Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Texts Inexhaustible to Meditation

by J J Cohen

So I taught Beowulf again, this time in an introductory level course with ninety students.

As I prepped for the class I tried to ascertain how many times I've read the thing, and came up with a number of approximately thirty -- not bad for someone who is not an Anglo-Saxonist. Two of those reads were early in my scholarly life, when as an undergraduate and again as a graduate student I took a semester-long course in which we translated the poem in its entirety. Beowulf has been on my syllabus since I started leading my own classes in 1992 ... though it didn't become as teachable as I find it now until Seamus Heaney's translation/reinvention appeared.

Thirty times through, and yet the poem offers novelty at every reading, opens new worlds at every discussion. So I wonder: what other texts do readers of ITM find never grow stale? What is your favroite work that, no matter how frequently you read or teach the thing, at each encounter something living, breathing and surprising emerges?


Tim said...

Sweet god: there are plenty, but I think Sophocles's Theban plays and Aeschylus's Oresteia have been my favorites to re-read, re-think, and re-teach -- particularly in Robert Fagles's translations.

Eileen Joy said...

This will seem weird coming from me, but I have taught "Beowulf" less than other medieval texts, at least at the undergraduate level. At the undergraduate survey level, "Gawain" and Chaucer have been my mainstays. But the two texts that I teach over and over again and that never seem to be lose their ability to surprise are "Paradise Lost" and "King Lear." I have never done *all* of "Paradise Lost," although I plan to next fall in a course that I have designed around the question of "sin" and sexual relations in Milton and the plays of Neil Labute [since Labute's play "The Shape of Things" is a re-telling of the "Fall," it seemed a natural comparatist fit]. I like Milton's poem because it has so many poetic and rhetorical "knots" that I can never seem to be able to fully unravel, which is half the fun, especially if I can get my students to see both how bonkers the whole scheme of the poem is, while at the same time it poses the most terrifying questions [about being human, free will, relationships with others, evil, etc.] that are still very much with us today. It just never gets old. Unlike the "Fairie Queene," which I gave up on a long, long time ago as just being: a) so poorly written, and b) so obvious in its rhetoric of hatred. For Chaucer, it's "The Franklin's Tale": so rich and I always see something new in it and I love that you can never really answer Chaucer's question at the end: come to think of it, its sexual politics & questions of free will/choice make it a good match with "Paradise Lost." Something to think about for the future.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Beowulf is one, the Oxford Song of Roland another.

Do secondary sources count too? If so, I could read Paul Dutton's Politics of Dreaming in the Carolingian Empire about 1,000 times more and still get something new out of it each time.

Prof. de Breeze said...

Well, Beowulf is the biggie for me as well. And in the medieval period, obviously the Canterbury Tales can offer the same kind of resistance to complacency, at least when taught as a whole. But I teach lots of survey classes, so I spend most of my time teaching non-medieval texts. Among these later works, I'd have to pick some obvious things like the poetry of Eliot, especially "The Waste Land" (though I'm never sure if it's that the poem continually surprises me or if I'm just still trying to figure out what the hell it's about). And, surprisingly, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein has been pretty much inexhaustible for me as well, even though my students keep gravitating toward one or two fairly simple ideas in it. For me, the most interesting part is trying to figure out that novel's complex relationship to Paradise Lost. Even when I study later works, I can't help seeing them through the filter of the early stuff, I guess.

i said...

Emphatic echo of PL. I also find the same with Moby Dick, though it's so huge, that's not a surprise. What has been a surprise to me lately is to see how re-readings of the Knight's Tale help me appreciate it. I didn't like it as an undergraduate. I only slightly liked it when I was teaching it. But when I re-read it this fall I discovered, for the first time, how beautiful it is, what powerful poetry it contains.

And I never tire of Don Juan.

prehensel said...

I read it once a year and always, always get something profound out of it: Grapes of Wrath, followed closely by Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier (nope, there's no rhyme or reason to this).

If I could back up and get some perspective on Beowulf I think I'd fall in love with it all over again, but right now I'm living with it and taking it for granted (we've lost that lovin' feeling).

EJ: I tremble to mention it, but Stanley Fish--in his opinion/screed/blog at NYT had a really thoughtful post about PL and translation. His point was that those rhetorical knots get lost and that they really are some of the most beautifully complex aspects of the poem (a poem that I really do like--even though it was one I'd successfully avoided reading throughout my undergrad and masters program).

This old world is a new world said...

For me, it's Troilus and Criseyde, every time. It brings sceptical students to tears; it offer countless structural layers and suggestive themes; and keeps its central dynamic — how to tell an unpleasant story — just one thin layer beneath the poignancy of that telling. The four or five weeks I teach it each year are the highlight of my teaching. When I open the book to teach, I really feel that sense of entering a created world that is both like, and unlike our own; that is both made by Chaucer, and waiting to be re-made by us.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

oh what a lovely thread. For me, the answer will of course be obvious. Say it with me now: The Wanderer!

But there are other works as well. Every time I read Nick Howe's Across an Inland Sea I find something I never noticed before, some turn of phrase that just so aptly creates a setting for the work he's doing.

And Beowulf, of course: I've read it so many times at this point that I wonder if there can ever be more left to discover -- and am always pleased to find that there's something new, hiding in a half line, each an every time.

dtkline said...

For me, the medieval text is SGGK - the story that first led me to think, "Hey, this is something I could do for a living." Really, my first thought was "This is soooo cooool." I'm fascinated personally by the idea of how culture is built by different forms of violence, acknowledged and unacknowledged. Or as a friend of mine said (maybe cribbed from somewhere), "Civilization is a thin veneer."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Tim: interesting, isn't it, that a particular translation is what can make the work. For me Beowulf was lovable only in OE until Heaney collaborated with the medieval text to create his hybrid work.

Eileen, you now lack OE street cred. Is that what you wanted? You are right about the Franklin's T: for me it is (esp. paired with the SqT) always fresh.

Matt: Song of Roland is powerful, but I find that teaching it every other year or so is plenty. And deBreeze, Frankenstein is under-rated. And if Marie de France write 19th C novels, she would have written that book.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Irina, enough with the Milton. As I said to a colleague yesterday, a resurgence of Milton is a sign of the apocalypse.

Prehensel, find your love again. It is important.

Stepahnie, you have convinced me to add T&C to my teaching rotation. Typically I teach only the CTs, but in their entirety. Do you teach it in something other than a Chaucer course?

MK: surprise me why don't you? I am waiting for the day when you declare that you cannot abide The Wanderer, with all his angst and whining.

Dan: I am looking forward to teaching SGGK this semester in the new Armitage translation. Has anyone taught this version yet?

This old world is a new world said...

I teach T&C in the last third of a 12-week fourth-year honours class, Medieval Representations. A couple of CTales, some 1381 texts or some Froissart, plus a few other texts with a theme of love and war and ideologies of state, I guess. Abelard and Heloise some years. Chaucer in ME, everything else in translation. Sounds a bit random, but I choose a different bunch of texts each year to construct a different set of themes, but always finishing with T&C, then Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.

Joseph Taylor said...

I am late to the conversation, but I second Stephanie's mention of Troilus and Criseyde. I actually taught it in a Brit-Lit survey to engineers, business majors, etc. I typically use a Norton but I also pause at a few points in the semester to take on a longer work that encapsulates various literary moments in one. Teaching it in only six or so 50-minute class periods, and in translation, lessens the experience of the poem, but where else are these kids going to read Troilus? It becomes a base from which to mention/discuss numerous periods and authors (Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Boethius, Petrarch, Bocaccio, Wyatt, Shakespeare), topics (women and gender, go-betweens, courtly love) and, oh yeah, the Middle Ages. My students loved it and engaged in numerous debates on a variety of topics generated from the poem. You can make it as complicated or simple as you'd like. The story and the characters, I think, move any reader to a proliferation of emotions (as with me when I read it as a college sophomore). Great text to use both in and beyond the Medieval Literature classroom.

Mahendra Singh said...

Chapman's Homer, anyone?

Anonymous said...

For me: T&C, Pearl, and the Faerie Queene. So I'll defend the only one of those works that was maligned
(in weirdly wholesale terms): the narrative thread stringing together Bks III-V is one of the most interesting mutations of genre I've ever encountered (very much indebted to a very estranged MA, too). And the *Mutabilitie Cantos*? A confounding meditation on universality and permanence in relation to change (temporal and physical). I'm not a Milton fan, though I'd be interested to hear why others find it so compelling. Or, if Jeffrey would be so inclined, I'd like to hear why its resurgence is a sign of the apocalypse...besides the fact that it might sell more copies of *Milton in the Age of Fish.*

cheers, h

Lucia said...

Andreas Capellanus's De amore. I've researched it for seminar papers, a conference paper, my Master's thesis, and, most recently, a dissertation chapter. I've taught it in undergraduate survey courses and led 2-3 hour discussions on it in graduate courses ... and I am still fascinated/baffled by the text.

< sarcasm >

Don't all say "me too" at once, or we'll crash the server!

< / sarcasm >

(I know no one else cares about this text.)

theswain said...

Wow....too many to list, and I fear that my list will be too traditional. But I do return to these works again and again and again and find more in them every time, and I am repeating a few that others have mentioned.

Epic of Gilgamesh
The Iliad and The Odyssey
The Aeneid
the poetry of Horace and Catullus
Boethius' Consolation
Dream of the Rood
Wanderer (hi Mary Kate!)
The Brut
Pearl and Cloud of Unknowing
Piers Ploughman
Dante's works (who can choose just one??!!??)
Chaucer to his purse.....I so relate to that poem
Shakespeare's Henry V
John Donne's poetry
Dickens David Copperfield
Oh, Alfred's Boethius
Lord of the Rings (sorry Eileen!)
Wind in the Willows
Lamb (Christopher Moore)
Raymond Carver short stories esp. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.....
novels of Italo Calvino...keep rereading them and teaching them
Pablo Neruda

Matt said...

There's a 1941 cycle of Hebrew poems by Natan Alterman, called Joy of the Poor, that I've been absorbed with since the late 1970s.

In terms of texts accessible in English, many of the above mentioned works are on my rereading cycle. Wayfarer, B'wulf, Pearl, and Faerie Queene...

but I've reread SGGK at least once a year since high school...more than any other poem I know, SGGK resembles itself at every level of reading...can't ask more than that from any work of art, I think

Nicola Masciandaro said...

All texts, any text, that is loved, to *death*. So in place of answering I'll offer couple points from work-in-progress on commentary:

“Turn it and turn it again for everything is in it; and contemplate it and grow gray and old over it and stir not from it” (Aboth 5.22). What the Talmudic says of the Torah is sayable of the earth. . . . Commentary is an amor fati that stays with its text gravitationally, remains faithful to it as what remains, as what it cannot depart from. “The womb of the inexhaustible earth ceaselessly gives birth to what is new; and each one is subject to death . . . Man should not cast aside from him the fear of the earthly; in his fear of death he should—stay. He should stay. He should therefore do nothing other than want he already wants: to stay” (Rosenzweig). Commentary stays with its text, commits wholly to it, both in the quantitative sense of promising to produce commentary across its continuity and in the qualitative sense of promising to extract significance from each of its moments as a plenitude. In the words of fifteenth-century Talumdic scholar Isaac ben Jacob Campanton, “Always strive to show the necessity of all the words of the commentator or author, and for every utterance, why did he say? . . . And you shall take care to compress (Itsamtsem) his language and to squeeze out the intention, in order than not one word shall remain superfluous.”