Friday, December 7, 2007

because posting is SO much better than grading

Neophyte asks:

For those of you working in early periods: So. How do you feel about the Past? What does it mean to you to encounter things that are old? Do you fall on a particular side of the irreparable-alterity/abiding-familiarity debate? Do you think that debate is nonsense? Especially if you work on something not obviously, blatantly political: how do you think about the political value of what you do? When did you first discover History? What drew you to it?

Honestly? I feel like I'm going to be booted out of the academy for admitting this, but I'm ALL about the abiding familiarity.

I think part of it is the fact that I do Shakespeare & co., and if I hadn't decided in my second semester of grad school that I was not going to make it as a medievalist, I would probably be doing Arthurian lit. And I find this stuff cool because it's living literature; people are still telling and retelling these stories and making movies of them and finding their own meanings in them. And I think the fact that these texts still speak to us is important. I don't want to say that what they say to us is necessarily more important than what they would have said to the original audiences, but the fact remains that the latter set of meanings are at best only partially recoverable.

And part of it is just how my mind works. I tend to zero in on the familiar. I remember reading the Iliad in the snack bar in my second semester of college. I don't think I particularly wanted to read the Iliad at that point. I signed on for the Epic and Romance course because it was taught by my freshman Shakespeare professor, who was abrasive and subversive and hilarious and generally awesome, but I don't think I had any inherent interest in the subject matter. So yeah, there I am eating fried mozzarella sticks and reading Book Fifteen of the Iliad, and thinking, "What the hell is this?" And then I come to this bit about the Trojans kicking the shit out of the Greeks as when a little boy piles sand by the sea-shore / when in his innocent play he makes sand towers to amuse him / and then still playing, with hands and feet ruins them and wrecks them.

And then, right then, I knew what I was doing in Epic and Romance. Wow. That little Greek boy by some distant seashore was doing exactly what kids do when they play at the beach today, and some poet who may or may not have been named Homer thought it was worth writing about, and by some miracle his words survived. It was probably a silly thing to have an epiphany about, but nevertheless it did hit nineteen-year-old me with the force of an epiphany.

So I read on a few more pages, up to the point where Ajax says, Do you expect, if our ships fall to helm-shining Hektor / that you will walk each of you back dryshod to the land of your fathers? / Do you not hear how Hektor is stirring up all of his people, / how he is raging to set fire to our ships? He is not / inviting you to come to a dance." And I turned to my friends and said, "Hey, did you know that Homer invented sarcasm?" (He probably didn't. I suspect sarcasm has always been with us. But I read that bit out loud to them, and they laughed, and it just blew my mind that a 2,800-year-old joke would translate.)

It still blows my mind. It goes on blowing my mind all the time. And I think that's a big part of why I do what I do.


Flavia said...

Well, if you'll be booted out of the academy, so will I. As I wrote over at Neo's, I also see more continuities than differences with the past--but I think that you may be right that this is more a matter of how one's mind works (a version of the glass-half-empty/half-full debate): does one look at a culture that in many ways is familiar, and in many ways foreign, and say, "ultimately like us, despite differences!" or, "totally Other, but capable of being understood!"

And for what it's worth, a year and a half ago, my dissertation director declared, in a very public forum, that she was "coming out" as an essentialist--someone who believes that people in the past are basically like people today. Now, there's no danger anyone will boot HER out of the academy, so I took some considerable pleasure in hearing her say that.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Heh. I hope I don't come across as a crazy stalker-type, but I looked you up on Dissertation Abstracts International because I was dying to know if your director was who I thought she was, and ... yeah, not likely to get booted out of the academy any time soon :)

Renaissance Girl said...

Count me in on this group of supposed "outcasts." I suspect that, if we're honest, everyone who works in early lit does so out of its struck chord of familiarity.

Flavia said...

Oh, stalk away--I fully expect that anyone who knows my name is going to Google or otherwise look me up (though I do wish that no one, ever again, had to suffer through that abstract).

I'm a championship stalker, which has the advantage of showing me exactly how easily, and in exactly what ways, I myself can be identified. Last year at MLA I met up with someone I know through my blog, but whom I did NOT know was close friends with another pseudonymous blogger. He came up in conversation, and she said, "oh--so you know who he is? He was so proud when he finally figured out your identity a few weeks ago."

And I was all, "Duuude. I've know who he was since about the second month of reading his blog--and if he'd been smart, he could have found me out a long time ago, via a single, five-minute search!"

Anyway, we'll have to talk more at MLA--I don't know your diss director personally (see, I was stalking you, too) but I'm friends or at any rate quite friendly with his/her spouse and am interested in the inside scoop there. . .

Fretful Porpentine said...

Renaissance Girl -- I always think a big part of the appeal is that it is so much like looking at ourselves, through a glass darkly, so I'm glad other people see it too.

Flavia -- Yeah, that should be interesting (and I'm curious to see if you know a couple of my other grad school professors, because in both cases I can think of reasons why you might).

Bardiac said...

Wow, I feel so out of it. I can never figure out anyone's identity :(

moria said...

This is great. I'm glad people are talking about this. It's one of my favorite topics around which to spend hours yammering and not getting anywhere.

Perhaps as much about personality, or the kinds of texts you work on, this is about how those texts are used. I like what you say about Shakespeare as "living" literature -- but the fact that the text can be appropriated by our contemporaries, doesn't mean that's the only way to use it. The big guys are toughies, because they've been so woven into the fabric of our culture -- one reason I shy from working on Shakespeare is that he's too familiar to me. I grew up with him. I spent most of high school playing his comic heroines. Taking the step back from his work in the way I need to in order to do the kind of work I want to do -- not only is it difficult, but I just don't want to.

It's something I'm enjoying about working on More -- the basic problems are unfamiliar to me, but they are drawing me in. They're teaching me how to read them. I think this is somehow about meeting the subjects of my work halfway -- I yank the More persona towards me a few notches, the material remnants of his work yank me back, I pull a thread that looks like semiotics I understand, and get jerked the other way by religious problems I can't identify with. Back and forth, back and forth, and we eventually find each other on more neutral ground.

I guess what I mean is that we need to think differently about "old texts" and about "the past" -- and that we need to be careful about equating the two.

moria said...

Oh, and yes, stalking is awesome. But also, as I learned today, sometimes painful. There are things I just don't want to know.

And I'm amazed anyone needs more than half a second for Flavia's advisor.