In his account of the inadequacy of Art to Nature, Jean de Meun narrates a famous story about the painter Zeuxis. However, he makes one crucial alteration. Rather than selecting the finest aspects of five beautiful models in order to depict the perfection of Helen, Jean’s Zeuxis has attempted to depict Nature herself. This paper will consider the significance of this alteration to the story, arguing that it plays a crucial role in understanding Jean’s conception of the role of art. Particularly, I will argue that the alteration serves one of Jean de Meun’s primary concerns: a rejection of merely mimetic art in favour of a model of art devoted to the abstraction of universals from particulars. Zeuxis, in selecting the finest parts of his models for inclusion in his portrait of Nature, misrepresents his actual models in order to more perfectly represent the abstract beauty of which they are only a dim reflection. At another level, this represents a view of artistic representation that has been thoroughly assimilated to the epideictic rhetoric of praise and blame. The discussion of Zeuxis’s attempt to depict nature occurs in the middle of an extended example of the humility topos: however, Jean wishes not only to highlight the inadequacy of art to Nature, but also to suggest the potential irreverence and hubris involved in representation, and to articulate an alternative vision of poetics. The paper will conclude by considering Chaucer’s response to Jean de Meun’s account of the rivalry of art and nature, particularly through a consideration of Nature’s derisive comments about Zeuxis and other artists in The Physician’s Tale, and the discussion of art in The House of Fame.
When John Dryden declared, famously, that ‘Chaucer followed Nature every where,’ he brought to his discussion an understanding of nature that was peculiar to his age. By the same token, when contemporary readers bring the attitudes and practices of ecocriticsm to bear on Chaucer’s poetry, they are, of necessity, introducing an anachronistic notion of nature to their discussion. In this essay I will compare Chaucer’s representation of Nature in the Parliament of Fowls to comparable figures in Jean de Meun and Alain de Lille in order to gain a better understanding of what Chaucer meant by Nature, and what it would have meant for him to follow Nature.
This paper will survey Chaucer’s use of Aristotelian natural philosophy, with a particular focus on Aristotelian causation. I will examine his use of the Aristotelian ‘Prime Mover’ and the pagan universe, and the relationship between Aristotelian causation and the narrative structure of Chaucer’s poetry. I hope to show that Chaucer’s texts are structured so as to communicate aspects of the natural philosophies which appear within them. I will examine Chaucer’s attitude towards cause and effect, particularly in the ‘Knight’s Tale’, and consider whether his attitude changes and develops through his work.