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.