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.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Areas of My "Expertise"

I assume it was as busy a week for y'all as it was for me and that's why you're not posting/commenting/joining. Lame.

This week I have done exactly one hour of revising work on my dissertation. That is not promising. My other tasks have included being an enormous stress-ball Tuesday when S.S. was here (she gave great lecture; who doesn't love mummified hairless cat photos?), teaching three classes--all went relatively well, grading 14 papers (only 3 to go!) and attending Intro to Grad Studies to give them the dubious benefit of my senior-graduate-student wisdom.

There were five of us on the panel, and to some degree the advice we gave about graduate school was very similar and boiled down to this: get to know people and don't dick around. Which: brilliant insight, no? However, there are nuances, and we supplied them in spades. My particular version of this advice leaned hard on its first half, and I'm interested in puzzling out why. Therefore so are you, by default.

To some degree I think it is because I'm a natural at the latter half; I'm dead on schedule to be out of here in six years, which will put me ahead of the Iowa average TTD by over a year and the national average by four years. I've always liked making lists and crossing things off them; graduate school is just a big list of tasks to complete. I also like to do things fast. I spent all of first grade racing Michael Wahlstrom to turn in Mrs. Zahm's worksheets first, and it's stuck.

Getting to know people, though, that's where I fall down a bit. I hate getting to know people. I have six friends, and 99% of the time, that is plenty. The glad-handing, ass-kissing, and general being-niceness of building relationships, especially professional relationships, sucks all the energy out of my being. People make me tired. I don't know why; like the lists thing, it has always been that way.

But relationships feed speed. Having K. stick up for me on the quals committee may not have been strictly necessary, but it definitely let me think about other things that were more useful. I made it through comps because I had graduate school friends who listened to me bitch endlessly about it, and through the prospectus because I had a good enough relationship with my advisors that I could tell them that we were all being insane, and they both recognized when enough was enough and said "Good enough." And now I'm moving forward with the dissertation. Cordial relationships with more advanced graduate students have gotten me a ton of advice, which I love [to ignore, sometimes].

There are things I've done wrong, though. I haven't kept up contact with people I've met at conferences the way I should. I have relatively few non-medieval mentors, and none outside the English department. I have likewise few friends outside the department, which makes my world insular at the best of times. Occasionally I wish I had more people to study with; my friends in IC are all solo studiers, by and large.

So I hope the graduate students take my advice to heart, and that things go as well for them as they have for me, by and large. And I hope that somebody, somewhere, makes them believe that offices are for socializing, e-mail is for procrastinating, and Lacan is for disregarding.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Professionalization and Maturation

I'm writing the introduction for S.S.'s talk Tuesday, and it has brought me around again to what I think is one of the central professionalization questions for any young member of academe:

How do you suck up without seeming to suck up?

Or, more delicately, how do you express your admiration for a more senior scholar without sacrificing your dignity?

S.S. is a scholar I genuinely admire; I think her work is both smart and important, which are, from what I have gleaned, the most effusive compliments we can give around here. She's a good writer and a better thinker, and above all else, I want her to like me and think that I'm smart and worthwhile, too. Okay, really above all else I want to not embarrass myself in front of the entire department, but then that other thing.

Unfortunately, nobody really tells us what the rules are for dealing with senior scholars. What's a sufficient excuse for approaching them? How do you maintain contact without annoying them? Etc., etc. Clearly to some degree it's a matter of personality and individual preference, and every approach is not going to work with every scholar, as I learned when I got blown off by a big-name Anglo-Saxonist at Kalamazoo this year. (Yes, still bitter.) By the time we start thinking about approaching these people scholar-to-scholar rather than student-to-teacher or advisee-to-advisor, it is too late to practice on our own senior scholars because the mystique is gone. We respect them but we don't fear them, or at least not for the same reasons.

Clearly the only answer is respectful trial and error, as well as development of a thick skin, which graduate school promotes anyway. But I'm still going to fantasize about some sort of master database on the internet, where upon receipt of the Ph.D. every scholar enters his or her individual preferences for dealing with peons and makes everything a lot easier for my ambitious but awkward self.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Modern Relic Seller

Fascinating article I found during the OERG about a modern-day relic seller in NYC:


So if you need some skin-paste from St. Therese, or what is surely a true bit of the Holy Cross and not just a sliver off an old rotting beam, here you are.

Teaching English Majors

I "guest lectured" last night in Kathy's Canterbury Tales class, which was really more leading a discussion about Alison in The Miller's Tale during which, to their delight, I used the word "slut" five or six times and explained the medieval connotations of a weasel. (If there's anything potentially more painful than vaginal birth, it's got to be...aural-canal...? birth.)

What struck me as I was making these kids read in Middle English and recite the characteristics of fabliaux and blazons was how very different they were from my own students. Although I'm teaching an elective this semester, it's nothing like teaching majors. They were delightfully eager to answer even my hardest questions after relatively little prompting. They willingly debated the merits of Sedgwick's Triangle. They laughed at my jokes.

Some of this, obviously, can be put down to novelty, both mine and that of the Miller's Tale. Who wouldn't be bubbly after finally getting rid of the Knight? And maybe that explains why my own students don't think I'm that funny—I hold the power of grades over them. But some of it has to be the difference between people who've chosen literature as a way of life and people who've come to it because they had to.

That is, I know, an obvious conclusion, but I think it gets away from us—or at least, from me—all too often. I've been struggling mightily with this Literature and Sex course, where days of eager discussion are few and far between and the students seem shockingly comfortable with staring at me blankly when I answer even the simplest of questions. I feel like I've pulled every pedagogical trick that I know, and still I can't get through to them. I want to yell at them, but I'm not convinced it would help. At this point, nothing seems to help. But at least now I can remember that it's not just me. It's them.

Although, if you have advice for ways of getting them to talk, I'll take that, too.