Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The book I didn't write

How to begin?

William stared at the crisp blankness of the sheet, a topography of creases aching to become a world. In tiny furrows he found mountains, serpentine rivers, cities new and fallen to ruin, fens and piney woods to harbor monsters, an island yearning for the stability of borders. He wondered what Latin to trace across the page's folds, what rubrics he could make shimmer like so much blood on the skin.

That the vellum had once been a grazing, mewling beast thrilled William. It seemed a quotidian miracle, a proof the past endured. The dermis become a page presented him with a pockmarked map of possibility, a means to make his own voice echo long after his body had dried to dust. On this hide he would compose a lasting chronicle of kings and wars and national destiny, of heroes and sinners and strange portents. The contours of his words would restore to order a history broken by conquest and civil war.

Drops of red trickled from his pen, splattered the vellum. "
Stercus," he muttered. It was the only Latin word he could think of filthy enough to express what a pain it was going to be to scrape the page clean and overwrite those crimson stains.

That little visualization of the monastic historian William of Newburgh at work c.1196 on his History of English Affairs was the original opening of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles [then called Stories of Blood: Monsters, Jews and Race in Medieval England]. Although it contains a faint verbal and thematic allusion to Vance Smith's book about the problems of beginning (The Book of the Incipit, a rich work that I had in mind as I began my own book), for the most part the little scene is the product of imagination. It was supposed to be replete with the themes of the book, but mainly declares why I write abstruse scholarly monographs rather than historical fiction.

Such italicized vignettes appeared regularly throughout the original manuscript, little flights of fancy that erupted from time to time from my sedate prose. I explained their presence as follows, but in fact I believe I had become infected by all the twelfth century Latin I was reading, and began to compose in a contemporary mode:

My previous books have attempted to work simultaneously in medieval literature and in what often gets called critical theory (a field, I would argue, more accurately and more simply described as philosophy). Stories of Blood marks a departure from this work in that much of the theorizing is conducted quietly, often below the level of direct quotation or even of footnote. This departure should not be read as a rejection. I am as committed to philosophically rigorous work as I ever have been, and would not have been able to formulate my argument without the help of theory, especially postcolonial theory. Yet I also feel that the time is right for medievalists to experiment with how they formulate their arguments, articulate their themes, convince their readers. It is time to essay rhetorical devices and generic shifts that can perhaps achieve something a predictable scholarly prose style will not. Each of my chapters therefore makes use of what I call fabulations. These brief, fictionalized, and experimental asides are meant to function like the strange moments that occur throughout twelfth-century historiography, moments when the sedate and scholarly course of the narrative is startled by an irruption of the marvelous, the monstrous, the new. As Monika Otter has made clear in her book Inventiones, such moments are not digressions from the texts that feature them but explorations in another register of the concerns animating those works. Thus Gerald of Wales "interrupts" his Journey Through Wales to narrate a story about a utopia of tiny men. This subterranean domain bears an uncanny resemblance to the lost world of Gerald's own childhood, and permits its narrator to mourn the Welshness he has rejected in himself in order to become a cleric who writes in Latin and a courtier who speaks in French. Although I worry that my own fabulations may strike readers as self-indulgent, overwritten, or simply extraneous, it nonetheless seems to me that, even should I fail badly in the attempt, it is worthwhile to allow the sources I have worked with here to imbue my text with their own imprint.

In the future I'll share a few more of these fabulations with you. They are quite amusing. For tonight, though, I'll end with the story that was supposed to instigate the critical apparatus of the book. It's ripped from the headlines c.1230, when a five year old boy was found wandering the banks of the River Wensum in Norwich. He had been involuntarily circumcised.

A Vision of Blood, 1230
Jurnepin of Norwich sat by the Wensum, crying. The swaying of the ships at dock, the gurgle of the silty water helped him think of something, anything, besides the ache. His leg was wet with blood. Yesterday the little boy had been a Christian named Odard, skipping rocks off muddy puddles. That name, given by the followers of the Hanged One, had been blotted out forever. He was now Jurnepin, circumcised and tearful. You must never eat pork again, Senioret told him as he prepared the knife. The stroke that had cut his foreskin had also excised his Christianity. The gates of heaven slammed shut, and left him in tears and blood among the Jews.

Benedict, Jurnepin's father, was a Christian convert. A high price, his friends had sneered, to belong to a community that hates us. Jurnepin had known their faces long before, had seen them glaring at his father as he made his physician's rounds. As a captive in Jacob's house, he caught their names in the flow of their familiar French: Leo, Deudone, Joppe, Elias, Mosse, Simon, Sampson, Isaac le Petit, Diaia le Cat. These men had their revenge on Benedict when Jacob and Senioret reclaimed his son. Once a Jew, always a Jew, they said. It was funny, Jurnepin had often heard the Christians repeating the same phrase, even when he and his dad were together in the cathedral. Were there some lines that just couldn't be crossed? Can a Breton ever become French, or a Welshman English? Can the leopard change its spots, or the Ethiopian his skin? Might a boy growing up in Yorkshire ever become as English as a Londoner? Must a Jew always remain a Jew?

Benedict had learned to praise in Latin the son of a God who was not supposed to have any sons. He had mastered all the local customs and assimilated to Norwich with a convert's zeal. Yet there was something in him and in his son that perhaps could not be changed, something that even now Jurnepin felt trickling along his cheeks, felt congealed along his thigh. At the age of five Jurnepin the Jew knew that race is born of trauma, race is born of blood.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A wheel Boethius did NOT write about

Not feeling quite as peppy as you'd like as you contemplate the scholarly song and dance routines you'll be performing in front of your undergraduates this year? Are your eyes feeling as glazed as theirs have always been? Is your energy level falling as the line of advisees at your office door begins to stretch outward towards the crack of doom? Can't quite muster the passion you used to feel in your adminstrative role as subdirector of university internships and special projects liaison?

Have you considered that it might not be the Back to School Blues taking their annual hold? If you are a scholar whose ENTHUSIASM!!!!! has gone the way of your last significant pay raise, consider that you may be suffering a serious humoral imbalance.

Fortunately, medieval medicine offers a quick way to diagnose your ills:

(1) pee in a small jar

(2) take your browser to the following site (you should probably wash your hands first) (I can't believe that I even have to remind you of that at this point in your life): The Relation Between Text and Colours in Medieval Urine Wheels

(3) wonder what those odd stains are at the top of manuscript NKS Fol. 84b, sheet 5

(4) match the color of your bladder's contents to the colors reproduced in the medieval wheels on this page

If your liquid waste is caropos color ut vellus cameli (bluish-grey as camel skin), subpallidus color ut succus carnis semicoctus non remisse (slightly pale as a not reduced juice of meat) or rubeus ut crocus orientalis (red as oriental saffron), then cancel your office hours immediately! Walk away from your Chaucer text! Flee your campus and its needy little students! Go home and rest. Better yet, take a recuperative sabbatical until your urine returns to its normal shade. Doctor's orders.

(thanks, Nelljean Rice, poet/jester of BABEL)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Ever dream of being Red Cross Knight?

Well, now you can dream while dressed AS the Red Cross Knight ("on his brest a bloudie Crosse"). At least you can if you are very short. Although this garb would be thrilling to anyone with an Edmund Spenser fetish (and I know that such fetishists must number in the, oh, tens), they are actually designed not for participants in Renaissance festivals but for children fighting the good nocturnal fight against Satan.

I can't help but to wonder: if a Jewish child is dressed in these high quality high fashion Armor of God pajamas, will she combust?

vanishing Pluto

Kid #1 was caught today in the Discovery Channel store removing an orb from the "Glow in the Dark Solar System Set" in order to make it scientifically accurate.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The Past: There's No There There

An article that I labored over [painfully] for over two years is finally out in print ["On the Hither Side of Time: Tony Kushner's Homebody/Kabul and the Old English Ruin," Medieval Perspectives 19] and it occurred to me that it relates to our previous discussions on "why history matters," and also to JJC's new "in progress" essay collection Infinite Realms: Archipelago, Island, England, especially in relation to its concern with "how the distant past was fantasized by giving life to material objects . . . who colonized or was made to inhabit that lost past, and how "deep time" might be linked to contemporary genders, races, identities." I wince a little now at its conclusion [so forgive me on that], but in any case, I provide a brief excerpt from the Introduction here, and for those who want to read the full essay, follow the link above.

In 1948, Emmanuel Levinas published an essay in Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes, “Reality and its shadow,” where he made the provocative argument that Art does not know a particular type of reality; it contrasts with knowledge. It is the very event of obscuring, a descent of the night, an invasion of shadow. To put it in theological terms . . . art does not belong to the order of revelation. Nor does it belong to that of creation, which moves in just the opposite direction. Because art, for Levinas, is essentially “disengaged” from the world and real being, and also places its objects and subjects into the “non-dialectical fixity” of instants of immobile time (what Levinas termed “the intervals of the meanwhile”), art constitutes a “dimension of evasion.” The artist “exiles himself from the city,” and there is finally “something wicked and egoist and cowardly in artistic enjoyment. There are times when one can be ashamed of it, as of feasting during a plague.” Levinas’s argument poses a great challenge to those of us who might want to argue for the ethical value, not only of literature itself, but also of literary criticism. This is not to say that Levinas perceived no value in art whatsoever. On the contrary, he believed that art’s value lay precisely in its status as myth:
the immobile statue has to be put into movement and made to speak. Such an enterprise is not the same thing as a simple reconstruction of the original from the copy. Philosophical exegesis will measure the distance that separates myth from real being, and will become conscious of the creative event itself, an event which eludes cognition, which goes from being to being by skipping over the intervals of the meanwhile.
In other words, through critical interpretation, the artwork can escape the death of the “eternal instant,” because “criticism . . . integrates the inhuman work of the artist into the human world.”

Through an analysis of Tony Kushner’s 2001 play Homebody/Kabul and the Old English Ruin, this essay explores the tension, anxiety, and isolation inherent in the aesthetic and philosophical enterprises of measuring the distance that separates myth from real being (a project that takes place, I would argue, against Levinas, not just outside of the artwork--as criticism--but also within it, in the relationship between the artist and his medium, and even within the medium itself). This essay also ruminates, with reference to an extremely topical contemporary play and a densely opaque remnant of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the ethical dimensions of the use of the imagination to stage encounters between the present and the past, between being and history. According to Levinas, being cannot be explained in its total reality without “the perspective of the relation with the other”; therefore, following the ethical thought of Levinas, and also the historiographical thought of Michel de Certeau, this essay looks as well at the expression of heterology (or, a discourse on the Other) in both works--an expression, moreover, that, in Certeau’s words, “causes the production of an exchange among living souls” that “fashions out of language the forever-remnant trace of a beginning that is as impossible to recover as to forget.”

Infinite Realms Project

Claire Sponsler recently reminded me that I declared to her a few years back "If I ever do another edited collection, SHOOT ME."

While Professor Sponsler is purchasing a gun, loading it with ammo, hopping in a car and driving from Iowa to DC (I won't be difficult to shoot because I am slow moving), I will be working on this new edited collection [#5 for those who are counting]. Here's the advance publicity. Details will follow in this space, but I will admit that it is shaping up much more quickly than I anticipated and I am very much looking forward to seeing this project through.


Infinite Realms: Archipelago, Island, England takes its main title from an invective launched by an English historiographer against his possibly Welsh predecessor, a writer who had dared to narrate the story of Britain from a non-Anglocentric point of view. William of Newburgh asked sourly of Geoffrey of Monmouth whether he was dreaming of infinite realms (somniat infinita regna) when he bestowed to the future a vision of the ancient past that included glorious insular indigenes and a certain problematic king named Arthur. The book receives its subtitle (and counterbalances the expansiveness of its main title) from some recent work by the historian R. R. Davies, who has been tracing how a scattering of islands shared by multiple peoples came to be dominated and diminished by a single powerful kingdom.

Essays included in Infinite Realms: Archipelago, Island, England will take up such topics as how the distant past was fantasized by giving life to material objects like barrows and stone circles; who colonized or was made to inhabit that lost past, and how "deep time" might be linked to contemporary genders, races, identities; how reduction and homogenization allowed England to declare itself coterminous with Britain, and what voices were silenced through that process; how aboriginal peoples, a first settlement, or waves of conquest were dreamt; the heterogeneity of seemingly monolithic categories like "English" 'Irish" "Christian"; the place, voice and literatures of insular Jews, Saracens, Danes, and other outsiders or intimate aliens; the role of the primitive, the barbarian, the animal; the formation of the Celtic Fringe; the place of English in a restlessly multicultural milieu. Those are some possible parameters rather than an exhaustive list; as with the four previous collections I've edited, I would like this volume to be shaped by its contributors' interests and passions.

Infinite Realms will serve as a companion volume to The Postcolonial Middle Ages, a book that was (I hope) an important intervention into medieval studies when it was published six years ago and which helped to nourish an important subfield of the discipline. My desire is that the essays collected in Infinite Realms will have much to say that advances this scholarly conversation about the importance and relevance of the medieval in thinking about the complexities of human identity, past and present. I also hope that this volume will bring some of the most innovative research in the field into the scholarly mainstream.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Eileen Joy on Ambien

Check out The Wild, Uncontrolled Time of the Individual-Becoming, an essay that almost makes wish I suffered insomnia so that I could take chemicals to speed me into similarly compelling associations.

I like the whole essay, but I'll single out the following paragraph, the piece's modern to medieval pivot:

I do not want, for one minute, to make the facile argument that the modern individual is not so very different from the medieval individual (but which modern individual?, and which medieval individual? already over-complicates that notion, and we know better for so many other reasons), or that modernity is really no different, in its social forms, than the Middle Ages (and again: which Middle Ages?), although it can be argued, I believe, that the lines we often want to draw between “premodern” and “modern” are attempts to discern in history something that may not be there—a regular unfolding of “whole” world time in a particular, teleological direction. There has been much work in contemporary science, philosophy, and cultural theory that convincingly demonstrates, in the words of political theorist William Connolly, that “time flows into a future neither fully determined by a discernible past nor fixed by its place in a cycle of eternal return, nor directed by an intrinsic purpose pulling it along” (p. 144). Nevertheless, what I do want to suggest here is that many of the so-called “characteristics of modernity” described by contemporary social theorists rely upon an overly facile understanding of premodern histories (note the emphasis on the plural), while they also call forth, in beautiful detail, a picture of a world I am very familiar with already, not only in my own life, but through the texts of medieval literature. I recently taught a course in Arthurian literature—a body of work with which I must confess I have zero familiarity, knowledge, and training, and from which, with great delight, I have discovered a world brimming over with what I thought was modernity, and even, postmodernity. Although this literature is, indeed, invented and fabulist and only pretends to be historical, it does represent, I think, in many respects, the anxieties and aspirations of the process of becoming modern in the Middle Ages ...

Monday, August 21, 2006

book meme

It's summer, and readership of the blog is down to 150 or so visitors a day. Thus a first: a response to a meme, at the request of Glaukôpidos. In the Middle readers are invited to note their own responses in the comments section.

1. A book that changed your life.
Look here, I've already answered that. Sigh.

2. A book you've read more than once.
Good Night Moon. It's the only book I have memorized from cover to cover. I also carry in my head a potty mouth version that I made up out of utter but well disguised boredom during the nightly recitation.

3. A book you would want on a desert island.
Raft Building for Dummies

4. A book that made you laugh.
The DaVinci Code. But not in a good way. I still have flashback chuckles whenever I think of wicked albinos.

5. A book that made you cry.
The Lorax, by Dr. Suess. There is so much unspoken tristesse when that little guy hoists himself by his own keister and floats into a cloudhole.

6. A book you wish had been written.
The Archipelago of England (then I wouldn't be working on it right now and for the foreseeable future)

7. A book you wish had never been written.
See number four, above.

8. A book you are currently reading.
See number two, above. Every damn night.

9. A book you've been meaning to read.
Who Moved the Hole in My Swiss Cheese and How am I Supposed to Tell Where It Has Gone: A Deconstructive Reading of Management Practices for New Department Chairs

Grendel's glove

Good piece by Adam Roberts on Grendel's Glove at The Valve. No, this isn't the little yarn mitten that his mommy knitted for baby Grendel so that his fingers wouldn't get cold in the family lair. The glof is meticulously crafted, woven of dragon skin by an unknown maker. We learn of the strange object only as Beowulf renarrates his battle at Hrothgar's hall late in the poem, asserting that Grendel desired to stuff him inside.

Here is Roberts's closing paragraph, a powerful ending for the fine essay:
But this is the irony of the piece, of course. Because of all the works admitted to the canon of English literature Beowulf is the only one that was not hand-made, not produced cum manis onto manuscript. It was not written. Oral composition is the work of the spoken word and the memory, not the processes of hand-writing or hand-typing than nowadays characterise composition. But Grendel’s glove, the magical and threatening hand-covering, is exactly the right emblem for the strong-manual, dextrous-manual and above all the intimate, connective, hands-on quality that the poem exhibits.

I just left this in the comments section:
I think you're right to connect the intricate glove to artwork, especially because the poem is so obsessed with transforming mere things into luminous aesthetic objects (even Grendel's severed head is described as if it were a "beauty-sight"). What does it mean that Grendel wanted to engulf Beowulf inside his own work of art (the glove) but instead Grendel winds up encased in someone else's artwork (the poem Beowulf)? That the glove is made of dragon skin has to be important, too, given the twinning of the hero with his last adversary, the dragon, the monster that is most like him. If Grendel had succeeded, Beowulf would have wound up inside dragon skin. Yet Beowulf, having succeeded, ends up interred with dragon treasure in a burial mound very like a dragon's home ...

snakes, planes, aerial terrors

A brief article by Sharon Waxman appears today in the NYT , describing how the film Snakes on a Plane failed to translate the hype created through a meticulously executed internet publicity machine into actual human posteriors seated in a theater.

New Line Cinema executives are quoted as being puzzled over how the fizz went flat. Could it be that internet interest in the kitschiness of the film should never have been judged the equivalent of desiring to endure a screening? Sure. But, as someone who has thought a little bit about why monsters fascinate audiences, could I just suggest that snakes on a plane seem stupidly irrelevant in a world where Heathrow is shut down because terrorists might be making bombs from the contents of bottled water, infant formula, and shampoo containers? When your neighbor's plastic receptacle of Evian is declared lethal, cobras in the overhead baggage bins just don't have that much bite in their fangs.

On a related note, Chaucer is back: check out Serpentes on a Shippe!.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

"A blogger signing himself as 'Jeffrey C. Cohen, Medievalist'"

Via Cliopatria, an assertion that I have changed my middle initial and an insinuation that either (1) I may not be an extremely world famous medievalist or (2) I am someone impersonating Jeffrey C. Cohen (whoever in the heck Jeffrey C. Cohen may be).

PoMo identity complexities aside, I'm happy Scott McLemee liked the post.

Link: Listening to the Spokesbarbarian

Typically in London I stay in or around Squealer Slurs

But now I'm thinking that I'll have to move on to New Queasy, Frog Innard, Arcadian Noodle, Queerer Elastics, or Spicular Dicyclic.

Check out this anagramatic map of the London Tube system. Your cursor will indicate the familiar station beneath its rearranged name. Where do you [non-Londoners] typically stay, and where will you visit next time you go?

Welcome seekers of bad history

Is it an unmitigated honor or a dubious distinction to be included in the Carnival of Bad History, now at the Liberty & Power group blog?

Well, considering that my post on the Capital One Wallet Purloining Barbarians gets to be on the same page as a link to the story of how K-Y Jelly got its name, I'll go with the former.

I think.

(PS If you are searching for some history that is not quite so bad and are new to this blog, check out the listing of "Subtstantial Medieval Posts" on the right. I've gathered together some of the weightier entries and clustered them loosely by theme. There is quite a bit here by me, JKW, and Eileen Joy on topics like race, postcolonial theory, cultural admixture, thinking about temporality. Many of the posts have been followed by erudite, informative, and/or contentious discussions, so make sure to check the comments. Enjoy).

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Oh crap, looks like the Christians were right. The apocalypse is upon us and I'm screwed. I need a mixtape that will go perfectly with all that plague

Tiny Mix Tapes's Automatic Music Generator has still not delivered on a mixtape for JJC, but you have to love some of the most recent mix themes, such as:
  • will i always be the jester of the group? I have more substance than that. Songs to remind me i'm more than just a funny kid
  • if we don't stop now, you're going to be naked, and then i'm going to be naked, and then we're going to be in trouble
  • this might be tricky. but, i'm the only jew at my school and i am constantly the butt of jokes. it's all nice but i want a mix tape with jewish bands or you know jews in the band or like people with jewish managers or something to prove that just because i'm jewish i'm not stupid
  • songs for making pinky promises to
  • my professor is almost sixty. she is a performance artist who is prone to breaking into song in a voice that sounds like joan baez + nico. i have seen tons photographs of her naked, but i don't look at that them in a sophisticated, art appreciation way. i look at them and i see my baby's mama. i am 23, she is (my best guess) 58. i need a mix to slip into her office mailbox that will open her mind up to all that i, as a young man, have to offer
  • I think a homicidal fragile little boy is in love with me ... shit
Okay. Now let's get serious. We can do this. Send me your medieval/medievalism mixtape suggestions, and let's get some shit started. Yeah, I've been drinking. So what?

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Anxiety of the Influence of Medieval Identity Machines

My favorite book of Prof. Cohen's is Medieval Identity Machines [2nd favorite--Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages]. When I had my students at Southern Illinois University [enrolled in my Masculinity, Violence, and the Medieval Romance course] read the chapters "Chevalrie" and "Masoch/Lancelotism," let's just say they were, um . . . kind of blown away. Those who weren't blown away were really, really discomfited [which I always think is a good thing]; i.e., they were "disturbed." I guess I always assumed that it has been broadly read [and taught?], and when JJC mentioned in a blog posting not very long ago that it was his least reviewed [and by implication, least understood?] book, I thought . . . whaaaaaa? But then again, why am I surprised? In any case, I thought I would share here a short paper I delivered last fall at Notre Dame that was greatly influenced by MIM [and to a certain extent, also, by Of Giants], to show how JJC's thought impacted my teaching of Chretien de Troyes and also helped me connect that [reading/thinking/teaching] experience with current events in the war in Iraq.

honour desires the body's pain: The Posthuman Circuits of Chivalric Desire in Chretien's Yvain and the Iraq War

In the famous medieval story of the renowned knight and doomed lover Tristan, retold by Gottfried von Strassburg in the early thirteenth century, when Tristan is seventeen his uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, asks him how he would feel about being knighted. Tristan responds that he “would love to be a knight, to train my idle youth and wean it to worldly honours,” but he also reproaches himself bitterly for not having yet exercised his “untried youth”—by which he means, he has never engaged in combat—and he tells Mark and the rest of Mark’s court that he has “read that honour desires the body’s pain, and comfort is death to honour.”[1] Indeed, it could be argued that, although the term “chivalry,” in the Middle Ages, denoted a whole set of fluctuating and highly-localized yet also transcultural social practices and quasi-religious beliefs, that physical violence—most often in the form of battlefield or single combat—represented the primary experience through which aristocratic men, fictional or otherwise, proved and shaped their knightliness, and also their masculinity. In his book, Medieval Identity Machines, Jeffrey Cohen has written that medieval chivalry represented a “rigorous training of subjectivity and body,” and further, the word “chivalry” itself

“denotes both a powerful cultural fantasy and a catalyst to the formation of a specific kind of European Christian aristocratic male subject. Chivalry aroused and then shaped the desires of an elite fighting class, delineating the contours of socially acceptable expressions of force and passion. Intimately connected in its genesis to the necessity of producing a sufficient supply of men capable of keeping the nation safe from attack and of furthering imperial interests abroad, chivalry aimed to create a body at once deadly in its sanctioned violence and docile in its comportment at home.”[2]

One result of all this was the creation of a tension between acceptable social conduct and sexual and violent excesses that “formed chivalry’s conflicted heart,” and to make matters worse, the “impossible perfection of knighthood was [always] limned by nightmares of its own self-dissolution.”[3]

Nothing was more instrumental for the maintenance of chivalric identity, I would argue, than medieval romance, a genre well-suited to solicit the passions of its young, male readers with its tales of lone adventuring, jousting with the boys, killing giants, rescuing virgins, and fighting in large-scale wars. As Tristan, a character in a romance, states in his own story, he has read that “honour desires the body’s pain.” This point is worth re-emphasizing: Tristan, himself a fictional character in a fictional romance, is familiar with the very literature through which he has been created as a heroic figure. As Johan Huizinga once wrote of medieval knights, “They wear the mask of Lancelot and Tristan. It is an amazing self-deception.”[4] But it is a self-deception absolutely necessary in martial culture, for, as Cohen has also written, “in order for battles to be fought and won, young men must be made willing to sacrifice their own bodies to ensure the endurance of the structure of power that their activity undergirds.”[5] Perhaps ironically, the knight is made to believe, through the genre of romance and other politico-ideological means, that his assumption of a chivalric identity—at the moment, let’s say, he decides to take up arms—is a freely-willed form of self-fashioning, whereas in reality, he lives his life exactly the way he has been socially conditioned to live it. Chivalry appears, on the surface, to offer a type of freedom—the freedom to leave home, for example, and the freedom to create one’s self through various acts of personal techne, while in actuality, the community of chivalry is the very antithesis of freedom. The function of medieval romances, such as Strassburg’s Tristan, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, and Chretien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances, according to Cohen, is to provide the “hypnotic glimmer” and “cannibal poetics” of the chivalric, heroic self, and to offer men “in mythic form everything that they [actually] cannot have: freedom of movement, freedom of desire, freedom from the constraints of history and time.”[6] And what each potential knight-soldier is finally drawn into is not a literary romance or heroic life, but the defining, Freudian romance of history itself, a romance, according to Cohen, “written by a father, with a father’s wished-for ending. The possibility of rebellion is itself sentenced to death, and the good son[, once sacrificed] joins the body of patriarchs. The story is [always] set to repeat.”[7] And I would add that chivalry is ultimately a form of ghost-writing upon the skin and body of the knight: the instrument of his legibility is the sword of his enemy. And the knight’s blood, spilled on the ground, is the sum of his parts and meaning.

If we were to number all the leaves of all the medieval manuscripts that contained romance stories, they would fill Chartres Cathedral to the rafters and then some, and I can not even begin to do justice here to the barest description of the entire corpus or even to the most spare description of the shared features of the generic plots, but what I would like to do is briefly focus on one particular romance by the twelfth-century French author Chretien de Troyes, “The Knight with the Lion” (typically referred to as the story of Yvain), and even more particularly, on a portion of that story that involves Yvain’s association and friendship with a lion, whom he rescues from the clutches of a dragon after determining that “he would take the lion’s part, since a venomous and wicked creature deserves only harm: the dragon was venomous and fire leapt from its mouth because it was so full of wickedness.”[8] And further, “Pity summoned and urged him to aid and succour the noble and honorable beast.”[9] [And it goes without saying that the dragon, historically, is symbolically associated with everything that is not “noble” and masculine: it is feminine, variable in its sexuality, Asiatic, Muslim, chthonic, etc.] After Yvain slays the dragon by hacking it into tiny pieces—a typical day in the park for a medieval knight—the lion is so grateful that, uncharacteristically for a lion, “it stood up on its hind paws, bowed its head, joined its forepaws and extended them towards Yvain, in an act of total submission,”[10] and from that day on the lion never leaves Yvain’s side. In fact, from that point forward in the story Yvain is known only as “One who they say is never without a lion.”[11]

Yvain’s larger story actually begins prior to his encounter with the lion—with his already established renown as one of Arthur’s best knights, as well as a particular adventure he undertakes that leads to his marriage with a woman whose husband he has killed in single combat. But when he meets the lion, Yvain has been wandering by himself through wild terrain and various towns, partly because he broke a promise to his wife to return to her within one year and one day after leaving her shortly after their wedding to go tourneying, which is really “code” for: hang out with the boys, fight, hunt, and kill some things. When one of his wife’s female servants, Lunete, tracks him down and demands back her lady’s ring, since Yvain has broken his promise, he is stunned and Lunete has to forcibly pull the ring from his finger, at which point Yvain literally goes “mad,” strips off all of his clothing, flees into the woods, and lives “in the forest like a madman and a savage.”[12] Clothing and manners are everything in this world, and by entering the forest in this manner, Yvain signifies his complete abdication of everything his aristocratic culture stands for—he is no longer a husband, or even a knight, but is just an animal. Yvain’s real, naked body, no matter how well-trained and “hard,” cannot, by itself, denote knighthood, or any kind of recognizable social identity, since, in the world of chivalry, identity—human and otherwise—is inextricably bound up with what might be called the technology of soldiery: knives, swords, shields, armor, pennants, spurs and horses. Yvain’s entry into the woods—a landscape, moreover, that in chivalric romance always denotes ahistorical and wild time—represents his reduction to a kind of particulate, atomized being. The rest of the story is taken up with his slow progress back to his supposedly more coherent chivalric self, and the lion plays a critical role in the “second act” of Yvain’s self-fashioning as a knight, but also, as a man.

Everywhere he travels, the lion travels with him, and each time Yvain meets an opponent, he tells the lion to sit by and not interfere, yet at just the right moment, the lion always pounces and helps Yvain defeat his enemies. It is clearly important to Yvain to always let his opponents know that he does not require the lion’s help, yet at the same time, when he is overmatched (as he almost always is), the lion flies in, literally, to decide the matter with one deadly swipe of the paw, demonstrating that the chivalric self always “fights clean” and “honorably,” yet also requires, for the decisive moment, a ferocious, unthinking violence. In one extraordinary moment, when the lion believes Yvain is dead after Yvain has accidentally fallen on his own sword in a fit of swooning grief (primarily because he misses his wife so desperately), the lion attempts suicide by propping the same sword against a stone and throwing himself at it. Clearly, the lion lives for and through Yvain, and the two become inseparable halves of the same person. There is a certain fluidity of identity between Yvain and the lion that creates what the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari have called an “inhuman circuit”—an “amalgam of force, materiality, and motion” as well as a “network of meaning that decomposes human bodies and intercuts them with the inanimate, [the animal, and] the inhuman.”[13] The lion, of course, is also an allegory for Yvain’s warrior ferocity, which is simultaneously “noble,” like the lion’s bearing (meaning upright, supple, and “hard” in his body, but also “rational” and “moral” in mind), and mortally brutal, like the lion’s sharp claws. Together, they make perfect house guests as well as a beautiful killing machine. Ultimately, it is not discretion that is the better part of valor, but terror—here seen, not only as an object of awe, but also of beauty.

Young medieval men became knights, I would argue, primarily through a process of wounding, and Yvain’s story demonstrates this over and over again, as he and the lion wound and receive wounds together along each step of their adventures. They are even healed together, in order to wound and be wounded again. Typically, knights in medieval romance literature fight under the strain of wounds that would kill “ordinary men,” and phrases like “they fought as the blood rose to their ankles and knees” (as if the battlefields were closed containers) are stock commonplaces. Also typical is the knight who fights too soon after his wounds have only just begun to heal, so that while new wounds are being inflicted, the old wounds simultaneously open and the knight almost drowns in his own blood. The knight’s own blood, shed and re-shed, is the true métier of his existence—the reason he knows he’s really alive, even when dying.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the connections between the ethos of medieval chivalry and the contemporary cultural beliefs of young soldiers, such as Capt. David Rozelle of the Third Armored Calvary Regiment, who became an amputee in June 2003 when an anti-tank mine destroyed part of his right leg and foot. In his recent memoir, Back In Action: An American Soldier’s Story of Courage, Faith, and Fortitude—itself a species of romance narrative—Rozelle writes of his observation of his injuries shortly after his armored vehicle was blown up (his Humvee actually lifted off the ground and a door and tire were launched 300 meters away):

“My leg was straight and my foot was misshapen and slumped over to the right, lifeless. It wasn’t just limp, but was grotesquely contorted at a severe angle well beyond ninety degrees. . . . Whenever I tried to move it, pain would run up my leg as if someone were shooting me in the foot again and again. The only thing holding my foot onto my body was my boot. The blood was now pouring down the inside of the cargo wall. It was thick and dark, and carried fragments of bone and tissue with it. . . . I worried about being litter-carried in front of my men. Fuck, they never even saw me sleep, and now they would see me carried in like the dead.”[14]

Ultimately, Rozelle was less angry about his injuries (which would result in the amputation of the lower portion of his right leg), than he was about what he termed the loss of his command. In his memoir, he writes, “I was so angry. My command was over, and the war, for me, was over. I had lost everything in an instant.”[15] Somewhat amazingly, Rozelle has become the first amputee soldier in the history of the U.S. Army to successfully petition to be returned to active combat duty, and this petition was partly successful because of the advances that have been made in prosthetic technology. But it was also successful because of Rozelle’s passionate resolve to return to Iraq only as a commander on the ground, where, previously, his code name was “Killer 6,” and the evening before heading out on specific missions, he would rouse his men by shouting, “Killers on the Warpath!”[16] Most relevant to the discussion here is Chapter 4 of Rozelle’s memoir, “My Life as a Texan,” where Rozelle begins by telling his reader that when he thinks about “making a name for myself as a warrior, I think about mythological heroes,”[17] and since many mythological heroes, such as Gilgamesh, Romulus and Remus, had uncertain parentage, and he himself is adopted, Rozelle places himself within the pseudo-historical lineage of heroic myth. The fact that he is originally from Texas where, as he puts it, the colors of the Texas flag represent “bravery, purity, and loyalty,” and everything is bigger than it is anywhere else, provides further evidence of an heroic provenance. He also lets us know in this chapter that, after many conversations with a teacher who was a Vietnam veteran, and who ran a tank division there, he chose to be a “cavalryman” in an armored division, in order to never be one of the “poor bastards” who make up the infantry. In other words, Rozelle sees himself as having chosen the more “elite” military path, one with definite associations with the images and symbolism of the medieval chevalier. Later in the book, in Chapter 15, “Fit for Duty,” we get the story of the grueling physical therapy Rozelle puts himself through in order to place under erasure his official Army status as “Recovering From Traumatic Injury.”[18] In his letter of “Self-Recommendation and Fitness for Duty,” written in January of 2004, Rozelle wrote, “I am already considering my prosthesis an adaptive part of my body, which has no limits on me personally or professionally,”[19] and somewhat extraordinarily, in March of 2004, the Army’s Medical Evaluation Board evaluated Rozelle as “fit for duty.”[20] As Rozelle defines himself primarily as a commander of battle troops, and would clearly have a difficult time existing outside of that identity, he made a decision that he would take nothing less than active command of active combat troops. Setting an unusual historical precedent, the Army granted that request, and in July 2004, Rozelle returned to Iraq. In Rozelle’s statement in his letter that his prosthesis is an “adaptive” part of his body—a part, moreover, he wishes to train for combat—we can see, as Cohen has written, what might be called the chivalric, Deleuzian assemblage of the soldier (part human, part “other than human”), which “necessarily acknowledges that a body is not a singular, essential thing but an inhuman circuit full of unrealized possibility for rethinking identity.”[21] But this is an identity, too, in both Yvain’s and Rozelle’s case, which is a consummate figure of war, a figure that is predicated upon the desire for muscular, yet-also machine-like, proficient might. It tilts toward destruction.

Perhaps we should not view Rozelle through too negative of a lens, for from one perspective, he has demonstrated that his disability does not define nor limit his identity as a soldier, and even as a servant of the state, and his return to Iraq can be viewed, in that sense, as a kind of progressive triumph, both personally and culturally. And while I can see some of the sense in this argument, I do not think we are always aware of the powerful stories and cultural narratives that write our identities upon our bodies. And I am worried, too, about the larger question of whether or not the maiming and deaths of men and women in the war in Iraq is justified by the supposed causes of this war, however we might define them. As Michael Walzer argued convincingly in Just and Unjust Wars, human society is such that war will likely always be unavoidable, and therefore, it is critical that we insist on war having a moral structure, and we must likewise insist on the vigilant maintenance of that moral structure. As regards Capt. Rozelle and his desire to return to combat duty in Iraq, I keep returning to that moment in Shakespeare’s Henry V when, the evening before the bloody battle of Agincourt, Henry disguises himself and walks through the camp in order to sound out the morale of his troops. To a small group of soldiers who are clearly worried about the outcome of the next day’s battle, Henry says, “Methinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honorable” (IV.i.126-28), to which one of his soldiers replies, “But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such a place,’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afear’d there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument?” (IV.i.134-43).[22]


1. Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan, trans. A.T. Hatto (1960; reprint New York: Penguin Books, 1982), 101.

2. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004), 46-47.

3. Ibid., 47.

4. Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, trans. F. Hopman (1924; reprint New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 69.

5. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 82.

6. Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, 71.

7. Ibid., 85.

8. Chretien de Troyes, “The Knight With the Lion (Yvain),” Arthurian Romances, trans. William W. Kibler (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 337.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., 357.

12. Ibid., 330.

13. Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, 37-38, 76.

14. Rozelle, David, Back in Action: An American Soldier’s Story of Courage, Faith, and Fortitude (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2005), 143.

15. Ibid., 145.

16. Ibid., 11.

17. Ibid., 31.

18. Ibid., 212.

19. Ibid., 214.

20. Ibid., 218.

21. Cohen, Medieval Identity Machines, 76.

22. Citations of Shakespeare’s Henry V are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

Thursday, August 17, 2006

"hybrid mutant of something"

From the Boston Globe, news of a strange animal cadaver that may have been a local monster:

Michelle O'Donnell of Turner spotted the animal near her yard about a week before it was killed. She called it a "hybrid mutant of something."

"It was evil, evil looking. And it had a horrible stench I will never forget," she told the Sun Journal of Lewiston. "We locked eyes for a few seconds and then it took off. I've lived in Maine my whole life and I've never seen anything like it."
For the past 15 years, residents across Androscoggin County have reported seeing and hearing a mysterious animal with chilling monstrous cries and eyes that glow in the night. The animal has been blamed for attacking and killing a Doberman pinscher and a Rottweiler the past couple of years.

People from Litchfield, Sabattus, Greene, Turner, Lewiston and Auburn have come forward to speak of a mystery monster that roams the woods. Nobody knows for sure what it is, and theories have ranged from a hyena or dingo to a fisher or coydog, an offspring of a coyote and a wild dog.

Now, people are asking if the mystery beast and the animal killed over the weekend are one and the same.

File under teratology. Thanks to Marcus Antonius frater meus.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dear Capital One

Dear Capital One Marketing Gurus,

I am writing you this letter to ask you to cease and desist in your commercial use of medieval Vikings, barbarians, and other louche fellows.

Although I understand very well that these ruffians are meant to be symbolic representations of "the pain and tribulation that a credit card user feels when they [sic] have to pay high interest rates", I feel that you do a grave injustice to the early Middle Ages in offering such an unnuanced view of ancient proclivities towards raiding and pillage. As a medievalist I am well aware that the Normans (for example) were originally the "Northmen" or Vikings who besieged much of Britain, Ireland, and the continent. But to be fair to pirates in general as well as to medieval marauders in particular, it should also be noted that the Normans were in their later days the so-called civilizing force that Europeanized Europe! Do you like the Song of Roland? Good for you, you show some class. Let me tell you that this supreme masterpiece of human achievement was written down in England in ANGLO-NORMAN, the French spoken by the descendants of these wallet thieving corsairs.

You may argue that Capital One's roving bands of malcontents are not Normans or Vikings at all, but are generic barbarians. If you do assert this thesis I will be surprised. But I will also heckle you as laughably Roman-centric, because you will have demonstrated that your innate worldview is positioned from the Mediterranean looking north. This was the same worldview adopted by the Venerable Bede, who should have known better. So-called barbarians have been paying the price ever since, because their story has always been told by those who judge them as sorely deficient by their own culture-bound standards.

To the Romans, just as to the Greeks, barbarians were simply those uncouth and margin-dwelling people who did not speak Latin or Greek. The reality is that such people undoubtedly possessed sophisticated cultures, but because they were dismissed as feral or "Latinized" into proper citizens this culture is mainly unrecorded. As Peter S. Wells has demonstrated in his excellent book (The Barbarians Speak: How the Conquered Peoples Shaped Roman Europe), however, the indigenous Europeans [as they are better labeled] left a material record of "settlements, graves, ritual places, pottery, and personal adornment" that, in the absence of texts, speaks eloquently on these peoples' behalf (ix; cf. 22-23). Indeed these groups met the Romans at frontiers where a vivacious cross-cultural dynamism transformed indigenous Europeans and Romans alike.

Such is my polysyllabic way of letting you know that your primitive and thuggish depictions of barbarians do a violence to history by flattening it beyond subtlety. I ask you to grant these groups their full complexity, a first step towards which might be having the spokesbarbarian no longer declare the tagline "What's in your wallet?" in a seriously poor Cockney accent. I should also note that a search at your website for the word "barbarian" returned no results, a missed opportunity for pedagogy that nearly made me weep.

Thank you for your consideration, and I am very sorry that I was tardy with my last payment. Could you please refund the $120 late fee and return my interest back to whatever it was before it shot to 23.7%?

Yours sincerely,

Jeffrey J. Cohen

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bede's Austere History

Got your laptop on the beach with you? Here's a bit of light reading, to be set next to the recent post by Professor Joy Anglo-Saxons Were Apartheid Racists! and the follow up discissions On Medieval Race and On the nonexistence of race.

Today's point of departure is the simple fact that all this talk about the sustained genetic purity of the Anglo-Saxons (were the aboriginal British wiped out so that a Germanic stock thrived in isolation?) can obscure the cultural hybridity that always erupts when one group welcomes, dominates, vilifies, eradicates, accepts, dreams about another.

A fuller discussion, less rough and with footnotes, can be found in Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain. If I were to rewrite that chapter now, I would have emphasized more the violence that accompanies this moment of cultural contact; I fear that the discussion of hybridity comes across as too disembodied.


The Venerable Bede finished his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum [Ecclesiastical History of the English People] around 731. The heart of his narrative spans the fifth through early eighth centuries, a time when the isles were a maelstrom of cultural clash, admixture, alliance. The Picts and the Britons (disparate and shifting collectives of peoples, some Romanized, some not) formed their greater and smaller collectives, many enduring for years, others coalescing as briefly as the life of a warrior-king. Immigrants from Ireland arrived in what would someday be called Scotland and Wales, establishing the maritime kingdom of Dál Riata. Lively exchange with the continent was a constant. Beginning in the fifth century ethnically various peoples migrated from southern Scandinavia and northern Germany, assimilating or incorporating some indigenous groups, displacing or eradicating others. Over time these plunderers-turned-settlers combined warbands with more sedentary pursuits. Medieval writers referred to this settlement as the adventus Saxonum; modern historians label it the Anglo-Saxon migration, the foundation for what becomes England. Recent archeological and historical work has stressed the survival of native polities, forging out of patchy amalgamations of Anglo-Saxon and Romano-British elements emergent kingdoms like Mercia. Upstart realms fought relentlessly for hegemony, incorporating conquered rivals to form larger kingdoms, expanding into lands still held by Britons and Picts. These peoples, meanwhile, continued to form their own shifting solidarities, especially in the form of competitive principalities.

By the time Bede set pen to vellum the inhabitants of Britain had long spoken a variety of languages in an abundance of dialects. No doubt rapidly changing patois enabled trade and other less ephemeral forms of exchange. Many islanders would have been multilingual, indeed multiracial. The peoples of Britain were for much of this period more alike than different: possessing cultures and speaking tongues that lacked internal uniformity; prone to forming princely, kingly, and familial factions of variable scope and duration; mixing pastoral and pillage economies with less mobile religious and agrarian pursuits; willing to ally themselves militarily and matrimonially with those outside their linguistic and cultural circles. The British archipelago was, in short, as unsettled as it was compound, a dynamic expanse engendering what contemporary theorists of the postcolonial label creolization, métissage, doubleness, mestizaje, hybridity. No surprise, then, that "Anglo-Saxon England" is famous for its syncretism, its ability to embrace diverse and even contradictory traditions simultaneously.

Yet Bede stresses throughout his Ecclesiastical History the separateness and the supersession of insular peoples, a point emphasized even in his opening observation that Britain was "formerly known as Albion" (1.1; by whom he never says). He therefore acknowledges hybridity only obliquely. In the narrative arc formed by the Ecclesiastical History 2.13-3.3, we witness Edwin of Northumbria forsaking his native ways and converting to Christianity, reorienting his northern kingdom along a Mediterranean axis. The same king unites Britons and Angles in paninsular dominion. Rædwald of the East Angles, we are told, once erected a temple in which one altar served Christ and the other heathen deities. Papal epistles travel the world to ensure that the Northumbrian and Irish races (gentem Nordanhymbrorum, genti Scottorum) celebrate a unified Christianity. The pagan English of Mercia enthusiastically join forces with the Christian Britons of Gwynedd to overthrow Edwin. The exiled sons of Æthelfrith, the man from whom Edwin had captured the Bernician throne, dwell with their retinues among the Irish and Picts, awaiting Edwin's death. When these men return to their native kingdom, they immediately revert to their indigenous religion, a worship they had rejected after accepting baptism abroad. Oswald, the newest successor to Northumbria, is witnessed mediating the Irish tongue of the visiting bishop Aidan of Iona as he addresses the Angles:
It was indeed a beautiful sight when the bishop was preaching the gospel, to see the king acting as interpreter of the heavenly word for his ealdormen and thanes, for the bishop was not completely at home in the English tongue [Anglorum linguam perfecte non nouerat], while the king had gained a perfect knowledge of Irish [linguam Scottorum iam plene didicerat] during the long period of his exile. (Ecclesiastical History 3.3)

Bishop Aidan oversees monasteries that conjoin his native country to the Picts and the Angles. He lives on an island, Iona, which straddles the space between Britain and Ireland. His monastic community (if Adomnán of Iona is to be believed) amalgamates the Irish, Picts, English, and Britons. Through Aidan's friendship with Oswald, English Britain is transformed by Irish learning into a composite space (3.3).

Despite these multicultural vectors, however, most interminglings unfold only to be condemned. Rædwald's East Anglia is the location of the famous Sutton Hoo burial, an archeological discovery that – like the corpus of Old English poetry itself – suggests that the Rædwald's syncretism is far more indicative of the practice of Christianity in England than Bede's absolutist vision of pagan/Christian separation. Because Rædwald stations Christ alongside native gods and privileges neither, because his desire is to combine rather than to sort, the monarch must in Bede's account be deplored. The Mercians are allowed their alliance with the Britons only because they are pagans, and therefore as detestable as the confederates they treat as equals. The sons of Æthelfrith deserve their violent deaths because they move back and forth between the categories Christian and heathen, a troubling inconstancy rather than an easy fusion (they must be wholly one or the other; they are not permitted the strategic embrace of both). Oswald is allowed his Irish tongue and his subjects their Irish instruction because this source of Christianity does not come from a people, like the Britons, vying against Bede's Angles for possession of the island.

Onto Britain's primal and enduring heterogeneity Bede projects a reductive separateness. Bede's narrative is rather like the Hadrianic and Antonine walling projects that he describes early in the text, demarcations that engender unity through exclusion. In Bede's vision the entirety of the island constituted the natural dominion of a singular gens Anglorum, the English people. This group did not quite exist in Bede's day. Yet by imagining the island's past as a story heroically accomplished by this putative collective, by distilling a complicated historical field into the chronicle of a single people, Bede breathed life into the collective identity English and aided in the genesis of what was to become Europe's most precocious nation. The Ecclesiastical History imagines a past that, despite ample evidence to the contrary, seems monolithic, pure.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Paging the Chaucer blog: we need scarves, now!

If you're not a high-level politician or multimillionaire, you can't bring books or magazines on flights out of the United Kingdom. But you are still allowed to wear clothes on planes, and the rules don't say anything about forbidding clothes with text on them. So why not print books (from Project Gutenberg, or ones that have been released under a creative commons license) onto iron-on transfer paper and put them on a very long piece of cloth.

If airport security says your long strip of printed cloth doesn't count as a garment you can either wrap it around your head like a giant turban, or you can print it on a narrow scarlet sash and tell them that it's an emblem of the Junior Anti-Sex League and proceed to wind it several times round the waist of your overalls, just tightly enough to bring out the shapeliness of your hips.
-- Mark Frauenfelder

I am busily inscribing all of my books onto long strips of cloth and will soon be selling them on this blog.

Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo) and William of Norwich

The Boy Martyr of Norwich
Far in the thickest wood the fair lad lies
A rosy radiance plays around his head
Tall trees rise black upon the midnight skies
Save where a silver beam reveals the dead.
Magnificat he sang at evensong
And then when music hushed and lamps were low
Alone he homeward went nor dreamed of wrong
And in the still moonlight with footsteps slow
From a dark entry sprang a Jewish horde
Like fiends around the gentle boy they stood
And, as in ages dim they slew his Lord,
Nailed to a cross his white limbs stained with blood.
But God's sweet Mother grants him strength to bear
That fadeless diadem which martyrs wear.

Despite its aural heft, this pious little poem is not some stiff Victorian translation of a medieval text – though in homage to medieval tradition its author composed versions in both clunky English and clunky Latin [the latter features graceful lines like "Ecce puer gracilis silva jacet ille remota." You get the picture]. Both versions of the poem combine the story of William of Norwich, the first supposed boy martyr to Christian-killing Jews, with the nameless "litel clergeon" of "The Prioress's Tale." Indeed, there is a lot more of Chaucer in the poem than there is of Thomas of Monmouth (author of the medieval life of William).

"The Boy Martyr of Norwich" was composed around 1889 by the English writer Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913, AKA Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, AKA the Baron Corvo). I like the poem because it well reproduces the nebula of languid homoeroticism diffused from late medieval treatments of such dead boys. Its lingering verses couple a fascination with battered youth to an aesthetic overload of red blood and luminous flesh. The Jews are everything little William is not: hurried, shadow-dwelling, nonbelievers, murderously impassioned. Yet there are important differences as well. Thomas of Monmouth clearly adored the dead boy to whose sacred memory he devoted the work of his hands as well as much of his life. At worst Thomas would become extremely irritated when denied the chance to venerate William of Norwich in the flamboyant ways he desired; the result of this pique was usually Thomas imagining that the martyr's spirit descended in glory from heaven to scold, beat, and sometimes kill those who would not allow his tomb candles, a carpet, or a place of high honor in the cathedral. When Thomas looked at William, he saw a way for the city in which he resided to overcome some of its ethnic divisions and imagine istelf unified. When Frederick Rolfe, on the other hand, looked at the boy, he saw -- quite literally -- only himself. Rolfe so loved William of Norwich that he once painted a picture of the boy in which each of the 150 figures had Rolfe's own features, including his raven-like nose. (Rolfe, I should add, was a miserably failed priest who while living in poverty in Italy renamed himself the Baron Corvo, so he probably is not the best authority on making good choices).

The propensity to see in the boy martyr the revered, the holy, and an extension of an idealized self is certainly part of the medieval tradition. Yet there is something disturbing, even a bit Other, about little children in medieval texts. There is a way in which the child, who is "us" and "not us" at once, is a composite formed of recognizable desires and inscrutable demands, a domestic intrusion of the intimate other. Baron Corvo was not true to medieval tradition or to common sense in loving his boy martyr so much, and in granting his dead boy no possibility of challenging that desire, of being as alien as he was beloved.

Further reading on Rolfe:
Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford UP 1975)
Fr. Rolfe / Baron Corvo, Collected Poems, ed. Cecil woolf (London: Cecil and Amelia Woolf, 1974)

Things I have learned from Kid #2

1) It is possible to wear a pink tutu while enjoying your toy trains and trucks.

2) The ABBA song "Dancing Queen" may in fact have been about a monarch with a long cape oddly resembling a conventional bedspread. This queen also liked to do ungraceful ballet to a disco beat, and was fond of bossing innocent bystanders around, compelling them to dance awkwardly as well.

3) "You're too fit!" is a convenient way of declaring that you are too huge to squish into any junior bed, booster seat, or pink tutu belonging to Kid #2.

4) The only proper response to your brother passing gas nearby is to declare "You're funny."

5) It is OK to be unable to distinguish between the Disney character of Snow White and your own mom.

6) Crying whenever a character in a book becomes upset doesn't mean that one's parents should return to reading you the Baby Einstein series (a series that has yet to make Kid #2 comprehend relativity. Or even gravity.)

7) Learning to control your own bladder is such hard work that it really does deserve a blue M&M each time you do it.

8) If you smile at your dad long enough, he will give you anything. Absolutely anything.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Tiny lunar art

I don't know why I find this little figurine embedded in moon dust so strangely moving. Perhaps because it resonates, as a dimimutive and distant compadre, with The Awakening . Perhaps because memorialization always has a sadness, and this stranded little objet d'art has sadness in spades. Perhaps because it reminds me also of Professor Joy's posts about artifacts that have lost their context and yet somehow continue to mean (see especially her mini essay on Anglo-Saxon fragments sold on eBay posted in the comments to this post, and her ruminations on artwork sent beyond the horizon of short futures into the vastness of deeper ones).

Nonetheless, here it is: a 3" aluminum sculpture called "Fallen Astronaut" that is the only piece of art humans have intentionally placed on a heavenly body other than earth.

Courtesy of the wonderfully weird and truly inspired Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society and the always surprising boing boing.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Quote of the day: Lee Patterson

For a project I've been working on for, well, forever that examines the representation of little boys as not-quite-human, I've been re-reading Lee Patterson's essay "'The Living Witnesses of Our Redemption': Martyrdom and Imitation in Chaucer's Prioress's Tale" (JMEMS 31 [2001] 507-60). It's an extraordinary piece of work, excavating the densely sedimented "temporal strata" that form one of Chaucer's most challenging tales.

The essay returns repeatedly to the mutual influence that medieval Christians and Jews exerted upon each other's identities, with both groups altered by coexistence. As has been well argued, the Expulsion of 1290 didn't put an end to Christian-Jewish relations in a now Jew-free England (see especially the work of Sylvia Tomasch and Steven Kruger). Patterson extends this line of thinking to the story of the "litel clergeon" by detailing that strange little boy's Jewish ancestry (or, more precisely, the Jewish history that clings to his imperiled body despite an ardent attempt by the Prioress to render him unstained by the temporal).

Patterson is attentive to how Jewish voices might emerge within Christian texts. Some verses given to an angry Jew in the Fleury Playbook drama of St Nicholas become an "attempt by a Christian composer to imitate the Hebrew hymn [the Aleynu] sung by the burning Jews" incinerated by Theobald of Blois in 1171. Unlike every other version of this story, the Jew in the Fleury version of the drama is never called upon to convert, but coexists happily with a St Nicholas who aids him and demands no identity change. Patterson observes:
What we have ... is an almost utopian moment of religious harmony between the old religion and its new offspring. The new represents the future, to be sure, but a future that - at least here, and at least for a moment - is careful to preserve rather than annihilate its past (534).

He then goes on to detail how the Jewish kiddush ha-Shem (used here to mean the sanctification of the name of God through a suicide or child sacrifice that prevents forced conversion) echoes in the Prioress's Tale and its analogues. Patterson concludes:
The Jews of the Prioress's Tale have no voice at all: they are simply creatures possessed by Satan whose bodies perform certain actions and have other actions performed upon them. Yet not the least irony of the tale is that the Prioress herself also has no voice: she surrenders it--or so she thinks--to an institutional authority that guarantees its transcendence of the merely human and the merely historical. Yet within her mimicry, unbeknownst to her, there lurk the very voices she has sought to silence. In handing herself over to the Marian miracle and the liturgical drama she has also handed herself over to the history from which those genres sprang and to which they continue to bear witness. For these apparently most Christian of forms can never shed the Jewishness from which they emerged. Try as she might, a pure Christendom is unavailable to her: alone among the 33 versions of the tale, hers is set in an eastern country where both Christians and Jews are subordinated to a foreign, presumably Islamic sovereignty. And this inability even to imagine a pure Christianity, purged of the taint of the foreign, is Chaucer's comment on the futility of trying to escape from history. Whether the Prioress likes it or not, Christianity and Judaism are linked together not just in the past but in the present and--as we ought by now to have learned --in the future as well.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The Awakening

My favorite sculpture in Washington is the bearded head, arm, foot and knee that burst through the earth at Hains Point, a peninsula of a park not far from downtown DC. Created from cast aluminum by J. Seward Johnson Jr., this monumental piece is at once cosmic, comic, fascinating, and fearful -- really, the definition of sublime.

I post this because Kid #1 had his first sighting of the statue today. His camp made a pilgrimage to the Spy Museum, then ate lunch at this park by the Potomac. The giant has so captured his imagination that he can't stop thinking about it, even at 9 PM when his father has told him three times to go to sleep.

"they looked particularly good next to his bright begonias"

York minster is selling 14th C stonework for use in suburban gardening projects and for dealers to resell to American souvenir hunters via eBay.

Favorite quote: "“If York Minster wanted to paint the outside pink, they probably could." And you know, perhaps they should.

Obsessions, ranked and schematized

This word cloud of all the blog's ramblings makes it evident that HUMANS are big, just like RACE and IDENTITY; facts are slightly smaller; and "society" is very small indeed.

It's funny, I did one of these several months ago but didn't post it. The cloud was all about "erotic" and its synonyms. Remember those posts on animals as sexual symbols and medieval transvestites? Naturally they have progressed to the conversation about philosophy, physics and temporality that we are now conducting. Naturally.

(inspired by Old English in NY)

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Time Is But the Stream I Go A-Fishing In

[Special Note: File this under "weird" and "symbiotic." I composed this post this morning before I had a chance to read JJC's most recent post on "Time's Machines." My post was inspired by my re-reading last night of Thoreau's Walden and JJC's chapter "Time's Machines." Weird, man, just weird. Incidentally, Thoreau is so cool.]

“Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.” (Henry David Thoreau, from Walden)

The subject of time is important to Prof. Cohen, especially in relation to postcolonial theory, critical temporal studies, and studies of the body and embodiment. In Medieval Identity Machines, JJC writes that what these three schools of thought have in common is “a shared fascination with time’s destinationless trajectory” and with “the effects of temporal openness on human flesh” (p. xxiv). In his chapter “Time’s Machines,” JJC writes that “we have not yet critically approached the question of time. With a few notable exceptions, time has been doomed to the vast realm of that which is unthought, perhaps because it at once seems so obvious (as did gender and race, until recently), and on closer examination seems impossible” (pp. 1-2). But there has been in recent years, as JJC has pointed out, “a burgeoning critical literature on temporality, an interdisciplinary dialogue to which philosophers, feminists, physicists, cultural theorists, social psychologists, and literary scholars have been contributing” (p. 2)—and I would add political theory, too, if one considers William Connolly’s excellent book, Neuropolitics: Culture, Thinking, Speed (Minnesota, 2002). Most important to JJC—at least, when he was writing MIM—is to discover, through critical thought, “how time might be thought beyond some of its conventional parameters, outside of reduction into a monologic history (especially when “history” is understood as either simple context or a chain of flat, serial causality), outside of enchainment into progress narratives, with their ‘ever upwards’ movement of evolutionary betterment and abandonment of the past for a predestined, superior future, and outside of linearization, the weary process through which a past is not encountered for its own possibilities, but either distanced as mere antecedent or explored only to understand better the present and to render predictable the future” (pp. 2-3). Finally, JJC writes that he is “most interested in engagements with time that stress the open-ended movements of becoming over the immobilities of being, that stress mutating interconnections over the stabilities of form” (p. 3).

For a long time now, I have also been very interested in various theories of temporality, mainly because of some extensive reading I did while working on my dissertation (from 2000-2001) in physics and science studies more generally (John Barrow, Heinz Pagels, Richard Dawkins, Isabelle Stengers & Ilya Prigione, David Deutsch, etc.)—the book that really stuck with me was Julian Barbour’s The End of Time (London, 1999), in which he argues, from the perspective of quantum physics, that the universe is made up of “instants of time” that “do not belong to something that flows relentlessly forward” (p. 9). These instants of time are, further, “instantaneous arrangements of all things in the universe. They are configurations of the universe,” and they are “perfectly static and timeless” (p. 9). The hitch, though, is that we, because our brains are self-sentient (and therefore are like “memory capsules”), perceive these static instants of time as dynamic and temporal. For Barbour, “being” is real, and “becoming” is the illusion, and everything that can possibly “be” has already “happened.” It would be like saying all possible episodes of history existed alongside each other in simultaneous stasis (and yet they are also completely separate from each other). It is also like saying we have already lived all of our possible lives. Somewhere out there is a configuration of matter in which Hitler exists, and another one where he was never even born, and another one where he is a member of the French Resistance. The same could be said of a Margery Kempe, or of a you and a me. It's all a question of how particles of matter ultimately arrange themselves into various "configurations"--the possibilities for which are seemingly infinite. In this sense, Robert Gluck's Margery Kempe is as real a "being" as the Margery Kempe who presents herself to us in the Norton Anthology, and also as the Margery Kempe we don't know at all and the one even she didn't know about but dreamed. The landscape of the universe is ultimately “timeless,” although Newtonian-type dynamics “paints paths” through and across it. Barbour is a beautiful writer, if a fabulist physicist. He calls his instants of times “Nows” and writes,

“Time is experienced as something linear. It seems to move forward relentlessly, through instants strung out continuously on a line. We ride on an everchanging Now like passengers on a train. Each point on the line is a new instant. But is time moving forward—and if so, through what—or are we moving forward through time?” (pp. 17-18)

The country, or universe, of Nows, Barbour calls Platonia:

“The name reflects its mathematical perfection and timeless landscape. Nothing changes in Platonia. Its points are all the instants of time, all the Nows; they are simply there, given once and for all. . . . There are no paths with unique starting points conceived as creation events. Indeed, there are no paths at all. Instead, the different points of Platonia, each of which represents a different possible configuration of the universe at present—as potentialities at least—in different quantities. . . . Imagine that Platonia is covered by a mist. Its intensity does not vary in time—it is static—but it does vary from position to position. Its intensity at each given point is a measure of how many configurations . . . corresponding to that point are present. . . . The land of possible things has one absolute end, where it abuts onto mere nothing, but it is unbounded the other way, for there is no limit to the richness of being. Who knows what experiences are possible in the oases of richly structured Nows strung out along the trade routes that cross the deserts of Platonia?” (pp. 44, 45, 50-51, 55)

Finally, Barbour writes,

“In a very real sense, our memories make us present in what we call the past, and our anticipations give us a foretaste of what we call the future. Why do we need time machines if our very existence is a kind of being present everywhere in what can be? . . . We are each just the totality of things seen from our own viewpoint” (p. 329)

I actually presented a paper for the Old English division of the MLA (back in 2001 or 2002—can’t quite recall and too lazy to check my c.v.) that applied chaos theory and Barbour’s ideas about time to the intellectual history of Beowulf scholarship, in which essay I tried to link the image of the Beowulf manuscript flying out of the window of the Ashburnham House during the 1731 fire (Kevin Kiernan has surmised from its damage and placement on the shelves that it was likely one of the MSS. thrown out the window) with an image of a prisoner in Sierra Leone (during the recent civil war there--1999) wresting photographs away from an R.U.F. photographer who had just been killed by a bomb dropped by Nigerian forces (the photographs were of atrocities committed by R.U.F. soldiers on their prisoners—everyone might recall that the R.U.F. was responsible for hacking off the limbs of their victims, including children; the prisoner was actually about to have his throat cut when, miraculously, the Nigerian planes appeared and started dropping bombs on the rebel encampment). I wanted to show how these two incidents could be seen as passing through each other in a kind of arc of time, relative to a point I wanted to make about how certain historical artifacts are preserved through chaos, not purposeful recovery. I brought in a lot of theory on photography and history as "becoming" from Siegfried Kracauer, Eduardo Cadava, Walter Benjamin, Jean Luc Nancy, etc. Blah blah blah. Looking back on it, the argument looks kind of crazy and should likely be blamed on dissertation ennui. Plus, I got some really strange looks from the audience at the MLA meeting. Needless to say, there were no questions, but as my friend Betsy likes to say, when you don’t get any questions, you must be doing something good. Well, at least, original.

Can I make this already long post even longer? You bet! Basically, I just wanted to share with JJC and the readers of his blog that I, too, am fascinated with temporality theory and its possible relevance to literary-historical studies, and I recently put together a paper proposal for the 2005 MLA meeting on temporality and Beowulf studies, which was rejected, but what the hell? I share it with you here as a prospectus for a possible future essay:

“All Mouth and Teeth and Motion: Ten Models of Time for a Future History of Beowulf Studies”

History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now.
—Walter Benjamin

Would you sacrifice history if it made your mom happy? Freedom? Your own country?
—tagline on movie poster for Goodbye, Lenin!

In his book Thinking About Beowulf, James Earl wrote that “the systems of relations—of us to Beowulf, of Beowulf to the Anglo-Saxons, and of the Anglo-Saxons to us—constitutes the meaning of Beowulf” (p. 168). This is a statement, I would argue, that very much resonates with the argument of Edward Said, in his essay “The World, the Text, and the Critic,” that “texts have a way of existing that even in their most rarefied form are always enmeshed in circumstance, time, place, and society—in short, they are in the world, and hence, worldly.” Further, Said argued that cultural critics bear a special responsibility to delineate the processes whereby a text expresses both “historical contingency” and the “sensuous particularity” of each present is which it is received. And yet, in the ten or so years since the publication of Earl’s book (and also since Allen Frantzen’s 1990 book Desire for Origins), while we have had some noteworthy work on the ways in which Beowulf expresses the historical and ideological contingencies of an Anglo-Saxon past (e.g., the recent scholarship of John Hill, Nicholas Howe, Jeffrey Cohen, Seth Lerer, and John Niles, to cite what I believe are the most prominent examples), we have had relatively little scholarship that has focused upon what might be called Beowulf’s “sensuous presentness.”

Further, there has been an explosion in recent years in the fields of history, art history, and cultural studies in what might be termed “time, history and memory” studies, and there has been, at the same time, a reemergence of the monument and the memorial as major modes of aesthetic, historical, and spatial expression, all of which has led to various crises—theoretical and otherwise—over the ways in which temporality and cultural memory are or ought to be articulated in institutions, theory, art, and literature. To quote Andreas Huyssens, from his book Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia:

“The undisputed waning of history and historical consciousness, the lament about social, political, and cultural amnesia, and the varied discourses, celebratory or apocalyptic, about posthistoire have been accompanied in the past decade and a half by a memory boom of unprecedented proportions. There are widespread debates about memory in the cultural, social, and natural sciences. . . . How do we understand this newest obsession with memory? How do we evaluate the paradox that novelty in our culture is ever more associated with memory and the past rather than with future expectation? Clearly, it is related to the evident crisis of the ideology of progress and modernization and to the fading of a whole tradition of teleological philosophies of history. Thus, the shift from history to memory represents a welcome critique of compromised teleological notions of history rather than being simply anti-historical, relativistic, or subjective. . . . the current obsession with memory is not simply a function of fin-de-siècle syndrome, another symptom of postmodern pastiche. Instead, it is a sign of the crisis of that structure of temporality that marked the age of modernity with its celebration of the new as utopian, as radically and irreducibly other.” (pp. 5-6)

How might Beowulf scholarship address this “crisis” of the structure of temporality and also join a series of conversations long in progress in other fields about the relationships between time, memory, and history? In this paper, I want to pose that question and offer ten models of temporality whereby Old English scholars might “rethink” Beowulf’s relationship to the past of its écriture and to our present. I offer below a very brief listing of those ten models:

1. The Langolier Model (derived from Stephen King’s short story, “The Langoliers,” in which time is represented by disembodied, whirling and gnashing mouths with steel teeth that devour the materiality of the past while also leaving behind material “scraps”—the past is a menacing and dangerous place as a result and nothing “works” there, matches don’t light, engines can’t start, etc.; Beowulf doesn’t “work” in the past anymore and can only be made to work in the present)

2. The Andrei Rublev Model (derived from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film of the same name; the past as contemporary Brechtian political parable: Beowulf set in the rubble of Grozny)

3. The Goodbye, Lenin! Model (derived from Wolfgang Becker’s film; the past as sentimental, or is it heroic [?] “family romance”; Beowulf studies is having a difficult time moving forward because it still loves its “fathers” too much)

4. The Wrinkle-in-Time Model (“the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line”; Beowulf, via Grendel, blasts a hole in the continuum of historical time; the “time of terrorism” = “the time of Beowulf”)

5. The Post-Apocalyptic Model (derived from James Berger’s work in After The End: Representations of the Post-apocalypse; Beowulf meets Morrison’s Beloved in the post-histoire Potter's Field)

6. The Monumental Model (the architectonics of monumental, sculpted time, à la Pierre Nora’s “lieux de memoire” and the Long Now Foundation’s “Long Now Clock”; Beowulf as part of the mechanical “works” of our “long now” clock)

7. The End-of-Time Model (derived from Julian Barbour’s The End of Time, a work in quantum physics; there are “many worlds,” existing, not behind and in front of each other—teleology—but side-by-side in a static, frozen present, what Barbour calls “Platonia”: “Who knows what experiences are possible in the oases of richly structured Nows strung along the trade routes that cross the deserts of Platonia?”; Beowulf MS. as a material object existing “beside us” yet “separate”)

8. The Phantom Model (Beowulf as a “phantom limb” of the present)

9. The Secret Heliotropism Model (“As flowers turn toward the sun, by dint of a secret heliotropism the past strives to turn toward the sun that is rising in the sky of history”—Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”; Beowulf’s final request for a memorial as this heliotropic “turning”)

10. The Temps L’Autre Model (the past as Emmanuel Levinas’s “time of the other” through which “futuration” is enacted; the character of Beowulf as the figure of “futuration” par excellence)