Tuesday, November 25, 2008

After Elegy: or, Thinking Old English Without Loss

[Image credit here]

by Mary Kate Hurley

This past Wednesday I gave a presentation on the beginnings of the second chapter of my dissertation. At present, this chapter appears to be the required Beowulf chapter. I’ve been re-reading the poem, and contemplating a re-translating, for a couple weeks now, and I’m still trying to make my ideas cohere.

Every once in awhile, though, an object gets launched into my orbit, usually precipitated by an event like Wednesday’s MaRGIN (Medieval and Renaissance Graduate Information Network -- run by graduate students at NYU) workshop, and I can’t quite decide if it’s a gift or a grenade, or usually both. Gifts make my arguments come together – like when one adviser told me that my interest in my MA Essay was temporality, not subjectivity, or when another told me my first chapter was about translation and temporality, and that I should really focus on that rather than writing my whole dissertation in one chapter. Grenades – well, they’re just like gifts, except they do so in a way that shifts everything I think I know, and turns it on its head.

My colleague Liza Blake, a frequent commenter here at ITM and a really impressive scholar of Renaissance literature at NYU (second year of grad school, after an MPhil at Cambridge), launched one such item – a gift-grenade, if you will—into my thought processes this past week, which I wanted to share with a wider audience as I begin to think through my second chapter.

In the last part of the poem Beowulf, our hero meets his final monster: the dragon. However, before he finds himself actually engaging the dragon in a fight, we’re given a glimpse of how the dragon comes into the story of the poem. Like many Old English stories, it’s one about loss – more specifically, the loss of kinsmen, the loss of a people. We’re treated to the lay of the last survivor, which, if memory serves, is often compared to other elegiac poems, like The Wanderer. You can see the text, and translation at this website. I’m not a fan of the translation, really, but I don’t have my own in front of me. I’ll be using my own on-the-fly translation through the rest of this post where I need it.

The dominant mood of the poem seems to be grief: “Hold you now earth, now that warriors are not allowed to, the possessions of lords!” The speaker catalogues what these objects are: the helm, the sword, the chain mail, the cup. There is no one, the speaker says, who will use these things – who will keep them from disintegrating now that “violent death” has “sent forth” many of men (ll.2265-2266).

What’s interesting, and what Liza pointed out, is that the hoard, useless, and finally, dangerous to the people of the Geats – didn’t belong to the last survivor any more than it did to the dragon, or to Beowulf. Rather, the history told by the lay of the last survivor speaks of it with these words: “Hwæt, hyt ær on ðe gode begeaton” (2248-9). Grammatically this is a bit dense. on, when used with a verb with a sense of “taking,” translates as “from”, and so the line translates roughly to “Lo, it before from you [good ones] obtained.” In short – the materials of this hoard were taken from the earth in former times (aer), and now, the last survivor returns them to the hruse from which it came.

The poem goes on to describe the actions of the last survivor: Swa giomor-mod giohðo mænde, / an æfter eallum (ll. 2265-66). Again, we can get tripped up by the grammar: “thus, sad-minded he mourned cares, / alone after/for all [of them].” Chickering’s translation (the one I tend to favor) is “Thus in his grief he mourned aloud, /alone, for them all.” æfter, as a preposition, has several meanings, and nearly always takes the dative. Given my druthers, I wouldn’t choose between the meanings – keeping, therefore, a sense of longing with the sense of temporal distancing which works so well for this final survivor of a people destroyed.

What Liza’s suggestion highlights is that – as a human being myself – I tend to sympathize, even empathize with the human loss which is voiced so eloquently by the last survivor’s words. But I do so to the exclusion of the poem’s exposition of the dragon’s function in the poem:
Hord-wynne fond / eald uht-sceaða opene standan, / se ðe byrnende biorgas seceð, / nacod nið draca, nihtes fleogeð / fyre befangan; hyne fold-buend / swiðe ondrædað. He gesecean sceall / hord on hrusan, þær he hæðen gold / warað wintrum frod; ne byð him wihte ðy sel.

He found hoard-joys, the old dawn-scather, to stand open, he who, burning, sought the hills, the naked malicious dragon, flies in the nights, encircled by fire; he the earth-dwellers widely dreaded. He shall seek hoards in the earth, there he heathen gold guards from ancient winters; it is not to him a bit of good.

What’s interesting here is what probably sounds familiar if you’ve any experience of the poem called the Old English Maxims (which essentially function as a kind of catalogue of knowledge of “the way things are”), the first line of which reads: Cyning sceal rice healdan (maxims II, l. 1). The King shall hold the kingdom. The dragon is doing, quite simply, what a dragon does. And – referring back to what has gone before in the poem – these treasures were taken out of the earth in the past, and now they simply return to the earth. Gold, taken in the form of metals (interesting role in OE for metals, if one thinks about them), is turned through human artifice into the materials that we think of as forming part of the social interactions of the Anglo-Saxon period. Rings, swords – all these things circulate in human society, and when there is no one left to keep this circulation in motion, the impulse is to mourn the loss to humans. But in essence, these things are simply returning to the earth from whence they came – no more useful to humans than it was when they first found it.

So my question, the one that’s been on my mind the past few days and will probably keep me thinking for awhile, is this: Can we think of Old English poetry and not think of “loss” as a part of what that poetry is describing? Is there a way to move beyond the idea of loss, to think an Anglo-Saxon poetry that portrays this complex interaction of human and non-human objects and materials in a way that doesn’t rely on metals – objects – or finally humans – being lost? What if they simply change form?

Could we ever be after elegy?

cross posted at ITM.


Thursday, November 13, 2008

For Friends in Mourning (a Rare Personal Post)

I'm in one of those periods of my life where it seems that a number of people who I care about deeply are in pain, for a variety of reasons. JJC has posted about his recent loss at ITM. Other people dear to me are mourning other losses, due to death or to the turnings of life. Some of them are folks I knew only tangetially nearly ten years ago. Others are close friends. Some of them have been grieving for some time now. Others are facing new pain. My thoughts are with all of them.

In the moments I need comfort most I turn to a place that seems odd to me, but still brings comfort: e e cummings, in his Introduction from New Poems. The sense of movement, of never-finished-ness, and more than anything else of possibility seems comforting somehow: as though even in endings, still many things are possible. Even, in a someday far or near in time, joy.

Miracles are to come. With you I leave a remembrance of miracles: they are somebody who can love and who shall be continually reborn,a human being;somebody who said to those near him,when his fingers would not hold a brush "tie it to my hand"--

nothing proving or sick or partial. Nothing false,nothing difficult or easy or small or colossal. Nothing ordinary or extraordinary,nothing emptied or filled,real or unreal;nothing feeble and known or clumsy and guessed. Everywhere tints childrening,innocent spontaneaous,true. Nowhere possibly what flesh and impossibly such a garden,but actually flowers which breasts are amoung the very mouths of light. Nothing believed or doubted;brain over heart, surface:nowhere hating or to fear;shadow,mind without soul. Only how measureless cool flames of making;only each other building always distinct selves of mutual entirely opening;only alive. Never the murdered finalities of wherewhen and yesno,impotent nongames of wrongright and rightwrong;never to gain or pause,never the soft adventure of undoom,greedy anguishes and cringing ecstasies of inexistence;never to rest and never to have;only to grow.

Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

There is No Future without Love (a Rare Political Post)

The election is over. History made. But last night on Countdown, Keith Olbermann made a comment that I think is central to the work of the humanities. You can view it in the embedded video below -- and it is worth viewing in its entirety.

California voted in favor of Proposition 8, which denies same sex couples the right to married. A right hitherto granted same sex couples in the state was banned, dissolved. An electorate actively voted to deny others the rights they themselves enjoy.

If you voted for this Proposition or support those who did or the sentiment they expressed, I have some questions, because, truly, I do not understand. Why does this matter to you? What is it to you? In a time of impermanence and fly-by-night relationships, these people over here want the same chance at permanence and happiness that is your option. They don't want to deny you yours. They don't want to take anything away from you. They want what you want—a chance to be a little less alone in the world.

Only now you are saying to them—no. You can't have it on these terms. Maybe something similar. If they behave. If they don't cause too much trouble. You'll even give them all the same legal rights—even as you're taking away the legal right, which they already had. A world around them, still anchored in love and marriage, and you are saying, no, you can't marry. What if somebody passed a law that said you couldn't marry?

Olbermann goes on to point out that we have done this before. Inter-racial marriages were illegal in 1/3 of the country until 1967. Marriages between slaves were not recognized in the era of slavery.

What strikes me more than anything else Olbermann says in this comment is how unthinkable a choice this is when you put it in terms of the literal heart of the matter -- when you put it in terms of love.

What is this, to you? Nobody is asking you to embrace their expression of love. But don't you, as human beings, have to embrace... that love? The world is barren enough.

It is stacked against love, and against hope, and against those very few and precious emotions that enable us to go forward. Your marriage only stands a 50-50 chance of lasting, no matter how much you feel and how hard you work.

And here are people overjoyed at the prospect of just that chance, and that work, just for the hope of having that feeling. With so much hate in the world, with so much meaningless division, and people pitted against people for no good reason, this is what your religion tells you to do? With your experience of life and this world and all its sadnesses, this is what your conscience tells you to do?

With your knowledge that life, with endless vigor, seems to tilt the playing field on which we all live, in favor of unhappiness and hate... this is what your heart tells you to do? You want to sanctify marriage? You want to honor your God and the universal love you believe he represents? Then Spread happiness—this tiny, symbolic, semantical grain of happiness—share it with all those who seek it. Quote me anything from your religious leader or book of choice telling you to stand against this. And then tell me how you can believe both that statement and another statement, another one which reads only "do unto others as you would have them do unto you."

I realized yesterday that I've spent seven years of my life -- nearly a quarter of it -- studying Anglo-Saxon literature. And if there is one thing that Anglo-Saxon literature speaks most clearly to me, it is the centrality of human love to any kind of real life, to any kind of ethical stance against the very barrenness described here. It reminds me, as so often this modern life does, of the Wanderer, of his travels in a barren place, a wintery sea, and the ice-flecked waves that bear him ever farther from human love and belonging:

Storms buffet rocky slopes, and snowfalls
cover the earth with the silence of winter.
Darkness falls, night’s shadows grow gloomy
hailstorms beat down from the sky,
they are hateful to men.

All men are miserable in earthly kingdoms,
for fate leaves no-one under the heavens unchanged.
Here wealth is fleeting, here friend is fleeting,
here man is fleeting, here kinsmen are fleeting.
This earthly resting place becomes empty.

So many threatening forces beat upon humankind from the outside in the Anglo-Saxon poetic world. The world stands cold against the warmth of a hall -- and in the imagery of Bede, life flies by, as might a sparrow through a hall, and for a single, sparkling moment, the winter fades away, and all is warmth and light. ac þæt biþ ān ēagan-bearhtm and þæt læste fæc, ac hē sōna of winter on winter eft cymþ. "But that is only an eye's twinkling, and that least interval -- and he soon out of winter into winter again comes."

The hall is where we come together, to share, however imperfectly, a kind of human love which can warm the coldness of a wintry world. I feel the hurt of the passage of Proposition Eight as a human being, because I care for and about other humans. But I care about it as an Anglo-Saxonist and a medievalist too. Because the winters of the past are done and gone, and still I hear the pain that resonates down the centuries of what it is like to be alone, to be cast out, to be without love, and moreover -- to be without an official status, a place of stability.

You don't have to help it, you don't have it applaud it, you don't have to fight for it. Just don't put it out. Just don't extinguish it. Because while it may at first look like that love is between two people you don't know and you don't understand and maybe you don't even want to know -- It is, in fact, the ember of your love, for your fellow person just because this is the only world we have. And the other guy counts, too.

Knowing all of this -- how could I deny others a right to "permanence and happiness," to the rights still others enjoy simply because they fit into an artificial idea of a "norm"? How could I not, as Olbermann suggests, embrace that love?

Put another way: how could I stand in the way of a wanderer who longs for a place to call home?


The title of this post is from a Brian Andreas poem, which you can access here.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Smallish Dissertation Update

Chapter One has been sent to both Dissertation Chair and Second Reader. Appendix will be typed tomorrow, and I shall feel like a real Anglo-Saxonist.

What is this appendix? Well, it's where I sort out how the Old English Orosius uses the the proper name of the historian Paulus Orosius, and to what effects.

Why does this list make me feel like a real Anglo-Saxonist? I think it's because it feels like "real" data. Quantifiable, and therefore tangible.

There's just something so darn satisfying about achieving descriptive accuracy.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Argumentation, pt 1: Names

Apparently, when I write, I am a lot like my University Writing students. I come to the crux of my argument in the last paragraph (or in the case, the last ten pages) of my piece. What's interesting, of course, is that my dissertation requires a framework I'm not really used to thinking about. I've got 45 pages to signpost and structure: it's a very different feel from even a 20 page paper.

What's particularly challenging is the number of texts I'm talking about in the piece. It's really only two: the Latin Historiarum, by Paulus Orosius, and the Old English Orosius. But the number of references to works and authors multiplies when I attempt to nail down an argument about the texts:

Latin Text: Historiarum
Old English Text: Orosius
Latin Author: Paulus Orosius
Old English author: Orosius translator
Latin Narrator: the historian Orosius
Old English Narrator: Orosius-narrator, not to be confused with the citation of the historian Orosius in the cwaeth construction used throughout the text.

Certain problems come into view: How to keep the Orosiuses separate? How do I talk about an Old English author/translator who doesn't have a name without getting unwieldy? Who's narrating the Old English Orosius, anyway? Can I delineate these differences in a way that will keep my reader from being endlessly confused (as I suspect a reliance on italics or quotation marks might do)? I need a shorthand of some sort. There's a good reason that if I ever get back to my Anatomy of a First Chapter (I will, I will!) the second part is called "The Trial by Appendix". Because I (mostly) understand my argument. The real question is -- will any of you?

These are the things nobody warned me about when I started "dissertating." Mundane concerns, perhaps. But nothing I write matters if it isn't clear enough for my readers to understand it. Perhaps I need to learn as much from University Writing as my freshmen do.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Blogging as Practice

I need to start thinking of blogging less as "production of text for public consumption" (though it is that) and more of a practice. But practice for what, I ask myself? And that seems to be my key question as I embark on a little experiment. How can I use this blog, Old English in New York, to think through my dissertation as I move through the steps of revision, rewriting, researching and writing the next three chapters of the project?

So: I am going to attempt to write a bit each day about what I'm working on in my dissertation. I'll still be posting substantial things over at ITM. But when I started this blog -- oh, those many months ago! -- it was supposed to work for me. I've been neglecting that aspect of blogging, and I think, as I continue my grand experiment in blogging the academic experience (okay, okay: my small experiment in blogging a graduate student's experience), it's time to get back to the basics, as they say.

I will attempt to post every weekday. We'll see how that works out. And what it yields, if anything. For now, however, I have obligations that require my real-life presence, presently.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Digital Scriptorium, or, Becoming (a) Medievalist

by Mary Kate Hurley

Now I'm sure that everyone in the medievalist world has heard of the The Digital Scriptorium, a fantastic resource created through a cooperation of my home institution (Columbia), Berkeley, and other universities throughout the country. Essentially, it has high quality pictures and their catalog records (5,300 manuscripts and for 24,300 images) online and available. Digital Scriptorium is a fascinating project, not merely because of its use for scholars, but because of its use for students. As Chris Baswell said in the opening class of "The Medieval Culture of the Book" last week, it is possible to work on manuscripts in an entirely different way now, even at the student level. Actually teaching graduate students how to read and work with manuscripts is far easier (and, from what it sounds, more pleasant) with the digital technology available on the web, replacing the far more difficult work of transcribing from fax or from a photocopy of the original MS.

Now I'm clearly referencing Deleuze and Guattari in my title, but it's interesting to think through Digital Scriptorium with regards to my own progress in graduate school. I'm beginning my fifth year. I passed my exams, the dissertation is currently underway. I'm teaching University Writing for the fifth semester in a row. However, were I to be honest, the two classes I'm taking (Medieval Culture of the Book, which is also known as Codex and Criticism, and Paleography) are the first time I've really felt like a medievalist. I've always known that my academic heart was, first and foremost, in medieval literature, but all too often I've felt like the only difference between being a medievalist and being a twentieth century-ist is that my texts aren't in Modern English.

But this is different, somehow. This foray into the world of manuscripts feels older, somehow. And yet, to access this knowledge, to learn how to decode these old texts, I'm not really confronting the things themselves (though Consuelo Dutschke -- the Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at Columbia's Rare Books and Manuscript Library, and the professor for my Paleography course -- is of course having us look at the physical manuscripts and codices as well). I'm still getting my input, so to speak, through a technological medium. My first thought is -- what is lost by transcribing from a virtual manuscript, a picture on an internet site? But even as I write that question I realize that the question that's more interesting is the one that reminds me that medieval manuscripts themselves, and the writing which inhabits their (once-living animal skin) pages are both forms of technology, if in many cases less "shiny" than my computer screen.

So yes -- this is a semester of Paleography for me, one I hope to put to good use. Reminding myself that there's more to "technology" than meets the eye, it's kind of cool to think that by re-engaging medieval texts in a medium for which they were not meant, the reading of those manuscripts becomes itself a different experience, one that can help me think through media in today's Internet and television driven world.

In short: once, I dreamed of being a Paleontologist, until I realized that I had no talent for science and no patience for digging up things in remote deserts. All I wanted to think about was the dinosaurs, their world -- what it was like to live back then. Although there is a paucity of dinosaurs in medieval literature (Saint Augustine excepted), I find that my interest in paleography is another way of returning to the things I find most moving about medieval literature: the way in which words touch us (and are touched by us) over immense swathes of time. The way in which the physical object of the book survives from the past, and faces questions from scholars its pages might only ever partially answer. But we still get to try. And even without dinosaurs -- that's pretty amazing stuff.


Sunday, August 17, 2008

Getting Anglo-Saxon, or, Anatomy of a First Chapter

[picture from the Vortigern Studies website. It's supposedly Orosius!]

by Mary Kate Hurley

Around the same time we finished out our group discussion of Getting Medieval, I reached a milestone of my own. I’ve recently completed work on my first dissertation chapter – and, though the chapter will no doubt be returned from my adviser with plenty of comments for my revision, I thought that I’d do a short series of posts on the process of getting this first chapter written, and what I’ve found now that I’m there. I’d wanted to do so as I was researching and writing – however, it would appear that learning to write a dissertation chapter makes it really hard to step back and write about writing that dissertation chapter. I’m hoping that, now I’ve “learned” how to write a chapter, I can share more of the second chapter as I go. The interactive part: I’d love comments and feedback, of course, but I’d also love to hear how other scholars approach the questions I’m raising here – grad students and more advanced scholars alike. Most specifically: How do you write a 45(ish)- page chapter on a text that you could easily write a book about? How did you narrow down your focus on your source(s)?

Correct me if I’m wrong: everyone who does a field in Old English literature, including prose, for their exams comes away with one translation out of the Alfredian corpus that qualifies as their favorite. And there are plenty to choose from, too: the Boethius, the Psalms, the Pastoral Care, the Dialogues, the Soliloquies -- and the subject of my first chapter, the Orosius. Although I certainly have a soft spot for the Pastoral Care and the Boethius (after all, who doesn’t love getting consoled by philosophy? And in Anglo-Saxon no less!), I suppose the Orosius is my “favorite.” I’m not quite sure what it was that attracted me to the Orosius, but I do know that unlike the majority of work done on Old English translation, it wasn’t the preface.

Why does that matter? To back up for those who haven’t slogged through the great works of Anglo-Saxon prose: The Old English Orosius is a translation (some, following the work’s editor Janet Bately, would call it a “paraphrase,” contending that it’s too close to the original to even qualify as translation!) of the Latin Historiarum Adversum Paganos. Written by the fifth century Spanish priest Paulus Orosius, the Latin text was meant to be a companion-piece to Saint Augustine’s City of God Against the Pagans. In the Historiarum Orosius intends to show how history may be read in light of Christianity – and moreover, that such a reading will show that the past was, in a sense, destitute: understanding and insight into historical happenings could not exist without the acknowledgement of Christ. He avers that these “pagans” do not know how to read history, that “they do not inquire into the future, and either forget or do not know the past,” and so they attribute the calamity of the sack of Rome to the “increasingly less worship of idols.”(1) In short: they assume their punishment for converting to Christianity is the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410. Orosius sets out to show them how in the grand scheme of things, life is much better post-Christ than before his coming. In so doing, he interprets pretty much everything through a lens of how much worse it used to be, and how we can see God’s work explicitly bringing Rome to Christianity, after which, things were comparatively less bad.

Orosius, then, clearly saw himself in the same tradition as Augustine in terms of his
understanding of the relation of human history to Divine Providence – he’d undertaken the project at the behest of Augustine, though the results were not really what Augustine wanted. Orosius’ conception of historia differs significantly from his mentor’s, which makes it clear why Augustine was so disdainful of his work. (2) Orosius’ difference from Augustine in his historical reasoning is a function of the way in which history itself is structured. Confronted with “a universal sweep, a universal explanation of men’s basic motives, a certainty of the existence, in every age, of a single, fundamental tension,” Orosius over-generalizes, and produces what Peter Brown describes as “a neatly-patterned Christian ‘Universal History’”. (3) In Augustine, the work of God in the world is always implicit, but can rarely be seen – “we can only be confident in general that all history is in God’s hands, but we cannot watch his hand at work.” (4) Orosius, on the other hand, seems to be certain that the work of the Almighty is easily intelligible to those who know the signs by which it can be identified. Moreover, history is easily sorted, categorized and judged: Orosius’ “catalogue of worldly woe” shows explicitly how the world waxes more evil earlier before Christ one looks. Thus it is only the person who cannot see with the clearer light of the Christian faith who would aver that the present, with its knowledge of both Christ and His redemption, is worse than the ignorant – and therefore all the more wicked – past.

The translation into Anglo-Saxon of the Latin Historiarum is highly abridged – it cuts the original seven books down to six, and leaves out large sections of the text (Bately, in her introduction to the text, gives a more complete summary of the textual differences, both the abridgements and additions) . However, the OE Orosius is most often noted for its additions. First, there are additions of mythological and historical information Orosius did not include in the Latin -- these would have been familiar to 5th century Rome but not to Anglo-Saxon England. More tellingly however, critics have been overly enamored of the so-called “geographical preface.” The Latin Historiarum features a discussion of the landmasses of the world, and the various populations therein. Seeking, apparently, to do them one better, the Old English Orosius includes a much remarked on insertion, usually referred to as the “Ohthere and Wulfstan” part of the text. In it, two “norðmenn” tell King Alfred about their travels in Scandinavia and other parts of the far north, and about the people who live there (including various “magical” things they can do!). A quick survey of the critical literature reveals a huge emphasis on the preface, and these two travelers – and so, my first goal was to avoid talking about the “original” parts of the text, or at least to avoid the preface!

This didn’t really narrow things down all that much. It did, however, give me a chance to use a hard-won realization from my translation studies courses and workshops: translations, if they are true translations, must not be treated as “derivative.” That lesson, repeated to me over and over again by Michael Scammell (my workshop professor, who finally convinced me that if I am ever to translate Anglo-Saxon poetry, I must learn to love Modern English as much as Old English. That project is deferred indefinitely.) allowed me to formulate a different way of understanding the text: if I’m not concerned with what’s “original” in the translation, how do I locate Anglo-Saxon England in a text so close to the Latin from which it is translated?

Next time: What Orosius Said, or, The Trial by Appendix

1. “qui cum futura non quaerant, praeterita autem aut obliuiscantur aut nesciant praesenti a tamen tempora ueluti malis extra solitum infestatissima ob hoc solum quod creditur Christus et colitur Deus, idola autem minus coluntur, infamant.” Trans. Deferrari, 4.

2.Cf. Rohrbacker, David. The Historians of Late Antiquity, 148. Rohrbacker cites a number of scholars who identify the tone of Augustine’s second book of the City of God as arguing against Orosius’ less philosophically sophisticated version of a world history.

3. Brown, Augustine of Hippo 321

4. Bittner 355

Works Cited
Bittner, Rudiger. "Augustine's Philosophy of History" in Gareth B. Matthews (ed), The Augustinian Tradition. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1999. pp. 345-360.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Deferrari, Roy (trans). Orosius: Seven Books Against the Pagans. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1964.

Rohrbacker, David. The Historians of Late Antiquity. Routledge, 2002.

Cross posted at ITM.


Thursday, July 31, 2008

Jakobson, meet Derrida

I couldn't find the Jakobson article I needed to complete my argument in my first chapter today, but in my all-too-brief notes on the book On Translation Studies, here are some quotes from Derrida's Tower of Babel essay that resonate:

“In Seeking to ‘make a name for themselves,’ to found at the same time a universal tongue and a unique genealogy, the Semites want to bring the world to reason, and this reason can signify simultaneously a colonial violence (since they would thus universalize their idiom) and a peaceful transparency of the human community. Inversely, when God imposes and opposes his name, he ruptures the rational transparency but interrupts also the colonial violence or the linguistic imperialism. He destines them to translation, he subjects them to the law of a translation both necessary and impossible; in a stroke with his translatable-untranslatadble name he delivers a universal reason (it will not longer be subject to the rule of a particular nation), but he simultaneously limits its very universality: forbidden transparency, impossible univocity. Translation becomes law, duty, and debt, but the debt one can no longer discharge. Such insolvency is found marked in the very name of Babel: which at once translates and does not translate itself, belongs without belonging to a language and indebts itself as if other. Such would be the Babelian performance.” (226)

“The original is the first debtor, the first petitioner; it begins by lacking and by pleading for translation. This demand is not only on the side of the constructors of the tower who want to make a name for themselves and to found a universal tongue translating itself by itself; it also constrains the deconstructor of the tower: in giving his name, God also appealed to translation, not only between the tongues that had suddenly become multiple and confused, but first of his name, of the name he had proclaimed, given, and which should be translated as confusion to be understood, hence to let it be understood that it is difficult to translate and so to understand. At the moment when he imposes and opposes his law to that of the tribe, he is also a petitioner for translation. He is also indebted. He has not finished pleading for the translation of his name even though he forbids it. For Babel is untranslateable. God weeps over his name. His text is the most sacred, the most poetic, the most originary, since he creates a name and gives it to himself, but he is left no less destitute in his force and even in his wealth; he pleads for a translator.” (226-227)


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Believing the Wanderer

by Mary Kate Hurley

One of my best friends, Emily, wrote to me a few months ago asking me to write an essay for a CD she wants to put together. It consists in "This I Believe" style essays from a number of people she's close to, and her rationale for putting it together is that eventually she'll lose all our voices -- to death, or to time, or to distance -- and she wants to preserve them now, what we believe, who we are (at least, this is my interpretation of what she told me). And so I found myself, at long last, returning to a theme of mine. My first attempt, written for my final University Writing class this year, is available at OENY. My current attempt can be found under the "read more" cut below.

I've written on the Wanderer many times before. An honors thesis, a Masters thesis, various translations. This is the first time I've tried to articulate the poem's meaning to me in a spoken format. Moreover, it is the first time I've tried to articulate my first meeting with this poem, and more importantly, what it means to me personally -- and so I wanted to share it, not just with Emily (whom I met in the same Old English in which I met the Wanderer), but with other medievalist interlocutors. I realized, while writing it, that I really can pinpoint the moment medieval studies changed my life. It was imperceptible at the time, but this figure became central to my world for years. I wonder if others have found texts that have touched them in an academic way -- generating a passion for the medieval, or another field -- but also touched them in a profoundly life-altering, personal way. And I wonder if some of you might share those here, in the comments (I'm very interactive this week!).

So, this I believe, the Old English Edition.

Even voices from the distant past can change your life. Here is a voice I first met in a poem—first in its original Old English, then in translation:

Oft ic sceolde ana uhtna gehwylce
mine ceare cwiþan. Nis nu cwicra nan
þe ic him modsefan minne durre
sweotule asecgan.

Often, alone
I have spoken my cares in the hours before dawn.
No one now lives to whom I could tell
my heart’s secrets.

When I first encountered this character—this voice—from an eighth-century Old English poem, he was alone. He, the so-called “wanderer,” was bereft. He had fought loyally for his lord, but his lord had died, and now he was left in exile. In those times, a warrior depended on his lord for housing, legitimacy, and protection. His world had changed forever, and he could not change with it.

At nineteen I could understand that feeling. It was February, 2002: the year my life had—like his-- changed irreparably. The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon five months before had exposed the prejudices of my peers, as the world became an uncertain, violent place. My personal losses were no less life-altering: I had recently buried a friend who hadn’t yet turned 15, and was mourning a cousin who never saw his eleventh birthday. The Wanderer’s losses felt very familiar.

As a college sophomore, I enrolled in a class in Old English language and literature. It was there that I first met the Wanderer, and that meeting would change my life. Like friends who met their future life partners in college, I met the person—the voice— who would alter my life in a poem on that course syllabus. His words changed me, even though he spoke a language that hadn’t been spoken in a thousand years.

The Wanderer—exiled and alone—was traveling over the wintery waters, trying to find a place in which he could belong. He sleeps and dreams of his people, and, awakening to sea-birds, mistakes them for his companions. They swim away, leaving him to ponder his loneliness, and the empty ruins which remain from other civilizations that have been destroyed by time – the old work of giants, now empty.

The poem offers no homecoming for this exile. The tagged-on, four-line Christian ending brings the poem to a neat, Heavenly close, but it is not clear whose voice it is that speaks of Christian comfort. So when my literature professor asked us to imagine what it would be like to live in this Wanderer’s exile, in this place without certainty of a future, or hope for a better world, I immediately identified with the existential angst of his plight. How all life vanishes under night’s shade, as if it never were!

Time vanishes, with all the works of human beings. But the lesson I learned from the Wanderer wasn’t about loss. Rather, I learned that the words of others could cross time to touch the present day from a past so distant that its language had to be learned. If “communication” is what makes us human, then it is, in fact, the words of others which matter most. Voices from the past can still speak to a present world, and with them bear an important lesson. To live in this world, we must learn to love one another. To love one another, we must learn to hear. To hear, I believe we must start with a respect for the words of others.

I believe that medieval voices speak powerfully to a modern soul from a time long past. I believe we must let that past touch us, and through it, learn to hear the Other voices of our own time.

cross posted to ITM.


"maybe what she deserved was to be left the hell alone in the first place."

My academic lineage, so to speak, includes a number of feminist scholars (Joan Ferrante, Gillian Overing...etc). I consider a part of my medievalist heritage to be feminism, and so I take a very keen interest in analyses of pop culture which are interested in the representation of women. Thus, when I saw on Whedonesque this post from Karrin Jackson, I wanted to link to it as part of my ongoing posting on the Doctor Horrible phenomenon. Again, this isn't medieval, but it is still part of THIS medievalist's view of the world. The review is particularly striking for observations such as this:

It's a bit of a cop-out that Penny dies rather than Billy or Hammer having to face her for what they've done, but that's the tragedy of it. She remains a prize, not to be won by one or the other, but lost by both. They never do see her as a person. Here's this woman who's just living her life, doing her own thing, and these two guys come in thinking they'll save her (from what?) and in the end they both destroy her. Because she's not a super hero, and she's not a flamethrower wielding punk-ass death machine. Why should she have to be? Why can't she just collect her signatures and do what matters to her?

I've seen comments about how someone that stupid who falls for someone so obviously jerky deserves what she gets. Wow, a death sentence for failing to be omniscient? Isn't that a little harsh?

She doesn't know what we the audience knows. She doesn't see what we see. He sweeps her off her feet (did I mention Nathan Fillon) on a lie, and her crime, her death-deserving stupidity, is that she believed him -- for a time. She deserved to die because she couldn't see right through the super hero's public face to the greedy jackass within, and she didn't look deeply into Billy's soul in time to turn him from his evil path, since the dumbass clearly can't express himself adequately with words, and, and, and... for heaven's sake, she just wanted to gather a few lousy signatures! Aren't we putting an awful lot on some woman just trying to get by in the world? Whose crime is giving people the benefit of the doubt? Yeah, she totally deserves to suffer, be betrayed, and to die.

Man, I'm glad these people weren't my judge, jury, and apparently executioner during my misspent dating years.

I think maybe what she deserved was to be left the hell alone in the first place.

Yeah, it would be cool if she had whipped out an uzi and mowed them all down, then stood atop their corpses and said, "And that's what happens to jerks who mistreat women!"

Except that's not how it goes. That isn't how it goes at all. Women get torn apart over stuff like this. Their lives get destroyed. That's the sucker punch with this piece. If it didn't make you mad, then you missed the point.

More medieval, next time!

Type rest of the post here


Monday, July 21, 2008

Merry Medieval Monday: Unexpectedly Confronting the Past

by Mary Kate Hurley
(image: unexpected Medieval Italian Greyhound, from the Cloisters museum, that looks surprisingly like my own dog, Allegra)

Today was a beautiful day for working on my dissertation. This was especially true because I got to have tea with my undergraduate adviser, Gillian Overing, and there are very few meetings that I look forward to more. So of course, on this particular Monday, there was no doubt that there would be much conversation about the Anglo-Saxon past, and of course about the work being done that will orient the future of our studies. This certitude of medieval-ly oriented conversations is not what I wish to speak about today.

In an alliterative analogue to Festive Fridays, I thought Merry Medieval Mondays might be a adequate appelation for this post, and my topic is the unexpected encounters we have in which our medieval knowledge is useful. My story comes to you from this weekend, during which my immediate family congregated to move my younger sister to Raleigh. At a post-move run to the grocery store, I was picking up a few things and found myself behind a woman who was talking about "old words" and how nice they are, and the question of why they aren't used more frequently. Imagine my surprise when the next "old word" she chose to talk about was "troubadour." Imagine my even further surprise when this same woman decided to ask the entire line of customers if anyone knew what a troubadour was.

"Well, uh -- actually -- I do!" was my startled response. I was so shocked to be using my admittedly rusty knowledge of Old Provencal lyric that I didn't even do a very good job explaining what troubadours were.

So as the Merry Medieval Monday Question: When did you find yourself employing your knowledge of the medieval in an unexpected time or place?

Cross posted to ITM.


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Whedon Changes the Rules Again

This is not very Old English or Medieval-ist oriented. However, I've recently found THIS supervillain musical from Joss Whedon. Now given all our utopian inclinations over at ITM, I thought this was a particularly interesting part of his "Master Plan":

Once upon a time, all the writers in the forest got very mad with the Forest Kings and declared a work-stoppage. The forest creatures were all sad; the mushrooms did not dance, the elderberries gave no juice for the festival wines, and the Teamsters were kinda pissed. (They were very polite about it, though.) During this work-stoppage, many writers tried to form partnerships for outside funding to create new work that circumvented the Forest King system...

The idea was to make it on the fly, on the cheap – but to make it. To turn out a really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment specifically for the internet. To show how much could be done with very little. To show the world there is another way. To give the public (and in particular you guys) something for all your support and patience. And to make a lot of silly jokes. Actually, that sentence probably should have come first.
Circumventing hierarchy? Producing a change in Show Business which Whedon explains like this:
It is time for us to change the face of Show Business as we know it. You know the old adage, “It’s Show Business – not Show Friends”? Well now it’s Show Friends. We did that. To Show Business. To show Show Business we mean business. (Also, there are now other businesses like it.)

You know, I can't help but wonder if something's happening here that's bigger than Show Friendliness or Hollywood.

Because this seems a lot like a big-screen (if you have a large screen monitor, I mean) version of what Eileen Joy et al's BABEL workgroup is trying to do, if a bit less theoretically informed and a lot more entertainment oriented. The point being that we've seen the way a system works. Now let's see how we can do it differently. Let's see how we can theorize a place that isn't part of a mainstream, isn't part of an already established hierarchy -- and let's see if we can make it a place of friendship, a little like home.


Friday, July 11, 2008

The Art of Reading Slowly

[photo of sunset on Lake Erie]

One of the things I did this summer -- which I have not done on previous trips -- is organize a small reading group over at my alma mater, Wake Forest. Tonight was our first meeting, and may I just say it was amazing. We're reading The Politics of Friendship by Jacques Derrida, and tonight's session ended up being a slow reading-aloud of the majority of the second chapter of the book, pausing over things that were difficult, and slowly unraveling the language. It was only three of us, but it was lovely -- I'd forgotten how beautiful Derrida is.

A quote for the evening, though, will come from Nietzche, as quoted in the Derrida text -- from Beyond Good and Evil. It's apropos only of the friends it reminded me of -- for I have known of these friends of solitude -- and the fact that I thought the language was quite pretty (a quote for quoting's sake):

Is it any wonder we 'free spirits' are not precisely the most communicative of spirits?

(Derrida, 41)

Fascinating, too -- these spirits introduce so well the spectrality Derrida gets into around chapter five. But that's for another time.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Marginally Medieval, More Medieval and Most Medieval

It just occurred to me that in my complete preoccupation with a chapter on Orosius in my dissertation (of which you shall all hear more soon), I have not yet had occasion to point your browsers and minds to a few things.

First, the Marginally Medieval:
Readers might remember that I was involved in the Graduate Translation Conference at Columbia this Spring. I'm pleased to report that the Keynote Conversation between US Poet Laureate Charles Simic and Professor Michael Scammell is now available online as a podcast. It was a fascinating event, one I'd highly recommend listening to. And as though Simic and Scammell aren't reason enough to listen, you can hear me ask a question at the end of the recording!

And now, getting a little More Medieval:
Way back in January, I mentioned that I was writing an essay for the Old English Newsletter on blogging and academia. You can now read the article in its entirety at OEN.org.

Finally -- for the Most Medieval of my Miscellaneous Notes today:
On a whim, I decided to propose a special session for the 2008 Kalamazoo Conference. If you turn to page 27 of the 2009 call for Papers for the Western Michigan University International Medieval Congress, you'll find a session called "Beyond Geography: New Work on the Old English Orosius." I hope to find other folks interested in this crazy text, so if you know anyone working on the Orosius, send them my way! If you've ever even had a vague interest in writing on it -- consider this your big chance!

Now, you should go and read the REAL medieval content, by Jeffrey on the Franklyn's Tale and Eileen on Guthlac and gender.


Sunday, June 29, 2008

What's an Earworm?

For years, I have referred to songs that got stuck in my head as "earworms." It's graphic, it's disturbing, and yes, it reminds me of that scary worm critter than Khan uses to control Chekov in The Wrath of Khan:

Called "Ceti Eels", this image gave me nightmares. Actually, it still might. At any rate.

I have a memory that seems to retain nearly everything it hears effortlessly. If by "everything" you mean "useless information, the term for forgetting nouns (nominal aphasia), and the most annoying songs on the planet." So the term "Earworm" is one I end up using quite a bit.

As some of my readers know, I'm spending my summer in the beautiful North Carolina. Now, a few months ago (say in November), I was introduced to a certain song. Fast forward to June. I can't remember the name of the song or who sang it (though I knew it wasn't a band I listen to on a regular basis). The refrain, however, proved to be pretty resilient. It probably helped that it consists entirely of the following:

la, la, lalala, lala, lala, lala, lalala

If you've never searched the internet for "lyrics 'la la la la la'" before, I'm here to tell you it's not a very fruitful search. There are very many songs with refrains or long stretches of lyrics consisting only of that repeating monosyllable.

Of course, when you have an earworm, and you only remember a tiny portion of the refrain, it's almost imperative that you find the rest. So I was in a bit of a quandary. What's easier to find -- on Wikipedia at least, though the OED doesn't recognize it -- is the etymological origins of the term "earworm". The Wikipedia article helpfully provided a real source in the form of a Guardian article, so I can bring you someone else's interpretation of the term's origins.

The term "earworm" is a translation of the German word Ohrwurm, used to describe the "musical itch" of the brain. It is a confusing term, since the phenomenon has nothing to do with small maggot-like creatures crawling into your ear and laying eggs in your brain. The musical earworm actually works more like a virus, attaching itself to a host and keeping itself alive by feeding off the host's memory. Nor does the earworm occur in the ear, as researchers at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, demonstrated in their study, Musical Imagery: Sound of Silence Activates Auditory Cortex.

What's fascinating here -- besides the fact that it's from German and has nothing to do with actual critters -- is the fact that the phenomenon is actually described similarly to what Richard Dawkins termed a "meme." Earworms are self-replicating bits of cultural information, which invade the human brain and are perfectly designed to drive you nuts.

To keep a medieval focus: I often sing with a compline group at Columbia, on Sunday nights. I'm pretty sure that monks must have gotten this little tune stuck in their heads:

Ah yes. The Psalm recitations. (composed, rather poorly and from memory, by yours truly, using Noteworthy Composer*)

So how does my earworm story end? Well, after searching fruitlessly for a few weeks, running countless Google and GoodSearch searches for endless variations on "la la la la la" lyrics, I found it. Earworm etymological origins -- check! Song from months and months ago that was rampaging, virus-like, through my dissertation-addled brain -- check!

I give you: Blur, "For Tomorrow".

It's not as happy as you'd think.


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Saving Beowulf, or, Stories of Love and/or Loss?

Deep night lay over the three small buildings of the last steading of the Waegmundings. Three buildings. Even so, it was too big, thought Aelfhere, Elder of Cland Waegmunding. His clan was dying out.

It’s not a familiar beginning to Beowulf, but it is a beginning for this poem, particularly if you’re looking at the version by Welwyn Wilton Katz. The version is written with an audience of children in mind, and therefore isn’t quite the tale we’re familiar with through Heaney or Klaeber. Rather, Katz takes one of the most important characters – Wiglaf – and, in telling of Beowulf’s exploits, makes Wiglaf the central character. Essentially, Katz begins from an idea that, as Beowulf and Wiglaf are related through the Waegmunding line, perhaps there was what he calls a “genetic kink” that allowed Beowulf to perform all his feats. Wiglaf, then, is given the gift of “true sight” – which would of course account for his “vision” at the end of the poem.

Wiglaf hears the story of Beowulf from his grandfather – Aelfhere. Aelfhere seems to be a scop, called skald, in this story, singing the tale of Beowulf for his grandson. Then they go to meet the king, and of course, the fight with the dragon comes (as it must). But what’s interesting is when the poem-retold ends:

“Of men he was mildest and most generous,” sang Wiglaf with the rest. “To his kin he was kindest, and more than any other king, he was keenest for praise.

Aelfhere did not sing. Many skalds and later bards made stories of Beowulf and his fight with the dragon, but never Aelfhere. Of the ending of Beowulf, these were the only words Aelfhere ever said:

“You should know, oh, Geats, that when a man looks for praise, it is often love that he truly seeks.”

When people heard these words they did not understand. Beowulf of the Geats had been a great king and a great man. He had always had their love.

Now, I’ve got a long history of overanalyzing and collecting all modern remakings of everyone’s favorite Anglo-Saxon epic. But I think this last part is worth pointing out, particularly as it seems to engaging in some of the same moves some of the poem’s other modern incarnations have, and it raises a really important question.

To be precise: Is Beowulf about love?

I don’t mean romantic, although we could raise that point: think of how each of the more recent Beowulf movies creates a romantic pairing – Selma in Beowulf and Grendel and Grendel’s Mom (!) in Beowulf . And here we see a question of comraderie and caring, raised at the death of a king. To me it always seems a bit far-fetched – Beowulf as a character must be alone, for reasons I’m hard-pressed to work out, although I think it has something to do with his inability to play both the king and the hero of his story. If there is any kind of interest in love in Beowulf, it seems to me that it must be a modern interest. We’re the ones who are interested in who loves him, who cares for him – we’re the ones who are always trying to save Beowulf from being alone when we re-tell the story.

A possibility that only just now suggests itself to me is the similarity between lof and the modern love – this may somewhat explain Katz’s choice in Aelfhere’s explication of that final line of Beowulf, which is a brilliant way to think through the end of the poem in a way children can understand. But the question remains, and as we Beowulf lovers edged out other first lines by quite a bit in the last poll, perhaps this might be an ideal time to raise these questions: What is the point of the poem Beowulf? Do any modern re-tellings pick up on it? And more importantly – when we look into this poem, and perhaps the Anglo-Saxon past more generally – where’s the love?

cross posted at ITM.


Friday, June 06, 2008

Stonehenge: Decoded! ; or, What's so Secret about the Past?

by Mary Kate Hurley

[fig. 1: Aliens over Stonehenge, pilfered from the National Geographic site here]

If one searches ITM for "Stonehenge", a number of results come up, many associated with JJC's Weight of the Past project. I have not seen the special on the National Geographic Channel to which the title of this post refers to, though I'm hoping to catch it on a rebroadcast at some point. However, when I ran across Robin McKie's article on the Guardian entitled "Leave these stones their eternal secrets".

The article didn't really provoke much comment (or at least anything that was really productive), but I thought it might be of interest to ITM, particularly because of this part of McKie's process, which is in the ending of her article:

And that, of course, is the wonderful thing about Stonehenge: there are more theories about its meaning and purpose than there are stones inside it, a trend that goes right back to the idea, popular in the Middle Ages, that its monoliths had been assembled on Salisbury Plain by Merlin, though exactly why he bothered to do so remains a mystery.

In fact, Stonehenge took at least 1,000 years to build, starting from rings of wooden poles to its current complex status and its use clearly changed over the millenniums. Recent studies suggest it may have been 'Christianised' in the first millennium AD and at one point was used as a place of execution by the Anglo-Saxons to judge from the 7th-century gallows found there. This multiplicity of use increases opportunities for archaeologists to pin their pet theories to the great stone monument.

The crucial point is that every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves, as archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes once remarked. Hence in medieval times, it was built by giants, while in the 1960s, at the dawn of the computing era, researchers said you could have used it as a giant calculating machine, while in more mystical New Age times, it was clearly a spaceport for aliens. 'In fact, you can come up with just about any idea to explain a structure like Stonehenge if you stare at it for long enough,' says archaeologist David Miles.

Just what that the latest patch of Stonehenge theories says about the 21st century is less clear. I would argue that the World Heritage site is probably best viewed today as a monument to government prevarication and deceit. Having promised a decade ago that it would bury and realign the roads that surround and disfigure Britain's most important ancient monument, ministers now seem to have abandoned any attempt to protect the monument and restore the site to its ancient glory, for the simple reason they are too mean-spirited and short-sighted to see its value.
What interests me here is the assertion, made clearer by the end of that final paragraph, that "every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves," commonly attributed to Jacquetta Hawkes. McKie makes an interesting point, though she doesn't really flesh it out. She seems to be arguing, if I read between her lines correctly, that every age dreams the Stonehenge it deserves -- or more likely, the Stonehenge that can speak to it, in that time, in that place.

Of course, "Stonehenge" is not really the monument it was at its building (whether by Merlin or under the influence of Aliens or as a burial ground), much less in its "original" usage -- rather, "Stonehenge" is a kind of shorthand, by which we mean all the things which intervened, the multiplicities of usages and all the "theories" about its origins that exist in the intervening time. The question McKie doesn't really ask, and the one which I think may be necessary to ask, is whether Stonehenge, World Heritage site, is important in and of itself, or only important in so far as "modernity" recognizes something in it.

It raises a question that I'm addressing in my current dissertation chapter, on time in the Old English Orosius. I'm planning another post on this, when I've figured out what it is I'm trying to do with Bakhtin, but there's this part of The Dialogic Imagination, in "Discourse in the Novel" that keeps obsessing me:
every word is directed toward an answer and cannot escape the profound influence of the answering word it anticipates…The word in living conversation is directly, blatantly, oriented toward a future answer-word: it provokes an answer, anticipates it and structures itself in the answer’s direction. Forming itself in an atmosphere of the already spoken, the word is at the same time determined by that which has not yet been said but which is needed and in fact anticipated by the answering word. Such is the situation in any living dialogue. (280)
However, in his "Epic and Novel" (which I should really reread at some point, Bakhtin makes the point that "The dead are loved in a different way. They are removed from the sphere of contact, one can and indeed must speak of them in a different style. Language about the dead is stylistically quite distinct from language about the living."

It all returns to a question that for me is not really answerable: can there really be a conversation between the living and the dead -- the past and the present? Or is the past destined to be a kind of straw man, whose script is always written by the living?

Or is there a way in which past words -- or past monuments -- are, in an odd Bakhtinian* way still actively responding to a kind of "answering word its future" -- our present -- will provide? Can we expand a notion of a "living dialogue" so far?

Work Cited
M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination : Four Essays, University of Texas Press Slavic Series ; (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2004).

Cross posted at ITM.


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Leaving New York, Never Easy

Not much to report here at OENY -- it does, of course, appear that JJC is edging out the other human cobloggers in the polls at ITM (asking readers which co-blogger they most identify with), but that doesn't really matter, given that the Tiny Shriner has a lead that will be nigh impossible to overcome (despite certain well-intentioned threats).

Tomorrow morning -- well, actually, in a few hours now -- I'm heading to Penn Station, where I will catch the Carolinian, a train which will take me to Greensboro, NC, where my sister (the budding medievalist and UNCG honors college poster-child, rather than the one who just played Carnegie Hall with the National Wind Ensemble...) will pick me up, and take me home to Winston-Salem. Blogging has been light for me in the past month, for a variety of reasons, including Kalamazoo (which I really will eventually blog about), grading, travel, a plague (not THE plague, just a really evil cold), and the ever present dissertation chapter I'll be spending the summer revising. And those are just the ones that are worth mentioning on blog! Suffice it to say, I'm grateful for May's ending, I'm grateful for June's beginning, I'm grateful for the summer, and I'm grateful for travel. Travel opens horizons, even if it's a return. Perhaps especially when traveling is return.

With me on the train will be a newly bought copy of Andrew Zawacki's Anabranch, which I've mentioned on this blog before. I'm excited: I've read the whole thing twice now, but I'm hoping to write something about it. There's something very...well...Old English about it, that I don't quite know that I understand. It has to do with light -- and I think that's what the writing I do on this will end up being about. It's worth noting that at a poetry reading about two years ago, I heard Zawacki read with Mark Strand. Zawacki read a beautiful long poem that I'm not sure has been published yet, but one of the lines was "fidelity to a language faithful only to itself." I've been haunted by that line ever since I heard it -- it resonates in that way certain lines do which end up echoing in my mind long after I hear them. In fact, it's become a bit of a mantra for me. At any rate, I think that the time in transit -- between places I sometimes call home -- will be a good place to consider Anabranch.

I'm also bring work books (of course!): Race and Ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon Literature by Stephen Harris, History and Narrative in Early Medieval Europe, and a few others I can't seem to remember offhand. And of course, the dissertation chapter. Some fragments, no doubt, will end up both here at at ITM.

In the meantime, I leave you with poetry from Zawacki -- and there are very few better ways to end a blog post.

from 'Viatica'

5 (Vertigo)

There are things I would settle
with myself. Why, for instance,
as autumn unravels, I cannot mortar

myself to myself, nothing but sunlight
littered from here to the sun. By I
I mean a window, redness grazing the lake

at dawn, or an echo winnowing out
along a wall, hard pressed to hide itself
and straining for the voice it vanished from.

I mean so many windows. So much red.


Monday, May 05, 2008

Teaching Writing: Reflections, and Thanks, Year Two

Two years of University Writing -- and I've had fantastic students the entire time.

Today's class not only brought me a Thank You card, but gave me my very first round of applause in teaching. Ten students, each and every one interesting and intelligent -- a teacher couldn't ask for more, really.

I've often felt this semester (and other semesters) that I have more fun in writing class than most composition instructors. If that's true -- it's due in no small part to the students I've had. I map a crazy course through a semester which embraces everything from the "human" to the "nation" to monsters and beyond -- but as with all teachers, perhaps, the course wouldn't be any fun at all if it weren't for students who are consistently willing to take a leap, take a chance with their thinking, and find unintended results. This semester saw students who wrote on everything from how we speak about feces, to "villainous" pirates, to folklore heroes and nationalism, to language and communication, to Santa Claus and panopticism, to how mimetics influences stable or instable cultural forms, to the psychology of nationhood, to Jurassic park, to linguistic identity, to Mexican revolutionary imagery. How often does that happen in a writing course? With first years, no less!

We had a class blog -- and so I know some of the class may be reading this now. I generally don't mention my students on-blog (as you all well know), unless it's to praise you -- consider this high praise, then. But I do want to say thank you to all of you guys, and highlight how great a semester it was for me too -- I learned from this class, and for that, I'm grateful.


This from Ph.D. Comics, by the inimitable Jorge Cham.

Eerily accurate. I used to say this: "I will change the world with Old English!"

Then it was "Changing the world one dead language at a time!"

Then it was "Changing the academy, one Kalamazoo at a time!"

Occasionally, it has been "Not saying something dumb in class, one day at a time!"

Although lately it has more often felt like "Writing a page that makes sense! One page at a time!"

I fear the eventual stop on this road may in fact be -- "Changing my socks! Every day!"


Sunday, May 04, 2008

This I Believe: Writing

One of the reasons you should never assign homework to a writing class, telling them that you too will be submitting an assignment for it, is that you then must write it yourself. I give you, in draft form, the writing I will read aloud with my class tomorrow, when they read aloud theirs. The assignment is to write about what you think writing can do. We've framed this as a "This I Believe" assignment. Typically for me, it has become about hearing, reading and connecting as much as it is about writing.

And yes, mine is 526 words. It was that, or leave out the Zawacki at the end of the piece. Which I CANNOT do.

THIS I BELIEVE: The Words of Others

…she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born …Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die. ~E.M. Forster

In the short space of time which is given us on this planet, why would we bother repeating the words of others? One might as well ask, why bother with the lives of others? Or the dreams of others? Or the past? If “communication” is what makes us human, then it is, in fact, the words of others which matter most.

However, I do not believe that we must regard all writing – all words – as messages from the past directed to us specifically. The point, rather, of allowing ourselves to connect with the past is that that the words we hear might in fact change us – without ever having been meant for us at all. To this end, it listening to the words of others that matters most when we regard writing, that make us most human, and finally most humane. When the words of the past are transposed to the present, a new kind of reverberation takes place. It is not the sound of voices that we hear in wavelengths on the air, but the straining of our own minds and perhaps even hearts to comprehend the pains, sorrows, joys and loves of someone who is fundamentally different from us.

It is most recently in vogue to criticize the “Post-Modern” for not mandating a certain political action, for criticizing even the idea of a “position” from which to make judgments and for suggesting that even when we’re aware of the discourses and systems which create our very souls we cannot ever truly escape them. Irony becomes the last preserve of reason.

I believe that the truth of the Post-Modern age is that we must learn to think for ourselves. I believe that belief, though powerful, isn’t enough to live in this world. I believe that to live in this world, we must learn to love one another. To love one another, I believe we must learn to hear. To hear, I believe we must start with a respect for the words of others.

I believe that medieval voices speak powerfully to a modern soul from a time long past. I believe we must let that past affect us, and through it, learn to hear the Other voices of our own time.

I say I,

but little is left to say it, much less
mean it—and yet I do. Let there be

no mistake. I do not believe
things are reborn in fire.

I believe they’re consumed by fire,
and the fire has a life of its own.

~Zawacki, Credo



I just realized: explaining Augustine's philosophy of history in clear, precise, concise prose is difficult.

In fact, it leaves me feeling rather like this:

After all, how do you explain anything in words which unfold, as Augustine's Confessions, Chapter 11 part 28 tell us,

Suppose I am going to recite a psalm that I know. Before I begin, my faculty of expectation is engaged by the whole of it. But once I have begun, as much of the psalm as I have removed from the province of expectation and relegated to the past now engages my memory, and the scope of the action which I am performing is divided between the two faculties of memory and expectation, the one looking back to the part which I have already recited, the other looking forward to the part which I have still to recite. But my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. As the process continues, the province of memory is extended in proportion as that of expectation is reduced, until the whole of my expectation is absorbed. This happens when I have finished my recitations and it has all passed into the province of memory.

What is true of the whole psalm is also true of its parts and of each syllable. It is true of any longer action in which I may be engaged and of which the recitation of the psalm may only be a small part. It is true of a man's whole life, of which all his actions are parts. It is true of the whole history of mankind, of which each man's life is a part.

What's important here, it would seem, is precisely the status of any temporally unfolding event -- be it the recitation of a psalm, the course of a human action, or life, or the world's history. The whole, in Augustine's view, is in some ways imagined quite materially -- note how he speaks of the future: my faculty of attention is present all the while, and through it passes what was the future in the process of becoming the past. It's almost as thought the future might be thought of as a kind of matter, which passes through a solution of the faculty of "attention", and in doing so undergoes a chemical reaction with said solution in the process of becoming the past.

Obviously, this is all far too scientific for an Augustinian reading, and it's not the sort of thing one would write in a dissertation on medieval English literature. Also -- and equally important -- is that the human is changed by the movement of expectation into memory, too. But this is where the analogy has to break down: because all of this is just an illusion. In a world of successive instances, there is no sample of a chemical compound labeled "Future" which comes out of solution as "Past" -- precisely what Augustine argues against when he says that there is no long past or long future, only the long expectation of the future and the long memory of the past. Now -- and now, and now, and now -- are all we ever know or experience with any certainty. All else is a function of human recall.

The point of all this rambling, of course, is that the only person who can see the totality of this weird time reaction would be God, who exists outside the changing world. The point of view of the Divine already knows all that was, is or ever will be, which exists in a single perfect IS. Change -- and so too temporal reactions as written above -- does not exist for the Divine.

And so human time is always measured in step with another time, a perfect time, a time into which humans can hope to enter, but cannot really understand from an earthly point of view.

I wonder, then, if part of the problem is that so much of the enterprise of intellectuality in the Middle Ages was bent on trying to not only understand how God worked -- but to see the world as they believed He did.

And this, my dear readers, is why I can't write the silly little section of my dissertation chapter that will focus on Augustine's concept of history.


Saturday, April 26, 2008

Dreaming Language: Lytton Smith's Monster Theory

(I've been wanting to write about LJS's chapbook for about a month now -- a moment's rest in the rush of the end-of-semester madness made this finally possible. As some of you know, LJS is frequent commenter at In the Middle -- and I can't recommend his work highly enough. He's also a colleague of mine in the Columbia English department's Medieval contingent, and a fellow Anglo-Saxonist. That might be why it was a bit strange writing about him in the third person! I have to confess, I don't know how to write a poetry review...thoughts and comments welcome! The image is from national geographic, and illustrates another Loch Ness Monster theory. Seemed a good match.)

Reading Lytton Smith’s chapbook Monster Theory is a bit like stepping into a memory you’d forgotten. At first the reason seems obvious: in a book where so many poems take cues and even characters from the world long past, of course you’ll find something in it that is eerily familiar, whether a “Book of Encouragement and Consolation,” a “Charm Against the Loss of Crops,” or even a “Monster Theory.” However, on second approach, this strange familiarity becomes just that -- strange, but in the sense of the French étranger: foreign. If there is a memory here, it isn’t something entirely of the reader’s making. It’s at that moment, in the recognition of that which isn’t precisely recognizable, that the poet’s spell begins.The sense is that this book requires – demands – our complete attention, and moreover, demands to be re-read, even in absence. This little book of poems haunts the reader who lets its language speak to her.

Throughout the book, the poet asks for an gesture of imagination from his reader, and from the first a point of entry is established: “Bury your eyes in late barley,” opens the first poem, called “Scarecrow Work.” With this opening it becomes clear that there is a relationship forming, a world the poet constructs of language which, while it seems to be reveling more than revealing, will show the reader something that exists beyond the glittering surface of its words. Repetitions, particularly of verbs, seem important here, as in the last stanza of “Scarecrow Work”:

“…Your lesson: what will not scatter is safe, /
Is dove, is olive return.”

The existential status of that “which is” safe, isn’t merely safe, and the repetition of “is” – is dove, is olive return – suggests that, while each thing that does not scatter is safe, each thing that does not scatter will still scatter, if only in a proliferation of references.

The centrality of the poem “Monster Theory” to the chapbook which bears its name is well placed. A poem not unlike the patchwork [monster] it speaks, the work performed by each section of the piece stands in for a larger analysis of what the [monster] patterns, promises, reveals and conceals. Though the first section reminds us that “It is always at an outset a displacement—”, the bracketed [monster] moves quickly through that displacement and into a stunning soliloquy that closes the work. The poet writes of a village, a cartographer, a lost daughter, a gathering search for a monster which refuses restraint or removal (the almost playful lines of the fifth section enumerate the ways the [monster] thwarts any attempt to prevent his escape: “Cauldron of boiling water: stench, but not of burning flesh. /Buried alive: Why expect so much of wood and soil?”), and the rendering of the [monster] as myth (“two anxious and too young sentries posted at the cave entrance…” mark a particularly lovely line in the third section), until finally in the seventh section we see the [monster] speak. Though in dialogue with what we presume is the daughter he snatched away, the [monster’s] words are the only voice we are allowed to hear. We are confronted with a [monster] who seems to know his place, and this is where the poem’s provenance becomes strikingly clear. Inspired by the essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (the introduction to a volume of collected essays called Monster Theory), Smith has retained some key phrases from Cohen’s article, and this lends the [monster] an eerie prescience, a theoretical take on lives human and monstrous which approaches a kind of philosophy of monstrous purpose: “The monster exists as harbinger to crisis, / devil’s advocate to the identity.” It becomes clear, however, that when this [monster] is allowed to speak, another aspect of human identity is at stake, and with language, this focus lends light to other work being done by these poems:
‘You of all should know fear of the monster
is a kind of desire, a way of loving without
the difficulty of touch.’ ‘............
………………………’ ‘If your hands grant
a life I could not have imagined, the amber
of electric through the body, I have seen
also your weeping after.'
This sense of the body -- human or not – which simultaneously gives voice to and is voiced by language, is what Smith seems most interested by in so much of his poetry. The intersection of language and body, his poetry tells us, can be painful and profound.

“Annuls the Space/Time Experience” is one of the moments where the intense pain that language can cause is brought out most beautifully in the text. “Is this the dream of language,” the poet asks, and then confronts the reader with the possibilities: “a trap with rusted hasp (suggests escape / but offers teeth)” The musical beauty of language is not forgotten either, and in another moment of the same poem, we are offered these lines:

…and Ben has left
a written note as if to say the lair

is love of lair, the lyre a stringed bereft
of am, the lure just that, another dream
of language much as fluid as adrift…

The progression from lair to lyre to lure is particularly musical, and its setting in a poetic meditation on language is particularly appropriate. And yet, in spite of (and perhaps because of) the beauty of such lyric lines, the poem concludes on this haunting note:

“…we’ve fallen for our absents
and this is then the dream of language,
of those who’ve left, and left us with their absence.”

Those who’ve left, and left us with their absence – returning to this line, repeatedly, the haunting beauty of that which isn’t present (and so must be represented in language) is what it seems Smith is most adept at rendering. And of course, it is where bodily presence is least possible that it becomes all the more pronounced.

In a particularly bold poetic move, the poet writes in the voice of Eva of Wilton, the intended recipient of Goscelin of St. Bertin’s Liber Confortatorius. In “The Book of Encouragement and Consolation,” this young anchoress, who is only known through a letter she may have never received, and the voice of a man, Goscelin, whose love for her may have been implicated in her removal from St Bertin to Wilton, is given her own chance to respond. The embodiedness of her language – “(tongue / composed, the restrained throat forgotten / as threshold)” – as represented in the text is striking, and we remember that silence is an absence which implies a presence, and so lasts “only until its next breaking.”

Despite the deep ambivalence that becomes clear in terms of what “dream of language” we might ultimately embrace, the poet implies that this isn’t the end. If, as in “A Manual for Weather,” we are reminded that “All that is left of weather / Is how it is written…” and if we might (as with a bracketed [monster]) exchange the word “weather” for other words, Smith’s poetry envisions this status as one of hope, not desperation. If language cannot be fixed, or static, therein lies its beauty, its hope – its ability to live beyond us. Lytton Smith creates a world in which words are more than simply memory, and he invites us to leave our preconceptions about language and its myriad uses at the door. At the end of “A Manual for Weather,” positioned as it is at the end of Monster Theory, we are granted the grace of an unexpected arrival:

Welcome, friend. Leave your instruments
at the entrance. We live between weather
and earthlight: there is no use for them

here, no music without weather. Pitch
nor oscillation, string nor wind nor voice.

The poem ends where we do – at the limit of what language can represent. The final line goes out almost like a prayer – and a remarkable chapbook ends with what peace a world of language might finally give:

Silence, and words folding into it, enough.


Lytton Smith's Monster Theory was the winner of the PSA chapbook award in 2008. His book of poems, The All Purpose Magical Tent will be published by Nightboat Books in 2009. Lytton blogs at: The All Purpose Magical Tent.

Cross posted at ITM.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Escaping The Waning of the Middle Ages

It's not that rare that an article in the New York Times makes me cringe. However, only rarely do they invoke one of my favorite books to do so. Today, David Brooks (writing, intriguingly, from abotu an hour away from my hometown in North Carolina -- Elon!) writes about the Middle Ages as The Great Escape. He invokes the spirit of Johan Huizinga, whose Waning of the Middle Ages was a great influence on my own entrance into medieval studies, although from the beginning, my medieval history professor encouraged me to question his work.

Brooks, however, has wholesale bought into it as the antidote to a modern political campaign, saying that

Over the past 15 months, I’ve been writing pretty regularly about the presidential campaign, which has meant thinking a lot about attack ads, tracking polls and which campaign is renouncing which over-the-line comment from a surrogate that particular day.

But on my desk for much of this period I have kept a short essay, which I stare at longingly from time to time. It’s an essay about how people in the Middle Ages viewed the night sky, and it’s about a mentality so totally removed from the campaign mentality that it’s like a refreshing dip in a cool and cleansing pool.

The essay, which I haven't read, is by Michael Ward. It's called "CS Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem." It appeared in Books and Culture, subtitled "A Christian Review."

What is vaguely disconcerting about Brooks' account is that, as he speaks of Huizinga (and other historians) he sounds like him. Observe Brooks:
The medievals had a tremendous capacity for imagination and enchantment, and while nobody but the deepest romantic would want to go back to their way of thinking (let alone their way of life), it’s a tonic to visit from time to time.

As many historians have written, Europeans in the Middle Ages lived with an almost childlike emotional intensity. There were stark contrasts between daytime and darkness, between summer heat and winter cold, between misery and exuberance, and good and evil. Certain distinctions were less recognized, namely between the sacred and the profane.

Material things were consecrated with spiritual powers. God was thought to live in the stones of the cathedrals, and miracles inhered in the bones of the saints. The world seemed spiritually alive, and the power of spirit could overshadow politics. As Johan Huizinga wrote in “The Autumn of the Middle Ages,” “The most revealing map of Europe in these centuries would be a map, not of political or commercial capitals, but of the constellation of sanctuaries, the points of material contact with the unseen world.”
Compare with the first page of Huizinga's first chapter of The Waning of the Middle Ages, "The Violent Tenor of Life" (you can read it here):
To the world when it was half a thousand years younger, the outlines of all things seemed more clearly marked than to us. The constrast between suffering and joy, between adversity and happiness, appeared more striking. All the experience had yet to the minds of men the directness and absoluteness of the pleasure and pain of child-life.
I don't blame Brooks (though I'll admit I often want to) for his enchantment by the Middle Ages. What I do take issue with is that, although he seems to know better, he blindly accepts this filtered view of a complicated time. This nostalgic impulse is one that Brooks (and Ward) are both aware of in CS Lewis. This is, again, from Brooks:
The modern view disenchants the universe, Lewis argued, and tends to make it “all fact and no meaning.” When we say that a star is a huge flaming ball of gas, he wrote, we are merely describing what it is made of. We are not describing what it is. Lewis also wanted to include the mythologies, symbols and stories that have been told about the heavenly actors, and which were so real to those who looked up into the sky hundreds of years ago. He wanted to strengthen the imaginative faculty that comes naturally to those who see the heavens as fundamentally spiritual and alive.

But that is a modern interpretation of the Middle Ages. A longing for the Middle Ages is NOT for the Middle Ages that existed. Another quote from Brooks shows that he knows this:
Large parts of medieval life were attempts to play out a dream, in ways hard to square with the often grubby and smelly reality. There were the elaborate manners of the courtly, the highly stylized love affairs and the formal chivalric code of knighthood. There was this driving impulsion among the well-born to idealize. This idealizing urge produced tournaments, quests and the mystical symbols of medieval art — think of the tapestries of the pure white unicorn. The gap between the ideal and the real is also what Cervantes made fun of in “Don Quixote.”

Writers like C. S. Lewis and John Ruskin seized on medieval culture as an antidote to industrialism — to mass manufacturing, secularization and urbanization. Without turning into an Arthurian cultist, it’s nice to look up from the latest YouTube campaign moment and imagine a sky populated with creatures, symbols and tales.
Brooks misses the point of his own writing -- and, I daresay, of Ruskin's. The ideal is wonderful -- it serves as something to strive for, perhaps. But what Brooks forgets is that the ideal was only available partially, and only then to the elite. Yes, it's easy to look at a campaign and get nostalgic for a simpler time of knights and tournaments and fair ladies in distress. A time when good and evil was obvious.

But that kind of enchantment -- the kind that only aspires to the "dream" without committing to actions in the world -- isn't an antidote to industrialization or anything else, because it doesn't live in the world, but somewhere above it, outside it, beyond it. "Meaning" is a process, not an end -- and a longing for a world that is only meaning (only allegory) ends up harming more than it helps. Moreover, it seems to me it's a surefire way to assure that nothing about the present -- the people starving, suffering, bleeding, and dying far from those who can indulge in dreaming of an "ideal," or interpreting the world -- ever changes. In the search for a stable place to stand, this "ideal" leaves out anyone who dwells (as JJC has so often shown so elegantly in more traditional print sources) at the borders, or in difficult middles. That's why I find Brooks' drive-by citation of Ruskin so problematic: If you remember "The Nature of the Gothic" (problematic work itself), you'll remember this passage:
[T]he second most essential element of the Gothic spirit [is] that it broke through that law wherever it found it in existence; it not only dared, but delighted in, the infringement of every servile principle; and invented a series of forms of which the merit was, not merely that they were new, but that they were capable of perpetual novelty... The vital principle is not the love of Knowledge, but the love of Change. It is that strange disquietude of the Gothic spirit that is its greatness; that restlessness of the dreaming mind, that wanders hither and thither among the niches, and flickers feverishly around the pinnacles, and frets and fades in labyrinthine knots and shadows along wall and roof, and yet is not satisfied, nor shall be satisfied.
I can't help but wonder, young medievalist that I am, if that interpretation of the medieval instinct (about architecture, perhaps, but no less medieval for that) might ultimately be the one we should long for: the unresting search for change, rather than Brooks' wish for enchantment, meaning and symbols. How do other readers of Brooks take this article? Am I being too much of a medievalist?

Thanks to EAB for the link.

cross posted at ITM.