Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What do you get the Anglo-Saxonist who has everything?

Why, the one thing that they probably won't find at the MLA this year (prospects for a job). E.L. Risden's Beowulf for Business piques my interest, and with the syncretic winter holiday season approaching, I think this should make a fascinating read.

It also proves that Beowulf has implications for modern life in ways of which I might never have thought.

My guess at a top rule: Never fight a dragon yourself. Get a lackey...I mean do it for you.

Thank you Ansaxnet for the link.


New York Medieval Happenings

More accurately: Columbia Medieval Happenings. Tomorrow afternoon Caroline Walker Bynum will be having a "medieval conversation" with my adviser. I'm going to be giving my own talk at my alma mater in North Carolina...otherwise, there's no doubt where I'd be. But more on that later. For now, expand this post to get the full info on what promises to be a fascinating talk between Caroline Walker Bynum and Patricia Dailey.

On Thursday, Nov 29th, at 6:00 pm

Where Patricia Dailey will be speaking with Caroline Walker-Bynum about her most recent book Wonderful Blood and issues addressed in her many other books.

It will take place in 754 Schermerhorn Extension (IRWaG seminar room) - entrance through Schermerhorn then to the right, through the hallway, up the elevators to the 7th floor.



Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ruins and Poetry: Beowulf and Bethlehem Steel

I’ve spent the last few days in Buffalo, New York, which some of my readers from Old English in New York will know is where my father’s family originates. I end up on the shores of Lake Erie at least twice a year now – and it’s a place I’ve come to think of as a kind of home.

About a week ago, in Boston with some of my dearest of friends, I finally saw the movie Beowulf. There are a number of very worthy blog-reviews, and more traditional reviews as well; however, I’ve been reticent to add my voice to the growing number. I saw the movie. I felt vaguely embarrassed as my friends asked me if THAT was what I studied. I cringed as the dialogue and speeches I love were destroyed by lines that no Anglo-Saxon warrior would ever say. I felt betrayed at the blatant sexuality and the use of women in the poem, the way they weren’t granted so much as a point of view, the way even those who had an opinion didn't ever fight back. No, I didn’t like this movie. It didn’t show me the poem I love, and it didn’t show me the gravitas I have come to cherish in my Anglo-Saxon verse.

And then, on the way to a family day-after-Thanksgiving gathering I caught sight of something familiar. The old Bethlehem steel factories live on the outskirts of Buffalo in a town called Lackawanna. Parts are owned by a foreign company – Mittal. Those parts are kept up, have been rebuilt even in the five years I’ve been coming back to Buffalo. The majority of the buildings, however, are modern ruins, growing vast fields of tall grasses inside the hollowed out sections of old structures, gated and barb-wired, a darkened wasteland sitting on the banks of Lake Erie. I don’t know the history of Bethlehem steel – at least, I do not know it intimately. It seems to be caught up in greed, exploitation, and the pain both cause in people who never see the profits of their labor, the ugliness of its moral stance written in grey slag on the beachfront. Nick Howe wrote eloquently in Across an Inland Sea that, unlike its northern neighbor Toronto, Buffalo will never be a city of “heritage”: a past one accepts without moral, or more likely, aesthetic embarrassment...a useable past for interior decorators (38). Buffalo is made of something tougher, less pliable, but perhaps (if one can make such a claim) more real. Again, borrowing from Howe’s elegant description: “Looking at the world from a city in decline keeps you from believing too many of the claims other places make about their futures. And it teaches you to value those intact ruins which were once someone else’s city of the future” (38).

Yet rising above these ruins now are the turbines that form part of what is called “Steel Winds” – an effort (I hope not final) to make the area which has for so long been home to the carcass of a giant productive once more. From an article in the Buffalo News, this line particularly struck me:

Fate has not forsaken us. It gave us a stiff wind blowing off Lake Erie. It left us a vast lakeside stretch of befouled land unsuitable for human habitation — but perfect for the mammoth wind turbines that no one wants to live near.
Fate here isn't anything that Beowulf and company would have recognized -- as we so often do in this age, fortune is blamed only for the good that falls to humans, and is said to be absent when we taste only of the bad. Boethian references aside, it is strange to see Fate invoked in this context...and stranger still as I wonder about what Fate--or more appropriately in this context, Wyrd--has done with the Beowulf I find beautiful, but that millions will now see as an adventure story where Pride is the Enemy, and the Sins of the Father echo in progeny born from the bodies of women objectified.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, in The Monsters and the Critics, a line that's been troubling me as I've written and re-written my dissertation prospectus these past few weeks.
Beowulf is not a “primitive poem;” it is a late one, using the materials (then still plentiful) preserved from a day already changing and passing, a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion; using them for a new purpose, with a wider sweep of the imagination, if with a less bitter and concentrated force. When new Beowulf was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. For it is now to us itself ancient; and yet its maker was telling of things already old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon the heart that sorrows have which are both poignant and remote. If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is now to us like memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo. There is not much poetry in the world like this...
Tolkien's point on the wider sweep of imagination aside, I think there's something in the assertion that Beowulf uses materials "preserved from a day already changing and passing" to bring down though generations the story we claim we know. Put together from pieces of a fragmented past, "Beowulf" is a poem we know, perhaps, only by its reputation -- we know it by what we've been left. We know the figurative landscape of the poem: the story of a hero, the monsters he fights and the death he dies doing it. We guess at the tone of the poem, of its seriousness and its strength, but we can only ever make an educated guess at its contemporary reception or use -- and the educated guess is still inflected by chance, however slight.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I think our interpretation of Beowulf is far more like bricolage than we are perhaps sometimes willing to admit. Neil Gaiman, in an article about the movie that I actually managed to read in its entirety (and I will read all of those blog reviews in greater detail - Prof. Noakes has a great list of them compiled at Unlocked Wordhoard, I've just not had time to work through all of it!), says of his first reading of Beowulf : "And I thought, this is a great story. It's got serious monsters in it and dragon fighting at the end. That's when I fell in love with it."

He fell in love with it based on those monsters Tolkien tried so hard to lift beyond what demeaning (and demanding) critics might say about them. Sitting with my high-school age cousin this weekend as I helped her work out the answers to her AP homework questions on the poem, I realized that Beowulf is a ruin in this day and age -- a structure whose original purpose is lost and broken, a structure that might hold meaning but doesn't hold a concrete use for the majority of those dwelling in the present day (the metaphysical musings on ruins, however, is another matter). All my eloquence about the poem's structure and beauty weren't of interest, wouldn't move my cousin to love the poem in the way I do, any more than it could her classmates, or any more than it did for me my senior year of high school. I didn't love Beowulf until someone -- Gillian Overing, in my first Old English class -- told me a story I could understand, a story I wanted to know more about. And at the end of the day, all my philology work and theoretical readings and deep study of the Middle Ages aside, here's what I think matters abotu Beowulf -- the movie and the poem: from the wreckage of the past, the burned remnants of manuscript and centuries of bored English majors, Neil Gaiman found a story he could tell, one to try to move other people to engage this work of the distant past. It wasn't the most well-executed story, and as a film it was just sad in places. But that's what we risk when we resurrect the past in the form of new media and new stories - we risk that this time will fail too, that the wreckage will only be added to, that our work will remain a ruin.

Driving by the Steel Winds turbines today on my way into the city, towering over the wreckage of the steel plant which used to be at the heart of the city's economic life, I also realized something else. There's a grace in the slender turbines which rise above the industrial waste of the past: there's a future here, a future of renewable energy resources. A future that's more than the past it is built on, and perhaps even a future that has learned from the history written in the unliveable land. And as with the Steel Winds, so with Beowulf: we cannot escape that Anglo-Saxon England was a violent and unforgiving place to live, a place where women were used (and horribly) as means to political ends, a place where feuds might obliterate whole peoples.

But it was much, much more than that too. Maybe there's something yet to learn from this Beowulf, beyond Angelina Jolie's nudity and Beowulf's bad lines. Maybe it can speak to something more than the sum of the parts of the past it inherited. Maybe its resurrection at this cultural moment is itself of value. And maybe we're too close -- temporally, spiritually -- to see this movie for what it might be: another performance of a poem whose ending has not been written yet.

The black and white photos on this page were taken by Kendall Anderson and can be found on this photoblog.

cross posted at In the Middle


Tuesday, November 13, 2007

One of the blogs I subscribe to is the Words Without Borders blog, and today, a quick perusal of their website before I went to teach yielded two things I wanted to share with you all here at ITM.

First: I'm not the only person feeling inspired by Forster. Christopher Merrill has a post on the University of Iowa's writing program which he calls "Only Connect". An excerpt:

Literature works by subterranean means. Ideas migrate at the speed of thought, which for a writer in the act of composition means the speed of sound—syllable by syllable—if not the speed of light. And literary exchanges have the merit of launching new ideas into the cultural discourse.

This connects so well with some of the Deleuze and Guattari I've been reading over the past few weeks -- these rhizome networks of literature. One of the things I think, increasingly, is important, is the work of not simply literary critics, but truly literary scholars. Put differently: I don't think I'll ever understand The Wanderer as well as I did when I tried, after many years of writing about the poem, to actually write the poem, via translation.

Second: I had never heard of Doris Koreva until this morning. One of her poems, translated here, expresses for me the relationship between what Allen Mandelbaum called, in his Chelmaxioms "the-Reader and the-Read." The lines I found most intriguing:

The reader casts his shadow over the poem.

All possibilities bloom in language,
the mind hears but what it wants to
or what it fears.
Such hope for language -- for communication -- but simultaneously, such fear. However, Koreva suggests something in her poem I've always felt, though I don't think it made sense to me until this morning: Is there something about literature -- the writing or composition of text -- that is inherently hopeful? A leap of faith, even: faith in language, perhaps, but moreover -- faith in the possibility of communication?

cross posted at ITM


Thursday, November 08, 2007

Dissertation Fragments Part I: Horizons, or Two False Starts and an Abstract

So as a part of my ongoing dissertation prospectus work is preparation for a talk I’m giving at Wake Forest in late November. I’ve been invited back by my undergraduate advisers (and continuing mentors!) Gillian Overing and Gale Sigal to speak to the Medieval Studies group – a group including professors and grad students from a wide variety of disciplines, including English, French, History, Italian, etc. I am, needless to say, incredibly pleased to be giving this talk – it’ll be a lovely homecoming, and I’ll even get to sit in on Dr. Overing’s Old English class. That should bring back some memories! It’s intimidating, to be sure: it is my very first “real” academic talk, invited and everything. However, it’s also comforting: Profs. Overing and Sigal read my undergraduate honors thesis. Whatever I say in this talk (which is now taking solid form in preparation for a workshop this evening), it can’t be more embarrassing, or less intelligible, than my 36 page aria on a 115 line poem, titled: The Exile and the Other: Male Voice and Psychological Landscaping in the Wanderer. My undergraduate masterpiece would be reworked a number of times in the following years, but the 2004 version will always be my favorite -- and the longest -- of its iterations.

By way of new beginnings, then, as I enter the stage of my career that begins with the end of my orals reading and ends in the scariest place on earth, I offer some first, discarded fragments that underlie the central idea of my talk (and also my dissertation), which will be titled: "On the Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities." To show where I've ended up in more concrete terms -- and as to provide a preview of coming attractions -- I've also included the abstract I sent to Wake as a kind of advance warning. Part II of this series will, in all probability, be sections from the talk itself (suggestions for format welcome).

Think of these fragments as meditations, or perhaps as interconnected musings. Try not to think of them as the past I’ve tried to repress. Because really, that’s just so linear...

I: A Place to Believe In

In the introduction to the collection of essays in A Place to Believe In, Clare Lees and Gillian Overing introduce the work of “gathering” that the essays perform in what they call a “meditation” on “the idea of Northumbria and its horizons, whether historical, cultural, or geographic” (7). Using the definition envisioned by Michael Casey’s “How to Get from Space to Place,” they define horizons as the [foundations] which “form the perceptual basis of boundaries [that] are themselves spatiotemporal in status. To be in perceptual field is to be encompassed by edges that are neither strictly spatial—we cannot map a horizon (even if we can draw it)—nor strictly temporal” (43, cited in Overing and Lees 8-9). In their thoughts on space, place and time in the Northumbrian landscape, Lees and Overing engage with the “crossroads” which place represents; indeed, the work of the authors in the collection are located “at the intersection of land and sea, or of space and belief; at the coming together of physical spaces and the bodies that inhabit and co-create them; and last but by no means least, at the juncture of past and present” (26). The horizon becomes a symbol of the possibility of continuity, perhaps even coexistence, in the present of memories, objects and writings of and from the past. The horizon, then, has much in common with a liminal space—“the horizon is porous, its boundaries shifting” (24). In the context of place, this interpretation allows Overing and Lees to imagine their own coexistence with Anglo-Saxon past which they can quite literally see, surrounding them in the landscape that encompasses Yeavering, Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. The concept of time, however, is more difficult. Alternate times—and Other histories—persist, but the horizons of history cannot help but function differently from those of the Northumbrian Landscape.

II: Order of the First Chaos

In the first calens of Ovid’s Fasti, another type of horizon might be considered, in the figure of Janus. Janus is the two-headed god of gateways (I.65). However, Janus also delimits a boundary: his most vital role is as not only the god of gateways, but also as the god of the first Chaos. When he was first formed, “yon lucid air and the three other bodies, fire, water, earth, were huddled all in one.” (I.105-6). He looks both forward and backward at the same time, and thus he looks forward to the coming year, and backward to the year which has already passed. The conception of time laid out by Janus is cyclical—the order of each calendrical year both precedes and follows itself as a kind of promise of stability in the observation of months and celebrations. However, because he is the god that the “ancients called Chaos” (I.65), the dual sight of Janus serves not simply to demarcate the boundaries of the repeating calendrical year, but as a perpetual reminder that order is preceded by chaos, and that chaos is perhaps still present beneath order’s thin veneer. Significantly, Janus, née Chaos, also serves as the protector of order. “All things are closed and opened” by his hand; he asserts and he avers that “the guardianship of this vast universe is in my hands alone, and none but me can rule the wheeling pole” (I.118-120). Order is quite literally in the hands of Chaos, and the calendrical year offers but a flimsy stability at best.

III: Horizons of History (an abstract)

My current project, tentatively titled Horizons of History, examines what might happen if we think of an “Anglo-Saxon England” with fluid boundaries – embracing the possibility of a semi-permeable, ever-changing horizon as both boundary and event, forming networks of written “collectivities” that are not confined to a single historical period or outlook. Engaging with the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, Bruno Latour, and Deleuze and Guattari, I wish to rethink the ways in which we conceptualize an “Anglo-Saxon” period via a sustained reading of historiographical material written on both sides of the Norman Conquest. My focus in this paper will be two-fold. First, it will serve as an outline and preliminary defense of the topic of my dissertation – positing both the possibility of a “Long Anglo-Saxon Period” in the Middle Ages, and examining what is at stake in thinking of the period in this fashion. The second part of the talk will offer an overview of how I see this horizon of history functioning the in the political/poetic corpus, focusing specifically on the Old English Orosius and Beowulf.


Works Cited

Lees, Clare and Gillian Overing (eds.). A Place to Believe In (Penn State: Philadelphia, 2006).
Ovid. The Fasti. (can't recall the edition)

Cross-posted at In the Middle.