Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Waiting for "The Weight of the Past" to be Past

My Holloway lecture draws near. I think I'd be less nervous about the event if it weren't for the fact that a past lecture in this series was given by Steven Knapp, the literary theorist and new president of GW (who says a PhD in English won't get you places?). Just before Knapp was Jerome McGann. Jane Tompkins and John Barth have given the Holloway, too.

I've even made it into the Carroll County Times News Briefs, just under "2 flown to shock trauma after crash" and just above "Contestants sought for Miss Carroll pageant."

Here, for those who are interested, are some of the questions I will be addressing on Tuesday. If you can't make the road trip to Westminster, MD, you'll have a second chance: I'll be giving a more theory-heavy version of the talk at the University of Pennsylvania in March, sponsored by Theorizing. Though in the past I have been a relentlessly low tech lecturer, this talk is image heavy ... another worry, as I attempt to re-master my forgotten skills at PowerPoint.

The landscape of medieval Britain included, just as it does today, intrusions of the ancient past: the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals, Neolithic architectures like Avebury and Stonehenge, barrows and graves, the ruins of forgotten habitations. I'd like to explore the stories medieval people dreamed to give meaning to these remnants of lost worlds. I will raise and attempt to answer a series of related questions: How did medieval people understand the inhuman gap of time that separated them from fossils, megaliths, and their own moment in history? Can the distant past communicate in a language of its own? Or can it be heard only as translated into a contemporary language, an impoverished kind of listening? Can we know what structures like Avebury or stories like tales of the prophet Merlin meant to their authors? How do we treat time capsules like stone circles, burial mounds, or bodies recovered in bogs? As holy? As quarries for ordinary uses? As museum exhibits? What is sacred about the past, or does reverence impede understanding? Is a body buried with artifacts a message to the future, a letter to an uncertain receiver, or a gift sent to lost gods never to be opened by human hands? What of a text describing a vanished life? An imagined life? Can the past speak to us directly, or does it require a mediator, a necromancer, a Merlin? Must that which is history end as Merlin does: entombed forever in silent stone, the victim of his own inability to comprehend the workings of the world he inhabited? Can the distant past retain a vitality that is something more than a revenant's graveyard existence?


Karl Steel said...

Is there new material on fossils? If so, or even if not, I'd love to see it.

And, nervous? Just imagine your audience as bog people. That's what I always do.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

The only new fossil is me, having recently turned 43. Other than that, much of the material has appeared here at ITM. I don't know if I mentioned it here before, but there is a good book called The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mynor that gathers much of the classical and early medieval materials. It's been very useful, and has some good stuff on Augustine.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS An audience of bog people would only increase my anxiety.

Rebecca Davis said...

No bog people here, or only very friendly ones, I assure you. But you should be advised (and may be amused to know) that the college mascot is called the Green Terror--most terrifying of course because no one knows precisely what it is!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Ina comment that it looks like I just accidentally deleted, Liza points out that -- once again! -- my typo-prone fingers have proven, um, typo-prone. The author The First Fossil Hunters is Adrienne MAYOR. Thanks, Liza!