Monday, December 31, 2007

Memorable Posts of 2007

As another year trickles to its close, I offer a roundup of some of the posts that have stayed with me. It's an idiosyncratic group, based solely on the criterion of "Posts that have burned themselves into my neurons sufficiently that I remember them at the moment I am typing this."

I'm sure I've overlooked some gems, so I'd be interested to hear what my cobloggers and our readers think.

Are Bioluminescent Bunnies Queer?
No Future: Terminus
Frontpaging the Future
Who mourns for Lindow Man?
For Eileen: A Shark in Formaldehyde
At the Holocaust Museum
Augustine, a Giant's Tooth, and Particles of Alterity
At Avebury
Infinite Realms

The Terrible Beauty of Monsters
Not Knowing in Advance What Forms our Humanness Will Take
The Last One to Die, Please Turn Out the Light
Forks in the Rift of Time
In Praise of Surfing and Epicureanism
Art Reveals More of Life than Life Does
The Loving Hope of Working Groups
Medieval Studies, Unsettled Subjectivities
The Weight of History

Another Nature
The Child Gives Himself to the Wolf
What Does Caninophilia Matter?
Mute Beasts
Is it Wrong to Spurn the Gifts of Nature?
How About Them Fightin' Binaries?
Gay Wizards
The Disavowed Pleasures of Guthlac
The Bible Swoops Out

Only Connect
Endangered Languages, Dying Wor(l)ds
"But History Has Already Written That Story"
Dissertation Fragments
Ruins and Poetry
Dissertation Fragments II
Dissertation Fragments III

Michael O'Rourke
History's Tears
Fisting and Other Gifts for Graduate Students

The ITMBC4DSoMA series

Geoffrey Chaucer
Chaucer Speaks

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dissertation Fragments III: The Prospectus

For those who remember the first and second posts in this little series, I present the "final" installment of my dissertation fragments (just in time for the new year). The first post, "Two False Starts and an Abstract" saw me attempting to think through the idea of horizons as a way for me to make connections between texts and humans. The second post, "Horizons of History" was the opening to the lecture I gave at Wake Forest in late November. Now, I present you all with the fruits of my long labor: The Dissertation Prospectus.

I've felt reluctant to post it over the past few days -- it was provisionally approved (with necessary modifications) the day before Christmas, so I'm only just now re-reading it. Part of my reluctance to post it was, I think, my own discomfort with the prospectus genre. First of all, it is a genre that is made to be changed, so to speak -- everyone I've spoken to has said that their prospectus differed wildly from their final product. I would imagine the same will hold for me (particularly given how little I know Saints Lives at present), and there's a small part of me that would rather this early ambition-filled version of what I want to do gather dust silently, rather than continue to speak when its successor is a work in its own right. Further, it's hardly a perfected document. I think the major flaw in it is the terribly detached tone: then again, the prospectus seems a quite artificial writing project, if a necessary one. What I feel I've accomplished in this version is a coherent narration of my project -- in the end, I suppose, what one ought to have accomplished by writing it. I also think I've been forced to clarify my thinking, fit it into specific work that's going on in the field right now, and make it my own enough to hold weight. That said, there are a few flaws going in.

First of all -- there is no extended bibliography. I am working on that -- though I have one, it's not exactly typed up at present. Hopefully I'll get there, and when I do, I'll post it here. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly: I feel like I've lost a lot of the dialogue I was trying to establish with Latour, Deleuze and Guattari, etc. I think that's necessary -- I need to explore the texts in a way that allows them to speak first and fully, even if I have a critical or theoretical "hunch" that involves Latour, etc. In short: I have to let the Anglo-Saxon texts dictate the way in which I use theory, and not vice-versa. That seems obvious, and indeed it IS obvious. However, I wanted to articulate it here: most importantly, because it's something I struggle with in my work, in no small part due to my penchant for the philosophical and the conceptual. Thirdly -- and this one is the really important bit -- I'm missing an entire chapter or so. It's the one I'm going to write on Beowulf, which will engage the questions I began raising in the second of the Fragments posts. The reason I did not write it up as a chapter yet -- and the reason I'm still not sure it will be a proper "chapter" -- is that I think I want Beowulf to perform a kind of a linking function. That is to say, I want Beowulf to be present in my dissertation in each of the chapters. I don't know that that will work -- which is, of course, why I need to write up the summary as a nominal "Chapter V" to the dissertation and let it go at that.

At any rate, here it is: The Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities in the Middle Ages. Thoughts, questions, comments, bibliographical additions are all welcome and indeed sorely needed.

The Horizons of History: Writing (and Rewriting) Anglo-Saxon Collectivities in the Middle Ages

In the wake of the theories of narrative expounded upon in the 1980s by Hayden White and Paul Ricoeur, the approach taken by medieval studies vis a vis the study of early “historical texts” has benefited greatly from the new ways of thinking through the relationship between narrative convention and the functions of history in society.[1] Monika Otter, for example, has used the relationship between fiction and history in the twelfth century to explore what she (following Ricoeur) has termed the referentiality of medieval Latin historical texts, or to put it plainly, the degree to which “fictionality, while not embraced as it is in vernacular romance, becomes a playful and (and sometimes alarming) possibility in Latin historical writing.”[2] In the introduction to their 2006 edited volume entitled Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West, Elizabeth Tyler and Ross Balzaretti draw on the narrative theory of White to argue for literary practice not as a way “to look through form to facts” but rather as a way “in which the form of the text itself becomes a way into our understanding the past,” and thus enable “literary and historical methodologies [to] meet as equal partners.”[3] The result of an interest in the ways in which form and content merge in the historical texts of the medieval past raises a number of questions, not least of which is “if early medieval historical writings were representations of the past made for present purposes,” how were these representations made, who made them, and what effect or influence did they have in the formation of early medieval identity?[4] Further: By whom were they used, and to what purpose?

Simultaneously, postcolonial thinking about the status of the nation in the formation of “modernity” has begun to question the conventions with which we approach the medieval past. Although some early theorists of the “nation” place its inception in the eighteenth or nineteenth century,[5] more recent critics have argued for an earlier date for the beginnings of nation-building, with the most far-reaching of these looking to Anglo-Saxon England for the beginnings, in protonationalism, of what would become the modern English nation-state. Adrian Hastings’ assertion of vernacularity as a key component in the beginnings of nationalist sentiment has found eager adherents in Anglo-Saxon studies, which, we are often reminded, boasts the first vernacular translation of the Bible.[6] Kathleen Davis’ influential work on the preface to the Pastoral Care emphasizes the rhetorical strategies of the text, which far from describing the world “as it truly was” was engaging in its own “nation-building” technique, attempting to set up a relationship between past and present which would allow for the continued growth of the political influence of the Angelcynn.[7]

My dissertation will explore the ways in which historical literature, broadly defined to include chronicles, world-histories and saints’ lives, functions in the construction of collective identities in the Anglo-Saxon period. My specific interest is in texts that were inherited from – or passed on to – cultures outside Anglo-Saxon England. By examining texts that were initially written by cultures predating the Anglo-Saxons, as well as texts which originated in Anglo-Saxon England but were passed on to later cultures, I will explore the ways in which these texts not only provided materials and models on which the Anglo-Saxons could base their own literary culture, but were themselves altered in the process of translation and transmittal. The texts I will examine are intricately linked to the process of nation building outlined by Davis, and though I am not as invested in the identification of protonationalistic tendencies in the texts, I will be focusing on the ways in which the nation-building process left its mark on the texts which were used as instruments for the imagining of ethnic and national identity.

Further, I will use both texts that were translated into Old English as well as texts which were generated in the period in order to explore the ways in which Anglo-Saxon culture interacted with texts more generally, not only altering them for their contemporaries (i.e., to be legible at the time of their reworking or composition) but also to present a certain textually based vision of the place of Anglo-Saxon England in the wider world. By examining these texts, which span a time period from the probable composition of the Old English Orosius, translated in the 900s slightly after the reign of King Alfred to the Matthew Paris translation of the Life of Edward the Confessor in the thirteenth century, I will examine the ways in which “Anglo-Saxon” culture was made both in and after the period traditionally assigned to Anglo-Saxon England, emphasizing the role played by the texts in question in thinking through what it means to be “Anglo-Saxon.”

I. Alfredian Temporalities: Time and Translation in the Old English Orosius

[The first chapter will examine the Old English Orosius, and the temporalities which intersect both in textual translation as well as the re-appropriation of generic convention across historical time, positing “the nation” as a network in which texts, peoples and generic forms play a role in the creation of identity.]

The “Alfredian Translation Program” in Anglo-Saxon England offers a particularly complicated view of translation as it relates to the issues of narrative history, national history, and time. Instituted during the reign of Alfred the Great in the late ninth century, the series of translations includes Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care and Dialogues, Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy, Saint Augustine’s Soliloquies, the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, a prose version of the Psalms, and – my interest in this paper – a translation of Paulus Orosius’ Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII. Despite the sustained critical consideration of the prefaces to the Alfredian translations, however, the texts themselves – books described in the preface to the Pastoral Care as ‏‏ða ðe niebeðearfosta sien eallum monnum to wiotonne (“those which are most needful for all men to know”) are rarely the subject of much critical scrutiny, except where they diverge from their source texts in culturally significant ways.[8] That the prefaces – the locus of “originality” in the works in the sense of forming a clear boundary between the Latin and the Old English – have undergone such sustained critical inquiry to the neglect of the works they come before is significant to the study of the Alfredian program.

In this chapter of my dissertation, I examine the Old English version of Orosius’ Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII. I argue that a more sustained reading of the text, incorporating not only the “original” additions of the Old English translator but also the interests and execution of the text as a whole allow a more nuanced understanding of the multiplicity of temporalities that exist in the space of the text. This is not to say that the “original” parts of the Old English Orosius are not important. The additions to the geographical preface are instructive as to the scope and imagination of Anglo-Saxon England concerning both the northern geography and the peoples who inhabited it. The alterations to other portions of the text are instructive as the extent to which classical mythologies were known, and important to the cultural imagination, in Anglo-Saxon England. However, as a text in translation, the Old English Orosius is itself home to competing temporalities that are, I argue, instructive as to the ways in which that translation functions in terms of time. The Old English Orosius, in its translation and transformation of the Latin text of the Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII becomes a kind of hybrid space in which different temporalities interact and compete. These temporalities inhere in the problem of voice within the text. The hybrid space of the text – part Latin source material, part Old English invention, but with no specific delineations between the two (geographical preface excepted)--plays host to a variety of tensions and difficulties resulting from the anachronistic aspect of the text as what Malcolm Godden has described as a “monument to a fallen world.”[9] By reading the contexts of the two works, I will provide a sense of the tensions between the two texts in terms of the situation in history into which each falls. In the examination of a specific phrase—the cwæð Orosius (“Orosius said”)—I will position the time of Latinity and the representation of Orosius as indicators of a connection being made across times, as it were. In my reading, the Latin Historiarum Adversum Paganos and the culture which generated it become active participants in the shaping of an Old English identity through the text of the Old English Orosius. Drawing on Latour to argue for the Orosius as part of a collectivity formed in and by the different cultures and times represented in the various texts of the Alfredian corpus of translations, in this chapter I will raise questions about the status of this text “most needful for all men to know” vis a vis Jakobson’s formulation of translation in “Some Linguistic Aspects of Translation: as “translator of what messages? betrayer of what values?”[10]

II. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle”: Narratives in the Winchester, Canterbury, and Peterborough MSs

[Chapter two will examine the Winchester, Canterbury and Peterborough manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in order to explore the ways in which group identity changes across time and textual traditions, and will more specifically address the alliance of different genres in the creation of collectivities in the singular “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.”]

In her recent work on the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Alice Sheppard notes the specifically pedagogical aims of the texts, making the assertion that “they teach their readers what ‘makes’ and Anglo-Saxon and what defines Anglo-Saxon kings and kingdoms.”[11] In thinking through the ramifications of this kind of a “writing of an Anglo-Saxon identity and the creation of a people who are known as the Angelcynn,” Sheppard’s main interest is in the narratives of kingship which are found throughout the various MSs, and for the most part, she limits her considerations to specific narratives in each MS. My interest, in choosing the Winchester, Canterbury and Peterborough MSs is to examine the ways in which narrative as a whole changes across the period during which the greater “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” was being composed. The motion forward in time from the early Winchester MS to the post-Conquest Peterborough MS suggests what Hayden White has identified as a major difference between annalists and chroniclers, in which “annals represent historical reality as if real events did not display the form of a story, [while] the chronicler represents it as if real events appeared to human consciousness in the form of unfinished stories.”[12] Working with ideas of narrativity, I wish to demonstrate that the alliances (over time) of different generic materials (including Saints Lives and later chronicle literature) had a profound effect on the composition of the later MSs of the Chronicle, suggesting that in the presentation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as we see it in the most recent edition (by Swanton) is perhaps more telling than we think. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle itself forms a collectivity of materials that differ in not merely their genre but also their composition, in that the representation of the Angelcynn that the work as a whole gives is very much influenced by the composite structure in which it is articulated.

III. Saints and Soil: Inscribing English Sanctity in Ælfric’s Lives

In writing his Lives of the Saints, Ælfric translates a number of hagiographic texts out of Latin, emphasizing in his preface not only his fidelity to the original but also issuing a warning that any copyists are not to alter the texts in question when they are further copied down. Among his chosen saints are not only traditional saints of Late Antique origin, but saints of England: both the saints and the cults of their veneration originated in the British isles. In the Anglo-Saxon tradition of the cult of certain saints, the ground on which the saints died (usually through their martyrdom) maintains a certain connection with their holiness: it often is capable of curing illness or disability. Examples of this from the Latin tradition include that of Saint Maur, and Saint Martin, among others. Most often this is through the presence of their relics, and churches or shrines are built in the place at which the saint perished. In the case of Saint Æðeldryð, the body of saint itself becomes the conduit and locus of miracles—further, the fact of its incorruptibility becomes a point of connection for religious belief through time, a proof preserved from before the time Bede wrote of it, git oð ‏þisne dæg (yet until this day). Saint Alban, too, becomes a point of gathering for pre- and post-persecution Christianity in the area of England: the place of his interment connects Christians across time, both before and after the reign of Diocletian (the emperor whom Ælfric cites as the perpetrator of the persecutions) as well as after the re-institution of Christianity by Augustine after it had once again fallen away.

Æðeldryð and Alban suggest a connection of faith across time which inheres in the body of the saint. Saint Swiðun, the last of the trio of Anglo-Saxon saints I will examine, represents a kind of special case. Although his body is interred in the cathedral at Winchester, his vita proper is forgotten by the time of its inscription into Ælfric’s work and there is no body featured in the text. The fact of Swiðun’s existence is known only in miracles, and it appears throughout the text that there is a certain degree to which Swiðun’s sanctity is constituted not by the preservation of his earthly body, but by the works done through him in the world. Swiðun, termed in the text se‏þe nu niwan com (he who newly came), breaks down traditional ways of understanding the sanctity of saints in England, and in so doing, suggests a different model for connection with them. By looking at these three saints of England, I will argue that the community formed through them extends in time not only in their stories and in Anglo-Saxon England, but moreover with the stories of other saints in Ælfric’s Lives.

IV. A King’s Life: Pre and Post Conquest Narratives of Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor, the last king of the line of Cerdic and so of the “Anglo-Saxons” proper (succeeded only by the Harald Godwinson before the “Norman” conquest), occupies a distinctive role in the history of Anglo-Saxon England. A “holy” king (not unlike the earlier King Alfred, whose vita was written by Asser in the tenth century), Edward’s function as regards “England” – both pre and post conquest – changed considerably through time. In her 1988 dissertation (unpublished), Martha Blalock focuses on what she calls the “legend” of Edward – literally, a reading of his life. She separates the historical materials from the hagiographic materials in so doing – classifying such works as the “Anglo-Saxon” Chronicles and the chronicles of Florence of Worcester in the former category and the various Latin and vernacular lives of Edward in the latter. In her analysis of the lives she suggests that “his legend can best be understood as a body of “accurate” or “inaccurate” historical facts which has been made to conform to saintly models” 13; thus, in assessing the hagiographical material, Blalock finds that the later, vernacular works show the influence of the “new historicity” she argues characterize the twelfth century renaissance, as opposed to the Latin lives, which are more traditional in form.

In re-examining the lives of Edward the Confessor, I will argue that in order to understand the interaction between genres in the lives which are composed about him, scholars must turn to earlier models of “saintly” kings, and open the scholarship to the possibility that hagiography also – and at an earlier date – influenced the recording of history in Anglo-Saxon England, most particularly in the portrayals of Kings Alfred, Oswald, Edmund and Edgar. The saintly life of Edward the Confessor might then be best understood as a reading of the historical text already molded into the traditions of hagiography at the time of its inscription; the result is a composite image of a king whose power waxes and wanes with his holiness.


[1] Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990). Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (vols. 1 & 3) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).

[2] Monika Otter, Inventiones (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) 19.

[3] Elizabeth Tyler and Ross Balzaretti, eds. Narrative and History in the Early Medieval West, (Turnhout: Brepols, 2006) 7.

[4] Yitzhak Hen and Matthew Innes, eds. The Uses of the Past in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 1.

[5] Cf. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1991); Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[6] Cf. Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). Hastings’ (extremely western) examination of nationalism places a great deal of emphasis on the translation of the Bible as a step on the (all too teleological notion of) the road to nationhood.

[7] Kathleen Davis, “National Writing in the Ninth Century: A Reminder for Postcolonial Thinking about the Nation,” JMEMS 28.3 (Fall 1998)

[8] e.g., Davis. See also Nicole Discenza, The King’s English: Strategies of Translation in the Old English Boethius (New York: SUNY Press, 2005). Culturally significant divergences in the Old English Orosius include not only the geographical preface, which adds entire sections on the Northern geography related (purportedly) to King Alfred himself, but also certain extensions of mythological stories that would not have been familiar to Anglo-Saxon England.

[9] Godden, "The Anglo-Saxons and the Goths: Rewriting the Sack of Rome," Anglo-Saxon England 31 (2002) 61.

[10] Roman Jakobson, “Some Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, ed. Schulte and Biguenet (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) 151.

[11] Alice Sheppard, Families of the King, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004) 11-12

[12] Hayden White, The Content of Form, 5.

[13] Martha Graham Blalock, The Vita Sancti Edwardi Regis et Confessoris and the Vernacular Lives of Edward the Confessor (unpublished dissertation), 108.

cross posted at Old English in New York

Friday, December 28, 2007

Two seasonal stories involving worms

That the play is the tragedy, "Man,"
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.

So ends the famous poem by Edgar Allan Poe. For the holidays I gave my ten year old son a book of Poe short stories and poems. "Conqueror Worm" turned out to be one of his favorites. A review of the verses in his words follows:

"It was about an insignificant worm that conquers life. Life is like a show at a theater, but at the end it's over and it is a sad and tragic ending. The one thing that benefits from the tragedy is the Worm, which has conquered more than Julius Caesar, Attila the Hun, Alexander the Great, and Genghis Khan. The poem is good for anyone who is Goth."

Personally I was too nerdy to be Goth as a teen, but I was certainly addicted to Poe. I've been to his grave in Baltimore a few times, and once toasted him with absinthe. I also have a former student who has done some good work on Poe. And apparently I've turned my son Goth via Poe magic.

Below, a story being told this season by my daughter, age three and a half. I have no idea why she has been telling it or where she got it from, but Santa Worm has already entered the Cohen family vocabulary.

"Santa Worm brings presents to his nice friends, all of them. He likes to give worm presents to worms. He wears a small red hat. He looks like Santa but he's different. He has a Santa Worm sleigh with worm reindeer and a Rudolph worm. There are no pictures of him because he is too small to take pictures. That's it."

The Phenomenology of Landscapes

I have been nearly successful in upholding my vow not to stimulate a single neuron between December 24 and January 1.

In years past a chunk of this time has been lost to the great vortex of MLA. For once, though, I don't have to attend this Convention of the Bespectacled, a fact both good and bad: good, because -- well, because I don't have to be there; bad, because that means we are not hiring this year, and we are down one early modernist. I have vowed to spend the hiatus as a normal person would: resting, eating, resting from eating, eating to assuage the hunger of resting from eating, resting from eating to assuage ... well, you get it. The best part of this week has been the liberation of my family from the tyranny of its schedule. No ballet classes, Hebrew school, fencing lessons, piano lessons, EcoDefenders meetings, readings, business meetings: almost nothing at all for any of us. This gift of time has given us the chance to halt our constant motion and reacquaint ourselves with each other. Interesting fact: until recently I had forgotten that I have TWO children. How wonderful it is to possess both a son and a daughter.

Today, though, most of the family has vanished to spend some time without The Killjoy (I think they mean our dog Scooby, but they seem to have forgotten that I am in the house as well. Odd.) I've been reading through an excellent book and thought I'd share it with ITM's readership, since it bears so directly on some conversations centering around the "Weight of the Past" project, on MKH's dissertation proposal, on Eileen's enduring interest in capaciously rethinking the human, and on Karl's animal-focused thoughts about boundaries and borders. Liza, a frequent contributor, will see that I have her in mind as well.

Readers may remember that not long ago in the comments to one of MKH's posts I suggested the philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty as offering a usefully embodied way of thinking about horizons. Right now I'm working through an e-book heavily indebted to M-P, on the experience of stone and observer, and thought I'd share some of its foundational precepts as useful for other projects. So here is Christopher Tilley, The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology, laying out some guiding principles for his scholarship on neolithic stone structures:

A phenomenological perspective provides an ontological ground for the study of
things, places and landscapes, a means of approach and a way of thinking through
the body in its participatory relation with the world. I summarize some fundamental principles.

1. A phenomenological approach to landscape and place, as discussed here, using
the framework of Merleau-Ponty's thought and interpretations of this thought
by others, is not a philosophical approach emphasizing the personal and the
subjective. It is an approach emphasizing the intertwining of subject and object,
things and persons, mind and body, places and Being in the world. The rejection
of any possibility of an objective approach does not mean that we pass into a
realm of personal subjectivity, because meaning is grounded in the sensuous
embodied relation between persons and the world, an invariant ontological
ground for all feeling and all knowing taking place through persons with similar
2. Any study begins with lived experience, being there, in the world. It must
necessarily be embodied, centred in a body opening out itself to the world, a
carnal relationship. The exploitation of basic bodily dyads provides one entry
point into the study of place and landscape. A concentric graded sense of place
and landscape provides another basic way in which meaning may be explored.
Both originate in the body and extend outwards.
3. Perceptual meanings of place and landscape are constituted as gestalts, themes
against horizons, to which the human body and the external world both contribute,
a lived structure of experience formed through engagement and interaction
in which the body-subject and the world flow into each other and form part of
each other. The body is concretely engaged in the world from a particular point
of view that is always unfolding and changing in space-time. The mobile
interaction of the body in the world creates a framework for experience which
is produced in this lived interaction. What is experienced is an articulated
sensuous theme, against a horizon, in which perception is a meaningful bodily
organization of the perceptual field. There is a dialectical exchange between the
embodied structures of the engaged perceiver and the structures of that which
is perceived.
4. This involves a dehiscence, an opening of my body to things, a reversible
relationship between touching and being touched, myself and other, the effect
of myself on things and those things on me.
5. In an experiential relationship with things there is always a chiasm, an intertwining between 'outside' and 'inside', which mediate each other but never
totally fuse. So my body is in contact with the world but still separate from it.
My body experiences from the inside but opens itself to the outside. Since, as
an embodied observer, I perceive the world through a set of frameworks which
are habitual and grounded in the body, to a certain extent anonymous, these
frameworks cease to be mine alone and are not therefore 'personal'. They are,
however, both objective and subjective insofar as they simultaneously stem
from my own body. First-person experiences can be used to gain access to the
experiences of other persons because of the incarnate and sensuous opening
out of the 'primal' embodied subject to the world.
6. Our primordial experience is inherently animistic, disclosing a field of phenomena that are all potentially animate and expressive because our perception
involves the reversibility born out of our participation in the world.
7. Direct prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, disclosing the things
and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects
of experience, born out of our multidimensional sensorial participation in the
8. There is a fundamental temporal dimension to the body, place and landscape
carried through movement and sedimented into what places and landscapes
are and how we experience them.
9. Persons do not passively receive information and knowledge about the world
but always act in accordance with practical projects, values, needs, desires and
interests. What information and knowledge is indeed received can only be
understood in the context of these needs, desires, etc. It is in the context of a
needful body reaching out to the world that meaning and significance are
found. The manner in which we experience place and landscape is, however,
forever unfinished, uncertain and therefore ambiguous. The ambiguity inherent
to both that which we investigate (place, landscape) and how we perceive
is not a problem for analysis. Instead it provides an inexhaustible field of
affordances for us.
10. The aim of a phenomenological analysis is to produce a fresh understanding
of place and landscape through an evocative thick linguistic redescription
stemming from our carnal experience. This involves attempting to exploit to
the full the tropic nature of our language in such a way as to seek the invisible
in the visible, the intangible in the tangible. The mode of expression must
resonate with that which it seeks to express.
Reference: Tilley, Christopher. The Materiality of Stone: Explorations in Landscape Phenomenology (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2004) pp 29-30.

Cf. this summary, p. 31: "What I have been suggesting is that rather than regarding things, placesor landscapes primarily as systems of signs, or as texts or discourses which encode meaning and reflect social identities in various ways, we can regard them as agents which actively produce that identity. In other words we need to think about places and landscapes animistically, in an analogous manner to the way in which we like to think about persons, as entities who can and do make a difference. The move is from considering things as representing the world to us to things as producing that world for us. It is a move from the cognitive sign value of things to the embodiment of things, from the code of the world to the flesh of the world, from symbol to action. Producing human meaning in the world is all about establishing connections between ourselves and the disparate material phenomena with which and through which we live, the plants and animals, landscapes and artefacts that surround us, and this is the work of tropic language, of metaphor and metonymy."

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

In anticipation of pedagogy questions at the MLA: my upcoming theory course

[EDIT: by the way, the title doesn't mean that I'm on the market. It means maybe you're on the market, getting pedagogy questions at this very moment. Best of luck, everyone!]

As our Master's Program website indicates, I'm teaching the Intro to the Theory course this Spring. Some of you might be appalled by my getting the keys to this particular clown car, but believe me I understand that I'm teaching the course to become qualified to teach the course. Over the past week or so, I've been reading introductions to theory to pilfer lecture structures and to decide which book, if any, I'll assign the class. I thought I'd share my initial findings: what follows is a version of my reviews at Goodreads (where I continue to self-promote and to make myself available for neoliberal surveillance) of Steven Lynn's Texts and Contexts: Writing About Literature with Critical Theory (5th edition), Mary Klages's Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed, and Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction.

(picture: this year's hell: grading exams at the in laws, not that there's anything wrong with the in laws; better than last year's (MLA) hell?)

Most importantly, most predictably, none of the books get the Middle Ages right. We can't get the Middle Ages right, either, but theirs is deplorably confident in its wrongness. It's one thing not to know; it's another not to know and to think one knows. I can't, however, just damn them for this error, because who, other than us, would escape whipping? Perhaps I should be grateful that none offers an example earlier than Shakespeare?

With that out of the way: the Klages is thorough and sophisticated, although its choices are sometimes idiosyncratic: the "Ideology and Discourse" chapter devotes many pages to Bakhtin, and only a few to Foucault (which, given the relative importance of the two thinkers, should be reversed); in the review of the history of criticism, Addison gets an entry, but not Kant, Reynolds gets one, but not Rousseau, Burke gets one, but not Dante. It is, however, always a model of clarity, particularly in its explanations of Cixous and Irigaray. That said, it's very rare that Klages descends into linking these various critical schools with interpretation. Examples are a prerequisite for this kind of overview, especially given its audience. Certainly the long discussion of Freud and Lacan could have benefited from explaining what any of this has to do with literature, and it would have been useful to anticipate the objections of the more thoughtful, savvy students, who might find psychoanalytic narratives ludicrous and wonder about their truth value in comparison to cognitive science and psychiatry. As Klages presents it, it seems that one learns psychoanalysis only because other people use it. She knows the stuff, and given her great notes, I'm sure she's a fine teacher, but this book will not work, at least not without a lot of supplemental work (some might call this “teaching”).

Lynn steers past the shoals that sunk (toot! toot!) the Klages, first, by providing clear examples of how each school reads (but on 'schools,' see below), and by anticipating objections to their weirdness and (pretensions to?) political engagement. He expects that many students won't be feminists, and his section on Freud, for example, congenially (which is the tone, throughout) explains that the concept of penis envy "continues even today to drive people up a wall." And the examples are superbly detailed: they walk students from the rudiments of simply understanding some work, to brainstorming, to research, and finally to several examples of good final papers. In this regard, Lynn eludes the disgust Gerald Graff feels for an educational system in which it is “as if the goal of college admissions were to recruit a student body that is already so good that it hardly needs a faculty to teach it” (“Our Undemocratic Curriculum,” MLA Profession 2007 130). My primary objection concerns Lynn's humanism. Klages divides criticism into humanist (outmoded) and posthumanist (hip and with it since at least 1980) and rapidly dispenses with humanist approaches: her preferences are mine. By contrast, Lynn's psychoanalysis multiplies motives rather than decenters the self, so his example of a psychoanalytic reading is a character study of Hamlet, not, for example, a study of language and representation itself. And his "historicist" reading is a biographical exegesis of the relationship between John Cheever's life and a short story. This will probably comfort the high school teachers who will be my own students this Spring, but it misrepresents how we read. And, as I want to teach them how we read, and not only how to read, I think the Lynn is a mistake, unless, of course, I do a lot of this "teaching" thing I hear so much about.

I'm probably going to assign the Culler, because of its cost (it's less than $10), its brevity, its denseness, and, above all, because of its organization. Rather than setting out boxes each containing a critical school, it's organized thematically: the first chapter considers the particularity, or lack of particularity, of literary language, which leads into the second chapter's consideration of cultural studies, which leads into the question of meaning and the distinction between poetics (how it means) and hermeneutics (what it means), and so forth. Given that many of the best theorists overlap in many fields--is Judith Butler a psychoanalyst or feminist? is Althusser a structuralist or Marxist? and what is Foucault?--I think Culler's approach best represents how theory actually works. After all, poststructuralism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis tend to do much the same thing in a theoretical context: they all call 'the natural' (of language, of the state and economics and the working and consuming self, of the person and personality) into question and thereby transform the self into subject. That denaturalization is the key difference from what came before, not the differences between, say, a politically informed feminism and a merely linguistic poststructuralism.

For now, Culler gets my vote. If you're still with me, and you've taught this kind of course before, or you've given some thought to what you'll be teaching someday, what have you done/what will you do? A textbook? Which one? A reader? Or do you send students to JSTOR for everything, compelling them to mix themselves up in primary works of theory? What problems have you encountered in transferring your genius over to your students or in helping them discover theirs?

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy holidays and best wishes for a good new year from all of us at In the Middle.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

More Beowulf for the holidays

From a lovely little perch in Reagan National Airport,* where the gathering gloom is delaying flights out of historic Washington DC right and left, I bring you glad tidings of great joy!** Not only can you enjoy Beowulf the video game for X-Box 360 (what ever happened to "Super Nintendo"?) and Beowulf the Board Game (as reviewed by King Alfred at Bitter Scroll), but now we have this addition to our Beowulf themed gaming options: Beowulf THE MOVIE Board Game.

An excerpt from the "rule book" (found here):

[E]ach player strives to tell the most epic version of the Beowulf saga. To this end, each player takes control of Beowulf himself, guiding the hero and his companions to recount the chronicle in the most exciting way possible.

Ah yes. This holiday season, you can test your story-telling skills against your friends and loved ones, and for once -- perhaps disappointing those of us who took the time to learn Siever's half-line types in the hopes of a future career as a scop*** -- meter doesn't count.

I can't speak for it, only having learned of the movie-game's existence earlier today, but as a piece of Beowulfiana (an exciting notion in and of itself), there's a part of me that almost wants to spend money on it, though I highly doubt I'd ever play it. As to my experience with other versions of the board game...I think I'll practice a bit of (Old English) reticence on that point.****

Thanks to commenter LJS for the links!

* By which I mean sitting on the linoleum floor outside my gate at the only free electrical outlet I could find in this wing of the building.
** By which I mean small rays of sunshine that briefly allay the tedium of 7 hours of delays. Side note: What on earth did people do before WiFi?
***Am I the only Anglo-Saxonist who has considered this as an alternate career path if the academic job market doesn't work out? Also: Are there hirings for scops these days?
****By which I mean I don't consider myself entirely responsible for my poor board game choices when seeking to avoid boredom when attending seminars in West Virginia.

cross posted at OEinNYC

Friday, December 21, 2007

Scholarship and blogs, part 54756

I've just finished with the page proofs for "Inventing with Animals in the Middle Ages," an essay I wrote for this forthcoming book. Like much of what I have composed recently, the piece thanks and cites this blog. The essay joins the just-out short piece "Afterward: Intertemporality" (in Eileen et al.'s Cultural Studies of the Modern Middle Ages) and "An Unfinished Conversation about Glowing Green Bunnies" (the foreword to Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird's Queering the Non/Human soon to be out at Ashgate) -- along with the eventually-to-be published Weight of the Past (someday to be seen in Desiring Historicism: The Post Historical Middle Ages, ed. Sylvia Federico and Elizabeth Scala) -- as yet another product of the collaborative space In the Middle offers.

That's all very personal, I realize. Does anyone have any other tales to tell about the impact of blogs on medieval studies? [Other than SEK sending around emails about manuscript marginalia with the subject line monkey butt trumpet]

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Last minute holiday gift idea

Recently spotted on the shelf in a local store. Comes in two colors (pink or purple). High energy but requires no batteries. Slightly used (3.5 years old). Talks, dances, burps and sings. Inordinately fond of mint chocolate chip gelato, baby dolls with frightening heads, and pseudo Kung Fu fighting. Highly pinchable cheeks. Career aspiration: "To be a ballerina with superpowers who flies." Limited availability.

[ps If you can't get enough cute kid pics, you can glimpse the other Cohen spawn by following this link, downloading the PTA Patter for December 2007, and opening it to p. 7. The middle photo shows him knee deep in the Chesapeake performing something ecology minded ... though you'll only see his back]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Anthony Bale, The Jew in the Medieval Book

Tis the season for all Jews to be reminded by every jingling bell how little a space they have in this contemporary and oh so Christian culture.

Well, not really. I do know plenty of Jews who get grumpy round about now. Temple Micah, where the Cohen family belongs, even hands out special "sunglasses" at the Hanukkah service that transform Christmas lights into tiny stars of David. But then again, plenty of Christians become irritable at this time of year. And atheists. And let's not forget our group reading this summer of Lee Edelman's No Future, a book which makes the compelling argument that Ebenezer Scrooge is right and Tiny Tim must die.

You readers know that I'm a syncretist, and find joy in small things like the fact that the celebration of Christmas is just as much about the celebration of winter, and of the solstice, and of a whole bunch of cornball things from deep in the human past that remind me of what's good in homo sapiens (even if they don't do enough sapienting). At this most festive time of year, I offer you the draft of my forthcoming review of Anthony Bale's The Jew in the Medieval Book. And yes, I must admit that I did once snap the cover of that volume closed on my son's hand and exclaim "Look! There is a Jew in my medieval book."

OK, here it is. The review will appear in some form in Studies in the Age of Chaucer next year. Has anyone else read this book?

ANTHONY BALE. The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Pp. xiv, 266. $85.00.

Meticulously researched and lucidly composed, Anthony Bale’s The Jew in the Medieval Book combines rigorous historicist readings with excellent manuscript work and familiarity with critical theory. The book contributes to the vigorous conversation that has unfolded over the past decade on the relation of England’s Jews to its literary culture. Scholars such as Sheila Delaney, Denise Despres, Steven Kruger, Lisa Lampert, and Sylvia Tomasch (among literary critics); Ruth Mellinkoff and Debra Higgs Strickland (among art historians); and Jeremy Cohen, Kathleen Biddick, Robert Chazan, Gavin Langmuir, David Nirenberg, and Miri Rubin (among historians) have provided the groundwork for Bale’s project.

As his starting date of 1350 indicates, Bale is interested in post-Expulsion depictions of Jews. Previous scholars have typically attempted to capture the Christian imagination of Judaism by deploying large conceptual frameworks: the virtual Jew (Tomasch), the spectral Jew (Kruger), the hermeneutic Jew (Cohen), the Protean Jew (Despres). Without directly engaging such capacious epistemologies, Bale implicitly follows Nirenberg (Communities of Violence) in arguing that anti-Semitism is better understood as antisemitisms: what he calls “massive, transhistorical narratives” (9) must yield to dynamic local histories. Even if stereotypes invoked by a text might seem “universal” (the Jews as poisoners of wells, the Jews as Christianicidal), they are nonetheless given definitive shape through specific context, convenience, and strategy. Bale therefore stresses the lack of agreement among Christian interpreters over the place and meaning of the Jews, observing that “even as established Christian interpretive models existed, writers rarely chose to subordinate their impressions of contemporary Judaism to such a model” (25). Rather than invoke the Jew to confirm some pre-existing doctrinal position or repeat some unchanging typology, medieval writers employed Judaism to create a space in which theology is not reaffirmed, but questioned and destabilized. Jews as imagined by medieval English writers, in other words, function not as an assimilated component of Christian universal history, but as perturbing figures through whom authors may grapple with the discontents such a transhistorical model generates.

Bale structures his book around the analysis of four medieval narratives. Each typifies a genre: the Jew of Tewkesbury, who tumbles into a latrine and dies in excrement because of his reverence for his Sabbath (“history”); the miracle of the boy who, after his murder at Jewish hands, continues to sing a Marian hymn (“miracle”); the worship of the child martyr Robert of Bury St Edmunds, supposedly killed by local Jews (“cult”); and the Arma Christi, a display of the instruments of Christ’s suffering that included a spitting Jew (“Passion”). A strength of his study is that he does not rely upon published editions for sources, but reads his texts within wide manuscript context. Thus the chapter on the caroling dead boy contains, as expected, a detailed examination of Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. Because the focus is upon the “discontinuities and divergences,” however, this supremely literary rendition finds itself jostled by versions of the same story in places both predictable (the Vernon manuscript) and surprising (an unattributed redaction of Chaucer’s tale snuggled next to and finally intercut with Lydgate, BL Harley MS 2251).

The book in its entirety is useful for any scholar seriously contemplating late medieval piety, literary culture, social identity, and otherness. The chapter examining Chaucerian materials will, however, be of special interest to the readers of this journal. Given that a series of original and highly influential articles have appeared over the past twenty years on the Prioress’s Tale (especially the work of Aranye Fradenburg, Bruce Holsinger, and Lee Patterson), it may seem that little space remains for new readings. Chapter three (“Miracle: shifting definitions in ‘The miracle of the boy singer’) opens with an invocation of the Wandering Jew, terra cognita to be sure, but then surprises with his follow-up interrogatory of “What of the wandering Christian?” If Jew and Christian are “ambivalently interconnected,” he reasons, shouldn’t Chaucer’s itinerant text in which a pilgrimage fails to reach its destination offer a meditation on the multiple possibilities that straying into Jewish space offers? Bale tracks in the Prioress’s Tale two warring elements, each with its own trajectory: an expansive land- and soundscape characterized by “extreme physicality and loss of control”; and a “lapidary vocabulary” that would immure such vagrancy within the gem-like martyr and his marble tomb (“morbid permanence and closure”). Chaucer’s tale, Bale argues, resists the reduction into timelessness that other versions of the story embrace. The desire to limit and bound the narrative he ascribes to the Prioress, and the desire to keep alive its “bodily, historical and geographical disjunctions” he grants its actual author. Bale’s contextualization of the litel clergeon into the whole of Fragment VII (a series of narratives obsessed with male bodies, boys, chastity, violence) could be better. Yet he does offer a compelling meditation on the space the tale opens to explore problems of genre, authority, and orthodoxy.

If there is anything to quibble with in the volume, it is Bale’s refusal to engage with actual Jews. About Christian fantasies of Judaism, and disallowing that a fantasy may engulf some portion of a historical reality and carry that reality far forward in time, the book is in a way as Judenrein as England post-1290. Bale writes in the introduction “I do not aim to enfranchise those ‘hidden from history,’ a target implicit in much writing on historical Jewry” (p.5; if the Jews are ‘hidden from history,’ they are hidden in plain sight!) While such a recovery project is clearly not what every medievalist can or should undertake, the separation of Jewish reality from Christian imagining often goes too far. The Jews of Bale’s book are the context-adapted products of an eternal present; they do not carry with them the imprint, weight, or memory of actual history. Passive figures, they find themselves wholly adapted to the demands of a specific moment. Bale argues that “a contextualised, historically contingent antisemitism does not necessarily involve Jews but can stand alone in Christian culture” (107). He is speaking about the events surrounding the cult of Robert of Bury St Edmunds, a veneration that came into being as fifty-seven Jews lost their lives. The intimacy of its Jewish population to Bury’s economic and cultural systems has been well documented. The violence exacted by Robert’s cult was practiced against bodies onto which fantasies were projected, but these were also real bodies not nearly as passive as Bale’s formulation implies. Medieval Jews were, as the events at York demonstrated, a people who could resist. Could they also survive their own eradication? Is it possible to hear something of a Jewish history resounding, even deep within a Christian fantasy – especially because, as Bale has so brilliantly emphasized, such Christian fantasies tend to be internally incoherent, heterogeneous, impossibly full?

Miri Rubin in her book Gentile Tales stages an astonishing sequence in the text’s middle where the Jews answer back, giving them a voice that has much to say to the Christian fantasies she analyzes. Anthony Bale lacks such a moment in his own work, but he has nonetheless authored a tremendous book. Because The Jew in the Medieval Book seamlessly combines the theoretical (Deleuze and Guattari, for example, make a useful appearance in the Chaucer chapter) with the archival and the historical, and because its ambit is so capacious and its findings so well argued, this volume will be required reading in medieval studies for years to come.

What is that monkey doing with that trumpet?

I don't know exactly, but go here if you want some context.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Chartres Donatus Cliché Can Mean Only One Thing

And here's the medieval follow-up to the previous exam, presented below the fold with the same request: why not share your final exams when it's safe?

Medieval English Literature
Identification (5 points)
Answer five of the ten questions below. The first five correct answers are worth a point a piece. Extra Credit: each additional correct answer after the first five is worth a half point; thus 7.5 points in all are possible on this section. Your answers will generally be no longer than a sentence; often, a word or two will be sufficient to get the answer correct. Precision counts.
1) How does King Uther finally recognize Cleges?
2) In what work can you find the lines “Sum stode withouten hade, / And sum non armes nade, / And sum thurth the bodi hadde wounde, / And sum lay wode, y-bounde, / And sum armed on hors sete, / And sum astrangled as thai ete; / And sum were in water adreynt, / And sum with fire al forschreynt.”
3) In what work can you find the lines, “They wente to the courte of Rome, / And browghte the Popus bullus sone, / To wedde hys dowghter dere”?
4) In what work does a priest bless a dying werewolf?
5) In what work will you find the lines, “My lord and all his kind / will never believe me / when they hear about this bad luck; / indeed, I condemned myself / when I slandered all womenkind”?
6) What was or were the original language(s) of the following (partial credit is possible): The Romance of Tristan? The History and Topography of Ireland? Pearl?
7) List two works whose plots are set in motion by knights running out of money.
8) When Gowther fights the Saracens for three days in a row, he wears a different colored suit of armor on each successive day. What are the colors? (+0.5 if you list the colors in the correct order)
9) Who loses a nose?
10) What happens in Pearl when the Dreamer tries to cross the river?

Short Answers (7.5 points) and Short Essays (7.5 points)
Please read the instructions carefully. From the ten questions below, you must answer a minimum of three questions as short answers of two or three sentences and two questions as long answers that will each make an argument over several paragraphs. Each of the short answers is worth 2.5 points; for the long answers, each will be worth 3.75 points. Extra Credit: You may also answer up to three additional questions as short answers. Extra credit answers are worth one point each.
1) In the Song of Roland, Ganelon declares “Because of Roland I had lost gold and possessions, and it was for that reason that I set about to cause his death and his ruin. But as for treachery, I will not admit to anything of the kind” (Laisse CCLXXII). In what way is he justified in refusing to admit treachery?

2) Why does Sir Gawain and the Green Knight start with the siege of Troy?

3) Guinevere accuses Lanval of having “no interest in women. / You have fine-looking boys [Vallez avez bien afeitiez] / with whom you enjoy yourself.” Given that vows of chastity were common in the Middle Ages, why do you suppose Guinevere accuses Lanval specifically of preferring boys when he refuses to have sex with her? You may provide more than one possibility.

4) Comment on the death of Roland in Laisses CLXXIV-CLXXVII: what do these details suggest about this culture's values? Concentrate, if you like, particularly on what Roland does with his glove; ALTERNATELY: comment on the significance of the use of the possessive pronoun “our” in the first laisse of the Song of Roland.

5) The lai “Yonec” is named after a character, the son of Muldumarec (the hawkman), who barely speaks and whose primary action in the lai is to cut off his stepfather's head. Why do you suppose Marie named the lai after this character rather than his biological father or after his (unnamed) mother?

6) What would Gawain have had to do if he had been seduced by Bertilak's wife? Why do you suppose Sir Gawain and the Green Knight included this possibility?

7) Discuss the significance in Sir Orfeo of the barons' words “it is no bot of mannes deth!” (552). Here you might want to consider Orfeo's several methods of compensating for or rectifying Heurodis's disappearance.

8) Tristan and Iseult have numerous opportunities to lie in the Romance of Tristan, yet they prefer to tell half-truths. Hypothesize about why they don't tell outright lies, preferably by reference to a particular half-truth (e.g., “I swear that no man ever came between my thighs except the leper who carried me on his back across the ford and my husband, King Mark” (section 15, 142)).

9) Comment on the significance of Gowther's refusal to give up his falchion.

10) Pearl uses the language of courtly love several times to describe the pearl (“so slender her sides, so smooth they were” (5); “the slender one, so smooth, so small” (189); “Such beauty in nature never was known; / Pygmalion never painted your eyes” (751-52): note: Pygmalion was a legendary sculptor who made a statue so beautiful that he fell in love with it. The gods took pity on him and brought the statue to life). Comment on the significance of erotic language in this religious poem.

WashPost review of Second Shepherd's Play

Peter Marks of the Washington Post finally got around to reviewing the Folger production of the Second Shepherd's play. A little research -- even at the excellent Folger website for the play -- would have prevented some of the errors in the piece. The saddest (if most predictable) part of the review, however, is its take on the Middle Ages: simple, child-like, lacking in sophistication and complexity. Thus:
the rudimentary plot advances from the low comedy of the shepherds' deception by Brownstein's thieving Mak and his wife, Gill (Holly Twyford), to the more sober and reverent atmosphere of the shepherds' pilgrimage to visit Christ in the manger ... Although they're too primitively constructed for us to find them truly funny, the scenes in Mak and Gill's cottage provide intriguing parallels to the scene in the manger ... The actors have a tougher time, as they must contend with the bluntness of the script ... [Mary Hall] Surface [the director] imbues the piece with the feel of child's play. Tony Cisek's set is the delicate suggestion of olden days: a spinning wheel here, an ancient doorway there. Mak's hilly journeys from his cottage to the shepherds' moors are undertaken by a puppet version of the character. And costume designer Erin Nugent cloaks the company in the colorfully rugged fabrics of hard-knock country folk.

There is much to say here, but I'll limit myself to this.

The feel of the play in Mary Hall Surface's production is not at all childlike, but it does have whimsical moments, such as the transformation of Mak into a puppet to enact scenes like mountain climbing or his being tossed in a blanket in punishment for his thievery. These are metatheatrical moments rather than cutesy ones. The puppets are used in as sophisticated a way as the "colorfully rugged fabrics of hard-knock country folk": that is, the director realized that hard-knock country folk do not actually wear colorful fabrics, and intentionally chose not to clad the shepherds in the sackcloth or dirty rags that would have been more realistic. The aesthetic overload evident in the costuming is paralleled in the beautiful way that bitter tempests are conveyed: swirling purple ribbons that loop across the stage to a keen wind generated by the rolling of plush fabric. The highly stylized staging has an emotional impact that a blunt attempt at poverty and frigid weather might not.

The Second Shepherd's Play is neither "simple" nor "primitive." The drama meditates upon the place of redemption and forgiveness in unextraordinary lives, employing sophisticated puns, metonymies for Christ, tropes of cannibalism, animality, class, gender, bodiliness, the carnality of worship ... I've spoken already about how jarring its transformation into a nativity scene is, and how the sudden arrival of divinity retroactively transforms the whole performance. It's a brilliant and sophisticated drama.

A seasonal melody

For the Scholar playlist: The refrain from this song was my mantra from early November onwards (roughly coinciding with the period during which I lost my laptop, had to compose the biggest lecture of my career, and was inundated with personnel issues). Though I still have a stack of Chaucer finals to grade and a book review to compose, I think I might actually make it through this year with a shred or two of sanity intact.

Thanks, again, to the author of the Chaucer blog for turning me on to the Mountain Goats.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

And dream of sheep

On Thursday evening of last week I attended a production of the Second Shepherd's Play, a music-heavy interpretation mounted by the Folger Consort and enacted within the beautiful and intimate Folger Theater. Next came a day-long workshop on the play, mounted by the Folger Library and featuring a cast of fifty scholars -- everyone from Alexandra Johnston (founding director of Records of Early English Drama) to graduate students just beginning thesis work. I moderated the closing panel, so felt like I had to sit up front for everything to prevent accidental conferencis snoozidosis and thereby potentially miss something we should speak about in my session (a panel that in addition to Johnston featured Sarah Beckwith).

I am, I must admit, not a big fan of medieval music. This production used it for transitions, interludes, and at spontaneous moments. Though I felt the beginning of a migraine as "Sumer is ycomen in, Loude sing cuckou!" erupted (can't there ever be an "authentic" medievalpalooza without that one?), for the most part the sheer variety of instruments and the technical proficiency of the musicians kept me well entertained. There was only one moment when the music seemed out of place. The play's literally amazing moment occurs when this drama that seems to have nothing to do with Christmas -- featuring as it does a story about sheep stealing, a ram impersonating a baby in a cradle, and course humor about husbands and wives -- is suddenly interrupted by an angel who comes out of nowhere and announces that Christ has been born. The shepherds find themselves wrenched from a story in which they believe themselves protagonists and reduced to mere side characters in something far more important. All the action which preceded the angelic revelation is retroactively transformed into a scandalous parody of the Nativity, with the Lamb of God being played by a stinky ram swaddled and placed in a crib, watched over by a woman who is no virgin and man who only hopes to eat it (and not because this Lamb is the Eucharist ... but you see the layers). In the Folger production, a long musical interlude transitions the audience from the secular to the reverent sections, changing the aural landscape enough so that the angel's appearance is not a startling eruption but an expected culmination.

One other problem I had with the play (a play I would highly recommend all the same to all ITM's DC area readers): my point of identification throughout the drama was the sheep, played by a puppet so ugly and ungainly he was cute. The puppeteer (who at the nativity plays Mary) was good at making the sheep's animal interjections comment upon the human conversations. The sheep's refusal to be a proper baby when placed in the crib is hilarious. Given all this challenge, it made me groan when the manger scene was staged and the lamb came over and -- just like all the human actors -- bowed to the plastic doll that was supposed to be a Christ child. How out of character! I felt ripped off.

I left the workshop on Friday thinking what an underappreciated play the Second Shepherd's is. Almost everything we thought we knew about it has been proven false over the past decade or two. The time is ripe for a critical re-evaluation. Expect to read much new scholarship on it (and on medieval drama more generally) in the years ahead. The Folger workshop made clear how much work remains to be done.

UPDATE 12/17
Here's another participant's take on the workshop. Here is a roundup of fun facts. Here are three relevant podcasts. The one featuring Theresa Coletti (also at the workshop) is especially good.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Holiday Gift for Anglo-Saxonists Everywhere

or, "Old English isn't dead, it just retired to Holland!"

At risk of distracting attention from other holiday and even less procrastination oriented posts (and in lieu of posting further installments in more work-oriented series of my own):

For many years we Old English scholars have asked ourselves the deep questions. Why does modern English sound the way it does? What rules governed the the umlauting of strong verbs of the fourth conjugation? Did the monopthongization of dipthongs occur earlier or later than the loss of the proto-Germanic endings in -jo stem verbs?* More importantly, if Old English is really a dead language, who killed it?

Okay, maybe we don't ask that last one. Or at least, not out loud. At any rate:

I noticed, a few weeks ago, an email to Ansaxnet from Larry Swain (who also blogs at The Ruminate and, in another medievalist group blog, Modern Medieval) featured the answer to at least one of those questions. And as I've not seen it anywhere else in the medieval blogworld, I thought I'd post it here (apologies if I'm just repeating what's already been spread far and wide). Behold: On the Discovery Channel (UK), Eddie Izzard went to modern Holland to buy a cow. In old English. And he did.

Anyone else wonder if Frissian might now count as a valid research language for Old English PhD students? Or is that too much to hope for in my Old Norse filled break...

*it is important to note that I do not have my copy of Alistair Campbell anywhere nearby. My grasp of Germanic philology being fuzzy at best, I've more or less invented these questions for Anglo-Saxonists. I do know, however, that all of the items mentioned do exist. As one of my favorite professors once said, "you can't make this stuff up."

cross posted at OEinNY.

The Bible Swoops Out, the some Holidays Swoop In

I've just given the first of three final exams, this one for my "Bible as Literature" course. It's a course for which I'm pretty close to absolutely unqualified to teach, but which has also, probably because of my wonder and uncertainty, has been an absolute, consistent joy. On the first day, I gave my relevant background: raised a religious fundamentalist, went to church 3 times a week, knew a bit about medieval exegesis, and a decades-long atheism. A hand shot up: "Are you personally offended by having to teach this class?" Wonderful. Months later, I punctuated a point with "I swear to God," and my students, ever vigilant, swooped in on the emptiness of my vow, declaring it hypocritical and untrustworthy.

So it's been a delight. The class comprised Christians, one Muslim, probably some unbelievers, and, given that it's Brooklyn College, a surprising, and disappointing, absence of Jews. But my enemy in the class was not religious faith (or its doctrinaire absence) but rather bad hermeneutics derived from psychologically realist art. Students tried to find motives for Tobias's milquetoastery (was the problem his mother, perhaps?), wondered if Nebuchadnezzar was bipolar (given that his friendliness to Daniel alternates with froth-mouthed tyranny), suggested that Job suffered from PTSD, and proposed that maybe Paul wouldn't have been so ooged out by marriage if he had found a nice girl. I suppose my problem, unusual for a literature class, was the students' over-familiarity with the material combined with their certainty that these characters were all, in a way that Iago is not, real people. All I had to do, then, was to make it strange, and to argue, repeatedly, that whether or not these people had ever existed was beside the point for what these works were trying to do.

And to give a sense of what I thought they were doing, but also in a supreme act of self-indulgence, I present below the exam I just gave. I'm proud of my baby, the first exam for the first literature class I designed all by my lonesome. There's no other reason to share, except perhaps to receive a gift in return. Why not drop off some of your exams in the comments when it's safe to do so?

The Bible as Literature: Final Exam (25 points total + some extra credit opportunities). Open Book, Open Note. You have two hours.

Identification (6 points)
Answer six of the ten questions below. The first six correct answers are worth a point a piece. Extra Credit: each additional correct answer after the first 6 is worth a half point; thus 8 points in all are possible on this section. Your answers will generally be no longer than a sentence; often, a word or two will be sufficient to get the answer correct. Precision counts.

1) How does Sampson die?
2) I used the phrase “creedal history” several times during the semester (from, creedal: “any system, doctrine, or formula of religious belief, as of a denomination”). What did I mean? ALTERNATELY: define 'terrestrial eschatology.'
3) In what book does the odor of burning fish liver drive out a demon?
4) Judith's song of praise recalls the hymn of victory sung by which judge?
5) What does Joseph do with his father's body?
6) What does Rachel do with Laban's household gods?
7) Where was the statue dedicated to an unknown God?
8) Which disciple puts his hands in Jesus's wounds?
9) Who is “made to eat grass like oxen” and is “bathed with the dew of heaven”?
10) Why does Paul end up going to Rome?

Short Answers (9 points) and Short Essays (10 Points)
Please read the instructions carefully. From the ten questions below, you must answer a minimum of three questions as short answers of two or three sentences and two questions as long answers that will each make an argument over several paragraphs. Each of the short answers is worth three points and each of the long answers is worth five points. Extra Credit: You may also answer up to three additional questions as short answers. Extra credit answers are worth one point each.

1) 4 Maccabees concentrates on stories in which various Jews resist a Greek ruler's attempts to make them abandon the Jewish Law. We might think, then, that the book promotes Jewish over Greek thought. Yet the work justifies and explains the Jewish Law through categories of thought clearly borrowed from Greek philosophy (e.g., 4 Maccabees 1:34-35, “Therefore when we crave seafood and fowl and animals and all sorts of foods that are forbidden to us by the law, we abstain because of domination by reason. For the emotions of the appetites are restrained, checked by the temperate mind, and all the impulses of the body are bridled by reason”). Why do you suppose 4 Maccabees “packages” the Law in this manner?

2) In the first creation story in Genesis, God creates men and women at the same time, and only after he has created animals; in the second creation story, God creates man first, then animals, and then woman. Comment on the significance of the differences between these two stories.

3) Comment on two contrasting passages in Ecclesiastes, e.g., Ecclesiastes 7:11-12, “Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, / an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to the one who possesses it” and Ecclesiastes 3:18, “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals, for all is vanity.”

4) In Job 6:21, Job replies to his three accusers, “You see my calamity, and are afraid.” If Job is correct, why do you suppose the accusers are frightened? Here you will want to consider the theme of the Book of Job as a whole.

5) First Samuel 16-17 introduce David three times. The first time, God sends the priest Samuel out to anoint a new King, and he anoints David, a shepherd; the second time, David, now described primarily as a warrior and musician, comes to Saul to help ease his bad moods; the third time (1 Samuel 17:12) introduces David yet again, and in this strain of the story, he seems to meet Saul by helping provision his brothers, who serve in Saul's army. Comment on the differences and their effect on some aspect or aspects of the story of these chapters, for example, how we understand the relationship between David and Saul.

6) The Book of Esther gives Esther a strong male associate, her uncle Mordecai, who warns her about Haman's threat against the Jews and who convinces her to risk her life by speaking to her husband. Judith, which is a revision of the Esther story, provides Uzziah, a figure who might have been a strong advisor like Mordecai. Instead, Judith dominates the story in her words, wisdom, and action. Why do you suppose Judith differs in this way from Esther?

7) In the Christian Bible, Ruth follows the Book of Judges; in the Jewish Bible, Ruth follows the Song of Solomon. What effect(s) does/do the different placement of the book have on its meaning?

8) Comment on the differing roles given to Mary and Joseph in each of the synoptic gospels: in Mark 6:3, Jesus is called the “Son of Mary” and Joseph never appears; in Luke, Mary and other women dominate the narrative of the opening chapters; and in Matthew, Joseph is the dominant figure (e.g., in 2:13, an angel appears to Joseph to warn him to take the family to Egypt).

9) Compare the genealogy of opening of Matthew to the genealogy in Luke 3:23-38 and comment on the significance of their differences.

10) Who do you suppose better honors the angels, Abraham or Lot? Make an argument to support your case.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Decorating to annoy II

I do have serious items to post. I've been toiling away at transforming my "Weight of the Past" lecture into an essay for the volume Desiring Historicism: The Post Historical Middle Ages, ed. Sylvia Federico and Elizabeth Scala. I'm nearly done reading Anthony Bale's stunning The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500. My review of the book for Studies in the Age of Chaucer is, shall we say, a wee bit late. I've hammered out the abstract for "Miraculous Journeys: Pilgrimages, Travel Writing, and the Medieval Exotic," to be published in the ambitious new Oxford Handbook of Medieval Literature. I've got a lecture coming up in March for the Theorizing series at UPenn, I'm giving a piece on Lost Worlds at New Chaucer Society in Swansea, two things to compose for K'zoo in May, a brand new course I'd like to share, a Folger workshop on the Second Shepherd's play at which I'm moderating ... but you know, writing about those things seems like work, rather than the procrastination thereof.

Instead I'd like to tell you about the English Department's attempt to win the GW Holiday Door Contest, and our failure to capture the gold.

In its entire 3 billion year history, the English department has never entered this annual university contest. For good reason, I suppose. Nonetheless I did mention to our secretary and to our work study student that if they were feeling creative and wanted to give the department thirty seconds of glory, I would not oppose the door being festivated. They did so with gusto, dreaming up an elaborate scheme in which a lace fir tree was taped to the door with twinkling lights behind it. Faculty and staff names were inscribed on paper cut-outs resembling orbs or gifts. These were then hung on the boughs of the tree via paperclips (orbs), or placed at the base (gifts).

Within ten minutes of the tree's erection (why does that sound so dirty?) our first faculty member entered the office with a decoration-related query: why was she a gift rather than an orb? Did that mean she was low on the departmental hierarchy? A few minutes later, another teacher asked why Professor X's orb was hanging closer to the tree's top (crowned by a Star of David) than his own. And so on.

Moral of the story: academics will read anything, even the semiotics of portal festivation at Yuletide. Next year we have decided to really mess with minds by putting random faculty member names onto square black construction paper and placing them in a stocking labeled The Coal Heap. It will be hung far from the door.

How did I stop the querying of orb and gift placement, you ask? Simple. I took the orb on which my own name was inscribed, used scissors to cut what looked like cracks and shatter marks, and then taped it at the bottom of the door as if it had fallen and broken. No one could complain that they were worse off than me.

And, oh yes, to make it interesting, I put the orb with the Deputy Chair's name directly above the empty space where my ornament should have been ... and asked faculty if they could discern the Shakespearean narrative of treachery and overstriving evident in the arrangement of the tree.

Happy holidays, everyone.