Thursday, December 29, 2011

Arthur and the Giant, or the Ruins of History

I'm starting to work on an article on The Alliterative Morte Arthure. What follows is a bit, emphasis on bit, of new material intercut with a conference paper.  So, there might be some incoherence, and of course, this all needs to be fleshed out much, much more.  As such, I haven't yet put in notes and references, etc.  I take the Eric Auerbach defense--most of my books are packed away or at least out of reach because of boxes. I'm also still trying to figure out the blog medium, where pieces aren't quite finished products and can be informal.  It is difficult to put unfinished work out there.  The short piece below might be considered, then, more as notes working toward a larger idea.  
Ok, enough preemptive apologetics.

Lately, I've been reading Moses and Monotheism by Freud. On a literal level, it is difficult to take Freud's exegesis of Jewish history seriously, but his reading of originary and primal trauma into the books of Moses is fascinating nonetheless.  For some reason that I haven't fully articulated yet, Freud's meditations on Moses make me think of Arthur.  Arthur is a bit Moses-like in the way that he is such a foundational figure for a nation (though Brutus might be a better candidate here).  But, what attracts me most to Arthur is how, like Moses, his story presents the core of a people and its history, but also conceals darker truths.  For Freud, hidden away inside the stories of Moses is the forging of a people in the wake of a murder.  With Arthur, the many conflicting stories and traditions about him seem, to me at least, to perfectly capture the deeply anxious currents of British history.  As many have noted, there are several main representations of Arthur: for example, there is the French Arthur of medieval romance, and there is the more martial Arthur of the chronicle tradition.  But beyond that, there is the messianic version of Arthur, the once and future king.  Against this, though much of the time they seem to coexist, is the Arthur of translatio imperii.  Either Arthur will return and bring a sort of New Jerusalem for England with him, or he is but one more cast off in the relentless march of history.  History is either a story of return and triumph, or it's a story of endless replacement, and displacement.  
All this brings me to the giant in The Alliterative Morte Arthure.  I want to consider how the giant represents a past that has been displaced, yet it does not appear to lose any of its vitality, or its ability to haunt the present with thoughts of the future. The giant, I might suggest, conjures the specter as Derrida defines it—a haunting presence, a remnant of the past, which conjures the untimely, where the present moment is alien to itself.
 In the longer piece I'm working on, I want to reflect some on the romance episodes in the text.  I should, however, briefly sketch how I’m using the term “medieval romance.”  I am not aiming to work toward a firm definition of the genre, especially considering how fluid the genre is in its many examples.  Rather, I am interested in exploring the function of certain elements of medieval romance, namely its temporal qualities.  John Finlayson writes in his “Definitions of Medieval Romance,” “The romance is contemporaneous in its manners, dress, and architecture, but totally outside of time and place in its actions.”  Working outside of time is not to suggest a general sense of atemporality.  Rather, I would argue that the tendency of medieval romance to be unmoored from a rigid sense of temporality opens a space to reflect more deeply on historical questions.  Frederic Jameson, in the Political Unconscious, refers to romance as a “place of narrative heterogeneity”, a genre that offers “the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms.”  It is these other “historical rhythms” that I am after in the Alliterative Morte Arthure.  It might be more appropriate, though, to replace “historical rhythm” with “temporal spasm”.  Episodes such as Gawain’s encounter with Priamus, or Arthur’s dream of Fortune’s wheel, suggest moments where temporalities clash, and in this clash might be evidence of historical trauma.
Like many of the episodes in the poem, the encounter between Arthur and the giant is soaked in history.  Arthur’s tangling with the giant occurs in the first quarter of the poem, and happens almost immediately after landing in Normandy.  In a significant difference from the chronicle sources, Arthur seeks out the giant completely on his own, without any reconnaissance by his knights.  At almost every turn, the poet augments the importance of this encounter.  Not only is the giant given one of the most vivid and gruesome portraits of medieval literature, but elsewhere in the poem other giants are reduced by omission or humor to make it clear that the “Saint” of the Mount, as Arthur jokingly calls him, is a different beast altogether.  This nameless creature is a conflation of Retho from the chronicles and another giant of St. Michel’s Mount, expanding the role of this single giant.  In this episode, Arthur reenacts an originary moment of conquest.  When his ancestors first settled the Island, it was populated by giants that needed to be destroyed so that the British could settle.  But again, Arthur is already a great King and does not need to prove himself as a hero.  More than just replaying past conquests, however, this episode foreshadows Arthur’s fall. The giant is always anachronistic--he exists to be displaced.  His pastness, then, is not in question.  But, I want to begin to think through how this pastness must always come with a sense of a troubled futurity.
At first, though, the episode appears to occupy an atemporal space, being a titanic battle between Good and Evil.  John Finlayson, in his "Arthur and the Giant of St. Michael's Mount," describes the giant as a “Grendel-like combination of arch-fiend and human reprobate, for what is stressed most in the monster is … his anti-Christian conduct, the eating of the baptized children, and the general disorder he creates among Arthur’s people.” Finlayson demonstrates how the poet highlights the giant’s feast of “crysmede childyre” (1051) beyond his sources, thus emphasizing the giant’s status as an enemy of Christendom.  Nothing redeems the monster, and the only answer to his fiendish suppression of the people is his death at the hands of the King.  For Finlayson, Arthur’s championing the side of Good is not a mere convention, but instead heightens the ultimate trajectory of the poem, “the Fall of a great and Christian conqueror due to his desertion of that championship of justice and right which originally made him great.”  Arthur’s heroic defeat of the giant certainly does establish him as a great and Christian conqueror who will fall from a great height, but the aftermath of the encounter raises troubling questions.  After defeating the giant, Arthur generously distributes the fiend’s horde of treasure—more than was in Troy when it fell we are told—but he lays claim to two specific items: “‘Haue I the kyrtyll and Þe clubb, I coueite noghte ells’” (1191).  The club stands in stark contrast to the “anlace” that Arthur finally kills his adversary with.  Finlayson reads the use of this small dagger as a trust in God, thus emphasizing Arthur’s role here.  Metaphorically, however, Arthur uses the club more than the anlace later in his Continental campaign.  He ceases to deliver just retribution to a tyrant, but instead becomes a tyrant himself and beats other nations into submission.  The symbol of Arthur as a tyrant or unjust ruler is the “kyrtill” that he keeps for himself.  As tribute, the giant demanded the shaven beards of those he subjugated: “It es hydede all with hare hally al ouere / And bordyrde with the berdez of burlyche kyngez” (1001-02).  He then constructed a garment out of them.  By taking these items, Arthur appropriates their symbolic meaning for himself.  When the Roman Senators approach him in supplication after their defeat, Arthur orders that they shave their beards (2331-35).  Victorious, Arthur exacts further revenge by humiliating his opponents.  He emasculates them, and takes his own tribute—a fitting reversal considering that it was the demand of tribute that began the whole affair.  Arthur, then, continues the pattern. 
Not only does the king appropriate the symbolic weight of the giant through his taking of the girdle and the club, he begins to resemble the giant in action.  At the end of the poem, Arthur orders the death of Mordred’s children:
‘And sythen merke manly to Mordrede children,
That they bee sleyghely slayne and slongen in watyrs—
Latt no wykkyde wede waxen ne wrythe one this erthe!’ (4320-22)
Of all the ways that the poet alters his sources, perhaps this detail causes the most discomfort.  In the chronicle sources, Mordred’s two sons rise up against Constantine and are slain.  The alliterative poet, however, has Mordred’s offspring be children.  Both the giant’s cannibalism of “crysmede childyre” (1051) and Arthur’s order to slay children are innovations and additions by the poet.  Given the emphasis placed upon the fate of children in this poem, a relationship between these two events clearly exist on a thematic level.
Arthur is not necessarily acting monstrous here, but rather can be seen as acting like a good King. Arthur’s last order as commander-in-chief of the Britons will help to insure against further uprisings, which the following sections of the chronicles bear out.  Therefore, Arthur is being the good king in his actions, and can die penitent.  Whereas the giant killed children pitilessly, Arthur performs an act, albeit unseemly, to protect his people in virtually the same breath as he utters a prayer.  But his action also reinforces the violent and persistent way that history moves, as a narrative punctuated by rise and fall.  The giant, a destroyer of children, is displaced by Arthur, who then commits the same sin.  It is as if Arthur begins the story as Jupiter, rising up against his child-eating father.  But in the end he too becomes a figure of Saturn, conquered and cast aside.   
Alongside the familiar rise and fall of conquerors here, however, is also a frustrated desire.  Arthur's command to kill Mordred's children is not just a repetition of his predecessor, nor is it only an act to protect him and his people, but rather it is an attempt to arrest history's movement.  To kill the next generation, as it were, is to stop the march of the translation of empire, and hold it in place.  The messianic version of Arthur, where he will return to his people, seems to express a similar wish--to halt the ruinous movement of history.
The anxieties implicit in this episode becomes explicit in Arthur's dream of Fortune's wheel. The dream serves to foreshadow his death, providing a warning to Arthur that he should begin to prepare himself for the next life.  It also introduces a note of futurity: his dream vision looks beyond his own imminent demise and pictures his successors climbing the Wheel.  When Priamus declared Arthur heir to Alexander, he was marking a moment of historical transition, where he himself recedes into the past as Arthur takes his position at the top of the wheel.  Here, however, Arthur relinquishes his spot, though not as willingly as Priamus, to the other two Christian Worthies.  Alarmingly, perhaps for a medieval English audience, the two rising Worthies are luminaries of French history—Charlemagne and Godfrey.  Some critics have argued that the poem and its portrait of Arthur may be a comment on Edward III and his continental campaigns.  Whereas the historical meditations on Arthur, on his pastness and the imminent demise of his realm are benefited by temporal hindsight for a fourteenth or fifteenth century audience, this moment here opens up a different sense of futurity.  The present of the reader is perhaps at stake.  I am not suggesting that the poem serves as an alarmist warning to an English present.  Rather, I suggest that this is a subtle reminder that the historical movement that sweeps away Arthur is always in motion. To celebrate Arthur, even in tragic form, is also to recognize that your historical moment will also be swept away.      
The untimely encounters in the Alliterative Morte Arthure open a space to explore the discontinuities of British History.  More specifically, it restores to the poem what the Gawain-poet would call the “blysse and blunder” of history, the ongoing movement of rise and fall that marks not only British and English history, but also universal history as imperium continues to migrate West, from Greece, to Rome, to medieval Europe. The romance episodes in the poem create a space where endings are considered uncomfortably alongside beginnings, stressing the shape of history as one of discontinuity.   

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Packing my books, unpacking the past

Ok, so I have made an important discovery: Starting a blog at the end of a semester is a terrible idea.  Starting a blog when I am in the middle of preparing a major move is an even worse one.  I had intended to put up something related to my (admittedly sporadic of late) research for my second post, but that is clearly not going to happen for a little while.

Since I'm consumed with packing and coordinating my move, I can't seem to think about much else.  And, as I start to pack my books in earnest, I've become fascinated with the small story that each book tells.  Looking over my books, I see so many false dissertation paths, so many half-formed ideas, and so many half-finished books (will I ever finish Ulysses?).  With this on my mind, I've decided to post an essay I wrote a few years ago.  It is about my small, but meaningful to me, collection of signed books.

I wrote this while a graduate student, and a few of the sentences and some of the academicese make me cringe, but I offer it below with little editing.


Letters to Past Selves

“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books.”
–Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”

“the better part of our memories exists outside us”   
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
Each book sitting on my shelf carries the memory of former selves and of earlier times.  A set of books in my collection that is particularly loaded with memories for me include those signed by another person, either the author or a previous owner.
The most recent book that has been signed is Snow by Orhan Pamuk.  I bought it right before departing on a cruise to the Caribbean with my wife’s family.  I must admit that my decision making process for selecting this did rest greatly on the juxtaposition of Pamuk’s snowy Kars with the sunny Caribbean.  And so now, whenever I consider this book, I experience a Wordsworth-like “spot of time”—a memory of long days unfolding upon the deck of a ship, in the open air, as I would occasionally glance away from my book to contemplate the blue-green clarity of the water.  But when this book found its way into the hands of its author, it gained a new temporality.  I had the great fortune of meeting Pamuk, and as one often does in such a situation, I asked him to sign his book.  Beneath his signature he placed the date, inscribing both himself and that moment upon my book.  His signature functions as a trace, and as such, gives voice to heterogeneous temporalities.  It is a mark of the past, recalling a particular moment in time.  And yet, it is present to me.  I can run my fingers over the ink.  Paul Ricoeur would call this the inscription of lived time upon calendar time. 
The twin to this book is my signed copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.  Both books are by international authors, and both writers are concerned with the meeting of East and West.  But an important difference between them is that Rushdie signed my copy of his book in my absence.  While I sat in Graham Chapel at Washington University, listening to Rushdie talk about his work and his life, my grandfather was in the hospital gravely ill.  The time of the intellectual, marked by books and lectures, was interrupted by the time of loss, and ultimately, of mourning.  When Rushdie was signing my book at the behest of a friend the next day, I was on the road, traveling home to attend the funeral of my grandfather.  Having recently read Jacques Derrida’s writings on the deaths of friends, collected in a volume called The Work of Mourning, I wish that I had made a copy of my eulogy rather than delivering it from memory.  I cannot now recall much about it.
The memory of my grandfather, linked forever with the signing of Rushdie’s book, leads me to make a connection between one signed book and another, between The Satanic Verses and a book that my grandfather owned.  On the fourth of July in 1997—it was the summer before my Junior year of college—my grandfather loaned me a book by John B. Noss titled Man’s Religions.  I can only dimly remember the conversation that led to his loaning me the book.  In a moment of humor appropriate to my grandfather, he signed his name, date, and address (apparently to remind me where he lived), along with a note that it was being lent to me, on the inside cover.  His inscription was a teasing reminder that I had occasionally “forgotten” to return books to him.  I never did return it to him, and now, I consider it part of my collection.  Although it is a good book on comparative religions, I keep it mostly for the inscription left by my grandfather.  But the book may conceal further temporalities.  Why did my grandfather buy the book?  Originally published in 1949, this particular copy is the third edition of 1957, when he would have been in his late twenties.  Sometime in the 1980’s, he privately had a bar mitzvah, which he should have had decades before.  There is a story there that is not available to me, and perhaps this book plays a part, but I cannot ask him now.
Memories of my grandfather conjure a third book, bringing me further back in time.  When I was very young, I went to visit him in the hospital—an option not open to me when he passed way.  He was recuperating from bypass surgery, and during that time my ever-garrulous grandfather had gotten to know a fellow patient.  As grandparents often do, he told her about me at great length.  And for some reason, she felt compelled to give me a gift during one of my visits, and this gift was the first novel that I remember owning.  It was The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien.  Here I experience a double loss.  Not only is this book missing, but also my memory of receiving it lies at the vanishing point of recollection.  Only with great effort can I recall anything more than the fact that this event happened.  With some sadness, I do remember that I did not read The Hobbit until many years later.  At that time, I was not much of a reader.  My career as a reader did, however, begin with the genre which Tolkien inspired—fantasy.  And though I rarely read fantasy fiction now, the memory of this book still looms as a curious happenstance because I am currently training to be a medievalist, Tolkien’s own academic field.   
My memories link back along the chain of the signature, and I think about another pair of signed books that I own, by two fantasy authors: Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan.  These books recall the larger series of books that the authors wrote many years ago.  Looking at them now, I am arrested by a certain set of memories. They are almost like Proust’s madeleine, overwhelming me with memories, sensations, smells.  They bring me to a period of my life when reading acted as a life preserver in the face of one of time’s truths: illness.  As an adolescent, I spent a significant amount of time in the hospital.  During my stays, I spent all of my free time reading, particularly the fantasy novels of Terry Brooks.  (I cannot think of one of his books now with out smelling the singular odor of the hospital—disinfectant.)  I am also reminded of Ricoeur’s reading of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in volume 2 of Time and Narrative, where monumental time (manifested as official time, or clock time) intersected with the private times of the characters Clarissa and Septimus.  My stay in the hospital was marked by a similar dual apprehension of time.  Hospital time is regular, and largely impersonal.  Have your vitals checked at this time; receive your breathing treatment at this time; and take your medication at another.  The days would roll on, marked by the periodic and regular reminder of mortality and sickness.  The rest of the time, however, was one long unfolding of solitude.  During that private time, reading these fantasy books gave me a sense of “transport” in the way that Longinus defined it.  My love of books, which has ultimately led me to seek a doctorate, is anchored in that experience.      
While these books harbor memories of many people and places, my collection also testifies to a Proustian succession of different selves.  The person that bought and experienced them is, to varying degrees, a stranger to me now.  And even though I have only recently developed a vocabulary for discussing time, all of those previous selves have always been keenly aware of both its passing and the problems created in its wake.  But in trying to organize my collection under the aegis of time I must echo a sentiment of Walter Benjamin’s in “Unpacking My Library,” and acknowledge that “[t]his or any other procedure is merely a dam against the spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions.”   

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Prologues, Pewter Dragons, and Packing

Ok, so here it goes.  My first blog post.  I must have started a blog a half-dozen times, and I've never gotten to the posting stage.  I always end up futzing around with the name and the layout, and then I ignore it or delete it.  I still don't know--at the time of writing this--if this blog will suffer the same fate or not.

Several events have come together to inspire me to try this again.  Most of them I won't talk about yet (tantalizing, eh?), but perhaps the most significant influencing factor is my impending move.  I am about to leave the institution where I received my PhD to take a postdoc position, and so I feel at a crossroads of sorts--what will this mean for my career? My personal life? Am I taking that first step towards a career (at last) or will I be treading water? Amidst all this fairly boring angst, I am also packing, sorting, eliminating, and reacquainting myself with belongings that I have kept hidden in closets for about a decade. 

During my archeological work, I discovered an old collection of pewter dragons and pseudo-medieval fantasy pieces.  You know the sort. I know you do.  I used to collect them, especially in high school, college, and even during the first part of grad school.  I was attracted to these hyperreal examples of popular medievalism long before I knew what a medievalist was.  I am hard put to explain my collection of these objects.  I once even had a full pewter, medievalesque chess set (I managed to sell it on eBay).  With the move ahead of me, I have decided to get rid of all of them (well most).  It is not because I have decided to put away childish things, but because (I think) I am not quite in touch with that former version of myself anymore. And, I am disinclined to just pack them and then pack them away again.  But, I did hold on to one piece for sentiment's sake.  One of the pieces was given to me by a dear friend who passed away while we were both Seniors in college. I find I am unwilling to part with objects that invoke his memory.  

Yet here is the troubling part...I am not sure if I selected the right piece. Because these pewter pieces are all so derivative and interchangeable, and perhaps because of my own shoddy memory, I could not with decisiveness remember which of the many pewter dragons passed through his hands.  I made a choice, and I am fairly sure I am right, but I'll never quite know.  I picked an object to rescue from the dustbin of my personal history and imbued it with sentiment and memory, but it may be a pure invention.  And, you know what? I think I am ok with that.  The memory is the most important thing, and the object is but a pointer to it.  In the twelve years since my friend's death I have revisited the memories of our friendship and those final days many times.  I am also becoming aware of how the more joyful of those memories are taking prominence, and how the once tremendously painful recollection of my adolescent idiocies, which caused some hard feelings, are starting to seem less important. Even though he was my oldest friend, and passed away when we were in our early twenties, I prefer to still think of him as my contemporary, and not some inert memory of my past. My memory of him persists, even if some of it is of my own shaping.   

This is an overly personal prologue to this blog, and I don't intend (at the moment) for this blog to always be so personal.  To be truthful, I don't know yet what shape this blog will take.  I'm going to let it happen as it will. In my reflections on packing, purging, and the past (I need to stop resorting to alliteration...and parentheticals), however, I hit on my main focus for this blog: the ways that the past lives on in the present, despite of and perhaps thanks to its fabrication.  I'm hoping, in the weeks and months ahead, to blog about the modern uses of the medieval, and the medieval engagement with its own pasts.  I'll be traveling ground already covered by many others, so time will tell whether I have anything to add to the many wonderful and fascinating blogs, articles, and books that take the interaction and exchange between past and present as their subject.  I do know that I have set starting a blog as a personal goal for a long time, and until now I have done little to realize it.  The real challenge will be to write entry #2.  Hopefully the next one will be more cogent, and more interesting to others.  I'm awfully aware that I really only wrote this piece for myself.

And, reading back over what I've written, I really do wish I remembered which pewter dragon he gave me.