Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reading Off the List: Only Connect

(cross posted at In the Middle)

I’ve always hated the way people describe their reading habits as though they were consuming, literally ingesting the text they speak of. Twice in two days, however, I’ve felt the urgency of that voraciousness for texts, in entirely different settings.

The first moment was brought back to me by a birthday gift of a subscription to the Virginia Quarterly Review. I finally found time today to pick up the first issue, and a sort of stillness I’d been missing in my life these last few hectic weeks returned. My eye was caught particularly by a critical piece that features a number of citations of modernist poetry, ranging from Yeats to Auden. “To Hold in a Single Thought Reality and Justice: Yeats, Pound, Auden, and the Modernist Ideal” by Adam Kirsch, focuses on the difference of approach between Yeats and Pound – who on the one hand wanted to use poetry as a possible forum for political change, which was in Pound’s case to result in the self-fashioning of “a Fascist poet” (Kirsch 173)—and the slightly later Auden, whose early work reflects the same political zeal (though in a different orientation), while his later work steps back, in a rejection of Modernist remakings of the world and the “Bigness” that “has too much in common with the arrogance of totalitarianism, and not enough respect for the claims of the powerless” (Kirsch 176). Auden’s “conception of the poet as something like a witness” is in Kirsch’s view a link between Auden and later poets (including Heaney, Brodsky, Milosz), who “write about and against the tyranny that results when people try to impose their vision of justice on reality” (176).

It seemed that a part of what’s happening in this article (to which I cannot do justice in so short a space) shares ideas (and ideals) with certain posts that have been made here over the summer, including Karl’s most recent Caninophilia II (at In the Middle). However, another work which comes to mind for me through this article is Desire for Origins, by Allen Frantzen, which has the distinction of being the only academic book I’ve ever stayed up late to read because I wanted to finish before going to bed.

Frantzen has a knack for raising difficult (and often polarizing) questions, and this book is no different. Though as a relative newcomer to the field I don’t have the “long view” of the nearly twenty years since the book has been written, it seems like many of the issues identified by Frantzen in his discussion have continued to be problems, of a sort, in the field. Most vivid is the perceived “split” between philology and theory – and Frantzen’s assertion that philology is a theory, and as such is as culturally and historically informed as other “theory.” He reveals through an engaging study of the study of Anglo-Saxon that there’s much to be learned in the study of the field itself, as a site of desire for an origin – of language, of culture, of English literature.

Although I’m certainly “behind the times” as it were, reading this book so late in the game, I know that one need look no further than Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” to see one example of that influence. Written in 1936, on the eve of World War II, Tolkien tries to wrest the scholarly work done on the singular Old English epic poem from historical research and to the place he feels it properly belongs, i.e., on the poem as poetry. It seems all too obvious that at the historical moment in which the mythologization of the Germanic past was part and parcel in Nazi regime in Germany, it is beyond mere coincidental significance that an English scholar claims a place for English (both national and scholarly designations) interpretation of a poem, which he claims “turns under our Northern Skies” (emphasis mine).

In a time that’s seeing Beowulf pop up in multiple artistic media as well as in the casual everyday conversation of politicians, it’s important that we understand the way it’s being used. Sad to say, I actually saw Karl Rove’s comment on Fox News in which he said: They'll keep after me," Rove said of the Democrats. "Let's face it. I mean, I'm a myth, and they're -- you know, I'm Beowulf. You know, I'm Grendel. I don't know who I am. But they're after me. Aside from the sheer silliness, there’s a problem here, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Beowulf, or at least not with Beowulf as an object of artists, or an object of study. Rather, it’s his emphasis on the first half: “I’m a myth.” In the end it doesn’t matter if Rove is Beowulf or Grendel – he’s myth, he’s constant, and he’s pursued (we assume, through his phrasing, unjustly) – and that’s enough. It’s a bit chilling, really, if it’s read between the lines: a glimpse of sheer survivalist instinct, the fact that remains that “they’re” after him. What kind of myth he is, and why he’s being pursued, aren’t relevant.

This brings me back around to Kirsch’s article. In his introduction, he writes that for the great mythologizing “reality—the world as it is as we see it in the newspapers and on the street—is incomplete on its own. It needs to be balanced, corrected, and maybe even replaced by a contrary vision of justice—the world as it should be, and as it can be in great works of art and literature” (Kirsch, 166). It isn’t, Kirsch notes, a large jump from there to the belief that such an order can be supplemented politically, by totalitarianism and the resultant order. Yet, the mythologizing instinct – left unchecked by consideration of its birth – can be brutal, for it elevates one ideal over all others, and allows or even mandates the use of violence to enforce it

In the closing of his book, Frantzen writes: “It is the connectedness of Anglo-Saxon studies that matters, not their age....Such issues as expansionism, linguistic imperialism, and cultural colonization link our own age, the previous ages in which Anglo-Saxon culture has been studied, and the Anglo-Saxon texts themselves: Hengst and Horsa, the place of Rome in the Renaissance and in Anglo-Saxon texts, the partnership of writing and death in Beowulf.” In the years since Frantzen wrote Desire for Origins, such scholars as Kathleen Davis, Stacy Klein, Gillian Overing, Clare Lees, Haruko Momma, Seth Lerer, John Niles, Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and a host of other Anglo-Saxonists and medievalists have been reforming the boundaries of what “the discipline” might mean from within – and that’s only within the immediate context of scholars of the Middle Ages. I’ve had a number of fascinating conversations with brilliant scholars who have never studied the Middle Ages seriously, and who have never learned Old English at all – and yet, there’s a type of synthesis arising there too. A “new language” as it were – a way of speaking across eras, genres, media. And that new language, I think, lies in the recognition that Frantzen made in 1990: “it is the connectedness of Anglo-Saxon studies that matters, not their age.”

So by way of introduction (hello, In the Middle!), I give you my EM Forster-inspired approach to my studies. As the key words for Howard’s End, and its epigraph, the imperative to “only connect” occupies a special place in my work, though I’ve yet to read the novel (were there but world enough and time...embarrassing, I know). Scholarship, to this young medievalist, is about forging connections –not simply in works of the past but to them, as well among the massive body of texts that remain. Moreover (and here I borrow from something Steven Krueger said at Kalamazoo this past May), it’s to allow, for scholarship, an “identity as transition”: to be willing to allow that influence to shape our scholarly lives, and the lives that scholarship can touch if we might let it. We lose a static notion of “what it means” (to be human, to study Old English, and even what a poem can mean) but what we gain is the possibility of tentatively seeing the “reality” of the world: a world where the “Big” and the immutable, fixed reference points of “History” affect people whose lives are as diverse and difficult to write as the (very different) kind of history that might chronicle them. Words left to us matter, as do things we do not, and cannot know. Both these realms of knowledge must be treated, above all else, humanely. The endless work of history and scholarship rework the realm of the specific as much as the large or general, and this is the fabric that shapes lives. In this different kind of creation, scholarship can move, and is moved by the connections we make. As such, it not only asks but requires us to engage it, and to change ourselves (if I were more naive I’d say the world) in the process.

And now, given the connections I’m supposed to be making two weeks from today in my oral exams (hence the reading list of my title: ironically, I'll be finishing just now, at 4 pm), I should probably go back to my readings. But first: thank you to Jeffrey, Eileen and Karl for inviting me to come on board the ongoing, connection-forming medium which is In the Middle. I’m so glad to be here.
Works Cited:

Frantzen, Allen. Desire for Origins. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, 1990.

Kirsch, Adam, “To Hold in a Single Thought Reality and Justice: Yeats, Pound, Auden, and the Modernist Ideal.” in The Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 2007). University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, 2007 (165-177).

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in The Tolkien Reader.

The ideas in this post owe a large debt to the work done on this blog by Jeffrey, Karl and Eileen. In addition, though noted only in passing, this post owes a debt to the work of Kathleen Davis – particularly her work on the Middle Ages as an other for the modern, particularly in her engaging article “"Time Behind the Veil: The Media, The Middle Ages, and Orientalism Now." (in The Postcolonial Middle Ages. St. Martins, 2000).


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