Mary K. Ramsey (

Fordham University

42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2007

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: Premodern to Modern Humanisms

Niobe's Tears: Mourning on the Margins of the Human

Figure 1. postcard of Edward Austin Abbey Grail Quest Murals (Boston Public Library)

The following musings were written to be read aloud (hence the eccentric punctuation), to introduce a conference session dedicated to BABEL's ongoing exploration of humanism and the humanities, and to ask questions rather than answer them. With the exception of a few irrecoverable ad libs, this is the text as presented at the conference.

When I originally titled this paper last summer, my plan was to talk about linguistic expressions of grief as at least partial determiners of humanity: to explore the impulse to lament and to memorialize as distinctly human activities, and to examine texts from Germanic literatures as exemplars of this impulse—which may even be a compulsion—contrasting it with the inarticulate pain of the inhuman or monstrous, in this context exemplified by Grendel's mother in Beowulf.  I would begin with Niobe, whose inarticulate grief literally turns her to stone as she weeps eternally for her slaughtered children.  Unable or unwilling to lament her loss via language, Niobe also loses her humanity: her physical body becomes a stone monument for her dead children, the locus of her extreme grief, and perhaps because she cannot externalize it through language, her suffering both destroys her and torments her perpetually.

Psychologists tell us—and for many, personal experience confirms—that  human beings require a locus of some kind on which to focus grief, to contain it lest it overwhelm and destroy us. We memorialize death and loss with physical markers—gravestones, cenotaphs, bronze plaques, or other kinds of permanent objects (insofar as anything is permanent in this Heraclitean universe): anything—everything—, from  earthworks like Beowulf's barrow on the headland, the pyramids in Egypt, the necropolis at Pere LaChaise in Paris, or Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.  Affecting as they are, such monuments are by their nature fixed and therefore forgettable; when we leave, we can in some real way leave behind the memory for which the memorial was erected. Because we have a place to visit, a locus for our grief, outrage, shame, or what have you, we need not carry it with us.  Perhaps we need not deal with it at all, because we allow it to fade from our consciousness as soon as we leave the memorial space.

But what of cultures in which grief is commemorated, not in (or at least not only in) a physical space that can be abandoned, but in an oral text, meant to be memorized and performed (and reperformed) over time and space? Does enshrining the account of loss in individual and collective memory offer a better—and by better I mean more efficacious—way to deal with it than a physical memorial?  In some periods of Germanic cultural history, during, for example, the era of the sea burials, which did not involve permanent markers in the way most Western graves do today—and indeed involved the intentional loss of the physical remains ["no one knows who received that cargo"]—I would argue that texts stood as the focus of grief, the locus that substituted for the body of the deceased or for a permanent physical memorial: such texts also remain present over time, emblematic yet individual.  Njal's lament for Skarp-Hedin, the singer of Beowulf's death-song at the end of the poem (which is all the more interesting for its absence, the entire epic being in a sense Beowulf's death-song and memorial), the Wife's Lament,  the Wanderer . Germanic laments provide an outlet for grief, a locus for mourning that is perhaps all the more powerful because it does not have a specific geography. And, of course, this is not a strictly Germanic phenomenon: Priam's lament for Hector is one of the most moving expressions of loss ever composed.

What is it in these laments that speaks so powerfully to us, a millennium away?  And do we teach them as well as we could?  In a way that makes them matter?  On a seemingly trivial level, we rarely expect students to memorize much of anything, especially poetry or other texts, that sort of mental work being considered unsophisticated:  "mere rote learning."  Yet how many former POWs, concentration camp survivors, and other sufferers have recounted the comfort they found in memorized texts, often poems like the Psalms, many of which are laments in time of trouble? More profoundly, perhaps, we in the humanities have embraced postmodernism and other ways of looking at the world that are deeply skeptical of certain aspects of communal culture—most obviously religion [we killed God long before we killed the author], but including other value systems, rituals, notions of morality and ethics.  I would not for a moment argue that such questioning is misguided—indeed, I'm about to argue for those hard questions—but I wonder if perhaps postmodernism has stripped out certain mechanisms by which students used to make sense of their world, including its pain and its loss, and hasn't replaced those systems with much that's efficacious in the face of trauma, loss, and overwhelming grief.  Intellectually interesting, elegant, provocative—perhaps. But are those things what human beings at the extreme of passion [and I use that word in all its vexatious nuances], at the extreme of pain, is a provocative argument or an elegant theory what we most need?  Is there any comfort here?

In her 2006 book, Death's Door, Sandra M. Gilbert examines the ways in which contemporary culture's mechanisms for dealing with death have radically shifted from those of earlier eras.  She remarks that "c ertainly there's consensus that by the second half of the last century procedures of grieving were at the very least blurry and confused while cultural attitudes toward death and dying were so conflicted that in the 1990s a number of major social organizations began addressing the issues surrounding what both PBS and the Soros Foundation called 'Death in America'" (xxi). Her study discusses literary expressions of grief, what has come to be called the "Death Industry," and the notions of "death denial," a recent phenomenon (say, in the last fifty years or so) that has so removed death from the "normal" world most people inhabit that we are able to deny it until something happens to shake us out of our complacency.  Such a jarring is not only disruptive, it may be traumatic in a way that it would not be for those living in societies wherein death is closer, grief is a fact of daily life and not hidden away, something to be ashamed of, but rather a part—albeit a sad part—of a richly lived experience.

In the wake of the shootings at Virginia Tech, I found that my thoughts for this paper shifted somewhat. Much of the popular media has focused on why couldn't the humanists, the English department, the university, or whoever, have done something to stop Cho Seung-Hui before he went postal?  For these few moments , however, I want to leave aside those questions and consider, not whether anyone could have prevented Cho from doing as he did—the blogosphere has been full of such speculation—, but rather, can we as humanists help to equip our students to deal with what he did?  To take a microcosmic example—and to return to my original topic—can we look to something like Germanic literature for ways of dealing with loss and grief that might be instructive, even helpful?  Given that more and more of our students profess no religious belief or tradition, might even the fatalistic-sounding refrain from Deor, "that passed away, so may this," be some sort of comfort?  Would an understanding of bravery in the face of death, the kind demonstrated by engineering professor Liviu Librescu, the kind we so often discuss when we talk of Beowulf's sacrifice for his people at the end of the poem, the kind so clearly praised by the Norse and other Germanic folk —for all that such values may have been no more common then than now—: in short, could medieval notions of courage , honor, or sacrifice equip our students, regardless of personal belief, to live well and perhaps—though we recoil at the thought of such necessity—to die well?  Perhaps it is naïve of me to think that literature or history, art, music or philosophy, can make any kind of real-world difference.  But I do.  The humanities equip us to ask the important questions, questions of ethics, of values, of what it truly means to be human, to live our humanity as fully as possible—perhaps to be as humane as possible.

A few weeks ago, I attended the Popular Culture Association meeting, held this year in Boston.  In a session entitled "Arthurian Legend III: Visualizing the Arthuriad," Baird Jarman discussed one panel of the grail quest paintings in the Boston Public Library.  For those who may not have seen them, the cycle consists of 15 separate paintings, each portraying a stage in the grail quest as conceived by Edwin Austin Abbey, the painter commissioned with the work, which was completed and installed in 1895. The panel Jarman chose, the fifth, is entitled "The Castle of the Grail," and depicts the hall of Amfortas, the Fisher King. The center of the painting, which shows Amfortas lying abed, is dark throughout, a murky space in which one can just barely make out the human figures present. The version of the story as conceived by Abbey—and available on the library website—was written by his close friend, Henry James, presumably with Abbey's assistance in explaining his vision. The Grail Knight depicted is a conflation of Percival, Galahad, and other Arthurian figures, but James refers to him as Galahad, so I shall follow his lead.  Galahad arrives at the Grail Castle and enters the court, peopled by those who live under a spell such that the life-giving Grail is in their midst but they cannot see it and therefore cannot benefit from its presence.  It is insufficient, however, that Galahad simply arrive on the scene: the condition of his success is that he ask what James calls "the question on which everything depends."
Sir Galahad has reached his goal, but at the very goal his single slight taint of imperfection, begotten of the too worldly teaching of Gurnemanz, defeats his beneficent action.  Before him passes the procession of the Grail, moving between the great fires and the trance-smitten king, and gazing at it he tries to arrive, in his mind, at an interpretation of what it means….The duty resting upon him is to ask what these things denote, but, with the presumption of one who supposes himself to have imbibed all knowledge, he forbears, considering that he is competent to guess. But he pays for his silence, inasmuch as it forfeits for him the glory of redeeming from this paralysis of centuries the old monarch and his hollow-eyed Court, forever dying and never dead, whom he leaves folded in their dreadful doom.

This portion of the murals is situated immediately over the door of the book delivery room, where readers would collect their volumes before taking them out into the reading room or into the wider world.  While this panel is the last thing a book borrower would see when exiting the room, it is not the end of the story.  Further, the figure of Galahad, clad in vivid red and situated directly over the upper left corner of the door as one exits, stares not, as one might expect, at the Grail procession to the far right of the painting, but directly the viewer, whom he fixes with his gaze, perhaps to remind those who come to the library to read and research of their duty not to fail in their own quest as he initially fails in his, to ask what James calls "the efficacious question": not "how many Old English A-lines can dance on the head of a pin," but rather to ask, "what does this mean?"