Sunday, August 17, 2008

Getting Anglo-Saxon, or, Anatomy of a First Chapter

[picture from the Vortigern Studies website. It's supposedly Orosius!]

by Mary Kate Hurley

Around the same time we finished out our group discussion of Getting Medieval, I reached a milestone of my own. I’ve recently completed work on my first dissertation chapter – and, though the chapter will no doubt be returned from my adviser with plenty of comments for my revision, I thought that I’d do a short series of posts on the process of getting this first chapter written, and what I’ve found now that I’m there. I’d wanted to do so as I was researching and writing – however, it would appear that learning to write a dissertation chapter makes it really hard to step back and write about writing that dissertation chapter. I’m hoping that, now I’ve “learned” how to write a chapter, I can share more of the second chapter as I go. The interactive part: I’d love comments and feedback, of course, but I’d also love to hear how other scholars approach the questions I’m raising here – grad students and more advanced scholars alike. Most specifically: How do you write a 45(ish)- page chapter on a text that you could easily write a book about? How did you narrow down your focus on your source(s)?

Correct me if I’m wrong: everyone who does a field in Old English literature, including prose, for their exams comes away with one translation out of the Alfredian corpus that qualifies as their favorite. And there are plenty to choose from, too: the Boethius, the Psalms, the Pastoral Care, the Dialogues, the Soliloquies -- and the subject of my first chapter, the Orosius. Although I certainly have a soft spot for the Pastoral Care and the Boethius (after all, who doesn’t love getting consoled by philosophy? And in Anglo-Saxon no less!), I suppose the Orosius is my “favorite.” I’m not quite sure what it was that attracted me to the Orosius, but I do know that unlike the majority of work done on Old English translation, it wasn’t the preface.

Why does that matter? To back up for those who haven’t slogged through the great works of Anglo-Saxon prose: The Old English Orosius is a translation (some, following the work’s editor Janet Bately, would call it a “paraphrase,” contending that it’s too close to the original to even qualify as translation!) of the Latin Historiarum Adversum Paganos. Written by the fifth century Spanish priest Paulus Orosius, the Latin text was meant to be a companion-piece to Saint Augustine’s City of God Against the Pagans. In the Historiarum Orosius intends to show how history may be read in light of Christianity – and moreover, that such a reading will show that the past was, in a sense, destitute: understanding and insight into historical happenings could not exist without the acknowledgement of Christ. He avers that these “pagans” do not know how to read history, that “they do not inquire into the future, and either forget or do not know the past,” and so they attribute the calamity of the sack of Rome to the “increasingly less worship of idols.”(1) In short: they assume their punishment for converting to Christianity is the sack of Rome by the Goths in 410. Orosius sets out to show them how in the grand scheme of things, life is much better post-Christ than before his coming. In so doing, he interprets pretty much everything through a lens of how much worse it used to be, and how we can see God’s work explicitly bringing Rome to Christianity, after which, things were comparatively less bad.

Orosius, then, clearly saw himself in the same tradition as Augustine in terms of his
understanding of the relation of human history to Divine Providence – he’d undertaken the project at the behest of Augustine, though the results were not really what Augustine wanted. Orosius’ conception of historia differs significantly from his mentor’s, which makes it clear why Augustine was so disdainful of his work. (2) Orosius’ difference from Augustine in his historical reasoning is a function of the way in which history itself is structured. Confronted with “a universal sweep, a universal explanation of men’s basic motives, a certainty of the existence, in every age, of a single, fundamental tension,” Orosius over-generalizes, and produces what Peter Brown describes as “a neatly-patterned Christian ‘Universal History’”. (3) In Augustine, the work of God in the world is always implicit, but can rarely be seen – “we can only be confident in general that all history is in God’s hands, but we cannot watch his hand at work.” (4) Orosius, on the other hand, seems to be certain that the work of the Almighty is easily intelligible to those who know the signs by which it can be identified. Moreover, history is easily sorted, categorized and judged: Orosius’ “catalogue of worldly woe” shows explicitly how the world waxes more evil earlier before Christ one looks. Thus it is only the person who cannot see with the clearer light of the Christian faith who would aver that the present, with its knowledge of both Christ and His redemption, is worse than the ignorant – and therefore all the more wicked – past.

The translation into Anglo-Saxon of the Latin Historiarum is highly abridged – it cuts the original seven books down to six, and leaves out large sections of the text (Bately, in her introduction to the text, gives a more complete summary of the textual differences, both the abridgements and additions) . However, the OE Orosius is most often noted for its additions. First, there are additions of mythological and historical information Orosius did not include in the Latin -- these would have been familiar to 5th century Rome but not to Anglo-Saxon England. More tellingly however, critics have been overly enamored of the so-called “geographical preface.” The Latin Historiarum features a discussion of the landmasses of the world, and the various populations therein. Seeking, apparently, to do them one better, the Old English Orosius includes a much remarked on insertion, usually referred to as the “Ohthere and Wulfstan” part of the text. In it, two “norĂ°menn” tell King Alfred about their travels in Scandinavia and other parts of the far north, and about the people who live there (including various “magical” things they can do!). A quick survey of the critical literature reveals a huge emphasis on the preface, and these two travelers – and so, my first goal was to avoid talking about the “original” parts of the text, or at least to avoid the preface!

This didn’t really narrow things down all that much. It did, however, give me a chance to use a hard-won realization from my translation studies courses and workshops: translations, if they are true translations, must not be treated as “derivative.” That lesson, repeated to me over and over again by Michael Scammell (my workshop professor, who finally convinced me that if I am ever to translate Anglo-Saxon poetry, I must learn to love Modern English as much as Old English. That project is deferred indefinitely.) allowed me to formulate a different way of understanding the text: if I’m not concerned with what’s “original” in the translation, how do I locate Anglo-Saxon England in a text so close to the Latin from which it is translated?

Next time: What Orosius Said, or, The Trial by Appendix

1. “qui cum futura non quaerant, praeterita autem aut obliuiscantur aut nesciant praesenti a tamen tempora ueluti malis extra solitum infestatissima ob hoc solum quod creditur Christus et colitur Deus, idola autem minus coluntur, infamant.” Trans. Deferrari, 4.

2.Cf. Rohrbacker, David. The Historians of Late Antiquity, 148. Rohrbacker cites a number of scholars who identify the tone of Augustine’s second book of the City of God as arguing against Orosius’ less philosophically sophisticated version of a world history.

3. Brown, Augustine of Hippo 321

4. Bittner 355

Works Cited
Bittner, Rudiger. "Augustine's Philosophy of History" in Gareth B. Matthews (ed), The Augustinian Tradition. Berkeley:University of California Press, 1999. pp. 345-360.

Brown, Peter. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Deferrari, Roy (trans). Orosius: Seven Books Against the Pagans. Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1964.

Rohrbacker, David. The Historians of Late Antiquity. Routledge, 2002.

Cross posted at OENY.


Nic D'Alessio said...

Mary Kate: Thanks for this post from the trenches. While I'm not dissertating just yet, I, too, find myself in similar positions when faced with writing about a text whose critical reception has been so overwhelmingly focused on one part that it ignores other sections. My particular case lately has been the opening book of Gower's "Vox Clamantis." Here part of my energies have been interventionist with respect to the dominant interpretive frame while also focusing on parts of that opening hardly discussed. Now, I just have to move onto to the rest of the book! Another similarity with the questions you raise here, it seems to me, is that we're both faced with a critical tradition that interpellates its "author" as "derivative." In your case, it's linked to a translation process, while in mine to an assumed improper relation between Gower and his Ovidian sources.

My approach to this critical tradition has often been rather Hegelian. That is, I have more often tried to side-step rather than directly confront a critic (although I have done the latter on occasion). I've also described this strategy has a "lateral" move rather than a "supercessionist" one (e.g., with respect to Prof. Bob Yeager's widely accepted claim that Gower writes cento in Book I). In executing this strategy, I've been leaning on Deleuze's concept of the fold.

Not sure if these ruminations are answering any of the questions you posed directly, but I was struck by certain structural similarities between the kinds of texts and issues with which we're grappling.

Oh, and I'm now utterly fascinated by the Orosius, and very much looking forward to your next post!

Eileen Joy said...

Mary Kate: how do you write a 45-page or so chapter on a subject that could be a book? You write 90-page chapters instead and produce a gargantuan dissertation that can double as a weapon or coffee table, which is what I did. Do NOT follow my lead [haha]. You, of course [because I remember very well the dissertation prospectus you shared earlier in the process], are trying to tackle a LOT of different texts and questions in your dissertation [which is really admirable, by the way, because you're "thinkin' large," but as a result, you will struggle, for sure, with attaining some kind of "brevity," as it were, on any one text and/or question you are asking of that text [and in relation to other texts!]. My own method, admittedly, was a kind of diarrhea of the brain, which was okay for a dissertation, but not for one you want to publish later [in my case, the decision was not to try to publish it, only parts of it, and then to move on in other directions--I think your overall project is a lot more coherent than mine was, so you have that going for you, for sure]. You likely know this already, but I met Fabienne Michelet at the Leeds Congress [she was there giving a paper on migration and sea-journeys in Old English literature for a session organized by Sebastian Sobecki], and afterwards I discovered she had written the recent book "Creation, Migration, and Conquest: Imaginary Geography and Sense of Space in Old English Literature" [Oxford University Press, 2006], and it struck me when reading through parts of it while trying to finish my essay on "Andreas" that there is much there that would likely be helpful to your project. You likely already know about it--if so, I'd love to know what you think; if not, definitely get it.

As to your question,

"if I’m not concerned with what’s 'original' in the translation, how do I locate Anglo-Saxon England in a text so close to the Latin from which it is translated?"

I loved Nic's response of Deleuze's "fold," but I wonder if he would elaborate on that for us?

Karl Steel said...

Shhhh. My first comment in 3 weeks I think.

MKH, part of what's interesting in Orosius is that it's a kind of intellectual translation/simplification (is that right) of Augustine DCD. This leads me to wonder: how did City of God circulate in the time/places where the Orosius translation did? At any given point, which one with did ASaxons find most useful, either for explaining an Insular Imperium (if we're talking Alfred) or to explaining disaster and disorder (if we're talking other times)?

As for advice on writing a chapter: also don't do what I did. I researched researched researched, wrote wrote wrote, and ended up writing probably hundreds of pages more than I actually used. Maybe that's usual diss. practice, but I can't help but think that if I had been writing about a particular set of texts, as you are, as Nic is, rather than, uh, the structure of the human itself, I could have finished the whole thing much sooner.