Friday, January 19, 2007

Who Weeps for the Wanderer?

Obscure Star Trek reference notwithstanding, I've been thinking a lot about The Wanderer again. It isn't really a surprise -- speaking to my old adviser over the winter break, the topic came up and I expressed my disbelief that five years later I'm still struggling with that poem (five years to the day on the 17th struggling with Old English, actually -- hard to believe it) -- her response was that it's like a disease. Irony aside, there's something to that statement.

I've loved Adrienne Rich since my senior year of college. I was a late-comer to American poetry, but when I read (and then wrote, compulsively) on Rich for my class on US Women Poets -- something struck me about her. I don't have The Dark Fields of the Republic in front of me, but the paper I wrote (still moldering on my hard drive, as do all my Wake Forest papers) was on the hideous consequences of the failure of language in Rich's Then or Now poems. Looking back at the paper, many things are quite fascinating, not least of which are the quotations from Rich's work that weren't from the series of poems I was focusing on. For example, from "Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman":

The necessity of poetry has to be stated over and over, but only to those who have reason to fear its power, or those who still believe that language is only words and that an old language is good enough for our descriptions of the world we are trying to transform.
My epigraph is similarly striking:
"When language fails us, when we fail each other
there is no exorcism. The hurt continues."
I claim that that last quote is from "A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far" but I can't seem to find the citation at the moment.

Language has always been a preoccupation of mine, then. Unsurprising -- I've written a senior honors thesis and a Master's thesis on the Wanderer, and both are caught up in questions of language, and to what end language is employed.

What bothers me still about the Wanderer and his plight -- is the question of subjectivity. At first, as I was thinking this through and before I decided to post it, I thought this was the old, haunting question -- is there a subject to be found in Old English poetry, in the theoretical sense of the term. But in the end I don't think that's what I'm worried about at all. My concern, rather, is with my own subjectivity -- the subjective way in which I approach a text, which though I might struggle to overcome it, is latent even in my most academic of writings. Hidden just beneath the surface of that subjectivity is another fear -- that I'm not "Finding the Wanderer," as I've claimed elsewhere in far more formal settings, but that I'm really more interested in finding myself in his world.

It seems to me that much of Old English poetry (and prose -- even the Grammar!) struggles with finding words -- words to speak of heroes and monsters, words to find a place in the world, words to describe a world that is always passing away, always lost even as its praise is articulated, words to describe a language (Latin) that is not, and never can be, one's own. It's a feeling I understand, as a human being who used to write creatively and as a young scholar of Old English. How do I articulate to a world that doesn't understand its own past why this matters so much? How do I find words to express what this old language can do? How do I find a way to reach out, past a millennium of history and linguistic change, and shifting cultural codes and values -- and bring the Wanderer, and his voice, into the present?

Elsewhere and autrefois in the blogosphere, at the blog of Dr. Virago, there has been thought provoking discussion of related issues, which were far more academic in their orientation. My intentions in revisiting the topic aren't really scholarly per se.

I suppose that when it comes to the Wanderer, I've taken an anonymous voice, and through my own experiences -- of Old English and medieval literature, to be certain, but also of loss and loneliness and pain -- found a common ground through which to engage a voice that comes to me out of the past. This old language isn't the language that Rich speaks of above, though it has been used that way before. I also think there's a distinction to be made between the Wanderer's elegiac tone and Rich's concern in another of her poems, "In those years":
In those years, people will say, we lost track
of the meaning of we, of you
we found ourselves
reduced to I
and the whole thing became
silly, ironic, terrible:
we were trying to live a personal life
and, yes, that was the only life
we could bear witness to
Perhaps I am treating literature too much as though it were life, but a part of me doesn't know how else to approach it. Is compassion for this figure we name "Wanderer" worth anything as a feeling? Is it even possible to feel such a thing?

I end with an affirmation: We do share a common ground with the Wanderer. Not because Old English is our linguistic forebear. Rather, because we, too, are mired in language-- exiled by, and so exiles in, language. We can't find him now, because it's too late -- but, to borrow a phrase from a poet I don't read too often (Philip Larkin), "we should be careful / of each other, we should be kind / while there is still time." If someone 1000 years ago could feel such evident loneliness and pain, and if we can feel compassion for him, how much easier is it to feel compassion for others in this time, in our world?

In my oddly Forsterian approach to scholarship then, perhaps compassion is not only possible but necessary to forge the connection with the past that allows one to bear witness to something other than "a personal life" -- to avoid the end Rich (fore)saw to such self-concern:
But the great dark birds of history screamed and plunged
into our personal weather
They were headed somewhere else but their beaks and pinions drove
along the shore, through rages of fog
where we stood, saying I
It isn't as simple as a distinction between personal and professional when it comes to reading the Wanderer, a distinction between thinking and feeling. It is, and must be both. In this old language, we can find a voice that was exiled from any sense of belonging, any sense of a live-able world that he could be a part of -- but still found strength to speak. By learning to hear him -- I hope there might be a chance that we can train our collective ears to hear other voices, other exiles. To realize they aren't so different after all -- to realize, finally, that like the Beowulf poet, we got our pronouns confused. It isn't they who are the exiles, the different, the outsiders -- it's all of us.

___
As a postscript, I should note that I tend to ignore the last lines of the Wanderer in my analysis of his psychological place in the body of the poem. That makes my analysis here rather convenient, but I think it also makes the poem far more interesting. And to be honest, I've never liked endings much.

3 comments:

Eileen Joy said...

Beautiful [as always] post. I worry a lot, in my own work, about whether or not compassion cultivated through art might also co-opt or pre-empt [or de-sensitize] the space for compassion for those living beside us [temporality-wise]. Do certain aesthetic devices [including language, arranged in various artistic ways] elicit and then also drain our capacity for empathy. Is empathy cultivated, say, through literary or historical studies, after which point [performances] it can be expended upon real beings alongside us, or does it become impossible to *feel* for *real* beings situated alongside us, since we have expended all of our imaginative emotions on imaginary characters and situations? I am currently in the process of editing a special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory [37.2/Summer 2007], devoted to BABEL's "premodern to modern humanisms" project, and in which issue several contributors are taking up this question in different ways, and I am really excited to see where each of their essays go. Robin Norris [Anglo-Saxonist trained at Toronto and currently teaching at Carleton in Ottawa] will be writing about how mourning "takes place" in literature [Iliad, Beowulf] but also what happens when someone [specifically, Cindy Sheehan, the anti-Iraq War protestor whose son died in the war] refuses to *stop* actual mourning. Maria Bachman, a Victorianist, will be writing an essay called "Who Cares?: Romantic Humanism and Narrative Attachment Disorder in Dickens's 'The Old Curiosity Shop'," where she plans to explore how the novel "trains" sentimental/empathetic feeling but also redirects it away from those [other imaginary characters but also real persons] who need it most. Michael Uebel will be looking at a similar issue [affective orientation] in relation to the education of students within the humanities.

It's okay to ignore the ending of "The Wanderer," if you want to. At least, I agree with the reasons why you choose to do that. Cheers.

anhaga said...

Sounds like an absolutely fascinating journal, Eileen. I'm definitely going to take a look when it comes out -- so please let me know!

Do certain aesthetic devices [including language, arranged in various artistic ways] elicit and then also drain our capacity for empathy. Is empathy cultivated, say, through literary or historical studies, after which point [performances] it can be expended upon real beings alongside us, or does it become impossible to *feel* for *real* beings situated alongside us, since we have expended all of our imaginative emotions on imaginary characters and situations? This is precisely the question I never know how to answer. It seems like so many Americans will, for example, be able to recite to you in detail what happened in the latest Stephen King novel or on Lost last week -- but have no idea the living conditions of people who exist *in our own time* -- are unaware of genocide and oppression in other countries, or even of the exploitations that occur in this one.

I'm particularly interested in the journal that you mentioned because this seems to be a peculiar problem of narratives. We construct our own stories of what's happening around us, and it's recognizing those stories *AS* narrative (as subjective, as open to interpretation and not only open to but requiring analysis) -- whether it's a history class or a news broadcast. I'm reminded of our discussion on JJC's blog, back during the summer, about that article that came out concerning Anglo-Saxon genetic codes and terming the phenomenon of their dominance Apartheid-like. I remember someone on Ansaxnet asking what they were supposed to do, if they were supposed to feel guilty about it.

And I wonder if that's another part of the question I'm trying to ask - if empathy or compassion for a (fictional or non-fictional) past is worth exploring, then why? Does it become less about the text or events in question and more about ourselves? Then again, in my completely non-theoretical understanding of it, doesn't empathy or compassion require us to recognize some reflection of ourselves in someone else, someone Other than ourselves, in order to feel it at all? Is that a bad thing?

Must get back to reading Isidore's Etymologies -- but more thoughts later. I feel like I need to do more reading. I'm also convinced that mourning has a lot to do with all of this (per the article you mentioned by Robin Norris, which sounds spectacular), as does love. And of course, if there's mourning and love, there must be Butler and Derrida. But that's another post.

Eileen Joy said...

Anhaga, you write:

"And I wonder if that's another part of the question I'm trying to ask - if empathy or compassion for a (fictional or non-fictional) past is worth exploring, then why? Does it become less about the text or events in question and more about ourselves? Then again, in my completely non-theoretical understanding of it, doesn't empathy or compassion require us to recognize some reflection of ourselves in someone else, someone Other than ourselves, in order to feel it at all? Is that a bad thing?"

It is precisely to the question [that you frame here] of whether the emotions we experience when reading [or watching a particular dramatic performance, or listening to music, or viewing a Rothko, etc.] are really about *ourselves* or *others* [if even fictional others, or abstract states of being] that I think we should direct our inquiry more pointedly. I think what we'll find is that it is often a combination of both [and no, it is not necessarily, ever, a "bad thing"], but that, on rare occasions, it is a completely "alter" experience--it is not, i.e., about ourselves at all. This is an important moment--when we can travel that far out of ourselves, on "behalf," as it were, of someone or something else. But with art, it's always a safe form of ethical commitment; there is no real danger, no risk. And it can even be pleasurable, like a drug. If so, I'm an addict.