) who provide the labor power needed by an aging population.  Europe, the authors argue, has lacked the will to tackle issues related to migration in a coordinated fashion, resulting in a hodge-podge of contradictory, discriminatory, self-defeating and expensive attempts on the parts of each individual country to deal with guest workers and asylum seekers.  The lack of humane and consistent policies has left Europe once again contemplating the ‘specter of the camp’.

An example of how ad hoc legislation can work its mischief was provided today by an article in Aftenposten concerning the regulations governing au pairs.  It’s election time in Norway and several of the major parties have suggested tightening the legislation allowing families to import au pairs or eliminating the au pair program entirely.  In brief, Norway currently allows families to sponsor a worker  – defined by Immigration as ‘a young person’ – to perform light housekeeping and childcare in exchange for room, board and language instruction.  The purpose, the Immigration website assures us with a straight face, is to provide the young person with the opportunities to develop their  language skills and to learn about Norwegian culture.

Researcher Cecelie Øien has correctly pointed out that all this bit about language development and culture is at best secondary.  Wealthy Norwegians import au pairs because they want inexpensive house help.  Period.  Once in Norway, the girls and women (and we are speaking about girls and women – 2 out of 3 from the Philippines) are entirely at the mercy of their ‘host’ families with little ability to negotiate their working hours or select their tasks and no choice but to live in their employer’s house.

Unlike the politicians, however, Cecelie Øien suggest expanding  and regularizing the au pair program – in effect transforming the legal status of the au pairs from bogus gap year student to documented unskilled migrant worker.  This transformation would allow the au pair to access the rights and services given to other low wage workers in Norway.  They would be able to change employers, choose their own dwelling and negotiate their working conditions.

Predictably, if disappointingly, the politicians have declared Øien’s proposals a non-starter.  Norway needs skilled workers not unskilled ones, they claim.  This may be so but as the ‘nanny’ scandals in the U.S.  should have demonstrated, the market for low-wage house help will not go away and pretending that the maid is here to work on her Norwegian language skills is a cruel kind of exploitation.