Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Chaucer: An Oxford Guide / Postcolonial Chaucer

The latest Studies in the Age of Chaucer has an appreciative review of Steve Ellis's Chaucer: An Oxford Guide, a volume to which I was a contributor. A proliferation of guides, companions, and introductions have burgeoned around Chaucer like microbes in the human genome. Each has a distinct personality (typically reflecting the temperament of its editor), and each is useful in its own way. The only guide I've used in my undergraduate classroom, however, is this one.

My students for the most part liked the volume. I paired major essays with various tales, and used the pieces as an entryway into each day's discussion. The essays invite readers into conversation, rather than lecture them with Things They Must Know Before Even Thinking About Studying Chaucer. The Guide enabled my class to understand how contemporary scholars analyze Chaucer's work. I was hoping that such familiarity would improve their own critical analyses (it mostly did). Oddly, the most beloved and most detested of the essays I assigned was Glenn Burger's on "Queer Theory," an essay that made several of them feel like their heads would explode. It's a dazzling study, centering around category confusion and medieval capitalism. The students who loved it were truly enamored: several then went off and read Burger's monograph Chaucer's Queer Nation, becoming hardcore Burgerphiles as well as protodeleuzians.

Chaucer: An Oxford Guide is composed of sophisticated essays that are also quite lucid. All were written for the book, and many contain significant new work. The range of topics covered is quite broad: from a nuanced overview of Chaucer's life and the limits of what this information allows in the interpretation of his works (Ruth Evans, connecting Chaucer to the scandals that haunt his biography, and usefully invoking parallels from Sylvia Plath to Paul de Man) to a nifty tour of the problems of editing Chaucer (Liz Scala at her best, witty and contrarian) ... even an overview of the genre of Chaucer handbooks.

Below, I excerpt a small piece from my own essay, 'Postcolonialism.' This section centers upon the Prioress's Tale, loss and remembrance.

In this closing section I would like to turn to a function that medieval studies has always shared with postcolonial theory: memorialization of that which might otherwise be forgotten. We live in a frightening and dangerous world, mainly because we human beings are so frightening and dangerous. But we are also creatures of history, both formed by the past and desirous of the past. Postcolonial critique refuses to see history as inert, and turns to what has gone before in order to remember it differently, less absolutely and less singularly – a way of seeing that isn't so much relativism as perspectivism.

In the tale told by the Prioress, a schoolboy decides to memorize a Latin hymn to Mary, an endeavor that necessitates neglecting his primer. In the religiously plural Asia that the 'litel clergeon' inhabits, the 'litel scole of Cristen folk … in which ther were / Children an heep' (495-97) performs an important differentiating function. That the children are 'ycomen of Cristen blood (497) may hint at a biological dimension to their community. Yet it is the 'litel scole' that imparts to the young pupils the culture and history that will ensure they know their difference from the 'Hebrayk peple' (560) of the 'Juerie,' as well as from the Muslims who apparently govern the land. In choosing the hymn over his primer, the young boy's act of rebellion is not all that subversive: his passion serves to remind the Christians of his unnamed city and the Christians of the Canterbury pilgrimage that a shared and timeless inheritance, codified in the song's Latin words, separates them from the rest of the world, renders them a people with an exclusive history, specially chosen and protected by God. The clergeon's worry over punishment at school is misplaced, for it is the nearby Jews through whose neighborhood he passes twice a day who will harm him, not his teachers. These very same Jews will, by the end of the tale, be tied to horses, dragged through the streets, and then hanged.

The ardor of the 'litel clergeon' for the Latin words which he does not fully understand is supposed to be admirable. Precocious sanctity should inspire exactly the kind of reverential awe that greets the ending of the 'Prioress's Tale' ('Whan seyd was al this miracle, every man / As sobre was that wonder was to se,' 691-92). Yet what happens when the ears through which the echoing hymn is heard are not Christian, but Jewish? Alma redemptoris ('nourishing [mother] of the redeemer'), the opening line of the clergeon's song, means little to a people whose sacred language is not Latin and whose messiah has not arrived. Cried 'ful murily' twice a day in passing through the ghetto (553), the hymn becomes an act of violence, announcing to its unwilling auditors that their religion, culture, and very identity have been superseded.

Postcolonial criticism encourages us to pay attention to how communities come into being and who is excluded. It asks us to listen with the other's ear and interrogate what is at stake when a body of knowledge is created, codified, promulgated as universal and peerless. The culmination of the 'Prioress's Tale' is the eradication of its Jews, leaving its narrative as empty of 'Hebrayk peple' at its close as the English nation was in Chaucer's day. What history is being remembered here, and what is being forgotten?

Though the action is set in ancient Asia, the Jews of the 'Prioress's Tale' are not as distant as they seem. England expelled its Jewish population in 1290, but rather than rid itself of anti-Semitism, the Jew who was no longer anywhere came to be everywhere. Jews were central to post-Expulsion 'English religious devotion and national identity,' an absent presence around which community solidified.' Once Jews no longer lived in England, their eradication was repeatedly performed figuratively, a repetition that demonstrates that violence committed long in the past can still trouble and haunt for many years, seeming to have happened 'but a litel while ago' (686). The Prioress ends her tale with an apostrophe to another boy martyr, Hugh of Lincoln, 'slayn also / With cursed Jewes' (684-85). Young Hugh's corpse had been discovered in a well almost 150 years earlier, but to an England that owed its sense of cohesiveness to the absence of its Jews, that death possessed an enduring vividness. The ideological uses to which his corpse was put can obscure the fact that a boy named Hugh really did perish, probably an accidental drowning, likely at the home of a Jewish friend. Because this death, all the more terrible because it claimed a child, was believed to be an act of murder, other innocents likewise lost their lives. According to Matthew Paris, the ringleader of the group of Jews who had supposedly crucified the boy as part of a secret ritual was tied to a horse, dragged and hanged -- exactly the punishment repeated on the Prioress's Jews. King Edward himself took a special interest in punishing the supposed malefactors; eighteen more Jews were eventually hanged as coconspirators.

Hugh of Lincoln's death and the violence that exploded around it harkens back to the first recorded accusation that Jews routinely kill Christian children, and the first attempt to create a boy martyr for communal reverence. When a boy named William was found dead in the woods outside Norwich in 1144, the grisly murder was blamed upon the local Jewish population. In this first instance of the blood libel, the accusation that Jews commit murder as part of their religious rituals, enough citizens of the city were sceptical of the charge not to attack their accused neighbors. Yet the boy's corpse was eventually interred in the cathedral and worshipped as a saint. Again, I would like to point out what is obvious but often overlooked in the scholarship attempting to analyze the significance of this episode: a young boy died horribly (gagged, stripped, tortured), and a demand is made that other innocents forfeit their lives in order to give some meaning – any meaning -- to this utterly senseless act. This makes William's fate similar not only to Hugh's, but also to that of another boy who died under terrible circumstances, this time at his own mother's hand. Unlike William, Hugh, and the nameless 'litel clergeon,' however, this boy was Jewish.

Besieged by Crusaders who, on their way to the Holy Land, decided that they ought not to spare God's domestic enemies, a group of Jews found themselves trapped inside the archbishop's palace at Mainz. Realizing that barred doors offered only some few moments of safety, these Jews chose to take their own lives rather than be forcefully baptized or hacked by Christian swords. Two surviving Hebrew chronicles narrate the martyrdoms of 1096. A chilling scene centers upon a mother named Rachel, who declares to her companions that her four children must predecease her so that the 'uncircumcised ones' will not convert them to their pseudo-faith.' As her friend takes a knife to her youngest boy and her two girls are cut in turn, Rachel realizes that her older son, Aaron, ought not to have witnessed his siblings' deaths because he is too young to face his own demise with resolve. 'Mother, Mother, do not slaughter me!' Aaron wails, then cowers beneath a bureau. Rachel
lifted her voice and called to her son: 'Aaron, Aaron, where are you? I shall not have pity or mercy on you either.' She pulled him by the leg from under the bureau, where he had hidden, and sacrificed him before the sublime and exalted God.

It is difficult not to see in Rachel a shocking coldness. As she announces to hidden, terrified Aaron exactly what fate she will inflict upon him, as she drags him by the leg from the only spot of safety he could find in this room flowing with blood, as Aaron pleads with his mother not to be cut open like his siblings, her actions seem inhuman … and that is exactly the point of the episode. Rachel's heroism resides for the chronicler in her ability to transcend human emotion and maternal attachment. Aaron is young and weak and human in order to ensure that his mother becomes timeless, a sublime example rather than a mere historical fact. Aaron, in other words, exists in that innocent space between infant insensibility and the adult ability to choose self-obliteration; he is able to feel the pain of martyrdom but horrifically unable to desire it. Aaron suffers so that his parents and his community accrue the glory of kiddush ha-Shem ('sanctification of the divine name'). The story in which he figures is not ultimately about him at all, but about his mother Rachel's sacrifice.

The Jewish choice of mass martyrdom over conversion shocked their Christian antagonists. Based upon the pioneering work of Israel J. Yuval, however, John McCulloh has argued that the fantasy that Jews ritually murder Christian children arose in the aftermath of the Rhineland Jews' choice of death for themselves and for their own offspring. I would go even further and argue that this spectacular choice to take one's life 'in the sanctification of God's name' and the flow of blood which resulted from these actions resulted in an enduring Christian fascination with Jews and sanguinary ritual. The violence that connects the 'litel clergeon' to Hugh of Lincoln, William of Norwich and Aaron of Mainz also binds together Christian and Jewish boys who did not and could not choose their own martyrdom. When childhood becomes the orientalized space of edenic purity, existing only so that adult ideologies can assert themselves, then lives are lost once again. Chaucer's eerily bloodless narrative of the 'litel clergeon' can hide in its conventionality the fact that behind its piety a flow of blood emanates from a boy who, when faced by an inflexible demand to suffer and die for an ideology he knows imperfectly, can answer back only the very human, 'Mother, Mother do not slaughter me!' If there is a historical voice that resonates after death in the 'Prioress's Tale,' it is indeed an innocent one, but it is also a hybrid one, speaking not just in Latin and in English but in Hebrew.

In the gruesome but highly literary demise of the 'litel clergeon' can be witnessed the historical deaths of three boys, two Christians and a Jew, whose furthest thought was martyrdom. I do not think that this knowledge makes the 'Prioress's Tale' unreadable, but it does inalterably transform the text. In the process it also illustrates well what postcolonial critique ultimately aims to do: not simply offer one more interpretation among many, but to alter profoundly the grounds upon which interpretation is conducted.

"We are what we feed our bacteria"

Speaking of the nonintegral body, here is some food for thought:
Only 1/10th of the cells in a human are human; the rest are microbes. There are 1,000 species in our mouths, another 1,000 in our guts, another 500 on our skins, and those with vaginas have yet another 500 species.

Analysis has shown that a tenth of the chemicals used in our body come to us via our gut microbes. “We are what we feed our bacteria and what they give us.”

(via Long Views, the blog of the Long Now Foundation)

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Meet me in St Louis

I will be there. Eileen Joy will be there. Karl MUST be there. MKH might be blacklisted if she decides not to be there. You should be there, too.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Between What Is Ours and What is Not Ours: Cary Howie's Claustrophilia, Anachronism, Friendship, and an Open Letter to My Profession

[don't miss Karl's post below on his ennui and weariness with the perpetually recurring fascist Macbeth]

Salient point is an early and sadly obsolete term for the heart as it first appears in the embryo: I fell upon it in a book of classical obstetrics with a sense of celebration. The heart, I believe, is that point where we merge with the universe. It is salient as a jet of water is salient, leaping continually upward, and salient as an angle is salient, its vertex projecting into this world, its limbs fanning out behind the frame of another. What I love of Caroline is that space of her at rest behind the heart, true and immanent, hidden and vast, the arc that this angle subtends. I would like to cobble such few sentences into a tower, placing them in the world, so that I might absorb what I can of these things in a glance. But when we say I love you, we say it not to shape the world. We say it because there’s a wind singing through us that knows it to be true, and because even when we speak them without shrewdness or understanding, it is good, we know, to say these things.” –Kevin Brockmeier, “These Hands,” Things That Fall from the Sky: Stories

“Homosexuality is a historic occasion to reopen affective and relational virtualities not so much through the intrinsic qualities of the homosexual but because the ‘slantwise’ position of the latter, as it were, the diagonal lines [s]he can lay out in the social fabric allow these virtualities to come to light.”—Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life” [interview], Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth

“Nothing, it would seem, is more difficult than to conceive, to elaborate, and to put into practice ‘new relational modes’.”—Leo Bersani, “Sociality and Sexuality”

I dedicate these ruminations to Michael E. Moore, whose friendship has given me much joy, and whose thought and writing burns with such ardor for the living and the dead, the real and the fictional.

When I and Myra Seaman were writing our Introduction to Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages [“Through a Glass, Darkly: Medieval Cultural Studies at the End of History”], we knew that we had to define, in some detail, what we meant by an engaged “cultural studies” and, related to that, what we thought we meant when we invoked the “political”—more specifically, in what ways can we really describe a certain kind of literary and cultural studies as “political”? I myself am so keenly aware of all the shallow and ultimately empty ways in which certain cultural studies are described as “political,” that I was almost frightened to make any such claim, and at one point I felt almost frozen in my inability to articulate how it could be that a book such as ours, which gathers together essays by medievalists on subjects as disparate as reality television, Chaucer, and White House legal memos, was really “political.” I found one possible route out of this impasse through thinking about how the work of the intellectual who engages with troubling contemporary subjects [such as torture or terrorism or the loss of the autonomous self and moral community] is simply necessary in and of itself [as work that can’t not be done, if one is compelled or called to do it, if one is paying any attention to the world], or perhaps, as a kind of ethical responsibility, regardless of any immediately detectable material and efficacious outcomes of that work. It may be that you don’t believe that scholarly writing actually changes anything real, but that does not let you off the hook of the attempt to intervene, however you can, into social and political orders and their cultural phenomenon. Or, as we put it in our Introduction, “As medievalists who are, whether we like it or not, the inheritors of a humanist tradition, we bear a special responsibility to the idea that the life devoted to reading, reflection, and letters retains some power in the matter of how history ‘turns out’.” Can we really engage in studies in which we claim we can’t or don’t care about the relation between our studies and the world? Or, as Paul Strohm once put it, and much more eloquently,
Postmodernism has been devastating in its critique of the authoritative observer, exposing feigned objectivity as a construction founded in privilege and supported by social authority. But its seeming obverse—complete disinvestment—is actually its twin, founded in a similar claim of disinterest and no less privileged (in this case, in its enjoyment of the privilege not to care). I associate unpositionality with privilege because history (past and present) is full of people placed in circumstances that require care, full of people who can’t not care. Such historical actors can neither be everywhere nor be nowhere; they have no choice but to be somewhere. And this is where I suggest we position ourselves: provisionally, precariously, temporarily, maybe sometimes bemusedly—but always somewhere. And wherever that somewhere is, that it be an invested place, a place that knows things are at stake. [Theory and the Premodern Text, p. 161]

It is in Strohm’s gesture toward a place—a somewhere—that, when working on the Introduction to our book, I began to sense the beginning of what I hoped could be an authentic answer to the demand made by the invocation of the political within literary-historical studies, but perhaps not exactly in the way Strohm intended. More particularly, it was while reading the conclusion to the essay that Michael Moore contributed to the volume [“Wolves, Outlaws, and Enemy Combatants”], that it really struck me: friendship itself, as a particular mode, which is also a somewhere, of an intellectual life committed to the care [and even desire for and love] of ideas but also of the persons and texts [both in the past and present] that literally body forth these ideas—this is where I ultimately want to locate the political action of my work. In his essay’s conclusion, Michael wrote (and also lamented),
Can we still assert a human-centered ideal of community, based on friendship and binding solidarity among and between individuals? Friendship with oneself, viewed as part of the "fundamental constitution of humanity" might form the basis for a reawakening of the classical political demand for amity and justice. . . . The attempt to preserve a humane culture and to assert our rights or our love of the right, should not be left in the hands of a distant state, since these are qualities of the virtuous life. One should highlight the possibility of friendship and the connections between friendship, liberty, and joy. It is by no means easy to orient oneself during a period such as this one.
By “a period such as this one,” Michael means the era of the G.W. Bush presidency—and more pointedly, its abuses of the due process of law and use of torture in its war on terrorism—but he also means, I believe, the period in which the life and culture of the university itself has become, in the words of Cary Howie, “the place of the agon of reducible and competitive texts and bodies and disciplines” [Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, p. 144]. I do not think that either Myra or I really worked out a fully satisfactory answer to the question of how, exactly, we see the work of our volume of essays as political [which is always connected, then and now, to our continuing struggle to answer the question of how the collective we call the BABEL Working Group is political], but we gestured in our closing remarks to the idea of Bill Readings in The University in Ruins that, perhaps, the real work of the post/historical university now might be to serve as “one site among others where the question of being-together is raised, raised with an urgency that proceeds from the absence of the institutional forms (such as the nation-state), which have historically served to mask that question for the past three centuries or so” [p. 20].

It is in raising the image of “being-together” as a question [which is necessary if one wants to guard against all the ways in which, historically, the presumption of community or a shared humanity has led straight to cruelty, oppression, and the inhuman], where I think Readings opens a path toward the thought of amity or friendship, in the sense Nietzsche gave to the term in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as a “continuation of love in which [the] possessive craving of two people for each other gives way to a new desire and lust for . . . a shared higher thirst for an ideal above them.” This would also be the friendship of Thomas Aquinas in which the “love of friendship” [amor amicitiae] produces a kind of “mutual indwelling” [mutua inhaesio], which nevertheless does not necessarily imply shared thoughts or even shared wills, only a shared desire or hope that a certain kind of loving cooperation increases the chances of obtaining something that could be called good, and even of being loved in return [Summa Theologica]. But I would also add, as a kind of caution to these two descriptions of friendship, Maurice Blanchot’s idea, in The Writing of Disaster, that friendship is “not a gift, or a promise; it is not generic generosity. Rather this incommensurable relation of one to the other is the outside drawing near in its separateness and inaccessibility” [p. 50].

And I suppose that I am hoping, here and now, as one avenue toward “raising” the “question of being-together” (and of thinking through how we can draw more near to each other in our shining separateness and mystery), for a practice of friendship as a radical politics that would disturb the usual ways of doing things in here—within the university, but especially the humanities—and that would emplace within the ruined structures of this site multiple heterotopias in which, pace Foucault, the “fragments of a large number of possible orders [would] glitter separately . . . without law or geometry” [The Order of Things, p. xvii]. And after reading Cary Howie’s brilliant and beautiful, and in Karl Steel’s estimation, heartbreaking book, Claustrophilia: The Erotics of Enclosure, my heart runs over and I am emboldened to ask: how might the chief work of the post/historical university, and especially of an anachronistic premodern studies, be the cultivation of a more humane culture through an erotic [or, libidinal] practice of “close” and “enclosed” reading—of texts, but by extension, of everyone enclosed within those texts, including ourselves—and that would desire what Howie describes as “a communal entrance” where “corporately and corporeally we make room for time, and where time, simultaneously, is given us in and as space, in and as ‘the middle’ of any age”? This practice of reading, which is deeply comparatist and “touching” in its affectively constructed contiguities—bringing into contact, in Howie’s book, Peter Damian and Marie de France and Dante with Gaston Bachelard and Roland Barthes and Jean-Luc Nancy with Thom Gunn and Adam Phillips and Mark Doty and all the bodies that the conjunction “and” brings close to us—this is a “gift,” in Howie’s view, that is “inexhaustible” and no “labor of contextualization or so-called historicism could ever fill it up” [p. 151].

The thought and writing of Howie’s book is so radiant, I hesitate to do more than simply urge its reading. Like a secret and profanely holy letter, his book should not be reviewed as such [summarized, evaluated, judged, and perhaps killed], but should, rather, be passed, quietly and with the urgency of desire, from friend to friend. I will not pretend to provide here an overview of all of the book’s aims and subject matter; suffice to say, as the book’s own dust jacket will tell you, that Howie provides “extended readings” of the queer erotics of the enclosure or the “inside”—of the work of art, the hermitage, the anchorage, the monastery, the mystical cell, the marital prison, the lover’s bed, the book, the gay lyric, the Zurich bathroom, the lover’s body, the church wall, the kiss, etc.—in English, French, and Italian writers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, but also in contemporary letters and art. And he offers, by way of these readings, both a history of the love of enclosure (claustrophilia) as well as the critical practice of “embedded touch” [p. 4], which has some affinities with Elizabeth Freeman’s “erotohistoriography” and with what Carolyn Dinshaw has recently termed a “post/disenchanted temporal perspective” [see Freeman, “Time Binds, or, Erotohistoriography,” Social Text 23.3-4 (2005): 57-68 and “Theorizing Queer Temporalities: A Roundtable Discussion,” GLQ 13.2-3 (2006): 177-95].

Howie’s book is also an extended meditation on poetics and, further, on the ontologies of metonymy and anaphora, especially on the ways in which the “concomitant symmetries” of metonymy are always “about to break out, or break in” [p. 3]. Perhaps most important and thrilling of all, Howie’s book is a powerful demonstration that enclosures are never static and that to “be inside (a chapter, a house, or a chapterhouse) is not to be sealed off: it is to be summoned, paradoxically, into a more, concrete, ecstatic relation to not just what lies beyond but within these boundaries” [p. 4]. Ultimately, the enclosure, a space in which things and bodies are always proximate, is also the site of expansion where the metonymies—“of tongue and page, body and bed—stretch the space in which vice and virtue come together in a common, if differently shared, moment of arrival” [p. 6]. For me, personally, the greatest beauty of Howie’s book is in its vision [and enactment] of a type of scholarship that, in his words,
provides a way to talk about textual proximity, and the extent to which historical moments, genres, and bodies are always dragged from their contingent others while simultaneously giving themselves to be similarly dragged. This traherence . . . never quite gets free of what it ostensibly emerges from, and furnishes the basis for a reading practice that would resist the slavish devotion to the controlled, discrete bloodlines of those patrilinear critical and literary histories that continue to haunt contemporary reading practices.
The implications of this are as follows. To touch is to experience a limit and open a connection. Whether this touch is figured visually, hermeneutically, or sexually, it traces the outline of a community of embodied lovers expropriatively given over to bodies, texts, and buildings sensibly intensified by this gift. Neither a mere idealization of aesthetic attention nor a diminishment of eros to interpretation, the metonymic, participative touch (or look, or reading) beings more fully into being the bodies, texts, and buildings it brushes against. The risk of violence remains—when does it ever go away?—but it is important to stress that, if touch is in some way entry, it is thus only inasmuch as appropriation has been thoroughly relinquished. Such an entry, such a touch, requires an ecstatic reorientation of the most basic (and finally damaging) ontological presuppositions: that this body has fundamentally nothing to do with mine; that this body cannot be touched; that this body is impenetrable or forever lost. [pp. 6-7]
This is scholarship, not just as a type of study or even a practice of reading, but as a way of life, even an ethics, a form of love, or affective solidarity. It is a scholarship and practice of reading that resonates with the thinking and work of my friend Michael Moore, an historian of the Carolingian era, who recently wrote,
The dead have a claim on us with their long-forgotten passions and foibles, and their unwonted delicate breath continues to stir the hair on our necks. This regard even extends to the realities invoked by art and literature. In the poem “Undressing Justine,” Czeslaw Milosz discovers and makes love to a character from an old Polish romance novel. The being of this delectable character is also human, and therefore worthy of being cherished: “Though you never existed, let us light candles / Here, in our study, or in our church.” [“An Historian’s Notes for a Miloszan Humanism,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2 (Summer 2007): 191-216]
And this brings me to one aspect of Howie’s book that I most want to highlight and celebrate, especially in relation to friendship: its chief mode of address is the tu and nous: you, and we, us. Again and again, when providing illustrations for his thinking or for how he is reading his beloved texts, medieval and more modern, Howie addresses me [but also the writers whose words he is analyzing] directly, as those situated inside with him, as lovers, or is it as co-conspirators in desire and in touch within the enclosure of his book which touches so many other books, and by extension, so many other bodies? Although he highlights this affective gesture on his very first page,
In the pages that follow, I make a series of gestures that attempt to show just how far inside, just how spatially and textually delimited, we inevitably are. Indeed, I argue that there is, finally, no such thing as solitary confinement. The question of being inside and the question of how it is possible to speak this fragile pronoun, “we,” across temporal, spatial, and ontological difference, never cease to overlap and literally to inform one another [p. 1],
it did not really settle inside of me except through repetition. Page after page, Howie would break what might be called the regular mode of seemingly disinterested critique, and address me/us directly: “get too far inside [of love] and you may—paratactically—slide right out of love, pop out of its socket”; “I hide from you; you seek me out”; “love is born of the bed, and all of a sudden we’re bounced right up to the third heaven”; “this is the pulse, the throb, the engendering spasm of a bed that beats. Not just my bed, but ours”; “But if I am enclosed with you, enclosed by and as our touch, then what is there between us?”; “to say I am enclosed in your mouth and I am enclosed in your hand is to inscribe a difference at the heart of you”; “We kiss, and between us someone else intervenes; in truth, a whole series of others, but also the very phenomenon of otherness, and the horizon against which we they all take shape. Difference, created and uncreated, writes itself where we touch”; “being inside you is always simultaneously being beside you, irreducibly”; “there is nothing between us but this fire. No, that’s not right. There us nothing between us. And this fire”; “Claustrophilia takes place . . . in and between us, as the erotics of our being together in space, which is to say, the erotics of our being together at all”; “you can only enter me to the extent that I entrance you.”

The life of the scholar often feels like a solitary confinement, and there is much to lament about the ways we do things in the academy—the way we hire, the way we tenure and promote, the way we review scholarship for publication, the way we convene symposia and conferences, the way we award grants, the competitive nature of all of it in general, and even the indifference we have toward those who are not proximate enough to us, or so we think—all of which fosters a culture of despair, and in some cases, even hatred [and for me, often, just boredom—boredom, my friends, boredom boredom boredom: don’t you want to be thrilled, to be swept away? don’t you want to be with, brushing up against, your fellow travelers in the library and not against, or away from, them?]. How is it, after forty or so years of the most radical blasting open of modes of thought and scholarly practice, that the institution of the humanities—by which I mean, its managerial structures—could still be so mired in nineteenth-century [and earlier] notions of privilege, patronage, prestige, orthodoxy and discipline, anonymous authority, straitjacketed hierarchy, and condescending censure?

There can be no real fraternity, no friendship, in such an atmosphere, although here and there, like small points of light, cells of friends will gather and leave their traces in the epigraphs and acknowledgement pages of books and in the notes of articles. But that is a different sort of friendship than the sort I want to advocate for here, one that could only be accomplished in our collective embrace of what Howie calls a “queer ontology”: “Think what it means to reach out, in the dark, toward something or someone you cannot see”—this would be a “an erotic participation” through which we would become “not identical but singularly shared and mutually, messily incompleted,” and it would be “committed to the intensification of [our] materialities in their very mystery and withdrawal, these multiple and proliferating enclosed spaces upon which we inevitably, extensively touch” [pp. 7-8].

To put it another way that touches directly on the subject of our studies—the so-called Middle Ages—and again in Howie’s words, “if the past is, it is only insofar as it is enclosed by the present, and only insofar as this enclosure appears” [p. 14]. Practices of anachronistic reading are necessary, finally, because, in Howie’s terms, they speak directly to
the spaciousness within objects, and within times, that only becomes sensible when we see them as at once singular and plural, discrete and imbricated somehow in one another; and finally, when we submit ourselves to their frames by seeking to undo them, and still more crucially, by seeking ourselves, singularly in common, again and again, to come undone. [p. 151]
Paraphrasing Howie, between what is ours and what is not ours, what intervenes is close to ours, and to us. And we, thereby, are close to each other. If we could somehow see this better, friendship would be possible between us, and by that friendship, or mutual indwelling, or affective regard, we could light up from within the dark enclosures of the university so thoroughly, they would “space out,” radically, in infinite directions.

Let Us Know We are Steeped in Blood: Macbeth and Ourselves as Documents of Barbarism

Not a medieval post: forewarned is forearmed.

I've seen a fair amount of Macbeth in the last few months. I finally got around to seeing Throne of Blood, I followed this up with the Trevor Nunn Macbeth (with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen), then I saw--this is sounding a bit like an apocalypse, no?--the Verdi Macbeth at the Metropolitan Opera (see the photo to the left), and, just yesterday, I saw an excellent and scary * Macbeth at BAM with Patrick Stewart (who's surprisingly spry and quick for someone who's very nearly 70 years old).

Barring the Kurosawa, all my recent Macbeths occur in a militarized Europe c. 1925-1955. While none is quite so strenuously and particularly set in this milieu as the 1995 Richard III film, while the Nunn is set so minimally that I'd hesitate to identify it as anything but Macbeth, and while the Metropolitan Opera has certain features from the Balkans of the 90s, all nonetheless have in common men with slick-backed hair, jackboots, khaki, and, depending on the production, jodhpurs, assault rifles and pistols, camouflage, and, for the women, evening gowns cut from the 30s.

With all the power at my disposal, which is to say: none, I declare this particular setting a cliché and thus call for a moratorium. Set your Macbeths elsewhere please. Let them be set in Abu Ghraib, perhaps, with Macbeth or better yet the weird sisters played by German Shepherds; let them be set in a hamburger stand in Pennsylvania; let them be set in academia, on the steppes, in the hallways of KBR or Blackwater, at Balad AFB, but please avoid setting them in postcolonial sub-Saharan Africa.

It's why this cliché is a cliché that demands it be verboten. The setting's an easy out; it's the theatrical equivalent of a Godwin's Law violation; it appeals to our sense of self-satisfaction and relief at not being fascists, totalitarians, or victims and/or apparatchiks of such regimes. I might call this setting the opposite of Brecht's alienation device: it's a satisfaction device. We recognize Macbeth's horror elsewhere, not in or with ourselves; through this, we attain the self-satisfaction of the original English audiences, pleased to see the rough Scots finally transformed from Thanes into Earls ("My thanes and kinsmen, / Henceforce be earls, the first that ever Scotland / In such an honor nam'd" V.ix.28-30). If not Democracy, then benevolence has come, with the repulsive, oleaginous Malcolm as the voice of our better conscience. How, then, to accuse us of the horror? How to brush ourselves against the grain with Macbeth?

* Excellent and scary except for the embarrassing industrial-techno-chant of the witches cauldron speech, which sounded like muddled, low-grade Test Dept. or Laibach.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Festive Friday: Warning Signs

Nothing here today, folks: a smallish ice storm keeps me trapped at home with smallish offspring. But if you are bored, check out this nifty site .... and email me your clever signs [jeffreyjeromecohen [at] gmail [dot] com] . I'll post them as the day progresses.

from Dan Kline:

from Eileen:

from Liza:

from MKH:

from Dr Virago:

from Chaucer:

from Karl:

from Adam Roberts:

from Alun Salt:

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Quote of the Day: Finke and Shichtman

A Bruno Latour-esque riff from King Arthur and the Myth of History:
A fact is an utterance whose history has been erased. The past controversies, struggles, conflicts, debates, alliances, negotiations, and trials of strength that went into its making have all been rendered invisible. In this sense a fact speaks for itself because it needs no one to speak for it; attribution or authorship would undermine an utterance's status as fact ... Scratch the surface of the historical fact and you will begin to untangle the network of alliances of people (eyewitnesses, historical actors, schoalrs, readers, teachers, students) and of things (books, manuscripts, articles, archives, letters, diaries, buildings, artifacts) that hold it together. (15)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Medieval Bodies

M. Lindsay Kaplan at Georgetown University is working on a big project involving Jews and race in the Middle Ages. I got to know her work quite well when I was asked to evaluate an essay she'd submitted to Shakespeare Quarterly ("Jessica’s Mother: Medieval Constructions of Jewish Race and Gender"-- an innovative and original piece that foregrounds the female body in early modern Jewishness). After presenting her work in progress at GW's Medieval and Early Modern Studies seminar last week, Lindsay sent me the following query via email. I asked if rather than responding to it myself, could I post it to ITM? Because medieval bodies have been my obsession since graduate school, at this point I would without thinking roll out a bludgeoning list of bibliography that perhaps would not well illustrate what's essential and what isn't. I'm genuinely curious: how would ITM's readers answer the following question from Lindsay?
I'm interested in exploring what happens to ideas of the body in the medieval period. Presumably Albert's reintroduction of Aristotle and the overall renewed engagement with classical texts influences contemporary discourses on the body. I've looked at your blog, and while interesting, doesn't turn up a book or books that I should read to get a sense of what's happening ... I like the ideas of the body as not unified but an ever-changing conglomeration of things; this works well with what I understand of humoral theory and how different foods create different humoral tendencies. Also, Will Fisher's work will be interesting here, though focused on the early modern period. Anyway, should I look at ... Peggy McCracken, Joan Cadden -- where should I go for this?
What do you say, everyone? What's your favorite work on the medieval body? What is indispensable? What work still needs to be done?

Hugh Despenser's body may have been discovered

Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger's mutilated corpse may have been unearthed at Hulton Abbey, according to the Telegraph: Abbey body identified as gay lover of Edward II.

From the article:
The decapitated remains, buried at Hulton Abbey, Staffs, have intrigued experts since they were uncovered during the 1970s and now Mary Lewis, an anthropologist, says she has uncovered compelling evidence of their true identity. The manner of execution, carbon-dating of the bones, and the absence of several parts of the body all point towards Sir Hugh being the victim, she said. "If the remains are those of Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger, then this is the first time such an execution victim has been identified," she added.

Sir Hugh insinuated himself into the king's favour by backing him in his battles with the barons. Through a series of ruthless deals, he consolidated a huge fortune, winning himself a legion of enemies in the process, including Edward's wife, Queen Isabella.

His downfall came when the queen and her ally, Roger Mortimer, deposed the king in 1326. Sir Hugh was judged a traitor and a thief. He was hanged and, still conscious, castrated, disembowelled and then quartered before his head was displayed on London Bridge.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Other Middle Ages, A Place to Believe In, and the Fluidity of Frontiers

“. . . to take the figure of the stranger as simply present is to overlook and forget the very relationships of social antagonism that produce the stranger as a figure in the first place. Such a fetishization of the stranger, indeed, such an ontology of the stranger as given in and to the world, conceals how ‘the stranger’ comes into being through the marking out of habitable places, bodies, and terrains of knowledge. To talk of the migrant as stranger is not sufficient. It cannot deal with the complexities of the histories, not only of the displacement of peoples, but the demarcation of places and spaces of belonging.”—Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality

I am just back from Wake Forest University [Mary Kate’s alma mater, I might add], where I was graciously invited by Gillian Overing to talk to the students enrolled in an honors seminar she is co-teaching with Ulrike Weithaus, titled “The Other Middle Ages.” The students had been discussing Beowulf just before my visit, so it was decided I would focus on that, and since alterity is one of the primary focuses of the course, I had to think about what I might do with that in relation to Beowulf. Although I think everyone knows that I have written about Beowulf quite a bit, more recently my attention has wandered to the issue of “unsettled” and “migrant” inter-subjectivity in the Saint Guthlac narratives [Felix’s eighth-century Vita as well as the Old English poems Guthlac A and B; go here for some of my initial ruminations on that], and I decided to bring in some of the reading and thinking I have been doing recently, relative to that project, on the subject of the relation of frontiers [geographical, cultural, and otherwise] and Otherness, especially as discussed by François Hartog in The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in the Writing of History (trans. Janet Lloyd; Berkeley, 1988).

More specifically, I wanted to share with the students Hartog’s commentary on Herodotus’s commentary on the Scythians’ supposed “extreme hatred of all foreign customs, particularly those in use among the Greeks” [Histories, Book IV], by way of the examples of two Scythians, Anacharsis and Scyles, who, in different ways, go “Greek” and pay with their lives as a result. The relevance of Herodotus’s narratives to Beowulf is not as remote as you might imagine, since the Scythians are also the nomadic Getae, a “giant” and warrior race famed in the classical period for their fierce resistance to the Greeks [and also classified as the Greek empire’s “barbarian” and “wandering” Other], and who, in the medieval world, as John Niles has written, by way of the work of Jane Acomb Leake’s The Geats of Beowulf: A Study in the Geographical Mythology of the Middle Ages [Wisconsin, 1967], “were regarded as common ancestors of the Jutes, Danes, Goths, and Gautar. They stood in relation to these tribes as an Ur-Germanic people of remarkable size and prowess. Their homeland was a great place for dragons, among other such marvelous inhabitants as the Amazons, cynocephali, anthrophagi, and sea-serpents who are described in the Marvels of the East” [“Locating Beowulf in Literary History,” Exemplaria 5.1 (March 1993), p. 101]. Further, and more pointedly, “the Hygelac who, in Beowulf, rules over the Geatas and dies at the mouth of the Rhine, appears in the Liber Monstrorum under the name of Higlacus; and there (contrary to Gregory of Tours, who calls him a Dane) he is said to have ruled over the Getae” [Niles, p. 100]. In this sense, I would tentatively offer, the Beowulf who crosses from Geatland to Daneland in the poem would have carried with him, for an Anglo-Saxon readership, certain connotations of a primevally strange, if genealogically familiar, Otherness. He would be, however subtly or uncannily, related to the Getae of Herodotus’s Histories, who are said to be such fierce warriors that they use the skulls of their slain enemies as drinking cups and also the skins flayed from the right arms of those same enemies, with the shape of their fingers intact, as quivers for their arrows. How, then, to separate in one’s mind the terror of the genealogy of a Beowulf from the anthrophagy of a Grendel, or to ultimately differentiate a Scythian from a Geat from a Dane from a misshapen child of Cain? From where, in other words, does Beowulf really come, not only for the Danes, but for his more modern readers in Anglo-Saxon England? How would the distance be measured [geographically and culturally] from Geatland to Daneland, in relation to the distance that could be measured from Grendel’s mere to Hrothgar’s Heorot, and why might that matter? Who, in Daneland, is the ultimate stranger, the ultimate foreigner, and is that “foreignness” or “strangeness” measured by miles traveled, or by the contours and gait of one’s body, the forms of one’s language and habits of living, the architecture of one’s “home,” the landscape in which that home is situated? What does it mean to be out of place, as opposed to in place, in the world of the poem?

Of course, the language of the poet is such that, in terms of shared customs and histories and cultural values and language, the Geats and Danes are entirely similar to each other (and perhaps, also, to an ancestral model the Anglo-Saxons might have imagined for themselves), while Grendel appears to come, as Hrothgar says at one point, from “I know not where” [ic ne wat hwæder, l. 1331], bearing, as Beowulf points out, an “unknown violence” [uncuðne nið, l. 276]. But somehow, the only person who can match, or out-match, this violence, is Beowulf himself, who travels the furthest distances in the poem—both geographically and culturally—and is the ultimate border-crosser, the ultimate migrant, whereas Grendel and his mother can almost be viewed as something more aboriginal, more in place, something very old and ancient that is always re-arriving [or re-stirring from below] to disturb the “newness” of Heorot and its vertical “purchase” upon the landscape. And the poem would seem to be interested, especially in its language (which, after all, marks Beowulf and Grendel and Grendel’s mother and the dragon as aglæcan, or those who
violate a natural or moral law”), in what Homi Bhaba has characterized as a predominant feature of modernity: “the emergence of the interstices—the overlap and displacement of domains of difference—. . . [in which] the intersubjective and collective experience of nationness, community interest, or cultural value are negotiated. How are subjects formed ‘in-between,’ or in excess of the sum of the ‘parts’ of difference” [The Location of Culture, p. 2]?

Speaking of the
in-between, we can return to Herodotus and his account of the stories of the two Scythians, Anacharis and Scyles, which can be summarized as follows: Anacharsis was a philosopher [which already marks him, in a sense, as Greek] who, after having spent a good deal of his life traveling all over the world, was on his way home to Scythia [the ‘hinterland’ of the Greek colonies on the Black Sea coast—today, parts of northern Bulgaria and southern Romania], when he touched down in Cyzicus [now part of Turkey], where “he found the inhabitants celebrating with much pomp and magnificence a festival to the Mother of the Gods, and was himself induced to make a vow to the goddess, whereby he engaged, if he got back safe and sound to his home, that he would give her a festival and a night-procession in all respects like those which he had seen in Cyzicus.” When Anacharsis arrives back in Scythia, he immediately takes himself to Hylaia [‘the woodland’] “and there went through all the sacred rites with the tabour in his hand, and the images tied to him.” By complete chance, another Scythian sees him engaged in these rites and reports the occurrence to the king Saulinus [Anacharsis’s brother, actually], who shoots and kills him with an arrow while he is still in the throes of his worship of the goddess.

The story of Scyles is a bit more complex: we are told that he is the son of a Scythian king and a Greek [or, Istrian] mother, through whom he learned the Greek language and Greek literature. When his father died, he became king and inherited one of his father’s wives, but because “he disliked the Scythic mode of life,” whenever he was in the colony of the Borysthenites, Olbia, he would “make it his habit” to leave his army outside the gates of the town, “and, having entered the walls by himself, and carefully closed the gates, to exchange his Scythian dress for Grecian garments, and in this attire walk about the forum, without guards or retinue.” Scyles lives exactly as the Greeks, offering sacrifices to their gods, eventually even building a house there and taking a “native” wife. Although he was very secretive about this “other” life, what finally undoes [or, discloses] him, according to Herodotus, is his desire to participate in the Bacchic mysteries, for which the Scythians hold much scorn. As soon as Scyles participates in one of these “raves,” one of the Borysthenites runs to the Scythians to say, “You Scyths laugh at us because we rave when the god seizes us. But now our god has seized upon your king, who raves like us, and is maddened by the influence.” In short, Scyles is discovered in the throes of a bacchic ritual and is ultimately beheaded by the Scythians.

Hartog raises several interesting questions and ideas regarding the stories of Anacharsis and Scyles:
“How do Anacharsis and Scyles move from one place to another? What spaces do they cross? In the case of Scyles, the schema is quite simple: he moves to and fro between the ēthea of the Scythians (the word denotes an animal’s lair, one’s habitual domicile) and the town of the Borysthenites, namely, Olbia. He leaves the Scythian space, a space more animal than human, where he feels ill at ease (he detests the Scythian lifestyle) and sets off for the town, but the narrative specifies that he leaves his train on the outskirts . . . in that intermediary zone outside the domain of the ēthea but not yet in that of the astu [urban area]. It is as if it were impossible for the Scythians to progress any further, for they are not bilingual.” [pp. 145–46].

“[In the case of Anacharsis]: (1) Is the Hylaia a completely Scythian space or is it a particular, even marginal, part of that space? (2) What is the position of the town of Cyzicus in relation to the ‘Greek’ space? Is it a particular part of that space? These are questions that cannot be answered simply by examining the journeys from a geographical point of view. . . . What is Hylaia? In the Greek the word means ‘wooded’ but also ‘wild’; as is to be expected, the forest belongs to the border spaces and thus to wildness. . . . Just as, once its doors are closed, Olbia offers Scyles shelter to do things that the Scythians must not behold, similarly the Hylaia, into which Anacharsis plunges . . . provides him with a hidden space where he can celebrate a cult the Scythians refuse to recognize. . . . Through the metapor of looking, the narrative conveys the spatial ambiguity of the Hylaia and Oblia: even when you are screened by the forest or the fortifications, a look, whether a chance one or one with intent to harm, may at any time discover you.” [pp. 146, 147, 148]

“Cyzicus and Olbia are situated on the very edges of Greek space. Might we postulate a homology here and suggest that the same might be said of the Mother of the Gods and Dionysus? . . . . If the Mother of the Gods does seem a truly marginal figure, the process of Dionysus, in contrast, is (apparently) known everywhere, throughout the non-Greek space as well as the Greek one. But the interesting question that the text now raises is the manner in which Dionysus and the Mother of the Gods operated as criteria of Greekness not only for the Scythians and Greeks but also for the actual addressees of this discourse, Herodotus’s audience.” [pp. 151, 152]

“. . . so that their radical rejection (on the part of the Scythians) may be as meaningful as possible to Herodotus’s addressee, perhaps these two powers, the Mother and Dionysus, should be seen as both Greek and, at the same time, as close to the Scythians. The fact is that they must be perceived to be Greek by the addressee if the behavior of the Scythians is to make sense and in order to illustrate the general rule put forward by the narrative. But they must also be recognized to be close to the Scythians not only geographically but culturally, if their rejection is to astonish and take on its full meaning. These are deities that it ought to be possible for them to accommodate easily (by reason of their origin, the rituals they entail, their ‘barbaric’ aspect); yet these are the very deities that they utterly reject (as Greek). In this way, the explicit moral of the story is further reinforced: truth lies on this side of the frontier, error beyond it.” [p. 156]
[I would note here, too, that if you are familiar with your Herodotus, you may recall his account of Darius’s attempted “invasion” of Scythia, in which he built a bridge over the Ister River and futilely chased the Scythian army without ever laying eyes on them—in this sense, there is a “frontier,” the river itself, which can be crossed, but there is also no frontier, because there is ultimately no way to get into Scythia, such that the Scythians could be captured; as Hartog puts it, the “aporia” of the Scythians is “unaffected” by Darius’s crossing over into their so-called “territory,” and they are everywhere and nowhere at once.]

How this all might relate to Beowulf [or to “unsettled” inter-subjectivities in the Guthlac narratives], I leave aside for the moment [or rather—well, I’m still thinking about that!], but I want to end by plugging here the really excellent essay collection edited by Clare Lees and Gillian Overing, A Place to Believe In: Locating Medieval Landscapes [Pennsylvania State, 2006], in which, late in the evening before my meeting with the students at Wake Forest, I stumbled, oh so happily, across the essay by Kelly Wickham-Crowley, “Living on the Ecg: The Mutable Boundaries of the Land and Water in Anglo-Saxon Contexts,” and which I believe may provide a suturing point between Hartog, Bhaba, and Beowulf. Of her essay’s intentions, Wickham-Crowley writes,

“I want to look at what I have called ‘mutable boundaries,’ to consider how water—especially through Alfred’s time and that of the Viking incursions—was an integral part of the Anglo-Saxon perception of ‘landscape.’ The mutability of the ‘edge’ between land and water, as recorded in Anglo-Saxon texts and archaeology, fits with a way of thinking that considered land/water insersections as a habit of perception or vision, coloring and marking more than the physical environment. . . . if change is paradoxically taken as a constant [because water and land in a sea island environment are always in flux with each other], as a habit of vision, can we track how that view influences a culture defining or negotiating identities in a new place?” [pp. 85, 86]

Wickham-Crowley surveys a wide array of “negotiations” of fluid “sites,” inherent in the influence of rising and sinking sea levels in early medieval British agriculture and settlement, the tidal culture/liminal ecg spaces in the Cuthbert and Guthlac narratives [which set up saintly persons as impermeable enclosures in fluid environments], the elevated pagan burial sites that persisted into the ninth century, the “wandering villages” of early Anglo-Saxon settlement, the role of water in Old English elegy and in Danish-Viking experience, and the temporally-culturally multilayered archaeology of Whitby (which itself possessed gender fluidity]. Ultimately, Wickham-Crowley concludes that,

“Where does all this negotiating of edges and boundaries lead us in considering traces of Anglo-Saxon attitudes? Boundaries distinguish differences on either side, yet have identities and characters of their own. Introducing water into landscape considerations gives us a variable that suggests permeable, dynamic boundaries; in some circumstances, such as the siting of religious foundations, their inherent uncertainty and ambiguity may be cultivated. Use of the environment demonstrates habits of mind, of attitudes, influences, and choices. . . . Is the ‘haunting’ of fens in sources such as Guthlac’s Life, or the siting of places in areas known to have importance to pre-Christian believers, a symptom of the return of the oppressed or repressed? That Alfred cultivates the ‘betweenness’ of fens to salvage England by retreating to Athelney is perhaps more resonant than we realized. The very mutability of the fens, their resistance to clear paths and boundaries, allows him to resist, negotiate, and reestablish the boundary of being Anglo-Saxon figuratively and literally in his treaty with the Danes, in his recording of travelers’ voyages, and in his vision and re-envisioning of English history and languages.” [pp. 106–7]

If Wickham-Crowley is right, and the “very mutability” and “betweenness” of the fens and other "watery" sites is cultivated, not just by Alfred, but by many who dwelled and moved through early medieval Britain, in order to establish and reestablish the “boundaries” of “being Anglo-Saxon” or “being English,” how does this bring us back to the struggles being played out in a poem like Beowulf, which both privileges the exile who continually moves back and forth through deep seas, wild moors, and bloody lakes, and also condemns the exile who makes of the deepest waters his home [and also doesn’t know how to stay put]? We might say that one fluid power [Christian, northwestern-centric, proto-national] simply usurps another [chthonic-demonic, Eastern, stateless], and thereby establishes what, today, we call “order," or what we call "human." But that is only a beginning.

For your Sunday amusement

Middle English air guitar (via Matt at Golempoem)

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Two Short Posts of Interest (to me, and I hope you too)

Stephanie Trigg examines her appalled reaction to John Howard's joining the Order of the Garter. What happens when one's grotesque political contemporaries intrude upon one's field of study?

Dr. Virago on Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, mourning, and the recent mass murder at Northern Illinois University.

And now, off to the airport, and then, ultimately, to a weekend in Texas, where I'll spend some time with my brother, the Air Force cardiologist, before he's deployed to the (relative safety of a) large base in Iraq. Safe flying to all of us!

Friday, February 15, 2008

Oliver Sacks on Migraines, Pattterns, and Universal Art

In an interesting essay in the NYT, Sacks wonders about the patterns he has witnessed since childhood while gripped by migraine and the cross-cultural ardor for repetitive design:
I started to wonder whether what I had taken to be a personal experience and resonance might in fact be part of a larger whole, whether certain basic forms of geometric art, going back for tens of thousands of years, might also reflect the external expression of universal experiences. Migraine-like patterns, so to speak, are seen not only in Islamic art, but in classical and medieval motifs, in Zapotec architecture, in the bark paintings of Aboriginal artists in Australia, in Acoma pottery, in Swazi basketry — in virtually every culture. There seems to have been, throughout human history, a need to externalize, to make art from, these internal experiences, from the decorative motifs of prehistoric cave paintings to the psychedelic art of the 1960s. Do the arabesques in our own minds, built into our own brain organization, provide us with our first intimations of geometry, of formal beauty?

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fragments Shattered by History

So on Saturday, as I've mentioned here, I will be responding to this paper by Aaron Hostetter , a colleague of mine from Princeton. This will all take place as a part of the fourth annual ASSC Graduate Student Conference.

So here, for your Valentine's Day evening perusal, is my remark/question for our discussion. Any critiques or questions would be quite helpful -- this was the first time I've read Andreas. Though I find it quite fascinating, it's also insanely complex. One day that characteristic of Old English poetry will stop surprising me. With a little luck though, I'll never lose that complexity's delight.

So: Go read Aaron's paper, "A Tasty Turn of Phrase: Cannibal Poetics in Andreas". Then, refresh your memory of the story with any one of these posts on Heather Blurton's Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature from the ITMBC4DSoMA event this summer. I should note that in my haste I've not had the time to read through all of the entries, though I certainly hope to do so by Saturday's session. Then, return here to read my entry in this ongoing discussion of Anthropophagy. My bibliographical notes are not terribly precise, as I'm mostly going on what I've read from Aaron's paper: however, I'll have to add it in tomorrow morning, when I have time to figure out what I was drawing on! My title could also use a lift -- any ideas would be appreciated!

Fragments Shattered by History

Aaron argues that as a poem, the Andreas makes a comment on the relationship between the past and the present: most specifically, that fragments of a past identity inhabit the present construction of self – more importantly, they inhabit the text’s present construction of cultural identity. Using the poetic borrowings of Andreas, and making clear their poetic effect, the argument culminates in the assertion that, in the case of the “sad anthropophagites” of the Anglo-Saxon corpus:
the act of devoration leaves the eater with a raw sense of the self in time, of ones utter dependence on the presence of the past with which to construct a present, and a lingering sense of absolute difference from the apparent integrity of those pasts.

In some senses, his argument squares with the recent work on the poem done by Heather Blurton: in her dissertation, and its rendering in book form, Blurton argues that we might productively read the poem not merely for its conversion narrative, but for its “cannibal narrative” – a narrative that tells a story of invasion and conquest and the subsequent, postcolonial hybridity that results. Andreas, she argues, deliberately depicts the Mermedonians in ways which echo the descriptions of Anglo-Saxon warriors in other poems. Clearly, Blurton picks up on the same tendency which Aaron highlights: the citation of other Anglo-Saxon poems is used to an effect in Andreas, and to read the poem in any other light flattens a nuanced reading – performed by the poem – of those texts, and the culture which produced them.

As an opening provocation to discussion, I would like to reframe the question which Aaron is asking us to consider. In doing so, I want to engage with the idea of this solitary “self-in-time” – to ask, directly, the question of what the Mermedonians are doing in Anglo-Saxon England. If the self is related to the other in Andreas through a metaphoric act of consumption, devoration, or put in the slightly more post-colonial term favored by Blurton, incorporation – the question raised becomes more than simply one of “self” and “other” per se. The intermingling performed by the act of anthropophagy, and the intersection of the past and present that occurs in the building of cultural identity, suggests that the time of this “meal” is, to borrow a phrase, “out of joint.”

The question this raises about Andreas is the way in which the pasts upon which the present feasts are only apparently integral: the ways in which their narrative wholeness is shattered by the onset of a different kind of history. In Augustine’s conception of history, the human interpretation of history’s narrative is fundamentally altered by the intersection of the divine with the human: Christ’s advent necessarily rewrites the linear narrative of human history, and the truly integral events (his birth, death, resurrection and final judgment) shape the interpretation of any other narrative (though, and importantly, it doesn't annihilate the presence of all other narratives, which could be said to haunt it). My question then, is this: if we were to let the conversion narrative shape the cannibal narrative of the text, might we understand this story of sylfætan as an interpretation of the non-Christian digestion of history. Fundamentally incomplete, the past can only disappoint those who wish to use its narrative to shape the future from its fragments: those stories need interpretation, direction, a space to develop into that does not return to the same, human story. Rather, human history needs a divine supplement – otherwise, how could anyone seeking to feed on its remnants find adequate nourishment?

cross posted at OEinNY

Happy Valentine's Day

We at ITM wish all of our readers a happy Valentine's day -- the only holiday invented by Chaucer.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Race, and Women

Yesterday in my Myths of Britain class I taught the segment of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain that begins with the birth of Brutus and ends with the discovery of demon-born Merlin -- quite a chunk. We take a special interest in this course in those whose stories are alluded to but not fully narrated within the larger histories that feature them: Beowulf through the eyes of Grendel, or his mom, or Wealtheow, or Hondscio. With Geoffrey we spoke about his interest in some strong female characters.

Below is a section of my book Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain relevant to the topic. It was fun to revisit the subject with eighty interlocutors.

(parts of this have appeared at ITM previously. Please see the book version for proper footnotes and references)
No matter what else the text might be, the History of the Kings of Britain is a foundation myth. As the twelfth-century Welsh who found in its narrative the promise of glory to come would attest, the History gives solidity and continuity to a dispersed people. It could legitimate the promulgation of a communal identity based upon shared history. By projecting a Norman mode of kingship and conquest into the past, it also implicitly buttresses the Norman conquest, and reinforces the distinctiveness of both the Normans and the Britons from the English. Perhaps this desire to keep the insular peoples distinct explains why the text recurrently envalues purity of blood.

When a womanless band of Picts arrive from Scythia and ask the Britons for wives, they firmly refuse to intermarry with such an inferior race (4.17). Once the fiercely expansionist leader Maximianus subdues Gaul, he imports a population of Britons for the area. Conanus Meriadocus, left in charge of this "second Britain," strives "to prevent any mixture of blood" between colonists and indigenes. Conanus therefore has seventy-one thousand women imported from the homeland (5.15). The misplaced passion of Brennius for a Danish princess almost causes Britain's ruin (3.2). Part of the great evil of Vortigern, the tyrant who improvidently invites the Saxons into Britain as mercenaries, is his refusal to respect the separation of peoples. He allows "pagans to mingle with the local population" (8.2), degenerating his kingdom to the point at which "no one could tell who was a pagan and who was a Christian, for the pagans were associating with [British] daughters and female relations" (6.13). Vortigern himself marries Renwein, daughter of the Saxon leader Hengest (6.12). Vortimer, Vortigern's pure-blooded son by a previous wife, rises against his father in an attempt to take Britain back for the Britons; he is poisoned by his treacherous stepmother (6.14). Perhaps a certain magical pool described to a wide-eyed Arthur says it all. Naturally fashioned in the shape of a perfect square, the pool harbors four types of fish, and "the fish of any one corner were never found in any of the others" (9.7). Substitute Britons, Picts, Scots and Saxons for the allegorical fish and Britain suddenly becomes perfectly unmixed, impossibly pure.

Square pools do not exist in nature, nor do fish self-segregate; that is why the pool is a marvel. In Geoffrey's British history, despite the fact that the purity of collective identities is so often declared paramount, peoples nonetheless intermingle. Just like the Norman-English and Norman-Welsh unions of Geoffrey's day, these couplings produce children who carry in their blood a compound heritage. At first glance, it seems that such mixed blood progeny cannot fare well. Assaracus, son of a Trojan mother and Greek father, agrees to help the exiled Brutus because of his anger at having been disinherited by a brother of undiluted blood. Brutus is happy to employ the man so long as he is useful, but the Trojan's subsequent talk of preserving the "purity of noble blood" suggests what he really thinks of his mongrel ally (1.4). Habren, the daughter of king Locrinus by a German concubine, is hurled into a river by his angry wife (2.5). Bassianus, the son of a Roman puppet ruler through a British woman, finds himself raised to the insular throne because his people prefer him over his brother of pure Roman descent (5.2). His reign is quite short, however, because a man named Carausius, humbly born but of untainted British ancestry, rallies the Britons to "massacre the Romans and wipe them out of existence and so free the whole island of that foreign race." The half-blood Bassianus soon lies dead on the battlefield (5.3).

Yet Constantine, the son of a Roman named Constantius and the Briton Helen, becomes not only the king of the whole island but emperor of Rome, "overlord of the whole world" (5.8). The founding father of the Britons, Brutus himself, takes the Greek princess Ignoge for his wife, mixing his genealogical line with that of an inveterate enemy. It could perhaps be argued that only the race of the father counts in a patriarchal society, overwriting or overcoding the blood of the mother. Such a model seems almost Aristotelian. The mother contributes inert matter to the child, the father gives identity and life. Thus Earl Morcar, an English rebel against the Conqueror, had a sister named Ealdgyth. She bore a daughter to her first husband, Gruffudd ap Llewelyn, upon whom was bestowed the resonantly Welsh name of Nest. Ealdgyth also had a son by her second spouse, King Harold II of England. This Ulf carried an Anglo-Scandinavian appellation that well embodied his royal father 's own heritage. In both cases the descent of the father determines the child's name. Perhaps, then, the children of Brutus are just as Trojan, and therefore just as British, as he.

Yet carrying the blood of two peoples in the History of the Kings of Britain seldom allows a singular or stable identity to be embraced, or for a dual ancestry to be forgotten. Despite the bias in favor of the separateness of the insular peoples throughout the History, in the actual unfolding of historical events Geoffrey demonstrates the impossibility – and sometimes even the sheer destructiveness – of rejecting out of hand hybridity and difficult middles. Attempts to maintain purity of blood invariably fail. Contrary to the British prohibition against taking their women as wives, the Picts do just that, "intermarrying more and more with the Britons" (5.3). These marriages are enabled by Carausius, the pure-blooded Briton who rallied his people to commit genocide against the Romans to keep the island free of foreigners. The intermingling of Saxons with Britons enabled by Vortigern cannot simply be undone, for in the wake of widespread intermarriage pagans and the Christians become indistinguishable (6.13). The desire of Conanus Meriadocus to prevent his soldiers from mixing with the Gauls spectacularly backfires when he sends to Britain for suitable wives. Of the 71,000 women shipped across the channel to meet his demand, the luckiest drown when their ships founder. The remainder is blown so far off course that randy barbarians either slay or enslave them (5.16). Conanus Meriadocus and his men, we must assume, were forced to take their brides from Gaul after all. Even Cadwallo, Geoffrey's reinvented and newly heroic leader of the Britons against the treacherous Saxons, is said to take a sister of Peanda of Mercia as his wife. Their son, Cadwallader, presides over the final loss of British hegemony on the island.

As Peggy McCracken has written in her penetrating analysis of the role of women's blood in medieval literature, descent might be claimed from the father, but the mother's contribution to her offspring's identity can never be completely effaced. Blood, especially when it comes from a woman, tends to be multivalent. A similar observation might be advanced more generally about women's roles in twelfth century historiography, especially in their relation to collective identity. Although from time to time a powerful female figure will emerge (Hild, Æthelflæd, Cordelia), the chronicles of the past written at this time are for the most part accounts of the deeds of men. Geoffrey is no exception, imagining a vigorously martial world in which most of the great leaders are male. Women are seldom eligible to have their stories told. There are, of course, vivid exceptions: Gwendolen, Estrildis, Cordelia, Tonuuenna, Genvissa, Judon, Renwein, Ygerna, Guenevere, Helena. Even women not given a name by the text can sometimes have moving stories narrated about them. Take, for example, the 71,000 women assembled in London to provide wives for the Britons in Gaul. They do not know that they are doomed to perish at sea, be slaughtered by enemies, or become slaves, yet few want to abandon home and family for unknown shores. "They all had their personal wishes in the matter" Geoffrey observes (5.16). When it is acknowledged that the desires of these women are not consonant with maintaining the purity of the Briton bloodline, we realize that the community being built with them is predicated upon a coercive harmonization.

No woman's story in Geoffrey's text resonates more lastingly than that of Ignoge, the Greek princess forced to become bride to Brutus. Geoffrey of Monmouth ordinarily composes his narrative with sangfroid: little human feeling animates its accounts of battles, wonders, political intrigue, strife. He is not given to moments of aching identification such as William of Malmesbury's wrenching account of the sinking of the White Ship (Deeds 5.419). Ignoge has little presence in Geoffrey's text, but as she sets sail with a husband she never chose for a future that is wholly uncertain, we are given a lingering depiction of her last vision of her native land. The episode is at once so evocative and so moving that, as Robert Hanning observes, it "interrupts the flow" of the narrative, so that "for a moment the issues of national birth and freedom are forgotten; history itself is forgotten." Here is Geoffrey's vivid portrayal of the fading shores of home as glimpsed through bereft Ignoge's eyes:
The Trojans sailed away ... Ignoge stood on the high poop and from time to time fell fainting in the arms of Brutus. She wept and sobbed at being forced to leave her relations and her homeland; and as long as the shore lay there before her eyes, she would not turn her gaze away from it. Brutus soothed and caressed her, putting his arms round her and kissing her gently. He did not cease his efforts until, worn out with crying, she fell asleep (1.11)

As Ignoge's home slowly recedes, lost are the possibilities for any life she might have desired for herself, for any history she might have dreamed. Destined to become an appendage of Brutus, the source of his progeny, we next see Ignoge in what appears to be an afterthought, legitimating the birth of three sons (2.1). She is not mentioned again. Her children divide the land and carry on their father's work. It never occurs to them that in their bodies the blood of Troy mingles with that of Greece, that they possess hybrid blood in which two enemies have uneasily been conjoined. The sons of Brutus assume that they are simply Britons, as their father christened his people. They never dwell upon the complexities of history and descent.

Ignoge's gaze opens up the possibility of another story. An alien among strangers, suspended between cultures and no longer able to be of one or the other, Ignoge embodies everything her children so easily forget. Yearning for a home that can never be hers, this princess conveyed to an unfamiliar place suggests the difficulties faced by those who carry an identity full of difference, ambivalence, conflict. Ignoge inhabits that middle space where conqueror meets conquered, where a war unfolds between loathing and desire. She looks back to a receding homeland and forward to the impossible bind of mixed progeny on an island increasingly dominated by a single people. Ignoge is Greek, her husband Trojan, her children Britons, but her tears prevent such easy separations.

Geoffrey of Monmouth dreamed of a world where at first glance history and descent keep insular peoples solitary. As his textual world unfolds in all its intricacy, however, the peoples that populate Britain mingle and become -- despite their own fervent belief to the contrary -- impure. Geoffrey's ambivalent entwining of purity with hybridity is rather like William of Malmesbury's. Both writers posited clean separations but undercut them with anxious, medial spaces: one through marvels, the other through blood. The separateness of the island's peoples might be an impossible dream, but that did not stop this dream from being passionately embraced, much to the sorrow of those who carried blood that could never seem untainted. For these impure beings history was filled with heartache, and the present never ceased to hurt.