Tuesday, August 28, 2007

I am a leaf on the wind...

It's funny, but the closer I get to my exams, the more serene I am -- during my serene periods, that is. When I'm not serene, I'm obsessively reading something. Yesterday it was re-reading and taking notes on Chaucer. Last night? Bede's De Arte Metrica, and the work on Tropes that I can't remember how to spell (thank goodness these are orals, eh?) Today, I'm prepping for my final meeting with my major list adviser. Which means reviewing Bede and Aelfric, reading some articles (and a book) on the same, and then...well, whatever seems to be next on my list.

I've resisted the idea of making a schedule of my work, right to the very end. That's a bit new to me. I know what needs to be done -- I could probably make a list of it. It's mostly note-taking and articles now. A few stray Canterbury Tales I wouldn't mind re-reading (though given that I lectured on the Pardoner a year or so ago in a class I TA'd for, perhaps my notes for that will suffice). Maybe a few "sit down and write about what I said I was interested in" sorts of exercises. I definitely need to re-write my Chaucer list justification.

That's the funny part of all this. The oral exams have already accomplished what they were supposed to -- I have a dissertation topic, even if to date my favorite way to express is "Time does weird things in vernacular texts dealing with the "English" nation in the periods immediately pre- and post-conquest." So really this is a formality. A chance to dress up, get very nervous, and prove (once again) I know more than I think I do. Doesn't make me any less scared, but it does lend a sort of a serenity of purpose to the whole exercise. This one more thing, and then I can start writing. This one more thing, and it's on to building a career. Whatever that means.

Speaking of serenity, my current mantra:

I am a leaf on the wind, watch me soar.

Those of you familiar with Joss Whedon's Firefly and the movie it spawned will recognize that as a recurring line for the Wash, the pilot of the ship named the Serenity. Never mind that the last time he says it, he gets impaled by in-coming spear. Not bad, as far as last words go.

Off to study, then. 9 days and counting...


Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reading Off the List: Only Connect

(cross posted at In the Middle)

I’ve always hated the way people describe their reading habits as though they were consuming, literally ingesting the text they speak of. Twice in two days, however, I’ve felt the urgency of that voraciousness for texts, in entirely different settings.

The first moment was brought back to me by a birthday gift of a subscription to the Virginia Quarterly Review. I finally found time today to pick up the first issue, and a sort of stillness I’d been missing in my life these last few hectic weeks returned. My eye was caught particularly by a critical piece that features a number of citations of modernist poetry, ranging from Yeats to Auden. “To Hold in a Single Thought Reality and Justice: Yeats, Pound, Auden, and the Modernist Ideal” by Adam Kirsch, focuses on the difference of approach between Yeats and Pound – who on the one hand wanted to use poetry as a possible forum for political change, which was in Pound’s case to result in the self-fashioning of “a Fascist poet” (Kirsch 173)—and the slightly later Auden, whose early work reflects the same political zeal (though in a different orientation), while his later work steps back, in a rejection of Modernist remakings of the world and the “Bigness” that “has too much in common with the arrogance of totalitarianism, and not enough respect for the claims of the powerless” (Kirsch 176). Auden’s “conception of the poet as something like a witness” is in Kirsch’s view a link between Auden and later poets (including Heaney, Brodsky, Milosz), who “write about and against the tyranny that results when people try to impose their vision of justice on reality” (176).

It seemed that a part of what’s happening in this article (to which I cannot do justice in so short a space) shares ideas (and ideals) with certain posts that have been made here over the summer, including Karl’s most recent Caninophilia II (at In the Middle). However, another work which comes to mind for me through this article is Desire for Origins, by Allen Frantzen, which has the distinction of being the only academic book I’ve ever stayed up late to read because I wanted to finish before going to bed.

Frantzen has a knack for raising difficult (and often polarizing) questions, and this book is no different. Though as a relative newcomer to the field I don’t have the “long view” of the nearly twenty years since the book has been written, it seems like many of the issues identified by Frantzen in his discussion have continued to be problems, of a sort, in the field. Most vivid is the perceived “split” between philology and theory – and Frantzen’s assertion that philology is a theory, and as such is as culturally and historically informed as other “theory.” He reveals through an engaging study of the study of Anglo-Saxon that there’s much to be learned in the study of the field itself, as a site of desire for an origin – of language, of culture, of English literature.

Although I’m certainly “behind the times” as it were, reading this book so late in the game, I know that one need look no further than Tolkien’s “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” to see one example of that influence. Written in 1936, on the eve of World War II, Tolkien tries to wrest the scholarly work done on the singular Old English epic poem from historical research and to the place he feels it properly belongs, i.e., on the poem as poetry. It seems all too obvious that at the historical moment in which the mythologization of the Germanic past was part and parcel in Nazi regime in Germany, it is beyond mere coincidental significance that an English scholar claims a place for English (both national and scholarly designations) interpretation of a poem, which he claims “turns under our Northern Skies” (emphasis mine).

In a time that’s seeing Beowulf pop up in multiple artistic media as well as in the casual everyday conversation of politicians, it’s important that we understand the way it’s being used. Sad to say, I actually saw Karl Rove’s comment on Fox News in which he said: They'll keep after me," Rove said of the Democrats. "Let's face it. I mean, I'm a myth, and they're -- you know, I'm Beowulf. You know, I'm Grendel. I don't know who I am. But they're after me. Aside from the sheer silliness, there’s a problem here, and it has absolutely nothing to do with Beowulf, or at least not with Beowulf as an object of artists, or an object of study. Rather, it’s his emphasis on the first half: “I’m a myth.” In the end it doesn’t matter if Rove is Beowulf or Grendel – he’s myth, he’s constant, and he’s pursued (we assume, through his phrasing, unjustly) – and that’s enough. It’s a bit chilling, really, if it’s read between the lines: a glimpse of sheer survivalist instinct, the fact that remains that “they’re” after him. What kind of myth he is, and why he’s being pursued, aren’t relevant.

This brings me back around to Kirsch’s article. In his introduction, he writes that for the great mythologizing “reality—the world as it is as we see it in the newspapers and on the street—is incomplete on its own. It needs to be balanced, corrected, and maybe even replaced by a contrary vision of justice—the world as it should be, and as it can be in great works of art and literature” (Kirsch, 166). It isn’t, Kirsch notes, a large jump from there to the belief that such an order can be supplemented politically, by totalitarianism and the resultant order. Yet, the mythologizing instinct – left unchecked by consideration of its birth – can be brutal, for it elevates one ideal over all others, and allows or even mandates the use of violence to enforce it

In the closing of his book, Frantzen writes: “It is the connectedness of Anglo-Saxon studies that matters, not their age....Such issues as expansionism, linguistic imperialism, and cultural colonization link our own age, the previous ages in which Anglo-Saxon culture has been studied, and the Anglo-Saxon texts themselves: Hengst and Horsa, the place of Rome in the Renaissance and in Anglo-Saxon texts, the partnership of writing and death in Beowulf.” In the years since Frantzen wrote Desire for Origins, such scholars as Kathleen Davis, Stacy Klein, Gillian Overing, Clare Lees, Haruko Momma, Seth Lerer, John Niles, Katherine O’Brien O’Keeffe and a host of other Anglo-Saxonists and medievalists have been reforming the boundaries of what “the discipline” might mean from within – and that’s only within the immediate context of scholars of the Middle Ages. I’ve had a number of fascinating conversations with brilliant scholars who have never studied the Middle Ages seriously, and who have never learned Old English at all – and yet, there’s a type of synthesis arising there too. A “new language” as it were – a way of speaking across eras, genres, media. And that new language, I think, lies in the recognition that Frantzen made in 1990: “it is the connectedness of Anglo-Saxon studies that matters, not their age.”

So by way of introduction (hello, In the Middle!), I give you my EM Forster-inspired approach to my studies. As the key words for Howard’s End, and its epigraph, the imperative to “only connect” occupies a special place in my work, though I’ve yet to read the novel (were there but world enough and time...embarrassing, I know). Scholarship, to this young medievalist, is about forging connections –not simply in works of the past but to them, as well among the massive body of texts that remain. Moreover (and here I borrow from something Steven Krueger said at Kalamazoo this past May), it’s to allow, for scholarship, an “identity as transition”: to be willing to allow that influence to shape our scholarly lives, and the lives that scholarship can touch if we might let it. We lose a static notion of “what it means” (to be human, to study Old English, and even what a poem can mean) but what we gain is the possibility of tentatively seeing the “reality” of the world: a world where the “Big” and the immutable, fixed reference points of “History” affect people whose lives are as diverse and difficult to write as the (very different) kind of history that might chronicle them. Words left to us matter, as do things we do not, and cannot know. Both these realms of knowledge must be treated, above all else, humanely. The endless work of history and scholarship rework the realm of the specific as much as the large or general, and this is the fabric that shapes lives. In this different kind of creation, scholarship can move, and is moved by the connections we make. As such, it not only asks but requires us to engage it, and to change ourselves (if I were more naive I’d say the world) in the process.

And now, given the connections I’m supposed to be making two weeks from today in my oral exams (hence the reading list of my title: ironically, I'll be finishing just now, at 4 pm), I should probably go back to my readings. But first: thank you to Jeffrey, Eileen and Karl for inviting me to come on board the ongoing, connection-forming medium which is In the Middle. I’m so glad to be here.
Works Cited:

Frantzen, Allen. Desire for Origins. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, 1990.

Kirsch, Adam, “To Hold in a Single Thought Reality and Justice: Yeats, Pound, Auden, and the Modernist Ideal.” in The Virginia Quarterly Review (Summer 2007). University of Virginia Press: Charlottesville, 2007 (165-177).

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” in The Tolkien Reader.

The ideas in this post owe a large debt to the work done on this blog by Jeffrey, Karl and Eileen. In addition, though noted only in passing, this post owes a debt to the work of Kathleen Davis – particularly her work on the Middle Ages as an other for the modern, particularly in her engaging article “"Time Behind the Veil: The Media, The Middle Ages, and Orientalism Now." (in The Postcolonial Middle Ages. St. Martins, 2000).


Monday, August 13, 2007

Blogging Announcement

As of today, I'm officially a co-blogger at In the Middle. I'm excited and honored to become part of the blog -- the trio of J J Cohen, Eileen Joy and Karl Steel and their work on the blog have been a major influence on me over the past year, both in my blogging here at OEiNY and in my work as a whole. What a wonderful opportunity to become the fourth member of such a fantastic blog!

I will, of course, be continuing to post here at Old English in New York -- however, some of my more intellectually based musings will be posted at ITM.

Here's to a new phase of my adventures in blogging the Middle Ages!

Now if I can just get past this whole oral exams thing....

[As a side note, you may notice my dual identity to the right, as well as the absence of my trademark Wake Forest picture. Never fear, MKH and Mary Kate Hurley are in fact the same person -- I just need to figure out how to merge the accounts so I don't have to use two separate sign-ins all the time. I will probably figure out how to do this after exams. Till then -- there are two me's but they're both me. Or something like that.]


Sunday, August 12, 2007

I think this is why I read the BBC...

Perusing the New York Times this morning, I found this lovely little tidbit from Christopher Hitches on Harry Potter. My favorite bit:

Perhaps Anglophilia continues to play its part, but if I were one of the few surviving teachers of Anglo-Saxon I would rejoice at the way in which such terms as muggle and Wizengamot, and such names as Godric, Wulfric and Dumbledore, had become common currency. At this rate, the teaching of “Beowulf” could be revived. The many Latin incantations and imprecations could also help rekindle interest in the study of a “dead” language.

Few? Surviving? I realize Hitchens is trying to make a point here, but it's kind of lost in the implication that anyone who wants to teach Anglo-Saxon must be slightly nuts and hopelessly lost in the fantasy that Beowulf has something to do with popular culture.

I'm being touchy, clearly, but still: that unfortunate collocation of adjectives suggests that Anglo-Saxonists are a dying breed. Hitchens continues to convey the false impression that all Anglo-Saxonists are both old and throwbacks to another era, irrelevant to modernity (though, apparently not without hope, impressively drawn through philological use of names rather than actual ideas or storylines) -- and given that Hitchens seems incapable of mentioning a female author who can match his beloved Orwell, Conan Doyle, and Pullman (whose entire oeuvre ends up a tedious attack on CS Lewis), that they're all men too.

Yes, I'm being unfair. But as a female Anglo-Saxonist who turned 25 last Monday and loves such authors as Ursula K. LeGuin and Agatha Christie -- I couldn't just let it slide.


Thursday, August 09, 2007

Quarter Century: Update

This past Monday, I turned 25. At the time I was still in North Carolina. At 25 and 1 day, I returned to New York. I settled in.

And I began reading Chaucer.

I continue to read Chaucer, finding interesting little tidbits of Troilus and Criseyde which I hope will blossom into a full fledged post one day.

But with 28 days to exams (in 5 minutes, 27) I'm no longer promising.

But while you're reading my pointless post, I'll be useful: go read the first and second posts in the first ITMBC4DSoMA (In the Middle Book Club For the Discerning Scholar of Medieval Arcana*). I curse the gods of interlibrary loan that have yet to allow me a copy of the book, as well as my deep fear of the upcoming exams -- for both of these have rather limited my participation. Ah well. Thank goodness for academic blogs -- it reminds me that even in the thick of Chaucerian romance and questions of authority in translation, there's still time (albeit stolen time), for monsters and cannibalism.

*I'd like to point out how sad it is that I can somehow recall what this fabulous acronym stands for and yet if you asked me to name more than about ten of Aelfric's Lives of the Saints and distinguish them by method of death, I'd probably struggle more than a little...


Friday, August 03, 2007

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn / would scarcely know that we were gone

On of the most frightening stories of The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, was (for me at least), "There Will Come Soft Rains." The emptiness of the house, the death of the dog with no one to care for it in its wounded state, the sad, slow routine of life that goes on with no one there to observe it.

Now, a book has been written with the same premise.

What if there were no more humans? What would happen if we disappeared one day, suddenly, never mind how. Alan Weisman, of the University of Arizona (a professor of Journalism), has explored just that in his The World Without Us. I haven't yet read the book, but reading the linked article above gave me a lot to think about. Particularly with what it has to say about the city I call home, Manhattan:

“Many of the buildings in Manhattan are anchored to bedrock. But even if they have steel beam foundations, these structures were not designed to be waterlogged all the time. So eventually buildings would start to topple and fall. And we’re bound to have some more hurricanes hitting the East Coast as climate change gives us more extreme weather. When a building would fall, it would take down a couple of others as it went, creating a clearing. Into those clearings would blow seeds from plants, and those seeds would establish themselves in the cracks in the pavement. They would already be rooting in leaf litter anyhow, but the addition of lime from powdered concrete would create a less acidic environment for various species. A city would start to develop its own little ecosystem. Every spring when the temperature would be hovering on one side or the other of freezing, new cracks would appear. Water would go down into the cracks and freeze. The cracks would widen, and seeds would blow in there. It would happen very quickly.”

It's an interesting idea --- we think that our marks upon the earth are indelible, that we can create a kind of message to send into the future, whatever it might one day be.

Never really coming to grips with the fact that the world went on without "us" once: one can only assume it will do so again.

Interesting book, however. When the exams are finally over -- I think I may have to read it.


Thursday, August 02, 2007

Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer (thanks to Benadryl)

Am still recovering from a bout of bad allergies -- but after a couple days' recovery should be back to talking about on-topic things. Like my reading for exams, given that we're almost to the one month mark there...

For today, however, I thought I'd give you yet another reason to remember why Wikipedia can only be a resource if you double check it:

qwantz.com (wanted to use the picture here, but it's not going to work until I reformat by blog, which won't happen for awhile.)

Thanks to Qwantz.com for the amusement.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Do we need another hero?

I'm too exhausted from my allergies to even *follow* the threads in the discussion, but let's keep talking about heroes -- check out the comments for my post about Martin Firrell, Nathan Fillion, and re-envisioning our ideas about what "hero" means and then check out Meg's post over at Xoom for a well-written examination of the vagueness inherent in the very term. Also -- check out Matthew Gabriele's post on heroes over at Modern Medieval, which raises some fascinating questions about modern "heroes' -- not least of which is whether or not heroism is as wedded to violence as some feel.

More when I'm not quite so groggy.

For now, however, I'm off to fight the battle against allergies. Which ends for all, even those not abnormally affected by Benadryl (to the point that I cannot keep my eyes open after taking it) in darkness.

If by darkness, you mean 8 hours of very good sleep.