Thursday, July 06, 2006

for 7/7: outside King's Cross



I took this photo a year ago, shortly after the London bombings. The flag had been placed near a memorial garden that blossomed in front of the train station. Shortly afterwards I was in Leeds, arriving on the very day of the Beeston raids. An uneasiness from these events hung over the International Medieval Congress, but I can't say what effects the apprehension had on the work of scholars gathered there. [And by that I mean what historicists have staked their careers upon: the pasts we imagine cannot fail to be marked by the present, so much the more when we inhabit troubled times. Present calamity sends shock waves in every direction, a temporal backwash that can change profoundly the history we know. "The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich" was a 9/11 project, even though it never mentions the present world.]

Not coincidentally, I'll soon be posting a review of Peter Haidu's The Subject Medieval/Modern: Text and Governance in the Middle Ages, a book that examines violence in medieval texts and modern theory.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is surely impossible to escape the present in the past. The question is what you do with it.

The idea that the 'past is a foreign country' can be immensely powerful in critically debating ideas of 'us and them' - and remoter periods of 'our' history (like the middle ages) can be especially valuable in that respect. Of course it can also be salient to discover how many assumptions of modern social norms are grounded in past historical circumstances that were anything but natural (not just in the fields of race, sexuality, gender and personal identity - but also in attitudes to labour, markets, the environment, war, the state and so much else). It is a crime to leave the past to politicians - and politicians will always exploit the past.

A recent BBC (?) poll here suggested that History is more popular than football. When it's that powerful we ignore it at our peril! (But maybe the US is different?)
N50

emile blauche said...

It's interesting to me, this talk of the past and the present, amounting to rootedness in time and space, the temporal, the local, the seen in history, and in the physical world.

Maslow felt such talk yielded D-Cognition (Deficiency-Cognition), precisely what interferes with the creation of a fully human future. I wonder if he wasn't on to something.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that you can easily apply 'deficiency cognition' or 'being cognition' to large fields of knowledge and experience involving millions of diverse users of the past, since (so far as I can see) Maslow's approach is grounded in the 'ego' and personal perceptions.

How people use the past (and need the past) will surely be as various as how they need and use food or money.

I agree that it is an interesting idea to play with in relation to some users of the past, however.

On a lighter note 'being cognition' is surely also a matter of life-cycle. At least many cultures associate growing age with changing needs and perceptions of need.

I have merely go my Maslow up through the power of Google - please tell me I am all wrong!
N50

emile blauche said...

Maslow himself never avoided characterizing groups, societies, or cultures as having either B- or D-cognition. Indeed, he was deeply invested in Benedict's notion of the synergistic society.

Furthermore, Maslow was rather fond of sketching the characteristics of (indeed, generalizing about) diverse professional groups: most famously, biologists, psychologists, and artists.

I don't know if D-Cognition applies here--it was something to think about. One might note the conspicuous absence of the future in most medievalism--chockfull of the past and, more recently, the present, but light on the future.

But one thing I am certain Maslow would have found consistent with D-Cognition is an approach to history that frames it in terms of "use." Usefulness is a D-Value, whereas seeing history not as something to be used (or needed) but rather as something intrinsically interesting for its own sake is consistent with B-Cognition. (See, e. g., ch. 20, "Further Notes on COgnition" in The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, as well as ch. 6 of Toward a Psychology of Being.)

Anonymous said...

Hmm - for the synergetic society to work in relation to the past I think that you would have to break your user groups down into quite small entities. So I am not sure how useful it would become in the end.

Yes - I did understand the difference between use/need and appreciation, I just expressed myself badly. I still think B-cognition may be associated with life cycle and experience (and I suppose that might be sometimes collective as well as individual).

As for thinking about the future, I don't think it is true that this is something that medievalists either do or don't do. It very much depends on what kind of medievalist you are. Marxists, of course, engage with the future (even if they don't always make it explicit, nevertheless the underlying paradigm is future-orientated). The movements away from that kind of belief in grand dialectical processes (and that kind of narration) are diverse and complex - but by no means are they particularly associated with medievalists alone.
N50

emile blauche said...

I am trying to find a place where Maslow ties B-Cognition/Values explicitly to the life-cycle. Perhaps you can help me out? In some sense I suppose it is always implied since he's talking generally about the development of the human organism. Still I don't recall Maslow arguing that maturation was a key variable in the production of B-Cognition.

I do know that Maslow didn't buy Erikson's stages in the sense that he didn't see any reason for generativity and integrity to be reserved for the later stages. And so Maslow talks about children having B-Cognition. (See, e. g., his "Notes on Innocent Cognition," in L. Schenk-Danzinger, & H. Thomas (Eds.),
Gegenwartsprobleme der Entwicklungspsychologie: Festschrift fur Charlotte Buhler [Gottingen: Verlag fur Psychologie, 1963].)


Sure, it depends on what kind of medievalist one is, hence my statement that "most medievalism" is marked by an avoidance of the future. The Marxists afterall comprise a terrifically small constituency (at least as far as one might find evidence of Marxism in medieval scholarship).

Eileen Joy said...

I have to agree with Emile Blauche that medievalists, for the most part, do, indeed, ignore the future [regardless of whether or not we want to say that Marxist medievalists implicitly address it, although I wonder . . . .]. It is especially interesting to think about this viz. what goes on in history departments, since a "history of the present" is often regarded as the purview of the sociologist or political scientist [although, of course, there are people in history who study "present" events, only "just after," as it were]. But my larger point is that, among historians there is also precious little attention paid to the future, although there should be *more* attention paid, since ethics, if we care about that, always has to be future-oriented [I am assuming this is an obvious point--correct me if I am wrong--de Certeau once said that a "proper census of the population of the dead" was the proper concern of history, and I agree with this--it relates to what might be called an ethical "reckoning"--but in the end, ethics has to also be ultimately oriented to some kind of question of futurity, such as "how shall we live our lives?"--to poach from the title of a Peter Singer book]. Interestingly, "Social Text" has two special issues coming out soon devoted to the topic of "Afro Futurism," and I think these will be interesting to read. I have a colleague who will have an essay in one of those issues on Colson Whitehead's novel "The Intuitionist" [excellent book, by the way] and Condoleeza Rice. But again, as E.B. points out, we don't think about the future *enough* and we should.

J J Cohen said...

In general, it is true: medievalists consider themselves custodians of the past, not (at least as part of their profession) of the present or future. Is that news to anyone?

Yet anyone who turns to the past is also opening up alternate presents and possible futures. Such temporal interweaving is inescapable, part of our being in and of time.

Surely, you could argue that medieval studies isn't the most effective way to study the future, or to open up some futurity. And you would be right. But a vector that starts back in time doesn't -- can't -- stay rooted in the past alone.

Karl Steel said...

Yet anyone who turns to the past is also opening up alternate presents and possible futures.

Absolutely, simply by showing the historicity of categories and the fact that things have never always been what they were.

Looking forward to the Haidu review. I dipped into the book quickly only to see if he'd updated his 1983 article on Yvain. He hadn't. So I'd like to get a sense of his overall argument.

E said...

JJC wrote, "In general, it is true: medievalists consider themselves custodians of the past, not (at least as part of their profession) of the present or future. Is that news to anyone?"

Not, it's not news, but what if medieval studies considered its main purview to be "the past in the present," or something like that? I've never really believed I study the past so much as I study artifacts *from* the past that, somehow, have survived into my [and others'] present moment. When I study these artifacts ["Beowulf," for example], I think of them as being "striated," as it were, by all the temporal zones through which they have passed, and I do not believe it is actually possible to analyze or study them *as if* they are anything but--because they are with us *now*, in whatever form--modern. I will share here part of a book I am working on that I hope illuminates what I mean. This is from a chapter-in-progress that compares the production of the "Electronic Beowulf" with the 20-year-restoration of Leonardo's "Last Supper," and also discusses the paintings of Anselm Kiefer and the short stories and drawings of Bruno Schulz [what follows is part of the conclusion of that chapter]:

V. All Mouth and Teeth and Motion

Returning, once again, to the question of how the scholar works in time with things that have fallen out of time, I am reminded of a story I encountered recently written by Stephen King titled "The Langoliers." It is, in many respects, a rather silly story, but it constructs a theory of time which I think applies to the way in which we need to begin thinking through the process of how past things--such as the "Beowulf" manuscript, Leonardo's frescoes, and Schulz's murals--relate to the present. The title of King's story refers to a kind of "story-within-the-story" that one of the characters, about midway through the narrative, relates about his childhood. Apparently, this character's father had been a bullying and frightening tyrant, and whenever he thought his son was being lazy or procrastinating about something he would tell him about "the Langoliers," who were all mouth and teeth and motion and moved with terrifying speed, devouring anything that moved more slowly than they did. They existed in the past, but if you wasted time they would catch up to you and eat you alive. This story so terrified this character when he was a boy that, as a grown man, he is intensely neurotic about wasting time and therefore he becomes the most "unhinged" when he gets caught up in the plot of this story that is, ultimately, about getting stuck outside of time.

In the present action of King's story, ten sleeping passengers on a plane headed for Boston wake up to discover that, even though they are tens of thousands of feet up in the sky, all of the other passengers, including the pilots, have disappeared, leaving behind only their material effects--watches, jewelry, false teeth, eyeglasses, wallets, books and magazines, etc. Somehow, we discover later, they traveled through a "rip" in the fabric of time and wound up in what appears to be an abandoned universe. Luckily, one of the remaining passengers is a pilot and he manages to land the jet in Bangor, Maine, but when the ten survivors deplane they discover that no one is there in the airport or anywhere at all in the surrounding countryside. They soon deduce--never mind how--that they have traveled to the past and it's a very unsafe place to be. In fact, it is literally in the process of using itself up--matches don't work there, the beer in the airport cafe is flat, the sandwiches have no flavor that can be tasted, electricity cannot be generated, and in the distance beyond the hills, they can hear a terrifying sound--similar to gale force winds, or a tornado--which seems to be headed their way. In fact, this is the sound of time itself literally devouring the landscape and anything else in that landscape of material heft and weight.

Realizing that they cannot stay in the past which is, finally, a vacuum that devours everything in its wake, they re-board the plane and head back to Los Angeles, the assumption being that if they go back the exact same way they came (while asleep, of course), they can go back through the time rip and end up back in the present. Never mind how this all works--it's utterly ridiculous from a scientific point-of-view. Nor shall we worry about all the plot complications I haven't shared, such as the subplot about the passenger who told his childhood story about the Langoliers actually going murderously insane and then even being devoured by whirling black holes with multiple rows of gnashing metal teeth (time itself) while the plane lifts off from the Bangor airport. The important thing is, the remaining passengers make it to the Los Angeles airport (with the one exception of the pilot who, after teaching one passenger how to land the plane, stays awake in order to steer the plane through the time rip and therefore heroically sacrifices his life for the others), and guess what? No one is in Los Angeles either, no one at all. They are now in the future and they have to wait for the present to catch up with them, which it eventually does because, oddly enough, this is a horror story with a happy ending.

The moral of the story, finally, is that one cannot travel to the past nor to the future, because nothing is actually there, and the past is even violent and dangerous due to the peculiar physics of the place. In the end, the only place that is livable is the present. But the question is begged: don't the things of the past--those watches and pairs of eyeglasses, the beer bottles and sandwiches, and even the buildings--endure somehow and come into the present, and isn't the past, then, always--if even in fragments--in the present (in other words, not completely devoured by time's voracious maw)? The answer, I think, is both "yes" and also "no," for the obvious reasons--the basic principles of evolutionary biology suffice to demonstrate that the past comes into the present through a process of ferocious will and replication, random accident, and even sheer, dumb luck, and it is through this very same process that the past often stays behind as well. The more important question is: how are we to reckon the evolutionary process by which the past comes into the present, and most properly take account of both what is lost and what remains? How, in other words, do you give the dead what they might have wanted (if you think that's important), while also attending to those around you in the present who might be in need of some possible answers to the difficult question, "why does the past matter?"--and even, the more anxious question, "why does the past matter in this particular instant of time?"

Leonardo may not have cared enough about the future in his fresco preparation in the refectory at Santa Marie delle Grazie, but we know that he was anxious about how some things might get lost in time, and he tried to prepare for it. In 1508, when he was living in Florence and collecting notes for his Codex Arundel, a compendium of many subjects--including astronomy and optics, geology, hydraulics, architecture, war machines, and the flight of birds--he wrote the following note to himself regarding his work before departing for Milan: "Take care of all these matters tomorrow, copy them, and then mark the originals with a sign and leave them in Florence, so that if you lose what you take with you, the invention will not be lost" (qtd. in Alessandro Vezzosi, Leonardo da Vinci: The Mind of the Renaissance, trans. Alexandra Bonfante-Warren [New York, 1997], 106).

Ultimately, then, the job of the contemporary scholar is to work to connect the excavated artwork--even when that artwork exists only as a fragment, or only exists in imperfect, perhaps incomplete copies--to what is essentially a re-creative and generative act in the present that will take us closer, not necessarily to how the text or painting might have looked if only it had escaped the ravages of history, but to the more mystical yet also intellectual energies of creative expression which always, in all times and places, has its limits.

emile blauche said...

It is far from axiomatic that a turn to the past opens up alternative presents and possible futures. Too many examples of becoming mired in the past vitiate such a claim. Or perhaps "opens up" is one of those impossibly vague verbs that evade contradiction or negation.

Perhaps what is meant is that turning to the past is a way of generating or calling into existence these alternate presents and possible futures. (#1)

Or perhaps what is meant is that turning to the past is a way of interpreting (as in opening up for analysis) alternate presents and possible futures. (#2)

The first does not make any sense within the terms of any conception of time with which I am familiar. But then I have always favored the Greeks with their chronos and kairos.

The second is problematic since I am not sure how we would ever know that the present we are analyzing is truly "alternative" since, by definition, it constitutes our present, or our experience of the present moment.

Here is something else to consider (something I deal with in a forthcoming essay): there is what I would call the absent past, that is, a past that, phenomenologically speaking, does not exist and never will. This is the past that is no longer an active influence on the present, and is a past only in the historical or narrative sense, when viewed from the outside.

Examples of this absent or nonexistent past that has imposed initial constraints and degrees of freedom on what might be possible experiences include neurophysiological alterations that were indelibly fixed in early development due to, e.g., trauma or conflict. The consequences, e.g., of early, massive socioaffective deprivation as seen in some orphanages (Gunnar, 2001) or the later developmental consequences of early attachment patterns (Sroufe, 1999) are examples.

Anonymous said...

If you are a guardian of the past - who/what are you guarding it for?

I don't think that it is possible to think very far with binaries (all medievalists are this, all sociologists are that). Such generalisations do not work and also ignore the interdisciplinary links between the two fields. Try some kind of grid theory instead?

Secondly what do we all mean by future here? You cannot judge medieval studies only by the books you read in dusty libraries. Many academics spend the majority of their time teaching and administering (both very future centred activities). In my fields (and perhaps also more in the old world than the new) many medievalists (among others) engage directly with the future through local and national planning, leisure, media and education industries. A popular name for this is 'heritage' which has all kinds of political and future-oriented agendas associated with it.

Finally - the socialist/marxist historians I have known personally - have generally been engaged with the future and you can read that in their work all the more when you know their lives. So I think JJC has a point about the unhappy disembodiedness that published work acquires.

Finally (and with smile) I have to say that it was me (not Maslow) who associated B-cog with the cultural sanguinity of getting older. Those two things have been quite a feature of my (and mine's) personal experience in the past 12 months.

Now I must dash - full day of teaching, admin and conservation work to come yet (and yes it is the vacation here too!)
N50

J J Cohen said...

Absolutely, simply by showing the historicity of categories and the fact that things have never always been what they were.
Karl: And -- I would want to stress this, as EJ does -- most medievalists don't see themselves as part of this future-generating process (by "future-generating" I mean simply unhitching the future, proximate or distant, from the imaginatively impoverished burden of being an extension of the present, or of being inevitable). With Eileen we might wonder what would happen if more scholars who study the past in all its distance could see implications for the future in at least some of what they do.

N50: the inevitability of encountering the present in the past is a historicist insight, and it ought to apply to the scholarship that historicists produce as well. Bynum is good on this ... but what could make the investigation richer (and more fraught) is to then ask: what next? what are the implications for thinking beyond the present, or thinking the present in more temporally complex terms? As for medievalists as guardians of the past ... well, I did say "custodians," and I meant that as labelling a self-perception of many medievalists. Should they perceive themselves as such is another question entirely. And as to for whom these medievalists might be guarding the past ... it seems that whenever scholars place the past under lock and key like that, they are preserving their fantasy of the past for themselves under the justification that they are willing something noble and pure to posterity. As if.

J J Cohen said...

E: I like your parable of temporal enfolding. Is there any topic you DON'T have as a forthcoming essay?

J J Cohen said...

The more important question is: how are we to reckon the evolutionary process by which the past comes into the present, and most properly take account of both what is lost and what remains? How, in other words, do you give the dead what they might have wanted (if you think that's important), while also attending to those around you in the present who might be in need of some possible answers to the difficult question, "why does the past matter?"--and even, the more anxious question, "why does the past matter in this particular instant of time?"
Sorry to quote back at such length, but those queries have really stuck with me. I'm wondering where the space for a future is here. "The Langoliers" is a terrifying story, mainly for its inhuman and all-consuming notion of time as utter loss, but just as frightening is its conceptualziation of the future as the same as the present, just waiting for the present's occupants to catch up with and inhabit it. So you get two temporalities, not three: time as present swallowed into oblivion; time as present emptily extended into more of the same. I like how you focus on the material remains (watches, false teeth, uneaten food) not yet swallowed by the teeth and mouth of history -- oops, I mean of the Langoliers -- but I'm wondering how futurity might reside within or alongside such objects. If they are simply inert material then they may as well have been swallowed. Does the answer to the question "why does the past matter in this particular instant of time?" necessary link to the question of the open or closed future?

Anonymous said...

The following is a useful collection of links to resources for the study of public history and heritage:

http://www.earlymodernweb.org.uk/shhistory/publichistory.htm

I do not know whether there are literary equivalents.
N50

Eileen Joy said...

Emile B.'s comments on the possibility of an absent past and what the implications of that "absent past" might be for the present [not an "alternative present" but an actual present--important distinction] brings me back again to the question of ethics--as in: how do we conceive of [or *want* to conceive of] our ethical obligations as historians of the past? What do we think is the *utility* of our work viz. the present? "What do the dead want from us?" Etc. Again, I have been trying to parse these questions in a variety of ways in the book I am working on, and have not settled on an answer, but in response to Emile's question about the "absent past," I offer an excerpt from the "opening" to the chapter from which I earlier shared part of the conclusion:

I. History's Dark Woods

In her provocative essay, "Memory, History, Revelation: Writing the Dead Other," Edith Wyschogrod writes that "The past does not give itself all at once as spectacle . . . but is disclosed by the 'not' that is imprinted . . . sous rature in what is actually imaged and told. . . . To remember is to grasp occurrences in the manner of holding-in-front-of-oneself not only that which was but that which could have been" (in Memory and History in Christianity and Judaism, ed. Michael A. Signer [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001], 24). Furthermore, Wyschogrod writes that,

"Some historical narratives contain breaks in structure that I shall call their discursive space of authorization. Such spaces are often signaled by specific forumlae such as the announcement in Exodus, 'I am that I am.' The formula is a warning that there is a blank in the narrative that points to the governance of the events it recounts by that which is altogether outside the narrative. These blank spaces are the placeholders of revelation, a kind of white light that, unlike the formulae that announce them, illuminate the events recounted without ever becoming the focus of visibility." (ibid., 21)

The person wishing to render an accurate picture or account of the past must recognize that "the discursive space of memory is always already an ethical space," and the historian stands, as it were, "under [the] judgment" not only of the absent dead, but also of an "unincorporable infinite" that can only manifest itself in the blank spaces of the "predicative and iterative historical narrative" (ibid., 25, 31-32). Yet, as Wyschogrod also reminds us, if we believe that "history is judged in accordance with the claims of the dead Others," we should also remind ourselves of Nietzsche's caution in "The Uses and Abuses of History": "Who compels you to judge? If it is your wish--you must first prove that you are capable of justice. As judges you must stand higher that that which is to be judged; as it is you have only come later" (ibid., 31). But this is just a caution. Following Wyschogrod's line of thinking, the work of art rescued from the flow of history--such as the "Beowulf" manuscript or Leonardo's "Last Supper"--is both the carrier of a distinct cultural act and memory situated in a particular place and time which states, "it could not have been otherwise"--it was thus, and not thus--and also the placeholder of everything that is exterior to and in excess of that memory, what the Polish writer and artist Bruno Schulz called "the immensity of the transcendental" ("Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass," trans. Celina Wieniewski [Boston, 1978], 14). In his book "Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass," Schulz's narrator argues that there are some events that are too immense to be "contained in mere facts," and which the "ground of reality" cannot carry, and therefore,

"they quickly withdraw, fearing to lose their integrity in the frailty of realization. . . . as a result, white spots appear in our biography--scented stigmata, the faded silvery imprints of the bare feet of angels, scattered footmarks on our nights and days--while the fullness of life waxes, incessantly supplements itself, and towers over us in wonder after wonder. . . . An event may be small and insignificant in its origin, and yet, when drawn close to one's eye, it may open in its center an infinite and radiant perspective because a higher order of being is trying to express itself in it and irradiates it violently." (ibid., 13-14)

The narrator of Schulz's book, in fact, is the young artist-genius and hero of his own mytho-autobiography who continually draws the world close to his own eyes and perceives in it the violent irradiations of this higher order of being; in something as simple as a spring dusk he perceives "labyrinths of depth, warehouses and silos of things, graves that are still warm, the litter, and the rot" (ibid., 47). But perhaps we should also remember here the words of the survivor of Auschwitz, Primo Levi, who worried constantly that it might not be enough for the artist to bear witness to that which others have not seen or experienced, and further, that there are certain realms into which the writer-witness, for all his good intentions, cannot travel:

"We survivors are not only an exiguous but also an anomalous minority: we are those who by their prevarications or abilities or good luck did not touch bottom. Those who did so, those who saw the Gorgon, have not returned to tell about it or have returned mute, but they are the "Muslims," the submerged, the complete witnesses, the ones whose deposition would have a general significance. They are the rule; we are the exception." ("The Drowned and the Saved," trans. Raymond Rosenthal [New York: Vintage Books, 1989], 83-84)

[more in a bit . . . .]

Eileen Joy said...

Still trying to think through the tricky and ethically-fraught relationship of historians to their subject mattter [the "subjects"--human and otherwise] of the past, another bit from a different chapter in the book, which looks at "Beowulf" alongside the paintings of Stanley Spencer and Morrison's novel "Beloved":

III. Marking (Loving) the Dead

One of the most provocative and insistent questions of history is, “what do the dead want from us?” Suffice to say, there is not enough time in the world to adequately answer this question, but I want to suggest that it is that very question that resonates throughout "Beowulf," and lends to it a very modern insistency. The poem is infinitely complex with regard to the question, but one of the possible answers it provides is that the dead want to be marked–they want to be "written," as it were, into the future. They want to matter in the present that follows after them. Beowulf himself represents what Benjamin called "the secret heliotropism" by which "the past strives to turn toward the sun which is rising in the sky of history," and he calls attention to the relationship between memory and "marking" (or, writing), when he conveys to Wiglaf, just before dying, his request that "the battle-warriors will command that a bright mound be built . . . high on the whale-cliffs" (ll. 2802-05). Beowulf desires this not only as a gemyndum ("reminder") for his people, but also as a marker to future seafarers "when their ships drive from afar over the darkness of the flood" (ll. 2806-08) to keep Beowulf in mind. Beowulf’s desire to be marked with a memorial built high on a hill where it will be seen by travelers passing by on their ships, which ships can only come to Beowulf’s grave from a future that is now forever out of his grasp, can be seen as a desire to be kept alive as the marker of a particular historical moment, or memory. Beowulf's command is also a gesture that calls to mind Levinas's erotic caress of the future, in which the hero, just prior to death, always glimpses a last chance. And this caress is erotic, not because, following Freud, it is a "grasping" or "possessing" that seeks power over the Other through fusion, but because, in the more radical way Levinas defines it, it is a reaching out toward what is always "about to come" ("a venir") and which the ethical hero recognizes he cannot actually touch, yet reaches for anyway. It is the heroic gesture par excellence--a reaching through death toward life--that signifies the desire to be with the Other in the future in a voluptuousness of Being.

But the memorial, if built, and seen from afar, is also blank, and accretes with time, not memory, but forgetfulness. The last epithet applied to Beowulf by the poet, that he was "eager for fame" (lofgeornost), has often led critics to assume that Beowulf’s greatest sin (in the eyes of the poet) was his pride, perhaps even, his too-great faith in himself at the expense of a faith in a Christian God or a hereafter, but I want to suggest that Beowulf was always focused on the "hereafter" of the always-present world, and his desire to be "marked" in that present world is also a kind of erotic longing for an embrace with that place–more specifically, with what is vital and alive in it.

I would also like to consider here a juxtaposition of images of embraces with the dead that detail that embrace’s erotic nature, and also raise some disturbing questions about how we in the present can most properly remember the past and mark the dead, especially with relation to traumatic history. Stanley Spencer, one of the three most important English figurative painters of the twentieth century, along with Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, spent a good deal of his life working on massive visionary canvasses that fused the everyday life of the English village he lived in, Cookham, with the spiritual and the erotic, and he believed that "true modernity necessitated reclamation of the past." One of the recurring themes of his work was resurrection-the first of these, painted from 1924-27, was "The Resurrection: Cookham." Shortly after this, in 1932, he painted one of his most important works, "The Resurrection of the Soldiers," which was part of a monumental cycle of paintings commemorating World War I that was installed at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere.

The painting shows the soldiers climbing out of their graves bearing white crosses and reuniting with their dead comrades in all manner of embrace. The men are touching everything and also clasping each other–some men (in the background of the painting) are lying close to the mules, one man kneels at Christ’s side, his head in his lap, one man caresses a turtle, while another clasps a dove to his chest. Of the painting, Spencer, who was a soldier in the war, wrote, "During the war, I felt the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree or form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it. These are the joyful inheritances of mankind." On a more personal level, Spencer’s painting, "Welcoming Hilda," painted in 1953 after his first and estranged wife’s death from cancer, represented his reunion with her after death, as husband, father, and lover.

Spencer had betrayed Hilda on more than one occasion, and not long after divorcing her in order to marry the painter Patricia Preece–a union that proved to be disastrous–he regretted his decision and spent years urging Hilda for a reconciliation. Only when she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer did she allow him back, in order to have him with her as she was dying. In the painting, everyone has been returned to a time before the initial break with Hilda–Spencer himself is a young man, and his two daughters, who were in their twenties when Hilda died, are children again. The tone is one of tentative, yet physical joyfulness in which all arms caress and embrace Hilda’s body, but tellingly, Hilda looks away as Spencer kisses her.

This image points to one of the more troubling aspects of what we might call the return of the departed, which is also the return of history, and of history’s Others in the present. In Toni Morrison’s novel "Beloved," the return to 124 Bluestone Road of the daughter, Beloved, who was murdered by her own mother, Sethe, in order to ensure that she would never grow up as a slave, is at first a somewhat joyous occasion for Sethe, who sees a chance to undo her earlier crime and reclaim her lost child, but Beloved’s entrance into the house as a physical presence (literally, from the stream behind the house) is at first preceded by a terrible haunting of that house, in which the ghosts of the past rattle the living out of their wits. One by one, from the time of the initial haunting through the arrival and then tenancy of "the fully dressed woman [who] walked out of the water," all the members of the household, including Sethe’s sons (Howard and Bulgar), her lover, Paul D., and other daughter, Denver, are forced out of the house until it is just Sethe and Beloved, who continually insists to all the other members of the household who try to help and love her, "She [Sethe] is the one. She is the one I need. . . . she is the one I have to have." And, as Morrison’s narrator puts it, Sethe was "licked, tasted, eaten by Beloved’s eyes."

Beloved’s "wanting" of Sethe leads to a type of harrowing possession–both physical and psychic–where Sethe, finally alone in the house with Beloved, and cut off from the rest of her social community, becomes locked in what Freud would have called the repetitive, compulsive "acting out" of the past, in which "the past is performatively regenerated or relived as if it were fully present rather than represented in memory" (LaCapra). Beloved, waxing into grotesque proportions in her somewhat obscene pregnancy–for how can the dead give birth? [but this, of course, is also a metaphor: the present, or future, cannot be "born" out of the traumatic past without horror]–grows increasingly angry, accusing Sethe of having left her behind where "the dead men lay on top of her," but when Sethe begs her forgiveness, Beloved won’t give it, and when Sethe herself becomes angry, Beloved turns violent, breaking plates and windowpanes, thereby keeping in motion the melancholic-manic cycle which, apparently, cannot be broken. But what does Beloved want? At one point in the novel, Beloved, wishing to be pregnant, seduces Paul D. by telling him she wants to be touched "on the inside part" and for someone to call out her name. Paul D. resists at first, but when he does finally give in, he loses himself in the calling of that name, just as Sethe eventually loses her mind. In the end, all that is left of Beloved–and the same could be said of Beowulf–is her name, which both marks and fills her absence.

[well, this is all still "in a muddle"--any comments will help me revise!]

Cheers, Eileen

J J Cohen said...

the dead want to be marked–they want to be "written," as it were, into the future. They want to matter in the present that follows after them.

You've written powerfully about the desire of the dead for continuance, for futurity, but the examples you give are of the dead who desire to stop time. Beowulf wants through his architecural transformation of the landscape hronesnes to be henceforth known as Beowulfes burh, but no one ever calls it that; even the text refers to the place as hronesnes as the dead hero is memorialized there. Would Beowulf's mound, the repository of the dragon's treasure, be all that different from the dragon's mound, the dwelling of a doppelganger who likewise intended to rest there forever, and a structure built by a vanished race even older than the dragon? Isn't a similar demand being issued by Beloved, that the past-as-present be extended rather than transformed or opened up to some future? Isn't that the problem with the undead (aptrgangr) in Icelandic sagas, that the animated corpse will not release the present from the past's grip, that he demands a future as selfsame as those frozen temporality he inhabits in his own burial mound or dying place?

I understand very well that "what do the dead want from us?" is an ethical question, the answer to which can be "justice." Justice is as addressed to the future as it is to the past; justice is temporally catalytic. But it might also be that sometimes the demands of the dead if heeded will not admit of any future -- they foreclose it rather than allow anyone "to be written,' as it were, into the future" because "the present that follows after them" is like the empty airport of "The Langoliers," a suffocating projection of the eternal same.

Eileen Joy said...

JJC wrote that, even if we do "medieval studies" work that locates "the present in the past" [or, I might say, "the past in the present"], the more important work might be to ask, "what next? what are the implications for thinking beyond the present, or thinking the present in more temporally complex terms?" In order to begin contemplating possible answers to this question, we likely need to think of some concrete examples whereby we can locate the present in the past [as in the work of Bynum, say, the way in which we can see how certain questions of self/identity perdure over time, from medieval werewolf stories to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," or from medieval practices of religious fasting to contemporary anorexia, etc.] or the past in the present [i.e. Kathleen Biddick's "The Shock of Medievalism" or many of the chapters in Cohen et al.'s "The Postcolonial Middle Ages" or in Kruger and Burger's "Queering the Middle Ages/Historicizing Postmodernity"]. Likewise, if we want to further pursue JJC's questions as to "how futurity might reside within or alongside" artifacts of the past, and whether or not the answer to the question, "why does the past matter in this particular instant of time," *necessarily* "link[s] to the question of the open or closed future," we will also have to have some concrete examples [which E.B., I might often add, is often very good at providing for his own arguments]. In his Afterword to our book, recently re-titled for the umpteenth freaking time, "Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages" [formerly known as "Medieval, Reality, Television"], Prof. Cohen wrote eloquently about a pig as a "temporal container" and connected that idea with both medieval religious practice and the current "crisis" in France over Muslim immigrant communities. Many of the readers of this blog may remember that JJC shared a good portion of that essay here, so I won't go over it again, except to say that it was a good example of using a concrete material object--the pig--as well as of connecting the medieval past to the present relative to a highly politically-charged question regarding the future [what is France going to do, or what *should* France do, regarding its so-called "crisis" with its Muslim immigrant communities?]. Does that make sense?

Also, before we try, again, to "think through" these questions JJC has posed, we also have to go back to what might be called the oldest question posed by historians--why does history matter at all?--and remind ourselves of all the reasons why the conventional answers have proven to be either untenable, untrue most of the time, or too difficult to prove [and note, too, that most of these answers have often been future-oriented]. Traditionally, the answers have been:

a. we study history so we won't make the same mistakes [but we *do* make the same mistakes, BUT, they're never really "the same," because no two times are ever exactly alike]

b. we study history because if we can see where we have been, we are better able to predict where we are going [I call this the evolutionary model, but time, as it turns out, does not just have one direction, no matter what some physicists or neo-Hegelians argue, although, in politics, it *can* be very useful to be able to survey the terrain already traveled--think of feminism in the U.S., for example].

c. we study history, and record it names & events, because we have an obligation to "remember," or to "honor the dead" [this is "sacred history," which is, at bottom, a religious enterprise, even, a religious imperative--but what if there is no divine authority figure--what then?--why should the dead matter so much?--is a non-foundational sacred history possible?--that question actually informs much of my own work with the medieval past]

d. we study history because, well, it's just plain interesting [the history "amusement park" model, a la Bede's World, PBS reality programs like "Manor House," etc.]

e. we study history because it helps us understand "who we are" [as if we could have only turned out "one way"--here, E.B.'s question about the "absent past" is helpful for problematizing this axiom]

And so on and so forth.

Eileen Joy said...

In response to JJC's recent post that, "it might also be that sometimes the demands of the dead if heeded will not admit of any future -- they foreclose it rather than allow anyone "to be written,' as it were, into the future" because "the present that follows after them" is like the empty airport of "The Langoliers," a suffocating projection of the eternal same,"--NO kidding. That was exactly the point I was trying to make, if somewhat awkwardly, through Spencer's painting "Welcoming Hilda" and Morrison's "Beloved," where the desires of those locked in the places where the "dead men" lie on top of them, can be suffocating and strangulating upon the present. There is a danger in wanting to, let's say, "resurrect the dead" [Morrison's novel seems to say, if you resurrect your dead child so you can "undo" your original crime against her, she will not thank you for it--instead, she will destroy you by eating you alive, because it isn't "honor" she wants, it's *life/living*]. So, yeah, I agree, too, that Beowulf wants a kind of historical stasis--a material place in the landscape, in this instance--that will always mark/bear the memory of him as a person, but also as a kind of mythic figure; but I would also argue that there is also the desire, however fragile and ultimately kind of hopeless, to want to be--somehow and some way--always among the living, in their midst, vibrant and alive and never dead.

Eileen Joy said...

Let me qualify a bit my last statement, with some repetition:

I would also argue that there is also the desire, [in Beowulf's wanting to be remembered] however fragile and ultimately kind of hopeless, to want to be--somehow and some way--always among the living, in their midst, vibrant and alive and never dead, *not* in order to arrest the flow of time or to keep it locked in place or foreclosed, but to always be in the *flow* of time as it moves, ceaselessly, through places and bodies [which are also places, and for us humans, the most important location of our fragile, tenuous selves], in order to always feel that voluptuousness of being-becoming [as opposed to nonbeing].

Eileen Joy said...

And one last thing [haha]--

but it goes without saying, doesn't it, that avoiding the eventual "nonbeing of everything" is not an option, right [in other words, not only my own life, but the life of the universe, too, has a terminus--unless science changes that, somehow]? How might this change our *need* of the past viz. the present & future?

J J Cohen said...

Eileen, I definitely get your point about "Welcoming Hilda" and Beloved -- good stuff, here, too about mourning, art, and the future. But I guess I'm wondering how beowulf is NOT like an aptrgangr or Beloved, if his desires are to be realized (he seems so out of time to me, and by that I mean a remnant of a past that doesn't know it is out of synch). Can you say some more about these eloquent lines: desire, [in Beowulf's wanting to be remembered] however fragile and ultimately kind of hopeless, to want to be--somehow and some way--always among the living, in their midst, vibrant and alive and never dead, *not* in order to arrest the flow of time or to keep it locked in place or foreclosed, but to always be in the *flow* of time as it moves, ceaselessly, through places and bodies?

Eileen Joy said...

To me, Beowulf is "out of time," as JJC says, not because he is a remnant of the past, but because, in his own world [i.e. 4th-5th-century "Migration Era" Europe or 10th-century Anglo-Saxon England], he is actually, I think, "from the future." Roberta Frank once described Beowulf as a "novus homo" in history; I referred to him in my dissertation as "a man in the middle" of history--he comes from the future [a place that is forward-looking--he's a kind of unusual-for-the-times diplomat as regards Danish-Geatish relations] but gets "stuck" in a present he can't escape [i.e., for all of his forward-looking leadership, he can't escape the dragon, who often "sleeps" but never "dies" and is the outsized embodiment of a certain human greed/rage]. As to saying more about my typification of Beowulf's "desire" to be remembered, and *how*, let me think about that a bit more. Where I am at present, the sun does not set until about 9:30, and it's time for a glass of white wine of the deck overlooking the Smoky mountains and my current copy of "Vogue" [thanks to Betsy M. who I know reads this blog!].

Eileen Joy said...

And I have to be careful, too, of how I typify what might be called Beowulf's desires, since I can only "psychologize" him as far as the text will allow. But I *do* believe that many of Beowulf's actions and speeches within the poem reveal a mind that is restless in its desire to, as I also put it in my diss., "always be *coming* rather than *going*." But then, I'd have to parse that out a bit more, wouldn't I?

Wouldn't it be great to have someone you could dictate your blog posts to as you continued to drink wine and gazed at the mountains?

J J Cohen said...

I'll look forward to hearing more about your Beowulf from the future in the future, Eileen, since he is so very different (I suppose) from the Beowulf who has lived with me for so long. But at your leisure: the blog has a future that I hope stretches to the crack o doom. And it would be a great guest post, so that it wouldn't have to dwell an exile in the comments.

Enjoy your wine. As to the Cohens, we have gorged on summer ice cream and now must prepare baths to immerse the filthy progeny.

Anonymous said...

History Matters: Pass it On!

Launched today in the UK by a variety of academics, NGOs and GOs.

Read about it in the press.

http://www.historymatters.org.uk

N50