Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ruins and Poetry: Beowulf and Bethlehem Steel

I’ve spent the last few days in Buffalo, New York, which some of my readers from Old English in New York will know is where my father’s family originates. I end up on the shores of Lake Erie at least twice a year now – and it’s a place I’ve come to think of as a kind of home.

About a week ago, in Boston with some of my dearest of friends, I finally saw the movie Beowulf. There are a number of very worthy blog-reviews, and more traditional reviews as well; however, I’ve been reticent to add my voice to the growing number. I saw the movie. I felt vaguely embarrassed as my friends asked me if THAT was what I studied. I cringed as the dialogue and speeches I love were destroyed by lines that no Anglo-Saxon warrior would ever say. I felt betrayed at the blatant sexuality and the use of women in the poem, the way they weren’t granted so much as a point of view, the way even those who had an opinion didn't ever fight back. No, I didn’t like this movie. It didn’t show me the poem I love, and it didn’t show me the gravitas I have come to cherish in my Anglo-Saxon verse.

And then, on the way to a family day-after-Thanksgiving gathering I caught sight of something familiar. The old Bethlehem steel factories live on the outskirts of Buffalo in a town called Lackawanna. Parts are owned by a foreign company – Mittal. Those parts are kept up, have been rebuilt even in the five years I’ve been coming back to Buffalo. The majority of the buildings, however, are modern ruins, growing vast fields of tall grasses inside the hollowed out sections of old structures, gated and barb-wired, a darkened wasteland sitting on the banks of Lake Erie. I don’t know the history of Bethlehem steel – at least, I do not know it intimately. It seems to be caught up in greed, exploitation, and the pain both cause in people who never see the profits of their labor, the ugliness of its moral stance written in grey slag on the beachfront. Nick Howe wrote eloquently in Across an Inland Sea that, unlike its northern neighbor Toronto, Buffalo will never be a city of “heritage”: a past one accepts without moral, or more likely, aesthetic embarrassment...a useable past for interior decorators (38). Buffalo is made of something tougher, less pliable, but perhaps (if one can make such a claim) more real. Again, borrowing from Howe’s elegant description: “Looking at the world from a city in decline keeps you from believing too many of the claims other places make about their futures. And it teaches you to value those intact ruins which were once someone else’s city of the future” (38).

Yet rising above these ruins now are the turbines that form part of what is called “Steel Winds” – an effort (I hope not final) to make the area which has for so long been home to the carcass of a giant productive once more. From an article in the Buffalo News, this line particularly struck me:
Fate has not forsaken us. It gave us a stiff wind blowing off Lake Erie. It left us a vast lakeside stretch of befouled land unsuitable for human habitation — but perfect for the mammoth wind turbines that no one wants to live near.
Fate here isn't anything that Beowulf and company would have recognized -- as we so often do in this age, fortune is blamed only for the good that falls to humans, and is said to be absent when we taste only of the bad. Boethian references aside, it is strange to see Fate invoked in this context...and stranger still as I wonder about what Fate--or more appropriately in this context, Wyrd--has done with the Beowulf I find beautiful, but that millions will now see as an adventure story where Pride is the Enemy, and the Sins of the Father echo in progeny born from the bodies of women objectified.

J.R.R. Tolkien wrote, in The Monsters and the Critics, a line that's been troubling me as I've written and re-written my dissertation prospectus these past few weeks.
Beowulf is not a “primitive poem;” it is a late one, using the materials (then still plentiful) preserved from a day already changing and passing, a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion; using them for a new purpose, with a wider sweep of the imagination, if with a less bitter and concentrated force. When new Beowulf was already antiquarian, in a good sense, and it now produces a singular effect. For it is now to us itself ancient; and yet its maker was telling of things already old and weighted with regret, and he expended his art in making keen that touch upon the heart that sorrows have which are both poignant and remote. If the funeral of Beowulf moved once like the echo of an ancient dirge, far-off and hopeless, it is now to us like memory brought over the hills, an echo of an echo. There is not much poetry in the world like this...
Tolkien's point on the wider sweep of imagination aside, I think there's something in the assertion that Beowulf uses materials "preserved from a day already changing and passing" to bring down though generations the story we claim we know. Put together from pieces of a fragmented past, "Beowulf" is a poem we know, perhaps, only by its reputation -- we know it by what we've been left. We know the figurative landscape of the poem: the story of a hero, the monsters he fights and the death he dies doing it. We guess at the tone of the poem, of its seriousness and its strength, but we can only ever make an educated guess at its contemporary reception or use -- and the educated guess is still inflected by chance, however slight.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I think our interpretation of Beowulf is far more like bricolage than we are perhaps sometimes willing to admit. Neil Gaiman, in an article about the movie that I actually managed to read in its entirety (and I will read all of those blog reviews in greater detail - Prof. Noakes has a great list of them compiled at Unlocked Wordhoard, I've just not had time to work through all of it!), says of his first reading of Beowulf : "And I thought, this is a great story. It's got serious monsters in it and dragon fighting at the end. That's when I fell in love with it."

He fell in love with it based on those monsters Tolkien tried so hard to lift beyond what demeaning (and demanding) critics might say about them.
Sitting with my high-school age cousin this weekend as I helped her work out the answers to her AP homework questions on the poem, I realized that Beowulf is a ruin in this day and age -- a structure whose original purpose is lost and broken, a structure that might hold meaning but doesn't hold a concrete use for the majority of those dwelling in the present day (the metaphysical musings on ruins, however, is another matter). All my eloquence about the poem's structure and beauty weren't of interest, wouldn't move my cousin to love the poem in the way I do, any more than it could her classmates, or any more than it did for me my senior year of high school. I didn't love Beowulf until someone -- Gillian Overing, in my first Old English class -- told me a story I could understand, a story I wanted to know more about. And at the end of the day, all my philology work and theoretical readings and deep study of the Middle Ages aside, here's what I think matters abotu Beowulf -- the movie and the poem: from the wreckage of the past, the burned remnants of manuscript and centuries of bored English majors, Neil Gaiman found a story he could tell, one to try to move other people to engage this work of the distant past. It wasn't the most well-executed story, and as a film it was just sad in places. But that's what we risk when we resurrect the past in the form of new media and new stories - we risk that this time will fail too, that the wreckage will only be added to, that our work will remain a ruin.

Driving by the Steel Winds turbines today on my way into the city, towering over the wreckage of the steel plant which used to be at the heart of the city's economic life, I also realized something else. There's a grace in the slender turbines which rise above the industrial waste of the past: there's a future here, a future of renewable energy resources. A future that's more than the past it is built on, and perhaps even a future that has learned from the history written in the unliveable land. And as with the Steel Winds, so with Beowulf: we cannot escape that Anglo-Saxon England was a violent and unforgiving place to live, a place where women were used (and horribly) as means to political ends, a place where feuds might obliterate whole peoples.

But it was much, much more than that too. Maybe there's something yet to learn from this Beowulf, beyond Angelina Jolie's nudity and Beowulf's bad lines. Maybe it can speak to something more than the sum of the parts of the past it inherited. Maybe its resurrection at this cultural moment is itself of value. And maybe we're too close -- temporally, spiritually -- to see this movie for what it might be: another performance of a poem whose ending has not been written yet.

The black and white photos on this page were taken by Kendall Anderson and can be found on this photoblog.

cross posted at Old English in New York


Dr. Virago said...

Have you seen the video Nokes posted here? Although I don't think Beowulf has any "enta weorc" in it (or have I forgotten? does it?), this film adaptation of "The Ruin" speaks to the kinds of connections you're making (and the ones the Beowulf film so dismally failed to make).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wonderful piece, MKH, especially in its bringing together of short and long temporal spans. So much intriguing writing has been done recently on urban palimpsests (cities as architectural/material condensations of histories forced into simultaneity). The term has wide currency among architectural theorists and literary scholars alike, and has been applied to Mexico, Toronto, London, Tokyo ... what I like about your own musings is that you apply a similar kind of methodology to a city that is not so intoxicated by its own ever-expanding future, and yet find reason for hope there.

Eileen Joy said...

This is a great post, MKH [as always], and thanks so much for writing it. I haven't seen the "Beowulf" movie yet, but plan to do so this weekend, and I also plan to probably think it's horrible in parts but to try to enjoy it anyway [however possible]. Our interpretation of "Beowulf" is, of course, more like bricolage than we often want to admit. I couldn't agree more. It is something, further, that we are always "translating" from one abandoned shore to another soon to be abandoned, and so on. And to signify my agreement and deep sympathy with your thinking here, allow me to quote myself, Mary Ramsey, and W.G. Sebald from the conclusion of our Introduction to "The Postmodern Beowulf":

"Perhaps the poem relates to our present moment, finally, not because it either is or is not a comforting grand narrative, is or is not a story about things that might have really happened, is or is not a type of window, however opaque, upon a past related to us through genealogy and a 'desire for origins,' but because it expresses some of the wish fulfillment, and also the anxieties, of a human memory troubled by history--in the same way that *we* continue to be troubled by history and our relation to its silences and blank spots, its dark fissures and violent effacements, its holocausts and other zones of devastation.

At the opening of the House of Literature in Stuttgart in 2001, the late writer W.G. Sebald, who grew up in the aftermath of Germany's destruction during World War II, gave a speech in which he ruminated how, as an author of fiction, he had devoted his life to 'adhering to an exact historical perspective, in patiently engraving and linking together apparently disparate things in the manner of a still-life.' He recalled that, as he was riding the S-Bahn train into Stuttgart in 2001 on a winter night, he could not help himself from thinking, when he reached Feuersee Station, "that the fires are still blazing above us, and that since the terrors of the last war years, even though we have rebuilt our surroundings so wonderfully well, we have been living in a kind of underground zone.' Likewise, he found himself imagining how 'the network of lights glittering in the darkness' of Daimler Corporation's new administrative complex 'was like a constellation of stars spreading all over the world, so that these Stuttgart stars are visible not only in the cities of Europe and on the boulevards of Beverly Hills and Buenos Aires but wherever columns of trucks with their cargoes of refugees move along the dusty roads, obviously never stopping, in the zones of devastation that are always spreading somewhere--in Sudan, Kosovo, Eritrea, or Afghanistan.'

What, Sebald finally asked, in such underground zones and (paraphrasing Holderin) in 'the dark of an all too sober realm where wild confusion prevails in the treacherous light,' is literature good for? Sebald's answer was that 'there are many forms of writing; only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.'

We would like to argue that, similar to the poetry of 'Beowulf' or a work like Sebald's novel of post-Holocaust experience 'Austerlitz', scholarship can also be a 'restitution,' as well as an artistic (even poetic) intervention into history that engraves and links things together in the manner of a still-life in order to [in Gerhard Richter's words] 'grasp the ways in which [history's] images flash up only in the fleeting moment that illuminates . . . a field of endless relations that cannot be reduced to any realist or literalist concern.'

. . . . We do not see the work of criticism as belatedly secondary to the poem . . . or to any work of art (literary or otherwise), for as [Edward] Said writes, 'rather than being defined by the silent past, commanded by it to speak in the present, criticism, no less than any text, is the present in the course of its articulation, its struggles for definition.' Ultimately, the job of the critic is similar to the job of the poet who, in the words of Wallace Stevens, is always confronted, not with *things as they are*, but with *things seeming*, and both scholar and poet are 'the artificers of subjects still half night.'"

And so, MKH, much, maybe everything, in history, is perpetually in need of new, or different [or always transmogrifying, always renewable] endings, as well as beginnings and middles, and from what I have read of your own writing thus far, I think you practice a highly artistic and affective scholarship that is as much literature, in the highest sense of that term as an art of "restitution," as it is literary criticism. "Beowulf" is a kind of heap of fragments collected, not so much from actual pasts as imagined ones, and from which past some remnants may have been visible to a poet who sought to lend some kind of meaning to those ruins but also to something that may have been happening, right then, in his own time, some business still ongoing, unfinished, and threatening. Art must always be for the present, for some urgent need of it by someone, if even only one person, in a particular moment that is palpably alive and felt. And so, too, I can only hope, for scholarship.

dan remein said...


this is fantastic. I want to spend some time reading rather than skimming it, between attempts at reading Old French. But, I want to say for the moment that I love love love the connection to the shells and husks of tulks and trammes that hang on the edges of the great lakes. I spent my holiday in Cleveland, (from where I harked at one time) where Erie runs into big shale cliffs , (and my father is from Rochester, in fact, I used to go to hockey tournaments when i played as a youngster: in Lackawanna). there is a texture of these two landscapes I have always wanted to juxtapose (great lakes fallout and various of Beowulf).

That is to say, in addition to bricolage and critical method, there is something productive to be thought about the butt-ends of the steal industry, and the monster and ruins of Old English. In all of their difference.

Karl Steel said...

Seconding what others have said. What a rich comment, Eileen, and I love that Sebald quote. Austerlitz is on ALK's shelf, and I'll make a point of reading it once the semester ends.

MKH, I don't know why I've been so caught up in working class sensibility lately--okay, I do, and I think it has to do with my sadness over the high attrition rates among my BC students compared to my Ivy students, and my certainty that this has everything to do with poverty and its attendant burdens (early childbirth, chronic illness, an insufficient sense of entitlement to education)--but: no but, actually. This is praise. There's a strong temptation to mere aestheticization in talking about ruins (perhaps most notoriously), a temptation to make affective connections with fragments of buildings as monuments to the heterogeneity of time, &c., all w/out recalling Benjamin's dictum on records of civilization and barbarism (and all w/out revising Benjamin appropriately to efface the pre-Critical Theory, Enlightenment deployment of the abjected, unthought category of barbarism, the deplorable temptation to make the strong contrast).

You don't do that. You speak of the love for this poem, and the love for Buffalo's blasted landscape, and of hope for each, and of knowing also the suffering and exploitation that brought us each. You don't go so far into materialism that you forget affective connection (the danger of Marxist calculation), nor do you go so far into affective connection that you forget the systemic suffering that created the conditions and artifacts that allow for your feeling, and hope.

Good work.

bwhawk said...

MKH, these are (as everyone has said) great thoughts. This post resonates with me as the kinds of ideas I was grasping toward in my "Prevailing Poetry" presentation several weeks ago--reflections on several adaptations of Beowulf and their implications for the poem's life. You've said things I never approached saying but seemed at the heart of my thoughts. And you said them beautifully.

Eileen, your thoughts are also great reflections, and I wish now that I would have had The Postmodern Beowulf on hand when I was writing my presentation.

I've posted the following at my blog, but it belongs here as a response to what's been said:
I was was having a conversation with one of my friends in the English MA here at UConn about the Beowulf movie, which then moved into a discussion about translations. Toward the end of the conversation, he mentioned how fascinating it is to realize that we always go back to the Old English poem. Although we keep translating, over and over, those translations still need reworked after a time, the old renderings set aside, the new ones reworked for a new audience. He said that he thinks this was the goal of Seamus Heaney with his translation--to provide a new rendering that spoke to the audience of everyone, not only English majors who would read the poem but also anyone who wanted to pick up the poem and enjoy it. Then he hinted that, someday, even Heaney's translation will be set aside for a new one. But we will always return to the original text, the Anglo-Saxon words that still speak to us and fascinate us from over one thousand years ago. And I think that this life--the life of a poem that keeps speaking to us--is the one that you're alluding to in your post.

Thanks for the powerful, thoghtful reflections.