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]gmail.com, 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.