Wan-Chuan Kao
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Memorialisation in white
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This chapter adopts the Middle English term defaute as theory and methodology, arguing that Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess exhibits two distinct modes of whiteness refracted through space and time. The first is a normative whiteness produced by the linkage of the courtly lady and male subjectivity, which makes possible a productive erasure of local and individual difference through a deliberate evocation of an international, universalising courtliness. The second is a particularising and literalising mode of whiteness that is emphatically ‘English’. The poem opens with the lady White but ends on a white castle on a hill that allude to John of Gaunt and his deceased wife Blanche. It is a whiteness that acknowledges its own limits or borders, be they linguistic, cultural or proto-national. The naming and mapping of the lady White appears to feed into the structuring of a universal and ideologically secure voice and identity coded as white, masculine and aristocratic. Yet the Dreamer’s literalising and Englishing mode of questioning the Man in Black interrupts the normal unfolding of consolation and insists on the local and the particular, for they are the specific tags of memories that shape subjectivity. The two male writing selves, practitioners of white fragility as a reactionary politics, present whiteness as embodying the universalising and the particularising modes of aristocratic self-fashioning. The Chaucerian ‘I’ is what I would term a ‘white fragiliac’, the masculine subject in mourning who must write his way out of whiteness as an extreme state of paralysis and death.

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