Thursday, March 13, 2008

Wondering about the Wonders: CELCE's "Crossing Borders"

If writing -- and, shall I add, blog writing -- is a practice, I've clearly fallen down on the job lately. I like to think of it as "dissertation block." It's like writer's block, only it happens more slowly: first, you start noticing that every time you sit down to write those 20 pages of dissertation material for your adviser, your chest gets tight and you feel the compulsive need to do yoga until you have to go to an appointment (which conveniently eliminates the chest tightness as the dissertation time you'd planned). Eventually, you find it extending to every time you sit down at a computer -- whether it's to write an email, comment on a student draft, or even write a blog post. I'm actually in a the midst of a short post on this very topic -- titled, in honor of this new stage of my grad school career, "Growing Pains." However, for today, I thought I'd post about another New York City Medieval Happening (and if you missed a very fruitful Happening LAST Friday -- read Eileen's latest below!)

Tomorrow, I will take part in the the CELCE conference at NYU: "Crossing Borders". In fact, in mere minutes, I will be traveling south on the 1 train to Christopher Street, and trekking over to the conference location in order to hear Carolyn Dinshaw's keynote address.

Tomorrow, however, I will be debuting a version of a paper I wrote two years ago (and will repeat in altered format at Kalamazoo). It's called "The Space Between: Mapping Monsters in the Old English Wonders of the East." In it, I will argue that the location of the Mambres and Jamnes section of the Wonders, in the largely "scientific" focus of the MS Cotton Tiberius, actually makes an argument for how monsters ought to be encountered (textually or otherwise): as a strict warning that some knowledge isn't meant to be known. Mambres and Jamnes are, of course, the magicians who go up against Moses and Aaron, and the text of the Mambres section of the Tiberius tells of how the damned soul of Jamnes warns his brother that by learning "the deep secrets of his idolatry" (literally, the word is deoflegildes -- devil-wages!) he too shall be banished to a hell-pit, which is 2 x 4 cubits (ah, the level of detail!).

This paper has plagued me for a long time. Originally, and ultimately (if I ever revise it into an article), I was making a much larger argument about contingency, monstrous bodies, and dangerous knowing. It used a lot of Agamben, and so engaged my major difficulty with theoretical texts: I am utterly incapable of writing about them. I think that that indeterminate status of a contingency is still present in the part of the paper I will post here: however, I should note that you're not missing anything about Agamben, as I have completely cut him from the argument for lack of space and eloquence. Here follows (in beautiful, Word 2007 formatting!) a portion of my conclusion. I've been told it's too poetic, and hence too unclear. I'll probably clean it up a bit come time for the conference tomorrow. But for now -- poetics and all -- I offer the conclusion to my go on the monsters.

Of course what I really want to know: Anybody catch the Dave Matthew's Band reference in the title?

The message implied by the Mambres section is that the creatures of the Wonders are so guarded [by dangers, threats and distance] because they are not meant to be known. The text is not attempting to illuminate their existence so much as their meaning. Like the trees of the Letter of Alexander, the knowledge apportioned to each man is limited: Ac ne frign ðu unc nohtes ma ne axa, for þon wit habbað oferheloðred þæt gemære uncres leohtes (But ask no more of the two of us, for we have spoken beyond the limits of our light).[1] Just such a limit may also be intimated by the Wonders, by the descriptions that approach but never fully see the far off creatures the text treats. Creatures that do not fit into regulatory categories may be monsters, and it seems better to take from them the lesson they may teach than to know what they are in themselves. Their message is acceptance, a lack of querying, and the injunction of the trees: ne frign. These creatures are different, and some are dangerous, and traveling to find them is itself marked by obstacles that may be set in place for a reason. If one does ask – if one opens the books, and learns by this opening the secrets of the deep mysteries, the risk is of one’s own dissolution. The marvel takes the unwary explorer in – into a hell-pit of 2 by 4 cubits, or more chillingly, inside itself via ingestion.[2] The specifics of their existence are not the point: rather, their warning against inquiry and the dangers of knowing monsters allows the reader to escape entrapment by his own arcane knowledge.

Monsters and marvels are dangerous because they defy categorization, they hybridize, and they hijack human language to use for their own monstrous purpose. The unsettling suggestion of Wonders is that these creatures might not be simply “bodies” that signify only God’s power over the physical, his ability to raise the physical, human body from the dead written in His creation of bodies fantastic.[3] Rather, more than just the inhabitants of Ciconia may be “thought to be men” – a potential best left unexplored, and its consequences left unsuffered. Thus the final injunction of the Mambres and Jamnes segment of the text leaves us where the text began -- in the midst of an unresolved possibility of beings, fragmented beyond perfect comprehension of a reason, with only the stern warning that it isn’t ours to know, or even to ask about. We end with two magicians, deep secrets of idolatry, knowledge written in books, and the warning that some things are not supposed to be known.

[1] Orchard, Pride and Prodigies, 253.

[2] Jeffrey Cohen’s visualization of the Donestre (as literally incorporating was key in connecting these concepts. Cf. Of Giants p. 3-5, most specifically: "in the last scene of the narrative, the traveler has been completely transformed. The severed head is an empty point of fascination that directs the viewer’s gaze back to the alienating form in which the traveler is now contained, at the monster he has now become."

[3] Cf. Austin for a cogent description of Augustine’s theory. Austin, Greta. “Marvelous Peoples or Marvelous Races ? Race and the Anglo-Saxon
Wonders of the East
” in Marvels, Monsters and Miracle: Studies in the Medieval and Early Modern Imaginations. Ed. Timothy S. Jones and David A Sprunger. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2002.

cross posted at Old English in New York.


Eileen Joy said...

And why oh why, Mary Kate, are you not sharing the full paper like the rest of us? Sheesh. I've thought about the "Wonders" text a lot, of course, but I have never really paid enough attention to the Mambres and Jamnes section of the text, which always feels kind of tacked on, but then again, isn't. Then again, my main focus has been on the version of the text that is in the Vitellius A.xv/Nowell codex manuscript, where that section does not appear. What strikes me about the Vitellius version is precisely its non-judgmental "framing," at least as far as the text goes--the pictures tell a slightly different story, in the sense that many of the "creatures" are pushing past or even situated outside of the frames [the same is true, for some of the images, in the Tiberius and Bodley manuscripts]. But what I'm most curious about in your reading is what you make of the *placement* of the Mambres/Jamnes section: at the very end, after a reader would have presumably come to "know" and even to "see" everything, so to speak [granted, many of the creatures written about are described as fleeing, running away, turning into fire if touches, hidden by flames, etc., all calling up the idea that, ultimately, they cannot be seen/touched/known]? So, although it may be that we get a warning at the end that some regions/bodies are better left unexplored or even unthought, we get this warning after and not before the fact of reading the text. It's interesting and I'd love to know your further thoughts on that.

I, alas, did not get the David Matthews reference. I don't have even a passing acquaintance with the David Matthews Band, I am *that* unhip.

I hope you will blog a bit about the conference, and especially Dinshaw's keynote address. I hope it was fun, too.

Eileen Joy said...

I just realized Mary Kate: *does* the Mambres/Jamnes section, in the Tiberius MS, come in at the end? Now I can't recall, and I don't have my Orchard edition on me.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

Eileen -- only just now getting back to you, sorry for the endless delaying here! Actually, I wanted to -- and will -- share the entire paper eventually. The reason I didn't this time is that the CELCE event was, in some ways, a dress rehearsal for the K'zoo run. The other reason -- and perhaps the more true reason, is that the paper was (and a week later, actually still is!) a complete mess of notes-to-self and "talk about the history of the tiberius codex HERE" marks. I'm terrible about finishing my conference papers in time to have a full typed draft in hand for the conference. It's a character flaw.

So, although it may be that we get a warning at the end that some regions/bodies are better left unexplored or even unthought, we get this warning after and not before the fact of reading the text. Isn't this just the huge question about why on earth the Jamnes/Mambres section is there. I still don't really know -- it's something that's haunting me, for lack of a better word. I guess what I ended up arguing in the paper as I presented it is that although we know these creatures, we never really know them -- after all, when the text talks about the inhabitants of Ciconia, it doesn't say they "might" be men, or "could" be men -- they gewenede (are thought to be) men. This weird (hu)man-ishness is what's difficult to interpret -- there's no certainty in the text, just vague descriptions.

Dave Matthews Band> You? unhip? Impossible. I think they might be classified as "adult easy listening", so that probably means I'm relatively unhip :)

I definitely plan to blog, though belatedly, about the conference -- and Dinshaw's amazing argument made in her keynote -- however, I made a logistical error and said I'd help with the visiting days this semester for the newly admitted students, and have been completely bogged down with that. Though it is, admittedly, a ton of fun. At any rate, more soon -- things should clear up 'round the end of next week.