Tuesday, May 30, 2006


So I've finally made the journey south. This summer -- or at least, for the month of June -- I'm working in the library at the small, southern university I graduated from in 2004, which is conveniently located in the town I grew up in, not ten minutes from my parents' house. It's a job I've done for five summers running now, and I love it. I made my first trip in to campus today, and there was something so indescribably comforting about coming back to the library I practically lived in as an undergrad.

The familiarity of the library, and the books it houses, are important to me -- it's centering. My old room at home is the same way. It's always so interesting to be in my room again, with all the books that didn't make the trek north with me. It's a good chance to remember all the things that used to be so compelling for me. Tonight, instead of finishing the reading for the upcoming WVU Old English summer seminar (which starts Thursday, I'm so psyched!), I've been browsing through Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

Once upon a time, before I'd discovered teaching literature was a possible career goal, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. Granted this was in 8th and 9th grade -- before I realized that A.)It required Math, B.)It required really hard theoretical Math, and, most importantly, C.)I can't do anything beyond relatively simple algebra. I hadn't yet been moved from honors math classes to a course that basically repeated the semester of Algebra II that I bombed. By college, I'd learned my lesson, of course -- an English/History double major, I managed to convince a wary curriculum committee that my two semesters of music theory were more than sufficient to cover the basic math requirement. But in those blissful years before I discovered that Science is usually Math, I was convinced I would study the stars.

Looking back, my "engagement," if it can be called that, with astronomy was pretty obviously a cover for something else, something far more familiar to my actual career path. I didn't love the idea of studying the stars as much as I loved studying the stories that those stars could tell, and that were told about them. It was, in a way, an evolution of my first interest in mythology, and the stories of the constellations. I lived to go to planetariums on school fieldtrips when I was younger, where they'd tell stories and you'd see the night sky projected on a curved ceiling. After going to planetariums became distinctly "uncool" I would sit outside for hours looking at the sky. I read everything I could get my hands on about stories of how constellations came to be.

Now, paging through Sagan's book again years later (I think I read it when I was 16), I realize what it was that struck me most. There's a possibility in Sagan that seems driven by his ability to weave a story out of the world, and out of the universe. I honestly have no idea what kind of regard the scientific community has for him today. I've only managed to re-read snippets of him myself this evening -- Old English calls, and I'm eager to get to work on that as well. But I've paused for a moment over some of the more poetic moments of Sagan and realized that sometimes I'm not so sure literature and science are not in the same business, to some degree at least. There are more numbers in hard-core science, of course. But the science that I've loved -- whether it contained stories of stars or stories of dinosaurs -- isn't number driven. It's narrative driven. The science that has moved me was never a question of gravitational forces or the mechanisms behind a pulsar. The science I loved was always a story -- the beginning of a universe in a Big Bang, and the red shift we can read to see that it's still moving.

About halfway through the book, Sagan writes: "What are the stars? Such questions are as natural as an infant's smile. We have always asked them. What is different about our time is that at last we know some of the answers. Books and libraries provide a ready means for finding out what those answers are. In biology there is a principle of powerful if imperfect applicability called recapitulation: in our individual embryonic development we retrace the evolutionary history of the species. There is, I think, a kind of recapitulation that occurs in our individual intellectual developments as well. We unconsciously retrace the thoughts of our remote ancestors. Imagine a time before science, a time before libraries. Imagine a time hundreds of thousands of years ago. We were then just about as smart, just as curious, just as involved in things social and sexual. But the experiments has not yet been done, the inventions had not yet been made. It was the childhood of genus Homo. Imagine the time when fire was first discovered. What were human lives like then? What did our ancestors believe the stars were?"

He goes on, but I think the part that struck me is there. We retrace our common footprints. We share something, even with those in the distant past, and we can hope to share something with those in the distant future. It's a connectedness -- a possibility. For some reason I want to press Sagan on the idea of answers -- to quote e e cummings, I'd have to wish the world "Always the beautiful answer that asks a more beautiful question." But that's beside the point -- and I daresay that science already does. There's another short section that I marked when I read Cosmos last, all those years ago which is particularly striking: "Part of the resistance to Darwin and Wallace derives from our difficulty in imagining the passage of the millennia, much less the aeons. What does seventy million year mean to beings who live only one-millionth as long? We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever."

This all connects, strangely enough, to Old English, and to my career choice as medievalist. Summer always feels a little lost for me -- too much time to think, too much time to reflect. It's always a necessary reflection, even if it's often not terribly comfortable. But in the busyness of an academic semester, I'm often too busy doing to wonder what the doing is worth. However, when I find myself back at summertime, settling in to my work on my own once more -- there's time to doubt what worth there can be in reading old books. There's another post in here somewhere, about a series of articles in an old volume of PMLA that I read a few weeks ago, but for tonight I have to leave it -- I need more time to figure that one out. Not that I'll ever figure "it" out, per se. I plan to be negotiating this one for years. But for now I think, in re-reading Sagan, it's that one line that catches me most -- We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.

It recalls to mind one of my first experiences of really enjoying Old English. I remember reading Wanderer the first time, and marvelling at the depth of the loss that poem expresses so poignantly -- the way in which it could resonate with me, a college student living at least a thousand years later on a continent that hadn't been discovered at the time the poem was composed. How even in the Old English, the lines expressing that loss could still speak, still have, in a sense, a voice -- Hu seo þrag gewat, / genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære. How that time darkened, vanished under night's helm, as if it never were.

I heard, and hear, in those half lines a voice that wants to live on beyond its singular life. Reading it was a really changing moment. To reference my favorite modern author of late (Forster) -- "Only Connect." For me, those lines inthe wanderer were a moment of connection -- artificial, perhaps, and never really complete, but still there. And if you can connect to something 1000 years old, how can you help connecting to something that lives in the same time as yourself? Something which ultimately passes in the twinkling of an eye? A butterfly -- or a human being?

Ursula LeGuin once said that a story "is one of the most basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding." The story science could tell us is that we're connected. To the planet we're killing every day. To the acres of rain forest we've annihilated. To the children dying, in Africa, in Asia, in streets all over the world. To soldiers and civilians dying in wars they didn't start or want, for causes as nebulous as a new-formed galaxy.

Thinking about memorial day yesterday and the posts of Ancrene Wiseass and Heo Cwaeth on the subject, at the events all over the world and at the tragic consequences of the actions of one species on not only the many but on itself -- stories become all the more important for me. They can conceal facts with fiction, certainly, and that's a hazard. But what I hear in so many of the stories of the past (though not all), and the present is a call to recognition -- oddly Levinasian in one sense, but it can be as simply stated as a line from the Lion King -- we are all connected. It's an odd lesson, given that its origins gathered from sources as distant as Carl Sagan and the Wanderer. But maybe it's one that's worth passing on.

(more old english next time -- perhaps even from WVU!)


Dr. Virago said...

That was really lovely! I'd never thought of Howards End and The Wanderer together before, but I love them both and you've helped me "only connect" two things I hadn't before. Wonderful!

Please blog from and about the WVU seminar. I was going to be there, too, but after two weeks in my parents' home and after my mother's death, I just had to withdraw -- too much to deal with (especially since I'm moving this month as well). So now you know: I'm the person who won't be there. And I'm bummed. But I'd love to hear all about it and live vicariously -- I did most of the reading already. (I'm not an Anglo-Saxonist, but I teach OE texts.)