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.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.
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.