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Chaucer: Merciless Narcissism. Psychoanalytic Criticism

Psychoanalytic concepts such as fear of intimacy, Oedipal fixation, inferiority complexes, and defense mechanisms have become part of our everyday lives and are in such common use that most of us feel we know what they mean without even having them defined. This superficial familiarity with psychoanalytic terminology might be a response to the effects of social media culture in which anyone can have access to the myriad of psychological self-diagnostic techniques at the ease of one click. Despite the simplistic and often superficial understanding of psychoanalytic concepts offered by the internet and social media today, we cannot deny the fact that psychoanalysis has become a prominent lense through which millions of people around the world are interpreting reality. Therefore, we can use psychoanalytic criticism to read works of anything that has narrative content. In fact, it would be especially intriguing to review poetry written in Middle English to trace how (and if) contemporary theories of the psyche differ since the 15th century. Psychoanalytic reading of “Merciless Beauty: A Triple Roundel” by Geoffrey Chaucer, specifically, the word “daunǧẹ̄r” from line 16, might give an unexpected insight into the potential presence of borderline-narcissistic personality, while the triptych structure of the poem reflects the narrator’s stages of healing from narcissistic abuse. Here is the poem in Middle English:

The word “daunǧẹ̄r”, despite its deceiving likeness with the word “danger”, have eight meanings in Middle English which can potentially allow us to look deeper into the psyche of the narrator’s ladylove and extract an unexpected psychological disorder which changes the theme of the poem from being a mourning of unrequited love to a confession of the victim of a narcissistic abuse. Although it is controversial to use psychoanalysis to understand the behavior of literary characters because literary characters are not real people with real psyche; yet, when we psychoanalyze literary characters, we are not suggesting that they are real people but that they represent the psychological experiences of human beings who illustrate real-life issues. Thus, below the surface level of the narrator's sufferings caused by the unrequited love, we can attempt to psychoanalyze the roots of the mercilessness and determine why it was such a traumatic experience for the narrator. Line 16 of the poem states that mercilessness of beauty is due to the power of daunger, “for Daunger halt your mercy in his chaine”. Norton Chaucer Textbook translates “daunger” as hauteur, standoffishness, while Middle English Compedium offers eight definitions that can be grouped into four categories: 1) domination, 2) resistance; 3) obligation, and 4) threat. Thus, not only “Merciless beauty” exhibits baffling human behavior, but even definitions of daunger that controls her ability to be merciful have conflicting multiple definitions. In other words, we get different motives for her mercilessness each time we integrate a new definition into the context. The only thing that is clear about the motives of her behavior is that she completely lacks mercy which is due to her inability to escape the power of the daunger. Additionally, it is the only word in the poem, besides “Love” and “Nature” that is capitalized, while not being the first word in the line, which points either to its function as an allegorical substitution for another lover or having the central place in deciphering the poem's meaning; yet, further analysis points to the latter.

According to the clinical social worker specializing in testing narcissistic personality disorder, Terry Eisenberg Carrilio, the lack of mercy, or empathy, in human relationships is the first sign of a disordered self-social unit, while deliberate cruelty of rejection is very common among people who suffer from borderline-narcissistic personality. She explains this by stating that narcissistic individuals are uncertain of the boundaries between the self and others and “tend to shift from annexing another to feeling engulfed by another” (Carrilio, p.108).

We can notice this dynamic of “annexing” and “being engulfed” in the structure of the triple roundel itself. Merciless beauty annexes (captivates) the narrator in the first roundel and feels engulfed by him (rejects him) in the second roundel. If we apply psychoanalytic lense, we can hypothesize that Chaucer could have chosen the word daunger as an attempt to give a name to what was not known in the 15th century — borderline-narcissistic personality disorder. As explained by Carrilio, healthy individuals are unable to comprehend behavior of people suffering from this disorder, and, thus, get hurt because narcissistic individuals have difficulty establishing emotionally stable relationships and often engage in a series of crisis-oriented contacts. While dealing with, and especially loving a person with narcissistic personality disorder, mentally healthy individuals often experience that their “tormentors” are deeply unhappy individuals themselves due to the factors that are too complicated to explain in one word. This “unhappiness” of the merciless beauty is especially evident in the same line with the word daunger, when Chaucer mentions that her mercy is in chaine. This clarification points to the state of captivity by some forces rather than her conscious decision to be merciless. Just like the word daunger, narcissistic disorder takes on many façades which is why this disorder is one of the trickiest in diagnosis. Thus, we can draw parallels between the word daunger and narcissism because both of them share a similar complex and conflicting semantic nature. As Carrilio defined in her work, “narcissism is not simply a description of self-absorption, but indicates poor differentiation, with a tendency to include the world in the self or to lose the self in the world” (Carrilio, p. 108). This characteristic of “poor differentiation” is the same as we observe while applying different definitions of the word daunger. On the one hand, we can say that, just like any classical representation of a self-absorbed narcissist, merciless beauty is captivated by her own standoffishness and hauteur; on the other hand, we can apply other four categories of definitions of daunger and discover that there is some sort of domination, threat, obligation, or even resistance that keep her “in chains” which changes seemingly trivial unrequited love story into a story about narcissistic abuse which hurts both parties involved.

The triptych structure of the poem reflects simplified stages of journey through and healing from narcissistic abuse. The triple roundel consists of three parts: captivity, rejection, and escape. These parts are remarkably similar to the stages of the narcissistic abuse cycle identified by clinical therapists: idealization, devaluation, and rejection. The narrator has been caught in the idealization trap (captivity), devalued, and rejected in the second part (rejection) and now is forced to deal with the severe consequences of such abuse. As mentioned by Carrilio, the only way to break the cycle is to acknowledge its existence. In the escape part, we can see this acknowledgement through an identification of the word love with prison, “I fro Love escaped…been in his prison”. Here, the narrator admits that what he experienced had the façade of love; yet, was, in fact, a prison. Through applying psychoanalytic lense, we can hypothesize that just like the word daunger can function as the 15th century term for narcissism, prison in the last part can stand for abuse.

Although psychoanalytic criticism is quite controversial, we can’t deny that if psychoanalysis can help us better understand human behavior, then it must certainly be able to help us understand literary texts, which are about human behaviors. Extracting words with multiple and conflicting definitions, such as daunger from Chaucer’s “Merciless Beauty” and looking at it through the lense of psychoanalytic concepts opens an unexpected reading of the poem which makes the meaning of the poem more complicated than what we saw on the surface level. Whether the narrator of the poem actually went through the cycle of narcissistic abuse or not, the relationship between the word daunger and the rest of the poem offers plenty of evidence within the text that supports this notion. Yet, this word’s main importance is in the opening of a new method of using medieval poetry as the support of the unchangeable nature of the human psyche and human problems throughout centuries.

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