Monday, June 30, 2008

Inapposite Art

by J J Cohen

Eileen in her usual bullying way has forced/cajoled/tricked etc. me into composing an essay for a collection she is putting together on humanisms. I'll be looking at "inhuman art," especially as the theme developed in the work of Roger Caillois, but also in a few medieval texts. I'm trying to develop a concept of what I am calling aninormality (more on that soon). Some of this work has appeared on the blog already. Over the next week or two I'll be offering some pieces of the essay into which this work is condensing. I welcome your feedback.

What I'm wondering right now, though, is: is it really true (as I claim) that medievalists have largely not participated in the "return to beauty," so important in more contemporary-focused humanities? If so, what is it about the aesthetic that makes medievalists reluctant to bring the category to their work? I'm not speaking about formalism (we see plenty of close reading and attentiveness to prosody), but why the reluctance to invoke beauty per se?

To be trained as a medievalist is to learn worship at the altar of Clio. Because the period we study is so distant from us, so estranged, history becomes our guarantor of truth in explication, the surety that our grasp of what is temporally remote is not distorted by anachronism [1]. Thus the medievalist ardor for historicism, a demanding and research-intensive interpretive mode in which analysis proceeds via nuanced understanding of political events, literary traditions, law, cultural context – in short, of a historical moment in all its complexity. Rigorous yet flexible, historicism endures because it serves the medievalist well. In conventional historicist inquiry, however, synchronic context is typically yielded the power to underwrite what a work of art can mean. Robert M. Stein opens his recent book Reality Fictions: Romance, History and Governmental Authority, 1025-1180 with some words about the relation between text and historical circumstance, demonstrating in the process how standard historicism works:
I suggest in this book that provocation to romance writing is the same as the provocation to history: they grow out of the same cultural need and intend to do the same cultural work ... I am writing about a political process [state formation] and its connection with literary innovation ... I intend ... to deal directly with the pressures on modes of representation that are correlative to changes in the structure of political power.

Stein's linking of romance to history through changes in governmental structures and political ambitions is a highpoint of his study. To make his thesis cogent, he confidently invokes doctrines that historicism taught medievalists long ago to accept: art is intractably enmeshed within its originary geotemporality; art performs a definitive social function; art is enabled by Zeitgeist and itself undertakes cultural work.

Compare Stein's point of interpretive departure, however, to Helen Vendler's swift application of the emergency brake when critics attempt politically-minded readings. As Rachel Donadio observes about this important critic of contemporary American poetry, in Vendler’s conceptualization the work of art dwells in a privileged space, exterior to historical context:
In a review of David Denby’s “Great Books” (1996), the film critic’s account of how he returned to college, immersing himself in Columbia’s core curriculum, Vendler wrote, ‘Seeing the Columbia course use Dante and Conrad as moral examples is rather like seeing someone use a piece of embroidery for a dishrag with no acknowledgment of the difference between hand-woven silk and a kitchen towel.’ In 2001, again in The New Republic, her main venue in recent years, Vendler took the critic James Fenton to task for his interpretation of Robert Frost’s 1942 poem ‘The Gift Outright,’ a version of which was recited by the aging poet at the Kennedy inauguration in 1961. Fenton, in her view, had imposed a mistaken interpretation on a poem as much ‘about marriage as about colonials becoming Americans,’ because ‘his politics has wrenched him into misreading it.’ (Some argued Vendler herself was misreading the poem by choosing to ignore its subject matter.) ["The Closest Reader"]
Most scholars of the Middle Ages will likely find their sympathies drawn more to Robert Stein, James Fenton, and David Denby than to Helen Vendler. Medievalists work in a discipline that stresses historical circumstance so heavily that it is difficult for us as critics to be satisfied with the Vendler-like "impassioned aesthete who pays minute attention to the structures and words that are a poet’s genetic code" (Donadio, “The Closest Reader”) without an anchoring movement into determinative history. The return to beauty, so trumpeted in the contemporary-focused humanities after the publication of Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, has failed to recruit many participants among medievalists, who seem constitutionally incapable of detaching formal and aesthetic analysis from a social and cultural context. How we understand the relation of the text or artwork’s past to our present interpretive moment may differ widely: we may argue that the medieval is much like our own times (the Middle Ages as threshold of the Same), or we may hold that the period is vastly different from the present (the Middle Ages as chastely Other), or we may even deploy words like extimité (“intimate alterity”) to stress that simultaneity of both modes. Yet in all cases history potentially predetermines the meaning within the form: context produces art, which remains historically bound and therefore rather inert.

It might be objected that the historicist model does not do that much for the work of art itself. When historicism and other socially-minded forms of criticism ignore art’s aesthetic effects, they do not leave sufficient room for what Jennifer Green-Lewis and Margaret Soltan have described as “art’s thrilling intimation of an untapped plenitude within us and in the world.” In art, Green-Lewis and Soltan argue, inheres the ability “to move us to a condition of ecstasy as we lose ourselves in its particular forms of beauty.” This movement outside of the self offers what they call “a cheerfully secular faith,” one in which “beneath the mundane life of daily consciousness lies a deep source of meaning, a motive to action, joy” [Teaching Beauty in Delillo, Woolf, and Merrill (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)]. Conventional historicism, in other words, has a difficult time articulating why the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – with its green holly conjoined to crimson blood, its frisson of terror intercut with infectious exuberance -- should have a bodily, ecstatic effect, should possess a beauty that more mundane medieval texts do not. This beauty, it seems, moves the poem outside of its own history, into an aesthetic realm where its meditations on Ricardian kingship or contemporary Welsh-English relations matter less than its ability to render birdsong in a winter storm as plaintive to medieval ears as to our own.

A paradox exists within aesthetics, however. Beauty is frequently found in emanations from the nonhuman world: oceans, flowers, landscapes, onomatapoeia and celestial objects are favorite critical sources. Claude Monet famously discerned London’s grandeur by painting the city devoid of its inhabitants. Wisps of fog, the glimmering Thames, and stony architectures made nebulous by stains of light (Charing Cross Bridge, the façade of the Houses of Parliament) appear more frequently on his canvases than human figures. Yet for all the privilege the nonhuman enjoys as a trigger to aesthetic experience, beauty is ultimately a deeply human category. For Elaine Scarry, beauty’s innate symmetry is intimately related to a notion of justice based in proportion and balance. Beauty stages an ethical relation; beauty exists to make us better in our humanity. “There will always be those who believe,” write Green-Lewis and Soltan, “the intoxicating power of art inclines us toward civic virtue by invigorating our faith in humanity, clarifying our spiritual and ethical particularity, and inspiring us to do great and good things” (Teaching Beauty 3). While I fervently hope that this ameliorating, humanizing power of art is true, I can’t help wondering what beauty does for the animal or for the rock formation or building that finds itself its bearer. [2]

Something exists in art that is inapposite, extraneous. Art is not reducible to its enmeshment in historical circumstance, even if the time and place in which it arose wholly saturates it; nor can art inhabit some space exterior to history. Can art be imagined as an active agent in world of human and nonhuman forces? Can art produce, intervene within, transform the history within which it arises? As one force among many, can art call worlds into being without falling wholly back into those worlds, without ever escaping from a perpetual unfolding?

Can art be something other than human?

[1] Thus rejecting the possibility or at least the desirability of such straightforward encounter with the past, queer theory often argues for a perverse or (in the words of Glenn Burger and Steven F. Kruger) preposterous rendezvous: see their introduction to Queering the Middle Ages, ed. Burger and Kruger (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001) xi-xxiii, and especially their rejection of “a conventional historicism… confident that it finds the ‘truth’ of the past.” That seemingly univocal truth, they argue, is more truthfully “a retrospective selection of some facts [and narratives] over others,” imbuing the chosen evidence with explanatory force; those roads not taken and stories passed over in silence, meanwhile, are assumed to be “dead ends” (xx). History assumes different contours, and takes a different position alongside the present, when these supposed cul de sacs are followed rather than rejected out of hand.
[2] I do realize that I am using “art” and “beauty” as synonyms here, an equivalence that many would argue against, but one found in Scarry, Green-Lewis and Soltan. Roger Caillois will qualify art as the work of human hands, but will then (as will be seen) find that work to part of a cosmic or universal impulse rather than a strictly human achievement.

Image: Claude Monet's iconic "Charing Cross Bridge," pillaged from the Tate.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Repatriate the Bayeux Tapestry!

by J J Cohen

Via the Medieval Material Culture blog, two links on the possible origin of the tapestry in England, and calls to bring it back. Don't miss the modern version as well.
(thanks, Jonathan Hsy)

3 Leeds IMC Announcements

by J J Cohen

If -- like Eileen -- you are attending IMC in Leeds this summer, and if -- like Eileen -- you are fond of free booze, here are two receptions not to miss:
  1. Wednesday 9th July, 8.30pm in the Bodington Senior Common Room: R. Allen Shoaf, Editor of Exemplaria, and Maney Publishing invite you to a wine reception to celebrate Exemplaria’s 20th year of publication, the new relationship with Maney, and the transition to a new editorial structure to be in place by 2010.
  2. The Glasgow Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, University of Glasgow, is pleased to sponsor a reception and three sessions at this year’s International Medieval Congress (including one with ... Eileen Joy). A reception will be held at Bodington Hall, Club Room, Wednesday 9 July, 19:00-20:00. And if you can't make the event to learn more about Glasgow's MLitt program, I suggest following the link above: GCMRS looks to be a terrific place to study.
Lastly, even if you are not going to Leeds this year (as I am not: doing both NCS and IMC was not in the cards for me), make sure you attend in 2009. Why? Because I will be giving a plenary, and I'll be taking down names, and if I don't see you in Leeds, there will be hell to pay.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A Not-So-Brief History of Time: Daniel Smail on Deep History and the Brain


It's no secret that we're obsessed with time and temporality here at In The Middle, and Jeffrey's latest project, "The Weight of the Past," is partly bound up with notions of "deep" and even paleolithic and non-human time and which, in his own words, forms "an exploration of how the prehistoric can exert a power to signify within a post-historic framework, [and] which meditates upon [among other things] stony architectures and fossils," so why don't we know about the medieval historian Daniel Smail, who is at Harvard, and who has been described as a "time revolutionary" [or, if we do know about him, why hasn't someone told me, or am I so stupid I can't remember]? From Joseph Carroll, a professor of English at the University of Missouri and also the author of Literary Darwinism: Evolution, Human Nature, and Literature [Routledge, 2004] and also Evolution and Literary Theory [Univ. of Missouri Press, 1995], this arrived in my email inbox today:
I was just reading a book that you might find interesting. It's by a medieval historian, Daniel Smails, and is titled On Deep History and the Brain. Your theme of the posthuman has some clear associations with what he is doing. He argues that each cultural epoch has a specific psychotropic or neurochemical profile. He interprets institutions and social practices in the light of their effect on the affective ecology of a given culture. He thus describes the neolithic revolution as "a new neurophysiological ecosystem, a field of evolutionary adaptation in which the sorts of customs and habits that generate new neural configurations or alter brain-body states could evolve in unpredictable ways." The current epoch is generating such a flood of rapidly changing psychotropic technologies that it could alter our conception of the human in ways that we are only just beginning to understand. He concedes less to the inertial effect of adaptive evolutionary motivational structures than I think one should, but it is exhilarating to see affective neuroscience brought into suggestive relation with elementary principles of human socio-political interaction (Boehm on dominance relations) and to see both used to delineate specific cultural ecologies, even if in only a preliminary way. He argues, for instance, that the whole phase since the medieval period can be interpreted as a "tectonic shift away from teletropic mechanisms manipulated by ruling elites toward a new order in which the teletropies of dominance were replaced by the growing range of autotropic mechanisms available on an increasingly unregulated market" (186). Anyway, I imagine you would find it stimulating. (Teletropic mechanisms are external devices geared toward creating specific affective states in others, for example, the random violence of early medieval castellans designed to generate submissive states of depressive stress in others. Autotropic mechanisms are substances or practices we engage in for the sake of altering our own internal chemistry, for instance, the development, in the eighteenth century, of a luxury economy based on caffeine, tobacco, chocolate, distilled spirits, and reading.)
Smail wants us to give up the "short chronology" of a mainly Judeo-Christian world-historical temporality in favor of a "deeper" history that might take account of, say, one hundred thousand years or so, and which would NOT take humans and human culture as its main focus [this is a kind of reverse notion to the question Jeffrey posed in his "The World Without Us" post regarding whether or not medieval persons ever took it upon themselves, in their literary and other arts, to imagine a future without humans--now, how about imaging a past without humans?]. In his article "In the Grip of a Sacred History" [The American Historical Review, vol. 110, no. 5 (Dec. 2005)], Smail argues,
If history is biography—if the study of history, to be satisfying, requires us to make contact with the thoughts and psyches of people with names—then there is little point in advocating a deep history of humankind. But if history is also the study of the structures and patterns that shape the human experience, if acts such as handling a flint arrowhead or tracing one's mitochondrial family tree back to a small African valley can fulfill our desire for wonder, then the exclusion of humanity's deep history cannot be so easily explained. Puzzling over this exclusion, the archaeologist Glyn Daniel once wrote: "Why do historians in a general way pay so little attention to this fourth division of the study of the human past; while recognizing ancient history do they not give more recognition to prehistory? ... Historians are taking a long time to integrate prehistory into their general view of man." That was in 1962. Since then, the call for interdisciplinarity has encouraged historians to approach the past through tools provided by other disciplines. However, this interdisciplinarity has not yet been extended to the fields that constitute the realm of paleoanthropology. Deep history, for all intents and purposes, is still prehistory—a term, as Mott Greene has noted, that modern historians have been reluctant to let drop. "To abandon prehistory," he says, "would be to postulate continuity between the biological descent of hominids and the 'ascent of civilization' of the abstract 'mankind' of humanistic historical writing. Prehistory is a buffer zone."
In his recent New York Times review of Smails's book On Deep History and the Brain, Alexander Star writes,
Historians by and large take biology and the deep past for granted: natural selection endowed our ancestors with their impressive bodies and brains, and then got out of the way. These days, it’s chiefly nonhistorians like Jared Diamond and Tim Flannery who seek to trace the long arc of the species and write macrohistory in a scientific key. Smail, who teaches medieval history at Harvard, would like his peers to join their company. If historians have become accustomed to studying midwives and peasants, the marginal and often illiterate members of recent societies, why shouldn’t they extend their curiosity to the most peripheral human subjects of all — the prehistoric? Even today, Smail laments, the curriculum is shaped by the prejudice that history began only when our ancestors started to write or to farm or to think of themselves as actors in a grand pageant of historical change. The presumption is curiously convenient. In the schema of “sacred history,” history began with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden — that is, in Asia, a few thousand years before Christ. In the modern schema, history begins in much the same place, at much the same time. “The sacred was deftly translated into a secular key,” Smail writes, as “the Garden of Eden became the irrigated fields of Mesopotamia and the creation of man was reconfigured as the rise of civilization.”
Of course, what Smails may not be familiar with is that there is at least one other medievalist [Jeffrey] who has taught courses that are attentive to the cultural constructions of time and to pre-history. Jeffrey will correct me if I'm wrong, but I know he has taught at least one course on the construction [and theories] of time as well as another on the aboriginal/primitive in history, and one can only imagine that he is plotting another syllabus already around the coordinates of his "weight of the past" project. Now, if we put a Cohen and a a Smail into a time machine together [or into a Dr. Who phone booth], where do you think they would end up?

Friday, June 27, 2008

The World Without Us: Kid Version. Medieval Version?

by J J Cohen

A. O. Scott, in an eloquent review of the new film Wall-E in the NYT:

The first 40 minutes or so of “Wall-E” — in which barely any dialogue is spoken, and almost no human figures appear on screen — is a cinematic poem of such wit and beauty that its darker implications may take a while to sink in. The scene is an intricately rendered city, bristling with skyscrapers but bereft of any inhabitants apart from a battered, industrious robot and his loyal cockroach sidekick. Hazy, dust-filtered sunlight illuminates a landscape of eerie, post-apocalyptic silence. This is a world without people, you might say without animation, though it teems with evidence of past life.

We’ve grown accustomed to expecting surprises from Pixar, but “Wall-E” surely breaks new ground. It gives us a G-rated, computer-generated cartoon vision of our own potential extinction. It’s not the only film lately to engage this somber theme. As the earth heats up, the vanishing of humanity has become something of a hot topic, a preoccupation shared by directors like Steven Spielberg (“A.I.”), Francis Lawrence (“I Am Legend”), M. Night Shyamalan (“The Happening”) and Werner Herzog. In his recent documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” Mr. Herzog muses that “the human presence on this planet is not really sustainable,” a sentiment that is voiced, almost verbatim, in the second half of “Wall-E.” When the whimsical techies at Pixar and a moody German auteur are sending out the same message, it may be time to pay attention.

[Tangent: a few months ago we allowed Alex to watch about thirty minutes of I Am Legend. He became so distraught halfway through that we offered him the chance to go to bed instead of continuing. He took us up on that offer ... and last night, for the third time, came to our bedside because he'd awakened from a nightmare about the film and couldn't get back to sleep. Damn Emma Thompson and those mutated zombies she created.]

Scott presents a compelling case that we are culturally obsessed with thinking about the world beyond our own vanishing (the sales figures for the book to which I just linked also make such a case). If thinking the earthly apocalypse has trickled all the way to kid films, it must be on our collective minds.

Blog readers know that a version of this question addressed to the Middle Ages has long preoccupied me. Was it possible for medieval people to think of the world emptied of their presence? I have been wondering about the possibility of medieval or prehistoric people sending messages (textual, artistic, architectural) beyond the "event horizon" of their own disappearance. Related to this question is another: can the far future be thought beyond the apocalypse as narrated by scripture and as fleshed out via accumulated exegesis? Is there a way to place Armageddon to the side as the singular and ineluctable future in which the present must culminate? Can this pregiven end be bracketed or ignored, and a future that simply (and in a more lonely, less world-encompassing way) does not include the presence of your people and history be envisioned? Or must the future be an infinite extension of the present to the point of apocalypse?

I hope that makes sense. What I'm really asking you, readers, is do you think that medieval people could conceptualize the world without them? Could they do it without simply reiterating received and hallowed eschatology? Or was the only way to contemplate the world differently configured through the invention of parallel presents, of Other Worlds containing strange people who were actually themselves in other guises?

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The price of scholarly publishing

by J J Cohen

A friend who is also a senior colleague -- and is someone who has reshaped the medieval studies scholarly publishing landscape -- recently sent me an email that included this query:
[Publisher X] has asked me whether I'd be willing to start a new medieval print
(and on-line) journal. They've also asked if you'd be interested in joining
me. My first question (aside form the ludicrous exhaustion of editing) is
whether we NEED another journal or whether others perceive such a need. Do
you have any initial responses?
My answer was rapid, because the issue is one I ponder frequently:
"Reason not the need" would be my first response (isn't there always room for something new?), BUT my second is that if I ever did get involved with a new journal, I'm pretty sure I'd want it to be Open Access and web based. One thing that gets my goat about humanities journals (and humanities publishing more generally) is the large profit margin companies have for publishing them, and the fact that little or none of this comes back to the editors or the contributors.

I think I'm done with publishing $90 books, and I also am not really sure I'd want to edit a journal that costs $200 per year for a subscription.

So, although I do like the idea ... I do have hesitations.
Does anyone else find it galling to have corporations enjoy such profits on scholarship, while also rendering much of it inaccessible via high prices and stingy access policies? Am I just being grouchy?

Albert Camus, Amy Winehouse, Baudelaire, destructive artists, le bien par le mal...

by J J Cohen
His inner vacancy, in painful alliance with a sumptuous outer world, makes him break out in an epistemological sweat.
That's just one line from a beautifully composed meditation on Amy Winehouse, destructive artists, and "dead letters to the world" ... written by someone who has not even listed to her music. The lines refer specifically to Albert Camus, feeling like a stranger in Poland. Then this post, after listening to some Winehouse:
Winehouse’s music gathers grief and pity. It may be a pleasure - an aesthetic pleasure - to hear her music, but the pleasure has to do with letting go of the natural noise of good for the sake of a free-fall into the perverse and malign. Along with Charles Baudelaire, Malcolm Lowry, and many others, Winehouse is part of the expeditionary team to hell.
Both posts are worth reading, even if you don't know Amy Winehouse's music.

I can't say I know her work all that well. I first heard "Rehab" when one of our blog commentators -- a pastor -- had a link to her You Tube video off his own blog. Shortly after that, the Cohen family was headed north on our annual summer road trip to Maine when one of the children declared the weakness of their bladder (typically my kids do this by belting out a familiar Beatles' tune, but with the words 'Gotta pee, gotta pee, gotta pee oh gotta pee. I must find a toilet, gotta pee.' Can you guess what song that is?) The only place with a loo nearby was a giant Target store, so we pulled over quickly. As an impulse buy, Wendy grabbed the latest Winehouse CD for us to enjoy in the car (we were getting tired of the urinary tract version of Beatles songs). I remember all this so well because the second or third song on the CD had a great line in it that asks, dramatically, "What kind of fuckery is this?"

Three year old Katherine, of course, immediately shouted out "What is fuckery? I don't understand fuckery. Mom, dad, what's fuckery?"

She asked that question again and again throughout our trip to Maine.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Woofing and Weeping with Animals in Ava's Das Jüngste Gericht


Please look below for the continuing conversions in two thrilling posts, Mary Kate on Beowulf and love and Eileen on the impasse of gender and sex, with special attention to another favorite, Guthlac.


When in medieval intellectual befunkitude, I try to open myself to the unknown in the hopes that I'll be surprised. German works might be the best for this, since, if you're anything like me, you know more about Latin than you do French literatures, and more about French than you do Italian or Spanish literatures: but you know next to nothing about anything else. German, in translation or not (and it's very much in translation for me!), tends to be a backwater unless we're tracking Eric, Percival, Tristan, and other favorite romance heroes. Too bad! I can highly recommend Duke Ernst, Ortnit, Wolfdietrich, the Munich Oswald, and, now, perhaps less enthusiastically, the sacred histories of Ava.

Translator James A. Rushing, jr. identifies Ava as both the first named woman writer of the vernacular in the Western Middle Ages (as she probably died 1127, she predates Marie de France by several decades) and the first writer of German epic. Ava's history of the life of John the Baptist and Jesus for the most part closely follows the pericopes of Christmas and Easter. Because so much is so familiar, my reading slid along while waiting to be snagged by 12th-century hazards. This made for a quick but not particularly interesting read.

A sampling of snags: when the three wise men (bearing "gold from Arabia") remove their armor before honoring Christ; when Mary comports herself like an anchoress by sitting alone in her room praying for the salvation of the world; when the apostles worship Christ and Mary after Christ's resurrection; when Ava characterizes Jesus's triumph as a victory over "one who had robbed him of his land"; when we get a glimpse of the investiture controversy, as Jesus, we hear, "never used his divine origin to evade human law" (see also the sustained attention to the powers with which Christ invested Peter and to the socially disruptive force of excommunications, which, immediately prior to the appearance of Antichrist, drive all "the good to flee to caves in the forest"); when we encounter the Hell Mouth, which is, here, perhaps also a Purgatorial mouth (as those who enter it can be freed via confession and repentance), and also very much the mouth of a "helle hunde" (is the species of the mouth of hell elsewhere so specifically identified?); when--presumably à la mode--French appears ("chastellen" ("Life" 56.9); cf. "burge" ("Judgment" 12.3): I wish Rushing had marked the distinction in such places, as my (wholly uninformed!) sense is that the vocab of the translation is much smaller than the original); when the pileus cornutus (e.g., here) crowds the illustrations (even Joseph wears one), which leads me to wonder when this appeared East of the Rhine; and, above all, the astonishing moment of affective piety, of writing and desiring across time, when Ava laments being unable to enter her own history:
Alas, Joseph the good,
there you lifted my Lord down from the cross.
Had I lived then,
I would have clung fast to you,
at the glorious funeral
of my very dear Lord. ("Life," 157.1-6)

I'm inclined to wonder whether Ava is a pseudonym. With Anne Middleton's reading of Langland's autobiography in mind (“Acts of Vagrancy: The C Version ‘Autobiography’ and the Statute of 1388"), I wonder if Ava has, through her (claimed?) name, inserted herself into salvation history by taking on something like the Marian name that reversed Eve ("Ave," hail, revises Eve in an exegetical commonplace). The autobiographical ending claims "This book was written / by the mother of two children," one of whom is dead and the other alive, "toil[ing] in earthly woes," and calls upon the reader to wish mercy on the soul of the dead son, and grace for the other and "the mother, who is Ava." It'd probably be too cute by half to call the dead son Abel and the live one Cain, as this whole paragraph is probably too cute. So let it be stricken.

I can, however, defend my interest in Ava's version of the 15 Signs of the Last Judgment (for more on this tradition, see W. W. Heist, The Fifteen Signs before Doomsday (Michigan State College P, 1952, which is making its interlibrary way to me as of now):
On the fourth day,
then the lamentation arises,
then the fish and all the monsters of the sea
rise up from the abyss.
They fight above the sea
making a loud noise.
Then things do not go very well
for those that have fins and fish bones.

On the fifth day,
then comes a greater lamentation.
Then all the fowl
that ever flew under heaven
rise up in the fields,
be they tame or wild.
They woof and weep (I presume this word, "weinent," is the same Ava uses for Peter's weeping at his betrayal of Christ, "do ilt er weinende danne gan" (then he hurried away, crying))
with great screaming.
They bite and scratch,
they strike one another.
The day goes very badly
for those that have wings and talons....

On the twelfth day
the beasts of the field help us lament.
When the animals go out of the forest
against the beasts of the field,
full loudly they roar
as they clash together
with loud cries,
just before the Judgment.
I hope you find Ava's concern for animals, and her presumption of animals' concern for us--and perhaps for their own coming destruction--as astonishing as I do. I think I've just found my Kzoo 2009 paper. Without too much effort, I can sense of number of practical approaches to putting this concern in motion:
  • a 'becoming-human' of the world, and 'becoming-world' of the human, in a rereading of the 'affective fallacy' as the world all feeling together;
  • feeling with and for animals, and vice versa, as a discovery of friendship at the ultimate point of vulnerability (here I think of various ethics of the flesh based in phenomenology and on Derrida's proposed ethics of a 'not being able');
  • mourning that which should be unmournable, i.e., animal lives (and one thinks here of the applications of Butler's-as-yet-unread-for-me Precarious Life
Tentative title for an as-yet inchoate abstract: "Woofing and Weeping: Feeling with Animals in the Last Days." Any suggestions for an approach to this material will be very much appreciated! I've already looked around the house for other versions: the Golden Legend, which practially begins with the 15 signs, gives animals no love, while the 15 signs make no appearance at all in the Last Judgments of the N-Town, Chester, or York plays, nor, so far as I can (quickly) determine, Piers Plowman and perhaps not in McGinn's Visions of the End anthology, whose index fails me only on this one point. Cheap CUNY gives me no access to the PL, so I can't see pseudo-Bede's 15 signs in Vol. 94. Searches of Middle English sacred history--Cursor Mundi and Prick of Conscience--are upon me.

You who are still here, what can you give me?

[picture from flickr user locket479, here, through Creative Commons]

Monday, June 23, 2008

Gender Trouble [Again]: If It's July, I Must be in Leeds, but it Could Have Been Swansea

Figure 1. Lady Bunny [now if only she were holding a real bunny, maybe even a bioluminescent one]


When the Call for Papers for the 2008 meeting of the New Chaucer Society came out some months ago, I was astounded. With Congress session sections ranging from "Form and Aesthetics" to "Transitions, Ruptures, and Temporalities" to "Geographies and Colonizations" to "Devotion, Dissent, and Diaspora" and beyond, this looked to me to be the conference to not miss. I was especially interested in the description of the session section on "Gender versus Sexuality," organized by Diane Watt:
In the last two decades, the focus on sex and gender (primarily conceived in terms of the male-female, masculinity-femininity binaries) in Chaucer and Middle-English Studies has shifted to one on sexuality (which often eschews binary categories and embraces more fluid definitions and categories). Meanwhile, the trend within gender criticism has moved away from thinking about women, the female, femininity, and anti-feminism, to exploring men, the male, and masculinity. At the same time, gender, sexuality and queer are sometimes used as if they were synonymous terms. To what extent, in medieval criticism, is gender opposed to or equivalent to sexuality? Does a focus on sexuality elide questions of gender, especially in relation to women? To what extent does the opposition between gender and sexuality arise out of tensions and conflicts between feminism and queer theory? Indeed is feminism an outdated discourse or are there valid new feminisms (such as postcolonial feminism, or, of course, queer feminism or lesbian feminism)? What can feminist approaches to Chaucer and medieval literature learn from queer studies, and what can queer approaches learn from feminism? As we debate these terms, feminism and gender studies continue to thrive, giving us new insights into periods like the fifteenth century and introducing new ways of thinking about issues like place, time and space.
With panel sessions within this section on "Queer Times and Places" [organized by Bob Mills] and "Gendered Spaces and Sexualized Places" [organized by Michelle Sauer] and "Gender versus Sexuality" [organized by Karma Lochrie], I thought, "who the hell would miss this?" Now that the program is also online, and I can see who exactly will be on these and other panels [including our very own Jeffrey and Betsy M. on a panel on the politics of memory], I am asking myself why I chose to go to the Leeds Congress instead? I thought briefly about throwing myself out of a one-story window, but then realized that since Clare Lees and Diane Watt would also be at Leeds [in addition to being at the NCS meeting in Swansea], and since I would be on a roundtable that Clare organized on "Locating Gender in the Middle Ages" [in order to examine "how genders and sexualities are mapped discursively, linguistically, poetically, materially, and analytically"], that maybe I wouldn't throw myself out the window after all.

But then when I realized that the thought of having to address the topic of gender filled me with dread, and jumping out windows was looking good to me again. I had some relief when Clare informed us that we would each have about five minutes and that's about three good paragraphs--this is either completely liberating or a kind of challenge that maybe even Judith Butler would wilt under. Suffice to say, I've been panicking for about two weeks or so regarding what I should or would want to say. I piled up every book on gender/sex/sexuality imaginable on my dining room table and hoped that their collective intellectual weight would engage in some kind of osmotic synthesis or else crash the table and me with it. I considered the term "gender" in relation to my own life experience. No, still nothing [I mean, there's a lot of little somethings, but nothing definitive, nothing I would want to stake an analysis upon--get real: is there anything more essentialist than your own life?]. Do you think it is fair to say that, after about twenty years of feminist, gender, sex and sexuality, and queer studies, the question/issue/materiality/location of gender could not be more confused, or confusing? It's one of those subjects where, the minute you begin trying to describe it, as Butler would say, you engage in a hopeless process whereby "[a]nything we might say against it [sexual difference] is oblique proof that it structures what we say. Is it there in a primary sense, haunting the primary differentiations or structural fate by which all signification proceeds?" [Undoing Gender, p. 177] Ummm . . . DUH!

Well, after some struggling and crying and even pleading with my dog Sparky to pitch in [he declined], I did manage to cobble together some random notes which I am hoping will assemble themselves into three tidy paragraphs by July 7th, and any critical suggestions from our readers for how I might continue shaping these thoughts would be most helpful. I want to acknowledge a debt here as well to Holly Crocker, who first got me thinking of gender, and more importantly, the human, as a location or topography, something that accords with the medievalist historian David Gary Shaw's idea of the person as a "highly localized site of awareness" [in his book Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England]. In some remarks that Holly contributed to a BABEL Working Group roundtable session on "Medieval Humanisms/Modern Humanisms" at the 2005 meeting of the Southeastern Medieval Association, she had this to say:
I’d like to suggest that gender is more about places than times. Gender is a structure of difference, and as such, it immediately illuminates what Jeffrey Cohen calls the “temporal interlacement” of the Middle Ages: the “the impossibility of choosing alterity or continuity” as a critical model for contemporary scholars. And, considering the post-historicist interest in medieval studies in “place” (a la David Wallace's Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn), it seems that we should put more thought into the human as its own “topographical mode,” if you will. One of the ways of mapping the human, I maintain, is gender. But it is not just that gender is a way of drawing lines that demarcate what counts as (in)human in a binarized polarity--it is, but that’s not so interesting. Rather, if we think of gender as a mode of “placement,” I would like also to pursue the ways that its processes of alignment naturalize certain of its divisions. In other words, I’d like to suggest that the elision of “masculine” and “human” is a way, first, to exile all that which is not readable as masculine from the ambit of the human. . . . I’d like to suggest that contemporary interest in “place”--which often defies temporalities--needs to be thought of as an active category of difference that can have troubling consequences over time. Placing the human, particularly through constructions of gender difference, allows us to think about the structures that we continue to respect as visibly neutral (or outside time). These can be quite tangible (and here I’m thinking about texts and their material constructions), but they can also be quite abstract. The ways in which the tangible and abstract of what we count as “human” bleed into one another, then, and calls upon us to review the ways in which categories that we’ve often thought outside the domain of place--race, class, gender, sexuality, religion--are in many ways the place-holders for a “human” identity that stands apart from all of these, except in privileged, rarefied, and fantasized ways (and here I want to bring in Bruno Latour’s exhortation that we recognize the “fact” as a gathering--like a place, or a storehouse, to bring in Mary Carruthers or Vance Smith--over which we exercise creative control through time).
So, with all that, and more, in mind, herewith are my own thoughts for the Leeds panel on "Locating Gender in the Middle Ages":

I. Confusion/The Question/Ethics/Unsettledness/Crossings

My first foray into gender studies was a feminist theory reading group I belonged to from 1993-1995, where we read Judith Butler’s Bodies That Matter, among other texts; I can safely say that since that point, after fifteen years of reading in feminist, gender, sexuality, and queer studies, and having spent a good deal of the mid- to late 1980s as a gay/AIDS activist [and most of the late 1990s and early to mid-2000s being disgusted with a gay activism that sees “gay marriage” as the most important rallying point for a gay politics], that I feel less sure about what gender IS than I have at any other point in my life; with Judith Butler, in Undoing Gender, I agree that the terms “sexual difference,” “gender,” and “sexuality” have come into conflict with one another, and currently, feminist studies are often viewed as having to do with gender whereas queer studies are viewed as having to do with sex and sexuality [and we might ask, what kinds of critico-theoretical as well as more practically political problems does this cause for us?]; following Butler, who is following Irigiray, I am interested in an ethics “which is not one that follows from sexual difference but is a question that is posed by the very terms of sexual difference itself: how to cross this otherness? How to cross it without crossing it, without domesticating its terms? How to remain attuned to what remains permanently unsettled about the question?” [p. 177]; this is especially important for premodern studies, I think, when we understand, pace Butler, that “the question of sexual difference” is a question “whose irresolution forms a certain historical trajectory”; finally, we must keep in mind that one of the problems sexual difference poses is “the permanent difficulty of determining where the biological, the psychic, the discursive, the social begin and end” [p. 185]: therefore, sexual difference is “neither fully given not fully constructed, but partially both,” and it possesses “psychic, somatic, and social dimensions that are never quite collapsible into one another but are not for that reason ultimately distinct”; the important questions are then posed by Butler: “Does sexual difference vacillate there, as a vacillating border, demanding a rearticulation of those terms without any sense of finality? Is it, therefore, not a thing, not a fact, nor a presupposition, but rather a demand for rearticulation that never quite vanishes—but also never quite appears?” [p. `186]; the question of sexual difference, then, must always remain “open, troubling, unresolved, propitious” [p. 192].

II. Inter-betweenities/Intensities/Immanent Gender

In the journal PhaenEx’s recent call for essays,* the editors ask for papers on the “in-between”:
What is neither here nor there, now nor then? What resides or occurs in the in-between, and what is its meaning or purpose? And what is the meaning or purpose of the edges that mark the liminality of both this in-between, and the phenomena on either side of it? What are the rhythms, speeds, contours or densities of the in-between? What affects, sensations or movements do edges evoke? Can the in-between be known, can we dwell there - or do we only ever traverse this phenomenon, pass through or pass over? Do edges draw a clear line in the proverbial sand, or do they rather shift like the waves of sands across a desert? "The in-between" and "edges" are clearly related phenomena, in that they both raise questions about the limits of binary systems of classification and the identity of things as discrete and separate entities. But what is the nature of this relation? How do the phenomena of the in-between and edges support one another, challenge one another, or even form the condition of possibility for one another?
In-betweennesses, or what Michael O'Rourke recently called inter-betweenities [and not to be necessarily conflated with the liminalities of certain anthropologically-inflected critical discourses of past decades], are decidedly "in the air" of current intellectual discourse. With the Anglo-Latin and Old English narratives of the eigth-century Mercian hermit-saint Guthlac as my touchstone texts [and with a particular focus on the flows and intensities of Guthlac’s demonic flight, his “companion” Beccel who mourns him—but whose presence is suppressed until the end of the narrative—and the self-prohibition Guthlac establishes to never be with his sister in life so that they can be together in eternity after death], I want to ask if it is possible to think about how sexual difference in these texts is posed as a type of chiasm within which certain “affects, sensations, and movements” are evoked and also “crossed”; further, I want to explore how, in Deleuze’s terms, gender, as well as “a life,” is always “everywhere, in all the moments that a given living subject goes through and that are measured by given lived objects: an immanent life carrying with it the events or singularities that are merely actualized in subjects and objects. This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be to one another, but only between-times, between-moments; it doesn’t just come about or come after but offers the immensity of an empty time where one sees the event yet to come and already happened, in the absolute of an immediate consciousness. . . . One [gender] is always the index of a multiplicity” [“Immanence: A Life”].

*special thanks go to Michael O'Rourke, for the reference to PhaenEx, and also for turning me on, via a syllabus of John Caputo's [REL660 Theology of the Flesh], to Deleuze's "Immanence: A Life." Is there anything cool we could want to know that MOR doesn't already know? No.

4 postcards from Orlando, Florida

by J J Cohen

I have returned, not exactly rested. Also snowed under by email, obligations, and Camp Dad (as we call this week when the beloved spouse returns to the mundane routine but Jeffrey, Alex and Katherine do not). I won't be posting for a while.

But I offer the following picture postcards in lieu of tangible souvenirs: a giant dragon made of Legos in a man-made lagoon; the dead duck that we found expiring on our porch one morning and named Donald; someone having a lot of fun in a pool made of fake rock; someone else having much fun attempting to pull Excalibur from its anvil and win the prizes that they sometimes give to kids who can pry the sword from its resting place.*


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Saving Beowulf, or, Stories of Love and/or Loss?

by Mary Kate Hurley

Deep night lay over the three small buildings of the last steading of the Waegmundings. Three buildings. Even so, it was too big, thought Aelfhere, Elder of Cland Waegmunding. His clan was dying out.

It’s not a familiar beginning to Beowulf, but it is a beginning for this poem, particularly if you’re looking at the version by Welwyn Wilton Katz. The version is written with an audience of children in mind, and therefore isn’t quite the tale we’re familiar with through Heaney or Klaeber. Rather, Katz takes one of the most important characters – Wiglaf – and, in telling of Beowulf’s exploits, makes Wiglaf the central character. Essentially, Katz begins from an idea that, as Beowulf and Wiglaf are related through the Waegmunding line, perhaps there was what he calls a “genetic kink” that allowed Beowulf to perform all his feats. Wiglaf, then, is given the gift of “true sight” – which would of course account for his “vision” at the end of the poem.

Wiglaf hears the story of Beowulf from his grandfather – Aelfhere. Aelfhere seems to be a scop, called skald, in this story, singing the tale of Beowulf for his grandson. Then they go to meet the king, and of course, the fight with the dragon comes (as it must). But what’s interesting is when the poem-retold ends:
“Of men he was mildest and most generous,” sang Wiglaf with the rest. “To his kin he was kindest, and more than any other king, he was keenest for praise.

Aelfhere did not sing. Many skalds and later bards made stories of Beowulf and his fight with the dragon, but never Aelfhere. Of the ending of Beowulf, these were the only words Aelfhere ever said:

“You should know, oh, Geats, that when a man looks for praise, it is often love that he truly seeks.”

When people heard these words they did not understand. Beowulf of the Geats had been a great king and a great man. He had always had their love.

Now, I’ve got a long history of overanalyzing and collecting all modern remakings of everyone’s favorite Anglo-Saxon epic. But I think this last part is worth pointing out, particularly as it seems to engaging in some of the same moves some of the poem’s other modern incarnations have, and it raises a really important question.

To be precise: Is Beowulf about love?

I don’t mean romantic, although we could raise that point: think of how each of the more recent Beowulf movies creates a romantic pairing – Selma in Beowulf and Grendel and Grendel’s Mom (!) in Beowulf . And here we see a question of comraderie and caring, raised at the death of a king. To me it always seems a bit far-fetched – Beowulf as a character must be alone, for reasons I’m hard-pressed to work out, although I think it has something to do with his inability to play both the king and the hero of his story. If there is any kind of interest in love in Beowulf, it seems to me that it must be a modern interest. We’re the ones who are interested in who loves him, who cares for him – we’re the ones who are always trying to save Beowulf from being alone when we re-tell the story.

A possibility that only just now suggests itself to me is the similarity between lof and the modern love – this may somewhat explain Katz’s choice in Aelfhere’s explication of that final line of Beowulf, which is a brilliant way to think through the end of the poem in a way children can understand. But the question remains, and as we Beowulf lovers edged out other first lines by quite a bit in the last poll, perhaps this might be an ideal time to raise these questions: What is the point of the poem Beowulf? Do any modern re-tellings pick up on it? And more importantly – when we look into this poem, and perhaps the Anglo-Saxon past more generally – where’s the love?

cross posted at OENYC.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Tiny Shriner-palooza, or, What's Bothering Me These Days

[don't miss Karl's post just below, "Beware the Zybo, Victorious 'Wulfers"]

Figure 1
. Marguerite Duras, that she-devil

by Messr. TINY [amanuensis: EJ]

The lazy days of summer officially begin today, and although I am not a scholar or docteur of philosophia like some with such pretensions around here, I do read, oh yes, I do. It seems that the medievalists who supposedly run this blog are too busy spending time with their children at Disney resorts, or staring out their windows in Brooklyn, or hiding in the library at Wake Forest, or working on their tans in South Carolina, or creating new Facebook profiles, and that leaves everything to me [well, Karl did just show up to speak of zybos and whatnot]. I mean, who else is going to do it? While Jeffrey has been away I've been holed up at the Grand Hotel on M Street (why he thinks I would stay in his office while he's away is beyond me and someone should tell him to check his wallet because, yes, the Citibank Visa is missing and guess who has it?), and now that the girls, I mean the boys, I mean--oh whatever--are gone, I can catch up on some much needed rest, but I'm too agitated to sleep ever since reading Edmund White's essay in the recent New York Review of Books on Marguerite Duras [more specifically, on her books Wartime Writings: 1943-1949, The War: A Memoir, and The North China Lover].

The fact of the matter is, and even though I know he is a gay icon, Edmund White has always gotten on my nerves a little, especially after I read sentences like these in his autobiography, My Lives [in a section titled "My Women"],
From my mother I learned just how violent and unquenchable a woman’s loneliness can be.
And while he claims in that book that, if he were straight, he would be a great friend and faithful lover of women who otherwise would be treated badly by men, the bitchy portraits of depressed, anorexic, unhappy, lonely, skittish, coarse, needy, crazy, suicidal, toxic, etc. women just pile up and up, and then there are sentences like these,
Our Evanston girls, the daughters of local dentists or Northwestern professors, were for the most part dowdy and faintly withdrawn, almost bovine in their matter-of-factness . . . .
Or these,
Perhaps because my mother was drenched in unhappiness and spent sodden hours plotting how to catch a man, any man, I have always feared most females as mantraps. The stability and intimacy that might be gained by acceding to their needs has always been outweighed by my fear of succumbing to their power. Well into my twenties and even my thirties, I was still getting mixed up with unhappy women. For them, I represented a solution. They thought that I would love them, listen to them, learn to fuck them, and that they in turn would plump the pillows, go to the movies I wanted to see, make lemonade according to the long-boiling recipe I preferred, peel the tomatoes as I insisted, and, despite all this deference to me, feel that I was the one being housebroken.
I made all those women cry. One of them threatened suicide. Another threatened to kill me—all because I wasn’t man enough to say, “Are you kidding, babe? I’m queer as the May breeze. Get used to it!”
And although White goes on to talk about the happy women he did know [and even loved], you can't get these sentences out of your head. They're just narcissistic and, frankly, misogynist. I calls 'em likes I sees 'em.

So I pop open a bottle of Krug and turn the pages of my new issue of the New York Review of Books [vol. 55, no. 11: 26 June 2008] to read White's "In Love with Duras," which I'm really looking forward to, and although the essay is ostensibly about Duras's life during the war and also about her last incarnation of the "Lover" narrative, The North China Lover (1992), what really emerges as White's preoccupation in the essay is the bitchy honing of an acrid portrait of the most unhappy and sodden-drunk and needy and "preposterous" and "self-obsessed" and self-delusional woman[-writer] ever, who, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in her seventies and living with her gay companion [and one might say caretaker and also the frustrating object of her thwarted affections] Yann Andréa, was, in White's words,
holed up in her château dictating one much-worked-on line a day to Andréa, who would type it up. Then they would start uncorking cheap Bordeaux and she'd drink two glasses, vomit, then continue on till she'd drunk as many as nine liters and would pass out. She could no longer walk, or scarcely.
White is also at pains to detail how Duras transformed the real-life details of the Chinese lover story into a narrative that romanticized the supposedly more grim reality:
In the notes [in Duras's notebooks], we see a family living in poverty [in Indochina], the mother encouraging her daughter to soak her Chinese suitor for money; she was after all conferring a favor on him even to let him spend time with them, since they were, as whites, innately superior. Racism, colonialism, family sadism, extreme poverty, greed—the gritty life of this young woman is quite different from that of the androgynous seductress she becomes in The Lover.
There's a reason it's called fiction, Edmund [you twit], but never mind. I don't mind having these details, mind you [it's always fun to peek into the lives of writers whom we admire and even to have the cheap thrill of seeing them misbehave in their more unglamorous moments], but why the emphasis, again and again, on how all of this supposedly illustrates Duras's preposterous narcissism? Aren't all artists [with some exceptions] narcissists of one sort or another, and do we really want it any other way? Is it really a crime, or even a "delusion," that Duras romanticized her life, and even herself? When Tiny was in college in the early 1980s [and yes, Tiny went to college and majored in Rosa Luxembourg and the Spartakusbund], we worshipped and adored Duras and read The Lover over and over until the pages fell out, and we won't tell you how many times we went to see Hiroshima Mon Amour. Yes, we know Duras was an incomparable egoist and her writing was even pretentious, but sometimes you need egoism and pretension--life is more thrilling that way.

White’s specialty seems to be in telling you how much he admires or loves someone just before ripping them to shreds [true, he’s equally merciless about his own foibles but there are times when you just don’t want to see or know about the foibles, or else, you want them to be rendered more beautifully and with more kindness, less cattiness]. Perhaps worse [or most cruel] of all, White seems to delight in highlighting some of the details of Duras's doomed relationship with Andréa:
I suppose an entire dissertation could be written about this theme of the older woman artist and her gay sidekick or "walker." I'm thinking of Marguerite Yourcenar and the young gay man she wanted to inherit her fortune, though he surprised her by dying (of AIDS) before her. Or Germaine Greer and David Plante. I'm reminded of the elderly French widow who said to one of my bitchy friends, "I don't really like homosexuals," to which he replied, "That's a pity, Madam, since they are your future" ("Dommage, Madame, c'est votre avenir").
One of White's "bitchy friends" [my emphasis]? Edmund White: you're the bitch. 'Nuff said.

Beware the Zybo, Victorious 'Wulfers

by Karl Steel

Continuing apologies for the long absence. Part of this I can blame on a (deserved?) week of indolence, and part on my slow march through this extraordinary (and extraordinarily dense) issue of PhaenEx devoted to animals and phenomenology. In it, so far, I've finally discovered coherent explanations for Agamben's The Open (thank you, Kelly Oliver) and have (re?)discovered philosophical biology and ethology in David Morris's "Faces and the Invisible of the Visible: Toward an Animal Ontology." A sample, which does not--caveat--give away the main line of Morris's argument:
each of the germ layers [of the embryo] embod[ies] a different and complex relation of animal insides and outsides. To wit: The ectoderm layer (nerves and skin) takes the outside inside and gives a protective, exploratory and expressive outside to the inside; mesoderm (muscle, skeleton, circulation and waste removal) provides inside support for the body and its outsides, and removes inside waste to the outside; endoderm (guts, liver, lungs) digest the outside to turn it into inside. (Interestingly, the eardrum is a trimembrane composed of cells from each of these layers—a fact that might have perked Derrida’s ears.) (157).

Today's haul from the library included Thomas of Cantimpré's Liber de natura rerum, where I happily ran across its entry on the "Zybo," a wicked, hyena-like creature that imitates the voices of human and dogs, each of which meets its doom when they draw near the creature (e.g., on the dogs, "et, cum approximaverint, a zibonibus discerpuntur"). Interesting stuff here, then, on the conjunction of human and canine voices and desires, recognized by the Zybo as being, at least in effect, the same kind of enemy (or prey?). I'm also pleased by Thomas's juxtaposition of the Zybonic tendency to enter into (presumably human) tombs, where it delights in eating rotten flesh ("et ibi cadaverum spurcitiis delectatur"), and its more general delight in eating human flesh ("carnibus enim humanis libenter vescitur"): what is the relation of these two facts? What I can I do to set them in motion? I'm looking forward to the fun I can have here.

Speaking of fun, thanks a lot Beowulfers. You're all good kings, because your poem won the poll of opening lines. Here's the breakdown, and, above, you'll see my feeble attempt to honor your victory:
Virgil: 21%
Dante: 16%
Beowulf: 28%
Chaucer: 21%
Daphne du Maurier: 12%

One final fun--or perhaps sad--fact: Mars needs women, and the Cerne Abbas giant needs sheep. Wet winter and the absence of grazers has left the giant and its, erm, ponderousness, all too modest. Somehow we need to tempt a mothlike flock to derenude the giant. Surely Jeffrey can make something of this odd relationship between animal life and prehistoric landscape?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Chillout Tuesdays: What is Your Oasis?

Figure 1. a view of Eileen's garden in mid-June, starring the gardenia, that blowsy showoff


Now that it is getting really hot here in South Carolina, seeking a place in the shade becomes paramount, and even then, you need your ice bucket, your chilled vodka, your Landshark lagers, your frosted glasses, your Thievery Corporation and Morcheeba CDs, your mini-propeller fans, the Peruvian boys wielding the fans [okay, just kidding about the Peruvian boys]. I recently visited the Cohen famille and was really impressed by their back garden, mainly all in the shade, beautifully landscaped, lots of trees, and various soothing shades of green. My yard in South Carolina is mainly just pines and live oaks and camellias and azaleas with no real forethought put into the landscaping [um, we inherited it this way]--partly because, after three and a half years of doing that for a living, well . . . you get lazy, but also because: it's too damn hot!--but a few years ago we did purposefully create one space where we could hang out and read and, um, drink heavily, when it gets really hot [see picture above]. I love this space because of the density and layering of the trees [some of the oaks are over two hundred years old] and shrubs, but also because of the old garage [which is situated just to the right of the patio--see below], which we have never used as a garage, and which I mainly use as a garden backdrop and as a place to display odd objects I scavenge here and there [such as part of an iron gate that used to adorn an eighteenth-century cemetery in Georgia].

Three summers ago, a famous writer whose parents live next door asked me if he could use the garage as a place to hide from his parents, where he could get stoned and drink coffee and write, and I said, sure, and I would like to tell you the title of the book published last summer that was the result of that, but I can't [he would kill me--although I think he should also grow up--haha]. I am especially proud of the garage because about five summers ago, I and a neighbor [who worked during the day as a chemist and was trying to finish a Ph.D. in chemistry] and his pet cockatoo tore off about forty years of roof shingles [well, the cockatoo just watched: seriously, the cockatoo really did] and re-hung the crossbeam [which, by the way, is scary and dangerous work and only afterwards did my neighbor confess to me that doing that typically requires several guys and special equipment], and we then replaced the rotting tongue-and-groove pine roof with a tin roof. I wanted a tin roof because I love the sound it makes when it rains. Basically, the whole job was just to have better-sounding rain: there was no practical reason to do this. So, this is where I go, pretty much every afternoon and evening, when I want to be quiet, contemplative, or, drunk. You have to have lived in the deep South, I think, to understand the importance of drinking your way through the hot swamp of the summers. Also, when the alligators show up, you don't get upset--you just pour yourself another drink.

So, where is your oasis? It doesn't have to be a garden or even a corner in a garden, although it could be, as easily as it could be a park or a corner in a park or a certain bench in a certain corner of a certain park. But is could also be a room in your house or apartment [or a corner of that room] or one particular table in your favorite restaurant or a favorite barstool at a particular bar or a view from a certain rooftop or a quiet stairwell somewhere. It could be a table or tree you like to lie under, or even a certain vantage point someplace that is always very crowded and from which you can see things that make you feel calm [or happy]. It could be a certain gallery in a certain museum, maybe even one painting and one bench in front of that painting. Tell us your favorite place to hide or "get away" or chill, and if you can, send a picture to Eileen [at], and we'll display that here.

Figure 2. Eileen's garage, starring the iron cemetery gate

EDIT [7:00 pm]: My current issue of Entertainment Weekly informs me that reeds are "in," bamboo is "five minutes ago," and eucalyptus is "out." I don't have any of those in my garden, but will be looking for reeds tomorrow, by which time they will be, I'm sure, "five minutes ago," and something like winter wheat will be "in."

EDIT BY KARL! Saving Eileen the trouble and sneaking into her post. My oasis? Looking out my kitchen window (see below, and yes, this is Brooklyn. Don't everybody move to Midwood at once.):
View from Kitchen. Yes, this is Brooklyn.

EDIT [June 21 @ 7:30 pm] Jeffrey wants us to know that his oasis is anywhere tropical, which right now is Florida:

EDIT [June 22 at 7:45 am] Irina wants us to know that her current oasis is the small balcony of her rented apartment in Berlin:

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Map of Love: Let Us Now Speak of Fathers

Figure 1. one of my father's many first editions [click on picture for price tag]


I know I am a day late for Father's Day, but am hoping I will be forgiven. I have been home in Washington, DC for several reasons and am on my way back to South Carolina today and wanted to note, here, and publicly for the first time, how blessed I am in my father, a crazed maniac of a bibliophile, lover of poetry, Greekophile, peripatetic traveler, and the unofficial mayor of wherever he goes. For most of our lives [well, mine anyway], I think our fathers mainly annoy and maybe even embarrass us. I can say that, for most of my life, I liked to pretend that I could not comprehend, nor did not remember, how it was that I ended up in English studies. Suffice to say, my adult self would not recognize my teenage and twenty-something self, who mainly distinguished herself as a habitual pot smoker, skipper of classes, and cultivator of the worst company possible. In the early 1990s, when my partner was working as a technical writer for GTE Spacenet, she discovered that one of her colleagues had gone to high school with me, and when she informed her that I was working on a Ph.D. in medieval studies [which Ph.D., I might add, took almost ten years and included "dropout" periods where I worked as a gardener and even as a clerk at Target--seriously], my recollection is that this colleague spit out her coffee and started laughing uncontrollably. As an undergraduate I went to a university with open admissions and earned in my first three semesters grade point averages of 1.8, 1.6, and 1.4, respectively. I spent most of my time in mosh pits and stuck safety pins pretty much everywhere on my body.

Figure 2. my father's study

As silly as it sounds, English classes saved my life, but suffice to say, I would have never attributed that to my father's influence, although, pace the photographs here, how could I have not known otherwise? Youth is truly wasted on the young. I used to think my father's book collecting was a little crazy [I still do on occasion] and I was also mortified when he would dramatically read Yeats or Whitman or Lowell at the dinner table when I had friends over. And because, as I have shared here before, my father is manic depressive with occasional episodes of extreme "religious-type mania," let's just say that there are periods in my life I never want to relive again, although they still happen. But perhaps one reason I will always be glad for my father's over-the-top passions are the books and first-edition volumes of poetry he has collected over the years which now, all together in various rooms of the house and overflowing the bookshelves, are a wonder to behold. Over the years, my father has kept secret post office boxes in various post offices all around the city, thinking that he is fooling my mother with his purchases. But because he eventually wants to display everything he has, the secret has never been a secret. My mother used to beg my father to rein in the book collecting, but resistance has proved futile. Which brings me to an admission of something I have never told my father: when I was working at the University of North Carolina in Asheville as an adjunct asst. professor about five years ago, and I was really broke, I brought my first-edition copy of Yeats' The Tower--a gift from my father--to The Captain's Bookshelf, an antiquarian bookstore that purchases and sells rare books. I was hoping for a few hundred dollars and when the owner came back from the back room where he has his computer, he sat down in front of me and asked me if I realized what I had. The book, he said, would sell on the market for about ten thousand dollars and he would give me eight thousand. I took the money and have regretted it ever since.

Figure 3. one of my father's many bookshelves

For Father's Day we let my father go to see Richard Sheridan's The School for Scandal at the Folger by himself [terrible, I know, but the rest of were too exhausted to accompany him] and he almost did not make it because we all forgot that it was Gay Pride day on the Capitol. He regretted that he could not attend the parade. At my sister's second "gay wedding," my father read C.P. Cavafy's "Ithaca." That is my father. Let us now praise fathers.

Friday, June 13, 2008

ITMBC4DSoMA 2 Victor + New Poll

by Karl Steel

Three Things:

A pleasant Florida to the Cohens, although for me a week without a laptop sounds like a phantom limb situation. That tingly feeling in your right hand, Jeffrey, is your RSS feed, desperate to be lanced and drained.

The Winner of Our Renowned ITMBC4DSoMA poll is Carolyn Dinshaw's Getting Medieval (pictured: my copy in its habitat). We'll start discussing it August 1st, so you've plenty of time to linger with it before the book club commences.

By all means, do not neglect the other books in the poll, if you can get them: Anna Kłosowska's Queer Love in the Middle Ages (a favorite insight: "all fiction corresponds to an absolute reality--not of existence, but of desire that calls fiction into being, performed by the authors and manuscript makers; and continuing desire for it performed by readers, a desire that sustains the book's material presence across the centuries" (7)); Valerie Allen's On Farting (I've read, and loved, what I think was part of this in the Exemplaria "Medieval Noise" issue); Emma Campbell and Robert Mills' Troubled Vision: Gender, Sexuality, and Sight in Medieval Images; and Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Herd's Queering the Nonhuman (if you can get your library, or your ILL, to give it to you: mine claims it's "too new.")

Finally, look to your left RIGHT please for a new poll! The comments to this post may be used to complain about or to plea for alterations to the poll.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

au revoir

by J J Cohen

The Cohen family departs for Florida on Saturday morning for one of our summer vacations (the second, in August, is to Maine). So, my friends, no more blog posts from me for quite some time. I'm intentionally not taking my laptop. I will be nearly off the grid for more than a week. One word to describe that: Yahoo.

[illustration: from a 2003 family trip to Disney World. In my infinite cruelty I convinced Alexander that from time to time a kid is able to dislodge Excalibur from its anvil, and that the good people at Disney reward that child with prizes. To this day he continues to disbelieve everything I tell him.]

Blogging is more than its own reward

by J J Cohen

No, that title is not one of my patented pseudomaxims. Blogging is in part its own reward: for me, the composition of a post and the conversation that follows are inherently enjoyable. Yet more tangible rewards exist as well: the ability to reach a greater audience than publication in a scholarly journal allows, for example, as well as the speed of dissemination (instantaneous!), the rapidity of feedback, the possibility of mutual transformation through dialogue. All of these are real consequences of blogging.

Those of you who follow the links we place to other blogs at right, or who have received an email from me and followed the link at its bottom, may have discovered already that I run a second blog, one devoted to the English Department I chair. The blog was started to give students and alumni a better sense of connection to the department, mainly by letting them know what an intellectually vibrant community we have formed. A perennial problem for us had been that with 400 majors and an uncountable number of departmental graduates, we possessed no easy or affordable way to disseminate news about who are and what we accomplish. The blog solved that problem quite efficiently (and cheaply). Although I didn't realize it at first, this better sense of connection also resulted in some generosity by students and alumni who approve of and are happy to support our mission.

We made a big announcement on our blog yesterday. That gift -- so far as I know, the largest ever given to the humanities at GW -- is a direct result of our having made our department's needs and ambitions known via our departmental blog. To date GW English News has had a hand in something like $732, 500 in actual or pledged gifts. The largest donations were given for very specific projects, and one gift makes up the bulk of what we've received -- but still, included in that figure is a future bequest promised for $30,000, and about $2,000 from alumni who have made donations directly to the department (instead of to the university itself, where for all I know the money would vanish into our enormous real estate debt). These amounts are quite extraordinary considering that annual giving to my department about a year ago totaled about $225 -- and that was a good year. Let me also stress that despite GW's reputation as an extremely expensive institution, the operating budget allocated to English is so meager that we can barely pay for our faculty travel obligations and the copier lease. The departmental budget has also not been increased in more than a decade. We've been extremely creative with the funds we are allocated, but we often push against our own fiscal limitations. I realized early in my tenure as chair that the institution wasn't likely to support many of our ambitions with actual cash, hence the fundraising.

Who knew that a blog could have a $732, 500 pay off? Now if only we could start to get some cash flowing into the In the Middle coffers .... then again, the Tiny Shriner would probably embezzle those funds and spend them on loose living.