Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Susan Kim: Receiving Cannibalism/ Cannibalizing Reception

[posted on behalf of guest blogger Susan Kim. Thanks, Susan!]

Heather Blurton, introducing Chapter 2, “Eotonweard: Watching for Cannibals in the Beowulf-manuscript,” argues, “Eotonweard is not just the work of the hero, it is also the work of reception, as watching for cannibals becomes an interpretive stance for decoding the manuscript” (35). Her reading of the manuscript, “attentive to the appearance of cannibals” (37) in fact significantly challenges us to reconsider the resonances among the texts and images of the manuscript as a whole and the de-politicization of many current approaches to the study of the manuscript.

Blurton’s tenacity in grounding her argument in the immediate context of the manuscript enables us, for example, to consider the Life of Saint Christopher not as bound by the genre of hagiography alone, or even in the intersection of hagiography and literature of the monstrous, but as existing in a complex of discourses, including that of political expansion. The reading offered in this chapter thus really does open discussion of the manuscript as a whole as well as discussion of Beowulf and its place in that manuscript. As Blurton argues, “Re-situating Beowulf in its manuscript context thus suggests ways in which in the texts of the Beowulf –manuscript…the repeated appearance of cannibals in narratives that deal with conquest and resistance can provide an interpretive framework for Beowulf, in particular for thinking about Grendel’s cannibalism”(56).

It seems to me that a problem here is that while Blurton argues for the evocation of cannibals in the “other” texts of the manuscript, and for the similarity between Grendel and the cannibals evoked by those texts, to do so, she must often import those cannibals from sources or related texts and images. That is, we can only read the Christopher of this manuscript as a dog-headed cannibal if we read him in the context of texts not included in this manuscript: the Christopher fragment in Vitellius Axv, as Blurton notes, does not contain the description of Christopher as such. Similarly, we can only say that Grendel looks like the Donestre if we look at the Donestre of Tiberius Bv. The Donestre of the Vitellius Axv illustration is no larger than his female victim, and seems to have no hair at all. He is waving a leg in his left arm (presumably the female victim’s otherwise missing leg), but I see no evidence of the leg in his mouth which Blurton notes in her description. The Tiberius Donestre, in contrast, is hairy-headed, bigger than his victim, and clearly eating him. One might thus make the argument that, especially given the extra-manuscript context which Blurton illuminates, the “other” texts of the Beowulf-manuscript themselves are not full of cannibals, but rather strangely reticent about them.

I write this not to quibble with the trivia of the argument but because I am genuinely excited by Blurton’s opening claim that “eotonweard …is also the work of reception.” Reception of this manuscript, and in particular of the Wonders of the East contained in it, has been characterized by at best avoidance of what is actually in the manuscript. An easy, though maybe cheap example is the cover of Andy Orchard’s invaluable Pride and Prodigies, with its beautiful image of the Blemmye not from the Beowulf-manuscript. My own tendency has been to read this turning away from the Vitellius texts themselves as a reaction to the ways in which these texts amplify anxieties less literal, or less visible in the related texts. The Vitellius Wonders of the East, for example, significantly increases the aggressivity of the images with respect both to their frames and to the texts, so much so that, for example, the ant-dog illustration is wholly unframed, with one of the ant-dogs wrapping himself around the last word of the text describing them. The Tiberius images, in contrast, demonstrate interaction with the frame, but never leave the frame entirely. The Tiberius images, I would have argued before reading this book, consistently replace the Vitellius images in discussions of these texts because they present us with a much safer questioning of boundaries, including the boundaries between text and image, and between image and viewer: they present us with a border which can be stepped on, a frame which can be problematized, but not with a frame which does not exist, or a border which cannot be drawn. What I have located as a problem with Blurton’s reading (though it really may not be a problem) may thus focus our attention on the ways in which these “other” texts may evoke the complex of discourses Blurton reads in cannibalism while, like the monster-as-portent, pointing elsewhere, away from themselves as the locus of significance. Reception of these texts thus both responds to and is directed by the project of “eotonweard” within the texts, at once watching for, and keeping watch against what Blurton reads in the figure of the cannibal.


ASM said...

Just back from a trip to LA, including a stop off at the Getty to see a stunning exhibition of musical manuscripts, curated by my friend Christine Sciacca. Highly recommended to anyone in the area. It even has samples of the chants which you can listen to while viewing the page containing the passage.

I agree with all Susan has posted. I would note for Heather that I enquired about the missing leg in the Donestre’s mouth, and she apologized, noting that it was an error she didn’t catch in time.

As an art person, not a specialist in Lit, I would ask the group: is Heather’s notion that Eotonweard can be read as “Cannibal-watch” convincing? I was uncertain, though I like the overall idea, and I think it is just as effective, or more so, if we read it as “Monster-Watch.” Read as such, it would then certainly fit as a metaphor for the process of reading the manuscript as a whole.

Karl Steel said...

I was uncertain, though I like the overall idea, and I think it is just as effective, or more so, if we read it as “Monster-Watch.”

Then what do we do with eoten in the Finnsburg Episode?

Eileen Joy said...

I have been meaning for several days now to post more extensively on chapter 2 of Blurton's book and like many of our readers [I bet] preparing for the start of classes next week is just about to kill me. While I think Blurton's larger argument about colonization and conversion as types of "cannibalization" is very convincing, I'm afraid the suggestion that we read "eoten," in all its instances in "Beowulf" as "cannibal" is not. It would take a philologist-linguist about 5 minutes to smash the idea that a possible etymology for "eoten" ["monster" or "giant" in most translations; sometimes, problematically, "Jute" or even "Geat"] might be "etan" ["to eat"]. The Old Norse cognate for OE "eoten" is "jotunn" ["giant"], whose proto-Germanic pre-form is *etunaz. I am NOT a linguist, I must point out, but I have consulted my colleague Douglas Simms, who is, and who has a Ph.D. from Texas-Austin in Germanic Studies. Obviously, slippages occur here and there and Blurton raises the possibility of a homonym relationship between "eoten" and "etan" that might as well be plausible, but my issue in this case is not really with the linguistic argument [which in Blurton's book is weak but might also be beside the point], but more to do with how the term "cannibal" is applied in such a broad manner--both within Blurton's analysis of "Beowulf," but also within her analysis of *all* the texts and images of the Nowell codex--that I fear it loses its potentially sharp edge as an analytic scalpel. The fact of the matter is, I'm not ready to allow that the "eotenas" of the Finnsburg fragment, as well as Grendel and his mother, as well as the dragon, as well as Sigemund's slain creatures and slayers, are all, one and the same, "cannibals." Nor do I believe that, when push comes to shove, that either the texts or images of all three versions of the Anglo-Latin "Wonders of the East" present what might be called unadulterated "cannibals" [humans who eat humans], so much as they present certain hybrid "species" [that might be part-human] who consume humans but are more anthrophagous than cannibalistic, although I suppose we should maybe have a vigorous discussion here about why and how these two terms need to be [or don't need to be] strictly marked off from each other--whether symbolically or otherwise. I liked the fact very much that in chapter 1, Blurton seemed to be highlighting some of the problems inherent in determining what, exactly, a "self-eater" is [especially in light of the fact that the Mermedonains, much like the Donestre of the "Wonders" tradition, only eat "strangers"], and "self-eaters," I might add, may or may not be "eoten," right? A "self-eater" might be more to the [small] scale of a "human" than an "eoten," who is, in a sense, always outsized.

For me, "eoten" as denoting both actual monsters/giants as well as humans who are "giant" in their monstrousness [their aggressive hostility, etc.] provides a more capacious valence for the argument Blurton is making [or wants to make] about "Beowulf" and the socio-political fears and anxieties that might have been circulating in England during the time of the production of the texts included in the Vitellius A.xv manuscript [fears and anxieties, moreover, having to do with invasion, assimilation, conversion, conquest, communal and individual identity, etc.]. Cannibalism, and tropes of cannibalism, could have certainly played an important role in relation to the invocation of the term "eoten" in the imaginative literature of the Anglo-Saxons but would not necessarily have been directly denoted by the term in *all* of its instances in the corpus.

We can be very thankful to Blurton, I might hasten to add, for raising these prickly analytical issues--linguistic, socio-cultural, and otherwise--in relation to the texts of the Nowell codex, which allows to think more deeply about the figuration of "Others" in these texts in relation to the subject of communal Anglo-Saxon identity, and also our own communal identity in relation to what might be called certain inherited "Western," "white" and "Anglo-Saxon" ethno-cultural traditions. The very fact that we might have here a vigorous argument [as opposed to "conversation"] over what "cannibal" is supposed to mean [and it cannot only mean "to consume," I hope] points to the cracks in the systems of "humanism" we have inherited from the Middle Ages. There is much to still be explored, too, thanks to some of the groundwork laid in chapter 2 of Blurton's book, regarding the relationship between rituals of hospitality [guest/host relationships] and Grendel's relation to the Danes [and following that, the relation of "humanness" to "alterity"]. This is a subject I have explored in my own work with "Beowulf," and I'll try to follow up on that tomorrow.

Cheers! It's 105 degrees in St. Louis today: must drink . . . beer.