The House of Fame & digitisation.

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An ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden [image obtained from Gizmodo.co.uk].

I’d been toying with an idea around Chaucer’s House of Fame for a long while, after I heard Sarah Gorman give a talk entitled A Reconsideration of Chaucer’s House of Fame at the National Library of Wales’ From Glass Case to Cyberspace conference, back in 2014. I wrote a blog post shortly afterwards in which I discussed her presentation, and most particularly her emphasis on the materialisation of the spiritual. There was something in the perceived ephemerality of the ice and glass temple of Venus that struck me: an edifice of the imagination, within which the stories of the world can be found.

There are also the parallels to social media and other, more eloquent scholars have written on the same subject: Kate Thomas wrote an excellent blog post on how the poem discusses the transient nature of fame, and even preconceives social media platforms: “we ourselves are Fame and Aeolus”. Eleanor Parker agrees, determining that “Chaucer’s noisy, dizzying house of rumours will sound familiar to any user of Twitter” [Chaucer’s Post-Truth World]. Indeed, Chaucer gives us our first use of the word “twitter”, and our chatterings on that site, every word that is spoken, come into Fame’s house – or the Twitter domain: “and with thyn eres heren wel Top and tail, and everydel, That every word that spoken is Comth into Fames House, y-wis, As I have seyd; what wilt thou more?

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In the House of Fame the poet falls into a deep sleep, “to make lythe of that was hard.” On falling asleep, he finds himself in a glass temple adorned with images of the famous and their deeds. The poet realises that this is a temple to Venus, and a brass tablet on the wall seems to come alive to him and tell him stories from the Aeneid. Once this first book comes to an end, the poet ventures outside, but the terrain seems strange and he cannot see anything that might have been formed by Nature. He prays to Christ to save him: “‘O Crist.’ thoughte I, ‘that art in blisse, Fro fantom and illusioun Me save!’ and with devocioun Myn yen to the heven I caste.”

There are fascinating elements to the story that make one think of the digital: the making soft that was once hard, whilst the brass tablet on the wall that tells the poet stories sounds much like an iPad. It is telling that the poet’s plea is to save him from hallucination and illusion – perhaps we can read this as the plaintive cry of the academic utilising a digitised artefact? Furthermore, the many windows in the Castle might represent the many ways in which we can now view artefacts; or, myriad the digital interpretations. The disappearance of the famous names, once carved into the ice, are the data silos that were assumed to be repositories of knowledge.

The poet is plucked from this alien landscape (another instance of Borges map, perhaps? A facsimile of the digital domain?) by a golden eagle with long claws, that mocks him for his fear – the eagle stands as a digital citizen, who is entirely familiar with the terrain. The eagle encourages our nervous poet/end user to stop being so afraid, but his exhortation to “Awake!” sounds much like the plea to look beyond the narrative presented and to consider one’s own place in the social paradigm: here, our eagle could easily be asking the poet to #staywoke.

The eagle tells the poet that there is a natural place where things are best conserved. This is most assuredly the argument for digitisation strategies; and the digital domain, where: “Fame list to dwelle, Is set amiddes of these three, Heven, erthe and eek the see, As most conservatif the soun” and “every speche of every man, As I thee telle first began, Moveth up on high to pace Kindely to Fames place“.

The House of Fame has given much to us already in terms of its commentary on the nature of reputation, and our understanding of social media, so I am perhaps flogging that deceased horse once again. But I really do think that the House of Fame can also be shown as a metaphor for an understanding of the digital domain: an “artificial universe of immobility, fragility, transparency and magnification…” which, at one and the same time, also represents “fluctuation represented [in the poem] by water images: the water circles of the Eagle’s speech, the river, the ‘flood’ and the ‘see’ (748-51), the beating of the waves…” [Boitani, 1984].

An idle musing for a wet Wednesday evening, and a perhaps understandable fixation (by an ECR) on the concepts of longevity and fame.

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