Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Repressed Never Left, So How Can It Return?

I'm struggling with the Epilogue to my dissertation, which is the last official piece that needs to be written before I begin hasty revisions on the whole thing in advance of a May 16 defense. The Epilogue (or Conclusion or Afterward or what have you; it hardly matters) seems to me a singularly pointless document; it's six pages that mendaciously suggest that this project is finished. I don't know that this project is even at a finishing point, except that I've arbitrarily decided that it's time to let 5 senior scholars get together and tell me what's wrong with it.

I've decided that I'm just going to write about how I got into the project, and how the project relates to similar issues in contemporary life. I don’t know how close this will be to the final product; it’s a pretty sharp left turn from the style of my dissertation itself. And it’s rough. So, so rough. But I thought I would work out the bones of a draft here and let complete strangers on the internet tell me what's wrong with it.[1]


This project was prompted in part by media coverage of the Josef Fritzl incest and imprisonment case. Fritzl was an Austrian pensioner, living in the small village of Amstatten in Niederösterreich in 2008 when it was discovered that he was holding his adult daughter Elisabeth captive in the basement of his house. He imprisoned her there for 24 years, raping her repeatedly and fathering her seven children, one of whom died when Fritzl refused to allow necessary medical treatment. Fritzl's wife and neighbors all pleaded ignorance and shock when his crimes were uncovered. The case received international media attention, and Fritzl continues to be a reference point for subsequent incest cases—perpetrators in Colombia and Italy were compared to Fritzl. In March 2011, a German man convicted of 162 counts of sexual crimes and sentenced to 15 years in prison became known as “the German Josef Fritzl” by multiple news outlets.

Unfortunately, incest cases seem to pop up in the news with some regularity, and coverage often reveals that incest poses questions we are ill-equipped to answer, among them, shockingly, “what’s the harm?” In December 2010, a Columbia University professor, David Epstein, was arrested and charged with third-degree incest for having a consensual affair with his 24-year-old daughter. Like Josef Fritzl’s, the case made national headlines, but unlike the Fritzl case, the collective reaction was somewhat more difficult to parse. Although the usual instinctive revulsion attached to this case, there was no clear-cut way to condemn it as abuse: the affair began after Epstein's daughter had reached the age of majority and was, by all reports, completely consensual.

In the wake of David Epstein’s arrest, I was sent by several colleagues aware of my project the link to an article in Slate by William Saletan called “Incest Is Cancer.”[2] The article is subtitled “The David Epstein Case: If Homosexuality Is Okay, Why Is Incest Wrong?” and this is the question with which Saletan grapples throughout, ultimately offering a clear distinction between the effects of gay marriage and the effects of incest on society. As I read, I was pleased to find his argument adroit and convincing—and shockingly medieval. Though Saletan contextualizes the problem of incest in the liberal/conservative divide over gay marriage:

At this point, liberals tend to throw up their hands. If both parties are consenting adults and the genetic rationale is bogus, why should the law get involved? Incest may seem icky, but that's what people said about homosexuality, too. It's all private conduct. To which conservatives reply: We told you so. We warned you that if laws against homosexuality were struck down, laws against polygamy and incest would follow. And now you're proving us right.[3]

The genetic rationale for rejecting incest is bogus because, of course, effective birth control makes it moot. In the Middle Ages, genetic problems were only vaguely on the radar—think Laban’s sheep in Genesis[4]—and never connected to incest. So in fact, this is rather how medieval people might have viewed sexual transgression: allow one, and pretty soon they’re all allowed. The temptation of a look turns into the pleasure of a caress turns into the fulfillment of more dangerous desires, and soon enough both souls are lost.[5] The “slippery slope” objection was common and fervent in the Middle Ages.

But in refuting this medieval objection, Saletan appeals to medieval logic, arguing that incest erodes the family from within, and not only that, but it prevents family members from creating the new families—the new community connections—that shore up a society.

When a young man falls in love with another man, no family is destroyed. Homosexuality is largely immutable, as the chronic failure of "ex-gay" ministries attests. So if you forbid sex between these two men, neither of them is likely to form a happy, faithful heterosexual family. The best way to help them form a stable family is to encourage them to marry each other. Incest spectacularly flunks this test. By definition, it occurs within an already existing family. So it offers no benefit in terms of family formation. On the contrary, it injects a notoriously incendiary dynamic—sexual tension—into the mix.

The argument here is purely Augustinian. Of course, Augustine would never have been an advocate for gay marriage. But the argument against incest rings true: “The supreme human law is love and this law is best respected when men, who both desire and outght to live in harmony, so bind themselves by the bonds of social relationships that no one man monopoloizes more than one relationship, and many different relationships are distributed as widely as possible, so that a common social life of the greatest number may best be fostered.”[6] Augustine (or his translator) offers a surprisingly lovely justification for exogamous marriage: the Christian duty to spread the love beyond the nuclear family.

This argument was adopted and reiterated in various ways throughout the Middle Ages. Exogamous marriage was the foremost means of building connections in society. Gayle Rubin, of course, has demonstrated that these connections were forged on the bodies of women who were exchanged to create them,[7] but there is nevertheless a strong communal impulse away from incest. However, it is apparently an impulse that must be continually rearticulated, as Walter demonstrates in The Clerk’s Tale. The uncertainty of his excessively exogamous marriage to Griselda drives Walter to contract a second marriage to his nameless and disguised daughter. The marriage is presented as practically perfect in every respect, if its incestuous nature can be ignored—which, of course, it can, as Walter’s people prove. Chaucer emphasizes throughout The Clerk’s Tale how incest obscures terrible abuses of authority, for which the abuse of Walter’s perpetually silenced daughter becomes an important cipher.

What we learn every time we encounter incest, whether in an obscure medieval poem or a contemporary news article, is that it is never solely a problem of the family alone. Incest is always, always a social problem that captures the attention of the community and that requires a communal solution. The social nature of incest becomes particularly apparent in the ways that medieval people talked about marriage, as in the mid-fourteenth-century instructive work Jacob’s Well:

We schewyn acursyd alle þo þat makyn ony contract of matrimonye, or are weddyd to-gydere in ony degre of kynrede, or of affinyte, or of ony gossyb-rede forfendyd be lawe, or in ony degre þat hath a lawfull lettyng, ȝif þei þise degrees knowyn; And alle þat helpin or procuryn þer-to wyttyngly. And alle preestys þat wyttyngly & wylfully solemnyzen swych unleeful matrimonye, or weddyn ony oþere but here own parysschenys wyth-oute leve, or weddyn wyth-oute þe banys askyd; And all þat, be strengthe, manace, or dreed, don swych weddynges be solemnysed, & wyth-oute syb-redes, in cherchys, in chapellys, or in oratoriis; & alle þat ben þere present at swyche weddynges, gylty þer-of, & wyttynge, & wel payed þer-wyth.[8]

Not only are those who contract unlawfully incestuous marriages shewyn acursyd, but so too are all those who knowingly help them do so, and any priests that solemnize incestuous marriages, and, most tellingly, anybody who is even present at such a wedding. All that are present and aware of the incestuous relationship are gylty þer-of. Knowing the sin and keeping silent is the same as committing it. The language of this imprecation is unequivocal and seems to account for every possible circumstance that might be offered to mitigate the severity of participating in an incestuous marriage. The regulation of incest is a responsibility for the entire community. Yet the perpetration of incest is repeatedly depicted in literature as a secret carefully kept—Lot and his daughters are sheltered alone within a cave high on a mountain; Euphrosyne and her father share a cell and then a grave that both isolates and binds them. But even though incest is intended to be kept silent—even though, as numerous feminist critics have demonstrated, the incest taboo is not in the deed but in the speaking of it[9]—incest outs. The sheer frequency of incest as a plot device in literature, regardless of the era, demonstrates our enduring fascination with it as an unsolved problem that touches and violates values we hold fundamental to the definition of society. While this fascination is disturbing in its voyeuristic aspects, which become apparent in my examination of incest images such as those in the Illustrated Old English Hexateuch, it is also necessary for reclaiming the speech that the incest taboo seeks to preclude. That speech is vital not only for telling the story of the victimized daughter—although that alone is more than sufficient for its recovery—but also for recognizing the continuity of thought about incest over the course of more than a millenium of English literary history. Knowing of the crime and keeping silent is the same as committing it.

That continuity became apparent when Josef Fritzl was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes in March of 2009. The Austrian daily newspaper Heute ran the news of the sentence alongside an image of the central panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s 1504 triptych The Last Judgement.[10] In it, Christ, radiant and enthroned, sends sinners left and right, while in the foreground monstrous creatures—dragon, demon, and human alike—torment sinners and each other as the world falls to pieces. It is an unabashedly religious image, yet it was juxtaposed with the unquestionably secular legal proceedings. The image suggested both the fundamental immorality of Fritzl’s crimes as well as a looming cosmic judgment that exceeded his earthly sentence. Perhaps it also hinted at our longing for an explanation, for repentence, from Fritzl on behalf of Elisabeth and her six surviving children, all of whom were forced to adopt new names and new identities in a new location—or perhaps, to forge identities for the first time in their lives, freed from the basement in Amstatten but never entirely free of the effects of their father-jailor-abuser’s deeds. It’s likely that that repentance will never come, as Antiochus never repents for his abuse in Apollonius of Tyre. Nevertheless, willingness to face narratives of incest from the Middle Ages, and to take them seriously despite the sheltering distance of their bygone origins, offers us a means of facing our own narratives—and understanding our own unwillingness to do so.

[1] P.S. Enjoy my unfinished footnotes—this is how I always write. In the next three weeks I have to fix something like 150 unfinished (or unstarted, in some cases) footnotes.

[2] William Saletan, “Incest Is Cancer,” The Slate,, accessed April 1, 2011.

[3] Saletan is here referring to remarks made by Senator Rick Santorum....

[4] Genesis 30.

[5]See, e.g., Ancrene Wisse Book IV, ll. 327ff.

[6] Augustine also notes the instinctive revulsion incest generates: “There is also the argument from that indefinably precious modesty of our human nature which makes even the purest of parents to blush over the element of lust in the generative act and which bridles this desire when a double respect is due to a partner by reason of close consanguinity.” Augustine, City of God, trans. Gerald G. Walsh and Grace Monahan (New York: Fathers of the Church, 1952). FIND OTHER TRANSLATION

[7]“The Traffic in Women,” XX

[8] Arthur Brandeis, ed., Jacob’s Well EETS os 115 (London: EETS, 1900), 21.

[9] See, e.g., Judith Butler, Antigone’s Claim; Rosemary Champagne, The Politics of Survivorship; Jen Shelton, “Speaking Incest in the Voyage Out”; Josephine Rijnaarts, Lots Töchter, and many others.

[10] Annoyingly, though I know this to be true because I saw it with my own eyeballs, I cannot find a trace of this article online. I have asked my library to get it for me—they refused, and my e-mail to the newspaper itself garnered no response, perhaps because my German’s getting pretty rusty. If I never get my hands on the article or its citation, I may have to scrap this paragraph.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dissertation Blurb, Take 2

So, in the month and a half since I wrote my dissertation blurb, I've memorized exactly two sentences of it. There was a reason I had to quit the one-act drama team after my sophomore year of high school, and it wasn't because of my horrendously unrequited and probably painfully obvious crush on Roger Blalock, who was a senior and, retrospectively, quite a pot-head.

Unfortunately, mock interviews are coming up on Saturday. These are by far more terrifying than the prospect of interviewing with actual people because a) these people know me and b) THEY'RE HAPPENING THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. I mean, I guess that latter one is only terrifying because I'm woefully underprepared, but the first sentence of this post probably gave that away.

In any case, the point of all this is that I have come up with a new strategy for the dissertation blurb, which is bulletpoints upon which I can verbally enlarge. I was also on the speech team in high school (entirely coincidentally, so was Roger) as the extemper, which means I spent four years repeatedly making up five to seven minutes of bullshit on a given topic using only three out-of-date U.S. News & World Report articles. Outlines are my medium of old.

Key points:

  • How I came to this topic:
    Disconnect btn religious condemnation of incest and casual use as plot point
    Nobody was/is talking about daughters
  • My approach:
    Focus on the Family (but not in a James Dobson way)--personal and intrafamilial relationships to explore identity construction
    Combine close reading w/ historicization, sex/gender, and clinical-psychological theories
  • My texts:
    [These I remember off-hand, but for your edification: Genesis A, OE Life of Euphrosyne, Cursor Mundi, and Chaucer's Clerk's Tale]
  • What I've Discovered:
    Daughters crucial for intrafamilial identity formation: authors use them to interrogate both feminine and masculine subject positions and sexual behaviors
    Incest consumes feminine identity and shapes it as an extension of the father, BUT

    Daughters resist AND reciprocate incest, both of which open up possibilites for self-defintion
  • Why it's important:
    Suggests a more sophisticated medieval concept of "family" where the trope of the all-powerful father is under constant interrogation
    Moves daughters from periphery to center of medieval family life

So, problems, round two: I suspect that this is probably more than I can say in 90 seconds, even without extemporaneous rhetorical fumbles and flourishes. That last section probably needs more work, but it's also the hardest, by far. It's important because it is, in the same way that all knowledge is important. It (very partially) patches a hole in medieval literary scholarship. It challenges assumptions scholars have made about medieval sexuality, family life, and identities. I don't know; I'm working on it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Erin Explains Her Dissertation in 400 Words or Less

We're getting ready to do mock interviews here as part of our general preparation for the job market, and we've been asked to prepare 90-second blurbs--an elevator pitch, essentially--about our dissertation that can be spouted off in any situation, but primarily in the interview when you need to be able to explain your work in a way that's fresh for the people who've read your materials yet still accessible and informative for those who haven't. (Longest sentence ever! Bad habit!) It's a weird exercise--it seems like it should be easy; I have at least three paragraphs in other job materials that explain my research in a concise and "exciting" manner. But this version has to be in my actual verbal/professional voice, something that I can speak without sounding like my corset's been laced too tight (i.e., I need short words and sentences because there's only so much air). So I thought I would work out a first draft here.

Side note: one of the early modernists in the group wanted to know if this should sound like "sprezzatura or something?" and now I can't get that word out of my head. Oh, early modernists. You're cute.

* * *

My dissertation takes on the question of father-daughter incest in the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literary family, particularly in religious and exemplary literature. I was spurred by the story of Lot, whose daughters seduce him after the destruction of Sodom--I wanted to interrogate both how daughters resist incest and why they might instigate or reciprocate incestuous encounters. I discovered that oppressive patriarchal interest constructs female sexuality, and in fact often makes a woman's entire identity an extension of her father's desires--there's a systematic dismantling of feminine selfhood, rather than a simple lack of character development on the part of the author. However, incest narratives also reveal the constructedness of masculine sexuality and identity. Rather than depending on their wives, incestuous fathers depend on the exchange of their daughters to maintain their dominant masculinity. Incest narratives break down that exchange and expose the vulnerability of patriarchal construction, especially when daughters resist by speaking out, choosing their own mates and constructing their own sexualities. Therefore, daughters should not be relegated to the periphery of the family or of the narrative, as they are crucial in defining intrafamilial relationships. The four major works I explore--Genesis A, the Old English Life of Euphrosyne, Cursor Mundi, and Chaucer's Clerk's Tale--all suggest that daughters play a critical role in establishing and conveying medieval sexual mores, both within the family and within the larger community. At the same time, however, their moments of resistance, no matter how small or overlooked, help to complicate our understanding of medieval feminine sexuality, challenging the notion that unmarried women were sexual non-entities subject solely to the external desires of the patriarchal community at large. Wherever possible, I support this argument by consulting the visual record, which is often even more radical in its challenge to the notion of passive daughterhood. Ultimately, my dissertation works to expand our understanding of sacred and secular sexual mores on women, including the very genesis of those mores in the literary family.

* * *

Okay, do I sound smart and hireable? Do you at least want to talk to me for another 43.5 minutes? Or do you reallllly want to get off the damn elevator right now?

ETA: Stephanie timed me saying this, and it's 1 minute 59 seconds. And it gets a little repetitive at the end. Editing has commenced already.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Conference Post-Game Analysis

I co-organized a conference that finished today. Highlights:

  • Duration: 11 a.m. Thursday-9:49 p.m. Friday
  • Registrants: 80
  • Papers delivered: 59, plus two keynotes
  • Panels that included secret undergradutes: 1
  • Percentage of participants who claimed recognize my name "from the e-mails": ~50.
  • Pairs of shoes I wore throughout: 4
  • Blisters: only 1, but my toes really hurt tonight
  • Awkward cat stories revealed to me unprompted: 2
  • Times I thought "people MUST stop divulging personal information in panels": 3
    (times that was related to cats: 1)
  • Kisses—on the cheek, tres chic!—from keynote speakers: 1
  • Divas: 1
  • Times my co-organizer's wife thought I was calling my advisor/co-organizer a diva: 1 (I wasn't, but she was amused by the possibility)
  • People who confessed a deep love of creme brulee to me, and to whom I say, "Word.": 7
  • Men with a tendency to loom identified: 3. Knock it off, tall men.
  • Rooms I had to lead people to without knowing for sure where they were: 4
  • Papers I saw on things that don't normally interest me but suddenly did: 3 (Anglo-Scottish borders, Bowdlerizing, dogs in romance)
  • Hours it took me to find time to pee on Thursday: 9
  • Mini-emergencies faked to get out of conversations: 5
  • Best new fact I learned about Carolyn Dinshaw: she really likes her crockpot
  • Times I mentioned that the MLA job list came out Thursday: 6
  • Times that knowing what schools have English medieval lit lines made me the center of attention: 2
  • Restaurant recommendations given: 3
  • Microphones dealt with: 1.5
  • Times I thought, "This person is not as annoying as usual":4
  • Times I thought, "Ohmygod this person is EXACTLY as annoying as usual": at least 15
  • Topics that are hot right now in midwestern medieval studies, apparently: fathers, book history, hybridity, narrative theory, memory and time
  • Unfortunate jokes by others about my dad's reaction to my dissertation on father-daughter incest: 3 (Wrong to punish people who do by saying that he died when I was a child? Or that I was immaculately conceived?...Oh, fine.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Already-Done List

There are less than 3 weeks left of summer, and even if I'm not teaching this fall (thank God and little green apples), I'm still feeling panicky about how much I've got to do before that magical and halcyon--riiiight--time elapses.

But because I'm trying to appease my conscience and convince my brain to give me a break, I thought I would make an "Already Done" List of academic-y stuff to celebrate not being totally incompetent at time management. And to explain where I've been, because it obviously hasn't been writing here.

1. Wrote 14,287 words of Chapter 3 (~5000 to go)
2. Cut down Chapter 1 to a conference paper
3. Delivered conference paper at Leeds
4. Drafted cover letter for job applications
5. Revised and sent out article #1
6. Finished reading for revision of article #2
7. Acknowledged and accepted 20 conference papers
8. Final Center for the Book certificate class (Letterpress, the HORROR, well-deserved A)
9. Drafted CV
10. E-mailed two outside recommenders asking for letters
11. Oh, yeah. Delivered paper at Kalamazoo

Okay, that list is a little shorter than I expected. I've got a few other things in progress that can't be considered completed (revising article #2, dissertation abstract, article abstract for submission, etc.), but that's the shape of the summer.

Next up: a discussion of Lacanian theory of the Nom-du-père and the debate about external vs. internal assignment of sexuality.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Chapter 2 and the "Process" of Writing

Ha-HA! This blog is not dead, despite the winter's best attempts to kill it. We're all cranky as hell around here, though, so the break was probably for the best.

I'm closing up shop on the first draft of my second chapter, which is due to my advisor by Friday but might get there a few days early because I am so. Damn. SICK. of looking at it. Pardon my French.

But before it gets shipped off to be torn to shreds like a baby goat staked out for hungry advisor-lions, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on writing it, because it was an experience unlike any writing experience I've ever had, and I think we all know that by the fifth year of English graduate school, you've had a FEW.

In general, I'm a very disciplined and organized writer. I'm not saying that to brag; I wasn't born that way. I had a professor in college who made me that way by requiring loads of pre-writing, including several days of "thinking about it." He suggested that every page of a paper should take an hour to write, and twice as long to plan—horrifying when you're 20 and taking five other classes and at least trying to feign having a social life (thank God I've given that up). He also demanded outlines. I fell in love with outlines when I had him for Postmodern Fiction my sophomore year (Hi, Dr. Doody! Sorry I never finished Ulysses!), and every paper I wrote between then and this chapter was written from at least a rudimentary outline. I believed then and I still believe that outlines are the only genuinely effective way to write an argument that progresses logically and hangs together cogently.

This chapter, however, refused to be outlined. It refused to be pre-written in any sort of useful way except for that four-page screed I gave you a few months ago about Euphrosyne and her horrible father. Eventually that became a shaky nine-page conference paper, presented in December to merciful colleagues who merely suggested that my reading was "somewhat grim." As it stands today it's a 54-page Frankenstein of a chapter. I literally added pieces to it as they occurred to me, wrote it piecemeal and at random and in despair. I'll be surprised if, when I print it out, it doesn't turn yellow and march around the countryside looking for revenge and a suitable mate.

I'm not entirely sure why this chapter was so hard for me. I think in part because it represents genuine growth for me as a thinker: the writing is not great, but the theoretical underpinnings are strong. I am grappling with actual ideas about sex and how sex affects our identities as human beings, particularly as women, and even more particularly as daughters. Maybe I feel sort of like a (very) poor man's Judith Butler? Good ideas, insane sentence structure, wild leaps of intuition. I'm also working more or less without a net, in that these texts are very little regarded as literary phenomena among medievalists, and certainly have never been viewed through the lens of contemporary psychological and feminist theory, let alone at the same time, let alone in tandem with one another. You can see how we're getting into kind of niche territory here.

You might ask, woman, what is your point? And indeed, this is the very question I expect from my advisor upon reading my draft. But my point here is just to say, writing is hard. I didn't really know that before. I knew it was onerous, laborious, time-consuming, and a continual struggle for improvement. But I didn't know, personally and in my very bones, that it could be fundamentally difficult for days and days and months on end. That I could want to burn not only my papers but the papers of everybody who's ever talked about these texts, as well as the unique manuscripts in which these texts appear. Also, my point is that I have learned that dissertation chapters are like pregnancies: they're uncomfortable, expensive, and open you up to all kinds of unpleasant and invasive feedback. Also, there's an unpleasant amount of work at the very end. Okay, we've stretched this metaphor juuuuust about far enough.

So when I turn this chapter in, it's going to be rough. Rough rough rough capital-oh-god-my-skin-is-exfoliated-to-the-bone rough. It's going to be rough, but I think there's a diamond in there. Somewhere. A beautiful yellow Frankendiamond.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

My Academic Godfather

I am coming to realize the joy of having a member of the faculty here who knows me, likes me, and doesn't have any idea of what I'm working on in a concrete sense.

My director's husband is a twentieth-century Americanist; he works on Mark Twain and Langsten Hughes and...I don't know, Tennessee Williams? People I don't really care about, except in the abstract. I don't like him because he works on anything interesting or because I want something from him. (Not that I'm contractually obligated to like my directors; I picked them because I like them, but still, the fact that I need feedback and recommendations from them colors our relationship.)

I think of H. as my Academic Godfather—I tell him things that are happening to me in broad strokes, he offers comforting, nonspecific advice, and we both go away happy. My article got rejected for publication? The AG tells me that medievalists are notoroiously mean, that I am a good writer and that I have good ideas. He knows none of this firsthand; as far as I know he's never read a single sentence of my work. Nevertheless he asserts the stupidity of my reviewers and walks off whistling. I feel inexplicably better.

It's probably more accurate to say that he's my academic cheerleader, although he's not so positive that he stops being believable. He's nonchalant and matter-of-fact about it, and I'm sure he doesn't think twice about the things he says to me in passing. I did get informed that revisions suck and that yeah, I should probably come back from Christmas break early to work on them. But at least I feel like they're worth doing now. Just when I thought I was out...he pulled me back in.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bad Daddy
A Preview of My Upcoming Colloquium Presentation

I finished my translation of the Old English Life of Euphrosyne tonight in a four-hour orgy of coffee and rage and Anglo-Saxon dictionaries. (Come on, you know Clark-Hall's relationship to Bosworth-Toller wasn't platonic.) This hagiography forms the core of my dissertation's second chapter, and I feel a little reluctant to talk about it publicly because, more than any other text I've encountered in the medieval canon (canon in the broad sense), the Life of Euphrosyne inspires a truly passionate reaction in me. It. Is. Important. I don't want to risk (1) not being taken seriously about it, or (2) and by far the more horrifying prospect, being scooped on it.

For those of you who don't remember (i.e., all of you), Euprhosyne is one of the two cross-dressing saints—the other is Eugenia—in the OE canon, and she's usually considered the lesser of the two because she's non-Ælfrician. Her story, though, is so much more interesting than that bare description. The only child of parents who struggled desperately to have her, Euphrosyne's mother dies when she is 12, and she is raised by a doting father, Pafnuntius, who allows her education in all manner of holy writings and churchly practices. When she's 18, however, he engages her to a rich man. Euphrosyne, no fan of this plan, decides to run away to the monastery. Of course, she can't go to the convent because her father will think to look for her there, so while her father is off celebrating the abbot's ordination day, she gets another monk to cut her hair in a tonsure, dress her in monk's robes, and she presents herself to the monastery as an escaped eunuch named Smaragdus. Smaragdus is welcomed by the abbot, but the other brothers aren't so sure because he's so beautiful that they're afflicted by unholy desire. So he spends the next 38 years living alone in a cell, fasting, praying, and counseling Pafnuntius, whom the abbot sends to him for comforting because he's in a prolonged despair about his missing daughter. Finally, Smaragdus reveals to Pafnuntius on his deathbed that he is Euphrosyne and asks that he not tell anyone and that he let no one touch his body after death.

It's what happens after her death that I find so deeply infurating—and so critically important for our understanding of father-daughter relationships in the medieval world. Despite her request, the first thing Pafnuntius does after Euphrosyne's death is fall down in a faint, and then, when revived by another monk, drape himeself across Eurphrosyne/Smaragdus's body and cry out, "Woe is me, why did you conceal yourself so long?!" Of course, the other monk hears him and runs off to tattle to the abbot. The monks come running, get all touchy-feely with the corpse, and then bury it with the appropriate pomp and circumstance. Pafnuntius moves into Smaragdus's cell for the next 10 years, and when he dies, he's buried in the same grave as his daughter.

In other words, he COMPLETELY FAILS to honor any of his daughter's wishes. He doesn't even try. The monks, I don't really blame—you find a saint, you honor her without regard for any saintly modesty topos, that's the way it works. A father, however, should respect his daughter's wishes, especially his virgin daughter who specifically tells him not to let other men touch her. And this is where I think the narrative crosses the line from disturbingly disrespectful of feminine agency to incestuous. The one continuous thread is Pafnuntius's disregard for his daughter's wishes with regard to her own body. Without this disregard, in fact, Euphrosyne's story wouldn't exist; it's because Pafnuntius wishes to sell her virginity to a bridegroom that she runs away to the minster. His disrupted plan to dispose of her worth (worth of women = chastity in the Middle Ages, and, frankly, today as well, in many cases) is "corrected" at the end of the vita when he exposes her identity and, thereby, her chastity, to the monks.

How, you might be wondering, does that count as disposing of her virginity for his own benefit, and what makes that incestuous? Pafnutius benefits from his exposure of Euphrosyne by aquiring a sort of secondary sainthood that, in fact, becomes primary to hers. He assumes Smaragdus's identity, moving into his cell and leading what the text calls "a holy life." When he dies, he is buried with Euphrosyne, repossessing her space, his body covering and superceding hers. His entire life becomes an assumption of his daughter's identity, one that is implicitly more successful because it is not hidden behind a false gender. Pafnuntius can be a "true" monk because he is a "true" man. As the narrative closes, Euphrosyne has disappeared completely, and we circle again to where we began, with Pafnuntius. She exists only as a function of her father, as is "proper" for an unmarried woman.

The incest is a function of this identity consumption. The text is desperate to reassert sexual control of Euphrosyne, to correct the dangerous example she provides of a woman set loose by her assumption of masculine identity. The solution for this little problem is to grant Pafnuntius the power to dispose of her sexuality—and her identity—for his own pleasure. Read in this light, the moment of anagnorisis, where Pafnuntius faints, and then throws himself on the body, becomes uncomfortably sexual, almost orgasmic. The only thing saving us from outright incest is Euphrosyne's conveniently-timed death. Pafnuntius's subsequent assumption of her identity that that death allows, though, is also, therefore, simultaneously incestuous and masturbatory: he bestows her sexuality upon himself.

My friend Erin (that's not masturbatory; she really exists and is an 18th-centuryist on the East Coast) told me recently that she doesn't always see what sex-based readings of texts get us; just because something's longer than it is wide doesn't mean that it's phallic. It's a fair point, but this is one of the rare texts where I think examining the sex, sexuality, and gender of the characters gets us an enormously significant insight, not only into father-daughter relationships in a period where daughters were valued primarily for their marriage potential, but into one of the most overlooked consequences of incest for its victims throughout time: the loss of identity. Incest is about identity consumption—it becomes the defining characteristic of both its victims and its perpetrators. It is a violence against not only a person's sex, but a person's—and, in literature, especially a woman's—self. And that is why this text makes me boiling mad. Pafnuntius chews up his daughter and spits her out into her own grave, and is called a good and holy man for his trouble. I hate him, genuinely hate him, and he's only a cipher on a page.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Last Update on Chapter 1 (for now)

I have finished my revisions! Sort of! Until my director comes back with more!

But in the meantime, I'm going to start thinking about Euphrosyne and her messed up relationship with her father. I'm totally excited.

(Embarrassing: I keep thinking of finishing my revisions as a version of that scene from one of the Ace Ventura movies where he goes: "Aah have ex-or-CISED the demons! This place is clean!" Why, brain? Why?)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Revising Update

I'm on page 32 of 46, debating whether to give it another hour tonight or just try and cram it all in tomorrow afternoon when I'm supposed to be doing 12 other things. I have to be up at 7 a.m. tomorrow to teach, but leaving it till tomorrow makes the deadline remarkably unlikely. I'll have some ice cream and contemplate.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rividing Revising

I've been revising (or procrastinating revising) my first dissertation chapter for over a month now. Obviously this isn't an ideal situation; I'd hoped to have the chapter put to bed—for now, at least—by Oct. 1, and as it stands I'll be lucky to move on by Nov. 1.

If I had more time and less teaching, I think I would genuinely enjoy the process of revising. I get to flex my underused editing muscles, which satisfies the little copyeditor in my soul who cackles at the sight of red pens and correction fluid. I also get to go on mini-quests, searching out obscure bits of information. Yesterday I spent an hour trying to track down Anglo-Saxon law on widows; this morning I looked up a chain of words in the Dictionary of Old English and wrote one of my best paragraphs ever about the seemingly tangential issue of evening light in Sodom. Tomorrow I will investigate early medieval drunkenness.

Some of these mini-quests are quite satisfying. Others are frustrating in the extreme, either because they take aeons or because they're ultimately fruitless. Or both. In the end, my hour of research on widows turned into a one-line footnote that might not survive the next round of edits. I could have fixed several pages in the hour it tooke me to straighten out one missing reference.

Most of the holes in my writing have not been quite as difficult to plug as I anticipated, but at the same time there are many more than I remembered leaving—probably because some of them were left unintentionally. Revising is soul-killing in ways because it is the process of recognizing all your flaws as a writer. Mine currently include poor introductions of quoted material, an obsession with the phrase "it seems," and weak topic sentences. Forgive me, Clairity, for I have sinned.

Also discouraging is my mental exhaustion with this chapter. I'm tired of talking about Genesis A, even though I think it's a fabulous and under-regarded poem. I, however, have given it more regard than I really have time for, and I want to move on to fresh ideas about stacked graves and incestuous identity theft. Perhaps I will surprise myself and work in some of the little research tangents I'm going off on in these revisions, but I have my doubts.

So this is just to say that I'm going to try to push through the rest of my revisions this weekend and return the revised chapter (and two copies with intervening hand-written comments) to my advisor by Tuesday. You may ask me about it Tuesday afternoon and keep me honest, because I can't spend more time on this. It's not practical. Even if I have to do another set of major revisions down the line, I need to draw these to a close, let my soul's little Thinker out to play. Oh, and give my tiny Copyeditor a sedative—she's kind of a bitch.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Monday, October 12, 2009

God Bless You, Oscar Wilde

Quote from Wilde's De Profundis, which my students are reading for tomorrow:
To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ's own renaissance which had produced the Cathedral of Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante's Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael's frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul's cathedral, and Pope's poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it.
I strongly agree. And that is why I'm a medievalist.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sounding Emotion in St. Erkenwald

I'm rereading the seven or so pages I managed to produce this past week in the cozy climes of West Liberty's Local Grounds coffee shop and I'm struck by how much of my discussion of emotion is focusing not only on its potential to build community but on the troubling ambiguity of emotional vocabularies.  In particular, I'm trying to figure out what to do with the sound of emotion.  But before I get to sound, I should quickly spell out the source of St. Erkenwald's emotional ambiguities.

Most, if not all, scholars read Erkenwald's and his London flock's emotions during the interview with the pagan corpse as unambiguous compassion mixed with sorrow.  The dead body reveals his soul's plight in the hell-mouth and everyone feels bad and cries.  Fairly straightforward, right?  While it's pretty difficult to argue against the authenticity of Erkenwald and the people's compassion, I think there's a level of ambiguity to their emotions that has yet to be discussed.  More specifically, I would argue that the pagan's uncorrupted body presents a frightening theological quandary that threatens some of the fundamental beliefs of the Christian church.

If I'm not mistaken, in the Middle Ages the uncorrupted body is an unequivocal sign of sainthood.  To have flesh that defies decomposition is to have a soul that stands among the ranks of the beatified.  Yet, the Londoners cannot find any record of this individual in local chronicle or necrology and, when Erkenwald questions the vibrant corpse, they discover that the man is in face a pagan who never knew Christ.  It is this disconnect between the expectation of sainthood and the pagan's identity that I think sparks an intense anxiety in Erkenwald especially.

“Quere,” Erkenwald fretfully presses the pagan corpse, “is ho [soul] stablid and stadde if þou so stre[g]t wroghtes?” (274). The bishop, I suspect, can hardly contain his anxious apprehension, at once uneasy at the thought that a noble pagan man has entered the ranks of the beatified and yet fearful that this “stre[g]t” man, this noble and virtuous judge, might languish in hell.  Erkenwald can’t negotiate what the pagan means or what he’s supposed to feel. With his uncorrupted body “stablid” in the foundations of New Work, buried under the bolsters of St. Paul’s cathedral, the monument that is meant to “Christendome stablyde,” it seems incongruous to Erkenwald and his London flock that a body marked with sanctity lying at the heart of their unfinished Christian monument would not have once caged a soul that now resides in heaven. In these anxious moments, the body defies the conventions of sainthood and affective piety, disrupts the expectation that devotion to and contemplation of the saintly image will transport the devotee to heavenly climes.  If the body represents a spirit roiling in the hellmouth, what happens to those who gaze and perhaps fetishize this seeming object of devotion? Erkenwald yearns for some kind of resolution, perhaps hoping against hope that the pagan’s soul has somehow achieved God’s grace.  Erkenwald well knows that a pagan can’t possibly reach heaven no matter how good the works he “wroghtes” in life, but the bishop nevertheless insists that good works might be enough to save the pagan, quoting a “psalmyde” as if he’s trying to convince himself: “Þe skillfulle and þe vnskathely skelton ay to me” (278).   Erkenwald wishes aloud that righteousness (or, the skillfulle) should be enough to leave the spirit unscathed.  The bishop begs the pagan to say that his “soule in sele quere ho wonnes,” that he has somehow become Christian enough not only to warrant the “riche restorment” of his body and clothing, but enough to sit among the blissful choirs in heaven’s kingdom (279-80).  Of course, the pagan can’t claim membership in the community of the “sele quere”; he can’t resolve Erkenwald and his flock’s anxieties and confusions.

This brings me to the sound of emotion.  I think St. Erkenwald is very much interested in interrogating the efficacy of sight and sound in religious devotion, interpersonal communication, and community building.  I suspect once I hammer out the final version of my thesis, I will end up arguing that the Erkenwald-poet is privileging sound over sight, favoring the ephemeral over the tangible.  But before I make any final decisions, I need to work through what exactly is going on when the pagan corpse makes noise.

For one, I think the body's noise further disrupts the Londoners’ sensibilities. Erkenwald’s fretful interrogation is met by a series of garbled, inarticulate sounds and frantic, apoplectic gestures of the head.  The corpse “hummyd,” writes the Erkenwald-poet, a Middle English word that covers a range of suggestive sounds that include humming, murmuring, and buzzing.  In fact, the MED also suggests that this vocal sound elicits a particular affect, an “inarticulate” range of mumbling sounds that are intended to cover up shame and embarrassment.  The pagan corpse doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to say it, cannot articulate the shame he feels for not being among the “sele quere,” for his righteousness not protecting his soul that now scathes in the hellfire. And as the murmurs suggest a staggering shame that the pagan hasn’t come to terms with, his convulsive wagging of the head further indicates an unstable and irresolute wavering.  The word “waggyd” indicates, according to the MED, struggle, vacillation, and lack of steadfastness.  The wagging, humming corpse cannot converse but can only sound and gesture affect, a raw emotional outpouring that denies Erkenwald and the Londoners any coherent resolution.  With a “gronynge ful grete,” the pagan upsets the desire for an easy solution to his incongruous body and, for a moment, dislocates language from emotion and instead privileges primeval noise (282).  Humming, wagging, and groaning, the pagan unleashes an affective spectacle that suggests but does not pronounce, that intimates but does not enunciate, and leaves the audience ultimately unable to reconcile his sorrow, shame, and/or vacillation. In this moment, the pagan and his incongruous body continue to disrupt and resist.

Maybe?  I have more work to do.