Saturday, September 30, 2006
I'm afraid to report here that most of my research is taking me to very, very, very scary blogs. I think what that means is that I should uncork a bottle of wine, kick back, and watch Huff, which is exactly what I plan to do next. That show is some serious, um . . . shit. But not medieval shit.
Friday, September 29, 2006
... is The Shire, a development of Middle Earth themed habitations notable for -- among other things -- its utter earnestness. From the website:
The Shire is conceived to be a retro community in its exterior appearance. Inside The Shire dwellings you'll find a blend of quaint and charming styling cues melded throughout completely modern floor plans, conveniences and appliances.
To achieve the character and feeling of English cottages and village townhomes, The Shire designers have specified only high quality fixtures and materials. Some materials, seldom seen in residential construction for a hundred years, have been resurrected and manufactured from contemporary compositions.
The Shire is unique, fearlessly created to the vision of developer Ron Meyers and a team of designers to help implement his vision. The Shire's homeowners will share this unique vision to have their community and primary residence beyond the ordinary incorporated with the values and charms of a different age.
Depicted above is a cottage of a type called "The Swordsman." Why a swordsman would live in a Viking range equipped, granite counter supplied McMansion disguised as a quaint country getaway is difficult to discern.
You wouldn't necessarily know that this community is patterned on Middle Earth's bestest place from the website's mainpage; go here for a quotation from Tolkien that will distinguish this Olde English village from one that might have been developed by, oh, say the piss artist Thomas Kinkade.
To truly make me want to live in Bend, Oregon, this Shire had better include prowling Ringwraiths and the possibility of Balrogs.
(with many thanks to N50)
Thursday, September 28, 2006
My graduate seminar just read his superlative "Rome: Capital of Anglo-Saxon England" on Tuesday, and I had been wondering about his health (he had leukemia, and had recently taken a turn for the worse).
I never met Howe in person. After he gave my book Of Giants a generally affirmative review in Speculum, I emailed and thanked him (it would have been an easy book to trash). He wrote back and said "Why should you care what an old fart like me thinks?" But I did care, because his work has always been so impressive. Migration and Mythmaking in Anglo-Saxon England opened new vistas on the early island. Work that followed grew increasingly complex philosophically while maintaining a linguistic beauty that could be breathtaking. "Anglo-Saxon England and the postcolonial void" (in Postcolonial Approaches to the European Middle Ages) is about as good as it gets as far as scholarship goes. I wish I could write half as well.
I invite readers of In the Middle to share their own thoughts about Nick Howe and his work. If anyone is interested in composing a substantial memorial guest post, please let Eileen, Karl or me know.
Wednesday, September 27, 2006
In the Middle has been fairly successful, as far as blogs go, logging (on a typical day) upwards of a hundred visits, and attracting about fifty or sixty regular readers. Are blog readers book purchasers? Capitalist obsessive that I am, I wondered if instigating a moderately well known blog or annoucning books on such a blog might impact sales of scholarship published in conventional media. As regular readers know, I've spoken about many scholars' work here, often in relation to my second and not very lucrative job as professional blurbiste. I have no way of knowing, though, whether this publicity inspired any readers to purchase one of these volumes.
I just received my royalty statement from the University of Minnesota Press, where I've published three of my books, and the results of my twenty minute long investigation into blogs and books are ... impressively inconclusive. Seems that Monster Theory continues to do well in attracting people willing to pay for permission to reprint pieces in coursepacks (the book itself is just back in print, having sold out its initial run of 1200 several years ago). Medieval Identity Machines sales are down, a meager 35 for a whole year (44 the year before that, for a total of about 450 copies). But here is the weird thing: Of Giants is hot, hot, hot! Seventy five copies sold, as compared to a mere thirty-nine during the same period last year. It is verily flying out of the warehouse at the rate of a book every three days. Must be the blog! How else to explain the reinvigoration of a tome that is seven years old, steps away from the nursing home and doddering oblivion as far as academic publications are concerned (total sales of the book are now approaching those of Monster Theory, quite amazing considering how specialized the volume is).
To be honest, the royalty statement covers a period from June 30 2005 to June 30 2006, so I cannot be certain that this blog catalyzed anyone's desire to read about sex, giants and the Middle Ages. For all I know, the books were given as gag holiday presents before the forum even launched. But it is very strange to think that something so hoary (it was my dissertation, for loud outcrying) could gain a second lease on life. Gives us all hope as we likewise dodder towards oblivion.
Just to give an idea, any academic book that breaks the sacred 1000 barrier is doing quite well. Most volumes sell 200 copies or fewer, generally the library run. I don't say that to brag (look at how modest the sales of MIMs remain), but because these are the kinds of things academics never speak about: the sheer mercantilism sullies the purity of the scholarship, I suppose. Yet I know that when I was thinking about my first book I wish that I had had access to some general information on audience and publication numbers.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
We Must Speak What We Feel: Eros, Love, Regard and the Humanities
My book project, We Must Speak What We Feel: Eros, Love, Regard and the Humanities, originated in the collaborative project undertaken by the BABEL Working Group to create new venues for bringing together scholars working in the humanities and social sciences with researchers working in the more “hard” sciences in order to formulate new paradigms for humanistic study at the university level, and to also demonstrate the relevance of premodern studies to pressing contemporary issues and questions. Part of the impetus of this collaboration was my interest in two somewhat longstanding debates among two groups of thinkers and researchers that do not always converse with each other—humanists and scientists—over the future of literary and other aesthetic studies and the future of “the human.” It is my belief that there are many rich opportunities for the productive convergence of these two groups, and there is already some proximity and overlap in their respective intellectual concerns.
Scholars working in literary studies, for example, have been discussing how changes in technology will affect the transmission and production of humanistic knowledge, and they have also worried over the fate of literature and the arts in what has widely been heralded as a posthuman age. What, for instance, might be the role of the critical analysis of literature in helping readers (including students) to develop ethical selves when the very notion of a coherent “self” has been undermined, not only by postmodern philosophy, but also by recent discoveries in cognitive science that, while dismissing the notion that there is such a thing as a single, unified self, have also revealed the importance of narrative and metaphor-like structures in the brain? George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, for example, in their book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, 1999), write that the way we “normally conceptualize our inner lives is inconsistent with what we know scientifically about the nature of mind.” Further, “there is no single, unified notion of our inner lives. There is not one Subject-Self distinction, but many.” At the same time, however, “we conceptualize our inner lives via metaphor.” And Daniel C. Dennett, in Consciousness Explained (Boston, 1991), has written that, thanks to certain insights from neuroscience, we know that individuals do not possess a “single, definitive ‘stream of consciousness,’ because there is no central Headquarters, no Cartesian Theater where ‘it all comes together’ for the perusal of a Central Meaner,” although there are “multiple channels in which specialist circuits” create “fragmentary drafts of ‘narrative’.”
Furthermore, there is a growing body of scientists, led by John Brockman, co-founder of the scientific collective Edge (www.edge.org) and the editor of the essay collections The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution (New York, 1995) and New Humanists: Science at the Edge (New York, 2003), who argue that it has become necessary for scientists, in Brockman’s words, to “take the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives.” They believe that traditional literary intellectuals have abdicated their responsibility to elucidate the “important” philosophical questions regarding human nature, mind and body, time, technology, and the like, and they feel that those working in fields such as biology, computer science, mathematics, and physics are better suited to address those questions. Not all in Brockman’s circle fully agree with him that science will provide the answers to the big questions historically tackled by scholars working within the humanities. Nicholas Humphrey, for instance, a theoretical psychologist and author of The Mind Made Flesh: Essays from the Frontiers of Psychology and Evolution (Oxford, 2002), has argued that scientific discoveries can not “be counted on, necessarily, to bring about a net increase in human happiness—either through what they reveal about the course of nature or through the tools they potentially give us with which to intervene in it. Many scientists . . . are deeply pessimistic about what science tells us about the way the world is headed. And, as a separate issue, many still have anxieties about the use to which scientific discoveries will be put—from weapons of mass destruction, to eugenics, to thought control.” There is room here, then, I would argue, for humanists and scientists to work productively together, regardless of Brockman’s pessimism that literary scholars, for example, have become too hermeneutically insular and culturally pessimistic.
Finally, there are the social scientists—scholars working in psychology, sociology, and political theory, especially—who have undertaken immense and important work on human behavior that, while it often makes great use of scientific research, rarely considers literary or other aesthetic studies to be of much practical use.
We Must Speak What We Feel stems, first, from a desire to address certain areas of tension and non-communication between literature scholars, social scientists, and other scientists relative to the project of what Brockman has called the “rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives,” and also to ruminate the possible applications of humanistic studies within the supposed posthuman future. Second, the project is directed to three separate, yet (as I see it) related areas of scholarship:  work in social theory on what Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim have termed the “non-linear, open-ended, highly ambivalent,” and precarious process of individualization in the late modern period, where the intelligibility of the individual self—and, as a result, the moral community—is at risk of losing its coherence;  work in psychoanalytic theory on love, compassion, attachment, and affective care, especially in relation to individual well-being; and  work in neuroscience, cognitive philosophy, and sociology on what Lakoff and Johnson have termed “embodied consciousness,” where reason “is not disembodied, as the tradition has largely held, but arises from the nature of our brains, bodies, and bodily experience”: the “same neural and cognitive mechanisms that allow us to perceive and move around also create our conceptual systems and modes of reason,” and these modes of reason are not “purely literal, but largely metaphorical and imaginative,” as well as “emotionally engaged.”
This project is also a response to the work of the political theorist Jane Bennett in her book The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton, 2001), where she worries about what she calls “the image of modernity as disenchanted, that is to say, as a place of dearth and alienation (when compared to a golden age of community and cosmological coherency) or a place of reason, freedom, and control (when compared to a dark and confused premodernity).” For Bennett, “the question is not whether disenchantment is a regrettable or a progressive historical development. It is, rather, whether the very characterization of the world as disenchanted ignores and then discourages affective attachment to the world,” and this question is important, “because the mood of enchantment may be valuable for ethical life.”
The second worry Bennett has is over “the image of ethics as a code to which one is obligated,” and therefore “the affective dimensions of ethics are drawn too lightly.” In Bennett’s opinion, the enactment of ethical aspirations “requires bodily movements in space, mobilizations of heat and energy,” and “a distinctive assemblage of affective propulsions.” Further, ethical rules, by themselves, are not sufficient to the task of nurturing “the spirit of generosity that must suffuse ethical codes if they are to be responsive to the surprises that regularly punctuate life.” It is the argument of Bennett’s book that the contemporary world does, indeed, “retain the power to enchant humans and that humans can cultivate themselves so as to experience more of that effect.” Further, her “wager” is that, “to some small but irreducible extent, one must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.”
While Bennett looks at what she calls “sites of enchantment” in nature and culture—including video technologies, cross-species encounters, chaos theory, and commercial commodities—it is my purpose in this project to argue that literature, especially of the premodern period, is also a site of enchantment through which affective attachment to the world as well as the processes of disenchantment can be explored and analyzed, especially with an eye toward the cultivation of that “distinctive assemblage of affective propulsions” Bennett argues is so necessary for an ethical life. How might the study of premodern literatures play an important role in the cultivation of an affective, enamored ethical life in a world that is, for the modern individual, increasingly stamped with, in the words of Max Weber, “the imprint of meaninglessness”? Further, how might recent work in psychoanalysis and the cognitive sciences help those of us working in literary studies to draw upon the technologies of both emotional, embodied reasoning and of metaphor and story in our intellectual work, such that we might begin to bridge the gaps that often exist between the scientists and the humanists, and thereby formulate a “new humanism”? Finally, how might those of us working in premodern studies practice an enamored and affective scholarship that is attuned to pressing contemporary concerns and questions?
Although this project is, as I have stated, in its most infant stage, I have developed a preliminary sketch of a chapter outline. In addition to an Introduction to the project, there will be four chapters, two of which (on Sophocles’s Antigone and Shakespeare’s King Lear, respectively) will treat the themes of disembodiment and disenchantment, and the resulting negative socio-political consequences and individual psychic damage. The other two chapters (on the Old English saints’ legend, The Seven Sleepers, and Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, respectively) will treat the themes of embodied reason, erotic attachment to the world, and the necessity of sites of enchantment for the development of an enamored and ethical life.
Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge, 2000)
---. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcasts (Cambridge, 2004)
Ulrich Beck, Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, trans. Mark Ritter (London, 1992)
Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, Individualization: Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences, trans. Patrick Camiller (London, 2002)
Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton, 2001)
J. Bowlby, Attachment and Loss, Vol 1: Attachment (London, 1969)
William E. Connolly, Neuropolitics: Thinking, Culture, Speed (Minneapolis, 2002)
Thomas J. Csordas, ed., Embodiment and Experience: The Existential Ground of Culture and Self (Cambridge, 1994)
Antonio R. Damasio, The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotions in the Making of Consciousness (New York, 1999)
---. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (New York, 1994)
Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained (Boston, 1991)
Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth, and Bryan S. Turner, eds., The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory (London, 1991)
Kenneth Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York, 1991)
Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, 1990)
---. Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford, 1991)
Paul Gilbert, ed., Compassion: Conceptualisations, Research and Use in Psychotherapy (London, 2005)
Nicholas Humphrey, The Mind Made Flesh: Essays from the Frontiers of Psychology and Evolution (Oxford, 2002)
Mark Johnson, Moral Imagination: Implications of Cognitive Science for Ethics (Chicago, 1993)
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought (New York, 1999)
Scott Lash and Jonathan Friedman, eds., Modernity and Identity (Oxford, 1992)
Jonathan Lear, Love and Its Place in Nature: A Philosophical Interpretation of Freudian Psychoanalysis (New York, 1990)
---. Open-Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul (Cambridge, Mass., 1998)
Joseph LeDoux, The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (New York, 2002)
Nikolas Luhmann, Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy (Cambridge, Mass., 1986)
Max Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy, trans. Peter Heath (London, 1979)
Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson, Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior (Cambridge, Mass., 1998)
Bryan S. Turner, The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory (London, 1996)
Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Passion: An Essay on Personality (New York, 1984)
Monday, September 25, 2006
With nearly a third of the Christian year eventually given over to the fast days, it is unsurprising that reform or heretical movements often expressed themselves through the irregular eating of meat. Fifteenth-century Norwich heretics declared that anyone could eat meat regardless of whether it was Lent, Friday, or an "Ember Day." The bellicose indifference of their furtive heretical feasts was bad enough, but they hardly compare to the enormities of the twelfth-century heresiarch Peter of Bruys, who, as Peter the Venerable reports (PL 189: 771C), went so far as to roast meat on a pile of disassembled crucifixes on Good Friday. The Cathars, like the Norwich Lollards, also opted out of the Christian cycle of eating, in their case, notoriously, by refusing meat altogether; for, regardless of what the people accused of belonging to this group practiced, they were routinely derided (at least!) for scorning any food derived from coitus, that is, animal flesh. The monk Eckbert of Schönau assailed these heretics in
It is quite extraordinary that when the Lord, the creator of all things, allowed men to eat flesh, he ignored your "sacred reason," namely that because all meat is born from coitus, everyone who eats meat becomes unclean. Alas that he didn’t have any Cathar about who could have whispered this wisdom to him in his ear in that hour when he gave Noah and his sons the power to eat flesh!Ekbert’s scorn no doubt masks – or, just as well, signals – his nervousness at the contiguity of heretical and devout diets. How to tell friend from foe, virtue from heretical vice? No wonder, then, that an eleventh-century sermon reports that Saint Martin intervened in the executions of heretics, not out of sympathy for heretics, but out of the worry of justice misapplied: many Christians unnecessarily suffered during a time when many were identified, and slain, as dualist heretics merely because of the pallor of their skin. Ethnic profiling, or the Khmer Rouge's purge of intellectuals.
(PL 195: 37A-B; for another picture of their beliefs, see a sermon by the twelfth-century canon Raoul Ardens, PL 155: 2011A: as he reports, they are "condemners of meat and marriage. They say that it is as shameful to take a wife as it is to marry one's mother or daughter. They also condemn the Old Testament. They receive certain parts of the New and reject other parts. And what is worse, they preach that there are two authors of things, believing God the author of invisible things and the Devil the author of visible things": hence Eckbert's interjection of "Dominus creator omnium rerum").
These anxieties call to mind, necessarily, 1 Timothy 4:1-5 and, also, an early great crisis of dualism in the Christian church, a crisis on which, indeed, much of this later material drew to give voice, and shape, to its own anxieties and solutions. The early fourth-century Council of Ancyra (now
Those who are in clerical orders or priests or serve the church and abstain from meat should at least taste of it and then, if they wish, they may abstain from eating it. If they judge this to be so abhorrent that they decide not to eat vegetables cooked with meat, inasmuch as they have not obeyed, expel them from the rule in which they had been ordained to serve.This canon, translated into Latin and circulated in the Western church with the others, made heretics known by their refusal to touch meat or at least vegetables cooked with meat (presumably as some kind of pottage), while the professional religious who wished to make their bona fides known to the community of the faithful could engage in a meatless ascetic diet only so long as they showed that this diet overlaid one as potentially carnivorous as that of their fellow Christians. In short, because no religious could eat a diet entirely free from meat without inviting charges of dualism (see Raoul Ardens, above), membership in the community of the faithful required the death of animals. But just as surely, later Christianity required that Christians abstain from the pleasures of carnivorousness on certain days.
Some preliminary theses, then: The Church designates meat-eating a pleasure and requires participation in it or, at the least, requires abstention from it as from a pleasure. Disgust for meat is the beginning of heresy just as surely as is careless indifference to its importance. As Eckbert claimed, the Cathars “shun all flesh...but not for the same reason as monks and others living spiritually abstain from it” (PL 195: 14C-D). Perhaps.
Stay tuned for a future post if I can get around to writing it. I'll talk about Francis of Assisi’s Christmas wish for walls made of meat. And perhaps the hairy John Chrysostom.
Tanner, Norman, ed. Heresy Trials in the Diocese of Norwich, 1428-31. Camden Fourth Series 20. London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.
Turner, Cuthbert, ed. Ecclesiae occidentalis monumenta iuris antiquissima: canonum et conciliorum Graecorum interpretationes Latinae. Oxford: Clarendon, 1907. Vol. 2, Part I, 86s.(minor edits to correct sleepy-headed solecisms and typos)
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Meditation on a rainy day with the kids, running around a local toy store:
A chess set featuring berserkers as knights versus Mall Madness ("Updated for the 21st century and redesigned to reinforce the important skills of shopping sprees, discounts and clearances")? Hurry up and invent that time machine, please!
(Illustration is of the stunning little works of art known as the Lewis Chessmen, c.1150, discovered in the Outer Hebrides where they were hidden under mysterious circumstances. Vikings played chess? Maybe I should have mentioned that in my letter to Capital One).
Let us know what you think. Also, I've had a report of the fancy left margin being imprinted over the post text in Firefox for Windows. If anyone else is having format problems, it would be good to know that as well, as the template has been tampered with.
PS I also realize that our three bloggers are from the U.S., but the blog's readership is geographically wide ranging. I'm trying to figure out how much of a shortcoming that poses in a movement to an expanded format, and would be happy to have some feedback.
Friday, September 22, 2006
For this and other crusading myths imploded upon themselves, check out the archives of Zenit.org ("The World Seen From Rome") under 10 October 2004. Quoted below is "Thomas Madden, chair of St. Louis University's history department":
Myth 3: When the Crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099 they massacred every man, woman and child in the city until the streets ran ankle deep with the blood.
This is a favorite used to demonstrate the evil nature of the Crusades.
It is certainly true that many people in Jerusalem were killed after the Crusaders captured the city. But this must be understood in historical context.
The accepted moral standard in all pre-modern European and Asian civilizations was that a city that resisted capture and was taken by force belonged to the victorious forces. That included not just the buildings and goods, but the people as well. That is why every city or fortress had to weigh carefully whether it could hold out against besiegers. If not, it was wise to negotiate terms of surrender.
In the case of Jerusalem, the defenders had resisted right up to the end. They calculated that the formidable walls of the city would keep the Crusaders at bay until a relief force from Egypt could arrive. They were wrong. When the city fell, therefore, it was put to the sack. Many were killed, yet many others were ransomed or allowed to go free.
By modern standards this may seem brutal. Yet a medieval knight would point out that many more innocent men, women and children are killed in modern bombing warfare than could possibly be put to the sword in one or two days. It is worth noting that in those Muslim cities that surrendered to the Crusaders the people were left unmolested, retained their property and were allowed to worship freely.
As for those streets of blood, no historian accepts them as anything other than a literary convention. Jerusalem is a big town. The amount of blood necessary to fill the streets to a continuous and running three-inch depth would require many more people than lived in the region, let alone the city.
I am relieved to hear that logic dictates that three inches of flowing blood were a biological impossibility at the storming of Jerusalem, and that therefore the Crusades were not actually all that violent. After all, many of the Muslims, Jews and non-Western Christians dwelling in Jerusalem were probably "ransomed or allowed to go free." If only they had surrendered, they could have retained their property and worshipped with liberty. Foolish them.
PS I'm not arguing -- as does the straw scholar that Madden sets up -- that the crusades were thoroughly wicked. And I don't doubt that crusaders were motivated by piety. Like all human endeavors, the crusades were messy, heterogeneous, replete with conflicting and mutable motives and objectives. I do wonder, though, what is at stake in such defensiveness about the inherent goodness of the enterprise.
(thanks for the tip to Frater Meus)
(2) The roads around the Academic Center of GW have been closed and the student center rendered a media staging area. Rumor is that VP Dick Cheney is in the GW hospital. Perhaps I should not have conducted my 7.30 AM activity today).
Also, readers may be interested to know that Adam Roberts has responded to Eileen's comments on his Valve essay about Grendel's Glove.
4.57 At doors of gym, waiting for opening. Wonder how I got here.
5.00 Work out. Wake up halfway through, pleasantly realize that much of routine has been accomplished in zombie-like and noncomplaining trance.
6.05 Home to eat bowl of cereal and skim New York Times. Have daily conversation with Spouse about the FFFs (Fine and Festive Favorites) spotted at the gym: today's cast included Grunting Man, Anorexic Woman, and the Nebish [the Spouse and I alternate days at the gym. To make this routine of seven years slightly less dull, we harvest small observations about the place's odd habitués and share them over breakfast. Yes, we are both deeply weird]
6.20 Shower and grooming rituals. Dress in something snappy but authoritative (a department chair is judged on his sartorial splendor, not the subtlety of his mind).
6.45 Begin process of awakening the Kids. Involves lights, noise, and obnoxious prods.
7.00 Kid #1 has now dressed himself in his "Life is Good" shirt. He is designing for his room a complicated message delivery system out of black thread and construction paper. This is what happens in the absence of email, a reversion to barbarian communication techniques. Kid #2, resplendent in pink pants and a pink shirt and a pink bracelet and a pink hairclip, waits patiently as mom finishes chiseling the snot from her morning face. I then read her Go, Train, Go! to distract her from the fact that the only adult in the house she currently idolizes is at this moment sneaking out the front door for work.
7.30 Time for the rest of us to go. Drop kids off at various warehousing facilities in which they are kept during the day. Drive to the GW campus and note the buildings that are my daily landmarks: National Cathedral, the Naval Observatory (home of Dick's House, as we call the VP's mansion; every day I intone "Cursèd be Dick" as I drive by), the British Embassy, the French Consulate, the Islamic Cultural Center, Temple Micah, Saint Sophia, the Enormous Phallus of Washington.
7.45 Arrive on campus. Instead of going to my office, I hide in some obscure stacks in the library. Reread several chapters of Kofi Campbell's Literature and Culture in the Black Atlantic, which I will be teaching in graduate seminar this afternoon. Pause over many lines and underline enthusiastically.
8.45 Arrive in English Dept. office. Did not come earlier because I knew that if I had, someone would want something from me.
8.47 Someone wants something from me.
8.51 Someone else wants something else from me.
9.01 Listen to my voicemail. Jot down notes about what things people want from me. Am amazed anyone calls at night to leave these messages.
9.07 Check email. Only forty in the queue, a light day. I sit very still, but inside I do a happy dance.
9.08 Say good morning to department receptionist and office supervisor. Crack some bad jokes.
9.11 Ignoring my email is stressing me out so I answer several. In an attempt at efficiency I am terse, and realize too late that because I didn't use an initial pleasantry I will be asked throughout the day why I am so angry.
9.45 Seventeen emails remain. I am giddy with success. Work on teaching load policy paper I am drafting, and note that I have five student recommendations to compose.
10.00 Meet with office supervisor to sign letters, cosign reimbursements, assign teaching schedules, reassign rooms, consign old computers, and design faculty meeting agenda. Consider that I should resign. Think better of it. Make a few remarks that seem to me witty, even trenchant, but impress office supervisor as the ravings of an unbalanced academic.
11.00 Work on promotion dossiers, an extremely arduous and complicated task that would act as an immediate soporific if described. Chuckle to myself as I consider that these dossiers belong to faculty who think the gates of heaven will spring open when they get their promotion to full professor, but in fact as a consequence of this promotion they will someday find themselves seated in this very office with its leaky window and morose Shriner (I will Superglue him to the ledge before my term ends), signing forms with the same office supervisor (as far as I can tell she is immortal, having been here since at least the 1960s and possibly since the Early Modern period).
11.25 Energetic student bursts in despite attempted body block from receptionist. Asks for emergency meeting. I scrawl words on Post It notepads, and wonder if it is unnatural to possess thirteen colors and six sizes of these things. Also, do they come in aquamarine? Aquamarine would be good. Soothing, even. Student kicks off flip-flops while speaking. I am vaguely disturbed.
11.45 Run out for lunch, bring tomato sandwich back to office to eat while rereading Kathy Lavezzo's Angels on the Edge of the World for seminar.
12.10 Meet with someone who wants something from me and has scheduled an appointment.
12.30 Meet with someone who wants something from me and has scheduled an appointment.
1.00 Meet with dean, from whom I want many things and have scheduled an appointment.
1.20 Back to office, unsure what I have in fact received. Check email. Queue now stands at 53. Answer two of them. Finish sandwich.
1.26 Realize that I have not used men's room since arriving and bladder may burst. Answer one more email, then make a run for it, startling receptionist. Swear off liquids in the future so that I can be more efficient.
1.30 Flip over the "STAY OUT OR ELSE!" sign that Kid #1 has made for my office door. Designed like a hotel "Do Not Disturb" sign, this knobhanger features a depiction of my office door with a kicking foot protruding. The end of the foot's shoe has made contact with the derriere of a startled member of the faculty, who is being propelled skyward by its force. A single word ("Cha!") is inscribed above the would-be intruder, onomatapoeia for the sound a faculty member makes when hurtling through the air.
1.45 Turn off computer so email will not chime and internet will not tempt. Open the Life of Saint Columba of Iona and read. Wonder how this book intersects with Campbell and Lavezzo, and how I will possibly teach a good graduate seminar in less than two hours. Small cloud of despair begins to form.
2.00 Turn computer back on to see if my book is still ranked #1,828,535 on Amazon. It is.
2.02 Back to Saint Columba.
2.15 Check Bloglines and GMail.
2.20 Back to Saint Columba.
2.30 Office supervisor forwards an email that lists suggested names for the generic version of Viagra (favorite: Mydixafailin). Writes underneath: "If you respond to this email I will know that you are not really working in there." I write back "What else would I do with my door shut and the STAY OUT sign on besides surf the internet for Viagra jokes?"
2.35 Open office door. Perform a variety of administrative tasks of such Herculean importance and such mind numbing complexity that to narrate them here would only seem self congratulatory and ruin my reputation for extreme modesty.
3.10 Leave office to clear mind before class. Drink three shots of espresso. Buy Sun Chips for Kid #1 to eat later.
3.22 Return to office and make last minute xeroxes for class.
3.30 Teach my seminar "Writing, Race and Nation." Eyes begin to water as espresso kicks in. Find that the Caribbean hybridity detailed by Kofi Campbell resonates well with Columba's Iona. Find that the periphery-loving England detailed by Kathy Lavezzo illuminates Bede's notion of the "English race" very well. Enjoy class immensely.
6.00 Run from class to take care of last minute office things, then to car and thence to temple to pick up Kid #1 at midweek Hebrew class.
6.20 Jump on the temple's wireless while waiting, and see that email queue is now at 65.
6.31 Kid #1 appears. The moment he grins, my day as professor and chair vanishes completely.
6.45 We arrive home, Kid #1 still munching Sun Chips. Am assaulted by Kid #2, who declares - as she does every evening - "I had a SUPER day!!"
7.00 Eat a bowl of cereal for dinner while chatting with the Spouse. Kid #2 steals most of the banana I've put in it. House is a maelstrom of juvenile energy.
7.30 Kid #1 works on homework with mom while I read Kid #2 Yes, A Cat Named Marty Cohen and The Lorax . Kid #2 laughs loudly when the Lorax hoists himself by his own keister into the clouds.
7.45 Each member of the family receives a very wet kiss (we call this "Kid Juice") from Kid #1 and she climbs into bed. We sing Frere Jacques twice, but not as a round.
8.00 I admire the message system that Kid #1 now has operating in his room. I send him a message that reads "Life is Good." He laughs.
8.15 Kid #1 proudly models the modifications he has made to his Halloween costume. He was going to be a Giant Whoopee Cushion. He has now added a scythe from last year's Grim Reaper costume, and will be The Giant Whoopee Cushion of Doom. I wonder if we should start putting money away for a the psychiatrist he will someday require.
9.00 Kid #1 goes to bed. As the Spouse and I turn out his light, I note that he and his sister share the same smile. It is as if all the world's joy were quietly gathered there, in the upturned corner of the mouth.
9.30 Spouse and I recount the minutiae of the day to each other. A feeble attempt to read in bed.
10.00 JJC wanders off into dreamland (where, he was warned at 8.15 during the command encore performance of Frere Jacques, Kid #2 will be waiting, eating a strawberry ice cream cone).
In one of the more awkward moments surrounding the disclosure of his Jewish heritage this week, Senator George Allen, Republican of Virginia, volunteered that his background had hardly inspired him to start keeping kosher. “I still had a ham sandwich for lunch,” Mr. Allen told The Richmond Times-Dispatch, referring to rules against eating pork, “and my mother made great pork chops.”
Thursday, September 21, 2006
I expect most people in the course of writing a large project accumulate a lot of material that they ultimately won't be able to use in it or anywhere else. I certainly have. Consider this post a version of those blogposts that invite posters to submit lists of whatever comes to mind: Bérubé's ABF (arbitrary but fun Fridays), the Friday random ten lists, memes & memes & memes.
I'll start. Like any lawcode, whose power of course is at its greatest when most arbitrary, medieval lawcodes are full of what looks like stuff and nonsense:
* The Diplomatarium Islandicum, as Anna Irene Riisøy points out, forbids people from eating with trolls. A convivium with trolls (a face slick with goatfat is a dead giveaway) will cost you 40 marks (payable to king or bishop). You'd be better off in Nobu.
* The Norwegian Frostathinglaw forbids humans to scootch under cows to suck on their udders.
* The Gulathing law forbids people from telling impossible tales about one another: its examples include accusations of werewolfery or periodic gender switching.
* Bartholomew of Exeter lends his support to those who forbid foolish talk (balationes: bleating?!) and cross-dressing before church doors.
* Scab-eating is almost universally condemned.
Alternately, you might want to comment on this odd sentence in a NYTimes article on the recently discovered skeleton of an Australopithecus toddler: "An analysis of the skeleton revealed evidence of a species in transition." Am I wrong to suspect the thoughtcrime of preDarwinian teleology?
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
I'll periodically share some material from the winding down of my dissertation as a kind of textual precipitate. Perhaps some other stuff too. Some of this, like the discussion below, is material that I can pry free easily from existing chapters, and some of what I'll share, like the discussions of meat or Dolopathos, is just material I love that I might never get to use anywhere else. I'm aimed to find material whose conclusions are somewhat tentative, that might strike a nerve, that, at the least, might be fun, all material I think suitable to be presented in medias res.
One of the works I encountered the course of writing my dissertation is the Testamentum Porcelli (the Will of the Little Pig), a short prose work of the fourth century that, as Jerome complained, schoolchildren preferred to Plato’s Timaeus. The Testamentum takes the form of a dictated will—“since I cannot write with my hand”—in which a pig named Grunnius Corocotta Porcellus (translated by one critic, a certain "G. Anderson," as “Grunter Boarman-Roastpig, Esq.") bequeaths grain and other foodstuff to his porcine survivors and portions of his body to sectors of human society: his bristles to shoemakers, his intestines to sausage makers, and more fancifully, his tongue to lawyers and “to the verbose” and “cinaedis musculos” (muscles to sodomites), until he reaches the end of his own body.
The work is a joke whose humor relies upon the disjuncture between its solemn legalities and its characters, one a cook, usually a low-class comic figure in classical literature, and the other an ambiguous animal. The Testamentum could be comfortably funny only because animal rights or animal consciousness should be inherently ridiculous; a gecko selling insurance is usually much funnier than the human salesman, Ralph, from
Ambiguity 1. The pig possesses something few animals do, an individual, even familial name, yet this name is little more than a concatenation of pigs’ stereotypical traits, a bestiary in miniature. In contrast, the pig’s animal lack of hand joins him to the human. Although pigs have no hands or any other limb they could use to write, nothing prevents Grunnius from drafting a written document formed in accordance with the law; even most fourth-century humans—of whom most were neither professional scribes nor literate—dictated their wills. Thus the first joke, “quoniam manu mea scribere non potui,” hardly separates Grunnius from humans: he cannot write, but neither could most of his supposed superiors.
Ambiguity 2. The pig’s ambiguity necessarily infects his killer. The cook’s initial words belong to a juridical register: “Come here, homewreaker, garden destroyer, fugitive piglet; today I interrupt your life.” The pig should be subject only to the law of human appetite; a cook or butcher’s ideal indifference to their professional killing depends on the irrelevance of morality to animals. They should be only means, not ends; they should be unsubjectable within thanatopolitics—although this point certainly merits more consideration: maybe there is a porcus sacer? Grunnius nevertheless is subject to criminal, that is, human law, and execution administered by the cook: first, because the cook has deemed him a criminal, a bandit even; second, because the cook characterizes the killing as punishment; third, because the cook allows the pig to make a will, which, even by the nature of the word—testamentum derives from testor (to testify/bear witness)—requires acknowledgement of the pig’s subjecthood; and fourth, by recognizing that the goods to be distributed are in fact the pig’s own to distribute, that is, that the pig has a right to property, even if the property is only food for pigs and his own body, food for us. For all these reasons, the cook blurs the classifications dividing his animal victim from humans. And if he colludes with the pig to flout the animal/human boundary, he also flouts the boundary between executioner and butcher, trades both encompassed in the word “carnifex.”
After the pig asks leave to dictate his will, the cook summons a servant, “come here, boy, bring me my knife from the kitchen that I might make this piglet bloody,” apparently restoring both pig and himself to their proper categories. But rather than immediately using the knife, the butcher pauses to allow the pig to make a will. The hesitation catches pig and cook up inextricably in two disharmonious practices: one in which even to execute a pig is to treat it to a legal procedure to which an animal whose sole function is alimentary should not be entitled, and one in which a legally recognized criminal is to be unceremoniously butchered and then consumed. By failing to resolve this tension, in fact by combining these two practices, the Testamentum defamiliarizes both law and appetite: if the cook simultaneously punishes and slaughters, the law becomes little more than the codification of the pleasures of appetite—or the pleasures of appetite become ennobled by expression through the disinterested rigor of law. In the Testamentum the boundary between butcher and executioner swallows criminal and pig, human and animal. All that finally draws or rather cuts the boundary between butcher and pig is not morality, not the law, not species, but who holds the knife and who—or what—suffers it.
d'Ors, Alvaro. "Testamentum Porcelli: Introduccion, Texto, Traduccion y Notas." Supplementos de 'Estudios Classicos': Serie de Textos 3 (1953): 74-83. (thanks to Martha Bayless for pointing me to this edition)
Anderson, G. "The Cognomen of M. Grunnius Corocotta: A dissertantiuncula on Roast Pig." American Journal of Philology 101 (1980): 57-58
Baldwin, Barry. "The Testamentum Porcelli." Studies on Late Roman and Byzantine History, Literature, and Language. Brill, 1985. 137-148
Braund, D. C. "Coracottas: bandit and hyena." Liverpool Classical Monthly 5.1 (1980): 13-14
Champlin, Edward. "The Testament of the Piglet." Phoenix (1987): 174-83
Daube, David. Roman Law: Linguistic, Social, and Philosophical Aspects. Edinburgh, 1969. 78-81
Monday, September 18, 2006
What I intended to convey (ineptly, I know; I'm always at my worst when I'm terse) is that if professionalization is overhyped as the be-all and end-all of a successful program of graduate training, it can become a Holy Grail as depicted in a Monty Python cartoon. Its celestial shimmer is so bright that graduate students told to keep their eyes upon it might not be encouraged to be colleagues in the here-and-now with their current professors. A relentless focus on the conferences at which you should be presenting and the journal articles you should be composing can foster a narrowing of interest. A message implicitly conveyed by the imperative to publish! and present! can be that it is far better to talk to specialists in your own field than to, say, attend a departmental colloquium on an author whose name is alien or on a time period distant from your own.
I wanted to stress that graduate school ideally has its own rewards as an intellectual space, rewards not necessarily related to following the advice in How to Have a Career as an Academic Star. Sometimes those satisfactions can be dimmed when it seems that all value derives from a luminous elsewhere, in the form of the reward system to which "professionalization" is the supposed doorway. Don't get me wrong, I do believe that graduate students should deliver conference papers and strive for publication. Good mentors must ensure that these opportunities are made available and demystified. But bad mentors can use "professionalization" as a way of alleviating their guilty conscience over the fact that so many bright PhDs don't get jobs: if it didn't work out, the problem is that student X didn't adequately professionalize, that student X is a failure - not that the field is extremely difficult to break into no matter how smart and well credentialed you are. I guess what I was arguing for is some notice that growing as an intellectual within a community sometimes means taking the "professionalize or perish" credo - especially when offered as if it were in itself unambiguous and a recipe for success - cum grano salis.
Friday, September 15, 2006
Yes, that was intentionally a groaner of a metaphor, conjured to illustrate the fact that I can't seem to post well anymore. Today's reasons: a ceaseless morning meeting in which I developed a severe allergic reaction to people reading to me from their PowerPoint presentations and in my head ran screaming from the room (my body remained patiently present, pretending to take notes); a lunch of wilty leaves to which a vaguely pinkish dressing clung, the perfect color to soak my copy of a memo on new and improved rules for sabbaticals and promotions; seven emails requesting letters of recommendation within a single hour; an unabating medley of complaints, whines, affirmations, deprecations, and unidentifiable noises that might have been any of those things if I could have mustered the enthusiasm to check outside my office door. I picked the kids up from the various daycare and afterschool programs where we keep them warehoused during the week, and then took them to temple for a special children's service ("Tot Shabbat"). Kid #1 patiently endured the throng of toddlers attracted to his Older Child Majesty, while Kid #2 screamed that she wanted to color on the torah and attempted to drown out any song in Hebrew with "Old MacDonald Had a Farm." We ate pizza at the temple with the other families and then went out for dessert afterwards here. Kid #2 stopped screaming long enough to gorge on strawberry ice cream [she will eat only pink things right now; I should have saved my lunch for her], then screamed for more when it was gone. Oddly, this vocalizing failed to make more dessert appear, but it did frighten a large number of passersby.
So, my brain is as vapid as a template-driven PowerPoint presentation. And you're expecting a substantial medieval post? Maybe in three years, when I'm not chair any more.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
The following will make little sense to anyone who doesn't know the story of William of Norwich. You can find out a bit about this first instance of the ritual murder accusation through the Medieval Sourcebook and Jewish Encyclopedia. You can find out much more in an article I wrote a few years ago ("The Flow of Blood in Medieval Norwich," Speculum 78 : 26-65) and in the last two chapters of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain.
Here, then, is the original epilogue to the book. To see what I actually published instead, look here.
Sanctus. That was a cheerful conclusion.
Will. You wanted the usual? Swelling strings, an affirmation of life, words to leave the reader with the conviction that, yes, human lives are the apex of all the world's goodness?
Sanctus. We got that in his last book. My complaint is that this time around we received the postcolonial usual. Author ascends high horse. Author declares in stentorian voice that the past was quite wicked. All the people who thought they were being pious turn out to be bigots. The church has blood on its hands. What I find astounding is that so many writers hostile to the Middle Ages seem drawn to its study.
Will. I like that pronouncement. With a dismissive little wave it lets you stay oh-so-above-it-all. The past is all white linen and candlelight, or it's nothing but dirt and blood -- is that it? I don't know what kind of world you inhabit, Sanctus. Heaven, I guess. But down here in the muck, it's hard to give the Norwich story a happy ending. Especially when you look at it through Jewish eyes.
Sanctus. And maybe that's the problem. Thomas of Monmouth wrote the life of a saint through Christian eyes. What JJC never admits is that this is a document composed in a spirit of reverence. It is not a testament of antisemitism and racial prejudice. Perverse, I think, to read the passion of a martyr so unfaithfully.
Will. The Real can't be as tidy as history and saints' lives pretend. Look at me, with my English blood and Norman pretensions. How screwed up is it that, with an uncle named Godwin, I'd find myself christened William and bang on the door of a cathedral to ask the archdeacon to let me in?
Sanctus. We lived at a time of deep transition, I agree. But not every transition is a trauma. Sometimes the Ethiopian does turn white, only it happens with such boring slowness that no one notices.
Will. And sometimes the Ethiopian is suddenly shouted down as a nigger! Read your Fanon. He's forced to notice a skin color that never mattered before. Sometimes, too, the Ethiopian takes a pale wife. They have children with black and white polka dots on their skin -- I read that in Parzifal. Sometimes a Christian befriends a Jew. I always imagined that in life I had Jewish pals when Iw as alive. Look at the stories about the child martyrs who came after me, boys like Hugh of Lincoln. Jews and Christians lived as neighbors. Their kids played with one another. Why do we have to imagine ghettoes when houses touched? Maybe that's why the Jews of Norwich trusted me to mend their cloaks. I was a friend to their sons. You won't find these boys mentioned in Thomas's story. He always dressed me in white and made me sing pretty hymns. You'd never even guess I spent my life skinning animals and dipping their hides into piss and manure to cure them. No odor of sanctity around me. I stunk like dead skins and shit.
Sanctus. Just because you worked with excrement as part of your trade does not mean that its filth came from your mouth in life. Why can't you believe what Thomas wrote? Why do you need to doubt? I would not be the first twelve-year-old boy with a dedication to purity. I was meant to be worthy of emulation, Christ in miniature, and you make me seem as soiled as a tanner's work. Simply and innocently, couldn't it be that I believed what any citizen of Norwich must have held to be true: to be a Christian is to desire the world to be Christian? That's not violence. That's not hatred. It's generosity, and love.
Will. I don't think you've met many twelve-year-old boys. Thomas said the Jews favored me. I'm guessing that's because -- unlike your friends at the priory -- I didn't disdain them. The more I think about it, the more I know this to be true: I must have had a Jewish friend. His name was Isaac, I'll guess, and he lived near the market. Twelve years old, like me. He'd just had his bar mitzvah. He already knew he was going to marry a girl from London. Thomas called me a puerulus, a little boy, but everyone knows that by twelve you're practically a man. Old enough to hold a weapon. Old enough to kill someone. Don't forget that when I was murdered, I was already living on my own. Thomas makes it seem like I was barely housebroken, not a wicked thought in my head.
Sanctus. Ah, but no matter how old I was, no matter if I was a puerulus or not, I was innocent. Perhaps I did have a Jewish friend as you say, Will. But I may have befriended him to convert him. If he was really my friend, I doubt I'd want to think about him in hell. I may even have brought him to church once, and he beheld the Eucharist and –
Will. Saw a Christ child in the bread? Went home and his dad shoved him into an oven? This is why I hate hagiography. You can see the conclusion coming from a mile away.
Sanctus. Just because something is conventional does not mean that it is devoid of truth, or beauty. And here is my next criticism of JJC: he is so intent on finding the social meanings of texts he forgets that they are also moving and reverent works of art.
Will. I thought that's why he wrote his fabulations. The texts infected him, and he began to speak in their mode.
Sanctus. Maybe the histories. I'm not sure hagiography infects. It awes. Every time I read of the tortures inflicted upon my earthly body I feel a semblance of the pains of Christ. I weep.
Will. I also cry. But it's not because our suffering called a community together. It's not because the death gave the faithful a better understanding of their messiah's ordeal. Eight and a half centuries ago a twelve year old boy died in misery and alone. He was tortured to his death for reasons that can never be comprehended. I don't cry because he was an allegory. I cry for everything he couldn't know.
Sanctus. Will, you would leave me without meaning. I cannot imagine a world so empty.
Will. I can't imagine a world so full.
Sanctus. This book began on an airplane. JJC had been invited by to give a lecture for a conference on monstrosity, Incontrare i Mostri, in Salerno. He had written a moderately interesting piece about disability studies and the promise of monsters. Then September 11 happened. On the long trip to Italy by way of London, exactly one month after the attacks, he rewrote the entire talk. He wanted to know why innocent people die horribly. Suspended between heaven and earth, floating above the Atlantic and the Alps, he couldn't come to a convincing answer.
Will. It seems to me that on that crossing of the seas he was afraid of losing his own son, a puerulus and a Jew. He had learned the world's fragility, and it was love for a child that made him unable to stop thinking about a boy who died in Norwich in 1144. He couldn't save us, dead by unknown hands, but he could memorialize us. He could make us live. He could say something about community, outsiders, hatred, monsters. He could restore a little meaning to a lost world. For his son.
Sanctus. And so William becomes a saint again. Not an especially Christian one, but a saint all the same. A battered body offered for reverence, a small beacon of promise.
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
One of the stranger effects of the events of 9/11 was its stoking to a passion what had been my mild, abiding interest in the prehistory of the British Isles and Ireland. Looking back at my book collection, I see that many of my purchases in the fall of 2001 were of volumes dedicated to megalithic monuments and the reconstruction of culture in the absence of enduring words. I eventually taught a graduate seminar on the topic, Fantasies of the Aboriginal.
Today through the BBC I came across AHOB, or the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project. The site well documents the seven unsuccessful attempts to colonize Britain, beginning c. 700,000 years ago (settlers at Pakefield in Suffolk) through the eighth and only permanent settlement 12,000 years ago. The story this site tells is built not upon the bones of dead settlers (very few human remains have been discovered), but through their tools and other leavings.
Sunday, September 10, 2006
Postscript: Possible Futures
The chapters of this book assumed their final forms by the summer of 2001. Living and working in Washington DC, it is difficult not to feel that the world has suddenly changed since that time. My office is only a few blocks from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and I was on campus when the events of Sept. 11 occurred. Upon entering the administrative building where I had an early meeting, I saw the footage on a TV turned to CNN of a plane embedded in the World Trade Center, and thought it a horrible accident. Not long afterwards we were evacuated under a warning that the Pentagon had been hit and that a fourth hijacked plane was en route to the obliteration of the White House, not knowing that heroic measures had already caused its crash in Pennsylvania. When the Air Force fighter jets roared over the city a few minutes later, those of us making our nervous way toward the subway ducked and believed for a moment we might die without seeing loved ones again. David Charlebois, who had once been my neighbor and dog-walking companion, was the co-pilot of the plane forced to explode into the Pentagon, and attending his funeral will always haunt me. For a week we lost our mail to anthrax contamination. Not long ago my car was stopped and guns pointed at all nearby motorists so that the Vice President could be escorted into his mansion. It used to be that it was impossible to walk from the Metro to the Folger Library without a tourist asking for directions to the Capitol; now I mostly see armed guards and warnings of restricted areas. Knowing that I was leaving early one recent morning to catch a flight, my son stayed awake from the time he went to bed at eight in the evening until 4 am so that he could kiss me good-bye a final time as I left, so fearful was he that the plane I was about to board would not arrive at its destination. Alexander is only four years old, but carries with him the anxieties of someone who has seen too much of the world. It breaks my heart.
Rereading for a final time the chapters which compose Medieval Identity Machines makes me think, however, that the world has perhaps not been so deeply reconfigured as the trauma of September 11 sometimes makes us feel. Certainly, the magnitude and violence of the attacks cannot be downplayed, nor can the sense of violation which they engendered be dismissed or even explained away. Sadly, however, the hatred which motivates events like the cataclysmic destruction in New York, Washington, Afghanistan has long precedent. A subtext of this book about the Middle Ages has been that human beings have seldom learned mutual respect not only for the differences which distinguish cultures but also for the internal differences within nations and other collectives. Chivalry might have mandated the perfect union of horse and man, but it was also predicated upon causing the violent demise of people who did not share the same faith, the same language, the same class values, or sometimes people who simply owned coveted land. The twelfth century valorization of marriage dictated mutual consent as the antecedent to coupledom, but was tied to a clerical denigration of women and the dissemination of misogynistic stereotypes which still haunt. Saintly Guthlac apparently killed men simply because they did not speak his Mercian tongue and they dared to be offended when his natio expanded into their land. Margery Kempe struggled against the constraints placed upon her gender for her entire life; she died without knowing that she would one day achieve the iconic status which she so long had sought. Christians have monsterized and murdered dissenters, Jews, Muslims, other non-Christians for centuries while arguing that their compassionate God desires this flow of blood. Too many inheritances of the crusades endure.
These are, in fact, pieces of the stories which I told in this book. Yet in reviewing these chapters in the wake of catastrophe I am struck by one thing: how affirmative they are. This bent is in a way required, I think, by their deleuzian inspiration, for as a philosopher he was insistent upon not abandoning joy, upon not giving in to despair, a value to which he held even as he took his own life. This, then, is the Middle Ages I would like to continue to see: not a time and place imbued with naïve optimism or filled with edenic purity, but an expanse much like this present in which horror and life co-exist, and in which we can with a sober mind still choose joy.
Saturday, September 09, 2006
Random Musings on a Saturday Evening On Lewd [Medieval?] Gnomes and Nip/Tuck After Inhaling Too Many Paint Fumes, or: Popular Medievalisms, Part II
Having recently bought a new house in downtown St. Louis, and having spent most of the past week painting the rooms in that new house, chalk up this post to the paint fumes, my addiction to probably the most tasteless show of all time on television, Nip/Tuck, and also to JJC's last post on his morose and waterlogged fez-wearing Shriner figurine [disclosure: my grandfather on my father's side was not only a Shriner, but also the "Grand Poobah"]. I would also like to point out that I am writing this post while sitting on Grand Avenue at a sidewalk table at my favorite wine bar in St. Louis, Erato. I am also filching the free wireless service from the Panera Bread Co. across the street. So, eros/erato, or something like that.
Item #1: For reasons I cannot fully comprehend, JJC's post about his Shriner figurine got me thinking about gnomes, and more specifically, garden gnomes. I think they're cute and secretly wish I had one, but am too embarrassed to actually purchase one. I have this idea that even if I did own one, it would have to be an "authentic" garden gnome, not a kitschy replica, and I don't even know where I would find it [I suppose, eBay, but I think I may be the only person in America who has never actually gone on eBay--shocking but true, and I plan to keep it that way]. What is the origin of the garden gnome, I started thinking, and what is its provenance, and is it in any way an example of medievalism [that same way that Tolkien-ish elves might be]? Wanting to browse images of so-called garden gnomes on Google, I was a little surprised to find that, for every page of images retrieved, at least one or two depicted garden gnomes in sexual or more generally lewd positions [and in various states of undress]. What is it about the ubiquitous garden gnome, I wondered, that elicits such sexual images and creatively obscene adaptations? It seems to me that the garden gmome comprises in its typical figuration two features that are somewhat opposed [but perhaps, also, mutually productive]: it is small [hence, "cute"] but also old [hence, "dirty"]. When you put "cute" and "dirty" together [see image above], the end result is . . . um, discomfiting. Something tells me that a book that might shed light on this subject is Susan Stewarts's On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection [Duke UP, 1993], which I believe JJC makes use of in his book Of Giants [my copy is still packed away in a box somewhere, so I can't check it at present]. In any case, I also wondered about the garden gnome's possibly medieval-ish associations: does the garden gnome [which, as a consumer product, has its origins in nineteenth-century Germany] supposedly hearken back to a medieval past, one filled with trolls, dwarves, and the like? [Thinking of the garden gnomes "cute" yet also "dirty" nature, keep in mind that in Middle English romantic literature, the dwarf is often a nasty fellow who accompanies knights of questionable character--he may be "cute," but he'll lash his whip across your face in an instant, as in Chretien's Yvain.]
It has to be stated, first, that in order to properly answer this question, we will have to wade through all of the existing pseudo-garden gnome histories, such as this one:
The international family of garden gnomes dates back to the era when the form of the globe consolidated out of Chaos, and the forces responsible for precious and base metals and precious stones implanted them beneath the surface of the earth. Unlike men, gnomes learn from the past and they also have the ability to predict and learn from the future. Their name derives from the Greek word gignosko, meaning 'to learn, understand', and the principal gnome characteristic is an acute understanding of every aspect of the Cosmos.We could, I suppose, start with Wikipedia, whose entry on gnomes covers everything from Paraclesus's to Tolkien's to L. Frank Baum's accounts of gnomes, and also informs us that garden gnomes are banned at the annual Chelsea Flower Show, apparently because they are too "working class." And then we have the "crazies" like Edward St. Boniface, who has this to say in his online journal:
Sometimes my consciousness inverts and haemorrhages with terror at what my imagination can build out of such squamous components of degraded flesh. I see the medieval gnomes and flibbertigibbets dissolve and transmute fantastically into the genetically disrupted metallic semihumans of psychotic cyborganic technologies and centuries to come. I see hives and asylums of crawling prefoetal freaks croaking thunderously to each other in a mass of amplified insect-noise and radiophonic cackling; heirs both of the phobias of the demon-cursed Dark Ages and the sneering living gargoyles that deface the present.Could Paraclesus's so-called "medieval gnome" be an example of what Richard Dawkins and others have called a cultural meme which has become a "meme complex"? Is it a dangerous meme or a benign one? Is it an example of "medievalism," and if so, how? Discuss amongst yourselves.
I panic and rave within at these fears my perception of the future's ghouls plunge me into without hope of arising from them and purifying my soul of their invasive titillations. I feel defiled by my apprehensions of what is to come, based on the worst disfigured hellspawn that rob and ravage in a relentless slow burning everywhere.
Item #2: Last night while watching episode 4 of Season 3 of Nip/Tuck--a show about plastic surgeons in Miami Beach that is so incredibly tasteless and obscene that even my most diehard TV-watching friends won't go near it--I experienced one of those "medieval studies really is sexy" moments. Sean McNamara, one of the two main plastic surgeon characters, was dallying with a college student in her dorm room, when he kind of realized he shouldn't be there and said to her, "I'm old enough to be your father," to which she replied, "My medieval studies professor told me age is just a state of mind . . . and I fucked him, too." I can't tell you what happened next, but suffice to say, I was kind of stunned: medieval studies professor?!!? First of all, why not philosophy professor? Aren't they the ones always saying those things, and shamelessly getting away with it? Secondly, why not "medieval literature" or "medieval history" professor? Medieval studies? How is it that a show on F/X Networks caught wind of our interdisciplinary hipness? Yes, I realize it's all just likely an absurd coincidence, but still . . . discuss amongst yourselves.
Thursday, September 07, 2006
It isn't, even if it should be. The morose Shriner is a little plastic figurine who perches, betopped by a tiny fez, on the ledge of my office window. When downpours greeted the beginning of the autumn term last Tuesday, the mini Shriner became part of my new office's unexpected water feature. He stood in grim solitude as the rainwater cascaded through a faulty window seal and splattered over and around him. As the puddles grew and the waterfall turned from an annoyance to a soothing, spa-like feature that cried out for colored lights and Enya music, the morose Shriner became for me a profound and overdetermined symbol.
A symbol of what, I have no idea. He seemed vaguely linked to the instigation of my reign as department chair, on a day of rain and missing adjunct appointment papers and tearful students declaring that they couldn't get into the classes they had to take before they died. In the end, though, the sodden Shriner seemed loaded with inscrutable meaning. He is now installed on that drying ledge as my minor household (or, at least, officehold) god.
Chairish duties have kept me away from the blog all week, and will continue to do so for a while. Luckily, The Inimitable Professor Joy has prevented this forum from slipping into mere void.
Sunday, September 03, 2006
Some might remember back in the heady days of our debate over whether or not the early Anglo-Saxons were apartheid-style racists, that I promised a debate with something like the title of, "yes, the Anglo-Saxons might have been racists, but did they have feelings?" Well, here it is. File this also under the heading of, "Eileen is working on this article and needs feedback" [like, seriously]. Not too long ago, Robin Norris [Anglo-Saxonist at Carleton University, Ottawa and fellow BABEL-er] asked me to contribute a paper to a Kalamazoo session she was organizing on the four anonymous Old English saints' lives included in AElfric's Lives of Saints. Of these texts, I know next to nothing, but I was always intrigued by the story of the Seven Sleepers, mainly because I thought it might work as an interesting metaphor for some ideas I had been batting around in relation to Beowulf, traumatic memory, and Isidore of Seville's idea that "history is a branch of grammar because whatever is written down is consigned to memory" [or words to that effect], and blah blah blah. I just liked the image of these men asleep in a cave for hundred of years and how I could maybe use that image alongside Isidore's definition of history in relation to my own ideas about history as an always-posthumous narrative of ghostly events, the "Real" kernels of which remain palpably, stubbornly *behind*. In any case, I didn't quite know what I was getting myself into when I said "yes" to Robin. As some may know, from my Ambien-induced essay, which JJC graciously and generously plugged here on his blog, I've been spending some time thinking about the ways in which contemporary social and political theorists describe modernity and the modern [or "late modern" or "second modern"] individual, and how they draw upon the Middle Ages [often quite wrong-headedly] as a kind of static and "traditional" social framework out of which modernity emerges. And I'm sure many of the readers of this blog have stayed current with all of the debates over how, supposedly, there were no "individuals" in the Middle Ages, and then, we decided the twelfth century was when/where the "individual" was born, and so on and so forth. Sometimes I weary of these kinds of discussion, and my usual touchstone text for this is Charles Taylor's beautiful work of moral philosophy, Sources of the Self. My larger purpose in all this has to do with my interest in formulating human rights in an age of, supposedly, "post-humanity." This is a subject that, actually, both obsesses and worries me. In any case, I am sharing with everyone here where my Seven Sleepers paper [presented at Kalamazoo this past May], which ended up dovetailing with my other project [which mainly focuses on Malory's "Tale of Balyn and Balan"]. Keep in mind that it's a short conference paper, and I am now developing it into a longer essay, to be published in a subsidium volume of Old English Newsletter. Further reading right now involves books on sociology of the body [Bryan S. Turner and Thomas Csordas] and religion and the body [Bynum and Sarah Coakley], and any other tips that can be thrown at me I would greatly appreciate. I'm especially interested in anything out there I might not know about that covers cognition and the Anglo-Saxons. Cheers.
The Seven Sleepers, Eros, and the Unincorporable Infinite of the Human Person
“. . . the self is not constructed solely by its environment, but also by the interpretive action that means not only suffering the world but also coming to understand it and your place within it. There is room here for a self to innovate and try to transform that place by thought or action. The particular way a self or groups of selves do so in the actual subject of history.” –David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England
In Love and Its Place in Nature, the philosopher of classical antiquity and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear writes that, for Freud, love has “distinctive psychoanalytic significance.” Further,
“[a]s Freud comes to appreciate that the individual is a psychological achievement, he becomes increasingly interested in the conditions under which this achievement occurs. The individual, he realizes, cannot be understood other than as a response to certain forces that permeate the social world into which he is born. And the individual is a manifestation and embodiment of the very same forces to which his existence is a response. . . . Unless we see love not merely as located in the human being but as permeating the world in which he lives, we cannot understand the psychic structure which constitutes the individual.”
Of course, as is well known, the Middle Ages, and certainly even more so, Anglo-Saxon England, is not supposed to be a place where the so-called “individual” even exists, and we are all well familiar with Jakob Burckhardt’s famous pronouncement in 1860 that, “in the Middle Ages, everyone was dreaming or half-awake, beneath a collective veil . . . woven of faith, illusion, and childish prepossession,” and where “[m]an was conscious of himself only as a member of a race, people, party, family, corporation—only through some general category.” According to Nancy Partner,
“[o]ne of the great impediments to recognizing the depth, complexity and individuality of the people who lived during the immense span of historical time we categorize as ‘medieval’ has come to mean the opposite of those qualities, at least as regards persons. Medieval culture, in terms of its art, literature and theology, has long been acknowledged as sophisticatedly complex and emotionally dense . . . . But somehow this collective cultural achievement is oddly disconnected from any idea of medieval persons of equivalent individual complexity.”
Further, the “prevalence of didactic genres (ranging from epic to sermons) which stress conformity with religious and social norms encourage the notion that in some way the pre-modern era of history was populated with pre-individuals.” In Partner’s mind, we need to “press harder than we usually do on the concept of the self operating silently here,” because “there lingers a common and unexamined assumption that ‘having’ a self . . . necessarily involves adopting one assertive style of individuality, even the set of values and goals we associate with the individualism which grounds western liberal modernity,” and it can often be too east to let medieval persons “sink down into a shallow bas-relief of ‘medievalness,’ defined by the moralizing conformist elements of the dominant literate culture.” It would be better to understand medieval men and women “as essentially like ourselves, of the same species at the same moment of development in evolutionary time, personalities formed at a deep level through the same developmental processes, as minds with the same emotional/rational structure confronting the world, however distractingly different their language, ideals and fervent beliefs.”
For Partner—and I must admit, increasingly so for myself—the discipline of psychoanalysis, “with its coherent structure of explanatory concepts, is our intellectual instrument for recognizing the human psyche over historical time and across cultures.” And I would argue, too, that recent discoveries in cognitive science are likely to support this idea. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson tell us in their book Philosophy in the Flesh, “the very structure of reason itself comes from the details of our embodiment,” thought is “mostly unconscious,” and because the mind “is not merely embodied, but embodied in such a way that our conceptual systems draw largely upon the commonalities of our bodies and of the environments we live in,” the result is that “much of a person’s conceptual system is either universal or widespread across languages and cultures.” Further, “[o]ur conceptual systems are not totally relative and not merely a matter of historical contingency, even though a degree of conceptual relativity does exist and even though historical contingency does matter a great deal.” Partner’s belief that the discipline of psychoanalysis is our best “intellectual instrument” for understanding the human mind “over historical time” is indebted to the thought of the philosopher of classical antiquity and psychoanalyst Jonathan Lear, who, in his book, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul, argues that Freud’s achievement was to locate the deep and often unconscious texture of the human mind fully inside the human world “without reaching for divine intervention or requiring a specifically religious world-view.”
Because psychoanalysis, as Partner tells us, is “in its essential interests and procedures, a theory addressed to the symbolizing activity of the mind,” the “forms of expression” of, say, the Anglo-Saxon mind—whether in the form of poetry, hagiography, sermons, sculpture, manuscript illustration, or otherwise—provide us with the means, I would argue, for tracing the “language of the self” of that mind, as well as the “the restless negotiations between this deeply stratified self and the real world.” What I would like to do here with the remainder of my time today is merely sketch out very briefly how, under the influence of the thought of Partner and Lear (but also of recent developments in cognitive science), I might begin to begin thinking about what Lear would describe as the psychic development of the individual as “a response to certain forces that permeate the social world into which he is born” in the Anglo-Saxon period through an analysis of the anonymously-authored Old English legend of The Seven Sleepers—a piece of literature so rich in the details of the psychic interior that I am somewhat amazed at the scant scholarly attention it has received. I would like to also ruminate how, in this legend, the self can be seen as what David Gary Shaw calls “a highly localized site of awareness” that is “bound, at least for this worldly life, to a body.”
One of the most striking aspects of the anonymous Old English legend of The Seven Sleepers is its psychological complexity, especially with regard to the character of Malchus, who is appointed by the others, hiding in a cave together, to go to the market for provisions, but also with regard to how even the city of Ephesus itself wishes its own walls could fall down rather than exist as a support for the hacked bodies of Christian martyrs that the Caesar has ordered be displayed there, and even the streets cry out against the “holy bones” scattered across them. In brief, the legend recounts the story of seven members of the “elite” class of Ephesian society who, horrifed at the emperor Decius’s torture and slaughter of those who refuse to worship his gods, have given themselves over to a kind of uncontrollable sorrow and weeping. While hiding in a cave outside the city, ostensibly to delay the emperor’s torture of them, Decius orders that the entrance to the cave be sealed, but unbeknownst to him, the seven men, due to their emotional state, have literally wept themselves into a death-like sleep, from which they do not awake until after 372 years have passed. Thinking they have only been asleep for one night, they send Malchus to the city market for more bread, and he enters a city, of course, he no longer recognizes because it is now thoroughly Christian. The upshot of all this, of course—after some scuffling at the market due to Malchus’s “intrusion” there as a kind of alien from another time (he is treated, quite literally, as a “foreigner” and suffers all the fear and terror of that Othering)—is that the seven men are recognized as having been “resurrected” from an earlier era, after which point, they “die” again and rise to heaven.
As Robin Norris pointed out in a paper she presented on the legend at the 2004 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, the emphasis on the emotional affect of the seven sleepers themselves (mainly sadness and sorrow), as well as of the world they inhabit is a “decidedly unÆlfrecian approach,” and also represents a very free adaptation and expansion of the legend’s Latin source, especially with regard to the physical manifestations of the seven martyrs’ interior suffering, such as the details regarding how, when crying, their eyes are fluttering (þa eagan floterodon, line 599). Ælfric, in fact, when he did address the legend—twice, in his Catholic Homilies—did so only very briefly in order to emphasize its doctrinal message that the resurrection of the body on Judgment Day had been visibly proven. According to Hugh Magennis, the Old English version of the legend is “untypical” in various ways, especially in “the portrayal of the saints as somewhat reluctant in the face of danger . . . . Far from ironing this feature out, the Old English writer is particularly drawn to it, deliberately exploring the very human worries and fears of the characters, who in some ways make unlikely heroes.” Further, Magennis writes that “the reader is struck by the insistent interest in the humanity and vulnerability of the Christians in their natural, if not ostensibly heroic, concern to preserve their lives,” and “[i]n one vivid simile the Christians are compared to grasshoppers pursued by heathens.” This “human interest . . . is also seen in the presentation of the persecuted Christians at the beginning of the narrative,” who “provide the emotional context for the immediate story of the Seven Sleepers. They are shown as terrified at the danger of being found out: they hide, they weep, they tremble. Through graphic description, the writer emphasizes the sheer terror and the reality of the suffering endured by the Christians.” And in the portrayal of Malchus, especially, on his expedition to Ephesus after the sleep, “[s]howing a sensitivity to human feelings uncharacteristic of hagiography as we have seen it described, and extremely rare in Old English, the writer sympathetically conveys both the bewilderment of Malchus and his fear of being brought before” the emperor. Finally, Magennis also points out that the Old English version, in contrast to its Latin source, “shows particular interest in the thoughts, feelings and direct words of the characters. Verbs of thinking to oneself, saying to oneself, feeling and wondering pervade the text.”
For these and other reasons, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Old English version of The Seven Sleepers as a kind of creative attempt on the part of the anonymous author to individualize, through an exploration of the psychic interior, a sacred history—a sacred history, moreover, that locates itself, not in the tombs of what Peter Brown has called “the very special dead,” nor in an abstract world of disembodiments, but in the very human and living world. In this sense, the Old English legend can even be seen as a kind of resistance to what Brown has described as “the most marked feature of the rise of the Christian church in western Europe”: “the imposition of human administrative structures and of an ideal potentia linked to invisible human beings.” This is not to say that the legend does not affirm certain invisible powers—after all, the seven martyrs sleep in a death-like trance for 372 years and are “resurrected” by God before really dying a second time—and the ultimate “point” of the story, in its hagiographical essence, can only really be located in its medieval Christian doxa: the resurrection is real, and therefore it’s in the after-world where one finally, really “lives,” with body and soul together. But I would like to also pursue the idea that, in its emphasis on the emotional affects of it characters and even of its human world—in this case, the city of Ephesus—the legend also touches upon the theme of the development, through eros, of a certain archaic (and in this case, also spiritual) subjectivity. In this sense, it participates in what some would argue is a peculiarly modern project, although I would like to contest that, specifically through a further analysis of the Old English legend itself, which I see as representing a certain concern, and regard, for the interior life, and for the world which makes that interior life possible. It contributes, moreover, to psychoanalysis, when we understand psychoanalysis as, in the words of Jonathan Lear, “the history of a series of battles that are fought and refought within the human soul,” and also as the site where we can “trace the route of love as it is manifested in human beings” as “a force for individuation.” As a result, the Old English legend also grapples with, and even tries to answer, in my view, a certain problem of memory’s relation to history—in this case, of how to render an account of a sacred history that does not lapse into an undifferentiated doxology but retains a material and heterogeneous particularity that, in the words of the scholar of religious thought Edith Wyschogrod, also marks the place of an historical “excess that opens the dimension of the more, of an unincorporable infinite,” but only when we understand that we are talking about the “unincorporable infinite,” not of the divine, but of the human person.