Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Dissertation Fragments II: Horizons of History

This past week, in the midst of sifting through the fifty times "says Orosius" occurs in the Old English translation of the History against the Pagans, I reached another milestone in my academic life. As I've mentioned elsewhere (follow the link for the abstract!), I was asked back to my alma mater, Wake Forest, to give a talk to their medieval group. It was my first real "academic" talk. The presentation went well -- and I was pleased that it was made among professors and friends who are as dear to me as those at Wake. I got some very productive questions: most notably, and perhaps most interestingly for the dissertation prospectus this talk is going to morph into over the next few days (a transformation I began last week before the talk) was a question about resistance to the use of not only multiple theoretical perspectives but of their use in understanding, speaking of and writing about Old English literature.

It's a question I'm still working out the answer to. At any rate, I've posted the first part of my talk below for your reading enjoyment. Questions, comments and criticism are all welcome (and frankly needed!). I'll be posting the rest of it over the course of the week, while I wrestle with the Old English Orosius and the temporalities of translation for a paper due next Monday. For now, however, I give you The Horizons of History -- or perhaps what ought to be called "Notes Towards a Dissertation." Apologies for randomness of my citational style -- occupational hazard of the oral format I fear.

The Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities

Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning!

We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes
in the old days, the kings of the tribes—
how noble princes showed great courage!
Often Scyld Scefing seized mead-benches
from enemy troops, from many a clan;
he terrified warriors, even though first he was found
a waif, helpless.For that came a remedy
he grew under heaven, prospered in honors
until every last one of the bordering nations
beyond the whale-road had to heed him,
pay him tribute. He was a good king!

Familiar though they are, for an Anglo-Saxonist the opening lines of Beowulf return like a cherished refrain, calling out across time to form and reform a community of listeners around a well-known text. Indeed, we have heard this story before – in multiple classes where we teach, read, or translate it. And each time it is translated or reworked, we return to a scene of a “telling” – the scene of a tale which is resurrected across historical and linguistic difference, to speak to us in the now.

However, these familiar lines are also the space in which more than one community – or as I will term it collectivity – is formed through the narrative. My use of “collectivity” rather than community bears some explanation: partially informed by the work of Bruno Latour, the term “collectivity” avoids the artificial, vertical distinctions most often drawn between “nature” and “society”, subjects and objects, humans and non-humans. I would suggest, rather, that by allowing all of these (artificially constructed) sets – humans, non-humans, nations, texts, myths – to operate as quasi-objects or actors in what Deleuze and Guattari term the plane of consistency, we might allow for a more dynamic understanding of how ideas, humans, texts, and social groupings interact and operate on equal grounding in the construction of group identities.

Returning to the opening lines Beowulf, then, we begin to see these collectivities taking shape from the very beginning. In the space of less than a dozen lines, the poem identifies at least five separate collectivities which inhabit multiple temporal spaces interlaced not only in this opening but throughout the work. We have the Gar-Dena, those þeod-cyninga, the kings of the people, who form the first. They are a collectivity perceived – or received – by a second, listening group, indicated by the “we” of the first line. Scyld Scefing himself calls the third group into being: because he egsode eorlas, terrified the earls, we now have a collectivity best described as “those who are terrified by Scyld.” The final lines offer two more collectivities, one of which is predicated on Scyld’s actions, and one in which he participates. Scyld Scefing unites those who lie as ymbsittendra (the sitters-about, as it were) or bordering nations, all of whom unite to gomban gyldan – to pay him tribute. Scyld, we are told, wæs god cyning (was a good king). Of the set of good kings, he forms a part.

These collectivities co-habit the first eleven lines of Beowulf – yet they do not exist in a single, identifiable time in history. They inhabit multiple temporalities in the single space of the text. The implications of this for the formation of collectivities (which, remember, can include texts and humans) is most marked with the case of the “we” with whom the poet begins. The word seems to mean, or refer to at least – us: the listeners, the readers, the group which receives stories and texts passed down from geardagum. However, when examined closely, it becomes clear that this is a “we” of whom we can know very little – always shifting, it is reconstituted in and by each poetic utterance. Beowulf, though we read it as a written text, is of course, part of an oral tradition. What is identifiable about this particular collectivity, then, is the action, and not only that of listening. The active identity of the “we” in the first line of Beowulf describes a community via a completed action, and not simply that usual translation of gefrunon, “have heard.” Gefrunon, from the infinitive gefrinan, carries the connotation of a very specific way of gaining knowledge: used only seven times in the corpus, three of which occur in Beowulf, the majority of the uses of the verb involve a sense of what Bosworth-Toller defines as “to learn by action, find out.” Perhaps the most intriguing of these uses occurs in line 76 of The Dream of the Rood: Hwæðre me þær dryhtnes þegnas, freondas gefrunon, gyredon me golde ond seolfre (“Yet the thanes of the lord, the friends found me there, and geared me with gold and silver,” 75-77). Bringing this meaning to gefrunon’s usage in Beowulf has a crucial effect: bound together by what we might even term a quest, “we” have heard of these other collectivities which inhere in the poem not simply because we read it, or stumbled upon the knowledge. “We” learn by asking – we find out, we discover. The poem, then, anticipates our response to the history it represents. It acknowledges a futurity of reception – a time when another “we” will have learned by asking. This “we” – a collectivity already written into the fabric of the poem – constitutes a kind of futurity within Beowulf that posits a world beyond its composition and recitation – a world that will actively engage it in a time which is, for the poem, fundamentally not yet.

As these opening lines of Beowulf suggest, the “time” of the poem embraces a variety of temporalities – from the time of its main actions, to the distant past of Scyld, to the eternal time of Christian cosmology. The significance in the futurity of a “we” who learn by asking, however, is of the utmost importance in beginning to understand the multi-valent temporalities of the collectivity in Anglo-Saxon and medieval literature. In his “Discourse and the Novel,” Mikhail Bakhtin posits the intentionality of living discourse as a space shot-through with the multi-temporal status of utterance – a space, perhaps, not unlike the space of Beowulf. For Bakhtin, the “internal dialogism” of the word “is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation in any living dialogue.” (280) Bakhtin, of course, is speaking in direct relationship to the novel – a form foreign to Anglo-Saxon England. However, I would argue that Anglo-Saxon literature – be it prose or poetry, translation or creation – might be fruitfully thought of as constituting itself a living discourse, a space in which ideas of collectivity, time, and identity are begun, and reworked, through the period and beyond it.

The subject of my talk today – and of my dissertation, coming to a database near you in 2010 – is what I call the horizons of history. With the plethora of theoretical and critical terminology at my disposal, from fields as divergent as literary studies, historical studies, linguistics and art, one might well ask why I speak of Horizons rather than perspectives or boundaries. The answer is far from simple, but a brief explanation might serve us well as a beginning. Horizons can only be observed in the middle – i.e., the horizon is always experientially equidistant on all sides from the center point, that of the observer or subject. Any movement of the subject recenters the span of the horizon – new things come into the line of vision, others drift below the perceivable boundaries of sight. Consequently, a horizon cannot be crossed by the subject who observes it, whether they look “forward” to a future or “back” to a past. Only the object can cross over the horizon. The nature of horizons, then, is as a limiting factor in perception, defining the scope of the subject’s world-view.

The question this raises in my work is in the definition of boundaries. Boundaries must enclose something, be it a people, a place, or a time. In my argument, the boundaries in question enclose a larger, and even more contentious concept – that of “history.” For my purpose, I wish to engage the narrative strategies of history in what is traditionally called the Anglo-Saxon period. For my purposes, I define “history” – and “historiography” -- as the narrative space in which collectivities imagine and create their identities—or have these identities imagined and created for them. As such, my interest in history is the way in which historiography itself can be written in order to become that object which crosses the temporal horizons which bind its own world-view. Intersecting Bakhtin’s definitions of “living discourse,” these texts participate in a temporality that supercedes and encloses the individual times which compose the heterogeneous temporal fabric of the text. As such, the discourses of past, “present”, and the future unwritten intersect, creating a temporal space in which ideas of collectivities inhere and are passed on.

My dissertation explores a couple of different concepts of what “Anglo-Saxon” Collectivities can mean through the early Middle Ages and beyond. Unbound from periodicity in the strictest sense, the “Anglo-Saxon”, or “Old English”, becomes a constructed category, created and deployed in different historical moments for different purposes. Most specifically, the collectivities imagined in the Anglo-Saxon period are re-imagined at specific moments by communities in the process of imagining themselves, effecting what I will argue as a kind of collapsing of temporality, bringing together humans and texts that are temporally distant into a single collectivity. This “Becoming Old English” changes the ways in which the idea of a “nation” inheres in time, positing the time of the text as a time which allows for the breakdown of temporal boundaries, writing futures and pasts for a present which needs them. The time of the text is, irrevocably perhaps, always now – a contingent, relational now which participates in the past and future which permeate its horizons.

Text and Translation of Beowulf are from Chickering (1977)

Works Cited/Consulted

Bakhtin, Mikhail. "Discourse in the Novel" in The Dialogic Imagination. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1982.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Joy, Eileen and Mary K. Ramsey. "Liquid Beowulf" from The Postmodern Beowulf. Morganton: West Virginia University Press, 2007.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Also: I'm not sure how to cite this yet (though I will find out): the work posted here on ITM by Karl, Eileen and Jeffrey (along with many of the comment-ers) has had a foundational role in my thinking, as is no doubt obvious down to the very level of vocabulary. If there's a horizon that's been expanded in the work I've done toward this talk (and the prospectus which shall follow), it is most definitely the one that forms the boundaries of my own academic and intellectual capacities. For that: thank you.

Cross posted at In the Middle.


Reli said...

It sounds very interesting what you write about. I am an israeli student living in Spain and I met this ancient English in one of my courses. It is so different than the one we know now it's amazing.
I have´'t read yet all the post but I will do later.

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Anonymous said...

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