Friday, June 01, 2007

On Wonder

Some thoughts on wonder, harvested from this blog.

I don’t mean to say I don’t care about pedagogy [I care a lot], but that I don’t anymore torture myself worrying about whether or not I am leading my students to liberalism or humanism [or, humaness] or any other political or philosophical mode of being/thought, either through hectoring or a more subtle and laudably non-ideological method. Is there a way we can merely “be ourselves” [?], simply modelling to our students our desire[s] to read and think out loud and wonder and be moved? More and more, I worry less about students’ moral bearings [and lack thereof] and more about their emotional affect. I worry about their ability to be enchanted and to feel–”to feel” in the sense of allowing themselves to be swept away by art and literature into the lives of other persons. (Eileen)

It isn't our greed and appetites that worry me. It's more our stupidity, our refusal of wonder, and our lack of caring. This is what troubles my sleep at night. (Eileen)

The present has a way of not forgetting what is ancient in human history: the impulse to joy at winter solstice, for example. Eileen was wondering about where god might be in all this end of the year activity, or in the command that sent Abraham with a knife to a mountaintop. Right now I'm wondering why it is that, even in the absence of gods, the short days and the long darkness here in the northern hemisphere move us not to gloom but to hope. I also wonder (following Eileen's train of thought again) if hope isn't really what we mean, in the end, by love. (JJC)

Examining the Christmas star as it glimmers above the Magi in an illustration from Les très riches heures de Jean, duc de Berry, the editors write that this celestial marvel "radiates alternative interpretive strategies" (5). By focusing upon the crowded, diverse field of signs that composes the illustration, Kabir and Williams demonstrate that despite its pious Christianity the Magi scene cannot be reduced (or translated) into some uncomplex or unambivalent narrative. The sumptuous image radiates wonder, an exhilarating mixture of beauty and dissonance. And it is this noise -- heard when the critic is attentive to alternatives, exclusions -- that the contributors to Postcolonial Approaches seek. (JJC)

We can't, I don't think, discard emapthy as something that is critical to thinking about rights, or more broadly, ethics. Peter Singer's whole argument re: animal rights is heavily dependent on the fact that animals suffer and experience pain. My interest in the suffering of animals [if I have any, and yes, I do] will lodge to a certain extent in my *caring* about whether or not an animal is/might be suffering/about to suffer [as well as it is lodged to a certain extent in my *caring* about whether or not animals can experience pleasure/joy/happiness. I agree with Jane Bennet that ethics are not possible without enchantment, even wonder: first, wonder, then, caring, then, ethics. (Eileen)

The office will feel lonely when I return to it without her on Thursday. What I really like about little kids is how they make the ordinary new. I walk by the fountains at the World Bank almost every day, for example, and barely glance at them ... but for Katherine they were a tactile experience that she couldn't get enough of (especially as she "painted" my pant leg with watermarks). And aren't we all about the wonder as medievalists? (JJC)

Because their social-structural particulars are so different from ours, I would imagine that the Anglo-Saxon umwelt is not necessarily much like ours, and it could do a real disservice to want to discover ours in it. I wonder if there's a non-appropriative way to apprehend or at least engage the past, or the animal or present other (however heterochronic that creature) for that matter. As before, I'm still not sure. (Karl)

Although the adjective "exciting" is not often linked to the noun "medieval studies" in the popular imagination, these are in fact invigorating times in the field. Anyone who has kept abreast of the recent proliferation in journal articles, edited collections and monographs surely recognizes that as a discipline medieval studies is critically engaged in a process of self-reinvention. A geography that had begun to seem too familiar feels somehow new, capable of inspiring that wonder (admiratio) so prized by medieval writers themselves. (JJC)


dan remein said...

I would only comment (on that last quote about excitment in medieval studies), that we would do well to remember the french false cognate (w/ english) excité. Many French intro. students have thought they were saying they found the _Chanson de Roland_ reading exciting when really they expressed having been turned on by those old words.

Eileen Joy said...

JJC--you've just given me an idea for yet another BABEL book, on the connections between wonder and "being human" and ethics and premodernity. Hmmmmm . . . .

So much of modern life seems designed ahead of time to foreclose the possibility of wonder, of newness, of surprise, of the sublime, the unexpected, and useless beauty.

Useless beauty--how do you know it when you see it? Why does it matter?

J J Cohen said...

DR: hey, if those little lecteurs are reading attentively they should have both reactions.

Eileen: why do you think I was combing our archive for bits on wonder? I think the time is right for a reappraisal of Bynum's work on wonder, and for a more general rumination over the place of wonder in what we do. As you know in the past I've glossed queering as the process of wonder -- and that's one of the reasons I'd like to keep queer theory and wonder entangled in thinking about how to practice medieval studies. So, Dan Remein, those faux ami/pun-inducing students have it right again!

Eileen Joy said...

I'm beginning to realize that almost everything I have written lately--primarily, essays on "Beowulf" and Levinas, the Old English "7 Sleepers" and Kevin Brockmeier's "The Brief History of the Dead," and the Old English "Wonders of the East" and the massacre of Mulsims in Gujarat, India in 2002--has something to do with ethics as it is connected to particular states of wonder. I did not set out to do this on purpose--it just somehow naturally evolved. I have also read Bynum's "Metamorphosis and Identity" only about a gadjillion times so it is always in my mind at some level.

I recently put the finishing touches on the "7 Sleepers" and "Beowulf" essays, and after JJC's comments here, I went bacl to look at their conclusions, and thought, hmmmmmm . . . . I share them with everyone here:

****[excerot #1: conclusion to "in his eyes stood a light, not beautiful: Beowulf, Levinas, Hospitality]****

According to Levinas, “The privileged role of the dwelling does not consist in being the end of human activity but in being its condition, and in this sense its commencement.” Without the dwelling, what Levinas calls “recollection”—the “coming to oneself. . .which answers to a hospitality, an expectancy, a human welcome”—is not possible. It is not possible to know, of course, if the underwater mere where Beowulf meets Grendel’s mother in combat functioned, in that way, as Grendel’s dwelling. But because of what we can imagine to be Grendel’s belief that Heorot mocks him, and even denies him welcoming access, and because his home—to which he drags himself to die, leaving blood along the trail, after Beowulf has defeated him—is designated ahead of time by the Danes as everything that is un-homelike, Grendel exists outside the State as the figure of the extralegal and is therefore beyond his own and others’ “recollection.” Beowulf’s murder and post-mortem decapitation of Grendel represents what might have been for Grendel a devastating double-dispossession, especially when we consider that Beowulf first drives Grendel out of the “high hall” that is the home of those who are supposedly blessed by a God whose regard Grendel cannot “know” and by whose architecture Grendel obviously feels mocked and excluded, and then later, to add insult to injury, Beowulf desecrates Grendel’s body by slicing off his head in the “roofed hall” (hrofsele; line 1515) of his mother. And this is a head that, tellingly, will take four men to haul it along the horse-path back to Heorot (lines 1634–39), where, after being dragged across the floor to where the nobles are sitting on the benches, it becomes a spectacle for awe, as well as a trophy (lines 1647–50). The building of Heorot was made possible through the spoils of war, and Grendel’s severed head is the most visible marker of the monstrous, outsized rage necessary for founding that hall as well as the signifier of the violent coercion necessary for maintaining the law of the hall that, in the final analysis, is not predicated as much upon an ethics of hospitality as it is upon a force of exclusion that makes hospitality for some (as opposed to all) possible.

For the Danes, or even Beowulf and his men, to even pause to consider how they might substitute for or subject themselves to a Grendel, to face him, as it were, without intermediary (Levinas’s face–à–face sans intermediare), would be to contemplate a justice that literally stands beyond the social totality (Heorot itself) that makes thinking possible. It would be to go “where no clarifying—that is, panaromic—thought precedes, in going without knowing where” in order to a grasp a “pluralism” that can never be totalized and without which peace can never be accomplished, but only when we understand peace as something that “cannot be identified with the end of combats that cease for want of combatants, by the defeat of some and the victory of others, that is, with cemeteries or future universal empires.” It may be, as John Caputo has written of Derrida’s reflections on the possible politics that could be founded by Levinas’s hospitality, that “Unconditional hospitality requires a politics without sovereignty,” and also a “community without community, a city without walls, a nation without borders . . . where the decision procedure for administration is based on a holy undecidability between insider and outsider.” And what would result would be a type of “holy hell” that “is the stuff of sacred anarchy.” But how to imagine such a state of affairs into being? Or, to put the question another way: surrounded by so many bad deaths, how to make way, hopefully, for its arrival?

Although Grendel can’t dine anymore on the beautiful, shining bodies of the Danes, cracking their bones and gulping them down in chunks, nor does the light, which the poet calls “unbeautiful” (unfæger; line 727), any more shine through his eyes, his head, suspended in the hall in a moment of Anglo-Saxon time, can keep watching them. He can keep warning. Likewise, Æschere’s head, left behind along the cliff beside the burning lake where Grendel’s mother discarded it (line 1421), is also watching and warning. These, finally, are the faces of Beowulf that overflow all images--they gleam like splendors but do not deliver themselves. They call into question the nature of the proper relationship of violence to justice, and even to the sovereignty of the State. As the faces (or, expressions) of persons “brutally cast forth and forsaken in the world,” in addition to Heorot itself, once it is destroyed, they are also the “somewheres” of dwellings that can no longer open to themselves, but only to those of us—here, in the present—who are willing to behold them with wonder, and even, with trembling. Only then, is justice possible.

****[end of excerpt #1]****

****[excerpt #2: conclusion to "The Old English Seven Sleepers, Eros, and the Unincorporable Infinite of the Human Person"]****

All Worlds Are One World

Whether in the Anglo-Saxon period or in our own time, it is a difficult thing to imagine a soul without a body. As Augustine himself asserted in Book 22, Chapter 21 of De civitate dei, “Quae sit autem et quam magna spiritalis corporis gratia, quoniam nondum uenit in experimentum, uereor ne temerarium sit omne, quod de illa profertur, eloquium” [“But what this spiritual body shall be to us, or how great its grace, seeing that we have no experience of [its] coming, I fear it would be rash to profess it”]. Nevertheless, both medieval and modern artists have often aimed to create vivid images of souls after death that are, as in Dante’s conception of shade-bodies in his Purgatorio, both non-corporeal and aerial yet also imprinted with the physiological lineaments of human form. Clearly, it is hard (or perhaps not desirable) to separate the idea of individual souls in a supposed afterlife, even before the Last Judgment, from the uniquely shaped bodies that once housed them in the world. Even in a novel as contemporary as The Brief History of the Dead, souls after death are mainly comprehensible in the bodies they have supposedly shed.

After Laura Byrd has clearly died from exposure and is leaving her body in order to traverse the Antarctic ice shelf and the mirages of the structures of the City toward the sun, Brockmeier’s description of her soul’s flight from her body is freighted, at every turn, with the form of that body which, nevertheless, does not weigh as heavily on her as it once did. Upon first emerging from her tent, Laura notices that she is completely unclothed, yet “she had never been warmer or more comfortable” and it “felt good to stretch her muscles.” Most strikingly, she notices that there “was still a trace of frostbite on the index finger of her left hand, a small plum-colored circle as perfectly formed as an adhesive bandage, and she peeled it off by the tail of a red string that protruded from the top, dropping it at her feet.” Following a “flock” of snow marbles that represent a type of atomistic being and that are rolling across the frozen landscape, Laura (for Laura’s soul and “Laura” are one and the same) walks and even runs with bare feet through the snow, which becomes desert and then snow again, and at one point she thinks she hears a leopard seal calling out, “All worlds are one world.”

As Laura continues to move—at one point riding the back of a dog, at another guiding the sail of an ice floe—the contours of the subarctic geography give way to the empty but familiar architecture of the City and then back again, until Laura finally realizes “that something had happened. Her sense of time had broken apart into two equal halves and fallen away from her like the shell of a walnut.”

At the same time that Laura’s soul, walking on water, is disappearing over the edge of the horizon of the world, the City itself is melting away, and some of its inhabitants speculate that, much like their own crossing from the world, through death, to the City, that the City itself “was undergoing a crossing of its own, that it was dreaming itself out of existence, or moving from one sphere of being into another.” What the reader knows that the inhabitants of the City can only guess at, is that the City and its citizens are only as palpable and alive as Laura Byrd’s memory of them, and having died herself and turned into something more ephemeral, yet possessed of embodied motion, she is shedding her physical frailties and even her own memories of who she was and is, and with those divestitures, so goes the human world itself. One has to admit, however, that as Laura’s soul moves with speed and agility over the surface of the earth, a certain lightness and freedom of being attaches to her stride—as if the weight of memory, which had been too much with her, has thankfully fallen away. In this scenario, there is no more suffering, no more disappointment. But what is also “no more” is a mortally human attachment to the world, and therein, perhaps, lies the tragedy of the story: the world is no longer human.

Both Brockmeier’s novel and the Old English Seven Sleepers ultimately show us, in different ways, that what the leopard seal says is true: “All worlds are one world.” By which I mean, in both narratives, we see how the meaning of the given world—its legibility—whether medieval or modern, and either as a creation of God’s or of something else, is endlessly transmogrified and made uniquely particular across the individual selves that enter into and part from it, and who are joined to each other, across multiple histories, in suffering and recreating, through a capacious interiority, their experience. In Malchus’s post-sleep journey through the marketplace of fifth-century Ephesus, the city, for Malchus, is simultaneously the site of the nightmarish horrors of the pagan reign of Decius, which scares him (he is still afraid of being caught), as well as the now thoroughly Christian town adorned with wundorlic crosses that Malchus claims not to recognize and by which he is astounded and amazed (lines 466–68, 454–60). Malchus’s wonder at this new city soon turns to confusion and even fear. When he arrives at the market and hears men speaking Christ’s name openly, “ða ondræd Malchus him þearle, and he ðæs eall forhtode” [“then was Malchus terribly afraid, and he was all frightened at this”]. Similar to the inhabitants of the City in Brockmeier’s novel who, when they first arrive, cannot understand if they are in heaven or hell—but “what kind of hell had bakeries and dogwood trees and perfect blue days”? —Malchus, begins to question where he is, exactly, saying to himself, first, “To soðan ne þinceð me næafre þæt hit soð sy þæt þis sy Efesa byrig, for ðy eall heo is on oþre wisan gestaðelod and eall mid oþrum botlum getimbred” [“Truly, it does not seem to me that it could be true that this is the city of Ephesus, because it is all built in a different manner and all timbered with other buildings”], and then, “Ac ic nat eftsona, ne ic næfre git nyste, þæt oþer byrig us wære gehende buton Ephese anre, her onem Celian dune” [“But again, I do not know, neither have I ever yet known, that there was any other city near to us except only Ephesus, here beside Celian hill” ].

For Malchus there can only be one Ephesus, yet the world has changed without his notice of it and now Ephesus is a different city and Malchus is out of joint with time. But the only thing that can knit the two Ephesuses together is Malchus himself, and his six companions, who, in their reawakened persons—in both body and soul—and also in their textual figuration, mark the place of an historical excess that opens the dimension of the miraculous more, of the unincorporable infinite enclosed within the singular self who has touched reality and become real, and whose understanding of the world is indispensable to that world’s completeness.

****[end of excerpt #2]****

J J Cohen said...

o behold them with wonder, and even, with trembling. Only then, is justice possible.

Love that. Thanks for posting the excerpts.

Karl Steel said...

EJ: Oh! I see your post. On vacation (see above), but I'm thrilled to be able to read your piece soon. I'm cutting it into a file so I can read it on the flight home..