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

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.