Friday, July 23, 2010

Initial NCS Thoughts: Squirrels, Animals, and the Flood

by KARL STEEL

Expect a flood of NCS posts over the next week. Some brief comments to begin:

Italy: why no squirrels? My wife claims she saw a squirrel; I saw none. The Siena natural history museum tells me they are general throughout Italy, barring Sardinia and Sicily, but they must be fibbing, or describing what now has only a historical reality, or perhaps they have no idea how dense a population of squirrels must be to qualify as "common." I welcome the physici of Siena to visit my Brooklyn backyard.

I have convinced myself of two things: that the Italian squirrel can be found only in Genoa, and that Catherine of Siena must somehow be responsible. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland; Italy lacks flying pigs because of Paulinus of Nola; but by the time Catherine of Siena arrived, there was little left to expel but squirrels. This was no small miracle. Those who keep a garden know the annoyance of sciurus vulgaris or carolinensis. They would be wise to offer Catherine a prayer of thanks lest they also be driven from their home to satisfy the convenience of others. Ireland, beware, for one day the snakes will find their own saint!

I attended all but one of the Animals sessions at NCS: I was grumpy not to be cited once, but found the lack of citation a nice, humbling counterweight to claims of blog triumphalism; I was happy to hear Jeffrey cited so many times; and annoyed, deeply, that Susan Crane, who has written and continues to write so perceptively on animals, was cited barely at all. The field feels itself to be barely finding its feet (or hooves), but the field should recognize that much has happened in medieval animal studies since Salisbury and Yamamoto!

I want to recall here, briefly, a very fine paper I saw at the first Animals session: in "Uxor Noe and Animal Inventory," Sarah Elliott Novacich, a graduate student in English at Yale, discussed the ark as archive (through, in part, the mnemotechnics and glossing in Hugh of St Victor's writing on the ark), the language of penning and herding for bringing Mrs Noah (see here for a brief discussion of some of her 103 names) and how Mrs Noah refuses to be caught up in this memory practice. If I remember this argument aright.

As often happens with good papers, my mind was led to wonder again at a text I thought I knew well, in this case, one I've known since I was knee-high to a flood, Genesis 6, 7, and 8. Mrs Noah's refusal to join the party might be read as resistance to what Noah wants, and by extension to what God wants, and by further extension to what men or the dominant in general want. She is a site of resistance.

But the Genesis account is muddled, and not only because it's obviously a poorly edited amalgamation of two separate accounts (does Noah bring 7 pairs of clean and 2 pairs of unclean animals on board; or just 2 pairs of everything? Cf. Genesis 7:2-3 to Genesis 7:8-9). It's muddled because God's desires themselves are muddled. Being sophisticates, we know God is not the Big Other, the one supposed to know, the one out there who's impossibly whole; we know that such unity, when sought, will never arrive, and that it never can have existed. We know God is a split subject too.

But we don't expect to find such knowledge so obviously given in an ancient text without being made available through some manner of paranoid extraction. But it is obvious here. In the Noah story, we see that God at once wants to destroy the world and to preserve it, to start again and to keep something afloat. As so often in Genesis, He regrets almost as soon as he decides to act (Genesis 7:6-8). The Mrs Noah of the Middle English drama, far from being (only) a site of resistance, is a further witness to God's split desires, to his inability to act simply, to his ever being able to do just one thing. She is indeed outside the archive, then, attesting to the multiplicity even in this most monolithic of Others.

Thanks Sarah for your excellent paper!

6 comments:

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Re: lack of proper citation of scholarship ... I don't get it. A cursory search would reveal that, for example, Susan Crane delivered a Biennial Chaucer Lecture on the topic that has been published in SAC ("For the Birds,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 29 (2007): 23-41) and that Peter Travis has a recent, award-winning book on the subject as well (_Disseminal Chaucer: Rereading The Nun’s Priest’s Tale_). Both scholars sat in the audience when four bird papers were delivered in the Animals session; neither was cited. I don't mean to sound grumpy, but when a paper starts from work published in 1998 or 1988, a lot of the conversation that has already enriched the topic vanishes and then needs to be rehashed.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Oh and as to squirrels, I like your theory but I do believe that the small beasts were driven to extinction because before they turned to boars and hare the Siennese were grinding squirrels into a rag├╣ for use on wide pasta noodles.

Anonymous said...

The sense of umbrage (or perhaps Jeffrey is right that grumpiness is the better term) seems strikingly at odds with the overall impression this blog conveys about the problems in academia and the need to create communities open to new work. Are we to replace privately sniping at younger scholars from behind the walls of blind peer review with public sniping from prominent blogs? Having not been at NCS, I can't particularly judge to what degree the four papers alluded to would have benefited from citation of Crane and Travis, but then, that's the case for the 98% (statistic made up) of the readership who weren't there. I generally like to think of conferences as an opportunity to try out something new in front of a generally friendly (though sadly sometimes hostile and antagonistic) audience. It just seems unfortunate that for these two professors and two graduate students, the antagonism has been removed from an intimate setting into a global forum. At the very least they weren't called out by name, but then, with the ubiquity of online conference programs, it's not particularly hard to find out who they are.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Antagonism? Not at all. I enjoyed the panel and asked questions that (I hope) were generous and moved discussion along.

But, everyone should do their homework before presenting on a topic -- especially if a Google search can reveal some materials that will actually significantly nuance the topic you're about to speak on.

Laura Saetveit Miles said...

Fair point, Anonymous.

I'm at the Medieval Translator right now, and being immersed in the conference culture again reminds me how the live-action paper genre should, in many ways, relieve us of some of the constraints of the published paper genre. We don't have to footnote every reference in our 20 min talks because, well, 20 mins later, we'd have no argument yet - which is actually often the problem. Cutting out the listy-lists of scholars who've worked on the topic is often the best route: you don't risk leaving out somebody important (who will resent it), or looking like you're just sucking up to the people in the room, or completely diluting whatever you have to say yourself. Or: the classic 'recent critical debate' line nods to them all without distracting from your own contribution to that debate.

Then, when you finish right at 20:00, everyone remembers your stellar argument and succinct show of evidence instead of a perfunctory reiteration of their own work.

Save the respectful bowing of a bibliography for the publication.

Karl Steel said...

Save the respectful bowing of a bibliography for the publication.

I suppose I should have distinguished between citing (whether of the obsequious sort or no) and evidence of having done 'homework.' I agree that the reiteration is a waste of time (as are most plot summaries). The problem, rather, is the unnecessary replication of work that's already been done.