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Adam Usk's Secret

Adam Usk's Secret

Steven Justice
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Adam Usk's Secret
    Book Description:

    Adam Usk, a Welsh lawyer in England and Rome during the first years of the fifteenth century, lived a peculiar life. He was, by turns, a professor, a royal advisor, a traitor, a schismatic, and a spy. He cultivated and then sabotaged figures of great influence, switching allegiances between kings, upstarts, and popes at an astonishing pace. Usk also wrote a peculiar book: a chronicle of his own times, composed in a strangely anxious and secretive voice that seems better designed to withhold vital facts than to recount them. His bold starts tumble into anticlimax; he interrupts what he starts to tell and omits what he might have told. Yet the kind of secrets a political man might find safer to keepthe schemes and violence of regime changeUsk tells openly.

    Steven Justice sets out to find what it was that Adam Usk wanted to hide. His search takes surprising turns through acts of political violence, persecution, censorship, and, ultimately, literary history. Adam Usk's narrow, eccentric literary genius calls into question some of the most casual and confident assumptions of literary criticism and historiography, making stale rhetorical habits seem new.Adam Usk's Secretconcludes with a sharp challenge to historians over what they think they can know about literatureand to literary scholars over what they think they can know about history.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-9105-6
    Subjects: History, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Literary criticism not long ago offered itself the cheering thought that it might stop chasing symptoms and “just read,” that it might attend to what books know and advertently say rather than poke at what they inadvertently disclose.¹ These impulses arrive from time to time; a generation ago, Paul de Man suggested that we might try “mere” reading;² and cultural studies in its dogmatic moods preferred surface to depth.³ But the trenchancy, good faith, and fresh intelligence of this instance was liberating, and the field responded.⁴ “Just reading” proposed a return to literature’s “surface,” and so, despite its different program,...

  4. Chapter 1 The First Secret
    (pp. 11-27)

    I have said that Adam Usk seems to keep a secret, and I have proposed to look for it. One answer has anticipated me. Independently and almost simultaneously, two scholars (mentioned at the end of the Introduction) discovered that Usk omitted from his story an important autobiographical detail. One of them, Andrew Galloway, has brilliantly defined the curious tonal effects of Usk’s prose:

    By turns, his Chronicle reeks of pride, rebellious criticism, guilt, and penance, especially the last. The literal social meanings and bases of his penitential moments are, however, blurred in favor of delineating the writer’s penitential posture abstracted...

  5. Chapter 2 The Story of William Clerk
    (pp. 28-38)

    In the last chapter, something that looked like a secret Usk had deliberately concealed proved to be written all over his book, a treacherous and self-aggrandizing act he had reason to regret but not to hide. Deeds done, however, are not the only cause of guilt. Might Usk’s secret have to do not with something he had done, but with something he could too easily do, or even something he knew and could too easily say? Writers who fear censorship come to regard their own pages with the censor’s eye.¹

    Under the year 1401, Usk tells of an unlucky conversation...

  6. Chapter 3 Fear
    (pp. 39-52)

    The previous chapter showed that Usk did not seem to fear his thoughts’ being heard. Perhaps he was afraid to hear them himself. The office and perquisites that assure us that he probably would know and probably would not bungle the report of Clerk’s execution—his longstanding service to the Court of Chivalry and his more recent service to Henry’s regime—might seem to make him uncomfortably complicit with it; in just such a way, we are told, Thomas Hoccleve was sometimes so busy trying not to know what he knew that he induced in himself the thoughts he wanted...

  7. Chapter 4 Prophecy
    (pp. 53-65)

    Anent that, think again about those freakish eggs, shaped like heads and served up to the royal valets in London.¹ Their juxtaposition with the gruesome story of Hall’s execution effects a “tincture” that dyes the minor curiosity with the suggestion of violent death.² What the real valets (if there were real valets) thought is irrecoverable, but the report implies that a weird portentousness afflicts the characters in Usk’s chronicle as much as it afflicts the chronicle itself: if Usk saw only one of the eggs, he was not present when they were served, but if he saw that one, then...

  8. Chapter 5 Utility
    (pp. 66-81)

    For knowing the future does not require prophecy; it requires at most history. What has happened already in Usk’s world—the rhythm of actions and of their worldly consequences—tells all anyone needs to know about what will happen henceforth. A disillusioned gnomic wisdom widely diffused during the Middle Ages claimed that the possible patterns of habitual action and habitual consequence in the world were finite in number and stylized in form. Another person’s story is a “life tried out.”¹ What has happened to others warns what may happen to us: “another’s life is our teacher.”² A “life” is a...

  9. Chapter 6 Grief
    (pp. 82-95)

    In Usk, then, you don’t need prophecy, because history tells you all the future’s secrets you need to know. But then (this is the next turn) it does the job so easily that you don’t need history either: the future, like the present, is so brutal and obvious that it can have no secrets. What is coming is more of the same, plus more hopeful and pointless efforts to avoid it.

    The world in Usk’s chronicle does not have a narrative so much as an invariant drive toward ruin. The image of a world tottering, physically unbalanced, is commonplace: Bishop...

  10. Chapter 7 Theory of History
    (pp. 96-110)

    At the end of the previous chapter I quoted Usk’s account of Arundel’s death. This painful passage follows it:

    His death I saw, while in London that very night, in a vision: leaving his whole household behind and wearing short garments, as if to travel far, he was running very quickly, and alone. As I labored with all my might to follow him, he handed me a wax candle and said, “Break this in the middle between the two of us,” and, so saying, disappeared from my sight. As I woke from that, I realized that we had been separated...

  11. Chapter 8 Adam Usk’s Secret
    (pp. 111-131)

    At this point, the attempt to track down what thoughts or expectations or knowledge are hidden in Usk’s secret reaches a dead end of sorts: its trail leads to no more than unverifiable guesses about what might have been in his mind. But then this is what a secret by definition is. More to the point, this failure points to its own solution: track the secret all the way to its end, to the intellectual structure that is built around it, reduce it to the trivial alternatives we reached at the end of the last chapter, choose to believe one...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 132-142)

    So there is Adam Usk’s secret: a trick of style by which he could make his chronicle act like an unwilling informant, imperfectly concealing knowledge too dangerous to declare. He had discovered the resources for it in the rhetorical discipline of his professional community, a discipline that enforced a habit of predictable decorum, performing conclusion at moments of conclusion and signaling authorial control thereby. By disrupting those concluding gestures, Usk found, he could perform surprise and failure instead; he could create the illusion that authorial control has been ambushed by panic, that his choices are really accidents, and the ostensible...

  13. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. 143-144)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 145-192)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 193-206)
  16. Index
    (pp. 207-212)
  17. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 213-213)