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.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Clearly, I'm still in training

One sure sign my studying for orals should be stepped up. Only 52% correct! Still, given that I focus rather early, not a bad showing.

Thanks to the one and only Geoffrey Chaucer for his addition to the procrastidrivium. Be sure to check out the post, too -- best rendition of the seven liberal arts ever.

Ye are 52% proficient in medievale trivia.

A fayre shewing. Ye are ful of much wisdam. Sans doute, ye rede a good deal of bokes concernynge the middel ages. Peraventure ye haue much oothir knowlech of straunge thinges as wel.

The Gret Quizz of Medievale Trivia
Quiz Created on GoToQuiz


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.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Finally Back

Yes, after over a month's un-announced hiatus (oh the shame!), I am back to blogging. Also back from North Carolina and the ever lovely Wake Forest (would you seriously ever leave that library -- this is the best picture I ever took of it!), back from my triumph over the first part of the Mandelbaum collection (I finished the materials on The Metamorphoses -- 7 boxes, all by itself! This collection is going to be huge.), back from weddings and moving friends across the state and watching far too much television. But more importantly, the forward motion of a new year has officially begun -- I'm back to NYC, back to teaching, and back to reading for my orals. I'd imagine that here I'll be writing a bit more about what I'm reading this semester, since that's pretty much all I'll be doing. I'm also attending a class on gender in the Middle Ages and hoping to sit in on another translation seminar...but those are just for kicks).

Today's work was on Aelfric's Grammar -- of which, you might be interested to know, the only modern edition I could find was in German, and a reprint of Zupitza's 19th century edition. Luckily, I don't need the apparatus too terribly. Aside from some interesting editorial issues -- the use of circumflex accents for long mark macrons, which is bizarre though not unexpected, and these weird "j" characters that keep popping up all over the place where I don't expect them -- it was a pretty useful little book. Although I must say, I wouldn't want to learn Latin from Aelfric. I thought Sweet's incredibly dry Anglo-Saxon Primer was difficult -- Aelfric makes that look like a breeze.

And speaking of breezes, this particular sentence really jumped out at me when I read it. The onomatopoeia makes it pretty obvious what this sentence says, though another linguistic weirdness is the use of stemn as opposed to stefn, but note the emphasis here (repeated elsewhere in the grammar) that is given to, of all things, trees:

gemenged stemn is, ‏‏þe bið butan andgyt, swylc swa is hryðera gehlow and horsa hnægung, hunda gebeorc, treowa brastlung, et cetera...


In other news, tomorrow begins the teaching for this semester. I've got it mostly planned, which is definitely a relief, but I thought I'd share my "close reading" lesson plan here. We're not supposed to use poetry (oops!) -- but I found that last semester's class had a hard time learning how to close read with prose. So I thought I'd try an approach based on learning the technique of close reading with a poem, and then modifying it for prose. We'll see how it goes. Anyway, I decided that my first text for the course will be "Medusa" by Louise Bogan. I read it in a course at Wake on United States Women Poets -- and adored it. I like the way in which the grammar of the poetry traps the voice that speaks it -- the verbs interlace with each other in a strange fashion, made static linguistically, always potential but never actually kinetic (if I may borrow a term from science...). Anyway, we'll do part in class, and the rest will be written about as homework.


I had come to the house, in a cave of trees,
Facing a sheer sky.
Everything moved,—a bell hung ready to strike,
Sun and reflection wheeled by.

When the bare eyes were before me
And the hissing hair,
Held up at a window, seen through a door.
The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead
Formed in the air.

This is a dead scene forever now.
Nothing will ever stir.
The end will never brighten it more than this,
Nor the rain blur.

The water will always fall, and will not fall,
And the tipped bell make no sound.
The grass will always be growing for hay
Deep on the ground.

And I shall stand here like a shadow
Under the great balanced day,
My eyes on the yellow dust, that was lifting in the wind,
And does not drift away.



Tomorrow also begins the great blog-reading catch-up. I do hope that all winter breaks and holidays went well, and that MLA was wonderful for those in attendance (or at the very least, not scarring...)!