Monday, November 20, 2006

Looking Forward to Old English (and its Study)

It’s one of those times I’ve learned to really enjoy in the medieval blogosphere – we all seem to be thinking about the same things lately. Eileen Joy over at In the Middle has sparked a wide ranging discussion of futurity and the work of medieval studies. Dr. Virago added her thoughts with her moving post on Speaking for the Dead, and Heo Cwaeth, a while back, also had some important thoughts.

I’ve been off-blog for a bit – room mates moving out, moving in, and setting up house pretty much consumed my life – but I’m aiming for something a little less “cooked” here, assuming I understand the terminology that’s being used over at In the Middle (I’ve a penchant for stealing terms that I like. I like how I understand this). So some not-too-worked-over thoughts that have been ruminated on while moving heavy objects, falling asleep on the IKEA bus, and assembling IKEA furniture.

In a comment to my last post (was it really nearly two weeks ago now? Wow.), JJC made the following comment:

The project of translating that which does not yet exist (and yet the existence of which is, it seems, indisputable) is a more difficult version of the the medievalist's plight: to translate the languages that did exist, but because they were alive and because they endured for a long time and because they exist now only in deceptive fragments, to be forced into translations that are always out of time, always stories about petrified remains and not living, changing things. Or even more frustrating, to attempt to translate languages and learn in that process that our knowledge is doomed to recede, not grow.

Meanwhile, in my email inbox, I received a note from LJS, a poet and infrequent commenter on various blogs. He’d been catching up on his blog reading and saw the link to the letter JJC wrote to Capitol One via the Tiny Shriner Review. He’d seen a comment I’d made, about my orals, and it led to a moment of real wonder, for him and subsequently for me:

But I also noticed this comment from you: “Makes the prospect of starting reading for orals a little daunting -- a whole year to rework what I thought I'd learned about the Middle Ages. Then again, that's kind of why I'm looking forward to it.”

And I misread it the first time (skipping ahead) as referring to the Middle Ages. And there seems something so possible and inevitable in the fact that one might -- indeed, might have to -- look forward to the Middle Ages.

(And I realize this operates in two senses: an Anglo-Saxonist looking forward as her texts' writers and readers might have done; and a modern commentator rethinking her relationship to the past and looking forward to the Anglo-Saxon era rather than looking back, from the Castle of Teleological Supremacy and Capitol One cards)


LJS is hitting on something that I think is all tied up in the quote from LeGuin I mentioned in my last post, and moreover, in Eileen’s reaction to it, which I quote here:

regardless of the past-ness of the historical artifact, whether the "Beowulf" manuscript or Hadrian's Wall--it is primarily here with us right now, and is therefore also modern in some way [much like human beings, with their biological genealogy, are both historically-shaped and moving along in the present]. While it might be important to know how and for what reasons "Beowulf" was written down in the tenth or early eleventh century, a more urgent question for me is: why would anyone want to read it, or write it [again] now?

Putting all these ideas in conversation – and moreover, putting them in conversation with the idea Dr. V picks up in her post “Speaking for the Dead” – it seems like there is, in fact, a way of seeing the world differently – not from the Castle of Teleological Supremacy but from the basis that we do, in fact, have something in common with those people of the past we study. That we can, in fact, learn from the past. And I don’t mean that in the sense of “those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat their mistakes,” though that certainly matters deeply. Rather, I wonder if there’s a way of learning from the past that comes closer to what LJS suggests, closer to giving a reason for Eileen’s question of “why would anyone want to read [Beowulf], or write it (again) now?” Is there a way to think of looking forward to the Middle Ages as “an Anglo-Saxonist looking forward as her texts' writers and readers might have done; and a modern commentator rethinking her relationship to the past and looking forward to the Anglo-Saxon era”? Again, not to recreate the past, and not to live in it in any way, not even nostalgically. But isn’t there a way of seeing the continuity of the past and the present without a teleological fallacy coming into play? Isn’t there something instructive in the very grammar of the English language that, should we learn to read it, we might be able to see as part of what’s happening in the present? Or is that a teleological wolf in sheep’s clothing?

JJC’s comment, to return to where I began my endless quotation, suggested that the medievalist’s plight is this – “to translate the languages that did exist, but because they were alive and because they endured for a long time and because they exist now only in deceptive fragments, to be forced into translations that are always out of time, always stories about petrified remains and not living, changing things.” It’s true – our stories are always about the petrified remains of a past so long dead that it seems it has no bearing on the living. But I wonder if it isn’t also like the enta geweorc of the elegies. I don’t believe (ok, everyone who knows my work cover your ears now, I’m talking about it again!) that the pat ending of the Wanderer is the real story, if you will. He’s transported, teleported almost, into a Christian reality that doesn’t seem to follow on the existential musings of the poem as it progresses – as it was spoken, and as it was (perhaps) lived. Thus, although the walls of the poem are a site of mourning, and of loss, they don’t only stand for that. Rather, they could also be the past that persists in the present – and as Eileen said above (and in comments below), the past is always still present, with us – here and now. Walls can speak, in their own way – if we can learn to listen.

And now to student meetings, which shall prevent further musings on this subject until tomorrow, when I make my escape for the holiday!

8 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

Another beautifully meditative post on the intersections of past, present, and future--just what I have come to regularly expect from this blog, however sporadic the musings. A wonderful essay on this very subject, by the way, that takes as its main focus "The Wanderer," is Roy M. Liuzza's "The Tower of Babel: 'The Wanderer' and the Ruins of History" [Studies in Literary Imagination 36.1 (2003)]. Check it out--you won't regret. More later, and cheers, Eileen

HeoCwaeth said...

Thanks for the mention, but I think 'important thoughts' is a very generous characterization of my rant.

Though I am really enjoying the OEiNY, In the Middle, and Quod She conversation about the future in, and futurity within, the studies of the Middle Ages.

And I love your assessment of the Wanderer. I've always had a problem with the 'envelope' in that poem, for just the reason you stated. In treating the 'transitoriness of this life,' it seems to me that the speaker is negotiating a space for those outside of history/community to speak and be heard in the here and now (as it exists in the poem). The Christian interpretation at the end feels just a little too simple an explanation of the very complicated ideas the speaker was conveying.

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