Thursday, March 13, 2008

Wondering about Wonders: CELCE's "Crossing Borders"

If writing -- and, shall I add, blog writing -- is a practice, I've clearly fallen down on the job lately. I like to think of it as "dissertation block." It's like writer's block, only it happens more slowly: first, you start noticing that every time you sit down to write those 20 pages of dissertation material for your adviser, your chest gets tight and you feel the compulsive need to do yoga until you have to go to an appointment (which conveniently eliminates the chest tightness as the dissertation time you'd planned). Eventually, you find it extending to every time you sit down at a computer -- whether it's to write an email, comment on a student draft, or even write a blog post. I'm actually in a the midst of a short post on this very topic -- titled, in honor of this new stage of my grad school career, "Growing Pains." However, for today, I thought I'd post about another New York City Medieval Happening (and if you missed a very fruitful Happening LAST Friday -- read Eileen's latest below!)

Tomorrow, I will take part in the the CELCE conference at NYU: "Crossing Borders". In fact, in mere minutes, I will be traveling south on the 1 train to Christopher Street, and trekking over to the conference location in order to hear Carolyn Dinshaw's keynote address.

Tomorrow, however, I will be debuting a version of a paper I wrote two years ago (and will repeat in altered format at Kalamazoo). It's called "The Space Between: Mapping Monsters in the Old English Wonders of the East." In it, I will argue that the location of the Mambres and Jamnes section of the Wonders, in the largely "scientific" focus of the MS Cotton Tiberius, actually makes an argument for how monsters ought to be encountered (textually or otherwise): as a strict warning that some knowledge isn't meant to be known. Mambres and Jamnes are, of course, the magicians who go up against Moses and Aaron, and the text of the Mambres section of the Tiberius tells of how the damned soul of Jamnes warns his brother that by learning "the deep secrets of his idolatry" (literally, the word is deoflegildes -- devil-wages!) he too shall be banished to a hell-pit, which is 2 x 4 cubits (ah, the level of detail!).

This paper has plagued me for a long time. Originally, and ultimately (if I ever revise it into an article), I was making a much larger argument about contingency, monstrous bodies, and dangerous knowing. It used a lot of Agamben, and so engaged my major difficulty with theoretical texts: I am utterly incapable of writing about them. I think that that indeterminate status of a contingency is still present in the part of the paper I will post here: however, I should note that you're not missing anything about Agamben, as I have completely cut him from the argument for lack of space and eloquence. Here follows (in beautiful, Word 2007 formatting!) a portion of my conclusion. I've been told it's too poetic, and hence too unclear. I'll probably clean it up a bit come time for the conference tomorrow. But for now -- poetics and all -- I offer the conclusion to my go on the monsters.

Of course what I really want to know: Anybody catch the Dave Matthew's Band reference in the title?

The message implied by the Mambres section is that the creatures of the Wonders are so guarded [by dangers, threats and distance] because they are not meant to be known. The text is not attempting to illuminate their existence so much as their meaning. Like the trees of the Letter of Alexander, the knowledge apportioned to each man is limited: Ac ne frign ðu unc nohtes ma ne axa, for þon wit habbað oferheloðred þæt gemære uncres leohtes (But ask no more of the two of us, for we have spoken beyond the limits of our light).[1] Just such a limit may also be intimated by the Wonders, by the descriptions that approach but never fully see the far off creatures the text treats. Creatures that do not fit into regulatory categories may be monsters, and it seems better to take from them the lesson they may teach than to know what they are in themselves. Their message is acceptance, a lack of querying, and the injunction of the trees: ne frign. These creatures are different, and some are dangerous, and traveling to find them is itself marked by obstacles that may be set in place for a reason. If one does ask – if one opens the books, and learns by this opening the secrets of the deep mysteries, the risk is of one’s own dissolution. The marvel takes the unwary explorer in – into a hell-pit of 2 by 4 cubits, or more chillingly, inside itself via ingestion.[2] The specifics of their existence are not the point: rather, their warning against inquiry and the dangers of knowing monsters allows the reader to escape entrapment by his own arcane knowledge.

Monsters and marvels are dangerous because they defy categorization, they hybridize, and they hijack human language to use for their own monstrous purpose. The unsettling suggestion of Wonders is that these creatures might not be simply “bodies” that signify only God’s power over the physical, his ability to raise the physical, human body from the dead written in His creation of bodies fantastic.[3] Rather, more than just the inhabitants of Ciconia may be “thought to be men” – a potential best left unexplored, and its consequences left unsuffered. Thus the final injunction of the Mambres and Jamnes segment of the text leaves us where the text began -- in the midst of an unresolved possibility of beings, fragmented beyond perfect comprehension of a reason, with only the stern warning that it isn’t ours to know, or even to ask about. We end with two magicians, deep secrets of idolatry, knowledge written in books, and the warning that some things are not supposed to be known.

[1] Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, 253.

[2] Jeffrey Cohen’s visualization of the Donestre (as literally incorporating was key in connecting these concepts. Cf. Of Giants p. 3-5, most specifically: "in the last scene of the narrative, the traveler has been completely transformed. The severed head is an empty point of fascination that directs the viewer’s gaze back to the alienating form in which the traveler is now contained, at the monster he has now become."

[3] Cf. Austin for a cogent description of Augustine’s theory. Austin, Greta. “Marvelous Peoples or Marvelous Races ? Race and the Anglo-Saxon
Wonders of the East
” in Marvels, Monsters and Miracle: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations. Ed. Timothy S. Jones and David A Sprunger. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002.

cross posted at ITM.


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