Thursday, February 14, 2008

Fragments Shattered by History

So on Saturday, as I've mentioned here, I will be responding to this paper by Aaron Hostetter , a colleague of mine from Princeton. This will all take place as a part of the fourth annual ASSC Graduate Student Conference.

So here, for your Valentine's Day evening perusal, is my remark/question for our discussion. Any critiques or questions would be quite helpful -- this was the first time I've read Andreas. Though I find it quite fascinating, it's also insanely complex. One day that characteristic of Old English poetry will stop surprising me. With a little luck though, I'll never lose that complexity's delight.

So: Go read Aaron's paper, "A Tasty Turn of Phrase: Cannibal Poetics in Andreas". Then, refresh your memory of the story with any one of these posts on Heather Blurton's Cannibalism in High Medieval English Literature from the ITMBC4DSoMA event this summer. I should note that in my haste I've not had the time to read through all of the entries, though I certainly hope to do so by Saturday's session. Then, return here to read my entry in this ongoing discussion of Anthropophagy. My bibliographical notes are not terribly precise, as I'm mostly going on what I've read from Aaron's paper: however, I'll have to add it in tomorrow morning, when I have time to figure out what I was drawing on! My title could also use a lift -- any ideas would be appreciated!

Fragments Shattered by History

Aaron argues that as a poem, the Andreas makes a comment on the relationship between the past and the present: most specifically, that fragments of a past identity inhabit the present construction of self – more importantly, they inhabit the text’s present construction of cultural identity. Using the poetic borrowings of Andreas, and making clear their poetic effect, the argument culminates in the assertion that, in the case of the “sad anthropophagites” of the Anglo-Saxon corpus:
the act of devoration leaves the eater with a raw sense of the self in time, of ones utter dependence on the presence of the past with which to construct a present, and a lingering sense of absolute difference from the apparent integrity of those pasts.

In some senses, his argument squares with the recent work on the poem done by Heather Blurton: in her dissertation, and its rendering in book form, Blurton argues that we might productively read the poem not merely for its conversion narrative, but for its “cannibal narrative” – a narrative that tells a story of invasion and conquest and the subsequent, postcolonial hybridity that results. Andreas, she argues, deliberately depicts the Mermedonians in ways which echo the descriptions of Anglo-Saxon warriors in other poems. Clearly, Blurton picks up on the same tendency which Aaron highlights: the citation of other Anglo-Saxon poems is used to an effect in Andreas, and to read the poem in any other light flattens a nuanced reading – performed by the poem – of those texts, and the culture which produced them.

As an opening provocation to discussion, I would like to reframe the question which Aaron is asking us to consider. In doing so, I want to engage with the idea of this solitary “self-in-time” – to ask, directly, the question of what the Mermedonians are doing in Anglo-Saxon England. If the self is related to the other in Andreas through a metaphoric act of consumption, devoration, or put in the slightly more post-colonial term favored by Blurton, incorporation – the question raised becomes more than simply one of “self” and “other” per se. The intermingling performed by the act of anthropophagy, and the intersection of the past and present that occurs in the building of cultural identity, suggests that the time of this “meal” is, to borrow a phrase, “out of joint.”

The question this raises about Andreas is the way in which the pasts upon which the present feasts are only apparently integral: the ways in which their narrative wholeness is shattered by the onset of a different kind of history. In Augustine’s conception of history, the human interpretation of history’s narrative is fundamentally altered by the intersection of the divine with the human: Christ’s advent necessarily rewrites the linear narrative of human history, and the truly integral events (his birth, death, resurrection and final judgment) shape the interpretation of any other narrative (though, and importantly, it doesn't annihilate the presence of all other narratives, which could be said to haunt it). My question then, is this: if we were to let the conversion narrative shape the cannibal narrative of the text, might we understand this story of sylfætan as an interpretation of the non-Christian digestion of history. Fundamentally incomplete, the past can only disappoint those who wish to use its narrative to shape the future from its fragments: those stories need interpretation, direction, a space to develop into that does not return to the same, human story. Rather, human history needs a divine supplement – otherwise, how could anyone seeking to feed on its remnants find adequate nourishment?

cross posted at OEinNY


  1. Compelled to leave my own comments on the paper. If it were expanded into a full paper, I have all manner of ambitions for it. Written on the plane:

    There are a few things I'd like to see happen in this paper.

    First, a deeper problematization of Christianity as the telos of Judaism. One might look here at Kathleen Biddick's deployment of the cannibal metaphor to typify the relationship of medieval Christianity w/ Judaism.

    Second, deeper consideration of the various metaphors of displacement in anthropophagous imaginary. The anthropophage tends to be discovered in extimité as much as in distant others. For one key--and appallingly symptomatic--treatment of the animal/paleo-anthropological past in the anthropophagous imaginary, see Wilhelm Stekel, "Cannibalism, Necrophilism, and Vampirism," in Sadism and Masochism. 1929. Trans. Louise Brink. NY: Grove P, 1965. 2: 248-330. (other essential anthropophagy bib includes Maggie Kilgour, From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy of Metaphors of Consumption. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1990, and William Arens (here you might as well start with "Cooking the Cannibals," in Consuming Passions: Food in the Age of Anxiety. Sian Griffiths and Jennifer Wallace, eds. Manchester: Mandolin, 1998. 157-66.)

    Third, as a possibility, and to propel the interesting discussion of textual repetition in directions not available to scholars coming out of the oral formulaic hermeneutic, the paper might look to the work on manuscript pastiche and transvestism in Anna Kłosowska, Queer Love in the Middle Ages (Palgrave, 2005), Chapter 2 "Dissection and Desire: Cross-Dressing and the Fashioning of Lesbian Identity," 69-116 (esp 76 and 91-92). With this material, you might get an "an aesthetics of segmentation and reuse" (92) rather than one of introjection and melancholy, one oriented, that is, toward present products/productivity instead of towards the impossible pastness of the past. I don't mean to say that "flat time" is theoretically better than (complicated) relationships of past(s) and present(s); I mean only to say that the Kłosowska might suggest something different.

    Finally, and this is just a bug in my butt, I'm wondering if thinking about how the Andreas anthropophages and the Phoenix together breaks the Phoenix out of notions of cyclicality. That is, can we think of this bird as not representing the relationship of past to present, but rather as representing two incompatible forces both simultaneously present? This gets us a Zizekian (anti)foundational mode of insurmountable conflict, which might be more interesting, or at least something different from, the (undead?) temporal logic of the cycle.

  2. Hi Karl,

    Thank you for the comments and the suggestions. I will definitely look up the Biddick and Klosowska you've recommended. I think you are quite right in going deeper into the Xtn/Jewish comparison, especially how the Jews were perceived to be cannibals themselves.

    William Arens, and the Cannibalism in the Colonial World collection (ed. Hulme and Barker), have remained important touchstones to my work on Andreas, especially working out the spatial, temporal and economic distortions of inherent in thinking about man-eating. I would like to keep that sense of extimite that Mermedonians invoke without perhaps having to go so far as to say that Mermedonia is England. I am especially interested in how Arens' The Man-Eating Myth works together with Johannes Fabian's Times and the Other in creating a critique of how the comparative sense of time is integral with imagined food practice. If we can read a people's place in time by the way they eat, then perhaps time travel is as simple as choosing the right thing to have for lunch... (maybe that's a bit too wacky).

    And, in response to your last idea: I would totally agree that the comparison between the Phoenix and the Mermedonians dissolves the notion of the cycle. The big difference in the scale of time between moments of consumption--1,000 years for the Phoenix, 30 days for the Mermedonians--suggests a switch in emphasis from the large-scale cosmological sense of history to the microcosm of practice, a smaller-scale view of embodied time. So yes, the comparison reveals "two incompatible forces both simultaneously present" as you say, but only so far as practice is invisible to the larger cyclical movement. Perhaps then the comparison that the Andreas-author makes between the Mermedonians and The Phoenix is an attempt to pull down the macrocosmic narrative of historical progress to the level where human action matters where change is not seen as inevitability or Progress.

    Have a safe trip. All the best,


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