Figure 1. The Humanistic Subject Under the Thrall of History-as-Vampire
The BABEL Working Group will be in Oxford, MS this week for the annual meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, where we are going to present our third session in our ongoing roundtable series, "Premodern to Modern Humanisms." We are trying something a little different this time around, presenting comments and responses Thursday afternoon and then reconvening Saturday afternoon for a "rehash" [a rehash that will have benefited, we hope, from several late-night bull sessions over bourbon and ribs, or, um, barbecued tofu]. The panel will feature the following speakers: Michael Harper [20th-century American literature], Deirdre Jou [N.I.H./Infectious Diseases], Betsy McCormick [Middle English literature], Teresa Reed [Middle English literature/women's studies], and Valerie Vogrin [fiction writer]. Myra Seaman [Middle English literature] and Nelljean Rice [poet/women's studies] are the respondents. The idea, as always, is to bring together medievalists with scholars working in other humanistic disciplines, and also with social scientists and scientists, to think about and discuss together the fate or future of "being human," "humanism," and the humanities in the supposed posthuman, post-everything future.
Since I will likely not be able to post much over the next five to sxi days, I thought I would leave everyone with some "preview" excerpts from the BABEL session, and when I return, I hope I will have something interesting to report further. [The full texts of all of these remarks will be available after the conference on BABEL's website.]
1. from Betsy McCormick, "The Love Below, or, The Logic of a Humanist Practice [with apologies to OutKast]
. . . . This past week Stanley Katz, president emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, wrote an editorial for the Chronicle entitled “What has Happened to the Professoriate?” Katz observes, “I have become convinced that our most profound problems have to do with our unwillingness to inquire into our own situation.” I agree that any critical inquiry must also be one of self-inquiry. Toril Moi has quite astutely observed of feminism that “A truly critical … account of feminism, then, would be one which also reflects on the social conditions of possibility of feminist discourse. Or in other words: feminism as critique must also be a critique of feminism” (“Appropriating Bourdieu”). But perhaps we can reverse this process as we approach a consideration of humanism/s: a critique of humanism might also produce a humanism as critique – a critique , I would suggest, that is more in the pursuit of inquiry than criticism.2. from Valerie Vogrin, "Breaking Up with Realism"
. . . . In the Middle Ages, one of the roles of what we now call the humanities was invention: invention of knowledge, of ethics, of self. Mary Carruthers outlines how memory, one of the fundamentals of rhetoric, was used to “invent” the self’s knowledge. In his "The Ethical Poetic of the Later Middles Ages," Judson Allen notes that in the medieval conception of poetry, there is no real category for literature; rather poetry and literature are categorized under the rubric “ethics.” He explains that “to define ethics in medieval terms is to define poetry, and to define poetry is to define ethics, because medieval ethics was so much under the influence of a literary paideia as to be enacted poetry and poetry was so practically received as to be quite directly the extended examples for real behaviour.” That is literature is an action, a practice of ethical reality.
In "The Practice of Everyday Life," Michel de Certeau argues against the current association of reading with passivity, noting that the process of reading meaning is little understood or studied. Yet isn’t that what humanities are: the reading of meaning, of life? And if these are so little understood, how do we make them understandable? It seems we have to begin by better understanding our own role in humanistic practice. . . . Donna Haraway has said of feminism, that “feminist inquiry is about understanding how things work, who is in the action, what might be possible, and how worldly actors might somehow be accountable to and love each other less violently” (“Companion Species Manifesto” – thanks JJC). A sentiment which should be applied to all humanisms – in other words, we need to move past our own praxis of dialectic to show a culture mired in dichotomies how to move beyond to the love below.
In June, I read an article in The Wall Street Journal reporting on a study conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers on psilocybin—among the first of its kind in 40 years. Over two-thirds of the participants administered psilocybin—97% were college grads, 56 had advanced degrees—reported the effects as being among the five most meaningful experiences in their lives, effects that included lasting increases in their sense of well-being and satisfaction. In the journal Psychopharmacology, prominent neuroscientists heralded the study and called for further research directed toward potential therapeutic uses as well as “a science of spiritual experience.”3. from Teresa Reed, [no title yet]
A bit more web research led to my discovery of several well-funded international non-profit organizations dedicated to the support of psychopharmacology research and the University of Hawaii’s Psychoative Biotechnology Project. It lead me to the wacky, erudite world of the late Terence McKenna, social critic and outspoken proponent of psychedelics who believed, “reestablishing channels of direct communication with the planetary Other, the mind behind nature, through the use of hallucinogenic plants is the best hope for dissolving the steep walls of cultural inflexibility that appear to be channeling us toward true ruin.”
This flurry of research left me flabbergasted, as though a troop of flying monkeys had just swung by my second-story office window, for here were respected scientists and other academics taking very seriously something I had definitively relegated to an intellectual category akin to Childish Things. When had I become so closed-minded, so rigid? (I’d ignored the role of psychedelic drug use in at least five millennia of spiritual practice; I’d disregarded my own profound, if distant, personal experiments.) Since when were the National Institute for Drug Abuse and the FDA more forward thinking than I? Why would I so thoroughly discount something one of the study’s reviewers thinks “may hold the key to understanding the very nature of consciousness, self-awareness, the ability to introspect, and the properties of mind that set us apart from other species”? Doesn’t this speak to the heart of what I believe is the enterprise of the fiction writer—to explore, expansively and insistently, the question of what it means to be a human in this world?
. . . in [her novel] "The Historian," [Elizabeth] Kostova creates an intertextual labyrinth, spanning past, present, and future and including archival research, anxiety over conference presentations, and “report[s] of a strange plague, sometimes an outbreak of vampirism,” to which the narrator is not immune. Dracula, himself, becomes the symbol for the author’s anxiety about this intertextuality, a condition that affects not only the telling of her narrative but her relationship to the past she attempts to create and recount. Dracula--a dark, brooding, handsome, seductive, all-powerful, there-but-not-really-there figure-- becomes, too, I think an apt symbol for the humanities’ relationship to the past as we find our own ways to deal with what R. Allen Shoaf has called “the crisis of difference,” our anxiety about comprehending or apprehending the past or, alternately, being taken by it.Nelljean Rice, one of our respondents, and also BABEL's official poet-jester, promises the following in her remarks: uroboros, ophiology, autophagy, autopoesis, AI, Body Integrity Identity Disorder, TS Eliot's "East Coker," and the Bible. Cheers!
The narrator is, in effect, only a framing device and tells the story through layers of various other texts including letters, journal entries, archival documents, personal interviews, and flashbacks. The narrator exists for us, as any narrator does, as words on a page, as seeming authority over the text. Even so, in the course of this novel textual authority becomes repeatedly suspect as the texts within texts, within texts pile up. Characters are known only through other characters’ interpretations of them, and when Dracula, himself, is presented as the quintessential historian, readers must pause to see the picture of postmodernity and the post-human that is presented to them. In other words, while the novel valorizes the wit and fortitude of its humanities scholars (they are heroes because of--not in spite of--their ability to read and interpret texts and apply their interpretations to the world in which they live), the novel’s structure and certain narrative events make it particularly rich in boundary transgressions and undo the dream of unified happy endings.
As I have stated already, one way that "The Historian" undoes itself is its very structure. The narrative voice opens and closes the work, but in between these bookends are nested many different other narrative voices. For instance, the narrator’s father tells his story--both verbally and via letters--and the story of his wife/the narrator’s mother, his dissertation advisor, and the advisor’s long-lost love interest. Nested inside his stories are letters (often set in italics just to remind us of the different narrative frame) and flashbacks told from yet another narrative point of view. At one point, I counted that the novel had gone “four deep”; i.e. there were two narrative levels between the narrator and the character whose words and actions were being described. On the narrative level, in addition to finding and killing Dracula, the narrator, through her good humanities-type research, is also able to better understand the man her father is by understanding his past and running to catch him in their present--all kinds of happy endings. Indeed, the novel begins, in a faux “Note to the Reader,” by explaining that it is the story of “how [all the characters] found [themselves] on one of the darkest pathways into history,” a dream of completion and full self knowledge. The nested aspect of the structural level, however, produces a text in which the narrator reinterprets her own life based on what she reads. The narrator similarly acknowledges the instability of her identity in the “Note to the Reader,” which continues, “As a historian, I have learned that, in fact, not everyone who reaches back into history can survive it. And it is not only reaching back that endangers us; sometimes history itself reaches inexorably forward for us with its shadowy claw.”
This is the nightmare version of history’s thrall over us, how texts can affect us, “endanger” us. This text is one in which, in Donna Haraway’s words, the “transcendent authorization of interpretation is lost.” And no doubt, for some, that is a truly frightening prospect. Even Chaucer expressed authorial anxiety over how his words would be taken and how past texts were reaching out to infect his text. At the beginning of Book Two of "Troilus and Criseyde," for instance, in a famous passage, the narrator talks about the intertextuality of his story, saying,
Me needeth here noon other art to use,
Forwhy to every lovere I me excuse
That of no sentement I this endite,
But out of Latin in my tonge it write.
Wherefore I nil have neither thank ne blame
Of al this werk, but praye you mekely,
Disblameth me if any word be lame,
For as myn auctour saide so saye I;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Ye knewe eek that in forme of speeche is chaunge
Within a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris now wonder nice and straunge
Us thenketh hem, and yit they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winnen love in sondry ages
In sondry landes sondry ben usages. (Book 2.Lines 11- 18 & 22-28)
Chaucer’s narrator both shirks and accepts responsibility for the story, both acknowledges his text’s debt to the past and plays with its presence, its words, which must be ever-changing. This is, I argue, not the nightmare version of intertextuality but a pre-modern acceptance or, indeed, embrace of it. In contrast, "The Historian" acknowledges and even uses intertextuality but conceives of it as the dark monster in the corner--ever there, ever threatening. The narrator’s father says, “It is a fact that we historians are interested in what is partly a reflection of ourselves, perhaps a part of ourselves we would rather not examine except through the medium of scholarship,” illustrating his conflicted approach towards the past and his practice of the humanities.