by Mary Kate Hurley
for the first time in my graduate school career, I wasn't able to make it to Kalamazoo. My lovely co-bloggers did, and Jeffrey has posted an initial account of the fun the rest of us missed. In the spirit of the GW MEMSI panel , though, I'd like to offer my own little musing on one of the final scenes of the poem Beowulf. But go read the other posts about the conference now!
Revision is a funny thing. I’d imagine anyone who has written a dissertation has had one chapter that flummoxed her beyond all reason. I’d also imagine that often that chapter takes on a life of its own that might even be larger than the dissertation. After several false starts and a number of revisions, I recently managed to make my Beowulf chapter into something I think I might eventually be pretty happy with. I’d like to re-read the poem about ten more times before I revise the chapter into an article (which I think will be its ultimate destination) but for now, it stands as one of the most frustrating and most fulfilling things I think I’ve ever managed to write. If I ever write a book on Beowulf (a fate I truly hope to avoid), this chapter will be part of the reason.
Part of what’s so funny about revision is that there are whole swathes of the poem that I keep returning to and seeing with fresh eyes. As I made my final substantial revisions to the chapter late last semester, I found something I’d missed in my initial readings. There’s a section of the poem called the Beasts of Battle, a short little set-piece that falls right in the middle of the Messenger’s speech. Describing what will happen after the Swedes destroy the Geats on the field of battle, the Messenger tells us:
ac se wonna hrefn
fus ofer fægum fela reordian,
earne secgan, hu him æt æte speow,
þenden he wið wulf wæl reafode.
(But the black raven, the bird over the fated men, will tell, will say to the eagle, how he succeeded at the meal, when he with the wolf plundered the slaughtered ones, 3024-3027.)
One of the things I’ve been trying to do with Beowulf is to reimagine how the poem might be read. We’re all familiar with the mourning tone the end of the poem sets. Everyone, we are told, will die either soon or late, and though the poem ends with Beowulf’s personal victory over the dragon, the price of that victory for his people is all too clear. With Beowulf gone, the enemies of the Geats will destroy them. The Beasts of Battle are often read as just that—a moment that symbolizes human loss. But, I wonder, what if there’s a larger picture that allows a longer view of the world within the poem, exceeding the loss that permeates its human subject matter? And—crucially to the larger argument of the chapter—what if it’s precisely that larger picture that makes the world of the humans in the poem so endlessly painful and brutal, their achievements so short-lived?
Hence my interest in the raven and the wolf. If the raven “succeeded at the meal,” then there seems to be an intimation that humans can be considered part of a larger configuration than just the endlessly failing human communities the poem portrays. In the chapter, I borrow the Actor-Network theory term collectivity for this, but we could just as easily call it an eco-system or a network. Even the term “reafian” suggests the ways in which the animals here participate in an action that allows them a degree of agency previously granted only to the humans in the poem. The use of “reafian” provides a disjunctive echoing of two earlier uses of the same verb. At 1212, the first use of reafian describes the actions undertaken by the Frisian warriors after a failed attack by Hygelac: “worse battle-warriors plundered the slaughtered” (wyrsan wig-frecan wæl reafeden). Frisian warriors plunder Geatish ones. At line 2985, a similar usage occurs in Wulf and Eofor’s defeat of Ongenþeow: “Then the warrior plundered the other, took from Ongenþeow his iron byrnie, his hard sword hilt and also his helmet” (Þenden reafode rinc oðerne, nam on Ongenðio iren-byrnan heard swyrd hilted ond his helm somod). Human warriors take the things that matter in a human world by plundering bodies for war-gear. The wolf and the raven, on the other hand, plunder human bodies for what such creatures value: a meal of meat.
And in the end, the raven and the wolf seem to be some of the only victors we see in the poem. Heorot burns. The Geats, and their leader Wiglaf, will be annihilated. Beowulf is dead. Even the dragon met his end. But the raven and wolf disrupt the poem’s studied meditation on death and ending. Perhaps they even offer a glimpse of the world in which Beowulf and his Geatish warriors operate – where animals and metals exist on a similar plane as the humans who use and interact with them, and where sometimes these creatures and things “succeed” where humans and human institutions fail. Maybe beyond the poem, and beyond Beowulf himself – there’s a whole world.
Tuesday, May 17, 2011
by Mary Kate Hurley
Tuesday, November 09, 2010
One of the many things I’ve had to do this semester as I prepare for and apply to job postings is write a statement of teaching philosophy. I’ve luckily done quite a bit of teaching – at Columbia we have up to three years of University Writing, one year of Teaching Assistantship, and an optional two years in the Core (either Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization). I took the Writing track – one year as a TA, five semesters in University Writing, one semester teaching the Introduction to the Major course. All that goes to say: I’ve definitely taught in graduate school. I’ve loved every minute of it.
But as my job market seminar discussed two of our colleagues’ teaching statements, I realized that this is a genre I’m not familiar with, and one for which I feel oddly ill-prepared to write. My first statement of philosophy skewed toward the autobiographical: “I am the student of great teachers, here’s what I learned from them about pedagogy.” But that misses the point of a teaching statement, I think – it displaces the responsibility for a holistic philosophy onto my past, creating out of four separate experiences a patch-work statement of pedagogical beliefs that don’t belong to me so much as they inform my teaching style.
And so, at the suggestion of an adviser, I turned to the medieval to try and find a pedagogical model. But which what statement or character from medieval literature would offer the best model? I found this a paradoxically difficult question to answer...after all, I’ve spent most of my adult life learning about and from the Middle Ages, surely there’s a “teaching pedagogy” in there somewhere!
Beowulf was my initial thought. However, although you can excavate a pedagogy from the poem, I’m not sure that “hack things to death with a sword in order to understand them better” is the best idea for a teaching statement. I over simplify, obviously, but it still just didn’t ring true as a source for me. One could turn to Augustine, I suppose, or perhaps Abelard, but neither one is really my style.
Chaucer, I finally decided, would be my best bet. But which Chaucer to choose? The Clerk seems too obvious – “gladly would he learn and gladly teach,” but that doesn’t really lend itself to a philosophy. It’s just a statement of who I am, and though it has the virtue of being familiar it’s also a little bit clichéd. The quote from Parliament of Fowles, “For life is so short, the craft so long to learn” didn’t seem quite like what I wanted either – again, it’s true, but it’s not a philosophy. There’s a whole section of the Physicians’ Tale on how to raise children (aimed at governesses and parents) but I wasn’t overly fond of it either, and I’ve never been particularly enamored of the Physician’s Tale.
In the end, I finally settled on what I hope was a less obvious but more productive choice for my pedagogical model: The Wife of Bath. A counterintuitive choice, perhaps, but her argument for “Experience” as the best teacher gave me a fruitful starting place to think about how I teach literature – I attempt to give my students the experience of analysis and argument by helping them to participate in the formation of both.
My statement of teaching philosophy’s in the mail already, so my answer’s less interesting to me than everyone else’s – do any readers have a pedagogical model from the Middle Ages that they draw their teaching philosophy from? Or, come to think of it, any go-to quotes on teaching that they turn to when it comes time to form a pedagogical philosophy?
Cross posted at ITM.
Posted by Mary Kate Hurley at 6:34 PM
Thursday, May 06, 2010
by Mary Kate Hurley
Back in April (where does the time go?), I and several of my manuscript group colleagues went to see the special exhibit on the Art of the Limbourg brothers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A page-by-page exhibit of the Belles Heures of Jean de Berry, the immensity of the exhibit was and still is overwhelming. Favorite parts: I always enjoy the illuminations of saints and their passions (possibly because I like being able to identify them by their method of death – ah, the morbid curiosities of being a Medievalist!), but one image of the Crucifixion struck me as particularly unique and even perhaps a bit bizarre: Folio 145v. The darkness of the illumination, signifying the darkening of the skies at Christ’s death, contrasts starkly with the previous illumination, Folio 145r.
Although the Belles Heures were the reason I attended the exhibition, what I did not expect was to meet an interest from my past at another exhibition, of the Mourners from tomb of John the Fearless, on loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Dijon. I can’t recommend seeing these two exhibits enough.
A. Ghosts of the Past
In college, I had several long-standing interests, many of which were formed in a few classes taken in my sophomore year. In Dr. Overing’s “Old English Language and Literature” I met the Wanderer (not to mention that other guy, Beowulf). In Dr. Villagomez’s “Piety and Place” I began a project on Sasanian Persia that culminated in my senior history thesis. In Dr. Barefield’s “The Early Middle Ages,” I met the Valois Dukes, and I pursued them all the way to their Dijon resting place.
The mourners are part of the ducal tomb sculpture of Jean sans Peur, the second Valois Duke of Burgundy (the full list: Philippe le Hardi, Jean sans Peur, Philippe le Bon and Charles le Temeraire – so that’s Philip the Bold, John the Fearless, Philip the Good and Charles the Bold – or more precisely, the Rash). Created by Jean de Marville, Claus Sluter and their workshops as part of the characteristic style of sculpture in the ducal court in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, both the tomb sculpture of Philip the Bold and John the Fearless include the pleurants. Described by the Director Emeritus of the Metropolitan, Philippe de Montebello: “The mourners of the Dukes of Burgundy, no matter how admirably conceived sculpturally and sensitively carved, were not intended to provide aesthetic pleasure but rather to mourn indefinitely. Their posture and their faces in the shadows of their cowls are designed to convey the pathos of those who were to symbolize an enduring sense of loss at the death of the grand dukes. On the other hand, it is the quality of the execution and the artistry of the figures that ensure that these are successful in their role as mourners in unending wake, a wake that has not sunk into the maw of forgotten history precisely because of that quality.” (from The Mourners: Tomb Sculpture from the Court of Burgundy)
When I began to write about the tomb sculptures at the tender age of 19, I was primarily interested in the “modern devotion” of Gerard Groote and the emphasis it put on individuality. Then and now, it was the individuality of the pleurants that I found so striking. Each one is different – their individuality makes their mourning seem sincere: no.51 (the mourners for John are nos. 41-80, where Philip’s sculptures are 1-40), with face hidden in his cowl, raises a cloth-covered hand to wipe away tears ; no. 71, described succinctly as “mourner with cap, eyes lowered”; no. 60, with hands clasped in front of his chest, eyes raised, and face pained. I still remember seeing them in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Dijon during my study-abroad time there in my junior year, thinking about each one individually, trying to understand the relationship between their individuality and the structures of theology and power of which they were remnants. It was a powerful moment for a junior in college, and re-encountering them, now as a graduate student finishing a dissertation on medieval literature – it was an odd point of contact with both the Burgundian past and my own former self. The pleurants stood in for the mourners on whom they might have been based, who once accompanied the Dukes to their resting place at Champmol – and I stood in for my younger self.
What it brought to mind most clearly, however, is the way a single intervention in the life of a student – as simple as Dr. Barefield’s suggestion that, rather than try to determine the historical veracity of Arthur (I was so ambitious back then!), I focus on Burgundian tomb sculpture because of my interest in France and studying abroad in Wake Forest’s Dijon program. Years later, I remember that conversation in his office hours, and the work it generated. What I know now, and could not have known then, is how important those moments with teachers are – the way the suggestion “Miss Hurley – go read Erwin Panofsky on Early Netherlandish Art” shaped my intellectual life for a good three years. I wrote on Claus Sluter’s sculpture, the Golden Age of Burgundy and Jan Van Eyck over the course of my history major, and it all began with that suggestion of a paper topic. And now – especially as I will not be teaching in 2010-2011 – it humbles me to think that one day, a student writing his or her dissertation might remember a conversation with me too.
The Limbourg brothers exihibit is on display until June – the pleurants, however, will be leaving New York on May 23rd. For our New York readers, and anyone with a chance to come by NYC even for a day – I cannot say how worthwhile both exhibits are, and how much you should go see them.
B. Coda, or Dissertationtopia
I fear to say “I’m back” – it always seems like a bad idea, a moment of hubris that comes under the historical heading of famous last words. But, despite my misgivings about the phrase, after six months of an MKH-free ITM – I’m back.
One of the things that no-one tells you about dissertations – or maybe I should say that I refused to believe about dissertations – is how isolating they are. Part of that comes from the hours spent in a library, to be sure – living in a carrel lit only by fluorescent bulbs doesn’t do anything for one’s intellectual social life (or one’s other social life, if there could be such a thing!). But the other part – the part I really didn’t expect – is how limited, and limiting it feels. Don’t get me wrong: I love my dissertation, and my current chapter, on Beowulf, quite a bit, and one of the joys of this past year has been learning how to really craft a sustained academic argument, and make that argument mine as organically as I can. But it seems like the focus born of being on a writing fellowship this year – that beautiful, intense, sustained focus – has an unintended side effect: it makes me nervous about talking to other scholars about anything not related directly to that work. But while that works for sustaining a project, it’s no way to sustain an academic as a human being. And so, by way of a first foray back into thinking about questions larger than the interpretation of that pesky half-line in the last part of Beowulf: I may share more than you, ITM Readers, want to know about that pesky half-line in Beowulf, but I take solace in the ability of the ITM community to draw me out of my shell, and remind me of the larger questions I’m only beginning to learn how to ask.
cross posted at ITM
Friday, October 23, 2009
by Mary Kate Hurley
I was sitting quietly in my library carrel (where I spend approx. 20 hours of every day) when a friend sent me a Gmail chat, asking “Are you going to the talk?” I was feeling a bit tired, and a bit confused – “what talk?” I typed back, thinking that there was very, very little that would get me to leave the library that day. “Stanley Fish!” he answered. “12.30 in 523 Butler. Only Grad Students and Faculty invited.” Since I didn’t have to leave the library to walk downstairs, and it was even on my side of the building, I figured I didn’t have much to lose.
I was curious, and that was the major reason I wanted to go. I’ve had my share of disagreements (one-sided to be sure) with Prof. Fish. I’ve taught him in class and read his NYTimes blog when I manage to get past my email backlog while procrastinating. I don’t always agree with him. In fact, I actually don’t think I agree with him much at all – as he’s a Miltonist, this hasn’t really been a central facet of my increasingly Beowulf-focused life in recent days (as a side note: Hi, everybody! It’s been ages!). But I’m always interested in hearing what another “giant” of the field is like when giving a talk – will he be well-spoken? Dismissive of grad student questions? Funny? Irascible?
Thus I found myself at Stanley Fish’s talk, on “Milton and Theory.”
I have to say: I was quite impressed. I found his analysis of other Miltonists quite amusing at times, and enlightening at others, if often a bit harsh. His central claim revolved around how theoretical readings of texts tend to turn the literary works they treat into “allegories” which simply prove the reader’s point, again and again. As a medievalist, I found this assertion quite interesting: I hate allegory with a firey passion, mostly because I often have trouble finding where the allegory ends and where whatever takes its place begins. Fish was speaking on a very specific kind of reading of Milton, Deconstructionist with a Capital ‘D’. Again, it’s a theory I’ve largely lost interest in as I’ve gotten further into my own work. Deconstruction is fascinating, and an important theoretical tool, but I’ve never been able to see it as more than just that, a tool.
In the end, Fish’s talk made a single claim with three major points, beyond his annoyance with other interpreters of John Milton. The claim was about “what to do with John Milton and Paradise Lost,” a question to which Fish gave three answers:
For Fish, the only one of these which was really worthwhile as a literary endeavor was the first: an avowed intentionalist, he defined his premise as believing that the text means what its author says it means. He ended the talk with a call for what he termed “professional humility,” which if I read him correctly, meant that remembering that the endeavor of the literary critic is to treat the text in a way that is limited to the text itself: in short, that we should not pretend we’re saving the world here.
I was curious about Fish’s point here. In college, while working on my senior thesis, a biweekly colloquium convened to help us work through the difficult task of writing a paper longer than anything we’d ever written. I remember one colleague, struggling with the awesome difficulty of beginning to write on Shakespeare (the details of her argument are fuzzy now) who was petrified of beginning. With everything others had said already, she explained, what could she do? What if she was wrong? I vividly remember turning to her, saying the single thing that I would give anything to be sure of now: “Shakespeare will be fine. There’s nothing you or anyone else can do to him that will ‘mess up’ the plays.”
At 21, apparently I knew something that I have trouble remembering at 27: the critics rarely become anything more than just critics. That is to say: while literary criticism is difficult and beautiful and life-changing, the consequences are perhaps more humble than our highest aspirations (or deepest fears) would have us believe.
But, returning to Fish’s talk, I was very interested in the three theses he proposed. So, like all good sixth year graduate students do at such events, I asked an evenhanded but still (I hope) engaging question. Explaining that I was a PhD candidate working with Old English texts – a tidbit of personal information that I hoped would contextualize the question I went on to ask – I inquired as to Prof. Fish’s ideas about Methodology. Is it possible to ask a fourth question of a text? I asked. Is it possible what a poem or other literary work does -- that is to say, not what does it mean so much as how does it construct this meaning? Could we productively raise a question of methodology here, and might the methodology literary scholars seek to employ also determine (or pre-determine) what types of evidence is admissable, and does this have ramifications for our enterprise?
To begin a response, Prof. Fish acknowledged that these questions were very complicated – and I’m sure they were more so when constructed on the spot during the question and answer session. But what it seemed to come down to, in his response, was that being an Intentionalist meant that one believed the text meant what its author said it meant. It is a critical affiliation, to be sure, but it is not a methodological point. Fish averred that our best option is using the “usual empirical way” – interpretation, for Fish, is an empirical activity, not a theoretical one. There is no methodology that attaches to it. This accumulation of empirical research may “take too long” – but there it is.
I’ve been mulling over this since Tuesday: what does it mean, if we are to be empirical in the pursuit of literary studies? On some levels, I suppose, it means what I always tell my students: use textual evidence. But at the same time, aren’t close readings also a form of methodology, and doesn’t empiricism hold its own theoretical rather than interpretive troubles? To wit, can’t empiricism itself proceed from a single (and allegorizing) premise? That everything is both explainable and reproducible, and moreover, that steps taken in an orderly proceeding will inevitably point us to an explanation for – well – everything?
Fish raised some important questions, and I was glad to find him humorous and erudite, and very much accepting of questions from all levels of scholars. I want to engage the points he raised, but in part I don’t know how to begin: all I know is that some of the evidence I accumulated while writing my most recently completed chapter was taken very well, and some of it was deeply disliked and disapproved of. There are, it would seem, certain ways that It Is Okay to Read Beowulf – and stepping outside those is difficult, if not impossible. How, then, to define a literary endeavor? How do we accumulate evidence to interpret a text – what tools do we have to use, and can we use them as tools rather than allegory?
What, dear readers of In the Middle, do you think? What is Methodology, and how does it relate, or not relate to Interpretation? Or to the study of Medieval Literature? Is there a difference between interpretation done in pre-modern and early modern/modern texts? And as regards literary criticsim, is there a methodology in this field?
Posted by Mary Kate Hurley at 5:33 PM
Sunday, July 05, 2009
by Mary Kate Hurley
[Iceland -- the best layover ever]
One of the myriad things I'm doing this summer is researching Aelfric's Saints Lives in London at the British Library. Yes: I am actually consulting manuscripts, which is a new and exciting research prospect for me. I've been extremely lucky in terms of funding the trip: the Medieval Academy of America generously awarded me the E.K. Rand Dissertation Grant, one of several dissertation grants which they award each year.
Of course, I'll have a lot to say about the actual process of consulting the manuscripts (and I hope to blog a bit about Leeds, which I'll be attending next week, as well). But for now I have a quick question that I'd like to put to all you Norse specialists out there.
On my way over to London, I had a 10-hour layover in Reykjavik. Just enough time to trek all over the city (I was there mostly for the landscape -- museums and manuscripts are always interesting, but I was more intrigued by the land than the stuff from those who've lived on it), and then to head back for a short stay at the unofficial waiting area for Keflavik Airport travelers.
What caught my attention, however, was on the bus rides to and from Keflavik, where I found myself intrigued by these bizarre rock formations:
Now, I've tried googling them, and although I've found a few references, finding something specific about the structures is a bit difficult. So: anything strike you, dear readers? Some half-remembered fragment of a story from graduate school days past (long past or recently past...)? These seem like a lovely addition to the many other stones we've discussed here at ITM.
cross posted toITM
Posted by Mary Kate Hurley at 3:37 PM
Sunday, May 31, 2009
by Mary Kate Hurley
Before you do anything else, make sure you read the fantastic news about the progress on Postmedieval from Eileen. Then you can read this, if you want.
There may be readers who are wondering just where I've been for the past few months. The long answer will follow, in a kind of summary reflection on teaching the Introduction to the Major course that I was assigned this semester. The short answer:
Yes, you read that title right. It's an Excel Spreadsheet. Of pronoun usage in Beowulf. Every plural pronoun, and believe me, there are a bunch of them. I have been, in short, very much an Anglo-Saxonist this semester. More on that soon, too.
What I want to write about today is the hard-working Anglo-Saxonists who gave us the Concordance to the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records and A Concordance to Beowulf. These amazing -- and hefty -- volumes do for the ASPR and Beowulf what the online Dictionary of the Old English Corpus search function does -- albeit for fewer texts and set words. Essentially, these concordances provide every occurrence of a word in the corpus of Old English poetry or Beowulf, respectively. In short, they are a quick and relatively easy way to see the relative frequencies and usages of specific words in Old English. Although there are other concordances which I may speak of at a later time, I want to focus, just for a moment, on these two texts.
Both texts were compiled by Jess Bessinger, with the programming assistance of Philip H. Smith. What's so fascinating about Concordances is both their limitations and the advantages they give to the careful reader. Highlighted in their pages are the difficulties of Old English language -- the words that are written similarly but have different meanings, or a different word-history, for example. But also highlighted in the nearly 2000 pages of these two concordances is the kind of meticulous work that graduate students like me could not get by without. These aren't the only two concordances to Old English -- they just happen to be the two I'm using at present. Which even in my work-oriented scholarly moments, I find quite awe-inspiring. I suppose that what I mean to say is that sometimes it's the work I could never have the patience for (editing a concordance, compiling statistical data about half-line usages in OE poetry, etc) that makes my work possible, and for that, I'm exceedingly grateful.
cross posted at ITM.
Posted by Mary Kate Hurley at 12:58 PM
Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Readers at ITM and Old English in New York may remember that the topic of my first chapter is the Old English Orosius. You may remember, way back in November, when I revising my chapter on the Orosius, I was having a bit of trouble straightening out the terms with which I spoke of the various voices in the text.
I'm working, again, on revising that same old text. You can see a small snippet of what I've been doing with it here. However, in the past few weeks or so I've been trying to tap into my formerly quite creative side, which sometimes gets sublimated by both a lack of time and a lack of interest. I don't have time to draw anymore, for example. But in the past couple weeks, I've taken to literally sketching out some of my arguments in the chapter, to help me keep straight the number of elements, levels, or names that appear in the essay.
The fruits of today's labor? The following diagram. Please note that, should it make it to the final copy of my dissertation chapter, I'll redraw it and make it a bit cleaner:
The "legend," if you will, is the following.
cross posted to ITM