Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Absent Beowulf

Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, through events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one. —Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”

I am thrilled to announce here the "birth" of yet another BABEL Working Group venture: a regular column in the online medieval studies [early northern Europe] journal Heroic Age, "Fragments from the BABEL Archive." Beginning with Issue 11, “Fragments” will be a regular column featuring essays jointly solicited and edited by Heroic Age and the BABEL Working Group. The essays featured here, beginning with Daniel M. Murtaugh’s “Absent Beowulf,” will focus primarily on the artifacts—real and fictional, textual and otherwise—of early northern Europe, while also drawing connections between those artifacts with more modern arts and letters and with postmodern critical thought. Our hope is that these essays will demonstrate an early literary and historical studies that are attentive to what the late Edward Said described, in his essay "The World, the Text, and the Critic," as the “worldliness” of texts (their material existence in and relation to both past and present contexts), and that is mindful that our criticism of those texts is also “worldly”—that it embodies, in Said’s words, “those processes and actual conditions in the present by means of which art and writing bear significance.” We hope, further, that these essays will reveal some of the ways in which, again in Said’s words, “worldliness, circumstantiality, the text’s status as an event having sensuous particularity as well as historical contingency, are considered as being incorporated in the text, an infrangible part of its capacity for conveying and producing meaning.”

Reflecting upon Umberto Eco’s writing in Diacritics on the collected Amazing Adventures of Superman, where Eco “places Superman among those modern heroes of popular culture whose relation to ordinary time and to history is deliberately confused, to spare them the ‘consumption’ or using up that history inevitably inflicts upon its subjects,” Daniel Murtaugh, in his essay “Absent Beowulf,” argues that the Beowulf-poet self-consciously inserted his legendary hero “into a history that legend cannot change, bringing him and us to the impermeable membrane that separates a slayer of monsters from men and women struggling in and consumed by history.” I leave everyone here with an excerpt from Murtaugh's essay [and the, I hope, enticing advance notice that future "Fragments" columns will feature essays by Helen Bennett, on the "indeterminate hall" and "narrative functors" of Beowulf, as well as an essay by Mary Kate Hurley: subject to be determined by Mary Kate Hurley!]:
The central argument of this essay derives in part from a long review by Umberto Eco, published in Diacritics in 1972, of the collected Amazing Adventures of Superman. Eco places Superman among those modern heroes of popular culture whose relation to ordinary time and to history is deliberately confused, to spare them the “consumption” or using up that history inevitably inflicts upon its subjects. The heroes of this type include creatures less preternatural, like private detectives (Nero Wolfe is Eco’s favorite example), who do not age, who start each episode afresh in a sort of circular, non-cumulative time, and whose sphere of action is necessarily local and exclusively concerned with private values, especially that of property. To intervene in national destinies and political values, it seems, would be to step into linear, cumulative time, to take responsibility for change, and, finally, to be consumed. Thus Superman can first arrive from the verge of the galaxy or beyond, and he can occasionally return there, but he lands, takes off, and lands again only in Metropolis. His super powers could never be deployed on the German-Polish border in 1938, even though they would certainly have been decisive. Eco’s reflections on Superman have a postmodern edge not shared by his subject’s adventures. To make Superman postmodern, one would have to import Eco’s theoretical machinery into the story. Perhaps Eco himself might appear to console Superman in his increasing frustration at being unable take a decisive role in history, his boredom with yet another bank robber as Hitler marched across Europe or Lee Harvey Oswald (readily disclosed to his X-ray vision) took aim from the Texas Book Depository.

Eco makes an interesting distinction between the heroes of cultural legend—Hercules or Theseus or Roland, for example—and the heroes of popular culture like Superman whose invention can be documented (and registered with the patent office). The distinction bears upon their different relations to history. The hero of legend, who may be a demigod, comes to us with his story complete. In a statue representing one of his labors, “Hercules would be seen as someone who has a story, and this story would characterize his divine features . . . [narrating] something that has already happened and of which the public was aware” (Eco 1972, 15). This, of course, is why legend fits seamlessly into history and is sometimes indistinguishable from it. Eco does not emphasize this, but this is also why legendary heroes often enact a culture’s prehistory.

Superman, on the other hand, does not share this relation to history, because, like the hero of the modern novel (which prepared the cultural space for him), his story does not come to us complete. Our interest in him comes from what he will do, what will happen to him, both of which interest us because they are unknown. And this is precisely what excludes him from history, which is known because it has happened. To enter history, to actually accomplish something in it, would be to make “a gesture which is inscribed in his past and weighs on his future,” to take “a step toward death . . . to ‘consume’ himself” (Eco 1972, 16). To keep him “inconsumable,” therefore, his creators improvise, sometimes desperately, the “paradoxical solution with regard to time” (Eco 1972, 16) and the drastically narrowed scope of action described in my first paragraph.

I will argue that the author of Beowulf deals with the same narrative predicament and combines its elements into a different and tragic configuration. He presents us with a hero who is, like Superman, invented and endowed with powers that make him invincible against human antagonists, but who also suggests, to us as to Hrothgar’s scop, a known, mythical hero (Sigemund). Self-consciously, the poet inserts this legend into a history that legend cannot change, bringing him and us to the impermeable membrane that separates a slayer of monsters from men and women struggling in and consumed by history. And in the end, in a kind of meta-tragedy, the poet allows a kind of dragon-history to close over and consume his invention who could not intervene, successfully, in all-too-human conflicts.
UPDATE: Oh, and one other thing: for a really long time now, people have been asking me what "BABEL" stands for. Since I have been fond of capitalizing the letters, it has been assumed [logically, I must admit] that "BABEL" is an acronym for something, to which I often reply, "no, it's not an acronym, I just like to capitalize it, I don't know why." Then I start feeling kind of "squirrel-y" about it: why do I want the letters capitalized, after all? So I started asking myself: could "BABEL" be an acronym, and for what? And this is what I came up with: "Broken.Archival.Bildungs.Excavated_from_the.Long-Ago." And you know what? I think I like it.

9 comments:

Karl Steel said...

Eco makes an interesting distinction between the heroes of cultural legend—Hercules or Theseus or Roland, for example—and the heroes of popular culture like Superman whose invention can be documented (and registered with the patent office).

I wonder if Daniel Murtaugh is around? My first comment isn't so much a comment as it is nitpickyness: shouldn't 1938 be 1939? Strikes me that Superman's intervention, if they're on the Polish border, should have occurred on Sept 1 1939.

I love how Murtaugh's essay ends up, at least as it's presented here. At the same time, I wonder about the "seamlessness" of this summary: "This, of course, is why legend fits seamlessly into history and is sometimes indistinguishable from it." I wonder because of Arthur, whose conquests--almost to Rome--force aside or explode from beneath another history, one of Celtic collapse and humiliation. It also smothers Bede's history (I know there are cites for this, but I don't have them available), making the English past as impossible as a harmonized version of the 4 Gospel narratives.

Galfridian history doesn't fit seamlessly into anything except itself, or, rather, into anything but the present. Its place in the present, its use for the present, confounds the notion of inherited prehistory and legend. The present has discovered its legends to cover up a past while forming--to bring in and mix up still further Benjamin's peculiar metaphor--a graspable constellation for a present otherwise unmoored from what it needs to secure its very present desire. In so doing, it presents an unknown (because not yet invented) past as if it were already known.

But of course in conjuring that legend, the past becomes available for other presents. And that's a whole 'nother issue.

None of this of course prevents Murtaugh's reading of Beowulf, legend, and history.

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks for noting that 1938 should be 1939, Karl--I can fix that before we go to final press. As to your point regarding Murtaugh's idea of the "seamlessness" of legend and history--with regard to "Beowulf," anyway, as he analyzes it more particularly in the more full essay--Murtaugh would likely agree with everything you say here re: Arthur legends, but he is looking ta a poem which purposefully incorporates supposedly "real" and "verifiable" [in historical records] persons, such as an Ingeld or Hygelac, with someone clearly fictional: Beowulf, in such a manner that appears "natural" and "seamless," yet at the same time, history does not "consume" a Beowulf in the same way it "consumes" a Hygelac. Does this make more sense? In some cases, as you rightly point out, certain legends do *explode* or push aside so-called "histories," while in other instances, "legend" and "history" are indistinguishable from each other. An essay that deals directly with this issue vis-a-vis the Arthur legends is Myra Seaman's and John Green's "Sacrificing Fiction and the Quest for the [Real] King Arthur," which will be appearing in BABEL's Palgrave volume this coming December.

J J Cohen said...

Sounds wonderful and I look forward to reading the whole thing.

Interesting how Beowulf had to be rescued from mere pop culture by Tolkien, and seems to us now to be so very different from Superman (a hero who had to be rescued from mere pop culture by Eco). It's easy to lose sight of the fact that both these figures needed some heroic scholarly intervention to make them acceptable to think with.

Eileen, is Beowulf clearly fictional? I've never thought of him in those terms, and wouldn't have thought to separate hime (for example) from Ingeld.

theswain said...

HMMM, does BABEL need to be an acronym? I kinda like it just being BABEL and all capitalized....to stand so to speak in a postive way as a beacon and a movement and not have to cave in to being acronym because that's what's expected etc......

An interesting Fragments essay might be seeing how Murtaugh's reading of Beowulf might or might not hold up to reading Arthur....hint hint

Eileen Joy said...

The question of Beowulf's fictionality [surplus or lack thereof] has obsessed me for a long time and could even be said to have first drawn me to the study of the poem to begin with. My first paper ever presented at Kalamazoo in 1995 was titled, "What is Seized: Beowulf as Cultural Memory," and was a [feeble grad-student] attempt to untangle the threads of so-called "historia" and "fabula" intertwined in the poem, mainly vis-a-vis models of kingship/lordship. The last chapter of my dissertation, "The Time of Beowulf Is Infinite in Every Direction" was a more sophisticated [albeit still crude to my eyes today, 6 years later] attempt to address this same issue, this time with Walter Benjamin and Dominick LaCapra in hand [in relation to the representation of traumatic history in art]. I honestly do not think there is a real, historical Beowulf that the poem's hero is based upon and I truly believe the original audience[s] would have understood him as a mainly mythical or historical wish-fulfillment-type character, but I believe also that everything he does in the poem speaks directly to certain political and historical "problems" that were very real at the time of the poem's ecriture, and the creation of Beowulf *as a fictional character* was partly an attempt, I think, to "work through" what are typically the unresolved historical traumas that inhere in all times in history, past and present. Does this make sense? Janet Thormann's essay in "The Postmodern Beowulf" ["Beowulf and the Enjoyment of Violence"] speaks directly to this as well, from the perspective of Lacan's Imaginary and Symbolic orders, as well as from the perspective of Anglo-Saxon history [via the law codes] when it was "transitioning" from tribal to more regnal-type administrative structures.

Eileen Joy said...

Gee--isn't anyone going to comment on my BABEL acronym?

Karl Steel said...

Gee--isn't anyone going to comment on my BABEL acronym?

Okay, I'll shoot, and write more later (especially in response to Jeffrey's summer-reading question. I'm having trouble remembering what I read, so tomorrow).

Being Babel, why not let's all have our own acronym, or no acronym at all?

Here's mine:

beware all besotted echt-longings

Eileen Joy said...

I love it, Karl, and yes, in true BABEL fashion, it would be fun to have multiple [even personal] acronyms, or as Larry Swain suggests, just leave it alone: all fitting for the slightly organized chaos of the group.

Brandon H. said...

Eileen and Karl: I like your acronyms--they both strike at a sort of humor but do something deeper to point to aspects of BABEL's existence. I also like Karl's idea of letting everyone have her/his own version of what BABEL stands for. Once I started letting my mind roam about what BABEL could stand for as an acronym, and what BABEL does stands for in mission, I came up with this:
Bemusing Borders, Enriching Listeners.