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.