Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The book I didn't write

How to begin?

William stared at the crisp blankness of the sheet, a topography of creases aching to become a world. In tiny furrows he found mountains, serpentine rivers, cities new and fallen to ruin, fens and piney woods to harbor monsters, an island yearning for the stability of borders. He wondered what Latin to trace across the page's folds, what rubrics he could make shimmer like so much blood on the skin.

That the vellum had once been a grazing, mewling beast thrilled William. It seemed a quotidian miracle, a proof the past endured. The dermis become a page presented him with a pockmarked map of possibility, a means to make his own voice echo long after his body had dried to dust. On this hide he would compose a lasting chronicle of kings and wars and national destiny, of heroes and sinners and strange portents. The contours of his words would restore to order a history broken by conquest and civil war.

Drops of red trickled from his pen, splattered the vellum. "
Stercus," he muttered. It was the only Latin word he could think of filthy enough to express what a pain it was going to be to scrape the page clean and overwrite those crimson stains.

That little visualization of the monastic historian William of Newburgh at work c.1196 on his History of English Affairs was the original opening of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles [then called Stories of Blood: Monsters, Jews and Race in Medieval England]. Although it contains a faint verbal and thematic allusion to Vance Smith's book about the problems of beginning (The Book of the Incipit, a rich work that I had in mind as I began my own book), for the most part the little scene is the product of imagination. It was supposed to be replete with the themes of the book, but mainly declares why I write abstruse scholarly monographs rather than historical fiction.

Such italicized vignettes appeared regularly throughout the original manuscript, little flights of fancy that erupted from time to time from my sedate prose. I explained their presence as follows, but in fact I believe I had become infected by all the twelfth century Latin I was reading, and began to compose in a contemporary mode:

My previous books have attempted to work simultaneously in medieval literature and in what often gets called critical theory (a field, I would argue, more accurately and more simply described as philosophy). Stories of Blood marks a departure from this work in that much of the theorizing is conducted quietly, often below the level of direct quotation or even of footnote. This departure should not be read as a rejection. I am as committed to philosophically rigorous work as I ever have been, and would not have been able to formulate my argument without the help of theory, especially postcolonial theory. Yet I also feel that the time is right for medievalists to experiment with how they formulate their arguments, articulate their themes, convince their readers. It is time to essay rhetorical devices and generic shifts that can perhaps achieve something a predictable scholarly prose style will not. Each of my chapters therefore makes use of what I call fabulations. These brief, fictionalized, and experimental asides are meant to function like the strange moments that occur throughout twelfth-century historiography, moments when the sedate and scholarly course of the narrative is startled by an irruption of the marvelous, the monstrous, the new. As Monika Otter has made clear in her book Inventiones, such moments are not digressions from the texts that feature them but explorations in another register of the concerns animating those works. Thus Gerald of Wales "interrupts" his Journey Through Wales to narrate a story about a utopia of tiny men. This subterranean domain bears an uncanny resemblance to the lost world of Gerald's own childhood, and permits its narrator to mourn the Welshness he has rejected in himself in order to become a cleric who writes in Latin and a courtier who speaks in French. Although I worry that my own fabulations may strike readers as self-indulgent, overwritten, or simply extraneous, it nonetheless seems to me that, even should I fail badly in the attempt, it is worthwhile to allow the sources I have worked with here to imbue my text with their own imprint.

In the future I'll share a few more of these fabulations with you. They are quite amusing. For tonight, though, I'll end with the story that was supposed to instigate the critical apparatus of the book. It's ripped from the headlines c.1230, when a five year old boy was found wandering the banks of the River Wensum in Norwich. He had been involuntarily circumcised.

A Vision of Blood, 1230
Jurnepin of Norwich sat by the Wensum, crying. The swaying of the ships at dock, the gurgle of the silty water helped him think of something, anything, besides the ache. His leg was wet with blood. Yesterday the little boy had been a Christian named Odard, skipping rocks off muddy puddles. That name, given by the followers of the Hanged One, had been blotted out forever. He was now Jurnepin, circumcised and tearful. You must never eat pork again, Senioret told him as he prepared the knife. The stroke that had cut his foreskin had also excised his Christianity. The gates of heaven slammed shut, and left him in tears and blood among the Jews.

Benedict, Jurnepin's father, was a Christian convert. A high price, his friends had sneered, to belong to a community that hates us. Jurnepin had known their faces long before, had seen them glaring at his father as he made his physician's rounds. As a captive in Jacob's house, he caught their names in the flow of their familiar French: Leo, Deudone, Joppe, Elias, Mosse, Simon, Sampson, Isaac le Petit, Diaia le Cat. These men had their revenge on Benedict when Jacob and Senioret reclaimed his son. Once a Jew, always a Jew, they said. It was funny, Jurnepin had often heard the Christians repeating the same phrase, even when he and his dad were together in the cathedral. Were there some lines that just couldn't be crossed? Can a Breton ever become French, or a Welshman English? Can the leopard change its spots, or the Ethiopian his skin? Might a boy growing up in Yorkshire ever become as English as a Londoner? Must a Jew always remain a Jew?

Benedict had learned to praise in Latin the son of a God who was not supposed to have any sons. He had mastered all the local customs and assimilated to Norwich with a convert's zeal. Yet there was something in him and in his son that perhaps could not be changed, something that even now Jurnepin felt trickling along his cheeks, felt congealed along his thigh. At the age of five Jurnepin the Jew knew that race is born of trauma, race is born of blood.


Anonymous said...

Barbara Hanawalt did something like this in Growing Up in Medieval London - and it seems an approach well suited to historicised writing. A lot of the talk at NCS was about abandoning such approaches - reclaiming the aesthetics and philosophy of pure literature. I suppose you are here advocating a mixed society ...

Eileen Joy said...

Perhaps one of the most eloquent advocates of the method that JJC is experimenting with here is the historian Simon Schama, whose work I have always very much admired. In his book "Dead Certainties," which blends fact with fiction [and actually, Granta magazine published an excerpt from this *as fiction*], Schama said he was attempting to ""play with the teasing gap separating a lived event and its subsequent narration." And such, too, it seems to me, is JJC's impulse. I myself have always wished there were venues for a more creative scholarship, one that cared as much about aesthetics as it did about "the facts" and "critical approach." But this would have to be a deeply ethical aesthetics--[on which point, see my recent post on "The Past: There's No There There"].

Karl Steel said...
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Karl Steel said...

Nothing too smart to say tonight. I'm worn out. Everyone who still has to write a syllabus, raise a hand!

You advocating something like Jane Tompkins' "Me and My Shadow"? Not a perfect fit, but it does begin to speak to some of what you're saying.

I'm also reminded--and here's something that happens rarely--of a paper I did as an undergraduate inveighing against Schama's personality-focused history in Citizens for being an inadequate record of revolution compared to the attention to collectivities that drives CLR James' Black Jacobins. I suppose there was something of Annales in me back then w/out my knowing it. To be sure, JJC's vignettes are not recreations of 'great men' a la classical historiography but rather the lived experiences of people in always moving collectives: think of them as moments where the field thickens. And unless we recollect those thickenings, we forget, as I'm sure the Annalists sometimes do, and, more darkly, as Totalitarians do, what collectivities comprise. Historicizations are one way of doing this.

I'm also reminded of the moving Chapter XIII of Philip Ziegler's The Black Death, where he depicts, in a approach like JJC's, what the Plague does to a 14th-century village.

That said, this is not the kind of a work a young scholar can do. Or perhaps should do? Would we accept this approach from grad students?

PS1: N50: what are the aesthetic and philosophy of "pure literature"?

PS2: JJC, I had a puerile chuckle (perhaps in homage to your recent work) at 'stercus,' but how often do we curse sincerely in any language but our first? I'm reminded of a joke I think from Freud's treatise on jokes. I don't have it on hand, but it has to do with a German doctor attending a woman giving birth. While she undergoes her initial pangs, the doctor sits in an adjacent room with her husband, talking about whatever such people talked about. They hear the woman shout "mon dieu!" The husband blanches, but the doctor doesn't budge. A few minutes later, she howls "my lord!" Again, the husband makes to help her, but the doctor guides the husband back to his chair. Finally, after a while, they hear the woman yell again, this time "mein Gott!," and with that, the doctor rushes in to help.

Now, if you've made it this far, the question is knowing in what language William might have cursed. I doubt it was Latin. But I'm not sure it was English or French, or, since William was from 12th-century Yorkshire, some Scandinavian expletive. The inability to answer just that question easily is, in fact, what demands studies like HIaMiMB: ODM (ODM hereafter on this blog!).

[post updating to correct the punctuation on Jane Tompkins]

Anonymous said...

PS1: N50: what are the aesthetic and philosophy of "pure literature"?

A shorthand answer would be: "I don't know". I'm with the Annalists. But the attack on historicism was a prominent feature of the gathering. It had something to do with the practitioners of literary criticism feeling oppressed by textual criticism and by historians...I think.

There was a fair bit of heat ... N50

J J Cohen said...

I think that's the part of NCS I missed .. could you say any more? Do you want to do a guest post, N50?

Anonymous said...

Do you want to do a guest post, N50?

I'm honoured that you should ask - and I admire what you are doing here (both priniciple and practice)- but no I'm going to stick to my relatively light-hearted effortless use of this medium. My one attempt to be serious - posted above (and posted to the wrong thread too) - suggests that I'm better off sticking to the day job!

I did (literally) bump into you at NCS, but you were heavily in conversation with some younger folk so I didn't introduce myself. I think we probably did go to different sessions - though I suspect you did hear JS urging literary scholars to flee the temptations of history and philology and make common cause with modernists in English departments instead?

Karl Steel said...

suspect you did hear JS urging literary scholars to flee the temptations of history and philology and make common cause with modernists in English departments instead?

Common cause in not knowing history or philology?! Isn't knowing history and philology part of what makes medieval studies particularly fun? Could (one of) you elaborate?

J J Cohen said...

I don't think I could do justice to JS's remarks at this long distance from them, but I certainly attended. If I can find my notes I'll see what I can come up with.

N50, that was you who bumped me? I'm still sore from that one, and am seriously contemplating disability leave -- at least until the semester stops beginning and I can think about non-administrative things again.