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.