Among Schoolchildren: Joyce's "Night Lesson" and Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe

Boldrini, Lucia. 2014. Among Schoolchildren: Joyce's "Night Lesson" and Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe. In: Haun Saussy and Gerald Gillespie, eds. Intersections, Interfaces, Interdisciplines: Literature with Other Arts. 30 Brussels: Peter Lang, pp. 35-46. ISBN 9782875741561 [Book Section]

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In his late fourteenth-century Treatise on the Astrolabe, Chaucer teaches his ten year-old son Lewis about astronomy, how to use the astrolabe, how to measure the position of the sun or the latitude of Oxford; the introduction ends with an invocation to the will of God and “his Moder the Maid” – perhaps unwittingly linking astrology and geometry (literally, the measuring of the earth) to the mystery of birth and of origins. In the ‘Night Lesson’ of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the children learn their ‘triv and quad’, and end with difficult geometrical problems and a quest for the mother-triangle, and their own (non-virgin) origin. In both cases, then, under the guise of childish lessons, the authors tackle questions about the cosmos, about universal knowledge, and about origins; crucially, in both cases the lessons in the art of measuring the earth or the position of the planets give rise to a reflection about language and languages, on how knowledge is transmitted and translated, and links this inquiry to the maternal and the paternal, to the celebration both of language and of the ineffable.

These links are not new nor exclusive to the two authors: although Chaucer and Joyce address them in very peculiar forms, both of them, in their different ways (but also in peculiarly similar ways), belong to a tradition that has a long history, and includes, for example, Macrobius’ very influential fifth-century commentary on Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, like Chaucer’s Treatise addressed to Macrobius’s young son; and, in times much closer to Joyce and to us, Husserl’s The Origins of Geometry (written in 1936 and first published in 1939, the same year in which Finnegans Wake appeared), in which geometry is an occasion for the inquiry into origins, and – like Joyce’s and Chaucer’s texts – is linked to the question of language, of translation, and of transmission of knowledge.

In all these cases a correlation of issues emerges which includes, among other things, a reflection on the language that we employ in order to teach about the world, the stars, the heavens and the universe; and also the sexualization of education and knowledge about origins and in particular the linking of one’s origins from the mother’s body with our place in the cosmos. Socrates after all already knew that maieutics was a pedagogy, a philosophy, and the art of drawing knowledge, as well as children, out of the mother’s womb – an art and a technique that requires geometry to measure her cervix, he fundus, her womb: geometry has always had to do with knowledge and with children.

Item Type:

Book Section

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Joyce Finnegans Wake Chaucer Treatise on the Astrolabe Geometry, Astronomy, Literature

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


June 2014Published

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Date Deposited:

11 Aug 2014 06:50

Last Modified:

22 Jun 2020 15:50


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