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


David Foster said...

Dropped by from Jeff Sypeck's site. I was interested to see that you are a reader of "Flight to Arras"--it's an intelligent and beautiful book that deserves to be better known.

Re the Bethlehem Steel doubt the failures of Beth Steel and the other big-steel companies had something to do with greed, but they also had much to do with lack of vision and with a spooky kind of almost-inevitability. New competitors arose in the form of the so-called mini-mills, which make steel from scrap--ie, they are recycling the steel which was originally made by Beth Steel and the other traditional producers. As the amount of recyclable material grows, the need for ab initio steelmaking declines, at least in relative terms. Management was not very clueful about what was happening: people rarely are in these situations.