Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It is time...

Time for what, you ask? Another blog post! After all, there will be no time for blog posting next Monday (you may have noticed I post every two weeks, on Mondays) as I will be returning to North Carolina! Who knows, this might even signal a change in my blogging soon as this semester wears off, I will be a much calmer human being.

In the meantime, it's safe to say I've survived my first semester of teaching University Writing. I had a great group of students who did really amazing work. So on the last day of class I indulged in a bit of silliness that is quite typically me. I asked everybody to bring in a paragraph of their favorite piece of writing (and a good reason why it was their favorite piece). I got some interesting results.

I brought in my own favorite piece, which is one of the few endings to a book I have practically memorized...

"There would be a day--there must be a day--when he would come back to Gramarye with a new Round Table which had no borders, just as the world had none--a table without boundaries between the nations who would sit to feast there. The hope of making it would lie in culture. If people could be persuaded to read and write, not just to eat and make love, there was still a chance that they might come to reason."

It's T.H. White, of course -- The Once and Future King. I may have mentioned here before that I once gave a speech at an awards function at Wake. It was a bizarre little collection of reflections I wrote mostly in Charles de Gaulle airport while waiting up all night for my plane home from Spring Break in Paris. It was about the medieval, Tolkien, T.H. White, the Madrid bombings, "hope for humanity"* and, finally, what I learned in college. Or perhaps it was more accurately what I hoped I'd learned in college, what I wanted to have learned after four years. It was hopelessly over-reaching, and probably more than a bit over-dramatic -- and way too enamored of the experience I'd just completed. But one rather memorable line for me -- "At Wake Forest, we are given four years to do just that – to read and write, to come to reason and find for ourselves a measure of hope."

I never quite came to the reason bit of that, though there was reading and writing enough. And the reading and writing continue. So when I brought in a quote for my students -- my first students -- I wanted to give them that idea, the possibility that college can be very much what you make it, and can therefore be an amazing opportunity for thinking. I've no idea if they got it -- but I suppose one never really knows, in the end. If nothing else, there was reading and writing this semester. And some decent questions along the way. I'd say -- it was a success.

I reserve the right, of course, to retract that statement by tomorrow night, when I will have read final papers for the class.

Though to be fair, I'm almost certain there will be no need.

*Yeah. I wish that was a typo. On the bright side, I didn't know what hope for humanity was. And didn't try to come up with its definition on the spot. Looking back, I suppose on some level it's Gandalf's hope -- a fool's hope. But yes. How we grow in graduate school, at least enough to be slightly embarrassed by the audacities of our undergrad selves......


Monday, December 04, 2006

Reading Bakhtin

I've been reading back through Bakhtin again, taking notes on what I've been working on -- and I've found a surprising number of thoughts that are useful, or interesting, or just downright beautiful. Sometimes he's even haunting.

So today I'll leave it at a quote from Bakhtin:

“All forms involving a narrator or a posited author signify to one degree or another by their presence the author’s freedom from a unitary and singular language, a freedom connected with the relativity of literary and language systems; such forms open up the possibility of never having to define oneself in language, the possibility of translating one’s own intentions from one linguistic system into another, of fusing “the language of truth” with “the language of the everyday,” of saying “I am me” in someone else’s language, and in my own language, “I am other.” (Dialogic Imagination, 315)

The possibility of speaking in another's language -- now that's an intriguing thought. More on this, on Roy Liuzza's article "The Tower of Babel: 'The Wanderer' and the Ruins of History" (suggested reading from Eileen Joy), and on what else I've been doing in my second two week hiatus in a month.

In other news -- almost winter break!


Monday, November 20, 2006

Looking Forward to Old English (and its Study)

It’s one of those times I’ve learned to really enjoy in the medieval blogosphere – we all seem to be thinking about the same things lately. Eileen Joy over at In the Middle has sparked a wide ranging discussion of futurity and the work of medieval studies. Dr. Virago added her thoughts with her moving post on Speaking for the Dead, and Heo Cwaeth, a while back, also had some important thoughts.

I’ve been off-blog for a bit – room mates moving out, moving in, and setting up house pretty much consumed my life – but I’m aiming for something a little less “cooked” here, assuming I understand the terminology that’s being used over at In the Middle (I’ve a penchant for stealing terms that I like. I like how I understand this). So some not-too-worked-over thoughts that have been ruminated on while moving heavy objects, falling asleep on the IKEA bus, and assembling IKEA furniture.

In a comment to my last post (was it really nearly two weeks ago now? Wow.), JJC made the following comment:

The project of translating that which does not yet exist (and yet the existence of which is, it seems, indisputable) is a more difficult version of the the medievalist's plight: to translate the languages that did exist, but because they were alive and because they endured for a long time and because they exist now only in deceptive fragments, to be forced into translations that are always out of time, always stories about petrified remains and not living, changing things. Or even more frustrating, to attempt to translate languages and learn in that process that our knowledge is doomed to recede, not grow.

Meanwhile, in my email inbox, I received a note from LJS, a poet and infrequent commenter on various blogs. He’d been catching up on his blog reading and saw the link to the letter JJC wrote to Capitol One via the Tiny Shriner Review. He’d seen a comment I’d made, about my orals, and it led to a moment of real wonder, for him and subsequently for me:

But I also noticed this comment from you: “Makes the prospect of starting reading for orals a little daunting -- a whole year to rework what I thought I'd learned about the Middle Ages. Then again, that's kind of why I'm looking forward to it.”

And I misread it the first time (skipping ahead) as referring to the Middle Ages. And there seems something so possible and inevitable in the fact that one might -- indeed, might have to -- look forward to the Middle Ages.

(And I realize this operates in two senses: an Anglo-Saxonist looking forward as her texts' writers and readers might have done; and a modern commentator rethinking her relationship to the past and looking forward to the Anglo-Saxon era rather than looking back, from the Castle of Teleological Supremacy and Capitol One cards)

LJS is hitting on something that I think is all tied up in the quote from LeGuin I mentioned in my last post, and moreover, in Eileen’s reaction to it, which I quote here:

regardless of the past-ness of the historical artifact, whether the "Beowulf" manuscript or Hadrian's Wall--it is primarily here with us right now, and is therefore also modern in some way [much like human beings, with their biological genealogy, are both historically-shaped and moving along in the present]. While it might be important to know how and for what reasons "Beowulf" was written down in the tenth or early eleventh century, a more urgent question for me is: why would anyone want to read it, or write it [again] now?

Putting all these ideas in conversation – and moreover, putting them in conversation with the idea Dr. V picks up in her post “Speaking for the Dead” – it seems like there is, in fact, a way of seeing the world differently – not from the Castle of Teleological Supremacy but from the basis that we do, in fact, have something in common with those people of the past we study. That we can, in fact, learn from the past. And I don’t mean that in the sense of “those who do not learn from the past are destined to repeat their mistakes,” though that certainly matters deeply. Rather, I wonder if there’s a way of learning from the past that comes closer to what LJS suggests, closer to giving a reason for Eileen’s question of “why would anyone want to read [Beowulf], or write it (again) now?” Is there a way to think of looking forward to the Middle Ages as “an Anglo-Saxonist looking forward as her texts' writers and readers might have done; and a modern commentator rethinking her relationship to the past and looking forward to the Anglo-Saxon era”? Again, not to recreate the past, and not to live in it in any way, not even nostalgically. But isn’t there a way of seeing the continuity of the past and the present without a teleological fallacy coming into play? Isn’t there something instructive in the very grammar of the English language that, should we learn to read it, we might be able to see as part of what’s happening in the present? Or is that a teleological wolf in sheep’s clothing?

JJC’s comment, to return to where I began my endless quotation, suggested that the medievalist’s plight is this – “to translate the languages that did exist, but because they were alive and because they endured for a long time and because they exist now only in deceptive fragments, to be forced into translations that are always out of time, always stories about petrified remains and not living, changing things.” It’s true – our stories are always about the petrified remains of a past so long dead that it seems it has no bearing on the living. But I wonder if it isn’t also like the enta geweorc of the elegies. I don’t believe (ok, everyone who knows my work cover your ears now, I’m talking about it again!) that the pat ending of the Wanderer is the real story, if you will. He’s transported, teleported almost, into a Christian reality that doesn’t seem to follow on the existential musings of the poem as it progresses – as it was spoken, and as it was (perhaps) lived. Thus, although the walls of the poem are a site of mourning, and of loss, they don’t only stand for that. Rather, they could also be the past that persists in the present – and as Eileen said above (and in comments below), the past is always still present, with us – here and now. Walls can speak, in their own way – if we can learn to listen.

And now to student meetings, which shall prevent further musings on this subject until tomorrow, when I make my escape for the holiday!


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Translating the Future

So, to celebrate the victory of the Democratic party -- EVEN in the once staunchly Red State North Carolina! -- I thought I'd take a break from my work (endless, endless meetings with my students) to write a quick post on something I've been thinking about lately.

I wrote a really crazy paper for my linguistics class last night, that I wish I had called "The Time-Travelling King." The focus of the paper was on translation in the Alfredian context -- i.e., the ways in which translation and knowledge are figured in the translations of King Alfred, and how it works with ideas of English-ness. I feel like a group of Anglo-Saxonists would have been a bit more up in arms about it than the class was. Anyway, the most interesting thing I managed to say in the essay (if I do say so myself) was, characteristically, not mine. In fact, it wasn't even technically part of my essay. But I'd stumbled across this quote in the preface to the Ursula K. LeGuin book Always Coming Home, and it seemed to crystallize some ideas I've been having:

The difficulty of translating from a language that doesn’t yet exist is considerable, but there’s no need to exaggerate it. The past, after all, can be quite as obscure as the future. The ancient Chinese book called the Tao teh ching has been translated into English dozens of times, and indeed the Chinese have to keep retranslating it into Chinese at every cycle of Cathay, but no translation can give us the book that Lao Tze (who may not have existed) wrote. All we have is the Tao teh ching that is here, now. And so with translations from a literature of the (or a) future. The fact that it hasn’t yet been written, the mere absence of a text to translate, doesn’t make all that much difference. What was and what may be lie, like children whose faces we cannot see, in the arms of silence. All we ever have is here, now.

The way in which LeGuin thinks about her book -- a book of cultural artifacts (stories, songs, etc) from a civilization that is still far in the future -- reminded me of the translation topos of so many writers in the Middle Ages. They use the past, and the stories of other peoples, to think through their own time, but the movement is similar: they think about themselves, but they think about it in stories rather than in sociology. In some ways, I suppose, this ties in (albeit vaguely at this point) to the question of the future of medieval studies that's always in discussion over at JJC's site (check out particularly the posts from the symposium at George Washington last week). I guess we're always running up against the problem of not quite having the vocabulary yet to push beyond the questions we already know how to ask -- in that arena I think Eileen's comments on this post really hit the mark.

Once my computer returns from the shop I'll have more to say on that subject, after ruminating on it not unlike Caedmon. And, given that there will be no internet -- it will in fact be a lot like the dark ages.

In the meantime, however, I give you the arguably second best news of the day to close my post: as Dr. Virago reports yet another dark age has ended.


Tuesday, October 31, 2006

More Questions than Answers

So, after a two day stretch of frantic grading, I've reached a milestone in my academic career. I have officially pulled my first all-nighter grading papers.

As a reward for its brilliant efforts in the struggle, my computer is being sent off to the HP people to get it fixed. Thank goodness for warranties. Given that this thing is only 2 months old, it has no right to break down. Particularly not when I've been treating is so well.

But at any rate -- I spent my long night reading essays on animals rights and the metaphor of "finding the rain in everything." And more than once, I found myself musing on what the point of all this mess is -- all the grading, all the writing, all the reading and talking and interviewing -- and moreover, why I still find it all to be so much fun.

Yes, I do include the grading in that.

I think it must have something to do with my syllabus that I've set for my students. The course is composition -- nothing too difficult, though teaching it can often seem terrible. However, I have managed to compose a syllabus that is, by design, aiming to cause a kind of identity crisis. I think that heightens my interest somewhat. When everything revolves around cultural constructions, self and other, ambiguity, paradox, identity and the construction of "home" -- well, it has inspired some really interesting essays, and I'll be intrigued to see what we get out of our final segment, which will treat animal rights OR an essay by Martha Nussbaum. I'll keep you all posted. This could get interesting.

In the realm of my orals, progress is slow -- however, I have re-done my translation of the first Advent riddle. The comments from the class were fascinating; moreover, they directly contradict what a Very Famous Poet said about translation, i.e., that it should sounds like a coherent, modern, American English poem. My class wanted it to be less in a modern idiom -- the preserve some of its strangeness, its "Germanic wildness" (yes, I quote -- I would never say something like that, but then again, I suppose that's why this whole School of the arts class thing has been so liberating). So I think I may have found a way to preserve the Anglo-Saxon-ness of the poem without sacrificing the important parts of it. I have a lot of thoughts on what I'm trying to pack in here -- mostly the syncretic nature of Anglo Saxon Society, as well as the valence of the walls, and the unspeakable presence of something Other -- but that's another post, for when I've actually slept perhaps.

So, a Halloween Present. A Treat, if you will. Or, if you judge is so -- a terrible, terrible trick. All feedback welcome on this -- I have no idea what I've done or if it's any good to medievalists, so I'd be interested to hear what you think. Try to imagine it arranged on the page as an edited, Old English poem would be. I can't toy around with the HTML any more this morning, and I can't get it to work. Check out my first version here.

Advent Lyric One

for the King
You are the wallstone which the craftsmen
rejected long ago from the work
You sit by right the head of the hall
mend the wide standing walls with
firm fastenings flint unbroken
so throughout the world eyes might see
and all might wonder at world-king’s glory
revealed through art— your own craft—
truth-fast and victory bright
but soon lost wall from walls
Now is the work so difficult that
the master-craftsman comes and the king
he himself shall restore
what now is fallen house under roof
with an earthly radiance— a penance he shaped

Now the Life-lord sets the weary ones
free from evils sorrows of monsters


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Escape to the Middle Ages

So a few weekends ago -- and I must apologize for the delay in blogging this, between the Medieval Guild Conference last weekend and the symposium on early Bibles ( In the Beginning) this weekend in DC at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, I've been a pretty busy Anglo-Saxonist graduate student -- I attended the lovely Medieval Festival in Fort Tryon park at the northern edge of Manhattan.

The Cloisters is one of my favorite places to do work -- it's a safe bet, on a quiet Saturday or Sunday, you'll find me up there, grading papers, enjoying the peace that only a medieval cloister can bring. And there is a strange, pleasant feeling of solitude that comes with being in the cloisters, and working there as opposed to in my apartment or at the library. It's lovely.

But this weekend, Fort Tryon park was anything but quiet, and my normally serene Cloisters were mobbed with people experiencing what they seemed to think of as "The Middle Ages" -- a kind of escape from modern realities complete with ironworking --

not to mention, knighting ceremonies complete with a king and queen to perform them --

and if you don't think I was jealous of the little girl above, who was being knighted Sir Gareth, think again.

However, the whole thing raised among my friends and I -- þam Flowendegiedum (a fellow Anglo-Saxonist) and one of my other colleagues and dear friends whom I shall call LateMedievalist -- some interesting questions that I for one have no idea how to answer. Now, I have no problem with people who participate in historical re-enactment, SCA or the like (though I tend to find the whole thing a bit dubious, there's a part of me that wouldn't mind dressing up and pretending again, as I was quite into make-believe as a child and have never found quite that sort of forum for my quite underused imagination). However, LateMedievalist brought up a really interesting point about all of this dressing up -- i.e., that everyone dresses up as a knight, or a lady, or a king.

Nobody is willing to play the serfs, and god knows the grand majority of us would have fallen into that category. The non-noble characters present often were dressed in what Flowendegiedum diplomatically called "Ale-House Wench Aesthetics" and I, less generously, referred to as "The Medieval Skank." Rich costuming and half-dressed women.

So what kind of Middle Ages are they embracing? It almost certainly isn't the "Real" Middle Ages, though I'd imagine we're all old enough to admit we're never going to find that one. Yet, what it is it about this fantasy of the lives of lords and ladies that's so deeply appealing to so many? What is it about that opulent world that makes us want to be a part of it? Is it the simple myth that life was better "back then"? That the past was somehow better than the always difficult and always frightening present?

I've always admired the film "The Lion in Winter" for its stark portrayal of the Angevin Henry II Plantagenet and his queen, the incomparable Eleanor of Aquitaine (played to startling perfection by Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn). The opulence of the medieval aristocracy is quite clear in the film -- not quite as gold laden or frilly as the movie Marie Antoinette (which I saw this evening, and which is another post entirely), but still endlessly rich and extravagant. And heartwrenching. Perhaps they are pawns of fate and power and the times, but Henry and Eleanor are pitiable in their glory. Eleanor herself sums it up for me, speaking to her sons near the end of the film:

It's 1183 and we're barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history's forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can't we love one another just a little - that's how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.

We have such possibilities. We could change the world. The limited-ness of the medieval artistocracy and particularly of the medieval monarchy seems so clear in Eleanor's words in the movie. Written hundreds of years later, The Lion in Winter seems to get to the heart of certain matters, not least of which was how unromantic the Middle Ages can be. What was striking about the medieval festival was how that vision of the medieval was lost. In the modern Renaissance Faire, we can all be lords and ladies, there is no plague, war is a simple game and the past is resplendant in all its finery.

But I wonder what one could find at the core of it all. And I wonder what it would change about the way we perceive modernity, if the medieval wasn't quite what we picture it as. If there were serfs and peasants -- and if the aristocracy wasn't quite so glorious after all.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Why Aren't We Shocked?

I briefly interrupt my medieval focus to focus on another issue that for me is inseparable from my studies -- the way in which violence against women, the objectifying of women, and more disturbingly the sexualization of younger and younger girls has slowly become something that American culture in many instances not only tolerates but celebrates. Bob Herbert, in today's New York Times, has written an article, entitled "Why Aren't We Shocked?". Sadly it is only available via Times Select, and so has to be paid for. However, I had it forwarded to me by a friend in its entirety -- and I reproduce parts of it here:

In the recent shootings at an Amish schoolhouse in rural Pennsylvania and a large public high school in Colorado, the killers went out of their way to separate the girls from the boys, and then deliberately attacked only the girls.

Ten girls were shot and five killed at the Amish school. One girl was killed and a number of others were molested in the Colorado attack.

In the widespread coverage that followed these crimes, very little was made of the fact that only girls were targeted. Imagine if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids up on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids. Or only the white kids. Or only the Jews.

There would have been thunderous outrage. The country would have first recoiled in horror, and then mobilized in an effort to eradicate that kind of murderous bigotry. There would have been calls for action and reflection. And the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime.

None of that occurred because these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected. Stories about the rape, murder and mutilation of women and girls are staples of the news, as familiar to us as weather forecasts. The startling aspect of the Pennsylvania attack was that this terrible thing happened at a school in Amish country, not that it happened to girls.


We have a problem. Staggering amounts of violence are unleashed on women every day, and there is no escaping the fact that in the most sensational stories, large segments of the population are titillated by that violence. We've been watching the sexualized image of the murdered 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey for 10 years. JonBenet is dead. Her mother is dead. And we're still watching the video of this poor child prancing in lipstick and high heels.

What have we learned since then? That there's big money to be made from thongs, spandex tops and sexy makeovers for little girls. In a misogynistic culture, it's never too early to drill into the minds of girls that what really matters is their appearance and their ability to please men sexually.

A girl or woman is sexually assaulted every couple of minutes or so in the U.S. The number of seriously battered wives and girlfriends is far beyond the ability of any agency to count. We're all implicated in this carnage because the relentless violence against women and girls is linked at its core to the wider society's casual willingness to dehumanize women and girls, to see them first and foremost as sexual vessels — objects — and never, ever as the equals of men.

"Once you dehumanize somebody, everything is possible," said Taina Bien-Aimé, executive director of the women's advocacy group Equality Now.

That was never clearer than in some of the extreme forms of pornography that have spread like nuclear waste across mainstream America. Forget the embarrassed, inhibited raincoat crowd of the old days. Now Mr. Solid Citizen can come home, log on to this $7 billion mega-industry and get his kicks watching real women being beaten and sexually assaulted on Web sites with names like "Ravished Bride" and "Rough Sex — Where Whores Get Owned."

Then, of course, there's gangsta rap, and the video games where the players themselves get to maul and molest women, the rise of pimp culture (the Academy Award-winning song this year was "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp"), and on and on.

You're deluded if you think this is all about fun and games. It's all part of a devastating continuum of misogyny that at its farthest extreme touches down in places like the one-room Amish schoolhouse in normally quiet Nickel Mines, Pa.

I've reproduced a good amount of the article here -- however, if you want the entirety, please email me at ic.eom.anhaga[at], and I will forward the rest to you. The misogyny associated with the Middle Ages ISN'T a thing of the past -- it's something women face to this day, in forms made all the more insidious because we refuse to acknowledge them AS misogyny. This violence isn't theoretical, and its implications are devastatingly human, in origin and result -- and the action of humans is the only thing that will ever expose and end it.


Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Writing in Place

I'm planning a post about the New York Medieval Festival that I attended along with a couple of medievalist colleagues this Sunday.

However, I wanted to write first about a snap teaching decision I made this past week. My students, not entirely happy with the choices of texts I gave them, asked me if there would be any more texts for this assignment, since they didn't quite know how to use what I'd given them.

Now, we've been focusing rather broadly throughout the semester on issues of identity construction and the like -- it's a writing course, so I figure what better to write about than things liable to give a freshman an existential crisis? Those were the things I loved to read at that age. Anyway, they've been doing a great job with some tough texts. We've moved into issues of place, and the way in which places -- particularly home, but also wilderness and frontier -- are not simply facts, but constructed places -- and that our observations of them are necessarily colored by those constructions.

So when they asked me for more to read about place, and about home -- I knew immediately what I would assign them.

As with many of my medievalist colleagues, I was immensely saddened by news of the death of Nicholas Howe a couple of weeks ago. I've decided that this semester I'll give my students the option of writing on something of his, from Across an Inland Sea. I'm going to take some time over the end of the semester to try and work something of his writing into the course as I've mapped it out for next semester. Nick gave a talk here in New York last year for the ASSC, and I will never forget how much I learned from it. His writing has always been inspiring for me, though I know it half as well as I would like to. I suppose I'll be learning from him for a long time yet -- but it's still strange to think that a professor I knew had passed into the ranks of the professors whose words I've read so many years after their deaths.

Next time -- Medieval Festival 2006, NYC

In the meantime, check out JKW's site for information about his participation in a conference taking place this weekend, sponsored by Columbia University's Medieval Guild. With Alastair Minnis on Margery Kempe and a varied cast of other medievalists from around New York City and across the country, Medieval Instabilities looks to be a pretty fascinating event. I know I'm looking forward to it.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Advent Lyrics

So one of the reasons my blogging has fallen off considerably in the past few weeks is my ongoing struggle with translation. This semester, as part of my attempt to think about translation not simply as a scholarly tool but as a literary form in itself, I've been taking a class in the writing division at my university that is essentially a seminar/workshop on translation. Granted, I'm the only early language person in there -- everyone else is translating a modern language, mostly European (with one translator working on Japanese). And so I'm finally having to engage -- really engage -- with the questions of how to make Old English both accurate and accessible.

Tomorrow I'll be presenting on the Advent Lyrics -- and for the class I've translated the first of them. Note that in Krapp and Dobbie this is called simply Christ, split into three parts (A, B, and C). I figured it might be worth posting what I have online, to see what everyone else thinks. I'm still in limbo between too much closeness to the OE and not enough -- would be curious to hear opinions on the topic. It's a familiar lyric I'd imagine -- at least, I know I can remember it as part of a responsory psalm in church from when I was growing up.

So here you are: Lyric One of the Advent Lyrics (text from Krapp and Dobbie)

ðu eart se weallstan þe ða wyrhtan iu
wiðwurpon to weorce. Wel þe geriseð
þæt þu heafod sie healle mærre,
ond gesomnige side weallas
fæste gefoge, flint unbræcne,
þæt geond eorðb... ...g eall eagna gesihþe
wundrien to worlde wuldres ealdor.
Gesweotula nu þurh searocræft þin sylfes weorc,
soðfæst, sigorbeorht, ond sona forlæt
weall wið wealle. Nu is þam weorce þearf
þæt se cræftga cume ond se cyning sylfa,
ond þonne gebete, nu gebrosnad is,
hus under hrofe. He þæt hra gescop,
leomo læmena; nu sceal liffrea
þone wergan heap wraþum ahreddan,
earme from egsan, swa he oft dyde.

And my translation:

…to the king.
You are the wall-stone, which the workers
long ago rejected from the building. It is most fitting
that you are now at the head of the great hall,
and join the wide-standing walls with
a firm fastening, and unbroken stones,
so that throughout the world all eyes may behold
and wonder at the glory of the world’s king.
Revealed now through the craft of your own working,
firm in truth and victory-bright, and soon lost,
wall towards wall. Now is the work so difficult,
that the craftsman approaches, and the king himself,
and then restores what is now broken,
the house under the roof. He shaped a penance,
with earthen radiance; now shall the Lord of Life
set the weary troop free from evils,
free from the wretchedness of monsters,
as he often has done.


Monday, September 25, 2006

The Epic Saga continues...

Funny how our sense of word changes over time. As I typed the title to this post, I realized that Epic and Saga are, in some ways, closely related. Of course, in this instance, "epic" has become an adjective and Saga remains a noun. Which makes all the difference, right? R.W. Southern wrote about "From Epic to Romance" as the movement of medieval literature -- but what on earth would he have done with an epic romance?

Anyway, I'm swamped with work of late. I seem to be slowly sinking into the abyss of only vegetating in my spare time -- I watch a lot of TV while sending emails and doing other tasks (in mere moments I plan to flip on Buffy the Vampire Slayer while folding laundry). Granted, there isn't much spare time in the end -- I've been really slammed with extra worries this past week (including a death of a friend's dad last weekend and his wake and funeral, and my mom's hospitalization...though thankfully she's fine). However, I am continuing to adore teaching -- I feel like it's something I really have a talent for. I have to say that tonight -- otherwise I'll get too depressed when drafts come in tomorrow! However, they're engaging their assignments with enthusiasm worthy of -- well -- really enthusiastic people! which is good, since enthusiasm is pretty much all I have to offer them as a first-year instructor. So at least it's lively.

Have also begun my orals reading -- Finished From Memory to Written Record and have moved to De Doctrina Christiana. I'm already feeling confident I've done the right thing orals-wise too -- everything seems to fit in quite nicely. But more on that another time.

For now, laundry awaits, as does my reasoning behind my title: You might have heard that J.R.R. Tolkien is publishing his final volume from beyond the grave. As an informal poll, how many of you have read all that extra stuff Christopher Tolkien has made available? Not all of it -- just any part. Including Silmarillion. And most importantly -- what did you think?


Monday, September 18, 2006

To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before

Imagine my suprise when I saw this article in the New York Times.

I've been saying for years -- with little to no irony -- that Star Trek was one of the most fascinating shows I'd ever seen, because of its social consciousness. Although Ron Moore is certainly a biased author (as he freely admits here) -- I'm glad to find that there's some one else out there who realized. Star Trek was an important part of my movement from the conservative background I grew up in to the more liberal stance I've taken today. Its role as social commentary was astoundingly inflential for me: I still remember the aliens who were at eternal war because they were black and white -- but one was black on the left, white on the right, and in the other it was reversed. And though the later shows were certainly more complex, they too addressed difficult issues in ways I, in high school, could identify with and understand -- witness the commentary on religion and politics that was brought to the fore in Deep Space Nine, with the tensions between the Bajoran provisional government after the Cardassian occupations and the theocracy preferred by members of the religious order, like Kai Winn (played to a malificent perfection by Louise Fletcher).

I think Moore sums it up for me when he says this:

Kirk, for me, embodied an American idea: His mission was to explore the final frontier, not to conquer it. He was moral without moralizing. Week after week, he confronted the specters of intolerance and injustice, and week after week found a way to defeat them without ever becoming them. Jim Kirk may have beat up his share of bad guys, but you could never imagine him torturing them.

A favorite quote: “We’re human beings, with the blood of a million savage years on our hands. But we can stop it. We can admit that we’re killers, but we won’t kill today.” Kirk clearly understood humanity’s many flaws, yet never lost faith in our ability to rise above the muck and reach for the stars.

Ok, so Moore's romancing a bit -- I'll give him that Kirk didn't torture the alien bad guys, but I have to say that the whole "conquer their women" thing is a little murkier. And god knows its a terribly fine line. But all my academic inclinatiosn aside, he's right -- One need look no further than Star Trek VI : The Undiscovered Country to make the point. When the high chancellor of the Klingon empire speaks to Kirk on the subject of the possibility of peace (and it is important to remember that the Klingons were the bad guys throughout the original series) he sums up the problem that will plague them: "If there is to be a brave new world, it's going to be our generation that has the hardest time living in it." Star Trek may be kitsch at moments but I think it's the refusal to take it seriously that is so deeply sad. It models so well what television can be, what it can do. The questions it can raise that the majority of people never have a forum to ask, or consider.

I guess my point is that Star Trek, though certainly simplistic in many ways (not least of which its approach to Jim Kirk's role as "American idea"), was a vision of the future I, like Moore, could hope for. Maybe humanity would improve. Maybe we could learn from the past. Maybe there was hope for the future. Maybe Star Trek, for all its nerd status, got one thing right: Television is a place where social commentary and serious reflection can take place. It doesn't always have to be simple entertainment, or "reality TV" that only proves we haven't the slightest idea of what the first term means.

So -- yes. This, I suppose, is why I don't really mind being a dork.

In other notes, after a long hiatus I am back to blogging. May not be as frequent as I'd like, but I do hope to use it as I begin my orals reading. Which, for the record, is officially begun: I started it with From Memory to Written Record this weekend. Coming up this week: Augustine, translation theory and Derrida. And more teaching, which I am adoring. But more on all that another time.


Tuesday, September 05, 2006

And so it begins...

...a new school year, and a new phase of my career as a student. This time, as a student and as a teacher. That's right, I am officially a teacher as of today. At 9.10 AM, I began my first freshman composition course. I was a little sleepy and nervous. They were a little sleepy and nervous. We talked about what writing is, what it can do -- what we wish to do in this course. I made an aesthetically pleasing syllabus, and realized that I have no sense of how long things take.

I let them go early, with no homework (it's their first day, first class -- moreover, first day and first class of college). Thursday things start in earnest -- exercises, reading, writing. But today we sat, new teacher with equally new students, introduced ourselves, and laughed over the rain that has been falling in the City for over a week (with a short break this weekend, to be fair).

I think it's going to be a great year.

Moreover, I think it's going to be a fun career.

And now I'm off to a linguistics course. Life is good.


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Breaking News in Old English Studies! Beowulf = Fact!

Pointed out by morganLF over on the medievalstudies community at Livejournal, and passed on to me by a colleague, check out the news about Beowulf:

Turns out that it's all true. Yes, you heard me correctly:

Only one manuscript of the original poem exists. People found it, partly burned, in England about five hundred years after Beowulf lived. No one knows who originally wrote it. Many literature books say that it is fiction, one of the earliest examples we have of an English novel. But if someone were writing fiction, he would not name so many real people; he would invent characters as novelists do. And if someone wrote it long after the events, he would not know all those real people who lived in Beowulf’s time. It must have been first written at or near the time that Beowulf lived. All parts of the story hold together as though one person wrote it. It does not show evidence that bards sang it and added and changed as the years moved along.

Not to mention, the article also tells us, Grendel was a dinosaur. Dragons were also dinosaurs. People were terrorized by flying dinosaurs in the Middle Ages and called them wyrms:

Why, then, do so many literature critics say that Beowulf is fiction? It is because they do not believe that dinosaur creatures lived at the same time men lived. Their evolutionary worldview says that dinosaurs lived long ages before men evolved on the earth. Therefore, in their minds, this all must be fiction. But with a Biblical worldview, we can see that dinosaurs entered the ark with Noah—land species at least—and they lived on the earth again after the Flood. But the post-Flood earth was not so hospitable to large creatures and they eventually became almost extinct.

Thank goodness -- my childhood dreams are illusions no more. Dinosaurs still exist! And more importantly, I have the missing link in all my interests: Dinosaurs, my very first love, are in fact a key part of Beowulf! Looks like I don't have to give up my hopes of doing paleontology just because I want to study some inaccessible old poem. Thank goodness it wasn't burned 500 years after Beowulf lived in Denmark before becoming king of Sweden, or I'd have never known.

< / sarcasm

Sigh. Thanks to morganLF and to my friend for pointing this out. File it under things that make you laugh until you cry, and then, once you've recovered, go "hmmmm...."


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Universe Next Door

Those familiar (perhaps more familiar than I) with ee cummings will recognize my title as from one of his many poems. My first encounter with it, however, was in the last line of Carolyn Heilbrun’s final essay, “From Rereading to Reading,” published in the March 2004 issue of PMLA. These thoughts have been brewing for a long time, more so over the past week as I returned to New York and began the preparations for the fall semester that have so depleted my time and energy over the past few days. I return to it, finally, now -- Heilbrun’s article, and the responses it generated. I begin my career in earnest next week – Tuesday, September 5, at 9 AM, I will teach my own class for the very first time. Perhaps Heilbrun’s reflections on what re-reading can and cannot accomplish in old age are an unexpected choice for someone whose career has not yet begun, and someone for whom old age is still a far off thing. However, these ideas have been floating around in my head since the very beginning of this blog, back in April – and I want to think this all through in advance of finishing the planning for my very first course.

What interests me about Heilbrun’s essay is not so much her choice to end her life – rather, the varied reactions of friends and colleagues to her, the ways in which they engaged her own disillusionment with the work to which she had devoted her life, and the ways in which they sought to find for themselves some way to deal, critically, with the final words (and I refer to those of her suicide note) of a figure who had been so important in their own lives. Commenting on her essay seems strangely beyond my capacity – what could I know of her feelings on her life’s work, the sum of what she had done, when at the end of it, she took stock and pronounced that re-reading is at the last something to feared? I do notice, as she writes – double negatives pervade the piece. The multiplicity of these double negatives, mark what Robert Scholes notes as the opening of “a space, it makes us hesitate, reflect, and in a sense, reread, on the spot, changed only by what we have read up to this point” (PMLA 119.2, 337). What hesitation, however, do they open up on the part of the writer who willfully chooses them (as Heilbrun’s comment on them suggests she did)?

I responded, for reasons my friends will find unsurprising, most strongly to the response of Joan Ferrante. Ferrante’s piece -- resonating with an undertone of emotions she herself identifies as ranging from "admiration to distress” – open with the kind of keen questions that I have come to expect from this feminist scholar: “Why should retirement mean “living less and seeking more of life”? Is Strether “urging little Bilham to a future of rereading”? Are words all that matter for literary scholars?” (320)

Although all three questions certainly have their place in Ferrante’s response to Heilbrun, it is this last that seems to most encapsulate her response to it as a whole. Ferrante recounts how, although Heilbrun is “pressing us to face truths most of us do not want to acknowledge” – the gradual loss of usefulness in old age, the inability to say new things usefully as one once did – she is also engaging in an older habit that Ferrante recognizes. “At the same time, she seems to be doing something that she and I argued about frequently in the early decades of our forty-year friendship: treating literature as if it were life. Not only did she want to write and rewrite her own life as a literary work, she also expected the literature she cared about to reflect her life as well as to teach her how to live” (320). Ferrante’s analysis of Heilbrun’s motivation is moving:

“[Heilbrun] calls Strether’s not striving to get anything for himself “the ambition of the not yet old,” as though the old wanted more for themselves than do the young, and that might well be true of some, but why could it not as well be just the opposite? Why can altruism not be easier for the old because they have nothing to lose, because they can offer themselves, take chances, even risks? … If, as Dante suggests in the Convivio, those who led active lives should offer the fruits of their experience and then move to contemplation in very old age, perhaps those who lived mainly contemplative lives of reading, thinking, and writing should move to lives of action before they die” (320). Ferrante moves, in the final paragraph of her short essay, to the role of reading late in life, concluding that “Literature was always Carol’s life; even when she turned to science, “words were still what mattered,” but in the end words failed her.”

A haunting ending. Although certain of my friends have expressed no surprise – of course words fail – it hits me each time I read it (and re-read it) full force. In the end, words failed her. Literature is, finally, not enough – simply reading, perhaps even simply writing, can never be enough, can never fulfill their unspoken promise, the vague, one might even say “Forsterian” call, to come – but for what?

Susan Friedman responds to Heilbrun’s last work with a meditation, in some ways, on the work of elegy:

“Carolyn’s column relives the chasm between cultures and worlds—men versus women, science versus literature—that had in the first place called her to the utopian dream of androgyny. In her farewell to the profession, she opts for science over literature as “a hell / of a good universe next door”…In so doing, Carolyn seems to forget or perhaps not even to know the woman in the flesh she was to many others—the living doer, a transitive verb, a writer who was always writing. Electrifying before an audience. Intimately warm and humorous tête-à-tête.
The drive of elegy is to find consolation in meaning. Rereading Carolyn Heilbrun becomes a contest of wills—mine to reassert the meaning of her life to (re)reading and doing, her resistance to it.” (323-4)

It is difficult, then, even for those who knew her, to know what to make of Heilbrun’s final statements on life, on age, and on the “hell of a good universe next door.” More than one of the authors reflects on the impossibility of reading this article, or any of Heilbrun’s work, without her final writing – her suicide note -- rewriting the experience of what came before. Susan Kress:

“I fear that now this death will overpower the life; that we will reread Carolyn’s work in the light of her suicide as if this were the magnet to which she was always and inevitably drawn. Everywhere in her books, her letters, her casual conversation, we will seize on the signs, the symbols, the rhetoric of death. Everything, after all, looks different in retrospect. But I hope we won’t forget what it was like to read rather than to reread her work. I already feel this loss, acutely, in the shadow of the greater one.” (332)

Kress’ statement is crucial to what strikes me most about Heilbrun’s article, and the responses of those who wrote about it, and her. Heilbrun says she took comfort in “watching the field of humanities, to which I had devoted my life, dismissed in this outright fashion” (215) by science and scientists. What she was feeling is inaccessible to anyone. Life is, finally, solitary – we reach out, bridge the gap between our own interiority and those around us (each similarly enclosed), but the space isn’t finally one we are able to bridge. Heilbrun’s friends, students, and colleagues could see what it seems at the end she could not – where through her work on literature, on humanities, she could reach out, could touch others and could change things. How she did change things, particularly for women in the humanities.

I don’t know if he actually said this, but in the movie Shadowlands C.S. Lewis tells one of his students that “we read to know we’re not alone.” Long before I’d ever seen the movie, I think I understood that feeling – I fear, on some level, that I’m guilty of what Ferrante calls “treating literature as though it were life.” But I also find that literature allows us to see things differently – to re-read experience, as it were, through someone else’s eyes. Writing, then, becomes all the more important. It has the possibility to change the way we see ourselves, and the way we see ourselves in the world – and I do think that that can come of one’s own writing about oneself as it can in writing about literature. I’ve often said, in moments of intellectual shorthand where I’m more concerned with the poetry of my prose than its content, that in the Old English Wanderer the speaker is trying to write himself into being. I wish to revise that statement now: he’s trying to rewrite his experience of being, to re-envision it as something livable. Something worth living.

I’ve strayed a bit from Heilbrun now, but I’ll return to her briefly as I close this already over-long meditation. I don’t know Heilbrun’s other work. I will never read it without knowing that at the end she seemed to embrace the idea that the humanities, because of their lack of answers, could not really change the world. But I do know that as a feminist and as a woman in the academy, she wrought real changes in the ways we read – that she changed lives of many young scholars by her influence. The charge, it would seem, of those who cannot read or re-read anything without her life and death in their background, is to make the humanities matter. Ferrante’s words ring clear, and signal (to me at least) the great hope – that “those who lived mainly contemplative lives of reading, thinking and writing should move to lives of action before they die.” The tasks of reading and of writing – as well as the tasks of teaching both – seem, at least to one at the outset of those tasks, to offer the proper preparation for such a life. As Robert Hanning reflects on Cicero’s description of “examples proving the benefits of human cooperation,” he suggests that “To these could be added re-reading, mediated by a critic’s smart, lucid mind, as an exercise…of such cooperation, beneficial in the never-ending task of understanding oneself and the world, and thus of possibly improving both” (328). And as I begin my own life’s work, and finally become a teacher (even if it’s only one of Freshman Writing), I can think of no better task to have at hand.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Hello, computer...

So, in the midst of driving all over the great state of North Carolina this week -- to visit friends doing PhD's in Europe, help friend doing PhD at UNC move house, and help Theatre Sis get a bed frame to on of her friends in G'boro, and then driving back to the Dash(as Winston-Salem is lovingly referred to, to make up for it lacking Chapel Hill's ultra cool "The Thrill" nickname)with Opera Sis (who, I often forget, is now in fact old enough to drive *me* around. The times they are a'changin'.) -- I bought a new laptop! An HP Pavilion, in fact, which was only barely within my price range. I'm still getting used to the new machine, and frankly, when I found out late the other night that I wasn't going to understand the interface anymore anyway (seems completely different from my standard WF issue Think Pad!), I wished for a moment that I'd just gotten the cute little Mac I covet. Ah well. I'm still a PC user, at least until this thing goes.

Once again not quite ready for a real post, so a consolatory prize: this awesome post at Acephalous. The part about watching a whole season of House, all the while marvelling at how many improbable diseases show up at the Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital sounds particularly familiar. Not that I spend most of my time wondering how many times House's patients will die next episode...but I guess it is a significant portion.

I've had the particular pleasure of accomplishing things in the past twenty four hours -- I managed to plan out my draft of a syllabus *and* I got to the last folder of the Mandelbaum Collection over at Wake. Musings on both are forthcoming, as well as the other four posts I've been working on haphazardly. Although I have to say -- I'm quite excited about teaching my university's version of Freshman Writing. I can't decide if it's my boundless and often sadly ill-founded optimism talking -- but I just can't wait to get started with my teaching career. After all, that's more or less why I wanted to do this in the first place! For the moment however, I'm trying to decide how many books to try and get on the plane tomorrow...for once in my life I appear to have enough room for them.

Next time, from NYC! Goodbye summer, vacation, and North Carolina. Hello real life.

Well, as real as grad school gets, at any rate.


Thursday, August 17, 2006

Vacation is lovely

(picture of the woods near where I live in NC)

Well, vacation from New York is lovely, in any case. Yes, it is true -- I am back in good old North Carolina, enjoying the sunlight, the clean air, six mile hikes up at Stone Mountain and the company of my family, friends and dog.

(picture of Stone Mountain falls, from the winter -- didn't bring a camera with me this past time)

My initial plan was that I would have plenty of time to blog from NC -- I mean, I'm only working on the Mandelbaum collection again, and there isn't that much to do in my town -- what on earth could take up my time? Well, it turns out that when I am presented with myriad options for procrastination, I tend to choose those that don't involve my computer. However, as I've got to come up with my very first syllabus for this fall by next Tuesday (more on that as it happens, to be sure!), buy a new computer (as my Wake Forest issue laptop is finally trying to die on me, after four years), and churn out final drafts of my orals lists...I should be getting back to the list of posts I mentioned last time in the relatively near future.

In the meantime, enjoy this link, that came through Ansaxnet a few days ago, about Woad! (it's not just for battle anymore!) Everybody's favorite body paint is apparently also a source of some tumor fighting compound they hope to use in the fight against breast cancer. Who knew? More proof that nature is pretty amazing, an opinion I'm more than willing to agree with after my time in it this past week.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

On a "Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf"

About a year ago now, I was introduced to one of Borges' poems, entitled "Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf." I've always loved Jorge Luis Borges, from the first time I read his "Library of Babel." Something in it -- or perhaps it was in Eco's Name of the Rose, now that I think about it -- seemed so possible, without ever quite tipping over into being. What do I mean by that? Good question. I wish I knew how to define it. It's contained, encapsulated (ironically enough) in the final paragraph:

I have just written the word "infinite.'' I have not interpolated this adjective out of rhetorical habit; I say that it is not illogical to think that the world is infinite. Those who judge it to be limited postulate that in remote places the corridors and stairways and hexagons can conceivably come to an end -- which is absurd. Those who imagine it to be without limit forget that the possible number of books does have such a limit. I venture to suggest this solution to the ancient problem: The Library is unlimited and cyclical. If an eternal traveler were to cross it in any direction, after centuries he would see that the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order). My solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope.

(from this website)

Those who've read my blog before know that one of my favorite modern authors is E.M. Forster. One of the lines that struck me in A Passage to India reads "They had not the apparatus for judging." The ending of "The Library of Babel" -- the impossible, eternal traveler seeing that "the same volumes were repeated in the same disorder (which, thus repeated, would be an order: the Order)" -- seems another moment of resonating thought across genre, language and time. The ability to look an inability to ever truly know in the eye, so to speak, and call it an "elegant hope," however, is for me what I take from my admittedly small knowledge of Borges.

This poem is no different. The last two lines, lifting beyond the grammar of Old English or of life, looks outward to a vast universe and names it hope. The mind that writes these lines moves beyond the difficulty of mastering a finite field and looks into the infinite, unknowable universe. If the soul has its "way of knowing / that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing circle can take in all, accomplish all," it is a "secret" if "sufficient way of knowing." It doesn't impart that knowledge, that possibility, on the subject who speaks. But still the smaller sphere, the comprehendable if never comprehensive, remains, somehow, not enough. Borges doesn't seem satisfied by what he can know -- only by the knowledge that there is more out there than, perhaps, can be known. His "solitude is gladdened by this elegant hope."

Anyway, this is a lovely poem for graduate students and professors alike, I think -- I know that the last lines have become my mantra in the past year. It's almost like standing in a cathedral, or looking up at the dome of the sky -- a reminder, strangely calming if I let it be, that we are so very, very small. To borrow a phrase from White, "the fate of this man or that man was less than a drop, although it was a sparkling one, in the great blue motion of that sunlit sea." (Yes, it continues -- "The cannons of his adversary were thundering in the tattered morning when the Majesty of England drew himself up to meet the future with a peaceful heart. Explicit liber regis quondam regisque futuri. The Beginning." -- I memorized this passage of The Once and Future King long ago. What an ending. Good enough I can't even stop it once I've begun!). But enough of me...the point of this post is Borges. I hope others enjoy this poem as much as I do.

"Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf"
by Borges (trans. by Alastair Reid)

At various times, I have asked myself what reasons
moved me to study, while my night came down,
without particular hope of satisfaction,
the language of the blunt-tongued Anglo-Saxons.

Used up by the years, my memory
loses its grip on words that I have vainly
repeated and repeated. My life in the same way
weaves and unweaves its weary history.

Then I tell myself: it must be that the soul
has some secret, sufficient way of knowing
that it is immortal, that its vast, encompassing
circle can take in all, can accomplish all.

Beyond my anxiety, beyond this writing,
the universe waits, inexhaustible, inviting.

Edit, mere moments after posting: It occurs to me that this all reminds me of Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, and a part of the ending of it -- "Invent, invent the plan Casaubon. That's what everyone has done, to explain the dinosaurs and the peaches." Another way of seeing what we do in the face of what we can never truly know.


Monday, August 07, 2006


Originally, I’d scheduled a post called “Anglo-Saxonist Undercover!”, which was to be about the NCS conference last weekend. However, I realized this week that having one’s weekend taken up by fascinating papers, energizing discussions and a Sunset Cruise (of Death) is a really good way to make sure your week will be productive in ways that don’t include blogging. It has to be. You haven’t had time to do anything over the weekend. Couple that with one’s birthday being the following weekend – and yes, though I certainly don’t have an adequate excuse for not blogging in nearly two weeks, I definitely have mitigating factors.

So, to begin. New Chaucer was amazing. I was also not the only Anglo-Saxonist there, though I don’t know if any were giving papers. There were, to my knowledge, no Old English focused papers on the program. I think there were two highlights. The keynote address was fascinating. I was glad I was able to go. The second was getting to meet Jeffrey Cohen, and to have fascinating discussions with both him and the other participants in those conversations. I learned a lot this weekend, and not simply from the conference papers and addresses, but from the people I was fortunate enough to meet and converse with outside of sessions. It seems that that could be the most important part of conferences – and I’m thankful for that insight, too.

So what is planned for the next few days…let me see. Latin ends this week (finally!) so I get to take a break on that front – and catch up on the blog updates I’ve been ignoring for a week! I have several blog posts I’ve been working on (one I’ve been toying with since I started this thing back in April!) that I hope to get up in the next week or so. So, a preview of coming attractions here at Old English in New York

1. A few weeks ago I noticed that one of the referrals to my blog was a google for “wanderer final lines added” or something of the sort. Now, that’s easily explained by my name and by the fact that I know I’ve mentioned Wanderer before. However – it’s also ironic, and Wanderer is a poem I’ve spent far too much time on. SO I thought in honor of those who land here thinking it has to do with *that* anhaga, I’d organize my thoughts for a tour of the “Great Moments in Wanderer Criticism.” Trust me – it’s more fascinating than it sounds.

2. The post I’ve been working on for weeks and weeks is one on Carolyn Heilbrun, her last article for PMLA, the responses to it, and why I’m grateful that many of the professors I’ve admired most in my career as a student are feminists.

3. Part Two of of this post.

4. Borges’ “Poem Written in a Copy of Beowulf”.

Edit: How could I forget this last one --
5. Some thoughts on the "politically aware" Beowulf questioned in the New York Times a few weeks ago -- or, more musings on why Old English is remarkably relevant to our modern world.

Of course, the order of these is subject to change and depends greatly on what mood I’m in after Latin class each day. But we shall see. First order of business – catch up on all the blogs I’ve lagged behind in reading! And share this fascinating thing I found the link to here:

You can make your own word cloud at this site. So cool.


Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Manuscripts and Bogs

Found out late last night about the discovery of the early Christian psalter in a bog in Ireland -- how amazing. Just when you think "there are no more manuscripts to discover, we have everything we will ever have from the past" they find something. Be it a Psalter in a bog, fragments of the Tristan that were thought lost, part of a new play of Sophocles -- proving once again that the past returns, again and again, if only we know where to look for it.

That said, I'll admit I'm highly unlikely to go digging through peat bogs looking for Heo Cwaeth points out who knows what else is preserved down there. Or who. Not that that's a bad thing. I just don't think I'd be able to sleep without nightmares at night if I stumbled across a bog mummy during the day. I'll just enjoy the excitement of other peoples' discoveries.

Anyway, this should be a fascinating story to follow -- so far, it's mostly "hey look what we found" and who knows how long it will take to preserve it. As my grandmother put it when she told me about it this morning, it's amazing what they can do nowadays with artefacts.

So here's an article. And it has pictures!!


Sunday, July 23, 2006

Old English Anxieties

I haven't much time to blog at present -- I've got the lovely task of reading Chaucer all afternoon, a task I'm really relishing. I could do without the paper I need to write about it, but ah well. Anything that requires reading Chaucer, and then thinking more about Chaucer makes this Anglo-Saxonist quite happy.

However. For anyone on Ansax, you know that a discussion has been going on there about the article on the apartheid like social structure of Anglo-Saxon England post Anglo-Saxon Invasion. Now granted, the way this has been received in the popular press is more like this: Anglo Saxons were Apartheid Racists!.

The reaction's been telling, and it's one I didn't entirely expect. Everyone has been extraordinarily defensive. Saying that that's anachronistic, it can't apply, why are we saying they're racist?

But it must be asked: are we really going to argue that they were nice and cuddly, that invasion involved no pain for anybody? As an old history prof of mine used to say, the Anglo-Saxons spent their time "bopping" people with swords. I mean, do you know how many words for "kill" there are? That's not to say they didn't write fascinating literature, and beautiful poetry that can break your heart. But I wonder if this isn't a reaction to the "death of anglo-saxon studies" more generally, which we Anglo-Saxonists fear above all else. I'm pretty sure Old English has been "dying" since before I was born -- in the 80s -- and I think that the alarm bells were first sounded back in like 1990. It's been a long death (if death it is) to say the least. Living in the same area as the ASSC (see the link on the side bar for the homepage) -- I'd have to say that for a field in such supposed jeopardy, it looks pretty good to me.

So in lieu of saying any more for now -- for Chaucer calls, and I must heed him! -- I'll direct you to Eileen Joy over at Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's blog. Read the post. Check out the comments. Read the links. And moreover, talk about this, leave comments, ask questions. It's important. And not just to Anglo-Saxonists, either.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Of Magic and Magicians...

Check out the comments to my incredibly silly post on The Wonders of the East -- we've been granted some great bibliographic resources for the Mambres and Jamnes tradition, courtesy of Ian Myles Slater. Thanks Ian!


Monday, July 17, 2006

If I had it to do over again...

Having just arrived home from a riveting Latin class yes, on infinitives and indirect constructions (which for once I seemed to understand during class and not in the hours outside of it spent studying), I was expecting to eat a quick meal, and then start doing a bit of work before bed. However, on Arts and Literature Daily, I found an absolutely fascinating -- and honestly, somewhat disheartening -- article. It's titled Good-bye, Mr. Keating. The title, of course, is a reference to the amazing English professor from Dead Poets Society, who inspires his students to reach for their dreams, to suck the marrow out of life -- with the tragic consequences of the suicide of one of them, who is forbidden by his father to pursue his dream of acting. It's a movie I saw relatively late in college, and I love it. The article is essentially about what the author seems to view as the great let-down of graduate school -- that to become a professor one must give up what one initially loves about literature.

A representative quotation (though one should really read the whole article to get a better feel for its tone):

It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school. They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that's why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.

For me, it's strange and wonderful, after receiving tenure, to be able to rediscover my undergraduate self, to nurture in my students the motives that drew me to graduate school in the first place.

The problem is you can't get to where I am now without going through a decade or more of immersion in a highly politicized and anti-literary academic culture. You have to spend so many years conforming that, by the time freedom presents itself, you don't know why you became an English major in the first place. You might even have contempt for your seemingly naïve students, who represent the self that you had to repress in order to be a professional.

It is not that I want to privilege some form of literary dilettantism as a substitute for professionalism. I simply want to demonstrate that the reasons most people get into English are different from the motives that will make them successful in graduate school and in professional life beyond that. They must, ultimately, purge themselves of the romantic motives that drew them to English in the first place — or pretend to do so. If you want to be a literary professional, you must say goodbye to Mr. Keating.

You may be teaching English, but in many academic positions (and certainly in the mainstream of academic publishing), you'll have to fulfill your emotional life in other ways, probably in secret, the way some people sing along with Barry Manilow in their cars.

The author offers this opinion after his run down of the reasons his students have given him for choosing to pursue English after one semester of literary theory study. They're typical reasons -- reading was a comfort, a joy, something the students truly loved. Frankly, they're reasons that sound familiar to me. I love getting lost in stories, in worlds that are removed and different from my own.

Now, I wouldn't be terribly offended if people think me naive, or perhaps simply innocent -- in a lot of ways, I'm pretty sure (and frankly, hope!) that I am, and I made myself a promise that I'd ward off "cynical grad student"-itis as long as I possibly can. I realize that the academic world is not all about loving literature...but there's this part of me that thinks that this, the chance to study what I love, and more importantly to teach others about it, to connect others (and I return, as always, to Forster's "only connect") to the past and to the present through literature -- how could I ever be disappointed when I will one day have the chance to return to others what my professors gave to me? And I'm not even sure what, precisely, makes the author feel the way he does -- there seems to be a very anti-theory tone to the article, but on some level it seems to be a frustration with literature as no longer being the discipline it once was?

I've had that conversation before. And I have to say -- I'm not disappointed with literary study. There are days it's difficult, but that's always struck me as kind of like life. Of course I have doubts, and fears, and there are days when it all seems kind of pointless, like I'm wasting my time. It isn't what I thought it would be in high school when I decided that this was what I wanted for my life. The difference isn't a bad one, though. Do I understand every literary technique and theory that I'm exposed to? Of course not. I don't understand a tenth of it. But it has stretched my mind, and opened up whole new ways of thinking for me, ways of understanding the world, ways (I hope) of finding my own way to make some small difference in it. There are days where my mind is an incoherent muddle, from historical linguistics or hours of Middle English or from reading too much theory -- but then I stumble across one of those lines in Derrida that can just take your breath away in its artistry, or a line in Chaucer that is perfect in its wry humor about life and love, or a facet of vowel morphology that explains why a modern word looks the way it does but still carries the valence of an ancient meaning, now present only in part -- and my frustration and inability to understand vanishes, and all I can see is how interesting and downright beautiful literary study can be. And I see the way some of my professors' work intersects with their commitment to the world and to making the lives of ordinary people better -- and frankly, it gives me hope.

This is relatively incoherent (thank you, Latin) -- but I guess I just wonder if Benton's is a common reaction. Certainly graduate school does disappoint some people. And of course there are days I feel like screaming out Eliot's line from Prufrock -- This is not what I meant at all! Then I quiet down, remember to breathe, and in a day or two it passes, and I realize that I'm here because I feel so compelled to read and write and teach that there is literally nothing else I want to do with my life. And I just can't imagine that, standing in his vantage point (god willing) in 10 or 15 years time, there'd be any qualifications on the statement that I would, in fact, do it all again.

Unless of course, it's "in a heartbeat."

Edit: Check out the link Tiruncula sent in the comments below for a far more articulate response to Benton's article.


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Poetry and Prose

One of my fondest -- and, I've found, least realistic -- dreams was always to be a writer. Of fiction, of poetry -- I always loved both, and when I was younger I loved the way that writing felt, the craft of it. I've transferred that love of language and of word-work to scholarship (it's no coincidence I love dead languages of every kind), but sometimes I still miss writing for other reasons than academic papers. So when, a few weeks back, comment-er (comment-or? I have no idea.) ljs posted links to poetry blogs on JJC's blog , I decided to check them out. I started reading them out of curiosity, and they've definitely become staples of my blog diet. Anyway, getting to my point, today I ran across something absolutely exquisite over at Cahier de Corey . It's about poetry and prose -- and the last paragraph is really amazingly beautiful. Check it out.

More soon, including (maybe, unless I come to my senses) a post in which I will try, against my better judgement, to be humorous.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Return to Blogging -- Beowulf and Grendel

For those who don’t want to know about the film until they can see it themselves, there are spoilers ahead! Not many, given that my memory is a little blurry and I’m not going to be able to give a point by point summary of the movie. But still -- consider yourself duly warned…

So Friday night, the opening night in NYC, I saw Beowulf and Grendel, choosing to the go to an early showing at Quad Cinema with my Anglo-Saxonist-Poet colleague and friend, who I think I’ll call Scop. There are perks to having friends with the similar research interests – you can enjoy being what others might consider dorky knowing full well your enthusiasms will only be fueled by hanging out. It’s great. Anyway, I’ve been looking forward to seeing this movie, with mixed terror and delight, since I first heard they were making it. Certain things, of course, are to be expected from the Icelandic Film Corporation. Beowulf and Grendel had the same feel as No Such Thing, another movie that Scop and I saw together a few months ago (though being older, it was on DVD). The landscapes were exquisite.

As the film opened, I was immediately struck that as “A Hate is Born,” (the subtitle for this section of the film) we’re meeting Grendel’s father. I was a little taken aback. Grendel’s father? Why would Grendel have a father? I forced myself to wait and see before I judged it, which was a bit difficult given that Grendel does not have a a father!! Anyway, Hrothgar and his men kill Grendel’s dad. Grendel, a mere child (albeit a a child with a beard ), is saved because his father has him hide on the edge of a cliff. Hrothgar takes off his helmet, revealing the wonderful Stellan Skarsgard as the assailant. Grendel’s dad having just fallen from the cliff to the beach below, Grendel clearly isn’t going to remember the mercy of the king, who chooses not to kill him. The scene ends with Grendel going down to the beach, finding his father’s body and, when he gets no response from him, hacking off his fathers head. He takes the head back to his lair, where he sets it up in a sort of shrine. Fast forward to years later, and the shrine is still there, a withered head that seems to stand in metonymically throughout the movie for all the blood this feud will spill, and all endless violence occasioned by hate. Grendel attacks Heorot on the day of its building. He kills all who sleep there. This is after there’s a ceremony to protect it and give luck to Hrothgar, etc. Bad timing – particularly given that the ineffective ceremony is pagan, and Christianity is just beginning to come in amongst the Danes.

Next, enter the hero. Beowulf appears, being washed up on the shore after Breca and he are shipwrecked in a storm. The film’s wry humor becomes apparent. Beowulf lands and the man who discovers him finds out that the hero’s been swimming for three days, and asks – “do you do that often?” And that’s just the beginning. Throughout there are moments of humor that are surprising. I can’t recall more than a handful, but one hysterically funny moment would have to be when someone tells Beowulf that the Christian god never sleeps – and he replies “that’s just what we need, a god gone mad for lack of sleep.” Another great moment is when Stellan Skarsgard replies to the priest (Saint – I mean Father (!!) Brendan of Ireland, whose arrival on the scene was, albeit probably anachronistic, great fun), who has just told him that there was some sort of fire of heaven that would rain down, “if your heavens are on fire you better look to that.” Another prime moment: Beowulf : “I’m Beowulf.” Geatish warrior in his band: “Here we go again.”

Wealtheow was an undeniably strong woman, who slaps her grief-strickened husband to bring him to his senses. She supports him when he cannot open the feast because he is too drunk already. I was impressed. Stellan Skarsgard was also remarkable as Hrothgar. He’s one of my favorite actors, and he does very well in the role of a king in a masculine hall culture who feels himself weakened nearly beyond recovery by a foe he cannot fight. One of the strangest additions to the film is Selma, a witch who was brought to Hrothgar’s court by some guy whose epithet is “Three-Legs,” as his whore. She can see people’s deaths. She also (BIG SPOILER HERE) is the mother of Grendel’s child. Grendel took her one night – and after that protected her from the Danes who would come and rape her before that. She also sleeps with Beowulf after Grendel’s death. My first reaction was that this was irredeemably bizarre. Why add sex to Anglo-Saxon? This is Beowulf, not the riddles.

This addition, however, is key to the understanding of the movie that I came to by the time it was complete. Despite the closing assertion of the last paragraph, this movie is not Beowulf. It’s Beowulf and Grendel, and there’s something in that shared title that stands out in this film. Sarah Polley, as Selma, speaks to Beowulf after the death of Grendel, in the context of his grief for his fallen comrade – “Handscio's life had worth to you since you knew him. Others knew others.” Beowulf registers what she means “You mourn the troll.” Her next line is absolutely fraught: “I knew him.” Two different meanings, there, of course. But the point seems to come from the first part – “others knew others.” There are many outsiders in this film – Grendel and Selma are but the two most obvious. The one that comes slowly into sharper focus is Beowulf himself. He understands Grendel in a way that Hrothgar cannot – he can see that there is reason behind the attacks, and a sort of code, and it becomes clear to Beowulf, with Selma’s interpretation, that Grendel has language and that there is a method to his killings. The “monster” does not kill without cause. His attacks are to avenge his father. It makes one wonder what will happen to Grendel’s child. This could be the eternal feud, comparable to that inspired by the necklace of the Brosings. Or could there be an end in sight?

The movie draws a connection between the hero and the monster, one that has been pointed out in criticism but not in the same ways. They’re marginal. In the film, both are brought into fights they don’t ask for. That they do not understand fully. Grendel as a child. Beowulf as a hero. When asked what he’ll do now that all the Grendel family (except the child) are destroyed – Beowulf replies “I’m thinking I’ll likely go where I’m sent.” And we know that he will. He never becomes a king in this movie, but for those who know the story, he does – he goes on, he faces a dragon alone, he dies. There’s a moment in the movie, early on, where Wealtheow goes to Selma, and says that she could find a place for the witch “inside.” In this movie, it’s clear that those who are Outside, at least as outside is defined by those Inside, can never really come in. Others knew – and know -- others, and Gunnarson’s Beowulf is as much on the Outside, in the end, as the “monster” he fights.

With a breathtaking landscape and a musical score that had me close to tears at times, Beowulf and Grendel is not the poem I, and perhaps some of you readers, study or have studied. Yet I wonder if it’s not a certain aspect of that poem, refracted through time, to show a side of it the Old English did not, or could not, fully articulate. As Tolkien once said, the characters of the Anglo Saxon epic go forth to fight “the battle that ends for all, even kings and champions, in darkness.” In this movie, night comes down on monsters and heroes alike – and the withered remnants of their lives, like the enshrined head of Grendel’s dad, serve as stories for those who remain. It’s making sense of it that we must struggle with – and in the end it can only make sense for us at our moment. Beowulf and Grendel is, then, that rendering – one more chance for us to make sense of story of long ago. One more chance to see the “Outsider” in his many forms – and perhaps, if for only a moment, to go Outside our own fortressed thoughts to meet him.

EDIT: at Sarah Polley's website, you can download clips from the movie, including the scene I mentioned above. Scroll down from the page the link directs you to, and choose the scene "Others Knew Others." Absolutely haunting. I've corrected the dialogue above too, since I was a tad bit off at its start.


Saturday, July 01, 2006

Beowulf (and Grendel) in New York

Blogging from Upstate New York (on a short stop to visit family for the fourth before heading back to the City) -- however, I've found an internet connection, and in my inbox this morning was some fabulous news. I posted awhile back about how Beowulf and Grendel was finally being released in the United States. Well, as it turns out, it's now coming to New York City!!

So, for all those other New York fans of Hygelac's boldest retainer -- mark your calendars! It opens at the Quad Cinema on July 7th! And for those of you who aren't in the big city, you can find out if it will be playing in your area by going to the official movie website.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

"Everything in this book was meticulously researched. However...

...any time I found that the actual facts didn't fit my story, I ignored them."

Just found out about this today (though if I kept up with my listservs, I would already know about it!). Check out The Da Vinci Barcode: A Parody, by Judith P. Shoaf (you may know her as the Arthurnet moderator). How exciting is this?

Also check it out on the publisher's page.

This looks to be something worth the reading.

Granted, as we all know, I never did manage to read The Da Vinci Code, my promise to do so not withstanding. Granted, I also didn't see the movie, so I think I'm off the hook on that count. However -- if I am going to treat myself to this as a reward for the Latin work I'll do in July....I think I'll have to revisit the possibility of being one of the last people I know to read DVC.


Sunday, June 25, 2006

Beowulf comes to Appalachia

As readers of this blog might have noticed, one of the things I find absolutely fascinating is re-interpretations of Anglo-Saxon literature. At the moment, my interest is (and for good reason) focused on renditions of Beowulf. There are any number of operas (rock or no), plays and movies out right now about everybody's favorite doomed warrior-hero-king. However, when my artistically minded younger sister mentioned this play today during lunch, I was honestly completely taken aback. Theatre-Sis is way more informed concerning not only the stage but also the arts more generally in our area than I am -- she's the one who pointed out to me that a movie everyone thought I'd like because it was set in North Carolina was actually filmed in our hometown, and with a lot of people who we both used to do theatre with (it's called Junebug, and I'd highly recommend it!). Theatre isn't just a hobby for her -- it's part of her job, which she does in her "spare" time as she studies toward a degree in Music Education. It's a pretty awesome course she's taking, actually.

But anyway, back to the Old English connection. This past spring, the Greensboro Theatre -- Triad Stage -- put on a play called Brother Wolf, by Preston Lane. Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, this play tells the story of Brother Wolf, an "itinerant preacher, demon slayer and Blue Ridge Legend" (See the Charlotte Observer review for a review by Julie Coppens) who faces such fiends as Grin Dell (I'm not making this up), Grin Dell's Maw, and Rattler Man (who stands in for the dragon, it would seem, as a "preacher" who says true faith comes from picking up a poisonous snake and trusting it will not harm you (see the quote in this linked article). One of the things most interesting about the piece seems to be the way Lane figures "wyrd" -- reading further down in the Coppens review linked above, Lane "illustrates the concept of "wyrd," or fate, with four silent, black-suited players who move set pieces and characters through space and join Rattler Man in sealing the preacher's doom." A fascinating thought on how to put "wyrd" to work, I think. Or at least, how to put it up on stage for all to see.

I'm not quite sure how to take this play, and given that I've never seen it, I can only react to the information I've gathered on the internet(which is mostly from the articles above -- I'm still looking to see if there's a version of the play available in print...). My first thought is "Oh dear" -- a Beowulf made to be far more religious than the Anglo-Saxon one, and set in the North Carolina mountains to boot. A part of me wants to run away -- how could they do this to the poem that takes up so much of my time and attention, when there is no way this play could really be anything but distressing. To top it all off, Lane's inspiration is Seamus Heaney's translation -- which, although certainly the most readable, is one I've never been able to really enjoy. I usually go with Liuzza or Chickering, if I need a translation -- though when, wyrd willing, I teach the poem in literature classes, I will probably decide to use Heaney just for the students' enjoyment-level, since it seems most undergraduates react more favorably to his translation of the poem.

But as usually happens with such things, something stops me. In this case, its a line that is quoted relatively near the beginning of another Julie Coppens article on the play. From the opening scene, then:

Maybe there's a power in a story told and told and told over and over down through the years. Maybe there's a magic. My pa told me about Brother Wolf. And I tell you. Maybe the telling makes him real.

Maybe the telling makes him real. This line stopped me in my tracks, and lured me back to the fascinating possibilities of folklore and legend. Mythologies are shaped by -- and shape -- the cultures which tell them. Beowulf is no different. Maybe the spirit of the Geatish warrior is something we're all trying to "make real," in some sense -- to ourselves, to others, every time we write an article on the poem, every time we write a book. These lines render vividly the power of stories -- stories that are saved from fate and fires -- stories written in a metrical form literally made to be remembered.

And so I withold judgement on Brother Wolf. An Appalachian Beowulf set to the country sounds of bluegrass music may not seem like the Beowulf I find when I turn the pages of Klaeber, or click through the electronic edition of the manuscript by Kiernan. It may not be the Beowulf I hear in Heaney's Irish tones, or in Gardener's Grendel.

But maybe, for this time, for this place -- for North Carolina and Appalachia, it's a way to make Beowulf real again.

And yes, if it's ever out again -- in NC or elsewhere -- I will be travelling to see it.