Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fragments Shattered by History

So on Saturday, as I've mentioned here, I will be responding to this paper by Aaron Hostetter , a colleague of mine from Princeton. This will all take place as a part of the fourth annual ASSC Graduate Student Conference.

So here, for your Valentine's Day evening perusal, is my remark/question for our discussion. Any critiques or questions would be quite helpful -- this was the first time I've read Andreas. Though I find it quite fascinating, it's also insanely complex. One day that characteristic of Old English poetry will stop surprising me. With a little luck though, I'll never lose that complexity's delight.

So: Go read Aaron's paper, "A Tasty Turn of Phrase: Cannibal Poetics in Andreas". Then, refresh your memory of the story with any one of these posts on Heather Blurton's Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature from the ITMBC4DSoMA event this summer. I should note that in my haste I've not had the time to read through all of the entries, though I certainly hope to do so by Saturday's session. Then, return here to read my entry in this ongoing discussion of Anthropophagy. My bibliographical notes are not terribly precise, as I'm mostly going on what I've read from Aaron's paper: however, I'll have to add it in tomorrow morning, when I have time to figure out what I was drawing on! My title could also use a lift -- any ideas would be appreciated!

Fragments Shattered by History

Aaron argues that as a poem, the Andreas makes a comment on the relationship between the past and the present: most specifically, that fragments of a past identity inhabit the present construction of self – more importantly, they inhabit the text’s present construction of cultural identity. Using the poetic borrowings of Andreas, and making clear their poetic effect, the argument culminates in the assertion that, in the case of the “sad anthropophagites” of the Anglo-Saxon corpus:

the act of devoration leaves the eater with a raw sense of the self in time, of ones utter dependence on the presence of the past with which to construct a present, and a lingering sense of absolute difference from the apparent integrity of those pasts.

In some senses, his argument squares with the recent work on the poem done by Heather Blurton: in her dissertation, and its rendering in book form, Blurton argues that we might productively read the poem not merely for its conversion narrative, but for its “cannibal narrative” – a narrative that tells a story of invasion and conquest and the subsequent, postcolonial hybridity that results. Andreas, she argues, deliberately depicts the Mermedonians in ways which echo the descriptions of Anglo-Saxon warriors in other poems. Clearly, Blurton picks up on the same tendency which Aaron highlights: the citation of other Anglo-Saxon poems is used to an effect in Andreas, and to read the poem in any other light flattens a nuanced reading – performed by the poem – of those texts, and the culture which produced them.

As an opening provocation to discussion, I would like to reframe the question which Aaron is asking us to consider. In doing so, I want to engage with the idea of this solitary “self-in-time” – to ask, directly, the question of what the Mermedonians are doing in Anglo-Saxon England. If the self is related to the other in Andreas through a metaphoric act of consumption, devoration, or put in the slightly more post-colonial term favored by Blurton, incorporation – the question raised becomes more than simply one of “self” and “other” per se. The intermingling performed by the act of anthropophagy, and the intersection of the past and present that occurs in the building of cultural identity, suggests that the time of this “meal” is, to borrow a phrase, “out of joint.”

The question this raises about Andreas is the way in which the pasts upon which the present feasts are only apparently integral: the ways in which their narrative wholeness is shattered by the onset of a different kind of history. In Augustine’s conception of history, the human interpretation of history’s narrative is fundamentally altered by the intersection of the divine with the human: Christ’s advent necessarily rewrites the linear narrative of human history, and the truly integral events (his birth, death, resurrection and final judgment) shape the interpretation of any other narrative (though, and importantly, it doesn't annihilate the presence of all other narratives, which could be said to haunt it). My question then, is this: if we were to let the conversion narrative shape the cannibal narrative of the text, might we understand this story of sylfætan as an interpretation of the non-Christian digestion of history. Fundamentally incomplete, the past can only disappoint those who wish to use its narrative to shape the future from its fragments: those stories need interpretation, direction, a space to develop into that does not return to the same, human story. Rather, human history needs a divine supplement – otherwise, how could anyone seeking to feed on its remnants find adequate nourishment?

cross posted at ITM


Aaron Hostetter said...

I would like to thank Mary Kate for her very perceptive and extremely generous comments on my paper, and for suggesting that we make our exchange public. I probably made somewhat of a hash out of our question and answer session, but thought I should contribute additional comment to her response.

The most unique aspect of Andreas is that it frames its examination of conversion, identity and history in terms of one of the most individual acts a human being ever performs. Eating is never just a collective phenomenon, a feature of demographics. No other person can receive nutrition for another; no one’s taste of a foodstuff can ever replace the experience of tasting it oneself.

At the same time, eating is an act not only subject to time: the rising and falling of metabolism locks the body in a chain of need and satisfaction, security and anticipation, but also only visible at the smaller increments of time, where time is embodied and inhabited by practice. At this level, then, historical change becomes envisioned as a choice of meal (“Today I think I’ll have Assyrian”), an expression of taste and habitus.

The key term in Andreas is that beauty of a hapax legomenon, sylf-ætan. We need to truly understand what is meant here. It’s not literally true in the way it might be true for the Phoenix, nor does it mean that they eat their own people, since the Mermedonians eat foreigners, unless we extend it into a description of kind (they eat their own kind). Neither is it true in terms of labor, since their repast is not the product of their own efforts (unless we want to think of Mermedonia as a society where the leisure class produces a commodity of real social value). It is also somewhat prophetic, since Andrew’s success will drive them to consume their own dead and children.

I’m still trying to tease out the connection, but I feel that Mary Kate’s suggestion about the divine supplement to human history is apt, and will be productive to fleshing out the chapter. There is about the supplement that resounds with the image of the sylf-ætan: that something else, an other, must be added to the self in order to perpetuate life metabolically.