Sunday, April 06, 2014

Gerald of Wales, Part 1: Place in the Topographia Hibernica

Douai Bibliotheque municipale 887, 52v

I had the fortune yesterday to be a keynote speaker at St John's University Graduate English Conference, whose theme was "Working Through Environmental Unlikeness: Ecology and Nature in the Humanities." Thanks to Steve Mentz for the invitation, thanks to the students and other organizers (including, I presume, Steve), for running such a fast (in all senses of the word) ship, and thanks and admiration especially to Jamie Skye Bianco, who shared a stage with me.

More later, I expect, but brunch calls. But so does Gerald of Wales. What had started as a paper about oysters turned into a paper about fish in the Topographia Hibernica, which then turned into something entirely different. Read on and see. Here's the first half of my presentation, with the second half to follow in a couple days.

This is about place.

Gerald of Wales’s History and Topography of Ireland is, essentially, a three-part twelfth-century advertisement to tempt potential English conquerors towards easier pickings than those offered by far-off Jerusalem. Medievalists have tended to focus their attention on its second and third parts, which concern Ireland’s wonders and its people. No wonder: this is where we find Gerald’s stories about the talking werewolves of Meath, the unfortunate cowboy of Wicklow -- literally half man, half cow -- and his mangled memory of an old Celtic coronation ritual that, in his version, sees the king first having sex with a horse, then bathing in a broth made of the horse’s meat, and then, finally, enjoying a well-earned kingship. Modern commentators tell us that it’s here where Gerald negotiates his own loyalties, divided between his Welsh and Anglo-Norman ancestry, at the expense of the bestialized Irish, who need a firm colonial hand to be brought in line with modernity.

Though these readings work, they leave the first part of the Topography mostly untouched. Again, no wonder: this is where we hear about Ireland itself and its mundane flora and fauna. If your interest’s in humans, or quasi humans, then there’s not much to do here, which is exactly why I’m not going to leave it alone. I’m starting, naturally enough, with the title.

Gerald’s own title for it, used in some manuscripts and, more importantly, in his own several references to it, is just the Topographia Hibernica, the Topography of Ireland, or just the Topographia, without the “History” that its English translators routinely append. That is, without that little human addition. Place is what Gerald thinks the work’s mainly about, not people; or, to put this differently, it’s about what’s there already, and only secondarily about what we do with it. And that’s the structure of the book, which, again, starts with Ireland’s position, its size, and the unevenness and moistness of its terrain.

The word “topographia” is a bit recherché, especially for a book not written in Greek, appearing, it seems, only 3 times in Latin prior to Gerald. Like other rare words, we shouldn’t just brush it aside. Split it up, and it literally means place/writing, topos + graphein. And to talk about writing is what saves this initial place in Gerald’s Topography from being a just a stable place holder for the human and other biotic activity that follows in books two and three. Do me the favor of imagining the inevitable, Derrida’s spectral presence in the background of what follows. Gerald’s writing about place, certainly, but place is also presented as writing, as something that’s there before us and that will outlast us. Ireland, Gerald tells us, has been peopled five or six times since the Flood, with most of these settlements falling to disease, miasmas, or the inevitable Vikings. When Gerald invites his king to conquer Ireland, he’s also promising Henry a possession that can’t be anything but temporary and precarious. Like any other.

So, this Irish place is no foundation for human activity. Again, it’s not a “place holder.” Perhaps on human time scales, certainly, but geologically speaking, no: Gerald’s Ireland is also on the move, and if we start by thinking with the land, as he does, we’ll see it: Ireland’s “nine principal rivers” that divide it are just a start: “many other rivers,” he remarks, are “new, and with regard to the ones mentioned, only recently emerged. They are not,however, smaller than the former, and only on the point of antiquity are they inferior” (O'Meara trans, 36). He identifies a “fantasticam” island somewhere in the Orkneys or Faroes, thronged with phantoms, which sinks whenever anyone comes near, and whose furtive movements stop only when some intrepid sailors frighten off the phantoms with fire (66-67). And though God had promised never to flood the world again for its wickedness, Gerald has God do just that to part of Ulster; the flood-lake is still there, ancient steeples visible in its depths (64-65). And, one more, Gerald wonders how islands in general come to be: sometime after the flood, they emerged, “not violently and suddenly, but little by little, and, as it were, by a washing away” (68) or, depending on how we translate, “by alluvial deposits” (Probabiliter tamen ad hoc dici potest longe post dilivium, terra multiplicatis iam animantibus ubique repleta, non violeter et subito, sed paulatim, et tanquam per eluvionem insulas natas fuisse). For Gerald, land has its own slow vulnerability to water or perhaps it’s a kind of coagulation of water’s flow, a slowing down of floods.

To finish off this opening presentation, I’m going to borrow Steve’s recent habit of ending his papers with a three-point summary or program.

  1. Land is liquid too. It’s a standard move in the so-called “new” materialisms to decry the dominance of the “linguistic turn” and to demand a revaluation of material stuff. My approach to the Topographia might look like that, but I want to stress that this is a materiality where the same weird instability of writing prevails. We’ve not left behind language, but recognized what Derrida could have told us anyhow, that the language/material division, like any other, works imperfectly. Since there’s no master signifier that’s going to stop the movement, Gerald gives us not some “back to the land” authenticity, but rather -- to borrow still more from Steve -- a “post-equilibrial” ecology, unstable and always on the move, where terrestrial solidity looks solid only if we use a human time scale.
  2. We’re also on the move. The Topographia often imagines what we might call spatial taxonomies. Ireland abounds in its own islands and sites that divide men from women, good from evil spirits, fish from, well, other fish. If we remember that Ireland is, like its people, always shifting, we know that these divisions are only temporary. We are all things of the moon, whose constant movement, Gerald tells us, “directs and controls not only the waves of the sea, but also the bone-marrow and brains in all living things as well as the sap of trees and plants” (O'Meara 59). Gerald’s strict divisions -- gender, ethnicity, species -- all of this is on the move.
  3. But place still matters. To say that everything’s temporary is not to say that things don’t really exist. Graham Harman makes what I hope is an obvious point, that things exist no matter their smallness or brevity. For Gerald, these things, temporary nodes in the always shifting field of stuff, have real effects. They are material practices, and these material practices determine who lives, who starves, who gets to live out their life on the land they think their own, and who has to submit to, flee, or be killed by the conqueror. Our frameworks, human or otherwise, matter too. Nothing lasts; everything’s liquid; but things still exist for all that.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Great piece. Wish I could have been there to hear it live!

I'm wondering though if there is a way to excise (human) history from the Topographia [to be true to Gerlad's human history-less title] without removing analysis of the text's political interestedness [to wonder why Gerald wanted to focus more on place than embodied contemporary humans]. That is, by keeping your focus on place, on an Ireland devoid of humans, you are putting into motion a logic true to Gerald in both books 1 and 3 (which argues that Ireland has no native population because it has been resettled so many times, starting with Noah's granddaughter). Removing the history from Ireland and concentrating on place is Gerald's none too subtle way of dispossessing the Irish from their domain. And it works: look at much of the (mostly English) writing on the text prior to the last few decades, which insists that the Topographia is not about people at all. Is there a way to harness OOO and geological time scales and disanthropocentricism that challenges the colonial logic of the text rather than potentially repeats it? Is there something to be made of the fact that both modes of inquiry (Geraldine and disanthropocentric) open spaces where "merely" human concerns like race, gender, and postcoloniality don't necessarily matter that much? I'd like to have both, at the same time. I'd like to have a disanthropocentric criticism that is also always about race, gender, human injustice...

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Sorry for all the typos, writing this on an iPad. Just wanted to acknowledge you begin to open that space at the very end (point three) but there again the long durée emphasis, useful and Gerald-like as it is, does potentially turn a specific Irish struggle with some deadly and specific stakes into an eternal "this is what happens in the land" narrative. I guess I'm just trying to work through for myself what a postcolonial object oriented approach would be like. Thanks for this catalysis.

medievalkarl said...

thanks Jeffrey.

The "history" issue is one I turned on a bit during the Q&A. That is, I suspended "history," in a human sense, to bring forward what often gets lost (for worse or often for better) in Gerald criticism, but then we can bring "history" back into it, posthumanely. If things are material practices, and, like any practice, on the move, then the history embedded in and expressed through material practices can't be limited to human activity: to talk of topography means talking about history too.

Which is NOT to say that human activity doesn't matter, just my point in #3, but maybe stated with too much brevity. You say it better: " Is there a way to harness OOO and geological time scales and disanthropocentricism that challenges the colonial logic of the text rather than potentially repeats it?"

One easy way to do this might be to emphasize the particular emplacement of Ireland, i.e., its soil's resistance to poison, suggesting that Ireland has a particular essential thereness for Gerald.

But the other, more honest way, as I know you know, is to resist under- or over-mining: geologic time doesn't have a monopoly on the truth of land, nor does the very small/fast of subatomic time. No particular perspective is the master perspective. The solution to the problem, if we want to call it that, is some conjunction of the inexhaustable and--or because--antifoundational ethics of deconstruction with the heteroperspectivity and universalized correlationism of ooo.

Gerald may actually give us the tools for that, maybe not on purpose. It's obvious that he's divesting the Irish of any foundational claim to their land; and it's obvious too that antifoundational storytelling like Gerald gets deployed for particular rhetorical aims. The same goes for us too, being so fond ourselves of antifoundational thought. Importantly, Gerald also doesn't seem to privilege any one scale over any other. Though his political and personal aims may not be, his curiosity or attention is ecumenical. He thinks deep time, or the time of individuals (like the cow boy of Meath); he recognizes that Ireland's past was also marked by ruptures; he still thinks there's something particular to Ireland, or Iceland, or maybe even the culturally confused Britain he's temporarily left behind, while also telling stories of how these lands and cultures constantly shift. In other words, Gerald's willingness to arrest his attention on any given moment, individual, place, or scale, not matter how long or brief, not matter how large or small, and to freeze that moment in its particularity, with the intensity and love of his curiosity, suggests a multiple perspectivism both in alliance with ooo and with the infinite, unsatisfiable ethics of deconstruction.

How's that sound?

Incidentally, I actually don't know the DEEP TIME, as it were, of Gerald studies. I know the stuff from you and Asa on, minimally, and for this project, I looked mostly at diss's on Gerald's manuscripts and afterlife (David, Sargent, and Rooney). Google scholar since 2007 gets me mostly ethnographic and cultural studies (exoticism, queering, language), barring this, which looks useful; in other words, the concentration on humans seems to going strong in Gerald studies, which means we're overdue for an ecological reaction.

medievalkarl said...


"I know the stuff from you and Asa on, minimally, and for this project, I looked mostly at diss's on Gerald's manuscripts "

I know the stuff from you and Asa on Gerald, and for this project, and for this project" &c.

ASM said...

This IS great, and I love the focus on the name -- I've tended to call it the Topography of Ireland, and thought that the adding of "History" was odd (I forget if I did this in my old article on Gerald). Also, YES, whenever we ignore a section, it is probably work reappraising it! I should look back at it. Or just let you do the heavy lifting and read your writing about it!