Wednesday, April 25, 2007

In Other News

It's April. It's finally warm and sunny here in the city, and I'm grateful for all of that.

Other things I'm grateful for:

  • Undergraduates who are working on fascinating final papers (including: evolving attitudes towards sexuality in America as seen through swing dancing styles; digital memes and the construction of "the human"; Chechen separatism and geography; the EU and the evolution of a "European Identity"; Radicalism and Digital Culture). I've had a great group this year -- they've been patient with my own, orals inspired delays and have followed me on every scary intellectual trek I've wanted to take them on. Moreover, they helped me learn how to be a better teacher by being vocal when things weren't clear, etc. What a great group!
  • Friends who have gotten me through one of the more difficult years of my PhD thus far.
  • Translation workshops in the Writing Division here. For two semesters now I've been taking translation workshops and it has entirely changed the way I relate to Old English poetry. Particularly because I now relate to it -- as poetry. The beauty of Old English wasn't exactly lost on me before, but there was a gap there. I was always "looking for the wanderer" but I hadn't realized that as ambiguous as the poetry seems, and as many possibilities as it opens -- it is still grounded, still a poem. It sounds almost silly when I articulate it -- but by learning to not tolerate every ambiguity, by simply learning to make choices when it comes to the poetry -- it became something new for me.
  • We're at something like 2 weeks to Kalamazoo!
That said, one last thing I am, after much deliberation, quite grateful for. I had my meeting with my orals advisers last Thursday.

I'll start with the good news: I passed my pre-oral. 16 hours and 36 pages later, I have good ideas that are worthy of pursuit, and I'm really, really pleased with that. I feel like I know what my dissertation is going to look like. Besides a monster, because that much I knew.

The slightly more ambivalent news: I am postponing the actual oral exam until September. There are a variety of reasons for this -- not least of which is I didn't want to ignore my brilliant students in these final days of the semester, scheduling difficulties, etc. Most importantly however, my advisers and I decided I needed to linger a little longer in the texts themselves. I've got the ideas of my dissertation beginning -- now I need to make sure that when the time comes, I have a wide knowledge of my field. Or perhaps more accurately -- a deeper knowledge of the texts in themselves.

I'm (finally) happy with this decision: I wasn't looking forward to rushing through the rest of my Chaucer list. Ultimately, this is a much more humane way of doing things. So that's a check in the good column as well.

Thanks to all the well-wishers and those keeping their fingers crossed for me. As my adviser said -- the test is over, and I've passed. Now I can relax and just read again. Which is a fine way, I think, to spend my summer. And I get back the pure joy of reading, which is lovely.

In the mean time, of course, I need to get my Kzoo paper polished up. Presented it to my colleagues yesterday, and got great feedback. Now I just have to incorporate it!


Sunday, April 22, 2007

Into Great Silence

I’ve struggled to post anything in the past few days – in fact, I’ve struggled to write at all. The tragedy in Virginia has left me lost for any sort of words, much less those I feel like throwing out in to the ether of the net. The Anglo-Saxon world, so remote, suddenly seems more awful (and awe-ful) than it did a few days ago. There’s so much violence, so much vengeance in the world these texts show us. And, in fragments that shatter the surface of the poetry upon their impact, moments of mourning that break through the violence to remind me (and us?) that 1000 years ago people must have still felt pain, pain so deep it moves them to words.

But often enough, pain only moves me to silence.

I saw, last Monday, a movie that has become something of a surprise hit in the past few weeks -- Into Great Silence, a film about the monks who reside in the Grand Chartreuse in France. It’s a deeply ascetic order – they take a vow of silence, and do not speak except to sing, or if the work they do requires it. The film says that they do this so that they might spend their lives in “uninterrupted prayer” – a communion with God unbroken by thoughts of time. Reading on the website for the film, found here , the director explains at one point that living life in that way – so structured and still – creates a different relationship to time.

Once you accept the fact that when the bell rings - you just don't think about it - you just get up and go and do whatever that bell requires you to do, then, every moment that you have is a pretty permanently present moment," he says. "You don't have to sort of plan, like 'What do I do in two years?... Where do I want my career to be in 15 years?' And the absence of language makes something - the moment itself becomes very, very strong.

An obsession of mine is the way language means – or, in some cases, stops meaning. In a place like the Grand Chartreuse, all words fall away – they cease to mean, but not in the tragic, horrific way you imagine that the personnage of Munch’s The Scream must feel when confronted with his eternal silence (funny, I hear his scream as a silence – I’d never noticed that before). Rather, in the silence of the Chartreuse, there is a deeper stillness that comes from living according to the bells, following the simple routine that defies all natural patterns except its own. One monk says that “In God there is no past. There is only the present.” Admittedly, as a lapsed Catholic, it is difficult for me to let go of a concept of “God” – and when I noted to my friend LJS that I wondered if our clamor in the modern world was, in fact, due to our fear of what we might hear in the silence, his response surprised me. I don’t think we should fear that silence, he said – it's the peace that the old monk spoke of when he spoke of God. Regardless of whether or not there’s a higher being. It doesn’t matter. What else is a concept of God, if it isn’t such stillness and peace.

I’ve pondered those words for a few days now, with the knowledge that my only way to think is always – always – in language. And if the city I inhabit is noisy, my own clamor (clamor meus ad te veniat, we sing in our weekly compline services) is deafening. In the stillness of the Chartreuse, something other moves. It isn’t simply that these monks withdraw from the world to contemplate God more perfectly. Rather, it’s that in the space that they create a place where something beyond our human clamor can touch them.

It isn’t viable in this world. The silence isn’t viable, and that’s why the monks of the Chartreuse are, as it says somewhere, in some Gospel (godspell -- the good story), in the world but not of it. Their contemplation, their withdrawal, is a luxury in this world, where too many people are condemned to die by our silences. I know that I thirst for that kind of silence – a place to be alone, to be quiet, to just be in a world that is too loud, too full of noise and sorrow. The reason I know I could never do it is because I wouldn’t withdraw out of love – for God or anything else. I would withdraw out of fear. It’s like King Arthur at the end of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King -- I’d withdraw because of the fear, “of a Doing that might lead to woe.”

But silence must be overcome, must be broken. I was moved by the words I read at different blogs this week, and moreover found that thinking had to keep going, regardless – and for this I must thank Dr. V (Quod She), ‏ JJC (In the Middle), Ancrene Wiseass, and Eileen (also ITM). Because – and I think Dr. V’s post speaks to this particularly, as do the comments appended to it – although the classroom is its own world, it is not a world in isolation from what goes on outside it. Teaching has to go on, despite the tragedies that overwhelm us. This year was my first year teaching my own classroom – and if there’s anything I’ve learned it’s that the classroom is the reason for my work. Reading the post and comments by Eileen & JJC over at In The Middle, I realized that a part of what happens when you read is that you gain the ability to break out of your own inner monologue. Part of what we teach is, I suppose, conversation – what it means to allow your voice to be inflected by other voices. It seems to require a sureness of self that – in moments now – I think I begin to possess. A sureness of self that allows you to be wrong, to see the world as though from eyes that are not your own – a sureness of self that allows self doubt which is not conflated with annihilation. Of course we only reach the students who would have eventually learned it anyway -- but it seems like that's how most things are in the world. When nothing will change things or help -- then nothing will ever help.

Looking back at Into Great Silence -- and the tragic events of this week – I can only wonder about the monks. I don't want to dramatize their choice – but I wonder if they truly live in silence.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

An Absence at the Center of Being

When I was in a seminar my first year of graduate school on mystics (which integrated not only readings from mystics texts but also from a variety of theoretical sources), I encountered, for the very first time, Michel deCerteau, in his The Mystic Fable. On the second page, he writes these compelling lines:

The One is no longer to be found. ‘They have taken him away,’ say so many chants of the mystics who inaugurate, with the story of his loss, the history of his returns elsewhere and otherwise, in ways that are the effect rather than the refutation of his absence. While no longer ‘living,’ this ‘dead’ one still does not leave the city—which was formed without him—in peace. He haunts our environs. (2)

As part of my final preparation for my oral exams (still not certain, but coming up in a mere three weeks, if I have my way about it), I’ve been reviewing several mystics: Hadewijch of Brabant, Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe. I’m struck, endlessly, by the mysteries of these women. When I was writing a paper for this course, I remember being annoyed by how what I was trying to write wasn’t really what I wanted to be writing. However, ideas eluded me – I couldn’t quite articulate what it was I wanted to find in these texts, what it was that I was longing to hear. My professor noticed, and in one of the greatest conversations I’ve ever had with a professor, said that although she knew I was onto something, and trusted that it was a significant something – I was refusing to let it come to the surface, and I wasn’t being up front with the real purpose of the paper.

I spent that summer (it was a Spring course) thinking about her words. I realized, sitting at home in the library at Wake Forest, that the reason I couldn’t be explicit about my interests in the paper I was writing was because, in some form, my interest in the mystics wasn’t about their writing. Rather, it was about that indescribable something that deCerteau postulates in the form of “the One.” I didn’t want to read a mystics’ text as a text – I wanted to mine it for the remains of an experience.

In short, I wanted to know – and in truth, I find, still want to know – what happened to these women. The class was frustrating for me – as is every encounter I have with mystics, including tonight. At the heart of these texts are real women, writing about something that had happened to them. Maddeningly enough, no one ever seems to ask the question that, upon much reflection, I think may well be unanswerable: Did anything really happen to these women? Were they crazy? Or did they really have an experience of – for lack of a better word – the Divine?

A pastor friend of mine (one of the approximately 50% of my friends who went to seminary) laughed when I asked him that. His response: it isn’t yours to know. That’s not what literary study is – if you want to know if they saw God, then you’re in the wrong field.

And yet, as I sit here, tonight, in the middle of the most severe rainstorm I’ve ever had in NYC – I wonder if he was right. Because when I think about it – it seems like a lot of the answer to any of those questions has to do with how you define the concept of the “Divine,” not to mention “experience” – and language is most definitely part of my business.

And I wonder if this experience – intense, overwhelming, painful – doesn’t come from seeing the world Otherwise. What I mean by that is seeing the possibility beyond the limitations of the human, beyond the limitations of our small knowledge and short lives. I don’t know what it could comprise – except perhaps, the possibility of a fundamental human lack. Of what? Unknown. Perhaps it’s precisely that – some vague feeling of being incomplete – being unfinished.

It reminds me of Tom Stoppard’s line from RAGAD:
“Dying is not romantic, and death is not a game which will soon be over... Death is not anything... death is not... It's the absence of presence, nothing more... the endless time of never coming back... a gap you can't see, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound...
But something, no matter if it was indescribable or if they were mad – something happened to these women. And I guess that’s why I keep coming back to them, over and over again. To find the absence that haunts them. Not to fill it, not to make it disappear or explain it away. But to linger there – to mark in memory their words, to ask them (metaphorically, of course) what they experienced. I ask this question, without hope of answer, out of respect – not paid to an intangible notion of the God who tortured them in his absence – but for the hope they so often recorded in their suffering and longing.

Now, if only that were something I could talk about in my oral exams...


Friday, April 13, 2007

Worth Remembering

Thanks to blackcurrants for this link, and its reminder that no matter how stressful it all gets -- there really is nothing else I'd rather be doing.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

Maybe I'm just over-reading

But reading this article, something just struck me as off. I quote:

Desire between the sexes is not a matter of choice. Straight men, it seems, have neural circuits that prompt them to seek out women; gay men have those prompting them to seek other men. Women’s brains may be organized to select men who seem likely to provide for them and their children. The deal is sealed with other neural programs that induce a burst of romantic love, followed by long-term attachment.

Maybe it's that this is the second paragraph, and it's already giving men more options and more agency than women. The article, to be fair, does seem to back toward the end of page one, although I was a bit confused to the very end. Maybe I'm just tired from grading, teaching, and writing. Maybe I've been reading too much of the mystics. Or maybe I've been reading too much feminist criticism.

I know, intellectually, that grammar shouldn't matter -- the ideas are important, and often the manner of their transmittal is a secondary issue, including the phrasing and language. But -- still -- it just seems off, and as I have neither the time nor the energy to pursue it, I thought I'd float it out to the blogosphere. Does the phrasing of "scientific fact" matter? I'm curious what the rest of the world thinks of the article -- all I have is confusion.

And I'm off to a meeting, which appropriately enough -- is about mystics.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

...I Survived

The two day preoral is, I am proud to say, complete. I essentially completed two term papers in as many days -- 16 pages in eight hours on Friday (on Alfredian prefaces) and 20 pages on Saturday (on the experience of time in the literature I'd read -- focused on Bede, Augustine, Aelfric and Beowulf). Both of the questions were really challenging -- I only got them at 10 AM each day, then spent hours and hours on writing them. Again, mostly pleased with the results -- particularly the fact that my work in the pre-oral got me to work in some texts I'd thought were no longer relevant in my work. I'm starting to think that my dissertation will be less about translation in Medieval texts but about writing in time.

But I suppose I should wait and see whether or not I passed. We'll see. Meeting with both of my advisors is after Medieval Academy...I wonder if I'll have to wait until next Thursday (which is when I will meet with them...) to find out. Eep.

That said, the most important part of all this is that I managed to turn it out, and I'm semi-proud of what I did. It's about learning, and confidence -- and if there are two things I'm sure I've got now, those are it! I also found out, quite usefully, that eleven hours of writing in one day tended to leave me unable to communicate verbally except through type. Not to mention curled in a ball on the couch. Though it should be added I was curled in a ball on the couch watching Doctor Who. That makes it a little different.

And now there's time again for posting, though I have to admit it will take me awhile to get back on the ball with that. I'm written out!

So for my post-Easter and post-Passover posting (well, nearly post Passover, as that ends at sundown today) -- some literature on the most important of all Springtime animals. They come out every year around this time, fluffy and colorful and sugary. Some are rabbits, some chicks, but they are all marshamallow-y fun:

Peeps! They're for Passover too!

and more importantly, scientific research is being done to find out the many wonders of these resilient little creatures.

In closing, I continue to listen to the Carmina Burana, compulsively. I promise, it has nothing to do with the fact that they were first described to me by my medieval Music History prof as "medieval university drop-outs." Although -- well, never mind. :)

,Sors immanis
et inanis,
rota tu volubilis,
status malus,
vana salus
semper dissolubilis,
et velata
michi quoque niteris;
nunc per ludum
dorsum nudum
fero tui sceleris.


Thursday, April 05, 2007

Deep Breath Before the Plunge

So, in keeping with my interests -- a multimedia presentation of my day tomorrow. Well, it's not so much multi and two media -- but it's still pretty cool.

First, we have the bookshelves, arranged by focus. These are only the books on my major list, of course.Second, we have the list. And it bears being told that my friend who studies Renaissance made my list look absolutely stunning -- but blogger won't let me show you that. Here's the reduced coolness version.

Primary Texts
I. Bede
The Reckoning of Time
Historia Ecclesiastica

II. Alfred and his circle
Prose Translation of the Psalms
Translation of Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis
Augustine’s Soliloquies
The Old English Boethius

III. Ælfric
a.. Ælfric’s Grammar
Ælfric’s Colloquy
Ælfric’s Saint’s Lives (Selections)
i. Preface
ii. On the Nativity of Christ
iii. Of the Prayer of Moses
iv. Of the Memory of the Saints
v. Of Auguries
vi. Of False Gods
d. Ælfric’s Homilies (Selections)
i. First Year
1. On the Beginning of Creation
2. The Nativity of the Lord
3. The Nativity of St. Stephen Protomartyr
4. Of the Lord’s Prayer
5. Of the Catholic Faith
6. Dedication of the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel
ii. Second Year
1. The Nativity of the Lord
2. Another Vision
3. On the dedication of a Church
4. The Pater Noster, the Minor Creed, the Mass Creed, Prayers
5. Of Penitence
e. Preface to Genesis

IV. Laws
a. Selections from Early English Historical Documents, Vol. 1
i. Wihtred
ii. Ine
iii. Alfred
iv. Aðelstan
v. Edmund
vi. Edgar
vii. Eðelred
viii. Cnut

V. Letters
a. Letter of Cnut to the English People (1019-1020)
b. Cnut’s Letter of 1027
VI. Chronicles
a. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, ed. Swanton
b. Selections from Early English Historical Documents, Vol. 1
i. Historia Brittonum (Simeon of Durham)
ii. Historia Regum (Roger of Wendover)
iii. Flores Historiarum
iv. Bede Continuation
v. Reigns of the Danish Kings of England
vi. Florence of Worcester
vii. Other Annals and Chronicles, pp. 313–326
VII. Poetry
a. Beowulf
b. Exodus

Secondary & Theoretical Texts
a. Robert Hanning, Vision of History in Early Britain
b. Robert Young, Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race (Chapter 1)
c. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination
d. Walter Ong, “Orality and Literacy: Writing Restructures Consciousness”
e. J. J. Cohen, Hybridity, Identity, Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles
f . Allen Frantzen, Desire for Origins
g. Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood (Chapters 1 and 2)
h. Nicholas Howe, Migration and Mythmaking
i. Nicole Discenza, The King’s English
j. Alice Sheppard, Families of the King
k. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
l. Patrick Geary, Myth of Nations
m. Homi Bhabha, Nation and Narration (introduction)
n. Brian Stock, Listening for the Text
o. Kathleen Davis, “National writing in the ninth century: A reminder for postcolonial thinking about the nation” (JMEMS, 1998)
p. Augustine, Confessions Books 9-12
q. Sharon Rowley, “Judgment, History and the Sinful Self”
r. George H. Brown, “Meanings of interpres in Aldhelm and Bede”
s. Erich Auerbach, “Figura”

And finally, my secret weapon:

It's what every Anglo-Saxonist needs the morning of her exams. Oren's Daily Roast: Beowulf Blend. Now what monster can't I face with that!

See everyone on Monday!


Playlist: Pre-Orals Edition

Clearly, among the more important things I can do the night before my two day pre-oral exam begins is make a playlist for the 2 or 3 hours before 10 AM I'll be up. So I've spent the last few minutes putting together some of my favorite music into my Pre-Orals Playlist. There'll be more later (i.e., the list itself, which is, I think, in its final form) -- but for now, here's the music I plan to get me through the morning...

  1. Sweet Home Alabama, Lynyrd Skynyrd
  2. Aliens Exist, Blink-182
  3. Will It Ever Stop Raining, Saw Doctors
  4. Head Over Heels, ABBA
  5. Invisible Sun, Sting and Aswad (from X-Files Soundtrack)
  6. Landed, Ben Folds
  7. Accidentally in Love, Counting Crows
  8. Mr. Spock, Nerf Herder
  9. Pleasant Valley Sunday, Monkees
  10. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Elton John
  11. My Life, Billy Joel
  12. Mamma Mia, ABBA
  13. David Duchovny, Bree Sharp
  14. N17, Saw Doctors
  15. One Week, Barenaked Ladies
  16. Boys of Summer, The Ataris
  17. Dress Up In You, Belle and Sebastian
  18. Dr. Who On Holiday, Dean Gray (a mix of Dr. Who and Green Day!)
  19. Kate, Ben Folds Five
  20. This Side, Nickel Creek
A weird mix of music, I know. I'll only explain two parts of it. First, a shout out to my Renaissance-studying friend who got me into Dean Gray's stuff -- it's awesome. And I guess at that point I should also thank my 18th centuryist friend who got me into Doctor Who (which will probably be watched at my lunch break...).

Secondly, "This Side", by Nickel Creek. Theatre Sis bought the second Nickel Creek CD for my birthday, right before I left for France my junior year of college. The lyrics are perfect for anyone facing big changes and/or events -- and/or journeys. I feel like orals is, in some ways, all of this -- and so the final words of the song work perfectly:

Your first dawn blinded you, left you cursing the day:
entrance is crucial, and its not without pain
there's no path to follow once you're here
you climb up the slide and then you slide down the stairs.

It's foreign on this side, but it feels like I'm home again.
There's no place to hide -- but I don't think I'm scared.
And the funny thing is -- past the "gotta read one more homily" thing, and the compulsive organization of my books -- I'm pretty sure I'm not. I'm just...ready.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007

T minus 2 days and counting...

So, in other news today -- my pre-oral will be two days long. Friday and Saturday, one question each day. So that should be fun. Plenty of stress time in between. Though I have to say my adviser knows me well: part of her decision in making it two days long was so that I'd sleep instead of working on the questions for a full 24 hours.

I'm feeling fairly psyched after two wonderful, productive meetings, with my second major list adviser and one of my minor list advisers. I am also adding Beowulf back into my exam, which seems like the right move. I was going to miss him! Also, I think it will be a productive space to try to think about temporality and the problems that arise when a sort of hybrid temporal space is inhabited by a character in the text (Beowulf is many things, but I don't think a firm argument can be made that he's fully Christian -- and the time of the text at least is a nominally Christian time, or at least a time aware of Christianity. I think).

And I acknowledge, that's entirely a half thought. Maybe the other half will come after some refreshing sleep.

Clare Lees' talk was amazing -- it's funny, but she actually has the status of being the first Anglo-Saxonist *other* than my undergraduate adviser that I heard speak. My sophomore year of college, she gave a talk on Heaney's introduction to his Beowulf. Five years later, I'm glad to say that Lees still gives some of the most provocative and interesting papers I've heard. I always come out of her lectures with endless amounts of energy.

And the webcomic of yesterday...a perennial favorite in my NC family household. I still remember when Theater Sis introduced me to it. The words "and life was never the same" come to, get ready to look SOOO good! and enjoy Homestarrunner's Teen Girl Squad.


Monday, April 02, 2007

T Minus 3 Days and Counting

So this post requires a little bit of background as to where I found this particular webcomic. Which is more like an animated short (or series thereof) but whatever.

When I was back at WFU, I spent a lot of my time studying French. This had precisely one goal, which functions in roughly the same as my subspecialty in Old Provencal -- study abroad in France.

The last thing I needed in my already crazy schedule, of course, was to be studying the grammar of a living language (who wants a spoken language with all the languages not currently in use to be learned?). So I often spent long hours studying for my French exams -- but only the night before, when I would catch up on weeks (!) worth of grammar homework.

Luckily, I had a friend who was as big a procrastinator as I -- and she first introduced this to me on a cold winter's night around 4 in the morning. In my state of exhaustion, it was pretty impressively funny. So it's a good memory. Which translates to -- "Sorry this one's a bit lame..."

Weebl and Bob.


In other news, Clare Lees is giving a talk at Columbia tomorrow evening. In spite of my massive amount of orals reading to complete (and the two meetings I have tomorrow!) before the pre-orals on Friday -- it's a safe bet where I'm spending my afternoon.


Sunday, April 01, 2007

T minus 4 days and counting

Today's webcomic comes to you from I've always imagined that if God Himself was asked to weigh in on the Intelligent Design v. Evolutionary Theory issue, he would answer in a way not unlike this comic envisions it.

Still reading, still working -- as a sidenote, tomorrow begins Passover, and a Jewish friend has invited me to his family's Seder. I'm excited -- since I'm keeping Passover this year (as my room mate is Jewish, and it just seems wrong to eat things she's not supposed to all week), it seems appropriate. And given that my Lenten penance this year was a rather lame "giving up not taking care of myself" alleviates a bit of my Catholic guilt.

As does the Good Friday suffering of an orals exam. :)

((also worth reading -- about my level of coherence at this point, too!)