chapter  4
Beautiful Tomb/Beautiful Text
Pages 30

Writing, Jacques Derrida famously proclaimed, is a carrier of death because it replaces the utterance which requires the “self-presence in the breath” with a textual absence.2 Yet, as Walter Ong has argued, the writer’s text also acts as a surrogate for the author and thus ensures the immortality of the writer precisely because of its likeness to that which ultimately stands in for the dead writer-the tomb.3 I will argue that concerns about Chaucer’s tomb gave rise to an attempt to defeat the oppositions of death and life and absence and presence by its “restoration.” Ultimately troped as a national undertaking, this restoration of the tomb of the “Father of English Poesy” attempted to ensure the timelessness of England’s literary heritage and, by extension, the sublime nature of England herself. Yet even as the nineteenth century nurtured fantasies about the ability of memory to recover the authentic “Father,” the controversy over the “restoration” of the Chaucer memorial laid bare the contradiction at the heart of the memorial project that attended the recovery of Chaucer’s text. It highlighted the extent to which the memory of the father depended less on the restoration of already existing patrilineal bonds and more on the imagining of a history which never was. In Chaucer’s case, this imagined history was enabled by the disposition of the sepulchral sign, that which (as Harrison has suggested) signifies its own signification.4 The tomb erected in 1556, as we have seen, not only failed to mark the position of the original burial, but it was not the original marker. Ultimately, this “translation” of the body to a sixteenth-century tomb altered nineteenth-century perspectives toward the “marker.” But, initially, at least, the tomb had all the necromantic charm that we might expect of the “original” tomb. This is why, when the tomb began to decay-to fail to signify the coherent body that it stands for-it became a cause for some anxiety.