Monday, January 29, 2007

Landscape of Desire

As part of the gender before 1500 class I'm auditing this semester, an optional reading for the class on Beowulf is Gillian Overing and Marijane Osborne's Landscapes of Desire: Partial Stories of the Medieval Scandinavian World (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994). I keep my Old English books in the study with me -- I've found I never know when I'll need one of the books that I've chosen, over the years, to own a copy of, and I find it helpful to have them always at the ready, sort of old critical friends I'm familiar with the language of.

Of all these books, Landscape of Desire is the one that has graced my shelves longest. In fact, I've owned it at long as I've been studying Old English -- scrawled on the inside of the front cover is my WFU email address. I'd imagine that this book was one of the reasons I started to love Old English -- mostly, though not entirely, because it was with my naive first reading of this book that I began to understand that the professor from whom I was learning Old English had a very different way of thinking about these texts. We may have all joked during class about dead languages and the difficulties of learning the declensions from the 9th edition of Sweet's Primer -- but at the end of each class I was certain that however long the language had itself been out of use, these texts were alive. It was this sense of life in the texts -- which extended itself to the import of old texts in thinking through seemingly "modern" problems -- that I think was the strongest and most important knowledge which I was given by my undergraduate adviser.

As I pulled Landscape of Desire from my bookshelf, I was taken back immediately to my first reading of the book, back in the days when I was still surprised to find that professors -- MY professors! -- wrote books. Landscape of Desire -- written by Overing and Osborne jointly but with each taking a distinct role -- was my entry into awareness of a larger critical conversation, one that took place outside of classrooms. More startling, I found that this conversation took place in a real world -- the world where Beowulf -- or at least the Beowulf poet -- might have known a sea voyage like his protagonist's. And further, these meditations on place were used to think about other issues, about the connections between the past and the present, and how that takes place in the literary landscape as well as its real-world counterpart.

Nothing too coherent to say, really, about this book, besides that it's an amazing read and well worth the time. So to close, a quote from the section "Places in Question" from the second chapter, "Geography in the Reader," and authored by Overing. Here she speaks of the intersections of the saga (in the case Egil's Saga and Laxdaela Saga) with the landscape, and with the landscape's renderings by those who capture it in paint or on film:

...To suggest, however, that the saga writer, Collingwood, and I have shared a point, or rather a "place," of meaning is not to state that we have all fixed the "same" point, or defined the nature of this or that place. To claim this degree of identity brings us back to the problem of the mysterious point of unity between observer and observed: namely, that it is very hard to talk about it, to describe or analyze it in terms of an ongoing relationship of place and self. More accessible is the idea that the experience of place is a shared form of meaning, more obviously an experience, more readily and indeed appropriately apprehended as a process rather than stasis. Our three viewpoints converge in an experience of place, an experience of others' constructions of place in conjunction with one's own, of present negotiation with the past. These images of places, whether or not they are "the very places," might then frame a kind of functional and dynamic interdisciplinarity, or a prism of semiotic convergence. They frame a newly created space where the literary, the historical, and the cultural are in ongoing negotiation with the geographical, the personal, and the material--a place where the writing of the saga inevitably continues. -- Landscape of Desire, pp 63-64.


In other news, I just finished my reading of Isidore's Etymologies -- and I suppose I will eventually have something to say about them. At the moment, all I can muster is "what a bizarre and fascinating text!" And given that I have a lot of reading due tomorrow -- perhaps more meditation on its strangeness will have to wait.


J J Cohen said...

I am a huge fan of Landscape of Desire (by that I don't mean that I am an obese fan, but that I like the book a lot). It's one of those works that never grows old. I remember my first reading of it: suddenly Beowulf and Grettir and murky history came to life in a way that never had for me before.