Thursday, November 30, 2006
It's Snowing Posthumans
In the meantime, I'm also putting together a reading list for an M.A. seminar I'm teaching next summer on The Posthuman Middle Ages, and I would love some assistance from readers of this blog. The course is essentially a survey of medieval literature on the monstrous and/or demonic Other as well as a look at demonic and monstrous figures in the contemporary horror film, partly in order to explore the ways in which these medieval and more modern demons/monters convey certain cultural anxieties and fears related to race, gender, sexuality, and identity in general. The primary reading list comprises Beowulf, the Latin and Old English Wonders of the East, the Latin and Old English Guthlac narratuves, Gerald of Wales's History and Topography of Ireland, the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Chretien's Yvain, and selections from Voraigne's Golden Legend. Secondary material thus far includes selections from JJC's Of Giants, Medieval Identity Machines, and his new book Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity, as well as from JJC et al.'s Monster Theory and The Postcolonial Middle Ages. Bettina Bildhauer's and Robert Mill's edited collection, The Monstrous Middle Ages, is on my list, as is Deborah Higgs Strickland's book, earlier plugged by JJC, on demons, Jews, and Saracens in medieval literature and art. We'll be reading some of John Block Friedman's classic monograph on the monster in the Middle Ages as well as the more recent book on the topic, Deformed Discourse, by David Williams. We'll also read some of Carol J. Clover's book on gender and the modern horror film [Men, Women, and Chainsaws]. Finally, we'll look at portions of Dyan Elliott's excellent Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages. We'll do a little bit of Susan Stewart's On Longing and Mary Campbell's The Witness and the Other World. And finally, we'll confer with some of the psychoanalytic literature viz. Freud, Bettelheim, Lacan, Zizek, and others [Zizek's Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock is one of my personal favorites].
Okay, what have I missed? What medieval text have I perhaps overlooked that I should also include? What critical work dealing with medieval demons and monsters have I not yet seen? Fill me in. Cajole me. Bring me up to speed. And cheers to everyone hopefully snug in their warm homes [unless you're south of the equator, and then, well, damn you and your luck].
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Bits and pieces on anthropophagous animals
In the early second century, Ignatius of Antioch penned his Epistle to the Romans, a brief work in which he enthused over his coming martyrdom, eagerly hoping that the beasts of the arena would do their duty and devour him:
Suffer me to become food for the wild beasts, through whose instrumentality it will be granted me to attain to God. I am the wheat of God, and let me be ground by the teeth of the wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of God. Entice the wild beasts, that they may become my tomb, and may leave nothing of my body; so that when I have fallen asleep, I may not be found troublesome to any one.This passage has been interpreted as one in which Ignatius turns his body, through martyrdom, into the Eucharist; Bynum tracks its efforts to promise continuity of self even in those moments when it seems to be in danger of utter dissolution (Resurrection 27). Ignatius pictures the “breakings, tearing . . . . separations of bones[,] . . . . cutting off of members[, and] . . . bruising to pieces of the whole body” that he will undergo. Yet Ignatius describes his final end also as something far more mundane: he is wheat turned into bread; he has, in a common image, fallen asleep; he is the body laid to rest in the tomb of these beasts. The latter image is especially arresting. He hopes that nothing will remain of him – no relic – over which any Christian might expend any care. Presumably such a hope would be vain for the arena, given that even the most ravenous -- or fastidious -- of beasts leave behind scraps of carrion; but it would not be a vain hope for a burial, as even the sloppiest of burials tend not to leave pieces behind. Although Ignatius will be devoured by beasts, he resists the wildness of it by imagining what is meant to be a humiliation as a banal, albeit pious, terminus of his life. He undoes the coming dispersal of his limbs into multiple animal stomachs through a metaphor that transforms these numerous temporary receptacles into a single tomb that will preserve his remains until the Last Judgment. In a manner of speaking, that burial is precisely what happened. After his martyrdom, nothing remained of him “but the harder portions of his holy remains,” which “were conveyed to Antioch and wrapped in linen, as an inestimable treasure left to the holy Church by grace which was in the martyr.” His humble request that he not be preserved in the form of relics has not been honored, but the fact of his having been killed and consumed by animals is at least counterbalanced by his osteal preservation. He has been reassembled preparatory to the coming resurrection, and until then, his remains, his self partially in abeyance, will be preserved by the church. This end and enduring postmortem existence is presumably what he would have come to even if he had not been consumed by animals: his flesh would have turned to dust, his bones kept.
The above story is the Greek version of Ignatius's death. Some, but not all, versions translated into Latin (beginning with the Elogium ex Martyrologiis Adonis, translated into Latin by Bede) conclude differently. A typical version of this tradition follows:
Finally, after this, that he had been tormented by fire, and by beating and prison, the emperor did send for the Romans in a place and there did do set S. Ignatius, and did do bring thither two lions for to devour him. But he had never dread for death ne for other torments, of which he had suffered many, but was always comforted for to die for the love of Jesu Christ. And he said at the last: I am wheat of Jesu Christ, which ought to be grounden between the teeth of these beasts, by which I may be pure bread for to be presented to my Lord; and anon the lions came and strangled him without tearing of his flesh, or anything hurting it (in the Latin, præfocauerunt eum tantummodo, & non tetigerunt carnes eius), wherefor Trajan had great marvel and departed from the place.What was originally a story in which a saint triumphs over eating is eventually altogether purged of eating. It becomes one of the many stories in which large predatory animals, otherwise notoriously anthropophagous, refuse to eat saints: e.g., the story of Cerbonius, Bishop of Populonia, who, in Gregory the Great’s Dialogues, is condemned to be eaten by a bear, but the bear only licks the saint’s feet and hands, acting “with a heart almost human”; or the stories of Vincent, Gordian, Primus, Felicianus, and Justina in the Golden Legend, all of whose exposed bodies remain uneaten by animals; or, even, although this is somewhat far afield, the assertion by a fourteenth-century cynegetic manual that Acteon’s dogs, even though their master had been transformed into a stag, refused to eat him. Both versions of Ignatius's martyrdom essentially tell the same tale of the failure of animal violence: in each, Ignatius resists being eaten and incorporated, in one by imagining his own swallowed body as a buried body, in the other by showing, even before the resurrection, the perdurability of flesh promised him for Eternity: subject to the power of God, the lions may only smother, so respecting the integrity of the sacred body. In the earlier narrative they may tear the saint to pieces, but nevertheless his relics persist. At any rate, what the lions ate would cease to be theirs once the lions passed into the nothingness of a merely animal death. Animals may be able to eat humans, digestion might join human with animal flesh, but this transformation is temporary: they cannot retain this human as their own flesh. Because the animal was temporary, and the human eternal, the devouring lions of the earlier legend might as well be the smothering lions of the Golden Legend.
Oh, and there's this meme thing over at Scott E. Kaufman's blog.
The English Department of UC Berkeley has set up a memorial page with links to some appreciations, including the one published by Mary Kate Hurley on In the Middle. Not too long ago I also added a link to Mary Kate's post for those who would like to make a donation to the Leukemia Research Foundation in his name.
Monday, November 27, 2006
Medieval and Early Modern Studies at GW
Medieval and Early Modern Studies
The English Department Graduate Program at George Washington University
The English department at George Washington University is delighted to announce its new graduate concentration in Medieval and Early Modern Studies. The concentration has been formed to take advantage of university-wide faculty strengths in these areas as well as the rich resources for research available in Washington DC (most notably, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library, and the Library of Congress).
The concentration takes as one of its starting points the recognition that England is in large part constituted by, and bears the traces of, what is supposedly outside it. “England” is not a singular, self-contained entity, but a hybrid, shifting, imagined community that is defined and redefined in the liminal contact-zones of religious schism, war, global trade, immigration, transnational disease, colonization, and eventually empire. To study “English” from the 8th to the 17th centuries doesn’t just mean reading literature written in England during that time. It is to read also for the often elusive traces of exchange and conflict between England and its pan-insular British others (Scotland, Wales, Ireland), its continental allies and rivals (France, the Low Countries, Spain), its non-European trading partners and adversaries (the Ottoman Empire, Persia, North Africa) and, eventually, its foreign trading colonies and factories (Surat in India, Amboyna in Indonesia, Jamestown in Virginia).
An innovative curriculum that brings together the two periods is currently being introduced. Seminars focus upon religious, racial, sexual, and gender identities as well as material culture in global networks of commerce and conquest; they seek also to bridge – and question – the period divide between “medieval” and “early modern.” Recent and upcoming seminar offerings include:
• Writing, Race and Nation: The Archipelago of England
• The Empire of Things: An Early Modern Genealogy of Fetishism
• The Time of Theory: Temporality from Christian Typology to Post-Colonial Ethnography
• Conceptualizing Genders: Ravishment and Sexuality in Medieval and Early Modern Culture
• Becoming Indian: The Early Modern Writing of Asia and the Americas
Students are also expected to take some of their coursework through the Folger seminar series.
Faculty members who regularly teach our medieval and early modern studies graduate courses share many interests and have published widely:
• Holly Dugan researches the history of gender, sexuality, and the boundaries of the body in early modern English literature and culture. She is currently working on two book projects. The first examines the ephemeral history of scent and the role of smell in late medieval and early modern England. The second explores the history of ravishment. Her teaching interests include early modern cultural studies; feminist and queer theory; the history of the body; circum-Mediterranean trade; and late Middle English drama and hagiography.
• Jonathan Gil Harris is the author of Sick Economies: Drama, Mercantilism and Disease in Shakespeare's England and Foreign Bodies and the Body Politic: Discourses of Social Pathology in Early Modern England. He is also the editor, with Natasha Korda, of Staged Properties in Early Modern English Drama and the associate editor of The Shakespeare Quarterly. His current book project, Untimely Matter: Reworking Materiality in the Time of Shakespeare, examines the dense relations between materiality, temporality, and cultural difference. His research interests include early English drama; the body and disease; identity and time; transnationalism; economic history; and critical theory.
• Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is the author of Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles; Medieval Identity Machines and Of Giants: Sex, Monsters, and the Middle Ages. He is the editor of Thinking the Limits of the Body (with Gail Weiss); The Postcolonial Middle Ages; Becoming Male in the Middle Ages (with Bonnie Wheeler); and Monster Theory: Reading Culture. His research interests include postcolonial approaches to the past; identity, corporeality and subjectivity; critical theory. His current research project is entitled The Archipelago of England, and examines how medieval England was haunted by the multicultural, polyglot Britain from which it emerged.
The English Department also numbers among its members the Miltonist Patrick Cook and the scholar of early modern drama and prose Linda Salamon. Other medieval and early modern scholars at the George Washington University include Linda Levy Peck (History), Marcy Norton (History), Leah Chang (French), Lynn Westwater (Italian), and Ingrid Creppell (Political Science).
We are currently inviting applications from students interested in medieval and early modern studies. If you are interested, please visit our graduate website.
Or contact us by e-mail:
Holly Dugan (email@example.com)
Jonathan Gil Harris (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (email@example.com)
Saturday, November 25, 2006
Wrenched Out of Their Histories
Some may recall that, early in September, under the post "Once More Into the Breach of the Anglo-Saxon Mind," I shared a draft of a paper I presented at the 2006 Kalamazoo Congress, titled "The Old English Seven Sleepers, Eros, and the Incorporable Infinite of the Human Person," which I am now developing into an article for a subsidium volume of the Old English Newsletter, edited by Robin Norris, devoted to the four anonymous Old English saints' lives interpolated into AElfric's Lives of Saints. I would like to share portions of that article as I am writing it, and welcome any critical feedback.
The ultimate aim of the article [and by the way, I am lousy at stating a thesis and prefer to work inductively, but never mind that] is to show how the Old English Seven Sleepers are bodies--sleeping/never martyred bodies, to be literal about it, who are not yet disembodied, rising souls--who carry forward in time a specific cultural memory; their “resurrection” is a resurrection, not of bodies, but of memory and the ability to speak memory, and to bear witness to a certain erotic attachment to the world and feeling subjectivity which is necessary for the development of an individual soul that could incline itself toward god while alive [a somewhat heretical idea, perhaps?]; the Seven Sleepers are mourners of the world, Ephesus, and the the tortured/killed Christians, that make their spiritual subjectivity possible, and they resist at every possible turn their possible torture and execution; by contrast, the traditional hagiographic narrative requires the annihilation of the subjective self or individual who does not necessarily mourn his own “passing,” but rather, eagerly embraces and celebrates it, whereas the story of the Seven Sleepers, conversely, shows the important connection between mind/person/soul and the body that gives those entities expression; in this sense, the Old English version of their story, which contains rich psychological detail not found in any other version, may also be a more explicit expression of what the traditional passiones did convey: the soul desires and needs embodiment/world.
What follows here is the opening/"set-up" for the article [and I thank my friend and novelist Valerie Vogrin for turning me on to Kevin Brockmeier's novel, which could not have landed in my study at a better time]:
I know you want to keep on living. You do not want to die. And you want to pass from this life to another in such a way that you will not rise again as a dead man, but fully alive and transformed. This is what you desire. This is the deepest human feeling; mysteriously, the soul itself wishes and instinctively desires it.
They were mistaking the spirit for the soul. Many people tended to use the words casually, interchangeably, as though there were no difference at all between them, but the spirit and the soul were not the same thing. The body was the material component of a person. The soul was the nonmaterial component. The spirit was simply the connecting line. . . . When you died, the connecting line of the spirit snapped, and what remained of you was simply the body on one side—a heap of clay and minerals—and the soul on the other. The spirit was nothing more than a function of their interaction, like the ripples that formed where the wind blew over the water.I. Wrenched Out of the Their Histories
In Kevin Brockmeier’s novel The Brief History of the Dead, there are only two places. First, there is the City, which is inhabited by the recently departed, mainly victims of a viral pandemic that has wiped out the entire population of the Earth, except for one person, Laura Byrd, who inhabits the other place, Antarctica, where she had been working at a research station when, essentially, the world came to an end. Those who live in the City conduct each day much as they did when they were alive: going to work, eating meals at home and in restaurants, strolling the streets and sitting on park benches, going to the movies, and even engaging in debates over where it is, exactly, they might actually be, and what they are. “Of course we’re bodies,” one of the characters argues with another. “Bodies and nothing but. Have you ever heard of a spirit that ate hamburgers and chili dogs for lunch, a spirit that got leg cramps in the middle of the night?”
Laura Byrd, left alone on earth, has only a vague idea what has happened to everyone and spends most of the novel trudging across the ice shelf looking for other survivors and simply trying to stay alive. At one point, after many days of treacherous hiking in horrifying weather conditions, she falls into a crevasse and dangles for many hours at the end of a rope, unable to muster the strength to climb back out. She briefly contemplates simply letting herself go and considers how peaceful it would be to finally be dead, but through sheer tenacity and a kind of dumb fury and almost mindless will-to-live, she pulls herself up and out.
As it turns out, those who live in the City are comprised of only those people whom Laura Byrd remembers from her past and whom she reflects upon often as a way to keep herself from going insane. There are her family members, of course, and past lovers and friends, teachers and fellow workers, but also almost everyone she ever ran into if even only one time and can still remember: mailmen, street beggars, children who played in her neighborhood park, her doorman, a stranger she once gave a book of matches to, and so on and so forth. As long as she can stay alive, so will the inhabitants of the City, all of whom have “died” and are keenly aware that they are in some kind of purgatory or “outer room” that lies adjacent to the place you go when no one is left who remembers you at all. Everyone lives exactly as they exist in Laura’s memory: the religious fanatic paces the streets each day carrying his placards painted with dire warnings, four Korean women can always be found playing an eternal game of mahjongg in the park, and her parents, who in their former lives could barely tolerate each other, discover that they are in love with each other again, which is how Laura remembers them from before she moved away from home.
When Laura finally and tragically succumbs to the elements, lying alone and hallucinating fiercely in her tent in a penguin rookery at the edge of the Antarctic ice shelf, her toes and fingers black and crumbled from frostbite, the streets and buildings and bridges of the City begin to disappear, and the inhabitants all gather at the park in the center of town, waiting “for that power that would pull them like a chain into whatever came next, into that distant world where broken souls are wrenched out of their histories.” Brockmeier’s novel is a beautiful and arresting meditation on the afterlife, and on the belief, prevalent in many cultures, that without the proper rituals of remembrance, the dead are either condemned to wander perpetually through non-places or do not really exist at all, except as general numeric abstractions. And in its heartbreakingly sad last sentence, quoted above, the novel also speaks to a very human anxiety and dread over the idea of a disembodied afterlife, one in which body and soul must split apart and the all-too-human world which has been loved and has made the journey of the self possible is left behind for good. The novel is also a kind of horror story, for as Laura lies dying, the predominant noise outside of her tent is the incessant chatter of the penguins--a harsh reminder that, even with every single human being, and therefore all of human memory, extinct, the world still continues.
Regardless of Paul’s statements in I Corinthians 15 that the human person “is sown a natural body” but rises as a “spiritual body,” and that “flesh and blood cannot possess the kingdom of God,” and of the efforts of certain theologians, such as Origen and Aquinas, to formulate an understanding of soul as some form of disembodied personal identity, as Caroline Walker Bynum has written, “[f]rom the second to the fourteenth centuries, doctrinal announcements, miracle stories, and popular preaching continued to insist on the resurrection of exactly the material bits that were laid in the tomb.” Further, “a concern for material and structural continuity [after death] showed remarkable persistence even where it seemed to almost require philosophical incoherence, theological equivocation, or aesthetic offensiveness. . . . The idea of person, bequeathed by the Middle Ages to the modern world, was not a concept of soul escaping body or soul using body; it was a concept of self in which physicality was integrally bound to sensation, emotion, reasoning, identity—and therefore finally to whatever one means by salvation.”
There were, of course, endless theological controversies and debates over the question of bodily resurrection, centering mainly on the issue of how a body, which is inherently corruptible, could be incorruptible and still be a body, and whether or not resurrected bodies represented a continuity of the same or some kind of transfiguration. “To put it very simply,” Bynum writes, “if there is change, how can there be continuity and hence identity? If there is continuity, how will there be change and hence glory?” Augustine devoted a good deal of the last book of The City of God to answering the many arguments and worrisome doubts over the reconstitution of material bodies into new spiritual selves (will resurrected bodies have genitals? what about scars? will they be fat? will aborted fetuses rise?), and he even went so far as to address the issue of what happened to human flesh ingested by animals or other humans (answer: consumed flesh evaporates into the air where God collects and reconstitutes it). Ultimately, Augustine answered all concerns this way in Book 22, Chapter 21:
. . . even though the body has been all quite ground to powder by some severe accident, or by the ruthlessness of enemies, and though it has been so diligently scattered to the winds, or into the water, that there is no trace of it left, yet it shall not be beyond the omnipotence of the Creator—no, not a hair of its head shall perish. The flesh shall then be spiritual, and subject to the spirit, but still flesh, not spirit, as the spirit itself, when subject to the flesh, was fleshly, but still spirit and not flesh.Indeed, Augustine even went so far as to emphasize the yearning of the departed soul for the body, writing in Book 13, Chapter 20 of City of God that the souls of departed saints “do not desire that their bodies be forgotten . . . but rather, because they remember what was promised by Him who deceives no man, and who gave them security for the safe keeping even of the hairs of their head, they with longing patience wait in hope of the resurrection of their bodies, in which they have suffered many hardships, and are now to suffer never again.” We can see here a glimmer of the idea that, for Augustine, the body was somehow a necessary vehicle for the fullest possible expression of an individual spiritual soul, or individual self (which might also stand in for the idea of “person”), for why else would soul desire, or need, a material body? Soul, in fact, in this scenario, remains in an always loving relationship, even through physical suffering, with body, which is, to a certain extent, the only means by which any soul can be distinct from any other soul.
There was, perhaps, no better means than hagiography, as well as the cult of saints’ graves and relics, for vividly illustrating to a general medieval populace the importance of, and even desire for, bodily integrity in the resurrection. As Peter Brown has written,
the original death of the martyr, and even the long, drawn-out dying of the confessor and the ascetic, was vibrant with the miraculous suppression of suffering. Memories of it set up an imaginative vortex in the minds of those who thronged to the shrine. . . . The explicit image of the martyr was of a person who enjoyed the repose of Paradise and whose body was even now touched by the final rest of the resurrection. Yet behind the now-tranquil face of the martyr there lay potent memories of a process by which a body shattered by drawn-out pain had once been enabled by God’s power to retain its integrity.According to Brown, the public reading of passiones in late Antiquity was, “in itself, a psychodrame that mobilized in the hearer those strong fantasies of disintegration and reintegration which lurked in the back of the mind of ancient men.” Michael Lapidge has written that the passiones “form an extensive and distinctive body of early Christian literature.” Further, “[w]ritten in Latin and Greek, as well as Syriac, Coptic, and other languages, passiones survive in large numbers . . . from all parts of the early Christian world, especially those places where persecution was most vigorously pursued: Nicomedia, Antioch, Palestine, Alexandria, and Latin-speaking North Africa.”
The mutilated bodies of martyrs may, in fact, have been the main impetus for much of the early (late second century onwards) Christian treatises on resurrection, and later martyr stories “are filled with examples of saints who do not even notice the most exquisite and extraordinary cruelties,” and whose bodies, while under torture and violent assault, somehow remain beautifully unchanged. The pedagogical import of such stories would not have been lost on early theologians and preachers, who may have been both fearful of assaults on their own bodies and also in need of exempla for the idea of the resurrection in the midst of troubled times. Thus, as Brown tells us, the fourth-century Victricius of Rouen urged his congregation to not let a day pass where they did not reflect on the stories of martyrs: “This martyr did not blanch under the torturer; this martyr hurried up the slow work of the executioner; this one eagerly swallowed the flames; this one was cut about, yet stood up still.” It is important to note, as Lapidge does, that the passiones were written “at least a century, and perhaps several centuries, later than the ending of persecution with the Peace of the Church in 313” and that “there are few reliable (that is, contemporary and impartial) witnesses to the circumstances of persecution.”
Regardless of their historical accuracy, however, the early Christian literature of martyrdom was steeped in the spectacle of bodies tortured, burned, hacked, ripped apart, and then miraculously recomposed, and as Brown points out, “while the body is ‘painted with wash on wash of blood,’ its core, the soul, remains all of one piece.” Fidelity to the past was not what really mattered (although the stories always strove for historical versimilitude), for the performance of passiones at saints’ festivals, for example, “gave a vivid, momentary face to the invisible praesentia of the saint” by laying bare “the fragilities of the body . . . with macabre precision.” The saint, finally, was “really there,” bringing the past into the present and bridging the gap between this world and the next one.
The anonymous and Ælfrician corpora of hagiography in Anglo-Saxon England, such as the Cotton-Corpus Legendary, Old English Martyrology, and Ælfric’s Catholic Homilies and Lives of Saints (which include both passiones and vitas) were certainly the inheritors of an early Latin Christian tradition of stories that emphasized the martyred saints’ ready desire to be killed, as well as the shining imperviousness of their tortured, yet fully intact bodies. In Ælfric’s story of Saint Sebastian, well before his actual torture and execution, Sebastian, and his halig companion Chromatius, beg to be thrown into hot ovens. Ultimately, Sebastian has to be killed twice—first, by arrows, and later, after his body is miraculously healed, by being clubbed to death and left to rot in a sewer. In both instances, widows retrieve his body and heal and preserve it, so that it can be interred in a site that will later serve as a holy shrine and as a locus for the praesentia of the saint’s sacred and bodily powers. Three murder attempts are made on Ælfric’s virgin saint Eugenia—by drowning, burning, and starvation—before she is finally, simply killed (acwealde) by an executioner of the emperor. It is worth noting that when she earlier enters a burning oven, “all the conflagration was extinct at her coming.” In Ælfric’s passio of Saint Julian, when the Roman emperor’s deputy in Antioch, Martianus, orders a group of men to be burned in front of Julian, although the flames “ascended more than thirty fathoms . . . until the pile was burnt up, and all the tuns,” the men who had been bound together on the pyre “stood there uninjured by the fire, glittering like gold.” In these instances, the bodies of saints are not only impervious to fire, but in one case, can even quench it.
But even in cases where the mutilation of the saint’s body is palpably realized, the saint remains unfazed, as in Ælfric’s story of the virgin Agnes, who continues praying, even after she has been disemboweled. In his retelling of the story of “The Forty Soldiers,” set in Armenia, after a group of Roman soldiers who have converted to Christianity have survived, unclothed, in a lake of ice, they are consequently dragged from the freezing water to have their legs broken. While their limbs are literally breaking and cracking in half they sing a song that beautifully captures the trope of the saint’s rejection of the material body that, nevertheless, makes his sanctity visible and whole: “Our soul is escaped out of the snare as a sparrow, the snare is broken, and we are delivered.” Afterwards, they are all burned together in a fire and their bones are disposed of in a stream, where they shine “as brightly as stars.” The gleaming radiance of their disassembled bones in the middle of the night allows them to be found and collected by other Christians who can then enshrine them in a safe place where they can be re-presented over time and endure into the future.
In all of these Old English passiones, just as in their earlier Latin counterparts, we can see the importance to early medieval Christians of the paradoxical idea of the promise of bodily resurrection, where, as Bynum puts it, “the very stuff of change and putrefaction can be lifted to impassibility and immutability while continuing itself,” and for all the supposed illogic of the idea, “it is a concept of sublime courage and optimism,” for it “locates redemption there where ultimate horror also resides—in pain, mutilation, death, and decay.” Indeed, Ælfric’s interest in translating and adapting into Old English the stories of early Christian martyrs may have had something to do, as M.R. Godden points out, with “drawing parallels between the sufferings of the saints in the time of the early persecutions and the resistance of the Anglo-Saxons to the Viking pressures in his own time.” P.A. Stafford has written that at the end of the tenth century, “the most spectacular theme in the history of England was the revival of Viking attacks,” and several of Ælfric’s hagiographical subjects were martyred Anglo-Saxon kings, such as Edmund (939-946), whose head, decapitated by the “seaman” (flot-men) and guarded by a wolf, cried out “here, here, here” continuously so that it could be found and rejoined to its body. Although Edmund is not, strictly speaking, an early Christian martyr, the details of his life, death, and bodily resurrection follow the familiar pattern of the established genre, wherein, as Ælfric writes, “His body showeth us, which lieth undecayed, that he lived without fornication here in this world, and by a pure life passed to Christ.” The very specific, historical, and political details of Edmund’s reign are less important than the ways in which his “life” can be seen to fit the model of a received tradition of sacred fiction.
It could be argued that the texts of these Old English legends, when both read and recited, served as the only possible locus within which to reveal what could not be revealed, or even realized, in the Anglo-Saxon historical present: the palpable and visible spectacle of bodies both wrenched out of and returned to their individual histories. Similar to Brockmeier’s novel, souls and bodies exist together, finally, not in an abstract Heaven, but in a shared, cultural memory—a memory, moreover, that is as fragile as the bodies that contain it and play it continuously like the flickering frames of a zoetrope. These legends might have therefore also functioned to assuage two anxieties—first, that the promised resurrection of bodies with souls might be a fiction, and second, that the material stuff of one’s identity, with all of its imperfections, would have to be given up at the last day. In other words, the legends may have answered to the fear that the world—the too fierce love of which was really a sin, but without which identity wasn't conceivable—would really have to be left behind.
Friday, November 24, 2006
Please keep "Emile Blauche" in your good thoughts
I'm afraid I have some very sad news. Emile has suffered a massive heart attack, and is in a coma state.
I called his cell phone this morning and it was answered by his spouse who told me that emile was working at the ER (where he does psychology consults) and collapsed at about 4:30 this morning. The prognosis is not good. The sound of emile's daughter (age 7) crying in the background was overwhelming.
Why am I posting this here? Well, for the reason that emile would have wanted it. I had a conversation with him about two weeks ago in which he talked about his journal, and he said, "You know I was journaling about my experiences there [this blog], and I know they think I'm a complete asshole, but I really hold the lot in high regard." Then he said, "I hope I can convey that at the right time."
Maybe now is the right time.
I cannot as yet verify this information, but I also cannot imagine that it is not accurate: Emile does psychology consults at an ER, he has a beautiful seven year old daughter ... we know how much he in fact cares about the profession and, yes, intellectual spaces like this blog. I ask readers to please think of him and his family at this time.
Very sad news, indeed.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
A few loose thoughts on a rainy Wednesday
2. To those who say that medieval studies has a future that is anything less than blindingly bright, I say, Ha! The applications we've received for our medievalist position at GW have been astounding. There are many, many fascinating projects out there. I wish we were hiring ten scholars and starting an institute.
3. If you happen to have vegetarian friends who are celebrating Thanksgiving, do not ask them if they will be eating Tofurky. You will think that you are being original, and clever, but in fact several dozen legions of people will have already made the joke.
4. Karl Steel's A purposeless world, thank goodness! post came just in time for Thanksgiving, didn't it? More seriously, though, now that Clark Kent has embraced his Superman, let me announce that he has an extraordinary essay on animals and the human forthcoming in Exemplaria.
5. To return for a moment to Kid #2: one of those most frightening experiences I've ever had occurred last March, when as she lay sick with fever in my arms her eyes rolled back into her head and she began to convulse. I couldn't bring her back from whatever place she'd gone. Luckily it was a febrile seizure rather than a neurological disorder, but I still have flashbacks to that day.
6. Much talk on this blog lately has been about death, mourning, mortality, meaning. The most powerful ritual of remembrance I ever witnessed was carried out by my son, Kid #1. He was six years old, a first grader. In the course of that winter his best friend's mother had died (cancer), his young "uncle" had died (pneumonia), and his teacher passed away. The hardest part had been not being able to say good-bye. His teacher's death he took especially hard (she passed away over a holiday break ... she had been there, and then was she was gone). Morbidity seemed to be everywhere in a way that adults could scarcely handle, and I worried at his struggle with such mounting loss. I observed, however, that when some neighbors decided to have a baby shower for my wife (Kid #2 was on her way), he stole a pink helium balloon, attached a note, and launched it to the clouds. I asked him what he'd written. He said: "Dear Mrs M., I miss you. Good-bye. Love, your student, Alexander." As that balloon and its message dwindled in the sky, I saw what looked like a cloudbreak in his face. The hold that all these deaths had had on him loosened. Some of the joy that every six year old should possess returned.
7. Finally, to all those people that José F. Buscaglia-Salgado calls Usonians, happy Thanksgiving.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
History, living and otherwise
Having thought much about this in recent months, I realized just last night that while my work may not save lives in any literal sense, neither does any other work except temporarily, because ultimately we all die. Thus, those of us who work on the past speak for the dead, either as individuals or as cultures. We are all mortal, and we share this mortality with all life on earth; but what makes humans distinct is that we can memorialize, represent, study, and remember the long dead – their culture, their art, their literature, their governments, their disasters and triumphs, their religions, their social practices, their lives – and we, like them, can leave our traces to be so remembered when we are dead. We all die. And so to speak for the dead is to speak for humanity, for the human condition itself, and it is also to be human.
That's Dr Virago at Quod She, whose words have been haunting me since I read them. They were in fact a spur behind this post on
Here's the thing about the dead--rather than have you or anyone else for that matter "speak" for them, they would rather simply be . . . alive. To keep them alive, even through historical writing, is to risk the zombification of the dead [well, not really, literally, but I think Toni Morrison's book "Beloved" is *the* best cautionary tale on the subject--sometimes the dead need to stay really dead so that those in the present with psychic wounds rooted in the past can heal and go forward into the future].
I agree that sometimes the dead need to loosen their stranglehold on the living, especially when that demand is really an attempt at stasis, but I'm wondering if the desire of the dead to be alive that Eileen mentioned, to be kept alive, isn't what this conversation hasn't always been about. Keeping the dead alive --speaking for the dead, for our future selves even -- doesn't create zombies, provided the dead are allowed the very thing that we have in life: continuity, sure, but only within constant change.
History comes alive -- with "original musical productions"
We at In the Middle are always talking about history, the weight of the past, our obligation to remember or speak for or obliterate the dead, the role of the present in engendering the future .... yadda yadda yadda.
Sometimes all this talk about intertemporality makes me want to hop on a plane and head to Orlando.
There I would shop in the Old Scroll store. I would "Come to the Manger." I would be rapt:
Visit Jerusalem in Orlando!
It is an inspiring, full day of discovery that takes you 2000 years back in time to the world of the Bible. It brings to life ancient Israel as a unique, thriving world filled with fascinating exhibits and venues. Learn about the Wilderness Tabernacle and the Great Temple; discover the amazing history of the Bible; explore the city of Jerusalem in miniature; see re-enactments of Jesus' ministry, His life, death, and resurrection; and feel the power and passion of our original musical productions. With so much to do, people of all ages will love Orlando's most inspiring destination!
But then I remember that I'm saving all my money for that house in The Shire. Orlando -- and rapture -- will have to wait.
(via hd, who writes "Well, this finally answers THE big question: is there much work for jesus-impersonators?")
A purposeless world, thank goodness!
"The death on the slaughter bench of history, the death which society exacts from individuals is not mere nature -- it is also Reason (with a capital R)." Herbert Marcuse, "The Ideology of Death," in The Meaning of Death, Herman Fiefel, ed., New York, 1959, 64-76, at 75.
Book one of Augustine's City of God counters arguments by pagans that Christianity was to blame for a recent sack of Rome. In the course of his counterarguments, Augustine also explains why Christians suffered during Rome's fall: apparently Christian worship and pagan worship provided equal protection from suffering, which is to say, none at all. Some rich Christians suffered torture, Augustine explains, to teach them to leave behind their love of worldly wealth. Even if tortured Christians had no wealth to reveal to their tormentors, "these too...had perhaps some craving for wealth, and were not willingly poor with a holy resignation; and to such it had to be made plain, that not the actual possession alone, but also the desire of wealth, deserved such excruciating pains" (I.10). Similarly, Christian women suffered rape perhaps to humble their pride in their virtue: "they lost their chastity, but...gained humility" (I.28). Even if victims can discover no hidden sin in themselves that would explain their suffering as pedagogical punishment, they still might take comfort that eventually all will be explained: "For some most flagrant and wicked desires are allowed free play at present by the secret judgment of God, and are reserved to the public and final judgment" (I.28).
I decided a few days ago to read through City of God--seems an essential task for a medievalist, yes?--but I'm already frozen in my progress by disgust, at Augustine's effort to discover the hidden meaning of human suffering, by his certainly that he can at least promise the eventual revelation of meaning for any suffering that currently refuses to give up an explanation. I was raised in a Christian fundamentalist church with the idea, among others, that our faith gave us hope against a world otherwise devoid of purpose: to which I say, thank goodness, that's the world I live in, a world, full of outrage and disappointment, and happiness and pleasure too, freed from the burden of justification.
I realized I'm not very grouchy after all. Also, I can't think of any particularly good reason for me to be pseudonymous--which is not to say other people don't have good reasons--so I decided to go under my own name. Hello again.
Welcome University Diaries Readers
Perhaps you will also want to peruse what medievalists are thinking about around the web (we call it the Tiny Shriner Review), and -- if the study of the past and its future is close to your heart -- follow this link to a cluster of conversations about literature, time, and the place of the interpreter.
Monday, November 20, 2006
Literature and illiterature: Albert B. Friedman, RIP
Trained as a scholar of high-toned literary narrative, Mr. Friedman found himself unable to resist the proletarian bustle of the ballads, sung narratives that were composed and transmitted orally by generations of unlettered bards. “Ballads are songs or performances, not poems,” Mr. Friedman wrote in his introduction to “The Viking Book of Folk Ballads.” “They are not literature, but illiterature.” And gripping illiterature they are. Mothers murder newborns. Girlfriends poison sweethearts. Women are seduced by demons. There is a great deal of sex, and it almost always ends badly, as in “Lizie Wan,” in which a brother reacts excessively on learning he has impregnated his sister:
And he has drawn his gude braid sword
That hang down by his knee.
And he has cutted aff Lizie Wan’s head,
And her fair body in three.
Friedman is best known for editing the anthology The Viking Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World . Readers of this blog may be interested to know that, back in the day, many of my own research interests were propelled by The Weekly World News, a rag of a newspaper filled with pseudoscience, pseudoarcheology, and the most interesting fantasies about the past. But that newspaper had nothing on Lizie Wan's brother and his hacking broadsword. Then again, had the baby been born, this case of incest may have enabled oh, say, a pope like the mythical Gregory.*
*On Gregory and [maternal] incest see John Boswell, The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), p. 373; Lowell Edmunds, Oedipus: The Ancient Legend and Its Later Analogues (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) and Thomas Hahn, "The Medieval Oedipus," Comparative Literature 32 (1980), 225-37.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
The question of theory
Don't miss the parallel conversations on the topic at Quod She (Speaking for the Dead) and HeoCwaeth (A Question of Philosophy).
[update 11/21: a meditation on futurity and the medieval that picks up on these conversations, from Anhaga at Old English in New York. Especially charming: the Castle of Teleological Supremacy, and a rereading of The Wanderer. Short quote from a post worth reading in its entirety: Is there a way to think of looking forward to the Middle Ages as “an Anglo-Saxonist looking forward as her texts' writers and readers might have done; and a modern commentator rethinking her relationship to the past and looking forward to the Anglo-Saxon era”? Again, not to recreate the past, and not to live in it in any way, not even nostalgically. But isn’t there a way of seeing the continuity of the past and the present without a teleological fallacy coming into play? Isn’t there something instructive in the very grammar of the English language that, should we learn to read it, we might be able to see as part of what’s happening in the present? Or is that a teleological wolf in sheep’s clothing? ]
Saturday, November 18, 2006
For Shabbat: Jewish Architecture in England
Strangely perhaps, one of the photos depicts Clifford's Tower in York: not exactly Jewish architecture, but surely a place of central importance in narrating the Jewish history of England. This stone tower was built to replace the wooden one in which the Jewish inhabitants of the city were incinerated in 1190. The plaque barely visible by the stairs in the picture attests to that massacre. The plaque reads:
On the night of Friday 16 March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each other's hands rather than renounce their faith.
As far as my memory recollects, nothing in the tower museum itself speaks about that event -- though they do sell an excellent pamphlet by R. B. Dobson, Clifford's Tower and the Jews of Medieval York (London: English Heritage, 1995.)
File this under the discussion about universal versus local time streams, featured here and here.
Thanks, JKW, for sending the link.
Thursday, November 16, 2006
101 Uses for a Dead Deer
If any dead or wounded beast should be found and it does not belong to a herdsman. First, there should be an inquiry in the four closest towns, which should be recorded; and the finder should be put by six pledges [i.e., the finder needs people to attest for him or her]; the flesh however should be sent to the nearest house of lepers, if there is one nearby in those parts, and this by the witness of the forester and the jury. If however there is no such house nearby, the flesh should be given to the sick and the poor. The head and skin should be given to the freeman of the nearest town; and the arrow, if one was found, should be given to the forester, and this should be recorded with his oath.There are a number of ways to approach this law's peculiar (but, as I've discovered, widely enforced) approach to poaching. I've been at it through the ideological utility of hunting to England's thirteenth-century elites, but there's also an approach that jives with discussions we've had repeatedly at this blog, namely, the power that the dead have over the living. When can a corpse finally be put to rest? Because of its illicit death, the carcass has become an uncanny, all too incarnate mockery of elite pretensions to inviolate mastery of violence. The illicit violence that the carcass suffered requires that it be ritually humiliated -- or so I argue -- by being fed to lepers. It is only then that the carcass becomes truly dead to the living. Here's what I have to say in the chapter itself:
Through this dual activity of rejection and distribution, the elites reestablish their control over violence in hunting preserves, perhaps the most privileged space for elites to practice, demonstrate, and uphold their exclusive right to violence. Through these two actions, the carrion laws protect the community—of humans or elites, depending on the law—from contamination. The double action also reforms the disrupted power over life and death by substituting the right of distribution and the right of denying consumption for the temporarily lost control over human space and its killings. While the meat itself is lost to dogs, pigs, bestial men, the poor, or lepers, the combined refusal and distribution returns what really matters, the control of meat and, in a broader sense, of death, to the realm of lawgivers and their agents.Forest animals that suffer proper deaths live on uncannily too. In Gottfried von Strassburg's Tristan, Tristan explains how a deer's carcass should be treated after its dismemberment:
Ride two and two together and keep close beside one another, preserving the shape of a hart. Let the horns go ahead, the breast follow in their track, the ribs come after the fore-quarters. Then arrange for the hind-parts to follow on the ribs. After that, you should see to it that the quarry and fourchie bring up the rear--such is true huntsmanship. And do not be in too great a hurry--ride in due order, one behind another.In field butchery, human elites grant dogs and ravens little dainties, so emptying the flesh and body of the deer of its valueless portions. With this elimination, the deer becomes perfected, for nothing remains but what elites want for themselves. The deer has been made ready for a procession in which the very ritual that broke its body into pieces now grants it a return to a bodily integrity that is also a perfect materialization of elite power and its meaningful, absolute, creative violence. The reassembling of the dismembered carcass reminds me of the Japanese puppet theater of Bunraku, but perhaps still more strongly, because of the simultaneous fragility and completeness of the animal form, of those collapsible toy ponies of my childhood (when I depressed part of the statuette's platform, the elastic holding it upright would go slack, and its knees would buckle). I might not have been able to control my own bodily integrity, but at least I could take it away from others and grant it once more (under my terms).
I'm inspired to this little post by an astonishing case of necrobestiality (sfw) that our friend JKW sent to me:
Prosecution of a Douglas County case involving alleged sexual contact with a dead deer may hinge on the legal definition of the word “animal.”JJC has told us about fancy lawyers borrowing his professional expertise to map the history of one-eyed monsters. If only this case in Duluth were a bit, uh, fancier, I'm sure I could offer my services. I work cheap, even if it means going to Duluth (I've been a few times, and it would take a case like this to get me back). I might talk about what kinds of intimacy we are allowed with animals: why killing an animal to eat it is acceptable, even encouraged, while necrobestiality (or indeed any kind of necrophilia) is anathema. I might cite Cora Diamond, who observed in "Eating Meat and Eating People," that the prevention of distress may have little to do with our dietary decisions, since, after all, "We do not eat our dead, even when they have died in automobile accidents or been struck by lightning, and their flesh might be first class....We also do not eat our amputated limbs...It is not a direct consequence of our unwillingness to cause distress to people. Of course, it would cause distress to people to think that they might be eaten when they were dead, but it causes distress because of what it is to eat a dead person." With the weekend approaching, if you're willing, I open the conversation up to you: about the undead demands of carcasses (and corpses) on the living, of bestiality, of the common medieval puns on the games of Venus and the venerial games of the Hunt (all too literally enacted in Duluth), and of the justness of the prosecutor's claim that allowing Hathaway to get away with his pleasure would encourage others to kill animals for sex. Have at it, folks.
Bryan James Hathaway, 20, of Superior faces a misdemeanor charge of sexual gratification with an animal. He is accused of having sex with a dead deer he saw beside Stinson Avenue on Oct. 11.
A motion filed last week by his attorney, public defender Fredric Anderson, argued that because the deer was dead, it was not considered an animal and the charge should be dismissed. ...
A judge should decide what the Legislature intended “animal” to mean in the statute, he said. “And the only clear point to draw the line in that definition, I believe, is the point of death.”
Assistant District Attorney James Boughner said the court can use a dictionary to determine the meaning of the word, but it doesn’t have to.
“The common and ordinary meaning of a word can be found in how people actually use the word,” Boughner wrote in his response to the motion.
When a person’s pet dog dies, he told [Judge Michael] Lucci, the person still refers to the dog as his or her dog, not a carcass.
“It stays a dog for some time,” Boughner said.
He referred to the criminal complaint, in which Hathaway told police he saw the dead deer in the ditch and moved it into the woods. Hathaway called it a dead deer, Boughner said, not a carcass.
“It did not lose its essence as a deer, an animal, when it died,” he said.
Anderson argued that the statute, which falls under the heading “crimes against sexual morality,” was meant to protect animals. That would be unnecessary in the case of a dead animal.
Assizes of the Forest, in The Statutes at Large from the Second Year of the Reign of King George the Third to the End of the Last session of Parliament. ... With a Copious Index. And an Appendix, Consisting of Obsolete and Curious acts, ... Volume the Ninth. London: Printed for Mark Basket and by the Assigns of Robert Basket; and by Henry Woodfall and William Strahan, 1765, 25-6.
Diamond, Cora. "Eating Meat and Eating People." Philosophy 53 (1978): 465-79, at 467 (original emphasis).
Gottfried von Strassburg, Tristan, with the surviving fragments of the Tristan of Thomas. Arthur Thomas Hatto, trans. New York: Penguin, 1960, 83.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Speaking of Violet Saunders: The Tiny Shriner Review Late Edition
We do not always plot our futures. Things happen by accident, in defiance of our best laid plans. However well we think we know the past, the future is impossible to predict. There is no linear connection between the two. I abhor teleological thinking which tries to make such simple linearities between past, present and future.
Neither future nor past exist of course except in our imaginations, when most often we use them to justify what we do in the present. This leaves me with a dilemma. My fascination with the past is in the differences it offers us, in the disjunctures, in its deadends and failures. In the potential is offers for alternative presents.
A famous blog repeatedly asks: 'How are we humanists going to to contribute to the sum happiness of the future?' But I have trouble with this. Because I just don't know understand what this Future they keep referring to is. I must have a few genes missing somewhere.
Reading list please?I posted this on her Journal:
Okay, Violet, don't give up on the future yet, even if, as you rightly suspect, traditional teleologies are somewhat bankrupt. It may be that making a decision to think about the future is an ethical choice--i.e., I can only inhabit a certain present [albeit, that present is mainly defined by the continual traffic in my brain between "that already happened" & "that's where I think I'm going"], and I can certainly just concentrate on inhabiting that present in a kind of fullness of awareness of "nows" strung along a continuum, but if I want to be ethical, and think about others, not just those alongside me, but those behind me, and even up ahead of me, I can't discard the future. Think of Walter Benjamin's statement, in his "Theses for a Philosophy of History," that the claims of the past upon the present cannot be "settled cheaply," and also, that those in the past are always turning [leaning] toward "the sun that is rising in the sky of history."Of course, this is a mainly too-brief and summary answer, and I actually think Violet's assertion that neither past nor future exist, except in our imaginations, is really important, and we should maybe spend some time here debating that assertion. I have two minds on the subject. The first says, "Duh! Of course we're always inventing the past and present--the former is over and gone, and the latter is not yet here--therefore, the past and future are mainly what we need them to be at any given moment and are essentially ungraspable." My second mind says, "Just because the past and future are ungraspable by me, at any given present moment, does not negate their very real and materially vibrant existence, either just behind or just up ahead of me." And I think, further, that striving to encounter, and even "reckon" the materality of both the past and present [either through a kind of historical "accounting" or by actions, especially loving actions, designed to affect certain forward motions, respectively], could be very important ethical gestures par excellence. If I have any secretly heretical notions on the subject, it's that the future may matter a hell of a lot more than the past, and that the past can even, occasionally, be a heavy drag on the future's progressive momentum.
Reading list? To hell with a reading list, Violet! You're better than that! Look around you. Everywhere you go, the past and future demand your attention. Try to take every step as if you were a newborn. It's impossible, isnt it? Walk down the street and consider every passerby--where have they been, and what might they be--to you? Every moment is fraught with both history and the possibility of what you might have been, and that, my friend, is the future. No books required.
The Tiny Shriner Review
While Anhaga has been thinking about how to translate the future -- even how to (as Ursula LeGuin asked) translate from languages that don't yet exist -- Violet Saunders has become quite disenchanted by futurity. She writes: A famous blog repeatedly asks: 'How are we humanists going to to contribute to the sum happiness of the future?' But I have trouble with this. Because I just don't know understand what this Future they keep referring to is. We at In the Middle write: We're FAMOUS??!! OMG, who knew.
But then we add that we're not so sure what the future is either, since -- following Brian Greene's reasoned analysis -- we recently had to admit somewhere in the comment section that time is a loaf of bread, and movement through time is the illusion of this baguette being sliced. Only it remains whole. Oh yes, and we probably live on the moldy crust.
Creationists are opening a museum. With dinosaurs. This allows the English to poke fun at dumb Americans. And make us seem scary. Which we suppose we are. We suggest that creationists start reading The Edge, perhaps making a first stop at Stuart Kauffman's commensensical Beyond Reductionism. Kauffman, like we at In the Middle, is a big fan of wonder. So, in a spirit of wonder, we wonder if creationists believe that medieval knights perhaps jousted against Tyrannosauri reges? (We at In the Middle are so snooty about our Latin that we insist on the proper pluralization of "T. rex"). And perhaps these
Speaking of creation, a new medieval blog has appeared (Fiat blogus! Et blogus erat), combining Sarah McLachlan with Yeats and Lacan: yes, Slouching towards extimacy, we get the references. Speaking of a postmodern chanteuse for the masses, Dr. Virago gives us breaking Britney Spears news. Apparently she was married, and now she is not married. Or something. The good doctor's Liberalpalooza post is also well worth perusing (and no, "liberalpalooza" is not the sound a whoopee cushion makes in a Blue State). [footnote: for more on Whoopee Cushions, read this, where at 8:15 you will find a connection between flatulence pillows and the Grim Reaper] Machina memorialis meanwhile seems to be composed by Super Medievalist Grad Student: John Walter presents at conferences, reads blogs, teaches, applies for jobs, works in an archive, dissertates, and blogs about it. Then again maybe that makes him Ordinary Grad Student, these days.
Scott Eric Kaufman's nose is itchy. Scratching it caused a brief eruption of genital-centered conversation at In the Middle. Confessing Mermaid is vacillating between Buffy and Pliny, while ADM keeps using the word NaBloPoMo, which makes our heads hurt and sounds vaguely like profanity (well, NaBloPoMo you too, ADM!). She also seems to be poking fun of our raw and cooked metaphor stolen from Le Bérubé.
Barbarian update: Capital One has yet to respond to our letter. The late payment notices, however, are unaffected.
And that's it from the Tiny Shriner, whose mood has been sunny since Election Day. Please add your feedback to the comments, and let us know what has been missed.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Welcome Acephalous Readers
The post that made
Scott's nose itchy is below.
A picture of a true medieval acephale (called a Blemmyae) is at left.
You can be certain that if it is intriguing to think with in a postmodern kind of way, we medievalists had our hands on it first. We don't mind your borrowing it for a while, Mr. Scott Eric Kaufman, just like we don't mind you copying the medievalist practice of deploying your middle name to sound more prestigious, but please be careful with it or we will take our headless figure back.
Monday, November 13, 2006
Straight Outta Chicago: Streisand Meets Berube On the Way to the Blogosphere
The first half of Berube's talk appeared to be a mainly humorous riff on popular culture representations of professors, during which he showed clips of Streisand leading a class discussion on the mythology of love in The Mirror Has Two Faces [during which scene, the medievalish words "Chretien de Troyes" and "Lancelot" are clearly visible on the blackboard] and of Professor Snape [played by Alan Rickman] terrorizing Harry Potter in the classroom [Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone]. Berube then switched gears, without much of a transition, to the subject of the inhumanity of the humanities [i.e., all the ways in which universities seem to be designed to maximize cruelty to others, especially during job searches], and to illustrate this point we got clips from Babe and Toy Story [please don't ask which ones: suffice to say, that one clip involved a wild dog trying to tear a toy apart with his gnashing teeth]. All of this, as it turned out, did not really have much to do with what the REAL topic of his talk turned out to be: academic blogs.
Yes, that's right, the main topic of Berube's M/MLA keynote address was academic blogs and how, if you really want to see "professors at work," you've got to travel to the wild and wonderful world of the academic blogosphere, the production of and traffic in which Berube compared to the emergence of print culture in the late medieval/early modern period. So, number one point: it's possible that, historically, and in relation to issues of cultural literacy in general and public intellectual blathering more particularly, blogs could be very very important, indeed. But Prof. Berube also did not want, I think, to make too much of academic blogs, in the sense that--at least for now--they may not count for much in the way of publishing-toward-tenure, although he did take great pains to point out how much intellectual discussion & important critical debate is happening on blogs that isn't happening anywhere else. By way of example, Prof. Berube shared that, in one case, a scientist whom he had been criticizing on his blog [can't recall name] actually joined in the discussion at one point and that the comment thread on that discussion exceeded 150 posts. I, myself, have also noted that, just this past Friday [Nov. 10], Berube's blog, Le Blogue Berube [haha], had its five millionth visitor [yes, that's impressive]. Five million. Wow. Berube mentioned that he himself spends about two hours each day writing for his blog, although he readily admits that as a tenured, advanced professor, he has the luxury of choosing to do so.
By way of classifying academic blogs, Berube said there are two kinds: the "raw" and the "cooked." "Cooked" blogs are highly sophisticated and have posts that are much like polished, full-length essays [the best of these, according to Berube, are blogs such as Crooked Timber and The Valve]. "Raw" blogs mainly focus on random personal musings and, in Berube's mind, often aren't worth the trouble [examples of these, according to Berube, are . . . guess what? I'm not going to mention them because I don't believe in repeating that kind of negative critique--let's just say that the blogs we link to here at In The Middle provide a good sampling of both types, if we follow Berube's lead on this]. In The Middle wasn't mentioned at all: damn! Berube thinks blogs provide excellent professionalization venues for especiallly smart and talented graduate students [his favorite is Eric Scott Kaufmann, who participates on The Valve and also has his own blog, Acephalous]. Finally, Berube has no problem with anonymous blogging, especially for graduate students and the untenured: if it was good enough for classical authors, it should be good enough for all of us.
So, there you have it. I'm sure I left some things out--if anyone else was there with me in the audience and remembers something I haven't, please jump in and add, emend, and criticize! The upshot of the whole talk seemed to be something along the lines of "blogs are extremely important venues for intellectual work, and are even generating audiences regular academic publishing does not generate, yet are still not taken seriously enough by some, and who really has the time?" Who, indeed?
Trauma, culture, humor
The young man who leads the course (a native of Jerusalem) made the observation that some cultures have so much experience of danger, violence, and trauma that dark humor becomes an almost ingrained coping mechanism. He observed that whereas Americans tend to make trauma sacred and therefore untouchable (e.g. 9/11), Israelis tend not to be quite so grave in their approach. He asked us if we could ever imagine a US television commercial like this one, that makes so light of such a complicated problem.
The comments got me thinking also of Gerald of Wales, and his word pictures of an Irish bishop and of several Jews who use dark humor to deflate the oppression and violence Gerald himself is on the side of. I'll post a few of those quotes later.
Friday, November 10, 2006
Medieval Roadkill, or Where Karl's Been
Three ninth-century works—two penitentials and one letter—openly express what had been only latent in earlier carrion laws. Both the St. Hubert and Merseburg B penitentials forbid the consumption of any fish found dead in a river, "since it was not hunted by men." The letter, an anonymous cleric's response to a King, possibly Louis the German, King of the Eastern Franks, develops this point at far greater length; to the best of my knowledge, it is the most detailed discussion of suffocatum in the Middle Ages. The letter first restates Jerome’s gloss on Ezekiel 44:31, likely through the conduit of a penitential: “We call an animal ‘suffocated’ that was throttled or mangled by a wolf or a bear or by another beast (aliqua bestia). We say that this sort of flesh is to be abstained from and is not for use for eating or for any other consumption." At this stage, the letter’s definition seems to criminalize meat obtained with the assistance of falcons or dogs, animals that surely could be classified as “aliqua bestia.” The letter's recipient is a nobleman and hence almost indubitably a devotee of hunting. As such, he could only have been deeply dissatisfied had the letter ended with this point, which is, as I have shown, the point to which most penitentials confine themselves. But this letter is addressed to a noble, not to a general Christian audience; nor is it obliged to imitate the unornamented brevity of Penitential prose. Because the cleric has room to elaborate, and also because he must, he exempts most hunting from Christian strictures: or rather, he brings hunting within Christian regulation.
But as for that which was captured by a dog, we do not count this meat among suffocated things, since man is the hunter, accompanied by a dog, whose acute sense of smell and quick agility man uses to capture animals, and so this capturing of an animal is not to be assigned to the dog but to man. For when we ourselves write, we assign the writing, not to the pen that writes the letters, but to the hand (scripturam ipsam non calamo, quo litterae caraxantur, sed scriptoris manui deputamus). It should likewise be thought about snares or other suchlike traps, which human ingenuity and skillful industry has invented. And so one may universally deduce: whatever is captured by human effort, art, or skill should not be numbered among suffocated animals, nor does anyone commit offense who consumes this food with thanksgiving.
Terrestrial animals drowned in the alien element of water are likewise fit for eating, so long as they were chased into the water by hunting dogs. Fish suffocated by being removed from water are also licit. Contradicting other penitentials, the letter similarly reasons to allow the consumption of birds captured by tamed raptors, nets, or birdlime. In every case, the letter exempts animals from the category of suffocatum so long as humans wanted them dead. In an echo of 1 Timothy 4:4 or, indeed, Augustine, the letter also directs humans to avoid sin by eating with thanksgiving. The second half of the letter explains why Christians should follow dietary laws even though they have left behind Judaism, but, as is apparent, the letter turns to this explanation only after it has provided a definition of suffocatum that has everything to do with the proper control of violence and nothing to do with hygiene or, for that matter, any specifically Judaic law.
The letter distinguishes the carcasses of animals killed by wolves and bears from those killed or injured by domesticated carnivores. The letter also condemns the flesh of animals killed or injured by "aliqua bestia," but it does not explain what these beasts might be. They could well be dogs, but the letter refuses to imagine, or rather refuses to remark upon, the possibility that domestic carnivores might also hunt independently, like wolves or bears. Because the dog, like a pen, possesses no agency, the letter can preserve the supremacy of human agency: although humans and dogs work together in the violence of the hunt, the human remains the master, no more a companion with his dog than he is with any less organic technology. The letter has discursive precedent for its disavowal, for a longstanding textual tradition combines vigorous praise for canine facility in hunting with just as vigorous a denial of canine independence. Both Ambrose and Rabanus Maurus allude to the Dog of Antioch, an animal renowned for refusing to leave the corpse of its master and its alacrity in identifying--and sometimes assaulting--the murderer. However, Ambrose and Rabanus each hedge their admiration of dogs, Rabanus by declaring that “it is the nature [of dogs] not to be able to be without humans,” and Ambrose, more strongly, by declaring “that dogs are devoid of reason is beyond all doubt.” The very justness of Rabanus and Ambrose's denials of canine independence make their denials less effective than that of the carrion letter. While dogs, as Rabanus argues, at least might be thought not to be able to live well without humans, and while much evidence could readily be assembled to support Ambrose's claim of canine irrationality, dogs are very much unlike pens, for dogs, unlike pens, can act on their own. A pen would never write a charter by itself, while a dog certainly might hunt on its own if it had the opportunity or lacked the training to encourage it to leave independent violence exclusively to its masters. It is the very ineptness of the comparison that makes it so potent. Humans can distinguish between independent and dependent violence by whatever means they chose, for power itself is its own justification. The human need not look outside itself to judge what is right for it. If humans cannot consume carrion, they, at least, have the power to condemn it, and this power, especially at its most arbitrary, is ultimately what matters most.
Ambrose. Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel. Translated by John J. Savage. New York: Fathers of the Church, 1961, VI.4.23-24.
Dümmler, Ernst, ed. Epistolae Karolini Aevi III, Monumenta Germaniae Historica Epistolae 5. Berlin: Weidmann, 1899, 633-36.
Kottje, Raymund et al., ed. Paenitentialia franciae, italiae et hispaniae saeculi VIII-XI, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 156-156A. Turnholt: Brepols, 1994, Vol I, 165 and 174.
Rabanus, De universo, PL 111: 223D-224A
A new motto for medievalists
Thursday, November 09, 2006
Here, by way of advance publicity, is the final table of contents for a project I blogged about in months of yore. More news as it develops.
Infinite Realms: Archipelago, Island, England
1. Jon Kenneth Williams, "Sleeping with an Elephant: Wales and England in the Mabinogion"
2. Kathleen Biddick, "What Merlin Saw, or, Archiving Slaughter"
3. Suzanne Conklin Akbari, "Between Diaspora and Conquest: Norman Assimilation in Marie de France’s Esope and Petrus Alfonsi’s Disciplina Clericalis"
4. John Ganim, "Islands Upon the Land: Some Medieval Urban Origin Legends and Their Literary Representations"
5. Eileen Joy, "The Shadow of the Blackbird Crossed the 'Wonders of the East'"
6. Kathy Lavezzo, "Imperial Abjection and National Asceticism in the Alliterative Morte Arthure"
7. Anne Clark Bartlett, "No Woman is an Island: The British Female Saint, the Insular Imaginary, and the Contact Zone."
8. Jeffrey J. Cohen, "The Green Children and the Britain of England."
9. David Townsend, "Gathering All Things to Herself: Orality, Ethnicity, and Syncretism in Geoffrey of Burton's Vita sancte Moduenne uirginis"
10. Heather Blurton, "The Space of the Past in Twelfth-century Durham"
11. Ruth Nisse, "The Jew’s Hand: Le Jeu d’Adam and the Culture of Jewish-Christian Debate in Norman England"
12. Randy P. Schiff, "The Instructive Other Within: Secularized Jews in 'The Siege of Jerusalem'"